The Friday public procession of the Ottoman sultans was a symbol of the Ottoman state and its sovereignty; this procession included certain religious, political, and formal characteristics. Friday processions were held regularly in Istanbul every Friday for 480 years; this began with the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and ended with the abolishment of the Caliphate in 1924—that is, they occurred several thousands of times. As the Ottoman sultan traveled to and from the mosque for Friday prayers on horseback, in a ceremonial style that was known as selamlık resm-i alisi, he attracted the intense interest of residents of Istanbul as well as visitors to the city.
The principal and distinguishing features of this sultanate ceremony were that it was performed regularly every Friday, that it was watched by everyone in the city, local and foreign, Muslim and Non-Muslim, and finally, that many complaints and petitions were submitted to the government during this procession. The minting of coins and the Friday sermon read in the sovereign’s name were the two principal signs of authority in Muslim states; both were carefully observed. The sultans usually performed their Friday prayer together with the public in the largest and most famous mosque of the region; the accompanying sermon was always delivered in the sultan’s name.
There is not much information about how the Friday prayer ceremony was performed in the fifteenth century. Concerning the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, however, we do know that the sultans would perform their Friday prayers at the large mosques that they had commissioned, such as Beyazid, Süleymaniye, the Blue Mosque, Eyüp Sultan, and Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia was an especially important place for the Ottoman sultan’s Friday processions; this was not only the symbol of the Ottomans’ successful conquest of Constantinople. This mosque was also important because Sultan Mehmed II had performed the first Friday prayer after the conquest there and it was in close proximity to Topkapı Palace. Eyüp Mosque was also particularly important for the sultans’ Friday prayer and ceremonial procession. The sultans would usually go to this mosque on horse and return to the palace via the Golden Horn by boat.
In addition to the mosques mentioned above, starting from the late eighteenth century the sultans began to perform their Friday prayers at Karaköy Mosque and other mosques near the water, such as Tophane, Kılıç Ali Paşa, Nusretiye, Fındıklı Molla Çelebi, Dolmabahçe, Beşiktaş Sinan Paşa, Ortaköy Mecidiye, and Yıldız Hamidiye mosques; they also used a number of mosques in Üsküdar, such as Mihrimah Sultan, Atik Valide, İskele Valide Sultan, Ayazma, and Selimiye mosques.
Interesting and charming ceremonies and events would take place not only on the sultan’s way to and from the mosque, but also in places where the procession halted. While the ceremonial protocol was recorded in detail in the official Ottoman records, the Ottoman chronicles provide information about the events that took place during these processions.
Scholars, military personnel, and civil servants would put on their uniforms for the Friday procession. On Fridays and public holidays any potholes or other problems with the road on the sultan’s route would be fixed. As the sultan usually traveled to mosques that were quite a distance away, high-ranking state officials would come, one by one, to discuss matters of state.
On February 17, 1595, when Mehmed III was going to Süleymaniye Mosque to perform the Friday prayer “in accordance with the customs and traditions of the Ottoman family,” state functionaries approached him to discuss matters of state business. Mustafa Selaniki, a historian of the period, complains that this aspect of the Friday procession ceremony had not existed during the reign of Sultan Murad III. During the reign of Sultan Mehmed III, however, the practice was reintroduced and state functionaries on their horses would approach the sultan as he was on his way to Süleymaniye Mosque, one by one, according to their ranks, to discuss military expeditions and the needs of the army.1
The safety and security of the roads for the Friday procession was ensured by the Janissary agha and the Janissaries under his command. The Janissary agha could convey important problems related to the military to the sultan during or after the procession. Foreign dignitaries would also follow the procession with great attention. If the sultan missed the procession from time to time due to some excuse or because he fell under the influence of palace officials, he would come under heavy criticism; in fact, this is what happened with Sultan Murad III.
The sultan’s procession to the Friday prayers on horseback remained customary until the second half of the nineteenth century, when it became more common for the ruler to travel by car; during the reign of Abdulhamid II, going by car became the established form of travel.
The most important issue concerning the Friday processions in Istanbul, and one that deserves greater attention, is that during the procession members of the public were able to deliver their petitions and complaints to the sultan verbally or in writing. In fact, according to Islamic civil law, the public’s ability to deliver their requests and complaints directly to the sultan was particularly important to the relationship between the ruler and his subjects. Prophet Muhammad’s decision to make himself readily available to the people became the ideal for later Muslim rulers. Ottoman rulers were, however, put under strict protection to ensure their safety, which greatly restricted their relationship with their subjects. Thus, the sultan’s procession through public spaces for Friday and festival prayers or hunting parties and short outings became an opportunity for the public to see the sultan.
There are clear references to the matter of petitions received from the public during the Friday processions in the treatise written by Koçi Bey, which was presented to Sultan İbrahim in the seventeenth century. This treatise states that the sultan ordered the kapıcılar kethudası to collect the petitions; the sultan would then read them one by one and send the petitions to the grand vizier. The sultan would also send the grand vizier an official mandate to find the petitioners so that he could listen to their concerns.2 Typically, the grand vizier was responsible for responding to the contents of the petitions that were submitted to the sultan during Friday processions. Negligence of this duty tended to elicit a harsh reaction from the sultan.
The public’s complaints were usually about the failures of the administration or unjust treatment that they may have experienced. A Spaniard who had been prisoner in Turkey in the 1550s stated in his memoires that people who felt they had been unjustly treated by the Dîvân-ı Hümâyun (Imperial Council) or that an unfair decision had been delivered by the qadis looked forward to Fridays; they would wait along the procession route, and tie their petitions to the end of a cane. The people were generally satisfied that the sultan indeed received their petitions and enacted corrections when he felt a wrongdoing had occurred. Additionally, we also have the testimony of a German, one Reverend Stephan Gerlach, who witnessed some of the Friday processions of Sultan Selim II, starting with the one held on January 1, 1574. Gerlach described the stunning regalia of the sultan and the people around him, and the people’s interest in the procession:
On January 1, 1574, the Turkish ruler went to the mosque on his horse. The sword hanging on his belt and his stirrups were made of gold and adorned with many diamonds. His kneepads were covered with gold and his shoes were embellished with precious stones. He had a white turban and was wearing embroidered clothing. His horse was also decorated with gold and precious stones.
Gerlach relates what he saw on June 1, 1576, as follows:
The sultan, with Mehmed (Sokullu) Pasha accompanying him on his right, went to Sultan Selim Mosque on horse; on his return, Piyale Pasha was on his right. Christians wanted to present their petitions, but the Janissaries, kapıcılar, and other officials did not let them get near the sultan, rather sending them away.3
Gerlach also stated that the public, which was waiting in two rows, consisted of Muslims, Christians and Jews who were shouting: “Long live the Sultan! Be Victorious!” He goes on to record that some of the public waited for the sultan to pass in front of them with petitions in their hands, and that as the sultan passed, the sultan’s guards collected them. Gerlach stated that everyone, whether Muslim, Jew, or Christian, took advantage of these Friday processions. Again in September 1711, the Swedish diplomat Gustav Celsing, who had come to Istanbul to learn Turkish, got past the Janissaries and presented his complaint about Nevşehirli Damad İbrahim Pasha to Sultan Ahmed III, who was on his way to Friday prayer. In the nineteenth century Charles C. Frankland dealt with the same issue in his work entitled Presenting a Petition to the Sultan. The grand vizier, the Janissary agha and some other high-ranking government officials about whom the people frequently complained prevented the public from reaching the sultan during the Friday procession by stationing their men in certain places along the way. In such cases, people showed the sultan that they had complaints by burning a piece of cloth or a reed mat tied to a stick (this practice was known as hasır yakmak). Officials who were directly under the sultan’s command would take these complaints to the sultan. Beginning from the late eighteenth century, a more practical method started to be used to present the public’s complaints to the sultan. Officials from the palace would walk between the rows in the mosque to collect the petitions, preparing summaries of them, referred to as maruzat-ı rikabiyye, and noting down the sultan’s orders in connection with the matter in question.
The Friday processions were also an opportunity for those who were planning to assassinate the sultan or create turmoil. In fact, a failed assassination attempt was made against Sultan Selim III on July 10, 1792 in Hagia Sophia, and another one was made against Abdulhamid II on July 21, 1905 in front of Hamidiye Mosque.
Sultan Abdulhamid II is one of the sultans about whose Friday processions we have the most detailed information. From the time of his ascension to the throne in 1876 until he moved to Yıldız Place in 1877, and until the construction of Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque in 1886, he performed his prayers at the mosques that were in the vicinity of the palace, such as Beşiktaş Sinan Paşa, Dolmabahçe, Beşiktaş Şazeli Dergahı, Teşvikiye, and Ortaköy Büyük Mecidiye mosques; an official procession would be held along the way and at these mosques. After the construction of Hamidiye Mosque in 1886, the sultan performed his Friday prayer there, with a few exceptions, and held the selamlık resm-i alisi (High Procession Ceremony) before or after the prayer.
The selamlık resm-i alisi of this period had certain aspects that are worth mentioning, such as the way in which they were performed, the foreign dignitaries who attended them, and the interest and attendance of visitors; in addition, the way in which these processions were carried out contributed to the aura of magnificence of the Ottoman state and the legitimacy of the sultan, as well as matters of safety and security. During the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, a variety of people from the palace, the sultan’s family, and palace servants described these processions in almost exactly the same way, with only minor differences. One of these witnesses was Tahsin Pasha (d. 1910), the Başkâtip of the Mabeyn-i Humayun who was in charge of these ceremonies and attended them himself many times.4 Moreover, the memories and observations reported by the sultan’s daughter, Ayşe Sultan (b. 1886 – d. 1960), who was very knowledgeable about these processions, provides particularly reliable information about the manners and etiquette appropriate to the ceremony, as she was in charge of these aspects.
The most remarkable observations about the practice and magnificence of these Friday processions held in Hamidiye Mosque were made by foreign ambassadors and delegates during the reign of Abdulhamid II. Even though these accounts contain some biased observations and misinterpretations of the ceremonies, we can also see that they contain some subtleties. Although many such examples could be cited, the observations of the wife of Max Muller, an English member of parliament and author of a book about Turkey, are particularly important for the details she recorded about the Friday processions. She explained that everyone who attended the ceremony, male and female, wore various kinds of opulent headgear. She also described in detail how in addition to the men, there were ladies with white head covers from the middle and lower levels of the society; this latter group came to the ceremony, holding their children’s hands. Mrs. Muller expressed her amazement at the ladies who came and attended the procession in their cars. She stated that the applause from the people was very different and more sincere than the ear-ringing applause of the Britons, the Swedish “rah rah,” the German “hoch,” and the Italian’s “viva.” She vividly describes how the sultan leaves Yıldız Palace, following the soldiers and the other personnel who were in charge of the ceremony; these people, in their dazzling uniforms, took their places and the sultan turned his head towards them with dignity as he passed in front of them; Mrs. Muller tells us how the sultan got out of his car as soon as he entered the yard of the mosque and entered the place that had been reserved for him.5
Sultan Abdulhamid II paid the utmost attention to everything in the Friday procession, desiring perfection in everything, from security to protocols; the ceremonies would start only after the head clerk of the palace had informed him that everything was ready.
In addition, detailed and meaningful coverage of the selamlık resm-i alisi was customarily given in the Takvim-i Vekayi on Saturdays; it would be headline news. Many pleasant and unpleasant incidents happened during these processions. The processions took place approximately 1,600 times without a break during the 33-year long sultanate of Abdulhamid II. The last procession of the Ottoman period was the Friday procession of Caliph Abdulmecid Efendi, held on February 29, 1924.6
Friday processions are important not only because of their religious aspects, but also because of their political, legal, social, and cultural dimensions. Friday processions were an important event that allowed the sultan to come into contact with his subjects, allowed political work to take place, and gave the sultan a chance to become acquainted with and solve the problems in society. These processions have an important place in the history of Istanbul; it was thanks to these processions that the sultan was able to see several districts of the city, a city that reflected the image of the sultan and was like the heart of the state. The sultan had a chance to directly listen to the problems of the people of Istanbul and to try to find solutions. Moreover, the processions gave the city a more active and colorful character on Fridays than it had on the other days of the week.
1 Selânikî, Târih, prepared by Mehmet İpşirli, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1999, p. 449, 469, 670, 708.
2 Koçi Bey, Risale, prepared by Zuhuri Danışman, Ankara: Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, 1985.
3 Stephan Gerlach, Türkiye Günlüğü I, translated by T. Noyan, edited by Kemal Beydilli, Istanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2007, p. 175, 359.
4 Tahsin Paşa, Abdülhamid’in Yıldız Hatıraları, Istanbul: Muallim Ahmed Halit Kütüphanesi, 1931, p. 19 ff.
5 Mrs. Max Müller, İstanbul’dan Mektuplar, tr. Afife Buğra, Istanbul: Tercüman Gazetesi, 1978, pp. 37-46.
6 For a detailed account and bibliography about the Friday processions, see: Mehmet İpşirli, “Osmanlılarda Cuma Selamlığı”, Prof. Dr. Bekir Kütükoğlu’na Armağan, Istanbul: İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Tarih Araştırma Merkezi, 1991, pp. 459-471; Mehmet İpşirli, “Sultan II. Abdülhamid’in Merasimleri/ The Ceremonies of Sultan Abdülhamid II”, II. Abdülhamid: Modernleşme Sürecinde Istanbul, ed. Coşkun Yılmaz, Istanbul: İstanbul 2010 Avrupa Kültür Başkenti , 2010, pp. 136-146.