Islam has very strong opinions about alcohol, but, as with many religions across history, not everyone who practices a particular religion has taken its tenets to heart. One ruler of the Ottoman Empire, for example, enjoyed the wine so much he tried to conquer the land where a particular vintage grew so he could have control over the supply. His name was Selim II, also known as Selim the Drunkard.
Selim became Sultan of the Empire in 1566, but he was not the first choice for the job. His elder brother was carefully trained and raised to ascend to the throne. Then his older brother died of smallpox.[i] At first, Selim II was content to let his advisors run the empire while he hosted wild parties, a stark contrast to his father, who ruled directly and heralded a time of strength for the Empire.
In fact, Selim II was the first Ottoman Sultan to leave the work of governance to his advisors so thoroughly as he did. His nickname was well-earned, and also what inspired Selim to take more direct action in the running of his government, if only for a moment. Unfortunately, his efforts would bring about a major turning point in Ottoman history, and not for the better.
Selim II was a fan of wine, but in particular, he enjoyed wine from Cyprus. At the time, the island belonged to Venice, a major Mediterranean power with enough wealth and influence to make up for its small size compared to European powers such as Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. One of Selim’s advisors convinced the Sultan to conquer Cyprus, allowing him to enjoy his favorite wine. This would also expand the power of the Empire and weaken the prestige as well as the economic and maritime power of Venice in the Mediterranean.
For that to happen, though, the Ottomans would have to win. In 1570, the Empire went to war for its Sultan’s precious wine stock. While that may have been Selim’s main motivation, there were other reasons for the Ottoman-Venetian War, also known as the War for Cyprus. Ottoman influence in the Mediterranean was growing in the period, and Venice was a major regional rival. Cyprus, in addition to excellent wine, was also a known hub for piracy.[ii]
Selim’s intentions grew increasingly clear as he readied for war, so Venice was prepared. On land, the Ottoman forces performed quite well, landing and holding important parts of the island. On the sea, however, the Empire suffered devastating losses.
At the Battle of Lepanto, Venetian forces sank most of the Ottoman navy, with an estimated 30,000 sailors dead. Selim II, determined to gain the wine of Cyprus while his advisors likely wanted to ensure Ottoman prestige amongst Christian Europe, poured money into rebuilding the navy, neglecting other budgetary concerns to ensure victory.
This rebuilding, and issues with Venice and its allies, helped bring about an end to the war in 1573. The Ottomans gained control of Cyprus, Venice could resume lucrative trade with the Empire and the vast swath of Asian goods came through it via the Silk Road, and the Ottoman Empire was financially crippled due to the costs of the war.
For his part, Selim II died in 1574. Drunk as usual, perhaps on a fresh batch of Cyprus wine, he slipped into the bathhouse and cracked his skull. He died as he lived; drunk on wine. His oldest son, Murad III, would take up the throne, and see further weakening as the Empire’s enemies grew bolder in the wake of the Empire’s losses and costs against Venice.
September 7, 1566 – Selim II becomes Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Not trained or raised for the throne, he preferred to drink while his staff ran the government, a stark contrast to previous Sultans.
October 7, 1571 – The Battle of Lepanto takes place. This massive naval battle would see the near-total loss of the Ottoman Navy, allowing Venice greater control of the Mediterranean.
December 15, 1574 – Selim II died. Drunk on the wine his people fought so hard to secure, he slipped into a bathhouse and cracked his skull on the marble floor. Surrounded by ambitious enemies and financially unstable due to Selim’s war with Venice, the Ottoman Empire would see centuries of decline before its fall in World War I.