Thursday, May 22, 2008

Suleyman the Magnificent: An Introduction

Dear Readers,

Starting with today's blog … I want to share some of the considerable work I have done to date on a truly great man - Suleyman the Magnificent.

To understand Suleyman (November 6, 1494 – September 5/6, 1566) – it is perhaps best to start with his mother. Suleyman’s mother, the Princess Hafsa, a Russian from Kiev, Instilled in her four-year-old child prodigy the following aphorism which he would repeat this frequently throughout his long and glorious reign, many years after his beloved mother ‘s death.








Princess Hafsa chose her son’s tutors and preceptors with discernment. They were Muslim Arabs, from Arabia and Yemen, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Morocco, and Italian Christians from Venice.

Suleyman became a scholar of the Qu’ran, chanting its enthralling classical Arabic - of the Torah, mastering it in Hebrew, and of the Bible, from the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome.

His childhood mentors were men of exceptional learning:

a. Khaled al Karash, would become a Sufi mystic. Some say Suleyman
was most influenced by him.

b. the Kurd Kemal was a political savant.

c. Mordekai, an exalted Jewish physician, often accompanied Suleyman on his military campaigns to oversee the health and hygiene of one hundred and fifty thousand men.

d. Prince Ludovico Gritti, natural son of the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, had been his Christian preceptor. Suleyman would make him Ambassador Plenipotentiary to Yugoslavia and Hungary.

Suleyman was a man of exceptional insight and was most beloved by the people he ruled. In his time he was regarded as the most significant ruler in the world at his time … and his impact has long been felt.

The Ottoman's know him as Suleyman Kanuni (Lawgiver). Interestingly – if you were to tour the US House of Representatives in the US Capitol Building – you would find a painting of Suleyman the Magnificent.

The Europeans knew him as "Suleyman the Magnificent" a title they bestowed on him

To me he has been a lifelong inspiration.



Western historians know Suleyman primarily as a Conqueror, for he made Europe know fear, as it had never known of any Islamic State; before or since.

Suleyman had many titles. In inscriptions, he refers to himself:


In all documents, he signed the following:


Suleyman was “the master of the lands of Caesar and Iskandar / Alexander the Great. He was simply called “Caesar” by his people.

It is hard not to be humbled by assertions of such greatness since it happened to be true. No ruler in the sixteenth century, the Renaissance at the height of its glory, was more adept at diminishing the egos of all the rulers (all powerful and absolute rulers) surrounding him.

As a gift of God, Suleyman believed the entire world was his possession. Even though he did not occupy the city of Rome and the Papal States, it was tacitly understood by Christians and Muslims alike that “The Big Apple”, as Rome was referred to by Suleyman, was his for the taking.

Nonetheless, he almost launched an invasion of Rome. The city came within a few hairbreadths in Suleyman’s expedition against Corfu.

On another occasion, Suleyman received a desperate plea from the Medici Pope, Clement VII, who was a prisoner at Castel Sant’Angelo, as the soldiers of His Most Catholic Majesty, Charles V of Austria, also known as Charles I of Spain, sacked, looted, and burnt Rome. His Holiness implored Suleyman to send an expedition to Naples in order to divert the rampaging Christian Army from the Eternal City. As Suleyman readied his vast war machine, the plague rained upon Rome and its people and invaders alike. What was left of Charles Army retreated to safer, less infectious places.

In Europe, Suleyman conquered Rhodes, then a citadel of Christendom, Greece, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Moldava. These were all major parts of the Hapsburg Empire. His campaign against the Austrians took him right to the doorway of Vienna. Poland and its King, Jan Zapolya, lived well by the grace of Suleyman. France was a major ally of Suleyman , under Francis I .

Of special note: Martin Luther’s most important and enlightened Protector, in every sense of the word was Suleyman.

Suleyman was THE major player in the geopolitics of the world and in the geopolitics of Europe. He pursued a brilliant, aggressive policy of European destabilization. In particular, he aimed to destabilize both the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs. When European Christianity split Europe into Catholic and Protestant states, Suleyman poured unlimited and unconditional financial support into Protestant countries – Germany, Sweden and Holland, in order to guarantee that Europe remain religiously and politically divided, hence – ripe for an invasion. Several historians, this writer is one of them, have argued that Martin Luther would never have succeeded except for Suleyman’s gold.

In the geopolitical chessboard, Suleyman was responding to an aggressively expanding Europe. He fully understood the consequences of European expansion. The Inca and the Aztec Empires had been smashed by Spain. Millions of Amerindians were dying. North and South America were the “Continents of lament”. He was very much aware of this, for his informers were multi-ethnic, multilingual and multicultural, Christians and Jews.

The European rulers were mostly ignorant and intolerant of Islam and thus, justly and correctly, he saw Europe as the principal threat to Islam. Most of the Ulema were Arabs; the wounds and lacerations of the Crusades, which had ended almost 350 years ago, were still fresh in the hearts and minds of the Muslims. The Islamic world was beginning to shrink under their expansion. Portugal had invaded several Muslim cities in Eastern Africa in order to dominate the trade with India. Spain had sailed to the Philippines; the peaceful Muslim communities were being put to the sword, if they did not take to the cross. The Russians, whom Suleyman regarded as Europeans and blood kin, since, strictly speaking he was more Russian than Turkish, were pushing Central Asians south when the Russian expansion began under Ivan the Great (also known as The Terrible)

In addition to invading and destroying European hopes for Hegemony in the Islamic world, Suleyman pursued a policy of aiding any Muslim country threatened by European aggression. It was this role that gave Suleyman the right, in the eyes of the Muslims, to declare himself as Supreme Caliph of Islam.

He was the only one successfully defending Islam from the barbarous, cruel unbelievers and, as Protector of Islam, deserved to be the Ruler of Islam.

While the expansion of European power and hegemony helps explain Suleyman’s conquest of European territories, it doesn’t assist us when it comes to the vast amount of Islamic territory that he invaded or simply annexed. How does conquering Islamic lands protect Islam? Suleyman’s role as Guardian of the Faith demanded that he also see to the integrity of the Faith itself and to root out heresy and heterodoxy. His annexation of Arabia and Iraq were justified by asserting that the ruling dynasties had abandoned their orthodox beliefs or practice. Some, for instance had pig farms, drank wine all day, raped women, abused their children, adored phalluses and starved their people. Each of the annexations or invasions was preceded by a religious judgment by Islamic scholars, the Ulema, as to the orthodoxy and moral integrity of the ruling dynasty.

The long reign of Suleyman is regarded by both Islamic and Western historians as the high point of Islamic conquest, history, culture, spirituality, religious tolerance, wealth and prosperity.

After his death, the power of the State, internally and externally, began to decline perceptively. Islamic historians believe the decline was due to two factors: the decreased involvement of the Sultan over the administrative functions of government, their consequent corruption and their disinterest in government led to a negligence in the opinion and welfare of those whom Suleyman called “the people” (the masses).

Western historians are unsure how to explain the decline after the death of Suleyman. A major factor seems to be a series of insane and mentally incapacitated Sultans. This led to the growth of bureaucracy and its inevitable corruption. This does not fundamentally disagree with the Islamic version.

The decline of the Islamic Empire as envisioned by Suleyman was also due to the hyper- aggressive expansion of European colonial powers after his death.

The great, incomparable Sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, who stood as a Tiger before the advancing mercantile, military and colonial expansion of Europe was gone. His people, Muslims, Jews and Christians mourned his passing” the world will never see his like again”

The Islamic and Muslim Empire slowly crumbled and disintegrated under European pressure



Suleyman is regarded as the perfect Islamic Ruler in History. He embodied all the necessary characteristics of an Islamic Ruler, the most important of which is JUSTICE (adale). The Qur’an itself points to King Solomon as embodying the perfect monarch because he so harmoniously embodied adale.

Suleyman, named after Solomon (the legend says by a profoundly holy Imam and a pious Hebrew Rebbe) is regarded as the second Solomon. The reign of Suleyman the Magnificent in history and, in particular, Islamic history is generally regarded as the period of greatest justice, liberty, prosperity and harmony in any Islamic state.

The Europeans, foes and allies, called him “The Magnificent”, but the Muslims knew him as “Kanuni” or “the Lawgiver”. The Suleymaniye Mosque, built for the Sultan by Sinan the Great, describes Suleyman in its inscription as KARWANIN al – SULTANIYE or Nashiru “Propagator of the Sultanic Laws”.

The primacy of Suleyman as a lawgiver is at the foundation of his place in the world in general and in Islamic history. It is important to step back a moment and closely examine this title “The Lawgiver” to fully understand Suleyman’s place in the history of the world.

The word used for Law, Kanun, has a very specific reference in Islamic tradition, the Shari’ah, or Laws originally derived from the Qur’an, are meant to be universally applied across all Islamic states. No Islamic Ruler/Leader has the power to overturn or replace these laws. So what laws was Suleyman “giving” to the Islamic world? What precisely does Kanun refer to since it doesn’t refer to the main body of Islamic law, the Shari’ah?

The Kanun refers to situational decisions that are not covered by the Shari’ah. Even though the Shari’ah provided all necessary laws, it’s recognized that many situations and conditions fall outside their parameters. Suleyman saw a precipitously changing world (this was the Renaissance, so akin to our present world), Events would change even faster then, a rule or a judgement in a case could be arrived at through ANALOGY with rules or cases that are covered by the Shari’ah, Hanifism, so it comes as no surprise that Hanifism guided Suleyman


Suleyman elevated Kanun into an entire code of laws, independent of the Shari’ah. The early years of his rule saw an explosion of Kanun rulings and Laws, so that by the middle of his reign, the Kanun were a complete and independent set of Laws almost as important as the Shari’ah.

This formidable reality was brought about in part because of the unique heritage of Suleyman. In both Mongol and Central Asian traditions, the Imperial Law, or Law pronounced by a monarch in accordance with the religious leaders, the Ulema, was considered sacred. They even had a special word for it; those in the Arabian Peninsula called it Ture and those in Central Asia used the word Yasa. In the system of Ture and Yasa, imperial law was regarded as the essential foundation of the empire. When their tradition collided with the Sharia’ah tradition, an artful compromise combining both was formed under Suleyman. The first set dealt with the organization of government and the military; the second set tackled taxation, religious tolerance, treatment of merchants and farmers. During Suleyman’s reign, these set of Laws were known as Kanun – i Suleimaniye. After his death, when degradation, corruption and ignorance occurred, his people (Muslims, Jews and Christians) called his laws Kanun - i – Osmani, or the Ottoman Laws. They were wrong of course.



In his time the 16th century, both Europeans and Muslims regarded Suleyman as the most significant and powerful ruler in the world. His military empire expanded greatly to the East and West, and he threatened the heart of Europe itself. He embarked on vast cultural and architectural projects. Istanbul, Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Baghdad, Belgrade, Budapest, in the middle of the 16th century were among the most energetic and innovative cities in the world.

“I know of no state which is happier than this one,” reported the Venetian Ambassador in 1525 to the Doge Andrea Gritti.

“It is furnished with God’s gifts,” wrote Cardinal Paolo Giovio, Papal Envoy. In a postscript he added, “It controls war and peace.”

“It is rich in gold, in food, in people, in ships, and in tolerance: no state can be compared with it. May God long preserve the most just of all Emperors,” Martin Luther declared.

“There is no state with so many people of so many faiths which lives in such prosperity,” Count Ghislaine de Busbecq noted in his official communiqués to the Emperor Charles V of Spain and Austria.

Suleyman ruled for a remarkably long reign of 46 years. His life was filled with triumphs but also darkened with personal tragedies.

“Even God felt the loss and sacrifice of his only begotten son,” remarked Martin Luther.

Called “The Magnificent” by his European friends and foes alike, and “Kanuni” to his subjects, he was a brilliant military strategist as well as an acclaimed legislator. One must keep in mind that many laws made by him form the basis for many western ones, including those of the United States of America. Suleyman, as his namesake the biblical Solomon, showed wisdom as a lawgiver. First as an innovator, then as a regulator and also as a restorer of balance and harmony in the legal system.

Suleyman was a charismatic Conqueror or GHAZI who ensured success by leading his Army in person as Caesar and Alexander had done before him. He always wore a richly embroidered and bejeweled golden cape, and rode a white stallion caparisoned in gold. He could be spotted from afar and always rode alone, a few steps in front of his vast army.

He initiated ten campaigns against Europe and three others in Asia, against Iran. He grasped the strategic importance of the Balkans, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, Palestine, Northern Africa, Poland, Russia, and the Central Asian steppes. The Balkans and Mittel Europe were the scenes of numerous wars and conflicts between Suleyman and the Hapsburgs.

His army was the first modern army to receive a generous monthly salary.

They were also the best behaved. “Not one blade of grass must be trampled,” he ordered.

That meant that they used roads and highways built expressly for them by his thousands of engineers. No looting was allowed under pain of instant death. No property and crops were to be taken unless they were paid for at its current market value. Rape was forbidden and was punishable by immediate execution. The most impressive act of all was Suleyman, standing in line with his men in order to receive his monthly pay as a private.

We, in our century soaked with self-serving, cynical, uncaring leaders might be inclined to consider this action on the part of Suleyman as an astonishing feat of Public Relations. Yet this is not so. One only has to understand the teachings of The Prophet in the holy Qur’an to realize that Suleyman was following the precepts of Allah.

His Haj (pilgrimage) to Makah – Mecca was low profile. He entered Arabia as a pilgrim although he was Guardian of Makah, Medina and Jerusalem. His army was forbidden to enter Arabian soil. He himself rode with a dozen men, all unarmed into Makah.

“We are in the presence of God. We are protected,” he assured his nervous vizier and generals.

He paid his respects to the Imam as a simple follower of Islam. At his request, only after Suleyman had left Makah did the Imam of the city reveal to the faithful that their Sultan had made the Haj anonymously. The Mosque received several hundred thousand dinars in gold to distribute among the needy. He left some of his most trusted members of the Ulema to see that this was carried out according to his instructions.

The same reverent and self-effacing attitude was displayed in Medina.

When Suleyman entered Jerusalem, he told his Generals, viziers and Janissaries, “Jesus rode on a donkey, the Caliph Omar gave his camel to his tired servant. I must follow their humble example.”

In Najaf and Fallujah, Iraq, Suleyman went to pay his respects to the holy Shia Ayatollah and requested to visit the burial sites of Sunni and Shia saints. The army was ordered not to set foot on Iraqi soil.

During his reign, the borders of his Empire were extended further than the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Suleyman refused to storm Vienna once he was convinced a bloodbath of women, children and old men would ensue. The bulk of the Austrian Army under the command of Emperor Charles V von Hapsburg, was nowhere to be seen.

His most important victories were at the negotiating table. Everyone came to his court in Istanbul known as “The Sublime Porte”.

Although almost constantly at war, paradoxically Suleyman brought his multi-ethnic peoples the benefits of peace; the wars took place far and away from most of his lands. The PAX ISLAMICA saw populations expand, roads and caravanserai networks grow, trade boom, banks sprout, and crafts flourish. Social Services made this the most successful welfare state of any age. Precise records gave Balkan peasants and farmers a new security in landholdings.

Historians, religious and political observers and analysts today, are impressed to see the creativity of Suleyman in the formation of social and administrative institutions. Suleyman’s (and as a consequence, his beys and khans attitude towards other religious and ethnic communities was amazing and shocking too many Europeans of the time).

Suleyman the Magnificent himself was a pioneer in this respect. Religions and races co-existed peacefully under his rule. Muslim, Christian and Jewish families lived together throughout his Empire. Christians and Jews freely practiced their religion, customs and laws. Although Jews and Christians could be exempted from serving in the Army by paying a tax, there were several divisions of Jewish Janissaries who fought for Suleyman. Most of them were Sephardic Jews who had been persecuted and expelled from Spain and Portugal.

It needs to be said that the official language of Suleyman’s Army was Serbo – Croat. Once more attesting to Suleyman’s sense of globalism.

Suleyman had envisioned a meritocracy or as he often referred to it, a mentocracy (from the Latin word for mind – mente). His system of appointing administrators and military officials was based, in contrast to the empires in the Christian world, on merit and talent rather than birth.

“I want to establish only ONE form of aristocracy – that of the brain.”

Europe’s leaders were incredulous but fascinated by Suleyman's successes and sought to learn his secrets.

“Do you mean to tell me that a poor boy can become Grand Vazir,” gasped the Venetian Senate in unison, patricians all, as they described a society wherein everyone was proud to call himself “the Sultan’s slave”.

"The highest officials lowborn?"

"Islam’s power wielded by second class Europeans?" (even if they were baptized and raised as Christians).

What they, with disdain, described as “poor white trash”. Unbelievable! But true!

Suleyman the Magnificent’s grand vazirs were all of humble origin brought from all over Europe as “slaves”. The same applied to most of the top civil administrators and Janissaries.

The High Admiral of the Fleet, who ruled the Mediterranean, the Barbary pirate known to Europeans as Barbarossa, was a poor Greek fisherman. He led a fleet of galleys on attacks against the coasts of Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Barbarossa was like a father figure to Suleyman, since he began his seafaring activities when Suleyman was but a young boy under the flag of the Sultan Selim, known as the Cruel (father of Suleyman).

The Ulema, the guardians of the Shari’ah or Sacred Law, the Imams, the judges and the teachers were all Arabs and sons of Arabs and only Arabs, reared on the Qur’an.

He ruled over everything and everybody, yet daily held divans wherever he happened to be and asked the opinions of many. He restricted himself to a daily expense allowance of two small purses, one of gold dinars and the other of silver dirhams. What he did not spend by the day’s end, he generously shared among his pages.

He was trained as a goldsmith and was skilled in poetry and calligraphy. Most of his romantic poems are dedicated to his only love and wife – Roxelana. He signed himself Muhibbi, he who seeks love. The bulk of his poetic works is in classical Arabic, and the rest are in Persian.

Lavish spectacles were organized on various occasions in Istanbul, such as the circumcision of his sons, the Sultana’s birthday, and Bayram. Sometimes, the festivities lasted for weeks. There was a circus of wild animals, jugglers, acrobats, fireworks reenactments of battles and sieges in pageants as well as in shadow play. There were kebabs, pilaf, bread, fruits, coffee, ice cream, baklava – and it was all-free.

Suleyman set himself up as a bridge between the East and the West, mindful of Turkey’s position in both worlds. He merged the different cultures of the communities living within and near the borders of the Empire over large parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.

The Sultan unfailingly consulted the Ulema on all crucial issues and decisions. The only language used was Arabic. He attached great importance to Justice and Fairness. As examples, he returned overpayments in Egypt’s taxes, Syria’s. Yugoslavia’s and Iran’s. He was just. As tolerant as he was in his people’s religious beliefs, he was not tolerant of corruption and injustice in his public officials and did not let them go unpunished.

Suleyman died in battle in Hungary in his last campaign against the growing Hapsburg influence in the Balkans.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris held a funeral Mass to honor him. The Pope led a Te Deum in Rome (in which he thanked God for his death). The most important synagogues in Istanbul intoned the Kaddish, the Lutheran as well as the Greek Orthodox churches conducted funeral rites throughout the Empire.

“The world will never see his like again,” declared Erasmus, the philosopher, thinker/dissenter, himself a Catholic.

His words were repeated by millions of Suleyman’s people: Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Time has not swept away the impact of his magnetic personality on the world stage. He remains an eternal fascination for historians, scholars and writers.

I was seven years old when my family who shared a history with the Hapsburgs (they had been one of his most persistent enemies) recounted the exploits of Suleyman the Magnificent. I was inflamed with a lifelong passion.

PART FOUR: Suleyman the Cultural Leader

Suleyman Kanuni, the Magnificent, is a figure that left an indelible mark on the History of the World.

His enigmatic personality, his splendid mosques, bridges, roads, minarets, palaces, hospitals, schools, aqueducts, textile factories, rugs and carpets, porcelain works, Persian miniatures, geometric and flower designs, set up during his reign and the vast records of his contemporary historians (Muslim and European) remind us of his everlasting glory. His allies, his adversaries, his enemies, and observers at the Vatican have always reacted with awe, respect and admiration. This feeling remains to this day.

Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindu artists were encouraged to live in his Empire and do what they did best - Create. The spellbinding amount of construction designed and built during the reign of Suleyman by Sinan the Great, of Armenian or Greek origin, without a doubt one of the world’s greatest Architects, leave scholars, historians and fellow architects today still gasping in disbelief. I would rank him alongside Imhotep, the Egyptian.

The Empire was multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual. All of the Sultan’s official correspondence was conducted in classical Arabic. Suleyman was a polyglot. He spoke and wrote Arabic, Persian, Latin, and Hebrew. His mother was Russian, so this was his mother tongue. His father Selim also had a Russian mother. This would render Suleyman more Russian than Turkish, if we were strictly speaking about DNA. The official language of his Janissaries, as I have mentioned was Serbo-Croat. Many of his vazirs were Greeks, Serbians, or Croats.

He conversed with the Papal Envoys in Latin or in the Tuscan dialect, which centuries later became the official language of Italy.

His dialogues with the French Ambassadors, his allies were in French.

Count Ghislaine de Busbecq, the Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Hapsburgs became one of Suleyman’s most ardent admirers despite the fact that he was representing the Sultan’s most persistent and powerful enemies. De Busbecq wrote his dispatches in German and informed his Emperor that Suleyman conversed with him in German.

The Magnificent sponsored an army of religious thinkers, philosophers, artists and poets from all over the world that outshone the most opulent and cultured courts of Europe.

A fabulous not-to-be-believed collection of manuscripts, miniatures, jewelry, carpets, rugs, textiles, ceramics, porcelain, arms, documents and poems from Suleyman’s reign was exhibited in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and in the National Gallery in Washington D. C. in 1990. The sponsors of this highly successful exhibition were European and American Corporations, philanthropists and art collectors.

Its title was “The Treasures of Suleyman the Magnificent”.

The Conqueror of three continents, who shook the world of the 16th century, the world of the Renaissance, even as he raised the Islamic Empire to the height of its glory, took America by storm. The exhibition was extended for another ninety days as public demand was astonishing.

In 2005, there was an exhibition in London, followed by one in Paris on “ The Turks” Clearly, the most spectacular part of the exhibit was about Suleyman the Magnificent.

I am of the opinion that Suleyman the Magnificent belongs to the world. He was, I repeat, a citizen of the world, a globalist, long before Nationalism came to the fore and pushed back the visions and dreams of men like Suleyman. It is therefore superficial to label him as Turkish. He did not see himself as one.

Turgut Ozal, the late President of Turkey, once told me that the majority of Turkish people, he included, could not read most of his Kanun, because he wrote them in Arabic.


He was over six feet tall and fluidly muscular. He had fair skin and gray-blue eyes with reddish blonde locks. He walked elegantly and imperiously. A masterful horseman and hunter, he added to this panoply of spectacle by wearing a turban, which was nearly one meter high.

His capes were embroidered in gold and decorated with pearls from the Persian Gulf. Emeralds, rubies, diamonds and sapphires came from India and beyond. He created the fashion of the “Royal Blue” ensemble. To pray at the Mosque he always wore pristine white robes.

He was skillful with firearms, and muskets. He knew his way around explosives. His army used cannons and explosives in a way that was terrifyingly effective. He was a good swordsman and enjoyed fencing with his best friend since childhood, Ibrahim Pasha, the son of a Greek fisherman, who became Grand Vazir.

He understood science and engineering, and was most likely the first to use biological warfare. His engineers and experts – in order to stun and confuse the horses as well as their riders of his enemy’s armies employed hashish grown in the Bekaa Valley, around Lebanon and Syria. That required a thorough knowledge of winds and currents of air, as such maneuvers could easily backfire.

Suleyman was a man of deep passions. He thought highly of his mother’s opinions and insights. He was devoted to his mother and mourned her passing with prayer and meditation for forty days.

His lifelong friendship with Ibrahim Pasha began when Suleyman was but a child. Ibrahim, his “brother” would betray Suleyman, become incredibly rich, cruel and corrupt, and Suleyman would be eventually compelled to execute him.

No matter how much his heart bled from the anguish, Suleyman always placed Duty over Sentiment. After the death by execution of Ibrahim, Suleyman would never again allow any man to get close to him.

His wife, the Sultana Roxelana, whom he knew and loved since his 18th birthday, became his closest confidante. The Princess Hafsa, his mother would have approved.

He was a faithful and devoted husband to Roxelana, a beautiful Russian woman who played and composed songs on many musical instruments. He was also a gifted musician and they often sang and played together.

I cannot stress enough that Suleyman had no harem, after he married Roxelana. Indeed, he broke with tradition by making her his official Sultana. Ever since the time of Genghis Khan, his ancestors, the Leaders were not allowed to marry. Genghis’ wife had been raped and kidnapped by his enemies. In order to stifle questions of true blood heirs, the Sultans kept a harem of concubines. Suleyman’s mother was herself a concubine, though she became his father’s favorite because of her quick and penetrating intelligence.

Roxelana was a strong willed woman. She had her own Court and her own protocol. One of the most important joint ventures she would look after on behalf of Suleyman would be an alliance with Beatriz de Leon, an intelligent Sephardic Jewish woman, who ran banks throughout Suleyman’s Empire and owned a fleet of ships. She changed her name to Grasa Mendes Nazy, when Suleyman granted her citizenship in his Empire. Her nephew, Yusuf Nazy, an observant Jew, who ran the banks in Venice on Grasa’s behalf, became Suleyman’s Ambassador to La Serenissima – the Venetian Republic.

The frequent reports to the various European capitals on Suleyman, never failed to mention “the Sultan’s excessive devotion to his wife”.

Bear in mind, that Rulers in Europe or anywhere else, did not marry for love. Political considerations were the first and foremost criteria for wedded unions. Fidelity was considered a weakness. Emperor Charles V of Austria and Spain would die of syphilis, as would Henry VIII of England, and Francis I of France, – all contemporaries of Suleyman. Indeed, several Popes and Cardinals also died from syphilis, when they were not poisoned or assassinated.

Roxelana had great skills in the art of intrigue. She needed them. The wife of the most powerful man in the world could not just occupy herself with clothes and jewelry. Those were the last items on her agenda. Her first-born son Mehmet/ Mohammed showed great promise, but he died in his late teens in a smallpox epidemic.

Suleyman then designated Mustafa, son of Rose of Spring, the Indian beauty who had once been his favorite before Roxelana had come into his life. This made Roxelana seethe. She had three other bright and talented sons. Albeit much younger than Mustafa. She suggested to Suleyman that Mustafa should practice his statecraft as Governor of Manisa province as he himself had once done when he was but a young 17 year old. Suleyman agreed and send Mustafa along with his mother, Rose of Spring to Manisa, far away from Istanbul and from Suleyman.

Mustafa was talented, brave, and loved by his soldiers; He commanded a division of his father’s army. Years passed, Suleyman grew older but stayed remarkably healthy and lucid. Mustafa’s ambitions and frustrations mounted. So did Rose of Spring’s envy and anger.

In the meantime, Roxelana’s young sons, Selim, Bayazid and Jehangir, were displaying signs of leadership.

At the age of sixty, Suleyman had to deal with a plot against him within the army. Suspicion immediately fell on Mustafa because the conspiracy originated from his units. Suleyman calmly ordered an investigation. Roxelana increased her spies and paid them generously.

Mustafa may or may not have been directly involved, although this strains one’s credibility. He almost certainly knew about the plot. The Kanun, Laws, set up by Suleyman, were more equal for the sons of the Lawgiver. The Ulema was consulted. Suleyman, though an Absolute Ruler, never undertook an important decision without the approval of the Ulema.

The Ulema decreed:

“Treason has been committed by Prince Mustafa. This is punishable by death.”

Behind a golden-latticed screen, a heavily veiled Roxelana listened to all the arguments and the final decision of the Ulema. She wrote a message, which was handed to Suleyman by the black Chief Eunuch. A man who owed all his influence to her. Her opinion:

“My most esteemed ruler and husband. Mustafa must have known about the plot. He did nothing, hoping Maktoum – Destiny would side with him. Do what you must.”

With his heart breaking, Suleyman opted to be the Lawgiver first rather than the father. Mustafa was executed and his corpse lay out on a priceless rug for all the rebels in the army to see and file past. There would be no other reprisals within the army.

Mustafa’s entire family, his wives, and five sons all died on orders of the Sultan.

Suleyman smashed all the golden musical instruments on the death of Roxelana, as a sign that music had left his life forever. There is no record of any other woman in his life. He became an ascetic.

His two sons Bayazid and Selim, fought constantly. His pillar of moral strength was his daughter Mirima, who reminded him so much of her mother Roxelana. She was now his most trusted Advisor.

Bayazid attempted to kill Selim, now the designated heir. He failed and fled to Iran where the Shah held Bayazid for ransom. Again the Ulema met and voted. This time, the Princess Mirima sat behind the golden screen and listened to all the arguments, as her mother had done before her. Suleyman negotiated the release of his son, paying a huge ransom in gold and gifting the Shah with several dozen of the finest Arabian horses. As soon as Bayazid set foot in his Father’s Empire, he was executed for treason. His wife and seven sons as well as a newborn infant shared his fate on orders of the Ulema and of Suleyman. He was unforgiving when members of his family flagrantly broke the laws.

There was another son Jehangir, perhaps Suleyman’s best loved in his heart of hearts. Intelligent beyond belief, but a hunchback and an epileptic. Distraught that his father, the Lawgiver, had his brothers, Mustafa and Bayazid executed, Jehangir committed suicide.

Alone with his son’s corpse, Suleyman held him to his heart and wept bitter and long laments.

Selim was a drunken sod. When Suleyman left for Hungary on his last campaign, at the urging of his daughter, he was seriously considering breaking with custom and tradition and naming Mirima, his daughter Regent/Ruler of the Empire, until such time as she decided one of her children or Selim’s children were fit to rule.

As Mirima embraced her father, he held her tightly against his bosom and kissed her.

“Be not sad. God always gives us everything. We make the choices. I was not supposed to be Sultan; fifteen half- brothers preceded me. Then came a prophecy. I became Sultan. My duty was first towards God, and then the people. My family came last. Without Law there is nothing. God bless you, beloved daughter and friend.”

Suleyman had broken many traditions. His marriage to Roxelana Thus making her Consort was but one. His devotion towards her as his partner, advisor and friend was another. He had a monogamous relationship with her at a time in history when many Kings and Emperors as well as Popes died from complications of syphilis.

Suleyman died in Hungary of natural causes. His Jewish doctors said he was sick with pneumonia, and ignored his ailment. He had not had the time to name Mirima as Regent of his vast Empire. In any case, Suleyman could only have proceeded once he was back in Istanbul because all his portentous decisions were made with the advice and consent of the Ulema, the Council of Wise and Religious Elders.

I wanted to give you a glimpse into Suleyman as a preface to some of the stories I have been inspired to write about his life. As always, I hope my stories inspire you to think, to feel and to expand.



  1. Alilihahah illah Lah,
    Alilihahah illah Lah...

    "There is no god but THE God!"

  2. PS, sorry, I meant to write:

    La illaha illa Lah,
    La illaha illa Lah"

  3. PPS, Al 'Lah has a good sense of humour, and would enjoy my mistake!

  4. Hello, Isabella,

    Suleyman really comes alive for the reader, particularly in Part 5, Suleyman the Man.

    I was a bit confused about Prince Mustafa and his mother, Rose of Spring, especially since Suleyman was in love with Roxelana from the age of 18. Did he father Prince Mustafa as a young teenager while unmarried? Was there never a question of marriage to Rose of Spring? Did she marry someone else?

    I was also confused as to Suleyman's death. Perhaps I misread it, but I first thought you stated Suleyman died in battle, then that he died in Hungary of natural causes.

    I can't wait for the ensuing stories.



  5. Aroub Soubh/JordanAugust 24, 2009 at 3:22 AM

    Dear Contessa Isable
    my husband Yassir Tabaqchali introduced me to you and your blog ,i found it very interesting so I put this link about Suleiman on my notes on facebook ...thank you very much for the information you share with us and I'm very interested to know more so if you recommend books titles my mail is
    best regards
    Aroub Soubh

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  7. this king was cruel who even gave order to kill an infant. how can muslim ruler do this?

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Isabel Van Fechtmann

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