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Eliminating the Competition: Selim I, A Grim Conqueror Who Vastly Extended the Ottoman Empire

Eliminating the Competition: Selim I, A Grim Conqueror Who Vastly Extended the Ottoman Empire


Selim I (known also by his epithet ‘Yavuz’, which, translated from Turkish, means ‘the Grim’) was the 9th sultan of the Ottoman Empire who lived during the second half of the 15th century and the first half of the following one. He is remembered today as a conqueror who significantly extended the domains of the Ottoman Empire.

It was during Selim’s reign that much of the traditional territories of Islam in the Middle East fell under Ottoman rule. As the Ottomans became the most powerful state in the Islamic world, and its sultan the protector of the hajj and the holy places of Islam, Selim has been regarded as the first Ottoman caliph. Moreover, there are stories (later inventions) of a formal transfer of this authority from the last Abbasid caliph to the Ottoman sultan in Cairo.

Destroying His Family

Selim I was born in 1470/1, and was the youngest son of Sultan Bayezid II and Gulbahar Sultana, who was from the beylik (small principality) of Dulkadir. During the long and relatively peaceful reign of his father, the severe financial, economic, and social problems caused by the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire were resolved, thus allowing the further expansion of the empire by Selim.

In order to ascend the throne, Selim had to first eliminate his own father. With the aid of the Janissaries, Selim succeeded in forcing Bayezid to abdicate the throne on the 25th of April 1512. The former sultan would die just about a month after his forced abdication. The next step that Selim had to take was to secure his throne from potential rivals.

As a result of this, many of his male relatives were murdered, so that there would be no competition for Selim’s throne. It has been claimed that this gained him the title ‘the Grim’. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the sultan was given this epithet due to his firmness and resolution in the face of both Muslim and non-Muslim enemies of the Ottoman Empire.

Selim in Egypt.

Selim in Egypt. ( Public Domain )

Conquering Outside Enemies

Once his throne was secure, Selim could focus on expanding the empire. His first conflict was with Safavid Empire in Iran, which began to rise in power around the beginning of the 16th century, and was threatening the balance of power in the region. At that time, the Safavids were led by Shah Ismail, who was decisively defeated by Selim at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The Safavids, led by the successors of Shah Ismail, continued to fight the Ottomans, though they were no longer as much a threat as they once were.

16th-century Ottoman miniature of the Battle of Chaldiran.

16th-century Ottoman miniature of the Battle of Chaldiran. ( Public Domain )

Selim’s next target was the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, which ruled Egypt and the Levant. Having defeated the Mamluks in the Levant, Selim and the Ottomans marched on to Egypt. In February 1517, the Ottomans stood before the gates of Cairo, and the Mamluks made their last stand. The Mamluks were defeated, and according to one account, some 800 captured Mamluks were beheaded, their heads placed on pikes around Selim’s camp, whilst their bodies thrown into the Nile.

Location of Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

Location of Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The defeat of the Mamluks reduced Egypt form a power in its own right into a province of the Ottoman Empire. The surviving Mamluks, however, realized that if they served the Ottoman sultans as they had served the Mamluk sultans, they could still retain the positions of power in Egypt, and control of the government. This was what they did, and the Mamluks continued to form the ruling class in Egypt for the succeeding three centuries.

Another important consequence of Selim’s conquest of Egypt is that he was now the most powerful ruler in the Islamic world, and that he was also regarded as the first Ottoman caliph. According to one story, it was in Cairo that the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mutawakkil III, transferred his authority to Selim. This story, however, is commonly considered to be a later invention. Additionally, certain relics of the Prophet Muhammad were transferred from Cairo to the Ottoman capital at Constantinople.

Outline of the Ottoman Empire, from the Theatro d'el Orbe de la Tierra de Abraham Ortelius, Anvers, 1602, updated from the 1570 edition.

Outline of the Ottoman Empire, from the Theatro d'el Orbe de la Tierra de Abraham Ortelius, Anvers, 1602, updated from the 1570 edition. ( Public Domain )

The End of His Short Reign

In 1520, Selim died at the age of 50, after a reign of eight years. It has been suggested that cancer was the cause of his death. Despite his short reign (especially when compared to his father’s 31 years, and his son and successor, Suleiman the Magnificent’s 46 years), Selim may be considered to be a very successful ruler. By the time of his death, the size of the Ottoman Empire had increased by two and a half times.

Selim I on his deathbed

Selim I on his deathbed. ( Public Domain )

Top image: Selim I by an unknown European painter. Photo source: ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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