Zoya Ansari describes an important office of the past
Ottoman Empire was a sprawling geographical entity spanning both Asia and Europe known to be a powerful force in international arena. The sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire was confined to the family of its founder Ottoman who always became Sultan and there was no deviation from this basic principle throughout the six centuries of Ottoman rule. With the passage of time the Sultan left the centre stage and his nominees ran the empire. In this context, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire was considered the second most powerful state position in the sprawling realm but his position was certainly not a bed of roses and he was widely rated to be a whisker away from potential ruin and often faced a grisly death due to the whimsical and arbitrary mood swings of his political master.
After the position being assigned to him he had to remain at a careful guard lest the Sultan took an adverse impression of any activity associated with him. Being grand vizier was not very secure in the Ottoman Empire, as it depended on the favour of the sultan. The dangerous position of the incumbent of this office could be gauged by the fact that forty-four grand viziers were executed at the order of the sultan. After becoming grand vizier the incumbent had to tread dangerous and unpredictable path completely at the mercy of the Sultan known for his whimsical decision making life hanging in the balance.
Throughout the incumbency of the Ottoman Empire 284 held this position fewer than half were Turkish as the breakup shows: 121 Turks, 22 Albanians, 10 Georgians, 10 Bosnians, six Abazians, five Circassians, three Greek, two Italians, two Herzegovinians, one Arabic, one Russian and one Bulgarian. The Ottomans, as they grew larger and expanded further in Anatolia, drew on the Seljuks of Konya and earlier Muslim states going back as far as the Abbasid caliphate for examples of how to establish their state administration. At the head of the state was the caliph or sultan and just beneath him was his deputy known as grand vizier.
Under the Ottoman Turks this person was called the vezir-i-alem or the sadr-i-azam and it was described that the two titles were in use at the same time and both indicate something similar to the highest dignitary. In the modern parlance historians often try to equate this office with that of the prime minister but the translation of choice remains grand vizier. This official might at times be merely the executive arm of the ruler or he might have held the right to act in place of the ruler. This depended upon how active the monarch was.
The first Ottoman grand vizier is considered to have been Candarli Halil Pasha under Sultan Mehmed Fatih although members of this family had served the Ottoman rulers for four generations. Halil Pashaa was the grand vizier throughout the conquest of Constantinople but was dismissed and executed the same year probably because Mehmed Fatih suspected him of treachery involving the Byzantines, ending a brilliant career was ignominy.
When the sultan next appointed a grand vizier, he chose someone who was from among the “kapı kulu,” or slave officials, rather than a free Muslim. This situation continued until Suleiman the Magnificent who wished to retire towards the end of his reign delegated more and more authority to the grand vizier. Suleiman’s immediate successors were also more concerned with their personal interests than with governing the state and allowed the grand vizier more leeway in making his own decisions.
As was the requirements of the time the duties and responsibilities of grand vizier were extensive and interestingly though he was the Sultan’s absolute representative, he had no direct authority over two important institutions of state, namely, the Imperial Household and the Learned Profession but otherwise he was all-powerful, controlling all appointments both in the army and the administration. He was further required not only to manage the affairs of the army but also, if necessary, to command it in war, and to supervise the preservation of law and order in the capital. Moreover, he represented the Sultan as chief dispenser of justice.
The investiture of this office was that the person who was chosen to be the grand vizier was entrusted with the sultan’s seal. Dismissal would be announced by asking for the return of the seal. There was more than one type of seals given to the vizier as Sultan Ahmed III’s seal was made of gold but the seal given to Vizier Nevsehirli Damad Ibrahim Pasha as an emerald signet ring. Whatever the type of seal it was invariably was used not only for signing documents but also had to be used to seal a number of depositories and records. It was the sign of authority vested with the vizier and was considered an honour.
As the absolute representative of the sultan, the grand vizier was also committed to maintaining various ceremonial practices. Anyone entering the presence of the sultan was obliged to kiss the hem of his robe or his sleeve. The same applied to anyone who approached the grand vizier. This apparently applied to certain members of the imperial household who were assigned to wait upon the pleasure of the grand vizier, even though he had no specific control over them. Until 1654, the grand vizier maintained his position out of his own private house although that might be better described as a mansion or even a palace. It was highly unlikely that the sultan would appoint a man of scant means to the position.
After all, the ruler would expect the grand vizier to be able to support his position and carry on a number of rather expensive traditions that had arisen over the years. Of course he would be expected to present valuable gifts to the sultan on special occasions. However, in 1654 Sultan Mehmed IV presented his grand vizier Dervish Mehmed Pasha with an official residence that became known as the Sublime Porte or Bab-i-Aali. It was large so that it could include that various bureaucrats and their staffs needed to run the empire.
During his tenure in office the grand vizier lived a life of grandeur and it is mentioned that Grand Vizier Azem Ibrahim Pasha, in particular, was remarkable in all his grandness, accompanied by other dignitaries, no fewer than three rows deep. Wherever he looked, people bowed before him and showed deference to him as the second in command of the empire. He responded in a mild and dignified manner, with a slight inclination of the head.
However, the end of grand viziers career and life could be swift and brutal as could be borne out by the example of Damad Ali Pasha who was disastrously defeated at the Battle of Petrovaradin in 1716, Sultan Ahmed III immediately sent orders for him to be executed even though the man was married to his daughter. Ali Pasha escaped execution because he was fortunate enough to have been killed during the battle and he was even proclaimed a martyr. On the other hand Damad Ibrahim Pasha was given up to mob justice by the sultan in order to save his own life in 1730. TW