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The Sultan

At the apex of the hierarchical Ottoman system was the Sultan, who acted in political, military, judicial, social, and religious capacities, under a variety of titles. It is not easy to gain a clear and definite idea of the real nature of the Turkish system of government. It seemed to combine in itself all the worst features of all other systems. One might well imagine that it had been framed with a special view to give a bad Sultan the power of doing the greatest possible evil; and a good Sultan - if such an one could ever spring from a harem - the power of doing the least possible good.

The Sultan was theoretically responsible only to God and God's law -- the Islamic seriat ( in Arabic, sharia ), of which he was the chief executor. All offices were filled by his authority, and every law was issued by him in the form of a firman (decree). He was supreme military commander and had official title to all land. During the early sixteenth-century Ottoman expansion in Arabia, Selim I also adopted the title of caliph, thus indicating that he was the universal Muslim ruler. Although theocratic and absolute in theory and in principle, the sultan's powers were in practice limited. The attitudes of important members of the dynasty, the bureaucratic and military establishments, and religious leaders had to be considered.

The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was known by his subjects under the title of Sultan, which word signifies a ruler; and generally as Shevketlu Padishah Ecndimiz, "His Majesty the Emperor our Lord;" and all foreign governments now recognize him as an Emperor, and call him by the title of "Imperial Majesty." The definition of the word Padishah is supposed to be "Father of Kings," and originally was Peder Schah, the first part of it (Peder) being the origin of the Saxon word Fader, or father. In his own tongue he is called Khan, in Persian Shah, and in Arabic Kullnii, all meaning the same, viz. King, Sovereign, or Prince. By early Ottoman times Ghazi had become a title of honor and a claim to leadership. In an inscription of 1337 Orhan, second ruler of the Ottoman line, describes himself as "Sultan, son of the Sultan of the Gazis, Gazi son of Gazi. march lord of the horizons." Ghazi (or Gazi) means warrior or raider. Osman Ghazi was a military-political leader and the founder of a new state and dynasty. The first nine Ottoman chiefs all used Ghazi as part of their full throne name.

According to legal phraseology, the title Sultan expresses the temporal, that of Imam, the spiritual sway of the head of the State, while that of Khalif indicates the union of the two. The latter title implied claims of rightful succession, but the career of the Khalifs presents some awkward facts, which render any such pretensions of no weight. Accordingly the true Khalifat is held, by the school whose authority is accepted by the Ottomans, to have lasted only thirty years. The title usually applied to the head of the State is that of Imam, implying only headship of the congregation, as no sacerdotal functions are exercised by the chief of the believers, beyond taking the lead in public worship; but, by an easy figure, it is applied to the headship of the Moslem world, and this supremacy has been widely recognized.

Supreme head alike of Church and State, the Ottoman Sultan had always been an absolute and irresponsible sovereign, free to act as he pleased so long as he observed the commandments of the Koran. To aid him in the government of the Empire, he delegated his authority to two great officers : the Grand Vezlr, who was his lieutenant in all that pertained to the temporal administration, and the Mufti, who was his representative in those matters connected with the religion and the law.

Under the Ottoman system os succession, each individual in the hereditary line, brothers and sons, were equally entitled to the crown. Ottoman princes, called Sehzade, were sent off to the provinces (sanjaks) in the company of their tutors to learn the business of government. When a sultan [Padishah] died, the crown fell to the most worthy successor, almost always the eldest son. But in the order of succession, the brothers of a deceased sovereign took precedence of his sons, as standing nearer in blood to the founder of the dynasty. Hence every Sultan must look upon his brothers and half-brothers as his natural enemies; and, if nothing worse happened to them, they were kept closely immured in the harem. Not unfrequently one of his first acts was to put them to death. Mahmoud II is said to have put to death not only his half-brothers, but one of the sultanas of his predecessor, in order to make sure of the destruction of her unborn child. In order to obviate rebellion or rival claims to the throne, in 1512, Selim I established the practice of killing the brothers of the sultan and their sons (leaving at least one alive as successor) by having them strangled with a silk lace. In 1603, Ahmet I put an end to this practice.

As the sultans still distrusted their loyalty, they locked their brothers in the harem of the palace. They lived in luxury but in isolated conditions. Those who happened to be assigned to rule made bad sultans. In addition, the sultans gave up leading their armies during military campains and abandoned the practice of training their sons by sending them to the provinces. Instead, princes were kept in a special place in the palace called "kafes" (the "cage"), where they generally spent their days in idleness among the women of their harems. As a result, when they came to the throne they had no practical experience in governing. After the reign of Sleyman the Magnificent, there was sometimes a lack of candidates who were of age to assume the sultanate. Under such circumstances, power had to go somewhere. During the period known as "the Sultanate of the Women", when the political impact of the harem was strongly felt, the mothers (Valide Sultan) of young sultans exercised power in the name of their sons.

After Othman's time, the historian's task grows far easier; for the details of the plots and consequent tragedies which invariably recur on the death of each sultan, lose their traditional character, and are reported by the various chroniclers with striking minuteness. From Ofkhaa down to Mahomet II., "The Conqueror," hardly one of the sultans died a natural death. From Mahomet II., 1451, to Mahmud II., "The Reformer," 1808, no less than four sultans were deliberately murdered, and five forced to abdicate; three of whom were afterwards mysteriously got rid of. This same Mahmud II once told the late Lord Stratford de Redcliffe how his mother, the Sultana Valide, hid him in a stove to save him from the murderers of his uncle Sellm III., and his brother, Mustafa IV.; and how, from his place of concealment, he heard those same murderers proclaim him sultan. He inaugurated his reign by a general massacre of all those who had been mixed up in the late conspiracies, and caused over a hundred and fifty women belonging to the harems of the two preceding sultans to be drowned in the Bosphorus.

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