|"He had grown to manhood in a world of danger and duress. His character was tempered to the hardness of steel in the harsh and bitter experiences of his youth. A ferocious and inexorable resolve to be the master in his own house would henceforth dominate his actions. It is not surprising that in the eight years of life remaining to him he was to become perhaps the most feared and terrible of all the Ottoman sultans."|
-J.P. Cooper, The New Cambridge Modern History
While the Ottoman Turkish Empire still ruled an expansive swath of Asia and Europe in the early 17th century, things had really started to go downhill since the good old days of Suleiman the Magnificent gleefully riding a babe-laden chariot from Ankara to Vienna on a freeway he'd paved with the corpses of dead European infantrymen and the bloody remnants of nonbelievers and infidels. Sultan Ahmed I was the man in charge in the late 1610s, but a rapid succession of unfortunate horrible bullshittery had really started to take its toll on the once-proud empire. First, Ahmed died for some reason. His son Osman took over, and thanks to rampant corruption and insubordinate nobles he wasn't able to generate enough revenue to pay his soldiers, so in 1622 his own troops stormed the palace Praetorian Guard-style, sentenced him to death by "compression of the testicles" (yikes!), mailed his ears to his family in a box, released Ahmed's brother Mustafa from prison and made him Sultan instead. Mustafa, affectionately known to Turkish history as "Mad Mustafa" (which sounds more like the moniker of a late-night infomercial used car salesman than the name of an Emperor), is a dude who's primary claim to fame is that he was always surrounded by a pair of naked servant girls and that he frequently broke into hysterical laughing fits where he'd start cackling uncontrollably to himself for absolutely no reason at all even if nobody was talking to him (which, to be fair, I might do as well if I was constantly accompanied by twin Slave Leias). Despite the excessive boobage Mad Mustafa was, unfortunately, a rampagingly-incompetent ruler, and within a year of becoming Sultan the Safavid Persian Empire charged out of Iran, beat the shit out of the Turks, captured Baghdad, and conquered the territory of present-day Iraq away from the Ottoman Empire. Mad Mustafa was completely broke and powerless to do anything about this, so the army revolted once again, removed him from power, put him back in power six months later, then overthrew him yet again, this time in favor of Ahmed's son Murad.
As we shall see, Murad would grow to become a pretty strapping dude, but at the time he was declared Sultan Murad IV in 1624 he was only 11 years old, and because nobody really wanted some pre-teen punk telling them what to do a bunch of incompetent ultra-corrupt noblemen locked Murad up and spent the next nine years running the country into the ground on his behalf. Corruption, crime, and avarice were rampant, cities and provinces across Turkey either refused to pay taxes or outright rebelled, European armies were winning military victories in the West, and the Persians continued their slow, steady assault on Turkish lands. Pissed off by all this bullshit but not really knowing what to do about it, the army revolted yet another time in 1632 (for those of you keeping score at home, that's the fourth time they've stormed the palace in the last two paragraphs), broke into Murad's courtroom, and beat the Grand Vizier to death right in front of the 20 year-old Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
That was kind of the last straw. That night, Murad IV's balls finally dropped, and he grew a pair that would have made the dome of the Hagia Sophia look like one of those plastic fuckers in the ball pit at the McDonald's PlayPalace down the street.
And he had a couple scores to settle.
In a scene that I imagine was reminiscent of Ron Speirs taking over during the attack on Foy in Band of Brothers, Sultan Murad IV, sick of having his empire run for him by a bunch of inept dickwads, sacked up and told everyone that he was in charge, and anyone who had a problem with that could file a complaint with the sharp edge of his fucking ridiculously-gigantic broadsword. First he had all of his corrupt advisors strangled to death in front of him. Then, slowly, all of the leaders of the army revolts – the men who had executed Murad's father and brother and deposed his uncle – started turning up dead, one by one, strangled to death in their beds or shanked in a dark alley behind a tavern somewhere. On Murad's orders, over 500 high-ranking military officials were executed both publicly and privately, and he also whacked the Grand Mufti (basically the head of the Supreme Court of Islamic Law – Murad is the only Turkish Sultan to ever have the balls to have a Grand Mufti assassinated), and all of his questionably-loyal brothers except his youngest, a psychiatrically-challenged nutcase known as Crazy Ibrahim, who he locked in a prison known as "The Cage". Murad then outlawed coffee, smoking, and drinking in his empire, made these offenses all punishable by death, and closed every bar and coffee shop in Turkey claiming that they were places where people could meet up and talk shit about the government and play a lot of shitty music he wasn't in the mood to hear. Murad restored his economy by executing every semi-corrupt government employee he could get his hands on, telling his police and troops that if any public official was caught accepting bribes or skimming off the top of his tax collecting duties he was to be executed on the spot, without trial, and left to rot wherever he died. Murad then took the money he generated by quelling corruption (and there was a lot of it, not surprisingly) and used it to pay his soldiers, making them temporarily happy, and as soon as they didn't have anything to bitch about he sent them off to war to win glory for the Sultan or die trying, because honestly either one was a win for Murad.
Of course, it also bears mentioning here that even though the sentence for public intoxication was immediate no-questions-asked summary execution by scimitar, Murad himself was a crazy raging alcoholic who once wrote, "Even if rivers become wine they wouldn't fill my glass." When someone asked him about the double standard, he said, "Wine is such a devil that I have to protect my people by drinking all of it."
Then he probably had that guy beheaded.
Turkish Starbucks, circa 1635.
"Sorry guys, I don't meant to piss in your mochachinos here but this is an espresso-free zone.
Nobody's getting out of here alive."
Now, in addition to suddenly coming to the realization that he was the most powerful human being in the world and could respond to any threats to his rule with iron-fisted over-the-top bloody vengeance/justice, Sultan Murad IV was also a gigantic scary motherfucker who was built like Ben Wallace, fought like Anderson Silva, and (allegedly) killed more people than Ray Lewis. A ridiculously-behemoth war-mongering hardass, Murad's favorite hobbies including hunting (he was a crack shot with a rifle or bow), competitive javelin throwing, and wrestling against three or four jacked dudes at the same time and crushing each one of them in half one after the other. So, naturally, when it was time to fight some fucking Persians, Murad IV assembled his army, grew out his beard, and grabbed his own personal Royal Armory: A panopoly of badass shit that included a custom-made rifled musket with a laser sight, flash/sound suppressor, and ACOG scope, an Odysseus-grade longbow, a 130-pound steel mace, and a massive broadsword that weighed in at 110 pounds. Now, a decent skeptic would say, "WTF nobody can go into combat wielding a one-handed sword that weighs as much as Lady Gaga," but you'd be wrong, because both the mega-sized mace and the giant sword are still hanging in the museum at the Imperial Palace in Istanbul and Turkish chroniclers have devoted a lot of ink to the fact that nobody other than Murad could even lift the damn things let alone use them to rip apart enemy troops like a samurai sword through an over-ripe watermelon. Sure, his bodyguards had to work pretty hard to make sure their Sultan didn't get himself KIA wading into the middle of enemy formations Dynasty Warriors-style, but the rank-and-file troops naturally had to respect the fact that their leader was out there kicking ass and sleeping on the ground right along side them.
At the head of a mighty horde of hundreds of thousands of Turkish warriors, Murad IV embarked on his Imperial March World Beatdown Vengeance Tour 1636. First he marched East, through Asia Minor, stopping at every single city that had refused to pay taxes and either deposing, executing, or otherwise horribly mutilating the city leadership for failing to appropriately Kneel Before Zod. When he left Anatolia he quelled a rebellion in Lebanon by crushing their army, having their leaders beheaded and dragged through the streets, then hanging their impaled corpses outside the city. Next he headed up into Azerbaijan, where he kicked the shit out of the Persians in the Caucasus Mountains, massacring their armies and capturing a few cities before swinging south and assaulted Baghdad. The City of Peace held out for about forty-five seconds before Murad IV personally knocked down the door by throwing his mace at it like Thor's Hammer punching through a sheet of construction paper, storming his troops through the breach and putting the entire Persian population of the city to the sword. The Persian commanders were marched through Istanbul in chains, and their rulers forced to sign a treaty that gave the Ottoman Empire control over Iraq, establishing a border between Persia and Turkey that would last until the end of World War I (over 280 years later!). When asked about his victory, the last Turkish Sultan to personally lead an army on the field simply looked wistfully into the air and remarked, "Trying to conquer Baghdad was almost more beautiful than Baghdad itself."
Meanwhile, while Murad was out East smiting Safavids left and right, back in Europe the Russians decided to go to war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is apparently a thing. Since Murad was a little busy wading through ankle-deep rivers of blood covered in the entrails of his slaughtered enemies, he dispatched the governor of Turkish-controlled Bulgaria – a guy named Abaza who had rebelled against Murad's father many years earlier – to take advantage of the situation. Abaza went in, plundered some towns in the Ukraine, and as he was doing that Murad bought off the Tatars and gave them a shitload of gold to sack Moscow just to be dicks. Which they did. When the Poles eventually defeated the Russians in the war and consolidated their power against the Turks, Murad made peace with the Polish King and told him that Abaza was acting on his own without any authorization and without the Sultan's knowledge. Then he recalled Abaza and had him executed. Bam. Two birds, one stone. He brought in plenty of slaves and money and military glory, suffered no negative repercussions from the Poles, and found a semi-legit reason to do away with a malcontent. Fucking genius.
Despite leading two wars at the same time, Murad IV became the richest of the Late Ottoman rulers, mostly just by cutting out corruption and instilling order throughout the government and the military. In order to ensure that his rules were being followed, Murad was famous for going out into the city in the middle of the day, dressed in normal robes, and carrying a sword under his clothes. If he saw someone doing something he didn't approve of, he whipped out his blade and decapitated them. Of course, the things he didn't like weren't always things that were specifically illegal – like one time he beheaded a musician for playing a Persian song in a bazaar. Another time some annoying chicks were singing really loudly and really badly so he had them all tied into sacks and thrown in the river. On yet another occasion he saw some perverted asshole climbing onto the roof of his house to try and look into the Sultan's harem (the place where his hundreds of hot girlfriends lived) so he drew a rifle and sniped the would-be Peeping Tom from a hundred yards away.
It should also be mentioned here that when Murad had a few too many he'd sometimes get a little carried away. As one source claims, "Very often at midnight he stole out of the women's quarters through the private gate of the palace with his drawn sword, and running through the streets barefooted with only a loose gown around him, like a madman, killed whoever came his way."
When he wasn't rampaging naked through the streets drunkenly decapitating people, Murad IV was also a poet, a calligrapher, and a lover of art and science. He hired architects from India's Mughal Empire (you know, the guys who built the Taj Mahal) to come build amazing structures in Istanbul. He refurbished the mosque in Mecca. He encouraged science and military tech, including one time when he offered a fat sack of gold to help fund a guy named Hezarfen Ahmed Celebi undertake the longest unpowered sustained flight history had ever seen, sailing 15 miles across the Bosporus on a homemade glider. Of course, when Murad actually saw the contraption in action he got a little nervous, told his closest advisor, "This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people," and exiled him to Algeria – a fate which, honestly, is actually a lot better than simply choking him to death with his own contraption.
Sultan Murad IV's hard-partying ways caught up with him fairly early, and he died of liver failure in 1640 at the age of 27 (Ottoman sources say it was gout, but that's less exciting). With his dying breath, Murad ordered his men to find his little brother Crazy Ibrahim and choke him to death – a balls-out move that, if his men had carried it out, would have meant the end of the Ottoman Dynastic line. His troops weren't comfortable with carrying out Murad's orders to snuff the last scion of the Ottoman Royal Family out of existence, so they made Crazy Ibrahim Sultan instead. Ibrahim would go on to plunder every jewelry store in Istanbul, assemble a harem of 280 of the fattest virgins he could find, drown most of them in a river, and finally be deposed after the army got pissed, stormed the castle, and whacked him out. Old habits die hard.
A Death a Day
Agoston, Gabor and Bruce Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. Infobase, 2009.
Cooper, J.P. The New Cambridge Modern History. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979.
Somel, Selcuk Aksin. Historical Dictionary of the Ottoman Empire. Scarecrow, 2003.
Tezcan, Baki. The Second Ottoman Empire. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.
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