Have you ever heard the names of Cevri Kalfa or Dindine Hanım, the former who saved Selim III from the hands of a deadly uprising, and the latter who led the Ottomans to defeat the Russian military during the Crimean War? Known as the ‘Kavm-i Necib' (noble-blooded peoples) of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Georgians were also known for their courageousness and their love of the nation. These days, the Ottoman Georgians who so faithfully served in so many positions in the Ottoman Empire for seven centuries in a row are literally rewriting their names on the pages of history. The lives of historical figures such as Grand Vizier Mehmet Sait Paşa, Sheikh-ul Islam Mirza Mustafa Efendi, Prince Sabahattin, and scholar Ali Haydar Efendi are all being revived for readers interested in learning more about their biographies.
They were the noble race of the Ottomans. For seven centuries, they served the empire faithfully. They could be found at every level of Ottoman government, from sadrazamlık, (assistant to the sultan, or grand vizier) and şeyhülislamlık (Islamic leader or sheikh), to nazırlık (state minister). Here is the surreal story of Ottoman Georgians
Historian Murat Kasap's book, “Osmanlı Gürcüleri” (Ottoman Georgians) brings the contributions of 1,200 Georgians who held positions of varying importance over many centuries of the Ottoman Empire to the modern day. Some of the historical figures covered in this book are those of the Georgian “valide sultans,” or the mother of reigning sultans, such as Mihr-î-Şah Valide Sultan. These were women who brought up the men who would become sultans in the empire. The book also touches on the lives of Georgians, such as pioneering writer-poet and skilled musician Hüseyin Sadeddin Arel. This 480-page book was published by the Friends of Georgia International Foundation and really does manage to bring to light some of the Georgian Ottomans whose lives and stories have remained hidden until now. The first 1,000 printings of this book were sold out long ago, and so the second printing and the Georgian language version are expected on the market very soon.
Historian Murat Kasap (34) devoted three years of his life to this book. His detailed and painstaking research brought him not only to the Prime Ministerial Ottoman Archives, but also to the İstanbul Müftü's Series and Records Archives. In the process, Kasap went through nearly every chronicle and biography he could find, in the end making his way through around 50,000 documents, most of which were written in Ottoman Turkish. In addition to the many biographies included in this book, readers are treated to Kasap's own writings on Georgian history, the process of Georgians' conversions to Islam and an all-encompassing view on Turkish-Georgian relations.
A project sparked by curiosity
We asked Kasap about what it was that pushed him towards this seemingly self-sacrificing task. The answer was a single word: curiosity. Kasap graduated in 2001 from İstanbul University's history department and his personal compulsion towards history pushed him first to research his family's history, and then the histories of his close friends' families. Trying to trace the roots of his immigrant family, he delved into archives which wound up leading him to the Ottoman Georgians. He explains: “I began this research into [my] roots as a hobby, actually. But as the research went on, my curiosity was more and more awakened. When my research into my family's roots was finished, I began getting more and more curious about the lives of Georgians who lived here during the Ottoman era. What I really wanted to do was reveal the contributions of my ancestors to the creation of Ottoman civilization. And so, this job I began as a hobby transformed into my real work. And as for the book ‘Ottoman Georgians,' it is the fruit of that period of labor.”
Kasap, whose mother is Turkish and father is Georgian, had another motivating factor pushing him to write this book: to remind people of the forgotten friendship between Turks and Georgians. When you consider that the relations between these two peoples goes all the way back to the Selçuk era, it becomes even clearer just what an important task has been undertaken by Kasap. He says: “I set out wanting to contribute to the noble history of Turkish-Georgian friendship and to remind people of the forgotten historical relations between these two peoples. To wit, Georgians had been appointed to very important posts in the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century onwards. They were in positions such as grand vizier, or sometimes sheikh-ul Islam. And since the Ottomans promoted the coexistence of different peoples of different identities in the same community, the Georgians supported this empire with all their might.”
Here is how Kasap explains why it is that Georgians were identified in Ottoman Turkish as the “Kavm-i Necib” and why they were perceived without exception as being great patriots: “In his work ‘Tarih-Cevdet' (History by Cevdet), Ahmet Cevdet Paşa talks about a certain Georgian commander, noting ‘He was appointed to the rank of pasha, with his Georgian ethnicity counted as proof of his love of nation.' In the Ottoman era, being Georgian was viewed as the same thing as being a patriot. In addition to this, Georgians were called ‘Kavm-i Necib' [the noble race]. They were seen as very clean-hearted people. Evliya Çelebi traveled all over Georgia and wrote about what he saw. In his writings he also uses the term ‘Kavm-i Necib' to describe Georgians. It was later that this term really settled in Ottoman Turkish. In fact, Georgians even began using it with each other.”
On further perusal of this book, it is clear that the Georgians were very generous when it came to donations and financial contributions. In particular, foundations formed by some of the Georgian mothers of pashas (such as Mihr-î-Şah Valide Sultan and Bezm-i Âlem Valide Sultan) stand out. There is much space devoted in this book to the biographies of four mothers of reigning sultans and the charities they established and left behind as legacies. In fact, Murat Kasap provides a literal inventory of the libraries, bridges, mosques, madrasas, schools, fountains and hospitals built by Georgians living in the Ottoman Empire at the time.
He explains: “Ottoman Georgians lived with the idea of serving the state. They were not involved in secretive plans and they did not try to come by certain political power for their own gain. Even when they were involved in politics, they didn’t actually engage in active politicking. They were really more focused on service. For example, one of the oldest Georgian works I could find was the 15th century Georgian Hussein Bridge in Sivas. And then there is the Büyük İskele Mosque in Eyüp Sultan, built by Georgian Hajj Mahmut Ağa in 1567. And the Vakıf Gureba Hospital that was established by the Georgian mother of a reigning sultan known for her charitable works, Bezm-i Âlem Valide Sultan, and is still standing today.”
The Ottomans were able to accurately interpret the characteristics of Georgians and were able to benefit from them in the most effective way possible. Their courage, daring and tremendous loyalty often pushed them toward careers in the military, where they often held critical posts. Kasap touches on how important the Georgian factor was on the Caucasian front against the Russians: “Caucasian peoples are known for their predisposition to using firearms as well as their skills in battle. There are many Georgian pashas about whom their skills in these areas, as well as their courageousness and bravery, were much talked of. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Georgians were very much in the forefront as statesmen and soldiers. But when the 19th century arrived, we start seeing Georgians as religious scholars and learned men. One reason for this was that in those years, Georgians would send their children to İstanbul to receive religious education in order to stand up against the Christianizing efforts of the Russians.”
Religious scholar Ali Haydar Efendi
Among the great Georgian religious scholars discussed in this book is Ali Haydar Efendi. Born in 1870 in the town of Ahıska near Batumi, Ali Haydar Efendi was one of the most important scholars of the era. His first schooling was in Ahıska, after which Ali Haydar Efendi went to Erzurum, where he studied at the Bakırcılar Madrasa. He began in 1902 to teach lessons at İstanbul’s Fatih Mosque and carried on with his scholarly services to the Muslim community until his death in 1960. In the process, he trained thousands of students. Kasap had the chance to meet with Ali Haydar Bey’s grandson while writing the scholar’s biography and used the opportunity to obtain more information about the family’s Georgian roots. “They know that Ali Haydar Bey came from Ahıska and that he saw himself as Georgian. Ali Haydar Efendi’s wife also spoke Georgian. One of his students, Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu Efendi, would say, ‘I love Georgians, my teacher was a Georgian’.”
Kasap also tries to challenge the allegations that Turks forced Islam on the Georgians. He says: “The Russians purposefully spread the idea that ‘the Ottomans forced the Georgians to become Muslim.’ But this was not true. In fact, the Georgians were very easy in their embrace of Islam. Of course, the resemblance between these two cultures was influential in this. In just a short time, they begin having more contact with other ethnic groups, and then they produced a commendable number of scholars as well as building all sorts of mosques and madrasas. There are even Georgian sheikhs-ul Islam who emerge. So the allegations that the Georgians were forced to become Muslim are not true. When the Georgian version of this book is finally published, it will strike a blow to Russian propaganda on this matter.”
Kasap, who is currently working on a new book about the Batum Muhacirleri (Batumi immigrants), thinks his written works will contribute significantly to Turkish-Georgian friendship. He notes that recent improvements in relations between Turkey and Georgia and the elimination of certain border restrictions are also strengthening this friendship. He says: “I have toured all over Georgia. You can still find Turkish traditions and cultural customs in Georgian villages. The narrowing gap in relations between the two countries, as well as the opened borders, and the reciprocal visits made by Turks and Georgians to each other’s lands are all working to break down the Russian influence.”
There are all sorts of interesting anecdotes included in this book, in addition to the historical photographs and maps. Here are two of the anecdotes:
The Georgian kalfa (headworker) who saved the royal household
Protestors who stormed the Ottoman palace in 1808 and killed Sultan Selim III also wanted to kill Sultan Mahmut II. The prince was saved from the hands of the protestors by one of the women of the palace, Georgian Cevri Kalfa. She first hid him in her room, and then used her own body to shield him from the shooting protestors. She used ashes from a fire to try and distance the angry protestors from her room. At that point two other palace officials, Anber and Isa Ağa, came to her assistance, rescuing the prince from the palace. Mahmut II received a knife wound to his arm, but at least he lived. When Mahmud II becomes sultan, he appointed Georgian Cevri Kalf as “hazinedarbaşı” (an office on par with that of being a vizier), and she stayed on for good. In a sense, Cevri Hanım ensured the survival of the royal dynasty by saving the life of Sultan Mahmud II. When Cevri Hanım died, in 1819, Mahmud II had her buried alongside the grave of his mother and ordered a fountain and a primary school built in her name.
Dindine Hanım fights the Russians
The Georgian Ottomans fought on the front lines of the three-year Crimean War, which broke out in 1853 in line with the traditional Russian politics of heading southward. One event that took place during this war shows just how devoted to the Ottomans the Georgians were: One of the patriots firing from horseback at the Russians was Dindine Hanım from the Tavdgiridze family. Fatma Dindine Hanım lost her son as well as her step-son in the same battle during this war, but despite growing Russian attacks on the front lines she remained steadfast in her own presence on the battlefield. In fact, while some Georgian fighters began pulling back at one point, Dindine Hanım drew her sword and headed full speed towards the oncoming forces. Seeing this, the Georgians who had started withdrawing decided to return to the front lines. The Georgians would not give ground to the Russians in this battle and wound up successfully protecting Ottoman borders. News of Dindine Hanım’s courage made it to İstanbul, and the sultan himself rewarded this brave woman. Later, two other sons of Dindine Hanım, Osman Bey and Ali Bey, wound up rising to the level of pasha in the Ottoman Empire.
Who is included in this book?
The books includes: 17 grand viziers, nine Janissaries, six sea captains, 13 ministers of state, 173 viziers, a military commander, a beylerbeyi (an Ottoman grand governor), a governor, a sancakbeyi (the head of a sancak or county), 13 government deputies, six sheikhs-ul Islam, 344 religious scholars, 34 poets, writers and painters, 488 palace and state officials, and 23 mothers of pashas and princes’ wives.