"... his artistic streak that made Abdülaziz memorable" - Abdülaziz, the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire

9 February 1830, 185 years ago, Abdülaziz, the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was born in Istanbul.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.“ (William Shakespeare)

A caricature from Vanity Fair in 1869
during Abdülaziz’s stay in London by James Tissot

Few philosophers on the emperor’s throne were as successful as Marcus Aurelius or Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire during their rule. Sultan Abdülaziz was certainly not among the very successful. Admittedly, few aspirants had worse going-in positions than he had. Contemporaries didn’t call the vast empire he was about to inherit at his accession to the throne in 1861 the “Sick man of Europe” for nothing. Wisecracks quipped about European armies being used for centuries to keep the Ottomans out of the Balkans and now they were deployed to keep them in, during the Crimean War and the sabre rattling towards Tsar Alexander II and the Russians shall not have Constantinople, by Jingo. The Balkan provinces were indeed one huge trouble spot and the other fringes of the empire in Egypt and the Middle East did not look much better, with a rampant Islamic fundamentalism, sprouting nationalism and administrative and military structures dating back to the days when the Ottomans ruled over the most modern body politic in the world. That was three hundred years ago.

George Housman Thomas: "Queen Victoria and Abdülaziz on the HMY Victoria and Albert during the Sultan's official visit to United Kingdom" (1867)*

It’s not that the young Sultan with his head full of art and progressive ideas met with a completely anti-reform atmosphere. His father Mahmud II had already passed a reform package that addressed the worst legislative relics, climaxing in the tanzimat, the reorganization, led by the mighty Grand Vizier Mustafa Reşid Pasha, the principal architect of the Edict of Gülhane of 1839, followed by the High Porte’s Hatt-ı Hümâyûn, trying to push ideas into the face of a conservative bureaucracy, clergy and military before even the Austrians or the Russians had institutionalised abolition of serfdom or freedom of religion or similar new-fangled ideas. Thus, it is rather doubtful that the reactionary elite of the Ottoman Empire found young Abdülaziz’s first decree to reduce his own civil list of the scion of Osman, heir to Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent, from 75 to just 12 million piasters, to be a sign of a brighter future and progress be damned. It was a tangible sign of the old order going to the dogs. The rest of Abdülaziz’s reforms were bought on the never-never, though, even with palace expenses cut by two thirds. Already on the brink of bankruptcy, by 1875, the Ottoman Empire had new palaces and museums, postage stamps, its first railway lines and the third largest modern navy in the world. In April 1876, national bankruptcy was declared. In May 1876, Abdülaziz was forced to abdicate in favour of his nephew Murad, on June 4th, the ex-sultan was murdered at Feriye Palace in Istanbul.

An imagination of some forgotten Ottoman victory by Abdülaziz's Polish court painter Stanisław Chlebowski (1835–1884) with the artistically gifted Sultan's pre-study to the right **

It was, however, his artistic streak that made Abdülaziz memorable at least from a Western point of view and gave him the reputation of being if not a philosopher than at least an artist on the sultan’s throne. Following in the wake of his two predecessors, his brother Abdülmecid and their father Mahmud II, Abdülaziz was a keen admirer of western culture and a patron of the arts. Over and above that, the new sultan made himself a name as a quite decent composer and became a draughtsman as well. And then he became the first sultan to visit Western Europe, the object of his admiration, in person, saw Paris, London and Vienna and his ideas to modernise Istanbul afterwards probably gave the empire’s finances the rest while the Balkans exploded around his ears and became something of a semi-tragic figure in the history of the Ottoman Empire.

* "The ceremony took place on board the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert during the naval review, held in appalling weather, in honour of the Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz who had succeeded his brother Abd-ul-Mejid as Sultan in 1861. The Sultan was, in the Queen’s words ‘very uncomfortable’ at sea and ‘was continually retiring below’. The Queen noted that the Sultan received the Garter ‘which he had very much set his heart upon, though I should have preferred the Star of India’. In the painting the Queen is investing the Sultan with the insignia of the Order. Behind her on the left stand the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Arthur, Prince Leopold, Prince Louis of Hesse and Princess Beatrice, with three Ladies in Waiting. The Sultan’s little son stands near him. Signed: George H. Thomas. Inscribed on the back with the name of the artist and the subject." (wikipedia)

** There is a theory brought up by Turkish art historians that Sultan Abdülaziz even did the oil paintings attributed to Clebowski himself - the images above were found on: