Framing Ottoman Epigraphy

Tracking Down a Black Sea Fortress at the Topkapı Palace
contribution by Emily Neumeier

[1] Sultan Abdülhamid's monument (1294 H/1877-78 CE) to Sohum in the second courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, with the chambers of the imperial council (Divan-ı Hümayun) and Tower of Justice in the background. Unless otherwise noted, photos by Emily Neumeier, 2014.

[2] Ali Pasha of Çürüksu (front row,
middle) and Ottoman Georgians
during the Russo-Ottoman War (1877–
78). Wikipedia, in Public Domain.

Every day, the thousands of tourists who visit the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul stream past a stately stone monument. [Fig. 1] Despite the monument's grand scale (more than 3 meters in height) and prominent location in the second courtyard of the palace, most visitors barely give it a second glance. And who can really blame them, with the nearby Tower of Justice, or the rococo Gate of Felicity (Bab-ı Saadet), as competition for their attention? Yet a careful reading of this monument's inscriptions reveals its unusual function--a piece of war propaganda for a new sultan in the midst of a crushing military defeat. More specifically, this is a military memorial from the early years of Sultan Abdülhamid II's reign, when fighting erupted in both the Balkans and the Caucusus during the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78. [Fig. 2] The purpose of the Topkapı monument is to present and frame an Ottoman inscription that had been rescued from the Black Sea fortress of Sohum, a city that was only briefly held by the Ottomans and then once again fell into Russian hands. 

[3] The monument's upper inscription and tuğra of Sultan Abdülhamid II.

[4] The early 18th-century foundation
inscription rescued from the fortress at
Sohum, now preserved in the Hamidian-era
memorial at the Topkapı Palace. 
The inscription that is located at the top of the monument, incised on a single block of marble, is itself undated but has been paired with the tuğra of Sultan Abdülhamid II above, which gives the year 1294 H/ 1877-78 CE. [Fig. 3] The text declares that more than a century and a half earlier, during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703-30), a fortress was constructed in Sohum, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. The inscription further explains that this fortress was later occupied by Russian forces ("Mosḳof eline geçmiş iken"), but it was finally reclaimed again by Sultan Abdülhamid and "the time of the gazi sovereign returned" ("gerüye şah-ı gāzi-i zamān geldi"). It was then that, by imperial order, the 18th-century foundation inscription from the fortress was removed from the Black Sea site and brought to Istanbul for the memorial at the Topkapı. Thus, the two plaques featuring Ottoman epigraphy that appear on this monument serve very different functions. Although the text of the 18th-century inscription from Sohum, if taken on its own as a historical document, does offer valuable information about a little-known Black Sea fortress, within the context of the Hamidian memorial, this plaque is presented as a kind of relic--a tangible fragment, or object, imbued with the aura of past military victory and success. The late 19th-century inscription in the upper register of the monument acts as an illustrative text, both literally and figuratively framing the central plaque. 

Because the Hamidian craftsmen responsible for the construction of this monument treated all three inscriptions (tuğra, upper inscription, central plaque) to the same paint job of gold lettering on a dark-green ground, at first glance a visitor might be led to assume that these inscriptions were all produced at the same time. However, even if a visitor were not able to read the text, there are subtle stylistic differences in the calligraphy that make it clear that these inscriptions are not from the same workshop or time period. [Compare figs. 3, 4 and 5] First, although the upper and central inscriptions are both written in the so-called ta'lik script--very popular for public texts in the Ottoman period--they were clearly designed by two different calligraphers. The ta'lik script in the central plaque is more Persianized in style in that it tends to flow more at an angle, while the later text in the upper panel follows is a bit more flat, sitting on a straight (imaginary) baseline. Additionally, while the text in the upper panel remains contained within eight cartouches, the 18th-century calligraphy in the central plaque is more free and lively, spilling over the lines of the text boxes. [Fig. 5] 

[5] Detail from the 18th-century central inscription showing the ta'lik script.

[6] "Sukhumi Fortress", 1830s, Jacques François
Gamba. Wikipedia, in Public Domain.

Besides being an interesting example of 18th-century calligraphy, the central plaque taken from the Sohum fortress provides insight into the construction of the fortification built by Ahmed III. [Fig. 6] Presently the site is difficult to access for any non-Russian citizens, as Sohum (Sukhumi, Sokhumi, Aqwa) is presently at the center of a complex political conflict, being the capital of Abzhakia, a disputed region in Georgia on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Sohum came under Ottoman control in the 1570s, and at this point the town was presumably re-fortified, adapting even earlier military works dating as early as the Roman period. [Fig. 7]

[7] Selection of late-antique and medieval-era pot sherds found in the 1985 Russian excavations of the Sohum fortress, evidence for the continuous use of the site as a settlement. Hrushkova and Gunba, "Raskopki Suhumskoi kreposti," p. 40.
We know, of course, from the foundation inscription now at the Topkapı that a new fortress was erected (or rather extensively rebuilt and enhanced) in the early eighteenth century in the reign of Sultan Ahmed III. The central plaque's text can be translated thus:
The king among kings of the world, the majestic Sultan Ahmed Gazi, whose imperial gate is the refuge of İskender and Dara. He is the exalted ruler of prosperity, whose imperial person is the ornament of the world with his exalted position of justice and perfect attainment of honor. The Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, abundant in influence, is the distinguished ruler’s imperial relation. He rendered secure every corner of the world from enemies because he ordered that this region be protected. This esteemed, strong fortress was erected with such majesty that you would imagine it to be the Phoenix at the top of Mount Kaf. The justice of the sultan increases the prosperity of the world such that the most holy one is a fortune for the world’s repose. As for the most exalted vezir he always acts such that the wise sadrazam is in this way the agent of security and peace. 
Unfortunately, this (very flowery) inscription is undated, but the text itself declares that the Sohum fortress was built under the Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, which further narrows the window of time in which the construction could have taken place to 1718-1730, the term of Ibrahim Pasha's service. The conclusion to this question of dating the fortress can actually be found, not in Ottoman sources, but in a map of western Georgia (Imereti) produced in the first half of the 18th century. [Fig. 8]

[8] Detail of Sohum Fortress (central square enclosure). French copy of the 1738 Georgian manuscript map, Bibliothèque Hydrographique de la Marine, Paris. W.E.D. Allen, "Two Georgian Maps," p. 106.
[9] Sohum Castle as it survives today, along
the water front of the city. Taken from
Google Earth, 15 March 2015.
This rationalized plan of the fortress depicts the construction as situated between two streams emptying into the Black Sea, a rectangular enclosure with a square bastion on each corner and an entrance with towers to both the north and south. The foundation inscription was most likely fixed above one of these entrances. It is perhaps a bit strange that the foundation inscription compares this structure, which is so evidently placed on the edge of the sea at the mouth of the port, to the "Phoenix at the top of Mount Kaf," but this just proves that sometimes the composers of these texts took some liberties with their metaphors and the actual topographic situation of a site (this discrepancy also might indicate that the author commissioned for this text was in Istanbul, and never visited Sohum personally). The description of the fortress on the Georgian map states that the fortification was "built by the Turks in 1723" and governed by a pasha "of two tails" with 100 soldiers (janissaries) operating 60 cannons. This map, therefore, confirms an exact date (1723 CE) for the inscription now found at the Topkapı Palace. The rendering in the 1738 map can be compared with what survives today on the ground in Sohum. [Figs. 9, 10]  Even though we can safely assume that the fortress underwent even further restorations after its initial construction in the early eighteenth century, the original design is essentially intact, being a rectangular plan with the traces of projecting bastions, or towers, on each corner. 

[10] View of Sohum, 1912. Early color photo by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii.
Wikipedia, in Public Domain.
The question remains, however, why did Abdülhamid's troops decide to remove the foundation inscription from the fortress at Sohum, and bring it to the imperial capital? As the Hamidian inscription states, the fortress at Sohum had for a long time been in Russian hands, and when the Ottomans briefly won back the castle in 1877, they must have known that their occupation there would only be short-lived. There is a long and proud tradition in the early modern period of military victors displaying the regalia of the losing side, and the Ottomans perhaps feared that once the Russians took back control of the fortress in Sohum that they might deface or destroy the foundation inscription as a symbolic gesture. So, while the sultan's troops in the end could not prevent the ultimate surrender of the castle itself, their one consolation prize was Ahmet III's inscription, which served as a precious testament to more triumphant days on the battlefield. Indeed, in the memorial now at the Topkapı Palace, Abdülhamid II, who was facing what by all accounts was a disastrous military loss, endeavored to make an explicit connection between himself and Ahmed III, who, along with his grand vizier Damat Ibrahim Pasha, was celebrated for his many victories against the Russians. It was hoped that this 18th-century inscription, which lauded viziers who "rendered secure every corner of the world" with fortresses that compared to the "Phoenix at the top of Mount Kaf," might confer some of that triumphal fanfare to the new sultan, who framed his ambitions for the future with a nostalgic monument to the past. 

**Many thanks to Olga Greco for her assistance in locating the Russian archaeological reports for the Sohum fortress; to Nilay Özlü for her advice on bibliography; and to the 2014 Ottoman Epigraphy Course at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations, Koç University, where this essay began. 

**Transcription of the Central Plaque recording the 18th-century foundation of the fortress (both translation above and transcription by the author, also see transcription by Necdet Sakaoğlu):

(1) [Ş]ehinşāh-i cihān şevketlu Sulṭān Ahmed gāzi ‖ ki bāb-i devleti İskender ü Dārāya me’vādır
(2) [O] ḫāḳān-ı bülend-i iḳbāl kim ẕāt-ı hümāyūni ‖ kemāl-i ‘izz ü cāh-ı ma’deletle ‘ālemârādır
(3) [O] ḫāḳān-ı güziniñ ṣıhr-ı ḫāṣı ṣadr-ı ‘ālisi ‖ Vezir-i pür-himem Dāmād İbrāhim Pāşādır
(4) Cihānıñ eyleyüb her kūşesin te’min a’dādan ‖ bu semtiñ daḥi oldu çünki emri ḥıfẓına ṣādır
(5) [ya]pıldı himmetiyle bu mu’aẓzam al'a-i muḥkem ‖ ki heybetli sanursenkim ser-i Ḳāf üzre ‘Anḳādır
(6) ḳıla ḥaḳ-ı şehriyār ‘ālemiñ iḳbālini efzūn ‖ ki ẕāt-ı aḳdesi sermāye-i ârām-ı düny[a]dır
(7) […] vezir-i a’ẓamın daḫi ḳıla dā’im ‖ ki bā’iŝ böyle emn ü rāḥata ol ṣadr-ı dānādır

EMILY NEUMEIER is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in the art and architecture of the Ottoman world and Modern Turkey.

ALLEN, W.E.D. "Two Georgian Maps of the First Half of the Eighteenth Century." Imago Mundi 10 (1953): pp. 99-121.
BALCI, Ramazan. Sarayın Sırları: Bilinmeyen Yönleriyle Osmanlı Sarayı ve Harem Hayatı. Istanbul: Elit, 2000. pp. 58-59.
FORTNA, Benjamin. "The Reign of Abdülhamid II," in The Cambridge History of Turkey Volume 4: Turkey in the Modern World, Ed. Reşat Kasaba. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008.
GUNBA, M. M. and Hrushkova L. G. "Raskopki Suhumskoi kreposti." Arheologicheskie otkrytiia v Abhazii 1985. Tbilisi: Mecniereba, 1990.
SAKAOĞLU, Necdet. The Imperial Palace with its History, Locations, Inscriptions and Memoirs (Topkapı Palace). Istanbul: Denizbank, 2002. p. 89.
SHAMBA, G. K. Drevnii Suhum. Sukhumi: Alashara, 2005.

Citation: "Framing Ottoman Epigraphy," Emily Neumeier, Stambouline (March 15, 2015).


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