Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Where is the Deputy of Lehistan?

The story of the last delegate of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth 
to the Sublime Porte

Listen to the Podcast at The Wild Field:

In the Polish collective memory Ottoman Turkey is remembered as the only state that did not recognize the final partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795 by Russia, Prussia and Austria. There even exists an anecdote recounting the exchange between the chef de protocol and his aide, which is still often repeated in Poland. According to the tale, whenever the diplomatic corps was received by the Ottoman sultan, on the sight of the empty chair of the Polish deputy, the Ottoman chef de protocol would ostentatiously ask: “Where is the deputy from Lehistan?”. At each occasion he would receive the same reply from his aide: ‘Your Excellency, the deputy of Lehistan could not make it because of vital impediments’ to the annoyance of the diplomats from the partitioning states. The first written record of this story comes from the Polish ambassador to Turkey in the years 1936 – 45, Michał Sokolnicki (1880 – 1967). He heard it from a Turkish officer and statesman, Ali Fuat Cebesoy (1880 – 1968), who was acquainted with the Istanbul Polish community. Cebesoy claimed that this symbolic exchange continued until the end of sultanate and he witnessed it in person as a young officer during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876 – 1909) (Sokolnicki, 1958). The accuracy of this account is widely questioned by the historians of the subject as no record of such a habit from the early nineteenth century has been found. Regardless, it has played, and continues to play a significant role in the Polish collective memory and as a tool of statecraft. Tadeusz Mazowiecki (1927 – 2013) attended the session of the Council of Europe in 1990 as the first non-Communist Prime Minister of Poland since 1945, he began his speech with the story and concluded it saying that the long-awaited deputy from Lehistan had finally arrived, highlighting that Poland was at last a free country (Kołodziejczyk, 2000).

In a similar vein, it can be discussed whether the Ottoman Empire did or did not recognize the partitions of Poland-Lithuania. Or more precisely whether the Ottomans were at all asked for any kind of approval of the status quo.  One of the main resolutions of the Congress of Vienna (1814 – 1815) was a final partition of the Duchy of Warsaw (Księstwo Warszawskie) between Russia and Prussia. The Duchy of Warsaw was an independent Polish state established by Napoleon I in 1807 from the Polish lands ceded by Prussia and was allied to France. Although it was created as a satellite state, it was commonly hoped and believed that through it Poles would be able to regain their former status as a fully sovereign state. These hopes were shattered due to Napoleon’s failure in the campaign against Russia (1812) and the decisions of the Congress of Vienna, which redrew the map of Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. However, the Ottoman Empire was not invited to the Congress. Consequently, it is debatable to what extent the Ottoman state was active in their supposed protest against the partitioning of Poland-Lithuania.

The disappearance of Poland from the map in 1795 did not go unnoticed in the Ottoman Empire. The prominent nineteenth-century Ottoman historian and statesman, Ahmed Cevdet Pasha (1822-1895), remarked in his history of the Ottoman Empire (Tarih-i Cevdet): “When this unfortunate news [the partitioning of Poland-Lithuania] reached the Sublime Porte, it was a warning to us. For this reason the Ottomans chose to complete the essential military and financial reform as soon as possible” (Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, 1270-1301 [1853-1883]). Moreover, some Ottoman statesmen did indeed condemn the partitions. Karolina Suchodolska (ca.1835 – ca.1900), daughter of the chief organizer of the Polish political activities on the Bosphorus, Michał Czaykowski (Mehmed Sadık Pasha, 1804 – 1886), told the Polish traveller Antoni Zaleski (1858 - 1895) that her father’s friend, former commander of the janissary troops and serasker of Sultan Mahmud II, Benderli Hüseyin Pasha, recognized only seven European monarchs: kings of Poland-Lithuania, Bohemia, England, France, Spain, Hungary and the Pope. He regarded the King of Prussia as Poland-Lithuania’s vassal. According to Suchodolska’s account, Czaykowski visited Benderli Hüseyin Pasha in the company of the ambassador of Prussia. The Pasha, persistent in his convictions, did not want to allow at any cost the representative of Prussia to sit next to Czaykowski. Czaykowski did his utmost to ease the situation. As a response to his pleas the Pasha is recorded as having said: “If you are insisting, he can sit down but only on the chair. You, in turn, take a place next to me on the divan. In my household I cannot bear the sight of a vassal sitting next to his lord. No matter what has happened, in my books they are merely your vassals” (Zaleski, 1887). Clearly, the Ottoman dignitary did not only disapprove of the disappearance of Poland-Lithuania but also was aware of the important role that the Ottoman Empire’s northern neighbour once played on the map of Europe.

Moreover, when Witold Jodko-Narkiewicz (1864 – 1924) was appointed in 1919 as the first delegate of the independent Poland to the Ottoman Empire, he remembered that the Grand Vizier of Sultan Selim III, Izzet Mehmed Pasha (1743 – 1812), promised to take care of the keys to the building of the Polish ambassador in Istanbul until Poland-Lithuania regained its independence. (Chmielowska, 2006). The building was located on a side street running from the main avenue Grande Rue de Pera (today’s Istiklâl Caddesi) to the pier in Tophane. In order to commemorate the location of the last Polish legacy to the Sublime Porte, this street, which today bears the name Nur-i Ziya Sokağı, was called Leh Sokağı (Rue de Pologne, Polish Street) throughout the nineteenth century until the 1950s.

Leh Sokağı
In this context, the story of Kajetan Aksak (d. 1824), the last Polish deputy to the Sublime Porte before the partitions, certainly deserves a closer look. Aksak never came to terms with the partitions of Poland-Lithuania. According to a Polish nineteenth century Orientalist, Ignacy Pietraszewski (1796 – 1869), not only did the last deputy never leave the Ottoman Empire but also did his best for years to make the Ottoman statesmen aware of the great injustice that had been done to Poland-Lithuania by its neighbours (Pietraszewski, 1989). Since Aksak was convinced that only the monarch who had appointed him to his function could call him back, he continued his service as an envoy of Poland-Lithuania until the last days of his life in 1824. What is more, he observed the routine of Polish deputies from earlier times. Like his predecessors he spent half of the year in the small flat at Leh Sokağı, which he rented and which was located next to the former embassy. Aksak collected all the documents pertaining to Poland-Lithuania and organized a small archive in that flat. He spent the other half of the year in a house in Ortaköy. Aksak would regularly attend the daily meetings of the Ottoman Divan and like in the pre-partition period he would take a seat in a room for the dragomans (translators). Ottoman dignitaries, who felt sorry for him, continued to pay him the same honours they paid to the dragomans of other states. In the same way Aksak’s kavas (guard) unchangeably served him until his last days. Zaleski recounts in his travelogue that whenever Ottomans saw Aksak’s guard, they would say with pity: “Here is the shadow of a kavas, of a dragoman, of a state that was wiped away from the world map!” (Zaleski, 1887).      

Although the embassy building went up in flames in 1822, Polish travellers recall that in the late 19th century a small chapel commemorating the former embassy could be found next to the building no 8 at Leh Sokağı (Łątka, 2001). It is noteworthy that the street experienced a short renaissance during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Polish émigrés set up a recruitment bureau there for soldiers who volunteered to join a Polish legion that was going to fight in the war on the Ottoman side. For decades the Polish Street was a place of pilgrimage for Polish travellers to Istanbul. Today, however, there are no traces left of the above-mentioned chapel and no commemorative board reminds passersby of the historical importance of that place. Hardly anyone remembers that the street was once called the “Polish Street” and the neighbourhood around it was commonly known as the Polish neighbourhood (leh mahallesi).     

Select Bibliography:
  1. Ahmed Cevdet Pasha, Tarih-i Cevdet, v.5 (Istanbul: Matbaa-yi Ümeyre, 1270-1301 [1853-1883])
  2. Chmielowska, Danuta, Polsko-tureckie stosunki dyplomatyczne w okresie międzywojennym (Warszawa: Dialog, 2006)
  3. Kołodziejczyk, Dariusz, Turcja (Warsaw: Trio, 2000)
  4. Łątka, Jerzy S., Odaliski, poturczeńcy i uchodźcy. Z dziejów Polaków w Turcji (Cracow, Universitas, 2001)Pietraszewski, Ignacy, Uroki Orientu (Olsztyn: 1989)
  5. Sokolnicki, Michał, “Polityka Piłsudskiego a Turcja”, Niepodległość, v.6 (London: Wydawn. Instytutu Józefa Piłsudskiego Poświęconego Badaniu Najnowszej Historii Polski, 1958.
  6. Zaleski, Antoni, Z wycieczki na Wschód (Warsaw: Nakład Gebenthnera i Wolffa, 1887)

Posted by:
Paulina Dominik obtained her Master degree in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. For more on the author see: https://oxford.academia.edu/PaulinaDominik 


  1. As a Turk, I would like to mention that almost everybody knows the importance of the "Polish Street" in Istanbul. It is called "Polonezköy" in Turkish. The Turks always respected the Poles and Lithuanians despite few conflicts and there is a bond between both people. The article is a good read and has useful information however makes me question it's honesty because of it's questioning of how much the Ottomans respected the Commonwealth.

    1. Wow thank You! Kind words. Turkey was always one of the most righteous and powerfull country in the world. Proud people

  2. It's hard to believe that Habsburgs agreed to partitioning of Poland so easely concidering that if not Polish army, Vienna would belong to Turks!! This is so shameful.

    1. they fully agree they wanted a part of poland just like the rest of the other 2 nations

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