Asia's History

Suleiman, The Magnificent

Standing across the bay Suleiman remembers the old days of the swift rider, the man on the tall horse who came to Manisa to tell him that his father was dead. He had considered this moment time and again, yet, now that it was here, he didn’t know how to feel. His father was Selim the Stern. Capable, ruthless, arrogant, a terror to his advisors, with the slightest misstep meaning execution. But he’d also been a lion to his empire, pushing its borders further than any sultan before him. In the reckoning of the West, it was 1520, but to him, it was the year 925. He was 25 years old, born in 900, and he was about to become the tenth Sultan. Born at the very beginning of the tenth century, an auspicious sign.

 He called for Ibrahim, his childhood friend, a Greek, a Christian, and a slave. They would take the fastest horses to Istanbul, where his father’s death was being kept a secret, lest rebellion occurred in the absence of a ruling Sultan. As they thundered down the dusty roads of Anatolia, he had time to think, time to think of his nation and his future. At least there would be no civil war. His father had spared him and the empire that when he murdered all of his brothers. His reign would at least start in peace. For 8 days they rode hard, and for 8 days he planned. He discussed with Ibrahim how they would lay the foundation for his rule and how together they would navigate the Byzantine waters of Istanbul. Then they arrived. He was back in the shining city, the Sublime Gate. Within moments he was surrounded by guards and functionaries. Barely off his horse, he was led to the Tomb of Eyup, the burial place of Mohamed’s standard-bearer and perhaps the most sacred site in all of Istanbul. Then came in the Mevlevi Sharif, who walked up to him and about his waist girthed the golden sword of Osman. And so he was tied to the prophet and to the founder of his house, and he was made Sultan.

With the rising of the sun, the next day, he received the highest officials in the palace to pay him homage. Then he followed his father’s bier to his final resting place, and there he decreed, as his first act as Sultan, that a mosque should be built around his father’s grave. He would honor his father. He would remind the world of the strength of his house. But he would also show them that he was his own man. The fear that they knew under his father would not persist. He gives a large donative to the Janissary corps, that elite infantry that formed the backbone of the Sultan’s armies and served as his personal guard. But he gave to the officials and the functionaries as well. He pardoned some, allowed those who his father had compelled by force to come to Istanbul to return to their homes. Lifted a very hated proscription against the sale of Iranian goods. Everyone would know, it was a new era. But, as he had discussed with Ibrahim, he could not let his new benevolence be mistaken for weakness. And so the executions began. Not many, and none he believed to be unjust, Just enough to let those in the court know that the House of Osman was still ruled by a tiger and not a lamb. But his rule wouldn’t go unchallenged. Barely had he taken the sword, when a revolt erupted in Syria.

The governor of Syria marched on Aleppo, thinking he had the support of the Bey, or governor of Egypt, a province newly added to the empire under Suleiman’s father Salim. But the Bey of Egypt was a crafty man, and instead sent word to the Sultan of what was going on, all the while plotting to support whoever won the conflict and to claim he’d supported them all along. But Suleiman saw in this opportunity, as much as danger. He marshaled his armies and marched with overwhelming force to crush the revolt in the south. He showed the entire Islamic world that he was not a man to be trifled with, that his armies were as vast as the sea and his resolve as uncompromising. He would be benevolent to the loyal, and merciless where disloyalty met him. Perhaps that’s where it all began.

He shakes his head and walks along the shore. And then a smile touches his lips, remembering those first heady days planning with Ibrahim. With his southern territory secured, he could start planning his real dream. Where his father had expanded south, he would bring the empire north into Europe. Late into the night, he would pour over maps with Ibrahim, who was now Falconer to the Sultan. They would discuss in-depth the powers of Europe, but their conversations always returned to two points: Belgrade and Rhodes.

After the fall of the Byzantines, the Kingdom of Hungary alone stood as the bulwark of Europe, preventing Ottoman expansion north and west. And Belgrade stood as the gate to that bulwark. If Belgrade fell, the path to Eastern Europe would lay wide open for the armies of the Sultan. But Belgrade also served as a reminder of a national shame. In 1456 the Ottomans had tried to take the great fortress of Belgrade only to suffer a complete and humiliating defeat.

The Christians in Europe still struck their bells at noon to celebrate such a triumph, mocking the great empire to the east with each peal.

He, Suleiman, would undo this shame, and in doing so, open the way to Europe. But there was another thorn in his empire: Rhodes. The Eastern Mediterranean should be an Ottoman lake, with commerce and transport flowing freely and safely through its waters. But with the knights of Rhodes doggedly holding on to the island in its center serving as a harbor and a safe haven for Christian corsairs, his people would never know peace on the sea. His trade, especially the most important trade from Egypt, was threatened, and naval campaigns to the west were severely hampered by this Christian fortress clinging to a rock in his sea.

For 75 years Sultans had tried to wrest control of this tiny island from the Christians, and each time they’d been repulsed, but where they had failed he must succeed.

 His dream of a European empire could never be realized without control of this strategic island. But even as he planned, the war he desired came to him.

The Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, despite continuous border raids, were theoretically at peace. But the terms of this peace involved an annual tribute to the Sultanate. This year, upon hearing of a new Sultan in the empire, instead of sending tribute the brash Hungarian prince had the Ottoman envoy executed.

Suleiman was furious. He had surprised everyone in court, all the foreign dignitaries with his gentler rule. He had shown that he wasn’t weak. But from this thin pale lover of poetry and music, this tamed lion, as they all thought of him, they hadn’t yet seen wrath.

Now they would see it, Now Hungary would see it, Now the world would see the Sultan’s rage. “Raise the horse-tail banners! No one executes his citizens! No one insults his dignity!” The empire is going to war!

 Quietly, looking out at the waves, he remembered the secret feeling of elation that had come with his anger. His mind started to drift to war to come.

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