Project 500 Years
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Project 500 Years

1579: Sokollu Mehmed Pasha & the Ottoman way of ruling

Registration of boys for the Devshirme, 1558 Ottoman painting, detail

The biggest- or at least, the most interesting- thing that happened in world history in 1579 CE was the assassination by hands unknown of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, the super-wily official who had been Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire since 1565. This fact prompted me to delve into Sokollu Mehmed’s biography on English-WP, where the writers by and large used great sources to produce a fascinating picture not just of Sokollu Mehmed himself (born 1505 or so) but also of the system of which he was a product.

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, 1608 engraving

For me, learning more about Sokollu Mehmed’s life helped me understand a lot more about the nature and the roots of the administrative skill of the Ottoman Empire, and about some of its imperial “accomplishments” during the 16th century. (Lazy-minded Brit that I was, for most of my life I only ever thought of the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe.”)

“Sokollu” was a toponym, indicating Sokollu Mehmed was born in or near Sokolovići in today’s Republika Srpska (Bosnia) then at the frontiers of Ottoman rule in Europe. He was born to a Serbian Orthodox family but at a young age was swept up in the Devshirme, the Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting soldiers and bureaucrats from among the children of their Balkan Christian subjects.

The children would be taken from their families and sent to live with a family in the Anatolian heartland where they would learn the Turkish language and also subjected to forced conversion to Islam. Once thus re-cultured, they would go to Constantinople or the previous Ottoman capital Edirne to learn, primarily, the military skills they would need to join and rise up in the Empire’s elite fighting troops, the Janissaries. (The Ottomans had been the first state in the European region to have developed a stable and professional permanent army.)

Mehmed would rise high both in the janissaries and in the civilian aspects of imperial administration; even after becoming a Vizier (minister) he would go off and lead military campaigns. One of the numerous interesting things that happened to him was that after his 1551 appointment as Governor-General of Rumelia (essentially, the whole Ottoman-ruled Balkans) he met his birth mother, who “recognized him by the birthmark on his face”. He was also in good touch for many years with other members of his “Sokolski” family including his brother Makarije Sokolović who came to visit him in Constantinople in 1557, when Mehmed was Third Vizier. WP: “Later that same year, Sokollu Mehmed issued an edict ( firman) declaring the restoration of the Serbian Patriarchate of Peć, with Makarije Sokolović as Serbian Patriarch Makarije I. The edict also guaranteed the rights and religious freedom of all inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire.”

In the 1570s, Mehmed was able to ensure that the next two Serbian Patriarchs were also close relatives.

Janissaries attacking fort during Siege of Rhodes, 1522

The janissaries seemed to have given Mehmed a good education in many realms of human endeavor. WP tells us (unsourced) that in addition to Turkish and Serbian, he spoke Persian, Arabic, Venetian-Italian and Latin.

Throughout his life, his military and naval service seemed to be intertwined closely with administrative work. He reportedly served with some distinction at the 1526 Battle of Mohács and the (unsuccessful) 1529 Siege of Vienna. In March 1535 he was deployed to be one of the seven retainers of the Imperial Treasurer Iskender Çelebi. In 1541, he became an Imperial Chamberlain and then the head of the Sultan’s squires. In those positions he became close to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and apparently won his favor. Then in 1546, after the admiral of the Ottoman Fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa died, Mehmed was appointed to replace him. He served five years in that position, sometimes personally leading the fleet into battle.

Then came his service as Governor-General of Rumelia, which involved planning and leading some military campaigns (and some engagement in peace negotiations with Hungarians, etc.) But in 1553, Suleiman despatched him and a detachment of Rumelian troops to head over to Persia to take charge of the final stages of that year’s war against the Safavids.

In 1555 Suleiman appointed him Third Vizier- but almost immediately he also had to quell a rebellion in Salonica.

A few years later, 1559, there was the whole business about Suleiman’s son Bayezid who had been informed on by Suleiman’s other son Selim as most likely disloyal. Suleiman despatched Mehmed to go to Karaman and quell Bayezid and his forces. Bayezid fled to Persia so then Mehmed conducted the lengthy negotiations with Shah Tahmasp that led to Tahmasp handing over Bayezid and his son, all of whom Mehmed arranged to have murdered.

In 1561, the Second Vizier died, and Mehmed succeeded to that position. The following year he married Suleiman’s grand-daughter (Selim’s daughter) Ismahan, who had apparently had a Venetian mother. (The janissaries, it turns out, were not castrated upon their capture as children; but they were not allowed to marry and have children until they were 40. Mehmed was 55 or so when he married Ismahan.)

In 1565, the Grand Vizier died, and once again Sokollu Mehmed was promoted. The following year saw the big battle against the Habsburgs at Szigetvár: the one during which Suleiman the Magnificent died. Sokollu Mehmed had done a lot to plan the succession to Selim. But first, he had a big battle to win. (It was launched the day after Suleiman died, remember; and presumably the preparations for the assault were very well advanced by then.)

Growth of the ottoman Empire, 1307–1683

Mehmed’s first step was to execute everyone who had witnessed Suleiman’s death, including his physician. Then, he worked heard to keep the death a secret (though his allies, the Crimean Tartars, soon started spreading the word.) Mehmed told Selim- who was well in the rear, I’m not sure where- about his dad’s demise and they agreed to meet, and to announce the death, in Belgrade:

Forty days after the Sultan’s death, in October 1566, the army set out for Belgrade. At the fourth stop on the way to Belgrade, forty-eight days after Suleiman’s death, Sokollu Mehmed announced the Sultan’s death ceremonially, during the traditional reading of the Koran. Sokollu Mehmed had Suleiman’s body embalmed and ordered the army to proceed to meet the new Sultan in Belgrade.

Mehmed advised Selim at that point to start giving gifts to everyone to ensure their loyalty, but Selim did not take the advice. Then this: “On the fifth day of their stay in Belgrade, the Sultan, Sokollu Mehmed and the army departed for Constantinople. Before they managed to return to the Empire’s capital, a mutiny broke out and the road to the city was blocked, and Sokollu Mehmed and Ahmed Pasha had to bribe their way into the city. Order was restored after Sokollu Mehmed convinced the Sultan to promise to send handsome gifts and higher wages to the janissaries.”

During the reign of Selim (“the Sot”), 1566–1574, Sokollu Mehmed seemed to act as de-facto Sultan. One of his first plans was to organize and co-lead a naval expedition to Sumatra:

between November and December 1567 Sokollu and his expedition took sail to Aceh with fifteen fully armed war galleys and two transport galleys. Upon a seemingly friendly arrival to Aceh, the sultan of Sumatra requested that all the members of the expedition follow his orders. The sultan later offered his loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and forged a bond of mutual understanding between Istanbul and Aceh.

However, soon after he had left for Sumatra- presumably from Suez?- trouble broke out in the Ottoman province of Yemen, where the Zaydi Imam was leading a rebellion against the harsh rule of the Ottoman governor. Sokollu Mehmed had to go there, it seems, to assess the situation and replace the governor.

Then this:

Although the rebellions in Yemen once again forced Sokollu to postpone any further military action in Sumatra and the Indian Ocean, it also opened the possibility to promote one of his favorite projects: an attempt to build a canal from the Mediterranean to Suez. He instructed the governor of Egypt to send architects engineers to assess the possibility of this canal, with the purpose of allowing a better connection from Muslims attempting to visit the Holy Cities.

Sokollu also was concerned about Muslims from the northeast, Crimea and Anatolia, who had to cross the Black Sea in order to visit the Holy Cities. Thus, he took actions for the construction of an open canal between the Don and the Volga in the north.

It seems Mehmed had already had plans for that latter canal drawn up in Istanbul, and when he sent the military to Astrakhan in 1569 it was so that they could start the work. But as we know, the concept of digging a Don-Volga Canal was not viewed with equanimity by Tsar Ivan, who sent his military down there to put an end to it…

In 1570, Mehmed despatched an army to (re-)conquer Yemen and to conquer the Hejaz. The following year, he took Cyprus. Then there was, as we know, the big naval defeat at Lepanto- but also his steering of the rebuilding of the Ottoman Navy after that.

When Selim died in 1574, Mehmed once again stage-managed the succession very carefully. As before, he kept the Sultan’s death secret until the chosen successor, Selim’s son Murad III, could arrive from the distant governorship he was heading. “Sokollu Mehmed Pasha acknowledged the new Sultan, Murad III, and remained Grand Vizier, but now he had to cope with the rising political influence of the palace women, first with Sultan’s mother Nurbanu Sultan and then his wife, of Albanian origin, Safiye Sultan. Murad III gradually soured on Sokollu Mehmed’s overwhelming power within the Empire, and the Grand Vizier’s influence declined.”

In 1578, after Murad had decided- against Mehmed’s advice- to launch the new war against the Safavids- it must have started to become clear to Mehmed that his power at the court was waning:

Sultan Murad III… began to limit his Grand Vizier’s powers by slowly removing his allies from high offices. The state secretary Feridun, an old companion of Sokollu Mehmed’s since the siege of Szigetvár, was sent to Belgrade, away from Constantinople. Mehmed’s faithful Arab friend, the Governor-General of Cyprus, was lynched by mutinous soldiers. Mehmed’s greatest rivals, Hamid Efendi and Piyale Pasha, arranged the execution of the Grand Vizier’s Greek protege, Michael Kantakouzenos. On 10 October 1578, Sokollu Mustafa Bey, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha’s nephew and Governor-General of Budin, was assassinated… On 11 October 1579, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha was assassinated.

During his time in power, he had accumulated great wealth. In 1573, his wealth was estimated at 18 million ducats. His salary as Grand Vizier 20 ducats per day. But, “His wealth increased greatly through gifts and taxes of Ottoman officials: anyone who became a vizier had to pay Mehmed Pasha 50,000–60,000 ducats, and every Governor-General had to pay 15,000–20,000 or even sometimes 30,000–40,000 ducats upon ascending to the office. The provincial governor of Egypt at Cairo alone dispatched 100,000 ducats to the Grand Vizier every year.”

I believe that under the rules of the janissaries, he would not have been allowed to bequeath much, if any, of his wealth to his sons. His largest physical “bequests” were architectural and monumental: “He is buried at his complex, Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Külliyesi at the back of Eyüp Mosque, in Istanbul, at the Sokollu Mehmed Paşa Türbe built by famous architect Mimar Sinan for him c. 1572. His wife Ismihan (or Esma Han) is buried near him and in the little garden of the Türbe are buried the family and descendants of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha.” He had also built mosques, bridges, and so on at various spots throughout the empire.

He also undoubtedly did a lot to secure the unity and growth of the empire. What he apparently did not do was build a robust administrative structure that would succeed him. After his death Sultan Murad III changed Grand Viziers ten times in sixteen years.

Originally published at https://justworldnews.org.

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Helena Cobban looks at seminal developments in world history, from 1415 till today, with periodic musings on what it all means.

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Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.

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