Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 16: The Seeds of Decline

Copyright ©2011 by T. Pavlidis

The Sedentary1 Sultans - Last Half of the 16th Century

Selim II was succeed by his oldest son Murad III (1574-1595) whose first act was to have his five younger brothers strangled. The Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha continued to run the state until he was assassinated in 1579. From then the office of the Grand Vizier declined in importance with no occupant holding it more than a few years. The office changed hands eleven times during the 21 years of Murad's III reign [CF05, p. 165]. Murad III also expanded the Harem. Earlier sultans had their own quarters and they would pay visits to the harem. Murad III lived in the harem [ibid, p. 167] and he increased its importance (see below). Orhan Pamuk has written an excellent historic novel2 about life in Murad III's Istanbul. The table below shows the sultans who succeeded Suleyman I (until the start of the eighteenth century).

Eight Sultans after Suleyman I
Name Reign Relationship to
previous sultan
Selim II 1566-1574 only (?) son The Sot!
Murad III 1574-1595 eldest son  
Mehmed III 1595-1603 eldest son Campaigned in Hungary and Poland
Ahmed I 1603-1617 eldest son He did not apply the fratricide law.
Mustafa I 1617-1618 brother Mentally unstable
Osman II 1618-1622 nephew Killed by the janissaries
Mustafa I 1622-1623 second reign  
Murad IV 1623-1640 half-brother of Osman II Banned alcohol, coffee and tobacco but he died from khirosis of the liver.
Ibrahim I 1640-1648 son of Ahmed I The Crazy. Feeble-minded.

Until Mehmed III sultans vied for the succession and had administrative experience from being governors of provinces [CF05 p. 189]. After that the princes stayed at the palace, in effect under house arrest. Once a prince reached puberty, he would move to the Kafes (lit. cage) where he would be confined in luxury until the end of his life or until he was called to the throne. Slowly by surely the selection of the next sultan passed to the Harem. Ahmed I became sultan at the age of 13 and he was of a different temperament than his ancestors. A Venetian reported quoted in [CF05, p. 185] states "Ahmed was happier in his garden than in Anatolia where wolves prowled, where people ate grass and ... corpses of fallen horses and camels in their hunger ..." The people were starving while the sultan was enjoying his garden. He also wrote poetry. He died young from typhus and, for the first time in centuries, the sultan was succeeded by his brother Mustafa I.

The Ottomans continued to fight the Hapsburgs in central Europe, the Safavids in Iran, and Muscovy in the Caucasus and the Crimean. But, in most case, the campaigns were not led by the sultan or even by the Grand Vizier. The sultan did not want to leave the comfort of palace and the Grand Vizier could not afford to be away from the political intrigue of the capital.

The Imperial Harem

The imperial harem consisted of the wives and other female relatives of the sultan, his concubines, and the black eunuchs who guarded them. The head of the harem was the mother of the reigning sultan, Valide sultan and the head of the black eunuchs was the Kizlar aga (the aga of the girls), an office created by Murad III. Murad III put the Kizlar aga in charge of the endowments that supported the Muslim Holy Places. Very soon the senior members of the harem wielded significant political power.

Attached to the harem were the "mutes", a group that carried out any dirty work the sultan wished, such as strangling his younger brothers. Since they were unable to speak, their discretion was assured.

A young woman brought in as a concubine had a hard time because it might take a long time for the sultan to notice her. If he showed her favor, she might get eventually her own apartment. Bearing a child was a good way to advance but since many women were competing for the attention of one man, others had an incentive to cause a miscarriage, so women tried to keep their pregnancy as secret as possible. If you ever have a chance to go to Istanbul you can get a good idea about harem life by taking a guided tour of the Topkapi Palace. In the meantime you can explore the web. Here are some samples:

The Rule of the Harem - First Half of the 17th Century

After Ahmed I's death the choice of the next sultan fell to the Harem and the viziers and Mustafa I became the sultan in 1617, even though Ahmed had sons. Mustafa I seemed to be mentally retarded - he would fill his pockets with gold and silver coins and toss them out of boats. After three months, the chief black eunuch Mustafa Agha staged a coup and put to the throne the sultan's nephew Osman II [CF05, p. 197]. However Osman II appointed a new Grand Vizier who exiled Mustafa Agha to Egypt.

Osman led a campaign against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but he suffered a defeat at the hands of Cossacks and return to Istanbul. However, there was no acknowledgement of the defeat and a "victory" was celebrated. This seems to have set a precedent in the news coverage of the region.

It seems that Osman made plans to created a new army of musketeers from Anatolia and the janissaries got wind of the plans and rose in revolt. Mustafa I was re-instated to the throne and Osman II was killed, the first sultan to end that way in the history of the empire.

Kösem sultan (source: Wikipedia3)

The janissaries re-instated Mustafa I, but they deposed him 16 months later, in 1623, and replaced him by Murad IV [ibid, pp. 199-202]. The latter was only 11 years old and his mother Kösem acted as regent and effectively ran the state with her political allies [ibid, p. 206]. Kösem was Greek and had been Ahmed I's favorite concubine [ibid, p. 197]. Murad IV died young in 1640 and he was succeeded by his brother Ibrahim I. Murad had shown some independence from his mother but Ibrahim was under her thumb.

While sultan, Murad led a campaign to Caucasus in 1635 and then he tried to institute some reforms but he was not able to accomplish much. In particular he tried to send all inhabitants of Istanbul that were not native back to their old provinces an action that raised a big outcry because many such people had married women from Istanbul. Murad relented after the intervention of his mother [ibid, p. 211]. He also ordered the closing-down and razing of all coffee houses, except those in Egypt, Mecca, and Medina. He also ordered the closing of all taverns. He waged war against Iran and he recaptured Baghdad in 1638. On the other hand Cossacks were able to mount naval raids as far south as the Bosporus [ibid, p. 215-219].

Ibrahim I was feeble minded, he earned the eponym, the Crazy and he reigned until 1648. He pre-occupied himself with the harem and left state matters to others. In 1645 the Ottomans invaded the island of Crete that was held by the Venetians. The Venetians were able to blockade the Dardanelles and a war raged for nearly 15 years. Ibrahim became increasingly erratic and even his mother grew desperate. She wrote to the Grand Vizier: "At the end he will leave neither you nor me alive. We will lose control of the government. The whole society is in ruins. Have him removed from the throne immediately." [ibid, p. 233]. Ibrahim was deposed by a broad-based coup and executed. He was succeeded by his seven year old son Mehmed IV. Contrary to tradition, his grandmother Kösem sultan continued as the Valide sultan.

The State of the Empire in the 1550-1650 period

Military Decline

In the first half of the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire terrorized Europe but eventually it ended up as the "Sick Man of Europe". The late 1500's seem to mark the start of the decline of the empire. Theories abound. One is that the re-building of the fleet after the Lepanto disaster imposed too big a burden on the imperial treasury. Another theory is that while the expanding the new lands would provide for the imperial soldiers but after conquests stopped the soldiers became too big a financial burden.

Lewis [BL95, pp. 122-129] provides several reasons. One is the decline of sipahi cavalry. These were fief-holders who in exchange for the land they were obliged to provide horsemen for the sultan's army. In contrast to Europe, such fiefs were not hereditary and passing the land from father to son required imperial approval. Towards the end of the sixteenth century such approvals became rare and the fiefs were added to the sultan's lands. We have encountered a similar phenomenon in the Byzantine empire that led to its defeat by the Seljuk Turks (Chapter 10). The sultans needed quick revenue so they instituted the system of leasing these lands to tax-farmers, a new class of landowners who interposed themselves between the sultan and the rural peasantry. Many of these tax-farmers were not Muslims but Christian or Jews. That diffused the power of the Muslim landowners but also eliminated a soldier-landowner class.

As a result the empire had to rely increasingly on the slave troops of the janissaries but things changed there too. Originally, the janissaries were not allowed to marry unless they were officers or until after they retired. Upon his accessions Selim II recognized the right of all janissaries to marry and eventually most of them were married men living with their families. Family men are not as eager to be brave soldiers as bachelors might be. Married men have also children and in 1568 Selim II agreed to let sons of janissaries join the corps. "By 1592 they constituted the majority of the corps" [ibid, p. 125]. Eventually, anybody could join the troops and Turkish chronicles lament the sad state when "Tatars, Gypsies, Jews, and townsmen of unknown faith" could become janissaries.

The Economy

Finkel [CF05, p. 176] states the economic decline was a consequence of the military decline because, while the empire was expanding, revenues from the new territories were used for economic and demographic growth. With the slowing down of the new revenues the Ottoman government debased its currency by reducing the content of silver in the asper to half. That created both financial instability and revolts by the janissaries [ibid]. Other historians think that the causes go deeper.

"In the Iranian state tradition the economy was seen exclusively as a mean of strengthening the state's finances and there by the ruler's power [HI94, p. 44]. The state gave priority to agriculture and consequently to the protection of the peasants. Martin Luther gave a warning to European landlords in 1541 that "the poor, oppressed by greedy princes, landlords and burghers might well prefer to live under the Turks" [BL95, p. 128]. While Europe encouraged industries and manufacture, the Ottoman stuck with state monopolies in manufacture and with conservatives policies in agriculture [HI94, p. 45]. An Ottoman wrote that a good Muslim craftsman should not waste too much time in perfecting his products at the expense of prayer [ibid]. Some historians point out to the Koran's prohibition of interest on loans as an impediment to economic progress. However, there were ways to circumvent that prohibition and there was some commercial activity but it remained marginal because of the state's ownership of land and control of agricultural production [ibid, p. 48].

In the context, it is worth pointing out that there were many European merchants in the Ottoman empire but no Ottoman merchants in Europe. The permission to establish trading communities, known as capitulation, had been granted to Venetian and Genoese merchants even before the conquest of Constantinople and these were extended to the French in 1536 [CF05, p, 127] and to the English in 1580 [BL95, p, 291]. This system gave western products free entry to the Ottoman empire while Ottoman goods were subject to tariffs and other restrictions in Europe [ibid].

Religious Fundamentalism

In 1574 the famous Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha convinced Murad III to order the construction of an astronomical observatory to improve the astrological predictions for the sultan as well as study the cosmos. Before we sneer at the focus on astrology we should remember that the famous German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) earned his living as astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperors. Kepler went on to formulate empirical laws on the motion of the planets that, in turn, led Newton to the theory of gravity. However, any chance that an Ottoman astronomer would discover the laws of planetary motion was snuffed by the sheikhulislam who advised the sultan that the observation of stars brought bad luck [ibid, p. 190].

Pressure on Religious Minorities

Because Jews were involved in finance they took the blame for the troubles that followed the debasement of the currency. Several were killed and additional taxes were imposed on them. In 1598 a Jewish community in Istanbul was dispersed to make room for a new mosque complex.

In 1587 the Greek church that housed the patriarchate was converted into a Mosque (Fethiye Camii) and in 1591 the church of St George Rotunda in Thessalonica was also converted into a mosque. [ibid, pp. 192-193].

The Last Straw

Probably, nothing captures the sad state of the empire than having a 7 year sultan under the regency of his grandmother. We have a state that, in theory, is under the absolute control of the sultan but the sultan is unable to govern. Thus the ship of state is governed by people behind the scenes with no one publicly responsible. Can there be a better recipe for disaster?


  1. I take this term from C. Finkel's book [CF05, Chapter 6]
  2. Orhan Pamuk My Name is Red, Vintage Books (2002).

First Posted: March 12, 2011. Latest Revision: March 14, 2011. (Minor change: May 1, 2020)

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