Reign of Bayezid II and Ottoman Civil Wars

Bayezid’s reign was marked by feuds over succession, which caused years of civil war. He was, however, successful in setting up the powerful Ottoman navy, which would dominate the Mediterranean region for nearly a century, and for ridding the Ottoman Empire of corruption.

Summary of Event

The future Ottoman sultan, Bayezid II, was the son of Sultan Mehmed II and Mukrime Hatun. Mehmed, however, appears to have favored a younger son, Cem, who, like his father, was very aggressive and an expansionist politically, while Bayezid advocated a more passive policy and less centralized control. Ottoman Empire;civil wars of 1481-1512
Mehmed II
Bayezid II
Selim I
Ismāՙīl I
Aubusson, Pierre d’
Bayezid II
Mehmed II
Aubusson, Pierre d’
Charles VIII (king of France)
Gedik Ahmed Pasha
Ismāՙīl I
Selim I
Bayezid II

In keeping with Ottoman tradition, Mehmed allowed both sons to administer parts of the empire as governors: Bayezid over Sivas, Amasya, and Tokat (in northeastern Anatolia), and Cem over Konya and Karaman (southern Anatolia). This arrangement virtually guaranteed that civil war over succession to the throne would occur among the siblings on the sultan’s death.

When Mehmed II died on May 3, 1481, at issue was which of the princes could establish his claim to the throne in the capital city of Constantinople and, at the same time, command the strongest support. One crucial factor was that Bayezid was the first to receive word of his father’s death and thus was able to establish himself as sultan within the month. Elements that were disaffected by Mehmed’s strong-handed government and his seemingly unending wars of conquest rallied to Bayezid’s cause. Most crucial was the support of the elite Janissary corps (whose loyalty Bayezid further ensured through a generous bribe).

Cem, though outmaneuvered and now considered a pretender, received assistance from other elements and established a rival sultanate at Bursa, offering to divide the Ottoman lands with his brother. Bayezid’s rejection of this scheme set off a civil war that would linger until Cem’s death in 1495.

Bayezid’s leading commander, Gedik Ahmed Pasha, marched on Bursa, leading to a crushing military loss for Cem at the Battle of Yenişehir Yenişehir, Battle of (1481)[Yenisehir, Battle of (1481)] in June, 1481. Cem then fled to Egypt and lived under the protection of the Mamlūk sultan, Qāytbāy.

Returning to Anatolia in 1482, Cem renewed his struggle to gain power, but again he was thwarted. Bayezid’s forces kept Cem from escaping to Egypt, so he was forced to accept the asylum offered him by Pierre d’Aubusson, the grand master of the Order of the Knights of St. John Hospitallers , who had long been fending off Ottoman attacks from their base on the island of Rhodes.

D’Aubusson, however, kept Cem under arrest, using him to prevent Bayezid from attacking Rhodes and other Christian states. D’Aubusson received 45,000 gold ducats per year from Sultan Bayezid, who feared that, without such reward, the grand master would release his brother to begin a new round of fighting. To lessen the chance that a valuable hostage such as Cem could be kidnapped or assassinated, d’Aubusson spirited him away to different castles in France, which were maintained by the order. In 1490, the grand master transferred the custody of the Ottoman prince to Pope Innocent VIII, who promptly awarded d’Aubusson the rank of cardinal in the Catholic Church. The annual payments made to keep Cem under arrest were transferred to the Papacy and remained until 1494, when Pope Alexander VI in turn transferred custody to King Charles VIII of France. Charles VIII had just entered Italy with a powerful military force.

Though Charles spoke of invading the Ottoman Empire and setting Cem in place as sultan, he did not act on his words. Cem’s death in Naples on February 25, 1495, put an end to the idea of Cem becoming sultan. Bayezid negotiated to have Cem’s body brought to Constantinople to keep pretenders from claiming to be Cem and, thus, reigniting the Ottoman civil wars; Cem’s body was brought to Constantinople, but not until 1499.

Bayezid’s leadership style differed from Mehmed’s in that the new sultan was more focused on religion and artistic and cultural patronage than he was on military matters, particularly as long as Cem loomed as a threat. Gedik Ahmed Pasha, who had become grand vizier, advocated forcefully a massive campaign to conquer Italy, where the Turks had a foothold in Otranto. Believing this venture to be foolhardy, and fearing that the grand vizier was in correspondence with Cem, Bayezid ordered his death in December of 1482.

Though achieving little during his reign, Bayezid was successful in deflecting a series of military threats. From 1484 to 1491, the Ottomans were locked in a bloody, deadlocked conflict with Qāytbāy’s Mamlūks, and a war with Venice between 1499 and 1502 did result in modest territorial acquisitions in Greece, but this war, too, was inconclusive. The most daunting threat, however, came from a revival of power in Iran, where the Shīՙite warlord Ismāՙīl became shah. Ismāՙīl would make significant inroads into Ottoman interests in the Middle East, seizing Baghdad in 1504 and successfully campaigning along the eastern Ottoman frontiers; this incited the Turkmen tribes of Anatolia to constant revolt against the sultan’s authority. Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty]

In 1511, civil war again broke out as Bayezid’s three sons, Selim, Ahmed, and Korkut, vied for the succession. Bayezid had favored Ahmed, but support from the Janissaries and other disgruntled groups who had become alarmed at the Ṣafavid threat coming from Iran (including large Anatolian estate owners and Sunni religious leaders) secured Selim’s victory. On April 25, 1512, Selim arranged for Bayezid’s abdication and became Sultan Selim I (the Grim). Selim successfully presented himself as a champion of strong military action against the Ṣafavid Shīՙites. The deposed Bayezid died one month after he abdicated.


Apart from the civil strife of the early and final years, Bayezid’s reign was generally one of economic expansion and prosperity. He is credited with having laid the foundations for the Ottoman navy (during the Venetian War) and thus having set the stage for the empire’s maritime dominance of the Mediterranean, a dominance that would be pursued during the reigns of the three succeeding sultans and would not be lost until the Battle of Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571) in 1571.

Bayezid’s military expeditions were somewhat productive, too. In 1483, his forces had secured the province of Herzegovina and, in 1498, the province of Moldavia. However, his preference for negotiation and coexistence over war and conquest made him appear to be weak and ineffectual in comparison with his father.

His regime gained a reputation for religious piety, fairness, and efficiency, augmented by a determined campaign to root out corruption, and future generations would refer to him as Bayezid the Just.

Further Reading

  • Brummett, Palmira J. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. This work seeks to integrate Ottoman history into European, Asian, and world history by demonstrating the importance of inherited Euro-Asian trade networks to the development and expansion of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the effects of continual commercial struggles between the empire and other world trading powers upon all aspects of imperial and mercantile history.
  • Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Generally sympathetic, this study credits Bayezid’s reign as being comparatively humane and innovative. Contains a useful time line.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Emphasizes the significance of institutional structure, particularly the almost-absolute power of the sultan and the means by which he could achieve and ensure loyalty among his most powerful supporters.
  • Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. Translated by Norman Itzkowitz and Colin Imber. New York: Praeger, 1973. Gives a detailed account of Ottoman governance, problems of succession, and the role of the Janissaries. Refutes the idea that Bayezid’s reign was one of total weakness and stagnation.
  • McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923. New York: Longman, 1997. Bayezid and his times are portrayed here in some detail. Also argues that his reign marked a prosperous era of peace and renewal.
  • Vucinich, Wayne S. The Ottoman Empire: Its Record and Legacy. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1965. A solid, basic starting point for the reader that outlines the period and its personalities. The author implies that Cem’s death was occasioned by foul play.
  • Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Ottomans. New York: Penguin/Viking, 1993. The author is fairly dismissive of Bayezid as a sultan who was overshadowed by his father and his immediate successors, Selim I and Süleyman the Magnificent.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

1589: Second Janissary Revolt in Constantinople