With its heartland in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), the Ottoman Empire ran from about 1299 to 1922 and straddled three continents in its heyday. The Ottoman emperor was the sultan. In a previous article, we looked at some of the most sadistic and bloodthirsty sultans, the decadent despots whose exploits echoed through the centuries.
Thankfully the padishahs of the past were not always knee-deep in blood and guts. Many of them were well-educated, worldly, and pious. So, for the purpose of balance and impartiality, we’re looking at five of the greatest Ottoman sultans, the rulers who tried to change their lands and subjects for the better.
The Founding Father - Osman I (Reigned c. 1299 – 1323/4)
Likely born in Söğüt, Anatolia around 1254, Osman was the founder and very first sultan of the Ottoman dynasty. Osman expanded the principality inherited from his father, based around his hometown, and pushed into the Byzantine-held areas in the northwest of Anatolia.
One of the most important early victories for the Ottomans was at the Battle of Bapheus in July 1302. This crucial victory, near modern-day Istanbul, opened the floodgates to Ottoman expansion in Anatolia and established them as serious players. The Ottoman Empire had begun in earnest.
Osman’s talent was in uniting the myriad warlords of Anatolia to create a territory that could contend with the two empires it was stuck between – the Byzantine and Mongol.
Also known by Turks as Kara, signifying a hero, Osman was said to be gallant, fair-minded, tall, handsome, and a skilled horseman and swordsman. The Sword of Osman was a state sword named in his honour and was used to ceremonially gird every new sultan as part of their enthronement.
The Clever Conqueror - Mehmed II (Reigned 1444-1446 & 1451-1481)
Mehmed was a born leader. His first stint as sultan came at the age of 12 after his father, Murad II, abdicated the throne. Two years later, Murad II had returned, and the duo was side-by-side in battle. Mehmed’s second spell began in 1451 upon the passing of his father.
Like a racehorse straight out of the gate, Mehmed immediately started to plan the taking of Constantinople (Istanbul). The mighty Byzantine metropolis over the Bosporus had been besieged by many before Mehmed, all unsuccessfully. In May 1453, Mehmed took the city, and it is for that reason he is known as ‘Mehmed the Conqueror’. He carried on adding territories in the Balkans and Anatolia to the empire and his forces even landed in Italy in 1480. Many, including the pope, thought the sultan had his eye on Rome, but Mehmed died near Istanbul in May 1481.
The seventh sultan was more than just a successful battle commander. He made great strides in legal and administrative reforms. He built up the bureaucracy of the imperial court and worked to centralise the empire’s governance.
Mehmed was a great intellectual who spoke four languages in addition to his native tongue: Arabic, Persian, Greek, and Italian. He loved literature and art and was said to possess a well-stocked library on topics such as theology, astronomy, engineering, history, philosophy, and poetry. He also read up on the military adventures of the ancients, such as Alexander the Great, whom he was said to admire.
The Pragmatic Padishah - Bayezid II (Reigned 1481-1512)
The eighth sultan was a tough and capable ruler. He put down a Safavid rebellion in Anatolia, tightened his hold over the Crimea, and furthered Ottoman rule in the Balkans and the Peloponnese region. Bayezid waged war against Venice, defeating 200 Venetian ships at the Battle of Zonchio in 1499, heralding a golden age in Ottoman naval power for the next 72 years.
But at home he was also known as ‘Bayezid the Just’, owing to his non-tyrannical approach to governance.
When the King of Spain expelled the Jewish population from his kingdom in 1492, the sultan sent ships to Spain to evacuate them. He ordered that they be welcomed with open arms into the Ottoman Empire. Bayezid resettled them in various parts of the empire, and they were so well-received that they wrote letters to friends and family around the world advising them to join them (no doubt helped by the sultan’s threat of death for anyone in the empire that turned the Jewish refugees away or mistreated them).
He also built numerous hospitals, bridges, schools, mosques, and roads, and was a patron of poets and scholars.
The Splendid Sultan - Suleiman I (Reigned 1520-1566)
Known as ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’, this 16th-century fighting sultan also made it onto our list of ‘sadistic sultans’, and with good reason. However, the empire enjoyed something of a high point under the 10th sultan.
He waged fearsome military campaigns almost immediately after being girded by the Sword of Osman. He took Belgrade in 1521, Rhodes the following year, and (unsuccessfully) besieged Vienna in 1529. The Hungarian lands he conquered in the 1520s would stay in Ottoman hands for another 150 years.
He ensured the continuation of the Ottoman dominance of the seas that his grandfather, Bayezid II, had established (which ended again in 1571 with the Ottomans’ defeat at Lepanto). There were Ottoman boots on the ground from the centre of Europe to the eastern fringes of Persia, together with much of the Barbary Coast.
Suleiman’s time as sultan saw a flowering of Ottoman art and architecture. Textiles, calligraphy, poetry, and painting reach new heights, and hundreds of mosques, bridges, schools, hospitals, and aqueducts were built. He was an accomplished writer and he encouraged learning and culture. He was known to his subjects as 'Suleiman the Lawgiver', for his legal reforms, including creating a unified legal code and overhauling the tax system.
With a highly competent leader like Suleiman at the helm, the empire’s trade and prosperity grew. Suleiman was one of the most famous rulers of the age, and Shakespeare mentioned him in the play The Merchant of Venice. Suleiman’s 46-year reign is seen as a golden age in Turkish history.
The Saintly Sultan - Abdul Hamid I (Reigned 1774-1789)
Said to be a humble pacificist with a fondness for family life, the 27th sultan was a conscientious ruler, personally leading efforts to combat the Constantinople fire of 1782, for example. He was a progressive and attentive statesman who tried to modernise the ailing Ottoman state with reform and bureaucratic streamlining. But he was not shy to use force when he needed to. He put down rebellions in Egypt and Syria during his reign.
Unlike many of his absolutist predecessors, Abul Hamid delegated many powers to grand viziers and reformed many aged institutions, such as the army. He founded the Imperial Naval Engineering School. He was a keen builder, leaving many impressive structures such as the Beylerbeyi Mosque, built in 1778. Abdul Hamid was so revered by his people that he was called ‘veli’ (saint). Nevertheless, he is still known today for his military failures.
The Ottoman Empire under Abdul Hamid lost a good deal of battles and territory to Russia, particularly the losses enshrined in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca of 1774. Abdul Hamid was forced to go to war with Russia again in 1787, which the Ottomans lost a few years after his death in 1789.