Ottoman executioners were never noted for their mercy; just ask the teenage Sultan Osman II, who in May 1622 suffered an excruciating death, “by compression of the testicles,” at the hands of a wrestler-cum-assassin by the name of Pehlivan. There was reason for this ruthlessness, however; for much of its history (the most successful bit, in fact), the Turkish empire flourished thanks, at least in part, to the staggering violence it meted out to the highest and mightiest members of society.
Seen from this perspective, it might actually be argued that the Ottomans’ decline set in early in the 17th century, precisely at the point at which they abandoned the policy of ritually murdering vast swathes of the royal family whenever a sultan died, and substituted the dangerously decadent western notion of simply giving the job to the first-born son instead. Before that time, the Ottoman succession had been governed by the “law of fratricide” drawn up by Mehmed II in the middle of the fifteenth century, and under the terms of this remarkable piece of legislation, whichever member of the Ottoman dynasty succeeded in seizing the throne on the death of the old sultan was not merely permitted, but enjoined, to murder all his brothers (together with any inconvenient uncles and cousins) in order to reduce the risk of subsequent rebellion and civil war. Although it was not invariably applied, Mehmed’s law certainly resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman over a period of 150 years. These victims included all 19 siblings of Sultan Mehmed III – some of whom were still infants at the breast, but all of whom were strangled with silk handkerchiefs immediately after their brother’s accession in 1595.
For all its deficiencies, the law of fratricide at least had the effect of ensuring that the most ruthless of the available princes generally ascended to the throne, and this was more than could be said of its replacement, the policy of locking up unwanted siblings in the kafes (literally “the cage”), a suite of rooms located deep within the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. There imprisoned members of the Ottoman royal family were kept until they were needed, sometimes several decades later, consoled in the meantime by barren concubines and permitted only a strictly limited range of recreations, the chief among which was macramé. This, subsequent history amply demonstrated, was far from ideal preparation for the pressures of ruling one of the greatest empires that the world has ever known. [Alderson pp.30-1; Lybyer p.94; Tezcan p.42]
For many years, the Topkapi itself paid mute testimony to the grand extent of Ottoman ruthlessness. In order to enter the palace, visitors had first to pass through the Imperial Gate, on either side of which were two niches where the heads of recently executed criminals were always on display. Inside the gate stood the First Court, through which all visitors to the inner portions of the palace had to pass. This court was open to all the Sultan’s subjects, and it seethed with an indescribable mass of humanity. Any Turkish subject had the right to petition for redress of his grievances, and several hundred agitated citizens usually surrounded the kiosks at which harassed scribes took down their complaints. Elsewhere within the same court stood numerous armouries and magazines, the buildings of the imperial mint, and stables for 3,000 horses. The focal point, however, was a pair of “example stones” positioned directly outside the Central Gate that led through to the Second Court. These “stones” were actually marble pillars on which were placed the severed heads of notables who had somehow offended the Sultan, stuffed with cotton if they had once been viziers, or with straw if they had been lesser men. Reminders of the sporadic mass executions ordered by the Sultan were occasionally piled up by the Central Gate as additional warnings: severed noses, ears, and tongues. [Miller p.163]
Capital punishment, then, was a common occurrence in the Ottoman Empire, so much so 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,” and 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, got through seven Grand Viziers and ordered 30,000 lesser executions. So perilous was the position of Vizier in those dark days that the holders of that office were said not to leave their homes in the morning without first tucking their wills inside their robes; for centuries afterwards, one of the most common curses uttered in the Ottoman Empire was “Mays’t thou be Vizier to Sultan Selim!” [Miller pp.162-3]
Given the considerable demands of the executioner’s job, it seems remarkable that the Turks employed no specialist headsman to tackle the endless round of loppings, but they did not. The job of executioner, rather unusually, was held instead by the Sultan’s bostancı basha, or head gardener, the Ottoman corps of gardeners being a sort of 5,000 strong bodyguard who, aside from cultivating the Sultan’s paradise gardens, doubled up as customs inspectors and policemen. It was the royal gardeners who sewed condemned women into weighted sacks and dropped them into the Bosphorus – another Sultan, Ibrahim the Mad (1640-48), once had all 280 of the women in his harem executed in this way simply so he could have the pleasure of selecting their successors – and the tread of an approaching group of red-skull-capped bostancıs, wearing their traditional uniform of muslin breeches and shirts cut low to expose muscular chests and arms, heralded death by decapitation for many thousands of Ottoman subjects down the years.
When very senior officials were sentenced to death, they would be dealt with by the bostancı basha in person, but – at least towards the end of the sultans’ rule – execution was not the inevitable result of a death sentence. Instead, the condemned man and the bostancı basha took part together in what was surely one of the most peculiar customs known to history: a race held between the head gardener and his anticipated victim, the result of which was, quite literally, a matter of life or death for the trembling Grand Vizier or Chief Eunuch required to undertake it.
How this custom came about remains unknown. From the end of the eighteenth century, however, accounts of the bizarre race began to emerge from the seraglio, and these seem reasonably consistent in their details. Death sentences passed within the walls of the Topkapi were generally delivered to the head gardener at the Central Gate [Miller p.163], and Godfrey Goodwin describes the next part of the Ottomans’ remarkable ritual thus:
It was the bostancibaşi‘s duty to summon any notable… When the vezir or other unfortunate miscreant arrived, he well knew why he had been summoned, but he had to bite his lip through the courtesies of hospitality before, at long last, being handed a cup of sherbet. If it were white, he sighed with relief, but if it were red he was in despair, because red was the colour of death.
For most of the bostancıs’ victims, sentence was carried out immediately after the serving of the fatal sherbet by a group of five muscular young janisseries – members of the Sultan’s elite infantry. For a Grand Vizier, however, there was still a chance, for as soon as sentence of death had been passed, it was the practice to allow the condemned man to run as fast as he was able the 300 metres or so from the palace, through the gardens, and down to the Fish Market Gate on the southern side of the palace complex, overlooking the Bosphorus, which was the appointed place of execution. [On the plan above – which you can view in higher resolution by double clicking on it – the Central Gate is number 109 and the Fish Market Gate number 115.]
If the deposed Vizier reached the Fish Market Gate before the head gardener, his sentence was commuted to mere banishment. If, on the other hand, the condemned man found the bostanci basha waiting for him at the gate, he was summarily executed and his body hurled into the sea. The last man to save his neck by winning this life-or-death race was the Grand Vizier Hacı Salih Pasha in November 1822. [D'Ohsson III, 357ff; Von Hammer II, 33-4, 415-16; Miller pp.140, 145] Hacı – whose predecessor had lasted a mere nine days in office before his own execution – not only survived his death sentence, but was so widely esteemed for winning his race that he went on to be appointed Governor General of the province of Damascus. [Gershoni et al. p.195]
Anthony Alderson. The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.
Joseph, Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall. Des Osmanischen Reichs: Staatsverfassung und Staatsverwaltung. Vienna, 2 vols.: Zwenter Theil, 1815.
I. Gershoni et al, Histories of the Modern Middle East: New Directions. Boulder [CO]: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.
Geoffrey Goodwin. Topkapi Palace: an Illustrated Guide to its Life and Personalities. London: Saqi Books, 1999.
Albert Lybyer. The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1913.
Barnette Miller. Beyond the Sublime Porte: the Grand Seraglio of Stambul. New Haven [CT]: Yale University Press, 1928.
Ignatius Mouradgea D’Ohsson. Tableau Général de l’Empire Ottoman. Paris, 3 vols., 1787-1820.
Baki Tezcan. The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.