Suleiman the Magnificent

Anyone wondering how to have fun with history needs to spend a few evenings in the magnificent company of Ogier de Busbecq, whose four long letters written to the Habsburg Court during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent were used for centuries as models of what modern diplomats would today call ‘cable traffic.’ It’s Renaissance WikiLeaks.

His “Turkish Letters,” are a feast of observation and description: from travelogue to costume, economics, strategy, warfare and diplomacy, plus food, wildlife and curiosities. Written beautifully and accessibly for modern audiences, he even offers up a few observations pertinent to today’s America though written a mere 62 years after Columbus. Meanwhile, the Flemish diplomat keeps busy deciphering classical inscriptions and hunting down decent wine, while collecting animals and plants to bring home to Europe: he was supposedly the first to introduce tulips from Asia Minor.

The Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, sends him twice to Turkey seeking pledges of peace from Suleiman, whose Muslim armies are well into Europe. But the sultan is distracted for he must kill his own son who, not surprisingly, is less than fully cooperative. Ottoman sultans chose one son as successor then slew the brothers to protect the throne from internal challengesbeing born an Ottoman prince was often a bad career move. Suleiman is great and wise and no slouch at poetry as well as warfare but his Ukrainian wife, Roxelana, has him wrapped around her finger and prefers her own son, later called Selim the Sot, to his better-respected brothers from her husband’s concubines. When Busbecq arrives, Suleiman has just had his most talented son, Mustafa, murdered and he sends his brilliant Grand Vizier, Rustem Pasha, leading troops into Persia where another son has fled. Busbecq writes to his masters that this should keep the heathens preoccupied for a few years at least, and it did.

Meanwhile, under something close to house arrest as an ambassador from a hostile power, Busbecq plays cat-and-mouse with his imposed guards and minders, and writes back on all that he can see of Istanbul and beyond.

In a rare moment of candour, Rustem Pasha confides the sultan’s greatest fear: death at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard, the Janissaries, who were elite musketeers comprised of Christians from Ottoman Provinces who had converted to Islam. When a fire breaks out among Istanbul’s wooden buildings, a frequent occurrence, the Janissaries pull down the surrounding houses to keep the fire from spreadingand then loot the ruins. Soon enough they ‘go into production’ and start their own fires (even in 1554 the Janissaries were a terror and a threat, unchecked until slaughtered en masse by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826). Perhaps comparable to greedy contracting firms undermining US Government efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it foreshadows the slow collapse of Ottoman power already gnawing at the vitals of their empire.

Nevertheless, Busbecq admires the largely stoical, disciplined Turks and compares them favourably to the decadent Europeans and their selfish, spoiled, rag-tag soldiers. He also noted that aristocracy hardly existed in Ottoman Turkey apart from the royal family: children of businessmen inherited property but when a prominent civil servant died his wealth returned to the state and his sons had to earn their own way among other educated youth, even including promising young slaves from the provinces. Meanwhile in Europe, Busbecq complained, family background counted for everything and talent meant nothing.

The Turks were on a roll: 101 years earlier in 1453, the decadent Byzantines lost Constantinople to Sultan Mehmet II Fateh (the Conqueror) and by Busbecq’s arrival in 1554 the Ottoman Empire controlled much of South Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Suleiman had personally led his troops north, conquering even Hungary, culminating in the (first) Siege of Vienna in 1529. Yet their expansion peaked under Suleiman who would die a decade after Busbecq’s last visit while leading another incursion into Hungary in 1566, and Ottoman power would begin to recede after losing the Battle of Lepanto five years later in 1571.

Our cultured friend Busbecq, however perceptive, was not clairvoyant. But he noted that negotiating with the Turks was difficult: after a century of victory they came to believe that asking for anything that they wanted was reasonable, while accepting anything less was quite intolerable. Almost every day in Kabul, I work alongside unthinking American officials no different than Suleiman’s arrogant Turks.

Why fell the Turks? They ran an empire more tolerant and open to talent than anything in Europe, and the young descendants of Jews booted out of Isabella’s Spain still play on the streets of modern Istanbul speaking the medieval Ladino language of their forbearers. The Ottoman court was so porous that anyone from any province was welcome, and few seemed to mind becoming Muslim for a crack at marrying a sultan or his pashas, commanding a navy or, like the Armenian master-architect Sinan, building glorious mosques and other buildings. Trade was enormous and vastly lucrative, while European visitors marvelled at the scale of public works, military prowess and the grandeur of the court which surpassed anything back home.

Technology was the answer, or so thinks French historian Andre Clot in his very readable biography of Suleiman. Artillery changed the economics of warfare and European governance, he writes, demanding that expensive equipment and professional armies replace the usual hordes of peasants armed with hoes and mattocks. Governments had to grow larger and more costly in order to afford it. Meanwhile the Ottoman Turks, who prohibited printing presses on the grounds that so reproducing God’s Holy Koran was impious, fell behind but took 350 more years to fully collapse.

This too may be instructive especially now that, across the technologically gifted American Empire and its European satrapies, the students studying engineering and chemistry and so on tend to be named Nguyen and Wong, Khan and Chatterji, while the ones named Williamson and Jones, Schmidt and Le Clerc are inevitably majoring in media studies or women’s literature.

The wise and entertaining Ogier de Busbecq, however, warrants a few evenings beside your hearth.

Next: The Return of the Ottoman Empire 2011

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De Busbecq, Ogier, Turkish Letters, (London, Eland Press, 2005), ISBN-10: 0907871690

Clot, Andre, Suleiman the Magnificent, (London, Saqi Books, 2004), ISBN-10: 0863565107

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