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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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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 53
  • History on a plate

    Three groundbreaking archaeological exhibitions shine a spotlight on great Anatolian empires and their champions. Istanbul showcases John Garstang’s illuminating work on the Hittites. Berlin celebrates the work of Friedrich Sarre, who brought the Seljuks to life. And treasures from the Phrygia of King Midas head for Philadelphia

  • The Empire Unvarnished

    Luigi Mayer made his mark with lively, quirky scenes for the British ambassador to Constantinople, painting viziers and villagers, soldiers and servants across the Ottoman Empire. He deserves to be plucked from obscurity, argues Briony Llewellyn

  • Connoisseur 53

    London’s luminous Liotards, prayers on a shirt, bare truths in Beyoğlu, and a Biennial all at sea… Plus three lost Anatolian empires and their intrepid champions

  • Eastern Nuance

    The 18th-century Swiss portrait artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789) is widely regarded as the first Orientalist. The four years he spent in Turkey from 1738, drawing and painting Western merchants and diplomats as well as Ottoman citizens, made him the first serious European artist to find his subject matter in the East.

  • The Princes Islands

    Owen Matthews introduces our portrait of the Princes Islands, from busy Büyükada, via pretty Heybeliada, one-hill Burgaz and arid Kinaliada, to the haunting, deserted Yassıada

  • Broad Bean Feast

    Besides being quite delicious, the simple broad bean is nothing short of a little bundle of magic. Rich in minerals and vitamins, it contains the chemical L-dopa, which feeds dopamine and adrenaline to the brain and body.

  • Büyükada: the Writer’s Island

    Since he became enchanted by the ‘Big Island’ 15 years ago, Owen Matthews has enjoyed its seasonal changes and watched its popularity grow – not least among soap-opera fans

  • Heybeliada: Notes on a Smaller Island

    Heybeliada is more compact and less showy than Büyükada, but just as fair

Buy the issue
Issue 53, Autumn 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: The Princes Islands
£15.00 / $18.99 / 621.66 TL
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