By 1520 the Ottoman Empire was a great power, spanning from Eastern Europe all the way to Egypt, covering about 1,494,000 square kilometres. It was vast and powerful, but soon it would grow even bigger, become even stronger. The rule of Selim I was coming to the end and a new sultan, his only son, would guide his empire to apex of its glory. His name was Suleiman I, but by many he was known as Suleiman the Magnificent, Suleiman the Lawgiver, Suleiman the Lord of His Century, or Suleiman the Completor of The Perfect Ten. But that would happened much later, for now let go back to the year of 1495, to the day the soon-to-be great man was born.
Suleiman was born in Trabzon, a town on the Black Sea cost of the Ottoman Empire. As we know already, he was the only son of Selim I and Hafsa Sultan, and that meant that his succession was insured from his early childhood. But he did not waste it, at age of 7 he was sent to the schools of imperial Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where he was educated by famous scholar Karakizoglu Hayreddin Hizir Efendi in science, literature, history, theology and military tactics. At a young age of 15, he desired to become a governor and got a chance to learn his craft at Kaffa, Manisa and Endire. In 1512, when Selim I became the ruling sultan, Suleiman moved back to Istanbul to become the regent while his father dealt with his rebellious brothers. Even before ascending to the throne, young Suleiman already was a fine leader. Unexpectedly, in the year 1520, Sulim I was overwhelmed by a sickness, historians today still cannot agree what was the cause of it, and soon died, leaving Suleiman to rule the great empire and to become the tenth Ottoman Sultan.
When we talk about great kings, sultans, khan or leaders of old, we always start by describing their great military achievements, that is what usually fascinates the readers the most. So let’s talk about it and get it out of our way. Suleiman The Magnificent had a great military mind and as soon as he became the ruling sultan he began a series of military conquest. First, in 1521, he suppressed rebels in Damascus and then turned his eyes westward. The same year he led his armies into the Kingdom of Hungary and took Belgrade, sending a wave of fear across whole Europe. Afterward, he paid a visit to Knights of Hospitaller, who were troubling the Ottomans for a while now. He dispatched an armada of some 400 ships and army of 100,000 soldiers to Rhode and besieged the Marmaris Castle. In five months the Knights of Hospitaller surrendered and Suleiman allowed them to leave the island.
Soon after his victory at Rhode, Suleiman was back in Central Europe, fighting against Louis II of Hungary and defeating him on 29 August 1526 at the Battle of Mohacs. The Habsburgs, the rulers of Austria, wanted to put Ferdinand on the now empty Hungarian throne, but were blocked by Suleiman, who gave his support to a local nobleman John Zapolya. The Habsburgs did not take it lightly and quickly took possession of Hungary by occupying its capital, Buda. Suleiman retaliated and in 1529 marched his armies through the valley of the Danube, took back Buda and then continued going until he laid siege to the capital city of Austria, Vienna. The Habsburgs managed to lift the siege and pushed the Ottoman armies back, starting a bitter rivalry between Ottomans and Austrians that lasted until the 20th century. Suleiman had a second attempt at taking Vienna in 1532, but failed once again, as he was delayed by the siege of Guns and plagued by bad weather and overstretched supplies lines. Suleiman’s struggles in Europe ended when the Habsburgs tried to take Buda for the second time, but instead were beaten and then lost many of their fortresses in Hungary to the advancing Ottomans armies. In 1544, Ferdinand renounced his claims on the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Habsburgs signed a humiliating five year treaty, allowing the Ottomans to become an import player in European power struggle.
After Europe, Suleiman turned to Persia and the always trouble making Shi’a Safavid dynasty. While the Ottomans were busy, they managed to steal Baghdad and pursue Bitlis to swear allegiance to the Safavid. At first, Suleiman despatched his Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha to take back Bitis and occupy Tabriz, and then, in 1534, joined him to lead the armies into Persia. The Persians avoided a direct confrontation, instead used scorched earth tactic to harass and weaken the Ottoman army. Finally, by the end of 1535, Suleiman managed to take control of Erzurum and finish the conquest of Iraq. When he entered reclaimed Baghdad, he ordered the restoration of the tomb of Abu Hanifa, the founder of the school of Islamic law which was dominant in the Ottoman Empire. For some time Suleiman was content with the situation in the east, but in 1548 he launched a second conquest of Persia. Once again his armies could not meet Persians on an open battlefield, and soon he abandoned the campaign all together, with only gains of some lands around Lake Van. The third campaign in 1553 was not successful either, but official peace treaty was signed and the Ottomans secured Baghdan, lower Mesopotamia and part of the Persian Gulf. After the year 1554 Suleiman gave up on his ambitions of subduing the Safadian State in Persia. His armies fought well and he managed to gain new lands, but a harsh climate and inability to force the Persians to fight in one big decisive battle, made Suleiman reluctant to push further east.
Suleiman’s victories and domination was not only bound to land. Although he did not lead his navies personally, during his reign the Ottomans became the rulers of the Mediterranean Sea. Suleiman appointed Khair ad Din, or as most know him Barbarossa, as the admiral and expanded his fleet to such extent that it became larger than all of the Mediterranean fleets put together. In 1538, Barbarossa managed to deliver a crushing defeat to the Spanish navy at the Battle of Preveza. Territories in North Africa were annexed, and Tripoli, Tunisia and Algeria became autonomous states of the Ottoman Empire. In 1506, near Jarbah, a major Spanish expedition was defeated. In 1543, Barbarossa sacked Nice and pillaged the coast of Naples and Sicily. The Mediterranean was truly the Ottomans domain, and it was so until the defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, well after Suleiman’s death.
There were many other victories and even a naval expedition against Portuguese in Egypt and diplomatic relationships with Mughal Empire, but let switch to more important achievements of Suleiman the Magnificent. One of them would be very important administrative reforms that helped to steadily grow the Ottoman Empire and insure its prosperity and stability. He standardised a distinct law known as the Kanuns. It covered everything outside of the Shari’ah law, including criminal law, land tenure and taxation. It served the Ottoman Empire for longer than three hundred years, which is a great achievement in itself. Suleiman made sure that his Christian subjects were protected by introducing “Code of the Rayas”. It instituted fair governing levies and taxes, and was so effective that Christian serfs moved to the Ottoman Empire lands to reap its benefits. Suleiman openly criticized blood libels against the Jews in his realm and made sure they were treated rightly. To battle the corruption, which is integral part of any large empire, he made sure that any officials who were getting too greedy would lose their land and property. To speed up the growths of his subjects, Suleiman built public, as in free, schools, colleges and universities, where Muslim boys could study subjects ranging from languages, to philosophy and astronomy. It seemed that he touched every branch of the Ottoman Empire administration and each and one of them became more efficient and more productive. Trade expanded, literacy increased, craft guilds grew and his subjects loved him.
Suleiman was not only great Lawgiver, but also a great patron of arts. There were hundreds of artistic societies where artists and craftsmen could learn and practice their craft, advance in ranks and get paid stipends for their work. Such a generous system attracted most talented artisans from all over the world. Great books were written, great paintings were painted, great poems composed, great jewellery made and great buildings erected. And it all was done in a distinction style of the Ottoman Empire, rather than influenced directly by any other culture. Under Suleiman’s rule Constantinople was finally transformed into Istanbul. The city was remodelled, new gardens, aqueducts, bridges, mosques, baths were built and expanded. Even such thing as Coffee houses was introduced. Istanbul became a jewel and the centre of Turkish culture and Islamic world. But Istanbul was not only city that benefited from Suleiman’s reign, every other important settlement in the whole empire was expanded and reconstructed, Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad and many others. To these days one can travel around Turkey and the Middles East and see many monuments that were constructed under Suleiman’s watchful eye.
We can go on and on about what Suleiman conquered or built, but let us look at him closely, because not only was he a magnificent leader, he was a Magnificent individual. He was a great ruler, smart, fair and gracious. He truly loved his people and, most of the time, they loved him back. He loved his wife, Roxelane, to such extent that he broke ancient Ottoman traditions just for her. First by marrying a slave and then by keeping her at his side even after her sons came of age and were sent away to rule remote provinces. The great man had a great love. He also was a great poet and a great goldsmith. But it all would not get him very far if he did not have one other important quality, all his life he surrounded himself with other great people and trusted them to achieve great things. As we mentioned before there was the gifted admiral Barbarossa who ruled the Mediterranean Sea for him. Architect Mimar Sinan built over three hundred magnificent monuments for the empire. Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha administered the empire with a great efficiency and delivered numerous victories on many battlefields. Ebussuud Efendi helped Suleiman to implement important judicial reforms. There were many others gifted people who served in Suleiman’s court and made many of his achievements possible. But it was he who found them, who put them in charge, and that, at least for me, was truly his greatest achievement.
Suleiman died at age 71, on 7th September 1566, while commanding the siege of Sziget in Hungary and by that date he ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years. For further reading, and there are many more interesting facts and stories about Suleiman the Magnificent and his legacy, follow these links: