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Written Out of History

Plucked from obscurity to become minister of war seven times, Hasan Riza Pasha is ignored by British and Turkish historians alike. Yet he deserves credit for his role in crucial reforms that prevented the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. David Barchard on a forgotten force behind the throne.

  • Hasan Riza Pasha (1809–77), Ottoman minister and reformer, in old age

Imagine yourself in the throne room of the harem at Topkapı Palace in August 1839. It was an occasion “without exaggeration as magnificent as the Arabian Nights”, recorded two Western visitors, the wives of French officials at the Ottoman mint who had been lucky enough to get an invitation.“The walls were hung with rich brocades, and the floor covered with the richest cashmeres. The young Sultan reposed in a superb chair, embroidered with pearls, rubies, and emeralds… a thousand then prostrated themselves before the Sultan and kissed his feet, whilst beautiful young Circassians also showered handfuls of sequins amongst them until the whole apartment was ankle deep with them…”

This was one of the earliest ceremonies at the court of Abdülmecid I, just 16 years old and Sultan for under two months. Outwardly it was a display of Ottoman imperial magnificence worthy of an empire at its zenith. The political and military reality was very different.Turkey’s situation has seldom been bleaker than it was in those first few months after the death of Mahmud II. A desperate colossus, Mahmud had ruled for 31 years, weathering a series of military defeats while trying to re-equip the Empire for survival.

But, just two days before his death, his new Ottoman Army, the product of more than a decade of Westernising military reforms, had been utterly destroyed in four hours of battleat Nizip, in southeastern Turkey, by the invading forces of the ruler of Egypt, Mehmed Ali Pasha. Mahmud died without hearing the news. The most powerful person in the court was now the 32-year-old Bezmiâlem, the Valide Sultan, widow of Mahmud II and mother of Abdülmecid. As a woman, she had no public personality in Ottoman life, but it seems to have been her advice that chiefly guided her son’s decisions until her death 14 years later, as contenders, Turkish and foreign, battled for his attention.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 55
  • Puppetmaster of Pera

    Yusuf Franko Kusa used brush and pen and position to lampoon and pull the strings of Ottoman high society. Unseen for 60 years, his caricatures are now the subject of a fascinating exhibition in Istanbul, writes K Mehmet Kentel

  • The great defender

    At one time all roads led to Erzurum, a key stop on a great caravan route and a strategic bastion against invasion. Today it is a remote city on Turkey’s Asian frontier with an important history crying out to be discovered. In Part 2 of Cornucopia’s Beauty and the East series, the photographer Brian McKee continues his tour of eastern Anatolia in Erzurum as Scott Redford leads us from Turkic citadel to Mongol minarets.

  • Man, myth and mastic

    It was for centuries the preserve of sultans, extolled by the ancients, sought after in the harem, a staple of palace kitchen and pharmacy. More precious than gold, mastic brought fortune and fame to the island of Chios, today the world’s sole source of this ‘Arabic gum’. Now, thanks to a pioneering initiative, the Turkish shores across the water will be green with mastic groves. Text and photographs by Berrin Torolsan

  • Melting hearts

    An ambitious new work of classical music – based on Howard Blake’s enchanting score for ‘The Snowman’ – has just received its world premiere. This concert is just one of many achievements by Talent Unlimited, a Turkish charity that gives budding young virtuosi a helping hand. Tony Barrell tells the story. Photographs: Monica Fritz

  • Golden globes

    And the award for most versatile, most nourishing and best-loved ingredient goes to… the humble chickpea. Berrin Torolsan explores its history and its limitless talent to entertain us in a multitude of different roles

  • Citizen canine

    A fascinating exhibition at the Istanbul Research Institute that explores a dog’s life in Ottoman Istanbul and the transformation of attitudes as Westernisation takes hold

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