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Ottoman Orders and Decorations as Forms of Honor

From Nelson's Çelenk to the Tradition of Ottoman Orders and Decorations

The tradition of Ottoman orders and decorations begins in the summer of 1798, when pretexting the Mamluk uprising, Napoleon Bonaparte suddenly invaded Ottoman Egypt. Caught unawares by this sudden attack, the Ottoman government, rather than countering one of the most powerful armies of the time, was content to take certain minimal measures. All garrisons on the Mediterranean coast were warned against a possible French attack. The Mamluks were urged to organize a resistance against the French invaders, and all port authorities were ordered to welcome arriving British ships. Doubtlessly, Selim III had foreseen a possible English intervention since Egypt was a strategic point on the road to India. In effect, Nelson's fleet reached the Egyptian coast on July 28. The battle between the British and the French fleet ended with Nelson's victory. News of the victory and the fortuitous military alliance it had triggered soon spread throughout the empire. In keeping with Ottoman tradition, the Porte expressed its gratitude to Nelson and the British envoy in Istanbul with presents and messages of thanks. Yet, the jeweled aigrette or çelenk offered to Nelson clearly went beyond the usual Ottoman forms of rewards.


According to the definition given by Pavet de Courteille in the Dogu Türkçesi Sözlügü [Dictionary of Oriental Turkish], the word çelenk was "a bird feather which one attaches to one's cap as a sign of bravery," and thus differed from the meaning it carries today (wreath or garland). By the end of the 18th century, the çelenk had become institutionalized in Ottoman military practice and continued to be awarded for military merit up to the 1820s. What set Nelson's çelenk apart was its actual value and the fact that it had been conferred for the first time on a non-Ottoman. Until then, the presents given foreigners had been limited to the hil'at or robe of honor, gold snuff boxes, and horses presented to foreign envoys. High quality sable furs were reserved for Ottoman officials. In terms of its value, Nelson's çelenk was similar to the sorguç, or aigrette that decorated the turbans of the Sultan or of the highest-ranking officers of the Porte. In fact there was even a rumor circulating that Nelson's çelenk had come from one of the Ottoman ruler's own turbans. Attempting to express the exceptional nature of the gift bestowed upon Nelson, the British envoy Spencer had established a parallel between the çelenk and the format of a western order, using terms such as badge and insignia. Another point of interest concerns a second mysterious decoration allegedly sent to Nelson in 1799 and referred to in western public opinion as the "Order of the Crescent." While Ottoman sources considered both objects simple honorific gifts presented to a loyal ally of the empire, the British interpreted them according to western norms, thus inventing a tradition of orders which had hitherto not existed in the Ottoman Empire. Following the new defeat of the French army face to the Anglo-Ottoman alliance in the battle of Canope, on March 21, 1801, an armistice was signed on June 27, 1801, forcing the French troops to withdraw from Egypt. By August 27, the last French stronghold fell and Ottoman sovereignty was reestablished on Egyptian soil. To commemorate the Anglo-Ottoman alliance's victories, the 1801 "medal for Egypt," known in Turkish as the Medal of the Event of Egypt (Vak'a-i Misriye Madalyasi) was struck in gold and silver and distributed to British commanders, officers, and soldiers.

Sultan Selim III, wearing a çelenk or plume type aigrette on his headgear. Engraving from the frontispiece of Melling's Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore. Isa Akbas collection.

Extending the Decoration (1801-1812)

After their first "invention" phase, in which British envoy Spencer, in particular, played an active part, Ottoman decorations began to adapt to the western format and became very similar to the royal orders in use since the Crusades in most European monarchies of the time. In the West, the creation of 'modern' orders and medals issued in recognition of military or civilian merit rather than birth gained impetus with the Napoleonic Wars. In this context, the Ottomans can be considered to have rapidly caught up with western forms of rewards. But an interesting aspect of this process of adaptation is that none of the new decorations were ever bestowed upon Ottoman subjects and the state continued to honor military and civilian bureaucrats with rewards of a more traditional sort. This seems somewhat paradoxical when considering that from the 15th century on, numerous medals were issued in the western world to glorify Ottoman Sultans, commemorate victories and treaties, or mark the gradual integration of the Empire into European diplomacy. At the same time, Selim III's desire to develop a new iconography for the state is apparent in the use of the same motif of a crescent and eight-pointed star on a red background both in state flags in the sanjaks and in the Medal for Egypt (Vak'a-i Misriyye Madalyasi). An obvious concurrence existed between the westernization of the Ottoman system of decorations and the increasingly active role of the Ottomans in European diplomacy. This process would last from the beginning of the establishment of permanent Ottoman diplomatic representation in Europe to the involvement of the Empire in a complex network of alliances with western powers. The first phase, from 1798 to 1801, was dominated by the alliance between the Ottoman Empire and Britain and, after an interruption in the process in 1801, the new phase that began in 1806, following the peace treaty signed between Selim III and Napoleon Bonaparte, indicated the normalization of diplomatic relations between the Ottoman Empire and France. In fact, the so-called 'Order of the Crescent' (Hilal Nisani) was put to use this time to honor the French, the new allies who would protect the Empire against the British fleet. It can be said that in time, decorations became more symbols of alliance than forms of reward. It is possible to consider the rivalry between European states to snatch up Ottoman honors in this context. Over time, somewhat like the capitulations, the bestowal of medals and decorations turned into a sort of concession the Ottomans resorted to in order to ingratiate European officials. Western states for their part, did not feel the need to respond in kind with honors of their own so that there was never any sort of reciprocity involved in this bestowal of awards.

Medal/ Order of the Crescent, ca 1808. Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Collection of Islamic Coins and Medals. Obverse: Tughra Sultan Osman III.
Medal/ Order of the Crescent, ca 1808. Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Collection of Islamic Coins and Medals. Reverse: Right-facing crescent and star surrounded by rays of light.


Sartorial Reform and Rank Decorations (1827-1851)

Photograph of an Ottoman officer wearing his "double" decoration of arrows and his artillery badge on a bandolier with other military badges. Isa Akbas collection.

The military reforms that took place during the reign of Mahmud II, on the one hand symbolized a transition to western methods and training with the abolition of the Janissary corps and, on the other, did away with traditional military uniforms. The sartorial aspects of the reform, which enforced the use of the fez in the military, soon spread to the civil bureaucracy with the compulsory introduction of jackets and trousers in public buildings. This rapid and forceful sartorial transformation also affected the tradition of medals and decorations, which had slowly begun to take root, since çelenks, furs, and other forms of distinction were no longer compatible with the new garments. The main difference between former decorations and the new ones that appeared in this period lay in the fact that they were now also bestowed upon Ottoman subjects and that, after some initial confusion, it was now possible to distinguish between decorations given for merit and those automatically conferred to denote rank.

Boghos Düzyan's Album of Decorations (1851)

By the late 1840s, decorations had reached a certain standardization and stability. An album of decorations that the jeweler Düzoglu Bogos presented to the palace around this time may be assessed in the light of this attempt at standardization. Hoca Boghos Düzyan (1797-1871) was head jeweler of the Imperial Mint from 1839 to 1853. His album consisted of a total of 401 different items, each identified as belonging to certain categories of individuals, ranks, or positions. Boghos Düzyan's album indicates the evolution of Ottoman decorations from the 1820s to the end of the 1840s, and provides information concerning the variety of metals used to make the medals. There were three metal qualities used: gold, gilt silver, and silver. Distinctions among decorations that were not made of plain metal were based on variations in diamond content and quality.

Nisan-i Imtiyaz (Order of Distinction) first, second, and third classes, ca 1851. Drawing on paper by Düzoglu Bogos (1797-1871).Topkapi Palace Museum Library.

The Order of Glory [Nisan-i Iftihar] (1831-1918)

Diamond-set decoration of the Imtiyaz (Distinction) Order, ca1840. Gold, silver, enamel, and diamonds. Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Collection of Islamic Coins and Medals.

Some confusion exists as to the actual date of the creation of the Order of Glory, with the dates proposed fluctuating from 1831 to 1834. At the same time, it is also extremely unclear what the term Order of Glory meant exactly at the time and which decorations were included under that appellation. The same decoration was sometimes called Nisân-i zî-sân (glorious decoration) or Imtiyâz Nisân-i zî-sâni (Glorious Decoration/Order of Privilege/Distinction). The conclusion to be reached from this imprecise terminology is that the western distinction between orders, decorations, and military badges was still not clear where Ottoman decorations were concerned. Thus, the generic name Nisân-i Iftihâr covered a wide range of decorations, from rank badges to order-like distinctions. The term iftihâr (pride/glory) simply referred to the glory bestowed on the individual honored with the decoration. When looking at the Iftihâr decorations as a whole, certain general categories appear. Some were indications of a certain office and thus unique; others were linked to rank and corresponded to the military badges or epaulettes in European orders; but others still were used like European orders of merit independently of rank or office as honors or rewards bestowed upon certain individuals.

Toward the end of 1851, the Porte announced that all medals and decorations were to be surrendered within a specified time limit to the Imperial Mint. Following this decision, the Mecidî Order was created. The new order met all the requirements of a modern system of merit-based distinction, and also did away with the tradition of diamond-set badges that were beginning to weigh on the state budget. The Nisân-i Iftihâr continued to be bestowed upon a small number of high-level state dignitaries after 1851.

The Imperial Portrait [Tasvir-i Hümayun] and the Order of Distinction [Nisan-i Imtiyaz] (1832-1862)

Plain Imperial Portrait of Sultan Mahmud II, by Marras, 1832. Oil on ivory. Topkapi Palace Museum, Treasury Section.

Around the time that the Order of Glory was becoming popular, Mahmud II came up with a new decoration known as the Tasvîr-i Hümâyûn or Imperial Portrait. The object consisted of a medallion bearing the portrait of Mahmud II painted in miniature style on ivory. It is a fact that most Ottoman sultans had a fondness for having their portraits done and had no qualms about using these portraits as gifts or awards. Yet the Imperial Portrait went beyond the snuff-boxes bearing the image of the Sultan which Ottomans traditionally offered as gifts to foreign envoys. It was an official decoration given to honor Plain Imperial Portrait of Sultan Mahmud II, by Marras, 1832. Oil on ivory. Topkapi Palace Museum, Treasury Section. individuals. The first documented evidence of its bestowal dates back to 1832. The fact that the Tasvîr-i Hümâyûn bore the image of the Sultan distinguished it as a personal honor bestowed on the individual by the Sultan and made it the highest and most prestigious decoration of the time. The Imperial Portrait also carried a special meaning under Mahmud II; starting from July 23, 1836, portraits of the Sultan were hung in the Selimiye, Rami, and Taksim barracks, the Military School, and the Sublime Porte. In this sense, it becomes obvious that this creation of a decoration bearing the Sultan's portrait funtioned both as a form of reward and as an instrument underscoring Mahmud II's autocratic reformism. One of the first recipients of the Imperial Portrait, which was issued either as a rectangular or oval badge, was probably Kazaz Artin Amira Bezciyan. After the death of Sultan Mahmud II, the Imperial Portrait was used much less. There are probably several reasons for this: in the first place, since the decoration had become closely associated with the image and personality of Mahmud II, it may have posed the threat of overshadowing that of his successors. Furthermore, when official portraits of the Sultan were removed from public buildings immediately after his death in fear of the reaction of conservative circles to his western-oriented reforms, the Tasvîr-i Hümâyûn was also pushed aside so that the Order of Glory with its closer affinity to European orders was once again the favored decoration.

In fact, the image of a sultan would never be used on any decoration or medal until the end of the Empire. This was also the case for banknotes, paper money, and postage stamps. It was only after Sultan Mehmed V Resad took the throne that the sovereign's portrait began to appear again but on postage stamps exclusively.

As for the Order of Distinction or Nisân-i Imtiyâz, it was considered a higher honor than the Order of Glory and given to reward merit and outstanding services. The fact that no documentation exists regarding the origin of this order and that very few examples of it have survived further point to its exceptional nature.

Going International

In 1851, a medallion that would hold a very special place among Ottoman medals was produced. On the obverse of the medallion, which was both extremely large and ornate, figured a variety of artifacts, mostly weapons, piled up to form a coat of arms of sorts. Many of these objects were also inscribed with the name of a famous individual chosen for his reformist character. Abdülmecid's tughra accompanied by an inscription stating that the Sultan was the regenerator of the Empire figured on top of the pile of arms. The reverse of the medallion bore a large inscription proclaiming that the Ottoman Empire would remain standing because it was God's will. Known as the Tanzimat medal today because it served to legitimize the Tanzimat edict, the medallion was the work of a Belgian engraver named Laurent-Joseph Hart (1810-1860). Hart's medal was striking for its rather western symbolism and the clear message it delivered to Europe while its use of allegorical female figures brought the Ottoman medal tradition closer to that of European orders. Most importantly, the pile of arms figuring on the medallion is probably the first blueprint for the Arma-i Osmânî, the future coat of arms of the Empire.

The First Western Order: the Mecîdî Order (1852-1922)

Midhat Şükrü [Bleda], İkinci Rütbe Mecidî Nişanı ile, yakl. 1920
İsa Akbaş Koleksiyonu

The Mecîdî Order, named after its founder, Sultan Abülmecid, was created on August 29, 1852, along with the statutes, which would be published later in the first volume of the Imperial Düstûr, the Ottoman Code of Laws. The fact that these statutes were issued with the order, provided it with the legal and administrative framework usually found in European orders.The statutes clarified a number of topics from the conditions of the order's bestowal, to how the insignia should be worn. Proof of the rapid recognition that the Mecîdî Order acquired can be seen in its appearance on the tombstones of its recepients.

The Sultan Aziz Era: the Osmanî Order and Ottomanism

Shortly after his accession to the throne, Abdülaziz decreed the issue of a new order on December 9, 1861. Technically speaking, the new order had only two differences with the Mecîdî. First, Murassa medals were excluded from the quotas imposed on the number of decorations issued; secondly, the sultan had the right to bestow any class of the order on whomever he chose. However, there was also another aspect of the decoration that set it apart from the earlier order and implied a divine legitimization of both Sultan and Empire; instead of the Imperial tughra, the central medallion bore an inscription in Arabic referring to the Sultan as "Abdülaziz Khan, Sovereign of the Ottoman State, who relies on Divine Guidance."

Another interesting feature of the Osmânî Order was the use of the colors red and green, which symbolized Islam and the Ottoman Empire respectively.

Hamidian Times and a New Symbolism

After the Russian campaign of 1877-1878, and the crushing defeat of the Ottoman army, the first medals that Abdülhamid II issued carried the inscription “el-Gâzî,” or “Warrior of the Faith.” This was to show some recognition of the troops who had fought in the conflict as well as to wipe away the negative impact of this military failure. Thus, although Abdülhamid's reign was one filled with military defeats and financial hardships, the Sultan was skilled enough to turn medals into ideological and political instruments. Instead of creating new orders to replace those of his predecessors, he chose to complete the already existing orders and introduced women as a new category of beneficiaries. The new order for women only was named the Sefkat – literally “tenderness” or “compassion but usually translated as “charity” – and could be awarded to women of all nationalities who “had served humanity as well as 'the state, fatherland and nation' by helping and caring for the wounded and the victims of all sorts of accidents and catastrophes.” The new decoration was thus granted to the wives and daughters of high officials, as well as to foreign women. A few months after the Order of Charity, Abdülhamid II this time created the “High Order of Privilege or Distinction,” an order destined more to exceed in every way than replace the previous Mecîdî and Osmânî orders. Issued as a single-class order, the decoration was designed as an eight-branched star, on which was inscribed the word “Secâ'at” (Bravery), in addition to the terms “Sadâkat” (Loyalty), “Hamiyyet” (Devotion) and “Gayret” (Zeal) of the earlier Mecîdî motto. The High Order of Privilege or Distinction was intended as a decoration for foreign sovereigns and awarded to Ottoman subjects with extreme selectivity. As an order of exception, it was bestowed upon very few individuals and only appears on the photographs of princes and highly-ranked dignitaries.

By the end of the 18th century, going beyond the general symbolism of the crescent that appeared on flags, medals, and decorations in the desire to further conform to western state symbolism, the need arose to create an official coat of arms. Although it is not clear exactly when the first official coat of arms was designed for the Ottoman Empire, it seems that the symbols used on the reverse of the Loyalty and Bravery Medal would be maintained as the design of the Imperial coat of arms until the end of the Empire.

Examples of bronze coats of arms of the Hamidian period. Isa Akbas collection.

With Abdülhamid II, imperial symbolism achieved stability. From then on, the official coat of arms was used everywhere from medals to buildings. The crescent became a less 'formal' though still 'national' symbol, and the tughra was restricted to the Sultan's personal use.

After the Loyalty and Bravery Medal, the last medal in the series of general merit awards created in the Hamidian period was the Medal for Merit (Liyâkat Madalyasi). From 1889 to 1905, several war medals were minted including the Medal for Crete and the Greek War Medal. When catastrophes such as epidemic diseases or the earthquake of July 1894 struck, Abdülhamid II came up with his 'fund' medals, thus introducing the concept of the welfare state in an Ottoman context. Aiming to consolidate his version of Ottomanism through a consciously paternalistic approach, he also took care to promote his own image as a sovereign through the often arbitrary and politically manipulative use of medals and decorations.

Niyazi Bey, hero of the Revolution,1908. Isa Akbas collection.

After 30 years of Abdülhamid’s despotic regime, the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 brought in a wave of freedom that not only put an end to state monopoly over portraits, symbols, words, and the period’s propaganda instrument postcards, but led to a proliferation of pins and medals. Most postcards and medals celebrated the “heroes of the revolution” Enver and Niyazi and referred to the four words in the motto of the Young Turk Revolution: Hürriyet (Liberty), Müsâvât (Equality), Uhuvvet (Fraternity) and Adâlet (Justice). Many of these medals and pins made use of the Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian or French languages in addition to Turkish.

On August 10, 1908, Abdülhamid issued a decree stating his desire to create a new medal commemorating the restoration of the Constitution. The obverse of the medal would bear the Imperial tughra with the word “Kânûn” (Law) underneath and the date of the first promulgation of the Constitution, December 24, 1876. The reverse would bear the motto Hürriyet-Adâlet-Müsâvât (Liberty-Justice-Equality) and 1908, the date the medal was created.

Postcard commemorating the Young Turk Revolution and the re-establishment of the Constitution, 1908. Isa Akbas collection.

The projected Medal of the Constitution can, in a way, be interpreted as Abdülhamid’s attempt to present the restoration of the Constitution as his own venture and thus take under control the proliferation of unofficial patriotic medals and pins. However, after a long process of design and planning for the issue of the medal, the project never materialized. In April 1909, a counterrevolution led by army units, who had remained faithful to the Sultan, threatened the regime. Finally, instead of the highly symbolic Medal of Constitution, a single very modest medal was issued to commemorate the first General Assembly of the Municipality of Istanbul, on December 26, 1908.

Unofficial medals commemorating the Young Turk Revolution and the re-establishment of the Constitution, 1908. Isa Akbas collection


Patriotism and Ottomanism (1909-1912)

Abide-i Hürriyet, 1911.
Sinan Kuneralp Koleksiyonu

The Monument of Liberty, erected to honor the soldiers who had died during the repression of the counterrevolution of April, 1909, soon became a symbol for the new regime and appeared on postage stamps and medals issued for the inauguration of the monument. The new regime apart from continuing the use of existing orders also created new orders that corresponded to its own ideology. The most important one among these, the Order of Education, created in 1910, reflected the concepts of patriotism and civism often present in the new regime’s ideological discourse. However, parallel to the State’s poor performance where orders and medals were concerned, the second Constitutional period witnessed an increase in semi-official affiliation and membership medals, pins, and badges.

In the years from 1912 to 1914, a series of international conflicts led to serious territory losses for the Empire and generated a sudden rise in nationalism and militarization. During this period, a number of medals such as the Navy Fund Medal, the Red Crescent Medal, the Military Fund Medal, and the Hamidiye Cruiser Medal were issued to raise funds for institutions in charge of protecting the nation’s unity and integrity. When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on Germany’s side, the war also had its impact on medals and orders, which began to incorporate elements of the German tradition in decorations. Certain symbols such as laurel wreaths, oak leaves or crossed swords were added to existing orders. The Ottoman War Medal issued at this time can be considered a modified version of the famous German Iron Cross; the cross shape of the medal was transformed into a star but the silver border was kept. One of the only innovations in this period was that due to the Ottoman-German-Austrian alliance, a growing number of Ottoman officers were decorated with foreign medals

School medals, badges and pins. Imtiyaz (Distinction) with swords, 1916. Isa Akbas collection.

The first and only official war medal minted by the Ankara government would be the Medal of Independence. After a proposal was made in parliament on August 2, 1920, a law creating the Medal of Independence was passed in November, and published in the Official Gazette on April 4, 1921. The new medal was issued as the only legitimate decoration of the Turkish Republic thus officially marking the break with all Ottoman decorations and orders of the Ottoman Empire.

Gold Imtiyaz Metal with sword, 1916. Isa Akbas collection. Medal of Independence, by Mesrur Izzet Bey, 1922. Obverse: Rising sun behind a view of Ankara with the Grand National Assembly and a mosque. Isa Akbas collection. Medal of Independence, by Mesrur Izzet Bey, 1922. Reverse: Map of Anatolia inscribed in a crescent and star. Isa Akbas collection.



Edhem Eldem, İftihar ve İmtiyaz: Osmanlı Nişan ve Madalyaları Tarihi, Osmanlı Bankası Arşiv ve Araştırma Merkezi, İstanbul, 2004.