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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
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Wednesday 2 August 2023

Peerless among Princes: The Life and Times of Sultan Süleyman

 This is Kaya Sahin's study of Sultan Süleyman, commonly described as The Magnificent in the West, or The Lawgiver in Türkiye. I have several biographies of arguably the best known Ottoman Sultan, but there is certainly room for a modern, scholarly and balanced look at Süleyman. Particularly for those of us reeling from the Turkish TV series, The Magnificent Century!

I found the chapters on his early life interesting. Fratricide may have given the Ottoman dynasty an  advantage in the fragmented political world of Anatolia and the Balkans, enabling its territories to be passed undivided from one generation to the other. However, it was a ruthless existence if you were a prince. While Süleyman reached the throne without having to compete with brothers, his father's route was bloody in the extreme, which must have impacted him. If he had failed, there would have been no Süleyman the Magnificent. Süleyman is the Turkicized Arabic form of Solomon, a point highlighted by him in his poetry.

He inherited his father Selim's considerable conquests, particularly in the Middle East. This is ably covered in Alan Mikhail's book on Selim. The Empire covered 2.5 million square miles and had 20 million subjects. Military conquest was an essential requirement for any Ottoman Sultan. His 1526 campaign and the Battle of Mohacs set the tone for his reign. 

Relationships with the other major powers are not ignored. It wasn't a period of continuous warfare; diplomacy was also important. The Ottomans understood the power structures in Western Europe and their main opponent to the east, Safavid Persia. Their enmity towards the Safavids was in some ways stronger than the European Christians. The Ottomans viewed them as heretics and believed that Safavid propaganda was behind the Anatolian rebellions.

It is difficult to fully understand the importance of personal relationships from historical sources. However, it seems clear that the relationship with his Grand Vizier Ibrahim was crucial to their vision for the Empire as well as his wife, Hürrem. Ibrahim's execution meant losing his closest associate. For the rest of his life, he refrained from making other close friends, becoming increasingly lonely at the top of the state. The death of his sons Bayezid and Mustafa and their families, while not unusual in late reign Ottoman power struggles, cannot have been easy.

Süleyman did his best to ensure that his legacy would be viewed as he wished, through his own history, the Sulaymannama and his charitable works. This partly explains why he is probably the best-known Sultan, along with his longevity on the throne for 46 years. He also lived at a time when there was an explosion in record-keeping, the expansion of the printing press in Europe, and a burgeoning manuscript culture in Ottoman territories. This positive image is propagated even today through the education system and the present government's promotion of Süleyman’s central role in Ottoman history.

Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, built by Mimar Sinan, Suleiman's chief architect.

The author concludes, 'This is where we now find Süleyman, after centuries of mythmaking and scholarship. He lives on under various garbs, offering shelter with his buildings, keeping academics busy, boring school children, and enticing readers and viewers to dream through him of a world filled with sound and fury.'

There is nothing boring about this book, despite its length. It covers the highs and lows of his reign in a balanced way, setting him in the broader context of the period. Well worth a read.

28mm Sipahi of the Porte


  1. It’s difficult to imagine the sheer power the Sultan had. As well as efforts to expand the empire there was also the constant, unrelenting threat posed by enemies - both internal and external. The “job” of Sultan would require a very special person indeed, and someone who was capable of making often unpleasant decisions.

    1. Indeed. And the sheer scale of the Empire without the instant communications we have today.