If you were a man and had the good fortune of mounting the throne of the Ottoman Empire, you were expected, by law, to put all your brothers to death.
The law was less barbarous than you might think. It was a practical solution to a problem that otherwise lead to protracted wars of succession and a weakened state. The Ottomans did not believe in primogeniture. The ruling Sultan’s eldest son did not automatically ascend the throne when his father died. Neither was the Sultan in the habit of designating an heir, and even when he did, could not count on his wishes being honored. The Ottomans believed in the survival of the fittest; every prince had an equal claim to the throne. Succession meant dispute and dispute was settled in the only way it could – through intrigue and warfare – since you couldn’t exactly file a lawsuit. It was believed that the winner (or survivor) would make the most competent and least depraved Sultan.
Sibling rivalry and open competition in a royal free market was common to the tribes of the Central Asian Steppes – the same tribes from whom the Ottomans had originated. Anyone who could claim to be the Sultan’s son – legitimate or illegitimate – was welcome to compete. Unlike their European counterparts, the Ottoman royal family did not obsess with marriages and appropriate royal blood lines, which helped them avoid inbreeding without impeding their capacity for insanity. The Sultans procreated freely with their wives, their concubines and whoever else they chose to install in their harems. Race and religion was no bar either; princes frequently had mothers who were neither Turkish, nor Muslim. The genes stayed fresh and any son of the Sultan could be king.
The crowning of a new Sultan did not necessarily end the debate over who deserved to rule. The brothers who lost tended not to give up and set about mounting rebellions and conspiracies. A reigning Sultan was never truly safe, for even his sons could lead plots to overthrow him. The Ottoman throne was a grand prize indeed – the Sultan was both the absolute monarch and owner of his domain. There was no nobility per se because all members of state organizations owed their positions to Sultan’s patronage. A potential Sultan was a vehicle to glory for many an ambitious mother, uncle, vizier and general. As always, you made your fortune by backing the right horse, but you made the biggest fortune of all by owning the horse outright.
Finally, Mehmed II (The Conqueror of Constantinople), who came to power in 1451, decided to remedy this volatile arrangement. Mehmed, whose was more Serb than Turk (on his mother’s side), became Sultan only because all but one of his brothers were already dead. The half brother who lived was only an infant, but the genes he carried made him no less of a threat. Mehmed inaugurated his rule by having the child and its mother put to death. He realized that an absolute monarch could maintain a stable state only by eliminating all internal challenges to his position. And he had better things to do than fight his own people – like fighting the Greeks and the Hungarians. And so, in 1477, he codified the tradition of fratricide: For the welfare of the state, the one of my sons to whom God grants the sultanate may lawfully put his brothers to death.
For the next two hundred years, successive Sultans dutifully fulfilled their forebear’s command. The Empire flourished under rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent, with a wealth and culture that was the envy of the world and religious tolerance that should have been. Not all brothers marked for death chose to cooperate, as was the case with Mehmed II’s own sons, who fought each other bitterly. The great Suleiman was so afraid of being overthrown that he eventually committed filicide. He had two of his grown sons, both capable men, killed because he felt that they were too popular. Suleiman thereby deprived himself of his only worthy successors, and inadvertently triggered the Empire’s decline. His successor, Selim II was best known for what his subjects called him – The Sot. The Ottomans never truly recovered from The Sot’s reign and those that followed. Mehmed III set the high mark for fraternal murder by having 19 brothers strangled with a ritual bowstring within a day of ascending the throne. But he did accord them a proper burial.
By the beginning 17th century, the Ottoman Sultans had slowly phased out fratricide and replaced fratricide with something worse – imprisonment for life. Potential rivals for the throne were allowed to live, but only in The Cage.
Did the system work? In many ways, preemptively murdering your rivals did alleviate the destruction wrought by internecine wars of succession. The original Ottoman dynasty survived for over 500 years and continued to rule until its final demise in 1923. Absolute power and a system built on patronage lead inexorably to a corrupt and dissolute state, but the wars of succession were kept in check.