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Legacy and Exile: The Life of Abdülmecid Efendi, Last Caliph of the Ottoman Empire

One hundred years ago, on March 3, 1924, the caliphate was abolished, and a decree of exile was issued for all members of the Ottoman dynasty who had ruled for six hundred years. Among the exiles was the last caliph, Abdülmecid Efendi. Abdülmecid first went to Switzerland but faced great economic difficulties.

Though he managed to solve his economic hardships by marrying his daughter to the grandson of the Nizam of Hyderabad, after his death, the question of where he would be buried became a serious problem.

A Western Personality Abdülmecid was the son of Sultan Abdülaziz and his Circassian concubine Hayranıdil Kadınefendi. Born on June 1, 1868, in the Dolmabahçe Palace, he was the first son born after Abdülaziz ascended the throne.

The prospect of Abdülmecid ascending the throne or even becoming heir was very remote. After his father’s deposition, the throne passed to his uncle Sultan Abdülmecid’s sons, and subsequently, V. Murad, II. Abdülhamit, V. Mehmet Reşad, and VI. Mehmed Vahdeddin ascended to the Ottoman throne. He could only become the second heir after the suicide of Crown Prince Yusuf Izzeddin Efendi, and with Vahdeddin’s accession to the throne, he became known as the “last heir” in history.

Abdülmecid spent his childhood in Dolmabahçe Palace until his father’s deposition, receiving religious education from the tutors brought to the palace. After his father’s death, he was cared for by his mother and sister Nazıme Sultan. He also attended the Şehzadegân School opened by Abdul Hamid and received lessons from prominent figures of the time.

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Dolmabahce Palace

Abdülmecid’s significant trait was his effort to learn foreign languages. Besides Arabic and Persian, it is stated that he learned French and even German, which he pronounced beautifully and read and wrote like Turkish. L’illustration even mentioned his proficiency in English.

It is a well-known fact that he had an interest in fine arts, especially in painting. His upbringing, which included lessons in painting and music from childhood, greatly influenced this interest. All these aspects led to him being considered as “Westernized.”

During the thirty-three-year reign of Abdul Hamid, naturally, Abdul Hamid’s sons were prominent, and feeling uncomfortable with this situation, Abdülmecid chose solitude over establishing friendships, particularly developing his intellectual side under the influence of his French tutor, Bertrand Bareilles.

Chief Eunuch Ismail Baykal mentions that despite his Western orientation, Abdülmecid performed his five daily prayers, even attending Friday prayers in different mosques among the public every week. He is even said to have disliked Vahdeddin, who acted like Abdul Hamid’s informant. The tension between Vahdeddin and Abdülmecid that started in those years would continue for years.

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In contrast, he refused the offer of the Unionists to make him the heir after the suicide of Crown Prince Yusuf Izzeddin Efendi, stating that it contradicted the longstanding tradition. If Abdülmecid had accepted this offer, he would have ascended to the throne after the death of Mehmed Reşad.

After the deposition of Abdul Hamid, during Mehmed Reşad’s reign, Abdülmecid lived a comfortable life; he established close relationships with poets, writers, and painters of the period, even visiting Abdülhak Hamid at his home. After Reşad’s death and Vahdeddin’s accession to the throne, Abdülmecid Efendi, declared “heir apparent,” would be the “last heir” in Ottoman history.

In the Shadow of Ankara: The Caliphate

He did not support Vahdeddin’s stance on the National Struggle. Initially, Abdülmecid did not believe in the success of the Anatolian movement, even saying, “What can a handful of people do?” According to Baykal, he even considered going to Anatolia himself. Although he did not go, his son Ömer Faruk Efendi came to İnebolu to support the National Struggle but returned to Istanbul after an unfavorable response from Mustafa Kemal Pasha and the Grand National Assembly.

Despite their tensions, Abdülmecid Efendi married his son Ömer Faruk Efendi to Sabiha Sultan, the “exquisitely beautiful daughter” of Vahdeddin, even though it was not well-received in the tradition of the Ottoman dynasty. This “cousin marriage,” resulting from the “love between young people,” would end in divorce in 1948, despite having three daughters.

Although Abdülmecid was “heir apparent,” he never became the Ottoman sultan. With a proposal from Dr. Rıza Nur and his colleagues, the Grand National Assembly accepted the decision on November 1, 1922, to abolish the sultanate with Law No. 308, stating that the Grand National Assembly was the true representative of sovereignty and the ruler. This decision meant the eternal demise of the Ottoman State from March 16, 1336 (1920) onwards.

The continuation of the decision stated that the caliphate belonged to the “High Ottoman Dynasty,” and the Grand National Assembly would select the “most competent and righteous” from among the dynasty members as the caliph, and the Turkish State would be the “foundation of the caliphate.” Thus, the six-hundred-year-old sultanate was abolished, and Vahdeddin remained only as the “caliph.”

In the wake of this development, Vahdeddin left the country with the British Malaya battleship on November 17, 1922. However, the former sultan continued to use the title of “caliph.” Ankara, on the other hand, was considering Abdülmecid Efendi as the replacement caliph. Since this position would be devoid of any real authority, it was necessary for the selected caliph to accept this condition.

Ankara’s representative, Refet Pasha, spoke with Abdülmecid about the terms, and boundaries were drawn within the framework of Mustafa Kemal’s instructions. The new caliph would carry the title of “Caliph of the Muslims,” and declarations to the Islamic world would be published after the approval of the Grand National Assembly. Thus, Ankara transformed the caliphate into an official institution with no real power or responsibility.

On November 18, 1922, the Grand National Assembly convened and, after long discussions, elected Abdülmecid Efendi as caliph with 148 votes. Besides Abdülmecid, two votes were cast for Abdürrahim Efendi, three for Selim Efendi, and nine members abstained.

Although Abdülmecid became the caliph, there were still significant problems ahead. Firstly, it was clear that there would be a power struggle with Ankara, especially with Mustafa Kemal Pasha. In fact, in Mustafa Kemal’s view, the caliphate was a necessary institution “for now.” Just as the monarchy was abolished when the conditions were right, the caliphate would also be abolished when the time came.

To end these debates, Mustafa Kemal Pasha took a significant step that would shape the formation of a secular regime, and on March 3, 1924, with Law No. 431, the caliphate was abolished. Thus, Abdülmecid’s caliphate, which lasted for a year, three months, and fourteen days, came to an end.

The same law also decided on the exile of the members of the Ottoman dynasty abroad. Thus, not only Abdülmecid but also his four wives, son, daughter, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, and entourage were subject to exile.

The exile decision was communicated to Abdülmecid Efendi the same night. Although Abdülmecid initially did not believe that the assembly had made such a decision and did not want to leave the palace, he eventually accepted the situation and began preparations to leave. In fact, it seems that the last caliph wanted to go to Egypt under British administration. However, when he could not obtain approval for this, he set his sights on Europe.

Given £2,000 by the government, the last caliph first came to Çatalca by car and then set off for Switzerland by train. His entourage included his consorts, his son Ömer Faruk Efendi, his daughter Dürrüşehvar, and his entourage consisting of Hüseyin Nakib Turhan, Salih Keramet, and his doctor Selahaddin Bey.

The family settled in a hotel in a small town by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. However, in the first week alone, the hotel expenses amounted to £200. Seeking solutions to economic difficulties, Abdülmecid sent Salih Keramet Bey first to Paris to meet with the ambassadors of Muslim states and then to London as the representative of the Hyderabad Nizam Movement.

The solution to the economic crisis came from the Nizam of Hyderabad. It is stated that he allocated a monthly salary of £300 to the last caliph. When his daughter Dürrüşehvar married the grandson of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1932, the allowance increased to “£500 per month.”

Abdülmecid Efendi and his family moved to Nice, France, in October 1924, and settled there. Despite the competition for the caliphate between him and Vahdeddin, Abdülmecid Efendi was accepted as the “Head of the Dynasty” after Vahdeddin’s death in 1926. It is even stated that Abdülmecid contributed to the removal of the embargo placed on Vahdeddin’s funeral.

Due to health reasons, Abdülmecid moved to Paris in 1939 and tried to maintain his contact with Muslim communities by attending Friday prayers at the Paris Mosque. During this time, it is said that he continued his painting activities, played the piano in the afternoons, behaving like “a Western aristocrat” on the one hand and “an Istanbul gentleman” with his fez on the other.

Abdülmecid passed away from a heart attack in Paris in 1944, just as the Allies were about to enter the city to end the German occupation. The last caliph had requested that his body be taken to Turkey. Therefore, his body was embalmed and kept at the Paris Mosque. Despite the efforts of his proxy Salih Keramet, İnönü’s Turkey did not allow the body to be brought in. The body, which was kept for ten years without being buried, was finally taken to Medina in 1954 and buried there after the funeral prayer, in the Jannat al-Baqi cemetery.

Abdülmecid, who never expected it, first became the “heir apparent” and then, despite being without a sultanate, was elected as the “caliph.” However, this caliphate was merely a symbolic position. With the abolition of the caliphate and the exile of the dynasty, the European exile began.

Perhaps he hoped that the new regime in Turkey that sent him into exile would at least allow his funeral. After all, both İnönü and Menderes refused to allow the body to be brought to Turkey, and the body remained unburied for ten years.

The experiences of Abdülmecid in exile and the subsequent burial problem can be seen as a brief summary of the six-hundred-year-old Ottoman dynasty’s exile dramas. It can be said that this drama was somewhat alleviated by the amnesties issued during the Menderes era for female members and during the Ecevit government for male members, allowing them to return to Turkey.

Sources: Uçan, L. (2019). The Life, Heirship, and Caliphate Years of the Last Caliph Abdülmecid Efendi, Ph.D. Thesis, Istanbul University Graduate School of Social Sciences, Istanbul; Satan, A. (2001). The Abolition of the Caliphate, Ph.D. Thesis, Marmara University Institute of Turkish Studies, Istanbul; Çelik, R. (2017). “The Political Activities of the Last Caliph Abdülmecid Efendi during His Exile Years,” Mavi Atlas, Issue 5, pp. 402-423; Sertoğlu, M. (1978). “Abdülmecid Efendi,” History Life, Issues 4-6; Baykal, İ. (1950). “What I Saw in Abdülmecid’s Palace,” History World, Issues 17-24.

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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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