[I resolved] to force the Turks, even against their will, to spread the war to the Black Sea against their ancient enemy, Russia.

—ADMIRAL WILHELM SOUCHON, commander of the German dreadnought SMS Goeben

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered by an assassin of Serbian nationality named Gavrilo Princip as the heir to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary conducted a royal progress through the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. At least one other assassin, also of Serbian nationality (although like Princip, a Bosnian and therefore an Austro-Hungarian subject), had evidently been involved in the plot, throwing a fuse-bomb at the royal motorcade about an hour before the fatal shots were fired (in fact, there were seven plotters in all, as would later be discovered). Proclaiming that the “threads of the conspiracy came together at Belgrade,” the hitherto hesitant Habsburg foreign minister Berchtold, after receiving a “blank cheque” of diplomatic support from Berlin, drew up a sharply worded forty-eight-hour ultimatum to Serbia, which was delivered in Belgrade on July 23. When Serbia, having received its own “blank cheque” from Russia, herself having been assured of French backing for a strong line against Austria-Hungary, refused full compliance with Berchtold’s terms two days later, Europe’s military doomsday machine cranked methodically into motion. Serbia and Austria-Hungary mobilized against one another, even as a secret Russian pre-mobilization began in support of Serbia, directed not only against Austria-Hungary but also her German ally. When Tsar Nicholas II decreed Russian general mobilization on July 30, 1914, it seemed only a miracle could avert a European war that would bring in its wake—in the tsar’s own words from the night before, when he had agonized over the decision—“monstrous slaughter.”

Considering the centrality of Ottoman affairs in the First Bosnian Crisis of 1908–9, the Tripolitanian war of 1911–12, and the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, it is curious that, at first glance, Turkey played so little a role in the July crisis of 1914. As recently as the third week of June, the diplomatic chatter in Europe had been focused on the threat of a Third Balkan War between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. But the Sarajevo incident, and resulting diplomatic showdown between the Great Powers, seemed to overwhelm all the recent drama in the Balkans, rendering both Turkey and Greece mere afterthoughts in the Great Power capitals as the countdown to war began.

If we look more closely, however, we can see hints that the Ottoman question remained central to Great Power strategy as the July crisis reached its terrible climax, especially in St. Petersburg and Berlin. As early as June 30, just two days after Sarajevo, Russia’s foreign minister demanded up-to-date information from the Naval Ministry regarding the war-readiness of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sazonov had himself chaired the February planning conference at which Russia’s military service chiefs had vowed to speed up the arrival of the first “echelon” of amphibious troops dispatched to Constantinople (comprising about 30,000 men, or roughly an army corps, including one division’s artillery component) from mobilization day (M) + 10 to M + 5. As the foreign minister later recalled in his memoirs, the reason for urgency was that everyone present “considered an offensive against Constantinople inevitable, should European war break out.” On June 15, 1914, with tensions between Turkey and Greece peaking, Ambassador Girs had warned Sazonov that Russia must be prepared to launch “immediate counter measures” to seize the Straits if a Third Balkan War broke out. Now, after Sarajevo, with a broader European war appearing possible if not likely, Sazonov asked Russia’s naval minister, I. K. Grigorevich (the “K” stood, appropriately, for the patronymic Konstantinovich), in a “very secret and urgent request,” whether the first Russian troops could now be put ashore at the Bosphorus within “four or five days” of mobilization.

In Berlin, meanwhile, the still undeclared partnership with the Sublime Porte acquired an importance beyond price once the extent of Germany’s diplomatic isolation began to come into focus toward the end of July. On Friday, July 24, the day after Austria-Hungary dispatched her ultimatum to Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered his ambassador in Constantinople, Wangenheim, to reopen alliance talks. The first Ottoman draft for a bilateral military agreement was wired to Berlin on Tuesday, July 28, only to be drowned out in the clamor over Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, announced at noon that day. On Friday, July 31, with Russia’s general mobilization under way and signs that Britain was leaning toward belligerence against Germany, things looked so desperate in Berlin that Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg took time to wire to Constantinople, asking Wangenheim whether Turkey, in exchange for Germany signing her draft alliance treaty, was prepared to “undertake some action worthy of the name against Russia.” On Saturday, August 1, after Germany’s ultimatum asking Russia to cease mobilizing had expired, Bethmann’s resistance crumbled further: now he would sign the Ottoman treaty simply on Liman’s assurance that Turkey’s army was “battle-ready,” with no guarantee of action against Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian statesmen were gearing up for an armed clash with Turkey, which they assumed would follow immediately on the outbreak of war in Europe. On July 27, two days after Serbia rejected Vienna’s ultimatum but one day before Austria-Hungary declared war on her, Russia’s chief of army staff, N. N. Yanushkevitch, issued top secret orders to Nikolai Yudenich, chief of staff at Russia’s Caucasian Army command in Tiflis, to mobilize against the Ottoman Empire. That same day, Girs sent a top secret memorandum to Sazonov warning that if Russia backed down against the Austro-Germans in Europe, it would signal such dangerous weakness in Constantinople and across the Near East that “[we] might be forced to take the initiative ourselves in waging war [against Turkey].” On July 29, even as Tsar Nicholas II was hesitating, Hamlet-like, over whether to issue the final, irreversible order for general mobilization (he actually did issue it around 9:00 p.m., only to change his mind and rescind the order less than an hour later), Yanushkevitch was assuring Yudenich that he should proceed with the mobilization of the Caucasian Army according to variant 4, for a European war in which “Turkey does not at first take part.” On July 30, after the tsar had finally overcome his scruples and given the fateful general mobilization order, Sazonov wired urgently to his ambassador in London, Count Benckendorff, that he intervene to cut off the imminent handover of the dreadnoughts Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh to the Ottoman Empire (Turkish crews were in fact scheduled to take them over on August 2). Back in May, Benckendorff had requested to His Majesty’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey—very, very carefully—that this be done, only for Grey and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to object on the grounds that Britain’s government did not have the right to interfere in private business contracts. Now, with European war about to break out in a matter of days, if not hours, Sazonov could not afford to stall any longer. “These ships,” he insisted that Benckendorff admonish Churchill and Grey, “must be retained in England.”

As if reading Sazonov’s mind (although in fact knowing nothing of the latest Russian request, which had not yet reached him), Winston Churchill now injected himself into the story with one of his most controversial actions in a career full of them. On Friday, July 31, with Russia’s general mobilization under way (although he apparently did not know this either) and Germany about to issue her ultimatum to St. Petersburg, the First Lord of the Admiralty ordered English naval crews to board the dreadnoughts Sultan Osman I and Reshadieh, so as to prevent Turkish crews from raising the Ottoman flag. With this flagrantly illegal act, Churchill bought Britain added insurance against the German High Seas Fleet in the war that now seemed unavoidable (to him, at least). He also, entirely unwittingly, fulfilled one of Russia’s primary strategic objectives—denying the Ottoman navy its lusted-for dreadnoughts, with which she might seize control of the Black Sea from her—while offering a priceless gift to hawks in the Ottoman government, not to mention German leaders trying desperately to bring Turkey into the war.

Enver Pasha was not a man to let an opportunity like this slip by. With German chancellor Bethmann’s terms for signing a formal alliance with Turkey having softened, in his increasing desperation, from a promise of “action worthy of the name” against Russia on Friday, July 31, to Turkey merely being “battle-ready” by the following afternoon, the Ottoman war minister decided to split the difference. Saturday morning, Enver learned that British crews had forcibly commandeered the two Ottoman dreadnoughts (although Churchill’s action had not yet been endorsed by the British cabinet, nor announced publicly). Thinking fast, on Saturday afternoon Enver promised Ambassador Wangenheim that in exchange for a generous alliance treaty, he would turn over to Germany the Sultan Osman I (the idea was to dock it at a German port on the North Sea—though how it would evade the massive British fleet en route was left unsaid, as was the fact that the ship, as Enver knew, was no longer his to dispose of!)

After comparing this offer to Bethmann’s latest instruction that he insist only that Turkey show herself “battle-ready,” Wangenheim decided that Enver had met the chancellor’s terms. At 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 2, 1914, the ambassador therefore wrote his signature alongside that of Said Halim Pasha, the Ottoman grand vizier and foreign minister, on a secret bilateral defense treaty, valid until December 31, 1918, in which Turkey promised to join Germany if the latter went to war with Russia on behalf of Austria-Hungary, in exchange for a promise by which “Germany obligates itself, by force of arms if need be, to defend Ottoman territory in case it should be threatened.” Wangenheim also promised to expedite to Berlin Enver’s urgent request that Germany’s Mediterranean squadron, composed of SMS Goeben and her support cruiser, the Breslau, be ordered to Constantinople. Unaware that he had been deceived by the Ottoman war minister into signing a devious treaty on false pretenses, Wangenheim wholeheartedly seconded Enver’s idea, pointing out helpfully to Berlin that “with the Goeben, even an [Ottoman] landing on Russian territory would be possible.” On hearing the news, Liman von Sanders then issued mobilization orders for the German officers in his military mission to the Ottoman army, now seventy-one strong.

Not unreasonably, Liman, along with Moltke at the German army command and Grand Marshal Tirpitz at the Admiralty, concluded that Wangenheim had won a binding pledge from Enver that the Ottoman Empire would shortly enter the war against Russia. This erroneous belief was bolstered by the fact that Enver had decreed Ottoman general mobilization against Russia on Saturday, August 1 (an order confirmed by the Turkish cabinet on Sunday), and then ordered, on Monday, August 3 (though without cabinet authorization), the mining of the northern entrance to the Bosphorus and the southern entrance to the Dardanelles. Moltke, with his hair-trigger mobilization plan, requiring a lightning advance on Paris, already falling behind schedule owing to Russia’s secret early mobilization and Belgium’s decision to resist the German violation of her territory, began bombarding Wangenheim with requests for prompt Ottoman intervention against Russia—and, he hoped, Britain and France as well. Once a state of war between France and Germany was confirmed on Monday afternoon, August 3, it became imperative for the German Admiralty to find a safe anchorage for SMS Goeben and the Breslau before Britain declared war and the superior Allied Mediterranean fleet blew them out of the water. Disinclined to look Churchill’s gift horse in the mouth and believing in Enver’s promises, Tirpitz ordered Souchon, in the small hours of Tuesday, August 4, 1914, to proceed forthwith to the Ottoman capital.

Admiral Wilhelm Souchon had been born for this moment. The idea of sending his powerful warship into the Bosphorus to contest Russian control of the Black Sea was not a new one. In fact Souchon had docked there back in the first week of May, making such a strong impression in the Ottoman capital that CUP leaders like Cami Baykut began openly clamoring for the Goeben to be impressed into Ottoman service. The warm welcome Souchon had received in Constantinople provided a striking contrast to his reception in other Mediterranean ports of call, where the long-dominant British fleet was in the habit of docking the minute he left in order to erase any positive impression he made (or as the kaiser liked to say, to “spit in the soup”). The Russians knew all about Souchon too. In the wake of the Liman affair in January, Sazonov had lodged warnings in Berlin that the Goeben must not be impressed into Ottoman service. With Russia’s Black Sea Fleet still two years or more away from launching its first operational dreadnought, the arrival of any dreadn’ought-class vessel in Ottoman territorial waters threatened to tip the naval balance on the Black Sea in Turkey’s favor, rendering well-nigh impossible any Russian amphibious strike on the Bosphorus.

When Souchon decoded his orders from Berlin just past 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, he was approaching the French Algerian port of Philippeville, where colonial troops were embarking for the western front. Having learned at 6:00 p.m. on Monday, while steaming southwestward from Sicily, of the German declaration of war on France, he was at last nearing his target and could already, as he later recalled, “taste that moment of fire so ardently desired by us all!” Disregarding Tirpitz’s summons to Constantinople—for now—Souchon continued on course for Philippeville. Just past 6:00 a.m., SMS Goeben opened fire on the French troopships while the Breslau shelled the nearby port of Bone. Although the shelling did not cause significant casualties or great physical damage to either the troopships or the port, the German attack concerned the French fleet commander, Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, enough that he ordered his squadron to form escort convoys, a laborious process that would take several days. By thus delaying the dispatch of French Algerian soldiers to the front, Souchon had succeeded in his object. Satisfied, he withdrew his ships and turned back toward Sicily, hoping to coal there before proceeding to Constantinople, some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) distant.

Now the hard part began. While the panic he had sowed at Philippeville and Bone had dissuaded the French commander from pursuing him, Souchon had still to reckon with the British Mediterranean fleet, headed by three large battle cruisers, the imposingly named Inflexible, Indomitable, and Indefatigable, all of the “Invincible” type launched in 1907. While none of the three was current dreadnought class—each displaced only 18,000 tons, compared with the 23,000 tons of SMS Goeben (itself just barely registering as a last-generation dreadnought)—the British battle cruisers mounted eight 12-inch guns and could make 25 or 26 knots, as fast as all but the latest dreadnoughts. In theory, the Goeben, launched in 1911 and mounting ten 11-inch guns, could run its 5,200-horsepower engines, at full thrust, to a speed of 28 or 29 knots. But, as Souchon (although not his British pursuers) was painfully aware, with three of his twenty-four boilers out of action and others leaking, his ship was incapable of such a feat. On Monday, August 3, Churchill, by way of Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, commander of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, had ordered HMS Indomitable and HMS Indefatigable to hunt down SMS Goeben and then “follow and shadow her wherever she goes.” At 10:32 a.m. on Tuesday, August 4, following the shelling of Philippeville and Bone, the lookouts on the Indomitable, proceeding toward Algeria in a belated attempt to repulse Souchon’s attack, caught sight of the Breslau off the starboard bow, “steering to eastward at high speed.” Within seconds, the Goeben was spotted off the port bow—bearing almost directly at the Indomitable. Both ships were in firing range, but, as Britain and Germany were not yet at war, Captain Kennedy, commander of the Indomitable, could do little but turn to starboard, cutting off Souchon’s attempted pass and forcing him to diverge slightly from his course. Souchon had dodged his first bullet.

He was not safe yet, however. With Indefatigable joining the chase, the mood at the British Admiralty was ebullient. Churchill, who, owing to a garbled transmission, mistakenly thought Souchon was heading southwest, toward Algeria, wired just past noon that Admiral Milne was to “hold” the German ships and to engage them if they “attacked French transports,” after giving “fair warning.” Even this somewhat equivocal order, however, was rescinded two hours later, after Churchill was rebuked in the cabinet: now Milne was to hold his fire until war was declared on Germany. Adding uncertainty to these confusing orders, back on July 31, Churchill had instructed Milne to “husband your force at the outset” and that it must “not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces.” Unaware of the difficulties Souchon was having with his boilers, Churchill and his fleet commanders still thought of her as the fastest, most powerful ship in the Mediterranean. Milne therefore had every reason for caution.

Whether or not the British were authorized to engage him, Souchon could not afford to be complacent. Hoping to outrun the Indomitable and Indefatigable to Messina, the nearest “neutral” port on the leeward side of Sicily, Souchon ran his boilers at full capacity all afternoon, nearly killing his stokers in the process but inching the Goeben up to nearly 23 knots and slowly distancing himself from his pursuers. At around 4:00 p.m., the British warships fell out of firing range. At 4:35 p.m., with a thick fog descending, the Goeben and Breslau disappeared from Milne’s view off the Sicilian coast. By the time Britain’s ultimatum to Germany (demanding that she evacuate Belgian territory) expired without a positive reply at midnight (11:00 p.m. London time), creating the state of war that would finally have allowed the British to fire, Souchon was well out of range, approaching the neutral waters of the Straits of Messina. Under the laws of neutrality, after docking at Brindisi, he would have only twenty-four hours in port.

A furious diplomatic struggle now began over the fate of SMS Goeben. To begin with, Souchon was enraged that the Italian authorities were “shameless enough in their treachery” to put him on the clock, despite Italy being nominally a member of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary. Showing where the true sympathies in the country already lay, the port authorities even refused him coal. Souchon had to waste precious time wiring the Foreign Ministry in Rome to overcome local obstruction. With no other German warships in the Mediterranean, the only chance for an escort lay with the Austrian Adriatic fleet at Pola. But Souchon’s plea that she “come and fetch Goeben and Breslau from Messina as soon as possible,” wired to the Austrian Admiralty at 2:00 a.m. on August 5, went nowhere. Admiral Milne had posted British warships at both entrances to the Straits of Messina, observing the “six mile” rule of neutrality, but ready to fire as soon as Souchon’s ships breached the limit. The Austrians saw nothing to gain from risking an engagement, not least because Austria-Hungary and Britain were not yet at war. Adding to Souchon’s frustration was a cryptic message from Tirpitz in Berlin, wired on Wednesday, August 5, but deciphered only at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, that “at the present time [your] arrival in Constantinople not yet possible, for political reasons.”

Undeterred by these bad tidings, Souchon pressed his men to the limit of their powers. With no hope of rescue, the Goeben and Breslau would need enough coal to race through what he could only assume was a heavy British screen. So Souchon pressed every hand available into the effort, exhorted on by “music in the form of martial airs, extra rations, stirring speeches, the example of those officers who worked with them, and my own encouragements.” On the quay, Sicilian touts hawked souvenirs and postcards to the Germans who, as in the old Roman gladiatorial salute, were “about to die.” On and on Souchon’s men labored, with dozens of men collapsing from exhaustion or sunstroke in the August heat. When one stoker fell, he was hustled belowdecks and another was pressed into his place. Other coalers, beginning to slip, were “plied with cool drinks and baths.” But time was short, and only 1,580 tons of coal could be loaded onto the Goeben, and 495 tons onto the Breslau, before the last man standing collapsed Thursday afternoon, August 6. It was not enough to reach the Dardanelles. But it would have to do. Souchon gave his men a much-needed rest and ordered them to prepare for departure at 5:00 p.m.

Although Ottoman permission to enter the Dardanelles had been withdrawn, Souchon did have one other option. After rounding the boot of Italy, he could head up the Adriatic to hole up at Pola with the Austrian fleet—the same one that had refused to rescue him. But doing this would have consigned Souchon, and his beloved Goeben, to a passive war “waiting on events,” penned in by the superior British fleet. Accepting such a fate would have gone against every grain of his stubborn, irascible character. And so Souchon decided, entirely of his own volition, “not to waver from my duty to break out into the eastern Mediterranean . . . hoping that I could later reach Constantinople and thereby be able to bring the war into the Black Sea.”

Souchon’s plan, though foolhardy, was not entirely senseless. Expecting to be followed anyway, he made sure to depart before nightfall, so that the British spotters would see him heading northward up the Adriatic. Once darkness fell and he—hopefully—fell out of enemy sight, he would “make a wide turn to starboard, surreptitiously”—heading east toward the Greek islands, where a German collier was waiting at Cape Malea to resupply the Goeben and Breslau with enough coal for the onward journey to Constantinople. Still, Souchon knew that he would need to continue his run of good luck if he was to evade his pursuers.

His British opponents proved more than obliging. At the Admiralty, Winston Churchill was so little clued in to the importance of Constantinople that he had commandeered the powerful dreadnoughts Ottoman strategists had been dreaming of for years—for the purchase of which a public subscription had been opened, to great popular fanfare. Neither Churchill nor Admiral Milne so much as suspected the possibility that Souchon might make a dash for the Dardanelles. Milne was so certain the Goeben would head west, for Gibraltar and the open waters of the Atlantic, that he posted only a single light cruiser, the Gloucester, at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Messina (although he did have a squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge guarding the Adriatic in case Souchon headed for Pola, consisting of four armored battle cruisers, with eight destroyers held in reserve).

When Souchon exited the Straits of Messina early on the evening of Thursday, August 6, the inferior Gloucester could do little more than follow at a safe distance, radioing the German position (whenever Souchon did not succeed in jamming it) to Admiral Milne, who passed it on to the Adriatic squadron. Troubridge, in ideal position to intercept Souchon, set out southward just after midnight, hoping to engage the Goeben and Breslau before first light at dawn. When, around 4:00 a.m., he had still not found them, Troubridge had second thoughts. His destroyers, sent off to coal, had still not come up. Fearing that all four of his (slightly) inferior battle cruisers could be blown out of the water by the guns of SMS Goeben in a daylight encounter, and with Churchill’s orders not to engage “superior forces” echoing in his ear, Troubridge called off the chase. Souchon had escaped another bullet.

Lucky in his principal antagonists, Souchon had still to reckon with Captain Howard Kelly, commander of the Gloucester, an Irishman nearly as stubborn as he. In a classic illustration of the importance of temperament in the fluid situation of combat, Kelly was just as determined to exceed his orders as Troubridge was to shirk them. After learning that his Adriatic squadron had broken off the chase, Milne had wired Kelly, at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, August 7, that he was “to drop astern and avoid capture.” Displaying irascibility worthy of the man he was chasing, Kelly refused to pull back, even though Troubridge had left him utterly exposed to the Goeben’s superior guns. At midday on Friday, Souchon, unable to outrun the Gloucester in the Goeben owing to his leaking boilers (and the inferior coal loaded at Brindisi, which caused his ships to belch black smoke), ordered the Breslau to draw his pursuer away, figuring that the British captain would prefer to follow a ship more his size. By 1:30 p.m., the Goeben had begun to distance herself, although the Gloucester had closed to 11,500 yards behind the Breslau. At 1:35 p.m., Kelly ordered his six-inch fore guns to fire from the bow. At least one hit was scored (although it did little damage). The Breslau fired back a series of ranging shots, which missed, but threw up a tremendous spray all around the Gloucester. Souchon, aboard the Goeben, now reversed course and fired off a torpedo salvo at the Gloucester from long range, which likewise missed. As if terrified that his renegade captain might actually damage a German ship, Milne now ordered Kelly to back off, ordering that he not proceed past Cape Matapan into the Aegean, lest he risk an ambush in the Greek islands. Souchon had escaped once again.

Meanwhile, the political struggle in Constantinople was heating up. In the initial rush of enthusiasm after the conclusion of the German alliance treaty on August 2 and Wangenheim’s promise to send him the Goeben, Enver had not only mined the upper Bosphorus but ordered the requisitioning of Russian merchandise in Ottoman ports, including oil and grain. Once Said Halim Pasha got wind of this on Wednesday, August 5, however, he objected to the illegal requisitions just as furiously as the Russian embassy did. The grand vizier was concerned, in the first instance, that no agreement with Bulgaria had been reached to ensure the safety of Thrace in case Turkey and Russia went to war. But he was hardly in a rush to come to terms with Sofia. Playing a subtler game than his young, headstrong war minister, Said Halim Pasha reasoned that, with SMS Goeben and Breslau surrounded by hostile squadrons patrolling the Mediterranean, Souchon really had nowhere else to go but Constantinople. While the Germans were coaling at Brindisi, the grand vizier decided to put the squeeze on. Before the Ottoman government would allow Souchon’s ships free passage through the Dardanelles, he informed Ambassador Wangenheim on Wednesday, August 5, Germany must satisfy six conditions, including support for the abolition of the Capitulations—the holy grail of Ottoman diplomacy for decades—and firm pledges to help Turkey recover Aegean islands from Greece and to expand her Caucasian border eastward so as to “place Turkey into direct contact with the Muslims of Russia.” It was this piece of diplomatic blackmail that lay behind the cryptic wire Souchon had received from Tirpitz on Brindisi, informing him that his arrival in Constantinople was not yet advisable for “political reasons.” Under duress, and not wishing to jeopardize Souchon’s precarious position still further, Wangenheim agreed on Thursday, August 6.

Souchon, unaware of these negotiations and knowing only that matters in Constantinople remained murky, made his rendezvous at Cape Malea on Friday evening, August 7, with his collier, the Bogadir, which had adopted Greek disguise to evade detection. A second collier, the General, had also rejoined him after setting off in a separate direction from Messina. Had he known that the supercautious Admiral Milne had called off British pursuit, Souchon might have coaled his ships right at Cape Malea. Instead he ordered his colliers to follow him deeper into the Aegean until they found a deserted coastline that seemed safe from enemy view, off the island of Denusa. All weekend on Saturday and Sunday, August 8–9, 1914, the Goeben and Breslau took on coal while keeping a steam up, in case they would be forced to depart on short notice. A special lookout post was erected at the highest point on the island to keep watch for the British. Souchon was now less than two hundred miles from the mouth of the Dardanelles, a distance he could cover in a day’s steaming—if permission to enter was granted. But he could not risk wiring Constantinople, because a signal strong enough to reach the Ottoman capital would betray his position to the British fleet. With the political situation still unclear, Souchon once again chose the boldest course of action, dispatching the General Saturday night to the Ottoman port of Smyrna (Izmir) to transmit the following message to Captain Hans Humann, German naval liaison at the Ottoman Admiralty:

Urgent military necessity requires an attack on the enemy in the Black Sea. Go to any length possible to arrange for me to pass through Straits immediately with the permission of the Turkish government, without formal approval if necessary.

Back in Constantinople, Ottoman negotiators, with their negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the Germans increasing by the day, were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Even Enver, despite his earlier rashness, was cottoning to the game. On Wednesday, August 5, the same day the grand vizier was putting the screws on Ambassador Wangenheim, while Souchon was torturing his stokers in the heat of Brindisi, the Russian military attaché in Constantinople, Generalmajor M. N. Leontiev, called on Enver at the Ottoman War Ministry. What the war minister told him was astonishing. In exchange for Russia signing a five- or ten-year defensive alliance with the Ottoman Empire and helping to broker a new Balkan settlement at the expense of Vienna (the idea was for Turkey to regain western Thrace from Bulgaria and several Aegean islands from Greece, with Greece compensated with Albania, and Bulgaria given parts of Macedonia by Serbia, who would herself win Bosnia-Herzegovina), Enver promised to withdraw the IX and XI Corps of the Ottoman Third Army from eastern Turkey, so as to allow Russia to send the Army of the Caucasus to reinforce her European fronts against Austria and Germany. The day such a treaty was signed, this supposedly Germanophile Ottoman war minister promised Leontiev, he would expel Liman von Sanders and the entire German military mission from Turkey.

To this day it is not known how serious Enver’s trial balloon for a Russian-Ottoman alliance was. It does not seem to have originated with the Ottoman Foreign Ministry, although Said Halim Pasha eagerly took up Enver’s idea as soon as he heard of it, as did Talât, at the Interior Ministry (notably, in that Talât had himself traveled to Livadia, on the Crimea, back in May, accompanied by Ambassador Girs, to propose something broadly similar to Tsar Nicholas II). All weekend from Friday, August 7, to Sunday, August 9, 1914, even as Admiral Souchon, holed up at Denusa, was desperately waiting for permission to enter the Dardanelles, a series of increasingly detailed alliance talks proceeded in Constantinople between Ottoman diplomats and Ambassador Girs, with Leontiev meeting Enver on the side. Whether or not Enver’s offer had been made in good faith, it was certainly so taken by Girs and Leontiev, who both recommended that Sazonov take up the Ottoman proposal.

On Sunday, matters came to a head. At about noon, Admiral Milne, after delaying pursuit once again owing to an erroneous report that Austria had declared war on England (thus threatening, in very theoretical theory, to descend on the Adriatic and cut his squadron off from Malta), resumed chasing the Goeben with his three main battle cruisers (although he would not actually reach the Aegean until nearly midnight). Souchon’s urgent request, wired to Humann from Smyrna early Sunday morning and decoded in Constantinople around the same time Milne was renewing pursuit, drove home to the Ottoman government that time was running out on the Goeben. Still the grand vizier stalled, fobbing off Ambassador Wangenheim with a story about an impending Ottoman-Greek-Romanian neutrality pact which must not be prejudiced by the arrival of an armed German warship. Although Said Halim Pasha did not, for obvious reasons, mention this, alliance talks with Russia were also nearing their climax on Sunday—Ambassador Girs sent two urgent wires to Sazonov this day requesting that he sign immediately (alas, Sazonov received his own urgent message this afternoon, from Yanushkevitch at Russian military headquarters, advising that alliance talks with Turkey must be cut off before they were leaked to the press, lest they be interpreted across the Near East “as a sign of [Russian] weakness”). In order to keep his options open a little longer, Said Halim Pasha suggested to Ambassador Wangenheim that Souchon be allowed into the Dardanelles—but only if the Goeben was disarmed and converted into an “Ottoman” ship “by means of a fictitious sale.” It was not, exactly, an invitation. But it was all Souchon was going to get.

At 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning, August 10, 1914, the General, from Smyrna, wired the following message to the Goeben: “Enter and demand surrender of the Dardanelles forts.” Two hours later, while he was still mulling over this strange instruction, Souchon picked up wireless signals from the British squadron, entering the Aegean in force. At 6:00 a.m., having received no clarification of his instructions, he decided he could wait no longer, setting off for the Dardanelles. Toward noon, when he was about halfway there, Souchon decoded another wire, sent overnight from the Admiralty in Berlin: “It is of the greatest importance, that the Goeben enter the Dardanelles as soon as possible. Acknowledge.” Neither this nor the transmission from Smyrna specified that permission to enter had been granted by the Ottoman government, for the excellent reason that it had not, in fact, been given. Souchon could only guess what this meant: was he to force his way in or simply put on a show of doing so in order to give the Turks an excuse for letting him in? At any rate, he would soon find out, as, on current course, he would reach his destination by nightfall.

In a week of mounting tension, the afternoon of Monday, August 10, was the most dramatic yet. At 4:00 p.m., steaming at a steady 18 knots toward the Dardanelles, Souchon sighted Tenedos and Imbros. The fate of SMS Goeben and the Breslau, along with the German campaign to force the Ottomans to honor the terms of the August 2 alliance treaty and enter the war against Russia, now depended on the reaction of the southern shore batteries at Cape Helles and Kum Kale once Souchon’s ships came into range. Would they fire? Having received no clear orders from the War Ministry, as soon as the German ships were sighted approaching just past 7:00 p.m., the commander at the great fortress of Chanak (Çanakkale) wired Constantinople for instructions. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, meeting with Enver at the War Ministry, recalled the conversation that followed. Enver initially refused to give an answer without first consulting the grand vizier, but Kress pressed hard for a decision. Enver then fell silent for what seemed to Kress like an eternity. At last he said, “They should be allowed to enter.” Kress was still not satisfied. “If English warships come in after the [Goeben],” he demanded to know, “will they be fired upon?” Again Enver hedged, protesting that he could not possibly decide a critical matter of war and peace without consulting the other ministers. But Kress insisted on an answer. “In that case,” Enver replied at last, “yes.” At 9:00 p.m., a Turkish torpedo boat sent out to meet the Goeben gave the long-awaited signal, “Follow me.” With a sense of profound relief, Souchon followed the Turkish pilot through a safe channel of the well-mined Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara.

News of the arrival of SMS Goeben in Ottoman territorial waters was instantly telegraphed across Europe. Following a week that had seen Souchon narrowly escape the incompetent pursuit of a vastly superior British fleet, the coup was almost immediately recognized as a critical blow to the Entente position in Constantinople. To be sure, we have to be wary of the distortions of hindsight in accounts published long after the fact, which give off a strong whiff of literary license. At the time, Milne and Churchill continued their borderline-farcical misreading of the situation, issuing orders that the Dardanelles be blockaded at the mouth in case Souchon tried to come out. Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, a bit more perceptively but still all but dripping with condescension, told the cabinet, “As we shall insist that the Goeben should be manned by a Turkish instead of a German crew, it doesn’t much matter: as the Turkish sailors cannot navigate her—except on to rocks or mines.”

British insouciance aside, there is no mistaking the critical nature of Enver’s decision to let in the German ships and block entry to British and (by implication) French warships—a decision confirmed at 10:00 p.m. in a wire from Humann to the German Admiralty in Berlin. For good measure, Ottoman shore batteries allowed in two German civilian support ships Tuesday morning, including the General (fresh in from Smyrna) and the Rodosto, even while the growing armada of British and French vessels arriving in Besika Bay to watch the Dardanelles could only drop anchor and wait.

Whether or not the Ottomans had entered the war, they had clearly breached the laws of neutrality—and let a very powerful wolf into the diplomatic sheepfold at the Sublime Porte. As Souchon wired Tirpitz on August 12, 1914, “The Turkish government has welcomed the Goeben and Breslau with enthusiasm. Collaborative work with the Ottoman fleet is proceeding. I intend to begin operations in the Black Sea as soon as possible. Please send ammunition immediately. There is enough coal here.” With or without Turkish permission, Souchon was ready to bring the war into the Black Sea against Russia.

The Serbian Grand Principality (Kingdom from 1346)

Detail of fresco depicting Serbian Emperor Stefan Dušan. Painted in the mid-14th century. Restorated (coloured). Lesnovo Monastery, Republic of Macedonia.

Serbian Empire, 1355

Serbia had the Adriatic Sea to the west, Hungary to the north and Bulgaria to the east. Stefan divided his principality between his five sons when he died and their mother acted as their go-between. But the barons killed Gojislav; Domanek and Saganek fought; and Radoslav murdered Domanek. Mihailo was appointed Knez in 1050 and he married Kōnstantinos IX’s niece to make peace with the Byzantine Empire. Bulgaria asked Mihailo I to help him attack the Byzantines, following their defeat by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. They even gave the Bulgarian throne to his young son Bodin (who was renamed Petar III) to secure the alliance. But Petar was captured in 1073 and the Byzantine general who was released to rescue him defected.

Mihailo improved relations with the west and he was granted a royal title in 1077 while Duklja became a kingdom. Venetian sailors rescued Bodin and his first act was to support the Byzantine attack on the Normans at Durazzo in 1081. His second was to do nothing when the Normans seized the city. He married the daughter of a Norman nobleman and backed Pope Urban to get Rome’s support but Queen Jakvinta executed, murdered and exiled all claimants to the throne, plunging Duklja into a civil war. The Byzantines recaptured Durazzo, defeated the Pecheneg hordes and then turned on the Serbians in 1090.

Vukan, Grand Prince of Rascia, defeated the first invading Byzantine army but asked for peace when a larger army approached. Emperor Alexios had to accept because the Cumans were raiding his lands. Vukan broke the treaty when he seized Byzantine territory and then offered his son Uroš as hostage when Alexios retaliated. Vukan the Great invaded Macedonia as Alexios faced the First Crusade and invaded Byzantine territory when the Normans attacked the Byzantines in 1106. This time he was defeated and finally had to submit to Alexios; he died in 1112.

Vukan’s nephew, Uroš I, was immediately attacked by the Byzantines so he married his daughter, Jelena, to the blind Béla II to get Hungarian help. Her first act was to execute the sixty barons who had supported the blinding of her husband.

Uroš II was crowned grand prince in 1145 and his brother Beloš brought a Hungarian army to help him defend Serbia. The Byzantines defeated their combined army at the Battle of Tara River in 1150, and while Uroš II swore loyalty to Byzantine Emperor Manouēl I, the emperor abandoned his fight against the Normans in Sicily and concentrated on Hungary. Desa was made co-ruler in 1153 but he ousted Uroš because he refused to be a Byzantine vassal. Emperor Manouēl re-instated Uroš but soon grew tired of him. He appointed his brother Beloš in 1162 but he gave the crown to Desa and returned to Croatia to rule. Emperor Manouēl then appointed Stephen IV, but Beloš took him prisoner and sent him to the Byzantines. The emperor forced Desa to meet him, making him swear humiliating public oaths over his diplomacy with Hungary. He then appointed Tihomir and his brothers as rulers of Serbia in 1162. But one of them, Nemanja, rebelled and deposed the others in 1166, taking the throne for himself.

The emperor wanted Tihomir back on the Serbian throne because he was the weakest leader, so he gave him an army. But Nemanja defeated Tihomir at Pantino and Tihomir was drowned in the River Sitnica. His brothers were captured but they were given land after promising to keep the peace. Nemanja maintained his anti-Byzantine stance by joining the coalition with the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary and Venice in 1172. Unfortunately, Venice left the alliance when an epidemic devastated its fleet and then István II died, leaving the Hungarian throne to the pro-Byzantine Béla III. Emperor Manouēl’s troops defeated the Serbian army and Nemanja was forced to hand his sword over and was taken to Constantinople as a slave.

Nemanja befriended Manouēl and he was recognised as Serbia’s Grand Zupan after vowing never to attack the Byzantine Empire again. Instead he concentrated on dealing with the Bogomil heresy until Manouēl died in 1180. He then allied with Béla III of Bulgaria and advanced to Byzantine-held Sofia until a rebellion forced the Bulgarians to withdraw, leaving the Serbians to fight on alone. Nemanja invited the Third Crusade to stay in Serbia in 1188 but Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa rejected his plan and attacked the Byzantines instead. Both Nemanja and Béla followed the Crusaders until Friedrich made peace with Isaakios II. The Byzantines attacked Serbia as soon as the Crusaders left for the Holy Land. The Byzantines forced Nemanja to relinquish his conquests, recognise Byzantine rule. Emperor Isaakios II also made Nemanja marry his son to the Byzantine Princess Eudokia to split the Serbs from the Bulgarians.

Nemanja became a monk in 1196. He favoured his second son, Stefan, but his first son, Vukan, pledged allegiance to Emeric and seized the throne with Hungarian help. Kaloyan of Bulgaria retaliated by conquering the eastern part of Serbia before Stefan could retake the Serbian throne in 1204. Boril succeeded Kaloyan and while his brother, Strez, took refuge in the Serbian court, Stefan refused money to help him retake the Bulgarian throne. Instead Stefan reclaimed lost Serbian territories while the Latin Empire attacked the Bulgarians.

Stefan the First-Crowned received a crown from Pope Honourius III in 1217, making him the first Serbian king acknowledged by Rome. Although Radoslav succeeded him in 1228, he was rejected because his mother, Eudokia, had been exiled for adultery; a rebellion forced him to retire to a monastery five years later. Vladislav was married to Belošlava, daughter of Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria, but both their countries were ransacked by the Mongols in 1242. Ivan was killed and his successor, Kaliman, made Bulgaria a Mongol vassal. The move ruined Vladislav’s reputation and the nobles replaced him with his brother.

The development of silver mines made Uroš I the Great so rich he invaded Hungary in 1268. But he was captured and had to hand over all his wealth to pay the ransom. Uroš was also forced to marry his eldest son, Dragutin, to Katalin, daughter of the Hungarian heir, and he was outraged when his younger brother was named heir. Uroš was given a Hungarian army to defeat the Serbs at the Battle of Gacko in 1276 and forced his father to retire to a monastery.

Dragutin broke his leg while out hunting and he had to pass the throne to his brother Uroš II (also called Milutin) when he fell ill in 1282 but he continued to rule Syrmia until he died. Meanwhile, Uroš captured parts of Macedonia and Albania from the Byzantines but Emperor Mikhaēl VIII died before he could counterattack. Instead it was the Bulgarians who attacked Serbia first. Although Dragutin and Uroš defeated them, a Bulgarian boyar convinced the Mongols to attack Serbia and Uroš had to hand his son Dečanski over to the Golden Horde as a hostage to stop them.

Uroš made peace with the Byzantine Empire in 1299 and helped them defeat the Ottomans on the Gallipoli Peninsula. When Dragutin died in 1314, Dečanski rebelled when Uroš took control of his father’s lands. Decanski was exiled to Constantinople and partially blinded, while his younger brother Kōnstantinos was made heir. Dečanski soon returned from exile and was pardoned but his brother refused to submit. Uroš II died in 1321 and Vladislav II was freed to rule Syrmia with Hungarian help. Kōnstantinos was captured in battle in 1322. According to some stories, he may have been nailed to a tree and cut in half; it is known for certain that his skull was turned into a wine goblet for the new king Uroš III (the same name Dečanski had taken).

Uroš III was challenged by his cousin Vladislav II, but Vadislav was defeated in battle in 1324 and forced to flee, despite Hungarian support. Uroš was angered to hear Mihail Asen III of Bulgaria had divorced his sister Anna so he could marry the Byzantine princess Theōdora. The Bulgarians and the Byzantines then invaded Serbia in 1330 but Mihail was killed at the Battle of Velbazhd and Andronikos III withdrew. Despite driving off the invaders, Uroš’s advisers convinced his son (also Uroš) to imprison and strangle his father in 1331.

Ivan Aleksandǎr of Bulgaria married his sister, Jelena, to Uroš IV to secure a peace but Serbia continued to raid Byzantine. Lajos the Great’s huge army caused him most trouble when it invaded and defeated him in the Šumajida region in 1336. Uroš struck back by defeating both the Croatian and Hungarian armies and then exploited a Byzantine civil war, conquering most of their Balkan territory by 1342. The Byzantines retaliated, defeating the Serbs with Ottoman help, at the Battle of Stephaniana in 1344. Uroš, or Dušan the Mighty as he was known, fought back by conquering Byzantine lands and attacking Bosnia. Uroš was excommunicated by Constantinople when he took over the kingdom’s churches and he died in 1355, possibly from poison.

Uroš V was a weak ruler who depended on his mother, Jelena, and his advisers. His uncle Simeon (renamed Siniša) made an unsuccessful attempt to seize the throne in 1356 and the empire fragmented as Serbia’s nobles assumed control. Vukašin was made co-ruler in 1365 but he and most of the Serbian nobility were defeated and killed by the Ottomans at the Battle of Maritsa in 1371. Uroš died childless soon after. The surviving Serbian nobles refused to recognise Marko as their ruler and when Nikola Altomanović emerged as the most powerful noble, Prince Lazar and Tvrtko of Bosnia worked together to capture and blind him in 1373. Although Tvrtko became titular king, Serbia’s nobility stopped Lazar reunifying the kingdom.

Lajos I of Hungary died in 1382 and both Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad were killed at the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389. Serbia was left with too few men to defend its lands and Lazar’s brothers, Andrijas and Dmitar, fled to Hungary with the countries treasury before the kingdom became an Ottoman vassal. The surviving Serbian nobles joined the Bayazid invasion of Wallachia only to be defeated and killed at the Battle of Rovine in 1395.

Stefan the Tall’s Serbian army fought alongside the Ottomans when they defeated Zgismond’s Catholic alliance at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. However, Bayezid’s empire began to collapse when the Timurs invaded from the east and they were defeated at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Stefan had fought well and Bayezid granted him the title of Despot. But Stefan accepted Hungarian suzerainty after his nephew Ðurađ Branković and Bayezid’s son, Suleyman, defeated him at the Battle of Tripolje in 1402.

Zgismond died suddenly in 1427, leaving no children, and the throne went to Ðurađ. The Ottomans captured Thessalonica in 1430, and while Ðurađ paid a ransom to rescue the area’s people, he could not afford the annual tribute and had to hand over his son as a hostage. He fled to Hungary when the Ottomans invaded in 1439 but two years later he was back in Serbia, trying to raise an army.

Ðurađ played an important part in the 1444 Peace of Szeged between Hungary and the Ottomans. He married his daughter, Mara, to Sultan Murad II and gave János Hunyadi lands and in return was allowed to rule Serbia. The truce did not last long and Ðurađ distanced himself from Hungary when it allied with Poland and attacked the Ottomans. Their Crusade ended with an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Varna in 1444. Hunyadi was again defeated by Murad II’s forces at Kosovo in 1448 but he beat Mehmet II at the Siege of Belgrade in July 1456, allowing Ðurađ to reoccupy Serbia before he died.

Lazar’s older brothers, Grgur and Stefan, had been blinded in 1441 for plotting against Murad II. Lazar exiled them both and then poisoned his mother to secure his position. He offered to be an Ottoman despot in 1457 but died the following year. The blinded Stefan became co-ruler with Lazar’s widow, but Jelena married her young daughter Maria to Tomašević, Prince of Bosnia, to hold onto the power.

Mátyás Corvinus of Hungary and Tomaš of Bosnia dethroned Stefan in 1459. Two months later, Tomašević surrendered the Serbian throne to the Ottomans and fled to his father’s court where he became the Ban of Bosnia in 1461. Mehmed the Conqueror invaded Bosnia after he refused to pay tribute to the Ottomans; he captured and beheaded Stephen.


Between Ottoman Europe and that other Europe, which saw itself as the only true one (Europe identified itself with Christendom), a line was drawn. It shifted with the Turks’ advance, just as, at the end of the modern period, it would follow their first retreats. When the Ottoman Empire had reached its maximum extension, that line (or rather, that buffer zone) cut diagonally across the European continent, from roughly the Caspian Sea to the Adriatic. To the east, it ran through the northern steppes of the Black Sea, moving northwest of that sea toward central Europe, following the southern edges of Lithuania and Poland. It then crossed northern Hungary and returned south through Croatia. Farther to the west, opposite the western basin of the Mediterranean Sea, that “sea of fear”—in the striking expression of the Italian historian Giuseppe Bonaffini—marked the separation between the “Land of the Franks” and the Maghreb of the Barbary regencies. The eastern basin, on the contrary, where the Ottoman possessions and the scattered fragments of Venetian Romania overlapped a great deal, became an “Ottoman lake,” as these fragments were eliminated one after another.

In a Europe that also included many other cleavages of all kinds, that split became the major border, often compared to the “iron curtain” following World War II. It was a political border separating a single state, that of the “well-guarded countries of Islam”—which also extended over a part of Africa and Asia—from several distinct Christian states. But it was much more than that: it was perceived on both sides as separating two worlds that stood opposed by their religions and more broadly, by their irreducibly different civilizations. That, at least, was the view arising from the respective ideologies previously described. On the Christian side, the Polish and Hungarian borders were so many ramparts or fortifications of Christendom. On the other side, three border fortresses were designated “Sedd-i islm” (barricade of Islam): one in Herzegovina; one in the sanjak of Qirqa near Zemn; and one in the sanjak of Vidin. A fourth, also in the sanjak of Vidin, present-day Kladovo, was called “Feth-i islm” (Conquest of Islam). Belgrade was given the nickname “Dr ül-Jihd.”

Simultaneously, a mysticism of the border (serhdd) developed among the Ottomans, sustained by the holy orders of dervishes. It made reference to the early glory days of Islam at war and gave rise, in the most prosaic everyday life, to holy figures in touch with the afterlife and endowed with supernatural powers. We therefore read in the vita of Sheikh Muslihuddn of Smreska, a spiritual master of the border: “In his time, on all sides the governors and sovereigns acted with his support and, in confrontations with the enemy as in the expeditions of gzis, in his presence and in his absence, they appealed to the departed one for help.” One day, that sheikh was seen in the company of a man who looked like an irregular soldier (a levend), with whom he conversed on familiar terms. When the stranger left, the sheikh asked one of his dervishes: “Have you seen the levend? He is of the Seven.” Referring to the mystic doctrine of Ibn ‘Arab, the biographer explains: “He meant by that that the sheikh was in the position of a pole (kutb), and that he knew the hidden saints (rijl) who were beneath him. But God is the most knowing!”

The symbols used to represent the two opposing sacralized worlds after the conclusion of peace treaties, when mixed commissions sought jointly to realize on the ground the line that separated them, were of the same register. In Dalmatia, crosses carved on tree trunks or on walls of rock delimited Venetian territory, crescent moons that of the Ottomans Similarly, during the Polish-Ottoman demarcation in 1680, four years after the truce of urawno between the two countries, stone mounds were erected on either side to mark the border. On the top of the mounds, the Poles planted crosses, and the Ottomans piled up pieces of wood shaped like turbans. A soldier in the escort of the Polish commissars reported: “When it came time to build mounds, the Turks, using spades they had attached to their saddles, built in a flash a mound of earth, after digging around a large trunk of an oak tree found in the middle. Once the work was completed, their superiors climbed on top of the mound and barked like dogs, their faces turned to the sky, thanking God for having conquered all that by their swords.”

That strong symbolic investment did not prevent the Islamic-Christian border from being, in actual fact, a border like any other in many respects, with the ambiguities common to border situations. A border is both a separation and a passageway, whether official or secret. It can institute an artificial break between ethnically and even religiously similar populations (for example, the Serbs and the Croats on either side of the Ottoman-Hungarian border), or those who, in any event, share a way of life. A border therefore makes no sense for transhumant shepherds or for fishermen in quest of waters full of fish. At the same time, in contrast to “the interior,” it is a place of constant tensions, of “border incidents,” and of contacts and exchanges of all natures.

That Islamic-Christian border, imposed by events, was fundamentally a scandal for both parties. Each saw it as the stigma of an unacceptable situation. For the Christians, it was the mark of an illegitimate presence that had amputated part of their continent, the painful materialization of a historical anomaly. For the Ottomans, the border signified the nonfulfillment of their mission. So long as it survived, it reminded them of their failure; it stood as a reproach. The fact is, it took them a long time to admit openly the reality of their borders. Only a painful learning process would persuade them that they did not rule over a virtually universal empire but over a particular state, which, like other states, had its limits. The preamble to a border demarcation act (sinurnme) with Poland in 1680, inserted in the census registry of the Ottoman province of Podolia, took care to recall, in very stereotypical terms in fact, that though the document that followed had to do with borders, these were not to be taken too seriously, since only God entrusts kingdoms to the rulers of the world here below. A Hadith is evoked promising that, sooner or later, all the territories of unbelievers would become accessible to the warriors of Islam. Already, it was observed, the infidels had begun to desert by fleeing their ramparts, their fortresses, and their forts. As other texts on the subject of diplomacy indicated, fixing the borders could follow only from the principle of “dissimulation” (mudara). It was not until the late eighteenth century—1772 to be exact—that, drawing the lessons from the dramatic setbacks suffered at the hands of Russia, an Ottoman diplomat, Ahmed Resmi, ventured to send a “council treaty” (layiha) to Muhsinzde, grand vizier of the time, expressly recommending that the empire be maintained within the defined borders and condemning dreams of excessive expansion.


Rejected by both parties on principle, the Islamic-Christian border was a militarized border or, to borrow the expression that would be used for the Habsburg border after the Treaty of Karlowitz, a “military border” (Militärgrenze). It was not a continuous rampart over the entire length of the border, a “Great Wall of China”; rather, more complex defense systems appeared on several key segments of it. These were a combination of major fortresses several lines deep, built of stone, and following whenever possible the most modern principles of military architecture (the trace italienne, or bastioned fortress), and of a whole set of forts and guard posts possessing more rudimentary and much less burdensome alert systems. Such was the case for the stockades (palanques; the word, like the object itself, existed on both sides of the Hungarian border): forts surrounded by a defensive wall made of tree trunks into which loopholes had been cut, encircled by a moat. Such structures existed on the Ottoman as well as the Christian side, sometimes separated by very large distances, as in the steppes of the Black Sea. In both cases, depending on the circumstances, they could have an offensive as well as a defensive role: they were used as a base for launching occasional harassment raids in the Kleinkrieg but also for operations of greater scope in times of declared war. The border was never inert, even when, officially, it was peacetime. The very existence of a permanent military presence meant that local incidents would invariably break out in one place or another. In 1567, for example, Emperor Maximilian was moving toward peace with the Turks, yet he nevertheless wrote to one of his officers, captain of the fortress of Kiskomáron, south of Lake Balaton: “Keep your soldiers at the ready as if there were no peace at all.”


In the center of Europe, the need to build a barrier against the Ottoman advance emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sigismund of Luxemburg, king of Hungary, set in place a system whose cornerstone was Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár), ceded by George Brankovi, the despot of Serbia. One of his successors, King Matthias Corvinus (1458–1490), reorganized that old defense system to make it more coherent and unified. It was now divided into three sectors: to the west, the sector of Croatia-Dalmatia and Slavonia, placed under the authority of a single commander, or ban; in the center, a second sector called Lower Danube, under the authority of the “captain general of the lower regions of the kingdom of Hungary”; and finally, to the east, a third unit of defense under the authority of the voivode of Transylvania. Farther back from the border, the system was complemented by two other parallel fortress systems.

The conquest of Belgrade by Sleyman the Magnificent in 1521 dealt a fatal blow to that system. A few decades later, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Ferdinand of Habsburg’s ambassador, would draw a military lesson from that event, which he judged key: “It is clear that this event threw open the flood-gates and admitted the tide of troubles in which Hungary is now engulfed. Its first approach involved the death of King Louis, the capture of Buda, the enslavement of Transylvania, the overthrow of a flourishing kingdom, and an alarm among neighboring nations lest the same fate should befall them also.” And he concluded: “These events ought to be a lesson to the princes of Christendom and make them realize that, if they wish to be safe, they cannot be too careful in securing their fortifications and strongholds against the enemy.” But in the wake of 1521, it appeared that the kingdom of Hungary, threatened by such an adversary, did not have the means to assure its own defense. In a sense, Hungary had to “internationalize” it. The young king, Louis II Jagellon, appealed for the support of one more powerful than he, his brother-in-law and ally, Ferdinand of Habsburg, Charles V’s younger brother. Ferdinand was archduke of Austria, and, after Louis II’s accidental death, he would become king of Hungary and Bohemia. During the siege of Belgrade, he sent thousands of Germanic foot soldiers from the hereditary possessions of the Habsburgs to rescue the city. The Ottomans were victorious. In 1522, King Louis II granted Peter Berislavic, ban of Croatia (Croatia had been associated with Hungary by a personal union since 1102), permission to entrust the defense of the Croatian border to Ferdinand, which made Habsburg a de facto suzerain of Croatia. Subsequently, on January 1, 1527, following on the Battle of Mohács, Ferdinand was elected king of Croatia, in exchange for the pledge to defend the country against the Turks. So began the organization of the Habsburg border of Croatia, which would serve as a prototype for the very long Habsburg border generally. The line of that Croatian border with the Turks remained almost unaltered until the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, which would change the rules of the game by placing Bosnia-Herzegovina under Austrian administration. As for the Hungarian part of the border, it was first drawn with the tripartition of the kingdom in 1541: the center became an Ottoman province; the east a principality of Transylvania, vassal of the Ottomans; and the north and west a “Royal Hungary” in the hands of the Habsburgs. At that date, the border began east of the Maros and Temes valleys, then followed the northern edge of the Hungarian great plain to the center and southwest of Transdanubia, finally reaching Slavonia. But unlike the Croatian border, the Hungarian border, nibbled away by the Turks, continued to evolve during the rest of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the same time, the Habsburgs came to emphasize the Christian and therefore transnational character of the enormous border, which they defended over hundreds of kilometers, from the Carpathians to the Adriatic. In particular, the needs of a centralized organization impelled them to “denationalize” or “exterritorialize,” and also to Germanize, the corresponding zones. German subsidies, obtained with some difficulty from the diets of the Reich, in large part financed that system. It was therefore not only the populations directly threatened or actually affected by the Turkish peril but others as well, across Mitteleuropa as a whole, who assumed the tax burden. The argument given to those for whom the peril was more remote tended to be more religious than national.

The agricultural zones entrusted to settlers behind the lines of fortresses, as well as the fortresses themselves, now escaped the influence of the magnates and traditional institutions, both Croatian and Hungarian. The Habsburgs placed them under Austrian military authority, which, as of 1556, took the form of the Wiener Hofkriegsrat, or Consilium Bellicum. That war council, established in Vienna, assumed the centralized command and military administration of the Turkish border, and also oversaw diplomatic relations with Istanbul. A bureau of experts and an administration, which developed over time and split into specialized bureaus, aided the council. Prince Eugene of Savoy, champion of the fight against the Turks in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (his martial statue would later be erected in front of the Habsburg Palace on Castle Hill), was war council president from 1703 to 1736. As of 1578, there was also a War Council of Inner Austria (Inner-Österreichischer Hofkriegsrat), established in Gratz until 1705, which controlled the border of Croatia and Slavonia.

The Hungarian and Croatian troops were not sufficient to cover the border, and the Habsburgs, like the authorities in charge of the other segments of the border with the Turks, and like the Turks themselves, were obliged to use every means at their disposal. As Sigismund of Luxemburg had done in his time, they used Orthodox Serbian settlers (Soldatenbauer) and many kinds of religious dissidents. Those attending the large military conference held in Vienna in 1577 even planned to establish the Teutonic Order in Hungary, which seemed logical, since that order, created in the Holy Land during the Crusades, had been installed in Prussia in the thirteenth century to fight the pagan Slavs. They never realized that plan, but they did establish German mercenaries alongside other elements in the Hungarian fortresses. That presence elicited the sharpest of criticisms from the diets of Hungary, which considered the Germans even more barbarous than the Turks. The crimes and impieties they attributed to them reached the level of atrocities. The “remonstrances” (gravamina) of the Diet of 1662 portrayed these German mercenaries as follows: “Against the peasants they have perpetrated homicide, torture, rape, even murder following rape, such that they have committed worse violence than the Turks. They have not even respected the sacred character of the churches but have acted out their guilty passions on prepubescent minors who took refuge in these churches; they even went so far as to cut children to pieces and threw others into the fire.” If these words are not merely an expression of xenophobia and the violence actually went that far—if, that is, some chose the churches to indulge in their abominations—we must believe that undesirables could be found on the ramparts of Christendom!


Kazakh warrior in padded armour, 15th-16th century


Alert systems as well as forts and bastions were also set up on the coasts and islands, which the opposing fleets and pirates of all sorts threatened. In its Stato da mare, Venice especially undertook impressive fortification projects with state-of-the-art technology against the Turks. But that statement must be qualified, since one of Venice’s finest accomplishments, the citadel of Nicosia in Cyprus, fell into the hands of the Turkish besiegers within two months; by contrast, the siege of Famagusta, which did not benefit from the same technical advances, lasted no fewer than eleven months.

In the marine zones, the notion of border was obviously hazier, and defense meant primarily control of strategic points.

In that sense, the entrances to the straits leading to Istanbul represented an essential “border” for the Ottomans. The first fortresses they built on the Bosphorus before the taking of Constantinople—Anadolu Hisri, constructed by Bayezid I in 1394, and Rmeli Hisri, built by Mehmed II in 1452—were intended to blockade the Bosphorus and thus prevent any rescue by sea of the besieged Byzantines. Once the city was captured, the sultan was anxious to preserve it from all external aggression. The threat came primarily by sea, usually from the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, since the Black Sea was becoming an “Ottoman lake.” Under these conditions, it was the entrance to the Dardanelles especially that the conqueror was anxious to fortify, building new fortresses on either side of the strait: Kal‘e-i Sultniye in Asia, near ancient Abydos; and Kilid al-Bahr on the European coast. He also had the island of Tenedos (Bozcaada) fortified. Süleyman the Magnificent would again restore the two castles in the Dardanelles in 1551, but they gradually fell into neglect in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, since the decline of Venice left few worries in that regard. By contrast, during the War of Crete, they once again became a very sensitive zone. Mehmed II’s two castles were again restored and two new forts built at the entrance to the Aegean Sea: Sedd al-Bahr on the European bank and Kum Kal‘e on the Asian side. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–1774, because the Russians had entered the Mediterranean, there was a need for two new forts on the banks of the Dardanelles. A French volunteer of Hungarian origin, Baron François de Tott, supervised their construction.

In the meantime, the outlet of the Bosphorus onto the Black Sea had in turn become a “border” to be defended: the danger began to appear in the early seventeenth century, as a result of the sudden appearance in the strait of a new and bold adversary engaged in worrisome exploits, the Cossacks of Ukraine. To parry these blows, Sultan Murad IV built two new fortresses on either bank of the Bosphorus, at its extremity, near the two present-day castles of Rmeli Kavai and Anadolu Kavai. Evliya Çelebi calls them the “padlocks of the sea” (Kilid al-Bahr kal‘eler).

With the rise of the Russian threat, which became in the eighteenth century the chief peril to the empire’s integrity, that end of the Bosphorus became the most sensitive point of the Ottoman borders. In the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–1771, even though the Russian fleet appeared in the Mediterranean and not the Black Sea, the Ottomans felt the need to reorganize the defense of the Bosphorus by building new fortifications on both its banks, and at the entrance to the Black Sea. Selim III (1789–1807) would further develop and improve that new defense system, known as the “seven fortresses” (kil‘-i seb‘a).


The mention of the Cossack incursions and of the Russian advance in the Black Sea brings us back to another segment of the Islamic-Christian front in Europe, the northeastern one. It was less visible than the Habsburg front because less central to Europe, but it was also a theater for centuries-old confrontations in the name of the Cross and the Crescent. In that enormous zone delimited to the north by the fringes of the taiga, to the south by the Black Sea, to the west by the Lower Danube, and to the east by the Volga, the conflict between Islam and Christendom (Catholic and Orthodox) predated the Ottomans. It went back to the Islamization of the Golden Horde, itself a legacy of the Mongol conquest of the region. In 1475, Sultan Mehmed II became the suzerain of the Tatar khanate of Crimea, which had emerged some decades earlier from the dismantled Golden Horde. In addition, the Ottomans would have direct access to a certain number of strongholds and territories south of that entity, at the mouths of the great rivers on the north side of the Black Sea. The kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania, joined by the Union of Lublin in 1569, and the grand principality of Moscow, which would gradually become the empire of the tsars, stood opposite that Muslim region, beyond the steppes. Within that natural environment, Muslim and Christian states were separated not by a more or less linear border but by huge, almost unpopulated and undeveloped spaces. These were the “wildlands” (dikoe pole in Russian; dzikie pola in Polish), a land border that was in many respects more like a sea border. That vast territory would give rise to the Ukraine, whose very name alludes to the fact that it was a border (krai, ukraina).

North of that zone, Poland and Lithuania built a line of fortresses designed to protect the southern border zones of their territories. These were the cities of Bar, Kanev, Braslaw, Vinnitsa, Wlodzimierz, Kiev (former capital of the first Russia), Kamenec, and Chmielnick. Farther to the northeast, the Muscovites also built their line of fortresses between Bolhov and Tambov, but from the sixteenth century on, that border began to advance to the south.

These fortresses were in the hands of representatives of great noble families, who were both military governors (starosts) and very large property owners. Included among these great Polish-Lithuanian names were the Sanguszkos, the Sienawskis, the Ostrogskis, the Proskis, and the Winiowieckis (Višniaveckis). Some, such as a noble from Silesia, Bernard Pretwicz, starost of Bar, would become semilegendary heroes in the fight against the Turks and the Tatars. In 1552, Sleyman the Magnificent expressly requested that Pretwicz be removed. King Sigismund Augustus gave the sultan satisfaction, transferring the troublemaker to Trembowla, a stronghold farther from the border. But other champions of the anti-Turkish struggle immediately replaced Pretwicz on the border.

Altogether south of that zone, where the great rivers flow into the Black Sea, stood the Ottoman fortresses: Kili (Chilia) on the Lower Danube, and Aqkerman (Cetatea-Alb, Belgorod Dniestrovskij) on the Lower Dniester, both conquered by Bayezid II; Bender (Tighina), farther upstream on the Dniester, annexed by Sleyman; and Jankerman (Özü, Ochakov, Ochakiv) on the Lower Dnieper, built by the khan of Crimea between 1492 and 1495 and occupied by the Ottomans in 1538. To these were added Kefe (Caffa, Feodosija) and the other Ottoman fortresses on the southern and southeastern coast of Crimea; Kersh and Taman on the Cimmerian Bosphorus (the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov); and, in the Sea of Azov, Azov (Azak) at the mouth of the Don, which the Ottomans and the Russians would fight over from the end of the seventeenth century to the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja in 1774.

As for the khanate of Crimea, it was within the purview of a tribal and clan organization and was based on a plunder economy. The Tatar hordes would raid the villages and cities on the border to bring back booty, especially slaves, who supplied the Ottoman market. Caffa was the hub of that traffic, as it had been in the Genoese period. The frequency and intensity of the raids were a function of the relations between the khan on one hand, the king of Poland and the prince of Moscow on the other. Depending on the period, the khan was sometimes the ally of Poland, sometimes that of Russia. The payment of a tribute governed these alliances; to the extent that it was actually paid, it served to compensate the loss of revenue resulting from the reduction in the number of raids. Beginning in 1513, therefore, Crimea was allied with Poland-Lithuania against Moscow, in exchange for the Polish king’s pledge to pay an annual tribute of fifteen thousand florins, so that, as Khan Muhammad Giray wrote, “his kingdom may be spared.” There was nothing absolute about the guarantee, however, since the khan was far from in control of all that activity, which stemmed in large measure from a constellation of autonomous actors. As Khan Mengli Giray wrote to King Alexander Jagellon in 1506, in response to the king’s complaints: “Hungry people, when they are on horseback, must feed themselves wherever they can find food.” In addition, some Tatar groups were entirely independent of the khan. Wandering nomads north of the Black Sea, they are designated in the sources by the names of the Ottoman fortresses that they used, as needed, for bases and refuges.

As a result of all that, the “politics of the steppes” cannot be reduced to a binary confrontation between Islam and Christendom; it was the result of a complex game between protagonists acting at different levels. The rulers might be at peace, as the sultan and the king of Poland were continuously for the greater part of the sixteenth century, but that in no way prevented local actors—Polish-Lithuanian great lords on the border, Ottoman pashas or the chiefs of Tatar hordes, all at great distances from their respective capitals—from having their own interests and objectives. In fact, they had the upper hand in a very active Kleinkrieg, whose end was unlikely, particularly since the raids of one camp came in response to those of another.


A new phenomenon emerged from a desire to respond effectively to the raids of the Tatars by returning them in kind: “Cossackry,” or at least, the use the Polish-Lithuanian defense would make of the Cossacks.

The term “Cossack” comes from a Turkish word, kazak, which designates a dissident, a rebel, a bandit. It is especially used in the Ottoman sources to designate the groups of Tatars independent from the khan. And just as there were Muslim kazak, there would be Christian Cossacks. Within that context, the term was first applied to elements at odds with the established order of feudal society, particularly peasants fleeing the exploitation and oppression of the Polish-Lithuanian magnates. These dissidents settled, seasonally or permanently from the start, in the no-man’s-land separating the Christian borders from the Tatar regions. Historians differ a great deal about the origins—in reality fairly obscure—of the phenomenon, and their respective interpretations are usually not devoid of ulterior motives, whether ideological, national, or social. In any event, the migrants took refuge particularly in what was called Niz, the Dnieper Valley beyond the river rapids. There they engaged in a kind of ideal life, rugged to be sure, but free and virile, combining hunting, fishing, the harvesting of honey, and out-and-out banditry. They lived in small groups but could also band together for actions on a larger scale, under the authority of charismatic leaders from their ranks or, paradoxically, under great border lords. Relations were ambiguous between the border nobility and these dissidents, who called into question the established order and, when necessary, struck blows to it, but who in other respects represented a labor force invaluable for opposing the Tatar raids. The Cossacks themselves could not be totally at odds with the interior, on which they remained dependent, if only for their necessary supplies of arms and gunpowder. In addition, once their leaders began to emerge, the Polish model of nobility did not fail to exert its attraction on them. The best illustration of these ambiguities is provided by a case that has greatly divided historians, that of the Lithuanian prince (of the Orthodox faith) Dimitrij Višniavecki, who was also the prototype for Bayda, the hero of Ukrainian popular tales. Named starost of Kanev and Cherkasy by the king of Poland, Višniavecki was, in the 1550s and 1560s, one of the most visible successors of Bernard Pretwicz in the fight against the Tatars. In August and September 1556, he traveled down the Dnieper at the head of a private army and occupied the island of Malaja Hortica, fifteen kilometers south of the last rapids. There he built a fortress, the first milestone in the “camp” (se) of Zaporogue Cossacks, or “Cossacks of the rapids,” which somewhat later was set up on another island in the Dnieper, Tomakovka, some sixty kilometers farther south. The se became a base for launching Cossack raids, whose troops were now more rigorously organized and structured. The Zaporogue army included regiments subdivided into tens and hundreds. Each regiment elected delegates to a council that itself chose a supreme leader, designated by two partly homophonic terms: hetman (from the German Hauptmann) and ataman (an old Turkish term). The many lexical borrowings from the Turko-Tatars only illustrate the Cossacks’ extensive imitation of their antagonists. They resembled each other, in fact, but only to better stand in contrast: it was said that any man who presented himself to the hetman to become a Cossack would be accepted only after a ritual consisting primarily of making the (Orthodox) sign of the cross.

After the major Tatar raid against Moscow in 1571, conducted by Khan Devlet Giray I, as a result of which the Russian capital was partly destroyed, not only Russia but the Poland of King Stephen Báthory felt the need to secure their hold over the Cossacks. They organized a new defense system that included guard posts manned by a special category of “Cossacks” who were better controlled by the states, the “registered Cossacks” (reestrovye). Relatively effective against the Tatar raids, they were more or less docile and maintained shifting relationships with the “true” Cossacks. The last two decades of the sixteenth century and the first four of the seventeenth century were the golden age of Cossack military power—a stateless army that had become an insuperable factor in regional policy. Their actions occurred by land and by sea. They had always been skillful at moving across the great rivers of the steppe, but in about 1600, they equipped themselves with an actual fleet of vessels, small but sturdy and easy to handle, by means of which they increased the number of their brilliant exploits. Venturing into the Black Sea, they attacked the Ottoman ports: Varna, on the Bulgarian coast, was plundered in 1614; Sinop, in northern Anatolia, met the same fate in 1614. At the same time, they momentarily occupied another neighboring stronghold, Trabzon (Trebizond), and attacked Beykoz, on the Bosphorus on the outskirts of Istanbul. The Cossacks seemed ready to repeat the assaults of the old Varegues against the walls of Constantinople in the early Middle Ages. In the early seventeenth century, the hetman Peter Sahaidchany, originally from western Galicia, fled Poland to seek refuge in Cossack territory, where he ultimately imposed his supreme authority. Like Višniavecki before him, he became a hero of legend, the inspiration for many anecdotes. (In one of these, extenuating circumstances led him to exchange his wife for a pipe and tobacco.) In 1617, he supported Poland in its war against Moscow, which earned him the position of commander of the “registered Cossacks.” An indefatigable actor in the struggle against the Tatars on the steppe, he seized Ottoman Kefe in 1616 and took the opportunity to liberate the Christian slaves there. During the 1621 Ottoman campaign of Osman II in Khotyn, he again took Poland’s side. But the emergence of that new power was ultimately a danger for Poland and for the Ottomans, though they did not fully realize it for some time. The two states therefore agreed to prevent the Cossacks from becoming in their turn a state that would disrupt the political balance of the region. The Ottomans, however, who had only limited confidence in the capacity for Polish resistance, did not believe they could forgo organizing a new defense system north of the Black Sea, rehabilitating some of their old fortresses and constructing new ones. Moreover, they placed the forts and cities of Bujak (the region between the mouth of the Danube and that of the Dniester) under the authority of a Nogay Tatar leader, Kantemir Mirza. In addition, the energetic Murad IV, wishing to increase his control over a khan of Crimea still inclined to shake off Ottoman tutelage, in 1624 dismissed Khan Muhammad Giray and named as his successor another member of the dynasty, Janibeg Giray, who had been waiting in the wings on the island of Rhodes. Yet Muhammad Giray refused to give in and attempted to remain in place. To carry out that bold plan to defy the Porte, he and his brother, the qalgha Shahin Giray, concluded an accord with the Zaporogue Cossacks in December 1624. The sultan seems to have yielded. The episode is noteworthy, since for once, these two buffer forces, Tatars and Cossacks, similar in nature and antagonistic in principle, came together, while the two “established” states, seeing their creatures about to escape their control, united to stop them. The Ottomans played their trump card, the Nogay leader Kantimir Mirza, against the rebel khan and once more removed Muhammad Giray. He and his brother tried again to resist by taking refuge in Poland, where they formed an army of forty thousand men, composed of Tatars but also of Polish adventurers and Zaporogue Cossacks. The two rebels were finally defeated. As a result, the khans of Crimea would more than ever be under the sway of the sultan of Istanbul, who appointed and dismissed them as he liked, until the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja imposed the autonomy of Crimea, a prelude to the Russian takeover. As for the Cossacks, Poland and then Russia went on subjugating them. In 1638, the Polish armies, aided by the “registered Cossacks,” stamped out the most intractable elements of Cossackry and eliminated their institutions. A large number of Zaporogue Cossacks then took refuge on the left bank of the Dnieper. There they came into contact with other Cossacks, known as the Don Cossacks. Finally, at the instigation of their hetman, Bohdan Khmelnicki, they came under the control of Russia, by the terms of the Treaty of Perejaslav (1654).


17th century Hungarian Hajdúk

Uskoks of Croatia


This brief glimpse of the Cossacks has shown that their history is highly revealing of the complexities and ambiguities of the Islamic-Christian border. The inexpiable and chronic struggles for which that border was the theater were no doubt waged in the name of two antagonistic religions, but political interests inextricably combined with them: the lords of the Polish-Lithuanian border had irredentist aims on the coasts of the Black Sea and conducted their own policy, in concert with the Habsburgs when necessary. That policy was officially at odds with the one announced by the Polish Crown, which was compelled to exercise caution toward its troublesome neighbor. The Crown, however, did not neglect to give these lords their approval and support, but by necessity in secret. Economic interests were also present, since there was booty to be had on either side, and on this point the Cossacks and their potential silent partners among the nobility were not to be outdone by the Tatars.

At the same time, each of the two camps, in violent opposition with each other, was far from being as united as the Manichaean model of confrontation would suggest. On the Christian side, tensions existed not only between the Russian and Polish states but also between Catholics and those of the Orthodox faith. At the social level, that is, between lords and peasants, these conflicts lay at the very heart of Cossackry, even if the movement was later co-opted to a certain degree.

The Muslim camp was also not unified. Grafted onto the Ottoman-Tatar tensions were all sorts of conflicts among the Tatars themselves: rivalries between members of the ruling clan and rivalries between tribes, as illustrated by the episode involving Kantemir Mirza, the ally of the Ottomans against the ruling Giray branch. These fissures on both sides opened the way for a complex play of alliances and oppositions that was not always overridden by the fundamental Islam/Christendom cleavage.

In addition, the Cossacks were the emblematic embodiment of a phenomenon—the one, perhaps, that left the most traces in Europe’s collective memory (though we must take care to remember that each region of Europe has its specific memory)—that existed more or less, in various forms and with diverse fates, along every segment of the Islamic-Christian border in Europe.

As for the Habsburg border in Croatia and Slavonia, it too was separated from the Turkish lines by a no-man’s-land similar to the Polish dzikie pola, though on a smaller scale. These were called the nicija zemlja (“empty lands”). They resulted from the border raids by Turkish forces but also from the scorched-earth policy conducted on both sides. Refugees leaving the territories ruled by the Turks came to settle on these marches near the Habsburg lines. They were given the name “Uskoks” (from a Croatian verb uskociti, meaning “to move by successive leaps”). They were primarily Serbs and Vlachs. (These Romanian-speaking Vlachs were also called “Arumanians” or “Kutsovlachs” or “Tsintsars.”) The authorities granted them peasant holdings on uncultivated lands and on the prairies. In 1538, Ferdinand of Habsburg exempted them from paying taxes for twenty years, in exchange for their services guarding the border, and granted them the right to collect a third of the booty recovered from the Turks. Each Uskok captain had to maintain a standing army of two hundred settler-soldiers.

Over time, various elements joined these first Uskoks, not only Serbs and Vlachs from the Ottoman Balkans but also—moving us closer to the origins of the Cossacks—outlaws and peasants fleeing the oppression of the Hungarian and Croatian magnates in order to live under a different social arrangement. Their base cell was the zadruga, a community of members united by blood ties, collectively using goods held jointly and sharing the revenues among themselves. Several communities formed a village, which elected its own civil and military leaders. The rights and obligations of these “border guards” (Grenzer, Granicari) was ratified and elaborated in the very exhaustive charter on the military borders of Slavonia and Croatia, issued in 1630 by Emperor Ferdinand II, the statuta Valachorum. The term haram, an Arabic word meaning “outlaw” or “bandit,” transmitted by the Ottomans, was used to designate these communities, whose military leader bore the Slavic title “voivode.” Several “harams” formed a “kapitanat,” commanded by a kapitan, who was under the “border general.”

In addition to these land Uskoks on the Croatian border, there were maritime Uskoks along the edge of the other border zone, the Adriatic. Their base was the fortress of Senj (Segna), an aerie overlooking the sea. Some of these maritime Uskoks also came from the Ottoman territories, which they had fled, but others were from the Habsburg possessions and from Venice. Like the Cossacks, they were ardent defenders of Christianity and the inveterate enemies of Islam, but they would sometimes attack and pillage the ships of Christians living under the sultan’s rule or in Venice. They justified themselves by arguing that these were bad Christians who collaborated with the infidel. They were officially dependents of the Habsburgs, but Venice sought to contain them, so as not to incite disputes with the Ottomans detrimental to its commercial interests.

The Ottomans, of course, also had corsairs in the Adriatic. Intended on principle to respond to the attacks of the Uskoks, they did not overlook an opportunity to take the initiative. Nor did either side forgo attacking ships from their own camp on occasion. Similarly, when the two opposing camps wanted to settle their quarrels and enter a phase of peace, their respective corsair auxiliaries, deaf to all diplomatic considerations, continued to obstruct commerce and to precipitate incidents. They thus became a nuisance, against whom the two camps now united. For example, the minutes of a hearing held by the judge (n’ib) of the fortress of Nova record that the representatives of Venice and those of the sultan reached an agreement to compensate merchants and other victims of corsairs, dependents of each of the two parties, as well as victims of Montenegro bandits (Karada eshkiyalari). On the Hungarian border as well, the Habsburgs had to be very pragmatic in resolving the question of labor power. They appealed to German mercenaries, to the great displeasure of the populations they were supposed to protect, since in reality the Germans perpetrated the worst misdeeds. In addition, as their predecessors had already done in the fifteenth century, the Habsburgs recruited shepherds and serfs for their border needs. As in the previous cases, these elements were designated by a term of Turkish origin meaning “bandit”: they were hajduks (Turkish, haydut). It is quite true that they often became bandits. In 1604, Stephen Bocskai, future prince of Transylvania, used that labor pool in his rebellion against the Habsburgs. Once his victory was assured, he fulfilled the promise he had made to the hajduks who had supported him: by the terms of an agreement reached with Vienna in 1610, he relocated them to the plain around Debreczen, where they would enjoy a great deal of autonomy. In 1608, the Hungarian diet recognized their privileges in exchange for the performance of military service for the king. Thereby established on the border of Ottoman Hungary and Transylvania, they maintained small strongholds between the course of the Tisza and the Transylvanian border. These elements, however, were overseen by Calvinist preachers and welcomed fugitive peasants, whom they refused to hand over. Once again, the Islamic-Christian border, by virtue of the need for troops to which it gave rise, became, with the complicity of the border officers, a social escape route for those in the hinterland and the site of an “alternative” society.

Another famous episode in the history of these communities with a special status, established on the border between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman, was linked to the wave of Serbian emigration in 1690. In 1689, the imperial army, having recovered Hungary, had broken through the Ottoman defense and penetrated into Serbia and Bosnia. Many Serbs had taken the side of the invaders and conducted guerrilla warfare against their Ottoman masters. Their religious leader, Patriarch of Pec Arsenio III Crnojevic, after hesitating between placing himself under the protection of Venice or under that of Emperor Leopold I, finally opted for Leopold. On April 16, 1690, Leopold published a proclamation in which he asserted his desire to restore the ancestral freedoms of all peoples who were his subjects in his capacity as king of Hungary. He especially promised to ensure freedom of religion. That pledge favored the uprising of the Orthodox Serbians and Albanians, the sultan’s subjects, by mooting their reservations about a regime known for its militant Catholicism. As a result, the imperial armies suffered setbacks that obliged them to retreat. The Serbian patriarch also decided on withdrawal, taking along a portion of his people, though their number is in dispute: he himself spoke of forty thousand families. They went first to Belgrade—in June 1690—a city the imperial forces still held. But the Ottomans recaptured Belgrade on October 9. The Ottoman victory forced the patriarch and his flock to negotiate with Leopold a move to Habsburg territory. On August 21, 1690, the emperor published a first diploma—others would follow in subsequent years—laying the foundations for Serbian autonomy, particularly in religious matters, in a kingdom of Hungary that had come under Habsburg domination. The Serbian peasant soldiers escaped the unbridled tax exactions of the noble large landowners and did not pay tithes to the Catholic clergy. They dedicated the equivalent sum to supporting their own clergy. The Hungarian magnates and the episcopate did not fail to protest these privileges. In addition, on May 1, 1694, the War Council of Vienna decided that the Serbs would receive lands in “Cumania,” that is, between the Danube and the Tisza. After that, the Serbs came to populate the regions, desert at the time, of that zone along the Danube, from the lower Tisza and the Maros to the border with the Ottomans.

Since there were Serbs on the Ottoman side of that border as well, here, as along the border of Slavonia-Croatia, the Serbian people were split in two by the great fracture. Initially, the Serbian patriarch was also installed on the border, at the Krushedol Monastery (about fifty kilometers northwest of Belgrade), among his people. But in 1701, he received the order to move to Szentendre (about twenty kilometers north of Buda), this time far from his flock.


On the Ottoman side of the border of central Europe, there were no exact equivalents of the Uskoks of Croatia or the hajduks of Hungary, but there was a similar need felt to complement the regular units (Janissaries sent from the capital, siph who held local timars) by elements recruited, with extreme pragmatism, at the local level. A corps of “local Janissaries” (yerli kul) thus formed, made up of Islamized South Slavs and in particular, of emancipated slaves (aza-dlu). Another corps, the ‘azab, posted to the fortress garrisons but participating in naval expeditions as well, also recruited from among the local Slav peasants. Originally Christians, they usually—but not always—became Muslims. A Ragusan witness thus wrote to Emperor Maximilian I in the early sixteenth century, “possunt esse Assapi tam christiani quam Turcae et aliae nationes.” As for the corps of martolos, present in many Ottoman border fortresses, they were still composed primarily of Christians, though they included converts to Islam, and their officers, the aghas, were Muslims. They also displayed another similarity to the Grenzener on the other side: although some received pay, others were peasant soldiers whose land holdings had a special status, exempting them from most agricultural royalties. It is possible that, on this side as well, the Serbs were organized into extended family communities of the zadruga type. Ottoman regulations specified that those of their brothers and nephews who did not perform military service were not exempt from the ordinary agricultural royalties.


The acquisitions in North Africa of Sleyman the Magnificent and Selim II had made the coasts of Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli an Ottoman border. This time, the western Mediterranean constituted the buffer zone with the Christian states. As on other borders, local representatives of the central power, from which they were far removed, had a tendency to conduct their own policies, which did not always coincide with that of the center. But things went farther here than elsewhere: the former provinces became quasi-independent states, though they never completely cut the umbilical cord attaching them to Istanbul. Like the other border regions, the “regencies” had at their disposal a labor force in the “intermediate buffer zone.” This time they were Barbary corsairs. Like the other “border men,” these corsairs were unpredictable (opportunity could turn them into common pirates) and their motivations were mixed: they fought in the name of Islam, and it has been noted that the resentment of Muslims, then of the Moriscos driven from Spain, played a role in the growth of privateering and in the trafficking to which it gave rise. At the same time, privateering and its booty were also their source of revenue, an alternative to regular commerce. The corsair captains and their own captains, like the officers of the Maghrebian ojak, occasionally rose from the ranks of these “renegades,” whose Islamization generally took place for opportunistic reasons and did not always withstand every test. (But woe to those “Christians of Allah” if they returned to Christendom and fell into the clutches of the Inquisition!) Among the renegades were emancipated slaves, but also, since here again the border served as an escape valve, dissidents of all kinds who had an interest in fleeing Christendom: dissatisfied soldiers or sailors, peasants oppressed by their lords, habitual offenders and other outlaws, merchants in quest of brighter opportunities, and any specialist willing to cash in on his knowledge or expertise. There was no dearth of Venetians, Genoese, Sicilians, Calabrians, Neopolitans, Corsicans, and sometimes even Jews, who would “become Turks” and try their luck in Tunis, Algiers, or Tripoli. In part 1 of his Don Quixote (chaps. 39–41), Cervantes recounts that the bey of Algiers, a certain Hasan Pasha, demonstrated his friendship to the author during his captivity in the Barbary port—and that bey was a Dalmatian who had converted to Islam. Another famous example is the man who became bey of Tunis in 1637. The founder of a dynasty, the Muradids, which would rule the regency until the early eighteenth century, he was none other than a Ligurian by the name of Osta Morato. Another celebrated case is that of a Venetian, who would rule Algiers from 1638 to 1645 under the name Ali “Piccinino.” Not all had such good fortune, but many of these renegades had astonishing fates: there was also Orzio Paterno Castello, from a noble family of Catana that he was compelled to leave, having killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. During his escape, he was captured by corsairs from Tripoli, and he converted to Islam, taking the name Ahmad. He would become a dragoman (interpreter) in Tripoli.

Beginning in 1650, the renegades who acquired high positions in the regencies were instead “Ponantines,” seamen from the north, English and Flemish especially. The corsair threat poisoned Mediterranean navigation and had an impact on every nation. It affected populations who were in a position to see “Turks” only during a sea journey, generally to the greater misfortune of the passengers in question. European literature and theater are full of captives taken by the Barbary corsairs, who in an instant reversed people’s best-laid plans and suddenly made the worst outcome seem possible, though not always certain. Molière describes such a fate in The Bungler, act 4, scene 7: “In feats of adventure it is common to see / Folks taken by Turkish corsairs at sea.” Victims of the corsair attacks were reduced to slavery. How many destinies were thereby altered! They would toil and wallow in prisons, in convict galleys, or in the service of private individuals. The Christian states strove to redeem them, as did charitable institutions and religious orders that specialized in bargaining with the infidel masters. The most important of these were the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinitarians, founded in France in 1193 by John of Matha and Felix of Valois, and the Order of Our Lady of Mercy, also called the Mercedarians, which Pedro Nolasco founded in Barcelona in 1203. But the slaves who were redeemed after a more or less prolonged captivity were in the minority. According to the estimate of Emanuel of Aranda, a Flemish gentleman soldier and himself a captive in Algiers, 600,000 Christians died in captivity in Algiers between 1536 and 1640. Considering the Maghrebian slave trade as a whole between 1530 and 1640, a Trinitarian, Father Dan, declared: “It would not be stretching the truth to say that they [the Maghrebis] have put more than a million [Christians] in chains.”

Algiers was the principal center of the slave trade, but all the cities of the Barbary Coast between Sale and Tripoli participated in it. In the hundred years between 1580 and 1680, there were on average some twenty-seven thousand of these Christian slaves in Algiers (there would be fewer subsequently). At the same time, there were some six thousand in Tunis and perhaps two thousand in Tripoli. The grand total for these estimates nearly corresponds to the figures Father Dan indicates on that somber balance sheet:

As to the slaves of both sexes that are in Barbary today, there are a quantity of them from all the Christian nations, such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Flanders, Holland, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Russia, and so forth. The number of these poor captives reaches about thirty-six thousand, according to the enumeration that I have carried out on the spot and to the records that have been furnished and sent to me by the Christian Consuls who live in the Corsair Cities.

Such a grave phenomenon mortgaged the entire economic and social life of many coastal zones, such as those of Valencia, Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Campania, and Sicily. But it also poisoned navigation as a whole, in both the western and eastern basins of the Mediterranean. In addition, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Maghrebis ventured as far as the Atlantic and into the English Channel. They then abducted their captives from off the coast of Cape Finisterre of Galicia, as well as near Belle Isle and Saint Malo, and even on the Banks of Newfoundland, where the French, Portuguese, and English cod fishermen were threatened. Iceland itself was attacked.

Like all who sailed the Mediterranean, the French were targeted, despite their political alliance with the Great Turk. They thought they could remedy the difficulty by turning to him. Registering complaints with the Sublime Porte about the exactions by Barbary corsairs was a recurring mission of ambassadors to Constantinople. But apart from the fact that the pirates were by nature uncontrollable (like the Cossacks, Tatars, and Uskoks), such measures assumed that the regencies were still altogether an Ottoman frontier, when in fact they had become quasi-independent states. They had to be bargained with or combated directly. That realization came about gradually. By the early seventeenth century, an insidious war took hold between the French fleet and the Maghrebis. Then, to end privateering, France signed treaties with Algiers in 1628 and 1640; with Tunis in 1665; and again with Algiers in 1666. But since the problems persisted, in the 1680s Louis XIV engaged in gunboat diplomacy against the corsair ports: in July 1681, Abraham Duquesne bombarded the roadstead of Chios, where he had pursued Tripolitan vessels. Algiers was shelled in 1682, 1683, and 1688; Tripoli in 1685. After that repressive phase, France signed a whole series of new treaties: in 1684 and 1689 with Algiers; in 1681 and 1685 with Tripoli. The corsairs of Sale were a special case, necessitating a negotiation with the Moroccan sovereign. A French captain, Lefebvre de la Barre, negotiated a first treaty, but Versailles refused to ratify it. An ambassador of Mawly Ism‘l named Temim, governor of Tetouan, had to travel to France before Louis XIV would finally sign a treaty, on February 12, 1682. The baron of Saint-Amans brought the text to Morocco, so that Mawly Ism‘l could ratify it in turn. Nevertheless, French-Moroccan relations rapidly deteriorated. In 1699, a new Moroccan embassy to France, that of Admiral Abdallah Ben-‘Aïcha, attempted to conclude another treaty, but negotiations fell apart. The problem posed by the Barbary corsairs persisted into the eighteenth century, and there were further bombings from time to time.


Elsewhere, however, on that border as on others, the mirror effect was fully at play: Christendom’s other response to the exactions of the corsairs was to retaliate in kind against the “Turks.” The corso maltese was a large-scale privateering operation under the aegis of the Knights of Malta, freed from Ottoman pressure by the failure of the siege of the island in 1565. At the same time, the Knights of Saint Stephen established themselves in Livorno in 1562, at the instigation of the grand duke of Tuscany. That organization survived until the early eighteenth century, under the dual patronage of the grand duke and the eponymous saint. These Christian corsairs engaged in pillaging as well. They took booty and especially slaves, who were sold on the markets of Livorno, Malta, and Genoa. For the most part, Muslim captives were assigned to the various European galley fleets as oarsmen. In a letter to Colbert, the marquise of Nointel, ambassador to Constantinople, cites the figure of two thousand “Turks” rowing on French galleys in 1670 (not all came from the Mediterranean corso, however). In 1721, an ambassador of Sultan Ahmed III named Yirmisekiz Çelebi Mehmed Efendi arrived in France with great pomp to see the young Louis XV, having ransomed, at his stop in Malta, a captain by the name of Süleyman held prisoner there. He also brought with him a list of captives in Marseilles and asked the French authorities to liberate them or at least to allow them to be ransomed. The unwillingness he encountered impelled the ambassador to cause a very undiplomatic scene in front of his interlocutor, Minister Dubois:

While you claim to be the best friends of the Most High Empire, you are holding as slaves and in prison more than a thousand of my brothers in the Law. You make them pull the oars on your galleys. What are their crimes? For what reason are they held in that slavery? … The Germans, with whom we are sometimes at war and sometimes at peace, deliver our slaves in exchange for ransom. And there are many to whom they give their freedom without demanding anything! I have received from our people requests by which I see that you have them for thirty, thirty-five, forty years of slavery. Why not deliver them?

That incident marred the festivities and undercut the friendly atmosphere. It peremptorily reminded people of something that everything else was intended to make them forget: that Europe was split in two.

Moldavia, Tatars and Cossacks I

When Bartolomeo Bruti travelled from Istanbul to Moldavia in the spring of 1580 he was not moving outside the Ottoman Empire, but he was entering a territory very different in kind from that empire’s directly governed heartland. Many histories of the Ottomans concentrate heavily on the heartland, because it was the central territories of Anatolia and the Balkans that were ruled in accordance with the classic ‘Ottoman system’, with the military-feudal estates of the spahis, the local kadis administering justice, the sancakbeyis governing their large districts, and the beylerbeyis governing groups of sancaks. Yet at the same time the Ottoman system of imperial rule, in its broadest sense, involved incorporating many other kinds of polity without directly administering them at all. The case of Dubrovnik has already been discussed; the three Romanian principalities of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia were also self-governed; the Khanate of the Crimean Tatars, while in some ways acknowledging Ottoman suzerainty, was ruled by its own Khans; the corsair states of North Africa were essentially self-administering territories with rulers appointed from Istanbul; a dynasty of sharifs of Mecca continued to govern the Hijaz; in the Yemen the application of Ottoman rule was often little more than nominal; in parts of eastern Anatolia populated by Türkmen and Kurdish tribes there were hereditary sancaks held by traditional ruling families; and when the Ottomans acquired much of Georgia in the sixteenth century they mostly left local princes in place as tribute-paying vassals. Altogether, the Ottoman Empire was not a monolithic structure at all; the secret of its huge and rapid expansion, indeed, is to be found not only in its military strength but also in its adaptability to local conditions and traditions in the territories where it took power. As one modern historian has emphasized, some of the commonest normative phrases in the Ottoman official documents of the centuries of conquest are ‘customary practice’ and ‘the way things were done during the rule of the kings’.

In the case of Moldavia – a territory encompassing much of the modern country of Moldova, together with the north-eastern part of Romania that bears the same name – the process of absorption into the Ottoman Empire had been a very lengthy one. Its ‘voivods’ or princely rulers had paid tribute to the Sultan since 1455–6, and its two most valuable ports on the Black Sea coast, Kiliya (Rom.: Chilia; Trk.: Kili) and Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi (Rom.: Cetatea Alba; Trk.: Akkerman) had been seized by the Ottomans in 1484. The Ottoman conquest of much of Hungary, after the crushing defeat of the Hungarian army in 1526 at the Battle of Mohács, shifted the entire strategic balance in the region, strengthening the dominance of the Sultan over the Romanian principalities. In 1538 an ambitious maverick voivod of Moldavia, Petru Rareş, who defied Süleyman the Magnificent, was forced to flee by an invading Ottoman army. This was a turning-point in Moldavian history: a new voivod was brought in by the Sultan and installed with an Ottoman ceremony, and in the same campaign Süleyman seized the town of Bender (Rom.: Tighina; an important customs post on the river Dniester) and turned the entire coastal strip of Moldavia, including the two previously captured ports, into a directly ruled sancak. Ottoman attitudes had hardened since Mohács: whereas the tribute paid by Moldavia had originally been a kind of ransom payment for a temporary peace, it was now viewed as implying submission, like the poll-tax paid by non-Muslim subjects within the central territories of the empire. But although the military invasion of 1538 was sometimes used to imply that this was just another conquered territory, the legal-political status of Moldavia remained ambiguous for quite a long time. The whole issue is necessarily a murky one, as there is a three-way mismatch between the concepts available to the Moldavians themselves (who talked in Byzantine style about ‘bowing’, or ‘prostrating’ themselves, to an emperor), the Islamic legal theory of the Ottomans (which, in the tradition they followed, distinguished starkly between countries in the enemy ‘house of war’ and those within the ‘house of Islam’ – a territory such as Moldavia being rather obviously in neither), and Western European concepts, whether feudal (‘vassalage’) or modern (acknowledging ‘sovereignty’). What can be said is that from the mid-1560s onwards there was a definite shift in Istanbul towards seeing Moldavia and Wallachia as integral parts of the empire, within what were officially called its ‘well-protected domains’. Significantly, in 1572 Sultan Selim ordered the voivods of Moldavia to mint Ottoman coins for internal circulation. In 1574 there was a further tightening of the screw, after an anti-Ottoman revolt by the Voivod, Ioan cel Cumplit (‘John the Terrible’), was punitively suppressed by Ottoman forces. Uncertainty about the future of Poland, after its newly crowned French king absconded in that year, also made Istanbul anxious to strengthen its hold over Moldavia, Poland’s neighbour. Up until this time, the voivods had been drawn from those who belonged to, or at least claimed descent from, Moldavia’s own noble and princely families. Now the Ottomans imposed a member of the Wallachian ruling dynasty, Petru Şchiopul (‘Peter the Lame’), who had spent much of his time in Istanbul; he experienced instant unpopularity in Moldavia because he had no essential connection with that country at all.

By this stage, the degree of autonomy enjoyed by Moldavia and Wallachia was as follows. They had their own administration, their own Church and their own army. The voivod was appointed by the Sultan and could be dismissed by him, but would normally be chosen on the basis that he was of suitable lineage. He dispensed justice, and governed with his own divan or governing council – in Moldavia, an eight-member group which included leading noblemen and the Metropolitan, who was the head of the Orthodox Church in that country. There were no mosques in Moldavia, and no significant Muslim presence, beyond a few ‘scribes’ or officials seconded from Istanbul, a small guard of janissaries sent very exceptionally to assist Petru Şchiopul during his first, unpopular, period of rule, and at any given time a small number of Muslim merchants. (A sultanic decree in 1577 said that Muslims should not settle in Moldavia or Wallachia; they were forbidden to marry infidels there, and should leave when they had finished their business.) Moldavian merchants, on the other hand, were permitted to trade freely within the Ottoman Empire. Among the major duties of the voivod of Moldavia, the first was to pay the annual tribute: by the 1570s this was the equivalent of 35,000 ducats, but it underwent some fluctuations thereafter, with higher payments being promised by, or extorted from, incoming voivods, and unintended reductions following from debasements of the Ottoman coinage. Another duty was to supply troops when called upon to do so – reports in this period refer to 10,000 cavalry – though only for campaigns in the region; and at all times the voivod was naturally expected to repel any hostile forces entering his territory. He was also required to provide Istanbul with intelligence, both political and military. (A sultanic order to the Voivod in January 1566 said: ‘We have received a letter from you concerning what the spies in Germany have communicated about the gathering of the German army; in this situation do not cease to be vigilant, and make the necessary preparations against the enemy’s attack.’) The voivod was forbidden to conduct his own foreign policy – though most did keep up direct relations with their important non-Ottoman neighbours – and was not allowed to marry a foreigner without permission.

The duty to supply Istanbul with goods and provisions was less clearly defined, but it grew in importance during the sixteenth century. In wartime, Moldavia and Wallachia could simply be ordered to provide foodstuffs for the Ottoman army; for the Hungarian campaign in 1552, for instance, the Moldavian voivod was told to send 30,000 sheep, and the Wallachian one 3,000 oxen. But as the population of Istanbul grew during this century, rising from half a million in the 1550s to perhaps 700,000 by 1580, the demand for food from these fertile territories constantly increased. In 1566 the Sultan decreed that the Voivod of Moldavia must send 1,000 sheep and 1,000 head of cattle every month to the imperial capital. Official orders also went out for large quantities of grain, and for timber. Generally these products were paid for; the Ottoman system of celeps, state-appointed contractors who bought sheep locally and sent them to Istanbul, extended as far as Moldavia, where in 1591 they bought 24,500 from just one part of the country. (In the late 1580s an observer estimated that 100,000 Moldavian sheep went to Istanbul every year.) An attempt by the Sultan to impose the normal Ottoman tariff of fixed maximum prices was made, but then quickly abandoned, in the late 1570s. But the Ottomans did, in a sense, try to rig the market, by prohibiting the export of sheep, cattle and various other commodities – on the sometimes spurious basis that they were of military value – to non-Ottoman lands. No sooner had the newly appointed Voivod, Iancu Sasul (Bartolomeo Bruti’s candidate), arrived in the Moldavian capital of Iaşi, than he received a stiff decree from the Sultan complaining that the Moldavians were still engaging in the forbidden practice of selling sheep and cattle to Hungary and Poland – and, for good measure, that Iancu himself had just sent to Austria 24,000 head of cattle that he owed to creditors in Istanbul. Huge numbers of cattle were in fact sold via Poland; they were taken, on the hoof, as far as Venice, where their meat was prized more than any other. All the ‘boyars’ (nobles) of Moldavia traded livestock from their own estates, and the voivod was both the greatest landowner and the greatest trader of them all.

The wealth of these principalities came, in the first place, from their own tremendous fertility. Stefan Gerlach recorded a comment made by his ambassador in Istanbul in 1575: ‘today my gracious lord said that nowadays Moldavia and Wallachia are nothing other than the dairies of the sultans and pashas; and their princes, as they call themselves, are their dairy-farmers.’ Moldavia exported not only the ‘dairy’ products of meat, cheese and tallow, but also grain, honey, wax, fur, wine, beer, and huge quantities of fish: a Jesuit traveller in the 1580s was amazed to discover that you could buy a quantity of dried fish as big as a man, and the equivalent of a barrel of caviar, for just one scudo. The other source of Moldavia’s prosperity was the fact that it lay on an important trade route from Anatolia and Istanbul to Poland. Goods passed from Istanbul either overland to Galaţi or by boat to Kiliya, and were then taken via Iaşi to the important Polish border town of Kamyanets-Podilskyi (Pol.: Kamieniec Podolski). From there they went to Lviv (Pol.: Lwów; now in the Ukraine, like Kamyanets-Podilskyi, but then a Polish-Lithuanian city), and on either to Kraków, for further transit to southern Poland, Austria and the Czech lands, or to Poznań, for Germany, or to Gdańsk (Germ.: Danzig), for the Baltic region, or northwards to Brest, and thence either to Vilnius or even to Moscow. Spices formed an important part of this trade for much of the sixteenth century, coming from south-east Asia via Persia. Other high-value commodities from the east included pearls and jewels, and luxury textiles such as silk, mohair and camlet.

Muslim merchants brought many of these goods to Poland. They would then travel as far as Muscovy to spend the proceeds on furs, which were greatly prized by the Ottomans. Poland was the only Christian country to be quite thoroughly penetrated by Muslim traders; mostly their presence was accepted, though sometimes they were suspected of espionage. But there were other nationalities and religions taking part in this east–west trade: Armenians, Jews, Ragusans and Greeks. In Iaşi, the Moldavian capital, there was a significant Armenian colony. Jews and Armenians were prominent traders in Lviv, where, from the second half of the sixteenth century, there were resident Spanish Jews with close links to Jewish merchant families in Istanbul. In the 1580s the Polish Chancellor arranged for a number of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to move from Istanbul to the town of Zamość, which he had recently founded, to boost its trade. The omnipresent Ragusans were involved in this commerce, especially in Iaşi and on the Black Sea coast. And Greeks, not only from Galata, Chios (Ottoman territory from 1566) and Cyprus (Ottoman from 1570–1), but also from Venetian Crete, dominated the trade in strong and sweet red wines from the Mediterranean; these commodities, much valued during the cold Central European winters, came mostly via Moldavia. There were also a few Albanian traders; and some of the ‘Greeks’, from Pogon, may have been from the territory of present-day Albania, with Vlach – a language usefully similar to Romanian – as their mother tongue.

Much has been written about the so-called ‘closing’ of the Black Sea during this period. The phrase refers only to the discouragement or prohibition of non-Ottoman traders – who, in an earlier period when important Crimean ports had been run by the Genoese, had been frequent visitors. This process seems to have been a gradual one, beginning in the 1550s or 1560s and becoming formalized only at the end of the century. Istanbul’s growing hunger for the products of the Romanian lands – and of the Tatar Khanate – was the main cause; that meant that there was less and less for foreign traders to buy. And while the Moldavians were formally forbidden to sell various commodities to non-Ottomans on their north-western borders, it would have been illogical to allow non-Ottoman merchants to come and buy them on their eastern ones. Nevertheless, some foreign traders were active. Cretans who brought wine took back cargoes of hides and caviar; in the latter part of the century French ships sometimes penetrated the Black Sea; some Venetian merchants traded there using Ottoman ships or business partners; and the Ragusans, who had an important outpost on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, were often taking the goods they acquired to Ancona and other Italian ports. If foreign traders shied away from the area in the 1590s, that was as much to do with security concerns (thanks to a new Ottoman–Habsburg war, from 1593, and the growth of piracy by Ukrainian Cossacks) as with any prohibition. What must be emphasized, at all events, is that the ‘closing’ of the Black Sea did not mean stagnation. On the contrary, the decades up to the 1590s seem to have witnessed a positive boom in the trade that passed through Moldavia.

Thanks to taxes, customs dues and his own revenues as both producer and trader, the voivod had a large income, estimated in the 1580s at between half a million and a million thalers (333,000 to 666,000 ducats). Military and other state expenditure had to come out of this, in addition to the tribute to Istanbul, but the rulers of both Moldavia and Wallachia were still rich men; it is not surprising that Venetian jewel-sellers gathered around them like wasps round a jam-jar. The high revenues, together with the increasing appetite for cash at the Ottoman court, also explain the development of the practice – in which Bartolomeo Bruti took part so successfully – of merchants and other investors paying for the deposition of one voivod and the installation of another: so long as the new one remained in power for a few years, the investors could be confident of recouping their money handsomely. But this does raise the question of why these territories, which were of such economic and strategic importance to the Sultan, were not taken over and ruled directly. The threat of turning them into beylerbeyliks was deployed from time to time, and at a moment of crisis in wartime, in 1595, it was briefly carried out; but general Ottoman policy was firmly in favour of indirect rule. One important reason must have been the cost of garrisoning such a territory with janissaries; in Ottoman-ruled Hungary in the mid-century, for example, there were at least 20,000 occupation troops, who all had to be paid for. An interesting comment was made by the Imperial Ambassador in Istanbul, David Ungnad, in January 1578: noting a rumour that the former pasha of Timişoara would be declared beylerbeyi of Moldavia, he wrote that ‘in that case Poland would be well on the way to becoming an Ottoman possession; but it seems to me virtually unbelievable, because Moldavia is the main supplier to this city of meat, lard and other foodstuffs, and the population here would be partly or mostly deprived of them, if Moldavia were possessed by Ottomans’ – meaning that the Ottoman administration would consume more of the local production, and perhaps also that agricultural efficiency would go down. His remark about the implications for the Poles is perhaps even more important. Poland’s objections to the full Ottomanization of that principality were very strong: militarily, it required Moldavia to act as a buffer state, and in political terms the Poles wanted a neighbour that they could continue to influence and manipulate on its own separate basis.

Modern histories of the Ottoman Empire in this period, written mostly by West Europeans, tend to pay very little attention to Poland. There are various reasons for this: the dominance of West European sources and secondary literature is one, and the fact that Poland was at peace with the Ottomans from 1533 onwards is another. But Poland mattered very greatly to the Ottoman Sultans; that they maintained peaceful relations with it is itself testimony to that fact. After the Union of Lublin in 1569, which united the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into a single ‘commonwealth’, the Polish state covered a huge stretch of Europe from the Baltic coast to the borders of the Crimean Khanate, embracing most of present-day Poland, all of modern Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus, and the western half of what is now the Ukraine. Thanks to its constitution, with an elective monarchy and a fractious, veto-ridden parliament of nobles, it could not and did not undergo all the processes of centralization of power that were beginning to take place in several West European states; but with the help of its powerful regional lords it could raise large military forces, which in this period were mostly directed against its eastern rival, Russia. Poland mattered to Ottoman geopolitical strategy not only because of its size, but also because it was situated between two potentially or actually anti-Ottoman powers, Russia and the Holy Roman Empire. If it conquered Russia, or was taken over by the Habsburgs, or underwent any other kind of merging or close alliance with either of those, it would pose a huge threat to the security of the Ottoman Empire. As Giovanni Barelli commented in his intelligence report from Istanbul in 1575, the Ottomans thought that Poland, being ‘rather divided’, could be defeated by them in war. But they feared that this would force the Poles to choose the Russian Tsar as their king, which would ‘give excessive power to one of their [sc. the Ottomans’] chief foes’.

Hence the concern felt in Istanbul each time an election to the Polish crown was impending. The Sultan was happy to support Henri de Valois in 1573, in view of the long-standing Franco-Ottoman alliance and French hostility to the Habsburgs. However, when Henri decamped so abruptly soon after entering his kingdom in the following year, there were real fears that the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, might obtain the Polish crown. The upper house of the Polish parliament did vote for him, but the lower one chose Stephen Báthory, the Catholic Hungarian Voivod of Transylvania, who cemented the deal by promising to marry the late king’s 52-year-old sister. Stephen became King of Poland in early 1576; one of the reasons why many nobles had voted for him was that they wished to avoid a war with the Ottoman Empire (a strategy which, so long as Russia remained the primary enemy, was logically required). The Sultan was very content with this election. Stephen had been a reliable vassal ruler in Transylvania; he was a known quantity, and the fact that his accession to the Polish crown created a personal union between Transylvania and Poland – even though he passed the administration of the former to his brother Christopher – gave Istanbul a pretext for demanding more influence over Poland. His election also had negative consequences for the onward march of the Counter-Reformation in Central Europe; although he was a sincere Catholic, Stephen Báthory did promise at his coronation to respect the Warsaw Confederation, a recent pledge of mutual toleration by all the major Christian confessions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, in the Polish–Lithuanian commonwealth. The Papacy was seriously wrong-footed by Stephen’s accession to the throne, not least because it had openly backed his Habsburg rival. With some grinding of gears, it now began to concentrate on promoting peace between Poland and Russia, in order to create the conditions for an anti-Ottoman alliance. Gradually, too, it began to insinuate the idea that if Poland did join a war against the Sultan, it could take Moldavia as its prize.

Moldavia, Tatars and Cossacks II

What nearly brought Poland and the Ottoman Empire into armed conflict in this period was not the deliberate policy of the King, the Sultan or the Pope, but the unpredictable actions of two mutually hostile powers: the Tatars and the Cossacks. The Crimean Tatars were at least nominally subject to the Sultan. Although the Tatar Khans collected their own taxes and minted their own coins, they did acknowledge a higher power in Istanbul; a new Khan would be elected in the Crimea from the ruling Giray dynasty, but the election would then be submitted to the Sultan for approval, and the Ottomans did sometimes depose an uncooperative Khan in order to put a more compliant one in his place. Because of their military and marauding activities, the Tatars acquired a grim reputation in Russia and Central Europe as savage Asiatic nomads. The English Ambassador in Istanbul in the 1580s solemnly reported that ‘theie are borne blynde, openinge theire eyes the thirde daye after; a thinge peculier to them onlye, a brutishe people, open vnder the ayer lyvinge in cartes covered wth oxe hides’; all the adult men, he said, were ‘theeves and Robbers’. While it is true that Tatar herdsmen did travel in carts with their flocks during the summer months, at the core of the Tatars’ territory was a settled society, with agricultural estates (worked mostly by slaves they had captured). Their ruling family and nobility contained educated men: Gazi Giray II, who was installed by the Sultan in 1588, was a poet with a good knowledge of Arabic and Persian, and the Khans’ palace contained a well-stocked library. But Tatar light cavalry (typically, a force of 20–30,000 men when led by the Khan) was a much feared auxiliary element in the Ottomans’ European campaigns, and at other times large bands of Tatars would go raiding in Polish and Russian territory for slaves and other booty.

Opposing them in the south-eastern part of the Polish state was an official defence force of roughly 3,000 men, stretched out over an area more than 600 miles across. Its efforts, very inadequate in themselves, were supplemented by those of a much more informal fighting population, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were based in the marshy territory of the lower Dnieper river, south-east of Kiev (‘Zaporozhian’ is from a word meaning ‘below the rapids’). Like their equivalents on the southern Russian steppes, the Don Cossacks, these people developed enough of a socio-political system to form at least a loose military organization, but not enough to become a state-like entity. They enjoyed the protection and sponsorship of some powerful landowners in the region, and in normal circumstances were willing to cooperate in a broad defensive strategy with the official forces of the Crown. But their ‘pursuits’ of Tatar raiders could often turn into raiding expeditions of their own, openly supported by local lords and administrators who took their share of the booty. Twentieth-century attempts to portray them as fighting either against feudalism or for national liberation are unconvincing; raiding was primarily an economic activity, and all classes could have an interest in it. The Tatar bands not only paid a tax on their booty to the Khan, but also, in some cases, had merchant investors who would give them horses on credit in return for half of the spoils. On the Polish side, Crown soldiers would sometimes provoke raids by the Tatars and then take care to intercept them only on their way home, when they were laden with goods (which could then be appropriated, or returned to the original owners for a fee). But the larger Cossack expeditions could also have a political dimension, whether by design, as their local protectors flexed their muscles vis-à-vis the Polish government, or by unintended consequence.

To the modern eye, such raiding, even on a large scale, seems like a regrettable and peripheral phenomenon, something to be understood as a transgression of the normal system, not a component of it. Yet if one looks at all the frontier zones between Christendom and the Ottoman world in this period, from the Dnieper marshes in the north to the maritime quasi-frontier of the Mediterranean in the south, one begins to see that it was very much part of the system. On both sides of the lengthy Ottoman–Habsburg border, local auxiliary forces grew up for which raiding was a constant feature of military and economic life. In the north-eastern corner of the Adriatic a small but highly active population of ‘Uskoks’, Slavic refugees and adventurers who theoretically acted as frontier troops for the Habsburgs, caused real harm to Ottoman trading interests – and much damage to Venetian–Ottoman relations – by their corsairing and piracy. The corsairs of the Albanian coast, based first in Vlorë and Durrës and later also in Ulcinj, preyed on much Christian shipping. And in the Mediterranean, the corsairs of North Africa were pitted against another group for which raiding was a central activity, the Knights of Malta. In all these cases, booty was either essential to the economy or (in the case of Malta) a vital motive for offensive action; this in itself implied that these societies were enmeshed in a larger pattern of economic interests, as they often depended on merchants coming from elsewhere to buy the goods they had seized. Of course, organized predation of this kind was not just a border phenomenon. Communities based at least partly on raiding, or on raiding combined with a sort of protection racket, could operate against domestic targets as well as foreign ones; in the northern Albanian mountains, a group of clans led by the warlike Kelmendi developed such a practice, and other bellicose populations such as the Himariots and the Maniots may at times have been fairly indiscriminate in their choice of prey. But the advantage of a frontier was that it provided a ready-made legitimation for all activities of this kind, so long as they were conducted against the other side; and even more legitimation was available when that frontier lay between two religions.

A whole range of these raiding societies thus existed, from states and state-like entities (Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Malta, the Crimean Tatar Khanate) to broad regional forces (the Cossacks, the ‘Grenzer’ communities of the Habsburg borders and their Ottoman counterparts) and small corsairing groups such as the Uskoks of Senj and their Albanian rough equivalents. Contemporaries sensed some of the similarities between them; for instance, the German writer on Ottoman affairs Johannes Leunclavius remarked that the Cossacks resembled both the Uskoks and the Morlachs (the Vlach and Slav fighters used on both sides of the Habsburg–Ottoman frontier), and Ottomans described the Tatars and the North African corsairs as the Sultan’s two ‘wings’. Modern historians seldom consider all these raiding entities together, perhaps because they do not fit the standard model of international history, based on the direct interactions of unit states, which the present naturally projects onto the past. Nevertheless, they should be regarded as an important element in the picture; one might think of them as the ‘irregular powers’, conjoined in a complex system of inter-power relations with the regular ones. Often they caused serious trouble not only to their enemies but also to their sponsors. Why did the latter tolerate them? Some parts of the answer are clear: they provided a relatively cheap form of permanent frontier defence; they became valuable auxiliaries in wartime; in peacetime their raiding activities honed the martial skills of large numbers of men; their constant probing of the enemy (or potential enemy) revealed points of weakness, while being covered by a degree of ‘deniability’; and up to a certain point, the harm they caused by their offensive actions could be useful, as the other side might offer concessions of various kinds in order to have them called off. All these points are valid, but to list them like this risks giving the impression that the irregular powers functioned as mere instruments, the tools of their sponsors’ regular power-politics. And that would be to ignore the fact that they often had interests and policies of their own, to which their protector-powers were sometimes forced, with great reluctance, to adapt.

The activities of the Tatars and Cossacks bedevilled relations between Poland and the Ottoman Empire, and sometimes carried war and rebellion into the heart of the Moldavian state. In 1575 and again in 1577, Polish territory underwent large Tatar raids, in retaliation for Cossack attacks. The Voivod of Moldavia at this time was Petru Şchiopul, the Wallachian prince who had been imposed by the Sultan in 1574 in place of the rebellious Ioan cel Cumplit. A man claiming to be Ioan’s brother, known as Ioan Potcoavă (‘John Horseshoe’ – he broke them with his bare hands), raised a Cossack army and invaded Moldavia, seizing the capital, Iaşi, in late 1577; he then withdrew to Polish territory, where the authorities arrested and executed him, but in the following year two more Cossack invasions took place under other leaders. During 1578 the Sultan warned Stephen Báthory that if the Cossacks were not restrained, he would invade Poland. Stephen’s attempt to meet this challenge by setting up a small official Cossack army and giving it strict instructions not to attack Moldavia or any Ottoman territory was largely symbolic; it staved off the threatened invasion, but it did not give him real control of these warriors. In late 1579 a local Polish grandee organized a Cossack attack on the Ottoman fortress of Akkerman (Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi). This formed the immediate context of the Sultan’s decision to replace Petru Şchiopul; for Petru was regarded as pro-Polish, and therefore not the right person to develop a more hard-line policy against the Poles. Also, because he was a foreigner from Wallachia, Moldavian boyars had petitioned at Istanbul for him to be replaced by Iancu Sasul; those boyars represented, in effect, an anti-Polish party, and granting their wishes would strengthen their position. So it was that political circumstances, as well as the large payments organized by Bartolomeo Bruti, brought Iancu to the throne.

Iancu was generally believed to be an illegitimate son of Petru Rareş, the voivod who had been driven out by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1538 (but later reinstated); and he was called ‘Sasul’, ‘the German’, because his mother was the wife of a German leather-worker in the city of Braşov. Since the administrative records of the Moldavian government have not survived from this period, it is impossible to give any detailed and objective account of his rule. Instead, the picture is dominated by the later narrative of the Moldavian chronicler Grigore Ureche, who, writing in the 1640s, had nothing good to say about Iancu Sasul. According to Ureche, he introduced an unheard-of tithe of all cattle in the country, and this provoked a major revolt in the eastern province of Lăpuşna, which was crushed by the Moldavian army. Iancu was an evil man who ‘did not love the Christian religion’; he raped the wives of boyars, and several leading nobles consequently fled into exile. This account seems rather simplistic. We know that Iancu performed some routine acts of religious piety, donating numbers of Gypsy labourers, for example, to Orthodox monasteries – though the fact (if it is one) that he converted to Catholicism before his death may have tainted him in Moldavian eyes. It is indeed true that some leading nobles and ecclesiastics fled to Poland, but their reasons may have been primarily political, as they represented a pro-Polish lobby to which Iancu was opposed. He had a different policy which would, however, have pleased the Ottomans even less, had they known about it: from the start he was secretly in touch with the Habsburgs through their military commander in Upper Hungary. Towards the end of his rather brief rule in Moldavia he was apparently trying to acquire an estate in Habsburg territory, seeing it as a bolthole in which to evade another round of internal exile in the Ottoman Empire; but there may have been a larger strategic aspect to his cultivating these connections. When the Poles found out about them, in 1582, they were quick to inform Istanbul.

Stephen Báthory lobbied hard to get Iancu deposed; in the summer of 1582, when he despatched an envoy to a grand festivity in Istanbul celebrating the circumcision of the Sultan’s son, he sent with him, as a present to the Sultan, two captive Tatar princes. This magnanimous gesture, plus a large under-the-counter payment to Sinan Pasha, had the desired effect. Later that summer, when news reached Iancu that he was about to be recalled, the Voivod gathered all the cash reserves of the Moldavian treasury and headed for his Habsburg refuge. Unfortunately his route had to pass first through Poland. He was arrested there, and, after a brief detention, executed on the King’s orders in late September, before the Ottoman çavuş could arrive to take him back to Istanbul. Stephen Báthory offered various justifications for this: Iancu had opened his letters to the Sultan when Polish couriers had passed through Moldavia, and had added spurious passages to them; he had burnt down villages in Polish territory; and Poles who had sought justice from him had been beaten and imprisoned. (The papal nuncio in Poland also wrote, perhaps just repeating a standard line, that Iancu had made himself ‘utterly hateful’ to his people by violating their women.) Stephen did not mention the huge quantity of cash – between 400,000 and a million ducats, as rumour had it – which he expropriated. Nor did the Sultan make much fuss about that; a resetting of Ottoman–Polish relations had just taken place, and it was a sign of the Ottoman willingness to be conciliatory that the new Voivod of Moldavia was, once again, Petru Şchiopul.

Not much is known about Bartolomeo Bruti’s life in Moldavia during these years. As we have seen, a French ambassadorial despatch stated in 1580 that he was granted a boyar’s estate and an income of 3,000 ducats from the customs dues of a port – which was presumably Galaţi, the only significant port left to Moldavia, on the northern bank of the Danube. That despatch’s statement that he was also made general of the army might seem implausible, in view of Bartolomeo’s total lack of military experience; yet in January 1582 he was indeed joint commander of the Moldavian army, with the boyar Condrea Bucium, when it fought a major battle to crush the rebels of Lăpuşna. Bartolomeo had the official position of ‘postelnic’, meaning seneschal or court chamberlain, while Bucium was the grand ‘vornic’ or count palatine of Lower Moldavia; neither was ‘hatman’ (general of the armed forces), but it seems that Bartolomeo was in effect the senior minister for external affairs, and Bucium for internal ones. As the Postelnic, Bartolomeo also held the prefecture of Iaşi, the capital city, and judged its citizens. These honours – which depended above all on the fact that he was Iancu’s personal link to Sinan Pasha – represented an extraordinary transformation in his fortunes, from the ill-paid trainee dragoman and neglected underground agent of the previous years.

Bartolomeo must have found his new conditions strange as well as exhilarating. He was now in an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country, and its language, Romanian, would have taken some time to learn, even though his knowledge of Italian gave him a good head-start. This was a very traditional society, a far cry from the Venetianized city communities of the Adriatic that were familiar to him, with their statutes and municipal rights; the Moldavian towns and their surrounding villages were regarded as the personal property of the voivod, and the laws were customary and unwritten. Whilst the dress of the voivod and his courtiers was partly Ottoman in style, with richly decorated cloaks like caftans, the hierarchy and ceremonies derived from the Byzantine tradition. In 1574 a French traveller, commenting on court life in Iaşi, wrote that ‘they honour their voivods like God, and drink excessively’ – though a few years later Stefan Gerlach assured a friend that the Moldavians were at least more civilized than the Wallachians. In the late 1580s a Jesuit would write about Moldavia that ‘literary writing is not held in esteem there, nor is it taught’; but he added that ‘the people are excellent and talented, and shrewd rather than simple.’ The population was quite mixed, especially in the towns; the merchant community included, as we have seen, both Armenians and Greeks (some of whom, especially those from Chios, were Roman Catholic), and Ragusans were active as tax- and customs-farmers. There were Protestant Germans, Hungarians and Hussites; and although the Jews had been expelled in 1579 at the insistence of Christian merchants, some seem to have returned under Iancu Sasul. There were also Albanians – villagers, traders and others. In 1584 the Jesuit Antonio Possevino would report from Poland that ‘the Voivod of Moldavia’s guard consists of 400 Trabants [a Central European word for bodyguard], who are Hungarian, and 50 Albanian and Greek halbardiers, who live like Muslims.’ So Bartolomeo Bruti would have found some people to talk to in his native tongue. But in any case he was not leading a solitary life. In these early years, at least, his wife Maria was with him. They had a son, probably within less than a year of their arrival in Moldavia, and had him baptized in Kamyanets-Podilskyi, the nearest town with a Catholic bishop. The boy was christened Antonio Stanislao – the first name honouring Bartolomeo’s father, and the second presumably paying respect to an influential Polish godfather.

In 1582 Bartolomeo Bruti went to Istanbul as the Voivod’s envoy to attend the festivities for the circumcision of the future Mehmed III. Public celebrations of such events, and of the accessions of new sultans, were not uncommon, but this was the most elaborate and extravagant that had ever been seen, lasting more than 50 days from early June to late July; half a million akçes (more than 8,000 ducats) had been set aside for staging it, invitations were sent to rulers in such distant places as Morocco and Uzbekistan, and the preparations took several months. It is not hard to guess the underlying reason for a jamboree which entertained much of the population of Istanbul. The Persian war, begun in 1578, was proving intractable, costly and increasingly unpopular; a large and distracting boost to morale, including displays of deference by foreign powers, was greatly to be desired. Certainly, nothing larger or more distracting could have been imagined. In the early stages of the festivities, senior pashas and the ambassadors of Muslim and Christian rulers presented lavish gifts. For the viziers and beylerbeyis, this was the most demanding instance of the whole Ottoman cult of gift-giving. Sinan Pasha presented the Sultan with fine horses, large quantities of luxury cloth, a gold-illuminated Koran and a golden bowl encrusted with rubies and turquoises, while giving the Sultan’s son a bejewelled golden sword, six male slaves, three horses and four illuminated books. The gifts of some foreign states were barely as lavish as that. The King of Poland sent quantities of highly prized Russian sable fur; the Venetian envoy, Giacomo Soranzo, brought 8,000 ducats’ worth of gold, silver and silk; and Iancu Sasul’s presents consisted of a silver fountain and other pieces of silverwork, to the value of 3,000 ducats.

The celebrations were held in the Hippodrome, which had been specially fitted up for the occasion, with a three-storey wooden stand for distinguished guests. Christians, such as the Ragusan envoys and Bartolomeo, were placed in the bottom storey. For the first few weeks the formal present-givings were interspersed with entertainments, involving athletes, fighting animals (the fight between a boar and three lions was almost won by the boar), rope-dancers, musicians and others; one jaded French observer, Jean Palerne, found the music ‘tuneful enough to make donkeys dance’. Sugar animals were paraded, including life-sized elephants and camels, and in the evenings the crowds were given free food and lavish firework displays. Then there were military performances (put on, Palerne noted, by Sinan, who wanted ‘to be recognized as a great warlord’), with realistic-seeming battles involving mock-castles; the Christian castles, which were triumphantly overrun, had squealing pigs inside them. In the second week of June the processions of the Istanbul guilds began, with elaborate displays, sometimes on large carriages or floats, demonstrating or symbolizing their work. More than 200 guilds took part, including nailsmiths, bucket-sellers, javelin-makers, pickle-sellers, caftan-makers, silk-spinners, tart-bakers and snake-charmers. On the helva-makers’ carriage a man made helva in a huge cauldron; on the barbers’, a barber shaved customers while standing on his head; the Jewish gunpowder-makers’ float had a powder-mill, and a man constantly igniting little explosions of powder against his bare skin. (The helva-makers also amused the crowd by trying to blow up a live rabbit with fireworks.) The mirror-makers dressed in clothes made out of pieces of mirror, while the manufacturers of coloured paper had 130 apprentices dressed in coloured paper. When they reached the Sultan the guildsmen gave him their own presents, both symbolic (giant shoes, paper tulips as tall as trees) and real: the guild of bird-catching pedlars solemnly presented two vultures, ten partridges and 100 sparrows. In return the Sultan conferred significant cash presents on the major guilds, and threw handfuls of coins at their apprentices. After that there were more military entertainments, with Albanian horsemen jousting at each other with lances; this was not mere play-acting, as several horses were killed in the process. Morale was boosted both by processions of genuine Christian captives from the Habsburg frontier, and by mass episodes of Christian Ottoman subjects, especially Greeks and Albanians, volunteering – to the dismay of Western observers – to convert to Islam. Everything went well from the Ottoman point of view, until the very last days of the festival, when serious fighting broke out between some of the Sultan’s soldiers. It started with some young spahis (cavalrymen) who were found in a brothel by a janissary patrol led by the subaşı of Istanbul. Violence began when they resisted the round-up of prostitutes, and quickly turned into public fighting between much larger numbers of spahis and janissaries. Two of the spahis were killed. Sinan Pasha blamed the ağa (commander) of the janissaries, Ferhad Pasha, and dismissed him; Ferhad would become a redoubtable rival to Sinan thereafter.

Bartolomeo presumably enjoyed the festivities, and the experience of rubbing shoulders with West European dignitaries who would have paid scant regard to him a few years earlier. But the most important element in this visit would have been his meetings with his relative Sinan Pasha, at which the future of the Voivod of Moldavia must have been discussed. Seven years later the papal nuncio in Poland would write, on the basis of what Bartolomeo had told him, that ‘because Iancu did not observe the conditions he had promised, and did not pay the tribute he had promised to Sinan Pasha, by whose means he had been appointed voivod, Bruti in Istanbul arranged for Iancu to be deposed, and for this prince Petru, the current ruler, to be appointed.’ That a failure to make the special personal payments to Sinan was a factor is easily imagined, but the claim that Bartolomeo ‘arranged’ the deposition sounds like self-aggrandizement; and it is difficult to believe that Bartolomeo, of all people, would have promoted the reinstatement of Petru Şchiopul, who could reasonably have been expected to bear a deep grudge against him for his previous dismissal. The decision was surely taken by Sinan, who obliged Petru to retain Bartolomeo’s services. Petru Şchiopul’s investiture took place in Istanbul on 28 August 1582, and he travelled to Moldavia with Bartolomeo a couple of weeks later. The Venetian bailo reported that Petru made a grand exit from Istanbul with an escort of more than 1,000 cavalry. He also wrote – again, surely on the basis of what Bartolomeo had said – that Petru was reinstated thanks to Bartolomeo’s intercession; he added, significantly, that Bartolomeo went with him ‘and will have the most important and most valuable position, having been warmly recommended by the Grand Vizier, who told him that whether he stays a long time in office will depend on the good treatment he gives to Bruti’.

The Russo-Turkish War (1811)

Ottoman Army Early 19th Century.

Portrait of Mikhail I. Kutuzov. G. Dawe, 1829. After Count Kamensky died in April 1811, Kutuzov was appointed commander-in-chief of the Danube army. Several months were dedicated to preparation, and on June 22 (July 4), 1811, the Russian army thoroughly defeated the outnumbered Turkish army (15 to 20,000 against 60,000) near Ruse (Turkish: Rusçuk). Soon, another part of the Turkish army was blocked and then captured near Slobozia.

Hostilities had opened between Russia and Turkey soon after Russia and Austria had been humiliated at Austerlitz in 1805. The following year Sultan Selim III had deposed the pro-Russian Hospodars of Wallachia and Moldavia (parts of modern-day Romania), whilst France occupied Austrian Dalmatia. This seriously threatened what was known as the ‘Danubian Principalities’, consisting of modern-day Romania and Serbia. Russia looked upon these areas as a safeguard against any possible attack on Russian territory from the Balkans. Fearing such an attack, Russia promptly advanced a force of some 40,000 men into the principalities to deny them to any others, particularly France. The sultan’s reaction was decisive, declaring war and blocking off the use of the Dardanelles to Russian ships. The subsequent actions of Admiral Seniavin and his victory over the Turkish fleet at Athos, and the deposing of Selim III have already been covered.

The Turkish armies had not performed any better than their fleet. Count Gudovich with 7,000 men had destroyed a Turkish force numbering no fewer than 20,000 men at Arpachai on 18 June. A vast Turkish army advancing into Wallachia was also defeated at Obilesti three days later, on 21 June 1807, by General Mikhail Miloradovich, with just over 4,000 troops.

The war might well have petered out at this point had not the Treaty of Tilsit enabled the Russians to transfer large numbers of their troops from central Europe to Bessarabia, bringing the size of their army up to 80,000 men. However, this sizeable force, under the ageing Field Marshal Prozorovsky, achieved virtually nothing, losing great numbers of troops in a vain attempt to storm the fortress of Brailov. Eventually, in August 1809, Prozorovsky was superseded by Prince Bagration, who immediately crossed the Danube with the army and laid siege to Silistra, but abandoned the attempt on the advance of a Turkish relieving army.

Hostilities were renewed in 1810 with Count Nikolay Kamensky (who had superseded Bagration) defeating these Turkish reinforcements and again attacking Silistra, which finally surrendered on 30 May. Kamensky tried to take a number of other fortresses without success, which cost him a great deal of time and huge numbers of casualties, but he did succeed in defeating a 40,000-strong Turkish army at Vidin on 26 October. In February 1811 Kamensky fell ill and died, leaving his forces under the command of General Louis Andraut de Langeron. But for all of this fighting, and despite numerous successes, Russia was no closer to a final victory.

Relations were also beginning to sour between Napoleon and Alexander over Russia’s clear disregard for the Continental System,1 and therefore Alexander appointed his favourite, General Mikhail Kutuzov, to command his forces in the south with clear orders to force Turkey to the peace table as quickly as possible. Kutuzov astounded everyone, promptly evacuating Silistra and beginning a retreat northward. The Turks took confidence from this manoeuvre and an army of 60,000 men was amassed at the fortress of Shumla. Kutuzov’s army, numbering some 46,000, finally stood against the Turks at Rousse on 22 June 1811 and defeated the Turkish hordes. Kutuzov, however, did not take advantage of his victory, but rather ordered his army to retire once again into Bessarabia. Alexander was livid at this retreat and demanded an explanation, but Kutuzov simply said nothing.

In late October 1811 the Turkish army under Lal Aziz Ahmet Pasha, of around 70,000 men, began to cross the Danube. Some 50,000 men crossed the river, whilst the remaining reserve of 20,000 remained on the eastern bank guarding the stores and food supplies. On the night of 2 November 1811 a large Russian cavalry force crossed the Danube and launched a terrible attack on the Turkish reserve, destroying it completely and slaying around 9,000 men. The main Turkish army was now stranded on the western bank and virtually surrounded; even more seriously, all their supplies had also been captured. At this point Kutuzov launched an all-out attack. He surreptitiously allowed the Pasha to escape, knowing that the Grand Vizier was forbidden from ever taking part in any peace negotiations. With him gone, Kutuzov sought negotiations and after some procrastination peace was signed with Turkey on 28 May 1812, Russia gaining Bessarabia by the treaty.

Peace with Turkey was urgently needed as Napoleon had spent the spring of 1812 in drawing troops from every corner of Europe to congregate in Poland, to form the largest army the world had ever seen. Napoleon was about to invade Russia; nobody knew how it would end at that moment, but that decision was going to change everything. As the campaign season arrived in 1812, few realised how momentous the following six months would be in world history and how rapidly the balance of power in Europe would change. This was as true in the Mediterranean as anywhere else.

But we cannot ignore another war that broke out that summer; it had been brewing for some time and had the potential to seriously hamper British efforts against Napoleon. For years the rapidly expanding American merchant fleet had been complaining loudly against the British insistence on their right to board American ships and to remove any British men found on board. This high-handed approach had caused serious resentment, particularly when American sailors were wrongly accused of being British and were taken off to serve in the Royal Navy. In reality, there was wrong on both sides. Whilst the Americans claimed that some 5,000 American sailors were taken into the British navy, it also has to be admitted that America’s merchant fleet had grown so rapidly, acting as a neutral carrier, that they had enticed some 10,000 British merchant seamen to join their ships for higher wages. It is also true that numerous American ships had been detained by the British for breaking the rules on supplying materials to Napoleon’s Europe, but again it was true that French frigates and privateers had been equally guilty of capturing hundreds of American merchant ships. Indeed, the American government became so upset with Britain and France over these issues that it contemplated going to war with both at the same time! However, sanity prevailed and on 12 June 1812 President Maddison declared war on Britain.

This involved a number of embarrassing single-ship defeats for the British navy and an unsuccessful American invasion of Canada. But even during the height of this war, American merchant ships continued to be granted licences to ship badly needed grain to Spain to feed Wellington’s army. However, this war had virtually no effect on the war in the Mediterranean, except for the capture of an odd American merchant vessel to boost prize money.

The research paper examines the attempts by the Ottoman and Persian Empires to destabilize the situation in the North-Western Caucasus and Transcaucasia on the eve and during the Patriotic War of 1812. It focuses on countermeasures against the Turkish plans, taken by peaceful Circassian princes and Russian regional administration. With the use of new archival documents, we were able to reconstruct the picture of Circassian raids on the Russian territory in 1812—1814. The paper also retrace the picture of the Kakheti uprising and its orchestrating process considering Napoleon’s invasion of the Russian Empire. The sources used to prepare the work include archival documents stored at the State Archives of the Krasnodar Krai, Krasnodar, Russia, and the Central State Historical Archives of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia. A considerable part of the archival material has never been published before. In conclusion, the authors note that both Persia and Turkey strove to widely leverage the war between Russia and France to their own advantage. The consolidated efforts of the Russian administration thwarted the attempt by Turkish intelligence agents in Circassia to use the anti-Russian Circassian militia in combat operations against Russia. At the same time, Persia achieved impressive progress in destabilizing the situation in Transcaucasia. The uprising was led by Georgian Tsarevich (An heir apparent of a tsar) Alexander, and the region of the uprising comprised Kakheti. In the area, Russian troops had small garrisons that were to protect Kakheti and central Georgia from Lezgin attacks. It was them who fell victim to insurgents. In terms of the number of casualties among the Russian army soldiers, the uprising in Kakheti in 1812 can be described as the deadliest incident in Transcaucasia in the 19th century. At the same time, the Treaty of Bucharest and Treaty of Gulistan, which ended the Russo-Turkish (1806—1812) and Russo-Persian (1804—1813) wars, were the first diplomatic acts that legally formalized a fait accompli — the annexation of a large part of Transcaucasia to Russia.

Source: Aleksandr A. Cherkasov, Larisa A. Koroleva, Sergei Bratanovskii, Nugzar Ter-Oganov (2019). The Russian-Turkish and Russian-Persian Front Line on the Eve of and During the Patriotic War of 1812. Bylye Gody. Vol. 52. Is. 2: 585-595