Emperors and Sultans

This article first appeared in the Time Out Guide to Istanbul a few years ago.

On the face of it, wielding absolute power as the emperor of the Byzantines or sultan of the Ottomans might seem like a good job. You got to be the main man in what was, for much of the time that both empires endured, the most magnificent city on earth. The Imperial reception rooms of the Byzantine Emperor had golden lions that roared and golden birds that sang. The Ottoman sultans were certainly not outdone in ostentation, although their displays could sometimes take rather charming turns, such as when Selim II wrote to an official in Aleppo: ‘I need about 50,000 bulbs for my royal gardens… I command you in no way to delay.’

But if these images of absolute rulers wandering through palaces and gardens, serenaded by statues and perfumed by flowers, should entice, there is one small consideration: getting to the top, and then staying there. In neither empire was there a strict rule of primogeniture, although being the eldest son of the ruler certainly gave you an advantage. Between the foundation of Byzantium and its fall there were 107 emperors. Only 34 of these died of natural causes and another eight were killed in battle. That leaves 65 emperors who were removed from the throne. So even if you got to the throne, there was only a 39 per cent chance of staying there. Intrigue and assassination were common in imperial circles, which was one reason why an emperor would often kill or mutilate other potential claimants of the throne. (It was widely accepted that a deformed man could not be emperor, and blinding was seen as a more merciful alternative to execution.) Failing to secure the throne meant eventual dethronement and, at best, blinding and banishment, and at worst a long and painful death. Andronikos I, his authority overthrown, was handed over to the mob. He had his teeth broken, his hair pulled out, an eye put out and a hand chopped off during the three days it took him to die.

Medieval picture of the death of Andronikos, emperor of Byzantium.
Medieval picture of the death of Andronikos, emperor of Byzantium.

Not that things were any better among the Ottomans. Again, there was no clear law of succession, so the death or decline of the reigning sultan would see an intense power struggle among the claimants to the throne, which included all the brothers and sons of the sultan. Unfortunately, given that the sultans had both wives and innumberable concubines, the number of potential sultans tended to be large. So the first step for any claimant was to fight or intrigue his way past all his uncles, brothers and half brothers.

However, up to the seventeenth century, any brothers of a new sultan were unlikely to get any further chances at the throne: a thorough bout of fratricide being one the first acts of the new ruler of the Sublime Porte. Garroting was the favourite method of disposing of an excess of siblings, a skill in which the palace mutes particularly excelled.

From the seventeenth century onwards the reigning sultan’s brothers were often allowed to live, but that was about it. They were confined to the Kafes, or Cage, a secluded building of the Inner Palace, cut off from all contact with the outside world. There the sultan’s siblings, no matter how young or how old, lived, completely isolated from the outside world apart from some mute servants and a few barren women who formed a harem for the imprisoned princes.

The really rather splendid cage for siblings of the sultan.
The really rather splendid cage for siblings of the sultan.

Still, palace intrigues or reverses in the larger world could mean the fall of the sultan, in which case one of these men might be dragged, blinking, into the light and acclaimed as ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Ibrahim, the last surviving brother of Murat IV, who had been a prisoner for 22 of his 24 years, refused to open the door to the vizier when he came to tell him that his brother was dead (from cirrhosis of the liver) and he was now sultan. Ibrahim only emerged when the ex-sultan’s corpse was brought to the door, whereat he emerged crying, ‘The butcher is dead, the butcher is dead.’

Now sultan, Ibrahim set about making up for lost time. One source notes that: ‘As Murat was wholly addicted to wine, so was Ibrahim to lust… he frequently assembled all the virgins, made them strip themselve, and himself naked, neighing like a stallion, ran among them, and as it were ravish’d one or another.’

It couldn’t last. Ibrahim was overthrown by the Janissaries and Kara Ali, the chief executioner was sent to do what Murat IV had not got around to. Appropriately enough, Ibrahim was strangled with a garter.


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