Suleiman succeeded his father Selim I in 1520 at the age of twenty-six. He had won a name for himself by his courage in war, his generosity in friendship, and his efficient administration of Turkish provinces. His refined features and gracious manners made him welcome in a Constantinople tired of Selim the Grim. An Italian who saw Suleiman soon after his accession described him as tall, wiry, and strong, the neck too long, the nose too curved, beard and mustache thin, complexion sallow and delicate, countenance grave and calm; he looked more like a student than a sultan.13 Eight years later another Italian reported him as “deadly pale... melancholy, much addicted to women, liberal, proud, hasty, and yet sometimes very gentle.” Ghislain de Busbeq, ambassador of the Hapsburgs at the Porte, wrote almost fondly of the Hapsburgs’ most persistent enemy:
He has always had the character of being a careful and temperate man; even in his early days, when, according to the Turkish rule, sin would have been venial, his life was blameless, for not even in youth did he indulge in wine or commit those unnatural crimes which are common among the Turks; nor could those who were disposed to put the most unfavorable construction on his acts bring anything worse against him than his excessive devotion to his wife.... It is a well-known fact that from the time he made her his lawful wife he has been perfectly faithful to her, although there was nothing in the laws to prevent his having mistresses as well.14
It is a picture worth noting, but too flattering: Suleiman was doubtless the greatest and noblest of the Ottoman sultans, and equaled any ruler of his time in ability, wisdom, and character; but we shall find him, now and then, guilty of cruelty, jealousy, and revenge. Let us, however, as an experiment in perspective, try to view dispassionately his conflict with Christendom.
The military debate between Christianity and Islam was already 900 years old. It began when Moslem Arabs snatched Syria from the Byzantine Empire (634). It proceeded through the year-by-year conquest of that Empire by the Saracens, and the conquest of Spain by the Moors. Christendom retaliated in the Crusades, in which both sides covered with religious phrases and ardor their economic aims and political crimes. Islam retaliated by taking Constantinople and the Balkans. Spain expelled the Moors. Pope after pope called for fresh crusades against the Turks; Selim I vowed to build a mosque in Rome; Francis I proposed to the Western powers (1516) that they should utterly destroy the Turkish state and divide its possessions among themselves as infidel spoils.15 This plan was frustrated by the division of Germany in religious war the revolt of the Spanish communes against Charles V, and the second thought of Francis himself—to seek Suleiman’s aid against Charles. Suleiman may have been saved by Luther, as Lutheranism owed so much to Suleiman.
Every government strives to extend its borders, partly to enlarge its resources and revenues, partly to create additional protective terrain between its frontiers and its capital. Suleiman supposed that the best defense was offense. In 1521 he captured the Hungarian strongholds of Szabacs and Belgrade; then, feeling safe in the West, he turned his forces against Rhodes. There the Christians, under the Knights of St. John, held a heavily fortified citadel directly athwart the routes from Constantinople to Alexandria and Syria; it seemed to Suleiman a dangerous alien bastion in an otherwise Turkish sea; and in fact the pirate ships of the Knights preyed upon Moslem commerce16 in one end of the Mediterranean as the Moslem pirates of Algeria preyed upon Christian commerce in the other. When Moslems were taken in these Knightly raids they were usually slain.17 Vessels carrying pilgrims to Mecca were intercepted on suspicion of hostile purposes. “Under all the circumstances,” says a Christian historian, “Suleiman was in no need of justification for an assault on Rhodes”;18 and a distinguished English historian adds: “It was in the interest of public order that the island should be annexed to the Turkish realm.” 19
Suleiman attacked with 300 ships and 200,000 men. The defenders, led by the aged Grand Master Philippe de Villiers de L’lle-Adam, fought the besiegers for 145 days, and finally surrendered under honorable terms: the Knights and their soldiery were to leave the island in safety, but within ten days; the remaining population were to have full religious freedom, and were to be exempt from tribute for five years. On Christmas Day Suleiman asked to see the Grand Master; he condoled with him, praised his brave defense, and gave him valuable presents; and to the Vizier Ibrahim the Sultan remarked that “it caused him great sorrow to be obliged to force this Christian in his old age to abandon his home and his belongings.”20 On January 1, 1523, the Knights sailed off to Crete, whence, eight years later, they passed to a more permanent home in Malta. The Sultan tarnished his victory by putting to death the son and grandchildren of Prince Djem because they had become Christians and might be used, as Djem had been, as claimants to the Ottoman throne.
Early in 1525 Suleiman received a letter from Francis I, then a captive of Charles V, asking him to attack Hungary and come to the rescue of the French King. The Sultan answered: “Our horse is saddled, our sword is girt on.”21 However, he had long ago made up his mind to invade Hungary. He set out in April 1526, with 100,000 men and 300 cannon. Pope Clement VII urged Christian rulers to go to the aid of the threatened state; Luther advised the Protestant princes to stay home, for the Turks were obviously a divine visitation, and to resist them would be to resist God.22 Charles V remained in Spain. The consequent rout of the Hungarians at Mohács was a moral as well as a physical defeat for Christendom. Hungary might have recovered from the disaster if Catholics and Protestants, Emperor and Pope, had labored together; but Lutheran leaders rejoiced in the Turkish victory, and the army of the Emperor sacked Rome.
In 1529 Suleiman returned, and besieged Vienna with 200,000 men; from the spire of St. Stephen’s, Count Nicholas von Salm, to whom Ferdinand entrusted the defense, could see the surrounding plains and hills darkened with the tents, soldiery, and armament of the Ottomans. This time Luther summoned his adherents to join in the resistance, for clearly, if Vienna fell, Germany would be the next object of Turkish attack. Reports ran through Europe that Suleiman had vowed to reduce all Europe to the one true faith Islam.23Turkish sappers dug tunnel after tunnel in the hope of blowing up the walls or setting up explosions within the city, but the defenders placed vessels of water at danger points, and watched for movements that would indicate subterranean operations. Winter came, and the Sultan’s long line of communications failed to maintain supplies. On October 14 he called for a final and decisive effort, and promised great rewards; spirit and flesh were both unwilling; the attack was repulsed with great loss, and Suleiman sadly ordered a retreat. It was his first defeat; yet he retained half of Hungary, and carried back to Constantinople the royal crown of St. Stephen. He explained to his people that he returned without victory because Ferdinand (who had sat the siege out safely in Prague) had refused to fight; and he promised that he would soon hunt out Charles himself, who dared to call himself emperor, and would wrest from him the lordship of the West.
The West took him seriously enough. Rome fell into a panic; Clement VII, for once resolute, taxed even the cardinals to raise funds to fortify Ancona and other ports through which the Ottomans might enter Italy. In April 1532, Suleiman marched westward once more. His departure from his capital was a well staged spectacle: 120 cannon led the advance; 8,000 Janissaries followed, the best soldiers in the realm; a thousand camels carried provisions; 2,000 elite horsemen guarded the holy standard—the eagle of the Prophet; thousands of Christian captive boys, dressed in cloth of gold and plumed red hats, flaunted lances with innocent bravery; the Sultan’s own retinue were men of giant stature and handsome mien; among them, on a chestnut horse, rode Suleiman himself, robed in crimson velvet embroidered with gold, under a white turban inset with precious stones; and behind him marched an army that in its final mustering numbered 200,000 men. Who could resist such splendor and power? Only the elements and space.
To meet this avalanche Charles, after much pleading, received from the Imperial Diet a grant to raise 40,000 foot and 8,000 horse; he and Ferdinand provided 30,000 additional men at their own expense; and with these 78,000, gathered in Vienna, they awaited siege. But the Sultan was delayed at Güns. It was a small town, well fortified, but garrisoned with only 700 troops. For three weeks they fought back every Turkish attempt to break through the walls; eleven times these were pierced, eleven times the defenders blocked the opening with metal, flesh, and desperation. At last Suleiman sent a safeconduct and hostages to the commander, Nicholas Jurischitz, inviting him to a conference. He came, and was received with honors by the Grand Vizier; his courage and generalship were sorrowfully praised; the Sultan presented him with a robe of honor, guaranteed him against further attack, and sent him back to his citadel under a handsome escort of Turkish officers. The invincible avalanche, defeated by 700 men, passed on to Vienna.
But there too Suleiman missed his prey. Charles would not come out to fight; he would have been foolish to forfeit the advantage of his defenses for the gamble of the open field. Suleiman reckoned that if he had failed to take Vienna held by 20,000 men with no emperor or king in sight, he would hardly do better against 78,000 inspired by a young monarch who had publicly announced that he would welcome death in this contest as the noblest worldly end to which a Christian could aspire. The Sultan turned away, ravaged Styria and Lower Austria, and took stray captives to grace his retreat. It could have been no comfort to him to hear that while he was marching uselessly back and forth across Hungary Andrea Doria had chased the Turkish fleet into hiding, and had captured Patras and Coron, on the Peloponnesian coast.
When Ferdinand sent an emissary to Constantinople to seek peace Suleiman welcomed him; he would grant peace “not for seven years, not for twenty-five years, not for a hundred years, but for two centuries, three centuries, indeed forever—if Ferdinand himself would not break it,” and he would treat Ferdinand as a son.24 However, he asked a heavy price: Ferdinand must send him the keys to the city of Grau in token of submission and homage. Ferdinand and Charles were so eager to free their arms against Christians that they were ready to make concessions to the Turks. Ferdinand sent the keys, called himself Suleiman’s son, and acknowledged Suleiman’s sovereignty over most of Hungary (June 22, 1533). No peace was made with Charles. Suleiman recaptured Patras and Coron, and dreamed of straddling Vienna and Tabriz.
He took Tabriz, and turned west again (1536). Putting theology aside, he agreed to co-operate with Francis I in another campaign against Charles. He offered the most amiable terms to the King: peace should be made with Charles only on his surrendering Genoa, Milan, and Flanders to France; French merchants were permitted to sail, buy, and sell throughout the Ottoman Empire on equal terms with the Turks; French consuls in that realm were to have civil and criminal jurisdiction over all Frenchmen there, and these were to enjoy full religious liberty.25 The “capitulations” so signed became a model for later treaties of Christian powers with Eastern states.
Charles countered by forming an alliance of the Empire, Venice, and the papacy. Ferdinand joined in; so short was forever. Venice bore the brunt of the Turkish attack, lost her possessions in the Aegean and on the Dalmatian coast, and signed a separate peace (1540). A year later Suleiman’s puppet in Buda died, and the Sultan made Hungary an Ottoman province. Ferdinand sent an envoy to Turkey to ask for peace, and another to Persia urging the Shah to attack the Turks. Suleiman marched west (1543), took Grau and Stuhlweissenburg, and incorporated more of Hungary into the pashalik of Buda. In 1547, busy with Persia, he granted the West a five-year armistice. Both sides violated it. Pope Paul IV appealed to the Turks to attack Philip II, who was more papal than the popes.26The death of Francis and Charles left Ferdinand a freer hand to come to terms. In the Peace of Prague (1562) he acknowledged Suleiman’s rule in Hungary and Moldavia, pledged a yearly tribute of 30,000 ducats, and agreed to pay 90,000 ducats as arrears.
Two years later he followed his brother. Suleiman had survived all his major enemies, and how many popes had he not outlived? He was master of Egypt, North Africa, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria, the Balkans, Hungary. The Turkish navy ruled the Mediterranean, the Turkish army had proved its prowess east and west, the Turkish government had shown itself as competent in statesmanship and diplomacy as all its rivals. The Christians had lost Rhodes, the Aegean, Hungary, and had signed a humiliating peace. The Ottomans were now the strongest power in Europe and Africa, if not in the world.