The Inauguration of Fratricide

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The Inauguration of Fratricide

Fratricide is the determination to attain and maintain power through a policy that condones “brother killing”. This policy emerged under the reign of Sultan Mehmet II (1451-1481) in order to secure the internal peace of the empire. The term fratricide is not a recent phenomenon because it existed in earlier historical incidents, legends as well as Greek myths. In this paper I will be examining the practice of fratricide in the Ottoman Empire as it began in earnest under the reign of Sultan Mehmet II (1451-1481) up to Sultan Ahmed I (1601-1617) when fratricide declined.

This time period exemplifies the framework for institutionalizing royal fratricide and how the system worked to shape policy and stabilize the Ottoman government. Fratricide is a concept that is more or less extremely repugnant as it is the act of killing a sibling, more than likely a brother killing a brother or brothers. In the Ottoman Empire, fratricide was the method to ensure one’s dynastic succession. The practice began with Mehmet II, known as the Conqueror because he extended Ottoman control to the Danube and to the Euphrates.

Before Mehmet II attained control, his father Murad II, tried to abdicate, but Mehmet was only 12 years old at the time. Due to Mehmet’s initial unsuccessful attempt at power, Murad II returned to power. It was in 1451, when Murad II, Sultan of the Ottoman Turks was replaced by his son Mehmet II. Mehmet II was born to a slave girl, from the Sultan’s harem. Mehmet II had two brothers, both of whom were fathered by Murad but born of high born wives. One of the latter two boys was expected to succeed Murad II as the Sultan. The eldest son, however, died of natural causes while the second was murdered under unknown and chary circumstances.

Mehmet II, therefore, succeeded his father at the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks in 1451. It was under him, and at the commencement of his rule, did fratricide make its announcement into Ottoman Turk history. The inauguration of fratricide as law – as it was already implicitly part of custom (Faroqhi, 1999, p. 147) – occurred unceremoniously on the day Mehmet II “dispatched Ali Bey, the son of Evrenos, to the women’s quarters to drown Kucuk (Little) Ahmed Celebi, Murad’s youngest ‘porphyrogenite’ son, in his bath. ” (Babinger, 1992, p. 65).

From then on, fratricide was “applied over a period of centuries, at every change of sultan. ” (Babinger, 1992, pp. 65-66). Mehmet II had fratricide enacted as law, and the following terms were used the endorse it: “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. ” (cited in Babinger, 1992, p. 66) No doubt this one act set the tone that would persist in the Ottoman Dynasty for several centuries to come.

From then onward, fratricide was common place within the dynastic successions. The Chronology of Sultans and the Rise of Fratricide Sultan Mehmet II (1451-1481) As already mentioned, Sultan Mehmet II killed his half brother in anticipation that he may one day grow up and challenge Mehmet II’s reign and power. This could not be tolerated, as Mehmet II was an ambitious person, and testimony to it was his conquering of lands to widen and broaden the space of his power. He was also a Muslim who, through his endeavors, batted Christians and converted churches into mosques.

He did not, however, suppress the Christian faith itself, but with reason. Christians at that time were the largest demography and coexistence and tolerance were preferred over conflict. Also, Mehmet may very well have been influenced by the Islamic rule that Muslims should show respect to all religions. That said, non-Muslim communities were organizes according to a millets structure, which were controlled by the Sultan acting through their religious leaders. Communities were organized in certain parts of towns so that non-Muslims, whether Christian or Jew, could live, practice their faith, and be unharmed.

They had a great deal of freedom to live their lives according to the dictates of their religion, and not be impacted by Islam or the rulers who were also Muslims. Due to this freedom, they largely supported the Muslim Sultans. In 1481, Mehmet II died. Before his death, he called upon his eldest son Bayezid II to be the next Sultan. The Shi’a Muslims in the Ottoman Empire revolted in favor of Bayezid’s brother Cem, but Bayezid would win, but only after a fight. Bayezid II (1481-1512)

Bayezid ascended the throne in 1481, and like his father, he was a patron of western and eastern culture. He conciliated the lands that his father had conquered, and worked hard to ensure some semblance of justice in running the affairs of the estate. Meanwhile, he was concerned about his quarrel with his brother Cem. Cem had claimed the throne as his and was in the process of attaining military back-up, including the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. The latter, however, soon turned Cem over to Pope Clement VII, who in turned contemplated using Cem as a means to rid Europe of the Turks.

This plan of action did not come to fruition, and Cem was left to rot in a Neapolitan prison. Bayezid II did nothing to help his brother, in fact it was a blessing for him. Though Bayezid did not directly kill his brother and in effect save the throne for himself, he did do so indirectly. On April 25, 1512, Bayezid II abdicated the throne. It would be his son who would re-instate fratricide into full effect. Selim I (1512-1520) Sultan Selim did indeed reintroduce the policy of fratricide. Just before his father’s death in 1512, Selim killed his brother Ahmed.

Ahmed was the older of the two boys, and they had already had their battles with each other. Ahmed was a conqueror himself. He had gone to war against the Karaman Turks and their Safavid allies in Asia Minor. He had marched into Constantinople to display his success, but it was there that his younger brother Selim staged a revolt. Selim was defeated and was exiled to Crimea in 1511. Bayezid II feared Ahmed would enter Instanbul and kill him in order to attain power as the next Ottoman Sultan. Due to this fear, Bayezid II refused entry by his son into Instanbul.

Selim soon thereafter returned from exile only to kill Ahmed and to be crowned as the next Ottoman Sultan, after his father abdicated the throne to go into retirement. Suleiman I (1520-1566) Suleiman I, was son to Selim I, and when Selim I died, Suleiman succeeded him to the throne. During his reign, he broke with convention and surprised both the empire and the international community when it was learned that his favorite wife was a captured Ukrainian and the daughter of an Eastern Orthodox Church priest.

She rose through the ranks of the Harem, and by her he had a daughter and four sons: Mehmet, who died young; Selim II; Bayezid; and Cihangir, who was born with a physical handicap. Suleiman’s firstborn son, however, was Mustafa, son of another. His Ukrainian wife initiated a power struggle with Ibrahim, who supported Mustafa. Suleiman had Ibrahim murdered, and when Suleiman feared his power was threatened by the army, he had Mustafa strangled, which made a clear path for one of his Ukrainian wife’s sons to be the next heir of the Ottoman Dynasty.

When Suleiman began to age, his dead was anticipated, and therefore was the anticipation of who would be the next Sultan. The two surviving and healthy sons, Selim and Bayezid, began to quarrel and engaged in battle. Suleiman took sides and ordered the death of Bayezid, who was killed on September 25, 1561. Selim II (1566-1574) Five years later, Suleiman’s son Selim II would become the next Ottoman Sultan. His reign was less than impressive as he admired wine than anything else. He never led the army on a campaign, and did not engage in the workings of the government.

When he died, his son Murad III took over. Murad III (1574-1595) Seemingly with the decline in interest as a Sultan for a father was born the corruption in a son as Sultan. Murad III followed his father’s footsteps, but only so far as beholding the name of an Ottoman Sultan. His reign was plagued by corruption, and it is said to have marked the decline of the Ottoman Empire. That said, he did lead the army into several successful battles, but notwithstanding, corruption trumped any other positive. He implemented high levels of taxation and inflation destroyed the economy.

But it was also under Murad III that made the first real moves away from the practice of fratricide. He sent his eldest son Mehmed III to the province to serve as a governor while the other sons were confined at court, as opposed to having them killed. In the past, certain sons were sent to the province to learn about governing so as to have a better opportunity over his brothers to complete for the throne. Murad, therefore, used this old custom to rework the purpose of fratricide, to something a little more humane: imprisoning the others, so to speak.

Mehmet III (1595-1603) When Murad III confined all of his sons, with the sole exception of his predetermined heir, he allowed Mehmet III to come to power without proving himself. In 1595, Mehmet III did just that, came into power, and he committed the greatest act of fratricide ever recorded in the Ottoman Empire. He had all nineteen of his brothers put to death by strangulation. (Quataert, 2000, p. 90). The shock and outcry that ensued buried any support at all for the use of fratricide as means to maintain order and efficient succession of the Sultans in the future.

The latter may be reason why Mehmet followed what his father did and kept all of his sons at court. The difference here, however, is that Mehmet kept all of his sons at court in an effort to prevent any possibility any of them leading a rebellion against him. Mehmed III even constructed a special compound for his sons to be held in; this isolated structure, which was contained within the walls of Topkapi Palace, would later be called the “Cage,” and thus commenced the end of fratricide and the beginning of the “Cage. ” Ahmed I (1603-1617)

As mentioned, with the advent of the “Cage,” the practice of fratricide was no longer necessary; therefore, when Mehmed III’s son and successor, Ahmed I, came to power, he chose to simply keep his mentally ill brother Mustafa imprisoned during his reign. Further, he imprisoned all of his sons, as his father had done to him, in a “Cage” so that they too could not rebel. This practice became known as the Kafes system. Dynastic Fratricide: A Successful Strategy for the Ottoman Turks? From its very conception by Mehmet II, the Ottoman dynasty made use of fratricide by murdering relatives.

It is implicit in the above chronology, however, that this practice may have had some important. Fratricide reduced civil wars in the Ottoman Empire. By killing potential rivals to the throne, succession was made more efficient and to some degrees more peaceful. Another use of fratricide is that only the most capable or highly regarded sons of the sultan would become the heir. From one perspective, having the early battles with one’s brothers to become the next Sultan prepared the brother for future wars against enemies later, when they were Sultans.

For those sultans who met their brothers on the battlefield to secure their ascension, the practice of fratricide provided valuable military experience. Noting too the point made about sending sons to the province to learn about governance and then the implementation of the Kafes system, through the latter means, sultans would lose the experience gained from time spent as provincial governors, as well as from the military planning they would engage in if fratricide was still enacted.

Thus the Kafes system not only denied heirs important experiences that fratricide provided them with, but it also hindered their ability to develop important skills at all. The “Cage” environment did not have means to provide any education in statesmanship or military skill, and these skills are necessary, even essential, for a successful ruler. Therefore, the end of fratricide may have been the starting point to the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Finally, it must be noted and clarified that fratricide, though cruel, provided the Ottomans with a distinct advantage over other neighboring powers, particularly European powers, which chose their leaders on birthright alone. From an early age, far before being crowned, early Ottoman Sultans had been made to prove themselves by striving for power and defending themselves from external threats, i. e. brothers and/or relatives. When fratricide was phased out, the Ottomans lost this advantage, and that loss was coupled with an enabling “Cage” system that denied future Sultans of any beneficial war and/or governance experience.

Sultans were then allowed to rule, even though they had no experience and were inept. The inept rulers the Kafes system produced were nothing like the hardened and skilled Sultans that fratricide resulted in. These unskilled and unprepared rulers failed to stand up to their European counterparts, and their ineptitude was one of the major reasons for the Ottoman decline. If not for Mehmet III’s brutal use of fratricide, it may have survived for sometime. Fratricide was in the beginning the Ottoman Empire’s strive to power and in the end the ultimate reason for its demise.


Alderson, Anthony Dolphin. (1956). The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Babinger, Franz; William C. Hickman, Ralph Manheim. (1992). Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time, NJ: Princeton University Press. Barkey, K. (1994). Bandits and Bureaucrats: The Ottoman Route to State Centralization. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Questia database: http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=107198074. Faroqhi, S. (1999).

Approaching Ottoman History: An Introduction to the Sources. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Questia database: http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=105281193 Quataert, Donald. (2000. ) The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922, Boston: Cambridge University Press. Karpat, K. H. (2002). Studies on Ottoman Social and Political History: Selected Articles and Essays. Boston: Brill. Retrieved September 22, 2008, from Questia database: http://www. questia. com/PM. qst? a=o&d=109272946


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  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 December 2016

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