The Patriot

As Bursa lay in ruins after the earthquake of 1855, the man the Sultan sent to rescue the city was Ahmed Vefik Pasha. A brilliant man of letters, champion of Ottoman causes and very undiplomatic diplomat, he was to leave an indelible mark on Turkish culture. David Barchard reinstates a wayward hero.

  • Ahmed Vefik Pasha in 1860, when he was Ottoman ambassador to Paris, poses with two embassy secretaries and their sons. Photo by Disderi from the Ömer M Koç Collection

On Wednesday, February 23, 1855, a series of powerful earthquakes, around 7.5 on the Richter scale, shook Bursa. Even in a century when major earthquakes in western Turkey seem to have been considerably more common than in our own time, the Bursa earthquake was an exceptional disaster. The centre of the town was first struck around 9.30 in the morning, but a few hours later an almost equally strong aftershock hit Kemalpaşa, about 60km to the southwest. In Bursa itself, frightening tremors continued every hour or two for the rest of the day. Several hundred people died immediately. Monuments, mosques and churches were damaged and thousands of homes wrecked. Only two of the twenty domes of the town’s most famous mosque, the Ulu Cami, were left intact. Fires raging among the wooden houses of the town claimed more lives. It was recognised as an international disaster. Britain sent two ships with emergency wheat to feed the population of the stricken city. Two months later, yet another aftershock killed around 1,500 people in the surrounding region.

For six years the city’s monuments and public buildings lay largely in ruins. But Bursa had been the first Ottoman imperial capital and Sultan Abdülaziz did not forget it. In December 1861, soon after coming to the throne, he dispatched one of the most brilliant men in the empire, Ahmed Vefik Pasha, a diplomat and man of letters, to the town to restore the city’s Ottoman monuments.

It cannot have been an altogether welcome commission. Ahmed Vefik was back in Turkey after eighteen months as Ottoman ambassador in Paris. His time there had ended in a public row with Napoleon mover a Parisian play which insulted the Ottomans and Islam. Ahmed Vefik had climbed on to the stage to protest – a gesture which led to his recall.

Ahmed Vefik’s time in the French capital had seen much other turbulence and grown into folklore. The French foreign ministry had rebuked him for buying a white carriage which was easily confused with that of the Emperor. (It was apparently bought as a reprisal after the French ambassador in Istanbul made a replica of the Sultan’s barge for himself.) Turkey and the French Empire were at odds over fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Lebanon. When France landed troops there, Ahmed Vefik told Edouard Thouvenel, Napoleon III’s domineering foreign minister, that if he had been in charge there, and not Fuat Pasha (one of Turkey’s leading statesmen), the French troops would have been met with bayonets. Fuat is reported to have been furious. Napoleon merely commented that Ahmed Vefik was a better patriot than he was a diplomat.

All this perhaps explains why, once back in Istanbul, Ahmed Vefik. was not given another embassy but was appointed evkaf nazırı, or minister of Islamic endowments. He held the job for only eighteen months, but his vrebuilding programme is largely responsible for preserving the ancient city for us today.

The restoration was energetic, but not entirely the work of an Islamic cultural purist. Then in his late thirties, Ahmed Vefik had spent much of his life until then in the West, and some of his restored mosques incorporate gothic and classical touches.

Born in July 1823, Ahmed Vefik was the grandson of the first Muslim to work as a translator for the Ottoman government. He was probably of convert Greek or Bulgarian extraction – his friend Henry Layard thought so, and Ahmed Vefik’s translations of Moliere contain jokes reflecting familiarity with Greek – but he himself, in later life, shrugged off the idea with a joke. His father, Ruhuddin Efendi, was secretary to Mustafa Reşit Pasha, the government’s leading westerniser during the reign of Mahmut II (1808–39) and his son Abdiilmecit I (1839–62). Throughout his life, Ahmed Vefik would remain one of Mustafa Reşit’s staunchest followers – a loyalty which helped stunt his public career. When Mustafa Reşit went to Paris as ambassador, in 1834, Ruhuddin Efendi and his son, Ahmed Vefik, then eleven years old, went with him. In what was an extraordinary experiment for those times, the boy was sent to the French Lycee de St Louis, and remained there for nearly four years.

Ruhuddin Efendi was a committed and advanced westerniser and pushed ahead with his son’s education on the family’s return to Istanbul. Two of the brightest young officials in the British embassy – Henry La yard, the future archaeologist and ambassador, and James Longworth, a fellow diplomat – were invited twice a week to grand Ottoman-style dinner parties in Ahmed Vefik’s home, staying afterwards for what were effectively tutorials. In his autobiography Layard describes Ruhuddin Efendi’s home as “a konak or mansion provided with no European luxuries, divided into men’s apartments and women’s apartments, and containing no chairs or tables. It was decorated with carpets of beautiful texture and exquisite in colour and design. Everyone sat cross-legged, Oriental fashion on very low divans covered with silk from Bursa or Damascus. There were hordes of servants, summoned by clapping rather than by bells, but no eunuchs or slaves, for Ruhuddin and his son would not tolerate them.”

Together father, son and the two young diplomats would read Dickens, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Hume and Robertson and debate economics, politics and the news of the day. Ahmed Vefik would roar with laughter at The Pickwick Papers, in particular, which, like many a nineteenth-century Englishman, he came to know largely by heart.

“He was the most cheerful, most merry, and most entertaining of companions … He was always ready to impart information, and had none of those scruples and prejudices which prevented Turks from speaking to strangers, and especially toEuropeans. His father was equally communicative and free from prejudice,” Layard recalled many years later.

It was assumed that Ahmed Vefik would rise to the highest offices of the empire, including the grand vizierate – something which duly happened, when Layard himself was British ambassador to Turkey. And yet the lives of both men did not turn out quite as they had hoped.

Ahmed Vefik followed his father into the Chamber of Translators in the palace, a body rapidly metamorphosing into a foreign ministry. In 1840 he was embassy secretary in London; in 1842 in Serbia; and in 1847 he served as imperial commissioner in Wallachia and Moldavia. The same year also saw his first achievement as a scholar and man of letters, when he devised, wrote and published the first-ever Ottoman Almanac, or salname, the forerunner of a widespread and important late-Ottoman genre.

By the end of the decade he had become a member of the sultan’s council, one of Mustafa Reşit’s brightest hopes for the future. In 1851 he was sent for three years as minister to Tehran, one of the most difficult Ottoman postings. While there he deepened his knowledge of Farsi and got to know the forms of Turkish, such as Chagatay, which existed beyond the eastern borders of the Ottoman Empire.

On his return to Istanbul he was appointed, in swift succession, minister of justice, and, in December 1859, ambassador to Paris. The outcome, as we have seen, was not happy. Yet it yielded remarkable by-products. His subsequent work as a restorer, for example, was not confined to Bursa: his repair work on the eighteenth-century decoration in the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul is considered a triumphant success.

But after his time as a restorer in Bursa, Ahmed Vefik’s career was in the doldrums. Layard wrote that his virtues – honesty, independence and contempt for less honest men – and his failings combined to thwart his progress. “His impetuous and sarcastic speech made him many enemies and prevented him from attaining a position in which his recognised integrity, his great knowledge and his capacity for business might have enabled him to be of real use to his country,” Layard wrote.

Fatally for Ahmed Vefik’s prospects of advancement, he was on very bad terms with Mustafa Reşit’s successors as leaders of the Tanzimat reform movement, A’ali Pasha and Fuad Pasha, who were Turkey’s effective rulers for nearly a decade. Both were consummate diplomats and professional bureaucrats. To them he must have appeared a loose cannon. Not until A’ali died in September 1871 did Ahmed Vefik return to the uppermost levels of Ottoman public life. Instead he served on several imperial councils in the early 1860s, taught history for a few months at the Darulfünun, the newly founded forerunner of Istanbul University, and, between 1863 and 1865, was a government inspector in Bahkesir and Bursa, where he set up new villages for Circassian refugees driven out of their homeland north of the Black Sea.

He himself had married a Circassian servant girl from his mother’s household. When Henry Layard once asked him why he had not married the daughter of a high-society family, he replied that having no in-laws meant fewer pressures to bestow corrupt favours, and that he conveniently saw his father-in-law only once every four or five years. He added, with what Layard calls “a boisterous laugh”: “I was not aware that mothers-in-law are an institution of your high civilisation which you are prepared to recommend as one of the reforms to be introduced into Turkey.”

During the years he was banished to the sidelines, Ahmed Vefik worked on his scholarly interests, translating sixteen Moliere plays, working on a Turkish dictionary and a history of the Turkish people, and living in a koru (grove) beside the Bosphorus at Rumelihisarı.

In 1871, after A’ali’s death, there was a virtual change of regime as the great pasha’s followers were dismissed from their jobs and his opponents, headed by Mahmut Nedim Pasha, took their places. It was a short and fairly disreputable period in Ottoman history, which culminated within half a decade in national bankruptcy, the overthrow and mysterious death of Sultan Abdülaziz, and finally in war and the loss of half the Balkans.

Ahmed Vefik became head of the grand vizier’s office but tempers flared and he was sidelined to the ministry of education. By 1873 he was in the wilderness once again and held no official post for three years. During this interval he completed Lehçe-i Osmani, the first-ever dictionary of Ottoman Turkish and probably his most important work.

Ahmed Vefik was on cool terms with Midhat Pasha, the liberal westernising reformer of the mid-1870s who became vizier in the early summer of 1876. In early February 1877 Midhat Pasha sent a trusted junior, Ismail Kemal Bey, to visit Ahmed Vefik at his home. The evening ended with hope of a political breakthrough: Ahmed Vefik promised to pay a visit to Midhat Pasha, which would have broken the ice. But the meeting never took place. That very night, Sultan Abiühamit II unexpectedly sacked Midhat Pasha and sent him into exile.

Nevertheless, Ahmed Vefik’s hour had once again come. On February 22, 1877, the first-ever Turkish National Assembly met. Ahmed Vefik had been elected a deputy for Istanbul and was sworn in as president of the chamber. Alas, yet again the pasha was harsh and unyielding with his words. His command to a deputy to stop talking,* “Sus!”* (be quiet), or in some versions “Sus eşek!.., (shut up, you donkey), was overheard in the public gallery and got into the history books. (According to The Times correspondent, Antonio Gallenga, Ahmed Vefik was engaged in quelling a Greek deputy whom he had warned that Turkish was the only official language and might shortly be used even in churches.) Yet a week or later The Times reported that the parliament was making good progress and that its proceedings were promising.

The crisis with Russia deepened into one of the Ottoman Empire’s most dangerous wars. The following year, in February 1878, Ahmed Vefik became not grand vizier but prime minister of Turkey (as the office was temporarily renamed) and minister of the interior. By then Russian armies had reached St Stefano (Yeşilköy) and were poised to seize the Ottoman capital. The British, egged on by Queen Victoria and her pro-Turkishprime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, wanted to send the Royal Navy to forestall the capture of Istanbul. The British ambassador in the city, and the staunchest opponent of the Russians, was Henry Layard. When La yard had been appointed, in April the previous year, Lady Stratford de Redcliffe, wife of his former boss, wrote to him: “How glad you will be to see your old friend, Ahmed Vefik Pasha, sitting as President over the Parliament … I am sure it will remind you of the happy olden times.”

But times could not have been more different or more difficult. Abdülhamit distrusted the British and decided to try to cut a separate peace with the Russians, sending Ahmed Vefik to talk to them at Yeşılköy. Then the Turkish prime minister had the duty of telling his old friend Layard that the British navy would not be allowed to go through the Dardanelles. It came, nevertheless, and in so doing probably ensured Turkey’s continued independence, despite Ottoman protests. It is clear from the letters between them that the friendship between the two men continued, but it was adroitly concealed from the public eye by both. They could, however, work together on humanitarian efforts to relieve the 200,000 refugees who had flooded into Istanbul as a result of the war.

But Ahmed Vefik lost the trust of the sultan and was accused of training a gang of refugees to depose him. In April1878 the pasha was dismissedand the following year he was sent as governor to Bursa. There he remained, apparently giving much of his time to productions of his translations of Moliere, the rehearsals for which his disgruntled officials were obliged to attend. His actions were increasingly described as “strange”.

As time went by, some of the townsfolk of Bursa began to call for his removal. A ten-point report to the sultan accused the pasha of many irregularities, including, of course, lining his own pocket, but also, more plausibly, of using harsh words and actions. Despite this, when he was recalled to Istanbul in November 1882, he was made prime minister again. But something went horribly wrong. Appointed to office on November 30 that year, he was sacked on December 3. Most likely his tongue was responsible.

Ahmed Vefik lived out the last nine years of his life in his wooden villa on the Bosphorus, surrounded by his library, said to have contained 15,000 books and certainly the largest private collection in the city. He was a recluse and also poor. To rescue his finances, he sold most of the hill and groves to Robert College, an American missionary organisation that was destined to evolve into today’s University of the Bosphorus. When he died in 1891 he was laid to rest in its wooded grounds. “Let him be buried there and hear the church bells ringing,” quipped Abdülhamit.

But Ahmed Vefik has not gone down in history as a Western stooge, a charge that he would stoutly have denied, for he believed in a version of Islamism. Rather he is seen today as the founder of Turkism and a key figure in the emergence of modern Turkish culture. Though his life and work did not follow the course he expected in his youth, it left an indelible mark on his country. And if he needs a monument other than his library, it is surely the early Ottoman monuments of Bursa, masterpieces of an art which is both Islamic and European, and which more than any other individual Ahmed Vefik. Pasha preserved for us today.

The author wishes to thank Sinan Kuneralp and Gül Tokay for unpublished quotations from Henry Layard. They come from the first-ever edition of Layard’s memoirs, published by Isis Press, Istanbul

Ahmed Vefik Pasha’s library was the subject of an article by Patricia Daunt (photographs by Simon Upton) in CORNUCOPIA 8. The library is also the setting for Maureen Freely’s novel, Enlightenment (Marion Boyars)

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