Suleiman the Magnificent

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Historical figures

Image:20pxOttomanicon.png Suleiman the Magnificent
Ottoman Period
Preceded by:
Selim I
Succeeded by:
Selim II
Preceded by:
Selim I
Succeeded by:
Selim II

Suleiman I ( Modern Turkish: Süleyman; Arabic: سليمانSulaymān) ( November 6, 1494 – September 5/ 6, 1566), was the tenth Osmanli Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and its longest-serving, reigning from 1520 to 1566. Under his leadership, the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith and became a world power, and Suleiman was considered one of the pre-eminent rulers of 16th-century Europe, a respected rival to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519–56), Francis I of France (1515–47), Henry VIII of England (1509–47), and Sigismund II of Poland (1548–72).

Suleiman personally led Ottoman armies to conquer Belgrade, Rhodes, and most of Hungary, besieged Vienna, and annexed huge territories of North Africa as far west as Morocco and most of the Middle East. Briefly, Ottomans achieved naval dominance in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf, and the empire continued to expand for a century after his death.

Within the empire, Suleiman was known as a fair ruler and an opponent of corruption. He was a great patron of artists and philosophers, and was noted as one of the greatest Islamic poets, as well as an accomplished goldsmith. He is known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent and in the Islamic world as the Lawgiver (in Turkish Kanuni; Arabic: القانونى‎, al-Qānūnī), a nickname stemming from his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system.

Early life

Suleiman was born at Trabzon in modern day Turkey. At the age of seven he was sent to study science, history, literature, theology, and military techniques in the schools of the Istanbul palace, and as a young man maintained a close friendship with Pargalı İbrahim Pasha, a slave who would become one of his most trusted advisors.

Suleiman's early experience of government was as governor of several provinces, most notably Bolu in northern Anatolia, and his mother's homeland of Caffa in Crimea.

During the rule of his father, Selim I (1512–20), the Ottoman Empire destroyed the rival Mamluk Sultanate, which led to the annexation of Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Selim claimed the title of the Khadim ul Haremeyn, "The Servant of The Two Holy Shrines", (the Great Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, the holiest places in Islam), and also claimed to be the Caliph, the "guardian of Islam" considered to be the chief civil and religious ruler of all Islam, both Shi'ite and Sunni. Selim also subjugated Persia, whose ruler Shah Ismail (1501–24) also claimed to be the Caliph, and captured Egypt along with Al-Mutawakkil III (1509–17), the last Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, enabling Selim to acquire the emblems of the Caliph, the sword and the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad.

Thus, at the age of 26, upon the death of his father, Suleiman ruled a substantially more powerful Empire and Sultanate, which he would continue to expand until his death in 1566.

Military Achievements

Capture of Belgrade

Upon succeeding his father, Suleiman began a series of military conquests, first putting down a revolt led by the Ottoman-appointed governor of Damascus in 1521. By August, 1521, he had completed the capture of the city of Belgrade from The Kingdom of Hungary, penetrating deeper into the heart of Central Europe.

Rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem

By 1517 the Islamic Ottoman Empire, ruled by Selim I, took Palestine from the Egyptian Mamelukes. Suleiman was so taken with the city of Jerusalem and its plight (having suffered centuries of neglect under Mameluke rule), that he ordered the construction of a magnificent surrounding fortress-wall that still stands around the Old City.


Selim had planned to assault the Christian stronghold of Rhodes prior to his death. In 1522, Suleiman accomplished his father's goal as 400 ships delivered 200,000 men to the island. Against this force the Knights of St. John had about 7,000 men-at-arms, and the walls of the city. The resulting siege lasted six months, at the end of which Suleiman I permitted the survivors to leave and retreat to the Kingdom of Sicily. In exchange, the Knights promised to leave Suleiman's subjects in peace; a promise they would soon violate.


Location of Hungary, present time
Location of Hungary, present time

On August 29, 1526 Suleiman I defeated Louis II of Hungary (1516–26) at the Battle of Mohács, and Ottoman forces occupied most of Hungary in 1541. Louis was killed, and upon encountering the lifeless body of the twenty-year-old King, Suleiman is said to have lamented, "I came in arms against him but it was not my wish that he should be thus cut off while he scarcely tasted the sweets of life and royalty.". (Severy, p. 580)

Under the Ottoman attacks central authority collapsed and a power struggle ensued, with some Hungarian nobles proposing that Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria (1519–64), who was ruler of neighbouring Austria and tied to Louis II's family by marriage, be King of Hungary, citing previous agreements that the Habsburgs would take the Hungarian throne if Louis died without heirs. However, other nobles turned to the nobleman John Zápolya, who was supported by Suleiman, and who remained unrecognized by the Christian powers of Europe. A three-sided conflict ensued as Ferdinand moved to assert his rule over as much of the Hungarian kingdom as he could, resulting in a three-way partition of the Kingdom by 1541: Suleiman claimed most of present-day Hungary, known as the Great Alföld, for the Ottoman Empire, and installed Zápolya's family as rulers of the independent principality of Transylvania, a vassal state of the Empire. Ferdinand claimed " Royal Hungary", including present-day Slovakia, western Croatia, and adjacent territories, temporarily fixing the border between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans.

Under Charles V and his brother Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, the Habsburgs took Hungary. Suleiman twice re-invaded, but was repulsed after besieging Vienna in 1529 and 1532. In 1533 a treaty was signed with Ferdinand, splitting Hungary between the Habsburgs and Zapolya, but on Zapolya's death, Ferdinand was left the Hungarian territories, prompting another struggle to annex Hungary and several peace treaties restoring the status-quo.


Persia (Iran) at its 1512 borders
Persia (Iran) at its 1512 borders

As conflict raged along the European borders of Suleiman's domain, success continued on another front: the longstanding rivalry with the Shi'a Safavid dynasty of Persia (Iran). Suleiman waged three campaigns against the Safavids. In the earliest, the historically important city of Baghdad fell to his forces in 1534, and the city, once the most populous in the Middle East, fell into decline, eclipsed by the growing population and wealth of the Sultan's Istanbul.

The second campaign, 1548– 1549, resulted in temporary Ottoman gains in Tabriz and Azerbaijan, and a lasting presence in the province of Van, and some forts in Georgia.

In his third campaign, in 1555, his forces failed to eliminate the Shah's army, which withdrew into the mountains of Luristan, and eventually signed a treaty at Amasya, in which the Shah recognized the existing borders and promised to end his raids into Ottoman territory.

North Africa and the Middle East

Huge territories of North Africa east to Morocco were annexed. The Barbary States of Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco became autonomous provinces of the Empire, and served as the leading edge of Suleiman's conflict with Charles V, whose attempt to drive out the Turks failed in 1541. The piracy carried on thereafter by the Barbary pirates of North Africa remained part of the wars against Spain, and the Ottoman expansion was associated with naval dominance for a short period in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ottoman navies also controlled the Red Sea, and held the Persian Gulf until 1554, when their ships were defeated by the navy of the Portuguese Empire. The Portuguese would continue to contest Suleiman I's forces for control of Aden.


In 1533 Khair ad Din known to Europeans as Barbarossa, was made Admiral-in-Chief of the Ottoman navies which were actively fighting the Spanish navy. In 1535 the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (Charles I of Spain, ruled 1516–56)) won an important victory against the Ottomans at Tunis, but in 1536 Francis I of France allied himself with Suleiman against Charles. In 1538, the Spanish fleet was defeated at the Battle of Preveza by Khair ad Din, securing the eastern Mediterranean for the Turks for 33 years (1538–71).

Francis I was persuaded to sign a peace treaty with Charles V in 1538, however he again allied himself with the Suleiman in 1542. In 1543 Charles allied himself with Henry VIII of England and forced Francis to sign the Truce of Crepy-en-Laonnois. Charles signed a humilating treaty with Suleiman to gain some respite from the huge expenses of the war.

In 1544, when Spain declared war on France, the French King Francis asked for help from Suleiman. He then sent a fleet headed by Khair ad Din who was victorious over the Spaniards, and managed to retake Naples from them. Suleiman bestowed on him the title of Baylar Bey (Commander General). One result of the alliance was the fierce sea duel between Dragut and Andrea Doria, which left the northern Mediterranean European and the southern Mediterranean in Islamic hands.

Malta, a turning point

Location of Malta
Location of Malta

When the Knights Hospitallers were re-established as the Knights of Malta in 1530, their actions against Muslim navies quickly drew the ire of the Ottomans, who assembled another massive army in order to dislodge the Knights from Malta. In 1565 they invaded, starting the Great Siege of Malta, which began on May 18 and lasted until September 8, and is portrayed vividly in the frescoes of Matteo Perez d'Aleccio in the Hall of St. Michael and St. George. At first the battle looked to be a repeat of the one on Rhodes, with most of the cities destroyed and about half the Knights killed in battle, but a relief force from Spain entered the battle, resulting in the loss of 30,000 Ottoman troops.

After this Suleiman turned his eye to Hungary again. He died of a stroke during the Battle of Szigetvár in Szigetvár, Hungary, (1566, September 5 or 6).

The lawgiver

"The primacy of Suleiman as a law-giver is at the foundation of his place in Islamic history and world view.". The Ottomans called Suleiman Kanuni, or "The Lawgiver," and the inscription on the Suleymanie Mosque constructed for him, describes him as Nashiru kawanin al-Sultaniyye, or "Propagator of the Sultanic Laws," based on Suleiman's revision and application of Sultanic " kanun" laws used in situations not explicitly covered under Islamic Shari'ah: "In Islamic tradition, if a case fell outside the parameters of the Shari'ah, then a judgement or rule in the case could be arrived at through analogy with rules or cases that are covered by the Shari'ah... [a] method of juridical thinking... accepted by the most liberal school of Shari'ah, Hanifism", which "dominated Ottoman law". After Suleiman the Kanun laws attained their final form, and the code of laws became known as the kanun-i Osmani, the "Ottoman laws".

Justice and equity

Suleiman was renowned as a just and fair ruler, choosing his subordinates according to merit rather than social status or popularity. The Austrian Ambassador, Ghiselain de Busbecq, wrote of him, "In making his appointments, the Sultan pays no regard to any pretensions on the score of wealth or rank, nor does he take into consideration recommendations or popularity; he considers each case on its own merits, and examines carefully into the character, ability and disposition of the man whose promotion is in question.".

In 1553 Suleiman declared a law to stop the persecution of Jews via Blood libels, decreeing that all accusations of the slaughter of Christian children by Jews be referred to the Imperial Divan where the courts would expose these lies. The preparation of the law included the input of Moses Hamon, a favorite doctor and dentist of the Sultan. Another symbol of the Muslim-Jewish tolerance was the building of a synagogue and mosque which was built by Suleiman.

Cultural Achievements

Under Suleiman's rule, hundreds of imperial artistic societies (called the Ehl-i Hiref, "Community of the Talented") were administered at the Imperial seat, the Topkapi Palace.

After an apprenticeship, artists and craftsmen could advance in rank within their field and were paid commensurate wages in quarterly annual installments. Payroll registers that survive testify to the breadth of Suleiman's patronage of the arts: "The earliest document, drawn up in 1526, lists 40 societies with over 600 members; by the 17th century the number of societies had increased and their membership had risen to some 2,000. In addition to the artists employed in the imperial societies, Istanbul, like all the major centers of the empire, had diverse guilds of artisans which supplied both domestic and foreign needs."

The Poet

British historian E.J.W. Gibb wrote that "at no time, even in Turkey, was greater encouragement given to poetry than during the reign of this Sultan."

Some of Suleiman's verses, composed under the nom de plume "Muhibbi", have become Turkish proverbs, including the well-known "Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story," and "In this world a spell of good health is the best state.". He wrote in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.

"The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate,
But in this world a spell of health is the best state.
What men call sovereignty is a wordly strife and constant war;
Worship of God is the highest throne, the happiest of all estate's."

Islamic calligraphy

Diwani is a calligraphic variety of Arabic script, a cursive style developed by Housam Roumi that reached the height of its popularity under Suleiman's reign. It was used in the Ottoman divan for the writing of all royal decrees, endowments, and resolutions, and was one of the secrets of the Sultan's palace: the rules of this script were not known to everyone, but confined to its masters and a few bright students.

Diwani font

Religious tolerance

Some Christian slaves in the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman rose to positions of great prominence. Ibrahim Pasha became Grand Vizier for thirteen years.

Suleiman continued the policy of religious tolerance toward Jews initiated by Bayezid II (1481–1512), who had welcomed Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.

In a letter to Pope Paul IV (1555–59) in 1556, Suleiman asked for the immediate release of the Ancona Marranos, who faced persecution after falling under Papal authority; Suleiman declared them to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope had no alternative but to release them, thus demonstrating the influence of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman also employed a Jewish personal physician, Rabbi Moshe Hamon.

In the city of Jerusalem, the rule of Suleiman and the following Ottoman Sultans brought an age of religious peace; Jews, Christians and Muslims enjoyed the freedom of religion that the Ottomans granted them and it was possible to find a synagogue, a church and a mosque in the same street. The city remained open to all three religions.

Relationship with Ibrahim Pasha

Pargalı İbrahim Pasha was the boyhood friend of Suleiman. As the Sultan's male favorite, he shared Suleiman's quarters and his tent while at home and on campaign. Suleiman made him the royal falconer, then promoted him to first officer of the Royal Bedchamber, which was most irregular. Eventually, Ibrahim Pasha became the Grand Vizier and commander-in-chief of all the armies.

There have been scholars that have suggested that the two men may have shared an intimate relationship, which is quite contrary to both Islam and Turkish culture. Eventually Ibrahim may have become too close to the Sultan and may have attained too much power, because Suleiman eventually had him killed, presumably to keep him silent about the true nature of their relationship. This theory would fit with characteristics of Suleiman's personality. Ibrahim was Greek and not originally Muslim, though he did convert. Suleiman repeatedly was attracted and infatuated with the foreign and the unusual, see Roxelana, who was ethnically Slavic and religiously Orthodox.

Relationship with Roxelana


Anastasia Lisovska, also known as Roxelana or Hürrem, a captured daughter of an Orthodox priest (from Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), rose through the ranks of the Harem to become Suleiman's favorite wife, to the surprise of the Empire and the international community. Breaking with 300 years of Ottoman tradition, Suleiman married Roxelana in a formal ceremony, making her the first former slave to gain legitimacy as the Sultan's legal wife.

By her he had one daughter, Mihrimar (Mihrumâh), and the sons Mehmed (who died young), Selim (later Sultan Selim II (1566–74)), Bayezid and Cihangir (born physically disabled). He allowed her to remain with him at court for the rest of her life, despite another tradition that when imperial heirs became of age, they would be sent along with the imperial concubine who bore them to govern remote provinces of the Empire, never to return unless their progeny succeeded to the throne.

He composed this poem for Roxelana:

"Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan
The most beautiful among the beautiful...
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf...
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world...
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief...
I'll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy."

Roxelana and the succession

Suleiman's son Mustafa, by his consort the Sultana "Rose of Spring," preceded Roxelana's children in the order of succession, and was supported by Pargalı İbrahim Pasha, who was by this time Suleiman's Grand Vizier. In power struggles apparently instigated by Roxelana, Suleiman had Ibrahim murdered and replaced with her son-in-law, Rustem Pasha. Later, Suleiman, apparently believing that Mustafa's popularity with the army threatened his own position, had Mustafa strangled.

Suleiman's son Bayezid suppressed a major revolt in Macedonia and Thrace, led by a man purporting to be Suleiman's son Mustafa: "This Mustafa gathered around him discontented holders of timars (military fiefs), peasants, and members of the religious establishment unhappy with the dominance of the devshirme (slave) class in Istanbul." The pretender was executed after the revolt failed.

In anticipation of Suleiman's death, in 1559 his sons by Roxelana, Selim and Bayezid, engaged in a series of battles for the succession, in part, due to the Ottoman practice of fratricide of rival successors, in which one of the two would be ordered strangled. The resultant turmoil led Suleiman to order the death of Bayezid on September 25, 1561, after he was repatriated by the Shah of Persia, after having fled there for protection, leaving Suleiman's son Selim the heir presumptive.

Suleiman's Grand Vizier Mehmed-paša Sokolović was a Serbian convert from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Suleiman relinquished more power to him as he grew older. After Suleiman's death in 1566, Mehmed continued Ottoman conquests and became the sole ruler of the Ottoman Empire, even while in service of Selim II.


Suleiman I's conquests were followed by continued territorial expansion until the Empire's peak in 1683.
Suleiman I's conquests were followed by continued territorial expansion until the Empire's peak in 1683.

The Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul was built by the famed architect Sinan and was completed in 1557. Suleiman and Roxelana are buried in separate domed mausoleums attached to the mosque. He died in 1566, the night before victory at the Battle of Szigetvar, in Hungary.

At the time of his death, the major Muslim cities (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Baghdad), many Balkan provinces (up to today's Austria), and most of North Africa were under the control of the empire.

Ottoman power continued to grow in the century following Suleiman I's death, until the resurgence of European powers curtailed the Sultanate's expansion in the aftermath of the Battle of Vienna in the late 17th century.


Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent
Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman was called by many titles, and described himself in his writings as "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 Sultanic laws (Nashiru kawanin al-Sultaniyye), the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Khans, Sultan, son of Sultan, Suleiman Khan".

Or, "Slave of God, master of the world, I am Suleiman 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".

Or, "I am Sultan Suleiman Han, son of Sultan Selim Han, son of Sultan Bayezid Han. I am Suleiman. To the east I am the Lawgiver. To the west I am the Magnificent."

Or, "I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the shadow of God on earth, the Sultan and sovereign lord of the White Sea and of the Black Sea, of Rumelia and of Anatolia, of Karamania, of the land of Rum, of Zulkadria, of Diyarbekir, of Kurdistan, of Aizerbaijan, of Persia, of Damascus, of Aleppo, of Cairo, of Mecca, of Medina, of Jerusalem, of all Arabia, of Yemen and of many other lands which my noble forefathers and my glorious ancestors (may Allah light up their tombs!) conquered by the force of their arms and which my August Majesty has made subject to my flaming sword and my victorious blade, I, Sultan Suleiman Khan, son of Sultan Selim, son of Sultan Bayezid: To thee, who art Francis, King of the land of France."

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