Greatest Nations: Turkey - C. F. Horne

Religious Supremacy Established under Selim the Destroyer

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


[Authorities: As before, also Muir, "The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt"; Lane-Poole, "History of Egypt in the Middle Ages"; Samuelson, "Bulgaria Past and Present."]

Mahomet II, through his capture of Constantinople, is perhaps better remembered by Europeans than is any other of the Turkish monarchs. Hence the typical idea of his race is taken from him, one of its most unfavorable specimens. The career of the Osmanli had dawned with glorious promise. Their noonday splendor only furnishes us with another instance of a nation admirable in the rude strength and virtue of its youth, but sinking into degeneracy under the enervating influences of wealth and victory.

Much of what is most evil in the Turkish empire, much that has led to its decay, was inaugurated by Mahomet. He was undoubtedly an able man, shrewd and strong, but as false as he was cruel, and self-indulgent, and enamoured of every vice. In the murder of his infant brother, he had chosen for his model, not Orchan and Aladdin, the brethren of the generous strife, but Bajazet, the monster, and like Bajazet he found a hideous pleasure in licentiousness, in the ruin and destruction of innocent young lads and maidens.

Having mastered Constantinople, Mahomet in the pride of youth, strove to earn and justify still further his title of the Conqueror. He easily gained possession of the remaining fragments of the Greek Empire, the cities of Sinope and Trebizond in the far East, and the Peloponessus and the islands of the Ægean in the West. The unhappy Greeks fled from their homes in multitudes, often without waiting the approach of the enemy and without any idea whither to turn for shelter. They perished by thousands of starvation and exposure. Mahomet then gave play to his craft and subtlety against Servia and Bosnia, never as yet wholly submissive in their dependency.

We are told that when Hunyadi negotiated with these states, he was asked what terms he would give them if they aided him against the Turks. He answered frankly that he would compel them to abandon every doctrine of Greek Christianity and conform to the Roman Church. The despairing people then asked the same question of the Sultan, who, less bigoted and less honest, assured them of full protection in their own religion. This may not be true, but it is certain that the Bosnian king and his sons came to Mahomet under a sworn promise of safety and he used against them the very doctrine that Hunyadi had adopted against Murad. No pledge, he declared, was binding toward unbelievers. He slew his guests.

Mahomet II


The next year (1456) the Conqueror advanced against Hungary. Belgrade, the famous frontier fortress, was besieged, and Mahomet boasted that he would take it as easily as he had Constantinople. Another religious crusade was preached against him, and Hunyadi with a band of desperate adherents forced an entrance into the beleaguered town. Then heading a sally against the Turks, the great Hungarian chieftain won his last and most important victory. Mahomet saw his troops put to flight by a fanaticism beyond their own. In his fury he struck down his closest adherents and wielded his sword almost, alone against the advancing foe. He was wounded and carried from the field, still raging and resisting in the arms of his devoted followers. Twenty-five thousand Turks perished, and not for many years did the Osmanli venture any further advance against Hungary.

Never again do we hear of Mahomet the Conqueror appearing in person on the field of battle, nor did he for nearly two decades attempt any military movement of importance. He developed, however, a strong and intelligent interest in civil matters and in art, establishing a widespread system of law and life among his people. Religious doctrine he placed under the charge of a special order of learned men called mufti. The whole system of government was made so elaborate and minute that it had much to do with checking the progress of the Turkish race. It took away the necessity and also the incentive to initiate new methods of action, it destroyed the power of invention, and the "march of civilization" ceased. The Turks remain to-day almost exactly where Mahomet II left them.

In middle age the Conqueror turned again to military glory, but sought it along an easier path. Hunyadi was long dead, but Murad's other great antagonist, Scanderbeg, still reigned over Albania. The strife between him and the Turks had never wholly ceased, and gradually they wore his followers down by numbers, took his fortresses one by one, and compelled him to flee from Albania, which became a Turkish province. When, a little later, Turkish invaders came upon his grave in a Venetian city, they broke open the tomb and devoured the hero's heart, hoping thus to become as brave as he.

Herzegovina also yielded to the Turkish advance. Mahomet then, in 1475, quarrelled with Genoa, which was still a powerful maritime republic, owning most of the northern shore of the Black Sea, what is now southern Russia. The people there were "khazak" or cossacks, wanderers, Turkish nomads such as the followers of Ertoghrul had been. They were at enmity with the Genoese and eagerly aided an army sent by Mahomet to attack Kaffa, the chief seaport of the Crimea, a Genoese colony so opulent as to be known as "the lesser Constantinople." Kaffa and all the Crimea fell easy victims to the Turkish arms.

Finding there was little real strength in these Italian city republics, Mahomet quarrelled with Venice, and his troops plundered her territories along the Adriatic, venturing almost to the site of the venerable city of the doges itself. In 1480, the last year but one of his life, his generals attacked Italy from its southern end and captured the famous stronghold of Otranto.

Only one repulse checked the Ottoman arms during this period. The same year that Otranto was won, Mahomet sent a formidable fleet and army against the island of Rhodes, which was held by the Knights of St. John and formed the last bulwark of Christian power in the East, the last remnant of the conquests of the Crusaders. Both the attack and the defense of the citadel of Rhodes were conducted with noteworthy skill, but the final Turkish assault failed just when it promised to be successful. The reason assigned by the Turks for the repulse is that at the very moment when their troops reached the summit of the ramparts. their general issued a command that there must be no plunder, that all the spoils were reserved for the Sultan himself. Indignant and disgusted, the bulk of the Turks abandoned their advance; their comrades on the ramparts were left unsupported and were hurled back. The siege failed and Rhodes for the time escaped.

Mahomet died rather suddenly the next year, in the midst of the preparation of a vast armament whose destination no one else knew. Treacherous himself, he was always suspecting others and concealed his purposes from even his closest councillors. Consequently the great expedition stood still, and the Grand Vizier tried to keep secret the death of his master while he dispatched hurried news of the event to the Sultan's sons, Bajazet and Djem. These two were each in command of a distant province, and as the Vizier was specially devoted to Djem, the younger, he arranged that the word should reach his favorite first. Djem had many partisans in Constantinople; he was known to be as energetic as Bajazet was quiet; and since, under their father's law, one of them was likely to die, Djem might prefer being Sultan himself.



The Vizier's scheme failed because the Janizaries suspected the Sultan's death. Mahomet had increased both the number and the power of these famous troops. Their turbulence had grown greater in proportion, and now, finding that the master-hand was indeed removed, they broke out into open rioting. They slew the Vizier who would have deceived them, and began, as at Mahomet's first accession, to plunder their more peaceful and milder fellow citizens. In the general tumult, the messenger to Djem was slain. So Bajazet got the news first after all, and came post-haste to Constantinople where the Janizaries declared in his favor, being still angry with the Vizier who they knew befriended Djem. The troops even condescended to entreat the new Sultan's pardon for their outbreak, though at the same time they demanded from him a large sum of money to pay them for their adherence.

Bajazet II (1481-1512) was at the time thirty-five years old; he might in childhood have seen the members of this same troop crowding in passionate devotion round his grandfather, Murad; but those old days of obedience had passed away under Mahomet. Bajazet, perforce, submitted to the insolence of his servants and paid the money they exacted. Thereafter this became the custom, and the Janizaries insisted on a donation from each future Sultan.

Djem, however, was not yet disposed of. His whole career reads like a romance and has been much enlarged on and embroidered by the poets of the East. He was himself a poet of no mean order, and his works are still cherished by his countrymen. He was, moreover, if not one of the ablest members of his race, at least a warrior and statesman of no mean merit. He may well have felt that he was fighting for his life, Mahomet's specious legalizing of murder being well fitted to produce death and discord, but never peace. So Djem maintained the mastery of his own province and raised civil war against his brother. The ablest generals of his father were dispatched against him by Bajazet; and these with all their forces found the conquest of the rebel no easy task. When driven from his province, he sought aid from the Sultan of Egypt and renewed the struggle. Crushed a second time, he turned to the Knights of Rhodes, but they while promising him alliance and assistance made him prisoner. He was hurried from one European court to another. Bajazet paid an enormous price for his detention, and each of the Western monarchs, under pretense of aiding the fugitive, sought to secure his person and thus receive a portion of the spoils. The Pope urged him to turn Christian, promising in that case a real support; but Prince Djem haughtily refused and dragged out in foreign lands a weary exile of thirteen years. At last, he fell into the hands of the worst of all the Popes, Alexander Borgia, and was by him poisoned, Bajazet having promised for his brother's death a reward even larger than for his restraint.

Despite this evil bargain, Sultan Bajazet II was not at all a bloody or cruel-minded man. He only purchased his brother's murder when the necessity of it was forced upon him. He was not even a soldier, disliked war and devoted himself mainly to religion. He was called by his people "Sofi," which means the mystic or the dreamer. Yet he was not without worldly wisdom. "Empire," he sent word to Djem, "is a bride whose favors cannot be shared." He built up a navy which made him respected and feared by European powers, and which for the first time gained victories for the Turks at sea.

On land, his armies were unfortunate. The success of Turkish soldiers depended always on their enthusiasm, on the fanatic courage roused by the presence of their Sultan. The "dreamer" failed to aid them with this inspiration. Hence no foreign conquests were achieved in his reign; and he failed to win the admiration of his warlike people. He even abandoned Otranto, the foothold which his father had secured in Italy. Such wars as Bajazet was compelled to undertake were in the East. He attacked the Persians, who from his time appear in the place of the former Emirs of Caramania as the hereditary Asiatic rivals of the Osmanli. He was also forced to fight against Egypt, then under the sway of the famous Mamelukes, a band of noted warriors who had broken the power of the French in the last crusade of King Louis IX. The powerful Mameluke Sultans repeatedly defeated the forces of the Turks, and acquired some portions of the Osmanli territory to the southward.

The old age of Bajazet the Dreamer was moreover long embittered by strife with his fierce son Selim, afterward Sultan Selim, the Destroyer. He was neither the eldest nor the best-loved of Bajazet's sons, but he early distinguished himself in war and became the favorite of the soldiers, who despised the peaceful Bajazet. The latter, as we have seen, never possessed any real control over his people, such as made the earlier members of his house so powerful and so beloved. Selim even dared to raise frequent rebellions against his father. Once Bajazet was forced to lead against him such portion of the army as remained loyal, and Selim was decisively defeated. His intrigues, however, never ceased, and at length the Janizaries insisted that he should be called to the capital in preference to his brothers. Selim came with an army, and the turbulent troops, gathering round the palace, shouted to the Sultan to come forth.

"What will you?" demanded the aged ruler as he calmly faced them.

"Our monarch," they answered, "is too old and too sickly, and we will that Selim should be Sultan."

"So be it," said Bajazet philosophically, "I abdicate in his favor. God grant him a prosperous reign." Then the deposed Sultan left the city in a litter, Selim walking respectfully by his side. Yet Bajazet must have taken the matter more deeply to heart than he admitted, for within three days he was dead.

With the dethronement of a Sultan by the Janizaries, we enter a new phase of Turkish history. The servants have grown as powerful as their master; the unquestioning devotion to the ancient line of Osman has disappeared. Hereafter it is always a disputed point as to which shall rule, the Sultan or the Janizaries, whichever is stronger and more subtle holding temporary control.

Selim the Destroyer (1512–1520) was eminently fitted to cope with the corps which had raised him into power. If they were fierce, he was fiercer. They slew with little hesitation, he with none at all. They were passionate for war, he devoted his life to it. Once more the Turks became a nation of warriors on the march. In his brief reign of eight years, Selim doubled the size of the Ottoman Empire.

He trusted no one. Among his followers the executioner was ever at work, until the common curse with his people grew to be, "May you be made Grand Vizier to Sultan Selim." The average term of life of these Viziers is said to have exceeded scarcely a single month.

"Will your highness grant me a few days to arrange my affairs?" queried one of them, venturing a jest in the moment of his greatest prosperity. "You are sure to order my execution some day or other."

Selim laughed with grim appreciation. "You are right," he said; "in fact I have been intending to order it for some days, but have not found any one fitted to take your place."

Yet this ferocious man was in his way deeply religious, a fanatic in his devotion to his faith. He found no enjoyment in voluptuous ease, and when not engaged in war devoted himself to hunting. All his pleasures were of the sterner sort. Nevertheless, he was an admirer of literature. A "royal historiographer" accompanied his campaigns, and other men of letters were given high posts in his service. Selim even displayed in himself something of the genius which glowed in so many of his race, and composed poetry of no mean order.

Flight of Djem


A ruler of such varied ability could not fail to make his impress upon the world. Bajazet had left several sons and grandsons; Selim promptly slew the seven who were within reach. Then he attacked the others, until all had been defeated and killed in civil war, On Selim's first entrance into Constantinople as the acknowledged sovereign, the Janizaries planned to form a double line and cross their swords above his head as he passed between. This, while it would show their loyalty, would also be a hint to the Sultan of the power which had made and could unmake him. Sooner than submit to their yoke, Selim avoided them entirely, passing through the city by another route. To pacify the turbulent warriors he sent there an immense present or "donation" which well-nigh emptied his treasury. Afterward, one by one, he executed all whom he suspected of being leaders in the movement. Once when His religious teachers ventured to remonstrate against his endless slaughters, he put, them gravely by. "My people," he said, "can only be controlled by sternness."

The Mahometan world, then as now, was divided into two religious sects, the Sunnites and Shiites. The Osmanli were Sunnites, but the other sect had begun to spread from its stronghold in Persia and to take root in their dominions. Selim arranged a vast and subtle system of police spies who enveloped his empire as in a net, and made record of every Shiite. They found seventy thousand of the heretics; and on a single day, without warning, these were all made prisoners. Forty thousand were slain, while the remaining thousands met the even crueller fate of being immured for life in the fanatic's dungeons. Thus did the holy Sultan purge his domains of heretics at a single stroke. It was a massacre of St. Bartholomew, only of earlier date and, more successful issue than that which later stirred Christianity to its depths. The Turkish orthodox writers hailed the slaughter with enthusiasm. Its perpetrator is styled "the devout," "the just,'' "the humane."

The "humane" Sultan was planning a still more comprehensive effort of religious zeal. The Shah of the Persian Empire, who was, a Shiite, had sheltered one of his rebellious brothers. Selim sent the Shah a long, eloquent letter pointing out the wickedness of all Shiites and of the Shah in particular, and explaining to the latter that he was a reprobate needing chastisement, a tyrant who abused his people, a criminal who slew them without justice. All these atrocities, declared the mild and clement Selim, he meant to put an end to; and he invaded Persia with an army of nearly two hundred thousand troops, perfectly organized and equipped.

The management of the Turkish armies of this period, the preparations for their supplies, their nourishment and the care taken for their health, demand admiration even in our own day, and were centuries in advance of the commissariat arrangements of European troops. Selim's invasion of Persia would have been impossible to any other monarch of his time. It was difficult even for him. His army crossed deserts, and marched hundreds of miles without serious loss. The Persians wisely fell back before; them, devastating the land on their approach, until the Janizaries complained loudly of their hardships. Selim turned on them with furious scorn, and taunted them with having become children, who only clamored for war when it was at a distance. Some of the murmurers he slew with his own hand; then he offered to let each soldier go home who found himself unable to endure what their Sultan was suffering, with them. Not one accepted the contemptuous proposal.

Meanwhile, Selim was sending one taunting message after another to the Shah, until the latter's rage overmastered his generalship. On the plain of Calderan he attacked the Turks with an army almost equal to their own, but unprovided with the artillery which had become the chief weapon of the Osmanli. The Shah was defeated and fled, wounded, leaving Tabriz, his northern capital, to the plunder of the enemy (1514).

An extensive portion of Persia was thus added to the Turkish Empire; but Selim, yielding to the protests of his soldiers, ventured no farther through the deserts to complete the conquest of the East. He turned southward instead. The Mahometan world had long been divided among the rulers of Turkey, Persia and Egypt. One of the Turks' rivals having been overcome, they attacked the other,—Egypt, the land of the Mamelukes, a band of famous slave soldiers like the Janizaries, only that the Mamelukes—bolder than the Janizaries—had long since overthrown their master and established in Egypt a government and Sultan of their own.

Selim enters Cairo


Bajazet the Dreamer had quarrelled with them and been defeated. Hence they despised the Osmanli. When Selim's forces invaded Syria, they met him with little preparation; they were disputing among themselves and considered their internal strife far more important than any menace from the invaders. Through the power of artillery, the Turks gained an easy victory near Aleppo (1516), and all Syria with its celebrated holy cities, Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, passed into their possession.

No longer underestimating the foe, the Mamelukes retreated into Egypt. They awoke to the vast difference between Janizaries taking orders from a dreamer in his capital, and the same troops headed by Selim in the field. The Egyptians placed their mightiest warrior on the throne; they had still the desert for defense, and prepared to guard its passage, to hurl troops fresh and strong against the exhausted warriors who would come staggering out of its burning wastes. But the thorough preparations of Selim thwarted them. He gathered thousands and thousands of camels to carry water and make the journey easy for his men. Not only soldiers but cannon were successfully transported across the sands. The Mamelukes were defeated at Gaza, and again in a last desperate stand at Ridania, near Cairo their capital. So furiously did they charge in this last battle, that Selim was himself in danger. The warrior Sultan of Egypt pierced to the very centre of the Turkish army, where mistaking the gorgeously apparelled Grand Vizier for the Sultan, he slew the lesser man, wheeled horse and escaped. The Turkish artillery, however, once more decided the fortune of the day. Twenty-five thousand Mamelukes fell, and the Osmanli became lords of Egypt (1517).

His new empire brought to Selim authority over Arabia also, and the guardianship of Mecca and Medina, the holy cities of his faith. More attractive still to the religious devotee (or was it the subtle statesman who saw the value of the change?) he became master of the nominal religious chief of all the Mussulmans, a feeble descendant of the Prophet Mahomet, who dwelt in empty state among the Egyptians. This chief "caliph" was induced or compelled to transfer his authority to Selim and his descendants, and the house of Osman, children of the wandering khazak Ertoghrul, became Caliphs as well as Sultans, religious as well as temporal heads of the greater part of the Mahometan world.

Selim himself assumed the sword, the mantle and the standard of the Prophet. Now, indeed, was he armed against heresy. Only the Shiites of Persia still opposed him and denied his authority; and there can be little doubt that had Selim lived he would have completed the conquest of the Persian Empire.

Having organized a government for Egypt, he returned to Constantinople in 1518, loaded down with spoils. He had resolved to compel the Greeks within his domain to join also in his faith, planning to slaughter the refractory ones, as he had the Shiites. "Which is better," he asked a mufti, his leading spiritual adviser, "to conquer the world, or to convert its nations to the true faith?" The mufti pronounced eagerly in favor of conversion; and the Sultan promptly ordered every Greek church to be changed into a mosque, every Christian to become a Mahometan or die. The Greek Patriarch protested, and appealed to the pledges made by the conqueror of Constantinople. He quoted passages from the Koran itself which forbade such violence as Selim's. Even the Mahometan preachers remonstrated with their new Caliph at his excess of zeal, and he reluctantly resigned the truly stupendous pleasure which he had promised himself in the slaughter or conversion of six millions of his subjects.

The restrictions upon the Christians became, however, increasingly severe, and only the sudden death of Selim in 1520 relieved them, and indeed the entire empire, of an ever-increasing burden of fear. The "Destroyer," as all men knew, was not yet glutted with bloodshed, not yet weary of forcing his own fierce way upon the world.

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