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Sultan Mahmud II, who ascended the throne in the most depressing time of the Ottoman Empire, dealt with both wars and rebellions and worked diligently on reforms to delay the dissolution of the state
15 Nisan 2022 Cuma


Sultan Mahmud II was the son of Sultan Abdülhamid I. Rumors about the sultan even started with his mother Nakşidil Valide Sultan. Rumor has it that French heiress Aimee du Buc de Rivery fell into the hands of Algerian pirates during her journey from France from Martinique and was brought to the Ottoman palace. She was raised here, married to Sultan Abdülhamid I and gave birth to Mahmud II.

Although Sultan Abdülhamid married Aimee du Buc de Rivery, she was not Sultan Mahmud's mother. This claim, which was put forward by the English newspapers in 1807, became fashionable again during Sultan Abdülaziz’s European travels. Sultan Abdülhamid’s kinship with the European aristocracy of the time appealed to French journals.

Şehzade (Prince) Mahmud lost his father when he was just 5 years old in 1789. Sultan Selim III, who had no children, protected and educated Şehzade Mahmud as if he were his own son. When Sultan Selim was deposed in 1807 and later murdered, the rebels wanted to kill Şehzade Mahmud as well. But he escaped with the help of a concubine named Cevri Kalfa.

After his elder brother Sultan Mustafa IV was dethroned, Sultan Mahmud II ascended in 1808 with the support of the ayan (the class of local notables in the Ottoman Empire) of Ruse, Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, as the 30th Ottoman sultan and the 95th caliph of the Muslims. He was under the influence of Sultan Selim's reform idea. His first job was to punish the murderers of Sultan Selim.

A depiction of Sultan Mahmud II.
A depiction of Sultan Mahmud II.

A sultan in the background

In the first days of his reign, the political authority was in the hands of Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, who was the grand vizier then. Rumelian and Anatolian ayans, who had swarmed Istanbul, forced Sultan Mahmud to make an agreement to secure their interests. In 1809, a document called Sened-i Ittifak (Charter of Alliance) was signed. According to this document, which is likened to the Magna Carta signed between the king and the nobles in England in 1215, the sultan recognized the authority of the ayans in their own lands, and the ayans also promised loyalty to the sultan. When he felt strong enough in the future, Sultan Mahmud would nullify this agreement.

A new army called Sekban-ı Cedid was formed. The salary of the janissaries who were still paid despite their death was canceled. As they were not satisfied with both this and Alemdar Mustafa Pasha's attitude toward dictatorship, the janissaries revolted on Nov. 14 and besieged the Sublime Porte (a synecdoche for the central government of the Ottoman Empire). Alemdar Mustafa Pasha and his close circle died in this rebellion.

Sultan Mahmud, who recognized that his throne was threatened, had to order the execution of his brother, former Sultan Mustafa IV. As Sekban-ı Cedid army did not let the rebels into the palace, the navy also bombarded the janissary barracks. The revolt was quenched. Some 3,000 rebels died, and many parts of the city were devastated. Therefore, Sultan Mahmud lent great attention to keeping most of the army in Rumeli under the pretext of war.

At the beginning of 1809, a peace treaty was signed with the English against the danger of France. When Russia did not evacuate occupied Romania despite its promise, war with the Russians began in 1809. The war, in which neither side was victorious, ended with the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812 due to the threat of Napoleon. Bessarabia was given to the Russians. The autonomous Principality of Serbia was established in and around Belgrade. Karadjordje, who did not recognize this treaty and continued his rebellion, was defeated and fled.

A portrait of Muhammad Ali of Egypt.
A portrait of Muhammad Ali of Egypt.

Wahhabis, a member of a marginal sect that rebelled against Ottomans in Arabia and seized Nejd a few years ago, occupied Hejaz as well. They attacked the pilgrims and plundered their goods. The governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, suppressed this rebellion by sending his son Tosun Pasha upon the order of Sultan Mahmud II in 1812. The sultan was given the title of “ghazi” (veteran soldier). Muhammad Ali’s other son, Ibrahim Pasha, chased the Wahhabis back to their hometown and took Nejd back. The leader of the rebellion, Emir Abdullah bin Saud Al Saud, and his four sons were taken to Istanbul and executed in 1818. The goods that they had looted were confiscated. They are the ancestors of the current Saudi Arabian royal dynasty, and this is one reason why the Saudis were hostile to the Ottomans. Wahhabism was able to recover itself only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Greek independence

In the first years of Sultan Mahmud’s reign, a Crimean nişancı (sealer) named Halet Efendi, leaning on the janissaries, put the sultan in a tight spot. Meanwhile, the governor of Ioannina, Tepedelenli Ali Pasha, who ruled like an independent ruler in Epirus, worried the government. His situation was tolerated due to his services in the Russian expedition.

However, due to the intrigues of Halet Efendi, Ali Pasha became a rebel. Hurşid Pasha, who was sent on him, had Ali Pasha and his sons killed after a prolonged struggle. At this time, the Greeks revolted. The elimination of Ali Pasha, because of whom the rebels refrained, had an important effect on the easy spread of the rebellion.

The seeds of the Greek revolt were spread by Tsarina Catherine II in 1768, but the Peloponnese revolt that broke out at that time was suppressed. In 1821, with the help of the revolution society founded in Odessa in 1814 under the leadership of Prince Alexander Ypsilantis, the rebellion began. Some 50,000 Muslims living in Peloponnese for 440 years were massacred. The rebels declared a Greek state in and around the Peloponnese. With the help of Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt, the rebellion was suppressed in 1827. Muhammad Ali's son Ibrahim Pasha became the governor of the Peloponnese. The Greek revolt caused resentment in the government and among the people, causing the Rum community in Istanbul, who had nothing to do with the rebellion, to be targeted.

Taking advantage of the rebellion, the Iranian army crossed the Ottoman border in the hope of taking land in 1821. This last war between the two states ended in 1823 after agreeing on the status quo in 1823. When Sultan Mahmud II had the opportunity, he finished Halet Efendi off. This allowed him to breathe a sigh of relief.

Sekban-ı Cedid.
Sekban-ı Cedid.

Changing world

The success of the Egyptian army, composed of trained Turkish and Circassian soldiers, in the Greek rebellion prompted Sultan Mahmud II to implement his idea. It was necessary to eliminate the janissary corps, who could not cope with even a handful of rebels and whose performance would be unpredictable in a possible Russian war. This army had deteriorated over the centuries and was beyond repair.

In 1825, Sultan Mahmud commissioned the establishment of a training unit called Eşkinci Ocağı. He also participated in the training with the rank of major. With this excuse, the janissaries revolted on June 15, 1826. The sultan had previously taken the necessary precautions and gotten the officers of janissaries on his side. For the first time in history, Sultan Mahmud II greeted the rebels by shooting cannons at them. With the help of the people who were fed up with the oppression of janissaries, thousands of them were killed or fled or promised obedience. This event is called Vaka-i Hayriyye (Auspicious Incident). Sultan Mahmud II established a new army on a voluntary and compulsory basis, which is the core of the current army.

The suppression of the Greek revolt was not welcomed in Europe, which saw the Greeks as the heirs of Hellenic civilization and was closely affiliated with them. Ottoman ships in the port of Navarino were burned by the British, French and Russian allied navy. A total of 57 ships were sunk and 8,000 soldiers were martyred in 1827.

Tsar Nicholas I declared war on the Ottoman Empire, whose navy had been burned and whose new army was still in the making. The war was lost due to the incompetence of the army commander. The Russians came as far as Istanbul. The Treaty of Edirne was signed in 1829. Accordingly, all the eastern Black Sea coasts between the Kuban river and Batumi were left to the Russians; in addition, a heavy war reparation was to be paid. With this treaty, the independence of Greece was recognized. Autonomy was granted to Samos. The autonomy of Serbia and Romania was increased.

Taking advantage of this, the French occupied Algeria in 1830. It cannot be said that the sultan was directly responsible for what happened. The world was changing in that period. The Ottoman Empire was still one of the few great states in the world, but Europe was stronger than before.

A poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, calligraphed and signed by Sultan Mahmud II.
A poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, calligraphed and signed by Sultan Mahmud II.

If we don’t become like Europe...

Sultan Mahmud II ascended to the throne during the hardest time in the country and confronted many troubles in his long reign. After the Russian War, he accelerated his reform movements and established a modern navy. The words of Halil Rıfat Pasha, the son-in-law of the sultan who came to Istanbul from the St. Petersburg embassy as a chief admiral, summarize the essence of the reform policy: “If we do not become like Europe, we are compelled to withdraw to Asia.”

During the reign of Sultan Mahmud II, thousands of buildings were built or repaired. Roads opened or were widened; bridges were built. The Nusretiye Mosque in Tophane, Hidayet Mosque in Bahçekapı, Tevfikiye Mosque on the Arnavutköy coast, the Adliye Mosques in Üsküdar Şemsipaşa, the Bayezid Tower, the Unkapanı Bridge, a primary school and a muvakkithane (a place where small-scale astronomical studies are carried out that determine the prayer time) next to the Beylerbeyi Mosque were commissioned by the sultan. Several fountains were built in various places, as well. The Yeni Mosque muvakkithane, which he had built in 1813, used to determine the official clock setting. He had Selimiye Barracks rebuilt with stones. All the graves of the companions of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad in Istanbul, including the Eyüp Sultan tomb, were commissioned by Sultan Mahmud II. It was none other than him who had the green dome built over the grave of the Prophet Muhammad.

Steamships and machines that were very new in the world were bought to the empire during the reign of Sultan Mahmud II. He went as far as Rhodes with his steamboat named Sürat. He established military and medical schools along with the schools that trained civil servants. The first newspaper was published under the name of Takvim-i Vekayi during his reign. Modern postal and quarantine procedures, censuses and secondary school organizations are all generated in his time. He established high assemblies where political, administrative, military and financial affairs were discussed, including Meclis-i Vala – which was established in 1838. Most of the classical Ottoman political institutions continued under other names, while those that no longer function among them were removed. For example, defterdars (the top officials in charge of the finances of the Ottoman Empire) became finance ministers, and reisülküttabs (head clerks) turned into ministers of foreign affairs.

On March 3, 1829, a dress code ordering civil and military officers to wear a setre (a kind of jacket), trousers and a fez was issued. With this, Young Turk innovations can never be compared to each other. The reforms of Sultan Mahmud II always took place in accordance with the national structure. In these reforms, particular attention was paid to ensure that religious provisions and political traditions were not altered. It is obvious that the fez and the hat cannot be compared. The fez is the evolution of the red felt hat that has been worn in Anatolia for centuries and has been worn by Turks since Osman Ghazi, the founder of the empire. Contrary to things related to worship, Islam does not forbid being similar to non-Muslims in works related to custom.

Although it was considered strange that he had his picture covered with a cloth hung in government offices in order to break the stubbornness and opposition of the bureaucrats, the practice was abandoned after a short time. The discomfort felt by the janissaries led to the abolition of the Ottoman military band Mehter as well. Another military band called Mızıka-ı Hümayun was established in its place. The system that Sultan Mahmud established has survived to the present day in terms of the format. A majority of establishments operating in Turkey at the moment date back to the Ottomans, especially the reign of Sultan Mahmud II.

A drowning man will clutch at a straw

Due to the Greek revolt, Sultan Mahmud II was afraid of the disintegration of the country. In order to prevent this, he started to follow a centralist policy. He suppressed the ayans and connected predominantly Arab and Kurdish provinces to the capital with tighter ties. Upon the occupation of Algeria, he abolished the autonomy of Libya. The autonomous governor Muhammad Ali of Egypt, who was constantly provoked by the French, revolted with a simple pretext in 1831.

Some 60,000 Egyptian soldiers under the command of his son Ibrahim Pasha occupied Palestine without war. He defeated the armies in front of him in Homs, Antakya and Konya. He took the grand vizier prisoner and came to Kütahya in 1832. The public thought the situation as the usual rivalry between governors.

A depiction of Sultan Mahmud II.
A depiction of Sultan Mahmud II.

Sultan Mahmud II agreed with Russia, saying, “A drowning man will clutch at a straw." Alarmed by such a situation, England and France advised Muhammad Ali Pasha to withdraw his troops immediately. Egyptian troops withdrew. With the Convention of Kütahya in 1833, Muhammad Ali of Egypt was given the governorship of Sidon, Tripoli, Aleppo and Adana in addition to Egypt-Sudan and Jeddah. Thus, it was as if the empire was shared between the Ottoman and Kavalalı dynasties.

Sultan Mahmud II had set his mind to even expelling Muhammad Ali from Egypt. He signed the Treaty of Hünkar Iskelesi with Russia in 1839. When the Egyptian governor did not pay his taxes, the sultan ordered Hafız Pasha to attack. Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was also in this army as an adviser. Some 40,000 soldiers of Hafız Pasha, who had no merit other than his courage, were defeated in Nizip by the 80,000-man army of Ibrahim Pasha, who had gained experience in all kinds of battles over the years.

Sultan Mahmud II fell ill from his grief. He had chronic arthritis, tuberculosis and hemorrhoids. Doctors were helpless in terms of the sultan’s treatment. Due to the abundance of difficulties, Sultan Mahmud could not fully comply with the doctors’ recommendations. Without being informed about the defeat in Nizip, Sultan Mahmud II passed away in his sister Esma Sultan's mansion in Çamlıca on June 30, 1839. He was 54 years old. He remained on the throne for 31 years.

He was buried in Divanyolu. No sons were born in the Ottoman dynasty until 1812, and Sultan Mahmud maintained his dangerous position as the only man in the family. His two sons, Sultan Abdülmecid and Sultan Abdülaziz, ascended the throne one after another and continued their father's path.

If I die, let me die in a mosque

German advisor Helmuth von Moltke says in his memoirs, “Sultan Mahmud's religious feelings were so strong the fact that a few days before his demise, he had himself carried to the Bayezid Mosque for Friday prayer in a half-dead situation proves this."

With an edict issued two years before his death, he ordered that the five daily prayers will continue to be performed in congregations all over the Ottoman country. He sent the Turkish catechism named “Dürr-i Yekta,” written by Esad Efendi, to all cities, towns and villages. It was with Sultan Mahmud II’s edict that primary school education was made compulsory for all Ottoman citizens.

In the barracks, Sultan Mahmud appointed a battalion imam for congregational prayers and regimental muftis for the relief of religious difficulties. He had “al-Siyar al-Kabir” by one of the founders of the Hanafi sect Imam Muhammad, which tells about the law of war, translated into Turkish and ordered it to be read in the barracks.

Chief physician Abdülhak Molla once said: "During the formation of the new cavalry units, Sultan Mahmud, who was in the Rami Barracks for almost two years, spent every night especially in the barracks mosque such as Eyüp, Davud Pasha and Topçular Mosques with dhikr, prayer and religious conversations." He was previously a fellow of the Mevlevi Order under the influence of his uncle Sultan Selim III. Then he entered the Naqshbandi sect and was attached to Mehmed Nuri Efendi, the sheikh of the Yahya Efendi lodge.

Sultan Mahmud had such Islamic tolerance that he once said: “I would like to get to know Muslims from my subjects only in the mosque, Christians in the church and Jews in the synagogue. There is no other difference between them at all. My love and justice are strong to all and they are all my true children."

While going to a Friday prayer in 1837, a madman named Saçlı Şeyh, who stood in front of Sultan Mahmud’s horse on the Galata Bridge, addressed him as the “infidel sultan” as he closed the Bektashi lodges. The French historian Jean-Henri-Abdolonyme Ubicini, who first reported the incident, said that this crazy person was affiliated to the Bektashi sect. Subsequently, those who narrated the event turned this man into "a pious hodja".

The tomb of Sultan Mahmud II during the period of 1860-1890.
The tomb of Sultan Mahmud II during the period of 1860-1890.

His body was defeated, his soul, never!

Cevdet Pasha appreciates the way Mahmud stood up to the hardships of his time but draws attention to his inadequacy in reformation. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder excused the sultan by saying, "It is easy to destroy but difficult to build." Edouard-Philippe Engelhardt points out that his reform was in appearance and was not popular because he abandoned the dignified and domineering attitudes and customs expected by the people. Admiral Edmond Slade, who served as a consultant in the Ottoman navy, points out that the sultan started from the wrong place and attempted many things at once.

Moltke had participated in the sultan's trip to Bulgaria. He said: “We didn't pass by any poor without the sultan giving them alms. One day, while we were traveling in a carriage he drove himself, he saw a woman holding out a piece of paper on the tip of a stick, and he immediately stopped the car and took the paper. One cannot believe that this person, who treats those around him with kindness and modesty, is the same person who killed thousands of janissaries.”

Alphonse de Lamartine says: “The disasters he faced were enough to devastate at least 10 reformist rulers, but only his body succumbed, his spirit never surrendered. Only future generations will understand him properly. Fate had withheld the viziers, like the Köprülüs, who understood and applied the intention of the ruler, who took the responsibility for the mistakes and gave the honor of success to the ruler. After trying many others, the sultan became his own vizier. He bore the public's complaints and hatred alone. Despite this, he wanted to establish an environment based on trust and friendship by acting in good faith. Halet Efendi, Abdullah Pasha, Pertev Pasha, Hüsrev Pasha were among them. He couldn't find what he was looking for in any of them."

Sultan Mahmud was a master calligrapher. The inscriptions on the Eyüp Sultan cenotaph and the large plate in Hagia Sophia, which is an example of a wonder, are his work. He wrote poems under the pseudonym Adli, and many of his compositions have survived to the present day.

He was the first sultan to learn French. He visited the provinces of Gelibolu (Gallipoli), Bolayır, Eastern Thrace, Rhodes and Danube. He was tall and described as handsome. He had inexhaustible energy. He was very clever and witty. Many anecdotes and legends about him, especially with his companion Said Efendi, have been in the limelight. He liked to roam around among the people in disguise.

From time to time, the sultan tried to prevent the dissolution of the state with his harsh actions. He brought life to the empire with his reform activities in every field. Although it drew the reaction of an ignorant and bigoted segment, his services were remembered with gratitude by people with common sense. He was remembered with respect even in the Western sources.

Sultan Mahmud tried to ensure stability with drastic measures. He suppressed bureaucrats, soldiers and scholars who worked together and played sinister roles in the past. He gathered the functions of the state in his hands and started to administer the country from the palace. For this, he is accused of autocracy, but this attempt removed the state from the brink of the abyss. Sultan Abdülhamid II would go on to follow his grandfather's path after the 1877 Ottoman-Russian War.