Suleiman the Magnificent
Suleiman ‘the Magnificent’ is one of the most celebrated Sultans of Ottoman history. He ruled for forty-six years and was known the world over for the magnificence and splendour of his court, the ferociousness of his armies and his wisdom and benevolence domestically. The life of Suleiman is a fascinating story of court intrigues, military conquests and family bloodshed. He was the ruler of a respected empire that made the West tremble with fear. In an era full of strong and charismatic Kings and Emperors, Suleiman made his own mark in history and commanded the respect of Europe during his reign of the Ottoman Empire.
Suleiman: The Early Years
Suleiman is believed to have been born late in the year of 1494 or early in 1495 (Itzkowitz 1980: 34). Although little is known of Suleiman’s childhood, like many Turkish princes, it is likely that he spent the first seven years of his life being raised exclusively by his mother – Hafsa Hatun – in the women’s quarters (Clot 2005: 26). Suleiman’s father, Selim, had five living brothers. As such, it was not apparent that Suleiman would necessarily ever ascend the throne. From the age of seven to eleven years Selim would have taken control of his sons education and had a tutor assigned to him, ensuring that he learnt arithmetic, music, reading, writing, archery and Koran studies (Clot 2005: 26). At the age of eleven Suleiman left the women’s quarters and was assigned his own personal residence, complete with servants, a budget and tutor. At the age of fifteen, Suleiman was appointed as governor of Caffa in Crimea by his grandfather, Sultan Bayezid II (Clot 2005: 26).
During this era, the eldest son was not automatically assured of the throne. As all male members of a family possessed equal rights under Turco-Mongol law, it was common for inter-familial rivals to the throne to emerge (Clot 2005: 340). In an effort to secure the unity of the empire at all costs, it became customary to do away with anyone, including siblings, who posed a threat to the Sultan. This became formalized as the practice of fratricide by Mehmed II in the following decree: “Most legalists have declared as permitted that whichever of my illustrious sons or grandsons attains supreme power can sacrifice his brothers to maintain the peace of the world; they should take the appropriate measures (Clot 2005: 340).” Suleiman’s father, Salim, was not a Sultan during this time and had four living brothers. Two of Salim’s brothers died, leaving the contest for the throne between Salim and his two remaining brothers: Korkud and the eldest son, Ahmed. Salim took up arms against Korkud and then in turn, Ahmed. After having defeated Korkud, Selim was able to pressure his father into abdicating his throne and handing it over to him. Consequently, on the 26 May 1512 Selim I ascended the throne. Upon his accession of the throne Selim had his brothers and their children strangled to death (Clot 2005: 28). Suleiman had three sisters and it is believed that he also had at least two brothers – both presumably executed by Selim (Merriman 1966: 31).
Suleiman the Sultan
At Salim’s death in 1520, Suleiman became the tenth sultan of the Ottoman empire. He took the crown nine days after Selim I died on the 30th September 1520 (Clot 2005: 29). In Islam, ten is considered a perfect number, as it is the number of fingers on the Prophet Muhammad’s hands, as well as the number of Mohammad’s disciples. It is also the number of commandments in the Pentateuch and of the parts and variants of the Koran (Merriman 1966: 31). As such, Suleiman took the throne at a very auspicious time, both having the superstitious populations blessing and becoming Sultan of an already very rich and powerful empire with no direct threats to speak of.
Suleiman distinguished himself from the bloodthirsty reign of his father early on. His first act as Sultan was to pay his donation to the Janissaries and various officials. He then made distinct and impressive acts of mercy by freeing six hundred Egyptian captives. He also granted indemnity to the many merchants who had their goods confiscated for trading with Persia (Merriman 1966: 31). Suleiman also executed a number of officials who had been close to his father and as such, gained the reputation of being just but strict.
Interestingly, Suleiman became Sultan at a time in history when many of the European leaders were similarly aged and also had strong, charismatic personalities. Suleiman became Sultan when he was twenty-six years of age, which was the same age as King Francis I of France (Merriman 1966: 33). England’s infamous king, Henry VIII was in power at this time and was only three years Suleiman’s senior (Merriman 1966: 33). The King of Spain, Charles V was twenty; and the King of Hungary and Bohemia was only fourteen (Merriman 1966: 33). While Suleiman was young at the time he became Sultan, he was by no means at a disadvantage compared to his European neighbours. Furthermore, Suleiman had ten years of governing experience under his belt before he took the throne.
Where Salim had militarily concentrated on Asia and Africa, Suleiman looked towards the West and Europe in which to participate politically and plot his conquests (Merriman 1966: 51). Suleiman focused militarily on conquering Belgrade and the Island of Rhodes. Belgrade blocked the Ottomans from continuing up the Danube and confronting the Hapsburgs; while Rhodes was a Christian Island guarded by the Knights of St. John blocking Ottoman fleets from sailing into the Western Mediterranean or outside the Dardanelles (Merriman 1966: 51). In 1521 Suleiman conquered Belgrade and followed this success by laying siege to Rhodes. The fortress at Rhodes was considered the strongest of all fortresses in the sixteenth century. Suleiman however, had his soldiers (mostly Christians) dig under the foundations of the fortress and plant gunpowder to blow down the walls. Finally, in 1522 Suleiman defeated Rhodes and established himself a reputation of military might that impressed his senior officials and worried his European neighbours (Itzkowitz 1980:35). During Suleiman’s time he led thirteen campaigns conquering Hungary and advancing west as far as Vienna. In the east, Ottoman forces conquered Iraq and in the Mediterranean their naval fleet captured all principal North African ports (Yalman: The Metropolitan Museum of Art). At the height of Suleiman’s reign the Ottoman Empire stretched from the Arabian Peninsula to the border of Austria and from the border of Iran into North Africa (McCarthy 1997: 110).
(Map of Ottoman Empire. Sourced from: http://theopavlidis.com/MidEast/part45.htm)
Suleiman had many wives and a harem filled with approximately 300 women as was customary in the day (Merriman 1966: 189). Suleiman’s favourite and most influential wife was Hurrem or, as the West know her, Roxelana. Roxelana held great influence over the Sultan and is even said to have influenced his decisions regarding the Grand Viziers appointments, executions or dismissals (McCarthy 1997: 92). Roxelana also greatly influenced the decision of whom the next Sultan ought to be. Mustafa, who was the son of Suleiman to another wife, was generally thought to be the most capable successor to Suleiman. Roxelana however, wanting one of her own sons – Selim or Bayezit – to become Sultan convinced Suleiman that Mustafa was plotting against him (Yermolenko 2005: 234). Consequently, Mustafa was killed and Roxelana’s favourite son, Selim became the next Sultan upon Suleiman’s death.
In the West, Suleiman was known as ‘the Magnificent’ due to the splendour of his court and the impressiveness of his armies. Domestically however, the Turkish people knew Suleiman as sultan “Kanuni” – ‘the lawgiver (McCarthy 1997: 87).’ One of the greatest things Suleiman did for the Ottoman Empire and its people was to codify the law. Law in the Muslim societies was often presided over by religious leaders and based on religious interpretations. Suleiman introduced beaurocracy and administrative order into his kingdom by dealing with matters of taxation and land tenures. Suleiman codified laws that stipulated not only how their subjects were to behave, but also outlined the roles and responsibilities of the rulers. They outlined how they were to rule and even outlined guidelines for the Sultan, like when he was allowed to confiscate property (McCarthy 1997: 92). The Ottoman laws set forth by Suleiman gave the Sultan absolute rights in areas of the state and administration. Suleiman’s laws also at times dealt with matters that were traditionally dealt with by Muslim religious law such as many civil crimes.
Although Suleiman was a deeply religious leader, he was not fanatical and did not believe in the persecution of Muslim heretics or Christians (Merriman 1966: 33). Suleiman for the most part believed in religious freedom for his constituents so long as they paid their taxes and accepted his ultimate authority. Suleiman was very charitable, making it a priority during his reign to build soup kitchens for the poor, as well as school, hospitals and libraries (McCarthy 1997: 93).
Clot, Andre. 2005. Suleiman the Magnificent. Saqi Books: London.
Itzkowitz, Norman. 1980. Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
McCarthy, Justin. 1997. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923. Addison Wesley Longman Ltd: England.
Merriman, Roger Bigelow. 1966. Suleiman The Magnificent 1520-1566. Cooper Square Publishers Inc: New York.
Yalman, Suzan. 2002. The Age of Süleyman “the Magnificent” (r. 1520–1566): Thematic Essay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/suly/hd_suly.htm.
Yermolenko, Galina. 2005. ‘Roxolana: “The Greatest Empresse of the East.” The Muslim World. 95(2): 231-248.
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