Süleyman the Magnificent was a creative conqueror who wielded both sword and 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 Süleymanic 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 Süleyman referred to himself as the emperor of farflung 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 Süleyman. To the Turks, he was (and still is) "Kanuni" (Lawgiver or Legislator), but Europeans expressed their admiration for him and his resplendent rule by calling him "Süleyman the Magnificent."
The Age of Süleyman from 1520 to 1566 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, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania and many others.
This powerful empire, under Süleyman, also produced some of the glorious achievements of Ottoman classical art and architecture. Royal Chief Architect Sinan created for Süleyman and his family many edifices, including the Süleymaniye (Süleyman Mosque in Istanbul) which is a masterpiece of mosque architecture. Calligraphy, shadow puppet theatre, tiles and textiles , book illumination, music, and other arts also flourished. Artists working at the palace studios or accompanying Sultan Süleyman on his military campaigns created many impressive albums of miniature paintings. With encouragement from the Sultan and his high officials, distinguished works were produced by historians, jurists, scientists, and scholars as well.
Poetry made giant strides in the Süleymanic 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."
Two of the towering figures of classical Ottoman poetry - Fuzuli and Baki - lived and composed in the Age of Süleyman. Baki became a protege of the Sultan early in his career and enjoyed the status of a poet laureate. His panegyrics about Süleyman are among the masterworks of the genre, and the long elegy he composed when the Sultan died in 1566 is considered the most majestic to emerge from the Ottoman tradition.
In his own right, Süleyman was an esteemed poet although he cannot be ranked as one of the giants of classical Ottoman verse. He turned out a few consummate Iyrics and dozens of well-wrought pieces in conventional forms. He used the nom de plume Muhibbi (which Gibb translates too literally as "Friendly", but could be rendered as "Lover" in the real as well as in a symbolic, mystical sense). Gibb’s assessment is, in my opinion, quite fair: "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 Süleyman’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, including eroticism. Süleyman’s moods are many - desperate, sad, optimistic, bleak, joyous, sorrowful, playful, pious, lustful, masochistic, narcissistic. The poems in the selection presented here express Süleyman’s varying moods in subtly different styles.
Many of Süleyman’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 Süleyman 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 Süleyman’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 Süleyman the Magnificent.
By far the most famous line by Süleyman is "In this world a spell of good health is the best state." Through his wordplay on "state", Süleyman 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."
It is also a testament to the grand Sultan’s genuine sense of modesty that he would often send or show his poems to Baki or other leading poets for their criticism and corrections.
Muhibbi’s poems were collected in several exquisitely produced handwritten volumes. These Divans contain his poetry in Turkish with a sprinkling of verses in Persian (he is known to have written a few poems in Arabic as well). The contents vary slightly and numerous individual poems have minor variations. It is regrettable that no scholar has yet undertaken to produce a definitive text. It would also be useful to establish, from external facts and internal references, the exact years, or at least the approximate period, when the poems were written. In the absence of such data, many literary historians have made the assumption that the majority of Süleyman’s poems were written in his youth or prior to 1520, when, at the age of twenty-six, the Prince ascended the throne. This assumption should not be accepted at face value: It should be tested on the basis of available evidence as well as in terms of how Süleyman’s poetic art evolved and matured over the years.
The Grand Turk’s private life and his inner- most feelings are perhaps best portrayed in his own poems. The official chronicles and other histories of the sixteenth century left behind very little information about the Sultan’s character, particularly about his sentiments. His poetry may well be the most reliable source we can tap to gain an insight into Sultan Süleyman’s complex personality.
Prof. Talat S. Halman
Chairman, Department of Turkish
Literature, Bilkent University
Illustrations: J.M. Rogers and M. Ward, Süleyman the Magnificent, London, 1988