Siege of Pleven


The artillery battle at Pleven. The battery of siege guns on the Grand Duke Mount, by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky.


The Capture of the Grivitsa redoubt at Pleven, by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky.


Date: July 19-December 10, 1877

Location: Pleven (Plevna) in northern Bulgaria

Opponents (* winner)

*Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians



Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians: Grand Duke Nicholas; Prince Charles of Romania

Ottomans: Ghazi Osman Pasha

Approx. # Troops 150,000, including 120,000 Russians plus Romanians and Bulgarian volunteers

Ottomans: Probably more than 50,000


Regarded as the birthright of modern Bulgaria, the battle opens the way for the Russians to move south against Constantinople (Istanbul), but their stand here wins considerable sympathy in Western Europe for the Ottomans

In the early 1870s Ottoman power was in decline, but the empire still controlled most of the Balkan Peninsula. In the south Greece was independent, while to the north Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro enjoyed the status of autonomous principalities. In 1875 and 1876 uprisings occurred in Herzegovina, Bosnia, and Macedonia. Then in mid-1876 the Bulgarians also rose, only to be slaughtered by the Ottomans. Serbia and Montenegro then declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russia, defeated in the Crimean War of 1854-1856 by a coalition that included the Ottomans, sought to recoup its prestige in the Balkans and secure a warm-water port on the Mediterranean. As a result, concerns mounted that fighting in the Balkans might lead to a general European war.

While the major European powers discussed intervention, the Ottomans, led by Ghazi Osman Pasha, were winning the war. By the autumn of 1876 it was clear that they would soon capture Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. That October Russia demanded an armistice, which the Ottomans accepted. A conference at Constantinople in December soon disbanded without tangible result, and in March 1877 Serbia made peace with the Ottoman Empire. Sentiment in Russia was then so strong for intervention that despite warnings of bankruptcy from his minister of finance, Czar Alexander II declared war on the Ottomans in April 1877, beginning the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

Because the Ottomans controlled the Black Sea with ironclad warships, a Russian land invasion proved necessary. In the last week of April 1877 two Russian armies invaded: one in Caucasia, advancing on Kars, Ardahan, and Erzurum, and the other in the Balkans. Romania was essential to a Russian drive down the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, and following agreement between Prince Charles of Romania and Alexander II, Russian troops crossed the Prut (Pruth) River into Moldavia. The Ottomans responded by shelling Romanian forts at the mouth of the Danube, whereupon on May 21 Romania declared both war on the Ottoman Empire and its independence. Serbia reentered the war in December. Bulgarian irregular forces fought with Russia, and Montenegro remained at war, as it had been since June 1876. Romanian support was vital to the Russian effort in terms of both geographical position and manpower in the ensuing campaign.

Russian forces under nominal command of Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of the czar, crossed the Danube River on June 26 and took Svistov (Stistova) and Nikopol (Nicopolis) on the river before advancing to Pleven (Plevna, Plevne), about 25 miles south of Nikopol. The Bulgarians acclaimed the Russians as liberators. Russian general Nikolai P. de Krudener, who had actual command, established his headquarters at Tirnovo and sent forces across the Balkan Mountains into Thrace, then back toward Shipka Pass through the mountains to defeat the Ottomans. Russian troops, assisted by Bulgarian partisans, also raided in the Maritza Valley, seemingly threatening Adrianopole.

The military situation changed when Sultan Abdul Aziz appointed two competent generals: Mehemed Ali, named Ottoman commander in Europe, and GhazI Osman Pasha. Mehemed Ali defeated the Russians in the south, driving them back to the Balkan Mountains with heavy losses. To the north the main Russian armies encountered a formidable obstacle in Ottoman forces sent to the Danube under Osman Pasha. Soon he had entrenched his men at Pleven. Ottoman engineers created in the rocky valley there a formidable fortress of earthworks with redoubts, trenches, and gun emplacements. The 10-mile Ottoman defensive perimeter was lightly held, with reserves in a secure central location from which they could rush to any threatened point.

Superior numbers led the Russians to underestimate their adversary. Failing to adequately reconnoiter the Ottoman positions, on July 19, 1877, the Russians assaulted the strongest portion of the line and, to their surprise, were repulsed with

3,000 casualties. The battle demonstrated the superiority of machine weapons in the defense, as the Ottomans were equipped with modern breech-loading rifles imported from the United States. They also had light mobile artillery. On July 30 Russian forces again attacked and again were repulsed.

Over the next six weeks Osman Pasha worked to improve his defenses, while the Russians demanded that Prince Charles of Romania furnish additional manpower. Charles agreed on the condition that he receive command of the joint Romanian-Russian force. Confident of victory, the allies then planned an attack from three sides with 110,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. On September 6, 150 Russian guns began a preparatory bombardment. The Ottoman earthworks suffered little damage, and there were relatively few personnel casualties. Wet weather also worked to the advantage of the defenders.

The infantry attack began on schedule on September 11. With Alexander II in attendance, at 1:00 p.m. the artillery fire ceased, and the infantry began their assault. The attackers took a number of Ottoman redoubts, and for several days it appeared that the allies would be victorious. But on the third day the Ottomans successfully counterattacked. The allies suffered 21,000 casualties for their efforts.

Russian war minister Dimitri Aleksevich Miliutin now recalled brilliant engineer General Franz Eduard Ivanovich Todleben, who had directed the defense of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Todleben advised that Pleven be encircled and its garrison starved into submission. Osman Pasha, having twice defeated a force double his own in size, would have preferred a withdrawal while it was still possible, but the battle had captured the attention of Europe and created a positive image of Ottomans as heroic and tenacious fighters. Sultan Abdul Hamid therefore ordered him to hold out and promised to send a relief force.

The Russians committed 120,000 men and 5,000 guns to the siege. They also placed Todleben in charge of siege operations. Other Russian forces under General Ossip Gourko ravaged the countryside, preventing Ottoman supply columns from reaching Pleven from the south. The Russians also easily defeated and turned back the sultan’s poorly trained relief force.

Winter closed in, and the Ottoman defenders at Pleven, short of ammunition, were soon reduced to starvation. Osman Pasha knew that his only hope was a surprise breakout. On the night of December 9-10 the Ottomans threw bridges across the Vid River to the west and then advanced on the Russian outposts. The Ottomans carried the first Russian trenches, and the fighting was hand to hand. At this point, Osman Pasha was wounded and his horse shot from beneath him.

Rumors of Osman Pasha’s death led to panic among the Ottoman troops, who broke and fled. Osman Pasha surrendered Pleven and its 43,338 defenders on December 10. Although the Russians treated Osman Pasha well, thousands of Ottoman prisoners perished in the snows on their trek to captivity, and Bulgarians butchered many seriously wounded Ottoman prisoners left behind in military hospitals. Some 34,000 allied troops perished in the siege. With the Russians threatening Constantinople itself, in February 1878 the Ottomans sued for peace.

Russia imposed harsh terms in the Treaty of San Stefano on March 3, 1878, leaving the Ottoman Empire only a small strip of territory on the European side of the straits. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro were enlarged, but the major territorial change was the creation of a new large autonomous Bulgaria, including most of Macedonia from the Aegean Sea to Albania. This would make Bulgaria the largest of the Balkan states, although the assumption was that it would be dominated by Russia. The Battle of Pleven is therefore regarded by Bulgarians as marking the birth of their nation. The treaty did not last, however. Britain and Austria-Hungary threatened war if the treaty was not revised, and Russia agreed to an international conference that met in Berlin in June and July 1878.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria was divided into three parts. Bulgaria proper (the northern section) became an autonomous principality subject to tribute to the sultan; eastern Rumelia, the southeastern part, received a measure of autonomy; and the rest of Bulgaria was restored to the sultan. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro all became independent, and Greece received Thessaly. Russia received from Romania the small strip of Bessarabia lost in 1856 and territory around Batum, Ardahan, and Kars that it had conquered in the Caucasus, while Romania had to be content with part of the Dobrudja. Austria-Hungary secured the right to occupy and administer, though not annex, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The region continued to smolder, however. During 1912-1913 there were two Balkan wars, both of which threatened to become wider conflicts. Then in June 1914 the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand led to a third Balkan war that this time became World War I. The military lesson of the siege of Pleven—that modern machine weapons gave superiority to the defense—was soon to be relearned.


Herbert, Frederick William von. The Defense of Plevna, 1877. Ankara, Turkey: Ministry of Culture, 1990.

Kinross, Lord [John Patrick]. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977.

Sumner, B. H. Russia and the Balkans, 1870-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937.

The Check of the Ottoman Empire


The Battle of Lepanto 1571

Suleyman the Magnificent ruled for forty-seven years, and thirty of them he spent on campaign, tireless and resolute, plodding from one project to the next – Egypt and the Rhodes trouble, Belgrade and Hungary, Tabriz, Baghdad, Vienna. ‘What! Suleyman still here? What a drag!’ wrote the Christian-born poet Yaga Beg, successfully chancing his reputation on very thin ice; and the soldiers, too, grew tired of their leader in his later years. On the Persian front in 1553 the army was murmuring that the Sultan was too old to march – he was fifty-nine. The soldiers wanted to make Suleyman’s eldest son Sultan. Suleyman invited Mustafa to his tent, and had him strangled there.

But in gobbets of Balkan mud, and in the smouldering deserts of Iran time began to establish its dominion over his empire. These were regions a sultan could not cross before his army chafed to be home again for harvest. Suleyman ventured out from Edirne or Bursa year after year with an army larger than any he had amassed before, his grandeur concealing intimations of decline, his reign a feast of ambiguous victories.

Suleyman’s last campaign in 1566 proved little more than a monstrous razzia into Austrian-held territory, for his enemies eluded him, as ever. The Ottoman army spent ninety-seven days on the march before besieging Szigeth. On 7 September 1566 Suleyman died among his troops, in the midst of a siege, in his campaign tent pitched in the mud of Hungary. His Grand Vizier concealed his death from the army and brought the siege to its successful conclusion. The body was embalmed, dressed, and propped up in the litter as if it were alive until the army was almost home. Meanwhile messengers started from the camp to reach Suleyman’s surviving son, Selim.

The poet Baki, who had been the Sultan’s friend and correspondent, mourned:

That master rider of the realm of bliss
For whose careering steed the field of the world was narrow.
The infidels of Hungary bowed their heads to the temper of his blade,
The Frank admired the grain of his sword.
He laid his face to the ground, graciously, like a fresh rose petal,
The treasurer of time put him in the coffer, like a jewel.

The treasurer of time was measuring up the Ottoman Empire, too. The three great Mediterranean powers, Venice, Spain, and the empire itself, all soon toppled into a decline as protracted as it was profound, and a note of exhaustion stole across the whole Mediterranean world. The Venetians heard it, sung softly at dusk beneath the Venetian Rector’s window in Split, ‘a song on everyone’s lips … and it says in this song that the Turk is running water that erodes, and that the Doge is a sandbank which has been carried away little by little by the river.’

In 1570 Suleyman’s old Grand Vizier, Sokullu Mehmet, took the island of Cyprus for the worthless Selim, who died in 1574. It was much against his better judgement, for Sokullu believed that the empire was tired, and needed a period of caution and repose; but an attack on Venetian Cyprus was the price he paid to hang onto power. It proved to be a turning-point for the empire.

There was nothing wonderful about the Turks having a crack at Cyprus. It rounded off their control of the eastern Mediterranean; it swept out a nest or two of pirates. The Greeks of Cyprus welcomed the invaders, as Greek islanders frequently did. Fifty thousand Turks died in the effort to capture Fermagusta; but Ottoman wars were traditionally free with lives. The Venetian commander Bragadino, surrendering at last with full military honours and guarantees of safe-conduct for his troops, was treacherously seized, horribly mangled, and at last flayed alive; the Turkish fleet returned to Constantinople in triumph with his skin stuffed with straw and hanging from a yard arm. It was a gruesome but not unprecedented end, and the Turks had no monopoly on the manner of it.

What distinguished the Ottoman assault from preceding adventures of the kind was the world’s reaction. The attack was perceived, on all sides, as an unwarranted disturbance, as though Turkish conquest was no longer something to be expected but an outrageous upheaval in the natural order. The impetus for the attack was certainly all wrong – the whim of a drunkard, egged on by a Jew, said the western powers bitterly – and it was steeped in palace intrigue. Sultan Selim, the Sot, had a passion for Cyprus wine; his boon companion, Joseph Nasi, a refugee from Spain who had become the court banker, and who as Duke of Naxos was the first Jew to be ennobled for over a thousand years, even hoped to turn Cyprus into a homeland for Jewish refugees from Europe; but to Selim he suggested that the toper should master the source of his good cheer. New powers, too, could be seen stirring in the palace now. Suleyman’s marriage to Roxelana brought the Sultan’s harem out of the Old Palace and into his private apartments in Topkapi, opening a period of harem influence, the so-called Sultanate of the Women, which was to endure until the 1650s and introduced all sorts of political cross-currents into the management of imperial affairs. Don Joseph’s case for Cyprus was supported from the harem by the Jewish-born Nur Banu Sultan, mother of the future Murad III. It was opposed by Selim’s Venetian-born wife, Safiye Sultan.

Cyprus fell, and the drunkard got his wine tax-free. But new powers were stirring in the West. The fall of Cyprus prompted the formation of a Holy League against the Ottomans. Spain, Venice, the Knights of Malta, and various Italian states under the lead of the papacy, put together a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria, a bastard son of Charles V. On 7 October 1571 he sighted the Ottoman fleet in the Gulf of Lepanto, and moved to the attack.

Sokullu Mehmet Pasha possessed superlative powers of imagination, brilliant sources of intelligence, and excellent maps, out of which he concocted a plan to maintain the momentum of Ottoman conquest. His intention was to dig a canal to link the Black Sea and the Caspian, over territories increasingly troubled by Russian Cossack raids. Here the Don and the Volga converge as they flow south over hundreds of miles, until a mere thirty miles divide them as they each turn and debouch into their separate seas. Had the Ottomans been able to launch a fleet through the canal and into the Caspian, they could have struck at Tabriz, the Persian capital, from its rear, avoiding the miserable overland approach through the arid mountains of Upper Armenia and Azerbaijan; gained direct access to the Silk Road from Central Asia for themselves; and erected a barricade against Russian and Cossack encroachments from the north-east, just as the Danube had formed their breastwork in the north-west. Dig the canal, open the Caspian to Ottoman ships and arms, and with a bound the empire might be free.

European discoveries were turning the eastern Mediterranean into a backwater, and the lines of trade and wealth which had lately converged on Constantinople now seemed to be moving away. At the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese had discovered the route to the Indies round the Cape: they began trading straight away, bringing peppercorns to Europe in bulk, and cheap. Soon they had added silk, calicoes, and all kinds of spices to their cargoes, directly challenging the ancient caravan routes through the Middle East. The effect on the empire’s revenues was not immediate, and coffee even substituted for spice in the Cairo trade. In the East itself, while some rulers had of course been delighted to see the Portuguese, others felt threatened and petitioned the empire to do something about it. In 1552 a naval expedition, under Piri Reis, had entered the Red Sea and driven the infidels, with difficulty, back to the mouth of the Persian Gulf; but the Portuguese still throttled off the Egyptian trade routes. (In the seventeenth century the establishment of Dutch and British power in Asia, and their decisive redirection of trade routes to the open ocean, was to deprive Turkey of most of her foreign commerce. In London ‘nabobs’ replaced ‘pashas’ as objects of envy and derision.) In 1580 Murad III was advised by a geographer to dig a Suez canal and ‘capture the ports of Hind and Sind and drive away the infidels’. The Suez project never got beyond the planning stage, for the region was engulfed by a rebellion.

Work began on the Caspian canal, though, in the spring of 1570. Ten thousand troops, and 6,000 labourers, assembled at Kaffa in the Crimea; munitions and supplies were stockpiled at Azov; 500 men led the artillery up the Don and made camp at Perekop. Digging did not begin before the end of August. The Khan of the Crimean Tartars, Devlet Giray, sent 3,000 riders as guards and guides – not many, given the hordes at his control; they proved rather demoralising, describing to the Turkish troops the impossibility of righteous men surviving a Russian summer, when the sun never truly set, and the first and last prayer of the day could never be said. He withdrew them when progress on the canal began to be made. Almost a third had been dug by October, when the fierce steppe winds and the cold nights descended, and the general, ‘Circassian’ Kasim Pasha, broke off to secure the region for the spring, and better weather. One part of his force he sent to Astrakhan, to hold the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian; another he sent back to Azov, where the Don pours into the little sea of that name. The assault on Astrakhan, which was still held by the Russians, was repulsed by a sally; the troops at Azov were surprised by a small Russian army, the supplies went up in flames, and the Russians took their first Turkish war trophies. Disobeying orders, Kasim Pasha abandoned the whole ill-fated enterprise, and embarked his troops; but the flotilla was assailed by storms, and only 7,000 men returned to Istanbul. It seems that the border guards, the Crimean Tartars, preferred to keep their enemies to themselves; and a year after the Ottomans withdrew they demonstrated their own ability in superb style, riding through to Moscow and firing the city, herding 200,000 captives back to Azov.

Distant Lepanto in 1571 brought the Ottomans a defeat which ruled out a return to the steppe. It was the largest battle ever waged in the Mediterranean – 487 ships took part, and 200 of the 245 Turkish ships were sunk. It was the first major defeat the Ottomans had suffered in two centuries, and was remembered by Cervantes, who took part in the battle, as ‘that day so fortunate to Christendom, when all nations were undeceived of their error in believing that the Turks were invincible’. Depictions of the day became a stock-in-trade of western painters, and even G. K. Chesterton wrote a rousing poem about it 350 years later. But it was only the insults which remained full-rigged when the smoke of battle had cleared away; and the sheer costs of the engagement, to both sides, signalled an end to the struggle for the Mediterranean.

Sokullu himself weathered the death of his master Selim the Sot in 1574, and continued as Grand Vizier under the superstitious Murad III. But on 12 October 1579 he was struck down by an assassin’s dagger as he walked through the palace to the divan. The killer’s motives remain obscure: perhaps he was an agent of the Sultan, perhaps a religious maniac. The tide of everlasting victory, the unbarred tide of time, was beginning to turn back, setting up curious whorls and dangerous eddies; and violence and bitterness at the heart of state were grim portents of things to come.

Russia attacks the Ottoman Empire


On 25 September 1789, Russian and Cossack troops take the fortress of Khadjibey, defeating the Ottomans and thus providing the impetus to found Odessa.

Throughout the last two decades of the eighteenth century the Ottoman system was shaken by a succession of challenges to its corporate existence. By 1781–2 the evident decay of centralized administration, the anarchy in many outlying provinces, and the threat of erosion along distant frontiers, had begun to tempt the Sultan’s most powerful neighbours into behaving as if the Empire were under notice to quit. Catherine the Great, influenced by her favourite Prince Potemkin, exchanged letters with the Habsburg Emperor, Joseph II, proposing an alliance: Austria would acquire large areas of modern Roumania and Yugoslavia while Russia would absorb Turkish lands around the Black Sea and establish autonomous states in Rumelia, eventually setting up a new Byzantine Empire under the sovereignty of Catherine’s grandson, the infant Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich (1779–1831). When, in April 1783, Catherine proclaimed annexation of the Tatar khanate of the Crimea as a first step towards realization of this secret ‘Greek Project’, there was widespread indignation at Constantinople. But no declaration of war was made; the Sultan and his viziers were pessimistic about their chances of success without a powerful ally, and none was forthcoming.

Yet it became increasingly difficult for Abdulhamid to ignore Russian provocation. His chief concern was the persistent Russian advance in the Caucasus, following the establishment in 1783 of a protectorate over Georgia. But there were other acts of aggravation, too: the encouragement given to visits by Greek Orthodox churchmen to the court at St Petersburg; the incitement of unrest by Russian consular officials in Bucharest, Jassy and several Greek islands; the rapid building of a river port to handle Black Sea trade at Kherson, on the Dnieper, where 10,000 people were settled by 1786; a triumphal progress by the Empress through her newly acquired Crimean lands. Abdulhamid was physically strong and mentally alert, the father of twenty-two known children, but by 1785 he was ageing rapidly and growing morbidly suspicious of palace intrigue. In the spring of that year he connived at the fall and execution of Halil Hamid, a reforming minister who had trimmed down the Janissary Corps by some sixty per cent. In January 1786 the Sultan appointed Koça Yusuf as Grand Vizier. He was a Georgian convert to Islam who as governor of the Peloponnese had been inclined to see Russian agents lurking on every quay in his province. In August 1787 Koça induced the ailing Abdulhamid, although still without an ally, to declare war on Russia.

This renewed conflict with imperial Russia began a half-century in which the Ottoman Empire was intermittently at war with foreign powers for twenty-four years. During the same period the Sultans were also forced to mount fifteen repressive campaigns against insurrections in outlying provinces, the most serious of which developed into wars of national liberation. These military and naval demands checked the economic growth of the Turkish heartland and limited the character of the reforms undertaken by Abdulhamid’s two strong-minded successors, Selim III and Mahmud II. At the same time, they brought the Sublime Porte into the European diplomatic system, posing an Eastern Question to which the only possible solution ultimately proved to be the dissolution of the multinational Ottoman Empire itself.

At first, in the early autumn of 1787, Koça Yusuf’s war seemed reluctant to come to the boil. Even when Joseph II became Catherine’s ally, six months later, little happened. On land, the Austrians lumbered into Bosnia and crossed from the Bukovina into northern Moldavia, while the Russians eventually took the fortress of Ochakov, commanding the approach to the Bug and the Dniester; and in June 1788 two naval engagements were fought amid the mudflats of the Dnieper estuary, where a Russian flotilla led by the American hero John Paul Jones exposed the weakness of the newly revived Ottoman navy. There was little co-ordination between Russia and Austria, both empires being distracted by threats elsewhere in Europe. Habsburg victories in Serbia went unexploited by the Russians until Suvorov won his ten-hour battle at Focsani in August 1789; but by the following summer, when Suvorov and Kutuzov stormed the Turkish defences around Izmail, Austria was already negotiating for a separate peace. The Ottoman envoys secured good terms from the Habsburgs at Sistova in August 1791; and joint British, Prussian and Dutch mediation enabled the war with Russia to be ended before Catherine’s armies swept south of the Danube delta. Even so, the Peace Treaty of Jassy (January 1792) was yet another humiliation for the Porte in what had so long been reserved as the Ottoman’s maritime lake: the Sultan recognized, not only Catherine’s annexation of the Crimea and the protectorate over Georgia, but the southern advance of the Russian frontier to the line of the lower Dniester. It was in this region that, in August 1794, the first stones were laid of the port of Odessa, soon to give the Turks a more formidable competitor for Black Sea trade than up-river Kherson.

Abdulhamid I, like his predecessor in an earlier conflict with the Russians, succumbed to apoplexy at the height of the war. His nephew Selim III acceded in April 1789, that momentous month when George Washington became the first President of the United States and deputies converged on Versailles for Louis XVI’s opening of the States General. Events in America mattered little to Selim; but what happened in France was of considerable interest. Even during his years of nominal confinement in the kafe, Selim had been in touch with Louis. A trusted friend, Ishak Bey, served as Selim’s personal emissary, travelling to Versailles in 1786 with a plea that France, as a long-term friend and ally of the Ottoman Empire, should provide aid in modernizing the army and support policies aimed at the containment of Russia. But the Comte de Vergennes, Louis’ foreign minister for the first thirteen years of his reign, had himself served as ambassador in Constantinople: he was sceptical over the prospects of reform in Turkey and strongly opposed to any enterprise which might lead to a Franco-Russian conflict. Louis’ reply to Selim was guarded and patronizing. ‘We have sent from our court to Constantinople officers of artillery to give to the Muslims demonstrations and examples of all aspects of the art of war’, Louis wrote in a letter dated 20 May 1787, ‘and we are maintaining them so long as their presence is judged necessary.’

Throughout the war with Russia French officers continued to give advice to cadets on the Golden Horn. Translations of military manuals were turned out by the excellent private press attached to the French embassy: aspiring Turkish gunnery specialists could therefore study the treatises from which the young Bonaparte profited at the academy in Brienne. Of course, none of these benefits were in themselves sufficient to change the military balance along the shores of the Black Sea. Whatever his sympathies and inclination, Selim was able to do little to reform or improve the Ottoman state during the first three years of his reign, when day-to-day reports of the war with Russia determined the behaviour of sultan and viziers alike. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1791 Selim ordered twenty-two dignitaries, both secular and religious, to draw up memoranda on the weaknesses of the empire and the way to overcome them. When, a few months later, the Jassy settlement gave the Ottoman Empire a respite from war, the Sultan resolved to press ahead with a policy of westernization. He hoped that the preoccupation of European statesmen with events in Paris would, at the very least, enable him to ensure that his army and navy should catch up the armed forces of the West in training and equipment.

These good intentions look tediously familiar, but Selim’s plans went further than any reforms contemplated by his predecessors. The twenty-two collected memoranda encouraged Selim to seek a ‘New Order’ (Nizam-i Cedid), thereby virtually imposing a revolution from above. Administrative changes included revised regulations to strengthen provincial governorships, the creation of more specialist secular schools to provide training in the ancillary subjects essential for military and naval command (including the French language), control of the grain trade, the institution of regular ambassadorial diplomacy with the major European Powers, and improvements in methods of ensuring that provincial taxes reached a new central treasury, which was given the right to impose taxes on coffee, spirits and tobacco. Earlier Sultans had given their somewhat erratic support to the building of modern ships of the line and the reform of new light and heavy artillery units; Selim III instituted a form of conscription for the navy in the Aegean coastal provinces, tightened discipline in the artillery and other specialist corps and, amid widespread consternation, announced the creation of new infantry corps, organized and trained on French lines and equipped with modern weapons. The Janissaries, suspicious as ever of innovation, had their arrears of back pay settled, and were promised more money for active service, and regular pay-days. But the new barracks for young Turkish recruits above the Bosphorus and at Üsküdar seemed a direct challenge to the entrenched status of the Janissaries. Sultan Selim’s other reforms were soon forgotten, and the term ‘New Order’ became applied solely to the regular infantry battalions which the Nizam-i Cedid brought into being.

The Beginning of the Ottoman Retreat in Europe




In 1453 the Janissaries forced their way into Constantinople at the crucial hour of the final assault on Byzantium; a century later they were the spearhead of Suleiman the Magnificent’s army. In these years the corps was bound by a strict and well-defined code of life: absolute obedience to their officers; perfect accord between each unit; abstinence from alcohol; observance of Muslim piety; enlistment only from the devşirme or from prisoners-of-war; no beards; no marriage; no pursuit of a trade or profession other than soldiery; and acceptance of seniority as a basis for promotion, of residence in barracks (with safeguards for retirement), of capital punishment in a reputedly merciful form, of corporal punishment on the orders of Janissary officers, and of demands for training or exercise at any time. They could count on good pay and rations and, from 1451 onwards, they received a special distribution of Accession Money each time a new Sultan was girded with the ceremonial sword. Since only seven Sultans acceded during a span of a hundred and fifty years, Accession Money formed a not unreasonable occasional bonus payment.

But by 1620 the Janissaries were not so much a standing army as a standing menace. Their code was neglected. Legal marriage was first permitted in 1566, the year of the great Suleiman’s death. Soon afterwards sons of Janissaries were allowed to join the Corps, even though as Muslims they could not themselves be bound in the slave obedience that ensured strict discipline. The last comprehensive levy in south-eastern Europe was raised in 1676; already by then there were instances of Muslim fathers lending sons to Christian families so that they could find their way into such a powerful and prestigious body of men. By the start of the seventeenth century the communal life of the Corps was less binding; Janissaries acquired their own homes in garrison towns; if not campaigning, they practised trades; many behaved like a civilian reserve militia rather than as the core of the Sultan’s army. Yet while greedy to acquire new rights, they remained jealously possessive of old privileges. Accession Money became, not a reward, but a form of extortion. When in 1623 Murad IV became the fourth Sultan to accede in six years, the Grand Vizier informed the senior generals of the Janissaries that the treasury was empty, and they agreed that their troops would forgo the bonus; but, in a mutinous mood, the Corps insisted on its rights: gold and silver plate from the Topkapi Sarayi was melted down and minted into coin for their benefit.

A strong and fearless ruler would have suppressed the Janissaries. But how? Unlike the Russian streltsy, the corps was not based on any single centre in the empire. There had long been Janissary barracks in Constantinople, in the larger provincial cities, and in conquered capitals such as Cairo and Damascus. Suleiman, aware of the potential danger constituted by the Corps, encouraged the growth of an Imperial Bodyguard of dragoons (silahtar). Under his successors this regiment was recruited from the richer Turkish nobility and in any campaign remained close to the Sultan’s person. Yet while the silahtar was a small élite force, the Janissaries could number 90,000 men organized in more than a hundred battalions (orta), if fully mobilized. They included what might be regarded as a proto-commando brigade, the serdengecti (‘those willing to give up their heads’), an initial infantry assault force. If the Ottoman Empire was to meet the military challenge from the West, the Sultans needed the Janissaries, provided the Corps would fight as loyally and ferociously as in the days of Mehmed the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent.

Briefly it seemed as if they might. Under Mustafa II, who came to the throne in February 1695, a vigorous attempt was made to halt the Austrian advance. Within eleven weeks of his accession Sultan Mustafa appointed as şeyhülislâm Feyzullah Effendi, his former tutor. As principal interpreter of Holy Law it was Feyzullah Effendi’s task to win support from the conservative ulema for renewed war on the Danube. Resistance to the Habsburgs required more taxation and greater personal suffering in the villages of both Rumelia and Anatolia, for a new campaign would once again denude the fields of labourers. Feyzullah Effendi became more than a spiritual leader; in the absence of a strong Vizier he was the Sultan’s chief executive, capable of scaring reluctant provincial pashas into raising troops for the Sultan and of checking the mutinous tendencies of the Janissaries. Theoretically the Janissary Corps was at full strength, although in practice no more than 10,000 men were ready for service in Europe and the orta stationed in Egypt remained wildly undisciplined. But by the early months of 1696 a formidable army had gathered around the holy banner. Feyzullah Effendi and the ulema would, under the protection of Allah, control the Ottoman Empire from the capital while, once again, a Sultan led his army into battle.

At first Sultan Mustafa’s generalship met with some success. He defended Temesvar (Timisoara) against Emperor Leopold’s troops, enabling the Turks to keep a firm foothold north of the Danube. But in the late summer of 1697 he became over-ambitious, advancing northwards from Belgrade, into the rich Hungarian granary of the Backsa (now the Serbian Vojvodina). Near the small town of Zenta the Sultan’s engineers improvised a bridge of pontoons across the lower Tisza, broad and fast-flowing at this point, not far from the river’s confluence with the Danube. It was while the army was crossing the Tisza, late in the evening of 11 September, that the Austrians struck. Under the inspired leadership of Prince Eugene of Savoy they cut the Turkish force in two. Possibly as many as 30,000 men in the Ottoman army perished, killed on the battlefield of Zenta or drowned in the waters of the Tisza. Clusters of corpses formed ‘islands’ in the river, Prince Eugene reported back to Vienna soon after the battle. His ‘decisive victory’ marked the start of the Prince’s brilliant career; it made him ‘the most renowned commander in Europe’, comments Lord Acton, anticipating the victorious partnership of Eugene and Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession. For the Turks, however, Zenta was decisive as an end of an era rather than a beginning. Fourteen years after the relief of Vienna—almost to the day—the last Turkish attempt to sweep back up the middle Danube lay shattered. The Sultan was left with virtually no army outside Asia.

Heavy rain saved Mustafa II from the immediate consequences of his defeat; Leopold I was not prepared to send his troops on a wintry expedition into the Balkans. More significant was the impact of Zenta on European diplomacy as a whole. England and the Netherlands sought to arbitrate, hoping to secure peace in the East so that the Habsburgs could concentrate on the struggle against Louis XIV’s France: there was as yet no Eastern Question to perplex western statesmen, only a tiresome and distracting Eastern Sideshow.

Long negotiations ended in the last week of January 1699 with a peace settlement concluded at Karlowitz (now Sremski Karlovici). Emperor Leopold was well satisfied by the treaty. Clauses which offered trade concessions to Austrian merchants and confirmed the right of Roman Catholics to worship freely within the Sultan’s lands might be imprecisely phrased, but they appeared to give the Habsburg Emperor a claim to intervene in internal Ottoman affairs. The territorial clauses of the settlement were almost deceptively straightforward: Hungary and all of Transylvania (except for a triangle of land around Temesvar) were in Habsburg hands when the peace talks began, and they remained so under the terms of the treaty; the Venetians had consolidated their hold on Dalmatia and the Peloponnese, and they retained them; the Turks had pulled back from southern Poland and the Ukraine, and they made no attempt to recover these lands from the Poles. Talks with Russian emissaries went on even longer, but a compromise was reached in June 1700; the Treaty of Constantinople confirmed Tsar Peter’s possession of Azov and a stretch of the lower Dniester, provided that all Russian fortifications in the region were dismantled.

No signatory of these treaties regarded the redrawing of frontiers as final. The contest for mastery of the Black Sea was only just beginning and it seemed likely that the distant possessions of a decaying Venice would soon slip from the Republic’s grasp. In one region, however, the Peace of Karlowitz lastingly changed the map. Until 1683 the ‘Military Frontier’ across western Hungary and Croatia had formed a defensive wall against Islam; after 1699 the Frontier stretched as far east as Transylvania, looming so aggressively over the Balkans that the Austrian Habsburgs seemed poised to throw the Turks back into Asia, just as their Spanish kinsmen had expelled the Moors of North Africa a century before. Yet this was an illusion. The new Military Frontier, like the old, proved essentially defensive, if only because of Habsburg preoccupation with the grand designs of the French, and the problems of Germany, Poland and the Italian peninsula. Prince Eugene fought one further successful campaign in the east, adding lustre to his reputation at Temesvar in 1716 and Belgrade a year later; but, although the Banat of Temesvar never returned to Ottoman rule, by 1739 the Turks had recovered Serbia, and it was another century and a half before a token Turkish detachment finally lowered the last crescent flag to fly over Belgrade. An Austrian march on Constantinople—a real threat at the time of Karlowitz—never took place. Apart from two decades in the early eighteenth century, the Sava and Danube rivers continued to mark the boundary of the Habsburg Monarchy until the empires were swept away at the end of the First World War.

Karlowitz was not, as some writers maintain, a disaster for the Ottoman Empire. The Peace enabled Turkey to parry the challenge from the West, ready to meet the great threat from the North and new dangers in Asia, too. For three years after Karlowitz the last Grand Vizier of the Köprülü family, Amcazade Hüseyin, undertook vigorous reforms, in the system of levying taxes, in the organization and training of the army, and in developing a sail-powered fleet to replace the traditional oar-powered galleys. Hüseyin’s reforming zeal intruded into many cherished preserves. Inevitably it offended the conservative ulema, still led by the Sultan’s nominee as şeyhülislâm, Feyzullah Effendi. Had not a fatal illness forced him to resign in September 1702, Hüseyin would almost certainly have fallen a victim to his political enemies.

Over the next eleven months events followed a familiar pattern. Feyzullah Effendi, though vigilant and alert at the start of the reign, soon succumbed to the seductive venality of office. By the turn of the century he was amassing a considerable fortune and exercising nepotism on a grand scale. Rumour said that Sultan Mustafa and Feyzullah were planning to move court and capital back to Edirne, a decision which would have destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of traders in Stamboul and along the shores of the Golden Horn. In July 1703 four companies of Janissaries, their pay heavily in arrears, led a mutiny in Stamboul, winning support from other soldiers and religious students. The rebels marched on Edirne, where the Sultan and the şeyhülislâm were in residence. Although Mustafa II hurriedly exiled Feyzullah and his kinsfolk, he could not avoid his father’s fate. The Viziers deposed him on 22 August; and dropsy carried off yet another victim in the kafe at the end of December.

Once again an Ottoman prince, fetched from the Fourth Courtyard of the Topkapi Sarayi, was girded with the sword at Edirne rather that at Eyüp. Here, however, a slight change crept into an otherwise familiar scenario. Unusually, the twenty-nine-year-old Ahmed III was a brother, rather than a half-brother, of his predecessor; their Cretan mother, Rabia Gulnus, was in her early sixties at Ahmed’s accession and she enjoyed some influence as Valide Sultana until her death twelve years later. Yet for a few months it seemed as if the Ottoman dynasty itself was under notice to quit. Ahmed was forced to pay out a larger amount of Accession Money than any predecessor, satisfying the mutinous Janissaries with funds confiscated from the discredited Feyzullah Effendi and his circle of intimates. Even so, the Sultan could not distribute an equal sum to every unit of rebellious troops, and there was widespread discontent in Rumelia and south-western Anatolia.

A hostile army gathered at Silivri, where the road to Edirne turned inland from the Sea of Marmara. If at that moment the commanders could have agreed on a nominee for the Sultanate from one of the other leading families, the Ottoman Empire might well have fallen apart, dissolving into a loose confederation of khanates. But Ahmed, and the Empire, survived. He was prepared to use the Janissaries as protectors of the dynasty. At their approach the rebels fled from Silivri, many becoming brigands in eastern Thrace and the Rodopi Mountains. The threat of civil war receded.

For the first half of his twenty-seven-year reign, Ahmed III showed a political guile which occasionally rose to shrewd statesmanship. In retrospect, the years 1703 to 1718 form a period of weak government; thirteen Grand Viziers followed one another with disconcerting rapidity; and control of the outlying provinces was so poor that in 1711 there were seventy days of bloodshed in Cairo, as six military corps collaborated in the ‘great Insurrection’ against Janissary pretensions. But in the imperial capital Sultan Ahmed used these years to consolidate his position on the throne, playing off rival viziers and ‘Lords of the Divan’ while advancing his own nominees to key posts in the army and at Court. The policy of modernizing the army and navy, begun by Hüseyin, was cautiously continued and met with some success. While no Ottoman commander could outwit Prince Eugene, the Russians were checked on the river Pruth in 1711, Peter the Great himself narrowly avoiding capture. But the most striking achievements of this period were in southern Greece. The remarkable speed with which the Peloponnese was recovered testifies to the effectiveness of the redesigned fleet. It also provides a significant commentary on the status of Ahmed III’s Greek Orthodox subjects.

The Afternoon at the Kahlenberg

Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna on 12 September 1683




All reports agree that, on this day of blistering sunshine, there was a pause in the fighting at noon. It was a pause to recover breath, but the allied commanders were also determined not to weaken their position by pressing too far forward on their left before the right wing had begun to put pressure on the Ottoman defence. Concealed by the folding of the ground, and the thickness of woods, the pace of the Polish advance was difficult to estimate; it certainly appeared somewhat slow. But no one underestimated the importance of these troops, who were expected to come down the Alsbach, a tributary stream descending to the houses at Dornbach and ultimately to Hernals: a line of march which would bring the attack much closer to the main Turkish camp and to the Grand Vezir’s headquarters.

Some historians have blamed the Poles for their sluggishness, but it would be more helpful if evidence were found which explained why they were sluggish. Many Polish detachments were well behind the regiments of the left and centre already on the previous day, and can only have reached the upper ridges late in the evening, hungry and tired; there are no records which show how complete their preparations were during the night of 11th September. Even in the case of the German regiments put at John Sobieski’s disposal, it is known that they were in position on the Galitzinberg—well forward, and on the extreme right—by the time serious fighting began in this area, after midday; but it is not known whether they were already in position in the early hours of morning. Another possibility is that, when the council of war ended on the 11th Sobieski was by no means clear that the attack would begin at dawn, and therefore did not give positive instructions to his officers to make ready for action. The Turkish raids above Nussdorf, in conjunction with Lorraine’s purposeful itch to try and relieve Vienna without delay, altered the whole situation. But it took the King of Poland most of the morning, while fierce fighting continued on his left, to advance his right wing. He was already past his prime as an instinctive war-leader, a slow and very corpulent man who now lacked the energy to dominate a crisis on the battlefield; nor were the discipline and promptness of his aristocratic cavalry generals very marked, in spite of their many other military virtues.

Moreover, although it was a relatively simple matter to occupy the higher ground on both sides of the Alsbach, the descent of large numbers of men into the valley proved more arduous. Even then the greatest difficulty of all remained, to get them out of this narrow avenue of approach and reorganise them as a battle-formation, strong enough to meet a massive Turkish attack; the Turks were bound to try and interrupt and to crush the whole unwieldly manoeuvre. By one o’clock the Polish vanguard had reached Dornbach, where the woods and the slopes die away. They became visible to the forces anxiously waiting far away on their left. Shouts of joy and relief from the Germans saluted them, and dismayed the enemy. The heights on both sides of the Alsbach were in firm and friendly hands. From those on the left, the King himself directed operations, and he was in touch with the Franconian units and their leaders to his left. On the right Hetman Jablonowski commanded the Poles, some German infantry held the Galitzinberg, and a certain amount of support from artillery was assured. Fortunately the scattered Tartar forces still farther south were never a serious nuisance in this quarter. The future depended on the heroism and energy of the Polish centre under General Katski as it emerged from the narrower part of the Alsbach valley.

First of all select troops of volunteer hussars advanced. After a momentary success the Turks pushed them back, and then the conflict swayed uncertainly to and fro. It cannot be stated with any certainty whether the final result was determined by the steady refusal of these Poles on the lower ground to give up the costly struggle, or by the efforts of German foot soldiers coming down from the Galitzinberg, or by the extra forces which Sobieski threw in (aided by reinforcements of Austrian and Bavarian cavalry) from the heights on the left. After a fearful tussle the Turks gave way; their horsemen fled, and took shelter with the Turkish infantry and guns on a defensive position farther back. Sobieski now began to deploy his whole force on more level ground, having swung them slightly round so that they faced south-east. They were arranged in two lines, the intervals in the first being covered by contingents in the second. As before, Habsburg and Bavarian cavalry stood behind them on their immediate left. There were more Polish horsemen and dragoons on the right.

This achievement altered the whole face of the battle. The Polish wing of the army had caught up with the left and centre. It was a strong position, won after a hard-fought day. The great question, now, was whether to stop or to launch a further attack. Undoubtedly Lorraine himself wanted to press forward; and there is probably something in the famous story that when one experienced general, the Saxon commander Goltz, was asked for his opinion, he replied: ‘I am an old man, and I want comfortable quarters in Vienna tonight.’ Waldeck agreed. Sobieski agreed. They must have all based their hopes on signs of disorder and exhaustion in the enemy troops facing them. On one wing, the relieving army was two miles away from the walls of Vienna at their nearest point. On the other, it was a little more than two miles to Kara Mustafa’s headquarters in St Ulrich.

Preparations to mount an overwhelming attack were made along the whole front. At 3.20, in the fiercest heat of the afternoon the action began again on the left. The Turkish position here ran along the Vienna side of the Krottenbach (a stream reaching the Canal near Heiligenstadt) but soon turned to the south-west, where it faced first the centre of the Christian army, and then the Poles. The Turk’s resistance was ineffectual, and they soon began to withdraw rapidly to the left wing of Kara Mustafa’s defence. Some of the Habsburg troops at once made straight towards the nearest siegeworks of the city, others swung to the right. The same thing happened on the central part of the front: the Saxons, and then the troops of the Empire, pushed forward again—and swung to the right. The Poles had meanwhile thrown everything they had into their attack on the main armament of the Turks. For a short while the battle was doubtful; but the thrust of the Bavarian troops (under Degenfeld and Max Emmanuel himself), and then of other troops coming up from the more northerly sectors, weakened the flank of the Turkish position; the Poles finally plunged forward with their cavalry to sweep southwards. Here, other Turkish units made an obstinate stand; they had their backs to the River Wien, and when they finally gave way Kara Mustafa ran a real risk of being cut off by swift cavalry movements in his rear from any possible line of retreat. Meanwhile the bodyguards of the Grand Vezir resisted desperately when the Poles began to enter his great encampment from the west. On its northern side, Janissaries and other household troops were still fighting hard; the Franconians under Waldeck, and on his initiative, seem to have given Sobieski useful support in this final phase of the struggle. The total collapse of the Turks began, and when their soldiers still in the galleries and trenches in front of the Hofburg were instructed to come to the rescue of those in the camp, they fled. Kara Mustafa himself then retreated in perilous and disorderly haste, though he succeeded in taking with him the great Moslem standard, the Flag of the Prophet so vainly displayed on this bitter occasion, and the major part of his stock of money. Many other Turkish leaders and contingents had already left the battlefield several hours before; and so ended one of the most resounding of all Christian victories, and Ottoman defeats. By five-thirty the battle was over. Vienna was saved. The plundering began.

An Irish officer summarised the events of the day in his own terse way: ‘If the victory be not so complete as we promised ourselves it should, it proceeded only from the cowardice of our enemies, whom from morning till night we drove before us, beating them from post to post, without their having the courage to look us in the face, and that through several defiles, which had they any reasonable courage we could never have forced. The combat held longest where the King of Poland was, but that only added to his glory, he having beaten them with the loss of their cannon and their men; they have left us their whole camp in general, with their tents, bag and baggage, and time will tell us more particulars.’

Mehmet Moves on Constantinople 1451-52


On Thursday 31 August 1452 Mehmet’s new fortress was complete, a bare four and half months after the first stone was laid. It was huge, ‘not like a fortress’, in the words of Kritovoulos, ‘more like a small town’ and it dominated the sea. The Ottomans called it Bogaz Kesen, the Cutter of the Straits or the Throat Cutter, though in time it would become known as the European castle, Rumeli Hisari. The triangular structure with its four large and thirteen small towers, its curtain walls twenty-two feet thick and fifty feet tall and its towers roofed with lead, represented an astonishing building feat for the time. Mehmet’s ability to co-ordinate and complete extraordinary projects at breakneck speed was continually to dumbfound his opponents in the months ahead.

Throughout the West news of Murat’s death was greeted with relief. In Venice, Rome, Genoa and Paris they were all too ready to accept the opinion set out in a letter from the Italian Francesco Filelfo to King Charles of France a month later, that the young Mehmet was young, inexperienced and simple minded. They would probably have been less interested in his conclusion – that the time was ripe for a decisive military operation to drive the Ottomans, ‘a mob of venal corrupt slaves’, out of Europe for good. Any immediate appetite for crusading had been firmly scotched by the bloody debacle at Varna in 1444 and the potentates of Europe welcomed the prospect of the callow, and so far disastrous, Mehmet ascending the throne.

Those with a deeper knowledge of the Great Turk knew better. George Sphrantzes, Constantine’s most trusted ambassador, was crossing the Black Sea on his way from the King of Georgia to the Emperor of Trebizond at the time of Murat’s death. He was engaged in an interminable round of diplomacy, seeking a suitable match for the widowed Constantine with the aim of shoring up his beleaguered position, providing the possibility of an heir and filling his coffers with dowry. At Trebizond the Emperor John Komnenos greeted him jovially with word of Mehmet’s accession: ‘Come, Mr Ambassador, I have good news for you and you must congratulate me.’ Sphrantzes’ reaction was startling: ‘Overcome by grief, as if I had been told of the death of those dearest to me, I stood speechless. Finally, with considerable loss of spirit, I said: “Lord this news brings no joy; on the contrary, it is a cause for grief.”’ Sphrantzes went on to explain what he knew of Mehmet – that he was ‘an enemy of the Christians since childhood’ and keen to march against Constantinople. Moreover Constantine was so short of funds that he needed a period of peace and stability to repair the city’s finances.

Back in Constantinople ambassadors were hastily dispatched to Edirne to present their respects to the young sultan and seek reassurance. They were pleasantly surprised by the reception. Mehmet exuded sweet reasonableness. He is said to have sworn by the Prophet, the Koran, ‘and by the angels and archangels that he would devote himself to peace with the City and the Emperor Constantine for his whole life’. He even granted the Byzantines an annual sum from the tax revenues of some Greek towns in the lower Struma valley that legally belonged to Prince Orhan, the Ottoman pretender. The money was to go towards the upkeep of Orhan so long as he was detained in the city.

The stream of embassies that followed was similarly reassured. In September the Venetians, who had trading interests in Edirne, renewed their peace with Mehmet, while the Serbian despot, George Brankovič, was soothed by the return of his daughter Mara, who had been married to Murat, and the handing back of some towns. Mehmet, for his part, requested George’s help in brokering a deal with the Hungarians, whose brilliant leader, the regent John Hunyadi, presented the most potent threat from Christian Europe. As Hunyadi needed to crush some domestic intrigues of his own, he was willing to agree a three-year truce. Emissaries from the Genoese at Galata, from the Lords of Chios, Lesbos and Rhodes, from Trebizond, Wallachia and Ragusa (Dubrovnik) were similarly able to secure guarantees of peace on reasonable terms. By the autumn of 1451 it was commonly accepted in the West that Mehmet was firmly under the thumb of his peaceable vizier, Halil Pasha, and would pose a threat to no one – and it seems too that many at Constantinople, less wary or less experienced than Sphrantzes, were similarly lulled. It suited kings and potentates across the Christian world to believe that all was well. Mehmet guarded his hand carefully.

Christians were not alone in misreading Mehmet’s strength of character. In the autumn of 1451, the troublesome Bey of Karaman tried yet again to wrest back territory in western Anatolia from Ottoman control. He occupied fortresses, reinstated former chieftains and invaded Ottoman land. Mehmet sent his generals to put down the uprising and having concluded his peace treaties at Edirne, appeared on the scene himself. The effect was immediate. The revolt was quickly crushed and Mehmet turned for home. At Bursa he encountered a further test of strength – this time from his own Janissary corps. ‘Standing with their arms in two rows on either side of the road, they shouted at him: “This was our sultan’s first campaign, and he should reward us with the customary bonus.”’ On the spot he was forced to accede; ten sacks of coins were distributed among the mutineers, but for Mehmet it was a crucial test of wills that he was determined to win. A few days later he summoned their general, castigated and stripped him of his office; several of the officer corps were similarly punished. This was the second revolt Mehmet had experienced and he recognized the imperative to secure the full loyalty of the Janissary corps if the capture of Constantinople were to be successful. Accordingly the regiment was restructured; he added 7,000 men from his personal household troops and gave command to a new general.

It was at this moment that Constantine and his advisers advanced an initiative of their own that demonstrated how little they understood Mehmet. Prince Orhan, the only other claimant to the Ottoman throne, was lodged in Constantinople, his upkeep paid for out of the tax revenues agreed with the sultan in the summer. The Byzantines dispatched ambassadors to Halil at Bursa with a peremptory demand:

the Emperor of the Romans does not accept the annual allowance of three hundred thousand aspers. For Orhan, who is equal to your leader as a descendant of Osman, has now come of age. Every day many flock to him. They call him lord and leader. He himself does not have the means to be generous to his followers, so he asks the Emperor, who because he lacks funds, cannot satisfy these requests. Therefore we ask one of two things: either double the allowance, or we will release Orhan.

The implication was clear enough – if the young sultan failed to pay, a rival claimant to the throne would be at large to foment civil war in the empire.

It was a classic ploy. Throughout its history, the exploitation of dynastic rivalry amongst adjacent states had been a cornerstone of Byzantine diplomacy. It had frequently offset periods of military weakness and earned Byzantium an unenviable and unequalled reputation for cunning. The Ottomans had had a prior taste of these tactics under Constantine’s father, Manuel II, when the dynasty had almost collapsed in a civil war shrewdly promulgated by the emperor, an episode of which Mehmet was keenly aware. Constantine evidently saw Orhan as a golden card, perhaps the only card left, and decided to play it. Under the circumstances it was a serious blunder – and almost inexplicable, given the knowledge of seasoned diplomats such as Sphrantzes about the politics of the Ottoman court. It may simply have been dictated by the state of the imperial finances rather than any realistic expectation of stirring up insurrection but it confirmed for the war party at the Ottoman court all the reasons why Constantinople must be taken. It was a proposal almost calculated to destroy Halil’s attempts at peacekeeping – and to endanger the vizier’s own position. The old vizier exploded with anger:

You stupid Greeks, I have had enough of your devious ways. The late sultan was a lenient and conscientious friend to you. The present sultan is not of the same mind. If Constantine eludes his bold and imperious grasp, it will be only because God continues to overlook your cunning and wicked schemes. You are fools to think that you can frighten us with your fantasies, and that when the ink on our recent treaty is barely dry. We are not children without strength or reason. If you think you can start something, do so. If you want to proclaim Orhan as sultan in Thrace, go ahead. If you want to bring the Hungarians across the Danube, let them come. If you want to recover the places which you lost long since, try this. But know this: you will make no headway in any of these things. All that you will achieve is to lose what little you still have.

Mehmet himself received the news with a poker face. He dismissed the ambassadors with ‘affable sentiments’ and promised to look into the matter when he returned to Edirne. Constantine had handed him an invaluable pretext for breaking his own word when the time was right.

On his way back to Edirne Mehmet discovered that it was impossible to cross to Gallipoli as he intended. The Dardanelles were blocked by Italian ships. Accordingly he made his way up the straits of the Bosphorus to the Ottoman fortress of Anadolu Hisari – ‘the Anatolian castle’ – built by his great grandfather Bayezit in 1395 at the time of his siege of the city. At this spot the distance that separates Asia from Europe shrinks to a mere 700 yards, and it affords the best point to cross the fast-flowing and treacherous waters, a fact known to the Persian king, Darius, who moved an army of 700,000 men across on a bridge of boats on his way to battle 2,000 years earlier. As Mehmet’s small fleet of ships scuttled back and forth ferrying men across to Europe his fertile mind pondered the Bosphorus and he seems to have come to a number of conclusions. The straits represented an area of vulnerability for the Ottomans: it was impossible to be the secure lord of two continents if crossing between them could not be guaranteed; at the same time, if he could find a way to dominate the Bosphorus, Mehmet could strangle the supply of grain and help to the city from the Greek colonies on the Black Sea and cut off the customs revenues it derived from shipping. The idea came to him to construct a second fortress on the European side, on land belonging to the Byzantines, to secure control of the straits, so that the ‘path of the vessels of the infidels may be blocked’. It was probably now that he also recognized the acute need for a larger fleet to counter Christian maritime superiority.

Once back at Edirne he took immediate action over the Byzantine ultimatum, confiscating the taxes from the towns on the Struma intended for Orhan’s maintenance and expelling its Greek inhabitants. Perhaps Constantine could already feel pressure tightening on the city; he had dispatched an envoy to Italy in the summer of 1451 who went first to Venice to seek permission to recruit archers from the Venetian colony of Crete and then to Rome with a message to the Pope. More likely, Constantine was still hopeful that positive offensive action could be taken against the new sultan: there was no hint of emergency in the messages sent to the Italian states.

As the winter of 1451 approached Mehmet was in Edirne, restlessly making plans. Here he surrounded himself with a group of Westerners, particularly Italians, with whom he discussed the great heroes of classical antiquity, Alexander and Caesar, his role models for the future that he intended. Remembering the disturbance among the Janissaries at Bursa in the autumn, he carried out further reforms of the army and the administration. New governors were appointed to some provinces, the pay of the palace regiments increased and he began to stockpile armaments and supplies. It is likely that he also embarked on a shipbuilding programme. At the same time the idea of the castle was taking shape in his mind. He sent out proclamations to every province of the empire requisitioning the services of thousands of masons, labourers and limekiln workers the following spring. Arrangements were also made for the collection and transportation of building materials – ‘stone and timber and iron and everything else that was useful’ … ‘for the construction of a castle at the Sacred Mouth above the city’ – near the site of the ruined church of St Michael.

The news of this decree swiftly reached Constantinople and the Greek colonies on the Black Sea and the islands of the Aegean. A mood of pessimism swept the people; old prophecies were recalled foretelling the end of the world: ‘now you can see the portents of the imminent destruction of our nation. The days of the Antichrist have come. What will happen to us? What should we do?’ Urgent prayers were offered up for deliverance in the city churches. At the end of 1451 Constantine dispatched another messenger to Venice with more urgent news: the sultan was preparing a massive build-up against the city and that unless help was sent it would surely fall. The Venetian Senate deliberated at its own speed and delivered their reply on 14 February 1452. It was characteristically cautious; they had no desire to compromise their commercial advantages within the Ottoman Empire. They suggested that the Byzantines should seek the co-operation of other states rather than relying on the Venetians alone, though they did authorize the dispatch of gunpowder and breastplates that Constantine had requested. Constantine meanwhile had no option but to make direct representations to Mehmet. His ambassadors trundled back over the hills of Thrace for another audience. They pointed out that Mehmet was breaking a treaty by threatening to build this new castle without consultation, that when his great grandfather had built the castle at Anadolu Hisari he had made this request of the emperor, ‘as a son would beg his father’. Mehmet’s response was short and to the point: ‘What the city contains is its own; beyond the fosse it has no dominion, owns nothing. If I want to build a fortress at the sacred mouth, it can’t forbid me.’ He reminded the Greeks of the many Christian attempts to bar Ottoman passage over the straits and concluded in typically forthright style: ‘Go away and tell your emperor this: “The sultan who now rules is not like his predecessors. What they couldn’t achieve, he can do easily and at once; the things they did not wish to do, he certainly does. The next man to come here on a mission like this will be flayed alive.”’ It could hardly be clearer.

In mid-March Mehmet set out from Edirne to start the building work. He went first to Gallipoli; from there he dispatched six galleys with some smaller warships, ‘well-prepared for a sea battle – in case that should be necessary’, and sixteen transport barges to carry equipment. He then made his way to the chosen spot by land with the army. The whole operation was typical of his style. Mehmet’s genius at logistical arrangements ensured that men and materials were mobilized on cue and in enormous quantities with the aim of completing the task in the shortest possible time. The governors of provinces in both Europe and Asia gathered their conscripted men and set out for the site. The vast army of workers – ‘masons, carpenters, smiths, and lime burners, and also various other workmen needed for that, without any lack, with axes, shovels, hoes, picks, and with other iron tools’ – arrived to start the work. Building materials were ferried across the straits in lumbering transport barges: lime and slaking ovens, stone from Anatolia, timber from the forests of the Black Sea and from Izmit, while his war galleys cruised the outer straits. Mehmet personally surveyed the site on horseback and in conjunction with his architects, who were both Christian converts, planned the details of the layout: ‘the distance between the outer towers and the main turrets and the gates and everything else he worked out carefully in his head’. He had probably sketched outline plans for the castle over the winter in Edirne. He oversaw the staking out of the ground plan and laid the cornerstone. Rams were killed and their blood mixed with the chalk and mortar of the first layer of bricks for good luck. Mehmet was deeply superstitious and strongly influenced by astrology; there were those who claimed the curious shape of the castle to be cabbalistic; that it represented the interwoven Arabic initials of the Prophet – and of Mehmet himself. More likely the layout was dictated by the steep and difficult terrain of the Bosphorus shore, comprising ‘twisting curves, densely wooded promontories, retreating bays and bends’ and rising to a height of two hundred feet from the shore to the apex of the site.

The work started on Saturday 15 April and was carefully organized under a system of competitive piecework that relied on Mehmet’s characteristic mixture of threats and rewards and involved the whole workforce, from the greatest vizier to the humblest hod carrier. The structure was four sided, with three great towers at its cardinal points linked by massive walls and a smaller fourth tower inserted into the south-west corner. The responsibility for building – and funding – the outer towers was given to four of his viziers, Halil, Zaganos, Shihabettin and Saruja. They were encouraged to compete in the speedy construction of their portion, which given the tense internal power struggles at court and the watchful eye of their imperious sultan who ‘gave up all thoughts of relaxation’ to oversee their work, was a powerful spur to performance. Mehmet himself undertook the building of the connecting walls and minor towers. The workforce of over 6,000, which comprised 2,000 masons and 4,000 masons’ assistants as well as a full complement of other workmen, was carefully subdivided on military principles. Each mason was assigned two helpers, one to work each side of him, and was held responsible for the construction of a fixed quantity of wall per day. Discipline was overseen by a force of kadis (judges), gathered from across the empire, who had the power of capital punishment; enforcement and military protection was provided by a substantial army detachment. At the same time Mehmet ‘publicly offered the very best rewards to those who could do the work quickly and well’. In this intense climate of competition and fear, according to Doukas even the nobility sometimes found it useful to encourage their workforce by personally carrying stones and lime for the perspiring masons. The scene resembled a cross between a small makeshift town and a large building site. Thousands of tents sprang up nearby at the ruined Greek village of Asomaton; boats manoeuvred their way back and forth across the choppy running currents of the strait; smoke billowed from the smouldering lime pits; hammers chinked in the warm air; voices called. The work went on round the clock, torches burning late into the night. The walls, encased in a lattice work of wooden scaffolding, rose at an astounding speed. Round the site spring unfolded along the Bosphorus: on the densely wooded slopes wisteria and judas trees put out their blossom; chestnut candles flowered like white stars; in the tranquil darkness, when moonlight rippled and ran across the glittering straits, nightingales sang in the pines.

Vienna and the Failure to Complete the Crescent I



In the early part of the sixteenth century there developed a nexus of decision in Western Europe. It centered around five men—two of them kings, one an emperor, one a religious leader, and one a politician wearing the clothes of a religious leader. Though all of them took advice and occasionally changed the details of their policy, they were so consistent that it is possible to deal with them in general terms.

One of the kings was Henry VIII of England; his policy looked inward to England and outward across the Atlantic, and although his support was eagerly sought by other members of the power group and that seeking influenced many of their actions, he was always so unwilling to do anything practical about affairs on the Continent that he may be dismissed with the remark that he raised tides like the moon and remained about the same distance.

The second king was Francis I of France, who thought of himself as a knight-errant like Pedro of Aragon, and behaved like a bandit. He inherited a realm which had become the first modern unified state of Europe under Louis XI, Charles VII’s son, with the great feudatories broken down, and a military system based on a combination of artillery with heavy cavalry, especially designed to deal with English armies of static archers and men at arms. In Francis’ very first year of 1515 ambition took him to Italy, where he encountered the Swiss pikemen and halberdiers, the terror of Central Europe, at Marignano. It was one of the most gigantic battles of the age. Two days of desperate fighting proved that the new French system was quite as useful against pikemen as against archers. “The drunken Swiss” were driven from the field; France won the duchy of Milan and made with Switzerland a “perpetual peace” that really turned out to be perpetual.

The war in which this took place was really part of the long duel between the royal house of France and the ducal house of Burgundy, which in Jeanne d’Arc’s time so nearly missed ending in the completion of Henry V’s conquest. But the ducal house of Burgundy had ceased being merely the greatest of the French feudatories. By one of those marriages which caused a rival king to ejaculate, “Tu, felix Austria, nube,”its possessions had fallen in with those of the Hapsburg Empire. By another, with Joanna, the heiress of Spain (who, like all queens named Joanna, ultimately went mad), that peninsula and its immense overseas empire were added to the Hapsburg heritage. In 1519 the third protagonist of this story, Charles V, attained the united thrones.

He inherited more than dominions that encircled France on every side and a tradition of implacable hostility toward her. Charles also acquired the Spanish military establishment, based on solid blocks of heavily armored, thoroughly disciplined pikemen, with little knots of arquebusiers at the corners, the tercias. At Pavia in 1525 this establishment clashed with Francis and the combination of fire power and push proved so far superior to what France could put in the field, even with Swiss help, that the French army was destroyed and Francis himself taken prisoner.

The event decided the fate of Italy, which in a practical sense became a Spanish possession for two generations, but it did not make things much easier for Charles, because of the politician in the power complex. This was Pope Clement VII, who could never forget that before his election he had been Giulio de’ Medici, a member of the former ruling house of Florence. Neither in this capacity nor as an Italian temporal potentate was he anxious to be helpful to Charles, and in fact was so unhelpful that strains built up to that sack of Rome, which is usually taken as the most convenient date point for the end of the Italian Renaissance.

Quite as importantly the Holy Father procrastinated about calling a general council of the Church, which Charles deeply desired as a means of dealing with one of his leading problems, the fifth member of the combination, Martin Luther. It is by no means certain that a council would have extricated Charles from his difficulties with the Reformers, for when the matter came to a head, Luther had already pronounced his conviction of the fallibility of councils to Charles’ face at Worms. By this date the movement had taken on a certain nationalistic aspect in addition to the religious. But the refusal of Clement to call a council made it very certain that Charles would not easily get out of this particular trouble.

These were the forces. They produced a long series of French-Imperial wars that left everybody poor, without any significant territorial changes after Pavia. These wars had the technical characteristic of being largely conducted through siege operations. After Pavia nobody quite dared to meet the Spanish infantry in the field, and in any case, the plunder of a town at reasonable intervals was one of the best methods of keeping mercenary Landsknechts and terciaries to the line of discipline.

By 1528 the situation of Western Europe had become not too dissimilar from that in the Middle East at the date when the Persian and Byzantine empires had exhausted each other just in time to clear the track for the coming of the Saracens. Here also there was a sprawling empire, short of financial resources, with part of its population in a state of religious disaffection, engaged in a great struggle with another entity.

The Moslems were at hand to take advantage of the situation here also.

They were no longer the penniless Saracens of the desert, with the drive supplied by a religion which had united a race, but a closely organized and modern, if non-Western state—the Ottoman Turks. They were a clan which appeared in Asia Minor in 1227, nomads from the steppes and relatives of the Seljuq Turks. The Seljuqs assigned them some territory around Ankara as a reward for military services. The Seljuqs themselves had reached Asia Minor earlier, as servants and fighting men for the later and more luxurious caliphs, and soon owned everything; but they had no gift of political organization, and as the clan system tended to fragment where they were in permanent residence, they became a group of quarreling independent principalities about the time the Ottomans arrived on the scene.

These Ottomans had two stupendous pieces of luck. One was in their royal family; in the course of nearly 300 years, down to the point at which this narrative begins, that family produced an unbroken succession of no less than nine extremely able rulers—energetic, adventurous, cruel, just, and intelligent. Conquest was their peculiar pleasure. No other family strain in all history can show such a record.

The second piece of luck was Ala ed-Din, one of the members of this family and elder son of Othman, the first sultan. He was a philosopher and a theoretician, who willingly left the throne to his younger brother Orkhan, and devoted himself to working out a military and administrative system that would make the most of what the Ottoman Turks had.

There were never very many of them, but they were all soldiers, and being of nomad origin, soldiers who fought on horseback. When a district was overrun, it was cut up into fiefs, each of which was to supply a horseman. These fiefs were combined into districts and the districts into larger counties under the authority of a beylerbey. Thus far the system was feudal. There was a provision that a fief did not necessarily fall from father to son, each man must prove his own right by valor and service, but there were similar statutes in early European feudalisms also, and the Turkish setup might have taken similar lines of development but for the unique additive supplied by Ala ed-Din.

This was the institution of the yeni cheri, Europeanized as Janissaries. Their background was that the later caliphs of Egypt had set up a body of slave soldiers called the Mamelukes; at the same time in all Moslem countries the religious duty of exacting tribute from non-Moslems endured. Ala ed-Din combined the two institutions by taking his tribute in the form of male children. They were brought up in Islam, forbidden to marry or to engage in trade, held under the strictest discipline and, except for those who showed administrative talent, they were confined to the camp from the age of twenty-five. They were infantry.

The Ottoman sultans thus had a celibate military community within the body of their state, one whose only devotion was to them and to Islam, and one whose every member was trained from childhood in the sole business of war. With such an instrument in the hands of the head of state, and with such heads of state as the Ottoman line provided, the feudal lords never had a chance to develop into great feudatories, as in the West. They remained a body of first-class cavalry and a rather loose aristocratic class, since only the son of a feudal tenant could hold a fief.

The military organization thus combined a standing army of elite infantry, whose cavalry wings could be increased in an emergency. It was infinitely superior to anything in the West, and the Ottomans proceeded to prove it, beginning with what was left of the dying Greek Empire, since they were not too interested in subduing other Turks. By 1355 what was left of the Byzantines in Asia Minor had been wiped out; in 1361 Murad I crossed the straits, took Adrianople, made it his capital, and began working on the Balkans. Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Montenegro, Wallachia celebrate national heroes for their resistance to the flood from the East, but it always ended the same way, in another nation or district being added to the Ottoman Empire. With each addition the number of available fiefs and of children to be made into robot Janissaries grew, a snowballing process without visible limit.

It was not even interrupted by an incursion of Mongols who captured Sultan Bayezid I and kept him in an iron cage till he died; nor by the fact that each succeeding sultan usually found it necessary to have his brothers and cousins poisoned or strangled. The supply of good blood in the Othmanli line seemed inexhaustible. By the middle of the fifteenth century the whole of the Balkans and Greece were Turkish and their fleets began to dominate the eastern Mediterranean.

One of the specific excellences of that Ottoman line was its ability to learn. It is not certain when and where they first encountered cannon—probably in the hands of Venetian sailors—but it did not take them long to discover that this invention covered the one technical weakness of an army essentially nomadic by habit and thought, its inability to handle siege operations. The new device was adopted with enthusiasm, and under the influence of the Turkish penchant for magnificence the Ottoman heavy artillery speedily became the best in the world. When Mohammed II reached the throne in 1451 he at once began casting enormous guns that could throw stone balls up to twenty-five inches in diameter; two years later he turned them on the greatest city in the world and Constantinople became Istanbul.

It was a shock to Christianity, but all efforts to raise a crusade encountered the fact that Christianity was thinking about other things. Moreover, Mohammed failed to take Rhodes from the Knights of St. John, his successor, Bayezid II, kept peace in Europe except with the Hungarians, whom everyone regarded as little better than the Turks, and his successor, Selim the Grim, became involved in a series of wars in the East, in support of Moslem orthodoxy against the Shi‘ite heretics of Persia. It is worth noting that his artillery won the wars for him and also enabled him to take over Syria and Egypt.

In 1520 he died, and his son Suleiman, known to Turks as Suleiman the Lawgiver and to Europe as Suleiman the Magnificent, became the tenth sultan.

To contemporaries this seemed good news rather than bad. The communications of the West with the Turkish court through Venice were excellent, and people knew all about the new ruler—about twenty-five years old, tall for a Turk, somewhat sallow of countenance, with Tartar blood from his mother; very quick, both of mind and body, delighting in romantic tales and the Moslem type of chivalry, a linguist who could converse with his officers in most of the Balkan dialects, knew Italian, was a master of Persian and Arabic, and wrote poetry in his own language so well that even if he had not been a ruler he would have ranked as one of his country’s leading poets. His interests were thoroughly Western; he had been governor of European Turkey while his father was campaigning in the south and east, and he cared nothing for Selim’s crusade against the Shi‘ite heretics. A despot, but an enlightened despot, on the familiar model of Francis I and Charles V; Europe considered it entirely possible to do business with a man like that. Finally, his grand vizier and alter ego was a Greek turned Moslem, a man named Ibrahim, of infinite charm and accommodation.

Europe overlooked two factors, not very surprisingly, since they were buried in Moslem law and tradition. One was the fact that just before his death, the late Grim Selim had become Caliph of all Islam, Commander of the Faithful. In the theory of Moslem law this office should be in the hands of a member of the Prophet’s clan, the Koreish. The last caliph of the blood was a shadowy creature, who held a phantom court at Cairo; when Selim acquired Egypt, the office was resigned to the sultan without much urging. Suleiman thus inherited the position of the early caliphs as combined emperor, Pope, and commander-in-chief of the armies of a Moslem world that had abruptly become very nearly united, thanks to his father’s overthrow of the heretical units and the expulsion from Spain of the last remnants of the Almohades.

The second factor overlooked in the West was the compilation of a code of Moslem law, which took in not only the Koran, but also the sayings of the Prophet recorded from oral tradition and the decisions of the early caliphs. The code was not complete when Suleiman reached the throne, but there was enough of it, added to previous codes, to establish the main line, and one point in it was absolutely clear: it was the plain religious duty of Moslems to conquer the unbeliever, convert him to Islam, or impose tribute upon him. It is not recorded that Suleiman was particularly devout, but many of his officers were, and the Janissaries, who were beginning to realize themselves as an influential guild, were not at all happy unless there was a war on.

The sum of these forces was that Suleiman’s interest in the West became an interest in conquering the West, and he began with a demand on young King Lajos (or Louis) of Hungary for tribute. Young King Lajos had the ambassadors killed, which would have been a fairly good cause of war even if nobody were trying to provoke one. Suleiman set the troops in motion, and without difficulty captured the two great border fortresses of Szabács and Belgrade. They were, in fact, taken almost too easily; not only did Suleiman wish to shine, but also the vizier, Ibrahim, pointed out to him that the realm had expanded so rapidly to east and south that some labor of consolidation in those directions would be necessary. The shining part of the program was temporarily accomplished by an attack on the Knights of St. John of Rhodes, who were forced to surrender after a tremendous defense. Suleiman was still engaged in distributing fiefs, putting down local troubles, and organizing administration in Egypt and Kurdistan when he received a letter from the King of France.

It was written from Madrid, whither Francis had been taken as a prisoner after Pavia, and it urged the sultan to press on against Hungary and the empire for glory and booty; France would do her part by keeping Charles V occupied in a two-front war. The embassy acted as a detonating charge; Suleiman dropped his administrative details into the hands of subordinates and turned in the direction to which ambition, religion, and the demands of the Janissaries all urged him—Hungary.

That state was particularly ill-prepared to meet attack. Throughout the turn-of-the-century period Hungary had presented the curious spectacle of social evolution backward. The great nobles cased themselves in semi-barbaric luxury and jewels, even wearing their coronets to bed; the burden of taxation fell ever more heavily on the peasantry until they staged a fierce revolt, fiercely repressed in 1514. It was followed by the “Savage Diet,” which enacted laws that placed the entire laboring population in actual, not virtual, slavery to “their natural lords,” annulled any charters the towns had, permitted nobles to engage in trade tax-free, and came down so hard on the minor gentry that thousands of them preferred to cross the Turkish border, live under Mohammed, and pay tribute rather than be part of such a regime. King Lajos himself was often short of clothes and food.

When Suleiman came through Belgrade with 100,000 men, Lajos could assemble less than 30,000, feudal cavalry, with a group of forced-to-fight peasant infantry. Lajos had hoped and asked for help from Charles V, doubly his brother-in-law, but Francis of France, faithful to his engagement with the Turks, pushed an army into Italy, and the emperor could spare nothing. Young King Lajos led against the Turks at Mohács; on August 28, 1526, he was killed with both archbishops of the realm, five bishops, and 24,000 men, and Hungary ceased to exist as a nation. The plunder of Buda furnished the bazaars of the Near East with wares for years afterward, and Suleiman had John Zápolya, the voivode of Transylvania, elected to the vacant throne as a tributary king.

He was not the only claimant. The emperor’s brother Ferdinand called himself King of Hungary in the right of his wife, sister of the late King Lajos, and assembled enough of the magnates to make up something called a Diet, which went through a form of election. “Tell him I will see him at Mohács,” said Suleiman when he heard of it, “and if he is not there I will come to Vienna for him.”

For the moment the sultan was too busy with affairs in Persia to do anything about Vienna, and with the withdrawal of Turkish troops, Hungary collapsed into an anarchy of roving bands who theoretically held for King Ferdinand or King John, but actually served only themselves. But by the end of 1528, Suleiman had solved out his Persian preoccupations and determined that the next step should be the thorough digestion of Hungary through the fief system, as the Balkans had been digested earlier. A necessary step in this direction was the capture of Vienna and the elimination of any German danger to the new frontier, as the Hungarian danger to the Balkans had been eliminated by Mohács and the capture of Buda.