Sultan Suleiman and Jerusalem’s Old City Walls
By Selahattin Tümer
People usually tend to take things for granted when they live in such a rich cultural and historical setting. Everyday, hundreds and thousands of Jerusalemites walk or drive along Sultan Suleiman Street, which faces part of the massive walls and two of the seven gates of the Old City, without thinking about where the name of the street comes from. However, for Jerusalem and Jerusalemites, Sultan Suleiman should mean more than the name of the street because the unique spiritual character of historical buildings and monuments and cultural and architectural heritage of the Old City was preserved to the present day thanks to the city’s walls which were built in the 16th century (1535-1538) by the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Turks.
Yes, but who was this Sultan Suleiman, known as “the Magnificent” in the West and in the Islamic world as “the Lawgiver” (in Turkish Kanuni; in Arabic Al-Qānūnī), a nickname stemming from his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system?
Suleiman I (November 6, 1494 – September 5/6, 1566) was the tenth Osmanli sultan of the Ottoman Empire and its longest-serving, reigning from 1520 to 1566. Under his leadership, the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith and became a world power. Suleiman was considered one of the pre-eminent rulers of 16th-century Europe, a respected rival to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Sigismund II of Poland. He personally led Ottoman armies to conquer Belgrade, Rhodes and most of Hungary, besieged Vienna, and annexed huge territories of North Africa as far west as Morocco, and most of the Middle East. Briefly, Ottomans achieved naval dominance in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf, and the empire continued to expand for a century after his death.
Within the empire, Suleiman was known as a fair ruler and an opponent of corruption. He was a great patron of artists and philosophers, and was noted as one of the greatest Islamic poets, as well as an accomplished goldsmith. Prior to Suleiman, by 1517 the Ottoman Empire under his father Sultan Selim I took over Palestine from the Egyptian Mamelukes. Suleiman was so taken with the city of Jerusalem and its plight that he ordered the construction of a magnificent fortress-wall that still stands around the Old City.
Suleiman the Magnificent was a creative conqueror who wielded both the sword and the pen. At his death, he left behind a more sprawling Ottoman dominion than ever before – and more verses than any other Sultan. Thanks to his patronage and the vibrant cultural milieu of the Suleimanic Age, Ottoman poetry, which had been evolving for some two hundred years, reached the apogee of its classical era. It was to become a crowning achievement.
With justifiable pride, Sultan Suleiman referred to himself as the emperor of far-flung lands and seas in many of his poems. His reputation as a “world conqueror” has remained intact since the first half of the sixteenth century. In describing most of his predecessors and successors, Europe employed neutral adjectives or pejorative terms, but reserved the name “Grande Turke” for Suleiman. To the Turks, he was (and still is) “Kanuni” but Europeans expressed their admiration for him and his resplendent rule by calling him Suleiman the Magnificent.
The reign of Suleiman heralded the growth of the Ottoman state into one of the most expansive empires ever. It embraced all or part of the territories that would be present-day Turkey, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan,
Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania and many others. This powerful empire, under Suleiman, also produced some of the glorious achievements of classical Ottoman art and architecture. Royal chief architect Sinan created for Suleiman and his family many edifices, including the Süleymaniye (Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul) which is a masterpiece of mosque architecture and which dominates the Istanbul skyline over the Golden Horn. Calligraphy, shadow puppet theatre, tiles and textiles, book illustration, music, and other arts also flourished. Artists working at the palace’s studios or accompanying Sultan Suleiman on his military campaigns created many impressive albums of miniature paintings. With encouragement from the Sultan and his high-ranking officials, distinguished works were produced by historians, jurists, scientists and scholars.
Poetry made giant strides in the Suleimanic Age. The prominent historian of the Ottomans, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, writes that this period represented the highest achievement of Ottoman poetry. In his six-volume “A History of Ottoman Poetry,” published in the early twentieth century, the British Orientalist E.J.W. Gibb refers to “Its pre-eminence over earlier times” and explains that, “At no time, even in Turkey, was greater encouragement given to poetry than during the reign of this Sultan.” In his own right, Suleiman was an esteemed poet although he cannot be ranked as one of the giants of classical Ottoman verse. He turned out a few consummate lyrics and dozens of well-wrought pieces in conventional forms. He used the nom de plume “Muhibbi” in his poems. The chief feature of his poems is not, as with so many of his contemporaries, mere verbal elegance; it is their evident sincerity of feeling which strikes us most as we read those verses with their undertone of calm humility.
Human and divine love, the paramount theme of classical Turkish poetry, constitutes the quintessence of Suleiman’s poetic art. His verses run the gamut from adoration of God the Beloved in the highest aspirations of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) to profane love. Many of Suleiman’s poems concern deeply personal matters including his love for his wife Hürrem and his chastisement of his rebel son Bayezid. True to the Ottoman convention of commemorating many events by means of chronograms (poems in which the assigned numerical values of the letters, usually in the closing line, add up to the year of the event), Sultan Suleiman composed an elegy for his beloved son Mehmed who died in 1543 and ended the poem with the line “Most distinguished of the princes, my Sultan Mehmed” in which the total numerical value is the year of his son’s death.
A number of lines from Suleiman’s verses have become proverbs with which many Turks interlace their conversation. The line, “Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story” is among the best known. Some of these are so popular that the people who quote them do not even know the poet was none other than Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. By far the most famous line by Suleiman is, “In this world a spell of good health is the best state.” Through his wordplay on “state,” Suleiman stressed that good health is superior to any other condition or to sovereignty or political power. Many of his verses, in fact, articulate his belief in the supremacy of love over earthly kingdom, of religious faith over secular power. His poems reveal that, as Gibb observes, “This Sultan, though one of the most powerful and successful sovereigns who ever lived, was yet undazzled by the splendour of his position, and never forgot to reckon at its true value that worldly glory of which he had so great a share.”
I hope this little piece of information will help Jerusalemites remember the “Grande Turke” who was so taken with the city of Jerusalem and its wretched plight and who ordered the construction of a magnificent fortress-wall that still stands around the Old City as they walk or drive along the Sultan Suleiman Street.
Selahattin Tümer is currently the Vice-Consul for Economic and Commercial Affairs at the Consulate General of Turkey in Jerusalem. He has also been an official tour guide, conducting historical and archaeological tours, and a travel consultant for Turkey for over 30 years.