For almost 400 years, the Ottoman Empire dominated Southeastern Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East. Founded by daring Turkic horsemen, the empire soon lost much of its original vitality, settling into a curious state of functional dysfunction that hid all kinds of dark secrets.
The early Ottoman sultans didn’t practice primogeniture, where the eldest son inherits everything. As a result, various brothers sometimes claimed the throne and the early days of the empire were plagued by pretenders, who tended to take refuge in enemy states and cause trouble for years. When Mehmed the Conqueror besieged Constantinople, his own uncle fought against him from the walls.
Mehmed dealt with the problem with his customary ruthlessness. When he took the throne, he had most of his male relatives executed, including an infant brother strangled in his crib. Later, he issued his infamous law: “And to whomsoever of my sons the Sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that for the order of the world he shall kill his brothers. Most of the Ulema allow this. So let them act on this.”
From that point on, each new sultan had to take the throne by killing all his male relatives. Mehmed III tore out his beard with grief when his young brother begged him for mercy. But he “answered never a word,” and the boy was executed along with 18 other brothers. The sight of their 19 shrouded bodies rolling through the streets was said to have moved all Istanbul to tears.
Even after the initial round of murders, the sultan’s relatives weren’t safe. Suleiman the Magnificent watched silently from behind a screen while his own son was strangled with a bowstring; the boy had become too popular with the army for the sultan to feel secure.