Ottoman High-tide – The Balkans


Zrínyi’s Charge from the Fortress of Szigetvár [Sziget](painting by Johann Peter Krafft, 1825)


Artistic impression about the battle of Szigetvár (1566)


Persian miniature about the Szigetvár campaign showing Ottoman troops and Tatars as avantgarde, date 1579.


Europe and the Ottoman Empire (in purple) in the year 1600.

After dealing with a revolt in Egypt, Suleiman turned his attention to Hungary. Initially he moved to eliminate the last few Christian enclaves in the Balkans along the southern banks of the Drava and Danube, in Serbia and Bosnia. On August 8, 1520, he took Belgrade, and its garrison died to a man in the massacre that followed. The advance into Hungary was delayed until 1526, but when it began it overwhelmed the forces thrown against it. The major battle occurred on August 29, 1526, on the plain of Mohacs, on the right bank of the Danube south of Buda.

The Ottoman army departed Istanbul with 300,000 men and at Mohacs confronted a force of 22,000 men under King Louis II of Hungary. Wiser men advised Louis to wait for the Ottoman assault, but young, impetuous, and stupid, he chose to attack. Obviously he had not learned the lesson of Nicopolis—that the Turks could deal with feudal cavalry. As his army charged forward they were first disordered by the light cavalry screen and then cut down by the guns and musketry of the Janissaries. After two hours the Hungarians were destroyed and King Louis, attempting to escape, fell into a stream and drowned, weighed down by his heavy armor. Sixteen thousand Hungarians died in the battle. The 2,000 prisoners had their heads used as decorative ornaments around Suleiman’s tent.

After their victory, the Ottomans roamed through the Hungarian countryside, hunting the peasants as if they were game. Within a few months, 100,000 Hungarians were sent to the slave markets at Istanbul and eventually some 2,000,000 Hungarians were enslaved.

From Mohacs, the Ottomans turned south, returning to their homeland and choosing only to leave a few scattered garrisons in Hungary. The Hungarian nobles sought support from the Hapsburgs and Poles to recover what they had lost. At the battle of Tokay, the Hapsburg forces defeated the Ottoman provincial commander of Hungary on September 26, 1527, and much of the kingdom was recovered. In 1528 the Ottoman response arrived in the form of a new army, which recaptured Buda on September 3, 1529, and the remainder of the country thereafter with little difficulty. On September 23 the sultan’s army of 250,000 appeared before the gates of Vienna in the first siege of that great city. The siege would last only six weeks, for the defense was stout and the season was late. Suleiman wisely broke off and on October 16 turned his army south. However, as they withdrew they committed a wide variety of outrages against the peasants and others that they captured, leaving a legacy of hatred that would continue for centuries.

Suleiman’s third Hungarian expedition occurred in 1532. The Hapsburgs had reinvaded Hungary and besieged Buda in 1530. Suleiman led 300,000 men north and ravaged much of the Hapsburgs’ lands in order to force them to withdraw from Hungary to protect their own holdings. The sultan hoped, but failed, to force the Hapsburg main army to battle and, with his objective missed and the season once again late, withdrew from Austria to winter over in Hungary.

Realizing that large-scale operations would not likely succeed, in 1533 Suleiman negotiated a peace treaty with the Hapsburgs. Peace, however, was not in the cards for Suleiman. Now that his western frontier was secure and calm, he could turn to his long-held ambitions against the Persians and begin the conquest of Mesopotamia. The Persians, though, simply surrendered territory and refused battle. Frustrated and concerned about overextending his army, Suleiman turned on Iraq and captured Baghdad. During his approach, the Sunni leaders of Baghdad led the population in a revolt that butchered the local Shiite population. By 1538 Ottoman rule extended to the Persian Gulf.

Campaigns were frequent in the Balkans and Transylvania. Treaties meant little to either the sultan or the Hapsburgs, and so warfare was fairly constant. In 1566 the Hapsburgs and Ottomans were once again at war, the reason being constant raiding by the Hapsburgs (and no doubt the Ottomans as well) across their mutual borders in Transylvania. Revolts occurred and the Ottoman army moved into action to squelch the disturbances. The major event of this campaign was the Siege of Sziget on August 7.

The citadel at Sziget was occupied by 2,500 Magyars. This small and relatively unimportant place had a ferocious soldier, Count Miklos Zrinyi, to defend it. After a month of fighting, Zrinyi knew the end was upon him and prepared a bitter reception for the attackers. The Ottomans assailed the citadel, striking at the gate where a cannon stood loaded and ready to fire. Count Zrinyi fired it point blank as the Turks broke through the gate, slaughtering dozens of them, but it was not enough to stop their rush. He then advanced with his sword, slashing his enemies, dying under their blows and bullets. This was but a prelude, for Count Zrinyi’s death was followed by the explosion of a huge magazine deep in the citadel. As the count fell, a further 3,000 Ottoman soldiers were slain by the blast.

When Suleiman learned of his victory he died of a heart attack. The explosion at Sziget in 1566 blasted apart the long unbroken chain of capable sultans. Shorn of its leader, the Ottoman army turned around and marched south to Istanbul for a new struggle for succession. In the event, however, Suleiman’s son, Selim, ascended with little effort. Like Suleiman the Magnificent, his son Selim would also have a sobriquet. Selim was known as “Selim the Sot,” for he was an alcoholic and quite addicted to Cypriot wine. Selim’s ascent began the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire.

The accomplishments of the great Ottoman sultans are impossible to overstate. They descended upon the Arab Middle East that had enjoyed 600 years of uninterrupted rule by one people and displaced them with little effort. They survived the crusaders and Mongols, and not even Tamerlane had their full measure. It was the Ottomans who finally toppled the decrepit old Byzantine Empire. And it was the great line of capable sultans who very nearly broke out of the Balkans and into Christian Europe. Few peoples have had more glorious eras in history.

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