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The Sultan’s Tughra

(The following is a post by Joan Weeks, Head of the Near East Section and Turkic World Area Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

From the inception of the Ottoman Empire in 1299, until its dissolution in 1922, the sultans from the House of Osman ruled the Ottoman dynasty in direct succession. The second ruler Sultan Orhan I (1288-1360) was the first to have a tughra designed as a calligraphic monogram or signature that would be affixed to all official documents. Later sultans also had their tughra stamped on coins minted during their reign.

Monogram of Sultan Orhan I printed in black on paper.

First tughra of 2nd Sultan Orhan I. “Resimli-haritalı mufassal Osmanlı tarihi (Detailed Ottoman History with Illustrations),” by Sever Iskit, 1957?-1963 p. 68. Near East Collections, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Insignia of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent illustrated with ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper.

Tughra (Insignia) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), ca. 1555-60. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org).

As each sultan ascended the throne, he had a carefully crafted tughra that embellished his name drawn by the court calligrapher. Gradually, the design of tughra evolved over time until it reached a pinnacle during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566).

Insignia of Sultan Ahmed III in blank ink on paper.

Tughra of Sultan Ahmed III (1673-1736) from the Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy Collection, Near East Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Composition of the Tughra

As sultans worked on the design of their tughra, they considered these five major elements:

Tuğ - The three tugs represent independence.

Zülfe – S shaped winds that blow east to west as the movement of the Ottomans.

Hançer – This part represents a sword, sign of power and might.

Sere – The sultan’s name is written in Ottoman script in this section.

Beyze – Egg shapes to the left of the tug with the outer larger loop perhaps signifying the Mediterranean and the inner, smaller loop the Black Sea that the sultan governed.

After the tughra was officially commissioned, it would be affixed to royal decrees, emblazoned on coins, or even embossed on a very special collection of books inscribed as a gift donation to the Library of Congress.

Firmans

The Library of Congress holds several royal decrees called “firmans” in the Ottoman collections in the African and Middle Eastern Division.

One of the most exquisitely illuminated firmans is the royal decree of Mustafa III (1717 – 74). The tughra of Sultan Mustafa III appears at the base of the conical arrangement of tulips and other flowers. The script of the royal decree at the bottom of the firman is the Ottoman Divanee, a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy used in the Imperial Chancery.

Manuscript adorned in gold and multiple colors with cursive writings.

Royal decree of Sultan Mustafa III. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division. Photography by Joan Weeks.

Detail of a insignia from an illustrated manuscript, in gold and multiple colors.

Detail of Sultan Mustafa III’s Tughra. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division. Photography by Joan Weeks.

Unraveling the Mystery of Grandmother’s Coins 

(The requester has kindly agreed to let me share the following information.)

In one of the most intriguing reference inquiries I have received, the requester asked if I could translate the text on the Ottoman coins given to his grandmother in her dowry. The coins had stayed with the family, and after her passing were distributed among her family members.

Where to start? At first glance, the front design was a sultan’s tughra or official monogram or signature that was stamped on the coins minted during his reign and the back design would be the sultan’s name written out.

The first step was to transcribe and Romanize the letters on the back of the coin from Ottoman Turkish and they spelled M E H M E D V (1844–1918).

The next step was to check the tughra on the front of the coin with the tughra found in “Resimli-.haritalı  mufassal Osmanlı tarihi (Detailed Ottoman History with Illustrations),” by Sever Iskit  and they matched.

Gold coin inscribed with the title of Sultan Mehmed V in cursive writings.

Mehmed V spelled on the coin. Photo used with permission of the owner.

Insignia of Mehmed V on a gold coin.

Tughra of Mehmed V on the front of the coin. Used with permission of the owner.

Insignia of Sultan Mehmed printed in black on paper.

Tughra of Mehmed V in “Resimli-.haritalı mufassal Osmanlı tarihi (Detailed Ottoman History with Illustrations),” by Sever Iskit, 1957?-1963, p. 68. Near East Collections, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

With this analysis and match, a follow up question was posed: “Would your grandmother have had access to gold coins for her dowry with the sultan who was reigning at the time? Mehmet V reigned from April 27, 1909 to July 3, 1918. Would these dates fit with your grandmother?” The answer was she was engaged to be married in 1911. The coins may have been recently minted when they were given to her as part of her dowry.

Abdul-Hamid II Gift Book Collection

Book cover in red.

Cover of all Abdul-Hamid II gift books donated to the Library of Congress.  Photography by Joan Weeks.

Insignia of Abdul-Hamid III embossed in gold on red book cover.

Detail of Abdul-Hamid II’s Tughra on the cover of all of his gift books donated to the Library of Congress. Photography by Joan Weeks.

The story of how Abdul-Hamid II (1842-1918) met and befriended Abram Stevens Hewitt (1822-1903), Member from New York’s 10th district, was reported in the New York Daily Tribune (July 13, 1884).

While Hewitt and his young son were touring around St. Sophia and Yildiz Palace grounds in Constantinople during a very hot day, when the young boy fainted and was taken to the guard house where two other boys his age observed all the excitement. They reported back to their father, the sultan, what they had seen. Their father dispatched his emissaries to Hewitt’s hotel to inquire about his son’s well-being and to request that he and his son visit the palace the next day.

During the visit, the sultan noticed Hewitt’s indelible pencil and special cigarettes which resulted in a gift shipment to Abdul-Hamid II when Hewitt returned home. Shortly thereafter, Hewitt received a notice about a shipment of Ottoman books. He wrote back to the sultan that he didn’t deserve such an honor and that the sultan should give the books to the Library of Congress. The sultan agreed and had a special collection prepared for the Library and invited Hewitt to keep the first set for himself. Hewitt’s collection is now in the New York University Elmer Holmes Bobst Library.

In 1884, Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (1842-1918) gifted the Library of Congress with a collection of Ottoman Turkish, Persian and Arabic works that he had richly embossed with this inscription in English, French and Ottoman: “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.” The tughra of Abdul-Hamid II is embossed in the red Morocco binding in gold leaf.  The Abdul-Hamid II Collection of Books and Serials Gifted to the Library of Congress has been digitized and is available for public access.

Learn More:

New York Daily Tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 13 July 1884. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

İskit Yayını. “Resimli-haritalı Mufassal Osmanlı Tarihi. Bir Heyet Tarafından Yazılmıştır” (Detailed Ottoman History with Illustrations), [İstanbul] [1957?-63]

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2 Comments

  1. Gulnar
    July 28, 2021 at 9:45 am

    This is such a fascinating post and images are stunning. I enjoyed learning about sultan’s tughras very much. Thank you.

  2. Barbara Dash
    July 28, 2021 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for this intriguing post, enlightening at least four times over. I find it especially interesting to learn the personal associations of materials in the Library’s collections, in this case from the origins of the tughras to the history of the coins and the Abdul-Hamid II Collection. The story of Representative Hewitt, the Sultan, and their young sons would make a wonderful illustrated children’s book. Thank you for sharing your discoveries!

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