Süleyman I

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Süleyman I

Szigetvár, Hungary


"Slave of God, master of the world, I am Suleyman and my name is read in all the prayers in all the cities of Islam. I am the Shah of Baghdad and Iraq, Caesar of all the lands of Rome, and the Sultan of Egypt."

Süleyman I quoted in Suleyman the Magnificent. [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8001/~dee/OTTOMAN/SULEYMAN.HTM, April 5, 2002.

Süleyman I, who ruled from 1520 until 1566, was the last great sultan, or king, of the Ottoman Empire. The empire was a vast kingdom in the part of Asia called the Near East and in North Africa. The Ottoman Empire was formed in the 1300s, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire, the eastern part of the former Roman Empire, which was based in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey). The Ottoman Turks were Muslims, or followers of Islam (a religion founded by the prophet Muhammad), from Turkey. Süleyman was named after King Solomon (tenth century b.c.), the king of ancient Israel, whom the Qur'an (Koran; the holy book of Islam) describes as the ideal monarch because he had the quality of 'adale, or justice. In Islamic history Süleyman is known as the second Solomon, and his reign is considered the time of the greatest justice and harmony achieved by any Islamic state. Süleyman actively worked to enlarge the Ottoman Empire while maintaining Islamic principles. He gained a reputation as a firm and just lawgiver and a brilliant military leader.

Known as the "Magnificent"

Süleyman I was the son of Sultan Selim I (the Grim; 1470–1520). Unlike Selim, who neglected European affairs in favor of unifying Ottoman power, Süleyman devoted himself to conducting the jihad (Islamic holy war) in Europe. His success in expanding the Ottoman Empire during his reign, mainly through military successes, gained him the nickname of kanuni (lawgiver). In Europe he was known as the "Magnificent." Among Süleyman's greatest achievements was making the Ottoman Empire into a mighty sea power. In 1538 the Ottoman navy defeated Andrea Doria (1466–1560), the famous admiral from the Italian city-state of Genoa, in a battle at Preveza, Greece. The Ottomans now had control of the eastern half of the region around the Mediterranean Sea, from Egypt to Algeria. As the protector of Islam, Süleyman also invaded and annexed, or claimed, other Islamic states. For instance, he annexed Arabia, asserting that the ruling families had abandoned the true Islamic faith.

Süleyman ruled at a time when Europeans were mobilizing forces to prevent an Ottoman invasion. For centuries Europeans had feared that they would be overtaken by the Muslims. Not only did Europeans consider Muslims to be pagans (those who have no religion or worship more than one god), but they also thought the inhabitants of Asia and North Africa were racially and culturally inferior to themselves. Nevertheless, the Renaissance was also heavily influenced by Ottoman culture. (The Renaissance was a cultural revolution that began in Italy in the mid-1300s. It was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome.) In fact, European scholars had been visiting cultural centers in the East since the Crusades (1096–1291), holy wars waged by Christians to recapture the Holy Land, or present-day Palestine, from the Muslims. (Palestine is considered holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all of whose religions started there.) Similarly, Muslims viewed Europeans as a threat to Islam. The Ottoman Empire was beginning to shrink as a result of European conquests. Portugal was trying to dominate trade with India and had invaded several Muslim cities in eastern Africa. Russians, considered by Ottomans to be European, were moving into central Asia. Süleyman therefore set out to preserve the principles of Islam by preventing European occupation of Ottoman territory.

Initiates Ottoman strategy in Europe

Süleyman was gaining prominence on the world stage at a time when his European rival, Charles V (1500–1558; see entry), was distracted by social and religious upheaval in his own kingdoms. As the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, Charles was a member of the powerful Habsburg family, who controlled central Europe and Spain. He reigned over the largest empire in the Western (non-Asian) history, and he was expanding his territory into the Americas. Nevertheless, he was preoccupied with fighting off challenges to Habsburg power in France and contending with the Protestant Reformation in Germany. (The Reformation had begun as an isolated movement to make changes within the Roman Catholic Church, then escalated into social and political unrest among Protestants and Catholics in the German states.)

Süleyman,"master of all lands"

Süleyman I was the greatest sultan in Islamic history. In various inscriptions (texts written on monuments and buildings) he described himself as the divinely appointed ruler not only of the Ottoman Empire but also of "the lands of Rome" (the Holy Roman Empire):

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 [one who implements] Sultanic laws ( Nashiru kawanin al-Sultaniyye ), the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Khans, Sultan, son of Sultan, Suleyman Khan.

Slave of God, master of the world, I am Suleyman and my name is read in all the prayers in all the cities of Islam. 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.

Source: Suleyman the Magnificent. [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8001/~dee/OTTOMAN/SULEYMAN.HTM, April 5, 2002.

Süleyman's understanding of European politics contributed to Ottoman successes. He took advantage of the turmoil in Europe by seeking to destabilize both the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. He was able to advance his goals through alliances with certain European powers and then playing rival European states against one another. Süleyman moved first in Hungary. This region held little regard for Charles at the moment, so Süleyman knew he could easily win a conflict with the Habsburg rulers of Austria, who also controlled Hungary. In 1521 Süleyman took Belgrade, Serbia. He then defeated the Hungarian king, Louis II (1506–1526; ruled 1516–26), in a decisive battle at Mohács, Hungary, in 1526. He even attacked Vienna, Austria, in 1528.

As Europe was splitting into Catholic and Protestant states, Süleyman became directly involved in European politics. In 1536 he formed an alliance with Francis I (1494–1547; see entry), the king of France, against the Habsburgs, a move that had long-range consequences. For the next three centuries the Ottomans pursued the policy of seeking alliances that would keep European states at odds with one another. The immediate impact in the sixteenth century was to keep Charles V off balance. Charles was trying to avoid civil war among Catholics and Protestants in Germany while pursuing Habsburg imperial goals in France. At the same time Charles's brother, Ferdinand I (1503–1564; later Holy Roman emperor 1558–64), needed Protestant financial support while pursuing his claims to the Hungarian throne. The goals of both Charles and Ferdinand, which involved military confrontation with the Turks, were exploited by the Protestant princes of German of states. The princes received funds from Süleyman in their efforts to establish Lutheranism in Germany in 1555. Many historians note that Protestantism would never have succeeded in Europe without Süleyman's support.

Presides over the golden age

Süleyman's reign was known as the golden age of Ottoman culture. The sultan promoted architectural development, commissioning the construction of public baths, bridges, religious schools, and grand mosques (Islamic houses of worship). In 1557 the Turkish architect Sinan (1489–1588) completed the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. Süleyman also supported other fine arts. At the studio in his palace, twenty-nine artists—half of whom were Europeans—created miniature paintings that represented an innovation in Islamic art.

Süleyman himself made contributions to Islamic culture. He was not only an accomplished goldsmith (one who crafts objects from gold) but a fine poet. The sciences, theology, and the judicial system also flourished under his regime. Süleyman had a reputation as a great lawgiver, mainly because of the military, educational, and legal reforms enacted during his reign. Some historians observe, however, that such a reputation is somewhat exaggerated. Most of the laws were designed to eliminate corruption and to restore the fundamental principles of the Kanoun Namé, the basic Ottoman legislation that had been handed down earlier, by Mehmed II the Conqueror (1432–1481; ruled 1444–46, 1451–81). Süleyman's place in history is that of the last sultan who maintained and enlarged the Islamic empire.

The final years of Süleyman's reign were marked by repeated failures and a bitter dispute over who would succeed him to the throne. His favorite wife, Roxelana, began to conspire against his eldest son, Mustafa, in favor of her two sons, Beyazid and Selim. Aware of Roxelana's intentions, Mustafa built up his own faction, or rival group. Süleyman could see that Mustafa was making political moves, so he took it as a sign of an impending mutiny, or rebellion. As a result, Süleyman had Mustafa executed in 1553. When Roxelana died, Beyazid and Selim began to quarrel. Beyazid was victorious over Selim and staged a revolt, but he met defeat and was forced to flee to Persia. The shah, or leader, of Persia was bribed by Selim and Beyazid was returned home, where he was executed. When Süleyman died during the siege of Szigetvár, Hungary, in 1566, Selim succeeded him as Selim II (ruled 1566–74).

During the next century the Ottoman Empire went into decline. One reason was that the role of the sultan had been weakened. For instance, Murad IV (ruled 1623–40) was the last ruler to command his army in battle. Another reason for the decline was that powerful military families protected their own interests, often ignoring the central government, the Bâbiâli. In 1571 the Ottoman navy, led by Selim II, was defeated by Holy Roman fleets under the command of the Spanish-born general John of Austria (1545–1578) at Lepanto (now Návpaktos), a seaport in Greece on the strait (thin strip of land) between the Gulfs of Corinth and Patras. As a result of John of Austria's victory, Ottoman control of the Mediterranean had come to an end. Finally, the Safavid ruler 'Abbās I (1571–1629; ruled 1588–1629) conquered Baghdad in Iraq. After concluding a peace treaty with the Safavids in 1639, the Ottomans tried to seize territory in Hungary. For the remainder of the seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire continued to weaken in a power struggle with the Habsburgs of Austria. In 1699 Turkey signed the Treaty of Karlowitz, renouncing Hungary and ending the possibility of Ottoman military conquests in the region.

For More Information


Atil, Esin. Suleymanname: The Illustrated History of Suleyman the Magnificent. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1986.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow. Suleiman the Magnificent. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966.

Video Recordings

Suleyman the Magnificent. National Gallery of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art; Home Vision, 1987.

Web Sites

Hooker, Richard. Suleyman the Magnificent. [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8001/~dee/OTTOMAN/SULEYMAN.HTM, April 5, 2002.

"Suleyman the I." Infoplease.com/. [Online] Available http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0847149.html, April 5, 2002.