Süleyman I, tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire
1494 - 1566
"I know no State which is happier than this one. It is furnished with all God's gifts. It controls war and peace; it is rich in gold, in people, in ships, and in obedience; no State can be compared with it. May God long preserve the most just of all Emperors." The Venetian ambassador reports from Istanbul in 1525
A new Solomon is risen
Süleyman I was everything a magnificent ruler should be. He was just, making the right decisions in cases set before him. He was brave, leading his armies in battle until he had greatly expanded his sultanate. He was wealthy, living in luxury and turning his capital Istanbul into a splendid city. And he was cultured, his court teeming with philosophers and artists, and the Sultan himself mastering several arts, especially that of poetry.
He was born on November 6, 1494 to Hafsa Sultan at Trabzon on the Black Sea coast as the only son of Selim I. Süleyman ascended to the throne in 1520 and stayed there for all of 46 years. During his reign he furthered the work of his forefathers until he had made the empire of the Ottomans into one of the world's greatest.
The Sultan was named after Solomon, who was described as the perfect ruler in the Quran. Like the legendary king of the Jews, Süleyman was seen as just and wise, and a worthy follower of his namesake. He is therefore called the second Solomon by many Islamic scholars, although he was the first of that name among the Ottomans. Like the Solomon of old, this ruler was surrounded by splendour and mystery, and his time is remembered as the zenith of his people.
Süleyman was what the Turks called a ghazi, a conquesting ruler who led his army in person. He initiated ten campaigns of conquest in Europe and three in Asia, most of them with great success. Under his leadership, the Ottoman empire greatly expanded its territory; in fact, he more than doubled the size of the territories he had inherited from his father. By the end of his reign, Süleyman was probably the most powerful man in the world, his empire stretching westwards from the Arabic peninsula to Vienna, northwards from Sudan to the Crimea.
In Europe he threatened the Habsburg dynasty by engulfing Albania and Hungary. He captured Belgrade, considered the gateway to Europe, but failed to take Vienna. After his fleet had become the most powerful in the Mediterranean, he gained control over all the main ports in North Africa, and several islands, starting with Rhodes. After the last Abbasid Shah abdicated he ate a large chunk out of Persia, becoming master of today's Iraq and Azerbaijan.
At his accesion, the Europeans had gotten the impression of the Sultan as a meek, toothless emperor. They soon learned they were wrong. In him, France found a powerful ally against the Holy Roman Empire, and all of Europe found someone to fear and admire.
While the empire was expanding, its citizens experienced great economic growth which again led to a golden age of artistic expression. It was a pax ottomanica comparable to the order established by the Romans many centuries ago. The most important cultural innovations of this time took place in architecture, Arabic calligraphy, textiles, ceramics and glazed tiles.
Like many previous sultans, Süleyman wrote poetry, but he wrote a great deal more of it. He also put a lot of himself into his works, which were mainly concerned with love, human and divine. The sutlan greatly encouraged other poets, and the Ottoman poetry had its classical era at this time. In addition to the meditative art of writing poetry, the sultan also encouraged the performing arts at his court, often staging great spectacles featuring acrobats and jugglers, fireworks, and battle re-enactments in shadow theatre.
All over his empire, Süleyman ordered the construction of several buildings. They were mainly mosques and palaces, such as the Süleymaniye mosque complexes. He also comissioned schools, hospices, public baths and soup kitchens. He built bridges, and repaired historical monuments in Mecca and Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The main artists during the reign of Süleyman were calligrapher Ahmad Karahisari, the royal architect Sinan, painters Shahquli and Kara Memi, and the poets Fuzuli and Baki.
Süleyman collected all the laws passed by his forefathers and harmonised them with the divine law of Sharia. He also passed a great deal of new laws. Together, these laws form the Kanun, a collection of secular laws which concerns property, trade and taxation more than morality. It is the basis of the modern laws in Turkey and several other European countries that were once under Ottoman rule. For this work Süleyman was called Kanuni, the giver or maker of laws. Another demonstration of his lenience comes from the fact that he substituted many of the harsh bodily punishments earlier dealt by the laws, with fines.
Like all enlightened Muslim rulers, Süleyman accepted people of other creeds in his sultanate. Christians and Jews were free to live and practice their religion in his capital so long as they paid a small tax. Likewise, the system of government was quite flexible: Slaves who proved their worth could rise in the ranks, even to the top. All of Süleyman's grand viziers were Christians who had been taken slaves by the Ottomans. Barbarossa, feared Corsair pirate of the Mediterranean, became the Sultan's successful grand admiral. The only roles that were restricted for native Muslims were the Ulema, the Sharia judges, who obviously had to be skilled in the holy Muslim scriptures.
Raised for greatness
Süleyman was raised by his grandmother, Gulbahar Hatun, until he was seven, and was then sent to his grandfather Sultan Bayezid II in Istanbul to receive his further education. In addition to the inevitable war tactics he also studied history, science, literature, and theology. At the age of 15 he became a governor following his own request, and was sent to the Sarki province.
When his father became Sultan Selim I in 1512 through ousting his own father, Süleyman was summoned to Istanbul to help him rule the country while he fought other pretenders to the throne. Eight years later, his father died, and this time the undisputed successor was Süleyman. The state he took over was a stable, rich, and powerful one, laying the foundations for his reputed magnificence. He did not have an entirely smooth start, however, as he had to quench several rebellions. But after defeating Baba Zanun in 1527, Süleyman had put an end to all the revolts.
Although he was fierce when he had to, the new sultan proved a gentler, more even-tempered ruler than his father. He was hightly respected, but not feared. It is said that Süleyman, with all his wealth, restricted himself to use a purse of gold and one of silver every day. What he had not distributed at the end of the day, he gave to his chamberlain. The same happened to his caftan, which he never wore more than one day.
The many names of Süleyman
I am the Shah of Baghdad and Iraq, Caesar of all the lands of Rome, and the Sultan of Egypt. I seized the Hungarian crown and gave it to the least of my slaves.
Süleyman was the tenth sultan of the Ottomans, reigning in the tenth century of the Hegira, the Muslim reckoning. The number 10 is blessed in Islam and so he was destined to greatness even from the start.
From the awed Europeans, Süleyman earned himself the title the Magnificent. In the Islamic world, he is more often known under the name of Kanuni (the previously mentioned Lawmaker), or the Just.
His name has been anglicised in a number of ways: Suleiman, Suleyman, Suliman, and Soliman. Since the wielders of the English language apparently can't make up their mind, I have chosen to go with the official Turkish spelling of the name.
The man himself could simply not get enough titles. Süleyman called himself:
...Slave of God, powerful with the power of God, deputy of God on earth, obeying the commands of the Qur'an and enforcing them throughout the world, master of all lands, the shadow of God over all nations, Sultan of Sultans in all the lands of Persians and Arabs, the propagator of Sultanic laws (Nashiru kawanin al-Sultaniyye), the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Khans, Sultan, son of Sultan, Süleyman Khan... Slave of God, master of the world, I am Süleyman and my name is read in all the prayers in all the cities of Islam.
He also referred to himself as Caesar, because he was master of the lands of Caesar and Alexander the Great.
The Private life of a Sultan
The Ottoman emperors had many concubines, but had not taken wives for centuries. Süleyman put an end to this tradition. He was deeply in love with a Polish or Russian slave girl called Hürrem, or Roxelana, and dedicated many a ghazal to her. She loved him too, but also had a great love for power. After she had strengthened the position of her sons by becoming the Sultan's legal wife, she intrigued to move all possible threats from his other concubines and sons. Her first move was to remove his trusted Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, a former slave so much trusted by the Sultan that he had given him his sister in marriage. Believing that Ibrahim had gotten too power-hungry, the Sultan had him strangled and replaced him with Roxelana's son-in-law, Rustem Pasha.
The sultan had several children. His sons were Mustafa, Bayezid, Selim, Cihangir, Abdullah, Murad, Mehmed, and Mahmud. His daughters were Mihriman Sultan and Raziye Sultan.
Mustafa was the eldest son and had been raised to rule the empire. However, Süleyman became convinced that his son was plotting to overthrow him, either because it was true or because Roxelana made him believe it. He had the boy strangled - a move usually left to prospective sultans who were fighting each other.
With the path open to the throne, Roxelana's eldest sons Selim and Bayezid began scheming to get hold of it. After Bayezid had been defeated by Selim, he sought refuge with the Safavid Shah of Persia, the Sultan's enemy. Convinced that this son was also a traitor, Süleyman had him extradited and executed, along with his five young sons.
The end of an era
Towards the end of his reign, Süleyman was broken down with the betrayals, real or imagined, of his two sons. He isolated himself in the Topkapi palace, leaving his Grand Vizier to rule the sultanate. Süleyman still had some fighting spirit left, and did not give up his fights against Austria. 72 years old, too old to ride a horse, he led his army against the Hungarian city of Sziget, now Sighetul Marmatiei in Romania. He died on September 6, 1566, two days before his army captured the city.
The sultan's death was kept a secret until Selim II had secured his position in Istanbul. Also called Selim the Sot, or the Drunkard, he was not quite as magnificent as his father, and has taken the blame for starting the 300-year-long decline of the Ottoman Empire.
The Sultan was taken back to Istanbul and buried in the back garden of the Süleymaniye mosques. Roxelana, who had died eight years earlier, lies next to him.