Şehzade (prince) Selim, who was born as the youngest son of Sultan Bayezid II and Dulkadir Princess Ayşe Hatun in Amasya in 1470, was compared to his grandfather Sultan Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. He was even sent to Istanbul for a while in his childhood. He later said that he remembered his grandfather holding him in his arms and loving him.
In line with customs, he was sent as a governor to Trabzon with his mother at a young age. Acting as sovereign there for 25 years, he organized three expeditions to Georgia in 1508 due to their violation of the status quo on the border and conquered the cities of Kars, Erzurum and Artvin. Islam subsequently began to spread among the Georgians, who established close contacts with the Ottomans.
Meanwhile, Iranian Shah Ismail – the founder of the Safavid dynasty – was trying to dominate Anatolia while also disseminating Shiite propaganda among the people at the same time. Şehzade Selim conquered the former Aq Qoyunlu lands in Eastern Anatolia with a small number of military forces under his command, using the opportunity of the shah's attack on the Beylik of Dulkadir by passing through Ottoman lands.
The shah, who coveted these lands by claiming to be the Aq Qoyunlu heir and was a member of the extremist wing of the Shiite sect, sent his brother to fight Selim. Defeating the Safavid forces near Erzincan, Selim gained great prestige. Thereupon, the shah sent an envoy to Sultan Bayezid II and apologized. The sultan, who did not want to cause problems, accepted the apology.
Şehzade Selim, on the other hand, reconstructed his vilayet (province) and commissioned a mosque in Giresun, which did not survive to date. Sunni people fleeing from the Safavids settled in Trabzon. He objected to his father's seeing his eldest son Ahmed as the heir to the throne. The soldiers clearly declared their support for him.
Meanwhile, Shah Kulu, one of the agents sent by Shah Ismail who was also described in Ottoman sources as “Şeytan Kulu,” meaning “Devil’s Slave,” attempted to incite a revolution in Anatolia in 1511 but was defeated. The sick and tired sultan abdicated in favor of Selim because of his sensitivity to the Safavid danger and died soon after in 1512.
Şehzade Korkut and the children of his deceased brothers accepted Selim as the sultan but his other brother Ahmed, supported by the viziers, objected to this decision. Thereupon, Selim defeated Ahmed and had him executed.
Some viziers and soldiers from the center wrote a letter to Şehzade Korkut, whom Sultan Selim loved very much and had assigned as the governor of Manisa. They stated that they wanted to see him as sultan and that the conditions were ready for this. Although it is said that Sultan Selim had these letters written to test his brother, he actually did not need such an action. Instead of informing his brother about the situation, Şehzade Korkut accepted the offer. Thereupon, he and all the other şehzades were executed. It is said that Sultan Selim was very upset when he made this decision for a greater purpose.
After securing the throne, Sultan Selim advanced on the Safavids and imposed a trade embargo on Iran. He also received fatwas from scholars regarding the legitimacy of the expedition. Following a long march under difficult conditions, Shah Ismail was defeated in the battle in the Çaldıran plain, which is located in modern-day Iran today, in 1514. Leaving his treasures and even his wife on the battlefield, Shah Ismail barely saved his life. The capital city of Tabriz fell into the hands of the Ottomans.
This victory addressed the danger against the unity of faith of the Turkish world. The Friday prayer performed in Tabriz symbolized the victory of Sunnism over Shiism. Thus, Sultan Selim started to be also known as Selim Shah and the coins he printed were also called shahi.
After the victory, Sultan Selim marched on the Principality of Dulkadir, which fought on the side of the Safavids despite being under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire and destroyed the Ottoman supply centers. At the same time, he defeated Alaüddevle Bey, who was also known as Bozkurt of Dulkadir and the father of Sultan Selim's mother, in the Battle of Turnadağ and added his lands to the Ottoman country.
The Sunni people of eastern and southeastern Anatolia were against Shah Ismail, under whom they were subjected to great persecution. For this reason, they came under Ottoman rule without a war. The Kurdish beys of these lands were granted autonomy. Thus, the geographical integrity of Anatolia was ensured.
The Janissaries, who were tired of the long march during the Iran campaign, rebelled. When they returned from the campaign, Sultan Selim reorganized the janissary corps and established the method of appointing the aghas from the palace, not from the officers of the janissary, and connected the corps directly to the sultan.
The Mamluk Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri of Circassian origin was worried about the Ottoman expansion and thus supported the Safavids. Sultan Selim was not late in taking revenge for this action. After receiving a fatwa from the Sheikh al-Islam regarding the legitimacy of this expedition on a Muslim state, he marched to the south. Both armies consisted of 60,000 soldiers.
In 1516, the Mamluk army was defeated in a place called Dabiq (Marj Dabiq) in Syria, and Sultan al-Ghuri was killed in the middle of the war. The Mamluk State had not lost any battle since its establishment, and even Emir Timur (Tamerlane) could not touch them.
Syria and Palestine came under Ottoman rule. Sultan Selim sent envoys to Tuman bay II, who ascended the throne of Egypt, and said that if the new sultan recognized Selim's suzerainty, he could continue to rule Egypt. Tuman bay, who did not think that Sultan Selim could cross the Sinai Desert, was very angry and had the Ottoman ambassadors killed.
Thereupon, Sultan Selim, who marched on Egypt, crossed the Sinai Desert in 13 days, a feat only Cambyses II of the Achaemenid Empire and Alexander III of Macedon – commonly known as Alexander the Great – had acheived before, in 1517. In his campaigns, he paid great attention to taking fortification measures beforehand. The Mamluk army was defeated at the Battle of Ridaniya and Cairo fell.
Tuman bay fled to engage in guerilla warfare. He received the envoys who relayed the order of the divan (council) telling him that if he surrendered, he would be spared. He was finally caught. Admiring his heroism, Sultan Selim greeted him with respect. He was executed in public 15 days later over concerns that he would take revenge at the first opportunity.
The Mamluks, who generally got along well with the Ottomans, remained the most powerful state of their time up until then. However, they became dependent on the Ottomans for strategic materials from the 16th century onward. Against the mobile cannons of the Ottomans in the conquest of Egypt, the Egyptians had fixed cannons. Therefore, they could not mount any counteraction against the Ottoman attacks. When Tuman bay told Sultan Selim after the battle that he won the war with the help of firearms instead of his heroism, the sultan reminded him of the 60th verse of Surah Al Anfal, the eighth chapter of the Quran, "Prepare against them (the enemy) whatever force you can."
Upon the conquest of Egypt, Sherif Abu’l-Barakat en-Nümeyy, the Emir of the Hejaz under Mamluk rule, handed the Hejaz over to the sultan. Sultan Selim recognized the existing political privileges of the Hejaz and left the sherif, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, at the head of the Hejaz. (The sherif was the great-grandfather of the current Jordanian king.) This is how the Hejaz was ruled for centuries.
Sultan Selim toured Cairo. He affirmed the privileges given to foreign traders during the Mamluks. The Portuguese interpreted the fact that he had a large fleet set up in Suez as a future expedition to India. The first Ottoman-Portuguese struggle started in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. If it had not been conquered, perhaps Egypt would not have been able to escape the Portuguese threat. Venice began to pay the Ottomans the tribute it had paid to the Mamluks for Cyprus until then.
Sultan Selim welcomed the last Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil with respect. He sent the caliph and the sultan's family, famous scholars, craftsmen and merchants to Istanbul with the navy. In September 1517, he set out to return the way he had come. Meanwhile, northern Iraq, especially Mosul, came under Ottoman rule. He arrived in Istanbul in July 1518.
No other expedition to which the sultan attended himself lasted that long, and there had never been such a campaign. Great ceremonies were held in Istanbul. The people were waiting to greet the great conqueror. But the sultan, who did not like to show off, went to the palace with a few people in a boat at night, and everyone was informed that the next day the sultan had returned.
He stayed in Istanbul for a few months and then set out for Edirne with the intention of going on an expedition to an unknown destination in 1520. The sultan, who had diabetes, incidentally died in Çorlu, where his father passed away some eight years ago, as a cluster of boils called anthrax (charbon) between his two shoulders caused blood poisoning (sepsis). He was 50 years old. His body was brought to Istanbul. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the street and bid him farewell in tears. He was buried in the garden of the mosque he had ordered built in the city's Fatih district.
On his sickbed, he asked his courtier Hasan Can: "What is this situation?" Hasan Can said, "My sultan, it's time to be with Allah." The answer of Sultan Selim is also famous: “Who did you think we were with all this time?” Hasan Can started to recite Surah Ya-Sin, the 36th chapter of the Quran, at the bedside of the sultan. When he was reciting the 58th verse about "selam" (the peace, the blessing) from Allah, Sultan Selim passed away.
It was estimated that the last expedition was actually planned to be on Rhodes, since 150 ships were prepared in the Istanbul shipyard. But surely his greatest goal was to enter Iran and to completely eliminate the Safavids, who disrupted the Turkish-Islamic faith and political unity.
He is considered the greatest of the Ottoman sultans in terms of conquests. His military genius followed his grandfather Sultan Mehmed II. The conquests that took place in the four years of his short reign were preserved for four centuries. He extended the borders of the 2,373,000-square-kilometer (916,220-square-mile) empire he inherited from his father to 6,557,000 square kilometers on three continents.
Selim devoted himself to the ideal of Islamic unity. Since he guessed that the real danger would come from the east, he channeled all his energy to that region during his reign. Thus, he enabled those who came after him to operate more safely in Europe and the Mediterranean.
Sultan Selim rarely dismounted from his horse, always going on expeditions during his princedom and sultanate, and spent a very small part of his life in his palace. It was this idealism that separated Sultan Selim from his brothers. Historians explain his resoluteness with this ideal of the national cause. For this reason, those who feared him referred to him by the name “Yavuz,” meaning “Resolute,” while he was still alive.
He gave great importance to the navy, meaning that master sailors began to be cultivated in his time. He established an enormous shipyard in the Golden Horn along with commissioning shipyards in other coastal cities.
He filled the treasury to the brim and said, “Whoever fills the treasury with gold after me, let it be sealed with his seal. Otherwise, let it be sealed with my seal!” Therefore, the treasury was sealed with his seal until the end of the empire.
He is described to be tough-looking but he would accept the right word. His greatest trait was determination, which meant he was considered a harsh ruler. “Consult people around you in affairs of the moment. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely upon him.” He acted in line with this tafsir (exegesis) of Surah Al Imran, the third chapter of the Quran. Everyone could talk freely about their ideas at the council meetings. But once the decision was made, he would not forgive even the slightest hesitation. As a matter of fact, he did not hesitate to punish Hemdem Pasha, who offered to return during the Iran campaign, although he loved him very much.
There was an excellent intelligence service, and secret officers were everywhere during his reign. They would inform the sultan of what was going on. The sultan himself often mingled freely with the crowd wearing ordinary clothes. He never showed negligence in the service of justice. As a matter of fact, upon the return of the Iranian expedition, some soldiers looted the surroundings on the way and were punished by the sultan. Sultan Selim also dismissed Grand Vizier Hersekzade Ahmed Pasha and Vizier Dukakinzade Ahmed Pasha and punished them by destroying their tents in line with an old Turkish tradition.
Sultan, one of forty hafiz
With the conquest of Egypt, the symbolic Abbasid Caliphate came to an end. The title of sultanate and caliphate merged under the Ottoman sultanate. Thus, the caliphate, which had only spiritual authority for about five centuries, gained worldly authority again. When he was returning from the conquest of Egypt, the khatib in the Aleppo Mosque called the sultan Hakema'l-Haramain – meaning the ruler of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, Sultan Selim, who was in the congregation, objected and corrected him, saying he was Hadem'al-Haramain(servant of the two holy cities). He commissioned the Chamber of the Sacred Relics in the palace and entrusted the protection of the sacred relics to the Enderun (palace school) officers. He started the tradition of 40 hafiz (one who knows the whole Quran by heart) reciting the Quran continuously in this chamber and also participated in the first few shifts and recited the Quran in order to be blessed. This tradition continued until the period of the republic.
Sultan Selim was inclined toward Sufism. Like his father, his miracles are mentioned a lot. He was a follower of Sheikh Halimi Çelebi of the Zeyniye order. He was described as a true dervish with an extraordinarily modest and simple life. He visited the Naqshbandi Sheikh Muhammed Bedahşi in Damascus and had a conversation with him. He is the sovereign about whom the highest number of legends were told among the people, which indicates his distinct character from others.
Ibn Arabi, the great scholar who lived at the beginning of the 13th century, makes very interesting discoveries about the Ottoman Empire in his work called “Shajara al-Numaniyya fi'l-Dawla al-Uthmaniyya.” He says, "When Sin (Selim) enters Shin, Ibn Arabi's grave is revealed." As a matter of fact, when Sultan Selim, whose name starts with the Arabic letter sin, entered Sham whose name starts with the Arabic letter shin, he found Ibn Arabi’s grave and commissioned a tomb on it and a mosque next to it.
Sultan Selim is said to have been tall, big-boned, with a broad chest and a round face. He had big brown eyes. Since his body was long compared to his legs, he looked very imposing on a horse. He used to wear a special turban called Selimi.
He is one of the three sultans who did not grow a beard. Rumor has it that when he came to the throne, the viziers thought about what to do with this difficult sultan and said, "We'll take his beard in hand (bring him under our control), as we did with his father.” When Sultan Selim heard this word, he did not grow a beard.
He could easily use any kind of weapon. He was sportive and loved to hunt and swim. It is known that he used to swim in the Bosporus and dive into large rivers during expeditions.
It is said that he slept very little. He was not fond of harem life either. His only known wife was Hafsa Hatun, the daughter of the Crimean Khan Mengli Giray. She had a son named Şehzade Süleyman and six daughters.
He was a gracious person. He said about Sinan Pasha, who was killed in the Battle of Ridaniya in Egypt, “We took Egypt, but we lost a person like Sinan.”
On the way back from the Egypt expedition, he was walking side by side with Ibn Kemal, one of the great scholars of the time. Ibn Kemal’s horse splashed mud on the sultan. The sultan said, “The mud that splashes from the hoof of scholars’ horses is an honor for us.”
He had willed this robe to be draped over his grave when he died. This robe is still on Sultan Selim's sanduka, a type of traditional cenotaph.
Even though he did not know Western languages, he was a scholar like his father and grandfather. He was particularly interested in history. In his spare time, he always read and wore glasses. He had read thousands of volumes of books. He was so interested in reading that he kept a book with him even on his way to and from the war, and read it at suitable times. The fact that he personally read the “Tarih-i Vassaf” – a book on the history of Mongols written by 13th and 14th-century historian Vassaf – is enough to show the intellectual level of the sultan.
Italian historian Paolo Giovio, who lived in the same century, says that the sultan read about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He was a master poet. Almost all of his poems are in Persian.
Modesty and simplicity
Almost all sources describe Sultan Selim as an extraordinarily modest and simple person. All his fierceness and majesty were in the affairs of the state. In his private life, he was calm, shy and modest. He was no different from an ordinary scholar when he put on his glasses and read a book at night in his room.
Returning from the Egypt expedition, when he looked at the magnificent outfit of his son, Şehzade Süleyman, who welcomed him in Edirne, he uttered his famous for saying: “My son! If you dress like this, what will your mother wear?” As a matter of fact, the most modest of the sultans’ clothes on display in the Topkapı Palace are those that belong to him.
When Antonio Iustiniani, the ambassador to Venice, was asked how he saw the sultan, he replied, “The shine of the sword on his waist caught my eye so much that I couldn’t see him well.” When the vizier Ahmed Pasha conveyed this, the sultan smiled and said the following historical saying: “As long as our sword's edge cuts, the enemy’s eyes will not see our clothes!”