Sultan Abdülhamid or Abdul Hamid II was the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled from 1876 until his deposition in 1909. He was born on September 21, 1842, in Istanbul, Turkey, and was the son of Sultan Abdulmecid I and Tirimozhgan Sultan.
Abdul Hamid II ascended to the throne in 1876, following the deposition of his brother, Sultan Murad V. During his reign, he sought to modernize and strengthen the Ottoman Empire, introducing numerous reforms to the economy, education system, and military. He also commissioned the construction of several important public works, including railways, bridges, and hospitals.
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Sultan Abdul Hamid II is considered the founder of modern Turkey. Although he came to power at a time of political upheaval, he made some very major developments and changes throughout his empire.
At the time of his accession to the throne (in 1876), the Ottoman Empire had become bankrupt and could not defend itself against its many enemies. Although the Ottoman Empire, allied with the UK and France, managed to win the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) against the Russians, it had exhausted the empire’s resources to a great extent.
First Constitutional Era, 1876–1878
In addition to external challenges, the Ottoman Empire grappled with intricate internal dynamics. Within its borders, the Young Ottomans voiced discontent with the Tanzimat reforms. Their bold vision? To champion a constitution that would curb the sultan’s absolute power, paving the way for a representative parliament inspired by the European model.
Abdul Hamid II collaborated closely with the Young Ottomans, leading to the formation of a unique committee known as the “Meclis-i Mahsusa,” comprised of 28 individuals. This special committee, under the capable leadership of Midhat Pasha, successfully crafted the inaugural constitution on November 20, 1876, which they then formally presented to the Sultan. In a historic moment, Sultan Abdul Hamid II promulgated the Constitution (Kanun-i Esasi) on December 23, 1876, marking the pivotal inception of the parliamentary system.
19 March 1877 marked a momentous occasion as the inaugural Ottoman Parliament convened in a grand ceremony within the opulent confines of the Dolmabahce Palace. This event drew a distinguished assembly, including ministers, notable figures, representatives, and esteemed foreign dignitaries. Regrettably, the parliament’s existence was ephemeral, spanning only two brief periods during 1877 and 1878. Its abrupt dissolution by the Sultan on February 13, 1878, heralded the return to autocratic rule, extinguishing the promise of representative governance.
This Ottoman parliament was composed of two chambers. The lower house of the parliament was the Meclis-i Mebusan (Chamber of Deputies), while the upper house was the Meclis-i Ayan (Senate).
The Constitution stipulated an equitable distribution of representation across all imperial provinces, yet a stark disparity in this regard emerged. European provinces enjoyed a substantial overrepresentation, with one deputy allotted for every 82,882 males. In contrast, Anatolian provinces had one representative per 162,148 males, while African regions lagged far behind with one deputy per 505,000 males.
Further revealing this discrepancy, Jews were allocated one representative for every 18,750 males, totalling four deputies. Meanwhile, Christians received one representative for every 107,557 males, resulting in a total of 44 deputies. Muslims, constituting the majority, were granted one deputy for every 133,367 males, with a sum of 71 deputies in total. This intricate balance of representation painted a complex picture of the Ottoman Parliament’s makeup.
Russo-Turkish War, 1877–1878
The flames of conflict ignited on April 24, 1877, when the Russian Empire, driven by ambitions to extend its dominion in the Balkans and the Caucasus, declared war against the Ottoman Empire. This war was set in motion by a rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the local population rose against Ottoman rule, receiving substantial support from the Russian Empire. It was in this volatile atmosphere that the stage was set for a pivotal and consequential chapter in history.
Russian forces orchestrated a significant offensive, penetrating deep into Ottoman territory, seizing vital cities, and making strides toward Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). On March 3, 1878, the Ottoman Empire acquiesced and signed the Treaty of San Stefano, bringing an end to the conflict on terms dictated by the Russians. This pivotal agreement saw the Ottoman Empire acknowledging the independence of several Balkan states, notably Bulgaria, while also ceding significant territorial holdings to Russia.
Nonetheless, the Treaty of San Stefano underwent substantial revision during the Congress of Berlin in July 1878. This congress, attended by envoys from the foremost European powers such as Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, aimed to recalibrate the terms of the treaty. The result was a considerable reduction in the territorial gains initially secured by Russia, as well as an augmentation of autonomy granted to Bulgaria.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, the Ottoman Empire experienced significant territorial losses, amounting to a staggering two-fifths of its land and one-fifth of its population, primarily in the Balkans and eastern Anatolia. This included the relinquishment of three provinces in the eastern Anatolian Caucasus region—Kars, Ardahan, and Batum.
The Ottoman Empire suffered additional territorial concessions to European powers beyond those outlined in the Treaty of Berlin. In 1878, Britain acquired Cyprus as a colony, while in 1881, France took control of Tunisia. Subsequently, during the Egyptian crisis of 1882, Britain intervened and assumed governance over Egypt, a once-autonomous Ottoman province, placing it under British colonial rule.
These successive losses weighed heavily on Sultan Abdülhamid II, compelling him to adopt a firm and authoritarian rule as a means of safeguarding the Ottoman Empire from further fragmentation at the hands of ambitious European powers. To his credit, between 1882 and 1908, Sultan Abdülhamid effectively shielded Ottoman territories from additional dismemberment and external threats.
Hamidian Massacre, 1894–1896
In the late 1880s, Armenian activists began forming political organizations to advance their nationalist aspirations. However, the Ottoman government viewed them merely as another domestic opposition faction and responded with a series of authoritarian measures. These actions included rigorous surveillance of their activities, detentions, imprisonments, and forced exiles. Consequently, by the close of the nineteenth century, two distinct Armenian nationalist societies had emerged: the Hunchak Society (which translates to “bell” in Armenian), founded in Geneva in 1887, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, more commonly known as the Dashnak, established in 1890.
The Hunchaks and Dashnaks pursued different strategies to achieve their objectives. The Hunchaks engaged in debates that revolved around the intersection of socialism and national liberation. On the other hand, the Dashnaks emphasized self-defence for Armenian communities situated in both Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Despite these differences in approach, both groups shared a common belief in the use of forceful means to attain their political goals. While they regarded themselves as freedom fighters, the Ottoman authorities labelled them as terrorists, setting the stage for a complex and tumultuous period in history.
The activities of the Hunchaks and Dashnaks escalated tensions between Muslim and Christian communities in eastern Anatolia. Armenian activists had initially hoped that these tensions would prompt European intervention. However, the Ottoman authorities exploited these divisions to suppress what they perceived as a burgeoning nationalist movement. This exploitation of tensions led to a volatile situation that ultimately descended into violent conflict.
Tragically, Ottoman Armenians bore the brunt of this violence, with thousands losing their lives. It’s important to note that during these riots and episodes of violence, a number of Muslims also perished. In an effort to restore order, the Ottoman government dispatched the Fourth Army.
In September 1895, Hunchak activists in Istanbul began protesting and marched towards the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government). Ottoman forces intervened to protect the Porte from the Armenian protestors and mobs. Unfortunately, in the midst of these events, a policeman was killed by Armenian demonstrators, triggering further unrest in Istanbul.
Under mounting international pressure, Sultan Abdülhamid II yielded to some of the demands made by the Armenians. On October 17, he issued a decree promising reforms in six provinces of eastern Anatolia with Armenian populations: Erzurum, Van, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Harput, and Sivas. This move was a response to the tumultuous events and was intended to address the grievances of the Armenian community in the region.
Armenian Terrorist Attack in Istanbul, August 1896
On August 26, 1896, a group of twenty-six Dashnak activists executed a daring operation. Disguised as porters, they infiltrated the headquarters of the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul, concealing weapons and explosives within money bags. Tragically, they killed two security guards and took 150 bank employees and clients hostage.
Their demands were grave: they threatened to detonate the building, risking the lives of everyone inside unless their demands were met. Worth noting is that despite its name, the Ottoman Bank was a foreign-owned institution, with the majority of its shares owned by British and French interests.
Paradoxically, the Dashnak terrorists’ objective of compelling European powers to intervene in Ottoman-Armenian affairs backfired. Unable to achieve their goals, the terrorists were forced to abandon the bank and sought refuge on a French ship to escape Ottoman territories. Rather than garnering support, their actions prompted condemnation from the European powers, leading to no significant changes imposed upon the Ottoman Empire.
Young Turk Revolution, 1908
The Young Turk Revolution, also referred to as the Ottoman Empire’s Constitutional Revolution, unfolded in 1908. The Young Turks constituted a cadre of forward-thinking intellectuals who harboured deep reservations about the Sultan’s autocratic rule and aspired to modernize the empire. To realize their vision, they coalesced under the banner of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and garnered support from a diverse array of groups, including segments of the military and non-Turkish nationalist movements.
The revolution’s genesis lay in a coup executed by military officers stationed in Macedonia, and it rapidly gained momentum, spreading its influence across the empire. The Sultan, confronted with mounting pressure, found himself compelled to reinstate the parliament that had been suspended since 1878.
31 March Incident, 1909
In January 1909, when the Parliament convened under the leadership of Ahmet Rıza, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) held a narrow majority in the Chamber of Deputies. However, during the following months, the CUP faced criticism from its opponents for its political strategies.
During this period, various groups including bureaucrats, palace officials, and religious scholars (Ulema) rallied around the calls to restore the Şeriat (Shariat or Islamic Law) and bring Sultan Abdül Hamid II back to power. Then, on the night of April 12-13, 1909, Albanian conscripts from the First Army barracks in Taksim Square mutinied, proclaiming their allegiance to Şeriat and Sultan Abdül Hamid II.
These mutineers vehemently opposed the constitutional system and advocated for the return of Abdül Hamid as Sultan and Caliph of the Muslim world. They laid siege to the Parliament building, challenging the existing government. In response, the CUP leaders in Salonica acted swiftly, and General Mahmud Şevket Paşa raised an army that entered Istanbul on April 24, 1909, quelling the counter-coup and restoring order.
This momentous event is known as the “31 March Incident.” During the aftermath, the CUP deliberated on whether Abdül Hamid should be allowed to retain his throne, be deposed, or even executed. Ultimately, on April 27, 1909, after a 33-year rule, Abdül Hamid II was deposed. He, along with 38 individuals, including family members, was exiled to Thessaloniki (Salonica), which is now part of modern-day Greece.
Death & Legacy
He died on February 10, 1918, in Istanbul’s Beylerbeyi Palace and was buried in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Sultan Abdul Hamid II encouraged infrastructural and cultural modernization. Under his rule, Ottoman bureaucracy acquired rational and institutional features where admission into the civil service and promotion processes were arranged through objective criteria such as exams and rules.
He also created government schools for boys and girls throughout the empire, undertook railway construction, began to connect distant provinces to the capital, and extended telegraph lines to enable administrative surveillance from Albania down to Yemen.
Moreover, he opened many primary schools, high schools, blind and handicapped schools. He had Sisli Etfal Hospital and Poorhouse built for the people. He extended highways to the internal parts of Anatolia and had railways spread through Baghdad and Medina.
Sultan was a great admirer of Fine Arts. He established an Academy of Fine Arts and Schools of Finance and Agriculture. Abdul Hamid II’s modernizing efforts ultimately laid the foundation for modern Turkey; the founders of the Turkish Republic were educated at schools founded by Abdul Hamid II.
Last updated on October 10th, 2023 at 06:19 pm
Sarim Ashrafi is the founder and editor-in-chief of Islamic Chronicles. With an unwavering love for Islamic history, he weaves captivating narratives that transport you through the rich tapestry of the Islamic world.