sultans of swing: grim tunes

The beheaded and the beholden. The Grand Seraglio. Within its walls the Turkish Sultans sought the answer to a perplexing and ancient question: Can absolute power bring absolute bliss? It brought a lot of absolutes to be sure, and the gesture of posing the questions confirmed the inevitable negative response. Still, they went through the motions of the exercise…

---Ottoman Entertainers in Levni's Surname-i Vehbi (Book of God's Generosity)---Read More:

When the Sultans decided that this or that vizier must go, their method of dispatching him was often bizarre. Murad IV used to send for the victim, entertain him with a particularly nice feast, and then hand him a black robe and call in the executioner. A number of Sultans gave the condemned man an opportunity to save himself if he could run faster than the executioner from the inner palace to a certain gate on the Marmara shore. If he won the race, which rarely happened, he was allowed to keep on going through the gate and into exile.

Dumas:From the middle of the eighteenth century Turkey had been a prey to the political gangrene of which she is vainly trying to cure herself to-day, and which, before long, will dismember her in the sight of all Europe. Anarchy and disorder reigned from one end of the empire to the other. The Osmanli race, bred on conquest alone, proved good for nothing when conquest failed. It naturally therefore came to pass when Sobieski, who saved Christianity under the walls of Vienna, as before his time Charles Martel had saved it on the plains of Poitiers, had set bounds to the wave of Mussulman westward invasion, and definitely fixed a limit which it should not pass, that the Osmanli warlike instincts recoiled upon themselves. The haughty descendants of Ortogrul, who considered themselves born to command, seeing victory forsake them, fell back upon tyranny.---Read More:

Sultan Ahmed I, wishing to dispose of the Grand Vizier, one Nassuf Pasha, sent him two letters by the hand of the chief executioner. The first one asked to return the Seals of the Empire, the seals being the symbol of office. This was followed by a second letter, asking him to send his head by the executioner, the person who gave him the note. Michel Baudier, who reported this story in the West, observed, ” this command was rough, and the style of the letter troublesome, yet he must obey. Nassuf suffered himself to be strangled and the head executioner carried away his head in view of all his great family, whereof the least scullions might have broached him with their spits. Yet no man moved, seeing the people of the Serrail, knowing that it was the Prince’s pleasure.

---A miniature (nakış) from Siyer-i Nebi depicting Ali bin Abu Taleb beheading Nasr bin al-Hareth in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.78 In 1995, this miniature (measuring just 7 by 9 inches approximately) fetched £ 42,000 at Sotheby's in London. Curiously, in this depiction Muhammad's face has been 'whited out'. Whether that was the original artist's affectation or the work of a subsequent 'religious censor' is unknown. A six-volume 16th-Century work written and illustrated for Sultan Murad III. Read More:

Heads, whether of viziers or of other slaves, were the usual adornment of the Seraglio’s second gate, which was called the Gate of the Executioner. Anyone on legitimate business might enter the first gate, but beyond the Gate of the Executioner no one went except by invitation or duress.

At this gate, which leads through a wall of some twenty feet thick, there is a fountain where the headsman washed up after work, and today there is no sign of what Baudier called ” the seventy-seven instruments of torture- nails, gimlets, razors, matches for scorching… different powders for blinding, clubs for breaking the hands and feet,” which a court historian apparently ascribed to Black Ali, Chief Executioner to Murad IV. Of Black Ali’s assistants, the record says, “No light shines from their faces, for they are a dark set of people.” Foreign ambassadors arriving to present their credentials were customarily kept waiting at this gate for hours and sometimes days in the society of this agreeable crew.

---Ottoman Janissaries Originating in the fourteenth century, the Janissaries became the elite infantry force of the Ottoman Empire. Complete with uniforms, cash salaries, and marching music, they were the first standing army in the region since the days of the Roman Empire. When gunpowder technology became available, Janissary forces soon were armed with muskets, grenades, and handheld cannon. This image dates from the seventeenth century.---Read More:

( see link at end)… Capital punishment was so common in the Ottoman Empire that there was a Fountain of Execution in the First Court, where the chief executioner and his assistant went to wash their hands after decapitating their victims—ritual strangulation being reserved for members of the royal family and their most senior officials. This fountain “was the most feared symbol of the arbitrary power of life and death of the sultans over their subjects, and was hated and feared accordingly,” the historian Barnette Miller wrote. It was used with particular frequency during the reign of Sultan Selim I—Selim the Grim (1512-20)—who, in a reign of eight short years, went through seven grand viziers (the Ottoman title for a chief minister) and ordered 30,000 executions. So perilous was the position of vizier in those dark days that holders of the office were said not to leave their homes in the morning without tucking their wills inside their robes; for centuries afterward, Miller points out, one of the most common curses uttered in the Ottoman Empire was “Mays’t thou be vizier to Sultan Selim!” Read More:

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