Reign of Süleyman

Sultan Süleyman’s rule marked the zenith of the Ottoman Empire as a major world power because of its territorial and population expansion on subjugated lands, a sophisticated military and other institutional organization, trade and economic growth, and impressive cultural and artistic activity.

Summary of Event

Süleyman the Magnificent was the son and successor of Selim I “the Grim” and the tenth in his ruling dynasty Ottoman Empire;Süleyman the Magnificent’s reign . He ascended the throne on September 30, 1520, at age twenty-five after attending the palace schools and serving six years as provincial governor. After crushing the Mamlūks of Egypt in 1521 (and again in 1524), Süleyman continued his father’s conquests in the Balkans and the Mediterranean, taking Belgrade, Rhodes, much of Hungary, and Crimea. The sultan pressed on with his wars against the Persians, taking Tabrīz (in northwestern Iran) as well as Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra (in modern Iraq), Armenia, Azerbaijan, much of North Africa, and an undefined extent of hinterland inhabited by Arabs. Süleyman’s forces captured numerous Aegean islands as well. Süleyman the Magnificent
Charles V (1500-1558)
Francis I (1494-1547)
Zápolya, John
Selim I
John I (king of Hungary, r. 1526-1540)
John Sigismund (king of Hungary, r. 1540-1571)
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor);Ottoman Empire
Ferdinand I (Holy Roman Emperor)
Selim II
Francis I (king of France);relations with Ottoman Empire[Ottoman]
Süleyman the Magnificent

His successes in Hungary and Austria were incomplete, however. For example, in 1529, Süleyman failed to take Vienna, and he embarked on another abortive campaign in Austria in 1532, also unsuccessful because of constraints of time and distance, weather, lack of supplies, the weariness of his troops, and the resistance of the Christian forces. Too, he failed to capture Corfu in 1537 or Malta in 1565. He died during a punitive expedition in Hungary on September 6, 1566. For although the death of John Zápolya (John I) in 1540 and his succession by his son, John Sigismund (John, r. 1540-1571), had provided Süleyman with pretexts for annexing what is now Hungary (except Transylvania), there were constant challenges to Ottoman power in that land. Indeed, while Süleyman had personally commanded thirteen campaigns in his reign, seven of them were in Hungary. Title to that country was sought not only by the native Hungarians themselves but also by Austria’s Charles V, the sultan’s perennial enemy, and later, following Charles’s abdication in 1556, by his younger brother, Ferdinand I.

Süleyman had two of his sons—Mustafa and Bayezid (not to be confused with Bayezid II, the Ottoman sultan who reigned from 1481 to 1512)—eliminated. Thus, his other son, Selim—whose mother was also Roxelana, “the Russian woman” (Hürrem Sultana), the daughter of a Christian Orthodox priest, at first Süleyman’s concubine and then his favorite wife (1541-1558)—became Selim II “the Sot” (also known as “the Drunk” or “the Sallow”) at Süleyman’s death. The empire in general and the sultanate in particular would begin a significant decline under Selim’s rule.

Besides being famous for expanding the empire, east and west, by both land and sea (with a fleet of more than a hundred well-armed galleys), Süleyman improved the machinery of government necessary to rule such a vast multiethnic empire. Among others, he added a fifth “millet” (community, nation) to the original four: the Catholic “millet.” It followed the conclusion of Süleyman’s capitulations agreement with his ally, France’s King Francis I. These “chapters” consisted of trading concessions embodying reciprocal extraterritorial privileges for French and Ottoman merchants. These, then, enjoyed tax and customs concessions and could use their own courts, applying the laws of their own lands, administered by the latter’s appointed representatives. Initially, in Süleyman’s time, the capitulations evidenced Ottoman power, but eventually they proved to be a wedge for Western penetration and exploitation, marginalizing Ottomans from the commercial life of their own empire.

Süleyman’s transfer of the harem, the exclusive women’s quarters, to the palace compound hastened the eventual decline of the empire. The concubines and wives in the harem—a few hundred of them in Süleyman’s time—came to engage in political maneuvering and intrigues in such state matters as appointments to high office and succession to the throne. Süleyman himself was not above allowing favoritism to trump merit. He also began failing to attend meetings of the Divan, the council of ministers, relegating the job of presiding over it to his grand vizier, the chief minister.

Accordingly, while under Süleyman, the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith as a conquering state in terms of power, wealth, and cultural brilliance, several conditions were already portending its decline and were accelerated under Süleyman’s mostly unexceptional and often vice-afflicted successors. Additionally, the restriction of high office to formerly Christian slaves with supposedly unblemished loyalty to the sultan, along with the increasing role of the harem and Janissaries in political life, had begun to spell doom for the Ottomans.

Nevertheless, Süleyman is remembered not only for his military exploits and conquests but also for his interest in justice and legal reform, which resulted in the codification of the common law as the Qanunname, earning him the sobriquet “the Lawgiver” (Qanuni). Law;Ottoman Empire Indeed, Süleyman felt compelled to abrogate or amplify much of the legislation of his illustrious great-grandfather, Mehmed II (the Conqueror). Süleyman was also a patron of the arts, of literature (a poet in his own right), and of architecture, responsible for the embelishment of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Adrianople (Edirne) with mosques, palaces, and public facilities.


The accepted wisdom is that Süleyman’s military successes and public policy acts far outweighed his political failures and human foibles. During his forty-six-year reign, Süleyman raised the Ottoman Empire to the level of a world state that stretched from the border of Austria to the Persian Gulf, from the Black Sea to North Africa. He focused the sultanate-caliphate as the center of the Islamic empire and synthesized his multiethnic empire over three continents into a nearly organic unit by skillful use of the government, military, judicial, religious, and administrative institutions (notably the “millets”). The orchestration of these institutions and fear of his absolute power ensured domestic tranquillity.

Despite instances of gratuitous brutality—such as having his own grand vizier Ibrāhīm Paṣa executed in 1536, his eldest son Mustafa murdered at his orders in 1553, and his son Bayezid executed in 1561—Süleyman was known for his rectitude and morality and for his use of such able chief ministers as Ibrāhīm, Rustem, and Mehmed Sokollu. Süleyman encouraged poets such as Baki and architects such as Sinan (1489-1588; born Christodoulos, of Greek origin). Accordingly, Süleyman the Magnificent—also known as “the Lawgiver,” “the Sublime Porte,” and “the Grand Turk”—is remembered as one who tempered severity with justice and warlike endeavors with a love of culture.

Further Reading

  • Bridge, Antony. Suleiman the Magnificent, Scourge of Heaven. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. Highlights Süleyman’s military history. Good chronology, select bibliography, and index.
  • Clot, André. Suleiman the Magnificent. Translated by Matthew J. Reisz. 1989. Reprint. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1992. Divided between “The Sultan of Sultans” and “The Empire of Empires,” this masterly work includes sixteen appendixes, a genealogy, a glossary, a chronology, a bibliography, maps, and an index.
  • Kunt, Metin, and Christine Woodhead, eds. Süleyman the Magnificent and His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World. New York: Longman, 1995. Several British and Turkish scholars examine the problems and policies in the sultan’s multiethnic empire as well as Ottoman statecraft. Glossaries, bibliographical guide, maps, and index.
  • Lamb, Harold. Suleiman the Magnificent: Sultan of the East. 1951. Reprint. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Together with the works of Lybyer and Merriman, one of the classic but revisionist biographies of Süleyman, who is seen as a great man justifying his many wars as a means of survival and progress. Bibliographical references.
  • Lybyer, Albert H. The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1913. An American political scientist describes in great detail the political and military organizations of Süleyman’s empire.
  • Merriman, Roger B. Suleiman the Magnificent, 1520-1566. 1944. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. The first authoritative work by an American scholar of the life and times of the great sultan. Bibliographical notes, illustrations, and index.

Apr. 14, 1457-July 2, 1504: Reign of Stephen the Great

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

16th cent.: Proliferation of Firearms

Beginning 1504: Decline of the Ḥafṣid Dynasty

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

1525-1600: Ottoman-Ruled Egypt Sends Expeditions South and East

1526-1547: Hungarian Civil Wars

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

1529-1574: North Africa Recognizes Ottoman Suzerainty

Sept. 27-Oct. 16, 1529: Siege of Vienna

1534-1535: Ottomans Claim Sovereignty over Mesopotamia

1536: Turkish Capitulations Begin

Sept. 27-28, 1538: Battle of Préveza

1559-1561: Süleyman’s Sons Wage Civil War

May 18-Sept. 8, 1565: Siege of Malta

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

1574-1595: Reign of Murad III