Wednesday, April 22, 2015


                                                                     (1494 - 1566)

     There are other pictures of Suleiman, but I love this one because - I'm sorry - rather than magnificent, he looks incredibly dorky in that hat.  What is that about, anyway, the turban 10 times the size of your head?  But appearances can be deceiving; Suleiman was, in fact, the longest-reigning sultan of the vast Ottoman Empire, and is known both for his military victories  and for his many and wide-ranging civic accomplishments.  At the time, he was considered by both Christians and Moslems to be the most significant ruler in the world.  Moral: the clothes don't always make the man.
     Upon the death of his father, Suleiman became sultan in 1520.  Christian Europe was expanding during the sixteenth century, which meant that it was encroaching into traditionally Muslim territory.  To fight this trend, Suleiman formed policies designed to destabilize European powers, particularly the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire.  Thus, he poured financial support into newly-Protestant countries.  But the primary way in which he reconfigured the map of Europe was through war and conquest, not just political action.
     Reports of Suleiman's military prowess struck terror into the heart of every Christian ruler in Europe.  In quick succession, he captured Belgrade (1521) and then the island of Rhodes (1522).  In 1526, he defeated the King of Hungary in battle, and when the Hapsburgs took control of the country, he recaptured it in 1529.  His only real European defeats were the failures to capture Vienna after two tries (1530 and 1532).
     Suleiman repeatedly invaded Middle Eastern territories governed by the Persian Shah, achieving victories but no decisive outcome.  Finally, in 1554, a treaty was reached granting Suleiman Baghdad, lower Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Syria), the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and part of the Persian Gulf.
     The Portuguese dominated trade in the Indian Ocean, and Suleiman set out to dispute their control in order to trade with the Mughal Empire in India.  He largely succeeded in meeting this goal.  He was also concerned about increasing Spanish control of the eastern Mediterranean, so he turned to none other than our old friend Barbarossa (see my H post about Sayyida al-Hurra), appointing him naval commander.  Barbarossa formed a huge fleet and, in 1538, defeated the Spanish fleet and thus secured Ottoman control of the eastern Mediterranean for the next 33 years.
     But Suleiman's prowess at invading and conquering other countries represents only one aspect of this very complex man.  Not only was he a patron of the arts; he was himself considered one of Islam's finest poets.  His reign marked the pinnacle of Ottoman cultural and artistic development; his court became the center for visual arts, music, literature and philosophy in the Moslem world.  In addition, he undertook a series of important building projects - bridges, mosques, palaces - often employing the brilliant architect Mimar Sinan.  And since Sinan also begins with an S, and so does the name of his masterpiece, I'll provide a mini-bonus: a photograph of  the Selimiye Mosque in Ankara:

     Although Europeans called Suleiman "the Magnificent," the Ottomans called him Kanuni, "The Lawgiver."  All Islamic countries were governed by the Shari'ah law, which was derived from the Koran and could not be altered by any ruler.  But there were all kinds of situations that fell outside the parameters of Shari'ah, and that was when rulers could exercise their own judgment, creating what was known as kanun law.  From the time they began their rule in 1350, the Ottomans took this flexibility to a whole new level.  They enacted an entire body of Sultanic law that more or less superseded the Shari'ah altogether.  During his reign, Suleiman revised the legal code and codified the whole kanun system into its final version, thus earning the title Kanuni.  In Islamic history, he is considered to have been the perfect ruler.
     Suleiman had four sons.  Because he had chosen Selim to be the one to succeed him, he ensured a future conflict-free transition by what seems to have been a traditional method: he ordered the murder of two of his other sons, and the third is said to have died of grief.  Thus, as in most things, Suleiman got what he wanted.  He died a natural death in 1566 during an expedition to Hungary.


  1. I'm with you, the hat makes him look a fool. But, hey, looks ARE obviously deceiving!

    1. So when a guy in a turban like that walks up to you at a party, DON'T just turn and walk away!

  2. If you look at some of the whack-a-do things other historical figures have worn, that turban starts to look pretty tame--krakows (those weirdly wonderfully long and pointy shoes), hoop skirts, fantastical huge powdered wigs, not to mention those massive ruffs and shoulder wings favoured by Elizabeth I. Ah, fashion, how we love you.

    Man, that was one brutal succession plan, wasn't it?

    1. What's that phrase? "Crude, but effective." I didn't put this in the post, but by all accounts, one of the other sons would have been absolutely perfect for the job, but for the fact that he wasn't the child of Suleiman's favorite wife. She campaigned hard for her oldest son, and it worked. Thanks so much for stopping by! I love your blog!

  3. This man was either bat shit crazy or brilliant. Murdering your own sons seems cruel. But if they raised their own armies, I guess a lot more would have died. Interesting to learn about him!!

    You can find me here:

    1. I like your measured approach to infanticide, Clarabelle. Apparently at that time and place, everyone knew all along that if you were a prince, it was successor or bye-bye. No "spare to the heir" for that crowd! Thanks for visiting.