His death from sorrow and grief following the fall of a castle in Ukraine and the persecution of his people shows the character of Sultan Abdülhamid I amid a long history filled with statespeople who would not lift a finger in the face of the loss of whole countries and disasters plaguing millions
25 Mart 2022 Cuma


Sultan Abdülhamid I was the 27th Ottoman sultan and the 92nd Islamic caliph. He was the son of Sultan Ahmed III, and his mother was Rabia Şermi Kadınefendi. He was born on Jan. 7, 1725. His father was deposed when Abdülhamid was 5 years old and died when he was 11. For years he led a relatively comfortable life and waited at the palace for his turn to take the throne. He received a good education, if not as much as his elder brother, Sultan Mustafa III.

Sultan Abdülhamid ascended to the throne at the age of 49 on Jan. 21, 1774, upon the death of his brother. He was full of determination to restore the Ottoman Empire to its former glory. However, the state had entered its darkest period. The Ottoman-Russian war, which started in 1768 to protect the independence of Poland, was ongoing. Due to the war and the shortage of food in the capital, the soldiers were not given "cülus" tips, which were given out when sultans ascend the throne.

First loss

When the Russian army approached Shumen in Bulgaria and Grand Vizier Muhsinzade Mehmed Pasha fell ill with grief, Russia’s request for peace was accepted. With the treaty signed in 1774 at the headquarters of the Russian army in Küçük Kaynarca – today’s Kaynardzha, Bulgaria – the Ottomans accepted the independence of the Crimea, which was a three-century-old Ottoman territory. War compensation was to be paid to Russia, and Russia would be the guarantor of the Orthodox in the Ottoman country. In this way, Russia began to infiltrate the Balkans.

The grand vizier died a few days later. Although there was not much loss of territory, this treaty was one of the most disastrous treaties signed by the Ottomans. The Black Sea was no longer a “Turkish lake.” The fate of Poland was in Russia’s hands now. As a matter of fact, Russia divided Poland in this way.

A portrait of Sultan Abdülhamid I.
A portrait of Sultan Abdülhamid I.

Russia’s approach to Central Europe brought to light the German-Slavic conflict that would last for two centuries. The absurd rivalry of the two German states, the bewilderment of France, and the rapacious self-interest of England and the Netherlands caused a series of historical events that destabilized Europe.

Austrian Orientalist and historian Joseph von Hammer ends Ottoman history with this treaty, while Ottoman historian Cevdet Pasha begins his history with this treaty. Even if the treaty was disadvantageous to the Ottomans politically, it also contains a diplomatic victory. It was the first time that a place like Crimea, whose inhabitants were completely Muslim, was being lost.

Ottoman delegates declared that Crimea was religiously dependent on the caliph. Thus, Muslims living in the lost Ottoman land of Crimea became subject to the caliph and sheikh al-Islam in Istanbul both religiously and legally for a century and a half. The Ottomans had the opportunity to maintain contact with them in this way.

Russian blow in Crimea

The war, which started with the invasion of Basrah by the Iranians in 1775, ended in 1779, again with nothing gained on either side. Seeing the increase in Russian activities on the Caucasus border as a danger, Sultan Abdülhamid I commissioned the fortification of some castles in the Caucasus.

In Crimea, the people were divided into two as Ottoman and Russian supporters. The Russians put Şahin Giray in charge of Crimea. When Şahin Giray intervened in the election of the Romanian princes, a new war seemed to be on the horizon, but France intervened. The Treaty of Aynalıkavak was signed in 1779. As part of the treaty, Russia was not going to interfere in the election of the Romanian princes, and the Ottoman sultan would also renounce his right to appoint the Crimean khans. The khan would be chosen by the Crimeans.

Şahin Giray, who lived in Petersburg for a few years, admired Russian culture. He would wear a Russian uniform and travel by carriage instead of horse. He used to give feasts to the Europeans and followed every word of the Russian ambassador. He confiscated waqfs (charitable foundations) in the country. Thereupon, the patriots deposed him and chose Bahadır Giray in his stead. Şahin Giray fled to Petersburg, which gave the Russians the opportunity they were looking for. A Russian army led by Şahin Giray invaded Crimea in 1783.

A miniature painting of Sultan Abdülhamid I.
A miniature painting of Sultan Abdülhamid I.

The Ottoman army prepared for war on the Crimean border. The ambassador of Şahin Giray, who protested this, was executed. After Russians took advantage of the situation and invaded Crimea, the land, which was autonomously dependent on the Ottomans for three centuries, was annexed to Russia as an ordinary province. Şahin Giray, who thought he would stay on the throne until his death, fled to Istanbul and was subsequently exiled to Rhodes and executed.

Upsetting balances

Russian Tsarina Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, a fierce Ottoman enemy and a Byzantine lover, arrived in Crimea in 1787. Here, beneath a triumphal arch that bore the words: “Byzantine Road”, she went on a parade, with the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who came to visit. She declared that those who swore allegiance to her could stay, and those who did not should leave the country.

Seeing that she easily swallowed Crimea, she provoked the Orthodox people to revolt, causing problems in Romania and Georgia, which were then under Ottoman rule. With the provocation of the Russian consul, a rebellion broke out even in Alexandria. Now, the political balance in Europe had changed. France, Russia and Austria sided with each other; Prussia and England sided with the Ottomans.

Russia and Austria came to an agreement, which they called the Greek Project. Accordingly, they would divide the Ottoman lands they had taken among themselves. Wallachia, Bulgaria, Thrace and Istanbul to the Russians; Lesser Wallachia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, the Peloponnese and Serbia were also to be ceded to Austria. Egypt and Syria would also be given to France as a sop, Algeria to Spain; Libya and Tunisia to Britain. Grand Duke Constantine, the grandson of the tsarina, would become Byzantine emperor. For this reason, the young prince was even taught Greek.

A portrait of Catherine II by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder.
A portrait of Catherine II by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder.

I’d rather die!

The loss of Crimea caused a stir and great sadness in public opinion. After that, taking back Crimea became the first principle of Ottoman politics, but it brought about great disasters.

Upon Russia and Austria’s plan to divide the Ottoman Empire, the Russian ambassador in Istanbul, Prince Grigory Potemkin, was putting pressure on the Sublime Porte – a synecdoche for the central government of the Ottoman Empire – for new concessions. England and Prussia, on the other hand, were encouraging the Ottoman government to engage in war for their own benefit. Sultan Abdülhamid I was not a supporter of a new war. He couldn’t help himself from saying, “If people are going to be trampled underfoot, I’d rather die!”

However, the dignitaries deceived him by saying that the Russian ships were approaching Istanbul and dragged the state into a new war. During the peace period that had lasted for 13 years, internal issues had been dealt with, so there was no adequate preparation for the war.

While the Ottoman-Russian war, which started in 1787, was ongoing, Austria declared war on the Ottoman Empire even though it had received money from the Ottoman Empire to remain neutral. In 1788, the Austrian army was defeated at Karansebes in Romania. Emperor Joseph II barely escaped captivity. On this occasion, Sultan Abdülhamid I was given the title of “ghazi” (war veteran).

Last service

However, at the end of the same year, the Ochakiv castle in Ukraine fell to the Russian army of 80,000 soldiers under the command of Prince Potemkin. Some 25,000 people living in the castle were put to the sword. Then Hocapaşa (Odessa) and the Khotyn fortress in Podolia fell. While the news about this was being read to him, Sultan Abdülhamid I suffered a stroke from grief.

Although the chief physician, who was called in haste, tried to console him by saying it was just a cold, the intelligent and sensitive Sultan Abdülhamid understood the situation. When the sultan told him: “Hasan Efendi! This is your last service to me! You lost your master!” the chief physician started to cry.

Sultan Abdülhamid I then said goodbye to his children. He entrusted them to his nephew, Şehzade (Prince) Selim, whom he had raised like a son. He had always told him the secrets of the state and the palace – giving advice and counsel. He died on the morning of April 7, 1789. His death from sorrow and grief following the fall of a castle in Ukraine and the persecution of his people shows the character of Sultan Abdülhamid I.

He lived 64 years and his reign lasted 15 years. His nephew Sultan Selim III replaced him on the throne. He was buried in the tomb he had built in Bahçekapı. In his tomb, on a marble inside the wall on the north side of his sanduka (a type of cenotaph placed over the original graves of the distinguished people in Turkish-Islamic tradition), the kadem-i şerif (footprint) of the Prophet Muhammad, which he had brought from the town of Havran in Damascus, was placed. His two sons, Mustafa and Mahmud, became sultans one after another later.

Fire burns until sultan comes

Sultan Abdülhamid I had brought engineers from France to reform the army. He used to participate in cannonball casting ceremonies. He had a special interest in strengthening the navy. The sultan founded the marine engineering school – today Istanbul Technical University’s Faculty of Naval Engineering – under the name of Mühendishane-i Bahr-i Hümayun.

Sultan Abdülhamid developed the branch of rapid-fire artillery corps. French Marquis de La Fayette and the famous mathematician Gelenbevi Ismail Efendi worked at the military engineering school he opened in 1784. The sultan’s reformism, which he received from his predecessors, was sustained by his successors.

During Sultan Abdülhamid's reign, several fires broke out in Istanbul. The palace and the Sublime Porte also got their share from these fires. Since the people believed that the fire would not go out before the sultan arrived, he ran from one fire to another. He issued several edicts on the prevention of waste and extravagance.

He suppressed the Levent (naval infantry) revolts that had been going on for years in Anatolia and destroyed most of the rebels. The Wahhabi revolt in Arabia started in this period. Amir of Najd, Ibn Suʿud, who was the grandfather of the current kings of Saudi Arabia, dominated the middle region of Arabia.

The Ottoman Army advances from Sofia, its largest garrison in Rumelia, in the year 1788.
The Ottoman Army advances from Sofia, its largest garrison in Rumelia, in the year 1788.

Humility and compassion

Sultan Abdülhamid followed the affairs of the state down to the last detail, giving importance to the proper conduct of the affairs. He appointed powerful grand viziers such as Halil Hamid Pasha, Algerian Gazi Hasan Pasha and Koca Yusuf Pasha. He would give the job to the competent; would not interfere with them; only sometimes would give counsel to them.

Due to the war in 1787, the prices tripled and a shortage of food arose in cities, and the fact that he sent orders to the governor of the deputy grand vizier in an almost pleading manner to resolve the issue is evidence of his compassion for the people.

In the sources, Sultan Abdülhamid is described as a pious, gentle, good-hearted, well-intentioned sovereign with a lot of compassion and mercy for his people, and as having an angelic character. Due to his pure heart and high sincerity, the people believed that he was a wali and could perform miracles, like his great-grandfather Sultan Bayezid II. He was affiliated with Mehmed Ziyad Efendi, one of the Sa’diyye sects.

He would change clothes and wander among the people disguised as a dervish, try to get to know every district of the city, inspect the fountains, streets, piers, and report any malfunctions he saw to the grand vizier. Contrary to the custom of the previous sultans, he accepted the invitations of the state dignitaries and went to their mansions for dinner. The fact that he accepted the invitation of a low-ranking official like Gümrükçü Osman Agha in Beykoz is an example of his humility.

A humorous play about him changing clothes and walking among the public to inspect the exercise of a harsh edict on women’s clothing was once performed by the servants in the harem section. Sultan Abdülhamid was also present and watched it with joy.

Two of his sons and four of his daughters reached adulthood. Today’s Ottoman dynasty descends from him. His daughter Esma Sultan had become almost a model for the ladies of Istanbul with her wealth and tasteful life. His wives Ayşe Sineperver, Nakşidil, Binnaz and Mehtab Kadınefendis had fountains and charitable works built.

The Beylerbeyi Mosque.
The Beylerbeyi Mosque.

Signature in the palace

Sultan Abdülhamid had built, in 1778, a mosque, a muvakkithane – where scholars determine prayer times – a Turkish bath and a primary school in Beylerbeyi, in the memory of his mother. In 1775, he commissioned a social complex consisting of an imaret (public soup kitchen) and next to it a fountain, a public fountain, a primary school, a masjid, a madrassa, a tomb and a library opposite today’s 4th Vakıf Han in Eminönü.

In 1913, the imaret and fountain were abolished and replaced by the 4th Vakıf Han. The fountain was transferred to the corner of Zeyneb Sultan Mosque opposite Gülhane Park. Some 1,500 rare books in the library were later transferred to the Süleymaniye Library. The madrassa also started to be used as the Istanbul Stock Exchange in 1926.

The madrassa, which was built in Sultanselim in 1914 with the money left over from this complex's ruined waqf and which bears his name, was used as the Medrese-i Mütehasıssin, or the Süleymaniye Madrassa.

In Topkapı Palace, apart from the chamber, there is also a bedroom that bears his name and is considered the most beautiful part of the harem.

He had built a mosque, a fountain, a Turkish bath and shops in Emirgan. He had fountains built for his wife Hümaşah Kadınefendi and his son Şehzade Mehmed, and also built fountains in Beylerbeyi, Kısıklı, Kabataş and Istinye. He had the Beylerbeyi (Istavroz) Mosque repaired.

He had the Masjid al-Haram and the Maqam of Ibrahim repaired. He had a madrassa and a library built in Medina. His Arabic ode, chanting the love of the Messenger of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, was hung on the walls of Hücre-i Saadet (The tomb of the Prophet Muhammad). The ornamental room he had built above the Zamzam well was demolished in 1963.