The archetype for sultans in the Islamic tradition is Solomon. His magnificence, justice and gifts have inspired countless narratives in Arabic, Turkish and Persian in both literature and history.
According to the Quran, Solomon is a divinely appointed monarch employed as a legitimacy model for all those who claimed to be sultan by godly decision. Many Muslim monarchs were referred to by their fellow propagandists as “the shadows of God on earth.”
Thus, the fact that Sultan Selim I, who was involved in a power struggle with the Safavid dynasty of Persia, named his only surviving son Süleyman, the Turkish version of the name, is meaningful. Süleyman I was born to become the magnificent sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which was then the rising sun of Anatolia with territory on the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.
The lawgiver or the magnificent
Süleyman is known as “the lawgiver” in the Middle East due to his attempts to transform law and order in Ottoman legal and administrative systems and as “the magnificent” in the West because the richness of the Ottoman Empire in his time. He ruled from 1520 to 1566. He was the 10th and longest-ruling Ottoman sultan.
Historians mention two birth dates for Süleyman. Some think that he was born on Nov. 4, 1494 while others claim his real birth date is April 29, 1495. However, the place of Süleyman’s birth is known. He was born in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, as his father Selim I was governor of the province.
Süleyman’s mother, Ayşe Hafsa Sultan, was the daughter of Menli Giray of the Crimea Khanate. Being noble on both sides and the only son of Selim, Süleyman was a direct heir to the Ottoman throne.
Early life and education
At age seven, Süleyman was sent to Enderun, which was the highest-level school in Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, to learn along with the sons of top bureaucrats. Enderun was like an imperial college for the Ottomans. Süleyman is known to have studied the sciences, Islam, literature and poetry, history and strategy. He became fluent in six languages: Ottoman, Arabic, Serbian, Chaghatai, Persian and Urdu. Süleyman’s tutors noted both his studious nature and his bravery from an early age.
Therefore, he should have been one of the best-educated persons of his time. He would show this both in war and peace time because he was not only an invincible conqueror, but also a good poet. During his reign he welcomed scientists, Islamic scholars and many artists and poets to the palace.
Süleyman had such a winning personality that he established friendships with many geniuses in his empire, including Sheikh al-Islam Ebussuud Efendi, the poet Baki Efendi, the great architect Mimar Sinan and Admiral Piri Reis who were all known as masters of their crafts.
Before and after accession
Süleyman returned to Trabzon at 15 before he was appointed as governor of Kefe province. He was also a governor in two other provinces, Manisa and Edirne (Adrianople).
Selim died in 1520 and Süleyman ascended to the throne without any objection. Unlike his father and grandfather, Süleyman did not have to deal with any other claimants to the throne. He was left a great empire that spanned three continents.
Selim had ruled very successfully and left his son in a remarkably secure position. The janissaries were at the height of their usefulness, the Mamluks had been defeated and the Ottomans had humbled the maritime power of Venice as well as the Safavid Empire. Selim also left his son a powerful navy, a first for an Ottoman ruler.
Süleyman is said to have greatly admired Alexander the Great and wanted to establish a world empire like Alexander. He showed no hesitation when starting a military campaign in his first year on the throne. In 1521, Süleyman and the invincible Ottoman army began marching over Europe. In August 1521, Süleyman captured Belgrade, which was like a bridge for his later conquests in Central Europe.
Conquest of Central Europe
Süleyman is known to have led 13 major military campaigns and spent about 10 years at war during his 46-year reign.
After the conquest of Belgrade, Süleyman defeated the Hospitallers, who pirated Ottoman ships from their position on the island of Rhodes. He sent a powerful navy and conquered Rhodes in 1522.
In 1526, a great battle was fought in the Mohac basin between the Ottoman and Hungarian armies. Süleyman defeated Louis II of Hungary. Louis was
killed on the battlefield. After that, Süleyman backed John Zapolyo for the Hungarian throne. However, the Hapsburgs attacked Hungary and put Ferdinand on the throne.
In 1529, Süleyman once more marched over Hungary, took Buda back and besieged Vienna, the Hapsburg capital. The city survived, and Süleyman ended the siege. The Hapsburg-Ottoman wars continued for years, yielding no significant victory for either side.
Conquest of ‘the two Iraqs’
There were two Iraqs for the Ottomans: Persian Iraq, which is now mostly Iran, and Arabian Iraq. Süleyman marched on these two Iraqs between 1533 and 1536 to overcome the Safavid threat from the east. Eventually, Süleyman conquered Baghdad and Tabriz.
Süleyman’s admirals conquered many places in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire was warring and competing with the other global sea powers of the East and the West, including the Mughals, the Portuguese and the Hapsburgs. Ottoman conquests reached Indonesia to the east and Tunis to the west.
A very sad event occurred in 1553. For political reasons, Süleyman had his son Mustafa executed by suffocation. This was the first time people began murmuring about grand viziers, great commanders and the sultan himself during. Yahya, an epic poet and a janissary, even wrote an elegy for Shahzadeh Mustafa, which blames the grand vizier for the execution.
Hürrem, İbrahim and death of a sultan
Süleyman’s relations with Hurrem, one of his consorts, and İbrahim, the grand vizier, have been subjects of great curiosity. Since both were of Christian origin and converted to Islam, some people for some conspiracy in Hurrem or İbrahim. Historical facts show that Süleyman loved Hurrem and protected her, and he was good with İbrahim to some extent. However, he was strict in his absolute rule. Hurrem was dearest to him, and İbrahim was his best advisor, yet he showed no hesitation to have İbrahim executed, as his policy required. And if Ottoman tradition allowed executing the sultan’s consort for political reasons, Süleyman certainly would not have hesitated in doing that either.
Süleyman saw many things during his reign, but the worst I suppose was to see his sons executed, one by himself and one by another son. He had Mustafa executed, and Selim had Bayezid executed. Old age brought Süleyman more sorrow than joy.
Süleyman, the magnificent and the lawgiver, died on Sept. 5, 1566 during a military campaign in Hungary. Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha kept his death secret in order not to affect the morale of the janissaries who were to conquer an important castle.
Sultan Süleyman I lived and died a great warrior.