yet to receive input from any one of the nine, this writer can but perch o'er aonian streams, pawing at dregs of genius as they pass her by. 

Sulemien the Magnificent: Aquiline Adventures in Early Modern Absolutism

Sulemien the Magnificent: Aquiline Adventures in Early Modern Absolutism

‘He is tall, but wiry, and of a delicate complexion. His neck is a little too long, his face thin, and his nose aquiline ... a pleasant mien, though his skin tends to pallor. He is said to be a wise lord, fond of study, and all men hope for good from his rule.’ So was Suleyman - the Magnificent, the Lawgiver (Kanuni), the ‘lover of the tormented heart’ - summated by the Venetian ambassador Bernardo Contarini at the time of his accession. As the pope orchestrated celebrations that burst from all corners of Rome, it was contemporary belief that ‘a gentle lamb’ had ‘succeeded a fierce lion,’ and that an empire whose command had been international fear would slide into heretical obscurity.

Suleyman - and all the pleasance of his mien.

Suleyman - and all the pleasance of his mien.

Selim’s death had been sprung upon the Ottoman lands at a curious segment of the bed through which history’s river courses. As all were thrust, kicking and scrabbling and fighting for air into the early modern period, Joseph Fletcher tells that empire’s pace was ‘quickening’. This change in tempo was effected in every realm - the political, military, economic and religious fields all requiring intensification in order to maintain parity with imperial contemporaries. The volume and content of administrative records was expanded, imperial policies were conceived in the palace and hatched on the battlefield. The political centre of imperium began to infiltrate the lives of its subjects through the promulgation of law, the construction of ideologically and politically charged architectural works, an increased focus on the politicisation of public ceremony and a radical politicisation of faith. Bulwarks, all, of the imperial sea which rolled to swallow all with its east-west engulfing swells hissing and foaming across borders and lives. The apologist has taken Suleyman as presenting an Ottoman apogee - the culmination of every step taken from tribe to empire. Yet such a belief is tantamount to professing for the ‘decline theory’ - to discount the achievements of Suleyman’s successors entirely; cast them mere milestones on a road leading down from the mountain to eventual imperial dissolution. Reality is nevertheless far more complex. The tenets of empire throughout the reign of Suleyman and beyond experienced alterations at their very base as a variety of global geographical, epidemiological and meteorological factors rocked the earth. What Suleyman does represent, however, is the very arrow-point of imperium which pierced the early-modern period with pinpoint accuracy, pulling the Ottomans into the sixteenth century and establishing ground upon which the Ottoman identity was to camp for the barrage of centuries to come.

Cemal Kafardar was among the first scholars to initiate conversation on the affinities and divergences of the Ottoman and ‘European’ empires from their inceptions into the sixteenth century. Noting the new forms of literature, society and identity whose emergence often denotes a new era’s burgeoning dawn, he and his compatriots tend to the belief that the Ottomans partook of a ‘European’ new modernity encompassing the construction of military and political institutions to circulate universalist politico-religious ideas. With Marxian analysis of ‘Asian’ society’s particulars, meanwhile, Marshall Hodgson and his party tend to the belief that Ottoman imperialism should be grouped with those modern ‘eastern’ empires - the Safavids or Mughals. Revisionist parties, Kaya Sahin among them, wish to reconcile this conflict and hold that the Ottomans were a ‘subset of the new Eurasian empires and... a hinge that connected the eastern and western parts of Eurasia.’

Whether Eastern or European, the Mehmed-forged education system put to use hammering out a generation of scholar-patriots was in large part to answer for the Ottoman empire’s incipient ‘modernisation’. Those youths who passed the long, arduous corridor of madrasas found their journey, if lucky, was one whose conclusion lay among the heady heights of star-studded imperialism. Study began at the provincial level, with each scholastic establishment named and codified according to the stipend a teacher would be provided in recompense for his varying duties. The twenty madrasas, wherein a teacher was reimbursed twenty akces a day, were followed by the thirty, forty and fifty madrasas; the scale was roughly correspondent to its locale. There were no established curricula, but there was universally followed a pattern of increasing complexity as a student progressed numerically along the madrasa scale. Much emphasis was placed on the sciences and critical exegesis of the Quran: included was an exhaustive study of Muhammad’s sayings, their merits and application to modern life. Philosophy, rhetoric and sharia law were all covered, but the extent to which that is true was teacher dependent. This system managed to raise a generation of administrators whose heads and hearts were filled to bursting first with conviction in a glittering Ottoman destiny and second the scholarship to fashion it into reality. One among these hopefuls was Celalzade Mustafa Celebi, a scribe whose rise defines the critical role his office was to fulfill as the sixteenth century rolled forward, exacting its centralising force.

The sleepy feztivities of roadside scribes

The sleepy feztivities of roadside scribes

The universalist ideology Mustafa and his fellows were to sculpt drew from source metal smelted in the reign of Suleyman’s father. Selim I, whose Mamluk extirpation has been described as ‘the beginning of the sixteenth century world war’, also took parts of the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea coast, setting himself and his empire against Portuguese and Spanish Habsburg interests as he did so. The great, impermanently dormant web of interconnected discourse which was to link all of Eurasia felt a sharp pluck on one among its many strings. In the Ottoman east Selim had ridden to meet the Ismaili Safavid challenge and in so doing grated into existence a period of competition founded not just on military, but also cultural, religious and ideological aggression - a mode to become the defining method of combat on all fronts for the next several hundred years. The propaganda engines had to be built and from thence not simply maintained, but constantly expanded to contain the effusing notions of messianism, universal monarchy and tendency to blind belief in arcana imperii which abounded in Ottoman and Eurasian thought throughout the sixteenth century. Monarchy was being expressed in absolute terms; sovereignty to consume the four and seven corners and seas. It was under Selim that the full power of spin began to dawn on those for whom the yarn was readily in reach. War was drawn a struggle between the forces of good and evil; religious authority was lashed with rhetorical binds to the sultanate and its dependencies. By 1515 the empire’s visible institutions were changing to match the chthonic sea-change in underlying ideology: treasury and imperial council secretaries were so neatly bifurcated that a chrysalid version of the later separate groups within the scribal service became visible. These developments were accompanied by an increase in a ruler’s individual power as his aspirations and identity were smeared into the public consciousness with a constancy that built his inescapability. Typical of empires across the world at this quattrocentic juncture, this increase in scribal activity brought with it an ideological legitimacy which asserted itself on new, consistent grounds - building a programme of easy public consumption providing growing ranks of adherents a semi-mythical basis for imperial fervour. Selim had tilled a soil primed for the deep rooting of the scribes, secretaries and early-modern propagandists who would construct this great edifice. 

The new sultan faced no competitor in the realm when he ascended to the Ottoman throne: the first challenge to youthful Suleyman was simply one requiring him to match the weight of the previously incumbent. Taking a stage soon to be occupied by the theatrical might of such actors as Charles V, Shah Tahmasb, Francis I, Henry VIII and spiced by the continued headaches which his antagonists in the mediterranean basin were to inflict, Suleyman was to be a cord pulled taut even before the natural disasters which struck the sixteenth century were made manifest. And manifest they did, as Sam White has demonstrated. The seventeenth century ‘general crisis’ - long considered the sole precinct of early modern Europe - has recently been proven to range from ‘Mexico to Ming China’. A compilation of ‘evidence for the synchronicity of demographic contraction, economic recession, and political upheaval across the globe’ has made historically popular the belief that the meteorologically dominating Little Ice Age of the 16th century ‘provoked widespread shortages and famines, precipitating political violence and popular unrest’. This was in combination with the astronomical upsurge in population spurred by the dispersion of the Black Death’s final vestiges, leaving sedentary populations across the globe without land by which to furnish themselves and their families. From the century’s opening with recurrent extremes of temperature and crop failure in Russia plunging it into its ‘time of troubles,’ Central Europe’s explosion into the Thirty Years War - which saw almost a third of the German population succumb to famine or conflict - to its second act with the English civil war, the Fronde uprisings in France, the Ming-Qing transition, recurrent droughts and famine in West Africa and the same in Southeast Asia, it is clear the 1500s were a trying time, no matter which continent was your own. On land which suffered more than most at the hands of ecological vicissitudes, it was imperative that Suleyman fashion a dynasty which could match or outflank the political and religious claims of his imperial rivals while enacting an administrative structure up to the task of governing the crisis-stricken lands were already his own.


He began by declaring for even-handed justice, undoing a series of policies enacted by Selim which appeared to run counter to this goal. He compensated the Iranian merchants at Bursa whose silk Selim had confiscated upon banning commerce with the Safavids, allowed the forcibly deported scholars and craftsmen of Selim’s Mamluk conquests to return home, pledged to punish any governors who overstepped their adaletname-defined boundaries and allowed Caliph al-Mutawakkil to return to Cairo from his forced exile in Istanbul. It was this clear attention to righteous jurisprudence which would earn him the posthumous sobriquet ‘Kanuni,’ - the lawmaker - and his rule had begun on a harmonious note.

Next on Kanuni's tasklist was a military campaign to alleviate the burden of expectation he shouldered by virtue of birth in the shadow of his late, great father. Both Selim and Bayezid II had chosen to deal with the Hungarian question posed them by placing ink on paper and refraining from the mobilisation of military power. On Suleyman’s accession, an envoy was sent from the Ottoman court to that of Hungary's, carrying the stated intent of renewing this arrangement. This messenger, however, was ‘delayed’ - a delay providing the Ottomans all necessary justification to serve their bellicosity and launch a violent campaign at Europe. Historians cast doubt upon the sincerity of the peace Suleyman had offered via his emissary: given the desire to ensure respect paid to his father be transferred to himself and the possibility a Hungarian campaign presented to achieve just that, the ‘delay’ of his emissary appears somewhat too convenient. Ottoman historians of later years held this Hungarian campaign the dawn of a ‘Hungarian policy’ representing the unfurling of Ottoman imperialism’s many-coloured flag. A modern reassessment has disproved this zealotry and revealed the motion for the infant strike that it was - an ambitious, youthful ruler yet to demonstrate his prowess in the shadow of a great man was striking out at a weak state whose prestige nevertheless remained considerable. It was the exact tactic Mehmed had employed almost a century prior.

The campaign itself was less a success than contemporary and later sources held it to be. An examination of the impressions Mustafa scribed while on campaign in the company of Piri Mehmed, incumbent grand vizier, reveal that the conquest of Belgrade, far from being the campaign’s primary objective, was in fact almost an unintended consequence. The army had seen their jowl aimed at Western Europe and leash removed before the war council were united as to their specific target. Factions erupted as partisans of disparate strategies sparked against one another. Two opposing forces lodged in the storm's mass stood bulwarks of power amidst the nebulous clashes: Piri Mehmed against Ahmed Pasha, with both holding their side in the fractious ring. Piri, voice nasal and widely believed inept, argued for Belgrade while Ahmed and his ambition believed that to capture Bogurdelen before marching to the Hungarian capital would be the most propitious warpath. Sheer breadth of aspiration ruled the day and Suleyman assented to Ahmed Pasha’s plan. Tempers were none assayed by the conflict’s resolution, however, and under duress the sultan granted Piri 1,000 janissaries with which he might march to Belgrade alone. This he did, making his way to the nearby fortress of Zumun in Belgrade’s vicinity while the Sultan and main force stormed Bogurdelen. The sultan had begun the treacherous Sava crossing to make inner Hungary when he ordered Piri to join him, despite the ongoing siege of Belgrade in which he was engaged. The grand vizier refused, asking for the intercession of the sultan’s personal preacher in his defence. Whatever his reasoning, the sultan and forces amassed beneath him swarmed across the marshes to join the grand vizier and his cause at Belgrade. The siege quickly turned in favour of the Ottomans and after mere months the walls fell to heavy artillery fire - the city itself to the endless depredations of Ottoman sappers. Busbecq at the time described the Turks as ‘mighty rivers, swollen with rain, which, if they can trickle through at any point in the banks, spread through the breach and cause infinite destruction.’

Suleyman remained only to see the walls repaired and squads of raiders loosed into Hungarian territory before heeding official advice and leaving Belgrade for Istanbul.

Once safely within imperium’s embrace, official memoranda noted that the cannons which Mehmed had abandoned during his hasty retreat from the city a century prior were now recovered and once again in Ottoman hands. The heat of implication misted the spaces between every word. Suleyman had found victory in lands which encroached on the very heart of heathen Europe. This was holy war in all its ghazi lustre; restored to the light and now fired as rather heavy artillery in the scribal frenzy which surged as the empire’s autocracy-supports set about transmuting the physical victory into an immortal one enshrined on paper and in the popular imagination. With this capture of Belgrade, the people were reminded, the Danube waterway had been secured - completing the communications, transport and defence requirements of the empire’s broader Black Sea region. In practice, this allowed the diversification of maritime trade and provided flexibility in the launching of naval campaigns.

Early-Modern Serburbia

Early-Modern Serburbia

The Belgrade victors were not to allow themselves breathing time before kicking down another of the iron doors which had limited Turkic expansion for decades. Rhodes sat, miniscule but menacing, dead centre of Ottoman plans for mediterranean naval escapades. Not only did the occupant Knights harbour all manner of brigands and pirates inimical to Ottoman shipping, but in the keep were held many captive Muslims, stolen on their path to Mecca. Escapees complained of the harsh treatment meted to the unfortunate - treatment Caroline Finkel claims ‘often ended in death’. Those who fled hasted to the most accessible Ottoman city and made deposition of their hideous plight to the relevant kadi, whose link to the Sublime Porte was guaranteed. Not only this, but Rhodes’ removal would at once bring secure sea routes between the Anatolian provinces while linking Istanbul to the main centres of commerce in the southern Mediterranean. In the words of Kaya Sahin, the island was ‘living on borrowed time’ once Suleyman had taken his ascension.

Much like Belgrade, Rhodes rose a fortification and edifice which had withstood the greatest Turk in living memory. Where Mehmed II had failed, so Suleyman triumphed - it was with glee that the imperial scribes set about underlining the fact. Indeed, the sultan is given first billing in all narrative accounts of the siege, with the contributions of both Ahmed Pasha and Piri Mehmed marginalised. Exalted Suleyman - rightful inheritor of Osman’s sword and Mehmed’s prestige - had navigated the downfall of a formidable and long-troublesome foe as supreme monarch.

To depart the la-la fantasy of state propaganda is, however, to discover the narration of an altogether different story. Suleyman had either been lucky or intelligent in the timing of his Rhodes attack. Long term Knight allies Venice had recently signed a comprehensive treaty with the Ottomans while the Vatican - second most embattled Hospitaller supporter - was floundering in the wake of Leo X’s death earlier the same year. The campaign itself, however, was plagued with Herculean trials.

The latter are expounded by imperial scribe Mustafa - unleashed in inked prose as a side effect of his disgruntlement with Ahmed Pasha’s campaign promotions. Piri Mehmed was Mustafa’s patron and the enmity which snarled between he and Ahmed Pasha made promotion of either actively harmful to the other. By articulating the campaign’s many failings Mustafa was, thus, deriving catharsis even while constructing an indirect anti-Ahmed polemic that might be circulated to the benefit of his losing patron.

In phase one, Mustafa tells, the Ottomans relied on high volume shelling of the towering fortifications before calling hasty infantry musters at the walls’ base. Results were poor: excessive loss of infantry life suffered in return for less than a pittance of forward progress. The defenders simply perched atop their grand towers to rain terror upon the assailants far below, wailing uselessly against the walls. The inescapable failure this method brought its adopters caused great friction in the war chamber as a radical rethink of the campaign was seen necessary. A colourful array of potential tactics were conceived and deployed: the moat, filled with sand and rocks, was made to serve as pathway for a crowbar-wielding soldiery who lurched forth in an attempt to dismantle the foundations. Tunnels were dug and packed with explosive charges while an infantry march was led against the walls and cannons pounded various important segments of the fortification. Nothing was to any end. The war council which convened at the end of August saw the sultan ‘red with rage’ and parading around the tent, excoriating his leading commanders and exhorting them to ‘draw from Allah and motivate their men!’

The remnant Ottoman hope was a collapse of the situation within the keep; a hope bolstered by the intermittent stream of deserters who flowed from the fortifications to inform Suleyman and his men of the despairing atmosphere which reigned within the fortress. As October swung into view, the Ottomans began to infiltrate part of the walls and towers before another four general offensives saw their occupation of the outer walls, leaving the Knights no choice but to return to the citadel. On December 17, the Knights' Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam offered the surrender of he and his men - an offer readily accepted by the sultan who received the remaining leaders and settled peace.


All Rhodes lead to war: Ottoman forces formed on the Hospittable island for the second time in a hundred years

All Rhodes lead to war: Ottoman forces formed on the Hospittable island for the second time in a hundred years

This campaign delivered the coup de grace to Piri Mehmed’s career. A trusted diplomat and talented administrator throughout Selim’s reign, Rhodes had exercised his military weakness in the light of day. For Suleyman that was enough to send this stalwart of the ancien régime to the chopping block. Executed, the rolling of Piri Mehmed’s head upon the Istanbul sands proved herald of Suleyman’s defining act: with an aging vizier brought to his end, it was time for a new one to be risen in his stead. The sultan’s choice was a certain Ibrahim Aga - promoted now to Ibrahim Pasha - he was the young sovereign’s confidante, oldest friend and a dewy-eyed youth entirely inexperienced in the particulars of empire-running. His arbitrary ascension was the ultimate assertion of personal authority on the part of Suleyman - his whim could and would override any notion of meritocratic hierarchy which may have been weakly held before this appointment. It had to be understood now that the sultan’s monarchy was one entirely autocratic. The sultan’s word is his law - if the former assertion appears iconoclastic, unreasonable or founded on illogic, then so be it. Tensions within the capital grew to heights unheard of in living Ottoman memory and an unprecedented number of contemporary peers challenged the sultan vocally - making their not unfounded belief that this unproven youth fell short of imperial standards of “worthy” well heard.

The sultan replied with a pomp of such towering heights it exceeded even the most effusive of European potentates’. The new imperial culture told that the ruler and his aides must be presented to the public through elaborate, staged rituals which lengthened the party line even as ensuring that a people were left sufficiently convinced of their leader’s authority. Writing of the years 1521-1528, Gulru Necipoglu claimed that visitors to Istanbul noticed a marked increase in the ceremonialism accompanying the sultan on the few appearances he did make. The ‘extensions,’ as Roy Strong and Frances Yates write, ‘of palace ceremonial into the larger urban fabric of Istanbul were displays of imperial power that turned the iconic sultan, accompanied by thousands of richly dressed and hierarchically ordered courtiers, administrators, and slave soldiers, into a showpiece for the populace.’ An imperial wedding was perfect opportunity for both Suleyman and newly-promoted groom to douse the naysayers littering Istanbul in the words of a strongly-worded response. Similar events had been held under Mehmed II’s tenure in the imperial capital, but all paled before the cost, participation and ideological significance of the Pasha’s wedding. In 1523, Ibrahim was married to Muhsine Hatun, whose family had purchased him as a slave boy in his youth. In itself, this socially provocative match made for an undeniable flex of impiety made official while restating Suleyman’s the power over life and death, rich and poor, which he held in his fingertips. With the extinction of Ahmed Pasha’s rebellion in Egypt and the removal of its formidable leader’s head from its neck, the celebrations were suffused with a supreme confidence which served to elevate further the political and cultural superiority which emanated from the sultan.

The grand pageant was also an excuse to have the empire’s various arms lay themselves at the feet of the sultan - janissaries, palace troops, elders of the ulema and a variety of notables feasted before the divine eyes of their ruler for days before the celebrations were removed to the Byzantine Hippodrome. Exhibition of tents, fabric finery, inlaid finery and other items requisitioned from the Mamluks and Safavids was made before the adoring public, establishing a link between the victories of Selim and Suleyman. There was a public debate between leading theologians who successfully managed to bring the event’s political overtones to the fore. An endless parade of entertainments streamed through the city streets as the people rejoiced in the boundless wealth of their lofty benefactor.

This immense carnival showered in its own excess and, as has been suggested by a variety of historians, served to both chart the new grand vizier’s unprecedented rise to power and build a new relationship between the sultan and his people. Yates and Strong have established links between the inception of early modern political concepts - justice, peace, religious renewal, reform and universal monarchy - and the emergence of a new system of political symbolism to surround a state’s sovereign. It is their belief that ‘the art of festival was harnessed to the emergent modern state as an instrument of rule.’ Certainly the festivities’ scholarly debate bore out Suleyman’s links to the caliphate, allowing the emperor the application of the term and its surfeit of religio-authoritative overtones to himself and his regime. Contemporary theologians held diverging views on the word’s true definition; some claiming that it implied a bond between man and God, even as others that it was equatable to supreme rulership. As the program of ‘divine conversion’ which Ibrahim Pasha was to concoct in the pursuit of imperial dominance began to creep into view, it became a key word in the new era sultan’s composite mandate; imbued as it was with claims to absolute authority in the temporal and spiritual realms.

Ears whistful, Istanbul's citizens float along beneath ostentatious celebrations

Ears whistful, Istanbul's citizens float along beneath ostentatious celebrations

The grandiosity of Ibrahim’s wedding had not been conceived in isolation. Finkel notes that ‘Mehmed II had codified court ritual and laid down strict rules for the comportment of palace and governmental officials; Suleyman took this to its logical conclusion.’ No longer would the sultan eat with his courtiers; nor would petitions be approved personally as a matter of course. Suleyman’s observation of imperial council meetings was limited to an imperious position far above proceedings behind a latticed window high in the chamber’s wall. The arrival of foreign ambassadors was no longer treated an occurrence worthy of the sultan’s rising and any public appearance was dressed such that he presented an elusive figure of almost divine mystique. He was to become the scriptural messianic figure whose coming was marked by numinous shimmers and departing by earth-shattering laments. As Jason Goodwin observes, Suleyman would ‘sometimes have himself referred to as Suleyman II’ in order to imply a direct succession from his biblical namesake through the millennia. Never satisfied with just the cake, the sultan was ever wont to eat it, too. Dissatisfied with deferring solely to the monotheism of traditional Islamic orthodoxy, he consistently underlay any genteel biblical notions with a harness upon mysticism’s still powerful horse. He was, so cultivated public opinion told, ‘perfecter of the perfect number.’ His whole being, people said, was suffused with the number of good fortune: the propitious digit - ten. The number of the commandments, the number of Muhammad’s disciples, of the parts and variants of the Koran, of the toes, the fingers and the astronomical heavens of Islam. The tenth ruler to sit beneath the Ottoman mantle and born at the beginning of the tenth century, the apocalyptic doctrine which he would come to adopt fit Sultan Suleyman's profile in every aspect. Symmetry, they said, was run through his blood and it was to a state of symmetry that he was destined to bring the world.

The aforementioned quelling of Ahmed Pasha’s Egyptian rebellion did not mean that all issues from the empire’s be-Niled state had been silenced. Its people remained a vocal crowd - their semi-nomadic ways made exertion of the polity’s tax policy extremely difficult. Pockets of tribal resistance in cohort with dregs of Mamluk dissidence in the country’s north and south regions continued to plague Ottoman forces stationed around more populous centres. As a result, this rebellion torn land was set up with a date. She and the lawmaking force of a freshly zealous Ibrahim Pasha were to be wed; in his entourage travelled a crack team of scribes all out for justice.

Initially brewed was a remarkable concoction of charity and violence that lulled the rebellious state before its venom took effect. Ibrahim and his cohorts invited Omeroglu Ali, a local tribal lord, to Cairo; only to have him executed without trial or warning. Next to share the same fate was Bakaroglu, partisan of a somewhat minor tribe, whose path to God was constructed at the gallows prior to any legal trial. Ibrahim’s apparent violence at this early stage of his myriad “war on terror” earned him the nickname ‘scatterer of tribes.’ Perhaps he also engaged in some demographical engineering to dissipate the threat of uprising. Soon after, a newly sanguinary Ibrahim despatched letters to the various remaining leaders stating his will to uphold the good stipulations of the Sharia. At the same time, the local Egyptian populace were invited to give voice to their grievances and enabled to do so on a daily basis by an Ibrahimid system of town criers. He summoned funds for the repair of mosques, relieved imprisoned debtors of their burdens and organised a system which allowed urban orphans regular stipend in accordance with their age and ability.

Having affixed themselves in a propitious frame to the public imagination, Ibrahim and his accompanying pillars questioned how to bring permanent stability to Egypt. A sacrosanct set of imperial guidelines was necessary, they believed - stipulations to match those of Sinai in integrity and to be abided for just as long. The document they produced is the first to exhibit traces of full maturity in Ottoman statesmanship. Clothed in the most grandiloquent legalese the empire’s finest scribes could conjure, it expressed for the first time a precise picture of Ibrahimid imperial sovereignty - the brand which was to define Ottoman presence in the middle east and Europe for the following decades. Having studied the law codes of the previous Mamluk sultans and more recent Ottoman governors, Ibrahim and Mustafa brought the finances and Mamluks of Egypt properly under their control. By careful stimulation of vital port towns and creation of conditions favourable to mercantile activity, Portuguese dominance around the Arabian peninsula was to be combatted. The lengthy preamble, rarely drawn in previous kanunnames, was this document’s most unique facet. In an almost ad-hoc fashion, a political theology grows from its ‘sophisticated prose,’ fostering with it an ideological challenge to the Ottoman competitors surging throughout Eurasia. The Ottoman sovereign is described as a divinely ordained sultan and, importantly, caliph. Presiding over the realm, absolute power and absolute justice in matters temporal and spiritual run from the royal scalp to the royal toes. Raised by skilled Quranic scholars, the text builds a network of support for its claims by quoting, charting and connecting everything from mainstream Sunni theology to astrology and apocalypticism. Ibrahim himself finds a powerful supporting role as the ideal grand vizier whose devotion to the power above him is unconditional: any and all capacities he has been gifted are only to be placed at the ruler’s feet in undying and everlasting service. This was, according to Snjezana Buzov, the ‘young Suleyman’s manifesto.’ The preamble’s global and world-historical programme was the symbol of a new era - one whose sun was poised to dawn over Ottoman climes as the land’s most able agents set about bringing the promised into reality.


This change in ideology was not allowed to take flight without reactionary spite stabbing at its wings. Just as complaints had been raised regarding Ibrahim’s suitability on his initial appointment, so the conservative gangs organised themselves in the capital in response to his revolutionary manifesto. Clandestine whispers were made across the capital and a squad of janissaries and armed youth set out under the cover of night March 25, 1525, to loot the houses of Ayas Pasha and treasurer Abdusselam Celebi. The following day, a series of Jewish households found themselves victim of this brazen violence before Ibrahim’s palace itself was made target. Suleyman’s reaction - violent and sharp - helps to prove that these were not a antisocial group of malcontents. The sultanic execution of the janissary commander, senior imperial council secretary and chamberlain of Mustafa Pasha demonstrate, instead, that these disturbances had been masterminded by those at the very highest levels of Ottoman administration. The grand vizier and his crack scribal troops were recalled to Istanbul at once.

Once safely back within the walls of imperium, the sultan promoted Mustafa to the position of ‘chief secretary’ in recognition of services rendered as both wordsmith and political theorist - an elevation which not only redefined the scribe’s role, but increased yet further the individual power bestowed upon the grand vizier himself. With Ibrahim Pasha Suleyman was demonstrably creating a semi-mirror of himself; a singular being invested with all the power that Allah could allot within the context of early modern Eurasia: before departing Egypt, Ibrahim had personally appointed the acting beyi of that territory.

Ibrahim imparts his thousand-yard stare: one per-galian in the gulf.

Ibrahim imparts his thousand-yard stare: one per-galian in the gulf.

Success on the second Hungarian campaign, marched upon in the following year, was achieved without assistance from any member of Selimid ‘old guard’. It was fully open to interpretation in any way the modern imperial administration saw fit. As outlined in the Egyptian preamble, Ottoman suzerainty was to be extended across whatever consisted of ‘known’ territory to the planet’s occupants at the time. Such grand success in this department upon its promisers’ first unbounded effort spoke of high potential indeed. Ibrahim is said to have informed the Venetian diplomat to Istanbul before taking the campaign trail that, according to the prophecies of an ancient book he and the sultan had read as children, Suleyman would conquer many lands, capture Rome and establish the dominance of a single religion throughout the world. Hubristic though it may have been, such zealotry was not uncommon among Ottoman Turks of the day. Belief in apocalyptic theory was widespread - the Ottoman/Habsburg rivalry already of no insignificant friction was founded on rolling, apocalyptic notions. Battles with European Christians, especially in the wake of Constantinople’s fall, were taken as precursive tribulations attached to the End Time and its prompt arrival. The Islamic takeover of Rome or another major European capital (referred to as the "Red Apple") was eagerly expected not only by the Ottoman people, but also those in the west. Particularly in Hungary itself, exposed as its people were to the Ottoman identity, anticipation of Turkic overflow was popular.

From the time of its preparation to the ‘immortal’ victory taken during its course, this Hungarian campaign was seen through the lens of universal monarchy and messianic kingship. As the sultan made ready for his departure, a contemporary recorded him as the ‘messiah of the End Time’ and ‘the master of the auspicious conjunction’ - Sahibleiran - an individual born under a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. This word was a popular one in the complex trains of thought which had left the station under Mongol/Timurid political/military watch. As they rolled across the Central Asian steppe, these same trains rolled along rails daubed in astrology, Islamic apocalypticism and a series of prophecies which had been deposited by the stars of almost a millennium. The Mongol invasion had itself made notions of apocalypse endemic across the Islamic world. The Tatars’ sudden spurt from arteries so distant none had ever thought to pay attention had surprised in itself as much as the damage the nomads inflicted upon previously unchallenged Muslim presumption. The caliphate had presented the longest living link to Muhammad in all the world, and its destruction rocked Islamic chutzpah to its core. In response were cultivated a grand pantheon of religious movements across the middle east - most of which dabbled in messianism and all of which held the coming of the End Times as a fundamental tenet of their ‘radical’ movements. The Sahibleiran was a pseudo-synthesis of this broad history and represented universalist notions of politico-religious leadership in the post-Mongol, early-modern Islamic world. Tellingly, its first adopter had been Timur, whose famed thirst for blood was secondary only to his thirst for political legitimacy. The epithet was now being applied to Suleyman in this first decade of his reign. With its messianistic overtones, the name represented Ottoman claims to universal monarchy and world conquest while making sure that a firm link between the present and historical glories of its previous holders was drawn. The pantheon of previous claimants to the title included Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Timur - all conquerors of world-redefining status. Its use was an active attempt to tap into the popular conception of mortal godhood which these thundering names had left printed in folk memory. Suleyman had surpassed his father - who many believed had been derailed from his destiny as Sahibleiran by an early death and incorrect choice of enemy - to become all that messianic, apocalyptic world orders required as their leader. Speaking to international politics, then, this campaign represented the first step of what was to become an embattled Ottoman/Habsburg rivalry and fired the first direct shot in the war between the greatest powers of early-modern earth.

At the battle of Mohács, the Ottomans wrought a convincing victory through artillery strikes and infantry superiority, causing the death of the fleeing king Louis. Buda, the capital, was taken in short order thereafter. Lacking a monarch, its defenders were in no state to raise a heartfelt resistance. While in occupation of Buda, Suleyman ordered the construction of a mighty bridge as chief among a litany of other civil projects and attempted to ingratiate himself with its resident anti-Habsburg notables; almost certainly searching for a potential candidate to fill the now vacant Hungarian throne. Finkel judges that the ‘victory at Mohács was as momentous in its consequences as that of Sultan Murad I against the medieval Serbian kingdom at Kosovo Polje in 1389.’ and was the precipitator of ‘a 150-year struggle between Ottomans and Habsburgs in central Europe.’ The battle’s vigorous blood-letting reverberates through the centuries: when facing some grim reality, modern Hungarians will exclaim Több is veszett Mohácsnál!  (more was lost at Mohács).  

Propaganda similarly flew into a frenzy as the state began to digest the import of its most recent victory. Mustafa in his Tabakat penned the most fervent of all accounts, purging incidents deigned unsavoury such as the Pestian church-burning escapade or sultanic execution of soldiers in order to focus on Suleyman’s achievement. In language thick with Quranic reference and Islamic metaphors, he claimed the victories unparalleled and unprecedented kernels of Ottoman majesty before exhorting his literate, wealthy audience to share the news with their subsidiaries and the population at large.

As Mustafa’s letter did the rounds, the prominent Hungarian nobleman and voivode of Transylvania John Szapolyai was elected the new king of Hungary. Having died without a male heir, Louis II had required a replacement: the Hungarian council’s pro-German faction had just been made bereft. The anti-Habsburg League of Cognac - established by Pope Clement VII cohort with the Venetians, Francis I and the dukes of Bavaria - recognised John’s new title. As did the Ottomans, who approved this elevated nobleman as a barrier to Habsburg expansionism into the east.

Amidst infantry chaos artillery seeks targets, Hungary for blood.

Amidst infantry chaos artillery seeks targets, Hungary for blood.

It was not long before the Habsburg hegemon had unleashed a staggering counter-attack at those allied against his continental dominance. Charles V had led an astonishing victory over the League of Cognac earlier that year, resulting in the wanton sacking of Rome. This manifest display of Habsburg dominance spurred the emperor’s brother Ferdinand to enter Hungary with German troops. Occupying Buda, he had himself proclaimed king in November 1527. For the previous decade, this sibling of imperium had been among the combatants vying for Hungarian sovereignty. The daily progress of Habsburg power across Europe had finally created a feasible atmosphere in which he could strike out against Ottoman presence in the area. As time went on, the respective Ottoman and Habsburg imperial enterprises continued to expand and clashes over military, political and economic objectives across central Europe and the Mediterranean expanded apace. With both Charles V and Suleyman maintaining visions of universal sovereignty, their ideologies were inherently opposed. To realise one dream meant the eradication of the other. Both were required to wield the fear the other’s aggressive foreign policy engendered as leverage to gain alliance with other major powers on the continent. France, the Protestant princes, the Safavids and the papacy all represented deep wells of power from which these dominant imperial forces could draw. The threat of totalitarian Habsburg rule was an effective fire under the thrones of many European monarchs. Halil Inalcik reports that Francis I publicly informed the Venetian ambassador he believed ‘the Ottomans were the only power capable of guaranteeing the existence of the European states against Charles V.’ The Ottomans, too, saw a French alliance as preventative measure effective against the dominance of a single state in Europe. Francis I’s ambassador to Suleyman reportedly told the sultan in February of 1526 that if his monarch were forced to accept Charles’ conditions (those offered upon Francis’ imprisonment at Pavia), ‘the Holy Roman Emperor would become ruler of the world’.

Having taken refuge in Poland after his Habsburgian eviction from Hungary, John Szapolyai made official appeal to the princes and estates of the German Empire - protesting that Ferdinand’s Christian occupation of his Christian domains and refusal to fight the Ottomans was tantamount to heresy. Similar appeals to the Pope and College of Cardinals were denied in a manner as cold as the Italian summer was hot. The unfortunate dispossessed, then, could find no ally of international standing beside the Ottomans willing to bolster his cause. In 1528, a Szapolyai aid arrived in Istanbul. The audience he received resulted in an Ottoman agreement to recognise  John the official king of Hungary, confirming they would cease referring to him as voivode of Transylvania. In February of that year, the Ottomans drew a treaty guaranteeing martial aid against Ferdinand. The newly incumbent Hungarian regent’s own emissaries were granted a rather different reception. Ideological incompatibility was evidenced by the emissary’s refusal to refer to Ferdinand by any moniker outside ‘king of Hungary.’ An incensed Ibrahim thundered that other European rulers of a similar standing - the French, Polish, Venetians, etc - had all agreed to obey the sultan. Why couldn’t this upstart Habsburg diplomat do the same? The envoys were informed that Suleyman would soon be meeting Ferdinand in person, either way.

Preparation for the anti-Habsburg campaign was undertaken immediately. The sultan saw fit to yet further increase the power invested in his grand vizierate. To Ibrahim, he explained that the Ottoman realm had become extensive and a great variety of issues required management. The diploma drawn forth in Ibrahim’s benefit bestowed a title thus unseen in Ottoman history: Suleyman’s boyhood slave-friend was to become the ser’asker - commander-in-chief. Vested with absolute power within the empire, he could appoint governor-generals, provincial governors and bestow land grants at will. He could punish any he felt had made departure from the Sharia or kanun, becoming omniscient kadi and beyi in official terms. Having already exercised many of these powers during his stay in Egypt, it was clear to all that Ibrahim Pasha had revelled in this pseudo-monarchical power for some time. What the diploma achieved was the legislative legitimisation of his power, purging in the process what had been a hierarchical grey-area. In official memoranda, Ferdinand was the ‘surrogate’ or commander-in-chief of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ottomans felt that an approximation was necessary in their own ranks. Ferdinand, it was told, had taken to Sahibleiran as a self-descriptive moniker in the wake of his Buda occupation. This was itself clear infringement of what was widely understood to be the sultan’s sole right in the early-modern world. Further, his position in Buda was geographically challenging to the Ottomans as the city posed easy springboard to inner Hungary from whence, if conquest was successful, he could strike out at the Ottoman heart. Ibrahim was built into an Ottoman mirror of the Habsburg brother; one in whom official approval was vested such that he could come close, as Ferdinand did, to the very height of imperial legitimacy.

Suleyman met John Szapolyai on the plain of Mohács in August 18. A meeting place humming with embedded symbolism, the Transylvanian was made to kiss the sultan’s hand before both armies marched to Buda. In contemporary record, the city was likened to an ‘islet lost amidst the waves’ of Ottoman forces serving as rolling ocean on the surrounding plains. A general attack on September 8th brought the occupants to a surrender. The Ottomans promised free conduct, but contemporary record notes the inflamed stabbing of a janissary by one among the number of subdued German soldiers. The act undid any theoretical ceasefire and from the single spark of violence an incensed blaze set about subsuming the city; janissaries murdered hundreds and enslaved many more.

A show was now made of crowning John Szapolyai. Invoking the crown of St. Stephen captured by Ottoman forces a few weeks earlier, the tried voivode was made regent of Hungary.

In spite of the fact that the campaign season was promptly to end, a war council convened on 12th August decided to march on Vienna - a choice to prove less than ‘auspicious’. The sultan’s hubris had perhaps grown tall enough to overshadow his judgement as the army closed on Vienna while the weather deepened in severity day by day. Ottoman tactics had long been founded on a strict yearly schedule of spring exodus, summer combat and autumnal return before the harsh weathers of winter made subsistence difficult and thickened mud prevented easy movement of troops and artillery.

The first barrage against Vienna was launched by a pair of explosive charges placed at the base of the city’s foundations. The breaches which occurred as a result were charged, but stringent musket and cannon fire from those within the walls met any who dared not abandon the maneuver. The next Ottoman assault on October 14 met with resounding failure. The ever-present difficulty of maintaining supply lines across vast Eurasian distances became a crippling consideration and Suleyman was forced to sound the horn of retreat. Mustafa noted that ‘if the German realm were not fortified with all these towers and castles... its whole population would have been carried away by the Ottoman raiders.’

These ambiguous results had somehow to be offset in the popular imagination - at the very least a verisimilitudinous reality had to be conjured such that the unbounded imperial claims might be seen to portray some aspect of realism. A series of opulent festivities burst into life in the winding streets of Istanbul. Its organisers held the festivities under the auspices of princes Mustafa, Mehmed and Selim’s circumcisions in June-July 1530. Similar in content to Ibrahim Pasha’s wedding, granularly staged processions of war, plenty and wealth trundled through the city while its inhabitants at every social strata were feasted for twenty nine days. All this glory served to project the image of a ruler whose domains spread the face of the earth. Their conquering lord was accompanied throughout the festivities by various members of the Muslim dynasties whose territories had been annexed into the empire’s vast, rolling curtain. The people of Istanbul could marvel at their ruler - tall, aquiline and of a pleasant mien as he was - crowded by a menagerie of courtiers on his left while the son of the penultimate Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri, two descendants of the Akkoyunlu dynasty and a member of the Dulkadir family lined up on his right. Venetian observers took particular note of Ibrahim Pasha’s illustrious appearance - he looked, they said, for all the world a ‘second emperor’.

Viennese breaches charged with significance and Turkic infantry as the city's walls shield fragile Europe

Viennese breaches charged with significance and Turkic infantry as the city's walls shield fragile Europe

Unfortunately for the Ottomans, no amount of pomp or ceremony could alleviate the overriding impression that was left by their ‘sub-victory’ in Hungary. The pretender Sahibleiran had not been defeated in open battle (even if this was likely because he had refused to meet his assailants), and thus had not been divested of his ideological claims. Internationally, the campaign caused widespread fear among Europe’s monarchic menagerie. The panic was such that Charles V and the pope felt possible a thorough rapprochement - formalised with the Treaty of Barcelona at the end of June 1529. The document voiced their concerns for Christians across Europe and thus attracted the support of Francis I, who realised that he was without hope of papal help against Charles. The Venetians threw in their lot with the towering hegemon, his allies and a series of other pro-imperialist Italian powers in December. This sudden band of ideological identification and reconciliation which held together a deeply fractured 16th century Europe led to the papacy granting Charles the title of Holy Roman Emperor in Bologna on February 24, 1530.

Now that the prediction of Francis I’s ambassador in 1526 had almost come true on the continent, many in Istanbul believed that Charles V had succeeded in becoming the de facto leader of Christianity. Unaware that many in Europe, including the German princes who fell most severely under his jurisdiction, were similarly alarmed by the astronomical power which Charles wielded, it was common Ottoman belief that this Christian coalition which was emerging from Europe was founded among willing participants. The ‘German’ campaign launched in response was determined to challenge Charles on an ideological level; his clear and frightening anti-Ottoman antagonism was to be stamped out. This march was conceived as one to manifest threatening force in Southeastern and Central Europe - rather than being aimed at any particular objective, a harsh fright for the Christians would be enough to justify the campaign. It was 1532 when the sultan and his army proceeded from the capital. By June they had made it to the city of Nish, where Ferdinand’s envoys were awaiting the sultan. These envoys were treated to the very finest in Ottoman splendour, but failed to achieve their campaign-defusing objective.

An elaborate crown had been conceived by Ibrahim and commissioned in Venice. Its many tiers and gemstone abundance were designed to physically surpass both the papal tiara and imperial crown. When Suleyman entered Belgrade, he did so coiffed in this magnificent display of sultanic opulence. Once Belgrade had been passed and Suleyman, with his army, began crossing the Sava, a second round of emissaries were received. Those sent by the French were welcomed into the imperial tent and allowed to kiss the sultan’s hand. The Habsburg envoys, meanwhile, were refused access to the imperial sanctum and detained somewhere within the army’s camp. Over the following three weeks, the army made progress through the western Hungarian countryside, forcing the capitulation of many cities as they went. The expedition was clearly a punitive one: its forces willing to progress at a leisurely pace. Any citadel which surrendered without irritating by its temerity was left entirely unscathed. This was not a land-grab.

It was noted with glee that Charles V, pretender Sahibleiran, was unwilling to meet his opponents on the field of battle. The only option for the Ottomans was to continue a forward march until the opposing emperor could be tempted into open conflict. Charles was, as Suleyman well knew, in Vienna with a large army bristling behind him. It is likely that neither side was willing to risk the monumental imperium which rested on their backs. The war was one of propaganda and as the army made their way home, it was announced in every corner of the great Turkic polis that the campaign had been an unequivocal success.

Nevertheless, the concluding result of these lackluster campaigns was a rise in Habsburg prestige among their European fellows. The tangible gains which appeared to elude the Ottomans signified to those in Christendom that the Ottoman legions were not unstoppable; that the power to stop them was within northern European imperium. The concord signed in June of 1533 in Istanbul put into legal terms the stalemate which existed between these two vast wells of imperial power. Though it forced Ferdinand to relinquish the official title which his post might otherwise allow, the portion of Western Hungary that was already occupied became officially demarcated as his own. No ground was let and the accord forced both sides to admit that in Central Europe, neither Habsburg nor Ottoman was possessed of advantage.

Charles distracts us from his chin with fine facial follicles and gut with basic bony breastplate

Charles distracts us from his chin with fine facial follicles and gut with basic bony breastplate

Yet we risk succumbing to ‘Euro-centricity’ unless turning to address the severe ‘Eastern Question’ which had returned to once again light fires in gerontogeous Ottoman forests. To the Anatolian tribesmen labouring beneath Ottoman hegemony, the Iranian ethos of the Safavid imperial neighbours was a force of no insignificant gravity. These rebellions were portrayed by the Ottomans as a clash between Sunni and Shiite traditions; the rebels’ targets were often described as Sunnis or Sunni Muslims. A likelier story is revealed by contemporary documentation; the number of tmar grants had been increased in recent years at the expense of local landed interests and a variety of taxes and regulations had been imposed upon nomadic tribes aimed at quelling the authority of tribal aristocracies. A general dissatisfaction with Ottoman oppression likely provided motivation for a vast majority of those affected.

The rebels, who were finally overwhelmed after defeating the forces of two governor-generals at Damascus were not the last water to spring from the well which had been tapped in Anatolia. Soon after these Adana rebels were put to death, Bozok witnessed another revolt under the leadership of the Bekta Si order’s sheikh, Kalender, who was himself posing as the rightful sultan and legitimate claimant to the title caliph. This rebellion’s importance is attested by the appearance of Ibrahim in Anatolia as a member of the taskforce despatched to deal with it. The pasha’s arrival had the opposite of its intended effect. Local malcontents in the province of Dulkadir were incensed by his arrival; here was a proxy of the distant godhead which taxed them so heavily. Selim’s 1515 state reorganisation had lent these landed elements wastrel status and in a climate politically tense as this, such unfortunates were liable to explode at any time with little warning. Initial attempts at subduing the dissidents resulted in failure. A series of governor-generals were sent against the rebels. Both were defeated and the first lost a significant amount of valuable Ottoman ordnance upon doing so. Moving to Elbistan, the grand vizier began by ascertaining the extent of his enemy. Thirty thousand fielded infantry, he was told - against the five thousand he had been granted. An extensive programme of diplomacy was embarked upon, with local notables met, wined and bribed; gold, finery and a new quantity of timars. As a result, the rebel forces dwindled to a thousand and were run over by a contingent of the janissaries in Ibrahim’s squadron.


In the wake of these contentious ideologies and their clear damage potential, it became imperative to establish a finer control over the spiritual lives of the Ottoman people. Throughout the fifteenth century, a dervish claiming authority in matters temporal and spiritual may have been seen as an ally to the Ottoman state. Now it became state priority to evince conviction of an important mystic. As religion became politics and vice-versa, discussions in scholarly circles of the faith’s case actuality could have far-reaching effects on the health of the state. Suleyman’s reign had from its onset been struggling after the creation of a standardised form of Islam to which dogma could adhere. The sultan was, as seen, caliph of Sunni Islam: a messianic conqueror with a claim to universal sovereignty and/or the renewer of Islam (mujaddid) depending on who you asked and at what time of the day. Theologians, in direct opposition to any assertions of this nature, busied themselves with debate regarding alternative messianic figures, the possibility of a ‘universal religion’ to unite Muslim and Christian alike or talked of the current powers as corrupting - with nothing to do but wait for the purge promised by the coming of the End Time.

Among the gaggle to fall foul of this policy update was Molla Kabz. His fate was directly linked to the sensitivity which the Anatolian rebels had induced among the Ottoman ruling elite. His thesis - the supremacy of Jesus over Muhammad being the main offender - was not unique in its time and place. This idea had long been entertained in private circles and only presented issue to Kabz when he set about making public - loudly - his beliefs. Contemporary theologians were unable to defeat him in public debates - being a scholar of a very definite calibre, his assertions were all founded on skilfull Quranic exegesis. In their desperation, his scholarly rivals turned to the law as easy method to silence this fire-spitting heretic.

Brought before the imperial council in late 1527, the stir this upstart had made among the Turkic elite is evidenced by Suleyman’s presence at his trial. Ibrahim insisted on a condemnation on the basis of Sharia, aware of the high ideological stakes which were at play. Unfortunately for the Suleymanids, a conviction could not be drawn from Sharia and Kabz had to be released. The Pasha realised his mistake and sent after the freed scholar, who was imprisoned and returned to court for a second time the following day. After refusing to recant his belief, he was unconstitutionally executed.

Another of these ‘deviants’ was Sheik Ismail Masuki, whose ideas garnered wide popular support. A proponent of the mystical ‘oneness of being’ doctrine - that man was God and God was man - he shared this belief with Sheikh Bedreddin who had exerted his power during the civil war many years earlier. Mehmed I had considered it subversive and Suleyman was nothing if not a persecutor of divergence. The sheikh was charged with heresy and put to death along with twelve acolytes in the hippodrome.

The problem which Malk and his ilk posed was not the heresies in and of themselves, but rather the very fact that they challenged both Sharia and the tradition of Muhammad as anything but the perfect manifestation of god’s will on earth. As Finkel says, the beliefs considered heretical by the Ottoman state were ones considered ‘liable to have adverse political consequences.’ To challenge sunna or Sharia and amass a following beneath this challenge was to challenge the notions upon which Suleyman had founded his throne and could not be allowed to expand unchecked.

No dervth of mystics suf-saying before the Sublime Porte

No dervth of mystics suf-saying before the Sublime Porte


Meanwhile, bureaucracy was expanding at a rate far faster than Ottoman borders. Mustafa epitomised this at the head of his scribal order. His foot, hand and fingerprints imprinted across the empire’s most hallowed ground drew him a pseudo-idol amongst those in the scribal service. The expansion of bureaucracy was to prove necessary as the Ottomans poised themselves to enter into ideological combat with their close rivals to the east.

In the words of Jean-louis-Bacque-Grammont, Suleyman had inherited a policy of ‘relentless confrontation’ with the Safavids. Throughout his reign's earliest years, however, Piri Mehmed had ensured a long-term disengagement. The anti-Safavid commercial blockade which Selim had imposed was whisked away as one of the incumbent sultan’s earliest legislative motions. The surface cordance this generated was simply the honey jar, however. Inside, the liquid was close to boiling as intense spy activity was understaken by both deeply distrusting sides. In 1523, the new Safavid sultan had sent Suleyman a letter expressing condolences for the death of his father - a piece of correspondence ignored entirely. Such acts of microaggression were not answered with retaliation as a result of the docility which infected Ismail in the last years of his reign and the troubles which plagued Tahmasp in the earliest of his. Thrust into power as a ten-year-old child, the period of Tahmasp’s reign between 1524 and 1533 is often characterised as an interregnum. Nevertheless, the sedentary populace were bedding down and creating an ideological foundation upon which to build an Iranian future.

A letter in 1525, once again composed by Mustafa, arrived at the sultan’s court and unleashed a vitriolic torrent of abuse - enquiring as to exactly why the Safavid shah had not submitted to the conqueror of Rhodes and Belgrade when so many of his contemporary monarchs had done so. By making constant reference to the ‘misguided Safavid heresy’ and populating his text with a skilled manipulation of Quranic verse to support his claim, Mustafa was aligning the conflict along spiritual-political lines highly familiar to early-modern Eurasia.

In 1523, a prominent Safavid fighter named Zulfikar became the lord of Irak-I Arab; a territory roughly correspondent to today’s Iraq. He made submission to Suleyman and offered the lands under his control to the Ottoman magnate. An alarmed Tahmasp laid siege to Baghdad and though Zulfikar held out well, he was betrayed by some of his own men before reinforcements could bring final assistance. This event was later used as justification for the eastern campaign - Suleyman’s chief propagandists claiming that by occupation they merely reclaimed what had become rightfully theirs by Zulfikar’s pledge. The five years which were allowed to elapse before Suleyman’s eastward motions are flagrantly absent from Ottoman sources.

Another actor in the campaign’s lead-in was Ulame - a military commander and administrator who had worked for Ismail in various capacities since his Ottoman defection in 1510. Though given the governorate of Azerbaijan in 1528, his desire to become vizier at the Safavid court was countered by successive shahs. He returned to the Ottomans after a twenty year absence, successful in persuading Istanbul authorities that Seref, the Kurdish lord of Bitlis, harboured Safavid sympathies and was on the verge of defection. Given the disgraced lord’s city to govern and an army by which to eject the resident offender, Ulame set himself on the warpath. Seref was forced to take refuge with Tahmasp, but it was not long before he returned with the Safavid shah in tow to recapture what was his. According to some, Ulame scrambled to the capital, utilising this Safavid aggression to incense Ibrahim to warmongering. He also gave a solemn testimony to the many Safavid commanders and generals who harboured Ottoman and Sunni sympathies; implying them all likely to become turncoats in the case of an eventual invasion.

The movement was known in Ottoman circles as the ‘Two Iraqs’ campaign as a result of its purported aim to capture both the ‘Arab’ Iraq and the ‘Persian’ Iraq. The Viennese and German campaigns were recognised as failures and had certainly caused the emperor to lose some measure of legitimacy in the realm of his peddled absolutism. Victory over the Safavids would present to the public a resuscitation of the Ottoman imperial dogma - universal sovereignty needed a shot in the arm.

'Ta, maps'. A foreign court curse the charts which erroneously brought them to his imperial Safavid majesty.

'Ta, maps'. A foreign court curse the charts which erroneously brought them to his imperial Safavid majesty.

As the Ottoman martial wing once again resumed its tectonic rumble, internal strings tightened to an uncomfortable tension. The emergence of factionalism had begun to bifurcate already divergent allegiances within the elite segments of state. A commonality among the subsidiary elite was growing resentment of the astronomical power invested in the grand vizier. Under the leadership of chief treasurer Iskender Celebi, an Ottoman faction decided to associate with a group of ex-Safavid renegades to mislead Ibrahim. The treasurer’s plan was to persuade an Ibrahimid attack on Tabriz - an attack that he believed would necessitate either a capitulation to Tahmasp or a defeat so shameful as to discredit the grand vizier in Suleyman’s eyes. Celebi succeeded in his scheme to pervert the campaign’s target and the Ottoman war machine began rolling towards the Safavid capital. As the troops advanced across the fertile ground, Ottoman commanders set up administrative heads in cities and districts that had entered imperial control only in name. Such false inerrancy was sure to raise issues as the war machine struggled ever forward.

In contrast to Celebi’s presumption, the fall of Tabriz was prompt and celebrated by those on campaign as a historic restoration of the divinely-infused city to Sunni Islam’s fold. Now, as Ulame had promised, Tahmasp was genuinely hampered by chronic defections from his camp as those within it began measuring the enemy’s military strength against their own. The Sultan arrived some three months after his departure from Istanbul and the army was ordered to pursue the recalcitrant shah who had begun to retreat from Tabriz’s vicinity. The only tactic available to the Iranians was adopted - time honoured scorched earth created a tense cat-and-mouse chase across the vast desert. As the winter drew near and his forces began to suffer for the cold, Suleyman ordered a retreat to Baghdad. Though this was another campaign which had failed to yield any pitched victory, state propaganda once again held that the Safavid refusal to meet in battle demonstrated Ottoman ideological superiority. Though these Safavids purported to have the support of the shiite Twelve Imams and that their shah was empowered with sainthood, Ottoman state scribes scoffed: their retreat demonstrated that Allah’s favour resided firmly in the global heart of Sunnism.

When the sultan and his men returned to Baghdad, they made the miraculous ‘discovery’ of Abu Hanifa’s tomb and set about organising celebrations in honour of the apostle’s life. Other tombs and monuments to a variety of Islamic figures were restored and visited in the proper ceremonial fashion. Mosques were ‘Sunnified’ by inscribing the names of Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman on the walls. The Safavids believed the first three caliphs usurpers who had denied Ali his legitimate right to rule the Muslims, turning the public cursing and eradication of their names into important rituals. An increasingly antagonistic Ottoman Sunnism shot back at this with a series of counter-rituals meant to publicise and enhance the ideological standing of their beliefs. A series of Shiite shrines and tombs across Iraq passed into Ottoman control and swung the balance firmly in their favour. As Kaya Sahin says, the capture of Iraq was turned into ‘a signal event in the history of sixteenth-century Ottoman imperialism and Sunnism.’.

Unfortunately for the Ottoman revellers, Tahmasp had wasted no time in recapturing Tabriz and besieging the nearby Van, occupied as it was by an Ottoman garrison. The treasurer Iskender, whose machinations had been the cause of much tension on the campaign trail, was put to death as Suleyman flew in a rage from Baghdad to meet Tahmasp’s troops in early April. The Safavids once again retreated and Tabriz passed into Ottoman hands for the second time in the space of a year. Ibrahim was shortly sent after the fleeing Tahmasp, but returned empty-handed after only a month.

The immediate strategic and ideological gains of the campaign were offset by the eye-watering expense which had been attached to them. The lack of tangible material return hurt the sultan’s pocket and it was this emptiness of wallet which brought about the end of Ibrahim Pasha - and an era.


Suleyman mounts Baghdad to his trophy cupboard

Suleyman mounts Baghdad to his trophy cupboard

Twin failures in the west, disappointing material returns in the east and a misapplication of the word ‘sultan’ are all said to have contributed to the tensions which existed between Suleyman and Ibrahim. Various explanations were given - some claiming that the ‘Two Iraqs’ campaign had brought about a change in Ibrahim; that he no longer respected Sharia and had become given to unnecessary bloodshed. His piety had deserted him and thus his execution was justified. Ibrahim’s status had itself been an ideological/cultural experiment and his death precipitated the end of this youthful, experimental mood as the one reigning alongside Suleyman in Istanbul. The remaining decades of Suleyman’s reign were to turn the Ottoman imperialist gaze inward. Ibrahim’s intelligent policy of  European warfare and diplomacy was not dismissed, however - nor was his constant drive to encapsulate the Ottoman spirit in an aspiration to universal monarchy. His legacy was continued in the form of an alliance with the French and an ambitious expansionist policy in the Mediterranean together with a strong pressure applied to the accelerator of Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry over Central Europe. The messianism and apocalypticism  which Ibrahim had orchestrated were slowly dropped, however, from the roster of Ottoman ideological artillery. In its stead grew an increased focus on legal legitimacy founded on the authority of Sharia and kanun.

During his years as grand vizier, the greatest competition Ibrahim had faced regarding the attainment of Suleyman’s affections had been the Ruthenian slave-girl Hurrem Sultan - Roxelana in the west - who had been taken to vows by the sultan in a shocking break with tradition. Suleyman’s haseki, or ‘favourite,’ had come to occupy an exalted position at court and wielded considerable power. Suleyman had fallen completely in love with her and, once wedded, was faithful to her alone. His marriage to a freed slave was as much a recruisant piece of iconoclasm as had been his promotion of Ibrahim to a position of absolute authority. The politics of Ottoman reproduction were violated: normally a member of the harem was only allowed to give birth to one son before ejection from the ‘place that is sacred and protected’ to accompany the newborn to his distant posting. With Hurrem Sultan, Suleyman had six sons. Her unprecedented status was attested by the move she made to the Topkapi Palace where her apartments bordered on the sultan’s own. When apart, the two reciprocally exchanged verse and prose that hummed with passion. Her status was immutable and the prestige she enjoyed in the public domain was kept in constant life by the great works constructed in her name in the capital and beyond. Some were built in testament without direct endorsement and others she commissioned herself, but the vast scope of them all ensured that thousands would have access to her philanthropy on a daily basis.

Throughout Ibrahim’s life, this immense bubble of matriarchal power had resented his existence; especially since he was close to the concubine Mahidevran, mother of Suleyman’s eldest surviving son, Mustafa. Hurrem Sultan has long been suspected of complicity in Ibrahim’s execution, and what circumstantial evidence exists is certainly persuasive. He was executed in 1536, and even twenty years later the sultan deeply lamented the decision, baring in his poetry a deeply held bond of amity, friendship and understanding extant across the years.

Her imperious majesty relaxes atop the second most important ottoman in her life.

Her imperious majesty relaxes atop the second most important ottoman in her life.

Before his death, Ibrahim had recognised the vital importance of Hayreddin Barbarossa in western mediterranean politics throughout the sixteenth century. With Andrea Doria establishing a new front for Ottoman/Habsburg rivalry in that southern sea, Ibrahim had made him governor-general of the Mediterranean islands, provincial governor of Gallipoli and the Ottoman naval fleet. Ottoman imperialism was served a Mediterranean beachhead at the expense of a fellow Muslim dynasty when Barbarossa sailed from Istanbul in May 1534 to capture Tunis from Mulay Hasan just some months later. Charles was unkeen to allow this disrespect to go unpunished and with Mulay Hasan in tow, led a campaign of reprisal which grasped La Golleta and evicted Barbarossa from Tunis. This Habsburg success resulted in widespread celebration. Barbarossa’s capitulation at Tunis was used as a powerful feather in the Habsburg cap when claiming superiority for many years.

The French, meanwhile, were engaged in the struggle to control northern Italy and ensure by a policy of expansionism that the Habsburgs could not hem them into an eventual suffocation on the continent. Francis had inherited his own imperial project and his long reign was spent consolidating the considerable European territories which had been his patrimony. After his captivity following the Battle of Pavia in 1525, Francis came to regard the Ottomans as a necessary evil and they remained allies to various degrees for the remainder of his life. The German campaign of 1532 had prompted the despatch of French emissaries to Istanbul and as a result 1536 brought an important Franco-Ottoman commercial/political treaty. The document gave French merchants hefty privileges in Ottoman territory and motivated supra-Franco continental merchants to seek Francis’ protection while travelling there, deflating the Venetian monopoly on Mediterranean trade. This treaty is of particular import because it represents the formalisation of Ottoman/French relations in direct antagonism to the Habsburgs and their various allies.

The 1537 Ottoman attack on Italy was a result of these continental developments. The plan was to have the French loose themselves upon Liguria and Lombardy while the Ottoman navy would set upon southern Italy and the sultan make march to Avlonya in Albania. Suleyman was feeling sharply the Ibrahim-shaped lacuna which yawned in the ex-vizier’s absence. A measure of compensation was required and so for the first time in Suleyman’s life two of his sons took the campaign trail. As the party trundled forward, a series of elaborate submission ceremonies were staged at various cities which populated the western reaches of his dominion. Throughout the southern provinces he organised very public hunts in an attempt to assert his presence. When finally the army reached Avlonya, Suleyman received the famously unruly Albanian tribal leaders and renewed alliances.

The French attack on Piedmont had been expected for some time now - a manifestation of military power in duality to strike fear into the enemies of Ottoman/Frankish imperium. The Piedmont attack never came. The Ottomans were ridiculed as their military histrionics were left visibly empty. The navy were ordered against the Venetian isle of Corfu, but the unexpected coming of low temperatures and high winds made ocean-going progress a difficult prospect. Leaving the region by September, Suleyman and his forces had made Istanbul by November. Yet another military campaign had failed to yield tangible results; outside frightening some unrebellious tribal leaders, this grandiose military venture had been in vain. This time, the consequence was not simply one for the bank - provocation of the Venetians had prodded the floating republic with enough force that they elected to join with the Papacy in mid-September of 1537. Further participants to their proposed anti-Ottoman Holy League were found in the Hospitallers and Charles himself. In 1538, Charles and Francis signed the Treaty of Nice and rendered Ottoman efforts during the Apulia campaign even more pyrrhic.


The empire’s fortunes were to turn in the summer of that year, however. With Ibrahim’s passing, official propaganda was altered such that the sultan became sole guardian and intellectual engine of the Ottoman project at large. Suleyman’s departure on this new campaign was covered in particular detail by official accounts. The rippling of seven unfurled flags represented sultanic rule over the seven climes and the heralded release of four horsetail standards each represented one of the four corners which owed Suleyman sovereignty. The Ottoman administration claimed the campaign was launched as a result of Karabogdan’s failure to make payment of tribute - in defiance of their defeats at the hands of Mehmed and Bayezid. In actual fact, Petru Raresh was at loggerheads with the Ottoman ally John Szapolyai, and Ferdinand had been coveting him as a proxy for employ in anti-Ottoman motions since 1535. Raresh had also been involved in the assassination of Alvise Gritti, the Ottoman diplomat and chief conduit for the conduction of Venetian goodwill. The Poles had been agitating for his removal and offered assistance to Suleyman if he agreed to take military action.

When the Ottoman infantry made it to Karabogdan, they found their entry uncontested: what defence could have been mustered was away in the north holding out against Polish incursions. Marching directly to Petru’s capital city, Suleyman and his rather fearsome entourage forced an instant capitulation. Stefan Lacusta - a Turkic ally who had spent years in the Ottoman court, was crowned ruler of a compressed Karabogdan while Suleyman annexed the southeastern territories. The campaign’s overwhelming success was only lifted by the appearance of Barbarossa’s son to inform the sultan that his father had wrested glorious victory from the Holy League’s navy. Atop these celebrated cakes was the cherry of Hadim Suleyman Pasha’s successes in the Indian ocean. These ‘simultaneous victories,’ says Kaya Sahin, were used to ‘convey the image of an empire fighting on land and sea and in distant lands to great success.’ The renewed feeling of imperial confidence manifested itself in the circumcision ceremony of princes Bayezid and Cihangir, organised a year later between November and December 1539.

Never one for Khidrn around, Barbarossa poses here as the mediterranean's most feared corsair.

Never one for Khidrn around, Barbarossa poses here as the mediterranean's most feared corsair.

As the mighty sultan’s end swung into (still distant) view, peace ‘broke out’ across Europe. The Habsburg ambassador Gerard Weltwyck had been the first Habsburg diplomat to hold an official posting to Istanbul; it was his doing that precipitated a mutual recognition of the Hungarian status quo. A comprehensive treaty stipulating that peace would prevail among the Ottomans, Habsburgs, Venetians, French and Papacy was signed between the sultan, Ferdinand and Charles V; this was a pan-Eurasian treaty.

Meanwhile, the western calm allowed the sultan some latitude within which to navigate a more concrete victory over his eastern co-religionists. Border skirmishes had erupted back-and-forth in the contested territories along the boundaries of both empires for the intervening eleven years, with Tahmasp having ultimately strengthened his position by capturing the Sunni Sirvans-ah territories. He made his brother Alqas the governor of that region and, in tradition honoured by power-hungry siblings across the globe, Alqas set out to construct his own base of power in the region. Rightly suspicious of his brother’s motives, Tahmasp despatched a force to put an end to his dalliances with revolution. Alqas was forced to seek refuge with the Ottomans. Once in Istanbul, he wrote a letter to Suleyman demanding the help of ‘this earth’s second Solomon’. The Ottoman sultan was promised the keys to verdant Iran if conquest was successful: in response Suleyman sprung himself from Edirne to Istanbul at once to acquaint himself personally with the dissident Safavid.

Campaign preparations began in the first months of 1548 and, thanks to the inactivity which had struck the Ottoman/Habsburg border, even Rumelian contingents were called upon to join the main body of troops. Ulame was bound with Alqas - it was hoped their combined knowledge of Safavid statesmanship would lend the Turkic interest a significant advantage when aboard the conquesting ship.

The Ottomans, however, did not make the expected headway. From a cursory glance at the heavy artillery and laden supply trains they dragged, it would be clear to any that Ottoman power was centred in open battle. Unfortunately their rivals preferred to dash and dart across terrain more familiar to them than their own hearts - stunting physical Ottoman progress through the land and raining death upon the forward scouting parties whose constant unexplained disappearances made it difficult to know in what direction advance should be had. The problem was that the overriding military thrust outlined by the Ottomans in Istanbul was not practicable in the atomised world of tribal allegiances that ruled in Safavid Iran. This military campaign could not be a synthesised one; rather ending as a series of loosely interconnected military operations extending over the whole of Eastern Anatolia, Western Iran and parts of the Caucasus.

The initial plan had been to reconquer Van, but Alqas convinced them to attack Tabriz. Once resident within the city, Suleyman was to proclaim Alqas the shah of Iran, but the bitter sibling decided to enact revenge on Tahmasp’s subjects. His men grew frenzied and, out of control, looted the city, burning down Tahmasp’s palace. The vengeful Alqas then proposed to deport the city’s merchants and artisans before imposing a summary tax to raise what funds had been expended in campaigning thus far. Suleyman refused, ordering that a tax amnesty be enacted for the city’s dwellers and any peasants in its vicinity. Any Ottoman confidence which had been vested in this unruly Safavid was now shattered and Suleyman, along with his army, left Tabriz to help forces previously ordered to engage Van in siege. Just as with the Two Iraqs campaign, grandiose ideological objectives had been relinquished, leaving the Ottomans with nothing to do but chase an elusive enemy around a land through which they could neither move quickly nor held in any degree of familiarity.


Once the Sultan arrived in the vicinity of Van, its defenders decided capitulation was the most expedient of their limited choices. The Safavid cavalry wasted no time in attacking all settlements around the city and burning their crops, slaughtering their residents. As the winter drew near, Alqas begged to attack Isfahan, Kashan and Qum because these were the locations of his brother’s treasury. Likely doubting even the remaining dregs of usefulness still shored in Alqas, the sultan refused to directly grant any troops to his command; rather an imperial edict was drawn up allowing the defected Safavid to recruit troops from the Kurdish tribes and peasantry in the region of Diyarbekir. After leaving with a rag-tag force, Alqas attacked Isfahan, looting the treasury of his brothers Tahmasp and Bahram.

The affair drew to a close when an exhausted Alqas retired to Baghdad for the winter and sent a missive to his brother begging forgiveness. The Ottoman grand vizier Rustem had already made the decision to be rid of him and set about preparing the conditions which would force his ejection from the Ottomans. In the summer of 1549, Alqas relinquished himself; surrendering to Safavid forces in late October. Any prospect of Iranian conquest was dissolved with Alqas’ desertion and in desperation Suleyman ordered a spring offensive against Georgia - to at least provide the lengthy maneuvers some semblance of lasting impact. Even this rather pathetic punitive campaign was hampered by the appearance of a sudden illness which left the sultan bed-bound and necessitated a retreat to Istanbul.

Clearly Ta Renaissance cartographic briz had blown into Safavid lands.

Clearly Ta Renaissance cartographic briz had blown into Safavid lands.

The pattern of imperial enmity is one self-repeating. So it was that 1550 saw the western front reopened. The question mark now raised was over Ferdinand’s Transylvanian sovereignty, or lack thereof. After the annexation of Central Hungary and Buda, the Ottomans had made John Sigismund, John Szapolyai’s infant son, the governor of Transylvania. He ‘ruled’ as an infant and youth under the authority of dowager queen Isabella and regent George Martinuzzi. 1551 saw the queen convinced of her own vulnerability and brought to sign the Treaty of Alba Iulia with Ferdinand. This document transferred Transylvanian sovereignty rights as well as those of Szapolyai in Hungary to Ferdinand in return for the duchy of Oppel in Upper Silesia. The Ottoman response was to imprison the Habsburg messenger who carried the news and order the Rumeli governor-general to Transylvania. 1552 saw the annexation of Transylvania, which became the governorate of Temesvar. The campaign to secure Transylvania had required the lightening of Ottoman pressure against the east, however, and the ever-rocking pendulum of power which swung between both sides of the Ottoman polity now allowed Tahmasp to recover any Iranian losses incurred during the previous campaign. The Rumelian forces in Transylvania were once again ordered to Central Anatolia and the final anti-Safavid campaign of Suleyman’s life began.

This same pendulum had also created a severe discrepancy between Ottoman bark and Ottoman bite. The constant, avid assertions of absolute power had failed to find material backing as the ‘victories’ reaped in campaigns ranging from Central Europe to Azerbaijan and Eastern Anatolia all ended without satisfactory symbol. The mood of glory and pomp which had defined Suleyman’s reign for its opening few decades gave way to an austerity which many attribute to a genuine growth in the sultan’s piety. 

This general mood of decomposing disappointment was most effectively summated by the execution in 1553 of Suleyman’s son Mustafa. Posterity would claim that the aging heir had fostered a plan to kill the grand vizier, sequester his troops and march to Istanbul from whence his father could be deposed. The grand vizier also claimed that Mustafa had been in talks with Tahmasp to organise an Ottoman-Safavid coalition against Suleyman’s monarchy. The sultan, who had preferred to leave army command to his pashas after 1549, was forced to take the battlefield once again in light of the situation’s gravity. His departure was accompanied by the customary ceremonial trimmings; seven flags and four horsetail standards unfurled to demonstrate that even ailing, the sultan was lord of the four corners and seven climes. Once on the move, an invitation was extended to Prince Mustafa to meet the army and enter the imperial tent. The prince acquiesced and made his way to the encampment, a small retinue in tow. Once inside, the prince was throttled while his aides found themselves beheaded in the light of day outwith the tent. The imperial treasurer was sent to expropriate the ex-prince’s belongings and sooth the fraying tempers of Mustafa-loyalists by liberally distributing timar grants.

The affair created considerable unrest in the army camp and beyond, evidenced by a flurry of contemporary verse composed to lament the prince’s execution. To make matters worse, the crown prince Cihangir passed away of natural causes in Aleppo within a few months of the Mustafa affair. The empire, and its emperor, had lost two prospective inheritors within the scope of a few months.

Cool Hand Duke: the prince meets the rigours of imperially-sanctioned mortis.

Cool Hand Duke: the prince meets the rigours of imperially-sanctioned mortis.

Suleyman’s final campaign against the Safavids was in answer to the recent military resurgence from those quarters. In 1552, Tahmasp had launched a lightning attack on Van, Ercis and Adilcevaz while the Ottomans were occupied with western matters. Diplomatic hymns sung by Safavid emissaries in Istanbul were duly ignored; Suleyman made the call to answer with military force. He departed in April 1554 for Diyarbekir, where governors-general and their forces joined him. Troop morale was low, understood to be in consequence of Mustafa’s dampening execution. On May 15, commanders and officers of all units were invited to an imperial council meeting at which they were party to a soaring speech regarding the Ottoman duty. They were bound, so the attendees were exhorted, to fulfill Allah’s wish for holy war and bound by His will to uphold the will of the sultan.

That same sultan gave the order, now, to proceed towards Erzurum. The great locus of Ottoman martial power reached the principality in June from whence they continued to Nachlvan. The delay in necessary provisions and Tahmasp’s representative scorched earth tactics necessitated a retreat to Kars by July 5. Another reason, it has been estimated, was the aging sultan’s desire to lean upon his military presence in the pursuit of a reasonable settlement with an enemy he was aware would forever go undefeated. On the day of arrival in Kars, Mustafa drew up a Safavid-bound missive. In it, he engaged in bitter anti-Shiite polemic and offered his reader an acutely Sunni-centric account of Islamic history. Accusing the Safavids of illicit religious practices, he simultaneously defends the Ottomans by arguing that they were compelled to fight by none but Tahmasp’s actions. The document brought together religious arguments and accusations of cowardice, chiding Tahmasp for his constant failure to meet Ottoman forces head-on in the field of battle. The closing warning is as absolutist as its originating state: in the case of the shah avoiding immediate response, the Ottomans will advance and lay waste to Nahclvan. On July 10, Suleyman and his forces moved to Nahclvan. Burning and pillaging as they went, the countryside was left barren in their wake. In Nahclvan, they turned to smouldering dust the shah’s palaces and enslaved huge swathes of the population. In contrast to earlier campaigns where the soldiery had been kept on short leash, it was clear they were now under direct orders to behave with all the brutality their western neighbours believed to be the natural Turkish state. The shah was either to be brought to a battlefield or convinced of the necessity for peace.

The shah’s letter reached Ottoman hands in Ramadan’s first week. It addressed the grand vizier Ahmed Pasha and, amidst overzealous posturing regarding an incoming Safavid counterattack, also stated that in case the Ottomans would be willing to reach an agreement, they would follow in kind. A battle of affectation was now entered as a pair of responses were drawn up from the Ottoman side. The important one was signed by Ottoman viziers and stated that though the Turks themselves had not asked for peace, the sultan would not reject a request for clemency. Apparently the Safavid shah was genuinely concerned that the Ottomans would attack the spiritual centre of Shiism, the city of Ardabil, as had been stated in the preceding letters. Finally, after a failed attack on Georgia, a letter requesting peace was received from the Safavid shah. The envoy was feasted for days in response. This was the end of the Nahclvan campaign, fought more with the furious scribbling of pen on paper than the clash of swords.

Barenacl: in lieu of latitudinarianism, the co-religionists duke it out amidst Shiite Islam's holiest ground.

Barenacl: in lieu of latitudinarianism, the co-religionists duke it out amidst Shiite Islam's holiest ground.

The Amasya settlement which it precipitated was ensured by the sultan’s continued occupation of that Iranian city. The shah was to be disallowed any margin for rethinking his position in the imperial hierarchy now established between them. In the spring a Safavid delegation arrived, headed by Tahmasp’s chief courtier Kamal al-Din Farrukhzada. A mansion was provided for the delegation’s residence and they were gifted the use of royal servants. The shah’s apologies were presented in humble terms and gifts from him were lavished upon Suleyman. Soon after, the letter which represented the direct wishes of Tahmasp were handed over for inspection. It was decorated in Shiite overtones and made derogatory reference to Ali and the first three caliphs. Interestingly, however, official material composed by the Ottoman chancellor began to accept the Safavids being Muslim. Where before the defining tenet of their beliefs had made them heretics and unbelievers, peace had elevated them to the status of a hated fellow. Outside its religious defence, however, the letter was deeply conciliatory in its political content. It repeats Suleyman’s many titles and acknowledges his supremacy over the territories within his empire and, in sections directly quoting the shah, urges peace among Muslims, asking Suleyman to allow Shiite muslims the right to visit various sites of pilgrimage within his domains.

The Ottomans replied in a tone softer than that used previously. Their correspondence assures that, barring a Safavid attack on Ottoman lands, they no longer need fear a shattering of this ‘immortal peace’. The Amasya settlement thus produced an end to Ottoman/Safavid conflict for the first time since the sixteenth century’s opening decade. Both sides ended frustrated, with Ismail’s grandiose designs to expand into Anatolia foiled even as the Ottomans remained unable to assert total dominance of Sunni Islam as they had wished. The settlement also indicates that both sides had adopted a politicised version of Sunnism and Shiism as the main identity markers of their empires; entirely relinquishing any latitudinarian messianic claims in favour of a more conservative religious rhetoric.

This peace came just weeks before that drawn up between Charles V and the Lutheran princes at Augsburg. Both settlements exhibit serious differences and yet a curious set of parallels at the same time. The peace at Augsburg contained the foundations for the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, while that at Amasya fails to address the question of Shiites living under Ottoman rule and vice versa. The Ottoman-Safavid case similarly fails to answer the question of religious freedom found at the heart of negotiations between Charles V and his subjects. At the same time, it is clear that both settlements are the result of half a century’s intense propaganda and warfare, symbolic of four great powers making humbled relinquish of all claims to absolute supremacy. In their conciliatory terms and verbage, both documents denote mutual understanding; one formally recognising the mutual possession of a form of political discourse representative of real political identity. It introduced a level of territorialisation that was to become the norm across Europe for many years.

Tip of the Augsburg:  cuius regio eius religio  is born.

Tip of the Augsburg: cuius regio eius religio is born.

The succession crisis which erupted before Suleyman’s death tells of the impatience which Kanuni had engendered among his community by living so long and failing to abdicate. The last capable of holding the tension in the Ottoman wire had been Hurrem Sultan, whose death in 1558 spelled civil war. Bayezid and Selim were relocated later the same year, with Bayezid losing the privileged position of his previous posting - likely in recompense for the coup he was suspected of plotting. The disgraced prince began gathering soldiers in a storm around himself - both brothers knew civil war was on the horizon. On May 30, 1559, Bayezid’s recruits were overwhelmed by a force mustered for Selim’s side, assisted as the obedient son was by his still-powerful father. The full impact of the military and scholarly establishments came down upon Bayezid in disapproval. A full legal consensus against the son of imperium was established and Bayezid was left little choice but to make an Iranian-bound flight. Rather than take this wayward prince’s arrival as opportunity to make war, Tahmasp held him like a bargaining chip to prevent breaking peace between the two Islamic empires. From a long-term standpoint, it has been argued that the recruitment of troops by both heirs resulted in people outwith the military class making high-grade weaponry’s acquaintance leading to new levels of banditry within the Ottoman provinces. Certainly, the Ottoman administration thenceforth saw it necessary to station janissaries in Anatolian fortresses while the practice of sending princes to governorships became limited to the eldest alone.


On the other side of the world, Charles V was drunk with illness and melancholic as a result. In 1556 he abdicated the Habsburg throne. 1558 saw the election of his brother, but it was common knowledge that Ferdinand’s morai for imperium lacked far behind that of his late elder sibling. Paul IV was deeply anti-Habsburgian and his tenure meant an end to their allegiances. Problems rife within France meant that both they and the Ottomans were forced to concede the long-running war in Italy - a settlement achieved with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. Henri II died in 1559 to be replaced by Francis II, who was buried just one year later. The next monarch, Charles IX, was kept busy dealing with his own wars of religion to the exclusion of any grander pan-European alliance.

Wheezing and in constant pain, the Ottoman sultan finally drew himself together with enough verve that a final campaign in Central Europe might be launched. It was simply another episode in the Ottoman-Habsburg Transylvanian comedy of errors. The stresses of the front lines tipped Suleyman the Magnificent into a critical state and he died in the imperial tent outside Szigetvar, 1566.

Though Suleyman’s time on the throne brought great prosperity and a new, invigorated sense of Ottoman and Islamic identity to his subjects, it would simply be reductionist to presume that this period represented an ‘ideal’ form of Ottoman imperialism. Karen Barkey and Baki Tezcan have proven that the post-Suleymanic Ottoman polity continued the economic dynamism, pragmatism and political verve which Suleyman had, with the help of his ancestors, established. Such a vast spread of land as was within the Ottoman borders could only be held together by a great locus of systems upon subsystems upon subsystems and subsystems. All were codependent, meaning a change in one would affect the rest to their overriding detriment. Negative ecological influences affected the delicate balance of these spider-web threads and made the imperium of later rulers more difficult to manage. Suleyman was a powerful man lifted on currents provided by a series of radical modernists who helped him revolutionise the Islamic state into an early-modern superpower. He was neither divine nor a messiah and was, thus, far from perfect. There was even a collection of Suleyman critics who sprang up before the sultan had departed the mortal coil - among them Lufti Pasha, who voiced concerns about the apparent deluge of bribery, excessive military spending and the infiltration of peasants into the military class. The retreat from public life which the sultan effected in later life also drew the ire of many from a variety of social strata. The janissaries complained in 1558 that ‘He [Suleyman] cannot know anything about anyone by living within four walls. He places all his confidence in a host of despots... he is unaware of the condition of the people.’  

The modern consensus, however, is neatly summarised by Jason Goodwin’s assertion that ‘under no other sultan would the Ottoman Empire be so universally admired or feared.’ Kanuni’s accolades were many and the administrative force which he raised meant the survival of the Ottoman state for untold centuries into the future. His reputation was one which soared across the empires of Eurasia. Thirty years after his death, a Neapolitan traveller went to admire his sepulchre in Istanbul, ‘for surely though he was a Turk, the least I could do was to look at his coffin with feeling, for the valorous deeds he accomplished when alive.’

Ultimately, the Magnificent stripped of hubris is only really human, and Suleyman’s life and long reign were marked by great highs of victory and the tragic lows familiar to us all - sometimes in the same breath. Among the exuberance of 1526 and the Hungarian annihilation at Mohács, Suleyman recorded this most miserable of diary entries: ‘Rain falls in torrents. 2,000 prisoners executed.’ Suleyman had wept to see the corpse of the little king who died that day even as his chronicler recorded ‘A nation of impious men has been extirpated! Praise be to God!’ The lover of the tormented heart whose aspirations as a poet, musician, artist and lover vied fiercely with those bellicose aspirations inherited from his forefathers left the world a legacy imperial, imperious and tinged with the faint darkness of tragedy.


Select Bibliography:

Ágoston, Gábor. Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

Çıpa, H. Erdem. The Making of Selim: Succession, Legitimacy, and Memory in the Early Modern Ottoman World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2017. Print.

Erciyas, Deniz Burcu. Wealth, Aristocracy and Royal Propaganda under the Hellenistic Kingdom of the Mithradatids in the Central Black Sea Region in Turkey. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Print.

Finkel, Caroline F. Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. New York: Basic, 2007. Print.

Forster, Ch Th., and F. H. B. Daniell. The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin De Busbecq, Seigneur of Bousbecque Knight, Imperial Ambassador. Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1971. Print.

Goodwin, Jason. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Picador, 2003. Print.

İnalcık, Halil. The Ottoman Empire: Conquest, Organization and Economy. London: Variorum, 1978. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, and John Scott Ripon. The Prince. London: Printed for Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1810. Print.

Sahin, Kaya. Empire and Power in the Reign of Suleyman: Narrating the Sixteenth-century Ottoman World. New York: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.
— . Goodwin, Jason. Lords Of The Horizons
The Yellow Conk(ueror): Cold War in Buckets

The Yellow Conk(ueror): Cold War in Buckets

Miltonesquie: Enlightenment Republicanism and Radical Heterodoxy

Miltonesquie: Enlightenment Republicanism and Radical Heterodoxy