At the ripe age of 26, Suleiman I inherited the Ottoman Empire in 1520 at a period when it was going through aggressive expansion. He would further this expansion of territory whilst embellishing the state in a manner which earned him the sobriquet “Magnificent”. Domestically, he reformed the judicial system so emphatically that he was referred to as “Kanuni” (Lawgiver) by his subjects. Over the course of a 46-year reign, he left a definitive mark on the Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1494, Suleiman received a high-quality education in the imperial school at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, studying science, history, literature, theology and military tactics. In keeping with Ottoman tradition princes were required to command a certain province, so Suleiman gained crucial experience of governorship when he served in various provinces of the empire. He also learnt spoke four languages Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Serbian. The Ottomans had the tradition of every Sultan acquiring a skill in a certain craft, Suleiman became a skilled jeweler.
In 1521, Suleiman’s mother gave him Aleksandra, a young slave girl from modern-day Ukraine whose father was an Orthodox priest. In time she would become Hurrem Sultan, the favourite concubine and later legal wife of Sultan Suleiman. Sultan Suleiman freed Hurrem Sultana and married her in 1533. He was the first Ottoman Sultan to wed for almost 200 years. He also wrote poems to Hurrem Sultan under the pseudonym Mugib. She went on become super powerful to the discomfort of many in the imperial administration. Perhaps her greatest rival was Prince Mustafa, heir and son of Suleiman through another wife. The power struggle in the Ottoman empire between Prince Mustafa and Hurrem Sultan ended decisively when Mustafa was falsely accused of trying to overthrow his father – he was called to the Sultan’s tent where he was strangled in front of his father in 1553.
Suleiman’s Grand Vizier at the beginning of his reign was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who was his childhood friend. Gaining a reputation after crushing rebellions in Syria and Anatolia, Ibrahim Pasha gained too much power and made a fatal mistake when he awarded himself a title including the word ‘Sultan’ which could have been taken the wrong way by Suleiman. His downfall was cemented when he trod on the toes of the Hurrem Sultan after giving his support to Prince Mustafa, he was consequently executed in 1536.
Right from the beginning of his reign in 1520, Suleiman sought to further Ottoman expansion into Europe and when the Hungarians refused to pay tribute in exchange for peace and even cut off the nose and ears of the Ottoman ambassador, he had found his reason for war. First on his list was Belgrade, the key to central Europe; a siege of the city lasted two months in 1521 until the Ottomans emerged victorious. In the summer of 1526 Suleiman gained an even more momentous victory when at the Battle of Mohacs. The Ottoman army outnumbered the Hungarians by 3:1 and had 300 canons. After five hours of battle the Hungarians were heavily defeated and became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
In a bid to end the Hapsburg Empire’s meddling in Ottoman Europe, Suleiman attempted to strike at the heart of the Hapsburgs: Vienna. But in the end the 1529 Siege of Vienna failed due to bad weather and overstretched supplies lines. Yet it still shows how powerful the Ottomans were that they almost conquered their enemies capital.
Suleiman also established the Franco-Ottoman alliance with Francis I of France in 1526 to counter the Hapsburg Charles V. In order to highlight the supremacy of the Ottomans, look at the letter written from Suleiman to Francis:
I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the shadow of the God on Earth… All this your saying having been set forth at the foot of my throne, which controls the world. Your situation has gained my imperial understanding in every detail, and I have considered all of it.
The Ottoman Navy had undergone a tremendous transformation under Selim I but Suleiman expanded this project beyond his father’s achievements. In 1522, he put this newfound naval confidence to the test by besieging the island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller, the last remnant of the Crusaders who invaded the Middle East 400 years ago. Suleiman used 400 ships and personally led an army of 100,000 soldiers. After heavy casualties on both sides over a five month period, Sultan Suleiman decided to offer generous terms which were accepted by the defenders. The Knights Hospitaller were given twelve days to leave and take with them their weapons and religious icons.
Suleiman was aided in his quest for Mediterranean domination by famous admirals such as Hayreddin Barbarossa. In 1538 at the Battle of Preveza in Greece Barbarossa defeated the Holy League alliance of the Spanish Empire, Portuguese Empire, Papal States and the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa. The Ottomans even went on to sack the coast of Italy, Spain and Sicily. After Preveza, the Ottoman Navy emerged as the dominant naval power throughout the Mediterranean. The Ottoman fleet also fought for control over the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese.
He did however also suffer setbacks, most notably the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. After four unsuccessful months, the Ottoman fleet pulled back with great casualties after aid from Spain as well as a resilient defence from the Maltese spelled out Ottoman defeat.
In the east, the Ottoman’s main opponent was Safavid Persia and in the year 1533 Sultan Suleiman order his Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha to lead his army into the east. Tabriz was taken without resistance. The scorched-earth policy of the Persians, along with the harshness of winter caused many Ottoman casualties. Yet this was not enough to stop the momentum of the Ottomans, as Sultan Suleiman conquered Mesopotamia, part of Georgia and Azerbaijan from the Safavids.
As well as enjoying a positive military reputation, Suleiman I is often commended for the judicial reforms he introduced, hence his nickname “Kanuni” (Lawgiver). The Ottomans had established themselves as a preeminent power mainly through the sheer force of its military prowess, but by the circumstances the Ottomans found themselves in by Suleiman’s reign, a wide array of ethnicities occupying a vast realm, required a more nuanced approach to the maintenance of law and order.
Suleiman’s reign saw the introduction of many vital reforms in the Ottoman legal system. Taxes were streamlined through the establishment of a transparent tax rate based on income; he went further by removing many of the superfluous taxes imposed by his father Sultan Selim I. Bureaucracy underwent a similar process of reform; meritocracy was encouraged to be the standard of qualification for employment, rather than nepotism or personal discretion. In this sense, an overt and conscious attempt was made to hold all Ottoman citizens to the law. In order to compliment the multi-cultural nature of the empire, Suleiman denounced blood libels* against Jews in 1553 and freed Christian farm labourers from Serfdom.
Sultan Suleiman died in 1566 during a siege in Hungary. He was 71 years old and spent over ten years in military campaigns. In a twisted way, his hard-work and success paved the way for a future filled with complacent and incompetent Sultan’s. Future Ottoman Sultan’s would find themselves more intrigued by the pleasures of the Harem or uninterested in leading the imperial army to war or under the influence of other interest groups.
* Blood libels – The belief that Jews would kidnap and sacrifice children for their own rituals.
Check out Kallie Szczepanski’s concise and insightful article on Suleiman:
This article was graciously contributed by Radovan Todorović!
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