Before the Ottoman empire was cursed as the sick man of Europe by the Europeans. This great empire was held with great admiration in their eyes. And the Ruler that brought this mass of territory to its top was none other than Suleiman. This Sultan was given titles from both his subjects and arch-enemies.
Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was given this title by his European archenemies while his Muslim subjects used to call him Suleiman the Lawgiver for his reform of the Ottoman legal system. He was born in Trabzon along the east coast of the Black Sea to Selim I and Hafsa Sultan. It is unknown where his mother came from originally but she was a convert to Islam.
Suleiman was sent to study in the schools of the imperial Topkapı Palace in Constantinople. From the age of seventeen, he was appointed as the governor of first Kaffa (Theodosia), then Manisa, with a short period at Edirne. Upon the death of his father, Selim I (r. 1512–1520), Suleiman entered Constantinople and ascended to the throne as the tenth Ottoman Sultan.
Image of Suleiman the Magnificent
Expansion into Europe
While his great-grandfather Mehmed II Fatih opened Constantinople and became famous for that, Suleiman opened Orthodox Christianity’s other stronghold, Belgrade, Serbia’s capital in 1521. He defeated the only Christian force remaining in the Balkans, the Hungarians. In the very same year, Suleiman also suppressed a revolt led by the governor of Damascus. The Albanians, Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Byzantines and the Serbs had all become Ottoman subjects.
All these Ottoman victories spread fear across Europe and both Hungary and Austria expected Suleiman to attack them, but he turned his attention towards the Greek island of Rhodes. It was the base of the Knights Hospitaller who capitulated after a five-month siege in 1522. In contrast to the Crusaders, Sultan Suleiman showed them how merciful he was and allowed them to leave the island unharmed. Suleiman’s father had built such a powerful navy and left it behind for his son Suleiman.
16th Century Mighty Ottoman Fleet
Now, the Sultan turned his attention to Hungary and on 29th of August 1526, he defeated Louis II of Hungary at the Battle of Mohács. Hungary collapsed and the Ottomans became the main power in Central Europe. Ottoman forces even laid siege to Vienna in 1529, which made Europe even shiver more, but the Austrians inflicted the first defeat on Sultan Suleiman. Three years later (1532), another attempt to open Vienna failed, sowing the seeds of a bitter Ottoman–Habsburg rivalry that would last until the 20th century.
In 1541, the Austrian Habsburgs attempted to lay siege to Buda but not only did the Ottomans defeat them, but more Habsburg fortresses were captured by the Ottomans in two consecutive campaigns in 1541 and 1544. A humiliating five-year treaty was signed with Suleiman and Ferdinand renounced his claim to the Kingdom of Hungary. Ferdinand was forced to pay a yearly amount to the Sultan for the Hungarian lands under Ottoman control.
Sent Expedition to help Aceh
Under Suleiman, the Persian Safavid Empire and the Portuguese were defeated while Yemen became part of the Ottoman Empire. Trade relations with the Mughals, which had already started in 1518, became stronger. Between 1526 and 1543, Suleiman supported the Somali Adal Sultanate led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi during the Conquest of Abyssinia. The Ottomans would thus have a strong presence at the Horn of Africa as well as in the Indian Ocean. The Ajuran Sultanate, allied with Suleiman, defied the Portuguese economic monopoly in the Indian Ocean by employing a new coinage which followed the Ottoman pattern. In 1564, Suleiman sent out an expedition to help the Sultanate of Aceh in Indonesia against the Portuguese.
Image of the Ottoman Empire at its Zenith
Under Sultan Suleiman’s patronage, the Ottoman Empire began its cultural golden age with hundreds of imperial artistic societies (Ehl-i Hiref, “Community of the Craftsmen”). This Ehl-i Hiref attracted the empire’s most talented artisans to the Sultan’s court, both from the Muslim world and from the Balkan Peninsula. Ottoman culture had become a blend of Arabic, Turkish and European cultures. The previous influence of Persian art was had become less.
Suleiman himself wrote poetry in both Persian and Turkish under the pseudonym Muhibbi (“Lover”). Some of Suleiman’s verses have even become Turkish proverbs
The literary historian Elias John Wilkinson Gibb mentioned that “at no time , was greater encouragement given to poetry than during the reign of this Sultan”.
Constantinople became the centre of Islamic civilisation due to the majority of projects being built by the most famous Ottoman architect of all times, Mimar Sinan.
Sinan became responsible for over three hundred monuments throughout the empire, including his two masterpieces, the Süleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, which contains Suleiman’s domed mausoleum and the Selimiye mosque in Edirne. Istanbul’s skyline and many other cities in today’s Turkey (and even in some Balkan countries and cities) are adorned with Mimar Sinan’s architectural masterpieces
Suleiman also restored the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Walls of Jerusalem, renovated the Kaaba in Mecca, and constructed a complex in Damascus.
European travellers reported that the Ottoman Empire had a strong agricultural base and would satisfy the needs of the peasantry and of its population without a problem. They admired Suleiman’s administrative system and organisational structure of his government.
On the 6th of September 1566, Suleiman died before an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Szigetvár (Hungary).
At the time of Suleiman’s death, the Ottomans were of the largest forces in the world and the Empire was one of the world’s mightiest powers. Major Muslim cities (such as Baghdad, Mecca and Medina), many Balkan provinces (reaching present day Croatia and Hungary), and most of North Africa had become part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans played a very important role in the European balance of power. Suleiman’s reign was the Golden Age in Ottoman arts, architecture, literature, art, theology and philosophy.
Even thirty years after his death, “Sultan Solyman” was quoted by the English playwright William Shakespeare as a military prodigy in The Merchant of Venice (Act 2, Scene 1).
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Dr. Stef Keris has been a lecturer and teacher for the last 25 years. Stef is a polyglot (English, German, Greek, French, Spanish, Dutch, Arabic) with a Master’s and a PhD in Political Science.
Dr Stef has written three books on the Islamic Heritage in Europe. He has made 3 documentaries about the Ottoman legacy in Greece, in Hungary and in Vienna (Austria) and about the three Ottoman capitals (Bursa, Edirne and Istanbul).
His recent work is the textbook The Islamic history of Europe-How Islam has become part of Europe. This textbook is taught at schools in Birmingham and (in German) in Zurich (Switzerland). He is based in the UK.