Süleyman’s Sons Wage Civil War

Two of Süleyman’s sons, Selim II and Bayezid, fought a violent civil war to decide who would become the next sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The often ineffective, cruel, and deadly practice of primogeniture—the crowning of the eldest son as monarch and the execution of his brothers—ended in the empire in the early seventeenth century.

Summary of Event

From the mid-1400’s until the early 1700’, succession to the Ottoman throne commonly was decided on the battlefield. When the reigning sultan died, all of his sons were eligible to succeed him. The son with the most powerful army would be installed as the new sultan. The other sons were then killed by strangulation. Ottoman Empire;civil war of 1559-1561
Süleyman the Magnificent
Selim II
Ebussuûd Efendi
Selim II
Ṭahmāsp I

Authorities on Muslim law, called ՙulama, approved the practice as the only effective way of preventing civil wars. Although the violent contest between brothers was not supposed to occur before the death of the reigning sultan, preparations usually began as soon as an aging sultan appeared to be in poor health.

In 1553, Süleyman the Magnificent, about sixty years old, had been suffering from gout and other chronic conditions. That year, when he ordered his troops to march against Persia, he stayed at home rather than lead the troops personally. This displeased the army. The grand vizier, Rustem, was appointed commander in chief of the campaign. Since Rustem was the son-in-law of Roxelana (also called Hürrem Sultana), Rustem had good reason to hope that one of her sons would be the next sultan. The major obstacle was Süleyman’s favorite son, Mustafa, whose mother was one of Roxelana’s rivals. After arriving in Persia, Rustem wrote Süleyman an explosive letter, warning that many leaders of the professional army corps, the Janissaries, wanted a young sultan as their commander and that Mustafa, who was popular with the army, had encouraged this sentiment.

Alarmed by the letter, Süleyman decided to go to Persia and assume personal command of the army. Even though Mustafa had been his favorite son, he decided that he could not risk the possibility that the ambitious young man might try to seize power or lead an armed revolt. After the empire’s chief religious scholar, Ebussuûd Efendi, agreed that Mustafa’s death was justified, Süleyman ordered his son to appear at court. As soon as he was in his father’s presence, palace executioners strangled him with a bowstring. The body was then exposed to the soldiers as a warning against disloyalty. A few of Mustafa’s allies among the Janissaries revolted, but Süleyman’s loyal troops easily suppressed the uprisings.

With Mustafa dead, Roxelana’s two sons, Selim and Bayezid, became the only two serious contenders for the succession. The older of the two, Selim, was described as obese, incompetent, and unpopular. The younger Bayezid was handsome, talented, and popular. Roxelana, nevertheless, preferred Selim and was determined that he would succeed his father as sultan. Most of the Janissaries preferred Bayezid because he would make a better commander, although Selim also had supporters in the army. Both brothers understood clearly that only one of them would become sultan and that the other would be killed. Since they despised each other, Süleyman kept them apart, appointing them governors of provinces that were widely separated.

In 1558, Roxelana unexpectedly died, and Süleyman was devastated. Increasingly ill, he appeared to have lost interest in political affairs, as he spent most of his days in mourning, praying, and fasting. Observing his health and behavior, Selim and Bayezid expected a soon-approaching struggle for succession. With Roxelana’s restraining influence gone, the two brothers frantically attempted to make additional alliances and gather resources for a violent fight to the death. Both men had learned how to use bribes and promises of political appointment.

In the summer of 1559, civil war broke out in Anatolia. Despite Bayezid’s advantage in popularity, Selim surprisingly managed to gather a more formidable military force and win a number of significant battles. Süleyman was extremely angry with both sons for fighting a war before his demise. He therefore prepared his troops to march into Anatolia to stop the fighting. Each of the sons wrote him a personal letter assuring him of undivided loyalty. Bayezid’s letter, however, was intercepted and destroyed by one of Selim’s agents. Bayezid, thinking the letter had been received, became alarmed when he did not get a reply. He knew that his popularity among the Janissaries might have aroused his father’s suspicions. He had seen his father deal with Mustafa and others suspected of disloyalty. Bayezid soon received an impersonal and succinct order to appear at his father’s court.

Frightened for his life, Bayezid fled to the Persian capital in desperation, where he requested Shah Ṭahmāsp I to grant him, his wife, and four of his sons political asylum. The request was quickly granted. The shah apparently thought that the royal family might somehow be useful in their continuing struggles with the Ottoman Empire. Because Süleyman interpreted Bayezid’s flight as clear proof of treason, he unequivocally supported Selim for the succession.

Süleyman demanded that the shah’s government either extradite Bayezid or execute him as a traitor. The Persian government first replied that this was impossible because of the principles of Muslim hospitality. After a long series of diplomatic exchanges, however, the Persians indicated that they might turn over Bayezid in exchange for territory in Mesopotamia. Initially, Süleyman refused, threatened to invade Persia if necessary, but then offered to pay 400,000 pieces of gold in exchange for the prince. Shah Ṭahmāsp accepted the offer.

The Persians escorted the unfortunate Bayezid to the frontier town of Tabrīz. On September 25, 1561, they turned him over to a small Turkish delegation that included the sultan’s chief executioner. Knowing his fate, Bayezid asked for permission to kiss his wife and children one last time. A spokesperson for the delegation replied that there was no time and that they must attend to the business at hand. The executioner placed a bowstring around Bayezid’s neck and strangled him. The executioner then strangled his four sons. Another son, a three-year-old, had been left behind with a nurse in the Mesopotamian city of Basra. This young child was soon found and executed, too. Süleyman reportedly gave thanks to Allah for ensuring a peaceful succession for Selim.


In the contest between Bayezid and Selim, most historians believe that the less competent of the two brothers succeeded to the throne. Selim II, frequently called “Selim the Drunk,” was the first of the disinterested Ottoman sultans. Addicted to alcohol and sexual pleasures, he spent most of his time in his harem, and he was unable to impose his authority over the Janissaries. It was during his reign that the Ottomans suffered their first significant defeat, the naval Battle of Lepanto Lepanto, Battle of (1571) in 1571. It is impossible to know, of course, whether Bayezid would have been more successful as a ruler and military commander.

Succession in monarchical governments, the practice of primogeniture (automatically giving the crown to the eldest son), had the advantage of minimizing the threat of civil war, but, frequently, it could lead to the accession of an incompetent or otherwise ineffective monarch. Although this early Ottoman practice often produced a strong leader, violent civil war with great loss of life and property could also ensue.

In the early seventeenth century, the Ottoman rulers stopped the murderous competition for the throne. Rather than being put to death, the brothers of a new sultan would be imprisoned for life. Potential successors to the throne would no longer be appointed military governors of provinces as preparation for the fight over succession. Although the reform prevented civil war, it often produced weak and indolent rulers, considered one of the reasons for the gradual decline of the empire.

Further Reading

  • Bridge, Antony. Suleiman the Magnificent: Scourge of Heaven. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. An interesting narrative account that includes a great deal of information about the human dimension of Süleyman and his times.
  • Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. A well-written history of the empire.
  • Lamb, Harold. Suleiman the Magnificent: Sultan of the East. Garden City: Doubleday, 1951. A readable work of historical fiction, with factual material based on sound research but conjectures of probable dialogue and thoughts of the subjects.
  • Merriman, Roger. Suleiman the Magnificent, 1520-1566. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1944. Although somewhat dated, this biography is still recognized as a dependable and interesting sourcebook.
  • Rogers, J. M., and R. M. Ward. Süleyman the Magnificent. New York: Tabard Press, 1988. An excellent summary of his life, with an abundance of beautiful illustrations and a helpful glossary.

1512-1520: Reign of Selim I

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto

1574-1595: Reign of Murad III

1589: Second Janissary Revolt in Constantinople