Sultan Suleiman – A Magnificent Emperor. 3 things that you might not have known about the Ottoman Empire

Sultan Suleiman – A Magnificent Emperor. 3 things that you might not have known about the Ottoman Empire


The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest in history.

With a dynasty that spanned 600 years, at its height it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa.

In some countries, it is a legacy that they prefer to forget, in others it is a hotly debated topic and, in a handful, part of the national pride.

Of what there is no doubt is that it is a fascinating topic. In this article the historian Jem Duducu presents four facts that perhaps are not so well known about this exotic and still relevant empire.

1. The founder of the empire was a man named Osman

Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man regarded as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelled Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’).

The Seljuks had come from the Asian steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations.

Osman had ruled a small territory of Anatolia at the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the style of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Chingis-khan before winning an empire).

It was on the day of the coronation of his successor, who began the tradition of carrying the sword of Osmolytically to n girded by his belt . He became the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the West and was a reminder to the 36 sultans who followed him that his power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers.

The Turkish chief Osman (1258-1324), considered the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
Image caption The Turkish chief Osman (1258-1324), considered the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

That was true in the first half of the empire’s history, when the sultans were regularly going to fight in the battles. But as the empire matured and then dwindled, the sultans began to evade their duties on the battlefield.

Although Osman definitely existed, he is somehow like King Arthur in the West: founder of an idea and an almost mythical figure .

However, during his life he was considered so unimportant that we have absolutely no contemporary source about him. We do not know how it was or have proclamations of his reign, since it began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Age.

2. The Ottomans are not the same as the “Turks”

Sultan Selim III in an audience in front of the Gate of Happiness.  The courtiers are gathered in a strict protocol.  Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul
Image caption Sultan Selim III in an audience in front of the Gate of Happiness. The courtiers are gathered in a strict protocol. Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Photo of the work: Konstantin Kapıdağlı)

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the “Turks” mentioned in the European chronicles were not.

It is thanks to European ignorance (which has lasted for centuries) and the construction of the nation in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans.

Very often in European Renaissance literature, the Sultan was known as the “Great Turk”, a title that would mean nothing to the Ottoman court.

So let ‘s get this: the Ottoman Empire during most of its existence, preceded by nationalism .

The attacking forces in the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 were not all ‘Turkish’; in fact, not all the besieging forces were even Muslim.

"Enjoying coffee", painting by unknown author that is in the Pera Museum in Turkey.
Image caption The women in the harems were not “Turkish”. (“Enjoying coffee”, painting by unknown author that is in the Pera Museum in Turkey)

More than 30 of the sultans were children of harem women. Why highlight that fact? Because none of those women was Turkish and it is unlikely that any of them were born Muslim. In most of the cases, their origins have been lost in the mists of time, but it seems that most of them were European women, that is, Serbs, Greeks or Ukrainians.

It is likely that the last “Turkish” sultans were genetically much more Greek than Turkish.

Similarly, any of the legendary janissaries (an elite combat corps within the army), including the famous architect Mimar Sinan, who began his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been incorporated into this elite force and then They had converted to Islam.

To write anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is to say that anything in the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’ .

Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

Young Suleiman (right) and the sultan receiving an ambassador (left) in a painting by Matrakçı Nasuh.
Image caption Young Suleiman (right) and the Sultan receiving an ambassador (left) in a painting by Matrakçı Nasuh.

In the West, it is known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the East, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a complete list of their titles and they are fascinating:

“Sultan of the Ottomans, Deputy of Allah on Earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of the necks of men, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the happiest constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all people throughout the world, the shadow of the omnipresent silent dispensation on Earth. “

Let’s break things down:

The first title is obvious and the “deputy of Allah” implies his supreme Islamic authority without exceeding limits (the word “Islam” means “someone who submits to God”).

The ” possessor of necks ” goes back to the practice of his father Selim of beheading even high officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could be beheaded for certain crimes.

The following titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans knew that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be the ” Emperor of the East and the West ” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome that, at this point, was irremediably overcome by the Ottomans.

The magnificent signature of the Magnificent.
Image caption The magnificent signature of the Magnificent. (Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

” King of kings ” may sound a little biblical, but that is only because the Gospels took the title shahenshah of the Persian emperors, which literally means “king of kings”. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging an important rival, but this time it’s in the east and it’s the Safavid Persians.

The following titles are no more than bragging, but then we come to ” Refuge of all people around the world “, which shows that the sultans knew perfectly well that their empire was multicultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at that time. The expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those who lived in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Only two of Soliman’s military campaigns failed; He swept everything else that got in his way.

When he was not in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions.

If someone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleyman certainly fits perfectly.

4. The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

Napoleon leading the troops in the battle for the port of Acre.
Image caption Napoleon leading the troops in the battle for the port of Acre.

On May 20, 1799, Napoleon besieged the port of Acre, firing the few guns he had against the city’s powerful defenses.

With Napoleon committed to the siege, the Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march in aid of the city.

Napoleon had always chosen competent generals, and although his strength was small, ean-Baptiste Kléber was a very capable and combative general . His force of about 2,000 men (later joined by Napoleon’s 2,000 men) faced the Ottoman aid force on Mount Tabor in Palestine.

Abdullah Pasha al-Azm , the governor of Damascus, had assembled an army of more than 30 000 men , so that they surpassed the French in number to 1 .

The Ottoman forces were formed by Sipahis, Mamluks and other brave but obsolete classes of warriors. From dawn to evening, Kléber devoted himself to repelling every attack by the men of Pasha al-Azm.

The losses of the Ottoman governor were increasing, but his army dwarfed the French forces in such a way that he could afford it. Meanwhile, after 10 hours of fighting under the suffocating sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired and thirsty , and the reserves of gunpowder and ammunition were dangerously low.

Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, the French site of the walled city of Acre, defended by the Ottomans during the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, 1799.
Image caption Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, the French site of the walled city defended by the Ottomans during the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt.

It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to equal numbers in the Ottoman army, but to distract them by sending a few hundred of them to attack and plunder the Ottoman camp.

Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought that Napoleon’s small force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked , thinking that he was about to be attacked by the rear and flanks.

The total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 and another 500 captured , while only two French soldiers died.

An army of about 4,500 men had fought an army of more than 30,000 and had not only won, but had suffered only two deaths.

It was a devastating humiliation for Sultan Selim III and a spectacular triumph that he allowed Napoleon to continue their siege of Acre (though not take the port and this would mark the farthest border of his conquests in the Middle East).

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