Hatchet of Mehmed III, c.1600.

Hatchet of Mehmed III, c.1600. (akg-images)

Heads Will Roll

Getting and keeping the throne in the Ottoman Empire was no easy task. For a new sultan, the most foolproof method of securing power was to kill all other claimants.

bey or chieftain of one of the numerous Central Asian nomadic tribes died in 1280, leaving his son, Osman, to take his place. Osman – known as Osman Gazi, meaning great warrior – would go on to found a dynasty known as the Ottomans (from the Turkish Osmanlı, literally ‘of Osman’) and an empire spanning Europe, Asia and North Africa. But the ruling dynasty of the Ottoman Empire is rare in that the House of Osman managed to maintain an unbroken line of succession from its founding in the 13th century through to the family members who are still alive today.

The Ottoman foundation myth alleges that Osman I had a dream in which he saw a tree grow from his navel to cast a wide shadow across the world. Anyone living within this shadow lived prosperously. This story provided the Ottomans with an explanation for the success of their expansion – and also suggested that they were chosen and favoured by Allah. Yet maintaining a smooth transition of power within the family across hundreds of years was not easy; the system of succession in the Ottoman Empire was a deadly one.

As with any ruling dynasty, the requirement that the reigning sultan produce an heir was central to succession. In traditional Islamic fashion, heirs could be produced through a combination of legal marriage and slave concubinage. Indeed, after the first two rulers of the dynasty, Osman and his son and heir Orhan, almost all sultanic offspring were born from concubine mothers. Questions of marriage and reproduction did not simply revolve around love. Marriages were political. Most of those contracted in the 14th century were with Christian women; in the 15th century, sultans began to choose more Muslim women as brides for their sons. While this change reflected a shift in geopolitics, it was also a result of a more widespread end to inter-dynastic marriages around the early 15th century. The marriage in 1435 of Murad II, father of Mehmed the Conqueror, to Mara, the daughter of the Serbian ruler George Brankovich, was reputedly the last one. In the centuries that followed, brides and concubines came from as far afield as Crimea, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia and Albania.

Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript.
Osman II, from a 19th-century Ottoman manuscript. (Bridgeman Images)

These women lived in the imperial harem. Those who were fortunate enough to bear the sultan’s sons might attain the powerful role of Valide Sultan (‘mother sultan’), the title given to the mother of the reigning sultan. If a mother died before her son attained the throne, she was not awarded this title, although in special circumstances it could be bestowed upon grandmothers or even stepmothers. The title was first used in the 16th century, when it was given to Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Süleyman the Magnificent. Previously the title had been ‘cradle of the great’.

The role of Valide Sultan came with a great deal of power and influence in the Ottoman Empire, both within the harem and without. As part of the duty of securing succession, she would oversee the education and grooming of young women who might attract her son. She also had a great deal of power over which of the harem women were sent to his bedchamber.

Yet securing the role of Valide Sultan was not easy. A woman first had to catch the eye of the sultan, then bear him at least one son, then keep both herself and her son alive and in favour until his father died. This was easier said than done after the Ottoman tradition of fratricide was codified into law by an imperial edict of Mehmed the Conqueror.

Legalised practice

After the death of his father Murad II in 1451, Mehmed visited the women of the harem and, while hearing their condolences, sent one of his men to strangle his infant half-brother in his bath. He validated this action with appropriate citations from the Quran, such as: ‘The execution of a prince is preferable to the loss of a province.’ In his edict legalising the practice he stated:

Whichever of my sons inherits the sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly.

While this was not completely new to the Ottoman Empire, judicial royal fratricide became an accepted method of securing the Ottoman throne until its abolition in the 17th century by Ahmed I. That is not to say that it was practised consistently. There are numerous cases where fratricide did not occur until well after the question of succession was settled, indicating that the Ottomans were, in this, as in many matters, flexible and willing to adapt to whatever action was deemed most appropriate to the current situation. The eventual abolition of fratricide came about following widespread public disapproval over the accession of Mehmed III to the throne. He was notorious for having 19 of his brothers and half-brothers strangled in order to secure the throne for himself.

Behind every weak sultan

This series of fratricides took place during a period in Ottoman history known as the Sultanate of Women, a 130-year period spanning the 16th and 17th centuries. During this period women of the imperial harem held considerable power and influence over affairs of state. Sometimes this was due to the Valide Sultan acting as regent for a son who, while on the throne, was still a minor. The adult wives of minor sultans (Haseki Sultan, ‘chief consort’) could also fulfil this role. The Sultanate of Women began with Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, and her daughter Mihrimah Sultan, who became the wife of Rüstem Paşa, one of Süleyman’s grand viziers.

Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School.
Portrait of Hürrem Sultan, 1541, Ottoman School. (Bridgeman Images)

Traditionally, this period has been viewed as a time of weak sultans, either because they were minors, or because they were insufficient in some other way: drunk, lazy, mentally unstable or not intelligent enough for the role. For these reasons, women and advisers were able to gain power and manipulate the sultans for their own gain.

Though it was a period of unprecedented power for royal Ottoman women, many of them faced stiff opposition, which often came from the viziers close to them. In 1583, the Venetian ambassador Paolo Contarini observed that Sultan Murad III based all his actions on the advice of his mother, Nurbanu, and that women were the real holders of power in the Ottoman Empire. Another Venetian diplomat, Alvise Contarini, recalled in 1640 how he had passed letters to the grand vizier, Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, for delivery to Kösem Sultan, the then Valide Sultan. The vizier gave the cutting response that the mothers of sultans were, like all other women in the imperial house, slaves of the sultan and held no real power of their own. This was revealing of Kara Mustafa’s rivalry with Kösem for the ear and favour of the new sultan, Ibrahim.

The end of the Sultanate of Women brought with it the demise of the practice of fratricide and the beginnings of its alternative, the kafes, or ‘gilded cage’, a system which advocated the virtual house arrest of any male family member who might threaten the reign of the ruling sultan. Ahmed I was enthroned in 1603 and, in preference to fratricide, permitted his 12-year-old brother Mustafa to live. It is thought that, as well as reacting to the public condemnation of royal fratricide, Ahmed I was motivated by a desire to safeguard the future of the Ottoman dynasty.

The case for fratricide

Ahmed came to the throne aged 13 and had not yet demonstrated his ability to produce sons. Should something have happened to him before he had fathered a male heir, Mustafa would have been the only other legal candidate for the throne. Ahmed I did go on to produce sons, but, at his death in 1617, his eldest was only 13 years old. This prompted the imperial council to allow Mustafa, then aged 25, to ascend the throne as Mustafa I, although he would be deposed and re-enthroned several times throughout his life.

This exposed a drawback to the abolition of fratricide. The introduction of the ‘cage’ and the survival of a number of other viable candidates for the throne meant the sultan faced a greater danger of depositions and coups by interested individuals or parties seeking to wield power. It also very often produced men unprepared for rule. It was common to imprison uncles, brothers and cousins in the cage as soon as they left the harem apartments upon reaching puberty. This marked the end of their education, meaning that when one of them was ‘released’ to take the throne they were often uninformed or unprepared for the tasks ahead of them.

In previous centuries, it had been common to send princes out into the Empire to serve as rulers in the provinces so that they gained life experience and a practical education before returning to vie with their brothers for the throne. While the cage was more humane, it did not help those imprisoned – or the Empire. From the 17th and 18th centuries, therefore, we begin to see a change in the role of the Ottoman sultan and how much power the office and the individuals in the office actually held. Sultans began to rely increasingly on their viziers and advisers to counsel them and to understand what to do, leading to a reduction in the power they held.

Death of a sultan

It is a truth universally acknowledged that royal depositions must, sooner or later, be in want of a regicide. The first in the history of the Ottoman Empire occurred on Friday 20 May 1622, with the death of Osman II, son of Ahmed I. Known as Osman the Young, he had ascended the throne in 1618 at the age of 14, following the coup that deposed Mustafa I, his uncle, for the first time. In 1622, aged 17, he had still not succeeded in legitimising himself as a conqueror of territory and so sought to cultivate the role of a pious sultan instead. He announced his intention to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, something no Ottoman sultan had done before. Previous rulers, while acknowledging and respecting the importance of the pilgrimage, had heeded the advice of jurists, who argued that their most sacred duty lay in staying in their capital and tending to their subjects. That Osman II announced his intention to undertake the pilgrimage immediately after returning to Istanbul from Edirne provoked fears that he might become an absentee monarch, who might be seeking to return the capital to its original site – Edirne.

Other reasons given for his death include an attempt to abolish absolutist rule and fears on the part of the army that his pilgrimage was really a decoy, with the young sultan intending to recruit a mercenary army to challenge the power of Ottoman military groups. Osman II had not endeared himself to the military by closing the coffee houses owned by many of their members, as they were suspected to be places where seditious groups met to plot rebellion. On 18 May 1622, members of the military demanded the execution of some high-ranking administrators, claiming that they were leading the sultan away from his true duties and purpose. Later that day they found the young sultan and, being displeased with the answers he gave them, deposed him and re-enthroned Mustafa I.

Two days later Osman II was killed by strangulation at Yedikule Fortress in Istanbul. The impact of this regicide was allegedly minimal, causing little to no distress in the city. It has, however, been accorded a great deal of importance by historians, who view it as a key turning point in the power structures of the Ottoman Empire.

Pomp, ceremony and bribes

Suffice to say that attaining and, more importantly, keeping power in the Ottoman Empire was a complex business. There were, however, a wide range of legitimising tactics that sultans could turn to in order to make their rule agreeable to all concerned. The accession of a new sultan, as with most key events in the Empire, was surrounded by ritual and ceremony, from girding with the sword of Osman I (a tradition which began when the Empire’s founder was himself girded with the sword of Islam) within two weeks of a sultan taking the throne, to the payment of a sum of money to the military. An important ceremony designed to assure a mutual loyalty and respect between the sultans and their army included the gifting of boiled sweets to the sultan by the soldiers when they received their wages. Another was the annual Ramadan baklava event, whereby the sultan would give many trays of this traditional sweet to the military, assuring their loyalty and reminding them and those who watched that the military was (theoretically) dependent upon the sultan for all things – from their position, to the food on their table and the clothes on their backs.

The dynasty continued with variable succession methods until the end of the sultanate, with Mehmed VI, who ruled from 1918 until 1922. Following the official declaration and recognition of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Mehmed VI went into exile. Upon his death in 1926, the title of caliph was bestowed upon Abdülmejid II, who would be the last Ottoman Caliph. Descendants of the Ottoman line continue to use the family name Osmanoğlu (‘the sons of Osman’) and the title of Head of the House of Osman is still passed down and used today.

Gemma Masson is completing a PhD on the urban janissary in 18th-century Istanbul at the University of Birmingham and is a Reviews Editor at H-Empire.

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