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Sultan Suleiman in the Age of the Renaissance

Monday, October 24, 2011

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The Suleymaniye is a complex that was commissioned by Sultan Suleiman I, who is known to the West as Suleiman the Magnificent and to the Muslims as Suleiman the Lawgiver, is considered to be the longest reigning (from 1520 to 1566) and most powerful Ottoman ruler. He led his nation to be the dominant power of the Renaissance world. His armies were the strongest of his time, admired even by his enemies. An Italian commentator observed: "The military discipline has such justice and severity as eaily to surpass the ancient Greeks and Romans." His views on justice were codified into a legal system that was used unaltered up to the early 20th century and hailed a monumental contribution to humanity. He utilized the skills of his people to commission hundreds of buildings that would come to define Ottoman architecture.

At the beginning of his rule, the empire already included large areas of the Hungarian Empire, the Levant (Syria region), Egypt, Arabia, Asia Minor, and large areas of northwestern Persia, including Tabriz. The empire was at peace with the Venetian Republic, after the signing a peace treaty decades earlier. The period between the end of the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, and the beginning of the reign of Suleiman I has been marked with internal strife. Little progress has been made in way of either expanding on the European front the empire or enhancing the empire in any way. After a full drawn out civil war, Selim I, Suleiman`s father, reunited the empire and expanded to the south and east to include the Levant (Syria) and areas of Mesepotamia and Persia. These invasions have been in response to unrest and a direct military challenge of Ottoman rule. Selim I feared that unless he can quell all opposition from his Muslim counterparts, they would eventually seek an alliance with his European enemies. Furthermore, Portugal, under the leadership of a general by the name of Vasco da Gama, was able to build fortresses along the Persian Gulf. The Portugese sought to cut the trade routes that the Ottomans enjoyed with eastern Asia. The Ottomans responded by invading the Arabian side along the Persian Gulf and expelling the Portugese.

In addition to the growing Portugese threat, Charles V of Spain, who resided over the continuing expulsion of Arabs (Muslims and Jews) from the recently conquered lands of Andalucia, belonged to the Habsburg royal family. He became king of Spain in 1516. Through careful manipulation of marriages and opportune deaths, he was also crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, as Chalres V. His kingdom also included the Netherlands, Naples and Sicily of the Italian peninsula, as well as all Spanish colonies in the New World that stretched from Mexico to Peru.

This unity posed a threat to the kingdom that is between Spain and present day Germany, namely France. Indeed, Francis I, the king of France, sought an alliance with the Ottoman emperor to counteract the growing power of the Habsburg monarch. He admitted to the Venetian ambassador in Istanbul that "he saw in the Ottoman Empire the only force guaranteeing the combined existence of the states of Europe against the Habsburg emperor." This alliance marked the beginning of the Ottoman role in balancing powers in Europe.

Acutely aware of the political atmosphere of his time, Suleiman wasted no time upon his ascension to the throne in 1520. He started where his great grandfather, Sultan Mehmet II, had stopped. He knew that he must absorb the remaining Hungarian Empire by conquering Belgrade. That would also open the door to Vienna, the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1521 he assembled an army of 100,000 men with large siege cannons. He reached Belgrade, which was only defended by 700 men. The city was easily taken as Belgrade followed the Eastern Orthodox church, which meant that it was to receive no reinforcements from the Catholic Holy Roman Empire or Catholic Poland. One interesting fact is that the Ottomans bombarded Belgrade with a heavy cannon from an island in the Danube river.

Instead of pushing his advance further and risk a winter season, Suleiman, quickly turned his attention to the island of Rhodes, which is in the eastern Mediterranean and fairly close to the Asia minor coast. After a long siege lasting several months, the city defenders realized that no reinforcement are on their way, since they are literally on an island in an otherwise Ottoman sea. Suleiman offered them an honorable surrender where their lives and properties would be spared. He even offered ships for the civilians who wished to leave the city.

In 1525, the French King, Francis I, was captured by the Habsburg emperor during the Battle of Pavia. He sent a secret letter from his jail cell to Suleiman requesting his assistance by attacking King Charles. Seeing this as a good opportunity to split the European powers, Suleiman I resumed attack on the European frontier. He set to conquer the remnant of the Hungarian empire before attacking Vienna itself. The Hungarians were led by young King Louis. An inexperienced king, he was lured by a trap set upon him by Suleiman. As he attacked the Ottoman center, the Ottoman feinted a retreat and engulfed the entire Hungarian army on both flanks. This battle was subsequently known as the Battle of the Mohacs in 1526. It was a total route and the entire Hungarian army was decimated. Hungary was subsequently made an Ottoman province.

In order to secure a corridor to Vienna, Suleiman I, overtook the city of Buda, which was within striking distance from Vienna. Austria at the time was undergoing the Protestant Reformation and the upheaval that it caused. On hearing the news of the Ottoman approach to Vienna, and upon an urgent appeal by Martin Luther himself for a stand against the Ottomans, Protestants and Catholics decided to temporarily put aside their differences and defend the city. This would be the only occasion that King Charles (a devout Catholic) would cooperate with Protestants.

Facing torrential rain, the Ottoman army was delayed for months and was forced to leave all their heavy siege cannons behind. The siege lasted for several months. On October 12, 1529 a breach in the city walls of 150 feet wide was made, but no advancement was possible. Short on supplies and weary by disease and bad weather, Suleiman decided to retreat. He would return to the city three years later, but he would face the same problems. Heavy rain would once again force him to abandon his large cannons and he would not be able to hold the siege for more that one season, before the start of winter. Suleiman tried to draw out King Charles into open land by declaring that his conflict was with him and not the people of Vienna, but King Charles would not heed to such a challenge. Thus, a logistical limit was reached to the extent of the Ottoman army`s ability to wage war which was just short of Vienna.

King Charles attacked the North African coast from his positions in Spain. Suleiman responded by advancing his empire as far as Algiers. He also commissioned a man by the name of Barbarossa, or Khayruddin Pasha, who was a proven naval war veteran, to construct a modern Ottoman navy to counteract Spanish aggression in the western Mediterranean Sea. It was Baraborossa`s overall objective to carve out a naval vassal state in the western Mediterranean that included North African, Spanish, French and Italian coasts. Tough resistance from the Spanish fleet as well as from the Templar Knights of Malta prevented him from reaching this goal. He was able to, however, reverse the territorial gains that Spain made in North Africa and made the Ottoman navy the dominant force in the entire Mediterranean Sea.

Suleiman was not just a man of war. He is known in the Muslim world as Suleiman "The Lawgiver" for his contributions to the legal code that was used in the Ottoman empire up to the 20th century. The basis for his legal system is still used in many Middle Eastern nations today. In order to be able to govern the vast new territory that was conquered, not only in Europe, but that of Asia and North Africa, a new legal system was needed. He gathered all legal ruling issued by the nine Ottoman sultans that came before him. He cross referenced them with the Shariah, or Islamic Law. Removing duplication from the rulings and refining them, he codified a legal system that governed a wide variety of civil matters such as commerce, taxation, education, and the status of minorities in the empire. His laws gave special status to Christian subjects who worked in agriculture. It was said that his laws were more favorable than serfs in Christian Europe, that many serfs migrated across the border to be within the Ottoman dominion. He introduced a system of paying fines for smaller crimes instead of lashes or mutilation. He also reduced the applicability of the death sentence on many crimes. In recogniiton of the significance of his work, a painting of Suleiman is on display in the United States House of Representatives, along with 23 other important Law makers throughout history.

Sultan Suleiman comissioned the construction of a complex to be named after him. It was completed in 1558 and was built by the famous architect Mimar Sinan Pasha. The Suleymaniye is a large complex that included a school, hospital, lodge house for travelers, a Suleymaniyebathhouse, and its main building is a mosque. Its architecture featured a relatively new type of dome, called a semi-domed plan, which would be the hallmark of most of Sinan`s architectural achievements. Sinan modeled the on the goemetric aspect ratios of the Hagia Sophia. It is considered to have the highest dome of all Ottoman mosques, at 48.23 meters and the second largest in diameter (largest being the Hagia Sophia) at 26.3 meters. The four pillars holding the main dome are beautifully decorated. The mihrab and the minbar of the mosque were decorated in ivory and mother of pearl.

The inner courtyard of the mosque is surrounded by walls covered by 28 domes. The tomb of Sultan Suleiman is located in the walled cemetery behind the mosque. His wife, Roxelana, his daughter, Mihrimah, his mother, Dilasub Saliha, and his sister, Asiye, were all buried with him in the same mausoleum. Later on, other Ottoman rulers, namely Suleiman II and Ahmed II, were also buried there. The tomb of Sinan is buried just outside the walls of the mosque.


  • [1] Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries, The Estate of Lord Kinross: New York, 1977
  • [2] Kann, Robert Adolf, A History of the Habsburg Empire: 15261918, University of California Press, 1980

  • Keywords: Turkey, Istanbul, Ottoman, Ottoman, Suleymaniye, Sultan Suleiman I, Habsburg

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