Council of Ministers (Ottoman Empire)

Council of Ministers
Cabinet of Ottoman Empire

The Council of Ministers (Ottoman Turkish: Meclis-i Vükela or Heyet-i Vükela) was a cabinet created during the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Mahmud II in what was the Ottoman Empire's first step towards European modernization. It was formed to coordinate the executive activities of the ministry and form the policy of the Ottoman power structure, as well as approve or disapprove legislative proposals before being presented to the Sultan.


With its members appointed by the Sultan, the Meclis-i Vükela political duties were an extension of the Sultan's executive power and agenda, however they often added their opinions to proposals before passing them along to the Sultan. Climaxing and culminating the executive organs of government on a central level, it was the principal executive and legislative coordinating body of the Ottoman plutocracy. The exact composition of the Council of Ministers varied however it usually consisted of leading ministers of the Ottoman state, the Shaykh al-Islām, the serasker and the Grand admiral - or more often their undersecretaries - the directors of the police department and arsenal of Istanbul, the undersecretary of the Grand Vizier, the directors of the departments of excise taxes (Rusumat Emini) and the lieutenant (Kethüda) of the queen mother, who represented the Sultan's palace.[1]:176

Because members were appointed by and responsible to the sultan for their departments, they were relatively independent of the Grand Vizier, though he often chaired the Meclis-i Vükela cabinet. The lack of central leadership within the Meclis-i Vükela frequently allowed for individual and party politics to predominate in its deliberative duties, often making it difficult to conduct business. The Meclis-i Vükela however performed a number of important ceremonial, legal and political functions. After 1850, it was the Meclis-i Vükela that swore fealty to new Sultans in the official ceremony of enthronement, followed by the more general oath taken by all ruling class members of Ottoman society that where present during the ceremony.

Despite its dysfunction, innate to any bureaucratic body, the Meclis-i Vükela's role in the Ottoman government was of substantial importance. The Meclis-i Vükela acted as the closest governmental body of advisement to the Grand Vizier and Sultan on important issues as well as legislative proposals. The Meclis-i Vükela approved state budgets and parts of the legislative process and had the power to initiate state legislation.

Decisions made by the Meclis-i Vükela were communicated in the form of discussion protocols (muzakat zabut varakas) and were presented for each matter brought before the Sultan. These formal protocols contained summaries of the issues, arguments pro and con and the council's final opinion.[1] Additionally, when legislative matters were involved these written protocols were accompanied by separate statements called mazabatas, which contained the final versions of the laws as well as regulatory concerns and the principal arguments. The Meclis-i Vükela could and often did propose changes to laws received from adjacent legislative councils. However, the Sultan made the final decisions of these proposed laws with recognition to the advisement of the Meclis-i Vükela.[2]:98 As modernization forced changed within the socio-political structure of the Ottoman Empire, its government cabinets followed, often being dissolved and reintroduced only years later. In 1866, Sultan Abdülaziz, son of Mahmud II, the Sultan who created the Meclis-i Vükela, changed the political role of the Council of Ministers. Sultan Abdülaziz consolidated his personal Privy Council along with Meclis-i Vükela into his own personal advisory cabinet known as the Yaveran-I Ekrem.[1]:83

Role and relation to other government bodies

The process of approvals for proposed legislation by the Meclis-i Vükela, was joined by the Meclis-IHass-I Umumi. The Meclis-IHass-I Umumi or the Supreme Council was composed of senior officials of the Ottoman Empire and was created as an equal yet separate body to the Meclis-i Vükela. However, after dysfunction and inefficiency within the Supreme Council and its identical purpose to the Council of Tanzimat, the two government bodies were consolidated and divided into three separate departments.

  1. The Department of Laws and Regulation, which assumed the legislative functions of both old councils.
  2. The Department of Administration and Finance, which was charged with administrative investigations.
  3. The Department of Judicial Cases, which assumed the old Supreme Council function of Meclis-I Valas. Though equal to the Meclis-i Vükela, members were chosen and approved by the Meclis-i Vükela, which represented an extension of the Sultans executive powers.[3]

The Meclis-i Vükela also appointed members of the Supreme Council after its second reconstruction in 1867. This time however local officials and governors within the Ottoman Empire nominated candidates for appointment. Even so, in an attempt to modernize and perpetuate equal representation throughout the Empire, the governors and local officials who nominated candidates were advised by council and guilds within their own regions or state lets. Finally, the candidates up for appointment were either approved or not at the discretion of the Meclis-i Vükela.[2]:42


Mahmud II was the 30th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and reigned from 1808 to 1839. The son of Sultan Abdulhamid I, he is most noted for the extensive administrative, military and fiscal reforms he instituted, which eventually culminated into the Decree of Tanzimat (Reorganization). The forced disbandment of the centuries-old Janissary by Mahmud II on 15 June 1826 was his first political achievement and the catalyst to his humble yet effective reformation agenda. Since the early 17th century, the Janissary corps had ceased to function as an effective military unit. Many of them were not soldiers and simply extorted money from the Turkish state and dictated its government, which added to the steady decline of the Ottoman Empire. Any sultan who attempted to modernize the Ottoman military structure and replace the Janissaries was either immediately killed or deposed. Over time, it became clear that the empire needed to modernize its military in order to compete with the military powers of Europe. A staunch supporter of the Ottoman archery force, Mahmud empowered the elite military group as an opposition force to the disgruntled Janissary’s. The Janissaries mutinied when Mahmud II announced plans for this new army and advanced on his palace. However Mahmud II rallied his well-funded archery force and dissatisfied Ottoman citizens to officially suffocate the long time Janissary elite. The Janissary barracks were then set in flames and many were also killed on the streets of Istanbul. After the rebellion was suppressed, its leaders killed, and many members exiled or imprisoned, the Janissary corps was disbanded and replaced by a more modern military force, the Sekban-I Cedit, organized and trained along modern European lines and Turkish-dominated.

Mahmud's second policy change was his creation of a parliamentary style government based on the European models he felt so compelled to imitate. With rising pressure from Europe to “modernize”, and provide non-Muslim subjects of the empire with equitable rights, Mahmud centralized the power of the Ottoman government and formed an efficient bureaucracy.[4]:69 Also in similar fashion to the way which he suppressed the Janissary military force, Mahmud II took a comparable approach to relieving the influential ulema's from their religious and political power so that he could progress in his governmental changes. His goal was to create a secular power structure within the Empire that provided, in theory at least, equal representation of all Ottoman subjects.

After his death in 1839, the Ottoman Empire entered a period of blatant reformation. With the proclamation of the Hatt-I Serfi of Gulhane and the entrance into what is called the Tanzimat period of the Ottoman history, his son and successor Abdülmecid I followed the reformation path his father set forth.

Imperial edict of Gulhane

A reflection of foreign support against Ottoman diplomats, this 1839 proclamation by Sultan Abdulmecid, at the behest of reformist Grand Vizier Mustafa Reşid Pasha launched the Tanzimat period of reforms and reorganization in the Ottoman Empire. Its goal was to make the empire competitive with the Great Powers by modernizing militarily and socially. It was also intended to win over the disaffected parts of the Empire, more particularly within the Ottoman controlled parts of Europe, which were largely Christian. It was never fully implemented.[5]

  1. Guaranteed security of life of every subject. (This would help to assure the safety of the Sultan from citizen revolt).
  2. Regular system of assessing and levying taxes, troops, and duration of service. Introduced a taxation system based on means rather than tax farming and taxing on a flat rate. It formed an equitable military draft system and prohibited bribery.
  3. It assured public trials for the accused, and allocated reasonable punishments for crimes regardless of rank.

The Hatt-I Serif of Gulhane developed a more modern and mediated relationship between state and subjects. Beginning with the secularization of the state through which a new legal system of the state emerged. A state salary and education was now given to the bureaucrats, which enhanced the efficiency of the state. It was an assurance to the Great Powers that demanded domestic reforms in return for future recognition of the Ottoman Empire as a member of the concert of Europe.

Tanzimat period

The Tanzimat (reorganization) period of the Ottoman Empire emerged from the mind of Mahmud II and the subtle yet effective reforms he made during his reign. The official Tanzimat period however began after his death in 1839 and with the accession of his son Abdülmecid I. The need for these reforms stemmed from a culmination of strong European influences and an introspective understanding of the necessity to modernize by the Ottoman Empires leaders.[6] These changes were not solely afforded to the structural functions of government; they were also intended to change the hearts and minds of the Ottoman people, creating a cultural and social shift towards a more European identity. Men were forced to where European garb and could only wear turbans in religious settings. The reforms were heavily influenced by the Napoleonic Code and French law under the Second Empire as a direct result of the increasing number of Ottoman students being educated in France.

As a student of European culture and language Mahmud II often attended the meetings of the Meclis-i Vükela when concerning Ottoman modernization. With his modernization as his main policy agenda, Mahmud dressed the part. Often influencing the dress of the Meclis-i Vükela members, while giving his immediate judgements on the issues of Ottoman modernization.[1]:49

This ambitious social experiment was intended to combat the rapid decline of the Ottoman Empire to the ever growing, Western European super powers. The Ottomans were also growing scared of a possible intervention of the European powers on Ottoman affairs, which also a driving reason for the Tanzimat Reforms.

Second Constitutional Era

During the First Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire (1876–1878), the Council submitted annual budgets to the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the larger parliament, the General Assembly), who would vote on them.[7]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Shaw, Stanford J.; Shaw, Ezel Kural (1977). History of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey Shaw. 2. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521291668.
  2. 1 2 Lewis, Bernard (2002). The Emergence of Modern Turkey: Studies in Middle Eastern history (Third ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195134605.
  3. McCarthy, Justin (1997). The Ottoman Turks, An Introductory History to 1923. Longman. ISBN 9780582256552.
  4. Devereux, Robert (1963). The First Ottoman Constitutional Period. The Johns Hopkins Press.
  5. Gibbons, Herbert Adams (2013) [1916]. "4-7". The Foundation of the Ottoman Empire: A History of the Osmanlis Up To the Death of Bayezid I 1300-1403. Routledge [Clarendon Press]. ISBN 9781135029821.
  6. Kia, Mehrad. Greenwood Guides To Historic Event, 1500-1900, The Ottoman Empire. p. 116.
  7. Rainer Grote; Tilmann Röder (16 February 2012). Constitutionalism in Islamic Countries: Between Upheaval and Continuity. Oxford University Press. pp. 328–329. ISBN 978-0-19-975988-0.
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