Hollanda Araştırma Enstitüsü  -  Nederlands Instituut in Turkije

Maḥmūd II, Centralization, and Religious Change in the Ottoman Empire: Islamic Material Heritage in Istanbul (1808-1839)

S. Berk Metin (Leiden University)

The early 19th century was an incredibly transformative period in the Ottoman Empire. Researchers often focus on the political and military reforms that were carried out during the reformist Sultan Maḥmūd II (r. 1808-1839), but the connected cultural transformations in this era were also remarkable. During my fellowship period at Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT), I conducted research about how the religious policies of Maḥmūd II’s government were reflected in state-sponsored architectural projects in Istanbul. In this brief blog post, I will introduce my research topic and talk about my activities at the NIT.

Maḥmūd II’s reign was characterized by an Islamization/Sunnitization campaign that went hand in hand with the government’s increasing interest in being able to categorize and surveil the religious space. This was done for practical reasons (as a step toward centralization) but it also was contingent upon the many crises the unpopular Ottoman imperial regime was facing. Namely, through his reign, the sultan was deemed not only an incompetent ruler but also a religiously illegitimate one due to his excess cruelties (thus he obtained the epithet ‘the infidel sultan’). His unpopularity caused numerous revolts and civil wars that threatened the very existence of the Ottoman dynasty. In short, the regime was facing a fatal legitimacy crisis. To keep his throne, the sultan had to frame himself and his reform agenda as divinely-ordained (and thus religiously legitimate).

In my capacity as a fellow, I visited some of the relevant religious heritage in Istanbul (like tombs, dervish lodges, mosques, monuments, etc.) that were built or renovated under Maḥmūd II’s patronage. I looked at how the sultan was referred to in the renovation/construction inscriptions; what the titles and descriptions used for him signaled to the audience; what the buildings functioned as before their renovation (if they were renovated); and speculated what changes might this transformation of urban space might have brought to how ‘everyday religion’ was practiced by the local population. To summarize, the sultan wanted to fashion these places as distinctly Islamic (and Sunni) places of worship. He promoted himself as a champion of Sunni Islam to combat the legitimacy crisis and framed his reforms as part of a divine mission. He used religious heritage sites as places to propagate this agenda and also to be able to distinguish between different confessions (as his famous saying goes: “I wish to see my Muslim subjects in the mosques, Christians in the churches, and Jews in the synagogues”).

For example, some of the famous ‘the tombs of the companions’ (sahabe kabirleri), which allegedly belong to companions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad who had died during the first Muslim siege of Constantinople, had been saintly tombs long before the Ottoman takeover of the city and were dedicated to Christian saints. Local Christians still used their old names and prayed there together with the local Muslims long into the 19th century (like the tomb of Baba Cafer). During Maḥmūd’s reign, they were painted green (a symbolically Islamic colour) and were given an official, Sunni pedigree. Confessional boundaries were therefore asserted. On the inscriptions, the sultan was often referred to as a hero, a warrior-sultan (ġāzī), and a divinely-ordained renewer (müceddid).

Thanks to the fellowship position at NIT, I had the chance to stay in Istanbul (at a lovely apartment!) and conduct fieldwork in the city, which was incredibly fruitful. I benefited from the institute’s rich library and had the chance to meet other fellows and students from my alma mater, Leiden University. I also had the chance to present my findings at the institute. I thank Dr. Fokke Gerritsen and Aysel Arslan for their kind assistance, hospitality, and the lovely lunches at Fıccın. My research on this topic had (unofficially) started at Leiden University under the guidance of Dr. Hans Theunissen, who introduced me to this topic in the first place, so I owe thanks to him. I also thank Dr. Alp Yenen for encouraging me to apply for this fellowship position and for following my academic activities closely.