Sultan Murad III was the 12th Ottoman sovereign and 77th caliph of Islam. He was the son of Sultan Selim II and Nurbanu Sultan and was born in Manisa during his father’s governorship.

When his father became the governor of Karaman, his grandfather Suleiman I, also known as Suleiman the Magnificent, made him the governor of Akşehir. When his grandfather died and his father became the sultan, he became the governor of Manisa. He was educated and raised by his teacher, famous scholar and historian Sadeddin Efendi.

Tughra of Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)
Tughra of Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)

According to the 1571 report of Jacopo Ragazzoni, then-Venetian ambassador in Istanbul, Murad III was a talented, well-educated, religiously devoted şehzade (prince), loved by his father and other notables. He ascended the throne at the age of 29 in 1574.

Portugal erased from history

Sultan Murad III left the administration in the hands of his brother-in-law, Grand Vizier Sokollu (Sokullu) Mehmed Pasha, at first. The most important event that affected world politics in this period was the victory of the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, also known as the Battle of Three Kings or the Battle of Wadi al-Makhazin, against the Portuguese. The Ottomans had always been in competition with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. Sultan Murad III took advantage of the Portuguese intervention in Morocco and the request of the Moroccan sultan for help.

The governor of Algeria, Ramazan Pasha, defeated the Portuguese army of 80,000 with his army of 20,000 in 1578. In this struggle, one of the most destructive battles in history, 20,000 Portuguese soldiers died and the rest of the Portuguese army was captured or fled wounded.

This widely used illustration painted by Konstantin Kapıdağlı shows Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)
This widely used illustration painted by Konstantin Kapıdağlı shows Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)

Morocco fell under Ottoman political patronage. However, this was not a conquest since Morocco was a Muslim country. The Moroccan sultan embarked on a major reform in his country and used the Ottoman system as an example. The Ottomans descended into Chad and took the Sultanate of Bornu under political protection.

After this defeat, the Spaniards occupied Portugal. The Portuguese state disappeared from the stage of history. This opened the trade route to England. The Ottoman government saw fit to support the Portuguese nationalists against the archenemy Spain. Portugal reappeared on the stage of history after 60 years of Spanish occupation.

Battle of Torches

Relations with Venice had long been good. The sultan’s wife, Safiye, was a member of the Baffas, one of the great families of Venice. She was held captive and brought up as a Muslim in the palace. However, the ship that brought the family and wealth of the deceased governor of Algeria to Istanbul was captured by Venetian pirates, and those inside were brutally murdered.

A depiction of Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)
A depiction of Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)

The pirates did not leave a single witness behind. But Istanbul learned about the incident in all details and threatened Venice stringently. Venetians, who panicked and apologized, found the culprits immediately and had them executed in front of the Ottoman ambassador. They also compensated for all the damage. Thus, perhaps a war that would cause Venice to lose Crete was averted.

In 1577, Poland and Lithuania, which were even more important kingdoms than Russia in those times, came under Ottoman suzerainty. Thus, Ottoman domination extended to the Baltic Sea. Vassal states paid taxes to Istanbul, the enthronement of the monarchs in these states was confirmed by Istanbul and these monarchs followed the instructions of Istanbul in foreign policy. The fact that Morocco and Poland, two of the great states of their time, came under Ottoman suzerainty for half a century shows the majesty of the Ottomans.

In the same year, the Ottoman army marched on Georgia, which was oppressed by Iran. Özdemiroğlu Osman Pasha defeated the Safavid army between Shirvan and Dagestan in 1583. This war is called the Battle of Torches because it took place at night by the light of torches. Georgia, the Caucasus and Dagestan came under Ottoman suzerainty. A shipyard was established in the Caspian Sea. Sultan Murad III accepted Osman Pasha in the palace and heaped praise on him.

A depiction of Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)
A depiction of Sultan Murad III. (Wikimedia)

England’s gratitude

The Iranian wars had put a lot of pressure on the Ottoman finances. The purchasing value of the salary given to the military decreased. Thereupon, the Janissaries revolted in 1589 and raided the palace for the first time in history. The revolt was suppressed, but the Janissary corps began to penetrate the state administration on this occasion.

A group of artists, who demonstrated great talent at the circumcision ceremony of Şehzade Mehmed in 1582, considered the most magnificent ceremony in Turkish history, requested to be enrolled in the Janissary corps as a reward. The king accepted this offer. Thus, one of the ground rules of the Janissary corps was broken for this reason. Historians have recorded this move as a mistake for the Ottomans.

During this period, commercial relations with the English people began and London sent its first permanent ambassador to Istanbul. English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire William Harborne almost begged to Sultan Murad III to get help from the Ottoman navy against the Spanish Armada. Queen Elizabeth I wrote friendly letters to the sultan, Ottoman statesmen and even to the sultan’s wife Safiye Sultan, and sent gifts. In the letter she wrote to the sultan, the queen said that they did not worship idols like the Catholics, whom she called pagans. Sultan Murad III wanted at least 60-70 galleys to be sent against the Spanish Armada, provided that the expenses were covered by England.

A miniature depicts Özdemiroğlu Osman Pasha and Ottoman army in a battle. (Wikimedia)
A miniature depicts Özdemiroğlu Osman Pasha and Ottoman army in a battle. (Wikimedia)

In the letter he sent to the queen, Sultan Murad III said, “The Queen of England will be treated in the same way as those who were friends with the Ottoman sultans in the past were protected.” In 1587, thanks to the Ottoman navy’s spring maneuvers in the Mediterranean, the Spanish armada was divided into two. As a result, the English were able to defeat the Spaniards, and Spain never regained its former power and position. England, France and the Netherlands owe their existence to this event. As a matter of fact, a few years ago, The Guardian newspaper mentioned this with an article titled “Why we must thank the Turks, not Drake, for defeating the Armada.”

Turkish bell

In 1592, the-then Bosnian governor crossed the Austrian border and defeated Nadasdy, the governor of Austria on the Croatian border, due to the unrest caused by him. Emperor Rudolf II was terrified by this incident. He started the Turkish bell tradition, which would continue for centuries. According to this, Turkish bells would toll three times a day in the morning, noon and evening in all churches of the empire, calling the Christians to pray against the Turks.

However, the tensions grew and war broke out between the two countries. The battles were prolonged, and the number of casualties was high due to the mistakes of the Ottoman commander. Seizing this opportunity, the voivodes of Erdel (Transylvania), Eflak (Wallachia) and Boğdan (Moldavia) revolted. Just at this time, Sultan Murad III died in 1595. He was buried in the tomb next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque.

Before his death, Sultan Murad III went down to the mansion on the coast and watched the ships in the Bosporus. The windows of the mansion were broken due to the salute cannon fire of two Egyptian galleys. The sultan said, “In the past, if the whole navy had fired a cannon, the glass would not have been broken. I see that my mansion of life is in ruins,” and he considered this a sign of his death. He died the next night at the age of 49. He was suffering from prostate disease. But after four days of cold, his death was very sudden.

Tomb of Sultan Murad III at the south side of the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2018. (Shutterstock)
Tomb of Sultan Murad III at the south side of the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2018. (Shutterstock)

Era of great people

Sultan Murad III is one of the most intellectual scholars of the Ottoman sultans. He wrote a religious work called “Futuhat-ı Siyam.” He was a master poet and penned poems under the pseudonym of “Muradi.” He has four diwans (a collection of poems by an author), two of which are in Turkish, while one is in Arabic and one is in Persian. He loved fine arts and supported artists. He was also a master calligrapher.

Sultan Murad III issued an edict that allowed Arabic, Persian and Turkish books published in Europe to be sold freely in the Ottoman country in 1587. In his time, great men of previous eras lived and many of them passed away. His time is a rare period in terms of having the greatest personalities in history, including soldiers, bureaucrats, architects, scholars, poets and musicians.

Murad III was very fond of construction, therefore, commissioned many charitable works. He had the great Ottoman court architect Mimar Sinan build the Muradiye Complex, which consisted of a mosque, madrassa, hospital and soup kitchen (imaret), between 1586 and 1592. He had the walls of the Kaaba covered with marble. He had the harem’s waterways cleaned. He had a madrassa, a school, a zawiya and a large soup kitchen built in Mecca and Medina. He sent the 12-step marble minbar (pulpit) in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, known in English as The Prophet’s Mosque, from Istanbul in 1591.

The Muradiye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Murad III and designed by Mimar Sinan, in Manisa, Turkey, Dec. 22, 2015. (Shutterstock)
The Muradiye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Murad III and designed by Mimar Sinan, in Manisa, Turkey, Dec. 22, 2015. (Shutterstock)

He had the Modon Castle Mosque and the Navarino Mosque built in the Peloponnese. The minbar, lectern, mahfil (a special raised platform in a mosque, opposite the minbar, where the muezzin carries out his duties to call for prayer) and fountain of Hagia Sophia Mosque are remembrances commissioned by him. He converted the Pammakaristos Church, also known as the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, into the Fethiye Mosque in Istanbul. He had the Yahya Efendi Tomb and Lodge built in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district. The harem apartment of Topkapı Palace was established during his reign.

Iranian shah brought to heel

Sultan Murad III was pious. In 1588, he ordered the minarets to be equipped with oil lamps called kandil during the Mawlid al-Nabawi, the celebration of the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad, just like they were decorated at the night of Barat (Laylat al-Barat), Islam’s night of forgiveness and salvation, and the night of Laylat al-Raghaib, Islam’s blessed Night of Wishes. Previously, he was the supporter of Hüsameddin Uşşaki, a sheikh of the Khalwatiyya order of Islamic Sufism. Then he joined the Naqshbandi Sheikh Hace Ahmed Sadik Kabili, who came to Istanbul from Transoxiana.

A miniature painting depicts a parade of two riding Ghazi (veteran soldiers) in front of Sultan Murat III. (Wikimedia)
A miniature painting depicts a parade of two riding Ghazi (veteran soldiers) in front of Sultan Murat III. (Wikimedia)

During the peace agreement with Iran, Sultan Murad III tried to eliminate the damages of sectarian conflicts and to ensure the unity of Muslims. At the request of the sultan, the shah agreed to show respect to the Sunni subjects in Iran and forbade insulting the companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

When Abbas the Great, the fifth Safavid Shah of Iran, asked for peace, he said that he was the servant of Sultan Murad III. This was the highest point of Ottoman majesty because all European rulers accepted that the Ottoman sultan was superior to them at that time. Iran, which had not accepted this for a long time – even Suleiman the Magnificent regarded the Iranian shah as his equal – accepted being inferior during the reign of Sultan Murad III.

Mosque on the sea

The Ottoman Empire saw its widest borders in this period. At his death, the empire had reached 15 million square kilometers (6 million square miles), 2 million of which were in Europe, 4 million in Asia and 9 million in Africa. Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall says that Sultan Murad III, after his death, left an enormous empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caucasus Mountains, from the Danube coasts to Abyssinia, and was divided into 40 eyalets (provinces) with a well-ordered system of administration.

Sultan Murad III was described to be of medium height, thin, handsome and to have an oval, pale face, aquiline nose and brown hair. His looks were said to be sweet. He was also depicted with curved black eyebrows like a Iranian bow and a reddish sparse beard. As he liked to dress nicely, he was likened to his grandfather Suleiman the Magnificent. He was a master at choosing men, finding and assigning the most qualified person. He was said to have had a kind, compassionate, gentle, tender-hearted, fair, generous and cheerful personality. It was rare that he said no to something.

Sultan Murad III loved joking. When the great Turkish sailor Kılıç Ali Pasha expressed his desire to build a mosque to the sultan, he jokingly said: “You are the master of the seas. Go and build your mosque on the sea!” Upon this, Kılıç Ali Pasha filled the sea in Istanbul and had a mosque and a complex built on it. Even though the sultan sent a message saying, “My purpose was to make a joke, let him build his mosque wherever he wants, so that he doesn’t have to go to all this trouble!” Even though the sultan sent a message, Kılıç Ali Pasha did not give up on carrying out the sultan’s first order.

 Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque in Istanbul. (Sabah File Photo)
Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque in Istanbul. (Sabah File Photo)

The sultan was interested in reading books, world history and astronomy. He had the books on the discovery of America by the Spanish translated and read them. A detached observatory was built at his time. He liked to be with scholars, consulted his teacher on every issue and used to change clothes and go out on the street to conduct inspections.

In some modern sources, his fondness for women is mentioned, which is not true. He lived with his only wife, Safiye Sultan, until the age of 30. He had many children, most of whom died in infancy, and Şehzade Mehmed ascended the throne as his successor.

Beginning of the end

During the reign of Sultan Murad III, the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power, but signs of weakness also appeared in this period. As a reaction to the authoritarian rule of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, who was the vizier of three sultans and was killed by a madman in 1579, the palace began intervening in government affairs in an unprecedented way. It has been also claimed that the palace even breathed a sigh of relief after his death. For example, in 1586, Mesih Mehmed Pasha wrote his tezkire (memorandum) on changing the reisülküttap (head secretary of the imperial council) to Sultan Murad III. He resigned after the sultan’s refusal.

However, the sultan reigned but did not govern. These interventions lowered the prestige of the Ottoman dynasty, and the people began holding the sultans responsible for every wrongdoing. For this reason, it has been put forward that Sultan Murad III was under the influence of the women of the palace, especially his mother and wife, or his close entourage. The softness and hesitation in his temperament also laid the groundwork for these claims. The wrong deeds of some of his entourage were attributed to the sultan, and he became aware of these and drove all of them away from his side near his death. The rivalry between the political factions was blamed on the sultan.

The interior of the late sixteenth-century tomb of Sultan Murad III  next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, September 5, 2019.
The interior of the late sixteenth-century tomb of Sultan Murad III next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, September 5, 2019.

Mighty governors who remained in office for a long time were replaced by less-qualified governors who were replaced frequently. After this period, fewer great men began being trained in every field, military and bureaucratic geniuses became difficult to find. Due to the rebels called Celali, public order and peace were damaged in Anatolia. Accordingly, agriculture, industry and trade lost their former vitality. This, in turn, weakened the treasury by reducing tax revenue.

The number of Janissaries increased by 100% and reached 26,000, and Janissary corps gained importance compared to other military classes during the 20-year reign of Sultan Murad III. This became very harmful for the future. Soldiers who used to train and stay in the barracks lost their quality and discipline and took the streets to deal with politics.

Historians regard the year 1579, when Sokollu died, as the beginning of the stagnation period of the Ottoman Empire. However, it is actually accepted that it started with Sultan Murad III’s death.

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