The Era Of Suleiman The Magnificent: The Golden Age Of The Ottoman Empire (Part I) – OpEd


The Ottoman Empire is one of the most famous and well-known empires in European and world history. From the 14th to the beginning of the 20th century, it decisively influenced the historical trends in Europe, Asia and Africa. It was precisely the geographical position on the border of three continents of the Old World that made the largest Muslim empire in history so important and significant. When the Turkmen tribal leader Osman I founded it in the small town of Sogut in Anatolia at the end of the 13th century, few could have predicted that the Ottoman Emirate would become a world superpower. The rise of the Ottomans was gradual, long and arduous. In 1354, the Ottomans entered Europe and, by conquering parts of the Balkans, transformed their country into a transcontinental empire. It was Ottoman troops led by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror who captured Constantinople in 1453 and ended the existence of the famous Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.

Although there were great rulers both before and after, under the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (also known as the Lawgiver and the Strong) the Ottoman Empire experienced its golden age. The era of Suleiman the Magnificent between 1520 and 1566 is considered the peak of power and prosperity of the empire on the Bosphorus. During Suleiman’s reign, the Ottoman state became the number one world power that included most of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Europe within its borders. The Ottoman fleet dominated from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. In addition to the empire with 25 million inhabitants, Suleiman organized the empire on the educational, social and legal levels along with the development of Ottoman culture, art and architecture.

Suleiman’s youth and the first years of his reign

Suleiman I was born in Trabzon on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, probably on November 6, 1494. As a boy, he loved history, literature, biology, theology, and military science. His father was Sultan Selim I. When he ascended the throne in 1520, he was only 26 years old. As a prince, he was already prepared for the difficult duty of the sultan. Like his ancestors, as a young man he became the governor of the sandjak, and during the reign of his grandfather Bayezit II. he received Sanjak Kaffa (on the southern coast of Crimea). When his father Selim I succeeded to the throne, Suleiman received the governorship of Magnesia (now Manis in western Turkey), which he kept until his father’s death. Contrary to his brutal and explosive father, Suleiman was generous, considerate and mostly just, which certainly did not prevent him from using reckless force to implement state interests that he considered important as sultan and caliph of Sunni Muslims.

Young Suleiman took power with much less difficulty than his predecessors because he had no brothers. But the beginning was challenging. Namely, there was a danger that Syria, which had only recently been included in the empire, would rebel again. The Beglerbeg of that vilayet, Džamberdi Ghazali (a Slavonian), originally an influential Mamluk emir, who recognized Selim I as the ruler in due time and was entrusted with the position of regent, upon the news of Selim’s death, declared himself the sovereign ruler and intended to re-establish the former Mamluk state. Jamberdi gathered Arab and Druze tribes around him. But the Ottoman troops led by Ferhad Pasha (born in Šibenik) suppressed the uprising in the Battle of Aleppo. Djamberdi paid for his disobedience with his life – his head was cut off and sent to the sultan in Constantinople. Suleiman did not personally participate in the “pacification” of Syria because he was preparing for war in Europe.

In the foreign policy goals of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 16th century, three directions stood out. The first direction was the northwest, directed against the then weakened Hungary and later against the Habsburgs in Austria. The second direction was the Mediterranean with the unresolved problem of the island of Rhodes and the Knights Hospitaller, and the Republic of Venice as the dominant maritime and trading power. The third direction turned to the east, where the conflict with the Safavids in Persia loomed again. In achieving these goals, care was taken not to wage wars on two fronts so that the empire would not be exhausted.

The first circumstance that favored the Ottoman penetration was the conflict between European countries. The Protestant Reformation in Europe contributed to Ottoman expansion as Habsburg (Catholic) troops waged war against the Protestants. The Protestants and the Ottomans did not cooperate, although some Protestants claimed that the Ottoman invasion was a “gift of God”, and the sultan invited them to fight against the Habsburgs. The reason: Catholics cultivated the cult of saints and idolatry, which is against the teachings of Islam. Islam is closer to Protestantism. Nevertheless, German Protestants formally supported the struggle of the Habsburgs against the Ottomans. Another circumstance that enabled the Ottoman penetration into the heart of Europe was the fact that the Ottoman appetites regarding Asia were satisfied: the considerable wealth of the newly conquered countries, Syria and Egypt, enabled new war campaigns towards the west.

The first conquests 

The first campaign was undertaken in 1521 against the Hungarian fortress of Belgrade, which closed the way further towards Hungary. The peasants in Serbia were impoverished due to the feudal anarchy of the barons, so they felt no obligation to defend their land. After the conquest of Belgrade in the same year, the penetration was not continued because the Ottomans did not want to fight on several battlefields at the same time. The next year, it was the island of Rhodes. Selim I wanted to occupy it before, but he died during the preparations. That island, which was built by its masters, the Knights Hospitaller, as an outpost bastion of Christian Europe, was a thorn in the side of the Turks. In addition, Rhodes was able to block the sea connection between the capital of Constantinople and the newly acquired Egypt. After a heavy siege, the people of Rhodes had no choice but to hand over the island to the Ottoman armed forces, with a guaranteed free retreat to Crete and then be permanently settled in Malta. This ensured Ottoman hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean.

After this success, the weapons were idle for four full years, at least outwardly, because during that time the Ottoman troops were engaged in suppressing internal rebellions. In 1524, Egypt, which, like Syria, was not yet fully integrated, was threatened with apostasy. Not only the Mamluks were involved in the separatist attempt, but also Hain Ahmet Pasha, the sultan’s former second vizier. Two years after he came to power, Suleiman retired Piri Mehmet Pasha, his father’s grand vizier, and entrusted his place, as the duty of grand vizier, to Ibrahim, his close friend from his youth. Hain Ahmet Pasha, who also counted on this function, was transferred to Egypt as beglerbeg. After he arrived in Cairo deeply hurt, he secured the support of a part of the Mamluks and declared himself the sovereign sultan of Egypt. However, the Ottoman army under the command of the new Grand Vizier Ibrahim managed to dominate Egypt in 1524.

New Ottoman offensives in Europe

After the pacification of Egypt, it was possible to think again about new offensives in Europe. After the Battle of Mohács in August 1526, Hungary disappeared from the political map as an independent state. Then the Hungarian territory was divided into two parts. In the future, the western part will belong to the brother of Emperor Charles V, King Ferdinand of Habsburg, and the eastern part to the Hungarian magnate Ivan Zapolja, also elected Hungarian king who recognized Ottoman suzerainty. This secured the Hungarian lowland as an area to be used for campaigns against the Habsburgs. In 1529, the Ottomans launched a major campaign against Vienna. All his life Suleiman the Magnificent dreamed of conquering the city that would be the “Golden Apple” for him in the future. It was to the advantage of the Ottomans that Charles V had already been at war with France for years and could not help his brother Ferdinand in any way. During the campaign, Buda, then the capital of Hungary, was conquered and handed over to the vassal Zapolja, who ascended the traditional Hungarian throne there. But the siege of Vienna in September and October 1529, due to the successful resistance of the Habsburgs, did not succeed. A diplomatic solution was reached. The negotiations failed, but the Habsburgs realized that they were not facing a bunch of barbarians, but a serious force.

Under Grand Vizier Ibrahim (an Albanian by origin who arrived at the court through blood tribute), Ottoman diplomacy was well versed in international relations. It was then that the form of manifestation of Ottoman power was formed. When receiving foreign diplomats, the sultan would show all the splendor of the court. The sultan’s penchant for luxury did not play a role in this, but the desire to show the power of his country to foreigners. The splendor of the Ottoman court should be attributed to the fact that Suleiman entered historiography as “the Magnificent”. After the collapse of negotiations between Vienna and Constantinople, the war revived again in 1532. He brought minor successes to the Ottomans. Soon after, another truce was concluded with Vienna, whereby the Habsburgs had to commit to paying an annual tribute as a pledge of peace.

Events on other battlefields

The truce became very necessary for the Ottomans as other battlefields became active. In the Mediterranean area, Charles V, disturbed by the expulsion of the the Knights Hospitaller from the island of Rhodes, meanwhile hired the heroic sailor Andrea Doria with a large naval detachment. Doria succeeded in conquering the Peloponnese in 1532. In order to provide him with effective resistance, Porta will hire the pirate leader Hajreddin Barbarossa in the future. Thus, he went from being a robber who made the Western Mediterranean unsafe for the Europeans, to becoming the Beglerbeg of Algeria and the admiral of the Ottoman fleet based in Tsarski Divan. The military and financial support of the Porte enabled the newly minted admiral to turn his fleet into a powerful navy.

In a short time, Barbarossa reorganized the shipyards in Constantinople and rebuilt the navy with which the Ottomans would dominate the Mediterranean. In addition to the devastation of the Italian coasts, the “Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Fleet” captured Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, that is, he consolidated Ottoman possession over them, and won a naval victory against the united navies of Venice, Spain, Genoa and the Pope at Preveza in 1538. The anti-Ottoman coalition forces under under the command of the famous admiral Andrea Doria, they were more numerous and stronger, but Barbarossa was victorious. The Mediterranean became an area of complete Ottoman domination: from the Black Sea all the way to the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

And the conditions on the eastern border of the empire began to get complicated. After 1526, various revolts of Shiite “heretics” flared up again in Anatolia. The unorthodox opinion spread all the way to the capital of Constantinople. In 1527, a member of the ulama Kabiz Molla publicly declared in the capital that Jesus was the authoritative prophet instead of Muhammad. His statements made such a strong impression on the population of Constantinople that riots broke out and political unrest began to be felt. Since this happened at a time when the Shiite rebellions in Anatolia became dangerous, the Ottoman leadership saw Molla’s statements as a threat and he was executed.

But that did not end the unrest in Asia Minor. When the province of Bitlis (east of Lake Vana) joined the Safavids in Persia in 1532, the Ottoman hegemony in that area was threatened. This was the reason for the Ottoman campaign against the Safavids in 1534 under the command of the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha. Ibrahim managed to capture the Safavid capital of Tabriz. The Persian Shah Tahmasp I did not engage in an open battle with a superior opponent. The second Ottoman army, under the command of the Sultan himself, took Iraq and Baghdad from the Safavids at the same time.

*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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