During the reign of Abdulhamid II, Armenian terrorist organizations revolting in Anatolia started to trouble the Ottoman Empire. Armenians, who thought that the riots they broke out in Anatolia did not bring enough reflections in the European public opinion, arranged large-scale terrorist activities in Istanbul. Ultimately, they attempted a bombing assassination on Abdulhamid II.
Abdulhamid II had to deal with the Armenian problem in most of the years of his rule. However, he never approached to give appease in this issue. The Sultan was aware of the political dimension that the issue got into. For this reason, while he took tight precautions inside against terrorist activities of Armenians, he chose to inform the western public opinion outside. He occasionally invited the ambassadors and journalists of foreign countries to the Yildiz Palace and told them the perspective of himself and the Ottoman Empire towards the Armenian problem. He also tried to make the things he told them to be published in the newspapers of the foreign countries.
One of the activities of Abdulhamid for enlightening the foreigners about the Armenian problem was that he accepted American ambassador Terell and talked to him about the Armenian problem. The Sultan asked the ambassador that this conversation be published in American newspapers and in this way, the American public opinion was made to learn the truth of the issue.
American ambassador Terell published this conversation with Abdulhamid II in the Century Magazine on 1 November 1897. While the ambassador was telling what he spoke with Abdulhamid II, he also found necessary to give some background information to introduce the sultan to the public opinion. Ambassador Terell writes:
“On the nineteenth day of March last, while attending the ceremony of the Selemlik in Constantinople, near the Yildiz Palace, I was informed by a master of ceremonies that I would be received in audience by the Sultan of Turkey after he had finished his devotions in the mosque. On entering the palace at the appointed time, attended by Munier Pasha, the introducer of foreign diplomats, and by Mr. Gargiulo, my official interpreter, my reception was cordial; and during a conversation which lasted more than two hours many things were said by the Sultan regarding the treatment of the Armenian race by the Turkish government which he desired should be made known to the people of the United States. An expression of that desire was renewed by him on the fifteenth day of June last, on the eve of my departure for home.
He was assured that his wishes would be observed in such manner and at such time as would be proper after my official relations with his government had ceased. In now complying with that promise, it is deemed proper first to introduce to the reader Sultan Abdul Hamid.
He [the Sultan] has never failed to win the heart of any European who has been admitted to any degree of intimacy with him. All find in him the noble and attractive qualities which they cannot help but admire. . . . Except in religion, he is more of a European than an Asiatic. . . . He is no more of an Oriental despot than the late Czar; and many of the fine qualities discovered in the Czar after his death are equally characteristic of the Sultan. In personal ability I should say he was the Czar’s superior.
The tourist who visits Turkey finds in Constantinople a resident colony of fifty-two native Americans, all of whom are missionary educators, or Bible-hours people, except two, one of whom is a dentist and the other a saloon-keeper. None of these has ever been presented to the Sultan, or admitted to the Yildiz Palace, which few except diplomats ever enter, and which is, perhaps, more exclusive than any palace in Europe. Over thirteen centuries of fierce attrition between the crescent and the cross have not tended to develop among rival religionists a spirit of mutual love; but, on the contrary, have even made it difficult for them to speak charitably of each other. Whatever may be the cause, certain it is that published descriptions of the Sultan, and of his habits, which have appeared in the American press, usually contain as many errors as sentences.
The Sultan is over fifty years old, of medium height, with clear olive complexion, dark hair, high forehead, and large dark brown eyes. Though the pashas who attend his palace when ministers or ambassadors are entertained are decorated with regal splendor, he always appears in plain garb, wearing a red fez, a frock-coat and trousers of dark-blue stuff, and patent-leather shoes. A broad service sword with steel scabbard, which he holds sheathed in his hand, completes the costume. Sometimes a single decoration is worn on his breast. When he is seen thus plainly attired in the throne-room of his palace, on the first day of the feast of Bairam, seated on an ottoman covered with cloth of gold, to receive the congratulations of his civil and military chiefs, who are all radiant in uniforms and decorations, the contrast is very striking. No Christians but those of the diplomatic corps ever witness this impressive ceremony, which is conducted with the order that distinguishes a military review, but with an Oriental servility that an American finds it difficult to understand.
On such occasions Osman Pasha stands at the Sultan’s left, holding a cloth-of gold scarf, which all reverently kiss after saluting their ruler.
No sovereign in Europe is more courtly or refined in entertaining his guests, and few can be more agreeable in conversation. In his personal intercourse with foreign representatives he is alike free from that stilted dignity which repels confidence, and from that absence of real dignity which invites familiarity. When I first dined at the palace, the Sultan sat at the head of the table, with Mrs. Terrell at his right and myself at his left. Osman Pasha, Ismael Pasha, the former Khedive of Egypt, the Grand Vizier, and other ministers of state were the other guests. Nothing could excel the excellence of the cuisine of which he partook with his guests, the table-service and decorations, the magnificence of the dining-room, or the excellence of his wines, which always remain un-tasted except by Christian guests. Each pasha wore the insignia of his rank, blazing with stars and decorations, while the plain costume of the Sultan was alone in harmony with my own. No armed men stood guard at the palace doors, and except a detail from the Imperial Guard, who always salute a foreign representative on his arrival, no soldiers have ever been seen by me within the palace walls on any of the occasions when I have dined there.
I do not hesitate to confirm the opinions of General Lew Wallace and my other predecessors, that the Sultan of Turkey is a ruler of great intellectual ability. I regard him as the ablest sovereign in Europe.
The Sultan remarked that he had been much gratified by hearing from Sir Ashmead Bartlett, a member of the British Parliament, that I had spoken in just terms touching his Majesty’s action in what he termed the Armenian “disturbances.” He said that the facts about recent disturbances in Turkey have never been faithfully reported by the press of the United States and that he hoped that I would make known to the American people what he was then about to say.
Continuing, he said: “Early during the Ottoman conquests in Asia Minor, the Armenians, who were being crushed by repeated invasions of the Tatars and the Persians, emigrated in large numbers, and obtained protection from the Ottoman rulers. They were kindly received, hospitably treated, and received benefits in the protection of their lives and property. No nation continually engaged in war can excel in industrial and commercial pursuits. Thus it occurred that while the early sultans were busy with conquests, all manufacturing and commercial interests were monopolized by Christian races, and chiefly by the Armenians. Their religion was also tolerated, for Mussulmans tolerate the religion of all men who worship God. Thus the Armenians prospered, and remained contented under Mussulman rule for over four hundred years. They became the manufacturers, contractors, and bankers of the Ottoman Empire. They enjoyed their religion, openly worshiped for centuries in their ancient churches and monasteries, and built new ones when needed. Their patriarch could always present their complaints at the Sublime Porte, and they were always protected in the enjoyment of their own methods of worshiping God. Four books are regarded as sacred by all Mussulmans, namely, the Koran, the book of Confucius, the Talmud of the Jews, and the Bible of the Christians. How could a Mussulman murder Armenians merely on account of their religion, when the Koran prohibits cruelty, and requires that all men who believe in God shall be protected, except during war? One of my ancestors—Selim I, the grandson of the conqueror of Constantinople—once thought that his empire would be stronger if all his subjects professed the same religion. Some disturbances raised by Christian races caused him to ask the Sheik-ul-Islam if it would be lawful for him to kill all Christians who refused to be converted to Islam. The Sheik issued a fetva, in which he answered that it would not be lawful, and that Christians who were peaceful must be protected. So Selim respected the fetva. Fire-worshipers and idolaters alone have no right to protection.”
The Sultan then cited many evidences of the favor and partiality extended to, and of the confidence reposed in, the Armenians by himself and by former sultans, to show that their religion was not the cause of their recent misfortunes. He said: “One Dadian, an Armenian, was given entire control of the imperial powder-factory by my father, Sultan Abdul Medjid. He grew rich. He could make powder that would not throw a ball across this room. Thus he had the army at his mercy. Dadian lived at a village on the coast near this city. I remember that my father took me and my brother, when we were mere boys, to Dadian’s house, and we slept there two nights. Kuetzroglian, an Armenian, was employed to procure every article of furniture, jewellery, and clothing for the palace. He became a great favorite. He had a residence on the Bosporus at Tchenguelkein, on the Asiatic shore, and became very wealthy. To his house my father would go frequently when he wished to rest.
The entire charge of the imperial mint was in the hands of an Armenian named Agop Effendi. His opportunities for obtaining wealth were of course great, and he also became very rich. Another Armenian, Gumushgerdan, was the designer and maker of female attire for the imperial palace. He still lives here, and is immensely rich. The Balians, who are Armenians, have been in succession from father to son the architects of palaces and buildings for the Ottoman sultans for generations. They built the palaces of Dolma Bagtche, Tcheraghan, Beyler Bey, Yildiz, Flamour, the Sweet Waters of Asia, etc., and one is now my imperial architect. My father gave to Dadian a large house at Beshicktesh (a quarter of the city), in which Artin Pasha, my present under-secretary for foreign affairs, who is also an Armenian, now lives. My father, in order to please Dadian, gave him a block of land adjoining his residence, upon which Sultan Medjid built from his private means an Armenian church, so that Dadian in bad weather could go there and worship God without going out of doors. At that time the disposition of the administration was far from sanctioning such partiality, but the confidence reposed in Dadian by Sultan Medjid caused him to bestow that favor.
My present minister of state in charge of the civil list, Michael Protocal Effendi, is an Armenian. He has exclusive control of all public lands, and of all real estate belonging to me. Many Armenians are retained in office by him, with my approval. I will cause their names and salaries to be furnished to you. After all the favors bestowed on the Armenian race by my house, which enriched them, their ingratitude was shown by plotting and organizing to destroy the Ottoman Empire. The revolutionary movement has been sustained by wealthy Armenians.
You should remember an Armenian bookbinder who bound for you two beautiful albums. After the disturbances of August last in this city, that man became frightened, and fled to America. He wrote back, saying that, being unable to speak the English language, he could find no work, and wished to return. I directed that he should be permitted to return in safety. He then wrote saying that he had no money. Now, Christian people will scarcely believe it when I say that, being convinced that he was a good man, I directed that one thousand francs be sent to enable him to return home.”
The Sultan more than once repeated his declaration that no Christians had ever been persecuted by his government or people for their religious faith, and that their churches and monasteries, which have stood from the early ages of Christianity, had been respected, preserved, and worshiped in; that they had always selected their own patriarchs and bishops, and were always protected in the full enjoyment of their religious freedom. Referring to the massacres, he said: “The truth, unfortunately, is never published in Christian newspapers about conflicts between my Moslem and Christian subjects. Though no true Mussulman will ever punish any man on account of his religion, if he worships God, yet when people bind themselves together by their religion, and then use it to destroy the Ottoman Empire, a different question is presented. While Christian Europe was excited against the Ottoman Empire about excesses committed by its soldiers during the Greek revolution of 1827, it had no sympathy to bestow upon the butchery of twenty-seven thousand defenseless Turkish men, women, and children, who were massacred in one city after its surrender.”
I here informed the Sultan that my government had published the revelation made by the aged missionary, Rev. Cyrus Hamlin, which first appeared in the “Independent” in December, 1893, to the effect that the Armenian revolutionists intended to commit atrocities on the Turks and fire their homes in order to provoke against their own people atrocious retaliation, and thus enlist the sympathy of the Christian world. I added: “Though my government is quite satisfied that atrocities have been committed alike by Mussulmans and Armenians in Asia Minor, it has never been disposed to meddle with this Eastern Question in any of its phases. I have never expressed the opinion that your Majesty instigated or ordered the massacre of Armenians, but I feel sure that their repetition would prove most unfortunate for the Ottoman Empire. Both English and American historians have done ample justice to Moslem magnanimity. They have all contrasted the terrible butchery of seventy-five thousand Moslem men, women, and children in Jerusalem, by Duke Godfrey, after their surrender, with the knightly humanity of Saladin when he recaptured the city, and gave even the soldiers the privilege of being ransomed. When at Damascus, and looking at the splendid sarcophagus of Saladin, to which I had been admitted by an imperial irade, I had remembered his bearing after victory, and when contrasting his humanity with that of Christian crusaders, felt like standing uncovered before his tomb.”
The Sultan referred with manifest pleasure to the success which had attended the culture of the Southern potato yam in the provinces of Smyrna and Mesopotamia, and which had been introduced by me into the empire. The sad face assumed a look of much benignity as he made the following answer: “To be good to one’s fellow-man is the best religion. The Prophet once said that if a man is so mean to himself that he gets drunk and like a hog sleeps by his liquor and cannot get away, it shall be forgiven if he repents; but he who wilfully breaks the heart of a fellow-man may never be forgiven.”
Thus does this isolated ruler, who is regarded by very many persons as a throned assassin, give utterance to the noblest sentiments, in a voice low and musical, while the kindly and sympathetic expression of his face is a constant puzzle to those admitted to his presence, and who may regard him as cruel. During the audience he sat on a sofa richly upholstered with satin brocade. A small table, inlaid in mosaic, on which were cigarettes, which he frequently smoked, was placed between us; and during the audience tea was served in jewelled cups of gold. Munier Pasha, a refined gentleman, was present during the audience. The room occupied was richly furnished in the style of Louis XVI. Paintings, some of which were of great excellence, decorated the walls, and silk rugs and a Turkish carpet of unique design covered the floor.
When it is remembered that in addition to being the Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid is the calif or spiritual head of the Mohammedan world, with its one hundred and sixty millions of people, one feels less surprise at the servile adoration with which his subjects approach him. No matter how often during a conversation with a Christian diplomat he may speak to the most exalted of his subjects who may be present, the hand of the person addressed salutes him by quickly and gracefully touching the left breast, lips, and forehead. The Sultan always converses in the Turkish language, though while yet a prince he studied French; and an incident occurred one night at the Yildiz Palace, when a comedy was rendered in Italian by an Italian troupe, which indicated, his knowledge of that language. An imperial library has also been established at Yildiz, the shelves of which are loaded with the works of standard authors of the United States and the chief nations of Europe. Here are found Arabic manuscripts, written when Arabia was the seat of literature, of art, of science, and of poetry, and at a time when European nations were in dense ignorance. Nowhere in Europe can be found a finer looking class of men than are the Turkish subjects of the Sultan, or more refined and courteous gentlemen than one sees among their educated classes.
He has one million of improved magazine-rifles, has purchased one million more, and has trained to use them soldiers who are fatalists, and who see heaven through the smoke of battle. If he should ever be forced, in desperate extremity, to visit Seraglio Point, and give to the breeze the mantle of the Prophet which is there guarded, summoning to its defense all the one hundred and sixty millions of the faithful, he would soon be regarded as the most vigorous invalid of modern times.
A.W. Terrell, “An Interview with Sultan Abdul Hamid”, The Century Magazine, 1 November 1897.