According to various sources, in the Ottoman Empire, when a senior official was given a death sentence, he'd race with his executioner. If he were to win the race, the death sentence would be commuted, and he'd merely be banished instead.

For a grand vizier, however, there was still a chance: as soon as the death sentence was passed, the condemned man would be allowed to run as fast as he was able the 300 yards or so from the palace, through the gardens, and down to the Fish Market Gate on the southern side of the palace complex, overlooking the Bosphorus, which was the appointed place of execution.

If the deposed vizier reached the Fish Market Gate before the head gardener, his sentence was commuted to mere banishment. But if the condemned man found the bostanci basha waiting for him at the gate, he was summarily executed and his body hurled into the sea [Source].

I've quoted one particular source above, and there are many others repeating the same claim. I haven't found a reputable source refuting the claim, but it doesn't make much sense to me that people would receive clemency based on such a thing. As a side note, it's also claimed that gardeners also acted as executioners. That's why the source says head gardener rather than head executioner.

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[Picture source]

All in all, there are two claims that I'd like to verify:

  1. In the Ottoman Empire, did royal gardeners also act as royal executioners?
  2. Did some prisoners have the opportunity to escape from their death sentence by outrunning their executioners?
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    In case there's some confusion in parsing the claim and what is written in the title. The quoted claim says "head gardener" first, but then alludes to the "bostanci basha" which can literally mean head gardener, but is a palace guard. Whether they had to outrun anyone regardless of station is enough for an answer to address. – fredsbend Mar 12 at 1:08
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    I've made an edit to clarify that part. It's also claimed that gardeners are acted as executioners. – SpiderRico Mar 12 at 1:10
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    Seems like a question that would be more appropriate for History.stackexchange.com. – RBarryYoung Mar 12 at 13:34
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    We have a History site where this might get a better answer. – DJClayworth Mar 12 at 17:06
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    Uhhm, hopefully it's obvious that I meant "assess" above. – RBarryYoung Mar 15 at 13:46

Every version of this story that I see can be traced to a single English language book, which tells it as follows.

The Fish Market Gate (Baluq Khaneh Qapusi), as its name indicates, was the headquarters of the palace fishermen, who kept their fishing tackle in a rudely raftered room over the gate and whose fishing station was within watching distance from the shore. The gate was, however, more widely celebrated in another connection. It was to this gate that a deposed vizir or chief black eunuch was secretly conducted immediately following his degradation. In the event of a sentence of death, there was the very curious practice of a race between the head gardener of the palace, who was also the chief executioner, and the condemned — literally a race of life and death. If the latter succeeded in arriving at the Fish Market Gate first, he was accorded sanctuary within the gate, and the sentence commuted to exile. The last to escape death in this manner was the Grand Vizir Haji Salih Pasha in 1822/3 (1238 AH). If, on the other hand, the deposed official found the head gardener awaiting him upon his arrival at the gate, he was then and there summarily executed and his body cast into the sea.

Barnette Miller, Beyond the Sublime Porte; the Grand Seraglio of Stambul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931)

This book actually has very good citations and lists four for this story:

Even if I could access the first two sources they are written in Turkish in Arabic script which is a bit beyond my capacity, but it seems to me that the French and German sources do not correspond well to the anecdote being shared. It is possible that I have misinterpreted something.

edit: The German source reads simply: "... das Asabköschk wo die abgesetzten Vesire eingeschifft werden..." ("... the Asab kiosk/köşk, where the deposed Vesirs are sent off ...")

The French source is a physical description of the main gate to Topkapi Palace and has no historical content.

Based on Ellinor's provision of the Turkish sources, the balance of the evidence is tipping towards this being a hoax or misunderstanding perpetrated by Barnette Miller. If that is the case it may be based on similar Aztec practices which were really documented. In any case I recommend Ellinor's answer be accepted as they found the necessary Turkish sources.

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    I searched the German book for "Henker" and found a reference on page 242 that seems to allude to the practice as "Gerichtsköschk" but the search did not find that word, probably due to OCR issues (it is written in italics): [...] Wesire [...] werden hier (am Tor) [...] durch den Henker hingerichtet, oder nach dem obenerwähnten *Gerichtsköksch* zur Einschiffung ins Elend abgeführt in English: vizirs [...] are executed (at this gate) by the executioner [...] or embarked into misery along the lines of the aforementioned Gerichtsköschk. Gericht is court of law. I don't know the word "köschk". – Nobody moving away from SE Mar 12 at 9:38
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    Turkish Wikipedia has an article on Haji Salih Pasha suggesting he became governor of Anatolia and then of Damascus after ceasing to be Grand Vizier in 1822/23, so it seems unlikely that he was sentenced to death or exile. – Henry Mar 12 at 10:10
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    The Turkish word "köşk" means mansion; the pronounciation of "ş" in Turkish is the same as "sch" in German. So the "Gerichtsköschk" is very likely just the court building. – Guntram Blohm Mar 12 at 12:19
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    It's possible that this was a legal formality by the 19th century, and Haji Salih Pasha was simply permitted to outrun the executioner because he had some favor at court. I have asked some Ottomanists if anyone wants to help locating the Turkish sources. – Avery Mar 12 at 13:06
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    smithsonianmag.com/history/… doesn’t provide new sources but it does offer an explanation at the end for Haji Salih Pasha’s fate, suggesting that he won great esteem from winning his race that led him to the appointment as governor of Damascus. – H Huang Mar 15 at 20:08

There is a Turkish translation in Latin script of Abdurrahman Efendi's "Topkapi Sarayi Hümayunu" available at this link I don't have time to read the whole thing... The balikhane gate was indeed the one where viziers and other statesmen who had fallen out of grace were sent either for their execution or into exile. (Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, vol. 6, p. 2977). No mention of a race there- and the thing is full of anecdotes! There is an article in Turkish about the executioners that sums up all that is generally known about the Balikhane gate and its role in executions of statesmen- no race there either. As for Haci Salih Paşa, the Turkish Wikipedia mentions that Mahmud II. pardoned him and also abstained from seizing his property- which had been common practice with deposed officials' estates until the early 19th century. He was sent into exile instead- which, in the Ottoman case, was often a posting to a far-away province.

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