Sept. 30, 2022

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman the Magnificent

September 30, 1520. Suleiman the Magnificent becomes Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and sets his sights on conquering Europe.


Cold Open

It’s September 30th, 1520, in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

The Bosporus Strait, which splits Istanbul in two, is usually thronged with merchant ships, fishing boats, and smaller launches carrying people around the city. But today all traffic on the water has been stopped.

The strait has been cleared to make way for three Imperial galleys that now cut through the waterways. Enormous green and red banners stream from the top of their masts. Their oars sweep in and out of the water in perfect harmony.

Standing beneath an ornate canopy on the largest of the three boats is a young man. Suleiman is 26 years old. He’s tall and wiry, with just the shadow of a mustache on his pale face. From his finery, it’s impossible to tell that he’s been traveling for more than a week, but he has been and he’s exhausted and relieved that at last, his destination is in sight. Perched on a tree-covered hill across the harbor is the palace of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire: this young man’s new home.

As Suleiman looks out at the palace, a young official around the same age as the new Sultan bows before him. Ibrahim has served in Suleiman’s household for years – but the two young men are more like brothers than master and servant. Ibrahim tells Suleiman that they will be arriving shortly.

And ahead, an honor guard of white-turbaned elite soldiers waits at the dock. As they draw closer, Suleiman can see their stern faces staring ahead in perfect order.

Suleiman and Ibrahim glance at each another, sharing a private smile, before trumpets sound and the troops cheer as the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire is welcomed into Istanbul.

By the early 16th Century, the Ottoman Empire is one of the most powerful in the world. During the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the forces of Christian Europe assaulted the lands of Islam. But the roles have now reversed. Ever since Suleiman’s great-grandfather seized Istanbul from the Christians in 1453, the Ottoman Empire has been on the march.

Many in Istanbul expect their new Sultan will sweep Ottoman troops through Europe and unite the world under the Muslim faith. But Suleiman is determined to be more than just a conqueror; he wants to rule the Empire with wisdom and justice. And for decades to come, the Ottoman Empire will thrive under his rule, earning him the title of Suleiman the Magnificent. His 46-year reign will be the longest in the history of the Ottoman Empire, and it will all begin with Suleiman’s arrival in Istanbul to claim the throne on September 30th, 1520.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 30th, 1520: Suleiman the Magnificent.

Act One: Conquest

It’s late December 1522, two years after Suleiman became the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

On the island of Rhodes in the Eastern Mediterranean, a siege is underway. Smoke rises above the half-wrecked walls of a fortress. Inside its courtyard, an elderly French knight limps wearily toward his horse. His face is gaunt with hunger. He doesn’t have armor or a sword. Instead, he wears but a simple black tunic. Accompanied by three others, also in black, he hops on his horse and rides in silence toward the gates.

Beyond the walls of the fortress, this small party of horsemen rides out into churned mud, a no man’s land littered with the bodies of soldiers, their armor rusting and their swords shattered. The elderly knight steers his horse across the battlefield toward the trenches and piled earth fortifications of the invaders: the Ottomans. The knight feels tens of thousands of hostile eyes on him as he rides toward them.

Beyond the Ottoman lines, their vast encampment stretches across the hillside. Even at this distance, the elderly knight can see the Sultan’s vast scarlet pavilion with its wide awnings and fluttering banners. That’s his destination. He’s on his way to negotiate with Suleiman himself.

Rhodes is the fortress base of the Knights Hospitaller, a Catholic military order dating back to the time of the Crusades. The fortress holds a commanding position in the East Mediterranean. And from here, the Christian knights have harassed shipping from all around the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman made conquering the island a priority soon after becoming Sultan. In the past, other sultans have tried and failed to take the island. But Suleiman is determined to succeed. 

He's brought an army of 50,000 men to Rhodes and has spent months bombarding the thick stone walls of the citadel. Finally, the knights of Rhodes have admitted defeat. Now, all that is left is to negotiate surrender.

The Sultan’s pavilion is a canvas palace. The elderly knight and his companions are guided through rooms and corridors woven with rich patterns of gold thread until finally they are admitted to the presence of Suleiman. The young Sultan is swathed in robes of richly colored silks, twinkling with rubies and emeralds. The knights bow and offer their submission.

Suleiman is generous in victory. He spares their lives and allows them to depart the island unharmed, along with any civilians who wish to join them. All that matters to Suleiman is that the island is his.

The fall of Rhodes is just the beginning of Suleiman’s conquests. In the years that follow, the Ottoman Empire vastly expands its territories. With Suleiman’s old friend and closest adviser Ibrahim at his side, the Sultan pushes East into the lands of Persia and captures the ancient city of Baghdad. He seizes control of the Mediterranean coastline from Croatia to Morocco. And he terrifies Christian Europe by defeating the King of Hungary and besieging the Austrian city of Vienna.

But Suleiman’s ambitions as Sultan go beyond expanding the territory of his Empire. He also wants to change how it’s ruled. Over the next decade, Suleiman and his officials overhaul the administration of the Empire. They change the way taxes are levied and untangle the confusing mass of laws that built up during the reigns of Suleiman’s predecessors. As a result, the people give the Sultan a new title: “Suleiman the Lawgiver.”

But one of Suleiman’s boldest breaks from tradition comes later, in 1534.

Twelve years after the fall of Rhodes, Suleiman holds a private ceremony in the heart of his palace, one so secret that there are only a few witnesses. Suleiman the Magnificent is marrying.

Traditionally, an Ottoman Sultan kept a harem of female slaves – his favorites among them would bear his children. When Suleiman became Sultan in 1520, he already had sons by two of his slaves. But early in his reign, a new girl was brought into the royal harem, Roxelana.

Suleiman became infatuated with this slave girl. All the other women of the harem were set aside in her favor. And such was his love for Roxelana that he resolved to free her, marry her and make her his queen.

But there are some things even Suleiman cannot change. The courts of the Ottoman Sultans have always been dens of conspiracy and rivalry. By marrying his concubine Roxelana, Suleiman has created a new powerbase in Istanbul.

As the wife of the Sultan, Roxelana wields immense power. Suleiman is frequently absent from the capital, leading troops on campaigns to expand or defend the empire. Increasingly, he trusts Roxelana to make decisions in his stead.

Before long, this will bring her into conflict with rivals for the Sultan’s ear. Chief among them will be the man Suleiman has made Grand Vizier, prime minister of the Ottoman Empire: his old friend Ibrahim. And soon, Suleiman will have to make a decision, choosing between his wife and his best friend.

Act Two: Suspicions

It’s late in the day on March 14th, 1536, sixteen years into the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.

In the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul, Grand Vizier Ibrahim, the chief minister of the Ottoman empire, strides through the darkness of one of the inner courtyards. He’s just been to dinner with his friend, the Sultan Suleiman, and is returning to his own quarters in the palace. But as he walks, Ibrahim stays on guard. These days, he longer feels safe anywhere. But especially not inside the palace.

Suleiman has made his old friend more powerful than any Grand Vizier before. Ibrahim has been trusted to lead armies into battle and to conduct diplomatic negotiations with allies and enemies abroad. In Istanbul, the Grand Vizier has built a palace that almost rivals the Sultan’s in size and magnificence.

But Ibrahim’s rise to power has stirred jealousy among other officials. Although few dare to confront him directly, many think the Grand Vizier is arrogant and dream of his downfall. But as long as Ibrahim has Suleiman’s favor, he knows he’s safe. But in recent months, something has changed. Suleiman has grown suspicious of his friend, believing Ibrahim is plotting against him.

As he follows the black pebble pathway through the trees, Ibrahim hears footsteps behind him. He peers back through the darkness and calls out, demanding that whoever is there show themselves. But there’s no answer.

Suddenly fearful, the Grand Vizier hurries on. Ahead of him is a gateway, its grand towers silhouetted against the night sky. But as Ibrahim gets nearer, he spots two men waiting there, staring out into the dark courtyard.

Ibrahim’s stomach lurches as he realizes who the men are. They’re the Sultan’s assassins. Ibrahim turns off the path. Begins to run but he can’t escape the two men.

In the early hours of the morning, the body of the Grand Vizier is discovered in the palace courtyard. He’s been strangled with a bowstring by Suleiman’s assassins. On the orders of the Sultan, the body is carried out of the palace, loaded onto the back of a horse, and transported across the city to an unmarked grave. The message is clear to everyone: Ibrahim has died in disgrace.

Nobody knows for certain why Suleiman executed the Grand Vizier. But many think there’s only one person who could have convinced the Sultan to turn against his old friend: his wife, Roxelana.

Ibrahim’s death cements her power over the Ottoman court. Roxelana ensures that his successors as Grand Vizier are far less capable and ambitious men – and that she can control. But despite the victory, Roxelana’s authority in Istanbul is not entirely secure. Over the next two decades, she senses another growing threat: Suleiman’s son, Mustafa.

By Ottoman tradition, it’s not necessarily the Sultan’s first-born son who inherits the throne. Instead, it’s often the strongest and most popular son, the one who can best command the loyalty of the army.

By 1553, Mustafa is 38 years old; and has spent decades as a governor of the Empire in the provinces and is loved by the army for his bravery in battle. Many in Istanbul want him to succeed his father – but not everyone.

Mustafa is not the child of Roxelana. He was born before she entered the harem, to one of the Sultan’s previous favorites. Ottoman succession is cruel – a new Sultan will murder his brothers to remove any threats to power. And if Mustafa becomes Sultan, Roxelana knows her own children will be killed, and she herself will be banished into exile.

This is not something Roxelana will allow. So, she persuades Suleiman that a faction of the army is about to rebel against him and put Mustafa on the throne in his place. Determined to strike first, Suleiman invites his son to join him on campaign.

On October 6th, 1553, Suleiman leads his army to their meeting place, a valley in central Turkey. While the Ottoman army stretches across the dusty hilltop, the Sultan’s eyes stay fixed on the hill across from them. The valley is silent. Suleiman’s horse stamps impatiently at the dry earth, and he pulls on the reins to steady him.

Then, there is the sound of a horn and a second army marches over the hill, with Mustafa riding at its head. Quickly, the two armies make camp. And that night, Suleiman invites his son to his tent.

Mustafa, who has not been plotting against his father at all, seems unaware of the danger he is in. But it’s too late to plead his case. As soon as he enters the Sultan’s tent, Suleiman’s slave-assassins leap out from their hiding place. They grab Mustafa and tighten a bowstring around his neck. His eyes bulging, Mustafa claws at his throat. But the assassins drag him down to the ground, as a flap of canvas moves aside in the corner of the room and Suleiman the Magnificent watches his own son die.

The murder of Mustafa will clear the way for Roxelana’s son to inherit the throne. But the Queen will not live to see it. Just five years after Mustafa’s murder, Roxelana will pass away. Her death will leave Suleiman bereft. And soon, the master of the greatest and richest empire on earth will become nothing but a lonely and haunted old man.

Act Three: Shadow of God

It’s mid-September 1566, more than four decades after Suleiman became Sultan.

On the Balkan plains in the south of Europe, a vast Ottoman army is on the move. The troops are returning to Istanbul after a successful campaign in Hungary. Rattling along the dirt road with them is the Imperial Carriage. Escorted by guards and six servants reciting verses from the Qur'an.

Inside, almost hidden behind curtains, sits a pale and hunched figure. The army believes it is their great leader, Suleiman the Magnificent. But it’s not the elderly Sultan inside the carriage at all. It’s a body double, wearing his clothes.

Suleiman has in fact been dead for several days. His embalmed body lies hidden in another carriage, jolting along the road behind. But imperial officials don’t want to announce his death until they are back in Istanbul and the new Sultan, Suleiman and Roxelana’s son Selim is secure in the palace.

The Sultan lived for eight years after the death of his beloved wife Roxelana. But they were unhappy years for Suleiman. He retreated from the world and became obsessed with religion. His court, once the most sumptuous and splendid in all of Europe, became a gloomy and austere place.

But Suleiman did make one last daring attempt to strike at the heart of Europe. A massive armada was constructed to assault the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. But after a bloody four-month siege, Suleiman’s forces were routed. The Ottoman dominance of the Mediterranean, which Suleiman had won with his victory at Rhodes at the beginning of his reign, faltered as the Christian powers of Europe united to fight back.

In his last years, Suleiman dwelled on those losses more than his many victories. Despite all the achievements of his long reign, nothing was ever enough. On his final campaign in 1566, his army attacked a fortress deep inside Hungary. As the siege dragged on, Suleiman wrote despondently: “This chimney is still burning, and the great drumroll of conquest is yet to be heard.” A few hours after writing those words, Suleiman the Magnificent was dead.

Though the Sultan died a disappointed and disillusioned man, his leadership will still be celebrated. Even after his death, his reign will be hailed as a golden age in the history of the Ottoman Empire; an age of prosperity, peace, and power that began 46 long years earlier on September 30th, 1520.


Next onHistory Daily. October 3rd, 1952. Britain successfully conducts its first atomic weapons test at the Montebello Islands in Western Australia.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser