Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story.
–Turkish Proverb attributed to Suleiman
Suleiman the Magnificent was the longest-reigning emperor of the Ottoman Empire, holding the position from 1520 until passing away in 1566. During his reign, the Ottoman State, including more than 20 million people and spanning into the Middle East and North Africa, entered into its Golden Age. A victorious conqueror, his personal story is especially influenced by two figures: a former slave who would become his most trusted advisor and a former Christian girl who would become his legal wife.
Little is recorded as fact from Suleiman’s early life; it seems he was educated Constantinople and there first became united in friendship with the Christian slave, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. When his father, Selim I, died, Suleiman became the tenth Ottoman Sultan. Some historians suggest that he was influenced by the example of Alexander the Great in his young years, as he fought to unify the East and West under one great empire. Aside from his examples, Suleiman broke from much Ottoman tradition in a few major ways to pursue his own idea of justice. Surprisingly, he chose Roxelana, a former Christian who had converted to Islam, from his harem as his legal wife, and she played a major role in both his private and public life as Sultan.
The early years of his rule were marked by significant military conquests. He began by capturing the city Belgrade from Christian Hungary– a feat that his grandfather was unable to accomplish– then eventually the entirety of Hungary fell and the Ottoman Empire became the ruling force in Central Europe. Next was the Ottoman-Safavid War in which Suleiman’s army chased Persian forces until a stalemate was established. Interested in utilizing the waters of the Indian and Mediterranean Sea to his conquests’ advantage, he enlisted the infamous naval commander Barbarossa to build up his navy to such a multitude that it outnumbered those of all the other Mediterranean nations combined. The Turks would rule up to the eastern Mediterranean Sea until being expelled from Spain by the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Ibrahim Pasha, Suleiman’s former Christian slave friend, became his most trusted advisor and Grand Vizier as commander-in-chief of all armies and ruler of Turkish territories in Europe. Ibrahim Pasha’s rapid success seems to have gained him many enemies, and in the midst of conspiracies about his disloyalty, he was eventually executed by Suleiman (who seems to have later lamented the decision.)
Although his military victories were impressive enough by themselves, Suleiman especially holds the title “the Magnificent” due to his major contributions of his comprehensive legislative reform and support of education and culture. Though the main body of law was the Shari’ah of the Islamic nation, Suleiman was able to use the distinct body of Kanuns to enact his legal reforms for justice in the taxation, land practices, and criminal realms that would last for over 300 years. Notably, he improved the situation of the Christian and Jewish subjects who were able to rise above their previous condition of serfdom. In general, his justice involved moving from physical punishments of death or mutilation to fines and penalties to be paid for offenses. His improvements were so impactful, that he is remembered in history as “Kanuni”, the Lawgiver, in his homeland. In the cultural sphere of the empire, Suleiman’s patronage of the arts, as a poet himself, were extensive as is evidenced by records of payroll from the palace. The Sultan’s once penned these verses about his beloved wife:
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of misery …
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.
Though there was no proper mode of succession, it seemed likely that the oldest and most gifted of Suleiman’s sons, Mustafa, would rise to the throne. Though he became entangled by rumors of betrayal, and Mustafa was eventually strangled under the approving gaze of his father. Suleiman died of old age in a tent at the age of 70, on his way to Hungary to command a military expedition.
The Gryphon Editions consultation has placed Suleiman the Magnificent on our list of the 100 Most Influential People because by his military prowess and broad legal reforms, he solidified the Ottoman Empire as a foremost world power and brought it to glory in its Golden Age, erecting architectural monuments that still stand to be admired on the modern Turkish skyline. The story of this great man will be immortalized once again in our leather-bound biography, part of our 100 Most Influential People Library.