by Roderick Conway Morris

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Warrior of the Faith


By Roderick Conway Morris
15 January 1993

 

SULEIMAN THE MAGNIFICENT: The Man, His Life, His Epoch

by Andre Clot, translated by Matthew J.Reisz

408pp. Saqi Books.

Twelve times Suleyman led his army out of the gates of Istanbul, and twelve times he returned victorious - as the Ottomans nostalgically recalled. On his thirteenth expedition in 1566 the aged warrior for the Faith, lawgiver, poet, calligrapher and patron of architecture and the arts, died in his tent outside Szigetvar in Hungary, just two days before the stronghold fell to his troops. His heart and entrails were buried there, and his body conveyed back to the capital to be laid to rest in a mausoleum beside that of his ex-harem-slave-wife-cum-closet-empress Hurrem, or Roxelana, thus romantically concluding the longest-running royal love affair of the century.

Suleyman's 46-year reign crowned an extraordinary succession of Ottoman sultans whose consistent intelligence, pluck, energy and determination had won them an empire that at Suleyman's death stretched from the western Mediterranean to the Caspian and from Aden to Austria. Given that Suleyman's son Selim II ("the Sot") ended a dissolute life expiring after a drunken fall on the wet floor of the Topkapi baths, and his grandson Murad III reputedly distinguished himself by sending the price of beautiful girls in the Istanbul slave market through the roof as a result of his insatiable appetite for the commodity, it is hardly surprising that within a few years Suleyman's era was already being looked back upon as a Golden Age.

Clot's large book is unfortunately neither an original study, nor a convincing popular biography. The sources for many of the quotations cannot be found in the footnotes. There are glaring factual errors: for instance that Istanbul relied on Egypt "for its total supply of rice" (the Ottomans consumed unusually large quantities of rice, grew it extensively from the earliest days in Anatolia, and in due course introduced its cultivation into northern Greece), and that in 1529 Suleyman had a canal dug between the Nile and the Red Sea (this project, the brainchild of Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha during Selim II's reign, was never realized).

Furthermore, the author's frequent failure to include the telling anecdote and salient detail finally renders an exciting and dramatic chunk of history strangely lifeless. The battle of Mohacs in 1526, for example, in which Suleyman trounced Hungary's formidable and much-feared cavalry, was the most decisive single field engagement of his long career, and ushered in nearly two centuries of Ottoman domination in south central Europe. But Clot gives a confusing and inaccurate account of the event.

Fierce fighting, he says, went on until evening; in fact, the whole action lasted little more than an hour and a half, in which time the Ottomans exterminated almost the entire Hungarian army and leadership. Louis, their king, was humiliatingly drowned in a stream while fleeing. It was the suddenness and completeness of the victory, achieved without heavy cavalry but with the expert deployment of artillery, that made it so terrifying to the West, leaving Christian commanders convinced that to tackle the Ottomans head-on was suicidal.

If the author had drunk deeper of his subject, he would know that the term "sultan" was used, not just for the emperor, but for any Ottoman prince and, placed after the name, princess; and, when he writes of Suleyman's rebellious vizier in Egypt, Ahmed Pasha, that the latter minted coinage and had prayers said in his own name, Clot might have clarified the issue by noting that these two acts were loaded with significance, being two key prerogatives of a wholly-independent Muslim ruler.

Clot's inadequate grasp of the character of Ottoman rule and the millet system, whereby the diverse religious communities were allowed a great measure of freedom to maintain their own customs and traditions, is highlighted by his assertion: "Istanbul, the political and intellectual centre of an ever more powerful empire, compelled the people it had subdued, whether they were allies or vassals, to use its language." In reality, even in Istanbul itself many Greeks, Ladino-speaking Jews, Slavs and "Franks" had only the haziest grasp of Turkish and, outside the capital, the Sultan's non-Turkish subjects often remained totally ignorant of their rulers' tongue.

Nor is the saz "a kind of rudimentary guitar" any more than a piano, according to the latent neo-Darwinian instrumental theory lurking behind this description, is a kind of rudimentary Mighty Wurlitzer. Meaning literally "musical instrument", the term saz refers especially to Turkish long-necked lutes, instruments capable of great subtlety and sophistication, and with a vast, varied, centuries-old musical and lyrical repertoire.

Some of Clot's more sweeping historical statements will also raise eyebrows, such as that Henry VIII "went as far as establishing his own religion"; and that "Wagons were only used with any frequency in the 18th century in Europe, and even later in Asia", the absurdity of which should have become patently clear after a few moments of reflection, let alone research.


First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016