History as an oft-repeated cliché says is written by the victors. While the winners appropriate exclusive rights for their narratives, the vanquished are seemingly marginalised. Or, are they? For better or for worse, they can now have their say, on television at least. Take the case of the Ottoman Empire and its last absolute Sultan, Abdul Hamid II.
After the defeat in the First World War and the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic, both the Empire and its Caliph, along with the Fez, Veil and Arabic script were unceremoniously dumped into the dustbin of Turkish and world history. A hundred years on there is renewed interest in Turkey’s Ottoman past both at home and abroad, fueled partly by Television. First came the Turkish serial, “Magnificent Century,” a sumptuous production on Suleiman, the 10th Sultan, who presided over the ‘Golden age’ of Ottoman Rule. Then there was a prequel, “Resurrection: Ertugrul” about Osman, the founder of the dynasty. And now we have a riveting historical drama on the Empire’s final denouement: “Payitaht, Abdul Hamid II,” the penultimate Sultan who ruled for thirty-three years until his dethronement by the “Young Turks” in 1908.
Critics have charged that the series is a timely piece of revisionist history mirroring the world-view of the current Turkish President and the failed attempt to remove him forcibly in 2016. Be that as it may, the programme does come with a disclaimer: it is “inspired” by events, so viewers can (and should) take everything with a heavydose of salt. But, as with many other historical dramas (eg: Netflix’s, Crown, on the British Royal family) there is considerable poetic license and the dividing line between fact and fiction often thin and blurred. Not unsurprisingly, vested interests have lobbied to ban the show on Netflix, although exports of Turkish Serials, valued at over $350 million, are second only to the United States with a growing fan following worldwide.
Just who were the Ottomans and why is Sultan Abdul Hamid relevant today? To answer this, one must step back a little into history: The Turks, a Central Asiatic Muslim peoplegradually moved into Europe around the mid thirteenth century founding an Empire that crossed three continents and lasted six centuries. In 1453,they sent alarm bells ringing all over Christendom with the capture of Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Holy Roman empire, and with it,an iconic church, the Hagia Sophia. For several centuries thereafter, the “aggressive” Ottomans were regarded as a “menace” to Europe as they continued swiftly with their expansion. In 1683, they laid siege to Vienna but were unsuccessful. Popular myth has it that when the Ottomans withdrew, Viennese bakers in celebration — and heaving a huge sigh of collective relief, invented a new type of bread, the crescent shaped croissant! It is believed also that coffee was introduced into Western Europe, when supplies of Turkish “kahve” beans (originally Arabic) were found in the deserted Ottoman encampments. Another European symbol, the Tulip, now firmly associated with Holland is also of Ottoman origin.
As all Empires inevitably decline, so too did the Ottomans. By the mid 18 and 19th centuries, it began tounravel with Czarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarians, Great Britain and France chipping away at its territories in Europe, Asia and Africa. Ethnic nationalism, industrial stagnation and costly wars hastened its downward spiral, causing Czar Nicholas of Russia to mock it as “the sick man of Europe.” By the time Sultan Abdul Hamid came to power in 1876, the Ottomans were in hock to a number of European Banks and under crippling “debt administration,” a forerunner perhaps of the IMF and World Bank prescriptions for defaulting nations today!
Abdul Hamid had initially promised a constitutional monarchy but having survived several assassination attempts, and besieged by enemies, external and internal— Freemasons, Zionists, Liberals, rapacious financiers, back- stabbing Ministers and squabbling relations, he regressed into autocracy, tightening his grip with a network of spies and an iron fist. This prolonged his rule but made him hugely unpopularamongst his predatory European neighbours. Just how the Sultan was viewed can be gauged by the choice epithets levelled at him in various accounts: cruel, capricious, corrupt, brutal, who was “given to fits of melancholia” and “spells of fainting.” And demeaningly, for his alleged excesses on the Armenian community in 1895, he earned the sobriquet “the Red Sultan.”
Modern day commentators continue this trend of vilification. Jonathan Schneer, a noted academic and historian (‘The Balfour Declaration, the origins of the Arab- Israeli conflict, published 2010) writes: “In Britain, anti-Turkish sentiment ran high during the war. It had been running high since the 1870s when Britons learned to despise the murderous Sultan Abdul Hamid II along with the corruption of his court, the dead hand of his bureaucracy and the brutality of his minions, in short everything the great nineteenth century Liberal Gladstone summed up in his memorable epithet, the unspeakable Turk.”
This sweeping denunciation seems a tad hypocritical when one compares parallel developments in the same period: Britain had put down a rebellion of the Boers and Zulus in South Africa and the “Mahdi” in the Sudan. The “Easter Rising” in Dublin (2016) and the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in Amritsar were to follow two years later. In Russia, there were bloody pogroms against Czar Nicholas’s Jewish subjects. France and Belgium frequently applied the boot to their colonial territories in Africa. And the Austro - Hungarians so enraged the Serbs that it was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by a disgruntled Serbian Nationalist that triggered the First World War In 1914.
Lampooned and caricatured in the British and European press with racial slurs, Abdul Hamid is nevertheless grudgingly credited with advancing the process of “Tanzimat” (or re-organisation) that had begun in the 1830s.Improvements in public finances, communication, telegraph, building of roads, schools, technical colleges and vast infrastructure projects were undertaken in his dominions, notably the Damascus-Medina Railway. There were ambitious plans too, with German help, for the Berlin-Istanbul-Baghdad Railway linking Europe to Asia, which would decrease dependency on the sea route via the Suez Canal.
The success of this modernization program and the favorable impression generated amongst Britain’s Indian subjects alarmed Sir Mark Sykes, the diplomat entrusted by the British Cabinet to plan the post-War Ottoman melt-down. On a fact finding mission to India he writes with dismay “it is a shock to find that Indian towns like Delhi have made less progress than say Konia or Kastamuni; this is a real blow to my ideas…of course India is poor, overpopulated and understaffed but at the root, the secret of Turkish influence over Hindus Moslems who have been to Stamboul is that they have seen there something externally more efficient than they see at home.” (letter quoted in ‘The Man who created the Middle East’ by Christopher Simon Sykes).
Ghazala Akbar was once the Feature Editor of The Arab Times, Kuwait. Now-a-days she lives in London.