Eastern Enlightenment

Philip Mansel on the Topkapı’s show ‘Selim III: Reformist, Poet, Musician’

  • The 1792 portrait of the Sultan at the age of 31, by the French artist Duchâteau.

Selim III was a world figure. The decisions made during his reign, from 1789 to 1807, affected the independence of Egypt, the birth of Saudi Arabia and the identity of Albania, as well as the future of Turkey.

He reigned at a time when the Ottoman Empire seemed, as he wrote, to be “breaking up”. It had been defeated by Russia and Austria in the war of 1787–91. Derebeys – lords of the rivers – throughout the empire won control of outlying provinces from the central government. The most famous were Ali Pasha in southern Albania and Kavalalı Mehmed Ali in Egypt. Wahhabis seized and sacked Mecca in 1803 and Medina in 1805, several times interrupting Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to the two holy places.

These signs of weakness encouraged Selim III to be the first Ottoman sultan openly to pursue a policy of modernisation. To the disgust of many Janissaries, he began to introduce Western-style drill and uniforms into the army, which by 1806 had reached a strength of 22,000.

Traditionally, the Treaty of Paris of 1856 at the end of the Crimean War is held to mark the entry of the Ottoman Empire into “the Concert of Europe”, the system of treaties and agreements linking the European powers. In reality it had entered Europe’s diplomatic system under Selim III, if not before.

Selim III was the first Ottoman sultan to establish permanent embassies abroad, in London and Vienna in 1793. He also made formal written alliances with Christian powers. The first were with Prussia and Sweden. When those two governments failed to observe their agreements, the Sultan remarked: “Infidels are so unreliable.” In 1799, in order to secure help in expelling the French army from the Ottoman province of Egypt, Selim III allied with Russia and Britain. For his victory at the Battle of the Nile, Admiral Nelson was rewarded by the grateful Sultan with a jewelled aigrette. For the first time Russian warships were allowed to sail through the Bosphorus.

Last year was the 200th anniversary of Selim III’s murder by rebellious soldiers in the Topkapı Palace, one year after he was deposed by a Janissary revolt. To commemorate this grim anniversary, the Topkapı Palace Museum held a special exhibition on the Sultan in the palace stables, a few metres from the site of his murder. As one of the great dynastic treasure-houses of the world, the Topkapı has the luxury of being able to mount exhibitions largely from its own resources. The Surre-i Humayun exhibition in early 2008 displayed some of the treasures offered every year during the Hajj by Ottoman sultans to the shrine at Medina, where the Prophet is buried.

They had been returned to Istanbul in 1917 by the Ottoman military commander Fahri Pasha to stop them falling into the hands of the allied forces fighting the Ottomans in the Hejaz. The silver, jewellery and manuscripts displayed showed the elaborate preparations and vast expenditure devoted, every year, by the Ottoman government to the Hajj and the two holy cities. The Ottoman Empire paid a very high price for ruling its Arab subjects.

The present exhibition shows Selim III as a musician, poet and calligrapher, rather than a ruler. Visitors can admire some of his firmans, textiles, costumes, jewels, weapons and musical instruments, to the sound of the beguiling, melancholy music that he composed. One of the great Ottoman imperial portraits, of Selim III painted by Kapıdağlı Konstantin in 1803, is displayed next to the Sultan’s French clock, which appears in a corner of the picture. Also on show are some of the engraved portraits of sultans commissioned by Selim III in London in 1796. The celebrated collection of the Sultan’s poems, assembled and illuminated after his death, can be admired, although none of the poems is quoted in the exhibition’s display boards. Under the pseudonym Ilhâmi he wrote such lines as: O Ilhâmi, do not be indolent and do not trust in the things of this world. The world stops for no one and its wheel turns without ceasing.

The exhibition does not put the Sultan in his geopolitical context; it does, however, show aspects of the sophisticated inner cultural life of the imperial palace. Hopefully it will inspire similar exhibitions on other Ottoman sultans. They need to be established as individuals with their own policies and characters, rather than merely names in a long dynastic list.

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