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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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Jews,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Ottoman Empire,Public Executions,Sex,Stoned,Turkey,Women,Wrongful Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Turkey

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