2. Sultan Mehmed III gained control of the Ottoman Empire by killing all 19 of his brothers and step-brothers – and he was perfectly within his rights to do so
Fratricide was only too common among the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. However, even by the standards of 16th century Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed III was particularly ruthless and bloody. When he came to the throne following the death of Murad III, he saw rivals and enemies everywhere – and rightly so. The Sultan was not paranoid, but a realist. In those times, when Sultans had several wives and had numerous children with both legal spouses as well as with their concubines, there were usually several pretenders to the throne. And so, such rivals needed to be taken care of – even if they were your own brothers.
Born in 1566, Mehmed III was named Sultan in January of 1595. His was not an automatic ascension to the throne. During the Ottoman Empire, it was not taken for granted that the eldest son would inherit his father’s wealth or power. Rather, any son – legitimate or illegitimate – could stake a claim. Quite simply, it was survival of the fittest. What’s more, in order to ensure the Empire was run as smoothly and peacefully as possible, it was expected that a new Sultan would kill any potential rivals to death. Indeed, Mehmed’s own father had made this the law. In 1477 he decreed: “For the welfare of the state, one of my sons to whom God grants the sultanate may lawfully put his brothers to death.” Evidently, Mehmed III had no hesitation in putting this into practice.
According to the records of the time, Mehmed had all 19 of his brothers and half-brothers executed. What’s more, he had his own personal bodyguard of deaf-mute soldiers carry out the killings. Over the course of just a few days, all of the potential rivals to the throne were strangled to death, often in their own homes. Brutal and bloody it may have been, but was the policy of legalized fratricide effective? The Ottoman Empire lasted more than 500 years, holding large parts of Asia and Europe right up until 1923. Dynastic wars and power struggles were relatively uncommon, and the Sultan’s power absolute, so maybe there was something to it after all.