Mad kings and their deranged follies litter European history, but what about a mad sultan? Ibrahim of the Ottoman Empire grew up in a gilded cage, and it broke his mind. The empire quaked under his disturbing rule—right up to his chilling end. Read on for a window into the madness of Ibrahim, the Insatiable Sultan.
Though the son of Sultan Ahmed I, no one expected Ibrahim to become sultan himself. He was Ahmed's eighth son, and thus very unlikely to ever inherit the throne. However, Ibrahim had a secret weapon: his mother, Kosem Sultan. Kidnapped in Greece as a teenager and sold into slavery, Kosem rose through the Ottoman court to become Ahmed's favorite concubine and the most powerful woman in the empire.
But she was going to have her work cut out for her. From the moment he was born, Ibrahim was in terrible danger.
Ottoman princes weren't very big on "wait your turn." They were more than willing to eliminate their own kin to ensure their place on the throne—and that meant Ibrahim, eighth son as he was, had a target on his back from the moment he was born. But don't worry, as long as his father was around, he wasn't going to be too much of a threat. Oh, about that...
The Ottoman throne was a little like the Iron Throne—sitting in it could be a dangerous business. When Ibrahim was just two, his father bit the bullet, so beginning a bloody game of musical chairs that saw the deposition of one sultan and the execution of another. Finally, Ibrahim's older brother, Murad IV, took the throne and brought some semblance of stability.
But Ibrahim didn't get to enjoy it, because his life was about to become an utter nightmare.
Istanbul was no "City of Brotherly Love" in those days. Sultans kept large harems of concubines and had children by many different women. That meant most princes had different mothers, and thus there was little love lost between them. So how did Murad IV celebrate his ascension to the throne? By throwing all of his brothers, little Ibrahim included, into a cage.
Ibrahim grew up in the Kafes, literally, "cage." This special section of the Imperial harem was a glorified prison for heirs to the throne. Here, Ottoman princes were kept under constant surveillance and never allowed to leave. When Ibrahim was still in diapers, his older brother Murad tossed him in there and threw away the key.
The boy wouldn't taste freedom again for another 16 years. But his prison was even worse than it appeared...
Ibrahim wasn't alone in the Kafes. Murad threw his three half brothers in there with him—only one by one, they started getting picked off. Murad IV was a paranoid ruler, and he didn't trust his brothers not to rise up against him. During his 16-year reign, he had them executed one after the other until only little Ibrahim was left. The boy lived in constant fear that his head would be the next on the chopping block.
So why did Ibrahim survive when his older brothers weren't so lucky?
It would appear that growing up in a cage isn't good for you. Ibrahim was a feeble child who suffered from severe mental health issues. Though Murad didn't hesitate to off the other brothers, he evidently didn't consider Ibrahim a threat, so he just left the boy to rot. So there Ibrahim remained, confined to the Kafes, growing more and more unhinged with each passing day.
Then finally, after 16 years, his imprisonment came to an end—and the empire was in trouble.
Murad IV ruled for 16 years, but cirrhosis ended up claiming his life in 1640, when he was just 27 years old. However, before he went, he made a disturbing final request. From his deathbed, Murad ordered Ibrahim's execution. He knew about his brother's instability, and told his advisors that he didn't want a lunatic as sultan. Had his wish been granted, the empire would have avoided the catastrophe that followed—but Murad didn't count on one thing.
Ibrahim's mother, Kosem Sultan, wasn't about to sit by and watch her son's execution. She intervened and denied Murad's wishes, saving Ibrahim's life. When Murad finally gave his last breath days later, Ibrahim took the throne—but it wasn't quite that simple...
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
Ibrahim had spent years dreaming of the world beyond his cage, but when his chance at freedom finally came, he couldn't believe it. When a crowd came to the Kafes to free him and proclaim him sultan, the terrified Ibrahim blocked the door and wouldn't let anyone inside. Ibrahim was mad, but he wasn't stupid. He'd seen each of his brothers leave the cage and never return. He wasn't about to make the same mistake.
The crowd pleaded, but Ibrahim wouldn't budge—so his mother came up with a grotesque way to get through to him.
Kosem Sultan ordered Murad's remains brought to the Kafes to prove to Ibrahim that he was really free to leave. Ibrahim saw his brother's body, yet still refused to budge. Though he chafed in his prison, it was the only world he knew, and the thought of becoming sultan terrified him. But Kosem Sultan hadn't saved his life just so he could continue wasting away in the Kafes.
It was time to get serious.
Ibrahim didn't quite understand what was happening. If he refused the throne, did he think he could just continue to live out his life in the Kafes on the empire's dime? His mother reminded him that he would likely face execution if he refused the throne. At last, between that grim threat and his brother's body, Ibrahim opened the door and stepped out of the Kafes for the first time in 16 years.
It finally dawned on him: He was free! If only anyone realized what they had unleashed.
Ibrahim's doubts evaporated the instant he left the cage. He allegedly began dancing through the harem, shrieking, "The butcher of the empire is dead!" In truth, the butcher had only been replaced with another.
Believe it or not, Ibrahim's reign actually got off to a pretty good start. His brother's old Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha, was a very capable administrator and he kept things running smoothly during the transition from one sultan to another. Now, all anyone could do was wait and see what kind of sultan Ibrahim would be. And at first, people were pleasantly surprised.
It's hard to know what to expect out of a guy who grew up in a cage, but Ibrahim seemed to be reasonably well-adjusted. He communicated with the Grand Vizier frequently and showed genuine concern with ruling the Ottoman Empire. He even went out into the city to see his dominion for himself, putting on a disguise and inspecting the local markets.
All in all, things were going pretty well—but there were signs that something was seriously wrong with the new sultan.
Ibrahim tried his best to rule, but a plethora of ailments haunted him. He suffered from excruciating headaches and attacks of physical weakness. Most modern scholars agree that the trauma of his upbringing caused these symptoms, and as the years began to pass, the "Good Sultan Ibrahim" began to grow more and more unstable.
He was heading down a dark path, and his mother knew it. Kosem Sultan had to come up with a way to distract him—and in doing so, she created a monster.
Ibrahim's erratic behavior was becoming a liability, so Kosem Sultan encouraged him to distract himself with his harem. After all, a sultan needed heirs to carry on his line! Pretty soon, Ibrahim had fathered three sons by three different concubines—but he didn't stop there. It turns out, Ibrahim had an insatiable appetite for women, and his mother struggled to keep him occupied, though she certainly tried.
Kosem personally went to the market to make sure that her son had a constant stream of slave girls to keep him busy. She knew exactly what kind of women her son liked, and hand-picked the ones she thought would keep his attention. However, she quickly learned that her son's appetites were even more disturbing than they had seemed at first.
Ibrahim was a predator in every sense of the word. He kept his harem filled with hundreds of concubines, slaves who had no choice in the matter. Even more twisted, Ibrahim preferred women that he couldn't have. His girls, who weren't in a position to refuse him, didn't interest him as much as women he had to coerce.
Surprise surprise, the boy who grew up in captivity became a horribly damaged monster—and he didn't take kindly to hearing the word "no."
Ibrahim always got what he wanted. According to one story, he became infatuated with the Grand Mufti's beautiful daughter. Ibrahim asked the religious leader for her hand in marriage, but the Grand Mufti knew what kind of man Ibrahim was. He'd heard stories of what went on behind the walls of Ibrahim's harem, and he didn't want his daughter to have any part of that.
He refused the proposal to protect his daughter—but he underestimated just how cruel Ibrahim was.
Ibrahim didn't take rejection well. In his rage, he ordered his guards to follow the Grand Mufti's daughter. They kidnapped her and dragged her back to the harem, where Ibrahim had his way with her for days before sending her back to her father and carrying on with his usual concubines.
As long as Ibrahim was distracted with his harem, his mother could essentially rule the empire in his stead, so she was willing to do anything to keep him occupied. Kosem knew that her son was frequently impotent, so she scoured the city for the best aphrodisiacs money could buy. She supplied these tinctures and ointments to her son so he could continue in his twisted fantasies—and yes, they were every bit as messed up as you'd imagine.
According to one report, Ibrahim frequently liked to assemble all of the virgins in his harem. He would order them each to strip, then he would run amongst them, neighing like a horse, ravishing one after the other. Even more deranged, he would order them to kick and struggle against him. The harem was a true nightmare for any woman unlucky enough to find herself there—and the large ones had it the worst of all.
Ibrahim the Mad had a type: The biggest women he could find. He'd send men out to find the fattest women in the empire to bring back to the capital and join his harem.
Ibrahim's obsession with his harem consumed nearly his entire life. He collected a vast library of books describing different bedroom positions, and allegedly invented several new ones himself. But it wasn't all sex all the time. Ibrahim found plenty of other questionable ways to keep himself occupied in his harem.
Since his harem was all he really cared about, should you be surprised that Ibrahim almost bankrupted the empire decking it out? During his reign, the imperial harem reached untold heights of luxury. Ibrahim brought in the finest perfumes, textiles, and jewelry for his concubines—a small consolation prize for the nightmare they endured.
But above all else, Ibrahim loved furs. As in, he really, really loved furs.
Ibrahim's obsession with furs earned him the nickname "Le Fou de Fourrures" (The Fool of Furs) all the way over in France. He only wanted to sleep with women on extravagant furs, and he even had an entire room lined with lynx and sable, just because he could. Sure he was mad, but he was still fancy—and he made sure to look the part too.
When you're a mad sultan, you've got to look the part. Ibrahim wore the finest clothes money could buy and drenched his entire person in the finest perfumes money could buy. Good luck if you found yourself in the same room as him! Clearly, "thrifty" was not a word anyone would use to describe Ibrahim the Mad—but his ridiculous expenditures went beyond even what you're imagining.
Being one of Ibrahim's concubines was a true horror story—unless you happened to be one of his favorites. Then, you stood to receive the finest gifts imaginable. How fine were these gifts, you ask? Well, Ibrahim once gifted two of his favorite concubines...the entire treasury of Egypt. Whatever happened to flowers?
However, there were hundreds of women in Ibrahim's harem, and they didn't all get treasuries. For the rest, life in Ibrahim's harem was beyond miserable—but at least they had one person looking out for them.
Kosem Sultan used the harem to distract her son and take power for herself, but she wasn't completely heartless. Once, when Ibrahim tried to force himself on one of his concubines, she pulled a dagger out and threatened to stab him. Kosem Sultan heard the ensuing struggle and intervened, telling off her deranged son and allowing the concubine to escape the harem.
She was playing a dangerous game—but she couldn't control Ibrahim forever. Something was going to give.
Ibrahim's mother put up with his demented games because it got her the power she craved—but he was bound to cross the line eventually. He utterly humiliated his sisters by making his own concubines more powerful than them. He also gave away his sisters' land and jewels to his favorites. They were princesses of the Ottoman Empire, yet Ibrahim left him with nothing.
Kosem Sultan was absolutely furious. She'd given Ibrahim everything, only for him to betray his own family like that. A feud was brewing, and there would be bloodshed before it was done.
Ibrahim the Mad invented new ways to be totally nuts. There was a shrine in Medina where previous sultans customarily left gifts. Ibrahim demanded his Grand Vizier reclaim those gifts for him. When the Vizier refused that bonkers request, Ibrahim made one of the craziest threats in history: He threatened to stuff the Vizier with straw.
This was not the kind of guy you wanted ruling one of the most powerful empires on Earth—and the dark voices whispering in his ears didn't help matters.
If you could get on Ibrahim's good side, untold riches awaited you. Unfortunately, being sensible wasn't one of the things that would endear you to him. Horribly inept, selfish, and arrogant people gained Ibrahim's trust, such as the mistress of the imperial harem, Sekerpare Hatun. Anyone who could give Ibrahim what he wanted stood to gain immense wealth and power—and that paved the way for all kinds of shady characters.
Before Rasputin, there was Cinci Hoca, a charlatan who claimed he had the ability to cure any illness. He "cured" Ibrahim's ailments, and the sultan rewarded him with untold riches. We all know how what happened when Rasputin infiltrated the Russian court, so do you think things went any better in Istanbul?
With Kosem Sultan and Ibrahim at odds, the only person who could resist the sultan's cronies was the Grand Vizier—and he ended up six feet under because of it.
The Grand Vizier knew that people like Cinci Hoca could threaten the Empire, so he tried to keep them in check. But, under Ibrahim's protection, Hoca and his allies grew too powerful for even the Vizier to contain. Hoca eventually grew influential enough that he managed to secure the Vizier's execution. The foxes were officially running the henhouse. And all the while, Ibrahim's descent into madness continued.
Ibrahim was happy to let people like Cinci Hoca run the empire into the ground, as long as he could keep playing house with his concubines. As you can imagine, the empire suffered greatly for it. Once a stable, powerful political entity, the foundations of the empire grew shakier and shakier with each passing year. It would only take a shove for everything to fall apart.
And that shove came in the form of a war.
In 1644, Maltese corsairs captured a ship carrying several high-ranking Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Since the pirates docked out of Crete, Ibrahim's warmongering advisors convinced him to invade the island. So began a disastrous war with another powerful Mediterranean power: Venice. Such an undertaking would be hard for even the most effective sultan. All the Ottomans had was Ibrahim. This was not going to go well...
Thus far, the Ottomans had put up with Ibrahim's..."eccentricities" because he wasn't really affecting most people's lives that much. The war with Venice changed all that. Venice blockaded the Dardanelles, cutting off Istanbul's only connection to the Mediterranean and causing massive shortages of food and supplies. And what was Ibrahim up to while his people starved?
He continued to levy brutal taxes to pay for the extravagances of his harem. It was not a good look—and it very nearly spelled the end for the mad sultan.
In 1647, after three miserable years of conflict, a plot against Ibrahim began brewing. The latest Grand Vizier teamed up with none other than Kosem Sultan to depose Ibrahim and right the ship. Finally, somebody was going to do something about Ibrahim! Well, things didn't really go as planned...
The plot to depose Ibrahim fell apart before it even got off the ground. Ibrahim had the Grand Vizier executed and exiled his own mother from the harem. With that taken care of, he was free to delight himself with his concubines as the disastrous war with Venice continued unabated. He also appointed a new, corrupt Grand Vizier who would let him do whatever he wanted.
But if Ibrahim thought no one else would come for him, he was sorely mistaken.
Just a year later, Ibrahim's number finally came up. You can't bankrupt an empire and run it into the ground without someone putting a stop to you eventually. The Janissaries, the Ottomans' elite infantry force, revolted. With the military against them, Ibrahim and his cronies no longer stood a chance. The first to go was Ibrahim's new Grand Vizier—and his end was absolutely brutal.
The people of Istanbul had long since grown fed up with their mad sultan and his corrupt advisors. On August 8, 1648, an angry mob got their hands on the Grand Vizier, and it wasn't pretty. The mob tore him to shreds, gaining him the gruesome moniker "Hezarpare," or "thousand pieces." Next, the mob was going to come for Ibrahim. And did the Mad Sultan face his end with dignity?
What do you think?
With the walls closing in around him, Ibrahim ran straight into his mother's arms. He'd exiled her before, but she was the only person who'd ever truly looked out for him. He begged mommy to protect him, and Kosem Sultan gave him an ultimatum: Abdicate, or face the mob. Did he really have a choice?
That same day, guards seized Ibrahim and imprisoned him in the Topkapi Palace. Once again, he found himself in a cage—but this time, he wouldn't leave alive. For now, all he could do was sit and await his fate. His one solace was that he knew his mother was still out there, working to protect him. If only he knew the truth...
Kosem Sultan had sheltered her son for his entire life, even when he betrayed her. That time was over. She saw what her son had become, and she knew that he had to go, writing: "In the end, he will leave neither you nor me alive. We will lose control of the government. The whole society is in ruins. Have him removed from the throne immediately."
And that's exactly what happened.
A coalition deposed Ibrahim the Mad and made his six-year-old son Mehmed the new sultan. But no one felt safe with Ibrahim still alive, even if he was locked in a cage once more. The new Grand Vizier sought out a fatwa from religious leaders to sanction Ibrahim's execution. The reply was simple, and grim: "If there are two caliphs, kill one of them."
The only person left now who could save Ibrahim's life was Kosem Sultan—but she wouldn't do it.
Ibrahim had beaten all of the motherly love out of Kosem Sultan. She consented to the execution, and the Grand Vizier quickly sent for two executioners. In a morbid twist, one of them was the same executioner whom Ibrahim himself had commanded for years. But if you're picturing a quick beheading or hanging, think again. The end of Ibrahim the Mad was far slower than that.
There was no ceremony when it came to Ibrahim's execution. As officials watched from an overlooking window, the executioners trudged into Ibrahim's cell and strangled him to death. But, before their hands wrapped around his neck, Ibrahim managed to croak out one final plea for mercy.
According to contemporary reports, Ibrahim the Mad's final words were, "Is there no one among those who have eaten my bread who will take pity on me and protect me? These cruel men have come to kill me. Mercy! Mercy!" But Ibrahim had exhausted any mercy a long time hence. No one had a shred of pity left for the mad sultan—not even his favorite concubines.
Turhan Hatice Sultan, of Russian descent, was one of Ibrahim's favorites. She gave him his firstborn son, Mehmed, and his favor gained her untold riches and influence. However, it all came at the cost of enduring his wild rages and erratic whims. Turhan put up with it—she had no other choice, after all—but one day, as he was wont to do, Ibrahim went too far.
It was sometimes hard to predict what would catch Ibrahim's fancy. At one point, he took a great liking to the infant son of a slave girl. In fact, he actually preferred the hale and hearty boy to his own son Mehmed, whom he saw as weak and sickly. Turhan, understandably furious that Ibrahim preferred this strange boy to her own son, confronted him about it.
Ibrahim's reaction was disturbing, even for him.
Ibrahim the Mad did not like it when people crossed him. When Turhan confronted him about their son, he flew into a wild rage. Reports claim he ripped his own infant son from her arms and threatened the boy with a knife. He cut his son bad enough to leave a permanent scar, then threw him into a pool. A servant immediately dove in and rescued the young prince, but the boy still barely survived.
No one was safe around Ibrahim, not even his own children. And even if he happened to like you, you were still in danger—something his favorite concubine learned the hard way.
Remember how Ibrahim liked his women on the...curvy side? We weren't kidding when we said that. According to one source, he once saw a young cow in a field, and the beast sent him into a frenzy. He had...anatomically correct...models cast in gold, then sent them all across the empire. He demanded anyone who knew a woman "made in just that manner" to send them to Istanbul immediately to satisfy his lust.
And, lucky him, he got exactly what he was looking for.
The woman in question was a 330-pound Armenian, Sivekar Sultan. A onetime slave of Kosem Sultan, she was everything Ibrahim had ever wanted. She soon skyrocketed to the very top of the harem hierarchy. With Ibrahim wrapped around her finger, Sivekar felt totally secure—and she let the power go to her head.
Perhaps the most infamous story about Ibrahim the Mad began with Sivekar Sultan. She allegedly told him that one of his concubines had been "compromised by an outsider," but claimed to know no further details. I bet you can imagine how a paranoid lunatic like Ibrahim reacted. He raged for days, demanding information on this mysterious traitor.
However, no amount of interrogation uncovered a name—so Ibrahim ordered one of the most disturbing acts in history.
When no traitor came forward, Ibrahim instead allegedly ordered his entire harem to be tied up in weighted sacks and thrown in the Bosphorus. That's 280 women, drowned like cats, all over an unsubstantiated claim of treachery. Strangulation was too good of an end for a man like that—but at least the ruthless Sivekar got what was coming to her, too.
Ibrahim couldn't deny Sivekar anything, and she quickly became a little too powerful for her own good. Soon, she threatened Kosem Sultan's place in the harem—and that cost her her life. Kosem invited Ibrahim's voluptuous lover to dinner—only to have her poisoned (or perhaps strangled). She told Ibrahim that she had suddenly fallen victim to a mysterious sickness, and no one could save her. Wink.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
Want to tell us to write facts on a topic? We’re always looking for your input! Please reach out to us to let us know what you’re interested in reading. Your suggestions can be as general or specific as you like, from “Life” to “Compact Cars and Trucks” to “A Subspecies of Capybara Called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.” We’ll get our writers on it because we want to create articles on the topics you’re interested in. Please submit feedback to email@example.com. Thanks for your time!
Do you question the accuracy of a fact you just read? At Factinate, we’re dedicated to getting things right. Our credibility is the turbo-charged engine of our success. We want our readers to trust us. Our editors are instructed to fact check thoroughly, including finding at least three references for each fact. However, despite our best efforts, we sometimes miss the mark. When we do, we depend on our loyal, helpful readers to point out how we can do better. Please let us know if a fact we’ve published is inaccurate (or even if you just suspect it’s inaccurate) by reaching out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your help!
The Factinate team
If you like humaverse you may also consider subscribing to these newsletters: