Imperial Fermans

Imperial fermans or edicts which once symbolized the power of the Ottoman Empire are today not only a source of information for historians, but valued as works of art in themselves, and collectors bid for them in Europe’s famous auction houses. Interest in these long narrow documents with their distinctive up-curving lines of writing and illuminated imperial ciphers has soared in recent years in parallel to the growing interest in Turkish and Islamic art, fuelled by books and major exhibitions such as the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent Exhibition of the 1980s. 

Interest in their appearance rather than content has led to the term ferman being applied for convenience to a whole range of different documents with a similar layout and bearing a tugra (imperial cipher). In fact only some are strictly speaking ferman or imperial edicts, others being berat (warrants of appointment to government posts), hüküm (judicial decisions), emir (instructions to government officials) and so on. In addition to imperial documents of this kind there is another related class of legal and canonical documents which are also collectors’ items, including rulings on religious questions and endowment deeds. 

Calligraphy and illumination were the fine arts par excellence in Turkey. Fermans, functional as they were, were at the same time objects of exquisite beauty and a suitably splendid reflection of imperial authority. The Ottomans are one of the rare peoples to have created art in the form of documents, and this is true of the ferman most of all. The word derives from the Persian ‘fermuden’, meaning an undertaking, and came to mean specifically a written command issued by a ruler. The tugra demonstrated that the document emanated from the sultan himself. The early Ilkhanids, Karakoyunlu, Akkoyunlu, Altinordu and Crimean khanates used the term yarlig, the Seljuks the word pervane, and the Memluks the word mevkii for such documents. The earliest use of the word ferman appears among the Ilkhanids after their acceptance of Islam, and this was later adopted by the Ottomans. Decrees issued not by the sultan but by the grand vezir were known as buyrultu. 

Official state business had its own calligraphic ‘hand’ known as divani (council script), whose origins go back to mediaeval Seljuk times. However, early Ottoman fermans were sometimes written in other calligraphic hands, such as nesih, rik’a, talik, sikeste, talik, siyakat, nesta’lik, reyhani and islavi, as well as the forms of divani known as celi divani and divani kirmasi. From the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, it was the latter two types of divani which came to be used almost exclusively for imperial documents, whether warrant, title deed, deed of patent, or edict. They were written in red, black or gold ink in lines which curved up towards the left margin, and were sometimes sprinkled with gold dust. 

The earliest example of an Ottoman tugra appears on a vakfiye (endowment deed) dated March 1324 belonging to the second Ottoman sultan Orhan Gazi (1324-1360). The sultan endowed his estates in Mekece, a district in the province of Kocaeli, for the construction of a hankâh or dervish lodge which was to provide accommodation and food to the local poor and destitute, and to passing travelers. 

The tugra is set at the top of the document, and the first and second lines of the text explain to whom the deed is addressed and the purpose of the document respectively. Then follow detailed instructions, an exhortation to carry them out, an invocation for the success of the undertaking and a prayer. Finally there is the date and a reference number. After documents had been drawn up a summary of their contents was recorded in the registers of the Council of State before the tugra was added with the sultan’s approval. Then it was delivered to the recipient. The word hüve, meaning God, was always written above the tugra as a reminder that God is greater than any man, even the sultan himself. 

While the abovementioned endowment deed of Sultan Orhan was the earliest Ottoman ferman, the last are those issued by Sultan Vahdettin (Mehmed VI) in 1922, the final year of his reign. Illumination of Ottoman fermans began during the reign of Sultan Bayezit II (1481-1512), and became increasingly ornate from the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) when the tugra achieved its zenith in aesthetic form and decoration. With the expansion of the empire over three continents, fermans reflected the political and economic strength of the empire in the abundant use of gold in the text and the tugra. The tugras of this period are decorated with superb designs of the type originating with the illuminator Kara Memi. 

From the reign of Murat III (1574-1595) onwards it became customary for the sultans to add an exhortation such as ‘let the necessary be done’ or ‘may this be signed by the vezirs’ to one side of the tugra or above its shafts, in cases where the document was of particular importance or a subject in which the sultan felt a personal interest. Fermans of this sort were known as ‘hatt-i hümayunlu fermanlar’ or ‘hatt-i hümayunla müvessah fermanlar’ (fermans bearing the handwriting of the sultan). Due to their rarity these are among the most valuable of all. Very occasionally a berat is found with such an endorsement in the sultan’s handwriting. 

Calligraphy played a role in Turkish culture comparable to that of figurative painting in the West. It was appreciated for the aesthetic power of its composition and the masterful execution of its strokes, as well as for the meaning expressed by the words themselves. So if today, like paintings, fermans are framed and hung on walls to be enjoyed, this is no discrepancy but something the people who wrote and read them at the time would understand perfectly.
by Dr. R. Sertaç Kayserilioğlu

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