Observing Yom Kippur and Celebrating the Anniversary of Sultan Abdulhamid’s Accession to the Throne in a Replica Mosque in Chicago
This year marks the centenary of the death of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. His reign was doomed by a heavy debt, and internal and external tensions.
However, Sultan Abdulhamid’s reign also witnessed a series of considerable achievements in terms of social and economic reforms. He encouraged the construction of schools, railways, harbors, irrigation works, telegraph lines, and other infrastructural projects. Abdulhamid II was a firm believer in modernization. He not only carried out a massive program of reforms, he also developed new means of diplomacy in dealing with the European governments. He was closely following foreign press coverage of the Ottoman Empire, and also established a bureau in Yıldız Palace for this purpose.
The Sultan’s interest in arts had been demonstrated in various ways during his 33 year-rule. He was not only a skilled carpenter who had produced excellent pieces of furniture, he also admired theatre and opera, mostly performed by European artists. He is also an unprecedented ruler in his love of photography, which he used as a tool; he could use photography to see every corner of his empire, both daily lives of people and the progress of reforms. Sultan Abdulhamid had also understood the power of photography as a medium in pursuing his public diplomacy in the West. In the early 1890s, he commissioned the production of fifty-one albums depicting the modernization of the Ottoman Empire through photographs of architecture, educational institutions, students in European dress (including many girls), military arsenals, hospitals, factories, and docks, among other subjects. One of these albums were presented to the British Museum in 1893.
In the same year, the other album reached the United States and exhibited when the Ottoman Empire was among the participants of World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. After being exhibited at the World’s Colombian Exposition, the albums were donated to the Library of Congress as evidence of the progress taking place in the Empire.
Z. T. Sweeney, formerly United States consul-general to Turkey and Honorary Imperial Ottoman Commissioner to the Chicago Exposition, was responsible to secure Ottoman participation. He would first publish advertisement of the Chicago Exposition in Istanbul papers, and persuade public and the governmental officials that New York was not the onl
y place to hold such an exhibition. Then, he would collaborate with Prof. Cyrus Adler, who was then was an associate in Semitic Languages at Johns Hopkins University and an assistant curator of oriental antiquities in the Uni
ted States National Museum (later known as Arts and Industries Building), and was a librarian of the Smithsonian Institution. Prof. Adler started his work of persuading the Ottoman government for participation at the Columbian Exposition at the Ottoman Embassy in London. After a series of consultations with various governmental officials, as well as the Grand Vizier, he finally succeeded in bringing the Exposition to Sultan Abdulhamid’s attention. Adler wrote: “and early in March, at least two months and a half before the official acceptance of the Turkish Government, the Sultan gave orders for the collection of certain objects for the Columbian Exposition.”
Not only the various objects and structures representing the Empire was exhibited in the Exposition, also various ethnic and religious groups including Muslims, Jews, and Armenians were among the participants of the exhibition. Robert Levy, was the overall manager of the Turkish Village and was a partner in the Elia Souhami Sadullah & Co., which was officially conferred by the Ottoman Government for the imperial exhibit. Robert Levy was introduced as the Sultan’s representative in the exposition, and he had a great pride in demonstrating his Empire’s beauties. A journalist for the Chicago Daily Tribune portrayed Levy as an enthusiastic Turk, thoroughly patriotic that he declared he “would lose his last drop of blood…in defense of his country.”
A model neighborhood of Istanbul was created in the Midway Plaisance by Elia Souhami Sadullah & Co., with a mosque, the famous obelisk of Sultan Ahmet Square, an Ottoman-style restaurant, Turkish theatre along with various other displays.
The replica mosque would become a venue for two significant moments in U.S. history: the Ottoman Day and Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. 1893 had marked the seventeenth anniversary of Sultan Abdulhamid’s accession to the throne and would be celebrated by all the Ottoman citizens in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported that “Robert Levy, manager of the Turkish Village, was the leading spirit in all the Midway demonstrations.” The day started with a special prayer service in the mosque. It was noted in a special edition published in 1897 by authority of the board of directors of the Exposition:
“The Exposition was indebted to Turkey for much that was rich, novel, and picturesque, all of which combined to make the observance of Ottoman Day one of the characteristic events of the season. This day was the seventeenth anniversary of the accession of His Imperial Majesty Sultan Abdul Hamed II to the throne of Turkey. It was opened with special prayer at the mosque in the Midway, and all day long the faithful subjects of the Sultan in that street of nations celebrated enthusiastically. Each one wore a badge with “Ottoman Day” inscribed in gilt letters thereon, the red fez was carried jauntily with pride, and the Star and Crescent streamed from every available point. At noon Ibrahim Hakkı Bey, Commissioner General for Turkey, accompanied by Ahmed Fahri Bey and other members of the Commission, also by Charles Henrotin, Turkish consul in Chicago, arrived at the Turkish Village, where a banquet was served.”
Another unprecedented and unusual event in history would take place in the replica mosque: Observation of Yom Kippur. Ottoman Jews from all corners of the Ottoman Empire assembled on Tuesday evening, September 19. 1893, and read the Kol N’idra service.
Isidor Lewi, a well-known journalist, and served on the editorial board of the New York Tribune, were among those who attended the worship service wrote:
“A more unique observance of the day never occurred in this country, and to the few Americans who had the good fortune to be present it presented a picture of rare beauty and solemnity. The Turkish mosque was so arranged that it could be used as a Jewish house of worship also—the paraphernalia was all there and the Moslem is liberal enough to allow religious service other than his own to take place in his houses of worship—a point which he thinks the Western people would do well to ponder.”
And he was right. It was such a unique event truly reflecting multi-religious and multi-cultural core of the Ottoman Empire. “In the course of the ceremonial” wrote Isidor Lewy, “Mr. Robert Levy, the Ottoman concessionnaire, approached the altar and asked a blessing on the President of the United States and on the Sultan of Turkey.”
On the Ottoman Day in Chicago, Hakkı Bey had given a speech where he referred to the various peoples making up the Ottoman Empire. He said that while they knew Turkey was a country divided more than any other in language and religion, it was the most united by sympathy and loyalty of any in Europe. The Ottoman Exhibition in Chicago, organized under the patronage of Sultan Abdulhamid, was not only a reproduction of the Empire’s buildings and structures, it was a reproduction and reflection of its multi-religious and multi-lingual society where Judaism, Christianity and Islam coexisted for centuries.