In addition to destroying cities and massacring people by the hundreds of thousands at a go, Tamerlane was into piling up pyramids of severed heads, cementing live prisoners into the walls of captured cities, and erecting towers of his victims’ skulls. Not provoking such a figure seems like common sense. However, Ottoman sultan Bayezid seemingly abandoning his senses, got into a flame war with Tamerlane, swapping insulting letters with him for years.
It ended when Tamerlane finally showed up in 1402, defeated Bayezid, and took him captive. The Ottoman sultan was then humiliated by being kept in a cage at his conqueror’s court, while Bayezid’s favorite wife was made to serve Tamerlane and his courtiers, naked.
The Raven King and his mercenary Black Army sound like something straight out of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. However, it refers to a real-life monarch and military unit, who became Europe’s greatest warriors in the second half of the fifteenth century. To wit, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443 – 1490), whose name translates as “Matthew the Raven”, and a mercenary army he assembled to hold back the Ottoman Turks.
When Hungary’s King Ladislaus V died childless in 1457, the Diet of Hungary convened in January of 1458 to elect a new king. It eventually chose fourteen-year-old Matthias Corvinus as a compromise candidate to avert a civil war between rival factions. The plan was for Matthias’ uncle to rule as regent until the new king came of age. Instead, the teenager surprised everybody by administering state affairs independently from the outset. He ended up being a thorn in the side of the expansionist Ottoman Empire.
Military matters were high on the list of state affairs that attracted Matthias’ attention, as he ascended the throne only 5 years after the Ottoman Turks had conquered Constantinople and extinguished the Byzantine Empire. The Turks, brimming with confidence, turned their attention to Hungary. Against all precedent, Matthias taxed Hungary’s nobles. Ignoring their howls of protest, he used the revenue to recruit 30,000 mercenaries, mainly from Germany, Poland, Bohemia, and Serbia, and after 1480, from Hungary.
The mercenaries were organized into a combined-arms mix of light infantry operating around a base of heavily armored infantry, supplemented by even more heavily armored knights. In a pioneering innovation that took advantage of recent firearms developments, every fourth soldier was armed with an arquebus. Matthias’ mercenaries, who came to be known as the “Black Army“, became a formidable force that dominated Central Europe and the Balkans, and held back the Ottoman Turks for decades.
25. The Ottoman Sultan Who Came Closest to Conquering Europe
The closest Islamic armies ever came to conquering Europe was not in 732, when the Franks under Charles Martel defeated a Muslim army at the Battle of Tours. That had been a raid, not an attempted conquest. Nor was it in 1683, when forces under Polish king John Sobieski broke a Turkish siege of Vienna with a dramatic charge. By then, European armies had already gained a qualitative edge over the Turks that rendered Ottoman attempts to conquer Europe unrealistically. The closest Islamic armies came to conquering Europe was in 1529, when Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent attempted to seize Vienna, for use as a base of operations for further advances.
In 1526, the Turks defeated the Kingdom of Hungary at the Battle of Mohacs, and annexed it to their growing empire. It was the latest episode in nearly a century of Ottoman conquests in eastern and central Europe. It brought the confident and expansionist Ottoman Empire into direct contact with the Habsburg Empire along the Hungarian border. It did not take long for the Turks to decide upon having a go at the Habsburgs.
In May, 1529, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent advanced from the Black Sea with an army of about 120,000 Ottoman combatants. However, things began to go wrong from the start. Unusually heavy rains turned the routes of advance into seas of mud, in which the heavy siege artillery got stuck and had to be abandoned. The inclement weather also wreaked havoc on the soaked troops’ health.
A significantly weakened army arrived before Vienna in September and put it to siege. The defenders, about 20,000, were greatly outnumbered. However, they were sheltered behind strong walls and fortifications, which proved more than capable of withstanding bombardment by the Turks’ light field pieces. The heavy siege guns, abandoned in the mud en route, were sorely missed by the besiegers.
Ottoman sappers tried to bring down Vienna’s walls by mining, but were foiled by effective counter-mining. Numerous attempts to storm the walls were beaten back by the defenders shooting down the attackers with arquebuses, and using long pikes to push back scaling ladders and those who made it to the top of the walls. Ottoman woes were worsened by more heavy rains in October, which fouled much of their gunpowder.
Suleiman ordered a final all out assault in late October, but it was beaten back. So the siege was lifted, and the sultan withdrew. The retreat turned into a disaster when winter snows arrived early and caught the Ottoman army out in the open. Many died, and all the remaining artillery had to be abandoned. An abortive attempt at seizing Vienna was made in 1532, but after it failed, Suleiman gave up on conquering Europe, and diverted Ottoman efforts to Asia and the Mediterranean.
What made the Ottoman failure before the walls of Vienna decisive is that it was the closest they ever came to conquering Europe. Politically, Europe in 1529 was rent by wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics. Moreover, European armies had not yet undergone the Military Revolution, with its innovations in tactics and strategy that would give western armies a qualitative edge for centuries to come.
The Ottomans made another unsuccessful and better-known attempt to seize Vienna in 1683. By 1683, however, even if they had managed to seize the city, it is unlikely that they could have advanced much further into Europe, or even held on to Vienna for long. Thus, the failure in 1529 proved to be the Ottoman Empire’s high watermark in the west.
21. Suleiman the Magnificent Had His Own Son Strangled to Death
Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I might have been magnificent, but that magnificence did not extend to being a good father. His elder son and heir apparent, Shehzade Mustafa (1515 – 1553), was, according to contemporary accounts, the kind of son any father would be proud to call his own. From an early age, the young prince had demonstrated his chops as a brave warrior, skilled general, and capable governor. Mustafa was beloved by the army, the scholars, and was popular with the public at large.
However, there was one person who did not like Mustafa: his stepmother, Roxelana. Sultan Suleiman’s favorite concubine and eventual wife, Roxelana wanted the throne for one of her own sons, and so set out to poison Suleiman’s mind against Mustafa. She organized a whispering campaign, and manufactured rumors about Mustafa’s supposed disloyalty. It worked. In 1553, Suleiman summoned Mustafa to his tent, and when the prince entered, the Sultan set his guards upon the prince. After a long struggle, they strangled him to death with a bowstring. Suleiman was succeeded by Roxelana’s son, Selim II, known as the Drunkard. He was one of the Ottoman Dynasty’s worst rulers, and set the empire on the path of decline and eventual collapse.
Throughout history, many kingdoms collapsed into chaos, and many ruling dynasties perished because of infighting by royal siblings competing for the throne. Such dynastic civil wars weakened states, frittered their resources be they blood or treasure on useless strife, and left them vulnerable to foreign rivals.
The Ottoman Turks tackled that problem head-on, with one of the most ruthless solutions possible: as soon as a new Ottoman Sultan ascended the throne, he immediately executed all his brothers. The prospects of deadly rivalries and civil wars were thus eliminated by the simple expedient of eliminating all potential male claimants to the throne. It was cruel, but it worked. At least insofar as reducing the odds of dynastic civil wars. However, as seen below, there were severe downsides to this Ottoman expedient.
19. “Any of My Sons Who Ascends the Throne, it is Acceptable for Him to Kill His Brothers“
The early Ottoman state had no clear-cut rules of succession. When princes reached puberty, their father the Sultan usually sent them out to govern a province. There, they often built up a power base of ambitious followers, eager to prosper by urging their royal governor to make a bid for the throne upon his father’s death.
Thus, the death of a sultan was often followed by a bout of civil war between his sons, and the early reign of a new sultan was often marred by the revolts of envious brothers seeking to take his place. Eventually, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror enacted a Law of Governance, stating in relevant part: “Any of my sons who ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people. The majority of the ulema [Muslim scholars] approve this; let action be taken accordingly“.
18. The Ottoman Sultan Who Kicked Off His Reign by Executing His 19 Brothers
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s successors usually heeded his advice to maintain the stability of the realm by preemptively executing their brothers upon ascending the throne. It was a cruel expedient, but it worked: for the next two centuries, the Ottoman Empire was remarkably stable and free of infighting and civil wars when compared to its contemporaries. However, although the system worked, the consciences of many throughout the realm were bothered by the murder of innocent royal siblings at the start of each reign.
Those misgivings reached a peak when Sultan Mehmed III (reigned 1595 – 1603) inaugurated his reign by ordering his 19 brothers, some of them mere infants, strangled to death. It was said that “the Empire wept” as a long line of child-sized coffins exited the palace in a grand procession the next day.
Eventually, a reaction set in against the Ottoman tradition of fratricide. So a new tradition was developed to take its place: instead of new sultans outright murdering their siblings upon ascending the throne, they simply locked them up. Thus was born the system of the Ottoman Kafes, or “Cage”, whereby sultans set up a secluded part of their royal Harem as a detention center for their brothers.
There, in the Kafes, potential rivals to the throne were kept under house arrest, under surveillance by palace guards and isolated from the outside world to prevent intrigues and plots. As seen below, life in the Kafes could be rough. However, for those living in it, by dint of the very fact that they were still living at all, meant that it (usually) beat the alternative.
16. Death Might Have Been Preferable to Getting Locked Up by This Ottoman Sultan
Unlike many of his predecessors, Sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623 – 1640) did not murder his siblings upon ascending the throne. Instead, he settled for locking them up inside his Harem in the Kafes, or “Cage”. While the Kafes system was set up as a more merciful alternative to how prior generations of Ottoman rulers had dealt with their brothers, it might not have been much of mercy in Murad’s case.
Many of Murad’s imprisoned siblings might have wished that their brother had simply gotten it over and done with, and executed them at the start of his reign. Instead of an immediate end to their sufferings, they were subjected to years and decades of terror – often ending in death anyhow – and psychological torture.
Murad IV combined paranoia with sadism. He constantly suspected his captive brothers of plotting against him, and never tired of trying to entrap them into saying any careless thing that could remotely be interpreted as validating his suspicions. Murad sent seemingly sympathetic guards or servants to try and draw out this or that imprisoned brother into uttering anything that could be seen as treasonous.
Any slip of the tongue could result in an imprisoned sibling getting accused of plotting against the Sultan, who was just itching for an excuse to execute his brothers. That eagerness to shed blood was unsurprising, considering that Murad’s “entertainment” included shooting arrows to kill any unwary fishermen whose boats drifted too close to his seaside palace.
14. A Sultan Whose Mother “Had to Coax Him Out Like a Kitten With Food“
Sultan Ibrahim I, AKA The Mad Sultan (reigned 1640 – 1648), was imprisoned in the Kafes at age eight when his brother Murad IV ascended the throne in 1623. While in the Kafes, Murad executed his other brothers, one by one, until only Ibrahim was left, dreading when his turn would come. He remained in confinement until he was suddenly dragged out of the Kafes to ascend the throne following Murad’s death in 1640.
Ibrahim refused to accept at first. Instead, he rushed back into the Kafes to barricade himself inside, suspecting it was a cruel trick to entrap him into saying or doing something that his fratricidal brother would take as treasonous. Only after Murad’s dead body was brought to the door for him to examine, and the intercession of his mother, Kosem, “who had to coax him out like a kitten with food“, was Ibrahim convinced to accept the throne.
13. Encouraging the Mad Sultan to Spend Time in the Harem
The years of isolation in the Kafes, and the constant terror that he might get executed at any moment, had unhinged Ibrahim and left him unfit to rule. Already known to be mentally unstable, his condition was worsened by depression over the death of his brother Murad IV, whom he apparently loved in a Stockholm Syndrome type of way. An early worrying sign was the new sultan’s habit of feeding the fish in the palace pool with coins instead of food.
As it became clear that Ibrahim was crazy, his mother Kosem ruled in his stead. She encouraged him to spend as much time as possible in the Harem with his nearly 300 concubines, to keep him out of her hair and out of trouble. She also wanted him to father male heirs since, by then, thanks to the tradition of Ottoman fratricide, Ibrahim was the dynasty’s last surviving male.
For years, Ibrahim took to the Harem with relish, fathering three future sultans and a number of daughters. As a contemporary put it: “In the palace gardens he frequently assembled all the virgins, made them strip themselves naked, and neighing like a stallion ran amongst them and as it were ravished one or the other”. Until he woke up one morning, and in a fit of madness ordered his entire Harem tied in weighted sacks and drowned in the Bosporus.
When he saw the beautiful daughter of the Grand Mufti, the empire’s highest religious authority, he asked for her hand in marriage. Aware of Ibrahim’s depravities, the Grand Mufti urged his daughter to decline. When she did, Ibrahim ordered her kidnapped and carried her to his palace, where he ravished her for days, before sending her back to her father.
Sultan Ibrahim also had a fetish for fat women. On one occasion, he saw a herd of cattle and got turned on by a cow’s vagina. So he ordered copies made of gold and sent them around the empire, with inquiries to find a woman similarly endowed.
A 350-pound woman with matching parts was eventually found in Armenia. Taken to Ibrahim’s Harem, she became one of his favorite concubines. He also had a fetish for fur, decorating his clothes, curtains, walls, and furniture with it. He also stuffed his pillows with it, and preferred to have sex on sable furs.
Eventually, Sultan Ibrahim exiled his mother and assumed personal control of the government. The results were disastrous: after ordering the execution of his most capable ministers, he spent profligately until he emptied the treasury, even as he got himself into a series of wars and managed them poorly. By 1647, between heavy taxes to pay for his extravagant lifestyle and for the bungled wars, and with a Venetian blockade that brought the Ottoman capital to the brink of starvation, discontent boiled over.
In 1648, the population revolted, urged on by religious scholars, and were joined by the army. An angry mob seized Ibrahim’s Grand Vizier and tore him to pieces, and the Sultan was deposed in favor of his six-year-old son. A fatwa was then issued for Ibrahim’s execution, which was carried out by strangulation on August 18th, 1648.
9. The Sultan’s Palace Was a Claustrophobic Snake Pit
Life in the Ottoman sultan’s palace was no bed of roses – not even for the sultan. Throughout much of the Ottoman era, it was deemed unseemly for a sultan to speak too much, so a form of sign language evolved, and the ruler spent most of the day surrounded by silence. Those in the palace intrigued nonstop, as courtiers, viziers, eunuchs, and women of the Harem jockeyed for power.
The powerful eunuchs split along racial lines, and the Chief Black Eunuch and the Chief White Eunuch were fierce rivals. Protocol demanded that the sultan be escorted wherever he went by huge train of attendees, causing one ruler to complain: “If I go to one of the rooms, 40 pages are lined up; if I have to put on my trousers, I do not feel the least comfort, so the sword bearer has to dismiss them“.
For the most part, the Ottoman sultan’s Harem was not a Hugh Heffneresque playground of sensual pleasures. Instead, it was more of a dumping ground in which hundreds of royal female relatives, concubines, and wives were kept, most of them bored out of their minds with little to do. However, some powerful Harem women managed to wield great influence over a stretch of 130 years, circa 1533 to 1656. That period came to be known as “The Sultanate of Women”.
During the Sultanate of Women, imperial wives known as Haseki Sultans, and mothers of sultans known as Valide Sultans, often wielded significant political and social power. That enabled them to influence the daily running of the Ottoman Empire, the appointment, dismissal, and sometimes execution of its foremost officials.
7. An Ottoman Army Once Won a Victory Without Even Showing Up
By the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was past its prime as an expansive military heavyweight and was well on its way to the status of a hapless giant with clay feet. However, the Ottoman military in the late 1700s still retained an aura of prestige from past accomplishments. That was enough in at least one instance to gain it a victory without even showing up.
During the Austro-Turkish War of 1787 – 1791, it happened between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. That conflict witnessed one of history’s most catastrophic, and farcical, friendly fire incidents. It occurred in the Battle of Karansebes, in 1788. During that engagement, an Austrian Habsburg army killed and wounded over 10,000 of its own men, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy in sight.
The Austrian Habsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire. Their army, reflecting that diversity, was made of units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were rip-roaring drunk.
While the hussars were getting smashed, back in their camp, the Austrian commander grew concerned when the scouts were late in returning. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars, and demanded a share of the schnapps. The hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and it escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman had the clever idea of pranking the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the inebriated hussars to pick up the cry, and flee in panic while screaming “Turci! Turci!“. They were joined by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm had been a prank shouted by one of their comrades. It got worse.
While the fracas between drunken hussars and infantrymen was going on, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams across the river. When the mob of panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries, who shouted at them to “Halt! Halt!“. That was misheard by some non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!” In the ensuing tumult, an artillery officer reasoned that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire.
As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Ottoman army arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded Habsburgs.
4. The Ottoman Empire Tried to Reform, But Couldn’t
By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had entered a period of terminal decline. The days of dynamic sultans and military prowess were long gone. Mediocre and inept rulers succeeded each other, while military defeats and a steady shrinking of Ottoman territory became the norm. What had once been a vibrant state was reduced to a backward realm that came to be known as “The Sick Man of Europe”. It owed its continued existence not to its own abilities, but to the inability of European powers to agree on how to divide it amongst themselves.
In the mid-nineteenth century, structural reforms were attempted, with the hope of liberalizing and modernizing the crumbling Ottoman Empire. They foundered on the rocks of religious and social conservatism, inertia, and entrenched corruption that resisted all efforts at cleaning up the system. So the Ottomans staggered on, going from setback to setback, until World War I, when they joined the wrong side, and effectively signed the empire’s death warrant.
The Ottoman army’s greatest defeat in WWI occurred when it fell to the same bluff on the same field as that of one of history’s earliest battles. The Battle of Megiddo, 1457 BC, is the earliest recorded battle for which we have reliable details. It took place between an Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Thutmose III, and a coalition of rebellious Canaanite states seeking to free themselves of vassalage to Egypt. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, an important hub at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Thutmose advanced from Egypt at the head of a strong army to Yaham.
From Yaham, he had the choice of three routes: a southern one via Taanach, a northern route via Yoqneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo (see map above). The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, entailing passage through narrow ravines in which an approaching army would have to advance single file, vulnerable to being bottled up front and rear. Thutmose’s choice was repeated by another army over three millennia later, with results that would doom the Ottoman Empire.
2. The Ottoman Army Fell For a Reprisal of the Ancient Battle of Megiddo
Pharaoh Thutmose III realized that the central route to Megiddo was so obviously dangerous, that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also guessed that the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to be so foolhardy as to court disaster by running such an obvious risk. So Thutmose took the central route. As he had guessed, it was unguarded, and the Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected, caught the Canaanites off guard, and won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony for centuries.
3375 years later, in WWI, General Allenby, an avid student of ancient history, was confronted with the same choice as Thutmose III as he led a British army against entrenched Ottomans and Germans entrenched in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpectedly in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.
Six centuries – the lifetime of the Ottoman Empire – is a long time. The Ottoman dynasty had already established itself when the Black Death raged in the mid-fourteenth century, and it was still around as WWI raged in the twentieth century. During that span, Ottoman troops went from fighting against the Byzantine Empire with bows and arrows, to fighting against the British Empire with machine guns, modern artillery, and airplanes.
Defeat in WWI and its immediate aftermath finished off the Ottomans. After the war, the last sultan, Mehmet VI, signed a peace treaty that was seen as a humiliating betrayal by Turkish nationalists in Anatolia, the empire’s heartland. A nationalist opposition led by Mustafa Kemal (later surnamed “Ataturk”, or Father of the Turks) waged a successful Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). By the time the dust had settled, Mehmet VI had been forced to abdicate, bringing to an end the Ottoman Empire, whose Turk heartland became The Republic of Turkey.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading