Extract

The Grandest Vizier

Ottoman Lives

Few statesmen of the turbulent last years of the Ottoman Empire can have held more illustrious titles – at a less auspicious time – than the diminutive Küçük Said Pasha. David Barchard looks back over the eventful and chequered career of a man of many parts

  • Küçük Said Pasha (Little Said), more properly Mehmed Said Pasha, in 1898, when he had already been grand vizier five times and still had four terms to go

On the evening of August 31, 1877, the day before the first anniversary of Abdülhamid II’s accession to the Ottoman throne, the British ambassador of the day, Henry Layard, and his wife attended a private dinner with the Sultan. Only four people were present: the fourth being Mehmed Said Bey, the Imperial private secretary, who sat opposite Layard.

Knowing that Said was “marked for advancement”, the ambassador eyed him closely. “He had an intelligent but somewhat truculent countenance and bright sparkling eyes which were usually downcast,” Layard wrote. “This was the first time I had met him and he made a very unfavourable impression on me, more for his manner and appearance than anything else.”

It was the debut of an international career which would see Said – or Küçük Said (Little Said) as he has gone down in the history books – become grand vizier eight times, spend a decade in the wilderness, and eventually become an elder statesman in the turbulent multi-party politics of Turkey’s Second Constitutional Period (1908–13). At his death aged 76, five months before the outbreak of the First World War, he still held office as president of the senate.

Said had been born in Erzurum in 1838, the son of a diplomat posted to Iran. He received a mosque education – four years in Erzurum, seven at Ayasofya in Istanbul. By his mid-twenties, in addition to the traditional Islamic subjects, he was studying some economics, politics and French – signs that he was planning a career in public life. The two areas of study did not sit well together. Said later recalled the occasion when during a class in Ayasofya he dropped his French textbook, with its infidel Latin letters, on the floor. It was hastily grabbed by a friend who warned him that if his classmates saw it they would beat him up there and then in the middle of the mosque.

Said was to be a man with a foot in two worlds – a cultural and social conservative. Though aware of the need to deal with the West, he belonged primarily to the East. Despite his early efforts to acquire some French, at that time the key international language, Layard in 1877 found him “entirely ignorant” of it.

We can only guess why a mosque education left Said a conservative, while Midhat Pasha, for example, became an ardent liberal and Westerniser after an ultra-religious education.

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Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
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Buy the issue
Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
£12.00 / $15.41 / 82.31 TL