delanceyplace.com 1/5/11 - the ottoman empire
In today's excerpt - starting with its founding by Osman in 1299, the Ottoman Empire was ruled for ten successive generations by capable and often brilliant leaders, culminating in the dazzling reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), who led the Empire to its cultural and geographic zenith. That changed when his son Mustafa was executed—by five professional executioners whose tongues had been slit and eardrums broken so that they would hear no secrets and could never speak of what they saw—and replaced by his wife's favorite, Selim II. Selim was followed by a succession of mostly degenerate and weak leaders that left the Empire, by 1914, as the "sick man of Europe":
"Suleiman, a contemporary of Henry VIII of England, took his strange heritage to a peak of vitality. Like his forebears, he was a warrior, personally leading his army in thirteen campaigns. He pushed deeper into Europe, capturing Belgrade and Budapest and completing the conquest of the Balkans. He besieged Vienna, the keystone of central Europe, and would have captured it too if torrents of rain had not made it impossible for him to bring his heavy guns north. He was a poet, a student of the works of Aristotle, and a builder who made Constantinople grander and more beautiful than it had ever been. The opulence of life in his Topkapi Palace beggars the imagination.
"Suleiman had some three hundred concubines, as well as a promising young son and heir named Mustafa, when he was given a red-haired Russian girl named Ghowrem, who came to be known as Roxelana. She came into his harem as part of his share of the booty from a slave-gathering raid into what is now Poland, and she must have been a remarkable creature. (Not surprisingly, in light of the power she acquired in Constantinople, she eventually won a second new name: 'the witch.') Almost from the day of her arrival, Suleiman never slept with another woman. Eventually and amazingly, he did something that no sultan had done in centuries: he married. Their love story would have been one of the great ones if it hadn't ended up taking the dynasty and the empire in such a sordid direction.
"Mustafa gave every indication of developing into yet another mighty branch on the family tree. At an early age he showed himself a bold military leader adored by his troops, a capable provincial governor, and a popular hero. But he stood in the way of the son whom Roxelana had borne to (presumably) Suleiman, and so he was doomed. Working her wiles, Roxelana persuaded Suleiman that Mustafa was plotting against him. (He was doing nothing of the kind.) With his father looking on, Mustafa was overpowered and strangled by five professional executioners whose tongues had been slit and eardrums broken so that they would hear no secrets and could never speak of what they saw. And so when Suleiman died some years later, master of an empire of almost incredible size and power, he was succeeded by Roxelana's son, Selim II. Nothing was ever the same again.
"Selim the Sot was short and fat and a drunk. He never saw a battlefield and died after eight years on the throne by falling down and fracturing his skull in his marble bath. His son, Murad III, was also a drunk and an opium addict as well; during a reign of twenty years he sired 103 children and apparently did little else. His heir, Mahomet III, began his reign by ordering all of his many brothers, the youngest of them mere children, put to death, thereby introducing that custom into Ottoman royal culture. Having done so he followed his father in devoting the rest of his life to copulation. And so it went. Every sultan from Roxelana's son forward was a monster of degeneracy or a repulsive weakling or both. The abruptness and permanence of the change, the sharpness of the contrast between the murdered Mustafa and his half-brother Selim II, has given rise to speculation that perhaps Roxelana's son was not Suleiman's son at all.
"In the post-Suleiman empire, a new breed of craven sultans came to live in terror of being overthrown by rivals from within the dynasty. Appalling new traditions emerged, to be observed whenever one of them died. All the women of the deceased sultan would be moved to a distant place and kept in even deeper solitude for the rest of their miserable lives. Any who happened to be pregnant would be murdered (generally by being bundled in sacks and drowned), and the younger brothers and half-brothers of the new monarch (often a large number of men, boys, and infants) were murdered as well (generally by strangulation).
"The rulers erected a windowless building called the Cage in which their heirs were confined from early childhood until they died or were put to death or, having been taught nothing about anything, were released to take their turns on the throne. The result was as inevitable as it was monstrous: an empire ruled year after year and finally century after century by utterly ignorant, utterly incompetent, sometimes half-imbecilic, half-mad men, some of whom spent decades in the Cage before their release and all of whom, after their release, were free to do absolutely anything they wanted, no matter how vicious, for as long as they remained alive. They commonly indulged their freedom to kill or maim anyone they wished to kill or maim for any reason—for playing the wrong music or for smoking, for example—or for no reason at all."