Open up a world of Turkish inspiration with a Cornucopia digital subscription

Buy or gift a stand-alone digital subscription and get unlimited access to dozens of back issues for just £18.99 / $18.99 a year.

Please register at with your subscriber account number or contact

Buy a digital subscription Go to the Digital Edition

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.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 41
  • Digging for Glory

    Bodrum’s peace was shattered in 1856 by the arrival of a warship bearing one of the most ambitious archaeological expeditions Britain has ever launched. Leading it was Charles Newton. His mission was to locate, excavate and carry home one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

  • The Poetry Within

    An antiquarian’s deliciously distressed house in the Aegean was Berrin Torolsan’s first inspiration for the text of a new book on Turkish interiors. In this extract from At Home in Turkey, with photographs by Solvi dos Santos, she is captivated by a low-key restoration.

  • Celery’s Sibling

    Although commonly regarded as a root vegetable, like the potato, carrot or turnip, the bulbous part of the celeriac plant is not actually the root but a corm, the base of the leaf stems, out of which modest roots will grow.
    More cookery features

  • Joy in a Bottle

    On the tiny island of Bozcaada (Tenedos), a mere speck in the Aegean, great wines are emerging that rival the best the world can ofer. The Corvus vineyards, once among the Mediterranean’s most celebrated, have suffered centuries of neglect. Kevin Gould raises a glass to their renaissance with the founder of Corvus, Resit Soley.
    See Cornucopia’s self-guided wine tour

  • Barbarossa’s Baths

    Another masterpiece by the imperial architect Sinan, the Cınılı Hammam in the Old City of Istanbul was built for the legendary corsair-turned-admiral Barbaros Hayrettın Pasha, or Barbarossa, in the 1540s. Today it is far from grand, and only a few of the tiles that gave it the name Çınılı (Tiled) are still in evidence. But nothing can diminish the effect of the soaring curvy arches supporting a series of imposing domes.

  • Dome of Baroque

    When it was built in 1741 in the new Baroque style, Cağaloğlu was at the forefront of architectural fashion. But this temple of cleanliness in the Old City marks the dramatic swansong of the grand Ottoman hammam.

Buy the issue
Issue 41, 2009 Inside Istanbul’s Grand Hammams
£8.00 / $10.17 / 327.58 TL
Related Destinations
Related Books
Cornucopia Digital Subscription

The Digital Edition

Cornucopia works in partnership with the digital publishing platform Exact Editions to offer individual and institutional subscribers unlimited access to a searchable archive of fascinating back issues and every newly published issue. The digital edition of Cornucopia is available cross-platform on web, iOS and Android and offers a comprehensive search function, allowing the title’s cultural content to be delved into at the touch of a button.

Digital Subscription: £18.99 / $18.99 (1 year)

Subscribe now