Cevdet Pasha once described Istanbul as the cennet-i cihan ve âramgâh-ı dil ü can, or “the paradise of the universe and the retreat of the heart and soul.” Istanbul was as a political, civilizational, and religious center, but its significance in these regards was never static. How the city was viewed changed in important ways over the course of history, and it is only through attention to these changes—to the political and religious history of the Ottoman State and its world of symbols—that Istanbul’s status as the center of the caliphate can be understood.

Ever since the time of the Companions of the Prophet, Muslims had looked upon Istanbul in anticipation of the day it would become theirs. It was the Kızılelma (Red Apple), the object of their utmost desire, and with the conquest of the city by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II it finally became part ofWhen the caliphate was subsequently transferred to the Ottomans, it was only natural that Istanbul would be its center. There are several reasons for this.

First of all, Istanbul had long been one of the centers of the second-largest branch of Christianity, namely the Orthodox Church. In order to ensure material and spiritual control, the conquering power had to supplant this church and turn Istanbul into a higher religious center. This would also work to confirm Islam’s victory over and superiority to Christianity.1 The names which Constantinople started to take after the conquest—İslambol, Darü’l-hilafeti’l-aliye, Deraliye, Dersaadet—point out this intention, while also highlighting the names and attributes which had been used for previous centers of the caliphate; from this time on, these were all concentrated in the city of Istanbul.Secondly, Ottoman military forces had for some time been the most significant and visible power in the Muslim world maintaining the fight against non-believers. Fighting and succeeding against these non-believers, and thereby spreading Islam and protecting Muslims and Muslim lands, was an important basis for the legitimacy of the Ottoman claim to the caliphate. As pointed out by Barthold, in contrast to other Muslim states and communities in the Islamic world, it was only the Ottomans who became famous due to their victories over the non-believers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Compared to the fame of the Ottomans, the victories of the emirs of Andalusia, Syria, Egypt, and India, and even Tamerlane’s successes were not well known.2 The judge of Tunis, İsmail Safayihi, one of the writers who supported the Ottoman caliphate against antagonistic British policies during the period of modernization, presented the following as a clear proof of this point:

Those who know the history of the Muslim rulers and reflect on the states of the sultans in the East and the West can see that all sultans and rulers came to power as a result of rebellion and killing except the Ottomans; Ottoman sultans did not draw their swords against Muslims when they were founding their state. They did not build their state upon the rubble of another Muslim state. They did not usurp the sultanate. On the contrary, they were the descendants of the Seljukids, who had been on peaceable terms with Abbasid caliphs. May Allah show mercy on them all.3

1- Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Istanbul

Ottomans were aware that this exceptional process worked completely in their favor. In fact, Sultan Mehmed II sent edicts to inform Inal Shah (the ruler of Egypt), Jihanshah Mirza (the king of Persia), and the ruler of Mecca about the conquest of Constantinople (that is, that the Ottomans had taken it from the hands of the infidel Byzantines).4 The term khalifa (caliph) and other titles which referred to the caliph were openly used in these and other similar documents.5

The third factor was the saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad which gave the glad tidings of the conquest of Constantinople. Whatever the authenticity of this saying, in the eyes of Muslims, conquering this city meant reaching the horizon directly indicated by the Prophet. This was unequivocal. Without an appreciation of this, it is not possible to understand or explain why Muslim armies, from the time of the early caliphs, organized campaigns over this piece of land. It was, after all, very far away according to the standards of the time and did not constitute a direct or proximate threat. What could be more fitting for the sultan who conquered this ultimate prize than to become the caliph, the religious and political leader of all Muslims?

2- Sultan Selim I

By the fifteenth century, the basis had developed for a theological interpretation of events, opening the way for the Ottoman caliphate and the transformation of Istanbul into the center of the caliphate. While great and influential scholars, such as Mawardi, Juwayni, Ghazzali, and Ibn Khaldun, paid serious attention to the requirements of the caliphate as stated in the early Islamic tradition, they started to emphasize more and more the conditions of political power and authority that could provide justice and stability, protect the rights of Muslims, and preserve the sacred lands and symbols of Islam. It is known that within the context of this understanding Ibn Khaldun interpreted being a member of the Quraish tribe as a requirement for any caliph.

It is remarkable that the abovementioned factors were read and interpreted from a different perspective in Evliya Çelebi’s conception of Istanbul. In his Seyahatname, Prophet Sulaiman is stated to be the first founder of the city of Constantinople. The place where Sulaiman built his palace is Sarayburnu, the location of Topkapı Palace today. Placing Prophet Sulaiman as the first symbol of worldly power and dominance and the first visionary of architecture and urbanization can be interpreted as the presentation of a particular worldview and a specific historical understanding. In this respect, the preference of the Ottomans for Sarayburnu as their political center assumes a meaning beyond any practical or geographical considerations, rather reflecting a prophetic preference and historical continuity. This resembles the practice of a number of people of various vocations and dispositions to create historical chains that stretch back in time to link themselves to one or another of the prophets.

According to Evliya Çelebi, the second patron of Istanbul was Malik Ruhba’im, the son of Prophet Sulaiman. He also settled at Sarayburnu, added new buildings near and around the palace built by his father, and ruled for 240 years. Such a narrative explains the formative style of Topkapı Palace. As is known, every sultan added new buildings and towers near and around the old buildings, thus expanding the palace. It grew, expanded, and took its final shape in a modest and gradual manner.

The third patron was a non-Muslim named Yanko b. Medyan. By placing Yanko b. Medyan in the place of Byzas, who is considered to be the founder of Byzantium and Constantinople, Evliya Çelebi gives Byzantium a secondary importance, taking it out of the picture.

While Çelebi is narrating these religious, political, and strategic stories, he is doing another remarkable thing. According to him, there were four sultans who ruled over the entire world. The first two were the Prophet Sulaiman and Alexander (İskender) Dhul-Qarnayn (he of the two horns). Both were Muslims. The other two were Yanko b. Medyan and Nebuchadnezzar II (Buhtunnasr) both of whom were followers of false religions. Evliya Çelebi, however, uses the titles of sultan and caliph for all four. In other words, they carried the same titles as the leaders of the Muslim lands and the Ottoman State.

3a- Hilya al-Sa’adah (the physical description of the Prophet Muhammad) and its jeweled cover (Topkapı Palace Museum, H. 2/3880)

3b- Hilya al-Sa’adah (the physical description of the Prophet Muhammad) and its jeweled cover (Topkapı Palace Museum, H. 2/3880)

In addition to his predecessors’ victories against non-believers, Sultan Selim’s achievement of superiority over the Safavids represented the success of the Sunni Muslim world against the Shiite world; the latter had been both a theological and political threat to the former. In respect of the legality and basis of Sultan Selim’s caliphate, this success had a similar, maybe even stronger, effect than previous victories. Historical sources show that Sunnis in Iran and Central Asia looked to Sultan Selim as a Muslim sultan and caliph who would revive the “real” Islam in Iran. The expressions they used for him, like “sultan of the throne of the caliphate and the caliph of Allah and the Prophet,” can be clearly seen in the letters and messages they sent to him before his campaign in Iran, encouraging him to take up a military campaign. There appeared some legends that went even further, establishing a relationship between the Ottoman dynasty and well-known Arab leaders, even purporting Osman Ghazi to have originally been from Medina.

It is of course noteworthy that in compliance with British policies against the Ottoman caliphate, after the last quarter of the nineteenth century Eastern and Western authors anachronistically but emphatically claimed that there was no information in ancient sources about the last Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil, who lived in Egypt, officially transferring his right of caliphate and sacred relics to Sultan Selim. It is remarkable that they also claimed that this information emerged only at a later date, at the end of the eighteenth century, via an Ottoman Armenian diplomat and historian, d’Ohsson (Tosun). In the contemporary sources, the event that served as the basis of the Ottoman sultans’ claim to the caliphate was the ceremony of the oath of allegiance to Sultan Selim in Cairo by Jamal al-Din, the younger son and heir to Sharif Baraka, who lived in the Hejaz. There is another issue which warrants attention from the perspective of reading and interpreting the sources. While trying to understand and interpret Sultan Selim’s caliphate and the caliphates of later sultans, comments were made without taking into account the experiences, tendencies, or customs that had accumulated over time, or the conventions of history writing, or even the theoretical context. This is one of the most important factors in the modern historiography of the caliphate.

4- Aceh ruler Mansur’s letter and its envelope dated 27 March 1850 requesting help from Istanbul against the Netherlands (BOA İ.HR., no. 73/3511) A

4- Aceh ruler Mansur’s letter and its envelope dated 27 March 1850 requesting help from Istanbul against the Netherlands (BOA İ.HR., no. 73/3511) B

5- Harezm ruler Mehmed Emin Bahadır Han’s letter requesting help from Istanbul against Russia (1845-1855) (BOA A.DVN.NMH, no. 43/29)

The historical process since the time of Muawiya brought the caliphate and political authority (the sultanate and even the dynasty) so close to one another that they could be easily associated with each other. In other words, as the dominant political authority naturally introduced the caliphate into the Muslim consciousness, there was no need to mention it under a separate section as the “transfer of caliphate,” as one would expect today. In fact, according to the information found in the sources, scholars told the sultan that he did not need Mutawakkil’s approval to take up the caliphate, as he was already the sultan and the caliph bi-l-irth wa-l-istihqaq (by inheritance and by merit). He was a member of a dynasty that had proved itself by genealogy and deserved the caliphate by virtue of its conquests, practices, and services to Muslims and to the sacred lands, all of which guaranteed justice.

Sultan Selim, who became the servant of Mecca and Medina and who was given the title khadim al-haramayn al-sharifayn (the servant of two sacred places) in sermons delivered at Aleppo and Cairo, was recognized by the rulers of Mecca. Assigned all the titles used for the caliphs in the sources of the era, Selim thus became the legal, “competent,” and “qualified” caliph. Many writers, especially historians, commonly used these titles for Sultan Selim; some of these included titles like “the renovator of religion of the ninth century,” “Allah’s Caliph on Earth,” “the best of the caliphs of the Most Merciful,” “the owner of the great throne of the caliphate,” “caliph of the era in land and sea,” and “Allah’s Caliph in the world.”6 Thus, it seems reasonable to state that the Egyptian Abbasid caliphate, which had lost its political power and even its prestige, disappeared by itself.

6- Iranian Shah Muzafferuddin Shah’s requesting help from Istanbul in 1861 to make peace with the rulers of Kipchak, Hokand, Tashkent, Otrar, Andijan, Turkistan, Merginan, Namangan and Kashgar. (BOA A.DVN.NMH, no. 43/22)

According to Barthold and many scholars who followed him, the emphasis on the Ottoman caliphate developed at the end of eighteenth century within the context of the Russo-Turkish relationship that emerged after the Crimean War. According to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774, the Ottoman State would ascertain and maintain the right of religious guardianship and patronage in a place where it no longer had political authority, just because it held the caliphate. That the legitimacy of the caliphate was acknowledged in an international treaty and thus protected under international law meant the legal recognition and legitimate continuance of the Ottomans’ religious authority over places that were no longer under their political control. As a result, the caliphate remained important, despite all of its politico-religious and financial burdens. In fact, in the following period, Istanbul became a place where Muslims living in regions that had either left Ottoman control or had never been under Ottoman dominance applied for help, shelter, and support. As will be discussed below, from this situation, the Ottoman State tried to derive a new understanding of the caliphate as a protection system for Muslims. Indeed, it was partially successful in this. The establishment of the system of cemaat-i Islamiye (a community of Muslims)7—which was established in the Balkans and Aegean Islands towards the end of the nineteenth century and around the beginning of the twentieth century, and which continued to function up until 1922 (or even arguably up until the abolishment of the caliphate on 3 March 1924)—took place within this context.8

7- Makka al-Mukarrama (Mecca), Madina al-Munawwara (Medina), Quds al-Sharif (Jerusalem), (Mahrusa-i) Istanbul.

Among the quests, solution offers, and programs of modernization period, there are also new sets of thoughts, interpretations, depictions, and applications. Ottoman political center and preeminent ones activated many elements, traditions and concepts for the idea of new center of caliphate and new Istanbul. Some of those concept were completely new ones while some others were the old elements which renewed or assumed new appearances. Among them were the thought of a new geography, the idea of new map, and in connection with them the thought of placing Istanbul at the center. This multi-dimensional attempt supported by the policies of the unity of Islam (Ittihad al-Islam), the classical sources, the cultural language of Islam was also a response to Europe’s and Russia’s efforts to weaken Ottoman caliphate, to turn Istanbul into a weak and isolated city and a capital without beauty and power as well as a response to Orientalist perspective. It was in fact a reconstruction, a defense, and an objection which became politically and ideologically effective. One of its aspects was scientific and intellectual addressing to scholars, bureaucrats, and intellectuals. Its another aspect was emotional trying to increase great community’s and Muslim people’s trust and to reinforce the linking points. This miniature-like painting which was drawn during the period of Sultan Selim III is the product of the idea of establishing a continuous and strong link between Istanbul and the three great, central and sacred cities of Islam. It is a successful application of a subtle idea at the level of painting / visibility. Even though they have a hierarchical structure in ranking, they all seem similar in size, brightness, and representation capacity. One can also establish a hierarchy by reading the painting backwards. Istanbul is not just servant and guard of Jerusalem, Medina and Mecca but also the embodied form of the religion, the system of faith, culture, art, the mode of life, and morality emerged in those cities. From this latter aspect, Istanbul comes first in the order (İ. Kara) (Topkapı Palace Museum, no. 3689/1) (TSM, nr. 3689/1)

The third article of the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca was documented as follows:

The aforementioned people [Muslims living in the Crimea] are from the people of Islam. Because of being the caliph of Muslims and leader of the believers, the aforementioned people are acknowledged to be free and independent nations who can regulate their religious and sectarian matters according to Islamic Sharia in the name of the sultanate.

The seventh and fourteenth articles of this treaty granted Russia the right of guardianship, particularly over the Orthodox community living in the Balkans.

Although this right granted to the Ottoman caliphate was abolished by a treaty signed with Russia in 1783, the sentiment and effects of the caliph’s guardianship over all Muslims continued. The intervention of the Armenian d’Ohsson, who during this period popularized the belief that the caliphate had been transferred by Mutawakkil to Sultan Selim, was connected with the cooperation between the Ottoman State and the states of Sweden and France for whom the author was working. Although, until recent times, it has been a common and reiterated view that d’Ohsson was the first to write about the transfer of the caliphate,9 new research has shown that Ottoman writers wrote about this issue almost a century before d’Ohsson. This error has been corrected.10

Naturally, the problems that emerged as a result of Tanzimat policies were strongly reflected in Istanbul, the center of the caliphate. The state had to acknowledge these problems, which generated new areas of suspicion, distrust, inadequacy, and insecurity.

The following statement is a case in point:

We will not be able to protect this place [Istanbul] with our forces. From now on, this place will protect us. Good management is, however, necessary. Otherwise, European states will not leave us alone. Although Istanbul is a city which all states long to possess, it cannot be divided. If we cannot manage to administer it well, a joint administration [of the European states] will take shape here.

This statement belongs to Mustafa Reşid Pasha.

8- The postcard of Sultan Abdülhamid II, one of the Ottoman sultans who used
    Istanbul most effectively as the center of caliphate. Sultan Abdülhamid II is defined
    on the postcard with the following words: “al-sultan al-muazzam (great sultan) wa
    al-hakan al-azam (greatest ruler) amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers)
    wa khalifat al-muslimin (Muslims’ caliph) sayyiduna and mawlana (our master) al-
    sultan ibn al-sultan (the sultan, son of a sultan) al-ghazi (veteran) Abdulhamid al-
    thani (Abdulhamid II) aazza Allahu saltanatahu (may Allah honor his sultanate) and
    harasa bahjatahu wa mahabbatuhu (and may He protect his happiness and joy)

Some years later, Cevdet Pasha cited this in a briefing he presented to Sultan Abdülhamid,11 stating that Mustafa Reşid Pasha’s ideas were still significant. Cevdet Pasha stated that it would be difficult to protect Istanbul, but that Istanbul itself “would protect them from now on.” On the question of the means and resources by which Istanbul would protect them, his answer was that the city would become highly prized due to its geographical location and the high esteem in which it was held. The city would not allow itself to be captured by any of the great states and it would be impossible for them to divide it up between themselves. (The late period of Ottoman history confirms Reşid Pasha’s comments and predictions).12 The expression “good management” in the text mostly likely refers to success in foreign policy, improvement of financial policy, and maybe the good governance of the non-Muslims living in the country.

9- Abyssinian emperor’s letter dated 5 June 1898 stating that he sent the badge of Muhr-i Süleymani (Solomon’s Seal) to Sultan Abdülhamid II

From what Cevdet Pasha said, it is impossible to determine whether or not this was the whole of the concept of Istanbul in the mind of Reşid Pasha, who secretly recited litanies and prayed every night.13 The following words from Fuad Pasha, another pasha of the Tanzimat period, however, uttered to the British ambassador Canning during the preparation of the Islahat Fermanı (The Reform Edict), explain more clearly the meaning of the statement that, as the center of caliphate, “Istanbul will protect us”:

10- The Afghan, Turkmen, and Indian pilgrims resting on the steps of New Mosque (1908). During the period of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the pilgrims were encouraged to go to
    pilgrimage over Istanbul and meanwhile to visit the tombs, graves, mosques, and dervish lodges in Istanbul and thus to “connect” with Istanbul. This was one of the ways of
    building the idea of Istanbul-Caliphate in the new era. (İ. Kara)

The Ottoman Empire is based on four principles that make its management and development possible, if they are fulfilled; if one of these is missing, then it is not possible to manage the city. Here are those four principles: the millet-i İslamiye (Muslim nation), devlet-i Türkiyye (Turkish statehood), selatin-i Osmaniye (Ottoman dynasty), and the payitaht-ı İstanbul (capital city Istanbul).14

When the audience of this statement is considered, then this not only indicates the vital issues that were being insisted upon by an Ottoman diplomat and his state, but also an expression of strategic areas, namely the religion of Islam, Turkish statehood, the Ottoman dynasty, and the capital city which the great states, in particular Britain, wanted to weaken or totally destroy. It is worth noting here that the caliphate was not included in this list, most likely intentionally. These strategic areas were of the utmost importance to both the Ottomans and the Europeans right up to the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey. Focusing on this importance, and on which of these strategic areas were eventually taken away (or otherwise lost), forces one to reevaluate the entire history of Turkish modernization.

One of the most important internal aspects of Tanzimat policies was that they were based on musavat (legal and political equality) between Muslims and non-Muslims. Although Ottoman state officials accepted this rule under a great deal of pressure from the European states, they also managed to derive social solutions and a political policy from this rule that could function under extremely difficult circumstances. This political approach, known as İttihad-ı Osmani (vahdet-i Osmaniye; pan-Ottomanism or Ottoman unity), aimed to slow the social disintegration of the Ottoman State and to weaken nationalistic and separatist movements among non-Muslim subjects. On the other hand, it was also expected that such a policy would create a “modern” national identity and concept of citizenship for Ottoman subjects.

11- The last sürre (gifts sent to Mecca and Medina) procession which reached Mecca in 1915. Sürre processions carried great significance for the influence of caliphate. (Topkapı Palace Museum, no. 77/610)

The successes of the İttihad-ı Osmani policies cannot be underestimated. However, when the Ottoman State found that it could not successfully restrain the separatist movements within its territories, particularly in the Balkans, it stepped back and switched to a policy of ittihad-ı İslam (vahdet-i İslamiye; pan-Islamism or the unity of Muslims). This entailed a narrower conception that would lead to the creation of a new national identity and concept of citizenship. Even though the İttihad-ı Osmani approach was not completely set aside with this new policy, the ideals of sustaining the Ottoman political structure, maintaining unity, and tightening social ties between Turkish and non-Turkish Muslim subjects were brought to the fore. With this change in emphasis, the Ottomans were thenceforth to pursue the quest for a modern nation and a new type of citizen on the basis of religion/Islam. İttihad-ı İslam, an expansive political, religious, and cultural movement, was envisaged as a response to imperialism and, to a certain degree, an attempt to reduce European pressure upon the state. By means of this new policy focus, which began to be implemented in the early 1870s, it became possible for the first time for the Ottoman State to establish continuous, diverse, and high-level connections with Muslims outside its borders and in other Muslim states. İttihad-ı İslam was also strengthened by the urgent need of those Muslims who were under the thumb of colonialism for such a political movement and the improvement it offered in terms of communication and interconnection.

It has become more apparent today that with Sultan Abdülhamid’s persistent, long-term, multi-dimensional, and sustainable policies, the İttihad-i Islam movement came to be a great opportunity for both the caliphate and Istanbul. It can be said that during a historical era in which its international power was generally weakened, the state managed to increase its services and influence in the Muslim world to unprecedented levels and once again to develop Istanbul into a modern political, religious, and scholarly center.15

There were many institutions, places, customs, and even acts of worship that were mobilized, reshaped, or otherwise utilized in the İttihad-ı İslam approach. These included scholars and Sufis, with dervish lodges, sheikhs, dervishes, and their disciples. Pilgrimage and publications, insignia and gifts all became part of İttihad-ı İslam’s purview. New attention was devoted to sacred places, in particular Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem,16 and both the number and functions of charitable institutions were increased. Tombs and holy sites were repaired and restored, as were railways, ports, hospitals, and military headquarters. However, the most important issues were the strengthening and diversification of the institution of the caliphate and the symbolism that developed around it, as well as the positioning of Istanbul as the center of the caliphate in this context and of the political, religious, and cultural policies of the day. The policies of İttihad-ı İslam were in a way a combination of endeavors around the caliphate and Istanbul. The scholars, sheikhs, dervishes, journalists, intellectuals, travelers, students, politicians (whether in or out of power), and pilgrims from all over the Muslim world were coming and going, settling and seeking refuge in Istanbul, thus establishing new relations and improving existing ones.

It is worth mentioning the brief commentary of the British historian Toynbee, who followed the issue of the caliphate and Istanbul:

There were at least three motives—the loss of their own former Muslim sovereigns, the substitution of infidel Governments, and the menace of future aggressive national movements among the non-Muslim majorities surrounding them—which might incline the Indian, Russian and Chinese Muslims to look towards the Ottoman Caliphate for moral support and practical organization. “Union is strength and the Caliphate brings union” was a suggestion which, at this time, was bound to make an impression on their minds; and here Fortune favoured ‘Abdu’l-Hamīd in two ways.

In the first place, she put into his hands at the psychological moment all those mechanical means of communication which the West had recently invented and had disseminated over the world:

steamships, railways, telegraphs, telephones and the daily press. After the Russians, for their own political ends, had built their strategic railways across Transcaucasia and Transcaspia, Muslim pilgrims from as far afield as Afghanistan and Northern Persia began to take steamer at Batum and travel to the Holy Cities of the Hijaz via Constantinople, where they could see the Caliph’s palace on the shore of the Bosphorus as they passed. In the Indian Ocean, British steamship companies, eager to earn dividends by doing a great passenger trade at a small profit per head, succeeded in vastly increasing the annual volume of Muslim pilgrims from India to the same Holy Cities—shrines of which the Ottoman Caliph was the undisputed and not ineffective guardian.

Towards the end of his reign, ‘Abdu’l-Hamīd further facilitated the pilgrim traffic and advertised his own position as Caliph by building the Hijaz Railway from Damascus to Medina—a triumph of engineering…. If ‘Abdu’l-Hamīd had lived a century earlier, his Caliphate policy would have been an impracticable dream, since the physical means for a rapprochement between the far-flung extremities of the Islamic world would not have been at his disposal. The modern applied science of the West placed those means in his hands.17

What Abdurresid Ibrahim, an influential intellectual Russian Muslim journalist, wrote in the early years of the Second Constitutional Era is only one of many texts that demonstrate how deep and wide the effects of Sultan Abdulhamid’s policy of İttihad-ı Islam were. This policy, which he executed through many instruments, impacted the institution of the caliphate in important ways, and raised Istanbul to a central position.

Some thirty years ago, during the caliphate of Sultan Abdulaziz, in our homeland Russia there were many people who did not know who Sultan Abdulaziz was. When they prayed, they would pray saying “Abdulaziz the Sultan of the Greeks.” The office of the caliphate was in nobody’s mind, whereas today one cannot find even a child who does not know the names of those who have occupied the office of the caliphate. When the name of Sultan Muhammed Khan V [Sultan Mehmed Reşad] is mentioned, the office of the caliphate, the capital of the Muslims, center of religion, and their unity come to mind.18

12- Istanbul, Mecca, Medina: In this painting drawn by Mehmed Ali Efendi in 1905 and given to his father-in-law Şeyhülislam Mustafa Sabri Efendi as a gift during the period
    of Sultan Abdülhamid, the sultan’s understanding of service and the perception of Sacred places is reflected. The painting also tells the Ottomans’ perception of universe
    and view to the world. The Ka’bah (Mecca) placed at the center of the universe and the Prophet’s Mosque (Medina) accompanying it. Behind them Yıldız / Hamidiye
    Mosque and Istanbul. On their right side, there are the columns of Yıldız Palace / Center of the caliphate with a small Qur’an reading desk underneath them.

The conception of space/geography—which was centered around the caliphate, and therefore around Istanbul, during the period of Sultan Abdulhamid II—also creates a perfectly designed, realistic, and effective scene. In this regard, Numan Kamil’s book is a highly representative and exemplary text; it begins with the statement “The Ottoman lands are the cradle of humanity.” Here, the author wants to establish a particular vision of time and place in his treatise to demonstrate that the lands and the religious, cultural, and civilizational basins where human experience had unfolded since Adam were all under the rule of Ottomans/Istanbul. This would naturally give them the ability, capacity, and the right of caliphate (religious representation) and sultanate (political power). When those lands which were within the borders of the Ottoman State and ruled from Istanbul are noted, and the people and great incidents which made those lands honorable and sacred are identified, one arrives at a long list, including: Jeddah (where Eve was sent down to earth), Ka‘ba-Mecca (the first place of worship on earth, home to Prophets Adam and Muhammad), Mount Ararat (Prophet Noah), Urfa (Prophet Abraham), places where civilizations flourished (the basins of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates), Yemen (where Seyl-i Arim, or the flood of Arin, took place), Mount Sinai (Prophet Musa), Palestine (Prophet Sulaiman, Prophet Jesus), Anatolia and Egypt (the land of Prophets and philosophers), the Persian Gulf (Zoroaster), and the places of the seven wonders of the world. Numan Kamil then continues:

No matter from which corner we look at the map of the Ottoman lands, we observe that every corner has been the source and origin of civilization, prosperity, majesty and power. The proofs are Al-i Himyer, Kahtan, Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Keldan, Asur, Madi [Meds], the State of Furs [Persia], Alexander the Great, the Abyssinians, the Jews, ‘Amalika, the Phoenicians, the city of Tedmur, the Ghassanids, Betalise, Seljuks, Sasanids [Persians], the Greek states located along the coast of the Mediterranean, and Carthage, Me’rib, Sebe and other places of prosperous states...

With the strong sources and glorious states [introduced by Islam], the light of Islam was scattered through the horizons of the lands of civilization that had been divided between the rule of the Romans [Byzantine] and Persians. As is well known, because those two states inherited the knowledge and civilization of the nations that had lived before them and established their rule in place of the aforementioned nations, they benefited from and influenced the most important places in the world, as well as managing to overcome those who were more superior.19

The quest for a new regime, which first emerged through the efforts of the Young Ottomans, carried some characteristics that weakened the institution of the caliphate. The two basic institutions of the constitutional administration (i.e., the parliament and the constitution) had essentially originated from political and conceptual grounds that aimed to limit the rights and authority of the sultan-caliph. They anticipated establishing a mechanism to achieve this aim. During the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, opposition movements arose at the hands of the Young Turks and members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). These movements were more organized than their predecessors and which were often based abroad. They not only pursued the establishment of a constitutional regime, but also made attacks directed at the caliph-sultan himself, the institution of the caliphate-sultanate (the literature of despotism), and, at a symbolic level, Istanbul. It is remarkable that these developments coincided with the Arab caliphate movements and attempts to find a new center for the caliphate outside of Istanbul. Given the serious efforts of Britain to this end, such movements cannot be regarded as mere coincidence. Even though the Unionists did not offer to put an end to the central position of Istanbul, their multi-dimensional and heavy opposition strengthened and legitimized the quest for a new center of the caliphate outside Istanbul.

Although Sultan Abdulhamid took action to disable the opposition movements and to support and strengthen the Ottoman caliphate and Istanbul, the opposition ultimately proved victorious.20 What the sultan, who followed the worrying incidents that took place after the declaration of the Second Constitutional Period from Yıldız Palace, said to his aide on 31 March is instructive, despite its stark nature:

Chief Clerk! If one looks at the newspaper attacks on the sultanate and caliphate, it seems that the sultanate and caliphate will have no significance from now on, I think I will be hatemü’l-mülük/khatam al-muluk (the last sultan-caliph).21

Sultan Abdulhamid II was a powerful and foresighted sultan-caliph and statesman who could follow and evaluate international politics with subtlety and precision. He foresaw that the Ottoman caliphate and Istanbul—in the hands of the members of the CUP, who had been educated in the schools he had established—was destined to fall. It is not possible to determine the psychological state the sultan was in when he received the devastating news at Beylerbeyi Palace in 1918, as he approached his death and the caliphate its demise at the end of World War I. The Ottoman sultanate and Istanbul did, however, make one final grand act of resistance in the form of a fatwa of jihad (a religious opinion enjoining all Muslims to join the holy war). Despite everything, the first reactions and sentiments the fatwa instigated were promising. However, the center, which was supposed to marshal those reactions and produce results, had been divided and was now very weak.

On 1 January 1920, the sixth article of the Müdafaa-i Hukuk Grubu (The Group for the Defense of Rights) was written as follows: “provided that the independence and safety of Istanbul, the seat of the caliphate of Islam and the government and center of the Ottoman government are protected, the straits can be opened to international trade and transportation.”

The fourth article of the Misak-ı Milli (National Pact), declared on 17 February 1920 in Istanbul by the Meclis-i Mebusan (Parliament), and later accepted by the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) without any change on 18 July 1920, was written as follows: “Istanbul, which is the seat of the caliphate of Islam and the capital of the Ottoman government and central Ottoman government, should be protected from all forms of prejudice.”22

A month later, on 17 March 1920, another declaration was issued, this time addressing the entire Muslim world and published with the signature of Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk). As seen in the following lines, it maintained a focus on Istanbul and the caliphate.

In Istanbul, which is the highest seat of the sacred caliphate of Islam, Meclis-i Mebusan (the Parliament), was invaded, and all official and military institutions were seized formally and forcefully. Rather than the Ottoman sultanate, this violation is particularly directed against the caliphate, which is regarded by the Muslim world as their only point of support for their liberty and independence. This intervention, which was undertaken by the allies as their last resort to break the spiritual strength of Muslims, who continued their fight for liberty and independence in Asia and Africa, had the caliphate as its target. However, the love for the Prophet and the liberty of Islam, which has survived for 1,300 years, will no doubt be protected forever from disappearance.23

The Turkish Grand National Assembly, which was opened with prayers and recitations of the Qur’an and Sahih al-Bukhari (one of the most authoritative compilations of Prophetic traditions), and in whose seats the heirs of the Ottoman State sat humbly, abolished the caliphate after the Treaty of Lausanne and ended Istanbul’s status as capital city.


1 The relationship between the Orthodox Church and Istanbul has long been of interest in the Christian world. In reverence to the Orthodox Church and in the name of protecting the Slavic people, the famous Russian novelist Dostoyevsky wrote in his memoires in June 1876 that: “Sooner or later Istanbul must be ours.” He then continues as follows: “Istanbul and the Golden Horn are the most important political centers of the world… Istanbul is a unique, independent and great city with the heritage of a strong and ancient civilization.” Dostoyevsky reiterated his views a year later (see. F. M. Dostoyevski, Bir Yazarın Günlüğü, tr. Kayhan Yükseler, II vol., Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2005, vol. 1, p. 410; vol. 2, p. 718).

2 See V. V. Barthold, “Halife ve Sultan”, tr. Mehmed Emin Resulzâde, in Hilafet Risâleleri, ed. İsmail Kara, Istanbul: Klasik, 2003, vol. 3, p. 302.

3 Sheikh İsmail Efendi al-Safâyihî, Iqaz al-Ikhwan li Dasias al-Ad’a’i wa ma Yaqtadi Hal al-Zaman, Istanbul 1331, p. 58; ibid., tr. Müjdat Uluçam, in Hilafet Risâleleri, ed. İsmail Kara, Istanbul: Klasik, 2004, vol. 4, p. 85.

4 These fetihnames, which were published in Feridun Bey’s journal Münşeât, have been translated and published with notes by Ahmet Ateş: “İstanbul’un Fethine Dair Fatih Sultan Mehmed Tarafından Gönderilen Mektublar ve Bunlara Gelen Cevablar”, TD, 1952, vol. 4, no. 7, pp. 11-50.

5 About Tursun Bey’s usage of the title Padişah-ı zıllullah (the Sultan, the Shadow of Allah) in respect to Sultan Mehmed II and the title hazreti hilafet-penahî (shelter of the caliphate) in respect to Sultan Bayezid II even before transfer of the caliphate to the Ottoman sultan Yavuz Selim, see Târîh-i Ebü’l-Feth, ed. M. Tulum, Istanbul: İstanbul Fetih Cemiyeti, 1977, p. 10, 190. The title emiru’l-müminîn (commander of the believers) is also used for the sultan in the endowment deeds of Fatih. In this respect, see also: Faruk Sümer, “Yavuz Selim Halifeliği Devraldı mı?”, TTK Belleten, 1992, vol. 56, no. 217, pp. 675-701.

6 Even though Barthold’s interpretation includes some differences, it is important to mention it in order to show the relationship between the caliphate and political power: “it was opposed to the Mongols’ idea of hereditary sovereignty as well as to the idea of Egypt’s caliphate, and the idea of Allah’s Will being the direct source of the ruler’s authority. In this respect, the notion of the sultan of Islam being united with the notions of imam and the caliph, earning the right for such a caliphate was determined by the degree of the sultan’s authority and character of his governance. It also attached significance to the connection between the sultan and the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, although such a connection was not considered one of the necessary requirements of being the caliph. The best representative of such a conception of caliphate was Shahrukh, the son of Tamerlane (fifteenth century). The idea of the caliphate of the Ottoman sultans which emerged during Selim I’s conquests in Iran and Egypt is similar to the caliphate of Shahrukh and the others but has no relationship with the caliphate of the Abbasids in Egypt.” (“Halife ve Sultan”, vol. 3, p. 328).

7 For general information on this, see: Ayşe Nükhet Adıyeke, “Yunanistan Sınırları İçinde Bir Azınlık Örgütlenmesi: Cemaat-ı İslamiyeler,” Çağdaş Türkiye Tarihi Araştırmaları Dergisi, 1992, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 265-288.

8 With regard to the years of the Second Meşrutiyet, particularly during years of peace, for how Muslims living in the regions that had been detached from the autonomy of the Ottoman State, especially in the Balkans and North Africa, wanted to use their right of caliphate, and for how this policy was reflected in international agreements, see: İlhami Yurdakul, “Şeyhulislâm Dürrîzâde Abdullah Beyefendi ve Şeyhulislâm Medenî Mehmet Efendi’nin Hilafet Hakkında Muhtıraları”, Dîvân: İlmî Araştırmalar, 1999, no. 6, pp. 235-248.

9 Note Barthold’s statements: “The theory of transfer of the caliphate by one of the last Egyptian Abbasid Caliphs Mutawakkil to Sultan Selim was developed by the Ottoman Turkish Armenian [d’Ohsson] in the second half of the 18th century. In this regard, the notion that the Turkish Sultan, as a civil ruler, had spiritual authority over all Muslims, even if they were not under his governance, was developed even at that time.” (“Halife ve Sultan”, vol. 3, p. 328).

10 In this respect, see: Feridun M. Emecen, “Hilafetin Devri Meselesi”, Osmanlı’nın İzinde: Prof. Dr. Mehmet İpşirli Armağanı, ed. Feridun M. Emecen, İshak Keskin and Ali Ahmetbeyoğlu, Istanbul: Timaş Yayınları, 2013, vol. 1, pp. 561-574; Tufan Buzpınar, “Osmanlı Hilafeti Hakkında Bazı Yeni Tesbitler ve Mülahazalar”, Türk Kültürü İncelemeleri Dergisi, 2004, no. 10, pp. 1-38.

11 Quoted from BOA, YEE, 18/553/588/93/38 Christoph K. Neumann, Araç Tarih Amaç Tanzimat - Tarih-i Cevdet’in Siyasi Anlamı, tr. M. Arun, Istanbul: Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfı, 2000, pp. 143-144. In this context, Mustafa Armağan’s account of Marx’s views on Istanbul is worth mentioning: “Marx, a writer for the New-York Daily Tribune at the time, talked frequently about both Istanbul and Üsküdar. In his commentary dated 29 July 1853 he speaks about Istanbul as the ‘Golden Bridge’: ‘Constantinople is the golden bridge thrown between the West and the East, and Western civilization cannot, like the sun, go round the world without passing that bridge; and it cannot pass it without a struggle with Russia.’ ...It seems that in the eyes of Marx, Istanbul still was the center of the world. ...On the other hand, Marx’s article dated 16 February 1854 is directly related to the strategic significance of Istanbul: ‘The fortification of Constantinople,’ he says, ‘would be... the most important step the Turks could take. Constantinople once fortified [...] the independence of Turkey, or of any power holding that capital, would require no foreign guarantee. There is no town easier to be fortified than Constantinople.’” (See Mustafa Armağan, “Marx da Osmanlının Kanatları Altında”, Turkuaz [Sunday supplement for Zaman], 27 June 2004, p. 8). Mustafa Armağan implies that he quoted these citations from F. Engels, Doğu Sorunu, compiled by Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling, tr. Yurdakul Fincancı, Ankara: Sol Yayınları, 1977.

12 In 1882, when Abdülhak Hamit Tarhan was the consul in Golos, the British navy bombarded Alexandria. Upon this, the British consul Longworth told him: “Starting today, Britain’s friendly politics towards Turkey have ended. Because we control the Indian route, Istanbul has no significance for us after today. Russia can invade it whenever it wants.” (See Abdülhak Hâmid’in Hatıraları, ed. İ. Enginün, Istanbul: Dergâh Yayınları, 1994, p. 146).

13 “In the evening we came to Küçüksu and broke our fast together. We performed [our] ablutions and then the evening prayer. Every evening [Reşid] Pasha recited his regular prayers [remembrances-evrad] which were not known by others.” (Cevdet Pasha, Tezâkir, ed. C. Baysun, Ankara : Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1967, vol. 4, p. 69).

14 Cevdet Paşa, Tezâkir, edited by C. Baysun, Ankara : Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1986, vol. 1, p. 85.
After this citation, Cevdet Pasha offers the following assessment: “This statement by Fuad Pasha is correct, but when Muslims, who had been the dominant nation for so many centuries, rejected [in the Tanzimat and Islahat reform edicts] a state completely equal to [that of] the non-Muslims, has not one of the four principles [the nation of Islam] been destroyed? This is the issue.”
For a similar statement by Sultan Abdülhamid, see: Abdülhamid, Devlet ve Memleket Görüşlerim, ed. A. Çetin and R. Yıldız, Istanbul: Çığır Yayınları, 1976, pp. 166-167, tr. A. Berktay, Istanbul 2006, p. 233.

15 This policy, which extended much beyond the borders of the Ottoman State, also created certain burdens and pressures for the state. In the words of Hüseyin Kazım Kadri, “Everybody knows that the one who created the issue of the caliphate and used it against the British as a threat was Abdulhamid, whom we call the twentieth century’s müceddid (renewer of religion). This theory of caliphate was a reaction to ’imperialism,’ a creation of Europe in the last century. Because it was given a more contemporary form, we saw that this theory had somewhat important effects inside and outside the state. However, the British in particular showed concerns about it and worried that the caliphate might, one day, create a point of unification among Muslims. The caliphate, which seemed to be a strength, in reality turned into the most significant cause of weakness for the Ottoman government. And the public demonstrations in favor of Turks organized in Egypt, North Africa, and India provoked our enemies and resulted in incurable problems for us.” (Şeyh Muhsin-i Fânî [Hüseyin Kâzım Kadri], 10 Temmuz İnkılabı ve Netâyici-Türkiye Inkırazının Sâikleri: Makedonya, Ermenistan ve Suriye Meseleleri, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Orhaniye, 1336, p. 186).

16 The book written by Muhammad Amin al-Makki and published during the reign of Abdulhamid II under the title Hulefâ-yı İzâm-ı Osmâniyye Hazerâtının Haremeyn-i Şerifeyndeki Âsâr-ı Mebrûre ve Meşkûre-i Hümâyunlarından Bâhis Tarihî Bir Eserdir ( Istanbul: Matbaa-i Osmaniye, 1318) consists of a list which is important in this respect. (Most of this book has been prepared and published by Zeynep Süslü in Hilafet Risâleleri, ed. İsmail Kara, Istanbul: Klasik, 2002, vol. 2, pp. 261-280).

17 Arnold J. Toynbee and Kenneth P. Kirkwood, Turkey (London: Ernest Benn, 1926), pp. 173-74.

18 Abdürreşid İbrahim, “Ahvâl-i Müslimîn ve Ulema Hakkında”, Sırât-ı Müstakîm, 1328/1326, vol. 4, no. 87, p. 153.

19 Numan Kâmil, İslâmiyet ve Devlet-i Aliyye-i Osmâniye Hakkında Doğru Bir Söz, tr. Zeki, Istanbul: Tahir Bey Matbaası, 1316; ibid., eds. İsmail Kara and Elif Ay, in Hilafet Risâleleri içinde, ed. İsmail Kara, Istanbul: Klasik, 2002, vol. 1, p. 356, 358 (Part of this booklet is provided in the appendices of this article).

20 In the memoir attributed to the sultan, the following statement is mentioned: “the offer made by my vizier, Küçük Said Pasha, looked strange to me: Bursa will be our residence and will be given the title of the center of our Empire. It is impossible to realize this vision. Our honorable past connects us to Istanbul. Our historical mosques and sacred relics are in this city. Moreover, it will cost millions of liras to transfer the state offices and officials to this city. On the other hand, it is a fact that Istanbul sits on a gunpowder keg. Therefore, Said Pasha’s offer should be seriously considered. What can we do if the Russians come to the walls of Istanbul once again? They would invade the city, and this would mean the end of everything. Because when we lose Istanbul, we also lose the caliphate and the caliphate would certainly be taken over by Arabs.” (See Sultan Abdülhamid, Siyasî Hatıratım, Istanbul: Dergâh Yayınları, 1999, pp. 53-54; for a comparison also see: Sultan II. Abdülhamid’in Sürgün Günleri Hususi Doktoru Atıf Hüseyin Bey’in Hatıratı, ed. M. Metin Hülagü, Istanbul: Pan Yayıncılık, 2003, p. 242).

21 Ali Cevad Bey, İkinci Meşrutiyet’in İlânı ve Otuzbir Mart Hadisesi, ed. F. R. Unat, Ankara : Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1960, p. 47.

22 After the declaration of the Misak-ı Milli in Istanbul the Vakit newspaper translated and published an article by an Istanbul reporter of the Lodon Times (18 February 1336 [18 February 1920], p. 2). A paragraph on Istanbul from this article is worth quoting in full: “As for Istanbul, the dignified class in Turkey see it as the only city where one can reside, whereas only this class politically rules over the country. This class is ready to take all kinds of risks to stay in Istanbul. Under the strict control of Europe, Istanbul should be left to Turks. If Istanbul were to be left to the Turks, the number of those who would sacrifice their lives for the protection of the other lands of the country [other lands which will be outside the borders of the country] will be decreased.” (quoted by Mustafa Budak, İdealden Gerçeğe: Misak-ı Millî’den Lozan’a Dış Politika, Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2002, p. 520).

23 See appendix for the whole text of this declaration.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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