Reign of Selim II

Selim’s reign marks the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire and of a succession of incompetent sultans who left the details of governing to their chief ministers.

Summary of Event

In 1566, at the age of forty-two, Selim II became sultan of what was then the greatest empire in the world. Selim inherited the Ottoman Empire from his father, Süleyman the Magnificent, who reigned during the peak of the Ottoman Empire’s golden age. Süleyman was one of a succession of highly competent and administratively involved sultans who always accompanied his troops into major battles. He died in his tent, at the age of seventy-two, as his forces faced those of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. Süleyman’s death was kept secret for three weeks, so that Selim had enough time to reach Constantinople and be proclaimed sultan. Ottoman Empire
Selim II
Süleyman the Magnificent
Sokollu, Mehmed Paşa
Murad III
Maximilian II (Holy Roman Emperor)
Mustafa (son of Süleyman)
Bayezid (son of Süleyman)
Sokollu, Mehmed Paşa
Pius V
Murad III (Ottoman sultan)
Selim II

Selim’s selection from the pool of possible heirs had little to do with his native talents and even less to do with preparation for leadership. For more than two centuries, Ottoman leaders had trained favored heirs in military and administrative affairs. It was not by accident that a relatively obscure Turkish tribe was able to conquer a large empire and rule it efficiently.

Selim’s selection to rule the empire can be attributed to his dynamic mother Roxelana, who was Süleyman’s favorite concubine. Roxelana, of Slavic descent, lived her life with the singular goal of obtaining the throne for Selim. To achieve this end, she intrigued to convince Süleyman to order the murder of his sons Mustafa and Bayezid, born to other harem women. Both of these sons were well accomplished in combat and administration. Roxelana died in 1558, five years after the murder of Mustafa, who was strangled with the traditional silk cord (to avoid spilling royal blood) while visiting Süleyman’s tent for dinner.

Due to his fair complexion and blond hair, Selim was known at the beginning of his reign as “yellow Selim.” He was well educated, spoke eloquently, and composed both poetry and music. Unlike his murdered step brothers, however, he had no military training and little experience in government. Much of his early life was spent in the harem of the Topkapi Palace. He was the first sultan without training from his predecessor. His only political experience came later in life, when he was a rather inept governor of several remote Anatolian provinces. At the time of Süleyman’s death, Selim was serving as governor of Kütahya in western Turkey.

Selim’s lack of training was exceeded only by his lack of interest in governing. His first official act was to banish his father’s harem and establish his own new harem of 150 ladies-in-waiting. He then plunged into the pleasures of harem life and soon established a reputation for multiple orgies. He also descended into the depths of chronic alcoholism, earning infamy in Islamic history as “Selim the drunkard,” notorious for his alcohol-induced rages. He became the first sultan to never have accompanied his troops into battle. Instead, his life became devoted to daily pleasures.

By default, Ottoman policy was set by the sultan’s ministers. Selim was fortunate to be served by the talented Mehmed Paşa Sokollu, who was the last grand vizier (prime minister) to wield considerable power in Constantinople. Selim inherited Sokollu from Süleyman. Under Sokollu’s guidance, early in 1568, the Ottomans were able to end their conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, they established friendly relations between the Turks and their rivals, the Ṣafavid rulers of Iran. In 1570, Sokollu established peaceful relations with Russia, but only after he failed to take Astrakhan and after he lost a fleet in a storm. Expeditions to Tunis and Yemen to put down rebellious leaders were successful. Hence, the first years of Selim’s reign were relatively peaceful and stable. The stability was upset in 1571, however, by Selim’s decision to expand the empire by taking Cyprus.

The invasion of Cyprus Cyprus, fall of (1571) was the one instance where Selim overruled Sokollu, who feared the invasion could forge an anti-Ottoman alliance and result in major warfare. Detractors pointed to Selim’s desire to gain free access to his favorite Cypriot wine, which was stocked in great abundance, as one factor behind his sudden political interest. Though the invasion was successful, it caused Pope Pius V to summon an alliance of Spain, Germany, and the major northern Italian states (the Holy League Holy League ) to repel Ottoman expansion. This led to a fleet of more than two hundred Holy League ships, which faced nearly three hundred Turkish ships at the Battle of Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571) in 1571. Although commanded by the capable admiral Kilic Ali, the Turks lost 90 percent of their ships and also lost control of Tunis.

Though Lepanto was a serious humiliation, it was by no means the end of the world for the Ottomans. Sokollu rapidly built a larger and more modern fleet, while the Holy League failed to follow up its victory, preferring instead to engage in divisive quarrels. Tunis was retaken in 1574, and the Turks were able to keep control of Cyprus. The Mediterranean was still very much in Ottoman control.

Selim died December 12, 1574, while Sokollu was planning an attack on Venice using his newly constructed fleet. After drinking a vintage bottle of his favorite Cypriot wine, Selim retired to his Turkish bath, slipped on the marble floor, and fractured his skull.


Selim’s short, dramatic reign did not include any major catastrophes. Even the defeat at Lepanto had largely symbolic value. Ships and seamen were easily replaceable. What was significant, however, was that Selim was the first of a number of self-indulgent sultans, lacking both the capacity and will to rule effectively. Selim’s son and successor Murad III had his father’s love of alcohol and an addiction to opium. Murad had a love of painting and clock making, but little interest in ruling.

After Selim’s reign there were no grand viziers of Sokollu’s caliber to rescue the empire administratively, which complicated matters for the sultans who followed. Viziers and members of the divan (ruling council) became increasingly corrupt. Decisions were often influenced by harem infighting, palace intrigues, and military revolts. The Turkish expression “the fish rots from the head down,” aptly describes the effects of Selim’s reign. The Ottoman Empire had peaked and would decline after Selim, until it became known by the nineteenth century as the “sick man of Europe.”

Although historians point to the reign of Selim as the beginning of Turkish decline, they do not blame him specifically for its decline. Süleyman the Magnificent, during the last years of his reign, also preferred to leave decision making to his grand vizier and engaged in lavish spending. Moreover, Ottoman control of the Mediterranean did not, by Selim’s reign, mean world economic hegemony. Real wealth and power were increasingly based on transoceanic trade. Finally, systemic flaws in palace life and the ways potential imperial successors were raised functioned largely to produce sultans with manifest personality disorders.

Further Reading

  • Barber, Noel. Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000. A detailed presentation of everyday life in Ottoman Turkey.
  • Freely, John. Inside the Seraglio: The Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul. New York: Penguin, 2001. A study of life at Topkapi and other palaces, and the private lives of the sultans. Contains a bibliography, an index, and maps.
  • Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Aspects of political and social life in the Ottoman Empire in an enjoyable, popular history. Contains a chronology, glossary, bibliography, and an index.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. A scholarly study of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the political structures created to rule it. Glossary, bibliography, index, and maps.
  • Inalcik, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600. London: Phoenix Press, 2001. An excellent and detailed analysis of the rise of the Ottoman Empire as a world power by a leading Turkish scholar. Includes a glossary of terms, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Shaw, Stanford J. Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. Vol. 1 in History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. A reliable treatment of the empire of the sultans. Contains maps, an index, and a bibliography.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Beginning 1504: Decline of the Ḥafṣid Dynasty

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1559-1561: Süleyman’s Sons Wage Civil War

c. 1568-1571: Ottoman-Russian War

July, 1570-Aug., 1571: Siege of Famagusta and Fall of Cyprus

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto

1574-1595: Reign of Murad III