Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 15: The Ottoman Empire at its Peak

Copyright ©2011 by T. Pavlidis

The Reign of Selim I (1512-1520)

Selim was the third surviving son of Bayazid II and as such he was not first in line to succeed his father. (Selim mother was from one of the Turkish principalities in Asia Minor [HL03, p. 153]. After the conquest of the Byzantines states there was no reason for the sultans to seek Greek wives.) This is probably the right place to describe the system of governorships that the sons (and grandsons) of a reigning sultan held. Each prince was made a governor of a province in Anatolia and the provinces closest to the capital were the more desirable. The governors of provinces in the Balkans were members of the old Ottoman allies, the Mihaloglu, Evrenos, and Turahanoglu. Members of these families could pose a serious threat to the dynasty of Osman, therefore placing them as governors of provinces with a majority of Christian population weakened their prospects of a successful rebellion. [HL03, pp. 140-141.]

Bayazid's eldest son Ahmed was the governor of Amasya, near the Black Sea coast, about 400 miles east of the capital. Selim had been made governor of Trabizon, on the farther north-eastern corner of the Ottoman empire on the Black Sea coast that was 650 miles from the capital. It was also poor because of the lack of good agricultural land. Selim complained bitterly about that and for a time he moved to the court of his son Suleyman in the province known as Feodosiya (from its ancient Greek name) or Kefe (in Tatar) on Crimean peninsula. Eventually, he was appointed governor of Saruhan, a province near the Aegean sea, just inland from Smyrna. [CF05, p. 98.] This angered his brother Korkund (second oldest son of Bayazid) who was governor of Teke, the province around the port of Antalya, in the south-western corner of Asia Minor. In 1511 Korkund left his seat to go to the capital and complain but his timing was unfortunate.

A KIzilbash (see Chapter 14) rebellion had been simmering in Teke and when Korkund left, the leader of the Kizilbash, a "holy man" known as Shahkulu proclaimed himself as heir to the Ottoman throne on behalf of Shah Ismail I. This action took place on a date that was significant for the Shias, exactly on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. While the cause of the rebellion was religious it found a lot of support from amongst the poor. Some of them were Anatolian Muslims who had lost their lands to Christian-born Muslims who were rewarded for their prowess in battle. The rebels kept defeating the Ottoman forces and were approaching Bursa. Eventually, the Ottomans were able to defeat the rebels killing Shahkulu. Most of his followers fled to Iran, those that were captured were settled in Peloponese that Bayazid had recently captured from the Venetians.

Ironically, Selim had not bothered to go to Saruhan. Instead he marched from Kefe with an army in order to fight his father. To make a long story short, Selim won the support of the janissaries and his father abdicated and died soon after. For the first (but not last) time the janissaries had become king-makers. Ahmed had raised an army from amongst former kizilbashis but eventually he lost and was strangled on orders from Selim. Strangulation was also the fate of Korkund and the numerous nephews of Selim. In this way potential challengers were eliminated without shedding any royal blood!

The next target for Selim was Shah Ismail I. Because war of a Muslim state against another is forbidden by the Koran, Selim obtained a theological opinion branding the Shiites as unbelievers and heretics. Selim's army of 100,000 men included 12,000 Janissary musketeers as well as 500 canon. Ismail's army consisted of about 80,000 cavalry archers. They would have been a formidable opponent against an traditional army, but the new technology of firearms carried the day and Ismail suffered a crashing defeat. Selim captured Tabriz but he did not hold on his new possession [ibid, pp. 98-107].

The war against Iran was followed by the invasion Syria and Egypt putting an end to the Mamluk sultanate in 1517. Again, the use of firearms were decisive in defeating the traditionally superior Mamluk armies. Needless to say, the ulemas had provided Selim with a theological justification for the war against the Sunni Mamluks: "he who helps a heretic is a heretic", referring to earlier alliances between the Mamluks and Ismail I. Selim also added Algiers to the empire. The fundamental position of the Ottomans was that they were the defenders of Islam against the "infidels" of Europe. Therefore anyone (Muslim or not) who opposed the Ottomans was helping the infidels [HI94, p. 21].

As the map of Figure 1 of Chapter 14 shows the empire more than doubled in area. In addition, Muslims were now a majority in the empire and the impact of Arabian culture on the Ottomans was significant. The Ottoman empire was also now in complete control of the Silk Road, a fact that may have further encouraged European efforts for finding sea routes to India.

Selim's aggressive wars and harsh treatment of opponents earner him the eponym Yavuz that can be translated as Stern or Grim. He certainly frightened the Pope who tried to organize a crusade against the Ottomans. However the antagonism between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1556) and the French king Francis I (1515-1547) did not let the plans for the crusade go far. [CF05, pp. 108-112.]

The Wikipedia article on Selim claims that he took officially the title of the Caliph but that is disputed. Since Murad II Ottoman sultans had used the title in a rhetorical sense but with no legal claim to it. The last caliph, al-Mutawakkil, was sent by Selim to Istanbul where he stayed until his death. Stories that Selim had become officially the caliph first appeared in the 18th century (more than 250 years later) as a bargaining tool against the Russians. The Russian czar claimed the right to be protector of the Christians living in the Ottoman empire and if the sultan was the caliph, then he could claim the right to be the protector of the Muslims living in the Russian empire [ibid, p. 111, HI94, p. 20].

Suleyman I the Magnificent (1520-1566)

Political and Military Life

Suleyman I became sultan upon the death of his father Selim I and reigned for 46 years, longer than any other sultan. Because he was an only son, he did not have to deal with rebellious brothers as his father had. Suleyman continued the expansionist policies of his father and in 1521 he captured Belgrade (now the capital of Serbia but then part of Hungary). In December of 1522 he captured Rhodes from the Knights of St John (Ordre des Hospitaliers). One motivation for the attack on Rhodes was that the Knights of St John supported pirates who capture Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca who then were held as slaves on the island. The Knights were allowed to depart and Charles V gave them a new base, the Island of Malta. More than 30 years later (in 1565) Suleyman attacked but failed to capture Malta.

After solidifying Ottoman rule in Syria and Egypt, Suleyman attacked Hungary in 1526 capturing the capital Buda in September of that year. Hungary remained part of the Ottoman empire for over 100 years. In 1529 the Ottomans set siege to Vienna but they gave up after only three weeks. This was the first Ottoman siege of Vienna but the Ottoman failure to capture the city did not have the long term repercussions of their failure in the second siege 150 years later [CF05, pp. 124-125].

In the east Suleyman added Libya and what is today Iraq. Baghdad was occupied in 1534 and the port of Basra was captured in 1546 giving the Ottomans direct access to the Persian Gulf to the great discomfort of the Portuguese [HI94, pp. 336-337]. The Iraqi territories had been part of Iran and its conquest brought Shia Muslims in the Ottoman empire. We have already mentioned the precarious status of the Shia millet, something that has modern repercussions.

The Ottoman possessions in North Africa came under attack from the Spanish and the Ottomans had to rely on local corsairs to defend them. It was Suleyman who made the corsair Hayreddin (known in the West as Barbarosa) grand admiral [CF05, p. 125]. Ottoman also fought the Portuguese in the Red Sea and the Indian ocean for control of the spice trade.

Suleyman welcomed the Marranos, Jews who had converted to Christianity but came under persecution by the Inquisition. The Ottomans even took steps to offer their protection to Marranos living in the Italian peninsula when in 1555 Pope Paul IV began to arrest and burn them and confiscate their possessions [HI94, pp. 212, 242-243].

Before he became sultan, Suleyman had befriended a Greek slave (originally from Parga, on the Ionian coast) and when he took the throne he appointed the slave, now called Ibrahim Pasha, as grand vizier [CF05 p. 120]. Ibrahim married the sultan's sister Hadice in 1524 and he went on to serve as governor of Egypt where he organized expeditions to the Indian ocean. However Ibrahim fell out of favor in 1536 and was executed. In 1552 the Ottoman admiral Piti Reis (who used to have a patron in Ibrahim Pasha) led a military campaign against the Persians but he did not achieve all his goals and he was executed upon return [ibid p. 136]. The summary executions of high officials is a sample of the authoritarian rule of the sultan.

Internally Suleyman pushed for the codification of Ottoman law and he is known as the Lawgiver. Suleyman's legal code lasted until the 19th century. The fact that Suleyman is the Arabic version of Solomon did not go unnoticed. Suleyman wanted to be known as a just ruler, but he had to face several rebellions of his subjects. The most serious was a rebellion in Anatolia in 1526-27 led by mystic Kalender Shah that was put down by Ibrahim Pasha.

Religious orthodoxy was also strictly enforced with the death penalty for those deviating from what was officially the correct Islamic doctrine. First to be put to death was Molla Kabiz who had dared suggest that the Koran implied that Jesus was spiritually superior to Muhammad [ibid, p. 144].

Finally, coffee was introduced to the Ottoman empire and the first coffee house opened in Istanbul during his reign [BL95, p. 8].

Family Life

One of Suleyman's distinctions is that he was the first sultan to elevate a concubine to the status of wife (see Chapter 13). She was the famous Roxelana, of Ruthenian (Ukrainian) origin and the sultan married her in 1534 [CF05, p. 561]. She reigned as Hürrem Sultan until her death in 1558, in her early 50's. She created many philanthropic foundations, in Istanbul, Edirne, the Muslim Holy Places, and Jerusalem. The latter was the most splendid of all and included a mosque, a 55-room inn for pilgrims, public kitchen, etc. She bore four sons for Suleyman: Mehmed, Selim, Bayazid, and Cihangir. Their daughter Mihrimah was married to Rüstem Pasha who served as Grand Vizier from 1554 to 1561 [ibid, pp. 139-143]. She become a political power in alliance with Rüstem Pasha. She may have been behind the fall-from-favor of Ibrahim Pasha and she certainly pushed hard to have one of her sons become the next sultan.

Mehmed died in 1543, probably of smallpox, and he was buried in Istanbul, rather than Bursa, as it was the custom for princes. His tomb is one of the first structures designed by the famous architect Sinan [ibid, pp. 139-140].

Suleyman eldest son was Mustafa, son of his concubine Mahidevran. However as a result of machinations by Hürrem and Rüstem Pasha, Mustafa was executed (strangled) in 1552. They claimed he was planning a military coup against his father. The accusation was probably false, but the revolt did take place under the leadership of someone who claimed he was Mustafa. Eventually the revolt was put down and Pseudo-Mustafa and his followers were executed [ibid]. Cihangir died soon after leaving Bayazid and Selim to fight for the succession. Suleyman appointed both as governors of distant provinces but Bayazid raised an army and rose in revolt. He lost and sought asylum in Iran. Suleyman started negotiations for his return and offered rich gifts to the Shah of Iran in exchange for Bayazid and his sons. However Selim's agents murdered Bayazid and his sons and only their bodies were given back in exchange for the gifts [ibid, pp. 141-142].

A Note on SInan

Sinan is the most famous of Ottoman architects and the buildings he designed, such as the Suleyman Mosque in Istanbul, are part of the obligatory sites to visit for a tourist. He was a product of the Devsirme system and rose to become an officer in the Janissaries where he distinguished himself in designing fortifications, bridges, roads, and aqueducts. Eventually he was appointed chief royal architect and he stayed on that position for nearly half a century, spanning the reign of three sultans. His ethnic origin is unknown, but most likely he was Armenian.

Some Contemporaries of Suleyman

Here are some major historical figures who lived during Suleyman's reign (1520-1566): Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (reigned 1519-1556). Queen Elisabeth I of England was born in 1533 and reigned 1558-1603. Ivan IV, the Terrible became the first tsar of "All Russia" in 1547 and reigned until 1584. The latter's action had a direct impact on Ottoman politics. Ivan conquered some of the Muslim khanates around Russia and forced their former subject to convert to Orthodox Christianity. That practice caused protests by the Ottomans who started seeing Russia as a military threat with the Black Sea becoming a potential theater of war [ibid, p. 138-139].

Suleyman in the 21st century

An article in the January 29, 2011 issue of the Economist (p. 49) described a controversy surrounding a Turkish televised drama series about Suleyman the Magnificent. The series, on Show TV, chronicled both the military and the sexual exploits of the sultan and included scenes of the royal baths and the harem as well as showing the sultan drinking wine. This raised the ire of religious conservatives who staged protests outside the Show TV's headquarters shouting Allahu akbar. A deputy prime minister called for the series to be scrapped because it shows the sultan "... in certain scenes that I cannot find words to express." The controversy sent the show's ratings to record heights. The original Economist article caused a reader, Ozgur Tuncer, to write a letter quoting a poem that Suleyman himself wrote. The letter was published in the February 12, 2011 issue of the magazine and the poem is reproduced below:

Take her lips in your mouth:
be a man, kiss her, heart and soul
No dessert is as sweet as she,
only wine is delicious like her.

The Reign of Selim II (1566–74)

By the time Suleyman died, Selim was the only surviving son, but there was fear of claims to the throne by individuals outside the Ottoman dynasty. Therefore when Suleyman died in Hungary campaigning against the Hapsburg, the Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha kept his death secret [CF05, pp. 151-152]. He even found a double for Suleyman to make public appearances until Selim had reached Istanbul from his governorship in Kütahya.

Selim faced an immediate crisis because the Janissaries demanded the customary accession donative and the imperial treasury could not afford it. The Janissaries bared the entrance to the palace and Selim had to scrounge up the money so he could enter his residence [ibid p. 153]. Such a humiliation of the sultan by his troops was a sign of things to come bringing to mind the trouble Roman emperors had with their Praetorian Guard.

Historians generally date the start of the declined of the Ottoman Empire from Selim's reign who became known as Selim the Sot (Drunkard). Selim had little interest in government and left the state affairs to his ministers and, in particular, the Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha who ended up serving three sultans: Suleyman I, Selim II, and his successor Murad III [ibid, p. 154]. Under Mehmed Pasha the Ottomans tried to extend their possessions in Ukraine and even started construction of Volga-Don canal but they gave up because of Russian opposition. (The canal was finally build by the Soviets in 1952.) [ibid, p. 157]. On the plus side the Ottomans captured Cyprus from Venice in 1571 [ibid, p. 158].

The major event during Selim's reign was the decisive defeat of the Ottoman fleet by the Europeans in the battle of Lepanto (Nafpaktos, in the gulf of Peloponese) that took place in September 1571. The European fleet was under the command of Don Juan of Austria, illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Most of the Ottoman fleet was lost and the battle is considered by Europeans a turning point in the Ottoman advance against Christian Europe [ibid, pp. 160-61]. The historian Bernard Lewis however doubts its significance because the Ottomans were able to rebuild their fleet [BL95, p, 116].

First Posted: February 10, 2011. Latest Revision: March 11, 2011.

Previous Chapter    Next Chapter

Back to Mid. East History Index Page