Reign of Sultan Ahmed I Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Changing trends in Ottoman governance and governmental structuring, which had been developing since the mid-sixteenth century, came to fruition during the sultanate of Ahmed I. Many scholars believe that these changes contributed significantly to internal decay and to the decline of the Ottoman polity in global affairs.

Summary of Event

Long before the birth of the future sultan Ahmed I in 1590, the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire was undergoing certain radical changes, as long-standing traditions were being challenged. From the time of its foundation, the empire was a state not guided by the same “rules” as other states in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. In theory, the sultan, as the head of the reigning Ottoman Dynasty, was the only free person in the realm. Legally, his subjects were his slaves, and, therefore, his power was theoretically absolute. Reality proved otherwise, particularly under weak sultans and in situations in which certain institutions and individuals had been able to take advantage of loopholes within the traditional system and amass a substantial amount of influence and power. [kw]Reign of Sultan Ahmed I (1603-1617) [kw]Ahmed I, Reign of Sultan (1603-1617) [kw]Sultan Ahmed I, Reign of (1603-1617) Government and politics;1603-1617: Reign of Sultan Ahmed I[0300] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1603-1617: Reign of Sultan Ahmed I[0300] Middle East;1603-1617: Reign of Sultan Ahmed I[0300] Ottoman Empire;1603-1617: Reign of Sultan Ahmed I[0300] Ahmed I

The Ottomans did not practice the system of automatic succession by primogeniture, that is, by the eldest son’s inheritance of royal power. Instead, succession to the throne would devolve to the “dominant male” of the royal family, who would more often than not have to prove his mettle against siblings through victory in battle or political intrigue. This tradition had fostered not only the rise of such competent rulers as Selim I (r. 1512-1520) and Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566) but also destructive civil wars, such as those between brothers Bayezid II, sultan from 1481 to 1512, and his rival to the throne, Cem (1459-1495), during the 1480’. Another civil war raged among the three brothers Ahmed, Korkut, and Selim I from 1511 to 1512. As early as 1362, with the accession of Murad I, it came to be accepted that a sultan had to secure his title by fratricide, a decree by Sultan Mehmed II.

Eliminating all immediate family members—brothers in particular—became synonymous with assuring stability and perpetuating an undivided realm. The execution of family members became a more routine practice through the years. Even the secure and powerful ruler Süleyman the Magnificent felt compelled in his old age to execute his eldest son, Mustafa, for conspiring to seize the sultanate. In 1574, Murad III Murad III had done away with five younger brothers. The most horrific bloodletting was committed by Mehmed III Mehmed III in 1595 when his nineteen brothers—most of them infants and toddlers, none of them older than eleven years of age—were brutally murdered. For good measure—and certainly with a view to prevent the birth of rival male heirs—he eliminated each of his more than twenty sisters. The outcry was so great that fratricide would be changed in favor of confinement.

When Mehmed III died in 1603, he left two surviving sons: thirteen-year-old Ahmed and twelve-year-old Mustafa Mustafa I . Since both were minors (which was in and of itself an unprecedented situation for the Ottoman Empire), it was not a foregone conclusion that the elder sibling would inherit the crown. It appears that various court administrators, upon learning of Mehmed III’s death, simply called a meeting of the Imperial Council, released young Ahmed I from the chamber where he was kept, and had him physically ascend the throne in their presence. Because it was possible that Ahmed could die before producing an heir, it therefore made no sense to eliminate Mustafa, the potential heir and only other surviving member of the dynasty. It also made sense to keep Mustafa alive at least as long as Ahmed’s sons were below the age of adulthood. Others have speculated that Ahmed’s sense of humanity was more acute than that of his predecessors, and so was reluctant to do away with Mustafa.

Whatever the true motivation, fratricide fell out of favor, so Mustafa, as only second in line to the sultanate, became the first victim of the kafes (the cage). Kafes, according to one persistent legend, did not involve being suspended above ground in a cage but instead being incarcerated within special quarters of the sultan’s harem in Topkapi Palace, virtually isolated from human company. Mustafa would be granted the services of “sterile” concubines and would under no circumstances be allowed to father children until such time as he might succeed to the throne. Otherwise, he would be attended by certain servants who were both deaf and unable to speak. The walls of the kafes were devoid of windows, except for a few on the second floor that looked toward the sea. The new system of succession had the advantage of assuring that there would be an adult heir to the throne, but it also increased the chances that the new sultan would have faced mental and emotional challenges prior to becoming sultan. The years of sequestering, fear of execution, and lack of meaningful human companionship had driven Mustafa to insanity.

When Ahmed I abruptly died of typhus at the age of twenty-seven in 1617, his successor was to be either Mustafa or fourteen-year-old Osman II Osman II , who was Ahmed’s eldest son by Greek concubine Mahfiruz Mahfiruz . As an adult, Mustafa was retrieved from the cage and placed on the throne. Mustafa’s rule was supported by another of Ahmed’s Greek concubines, the powerful Kösem Sultan Kösem Sultan , who had borne Ahmed I three sons. She had outmaneuvered Osman by getting Mustafa on the throne. However, Mustafa proved so incompetent that he was deposed after three months in favor of Osman. Upon Osman’s assassination in 1622, Mustafa was again withdrawn from the kafes to reign for fifteen months. He was once more deposed and confined—this time for good—and was replaced by Murad IV Murad IV , the first of Kösem Sultan’s three sons to become sultan.

Diminished leadership quality was further assured because Mehmed III had, with the advent of the kafes, terminated the practice of dispatching royal princes to serve apprenticeships as provincial governors (or sanjak beys), during which they would receive hands-on experience and instruction from established officials on the rudiments of political administration. Although ending these apprenticeships had the effect of denying potential competitors a political base and therefore diminishing the chances of civil conflict, it meant that future successors lacked practical administrative experience. Ahmed I, Mustafa I, and succeeding sultans who therefore lacked this experience had the tendency both to be more lackadaisical and out of touch with their people, and to rely on others to fulfill the day-to-day tasks.

Another sign that the sultanate was withdrawing from effective power was that, after Süleyman the Magnificent, rulers seldom, and then never, accompanied their armies on campaign. Mehmed III had done so half-heartedly in 1596, during the Austro-Turkish War of 1593-1606 Austro-Turkish War (1593-1606)[Austro Turkish War (1593-1606)] , with nearly disastrous results. Ahmed I resisted all attempts to persuade him to go on campaign. Signs of military decline manifested themselves in the Treaty of Zsitvatorok Zsitvatorok, Treaty of (1606) of 1606, when the sultan was first compelled to acknowledge the Austrian Habsburg emperor as an equal; the persistent Jelālī Revolts Great Jelālī Revolts (1606-1609)[Great Jelali Revolts (1606-1609)] in Anatolia, led by Kalenderoglu Mehmed Kalenderoglu Mehmed ; and the gains made in the east by the armies of the Persian Ṣafavid shah ՙAbbās the Great ՙAbbās I the Great .

Ahmed I, after a brief initial burst of interest in imperial affairs, became increasingly venal and self-indulgent, especially in regard to the pleasures of harem life; he was said to have wanted a different woman in his bed each night. In keeping with a continuing tradition, however, some of these concubines were favored over others and thus amassed tremendous political power. The Ottoman period of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century has been popularly termed the “age of women.” Among these powerful and influential women was the buyuk valide, or Grand Queen Mother, who had seniority and was usually the dominant force. However, haseki sultanas, or concubines who had given birth to sons, exercised varying degrees of influence. The famous Kösem Sultan, whose intelligence, personality, and skills in harem intrigue made her a dominant force for more than forty years, was the prime example of this phenomenon.

The harem’s eunuchs also carved out their niches of power, foremost among them being the chief black eunuch (the harem agasi), whose responsibilities included the oversight of harem administration.


In addition to the harem’s rise in power and influence, the grand vizier and the divan (ruling council), as a matter of course, acquired greater autonomy as well, as the sultan’s power receded. Even more disquieting was the increasing independence displayed by the army’s elite Janissary Janissaries corps, which became a self-compensating law unto itself and also maintained the capacity for overturning and even eliminating individual sultans who were deemed detrimental to their interests.

While many of the changes that are identified with the reign of Ahmed I had been in stages of development prior to 1603, the overlapping of forces that undermined the sultan’s authority made his reign a watershed, in which the grand viziers, chief black eunuchs, valide and haseki sultanas, and Janissaries each carved out their power base and contributed to the general sense of uncertainty, confusion, and divided loyalties prevalent during the Ottoman Empire’s declining years.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cicek, Kemal, et al., eds. The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilisation. 4 vols. Ankara, Turkey: Yeni Türkiye, 2000. The text includes an examination of the growing importance of Queen Mothers and their internal rivalries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davison, Roderic H. Turkey: A Short History. Huntingdon, England: Eothen Press, 1998. A detailed general history that ascribes Ottoman imperial decline to a slacking in religious fervor in the upper echelons of government after 1566, the year of Süleyman the Magnificent’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eversley, Lord, and Valentine Chirol. The Turkish Empire from 1288 to 1914, and from 1914 to 1922. New York: Howard Fertig, 1969. Written in a lively and opinionated style. Ahmed I is depicted as an incompetent ruler who was excessively influenced by women at the palace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. A detailed work on the Ottoman Empire of the late medieval-early modern era. Includes an excellent glossary of often-technical period terminology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inalcik, Halil, V. J. Parry, A. N. Kurak, and J. S. Bromley. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Edited by M. A. Cook. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Contains good descriptions of the dilemmas of the succession.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Stanford. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. A painstakingly detailed account that stresses the importance and dynamics of palace intrigue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vucinich, Wayne S. The Ottoman Empire: Its Record and Legacy. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1965. Explains the basic history in a concise manner, even if it does not go into great detail over personalities.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

ՙAbbās the Great; Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Paşa; Kâtib Çelebî Kösem Sultan; Murad IV; Mustafa I. Ahmed I

Categories: History