The Loss of Cyprus [1564–1570] II

Map of the Siege of Nicosia, by Giovanni Camoccio, 1574

In 1570 Venice had held Cyprus for eighty-one years. Queen Caterina had been replaced by a Venetian governor, with the title of Lieutenant: in him and his two Counsellors – the three together, known as the Rectors, were the Cypriot equivalent of the Signoria – rested in effect virtually all the civil power. There was in addition a Great Council, comprising all the nobility of the island over the age of twenty-five, plus certain of those resident Venetians who had settled there; of these latter, the nobles were immediately eligible, the rest – provided they were not members of the ‘mechanical’ trades-could purchase their seats after a five-year residence. But its functions were largely electoral, and even then its decisions were subject to the Rectors’ confirmation.

While the civil government was established at Nicosia, the military headquarters were at Famagusta. There the standing garrison of cavalry and infantry, and the Cyprus-based fleet, were under the command of a Venetian Captain – though in time of war he might expect a Proveditor-General to be sent specially out from Venice to assume supreme authority. Famagusta, unlike Nicosia, was superbly fortified: omnium urbium fortissima, as an astonished traveller described it. Historically, too, it was the island’s principal harbour, although by 1570 Salines (the modern Larnaca) had overtaken it in terms of commercial traffic.

The total population was about 160,000, still living under an anachronistically feudal system which the Republic had made little or no effort to change. At the top were the nobility, partly Venetian but for the most part still of old French Crusader stock like the former royal house of Lusignan. Much of the land was in their hands, but under the prevailing law of primogeniture there was an ever-increasing number of unpropertied younger sons who frequently constituted a problem to the government. At the bottom was the peasantry, many of whom were still effectively serfs, owing their masters two days’ service a week. For them, despite the extreme fertility of the island, life was a struggle and oppression an integral part of it. Between the two was the merchant class and the urban bourgeoisie – a Levantine melting pot of Greeks, Venetians, Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Jews.

Cyprus, in short, cannot have been an easy place to govern; it must be admitted, however, that the Venetians – whose own domestic administration was the wonder and envy of the civilized world – should have governed it a great deal better than they did. Perhaps the very strictness of the standards demanded of them at home increased the temptation to feather their nests once they were a safe distance away; probably, too, they were infected by the general atmosphere of venality which, we are told, prevailed in the island long before they took power. What is certain is that by the time the Turks landed in the summer of 1570 Venice had acquired a grim record of maladministration and corruption, and had made herself thoroughly unpopular with her Cypriot subjects. Even the rich nobility, however much they might oppress their own peasantry, objected to the way in which, as they saw it, the Republic was enriching itself at the island’s expense, and its official representatives, by less overt methods, following suit. They resented, too, their lack of any real power. The other, humbler, sections of the population felt much the same. Many indeed believed that any change of government could only be for the better – a sentiment which was not without significance when the moment of crisis came.

The joint expedition for the relief of Cyprus had been an unmitigated disaster; and yet, even if it had safely arrived at its destination, disembarked its fighting men and obeyed all its instructions to the letter, it could scarcely have saved the island. A major victory at sea might perhaps have proved temporarily effective, delaying the inevitable for a year or two; but since the Turkish invasion fleet that dropped anchor on 3 July at Larnaca numbered not less than 350 sail – more than double Colonna’s estimate – such a victory would have been, to say the least, unlikely. The truth is that, from the moment that Selim II decided to incorporate the island in his Empire, Cyprus was doomed.

It was doomed for the same fundamental reason that Malta, five years before, had been saved: the inescapable fact that the strength of any army in the field varies inversely with the length of its lines of communication and supply. Since Cyprus had neither the means, the ability, nor – probably – the will to defend itself, it could only be defended by Venice, from which all military supplies, arms and ammunition, and the bulk of the fighting men and horses would have to come. But Venice lay over 1,500 miles away across the Mediterranean, much of which was now dominated by the Turks. They, on the other hand, had only fifty miles to sail from ports on the southern Anatolian coast, where they could count on an almost limitless supply of manpower and materials.

Their success seemed the more assured in that the Cypriot defences, apart from those of Famagusta, were hopelessly inadequate. Nicosia, it is true, boasted a nine-mile circuit of medieval walls; but they enclosed an area considerably larger than the town and needed a huge force to defend them. They were moreover far too thin – the siege techniques of the sixteenth century were vastly different from those of the fourteenth – and despite the feverish last-minute efforts of Venetian engineers to strengthen them they stood a poor chance of survival against the massive artillery which had long been a speciality of the Turks. Kyrenia had once been a splendid fortress, but it had fallen long since into ruin; and though there too some work had recently been done to repair and strengthen the existing walls, it was unlikely to hold out for long. The fortifications of all other Cypriot towns were either negligible or non-existent; from the first it was understood that only in Nicosia and Famagusta was there any hope of prolonged resistance. Manpower too was in short supply. Accurate estimates of numbers are never easy, but it is unlikely that there were more than 20,000 fighting men including some 500 cavalry – in Nicosia when the siege began, and of these little more than half were fully effective. Fra Angelo Calepio, who was present throughout, tells us that there were 1,040 arquebuses in the magazines, but that they were not properly distributed nor were any instructions given as to their use, with the result that many soldiers found it impossible to fire them without setting light to their beards

For this and many other shortcomings in the defences of the capital, the principal blame must fall on the Lieutenant, Nicolo Dandolo. Uncertain, timid, forever vacillating between bouts of almost hysterical activity and periods of apathetic inertia, he was obviously unsuited to the supreme command – which would not have been his if Sebastiano Venier, the Proveditor-General designate who had sailed with Girolamo Zane’s expedition, had managed to reach the island. Through the agonizing months which were to follow, Dandolo was to prove a constant liability, his lack of judgement and immoderate caution occasionally giving rise to suspicions – as it happened, unfounded – that he was in enemy pay. Fortunately there were better men at Famagusta: the Perugian general Astorre Baglioni, who had been sent out from Venice in April as Commander-in-Chief, and the Captain, Marcantonio Bragadin, whose appalling fate when the siege was over was to earn him a permanent niche in the Venetian Hall of Fame – and his conqueror lasting infamy.

The Turkish invasion force had appeared off the coast of Cyprus on 1 July. Sultan Selim – the memory of his father’s humiliation in Malta still fresh in his mind – had spared no pains in its preparation, and had entrusted it to two of his ablest and most experienced commanders: Lala Mustafa Pasha for the land forces and Piale Pasha – a Croat who, with Dragut, had trounced a Spanish fleet under Gian Andrea Doria ten years before – for the fleet. After a lightning raid on Limassol, where it did considerable damage, sacking the town and a neighbouring monastery before being repulsed, it continued along the south coast to Larnaca. Here, owing to Dandolo’s timidity, Mustafa was able to land his entire force without opposition, settling in his men while he awaited further troops from the mainland. From Larnaca he then dispatched a blind Greek monk to Nicosia with the usual ultimatum: since Venice had no chance of successfully resisting his superbly equipped force of 200,000 men, let her now cede the island peaceably, thus retaining the friendship and favour of the Sultan. If she did not, it would be the worse for her. To this missive the Rectors in Nicosia sent no reply; they did, however, send an urgent appeal to Famagusta, asking for the return of Baglioni with reinforcements. The request was refused, on the grounds that the threat to Nicosia might well be a feint: the weight of the Turkish attack was still expected at Famagusta.

But Mustafa was not dissembling. When his reinforcements arrived on 22 July he set off that same evening for Nicosia; and two days later his immense army was encamped outside the walls of the city. Now once again a chance was lost: the Italian commander of infantry begged for permission to mount an immediate attack, while the enemy were still tired by their march of thirty miles through the heat of a Cyprus summer, and their artillery and heavy cavalry were still unprepared. Once again Dandolo and his fellow-Rectors declined to take the risk, and the Turks were allowed to dig themselves in undisturbed.

And so the siege began. The Turkish army, though not perhaps quite as numerous as its commander had claimed, must have been a good 100,000 strong; its cannon and light artillery were formidable and, in contrast to the pathetic firing-pieces of the defenders along the walls, were employed with deadly accuracy and expertise. Meanwhile Dandolo, fearing a shortage of gunpowder, had rationed its use to the point where even those of his soldiers who had fire-arms and knew how to use them were forbidden to shoot at any group of Turks numbering fewer than ten. Yet, however weak-spirited the Lieutenant, there were others around him who did not lack courage. Somehow the city held out, all through a sweltering August; and it was only on 9 September, after Mustafa’s men had given the noisiest and most jubilant welcome of which they were capable to a further 20,000 troops freshly arrived from the mainland, that the defenders finally yielded to the fifteenth major assault. Thus, after forty-five days, Nicosia fell. Even as the triumphant Turks swarmed through the city, the resistance continued, a final stand being made in the main square, in front of the Lieutenant’s Palace. Dandolo, who had taken refuge inside it some hours before while his men were still fighting on the ramparts, now appeared in his crimson velvet robes, hoping to receive the favoured treatment due to his rank. Scarcely had he reached the foot of the steps when a Turkish officer struck his head from his shoulders.

It was customary, when a besieged town had defended itself to the last, for the victorious commander to allow his men a three-day period of rapine and plunder. The usual atrocities followed, the usual massacres, quarterings and impalements, the usual desecration of churches and violation of the youth of both sexes; what was unusual was the sheer extent of the looting. Nicosia was a rich city, generously endowed with treasures ecclesiastical and secular, western and Byzantine. It was a full week before all the gold and silver, the precious stones and enamelled reliquaries, the jewelled vestments, the velvets and brocades had been loaded on to the carts and trundled away – the richest spoils to fall into Turkish hands since the capture of Constantinople itself, well over a century before.

As he and his army returned to the coast, Mustafa left a garrison of 4,000 janissaries to refortify the city. He still expected a Venetian relief expedition; if it came, an attempt to recapture Nicosia could not be discounted. Meanwhile, however, he had no intention of abandoning the offensive himself. Already on 11 September, two days after the fall of Nicosia, he had sent a messenger to the commanders at Famagusta, calling upon them to surrender and bearing, as an additional inducement, the head of Nicolò Dandolo in a basin. It would be their turn next.

Although Mustafa Pasha can hardly have expected that his ultimatum would have the desired effect and that Famagusta would capitulate without a fight, he must nevertheless have cursed its commanders for their stubbornness. Even Nicosia had given him more trouble than he had expected; but Famagusta promised to be a really formidable challenge. The old fortifications had been torn down at the end of the previous century and replaced with a completely new enceinte, incorporating all the latest advances in military architecture; and the town was now, to all appearances, as near impregnable as any town could be. Behind those tremendous walls the defenders were admittedly few: some 8,000 as compared with a Turkish force which, with new contingents arriving every few weeks from the mainland, probably by now fell not far short of the 200,000 of which Mustafa had boasted to Dandolo. On the other hand they had in Bragadin and Baglioni two first-rate leaders whom they already respected and for whom their love and admiration were to grow during the trials that lay ahead.

The army and the fleet, loaded to the gunwales with Nicosia loot, arrived at Famagusta on the same day, 17 September; and the siege began at once. Thanks to the courage and enterprise of the two commanders, it was from the first a far more dynamic affair than that of Nicosia, with the defenders making frequent sorties outside the walls and sometimes even carrying the battle right into the Turkish camp. All through the winter it continued, the Venetians showing no signs of weakening; in January, indeed, they were considerably strengthened, both materially and morally, by the arrival of a fifteen-hundred-man relief force, with arms and munitions, under the command of Marco and Marcantonio Querini, who had managed to break through the depleted Turkish blockade. In April the level of food supplies began to give some cause for concern; but Bragadin dealt with the problem efficiently enough by evicting over 5,000 ‘useless mouths’ from among the civil population and sending them out to seek shelter in the neighbouring villages. Towards the end of that same month Mustafa changed his tactics, ordering his corps of Armenian sappers to dig a huge network of trenches to the south. As the corps numbered some 40,000 and was further supplemented by forced labour from the local peasantry, work progressed rapidly: by the middle of May the whole region was honeycombed for a distance of three miles from the walls, the trenches numerous enough to accommodate the whole besieging army and so deep that mounted cavalry could ride along them with only the tips of their lances visible to the watchers on the ramparts. The Turks also constructed a total of ten siege towers, progressively closer to the town, from which they could fire downwards on to the defenders. From there, on 15 May, the final bombardment began.

The Venetians fought back with courage and determination. Again and again their own artillery would destroy whole sections of the Turkish siege towers, but to no avail; a few hundred sappers would get to work, and the towers would be as good as new by morning. Slowly, as the weeks dragged by, they began to lose heart. Hopes of the great Venetian-Spanish relief expedition, which had kept their spirits up through the winter and spring, had faded; powder was running short; food was even shorter. By July all the horses, donkeys and cats in the town had been eaten; nothing was left but bread and beans. Of the defenders, only 500 were still capable of bearing arms, and they were dropping through lack of sleep. On the 29th the Turks unleashed a new general assault, their fifth. The Christians held them back, but at the cost of two thirds of their number killed or wounded. On the 30th came another, on the 31st another still. Even then, Mustafa failed to break in; but that night the Venetian generals inspected their defences and their remaining stocks of food and ammunition and realized that they could hold out no longer. By a voluntary surrender they might still, according to the accepted rules of warfare, avoid the massacres and the looting that were otherwise inevitable. Dawn broke on 1 August to reveal a white flag fluttering on the ramparts of Famagusta.

The peace terms were surprisingly generous. All Italians were to be allowed to embark, with colours flying, for Crete, together with any Greeks, Albanians or Turks who wished to accompany them. On their journey they would not be molested by Turkish shipping, which would on the contrary furnish them with all the assistance they required. Greeks who elected to stay behind would be guaranteed their personal liberty and property, and would be given two years in which to decide whether they would remain permanently or not; those who then elected to leave would be given safe conduct to the country of their choice. The document setting out these terms was signed personally by Mustafa and sealed with the Sultan’s seal; it was then returned to Baglioni and Bragadin with a covering letter complimenting them on their courage and their magnificent defence of the city.

For the next four days arrangements for the departure went smoothly enough. Food supplies were sent in and, apart from a few minor incidents, relations between the Europeans and the Turks were friendly. On 5 August Bragadin sent word to Mustafa proposing to call and formally to present him with the keys of Famagusta; back came the reply that the general would be delighted to receive him. Donning his purple robe of office, he set off that evening accompanied by Baglioni and a number of his senior officers, escorted by a mixed company of Italian, Greek and Albanian soldiers. Mustafa received them with every courtesy; then, without warning, his face clouded and his manner changed. In a mounting fury, he began hurling baseless accusations at the Christians standing before him. They had murdered Turkish prisoners; they had concealed munitions instead of handing them over according to the terms of surrender. Suddenly, he whipped out a knife and cut off Bragadin’s right ear, ordering an attendant to cut off the other and his nose. Then, turning to his guards, he ordered them to execute the whole party. Astorre Baglioni was beheaded; so too was the commander of artillery, Luigi Martinengo. One or two managed to escape; but most were massacred, together with a number of other Christians who chanced to be within reach. Finally the heads of all those that had been murdered were piled in front of Mustafa’s pavilion. They are said to have numbered 350.

Now that the killing had begun it was very hard to stop. Mustafa himself, who seemed at last to have regained his composure, forbade his howling soldiery to enter Famagusta on pain of death; many, however, disobeyed his orders and ran amok through the city, killing any citizen they chanced to meet, burning and pillaging in a frenzy of blood-lust. Others headed for the port, where they found victims in plenty among the Christians preparing to embark for the West.

But the worst fate had been reserved for Marcantonio Bragadin. He was held in prison for nearly a fortnight, by which time his untreated wounds were festering and he was already seriously ill. First he was dragged round the walls, with sacks of earth and stones on his back; next, tied into a chair, he was hoisted to the yardarm of the Turkish flagship and exposed to the taunts of the sailors. Finally he was taken to the place of execution in the main square, tied naked to a column and, literally, flayed alive. Even this torture he is said to have borne in silence for half an hour until, as the executioner reached his waist, he finally expired. After the grim task was completed, his head was cut off, his body quartered, and his skin, stuffed with straw and cotton and mounted on a cow, was paraded through the streets.

When, on 22 September, Mustafa sailed for home, he took with him as trophies the heads of his principal victims and the skin of Marcantonio Bragadin, which he proudly presented to the Sultan. The fate of the heads is unknown; but nine years later a certain Girolamo Polidoro, one of the few survivors of the siege, managed to steal the skin from the Arsenal of Constantinople and to return it to Bragadin’s sons, who deposited it in the church of S. Gregorio. From here, on 18 May 1596, it was transferred to SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and placed in a niche behind the urn which forms part of the hero’s memorial. Here it still remains today.

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