Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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A Diwan of contemporary life (332)

Two sultans in the Middle East lost their titles a few months apart in 1922. In Egypt, Sultan Fouad simply assumed the title "king" after Britain, then the occupying power, issued the famous 28 February declaration recognising Egyptian independence. But in Istanbul, the seat of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire, the loss of the regal title was much more momentous. It heralded the fall of the empire that had been ruled by 36 sultans and had progressively degenerated to the point of being called "the old man of Europe." In this instalment of the Diwan series, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* recounts from the pages of Al-Ahram the events that sealed the doom of a once-mighty player on the international scene

Europe's 'old man' dies

The year 1922 was a watershed for oriental sultans. In Egypt, the era of reigning sultans ended when Fouad I relinquished the title in order to assume that of "king." Eight months later brought the downfall of the last in the long line of Ottoman sultans. The circumstances that led to dropping the title "sultan" in Cairo and in Istanbul could not have been more different.

The renunciation of the "sultan" in Egypt was one of the byproducts of the Declaration of 28 February 1922, according to which the British recognised the independence of Egypt. The title itself as used in Egypt had only very recently been introduced by the British when they declared a protectorate over Egypt in 1914. It was, therefore, with considerable relief that Egyptians welcomed the change in their ruler's form of address to "His Majesty King of Egypt." In name, at least, their ruler was now on par with that of Great Britain.

In contrast to its brief eight-year span in Egypt, the history of the sultanate in Istanbul extends over about six centuries. We also learn from Abdel-Aziz El-Shinnawi's encyclopedic history of the Ottoman Empire that numerous other epithets were affixed to the title of the Ottoman Sultan: the Persian "Badashah" or "King of Kings," the "Sultan of the Two Lands and Two Seas" upon Mohamed II's conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and "Protector of the Holy Places," the title assumed by Sultan Salim following his annexation of the Hijaz to the Ottoman Empire.

Above all, the most important title assumed by the Ottoman crown was caliph. As "successor to the prophet," as this term means, the caliph was the political and spiritual head of the Muslim world. In the 18th and 19th century, Ottoman sultans used this title to optimum effect as the rallying call to all Muslims in order to thwart colonialist designs on the diminishing Ottoman territories.

According to El-Shinnawi, Sultan Murad I, following his seizure of Edirne in 1366, was the first Ottoman to designate himself caliph. However, other historians relate that the Ottomans only assumed this title after Salim I conquered Cairo in 1517 and forced the last Abbasid caliph, Mohamed Al-Mutawakkil-Ala-Allah, who at the time was residing in the Egyptian capital, to recognise him as such.

In all there were 36 Ottoman sultans, whom historians divide into two groups. The first, consisting of 10, reigned for approximately 267 years until 1566, which is the period of Ottoman expansion and the establishment of their political, administrative and military systems in Asia, Europe and Africa. The other 26 sultans ruled during the remaining 357-year period that ended in 1922 with Sultan Mohamed VI. This second period was generally characterised by stagnation and gradual disintegration.

In its initial three centuries, the Ottoman regime lacked any codified order to regulate hereditary succession. As a result, succession to the throne was inevitably accompanied by appalling episodes of ruthless intrigue and savage violence. Not infrequently a new sultan would do away with dozens of contending princes, a tradition set by Mohamed III, the 13th Ottoman sultan, who had his 18 brothers strangled on the day his father died, burying them all together in the paternal tomb.

By the end of the 16th century, a law was introduced in accordance with which princely rivals of a newly invested sultan would be exiled or confined to a high-walled garden on the palace grounds. Those condemned to "the cage", as the enclosure was called, were effectively cut off from all contact with the outside world and restricted to the company of a small number of palace eunuchs, concubines and slaves. If by some stroke of fortune a denizen of "the cage" did succeed to the throne -- his only way out of this confinement -- he tended to rule in name only, for he lacked the training and expertise for government, while simultaneously he was saddled with the complexes of lengthy periods of isolation.

In the 19th century Sultan Abdel-Aziz attempted to introduce a system in accordance with which hereditary succession was determined by primogeniture. His system never took effect and he was succeeded in turn by four of his brothers: Murad V (1876), Abdel-Hamid II (1876-1909), Mohamed V (1909-1918) and, finally, Mohamed VI (1918-1922), the last of the "Sultans of the Two Lands and Two Seas."

During this period there were numerous indications of the forthcoming fall of the Ottoman sultanate. Increasingly European powers were encroaching in various guises on Ottoman territory and intervening in the internal affairs of the "Old Man of Europe," as the Ottoman seat was referred to at the time. The forces of political modernisation also took their attrition on the power concentrated in the throne. These were epitomised by Midhat Pasha, advocate of the first Ottoman constitution in 1876, by the Young Turks who, in 1909, mounted a coup ending the 33-year-long rule of Sultan Abdel-Hamid II, and, finally, by Mustafa Kamal , the father of modern Turkey and the power behind the overthrow of Mohamed VI and the end of the Ottoman caliphate.

When Abdel-Hamid II, "the Red Sultan" as he was called, was deposed in 1909, it was obvious to all that the underpinnings of the Ottoman throne had been so thoroughly shaken as to augur its approaching demise. On that occasion Al-Ahram observed that when his successor, Mohamed Rashad V, emerged from his 33-year palace confinement he was too old and frail to counter the power of the Party of Union and Progress that had assumed effective power in Istanbul. As the newspaper recounts, when Mohamed VI first ascended the throne the Party of Union and Progress considered the option of divesting him of his imperial powers. However, "the majority of its members feared the consequences of such an action, because their rival, the Coalition Party, was strong and because the army was divided in its loyalties with a large faction opposed to the Party of Union and Progress." The newspaper continues, "Nevertheless, the Young Turks were adamant in their desire to subject the sultan to their will. From his first moments on the throne they thwarted his every attempt to assert his authority. Soon, through this ordeal, he realised that he was unable to draw on the assistance of any other party, for none were strong enough to withstand the power of the Young Turks and he finally surrendered to their will when he found the gun pointing at his chest."

The fate of the line of Ottoman sultans was sealed when the last sultan assumed the throne during the final months of World War I, which Turkey had chosen to enter on the wrong side -- that of the Central Powers which soon met with a resounding defeat. As Al-Ahram remarked, "When a truce brought the Great War to a close, officials in Istanbul realised that resistance was futile and that it would be preferable to reach an agreement with the allied powers." The newspaper goes on to describe the humiliation the Turks suffered as a consequence of their defeat: "When the Ottoman government representative went to the peace conference, not only did the powers refuse to let him participate, but they also told him to return to Istanbul until such time as they had determined the fate of the Ottoman Empire and call upon him to put his signature to the provisions they dictate."

These were no trivial dictates. France wanted to declare a mandate over Kilikiya, Italy over Adaliya and Greece over Izmir. Great Britain's demands were most modest -- it wanted Istanbul and the Dardanelles Straits, "solely for the purpose of serving humanity," remarked Al-Ahram sarcastically.

King Fouad (L) in royal carriage

Mustafa Kamal, modern Turkey's founder (L) frolicking with friends in a river
Al-Ahram recounts the events of the final days in the life of the Ottoman sultanate. The British entered Istanbul and "occupied the Ministry of War, the Ministry of the Navy and the postal and telegraph offices, and took control of all means of transportation. They arrested persons suspected of being hostile to British policy, dispatching them for detention in either Aghoub Khan or Malta. They stormed the Turkish parliament, arresting some deputies while others fled." The account goes on to relate that British policy played perfectly into the hands of Mustafa Kamal, "who at the time was an inspector in Anatolia and who refused to return to Istanbul. Meanwhile, the British declared that they had fulfilled their purpose. Using money and other means of persuasion they rallied a body of supporters whom they called the Friends of Britain, thereby ensuring the enmity of the entire Turkish nation. But their blundering did not stop there, for they committed an even more appalling mistake by helping Greek soldiers to land in Izmir."

The response of Sultan Mohamed VI to these events was flustered and weak. At the same time, the Kamalist resistance movement in Anatolia was gaining momentum, causing a panicking government in Istanbul to proclaim it in violation of Islamic law. As Al-Ahram relates, "The Sheikh of Islam issued a fatwa (religious ruling) to this effect, upon which the Sultan issued orders to implement the decree, whereupon an armed force was formed to defend the country." Mohamed VI would pay the price for this move, for the Kamalists succeeded in liberating Turkey from the occupying forces.

On 4 November 1922 the Grand National Council met in Istanbul and issued three resolutions. Termed by Al-Ahram as "The Momentous Change in the Turkish Government System," these were, firstly, to terminate the Ottoman sultanate; secondly, to preserve the seat of the Caliphate in Turkey; and, finally, to transfer the position of caliph "to a more worthy and competent member of the Ottoman line, said individual to be elected by the Grand National Council."

According to an English-language Daily Mail report, relayed in Arabic to Al-Ahram readers, Mustafa Kamal agreed to the ouster of the sultan. He also decided to "prosecute the sultan and Istanbul government officials on the charge of high treason" and declared that "henceforth, there shall be no sultan from the Ottoman line. Rather, the descendants of this family shall serve in a purely religious capacity as the caliph of the Muslims, for since it was the people who triumphed over their external and internal enemies they have thereby assumed the authority of the sultan."

As though the people of Istanbul had been expecting just such a pronouncement, two days later Al-Ahram reports that university students staged an enormous rally to the cries of "Down with the Sultan." Throngs of demonstrators were intercepted by the police, "who were forced to use their guns, wounding and killing six individuals." The news went on to announce that "preparations are under way for further demonstrations, which are likely to bring more such confrontations."

On the same day, Al-Ahram covered the meeting that took place between the envoy from the Grand National Council, Raafat Pasha, and Mohamed VI. When the representative attempted to explain to the sultan the situation in Anatolia, "the sultan interrupted him saying that he was sufficiently aware of that situation and asked what the Ankara government had in mind. Raafat Pasha answered that the government in Istanbul must resign so that there would no longer be two governments running the country." Mohamed VI refused on the grounds that his government was constitutionally founded whereas the Grand National Council had been so hastily elected that it cannot be qualified to represent the nation.

Of more immediate importance to Mohamed VI would be his own fate. To this Raafat Pasha responded, "The prevailing opinion in Ankara supports the abolition of the sultanate and the election of a new caliph from the Ottoman line." The incumbent sultan countered that the question of electing a new caliph was not so easy. He told Raafat Pasha, "The fundamental interests of Islam can only be determined through deliberation between the Islamic world and myself in my rightful capacity as the caliph upon whom is conferred the right to resolve such issues in a legal manner." The sultan, still convinced that the was "the master of the two lands and two seas", went on to inform his interlocutor that he would not permit the Grand National Council to assume power in Istanbul by force. Raafat Pasha retorted, "If the ministers remain in their posts against the will of the nation their fate to a man will be execution by hanging."

Because of Cairo's several hundred years of relations with the Ottoman sultanate, it was only natural that public opinion in Egypt would follow developments in Turkey with great interest. Opinion in Egypt was divided in its attitude towards the sultan. Al-Ahram sided with those in favour of the Kamalists, a stance manifested in its editorials of 9 and 10 November.

Under the headline, "Mustafa Kamal: a national socialist," Al-Ahram writes, "This leader seeks to establish a new type of society -- socialism -- in the place of those societies that were founded upon the strictures and beliefs of religion, although those very religious beliefs and strictures are at the heart of socialism and the inspiration for the principles of freedom, equality, justice and brotherhood it espouses." As for the second editorial, its title bespeaks its substance: "Kamal Pasha's cause -- Long live the independence of the judiciary! Long live justice!"

When Mohamed VI realised that all hope was lost he decided to flee Istanbul. In mid-November, news reports said that the ex-sultan withdrew a large sum of money from his account in the Ottoman Bank, left Turkey under the cover of darkness and made his way to Malta. It is not clear whether the Kamalists attempted to obstruct his departure, for they could have well felt that by leaving of his own free will he saved them from a morass of international and legal complications.

Nor is it certain whether Britain helped him escape, although lending credence to the possibility that it did is the fact that the following day, 140 members of the sultan's retinue appealed to the British for protection. As there was still a British force in the straits, the refugees made their way to the general command where they spent the night. Al-Ahram relates one member of the royal entourage "declared that he feared nothing, went out on the street, walked a few steps and was shot." The sight of the corpse of their former colleague struck terror into the hearts of the rest of the retinue, who left their fate in the hands of the British "who escorted them to their camp where they now await a ship to convey them to Malta."

British sympathies for the deposed sultan were made more than evident upon Mohamed VI's arrival in Malta, where he was accorded every honour and cordiality.

Back in Turkey the Kamalist government moved to forestall any attempts on the part of Mohamed VI to use his religious status in order to regain power. On 24 November the government hosted a hastily prepared ceremony to proclaim one of the Ottoman princes -- Abdel-Maguid -- as the new Muslim caliph. Describing the investiture, Al-Ahram writes, "In Istanbul-style suit, sporting the medallions and emblems of the Ottoman dynasty and with remarkable gravity and dignity, Abdel-Maguid received the symbolic golden keys to the sacred relics. With one of the keys he opened the chest containing the cape of the prophet which is wrapped in 40 swathes of silk. With the other keys he opened the chests containing the banner of the prophet, the prophet's sword, the hair of his beard, the sacred texts and the relics of the ancestral caliphs."

Although the newly invested caliph was escorted in a grand procession to the location where he was to receive government and religious officials, those present observed that he was not wearing the Ottoman dynasty sword, with its ramifications of temporal authority. The significance of the omission did not escape Al-Ahram which, on 16 November, featured a lengthy article on the separation between the caliphate and political power. The government of Ankara, it wrote, is striving to establish a distinct separation between temporal and spiritual power in the hopes of rendering the status of the caliph similar to that of the pope. "Ankara undoubtedly wishes to effect some very radical reforms. However, the Muslim masses, to the extent that they comprehend the issue, oppose the separation between temporal and spiritual authority. This notion, they maintain, constitutes a breach of one of the fundamental pillars of Islamic law by giving precedence to the realm of politics over the realm of religion. However, the Grand National Council headed by Kamal Pasha is determined in its intent to establish a democratic system in the place of a theocracy."

The Egyptian press soon turned from ideological discussions to news of the deposed sultan and the former regime. One problem the new government in Istanbul had to deal with was how to dispose of the ex-sultan's royal household. It was reported in this regard that Mohamed VI had possessed 300 concubines and that it was decided to send half of them home to their native countries and to find husbands for the rest. It was also decided that the four wives of Mohamed VI would be permitted to retain their private property, but that they would "only be permitted to take with them the minimum of money and wealth because of the treason committed by the former sultan." One can easily understand how the deposed sultan, in his haste to flee the country, could easily overlook arrangements for the departure of his sizeable harem.

Reports soon began to circulate that the former sultan intended to leave Malta and to take up residence in one of the Ottoman Empire's former Islamic provinces. Specifically, it was rumoured that he planned to go to the Hijaz, the site of Islam's most important holy places, and that he had received an invitation from King Hussein, the ruler of the Hijaz.

Although British sources denied such rumours, on 8 January 1923, Al-Ahram's correspondent in Port Said learned that a British cruiser had entered the port and it was rumoured that the former sultan was on board. The suspicion was confirmed when it was further discovered that Prince Abdallah, the son of King Hussein, had been awaiting the arrival of the warship, which he boarded in the name of his father who was awaiting his arrival in the Hijaz. The correspondent was unable to glean further news about Mohamed VI apart from his reputed words: "Every fair-minded person knows that a person such as myself could not possibly have betrayed his country!"

The former Ottoman ruler arrived in Mecca on 22 January, where he was accorded an official reception. His Saudi Arabian hosts had gone to considerable effort and expense in order to ensure that Mohamed VI had every convenience and comfort. It was even reported that King Hussein had "purchased from Egypt a luxurious carriage, a sumptuous silver dining set and other elegant domestic furnishings for his great guest." However, it soon became apparent that life in the Hijaz was not to the former Ottoman ruler's liking. In late April news arrived from the Hijaz that Mohamed VI had decided to leave Saudi Arabia for Switzerland. "The excessive heat of Mecca does not suit his health," observed Al-Ahram.

On 6 May, Egyptians awoke to find the deposed sultan at their door. That morning he had arrived in Suez in the company of his son and a retinue of nine persons. The Egyptian government had furnished a special train to transport the sultan directly from Suez to Alexandria where he was received by an honorary guard who escorted him to Antoniades Palace "where all preparations had been made for his comfort."

Clearly Egypt was to be only a transit stop on Mohamed VI's way to Switzerland. Not only did his stay in Egypt not exceed three days, but he did not even meet with King Fouad. However, perhaps this is not as curious as it might appear. If the British had manifested their sympathies for the deposed sultan, the Egyptians were more cautious. Egyptian officials were determined that the presence of the former ruler and religious leader in Egypt would not create difficulties with the government in Ankara. As a result, Egyptian authorities issued a decree prohibiting contact with Egypt's temporary guest.

The last news of Mohamed VI before he boarded the ship that was to take him to Genoa was that he intended to settle in Switzerland permanently. As the Italian liner departed from Alexandria and vanished over the Mediterranean horizon on 10 May 1923, so too did the Egyptian people's interest in the last of the Ottoman sultans.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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