Illustration of Selim I receiving the severed head of the Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri; sixteenth-century

Sonia Halliday Photographs/Bridgeman Images

Selim I receiving the severed head of the Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri; sixteenth-century miniature

Sultan Selim I, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1512 to 1520, deposed his father and murdered two of his brothers. He executed so many of his officials that he inspired a curse still heard in Turkey today: “I wish for you a vizierate under Selim.” On the rare occasions when he was in his capital, Istanbul—he spent much of his sultanate either campaigning or hunting—he would emerge after dark in disguise, sit with his subjects and gamble (a sin under Islam), and have them hanged the following day. A zealous Sunni, he wrote poems full of images of Shia heretics drowning in seas of blood. Not for nothing was he named Selim the Grim.

For decades the modern Republic of Turkey neglected Selim in favor of his more obviously heroic relatives. His grandfather Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire. His court was a place of debonair cosmopolitanism where Italian Renaissance artists found work. In 1520 Selim’s only son came to the throne as Suleyman I and for the next forty-six years ruled the Ottoman Empire with such splendor and authority that later Europeans dubbed him “the Magnificent.” In the freewheeling early years of Suleyman’s reign, Ibrahim Pasha, a Greek convert of dubious sincerity, effectively ran the empire as grand vizier while Alvise Gritti, the illegitimate son of the Venetian doge, made a huge fortune and dominated trade and diplomacy.

In 1988 an enormous suspension bridge across the Bosporus was opened, bearing the name of Mehmet the Conqueror. More recently, beginning in 2011, Suleyman was the subject of a TV melodrama called Magnificent Century, whose 139 episodes were possibly Turkey’s most far-reaching cultural export since the tulip.

And yet for all the renown of Mehmet and Suleyman, it is Selim who may have the strongest claim to preeminence in what the Turkish historian Halil Inalcik named the empire’s “classical age”: the period, lasting a little more than two centuries, when it went from being one of several Anatolian principalities to attaining something close to administrative and military perfection under Suleyman. This is Alan Mikhail’s view in God’s Shadow, his new biography of Selim, in which he argues that Mehmet’s great conquest was of mainly symbolic importance, the Byzantine Empire having by then been reduced to its impoverished capital and a few overseas territories, while Suleyman has been unduly lauded simply for administering the empire his father created.

In a reign lasting just eight years, and in an era when it might take half a year to bring an army to the battlefield, Selim colonized much of the Arab world and parried the threat posed to the Ottoman Empire by Shia Iran when he crushed Shah Ismail at Chaldiran, in the northwestern corner of the Persian plateau, in 1514. His outstanding contribution to the Middle East was sectarian: he did as much as any historical figure to entrench the Sunni–Shia divide that runs through the region to this day.

Selim’s invasion of Egypt in 1517 provoked terror in Rome, where, according to the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, Pope Leo X summoned “the most excellent cardinals and all the foreign diplomats accredited to the Curia,” disclosing to them that

the terrible ruler of the Turks, the enemy of the Christian people…has brought Alexandria, Egypt and almost the entire Eastern Roman Empire under his control and has fitted an imposing fleet…he no longer craves only Sicily or Italy but the empire of the entire earth.

Only Selim’s death, from the plague in all likelihood, in his fiftieth year deprived him of the chance to attack Christendom, the Ottomans’ traditional foe. Leo ordered barefoot processions and church litanies in celebration.

It is appropriate that Selim’s importance has finally been recognized during the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, another autocrat who has tried through both diplomatic and military means to recapture something of the prestige that the empire enjoyed in the Arab world and who does not disguise his contempt for Turkey’s Alevis, proto-Shias whose ancestors—the kizilbas, or “red-headed ones,” after their headgear—fell victim to Selim’s sectarian massacres in the early sixteenth century. In 2016 the Alevis were dismayed when an even bigger bridge opened across the Bosporus, this one named for Selim the Grim.

The sixteenth century gives an ambiguous answer to the question of whether history is made by the wills of powerful people or by impersonal forces and innovations. On the one hand, the Protestant Reformation was a large, amorphous movement engendered by a corrupt papacy and advanced by the printing press. Europe’s colonization of Asia was lent impetus by the Ottomans’ strengthening grip on trade in the eastern Mediterranean and the development of the joint-stock company. On the other hand, England’s rebellion against the Catholic Church was prompted by a relatively small instrument, Henry VIII’s penis, while Suleyman’s determined wife Hurrem (known in the West as Roxelana) took control of the Ottoman succession and introduced an era of politics by family faction. Although Niccolò Machiavelli’s contemporaneous primer for rulers, The Prince, was written from the perspective of the Italian city-state, Selim is a near-perfect illustration of its premise that the powerful individual is the driver of history and shaper of events.


He was the third surviving son of Bayezid, the Conqueror’s son and successor, and although the Ottomans did not recognize primogeniture, his older half-brothers, Ahmed and Korkud, were given a helping hand by their father when he appointed them to governorships close to the capital; proximity would be useful when the time came to compete for the throne. Bayezid was a pious, not especially bellicose man who allowed his father’s policy of expansion to become one of consolidation. He was distracted by his rebellious brother Cem, who had thrown himself on the mercy of Europe’s Christian princes and was passed from royal court to royal court—something between a pretender, a captive, and a trophy over the mantelpiece.

In 1487, at the age of seventeen, Selim was appointed to govern Trabzon, a largely Greek port on the Black Sea that his grandfather had seized a quarter-century earlier. He turned exile at the empire’s easternmost extremity to his advantage by building an irregular army away from his father’s scrutiny. He kept his men busy by leading them into the Caucasus, where they could loot villages and seize Christians, who were sold on the slave markets of Istanbul and further afield.

In an address to his troops during one such foray into Georgia in 1508, passed down to us in a later hagiography, the Selimname (on which Mikhail draws extensively in God’s Shadow), Selim railed against the “incompetent people, the purse-snatchers,” and “the men greedy for wealth and possessions” who dominated his father’s court. In an allusion to the tensions between the two main constituents of the Ottoman ruling class, he regretted that his father had promoted slave converts over the free-born Turks “who have constantly served our court since the times of my great ancestors.” Most ominous of all for the empire’s security, because those in authority “do not give office to anyone other than slaves, the capable men…are, I have heard, inclining towards the kizilbas.”

The kizilbas represented a threat to the empire because they were followers of a dangerous neighboring power: Shah Ismail’s Iran, whose Shiism was a direct challenge to the Ottomans’ official Sunni faith. Ascending the Iranian throne in 1501, Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, made Shiism the country’s official faith, put thousands of Sunnis to the sword, and dispatched missionaries who found ready converts in Anatolia, including members of the Ottoman royal family. In Istanbul it was feared that the city contained many of Ismail’s secret followers and that they awaited his signal to fall on their Sunni neighbors.

Bayezid’s solution to the problem of the kizilbas in his own domains was to resettle them far from the Iranian border, but this only did the missionaries’ job for them, and in 1511 he was rewarded with an insurrection in western Anatolia. The Shias burned down mosques and pulverized Qurans. The high governor of Anatolia was beheaded, impaled, and roasted on a spit.

As governor of Trabzon, Selim had led numerous expeditions against the kizilbas, and his anti-Shia measures commended him to strict Sunnis who deplored Bayezid’s half-measures. In 1511, having accompanied young Suleyman to his first governorship at Caffa, a slave and cotton market on the Crimean peninsula, Selim began plotting against his father. The following spring, after marching on the capital, he and his supporters among the Janissaries, the sultan’s elite infantry, stormed the royal palace. Entering his father’s chamber, Mikhail tells us, Selim drew his sword: “Dropping his chin to his chest in anguish and resignation, Bayezid surrendered his empire.” Within weeks he was dead, allegedly poisoned by his doctor on Selim’s orders.

Mehmet the Conqueror had decreed that the prince “to whom God grants the sultanate may lawfully put his brothers to death,” effectively codifying a long-accepted measure to remove destabilizing pretenders from the scene. In the spring of 1513 Selim delivered his brothers to the executioner’s bowstring. He also had his five nephews murdered.

Armed with a fatwa declaring the Shias to be infidels meriting death, Selim then marched eastward through north-central Anatolia, slaughtering as many as 40,000 kizilbas. Most were beheaded, Mikhail reports, suggesting a killing operation of some sophistication. The survivors fled to the highest and least accessible parts of the Anatolian plateau, from which later generations were only emboldened to descend by the secularizing reforms that followed the inception of the Turkish Republic in 1923. In the early 2000s, when I was researching a book on eastern Turkey, I met many Alevis whose forebears had been Selim’s victims and who continued to commemorate the massacres in poems and songs.


It is hard to imagine a worse violation of the hierarchical values of the Ottoman state than Selim’s deposing and presumed murder of his own father, comparable in odiousness to the killing a few decades earlier by Richard of York, subsequently King Richard III, of his two defenseless nephews, the “princes in the tower.” Had Selim’s career ended there—had his most significant actions consisted of regicide and sectarian slaughter—there would now be no reappraisal, no bridge in his name. The ninth Ottoman sultan would be as reviled as Shakespeare’s “foule hunch-backt toade.” But these atrocities laid the foundations for events of lasting importance, and Selim’s fascination lies in the equipoise between his psychopathic behavior and his visionary statesmanship.

In the words of Jenabi Mustafa Efendi, a later Ottoman historian, Selim was “endowed with marvellous insight.” Even after the kizilbas massacres, he realized that the heresy would continue to threaten Ottoman stability because of the charisma of the shah. Mystical Islam becomes politically powerful when it harnesses the rapport between believers and their spiritual guide. Only by defeating Ismail in battle—only by destroying his aura of divinity—could Selim end his threat.

This battle between two Islamic ideologies set a modern army against a medieval one. The kizilbas chronicler Hasan Beg Rumlu explained:

The way of the Turkish Sultans is this, that at the time of battle they strengthen their army with guns and chains, making thus a strong fortress to protect themselves. And within it the gunmen fire guns and cannon and muskets, and over the cannon…they place big and small mortars.

All Ismail’s men had in the way of firearms were pistols stuck in their girdles. At Chaldiran, the shah refused to set his horsemen on the Ottomans before the enemy had taken their positions. “I am not a caravan thief,” he said; “whatever is decreed by God will occur.”

Bearing down on the Ottoman left, the Iranian cavalry scattered the Turkish conscripts. But the Iranian horses had no experience of coming under fire, and when Selim’s cannons discharged their first rounds the horses were thrown into confusion. According to a Venetian diplomat, “Hearing the thunder of those infernal machines, [they] scattered and divided themselves over the plain, not obeying their riders’ bit or spur any more.” Ismail was unseated, and he was saved from being impaled by a lance hurled at him only because a gallant soldier threw himself in its path. Then Ismail fled.

With the shah’s defeat and the end of his projects of expansion, Sunnism became unassailably the Ottoman state religion. In Persia, under Ismail and his successors, Shiism continued to expand at the expense of Sunnism until it became synonymous with Iran’s identity. The Ottoman–Persian world’s doctrinal flux gave way to schism. Although it would take centuries for a precise frontier to be established between the two, defeat for the Safavids split the region between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran.

Two years later Selim again marched east, this time toward the decrepit Mamluk Sultanate, with its capital at Cairo and its fingers closed feebly around Islam’s most sacred places. In August 1516 he was intercepted north of Aleppo by the Mamluk sultan, Qansuh al-Ghawri. As at Chaldiran, the Ottomans’ mastery of cannon and muskets made the difference; Qansuh was killed and Selim marched on and took Jerusalem. On January 22, 1517, after assembling what Mikhail calls “a veritable second army of fifteen thousand camels carrying thirty thousand water bags” and marching across the Sinai desert, the Turks were met by a second Mamluk force at Raidaniyya, near Cairo. Selim, that “master tactician,” outflanked the defenders and trapped them against the thick wall they had built to keep him out. With victory at Raidaniyya, not only Egypt but also Mecca and Medina entered the Ottoman Empire, where they would remain for the next four hundred years.

As Mikhail writes, “Selim had become the world’s most powerful sovereign.” He went well beyond what Machiavelli considered to be necessary cruelty (“short-lived and decisive, no more than is necessary to secure your position”), telling his last grand vizier that he had long planned his execution but had no one to replace him. His callousness did not, however, preclude administrative ability, judicious alliance-making, and, as was widely noted, an evenhanded, if severe, application of Islamic law. He loved war but surrounded himself with scholars. Pomposity was not among his faults, and he was praised by Cairenes when, attending Friday prayers after invading the city, he pulled back the rich carpet that had been spread for his prostrations and touched his forehead to the bare floor.

Mikhail, a professor of history at Yale, has not consulted the Ottoman historians who furnish many such insights into Selim. (The extensive Iranian historiography on Chaldiran has also been ignored.) His ambitions with God’s Shadow lie in another direction: he situates Selim in the wider world that was formed by the Reconquista, culminating in the capture of Granada by the forces of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492; Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas, the first of which took place the same year; and the Spanish persecution of Muslims everywhere they found them. Mikhail’s aim here is to demonstrate the formative importance of Islam—or rather Christendom’s fear and detestation of Islam—to the history of the Americas.

The transport of West African slaves across the Atlantic began shortly after Columbus founded the first European settlement on Hispaniola in 1493. The Spanish barred the entry of Muslim slaves to their colonies, decreeing that “in a new land like this one where faith is only recently being sowed, it is necessary not to allow to spread there the sect of Mahomet.” Slaves were first taken to Spain to be baptized and screened for signs of ingrained Islamic faith—a procedure familiar to any Spanish Muslim following the Reconquista. But the indigenous Tainos of Hispaniola were devastated by disease and ill treatment, and demand for laborers by the island’s sugar planters led to a relaxation of the screening process. By 1513 the majority of Hispaniola’s slaves were being brought directly from Africa. Many were Wolof Muslims.

On Christmas Day, 1521, some twenty Hispaniola Muslims owned by Christopher Columbus’s son Diego, the island’s governor, took up their machetes and set about dismembering their supervisors. Their numbers swollen to two hundred, the rebels then marched to the capital, Santo Domingo, where they were confronted by colonists on horseback. The Spaniards’ horses made the difference between the two sides. And thus, what Mikhail describes as “the first ever revolt against European slavery in the Americas” was quelled.

Muslim slaves continued to be transported across the Atlantic throughout the sixteenth century, whether to mine for gold in Colombia or to man the oars on galleys plying the Caribbean. Their Catholic masters brought with them reminders of Old World religious conflict in the form of words like mamelucos, which they repurposed to mean the children of Portuguese men and Indian women, and place-names such as Matamoros, after Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-slayer, who according to legend came down from heaven and defeated the Muslims in 822. The new arrivals also included adventurers seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola, supposedly founded by fugitives from the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711 and made entirely of gold.

Mikhail’s story of the transfer of bigotry, avarice, and superstition from one continent to another is well told. Both in the New World and the Old, he lays the blame for religious conflict on the Christians, whose “violent efforts to achieve religious homogeneity” contrasted with the Ottoman Muslims’ “ecumenical view of the world.”

Yet even if one accepts that Christendom can be spoken of in Mikhail’s monolithic, reductive way, Christian attitudes toward the Ottomans were more varied than he acknowledges, ranging from Pope Leo’s crusading zeal to the alliance that Francis I of France contracted with them in 1536, which lasted until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. European travelers admired the cleanliness and calm of the Ottoman mosques, the Italian chronicler Paulo Giovio praised Janissary discipline, and Guillaume Postel, a French envoy, compared the efficiency and honesty of the Turkish tribunals to the “immorality” of their French equivalents. In 1518, the year after he fixed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther described the Ottomans as preferable to the crueler, more insatiable “Turks” of the Catholic Church.

Mikhail’s assertion that much of Renaissance civilization developed from “Christianity’s atavistic hatred of Islam” is hard to understand. Much scholarship demonstrates the opposite—from the wholesale cultural exchange that took place along the shifting borders between Ottoman and Christian territories to the import of Islamic motifs into Venetian art. Christendom’s “bloodlust against Islam” was less constant an “obsession” than Mikhail imagines. Machiavelli’s The Prince barely mentions the Turks. As for Henry VIII, in 1518 the Venetian ambassador in London observed that he was no more concerned by the Turks than if they threatened India.

Mikhail notes the horrifying massacres of the indigenous peoples of the New World, but in the course of several allusions to the Ottomans’ occupation of the Italian port of Otranto in 1480, their massacre of some eight hundred locals—which is still commemorated today—slips his mind. When describing Hayreddin Barbarossa, a pirate who became Selim’s admiral in the eastern Mediterranean, Mikhail elides the savagery of his campaign of anti-Christian terror, which is gleefully chronicled in the Gazawat (Holy Wars), written by one of Hayreddin’s shipmates. As an account of slaughtering and enslaving the “accursed infidel,” the Gazawat deserves a place in any account of religious hatred.

The Ottoman imaginary was no less infused with holy warriors than the Christian one. The precise origins of Sari Saltik, the most celebrated of them, are lost; he may have been a comrade in arms of Osman, the founder in the late thirteenth century of the principality that grew into the Ottoman Empire, but no one can be sure if he existed at all. What is certain is that his legend grew and tales of his exploits and powers proliferated; in the 1470s the vast number of stories told about him were brought into some order and written down at the behest of Cem, Selim’s uncle, before his defection.

Sari Saltik was the Sir Galahad of the Turks—with a dash of Gilgamesh and a twist of Osama bin Laden. In one tale, he disguises himself as a priest in order to get into a church. The Christians get drunk and he slays them single-handedly. He binds the real priest to a tree and forces him to convert. Later a combined force of saints and djinns saves Sari Saltik from death at the hands of infidels who have catapulted him into a burning hayrick. Sari Saltik is one omission among many in God’s Shadow. The early modern world won’t easily divide into villains and heroes.

In an earlier version of this article the picture of Selim I was reversed, owing to an error by the agency that provided it.