Greatest Nations: Turkey - C. F. Horne

Internal Decay and its Temporary Arrest under Murad IV

[Illustration] from Greatest Nations - Turkey by C. F. Horne


[Authorities: As before. also Stirling-Maxwell, "Lon John of Austria"; Dyer, "History of Europe"; Menzies, " Turkey Old and New."]

The death of Solyman was concealed from his troops by his devoted Vizier, Sokolli. The Vizier was well aware that the news would cause the soldiers to abandon the siege of Szigeth in discouragement; and he was determined that the fortress before which his master had perished should not remain untaken to boast of its resistance. For seven weeks the body of the dead "Lord of the Age" was borne about in a closed litter, as though the empty shell still held its former tenant. Officers approached and bowed low to it and heard Sokolli, stooping within the curtains, repeat feeble words of command.

The fortress succumbed at last, and its heroic defendants rushed forth to death in a final charge. The Countess Zrinyi, remaining behind, blew up the powder magazine at the entrance of the victors, hurling the entire fortress into air and carrying with it skyward three thousand Janizaries. Sokolli announced that the object of the campaign was accomplished, and withdrew the army in good order. Only when the homeward march was well advanced, was the demise of the great Sultan proclaimed and his outworn body permitted to have rest. His authority passed to his only surviving son, the drunken, imbecile Selim, called even by his own reverent historians, Selim the Sot.

Of no land has it been more true than of Turkey, that the fortune of the people followed that of their rulers. For three centuries the descendants of Ertoghrul had handed their kingship steadily from father to soli. Ten generations of leaders, all efficient and only one or two falling below real greatness of mind or body, had established for the Osmanli an almost superhuman reverence in the hearts of their people. But with the death of Solyman, the genius of his race suddenly disappears. His successors sink to a general level of feebleness as impressive as was the grandeur of the earlier generations. One or two of the later Sultans rise, perhaps, to the ordinary stature of mankind, but as a race they grovel beneath contempt.

For this evil change we must hold Solyman responsible, Solyman and Khurrem, "the laughing one," the Sultana whose machinations destroyed all the capable sons of her royal lover and left him only Selim, the worthless child whom, with a mother's instinct of his need of her, Khurrem had made her favorite.

Destruction of Szigeth


The character of Selim II (1566-1574) had come to be well understood by his father and all his people, but such was the absolute devotion of the nation to the house of Osman, that no one thought for a moment of disputing his succession. The lives, the fortunes, and the consciences of the whole Turkish race were placed unreservedly in the hands of an acknowledged drunkard and half-imbecile. Through him this power descended to the children of his vile amours.

The weakness of one man could not of course cause the immediate downfall of so vast and firmly founded an empire. For a time the high spirit of Solyman still pervaded its counsels. Except when swayed by his Sultana, he had been a keen judge of men, and he had drawn around him a body of noble servitors. The venal Vizier Rustem, the creature of Khurrem, had been succeeded in his high office as second head of the empire by Sokolli, the artful secreter of his master's death, a soldier and statesman worthy of the rank.

Sokolli, by a wise diplomacy, managed to retain until his death, not only his place but also his honor, and was the real ruler of the empire throughout Selim's reign and during the first years of his successor. Selim was awed by his Vizier's. high repute, and being content to revel in idleness with boon companions, seldom intruded on affairs of state.

The Turkish troops, however, were accustomed to being led to battle by their Sultan, and their inefficiency without the religious enthusiasm aroused by his presence, or at least by his guidance from afar, was soon sadly demonstrated. Sokolli had conceived the bold and statesmanly project of uniting by a canal the two great Russian rivers, the Volga and the Don, and thus securing for the Turkish fleet a passage from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. This would assuredly have resulted in the conquest of all northern Persia, which was no longer protected from the Turks by the valor of its warriors, but only by the difficulty of approach across its dreary deserts. Azov, the city at the mouth of the Don, was already in Ottoman hands; but the region of the canal and Astrakhan, the famous port at the mouth of the Volga, had half a century before been taken from the Tartars by the Russians.

Sokolli's project, therefore, brought Russians and Turks for the first time into armed conflict. A force was sent to build the canal, another to seize Astrakhan, and the great Khan of the Crimea, ruler of all the northern Black Sea shore under the suzerainty of the Sultan, was commanded to aid the expedition. Instead, he naturally did all he could to discourage it. He did not wish the Ottomans brought closer to his domain, and in greater numbers. He worked upon the religious fears of the soldiers, reminded them of their distance from the Sultan, and explained that the short nights of the north would make it impossible for them to perform the duties of their faith, which required them to pray at evening, at midnight, and again at dawn. While in this superstitious mood they were attacked both at Astrakhan and on the Don by Russian forces. The disheartened Turks easily allowed themselves to be driven back and abandoned the expedition (1569). To the Ottoman Empire this appeared a mere frontier repulse by a barbarian tribe, and not till a century later did the two predestined rivals meet again in strife.

A far more noted disaster of Selim's reign was the great sea-fight of Lepanto (1571). According to some authorities this was directly attributable to the Sultan's drunken folly. He had acquired a special liking for the wine of Cyprus, and insisted that the home of so delicious a beverage must assuredly be added to his domains. The island of Cyprus belonged to Venice, and Sokolli, who on Solyman's death had hurriedly made peace with Western Europe, had no wish to revive against the ill-governed Turks, a coalition of the Christian powers. For once, however, all his arguments and diplomatic manoeuvres in opposition to his master were without avail. With besotted stubbornness Selim insisted that Cyprus he must have. It was invaded and captured for him at a cost of fifty thousand lives.

The struggle left Venice, like Hungary, exhausted by her long resistance to the Ottomans. Another Solyman might have seized upon her territories with ease; but Selim's utterly unjustified aggression against Cyprus roused all Europe and startled the other states into a selfish fear for themselves. What Sokolli had dreaded took place. A Christian league was formed by the Pope, and an immense fleet was gathered not only of Venetian but of Spanish, Papal, Maltese, and other galleys, over two hundred in all. This armament, under the leadership of the renowned Don John of Austria, advanced to the Turkish coast and was met off Lepanto by the navy of Selim, superior to it in numbers, but hastily gathered and ill-prepared.

After Lepanto


The battle of Lepanto was the greatest naval disaster the Turks ever encountered. If we except only the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the same genera ton, no other sea-fight in history can compare with this, in the number of men and ships engaged, and in the completeness of the defeat. The entire Turkish fleet was destroyed or captured with the exception of a single squadron of about forty ships. The commander of this wing, the celebrated Ouloudj All, Bey of Algiers, had protested against encountering the enemy while the Turks were so unprepared. He was overborne in council, but in the battle he held his own. At its close; seeing the destruction that had come upon the Turkish centre, he with the ships of his wing broke boldly through the line of the Christians and escaped.

When news of this disastrous overthrow reached Constantinople, even Selim was startled from his indifference. He devoted his own private treasures to ship-building, he gave up a portion of his garden for the ship-yard. Ouloudj Ali, with the ships that he had rescued, cruised from port to port collecting around this remnant of the navy all the scattered craft that could be pressed into service. The Christian admirals, on the contrary, had, dispersed to their homes to sing Te Deums of victory. When another year came around, there was a second Turkish fleet apparently as powerful as before, which under Ouloudj Ali, now surnamed Kilidj (the sword), baffled the Christian advance at every point.

A peace was agreed upon in 1573. Not only did Turkey retain Cyprus, but the helpless Venetians agreed to repay her for the cost of its conquest. Christian writers learning this said bitterly, that despite all the celebrations it was really the Turks who had won the battle of Lepanto.

Selim died from a drunken fall, and his son, Murad III (1574–95) a weakling in mind and body, succeeded him. The first words of each new Sultan on assuming power are regarded by his superstitious subjects as prophetic of the character of his reign. Murad's were, "I am hungry, bring me something to eat." His first official act was to command the slaughter of five brothers, apparently as worthless as himself. Murad was a woman-lover, always in his harem and completely under the influence of its occupants. His early reign was still marked by victories. Turkish generals conducted a successful and even glorious war against Persia, wresting from her all Georgia and the ancient capital, Tabriz. The peace of 1590 confirming these conquests marks the date of the greatest expansion of Turkish territory.

But the drain which for a quarter of a century had been sapping the resources of the empire to supply the debauchery of its base rulers, now began to be apparent. Not from the strength of its enemies without, but from decay within, came the downfall of the Turkish State. The marvel seems only that it so long withstood the evils gnawing at its root. Let us enumerate again the more obvious and generally recognized of these causes of decay. They were the repressive laws of Mahomet II, which arrested the development of the people; the ferocity of Selim the Destroyer, which taught them fear and falsehood; the increasing number and turbulence of the Janizaries, whose whole training urged them to insolence and oppression; the corruption in office, which was introduced by the Vizier Rustem, and which after Sokolli's death pervaded the entire empire; and above and behind all these, lay the inherent evil of an hereditary despotism, the decay which sooner or later must enervate its rulers.

In 1590 the foreign nations little suspected the change that had come over the conquering Turks. France sought their alliance. Elizabeth of England wrote them long letters urging their attack upon her enemy Philip II of Spain, and explaining to them how similar their faith was to that of Protestant England and how opposed were both to Catholicism. It was a common saying among the Turks, that very little was needed to make the English genuine Mahometans.

The miseries of the people could not, however, be longer ignored. The devoted peasantry of Asia Minor had given of their substance to repeated tax-collectors until they faced starvation. The unpaid troops lived perforce by plunder, while their money was held back by thieving officers. In 1589 the storm broke. The Janizaries in the capital, furious at a new fraud imposed on them, surrounded the royal palace clamoring for the heads of the officials whose guilt they suspected. Sultan Murad yielded in instant terror, and the heads which they demanded rolled at their feet.

If one head, why not another? The Janizaries had learned their power. Twice within the next four years they repeated their clamor and compelled the removal of Grand Viziers who had not pleased them. Rival bands of troops fought civil wars against one another in the streets of Constantinople. Internal revolt, a thing hitherto unknown among the Turks, broke out in Asia Minor among the starving peasantry. The Christian border dependencies were also harassed beyond endurance. The mild and humane treatment previously accorded them was changed to intolerable oppression. Their people rebelled. In the "Wallachian Vespers" (1594) all the peaceful Turks of Wallachia were suddenly slaughtered. Both there and in Transylvania, the disorganized Ottoman armies were repeatedly and disgracefully defeated. The surrounding nations began to rouse themselves and take fresh heart against the hitherto irresistible Osmanli. The German Empire declared war and joined the Transylvanian insurgents. Even the Persians defended their threatened frontier with the vigor of new hope.

Amid these disasters Murad III died in dreary dissatisfaction and despondency. He was succeeded by his son Mahomet III (1595-1603), who signalized his accession by the execution of his nineteen brothers and also eight of his father's wives. The brothers were all young, probably all worthless, and the slaughter deserves mention only as being the most extensive of those hideous holocausts offered by each new Sultan to the evil policy of his race. Mahomet III instituted what became the practice of the future, by keeping his sons in a special part of the palace called the "cage" from which they never emerged except to die or to reign. Their unfitness to do either seems thus to have been most effectually insured.

Accession of Mohomet III


Meanwhile the advancing armies of the Germans, Hungarians and rebels had driven the Turks from almost all their European possessions north of the Danube. Every counsellor who still cared for the preservation of the empire, now vehemently urged the new Sultan to take the field in person. Only by his presence could the fanaticism of the soldiers be once more aroused, their obedience secured, and the triumphant enemies checked. After long hesitation and evasion, Mahomet III consented to lead his troops as his ancestors had done. Moreover, the sacred standard of his namesake, the Prophet Mahomet, the most holy and treasured relic of the empire, was taken from its sanctuary and borne before the soldiers to inspire them.

They met the allied Christian armies on the plain of Cerestes near the river Theiss, and there were three days of fighting. The first day the Mahometans lost several standards and even the sacred relic of the Prophet was endangered. The terrified Sultan insisted he must withdraw and leave the troops to protect his retreat. Long and passionate entreaties from his generals persuaded him to remain, and the second day the Turks made some advance. The third day saw the final issue. Almost the entire army of the Turks was driven from the field, but a sudden charge of their cavalry caught the enemy unprepared and swept the whole Christian array into panic-stricken flight. Fifty thousand were slain. This was the last great triumph of Turk over Caucasian, of Mussulman over Christian(1596).

The Sultan took advantage of his tremendous victory to retreat to his capital .and resume his life of indolence. Fortunately his generals proved able to maintain themselves against the weakened enemy, and the contest dragged on without much success on either side until in the reign of Mahomet's successor, peace was made by the treaty of Sitavorak (1606). This is worthy of note as the first diplomatic meeting in which the Turks condescended to deal with the Christians on equal terms, sending them high ambassadors, consenting to forego the customary presents, and employing toward the German Emperor titles of dignity equal to those with which the Sultan was addressed.

Why follow further the full list of the feeble rulers who now disgraced the throne of Osman? The irresponsible supremacy and tyranny of the Janizaries had become fully established, and their former masters were obliged to bend to their every whim. Osman II (1618-1622), the grandson of Mahomet III, deserves mention because, though only fourteen when crowned, he had evidently some conception of the disgrace of his position and endeavored to reassert his power.

He was a savage youth who practised archery by shooting at prisoners of war, and when the supply of these ran low, he fastened up one of his own attendants as a target. To weaken the Janizaries, he made war on Poland and sent them thither. They preferred however to return and quarrel at home. Osman then announced his intent of making a pilgrimage to Mecca; but the Janizaries learned that his real purpose was to collect an army in Asia and return to crush them for their frequent seditions. In fury they demanded the heads of his advisers, and having secured these, they swept on to the farthest extreme of rebellion. Seizing Osman. himself, they dragged him to prison and slew him there with excesses of cruelty equal to his own. They then placed upon the throne his predecessor Mustapha I, who had been deposed for utter imbecility. Even the feeling of personal loyalty and exaggerated reverence for the reigning descendant of Ertoghrul was thus broken down at last. The divinity which in Turkey had actually grown to "hedge a king" now shielded him no more. It was life for life; and the successors of Osmanli could no longer slaughter their subjects with the same comfortable and reassuring sense of personal inviolability which had so upheld the successors of Osman I.

Murad IV (1623-1640), son of the poor imbecile Mustapha, was the next Sultan, to assert himself. For a time he stayed the fall of the empire, holding the Janizaries in subjection and suppressing extortion and injustice by means of an injustice even more relentless. When Murad ascended the throne the Persians were victorious on the frontiers; all Asia Minor was in successful revolt; fleets of Cossack marauders were plundering even along the Bosphorus itself; the royal treasury was empty; and Murad was a boy of only twelve. In one of their tumults, the blood-thirsty rabble still dignified by the name of troops demanded the heads of seventeen of the young Sultan's closest friends and councillors. These he yielded to them perforce. But the mere fact that he protested against yielding led the Janizaries to talk of his dethronement.

It is evident that Murad studied the situation long and thoughtfully; but he made no movement until he reached the age of twenty. Then slowly and cautiously he gathered round him what little remained of better sentiment within the capital. He employed the antagonism of the Janizaries against the other troops, to suppress the latter. Afterward he seized upon the leaders of the Janizaries, themselves. A few faithful followers supported him, and the soldiers were bullied into submission. A celebrated gathering was held at which Murad himself and then each one of his officials swore to restore the ancient order, justice and honor of the empire.

Battle of Cerestes


Then began a reign of terror, a series of wholesale executions. The Sultan, had kept track of every servant who had ever insulted him, every soldier who had, rioted in the streets. They were killed by hundreds. Unwarned victims were. summoned from their homes night after night by secret messengers and haled. before secret executioners. No man knew but his own turn might come next, and no man dared oppose this grim and watchful young avenger.

Having thus established himself in his capital, Murad made a royal progress through his empire, taking not of the state of every district and slaying every unjust official he encountered. His character has often been paralleled with that of Selim the Destroyer. At first Murad struck down only the guilty, but the habit of massacre grew. The value of human life was lost to him, and at the merest suspicion against the officials who came forth from each town and knelt before his charger, he would strike out savagely with his scimeter. Their heads rolled beneath the goofs of his steed. Worse and worse grew his unrestrained ferocity until it was a madness in itself, and in his later years he seemed scarce human. A party of women were making merry in a field, and he ordered them drowned merely because their laughter disturbed him as he passed. If, as he rode forth, any unfortunate crossed or impeded the road, the offender was shot down, often by the Sultan himself.

Before Murad’s severity thus degenerated into atrocity, it had already brought back to the empire something of the ancient military order and prestige. Once more a Sultan led his armies in person, and the Persians felt the weight of his iron hand. They were defeated and reduced to such a degree that it was nearly a century before they again measured themselves against the might of Turkey.

Murad had no sons of his own, hence he had permitted one of his brothers, Ibrahim, to survive, though keeping the unfortunate in confinement and in a constant fear of assassination which reduced him to a pitiful state of mental weakness. Murad in his own last hour resolved to slay this brother also, and commanded his execution. The attendants of the Sultan, horrified at the thought of the utter extinction of the sacred race, strove to dissuade their master from his purpose, and when he persisted, they only pretended to have obeyed him. The fierce despot in the very pangs of death insisted on seeing the corpse, and expired in a desperate effort to rise and be thus assured of the fulfillment of his order. Ibrahim, being hurriedly told of his brother’s fate and hailed as Sultan, refused to believe his fortune, barricaded his door and swore to fight for life. Not until Murad’s body was in its turn borne before him, did he accept the truth, and realize that his chance had come to rule.

Sultan Ibrahim (1640-1648) promptly proceeded to undo what little good his brother had accomplished. He presents to us the type of Ottoman Sultan at its very lowest, a fool so dull as to know no pleasure but debauchery, a trembling coward who dared not leave his palace walls, who squandered untold wealth upon his harem and thought of his subjects only as the source of all the treasure of which he robbed them to satisfy his immeasurable extravagances.

Fiction is outdone by such tales as that of his “fur tax.” An old woman maundering through ancient fairy stories for the amusement of his idle beauties, described a king clothed all in sables and having every drapery about his palace and even its carpets underfoot of the same rare and costly fur. The impossible vastness of the idea challenged Ibrahim's weak mind. He vowed he could do as much and immediately laid a "fur tax" upon his entire empire, ordering every high official to send him such quantities of sables as in reality did not exist in the entire world. Homes were desolated and officers tortured to compel their compliance with this impossible demand, and Ibrahim long insisted upon enforcing the punishments though he could not get the furs.

At another time, finding that his ladies delighted in buying all sorts of fineries, but that paying the bills was less pleasant, he commanded that every shopkeeper must allow members of the royal harem to take what they pleased without payment. Then, one of his capricious beauties complaining that shopping by daylight was uncomfortable, he further ordered the unlucky merchants to keep their places open through the night, and well lighted so that no part of their wares might pass unobserved by their expensive customers.

Ibrahim was so fortunate or unfortunate as to secure a Vizier who, caring only for his place, not for his country, humored his master's folly to its fullest bent. Whenever the feeble minded Sultan himself expressed amaze that what he desired was invariably approved as right, the Vizier replied, "My Sultan, thou art Caliph; thou art God's Shadow upon earth. Every idea which thy spirit entertains is a revelation from Heaven. Thy orders, even when they appear unreasonable, have an innate reasonableness, which thy slave ever reveres, though he may not always understand."

This comfortable doctrine Ibrahim eagerly accepted, and he insisted upon using it to justify every whim, every cruelty, every foulest abomination. Surely no ruler, no government, could have sunk to lower depths of self-abandonment than the Osmanli had thus reached.

[Illustration] from Greatest Nations - Turkey by C. F. Horne