Abdul-Hamid II

The Turkish sultan Abdul-Hamid II (1842-1918) was a ruler of the Ottoman Empire. A reactionary autocrat, he delayed for a quarter century the liberal movement in the empire.

Born on Sept. 21, 1842, Abdul-Hamid was the son of Sultan Abdul-Medjid and of Tirimujgan, a Circassian. He obtained the throne in 1876, when his brother Murad V was ousted by a liberal reform group led by the grand vizier Midhat Pasha.

In fulfillment of promises made before his accession, Abdul-Hamid issued the empire's first constitution on Dec. 23, 1876, a document largely inspired by Midhat Pasha. It provided for an elected bicameral parliament and for the customary civil liberties, including equality before the law for all the empire's diverse nationalities. The issuance of the constitution undercut European ambitions and stalled, at least temporarily, pressure for reform.

The Sultan, however, was an autocrat by nature. In February 1877 Midhat Pasha was dismissed and exiled. Abdul-Hamid's reactionary measures continued when he prorogued the new parliament in May. From this time until 1908, the Sultan ignored the constitution.

The excuse for the Sultan's actions was war with Russia, declared April 24, 1877. Military successes by the Slavic states and losses in the Caucasus caused the Ottomans to bow to the Russian presence at Yesilkoy (San Stefano) only 10 miles from Istanbul. The settlement of San Stefano in March 1878 was harsh for Turkey because it provided for Bosnian-Herzegovinian autonomy, the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania, establishment of "Greater Bulgaria," and an indemnity and cession of territory to the czar. The terms were ameliorated by a revision announced in Berlin on July 13, 1878.


Economic Reforms

Domestically, German influence was on the rise (British support had helped Midhat Pasha). Germans reorganized the army and the country's tangled finances. Foreign control over finances was confirmed by a decree issued December 1881 consolidating the public debt and creating the Ottoman Public Debt Administration. Its function was to collect assigned revenues, such as those from monopolies on tobacco and salt and assorted excise taxes, and to use these funds to reduce the indebtedness owed European bondholders.

The Ottoman Public Debt Administration proved a spirited agency for economic betterment. Tax collection techniques improved and revenues increased; technological innovations were introduced in industries supervised by the agency; Turkish public administration training began here; improvements were made in transportation with railroad mileage increasing notably; and the credit of the empire improved to a point where foreign economic investments resumed.

Abdul-Hamid was anxious to appear as a religious champion against Christian encroachment. He encouraged the building of the Mecca railroad to make Islam's holy places more accessible. He subsidized the pan-Islamic policy of Jamal-ud-Din al-Afghani, whom he invited to Istanbul but virtually imprisoned there, and encouraged widespread support for himself as the head of the caliphate.


Rebellion in the Empire

Neither pan-Islamic nationalism nor efforts at economic development could quiet internal unrest, however. Revolts broke out in various parts of the empire; Yemen, Mesopotamia, and Crete were particularly troubled. In Armenia, whose inhabitants wanted changes promised at Berlin, a series of revolts occurred between 1892 and 1894, culminating in persecutions and massacres of an estimated 100,000 Armenians. Abdul-Hamid became known as "Abdul the Damned" and the "Red Sultan."

The government engaged increasingly in espionage and mass arrests. By 1907 both military and civilian protests were widespread. Leadership in the movement fell to a Salonika-based liberal reform group, the Committee of Union and Progress. In the summer of 1908, dogged by police, the leaders fled to the hills; but when the III Army Corps threatened to march on Istanbul unless the constitution was restored, Abdul-Hamid complied. He also called for elections and appointed a liberal grand vizier.

On April 13, 1909, Abdul-Hamid, unreformed as ever, supported a military-religious counter coup which ousted the liberal Young Turk government. Again the III Army Corps intervened, Istanbul was occupied, and on April 27 the committee deposed the Sultan in favor of his brother, Mehmed (Mohammed V). Abdul-Hamid was confined at Salonika until that city fell to the Greeks in 1912. He died at Magnesia on Feb. 10, 1918.


Further Reading on Abdul-Hamid II

A good biography is the contemporary account by Sir Edwin Pears, Life of Abdul Hamid(1917). More recent is Joan Haslip, The Sultan: The Life of Abdul Hamid (1958). Background information is in M. Philips Price, A History of Turkey from Empire to Republic (1956; 2d ed. 1961); E. E. Ramsaur, The Young Turks: Prelude to the Revolution of 1908 (1957); Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1962; 2d ed. 1968); and, from a more European viewpoint, W. N. Medlicott, The Congress of Berlin and After: A Diplomatic History of the Near Eastern Settlement, 1878-1880 (1938; 2d ed. 1963).