The Silk Rope and the Golden Cage

„Bring me the fattest woman in the world.” 

~Sultan Ibrahim the Mad~                                          

The Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest powers the world has ever known. With territory spanning 3 continents and a reign of over 600 years the “House of Osman” was not to be trifled with. The empire was ruled by the all powerful Sultan, the king of kings, the khan of khans, he ruled by decree. Some Sultans were warriors, others thoughtful poets. But of the 36 or so Sultan’s that ruled during the empire, there is one who stands out to both the Turkish people and historians alike as…different from the rest. Sultan Ibrahim I, more commonly known as Ibrahim the mad.

But to do justice to the story of Ibrahim the Mad, we must first tell the story of his mother, the beautiful greek concubine Maypeyker Kösem, and his father, the compassionate Sultan Ahmet.

The pressures of being prince aren’t easy in any royal family, and history is full of eccentric rulers, warped by a childhood spent under a golden thumb. But the stakes in the house of Osman were higher then in any other. Unlike other royal families which practiced primogeniture (the right of the first born son to rule) the Osman clan left things a bit more open ended. The Sultan often fathered anywhere from a dozen to over a hundred children during his rule, and upon his death, all were eligible for the throne. Truth is, for 9 out of a 10, being born to a Sultan was a death curse.

When the Sultan died a sort of deadly musical chairs for would-be Sultans began. Often, the son who was closest to the throne at the time of the Sultans death, literally the one nearest in physical distance from the throne, would become the new Sultan by jumping into the chair and declaring himself so. Upon ascending to the throne, the triumphant new Sultan would shout his first decree, usually something like “All my brothers are to be immediately killed.”

An army of deadly eunuchs would then be sent forth to do just that. All brothers, including infant children, and mothers carrying as of yet unborn brothers were quickly eliminated. (These eunuch assassins were curious in that, in addition to having been castrated, they had also had their eardrums poked out, so as not to hear the screams of their victims, and their tongues split, so that they could not speak of their dastardly deeds. The preferred method for royal fratricide was strangulation by silk rope…a classy way to go at least.)

Royal fratricide was the standard and regarded as simply part of the bargain. Sultan Mehmed III had some nineteen (although wikipedia puts it at an even higher 27) of his pre-teen brothers killed, and seven concubines pregnant with possible nephews stuffed in sacks and thrown into the Bosporus.

Sultan Selim the Grim had a couple brothers, a handful of nephews, and some five dozen other relatives offed. Earning his nickname “Grim” he even killed four out of his five sons so his favorite son Suleiman, would be sure to inherit the throne. (Suleiman went on to be a the great Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.)

So far the policy of brother killing was working out great. But it had one major drawback; it nearly wiped out the Osman family line. Once the Sultan had killed all his brothers it was up to him to carry on the Osman name, a risky business. (No doubt one of the reasons for the creation of Sultan Paste, known today as Turkish Viagra, an herbal aphrodisiac and energy booster. Perfect for the Sultan, tired after a long day of fratricide.)

All of this changed in 1590 with the rule of Ahmet I. Ahmet’s (or Ahmed, depending) name is one familiar to most visitors in Istanbul. He is well known for commissioning the building of the the amazing Sultan Ahmet Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque. In fact, the entire old town of Istanbul is also known by his name, as the Sultanahmet district. Ahmet was a kind ruler, and was very much in love with a young and beautiful greek girl named Maypeyker Kösem. Kösem, however, was more then just beautiful, she was cunning, brilliant and hungry for power.

Sultan Ahmet I left another legacy besides the Blue Mosque. Ahmet was the first Sultan to break with the practice of royal fratricide. Ahmet had grown up with a slightly retarded brother named Mustafa. Ahmet was well known for his compassion, and when it came time to have his mildly retarded brother Mustafa done in, he just couldn’t do it.

Instead the childish Mustafa lived with his grandmother in a single room of the Harem known as the Kafe or the Golden Cage. A special room, it had windows only on the second floor, and a slot for delivering food. Though it was beautifully decorated on the inside, it was merely an exquisite prison cell.

For the first time in Ottoman history a royal brother was spared the silk rope and allowed to live. This simple act of kindness was to change the way the entire Osman line of succession worked and Mustafa would be the first of many royal brothers who would spent most of their lives in this gilded jail. Out of the silk noose, and into the golden cage. (One brother spent more then fifty years in the Kafe, and “at least one deposed sultan and one heir committed suicide in the Cage.”)

When Ahmet died of typhoid fever, Mustafa, despite being retarded or perhaps because of it, was installed to the throne. Another first, it was the first time in Osman house history, a Osman brother was made Sultan instead of a son. His rule didn’t last long.

After a few months the confused Sultan was sent on a hunting trip only to come back and find he had been deposed by his nephew Osman II and Mustafa was sent back to the golden cage. (This was the first deposing in Ottoman history.) The young Osman II was then himself deposed and killed. Mustafa was dragged back out of the golden cage, re-enthroned, only to be deposed again by his other nephew Murad IV. Mustafa was finally sent happily back to his safe Golden Cage where he could read in peace…before eventually being strangled by the silk rope.

The cause of all this conflict really lay between the Jannasaries (special soldiers, more on them soon) and the Greek beauty Maypeyker Kösem. Kösem, the widow of Ahmet I and mother of Murad IV was in league with the eunuch corp. Kösem and the eunuchs ruled through the mentally disabled Mustafa, while the Jannisaries ruled through Osman II… whom they decided they didn’t like after all, and killed. It was a time of firsts, this being the first regicide in Ottoman history. (When the Jannisaries killed Osman II they killed him by “compression of his testicles”, “a mode of execution reserved by custom to the Ottoman sultans.” They also cut off his ear and sent it to his mother Hadice show who was in charge.)

Kösem took the opportunity presented by the death of Osman II. Her oldest son Murad IV was only 11, still a minor, so when he took the throne, the seductive Kösem became official regent of the Ottoman empire. It is a notable peculiarity that the Turkish and Muslim empire was officially ruled by Kosem, a Greek woman, for over 9 years, and unofficially by her for another 20. Kösem was perhaps the most significant part of 130 Ottoman period known as the Sultanate of women, in which the ladies, the wives and mothers of the Sultans, held considerable power.

Murad IV’s rule (and his mother Kösem’s by proxy) was iron fisted. He banned alcohol, tobacco, and coffee on pain of death. He also returned to the practice of brother killing, (and son killing if Mama Kösem was behind it) offing a couple of his brethren. But Murad IV didn’t kill all his brothers. History tends to repeat itself. Like his father Ahmet with his retarded brother Mustafa, Murad IV also had a slightly weird brother whom he allowed to live. His name was Ibrahim.

Murad IV was determined not to make the same mistake his father had with Mustafa. Murad IV ordered that upon his death, his weird brother Ibrahim was to be killed as well. All fine and well, except had these orders be carried out the Osman line would have ended. It seems Murad IV would have rather seen the end of the house of Osman, then have the mad Ibrahim as Sultan.

Murad died at the age of 27 of cirrhosis of the liver (Ironically, the prohibition crazy Murad may have been a closet alcoholic.) As Murad IV lay on his death bed his mother Kösem lied to him, saying that Ibrahim had already been strangled. Happy at the news, Murad IV died smiling. After Murad’s death Kösem promptly placed Ibrahim onto the throne.

Ibrahim was in no shape to rule a nation. Odd to begin with, it didn’t help that he had spent his entire life living as a prisoner in the golden cage, staring longingly out the unreachable stained glass windows. Inside the prince was kept company by a few deaf-mute servants, and a couple of harem girls, barren ones, to prevent him from fathering possible heirs to the throne. (The servants were, by default, prisoners as well.)

Ibrahim also lived under the constant and reasonable fear of deaf-mute eunuchs throttling him with a silk rope. So it makes sense that when guards showed up to bring him to the throne, he refused to go, thinking it was a trick. Ibrahim wouldn’t even open the door until Murad’s body was produced, and his mother Kösem had to “coax him out as if cajoling a kitten with food”. When Ibrahim was finally convinced that he was not about to be garroted to death, he ran deliriously through the halls screaming “the butcher is dead”, “the butcher of the empire is dead.”

Suddenly out of the cage and the supreme ruler of an enormous empire, Ibrahim barely knew what to do with himself. While his mom did most of the actual decision making, Ibrahim busied himself with his new harem. He first decorated his room with mirrors so that he might get a better view of himself in action. He then called the girls in. Dimitri Cantemir wrote in his History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire,

“In the palace gardens he frequently assembled all the virgins, made them strip themselves naked, and neighing like a stallion ran amongst them and as it were ravished one or the other, kicking or struggling by his order.”

Ibrahim loved forbidden fruit and when he was refused the hand in marriage of the daughter of the Mufti, the highest religious authority in the empire, he decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Ibrahim had the girl kidnapped, had his way with her, and sent her back to the mufti a few days later.

When not getting into lady trouble, the Sultan kept himself busy soaking his beard in expensive ambergris (nice smelling whale vomit, and a Curious Expeditions favorite), dressing himself in furs, feeding gold coins to the fish in the Bosphorus, and taking potshots at civilians with his royal crossbow…all was not well in the Ottoman empire.

Ibrahim’s harem was full of young, nubile, girls from around the world. But after a while, the slender things from Russia and the Balkans didn’t do it for him anymore. One day Ibrahim happened to see the genitalia of a female cow. Pleased by what he saw, Ibrahim had a gold cast made and, hoping to find a human match to the bovine privates, he ordered his aides to “bring him the fattest woman in the world.” They did their best, finding a 300 pound Armenian girl named “Sugar Cube” (Sechir Para or more literally translated “Sweet Lump of Sugar”).

Ibrahim loved her, and spent many a night curled in her large arms. It wasn’t long until the big woman had gained power over Ibrahim equal only to that of her girth. It would be Sugar Cube who would spell the final downfall of Ibrahim the Mad.

Sugar Cube told Ibrahim that a member of his concubine was sleeping with an outsider and conspiring against him. The paranoid Ibrahim, decided to clean house and had the majority of his harem, some 280 girls, tied up in sacks and drowned in the river. (Though this may be an apocryphal story, it is easy to believe that the unstable Ibrahim might have had at least a number of his own harem killed.) This worried his mother Kösem, who was actually ruling the foundering empire. Concerned about Sugar Cube’s rising power, she in turn had Sugar Cube strangled. The palace was indeed a rough place.

(There is an also alternate story of Sugar Cube’s end. According to Charles Kimball, “Sugar was allowed to live, at first. She remarried, something few sultanas were allowed to do, and when her second husband died, she became the most exclusive prostitute in Constantinople. She specialized in buying young girls, training them in singing, dancing, and other arts, and hired them out to whoever could afford her fees. They knew her everywhere as “the Filthy Sultana.” One day one of her many enemies caught up with her and poisoned her coffee with chopped hair and ground glass, causing a long and painful death.”)

The Haram drowning, or at least the rumor of it, was the last straw for the incensed and alienated empire. With permission from Kösem, the Grand Mufti whose daughter Ibrahim had had his way with, lead the overthrow. Ibrahim was deposed, sent back to the golden cage, and 10 days later his worst fears were realized at the hands of a deaf-mute eunuch wielding a silk rope. This time Ibrahim met his end gleefully, assuming that the guards were there to reinstate him as Sultan.

This would mark the end of Ibrahim the Mad’s rule, but not the rule of his mother Kösem. After Ibrahim’s death, she had Ibrahim’s son, and her grandson, Mehmed IV put onto the throne with the words “Here he is!, see what you can do with him!” (While Mehmed IV was still a child, Ibrahim apparently stabbed him in the face, and tried to drown him. Seriously bad parenting.) In a certain irony, Kösem’s reign would finally come to an end at the hands of another woman. Her daughter-in-law and Mehmed’s IV mother Turhan had Kösem killed and started her own rule of the Ottoman empire. (She was the only other woman besides Kösem to officially rule the Ottoman empire.)

For a woman who ruled the empire for well over 30 years Kösem met with a very ignoble fate. According to the “theottomans.org” when confronted by the eunuchs sent to kill her “she went mad, stuffıng her precious jewels into her pockets and fleeing through the intricate mazes of the harem, which she knew better than anyone. She crept into a small cabinet, hoping that the eunuchs would go past her and the janissaries come to the rescue. But a piece of her skirt caught in the door, betraying her hiding place. The eunuchs dragged her out, tearing her clothes, stealing her jewels. She fought; but she was an old woman now. One of her attackers strangled her with a curtain. Her naked, bleeding body was dragged outside and flaunted before the janissaries.”

The rule of Ibrahim the Mad, Kösem and the period surrounding it, marked a turning point in the Ottoman empire, and the beginning of its decline. The Sultans that ruled were often ill prepared having spent their whole life in the golden cage. In addition, the intrigues between the jannisaries, the eunuchs, the grand viziers, the Sultans mother and his many wives, all added to the downfall of the empire.

Under Sultan Ibrahim the mad the empire was wracked by famine and plague. Ibrahim, a mentally unhealthy man, had turned the Ottoman empire, both metaphorically and literally, into the “sick man of Europe.” But one can’t really blame Ibrahim. Though the position of Sultan had its perks, with it’s palaces, jewels and harem, the path to the throne lead through either the silk rope or the golden cage. Thus it is no great surprise that the throne was, on occasion, held by despots and madmen. In the cutthroat world of Topkapi palace it wasn’t so much the player, as the game.

(The history of the Ottomans is a contentious one, and many points are still disputed. We have cross referenced and double checked as many of the facts and sources as we could. Nonetheless, if you find something questionable, please write in, as veracity is very important here at Curious Expeditions.

It should also be noted that for all the palace shenanigans, overall the Ottoman empire was quite advanced and relatively stable compared to many other empires, including the Byzantine one it replaced. The Ottomans were both more tolerant, and presented many more opportunities for advancement of the lower classes then the rest of Europe.

European visitors of the time commented “In making appointments, Sultan pays no regard to any pretensions on the score of wealth or rank. It is by merits that man rise… Among the Turks, honours, high posts and Judgeships are rewards of great ability and good service.” Perhaps the only exception to this rule was the Sultan himself.)

For more information on the mad Sultans some good places to start are theOttomans.org, and the fun site Mad Monarchs which has biographies of both Ibrahim and Mustafa as well as many other twisted tyrants. This, this and this wiki are all relevant, as are many other linked throughout the piece. Finally, there is Charles Kimball’s interesting and thoroughly researched (though Christian conservative flavored) take on the Ottoman empire.

Many good books exist on the Ottoman Empire, but a few good places to start are
Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin, Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier, and The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923 by Justin McCarthy.

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