In the year 1690, a Turkish visitor to Versailles wrote down these words in his travel diary: "The King of France is the Sultan Suleiman of our time."
This is a startling observation in view of the fact that Louis XIV of France was himself usually the standard by which the crowned heads of Europe were measured. Versailles, the Sun King, the Royal Court, French rule across much of Europe—such are the distinguishing marks of Louis' great reign during the seventeenth century.
Who was this man Suleiman to whom the mighty Louis was compared, this man who ruled from the banks of the Bosphorus long before Louis was born? With Suleiman's name go the words Constantinople, the Grand Turk, the Imperial Divan, as well as his sovereignty from Budapest to Baghdad, from Mesopotamia to Morocco. Suleiman the Magnificent beat Louis XIV by more than a century in creating a personal and political supremacy that others imitated as a model but could never hope to equal.
Europeans who saw him at the height of his power left no doubt of his effect on them. This passage is from a report by the Venetian Ambassador, Bernardo Navagero, writing in the year 1553. "The Turkish Court is a superb sight, and most superb is the Sultan himself. One's eyes are dazzled by the gleam of gold and jewelry. Silk and brocade shimmer in flashing rays. What strikes one about Suleiman the Magnificent is not his flowing robes or his high turban. He is unique among the throng because his demeanor is that of a truly great emperor."
Similar reports flowing from Constantinople back to the capitals of Europe caused the Turkish Sultan to be known as "Suleiman the Magnificent." Within the borders of his own empire a nobler title was heard. His subjects called him "Suleiman the Lawgiver."
Born shortly after Columbus discovered America, he grew up in the midst of historical developments almost as revolutionary as those that were transforming the West. His greatgrandfather, Mohammed II, had shaken the world by capturing Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman Turks vaulted the Bosphorus, established themselves firmly in the Balkans, and gained control of the Dardanelles. Mohammed's grandson, Selim I, conquered Persia and Egypt. Selim's son thus inherited an imposing empire around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.
Suleiman the Magnificent extended the borders of his domain on all sides. He possessed the wherewithal to do this. The flower of his troops was the celebrated Janissaries, the world's most disciplined infantry. His cavalry was unmatched because the Turks had been expert horsemen ever since the days when they rode into the Middle East from the steppes of Central Asia. His artillery was better than any guns his armies faced. Europe would learn to make accurate guns from those they captured from Suleiman. At sea, he had swift galleys commanded by bold admirals like Dragut, the "Drawn Sword of Islam," who swept the Mediterranean with his warships.
Under Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman power reached the western Carpathians and the Persian Gulf; it almost reached the Caspian Sea and the Straits of Gibraltar. The military masterpiece of these campaigns was the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. The Sultan pushed up through the Balkans into Hungary. The King of Hungary moved south to meet him. The decisive conflict took place on the plain of Mohacs along the Danube; it was decided by the Turkish tactics of luring the enemy forward into a deliberately weakened center and then attacking them with massed reserves on both flanks.
The outcome of the Battle of Mohacs is described in a single sentence that Suleiman wrote that night: "We are resting at Mohacs where we have buried 20,000 Hungarian infantry and 4,000 of their cavalry." Hungary was his. He intended to take Austria as well, but the length of his supply lines forced him back from the gates of Vienna.
The Sultan's conquests made him the leading sovereign of the sixteenth century, a time of worthy contemporaries—Charles V of Spain, Francis I of France, and Henry VIII of England. Francis, indeed, asked and got an alliance with Suleiman during the wars between France and Spain. One result of the alliance was the fierce sea duel between Dragut and Andrea Doria—the stand-off that left the northern Mediterranean European, the southern Mediterranean in Islamic hands.
Now Constantinople became the glorious metropolis of the Ottoman Empire, a worthy capital for Suleiman the Magnificent. The reign achieved an architectural importance because the Sultan was a builder on the grand scale. Many art historians consider the Mosque of Suleiman to be the most beautiful of Ottoman buildings. Finished in 1556, it shows Byzantine influence in its basilica architecture, but the balconies and tall minarets are distinctly Islamic. Besides many other mosques, Suleiman concentrated on schools and municipal improvements. The Aqueduct of the Forty Arches brought fresh water from the hills into the city. Suleiman was directly responsible for Constantinople's "face lifting." He gave orders to his builders just as he did to his generals on the battlefield.
The people lived in a well-ordered city. It was divided into four quarters for administrative purposes, and the officials, judges and patrols of the Sultan enforced respect for law and order. They collected taxes; they supervised commerce; they kept the thronged streets of Constantinople free of thieves.
The Ottoman Empire was less easy to regulate. Stretching from Budapest to Baghdad, it comprised provinces and peoples entirely different in their beliefs, habits, customs, traditions and aspirations. Unity demanded that their laws be synchronized, at least on fundamentals. The Sultan accomplished this task by leaving localities to their own practices as far as was consistent with imperial needs. Thus, while he made no attempt to impose the conditions of Turkish bazaars on Hungarian markets, or Turkish land ownership on Morocco, he did impose everywhere his rules concerning commercial honesty and equitable taxation.
He caused the codification of laws to be promulgated throughout his territories. They worked so well that Suleiman revived memories of a predecessor in Constantinople, the illustrious Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. Another lawgiver had appeared—Suleiman the Lawgiver.
The Sultan was the undisputed head of the government. He was not, at the same time, an arbitrary despot. He observed the Law of Islam and the laws that he himself had issued to his subjects. He allowed his subordinates proper latitude in carrying out their assignments, and he chose them for their ability. The Austrian Ambassador, Ghiselain de Busbecq, testifies to the democracy of the system. "In making his appointments, the Sultan pays no regard to any pretensions on the score of wealth or rank, nor does he take into consideration recommendations or popularity; he considers each case on its own merits, and examines carefully into the character, ability and disposition of the man whose promotion is in question."
So were filled the government posts, the highest of which belonged to the Divan, the Council of State, which met in the Hall of Audiences at the Palace. Here major affairs of domestic and foreign policy were decided. Here arriving ambassadors walked into the splendor of the regime as they moved between glittering ranks of courtiers to the throne on which the Sultan sat.
Envoys from friendly states received invitations to visit the royal apartments. They dined with the Sultan on golden plates. They answered his astute questions about conditions in Europe or Africa. They listened to him as he talked with poets and historians or examined the polished work of his jewelers. It was always a treat for them when they were invited to sail across the Bosphorus aboard the royal barge and to stroll with him through the court gardens on the opposite shore.
They found their host a cultured man. Often enough he could speak to them in their own languages, for he had become a proficient linguist in order to converse with his officers who came from his border provinces. He not only loved literature but wrote verses of his own. He was merciful by temperament and by philosophy. "I amnesty prisoners," he said, "to make useful citizens of them." His piety was so marked a trait of his character that he prized the title "Commander of the Faithful" above all others.
He took his duties so seriously and performed them so ably that he left an imperial heritage to his successor on his death in 1566. He bequeathed to posterity the memory of a golden epoch above Constantinople's Golden Horn—the epoch of Suleiman the Magnificent.