Mahmud II was 23 when he became Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1808.
He came to the throne in the most dramatic fashion in the midst of an uprising. The Janissaries were furious with the modernising reforms of Sultan Selim III, which threatened their privileged position. In July 1808 they rioted, burnt parts of Constantinople and broke into TopKapi Palace, where they strangled the Sultan. Their aim was to set his weak-minded nephew, Mustafa IV on the throne. However, to do this, they needed to kill Mahmud, whose claim was better.
When the Janissaries stormed the Harem, where Mahmud was hiding, a slave girl called Cevri threw ashes from the stove in their faces. While they were blinded, Mahmud escaped through a window and hid on the roof. Loyal soldiers arrived in time to quell the revolt and Mahmud became sultan. Cevri was rewarded by being made chief Treasurer of the Harem.
[There is a staircase in the TopKapi harem called 'Cevri Kalfa's staircase].
Mahmud immediately set about breaking with the past. He continued with Selim's programme of modernisation, knowing it was essential if the Ottomans were to defend their territories against modern European armies. From the start, Mahmud had to struggle against ultra conservative officials and entrenched feudal interests, but he had tremendous will-power. In addition, he looked every inch a sultan. Charles MacFarlane, the Scottish historian and traveller, describes Mahmud as 'an energetic potentate, full of life and health...[with] a robust vigorous frame, a magnificent breadth of chest, a most striking countenance, proud, haughty and handsome, and his large, jet black very peculiar eyes, which looked you through and through.'
Lord Byron and his friend John Cam Hobhouse were present at an audience with Sultan Mahmud on 4th July 1810. Hobhouse recorded in his journal that 'Sultan Mahmud was dressed in a robe of yellow satin, with a broad border of the darkest sable... Occasionally he stroked his beard, displaying a milk-white hand glittering with diamond rings. His eyebrows, eyes and beard, being of a glossy jet black, did not appear natural, but added to that indescribable majesty that would be difficult for any but an Oriental sovereign to assume: his face was pale and regularly formed.'
Mahmud pursued a Westernising programme of military, fiscal and economic reforms, as well as in dress. In 1829 he issued a decree forbidding the wearing of the old-fashioned costumes, except by the clergy. The head-dress now became the fez and men wore the black frock-coat known as the Stambouline.
Mahmud felt that this new costume led to equality for all his citizens. He said: 'I distinguish between my subjects: Muslims in the mosque, Christians in the church, Jews in the synagogue, but there is no difference among them in any other way.'
Sultan Mahmud II about 1830
His own modern costume was splendid, as befitted the Ottoman sultan.
He maintained his attempts at reform until his death in 1839.