On September 21st, 1842, a prince named Abdulhamid was born to the Ottoman dynasty. Time changed and finally on August 31st, 1876, Prince Abdulhamid ascended the Ottoman throne with the title Sultan Abdulhamid II. The cash he had earned from trade when he was a prince and the experiences he had gained, were significant. He was a smart, wise sultan with political genius. The early years of his reign coincided with Russo-Turkish War, but it was not long before he put the state back in order. State’s independence and preservation of territorial integrity were his main principles. He was sent to exile in Thessaloniki in the 33rd year of his reign. After staying here by force for a short period, he was transferred to Istanbul. He was 72 years old when he passed away at Beylerbeyi Palace, and it was February 10th, 1918.
Sultan Abdulhamid had a very colourful personality. He had hobbies, passions he had taken up when he was a prince. He was interested in books, especially travel books and detective novels. He had numerous detective novels and political works translated. He was an avid reader. The magnificent library he established at Yıldız Palace is the best indicator of his passion for books.
The sultan who rested his mind with books, calmed his body with carpentry. He was passionate about arts and antiques as well. Even the best carpenters could not produce handmade works as fine as his. He was very skilled, especially in fine wood carving. He had a personal carpentry shop in Yıldız for this purpose. He did not abandon books and carpentry, even in his years of exile.
Tiling was one of Sultan’s areas of interest; such that he had a tile factory established in the palace garden. The tile factory built by his personal architect D’Aranco was the third hangout for the Sultan after the library and carpentry shop. The tiles produced here were primarily used for the needs of the palace, presented to exclusive guests or sold and the income was allocated to charity.
Photography was one of the special areas of interest for Abdulhamid II, who said, “Every painting is an idea… I benefit from visuals rather than written information.” Yıldız Photography Albums, consisting of thousands of photos from home and abroad, was formed thanks to his passion. Sultan also gained many political benefits through photography, announced the developments in his country to the whole world, and was informed of the global developments as well.
Sultan Abdulhamid was also known for his interest in animals. There was a variety of animals in the gardens of Yıldız Palace.
He was also a skilled swordsman. He was a master of weapons and swords. The collection of weapons he possessed was an outcome of this interest.
The first railways of Abdulhamid II period were Jaffa-Jerusalem, Damascus-Muzayrib and Beirut-Damascus routes in Jerusalem. The most important project was the Baghdad Railway in those periods when almost all conflicts of interest between European states concerned railway construction concessions. Sultan granted this concession to the Germans through which the state and nation would benefit the most, by taking power balances in Europe into account. The Hejaz Railway, planned to subsequently connect to Baghdad, was a material and spiritual connection with the Holy Lands on which Abdulhamid Khan said “It is an old dream of mine”. He did not require assistance from foreign states and companies for the construction of Hejaz Railway, and construction was entirely funded by national sources. The line between Istanbul and Medina was to pass over Damascus, and from there connect to Mecca and Jeddah. Then it would reach Baghdad and Basra via Yemen.
Material and spiritual benefits were expected from the Hejaz Railway. The pilgrims’ journey would be significantly shorter to begin with. Communication between Muslims would be stronger, and it would be easier to maintain safety and order. As expected, Muslims from various countries of the world began sending telegrams to Dersaadet (capital Istanbul) upon hearing about the construction of the railway to express their appreciation.
The construction of Hejaz Railway along the historical pilgrimage route, was launched with a ceremony held in Kadem district in Damascus in 1900. When the construction approached Medina, tree sleepers were used instead of steel ones upon Sultan’s order in order not to disturb the Prophet Muhammad’s spirit.
Eight years after the construction began, the railway line between Damascus and Medina was completed. The length of the line reached 464 kilometres. The journey between Damascus and Medina, which took 40 days by caravans until then, now took only three days. However the railway was not constructed beyond Medina.
Yıldız Palace was Sultan Abdulhamid’s headquarters, and is a place that witnessed all his reign, his decisions and ultimately, his state. In fact, it is much more than a palace with its outbuildings and nearly 10 thousand residents. Prefabricated pavilions used for special occasions built in a short period of time by using the latest techniques of the period, hothouses featuring rare plants and trees, each a boutique botanical garden and some plant hospitals, zoological park, carpenter’s workshop where Sultan produced artworks, a repair-shop, a photography studio, theatre hall, tile museum, library, pools where you could row boats, and even a zoology museum featuring collections of rare mounted birds, butterflies and insects, formed the modest world of Yıldız Palace.
Sultan Abdulhamid launched a series of reconstruction activities to even the remotest corners of the country in order to increase people’s level of education and for rapid development of the country he had taken over with considerable foreign debt and major political issues. Architecture education was provided in an independent school for the first time and the School of Fine Arts was opened in his period. In addition to schools that offered modern education and modern hospitals, clock towers, government offices, railways and telegraph lines were built all across Anatolia, which rose one by one throughout the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid. Moreover, tombs, mosques, fountains and thousands of historical buildings were repaired, and this way they could be preserved for a longer period of time. At the same time, the architectural style attained a more national character in the period of Abdulhamid II. Hundreds of buildings built during his reign, such as Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Beyazıt Library, Haydarpaşa and Sirkeci terminals, Istanbul Boys’ High School, Mekteb-i Tıbbiye-i Şahane (Medical School) in Haydarpaşa, and Agriculture, Forestry and Mine Ministry buildings in Sultanahmet, still adorn Istanbul and various Anatolian cities.
The path Sultan Abdulhamid followed in foreign policy was a balance policy. He was aware that the European states intended to share the world among themselves and that the Ottoman Empire was among the main courses on the menu. In his own words, “He could not face them alone, and the only thing he could do was to play one against another, taking advantage of the competition, as each wanted a bigger share.” This way, for many years he protected his country from falling prey to European states. He prevented Balkan nations to unite against Turkey.
According to Huntington, he was a world-class politician. According to British Foreign Secretary Edward Gray, “He was a ruler that reached the limits of human intelligence on external and internal forces, their game style and how to employ these.” German emperor Wilhelm II once stated the following about him: “I learned politics from Abdulhamid.”