< Light Millennium: Speaking of the Sultan, by Prof. Talat HALMAN
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Speaking of the Sultan

Introductory Speech by
Prof. Talat HALMAN

at the premiere of Didem Yilmaz's
documentary film "Seeking the Sultan"
New School University, New York City
November 7, 2003

80 years and 8 days ago, the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed by the Turkish National Assembly. The Ottoman State came to an end after 625 years. The House of Osman ceased to exist as a political entity. Its empire had lasted five centuries - - one of the most resplendent and mightiest, the scourge of Europe, for which Turkey today is paying a stiff price.  Its territories had straddled three continents. On November 1st, 1922 the Turkish National Assembly abolished the monarchy - - and Vahdettin, the last Sultan, left on board a British battleship.

The Glory that was the Ottoman Empire now became the cherished antecedent for New Turkey - - a vigorous, progressive Republic whose motto was •Sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the people.•  • The shadow of God on earth• receded into the shadowlands.

The Turkish nation embraced a new leader - - Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Hero of the Dardanelles, as commander-in-chief of the national struggle against imperialists and invaders, he had emerged victorious, saviour of his nation. At the initial stages, that liberation struggle had benefited from the financial support provided by Sultan Vahdettin as well as the Soviet Union.

Politically, abolishing the Sultanate was no easy task. Even some of Mustafa Kemal Pasha•s close associates were in favor of a constitutional monarchy. For some, it was unthinkable that a dynasty that had created a major empire would be removed after 6 centuries of unbroken continuity. There was strong opposition from the parliament. Mustafa Kemal Pasha stood up on a desk and admonished the Committee: •If those attending this meeting and the full parliament would realize this matter, it would be the right way. Or else, some heads might roll.• No heads rolled. A member of parliament, with strong religious convictions, actually a cleric, a bitter opponent of the bill designed to abolish the Sultanate, immediately had a change of heart. •Forgive us, sir•, he said, •we had approached this matter from a different vantage-point. Your statement has enlightened us.• That bit of persuasion worked. That day the bill passed unanimously. Not a nose bled.

Ladies and gentlemen, • a dynasty often dies a nasty death.• From within, a bloody revolution, or from without, a merciless onslaught wipes it out.

In 1918, the Bolshevik uprising not only dethrohed Czar Nicholas II but also executed him and his family. Only a few members of the Romanov dynasty escaped execution and fled abroad.

Compared with the Romanovs, the Ottomanovs fared better. Not a single member of the Ottoman dynasty was killed or injured or physically abused. They were told to leave the country, never to come back. Fifty some years later , those who were alive and wanted to visit their homeland were allowed to so do • as they still can.

Not a single heir apparent or prince ever so much as insinuated that he might one day ascend the throne. The Ottoman dynasty abroad - - for eight decades - - acted with grace, good will, and wisdom.

On March 4, 1924, 4 months and 4 days after declaring the Republic, Turkey•s National parliament moved to terminate the Caliphate. For many centuries, the Caliph had been the spiritual leader of all Muslims throughout the world. In 1512, Selim I captured Egypt and conquered Cairo. He assumed the title which was in some ways comparable to the Papacy. At the apex of their power, Ottoman Emperors attached little importance to it.  It took on more of a significance as the Empire kept shrinking. Its impotence became dramatically evident when the Caliph in 1915 called on the Islamic world to wage  •jihad•, holy war, and the call led to nothing but a fiasco. For Mustafa Kemal the Caliphate was an antiquated institution that represented reactionary Islam.

Not an asset, but a liability. There were those in Turkey and elsewhere in The Islamic world who urged Mustafa Kemal to take the title himself. He spurned it as meaningless and the institution died after 13 centuries. Caliph pro tem Abdülmecid Efendi was exiled from the country summarily. On the night the decision was taken, they put him on a train leaving for Switzerland. Before he left, he expressed his concern about what might happen to the palace women who were going to stay behind, worried how they would make do financially. When he and his wives arrived in Switzerland, the authorities refused to let them in. Switzerland had a law against admitting polygamists. But a clever solution was found: Temporary admittance until the ex-Caliph•s matrimonial status would be ascertained.   

The Ottoman dynasty thus came to an end. It had been one of history•s most powerful, its Empire one of the most enduring.

Its glory is exemplified by the legendary Sultan whom the Europeans, in awe and with envy, had called Süleyman the Magnificent.

Süleyman the magnificent • the most legendary of sultans,  reigned for 46 years.  He seemed to say: •East is East / West is West / Conquest is best.•  He spent more than ten years of his life on military campaigns  -•  leading his armies as far north as Hungary and Austria and Poland •  as far south as lower Iraq.

Süleyman was a renaissance prince in the best sense.  Arts and architecture had their crowning achievement in his sultanate.  He took regal pride in his farflung conquests and cherished his power in a century dominated by such figures as Charles V, Archduke Ferdinand, Martin Luther, Elizabeth I, and Francis I.  He once sent a communiqu• to Francis which has a charming opening:

•I, who am the sultan of sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, shadow of god on earth, the sultan and sovereign lord of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, of Rumelia and Anatolia, of Karamania and the land of Rum, of Zulkadria, Diyarbak•r, of Kurdistan, of Azerbaijan, Persia, Damascus, Cairo, Aleppo, of the Mecca and Medina, of Jerusalem, of all Arabia, of the Yemen and many other lands, which my noble forefathers and my glorious ancestors • may God light up their tombs • conquered by the force of their arms and which my august majesty has made subject to my flaming sword and victorious blade,   I,  Sultan Süleyman  Han, to thee,  who art Francis,  king of the land of France••

Let me tell you about a funny thing that happened in Dublin•s National Museum two years ago. During a lecture there, I read this passage - - the French Ambassador and his wife were in the audience. Süleyman the Magnificent•s put-down of the 16th century French king offended the Ambassador. He and his wife left the auditorium in a huff.

What went wrong with the Ottoman Empire? After having ruled half the world powerfully and tolerantly, why did it deteriorate and lose its grip? For one thing, it is virtually a natural law, an inexorable process that all empires expire. The remarkable fact about the Ottoman Empire, however, is that once it began to decline, it still managed to survive for more than two centuries.

 Historians attribute its downfall to a variety of reasons: Economic recession• the difficulty of holding sway over its minorities especially in an age of the rising tide of nationalism• Complacency based on Ottoman superiority over Europe• Loss of the spirit of scientific inquiry• the growing power of military technology in Europe.

Other historians diagnose the decline as the result of a leadership crisis:

Until the 18th  Century most of the Sultans had been great commanders and conquerors. Later Sultans preferred the safety and comfort of the Palace in Istanbul. They left military affairs in the hands of military men - - diplomatic affairs in the hands of diplomats. They refrained from personal involvement in combat. What a shame! Far worse, many Sultans became prisoners of their harems. Lovemaking instead of warmongering. Unforgivable!

Take none other than Sultan Abdulhamid I, who reigned fifteen years until 1789. He is well known for his love for a concubine who happened to be the cousin of Josephine, Napoleon•s wife. He once fell in love with another concubine by the name of Ruhshah, who played sadistic games with the sultan.

The letters of this masochistic sultan have come down to us. In one letter, he humbles himself before her:

•Oh, Ruhshah, Abdülhamid•s heart and soul,

May my bird-like life be sacrificed in your path.

In the name of God Almighty, I rub my face on the ground

                                                                    you walk on.•

•Honor your slave tonight with the grace of your visit.•

•I swear to God, I have run out of patience and energy.

I kiss your feet; for the love of God, don•t inflict

sorrow on me tonight, come let me be your slave and sacrifice.•

•Strike me down if you like or slay me, but I implore you, come tonight.•

- - •Even my foes take pity on my plight.•

His court physicians prepared for him a sex manual. One chapter describes how to preserve his sexual prowess. Another lists aphrodisiacs and medications for sexual potency. But the chapter that is really fascinating is a •calendar of sexual pleasures•: it shows the sultan how he can enjoy sex every hour of every day. It has, therefore, 8,760 prescriptions of sexual pleasure • that is 24 times 365.

Art was a crowning achievement of the Ottoman dynasty. They were not merely great patrons of architecture, of major edifices, of poetry, music. But most of them were creative artists themselves. Two-thirds of the 36 Sultans wrote verses; many among them were accomplished poets. Some among them proved excellent goldsmiths, calligraphers, saddlemakers, singers, carpenters. Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople and crushed the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and Süleyman the Magnificent composed polished verses. Süleyman wrote close to three thousand of them. Selim III who reigned in late 18th and early 19th century was a superb musician, a composer who produced lovely songs and a whole cycle of music for the rituals of The Whirling Dervishes. Among the 19th and early 20th Century Ottoman rulers were first-rate painters and composers of European-style music.

Many of them encouraged modernization. The innovations introduced during their sultanate paved the way for the miraculous transformation achieved during the Republic under the aegis of Atatürk.

The dynasty went into diaspora. A variety of countries gave them haven - - France, England, USA, Austria, Egypt, Switzerland.

Very few members of the dynasty had assets abroad - - no substantial fortune or financial support.

In exile, they acted quite unlike other royalty or dynastic families. Virtually none of them spoke to the international press. Whenever they did, they did it with restraint - - and with respect for the Republic and its leader. They avoided acrimony.

Unlike most other royal families, they became involved in no intrigue against the Republic, they made absolutely no attempt to undermine its leadership and legitimacy. They refrained from clandestine activity to foment civil unrest, refused to conspire with any enemies of the new Turkish State. They never even considered setting up a government in exile. Having resigned to their fate and never wavering from their loyalty to their country and people, they maintained a dignified silence. No recriminations let alone fulminations. Since they loved their country and people, I would venture to say that they took pride and pleasure in the miraculous strides Turkey was taking in becoming a modern nation under Atatürk and his successors.

Most of the princes and princesses and their descendants worked for their living. Often modest jobs and a humble way of life.  The only members of the dynasty who wallowed in luxury were princesses who married fabulously wealthy potentates • like the Nizam of Hyderabad.

One prince who might have become Sultan if the Ottoman State had not been dissolved worked many years as a cemetery attendant in France. One descendant got by on a meager salary as a clerical worker at New York Public Library. Another made a living as a documentary film•maker in Los Angeles. Princess Kenise Murad achieved international fame as a writer: One of her books became a number-1 best-seller in France.

Remarkably, the Ottoman dynasty in exile produced no profligates • not a single playboy or criminal, not a single dissolute character. There was never even a whiff of scandal. Upright, honest, exemplary individuals. Sad but never bad. Theirs is a record of perfect nobility of spirit.

Speaking of Sultans, all this is by way of an introduction for an interesting and intelligent documentary film entitled •Seeking the Sultan•. Its creator Ms Didem Y•lmaz is a young Turk who came to the United States as a student. She was confronted with her own need to probe into her identity and to search her nation•s historical roots. The question naturally led her to an exploration of Turkey•s Ottoman background. What had happened to the princes and princesses and their descendants after they left Istanbul in the early 1920•s?  Was there an heir to the Ottoman throne - - not that the Empire could be revived. Here in the heart of New York City she discovered a venerable gentleman who actually would be the Ottoman Emperor if miraculously the Empire would re-emerge. She found him, and interviewed him on film. He turned out to be a distinguished world-class gentleman with an abiding faith in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the Republic he created. •Seeking the Sultan• is the saga of her quest - - and a vivid portrait of a sagacious prince who has no pretensions, certainly is not a pretender to the throne. She captured on film His Imperial Highness Osman Ertu•rul, whose first name comes from the eponymous first ruler of the Ottoman State, and his second name is that of the first monarch•s father. The prince•s captivating personality, comes through with telling effect - - good, gracious, generous, graceful.

Prince Osman Ertu•rul will never become Emperor or even king. When you watch this warm documentary, created by Didem Y•lmaz who herself has an aristocratic bearing, you realize that Osman Ertu•rul does not need titles or political power. Suave and sagacious, he is above and beyond those. Once the film rolls, I am confident, you will concur with me that Osman Ertu•rul is certifiably

                                   Sovereign of Serenity and Sophistication

                                   Monarch of Magnanimity

                                   Prince of Prudence

                                   Potentate of Politesse

                                   Padishah of Probity

                                   Royalty of Refinement

                                   Emperor of Elegance.

_ . _

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