Suleyman the Magnificent and the Five Victories: Belgrade, Rhodes, Mohacs, Tabriz and Baghdad, 1520–36 Part I

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The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V personally led two great crusading armies across the waters of the Mediterranean. Yet the career of his Ottoman rival, Suleyman the Magnificent, would prove just as epic, with its own string of military victories. In 1520 Prince Suleyman had succeeded to the throne of the Ottoman Empire, whose borders had been almost doubled in size by the wars fought by his father, Selim the Grim. After his father’s vicious and contentious series of campaigns against all his Muslim neighbours, be they the Turks of eastern Anatolia, the Shiite Safavids of Persia, the Mamelukes of Syria and Egypt or that internal enemy of the Ottoman Empire, the Kizilbas, it was a highly popular move to once again lead the army west against the Christians. The new Sultan would be stepping back into the familiar role of the House of Ottoman by battling it out against the traditional enemy on his western frontier.

The young Sultan’s first campaign, in 1521, was a triumph. First the fortress of Shabatz was stormed and then he brought his army up against the Hungarian and Serbian-held fortress of Belgrade. Even his most acclaimed ancestors, from Murat II to Mehmet the Conqueror, had failed before these walls. Suleyman was fortunate that year. The two commanders of the seven-thousand-strong Christian garrison had left their posts in order to press for overdue payments due from the Hungarian court at Buda. In their absence a dispute broke out between the Serbian and Hungarian regiments within the garrison of Belgrade which seems to have caused one of the deputy-governors to go over to the Ottoman camp. After a two-month siege the fortress was stormed in August. To mark this victory Suleyman allowed himself the dignity of full manhood and grew a beard.

While the army was tied up in Serbia, one of his father’s old governors rebelled and attempted to establish himself as the independent Sultan of Egypt. All at once the young Sultan was faced with war on two fronts, and a third threatened to erupt when the rebels in Egypt tried to enlist the Knights of St John in Rhodes to their cause. Rhodes stood halfway between Istanbul and Cairo as well as midway between Syria and Greece. It pressed like a thumb on the twin arteries of Ottoman communication and maritime commerce. It might look small on the charts, especially compared with other islands in the region, such as Christian-ruled Cyprus and Crete, but these were both dominated by Venice, which in the interests of its Levant trade could always be relied upon to keep the peace. By contrast, the Knights of St John in Rhodes had to be seen to be constantly at war to fulfil their crusading mission. In this period this meant raiding the harbours and plundering the shipping on the nearby Turkish coast, as well as seizing pilgrims en route for Mecca. If the island fell, the young Sultan would also have succeeded in fulfilling one of his illustrious great-grandfather’s unfinished projects. By the winter of 1521 the Venetian envoy in Istanbul was reporting that an invasion fleet was clearly being prepared. Although disinformation was released that its likely target was Otranto, this was most unlikely. A Turkish invasion of Italy might be the one thing that would succeed in embarrassing Charles V and Francis I into refraining from their relentless rivalry across the breadth of Europe, a rivalry that was otherwise so convenient to Ottoman interests.

The Knights of St John were in no doubt about the young Sultan’s intentions. They redoubled their energies, deepening Rhodes’s moats and strengthening its walls, and stockpiling food and munitions. Their agents recruited mercenaries, though the wars between Charles V and Francis I meant that most of the available soldiers were already pledged to one master or another. The Knights’ outlying strongholds on the island, the ancient towns of Lindos and Pheraklos, which look east towards the Turkish mainland, were also reinforced, as was Monolithos, perched alone on the mountainous west coast.

That summer the sea between Marmaris and Rhodes began to fill with hundreds of Turkish sails and it was clear that only a miracle could save the Knights from this armada. But Suleyman had already closed most of the possibilities, for he had made peace on the eastern frontier with Persia and on the west with Venice. By the end of June 1522 the first Ottoman regiments had begun to disembark on the shores of Rhodes.

Suleyman’s second vizier, who was also his son-in-law, Mustapha Pasha, organised the first round of the siege. The Ottomans had learned from the experiences of 1480. No bloody marine assaults were attempted by ship or pontoon and the activity of the navy was restricted to blockading the harbour. Instead, right from the first week of the siege, the land-based Ottoman artillery pounded away at the land walls. These had been completely restructured since the first siege and the subsequent earthquake. The annual pension sent by Sultan Bayezid to the Knights to secure the neutrality of Prince Cem had been poured into defensive stone and mortar designed by a leading military engineer, Fabrizio del Carretto. Wide moats were designed to keep the besieging artillery at a distance while their impressive depth discouraged the placing of underground mines. Angled counterscarps were placed to absorb the impact of an artillery bombardment, while protruding bastions had been built with thick enough foundations to enable the Knights to mount effective counter-fire from the summits of the towers and portals in the basements. When the Turks tried their first two assaults against the positions guarded by the Tongue of England (each sector of the walls was defended by one of the old crusading nations of Europe) they were cut down in their hundreds by the angled crossfire unleashed from every level of the bastions.

In late July the Sultan arrived with reinforcements and began to directly supervise the operations. After another blistering, month-long bombardment a general attack was mounted at dawn on 24 September. It was towards the end of the traditional sailing season. In the bitter hand-to-hand fighting of that day the tower at the centre of the section of the city wall, defended by the Knights of the Tongue of Spain, changed hands twice. At dusk it was the red cross of the Knights that still buckled in the evening wind. The corpses of thousands of young warriors filled the trenches and some 350 Christians (from a total force of around seven thousand defenders) would never fight again. As a measure of his increasing concern that there were enough men fit to take their place on the walls, the Grand Master of the Knights sent out signals to evacuate the outposts of the order, including their proud castles on Kos and at Petrumi (Bodrum), so that Rhodes would be reinforced. Whether it was true, or just a paranoid product of a siege, the Grand Chancellor of the Knights, Andrea d’Amaral, was accused of treasonable reports to the Sultan. He and his Albanian manservant were executed on 5 November.

Despite the approach of winter the Sultan decided not to strike camp, and relying on the frequent and confidential reports of his agents and ambassadors, took the colossal gamble of continuing the siege. Not that the generally mild winter of Rhodes threatened his army. It was more that he would be powerless to respond to an insurrection or rebellion elsewhere if the seas were made unnavigable by storms. The fact that his father had suffered no male Ottoman princes to survive, and that Shah Ismail was known to be drawing towards the end of his life, must have played a part in Suleyman’s calculations. There were rumblings about a joint rescue plan being mounted by the Pope and the Emperor, but once again it proved to be just a volley of words. Towards the end of November a second attack was launched and once again repelled. But the Ottomans knew that if they could maintain the blockade (already five months old), Rhodes would eventually fall.

Suleyman wooed the largely Greek civil population with peace proposals shot into the city on blind arrows. Freedom of religion and residence for the Orthodox was promised in exchange for a peaceful surrender. If the walls had to be stormed, the city would be sacked. The Metropolitan was persuaded that he must talk to the Grand Master and explain that his people, increasingly enfeebled by their wounds and starvation rations, were on the point of breaking. He alone could risk the anger of the Grand Master, who knew that the Knights, just three hundred strong at the start of the siege, could never hope to stand alone. In addition they were now critically short of powder and shot. A truce was declared for three days, but when the Knights asked for some guarantee other than the Sultan’s word, Suleyman at once ordered a resumption of the siege. It became clear that the city’s defences were at breaking point. So, on 22 December, a delegation filed its way out through the land gates and across the siege lines to the tented compound of the Sultan. Here they begged to accept his proposals and placed complete trust in his word.

The terms given by Suleyman were astonishingly mild. The Knights had twelve days to quit the city of Rhodes and were permitted to take their weapons, ships and banners with them. The Orthodox Greek citizens had three years to make up their minds if they wished to become Ottoman citizens or refugees. No church would be desecrated and there would be a tax holiday for five years. It was an incredibly peaceful culmination to a siege that was rumoured to have destroyed a quarter of the forces of both the defenders and the attackers. It is true that the city’s streets were looted on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but it was not given over to the full appalling horrors of a sack. On New Year’s Day all the Knights and about three-quarters of the surviving citizens of Rhodes embarked at dawn and set sail for Crete.

Suleyman proved many things with this peace. He had achieved absolute command over his army and he had also showed that Christians need not fear becoming citizens of the Ottoman state. At later sieges and in battles, this example of the Sultan who kept his word and offered generous peace terms would bear abundant fruit. But his army was annoyed at being denied the sack of a city and it is difficult to understand quite why he let the Knights of St John sail off into the west to fight another day. For this was an enemy he surely knew he would have to fight again. Perhaps he had already become aware that a second revolt was about to break out in Egypt.

Rebellion in Egypt caused Suleyman to call a halt to all other military operations for the coming year and a half. To crush the revolt he sent the man he trusted most implicitly in all the world, Ibrahim Pasha. Ibrahim had come into Suleyman’s life as a young slave page-boy when he himself was the same age. While Suleyman had served as a provincial governor for his grandfather Bayezid II, they had become inseparable companions, sharing meals and illegal drinking sessions. Ibrahim slept across the threshold of the prince’s door as his night-time bodyguard. When Suleyman became Sultan he promoted his page-boy companion to be chief of the royal bedchamber, then grand vizier of his empire. He gave him dignities, wealth and a splendid palace which overlooked the old Byzantine circus track in the heart of Istanbul, close to his own. The following year Ibrahim was given an Osmanli princess (Suleyman’s sister Hadice) and a fifteen-day-long celebration was held where, the Turkish historian Ibrahim Pecevi (1572–1650) recorded, ‘spread before the eyes was such an abundance and merriment as had never before been observed in the wedding of a princess’.

It was a bizarre, fairy-tale ascent to power for a humble Greek boy from a Venetian city who had been scooped up by a corsair galley while out fishing. Ibrahim, who had been given to the palace by these corsairs, must have been recognised for his abilities and, as well as learning the precepts of Islam, was taught many languages and skills.

In the wake of the successful conquest of Rhodes, Ibrahim Pasha travelled to Egypt in the ship of one of the most promising young captains in the Ottoman navy. Eight years earlier Piri Reis had been in charge of the naval squadron that had shadowed Sultan Selim’s initial conquest of Egypt. He knew every inch of the coast, as those who have studied his beautiful maps of the Mediterranean know all too well. As well as these exquisite charts, he had prepared for his master a complete summary of the importance of a navy entitled Kitab-i-Bahriyye (‘The Book of Those Who Sail the Seas’). This was designed as an explanatory companion to his charts but it was also an acute summary of the strategic situation at the time. During this voyage Piri Reis had time to explain the state of play to grand vizier Ibrahim, who became a keen devotee of a forward naval policy. Ibrahim even got Piri Reis to create an updated addendum which he was able to bring back to show Suleyman on his return. Together they gave orders for the creation of a strong Egyptian squadron that would be able to defend the Red Sea. There was even a five-year-plan sketched out to build up the fleet to sufficient strength to contest the control of the Indian Ocean. It was imagined that by 1531 this Red Sea fleet would be strong enough to take on the Portuguese. In conjunction with other Sunni Muslim trading powers, such as the Sultanate of Gujarat, they would expel the Portuguese Crusaders from their naval bases at Ormuz, Goa and Socotra. This would restore the full flow of trade and customs revenue from India back to the Levant and it would also break up the chance of an alliance between the Christian Portuguese and Shiite Persia. It was a grand vision and could have had enormously beneficial consequences for the Ottoman Empire and the entire Middle East had Suleyman dedicated the resources, zeal and men of imagination to fulfil it.

When Ibrahim returned to his master he left behind in Egypt a legal code to govern the region and protect it from the abuses of the colonels of the army of occupation. The administration in Egypt had also been primed to watch over the security of the Red Sea and Hejaz coast and the safety of the route of the Haj. All this had been achieved while yet arranging for a surplus of revenue to be forwarded to the Sultan at Istanbul.

Once back in Istanbul, Ibrahim Pasha immediately set about organising a military campaign for the following spring. The old eastern enemy of the Ottoman Empire was no more, for Shah Ismail had just died. A ten-year-old prince had succeeded him on the Persian throne. Ottoman diplomats had been busy creating useful understandings with other Muslim Sunni states in this part of the world, such as the Mughals in Afghanistan and India and the Uzbeks in Central Asia. They all shared a desire to contain the threat to their thrones which a dynamic Shiite state in Persia represented. So the Ottoman court could be quietly optimistic that the empire would not be threatened by Persia for a number of years, and this allowed Suleyman and his vizier to once again look to the western frontier.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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