On The Sultan’s Service gives readers a guided tour into the secretive world of the Sultan Mehmed V’s palace by one of Turkey’s greatest writers. What is not to love?
Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil is a titan of early Turkish novelists, famous for writing Mai ve Siyah and Aşk-ı Memnu. His life spanned from the late Ottoman Empire into the Republic. He was also plugged into the world of business and politics at the most elite levels in society, which he wrote extensive memoirs about. On the Sultan’s Service is a collection of those writings that pertain to his time as First Secretary to Mehmed V. From that position he was at the heart of the turbulent period after Abdulhamid’s deposition and the sequence of crises that built up to the First World War.
Uşaklıgil was an outsider to the palace as he was appointed to the position by the Committee for Union and Progress to keep an eye on the Sultan and make sure he didn’t attempt any Abdulhamid-esque power grabs. Thus, as somebody who was not before his appointment intimately familiar with the palace, his look into the life of the Ottoman court is unique. The book builds up the extremely formal, stuffy and Gormenghast-like world of the palace. It details the daily lives of the servants, eunuchs, officials and the Royal Family, providing tantalising glimpses into a normally closed world. He writes about all aspects of life in the palace, from the sultan’s routine to the food palace staff ate, while also combing through looted treasures hidden away in Yildiz Palace and the procedure required to marry an Ottoman princess.
As secretary to the sultan, Uşaklıgil had a ringside seat to many of the political machinations and crises of the day. Though this isn’t the primary topic of the collection, and a lot of the major decisions were not made by the sultan but in the parliament, after which the decisions were brought to the Sultan to rubber stamp. In this collection of writings, Uşaklıgil is more interested in the daily business of the palace and the people he meets there. He is well placed for that. He encounters the full who’s who of the Second Constitutional Era, including Ottoman notables like Talat Paşa and distinguished foreign guests like Marshal Nogi. He also doesn’t keep his opinions to himself. He’s respectful towards Mahmud Şevket Paşa, has harsh words about Enver Paşa and hates Abdulhamid, seeing him as a tyrant. This is unsurprising given that Uşaklıgil was censored during Adbulhamid’s reign. However, after meeting him in exile, it is possible to see a softening of his views on the deposed sultan.
The main figure that Uşaklıgil explores is Mehmed V himself. Today Mehmed V is seen by some as a weak sultan who let the empire slide into World War One and ultimately ruin. However, the impression that Uşaklıgil builds of him is a sympathetic one. He is shown as a man imprisoned for most of his life and given a chance in his old age to finally have a life. Though Uşaklıgil sees him as uneducated - along with the rest of the royal family- the sultan also strikes him as polite to a fault, generous, and noble. The model of what Uşaklıgil thought a constitutional monarch should be compared to the “tyrannical” Abdulhamid.
Special credit should be given to the translator Douglas Scott Brookes. Translating such an important writer as Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil is a hard job at the best of times and doing it from Ottoman Turkish more so. Moreover, the annotations provided give some much needed background and context that Uşaklıgil doesn’t provide himself.
It is a bit strange that this book has come out while some of Halid Ziya Uşaklıgil’s more famous novels remain untranslated, but this is a book that will be appreciated by anybody who is interested in the Ottoman Empire.