Another amazing long read.
The Ottoman Empire's Life-or-Death Race | Past Imperfect
The executioners of the Ottoman Empire were never noted for their mercy; just ask the teenage Sultan Osman II, who in May 1622 suffered an excruciating death by “compression of the testicles”–as contemporary chronicles put it–at the hands of an assassin known as Pehlivan the Oil Wrestler. There was reason for this ruthlessness, however; for much of its history (the most successful bit, in fact), the Ottoman dynasty flourished—ruling over modern Turkey, the Balkans and most of North Africa and the Middle East—thanks in part to the staggering violence it meted out to the highest and mightiest members of society.
Seen from this perspective, it might be argued that the Ottomans’ decline set in early in the 17th century, precisely at the point when they abandoned the policy of ritually murdering a significant proportion of the royal family whenever a sultan died, and substituted the Western notion of simply giving the job to the first-born son instead. Before then, Ottoman succession had been governed by the “law of fratricide” drawn up by Mehmed II in the middle of the 15th century. Under the terms of this remarkable piece of legislation, whichever member of the ruling dynasty succeeded in seizing the throne on the death of the old sultan was not merely permitted, but enjoined, to murder all his brothers (together with any inconvenient uncles and cousins) in order to reduce the risk of subsequent rebellion and civil war. Although it was not invariably applied, Mehmed’s law resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman over a period of 150 years. These victims included all 19 siblings of Sultan Mehmed III—some of whom were still infants at the breast, but all of whom were strangled with silk handkerchiefs immediately after their brother’s accession in 1595.
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Capital punishment was so common in the Ottoman Empire that there was a Fountain of Execution in the First Court, where the chief executioner and his assistant went to wash their hands after decapitating their victims—ritual strangulation being reserved for members of the royal family and their most senior officials. This fountain “was the most feared symbol of the arbitrary power of life and death of the sultans over their subjects, and was hated and feared accordingly,” the historian Barnette Miller wrote. It was used with particular frequency during the reign of Sultan Selim I—Selim the Grim (1512-20)—who, in a reign of eight short years, went through seven grand viziers (the Ottoman title for a chief minister) and ordered 30,000 lesser executions. So perilous was the position of vizier in those dark days that holders of the office were said not to leave their homes in the morning without tucking their wills inside their robes; for centuries afterward, Miller points out, one of the most common curses uttered in the Ottoman Empire was “Mays’t thou be vizier to Sultan Selim!”
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