Open up a world of Turkish inspiration with a Cornucopia digital subscription

Buy or gift a stand-alone digital subscription and get unlimited access to dozens of back issues for just £18.99 / $18.99 a year.

Please register at with your subscriber account number or contact

Buy a digital subscription Go to the Digital Edition

The Unlucky Prince

Jem Sultan
by John Freely (1926–2017)

Cem Sultan, the fifteenth-century Ottoman prince who was the younger son of Mehmet the Conqueror, was one of those unlucky individuals who seem destined to become great rulers but never get the chance. Indeed it is probable that if he had defeated his elder brother, Beyazit II, and become sultan, he would have driven the Ottoman Empire’s frontiers westward and perhaps, since Italy was one of the main Ottoman targets, might one day have ridden on horseback as conqueror into the Old Rome - just as his father, Mehmet II, rode into the New Rome of Istanbul – and even turned St Peter’s into a mosque.

It was not to be. Beyazit beat Cem (who here becomes Jem for reasons of pronunciation) in the race to capture the throne after Mehmet II’s death in 1481. Without an army, Cem fled first to Egypt and then later to the Knights of Rhodes. They broke their promise to let him travel freely. So instead of heading invading armies, Cem spent almost all his adult years, over a third of his life, first as a prisoner of the French and then of the Pope. They used him as a bargaining chip with Beyazit to fend off the Ottoman military challenge.

The Ottoman prince in his turban in Rome makes an extraordinary contrast with the Renaissance figures that flit past him in John Freely’s latest book. Cem was painted several times, so we know fairly exactly what he looked like. Perhaps it is because we know so little else about him – though we do have some poems he wrote in exile – that Cem appears to be the only upright figure in a dazzling cast which otherwise consists of unscrupulous and bent individuals to whom, rather surprisingly, we owe this most glorious period in the arts.

In Rome, Cem was held captive by two popes and their sons in turn. Sons of popes? Well, yes - in the closing decades of the fifteenth century the papacy was going through a spell of deep corruption. Luckily for Cem, Renaissance prelates were more adept at enjoying life than practising their religion, and so his time in the Vatican did not pass without a fair range of worldly delights. One papal son, a member of the Borgia family, went hunting with Cem. Even the Renaissance composer Josquin Després, who must have seen Cem from close by in the papal choir, has a minor part in this story.

Manly but a little fearsome, and always conscious of his superiority as an Ottoman Muslim, Cem was sometimes depressed but never lost his dignity. But of course he was doomed. Though his brother’s attempts over the years to have him assassinated were easily foiled, Cem’s end came very abruptly.

In late 1496, Charles VIII of France invaded Rome. He demanded, and was given, custody of Cem, who was treated with great honour and led south with the French armies. But within a month, Cem was dead of a sudden but apparently genuine illness. He was only thirty-four. Just over four years later, his body was taken back to Turkey and he is honourably buried beside his grandfather, Murat II, in the Muradiye Mosque in Bursa.

Stories of romantic royal prisoners are always a source of fascination and legends. Cem’s years in Europe are no exception. This is an excellent account of his captivity for the general reader, and it is enriched by John Freely’s expertise as a traveller, writer and art historian, though one wishes that HarperCollins had stuck to the usual spelling of the prince’s name.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 34
  • And Where Shall We Begin?

    Maureen Freely looks back on the life of the architectural historian Godfrey Goodwin, who died aged 84.

  • Championed by the cavalry

    Correct trimming of the stem is the vital first step. Instead of chopping off the hard stem caps, one should trim it into a cone shape, so that the pod then looks like a sharpened pencil and the juices remain trapped inside.
    More cookery features

  • Power Dressing

    For boldness, colour and virtuosity nothing can compare with the golden age of the Ottoman kaftan. After months of conservation work to ensure that they could travel safely, the Topkapı lent the Sackler dozens of its mesmerising royal kaftans.

  • In the spirit’s wake

    At last there need be nothing between you and the Bosphorus. Patricia Daunt tells the story of how two architects created Sumahan on the Water, breathing new life into an old Ottoman spirit factory. Photographs by Jürgen Frank

  • Land of a Thousand Mansions

    A 40-page celebration of the architectural heritage of the Eastern Black Sea Mountains

  • Painting his way into history

    The dashing Abdülmecit Efendi was the last member of the Ottoman dynasty to hold court on the Bosphorus. This enlightened, sophisticated man with a passion for painting, son of a Sultan and cousin of the last Sultan, spent two brief years as Caliph. But in 1924, the caliphate was abolished and Abdülmecid left the city his family had captured five hundred years earlier for exile in France. His paintings, abandoned in the very studio of his house on Çamlıca Hill where he had created them, are a remarkable pictorial legacy of the last days of empire. By Philip Mansel. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

Buy the issue
Issue 34, 2005 Ottoman Kaftans
£50.00 / $64.60 / 2,137.28 TL
Cornucopia Digital Subscription

The Digital Edition

Cornucopia works in partnership with the digital publishing platform Exact Editions to offer individual and institutional subscribers unlimited access to a searchable archive of fascinating back issues and every newly published issue. The digital edition of Cornucopia is available cross-platform on web, iOS and Android and offers a comprehensive search function, allowing the title’s cultural content to be delved into at the touch of a button.

Digital Subscription: £18.99 / $18.99 (1 year)

Subscribe now