Christopher de Bellaigue: “Suleyman was just as bellicose as his father, if not as gratuitously cruel”
Christopher de Bellaigue talks to Rhiannon Davies about his book charting the early years of Suleyman the Magnificent’s reign, when the sultan had to navigate the deadly machinations of the Ottoman court as well as battle Christian powers
Rhiannon Davies: How did Suleyman the Magnificent becomesultan of the Ottoman empire – the 10th man to hold that title?
Christopher de Bellaigue: Suleyman had a very easy rise to the sultanate because his father, Selim – known as “the Grim”– had no compunction about killing. Everyone else who could have become sultan had been dispatched. There was a tradition that had become law under Mehmed the Conqueror, Suleyman’s great-grandfather, by which the Ottoman sultan could kill brothers and sons in order to ease the passage to the sultanate of a particular favoured son or brother. And, indeed, Suleyman benefited from this tradition – Selim killed several brothers and nephews and, however many sons he may have had, only Suleyman was allowed to survive.
Suleyman came to power in 1520, after his father had ruled for a very short of period of time. During his reign, Selim had almost doubled the extent of Ottoman territory – he defeated the Iranians, captured Egypt and gained control of the Holy Land. Under him, the Ottomans went from being a large power with a very significant Euro- pean presence to a much larger power with a more Eurasian identity.
Selim then died very unexpectedly, possibly of the plague, and Suleyman came to power unopposed. His accession was greeted with enormous relief by the European powers – and by Christendom as
a whole – because the Christian powers were in enormous terror of Selim, and thought that Suleyman could only be an improvement.
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In what ways did the threat of violence hang over Suleyman’s relationship with his father?
We get a strong sense from the chronicles at the time that on the few occasions the grown-up Suleyman met his father, it was always very precarious. One didn’t quite know which way the meetings would go. As a sultan approached old age, he was very vulnerable to a son who might topple him – indeed, Selim had done that very thing to his own father, Bayezid. If you treat your royal father that way, then you’re going to fear your royal son.
Equally, the royal son is also going to fear that his father might take against him. There’s a story about this perilous relationship that illustrates the point. When Suleyman was crown prince, he was sent a lavish gown as
a gift, seemingly from his father. It arrived at Manisa, where Suleyman was learning the ropes of administration with his mother, Hafsa – a formidable woman. The gown was abso- lutely splendid, but Hafsa said: “Hold on, don’t put that on. We’ll give it to an attendant first.” As it turned out, the gown was poisoned and the poor attendant died shortly thereafter – but Suleyman was spared that grisly fate.
Just how powerful was Suleyman as sultan?
The idea of Suleyman the all-powerful (as opposed to the puppet in the hands of his courtiers) is something that’s absolutely fascinating to me. Was he, as his long list of titles suggested, really the Master of the Celestial Conjunction and the Vice Regent of God on Earth, or was he simply a man in thrall to conniving courtiers?
He came to power with a young companion called Ibrahim, who was almost exactly the same age. Ibrahim was a Venetian citizen who had been sold into slavery as a boy and purchased by an elderly widow. She taught him lots of things, such as languages and literature and how to play musical instruments – all the accomplishments suitable for a young man of ambition. Ibrahim then came into Suleyman’s inner circle after being presented to the crown prince by the widow in question, and the two men became extremely close; indeed, the Venetian ambassadors suggested that they were lovers. At any rate, they had a very intense relationship.
When Suleyman succeeded to the throne, he came to Istanbul to take up the powers left to him by his father. The existing pashas (high-ranking officials) were all waiting for him, rubbing their hands and saying: “Well, there’s a young chap here, we’re going to control him.” But it wasn’t one man who arrived but two. So now the pashas were asking themselves: “Who is this Ibrahim? He’s just a slave who’s come out of nowhere. Why is our new lord so dependent on him?”
Ibrahim is a very, very interesting historical figure. He came from nowhere but was highly intelligent, very charming, very accomplished in so many ways. And Suleyman, I think, lacked self-confidence. He felt isolated, surrounded by his father’s men in an alien environment, so he leaned ever more heavily on Ibrahim. In 1523, he took the unprecedented step of promoting Ibrahim to grand vizier – the first grand vizier in the history of the Ottoman empire who had in no way proven himself either on the battlefield or in administration.
So did Ibrahim start to rival Suleyman?
As time went on, Ibrahim became more and more well-known across Europe, and took control of foreign policy, particularly diplomacy. The Venetians certainly adored him, because he spoke Italian and was a Venetian citizen, and he loved their presents – he was a big fan of Venetian bling. All of this gave Ibrahim great influence.
By the early 1530s, when he was really at his pomp, we have some wonderful descriptions of Ibrahim’s conversations with Habsburg ambassadors in which he boasted about the power he had over the sultan. Basically he said: “If I tell the sultan to do some- thing, he does it. And if he wants to do something and I want to do something else, inevitably it is the thing that I want done that will be done. So don’t think that he’s holding the power – I’m the one with the real power.”
That was how the relationship between Ibrahim and Suleyman evolved. It started off with Suleyman appointing him, then probably went through a period of equality and then, towards the end, you get the sense that Ibrahim was usurping his master’s position.
How does your book’s title, The Lion House, relate to the two men’s relationship?
At the heart of Istanbul (then widely known as Constantinople) was the Byzantine hippodrome, near which Suleyman built his palace. At the entrance to the hippodrome was a menagerie, called the Lion House. It did contain lions; wild men were rumoured to be kept there, too. There were also elephants, which came out to meet the sultan when he returned from campaigns, and various other
Now, during the course of this evolving relationship between Ibrahim and Suleyman, there was a discussion of lions and lion tamers between Ibrahim and some foreign ambassadors. When Ibrahim was boasting about his power, he drew an analogy between the ruler and the man who is keeping him, and the lion and its keeper.
Suleyman and Charles V both commanded vast empires and had world ambitions. They were almost destined to fight each other
In Ibrahim’s telling, the keeper of the lion house is obviously in fear of the lion because it is immensely strong. So he tosses the lion meat, and he holds a big stick in order to make the lion cringe, to lick it into shape and to discipline it. Remarkably, Ibrahim turned to his interlocutor and said: “The sultan is the lion, and I am the lion keeper.”
You mentioned that Christian powers were relieved when Suleyman came to power. Did that remain the case?
No – because, very shortly after his succession, Suleyman marched deep into central southern Europe, to Belgrade, and took the city. He also seized Rhodes from the Knights Hospitaller, who had controlled that island for centuries. So Suleyman revealed himself to be just as bellicose and ambitious as his father, if not as gratuitously cruel.
Suleyman and Charles V both commanded vast empires and had world ambitions. They were almost destined to fight each other
Who was Suleyman’s greatest opponent in Europe?
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, of the Habsburg dynasty. Charles and Suleyman commanded two vast empires: Habsburg possessions stretched from the Baltic to the Atlantic, while Ottoman interests extended from Crimea to north Africa and farther east into Persia. Where these two arcs met was a place where they could fight – where they were almost destined to fight – because these were two men who had world ambitions.
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Charles was crowned king of the Romans at Aachen in 1520 – the same year that Suleyman became sultan. Erasmus of Rotterdam wasn’t the only person to see in this coincidence a sign of things to come, what he called a fraternal twinning of opposites.
Both men were bolstered by a sense of destiny, a sense of history. Charles was very much aware of the Crusades. When he was growing up, he used to dress his younger brother Ferdinand as a Turk, so they could play at the Crusades. Charles was desperate to retake Constan- tinople; its fall to the Ottomans in 1453 had dealt an enormous blow to Christendom’s sense of security.
For Suleyman, a holy war to increase the domain of Islam was also a divine imperative. He dreamed of taking western Rome; he already had “eastern Rome” – Constantinople – and he thought it was his destiny to control both. Yet ironically enough, it was Charles V’s troops that sacked Rome, in 1527.
Venice played off the two sides against one another in this Habsburg-Ottoman conflict. Why?
Venice was deeply insecure. It needed the Ottomans because they controlled the Mediterranean, on which the Venetians were utterly reliant – their ships needed to go from place to place, transporting goods to and from Venice but also importing goods that would end up elsewhere in Europe. So they needed Ottoman goodwill. At the same time, the Venetians were Catholics, owing nominal allegiance to the pope. So they had to somehow remain Catholic, yet also remain friends of the Ottomans. They did this by suggesting to the rest of Christendom that they could perhaps moderate Ottoman aggression and provide intelligence.
On the one hand, the Habsburgs were very angry with the Venetians for being so close to Suleyman. On the other, Suleyman had suspicions of his own that the Venetians were not true allies and couldn’t really be trusted.
One remarkable character emerged from this situation as a key figure: Alvise Gritti, son of the doge [chief magistrate and leader] of Venice, Andrea Gritti. He had been denied any chance of rising up the Venetian hierarchy because he was born out of wedlock, but the Ottomans had no such scruples, saying to him: “Come over and make your fortune in Istanbul.”
Alvise is the embodiment of this double game. Just as he was telling the sultan: “I am your devoted servant,” with the next breath he was telling his father, the doge, “I am your devoted servant.” And for several years, he managed to pull this off, becoming fantastically rich in the process. He supplied grain to Venice, sent thoroughbred horses to northern Italy, and sold tin, gems and precious metals to the sultan. He was really animated by a profound ambition. Having been denied office in Venice, he thought: “I’ll be bigger than Venice.” [He was later killed when, having become effectively the Ottoman governor of Hungary, he overstretched himself in Transylvania and sparked a huge insurrection against his rule.
How did Suleyman’s rivalry with Charles V play out on the field?
Charles V was part of a double act. His sidekick was his younger brother, Ferdinand, who operated in central Europe. Ferdinand was very interested in Hungary, which saw much violence in the early years of Suleyman’s reign.
The Ottomans launched several offensives into Hungary, the first of which resulted in the defeat of the Hungarian king Louis II in 1526, at the famous battle of Mohács. Ferdinand then regarded himself as the rightful ruler of Hungary, so that tussle continued.
The next time Suleyman’s army marched west, in 1529, it was to launch an attack on Vienna. Though a relatively small town in those days, Vienna was undeniably important, regarded as the gateway to western Europe. Had it fallen, it is possible that the Ottomans would have been emboldened to continue even farther into western Europe. But Vienna did not fall; though the Ottomans reached its walls, it was heroically defended and, because the invaders had arrived relatively late in the year, the onset of winter favoured the defenders. So the Ottomans had to withdraw.
At that stage, the main setting for the rivalry changed to the Mediterranean – or the White Sea, as the Ottomans called it. That was when the pirate Hayreddin (known in the west as Barbarossa) be- came hugely important in the Ottoman empire. He was summoned to Istanbul and made head of the navy in 1533, scoring some notable successes in the Mediterranean.
Is it fair to say then that this period saw something of a stalemate between Suleyman and Charles V? There was a moment in 1534 when the situation could have changed. For a brief period, Istanbul was undefended – Charles and Ferdinand could have gathered their forces and fleets then, and made for the city. That would have been one measure of victory in this contest for mastery of the world. But it didn’t happen. Neither Suleyman nor Charles won, and both maintained that sense of wounded power. They continued to fight and to negotiate, and to fight and to negotiate.
Someone who certainly lost was Ibrahim. What happened to him?
Ibrahim’s story is one of hubris, you won’t be surprised to hear. He got too big for his boots, and made enemies within the Ottoman adminis- tration. One of those enemies was the finance minister, another fascinating individual called Iskender Çelebi, who was almost as brilliant as Ibrahim. After a calamitous campaign in Persia, for which Ibrahim was partly responsible, the grand vizier managed to pin the blame on Iskender – and Suleyman had Iskender executed in March 1535.
That night, Iskender came to Suleyman in a dream, wrapping his turban around the sultan’s swan-like neck, pulling tighter and tighter. When the sultan woke from this nightmare, he made a vow that his grand vizier, the man who convinced him to kill a man unjustly, would not live another year.
After the armies returned to Istanbul, the sultan invited Ibrahim – as he very often did – to come to his palace to share iftar [the meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan] and stay the night. The following day, Ibrahim’s body was discovered. He had clearly mounted a spirited defence against the sultan’s assassins, but succumbed. His body was buried in an unmarked grave.
No announcement was made, but of course the news spread very quickly. And this episode marks the end of The Lion House. It occurred in 1536, at the end of the first third of Suleyman’s reign. It was, in a way, the sultan’s coming of age: the moment when Suleyman declared his independence – that he would not be dominated by anyone else for the rest of his reign.
Christopher de Bellaigue is the author of The Lion House: The Coming of A King (Bodley Head, 2022)
This interview was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine