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Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent

Tughra of Suleiman the magnficient

Calligraphy, from Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey
AD 1520–1566

Between about 1350 and 1550 great swathes of the world were occupied by the superpowers of their day – from the Inca in South America to the Ming in China, the Timurids in central Asia and the vigorous Ottoman Empire, which spanned three continents and ran from Algiers to the Caspian, from Budapest to Mecca. Two of these empires lasted for centuries; the other two collapsed within a couple of generations. The ones that lasted endured not only by the sword but also by the pen – that is, they had flourishing and successful bureaucracies which could sustain them through tough times and incompetent leaders. The paper tiger, paradoxically, is the one that lasts. The enduring power we are looking at in this chapter is the great Islamic Ottoman Empire, which by 1500 had conquered Constantinople and was moving, with the confidence born of secure borders and expanding strength, from being a military power to an administrative one. In the modern world, as the Ottomans demonstrated, paper is power.

And what a piece of paper this is. It is a very beautiful painted drawing – it is a badge of state, a stamp of authority and a work of the highest art. It is called a tughra. This tughra has been drawn on heavy paper in bold lines of blue cobalt ink, enclosing what looks like a tiny meadow of colourful, golden flowers. On the left there is a sweeping, decorated loop, a generous oval, then in the centre three strong upright lines, and a curving decorated tail to the right. It’s an elegant, elaborate monogram cut from the top of an official document, and the whole design spells the title of the sultan whose authority it represents. The words are: ‘Suleiman, son of Selim Khan, ever victorious’. This simple Arabic phrase, elaborated into an emblem made out of lavish and opulent materials, speaks clearly of great wealth; it is no surprise that this ever-victorious sultan, the contemporary of Henry VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was later called by Europeans Suleiman the Magnificent.

Suleiman inherited an already expanding empire when he came to power in 1520. He went on to consolidate and extend his territory with almost unstoppable energy. Within a few years his armies had shattered the kingdom of Hungary, taken the Greek island of Rhodes, secured Tunis and fought the Portuguese for control of the Red Sea. Italy was now in the front-line. Suleiman seemed to envisage a restoration of the Roman Empire under Muslim rule – the dream of recovering an ancient Roman glory, which fired the Renaissance in western Europe, was also a spur to the greatest Ottoman achievements. The two hostile worlds shared the same impossible dream. When a Venetian ambassador expressed the hope of one day welcoming the sultan as a visitor to his city, Suleiman replied, ‘Certainly, but after I have captured Rome.’ He never did capture Rome, but today he is considered the greatest of all the Ottoman emperors.

The novelist Elif Shafak gives a Turkish perspective:

Suleiman was an unforgettable sultan for many people, for the Turks definitely – he reigned for forty-six years. In the West he was known as Suleiman the Magnificent, but we know him as Suleiman Kanuni – Suleiman ‘the law maker’ – because he changed the legal system. When I look at this signature, it speaks of power, glory, great magnificence. Suleiman was very interested in conquering East and West, and that’s why many historians think he was inspired by Alexander the Great. I see that statement, that world power, in this calligraphy as well.

How do you govern an empire of the size of Suleiman’s and ensure that power in the centre is properly deployed at the periphery? You need a bureaucracy. Administrators all over the empire need to demonstrate that they have the authority of the ruler, which is done by issuing a visible emblem that can be carried and shown to everyone. That emblem is the tughra. It acted like a royal warrant, or a sheriff’s star, giving officers of the empire a badge of power. The tughra would be at the top of all important official documents, and Suleiman issued about 150,000 in his reign. He was industrious in establishing diplomatic ties, creating a formidable civil service and promulgating new laws. All of this required letters of state, instructions to ambassadors and legal documents, all of which would begin with his tughra.

The tughra itself names the sultan, while the line below reads, ‘This is the noble and exalted sign of the Sultan’s name, the revered monogram that gives light to the world. May this instruction, with the help of the Lord and the protection of the Eternal, be given force and effect. The Sultan orders that …’ At this point our paper has been cut, but the document below would have continued with a particular instruction, law or command. Interestingly, there are two languages here: the tughra names the sultan in Arabic, reminding us that Suleiman is protector of the faithful with a duty to the whole Islamic world; the words below it are in Turkish, and proclaim his role as sultan, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Arabic for the spiritual world, Turkish for the temporal.

Turkish would certainly have been the language of the official to whom this document was addressed. Given the opulent artistry of this tughra, the recipient had to be very grand, so it might be a governor, a general, a diplomat, or perhaps a member of the ruling house; and it could have been sent to any part of Suleiman fast-growing empire, as the historian Caroline Finkel explains:

He overthrew the Mamluk Empire, so Egypt and Syria with all their Arab population, the Hejaz [in south-west Saudi Arabia] as well, with the Holy Places which were extremely important, all these people were now Ottoman subjects, for better or worse. Suleiman’s tughra could be seen as far as the Persian border, where their great rival in the East, the Shi’a Safavid Empire, was always trying to challenge the Ottomans; in North Africa, where Ottoman naval expeditions were having great success against the Spanish Habsburgs in the western Mediterranean; and up into the lower reaches of what we now call Russia.

Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire controlled the whole coastline of the eastern Mediterranean, from Tunis all the way round almost to Trieste. After 800 years the Eastern Roman Empire had been re-established, but now as a Muslim imperium. It was this huge new state that compelled the western Europeans to look for other ways of travelling to and trading with the East, forcing them from the Mediterranean out into the Atlantic. But that is for a later chapter.

Most official documents get lost, destroyed or thrown away. Our driving licences, our tax bills, don’t usually survive death. Similarly, the huge bulk of the official paper of the Ottoman Empire is lost to us. The most common reason for keeping any official document is that it has to do with land, because subsequent generations need to know the authority by which land is owned. So the best guess is that our tughra was at the head of a document giving a major grant of land, conferring or confirming ownership of a huge estate. That would explain why the document survived long enough for a later collector, probably in the nineteenth century, to cut off the tughra from the document and sell it as a separate work of art.

And it certainly is a work of art. In between the lines of cobalt blue enlivened with gold leaf are great loops containing riotous flowerbeds of swirling lotus and pomegranate, tulips, roses and hyacinths. This is magnificent Islamic decoration, rejoicing in natural forms while avoiding showing the human body. It is also a virtuoso demonstration of calligraphy, of sheer skill and joy in writing. The Ottoman Turks, like their predecessors and contemporaries in the Islamic world, held the art of writing in high esteem. The word of God had to be written with all the beauty of holiness. Calligraphers were important bureaucrats who staffed the Turkish chancery, the Divan, which gave its name to the official script of the Ottoman Empire, known as ‘Divani’. The calligraphers developed beautiful and extremely intricate forms of this script. It is notoriously difficult to read – deliberately so – and is designed to prevent extra words being inserted into the text and forgery of official documents. The calligraphers were artists as well as bureaucrats, often belonging to dynasties of craftsmen, passing skills from one generation to the next. In the Islamic world, red tape is often high art.

Modern politicians proudly announce their desire to sweep away bureaucracy. The contemporary prejudice is that it slows you down, clogs things up; but if you take a historical view, it is bureaucracy that sees you through the rocky patches and enables the state to survive. Bureaucracy is not evidence of inertia,  it can be life-saving continuity – and nowhere is that clearer than in China. China is the longest surviving state in the world and it is no coincidence that it has the longest tradition of bureaucracy.


About the Author
Robert Neil MacGregor, OM, FSA (born 16 June 1946 in Glasgow, Scotland) is an art historian and museum director. He was the Editor of the Burlington Magazine from 1981 to 1987, the Director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002, and was appointed Director of the British Museum in 2002. He has presented three television series on art and the radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects, which aired in 2010.
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