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.

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. 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.

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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.

“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 discovereies in the New World poured in. Plans were made for a Suez Canal and a canals between the the Don and Volga rivers.

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.


Suleiman procession

" 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.

“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.

Visit to the Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent



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.

“I advanced through an endless row of bending female slaves, who stood on either side of my path. At the entrance to the apartment in which the Sultana consented to receive me, the elderly lady who had accompanied me all the time made me a profound reverence, and beckoned to two girls to give me their aid; so that I passed into the presence of the Sultana leaning upon their shoulders. The Sultana, who is a stout but beautiful young woman, sat upon silk cushions striped with silver, near a latticed window overlooking the sea. Numerous slave women, blazing with jewels, attended upon her, holding fans, pipes for smoking, and many objects of value.

“When we had selected from these, the great lady, who rose to receive me, extended her hand and kissed me on the brow, and made me sit at the edge of the divan on which she reclined. She asked many questions concerning our country and our religion, of which she knew nothing whatever, and which I answered as modestly and discreetly as I could. I was surprised to notice, when I had finished my narrative, that the room was full of women, who, impelled by curiosity, had come to see me, and to hear what I had to say.

“The Sultana now entertained me with an exhibition of dancing girls and music, which was very delectable. When the dancing and music were over, refreshments were served upon trays of solid gold sparkling with jewels. As it was growing late, and I felt afraid to remain longer, lest I should vex her, I made a motion of rising to leave. She immediately clapped her hands, and several slaves came forward, in obedience to her whispered commands, carrying trays heaped up with beautiful stuffs, and some silver articles of fine workmanship, which she pressed me to accept. After the usual salutations the old woman who first escorted me into the imperial presence conducted me out, and I was led from the room in precisely the same manner in which I had entered it, down to the foot of the staircase, where my own attendants awaited me.

Dining With The Sultana, 1718


another portrait of Roxelana

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote in 1718: “I was led into a large room, with a sofa the whole length of it, adorned with white marble pillars like a ruelle, covered with pale-blue figured velvet on a silver ground, with cushions of the same, where I was desired to repose till the Sultana appeared, who had contrived this manner of reception to avoid rising up at my entrance, though she made me an inclination of her head when I rose up to her. I was very glad to observe a lady that had been distinguished by the favor of an emperor, to whom beauties were every day presented from all parts of the world. But she did not seem to me to have ever been half so beautiful as the fair Fatima I saw at Adrianople; though she had the remains of a fine face, more decayed by sorrow than by time.

“But her dress was something so surprisingly rich, I cannot forbear describing it to you. She wore a vest called donalma, and which differs from a caftan by longer sleeves, and folding over at the bottom. It was of purple cloth, straight to her shape, and thick-set, on each side, down to her feet, and round the sleeves, with pearls of the best water, of the same size as their buttons commonly are. You must not suppose I mean as large as those of my Lord ____, but about the bigness of a pea; and to these buttons large loops of diamonds, in the form of those gold loops so common upon birthday coats. This habit was tied at the waist with two large tassels of smaller pearl, and round the arms embroidered with large diamonds: her shift fastened at the bottom with a great diamond, shaped like a lozenge; her girdle as broad as the broadest English ribbon, entirely covered with diamonds. Round her neck she wore three chains, which reached to her knees: one of large pearl, at the bottom of which hung a fine colored emerald, as big as a turkey-egg; another, consisting of two hundred emeralds, close joined together of the most lively green, perfectly matched, every one as large as a half-crown piece, and as thick as three crown pieces; and another of small emeralds, perfectly round. But her earrings eclipsed all the rest. They were two diamonds, shaped exactly like pears, as large as a big hazelnut. Round her talpoche she had four strings of pearl, the whitest and most perfect in the world, at least enough to make four necklaces, every one as large as the Duchess of Marlborough"s, and of the same size, fastened with two roses, consisting of a large ruby for the middle stone, and round them twenty drops of clean diamonds to each. Beside this, her headdress was covered with bodkins of emeralds and diamonds. She wore large diamond bracelets, and had five rings on her fingers, all single diamonds, (except Mr. Pitt"s) the largest I ever saw in my life. It is for jewelers to compute the value of these things; but, according to the common estimation of jewels in our part of the world, her whole dress must be worth above a hundred thousand pounds sterling. This I am very sure of, that no European queen has half the quantity; and the Empress" jewels, though very fine, would look very mean near hers.

“She gave me a dinner of fifty dishes of meat, which (after their fashion) were placed on the table, but one at a time, and thus extremely tedious. But the magnificence of her table answered very well to that of her dress. The knives were of gold, the hafts set with diamonds but the piece of luxury that gripped my eyes was the tablecloth and napkins, which were all tiffany, embroidered with silks and gold, in the finest manner, in natural flowers. It was with the utmost regret that I made use of these costly napkins, as finely wrought as the finest handkerchiefs that ever came out of this country. You may be sure that they were entirely spoiled before dinner was over. The sherbet (which is the liquor they drink at meals) was served in china bowls; but the covers and salvers were massy gold. After dinner, water was brought in a gold basin, and towels of the same kind as the napkins, which I very unwillingly wiped my hands upon; and coffee was served in china, with gold sou-coupes.

“The Sultana seemed in very good humor, and talked to me with the utmost civility. I did not omit this opportunity of learning all that I possibly could of the seraglio, which is so entirely unknown among us. She never mentioned her husband without tears in her eyes, yet she seemed very fond of the discourse. "My past happiness," said she, "appears a dream to me. Yet I cannot forget that I was beloved by the greatest and most lovely of mankind. I was chosen from all the rest, to make all his campaigns with him; I would not survive him, if I was not passionately fond of my daughter. Yet all my tenderness for her was hardly enough to make me preserve my life. When I lost him, I passed a whole twelvemonth without seeing the light. Time has softened my despair; yet I now pass some days every week in tears, devoted to the memory of my husband."

“There was no affectation in these words. It was easy to see she was in a deep melancholy, though her good humor made her willing to divert me. She asked me to walk in her garden, and one of her slaves immediately brought her a pellice of rich brocade lined with sables. I waited on her into the garden, which had nothing in it remarkable but the fountains; and from thence she showed me all her apartments. In her bed chamber her toilet was displayed, consisting of two looking-glasses, the frames covered with pearls, and her night talpoc1te set with bodkins of jewels, and near it three vests of fine sables, every one of which is, at least, worth a thousand dollars (two hundred pounds English money). I don"t doubt these rich habits were purposely placed in sight, but they seemed negligently thrown on the sofa. When I took my leave of her, I was complimented with perfumes, as at the grand vizier"s, and presented with a very fine embroidered handkerchief. Her slaves were to the number of thirty, besides ten little ones, the eldest not above seven years old. These were the most beautiful girls I ever saw, all richly dressed; and I observed that the Sultana took a great deal of pleasure in these lovely children, which is a vast expense; for there is not a handsome girl of that age to be bought under a hundred pounds sterling. They wore little garlands of flowers, and their own hair, braided, which was all their headdress; but their habits all of gold stuffs. These served her coffee, kneeling; brought water when she washed, etc. It is a great part of the business of the older slaves to take care of these girls, to teach them to embroider and serve them as carefully as if they were children of the family.”

Art and Architecture Under Süleyman the Magnificent

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.

“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.

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.

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

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 September 2018