Search for Suleiman's heart reveals a whole town

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Szigetvar

Image caption,
The floor of the orchard is thick with fragments of Ottoman roof tiles

They went in search of a heart, and found a city.

Researchers in Hungary looking for the tomb of Suleiman the Magnificent have uncovered instead traces of a whole Ottoman era town, built as a place of pilgrimage for visitors to the tomb where Suleiman's heart and intestines were buried.

Suleiman, the most successful Ottoman ruler, died aged 72 during the siege of Szigetvar in 1566.

His body was carried back to Constantinople for burial - but his heart was buried, researchers now believe, just to the east of Szigetvar close to the village of Turbek.

According to the new research, between 1573 and 1577 a fortified "holy town" was built around the tomb, comprising two mahalla or districts, home initially to around 50 households - probably the families of the soldiers guarding it.

Over the following decades, the town grew in importance, and an inn, two mosques, a Dervish lodge and baths were built for the many pilgrims and visitors.

The town was razed to the ground in the late 1680s, after Szigetvar fell to Habsburg Austrian forces.

New finds

Image caption,
Suleiman the Magnificent is often considered the most successful Ottoman ruler

One of the peculiarities of Hungarian archaeology is that Szigetvar and its surroundings, which every schoolchild knows about as the centre of heroic resistance to the Turks, has never been properly excavated.

Months of painstaking research in the archives in Istanbul, the Vatican, Budapest, Vienna and Milan proved the existence of the town, but the breakthrough in finding the actual site came from documents found in a local church.

A land dispute from 1737 in Turbek referred to "the Turkish protective wall" - implying the fortification of an important building.

By a peculiar coincidence, the man at the centre of the land claim is an ancestor of the current mayor of Szigetvar, Janos Kolovics.

Today the site is a peaceful orchard on a gentle slope above the village. Apples, quince and plum trees, loaded with fruit, are lined on either side by vineyards.

The grapes are ripe, and this weekend the harvest began. Women in aprons move down the rows, gathering the green and red grapes in buckets. At their feet the soil is thick with fragments of ceramic roof tiles - valuable clues to the Ottoman past.

In just a few weeks since the site was identified, researchers have already come across proof of the former wealth of the town: silver coins minted in 1625 at Kormocbanya - then part of Hungary not occupied by the Ottomans - Persian faience and Chinese porcelain.

"I am extremely satisfied with the discovery of this lost town. Not just from a scientific but a personal point of view," said Professor Norbert Pap, who is leading the research team.

Turkish and Hungarian funding is now available for three years. Once permission is secured, excavations are expected to begin in earnest.

Burying a heart

The extraction of the heart and intestines was unusual, but not unprecedented in Ottoman history.

News of the sultan's death had to be concealed from the people for 48 days, until a new sultan could be appointed.

Image caption,
The orchard is now hanging with ripe fruits

According to Islamic practice, the internal organs, like the body, must be allowed to turn to dust, so they would not have been buried in a metal container, according to Norbert Pap.

If they were buried in a wooden box, as he suspects, few traces may ever be found. What is exciting for him and his team, however, is the proximity of the tomb to other buildings which included a public baths, a mosque and an inn for visiting pilgrims.

The region was repopulated in the 18th Century with Catholics from Germany, to replace local Hungarians, Croats and Bosniaks killed by war or disease.

The Turbeki Catholic church is located to one side of the site now identified as the former town.

Just as the Islamic faithful once came to Suleiman's tomb in the hope of miracles in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the church became a place of pilgrimage for Catholics in the 18th Century, after a reported appearance of the Virgin Mary here in 1705.

More on this story

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.