Lost Tomb of 'Suleiman the Magnificent' Possibly Unearthed

A portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent attributed to Italian painter Titian, 1530.
A portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent attributed to Italian painter Titian, 1530. (Image credit: Public Domain)

The lost tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the greatest rulers of the Ottoman Empire, may have been unearthed in southern Hungary.

"Currently everything suggests that this building could have been Suleiman's tomb. However, in order to be able to assert this with 100 percent certainty, further examinations and the excavations of the other surrounding buildings are necessary," said Norbert Pap, a researcher at the University of Pécs in Hungary who led the excavations.

The 71-year-old Ottoman sultan died in his tent in 1566 during a military campaign against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was finally buried in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), and Suleiman's embalmed body is now housed at the Süleymaniye Mosque there. But the Ottomans also placed a small memorial tomb at the spot where he died. Historians knew the rough location of this memorial tomb, but the exact location was lost in the intervening 450 years. [Bones With Names: Long-Dead Bodies Archaeologists Have Identified]

Magnificent rule, secret death

Suleiman the Magnificent is often considered one of history's greatest rulers. He rose to the throne in 1520 at the tender age of 26 and quickly began a series of military campaigns, expanding Ottoman control from Algiers in the west to Baghdad in the east.

In addition to his military prowess, Suleiman "the lawgiver" simplified Ottoman legal code and funded the construction of some of Istanbul's most gorgeous architecture. His personal life was also full of drama. (The intrigues of his harem were recently depicted in the incredibly popular, soapy Turkish miniseries "The Magnificent Century.")

He died in his imperial tent outside the castle of Szigetvár in southern Hungary before his troops vanquished the Hungarian forces. His advisers wanted to avoid a power vacuum before his son, Selim II, could take the throne.

"So his body was taken back to Istanbul after his death and was kept as a secret for 40-plus days," said Günhan Börekçi, a historian at İstanbul Şehir University, who was not involved in the current excavation.

To maintain the charade, his advisers created elaborate ruses, faking his handwriting on official documents. They even had a servant dress up in his clothes, then faked the death of another servant so that they could carry the sultan's body out of the camp in the servant's coffin, Börekçi said. [Family Ties: 8 Truly Dysfunctional Royal Families]

Long-lost tomb

To find Suleiman's lost tomb, Pap and his colleagues have spent the last three years surveying areas around the castle for traces of the tomb, using historical records as a guide.

"We know from archival registers what kind of a structure it was," Börekçi told Live Science. "This was Hungary, so it's a little far away from the capital. It's not something really huge, it's a relatively small one, like the ones we see constructed for dignitaries of the era."

Remote sensing revealed several buildings that seemed to have similar layouts to Suleiman's mausoleum in Istanbul, including dervish monasteries, military barracks and a mosque, Pap said.

"One of [the buildings] is almost exactly oriented toward Mecca," Pap told Live Science.

When the team started excavating, they found a large brick building with walls covered in stone tiles. The central room was about 26 feet by 26 feet (8 by 8 meters), and robbers had dug a large trench through the middle of it some time in the 17th century. Luckily, many of the decorative elements remain intact, and those elements echo the style of the decorations in Suleiman's mausoleum, Pap said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.