A: Sultan's Halberdier Bodyguard (1830); B: Interior Guard (Beylerbey Palace), Sultan's Halberdier Bodyguard (1854); C: Officer, and Halberdier Bodyguard ‘Garde du Palais’ (1860); D: Maison Militaire de S.M. Impériale le Sultan Abdul-Hamid II. Baltadjis (Imperial Courts' Halberdiers) (1876-1908)(C.Flaherty 24 March 2015).
The Sultan’s Halberdiers are one of the least understood, or known about soldiers of the Ottoman imperial court, yet are one of the more important janissary-styled troops to have continued existence after 1826. This also presents an historical mystery; this is because, in 1826 the ruling sultan abolished the janissary, and ordered their insignia, relicts, standards that had been deposited in the Ottoman Imperial Armoury to be purged from the collection, and destroyed in a bid to end all janissary influence. The Sultan’s Halberdiers are known by various titles, depending on what the foreign observers who identified these soldiers recorded about their appearance, and their role in imperial court life, during the century before WW1.
Most European courts, at one time or another had ceremonial halberdiers’ companies. In the Ottoman army, the halberd remained a favoured infantry weapon in the 17th century, even though it was disappearing from other European armies in favour of the pike (Bruno Mugnai. Flaherty, C. 2015 Der Lange Turkenkrieg (1593-1606) Vol. 2: The Long Turkish War. Soldiers & Weapons 027, Soldiershop). The origin of the Sultan’s Halberdiers, was a janissary regiment called the 'Baltadjis', and these had a role (armed with axes) to clear the sultan's path, of trees etc on campaign, and to set up his tent. The Baltadjis, were also known as a specific troop of janissary who paraded guarding the sultan in public processions:
“The baltadjis (liberally axe-men) were a sort of lictors who headed the procession when the sultan appeared in state; and he was guarded on either side by the solaks, men selected for their height and appearance, and wearing a particular headdress, surmounted by a lofty fan-shaped crest of ostrich feathers, which almost concealed the sultan as he sat on horseback, and was supposed to screen him from the evil eye.” (Chapters of Turkish History. No. VI. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (September, 1841): 304)
This 1841 account, likening the Sultan’s Halberdiers to the lictor, who was an ancient Roman civil bodyguard to magistrates who often carried fasces (a bundle or rods and an axe), is an apt analogy. This illustrates the function of the Sultan’s Halberdiers, in court ceremonies was to precede the sultan; and in fact after 1826, the Sultan’s Halberdiers formed “a route called the 'holy corridor' for the Sultan to visit the Mosque" (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 44). This unit had very much supplanted another of the sultan’s imperial guard janissary soldiers titled "Peik ga for Keisaren" i.e. the ones who 'goes before the Emperor'. (Claes Ralamb, 8 May 1622 – 14 March 1698) The Peik had been a group of axe armed soldiers, who not only fought as a specialist imperial guard regiment, but had been special messengers/runners for the sultan delivering his edicts.
The Sultan's Halberdier uniform coat underwent a number of changes between 1830 and 1908. Figure A: Sultan's Halberdier bodyguard (1830); based on an illustration contained in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, shows the earliest known drawing of a Halberdier wearing the new uniforms and fez hat adopted by the Ottoman imperial army in the 1830s. As can be seen he wears a jersey-type of jacket, first adopted by the Ottoman imperial army as part of its new Europeanised modern uniforms. Unlike the standard jersey-jacket worn by the soldiers at the time, this is heavily embroidered in gold chest bars, gold embroidered cuffs and collar – all features used in later versions of their uniform.
Figure B: Sultan's ‘Interior Guard Beylerbey Palace’ (1854). This illustration is based on a colour plate found in Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 73. This identification is somewhat misleading, as the Beylerbeyi Palace (as it is correctly spelled) was commissioned by Sultan Abdulaziz (1830–1876) and built between 1861 and 1865 as a summer residence and a place to entertain visiting heads of state. However, the figure illustrated in 1973 book on world ceremonial uniforms has a somewhat contradictory date of 1854 – set during the Crimean War period. In this period, the Sultan's Halberdier was wearing the long coat – commonly used in Ottoman imperial uniforms, however uncharacteristically for the times, has been even more heavily embroidered in gold following the previous jersey-jacket from the 1830s. The 1854 uniform had the following features:
“The coat was of red cloth, single breasted and fastened by nine gilt buttons, enclosed by nine scalloped edged gold edged bars, each of these terminating in another gilt button. This pattern was repeated on the other side of the jacket front. The standing collar was piped in gold lace and filled with gold lace to the full depth of the collar, so that no cloth showed. The pointed cuffs were edged in a gold lace and the whole space between the lace and the edge of the cuff embroidered in gold wire.... The lower part of the coat, which reached the knees, was edged in broad gold lace, the leading points embroidered with a scallop pattern in gold wire.” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 73)
Figure C: Officer, and Halberdier bodyguard ‘Garde du Palais’ (1860); is based on illustrations found in a series of colour plates, showing the various Ottoman court uniforms contained in the New York Public Library’s Vinkhuijzen collection. These figures are identified in the original colour plates as 'Chef du Garde', and 'Garde', in the Imperial Palace Guard Company, in 1860-70. As can be seen from the dates attributed to this uniform, this would have been the one more likely seen at the opening of the Beylerbey/Beylerbeyi Palace in 1865. As can be seen, the uniform colour has been changed to blue, with red cuffs and collar. This much more simple uniform is the exact same version as worn by many of the officers in the imperial army at the time. The only indication of any ‘special status’ is the display of gold chest bars. The Ottoman imperial army at this date was undergoing significant reform in the post- Crimean War period, including the adoption of French zouave uniforms, and the new uniform chosen for the Sultan's Halberdier very much reflects this standardisation. However, this uniform was short-lived as in 1876 Sultan Abdul-Hamid II came to the throne, and he instigated a full-return the 1854 version, making these even more expensively gold embroidered. Figure D: Maison Militaire de S.M. Impériale le Sultan Abdul-Hamid II. Baltadjis (Imperial Courts' Halberdiers) (1876-1908). The illustration is based on the special uniform (from an 1895 French magazine illustration) of the ‘Imperial Courts' Halberdiers’.
The Sultan's Halberdier’s headgear remained the most ostentatious aspects of their uniform. The Sultan's Halberdier’s hat in 1854 (Figure B), which also reappeared in 1876 (Figure D), was the strongest reference to the older late janissary headgear. It was a recreation of a type of hat commonly worn by the janissary called a Cahouk: A quilted fabric cloth hat. In 1854:
“The head-dress was a tall cap of pleated red cloth on a bamboo frame bound at the bottom with gold lace. The chin strap was of gilt brass scales lined in red morocco leather. The front of the cap was decorated with a scalloped design in gilt, above which, from a gilt holder, sprang a white hair plume. From behind the crown of the cap hung a fringed gold cloth.” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 73)
The janissary hat was not used initially, as can be seen with the earlier decorated fez (Figures A, and C), or the adoption of the Russian busby in the 1860s, as these had come into popular use with the increasing influence of Cossack cavalry, that had entered Ottoman service. The 1830s fez, was fitted with a massive gold tassel, which in the 1854 period, was retained as a back hanging fringed gold cloth, on the re-invented janissary Cahouk. This feature was left out of the janissary Cahouk adopted in 1876, which remained in use till 1908.
The Sultan's Halberdier uniform trousers changed over time from the broad Russian pants commonly worn in the imperial army in the 1830s, till the adoption of standard European trousers from the 1840s. All these trouser versions shared the same common features, and the 1854 ones are typical, these are described as: “green cloth, tight fitting, and fastened under the shoe with a button. The outer seam was covered by a broad gold lace stripe.” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 73) As can be seen from the Figures A-D, all the uniforms used this feature of the ‘broad gold lace stripe’ added to the trousers.
No examples of the special sword used by Sultan's Halberdier have been identified, and the version adopted in 1854, is described as: “ivory-hilted scimitar in a black leather sheath with brass fittings. There is no sword knot.” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 73) Other details visible (from illustrations of these – see Figure B), are the scabbards were fitted with a long hook frog button, and these swords had a special gold embroidered loop frog, with a curved strap allowing the sword to hang at a 45 degree angle. These weapons were also more straight-bladed and three-quarter length (of the standard swords used in the period).
The 1854 Halberdiers’ gilt brocade belt, was a common pattern more normally seen used by officers in this period, and in later years well into 1876-1908. This was a “gold lace belt on red moroccan leather.” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 73) Illustrations (Figures B and D), do show some changes over the years, such as in 1854 the belt was entirely covered in gold wire embroidery and this was done in a distinct zigzag pattern, commonly seen on Ottoman uniforms in this period. Whereas the 1876 belt, was complexly gold faced, with three broad red lines running along its length.
Not a great deal is known about the 1876 Halberdiers’ buckle, beyond what can be gleaned from the original 1895 French magazine illustration depicting these soldiers. This shows what appears to be a typical 1876 Ottoman imperial army soldiers’ buckle (Right), designed following French models of the period. The main difference is the use of the 1882 Hamidiye Coat of Arms Badge (Figure F). No known examples of this buckle are known. However, the shield design - 1882 Hamidiye Coat of Arms Badge, is well known.
Right: The 1882 Hamidiye Coat of Arms Badge, for the fez, agal (rope coil to hold the cloth head wrap in place), or Pre-1909 version of the kalpak: lamb wool hat. This badge is 7 x 5.8 cm. The cast button (above the crescent) has a tugra for Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and underneath this, a Rumi year 27 (٢٧) of rule (1901/1902) indicating when it was cast. This crest was introduced in 1882 by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, to be used by the imperial army. After 1908, it was used less, in favour of the Order of Orta (crescent) badge (Above), or star and crescent badge combination.
The 1876 Halberdiers’ buckle would have been produced in a high quality brass casting, reflecting the high status of the unit, and likely manufactured in Constantinople’s leading uniforms fitters, operating in this period, such as ONNIK & CIE BRODEURS DE LA COUR. This famous Ottoman court jeweller, had been founded in 1870 by Onnik Lazian in Constantinople, and was one of the main French owned court jewellers at the turn of the century. It appears from other Onnik made items such as court swords, the usual company engraving emphasises that Onnik was in fact one of the imperial court jewellers by appointment, usually stating “Brodeurs de la Cour Imperiale Constantinople", translating as ‘Embroiderers to the Imperial Court Constantinople’.
As a final note, there are many poor-quality examples of buckles made in the 19th and early 20th century, that use the 1882 Hamidiye Coat of Arms, and are frequently offered on ebay and as well by militaria dealers in the UK, and elsewhere for high prices, and reputed to be ‘Ottoman military belts and buckles’. This attribution is completely bogus, as these are Turkish women’s belts and buckles made for wedding dresses. This was a common practice in the Ottoman period. While this fact is well known in collecting fields, this has not stopped the current practice of trying to pass these items of as military.
The Moroccan Halberdier of the Royal Guard, as late as 1973, still paraded with halberd weapons, not unlike the Sultan's Halberdier whom they were based on. These weapons are described as seven-feet long, with a steel head and shoe (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 44). Figure G, has been extracted from a Turkish book of uniforms, by Mahmud Sevket Pasha ‘L'Organisation et les Uniformes de l'Armee Ottomanne (1907)’. This shows the later Solak Imperial Guard, armed with the typical 16th-17th century Ottoman double-faced halberd, finished in gold-gilt. As can be seen in the Figures A-D, the same basic pattern of halberd was used throughout the period. Except for the 1854 version, from the Crimean War period which appears to have been differently constructed. This shows a much heavier constructed weapon in steel, with elaborate scalloped-edged blades on each side of the two opposite facing axe blades. The other main difference is that the halberd staff is described as, “black ..., quite plain and without decoration” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 44). As to the later colour of the staffs:
The Sultan's Halberdier disappears after 1908, when the first of two constitutional revolutions ended much the sultan’s traditional power. After that time, the last two sultans, Mehmed V (1908-1918); and, Mehmed VI (1918-1922), both tended to use the state carriage with mounted bodyguard troop of lancers. The tradition of the Sultan's Halberdier continued in Morocco, and the Moroccan Halberdier of the Royal Guard, as late as 1973:
“can be seen every Friday when the king visits the mosque. They form a route for the king called the Holy Corridor; this ceremony was also enacted by the Sultan of Turkey’s Guard before the First World War.” (Jack Cassin-Scott, John Fabb, 1973 Ceremonial Uniforms of the World, Hippocrene Books: Plate 44)
The existence of the Sultan’s Halberdier presents an historical oddity, because of the obvious links to the janissary. This contradicts much of our understanding about Ottoman political history, as the 1826 ‘coup against the Janissaries’, under Sultan Mahmud II led not only to the death of many janissary involved in their mutiny against the sultan, but the very end of the janissary as a military force. Sultan Mahmud II even ordered that the Imperial Ottoman Arsenal collection – the traditional repository of the janissary’s insignia etc emptied and destroyed (Stuart, W. Pyhrr. 1989 European Armor from the Imperial Ottoman Arsenal (Metropolitan Museum Journal 24): 87). The conventional historical view is that ‘some janissaries survived by keeping a low profile and taking ordinary jobs’. However, it is clear from study of the role and uniforms of the Bekci or Kavasses watchmen (who were the forerunners to the establishment of Police Regiments in 1847), that many of the former janissary were employed as these Bekci watchmen. There are other examples that challenge the conventional historical view, such as the Solak Imperial Guard trained as a new battalion in the New Model Army (formed out of Sultan Mahmud II’s reforms to end the janissary). These guardsmen became the 'Yellow' Regiment in the New Model Army, which continued till 1832-39, with the regiment distinction of yellow jackets and fez tassels – in fact one regiment of the imperial guard still had yellow facings and a fez tassel till 1876. The Bostandjees, who were a special janissary who protected the imperial estates, also trained as a new battalion in the New Model Army in 1826 forming the second Imperial Guard Regiment along with the former Solak, and had from as early as 1808 – when earlier sultans began to introduce European military reforms – retained the nickname of the “Sultan’s Gardeners” (New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, the Vinkhuizjen Collection). An earlier description of various Bekci, appears in ‘The Present State of the Turkish Empire’ (Auguste Frédéric Louis Viesse de Marmont) (duc de Raguse) London, 1839), noting on the occasion of the Sultan’s daughter’s wedding, in which he describes in his footnotes the uniform of Kavasses attached to some embassies as: ‘…resembling the picturesque costume of that abolished corps [the janissaries]; even carrying their long white staff of office’. This white staff, was traditionally used in the Selamlik (Sultan's Palace Reception), by the janissary. These visible reminders of the janissary point to a much more complicated process of transition from the ‘end of the janissary’ in 1826, and continuation of many aspects of janissary after 1826, the most visible being the retention by the sultans in later years of their Halberdiers, still wearing costumes that strongly resembled the original janissary uniforms.
Chris Flaherty (2017) The Sultan's Halberdiers