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Portrait of an Ottoman Emperor

Seven sadistic sultans from the Ottoman Empire

Sultans tended to be great leaders and reformers, but some of them committed some truly terrible acts | Image: Shutterstock

From its inception in 1299 to when it went down the pan on 1st November 1922, the empire of the Ottoman Turks was a multicultural melting pot that at its zenith in 1683 stretched from the northwest of Africa to the Persian Gulf, from the Red Sea to Budapest.

The top of the tree in this vast empire was the sultan. Many of the sultans were great leaders, patrons of the arts, intellects, and reformers. However, many of these same men were also some of the most bloodthirsty and debauched leaders of the past seven centuries.

Here we look at seven of the most sadistic sultans of the Ottoman Empire.

The Melon Felon - Mehmed II (1444-1446 & 1451-1481)

Mehmed II – known as Mehmed the Conqueror – is a Turkish national hero who reigned twice as the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

A competent statesman fluent in five languages, he also set a new Ottoman family standard of despotic rule. Callous and aloof, he ate alone and treated his top officials like slaves. The role of Grand Vizier (chief minister) to Mehmed was dangerous. He had at least two GVs beheaded in front of him without any warning.

He’d barely been sultan for five minutes before he ordered his infant brother be drowned in a bath, in keeping with the policy of fratricide (murder of brothers) common with sultans until the early 17th century. Then, to put it out of his mind, he also ordered the execution of the guard who’d drowned his baby bro.

In the spring of 1453, at the age of 21, Mehmed took the Byzantine city of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) and made it the imperial capital. Mehmed had deliberately incentivised his troops by declaring that when they took the city they’d be free to pillage for three days and that its entire population would be theirs. This they did. The city was systematically plundered, women and girls were raped, churches desecrated, and everyone was either massacred or carted off as slaves.

One day, it was said, Mehmed discovered that a melon had been stolen in his palace. He determined that the fruit thief was one of 14 staff members. None of them fessed up, so he had each of the 14 servants sliced open to find the culprit. After he found the melon in one of their guts he ate it.

The Grim Reaper - Selim I (1512-1520)

Sultan Selim I was a successful conqueror, leaving the empire 70% larger at the end of his reign than it was at the beginning. He was also said to read long into the night and enjoyed high-browed discussions with scholars and theologians.

But he didn’t earn the nickname Selim the Grim for nothing. Selim became so famous for having his Grand Viziers executed that it gave rise to a popular curse in the empire: “May you be Vizier to Selim the Grim!”. Seven of his Grand Viziers suffered instant decapitation at the hands of ever-present executioners. Sometimes the sultan slew the offending officials himself.

Not long after coming to power, he had five of his nephews, aged from five to 20, strangled, as well as two of his brothers.

Selim left a trail of thousands of decapitated corpses everywhere he went, whether that was close to home in Anatolia or when bringing new countries under his yoke. In 1514 he had thousands of ‘heretics’ rounded up and killed or imprisoned. Three years later, when Selim took Cairo, over 50,000 of the inhabitants were put to the sword after laying down their arms.

The Twisted Firestarter - Suleiman I (1520-1566)

Soon after becoming the 10th sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent did the not-so-magnificent thing of having two of his sons murdered, as well the four sons of a prince on Rhodes (after promising to them that he wouldn’t).

On campaign, he showed no mercy. In 1526, he went on the warpath in Hungary where his forces massacred up to 200,000 people including a mass slaying of 2,000 specially laid on as entertainment for Suleiman.

When he besieged Vienna in 1529, the sultan lit a huge bonfire in front of the city walls and threw local peasants onto it by the hundreds. On top of this barbaric BBQ, he also enslaved local young girls to take back to the imperial capital for his harem.

The Sibling Slayer - Mehmed III (1595-1603)

Upon Mehmed III becoming sultan he murdered his 19 brothers, who were all children, and over 20 of his sisters. They were all throttled by the traditional royal executioners – servants who could neither hear nor speak.

This sibling slaying was not only traditional but was, until about 1603, enshrined in law. Once a sultan was girded by the Sword of Osman (an enthronement ceremony involving the sword of state) his brothers (and sometimes nephews and uncles, and apparently female relatives too) would all be executed in the name of imperial stability.

Mehmed was a vicious ruler who enjoyed watching women’s breasts burnt off with red-hot irons.

The Short-Tempered Sultan - Murad IV (1623-1640)

Called Murad the Mad, though probably not to his face, the 17th sultan was just a lad of 11 when he began his reign, although his mum did much of his homework as his regent until he turned 20.

Murad was possibly the most vicious of them all. In 1637, the young sultan executed 25,000 of his own subjects, personally carrying out many of the killings himself.

The following year, Murad attacked Baghdad and ended up slaughtering 30,000 soldiers and 30,000 women and children. On another occasion, he punished the Janissaries (the sultan’s elite soldiery) for a bit of lip by having 500 of their officers strangled in their barracks.

A lot of things clearly got on Murad’s nerves. The merciless Murad hated smoking so much that he effected a ban on smoking in 1633, and took to policing it himself. He used to hang around taverns at night in disguise, trying to snare a drinker having a crafty smoke. Once the unsuspecting drinker lit up his pipe, the sultan would suddenly reveal who he was and cut down the unlucky smoker there and then by his own hand. At one point 18 smokers a day were being smoked by the state, and some were even castrated.

After catching a gardener and his wife puffing away, he had their legs cut off before the pair were wheeled around the capital on the back of a cart, so the public could watch them bleed out in agony.

He also didn’t like people getting too close to the palace walls, personally shooting people that did so. It was the sultan’s prerogative to take at least ten innocent lives per day, and he almost always did. He once came across a group of women singing in a park and drowned them there and then because he didn’t like the din they were making.

The Seedy Sultan - Ibrahim (1640-1648)

Known as Ibrahim the Mad, at the age of 24 he ascended to the throne after being freed from the depths of the Kafes (‘the Cage’), the palace building where crown princes were confined with the harem (which is better than being murdered, as was commonplace before about 1603).

He was famous for his decadent and debauched lifestyle. He was said to drink hot amber from a coffee cup, cavort for days and nights with his harem, and ride his concubines like horses through the halls of the palace. He even had some of the palace rooms lined with expensive fur from floor to ceiling.

When one member of his harem was seduced by another man, he had all 280 concubines sewn up in sacks and lobbed into the Bosporus. One of them apparently lived to tell the tale, raising eyebrows in western Europe when her rescue by a French ship became a public sensation.

Ibrahim’s antics eventually proved too much for his officials, who staged a successful coup. His mother, Kösem Sultan, was a powerful figure in the Ottoman Empire for much of the first half of the 17th century and consented to her son’s execution. He was strangled to death while his mother watched on from a palace window.

The Paranoid Padishah - Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909)

The 34th sultan was a moderniser, a reformer – and a fierce authoritarian. He strengthened his grip on his subjects through the use of censorship, his brutal secret police, and restrictions on gatherings and movement.

International condemnation fell on the sultan when between 1894 and 1897 up to 300,000 Armenians and 25,000 Assyrians were massacred in modern-day Turkey. Men, women, and children were hacked, burnt, stabbed, flayed, and shot to death. After this Hamid became known internationally as the Red Sultan.

With a number of attempts on his life being made during his reign, he was quite understandably anxious about being assassinated. He employed servants to wear his clothes first to check the garments weren’t poisoned, his fez was reinforced with steel, and he wore a chainmail vest under his shirt.

He kept loaded pistols with him everywhere he went and dotted them around his living quarters. One day, one of his young daughters crept up behind him as a joke and the startled sultan shot hear dead. He also accidentally gunned down a gardener. He rode around in a bulletproof coach, but just in case someone could see him through the window, he would often have one of his young daughters sat on his knee as a human shield.