Biography: The sultan who never ruled

Biography: The sultan who never ruled

Had destiny followed a different course, Prince Ertugrul Osman would have been the Sultan and Caliph of the Ottoman Empire. When he died in Istanbul at the age of 97 in September 2009, his funeral at the magnificent Sultan Ahmad mosque was attended by high government officials and thousands of ordinary Turkish citizens who mourned the passing of an icon linking them to their glorious past. Many Turks, looking past the decadence of the Empire in its waning days, have developed a feeling of nostalgia for the glory days when mighty Sultans ruled a vast empire, stretching from North Africa to parts of Eastern Europe, from their majestic palaces on the Bosporus.

The recognition and adulation, however, came only late in the life of Ertugrul Osman. Formally titled as His Imperial Highness Prince Ertugrul Osman, he was the last surviving grandson of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the 34th Ottoman Sultan who ruled from 1876 to 1909. A direct descendent of Osman I, Prince Ertugrul Osman was the first in line of succession to the Ottoman dynasty. His imperial lineage notwithstanding, he spent most of his life living modestly in a rented two-bedroom apartment in a four-storied building in Manhattan, New York; the building lacked ordinary amenities such as stairway lights or even an elevator. Few people recognised him, and even fewer were aware of his royal ancestry.

He was married to Princess Zeynep Tarzi Hanim since 1991, a niece of King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan. Born in 1912 in the sumptuous Yildiz palace in Istanbul, he was a 12-year-old student at Vienna when, in 1924, the Caliphate was abruptly abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his uncle, Caliph Abdul Majid, and the entire royal family were expelled from Turkey. They were barred from ever returning to it.

In 1939, Prince Ertugrul Osman settled in America and started a mining business. His dealings required him to frequently travel overseas, but he refused on principle to carry any passport other than that of the Ottoman Empire which, of course, no longer existed. He was ultimately granted special travel documents by the US Government. Although able to travel internationally, he could not visit the one country he longed to visit most, Turkey. Finally in 1992, Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel lifted the ban and officially invited him to visit his ancestral land.

During the visit, his first in 53 years, he went to see the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosporus, where he had played as a child and which had been the residence of his grandfather. The grandiose palace, with 285 stately rooms, where Kemal Ataturk spent his final days, is one of the star attractions in Istanbul. Rather than be treated as a privileged guest, Prince Ertugrul insisted on standing in line like others to wait for his turn for admission. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan granted him citizenship and a Turkish passport in 2004. During his rare TV interviews in New York, he never displayed any hostility towards Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, or its present democratic set up, nor did he express any desire to reclaim his family's lost mantle.

While the prince had been so gracious in exile, the demise of the Ottoman Empire, one of the longest lasting in history, had been slow and tortuous. In the First World War, plagued for years by corruption, autocratic rule and internal dissensions, it was decisively defeated by British and French forces. The capital, Istanbul, and large chunks of the country were occupied by foreign forces, and had it not been for the heroic resistance organised by Kemal Ataturk and other nationalist leaders, Turkey, as we know it today, would have been dismembered and ceased to exist.

After nearly a century, it is difficult to envision the passions aroused and anguish generated by the threatened extinction of the Ottoman Caliphate, in particular among the Muslims of India. Although the Caliph exercised no temporal authority over their lives, the institution was much loved and revered by Indian Muslims who dutifully recited the Caliph's name in their Friday Khutba, following a long-established tradition. There were strong sentiments to save the Caliphate. A powerful campaign, known as Khilafat Movement (1919-1924), was launched by Indian Muslims that was strongly supported by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Congress to influence the British government to preserve the institution of the Ottoman Caliphate. However, it all ended when Kemal Ataturk himself abolished the office and deported the last Caliph. A year earlier, the Grand National Assembly had stripped him of all monarchical powers. The last Caliph and his family took refuge in Switzerland, living through financial hardships. When news of their precarious financial condition reached India, the Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, granted a monthly stipend of £300 to support them.

The Republic of Turkey has flourished under its democratic constitution. In recent years, under the government of Prime Minister Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, the country after enduring repeated rebuffs from Europeans to join the European Union has lost much enthusiasm for it. Instead, it has found a new role as the leader of the Muslim world. Yet, while having undisguised leanings towards Islam, Turkey has remained steadfastly secular and has emerged as a model of a moderate Islamic country that is free of religious extremism and militancy. It has adapted exquisitely to the needs of the modern world, while staying faithful to its heritage. To promote that image, it has been reported that Mr. Erdogan proudly displays in his office the original decree of Sultan Mohammed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, granting unprecedented freedom to religious minorities in his realm.