From the moment that the Ottoman Empire was founded at the end of the 13th century in Northwestern Anatolia, it crossed into Europe, pursuing the Balkans and then the Byzantine Empire with the conquest of Constantinople. It had controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. It became a melting pot of different cultures at its peak in 1683.

The head of the empire was the sultan, and while many of them were brilliant and great leaders with a taste for arts and reform, there were also some who were cunning and cruel, and you wouldn’t want to meet them.

Mehmed II

Mehmed the Conqueror is considered a Turkish national hero who became the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire and reigned twice. He was an excellent statesman who was fluent in five languages and made many political and social reforms, encouraged the arts and sciences, and rebuilt programs that changed Constantinople into an imperial capital. In Istanbul, both the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and the Fatih Mosque are named in honor of him.

Sultan Mehmed II The Conqueror by a follower of Gentile Bellini. (A follower of Gentile Bellini, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He would always eat alone and treat his top officials like slaves. His grand viziers or chief ministers were not an exemption. In fact, at least two of his grand viziers were beheaded without warning right in front of him.

When he was appointed as a sultan, the first thing that he ordered was for his infant brother to be drowned in a bath, in line with the Ottoman policy of fratricide that was common with sultans that lasted until the 17th century. Mehmed was bothered with what happened, so to take it out of his mind, he also ordered for the guard who drowned his brother to be executed.

When Mehmed was 21, he took the Byzantine city in Constantinople. His pep-talk to his army was that they could loot and take whatever they wanted in the city for three days if they successfully captured it. They did, and for three days, the people of Byzantine were plundered, with the women and girls raped, the churches were desecrated, and the rest were massacred or taken back to their kingdom as slaves.

There was also a story of how his melon had been stolen, and to find out the culprit, he ordered that his 14 servants be sliced open to find who ate it, although that account was questioned.

Suleiman I

Suleiman inherited his throne after the death of his father, Selim I, an equally cruel sultan also known as Selim the Grim. During Suleiman’s reign, he had campaigns against the Christian powers both in central Europe and the Mediterranean. He personally led his armies in conquering Belgrade and Rhodes, as well as most parts of Hungary. He showed no remorse all throughout his campaign. In 1526, his forces went on the warpath of Hungary and slew around 200,000 people, with 20,000 of them killed for Suleiman’s entertainment.

Portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent by Titian, c.1530. (After Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1529, after besieging Vienna, he ordered a huge bonfire to be built in front of the city walls. There, he threw the peasants by batches of 100. He also enslaved the young girls and took them back to their imperial capital for his harem.

Murad IV

Murad was just 11 when he became a sultan in the 17th century, so his mother was the one who did the jobs for him until he turned 20. In 1637, Murad executed some 25,000 of his own subjects while killing many of them himself. The following year, his army attacked Baghdad and slaughtered 30,000 soldiers and another 30,000 women and children.

Murad IV
Murad IV. (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Murad hated smoking, drinking, and coffee, so he banned it in Constantinople in 1633, and anyone who broke the ban would be executed. To make sure that the policy was being followed, he would sometimes hang around taverns at night to see if anyone would hit a puff or two. Once they did, Murad would reveal himself and cut down the smoker right there and then. He would also sometimes sit in a kiosk by the water near his palace and shoot arrows at those passersby or boatmen who rowed too close to his liking.

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