BOOK REVIEW / A high thinker with three hundred wives: 'Suleiman the Magnificent' - Andre Clot tr. Matthew Reisz: Saqi Books, 35 pounds

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'ISOLATED individuals did not exist in the Ottoman Empire'; so we are told, and so we are told of most oriental despotisms. In the case of the Ottomans there is much evidence of the non-isolation of individuals, and of the general prevalence of collective life.

Their empire was in some ways the answer to the prayers of a certain kind of 20th-century socialist: there was state ownership of all land, state control of the economy, rigorous educational selection of the fittest administrators, stern repression of the hereditary tendency, an all- powerful bureaucracy, no end of taxes and, in the case of this magnificent Suleiman, a love of plain living and high thinking, in so far as that is compatible with 300 wives and a turban of more than 4ft in circumference.

Suleiman's was not what we think of as an Islamic state, but a sort of multi-racial ant-hill run by a Muslim elite through a myriad worker ants snatched from the homes of the Christian population and trained to serve. Not so much Turkish as Turco-Byzantine. It was a very efficient system by West European standards, and for more than a century it greedily swallowed up much of Christendom without meeting any successful resistance. Western observers were impressed and bewildered, not only by the system, but by the almost continuous succession of able sultans who ran it: 10 generations, and not a dud among them.

Suleiman was the tenth, but by no means the last outstanding Grand Turk, alias Padishah, or God's Shadow on Earth. He was born in 1494 and died in 1566; he ruled for 46 years, and when he died his dominions stretched from Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf, from Ukraine to the Indian ocean.

It has been suggested that this was not enough, and that Suleiman had meant to establish a 'universal monarchy', including Christendom, Persia and India; but Andre Clot's narrative makes this seem unlikely.

Suleiman attacked either because his troops expected him to attack, or because he was defending his own conquests. The system demanded war, even if the sultan preferred writing verse in three languages, or planning a new mosque, or enjoying a nice hot bath; and it was not only his janissaries, but the enemy to the West - the Habsburgs, the Knights of Malta and the Hungarians - who never tired of fighting, even when they had no chance of victory. The Persians foiled him by retreating whenever he advanced. The Westerners behaved with a characteristic mixture of defiance, submissiveness and sheer stupidity, which was perhaps, in the end, not so stupid after all.

For when Suleiman was ancient and decrepit, and still by any rational calculation of the odds invincible, he had to lead an immense and costly expedition from Constantinople to devastate a little bit of Hungary and besiege a mad Magyar called Count Zriny, who only wanted a glorious death.

The sultan died before Zriny was caught and killed. A long life of conspicuous success was ended by an exhausting effort to keep up appearances, and the victorious army had to be tricked into thinking that Suleiman was still alive, for fear that it would disintegrate.

Nevertheless, he had been an admirable Wizard of Oz in his time, and this solid book, by a well-travelled Arabist and journalist, inspects the whole range of the civilisation that was run by Suleiman. Those wonderful red tiles, for which tomato is not exactly the right adjective, the whirling and the more stable forms of dervish, the janissaries in white hats and the lovely mosques of the architect Sinan were some of the more obvious features of this world, and here they are.

This is not the only available biography of Suleiman. Antony Budge produced one in 1983, with illustrations, but this one is longer, with 16 appendices, respectable end-notes, and not too much about the French connection. King Francis I was shamelessly pro-Ottoman, on the principle of befriending his enemy's enemy, and Andre Clot's account of these sly negotiations in the 1530s will be studied with pleasure by those interested in Turkey's joining the EC.