In Pakistan, as in much of the Muslim world, the Ottoman Emperors are idolised, and often portrayed as God’s gift to humanity. This Potemkin view dates back to the Khilafat Movement of the early 20th century.
In the past decade, two Turkish soap operas, Magnificent Century and Ertugrul have sought to revive this view. Instead of shedding light on history, these operas romanticized it.
Alan Mikhail, who chairs the history department at Yale University, has penned a sharp portrait of one of the Ottoman emperors who was arguably the greatest sultan: Selim, the father of Suleyman the Magnificent. He was the grandson of Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire in 1453, aged just 21.
In the book, Selim and the Ottomans over whom he ruled come across as having no better moral character than the infidels (kafirs) that they vilified and attacked. The Ottomans indulged in loot, plunder and debauchery just as much as anyone else. During the six Ottoman centuries, a third of the annual income of some Black Sea cities under their control came from taxes on the slave trade.
They believed that invading other regions and rampaging over their peoples was divinely sanctioned. During one of their battles, Selim’s forces captured an estimated 10,000 Georgian women and children. What followed was an “orgiastic scene of enforced sex with the piteous and defenceless captives.”
Salim held his two stepbrothers in disdain because they were “directionless and morally bankrupt.” They needed to be taken out or the empire would be weakened politically and militarily. More broadly, he felt the Ottoman elite had abandoned the high moral path laid down by its founders. Only he could save it.
In 1509, his arrogance got to the point that he began challenging his father, Sultan Beyzid II, saying that his faults and weaknesses had led to the deterioration of the empire. He also began signalling to his father that he was ready to overthrow him and become the next Sultan. When the father ignored his pleadings, Salim invoked the “shariah” (holy law) and demanded a meeting with his father. Matters came to a head when the Sultan refused to grant him a meeting. Salim had now concluded that in order for him to become the Sultan, he may have to kill his father.
Selim’s army put city after city to the sword, rounding up and executing anyone who was considered a Shia. Finally, the army arrived on the fertile plains of Chalidran, near the modern border between Turkey and Iran
At the age of 41, Selim marched on Istanbul, the capital, met with his father, bowed before him and kissed his ruby-encrusted ring. Formalities aside, he then asked his father to abdicate, leave the palace discreetly, and be marched off to a comfortable retirement. Under pressure, Sultan Bayezid II sought to negotiate with his son but to no avail.
This angered Selim, who ordered his troops into the palace. Anyone who stood in their way was cut into pieces. Finally, Selim with his troops entered the inner sanctum. The Sultan was seated on his throne. Selim drew his sword. The Sultan wept, dropped his chin to his chest, and surrendered to Selim.
In the spring of 1513, Sultan had his two stepbrothers executed, a month apart from each other. Both were strangled to death, so that royal blood would not be shed.
People were alarmed and some questioned his legitimacy. To divert attention, Selim began to portray himself as a pious Muslim who was acting in the best interests of Islam. To cement this image, he declared war on the Safavids in Iran, arguing that the Shia were worse than Jews and Christians. To legitimise his claim, he got the clergy to issue a series of religious edicts (fatwas) to that effect.
In 1514 he set out to take on the Safavids, who were led by Shah Ismail. He was sent an official declaration of war and branded as the “chief of the malicious, the possessor of the land of tyranny and perversion.” As it marched into Safavid territory, Selim’s army put city after city to the sword, rounding up and executing anyone who was considered a Shia. Finally, the army arrived on the fertile plains of Chalidran, near the modern border between Turkey and Iran. A decisive battle was fought there. The results were a foregone conclusion since Selim’s forces outnumbered Ismail’s by a factor of 2:1 and were equipped with superior weaponry.
The fact that he never prayed in a mosque did not seem to matter. He now possessed the sword and the mantle of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and that was all that mattered to the multitudes over whom he ruled
The battle began on the morning of August 23 and ended in the afternoon. It was a devastating and bloody defeat for Ismail’s forces. Selim then advanced on Tabriz, the capital of the Safavid Empire, to “pitch the final shovel of dirt on that empire’s buried corpse.” The city surrendered ignominiously on September 5.
From that point onwards, the Friday sermons in Tabriz were read in Selim’s name. His troops gorged on Tabriz’s famous carrot stew and kabobs in the daytime, and indulged in sensual pleasures with the men and women who they had captured.
Fearing entrapment, Selim did not march deeper into Iran. He withdrew to Istanbul to take on his other enemies of the Ottomans. Selim’s focus now turned southward, toward the Mamluks of Egypt. They were Sunni’s like him, so the narrative for making war on them would have to be different. They controlled the holy cities of Makkah and Madina, along with Jerusalem, which had been ruled by the Muslims from just six years after the Holy Prophet’s death onwards.
As a warrior, Selim’s strength was that he “understood the virtue of patience and the need for exceptional reconnaissance before war.” He conquered Damascus and then marched on to Jerusalem, which he entered in mid-December 1516. After that, he began a long march to Cairo. He covered the 200 miles across the Sinai to the outskirts of Cairo in just five days in mid-January 1517. He fought a major battle with the Mamluks enroute to Cairo and routed the Mamluks. Soon after, he entered Cairo.
His relentless pursuit of territory revealed the malaise that ran deep in his psyche: a desire to establish his supremacy. His grandfather, Mehmet II, on conquering Constantinople, had allowed his soldiers to plunder the city and ravage its citizens who, after all, were infidels, deserving to be put to the sword.
Selim let his soldiers indulge in the same madness, ignoring the fact that Cairo’s residents were Muslims like him, and Sunni Muslims at that. The emperor of the Mamluks was eventually hunted down and captured. His body hung from a city gate in Cairo for three days.
From next Friday on, all the sermons in Cairo were read in Selim’s name. After he captured the two holiest cities in the Hijaz, he gave himself the title, “Protector of the Holy Cities.” The fact that he never prayed in a mosque did not seem to matter. He now possessed the sword and the mantle of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and that was all that mattered to the multitudes over whom he ruled.
The fact that in his life he never visited the Holy Cities, let alone perform the lesser or greater pilgrimages in them, did not bother him in the least. He was now Caliph (Khalifa), the successor to the Holy Prophet (PBUH). To accuse him of hypocrisy would be tantamount to treason, an act that is punishable by death. Why would anyone risk it?
In his eight years as sultan, Salim reigned over more territory than any other ruler in the world at the time. He dominated the globe because he controlled the trade routes between the Mediterranean and India and China. He also had unrivalled religious authority in the Muslim world. He had expanded the size of the Ottoman Empire by 70 percent. Despite all these great accomplishments, deep down he was neither a pious Muslim nor any different from all other rulers of that time who engaged in wars, loot and plunder simply for the sake of fame and personal glory.
God’s Shadow reads like a thriller. It’s a real page turner. The narrative flows smoothly and is studded with eye-opening details. At the same time, the book is a work of incredible scholarly diligence. Major events are thoroughly sourced. The book is profusely illustrated with original artwork and maps.
I totally Failed to understand the purpose of this article, ottomans were spread over six hundred years, narrating one example and judging the entire span of Ottomans is not fair. Like any other Muslim country Turks are very nationalist and very proud of their history.
And good friends of Pakistan. Lots of respect for them and their history.