The challenge of telling a great story: Suleiman the Magnificent, Harold Lamb

 By Robert Nicolaisen


It is hard to come by a subject as grand as Suleiman the Magnificent. His nickname “magnificent” correlates with a life that was nothing short of extraordinary. The material awaiting any historian making a study of Suleiman’s life is rich and diverse; the chance to create an exciting and riveting tale alluring. However, the sheer scale of his military and civic deeds, and drama surrounding his personal life, can be a daunting undertaking when trying to write the great sultan’s biography. Trying to grapple the immensity of it the historian risks falling short. As is the case of Harold Lamb’s Suleiman the Magnificent; it is expansive and richly detailed, but found lacking. In his effort to weave a story that captures the fullness of the historical drama, the work ends up with confusing storytelling and unsound judgments. The book has the inaccuracies of someone who doesn’t know the subject well enough, and fallacies of someone who is unsure of his field of study. While being an honest endeavor to enlighten Western readers of Ottoman civilization – the book was first published in 1951 - and its greatest leader (ix-x), the book cannot be anything but disappointing considering Harold Lamb’s stature as a historian and writer, leaving other biographies of Süleiman to be preferred.

Lamb has for several decades been distinguished as a fine historian, often noted for his skill as a storyteller. Some of his best-known books have been biographies: aside from Süleiman the Magnificent, he has written biographies of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Peter the Great, Cyrus the Great – among others. A lot of great people. These are historical characters that will forever capture the imagination; they were not only an integral part of major historical events but helped shape them; masters of the destiny of peoples. Having never read any of Lamb’s other works I still felt sure, due to his reputation, that this was the kind of subject he would excel at.

To his credit, Lamb has done thorough research and been able to cover most of Süleiman’s life as a Sultan and the Euro-Asiatic world in which he lived. This is the main strength of the book; as the author is able to present major events where Süleiman is instigator, and historical characters that he interacts with – not to mention the tense, dramatic, scenes of his personal life – the reader gains perspective on why Suleiman’s life and times are remarkable

The book starts with the death of his father Selim the Grim, the feared and mercurial Sultan, who killed all his brothers – keeping faith with the Ottoman tradition of fratricide among its rulers – all his nephews, and all his sons, except for Süleiman and was rumored to have poisoned his father (Bayezid I) after forcing him to step down as Sultan.

His young son and only heir wasted no time making a name for himself; almost immediately after becoming Sultan in 1520, still only 26 years of age, he set out to conquer Belgrade. We are introduced to all the great military campaigns, on both land and sea, that saw the Ottoman Empire greatly expand its territory. From the hard-fought victory over the Serbians, to the massive siege of Rhodes, and the devastating conquest of the Hungarian plains, we follow Süleiman’s rise to greatness in suit with his military conquests. Likewise, he greatly increased the strength of the Ottoman navy, which had some of the most infamous admirals in Mediterranean history, namely Barbarossa and Dragut. With these daring and, at times, ingenious men at the helm, the new-found force of the Ottoman navy was able to conquer the entire Aegean Sea, “turning it into a Turkish lake” (189) and later, become masters of the Mediterranean. The Empire reached new frontiers with Algiers in North Africa and Buda in Hungary, as well as reclaiming Baghdad from the Persians. We are also treated to in-depth portrayals of Suleiman’s two major setbacks: the first being the siege of Vienna in 1529; and of course, the legendary Great Siege of Malta in 1565 where, again, the Knights of St. John – as on Rhodes – proved a most formidable enemy.

The Siege of Malta: Attack on the Post of the Castilian Knights, 21 August 1565: Matteo Perez d' Aleccio

The Siege of Malta: Attack on the Post of the Castilian Knights, 21 August 1565: Matteo Perez d' Aleccio

Along with the Sultan’s military exploits, the rich plethora of characters that influenced his life and Empire makes for exciting reading. The Ottoman presence far into Europe made the Sultanate a far more decisive force in European power politics than ever before, marked by diplomatic overtures to Süleiman from European monarchs and emperors; most notably from King Francis I of France (and his mother) who more than once appealed for Ottoman aid against their common arch nemesis, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Lamb’s story also highlights the very capable men that helped the Sultan build and consolidate his Empire. Of these, the most famous Grand Vizier in Ottoman history, Ibrahim Pasha, is most prevalent; the Grand Vizier that for all his wisdom did not see the inherent danger of becoming ever more extravagant and powerful, in the end receiving a fate that seemed inevitable. Aside from Ibrahim Pasha, Suleiman’s reign had some of the most well-known and powerful Grand Viziers in Ottoman history: Ibrahim’s successors were men who will forever be recognized as having great importance to the Ottoman Empire, namely Rustem Pasha and Sokollu Mehmed. 

There are several minor characters that served Suleiman during his reign, who each prove compelling and interesting in their own way: from Baki, the quintessential Ottoman poet; Seydi Ali Reis’ amazing journey to the East Indies and all the way back to Istanbul over land; and Mimar Sinan, one of the world’s great architects, who by way of magnificent (no pun intended) buildings and structures helped shape Istanbul and other former Greek cities with Ottoman splendor. We are also treated with fascinating personages from Europe, like the Alcibiades-like character of Luigi Gritti, the gifted Venetian diplomat that served ever which side that – including the Ottomans – would help him gain in prestige; not to mention Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, the hard and devout commander of the Knights of St. John that twice made a stand against the overwhelming might of the Ottoman Army. Lamb’s academic research goes far and wide, not only covering a vast array of interesting followers and opponents of Süleiman, but also being able to offer documented remarks and comments from central figures of contemporary times: in 1521 after the Serbian surrender of Belgrade the Venetians in apparent disappointment complained “The Turks go to war as if to a wedding” (44).

Suleiman’s legacy continues in TV shows like  The Magnificent Century.

Suleiman’s legacy continues in TV shows like The Magnificent Century.

The highly intriguing family life of Süleiman is nothing short of astonishing. The author rightly spares no details portraying life in the harem and the unfortunate fate of his heirs. Süleiman’s relationship with his favourite – First Kadin – concubine, the Circassian girl Gülbahar, who eventually had to give way for his future wife, the Russian concubine, Roxelana is in many ways cruel and sad. The women fought a vicious battle, both figuratively and literally, over who was going to win the Sultan’s heart. A battle that Gülbahar ends up losing, having to leave the palace; the Venetian Bailo, Bragadino, noting that “her lord takes thought of her no longer” (120). The most fascinating, and highly dramatic part of the book is the death of Süleiman’s two sons, Mustafa, and later Bayezid, both executed at their father’s orders. This must be the biggest blot on Süleiman’s Sultanate, exceeding any lost battle. Not least because he left the Ottoman throne to an incompetent son in Selim II, nicknamed “the Sot” because of his love of drinking, in general thought to have started the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.                 

Harold Lamb’s narrative history takes on a style which relies on the author’s ability to create an exciting and interesting tale out of the historical sources at his disposal. This is most certainly much harder than it sounds. It depends on the historian’s ability to write clear and fluid prose, while building the action of the story, often with suspenseful moments; at the same time he cannot betray any of the empirical evidence, keeping the work faithful to history. Lamb’s biography lacks many of these qualities. His prose is anything but clear, juggling sentences casually in many paragraphs, which often makes them challenging to read, at worst incoherent. In 1521 while the Sultan was in the field with his armies, Lamb describes the movement and structure of these: 

Only on the map could he trace the movements of the Army of Europe, and the other Army of Asia [although often serving in the same campaigns the Sultan divided his armies geographically in two, based on the continent they were mustered in]. These great masses of horsemen were the feudal levies made up of Turkish landowners, with armed followers. Mobilized each season, drawing no pay, they foraged for themselves, coming in as the grass ripened from the warm south to the cold north. (41) 

Not knowing any better, the reader might think the entire Ottoman army was made up of light horsemen roaming freely on the way to battle. One is unsure of what is meant by “coming in as the grass ripened…”; if they foraged for themselves while on military campaign, not joining any battle lines before the grass got green or if they simply waited to join the military campaign itself. The military forces Lamb is referring to are the Akinji, who made up a considerable portion of the army, but by no means the only, or most important unit – something Lamb elaborates on later in the book. The author often falls for the temptation to flesh out his story with literary qualities that are either misleading or out of place. As Lamb writes about meetings between historical characters, and Suleiman’s experiences, he sometimes adds words to the dialogue, or personal thoughts, that he cannot possibly know. This is not exceptional on the part of Harold Lamb as other noted historians have done the same, and Lamb tells the reader in the foreword of the book (x), that he adds words and thoughts strictly in the context of a documented situation. In the early part of the book the author delves into Ibrahim Pasha’s psychological disposition when describing one of the Grand Vizier’s meetings with the Sultan. As the two discuss the nature of a sultan’s rule the author makes the presumption that Ibrahim was only too aware that he was “in service to a more stupid Turk,” having an “instinctive resentment” for him (70). It is of course alright to assume these things, based on what evidence is available, but by writing it matter-of-factly, the historian is slowly leaving the field of history and entering literary fiction.

At other times, there occur inexplicable factual errors, such as occur when Lamb is outlining the details of the Battle of Mohács. He writes that “the army mustered by King Louis at Mohács consisted almost entirely of the nobles and their horsemen” (97), but after having informed us of the Hungarian army’s annihilation at the hands of the Ottomans he refers to Süleiman’s  account of the beaten enemy by way of his diary, which reads: “Twenty thousand foot soldiers and 4000 mailed riders of the Hungarian army are buried” (100). In other words, King Louis’ army consisted almost entirely of foot soldiers, not horsemen. The author insists on calling the Ottoman people “Turks” (75) and refers to Turkey as a nation (216) at a point in history when that term was nowhere near being acknowledged by the people themselves – not until centuries later. The term existed only as a derogatory one being used by Europeans, the official moniker being Ottoman. At the end of the book, he claims that interbreeding in the palace harem – Seraglio – was partially at fault for the Empire’s downfall, producing feeble-minded sultans (326). How Harold Lamb could reach such a conclusion is hard to understand. Surely, the harem made sure there could be no interbreeding within the Ottoman Sultanate. The harem was supplied by new women all the time, taken as slaves from Europe, and as time went on, they could be married off or let go of; there was no tradition for any incestuous relationship between the Sultan and his children or sisters, who were married off to notable officials. The constant fresh supply of women and the sheltering of the children could in no way create a such a system.

The author blunders when he claims that the Sultan “was… head of the most democratic government of their time [16th century]” (77-78). Lamb’s reasoning for this extraordinary statement is the fact that the Sultan’s power was limited by Shari’a law. He further reasons that Sultan Süleiman conceded economic responsibility on the Grand Vizier and religious matters to the Mufti. Obviously, Harold Lamb does not define democracy like it should be, as rule of the people. The people had no say in governmental power in Ottoman Turkey – as opposed to contemporary England. The latter was not by any means a democracy by modern standards but had already for centuries a constitution like the Magna Carta, that curtailed monarchy’s power over the people, and an elected parliament. What Lamb is speaking about is a separation of powers, which as noted above was well established in England with its Parliament, not to mention the great city-state of Venice who at that time had a remarkably well-functioning republic, where the ruling Doge was entirely dependent on the Great Council of the city. Furthermore, as Lamb writes, the Sultan conceded these powers, and just as he conceded these, he could revoke them. As the prominent British historian and scholar on Middle Eastern studies, Bernard Lewis, has written: 

When Süleyman the Magnificent was invested with the sword of Osman in 1520, he became master of a perfect machine of absolutist government… True, he was subject to the unalterable provisions of the Holy Law, but the Holy Law itself conceded him almost absolute power, and its authorized exponents were the firm prop of his authority among the people. (122)     

It is a fallacy of Lamb when he insists on identifying various members of the court and military organization as Christians. Clearly, most of the prominent members of the Sultan’s staff and confidantes were Christian-born, but recognizing them as Christian and “minds of the West” (75) is misleading. Men like Sokollu, Ibrahim, and Rustem all hailed from Christian families in countries like Bosnia, Greece, and Croatia, but had been part of the Devshirme levy of boys. This practice – rather appropriately called a“blood tax” by those it affected – entailed young Christian boys to be taken from their families and forced to undergo hard and vigorous training in order to serve as court officials or Janissaries. In many ways, an ingenious way of raising a competent corps of officials who, with strings attached to neither family nor faction, would serve the Sultan faithfully. The boys were trained and taught in a strict Ottoman environment, raised culturally as Ottomans. By the time they were men and entered service their awareness and identity were strictly Ottoman. Most of them were devout Muslims – all the boys of the Devshirme were immediately circumcised and converted, studying Muslim theology and law every day from a young age. There is no doubt that these people knew of their background and many remembered their origins, but to speak of them as Christians lacks accuracy. One could argue how feasible it would be for a number of commanders and thousands of soldiers who identified as Christians and ethnically European to fight, kill and plunder “their own.” Would such a thing even be possible?

The book’s major problem is Harold Lamb’s choice to write from “the Turkish viewpoint” (x). While it is one thing – and highly necessary – to try and understand one party’s side of things, it is another to actively take sides while making an academic study. That is risky business that easily leads to bias. While it is difficult for any historian to be completely objective, especially when writing about a particular person or people, the role of the modern historian is to have a detached relationship with his subject matter, thus being able to make fair and precise enquiries, leading to reasonable analysis and conjectures. Unfortunately, Lamb seems predetermined to understand the Ottoman cause, whatever the case, as rightful, or better, thereby falling into the trap of making unsound judgments. Already in the beginning of the book while commenting on the status of Christian subjects within the Ottoman Empire, Lamb claims that Sultan Mehmed II had ruled that they “would be the equal of a Moslem” (7) – rights that were granted them by the Conqueror of Constantinople in 1453. It is certainly true that Christians – as well as Jews – were granted far greater freedom in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, than Muslims and Jews were in Christian Europe. But writing that they were “equal” is outrageous. Sultan Mehmed II was indeed generous with the non-Muslim population but according to Christians’ dhimmi status, their laws could not override the primacy of Muslim law; and Christian and Jewish subjects had to pay kharaj – special taxes; and they were clearly regarded as inferior to Muslims, always open for discrimination, and worse, at the Sultan’s will. Lamb discusses Christians’ status as somewhat inferior later in the book, which makes his statement of religious equality all the more odd.

Harold Lamb downplays almost all the things that could be deemed a failure or be construed as acts of hostility during Suleiman’s reign. On page 71, he has Suleiman contemplating the creation of a peaceful league with the Southeastern nations of Europe, which Suleiman’s war record makes hard to believe. On page 110, the author incredulously reminds the reader that Suleiman never sought any “enmity with the [Holy Roman] Empire.” Not even when invading Hungary a total of six times? Not even when attacking Austria? These campaigns were brought on by a desire to seek dominion over new territory. It is perfectly fair and noteworthy to point out Suleiman’s comfortable relationship with the war machine, reducing the number of campaigns from his predecessors. He sought commercial ties and prosperity for the Ottoman Empire and political control less grounded on military might, but the nature of Ottoman rule and power was nurtured by expansion and military might, something that Suleiman only knew too well. The author also downplays the siege of Vienna as a pivotal moment in European history; the significance of the event may indeed have taken on oversized proportions over the years, but how the author can conclude that only Buda was the real objective of the Ottomans is mind boggling. If that was the case, why on Earth would the Ottomans have bothered such a high-scale siege of Vienna?

Harold Lamb’s rather one-sided portrayal of the Ottomans and their greatest Sultan makes more sense at the end of the book. As well as being an academic study of Süleiman, the book is also a relic from the beginning of the Cold War. Harold Lamb depicts the centuries-old struggle between Turks and the Russian Empire, the former slowly giving way since the 16th century, but being able to hold out in the contest for Black Sea-territory. Lamb clearly favors and admires Turkey in their stubbornness against the Russians and marks their struggle as a noble one. The perspective of the American historian is one marked by the political and military power struggle between the two Superpowers post-WWII. Lamb’s attitude represents a culture that was uneasy about the ideological evil that lurked behind the Iron Curtain. Turkey at the time of the book’s release (1951) had just chosen to side with the USA and the West, entering NATO the year after, and in time housing American nuclear warheads (1961). To Lamb, Turkey was on the good side, a nation advocating the Truman Doctrine.  

In the end, what was it that made Suleiman the greatest of Ottoman Sultans? Harold Lamb tries hard to give us the answer. One thing that goes without saying, is that his reign marked the pinnacle of the Ottoman Empire, extending from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, from Basra at the Persian border all the way to the heart of Europe, at the gates of Vienna. Northern Africa, the Middle East, the Black Sea region, including the Crimea and Circassia, were all subject to the Sultan’s throne. Grandiose buildings, mercantile and agricultural wealth, political power and respect, the Ottomans – whom we call Turkish today – was at their relative height in world affairs. But Harold Lamb tries, rightfully, to reach for something deeper. In Turkey, Suleiman is known as Kanuni, the Lawgiver. Suleiman’s preoccupation with law is alluded to in various points of the book, and the author indicates how the Sultan found it logical to differentiate between religious faith and the conduct of men, as “in matters of obedience and loyalty” (250). However, the author is not able to give a definite answer to Suleiman’s convictions or beliefs regarding law other than to “protect the individual” (320), nor what literal laws he instituted. An understanding of why the Sultan to this day enjoys the status as lawgiver is never fulfilled by the author.

Curiously, midway through the book, Lamb gives Süleiman some of the blame for the Ottoman Empire’s later setbacks. The reason being the corruption that had started to occur within his administration, “exacting fees from men appointed to office” (264). Historians generally explain the later stagnation and backslide of the empire as the result of the breakdown of the Sipahi class of landowners, a strong and reliable component in the Ottoman land and military organization. After the reign of Suleiman, the land fiefs of the Sipahi were overtaken by government officials and dignitaries, by the will of the Sultan. This surely had the effect of wide-spread corruption – which may have started at the time of Suleiman.

Harold Lamb mentions honorable and impressive traits, mental and physical, in the person of Suleiman but concludes that he was still a simple Turk carrying on Ottoman tradition. Indeed, Lamb argues, the traditional way of organizing the Ottoman Empire and court, its very culture – political and societal – was the main basis for its strength at that time. It is a valid point; Suleiman did continue the rise of an Empire that had expanded gradually since the days of Osman himself in the 14th century. The one thing he gives Suleiman distinct credit for as being invaluable for his great success, and markedly different from his predecessors, was his policy of delegating Imperial duties and responsibility to the best of hands. Lamb has Suleiman in charge of a sort of meritocracy where great minds share the heavy burden of keeping the Empire intact and growing. This accords well with the story of the book, being a reoccurring theme throughout. 

One thing that is left out of Lamb’s conclusion is Süleiman’s moderation and humanity. This is something that recurs several times in the book and therefore is not lost on Lamb. It is not difficult to see that this side of Suleiman contributed to his greatness. He decided to break off the siege of Vienna against the protests of his senior officers; he likewise chose not to occupy Tabriz and other parts of Persia after successful advances against the armies of the Shah; and he didn’t feel the need to make war annually; he had the good sense not to overreach, something that would have tempted lesser men, and indeed have proved disastrous for many. He chose to protect Christians in the Holy Land of Palestine so that they could worship holy places free from harassment and abuse; he was at times, unexpectedly merciful to his foes and prisoners of war, such as the knights of St. John and the population of Rhodes, who were given freedom and transported to Cyprus; and his restitution to the captives of Castro. There was something humane and magnanimous about him. Yes, he appeared ruthless toward his own subordinates and even his sons. But that was not something unique for a Sultan in Ottoman tradition. However, his conduct on military campaigns and treatment of enemies was not common for an Ottoman Sultan. Sultan Mehmed II’s siege of Otranto (1480) serves as a good comparison; despite the siege only lasting fifteen days before the garrison had to succumb to Ottoman pressure, more than half of Otranto’s population was killed and thousands taken as slaves. One can only imagine what would have been Mehmed’s response to the stubborn defense of Rhodes in Suleiman’s time.      

Harold Lamb is not able give a clear portrait of Suleiman and maybe that is on purpose; maybe “the last of the great Osmanli sultans” (317) is bound to be enigmatic and ambiguous, like so many great men before and after him. Lamb does however succeed in making clear why the Sultan’s life and reign was great, by clarifying his outward acts, achievements. He lived at a highly dramatic time, he had to contest strong rulers in Europe and Middle East, he had to handle strong men under his command; it was a time loaded with happenings, that helped shape history. Süleiman was often the driving force behind these happenings and the force that compelled his peers – friend or foe – to excel or fail. For all the faults of Lamb’s book, and there are many, it is still worth reading for this one thing: he has written a richly detailed narrative that afford a glimpse of what made Suleiman the Magnificent a special Sultan. 

Works Cited

Lamb, Harold. Suleiman The Magnificent. Pinnacle Books, 1978. 

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day. Phoenix Press, 2000.