Abdul Hamid II

Abdul Hamid II
Abdul Hamid II

Abdul Hamid II, who reigned 1876–1909, became sultan after his brother, Sultan Murad V, was deposed because of mental illness. He came to power by promising reforms and support for a constitution, but he soon reasserted the sultan’s traditional authoritarian powers.

At the time, the Ottoman Empire was beset with problems. The empire was deeply in debt, nationalist rebellions had broken out in Bosnia and Bulgaria, war raged in Serbia and Montenegro, and Russia threatened to further its expansion into Ottoman territories.

However, the promulgation of a constitution and establishment of a parliament in 1877 seemed to promise new reforms that would perhaps revive the empire’s former strength.

The constitution, drawn up by the able administrator and reformer Midhat Pasha, was shortlived, as Abdul Hamid II used the 1877 war with Russia as the excuse to disband parliament and suspend the constitution. He then removed Midhat from power and sent him into exile.

Abdul Hamid II hired German advisers to rebuild the army and administer the finances. To the dismay of the British, German influence within the empire increased steadily until World War I.

Abdul Hamid II turned a blind eye to the British occupation of Egypt, although ostensibly Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire, it became a de facto part of the British Empire ruled by British “advisers.”

Abdul Hamid II limited the power of government bureaucrats and concentrated power within the sultanate. He also established strict censorship over publications and monitored political activities through a network of secret agents.

Although most of his predecessors had paid scant attention to their title as caliph, Abdul Hamid II reemphasized his role as caliph and protector of the Muslim world.

Abdul Hamid II vainly attempted to use the appeal of the pan-Islamic movement, popularized by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, to counter the growing nationalism within the diverse Ottoman Empire. The construction of the Hijaz railway to facilitate the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina was part of his campaign to foster Islamic support.

Abdul Hamid II also rejected the Zionist offer made by Theodor Herzl to pay a portion of the huge Ottoman debt in exchange for an Ottoman charter allowing Zionist colonization of Palestine.

Herzl was told that the sultan was not in the business of “cutting off his arm,” meaning that Palestine was considered an integral part of the empire, but that Jews were welcome to live there.

Fearing assassination, he made himself a virtual prisoner in the palace of Yildiz. Abdul Hamid’s authoritarian rule increased discontent within the military. As a result, the Young Turks, dominated by army officers, took over the government in 1908.

Abdul Hamid II was forced to accept the reinstitution of the 1876 constitution. In 1909 he abdicated in favor of his brother, who became Sultan Muhammad V. Abdul Hamid II spent his last years under house arrest at the Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul, where he died in 1918.