The Mad Sultan
An Historical Curiosity
of an Empire in Decline
One of the most curious episodes in modern history was the long, prolonged decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its rise was in many ways surprising but it’s very prolonged decline until the state finally ended shortly after the end of the First World War was one of the most prolonged, protracted declines ever. And the story of that decline is a fascinating one filled with amusing and not so amusing stories. This is one of the more amusing, if only in a black way, stories. This is the story of the mad Sultan who was Sultan twice.
The Ottoman state reached its height during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. If Suleiman was not the greatest of the Ottoman Sultans he was one of the greatest and he was indisputably the most powerful one who ever lived.
The empire that Suleiman controlled was the entire Balkans including Hungary, Asia Minor, Syria, western Iran, Mesopotamia, Palestine the Islamic holy places, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. It was by far the most powerful and wealthy state in Europe and in Western Asia and North Africa. The Empire boasted the largest armies, the greatest fleets in the world. In Europe only Russia was larger, although with far fewer people and in terms of wealth and size combined only the Empire of Charles V and later the Spanish empire of Philip II could match it in any sense.1
If the wealth and economic might of Suleiman’s empire were un-paralleled, and its military power great so was the threat it was perceived to be to other European powers. The threat that the Ottoman Empire was to Europe was apparently during his reign at its height. In popular lore and among diplomats fear of the “Turk” was at its height. The dynamism of the state seemed to be limitless. Even with the addition of the silver wealth the New World Spain did not seem to be and was not a match for the power of the Ottoman empire.2
That changed after Suleiman’s death in 1566. The empire started its long and agonizing decline into senility. Just why the decline set in then is not clearly understood, but decline it did. It appears that although the empire had been and continued to be good at assimilating western military developments it was quite less able to assimilate other aspects of the emerging West. Also it appears that the innate conservatism of the societies of the empire along with the curse of the notion that past solutions will always work if we keep trying, inhibited the development of solutions to problems. And frankly the growth of internal corruption was the serpent that gradually strangled the state.3
The death of the empire was however a prolonged and lengthy process and the empire remained in many respects rather formidable for centuries.
In the aftermath of Suleiman’s death in 1566 he was succeeded by his eldest surviving son Selim II called the sot, because he was a chronic and severe alcoholic. It was during his reign that that the severe strains on the society and government of the empire appeared obvious. The first was the clear appearance in the center of government of faction and murderous court politics. Now there had been such things beforehand but in the reign of Selim II it became overt and obvious. The other was the appearance of court officials as controllers of the policy and decision making. Previously it was the Sultan and his advisors who controlled policy. From now on court factions and harem intrigues increasingly controlled policy. Of course there had been indications of that in the reign of Suleiman but now it was made overt.4
Further it was becoming clear that bureaucratically the state was becoming more and more corrupt and corrupt practices were becoming routine. The state was becoming a tool for the enrichment of its managers.
Finally economically the state was beginning to decline relative to Europe has conservatism began to inhibit economic growth. This conservatism did not just apply to economics but went right through the state and society. Making it increasingly difficult to adjust to the challenge of a rising Europe.
A clear indication that perhaps the empire had reached its limits was the battle of Lepanto and its aftermath, The battle was a crushing, if costly one sided victory for a Christian coalition led by Spain. However in terms of the war it was part of it was a victory that led nowhere. The Ottoman’s still won the war. To the dismay of Europeans the Turks were able to, in less than a year, reconstitute their fleet. It went on to win victories into the mid1570’s.
What is more consequential was not an ersatz victory that led nowhere but the fact that the fleet after the mid 1570’s after the war with Spain was ended was allowed to decay and wither away. The effort to keep up with the west proved to be too much and once the pressure was off the fleet was allowed to decay into virtual nonexistence.5
Exactly why this was the case is not clear although it seems to be paralleled by a similar drying up of creative energy in other areas of the Ottoman state.
Thus was set the stage for the accession not once but twice of a “mad” Sultan. When in 1603 Mehmed III died he left two sons Ahmed and Mustafa. Ahmed, who became Ahmed I, was only 13 years old when he succeeded to the throne. His brother Mustafa was only 11. The usual practice of Ottoman Sultans upon succeeding to the throne was to kill any surviving brothers to avoid succession disputes or problems. In this case it appears that Ahmed decided not to kill his brother. Instead he imprisoned his brother in the palace in a pretty luxurious prison which was known as the cage, with a few slaves and elderly harem women, (To avoid the complication of additional children who might complicate who could become sultan.), in this luxurious but boring and confined environment Mustafa lived for well over a decade.
Ahmed was apparently moved to do this because his brother from early on seems to have had a weak mind and was probably mentally ill already. However his prison was not secure personally because Ahmed repeatedly considered executing Mustafa and apparently gave orders once to do so, but then changed his mind. Mustafa was well aware that his life hung by a thread and all this produced in him a terrible anxiety and not surprisingly paranoia.
We are told that Mustafa in his boredom became rather devote and liked to throw gold coins to fish in the Bosporus that flowed past Istanbul. He also apparently liked to giggle. Not surprisingly he was high strung and terrified most of the time.6
In 1617 Ahmed died at the age of 28. He left an eldest son Osman who was 13 years old. Ahmed’s favorite in the Harem Kosem was terrified that the accession of Osman would mean fratricide for her sons. For Osman was not her son. Maneuvered things so that Mustafa I was made Sultan. He didn’t last. He is supposed to have declared that he didn’t want to be Sultan upon being told the news.
For it was clear that he was absolutely unfit to rule. If his mental illness wasn’t enough of a problem his long years in the cage had utterly unhinged him. Supposedly he named two favorite pages governors of Damascus and Cairo and named a farmer who had given him something to drink while he was out hunting to a high government position. So after a short 3 month reign, (1617-1618 C.E.), Mustafa I was sent back to the cage.
Osman II turned out to capable, energetic and thankfully not insane. However he was deeply resentful of the fact that he had spent 3 months in the cage while Mustafa I was Sultan and soon had everybody on edge. He was apparently a bloodthirsty young man and to complete the picture thought of himself as a reformer and warrior.
Sadly he proved to have a knack for pissing people off. Osman II personally lead the army on a campaign against the Poles that failed and further he began cutting into the privileges and benefits awarded to the Janissaries, the empires Pretorian guard, this pissed them off. This along with the general discontent set off a revolt which ended with Osman II being strangled to death in 1622 in a palace conspiracy combined with a military coup.
Mustafa I had after his previous turn as Sultan been walled into the cage by the vindictive Osman II. In order to get to him they had to break through the ceiling. Mustafa was found in a room, with two slaves, in which he had been hiding in for 3 days. He had not eaten or drunk anything. He was eaten up by anxiety and frankly hysterical. He was supposed to be giggling uncontrollably. Once again, but this time much more vehemently he declared that he didn’t want to be Sultan. His wish was ignored and he was made Sultan again. Amazingly he lasted 15 months. (1622-1623 C.E.)
He was basically the pawn of factions that fought over power. The assassins of Osman were eventually hunted down and killed, but it appears that Mustafa I would forget that Osman II was dead. Mustafa would go about the palace knocking on doors looking for Osman and declaring that he wanted Osman to take the rulership away from him.
As factions fought government began to go to pieces and Mustafa was quite incapable. In the struggle of the factions Grand Viziers were changed often and Mustafa hadn’t lost his touch of making mad decisions as revealed when he made a donkey driver muezzin of an important mosque. All over the empire governors refused to obey the central authorities, and they stopped paying their taxes. The Janissaries not being paid were discontented and on the verge of revolt. Eventually a provincial revolt stated and an army marched on Istanbul. Mustafa was deposed and sent back to the cage. A local Inman declared that a mentally ill person could not be Sultan. Another son of Ahmed I Murad IV was brought forth from the cage and made Sultan. Murad IV would be Sultan until 1640.
Mustafa lived on, after being returned to the cage until 1639. He apparently died of natural causes and hopefully spending his last years in quiet security.7
Sadly over the centuries Sultans would be taken from the cage and put into the cage over and over again. The experience would not be conducive to either emotional stability or preparing someone to rule. In fact the reverse was the case and this contributed to the decline of the Ottoman Empire.
Thus the story of Mustafa I, the mad, twice Sultan of the Ottoman Empire encapsulates in microcosm the problems of an empire in decline.
1. See Elliot, J. H., Europe Divided: 1559-1598, Fontana Books, London, 1968, pp. 175-200, Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, v. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1996, pp. 661-680.
2. IBID, Kinross, Lord, The Ottoman Centuries, Morrow Quill Paperbacks, New York, 1977, pp. 159-255. For a look at Suleiman the Magnificent see Lamb, Harold, Suleiman The Magnificent, Bantam Books, New York, 1951.
3. IBID, and Footnote 1, see also Neumann, Christoph K., Political and Diplomatic Developments, in Faroqhi, Suraiya N., The Cambridge History of Turkey, v. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 44 – 62, Lamb, Part 6, Chapters, When Women Ruled and The Destructive Forces. (I am using an electronic copy).
4. Kinross, pp. 259-277.
5. Braudel, pp. 1125-1164, Elliott, pp. 194-198.
6. Kinross, pp. 290-300, Mustafa I of Turkey Here.