A distinguished statesman, military leader, and cultural visionary, Sultan Suleiman’s reign saw the Ottoman Empire reach its zenith, encompassing a vast domain and representing diverse cultures, religions, and languages. His legal reforms established a new framework for justice and administration, and he was a committed patron of the arts and architecture, further enriching the cultural fabric of his empire. His reign, characterised by political acumen, military prowess, and a profound cultural legacy, has immortalised him as one of history’s most influential rulers.
In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire was on an upward trajectory. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II brought the Byzantine Empire to an end and the Ottomans had established themselves as the dominant force in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
Constantinople, once the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, was the centre of Ottoman political, economic, and cultural influence. The political situation in the Ottoman Empire was marked by rapid territorial expansion, internal consolidation, and complex interactions with European powers.
This period set the stage for the reign of Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire, a man who would lead the empire into a true golden age.
The Early Years of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman
The future sultan was probably born in 1494 – although some sources put his birth year as 1495 – in Trabzon, a coastal city on the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey.
His father was Sultan Selim I and his mother was Hafsa Sultan, little is known about her life with any degree of certainty. The young Suleiman benefited from a first-class education, studying history, the sciences, literature and warfare strategy in the schools of the famous Topkapi Palace in Constantinople. Subjects that would greatly benefit his life as Suleiman, magnificent ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
By the age of seventeen, Suleiman was given the governorship of the Black Sea coast town of Kefe, under the reign of his grandfather Bayezid II. Later he ruled Manisa in modern-day Turkey under the reign of his father.
It is said that during his time in Manisa, he learned and understood the complex political machinations of the Ottoman Empire and immersed himself in poetry and the cultural aspect of life in the early sixteenth century.
Selim’s eight-year reign from 1512 until 1520 included aggressive territorial expansion, establishing a trade network stretching from China to western Europe and south to the Indian Ocean, as well as developing an unprecedented cultural identity.
Sultan Suleiman inherited much from his father and would go on to expand the Ottoman Empire into a global powerhouse of grandeur and prosperity.
Sultan Suleiman & His Wars in Europe
When his father died in 1520, Suleiman became the tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire and immediately began a programme of imperial expansion, casting his gaze towards Europe. He first took the city of Belgrade in 1521, then under the rule of the Kingdom of Hungary, now the capital of modern-day Serbia. It was significant for the fact it was the furthest west the Ottomans had ever conquered.
The following year, the Suleiman’s forces took the island of Rhodes from the Knights Hospitaller, a mediaeval Catholic military order which emanated out of the Crusades. However, according to some contemporary reports, the conquest cost the Ottomans something like 60,000 dead. Other reports put the dead from disease and battle at over 100,000.
In August 1526, Suleiman the Magnificent defeated Hungarian king Louis II on the banks of the Danube at the Battle of Mohács. Indeed Suleiman would pit his armies against the Hungarians for much of his reign.
He then attempted to capture Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire, in 1529 but the siege was unsuccessful. A further attempt in 1532 produced mixed results. The Siege of Vienna in 1529 marked the high point of Ottoman expansion in Europe, and its failure was a turning point that halted further significant territorial gains in central Europe.
Sultan Suleiman & the Safavid Empire
Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent engaged in a series of military campaigns against the Safavid Empire of Persia (modern-day Iran) during his reign. The Ottoman-Safavid Wars were characterised by territorial disputes and religious differences, as the Ottomans were Sunni Muslims while the Safavids adhered to the Shia sect of Islam.
The campaign between 1532 and 1535 was a partial success with the Ottomans taking major cities including Tabriz and Baghdad. In the following decade, the second campaign ended inconclusively, with Sultan Suleiman’s forces temporarily capturing the strategic fortress of Van.
Suleiman’s campaigns in Persia weren’t as successful as his European campaigns. Despite some territorial gains, the Ottomans couldn’t decisively defeat the Safavids or impose their dominance over the region. The wars in Persia remained a persistent challenge for the Ottoman Empire, and conflicts between the two empires continued for many years beyond Suleiman’s reign.
Sultan Suleiman also fought battles in the Indian Ocean, in the Mediterranean – becoming the region’s dominant naval force – and in North Africa.
Perhaps the most famous of these campaigns was the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Ottomans had first attempted to take Malta in 1551 to establish a base in the central Mediterranean, though that campaign had ultimately ended in failure. The Ottomans came back in 1565 with a new force composed of as many as 40,000 troops. After a four month siege against between 6,000 and 9,000 Knights Hospitaller – and an army made up of Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Sicilians and Maltese – the Ottomans were eventually forced to retreat.
The Great Siege of Malta is considered one of the most famous and significant battles in history, and ultimately highlighted the limits of Ottoman sultan Suleiman’s expansionist ambitions.
The Law Giver
Suleiman implemented significant legal reforms in the Ottoman Empire, aiming to create a more just, efficient, and unified society. While he came to be known in the west as Suleiman the Magnificent, to his subjects he was known as Kanuni, or ‘the law giver.’
Suleiman’s reforms included codifying and organising existing secular and religious laws with the aim of striking a balance between religious principles and practical governance.
He initiated laws related to land ownership to maximise agricultural productivity and promote economic growth. He also addressed various aspects of criminal law, including the clarification of penalties for specific offences, the establishment of due process, and the protection of individual rights.
As part of his legal reforms, Sultan Suleiman implemented measures to protect the rights and interests of non-Muslim subjects, such as Christians and Jews, within the empire. This approach promoted religious tolerance and helped maintain social cohesion in the diverse empire.
The Artist, Architect and Poet
Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire was also a great builder and patron of the arts. He instigated the construction of fortresses, aqueducts, city walls, mosques, palaces and establishments for charitable and social work. Many were designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.
Suleiman was an accomplished poet, writing under the pen name Muhibbi, and he established artistic societies taking in bookbinders, jewellers, goldsmiths and painters. The Scottish literary historian Elias John Wilkinson Gibb wrote ‘at no time, even in Turkey, was greater encouragement given to poetry than during the reign of this Sultan.’
Family, Succession & Death
Sultan Suleiman had two wives, Mahidevran Hatun and Hurrem Sultan, as well as an unknown number of concubines. From these – and possibly other – relationships he may have had eight sons and three daughters, although the number may well be higher. He was succeeded by his son Selim II.
During a final expedition to Hungary in September 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent took ill and died. He is buried in a tomb adjacent to the mosque that took his name, the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.
Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning ruler of the Ottoman Empire, left an indelible and far-reaching legacy that resonates to this day. As the architect of the empire’s Golden Age, he presided over an era of unprecedented territorial expansion, political stability, religious tolerance and cultural renaissance, cementing his place among the most profoundly influential leaders of the Ottoman world.