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D - 39: Important People in the Mediterranean - Suleiman the Magnificent

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

This will be my last blog about important people of the Mediterranean – I know there are many more but it is time to return to other subjects. There are less than 40 days left until we start sailing and the chances that we go look better by the day. Now that I know that Tunisia will open its ports on 27 June I believe it is a done deal. Let’s cross fingers!

We can, however, not finish this excursion into biographies without talking about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Here in the West, we regard Suleiman primarily as warrior and conqueror. Given his impressive record of military victories he was magnificent indeed. The perception in Turkey is different thought. He is not called the Magnificent but Suleiman the Lawgiver. The difference in title gives us a better understanding of his achievements. Suleiman stabilized the Ottoman Empire, which was able to remain powerful well beyond the Napoleonic wars – give or take 350 years. To put this into context: the USA is less than 250 years old.

Portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent around 1530

Suleiman was a true contemporary to Charles V. Born in 1494, six years earlier, he outlived him by eight years and passed away in 1566 during his last campaign in the Balkan. As a boy, he got well prepared for his future job studying history, science, literature and theology. He also received thorough military training and was well versed in military tactics and strategy. Suleiman assumed the thrown in 1520, a year later than Charles V. Upon succession a new sultan was meant to kill all his brothers and other male relatives to prevent any dynastical challenges. But I have not read anything about this.

The Ottoman Empire at its peak in 1683

The young Sultan inherited an expanding Empire from Selim I, his father. Under Selim, the Ottomans had defeated the Mamluks and conquered Syria, Palestine and Egypt in 1517. It was a monumental change in the Empire’s history. From now on the Ottomans dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, had access to the grain of Egypt (wheat was still the main source of energy!) and controlled both the northern land and the southern sea leg of the Silk Road. Whether a merchant travelled via Black Sea, Persian Gulf or the Red Sea, he always met an Ottoman tax official. The custom revenue from the entire East – West trade filled the coffers of the Sultan in Istanbul. What a tremendous source of wealth! No wonder the Ottoman Empire could rebuild the 200 galleys lost in Lepanto in one single year. According to my calculations the effort came at a price of 55’000 Gold Ducats per galley or 11 million Ducats for the new fleet. This was more than the entire value of Venice as we have seen in an earlier blog.

Suleiman also inherited an alliance from his father, which would prove valuable. The corsairs from Algiers – most of them exiled Mores and Jews from Spain - had aligned themselves with Selim I, seeking his support and protection for their low scale war against Spain, which was establishing fortified bridgeheads on the North African coast.

To put his Empire on solid footing and make its further expansion possible, Suleiman had to do the following:

A) Give the Empire predictable laws, an efficient administration and a unifying culture

B) Acquire more fertile lands – the mountains of Anatolia and the Balkans were not the most fertile agricultural regions

C) Remove the Christian pirates (the Knights of St John) from Rhodes who interrupted his operations and trading in the Eastern Mediterranean

D) Kick the Portuguese out of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea where they blocked the flow of commercial goods from Asia; if possible remove the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean

E) Maintain a viable relationship with the Venetians who were the customers for the goods from Asia. There was no tax revenue unless someone wanted to buy

Following these goals, Suleiman acted like a traditional ruler. Protect tax revenue, get supplies (energy) for your armies, weaken your opponents to the point that they won’t challenge you

Suleiman started with priority B) and opened the gate to Hungary's fertile plains by taking the citadel of Belgrade in 1521 only a year after his ascent to the Ottoman thrown.

Siege of the Citadel of Belgrade in 1521 – the gate to fertile Hungarian lowlands was open

A year later, he followed up with priority C. After 5 months of bitter fighting he was able to remove the Knights from Rhodes in 1522. They sailed of to Sicily and then to Malta.

Gun resistant trench built by the Knights in Rhodes filled with Turkish stone cannon balls

Suleiman continued with priority B and pushed into Hungary in 1526 where he beat the Hungarian King Louis II at the Battle of Mohacs. Pushing further north, he reached in 1532 Vienna directly clashed with the House of Habsburg. Suleiman now met a power which had the means to match his own. Being already late in the campaign season, Suleiman aborted the unsuccessful siege after two months and retired back to Istanbul – he simply embarked on the Danube River and sailed down-river. Easy logistics when you control the waterway.

Suleiman was more successful with his opponents on his eastern border, the Safavid Dynasty of Persia. In three successful campaigns over 25 years (1534, 1548 & 1553) he pushed them back into Persia proper, gained Mesopotamia in 1534 (another bread basket for the Empire) and Basra in 1538.

All the while he was busy with reforming the administration and laws of Turkey. What the Byzantine Emperor Justinian did for the codification of the Roman Law in 529 – 534, Suleiman did for the Ottoman society. He collected the edicts of his predecessors, eliminated contradictions and duplications and created the Kanun-I Osmani, a comprehensive set of rules that covered criminal law, land management and tenure, taxation, custom duties and administration. This legal code was to last more than 300 years and was supported by Medreses (university like schools) built around the mosques

Codified Ottoman Law in the Library of Congress

Suleiman’s domestic efforts did not stop there. He built many new public buildings like mosques, baths, libraries and hospitals to give his Empire the infrastructure necessary to do business. Looking at his legacy, this was probably his finest achievement. Whilst it represents soft power, it created an Ottoman Culture, which kept the far-flung Empire with Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Jews together. Charles V. never achieved this.

Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul

Just stroll around the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. It is a beautiful place, which exudes an almost tangible serenity. Ottoman culture had arrived – you will get it.

Suleiman was also fairly successful in this last strategic objective – keeping peace with Venice to protect his tax income from East-West Trading. During his entire reign they were only once at war in the context of one of the Italian conflicts (1537 – 1540), which saw the Holy League (Spain, Genoa, Papal States and Venice) pitched against the French-Ottoman alliance. As we know, the Holy League was beaten at the Sea Battle of Preveza in 1538 where the Venetian lost a large part of their fleet. Venice would henceforth pay tribute to the Ottoman Empire for the privilege of peace – Suleiman had just doubled his income!


Portuguese attack on the Turkish Fleet in the Indian Ocean in 1553

Despite several efforts, Suleiman was not able to dislodge the Portuguese from the Indian Ocean even though he made serious efforts with four campaigns (1538, 1548, 1553 twice). We learnt about one of these campaigns under Admiral Piri Reis, the talented mapmaker. His galleys were no match to the Portuguese caravels with their sturdy gun platforms. An Ottoman galley carried usually 5 guns, a Portuguese vessel 20. Whilst several scholars argue that the building of a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea would have given the Ottoman Fleet the upper hand, technology suggest otherwise. The project of building a canal was actually seriously considered under Grand Vizier Sokollu Pasha (1565 - 1579) but then dropped because of the significant cost. It would have followed the ancient Egyptian-Roman canal 1’500 years earlier. Had once a map of it but cannot find it any more. In the end, the Mediterranean faction at the Ottoman court was more powerful than the officials who preferred the Indian Ocean strategy. But given the alliances the Ottomans were able to build with Muslim states in India and the Indonesian archipelago, the strategy cannot be easily dismissed. Euphrates and Tigris were navigable rivers. Oak trees, guns and other ship building materials could have been shipped down from Syria. Building a modern fleet in Basra on the Persian Gulf was technically possible. But it did not happen

Suleiman the Magnificent or the Lawgiver can look back on many achievements during his long reign. He was able to further expand the Empire whilst stabilizing it at the same time. He permanently redrew the borders in the Western Mediterranean where North Africa remained firmly in Muslim hands and never became a Spanish colony. For the next 350 years the Ottoman Empire remained a power to reckon with. Had he opted for an Indian strategy and built a fleet in Basra, he could well have altered the course of world history. In the end, the Dutch and English still sailed to Asia to acquire the goods the West was so hooked on. But it probably would have required a different society. Venture was always part of the Ottoman culture. So was the adoption of new technology - but capitalism and restrictions on royal power was not.

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