Diplomatic Orientalist Writings on Ottoman Open Succession: A Study of Aughier Busbecq’s Turkish Letters and Other Documents

In 1555, Aughier Busbecq wrote to his former schoolmate in Italy and ambassador to Portugal, Nicolas Michault, regarding his ambassadorial post in Constantinople. Busbecq, a Flemish diplomat representing Ferdinand of Austria, was excited about the prospect of being in a new city and recounted his arrival in Constantinople in the letter. He began by telling the story of an Ottoman official he met upon his reception, Roostem, who previously held a position in the Ottoman high office but had been stripped of his duties after a political turmoil in the empire involving Suleyman, the sultan, and his son, Mustafa. [1]  According to Busbecq, Roostem was deprived of his position as the exchequer and the advisor-in-chief to the sultan when he was found to be guilty of conspiring with the sultan’s chief consort, Roxolana, in framing Mustapha. Roostem had tactfully manipulated Suleyman into thinking that the prince was a threat to his imperial rule. Angered by the rumor, Suleyman – who was then at war the King of Persia – summoned Mustafa to one of his military bases. [2] The prince, at the request of the sultan, entered his father’s tent but did not make it out alive.

To contextualize Suleyman’s filicide, it is necessary to understand the process of imperial succession in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Dynasty did not practice primogeniture, where the eldest son of the monarch would traditionally inherit the throne, but instead adhered to a process of competition where the princely brothers had to embattle one another to be crowned as the next sultan. Known as open succession, fratricides between the princes in the Ottoman empire were therefore necessary to secure the throne and to eliminate any challenges of legitimacy in the process of succession. Fratricides and filicides, were initially institutionalized into the dynasty when Mehmed the Conqueror killed his sole infant brother in 1451. [3] Mehmed justified the fratricide by framing it as a precautionary measure against any “internecine strife” within the Ottoman society and cited that his actions were permissible under “religious law,” as advised by clerics. [4] Mehmed’s explanation, which alluded to religious doctrines and beliefs, contrasted with what most western thinkers wrote about the process. Most Christian Europeans readers were familiar with the orientalist image of the Ottomans as a “dynasty of despotic and sybaritic tyrants” and central to this image was the practice of open succession. [5]

By focusing on Ottoman successional politics, this paper attempts to examine how the policy of open succession – along with specific acts of fratricide and filicide – in the Ottoman Empire are represented in textual documents produced by western diplomats and intellectuals. The texts, which were produced in the early 16th century and includes Busbecq’s letters and Giovanni Botero’s The Traveler’s Breviat, will be examined via three different angles: ethno-cultural, gender and geopolitical.

Writings from Latin Christendom

Early knowledge of Ottoman open succession initially surfaced in the west when Paolo Giovio’s Commentario de le cose de’ Turchi, di Paulo Iovio, Vescovo di Nocera, a’ Carlo Quinto Imperadore Augusto became available in Latin in 1537. [6] Giovani’s widely circulated writings on the Turks gained the attention of Latin Christians who both “admired and dreaded” the prowess of Suleyman and his predecessor, Selim. The siege of Vienna in 1529 further attested to Suleyman’s reputation as an aggressive conqueror and Christian writers, like Giovani, began to fear the threat of being prosecuted in the event of an Ottoman conquest of the Hapsburg Empire. They switched to a more favorable tone when writing about Suleyman, remarking that the sultan was a “just [and] unbiased ruler who compared favorably to Christian princes. [7] The praiseworthy image of Suleyman persisted until the 1550s when the Ottoman dynasty faced a series of successional crisis.

Critical writings of Suleyman and Ottoman successional policies emerged when Nicolas de Moffan introduced to Latin Christian audience on the idea of open succession in 1552. Moffan had learned of Ottoman filicidal practices from a fellow Turkish prisoner during his captive in Hungary a year prior. The accounts are then published in Latin and introduced the image of Suleyman as a “bestial and cannibalistic” ruler which was eventually absorbed into mainstream western discourse on Ottoman successional practices. [8] In his publication, Moffan characterized Ottoman policy of open succession as a “moral failure to practice honorable marriage.” [9]

Similarly, commenting on Ottoman practice of open succession, Busbecq writes: “The sons of the Turkish Sultans are in the most wretched position in the world, for, as soon one of them succeeds his father, the rest are doomed to certain death” [10] Criticisms of Ottoman successional practices were not confined to the supposed fact that they emerged out of a primitive culture. In addition to recounting Suleyman’s filicidal acts, Busbecq also drew contrast between Ferdinand and Suleyman’s styles of fatherhood. [11] Although unimpressed by Suleyman’s brutal filicidal practices, Busbecq noted that Ferdinand’s only flaw as a father was his “moderation in promoting his children.” [12] Another German diplomat, Salomon Schweigger, also wrote in 1577 about his understanding of Ottoman practice of open succession and classified the empire’s system of governance as more of a tyranny rather than a legitimate empire or a monarchy. [13] He also compared Ottoman sultans to the “classical exemplar of tyrannical excess” that is the Roman Emperor Nero. [14]

Polemics on Ottoman governance was apparent in another text by Giovanni Botero, an Italian writer who lived mostly in the latter half of the 16th century. In his worked titled A Traveler’s Breviat, Botero attempted to produce a comprehensive report on major kingdoms and empires around the world. Despite having not visited most of the places, Botero assigned bold social and political attributes to the kingdoms and empires in his study, with hopes that it will help readers in understanding the logic behind the varying systems of governance around the world. He devoted a section of his work on the Ottoman Empire and exposed the Ottoman’s tyrannical nature:

“Their government is merely tyrannical: for the great Turk is so absolute a Lord of all things contained within the bounds of his dominions, that the inhabitants do account themselves his slaves, not his subjects: no man is master of himself, much less of his house wherein he dwell, or of the field which he till, excepting certain families in Constantinople, to whom for some good service, immunity was granted by [Mehmed II].  [15]”

Although texts like Busbecq’s letter may frame open succession as a uniquely Ottoman practice, the tradition is rooted in earlier Turco-Mongolian steppe polities. [16] The successional process exercised by Suleyman was influenced by Inner Asian tribal custom of “tanistry” – whereby the next ruler was determined, via war or murder, through an assessment of the most competent member of the ruling family. [17] Early modern Ottoman policy of open succession was, as H. Ardem Cipa presents, a harmonious merge of the “overarching and time-honored Turco-Mongolian tribal principle” with Ottoman aversion to primogeniture. [18] The elements of murder and battles in Ottoman open succession demonstrates the extra-cultural influences in their successional process. This influence then challenges Busbecq’s validity in attributing the practice of open succession, along with the barbaric and despotic trait attached, as a uniquely Ottoman practice rather than a tradition that also potentially persists in neighboring cultures.

Gender and reproductive dynamics

While western diplomats like Busbecq and Moffan were mainly concerned with illuminating the cultural context of Ottoman open succession, they too observed the implications of the policy on the gender dynamics in the Topkapi Palace. In the same letter to Michault, Busbecq described the stakes that concubines had in the process of open succession:

“The mothers of their children were women in the position of slaves, the idea being that, if they were insulted, the disgrace to the Sultan would not be so great as in the case of a lawful wife. You must not be surprised at this, for the Turks do not consider the position of the children of concubines and mistresses inferior to that of the offspring of wives; both have precisely the same rights of inheritance to their father’s property.” [19]

Busbecq’s observations on royal wives and concubines demonstrates the politics of reproduction that existed in palace. In “The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire,” Leslie Pierce explored the political and economic stakes that mothers had in the making of the next sultan. By the end of the fourteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had practiced reproduction of royal members through concubines. Royal wives were denied the opportunity to bear children as means of suppressing the status of the royal family which they originated from. This strict reproduction policy was rooted in the fact that Ottoman sultans were frequently married to brides of a different dynasty. Thus, the responsibility of bearing children fell upon the sultan’s concubines, most of who mainly came from outside the Islamic world and had arrived in the palace after being taken as war booty or purchased from slave traders. [20] Using concubines to facilitate successional policies led to the prescription of a “one mother-one son” policy for women in the harem, thus reducing any competition that may arise between male siblings. Implementation of the “one mother-one son” reflected the strength of motherly influence on Ottoman succession, as concubine mothers has significant roles in “the training, the management of his governorate household, and the promotion of his career.” [21]

Despite his in-depth commentary on the politics of Ottoman reproduction  Busbecq did not address the risk in allowing royal wives to bear children for the dynasty. He also did not address the potential threatin making an Ottoman prince born of royal wives the next sultan. Instead, he relayed the story of the capture of Beyazid I and one of his consorts during the Battle of Ankara in 1402 as the premise for reproducing royal members via concubines and, subsequently, the process of open succession. According the Busbecq, Ottoman sultans stopped bearing children with royal wives when Beyazid and one of his unspecified consorts were insulted by Timur during their capture. The gibe left the Sultan feeling ashamed, and ultimately changed the reproductive dynamic of the Ottoman dynasty: “His humiliation,” Busbecq wrote, “made so deep an impression on his successors that, up to the time of [Suleyman], they abstained from contracting a legal marriage with any women, by way of insuring themselves, under all circumstances, against a similar misfortune.” [22] By highlighting the story of Beyazid and his wife, Busbecq suggested that the practice of open succession was a by-product of the sultan’s failure in upholding the honor of his consorts. This remark exposes Busbecq’s criticism of the sultan in failing to succumb to the traditional western ideal of masculinity in Latin Christendom which Busbecq was accustomed to. It demonstrates that attacks in orientalist writings could not only be unearthed via the idea of ethno-cultural identity but that it can also be delivered via the avenue of gender, particularly by emasculating the sultan in this case. Busbecq’s commentaries run parallel to the aforementioned remark by Moffan who characterized open succession as a “moral failure” for Ottoman sultans in practicing “honorable marriage.”

Diplomatic orientalism and the Ottoman threat

Busbecq’s commentaries on Ottoman policies, along with Botero’s report, forms a part of wider textual genre which Carina L. Johnson identified as “diplomatic orientalism” in “Imperial Succession and Mirrors of Tyranny in the Houses of Habsburg and Osman.” Diplomatic orientalism persists in oeuvres of western diplomats and intellectuals who were assigned to write and report on political developments of eastern governments. These texts often attempt to contextualize the political practices of foreign governments as corollaries of a culture that is primitive and barbaric. The value in these texts do not only lie in the fact they expose the writers’ perceptions on foreign governments, whether genuinely or not, but they also provide recommendations for their monarchs or head of states on how to respond to new information. As a result, the influence of these diplomats and writers in major international political developments is highly visible in the works they produced. For writers like Busbecq, Botero and Schweigger, their works were mostly written in the aftermath of the rival peak between the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires in the early 16th century. The competition arose when Suleyman started his reign as the sultan in 1520, alongside Charles who was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1519. Although applying the term “orientalist” to the oeuvre of a Latin Christian writer suggests that their writings were produced from a position of political condescendence, Johnson argues that they were instead emerging from a “context of Habsburg imperial weakness and limitations in the face of the much more powerful Ottomans.” [23]

Putting Johnson’s theory into test, it is plausible that writers like Busbecq and Betero attempted to manipulate the significance of open succession in the Ottoman Empire in their texts by distorting the practice from a gateway to a highly disciplined and centralized empire into an act of havoc and imperial mismanagement.

In fact, as highlighted by Busbecq who advised Ferdinand that he should not be as moderate in promoting his sons, Busbecq’s letters could be a subtle advice for the king to adopt a more brutal successional practice as to ensure that the empire remains intact. Cemal Kafadar argues that the Ottoman practice of unigeniture, particularly in keeping all the territories under the control of a single heir, allowed the empire to remain fully secure and intact. [24] This requirement prevented the empire from being fragmented into smaller, and subsequently weaker, states – which was the fate of preceding Turco-Mongol polities that were eventually dissolved. The system of centralization was further supported by the complex manner in which the empire was managed – particularly with the use of educated secretaries within the regimented bureaucracy starting in the early 16th century. [25] Open succession proved to be a highly successful method for the Ottomans as Kafadar notes that, throughout the history of the empire, it has prevented the empire from splitting into fissiparous polities and to subscribe to unigeniture throughout generations, up to the point that it becomes a norm during the reign of Beyazid I. [26]


The practice of open succession during the Ottoman empire was a mechanism that European diplomats and thinkers criticized. However, close examination of the political climate between the two empires and on the science behind “competitive unigeniture” exposes that the writers may had a legitimate fear in knowing that the practice that could be a sign of imperial strength rather than a weakness. If that is the case, Johnson’s use of the term “orientalist” to describe the works of Busbecq and Botero then raises an important question – if the writings from Latin Christendom on Ottoman open succession emerged out of the feelings of fear and insecurity, do they still conform to definition of orientalism, as in one that is tainted with condescending sentiments, that is canonically used? Martin Kramer, in the chapter “Said’s Splash” of his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failures of Middle Eastern Studies in America, explored the evolution of Edward Said’s Orientalism into mainstream cross-cultural studies and noted that while Said’s criticism of orientalist studies was founded upon legitimate examples, his book excluded orientalist works that would go against his thesis. [27] As a result, the term orientalism – which prior to 1978 mainly referred to a specified area of study – was distorted into an idea which pointed to the supposed vulgar understanding of the east among western thinkers. Albert Hourani once remarked that orientalism had become a handy “dirty word” and a blanket reasoning process in criticizing orientalist works by western writers, along with presumed shortfalls that came with the genre. [28]

To conclude, historiographies of European writings on Ottoman open succession unearthed the multiple avenues in which polemics on governance can be delivered. Criticisms of the Ottoman dynasty was not only presented as a flaw of Ottoman ethnic-cultural customs but also an inability in fulfilling normative gender roles and efficiently managing the empire. However, while it is possible to denounce the writings of 16th century western writers as uninformed and prejudiced, the cross-cultural transmission on Ottoman successional practices demonstrates that it is crucial to examine the origins of European knowledge on Ottoman politics. Thus, the construction of “orientalist” texts should then be thoroughly assessed – epistemological studies have indicated that orientalist works are not necessarily a monolithic stream of ideas crafted by the western bloc on eastern lives and cultures. Instead, it is an ambulation of western and eastern – if that geopolitical divide remains relevant – voices contributing to the discourse.


 Atcil, Zahit. “Why Did Süleyman the Magnificent Execute His Son Şehzade Mustafa in 1553?” Journal of Ottoman Studies, vol. 47: (2016): 67-103.

 Botero, Giovani. A Traveler’s Breviat or, an Historical Description of the Most Famous Kingdoms in the World Relating Their Situations, Manners, Customs, Civil Government, and Other Memorable Matters. 1601.

 Cipa, H. Ardem. The Making of Selim: Succession, Legitimacy, and Memory in the Early Modern Ottoman World. Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2017.

 Johnson, Carina L. “Imperial Succession and Mirrors of Tyranny in the House of Habsburg and Osman” in Representing Imperial Rivalry in the Early Modern Mediterranean, Edited by Barbara Fuchs, Emily Weissbound. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.

 Kafadar, Cemel. Between Two Worlds: Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

 Kaya Sahin. Empire and Power in the Reign of Suleyman: Narrating the Sixteenth-Century Ottoman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

 Pierce Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

 Thornton, Charles Forster and F.H. Blackburne Daniell. The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. London: C.K. Paul, 1881.

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