Last days of an Ottoman prince

Quiet-living Prince Dündar Abdülkerim (87) heads a family that once ruled an empire

Prince Dündar Abdülkerim al-Osman inherited his title in January after a relative passed away in New York.

Prince Dündar Abdülkerim al-Osman inherited his title in January after a relative passed away in New York.

 

Though the era of empires has long since passed, descendants of families that once ruled the world remain, albeit largely stripped of their fame and fortune.

For six centuries until the early 1900s, the Ottoman or Osman family empire was the grandest of them all. It countered European expansion in the east and transformed Islam into the second most powerful spiritual force of the known world. The Ottoman Empire survived the Black Death as the rest of Europe lay decimated and it ended Christendom’s centuries-long rule of the Middle East.

The current heir to the Imperial House of Osman, Prince Dündar Abdülkerim al-Osman, lives out his days with his bedridden wife in the Syrian capital Damascus, where the sounds of a six-year conflict rumble all around. The 87-year-old inherited the title in January after a relative passed away in New York.

As Prince Dündar – Dündar Efendi as he’s addressed in Arabic and Turkish – wasn’t well enough to speak to The Irish Times by phone from Damascus, Orhan Osmanoglu, a nephew who grew up close to the prince, says the heir has lived a life without status or power, and quite happily so.

Quiet life

“His life was very normal, very quiet,” says Orhan. “He doesn’t like crowds, music or loud sounds. He went to work, came home and that was his life. People in Damascus used to say that he stood out because he wouldn’t get involved in others’ lives or business.”

By all accounts Prince Dündar’s life has been in sharp contrast to what his forebears experienced. At its height in the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, from the gates of Vienna to the Horn of Africa and east to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

But by the dawn of the 20th century Turks were acutely aware their empire, the “sick man of Europe”, had fallen ill long before. Upon entry to the first World War, the lands it controlled outside of Anatolia and eastern Thrace (modern-day Turkey) were seen as easy pickings for advancing Russian and European armies.

By the 1920s, provinces and states including Syria and oil-rich Iraq were lost to the French and British. Turks, meanwhile, sought out a new identity to break with the failings of empire.

Ink on the Treaty of Lausanne establishing Turkey’s new borders was scarcely dry when 156 members of the Ottoman family and its entourage were deported from Istanbul, minus their treasure or property, in 1924. The family was declared a traitor of the new Turkish nation, then led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Exile saw several Ottoman family members and their royalist supporters almost fall into destitution. Some were forced to work in manual labour to survive.

“The prestigious ministers, religious scholars, pashas and officers were reduced to begging and some found themselves in hospitals for mental illness,” writes Ekrem Ekinci, a professor of Ottoman history in Istanbul, and author of The Dynasty in Exile.

Failed revolution

Some exiles launched anti-Turkish newspapers from Greece, but were soon fired at Ankara’s behest. Prince Dündar’s father led a failed revolution of ethnic Uyghurs in western China and came under scrutiny of both the Soviet Union and the United States. He was found dead in a New York hotel room in 1935.

Amnesties gradually allowed for all surviving family members to return to Turkey by the 1970s, but few returned.

Coming back to Turkey was never on the cards for Prince Dündar. He finished school at the Lycée Français in Damascus, then studied pharmacy at university before taking a position at a military government enterprise. With his father dead, the prince’s main link to Turkey was a member of the royal court who travelled to Syria to teach the boy prince the Turkish language, religion and the family history.

According to his nephew Orhan, two things lit up Prince Dündar’s life in Damascus. “As he had no children of his own, he would say that I was the one thing that made him happier than anything else,” he says. “The second thing that made him incredibly happy was that he took the Turkish citizenship. It was important to receive this because he was stripped of it.”

Upon being granted a Turkish passport, Prince Dündar visited the country three times, most recently in 1995 when he toured Istanbul’s famed Ottoman palaces.

“He had no problems [with the authorities] when he came to Turkey, he did a lot of press interviews because people were very interested in him and his life,” says Orhan, “but he wasn’t comfortable in the spotlight.”

Today, the Syrian conflict burns at the gates of Damascus, meaning Prince Dündar, in the autumn of life, is unlikely to see the land of his ancestors again.

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