Alan Fisher. "Suleyman and His Sons"

from Veinstein (ed) Soliman le magnifique et son temps. Paris 1992, pp. 117-124.


In his recent novel Billy Bathgate, E.L. Doctorow has his main character notice that "When crime was working as it was supposed to, it was very dull." One might well apply this rule to the operations of government, or any institution operating according to some system. The implication here is that when it gets exciting or noticeable, something is not going well.

In this essay I address the issue of the operation of the Ottoman system of sultanic succession during Suleyman's reign, and identify the reasons why it was in the mid-sixteenth century not very dull at all.

Here is it is essential to differentiate between the "meaning" and the "significance," almost in a semiotic sense, of Suleyman's application of the succession policy and practice which he had inherited. The system of sultanic succession in the Ottoman state, as it operated in the sixteenth century, was composed of several elements: 1) there was widespread acceptance of the fact that the existence of the Empire depended on its being led by members of the Ottoman family; [Inalcik elsewhere states that "from the most ancient period, in Turkish states, no tradition could become established which would restrict or limit which of the dynasty could take the throne"] 2) although custom had provided the principle that every male descendant in the family was technically eligible to succeed to the position of leadership, Osman's elimination of his uncle set the pattern whereby only sons of a sultan would henceforth be considered legitimate competitors for power.

There was, however, no law or clearly structured system for succession. No theory of primogeniture entered Ottoman practice since all sons were equally legitimate if not equally likely successors. Alderson has characterized the results as "far from there being any theory of primogeniture, the law of succession may well be described as a free-for-all in which the strongest sons inherited the throne while the others suffered death."

Mehmed Fatih reflected Ottoman belief when he stated that "God grants the sultanate" to one of his sons, and it was on the basis of this belief that the creation of a succession law per se could not gain support. [Inalcik wrote" from time to time some inclination to set up a succession would appear, for example the appointment of a veliah'd, or declaring the elder or younger son as preferred, but basically the throne was deemed to be God's;" and elsewhere, "whether among the Ottomans or among earlier Turkish states, the institutions of veliah'dlik did not appear as a method for chosing the sultan. The dynasty had sovereignty but it was up to God to choose from among them the sultan."] Whenever more than one son survived a ruling sultan's death, the almost inevitable struggle for the throne (Alderson's "free for all") produced God's judgment on which son should become sultan.

In an attempt to reduce the likelihood of internecine strife between a sultan and his siblings, thought to be almost inevitable on the basis of the historical record, Mehmed II codified an older custom whereby it was considered permissible for a reigning sultan to eliminate his brothers soon after taking the throne. In his kanunname, Melmed II decreed that: "For the welfare of the state, the one of my sons to whom God grants the sultanate may lawfully put his brothers to death. A majority of the 'ulema consider this permissible." ( The translation provided by Franz Babinger is somewhat different: "Whichever of my sons inherits the sultan's throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly." In fact, this practice was interpreted to include the execution not only of brothers, but also nephews and uncles. A less generous depiction of this system would say that the Ottomans held that whichever member of the dynasty physically occupied the throne in Topkapi Sarayi was the legitimate sultan so long as he lived. As Alderson noted, "there was no Ottoman equivalent to 'The king is dead, long live the king.' Until a prince reached the palace, all living princes had equal right to the opportunity to become sultan."

While this system was not viewed with favor by foreigners and other outsiders, theoretically it provided a means to avoid or at least to limit the sorts of civil disorders which characterized most other contemporary states in the sixteenth century. By compressing the violence to the first days of a sultan's reign, one could in theory avoid such politically inspired civil violence during the rest of the reign.

A second important characteristic of the Ottoman succession system, too, was designed to ensure the appearance in Topkapi Sarayi of sultans who were well prepared to lead the Empire, which in fact did provide the state with able and usually prepared sultans through Kanuni. The assignment of Ottoman princes as "governors" in provincial capitals, begun in the earliest years of the Empire, was aimed at giving young Ottoman princes an array of experiences which would train them to be effective administrators.

Suleyman's relationships with his own sons, his efforts to ensure a strong successor to his long reign, and the details of the problems which ensued are not now difficult to unravel. Much of the information necessary to create the meaning , the contemporary significance of these relationships are to be found in the several studies by Serafettin Turan, and especially his book focusing on the Sehzade Bayezid Vakasl. Of course it is easier to describe the public/administrative relationships than it is to identify what must have been also deep personal and family attachments.

l Suleyman had fathered several capable sons, several of whom showed promise as they came of age in arenas important to the effective sultan: leadership, military affairs, the arts. His sons meant a great deal to Suleyman in the early years of his reign; he is reported to have gone hunting with them, in Edirne, in the forests outside of Istanbul, in Asia Minor, and later in the environs of Aleppo. Two sets of circumcision ceremonies were celebrated in Istanbul, and both became public spectacles. The most extravagant, in 1530, was given for Mehmed, Mustafa, and Selim. While three of his sons died in infancy, the first of those who reached adulthood to die was Me4med, of naturel causes in 1543.

It is noteworthy that most of Suleyman's contemporaries came to believe that Mehmed was Suleyman's initial choice to succeed him; that Mehmed was a favored son in this respect, and that his death in 1543 was a shock that his father would not soon forget. There is room to doubt, however, that Suleyman was looking to Mehmed as the next sultan. For Mehmed was not sent out as a sanca governor until 1542, and it was on this his first assignment that he died only one year later, in his sancak city of Manisa. On the other hand, Suleyman had assigned another of his sons Mustafa, as sancak governor in Manisa nine years earlier; Mustafa had been in Manisa already between 1533 and 1541, and was on his second assignment, in Amasya, a year before Mehmed was given his first. Ulucay wrote that Mustafa at the age of 15 was assigned to Manisa in 1533, and was "accepted by his father in the Divan, kissed his hand, and was conferred a robe of honor." Ulucay publishes one letter from Mustafa to his father from Manisa and one from Ibrahim Pasha to Mustafa while in Manisa. He was at that time in high favor. Contrary evidence shows that Mehmed was given military tasks to perform on the Ottoman campaign in the Danubian area in 1537, while there is no evidence that Mustafa ever participated in a campaign. Perhaps Suleyman grieved rather because Mehmed was the first adult son whom he lost; and this before Mehmed had the opportunity to follow the route that his brothers Mustafa and Bayezid later would take.

The fact that Mehmed's death offered Suleyman his first major opportunity to serve as an architectural patron may also have given later Ottomans reason to believe that Mehmed was the favored one. Evliya (elebi describes Mehmed as a "prince of more exquisite qualities than even Musafa. He had a piercing intellect and a subtle judgment. Suleyman had intended that he would be his successor, but man proposes and God disposes."

Given the sancak assignments, however, it seems just as likely that Mustafa was Suleyman's early favorite. When Suleyman became convinced that Mustafa was preparing a rebellion against him, was becoming a danger to the state, and came to the conclusion that he needed to be removed, this was a shock to everyone who knew of it. Hammer-Purgstall wrote that soldiers accompanying Mustafa said that "the sultan is now too old to march in person against the enemy; no one save the grand vizier objects to having him yield his place to the prince [Mustafa]. Foreigners, particularly, were disturbed by his execution, and much of the evidence underlying later adverse historical judgment comes from the accounts of such European observers as Busbecq. Busbecq wrote "On account of his remarkable natural gifts, [he] was marked out by the affection of the soldiers and the wishes of the people as the certain successor of his father." As Turan demonstrates, however, Europeans were especially ready to believe the worst of Suleyman as they had been attracted to Mustafa as a choice more likely to further their own interests.

In 1553 Mustafa was fully an adult, certainly entering middle age at 39. His father had shown signs of his age, 59, and had only recently recovered from a near fatal illness. Having served as a sancak governor for twenty years, having apparently a great many leadership qualities, it is not surprising that Mustafa could have been persuaded to pursue the highest office. Turan allows the reader little doubt that there was something behind the rumors spread by Rustem Pasha and other members of the palace clique. Suleyman himself was fully convinced of Mustafa's treason. Evliya Celebi reported the story that "Suleyman, in passing the grave of Bayezid on the way to Kagithane, said: 'Rebel, art thou become a monarch, or art thou dead?' Thus saying, a black vapor arose from the prince's grave, and Suleyman's horse affrighted, threw his rider. In one moment the face of Rustem Pasha [accompanying Suleyman] grew black. Suleyman from that day got the gout, and Rustem Pasha's face remained black for seventy days, after which the skin coming off, became yellow as it had been before. Suleyman saw clearly that he had been led by Rustem to condemn his son and wished him a black face in the other world for the reward of his black deeds."

It is possible that Suleyman had actually favored Sehm much earlier: he was after all given more military duties than any of his brothers, taking part in the campaigns of 1537 and of 1541, and on the Nahc,ivan campaign. Bayezid was present only in the 1541 campaign. In terms of assignments to sancak governorships, Bayezid received his first in 1546 (at the age of 21) at Konya, followed by Kutahya in 1555 and Amasya in 1558; Sehm at age 20 received Manisa in 1543 where he remained for fifteen years, followed by Konya and Kutahya. On the other hand, Selim served as Istanbul kaimmakam once, in 1548, while Bayezid had two occasions to be ka'immakam, in 1549 in Istanbul and 1553 in Edirne. The administrative historical evidence is thus mixed.

During his last five years of life, Suleyman had only one son remaining, Selim. While his training had been sound, as sancakbeg, as kaimmakam, as military commander, and while he was at age 37 in 1560 a seasoned politician, subsequent events would show that he did not have the characteristics requisite to a successful sultan. Suleyman showed, however, that his commitment to the just application of Ottoman law outweighed any possible personal or familial attachments to his own sons. "The idea of law and order was more important in his empire, to him, than anything else." With the almost immediately subsequent death of Cihangir in Aleppo, which also caused Suleyman much personal anguish, two sons alone remained, Selim and Bayezid. The competition between these two, which lasted for almost a decade, which came to involve Ottoman-Safavid affairs, and which produced Suleyman's final executions (of Bayezid and his sons), is one of the most tragic personal affairs in Ottoman history. It is this conflict which is the main subject of Turan's work, and there is no need to repeat it here. Suleyman's eventual decision to support Selim, indeed to the death, is often portrayed as a serious error which damaged the Ottoman system and began the process of Ottoman decline. Yet was this has been the "significance" of Suleyman's policies?

Hindsight led seventeenth-century Ottomans and later historians to conclude that Mehmed, Mustafa, or Bayezid, any one of them, would more likely have been successful political leaders. They argue that Suleyman's poor judgment, gullibility, misplaced sense of justice, produced the unhappy outcome. A system which had produced ten outstanding political leaders in a row, the first ten Ottoman sultans, applied as it had always been applied in the past, now began to produce sultans with much less ability to rule.

This was not a uniquely Ottoman phenomenon, however. One of the many Achilles' heels of monarchy, especially absolute rulers, has been the transfer of power from one generation to the next. Marsiglio of Padua, in his Defensor Pacis of 1324, in criticizing dante's favoring of absolute government, wrote that "it is alleged that hereditary monarchy advantageously settles the whole matter of succession once and for all and thus puts a limit to men's excessive ambition. Yet this is false, for ambition to achieve the highest office on the basis of ability is a legitimate ambition, and suppressing justifiable ambition will give subjects grounds for sedition." In sixteenth-century Europe, succession policies were intensely discussed and in some areas failures occurred. In France, in the Angouleme line of the House of Valois, succession proceeded smoothly in comparison with other states, passing from father to son to son and thence to brother and brother. The Salic law appears to have been effective in that century in France. The jurist du Moulin wrote that "The crown is not strictly hereditary, for the new king is not the heir of his precedessor, and does not succeed him in the possession of his goods or in the heritage abandoned by the deceased, but he succeeds to the crown by right of blood in accordance with the Salic law."

In England, however, the Tudors suffered difficulty, first with Henry VIII's inability to produce a male heir until after many attempts, and then a succession of female monarchs, one of whom refused steadfastly to marry or produce an heir biologically. Upon Elizabeth's reoovery from smallpox in 1562, the Lords argued that the queen's death without heir or orderly succession would "be the occasion of very great danger and peril to all states and sorts of men in this realm, by the factions, seditions and intestine war that would grow through want of understanding to whom they should yield their allegiances."

The Habsburg succession in the Holy Roman Empire went from father, second cousin, son, grandson, brother, son, son, and brother; Denmark's succession was clear and uncontested, from the late fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, through thirteen generations of Fredericks and Christians, son always succeeding father.

. Sixteenth-century Muscovy experienced problems similar to those of the Ottomans under Suleyman: strong willed Grand Prince Vasilii III, when he felt the need, willingly sacrificed personal loyalties and family ties to the demands of his position as ruler, much as Suleyman would behave. Vasilii had a more complicated and delicate family life than did Suleyman; polygamy was not permitted in Muscovy, though divorce was, and after twenty heirless years of marriage, Vasilii sent his wife to the convent and with a new wife produced Ivan IV in a few months. Ivan IV himself had a tragic family life; after the death of his first wife, he married six times to produce one legitimate son, and had a second child eventually by a seventh illegal marriage. His most competent son, also Ivan, he killed in a fit of rage, a death followed within hours by the miscarriage of son Ivan's wife. Ivan IV lost both son and grandson, it turned out, and the dynasty was near an end. Muscovy's case provides further evidence of the fragility of royal succession in an absolutist state, even when there was a succession rule or policy in place.

The elements of Ottoman policy aimed at ensuring a secure and acceptble succession: the codification of the policy of "fratricide" extended to all male elements of a sultan's brothers' families, and further extended to include those sons of a ruling su1tan who caused civil unrest and their male descendants; the assignment of administrative duties along with tutors to the sons of a ruling sultan to provide training for rule; the usual appointment of a favored son to a sancal geographically close to the capital; all in theory should have worked well, and in Doctorow's words, produced a "dull" story.

But civil unrest was not avoided. A clear law of succession, a veraset kanunu, on account of Turkish custom and religious belief, was out of the question. And the very elements of Ottoman policy aimed at producing excellent sultans contributed heavily both to the unrest and ultimately to a decline in ability in the dynasty.

First, the son or sons who proved to be the most competent, who acquired the most administrative skill, who were given the staff to establish a mini-court with all of its trappings including a modest military force, whose father might well rule into his old age, and who might begin to demonstrate mental, physical or administrative decline, this son or these sorts would be less than human if they did not at the same time develop ambitions to occupy the highest position in the state.

Secondly, these sons located far away from the palace and their father, could be supervised only through representatives of the palace, who in turn, throughout the sixteenth century, came to represent not only the interests of the sultan but of palace groups or cliques. Polygamy produced sons of different mothers with their own interests and supporters in the palace.

The application of the sancak governorship system guaranteed a jockeying for power among sons, mothers, palace officials, and tutors; the sultan's intervention via execution came to produce eventual winners who were not necessarily the most able successors.

Seim II learned much from his own experiences as sehzade: he sent out only his eldest son, Murad, to a sancak governorship and Murad himself sent out only his eldest son Mehmed, to Manisa. The other sons/ princes were kept in Topkapi Sarayi. When Mehmed became sultan Mehmed III, he kept all of his sons at home, and in the next reign, Ahmed I introduced the Kafes system which as we know produced a long line of fairly incompetent and certainly poorly trained successors to the throne. It had simply proved to be too dangerous to send sons out for these purposes. As is so often the case, the cure proved to be worse than the disease.

Ironically, the more effectively the Ottoman system was implemented, and the greater was Suleyman's adherence to the principles of justice, the worse were the results.

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1. How do Inalcik and Fisher agree and disagree on the most important elements of Suleyman's character?
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