Today’s autocrats channel yesterday’s tyrants. In Brazil, the idol of the recently defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro is Emílio Garrastazu Médici, the Brazilian dictator whose “Years of Lead” between 1969 and 1974 were a ceaseless assault on human rights. In the Philippines, former president Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly expressed admiration for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. “You know, of all the presidents, who has projects that are still visible until today? It’s only Marcos. He has showed something. The rest? It’s all talk, all criticisms,” Duterte said in 2019, three years before his idol’s son, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., replaced him as president. For Donald Trump, picking a single strongman idol proved to be a challenge. “Who are the three guys in the world he most admires?” a Trump adviser told the Washington Post in 2017: “President Xi [Jinping] of China, [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and [Vladimir] Putin. They’re all the same guy.” If Turkey’s self-styled sultan Erdoğan stands out, it’s because he has taken a longer view. He idolizes neither a twentieth-century dictator nor a contemporary but Selim “the Grim” (1470-1520) and Selim’s son Süleyman “the Magnificent” (1494-1566), two men and contemporaries of Machiavelli who were also the most forceful and cunning sultans of the Ottoman Empire.
In recent years Turkey’s autocrat has made references to Selim a central pillar of his rhetoric, devoting “enormous resources and energy in promoting the sultan’s legacy,” as the historian Alan Mikhail notes in a recent biography of Selim, God’s Shadow. After 2017’s constitutional referendum—whose results switched Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, armed Erdoğan with broad, centralized powers and, Mikhail writes, confirmed the president “as the closest thing to a sultan the Turkish republic has seen”—his first act was to visit Selim’s tomb. He named a massive continental bridge in Istanbul after the sultan, whose name also became a leitmotif of the president’s rambling speeches. Süleyman, meanwhile, has become a valuable source of rhetoric. When French politicians led by Nicolas Sarkozy were threatening in 2011 to punish French citizens who deny the Armenian genocide, Erdoğan issued as a public speech a famous letter of Sultan Süleyman’s to the French king to give the French establishment a history lesson: after being captured by the Italians during the Four Years’ War, King Francis appealed to Süleyman for help, an episode the French needed to remember. In 2018, at the graduation ceremony of the Turkish Military Academy, Erdoğan repeated a prayer Süleyman is said to have read to Ottoman cadets in the Battle of Mohács (1526), which led to the death of King Louis II and the partition of Hungary. It isn’t only Erdoğan who sees himself as a modern-day composite of Selim and Süleyman. This October, as tensions grew between the muscular foreign ministries of Turkey and Greece, Nikos Dendias, the Greek foreign minister, complained of Erdoğan acting like Sultan Süleyman, which the Turkish press answered with boastful headlines.
As the Turkish presidential elections—originally scheduled for June 2023, and now set for May—draw near, a leader who fashions himself after Ottoman sultans known for their ruthless thirst for power is, of course, alarming. Yet this idolization also reveals the basic political designs of Turkey’s strongman, who wants to be seen as benevolent and yet scheming, like an Ottoman sultan capable of defeating kings and queens in diplomacy and warfare alike. Although his political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has aligned itself with Turkish far-right and vigilante groups that idolize pre-Ottoman tribal Turkic leaders instead of sultans in order to remain in power, Erdoğan’s ideology has been rooted in Neo-Ottomanism: a nostalgic fairy tale that claims that after the short interregnum that followed the founding of the Turkish Republic by Atatürk and his secularist followers in 1923, the Ottoman Empire is thriving again. Erdoğan’s adoration of Ottoman sultans who excelled at expanding the empire’s wealth and borders plays well with Turks who, in an era of economic meltdown, may feel nostalgic for a medieval past where Turkish sultans didn’t hide behind their considerable powers.
In approaching Erdoğan’s favorite sultans, Selim and Süleyman, Mikhail points to how they saw the world in Darwinian terms. The sultans’ struggle for political survival served to legitimize the mayhem they unleashed on their people—a feature of Erdoğan’s regime as well. Mikhail argues that the Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli both admired and feared Selim. In The Prince and in the Discourses on Livy, both completed after Selim became sultan, he praised Selim’s skill in seizing the Ottoman Empire—to do so he had strategized “ruthlessly, eventually to prevail over daunting odds,” Mikhail summarizes. It’s precisely this ruthlessness that has granted Erdoğan such consistent success at the ballot box, and that has also made him so dangerous. Since he became Istanbul’s mayor in 1994, Erdoğan has never lost an election. When his candidate of choice lost the mayoral election in Istanbul in 2019, the results were simply annulled. His henchmen explained that “something happened” during election night, but nobody from the AKP ever made much of an effort to explain what that something was.
Nowadays, whatever Erdoğan says goes. A sultan in all but name, he rules the country by decree, and he seems intent on ruling the country for another few decades. In photo shoots with journalists, Erdoğan is often seated in his chair like a king: otherworldly, immobile, assured of his absolute authority. But recent polls suggest his popularity may be fading: according to the November 2022 findings of Metropoll, Mansur Yavaş, the opposition mayor of the Turkish capital Ankara, polls at 46.4 percent against Erdoğan’s 39.7 percent; Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition mayor of Istanbul, polls at 42.9 against Erdoğan’s 42 percent. In the elections in May, Turkey’s secularist opposition parties are expected to defeat Erdoğan if they can agree on nominating one of these opposition mayors as their shared candidate. On December 10, 2022, Erdoğan announced that he would run for president “for the last time,” and then “deliver this blessed flag to our youth.” Less than a week later, İmamoğlu was sentenced to two years, seven months and fifteen days in jail for insulting public officials and banned from politics. The day after İmamoğlu’s sentencing, Erdoğan said that in fact he had no desire to quit politics, and hinted at running again for office after 2023’s elections. This unfaltering self-confidence raises a question: Can a leader who has ruled Turkey for twenty years with an iron fist relinquish such vast powers overnight? Since 2002, the political system of republican Turkey has been cajoled and flattered into allowing a citizen who sold rolls on Istanbul streets as a boy to become the political equivalent of an Ottoman sultan. Nobody knows whether he can step down from such a role.
Founded in 1299, the Ottoman Empire can’t be said to have exercised democracy. Nevertheless, it started out with a transparent system of political succession. Most historians agree that bad blood emerged in the Ottoman dynasty in the fifteenth century, when civil war broke out for eleven years after three of Sultan Mehmed I’s brothers rejected his claim to the throne. In 1451, Sultan Mehmed II, “the Conqueror,” issued a decree that allowed princes-in-waiting to practice fratricide in their ascent to power. Violence imposed by a monarch for his survival was thereby legalized.
Yet Mehmed II’s death in 1481 exacerbated the problem of political succession he had tried to resolve. In God’s Shadow Mikhail tells, in gory detail, how a rivalry between Mehmed’s sons Cem and Bayezid led to violence. While his courtiers supported Cem, the Janissaries, the elite military corps of the Ottomans, supported Bayezid. On May 22, 1481, Bayezid was proclaimed the “sultan of the entirety of creation.” But for years Cem contested his rule: conquering cities and striking coins bearing his portrait, he called himself the Sultan of Anatolia. The Ottomans had “two palaces, two capitals, and two sultans.”
Selim was 24 when his despised uncle died in Naples in 1495. Having observed the war Cem waged for years, Selim internalized the dangers surrounding the pinnacle of power. He also decided to become a sultan. Blaming his father Bayezid’s nonconfrontational stance for the rise of competing Muslim powers, he considered patricide. Mikhail teaches newcomers to Ottoman history how violent life in the Ottoman court was: waging war against Bayezid, Selim imprisoned his father in the palace and made sure he died soon afterward, most likely instructing “the men he sent with his father to kill him in a way that made his death seem natural.” Ruthless, scheming and grim, Selim became a role model for Turkish leaders for centuries.
It’s one thing to understand Selim and quite another to mythologize him. God’s Shadow does both. The book’s militaristic tone may, in the best light, be seen as a way to contextualize the fiercely expansionist sultan. It also reminded me of the many attempts made in Turkey over the past two decades to understand Erdoğan—explanations of his thinking have, at times, invited accusations of approving the Islamists’ reign. Providing context for the government’s purges of rival political groups, for example, was seen as a way of legitimizing the AKP’s state-of-emergency actions. Yet understanding the mythology of the strongman remains a worthy challenge: for today’s progressives, the question of why so many Turks continue to be invested in the symbols of a long-gone monarchical regime that reduced citizens to subjects is a critical concern.
The moniker historians give to Selim’s son Süleyman, “the Magnificent,” offers some clues. As a patron of arts, architecture and literature, Süleyman oversaw a “Golden Age,” his empire annexing large areas in the Middle East and North Africa and dominating the Mediterranean as well as the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Under his reign, sixteenth-century Ottomans might have felt what some U.S. citizens felt in the twentieth: that they belonged to the world’s most powerful state. Christopher de Bellaigue’s new book The Lion House tackles Selim’s legacy in this imperial magnificence, and dramatizes what his son Süleyman made of it. A hybrid of scholarly biography and historical fiction, written in a fast-paced present tense reminiscent of the late Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, this finely crafted novel places us in the shoes of Süleyman and his allies.
De Bellaigue takes as his subject the anxieties of a Turkish monarch about being usurped by a foe, and he explores it via pen portraits of Süleyman’s courtiers. The first, Alvise Gritti, is an Istanbul-based Italian powerbroker whose father, Andrea Gritti, was the Doge of Venice during Süleyman’s time. The second, a formerly enslaved Christian named Ibrahim, was Alvise Gritti’s patron and Süleyman’s newly appointed Grand Vizier. By the end of the book, Alvise Gritti is the richest private subject in the Ottoman Empire, collecting excise on goods passing through ports; the king of Hungary is among his debtors.
Süleyman promotes these men because he thinks they pose little threat to his reign. “They have no independent source of power and can be dashed down as soon as they show signs of becoming a threat,” writes de Bellaigue. To understand why Süleyman endowed Ibrahim and Alvise, his “surrogates,” with so much power, de Bellaigue brings us to the sultan’s childhood. When he was seventeen, Süleyman’s father Selim set up a meeting with him that revealed Süleyman’s inherited fear of death in his father’s hands: “Can trust exist between a man who has killed his own royal father and his still-living son?”
Ibrahim’s power, thinks de Bellaigue, was partly rooted in his skill at taking advantage of Süleyman’s anxieties. Yet Süleyman soon became suspicious of the power-seekers he handpicked. He got rid of his advisers as violently as Selim got rid of his relatives. Gritti died without a head in Hungary; Ibrahim’s body was discovered in 1536 “with marks on it, in the bedroom next to the Sultan’s, the torn clothes and bloodstains on the walls indicating that only after a fierce struggle were the mutes able to put the bowstring around his neck.”
In dealing with challenges to his Islamist reign since 2002, Erdoğan has been as relentless as Selim and Süleyman. He trusts nobody, not even his relatives. The attempted coup of July 15, 2016 marked the culmination of years-long rivalries in Erdoğan’s court, where Ibrahim and Alvise Gritti-like characters competed for his favors over the 2010s. Erdoğan accused his former allies, his “surrogates,” of collaborating to get rid of him. Since that fateful night, there has no longer been a place for an Ibrahim or Alvise Gritti in his administration. There’s been room for practically no one besides Erdoğan himself since Turkey’s shift a year later from a parliamentary to a presidential government.
The paranoid style of Turkey’s executive presidency is rooted in the fears Erdoğan has inherited from his Ottoman models. In the run-up to the 2023 elections, he will continue to employ the traumas from the age of Selim and Süleyman, however disingenuously, and this will likely continue striking a chord among his supporters. “If you show pity, you become pitiful,” Erdoğan famously said: that is the lesson he has drawn from Selim and Süleyman. Erdoğan’s electoral dominance shows how the fear of shame that comes with losing power is widely shared in today’s Turkey, where Machiavellianism reigns supreme.
Of course, Turkey’s present is not determined or dictated by the past, even if Erdoğan has made it seem so. But specific questions and dilemmas recur because of the unresolved clash of monarchical and democratic visions in Turkish history. For his progressive contenders, turning Erdoğan’s Ottoman complex into his Achilles heel is essential to winning the next elections: they must convince Turks that, as with the reign of the Ottomans, the time of Ottoman nostalgia must also come to a close, and that Turkey is better off without the caprices of modern-day sultans, be they grim or magnificent.