Turkey flourished under Suleiman I, the Ottoman sultan who reigned from 1520 until his death in 1566. His reign was the Empire’s golden age, and it was marked by rapid expansion in the European and Asian fronts. Suleiman carried out reforms in the Ottoman government and justice system. His reign was also ushered in the golden age of Ottoman art. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Young Suleiman
Suleiman I was born on November 6, 1494, in the prosperous crossroad city of Trabzon (Trebizond). He was the son of the Ottoman prince and Trabzon governor Selim I by his wife Hafsa Sultan. Little is known of Suleiman’s childhood as his father was one of the youngest sons and he was not expected to inherit the throne. However, Selim I’s deposition of his own father, Sultan Bayezid II, propelled his family to the throne.
Suleiman received the best education possible for upper-class children. This included reading and writing, mathematics, music, and the Koran. History, science, and the art of war were also taught to him at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. As was the tradition for Ottoman princes, he was assigned his own tutor or lala at a young age. In addition to Turkish, he was also fluent in Arabic and Persian.
Sultan Bayezid II, Suleiman’s grandfather, appointed him as governor of Karahisar when he reached 15 years old. An uncle who held the province of Amasya requested that the boy be transferred to Bolu instead. This uncle feared that in the event of Bayezid’s death, Suleiman would stand in the way of his succession to the throne as Karahisar was nearer to Istanbul. In the end, Suleiman was sent instead to Feodosia (Caffa) in Crimea.
Bayezid died in 1512, and Selim immediately seized the reins of power. He then ordered the massacre of his own brothers and their families to get rid of competition. Selim appointed the 17-year old Suleiman as the governor of Istanbul and then of Manisa where he learned the art of administration. He also served as the governor of Edirne, and then ruled Istanbul briefly as governor once again.
Suleiman the Magnificent
Selim I died of an illness in 1520 in Tekirdağ. Messengers were immediately dispatched to Suleiman to inform him of his father’s death. The prince hurried to Istanbul to take his throne. By Ottoman standards, Suleiman’s accession was peaceful as his half-brother brother, Uveys Pasha, was not qualified as a candidate. Suleiman was 26 years old when he became sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
His father, Selim I, was a military man who was aptly nicknamed “The Grim” for his violence against his enemies and his own people. Arbitrary punishments even for minor offenses were common during Selim’s reign. So Suleiman tempered his father’s unjust punishment with justice and clemency. He issued clemency to some of those who were bound to be executed and released many prisoners. He also gave lavish gifts and increased the salaries of the loyal Janissary corps (the Sultan’s elite guards), regular soldiers, and dignitaries. He also approved of the execution of some prisoners to send a clear message to his people: the sultan was just but not soft.
Suleiman inherited one of the largest, most powerful, and wealthiest empires in the world. The Ottomans were the undisputed masters of a part of the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, Crimea, and the Balkans. Before his death in 1566, a large part of Hungary, Mesopotamia, Northern Persia, and North Africa also belonged to the Ottoman Empire.
First Test: A Rebellion in Syria
It was not long before Suleiman’s skill as sultan of an empire was tested. His father, Sultan Selim I, had conquered Syria and Egypt between 1516 and 1517. Janbirdi al-Ghazali, the former deputy governor of Hama, switched allegiance from the Mamluk Sultanate to the Ottomans when they conquered Egypt. As a reward, Selim gave Damascus Province for al-Ghazali to govern. Upon Selim’s death, al-Ghazali decided to take advantage of the situation. He declared his intention to become sultan of the former Mamluk territories.
The rebellion was a dismal failure as it was immediately quashed with the help of the double-dealing governor of Egypt, Hayra Bey. Al-Ghazali asked him for help, but Hayra Bey betrayed him to Suleiman and encouraged him to besiege Aleppo. The rebel leader and his troops fell into a trap as Aleppo swarmed with Ottoman defenders which Suleiman sent after Hayra Bey sent him a warning. Al-Ghazali died while on the run around February 1521. With Syria pacified (at least temporarily), Suleiman’s trusted officers kept their eyes on the Safavid Shah Ismail. He had prepared his troops to assist al-Ghazali just in case the rebellion turned out well. The Sultan knew it was only a matter of time before the Safavid Shah would strike.
16th-century Europe was a divided continent because of the Reformation and regional conflicts. However, some monarchs were strong leaders of their own territories. One of those was the Habsburg ruler, Charles V. As Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V held Austria, the Low Countries, the Two Sicilies, and Spain—three of which were dangerously close to the Ottoman Empire’s territory in Europe. Suleiman knew that the threat of a crusade was always on the horizon, so he decided to preempt an invasion and launch one of his own against Europe. His first target was the gateway to Hungary: the city of Belgrade.
The power vacuum left by the disappearance of the Bulgar and Serbian Empires was filled by the Kingdom of Hungary. Sixteenth-century Hungary was ruled by weak kings which made it a good target for Suleiman. The murder of his envoy whom he sent to the Hungary to demand the annual tribute only gave Suleiman further reason to attack the kingdom. He called on all his troops in the Empire to prepare for war, and the first goal was to conquer Belgrade. If the Ottomans were successful in occupying the city, it would be easier for them to control the valleys where the Tisza, Danube, and Sava rivers ran through. Suleiman’s great-grandfather, Mehmed II, besieged Belgrade in 1456 only to turn back in defeat. The new young sultan decided to finish what Mehmed started more than sixty years before his reign.
Hungary’s teenage king, Louis II Jagiellon, knew that he could not match the Ottomans’ strength. Many years before, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V arranged the marriage of his brother, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, to Louis II’s sister Anne. Louis, too, married Charles and Ferdinand’s sister, Mary, to cement the alliance. Charles V assigned the protection of Central Europe to the young king of Hungary (who also held Bohemia) and the Habsburg archduke. This alliance seemed sound, except that Charles was too occupied with a rebellion in Spain and the Reformation in Germany to be of any help to the two.
Louis II of Hungary appealed to other European rulers for help, but they, too, were busy with their own problems. Venice and Genoa proved to be unreliable because of their conflicting business interests. The Ottoman Empire, after all, was a good trading partner whenever it was not wresting trading ports and colonies from both Republics. France, meanwhile, refused to help Hungary as its monarchs were involved in a struggle for power with Charles V.
In February of 1521, Suleiman left Istanbul with thousands of Janissaries, foot soldiers, gunners, and archers. They, along with Ottoman officials, dignitaries, and eunuchs marched to the outskirts of Belgrade. The Ottomans transported cannons and provisions with the help of horses and camels across the Balkans.
The bombardment of Belgrade started on July 25, 1521. It dragged on for three weeks with no progress until Suleiman ordered his men to bomb the largest tower of the fortress. The fortress was defended by Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Hungarians so there was a great deal of conflict going on between the two groups. The Orthodox Serbs decided to abandon the defense and surrendered to Suleiman so they would be spared. The Catholic Hungarians, meanwhile, refused and continued the defense. They were massacred when the Ottomans finally breached the fortress of Belgrade. The city fell to the Ottomans on August 29 of the same year.
News of the fall of Belgrade spread quickly throughout Europe. The rulers were gripped with fear, but were still caught up in their own problems, so they failed to prepare for a bigger attack which would come many years later in the Battle of Mohacs.
The Fall of Rhodes
The Turks dominated the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, but the presence of the Knights of St John on the island of Rhodes was a thorn in the Empire’s side. The knights were driven many years ago from Jerusalem and Cyprus to Rhodes which they turned into a stronghold. The Knights were primarily warrior monks, but they also made money by protecting pilgrims bound for Jerusalem. Preying on and raiding Ottoman-held coastal colonies and ships also added money to their coffers.
Apart from piracy, the Knights also interfered with the communication routes between Istanbul and Egypt. To add insult to injury, the Knights also helped al-Ghazali when he launched his rebellion. Suleiman decided that it was time to get rid of the Knights of St John and occupy the island of Rhodes.
The sultan knew that it was the best time to get rid of the knight as the rulers of Europe were occupied and would not be able to help them. France would most likely help the Knights, but its king was busy with his war with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Venice maintained a powerful navy that could help the Knights. But its ruler already signed a peace treaty with Istanbul so its hands were tied.
Suleiman first sent a letter to the Knights’ Grand Master to demand the Order’s surrender. The letter went unanswered, so Suleiman commanded the vizier Çoban Mustafa Pasha to sail to Rhodes with a fleet of around 700 ships with 10,000 men on board. Suleiman and 100,000 soldiers who lugged around heavy cannons traveled through an overland route to support the navy.
Although they were heavily outnumbered, the Knights were disciplined soldiers who made formidable enemies. But their weapons were no match for the cannons the Ottomans brought along for the siege of Rhodes. The knights and the locals fought valiantly, but the Ottomans’ bombardment of the fortress continued.
Both sides suffered casualties, but Çoban Mustafa Pasha suffered the brunt of Suleiman’s anger. Two months dragged on, but it was harder for the Knights as their supplies were limited. The Grand Master knew that his people would not be able to withstand a prolonged siege except when Europe sent help. Unfortunately for the Knights, no help from Europe arrived.
The sultan once again offered peace to the Grand Master in exchange for the Knights’ surrender. If the Grand Master declined, Suleiman promised that no one would be spared—not even the cats of the island. The Grand Master had no choice but to accept Suleiman’s offer of peace. The sultan allowed the knights and those who wanted to leave twelve days to pack up and go. In 1522, the island of Rhodes was entirely in Ottoman hands. However, this was not the end of the Knights of St John. The remaining knights set up another base on the island of Malta twelve years later.
The monarchs of Europe were dismayed at the turn of events. Except for Cyprus (then held by Venice) and some islands in the Dodecanese group, the eastern part of the Mediterranean was now entirely in the hands of the Ottomans.
The Battle of Mohacs
After the conquest of Rhodes, Suleiman was free to return to the conquest of Central Europe. Most of the Balkans up to Belgrade were already the Ottomans’, so it was easy to launch another invasion. In 1526, he decided to wrap up the conquest of Hungary and marched 100,000 men with as much as 300 cannons into the Plain of Mohacs. The Hungarians led by King Louis II, meanwhile, could only muster less than a quarter of the number of the Ottoman troops. The Ottomans and the Hungarians met on the Plain of Mohacs on August 29, 1526.
Just like in Belgrade, the poorly organized Hungarian troops and their allies were no match for the Suleiman’s disciplined army. The Hungarians took the offensive position, but they were soon crushed by the Ottoman troops. Many Hungarians and allied troops died in the Battle of Mohacs, including the young king Louis II and Hungarian nobles who drowned while trying to cross the Danube to escape.
Suleiman and his army entered Buda as conquerors. Before he left the city, he appointed the governor of Transylvania, John Zapolya, as administrator of the Ottoman part of Hungary and Bohemia. He also took with him more than 100,000 captives back to Istanbul. With Louis II dead, Archduke Ferdinand hurriedly occupied the western and northern portions of Hungary in a last-ditch effort to block the Turks’ path into Central Europe.
Against the Safavids: Suleiman’s Shia Nemesis
Although he was a devout Muslim who followed the Sunni branch of Islam, Suleiman was generally tolerant of Shiites who lived in his Empire. But the Shia-led Safavid Empire of Iran was another thorn in the eastern side of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans under Selim I had defeated the Safavids led by Shah Ismail in the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. Shah Ismail evaded capture and established another Safavid capital in Qazvin. The Safavids under Ismail continued to harass the Ottomans in Asia.
Shah Ismail died ten years later and was succeeded by his son, Tahmasp I. In 1532, hostilities once again flared up between the Safavids and the Ottomans after the Bey of Bitlis made an alliance with Tahmasp. Charles V’s alliance with Tahmasp and the assassination of the governor of Baghdad also added fuel to the fire.
Suleiman sent his close friend and Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, to lead the campaign against the Safavids in Mesopotamia. Later he personally oversaw the campaign, and the Ottomans took Bitlis, Tabriz, and Baghdad. Tahmasp knew the discipline of the Suleiman’s army, so he made sure that he would never engage the Ottomans in combat. The Safavids and the Ottomans had no major battles in Mesopotamia, but Tahmasp led them on a chase across the desert. To make it more frustrating for the Ottomans, the Shah and his troops destroyed crops and other provisions along the way.
In 1548, Tahmasp and the Safavid troops attacked the Ottoman-held cities of Tabriz and Van. Suleiman immediately sent troops to recapture the cities, as well as some strongholds in Georgia and Armenia. No clear winner emerged during the years of attacks and counterattacks, so both sides were forced to sign the Treaty of Amasya in 1555. Safavid Persia received Azerbaijan, eastern Kurdistan, eastern Georgia, and eastern Armenia. The Ottomans, meanwhile, received western Georgia, Hejaz, Mesopotamia, western Armenia, and greater Kurdistan.
The Siege of Vienna
Archduke Ferdinand and his Austrian troops managed to occupy several fortresses in Ottoman-held parts of Hungary. He was unable to hold on to them for long as John Zapolya and the Ottomans drove them out. In 1529, Ferdinand’s troops met a crushing defeat at Feldioara.
Suleiman wanted to push deeper into Central Europe now that the Ottomans held a large part of Hungary. In early 1529, he organized his troops once again and started the long march from Istanbul to the gates of Vienna. Fate seemed to have favored the Austrians as the rains and floods made the plains of the Balkans impassable to the Ottomans. Many of Suleiman’s men got sick and died along the way. They were also forced to abandon the cannons and camels that got stuck on muddy roads.
Suleiman and his men arrived at the outskirts of Vienna and began the invasion on the 27th of September 1529. They were forced to abandon it on the 5th of October of the same year. Ferdinand knew that the city was spared only because of luck, so he negotiated with Suleiman for peace. He also asked that Hungary be given to him in the event that John Zapolya died without an heir. By 1530, the negotiations fell apart and hostilities returned.
In 1532, Suleiman and 200,000 men left Istanbul to launch another attack on Vienna. Once again, the Ottoman soldiers were bogged down by rains and floods. They came as far as Güns which they besieged for three weeks until they finally gave up and returned home. They besieged Lower Austria and Styria along the way to send a message to Archduke Ferdinand: the Ottomans were not done yet.
Archduke Ferdinand and Suleiman signed the Treaty of Constantinople in 1533. In this treaty, Ferdinand gave up his claims on Hungary and agreed to pay an annual tribute to the Ottomans. The Ottoman-backed John Zapolya died in 1540, so Ferdinand tried once again to get his hands on Hungary. Meanwhile, John Zapolya’s wife had given birth to an heir, so the Ottomans attacked and defeated Ferdinand’s troops for violating their agreement. He was defeated by the Ottomans at Buda in 1541.
Ferdinand was forced to agree to partition Hungary once again. The Habsburgs held the western and northern regions of the principality, while the Ottomans held the central and eastern regions. John Zapolya’s infant son received the administration of Transylvania. Peace was elusive between the Ottomans and the Habsburg, so war flared up again between 1551 and 1553. The Ottoman-Habsburg wars temporarily stopped when Suleiman died while on campaign in 1566.
Suleiman’s Government and Military
Suleiman inherited a vast and powerful empire with a strong army and navy. When he became sultan, he immediately overturned his father’s harsh and unjust punishments. He established more courts, and hired additional enforcers of laws. He was known as a just ruler who surrounded himself with jurists and legal scholars at his court. He discouraged judges from giving out arbitrary sentences to ordinary people. Government officials were not to be dismissed without a good reason. Imprisonment without trial was forbidden during Suleiman’s reign.
He also restructured and codified existing laws (kanuns). He was known later as the “Kanuni” or the Lawgiver after working on and issuing new laws (kanunname) that focused on civil and criminal justice, and finance. This was a project that he worked on with prominent jurist Ebussuud Efendi between 1539 and 1541.
The sultan implemented tax reforms during his reign. His people were required to pay taxes based on their income and ability to pay. Tax collection was systematized to replenish the treasury, and he ensured that the empire’s budget was always balanced.
Suleiman was a statesman, but he did not shirk battles on the field. Because of this, he earned the loyalty and respect of the Janissary corps. He personally led his army on major campaigns in Europe and Asia. The Ottoman army was made up of professional cavalry corps who regularly received wages, as well as fief holders from the provinces. Suleiman also prevented the troops from being spread too thin by avoiding wars on two fronts.
The Ottoman soldiers were disciplined and organized—a contrast to the dismal state of 16th-century European troops. They were also well-paid and well-provisioned. The well-trained artillerymen and bombs specialists contributed much to the Ottomans’ success during the campaigns. Their investment in the latest cannons and gunpowder weapons also paid off in their European and Asian campaigns.
The Grand Vizier and Suleiman’s close friend Ibrahim Pasha was influential in the sultan’s policies in governing the territories the Ottomans conquered. In Egypt, Ibrahim Pasha ensured that the governor did not hold absolute power. The grand mufti, the commander of the garrison, and the treasurer checked the taxes before these were sent by the governor to Istanbul. Egyptians were allowed to serve anywhere in the Ottoman Empire except in Egypt itself. Ottoman officials were also forbidden to serve in an area for more than two years. These were implemented to prevent the governor from amassing supporters and funds for another rebellion.
Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire was prosperous. The empire gained a great deal from its location between Asia and Europe which made it a haven for merchants. It was also the gateway of trade ships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and vice versa. Whenever the empire expanded, the Ottomans also gained another source of revenue.
During the war with the Safavids, Selim forbade Ottoman merchants to trade with Persians. The goods of those who violated the decree were confiscated by the state. Suleiman overturned this decree and ordered his officials to return the confiscated goods to the merchants. They were also compensated.
The Ottomans practiced Sunni Islam. In general, they were tolerant of other religions and to some extent, the Shia branch of Islam. Christians and Jews were treated fairly, but their rights were limited, and they were barred from joining the government as officials. The only exception were the boys who entered the Devshirme system. The boys of the Devshirme system started out as Christian tributes who were compelled to convert to Islam. They were then sent to special schools in Istanbul, and many of them rose through the ranks as government officials when they grew up. One of the men who benefited from the Devshirme system was Suleiman’s Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha.
Because of his success in conquering lands in Europe and Asia, the Muslims regarded Suleiman as the guardian of the umma (community). To demonstrate his wealth and his devotion to Islam, Suleiman also commissioned the great Ottoman architect Sinan to remodel the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina and the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Suleiman was a great patron of the arts during his reign. He was also a goldsmith and a prolific poet who wrote Turkish and Persian verses under the name “Muhibbi.” When he became sultan, one of his first decrees was to allow the return of captured Mamluk and Azerbaijani artists to their homelands. Those who chose to remain in Istanbul were generously paid.
Artists and craftsmen from all over the empire came to Istanbul to join the different artisans’ guild of the city. The most prestigious of these was the Ehl-i Hiref or Community of the Talented. All members of this community served in the sultan’s palace.
Istanbul during Suleiman’s reign was home to the best of the empire’s calligraphers, weavers, jewelers, potters, bladesmiths, and woodworkers. Sixteenth-century Istanbul also produced some of the best Ottoman manuscript painters and illuminators. Some of the well-known Ottoman artists include:
* Ahmed Karahisari – calligrapher.
* Shah Quli – Persian painter known for his saz style dragons and phoenixes.
* Kara Memi – a student of Shah Quli who became a prominent manuscript illuminator.
* Ahmed Tekelu – bladesmith who created Suleiman’s beautiful yataghan (short sword).
* Haydar Reis (Nigari) – Suleiman’s portraitist.
* Matrakçı Nasuh – mathematician, historian, painter (topography), among others.
* Piri Reis – Ottoman admiral, cartographer, and author of naval guides.
* Nakkaş Osman – illustrator and miniaturist.
Sinan was the most revered Ottoman architect of his time. He designed the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. On top of that, he also designed around 300 monuments scattered all over the empire. Madrassas, hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, shops, markets, caravanserais, and mausoleums were also among his projects.
The ulema (Muslim scholars) were among the most educated people in Suleiman’s empire. The polymath Matrakçı Nasuh was one of the empire’s most celebrated historians. Feridun Ahmed Bey and Mustafa Ali were some of the prominent Ottoman historians during Suleiman’s time.
Ottoman artists flocked to Istanbul to create their best works, but some Anatolian provinces were also known for their own distinct products. Tiles and ceramics were bought from the province of Iznik, while the Uşak province was known for rug weaving (Oushak carpets). Textile production during Suleiman’s reign was centered in the province of Bursa.
Adler, Philip J., and Randall Lee Pouwels. World Civilizations: Since 1500. Vol. II. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.
Atil, Esin. The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1987.
Clot, André, and Matthew Reisz. Suleiman the Magnificent. London: Saqi, 2012.
Mikaberidze, Alexander, ed. Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Shaw, Stanford. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Volume I: Empire of the Gazis – The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Thackeray, Frank W., and John E. Findling, eds. Events That Formed the Modern World: From the European Renaissance to the War on Terror. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.
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