The Sultans are back and we resume our series with the able and energetic Selim III.
Selim III was twenty-seven when he took the throne having spent the previous fifteen years in the Cage. His accession was greeted with enthusiasm as he already had a reputation as a man with ability and energy. His court became a centre for the introduction of European culture into Turkish society, particularly from France, the oldest ally of the Ottoman Empire.
Selim was an accomplished musician, he played the Turkish flute, or ney, and also composed. He introduced well-planned administrative, fiscal and educational reforms which endeared him to all, but eventually brought about his own downfall when he began to reorganise the military. He created a small corps of foreign-trained troops who were seen as a threat by the Janissaries and other existing forces, a threat they could not ignore.
On 29 May 1807 Janissary auxiliaries in Istanbul persuaded the şeyhülislam, the highest religious authority, to issue a fetva justifying the removal of Selim. They marched to Topkapi shouting their support for ‘Sultan Mustafa’ – who would naturally succeed Selim. The mob killed Selim’s secretary, Ahmet Bey, and sent his severed head to Selim. The latter was so terrified by this that he instantly agreed to abdicate if his life was spared. He then summoned his cousin Mustafa from the Cage and offered him the throne. Mustafa was so mentally handicapped that it is doubtful he had the capacity to rule but, after an initial show of reluctance, he agreed to become Sultan and Selim took his place in the Cage.
Selim is remembered for his poetry and music as well as his efforts at reform. One of his poems which he wrote under the pseudonym Ilhami, ‘the inspired’, is often quoted. It is a couplet in the Persian style:
“O Ilhami, do not be indolent and do not trust the things of this world.
The world stops for no one and its wheel turns without ceasing.”