His people called him “the Lawgiver,” while Europeans called him Suleiman the Magnificent.
A brilliant general, Suleiman modernized the army and conquered many new lands. He extended Ottoman rule eastward into the Middle East, and also into Kurdistan and Georgia in the Caucasus Mountain region. In the west, Suleiman advanced deeper into Europe through a combination of diplomacy and warfare. In 1529, his armies besieged the Austrian city of Vienna, sending fear through the kingdoms of Western Europe.
Although they failed to take Vienna, the Ottoman armies threatened the divided kingdoms of Europe, which feared invasion from the east. While European powers formed alliances to keep Suleiman from expanding further into Europe, France tried to weaken its rivals by signing a treaty with the Ottomans.
French leaders hoped to take advantage of Ottoman pressure to weaken the Hapsburg empire, which included the Holy Roman Empire and the Netherlands. The treaty also allowed French merchants to travel and trade throughout the Ottoman empire—unlike traders from other European countries.
The Ottoman empire controlled major trade routes between Europe, Africa, and Asia. As a result, Istanbul became one of the great trading capitals of the world.
The Ottoman empire strengthened its trading position by bringing merchants into Istanbul, particularly European Jewish traders. European navies had taken control of the Mediterranean Sea from Venice, but in 1533, Suleiman created an enormous fleet that dominated all trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Eventually, the Portuguese and other European navies commanded new trade routes around Africa and ended Ottoman control of both land and sea routes.
Still, the Ottomans ruled the largest, most powerful empire in both Europe and the Middle East for centuries. At its height, the empire stretched from Hungary to Arabia and Mesopotamia and across North Africa. Suleiman felt justified in claiming to be the rightful heir of the Abbasids and caliph of all Muslims. To the title of “Emperor,” he added the symbolic name of “Protector of the Sacred Places” (Mecca and Medina).
Suleiman was a wise and capable ruler. He strengthened the government of the rapidly growing empire and improved its system of justice. As sultan, Suleiman had absolute power, but he ruled with the help of a grand vizier and a council. A huge bureaucracy supervised the business of government, and the powerful military kept the peace. Ottoman law was based on the Sharia, supplemented by royal edicts. Government officials worked closely with religious scholars who interpreted the law.
The Ottoman empire took Constantinople and then threatened Eastern Europe. Which European power did the Ottoman sign a treaty with, and what did that country gain?
Ottoman society was divided into classes, each with its appointed role. At the top were “men of the sword”—soldiers who guarded the sultan and defended the state—and “men of the pen”—scientists, lawyers, judges, and poets. Below them were “men of negotiation,” such as merchants, tax collectors, and artisans who carried out trade and production. Finally, there were “men of husbandry,” or farmers and herders who produced food for the community.
The Ottomans ruled diverse peoples of many religions. The men of the sword and men of the pen were almost all Muslims, but the other classes included non-Muslims. The people were organized into millets, or religious communities.
The Ottomans attempted to expand their empire west into Hungary and Vienna, but they could not keep a large invading force well supplied so far from Istanbul.