3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent

Patrick Lynch - July 27, 2017

Suleiman the Magnificent also spelled ‘Suleyman,’ was the Ottoman Sultan from 1520 to 1566. Also known as ‘the Lawgiver,’ he is often revered as one of the greatest Ottoman rulers because the Empire reached the peak of its political and military power when he was Sultan. During his reign, the state ruled over anywhere between 15 and 25 million people. Despite his many achievements, there is a school of thought which suggests he is overrated. Let’s take a look at three areas where he seemingly excelled and three where he is perhaps guilty of underachievement.

Success #1 – He Helped Expand the Empire to its Peak

Suleiman became Sultan in September 1520 when his father, Selim I, died. Although Suleiman was 26 years of age by the time he took the throne, he was the first Ottoman Sultan to rule without having any prior military experience. During Selim’s campaigns in the east, he left Suleiman behind to govern Istanbul. Also, his Viziers were all experienced men so if he showed any weakness his position would have been under threat.

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent
Suleiman and Louis of Hungary. Alchetron

He responded by launching a series of initially successful campaigns. Suleiman set his sights on the capture of Belgrade, something his grandfather, Mehmed II, failed to achieve. By capturing the city from the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottomans could remove the threat of the Hungarians and Croats. They were the main obstacle in the path of further Ottoman expansion in Europe because the Bulgarians, Byzantines, Serbs, Albanians, and Bosniaks had already been defeated.

Suleiman surrounded Belgrade and captured the city in August 1521. The next step was to conquer the Eastern Mediterranean island of Rhodes. In 1522, he set sail with around 100,000 men and captured the islands after a five-month siege. One of his greatest victories came at the Battle of Mohacs on August 29, 1526. Suleiman’s army defeated the Hungarians who were led by King Louis II. The Ottoman army of up to 70,000 lost just 1,500 men compared to up to 20,000 on the Hungarian side.

After taking Buda in 1529, he was unsuccessful in his conquest of Vienna in the same year and was forced to raise his siege. Further campaigns in Hungary between 1541 and 1543 led to the partition of Hungary between the Ottomans, the Principality of Transylvania and the Habsburg Monarchy. Further conquests during his reign included Timisoara in 1532, Aden in 1548 and Transylvania in 1562. The Ottomans enjoyed some success at sea with wins at Nice in 1543 and Menorca in 1548 under the command of Admiral Barbarossa.

He was in the midst of a campaign against Austria when he died outside Szigetvar in Hungary on September 6, 1566. During his reign, Ottoman territory doubled, and the Empire was in exceptional shape. It was thriving in an economic sense, and its army was feared throughout Europe. However, a closer look at Suleiman’s military career reveals more than a few failures and flaws.

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent
Ottoman Empire. Bluejayblog

Failure #1 – He Failed in Several Key Battles & Several of His Wins Were Only Moderately Impressive

Even Suleiman’s victories come with caveats. For example, the capture of Belgrade was certainly an important win, but he faced little in the way of opposition. As his forces bombarded the city with heavy artillery, the 700-man garrison inside received no assistance from Hungary. Even a mediocre commander would have eventually taken Belgrade under those circumstances. In contrast, Mehmed II faced over 4,000 well-trained troops and 60,000 peasants under the leadership of John Hunyadi when he tried to take Belgrade in July 1456.

He outnumbered the Hungarians at Mohacs by at least 2:1 and King Louis II was a very weak leader. The Siege of Vienna in 1529 was a complete failure. The Ottomans outnumbered the defenders of the city by at least 5:1 but sustained heavy casualties and ran out of supplies. His inability to create a reliable supply line is unquestionably a black mark against his leadership. This failure significantly slowed down Ottoman conquest in central Europe. Another major defeat occurred against the Knights of St. John in Fort Elmo, Malta. 9,000 men held off over 40,000 Ottomans in 1533.

Perhaps the biggest failure of his reign was the 23-year Ottoman-Safavid war which ended with the Peace of Amasya in 1555. Although the Ottomans made several gains during the lengthy conflict, Suleiman launched three different campaigns and met with frustration every single time. He was unable to deal with the enemy’s scorched earth policy, and in many cases, an inability to gather intelligence meant the Ottomans couldn’t even find the Safavids at times.

There were other failures too. The second attempt on Vienna was abandoned in 1532, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire defeated the Ottomans at Tunis in 1535, and the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 was also unsuccessful. Of course, most military commanders lost battles, but given the resources at his disposal, one could argue that Suleiman should have been more successful. Certainly, his opponents suggest that his greatest successes came against weak, outnumbered and overmatched enemies.

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent
The Suleiman Mosque (Suleymaniye Camii). Egypt Tours Plus

Success #2 – Suleiman the Lawgiver

Suleiman was known as the ‘Lawgiver’ in his realm because he issued a series of non-Islamic laws to help harmonize social life within the Ottoman Empire. His proponents suggest he was different from his predecessors because he was a man of the pen as well as of the sword. Suleiman was certainly extremely adept when it came to surrounding himself with the right people.

One of his first actions as Sultan was to free 1,500 Iranian and Egyptian POWs captured by his father. He even compensated merchants for the goods, Selim, I had confiscated. Shari’ah Law was elevated to a much higher level during his reign than in previous years. Also known as Sacred Law, Shari’ah was Islam’s divine law, and no Sultan was supposed to make changes. However, there was also canonical law, known as the Kanuns, which the Sultan could bend to his will.

During his reign, Suleiman ensured that Shari’ah law was practiced uniformly across the Empire by legal assistants (muftis) and legal experts (quadis). The courts created a special bond between local people. Suleiman went through the judgment of his nine predecessors, eliminated duplications, and contradictory statements and created a single uniform legal code which remained within the laws of Islam. Also known as the Ottoman Laws, this code lasted for over three centuries.

Suleiman was keen to reduce the levels of corruption within the Empire, and he even passed laws that made it illegal to be discriminatory against the Empire’s Christian subjects. He was especially concerned with the ‘rayas.’ These were Christians who worked on the land of the Siphais, landowners who served in the army’s cavalry corps. His Code of the Rayas (Kanune Raya) helped increase the status of rayas above that of serfdom. The reform worked to the extent that Christian serfs migrated to Turkish territories to enjoy the benefits.

The Sultan also helped to protect his Jewish subjects by denouncing blood libels against them in 1553 or 1554. Suleiman also oversaw the implementation of new criminal and police legislation. He introduced a set of specific fines for different offenses and reduced the number of crimes that carried mutilation or death as punishment. The Sultan levied taxes on different types of goods and produce, and any officials found guilty of dubious activities had their land and possessions confiscated.

Although he wasn’t as intelligent as Mehmed II, Suleiman knew the importance of education. Muslim boys received mainly free education, and in the Empire’s capital, the Sultan increased the number of primary schools to 14. There were eight colleges and a couple of higher places of learning which offered education at the university level.

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent
Selim II. Wikipedia

Failure #2- He Left a Dubious Legacy

The Sultan had two official wives and an enormous number of concubines. Mahidevran Sultan, his first wife, bore him a son named Mustafa. By all accounts, he was a bright and capable man who could have become an excellent leader. However, Suleiman fell in love with a concubine named Hurrem Sultan (better known as Roxelana) who bore him seven sons. By the rules of the harem, if Mustafa became Sultan, all seven illegitimate sons had to be executed.

Mustafa was supported by the Grand Vizier, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. Hurrem allegedly began a rumor that Mustafa was intent on taking the throne by force. In 1552, Suleiman had Pasha murdered, and in 1553, the Sultan summoned his oldest son and had him strangled in an army camp tent. The two remaining brothers, Bayezid and Selim, received command of different parts of the empire.

Within a few years, civil war broke out between them and Suleiman ultimately threw his weight of support behind Selim. Bayezid was defeated in 1559 and sought refuge with the Safavids. In 1561, the Safavid Shah allowed the Turks to murder Bayezid and his four sons in exchange for gold. The surviving son was now the sole successor to Suleiman and became Selim II upon his father’s death in 1566.

The Ottoman Empire was one of the strongest in the world when Suleiman died, and although most scholars don’t believe his death marked the decline of the Empire, it certainly became no stronger. It is important to note that there were problems towards the end of his reign. His later years were marked by economic stagnation; low agricultural production and mass dispossession as an increasing number of peasants were unable to pay their taxes. Traders in Anatolia started getting robbed by brigands, but Suleiman was probably too busy embarking on further military campaigns to do anything about it.

Selim II is sometimes known as ‘Selim the Sot‘ but he wasn’t quite the incompetent Sultan one would expect given his nickname. He was renowned for his generosity, and while the Ottoman fleet was destroyed by a storm during his reign, it was restored, and the Empire regained control of the eastern Mediterranean by 1573. Selim died in 1574 after slipping on a wet floor while drunk; he died from a fever brought on by the accident. He was succeeded by Murat III who stamped his authority by having his five younger brothers murdered.

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent
Hurrem Sultan. Ancient Origins

Success #3 – Architectural & Cultural Achievements

Suleiman was very much a patron of the arts, and he was a keen poet. He apparently wrote his poetry under the name ‘Muhabbi’ (which means beloved and affectionate friend). The themes included the loneliness of being Sultan, his love of beautiful things and his affection for Roxelana. The Sultan wrote in Turkish and Persian, and when his youngest son Mehmet died in 1543, Suleiman penned a moving chronogram in tribute.

Several anthropology experts state that the reign of Suleiman was a cultural Golden Age because there were improvements in every field of the Arts; notable improvement came in the areas of calligraphy, textiles, ceramics, and manuscript painting. The Sultan ensured that hundreds of artistic societies came to Topkapi Palace in the Empire’s capital and they were known as the Community of the Craftsmen. As early as 1526, there were 40 societies with over 600 members, and this number only grew throughout his reign. The Community of the Craftsmen’s reputation was known throughout the Islamic world and the conquered territories of Europe.

Suleiman was actually trained as a goldsmith, so he personally oversaw the work of the men working in Topkapi. He commissioned the creation of major mosques in Edirne, and the Great Mosque in Mecca. His goal was to transform the Empire’s capital into the center of Islamic civilization by commissioning a host of projects including the creation of bridges, palaces, a variety of cultural establishments and the aforementioned mosques.

His chief architect, Mimar Sinan, was responsible for up to 300 buildings created during Suleiman’s reign. The Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques are his masterpieces. Suleiman also requested the restoration of the Jerusalem City walls and the city’s Dome of the Rock. Other notable architectural achievements include the construction of a complex in Damascus and the renovation of the Kaaba in Mecca.

3 Successes and 3 Failures of the Reign of Suleiman the Magnificent
Selim I. Daily Sabah

Failure #3 – Did He Benefit From the Work of Others?

The Great Man Theory was first espoused in the 19th century. In a nutshell, it suggests that history is mainly explained by the actions of ‘great men’ who had an immense historical impact. As such, Suleiman could be said to benefit from the notion that he is a ‘Great Man’ that singlehandedly forged a great Empire. In reality, he could not have achieved a fraction of what he did without the assistance of able advisors and commanders.

Many of the great military, cultural and architectural achievements were a product of men such as Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, Mimar Sinan, and the Grand Mufti Edussuud Efendi. Furthermore, he benefitted from the reign of his father, Selim I, who oversaw an enormous expansion of the empire. Selim, I managed to conquer the entire Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt in around a year and by the time he died, he had expanded the Empire by around 70% in just eight years.

By the time Suleiman came to power, he was the beneficiary of a growing and flourishing Empire with a fearsome army along with an extremely healthy treasury. Of course, Suleiman deserves credit for continuing on his father’s path, at least for the first 8-9 years of his reign. However, it is doubtful that he possessed his father’s outstanding military abilities. Opponents of the notion that Suleiman was ‘magnificent’ will point to his multiple failures and suggest he should have achieved more with the army at his disposal.

While this is perhaps true, he did expand the Empire further, and while he suffered notable setbacks at Vienna and Malta, he did win some important victories that changed the course of history in Europe. Up to 15,000 men died in a single battle in Rhodes during an attack on the Castle of the Order of St. John in 1521. Suleiman showed compassion by allowing the Knights of St. John to go free; a move that haunted him 12 years later.

Overall, Suleiman is certainly a ruler that divides opinion. On the one hand, proponents suggest he has more than earned his ‘Magnificent’ moniker. On the other hand, opponents of Suleiman as a ‘great leader’ suggest he was an adequate ruler and ordinary general who benefitted from inheriting a strong Empire and a talented army.


Sources For Further Reading:

OZY – How A Slave Girl Became An Ottoman Queen

Daily Sabah – The Last Days Of Suleiman The Magnificent

Daily Mail – History’s Bloodiest Siege Used Human Heads As Cannonballs

Hurriyet Daily News – The Role Of The Seyhulislam Among The Ottomans

TRT World – How The Ottoman Architect Sinan Helped Hagia Sophia Survive For Centuries

Quora – Why Didn’t Sultan Suleiman Kill Or Imprison The Knights Of The Order Of St. John After The Siege Of Rhodes?

National Geographic Channel – Why The Ottoman Empire Rose And Fell

Smithsonian Magazine – The Ottoman Empire’s Life-or-Death Race

History Collection – The Surprising Daily Life in a Sultan’s Harem Revealed