Suleiman I (ruled from 1520-1566) is regarded as the greatest Ottoman ruler. Also known as Suleiman the Magnificent, he was the tenth Ottoman sultan and fourth one to rule from Istanbul. He presided over a large empire and ruled longer and more heroically than any other Ottoman sultan. The Ottoman Empire reached its peak under his rule both in terms of political and economic power and development of Turkish art and architecture. [Source: "The World of Suleiman the Magnificent" by Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1987 (♂)]

Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Under Süleyman, popularly known as "the Magnificent" or "the Lawmaker," the Ottoman empire reached the apogee of its military and political power. Süleyman's armies conquered Hungary, over which the Ottomans maintained control for over 150 years, and they advanced as far west as Vienna, threatening the Habsburgs. To the east, the Ottoman forces wrested control of Iraq from the Safavids of Iran. In the Mediterranean, their navy captured all the principal North African ports, and for a time the Ottoman fleet completely dominated the sea. By the end of Süleyman's reign, Ottoman hegemony extended over a great portion of Europe, Asia, and Africa. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on original work by Linda Komaroff \^/]

Süleyman I was called the "lawgiver" (kanuni ) by his Muslim subjects because of a new codification of seriat undertaken during his reign. In Europe, however, he was known as Süleyman the Magnificent, a recognition of his prowess by those who had most to fear from it. His European contemporaries included tsar Ivan the Terrible and King Henry VIII. His official title was at home was Suleiman, Commander of the Faithful, Shadow of God on Earth, Protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Lord of Lords of the World, East and West.

Suleiman the Magnificent enjoyed writing love poetry in his free time and was as the “lawgiver” because he streamlined the Ottoman legal system. A Venetian envoy that met him described him as “by nature melancholy, much addicted to women, liberal, proud, hasty, and yet sometimes very gentle.”

Websites and Resources: Ottoman Empire and Turks: The ; Ottoman Text Archive Project – University of Washington ; Wikipedia article on the Ottoman Empire Wikipedia ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on the Ottoman Empire ; American Travelers to the Holy Land in the 19th Century Shapell Manuscript Foundation ; Ottoman Empire and Turk Resources – University of Michigan ; Turkey in Asia, 1920 ; Wikipedia article on the Turkish People Wikipedia ; Turkish Studies, Turkic republics, regions, and peoples at University of Michigan ; Türkçestan Orientaal's links to Turkic languages ; Turkish Culture Portal ; ATON, the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University ; The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia

Suleiman the Magnificent’s Life

Suleiman was born two years after Columbus sailed to America. His father was Selim the Grim, a title he earned by slaying his father, two brothers and 62 other relatives. Suleiman himself had his son and best friend strangled before him with a silken bowstring. Some historians say he was manipulated into performing these deeds by his wife, Roxelena, a former slave girl from the the Ukraine, who maneuvered her son into position to be sultan.

Not much is known about the private of life of Suleiman and Roxelena, but they did leave behind some juicy love letters. Suleiman once wrote "I am the sultan of love." And, one time when he was away on a military campaign, Roxelena sent him a letter saying: "My soul, my sultan, sun of my state, treasure of my bliss, my heart burns with your absence, I beg of you to free me from this longing, this sea of waiting."

Suleiman wrote poetry under the pseudonym Muhabbi, meaning “beloved and affectionate friend.” His poems have been described as “lyrical, mystical, humble and sincere. He wrote poems about the loneliness of his position, his servitude to state, his acceptance of destiny and his love of beautiful things. He loved most all to write poems to Roxelana. On one these he wrote: “My sheer delight, my revelry, my feast, my torch, ,y sunshine, my sun in heaven;/ My orange, my pomegranate, the flaming candle that lights up my pavilion.”

Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire Under Suleiman

sultan throwing golden coins

“The Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the rule of Selim's son, Suleiman the Magnificent (ruled 1520 -66) and his grandson Selim II (1566 - 74). |According to the BBC: “Suleiman came to the throne as one of the wealthiest rulers in the world. His strength owed much to the work his father Selim had done in stabilising government, removing opposition, frightening (but not succesfully conquering) the Safavid Empire of Iran into adopting a non-aggression policy, and conquering the Mamluk empire of Egypt and Syria. These conquests, which united the lands of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean under a single ruler, brought a time of peace and stability, under which the Empire flourished. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

“Suleiman had no internal rivals for power. His father had seen to that by executing his own brothers and their sons, and all 4 of Suleiman's brothers. The Ottoman Empire now included so much of the territory where Islam was practiced, and so many of the Islamic holy places, that Suleiman was widely regarded as the religious leader of Islam, as well as the earthly ruler of most Muslims. |::|

“The wealth and stability of the Empire at this time attracted the top Muslim brains of the period, and craftsmen, artists, intellectuals and writers were eager to move to Istanbul. Suleiman was named 'The Magnificent' by the Europeans, but his own people called him 'The Lawgiver'. |::|

Suleiman the Lawgiver

When Suleiman ascended to the throne in 1520, two of his first decisions were to free 1,500 Egyptian and Iranian prisoners captured by his father and compensate merchants for goods his father had confiscated. These and other similar actions helped him earn the title Suleiman the Lawgiver.♂

Under Sulyeman shariah law was elevated to higher level than in other Muslim states. It became the law of the land for all Muslims and it was practiced with a high degree of uniformity in Shariah courts throughout the empire by “quadis” (legal experts) and “muftis” (legal assistants). Not only did the courts meet out justice they also created a bond between the local people, especially in Arab regions, and the sultan. For the most part, Ottoman subject were happy tolive under shariah law.

Suleiman cracked down on corruption, reformed, simplified and codified the legal system. He passed laws that attempted to wipe out discriminatory practices against Christians and eliminated some of crueler punishments given of criminals. The United States Congress recognizes him as one of the grea lawmakes of history.

Suleiman also had his cruel and capricious side. He often ordered the execution of prsioners after a battle and began the customs of not speaking to foreign diplomats when they presented their credentials.

Süleyman the Magnificent’s Conquests

Belgrade fell to Süleyman in 1521, and in 1522 he compelled the Knights of Saint John to abandon Rhodes. In 1526 the Ottoman victory at the Battle of Mohács led to the taking of Buda on the Danube. Vienna was besieged unsuccessfully during the campaign season of 1529. North Africa up to the Moroccan frontier was brought under Ottoman suzerainty in the 1520s and 1530s, and governors named by the sultan were installed in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. In 1534 Kurdistan and Mesopotamia were taken from Persia. The latter conquest gave the Ottomans an outlet to the Persian Gulf, where they were soon engaged in a naval war with the Portuguese.*

When Süleyman died in 1566, the Ottoman Empire was a world power. Most of the great cities of Islam--Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo, Tunis, and Baghdad--were under the sultan's crescent flag. The Porte exercised direct control over Anatolia, the sub-Danubian Balkan provinces, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Egypt, Mecca, and the North African provinces were governed under special regulations, as were satellite domains in Arabia and the Caucasus, and among the Crimean Tartars. In addition, the native rulers of Wallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania, and Ragusa (Dubrovnik) were vassals of the sultan.*

Suleiman the Magnificent’s Achievements

Suleiman was a great patron of the arts. Trained as a goldsmith, he personally oversaw the the work of craftsman in Topkapi and commissioned the great architect Mimar Sinan to build great mosques such as Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul and Selimiye Mosque in Edirne and reconstructed the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Istanbul was the largest city in Europe and the Ottoman Empire was perhaps the most powerful politcial entity in the world. It acted as a protector for France and Poland and received envoys from India and Sumatra who asked for Ottoman help combating the Portuguese in Asia. Medicine was practiced at a high level. An observatory was built in 1579. Communication channels were open with West. News of new discoveries in the New World poured in. Plans were made for a Suez Canal and a canals between the the Don and Volga rivers.

In A Qaisda On Sultan Suleiman, The Turkish poet Baqi wrote: Lord of the East and West! King whom the kings of earth obey!
Prince of the Epoch! Sultan Suleiman! Triumphant Aye!
Meet 'tis before the steed of yonder Monarch of the realms
Of right and equity, should march earth's rulers' bright array.
Rebelled one 'gainst his word, secure he'd bind him in his bonds,
E'en like the dappled pard, the sky, chained with the Milky Way.
Lord of the land of graciousness and bounty, on whose board
Of favors, spread is all the wealth that sea and mine display;
Longs the perfumer, Early Spring, for th' odor of his grace;
Need hath the merchant, Autumn, of his bounteous hand alway.
Through tyrant's hard oppression no one groaneth in his reign,
And though may wail the flute and lute, the law they disobey.

Beside thy justice, tyranny's the code of Rey-Qubad;
Beside thy wrath, but mildness Qahraman's most deadly fray.
Thy scimitar's the gleaming guide empires to overthrow,
No foe of Islam can abide before thy saber's ray.
Saw it thy wrath, through dread of thee would trembling seize the pine;
The falling stars a chain around the heaven's neck would lay.
Amidst thy sea-like armies vast, thy flags and standards fair,
The sails are which the ship of splendid triumph doth display.
Thrust it its beak into the Sphere, 'twould seize it as a grain,
The 'anqa strong, thy power, to which 'twere but a seed-like prey.
In past eternity the hand, thy might, it struck with bat,
That time is this time, for the Sky's Ball spins upon its way.
Within the rosy garden of thy praise the bird, the heart,
Singeth this soul-bestowing, smooth-as-water-running lay.

The Turkish poet Baqi wrote:
One night when all the battlements Heaven's castle doth display,
Illumed and decked were, with the shining lamps, the stars' array,
Amidst the host of gleaming stars the Moon lit up his torch;
Athwart the field of Heaven with radiance beamed the Milky Way.
The Secretary of the Spheres had ta'en his meteor-pen,
That writer of his signature whom men and jinns obey.
There, at the banquet of the sky, had Venus struck her lyre,
In mirth and happiness, delighted, joyed and smiling gay.
Taking the keynote for her tune 'neath in the vaulted sphere,
The tambourinist Sun her visage bright had hid away.
Armed with a brand of gleaming gold had leapt into the plain
The Swordsman of the sky's expanse, of heaven's field of fray.
To give direction to the weighty matters of the earth
Had Jupiter, the wise, lit up reflection's taper's ray.
There raised aloft old Saturn high upon the Seventh Sphere
Sitting like Indian elephant-conductor on did stray.

Suleiman procession

Suleyman the Magnificent and his Vizier Ibrahim

In “The Story of Suleyman's attachment to his Vezir Ibrahim,” Stanley Lane-Poole wrote: "Suleyman, great as he was, shared his greatness with a second mind, to which his reign owed much of its brilliance. The Grand Vezir Ibrahim was the counterpart of the Grand Monarch Suleyman. He was the son of a sailor at Parga, and had been captured by corsairs, by whom he was sold to be the slave of a widow at Magnesia. Here he passed into the hands of the young prince Suleyman, then Governor of Magnesia, and soon his extraordinary talents and address brought him promotion.... From being Grand Falconer on the accession of Suleyman, he rose to be first minister and almost co-Sultan in 1523. [Source: “Turkey, Story of Nations series,” by Stanley Lane-Poole, p. 174] " He was the object of the Sultan's tender regard: an emperor knows better than most men how solitary is life without friendship and love, and Suleyman loved this man more than a brother. Ibrahim was not only a friend, he was an entertaining and instructive companion. He read Persian, Greek and Italian; he knew how to open unknown worlds to the Sultan's mind, and Sulevman drank in his Vezir's wisdom with assiduity. They lived together: their meals were shared in common; even their beds were in the same room. The Sultan gave his sister in marriage to the sailor's son, and Ibrahim was at the summit of power."



Alexandra Hudson and Ece Toksabay of Reuters wrote: “Born into a Ukrainian family as Aleksandra Lisowska some time around 1500 she was captured by raiding Crimean Tartars and sold as a slave in Constantinople, where she was selected for the harem. Through her charm and guile she managed to catch the eye of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, displacing his former favorite and eventually becoming his wife. [Source: Alexandra Hudson, Ece Toksabay, Reuters, June 1, 2011]

“History has not viewed Roxelana kindly, portraying her as a meddlesome schemer. Her son Selim, inherited the empire from his father but proved a disastrous ruler and an alcoholic. Selim is said to have died in 1574 after slipping and banging his head in a hammam while drunk.

“A television drama based on the life of Roxelana captivated Turkish audiences, but also drew complaints for its sexual content and liberty with the truth. Its glamorous costumes, sumptuous interiors, and the endless conniving and plotting among the women of the harem have fed the resurgent local interest in the Ottoman Empire.

A Visit to the Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent (Translated from a Genoese Letter, c. 1550): “When I entered the kiosk in which she lives, I was received by many eunuchs in splendid costume blazing with jewels, and carrying scimitars in their hands. They led me to an inner vestibule, where I was divested of my cloak and shoes and regaled with refreshments. Presently an elderly woman, very richly dressed, accompanied by a number of young girls, approached me, and after the usual salutation, informed me that the Sultana Asseki was ready to see me. All the walls of the kiosk in which she lives are covered with the most beautiful Persian tiles and the floors are of cedar and sandalwood, which give out the most delicious odor. [Source: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 509-510.

Art and Architecture Under Süleyman the Magnificent

Süleymaniye Mosque

Suzan Yalman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Along with geographic expansion, trade, economic growth, and tremendous cultural and artistic activity helped define the reign of Süleyman as a "Golden Age." Developments occurred in every field of the arts; however, those in calligraphy, manuscript painting, textiles, and ceramics were particularly significant. Artists renowned by name include calligrapher Ahmad Karahisari as well as painters Shahquli and Kara Memi. [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, based on original work by Linda Komaroff \^/]

“In architecture, the most outstanding achievements of this period were the public buildings designed by Sinan (1539–1588), chief of the Corps of Royal Architects. While Sinan is often remembered for his two major commissions, the mosque complexes of Süleymaniye in Istanbul (1550–57) and of the later Selimiye in Edirne (1568–74), he designed hundreds of buildings across the Ottoman empire and contributed to the dissemination of Ottoman culture. Apart from mosques and other pious foundations—including schools, hospices, and soup kitchens, supported by shops, markets, baths, and caravanserais—Süleyman also commissioned repairs and additions to major historical monuments. The tile revetment of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, as well as several additions to sites in Mecca and Medina, the two Holy Cities of Islam, date from this period.

Books: Atil, Esin The Age of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. Exhibition catalogue.. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1987. Necipoglu, Gülru The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire. London: Reaktion, 2005.

Suleiman the Magnificent’s Military Campaigns

During battles was Suleiman wore in a white turban and jeweled robe, riding a black horse decked out in gold. In one battle, according to Ottoman historians, Suleiman was struck by arrows and wounded by the swords of three knights, who were eventually cut to pieces by the sultan.♂

Suleiman doubled the size of the Ottoman Empire. He extended its territory into Mecca and Medina and Yemen, and took Persian territory. He seized Belgrade (1521,) captured Hungary (1526) and laid siege to Vienna (1529).

Suleiman won most of Hungary in the bloody battle at Mohac in 1526. At that time Hungary was a great power, and Europeans feared it was only a matter of time before Europe fell.

Battle of Vienna

The siege of Vienna in 1529 sent a shudder through Europe. It was one of the scariest episodes and disruptive episodes in the history of western Europe. The Austrian Hapsburgs were their main rivals in the Balkans and eastern and central Europe. The Hapsburgs built a network of fortress in Hungary to hold off the Turks.

When Suleiman's army attacked the Castle of the Order of St. John on the island of Rhodes (Greece) in 1521, over 15,000 men died in one battle. When the castle was finally captured the knights of St. John were set free, a move that Suleiman would regret 12 years later.♂


Almost as famous as Suleiman himself was his admiral Barbarossa, who conquered much of the Mediterranean for the sultan. So notorious was his reputation that European mothers used to frighten their children out of misbehaving by telling them Barbarossa would get them if they weren't careful. The Turkish admiral was named after the pirate-infested Barbary Coast by Europeans who mistakenly thought that was where he was from.♂

Suleiman’s navy under Barbarossa’s command defeated the combined forces of Spain, Venice and the pope with important naval victories at Nice (1543) and Menorca (1558) and other places, thus expanding the Ottoman Empire into in Algiers, Oron and Tripoli in North Africa and taking the strategic island of Rhodes.

Defeat of Suleiman the Magnificent at Malta

Suleiman's most demoralizing defeat came at the hands of the Knights of St. John in 1533. Some 9,000 members of the order, holed up in Fort St. Elmo in Malta, held off a Turkish army of 40,000 men and a armada of 200 ships.♂

In this confrontation, the Turks poisoned wells, impaled the heads of knights, and nailed their bodies to crosses which were floated towards Fort Elmo. The knights responded by throwing down flaming hoops and boiling pitch, and cutting off the heads of Turkish prisoners and using them as cannonballs to fire back on the Turks. When a force of 7,000 Spaniards arrived to help the knights, only 600 defenders remained. By this time, with winter approaching and their morale and numbers dwindling dangerously low, the Ottomans had enough anyway and they headed back to Istanbul, humiliated.

Suleiman’s Last Years and Legacy

The last years of Suleiman’s rule were characterized by economic stagnation, dispossession as peasants couldn’t pay their taxes and low agricultural production and unemployment. Brigands robed traders in Anatolia.

After Suleiman, the Ottoman empire began declining. Only five years after his death was the Battle of Lepanto, in which the Ottoman navy was destroyed by Venice and Spain and Ottoman lost control of the western Mediterranean.

contemporaries of Suleiman (left to right): Suleiman, Pope Clemens VII, Francis I, the Duke of Cleves with Charles V on the throne

Elegy for Sultan Suleiman I

O thou! foot-bounden in the mesh of fame and glory's snare!
'Till when shall last the lust of faithless earth's pursuits and care?
At that first moment, which of life's fair springtide is the last,
'Tis need the tulip cheek the tint of autumn leaf should wear;
'Tis need that thy last home should be, e'en like the dregs', the dust;
'Tis need the stone from hand of Fate should be joy's beaker's share.
He is a man indeed whose heart is as a mirror clear;
Man art thou? why then doth thy breast the tiger's fierceness bear?
In understanding's eye how long shall heedless slumber bide?
Will not war's Lion-Monarch's fate suffice to make thee ware?
He, Prince of Fortune's Cavaliers! he to whose charger bold,
Whene'er he caracoled or pranced, cramped was earth's tourney square!
He, to the luster of whose sword the Magyar bowed his head!
He, the dread gleaming of whose brand the Frank can well declare!
Like tender rose-leaf, gently laid he in the dust his face,
And Earth, the Treasurer, him placed like jewel in his case.

In truth, he was the radiance of rank high and glory great,
A Shah, Iskender-diademed, of Dara's armied state;
Before the dust beneath his feet the Sphere bent low its head;
Earth's shrine of adoration was his royal pavilion's gate.
The smallest of his gifts the meanest beggar made a prince;
Exceeding bounteous, exceeding kind a Potentate!
The court of glory of his kingly majesty most high
Was aye the center where would hopes of sage and poet wait.
Although he yielded to Eternal Destiny's command,
A King was he in might as Doom and puissant as Fate!
Weary and worn by this sad, changeful Sphere, deem not thou him:
Near God to be, did he his rank and glory abdicate.
What wonder if our eyes no more life and the world behold!
His beauty fair, as sun and moon, did earth irradiate!
If folk upon the bright sun look, with tears are filled their eyes;
For seeing it, doth yon moon-face before their minds arise!

Paqi, the beauty of the King, the heart's delight, behold!
The mirror of the work of God, the Lord of Right, behold!
The dear old man hath passed away from th' Egypt sad, the world;
The youthful Prince, alert and fair as Joseph bright, behold!
The Sun hath risen, and the Dawning gray hath touched its bourne;
The lovely face of yon Khusrev, whose soul is light, behold!
This chase now to the grave hath sent the Behram of the Age;
Go, at his threshold serve, King Erdeshir aright, behold!
The blast of Fate to all the winds hath blown Suleiman's throne;
Sultan Selim Khan on Iskender's couch of might, behold!
The Tiger of the mount of war to rest in sleep hath gone;
The Lion who doth now keep watch on glory's height, behold!
The Peacock fair of Eden's mead hath soared to Heaven's parterre;
The luster of the huma of high, happy fight, behold!
Eternal may the glory of the heaven-high Khusrev dwell!
Blessings be on the Monarch's soul and spirit—and farewell!

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples “ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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