Biography of Suleiman the Magnificent

"The Law-Giver" of the Ottoman Empire

John Sigismund of Hungary with Suleiman the Magnificient in 1556

Les Collections de l'Histoire Les Turcs, October 2009/Wikimedia Commons

Born November 6, 1494, off the Turkish coast of the Black Sea, Suleiman the Magnificent became the sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1520, heralding the "Golden Age" of the Empire's long history before his death on September 7, 1566.

Perhaps most known for his overhaul of the Ottoman government during his reign, Suleiman was known by many names including "The Law-Giver" and even "Selim the Drunkard," depending on who you asked.

His rich character and even richer contribution to the region and the Empire helped make it a source of great wealth in prosperity for years to come, ultimately leading to the foundation of several nations in Europe and the Middle East we know today.

Early Life of the Sultan

Suleiman was born the only surviving son of Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire and Aishe Hafsa Sultan of the Crimean Khanate. As a child, he studied at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where he learned theology, literature, science, history, and warfare and became fluent in six languages including Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Serbian, Chagatai Turkish (similar to Uighur), Farsi, and Urdu.

Suleiman was also fascinated by Alexander the Great in his youth and would later program military expansion that has been attributed to being inspired in part by Alexander's conquests. As sultan, Suleiman would lead 13 major military expeditions and spend more than 10 years of his 46-year reign out on campaigns.

His father, Sultan Selim I, ruled quite successfully and left his son in a remarkably secure position with the Janissaries at the height of their usefulness; the Mamluks defeated; and the great maritime power of Venice, as well as the Persian Safavid Empire, humbled by the Ottomans. Selim also left his son a powerful navy, a first for a Turkic ruler.

Ascent to the Throne

Suleiman's father entrusted his son with the governorships of different regions within the Ottoman Empire from the age of seventeen, and when Suleiman was 26, Selim I died and Suleiman ascended the throne in 1520. Although he was of age, his mother served as co-regent.

The new sultan immediately launched his program of military conquest and imperial expansion. In 1521, he put down a revolt by the governor of Damascus, Canberdi Gazali. Suleiman's father had conquered the area that is now Syria in 1516, using it as a wedge between the Mamluk sultanate and the Safavid Empire where they had appointed Gazali as the governor. But, on January 27, 1521, Suleiman defeated Gazali, who died in battle.

In July of the same year, the Sultan laid siege to Belgrade, a fortified city on the Danube River. He used both a land-based army and a flotilla of ships to blockade the city and prevent reinforcement. Now in Serbia, at that time Belgrade belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary. It fell to Suleiman's forces on August 29, 1521, removing the last obstacle to an Ottoman advance into Central Europe.

Before he launched his major assault on Europe, Suleiman wanted to take care of an annoying gadfly in the Mediterranean, Christian hold-overs from the Crusades, the Knights Hospitallers based on the Island of Rhodes had been capturing Ottoman and other Muslim nations' ships, stealing cargoes of grain and gold and enslaving the crews. The Knights Hospitallers' piracy even imperiled Muslims who set sail to make the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Battling Oppressive Christian Regimes in Rhodes

Because Selim I had tried and failed to dislodge the Knights in 1480, the intervening decades, the Knights used Muslim slave labor to strengthen and reinforce their fortresses on the island in anticipation of another Ottoman siege.

Suleiman sent out that siege in the form of an armada of 400 ships carrying at least 100,000 troops to Rhodes. They landed on June 26, 1522, and laid siege to the bastions full of 60,000 defenders representing various western European countries: England, Spain, Italy, Provence, and Germany. Meanwhile, Suleiman himself led an army of reinforcements on a march to the coast, reaching Rhodes in late July.

It took nearly half a year of artillery bombardment and detonating mines under the triple-layer stone walls, but on December 22, 1522, the Turks finally forced all of the Christian knights and the civilian inhabitants of Rhodes to surrender.

Suleiman gave the knights twelve days to gather their belongings, including weapons and religious icons, and leave the island on 50 ships provided by the Ottomans, with most of the knights immigrating to Sicily.

The local people of Rhodes also received generous terms and had three years to decide whether they wanted to remain on Rhodes under the Ottoman rule or move elsewhere. They would pay no taxes for the first five years, and Suleiman promised that none of their churches would be converted into mosques. Most of them decided to stay when the Ottoman Empire took nearly complete control of the eastern Mediterranean.

Into Europe's Heartland

Suleiman faced several additional crises before he was able to launch his attack into Hungary, but unrest among the Janissaries and a 1523 revolt by the Mamluks in Egypt proved to be only temporary distractions. In April 1526, Suleiman began the march to the Danube.

On August 29, 1526, Suleiman defeated King Louis II of Hungary in the Battle of Mohacs and supported the nobleman John Zapolya as the next king of Hungary. But, the Hapsburgs in Austria put forward one of their princes, Louis II's brother-in-law, Ferdinand. The Hapsburgs marched into Hungary and took Buda, placing Ferdinand on the throne, and sparking a decades-long feud with Suleiman and the Ottoman Empire.

In 1529, Suleiman marched on Hungary once more, taking Buda from the Hapsburgs and then continuing to besiege the Hapsburg capital at Vienna. Suleiman's army of perhaps 120,000 reached Vienna in late September, without most of their heavy artillery and siege machines. On October 11 and 12 of that year, they attempted another siege against 16,000 Viennese defenders, but Vienna managed to hold them off once more, and the Turkish forces withdrew.

The Ottoman sultan did not give up on the idea of taking Vienna, but his second attempt, in 1532, was similarly hampered by rain and mud, and the army never even reached the Hapsburg capital. In 1541, the two empires went to war again when the Hapsburgs laid siege to Buda, trying to remove Suleiman's ally from the Hungarian throne.

The Hungarians and Ottomans defeated the Austrians, and captured additional Hapsburg holdings in 1541 and again in 1544. Ferdinand was forced to renounce his claim to be king of Hungary and had to pay tribute to Suleiman, but even as all of these events happened to the north and west of Turkey, Suleiman also had to keep an eye on his eastern border with Persia.

War With the Safavids

The Safavid Persian Empire was one of the Ottomans' great rivals and a fellow "gunpowder empire." Its ruler, Shah Tahmasp, sought to extend Persian influence by assassinating the Ottoman governor of Baghdad and replacing him with a Persian puppet, and by convincing the governor of Bitlis, in eastern Turkey, to swear allegiance to the Safavid throne. Suleiman, busy in Hungary and Austria, sent his grand vizier with a second army to retake Bitlis in 1533, who also seized Tabriz, now in northeastern Iran, from the Persians.

Suleiman himself returned from his second invasion of Austria and marched into Persia in 1534, but the Shah refused to meet the Ottomans in open battle, withdrawing into the Persian desert and using guerrilla hits against the Turks instead. Suleiman retook Baghdad and was reconfirmed as the true caliph of the Islamic world.

In 1548 to 1549, Suleiman decided to overthrow his Persian gadfly for good and launched a second invasion of the Safavid Empire. Once more, Tahmasp refused to participate in a pitched battle, this time leading the Ottoman army up into the snowy, rugged terrain of the Caucasus Mountains. The Ottoman sultan gained territory in Georgia and the Kurdish borderlands between Turkey and Persia but was unable to come to grips with the Shah.

The third and final confrontation between Suleiman and Tahmasp took place in 1553 to 1554. As always, the Shah avoided open battle, but Suleiman marched into the Persian heartland and laid it to waste. Shah Tahmasp finally agreed to sign a treaty with the Ottoman sultan, in which he got control of Tabriz in exchange for promising to cease border raids on Turkey, and to permanently relinquish his claims to Baghdad and the rest of Mesopotamia.

Maritime Expansion

Descendants of Central Asian nomads, the Ottoman Turks did not have a historical tradition as a naval power. Nonetheless, Suleiman's father established an Ottoman seafaring legacy in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and even the Indian Ocean beginning in 1518.

During Suleiman's reign, Ottoman ships traveled to Mughal India's trading ports, and the sultan exchanged letters with the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. The sultan's Mediterranean fleet patrolled the sea under the command of the famous Admiral Heyreddin Pasha, known in the west as Barbarossa.

Suleiman's navy also managed to drive troublesome newcomers to the Indian Ocean system, the Portuguese, out of a key base at Aden on the coast of Yemen in 1538. However, the Turks were unable to dislodge the Portuguese from their toeholds along the west coasts of India and Pakistan.

Suleiman the Lawgiver

Suleiman the Magnificent is remembered in Turkey as Kanuni, the Law-Giver. He completely overhauled the formerly piecemeal Ottoman legal system, and one of his first acts was to lift the embargo on trade with the Safavid Empire, which hurt Turkish traders at least as much as it did Persian ones. He decreed that all Ottoman soldiers would pay for any food or other property they took as provisions while on a campaign, even while in enemy territory.

Suleiman also reformed the tax system, dropping extra taxes imposed by his father, and establishing a transparent tax rate system that varied according to people's income. Hiring and firing within the bureaucracy would be based on merit, rather than on the whims of higher officials or family connections. All Ottoman citizens, even the highest, were subject to the law.

Suleiman's reforms gave the Ottoman Empire a recognizably modern administration and legal system, more than 450 years ago. He instituted protections for Christian and Jewish citizens of the Ottoman Empire, denouncing blood libels against the Jews in 1553 and freeing Christian farm laborers from serfdom.

Succession and Death

Suleiman the Magnificent had two official wives and an unknown number of additional concubines, so he bore many offspring. His first wife, Mahidevran Sultan, bore him his eldest son, an intelligent and talented boy named Mustafa while the second wife, a former Ukrainian concubine named Hurrem Sultan, was the love of Suleiman's life, and gave him seven younger sons.

Hurrem Sultan knew that according to the rules of the harem​ if Mustafa became sultan, then he would have all of her sons killed to prevent them from trying to overthrow him. She started a rumor that Mustafa was interested in ousting his father from the throne, so in 1553, Suleiman summoned his eldest son to his tent in an army camp and had the 38-year-old strangled to death.

This left the path clear for Hurrem Sultan's first son, Selim, to come to the throne. Unfortunately, Selim had none of the good qualities of his half-brother, and is remembered in history as "Selim the Drunkard."

In 1566, the 71-year-old Suleiman the Magnificent led his army on a final expedition against the Hapsburgs in Hungary. The Ottomans won the Battle of Szigetvar on September 8, 1566, but Suleiman died of a heart attack the previous day. His officials did not want word of his death to distract and discomfit his troops, so they kept it a secret for a month and a half while the Turkish troops finalized their control of the area.

Suleiman's body was prepared for transport back to Constantinople. To keep it from putrefying, the heart and intestines were removed and buried in Hungary. Today, a Christian church and a fruit orchard stand in the area where Suleiman the Magnificent, greatest of the Ottoman sultans, left his heart on the battlefield.