The domino effect of the French Revolution of 1789 helped various nationalisms arise among the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire throughout the long 19th century. First, Greeks sought and obtained independence from the empire after a war of independence that lasted almost a decade (1821-1829). Then, other Balkan ethnicities fought for the same result. Finally, all Christian ethnic groups within the framework of the Ottoman Empire – other than the Armenians, who were scattered all around Anatolia, the Caucasus and Syria – took what they asked for.
However, Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic nationalisms waited until the early 20th century to emerge. Since these Muslim subjects had been the main advantageous groups within the Ottoman Empire for centuries, they didn’t feel the need to express themselves via nationalist discourse. Neither did they establish independence organizations because what they would have been fighting to depart from was what they had built. Although subgroups of these three ethnicities, such as the half-nomadic Turkomans, some Kurdish groups and the Arabs of Yemen and Hijaz, rebelled from time to time, these rebellions were localized and were not equipped with a national consciousness. Muslims of the Ottoman Empire began to fight for their ethnic identities after the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and Balkan wars because these events showed them that their situation was on a knife-edge with the empire about to dissolve.
On the other hand, the idea of Turkishness had a longer history than actual Turkish nationalism as a political movement. Beyond the normal consciousness of Turkish identity and culture throughout history, the 19th century brought a newer awakening among certain intellectuals, who generally had a better position than their peers to observe what was happening in Europe. One of those intellectuals, who was lucky to compare the Ottoman homeland with Europe, was Ahmet Vefik Pasha, an Ottoman translator and bureaucrat. He is now considered one of the pioneers of Turkish nationalism and the studies on Turkish language and culture.
Ahmet Vefik was born in Istanbul in the late 1810s to Mehmet Ruhiddin Efendi, a translator and diplomat. His grandfather, Yahya Naci Efendi, was the first Muslim translator of the Divan-ı Hümayun (The Imperial Council). In other words, studying languages and translation was Ahmet Vefik's family business.
Ahmet Vefik received early education from his family before being sent to the Mühendishane-i Berr-i Hümayun (the Imperial School of Military Engineering) at age 8. However, he later moved to Paris with his father since he was assigned as a translator to work for Ambassador Mustafa Reşit Pasha, who would later become the minister of foreign affairs and lead the official Tanzimat movement. He enrolled at the Lycee Saint-Louis post-secondary school there. In addition to French, he learned how to read and write Italian, Latin and Greek at this school. Ahmet Vefik could speak, read and write numerous languages including Persian, which he learned during his work in Tehran; Russian and Turkish dialects, which he acquired during his voyage through Russia; and English, which he learned at his London post.
Ahmet Vefik was assigned as a translator to the Translation Office after he returned to Istanbul with his father in 1837. He was the third in his family to work at this office after his grandfather and father. The Translation Office was the rising star of the Ottoman bureaucracy, which, along with his family’s close relationship with Mustafa Reşit Pasha, would help Ahmet Vefik achieve a rapid rise through the ranks of the bureaucracy. Especially after the Tanzimat of 1839, he became a prominent figure among the Ottoman diplomats in European capitals.
One of his successes was the work he did as a special commissioner on the question of the Polish and Hungarian refugees who rebelled against and fled from the Russian and Austrian authorities in 1850. He did not allow the refugees to be extradited and, instead, helped them settle in various parts of the Ottoman territory.
Ahmet Vefik also worked to strengthen the relationship between Romania and the Ottoman Empire. The Romanians needed help from the Ottoman side so that the Russian occupiers would leave Romania. As a young diplomat, Ahmet Vefik did his best to achieve this outcome. The Romanians loved him for this, and his success helped him win the praise of Sultan Abdülmecid.
Ahmet Vefik was assigned as the Tehran ambassador of the empire in 1851, before being chosen by Mustafa Reşit Pasha, who became the grand vizier in that period, as the minister of justice in 1857. He was also a member of the Meclis-i Vala-yı Ahkam-ı Adliye (Supreme Council for Judiciary), where he would return every time he was dismissed from another post. Ahmet Vefik was a member of the Encümen-i Daniş, the first Ottoman science academy, as well, which showed his high position among Ottoman intellectuals and bureaucrats.
Ahmet Vefik also served as the Paris ambassador, minister of royal foundations, chief exchequer, grand vizier’s chief-of-staff, minister of education, Bursa governor, Edirne governor and, finally, as grand vizier – though only for three days – during the Abdülhamid II era. He retired in 1865, which was a dismissal pushed by his rivals. After six years of dismissal and solitude during the Abdülaziz era, Ahmet Vefik returned to the job as the rüsumat emini, or head of tax collectors, in 1871. He came to prominence again after Abdülhamid II was throned, and he worked until 1882.
Ahmet Vefik’s writing career consists of two major segments. The first segment includes his translations and adaptations from the plays of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere. He translated six plays of the French author while the number of his adaptations was much greater. Ahmet Vefik has been saluted for being one of the pioneers of a Western-style yet somehow original Turkish drama art. He provided the Turkish drama with 16 plays translated or adapted from Moliere, and some of these were staged.
We know that Ahmet Vefik translated authors other than Moliere, too. Unfortunately, copies of those translations are missing. All that remains is the Turkish translation of “Le Tueur de Lions” (“The Lion Killer”) by Lambert Thiboust and Ernest Lehmann. Ahmet Vefik is said to have translated some works of William Shakespeare and Friedrich Schiller though there is no longer any material proof of that.
Ahmet Vefik Pasha was one of the earliest pioneers of Turkish nationalism (Turkism) and the Turkology discipline. He authored various books on Turkish history, language and culture. During his dismissal years in the late 1860s, he wrote a special textbook of Turkish history for the military schools, namely “Fezleke-i Tarih-i Osmani” (“Summarized Ottoman History”). “Türki Durub-i Emsal” (“Turkish Idioms”) was written in the same years.
His masterpiece, “Lehçe-i Osmani” (“The Ottoman Dialect”), was the first example of a modern Turkish dictionary. This study helped him to be assigned as the Turkish-Tatar representative at the Conference of Orientalists held in Petersburg in 1876.
Ahmet Vefik defended simplicity in writing. He also supported that the written language should be closer to the everyday speech of the ordinary people, which would be one of the pillars of the National Literature movement and Turkism after the 1908 revolution.
Ahmet Vefik Pasha died on April 1, 1891, in Istanbul. His grave is in the Kayalar Cemetery at Rumelihisarı, on the European side of the Bosporus.