Mehter: The Majestic Music Band of Ottoman Era & Beyond

‘Mehter’ is a significant concept in the Ottoman culture, but on contrary to popular belief, it predates the Ottoman era. Although there is a strong notion that Mehter represents the nationalist and conservative side of the local music culture, a deep history lies beneath. One of the biggest mistakes was to compare Mehter with Classical Western music which is well documented unlike Classical Ottoman music. Ottoman music was mainly performer-centric and improvised. Some academicians also admit that a similarity between Mehter and jazz music exists since both have significant improvisation roots and Mehter bands are the predecessors of American Big Bands such as New Orleans Bands. The term ‘band’ used for jazz band/rock band in the West was also used centuries ago for Mehter ‘Bando’, which may point to a connection. We also know that famous cymbal manufacturer Zildjian, which was born five centuries ago in the Ottoman lands and moved its business from Istanbul to the US around early 20th century, was initially manufacturing cymbals for Mehter Bands and for jazz and rock bands in the US. Mehter musicians were a key part of the soundscape of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 until 1923, dominating the Middle East and reaching into Europe at its height. Music was an important part of the Ottoman culture. Besides Mehter, there were ‘Sufi’ music masters, music of minorities in churches and synagogues, itinerant and village bands. By the 1600’s, Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi noted that the Ottoman Empire had 40 guilds of musicians, singers and instrument makers. After conquering Istanbul in 1453, Ottomans worked hard to extend their power into Eastern Europe and brought their cymbals and drums to these territories during wartime, where the Europeans heard the crashing cymbal and the bass drum. By the late 1700’s, military bands in most of Europe played bass drums and cymbals. European bands loved the Turkish percussion style; however, they never adopted Turkish melodies.

One of the best books written about Mehter was completed around late 2019. Musicologist and writer Oğuz Elbaş has been researching Anatolian musical history and culture back to the Hittites and sharing his knowledge about this rich culture with the public in universities, cultural associations, on media and in various events for a long time. In this article, you will find the brief history and structure of Mehter and some insight about the writer’s latest work ‘Mehter’ published with the support of Turkish Ministry of Culture & Tourism.

The word ‘Mehter’ was derived from the Persian word ‘Mihter’ or ‘Mihtar’, which means ‘great’ or ‘sublime’. Mehter is an expression of greatness and power in the Turkish world and is developed by Turks in Central Asia. It is a unique music ensemble with its structure, musical values and the way of functioning.

Mehterân music, has its roots within the traditions of the Near East and it has gone through various transformations in centuries. It was used as a war march during the Ottoman period to display power of the ruler. During the peace period, it was a genre of music that had important functions such as ensuring the continuity of the power of the state, giving morale to the public. Mehter music played a crucial role in the Ottoman music culture but also influenced the classical music of Europe, which is evident in the compositions of Mozart and Beethoven. The first composer to use the Turkish crash cymbal in opera was Nicolaus Strungk in his 1680 opera, Esther.

Mehter Music Pre-Ottoman Empire

Mehter is no means of entertainment in Turkish traditions, but a sacred symbol, a sign of greatness, grandeur, the sovereignty of the state. This perception existed in the Turkish states before Islam and in the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires with minimal changes. There were three symbols for the Turks during this period; Otağ (the commander’s tent), Sancak (the flag of the state) and Kös (the big drum of the battle). The Mehter of the Khan right in front functioned to encourage the soldiers. The flag and the Mehter were two important symbols that could not be considered separate from each other. Tuğ (the symbol of authority made from the hairs of the horse tail) and the battle drum were the representation of independence and freedom of the State. Rumbling drums were a sign of the upcoming war. The loss of the drum and the flag in a war meant the loss of the most important symbols and values of the state, which in other words meant the loss of the war. In summary, Mehter was an important element of war, an oath, a prayer and a narrative of power and dignity for the pre-Ottoman Turks.

Mehter Music during Ottoman Period

Formed and developed during the reign of Osman Gazi, Mehter played an important role in war and peace as the military music of the Ottoman Empire. Fatih (Mehmed the Conqueror) Sultan Mehmet has also made many contributions and built a ‘Nevbethane’ where Mehter band performed three times a day. This situation continued until the period of Selim III and civilian Mehter teams were established in several locations. The sultans who came after Mehmed the Conqueror also placed great emphasis on Mehter and largely followed its traditional rules. During the rule of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman (Suleyman the Magnificent), Mehter was restructured, and new bands belonging to the vizier and other pashas were formed.

Mehter had various names during Seljuk and Ottoman times and was a part of the Janissary Corps with its own rules. In the Ottoman period, there were two types of Mehter called Formal and Artisan Mehter. During the 17th and 18th centuries, all the sultans made various changes and kept the institution alive by applying new rules and regulations. Besides the sultans and the vizier, the elders of the state, who carried out the military and administrative affairs, also had their own Mehter bands according to the importance of their positions.

Over time, the traditional musical structure of Mehter has evolved and changed, revealing new ways and forms. During the reign of Mahmoud II (1808-1839), radical changes were applied to the structure of the Ottoman Empire, and Mehter was shut down at the same time with the Janissary Corps in 1826. The existing reputable structure of Mehter has completely disappeared and has been replaced by hatred. Meanwhile, there were efforts to create a new ‘Band’ in the palace with European style replacing the Mehter band. For this purpose, Italian musician and composer Guiseppe Donizetti was brought in 1828. He was appointed as the head of the Military Band and referred to as ‘Donizetti Pasha’. He started teaching his students the Western notation and after six months, this new band performed the first concert for the Sultan. Eventually, ‘Musika-i Humayûn’ was officially established within Istanbul Technical University in 1831, and after nearly five hundred years, Mehter took its place in history with its original repertoire.

During the late Ottoman and early Turkish Republican era, Mehter had gone through certain changes. Today, various types of Mehter teams within the Headquarters of Military Museum and Cultural Sites in Istanbul and municipalities are still performing during national and international events, special days and festivals.

The Structure

There were five instruments in a Mehter band; drum, ‘zurna’ (shrill pipe), ‘nakkare’ (naqareh, a small kettle drum), trumpet and cymbal. Each group comprised of these instruments was called a layer. The Sultan’s Mehter had nine layers. Later, ‘cevgan’ (the long stick with bells and a crescent) was added as the sixth instrument.

The sultan’s Mehter band was a part of the palace community and they were living in large barracks located close to Sultanahmet area next to the Topkapi Palace. There were nearly 150-200 people in this group, along with the youth and children with adequate physical capabilities who were trained within this facility. The Mehterhane pavilion in Sultanahmet was demolished in a fire in 1807 and historical Mehter instruments and documents were burnt down. It was rebuilt in 1816, but there was another fire later on. This building was finally restored in 1931 during Ataturk era. The Mehter is commanded by the head in front, followed by flags in green, white and red. Behind these flags, there are nine ‘tugs’ (A tuğ or sulde is a pole with circularly arranged horse or yak tail hairs of varying colors arranged at the top), carried by those who symbolize the Janissaries. These are followed by other instrument players in an order and finally by the Kös (big drum) on a horseback. The deep history of Mehter music in Turkish tradition also had an influence on European military music and thus similar military bands were established in various European countries holding up Mehter as an example.

I have interviewed the writer of ‘Mehter’, Oguz Elbas who kindly answered my questions and shared his views on his extensive research and on the book “Mehter”;

Barış Mumcu: Why did you feel the need to write such a book about Mehter?

Oğuz Elbaş: While studying the history of world music, I have noticed that there is a vast database of international publications based on highly qualified scientific research. On the other hand, the quality and low number of publications made in our country about Turkey’s music history has been a very important indicator of our inadequacy in this field. Observing such a need, I started making research and gathered the documents from various institutions and individuals. After a long period of research in this field, I felt obliged to share these with the public. It should be everyone’s duty to protect and contribute to their cultural heritage through sharing these rich stories about the history and culture of their own countries as much as possible.

Barış Mumcu: What were the main challenges in the writing process of this book, were there enough resources and any new information that surprised you?

Oğuz Elbaş: Research is difficult and requires a significant time and financial resources. Therefore, various publications may unfortunately end up as inadequate studies. Until recently, it was quite difficult to find a local publication about our own music history, musicology or, in summary, music, but the publications made in recent years are promising.

The book ‘Mehter’ is based on nearly 20 years of hard work and emerged after a very difficult process with personal efforts, with the support of close friends and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It was quite difficult to find sufficient scientific data and not possible to get access to certain resources or documents such as some of the foreign publications and the Ottoman archives.

Barış Mumcu: When we think about Mehter, the Ottoman and military bands are the first things that come to mind. What else would you like to add?

Oğuz Elbaş: Mehter was not only a musical band and did not perform only entertainment or ceremonial functions. It was part of Turkish cultural structure and a reflection of social practices. It fulfilled many tasks determined in the social structure, announced the power of the Sultan while lending wings to friends and striking fear to enemies. It announced important days or events and the prayer times. Mehter fell into disfavour during Mahmoud II and was replaced by the European style military band.

Barış Mumcu: What is the position of Mehter in today’s modern musical world?

Oğuz Elbaş: The real Mehter can no longer exist in today’s conditions. The main arena Mehter served, the battlefields do not exist anymore. The peacetime tasks are carried out by modern methods. Today, the Mehter, within the state and municipalities, is a band that only performs in certain ceremonies and festivals as a traditional heritage.

Barış Mumcu: I believe studying and writing about a cultural heritage which lasted for centuries is incredibly important for transition of this information to the future generations. I would like to thank to you for all your personal efforts and for this great book which is a result of your twenty years of hard work. Congratulations.

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