Home 9 In-depth 9 The heart of Sultan Suleiman

The example for Erdogan, by Jaap Scholten *

By the end of May 2016 writer Jaap Scholten visited the recently discovered tomb of Suleiman I The Magnificent. A great discovery that even attracts the Turkish president Erdogan, an admirer of Sultan Suleiman.

The finding place of the tomb, or türbe, and the grave of Sultan Suleiman The Magnificent, Gyula Keresztany’s backyard in Turbeki (Hungary). 
Image  Katalin Sandor

‘Will you do some cleaning up before president Erdogan will arrive?’ I ask Gyula. He has got the relaxed attitude of a Buddha and an impressive belly that points forward. We are standing underneath a nut tree next to Gyula’s little winehouse, surrounded by grapevines, piles of unsawed firewood, a shed for baking bread, some bicycles from the communist days, a small barn with asbestos corrugated sheets, make-shift wooden benches, a bundle of sleeping cats, a full ashtray, wine glasses and a tuft of spring onions on a concrete table. Behind Gyula his wife is down on her knees between the strawberries, removing weeds from the fat clay.

The sultan that made the Ottoman Empire grand

All around us the sound of crickets, barking dogs, a lawnmower and in the distance a chainsaw. Nothing points to the fact that behind the raspberry bushes one of the greatest archaeological findings from this century has taken place. About 15 metres behind Gyula’s blackened bakery a tomb has been found containing the grave of Sultan Suleiman I The Magnificent. This can certainly not be read from Gyula’s face. With a laugh he shakes his head as an answer to my question. He has no intention of making much fuss about the upcoming VIP’s visiting.

According to the plan president Erdogan would visit this piece of land in the South of Hungary on September 6 in the company of the presidents of Hungary and Croatia. The Sultan that made the Ottoman Empire grand, Suleiman The Magnificent, died 450 years ago on September 6. That same Sultan Suleiman The Magnificent is the example for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Ottoman Empire was at its peak in Suleiman’s days. It stretched out from Hungary to Ethiopia, from Morocco to Dagestan. Suleiman lead his armies to the gates of Vienna. He provided the Ottomans with international prestige with splendour in the arts and architecture. He was the caliph of all the Sunni Muslims. After his death the entire Ottoman Empire went downhill.

Six tiles serve as a path, thereafter is just a clay track leading to some rectangular holes covered with black tarpaulin. The tarpaulin is being kept at bay by 16th-century Ottoman bricks and roof tiles. Last December is has been announced that, without a doubt, in Gyula Keresztany’s garden in the small village of Turbeki, four kilometres east of Szigetvár in the south of Hungary the tomb or türbe has been found from Suleiman. Of 35 out of 36 Sultans from the Ottoman Empire, the grave is known and maintained in the best possible manner, because for the Turks the Sultans are very important. So far, the only one missing, was the one from Suleiman The Magnificent. There is an imperial tomb next to the Suleiman mosque, it only contains his body. Both the heart and the organs would have been buried in Hungary. According to the legend his heart was buried in a golden pot or little golden box. The sale of metal detectors in the Szigetvár region exceeds the national average.

Suleiman I The Magnificent at about 1530.

Access to Europe

In the year 1566 Sultan Suleiman and his army of 90,000 soldiers and thousands of service people (cooks, doctors, nurses, prostitutes, tradesmen, frauds, saddle makers, blacksmiths, animal caretakers, tent pitchers, carriers, helpers, etc.) were on their way to Vienna passing by Eger, a fortified Hungarian city still in the hands of Vienna and the Hungarians. They decided to make a detour along Szigetvar to, once and for all, eliminate Miklos Zriniy and his troops.

The imperial city of the Habsburgs was considered the gateway to Europe. If that city should surrender, the road was open for the Turks. In the early Spring the Turkish army left Constantinople to conquer Vienna before autumn, rains and mud and return with the main army before the winter would set in. No less than 600 camels were required to carry the Sultan’s tent, a tent that showed the imperial power from kilometres. During a siege of a castle or city, the tent was placed strategically, in order to always remind the enemy that perhaps it was better to surrender. But also within the sight of the Ottoman soldiers, to ensure that the inspiring presence of the Sultan and caliph, guard of Islam, may be seen and felt permanently.

Pilgrim’s Place

In his lifetime The Magnificent knew almost nothing but victories. In 1565 he experienced his first real loss at the battlefield, when he was unable to beat the Johanniter Knights at Malta. A year later he faced the final defeat. The Sultan turned towards Szigetvár in the south of Hungary. The Hungarian military commander Miklós Zrínyi had already fought the Ottomans four times and won every fight. From Szigetvár he raised taxes and had the guts to rob Ottoman posts and soldiers. This had awakened the wrath of the 72-year old Sultan who came to Szigetvár to finish him off. Although Zrinyi had an army of two-thousand men facing an army fifty times as large, he held ground for a month.

Szigetvár’s retailers passionately hope that Sultan’s Suleiman The Magnificent’s tomb will become a pilgrim place for Muslims, as it was in the 16th century. As Suleiman was one of the most important Sultans this is not unlikely. Both the Turkish authorities and Turkish investors are ready. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (in Turkish abbreviated to TIKA) promises 2 million euros for renovating the Ottoman fortress and already paid 120,000 euros for research on the tomb.

The lake behind the wine hill where the grave of Suleiman was discovered.  
Image Katalin Sandor

Shortly before Szigetvár’s castle was taken, Suleiman died of natural causes in his Sultan’s tent. As the Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottomans, were headstrong and prone to mutiny and they were very keen on the bonus that was usual when an old Sultan died and a new one would enter, it seemed sensible to the Great Visor (the commander-in-chief ranked directly under the Sultan) to remain silent about the death of The Magnificent for a while. According to the legend the heart and other organs were removed and buried underneath the Sultan’s tent. The Sultan’s body was embalmed. Just to be on the safe side both the physician and all the embalmers were strangled. Until a messenger had galloped to Constantinople and the successor, Suleiman’s son Selim II, arrived from Anatolia 48 days later, the Great Visor kept Suleiman alive in front of all his men. At the spot where the organs were buried a tomb was built. The türbe became a pilgrim’s place for Muslims from the Ottoman Empire.

On September 7, 1566, Miklós Zrínyi and his last troops managed an attack. Zrínyi led his troops on a horseback and was either hit by a Turkish bullet or an arrow through his heart. Opinions differ about what happened to him afterwards: he was decapitated and either presented to the new Habsburgs or to the new Sultan – symbolic diplomacy of an old-fashioned elegance. At the battle of Szigetvár the Ottomans lost 20,000 soldiers and 7,000 Janissaries. This prevented the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans. Miklós Zrínyi is a hero in Hungary just like Suleiman The Magnificent in Turkey.

Professor Norbert Pap and author Jaap Scholten in front of Miklós Zrínyi’s portrait. Image Katalin Sandor

More than a century of searching

Professor Norbert Pap, a geographer from Pécs University and the leader of the research into the grave of Suleiman, tells that during the years of research three eureka moments occurred. Underneath a concrete terrace where you can only stand bent over is a rickety wooden door that provides access to the underground wine cellar of Gyula Keresztany. A round log of beechwood rests on a 50 cm high red processed natural stone. Jointly they serve as a little table to drink home-made wine or palinka. Decades long Gyula and his family used the red stone to press grapes for their own wine. The local wine will only be drunk out of politeness.

‘As soon as I saw this stone, I realised we were on the right track’,  professor Pap says: ‘Undoubtedly it is part of an imperial Ottoman gate.’ The finding of a centuries old, processed stone in a small countryside village between chickens and car tyres was the second eureka moment.

The first moment was in the library in the back of the Catholic church in  Szigetvár. For over a hundred years serious researchers, fantasists and local fortune seekers have been looking for the grave of The Magnificent, especially for the small golden box that would contain the heart. Thus far no one had thought about nosing around in the library of the local Catholic church. Maté Kitanics, one of the members of professor Pap’s research team, was the first one to gain access to the library, possibly helped by the fact that he is a Hungarian Catholic from Croatian descent, just like the priest that owns the keys of the church in Szigetvár.

The red stone, part of an imperial Ottoman gate.

In a dark hollow in the back of the church, covered in spider webs, the books were piled up against the wall. Maté Kitanics: ‘I wriggled the first book from the pile and found a description of the finding place of the grave of Suleiman.’ He found an etching depicting prince Pál Esterházy at the end of the 17th century, after the Habsburgs had reconquered Szigetvár. Shortly after the reconquest by the Habsburgs the grave was plundered. Pap’s team found traces of crude digging. The hole was filled up with waste, shards, and Ottoman bricks. The türbe, the mosque with its minarets and the derwish monastery were taken down.

The etching shows Esterházy on a horse back, in the background a hill with the minaret of the mosque that was built at Suleiman’s grave. The Pál Esterházy etching guided the research team to the wine hill at four kilometres from Szigetvár and due to the red stone to the garden of Gyula Keresztany.

The third eureka moment came right before Christmas 2014, for  the first time they gained some insight into the shape and size of the walls underneath  Gyula’s grapevines. They were the size of both a türbe and a mosque and more importantly: the direction deviated less than one degree from the direction to Mecca. This pointed to the fact that these constructions were not build by a provincial architect 450 years ago. Underneath the fatty soil were the remnants of a building with imperial precision and allure.

Standing ground

How do the Hungarians that have experienced 150 years of Turkish rule, feel about the Turks? The relationship between Hungary and Turkey is complex. Many Hungarian and Transsylvanian freedom fighters against the Habsburgs  – like for instance Lajos Kossuth and Ferenc Rákóczi – fled to Turkey to escape the Habsburgs and lived there in exile (Rákóczi was even buried there next to his mother Ilona Zrínyi, a descent from Miklós Zrínyi). No better base for a friendship then a common enemy. Just like during their siege in 1574 inhabitants from the Dutch city Leiden yelled ‘Rather Turkish than Papistic’ from their city walls to the Spaniards, lots of Hungarian Protestants preferred the relative freedom of religion under the Ottomans over the absolute intolerance of the Roman church. Most Hungarian Protestants saw less harm in the Sultan than in the Habsburgs. The majority of heroic defenders in Szigetvár consisted of Catholic Croatians.

Zrínyi belongs to the list of national Hungarian heroes who stood ground against a force majeure of Ottomans. Eighty per cent of the Hungarian population thinks we owe it to these heroes and the Hungarian fortitude that Western Europe was not run over by Ottomans. This awareness is crucial for the wide support prime-minister  Viktor Orbán receives for his restrictive migrant policy. Every day at noon all over Hungary church bells sound to celebrate the victory over the Turks. A recent survey shows that almost half of the opposition supports the current government in their migrant policy. In October a referendum will be held about the desirability to receive migrants.

But although they embrace the role of saviour of Western society, the attitude of the average Hungarian when it comes to Turkey is certainly not negative. The Hungarian language has a lot of loan words from one and a half century of Ottoman occupation. Recently, prime-minister Viktor Orbán said that a stable Turkey is of the utmost importance, to ensure that within the restless Middle East there is at least one party that may be consulted.

Local  Hungarian actor re-enacting a soldier in Miklos Zrínyi’s army. 
Image Katalin Sandor

Turkish influence

Because Sultan Suleiman is a big inspiration for president Erdogan, a lot of money is available to seek for the traces of The Magnificent.  In Turkey Erdogan is sometimes referred to as ‘Sultan Erdogan’. The romantic Turkish TV-serial about  Suleiman the Magnificent (2011-2014), which captured the attention of 200 million people per week, was popular in Hungary as well, especially among elderly women. Erdogan himself was not too pleased about the stress on the romances and intrigues within the palace and the minor role for the successes on the battlefield.  The presidential palace (60 times as large as the White House) that Erdogan had himself built at the edge of Ankara, the portrays surrounded by men in  Ottoman uniforms and the kitschy golden Sultan’s throne on which he received Angela Merkel, show his taste. And his ambitions.

Where ever Suleiman used the sword, thus far Erdogan uses ‘soft power’ to expand the Turkish influence in South-Eastern Europe. All across the Balkan cultural projects are financed by TIKA, the Turkish organization for development and cooperation that is directly governed by Erdogan. In Bosnia two major Turkish universities have been founded and dozens of mosques have been renovated. During Erdogan’s visit to Hungary on February 5 2013, in the presence of Szigetvár’s mayor and  Viktor Orbán, an agreement was signed between the Hungarian development bank and  TIKA for a number of projects: restoration of the Turkish baths and the Gül Baba türbe in Boedapest, restoration of the Idris Baba türbe in Pécs, restoration of the Ottoman fortress and Ottoman home in Szigetvár and the financing of the search for the grave of Suleiman. Now that it has been found a renovation is required. TIKA has already informed professor Pap that no limit is set for the resources needed to make this happen.

Miklós Zrínyi, the Lion of Szigetvár. Image Katalin Sandor


Ten days prior to September 6 there is a message from professor Pap. Although new roads had been built for the presidential convoy and both the Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Park and all Ottoman buildings have had a fresh lick of paint, Erdogan will not come, too busy with other business. Probably the Hungarian government will not regret this. With the upcoming referendum on migrants there is no need to stress the pilgrim’s place for Muslims in the south of the country. The stress during the memorial in September will be on Miklós Zrínyi.

‘However, there will be five Osman princesses’, Pap reports. Hopefully  Gyula did some cleaning up in his yard because without a doubt these ascendants from the Sultans will wear their finest shoes.

Szentlászló and Arkan’s Tigers
The firm stand from  Viktor Orbán on migrants has worked out well electorally. The opposition left of government party Fidesz has been fragmented for years. Viktor Orbán and Fidesz should only fear Jobbik, the extreme right-wing party that has a frightening popularity among youth.  Remarkably enough Jobbik is the only European right-wing party that is pro-islam, yet compensates this by virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Roma viewpoints.

Professor Pap: ‘The majority of the forty-thousand Muslims in Hungary support Jobbik. In Hungary there is a big difference between ‘our Muslims’ and the ‘other Muslims’, the migrants. The small city Szentlászló or Laslovo, just across the border in Croatia and  100 kilometres Southeast of Szigetvár, plays an important role in this special Hungarian situation. In 1991, during the war in Yugoslavia, this by origin Hungarian city was attacked by Arkan’s Tigers, one of the more aggressive Serbian militia. Hungarian nationalists travelled to Szentlászló and fought side by side with Bosnian Muslims against Arkan’s Tigers. Some of the Hungarians converted themselves to the Islam during this siege of Szentlászló, among them some of the founding fathers of Jobbik.

  • Jaap Scholten (1963) is the author of highly praised novels like De wet van Spengler, Tachtig and Suikerbastaard. He won the Libris History Prize for Kameraad Baron. He lives in Budapest and near Szigetvar. According to a local myth near his house is a tunnel leading to Szigetvar. This article was originally placed in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on September 1, 2016.  Translation by Arjan Schuiling and Sonja Koudijs.

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