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The House of Osman
The Ottoman Empire started to rise during the 14th century. In the next 200 years, the capable rulers of the House of Osman turned themselves from the rulers of a small and insignificant Anatolian beylik into the dominant figures of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The Ottoman Empire was already very impressive even before the ascension of Sultan Selim I; however, the empire doubled in size by the end of Selim’s rule, who, in a lightning campaign, conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.
Selim’s ambitions were not sated just yet, and he ordered the construction of a fleet, which would have enabled the Ottomans to become as dominant on the sea as they were on land. Selim, however, did not live long enough to see through his plans and died in 1520.
As Selim only had one son, Suleiman, the recurring civil wars that often marked Ottoman successions were avoided, and prince Suleiman took over the mantle of power seamlessly.
The Early Reign of Suleiman
The young Sultan was very different from his father, whose vulcanic temperament and violent outbursts were feared by everyone. Suleiman was described as a much more reserved, even scholarly man who was also a skilled goldsmith. Nonetheless, this outward appearance hid a man who was just as ambitious as his father used to be and wanted to expand the power of the Ottoman Empire.
After his ascension, the Sultan sent envoys to extend the peace between his empire and the Kingdom of Hungary; however, his offer was rejected, and his envoys were humiliated.
Outraged by this insult, the Sultan led in person an army against the Kingdom of Hungary the next year and conquered the strategically crucial fortress of Belgrade in 1521. With his campaign successfully completed, the Sultan left the Hungarian borders, though his subordinates continued to conquer other Hungarian strong points in the following years.
In 1522 the Sultan made the Island of Rhodes his objective. The Knight’s Hospitaller held the island, who, using their good strategic position, harassed Muslim shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Sultan arrived on the island in the summer of 1522 with a large army that may have numbered as many as 100,000 soldiers. The defenders were badly outnumbered; however, the defences of Rhodes were formidable, and despite all the Ottoman efforts, the defenders held out until December, causing heavy losses to the Ottomans. Nonetheless, when the Sultan offered generous terms, allowing the defenders to depart unharmed, the Knights agreed to surrender.
In the following three years, the Sultan did not lead any campaigns, probably because of the turmoil in the empire, where the governor of Egypt rebelled.
By 1526 the peace of the empire was reestablished, and the Sultan again led his armies against Hungary.
The war against Hungary was part of a larger conflict also. The previous year the King of France suffered a heavy defeat at the Battle of Pavia, and he himself was captured. While Francis I was a prisoner of his great rival Charles V, his mother became the regent and sent an offer of alliance to Suleiman, who eagerly accepted. While Suleiman allied himself to the French, the Hungarians, in turn, were already allied to the Habsburg dynasty, and King Louis II of Hungary even married the sister of Charles V.
Suleiman’s main enemy was the Habsburgs, but Louis II was unwilling to turn against his brothers-in-law, so the Hungarian-Ottoman war continued. The two rulers clashed at the Battle of Mohacs in August 1526, where the Ottomans won a decisive victory. King Louis II died during his flight from the battle when his horse threw him into a river. Wearing his heavy armour, the young king drowned. His death created a succession crisis and civil war, as he had no male heir. The nobles elected two kings after his death. Part of the nobility elected Archduke Ferdinand, the brother of Charles V, while another part of the nobility elected John Zapolya, the most influential Hungarian nobleman. Suleiman also backed Zapolya.
Following his victory at Mohacs, the Sultan captured the capital of Hungary but decided not to annex new territory and left Hungary without leaving behind garrisons.
The Middle Reign of the Sultan
The Sultan led his armies in person again three years later when he attacked the Habsburg capital Vienna. Unfortunately for the Ottomans, heavy rains slowed their march to Vienna and forced them to leave behind many of their heavier guns. After two weeks of failed attempts to storm the city and the early arrival of the snow, the Sultan called off the attack and marched back to Ottoman territory.
The Ottomans marched against the Habsburgs again in 1532, but this time they failed to even arrive under the walls of Vienna when they got bogged down with the Siege of Guns. Nonetheless, the Ottomans conquered some border fortresses and enforced their position in Hungary. A year later, the Sultan made peace with Ferdinand, who agreed to recognize Zapolya as King in exchange for the latter accepting his dominion over western Hungary.
The Sultan did not remain idle for long after his 1532 campaign, as he invaded the Safavid Empire in 1534. The Ottoman-Safavid rivalry dated back to the days of Suleiman’s father, Selim. The Safavids avoided facing the Ottomans in pitched battles, learning from their mistakes against Selim I, who smashed Shah Ismail when he faced him at Chaldirah.
The Safavids used scorched earth tactics to avoid pitched battles, retreated before the Ottomans, and attacked the isolated Ottoman garrisons when the main army departed. Nonetheless, the Ottomans still succeeded in making gains, as Suleiman’s armies conquered much of Mesopotamia and gained access to the Persian Gulf.
While the Sultan was fighting on land, the war against the Habsburgs and their allies also continued on the sea. The Sultan ordered the construction of a large fleet, but as he was somewhat short on skilled sailors, he made Barbarossa Hayreddin, the leader of the Barbary Corsairs of Algiers, his new admiral.
Under the leadership of Hayreddin and his subordinates like Turgut Reis, the Ottomans and Barbary corsairs terrorized the shores of Italy and Spain. The Franco-Ottoman alliance continued as well; however, the difficulty of coordinating such an alliance made it less formidable than it could have been. Still, the Ottoman fleets were more than a match for the Habsburgs and their Italian allies, as Barbarossa’s victory at Preveza clearly demonstrated.
The Sultan returned to Hungary in 1541, when Ferdinand invaded Zapolya's country after the former died. The Sultan's armies smashed the Habsburgs before the walls of Buda and occupied Buda for a second time.
This time around, the Sultan chose to occupy Buda permanently and annex the central part of Hungary. This led to the country's partition into three parts: the central part of the kingdom was transformed into the Pashalik of Buda, the eastern part became the Principality of Transylvania, a vassal of the Ottomans, while the rest of the kingdom was to be ruled by Ferdinand. Intermittent fighting between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs continued until 1566 when Suleiman died, and his son Selim made peace with the Habsburgs.
The Sultan led two more campaigns against the Safavids before they made peace in 1555, the Peace of Amasya, which established the borders of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires for centuries.
By the 1550s, the Sultan was visibly aged, and his health was starting to deteriorate. Nonetheless, his capable subordinates continued his wars, and the rising Piali Pasha scored a spectacular victory against the Habsburgs at the Battle of Djerba. Though some reverses also occurred, like the failed siege of Malta in 1565.
Following the defeat of his forces in Malta, the 72 years old Sultan decided to lead his man in person to campaign again. The Ottomans marched into Hungary and besieged the fortress of Szigetvar. The fortress was built onto an island and thus proved a formidable obstacle. Nonetheless, the Sultan was determined to conquer it and his forces, at the cost of heavy losses, took Szigetvar, but the Sultan did not live long enough to see the Ottoman flags flying on the walls of the fortress. Even before the campaign, the old Sultan was already a sick man, and the rigours of the camp life were simply too much for his aged body.
In total, Sultan Suleiman I ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years, and historians generally regard his reign as the period when it reached its absolute zenith.
Administrative Reforms and Personal Life
Suleiman I was not only a very capable military leader but also a superb administrator for his empire. It is no coincidence that his own people knew him as the Lawgiver, as a reference to the Sultan’s efforts to reform the empire’s legal system. With the support of his legal advisor, Ebussuud Effendi, during Suleiman’s reign, much effort was put into harmonizing the relationship between the two branches of Ottoman law, the sultanic( Kanun) and religious( Sharia). Living in the age of the European Renaissance, just like many of his other contemporary rulers, Suleiman was also a great patron of the arts and learning, personally patronizing the works of many artists.
The Sultan also turned out to be a “reformer” in his personal life as well. Before Suleiman, traditionally, the Ottoman Sultans reproduced their dynasty through concubines. However, each concubine was allowed to have only one son with the Sultan. When the sons came of age, they were sent away from the capital to govern a province, and their mothers accompanied the princes.
Suleiman broke with this tradition and had many sons with his favourite, a Ruthenian woman named Roxelana, whom he renamed Hurrem. Hurrem was not sent away from the capital either, as she was allowed to remain by the side of the Sultan, who also married her in 1533. Hurrem started a period when women became increasingly more and more influential in the empire, a period that today is known as the Sultanate of Women. However, this period reached its peak only in the first half of the 17th century when the mothers of the underaged Sultans were the virtual powers behind the throne.
Despite finding the love of his life in Hurrem, personal tragedy also followed the life of the Sultan. Early in his reign, he named his close friend Ibrahim Pasha as Grand Vizier, but after 13 years in office, the Sultan could no longer trust Ibrahim and had him executed in 1536. His favourite son Mehmed died in 1543.
In 1553 the Sultan also ordered the execution of his eldest and most capable son Mustafa. The reason for Mustafa’s death was Suleiman’s mistrust, who believed Mustafa wanted to overthrow him; however, many people believed that Mustafa fell victim to a conspiracy between Hurrem and Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha. Soon after Mustafa’s execution, another son of Suleiman, Cihangir, also died; according to some, the reason for his early end was the grief caused by Mustafa’s death.
Cihangir was not the last son buried by the Sultan either. His last two remaining sons, Bayazid and Selim, went to war against one another even before their father died. Suleiman took the side of Selim, who thus defeated Bayazid, who was later executed.
Imber, Colin. (2009). The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. Palgrave Macmillan.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler