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From Prosperity to Exile: Abdul Hamid’s Chief Clerk, Tahsin Pasha

Tahsin Pasha, who served for a long time as the Chief Clerk of the Imperial Council at the Yıldız Palace, lost his position with the declaration of the Second Constitutional Era and was subsequently sent into exile.

Pasha published his memoirs in the Milliyet newspaper in 1930 and 1931, providing significant insights as one of the closest individuals to Abdul Hamid.

Chief Clerk of the Imperial Council, Tahsin Pasha

After ascending to the throne, Abdul Hamid, unlike his predecessors, chose to reside in the Yıldız Palace instead of the Dolmabahçe Palace for security reasons. The Yıldız Palace quickly became the “heart of the administration” with the systems he implemented, centralizing everything around himself.

With the Tanzimat reforms, the Sublime Porte weakened, bureaucracy and the military were under strict surveillance, and the continuously monitored clergy lost their former power.

In this system, Abdul Hamid was the sole authority over domestic and foreign policies, all institutions, offices, and promotions. The “Imperial Council” was at the center of this operation, managing correspondences between the Palace and the Sublime Porte and maintaining contacts with embassies and provinces. Thus, the position of the Chief Clerk was vitally important in Abdul Hamid’s autocratic regime.

The number of staff in the Imperial Council also increased in parallel with the functions of Yıldız, rising from four in 1877 to twenty-five by the end of the century. The direct access of the Chief Clerk to the Sultan, whom even Grand Viziers and ministers rarely met, led to many wrong practices. Many statesmen, regardless of their rank, were forced to flatter clerks and other palace officials.

The Sultan would select a Chief Clerk from various candidates after conducting an investigation, asserting that the appointment was entirely his decision, ensuring the Chief Clerk’s loyalty to him alone. Loyalty, not merit, was the foundation of Abdul Hamid’s regime.

Between 1876-1885, five chief clerks served during Abdul Hamid’s reign, with Süreyya Pasha appointed in 1885. Tahsin Pasha was appointed to this position after Süreyya Pasha’s death and served until the declaration of the Second Constitutional Era. The last Chief Clerk of Abdul Hamid was Ali Cevad Bey.

After the death of Süreyya Pasha, Grand Vizier Said Pasha presented a list of candidates to the Sultan, from which Tahsin Pasha was chosen, known as the “Clerk of the Ministry of the Navy”.

Abdul Hamid told Tahsin Pasha, “I have heard of your good character and have chosen you myself for the clerkship.” The newspapers the next day announced his appointment for his “competence, merit, and integrity.”

Born in Istanbul in 1859, Tahsin Pasha, whose full name was “Hasan Tahsin,” was often referred to as “Arab Tahsin or Black Tahsin” due to his dark complexion. After completing middle school, he began working as a clerk at the age of thirteen in the Office of the Grand Vizier.

In 1888, Pasha was appointed to the Clerkship of the Ministry of the Navy and became the Chief Clerk of the Imperial Council on November 24, 1894. His appointment, even to a position that involved meeting with foreign ambassadors, was solely due to Abdul Hamid’s priority of “loyalty”. Tahsin Pasha would emphasize in his memoirs that “loyalty to the Sultan” was the main criterion for appointments.

From Prosperity to Exile

Comments on Pasha’s personality described him as “a soulless and colorless man, superficially knowledgeable, pro-Russian, extremely polite, well-mannered, mild, and gentle.” However, “He saw through the Sultan’s eyes, heard through his ears. His feelings and tastes were also shaped according to the Sultan.”

In 1902, he was granted the rank of “vizier” and henceforth referred to as “Pasha,” reaching a status equivalent to “marshal” and an influence envied by many ministers. The fourteen decorations awarded to him by eleven different foreign states during his tenure were a significant indicator of his position in the palace.

He was also accused of “censorship” for sending a secret directive to newspapers and of “bribery” in a tax-related revolt in Erzurum in 1907, along with Arap İzzet Pasha (Holo).

With the support of Abdul Hamid, Tahsin Pasha owned four mansions and a villa, and even bought a seaside villa so his wife and daughter could swim comfortably. Abdul Hamid also gifted him a farm in Milas.

Tahsin Pasha’s tenure ended with the redeclaration of the constitutional monarchy. Selim Melhame, a prominent figure in Abdul Hamid’s regime, likely at the Sultan’s behest and with Pasha’s help, fled abroad with all his wealth. Mabeyn’s Second Clerk İzzet Holo, known for the regime’s “dirty work,” also escaped on a British ship.

Pasha was held responsible for “İzzet Holo’s escape” and was removed from his post, then taken to the Bekirağa Detachment, now the main building of Istanbul University, along with some ministers.

He was not detained there for long and was transferred to Büyükada under house arrest. At this time, charges such as “embezzlement, illegal practices, and money collection” were brought against him. One of the accusations involved illegally annexing land to his Akdoğan Farm in Gönen.

The worst days for Pasha began with the 31 March Incident and Abdul Hamid’s dethronement. Tahsin Pasha and other state officials were accused of “embezzling state property” due to their wealth. They were also blamed for ruining many families’ lives with their past actions.

Consequently, their properties were seized, all ranks, decorations, and pensions were revoked, and a group including Tahsin Pasha was exiled to Chios. Brought to Izmir with the outbreak of the Balkan War in 1912, Pasha was able to return to Istanbul after a general amnesty in 1913.

After his prosperous days, Pasha faced difficult times, reportedly pawning his shoes to borrow ten lira. Last Ottoman chronicler Abdurrahman Şeref Bey (Laç) attributed Pasha’s downfall to “mismanagement and his family’s extravagance”.

By the 1920s, Pasha had only his villa and bathhouse left, which he could not sell due to tax debts. He sought financial help through various means, even asking the last German Emperor Wilhelm II for money, but the exiled emperor was unable to assist due to his own difficulties. Eventually, the villa was put up for sale in 1931 due to Pasha’s debts.

After publishing his memoirs, Tahsin Pasha died in 1933 in Erenköy and was buried in the family cemetery in Eyüp. However, today the location of his grave is unknown. He reportedly died “in a miserable state, in a bare room of a dilapidated house,” without a pension in his later years.

Pasha’s “Recollections”

Tahsin Pasha published his experiences at the Yıldız Palace from 1894 to 1908 in Milliyet newspaper in 1930 and 1931 in two parts. Although a continuation was announced, the serialization did not continue, and the published parts were later printed as a book.

In 1931, the work titled “Abdul Hamid and Yıldız Memories” was published by Teacher Ahmet Halit Library. According to our search in the National Library catalogs, the book, which had not been reprinted for many years, was republished by Boğaziçi Publications in 1998.

The page count increased from 297 in the first edition to 481 in the new edition and reached 570 pages in another publisher’s edition in 2008. The book was republished by three different publishers with varying page numbers in 2017, coinciding with the release of the “Payitaht Abdul Hamid” movie.

In the beginning of his memoirs, Tahsin Pasha states that he narrates not his “memoirs” but his “recollections”. Indeed, his memoirs do not follow a chronological order, and he narrates what he “remembers”. He talks about various people he encountered in his duties, including grand viziers, ambassadors, and various individuals. His accounts include not only what he witnessed but also rumors he heard about some people.

Another notable aspect of the memoirs is the absence of the usual self-promotion and defense psychology found in such works. Instead, Pasha makes Abdul Hamid, who he served for many years, the main character of the work and tries to defend Abdul Hamid, who was considered the “bad guy” in the ideology of the Republic.

This approach by Pasha results in a work that does not blame the Sultan for the despotic practices, espionage, and informers of the time. Pasha holds Said Pasha, appointed several times by Abdul Hamid, responsible for the increase in Abdul Hamid’s famous “paranoia”.

Paşa also provides interesting information on various aspects of Abdülhamit’s reign. According to him, the Sultan “did not read books himself but had them read to him.” He had a fondness for “police novels, criminal stories, and travelogues,” and for this reason, a translation office was even established in the palace. When the Sultan went to bed, an official, from behind a screen, would read these works to him until he said “enough” and fell asleep.

In his memoirs, Tahsin Paşa talks about Abdülhamit’s love of theater, the presence of Kamphofner Paşa, a German Paşa considered an “European ornament” in the palace, and former Foreign Minister Kara Todori Paşa, who was consulted on some political issues and did translations. He also does not hesitate to mention his “palace rival” İzzet Paşa, noting his successful accumulation of “a great fortune.”

Paşa narrates with great candor about Abdülhamit’s grand viziers who were forced to seek refuge in foreign embassies and the reasons for their asylum. He also talks about the journals, saying “there were no shortage of sons who reported their fathers, fathers-in-law who caused their son-in-law’s downfall, and siblings who informed against each other.” Abdülmecid’s statement about Abdülhamit, “my paranoid son,” and Abdülhamit’s own saying, “foresight is the father of safety, foresight first then safety,” are also mentioned.

This approach of Abdülhamit led to a widespread culture of informants, and as Paşa states, the act of “hurting others and extinguishing households” was almost forgotten in its immorality. Even members of the dynasty were informing, with Prince Vahdeddin regularly sending reports about his brother.

Tahsin Paşa labels Abdülhamit’s administration as “despotic,” stating that Grand Vizier Sait Paşa was the person who led him to this style of governance, and in this system, all civil, military, political, religious, and social issues were centralized at “Yıldız.”

According to Paşa, Abdülhamit made additional payments from the palace to certain high-ranking officials, including the grand vizier and the sheikh al-Islam, influential commanders, and key bureaucrats, over and above the salaries they received from the state. These salaries were sent in an envelope on the first day of each month.

One of the most criticized aspects of Abdülhamit’s reign was the increase in salaries, promotions, and distribution of orders without considering the budget and treasury’s situation. Paşa attributes this to Abdülhamit’s “paranoia and fearfulness,” explaining that he felt compelled to continuously bestow favors to maintain the “despotic system.”

According to Paşa, like every despot, Abdülhamit’s surroundings were encircled by a network, and “this network included the dishonorable and the honorable, the good and the bad, the sincere and the hypocrites, in short, all kinds of people.” Abdülhamit used “money, rank, and orders” to make many people his “loyal servants.”

In conclusion, despite being a graduate of a Rüşdiye (Ottoman high school), Tahsin Paşa held an important position in the Abdülhamit regime, but after his days of favor, he suffered greatly and passed away in poverty.

Perhaps his greatest contribution was the publication of his “recollections” first in a newspaper and then as a book, done with great openness and honesty.

Sources: Tahsin Paşa (1931), Abdülhamit ve Yıldız Hatıraları, İstanbul, Ahmet Halit Kitaphanesi; Tahsin Paşa (2022), Abdülhamit Yıldız Hatıraları, İstanbul, Ketebe; Ürkmez, N. , Akbulut, U. (2022), “Sultan II. Abdülhamit’s Chief Secretary Tahsin Paşa”, p. 306, pp. 641-681; Mayakon, İ. M. (1940), What I Saw at Yıldız, İstanbul, Sertel Printing House.

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Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.

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