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Sultan Mehmed Reşad’s Historic Journey to Rumelia: Bridging Empires and Cultures with Bediüzzaman Said Nursi

Until the era of Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II, Ottoman sultans had not ventured on travels within the country. However, Sultan Mehmed Reşad embarked on a three-week journey from Istanbul to Kosovo in 1911. The Sultan aimed to re-establish the allegiance of the Albanians, who were turning the Balkan region into a boiling cauldron, to the Ottoman administration. One of the participants in this journey was Bediüzzaman Said Nursi.

Leaving the Palace Was Not Easy!

Ottoman sultans had led a life centered around Istanbul and the palace until the 19th century, not venturing out of the capital except for wars, hunting, or during specific throne disputes due to their particular interests. However, this tradition changed with the modernization process.

After Sultan Mahmud II disbanded the Janissary Corps in 1826 and established full authority, he embarked on “country trips” that included Gallipoli, Tekirdağ, Edirne, Hereke, Gemlik, Şile, and İzmit. His son, Prince Abdülmecid, who accompanied him on these trips, made similar visits after becoming Sultan.

Abdülmecid visited İzmit, Hereke, Mudanya, Bursa, Çanakkale, Gallipoli, and the Islands. His successor, Sultan Abdülaziz, traveled to Thessaloniki for two weeks and also visited Egypt. Abdülaziz’s most notable journey was his European trip, including visits to England, France, Belgium, and Austria.

His successor, Sultan Abdülhamid II, who reigned for thirty-three years, did not embark on any domestic travels due to establishing a centralized administration around Yıldız Palace. His only trips were for relaxation purposes to İzmit and Hereke in the first year of his reign.

Unlike his predecessor and brother, Abdülhamid, Sultan Mehmed Reşad preferred to leave the palace to relax and occasionally took trips within Istanbul. Mehmed Reşad traveled around the Bosphorus on his yacht, visited Göksu, the Princes’ Islands, Yalova, and also made visits to Bursa, İzmit, Adapazarı, and Edirne.

From Thessaloniki to Kosovo

The rationale behind Sultan Reşad’s journey to Rumelia was the unrest in the Balkans. The spread of nationalism among the Albanians, predominantly Muslim, led to demands for autonomy, and the “Ottomanism” policy of the Young Turks did not find a serious response. The governments influenced by the Young Turks tried to collect weapons from the Albanians, demanded the payment of taxes, and called those eligible for military service to enlist.

The Albanians resisted these demands and also demanded the use of the Latin alphabet instead of Arabic, Albanian language education in schools, and the appointment of Albanians to significant official positions in areas where they were the majority.

Unable to garner the expected support even from Muslim Albanians, the Government sent forces to the region following an Albanian uprising in Skopje, the center of the Kosovo province, in 1910. The rebellion was quelled after three months by the 82nd infantry regiment commanded by M. Şevket Pasha. Following this, the government closed Albanian organizations and schools and prosecuted their leaders.

These developments led to the loss of Albanians, who could have acted together with the Ottoman administration in the “boiling cauldron” of the Balkan geography. Dissatisfaction against the Ottoman rule increased in the Albanian-dense provinces of Janina, İşkodra, and Kosovo.

To regain the Albanians, the Young Turks decided that Sultan-Halife Mehmed Reşad should make a journey to the region. It is widely accepted that this trip was decided upon at a meeting in the home of Mithat Şükrü Bey (Bleda), proposed by the Interior Minister Talat Bey (Pasha).

The meeting was attended by 4 Greek, 3 Armenian, 3 Jewish, 3 Bulgarian, and 1 Vlach deputies, along with 9 Albanian deputies, including İsmail Kemal Bey, the leader of the first Albanian government established during the Balkan War in 1912. The idea of the trip was presented to Mehmed Reşad, who accepted it despite his old age and advanced prostate illness, for a journey to the “land of the Conquerors’ descendants.”

The route for the trip was determined by Enver Bey and M. Şevket Pasha, who went to Rumelia for inspections, and it was decided to travel via sea to Thessaloniki. A detailed program for the journey was prepared and printed, available in the archives of the Atatürk Library. The program included details such as the route, security measures, welcoming committees, and twenty cannon shots to be fired upon entering cities (Atatürk Library, SEL_Osm_01421).

Although this trip was different from the traditional ceremonies and protocols like the normal Friday greetings, ambassador receptions, and sword ceremonies of the sultans, ancient traditions were still considered. Additionally, due to an assassination threat, numerous security measures were taken.

Security measures included deploying forces from various parts of the country to Rumelia and sending units from Anatolia for the ceremonies. The Committee of Union and Progress, with its experience in “banditry,” played an active role in protecting the Sultan.

Since the Sultan would travel by train from Thessaloniki onwards, a guide train would precede the Sultan’s train, maintaining a distance that would not exceed one station. Many journalists and writers followed the journey, and representatives from the foreign press were present, with the trip receiving detailed coverage in newspapers.

Reşad’s journey attracted the interest of the European press due to the long-standing issue of Macedonia in European politics. The Sultan’s arrival in the Kosovo Plain, where Sultan Murat had achieved victory and was later martyred, the organization of a Greeting Ceremony there, and the Sultan’s planned prayer with the gathered Albanians were interpreted as a revival of old conquests.

Halit Ziya Bey (Uşaklıgil) reported that ambassadors from European countries sought information about the trip, approaching it with the perspective that “Turkey was embarking on a new adventure.” Some newspapers speculated that the trip would solve the Macedonian issue.

The journey began on 5 June 1911, with the departure of the Barbaros Hayreddin battleship carrying the Sultan. Two steamboats escorted the battleship in front; the Ertuğrul yacht, Gülcemal, and Reşid Paşa steamships followed behind. Lütfi Bey (Simavi) and Chief Clerk Halit Ziya, who participated in Sultan Reşad’s journey, later provided various details about the trip in their works.

The fleet stopped at Gelibolu on 6 June, and prayers were offered for the souls of “Rumelia conqueror” Süleyman Pasha and Yazıcızade. That same day, the entourage landed at Kala-i Sultaniye (Çanakkale), where various delegations were received. On 7 June, the group arrived in Thessaloniki.

In Thessaloniki, the Sultan was greeted with twenty-one cannon shots, and a ship full of people from İzmir came to welcome him, with Thessaloniki’s notables also participating in the reception aboard the Mithat Paşa steamship. Sultan Reşad spent the first night on the Barbaros battleship and visited mosques, barracks, recreational spots the next day, attended a whirling dervish ceremony as a “Mevlevi enthusiast,” and organized the journey’s first Friday procession at the Hagia Sophia Mosque on 9 June. It was reported that Manastırlı İsmail Hakkı delivered a sermon and “Said-i Kurdi” addressed the audience in local attire from the pulpit.

At this time, Abdülhamid was under surveillance in Thessaloniki at the Alatini Mansion. Instead of visiting his brother, Reşad chose to send representatives. The chosen envoys, Halit Ziya Bey and Hadi Pasha, delivered a letter from Sultan Reşad to the dethroned Sultan, stating, “My brother, I kiss your hands. My arrival in Thessaloniki is solely due to the necessity shown for my journey concerning the country’s welfare. I request you not to be offended.”

The train carrying the Sultan departed from Thessaloniki for Skopje on 11 June. The train traveled 243 kilometers, passing through tunnels and along plains and coasts, slowing down or stopping at some stations where people had gathered to see “their beloved Sultan.” Upon arrival in Skopje, deputies, local administrators, officials, clergy from various religions, students, and thousands of people welcomed him.

The crowd chanted “Our Sultan, our Lord, may you live long,” danced to the accompaniment of drums and zurnas, and the city was in a festive mood. The Sultan reciprocated the people’s affection and performed the afternoon prayer at the Sultan Murad Mosque. Rebel Albanian leaders Süleyman Batuşa and Hasan Plave also came to Skopje to beg for pardon from the Sultan and were forgiven.

According to Şahiner’s work, based on testimonies, Bediüzzaman became well-known during his short stay in Skopje, with local scholars visiting him and asking questions.

Events in the Kosovo Plain

The train carrying the Sultan departed from Skopje for Priština on 14 June. The Sultan was welcomed in Priština with the slaughtering of sacrifices and the playing of the Sultan’s March. After spending the night at the Government Mansion, the Sultan laid the foundation for a madrasa in Priština the next day.

The main target of Sultan Reşad’s journey was the tomb of Sultan Murad in the Kosovo Plain. On 16 June, in the Kosovo Plain, Friday prayer was held with a crowd whose numbers are estimated between one hundred thousand and three hundred thousand in various sources. Manastırlı İsmail Hakkı delivered a sermon from a specially constructed pulpit, and the Sultan’s declaration was read. About ten thousand copies of this sermon were printed and distributed in areas inhabited by Albanians.

The Sultan’s declaration expressed sorrow over the events of 1910, announced the pardon of those involved, and called on Albanians to adhere to the laws.

The translation of the Sultan’s speech into Albanian was requested to be done by Manastırlı İsmail Hakkı. According to Lütfi Simavi, when İsmail Hakkı Efendi said he “did not know a single word of Albanian,” it led to a significant embarrassment, and İsmail Hakkı opted to make an Arabic prayer instead.

On the return journey, the group first arrived in Thessaloniki and stayed for four days before moving on to Manastır. There, Resneli Niyazi Bey and Eyüp Sabri Bey reenacted their uprising three years earlier, the declaration of the constitution, and their entry into Manastır for the Sultan. The Sultan’s third Friday greeting took place at the İshakiye Mosque in the city.

It was also announced in newspapers that Bediüzzaman would deliver a sermon at the New Mosque in Manastır on Wednesday, 21 June. The delegation then continued their journey by ship from Manastır without staying in Thessaloniki, and they reached Istanbul on 26 June.

Bediüzzaman in Rumelia

Bediüzzaman returned to Van in 1910 and arrived in Damascus in April 1911, where he delivered the famous “Hutbe-i Şamiye” sermon at the Umayyad Mosque.

Various representatives from different provinces also joined Sultan Reşad’s journey to Rumelia. Among these representatives was Bediüzzaman, known at the time more as “Said-i Kurdi.” It is understood that these delegations arrived in Istanbul and then traveled by train to Thessaloniki.

Bediüzzaman participated in the journey as a representative of the Trabzon and Erzurum provinces. It was reported in newspapers that the delegation from Trabzon-Erzurum arrived in Edirne, toured the city, joined forces with the Bayburt and Bitlis delegations, and then proceeded to Thessaloniki.

A photo showing Bediüzzaman among the delegation was published on the third page of the weekly Servet-i Fünun magazine on 9 June 1327 (22 June 1911), captioned “Delegations from Erzurum and Trabzon set out to Rumelia to express their respect and servitude to his imperial majesty on the occasion of the imperial journey to Rumelia.” Delegations from Anatolia, Syria, Mount Lebanon, and Beirut also joined the journey, and their expenses were covered.

Bediüzzaman provides very little information about the Rumelia journey in his works: “During the time of the Unionists, I went to Kosovo due to Sultan Reşad’s journey to Rumelia. At that time, there was an initiative to establish a grand Islamic University in Kosovo. I told both the Unionists and Sultan Reşad: The East is in great need of such a university, and it is considered the center of the Islamic world. Then the Balkan War broke out. The site of the Madrasa was occupied” (Emirdağ Lahikası, 109th Letter, p. 568).

His emphasis mainly concerns the madrasa whose foundation was laid in Kosovo (Priština). He later mentions that 19,000 gold liras were allocated for the establishment of an “Eastern University” in Van (in some places, for example, the 29th Letter in Emirdağ Lahikası, p. 400, it is mentioned as 20,000 gold liras), and the foundation was laid with the provided one thousand liras.

The project for the madrasa in Priština was also covered in the press of the time. An article in Sırat-ı Müstakim mentioned that a “Dâru’l-Ulûm-ı İslâm” similar to Egypt’s Al-Azhar would be established in Priština and that the Sultan wanted the plan for the madrasa to be excellently prepared.

After various correspondences, it was decided to open the madrasa near “Sultan Murad’s blessed shrine,” and a foundation-laying ceremony was conducted during Reşad’s Rumelia journey. However, the madrasa remained at the foundational stage, and with the loss of Western Rumelia and the Kosovo province during the Balkan War, no traces of it have reached today.

On the other hand, a letter from the Ministry of Pious Foundations in the Ottoman Archives mentions “the establishment of a madrasa in the city of Van similar to the one started in Priština, appointing a teacher, ensuring the religious education of the population, and paying his salary due to the lack of civilized and scientific education in the eastern provinces…” (BOA, DH. MUİ, 157-26).

This correspondence is dated 22 Jumada al-Awwal 1330, which corresponds to 9 May 1912, according to the Gregorian calendar. Other records also indicate a request to open a madrasa similar to the one founded in Priština in Van. The Prime Minister at the time was Mehmed Said Pasha. Said Pasha’s cabinet fell in July 1912, and Ahmet Muhtar Pasha’s government, which excluded the Unionists, was established.

After the Unionists directly formed a government following the Raid on the Sublime Porte in January 1913, the issue of the madrasa in Van resurfaced, and correspondence took place between Van Governor Tahsin Bey (Uzer) and Interior Minister Talat Bey. The planned university was to be named “Medrese-i âliye-i Reşadiye.” Indeed, a foundation-laying ceremony was held in October 1913 “with the participation of thousands of locals, soldiers, and scholars.” However, the project was halted by the outbreak of World War I.

Bediüzzaman described this initiative as “… And after laying the foundation with one thousand liras on the shore of Lake Van in Artemitte (Edremit), the Great War broke out. It was postponed again” (Emirdağ Lahikası, 109th Letter, p. 568).

All these efforts show that Bediüzzaman conveyed his long-cherished dream of a university, which he could not realize during Abdulhamid’s reign, to both Sultan Reşad and the Unionists, and that especially the Unionists were actively involved in this matter.

In conclusion, the Rumelia journey was carried out as planned, and the elderly Sultan left positive impressions in minds with his performance and courtesy beyond expectations despite his illness. It was noted that the Sultan was very cheerful throughout the journey, generously supported individuals and institutions without discriminating between Muslims and non-Muslims, and without burdening the treasury.

The Sultan emphasized “nation” throughout the journey, addressing the people as “my children.” Especially with the Friday greetings, Ottoman sovereignty was reaffirmed, and through the “communal Friday prayer” attended by thousands in the Kosovo Plain, efforts were made to reestablish the allegiance of the Albanians to Istanbul.

The journey was positively covered in the Ottoman press, interpreted as regaining the Albanians. However, the Balkan War began a year later, with Priština falling under Serbian occupation, followed by the declaration of an independent state of Albania.

With the loss of all places visited by Sultan Reşad from Thessaloniki onwards during the Balkan War, this journey remained only a memory.

Sources: Kuzucu, K. (2017), “The Last Ottoman Sultan in the Balkans: Sultan Mehmed Reşad’s 1911 Rumelia Journey”, Turksosbilder, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 1-39; Mülayim, S. (2001), “Sultan Reşad’s Rumelia Journey”, Proceedings of the Symposium on Cultural Interaction and Turkish Architecture in the Balkans, Ankara, pp. 477-494; Karaman, M. A. (2016), “Sultan Reşad’s Rumelia Journey”, History of the Balkans, Ankara, Night Library, Vol. 1, pp. 57-76; Program Prepared for Rumelia Seyahat-i Seniyyesi, Istanbul, 1329, Matbaa-i Amire; Neziri, B. (2022), “The Madrasa Planned to Be Opened in Priština”, Throughout History in the Rumelia Geography: Science and Wisdom, Istanbul, Ensar, pp. 143-150; Yazıcı, N. (2014), “İsmail (Tuncu) Bey’s Memoirs of Sultan Reşad’s Rumelia Journey: Kosovo”, Belleten, No. 283, pp. 1099-1136;

https://www.risalehaber.com/kadir-aytar-sultan-resadin-medresetuzzehra-icin-tahsis-ettigi-20-bin-altin-nerede-24983yy.htm (April 7, 2024).

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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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