Ottoman Sultan’s Gifts Build Bridges With US


On a hot and humid day in 1884 on the grounds of Yildiz Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, New York congressman Abram Hewitt was sightseeing when his young son fainted.

His son was taken to a nearby guardhouse, where he was given medical attention. Two other boys saw what was going on and reported what happened to their father, who happened to be Abdulhamid II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

The next day, palace guards visited Hewitt’s hotel and asked about his son’s health. They also presented him with an invitation to visit the sultan. The two met, and a friendship developed.

The sultan gave Hewitt carpets and swords as gifts and later 51 albums containing photos taken throughout the empire along with some manuscripts.

Washington, in turn, reciprocated the gesture, gifting the sultan with a series of photos depicting various parts of the United States.

The sultan's collection, which included scholarly works in Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, was delivered to the Library of Congress.

"I think what he was trying to show was how educated the courts were, as well as the scholarly works that were being published in Istanbul," Joan Weeks, a Turkish specialist at the Library of Congress, said during a lecture on the exhibition Friday.

"At that time, Sultan Abdulhamid II was trying to show America that the Ottoman Empire was similar to its Western counterparts," Halid Bulut, head of the Washington, D.C. branch of the Yunus Emre Institute, a Turkish cultural center, told Anadolu Agency.

The institute, which held the exhibition, showcased some of the photos gifted by the sultan to the U.S.

"We are trying to show the decorated history between the United States and Turkey, which was then the Ottoman Empire," Bulut said.

In 2016, Weeks began a difficult, two-year-long journey of digitizing the Library of Congress' entire collection, finally finishing the project in November 2018.

"Thankfully, the sultan gave two copies of the collection," Weeks said.

"Apparently he didn't just gift them to the Library of Congress; he also gifted to other libraries as well, like Germany," she added.

Weeks became interested in Turkish studies back in the 1960s when she was working in Turkey for the Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the United States government, in rural community development.

"That's kind of where I fell in love with the area," she told Anadolu Agency.

Weeks has many plans for her next few projects now that the Abdulhamid II collection is digitized.

The librarian said she is trying to work on getting access to a collection of Ottoman medical books she believes are currently located in the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.

She also said she wants to work with the Library of Congress to share this collection with the rest of the world.

"This was a big step in the relations between the two countries, achieved through photographic diplomacy," Bulut said.

The Library of Congress also contains around 900 other Ottoman Turkish works, according to Weeks.

Abdulhamid II was one of the last leaders of the Ottoman empire, ruling for a period of 33 years from 1876 to 1909.

He spent his childhood and youth during the "Tanzimat," a period of reform in the Ottoman Empire that began in 1839, and spoke many languages, including French, Arabic and Persian.

The photos gifted by Abdulhamid II highlight the modernization of numerous aspects of the Ottoman Empire, with images of educational facilities and students, firefighting brigades, factories, harbors, hospitals, and government buildings.

The majority of places depicted are within the boundaries of modern-day Turkey, but some photos were also taken in Iraq, Lebanon, and Greece.