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The Ottoman Sultans Who Were Raised in Cages

Topkapi Palace.

Topkapi Palace from across the Bosporus, Istanbul. Photo credit: Faraways/Shutterstock.com

Situated in the heart of Istanbul and visible from across the Bosporus, is the Topkapi Palace, an enormous complex that once served as the royal residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. A major part of this complex was dedicated to the Imperial Harem where the females of the royal family lived including the sultan’s mother, his wives and concubines, their children and the servants who attended to them.

Connected to the harem but tucked away behind a high wall was the chamber of the Ottoman princes. It’s a single story building handsomely decorated on the inside with high ceiling, tiled walls and carpeted floors. Ornate stained glass windows looked out across the high terrace and the garden of the pool below. Despite their splendor, this building had a sinister purpose—it was a prison, meant to keep all possible successors to the throne locked up so that they could never challenge the reigning sultan. These chambers were known as kafes, whose literal translation is “cage”.

The cruel practice was invented in the early 17th century to replace an even more barbarous tradition. Since the early days of the Ottoman empire, it was common for a new sultan to have his brothers killed, some of whom were infants still at the breast. As in many Islamic dynasties, the Turks practiced the “rule of elderness” where inheritance went from brother to brother, rather than from father to son. So all males within an older generation must be exhausted before the power went to the eldest male in the next generation. This led many to conspire against their own brothers, leading to revolt, war and even murder.

Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople in the 15th century, was the first to turn this practice of ritual killing into law, dictating that “for the order of the world”, whoever succeeded in seizing the throne after the death of the old sultan shall kill his brothers, and any inconvenient uncles and cousins to reduce the possibility of a future rebellion and civil war. Over the next 150 years, Mehmed’s law resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman. The single most violent episode of fratricide in the history of the empire occurred at the turn of 17th century, when the newly crowned sultan Mehmed III had all nineteen of his brothers strangled with a silken cord.

Perhaps it was this brutal episode that caused a change in heart in Mehmed III’s son, Ahmed I, who refused to kill his mentally handicapped brother, Mustafa I, upon becoming sultan. Instead, Mustafa I was put under house arrest at the Topkapi Palace, and the kafes system was born.

Topkapi Palace.

Chamber of Crown Princes, also called the kafes, at Topkapı Palace, Istanbul. Photo credit: Ruslan Kalnitsky/Shutterstock.com

Topkapi Palace.

Interior detail from Chamber of Crown Princes at The Twin Kiosk inside Topkapi Palace. Photo credit: Mattia Panciroli/Flickr

Topkapi Palace.

Interior detail from Chamber of Crown Princes at The Twin Kiosk inside Topkapi Palace. Photo credit: Oz / Shutterstock.com

The Ottomans realized that having all male heirs comfortably confined, where they can’t cause trouble, was much better than killing them outright, especially if the ruling sultan died suddenly without a son threatening the continuation of the Ottoman line. In that case, the next eldest heir was released from the kafes and thrust towards the throne. A prince was moved to the kafes as early as eight, and remained there until he died of old age or was called to the throne. The door to the kafes was guarded all hours of the day, but the princes did enjoy some degrees of freedom. They had access to tutors and were permitted to have concubines, although they were not allowed to marry or father children.

Years of isolation left many of those imprisoned so deranged that they were incapable of performing their duties as sultan when the time came for. Murad IV, who ascended the thrown in 1623 after the death of Mustafa I, ruled with an iron fist. He banned the drinking of coffee and forbid the use of intoxicants such as alcohol and tobacco. Anyone found flouting the ban was severally beaten. Repeat offenders were executed by drowning in the Bosporus. Murad IV reportedly patrolled the streets and the taverns of Istanbul at night in disguise policing the enforcement. If he saw anyone drinking coffee or smoking, he would cast off his disguise on the spot and behead the offender with his own hands. Sometimes, Murad IV sat in a kiosk by the water near his Seraglio Palace and shot arrows at any passerby or boatman who rowed too close to his imperial compound. Often at midnight he stole out of his quarters and with sword drawn ran through the streets barefooted killing whoever came his way.

Murad IV

Murad IV

Another tragic victim of the kafes system was Ibrahim the Mad. Ibrahim lived twenty-two years in the kafes under constant fear that he would meet the same fate as his murdered brothers. Upon the death of the sultan, when he was asked to assume the Sultanate, Ibrahim suspected his brother was still alive and plotting to trap him. Ibrahim had to be coaxed out of the kafes by his mother and shown the sultan’s dead body. Ibrahim’s reign of eight years was marked by unbridled lust and decadence, allowing his opportunistic cronies to rule in his name. He spent most his life getting laid, but had bizarre ideas of foreplay. According to an account by Dimitrie Cantemir, a Moldavian soldier and statesman, Ibrahim would frequently assemble his concubines in the garden and have them strip naked. Then, neighing like a horse, the sultan would gallop between them. At another time, Ibrahim happened to see the hindquarters of a cow and was so aroused that he had a golden cast made of the cow’s ass and sent it around the empire with the instructions to find a woman whose rear matched it. Despite his prodigious sexual appetite, once in a fit of rage, Ibrahim had all the women in his harem—numbering 280, some sources claim—executed by drowning them in the Bosporus.

Ibrahim the Mad

Ibrahim the Mad

The adverse effect of spending long years in confinement is well documented. When Suleyman II ascended to the throne in 1687, after thirty-six years in the kafes of Topkapi palace, he said upon release: “If my death has been commanded, say so…Since my childhood, I have suffered forty years of imprisonment. It is better to die once than to die every day. What terror we endure for a single breath.”

The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI Vahidettin, was aged 56 when he finally came to the throne, having spent nearly his entire life either in the harem or in the kafes. He was confined to the kafes by his uncle Abdülaziz and had stayed there during the reigns of his three older brothers. It was the longest and last confinement of a sultan by his predecessors. He reigned until the the Ottoman Empire was dissolved after World War I.

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