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Suleiman The Magnificent, Digging For A 16th-Century Heart

The Ottoman Empire's Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent yearned to conquer Vienna but died in 1566 in Hungary. Archaeologists have discovered the place where his heart and other insides were buried, which is a momentous historical tale of its own.

Titian portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent
Titian portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent
Boris Kálnoky

SZIGETVAR — The foundations of the old Ottoman building have been carefully laid bare after archeologists removed a square of 8X8 meters that had been uncovered below the area of earth near the southern Hungarian town of Szigetvár. With vines everywhere, this site is named Szölöhegy, which means "vine hill."

There is a deep hole between the foundation walls, but two simple words, "grave robbers" make its meaning clear, explains research director Norbert Pap of the University of Pécs. "They were most likely Hapsburgian troops plundering the grave about 330 years ago," Pap says.

There's a good chance that such robbers were looking for "the golden pot" in which, according to legend, the heart and intestines of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent were buried.

Pap adds that it is "highly likely" that this is indeed the spot where Suleiman died in 1566.

The walls we see "must be the foundations of a mosque or tuerbe, meaning mausoleum," explains excavation director Erika Hancz. "This wall here is directly aligned with Mecca. But it cannot be a mosque seeing as there are no signs of a minaret or a Mihrab, a dip in the wall, marking the direction in which Mecca is to be found."

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The excavation site in Hungary — Photo: Norbert Pap

Suleiman's great ambition was to reach Vienna. His attempt to conquer the Kaiser's city failed in 1529, and he hoped that maybe this time, at the end of his long reign, he might be able to carry out his greatest achievement. But he only got as far as Szigetvár, where 2,300 Hungarians and Croats, under the command of the Hungarian magnate and Croatian vice king Miklós Zrinyi, halted his vast army.

The aging Sultan breathed his last breath here before his enemies' fortress fell. It was only two days later that Zrinyi and the last of his troops died while attempting a desperate sortie.

Suleiman is regarded as the most notable of Ottoman rulers, having reigned for 46 years over an empire that included up to 30 million people. His conquests in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa seemed to put the Turks on the road to world domination. He subjugated Rhodes, parts of Persia, North Africa, large areas of Southeastern Europe. His fleets dominated the Mediterranean. His prudent and circumspect laws guaranteed domestic peace and social cohesion within his empire.

Ultimately, his death would mark a turning point in history, as the stagnation and eventual downfall of the Ottoman empire came as direct consequences of his demise.

Six-week secret

Suleiman's "heart, liver, stomach and other intestines were removed from his body and enshrined in a gold pot and buried at this place, where Khan Suleiman's tent once stood," wrote the Ottoman wayfarer and chronicler Evlia Celebi in the 17th century.

Suleiman's death was kept secret for six weeks to allow for the transport of the embalmed body back to Istanbul, where it would ultimately be buried in the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The tuerbe, situated on the exact spot of the grave, was erected at a later date as were the adjoining mosque, Dervish monastery and a small garrison to guard the sanctuary. Over time, the mausoleum with the preserved organs became a place of pilgrimage, a spiritual center of Islam in Europe, explains Pap.

"The golden pot is only a legend, however," he adds. "But it is persistent to the degree that, even nowadays, every child in the region grows up to know the story of the heart buried within the golden pot."

The centuries that have elapsed between the death of the Sultan and the excavation of his grave come with an equally long story.The Austrian supply officer, Gallo Tesch, ordered the mausoleum destroyed to turn its roof, tower coverings and golden spire into money. The ruins fell victim to the ravages of time until not even a trace of the former site remained. The first research undertaken into the matter began in 1970. It seemed to be a simple affair seeing as the entire region seemed to know that a church, built in 1770, had been erected on the precise site of the demolished tuerbe. But no vestiges of the mausoleum or its attendant buildings were found underneath nor next to the Church.

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Parchment with Arabic writing — Photo: Norbert Pap

But it seemed possible to deduce the location of these structures by studying old maps. Leandro Anguissola surveyed the castle of Szigetvár and noted a "place where the Turkish Kaiser Solimanus did die." A second survey in the 19th century noted a "Turkish cemetery," but at a different site. The resulting excavations came to nothing.

But three years ago, Pap launched a project that was funded by both the Turkish and Hungarian governments. The project is based on research of old documents in archives pertaining to the tuerbe and, armed with this information, it enables the team to reconstruct the 16th century landscape with computer simulations.

Geographer Máté Kitanics discovered the crucial evidence needed in the Hungarian National Archive as well as in the local Church archives where a land dispute, documented in 1737, saw a very old man by the name of Kolovics describing the mausoleum, its appearance and exact location in detail, as he had remembered it from his youth.

There, at the vine hill, described by Mr. Kolovics, the researchers found numerous Ottoman tiles. A special software program transformed the data regarding the density of the rubble per square meter, into a map that detailed the different town districts. Two of these districts were even mentioned in the documents unearthed in the archives. It seemed that a small settlement had formed around the tuerbe, in which 400 to 500 people may have lived, complete with a school, a caravanserai as well as a mosque, explains Erika Hancz.

Ground-penetrating radar showed outlines of a larger building hiding beneath the earth which were the foundations of the mausoleum that the team are looking at now, post excavation. Pap says that about six meters further on the remains of the aforementioned mosque are waiting to be unearthed. He continues to explain that "we found decorative tiles of exactly the same type as those at Suleiman's grave in Istanbul," where the body, minus the heart and other intestines, was laid to rest. But the researchers are not allowed to be too sure of their find. The official statement regarding the find, made last Wednesday, read that this is "most likely" Suleiman's tuerbe but that further research will have to be undertaken to confirm these assumptions.

Politicians, however, are not willing to wait for the sanctioned results, and have planned a meeting of the Presidents of Turkey, Hungary and Croatia on the 450th anniversary of the battle in 2016. Suleiman's heart, even after death, may yet unite nations.

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