Using Knowledge in the making of Sultan Süleyman’s Legacy

By Fatma Sinem Eryilmaz
Submitted to Session P4887 (Fashioning Philosopher-Kings in the Post-Mongol Persian Cosmopolis, 13th-19th Centuries (II), 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Protecting scholars and encouraging science and literature are the admired yet expected activities of great rulers in Islamicate Civilization. These activities are seen and often studied as important yet secondary civilizing practices, encouraging cultural advancement, in contrast to other, diplomatic, military, or economic activities, which are deemed at the forefront of medieval or early modern concerns. A close “reading” of fifteenth and sixteenth century Ottoman texts and images reveals that neither exoteric nor esoteric sciences were conceived as activities on the sidelines of the ideal ruler’s world. In fact, a sultan’s political mission was often conceived and described in a complex network of meanings and connections, which often included a combination of mystic theology, mathematical sciences, history, and mythology.

In works of various formats and languages, treating near contemporaneous history with ancient mythologized history in the same narrative and in continuum, these works were fruits of a certain tradition of literature, a representative example of which is Ahmedi’s Iskendername written in the fourteenth century in Anatolia. Notwithstanding the particularities of these politically charged narratives with respect to the historical circumstances and personal tastes and skills of their authors and their immediate milieu of production, their synthetic contents and language have much in common. Above all, they reveal an intellectual and aesthetic environment informed by a shared body of esoteric and exoteric knowledge. It was this shared study of the works of thinkers such as the Ikhwan al-Safa’, Ibn Sina, and Ibn ‘Arabi that made the holistic view we observe possible and understandable to their original readers.

In this framework, my paper will be a case study to show the dominant role of knowledge, in particular Neoplatonic knowledge, in the making of Sultan Süleyman’s (r. 1520-66) legacy during his reign. I will demonstrate that using their proclaimed expertise in mystic theology as well as in the occult sciences, especially in astrology and lettrism, his court historians, ‘Arif and Eflatun, projected Süleyman as a quasi-prophet philosopher sovereign much like the prophet king Solomon he was named after. The sultan’s being the last transmitter of sacred knowledge to humanity was presented as part and parcel of the same idealized legacy as his military success, his ordering of state and society, and administration of justice.