1622: Sultan Osman II

1 comment May 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1622, the deposed Ottoman Sultan Osman II was strangled in Yedikule Fortress.

A boy-emperor still in his 18th year at death, Osman had been the subject of a strange succession dispute: his father died in 1617, but with multiple underaged princes available to succeed him, the throne had been placed in the hands of a mentally disturbed uncle instead.

Osman was able to depose this man, but at his age — and without the steadying maternal hand* so necessary in the “Sultanate of Women” era — he was always an underdog to the Porte’s political snakepit.

Osman would be an early casualty of an intractable administrative problem for the Ottomans: curbing the Praetorian-like power of that clique of European-born warrior elites, the Janissaries.

Irritated by a battlefield reversal in Europe, Osman showed his young backside to the Janissaries by having their officers discipline them and exploring the feasibility a replacement force of Muslim-born Anatolians.

Thus while Osman prepared for an expedition to the southern reaches of his realm, the disaffected infantrymen answered their sultan’s ire with a rising of its own, one which Osman imperiously refused to pay in the customary coin of executed courtiers and policy concessions. He was accordingly deposed for that same disturbed uncle he had supplanted, and the unhappy Osman

was thrust into a cart by the wrestler Bunyan and strangled within the walls of the Seven Towers. The Jebbehji-bashi cut off one of his ears and carried it with the news of his murder to [new regime Grand Vizier] Davud Pasha. His body was buried in the At-maidân in the mausoleum of Sultan Ahmed Khan [Osman’s father]. He was cut off by fate before he could leave any monument of his reign. (Source)

Allegedly (via this detailed pdf breakdown of his fall), Osman cried to the mob as the cart hauled him to his dungeon, “Yesterday morning I was a sultan, now I am naked. Pity me, learn a lesson from my misfortune! This world shall not stay yours forever!”

* His European mother was either dead or in exile; she does not factor in Osman’s story; it was most typical during this period for a harem mother to sustain a prince in power by mastering Topkapi Palace’s labyrinthine internal politics.

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1637: Tabaniyassi Mehmed Pasha, former Grand Vizier

Add comment February 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Ottoman politician Tabaniyassi (“Flat-Footed”) Mehmed Pasha was executed by drowning on this date in 1637, having fallen foul of the tyrannous Sultan Murat IV.

It hadn’t been long since Mehmed Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was the one inflicting the sultan’s chastisements instead of receiving them; he was appointed Grand Vizier in 1632 to crush a Janissary revolt* in Egypt, and did so with brutal aplomb.

His career thereafter saw him carry Turkish arms to Persia and Armenia, and bully client princes in the Porte’s European sphere. Murat eventually grew suspicious that his aide might be conspiring against him and had him imprisoned at the capital’s imposing Yedikule Fortress.

* The sultan had reason to fear these mercurial praetorians; he had the throne thanks to that same clique’s 1622 murder of a predecessor.

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1680: The wife of Abdullah Celebi, and her Jewish lover

Add comment June 28th, 2016 Headsman

At noon on Friday, 28 June 1680, people crowded into Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the city’s main public space, to stone to death a Muslim woman identified as ‘the wife of Abdullah Celebi’ for adultery with an infidel, and to witness the beheading of the Jew who was alleged to be her lover, a neighbourhood shopkeeper. Neighbours who had raided her home when they knew that the Jew was inside claimed to have found the couple having intercourse, which was doubly illicit: not only was she married, but sexual relations between Christian or Jewish men and Muslim women were forbidden by law. The accused denied any wrongdoing, but a mob dragged the two before the chief justice of the empire’s European provinces (known as Rumelia), Beyazizade Ahmet (d. 1686), who had previously been the main judge at Istanbul’s Islamic law (shariah) court.

Beyazizade accepted the testimony of the witnesses. Denying the accused a trial, he condemned the pair to death. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (d. 1683) reported his decision to Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648–87, d. 1693), who confirmed the sentence. The sultan attended the double execution in person and offered the man conversion to Islam, permitting him to die swiftly and with dignity by decapitation. Mehmet IV was the only sultan to order an adulteress to be executed by stoning during 465 years of Ottoman rule in Istanbul.

Indeed, public stoning of adulterers was such a rare event in medieval and early modern Islamic history that it is difficult to find any other examples of Islamic rulers punishing transgressors of sexual norms in this way.

This remarkable double execution comes to us by way of three Muslim chroniclers via “Death in the Hippodrome: Sexual Politics and Legal Culture in the Reign of Mehmet IV” by Marc Baer* — whom we have excerpted above. Regrettably, it’s entombed behind a paywall.

Our Ottoman interlocutors universally hold the stoning and beheading as a gross moral failure on the part of both judge and sultan. To begin with, all three chroniclers consider the accusation against the couple legally groundless: evidently the two were not really caught in flagrante delicto and both denied the liaison; this led Sari Mehmet Pasha** to sharply criticize the judge for even admitting neighbors’ suspicions as evidence — rather than punishing the accusers themselves for slander.

According to shariah it is incumbent to accept such testimony only when this situation is witnessed with one’s own eyes, meaning that the witnesses actually see the man insert his penis in and out of the woman ‘like inserting the reed pen in and out of the kohl pot’. But this is one of those impossible conditions set forth to ensure that such charges and their punishment are not frivolously made. Moreover, what is also needed is the woman’s own confession, or admission of guilt. Yet in this case she insistently denied the charge. The Jew likewise continuously claimed he had no knowledge of the affair.

Indeed, another astonished chronicler, Mehmet Rashid, believed that the law required such exacting pornographic specificity of a witness that no adulterers had ever been executed in the history Islam without their own confession. All describe the eyewitness standard as a shield, not a cudgel.

Moreover, even a demonstrable crime of the flesh — and even one committed by a Jew or Christian with a married Muslim woman — ought not result in capital punishment according to religious scholars of the period marshaled by Baer. (At least, not of the man: theoretically the woman could be stoned to death although in practice this never occurred either.)

What was bizarre and blameworthy to contemporaries was that an esteemed judge issued a verdict of literally historic harshness on such dubious grounds — and that the sultan seemed eager not to restrain, but to enforce it. Their narratives† cast Mehmet in a very dark light. “Let me see [the executions] in person,” he says in Silahdar Findiklili Mehmet Agha’s account — then makes a point to cross the Hellespont that morning from the Asian to the European side of the city the better to establish himself in a mansion commanding a view of the ceremonies.

At that time they brought the woman and the Jew to the place of execution. Being told, “Become a Muslim, you will be redeemed, you will go to Paradise,” the Jew was honored by the glory of Islam and then decapitated at the base of a bronze dragon

Wailing and lamenting, [the woman] cried, “They have slandered me. I am innocent and have committed no sin. For the sake of the princes, do not kill me, release me!” But they did not let her go.

Since the incident is unique even in Mehmet’s own long reign one draws larger conclusions at one’s own risk: hard cases make bad law. But it might be possible to perceive here a misjudgment by a man who, having grown to manhood out of the shadow of the dangerous harem that had lately dominated Ottoman politics felt keen to assert himself as a champion of realm and faith alike. (And his sex into the bargain.)

Baer presents Mehmet as an unusually eager proselytizer, always ready with a conversion blandishment whether for infidels captured in the empire’s European wars or for chance encounters with Jewish and Christian commoners. (He also forced a noted rabbi, Shabbatai Tzevi, to convert after the latter started getting some traction as a possible Messiah, and eventually began pressuring Istanbul’s numerous court Jews — physicians, advisors, and miscellaneous elite intelligentsia — to become Muslims as well.) And a Muslim movement had in recent years clamped down on carnivalesque diversions like taverns and public singing thought to trend toward impiety.

Three years later, Mehmet would (over)extend the Porte’s sway to the gates of Vienna. But Mehmet’s defeat there helped to collapse his own power back home, and he was deposed in 1687.

Our correspondents, writing in the wake of that reversal, unmistakably view affairs like this date’s executions as evidence of moral depravity that was punished by its authors’ subsequent misfortunes. Writing of the once-powerful judge, who chanced to die around the same time Mehmet fell, Defterdar concludes that “Beyazizade fearlessly persevered in the matter without scruple” until “the hearts of young and old turned away from him in disgust” and he fell “from the summit of his dignity.”

* Past and Present, Feb. 2011

** The imperial treasurer, himself executed in 1717.

† It does bear remarking that all three chroniclers wrote after Mehmet IV’s own fall.

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1730: Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha, Tulip Era Grand Vizier

1 comment October 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha was deposed by strangulation.

Ibrahim Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish)* was the minister of Sultan Ahmed III; more than that, he was the sultan’s son-in-law.**

It was the Lâle Devri in Istanbul, whose great families thrilled to the voluptuary pleasures of tulips — a consumption conspicuous not only of wealth but of European affectation.†

Ibrahim himself was a great connoisseur of the fashionable bulb that defines his 1718-1730 administration as the “Tulip Period”. Arts and culture in the empire — there’s no other way to say it — flowered.

But neither horticulture nor family ties were safety in Istanbul when events required of the sultan a politically expedient purge.

For the mass of Turks unable to entertain French noblemen in their cultivated gardens, resentments both economical and cultural accumulated during in Tulip Period until they were discharged by a ham-handed tax imposition in 1730 into a huge mob rising. We have previously covered this revolt; suffice to say that it was briefly a mortal threat to which the ruling dynasty was obliged to sacrifice a few elites: an Albanian shopkeeper named Patrona Halil basically ruled Istanbul for a few weeks, and one of the concessions his angry supporters required of the sultan was the death of his son-in-law. Ahmed himself got off “easy” and was simply made to resign in favor of his nephew.

The end for Nevsehirli Damat Ibrahim Pasha also meant the end of the Tulip Era; periodization aside, however, the flower does remain a popular Turkish symbol. (Even the word for tulip, Lale, is used as a feminine name.) They’re planted all over in present-day Istanbul, and bloom gloriously in the spring; Turkish Airlines also uses a stylized tulip as its logo.

* Not to be confused with the Damat Ibrahim Pasha who was Grand Vizier from 1596 to 1601, and still less with the Grand Vizier executed by Suleiman the Magnificent, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha.

** His wife Hatice Sultan wielded considerable power of her own; after her husband’s death and her father’s resignation, she played a leading role in statecraft for the government-averse successor sultan.

† This is, however, a century after the completely unrelated Dutch tulip mania. The flower is native to Anatolia, not to the Low Countries.

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1730: Patrona Halil, Ottoman rebel

1 comment November 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1730, Patrona Halil, the virtual ruler of the Ottoman capital at the head of a popular rabble, was lured to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace on the pretext of receiving an imperial honorific — and there seized by the sultan’s guards and put to summary death.

An Albanian shopkeep and Janissary, Halil (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) had been at the fore of an extraordinarily successful rebellion that bears his name in Turkish histories.

Very recently the mortal terror of Europe, the Ottoman Empire was into its midlife crisis by the early 18th century — a long transition, as it would transpire, into its terminal “sick man of Europe” stage.

Incensed at the splendor of the grandees during the so-called “Tulip Period” — elites’ 1720s fad for that flower, which accompanied years of decadent, and perhaps impious, openness towards Europe — struggling* Istanbul artisan guilds revolted in 1730 over taxes imposed to pay for war with Persia.

Not for the last time, the impositions of the taxman only served to catalyze wider grievances that had already been mounting. Janissaries cast a gimlet eye on the sultan’s dalliances with European military innovations — which those feudal infantrymen rightly perceived as an existential threat. Everyday Turks and the ulama alike resented the cultural inroads of the West. In the paroxysm of 1730, these factions combined with the petite bourgeois guilds to shake the Porte far more deeply than some riot ought.

There had been many rebellions in Istanbul before, but this was the first to show a syndrome that was thereafter often repeated: an effort to Westernize military and administrative organization propounded by a section of the official elite, accompanied by some aping of Western manners, and used by another interest group to mobilize the masses against Westernization.*


Jean-Baptiste van Mour, a Flemish painter residing in Istanbul at the time. He’s notable for numerous paintings of the Tulip Era Ottoman Empire, including that of the sword-brandishing Patrona Halil further up this post.

The rebellion forced the execution of the grand vizier, and the abdication of Sultan Ahmed III in favor of his nephew Mahmud. Rioters sacked the estates of the wealthy and put a definitive end to the Tulip Period by trashing the delicate gardens emblematic of their sybaritic lords.

For nearly two months, the impertinent Halil was virtually the master of the capital. He rode with the new sultan to the ceremony investing him with Osman’s sword; he dictated appointments for his rude associates, like a Greek butcher named Yanaki who was to become Hospodar of Moldavia. At Halil’s whim, Mahmud was forced to order mansions put to the torch and (of course) that hated war tax rescinded.

Halil probably ought to have been better on his guard against the maneuver the sultan executed this date — and was always likely to attempt in some form. Then again, what he had already achieved, however briefly, was outlandish, and pointed to weaknesses in the Ottoman state far more durable than Halil himself. By slaying the insurgent chief, Mahmud got himself some breathing space: popular dissatisfaction, however, was too widely rooted to be destroyed at a single stroke, and would resume again with intermittent disturbances and purges well into 1731, with a successor revolt in 1740.†

And over a still longer arc, the parties of the Halil revolt would guard their prerogatives so jealously and effectively over the generations to come as to fatally compromise the capacity of the sultanate to compel the modernization that the Empire required. Patrona Halil’s revenge was two centuries in coming … but it was worth the wait.

* According to Robert W. Olson’s “The Esnaf and the Patrona Halil Rebellion of 1730: A Realignment in Ottoman Politics?”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, September 1974, the major beefs of the esnaf (guilds) were a spiral of inflation brought by the devaluing Ottoman currency, the influx of immigrants to the capital, and taxes.

** Serif Mardin, “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?”, Daedalus, Winter 1973.

† See Olson, “Jews, Janissaries, Esnaf and the Revolt of 1740 in Istanbul: Social Upheaval and Political Realignment in the Ottoman Empire”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, May 1977.

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1714: Constantine Brancoveanu and his sons

1 comment August 15th, 2014 Headsman

Three centuries ago today, Wallachian prince Constantine Brancoveanu was beheaded in Istanbul with his four sons.

Brancoveanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) had fallen foul of the Sublime Porte, which dominated Wallachia, by dallying with the Ottomans’ European rivals, the Habsburgs and the Russians.

During the then-current installment the oft-renewed Russo-Turkish War derby, he actually massed armies for a potential swing all the way to the anti-Ottoman team. Breaking those up and returning Peter the Great’s gifts after the Russian clock got cleaned did not a tribute of loyalty make in the eyes of Turkey.

Not only Contantine but his entirely family — wife, four sons, and six daughters — were carried thereafter to Istanbul prisons. On the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the Sultan himself and of Christian diplomats who would be sure to put the word out, his four sons Constantine, Stefan, Radu and Matei were beheaded in his presence, as was the Wallachian treasurer Enache Vacarescu. The 60-year-old prince exhorted them as they endured their martyrdoms to remain steadfast, until at last he too lost his head. (Istanbul Christians managed to give the bodies honorable burials after fishing them out of the Bosphorus. The remains were later translated to Bucharest.*)

Most of the web sites about Branacoveanu and family are in Romanian; he was in his quarter-century reign a great cultural patron. The first Romanian Bible was completed in his time, and he undertook a great building program whose distinctive architectural stile still bears his name — Brancovenesc.

The Romanian Orthodox church conferred upon the martyred family the laurels of sainthood in 1992, a fine time to honor Romanian independence from foreign domination although of course by that time the Ottomans were yesteryear’s news and the outside heavy in question was the Russians.


Brancoveanu and his sons, from a mural at a monastery Brancoveanu founded.

Constantine also has a full panoply of secular miscellany in his honor: roads, statues, ballads, a metro station named after him, and so forth.

* At least, the alleged remains; it is well not to turn a forensic lens on saintly relics, and when Brancoveanu’s tomb was opened at the bicentennial of his death the skeleton therein appeared by the state of its teeth to be that of a man half Brancoveanu’s age. (Source)

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1622: Samuel Korecki, defeated magnate

Add comment June 27th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1622, the swashbuckling Ruthenian nobleman Samuel Korecki was strangled by the Ottomans.

Korecki English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a szlachcic of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at that empire’s early 17th century peak.

Korecki’s clan hung its zupans at Korets, in present-day western Ukraine, and the young Samuel fought gleefully in the early 1600s in the train of the legendary commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski when the Polish army was ravaging Russia.

Samuel Korecki married the daughter of Jeremi(ah) Mohila or Movila, a boyar who contended for the Moldavian at the turn of the century; it was by this link that he too became drawn into the politics of that frontier realm, along with several other powerful families of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This period is known as the Moldavian Magnate Wars.

Though a dependency of the Ottomans, Moldavia had proven appealing in the past for Polish adventurers. The late Mohila had bequeathed power in Moldavia to his son Constantine but after some years Constantine’s tributary payments to Istanbul started to lag. His resulting deposition by the sultan saw Constantine flee to Polish territory — and his brother-in-law Korecki come to his aid by mounting an armed expedition meant to depose the Ottoman replacement.*

Korecki was captured by the Turks in the process, dramatically escaped via Greece and Italy (and a celebrity-making papal audience into the bargain), then returned to the field only to be captured again at the Battle of Cecora in 1620.

This decisive Ottoman victory portended ill and not just for Korecki personally.


19th century woodcut illustrating the death of Samuel Korecki. (Source)

As our man was hauled back to Istanbul (he would not escape a second time), the rampant Turks drove for Ukraine with the intention of taking a bite out of it for the Sublime Porte.

The Poles were able to stanch the advance with a stand at Khotyn, but the Commonwealth would shift into an unmistakable decline thereafter; by mid-century, rebellious Cossacks had taken Ukraine over to Russian protection, while Swedish incursions from the north so greatly reduced Poland’s reach that the period is known as the Deluge. (For his part, the teenage Ottoman sultan Osman II went home from this campaign determined to reform the Janissary corps whom he blamed for the unsatisfying stalemate of Khotyn; these dangerous slave-soldiers vetoed the plan by murdering Osman instead.)

* Moldavia was a secondary foreign policy concern for the Ottomans, who were absorbed in this period by war with Persia.

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1909: Dervish Vahdeti, for the 31 March Incident

Add comment July 19th, 2013 Headsman

EXECUTIONS IN CONSTANTINOPLE

(From our own correspondent.)

CONSTANTINOPLE July 19.

Cherkess Mehmet Pasha, popularly known as Kaba Sakal — i.e., “twisted beard,” the torturer and former aide-de-camp of [Sultan] Abdul Hamid, Yusuf Pasha, Commandant of Erzerum, the Dervish Vahdeti, chief of the Jemiyeti Mohammadeieh, Hakki Bey, the notorious spy, and eight officers and soldiers who took part in the recent mutiny, were publicly executed at dawn.

-London Times, July 20, 1909

The Ottoman Empire in 1908 experienced the Young Turk Revolution, curbing the power of the sultan in a brief constitutional-monarchy era that would take the foundering state through the First World War.

Unsurprisingly, the reigning, formerly-supreme monarch was nonplussed at this brake on executive authority.

He backed the 31 Mart Vakasi, or 31 March Incident,* a counter-coup by conservative and Islamist elements in Istanbul to overthrow the Young Turks and re-establish the sultan’s power. Already the Porte was resorting to an assertion of Islamic political identity to hold the “sick man of Europe” together — and already that had resulted in some appalling atrocities.

For a few days the rightists, incited by Dervish Vahdeti, had Istanbul in hand. Vahdeti was a 40-year-old Cypriot who published Volkan, an Islamist newspaper in Istanbul; the 31 March Incident is sometimes also known as the Revolt of Dervish Vahdeti. (Biographical details source)

Once again, Armenian blood flowed. News of the revolt triggered an attack by Turks in the Anatolian city of Adana upon that city’s Armenian Christians. The resulting Adana Massacre claimed 15,000 to 30,000 lives throughout the Adana province.

Indeed, the Adana massacre quite outlasted the counter-coup, resulting in going debate over the extent to which the Young Turks themselves blessed the pogroms. These guys had their own fraught relations with Turkey’s Armenians; of course, they’d eventually have the Armenian genocide to answer for.

As for the event at hand, Second Army Corps and Third Army Corps dispatched Dervish Vahdeti’s revolt with ease. These units still loyal to the Young Turks reached Istanbul from Salonika within days of the uprising. (Among their number was the 27-year-old Mustafa Kemal — later known as Ataturk, the founding statesman of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey.)

The mutiny collapsed with little effective resistance upon this Macedonian intervention, and the military had the run of the place — not for sack but for a severe clamp-down on the Islamic party. According to Nader Sohrabi, “some two hundred movement participants were hanged en masse, on row after row of scaffolds erected in public space by the order of military courts” in the crackdown.

The 74 constitutionalist soldiers who died to put down the 31 March Incident are honored at a Monument of Liberty in Istanbul.

* The Ottomans were on the Julian calendar-based Rumi calendar, so March 31 in Istanbul corresponded to April 13 in western Europe. Similarly, this date’s hangings took place on July 6, not July 19, per the local Turkish date.

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1656: The Chief Black and White Eunuchs of Topkapi Palace

Add comment March 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1656, an Istanbul mutiny against debasing coinage resulted in thirty-odd high officials hanged at the gates of the Blue Mosque.

In Ottoman periodization, 1656 is the end point of the Sultanate of Women — a century-plus span stretching all the way back to Roxelana when powerful harem women consistently defined Topkapi Palace intrigue, often alongside shaky male executives.

Many of the sultans in that span were minors, as was the the putative head of state for our scene, 14-year-old Mehmed IV. Their succession was invariably achieved by the skillful maneuvering of their mothers, who then figured to graduate to Valide Sultan, “Mother Sultan” and wield considerable power in their own right. In Mehmed’s case, Mother Sultan was a Ukrainian former slave named Turhan Hatice … but you can just call her the power behind the throne.

(Actually, Turhan was initially aced out of the powerful Valide Sultan gig by Mehmed’s paternal grandmother when Mehmed inherited the throne at the age of six; Turhan herself was only about 20 years old at that time. Turhan had that woman assassinated in 1651 to swipe the position.)

Come the 1650s, the Ottomans were mired in a long war with Venice over control of Crete — ultimately a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans in view of the enormous cost.

One of the ongoing costs of that conflict was currency depreciation; silver coins were so hard to come by that European traders made tidy money hauling debased silver-coated copper coins to sell in Istanbul — and had no shortage of buyers who knew exactly what they were getting and were happy to have it. According to Caroline Finkel, “1000 aspers of [official coinage] was valued at less than one hundred aspers in the market-place.”

Janissaries* aggrieved at being paid in rubbish “marched to the Hippodrome, vociferously demanding that those who had deceived Sultan Mehmed by implementing the debasement be killed.”

That’s an experience to drop your gonads when you’re 14 years old. The Janissaries, the capital’s elite warrior clique, had the sultanate by the short and curlies and were known to enforce their whims to the detriment of the empire’s interests. They had, indeed, revolted over currency depreciation in the 1580s; they also deposed Mehmed’s uncle, 17-year-old Sultan Osman II, when that young man tried to curb Janissaries’ dangerous power.

Undoubtedly these mutinous Janissaries would have enforced their demands with similar desperation. Jenkins says that the execution of the Mother Sultan was one of those demands, but at least the teen sultan was able to cross her name off the hit list. The various attendants, aghas, and eunuchs who irritated the Janissaries were not so fortunate.

Ah, the eunuchs.

We’ve titled our post with the most titillating of this date’s targets of Janissary wrath. Ottoman Eunuchs** came in the “Black” and “White” varieties, as in black and white races; because Islam prohibited castration, they were obtained by slavers in Africa or in the Balkans, where Christians and Jews did the dirty work.

European “White Eunuchs” from the Balkans had their testicles removed; these were sought by the hundreds as palace bureaucrats in Istanbul. African “Black Eunuchs” from Egypt or Ethiopia typically had their entire genitalia cut off, and had the more powerful position of serving the royal persons. (They had usurped that role in the late 16th century from the formerly preeminent white eunuchs.)

Each racial set had its own hierarchy and its own chief. The Chief Black Eunuch was the master of the harem and a powerful, trusted emissary of the Valide Sultan: it was her black eunuch that Turhan Hatice had sent to murder Mehmed’s original Valide Sultan.


A black eunuch — I think? — looms over a new concubine in Alexander Russov’s 1891 Bought for the Harem. Lest one think this sort of lascivious Orientalism is solely the relic of a bygone age, check out the Harlequin bodice-ripper of the same title.

These chief eunuchs, and especially the chief black eunuchs, were among the sacrificial executions the Janissaries required for their obedience. Mehmed did not attempt to protect them; one doubts that he could have done so.

The sultan’s acquiescence in these executions set him up for a 39-year reign, the longest since Suleiman the Magnificent. But it was also under Mehmed that the Sultanate of Women gave way to the civil administration. Later that same year of 1656, continuing crisis forced the appointment of Koprulu Mehmed Pasha as Grand Vizier.

The Albanian Koprulu wielded virtually dictatorial powers and founded a whole dynasty of Ottoman Grand Viziers† that dominated Ottoman politics into the 18th century.

* The Janissaries were infantry; their less-(in)famous cavalry counterpart, the Sipahis, also participated in this 1656 mutiny.

** Eunuchs persisted in the Ottoman sultanate right up until the end of World War I, and ex-eunuchs (well, still eunuchs) of the ex-Sublime Porte were still to be found in Turkey as late as the 1970s. One of them recounted the experience of being kidnapped and castrated in Ethiopia for export to the Ottoman palace.

† Including Kara Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman commander executed for losing the Battle of Vienna.

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1915: 20 Hunchakian gallows

2 comments June 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1915, twenty activists of the Armenian Hunchakian political party were publicly hanged in Istanbul’s Beyazit Square.


A couple of other very grainy (newspaper?) images are here.

These unfortunates had participated in a 1913 convention that resolved — secretly, so they thought — upon treating to a programme of political assassinations of the nationalist Young Turks then driving belligerent policy against Armenians.

Unfortunately for them, the Sublime Porte had sublime ears.* It pounced on the prospective terrorists at the first opportunity, and gave them a couple of years in a dungeon before a wartime show trial days just days after Armenian genocide had commenced.

Paramaz, who’s probably the most individually famous of the twenty, has a recently-erected monument in Meghri. He’s also credited with a movingly humane exchange with an Ottoman judge, each reflecting on their respective impasse vis-a-vis nationhood and self-determination.

“The attributes of history in our reality are arranged in such a way that what constitutes ‘patriotism’ for one is viewed as destructive treason by the other,” quoth the judge (!!!) to the defendants.

And thus the mutual relations between nations living together amount to the negation of international law and social concepts. Today is the last session of these trials … There was something unusual and unqualifiable in these trials. Unqualifiable because neither you nor us had enough wisdom to penetrate each other’s [worlds].

You cannot imagine, effendis, that it is with such grief that I will pronounce the depth of my conviction regarding the patriotism accumulated in you. What can be more heartbreaking tht warm blooded beings like you full of life have sacrificed logic to sentiments … What great deeds vigorous individuals like you could have accomplished, if the ideal of a common welfare had been pursued under one banner … What benefits could have been borne from a mutual understanding that eluded [us], the other end of which is sad and dark. You languished with the idea that you are struggling against injustice; while have felt, every minute, that the rules of the world are abasing higher tendencies under the weight of cruel necessities.

This reflection led Paramaz, who today is an Armenian national hero for his martyrdom at the Turks’ hands, to reciprocate:

I, who has never cried in my life … I am not ashamed to say that I was deeply moved by the sincerity of [the judge] Khurshid Bey’s speech … and I cried, I, Paramaz, because Khurshid Bey put his finger on the wound when he stated, ‘What good deed could have been accomplished …’ I cried because in those words I found the brilliance of truth.

[Yet] we would be asking the same question, and add, What was left that we did not do for the welfare of this country. We accepted such sacrifices, we spilled so much blood and spent so much energy to bring about the brotherhood of Armenians and Turks; we lived through such suffering to elevate each other through trust. And what did we see? Not only did you condemn our gigantic efforts to sterility but also consciously pursued our annihilation …

Gentlemen, judge people by their work, by their traditions, within the realm of their ideas. I am not a separatist from this country. On the contrary it is [this country] that is separating itself from me, being incapable of coming to terms with the ideas that inspire me.

(Both quotes are as cited by Gerald Libaridian’s chapter exploring the Hunchak party’s history and doctrine, from A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire.)

Mutual empathy notwithstanding, the end for these twenty was indeed sad and dark.

* An Armenian informant named Arshavir Sahagian attended the conference and finked out its design. He was killed for his troubles on December 25, 1919, according to Raymond Kevorkian.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,Treason,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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