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The 10th and longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire ruled over a huge empire with his just administration, military and diplomatic genius for 46 years
26 Kasım 2021 Cuma


Even if the demise of Sultan Selim I caused sadness, the accession of Şehzade (prince) Suleiman to the throne stirred up that much joy among the people. Yet the reign of Sultan Suleiman is considered the golden age of the Ottomans and even Turkish history. Therefore, Europeans called him by bynames such as Magnificent or Magnifique and Grand Turc. He was called “Kanuni,” meaning “Lawgiver,” by the Romanian historian Dimitrie Cantemir, and this title was adopted by the Turks much more than the sultan’s name.

Sultan Suleiman was born in Trabzon during his father's governorship, and his mother was the daughter of the Crimean khan. Sydney Nettleton Fisher writes, “None of the princes had been as educated as Suleiman the Magnificent and none of the emperors ruled the empire as practically as he did.” While in Trabzon, he learned the art of jewelry from a Greek master. Almost every sultan knew to perform a handicraft in Ottoman history.

A miniature of Sultan Suleiman I by Nakkaş Osman.
A miniature of Sultan Suleiman I by Nakkaş Osman.

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He served as a governor in Kefe (Caffa, also known as Feodosia), which is on the Crimean Peninsula, and Manisa. Upon the death of his father, he ascended to the throne at the age of 26 in 1520 as the sole heir. He made a gesture to Iran by removing the trade ban imposed by his father and compensated for the goods of the merchants whose wares had been confiscated. Up until then, no assets that had been added to the treasury had ever been returned to their source.

He suppressed the rebellion of a Mamluk nobleman who was assigned as a governor of Damascus by Sultan Selim and who revolted with the support of the knights of Rhodes. If Sultan Suleiman had not succeeded, the Mamluk state would have been resurrected, and the efforts of Sultan Selim would have been wasted. Then he marched on the Hungarian king, who killed the envoys sent to announce his accession to the throne. He took Belgrade in 1521 and then conquered Rhodes peacefully in 1522.

Francis I, king of France, who was in German captivity, asked for help from Sultan Suleiman. After the Hungarian king allied with Iran, the mortal enemy of the Ottomans, and provoked Wallachia-Moldova against the Ottomans, the sultan marched on Hungary and defeated the Hungarians in Mohacs within two hours in 1526. Hungary at last became an Ottoman territory.

A miniature depicts the Siege of Szigetvar.
A miniature depicts the Siege of Szigetvar.

He then besieged Vienna in 1529 to gain control over Holy Roman Empire, which had provoked Hungary and Iran, but he was unable to conquer it due to winter conditions. The Holy Roman-Germanic Empire ruled at that time in present-day Austria, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. The most powerful ruler of Europe, Emperor Charles V never appeared before Suleiman. By the way, for the Ottomans, this was not an empire, it was just the Kingdom of Nemtze (Austria). The grand-vizier was considered the diplomatic interlocutor of the emperor.

The sultan made expeditions to Austria, Venice, Moldavia and Hungary. He made peace with Venice in 1540 to prevent its slipping into German hands and then made peace with Holy Roman Empire in 1547.

Ottoman admiral Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, who had 122 ships and 20,000 soldiers, also defeated the crusader fleet, which had 600 ships and 60,000 soldiers, in Preveza in 1538. The Battle of Preveza was the biggest naval battle in history up to that time. The navy conducted expeditions to India to protect the Muslims against the Portuguese. Yemen was conquered. From Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf, the seas came under Ottoman rule.

Then the sultan marched on Iran and conquered Baghdad in 1555. It is commonly said that without each other, neither Iran nor Germany would have had a chance to survive during the reign of Suleiman. Suleiman's last expedition was again in Hungary. He died during this expedition at the age of 72 in 1566. Fatigue, gout, dysentery, angina and stroke were added to the sultan’s depression of old age. Staring at the fortress of Szigetvar, he said, "Isn't this damned fortress taken yet?" as his last words. His body was brought to Istanbul and interred next to the mosque he had commissioned there.

A painting by Johann Peter Krafft shows the Siege of Szigetvar.
A painting by Johann Peter Krafft shows the Siege of Szigetvar.

Subtle policy

He extended the borders of the 6.5 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles) of land he inherited from his father to 14.9 million square kilometers. Some 10 1/2 years of his 46-year reign, which was the longest reign among the Ottoman sultans, was spent on horseback; he personally participated in 13 great expeditions. He suffered a lot to establish this magnificent state.

Among the Ottoman sovereigns, he took after his grandfather Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conqueror, with his genius in diplomacy and politics, and his father with his military genius. His organizational and political skills were well developed. The fact that he imposed a tax on the four biggest states of the period, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, Russia and Venice, and took France under his protection is enough to show the majesty of the reign of Sultan Suleiman. Thus, he played a decisive role in European politics and had an impact on the formation of modern Europe.

A portrait of Suleiman I by Paolo Veronese.
A portrait of Suleiman I by Paolo Veronese.

He protected Protestantism and Protestant princes and sided with France against Holy Roman Empire just like his grandfather protected Orthodoxy against Catholicism. Thus, the Ottomans established their world domination not only through materials but also through political power. Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall said: "All Protestant rulers owe their salvation to Sultan Suleiman."

When Istolni-Belgrad (Skezesfehervar) was conquered, he did not convert the city's largest church into a mosque, respecting the national beliefs of the Hungarians as Hungarian kings were crowned in this church and buried there when they died. The Ottomans did not loot the precious treasure on the bodies of the kings.

A relief painting in American Congress

But there is one characteristic of the sultan that is more important than others. The title of “kanuni” was given to him not because of his law-making but because of his respect for the law. In the United States Congress, a relief painting of Sultan Suleiman has been hung among the portraits of the 23 greatest historical lawgivers in history.

According to writer Fairfax Downey, the king of England, Henry VIII, sent a delegation to the land of Suleiman the Magnificent and had a report prepared on the Ottoman judicial system. The king took the step of making England a powerful state in the world by embarking on reform in line with this report. Suleiman's most obvious characteristic was his respect for justice, law and traditions. Without understanding this, the majesty of the 16th-century Ottoman Empire cannot be understood.

Sultan Suleiman I's relief painting in the United States Congress.
Sultan Suleiman I's relief painting in the United States Congress.

When the Egyptian tax sent by Egypt Governor Hüsrev Pasha to Istanbul was higher than usual, he was suspicious even though the Divan-ı Hümayun (Imperial Council) should have been pleased with the situation. Although Hüsrev Pasha said the crops were abounding due to the newly built canals, the sultan was not satisfied. He sent inspectors to Egypt. Even though the inspectors confirmed the governor's statement, the sultan ordered the excess amount to be returned to Egypt and used in the construction of canals, roads and ports.

On the way back from the Belgrade expedition, a villager who complained that his crops were being trampled was able to appear before the sultan and said, "I will report you to the law!" For this reason, the soldiers were punished on May 10, 1526, and July 20, 1529. During the Moldavia campaign, two Ottoman soldiers who burned the house of a Christian villager near Red Lake (Lacu Rosu) were executed on Aug. 29, 1538. This event has even been included in the history books in Europe as a classic anecdote. Considering what soldiers in enemy territory do even today, the meaning of the sultan's title "kanuni" becomes even more clear.

An article in the Kanunname (Book of Law) of Sultan Suleiman is very striking: “Officers or people, the rich or poor, urbanite or villager, are equal before the law when they commit a crime.” This shows that the principle of equality of individuals regardless of class and position was present in the Ottoman Empire long before the French Revolution.

A painting depicts the Battle of Preveza.
A painting depicts the Battle of Preveza.

Faint coughing sounds

He did not interfere with the officials he had appointed but would control them. Therefore, he is like modern rulers who “reign but do not rule." Upon the fading of the trade routes passing through the Ottoman lands due to the discovery of the New World, he tried to revive the historic land routes by giving concessions to foreigners.

European public has always shown great interest in him. Hundreds of books about him were published in Europe even in the 16th century, while countless novels and plays have been written over the centuries. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, then-Austrian ambassador in Turkey, is one of the writers who best described both the sultan’s character and his time. According to the historian Nicolae Jorga, the thing that attracted the attention of foreign travelers most was the order and discipline of the society in the era of Suleiman. They marveled at how the huge armies moved without making any noise other than clip-clops and said, “Even their coughs sound faint.”

Tughra of Sultan Suleiman I.
Tughra of Sultan Suleiman I.

The social freedom and tolerance during his reign were remarkable. A preacher had criticized the sultan in his Friday sermon, saying that the Maltese knights were harassing the ships carrying the pilgrims and that the government had neglected to pursue the pirates. But no action was taken against him. The poet Taşlıcalı Yahya, saddened by the death of Şehzade Mustafa, wrote a poem satirizing the sultan and the viziers. When Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha presented this to the sultan, he said, "Don't pay attention to people like this and don't think about taking revenge."

An anecdote is also told about this. During the Cold War, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, leader of Soviet Russia, saw Sultan Suleiman in his dream. In this dream, he asked the sultan: “You were in Hungary for almost two centuries. Before we were even in the country for 10 years, the people revolted. How did you manage that?" The sultan gave a historical answer: “After we conquered Hungary, we made Hungary our homeland and settled down. We did not require the people to speak Turkish. We did not declare the day we conquered the land as a Hungarian national holiday as you did.”

Strength, health and faith

His reign was not only limited to military and political successes. Ottoman civilization also reached its pinnacle during his time. The most brilliant works were produced in every branch of art such as literature and architecture. Sultan Suleiman also wrote a diwan (a collection of poems by an author) in which his poems are written under the pseudonym “Muhibbi.”

“The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate,
"But in this world, a spell of health is the best state.
"What men call sovereignty is a worldly strife and constant war;
"Worship of God is the highest throne, the happiest of all estates... ”

These verses by the sultan summarize his philosophy of life. In his time, the most talented people were trained in science, art, culture, politics and the military. The great individuals near him were among the things that gave the sultan his magnificence. Never before had so many geniuses come together. He gave great value to scholars and craftsmen and was always proud of living in the same era as them.

 A miniature depicts the funeral of Sultan Suleiman I. (Wikimedia)
A miniature depicts the funeral of Sultan Suleiman I.

He was very religious. For the first time in history, he dismissed a sheikh al-Islam from his post for speaking disrespectfully about great philosopher and Sufi Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi. He is the first sultan who was a member of the Naqshbandi order. In his youth, he was a student of Abdüllatif Mahdumi, one of the caliphs of Emir Buhari. Sheikh Yahya Efendi was the milk sibling and a close friend of the sultan.

Rumor has it that he wanted to have a chest buried with him when he died. Sheikh al-Islam Ebussuud Efendi intervened and said that religion did not allow this. When the chest was opened, fatwas taken from the sheikh al-Islam were seen in it. The sultan wanted to show that he did everything based on his religious beliefs. The sheikh al-Islam said, "You saved yourself but what are we going to do?" and started crying.

He commissioned a magnificent mosque and complex called Süleymaniye in Istanbul (1557). The madrassa he had built next to the mosque, which is one of the most beautiful works by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and was completed in seven years, provided graduate education. There is also a hospital, imaret (soup kitchen), tabhane (a kind of sanatorium for ill people during rehabilitation), school and a bathhouse in the complex.

The Süleymaniye Mosque was built by Mimar Sinan under the auspices of Suleiman I.
The Süleymaniye Mosque was built by Mimar Sinan under the auspices of Suleiman I.

He also ordered the completion of the Sultan Selim Mosque, which was started on behalf of his father. He commissioned the Şehzade and Cihangir mosques for the sake of his two deceased sons; Baba Haydar Mosque in Eyüp; Emir Buhari Lodge Mosque in Edirnekapı; Haseki Sultan Mosque and complex in the name of Hürrem Sultan; the Imam-i Azam Tomb in Baghdad and a mosque and imaret next to it; the Abdulkadir Geylani Tomb and mosque; a mosque with two minarets next to the Mevlana tomb and a semahane (location for Sufi rituals) and imaret in Konya; a mosque and lodge in Seyitgazi; and a mosque, imaret, hospital and inn in Damascus.

He commissioned madrassas in Mecca, and the waterways and the porticoes around the Kaaba. He surrounded Jerusalem with walls that still stand today and bear his name. He had Masjid Al-Aqsa repaired. He commissioned mosques, madrassas, hospitals and bridges built in Anatolia and Rumelia.

He brought water from a day's walk distance to Istanbul, which had historically suffered from water shortages, and distributed it to the neighborhoods with fountains. For this, he had high arches built of stones reinforced with iron spanning valleys between hills. Included in these is Büyükçekmece Bridge, a masterpiece.

A miniature depicts Sultan Suleiman I while receiving an ambassador.
A miniature depicts Sultan Suleiman I while receiving an ambassador.

From army to nation

Sultan Suleiman is described as being a tall man with broad shoulders, open forehead, aquiline nose, smooth mouth, round cheeks, thin and long neck, a wheatish complexion, sparse reddish beard, black eyes and long eyelashes penetrating gaze, the very soul of rectitude and goodness. His facial lines were smooth. The majesty of ascending to the throne at an early age and the grace and modesty of youth could be read in the lines of his face. This gave him the ability to recognize people and choose them. It is said that he looked directly in the eye of those who came before him but often lowered his gaze like an embarrassed youth.

He shot arrows well and was an excellent swordsman. He was interested in hunting and spent most of his life on horseback, with only his last trip made by carriage due to illness. He was a master calligrapher and transcribed the Quran eight times.

According to historic documents, he was generous, elegant, modest, dervish-spirited, devoted to his religion and did not act impulsively or did not do anything without consultation. He put the interests of the nation above everything, even his family. The criticism about him, especially the fact that he was under the influence of his family, are baseless allegations.

Like his father, he did not pay much attention to the harem life. His son Mustafa, born from his first wife Mahidevran, started to prepare a rebellion against his father after being persuaded to do so by those around him and was executed in 1553. From his second wife, Hürrem, a daughter named Mihrimah and sons named Mehmed, Selim, Bayezid and Cihangir reached adulthood. Mehmed, who his father loved very much, died of smallpox in 1543 at the age of 22. Cihangir also died in 1553. Şehzade Bayezid rebelled against his father and took refuge in Iran after being defeated. He was executed in 1562.

A miniature depicts King John Sigismund of Hungary with Suleiman I in 1556.
A miniature depicts King John Sigismund of Hungary with Suleiman I in 1556.

He made his childhood friend Hasodabaşı Ibrahim Ağa a grand vizier by promoting him a few ranks and also married him off to his sister. No statesman in history has ever been so friendly with the sultan. Due to this unceremonious relationship, Ibrahim lost his office and his life in 1536.

Historians say that his two wives and those around them were political factions and accuse the sultan of being under the influence of the second faction. However, the main concern of the sultan was to turn the dynasty into a proper power within the state mechanism. He tried to prevent statesmen from forming strong factions among themselves by connecting them to the palace through marriage. As a matter of fact, the statesmen whom he married to women belonging to the dynasty always became grand viziers.

Historians compare him to King Louis XIV of France. However, Suleiman did not sit on a comfortable and tender-hearted throne like Louis. Alphonse de Lamartine says, “Sultan Suleiman turned Ottomans, who were an army, into a nation.”

For the first time in history, the budget had a deficit due to costly military campaigns; various political and social problems brought a shock with them. If this century was the peak of the Ottoman Empire, it was also the beginning of its descent.