Thursday, March 25, 2010

Monarch Profile: Suleiman the Magnificent

In the long history of the Ottoman Empire, one monarch who stands out from the rest is Sultan Suleiman I, better known as Suleiman the Magnificent. He is perhaps most remembered in the Muslim world for the legal code he left behind but in the Christian world he is more often remembered for his conquests and being a powerful ally to some and a mortal danger to others. Suleiman was born in Trabzon on November 6, 1494 to Sultan Selim I and from the age of seven he was groomed to one day rule, being educated in science, history, literature, Islamic theology and warfare. From the age of 17 he was given a number of important political posts, including three governorships.

Upon the death of his father in 1520 Suleiman became Grand Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe. Described as tall, thin, pale studious and wise, great things were expected of him and he was not to disappoint. In his studies he admired the great figures of ancient history such as Alexander the Great and was determined to surpass their deeds. His competitive spirit went to such lengths that he had a 4-tiered crown made for himself in order to surpass the 3-tiered crown of the Pope in Rome. In the spirit of Alexander he immediately set out on a campaign of conquest in southern Europe, taking Belgrade from the Hungarians one year after ascending the throne.

Suleiman the Magnificent (as he soon came to be called) struck fear across Christendom with victory after victory. He invaded Hungary, the King falling in battle, conquered Hungary and after an epic siege captured the island of Rhodes. In 1526 he defeated the Hungarians again, making the Ottoman Empire the dominant power in south-eastern Europe. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V liberated Hungary Sultan Suleiman counter-attacked and recaptured Budapest and besieged Vienna, Austria. The survival of Christian Europe hung in the balance but at Vienna Suleiman suffered his first defeat and had to fall back. However, he won other victories later and forced Emperor Charles to sue for peace on his terms.

With the European situation settled to his satisfaction Suleiman then fought a long but ultimately successful war against the Persians, solidifying Turkish control of Iraq and the Middle East. He challenged the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean for control of the trade to the subcontinent, winning control of Yemen but failing to capture key Portuguese positions. He also later assisted rebels in Indonesia against Portugal. However, his attention was drawn back to Europe by the successes of Andrea Doria in the eastern Mediterranean and the gains of Emperor Charles V in Tunisia. Suleiman assembled a massive naval force with the intention of smashing the Christian fleets, invading Italy and perhaps more. He even promised to capture Rome and make St Peter’s Basilica into a mosque. However, despite having every advantage his fleet was defeated by the Christian forces under Don Juan of Austria at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Still, Suleiman did not dwell on his losses and soon extended his influence across north Africa at the expense of Charles V. He also famously made an alliance with King Francis I of France who was eager to have such a powerful ally in his own on-going conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor. His naval forces devastated much of Sicily and southern Italy in cooperation with the French but the campaign was marred by the failure to take Malta which narrowly managed to hold out against the Ottoman forces until a Spanish relief force arrived.

At home, Sultan Suleiman undertook a reform and simplification of the law, finally producing the famous code known as the “Ottoman Law” which was to be the law of the land in the empire for the next 300 years. He improved conditions for the Christians and Jews within his empire and made criminal punishments less cruel and decreased the number of capital offenses. The Ottoman Empire went through a flowering of art, literature and architecture during the reign of Suleiman I and the Sultan himself was quite an accomplished poet. One subject he wrote about was his famous wife Roxolana, a harem slave girl who he had broken with tradition to marry and elevate to the role of consort. It was a son by Roxolana that succeeded Suleiman I when he died in 1566 on his way to another campaign in Hungary.

It is a mark of the greatness of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent that he was widely admired by friends and enemies alike. To his own people and his allies he was known as a wise and just ruler while his enemies had to admire his talent, wealth and power. Under his rule the Ottoman Empire reached a peak in both political power and cultural achievement. Rulers who came after him would build on the foundations he put down until the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful state in the western world.


  1. I have been so busy on home repair that I wasn't able to see this blog again until just today. What a delight to see this great writeup !

    I was going to recommend way back that series of portraits of Ottoman Sultans, a copy of which I found in the Book Bazaar in Istanbul years ago and cherish for their elegant portrayals. I enlarged to 11 by 14 Sultan Murat II, and have a huge poster of Gentile Bellini's Fatih Sultan Mehmet to grace my house! I love seeing their strength.

    Now this set of portraits is available online, fortunately.

    I see you have put up a video too on the Sultans since I last visited.
    I am very much looking forward to that!


    P.S. One year I was stuck in Istanbul due to an airline strike for an extra month in cold January. Every day I went to the Suleimaniya Mosque built under Sultan Suleiman, of course. I had met friendly shopkeepers who offered welcome hot Turkish tea in the gracious tulip-shaped tiny tea glasses with gold rims.

    One day, a Canadian came in and eagerly asked the vendor if he could buy everything in the store associated with Roxelana! He explained - I don't know how he could trace his lineage so carefully to an ancestress about whom not much was written, but maybe ! - that he was a direct descendent of Roxelana who had come all the way to the Ottoman capital to gather material on her for a book perhaps.

    He was Russian or part Russian, as Suleiman's consort was considered to have been Russian.
    This may have meant Circassian.
    But the Turks call those "Cherkesh", so she likely would have passed into history clearly as Cherkesh had she been from the Caucasus, as a fair number of the women of the Imperial retinue were.
    The purported descendant of the powerful Roxelana bought up everything in sight in relief at having finally found more about his roots.

    Behind the Suleimaniya Mosque is the beautiful little turbe [tomb] of Suleiman's incredible architect, Mimar Sinan. Can't fail to give him an accolade here. He deserves his own writeup, so amazing was his life!

  2. Glad you liked it. I had to make some choices in keeping the post from going on too long, though it was still more lengthy than others. All too often (and I'm guilty of this myself at times) the Ottomans are relagated to the fringes of history or sort of kept in the background as simply the ever-present enemy of south & central Europe. However, that gives a rather inaccurate view as the Ottoman Empire was *the* preeminent superpower of the western & neareastern world for quite a long time with no other single nation able to match them.

  3. And as a of now I am so proud of these marvellous empire ?, I wish I lived in those times just at least to observe the hearty rulers actions take affect...

  4. After reading so much about this suliman magic ruler, I'd wish I had lived in those times merely as an observer to at least feel his ruling power !. By far this was the Ottoman Empire leader who I think was overall a great ruler indeed. Nation of Turkey must never forget such an important figure that showed the world true leadership..
    Turkish history is an admiration for me..


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