Born: November 6, 1494 at Trabzon, on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea.
Reign: Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1520 to 1566, the "Golden Age" of the Empire.
Died: September 7, 1566, at Szigetvar, Hungary.
Succeeded by: Selim II, also known as "Selim the Drunkard."
Suleiman's Early Life:
Suleiman was born to Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire and Aishe Hafsa Sultan of the Crimean Khanate. He was the sultan's only surviving son. As a child, he studied at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, where he learned theology, literature, science, history, and warfare. He became fluent in six languages: Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Serbian, Chagatai Turkish (similar to Uighur), Farsi, and Urdu. Suleiman's tutors noted both his studious nature and his bravery from an early age.
As a youth, Suleiman was fascinated by Alexander the Great. His later program of military expansion may have been inspired in part by Alexander's conquests. As sultan, Suleiman would lead 13 major military expeditions, and he spent more than 10 years of his 46-year reign out on campaign.
Sultan Selim I ruled very successfully, and left his son in a remarkably secure position. The Janissaries were at the height of their usefulness; the Mamluks were defeated; and the great maritime power of Venice as well as the Persian Safavid Empire had been humbled by the Ottomans. Selim also left his son a powerful navy, a first for a Turkic ruler.
Ascent to the Throne:
Suleiman's father entrusted his son with the governorships of different regions within the Ottoman Empire from the age of seventeen. When Suleiman was twenty-six, in 1520, Selim I died and Suleiman ascended the throne. Although he was of age, his mother served as co-regent.
The new sultan immediately launched his program of military conquest and imperial expansion. In 1521, he put down a revolt by the governor of Damascus, Canberdi Gazali. Suleiman's father had conquered the area that is now Syria in 1516, using it as a wedge between the Mamluk sultanate and the Safavid Empire, and had appointed Gazali as the governor. On January 27, 1521, Suleiman defeated Gazali, who died in battle.
In July of the same year, the sultan laid siege to Belgrade, a fortified city on the Danube River. He used both a land-based army and a flotilla of ships to blockade the city and prevent reinforcement. Now in Serbia, at that time Belgrade belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary. It fell to Suleiman's forces on August 29, 1521, removing the last obstacle to an Ottoman advance into Central Europe.
Before he launched his major assault on Europe, however, Suleiman wanted to take care of an annoying gadfly in the Mediterranean. Christian hold-overs from the Crusades, the Knights Hospitallers based on the island of Rhodes had been capturing Ottoman and other Muslim nations' ships, stealing their cargoes of grain and gold, and enslaving their crews. Their piracy even imperiled Muslims who set sail to make the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Selim I had attacked and tried to dislodge the knights in 1480, but had not succeeded. In the intervening decades, the knights used Muslim slave labor to strengthen and reinforce their fortresses on the island, in anticipation of another Ottoman siege.
Suleiman sent out an armada of 400 ships carrying at least 100,000 troops to Rhodes. They landed on June 26, 1522 and laid siege to the bastions full of 60,000 defenders representing various western European countries: England, Spain, Italy, Provence, and Germany. Meanwhile, Suleiman himself led an army of reinforcements on a march to the coast, reaching Rhodes in late July.
It took nearly half a year of artillery bombardment and detonating mines under the triple-layer stone walls. Finally, on December 22, 1522, the Turks forced all of the Christian knights and the civilian inhabitants of Rhodes to surrender.
Suleiman gave the knights twelve days to gather their belongings, including weapons and religious icons, and leave the island on 50 ships provided by the Ottomans. Most of the knights went to Sicily. The local people of Rhodes also received generous terms. They had three years to decide whether they wanted to remain on Rhodes under Ottoman rule, or move elsewhere. They would pay no taxes for the first five years, and Suleiman promised that none of their churches would be converted into mosques. Most of them decided to stay. The Ottoman Empire now had nearly complete control of the eastern Mediterranean.
Into Europe's Heartland:
Suleiman faced several additional crises before he was able to launch his attack into Hungary. Unrest among the Janissaries, and a 1523 revolt by the Mamluks in Egypt were only temporary distractions, however. In April 1526, Suleiman began the march to the Danube.
On August 29, 1526, Suleiman defeated King Louis II of Hungary in the Battle of Mohacs. Suleiman lamented the 20-year-old Hungarian king's death in the battle, saying, "It was not my wish that he should be thus cut off before he had scarcely tasted the sweetness of life." Suleiman supported the nobleman John Zapolya as the next king of Hungary, but the Hapsburgs in Austria put forward one of their own princes, Louis II's brother-in-law, Ferdinand. The Hapsburgs marched into Hungary and took Buda, placing Ferdinand on the throne, and sparking a decades-long feud with Suleiman and the Ottoman Empire.
In 1529, Suleiman marched on Hungary once more, taking Buda from the Hapsburgs, and then continuing on to besiege the Hapsburg capital at Vienna. Suleiman's army of perhaps 120,000 reached Vienna in late September, damp and sickly after marching through an unusually rainy spring and summer in Europe. The Ottomans had been forced to abandon most of their heavy artillery and siege machines, which got mired in thick mud along the way, so they had only 300 light cannons with which to try to bring down Vienna's walls. When the light artillery proved ineffectual, Turkish sappers began to tunnel under the walls and plant mines.
On October 11, 1529, rain began to fall with renewed fervor, dampening the explosives before the Ottomans had made any significant breaches in the city walls. The next day, Suleiman and his council decided to make one last-ditch effort to take Vienna. The 16,000 Viennese defenders managed to hold them off once more, however, so the Turkish forces began to withdraw. As they moved back south and east, the rain turned to snow, adding to the misery of Suleiman's first military defeat.
The Ottoman sultan did not give up on the idea of taking Vienna. His second attempt, in 1532, was similarly hampered by rain and mud, and the army never even reached the Hapsburg capital. In 1541, the two empires went to war again when the Hapsburgs laid siege to Buda, trying to remove Suleiman's ally from the Hungarian throne. The Hungarians and Ottomans defeated the Austrians, and captured additional Hapsburg holdings in 1541 and again in 1544. Ferdinand was forced to renounce his claim to be king of Hungary, and had to pay tribute to Suleiman. Even as all of these events happened to the north and west of Turkey, Suleiman also had to keep an eye on his eastern border with Persia.
War with the Safavids:
The Safavid Persian Empire was one of the Ottomans' great rivals, and a fellow "gunpowder empire." Its ruler, Shah Tahmasp, sought to extend Persian influence by assassinating the Ottoman governor of Baghdad and replacing him with a Persian puppet, and by convincing the governor of Bitlis, in eastern Turkey, to swear allegiance to the Safavid throne. Suleiman, busy in Hungary and Austria, sent his grand vizier with a second army to retake Bitlis in 1533. The second Ottoman force also seized Tabriz, now in northeastern Iran, from the Persians.
Suleiman himself returned from his second invasion of Austria and marched into Persia in 1534, but the Shah refused to meet the Ottomans in open battle, withdrawing into the Persian desert and using guerrilla hits against the Turks instead. Suleiman retook Baghdad and was reconfirmed as the true caliph of the Islamic world.
In 1548-49, Suleiman decided to overthrow his Persian gadfly for good, and launched a second invasion of the Safavid Empire. Once more, Tahmasp refused to participate in pitched battle, this time leading the Ottoman army up into the snowy, rugged terrain of the Caucasus Mountains. The Ottoman sultan gained territory in Georgia and the Kurdish borderlands between Turkey and Persia, but was unable to come to grips with the Shah.
The third and final confrontation between Suleiman and Tahmasp took place in 1553-54. As always, the Shah avoided open battle, but Suleiman marched into the Persian heartland and laid it waste. Shah Tahmasp finally agreed to sign a treaty with the Ottoman sultan, in which he got control of Tabriz in exchange for promising to cease border raids on Turkey, and to permanently relinquish his claims to Baghdad and the rest of Mesopotamia.
Descendants of Central Asian nomads, the Ottoman Turks did not have a historical tradition as a naval power. Nonetheless, Suleiman's father established an Ottoman seafaring legacy, in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and even the Indian Ocean beginning in 1518. During Suleiman's reign, Ottoman ships traveled to Mughal India's trading ports, and the sultan exchanged letters with the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. The sultan's Mediterranean fleet patrolled the sea under the command of the famous Admiral Heyreddin Pasha, known in the west as Barbarossa.
Suleiman's navy also managed to drive troublesome newcomers to the Indian Ocean system, the Portuguese, out of a key base at Aden on the coast of Yemen in 1538. However, the Turks were unable to dislodge the Portuguese from their toeholds along the west coasts of India and Pakistan.
Suleiman the Law-giver:
Suleiman the Magnificent is remembered in Turkey as Kanuni, the Law-Giver. He completely overhauled the formerly piecemeal Ottoman legal system. One of his first acts was to lift the embargo on trade with the Safavid Empire, which hurt Turkish traders as least as much as it did Persian ones. He decreed that all Ottoman soldiers would pay for any food or other property they took as provisions while on campaign, even while in enemy territory.
Suleiman also reformed the tax system, dropping extra taxes imposed by his father, and establishing a transparent tax rate system that varied according to people's income. Hiring and firing within the bureaucracy would be based on merit, rather than on the whims of higher officials or on family connections. All Ottoman citizens, even the highest, were subject to the law. Suleiman's reforms gave the Ottoman Empire a recognizably modern administration and legal system, more than 450 years ago. He instituted protections for Christian and Jewish citizens of the Ottoman Empire, denouncing blood libels against the Jews in 1553, and freeing Christian farm laborers from serfdom.
Succession and Death:
Suleiman the Magnificent had two official wives and an unknown number of additional concubines. His first wife, Mahidevran Sultan, bore him his eldest son, an intelligent and talented boy named Mustafa. The second wife, a Ukrainian former concubine named Hurrem Sultan, was the love of Suleiman's life, and gave him seven younger sons.
Hurrem Sultan knew that according to the rules of the harem, if Mustafa became sultan, he would have all of her sons killed to prevent them from trying to overthrow him. She started a rumor that Mustafa was interested in ousting his father from the throne, so in 1553, Suleiman summoned his eldest son to his tent in an army camp, and had the 38-year-old strangled to death. This left the path clear for Hurrem Sultan's first son, Selim, to come to the throne. Unfortunately, Selim had none of the good qualities of his half-brother, and is remembered in history as "Selim the Drunkard."
In 1566, the 71-year-old Suleiman the Magnificent led his army on a final expedition against the Hapsburgs in Hungary. The Ottomans won the Battle of Szigetvar on September 8, 1566, but Suleiman died of a heart attack the previous day. His officials did not want word of his death to distract and discomfit his troops, so they kept it a secret for a month and a half while the Turkish troops finalized their control of the area. Suleiman's body was prepared for transport back to Constantinople; to keep it from putrefying, the heart and intestines were removed and buried in Hungary. Today, a Christian church and a fruit orchard stand in the area where Suleiman the Magnificent, greatest of the Ottoman sultans, left his heart on the battlefield.
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Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey: Volume 1, Empire of the Gazis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Turnbull, Stephen. The Ottoman Empire, 1326 - 1699, London: Osprey Publishing, 2012.