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The long reign of sultan Suleyman (r. 1520-66) marks the apogee of political, economic, and cultural development under the Ottomans. Known in English as "the Magnificent" because of the splendors of his court, he is usually known in Turkish as kanuni, or "law-giver," because he issued a set of laws that harmonized traditional Islamic and Ottoman legal codes. His given name, the Arabic and Turkish form of Solomon, encouraged the sultan to consider himself a worthy successor to his namesake, the biblical king celebrated in the Koran and Muslim lore. One of the sultan's many architectural projects was the refurbishment of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which was believed to stand on the site of the Jewish temple built by King Solomon.

Suleyman inherited a vast empire and an efficient administration, and his reign was punctuated with military campaigns toward the east and west. He repeatedly took up arms against his rivals, the Shiite Safavids in Iran, capturing the major Shiite shrines in Baghdad and southern Iraq. He also became a major protagonist in European and Mediterranean affairs, waging seven campaigns into Hungary and defeating the combined Venetian-Spanish fleets at the battle of Preveza in September 1538. Suleyman died while besieging the city of Szigetvar, a few hours before it fell on September 7, 1566.

Suleyman's favorite wife, Hurrem, known in the West as Roxelana, occupied an unusually important place in his court. His love for her was, by all accounts, extraordinary, and his love poetry to her, written under the pseudonym Muhibbi, was copied and illuminated by court artists. Many of the other arts flourished under the sultan's patronage, notably ceramics and glazed tiles, which were needed to decorate the many architectural ensembles built by the sultan and his courtiers.