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Sultan Mehmed V was a disaster era sultan and although he was not primarily responsible for the disintegration of the country, he was also never able to fulfill the duties of his office properly
20 Mayıs 2022 Cuma


Born in 1844, Sultan Mehmed V, or Mehmed Reşad, was the third of Sultan Abdülmecid's four sons who ascended the throne successively. He lost his mother, Gülcemal Kadınefendi, who was said to be a very beautiful woman, at the age of 7.

During the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II, like all şehzades (princes), he lived a more controlled life as he was the heir apparent. Sultan Abdülhamid used to say, "I am doing (my brother) a great favor by not showing him to the public." The wisdom of these words emerged years later.

A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.
A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.

Elected ruler

Reşad Efendi, after being the crown prince for 33 years, ascended the throne in place of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who was deposed by the Parliament on April 27, 1909 following a counter-revolutionary riot and subsequent military intervention. His reign was presented to the Parliament for the first time in Ottoman history, due to the meddlesome behavior of Küçük Said Pasha; so that he supposedly became an elected ruler.

Mehmed Reşad was 65 years old when he ascended the throne and was the oldest sultan to do so. Dolmabahçe Palace, where the sultan of the Second Constitutional Monarchy lived, was now a quiet, unpretentious residence. The members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) formed the entourage of the new sultan from people they trusted.

Mehmed Reşad lacked the equipment of his older brother, who had traveled abroad, was well-trained, had read a lot, ascended the throne at a young age and had gained much experience. Even the poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy, a fierce opponent of Sultan Abdülhamid, says, "If Abdülhamid had put a rope around his brother's neck and wandered around the people, and said, 'O people, this is who will rule after me,' maybe he wouldn't have been dethroned!"

A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.
A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.

They'll hang you, then me too

Mehmed Reşad was unable to reign properly during his rule because it coincided with the dictatorship of the CUP. He was old and quiet. He was aware of the dire situation of those who shed blood but he was like a helpless puppet against them.

However, when a revolt broke out in Albania in 1911 and the CUP government could not prevent it, Mehmed Reşad managed to ensure peace by going to Kosovo in an ill state and performing Friday prayers with 100,000 Albanians in the field of Kosovo, where his grandfather had won a famous victory 522 years ago. Thus, with a show of strength, Sultan Reşad assured what the CUP could not do with 82 battalions. However, the government failed to take advantage of this opportunity.

The CUP, which had been in de facto power since 1908, took complete power by raiding the Sublime Porte in early 1913 using the disaster in the Balkans as a pretext. In June, the somewhat independent Grand Vizier Mahmud Şevket Pasha killed in an incident largely blamed on the CUP as they could not get him to obey. Then, with this excuse, they beat all their opponents. In Istanbul, gallows were set up for days. Salih Pasha, the son of Tunisian Hayreddin Pasha and the husband of Münire Sultan, was also sentenced to death, although he had nothing to do with the incident.

A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.
A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.

Münire Sultan tried very hard to save her husband and begged her uncle, Sultan Reşad, not to sign the death sentence. The sultan responded, "My dear niece, they'll hang you, then me too," and signed the death warrant of Salih Pasha along with others. This incident damaged the reputation of Sultan Reşad in the eyes of the nation and the dynasty.

The mother of Münire Sultan, who became weary of life, never spoke to her uncle again and wore black for the rest of her life, cursed the sultan saying: "I hope that white beard of yours will be soaked in blood!" It happened just as she said. Even if he disapproved of his grandfather Sultan Mahmud II saying "he shed a lot of blood" and his great grandfather Sultan Mehmed III saying "he had his brothers executed in one day," the white beard of the sultan was stained with the blood of millions of innocents.

While Sultan Abdülhamid II, who was accused of being autocratic, did not sign a single death sentence even for those who deserved it. However, during the reign of the constitutional monarch Sultan Reşad, who wouldn't hurt a fly, many guilty and innocent were hanged on the gallows; dissidents were cleared by political murders; hundreds of thousands of patriots perished in ill-administered battles.

Sultan Mehmed V on carriage.
Sultan Mehmed V on carriage.

Reşat gold stained with blood

The time of Mehmed Reşad passed with wars, defeats and disasters. In 1911, Italy attacked Libya. The CUP government had withdrawn the troops that Sultan Abdülhamid had once deployed here. For this reason, Libyan coastline was easily occupied, although resistance organized by Ottoman officers and the Senussi order denied Italians the control of interior regions well into 1930s.

Then Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece allied together and attacked the Ottoman Empire in 1912. In these battles, called the First Balkan War, the Turkish army was heavily defeated due to partisanship and mismanagement. Rumelia was lost. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims became refugees. In retaliation, the Greeks in 1914 were exiled from their places of residence, and this was followed by Armenian deportations of 1915.

When the Minister of War Enver Pasha ordered the bombardment of Russian positions and dragged the country into war in 1914, neither the grand vizier nor the sultan knew about it. Then, a jihad was declared using the sultan's caliph title and all Muslims were called to war. The response of some Muslims, who had been subjected to racist oppression for a long time and instigated by the British to do so, was the Arab Revolt of 1916.

Sultan Reşad, whose nine-year reign was marked by disasters, would look at papers for him to sign in his last days and say, "I wish they would let me die with my dignity." Finally, he passed away from diabetes just before the news of the final defeat, one of the greatest disasters in Turkish-Islamic history. He was buried in his tomb next to the primary school he built in Eyüp. This was the last funeral for a sultan in the country. The only sultan buried outside the old city walls is Sultan Reşad.

The tomb of Sultan Mehmed V.
The tomb of Sultan Mehmed V.

The next generation knows Sultan Reşad best from the gold that bears his name. It is surprising that Reşad gold, which adorned the necks and foreheads of women who lost their husbands, fathers and sons at the battlefronts, is so popular that it is more expensive than other types despite being no different in terms of carat and weight.

What should I do?

Sultan Reşad was deprived of his elder brother Sultan Abdülhamid's virtues, especially his courage. When Istanbul was in danger during the war, the government wanted to move the capital and transfer the sultan to Konya. Hearing this in the Beylerbeyi Palace, where he was imprisoned, Sultan Abdülhamid warned his brother from afar, saying, "Can't you at least be like a fallen Byzantine emperor holding a sword amid the siege of the city?" The project was then abandoned.

Chamberlain Lütfi Simavi says: "He had a pure heart and good intentions; He had poor administration, was unaware of world politics and circumstances. If he appreciated that he was not only the sultan but also the caliph and that the nation expected a lot from him, if he had taken control of the state affairs when necessary, he could have prevented many disasters; would avoid mistakes. Too bad he wasn't the type to do it." The sultan defended himself by saying, "What should I do, they don't listen to me."

Sultan Abdülhamid previously wanted to establish a close relationship with his brother. He even thought of marrying his daughter to his brother's son. However, after he heard about his contact with the Young Turks, he always doubted him. Sultan Abdülhamid says that after the proclamation of the constitutional monarchy, Reşad Efendi secretly supported the Serbesti newspaper and released publications against him. After Sultan Reşad ascended the throne, when an issue was presented to him, probably because he was aware of his own weaknesses, he would say, "My brother didn't deal with any issue before me."

Le Petit Journal's coverage on Mehmed V's proclamation as the sultan.
Le Petit Journal's coverage on Mehmed V's proclamation as the sultan.

Death or dethroning?

Journalist Süleyman Nazif of the Young Turks says: "In nine years and two months, the real ruler was Talat Pasha. He ordered, prohibited, destroyed, and burned as he wished. There was neither a sultan who held him accountable nor a nation that dared to understand the truth of what he did. His violence frightened both the sultan and his deputies. Poor Sultan Reşad, who had collapsed under the burden, thought that he was the shadow of Talat Pasha, not of Allah."

During his reign full of disasters, Sultan Reşad bowed to the CUP in almost every issue. "Everyone tells me I don't get involved. If I were to get involved in the Constitutional Era, what was the fault of my brother?" he would say. As writer Refik Halid Karay said, if Sultan Vahideddin had ascended to the throne after Sultan Abdülhamid, with no Sultan Reşad in between, he had the power and value to prevent the mistakes of the CUP, to prevent disasters and to restore the country among the powerful states of the century.

"Sultan Reşad was not afraid of death, but of being dethroned," said those who knew him well. This is natural as he saw the dethronement of the three sultans and what happened to them. But for this reason, by displaying laxity to the extent of being dishonorable, he became an instrument for the evil intentions of the CUP; he left a very bad reputation in history.

A photo of Sultan Mehmed V.
A photo of Sultan Mehmed V.

Mehmed Reşad was a disaster-era sultan. It is certain that he did not like the CUP. Although he had hoped that they would be eliminated through the Cabinet established by Gazi Ahmed Pasha, he was disappointed. It is said that he evaluated political events well and expressed the right opinion. His weakness in the administration stemmed from his personality as well as the fact that political events transcended him. Although he was not primarily responsible for the disintegration of the country, he was also never able to fulfill the duties of his office properly due to his weakness and laxity.

Armchair veteran

Mehmed Reşad was average in height. He was blue-eyed and blonde, preferred to stay out of the light and did not like electricity. He was gentle, benign and soft. Although his memory and consciousness were strong, there was a sluggishness in his movements. He was naive. He would say whatever came to mind. He complimented everyone and had a warm expression.

Sultan Reşad was very interested in protocols. He was never seen accepting anyone without a jacket and a fez. He was kind. For anyone who entered his presence, he would stand up and button his front.

He showed grace when he asked the messengers he sent to his elder brother Sultan Abdülhamid, who was imprisoned in Beylerbeyi, to refer to him as "your brother" rather than "his majesty." His humility was sometimes exaggerated. Was he clever or was he naive? Those who knew him could not easily answer that question.

Sultan Mehmed V greets German Kaiser Wilhelm II on his arrival in Istanbul.
Sultan Mehmed V greets German Kaiser Wilhelm II on his arrival in Istanbul.

His voice was deep, like his older brother; he spoke neatly and eloquently. He loved to joke. For this reason, he always left a positive impression on those who encountered him.

While welcoming the Austrian emperor at the station, he said, "After this age, I can't let myself be laughed at by getting in the same carriage with the young empress," and took the emperor with him. The empress got into the same car as the crown prince.

As the helplessness of the fatherly sultan emerged, for the first time in history, a sultan became the subject of ridicule. There is a ghazal – poem or ode – written by Sultan Reşad for the Çanakkale Victory, which earned him the title of the veteran from his seat. A nazire – a poem responding to another written in the same form – was written on it in the form of tahmis – a form in which three lines are added in front of the couplets – which mocked him. This poem, whose poet is unknown, was widely spread among the people.

Don’t wake me up!

Sultan Mehmed Reşad was fluent in Persian and intermediate in Arabic and French. Although he did not take lessons from it, he was very interested in history. He could recall historical events down to the details.

His chief clerk Halid Ziya, who always saw the sultan as cheerful and contented in the Thrace military maneuvers, despite the tiring and suffocating travel, says: “This old sultan had such determination and stubbornness from his ancestors that it gave him the strength to endure every difficulty.” Monarchy is such a thing.

He belonged to the Mevlevi order. He was pious. He wanted his family and entourage to fulfill their religious obligations. Sultan Reşad said to the imam of the palace, "Alhamdulillah, I do not owe even one rak'ah of prayer to Allah Almighty."

A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.
A portrait of Sultan Mehmed V.

He had a plaque written "I forbid bread and salt to those who do not pray," and hung it on the door of every room in the palace. The saying, "Two things used to be good in the palace, now both are ruined: prayer and food," also belongs to him.

His health was not good. He was a diabetic. He once had a half-stroke. He had a stone removed from his bladder when he was a sultan. Thus, he went down in history as the only sultan who had an operation. While lying on the operating table, he prayed, “O great God, if I am no good and unfortunate for my nation and country, do not wake me from this operating table!” There troubles to befall the nation show that his prayer was not accepted.

Extreme on both ends

Sultan Reşad had only three sons: Ziyaeddin, Ömer Hilmi and Necmeddin Efendi, who died while he was alive. Sultan Reşad was allocated a small salary because the CUP members confiscated the sultan's private treasury. He wanted his sons to have a profession. For this reason, Ziyaeddin Efendi became a dermatology expert by enrolling in medical school. Both of his sons lived in exile in distress and died.

He received many foreign guests, including German and Austrian rulers. Some "progressive" members of the parliament at the first festive ceremony, refused to kiss the fringe of the sultan's throne, as was the custom, and were content to bow their heads. This attitude, which was condemned by everyone, was tolerated by the sultan. Rıza Tevfik wrote in his poem, which he penned years later, “Those who did not kiss the fringes, bowed down to the filthy hat of a rebellious officer!”