Mad Monarchs: Sultan Mustafa I of the Ottoman Empire

Mad Monarchs: Sultan Mustafa I of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire produced some of the brilliant rulers of Turkey. Their names have come down through the centuries; Orhan, Mehmed the Conqueror, Suleiman the Magnificent. But several of the nation's rulers began precarious lives as young princes, trapped behind the harem's walls, never knowing how fate might alter from one day to the next and if they might survive the turmoil that often followed the death of the reigning monarch. Sultan Mustafa I is a prime example of an Ottoman ruler who likely lived a tortured existence from boyhood.

He was a great-great-grandson of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, born in 1591 to Alime Sultan (Ottoman royal women were designated in this way, rather than Sultana) at the palace in Manisa, western Turkey. For almost two centuries before Mustafa's birth, Manisa had been the place where future crown princes and Sultans of Turkey learned about administration and government, rather than in the capital of their fathers, Istanbul. Mustafa was the second son of Sultan Mehmed III, who upon ascension followed an Ottoman tradition established in the time of Mustafa's grandfather Murad III; the deaths by strangulation of all close male relatives. In this way, the Ottomans eliminated rival claimants to the throne.

As a younger brother to the presumed crown prince Ahmed born a year before, Mustafa must have been aware daily of the fate surely awaiting him at the death of their father. After all, Mehmed III had ended the lives of nineteen brothers when he claimed the throne. Why should Ahmed have done any differently when he became the Ottoman Sultan at the age of 13 in 1603? However, a swift end to Mustafa's life did not occur. Defying precedent, Ahmed I did not send the executioner with a bowstring. Instead, Mustafa became a resident of the kafes, or "the cage" - a section of the imperial harem within the Topkapi palace complex, where the Sultan and his household resided. Why did Ahmed allow this, rather than killing Mustafa? Perhaps because he remained the only viable heir, especially if Ahmed died without producing any sons to inherit.
With servants and concubines for company, Mustafa filled his days and nights with alcohol and opium, while Ahmed enjoyed the attentions of his favorite Greek concubine and later wife, Kosem, who was the same age as Ahmed. During his fourteen-year reign, she gave him three sons, except his eldest son Osman, who was born from another earlier union. Again breaking with tradition, Ahmed kept Mustafa alive although there were now at least four legitimate heirs to the Ottoman throne. One wonders at the motivation. Was it genuine brotherly love or pity ensuring Mustafa remained among the living?

A crisis occurred when Ahmed died at the age of twenty-seven. As all of his sons were minors, Mustafa became Sultan. Despite the established tradition of murdering potential rivals, Ahmed's sons went to the kafes, like their uncle had done. Even before Mustafa's reign began, his courtiers and servants might have witnessed his strange behavior in the kafes. He had the habit of "scattering the gold and silver coins... to the birds and the fish in the sea...." If anyone acknowledged him as an imbecile openly, perhaps they also hoped that after his long confinement, the reintroduction to court and the world outside the kafes would improve Mustafa's mind.

It did not. As Mustafa I continued to knock the turbans off of his viziers' heads during meetings with his council, they must have realized their folly in having placed him on the throne. In February 1618, they locked Mustafa back up in the kafes and selected his fourteen-year-old nephew to reign as Osman II. The fickle nature of political life at the Imperial palace did not assure Osman's future; he made the mistake of tangling with the Janissaries, the elite infantry historically comprised of non-Muslim boys enslaved as household troops and bodyguards for the monarchs. Osman ordered severe punishments, including five hundred lashes for any Janissary found in a tavern. Four years after he came to power, they had him strangled and gave their oath of allegiance to Mustafa, who became little more than their puppet.
His second reign lasted from May 1622 to September 1623, during which Mustafa again displayed the signs of madness. He ran through the palace at all hours of the day and night, crying out for Osman, whom he believed was still alive, to rescue him from the burden of power. In exasperation, the high judges and ministers sent word to his mother. They intended to test his intelligence, requiring him to answer just two questions; "whose son are you?" and "what is the day of the week?" Perhaps knowing her son's mental state could not encompass a response to even these inquiries, Alime Sultan agreed Mustafa could not remain on the throne and pleaded for his life.

Murad IV became Sultan at the age of eleven. He was the eldest son of Ahmed I and Kosem. He too spared Mustafa a quick death. The mad former ruler returned to the kafes, trapped as much behind its walls as surely as by the ravages of his mind. He died in 1639 at the age of 48. His body is entombed in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia courtyard.