“… an unbroken line of weaklings”, following the first ten Ottoman Sultans who built up the Empire. “The twenty-five sultans who followed Suleiman were, almost without exception, totally lacking in any of the qualities needed to rule” (Lords of the Golden Horn, Noel Barber, p.51). “Between [Suleiman] and his immediate successors, who ceased with surprising suddenness to be either soldiers or statesmen, there was no gradation whatsoever. Enervated and enfeebled by seclusion and idleness, filled with ennui, , they sought pleasure and diversion in every form of extravagance, self-indulgence and vice” (Beyond the Sublime Porte, Barnette Miller, in Barber, p.51) .
Selim II (1566-1574), Selim the Sot, a notorious drunkard, sent an army to capture Cyprus as his stocks of his favourite Cyprus wine needed replenishing. He got his wine, but only after massacring 30,000 Christians in Nicosia and Famagusta. Shakespeare’s Othello fictionally led the attack of the Venetians to retake Cyprus in 1571. Selim died after drinking a bottle of Cyprus wine at a draught and broke his skull on entering the bath.
Selim’s son Murad III (1574-1595) had a fondness for opium and then wine, also loved painting and clock-making, had little interest in ruling and was much more interested in the new female slave that was presented to him every Friday. Important decisions were made by the Queen Mother, Nur Banu, or the Italian Sultana, Baffo, or the Grand Vizier, Sokolli. Murad fathered 103 children. Twenty of his sons and twenty-seven daughters survived him, and seven of his wives were pregnant when he died.
On taking office, Mehmet III (1595-1603), following the advice of Mehmet the Conqueror, had his nineteen brothers strangled with the silken bowstring by the deaf mutes of the court. The seven pregnant widows of Selim were drowned, and the remainder of the harem was retired to the Old Seraglio. Mehmet died at the age of 52 “wholly given to a sensual and voluptuous life, the marks whereof he continually carried about him, with a foul, swollen, unwieldy and overgrown body” (Lords of the Golden Horn, p.67).
Then Ahmed I (1603-1617), unwilling to execute his siblings, founded the Kafes, the cage. Instead of killing his brothers he had them locked in the Seraglio, often for many years, with a modest harem, and deaf mutes to converse with. Ahmed introduced tobacco into the Ottoman Empire and died of consumption at the age of 28. He was succeeded by Mustafa I (1617-1618), who had spent ten years in the cage and immediately appointed his favourite pages, who were still children, to be governors of Cairo and Damascus. He was deposed and sent back to the cage after three months.
The Ottoman Empire was beginning to die. In fact, the British Ambassador appointed by James I, Sir Thomas Roe, likened the Ottoman Empire to the corrupt Sultans: “an old body, crazed through many vices that remain where youth and strength is decayed” (in Lords of the Golden Horn, p.71).
He was succeeded by his nephew Osman II (1618-1622), whose favourite pastime was archery, particularly on live targets. After four years of misrule, the powerful Janissary soldiers decided he must go.
Murad IV (1623-1640) was a different cup of tea. He managed to assert his power over the Janissaries by gathering around him loyal troops and executing the Janissary leaders when they least expected it. During his reign he cut off the head of any man who aroused the slightest suspicion. In 1637 he executed 25,000 subjects, many by his own hand. He forbade smoking and opium, patrolled the taverns by night, executing any offender on the spot and exercising the royal prerogative of taking ten innocent lives a day by sinking any boat that came too near the palace walls.
Ibrahim (1640-1648), in the Cage from the age of two to twenty-four, was even worse, filling his beard with diamonds, ordering all the sable furs in the Empire to be brought to him, and drowning his 280 concubines when one was discovered pregnant, probably by a eunuch. He was removed and put back in the cage.
For the next century and half the viziers ruled. Mehmet IV (1648-1687) was much more interested in hunting than anything else, even his falcons were adorned with diamonds. Mustafa II (1695-1703) led a hopeless attack on Hungary. The Ottoman Empire was now looking weaker and weaker, but the great powers feared that it might all fall into the hands of Russia.
Ahmed III (1703-1730) was famous for his parties and wild extravagances, his tulip festivals, his sugar gardens where guests would nibble the statues when they felt peckish. Mahmud I (1730-1754) was mostly interested in playing Peeping Tom in the harem. Then Osman III (1754-1757) with his fetish for food. Mustafa III (1757-1773), who rashly went to war against Russia and lost Crimea.
The French Sultana of Abdul Hamid I (1773-1789), Aimée, was responsible for frenchifying her husband’s court and that of her nephew, Selim III (1789-1807). Napoleon attacked Egypt, but was defeated by Admiral Nelson, and the Ottoman Empire entered an alliance with Britain. But he tried unsuccessfully to assert his power over the Janissaries by introducing a new Army, and was strangled. Aimée’s son, Mahmud II (1808-1839), founded a medical school with French doctors, introduced a census, built the first bridge over the Golden Horn and replaced the pantaloons with tight black trousers plus the fez.
Abdul Mejid (1839-1861) is known as the builder of the Dolmabahçe. Tired of the gloomy passages of Topkapi Palace, he had a magnificent rococo palace built, one of the top tourist attractions today, with of course the second largest chandelier in the world. Constantinople was becoming fashionable, Parisian, and members of the harem were even permitted to step out of their carriages into shops, but of course, the Ottoman state was now bankrupt, dependent on loans from the European powers.
Abdul Aziz (1861-1876) hardly improved the finances, increasing the numbers of concubines to 900, guarded by 3000 black eunuchs. The cost of running the Dolmabahçe palace was 2 million pounds a year, a lot of money at that time. 500 servants, 400 musicians, 30 guests to dinner every evening, 200 looking after the menagerie, 400 grooms; a slave to look after the royal backgammon set; another to cut his nails. Abdul Aziz was deposed by the powerful Pasha or minister, Midhat Pasha, and replaced by the demented Murad V (1876-1876), who spent only three months on the throne.
Abdul Hamid II (1876-1908) lived in fear, so he built himself another palace, up on the hill above the Dolmabahçe. I visited it today. Yildiz (Star) Palace, is surrounded by military installations. The closed gate leads to faded stucco buildings, built by the Italian architect, d’Aronco, many of which were part of the harem. In the palace, now a museum, we are told of Abdul Hamid’s love of carpentry and pottery. Down below is Yildiz Park, containing the outhouses of the complex we visit Yildiz Porcelain factory, the euphemistically named Yildiz Shale, or Chalet, the palace for official guests which is even larger than the palace itself. He tried to withdraw himself into his own world. All food had to be tried by the Chief Chamberlain, then a cat and a dog. he was only deposed by the Young Turks on 23 April 1908. The 900-strong harem was disbanded.
His brother, Mehmet V (1908-1918) , who had been allowed no friends, newspapers or books for 35 years and who had devoted his energies to the harem, took over. He was in the hands of the Young Turks and took Turkey into World War I on the side of Germany declaring the Holy War, the Jihad against the Allies, with disastrous consequences. After the war his son Mehmet VI (1918-1922) was in charge of the puppet government which divided up much of Turkey amongst the Allies. The last of the Sultans was finally deposed on 17 November 1922 and sailed away to San Remo to spend the rest of his life in exile.