Meanwhile the Turks, with an energy that dismayed the West, built another fleet, as great as that which had been almost destroyed. Within eight months after Lepanto a Turkish flotilla of 150 ships roamed the seas looking for the Christian armada, which was too disorganized to venture from its havens. Encouraged by all to continue the war, but helped by none, Venice made peace with the Porte (March 7, 1573), not only ceding Cyprus but paying the Sultan an indemnity that covered the cost of the island’s conquest. The Turks had lost the battle and won the war. How far they were from enfeeblement appears in the confident proposal made by Sokolli to Venice (1573) that if she joined Turkey in war against Spain, they would help her to conquer the Kingdom of Naples as rich amends for losing Cyprus. Venice rejected the proposal as inviting the Turkish domination of Italy and Christendom. In October Don Juan refurbished his glory by capturing Tunis for Spain; but within a year the Turks, now with a fleet of 250 vessels, recaptured the city, and massacred the Spaniards who had newly settled there; for good measure they raided the coasts of Sicily. Selim II died in 1574, but Sokolli carried on the administration and the war.
It is a problem for philosophers that historians see a decline of Ottoman power in the reign of Murad III (1574–95), who loved philosophers. But he loved women too, and he begot 103 children from not quite so many wives. His favorite wife, “Baffo” the Venetian slave, enslaved him with her charms, mingled in affairs of state, and accepted bribes to use her influence. Sokolli’s authority was undermined, and when he aroused fanatical opposition among the populace by proposing to build an observatory in Stamboul, he was assassinated (1579), probably at Murad’s behest. Chaos ensued. The currency was debased; the Janissaries mutinied against being paid in bad coin; bribery corroded the bureaucracy; a pasha boasted that he had bribed the Sultan. Murad abandoned himself to venery and died of debauchery.
“Baffo” wielded almost as much influence over her son Mohammed III (1595–1603) as she had over his father. He began his reign in orthodox fashion by murdering nineteen of his brothers as an inducement to domestic peace; but Murad’s fertility had made this problem difficult; many of his sons were left dangerously alive. Corruption and disorder spread. War with Austria and Persia annulled victories with defeats. Ahmed I (1603–17), facing the rise of Shah Abbas I as a powerful leader in Persia, decided to concentrate Turkish forces on the eastern front. To free them in the West he ordered his agents to sign with Austria the Peace of Zsitva-Török (1606), the first treaty that the proud Turks condescended to sign outside Constantinople. Austria paid the Sultan 200,000 ducats, but was excused from any further tribute. Transylvania now voluntarily accepted Ottoman suzerainty. Persia too made peace (1611), giving Turkey, as a war indemnity, a million pounds of silk. Altogether this reign was marked with success and sanity, except for continued revolts of the Janissaries. Ahmed was a man of piety and good will. He tried, and failed, to end the rule of imperial fratricide.
Othman II (1617–22) proposed to discipline and reform the Janissaries; they demurred and killed him. They forced his imbecile brother Mustafa I to take the throne, but Mustafa was sane enough to abdicate (1623) in favor of his twelve-year-old nephew Murad IV (1623–40). The Janissaries chose the grand viziers and slew them whenever it seemed time for a change. They invaded the royal palace and compelled Sultana Kussem to open the treasury vaults to appease them. In 1631 they came again, pursued the young Sultan into his private apartments, and demanded the heads of seventeen officials. One of them, Hafiz, offered himself to the crowd as a sacrifice; they cut him to pieces. Murad, as yet impotent, faced them with what seemed an idle threat: “So help me God, ye men of blood, who fear not Allah, nor are ashamed before his Prophet, a terrible vengeance shall overtake you.”20 He bided his time, formed a corps of loyal troops, and arranged the assassination of one after another of the men who had led the mutinies. Further attempts at rebellion were crushed with savage ferocity, and occasionally the Sultan, like Peter the Great, shared personally in carrying out the sentences of death. He killed all of his brothers but one, whom he thought harmlessly imbecile. Reveling in royal authority, he decreed the capital penalty for using tobacco, coffee, opium, or wine. Altogether, we are told, 100,000 persons were executed in his reign, not counting deaths in war.21 For a moment social order and administrative integrity were restored. Feeling now reasonably secure, Murad took the field against the Persians, accepted himself the challenge of a Persian warrior to single combat, slew him, captured Baghdad (1638), and concluded a victorious peace. When he returned to Constantinople the populace received him with wild acclaim. A year later he died of gout brought on by drunkenness. He was twenty-eight years old.
After him the Turkish decline was resumed. Ibrahim I (1640–48) had escaped death from his brother by being, or pretending to be, feebleminded. Under his careless rule anarchy and corruption were renewed. He made war on Venice and sent an expedition against Crete. The Venetians blockaded the Dardanelles. The people of Constantinople began to starve. The army revolted and strangled the Sultan. The Christian West, recalling the story of Rome’s Praetorian Guard, concluded that Turkish power need no longer be feared. Within thirty-five years the Turks were again at Vienna’s gates.