Reign of Selim I

With support from the elite Janissary corps, Selim ruled an aggressive and expansionist Ottoman Empire that doubled in size during his reign. Also, he sought to eliminate what he believed to be the corruption of Islam by Shīՙites.

Summary of Event

Driven by religious fanaticism, Selim I, the ninth Ottoman sultan, tried to eliminate Shīՙite resistance in eastern Anatolia beginning in 1513. He had some forty thousand heretics liquidated in the process, many of them partisans, envoys, or agents of the Persian ruler. Islam;Ottoman Empire Thereafter, Selim was engaged in a holy war against Persia’s shah Ismāՙīl I, who had made Shiism Islam;Shīՙites[Shiites] the official form of Islam in his land east of the Ottoman borders. Ismāՙīl, also, had sided with Selim’s brother, Ahmed, in their initial contest for power and given refuge to Ahmed’s son, Murad. Ṣafavid Dynasty[Safavid Dynasty]
Ottoman Empire
Selim I
Ismāՙīl I
Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī
Ṭumān Bay II
Ismāՙīl I
Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī
Ṭūmān Bay II
Süleyman the Magnificent
Selim I

Selim was a brutal, cruel—some say evil—uncompromising autocrat. Even the heads of his closest friends and associates were not safe. During his eight-year rule, he had seven of his grand viziers (chief ministers) decapitated for protesting, opposing, or complaining about the sultan’s policies.

Selim also was a skillful administrator and a great warrior, hence his wide support in the army, though on two occasions his ambitions to do further battle outstripped his troops’ willingness to follow. His anti-Shīՙite crusade, though accompanied by much bloodshed, earned him the nickname of “the Just.” Selim fought corruption mercilessly, too.

Yet he also was devoted to culture, the literary arts, and theology. Art patronage;Ottoman Empire He also directed the architect of the empire to build noteworthy structures, projects that were continued by his progeny. Selim wrote poetry in Persian, the language of the cultivated and also penned insulting letters to Ismāՙīl I, in Persian, to provoke him into battle. Unlike other sultans, Selim had little interest in the harem or “worldly” pleasures. His possible addiction to opium may have occurred during his terminal sickness.

The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Chāldirān Chāldirān, Battle of (1514)[Chaldiran, Battle of (1514)] on August 23, 1514, against Ismāՙīl and the Ṣafavids was decisive but inconclusive, even though Selim captured the Persian capital of Tabrīz for a time, a feat involving a march of more than 1,000 miles. While the Ottoman Janissaries and field guns overcame the Persian cavalry, Selim did not integrate the defeated Persian Empire into his own, deciding instead to isolate it by mandating an economic embargo, especially on its silk trade. Silk was Persia’s major export and main source of gold and silver revenue.

Ismāՙīl not only survived his battlefield injuries, he and his Ṣafavid Dynasty continued to rule Persia and outlive Selim. One important consequence of the Ottoman victory, however, was the Turkish conquest of all of the shah’s possessions in eastern Asia Minor, down to the southeast at Diyarbakir and north up to Kurdistan.

Selim then turned his attention to defeating the non-Arab, originally Circassian, Mamlūk slave dynasty that had been ruling the Levant, Egypt, and western Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Earlier, at the Mamlūks’ request, Selim had helped the latter in their naval buildup to confront the growing Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. The buildup had threatened the Islamic holy places in western Arabia as well as Mamlūk and Ottoman trade in the east. Thereafter, though, Ottoman and Mamlūk rivalry over territory—the headwaters of the Euphrates River in eastern Anatolia—vitiated their previously friendly relations.

With few firearms, which the Mamlūk Mamlūk Dynasty[Mamluk Dynasty] leaders had despised, Mamlūk lancers, swordsmen, and bowmen were easily outclassed by the musket-armed infantry and state-of-the-art artillery of the Ottomans. After the Ottoman victory near Aleppo in Syria, where Mamlūk sultan Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī (also known as Qansawh al-Ghawry or Kansuh al-Ghuri) was killed on August 24, 1516, Selim reached Damascus in October and occupied Palestine as far as Gaza.

Selim then crossed the Sinai Desert with thousands of camels carrying water, riflemen, field artillery, and supplies. Benefiting from a rift over succession among the Mamlūks and the treasonable behavior of some of their leaders, Selim again defeated them north of Cairo, on January 23, 1517. He ordered the execution of eight hundred Mamlūks, including the ruling sultan Ṭūmān Bay II, who had succeeded Qānṣawh II al-Ghawrī. Eventually, the whole of Egypt and much of western Arabia was under Ottoman sovereignty.

Having captured the last puppet caliph under Mamlūk control, Ṭūmān Bay, the title “protector of the holy places” was conferred on Selim. With the title, Selim became the leader of the Muslim community. The Mamlūks were left to rule Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty, unlike Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine), which Selim reorganized as regular Ottoman provinces under the direct rule of Ottoman governors.

While Selim was conquering Syria and Egypt, the Barbarossa brothers—Khiḍr and ՙArūj, under the sultan’s overlordship—in exchange for aid and official appointment, exercised power in the Mediterranean. Their ships raided the coasts of Spain and maintained constant pressure on Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also the Spanish monarch.

After a two-year absence in Syria on his way back from Egypt, Selim returned to Constantinople. The sultan spent his last two years in Asia Minor (Anatolia) and Europe (Rumelia), trying to straighten out the affairs of state, especially its accounts, even though the conquest of Syria and Egypt brought the Ottoman treasury enough revenue to meet the deficit of these provinces. Indeed, the Mamlūk lands, in addition to being granaries, were now paying an annual tribute to Constantinople. However, Selim was struck with cancer in the spring of 1520 and died that autumn at age fifty-three.

He bequeathed to Süleyman I, later dubbed “the Magnificent,” control of a territory to which Selim had added eastern and southeastern Anatolia, the Arab lands south, and enclaves in northwestern Africa. It was left to his successors, however, to expand Ottoman territory in Europe, since Selim was preoccupied with the east and south. For that reason, he was mindful of maintaining peaceful relations with such powers as Venice and, especially, Hungary during his brief reign. In contrast to Selim’s rise to power amid civil war, Süleyman, his only son, had an uneventful accession because Selim eliminated all potential rivals to the throne.


Selim’s short reign had doubled the size of the Ottoman Empire after he added Ṣafavid and Mamlūk territories. He also captured Tunis and Algiers in North Africa. Selim’s acquisitions helped to fund the impressive expansion of the Ottoman navy during his reign, adequate for an attack on Rhodes Rhodes, Siege of (1522) in 1522, a strategically located, eastern Mediterranean island. The island’s Christian Knights Hospitallers Hospitallers had earlier obstructed the sultan from aiding the Mamlūks in their attempts to prevent the Portuguese from taking lands in the east.

Selim’s capture of the last ՙAbbāsid caliph, and the subsequent transfer (or usurpation) of his title to the Turkish ruler, gave the Ottoman sultan primacy among Islamic monarchs and bolstered his claim as the champion of Muslim orthodoxy against Shīՙite heresy. For all that, renewed religious insurrection in central Anatolia shortly before his death was a reminder that the struggle between Ottomans and Persians, between Sunni Muslim orthodoxy and Shīՙite radicalism, was to continue.

Further Reading

  • Brummett, Palmira J. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. Examines Ottoman diplomatic, economic, and trade matters and discusses Selim’s attention to naval power. Glossary, bibliography, illustrations, index.
  • Goodwin, Godfrey. The Janissaries. London: Saqi Books, 1997. Examines the role of the elite infantry corps recruited mostly among Christian boys in the Balkans. Genealogy, glossary, bibliography, illustrations, index.
  • Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. A topical, lively, and often-anecdotal account of the Ottomans. Map, glossaries, chronology, bibliography, index.
  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002. A topical approach that highlights Selim’s contribution to the apogee of the empire. Maps, glossary, bibliography, index.
  • Kinross, Lord John P. D. B. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977. A chronological narrative of the empire by a renowned British scholar. Maps, select bibliography, illustrations, index.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Early 16th cent.: Fuzuli Writes Poetry in Three Languages

Dec. 2, 1510: Battle of Merv Establishes the Shaybānīd Dynasty

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

1578-1590: The Battle for Tabrīz

1587-1629: Reign of ՙAbbās the Great

1589: Second Janissary Revolt in Constantinople