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Suleiman the Magnificent and the Franco-Ottoman Alliance

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Rise of Suleiman I to a pinnacle of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1520 overlapped with the turning point in the European history. Darkness of the later medieval period with its stagnating feudal institutes became redundant and was slowly giving way to the glimmer of the Renaissance. Suleiman the Magnificent was expected to become an indispensable element in maintaining the Christian balance of power in the West. In the Middle East, he was perceived as a paragon of virtue that would bring prosperity to his empire. He was the 10th sultan in a row and ruled the Ottoman Empire in the early 10th century after Hijra (a watershed event in the history of the Islamic world when Prophet Muhammad led his followers to Medina). The Muslims regarded Suleiman I as a living embodiment of the blessed number 10, which symbolized the quantity of fingers on human hands and legs as well as 10 emotions, 10 parts of the Quran, 10 commandments of the Pentateuch, 10 disciples of the Prophet, 10 levels of Heaven in Islam, and 10 spirits that safeguard each level.

The Eastern tradition has it that in the beginning of each century an august sovereign is born with an innate vocation to take this century “by the horns”, manage it, and become its embodiment (Clot, 2005). In other words, he is supposed to tackle the most outstanding problems of this century with great éclat. Upon its aggrandizement, Suleiman the Magnificent lived up to the expectations of Muslims and dovetailed into the niche of the “century man” very well.

Within a few years of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and subsequent conquests of Mohammad, the Western powers were forced to draw critical conclusions from the Ottomans’ successes. Regarding these successes as a constant source of anxiety and uneasiness, they enlisted support to resist this advancement not simply by military means, but diplomatic efforts as well. In this period of religious fermentation, Turkey was bristling with people ho believed in the righteousness of Turkish invasion and regarded it as a punishment that Allah meted out on Europe for its sins. The crusaders believed that Turkish invaders would advance so far that they would reach the sacred city of Cologne (Howard, 2001). However, little did they know about the real scope of the Ottoman Empire’s territorial aggrandizement. On the map below, pink shows territorial expansion of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman I.

Bartolommeo Contarini, an envoy from Venice, described Suleiman the Magnificent as a wise ruler with a strong flair for politics (Kia, 2008). Having gone to a palatial school in Istanbul, Suleiman I muddled the overwhelming amount of his adolescence days over studying and other activities conducive to the development of his spiritual world. Istanbul residents regarded him with deep reverence and affection. Experience of a governor in three distinct provinces prepared Suleiman well for the administrative affairs. Thus, he was groomed as a statesman who combined knowledge and experience of a great civil servant in himself. At the same time, he had to remain tactful and stay true to the moral and cultural principles, so that he would not run counter to the ideas of the Renaissance period. Finally, Suleiman I was an ardent supporter of sincere religious beliefs, which cultivated kindness and tolerance in him without any signs of his father’s bigotry (Clotz, 2005). He entertained the idea of his duty to be a ruler of the true believers. Following the traditions of his ancestors, he was a holy warrior with a proclivity to flex his military muscle and demonstrate the preeminence of this muscle in juxtaposition to that of the Christians. By falling back on the imperial conquests, he aspired to gain in the West what his father had gained in the East.

In order to further his interests, he took advantage of the Hungary’s geopolitical weakness. At that time, Hungary was a link in the Hapsburgs’ defensive positions. In the maelstrom of a blitzkrieg campaign, he beleaguered Belgrade and started shelling it from an islet on the Danube. The enemy decided to set the city on fire in lieu of protecting it.

After Suleiman the Magnificent had conquered the country of the Hungarians whose medieval kingdom was an indispensable part of Europe, this country disappeared from the political map of Europe for a few centuries. One part of Hungary became a province in the Ottoman Empire, while another one was annexed by the Hapsburgs. There was one more chopped off part – Transylvania – with a great minority of Romanians governed by Hungarian feudals who paid tribute to the Ottomans (Faroqui, 2006).

Approximately at the same time, the Ottoman sultan prevailed over his adversaries once again, though on the diplomatic front this time. He concluded an alliance with France against the Holy Roman Empire, i.e. Austria. Austria was the next link in the Hapsburgs’ defense. Suleiman the Magnificent clearly realized that to wage a war against Austria without outside assistance would compromise the security of his sultanate. France turned out to be on fire with enthusiasm to become an ally of the Ottoman Empire in this endeavor. The establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations between France and the Ottoman Empire dates back to 1483 when they accredited each other’s diplomatic missions and exchanged embassies (Isom-Verhaera, 2011). However, this relationship was barren at first. In 1517, the king of France Francis I instigated other European supremos to form an alliance against the Ottomans in order to expel them from Europe and divide their possessions, but his plans did not come to fruition. His interests ran afoul of those of other European rulers to such an extent that they did not contrive to achieve a consensus. On the contrary, France and the Ottoman Empire had no pretence for disputes. Hence, Francis I decided to take a risky measure – form an alliance with an Islamic state against a Christian state. France used to participate vehemently in the Crusades against the Muslim world a few decades ago. However, Suleiman the Magnificent turned a blind eye to this outrage and accepted France’s offer. The vainglorious battle of Pavia spurred the French to precipitate the events. Regnant Louise of Savoy sent a diplomatic mission to Constantinople in 1525, but the Bosnians intercepted and belabored it in defiance of the sultan’s will (Isom-Verhaera, 2011). Francis I was not very embarrassed however and sent a messenger with an alliance offer to Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottoman sultan was expected to dig up the hatchet against Hungary once again, while the captured king of France obliged to levy a war on Spain. Simultaneously, Suleiman the Magnificent received a proposition to form an alliance with Charles V, but he opted for a league with France. In 1528, the king of France supplicated Suleiman the Magnificent to allow him to restore a Catholic church in Jerusalem, but the Ottoman sultan rammed a resounding rebuff down Francis I’s throat for the sake of Islamic principles. However, he promised a certain degree of patronage and assistance to the Christians living in the Ottoman Empire (Karpat, 1974).

The 16th century in Europe was widely perceived to belong to Charles V and the Hapsburg Monarchy, Francis I and the House of Valois in France, Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty in England. All these powerful monarchies treated Suleiman the Magnificent very cautiously. Europe constantly remained in jeopardy of the Ottoman Empire, but the most ferocious confrontation occurred between Charles V and Francis I, while Suleiman I wisely availed himself of this hostility. Thus, when Charles V became the monarch of the Holy Roman Empire, the public anointed him to champion Christianity (Howard, 2001). Thanks to the fact that he managed adroitly to marry up a series of prudent matrimonies and fortunate demises, Charles V’s imperial domains extended from the Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea, from the Netherlands to Spain. They encompassed also the Kingdom of Naples and Sicilia. He stumbled across the gruesome challenge of the Ottomans on the Austrian lands that were transmitted to him by heredity. Rise of Suleiman the Magnificent only augmented the magnitude of this challenge, so to say.

Francis I did not manage to take on the mantle of the Holy Roman Emperor. His nemesis Charles V beat the king of France by a landslide margin. The former hatched the idea of uniting the whole Europe into the Holy Roman Empire under the Hapsburgs’ control (Howard, 2001). France, which separated Charles V’s German possessions from his Spanish dominions, stymied his ambitious plans to conquer the whole European continent. A cleavage in regard to views always reared its ugly head in the bilateral relations of these countries. Initially, Francis I was a whole-hearted preacher of the gospel that stipulated a launch of another crusade against the Ottomans, but soon started seeking the means to enlist Suleiman I’s support in his campaign against Charles V. Suleiman the Magnificent subsidized the king of France a few times, namely sent him 100,000 gold pieces to facilitate the process of forming an alliance against Charles V (Karpat, 1974, p. 52). He reiterated that he regarded the Ottoman Empire as a sole power that could counterbalance or rather curb the Hapsburgs and guarantee existence of other European states (Karpat, 1974, p. 57).

When Charles V indicted Francis I on a charge of treason and added that the king of France harbored pro-Muslim sympathies, the latter ignominiously promised to enter the crusade and continued to procrastinate it. Simultaneously, he ordered his envoy in Istanbul to prostrate himself before Suleiman the Magnificent on his behalf. The Ottoman sultan knew very well that the French relied on the alliance with the Ottoman Empire and could not dispense with this alliance (Faroqui, 2006). Thus, he wound up assessing this alliance as an important component of his foreign policy. In a nutshell, Suleiman the Magnificent played the role of a balancer in the 16th century Europe. This sanguine image of the Ottoman sultan improved diplomatic prestige of his sultanate and allowed him to deploy military clout with all his might.

It would be wise to mention implications of the Franco-Ottoman Alliance for the Muslim inhabitants of Europe in general and France in particular. Europeans subsumed a whole blend of nations under the category of Saracens. Usually, this name was given to those Muslims that invaded France and occupied a part of its territory (Kia, 2008). The crusaders in their turn bestowed this name on all people dwelling in the Middle East that they confronted during the crusades (Kia, 2008). The Saracens who remained in France after the battle of Poitiers started gradually settling in new places and a lion’s share of them reached Paris in the late 1380s. Weaving assembly shops that specialized in production of tapestry and were run by the Saracens started mushrooming out. Posterity of the Arab weavers did not conclude a significant part of the France’s Muslim population as compared to the avalanche of Eastern libertines and former Muslim slaves who inundated French cities after France’s provinces had abolished the institute of slavery. Slavery in France dates back to the 12th century when bishops traded Saracen slaves at fairs in the Champagne region of France. This disgraceful institute gradually withdrew to the scrapheap of history while the manumitted slaves climbed to a little higher level of hierarchy (they transmogrified into serfs). In Provence, which was not an integral part of France at that point, slavery was not abolished well into the 15th century (Howard, 2001). The Saracens, Moors, and Turks sustained a fair share of slaves. The vast majority of infidels captured during maritime battles were rounded up, transplanted or deported, and reduced to slavery. Some of them were deported to Marseilles directly, while others wound up there through the Italian slave markets (Howard, 2001). A significant portion of these slaves was manumitted from the rod in the long run. They could either be emancipated by their master or by the law upon the master’s death. In any event, all of them were converted to Christianity by that time, which was not very welcome news to the die-hard Muslims. Conclusion of the Franco-Ottoman Alliance remedied this deplorable state of affairs.

Nudged by a reciprocal interest to debilitate the Hapsburg Empire, Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent signed the Franco-Ottoman Alliance in 1528. It remained officially efficacious for two and a half centuries until Napoleon had not invaded Egypt in 1798 (Isom-Verhaera, 2011). The French regarded it as a sacrilegious alliance of a lily with a crescent that caused much bickering in the Christian Europe. Taking a glimpse at future, this alliance was later consolidated by Richelieu, a cardinal of the Machiavellian type, who was a statesman rather than a clergyman and considered public policy concerns to be much more important than religious beliefs. That is exactly the reason why it would not be very rational to assert that Christians had a coherent attitude towards Muslims in that particular epoch.

Western critics and historians believe that the French espoused the possibility of alliance with the Ottoman Empire because of the pent-up frustration of their king Francis I (Karpat, 1974). However, it was rather the post-bellum thrust of European policy (Europe was already war-weary, but a myriad of wars still laid in store for it) than a last-ditch demarche of Francis I. Practical significance of this alliance exhibited its favorable outcome for France in 1536 when Suleiman the Magnificent granted the first capitulation (also referred to as an Ahdname) to France (Clot, 2005). The Ottoman Ahdname granted to France in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire encompassed a whole range of concessions (religious freedom on the territory of the Ottoman Empire, the right of an unhampered access to the Holy sites etc.) that the French as well as other nationals that enjoyed the patronage of France could take advantage of. It should be noted that provisions of the capitulations would change in direct proportion to the debilitation of the Ottoman Empire. For instance, privileges and immunities of the French in the Ottoman Empire were prolonged and secured for good in 1740 (Faroqui, 2006). France reveled in the status of the sole representative of the West in Turkey for a long time due to these capitulations.

On the other hand, the French had no choice but to reciprocate seriously the granted concessions. Thus, the Ottoman Navy was authorized to call at French ports and station there its vessels. In July 1544, the Ottoman Navy arrived at the island of Lipari, which was currently under the auspices of the Crown of Spain (Howard, 2001). Hayreddin Barbarossa, a royal minion of Suleiman I who served as an Ottoman admiral of the fleet, presented inhabitants of Lipari with an ultimatum to yield him 200 boys and 200 girls as well as a large amount of money or he would decimate the whole island (Howard, 2001). The islanders refused to accept the terms, which could not but trigger the admiral’s retaliation. It became a matter of honor for the admiral to translate his promises into action. He exposed the island to incessant shelling and laid a siege to it, and one of those at last bore fruit. Hayreddin Barbarossa, a growling, beaming bear of a man, reduced to slavery those islanders who were not slain during the siege. According to the not-so-conservative estimates, Lipari was populated by 10,000 people at that point (Howard, 2001). Thus, Suleiman the Magnificent managed to exploit Francis I to his its own interests and turned France into a bulwark of the Ottoman public policy concerns in Western Europe. Moreover, territory of France became a bridgehead from which the Ottoman Navy could advance its attacks.

Jerome Maurand, a French priest on board of the ship bound for Constantinople, wrote in his memoirs that he could not watch all the atrocities and bestialities of the Janissaries with a light heart (Karpat, 1974). However, Maurand served as a chaplain on a French vessel accompanying the Ottoman Navy to Constantinople. Thus, he was virtually a participant of the aforementioned siege or rather a taciturn accomplice of the Ottomans. In his prodigiously long memoirs, Maurand soon changed his mind and argued (for the sake of his own solace probably) that denizens of Lipari had a strong propensity for sinful acts and other little peccadilloes (Karpat, 1974). He continued that God meted out punishment on his enemies with the help of his enemies (Karpat, 1974). A priest who hailed from Provence forgot probably that he also became embroiled in this treacherous expedition when he embarked the ship. It would have been an inconceivable folly on his part to shake off the responsibility for the atrocities and expunge himself from the list of infidels. The mind boggles at the idea of Christians and Muslims accusing one another furtively of being sacrilegious or blasphemous and maintaining an alliance at the same time. This is really a startling idea to ponder as religion remained in the mainstream of both countries’ politics in the 16th century (it has not yet been relegated into the background in the countries that emerged on the international arena after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire). On the other hand, Faroqui (2006) states, “In conformity with religious law, non-Muslim rulers who had accepted to pay tribute to the Ottoman sultan were considered part of the Islamic world”. However, confession of Jerome Maurand serves in furtherance of the reverse opinion, namely that religiously-justified reasons did not necessitate violence. He concluded that statesmen resorted to violence on the grounds of political expedience (Karpat, 1974).

Though the French were infidels and enemies of God, they were allies of Suleiman the Magnificent at the same time. This fact also stirs one’s imagination as Francis I intended to launch another crusade against the Ottomans four years prior to the conclusion of the Franco-Ottoman alliance. This schizophrenic behavior of the French king corroborates an allegation that the 16th century Eurasia was very geopolitically fluid, while the contemporary actors (kings, sultans, monarchs, emperors etc.) were guided by the desire of territorial aggrandizement. On the other hand, Suleiman I’s eagerness to reach an accommodation with the French constituted an inexplicable deviation from the Muslim ideology. Of course, the Ottoman Empire used to coalesce with other diminutive European powers (Italy, Spain) earlier. However, these travesties of alliances were substantiated by the necessity to repel mutual (though not always) adversaries (Isom-Verhaera, 2011). However, when the powerful sultan, an unremitting acolyte of Islam, entered into alliance with the infidel Francis I (a ruler who adopted an extremely disparaging attitude towards Muslims and ground them down earlier), it was a fundamentally different and intolerant decision. Geopolitical interests apart, this critical issue was doomed to remain mired in religious punditry for a long time. It also lacked religious rectitude from the very beginning.

This series of events bore out the fears of Europeans that the Franco-Ottoman Alliance would not simply establish peaceful coexistence of the two superpowers of that time, but play off France against its immediate neighbors to some extent. Indeed, though France maintained good-neighborly relations with adjacent powers, the Ottoman Empire was its exclusive ally (Isom-Verhaera, 2011).

Returning to the topic of Ahdnames (capitulations), this notion is embedded in history as official accords of Suleiman the Magnificent (and other sultans later) with European sovereigns. These capitulations determined the order of relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Christian countries. Initially, in the 16th century, bellicose Ottoman Empire took a pity on certain states and endowed them with certain benefits (tax breaks, import-export alleviation, and other privileges) as a favor. The Ottomans believed that all Europeans lived in a vicious circle of poverty. They let European diplomats and traders in their saunas and sometimes hand-fed them, which was considered a lofty reverence. However, all this was done in a disparaging manner that derogated personal dignity of European guests (Kia, 2008). Hereof, capitulation was regarded as a symbol of humiliation.

The first Ottoman capitulation, which was elaborated between the Ottoman Empire and France in 1536 in the framework of the Franco-Ottoman Alliance, served as a prototype for the ensuing Ahdnames (Clot, 2005). Suleiman the Magnificent gave the French a right to trade within his empire and levied a tribute on them, which was tantamount to that imposed on the sultan’s nationals. Simultaneously, the King of France Francis I conferred the same rights on Turkish merchants who decided to trade on the territories under his dominion. “Capitulatory” crux of the treaty lied in the fact that the Ottoman Empire assented to legalize dual system of justice on its terrains, i.e. the one that would be premised on Islamic law and efficacious French laws at the same time. However, foreign nationals could ignore court orders issued by a qadi (a Muslim judge), while rulings of the consular court were binding upon Ottoman nationals (Howard, 2001). Moreover, all merchantmen (save for the Venetian ones) in those parts of the Mediterranean Sea that were under sultan’s control were obliged to fly (and consequently pay for this right) the flag of France. The Black Sea was inaccessible for all Europeans without exception (Faroqui, 2006).

Bilateral relationships of Suleiman the Magnificent with the rulers of those territories that were annexed with special privileges as well as inclusion of these relationships into the system of capitulations constituted a daunting challenge for Ottoman policymakers. These territories indulged a whole range of stipulated benefits. For instance, Moldavia, Wallachia, and some Mediterranean islands (Samos etc.) were granted some latitude in commercial, religious, and administrative matters. The Ottoman Empire did not try to graft Islam onto certain nationalities under its jurisdiction.

Liaisons between Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ecumenical Patriarch were also based on the principles of capitulations (Clot, 2005). The latter lived in Constantinople under thorough and permanent protection of Suleiman I. Suleiman the Magnificent and the patriarch maintained the Ottoman status quo in the Balkans. This allowed them both to derive handsome benefits from exploitation of the local populace as they would line up with each other to suppress the grassroots sentiments. The Franco-Ottoman Alliance contributed largely to this state of affairs because it set a precedent for the conclusion of capitulations (Clot, 2005).

Under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) who was a great legislator into the bargain, the Ottoman Empire rose to the status of a global power. Having crystallized the system of internal relations in the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman I embarked his country on a way of shaping its own destiny and the fate of the whole region. The sultan’s persona became an embodiment of the absolute authority. It was not even a pyramid of authority, but rather a vertical of authority, in which all of the dignitaries were valued as pieces on the strategic and ideological chessboard of Suleiman the Magnificent. A belief that the wisdom of the entire Muslim world is embodied in their ruler flamboyantly manifested itself in Suleiman I’s tenure.

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