Today is the birthday (1566) of Suleiman I (سلطان سليمان اول Sultan Süleyman-ı Evvel) commonly known as Suleiman the Magnificent in the West and Kanunî Sultan Süleyman (Lawgiver Suleiman) in his realm, the 10th and longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to his death in 1566. Under his administration, the Ottoman state/empire was at its apogee ruling between 15 and 25 million people in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Suleiman was one of the most prominent monarchs of 16th-century Europe, personally leading Ottoman armies in conquering the Christian strongholds of Belgrade and Rhodes as well as most of Hungary before his conquests were checked at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. He annexed much of the Middle East in his conflict with the Safavids and large areas of North Africa as far west as Algeria. Under his rule, the Ottoman fleet dominated the seas from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and through the Persian Gulf.
Suleiman personally instituted major legislative changes relating to society, education, taxation and criminal law. His reforms, carried out in conjunction with the empire’s chief judicial official Ebussuud Efendi, harmonized the relationship between the two forms of Ottoman law: sultanic (Kanun) and religious (Sharia). He was a distinguished poet and goldsmith, and also was a great patron of the arts, literature and architecture creating what many historians see as the Golden Age of Ottoman culture.
Suleiman broke with Ottoman tradition when he married Hurrem Sultan, a woman from his harem: a Christian of Rusyn origin who converted to Islam, and who became famous in the West by the name Roxelana. Their son Selim II succeeded Suleiman following his death in 1566 after 46 years of rule. Suleiman’s other potential heirs Mehmed and Mustafa had died, the former from smallpox and the latter had been strangled to death 13 years earlier at the sultan’s order. His other son Bayezid was executed in 1561 on Suleiman’s orders, along with his four sons, after a rebellion. Although scholars no longer believe that the empire declined after his death, in the decades after Suleiman’s reign, the empire began to experience significant political, institutional, and economic changes, a phenomenon often referred to as the Transformation of the Ottoman Empire.
Upon succeeding his father, Suleiman began a series of military conquests, eventually suppressing a revolt led by the Ottoman-appointed governor of Damascus in 1521. Suleiman soon made preparations for the conquest of Belgrade from the Kingdom of Hungary—something his great-grandfather Mehmed II had failed to achieve because of John Hunyadi’s strong defense in the region. Its capture was vital in removing the Hungarians and Croats who, following the defeats of the Albanians, Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Byzantines and the Serbs, remained the only formidable force who could block further Ottoman gains in Europe. Suleiman encircled Belgrade and began a series of heavy bombardments from an island in the Danube. Belgrade, with a garrison of only 700 men, and receiving no aid from Hungary, fell in August 1521. The fall of Christendom’s major strongholds spread fear across Europe. As the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to Constantinople noted, “The capture of Belgrade was at the origin of the dramatic events which engulfed Hungary. It led to the death of King Louis, the capture of Buda, the occupation of Transylvania, the ruin of a flourishing kingdom and the fear of neighboring nations that they would suffer the same fate …”
The road to Hungary and Austria lay open, but Suleiman turned his attention instead to the Eastern Mediterranean island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller. In the summer of 1522, taking advantage of the large navy he inherited from his father, Suleiman dispatched an armada of some 400 ships towards Rhodes, while personally leading an army of 100,000 across Asia Minor to a point opposite the island itself. Here Suleiman built a large fortification, Marmaris Castle, that served as a base for the Ottoman Navy. Following the brutal five-month Siege of Rhodes (1522), Rhodes capitulated and Suleiman allowed the Knights of Rhodes to depart.
While Sultan Suleiman was known as “the Magnificent” in the West, he was always Kanuni Suleiman or “The Lawgiver” (قانونی) to his own Ottoman subjects. As the historian Lord Kinross notes, “Not only was he a great military campaigner, a man of the sword, as his father and great-grandfather had been before him. He differed from them in the extent to which he was also a man of the pen. He was a great legislator, standing out in the eyes of his people as a high-minded sovereign and a magnanimous exponent of justice”. The overriding law of the empire was the Shari’ah, or Sacred Law, which as the divine law of Islam was outside of the Sultan’s powers to change. Yet an area of distinct law known as the Kanuns (قانون, canonical legislation) was dependent on Suleiman’s will alone, covering areas such as criminal law, land tenure and taxation. He collected all the judgments that had been issued by the nine Ottoman Sultans who preceded him. After eliminating duplications and choosing between contradictory statements, he issued a single legal code, all the while being careful not to violate the basic laws of Islam. It was within this framework that Suleiman, supported by his Grand Mufti Ebussuud, sought to reform the legislation to adapt to a rapidly changing empire. When the Kanun laws attained their final form, the code of laws became known as the kanun‐i Osmani (قانون عثمانی), or the “Ottoman laws”. Suleiman’s legal code was to last more than three hundred years.
Suleiman gave particular attention to the plight of the rayas, Christian subjects who worked the land of the Sipahis (land-owning cavalry). His Kanune Raya, or “Code of the Rayas”, reformed the law governing levies and taxes to be paid by the rayas, raising their status above serfdom to the extent that Christian serfs would migrate to Turkish territories to benefit from the reforms. Suleiman also played a role in protecting the Jewish subjects of his empire for centuries to come. In late 1553 or 1554, on the suggestion of his favorite doctor and dentist, the Spanish Jew Moses Hamon, the Sultan issued a firman (فرمان) formally denouncing blood libels against the Jews. Furthermore, Suleiman enacted new criminal and police legislation, prescribing a set of fines for specific offenses, as well as reducing the instances requiring death or mutilation. In the area of taxation, taxes were levied on various goods and produce, including animals, mines, profits of trade, and import-export duties. In addition to taxes, officials who had fallen into disrepute were likely to have their land and property confiscated by the Sultan.
Education was also important to Suleiman. Schools attached to mosques and funded by religious foundations provided a largely free education to Muslim boys, well in advance of the Christian countries of the time. In his capital, Suleiman increased the number of mektebs (مكتب, primary schools) to 14, teaching boys to read and write as well as the principles of Islam. Young men wishing further education could proceed to one of 8 medreses (مدرسه, colleges), whose studies included grammar, metaphysics, philosophy, astronomy and astrology. Higher medreses provided education of university status, whose graduates became imams (امام) or teachers. Educational centers were often one of many buildings surrounding the courtyards of mosques, others included libraries, baths, soup kitchens, residences and hospitals for the benefit of the public.
Under Suleiman’s patronage, the Ottoman Empire entered the golden age of its cultural development. Hundreds of imperial artistic societies (called the اهل حرف Ehl-i Hiref, “Community of the Craftsmen”) were administered at the Imperial seat, the Topkapı Palace. After an apprenticeship, artists and craftsmen could advance in rank within their field and were paid commensurate wages in quarterly annual installments. Payroll registers that survive testify to the breadth of Suleiman’s patronage of the arts, the earliest of documents dating from 1526 list 40 societies with over 600 members. The Ehl-i Hiref attracted the empire’s most talented artisans to the Sultan’s court, both from the Islamic world and from the recently conquered territories in Europe, resulting in a blend of Arabic, Turkish and European cultures. Artisans in service of the court included painters, book binders, furriers, jewelers and goldsmiths. Whereas previous rulers had been influenced by Persian culture (Suleiman’s father, Selim I, wrote poetry in Persian), Suleiman’s patronage of the arts saw the Ottoman Empire assert its own artistic legacy.
Suleiman himself was an accomplished poet, writing in Persian and Turkish under the takhallus (nom de plume) Muhibbi (محبی, “Lover”). Some of Suleiman’s verses have become Turkish proverbs, such as the well-known “Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story.” When his young son Mehmed died in 1543, he composed a moving chronogram to commemorate the year, “Peerless among princes, my Sultan Mehmed.” In addition to Suleiman’s own work, many great talents enlivened the literary world during Suleiman’s rule, including Fuzuli and Baki. Suleiman’s most famous verse is:
The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate,
But in this world a spell of health is the best state.
What men call sovereignty is worldly strife and constant war;
Worship of God is the highest throne, the happiest of all estates.
Suleiman also became renowned for sponsoring a series of monumental architectural developments within his empire. The Sultan sought to turn Constantinople into the center of Islamic civilization by a series of projects, including bridges, mosques, palaces and various charitable and social establishments. The greatest of these were built by the Sultan’s chief architect, Mimar Sinan, under whom Ottoman architecture reached its zenith. Sinan became responsible for over three hundred monuments throughout the empire, including his two masterpieces, the Süleymaniye and Selimiye mosques—the latter built in Adrianople (now Edirne) in the reign of Suleiman’s son Selim II. Suleiman also restored the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Jerusalem city walls (which are the current walls of the Old City of Jerusalem), renovated the Kaaba in Mecca, and constructed a complex in Damascus.
Suleiman had two known consorts:
Mahidevran Sultan (m. 1512/14), a Circassian or Albanian “Ottoman”.
Hürrem Sultan (also known as Roxelana) (m. 1531)
Suleiman was infatuated with Hürrem Sultan, a harem girl from Ruthenia, then part of Poland. Western diplomats, taking notice of the palace gossip about her, called her “Russelazie” or “Roxelana”, referring to her Ruthenian origins. She was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, captured by Tatars from Crimea, sold as a slave in Constantinople, and eventually rose through the ranks of the Harem to become Suleiman’s favorite. Breaking with two centuries of Ottoman tradition, Suleiman made a former concubine his legal wife, much to the astonishment of the observers in the palace and the city. He also allowed Hürrem Sultan to remain with him at court for the rest of her life, breaking another tradition—that when imperial heirs came of age, they would be sent along with the imperial concubine who bore them to govern remote provinces of the Empire, never to return unless their progeny succeeded to the throne.
Under his pen name, Muhibbi, Sultan Suleiman composed this poem for Hürrem Sultan:
Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful …
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf …
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this room …
My Istanbul, my karaman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of misery …
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.
Hürrem and Mahidevran bore Suleiman six sons, four of whom survived past the 1550s: Mustafa, Selim, Bayezid, and Cihangir. Of these, the eldest, was not Hürrem Sultan’s son, but rather Mahidevran Sultan’s, and therefore preceded Hürrem’s children in the order of succession. Hürrem was aware that should Mustafa become Sultan her own children would be strangled. Yet Mustafa was recognized as the most talented of all the brothers and was supported by Pargalı İbrahim Pasha, who was by this time Suleiman’s Grand Vizier. The Austrian ambassador Busbecq would note “Suleiman has among his children a son called Mustafa, marvelously well educated and prudent and of an age to rule, since he is 24 or 25 years old; may God never allow a Barbary of such strength to come near us”, going on to talk of Mustafa’s “remarkable natural gifts”. Hürrem is usually held at least partly responsible for the intrigues in nominating a successor. Although she was Suleiman’s wife, she exercised no official public role. This did not, however, prevent Hürrem from wielding powerful political influence. Since the Empire lacked, until the reign of Ahmed I, any formal means of nominating a successor, successions usually involved the death of competing princes in order to avert civil unrest and rebellions. In attempting to avoid the execution of her sons, Hürrem used her influence to eliminate those who supported Mustafa’s accession to the throne.
Thus in power struggles apparently instigated by Hürrem, Suleiman had Ibrahim murdered and replaced with her sympathetic son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha. By 1552, when the campaign against Persia had begun with Rüstem appointed commander-in-chief of the expedition, intrigues against Mustafa began. Rüstem sent one of Suleiman’s most trusted men to report that since Suleiman was not at the head of the army, the soldiers thought the time had come to put a younger prince on the throne; at the same time he spread rumors that Mustafa had proved receptive to the idea. Angered by what he came to believe were Mustafa’s plans to claim the throne, the following summer upon return from his campaign in Persia, Suleiman summoned him to his tent in the Ereğli valley, saying he would “be able to clear himself of the crimes he was accused of and would have nothing to fear if he came”.
Mustafa was confronted with a choice: either he appear before his father at the risk of being killed; or, if he refused to attend, he would be accused of betrayal. In the end, Mustafa chose to enter his father’s tent, confident that the support of the army would protect him. Busbecq, who claims to have received an account from an eyewitness, describes Mustafa’s final moments. As Mustafa entered his father’s tent, Suleiman’s eunuchs attacked Mustafa, with the young prince putting up a brave defense. Suleiman, separated from the struggle only by the linen hangings of the tent, peered through the chamber of his tent and “directed fierce and threatening glances upon the mutes, and by menacing gestures sternly rebuked their hesitation. Thereupon, the mutes in their alarm, redoubling their efforts, hurled Mustafa to the ground and, throwing the bowstring round his neck, strangled him.”
Cihangir is said to have died of grief a few months after the news of his half-brother’s murder. The two surviving brothers, Selim and Bayezid, were given command in different parts of the empire. Within a few years, however, civil war broke out between the brothers, each supported by his loyal forces. With the aid of his father’s army, Selim defeated Bayezid in Konya in 1559, leading the latter to seek refuge with the Safavids along with his four sons. Following diplomatic exchanges, the Sultan demanded from the Safavid Shah that Bayezid be either extradited or executed. In return for large amounts of gold, the Shah allowed a Turkish executioner to strangle Bayezid and his four sons in 1561, clearing the path for Selim’s succession to the throne five years later.
On 6 September 1566, Suleiman, who had set out from Constantinople to command an expedition to Hungary, died before an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Szigetvár in Hungary and the Grand Vizier kept his death secret during the retreat for the enthronement of Selim II. Just the night before the sickly sultan died in his tent, two months before he would have turned 72. The sultan’s body was taken back to Istanbul to be buried, while his heart, liver, and some other organs were buried in Turbék, outside Szigetvár. A mausoleum was constructed above the burial site, and came to be regarded as a holy place and pilgrimage site. Within a decade a mosque and Sufi hospice were built near it.
Ottoman palace cuisine under Suleiman and his successors was highly refined, but largely secret. No texts concerning recipes were ever written. This diverse cuisine was perfected in the Imperial palace’s kitchens by chefs brought from various parts of the empire to create and experiment with different ingredients. These chefs were tested and hired simply by their method of cooking rice. They were brought over from various places for the express purpose of experimenting with exotic textures and ingredients and inventing new dishes. Each cook specialized in specific tasks. All dishes intended for the sultan were first passed by the palate of the Chesnidjibashi, or imperial food taster, who tested the food for both poison and taste. A few of the creations of the Ottoman palace’s kitchens filtered down to the common population, but the vast bulk are lost to posterity.
Ayva dolma, stuffed quinces, is believed to have originated in the palace kitchen, and is now a rare but succulent specialty in some parts of the former Ottoman empire. This recipe comes from Azerbaijan. Getting hold of good-sized quinces is going to be your chief challenge.
200 g/8 oz lamb, ground
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
25 g/1 oz melted butter
1 tspn ground cinnamon
1 tspn allspice
2-3 strands saffron
salt and pepper
5 soft, ripe quinces
2 tbsp of sugar or honey
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup rich stock (preferably lamb)
Steep the saffron in a cup with 1 tablespoon of boiling water. Cover and leave to infuse.
Pierce the chestnuts. Cover them with water in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove them from the water one at a time and shell. They are difficult to peel when dry, so do this one at a time Roughly chop the shelled chestnuts.
Preheat the oven to 200˚C/400˚F.
Put the ground lamb, chopped onion, chopped chestnuts, spices, melted butter, and salt to taste into a bowl and mix well with your hands.
Mix the honey and lemon juice in a saucer or small bowl.
Wash the quinces and scrub them to remove any down from the skin. Slice off the tops and set them aside. Remove the cores and some of the flesh of the fruit, using a melon baller, to create a hollow for the stuffing. Rub the insides of the quinces with the honey and lemon juice mixture. This step is both for flavor and to prevent the quinces from browning on the inside. Stuff the quinces with the meat mixture, pressing the filling down hard. Put the tops back on as lids. Wrap each quince in foil and stand them upright in a baking dish or ovenproof shallow pan. Add the stock to the baking dish. Place the dish in the preheated oven and cook for 45 minutes or until the fruit are soft.
Pour the cooking juice over each quince when serving. Serve with rice or fresh crusty bread and plain yoghurt.