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Why we should remember the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent

Sultan Suleiman I was not just a military campaigner, expanding the empire to its greatest ever reach. He was also a talented linguist and patron of the arts, says Jerry Brotton

A portrait of Suleiman I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, shown in profile
Published: September 22, 2022 at 5:50 am
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Who was Suleiman the Magnificent?

Five hundred years ago, Sultan Suleiman I (reigned 1520–66) ascended to the throne. Although he was the longest-reigning and arguably greatest of all Ottoman sultans, his time on the throne began under the long shadow cast by his father, Selim ‘the Grim’. On 30 September 1520, the 26-year-old Suleiman landed at Üsküdar on the Asian side of the Bosporus, having learned of the sudden death of his father just eight days earlier. Selim’s death was kept secret as the Janissaries, his elite infantry and household troops, were notoriously volatile when it came to political succession.

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The next day Suleiman crossed the strait and headed to the Topkapı palace, where he met the political and religious leaders of the imperial divan (or council) who swore their allegiance to him. He then followed his father’s funeral cortege through the streets of Istanbul, before returning to the Topkapı to complete his accession as the 10th Ottoman sultan.

How did Suleiman become sultan?

The Ottoman tradition of coronation was very different to its western counterparts. Its equivalent was cülus (from the Arabic ‘to sit on the throne’), which involved largely private ceremonies within the Topkapı palace followed by a public march through the city. For Suleiman, this involved measuring himself against the brief but devastating legacy of his father’s rule. In defeating the Safavids and Mamluks and controlling the holy cities of Mecca, Cairo and Jerusalem, Selim left his son as ‘Inheritor of the Great Caliphate’.

Suleiman extended the empire to its greatest ever reach, from Vienna to the Persian Gulf

How did he gain the title of Suleiman the Magnificent?

It seemed like an impossible legacy to emulate. Yet, during Suleiman I's 46-year reign, he extended the empire to its greatest ever reach, stretching from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf – gaining him the European sobriquet ‘the Magnificent’ – while codifying and standardising legal processes across the empire, which is why Turks know him as ‘the Lawgiver’ (or ‘Kânûnî). Suleiman was a tireless military campaigner, responsible for pushing Ottoman forces deep into Europe, north Africa and the Indian Ocean. But he was also a gifted linguist who spoke five languages, and a patron of the arts, commissioning the architect Sinan to build much of the skyline that still dominates Istanbul, including his final resting place, the monumental Süleymaniye Mosque.

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The legacy of Suleiman the magnificent

Suleiman left a greater legacy on the physical and religious landscape of Europe and the Middle East than any other Ottoman sultan. His European campaigns created a lasting mark on countries like Hungary and the Balkan states, while the mythical idealisation of him as the strong man of Ottoman history is now being appropriated by some of Turkey’s more authoritarian political figures.

Jerry Brotton is author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin, 2016)

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This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine

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