10 Greatest Ottoman Sultans and their Accomplishments

From Mehmed the Conqueror to Suleiman the Magnificent, World History Edu presents top 10 sultans of the Ottoman Empire, an empire considered by many as one of the greatest and most influential in human history.

Mehmed II (also known as Mehmet the Conqueror)

Ottoman sultans

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II was famously known as Mehmed the Conqueror

Born: March 30, 1432

Died: May 3, 1481

Reign: 1446-1446; 1451-1481

Parents: Sultan Murad II and Human Hatun

Mehmed II, the seventh sultan of the Ottoman Empire, is popularly known as Mehmed the Conqueror or Fatih Sultan Mehmet. He is known by those epithets mostly due to his military achievements and his strong patronage of the arts and poetry. Mehmed II ruled the empire on two occasions; the first came from August 1444 to September 1446, while the second was from February 1451 to May 1481.

Building upon the advances made by his predecessor and father Sultan Murad II, his second reign was one of remarkable accomplishments. He set out to expand the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire in all directions. His first and without doubt the greatest military conquest came in 1453, when he defeated the Byzantine Empire to claim the city of Constantinople. The Sultan was just 21 when he accomplished that feat.

With a strong navy and army, Mehmed II established the Ottoman Empire as a real force to be reckoned with in the region, one that caused a lot of sleepless nights for many Christian European rulers, particularly Serbia, which he conquered in 1459. Taking the title “Caesar” of the Roman Empire, Mehmed the Conqueror was also known for his major reforms in all spheres of the Empire, most notably judiciary and administrative reforms.

Mehmed II was also praised for establishing religious freedoms throughout the empire. After his conquest of Constantinople, he opened the city’s gates to people from all walks of life and people of different nationalities and religious backgrounds. By so doing he successfully turned Constantinople into a truly remarkable imperial city, one that could boast of rich culture and art, as well as advances in science and architecture.

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman I was known for his patronage of the arts and education and of building projects as well as collecting, codifying and unifying the laws of his kingdom. The laws that he unified remained in place for more than three centuries.

Born: November 6, 1495

Died: September 6, 1566

Reign: 1520-1566

Parents: Sultan Selim I and Hafsa Hatun

From 1520 to 1566, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Suleiman I, also known as Suleiman the Magnificent or Suleiman the Lawgiver. To some historians, Suleiman, the man responsible for lifting the Ottoman Empire to its peak militarily and politically, was undoubtedly the greatest Ottoman ruler.  Son of Sultan Selim I, Suleiman surrounded himself with very capable viziers and officials to rule over an empire that had anywhere between 16 and 25 million people.

His most defining moment came in 1521 when he was able to conquer Belgrade, one of the prized jewels of the Kingdom of Hungary. This conquest of his established him as one of the greatest rulers of the era, bearing in mind that this feat of his was something that eluded his great-grandfather Mehmed II.

Suleiman secured many other victories against a number of European powers, particularly against the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs on August 29, 1526. With the help of astute naval commanders like Barbarossa, he was able to eliminate major threats from Europe in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas. In 1522, he famously brought the Christian island of Rhodes to its knees after about 145 days of siege using an armada of about 400 ships armed with very powerful cannons, explosives and sappers.

At the time of his death, on September 6, 1566, the Ottoman territory was double the size compared to when he ascended to throne. Economically, the empire was left on a sound footing by Suleiman.

Murad II

Ottoman Sultan

Murad II was the sixth Ottoman Sultan. He was also the father of Mehmed the Conqueror

Born: June 16, 1404; Amasya, Ottoman Sultanate

Died: February 3, 1451; Edirne, Ottoman Sultanate

Reign: 1421-1444; 1446-1451

Parents: Mehmed I and Emine Hatun

Murad II, 6th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, reigned from 1421 to 1444 and again from 1446 to 1451. Son of Mehmed I and Emine Hatun, Murad II was most known transforming the empire’s economy through trade and investments in infrastructure projects.

As it was typical for Ottoman princes and crown princes to gain leadership experience by presiding over district or province, Murad served as the governor of the Amasya Sanjak (present-day Amasya Province in Northern Turkey) before ascending to the throne.

In his first reign, he was able to defeat two major rebellions (supported by the Byzantine Empire) that came first from his uncle Mustafa Çelebi and then later from his younger brother Kösem Sultan (c. 1409-1422). In between those rebellions he tried to lay siege to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. His first reign also saw him defeat independent Anatolian states (beylik) like Teke, Menteshe, Aydinids, and Germiyanids. In 1428, he defeated the powerful Anatolian beylik the Karaminids. He was very successful in bring territories in the Balkans into his growing empire. For example he annexed Serbia in 1439.

His crowning moment came in 1444, when he defeated a Christian coalition army led by Hungarian general John Hunyadi. Following a Janissary revolt led, Murad II was forced out of his retirement to lead the Ottoman Empire from 1446 till his death in 1451. During his second reign, he secured victory over a Christian coalition (led by the Kingdom of Hungary) at the Second Battle of Kosovo in 1448.

Murad II is credited with providing a firm foundation, militarily and economically, for his son and successor Mehmed II, who ended up conquering Constantinople just two years after Murad II’s death.

Murad IV

Ottoman Sultans

Born: July 27, 1612;

Died: February 1640

Reign: 1623-1640

Father: Sultan Ahmed I

Mother:  Kösem Sultan (Mahpeyker Sultan)

In spite of the turbulent environment that Sultan Murad IV inherited upon becoming Ottoman sultan in 1623, lthe young sultan was able to restore Constantinople’s authority throughout the kingdom. To attain those goals, Murad IV, a son of Sultan Ahmed I, had to deploy some very ruthless techniques. For example, he banned the tobacco and alcohol in Constantinople. Disguised in civilian clothes, Murad IV took to patrolling the streets of his imperial city in an attempt to enforce many of his draconian policies.

He managed the affairs of the empire in a very determined manner, bringing back absolute rule to eradicate the corruption that was characteristics of his predecessors. He is usually credited by historians for preventing the decline of the empire. Under his 17-year reign the Ottoman Empire was able to turn around its military fortunes and secure victory over the Safavids. He also proved himself a capable leader by quelling a number of serious internal revolts, particularly in Northern Anatolia.

Selim I

Selim I, who went by epithets such as Selim the Resolute and Selim the Grim, was military genius who took the empire to new heights.

Born: October 10, 1470; Amasya, Ottoman Empire

Died: September 22, 1520; Çorlu, Ottoman Empire

Reign: 1487-1510

Parents: Sultan Bayezid II and Gülbahar Hatun

Coming in at number five on the list of greatest Ottoman rulers is Selim I, generally known as the Selim the Resolute or Selim the Grim.

Similar to his very famous grandfather, Mehmed the Conqueror, Ottoman Sultan Selim I was a very capable military mind. During his reign, from 1512 to 1520, Selim I was able to expand Ottoman boundaries into places like present-day Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem and Gaza. He also marched his army against the Mameluks, who at the time had formed an alliance with the Persians.

In his fifth year on the throne, he secured a remarkable victory against Tuman, the Mameluk Sultan. Selim took his military campaign to Egypt, where he faced off against the Abbasid caliph. By so doing the title of caliph in the Muslim world passed from the Abbasid family to the Ottoman sultan. That title would remain in Constantinople until the demise of the Empire in the 1920s.

After his death in 1520, Selim I was succeeded to the throne by his son Suleiman I, also known as Suleiman the Magnificent.  Selim I’s successes provided a stable ground for Suleiman I to advance the Empire to even greater heights.

At the time of his death in 1520, Selim I had successfully grown the empire to a size of about 3,400,000 km2 (1,300,000 square miles). Thus the Ottoman Empire’s size increased by about 75 percent during his reign. Many of those gains were in the Middle East and the Muslim world. He would earn the title Caliph (i.e. leader of the Muslim world) after defeating the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt in his final three years on the throne.

Bayezid II

Born: December 3, 1447; Demotika, Ottoman Sultanate

Died: May 26, 1512; Abalar, Havsa, Ottoman Empire

Reign: 1481-1512

Parents: Mehmed II and Gülbahar Hatun

Before rising to the throne on May 22, 1481, Sultan Bayezid II, the eldest son of deceased Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, had to fend fierce resistance from his younger half-brother Cem Sultan (1459-1495), whose claim to the Ottoman throne was supported first by Grand Vizier Karamanli and later the Mamluks in Egypt. With the help of very powerful Ottoman officials and the Janissaries, Bayezid II emerged victorious over Cem Sultan.

Following in the footstep of his father Mehmed II, Bayezid II was known for his patronage of the arts (both eastern and western) and culture. He also invested quite a lot into religious education, science and many building projects.

On the foreign front, he successfully brought under his control the whole Peloponnese region by 1501. He was also capable of fending of rebellions wherever in the empire. Many of those rebellions were instigated by Shi’a Persian rulers in an attempt to undermine the political and military power of the Sunni-based Ottoman Empire in the region.

In the 30 years that he ruled, Sultan Bayezid II came to be most famous for providing aid and refuge to the Jews in Spain following the Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) in 1492. Issued by the Catholic monarchs of Castile and Aragon, the decree ordered the removal and tacit persecution of all practicing Jews from the territories of those two European monarchs. Sultan Bayezid II opened his Empire’s doors to several thousands of Jews that fled Spain. He ordered the Ottoman Navy to ferry fleeing Sephardi Jews (Hispanic Jews) to safe havens in Ottoman cities like Thessaloniki (in Greece) and Izmir (in Turkey).

Ottoman sultan

After ruling for more than three decades, 8th Ottoman Sultan and eldest son of Mehmed the Conqueror, Bayezid II abdicated the throne to his son Selim I. He spent his final few days in retirement in his birth city Dimetoka (present day northwestern Greece).

During his reign, he was able to consolidate the authority of the Ottoman sultan and increase the size of the Ottoman navy. The latter feat allowed him to stamp Ottoman’s authority in the Mediterranean.

Selim III

Ottoman sultans

Selim III succeeded his uncle Abdul Hamid I to become the 28th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Born: December 24, 1761

Died: July 28, 1808

Reign: 1789-1807

Parents: Mustafa III and Mihrişah Sultan

Heavily influenced by the ideas of the European Enlightenment Era of the 17th and 18th centuries, Ottoman ruler Selim III worked extremely hard to modernize the empire with a number of reforms. One of those reforms came in the military apparatus of the Empire, which saw him try to clip the immense power wielded by the janissaries.

Selim III’s interest in reforms came from his parents, who were champions of social reforms in the educational and administrative apparatus of the empire. Upon becoming sultan in 1789, Selim III took it upon himself to see through the military reforms that were started by his father. Those changes couldn’t have come at a better time, as the Ottomans were locked in a very difficult war with the Russians during the Russo-Turkish War.

Standing in the way of many reforms and modernization efforts by Selim III was the Janissaries, the very conservative elite troops of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the Sultan’s pro-reform officials were killed. Under the leadership of anti-reformist and rebel Kabakçı Mustafa, the Janissaries proceeded to overthrow Selim on May 29, 1807. The rebels then installed Selim’s cousin Mustafa IV as the new sultan. Selim was placed under house arrest until he was killed (on July 28, 1808) on the order of Mustafa Bayrakdar, the very powerful governor of Ruscuk (in modern-day Bulgaria). Following Selim’s death, the rebels arrested Sultan Mustafa IV, who had been sultan for just over a year. The rebels then placed another cousin of Selim, Mahmud II, on the throne.

Although he suffered a dire fate, Sultan Selim III’s reign and reforms helped keep a declining Ottoman Empire alive.

Did you know: Sultan Selim III, an avid patron of the arts and poetry, was fluent in Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Old Bulgarian?

Mahmud II

Ottoman sultan

Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II was one of the greatest reformers of the Ottoman Empire | Image: Mahmud II by Henri-Guillaume Schlesinger (1839)

Born: July 20, 1785

Died: July 1, 1839

Reign: 1808-1839

Parents:  Abdul Hamid I and Nakşidil Sultan

30th Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II comes in at number 8 on our list of top Ottoman rulers because of his hard-fought effort in breaking the power of the very interfering and powerful Janissaries. Inspired by the reform works of his predecessor and cousin Sultan Selim III, Mahmud II introduced devoted his reign to modernizing the Ottoman Empire. He did all that in spite of the strong resistance put up by the meddlesome Ottoman Janissaries. The reforms – administrave, fiscal, and military – were revolutionary in every sense. The most famous of those reforms came in 1826, when he abolished the Janissary corps. With the Janissaries out of the way, Mahmud II spent the remaining 13 years of his reign trying to Westernize his vast empire, which was rapidly declining at the time. The revolutionary reforms that Mahmud II instituted are often credited with slowing down the Ottoman Empire’s decline and ultimate fall for about a century.

Such was the impact of Mahmud II’s reorganization effort (the Decree of Tanzimat) that immediate successors and sons – sultans Abdulmejid I and Abdülaziz – continued rolling them out in their respective reigns.

Osman I

Osman I – founder of the dynasty

Born:  c. 1254; Sultanate of Rum

Died: 1323/4; Bursa, Ottoman Beylik

Father: Ertuğrul Gazi

Successor: Orhan

Osman I was the son of Ertuğrul (Ertuğrul Gazi), a prominent leader of a semi-autonomous warrior chiefdom within the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. Following the death of Ertuğrul around 1280, Osman inherited his father’s possessions, the town of Sogut and other sorruonding territories on the frontier with the Byzantine Empire. As such he became the leader of the Kayi tribe of Oghuz Turks. From his principality (beylik), which was one of many beyliks in Anatolia at the time, he would subsequently found the Ottoman dynasty.

Osman I took advantage of his geographic position in the region to launch attacks on the declining Byzantine Empire. He also helped himself to many other beyliks in the region. Steadily, he was able to grow his empire and put it on a strong footing for his descendants to build upon.

No written account of Osman I survived from the time of his childhood or reign. It was not until the 15th century that historians took to making written records of the life and reign of the eponymous founder of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, the line that separates fact and myths regarding Osman often gets blurred.

Ahmed III

The Tulip Era in Ahmed III’s reign was one that saw the nobility and high-class of the Ottoman Empire grow strong fondness for tulips.

Born: December 30, 1673; Hacıoğlu Pazarcık, Ottoman Empire

Died: July 1, 1736; Constantinople, Ottoman Empire

Reign: 1703-1730

Parents: Mehmed IV and Gülnuş Sultan

Ahmed III was the 23rd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire whose reign witnessed the Tulip Era, a period relative peace and a reorientation in the foreign policy of the Empire. With the treaty of Passarovitz, which was signed on July 21, 1718, Ahmed III was able to halt what many historians like to call the endless wars between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs.

His rise to the throne came after massive discontent and internal turmoil in the empire forced his brother Sultan Mustafa II to abdicate the throne in 1703. He quickly set out to introduce a number of reforms in the land law in order to stem the wave of land litigations and crimes that had engulfed the Empire. Those new land laws earned him the title ‘lawgiver’. His efforts at gaining a stable government was initially impeded by the revolving door of grand viziers; however, that all changed following the appointment of Çorlulu Ali Pasha as grand vizier in 1706. Ali Pasha, who was the husband of Emine Sultan, the niece of the Sultan, helped the sultan bring some form of financial discipline in the government.

On the encouragement of the defeated Charles XII of Sweden, Ahmed III declared war against Peter I of Russia in 1710. He led the Ottoman army to victory at the Battle of Prut. This allowed him to retake Azov (in present day Oblast, Russia). Had it not been for the advancing Safavids on Istanbul, Ahmed would most likely have taken Moscow in 1711.

During the Tulip Period (from 1718 to 1730), the affairs of the Ottoman government were basically directed by his daughter Fatma Sultan and his son-in-law Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha. Although the period was known for relative peace and friendly relations (due to the treat of Pssarovitz in 1718) with many European nations, domestically, the people were extremely unhappy with not just Ahmed’s  extravagant lifestyle, but also his top officials’ luxurious events and celebrations.

In a revolt that was instigated by Albanian-born Janissary Patrona Halil, the Ottoman Janissaries toppled Sultan Ahmed III and replaced him with his nephew Mahmud I. Ahmed spent the last six years of his life in retirement under a some-what house arrest conditions at the Kafes, a complex within the Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Palace.

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