It was poison administered by a Jewish physician that killed Sultan Bayezid II as he was about to go into exile, they said. Maybe it was, maybe not.
The new sultan, his son, certainly had a motive to kill his father, who died 500 years ago on May 26, 1512. The grand vizier might have had a motive, but it seems improbable that his Jewish physician had since Jews in the Ottoman Empire had so much to thank Bayezid for. It was on his watch that the Jews who were expelled from Spain settled in the Ottoman Empire.
He was governor of Amasya
Bayezid lived primarily in the shadow of his father, Fatih Sultan Mehmed (1432-81). Born in 1447 and sent to govern the province of Amasya when he was still a child, he was surrounded there by some of the best teachers of the day and taught how to be a good ruler. As governor of Amasya, he had the opportunity to practice what he learned. In addition to statecraft, he was interested in mathematics, science, medicine, literature and history. At the same time he participated in sports and, like other sultans, was a skilled calligrapher. He lived in Amasya for 27 years until he became sultan.
What historians know of Bayezid’s life suggests it was quiet. The city of Amasya is set along a river in a valley between Central Anatolia and the Black Sea. As an imperial province far from the intrigues of the court in Istanbul, it attracted many artists and writers who turned it into a cultural center under Bayezid’s governorship. The area also attracted Sufi dervishes or mystics. There is a story that the young son of a sheikh happened to write an amulet for one of the prince’s soldier’s hunting dogs and Bayezid saw it. He was so impressed that he wanted to meet the boy. Later they became friends and Bayezid had him come to Istanbul where he became one of the leading calligraphers of the day.
Bayezid eventually became worried about the possibility that his brother Cem would become sultan, but the leading citizens of the city reassured him that he would succeed his father to the throne. They asked him to build them a mosque and mosque complex. Today the mosque complex bears Bayezid’s name in Amasya, but it was actually built by his son Ahmed who succeeded him as governor.
With the death of Fatih Sultan Mehmed, Bayezid had to compete with his brother, Cem Sultan. This overshadowed the first years of his reign when Cem failed in his attempt to capture the throne and fled into the hands of western powers which were only too glad to use him against his brother. Bayezid paid a huge amount of money to ensure his brother was kept in the west. Cem, the warrior poet, became the stuff of western romance and until he died in 1495 in Italy, he was a source of concern for Bayezid and a constant threat to his throne.
Bayezid’s time in Amasya instilled in him a greater interest in domestic matters than the expansion of the empire. While he gave the appearance of being weak and easily controllable, Bayezid did possess a line over which one couldn’t step. While on the throne Bayezid continued to foster his interest in art and culture, and collected many calligraphers, painters, writers and religious figures around his court. However, he did not follow his illustrious father in encouraging western artists to come to Istanbul. He was very religious and particularly conscientious in following Shariah law, earning him the name of Adil (The Just).
Bayezid himself built two mosques and mosque complexes in his own name. One is located just outside of Edirne, which has been praised for its advanced medical services, and the other is on the third hill in Istanbul between what is now Istanbul University and the Grand Bazaar. It was at Bayezid’s command that Galatasaray (the Palace of Galata) was built as an educational institution to train the young boys who would eventually serve the state.
Although Bayezid was apparently not very enamored with war he still sent his armies out to quell rebellions and conquer new territory, such as the remaining area of the Peloponnese which had not been under Ottoman control. He turned part of the latter into a naval power for the eastern Mediterranean.
He sent fleet to rescue Jews and Arabs
When the Spaniards decided to expel the Jews and Arabs from their country, it was Bayezid who sent the Ottoman fleet to rescue those trying to escape. It is estimated that he brought close to 100,000 to Istanbul and Thessaloniki, where there was already a sizeable community of Jews and Arabs. He also instructed his governors in all the provinces to assist them in their resettlement.
As he grew older, Bayezid became ill and lost whatever influence he had once had over the Janissaries. This emboldened his son Selim I to persuade the Janissaries to his side. With their support he entered Istanbul and overthrew his father, who had become too ill to protest on April 24, 1512. Bayezid was exiled, but didn’t make it beyond Büyükçekmece where he died. It was thought at the time, because of his symptoms, that his Jewish doctor might have poisoned him on his son’s orders, but that seems very doubtful. After all, he had been ill for several years. His son buried him at the mosque he built in Istanbul where one of his daughters is buried next to him.
As for the son who overthrew him, Selim I proved to be a more than capable military leader and a highly skilled poet. “Among the Ottoman sultans Yavuz Selim is without a doubt the greatest sultan,” Prof. Dr. İskender Pala has said. During his short reign, which lasted from 1512 to 1520, Selim tripled the size of the empire and left the basis for the golden age of the Ottomans to his young son, Süleyman.