Habsburg Eastern Strategies

Prince Eugene of Savoy by Jacob van Schuppen

A meeting of the Privy Conference in 1711 concluded that “if the tsar is victorious he could throw himself into Turkish territory as far as the Danube and possibly force his way to Constantinople, an outcome much more menacing in its long-term consequences for Austria than even the most far-reaching Turkish victory.” From the early eighteenth century onward, the Habsburgs would debate three broad options for how to deal with this problem: unilateral extension of Habsburg power; cooperation with Russia to eject and supplant the Turks, and comanage the remnants of their rule; and support for the status quo and resistance to Russian encroachments. Over the century that followed, all three alternatives would be attempted in different forms and combinations. The viability of each option at given moments in time would be a function of Austria’s power position relative to that of its two eastern neighbors, and how they judged developments on this frontier to rank alongside priorities on the monarchy’s frontiers in the west and north.

The Era of Mobile Field Armies: 1690s–1730s

In the opening decades of the eighteenth century, local conditions favored the first option: seeking to militarily shape the southeastern security environment to Austria’s advantage. At this early stage, Ottoman weakness, as demonstrated by the scale of Habsburg territorial gains in the previous war and recent Turkish defeats at the hands of the Russians, presented an opportunity to consolidate the monarchy’s enlarged position in the southeast. The prospects of gain seemed to outweigh the risks, either from the Ottoman military itself or Russian interference, which was foreseen but still on the horizon, and mainly restricted to the Sea of Azov and Dniester.

The strategy that evolved in response to this environment was shaped primarily by the desire to exploit areas of military advantage that Austria possessed as a result of the previous Turkish war along with its recent contests with Spain and France. Experiences in combat had revealed a considerable Habsburg tactical-technological edge over Turkish forces, rooted in the development of modern Austrian armies using Western equipment and fighting methods. As recently as 1697, Prince Eugene had demonstrated the decisive results that such forces could have against traditionally deployed Ottoman armies by inflicting a crushing defeat on the Turks at the Battle of Zenta that resulted in more than thirty thousand Ottoman casualties.

The early decades of the eighteenth century offered opportunities to repeat this victory. Ottoman forces of this period were equipped in similar fashion to their European rivals; indeed, Ottoman muskets and artillery were in some cases qualitatively superior to those found on the Habsburg side. The Habsburg edge lay in the quantity of such weapons and how they were employed tactically. The first was a by-product of advantages in the Austrian system for procuring military technology. Traditionally, the Ottoman Empire had financed its wars through plunder—a system that required continual conquest to support the growth of the military establishment. While possessing the core of a standing army, the system supporting it was unstable and contingent on victory. The development of munitions in the Ottoman Empire was tightly controlled by government, and depended on a combination of arsenals and networks of skilled artisans, the latter of which were organized by guild and dominated by the Janissary corps, an elite but conservative military body that frequently opposed innovation.

In Austria, by contrast, procurement was tied more heavily to military contractors, who had at their disposal a larger reservoir of artisanal talent, and access to the techniques and resources not only of the Erblände but also neighboring Bohemia and Italy. To this must be added the advantage of greater resources for war in Habsburg lands, which while deficient alongside many western rivals, compared favorably with the Turks. Efforts at bureaucratic centralization, and from 1714 onward, by the monarchy’s acquisition of the Italian and Dutch lands, enabled a larger tax base and more powerful standing army. By the early 1700s, Habsburg revenue was already at least double that of the Ottoman Empire, where an astonishing 80 percent of revenues collected failed to ever reach the Treasury as a result of corruption and rent seeking. Of those Ottoman funds raised for defense, a large portion went to the navy, while in Austria virtually all could be concentrated on the upgrading and upkeep of the army.

One result of these financial disparities was that while the quality of Turkish weapons may have been comparable or occasionally superior, Habsburg forces tended to go to war with both more numerous and higher-quality weapons. By the time of the Turkish wars of the early eighteenth century, Habsburg units had transitioned to the flintlock musket (Flinte), which fired faster and more reliably than previous matchlock and wheel lock pieces. The newer muskets also allowed for the widespread use of bayonets, which would not be widely used in Turkish armies for many decades. By contrast, Ottoman armies were equipped with a mixture of European and traditional weapons. The total proportion of their armies equipped with modern firearms—the Janissaries, sipahis cavalry regiments, and artillery corps—typically made up only a third of the forces available for a campaign. The bulk of the army would consist of private troops raised by the local governor and volunteer forces—both of which bore arms of varied make and quality. Although reforms in the late eighteenth century would raise these proportions and standardize weaponry, for most of this period Habsburg forces were proportionally stronger in regular troops, with Janissaries still making up less than a third of the Ottoman Army at Peterwardein in 1716. Those Turkish units that did carry muskets were equipped with an array of different types. “Their weapons,” an Austrian military memo noted, “lack a uniform caliber, causing balls to often get stuck in the breach; as a result, their supply is slow and their fire never lively.”

Another Austrian advantage was tactical, in how their weapons were used on the battlefield. Individually, Ottoman troops tended to be formidable fighters. As Archduke Charles wrote, “The Turk has a strongly constituted body: he is courageous and bold, and possesses a particular ability in the handling of his own arms. The horses of the Turkish cavalry are good; they possess a particular agility and rapidity.” Numerically, they tended to field larger armies than the Habsburgs, composed of different troop types from across the Ottoman Empire, and including everything from stock Anatolians to Persians, Egyptians, and Tatars. Their favored method of war was offensive, forming dense masses that charged headlong with Islamic banners waving and screaming, as Eugene put it, “their cursed yells of Allah! Allah! Allah!” Austrian eyewitnesses frequently commented on the unnerving effects that such chants, coming from tens of thousands of advancing Ottoman soldiers, could have on their opponents.

Despite such ferocity, Turkish armies suffered from a lack of discipline, which in turn undermined tactical handling and fire control. Ottoman attacks, though large, tended to be pell-mell and poorly coordinated. As Eugene said of the chaos in Turkish formations, “The second line [is] in the intervals of the first, and others in the third line [are] in the intervals of the second, and then, also, reserves [are thrown in] and their saphis on the wings.” A later Austrian source characterized these assaults as proceeding “without rule or order” (ohne Regel, ohne Ordnung), comparing them to the “pigs-head” (Schweinskopf) formations described in antiquity, in which the bravest fighters inevitably push to the forefront while the mass lingered behind them. In a similar vein, Archduke Charles wrote that the Turks “attack in mixed groups of all types of troops, and each isolated man abandons himself to the sentiment of his force.”

By contrast, by the early eighteenth century, Habsburg armies were drilled to fight based on the western European model, in synchronized fashion by unit. From long experience on European battlefields, the infantry was trained to deliver controlled volleys on command. The resulting discipline translated into a tactical advantage that allowed Austrian armies, if well handled, to sustain rates of fire capable of repelling or even massacring massed charges of the kind favored by the Turks. “As the effort of several Turks acts neither to the same end, nor in the same manner,” Charles noted, “they always fall against an enemy who opposes against them a unified mass acting cohesively. They rout with the same disorder and the same rapidity as they came up.”

The question of how to maximize these advantages against the Turks was intensely studied by Habsburg military men. In Sulle Battaglie, Montecuccoli advised Austrian commanders to abandon the defensive methods used on western battlefields and adopt an aggressive, tactically offensive mind-set. “If one had to do battle with the Turk,” he wrote,

  1. Pike battalions have to be extended frontally, more than has ever been the case before, so that the enemy cannot easily enclose them with his half-moon order.
  2. Cavalry is intermingled with the infantry behind and opposite the intervals so that the foe … would be exposed on both sides to the salvoes of the musketry.
  3. One should advance directly against the Turk with one’s line of battle, and one should not expect him to attack because, not being well-furnished with short-rage, defensive weapons, he does not readily involve himself in a melee or willingly collide with his adversary…. Using the wings of his half-moon formation, it is also easy for him to approach and retire laterally….
  4. Squadrons are constituted more massively than is ordinarily the case.
  5. One stations a certain number of battalions and squadrons along the flanks of the battle line in order to guarantee security.

Prince Eugene would adopt and expand on this template in later years, systematizing fire control, introducing uniform regimental drill, placing greater emphasis on the speed of deployment for plains warfare, and adopting defensive formations to allow small units greater flexibility in movement across broken terrain.

The overarching goal of Austrian tactics in the south was to bring their greater firepower to bear while making provisions for the safety of flanks, which Turkish cavalry were expert at attacking. To account for Ottoman speed, Austrian commanders were to form their units in square formations not unlike those later used by colonial European forces against indigenous armies in Africa. As Charles observed,

The suppleness and rapidity of their horses permit their cavalry to profit from all openings in front or in flank and penetrate there. To give them no chance of doing it, one should thus form the infantry in square … and not to put into lines anything save the cavalry which is equally rapid as their cavalry…. [Commanders should] form several squares, each one of two or three battalions strength at most. These squares constitute lines of battle as much in march as in position. One forms in the end some of these squares in checkerboard fashion, and from it one derives the great benefit of being able to mutually defend and support each other.

So great was the risk of Turkish cavalry penetrating the flanks of these squares that Austrian units were to “camp and march always in squares,” and when possible, protect these formations with chevaux-de-frises or so-called Spanish Riders—lances several yards long fitted with boar spears—to provide a thick hedge and keep irregular cavalry at bay while reloading. As a further precaution, Austrian forces in the south were typically given a higher complement of cavalry (at times approaching 50 percent of field armies).


It was with these techniques that Habsburg forces took the field against the Turks in 1716. Leading them was the fifty-two-year-old Prince Eugene of Savoy. Raised among the French nobility and court of Louis XIV, Eugene had been rejected from the French Army and forced to leave Paris after a romantic controversy involving his mother and the king. Small in stature, he was a tenacious, creative, and offensive-minded general whose motto in war was “seize who can.” A veteran of the Turkish wars, Eugene’s first combat experience had been as a twenty-year-old volunteer pursuing the Turks alongside the Polish hussars at the siege of Vienna in 1683, for which Leopold I had awarded him a regiment of dragoons. By the time of the 1716 war, Eugene was a seasoned senior field commander who had successfully led the armies of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire in three wars and more than a dozen major battles.

The immediate cause of the war was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, the latter of which was bound by defensive alliance to Austria. Strategically, however, the incident offered a rare opportunity to strengthen Habsburg security in the southeast at a moment when Austria’s armies were not tied up in fighting in western theaters. Eugene’s war aims, as outlined by the Privy Conference, were twofold. First, he was to secure Habsburg control of the Danube down to Vidin, thus closing the Banat salient and restricting the Turks to a second line of fortresses at Giugiu-Babadag-Ismail, and by doing so, impose a diplomatic settlement making Wallachia and Moldavia de facto buffer states. As the emperor communicated to him, it was critical to establish these provinces as client states (unser tributär erhalten).

While tactically offensive, Eugene’s overarching strategic objective was defensive: to round off and buy breathing room for the territories acquired in the previous war. This was particularly important with regard to the final, as-yet-unconquered part of Hungary, the Banat, without which strategic communications between Habsburg possessions in Croatia and Transylvania were severed. In the ensuing campaign, Eugene inflicted crushing defeats on the Turks. Going into the war less than two years after the conclusion of the Spanish succession struggle, he was able to draw on a large reservoir of seasoned veterans from campaigns in Italy and Germany. Using the Danube as a supply artery, he bypassed Belgrade, a major Ottoman fortress holding the key to southeastern lines of communication, and instead chose to seek out and destroy the main Ottoman army. This he intercepted in late summer at Peterwardein under the personal command of the grand vizier, and despite possessing numerically inferior forces, inflicted a decisive defeat from which barely a third of the Turkish Army escaped. In the months that followed, he consolidated this victory by taking Ottoman fortresses at Timisoara, in the Banat, and most notably, in Belgrade.

Eugene’s military victories would not have been possible without prior Habs burg diplomacy. The key to his victories was the ability to concentrate Austria’s limited military forces, which had only occurred because Austria did not have to worry about maintaining large troop concentrations on other frontiers while fighting in the south. This was made possible by preparatory diplomacy, which had begun years before the war, when Habsburg diplomats worked to ensure that a war in this theater would not occur until the timing was militarily favorable to the monarchy.

The foundation to this diplomacy had been efforts to prevent the breakout of conflict too early—most notably, at the high point of the Spanish succession war, when Charles XII invaded Saxony with forty thousand troops, raising the threat of intervention to support Silesian Protestants or even alongside Protestant Hungarian rebels against Vienna. With the Erblände naked to attack from this quarter, Joseph I used what amounted to preemptive appeasement at Altranstädt to buy peace with Charles by recognizing Sweden’s candidate to the Polish throne, ceding German land and even making concessions to the Protestants in Silesia in exchange for avoiding Austrian entanglement in the Great Northern War. The following year a similar problem loomed in the south, when tensions with the Porte threatened to open a new front in the war after several Ottoman merchants were killed in a border incident at Kecskemet. Faced with the prospect of a Turkish declaration of war at a moment when Habsburg forces were pinned down on the Po and Rhine, Joseph I used a combination of bribery at the sultan’s court and compensation for Turkish damages to buy peace. Again in 1709, the passage of Sweden’s Charles XII into Ottoman protection following his defeat by the Russians threatened to bring the Turks into the war. This time Austria responded by rallying its western allies against the Swedes, issuing a war threat to Turkey and creating a new northern corps under Eugene to deter attack. In both instances, the Habsburgs were able to avoid war with the Ottomans at an inconvenient moment for their broader strategic interests.

A similar mixture of accommodation and force had been used to ensure that Eugene would not have to worry during his campaigns about problems from the Hungarians. From 1703 to 1711, Magyar kuruc raiders under the rebel prince Rákóczi had waged a relentless irregular war against Austrian positions in Hungary, momentarily even threatening the Habsburg capital.39 In order to concentrate force in the western theater, Austrian diplomats in 1706 brokered a temporary armistice that allowed Eugene to focus attention on his operations in Italy, without granting the scale of constitutional concessions sought by the rebels. After achieving victory in the west, the Habsburgs were able to use a “surge” of cavalry into Hungary to defeat the rebels and force a favorable peace. The resulting Treaty of Szatmar (1711) was a showpiece of Habsburg diplomacy, mixing threats (as Joseph I said when threatened by a resumption of kuruc raids, “tell them bluntly that we ‘could do even worse’ ”) and magnanimity with pardons for rebel leaders and a guarantee of Hungary’s historic liberties. This peace proved durable. As a result, by the time Eugene began preparing for military operations four years later, he was not troubled by the prospect of Hungarian uprisings along his lines of communication and was even able to employ former kuruc rebels in his army.

These earlier preparations helped make possible a sharp, successful war. Charles VI had explicitly requested that the campaign be short, instructing Eugene to achieve a “quick and glorious peace”—partly to avoid creating an opening for crises (groβe Unruhen) on other frontiers, and partly to ensure that any lands won could be secured rapidly and without foreign interference (ohne Mediation). The need for a speedy outcome was heightened by growing signs of conflict in Italy, where Spain’s Philip V sought to take advantage of Austria’s distraction in the Balkans to launch an attack on Sicily. As the Turkish war drew to a close, the Spanish challenge was forcing Eugene to siphon off regiments from the Balkans, leading him to lament that “two wars cannot be waged with one army.” While Eugene used the opening of negotiations with the Turks at Passarowitz to consolidate Austria’s new gains in the southeast and free up military resources for the west, Charles struck an agreement with Britain and France renouncing his claims to the Spanish throne in exchange for military cooperation against Philip. These measures helped to avoid a protracted two-front emergency. As negotiations wrapped up with the Ottomans, Charles rejoiced to Eugene that “our hands are now free to deal with those who want to chew on us [elsewhere].”

The physical scale of Eugene’s victory over the Turks was immense. In the concluding Peace of Passarowitz, Austria absorbed, uti possidetis, all the ground that its armies held at the time that hostilities ceased, or a total of some thirty thousand square miles of new territory. The addition of these large spaces bolstered Habsburg security in the southeast. Per Eugene’s advice to “expand following the lay of the land,” Austria absorbed the Banat, closing the gap between its defenses in Croatia-Slavonia and Transylvania. The war also enhanced the size and status of the monarchy’s regional buffers, placing northern Serbia and Little Wallachia under Habsburg rule, while designating Wallachia, Moldavia, and Poland under Article I as intermediary bodies: “Distinguished and separated as anciently by the Mountains, in such manner that the Limits of the ancient Confines may be unchangeably observed on all sides.”

Passarowitz was a high-water mark for Habsburg power in the Balkans. But it would not last. In the years that followed, Austria’s ability to shape the southern frontier through unilateral military action evaporated as a result of two changes—one military in nature, the other geopolitical.

First, Eugene died. The extent to which Austria’s spectacular battlefield victories had been the result of the prince’s talents became dramatically apparent when the next Austro-Turkish war broke out in 1737–39. The parallels with the 1716–18 war are striking. As before, Habsburg officials favored the timing for military action because of the recent end of a conflict in the west (the Polish succession war) and thus recent relative quiescence on other fronts.

As their predecessors had done prior to 1716, Habsburg diplomats successfully labored to create the conditions for an exclusive focus on the Balkan frontier before going to war. Also like the previous war, Habsburg forces set out to win a short war using mobile field armies. Echoing its earlier instructions to Eugene, the Privy Conference insisted that “the war last but one campaigning season.” And as before, the strategic goal was largely defensive: to consolidate and round off Austria’s holdings along the central Danube axis while expanding Austrian influence in the buffer territories of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Battle of Belgrade

Without Eugene at the helm, though, Austria quickly found that it was no longer able to rely on rapid strikes to secure its security objectives in the southeast. Poorly led and suffering from the years of neglected military spending that Eugene had so often predicted would lead to catastrophe, Habsburg forces suffered defeats at Banja Luka and Belgrade. In the ensuing Treaty of Belgrade (1739), Austria was forced to disgorge most of its gains from Passarowitz. While using many of the same tactics as in the previous war, Habsburg generalship was weaker, the army had lost its fighting edge, and the Ottomans themselves had incorporated lessons from past wars, adopting improved technology in both small arms and artillery with the help of foreign military advisers.

The second, far-larger change to conditions in the southeast, however, came as a result of geopolitical developments elsewhere. In the year after the war ended, Austria was invaded from the north by the armies of Frederick II of Prussia, setting off what would become an almost forty-year life-or-death struggle for the Habsburg Monarchy.



By 1550, the threat to Christendom from the Ottomans was real, their advance into European lands inexorable. With energy and creativity they cemented their hold on the Hungarian plain around military and governing centres (sanjaklar), which they established to control the Danube and its associated watercourses. The capture of Belgrade in 1521 was followed by the collapse of Hungary in 1526. Buda was pillaged by the Turks in 1526, besieged in 1529 and then finally occupied permanently in 1541. Esztergom was besieged six times before it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1543, to become the front-line fortress and frontier sanjak. Meanwhile, Temesvár was conquered in 1552, thereby broadening and consolidating the Ottoman footprint north of the Balkans. The Turks adapted to local customs as the price for cementing their hegemony. The post-conquest cadastral surveys in central Hungary allocated local resources to support material infrastructure locally in order to make good their claims that they were not a predatory regime. There were tax exemptions and compensation for civilian populations most affected by Ottoman garrisons, paid for from central funds or transfers from the Egyptian treasury.

Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania were unstable, porous, multi-cultural and religiously diverse overlordships where the success of those in authority depended on how they brokered their acceptance with the various local groups, and played off their neighbours against one another. The Ottomans understood how to exploit local grievances and disputes to keep local rulers loyal to them. They embraced Wallachia as a quasi-independent protectorate. It was occupied by garrisons but never subjected to a cadastral survey, nor was its land granted out as prebends (timar) to reward Ottoman cavalry (sipahis) or serving officers in the imperial army (janissaries). That served as the pattern for Moldavia as well, where a failed attempt by local nobles to recover their independence from Ottoman rule in 1538 signalled its more permanent absorption into Ottoman overlordship.

Transylvania was more complex. It was the densely wooded region to the east of Hungary, whose scattered population was divided into Hungarian (Magyar) nobles and peasants to the west, Turkish peasants and Slavs to the east, Lutheran German immigrants in small towns, and self-governing communities of Szekler forest folk. The princes (voivodes) of Transylvania could not hope to defend their lands against an outright attack by any of their larger neighbours (Poles, Habsburgs, Turks). Their countrymen could raise cavalry on a voluntary basis, but only for the summer months. They needed a protector. But opinions were divided in Transylvania as to where that protection should come from. Around 1550, some (especially in western Transylvania) looked to the Habsburg archduke, and later emperor, Ferdinand I. Others supported John Sigismund Zápolya, a remnant of the Jagiellon dynasty through his mother. He was twice elected king of Hungary (1540–51 and 1556–71), mainly thanks to the protection of the Ottomans.

Rivalry between John Sigismund and Ferdinand was also fomented by religious differences. Transylvania had become a haven for Reformed Protestant proselytizing and, in due course, for Unitarians. The beliefs of the latter seemed to offer the possibilities of syncretism between Christianity and Islam. That appealed to many groups in eastern Transylvania, especially the Szeklers, for whom Islam was a close and not-so-feared neighbour. The Ottomans played on those differences to establish their hegemony while allowing the local Diet to elect its own princes and exacting no hostages or tribute. In Transylvania, a neo-Calvinist prince ruled with Ottoman blessing. Under Turkish aegis, Latin-rite Christians, Calvinists, Lutherans and Unitarians had a recognized place in Transylvanian life, while Orthodox Christians were tolerated. As with the frontiers between Protestant and Catholic Christianity, so those between Christianity and Islam were nowhere as neat as the proponents of Crusade and Holy War on either side would have liked them to be.

The Ottoman empire was (somewhat like the pre-Christian Roman empire) an amalgam of cultures and traditions which its expansion fostered. Islam provided its foundational legitimacy. The sultans conceived of themselves and their social order as Muslim and their state as an Islamic one. Yet, by 1550 the empire spread over three continents and embraced 15 million people. The Ottomans learned how to match the protection of the House of Islam with the practicalities of ruling diverse peoples. Ottoman religious and military élites maintained the primacy of Islamic law but were flexible about how they did so. The interpreters of Islamic law (müftis) presided over mosques and religious schools (medresses). They were independent of the regime and could be the focus of opposition to it. But they were trained in the Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic law, which offered justifications for religious syncretism in terms of the eventual conversion of those who were not originally of the faith. By contrast, those who administered the Islamic law locally (kadis) were appointed by the state, priest-magistrates who drew upon Sultanic law as well as local customs and traditions, while seeking to interpret them within the framework of their understanding of Islamic law (the Shariah). At the same time, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Jewish communities all had their own courts within the empire, and judged people in accordance with their own laws. Genoese, Venetian (and then, later, French, English and Dutch) residents were also allowed their own courts in the trading centres of the empire. Even within the House of Islam, the Ottomans accorded space and legitimacy to the dervish orders. Christians, Jews and Armenians of talent found their way into Ottoman military and administrative élites.

While religious dissent had initially encouraged Christendom to define itself as a belief-community through the exclusion of those who did not subscribe to its beliefs, the Ottoman empire was able to expand in the same period on a basis of qualified inclusion. So although European lands had few Muslims in their midst the Ottoman empire embraced a mixture of Christians of different traditions. The majority of its Balkan subjects were (with the exception of some parts of Albania and Bosnia) Christians. There were minority Christian populations in Anatolia and concentrations of Christians in Middle Eastern mountain regions which had traditionally served as refuges (Mount Lebanon, Sasun and the Tur Abdin). Many Christians in the Ottoman empire acknowledged their allegiance to either the Greek Orthodox patriarch, or the Apostolic Armenian patriarch, both located in the Ottoman capital. Both Church hierarchies were recognized by the Ottoman bureaucracy. But there were many Christians in the Asian and African provinces of the Ottoman empire who were neither Orthodox nor Armenian – Copts, Jacobites, Maronites and Nestorians.

From the later sixteenth century onwards, the globalizing Christian ambitions of Catholic Christianity sponsored attempts by European missionaries from the later sixteenth century onwards to make common cause with these Asian and African Christians and to wean the Orthodox and Armenian faithful to the Latin cause. Their objective was to form a ‘Uniate’ Church (that is, one in communion in Rome) as had occurred in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands among the Orthodox faithful after 1595. In the Ottoman empire, however, such efforts backfired – not least because Ottoman officials, reluctant to intervene in what they regarded as Christian quarrels of no concern to them, endorsed the rival authorities of the two patriarchies. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the contentions over religion in Constantinople were focused around protecting Catholic missionaries (attempts led by the French monarchy) from hostility originating, in most part, not from Muslims but from the Orthodox and Apostolic Armenian patriarchs.

Western Christendom’s ideologues talked up the need to respond to the Ottoman threat with a Crusade against the Infidel, ignoring the reality that the Ottoman empire was a pluralist entity in which Christianity had an acknowledged place. In a parallel fashion, Islamic religious leaders periodically proclaimed the need for a Holy War (ghâzá), while Ottoman rulers simultaneously sought to retain the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional basis of the empire. Like Christian princes in the West, however, the sultans had to respond to the popular expectations for spiritual renewal in their midst as well as pressures for a greater degree of religious orthodoxy and state-sponsored confessional identity. In both Christian Europe and Ottoman Islam there were mutual and contradictory pressures – some for confrontation and others for coexistence. The resulting ambivalence explains the ebb and flow in the relationships between Europe and the Porte: mutual tensions, followed by renewed and contingent accommodation.

Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean constituted a particular focus for Christendom’s fears. That was where it was most readily understood within an eschatological context. The prophecies of Joachim of Fiore from the years of Christendom’s crusading fervour taught that the Turks were a manifestation of the Antichrist whose final overthrow would signal the End Time. They were joined by other prophetic proclamations with their origins in the last years of Byzantium. In Venice, Florence and elsewhere in Italy, such writings were more widely diffused in print, and given credence in the years of heightened tension from the Turkish menace. As the Ottoman siege of Cyprus unfolded in 1570 so the Brescian alchemist Giovanni Battista Nazari published one of several works to appear from Venetian presses that year predicting that the Venetian Lion, the Imperial Eagle and the Papal Lamb would together slaughter the Turkish Dragon. Equivalent prophecies circulated in the Muslim Mediterranean world as it approached its own millennium (1591–2 in the Christian calendar). One of the most widely distributed predictions within Christendom (appearing in twenty-three printed editions in the years from 1552 to 1600) was that the Ottomans would capture ‘the red apple’, interpreted in the West as the city of Rome.

The Mediterranean was the heart of an economic world straddling continents and civilizations. Its urban centres and hinterlands were linked by patterns of exchange which were both collaborative and competitive. What went on at one end of the Mediterranean was rapidly known, talked about and emulated at the other. Intermediary groups (Armenians, Jews, Moriscos, Christians who had converted to Islam either voluntarily or by coercion and others) served as conduits of information across religious and cultural divides. Venice, Europe’s great entrepôt with the East, had a guild of official translators (dragomen) who acted as intermediaries with the Ottoman empire. These intermediaries relayed Christian and Muslim prophetic voices in the Mediterranean echo-chamber, each urging on the anxieties of the other. One sign of the waning of Crusade was the decreasing economic and cultural influence of the intermediary Mediterranean trading diasporas in the seventeenth century, and the shift in the centre of gravity of Europe’s eschatological and millennial speculation. By the 1620s it had moved away from the Mediterranean and the fear of the Turk, to be relocated in the hands of Protestant interpreters in the upheavals of central Europe.

The Ottoman military conquest of Syria and Mamluk Egypt in 1517 was followed by the acknowledgement of Ottoman suzerainty by the Arab advocates of Holy War in the Maghreb and the corsair states along the North African coast. The latter’s licensed depredations on Christian shipping were the way whereby the Ottomans sustained their overlordship along the shoreline of the southern Mediterranean at little cost to local populations. They also acquired a naval competence with which to challenge successfully the combined maritime strength of Venice and the Habsburgs in the second Ottoman-Venetian War (1537–9). As a result, the Ottomans established their pre-eminence in the Aegean and over the majority of the eastern Adriatic coast. Just as the Ottomans exploited local frustrations against the incompetent Mamluks, so they were adept at fomenting Greek Orthodox resentments of their Latin Catholic overlords in the Aegean islands to establish their hegemony. By 1550, Ottoman naval forces were never more than a day or so away from a port and supplies for their galleys in the eastern Mediterranean. That gave them a considerable advantage over the navies of Christendom when the latter ventured on long-range expeditions east of Malta.

The Ottomans were well informed about the religion and politics of Christendom, thanks to the Jews, converted Moriscos and Christians in their service. The Muslim empire’s westward expansion depended on exploiting Christian divisions and rivalries. By 1550, however, it was reaching the strategic limits dictated by the geography of its land supply-lines. Ottoman military maps tell the story of how important these were, as do their ambitious projects to link the Don and Volga rivers (first conceived in 1563), to build a Suez canal (1568) and another linking the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara through the Sakarya river (begun in 1591). No amount of local outsourcing to supply the strategically placed outpost garrisons could replace the need to march men and equipment to the campaign front line. Equally, the materials and crews to man their Mediterranean fleets were not summoned out of thin air. They required logistic planning and forethought. Even more important in limiting Ottoman expansion to the west was the reality that the further they penetrated into the core of European land-space the more they encountered peoples who were acculturated not to accept Muslim rule and prepared to resist it.

Nor was the Islamic world itself immune to religious division. Developments here, as in other aspects of the Middle East, bear comparison with those in the West. In 1501, the Grand Master of the Safaviyeh Order, a Sufi group of mystics from what is now northwest Iran, proclaimed himself Shah (‘king’) Ismail in Azerbaijan and Iran and established his capital in Tabriz. Claiming to be the direct male descendant of the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, he succeeded in imposing Shi’ism as the religion of what coalesced under his authority and that of his successors as the Persian Safavid empire. Thousands of Shi’a adherents (fundamentally divergent from Sunni Islam) were massacred by the Ottomans in Asia Minor in an effort to repress the heresy in the first half of the sixteenth century, while the supporters of Ismail desecrated Sunni graves and sought to advance Shi’ism by military means, regarding the shah as both a religious leader and a military chieftain.

The periodic wars that broke out between the Ottomans and Safavid Persia in the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries took resources and focus away from Ottoman expansion to the west, which in turn further opened the door to a coexistence with Europe. With the Portuguese (and later the Dutch) holding sway in the Indian Ocean and hovering at the entrance to the Red Sea, the possibility that Europe would make common cause with the Safavid rulers of Persia was a constant preoccupation in Constantinople. Further Islamic dissent also appeared in the sixteenth century from the Saadi, an Arab dynasty located in southern Morocco, whose members claimed to be (like the Safavid) directly descended from the Prophet’s family. At the Ottoman Porte, as in the capitals of Europe, the relationships between East and West came to be seen in terms of global strategic imperatives rather than a Crusade.

Albania and the Ottomans

A memorial wall dedicated to George Kastrioti (1405–1468), also known as Skanderbeg, the national hero of the Albanian people, who repulsed 13 Ottoman invasions between 1444 and 1466.

Albania is a country in southeastern Europe in the western part of the Balkan Peninsula on the Strait of Otranto, the southern entrance to the Adriatic Sea. Present-day Albania is bordered by Greece to the south, Macedonia to the east, the Adriatic Sea to the west, and Montenegro and Kosovo to the north. Albanians are believed to be the descendants of the ancient Illyrians, who lived originally in central Europe and migrated south to the territory of present-day Albania sometime around 2000 BCE.

Because of its strategic location, Albania has been used as a land bridge by conquering armies and empires whose ambitions reached farther afield. In the second century BCE Albania was conquered by the Romans. Beginning at the end of the fourth century CE the Byzantine Empire seized the territory of present-day Albania. In the following centuries the country was invaded by Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars, and Slavs.

In the second half of the 14th century, when Sultan Murad I (r. 1362–1389) began to expand his territorial possessions in the Balkan Peninsula, Albania became a target of Ottoman expansion. A coalition of Christian states under the leadership of Prince Lazzar of Serbia fought the Ottomans but was eventually defeated at Kosovo Polje (Plain of Blackbirds) near Pristina in present-day Kosovo in 1389. Murad I was killed on the battlefield, but his son and successor, Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402), continued his father’s expansionist policies, pushing the boundaries of the Ottoman sultanate to the borders of Albania. Albanian princes were forced to submit, pay tribute, and demonstrate their loyalty to the Ottoman sultan by sending their sons as hostages to his court in Edirne (Adrianople). Gjon (John) Kastrioti, the ruler of Emathia in central Albania, was one of these princes; he sent his son, Gjergj (George) Kastrioti (1405–1468), to the court of the Ottoman sultan in Edirne.

After he had arrived in the Ottoman court, Kastrioti converted to Islam and received a traditional Ottoman education. He also participated in the Ottoman military campaigns against Serbs and Hungarians, displaying unrivaled courage and bravery on the battlefield, which won him the name Iskander or Skander (Alexander), after Alexander the Great, and the rank of bey (hence Iskender Bey or Skanderbeg). When the armies of the Ottoman sultan Murad II (1421–1444, 1446–1451) were defeated by the Hungarian general János (John) Hunyadi (1407–1456) at Nish in present-day southeastern Serbia in November 1443, Skanderbeg deserted Ottoman service and returned home to Albania. Once there, he renounced Islam and re-embraced Christianity.

In 1444 Skanderbeg created a league of Albanian princes, which repeatedly defeated the Ottomans. The Ottoman armies were defeated twice in 1450, then again at the battle of Mokrea in 1453, and yet again in 1456. In September 1457 Skanderbeg scored an impressive victory over the Ottomans west of Mount Tomoritsa, which he followed with the conquest of Satti (Shati) in present-day northwestern Albania in 1459. Skanderbeg and the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, agreed to a truce in 1461, but this proved to be short-lived. In 1462 Skanderbeg was back on the battlefield, fighting two successful campaigns against the Ottomans in the Dibra in present-day western Macedonia, followed by a successful invasion of Macedonia. Once again a peace treaty was negotiated, in April 1463. Conflict resumed in 1464, with Skanderbeg inflicting defeats on the Ottomans twice in the Dibra, followed by yet another victory near Tirana (present-day capital of Albania) in 1465. To the shock of the Ottomans, in 1466 at Kroya (Kruja) in north-central Albania, Skanderbeg attacked and defeated a large Ottoman army led by Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople (Pitcher: 88). In 1467 he repeated this feat, first defeating an Ottoman army led by the Albanian commander Ballaban near Kroya, then repelling Mehmed’s second major campaign to pacify Albania (Pitcher: 88).

Considering this extraordinary set of accomplishments and victories, it is not surprising that Skanderbeg was and remains to this day the unchallenged national hero of the Albanian people and a legend in European history. In his battles with the Ottomans, Skanderbeg received assistance from the papacy, Naples, and Venice. He formed a formal alliance with Venice in 1463. Skanderbeg died in January 1468. After the death of Skanderbeg, Albanian resistance continued for another decade. In 1477 the Ottoman commander Gedik Ahmed Pasha besieged Kroya, the birthplace of Skanderbeg. The town surrendered to the Ottomans in June 1478. Scutari (Shkodër) in northwestern Albania then surrendered to Mehmed in 1479. By 1501 the Ottomans had pacified much of the territory of present-day Albania. Albania remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, when the country declared its independence.

As the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate in the 19th century, the Albanians, who had remained loyal to the sultan, began to organize their own national movement as a means of protecting their communities from encroachments by their Greek and Slavic neighbors. In the earlier part of the 19th century Albania had been divided between two pāshālik, both of which enjoyed considerable autonomy. Ali Pasha of Janina and the Bușati (Bushati) family of Shkodër had dominated Albanian politics for decades. In 1820 the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, who was determined to impose the authority of the central government over the empire’s distant provinces, dismissed Ali Pasha and attacked his territory. Ironically, the suppression of Ali Pasha, who was killed by Ottoman agents in 1822, allowed Greek nationalists to stage their revolution against the Ottoman Empire. Following Ali Pasha’s downfall, the Ottoman government turned against the head of the Bușati family, Mustafa Pasha. After his defeat at the hands of Ottoman forces, Mustafa Pasha accepted his fate and settled in Istanbul, where he lived the rest of his life (Jelavich: 362).

The establishment of direct Ottoman rule over Albania allowed the government to introduce a series of reforms. The principal objective of these reforms was to remove the intermediary class of notables and replace it with a new administrative organization run by officials sent from Istanbul. The Ottoman government also intended to bring under its control the local landowners who had converted the old timārs into privately owned estates and create a more efficient tax collection system, which would increase the state revenue. The central government also wished to establish a new recruitment system, which would provide troops for a new military force. In implementing this ambitious agenda, the sultan abolished the timārs in 1832 and created two eyālets of Janina and Rumelia, which were reorganized into the three vilāyets of Janina, Shkodër, and Bitola in 1865 (Jelavich: 362–363). The reforms introduced by the central government in Istanbul were vehemently opposed by the notables who preferred being ruled by their own local beys. But, it was the inability of the Ottoman state to protect Albanian communities from Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro that forced the Albanians to arm themselves and organize their own independent national movement.

The Ottoman defeat at the hands of the Russians in 1878 and the Treaty of San Stefano, which rewarded Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria with Albanian-populated areas, marked the beginning of a transformation in the relationship between Albania and the central government in Istanbul. Until 1878 the Ottoman government, which viewed the majority of Albanians as members of the Muslim community, did not treat them as a separate national group. Muslim Albanians, who attended school, studied Arabic, the language of the holy Quran, and Turkish, the language of the government and the army. Christian Albanians, on the other hand, were viewed as members of the Christian Orthodox community, who studied Greek as the principal language of their religious community (Shaw: 2:199–200).

In response to the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano, a group of prominent Albanian leaders organized a secret committee in Istanbul and called for a larger gathering at Prizren in June 1878. The meeting at Prizren brought together Muslim and Christian Albanians, who agreed to create the League of Prizren. The league had the authority to collect taxes and raise an army (Shaw: 2:199; Jelavich: 363–364). It also sent an appeal to the European powers participating in the Congress of Berlin, which was ignored (Jelavich: 364).

With Serbia and Montenegro emerging as independent states, the Ottoman government was forced to negotiate the delineations of its new borders with the two countries. Since several towns and districts, such as Bar, Podgorica, and Plav, that were handed over to Montenegro had significant Albanian populations, the League of Prizren turned to resistance. The Ottoman government was caught in a dilemma. It had to abide by the terms of the Congress of Berlin, but it was also determined to benefit from Albanian resistance and use it as a means of reducing its territorial losses (Jelavich: 364–365).

With arms from the Ottoman government, the Albanians resisted the occupation, forcing the European powers to recognize the power of the newly emerging nationalist movement. Realizing the intensity of Albanian national sentiments and the potential for eruption of ethnic conflicts, the European powers reversed their position and agreed to allow Plav and Gusinje to remain within the Ottoman Empire. Instead, they offered a port, namely Ulcingi (Dulcigno), to Montenegro (Jelavich: 365). But the Albanian resistance was not confined to the towns and districts that were handed over to Montenegro. There was also strong opposition to handing over any Albanian territory, such as Epirus, to Greece.

In 1881 the Albanian resistance against Greek occupation of Epirus forced the European powers to agree that aside from Thessaly, the Greeks would only receive the district of Arta in Epirus. Despite the successes of the Albanian resistance and the support it enjoyed from the Ottoman government, the sultan remained bound by provisions of the agreement to hand over Ulcinji to Montenegro even if it meant crushing the Albanian League. An Ottoman army was dispatched to capture Prizren, which fell in April 1881 (Jelavich: 366). Another Ottoman force routed the Albanian resistance at Ulcinji before the town was handed over to Montenegro. Despite its suppression, the League of Prizren had accomplished a great deal. The European powers had recognized that Albanian lands could not be partitioned among their Balkan allies without formidable resistance from the local population (Jelavich: 366).

Ottoman rule in Albania ended shortly after the eruption of the First Balkan War in October 1912. On October 8, 1912, Montenegro, a member of the Balkan League, declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The other members of the Balkan League, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria, followed suit 10 days later. The Bulgarians quickly seized Thrace, defeating the Ottomans at the battles of Kirklareli/Kirkkilise (October 22–24) and Lüleburgaz (October 22–November 2). The Serbs also scored an impressive victory at the battle of Kumanovo (October 23–24) in Kosovo Vilayet in present-day northern Macedonia. The Greeks captured Salonika on November 8. To the west the Serbs went on to capture Bitola in present-day southwestern Macedonia and joined forces with Montenegrins, who besieged Shkodër in northwestern Albania. The Serbs eventually would seize Durrës on the western coast of Albania.

Without a coordinated plan and in the absence of a unified command, the Ottomans were forced either to retreat or to take defensive positions. The major urban centers of the empire in Europe (Edirne, Janina, and Shkodër) were surrounded by armies of the Balkan League. By December 3 the Ottoman government was willing to conclude an armistice. As the discussions dragged on in London, Bulgaria demanded the city of Edirne. This was too much for a group of young officers in Istanbul, who staged a military coup on January 23, 1913. The former commander of the army, Mahmud Şevket (Shevket) Pasha, assumed the posts of grand vizier and minister of war. When the news of the coup in Istanbul reached London, the Balkan states resumed their military campaigns. Bulgarian forces captured Edirne on March 28, and the Serbs entered Shkodër on April 22. On May 30 the Ottoman government was forced to sign the Treaty of London, which resulted in the loss of much of its territory in Europe.

Instead of worrying about the disintegration of the Ottoman state in the Balkans, the Albanian nationalists were increasingly more concerned about Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro undermining Albania’s territorial integrity by invading and occupying Albanian-populated cities and towns. It was under these circumstances that the Albanian leader, Ismail Kemal Bey Vlora (1844–1919), known in Albanian as Ismail Qemali, returned to Albania with the support and blessing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to convene a national assembly, which declared Albanian independence on November 28, 1912, in the coastal town of Vlora (Vlorë) in southern Albania.

Further Reading

Jelavich, Barbara. History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Vol 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Jelavich, Charles, and Barbara Jelavich. The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804–1920. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977.

McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923. London and New York: Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.

Pitcher, Donald Edgar. An Historical Geography of the Ottoman Empire. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Sugar, Peter. Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354–1805. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977.

Zürcher, Erik-Jan. Turkey: A Modern History. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

Naval actions at the Siege of Ochakov (1788)

The Russian flotilla waited too long before retreating, and one of its vessels, the double-sloop No. 2, was overtaken by small craft and its commander, Saken, blew himself up.

Siege of Ochakov Catherine’s favorite, Prince Potyomkin, failed to reduce the Turkish fortress of Ochakov by bombardment and blockade in the siege of 1787. It eventually fell to an assault by General Alexander Suvorov in 1789.

The campaign of 1788 revolved around the siege of Ochakov, the key to Turkish offensive designs in both the Crimea and southern Ukraine. In the spring, Rumiantsev led 37,000 troops across the Dniester, while in June Potemkin personally led 50,000 troops across the Bug to lay siege to Ochakov. The supporting Russian Black Sea Fleet succeeded in driving off a Turkish covering fleet and inflicting heavy casualties. Potemkin had little taste for risking his troops in an all-out immediate assault on the fortress, however, so he settled down with entrenched forces to conduct a classic siege. Only on 6 December, after exposure and disease had exacted a considerable toll from the besieging forces, dld Potemkin finally elect to take the fortress by storm. A concerted assault in subfreezing temperatures by six Russian columns carried the day, but not before Potemkin lost nearly 1,000 killed and nearly 2,000 wounded. A disheartened Potemkin withdrew his forces into winter quarters, then departed for St. Petersburg

This was a series of mainly small-ship actions which occurred along the coast of what is now Ukraine during the Russo-Turkish War (1787-92) as Russian and Turkish ships and boats supported their land armies in the struggle for control of Ochakov, a strategic position. The main actions at sea happened on 17, 18, 28 and 29 June and 9 July 1788. On 9 July also, the larger Turkish ships left and on 14 July they fought the Russian Sevastopol fleet about 100 miles to the south.

The Russians had a small sailing ship fleet, commanded by Alexiano, but finally taken command of by John Paul Jones on 6 June, and a gunboat flotilla (the makeup of which changed over the course of the fighting), commanded by Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen. Both of these men had been made Russian Rear-Admirals, and were themselves commanded by the ineffectual Prince Potemkin. The Russian land armies were commanded by Suvorov.


The Turks had a large mixed fleet, commanded by Kapudan Pasha (admiral in chief) Hassan el Ghazi, part of which came in close to support the fighting, and part of which stayed out. It is hard to determine the makeup of this force accurately. Most of its ships were probably armed merchantmen, carrying around 40 guns, a few were probably larger. Different accounts give different numbers, but according to an 8 April list from Istanbul, the fleet consisted of 12 battleships, 13 frigates, 2 bombs, 2 galleys, 10 gunboats and 6 fireships. There were some xebecs (oared vessels of 30 or more guns) as well, but perhaps these were counted as frigates


On 19 March 1788, the Russian sailing fleet moved from its position near Cherson to Cape Stanislav.

On 21 April, Nassau-Siegen reached Cherson with his flotilla and on 24 April moved into the Liman.

On 27 May, the Russian Sevastopol’ fleet under Count Voinovitch attempted to leave port but was forced back almost immediately by adverse conditions. If it had sailed, it might have met the Turkish fleet earlier than it did.

On 30 May Jones arrived, but left to confer with Suvorov about the building of a new battery at Kinburn (on the south coast, facing Ochakov) before returning on 6 June.

Meanwhile, on 31 May the Turkish fleet had arrived. The Russian flotilla waited too long before retreating, and one of its vessels, the double-sloop No. 2, was overtaken by small craft and its commander, Saken, blew himself up.

After a minor action on 17 June, on 18 June at about 7.30 am 5 Turkish galleys and 36 small craft attacked the inshore end of the Russian line, which was perpendicular to the coast. At first the Russians had only 6 galleys, 4 barges and 4 double-sloops to oppose them. At about 10 a.m. el Ghazi arrived with 12 more vessels, but Nassau-Siegen and Jones had advanced the offshore ends to bring their whole forces into action and at 10.30 the Turks withdrew with the loss of 2 or 3 vessels burnt and blown up. At about 11 a.m. firing stopped and by 12 p.m. the Russian flotilla had rejoined the sailing ships.

On 27 June at 12 p.m., the Turkish fleet steered for the left (windward) end of the Russian line but at 2 p.m. their flagship ran aground and the other ships anchored in disarray. Adverse winds prevented the Russians from attacking until about 2 a.m. on 28 June when it shifted to the NNE, but the Turkish ship had been refloated and the Turks tried to form a line. At about 4 a.m. all the Russians advanced and at 5.15 a.m. they were in action. The Turkish second flagship ran aground and Nassau-Siegen sent in the left wing of his flotilla to attack her. This left his right wing weak, and Malyi Aleksandr was sunk by Turkish bombs. However, the Turkish battleship was burnt, this fate also falling to her flagship later. At 9.30 p.m., the Turks withdrew under the Ochakov guns; el Ghazi decided to withdraw his sailing ships completely, but the new battery at Kinburn forced him so far to the north that 9 of his ships ran aground, and the next morning the Russian flotilla surrounded these and several small craft and destroyed them all except for one 54-gun battleship, which they refloated.


The Turks had lost 2 battleships and 885 captured on 28 June, and perhaps 8 battleships, 2 frigates, 2 xebecs, 1 bomb, 1 galley and 1 transport and 788 captured on 29 June. Russian casualties were 18 killed and 67 wounded in the flotilla, and probably slight losses in the sailing ships.

The Turkish fleet appeared near Pirezin Adası, west of Ochakov, on 1 July, to try to rescue the small craft, but decided not to pass the batteries again and on 9 July it put to sea to meet the Russian Sevastopol’ fleet, which it fought in the Battle of Fidonisi to the south on 14 July.

On 9 July also the Russian army began to assault Ochakov and the Russian flotilla attacked the Turkish vessels there. Forces involved in this were as follows: Russian: 7 galleys, 7 double-sloops, 7 floating batteries, 7 “decked boats” and 22 gunboats. Turkish: 2 20-gun xebecs/frigates, 5 galleys, 1 kirlangitch (very similar to a galley), 1 16-gun brigantine, 1 bomb and 2 gunboats.

At 3.15 a.m. firing started. The 2 Turkish gunboats and 1 galley were captured by the Russians and the rest were burnt. Firing ceased at 9.30. Russian casualties were 24 killed and 80 wounded.


The Hejaz railway



The Hejaz railway connecting Damascus with the Holy Cities of what is now western Saudi Arabia had been built by the Ottoman rulers, and financed by subscriptions from Muslims, in the early years of the twentieth century to ease the difficult journey across the desert for the huge numbers of pilgrims on the annual hajj. Although originally intended to reach as far as Makkah (Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed), opposition from local tribes – who made an excellent living transporting the pilgrims across the last section of desert – prevented the final leg from being built. Consequently, the line ran from Haifa, on a branch line on the Mediterranean coast, to Damascus, the capital of what is now Syria, and south through the desert to Madinah (Medina), nearly 1,000 miles away. The terminus was still 300 miles short of Makkah but nevertheless made it much easier for Muslims to reach their two holiest cities. The journey to Makkah took a couple of weeks using the railway rather than the arduous five- or six-week journey by caravan.

While the religious reasons for its construction were emphasized by the Ottoman ruler, Abdulhamid II, the railway, like so many others, also had both an imperial rationale, as it was a way of cementing together the disparate elements of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and an economic one, since there was the hope that the desert would yield up valuable minerals. It was, therefore, vital for the Turks to protect and maintain the line after the outbreak of war, which they had joined on the German side in October 1914. In 1915, the British decided to open up a second front, in the Middle East, to take pressure off the Western Front, landing at the Dardanelles to force the Germans to divert resources there. It was a disastrous failure, with delays and uncertainty allowing the Turks to reinforce their positions over the beaches, resulting in the abandonment of the attack by the end of the year. Britain was left with two armies in the Middle East, in Palestine and Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq). In Palestine their main role was to guard the vital Suez Canal but in Mesopotamia the war against the Turks, which was primarily about protecting oil supplies from the Gulf, had initially resulted in a humiliating defeat for the British at Kut Al Amara in April 1916. The British had over-extended themselves by trying to occupy Baghdad, running too far ahead of their largely river-based supply lines, a problem which was eventually remedied through the construction of a large network of narrow-gauge railways. Kut was retaken from the Turks early the following year and Baghdad was seized in March 1917, finally giving the initiative to the British in the Mesopotamian campaign.

By the summer of 1916, the British saw that the best way of putting extra pressure on the Ottomans would be through encouraging the Arab tribes, led by Ali, Abdullah and Feisal, three sons of Sherif Hussein, the Emir of Makkah, to rise up against Turkish rule. With tacit encouragement from the British through diplomatic channels, the Arabs started harassing the Turks in June, targeting the Hejaz railway as the focus of their attacks. Initially their efforts were crude, involving ‘tearing off lengths of the metals with their bare hands and tossing them down the bank’. Since the Turkish army had efficient repair teams and large reserves of track, these attacks did little to hinder their war effort.

The Arabs needed explosives and better organization. Enter T. E. Lawrence. Captain – he later became a colonel – Lawrence arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in October with no official mandate but his timing proved perfect. An Arab-speaker who had travelled extensively in the Middle East, Lawrence had only managed to take time off his desk job in Cairo (Egypt was a British colony at the time ) by applying for leave. He never went back to the paperclips. Instead he was sent unofficially by the British military to meet Prince Feisal in the desert, because the Arabs’ attacks had petered out, and came back convinced that with supplies, especially guns and ammunition, and support the Arabs could make a significant difference to the war in the Middle East. An overt all-out attack on the Turks was ruled out by the British high command, but the idea of a war conducted cheaply and with little direct British involvement by offering support to the Arabs proved appealing. The British Army was so taken with the suggestion that it funded Lawrence to the tune of £200,000 per month, which he used to buy supplies and camels and to enlist the support of the Bedouin tribes.

Lawrence returned to Cairo and, having persuaded his superiors of the value of supporting the Arabs, rejoined Feisal’s irregular army as liaison officer in December 1916 to launch a series of attacks on the Hejaz Railway. In January 1917, the British seized Wejh, a port on the Red Sea, to use as their base for attacks further inland on the Arabian Peninsula. The takeover of Wejh was crucial not only in ensuring that the anti-Turkish forces could be supplied, but also in thwarting any Turkish notion of further attacks on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, and from this point their military ambitions were limited to retaining control of the Hejaz Railway in order to keep Madinah supplied.

The first attack on the railway was actually carried out not by Lawrence but by Herbert Garland, an eccentric major (bimbashi) attached to the Egyptian Army, and a party of fifty tribesmen, who blew up a troop train in February at Towaira. The gang had been fortunate as the guides had taken them close to a blockhouse protecting the line but hey had not been overheard as they laid their charges. Indeed, the railway was well protected by a series of blockhouses at key structures such as bridges and tunnels, and therefore the attacks were focussed on remote areas of the line. Simply blowing up the track was futile as the repair work could be effected quickly, especially as there were plenty of spare rails in Madinah that had originally been intended for the extension of the line to Makkah which was never built. As he explains in his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence instead devised tactics that were designed to cause maximum disruption to the Turks while avoiding an all-out confrontation and he deliberately targeted trains with specially devised mines that he normally laid himself.

By the time Lawrence arrived, the Arabs had already taken over several towns in the Hejaz, including Makkah, but the Turks still held Madinah at the end of the line which could only be supplied by the railway. Lawrence ruled out the idea of trying to take the town because the Arab irregular forces were no match for the well-organized Turks in set-piece battles. Instead, the tactic was to launch a series of raids along the length of the railway, similar guerrilla methods to those employed by the Boers against the British in South Africa: ‘Our idea was to keep his railway just working, but only just, with the maximum of loss and discomfort… The surest way to limit the line without killing it was by attacking trains.’20 Lawrence led his first raid on the railway at Abu Na’am in March and there were some thirty more attacks in the following months, most carried out by Arab forces led by Prince Abdullah and supported by forces of the Egyptian Army and a small French contingent. They were supplemented by a few bombing raids by aeroplanes on the railway, which was at the limit of their range from their base in Egypt. Lawrence’s attacks took a disproportionate toll on the Turkish forces. Very few of the attackers were killed in these engagements, while the Turks usually lost dozens, if not more, each time. The attacks kept the Turks on the defensive and prevented Fakhri Pasha, the commander of the Turkish garrison at Madinah, from launching an attack to try to regain Makkah. This was vital since the fact that the Turks had lost control of the holiest of cities, after 600 years of Ottoman rule, was a great spur to the continuation of the Arab Revolt. While the railway was rarely closed for more than a day or so by the attacks, the number of trains was reduced from the peacetime level of two daily to two every week, which created food and fuel shortages in Madinah, stimulating internal dissent. About half the population fled northwards on the railway – one train of such refugees, mainly women and children, would have been blown up by Lawrence but for the good fortune that his mine did not go off.

Meanwhile Lawrence turned his attention to the Port of Aqaba. His little army left Wejh in July 1917 and cleverly attacked the railway on several occasions as he headed north to fool the Turks into thinking that was the purpose of his mission. The Turks expected that any attack on Aqaba would come from the sea. Instead, Lawrence and Feisal, with a force of 2,000 men, mostly on camels, for once took on a static army head on but triumphed easily thanks to the element of surprise and the lack of proper defences in what was then a small fishing village. The Turks put up little resistance and the bloody side of this desert war was exposed by the subsequent massacre of more than 300 Turkish soldiers by the vengeful Arabs, the kind of incident which, as Lawrence relates in his book, was repeated several times during this campaign. There were virtually no casualties on the Arab side, though Lawrence nearly killed himself by accidentally shooting his own camel in the head and being thrown off at full speed, but suffered only cuts and bruises.

Now the focus of the revolt turned north, with the idea of chasing the Turks out of what is now Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The capture of Aqaba helped protect the British right flank in Palestine, where a different type of war was taking place, one which involved building a railway rather than destroying it. Having initially only sought to defend the Suez Canal, the British, led by Lawrence’s hero, General Edmund Allenby, decided to go on the offensive across the Sinai towards Palestine but they needed a railway to supply them, just as Kitchener’s army had when reconquering Sudan. The aim was to push through from Egypt to Palestine, and chase the Turks out of Gaza, and then Jerusalem, with the ultimate goal of Damascus. The railway was started at Kantara, on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and was gradually extended eastwards during 1916 and the early part of 1917. It made slow but steady progress, reaching the front at Gaza, 125 mile s from its terminus, where the Turks were entrenched, supplied by their own railhead at Beersheba and later a specially built branch just out of range of the British guns. It would take Allenby three attempts to dislodge the Turks from Gaza, but when he finally did, and marched on to capture Jerusalem at the end of 1917, it was celebrated as one of the few genuine victories by British forces in the war.

Lawrence had used Aqaba as a base for repeated attacks on the Hejaz railway until the winter, when there was a lull in the fighting. Allenby’s progress towards Damascus was delayed, too, as two of his divisions (around 25,000 men) were redeployed to the Western Front. In the spring, when the drive to Damascus finally began, the policy towards the railway changed. It was imperative to cut off the line up from the Hejaz so that the Turks could not use it to bring reinforcements from Madinah against Allenby’s forces. Consequently, Lawrence’s group attacked the railway in various places, having developed a more sophisticated type of mine inappropriately called ‘tulip’. This was a much smaller charge, a mere 2lb of dynamite compared with the 40lb or 50lb ones used previously, and involved placing the charge underneath the sleepers, which would blow the metal upwards ‘into a tulip-like shape without breaking; by doing so it distorted the two rails to which its ends were attached’, which was impossible to repair and consequently forced the Turks to replace the whole section of track. In early April 1918, the last train between Madinah and Damascus made it through but after that the line was blocked by successive attacks which left more Turkish troops stuck in the Hejaz protecting a line that was now of no strategic use than were facing Allenby in Palestine. In the decisive attack at Tel Shahm, led by General Dawnay, Lawrence showed his regard for the railway by claiming the station bell, a fine piece of Damascus brass work: ‘the next man took the ticket punch and the third the office stamp, while the bewildered Turks stared at us, with a growing indignation that their importance should be merely secondary’. The Turks had clearly never met any British trainspotters with their obsession for railway memorabilia.

Attacks against the northern part of the railway continued, and the line was cut off in several other places, either by Lawrence or the British forces coming from Palestine. The attacks on the Hejaz railway had been an exemplary case history of guerrilla warfare. It was not all about Lawrence, as he readily admits in the Seven Pillars, but without his ability to stimulate the Arab revolt, General Allenby’s task in sweeping through Palestine would undoubtedly have been harder. Although in the later stages some armoured vehicles and even air support became available, the basic tactics remained the same throughout: ‘The campaign remained dependent on the speed and mobility of the irregular Bedouin forces, and on the inability of the better trained, well-equipped Turkish troops to follow the raiding parties into the desert… As Glubb Pasha (of later Trans-Jordanian Arab League fame) remarked: “the whole Arab campaign provides a remarkable illustration of the extraordinary results which can be achieved by mobile guerrilla tactics. For the Arabs detained tens of thousands of regular Turkish troops with a force scarcely capable of engaging a brigade of infantry in pitched battle”.’

The Turks, too, were equally courageous and in their stubborn defence of the line there is another side to the more famous Lawrence story, which is the difficulty of putting a railway permanently out of action. There was no shortage of difficulties for railway operations. Fuel was a constant worry and by the end of the war the houses in Madinah had been stripped of all timber and even the city gates and wooden sleepers from the track had been removed to keep the locomotives running, which required constant improvisation in the face of the constant attacks. While even today a few wrecked locomotives can still be seen in the desert, for the most part the Turks rescued damaged engines and repaired them in their works yards. The historian of the lines, James Nicholson, remarks that the foot soldiers were genuinely heroic: ‘Confined to their stations and a narrow strip of land, they were cast adrift in a vast and hostile country, far from the main centres of command.’ They were dependent on the railway for all their needs and therefore by 1918 ‘many were close to starvation, clothed in rags and ravaged by scurvy’. And yet, despite that, they managed to keep the railway operating until nearly the end of the war.

Barbary Corsair Hamidou Raïs

Algiers the capital of Algeria in the time of Rais Hamidou

The U.S.-Tripoli conflict had come close to destabilizing the entire Barbary Coast. Algiers threatened war with America because the annual tribute of naval stores was late in coming. Tunis threatened war because American vessels blockading Tripoli harbor persisted in stopping Tunisians and confiscating Tunisian goods. Morocco actually opened hostilities and detained two American merchantmen before the sultan thought better of it.

Of the European powers with interests in the Mediterranean, the Danes and the Swedes did their best to mediate between the two sides, and France promised that its consul in Tripoli would try to free the crew of the Philadelphia. The British consul, on the other hand, worked hard to maintain Yusuf’s hostility toward America—or so the Americans believed. But war between Britain and France broke out in May 1803; and Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor of France the following year. Europe had more pressing matters to worry about than relations with North Africa. “God preserve Bonaparte!” exclaimed one corsair. “As long as other nations have him to contend with, they won’t worry us.”

That corsair was Hamidou Raïs. Hamidou belonged to a group of corsair captains whose careers flourished in a little renaissance of Algerian privateering around the turn of the nineteenth century. It included Ham-man, said by some sources to be Hamidou’s brother; Tchelbi, with whom he sailed in the late 1790s; Mustafa “the Maltese”; and Ali Tatar. Although the taifat al-raïs was no longer the maker and breaker of deys that it had been in the seventeenth century, individual captains still commanded a great deal of respect in Algerian society. They lived in fine mansions with large households. Their exploits were celebrated in songs and poems.

Hamidou was a native Algerian, the son of a tailor. He went to sea as a boy in the 1780s, and by 1797 he had his own ship, a small, fast three-masted xebec. That year, he and Tchelbi Raïs sailed into Tunis with four valuable prizes, a Genoese, a Venetian, and two Neapolitans; and when Algiers declared war on France in 1798 he captured the French factory at El Kala near the Tunisian border, and then sailed north to raid along the coast of Provence. Over the next two years his men took at least fourteen prizes worth half a million francs.

Algiers made peace with Napoleon at the end of 1801, by which time Hamidou had become one of his nation’s most profitable corsairs. As a reward, he was moved to the brand-new forty-four-gun Mashouda, one of two frigates which the dey commissioned specially from a Spanish naval architect, Maestro Antonio. (The other went to Ali Tatar.) The Mashouda remained his flagship for the rest of his life. In 1805 he took several Neapolitans, an American schooner with a crew of fifty-eight, and, after a fierce battle, a forty-four-gun Portuguese frigate, the Swan. The Swan’s 282 survivors were brought back to Algiers, and the poets sang of how Hamidou’s heart was full of joy at overcoming the infidels, and how he arrived at the dey’s palace trailing behind him enslaved Christians and Negroes.

Amid the stylized Algerian encomiums that celebrated Hamidou’s successes, there is the occasional more prosaic glimpse into the character of this charismatic man. He was of medium height, with blond hair and blue eyes (not as unusual as one might think among native-born Algerians), and clean-shaven except for long drooping mustaches. Elizabeth Blanckley, the young daughter of the British consul general in Algiers, was clearly smitten: years later she wrote that the raïs, who when he wasn’t hunting Christians lived next door to the consulate, “was one of the finest-looking men I ever saw, and was as bold as one of his native lions.” She also recalled that Hamidou was “not the most rigid observer of the Alcoran,” since he used to drop round for a glass or two of Madeira with her father. “His house and garden were kept up in the greatest order and beauty,” she said.

Hamidou’s domestic arrangements are unknown, although when Algiers was briefly at war with Tunis in 1810 and the Mashouda captured a Tunisian ship with four Negro women aboard, one was reserved for his use. Presumably the young Elizabeth was unaware of what went on behind the walls of Dar Hamidou.

The Tuscan poet Filippo Pananti, who was taken when the Mashouda captured the Sicilian merchant ship in which he was a passenger, left a vignette of Hamidou at work. His description of the capture is vivid: one of the Sicilian sailors, who had already been enslaved once, had to be restrained from stabbing himself to death. Another seized a firebrand and tried to blow up the ship’s powder magazine before the corsairs could board. When they did board, passengers and crew were petrified:

[The pirates] appear on deck in swarms, with haggard looks, and naked scimitars, prepared for boarding; this is preceded by a gun, the sound of which was like the harbinger of death to the trembling captives, all of whom expected to be instantly sunk; it was the signal for a good prize: a second gun announced the capture, and immediately after they sprang on board, in great numbers. Their first movements were confined to a menacing display of their bright sabres and attaghans [long knives]; with an order for us, to make no resistance, and surrender . . . and this ceremony being ended, our new visitors assumed a less austere tone, crying out in their lingua franca, No pauro! No pauro! Don’t be afraid.

To Pananti’s surprise, Hamidou’s men were kind and deferential toward the women captives, and enchanted with their children. “It was only necessary to send Luigina [one of the little girls] round amongst the Turks, and she was sure to return with her little apron full of dried figs and other fruits.” Hamidou himself comes across as ingenious, arrogant—and amiable. He would sit cross-legged on deck for three or four hours each day, giving orders to his men, smoking and smoothing his long mustache. But he also invited the Italians into his cabin, “where an Arab tale was recited, and what was still better, a cup of good Yemen coffee was handed round, followed by a small glass of rum.”

By 1815, Algiers was at war with Portugal, Spain, several Italian states, Holland, Prussia, Denmark, and Russia. The dey’s prize registries for the thirty months from July 1812 to January 1815 show that Hamidou and the Mashouda brought home twenty-two prizes with cargoes worth nearly two million francs. There was brandy, cocoa, coffee and sugar, wine and cloth and timber. The corsairs were generally careful to avoid direct attacks on shipping belonging to France and Great Britain, both of whom had navies powerful enough to deter any acts of aggression. But the smaller, weaker nations were fair game, and Hamidou’s victims included Danes, Swedes, Greeks—and Americans. The dey of Algiers took the occasion of the War of 1812 to renege on his treaty obligations with the United States; and although corsairs had a hard time finding American ships that hadn’t already been captured by the British navy, one U.S. brig, the Edwin, was taken off the southern coast of Spain in the summer of 1812, while on her way home from Malta, and brought into Algiers, where her ten-man crew was imprisoned. Her captor was a frigate armed with two rows of cannon on each side—she may well have been the Mashouda.

Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty on Christmas Eve 1814. The following spring, outrage at the continuing detention of the Edwin and her crew led the administration in Washington to decide it had had enough of the corsairs. President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe co-signed an uncompromising letter to the dey, Hadji Ali:

Your Highness having declared war against the United States of America, and made captives of some of their citizens, and done them other injuries without cause, the Congress of the United States at its last session authorised by a deliberate and solemn act, hostilities against your government and people. A squadron of our ships of war is sent into the Mediterranean sea, to give effect to this declaration. It will carry with it the alternative of peace or war. It rests with your government to choose between them.

Madison made good his threat, dispatching two squadrons of warships to deliver his letter. One of these squadrons, commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur in the Guerriere and carrying the American consul general for the Barbary states, William Shaler, encountered Hamidou Raïs and the Mashouda at Cabo de Gata on Saturday, June 17, 1815.

Hamidou had been cruising off the Spanish coast that week, in company with a twenty-two-gun brig, the Estedio, which had been taken from the Portuguese some years before. He had just sent the Estedio to reconnoiter farther along the coast (she was run aground near Valencia by the Americans and captured the next afternoon), leaving the Mashouda alone to watch the merchant shipping passing on its way to and from the Straits.

Hamidou initially thought the American warships were British (and hence friendly), even though they were obviously changing course to close the distance between the Mashouda and them. Only when Captain Gordon of the Constellation raised the Stars and Stripes so rashly did the corsair realize what was happening. Immediately he ordered his men to crowd on sail and take evasive action. If the Mashouda could once get clear of the American guns she could give them a run for their money. There was a westerly wind, and Algiers lay 300 miles due east. He could reach home in two days.

The Americans, though eager, were inexperienced. Even before Gordon’s gaffe with the colors, the captain of the squadron’s flagship, the Guerriere, who had never commanded a ship in battle before, broke out the wrong signal, ordering the other ships to “tack and form into line of battle.” If they had obeyed the signal, the Mashouda would have gotten away while they slowly maneuvered into line. They didn’t. On the deck of the Mashouda, Hamidou told his lieutenant that if he died, “you will have me thrown into the sea. I don’t want infidels to have my corpse.”

Hamidou managed to leave the Constellation behind him, but the Guerriere gained fast, forcing him to change course and double back on himself. In doing so he brought the Mashouda within range of the Constellation’s guns and Gordon opened fire, hitting the Algerian’s upper deck. One of the flying splinters of wood struck Hamidou, hurting him badly, but he refused requests to go below and instead ordered a chair to be placed for him on the upper deck. There he sat, in pain and in plain view, urging his men on.

The Mashouda changed course again and an American sloop, the U.S.S. Ontario, passed her on the port beam and fired a broadside before sailing straight past her, the captain having misjudged his own ship’s momentum. Minutes later the Guerriere maneuvered alongside and fired a broadside from a distance of barely thirty yards. It tore into the Algerian’s upper deck, and Hamidou, who was still shouting orders and encouragement to his men, was killed outright.

Even in the heat of battle, his men obeyed his wishes before surrendering. The last corsair’s broken body was thrown into the sea to save it from being defiled by the infidels.

Fall Of Constantinople – Ottoman Superguns






Ottoman superguns

It is not without some irony that bombards, all but abandoned as obsolete by most European powers by 1453, played a critical role that year in the fall of Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the East. For centuries the Byzantine capital’s great walls and defenders had repulsed invaders, including an earlier 1422 attempt by Sultan Murad II (r. 1421–1451). Although Murad had employed bombards against the city, they were rather ineffective, and he subsequently withdrew. His successor, however, Mohammad II, sometimes known as Mehmed II (b. 1432; r. 1444–1446, 1451– 1481), and also known as Muhammad the Conqueror, possessed an innate appreciation for artillery and its use in siege craft.

Muhammad, lacking technical experts among his own subjects, subsequently obtained the services of Christian gun founders to design and build cannons especially suited for the siege. Among these was reportedly a famed Hungarian cannon maker known as Urban. Urban (or Orban) had previously been hired by the Byzantines but had deserted their cause after they failed to meet his fees. Muhammad, unlike the Byzantines, appreciated Urban’s considerable, although mercenary, talents and “welcomed him with open arms, treated him honorably and provided him with food and clothing; and then he gave him an allowance so generous, that a quarter of the sum would have sufficed to keep him in Constantinople” (De Vries, X 356).

Urban quickly established a gun foundry at Adrianople where he oversaw the casting of both a number of large iron and bronze guns. These included at least one huge bombard of cast iron reinforced with iron hoops and with a removable, screw-on breech. Typical of such large breechloading cannons, the gun was fitted with slots around the breech’s circumference to accept stout wooden beams. For loading and unloading, these beams were inserted in the slots to act as a capstan and provide the leverage to unscrew the heavy powder chamber. Weighing more than 19 tons, the gun was capable of firing stone balls weighing from approximately 800 to 875 pounds. The sheer size of the bombard, known as Basilica, required forty-two days and a team of sixty oxen and a thousand men to traverse the 120 miles to its firing site at Constantinople.

Muhammad began preparations for the siege in February and ordered the positioning of fourteen artillery batteries around the city. As a further preparation, he ordered his navy, also equipped with artillery, to cut Constantinople off from the sea. For his part, the Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (b. 1409; r. 1449–1453), did possess some artillery, but it was for the most part obsolete and numerically insufficient to reply to Muhammad’s forces. The Byzantines had long lost the technological superiority they had held in previous centuries, and they soon found themselves reckoning with their shortsightedness in snubbing Urban the Hungarian.

Muhammad began the bombardment of the city on 6 April 1453. With a keen eye for the city’s weaknesses, he concentrated his guns against its most vulnerable points, including the Gate of St. Romanus, where they affected a breach on 11 April. His success was short lived, however, as the defenders counterattacked and repaired the damage. Muhammad also faced other setbacks when Urban was killed when a cannon he was supervising exploded, and when his giant bombard cracked after a few days of firing, necessitating repairs. The sultan, however, proved his own resourcefulness in the use of artillery and made much better use of his smaller guns—weapons that were capable of a much higher rate of fire than Basilica’s three rounds a day and were also more maneuverable. These included eleven bombards capable of firing 500-pound shot and fifty guns firing 200-pound balls.

The Ottoman barrage continued day and night, wearing down both the city’s walls and its defenders. A witness described its effect:

And the stone, borne with tremendous force and velocity, hit the wall, which it immediately shook and knocked down, and was itself broken into many fragments and scattered, hurling the pieces everywhere and killing those who happened to be nearby. Sometimes it demolished a whole section, and sometimes a half-section, and sometimes a larger or smaller section of tower or turret or battlement. And there was no part of the wall strong enough or resistant enough or thick enough to be able to withstand it, or to wholly resist such force and such a blow of the stone cannon-ball. (ibid., X 357–358)

Finally, on 29 May 1453, the walls on either side of the St. Romanus Gate collapsed, and the Turks stormed the city. The Emperor Constantine fought valiantly in the defense of his city, but he was killed as overwhelming numbers of Turkish troops rampaged through the city for three days, killing, looting, and raping. With the fall of its capital, the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and with it the last vestiges of the Roman Empire.


Constantine the Great established the city of Constantinople as his capital in 323. He occupied the former city of Byzantium, which for centuries controlled the straits separating Asia and Europe. It lies on the Sea of Marmara, flanked to northeast by the Bosphorus and to the southwest by the Dardanelles, two narrow passages linking the Mediterranean and the Black seas. The only direct route from Europe into Asia Minor is at Constantinople, so it has been an extremely strategic possession for land and naval warfare and trade.

Constantinople became the seat of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. It not only was the political capital of much of the Mediterranean and Middle East, but also the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, rival to the power of the pope in Rome for the souls of Christians everywhere. In the end it was that religious rivalry that spelled Constantinople’s doom.

In the seventh century Muhammad the Prophet founded Islam. By coincidence (or divine intervention) he appeared in Arabia just as the two major Middle Eastern powers, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, had fought each other to an exhausted standstill. He therefore conquered a massive amount of land hand in hand with the spread of his faith. Both Persia and the Byzantines suffered major territorial losses as well as major losses of converts to Islam, who found it less oppressive than the ultraconservative Orthodox Church.

For seven hundred years the forces of Islam and Orthodoxy struggled, with both sides trading ascendancy. By the fifteenth century, however, the Byzantine Empire had shrunk to almost nothing: Constantinople and a handful of Aegean islands. An earlier Islamic threat to the city resulted in the Crusades in the twelfth century, but that too ended in further alienating the Catholic and Orthodox churches. When in 1452 Sultan Mohammed II, son of Murad II, decided to attack Constantinople, European responses to pleas for help were almost nonexistent. England and France were just winding down the very costly Hundred Years War; Germanic and Spanish princes and kings offered aid but sent none. Genoa and Venice, however, did not want to see Constantinople fall into the hands of Arab merchants, and Rome promised aid if the Orthodox Church would submit to papal will. The emperor did all that he could to prepare for the siege. Envoys were sent to Venice, Genoa, the Pope, the Western emperor, the kings of Hungary and Aragon , with the message that, unless immediate military help was provided, the days of Constantinople were numbered. The response was unimpressive. Some Italians, embarrassed at their government’s impotence, came as volunteers. Reluctantly Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus agreed to Rome’s demand, but it netted him a mere 200 archers for his meager defenses as well as the hostility of his people; many claimed they preferred Turkish domination to Roman.

In the spring of 1452 Mohammed II sent 1,000 masons to the Bosphorus to build a fort to protect his army while crossing the straits. Constantine could do little more than lodge a protest. Among his populace were a mere 5,000 native and 2,000 foreign soldiers. The Venetian colony in Constantinople and many citizens in Pera, opposite Constantinople, also stayed, as did Orhan, the Ottoman pretender with his Turks. Some 30,000 to 40,000 civilians who rendered valuable service by repairing the 18-mile-long walls of the city before and during the siege. He had tradition on his side, however, for the triple walls that blocked the city from the landward side had survived twenty sieges, even though at this point they were not in good repair. As of January 1453, he also had the services of Italian soldier of fortune Giovanni Giustiniani, who brought 700 knights and archers. Giustiniani was well known in Europe for his talents in defending walled cities. Mohammed also had some European assistance in the form of a cannon maker named Urban from Hungary, who provided the Muslim army with seventy cannon, including the “Basilica,” a 27-feet-long canon that fired stone balls weighing upwards of 600 pounds. It could only fire seven times a day, but did significant damage to anything it struck.

As part of the Ottoman military preparations, some 16 large and 60 light galleys, 20 horse-ships and several smaller vessels were constructed in the Ottoman arsenal of Gallipoli. The sultan’s army of 80,000 to 100,000 men was assembled in Edirne, the Ottoman capita l, In the Edirne foundry some 60 new guns of various calibres were cast. Some of them threw shots of 240, 300 and 360 kg (530-793 lb), The largest bombard that the Hungarian master Urban made for the sultan fired, according to the somewhat contradictory testimonies of contemporaries, stone balls of 400 to 600 kg (800-1,322 lb), It was transported to Constantinople by 60 oxen.

A single wall that ran the circumference of the city’s seaward sides defended the rest of Constantinople. Mohammed sent his men across the Bosphorus north of the city, so the southern approach to the Mediterranean was open. A chain boom protected the primary harbor, the Golden Horn, across its mouth supported by twenty-six galleys. Thus, if anyone sent relief, the route was open.

Mohammed II arrived on 6 April 1453. He led 70,000 regular troops and 20,000 irregulars called Bashi-Bazouks, whose sole pay was the loot they might gain if and when the city fell. The premier troops were the Janissaries, slave soldiers taken captive in their youth from Christian families and raised in a military atmosphere to serve the sultans. They were heavily armored and highly skilled, and at this time they were beginning to use personal firearms. Mohammed first seized the town of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. At first this action was little more than symbolic, but it had serious ramifications later. He then deployed his forces on the city’s western face and began the siege. A single wall near the imperial palace protected the northern end of the city. It was there, the Blachernae, that Constantine placed most of his men.

For twelve days the Muslim cannon pounded the city walls, and on 18 April Mohammed decided that had softened up the defenses sufficiently. The Byzantines easily defended a narrow breach in the walls, killing 200 attackers and driving off the rest without loss to themselves. On the 20th, four ships approached from the south: three Genoese transports with men and supplies from Rome and a Byzantine ship hauling corn from Sicily. After a hard fight with the Muslim fleet they broke through, cleared the boom, and entered the Golden Horn. Mohammed decided he had to control the harbor. He could not pass the chain boom, so he ordered ships dragged overland, through the town of Pera, to the harbor. It was a monumental engineering feat and on 22 April thirty Turkish ships were in the Golden Horn. An agent of the sultan betrayed the Byzantine counterattack, which managed to destroy only a single Turkish ship. In spite of this Turkish accomplishment, it had little effect on the siege.

Mohammed continued his cannonade against the walls. By 6 May it had opened a breach at the Gate of St. Romanus, where the Lycus River enters the city. Giustaniani built a new wall just behind the breach, rather than trying to repair the wall while under fire. The Turks attacked on 7 May but their 25,000 men were thrown back after three hours of fighting. On the 12th another force assaulted a breach in the wall at Blachernae; only quick reinforcement by Constantine and the Imperial Guard stemmed the tide. Mohammed then tried mining the walls. Constantine’s engineer Johannes Grant managed to locate each of the mining attempts and either undermine the mines or destroy the attackers inside with explosives, flooding, or the incendiary Greek fire. None of the fourteen mines succeeded.

Mohammed then determined to scale the walls. His men built a siege tower and rolled it into place before the Charisius Gate, the northernmost opening in the city walls. Muslim artillery fire had destroyed one of the defending towers, and the siege tower was able to provide covering fire for Turks filling in the moat. Constantine’s call for volunteers to attack the siege tower produced spectacular results. The sally surprised the Turkish guards and the Byzantines broke pots of Greek fire on the wooden siege tower. Meanwhile, their compatriots spent the night rebuilding the city wall and its destroyed tower. The next morning Mohammed saw the charred remains of his assault machine smoldering before the newly rebuilt tower in the city wall.

In both camps officers debated the progress of the siege. The defenders were exhausted and running out of supplies. In Mohammed’s camp, some factions wanted to end the siege before a rumored rescue fleet could arrive. The sultan favored those who counseled continuation and decided to launch one more attempt before withdrawing. As the most serious damage to the walls had been inflicted along the Lycus River entrance to the city, it was there he proposed to launch his final assault. Constantine learned of the plan from a spy, but could his dwindling force survive another battle? The Bashi-Bazouks began hurling themselves against the Byzantine defenses at 0200 on 29 May. For two hours the Byzantines slew them with arrows and firearms, but grew increasingly tired in the process. With the first attack repulsed, Mohammed threw in a second wave before the defenders could recover. Even though these were regular troops with better discipline and equipment, the narrow breach provided the defenders with less area to cover and they threw back that assault as well.

After another two hours of fighting the Byzantine troops could barely stand. Mohammed sent in the third wave, made up of Janissaries. Constantine’s exhausted troops managed to repulse them as well. During this fighting, a small band of Turks discovered a small open gate and rushed a handful of men through before it could be closed. They occupied a tower near the Blachinae and raised the sultan’s banner, and the rumor quickly spread that the northern flank had been broken. At the same moment, Giovanni Giustiniani was severely wounded. Hearing of his evacuation, coupled with the report from the north quarter, the defenders began to fall back. Mohammed quickly exploited his advantage. Another assault by fresh Janissaries cleared the space between the walls and seized the Adrianople Gate. Attackers began to pour through.

Constantine XI led his remaining troops into the Turkish onslaught, dying for his city and his empire. Almost all his co-defenders as well as a huge portion of the civilian population joined him, for the Turks went berserk. Mohammed II limited very little of the pillage, reserving the best buildings for himself and banning their destruction. He claimed and protected the Church of St. Sophia, and within a week the Hagia Sophia was hosting Muslim services. Thirty ships of a Venetian fleet sailing to Constantine’s relief saw the Turkish flags flying over the city, turned around, and sailed home.

The looting finally subsided and the bulk of the population that was not killed, possibly 50,000 people, were enslaved. The bastion of Eastern Christianity fell after more than 1,100 years as Constantine the Great’s city. Mohammed II proceeded to conquer Greece and most of the Balkans during the remaining twenty-eight years of his reign.

Western Europe, which had done so little to assist Constantinople, was shocked that it fell after so many centuries of standing against everyone. In Rome, the Catholic Church was dismayed that they would now have no Eastern Christians to convert, for they were all rapidly becoming Muslim. The Eastern Orthodox Church survived, however, for Mohammed allowed a patriarch to preside over the Church. It remained a viable religion, now far from the reach of the Catholic Church’s influence. As such, its survival encouraged others who resented the Catholic Church. Within sixty years Martin Luther led a major protest against the Church, starting the Reformation.

The trading centers of Genoa and Venice feared having to deal with hard-bargaining Arab merchants who now controlled all products coming from the Far East. The major cities of eastern Europe began to fear the Turkish hordes approaching their gates, and for the next 450 years Austria and the Holy Roman Empire carried on the European/Christian struggle against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks established themselves as the premier Middle Eastern Muslim power, controlling at their height almost as much as had the Byzantine Empire: the Balkans, the Middle East, much of North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean.

The flood of refugees from southeastern Europe, especially Greece, brought thousands of scholars to Italy, further enhancing the peninsula’s Renaissance. Italian merchants, shocked at the prices the Muslims charged for spices and silks from the East, began to search for other ways to get those goods. Certainly the age of European exploration came much sooner because of Constantinople’s fall.