Suleiman I the Magnificent - Ottoman Sultan

Suleiman I the Magnificent
Suleiman I the Magnificent

Suleiman (r. 1520–66) ruled the Ottoman Empire when it was the most powerful empire on earth. He came to the throne after his father, Selim I (the Grim), had expanded Ottoman territories to the east and west. Although he was only in his 20s when he became the sultan, Suleiman already had experience in the field as a military commander and as an able administrator in Balkan and Crimean territories.

Suleiman was known as “the Magnificent” in Europe, and among his subjects as Kanuni (the lawgiver) for his codification of Ottoman laws. Known for his fairness and honesty, Suleiman granted extensive local autonomy to his far-flung provinces, maintaining close regulation only over taxes and the regulation of trade.

Victory Over European Rivals

In 1527, Suleiman had over 80,000 trained men in military service and with better guns and horsemen than his European rivals, the Ottomans quickly seized Belgrade after the Battle of Mohács and moved on to lay siege to Vienna in 1529.

But Suleiman failed to defeat his main rival Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, or to take Vienna. As the Ottoman troops retreated from the city they were reputed to have left sacks of coffee, already popular among the Ottoman urban elite and a commodity that would soon enjoy widespread favor in the west as well.

Although Suleiman also failed in the attempt to take Malta, he ruled all of the Balkans and Hungary, as well as most of the territory around the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and much of North Africa. He rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, parts of which still stand.

Suleiman I the Magnificent in the Battle of Mohács
Suleiman I the Magnificent in the Battle of Mohács

The Austrian diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq described in lavish detail the grandeur of the Ottoman court under Suleiman. Europeans praised Suleiman’s serious demeanor and culture, as well as his ability to discuss literature and philosophy in several languages.

A contemporary of the other great monarchs of the age, Charles V of Spain, Francis I of France, and Henry VIII of England, Suleiman made practical alliances with Francis I to counter the power of Charles V and was a major participant in European diplomacy.


Suleiman married a favorite slave from Russia, Hurrem Haseki (The Joyous One), known in Europe as Roxelana. Suleiman was deeply in love with Hurrem, and he wrote her moving love poems under the penname of muhibbi (beloved).

However, Hurrem, as well as her mother-in-law and a rival wife, became powerful political forces in their own right and plotted ruthlessly for their particular favorites to become Suleiman’s successor. Hurrem outmaneuvered her rivals so that her favorite son, Selim II, would become sultan. Believing Hurrem’s allegations about intrigues by his more capable sons, particularly Mustapha, Suleiman ordered their murders.

Suleiman was devastated when Hurrem died and had the famed Ottoman architect Abdul-Menan Sinan build a magnificent mausoleum in her memory. Sinan also designed the massive Suleimaniya complex in Istanbul as a lasting monument to the great sultan.

Hurrem Haseki
Hurrem Haseki

Although already in his 70s, Suleiman again led his troops into battle in what became another failed attempt to take Vienna in 1566. After the ailing Suleiman died on the battlefield, his commander kept the death a secret from the troops, who kept on fighting, until Suleiman’s son, Selim II, had been safely installed as the new sultan. Selim inherited an empire at its zenith of power but failed to equal his father’s distinction as either an administrator or military leader.