Süleyman the Magnificent and the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire

500 years ago, a certain Süleyman succeeded his father Selim to become sultan of the Ottomans. He transformed his inherited state from a regional power into an empire with a universal claim, whose dominion ranged from Hungary to Iraq, from Crimea to Algiers, and whose fleets sailed the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Later, he was called Süleyman the Magnificent, and his reign the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. This post will explore three questions (as always, with board games): How did Süleyman win his domains? How did he forge them into an empire? And how has the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire influenced later views and depictions of the Middle East?

West and East: Süleyman’s Campaigns

The Ottomans were a Turkic people who had gained an ever-growing foothold in Anatolia from about 1300 on. As they expanded into the Balkans, Constantinople, the old seat of the Byzantine Empire, was more and more surrounded by Ottoman possessions – and, in 1453, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II conquered the city and ended the “Second Rome”. Yet that was not the end of Ottoman ambitions: In the early 16th century, sultan Selim I brought Syria and Egypt as well as Arabia, lands with a much longer Islamic tradition than the Ottoman core realm, under his control. When he died in 1520, his only surviving son Süleyman had big shoes to fill.

Starting setup for The Ottomans (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games), 1453. The aforementioned Ottomans (in red) are poised to take Constantinople in Byzantium (green). Selim would conquer Syria and Egypt in yellow half a century later. Image taken from the Vassal module, ©Decision Games.

Selim’s advisors were reserved about the young sultan. Süleyman, however, immediately set out to prove his martial worth: As the treaty with Hungary had expired and the Hungarians refused to renew it and pay tribute to him, he mustered his army against them in 1521 and took the fortress of Belgrade in a masterful campaign. Only a year later, he set out to remove a sore in the Ottoman flank: The Knights Hospitaller controlled the strategically important island of Rhodos. From there, they could conduct piracy against the trade between Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. Süleyman’s amphibious assault on the island was another great success, and so the Knights Hospitaller were expelled from Rhodos.

A typical first turn in Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games): The Ottomans lay siege to Belgrade and Rhodes. Note that in history, Süleyman commanded both campaigns, whereas in the game, you typically have to send your vizier Ibrahim to one of those. Image from the Vassal module, ©GMT Games.

In the following years, Hungarian matters kept Süleyman busy. When the Hungarian king Lewis opposed him again in 1526, he was foolish enough to face the Ottoman army in open battle at Mohacs. While the Hungarians had a fearsome heavy cavalry, their army could match neither the numbers nor the firepower of the Ottoman host which relied heavily on gunpowder weapons. The victory was so complete that until today the Hungarian idiom to put setbacks, no matter how big, into perspective is “More was lost at Mohacs”. King Lewis died with his army. As he had left no issue, the Hungarian throne was up for grabs. One of the claimants was the Hapsburg prince Ferdinand, brother of Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who was married to Lewis’s sister Anna. The Ottomans, however, backed the claim of the Hungarian nobleman John Zápolya. A confrontation between the the Ottoman and the Hapsburg empires was imminent.

Süleyman’s greatest military triumph as a tactical game: Suleiman the Magnificent (Richard H. Berg, Against the Odds) covers the battle of Mohacs. ©Against the Odds.

Three years after Mohacs, Ferdinand made his move. He intervened in Hungary and ousted Zápolya. Süleyman scrambled to get a host together and marched into Hungary. He reinstalled Zápolya, drove the Hapsburgs and their allies out of Hungary, and marched on the center of Hapsburg power in the Holy Roman Empire – Vienna. Ottoman forces laid siege to the city on September 27, 1529. However, the Ottomans suffered heavy losses and abandoned the siege on October 14. Much has been made of this. The Hapsburgs used the siege to claim leadership among the Christian kingdoms as the defenders of Christendom against the Muslims, apparently divinely favored to withstand such a mighty host as Süleyman’s. However, Süleyman had achieved his main strategic goal of putting Hungary under the control of Zápolya again – which then allowed him to gamble on more with his march on Vienna. That he withdrew again from there had less to do with setbacks in combat and more with the uncompromising meteorological fact of fall: The campaigning season was over, and Süleyman had to lead his soldiers back to winter quarters to supply them.

The campaign was impactful beyond its immediate results. It instilled a mutual respect into the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, who, for the time being, turned to other pursuits instead of poking each other (capitalizing on the standing they each had won fighting against an infidel). Süleyman turned east, where the Persian Safavid Empire defied his claim to leadership of the Islamic world. As the Safavids followed the Shia and the Ottomans the Sunni branch of Islam, the conflict had all the bitterness of the contemporary confessional struggles in Europe. Süleyman’s campaign was moderately successful – he added the east of modern-day Iraq to his empire, but failed to win decisive battlefield victories which would have allowed him to lay claim to more.

The most powerful Foreign War card in Here I Stand. However, Süleyman should be able to resolve it within two impulses for a juicy victory point! Image ©GMT Games.

That pattern repeated itself in Süleyman’s following campaigns during the long war against the Safavids (1532—1555). As the rulers of Persia had done for centuries, the Safavids used the mountainous terrain to avoid battle and harass the supply lines of the invading Ottoman army. While there was never a victory like Mohacs, Süleyman managed to beat back the frequent Safavid incursions into Anatolia and expand his empire to the Persian Gulf. Through the Gulf and the Red Sea, the Ottoman fleets now had access to the trade of the Indian Ocean.

Early in a game of Here I Stand, Barbarossa (Khair ad-Din) pirates the Mediterranean while Süleyman leads his forces toward a confrontation with Hungary.

The sea was also the main battlefield for Süleyman’s later battles against the Hapsburgs and their allies. The bey of Algiers (and infamous corsair) Khair ad-Din (better known in the West as Barbarossa) recognized the suzerainty of Süleyman and was rewarded with the command over the Ottoman fleet. The resources of the Ottoman Empire combined with the strategic position of Algiers in the western Mediterranean proved immensely powerful – and so did Khair ad-Dins abilities as a naval commander. He conquered Tunis from the Hapsburgs (although Charles V took it back soon after), harried shipping all around Italy, wrestled many of the smaller Mediterranean islands away from Venice, and in 1543, took Nice in a joint operation with the French from the Hapsburgs’ Savoy allies.

Süleyman spent much of his life in the field, even when he was already an old man. However, the easy and decisive victories of the 1520s eluded him in his later years. Subsequently, he turned more and more to the building of his empire – literally, as many great construction projects in Istanbul still bear witness, and figuratively.

The Lawgiver: Eurasian Trends of Empire-Building

When Süleyman became sultan, the Ottoman Empire relied on local nobles, military men, and clerics for its administration – just like the European realms of the Middle Ages. And in both cases, these old elites were partially replaced by a new class of secular, common-born (but freeborn, unlike the slaves Ottoman rulers had sometimes employed before) administration professionals – men like Celâlzâde Mustafa Çelebi in the Ottoman Empire (or Thomas Cromwell in England). As the administration became more professional, the language it used also changed from Arabic and Persian to Ottoman Turkish. The Ottomans’ traditional feeling of cultural inferiority to the older Islamic culture vanished under Süleyman.

Of course, that newfound confidence rested on Selim’s and Süleyman’s conquests: Now the old lands of Islam with their storied culture – the holy places in Arabia and the Levant, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia – were under Ottoman rule (or, as in the case of Safavid Persia, regularly defeated). The backbone of the nigh-invincible Ottoman army (at least in the open field) were its hardy, professional footsoldiers, the Janissaries. They were recruited from the boys of subjugated non-Muslim peoples in the Balkans and the Caucasus. While originally archers, the Janissaries were early adopters of firearms from the mid-15th century on. They first gained ascendancy over the more traditional dominant arm of the Ottoman military, the sipahi cavalry recruited from the wealthy landholders, during the reign of Süleyman – another step toward professionalization, and resembling the European knights’ similar loss of military importance and political influence at the same time.

The Janissaries are the basis of Ottoman military supremacy in Here I Stand. ©GMT Games.

Süleyman is called the Magnificent in the West, but his own Turkish subjects and their descendants have a different sobriquet for him: Kanuni, the Lawgiver. During Süleyman’s administration, much of the civil law which had been merely customary before was codified and thus complemented the religious law of sharia. Together, they formed a legal framework relatively tolerant of other religions – for example, many of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, moved to the Ottoman Empire where their commercial knowledge was crucial to the growth of Ottoman enterprise.

Religion was important to the Ottoman sultans – after all, Süleyman was the first of them to claim the title of caliph, the political-religious head of Islam. However, religion could also be a strategic tool – the Ottomans used their rivalry with the Hapsburgs to claim leadership of Islam against the infidels (the Hapsburgs did the same) – and it could be flexibly ignored if advantageous (the Ottomans allied with France, and their Shia Muslim neighbors in Safavid Persia sounded out the Hapsburgs for an alliance against the Ottomans that never came to happen).

The Ottoman-French alliance was advantageous for both sides. Image ©GMT Games.

Overall, that made three pillars to the Ottoman Empire under Süleyman: Merit, as displayed by the civilian administration and the Janissary corps which answered to Süleyman, law, as codified by Süleyman, and Sunni Islam, whose head Süleyman was as caliph.

Middle Eastern Matters in Games: The Shadow of Orientalism

So far, I’ve been speaking of Süleyman’s reign as the “Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire”. Of course, it’s debatable if that term is appropriate. Naturally, not all of Süleyman’s enterprises succeeded, and life was not only bliss for his subjects. Still, politically, economically, and culturally, the Ottoman Empire and its people climbed to new heights. But what came after it?

Modern scholarship sees a transformation after Süleyman’s death which had already begun in the later years of his reign: The messianic excitement of the 1520s and 1530s (another trans-Eurasian trend) faded, the wars were not as profitable anymore as to fuel new expansion, and thus the empire gradually became more stable. Still, it remained at the apex of its power and vigor for another century after Süleyman’s death.

An older view, however, sees the Ottoman Empire after Süleyman’s death in decline and decadence. At first glance, his two successors as sultans support that view: Neither Süleyman’s son, Selim II, nor his grandson, Murad III, took much interest in reigning. Selim left that to his vizier Mehmed Sokollu, Murad to his wife Safiye. Both of them did a solid job.

Both the views of a golden age and of a subsequent decline have led to popular conceptions of “the Orient” in in the west which are, say, a bit problematic. The theoretical framework to analyze this “orientalism” was laid out by Edward Said. Orientalist views, as per Said, posit a dichotomy between the (enlightened) West and the (mystical and mysterious) East, full of luxury and decadence. The exoticism, culturalism, and sometimes racism of orientalist descriptions of the (presumably homogenous) East legitimize the West colonizing it. Orientalism is thus a system of hegemonial production of knowledge which serves to ensure this hegemony of West over East.

Orientalist views are common in Western popular culture featuring Middle Eastern settings or characters. Unsurprisingly, board games are not free of it. If you are interested in orientalism in board games, also make sure to watch Shut Up & Sit Down’s review of Istanbul (Rüdiger Dorn, Pegasus). (To avoid confusion: Istanbul is found to be mostly free of orientalism.) Some offenders would include:

  • Sultaniya (Charles Chevallier, Bombyx) is a game about building – but the players can gain bonus powers through genies. Imagine a game set in medieval Europe making use of ghosts or angels for that purpose!
  • Al Rashid (Giorgio De Michele/Pierluca Zizzi, Yemaia) just throws all the Middle Eastern cultures together: Allegedly, it is set in the 8th/9th century in the (Arab) Abbasid Empire, and yet it names one of its worker types “pasha”, a Turkish word describing an Ottoman official (from the 15th century on). Imagine a game set in Tudor England where the courtiers are called “senators”!
  • To finish the short list of examples, Five Tribes (Bruno Cathala, Days of Wonder) caused much notoriety for its inclusion of slaves as a buyable commodity. They were then replaced in the next edition by “fakirs”. Now, in my humble opinion, if you buy a fakir like you buy cloth or ivory, that does not quite solve the slavery issue. At the same time, using fakirs as jokers is once more reliant on the orientalist view of the mystical East.

That’s not to shame those games and those who play them. However, I’d like to see more critical reflection on the part of game designers which kind of perspectives they further with their games. Less stereotypical designs are possible:

While Here I Stand and Virgin Queen which I quoted at several instances above take a European view (so that the eastern and southern parts of the Ottoman Empire are outsourced to single card events), and small traces of Orientalism can be found in the games, they do not rely on these stereotypes – the Ottoman Empire is an empire like the European ones in them, not a particular “other” which could be a land of wonder, decay, or threat to the “normal” Europeans. Board games can thus also serve to educate and challenge prejudice.

It is unclear to me how the harem of a Sultan would make piracy more efficient. Card Sultan’s Harem from Virgin Queen, ©GMT Games.

Games Referenced

The Ottomans: Rise of the Turkish Empire, 1453—1571 (Joseph Miranda, Decision Games)

Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)

Suleiman the Magnificent (Richard H. Berg, Against the Odds)

Virgin Queen (Ed Beach, GMT Games)

Istanbul (Rüdiger Dorn, Pegasus)

Sultaniya (Charles Chevallier, Bombyx)

Al Rashid (Giorgio De Michele/Pierluca Zizzi, Yemaia)

Five Tribes (Bruno Cathala, Days of Wonder)

Further Reading

For a concise introduction to the Ottoman Empire, see Faroqhi, Suraiya: The Ottoman Empire. A Short History, Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ 2009.

You’ll find an overview of Süleyman’s reign (focused on his campaigns) in Parry, V.J.: The Ottoman Empire, 1520—1566, in: Elton, G.R. (ed.): The New Cambridge Modern History. Volume II. The Reformation. 1520—1559, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1990, p. 570—594.

For an excellent account of Süleyman’s reign with a focus on trans-Eurasian trends and empire-building, see Şahin, Kaya: Empire and Power in the Reign of Süleyman. Narrating the Sixteenth-Century Ottoman World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013.

The foundational text for the theory of orientalism is Said, Edward: Orientalism, Pantheon Books, New York City, NY 1978.


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