Sultan Yahya

Yahya (1585–1649) was the third son of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet III. His mother was a princess from the Byzantine Komnenós dynasty of Trebizond, a surviving branch of the Byzantine imperial family of the same name from Constantinople. When his father, Mehmet, became Sultan, he followed the Ottoman custom of executing all of his brothers (potential rival claimants to the Ottoman throne). Yahya's mother was concerned that this could also eventually happen to him after the death of his father, so he was smuggled out of the empire, first to Greece, and then to present-day Bulgaria. He was then supposedly baptized at an Orthodox Christian monastery, where he lived for the next eight years of his life.[1]

Battle for Ottoman throne

Eventually, Yahya's two older brothers died, but in 1603, since Yahya had escaped the country to avoid fratricide, his younger brother Ahmed I (the fourth-born) became Ottoman sultan. Yahya believed that as the next oldest son, he was next in line to be Ottoman Sultan and felt cheated out of his rightful destiny. He would dedicate the rest of his life to gaining the Ottoman throne. However, the standard Ottoman practice at the time for determining the succession was not birth order of sons; instead the Ottoman laws of succession to the throne stated that after the death of their father, the Ottoman princes would fight among themselves until one emerged triumphant.

From 1603 on, Yahya made frequent trips to northern and western Europe to gain support for his claim to the throne (visiting Florence, Madrid, Rome, Kraków, Antwerp, Prague, and other cities). Between 1614 and 1617, he schemed with Serbian Orthodox Christian bishops in Kosovo and Western Roman Catholic bishops and leaders as part of his strategy to gain the Ottoman throne. A few years later, with the assistance of Russian and Ukrainian cossacks, he led a fleet of 130 ships and unsuccessfully attacked Istanbul. He died in 1649 on the Montenegrin coast, where he was involved in a rebellion organized by the Roman Catholic bishops of Skodra-and-Bar.[2]

Historical significance

Yahya's activities in the late 16th and early 17th century Balkans occurred in a context where religious boundaries between Islam and Christianity could be remarkably fluid and ambiguous. He had grown up influenced by his Orthodox Christian mother, and many of the other wives and concubines of his father had been Christian as well. The northern part of present day Albania and Kosovo recorded for that period instances of whole families and clans converting at least in name to Islam, and parallel reports of crypto-Christianity (mainly crypto-Catholicism), when some inhabitants would practice their old Christian religion in secret while professing Islam in name only. There were also instances where nominally Christian or Muslim inhabitants mixed elements of both religions.[3] Many of Yahya's activities involved plotting with Christians in present-day Albania and Kosovo. Reports of Albanian and Kosovar crypto-Catholicism continued into the 21st century.[4]

In contrast with the 16th century, present-day Balkan cultural (as well as political) boundaries between Islam and Christianity are for the most part well-defined and recognizable, therefore Sultan Yahya's activities in retrospect seem to be very remarkable. He repeatedly promised potential and actual sponsors and allies that if he succeeded, he would make Christianity the state religion of the Ottoman Empire. This promise was reportedly made to a succession of four popes, and was a constant part of all his proposals that were pitched to wealthy citizens and sovereigns across Europe. It is tantalizing to speculate what would have happened to Europe and to the Ottoman Empire had Yahya succeeded in his efforts.[5]

See also

List of unrecognized heir of the Ottoman dynasty


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