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The Sultan’s Gift

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(The following is a post by Joan Weeks, head of the Near East Section and Turkish specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

At this time of the year, many have thoughts of finding the perfect present for their loved ones or friends, and often a cherished book or a subscription to a favorite magazine for the recipient comes to the donor’s mind. One of the most unique and unusual gifts that the Library of Congress has received came from Sultan Abdul-Hamid II regent of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909.

Sample front and back Abdul-Hamid II gift book covers. Photos by Joan Weeks.
Sample front and back Abdul-Hamid II gift book covers. Photos by Joan Weeks.

In 1884, through the auspices of Abram Hewitt, Member of Congress from New York’s 10th district March 4, 1875-March 3, 1879, March 4, 1881 – December 30, 1886, Sultan Abdul-Hamid II gifted the Library of Congress a collection of 300 books and periodicals in Ottoman Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and French on a wide range of subjects, including cosmology, cooking, bridge building, geography, military history, and poetry. The covers of each book were bound in red Morocco with gilt edges and engraved in Ottoman Turkish on the back and in English and French on the front, with the words “Gift made by H.I.M. the Sultan Abdul-Hamid II to the national library of the United States of America through the Honorable A.S. Hewitt Member of the House of Representatives A.H. 1302-1884 A.D.”

Why did this Member of Congress receive such a remarkable gift collection? According to an article in the July 13, 1884 New York Tribune, the story unfolded on a sultry day on the grounds of Yildiz Palace in Istanbul, formally Constantinople where Abram Hewitt was sightseeing when his young son fainted.  While the boy was being given medical attention in a nearby guard house, two other young lads peered in and saw the commotion. They reported what was happening to their father who happened to be the Sultan.

Abram Stevens Hewitt. Created between 1855 and 1865. Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The palace guards appeared at Hewitt’s hotel the next day asking about his son’s health and with an invitation to visit the Sultan. After the two met, a remarkable friendship developed with the Sultan intrigued with the workings of Congress and asking about tobacco in America. When Hewitt took notes with an indelible pencil, the Sultan tried it out and, to his amazement, he could not erase what he had written. The Sultan gifted Hewitt with carpets and swords. Upon returning home, Hewitt, in turn, sent the Sultan the special pencils trimmed in gold, as well as Virginia tobacco.

The exchange of gifts didn’t stop here though. Within months, Abram Hewitt was advised that he would owe duty on a collection of books that the Sultan intended to gift. To this he replied to the Sultan that he couldn’t accept such a wonderful gift and that he should send to the the Library of Congress instead. As such, the Sultan prepared a set for his American friend that is now in New York University, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, as well as a set for the Library of Congress.

Abdul-Hamid II, Sultan of the Turks, 1842-1918. [ca. 1890]. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
The collection arrived in 1884 at a time when the Library of Congress was located in the U.S. Capitol and the Jefferson Building was under construction. By 1907 Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, was able to report: “About 400 volumes, bound in red Morocco with gilt edges, have been given by the present Sultan, Ghasee Abdul-Hamid II.”

With emerging photographic innovations, the Sultan became an avid early adapter with the use of photography to record images of daily Ottoman life as well as their use in identity documents and official transactions. He gifted 51 large-format albums that date from about 1880 to 1893 to the Library of Congress to highlight the modernization of the Ottoman Empire. They depict buildings, monuments, education (particularly girls’), military facilities, and the imperial stables and horses.

Sample front and back Abdul-Hamid II Gift Photograph Album covers. Photos by Joan Weeks.

Like a family heirloom that has been passed down to younger generations, preservation has been a challenge for the Library for both the photograph albums, as well as the books. The albums became very fragile with the risk of light damaging the photos beyond recognition. With the advances in scanning, the Library curated and digitized the photo albums in 2003, which are available here.

The collection of books and serials were printed on acidic paper which deteriorated and the books became so brittle that they would break and tear when handled. As a preservation strategy, in 1984, 308 books were microfilmed. However, using the microfilm proved difficult for researchers with cataloging cards filmed before each book and sometimes two or three books captured on a single reel.

“Çocuklara kiraat.” Necip Necati. Abdul-Hamid II Collection (Library of Congress). Istanbul: Kitapcı Arakel, 1315 [1882]. Image 6.
In 2016, a proposal was approved to digitize the entire microfilm collection, as well as the 26 existing original books, using new scanning equipment that the Library had just acquired. Abdul-Hamid II had given his friend Abram Hewitt over 260 titles that were the same as he gave the Library of Congress. Hewitt donated his collection to New York University, which were recently cataloged using modern standards. These records were matched to the Library’s catalog cards for each item, then used to create the metadata needed in the digital environment. The Library’s catalogers produced the remaining metadata required for the collection.

The entire Abdul-Hamid II Collection of Books and Serials Gifted to the Library of Congress recently launched. Many have beautiful engraved illustrations such as this one in “Çocuklara kiraat.

Images are available in 5 formats and can be easily downloaded. A high-resolution format would allow the user to zoom in on the text and images, a particularly helpful feature if the Ottoman script is difficult to view normally.

It is rare for a gift to have enduring value but Abdul-Hamid II’s remarkable gift to the Library of Congress through Abram Hewitt now keeps on giving.

Comments (3)

  1. What a wonderful record for posterity!

  2. Even though this gift seems to be held in high esteem by the author of this article, those reading it should remember that Sultan Abdul Hamid was called the ‘red’ sultan for another, very serious and ominous reason: his murder of upwards of 300,000 of Ottoman Armenian citizens, during the years 1894 -96. My own grandfather and his brother became orphans as a result the Hamidian massacres, which took place all over Turkey during that period. His goal was to frighten the native Armenians into total submission, since they had nationalist stirrings at the time. His pogroms were followed shortly thereafter by the genocide of Armenians carried out by the Young Turks, from 1915 – 22, which eliminated 75% of the native Armenian population. This gift of books is as tainted as one that might have come from Adolf Hitler, and I seriously doubt he would get such a glowing thank you.

  3. wonderful to see these materials more widely available; they are so important as well as beautiful!

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