Abdul Hamid II

Known as the ‘Red Sultan’ or ‘The Great Assassin’, Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey was simultaneously intelligent and distrustful. Handsome and ingratiating when he first assumed power, Abdul Hamid II would eventually rule the Ottoman Empire with a despotic hand for over thirty years. Yet, despite his brutal suppressions of revolts in the Balkans, he witnessed the slow dismantling of his empire in southern Europe, Middle East and Africa, and as a response to his repeal of constitution in 1878, the original ‘Young Turks’ as a countercultural movement was born.

The above was the first photograph of Abdul Hamid released to the public. During his thirty-three year reign, he traveled very little, fearing assassination. He sent photographers to the corners of his increasingly shrinking empire and ruled it through photographs and telegraph. Abdul Hamid maintained a spy network of 50,000 (or one in twenty) in Constantinople alone as well as 40 translators reading foreign newspapers. For most of his reign, he never left the palace grounds, except for the Friday prayers in a mosque just outside the palace gates . This Friday ritual became a well-attended event for the populace eager to know whether the Sultan was still alive (hence the enormous crowd in the above photo).

An anarchist assassination attempt in 1905 during a Friday prayer visit failed only because the Sultan arrived a few minutes later than planned. In the photo above, the last Ottoman Sultan to rule with absolute power uneasily watches the crowd in an extremely rare public appearance and even rarer photo. By this time (1908), Abdul Hamid was nearing the end of his misguided rule: that year he would have to restore the constitution when faced with pressure from his army and Young Turks. The next year, he would be deposed.

A great fan of Western arts, opera and woodcarving, Abdul Hamid was also partial to photography. He sent photographers to document his Empire’s modernization, and new institutions like schools, hospitals, military barracks, medical schools, law schools, and fire departments. Hi’s personal collection, now in the Istanbul University Library, comprised over 30,000 photographs, and Abdul Hamid presented numerous photos to Western governments as well.

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