As he walked through the peach trees in the garden, Suleiman’s mind drifted back to those first campaigns. The murder of his messenger to Hungary had presented him with the opportunity to avenge the ancient shame of Mehmed II’s flight from Belgrade. And if Belgrade could be his, then the roads to Vienna and Buda would be open. His legacy would be an Ottoman Europe. And much was in his favor. As he talked with Ibrahim and heard the latest news from Europe, he learned that he would not be fighting the sort of redoubtable foes his predecessors had found in the Hungarian heroes John Hunyadi and Matthias Corvinus. Rather, he would face a people led by weakness and torn by internal strife.
The Hungarians elected their kings and, tired of the restrictions and disciplines that their great leaders had imposed on them, they had instead chosen to elect a weak and vacillating boy who wouldn’t restrain their internal squabbles and their jockeying for local power. This child Suleiman would face was barely 14. But the unity and leadership of the Hungarians weren’t the only things that had changed since the Ottoman had been repulsed so long ago. The rest of Christendom had changed as well. He had ears all over Europe.
When the boy king of Hungary sent envoys to the imperial Diet being held at Worms to beg for aid from the Holy Roman Emperor in the coming war, His pleas had been drowned out and entirely lost in the commotion surrounding a new sectional dispute in the Christian world. Some priests had nailed a paper to the door of the church saying that their supreme curate, the Pope, wasn’t infallible, and their church wasn’t the direct source of salvation. And this idea had split the whole church in two.
They were more concerned with this paper than with his legions. The German principalities would not come to the Hungarians’ aid. The Pope too with his Papal States would be too busy with this new heresy to really campaign for a crusade against him. And that Spanish prince, the Habsburg, Charles V, was too busy squabbling over territory in Italy with the king of France to lend his might to the Hungarians. Not to mention the sectional split tearing apart his German lands. And the French, well, they were happy to see anything which would threaten their Habsburg rivals, which an Ottoman incursion into Europe certainly would.
This just left that Most Serene Republic, Venice. They were the last hope for the Hungarian boy king. But Suleiman knew their weakness. He had offered them a trade treaty too valuable for them to ever jeopardize by opposing him at war. The Hungarian child would stand alone. But even so, Suleiman would not underestimate him. All winter he planned. With the help of Ibrahim and other advisors, they worked out logistics, gathered troops from around the empire, and mapped routes for separate armies to meet up. Nothing would be left to chance for his first grand conquest.
Finally, the day came. He remembered that crisp February morning, The spectacle of thousands of silk-clad cavalrymen and dour Janissaries marching down the streets of Istanbul. Who wouldn’t be awed by such a sight? They swiftly traveled north, army after army meeting his force. Streams of troops becoming a river, rivers becoming a torrent to wipe away Belgrade. His Grand Vizier reached the city before him, but it wasn’t until his mighty cannon arrived that the siege could begin in earnest.
For weeks the great guns pounded the walls of Belgrade, but even they had little effect. Treachery was his next option, as a traitor told him how he could undermine the great tower of the fortress. But still, the garrison defied him. Then, one day, he got a message from the Orthodox Serbian contingent of the garrison. They loathed serving alongside the Catholic Hungarians, more than they feared the prospect of being under Islamic Ottoman rule. If he would spare their lives, they would turn the fortress over to him.
He eagerly agreed, and he was a man of his word. He had them resettled near Istanbul. The Hungarians, he massacred. He had the main church converted into a mosque, and he himself said the first Friday prayer. Then he turned back around. He had other work to do. He had smashed the citadel of Europe and set up the route for future conquest. But before he could stab at Europe’s heart, he first had to secure the Ottoman sea.
The Knights of Rhodes had long frustrated Ottoman attempts to retake the island that hung so close to their coastline. But as he had done with Hungary, here too he would show them the overwhelming power of the Ottoman empire. As all of Europe was tied up in other affairs, here too his enemy would have to stand alone against the might of his entire empire. Only France, that western power, might come to the aid of the Knights of Rhodes, but in their war with Charles of Spain, they had squandered their navy. And with a fleet decimated by the Spanish, even the French could not offer aid to Rhodes. And so he launched a fleet of 300 ships and marched 100,000 men towards the coast near Rhodes. And he built a castle opposite their shore, and he brought with him 100 guns, some of the cannons so mighty they were loaded with boulders. And the, as the law demanded, he wrote a letter to the Grand Master of Rhodes, offering him and all his people safety if they were simply to surrender.
The offer was refused, as he knew it would be, and so the siege began. He remembered that first moment when he ordered all 100 cannon to fire at once. He remembered the smell of powder, which hung in the air, which clamped to the clothes of every man as the terrible cannon roared.
Day after day his cannons rigged the fortress, and daily they assaulted the walls, but daily his men were turned back. His rage grew. These were no undisciplined nobles. These were men of sacred order, as rigid in their discipline as his own Janissaries. And there they sat, behind their high palisades. At last, his saboteurs mined below the walls being held by the English. There was a great cacophony, a roar like the lions of Heaven. Then dust, a waterfall of stone and mortar. Five weeks he’d been waiting. His men assaulted the breach, but they were repulsed. Again they assaulted, and again they were repulsed. A third time they swept forward, but this third time to they were driven from the breach. The English contingent of the Knights of Rhodes, aided by the Germans, had held against his force. Again he ordered his saboteurs to mine beneath the walls, this time below the section held by the Spanish. Again the roar and crash. Again the walls fell and again his men rushed in. But again these Knights Hospitaliers, these Knights of Rhodes turned his men back.
He was furious. He ordered Ayas Pasha, one of the commanders of the assault, killed. Then he relented. He saw clearly now. It was the fault of his brother-in-law, Mustafa Pasha, who commanded his forces and served as his chief Vizier. He had him stripped of rank and demoted to the governor of Egypt, so as to be far from his sight. But the fighting went on. Tens of thousands of his troops laid dead from wounds or disease. He would offer these Christians a truce. He would offer them another chance to surrender.
He sent them the word of his munificence, with a warning that if they turned it down, not even the cats of the island would be spared. The Knights responded by sending him a messenger carrying a letter from Bayezid II, his grandfather, promising them that they could keep the island. He responded by having the letter torn to shreds and sending back with the envoys two Christian prisoners with their ears and noses cut off, so they could see what would happen to all of them. Then the cannons began again. A week later, with the walls of the fortress in ruins, he offered them peace again. And this time the Grand Master accepted.
He was lenient in his peace. The Knights could leave and take what they would with them. Any citizen who wished could depart with them, and any that didn’t would be free to depart anytime in the next three years. The churches would be free from desecration. And for five years the citizens would be free from taxes and from the conscription of their children. As Knights marched out of the city, he met with the ancient Grand Master. He felt sorrow for this man, who had fought so bravely to be removed in such a manner from his home. He told him that such was the fate of princes, that there was no shame when 7,000 faced 100,000. He assured him he was free to leave and bid the old man well. Rhodes was his. Belgrade was his. For the first two years of his reign, he had known nothing but war. At last, he could return to Istanbul and, for a time at least, attend to the duties of peace.