It was the West that named Suleiman “the Magnificent”; his own people called him Kanuni, the Lawgiver, because of his share in codifying Ottoman law. He was magnificent not in appearance but in the size and equipment of his armies, in the scope of his campaigns, in the adornment of his city, in the building of mosques, palaces, and the famous “Forty Arches” aqueduct; magnificent in the splendor of his surroundings and retinue; magnificent, of course, in the power and reach of his rule. His empire marched from Baghdad to within ninety miles of Vienna, to within 120 miles of Venice, the Adriatic’s quondam queen. Except in Persia and Italy all the cities celebrated in Biblical and classical lore were his: Carthage, Memphis, Tyre, Nineveh, Babylon, Palmyra, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Smyrna, Damascus, Ephesus, Nicaea, Athens, and two Thebes. Never had the Crescent held so many lands and seas in the hollow of its curve.
Was the excellence of his rule commensurate with its extent? Probably not, but we should have to say this of any spacious realm except Achaemenid Persia and Rome under the Antonines. The area governed was too vast to be well administered from one center before the coming of modern communications, transport, and roads. Laxity and corruption ran through the government; yet Luther said: “It is reported that there is no better temporal rule than among the Turks.”49 In religious toleration Suleiman was bolder and more generous than his Christian compeers: these thought religious conformity necessary to national strength; Suleiman allowed Christians and Jews to practice their religion freely. “The Turks,” wrote Cardinal Pole, “do not compel others to adopt their belief. He who does not attack their religion may profess among them what religion he will; he is safe.”50 In November 1561, while Scotland, England, and Lutheran Germany were making Catholicism a crime, and Italy and Spain were making Protestantism a crime, Suleiman ordered the release of a Christian prisoner, “not wishing to bring any man from his religion by force.”51 He made a safe home in his empire for Jews fleeing from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal.
His defects appeared more clearly in his family relations than in his government. All are agreed that despite wars—which he excused as defense by offense—he was a man of refined and kindly sentiment, generous, humane, and just.52 His people not only admired him, they loved him. When, on Friday, he went to the mosque, they observed complete silence while he passed; he bowed to them all—Christians and Jews and Mohammedans—and then prayed for two hours in the temple. We do not hear, in his case, of that addiction to the harem which was to undermine the health and power of some later sultans. But we do find him so susceptible to the passions of love as to forget prudence, justice, and even parental affection.
In the earlier years of his reign his favorite mistress was a Circassian slave known as “The Rose of Spring,” marked by that dark and chisled beauty which for centuries has characterized the women of the regions around the eastern end of the Black Sea. She bore him a son, Mustafa, who grew into a handsome, able, and popular youth. Suleiman entrusted him with important offices and missions, and trained him to merit as well as inherit the throne. But in the course of love Khurrem—“The Laughing One”—a Russian captive whom the West called Roxelana, won the Sultan away from the Circassian; and her beauty, gaiety, and wiles kept him enchanted till tragedy was consummated. Overriding the rule of his recent predecessors, Suleiman made Khurrem his wife (1534), and he rejoiced in the sons and daughters that she gave him. But as he aged, and the prospect of Mustafa’s accession loomed, Khurrem dreaded the fate of her sons, who might legitimately be killed by the new sultan. She succeeded in marrying her daughter to Rustem Pasha, who in 1544 became Grand Vizier; and through this wife Rustem was brought to share Khurrem’s fear of Mustafa’s coming power.
Meanwhile Mustafa had been sent to govern Diyarbekir, and had distinguished himself by his valor, tact, and generosity. Khurrem used his virtues to destroy him; she insinuated to Suleiman that Mustafa was courting popularity with a view to seizing the throne. Rustem charged that the youth was secretly wooing the Janissaries to his cause. The harassed Sultan, now fifty-nine, doubted, doubted, wondered, believed. He went in person to Eregli, summoned Mustafa to his tent, and had him killed as soon as he appeared (1553). Khurrem and Rustem then found it simple to induce the Sultan to have Mustafa’s son slain, lest the youth should seek revenge. Khurhem’s son Selim was made prince and heir, and she died content (1558). But Selim’s brother Bajazet, seeing assassination as his fate, raised an army to challenge Selim; civil war raged; Bajazet, defeated, fled to Persia (1559); Shah Tamasp, for 300,000 ducats from Suleiman and 100,000 from Selim, surrendered the contender; Bajazet was strangled (1561), and his five sons were put to death for social secùrity. The ailing Sultan, we are told, thanked Allah that all these troublesome offspring were departed, and that he could now live in peace.53
But he found peace boring. He brooded over the news that the Knights whom he had ousted from Rhodes were strong in Malta, and were rivaling the Algerian pirates with their own rapacious sorties. If Malta could be made Moslem, mused the seventy-one-year-old Sultan, the Mediterranean would be safe for Islam. In April 1564, he sent a fleet of 150 ships, with 20,000 men, to seize the strategic isle. The Knights, skillfully led by the resourceful Jean de la Valette, fought with their wonted bravery; the Turks captured the fort of St. Elmo by sacrificing 6,000 men, but they took nothing else; and the arrival of a Spanish army compelled them to raise the siege.
The old Magnificent could not end his life on so sour a note. Maximilian II, who had succeeded Ferdinand as emperor, held back the tribute promised by his father, and attacked Turkish outposts in Hungary. Suleiman decided on just one more campaign, and resolved to lead it himself (1566). Through Sofia, Nissa, and Belgrade he rode with 200,000 men. On the night of September 5–6, 1566, while besieging the fortress of Szigetvar, he yielded his life, upright in his tent; like Vespasian, he was too proud to take death lying down. On September 8 Szigetvar fell, but the siege had cost the Turks 30,000 lives, and summer was fading. A truce was signed, and the army marched disconsolately back to Constantinople, bringing not victory but a dead emperor.
Must we judge and rank him? Compared with his analogues in the West he seems at times more civilized, at times more barbarous. Of the four great rulers in this first half of the sixteenth century, Francis, despite his swashbuckling vanity and his hesitant persecutions, strikes us as the most civilized; yet he looked to Suleiman as his protector and ally, without whom he might have been destroyed. Suleiman won his lifelong duel with the West; indeed, the Emperor Maximilian II in 1568 resumed payment of tribute to the Porte. Charles V had stopped the Sultan at Vienna, but what Christian army had dared approach Constantinople? Suleiman was master of the Mediterranean, and for a time it seemed that Rome remained Christian by his and Barbarossa’s sufferance. He ruled his empire indifferently well, but how much more successfully than poor Charles struggling against the princely fragmentation of Germany! He was a despot, by unquestioned custom and the consent of his people; did the absolutism of Henry VIII in England or of Charles in Spain win such public affection and confidence? Charles could hardly have been capable of ordering the execution of his son on mere suspicion of disloyalty; but Charles in his old age could cry out for the blood of heretics, and Henry could send wives and Catholics and Protestants to the block or the pyre without missing a meal. Suleiman’s religious tolerance, limited though it was, makes these executions look barbarous by comparison.
Suleiman fought too many wars, killed half his progeny, had a creative vizier slain without warning or trial; he had the faults that go with unchecked power. But beyond question he was the greatest and ablest ruler of his age.