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Happy Birthday, Süleyman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan and Legislative Reformer

April 27, 2010
by Anne Szustek
Under the reign of Sultan Süleyman I, the Ottoman Empire became a political and military superpower. The Sultan was as deft with the pen as he with his sword: he overhauled Ottoman jurisprudence and his poetry remains celebrated to this day. He is known in the West as Süleyman the Magnificent and in the Islamic world as Süleyman the Lawgiver.

Süleyman’s Early Days

Süleyman I (also spelled Suleiman) was born on April 27, 1495, in Trabzon, located on the coast of the Black Sea in present-day eastern Turkey. The only son of Ottoman sultan Selim I and Ayse Hafsa Sultan, he received his earliest education from his grandmother Gülbahar Hatun.

Süleyman’s family sent him to Istanbul at age seven to his grandfather Sultan Bayezid II to further his studies. The future sultan returned to Trabzon, where he remained until becoming a provincial governor at age 15.

Süleyman returned to Istanbul to become the regent of his father Selim I, who was crowned sultan in 1512. Upon his father’s death eight years later, Süleyman ascended to the throne, becoming the 10th sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1520.

Süleyman’s Notable Accomplishments

Soon after assuming the throne, Süleyman I set off on a series of military conquests that expanded the borders of the Ottoman Empire to include parts of present-day Serbia in 1521, the Greek island of Rhodes in 1522 and regions of Hungary in 1526. The 1522 battle pushed the Christian military order Knights of St. John to leave Rhodes for Malta, where they would remain until 1798.

Süleyman’s forces conquered parts of present-day Iraq and North Africa. His armies laid their first siege to Vienna in 1529; the Ottomans eventually retreated. The Ottomans also gained control over waters of the eastern Mediterranean when the Spanish fleet was defeated in the 1538 Battle of Preveza.

The sultan also took an active role in European politics, sponsoring Protestant states during the Reformation to destabilize the continent and make it more susceptible to invasion. According to Web site The Ottomans, “Several historians, in fact, have argued that Protestantism would never have succeeded except for the financial support of the Ottoman Empire.” His forces also invaded Muslim territories, something he saw as a holy mission meant to preserve Islam from dynasties he felt strayed from proper practice. In addition, his foreign policy encompassed protecting Muslim-dominated areas from perceived encroachment by Christian forces.

Yet the sultan’s legacy would transcend conquered borders. The sultan codified the Ottoman Empire’s “qanun,” or secular law, providing a base of civil jurisprudence that would dictate matters falling outside of sharia, the Islamic legal code. The sultan has since been known as “Süleyman the Lawgiver” in much of the Islamic world. The sultan, however, had his own favored titles, such as “Caliph of Islam” and “master of the lands of Caesar and Alexander the Great."

The Rest of the Story

As the Ottoman Empire expanded, Istanbul was coming into its own as a cultural capital of the Islamic world. Under Süleyman’s rule, the arts and sciences flourished in the Ottoman capital, developing into the Empire’s “Golden Age.” Süleyman himself was a talented poet.

Süleyman the Magnificent’s legacy also includes architecture dating from his reign; specifically works designed by Sinan, the chief state architect under Süleyman and his two immediate successors. Istanbul’s Suleymaniye Mosque is considered Sinan’s most famous work. The building is named for the sultan, who was laid to rest there following his death in early September 1566 in Szigetvár, Hungary, during a siege.

Süleyman’s 46-year reign is remembered as the Ottoman Empire’s zenith, both culturally and politically. The Empire’s slow decline began under the reign of Süleyman’s son and successor, Selim II, also known as “Selim the Sot.”

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