Your father is one of the world’s most powerful men. You live an obscenely luxurious life in a palace that is more art than building. You have an education, can recite poetry, have courtly manners and are handy with a sword. You are surrounded by beautiful women of exotic ancestries and esoteric skills. You have all the concubines your heart may desire, as long as they are barren. You are not permitted to reproduce while your father is still alive.
You live in The Cage. Like your father did before you. And his brothers. And their father. You have lived in The Cage ever since you became a man, day after day, within the same gilded walls, amidst your brothers and uncles, some of whom have been transformed by boredom into lunatics. You have never left the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, having spent your boyhood in The Harem. Each day, you rise to same routine of debauchery and despair. You are sustained by the debauchery (as men are) and a single hope – that the man who placed you in The Cage, your cursed father the Sultan – may die in your lifetime – preferably of hemorrhoids. You pray that the plague that takes your father may also take your uncles and older brothers, for they precede you in the queue of succession. You dream of the day when you, as the senior surviving denizen of The Gilded Cage, can leave, to see your first hill, forest or river. You dream of the day when you, released from your prison, can parade triumphantly through the streets of Istanbul as its new Lord and Master.
In 1603, Sultan Ahmed I ascended the throne and ended 200 years of institutionalized fratricide by choosing to imprison his brother who might otherwise have challenged him. He thus initiated a practice that lasted until 1923, when the Sultans were retired for good. The paranoia that had lead Mehmed III to eventually murder 27 of his brothers now begat generations of Sultans who had never seen the world they were supposed to rule. The last Ottoman Sultan emerged from The Cage for the first time at the ripe young age of 56 – knowing nothing of the Empire that he was soon to lose.
While The Cage did generally keep the Sultan’s sons and brothers out of political trouble, it also turned them into the antithesis of their dynamic ancestors. The new Sultans were often worthless, psychologically scarred by their prolonged incarceration, their authority relinquished to their functionaries. A military theocracy had to have a supreme leader appointed in effect, by God, who thereby legitimized the state’s existence and that of the bureaucracy who ruled it. The Cage ensured the continuation of a single and original Osmanli dynasty – a perpetual renewal of the license to rule – the license issued by Heaven. The Cage was a storeroom for royal backups. If a Sultan died of too much gluttony and drink, or was murdered by his own men, the Viziers, Pashas and Palace Eunuchs who ran the show could quickly trot out a replacement.
And so it came to be that Ottoman Sultans no longer participated in the councils of state, but looked down upon them from behind a latticed window called The Eye of the Sultan. Like his caged heirs and rivals, the Sultan was safely tucked away behind a haze of hedonism, expected only to exist.