Our Heroic Emperors: Heroism, World Order, and the Social History of Monarchy in the Late Ottoman Empire, 1900-1918.

By Arlen Wiesenthal
Submitted to Session P4973 (Law, Legitimacy, and Laziness in Late Ottoman Imperial Culture, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
Ottoman Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper analyses dynastic heroism as an expression of Ottoman imperial culture in the period 1900-1918 with particular emphasis on the years immediately preceding and following the Ottoman revolution of 1908. While previous studies have peripherally examined Ottoman dynastic heroism with attention to the emergence of popular Turkish nationalisms after 1922, no study has historicized this phenomenon as part of the social history of Ottoman monarchy. Therefore, in concert with this directive, this paper examines the widespread perception of Ottoman sultans as historical “shapers” of an Ottoman universe of meaning in which the empire’s subjects lived. Insofar as sultans were seen as influential “movers and shakers” within the confines of late Ottoman historical thinking, how did the social and cultural presence of the House of Osman shape the Ottoman world as it appeared to contemporary Ottomans?
Drawing on works of Ottoman Turkish historical literature, the Istanbul-based Ottoman Turkish illustrated press, as well as on the dynastic tradition of courtly patronage, I argue that a select canon of Ottoman sultans were venerated as heroic empire-builders and empire-reformers whose legacies had shaped and continued to inform the realities of the late Ottoman Empire, and whose heroic examples provided attractive models for the future of the empire and its peoples. Selected from amongst the members of the House of Osman, this canon, which tended to include Mehmed II (r. 1444-46, 1451-81), Selim I (r. 1512-20), Süleyman I (r. 1520-66), Osman II (r. 1618-22), Murad IV (r. 1623-40), Selim III (r. 1789-1807), and Mahmud II (r. 1808-39) entered Ottoman literary consciousness in the Hamidian period (c. 1876-1908). However, quite paradoxically, their heroic personae did not cease to play an important role in Ottoman historical discourse in the wake of the Committee of Union and Progress’ ascension to political power after 1908. To the contrary, it was at this point that an explosion of novel news media cultures and temporarily relaxed censorship policies provided new space for their veneration as “Ottoman,” and not simply as “Muslim” or “Turkish” heroes. In this connection, I demonstrate that in spite of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s (r. 1876-1909) relegation to the role of “constitutional monarch” in 1908, his later dethronement in 1909, and the ascension of Sultan Mehmed V Re?ad (r. 1909-18) as a ruler with ostensibly few institutionalized responsibilities, the House of Osman continued to hold weight as a symbolic site of imperial allegiance in the last Ottoman decade.