Sunday, 2 February 2014

A word from the sultan

In 1849, a British admiral, Sir Adolphus Slade, was seconded to the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, where he served for seventeen years as administrative head of the navy. He wrote extensively about his experiences and travels.  The Ottoman empire was in serial decline, already the Sick Man of Europe, trying to modernise itself amongst the rapidly developing industrial nations of Western Europe – at a time when Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England - yet still bound to the oriental practices of despotic sultans that stretched far into the past .

Probably no event impressed on Slade the character, institutions and power of the sultans so strongly as the fate of an Ottoman official, called Hamid.

Slade had a house on the Bosporus, looking out over the water. Hamid was his neighbour.  The admiral recalled the fateful day in vivid detail.

“Poor Hamid, peace to his errors! I knew him well. The evening before his catastrophe we smoked a pipe together. Late that night the captain pasha [admiral of the fleet] returned from Constantinople, where he had been assisting at a divan [sultan’s council], with the fatal order in his bosom.

The next morning, the sun just peeping over the Asiatic hills, I saw a barge row swiftly from the flag-ship to the nazir’s [official’s] house, which overhung the water. Suspecting something I put a question to the officer of the boat, as he passed my window. He shook his head in reply.

The nazir was still reposing.

“The pasha wants you,” was the pithy reply.

“Why, what can he require?”

“You will soon learn. Rise.”

He adjusted his dress, performed his ablutions, prayed and stepped into the barge. I was already dressed and on the quay; passing which, he waved his hand to me, and said something, I thought “farewell’, so I took a caique and followed.

The principal officers of the fleet received him on the quarterdeck; the man whose smiles they courted the day before, they received with insults. Hassan, rialabey, gave him a kick. At this he crossed his hands and exclaimed, “I understand.”

He was then conducted down onto the main deck; there his accusation was read to him, amongst others, the unjust one of grinding the poor. He betrayed no fear, neither probably, would he have said one word, had not the captain pasha at that moment come out of his cabin to look at his old friend, who, one little spark still yet burning amongst the embers of hope, cried once, “Aman!” [mercy].

He might have spared his breath. The pasha answered by a slight wave of the hand, the usual signal in such cases. The guards understood it, and taking the nazir by the arms, led him below to the prison, where two slaves attended.

Not thinking for a moment that he was going straight to death, I was about to follow, moved by an impulse of pity or curiosity, when the pasha motioned me to come into his cabin. The bowstring soon did its task, and in a few minutes, the receipt, poor Hamid’s head, the countenance calm as in sleep, was brought up to be shown to the pasha before being transmitted to the seraglio [palace].

It is startling to see a human head carried in a platter up the ladder, down which you had seen it descend, just before, sentient and well posed on a pair of shoulders. This had an effect even on the cold-blooded Osmanleys under the half-deck. They involuntarily shuddered, as well they might: the reign of terror was begun, when no man might say that his turn would not come next.”

The sultan always required visible proof that his orders had been carried out. Neatly presented in a silken bag.

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