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-maid├ón 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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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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1826: Janissaries during the Auspicious Incident

2 comments June 16th, 2011 Headsman

We have received from Constantinople the following further particulars of the revolt of the Janissaries: —

“June 16, 3 o’clock p.m.

“The Sultan was at his summer palace of Bschektash. The Aga Pacha, and the Pacha commanding on the Asiatic bank of the Bosphorus, repaired to Constantinople with their troops: 8,000 topschis, or artillery, also went thither. At length, his Sublimity being resolved to quell the rebellion, caused the standard of the Prophet to be displayed, and proclamations to be made in all the quarters of the city, that all men of honour — that is to say, true believers — had immediately to rally round this standard. The Ulemas met in the Seraglio. The appearance of the Snadgiak Sherif caused some hesitation among the rebels; their numbers were reduced by desertion, while, on the other hand, all the people hastened to assemble round the sacred standard. The energy of the Aga Pacha did the rest; he has crushed the rebles with grape-shot, burnt their barracks in the Ahnudan, and pursued them without mercy.

“The Grand Vizier is in the Court of the Mosque of Sultan Achmet, in the Hippodrome, with the Sandgiak Sherif still displayed; the chiefs of the corps of the Ulemas are met there in council; the Sultan is at the Seraglio, with the great men of the empire. Every moment persons are brought into the Hippodrome, and executed on the spot. Above 100 Oustas have already suffered this fate. This morning all the gates of Constantinople, except one, are shut or guarded by topschis and citizens. The remainder of the rebels have taken refuge in some khans built of stone, where they are invested, and where, to all appearance, famine will soon deliver them to the mercy of the Aga Pacha.

-London Times, July 15, 1826 (translating July 11 reports published in the French papers)

This date in 1826 finds Constantinople in the midst of what history will remember as the Auspicious Incident — an attempted revolt by the Ottoman Empire’s elite Janissary corps that was not at all auspicious for the Janissaries.

This centuries-old slave infantry,* a sort of Ottoman Praetorian Guard as well as the sultan’s elite military presence in the empire’s hinterlands, had evolved by this stage of decadence into a vampire squid on the face of the Porte.**

Jealous of their material privileges and political prerogatives even as the dawn of industry and conscript armies undermined their combat utility, the Janissaries had become much more trouble than they were worth.†

They had “begun to present a serious threat to the Empire,” wrote Lord Kinross in Ottoman Centuries. “On the battlefield they were gaining a reputation among the modern foreign armies for ineptitude and even cowardice under arms … In the capital … they came to be a dominant power and a focus of sedition.”

Kinross wrote that about the Janissaries of the early 17th century, in the reign of Osman II. (Osman tried to curtail the troop’s power, and was executed by his bodyguards for his trouble.)

A couple of centuries on from that moment, and the Janissaries are still skulking about the Seraglio, still keeping their supposed masters in mortal terror, still arbitrating the succession.

The current ruler, Mahmud II, had been fortunate in his own youth to survive the Janissaries’ political intrusion and reach the throne.

For a generation, Mahmud had waited and readied himself for the opportunity to sweep this piece off the chessboard. This would be a most Auspicious Incident indeed.

Kinross and many other historians suspect that Mahmud intentionally baited the Janissaries to revolt in 1826, but whether or not that is so, they did revolt — in response to a decree reorganizing the corps.

Mahmud was ready for them. He repelled the Janissary mutiny on June 15, and as described by our third-hand correspondent above, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy: under artillery barrage in the barracks they retreated to, or by the summary execution of all who surrendered — not just on this date, but throughout the Incident and extending to the further reaches of the empire where Mahmud’s agents carried his decree abolishing the Janissaries forever.

* Culled from children taken from non-Muslim families and raised as Islamic converts.

** Not unlike the actual Praetorian Guard.

† There’s a competing historiography contending (pdf) that, contrary to the corrupt-backwards-military-caste story, it was the Janissaries’ economic and social links that brought on their destruction: they became the entity representing the autonomous Ottoman classes, such as artisans and guilds, who had the most to lose from the elites’ state modernization project.

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1808: Sultan Mustafa IV, by his brother

Add comment November 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1808, the former, and now deposed, Ottoman Sultan Mustafa IV was strangled at the command of his successor and brother.

The Ottoman Empire, once the very terror of western Christendom, entered the 19th century in a stagnation that had it well on its way to its way to “sick man of Europe” status.

Its fate would be defined by the political — and sometimes literal — battle between its entrenched interests and forward-looking reformers who struggled to restructure the empire for the challenges that lay ahead.

And at this point, it wasn’t only the Ottoman polity that had to fret for its survival. Its very namesake dynasty was in danger of extinguishing itself. There hadn’t been a male born to the House of Osman in twenty years, and in the events herein narrated, internecine conflict would winnow the Osmans down to their very last man.

Aggressive Progressive

Reform was the project of our principal’s predecessor, Selim. In the years around the turn of the century, Selim endeavored to get Turkey out of its wasteful foreign conflicts to gain maneuvering room for more urgent domestic projects.*

Chief among the many oxes Selim proposed to gore were the Janissaries, the Ottomans’ powerful and increasingly archaic military elite, much given to destructive use of their martial prowess in various factional conflicts within the Empire.

Possessive Regressive

The Janissaries deposed Selim in 1807, elevating his cousin — our man, Mustafa, a mere handmaiden of the hidebound. (His contemporaries in Europe more commonly transliterated the name “Mustapha”)

They didn’t kill Selim … just left him alive within the palace where armed men could find him in a pinch.

That pinch arrived in June in the form of Mustafa Bayrakdar, a reformist official who marched on Istanbul to overthrow the reactionary elements. As Bayrakdar took the city in hand, Mustafa desperately ordered the executions of Selim and of Mustafa’s own brother, Mahmud.

Selim was disposed of. Mahmud got tipped off, and the servants — most famously, a Georgian harem girl named Cevri Kalfa — helped him escape to the roof. Mustafa Bayrakdar ousted the ousters before anyone who meant Mahmud ill could find him.

Impressive Successive

That left Mahmud the only choice for Sultan, and he followed his brother’s own questionable policy of consanguinary clemency. Mustafa’s demotion back to crown prince after having once ordered the now-sultan’s death must have made for some awkward chit-chat around the family table.

It didn’t last long. The London Times of January 16, 1809 reported** that

[o]n the 14th of November, at day-break, the Janissaries were seen assembling from all quarters, and being reinforced by those who were in the vicinity of Constantinople, they … massacred all the partisans of the Grand Vizier that came in their way. The contest spread to eveyr street in Constantinople … On the 15th, the Janissaries assaulted the high walls of the Seraglio; and it was at this moment that the Grand Vizier, after causing the unfortunate Mustapha IV, who was a prisoner there, to be strangled, blew himself up in his own Palace with gunpowder, of which he purposely provided a large quantity before-hand, to prevent his falling alive into the hands of his enemies.

Sauce for the goose was sauce for Mustafa, and on this same desperate day when he lost Bayrakdar to a vault of gunpowder, Mahmud had his brother put to death. This maneuver left Mahmud the last surviving male Osman.

Passive Aggressive?

The legacies of this date were varied and ambiguous.

Mahmud II remained on the Ottoman throne for the next three decades, ample time to secure the Osman line.

The Janissaries returned to their barracks, chastened; Mahmud would destroy them after an attempted revolt in 1826.

But Mahmud too was chastened by the experience — or else, too encumbered by the apparatus of the state, or too cautious of his legacy before that heir appeared (it took years), or simply too unskillful — and his reformist vision proceeded haltingly until the very end of his life, even as breakaway nations continued to erode the Porte’s influence.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Palmer says of Mahmud,

Over a century and a half after his death, Mahmud II remains the most puzzling of the thirty-six Ottoman Sultans … Was he a despot or a reformer, a capricious betrayer of trust or a dedicated ruler of a vision, a muddler who plunged into disastrous wars or a shrewd statesman who preserved his Empire from rapacious neighbors? Should we think of him as the ‘Infidel Sultan’ who imposed European ways on the Islamic faithful, or as Mahmud Adli (‘Mahmud the Just’), like Turks today? The contrasts seem endless. Mahmud is one of history’s most enigmatic figures …

* Selim was sucked back into armed conflict by the Napoleonic wars.

** Though two months after the fact, the report is in media res, since it was transcribing German papers from mail dispatched out of the Ottoman capital on Nov. 16 when “the utmost confusion still prevailed there.”

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1711: Ifranj Ahmad, Janissary

Add comment June 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1711, a Janissary captain in Ottoman Egypt was beheaded in Cairo as the “Great Insurrection” gave way to the last gasp of Mamluk power in Egypt.

Mamluks (or Mameluks) — enslaved soldiers who had evolved into a military caste — had ruled Egypt from 1250 until absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. Now nominally under the power of the sultan, Mamluks remained as beys (district governors) and were drawn into a labyrinthine political environment that boiled down to a contest for rent collection from the lucrative country.

The relative power in Egypt of the Ottoman viceroy (wali) vis-a-vis Mamluk beys in shifting alliances waxed and waned through the 17th century, but the position of wali was always fundamentally undermined by his short-term appointment and the presence of imperial troops who did not answer to him and therefore became independent players Cairo. The most prominent of these were the Janissaries — elite troops whose original servile composition somewhat mirrored the Mamluks’ own and who had established themselves as the wealthiest (and most arrogant, and most resented) regiment by making profitable commercial partnership with the Cairo artisans.

Read all about the Qasimi and Faqari founding myths (and possible realities).

As we lay our scene in the early 18th century, the Ottoman walis have been thoroughly eclipsed; politically, Mamluk Egypt is independent in all but name. The Mamluks are themselves grouped into two great factions, the Qasimi and the Faqari.*

Each faction was composed of the personal mamluks of the leader, retainers who attached themselves to the leader, bedouin tribes, men of the garrison regiments [that is, the Janissaries and other Ottoman military corps], and private armies composed of free-born Ottoman mercenaries. (From the introduction to this translation of Al-Damurdashi’s Chronicle)

An accelerating cycle of revolts and disturbances culminated in the “Great Insurrection,” (or “Great Sedition”) several years of friction climaxing in three months of armed conflict in early 1711 — “to all intents and purposes, a civil war among the elite” over dividing up spoils, as Afaf Lutfi Sayyid-Marsot puts it.

Ifranj (or Ifrandj, or Afranj) Ahmad — “Ahmad the European,” a distinctive name since the Janissaries were mostly locally born by this point — was a lower officer, but a predecessor in his position had mounted a temporarily successful revolt against the Janissary brass in the 1690’s, and Ahmad (as events would prove) commanded the loyalty of his regiment. A dispute over an attempt to remove him helped precipitate the open fighting in 1711.

Ifranj Ahmad was just an excuse … The main reason was the resentment of the other regiments, primarily the ‘Azab [“armourers” — (distantly) second only to the Janissaries among the military corps], at the privileged position and the profits the Janissaries were enjoying. … Siding with Ifranj Ahmad were the majority of the Janissaries, the pasha [the wali], … the Faqari governor of Upper Egypt who brought with him reinforcements of … bedouins, some elements of the other regiments, and most of the Faqari beys and their Mamluk households. On the other side were almost all the ‘Azab and the other regiments, 600 Janissary defectors, the Qasimiyya beys, and Qaytas Bey, a Faqari grandee who had quarrelled with … the Faqari leader, and had joined the Qasimiyya. (Egyptian Society Under Ottoman Rule)

In short, the Faqari and Qasimi factions, backed respectively by the Janissaries and the ‘Azab.

As one can readily infer from Ifranj Ahmad’s presence in these pages, the Qasimi had the better of the fight; Ahmad was nabbed trying to flee and summarily beheaded, a fate shared with several other Faqari leaders.** Here’s the account from Al-Damurdashi, an ‘Azab officer at the time:

Afranj Ahmad and his colleague had fled through the Mahjar Gate, but as they passed by the guard post … [and] captured and were [being dragged] to the ‘Azab barracks, but one of the [captors] brought [Ahmad] to the ground with a blow on his jugular vein. He then cut off his head, took it to the ‘Azab barracks and received a reward from the senior officers.

Although Istanbul would continue trying to exert its influence, this day’s denouement marked the end of real Ottoman authority on the Nile — the Turks had their hands full fighting the Russians at this moment, anyway — and inaugurated a long sunset of Mamluk power until Napoleon’s quixotic Egyptian adventure overturned it for good.

* There are many different transliterations of both these names — Faqari, Faqariya, Faqariyya … Qasimi, Qasimiya, Qasimiyya

** It was so far from an extermination, however, that the Faqari turned the tables on the Qasimi twenty years later, and the Qasimi thereupon faded from influence.

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