Killing culture in the Ottoman Empire

Before 1607 the Ottoman Empire had no fixed rule of succession. The throne belonged to whichever prince first reached Constantinople and the imperial treasury.

His success meant that he had God’s blessing and was the legitimate Sultan. Other princes might foment the civil wars which had plagued the Ottoman dynasty in the early 15th century, or be the instruments of palace or Janissary factions; the new Sultan therefore usually had them killed.

Princes were as expendable as viziers. With that disabused realism which was no less characteristic of Ottoman official style than imperial grandiloquence, Mehmed II had written: ‘Whichever of my sons inherits the Sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order [the Ottoman Empire]. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly.’

Like the physical separation of devshirme youths from their families, such a policy ignored the family ties celebrated in the Koran. The imperial palace, however, was governed by the requirements of the dynasty, not the law of Islam.

Mehmed II executed 2 brothers; Selim I 2 brothers, 3 sons, and 4 nephews. He may also have ordered his father poisoned. In the entire history of the dynasty about 80 princes were killed, generally through strangulation with a bowstring, to avoid spilling the Ottomans’ sacred blood.

Execution as a means of dynastic control was not an Ottoman invention. 30 of 88 Byzantine emperors had died by strangulation, poison or torture in Constantinople itself.

Phlip Mansel

by Mano Chil

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