France and the Ottoman Empire


Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later.

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

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

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

Selim was well informed of events in revolutionary Paris.7 In June 1793 Citizen Marie Louis Henri Decorches—the Marquise de Saint-Croix in less egalitarian times—arrived in Constantinople as representative of the French Republic. On quatorze juillet two French ships rode at anchor off Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point), impartially flying the Ottoman crescent, the stars and stripes, and the tricolor; they fired a salute, while a ‘tree of liberty’ was solemnly planted beside the Bosphorus. Some eight weeks later the Sultan sent a detailed inventory to Paris, listing the type of technicians and instructors he wished to recruit from France for temporary service in his army and navy. Despite pressing concerns around France’s frontiers, the Committee of Public Safety gave careful attention to the Sultan’s requests: an Eastern Front on the lower Danube or an aggressive naval presence in the Black Sea would distract the rulers of Austria and Russia from the activities of republican armies along the Rhine or in northern Italy. And Selim’s advisers, for their part, were pleased to encourage the revolutionaries in Paris: ‘May God cause the upheaval in France to spread like syphilis to the enemies of the [Ottoman] Empire’, the head of the Sultan’s personal secretariat wrote early in 1792, when war between France and Austria seemed imminent.

But Selim was too shrewd to commit his empire irretrievably to an unholy alliance with Jacobins. When he decided to modernize his diplomatic system, accrediting resident ambassadors to other courts rather than sending envoys on special missions, he chose London rather than Paris as the first destination of an Ottoman representative. For this decision there were three sound reasons: the hostility shown by William Pitt, the Prime Minister, to Russian aggrandizement in the Black Sea, and especially to the fortification of Ochakov; the absence, as yet, of any apparent British desire to acquire Ottoman possessions; and a passing acquaintance with the ways of the British aristocracy gained from Sir Robert Ainslie, whose eighteen years as George III’s ambassador in Constantinople were drawing to a close. Soon afterwards Selim sent resident ambassadors to Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg. Only then did he choose a permanent envoy for the French Republic.

It was more natural for Selim to establish links with Paris than with any other capital. Some of his officials were already familiar with the language, and the Sultan encouraged the teaching of French, although he does not seem to have spoken or read it himself. Among European writers, only in eighteenth-century France was a rational attempt made to anatomize systems of government and administration, providing blueprints for peoples whose institutions were shaped by other traditions. It is interesting that, when a French-language library was set up to serve Selim’s specialist military and naval academies, among the works shipped out from Marseilles was a complete set of the Grande Encylopédie. But far more general than these touches of rarefied learning were the commercial contacts, many of them long-established, especially in Syria and the Levant. More recently, French trade at the centre of the Empire had increased threefold in eighty years, with a sizeable community settling in Smyrna. The influences of one culture upon another were, of course, two-way. At the start of the century while fashionable society in Paris and Versailles amused itself with turquerie, Constantinople discovered French furniture, French ornamental gardens and French decorative design.

‘Frankish’ customs had cost Ahmed III his throne, and Selim must have realized it was rash for a Sultan-Caliph to turn so often towards Paris while every Janissary around him was turning towards Mecca. A persistent legend ascribes the intensity of Selim’s francophilia to his delight in the company of Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a young Creole who disappeared while sailing between Marseilles and Martinique. She is supposed to have been captured by Barbary pirates, sent from Algiers to Constantinople as a placatory gesture from the corsairs to Abdulhamid I, and then to have lived happily ever after as the ‘French Sultana’ and the mother of Selim’s cousin, Mahmud II—who was born at least three years before Aimée went missing. There is no authentic evidence that the unfortunate young woman reached Algiers, let alone Turkey. But even supposing she did become one of the Favourites in the imperial harem, how could she have enlightened the Sultan on the politics and pursuits of the French? She was too young to know much about them herself. Not every girl from Martinique became so worldly-wise in the ways of Paris as Aimée’s distant kinswoman, the future Empress Josephine. For Sultan Selim the fascination of France was never personal; it remained political and military. He was convinced that he would find there a key to unlock for his empire the science of modern war.

It seemed, briefly, in the autumn of 1795, that the lock might be opened for the Sultan by Brigadier-General Bonaparte. On 20 August Napoleon, whose career had made little progress over the past fifteen months, wrote to his brother Joseph: ‘If I ask for it, I shall be sent to Turkey by the Government, with a fine salary and a flattering ambassadorial title, to organize the artillery of the Grand Turk.’ Ten days later a note was left at the War Ministry: ‘General Buonaparte, who has won a certain reputation during his command of the artillery of armies in difficult circumstances, particularly at the siege of Toulon, offers to accompany a government mission to Turkey. He will take with him six or seven officers, each an expert in some particular branch of the art of war. If, in this new career, he can make the Turkish armies more formidable, and the fortresses of the Turkish empire more impregnable, he will consider he has rendered signal service to his country; and when he returns he will merit her gratitude.’ He appears to have been issued with a passport in mid-September; but before he could set out, the legendary ‘whiff of grape-shot’ against a mob marching down the rue Saint-Honoré on 5 October carried ‘Citizen Buonaparte’ into French history. He never saw Constantinople—‘the centre of world empire’, as he was once to call the city.

Napoleon’s non-mission to Turkey is a fascinating minor ‘might-have-been’. It is tempting to assume that his genius would, in some way, have arrested the military decline of the empire. But why should a relatively unknown Corsican of twenty-six achieve more than Baron de Tott before him or Major von Moltke forty years later? Opposed to all westernizers were four centuries of tradition and prejudice, intensified by the narrowly selfish interest of privileged office-holders. Only if Bonaparte had entered Constantinople as a conqueror and a convert to Islam might he have reshaped the Sultan’s empire, and for a few months in 1798–9 this eventuality seemed not impossible.

Ever since the mid-1760s a pressure group of Marseilles merchants had urged successive governments to seize Egypt and establish a colony there. Choiseul briefly favoured such a project but Vergennes, with his long experience of Ottoman rule, argued that French commercial interests would be better served by continuing the traditional policy of good relations with the Sultans. The earlier revolutionary regimes followed this line, but the Directory wavered. Repeated memoranda from Bonaparte, his great Italian campaign by now behind him, convinced the Directors of the advantages of sending an expedition to ‘the Orient’. In April 1798 it was agreed that Bonaparte would embark an army for Egypt, consolidate French control over the Levant to the discomfiture of the English and, while destroying the corrupt power of the Mamelukes in Cairo, impose good and beneficial government in the name of the Sultan, whose treasury would thereafter be able to rely on the arrival of the annual tribute. The basic directive for the expedition emphasized that respect must be shown towards the Muslim faith. In order that the Porte should be left in no doubt of the Directory’s good will, it was decided that Talleyrand—who became Foreign Minister for the first time in July 1797—should travel to the Golden Horn and explain to Sultan Selim the finer subtleties of French policy. This interesting encounter never took place. General Bonaparte, with some 38,000 men, duly sailed for Egypt in the third week of May; but Talleyrand did not set out for Constantinople. It was never his intention to do so.

For four or five months the Directory backed the Egyptian expedition. All at first seemed to go well. Bonaparte defeated the Mameluke forces at the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ (fifteen miles distant) on 21 July and entered the capital in triumph three days later. His civil administration became a model of good government, the wisest known in Egypt for many centuries. Despite the state of war, irrigation projects were begun, new mills and hospitals built, conditions in the markets improved, tax-collection made efficient. All the reforms which a benevolent Sultan might profitably have introduced in Constantinople were embodied in decrees signed by the conqueror of Cairo. Apart from an irreverent tendency to use minarets as king-size flagpoles, Napoleon made every effort to please the Muslim faithful, speaking to the ulema of his deep respect for Islamic teaching, hinting that he might himself accept conversion. In each town and village entered by the French, printed proclamations in Arabic were posted. They listed the blessings of liberation—of which, it was confidently hoped, those who could read would inform those who could not:

People of Egypt . . . I come to restore your rights, to punish the usurpers; I respect God, His Prophet and the Koran more than did the Mamelukes . . . We are the friends of all true Muslims. Have we not destroyed the Pope, who preached war against the Muslims? . . . Have we not through all the centuries been friends of the Imperial Sultan (may God fulfil his desires) and enemies of his enemies! . . . Let everyone thank God for the destruction of the Mamelukes. Let everyone cry ‘Glory to the Sultan! Glory to his ally, the army of France! A curse on all Mamelukes! Happiness to the People!’.

This rhetoric provoked a sour response from Constantinople. Not only did the Sultan decline to recognize the French army as his ally; in September he formally declared war on the French Republic. A month later a firman proclaimed the jihad, a Holy War against the ‘infidel savages’ who were holding Egypt.

The Directory was no longer interested in Egypt, however, for Nelson’s naval victory at the mouth of the Nile on 31 July had cut the links between Marseilles, Toulon and Alexandria. On 4 November Talleyrand informed Bonaparte that he might, if he wished, seek to march on India; or he could remain in Egypt, organizing the province as a French dependency, as in his transformation of northern Italy; or he could advance through Palestine, Syria and Anatolia and seek the capture of Constantinople. These grandiose instructions did not reach Napoleon’s headquarters until 25 March 1799; and by then, working out his own grand strategy, he had struck northwards and was besieging Acre. There it became clear that Bonaparte’s expedition was bringing an expedient cohesion to the Ottoman Empire. Selim was by no means displeased to see the Mameluke usurpers humbled, but he was not prepared to allow the French to seize a potentially rich province of his empire. The factious feudatories of Palestine and Syria collaborated with the Sultan’s nominal governor in Damascus to confront the invaders. Ahmed Djezzar ‘the Butcher’ was capable of raising an army of 100,000 men to check Bonaparte’s thrust northwards and, with the assistance of a British naval flotilla under Commodore Sidney Smith, resisted French assaults on Acre for seven weeks, until a convoy brought from Rhodes a contingent of Selim’s ‘New Order’ troops to reinforce the garrison.

With bubonic plague spreading among his troops, Bonaparte abandoned the siege of Acre. General Kléber defeated the sipahi cavalry at Mount Tabor on 16 April and, on this victorious note, the French retired from Syria to Egypt. With British and Russian naval backing, a convoy of sixty vessels brought 15,000 ‘New Order’ troops and Janissaries to the Egyptian coast in mid-July; they landed at Abu Qir (Aboukir) without waiting for the arrival of their horse transports, and threatened the French base at Alexandria; but they could not prevent the infiltration of their lines by the battle-hardened French infantry, and were scattered by Murat’s cavalry. French reports of their victory emphasized the folly of the Janissaries, who showed greater interest in securing ‘trophies’ by decapitating wounded prisoners than in regrouping to meet the enemy’s next assault.

Napoleon never again fought personally against Ottoman troops. By mid-October he was in France; a month later he became First Consul. As the Ottoman Empire had joined the Second Coalition, the war continued after Bonaparte left Egypt. In March 1801 an Ottoman army, with British military and naval backing, landed successfully near Alexandria and, in a seven-month campaign, forced the capitulation of the hard-pressed and deserted survivors of the Armée de l’Orient. A peace treaty was signed at Amiens in the following summer.

It had been a bitter war, especially so long as Napoleon still aspired to become ‘Emperor of the East’. His troops broke faith and committed atrocities at Jaffa; and, after two rebellions in Lower Egypt, he ordered the execution of Muslim hostages in Cairo. Selim III, for his part, had assumed a proper anti-French stance. He confiscated French property; he even worked with the Russians, allowing a fleet to pass through the Straits, while a Russo-Turkish military condominium replaced the pro-French regime set up in the Ionian Islands on the fall of the Venetian Republic. But at heart Selim remained a francophile, eager to turn to Paris for aid and advice at the earliest opportunity. It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened in 1798–9, had Talleyrand gone on his projected mission to Constantinople and achieved such diplomatic success that the ‘Sultan and French army’ alliance of Bonaparte’s proclamation was a reality before the Armée de l’Orient set foot in Selim’s Egyptian lands.





A British Disaster


The First World War battle of Kut-al-Amara was the greatest military disaster ever to befall the British Army. Some 25,000 were lost in the fighting and another 16,000 were taken prisoner, few of whom survived captivity.

Within three months of the start of World War I, the British occupied Basra (now in Iraq), which was the Ottoman Empire’s port at the head of the Persian Gulf. Turkey had allied itself with Germany so Britain, with its huge navy, needed to secure its oil supplies in the Middle East.

The British also sought to destabilize the Ottoman Empire, which had been in decline for centuries, and also add its eastern provinces to the British Empire. In December 1914, an Anglo-Indian force advanced forty-six miles northwards from Basra. Then in May and June of the following year they advanced another ninety miles up the River Tigris. Although the oil supplies were now secure, the lure of the fabled city of Baghdad was too strong for Major-General Sir Charles Townshend, commander of the Sixth (Poona) Division. They were just eighteen miles outside Baghdad – and 300 miles from their base in Basra – when they met a strong Turkish force at the ancient city of Ctesiphon. After a fruitless battle, the British pulled back a hundred miles to Kut-al-Amara, arriving there on 3 December.

Kut-al-Amara lies on the River Tigris at its confluence with the Shatt-al-Hai canal. It was 120 miles upstream from the British positions at Amara, and 200 miles from Basra. The town lies in a loop of the river, with a small settlement on the opposite bank, and in 1915 it was a densely-populated, filthy place. The civilian population added up to around 7,000, many of whom were evicted when Townshend’s army of 10,000 marched into the town. Aware that his men were exhausted, Townshend resolved to stop at Kut, a town of key importance if the British were to hold the region. As a market town, it had good supplies of grain and it offered his men some shelter and warmth in the freezing night temperatures.

Townshend’s decision to stop at Kut was approved by the region commander-in-chief General Sir John Nixon, but the War Office in London wanted him to continue his retreat to the south because it would be impossible to get reinforcements to him there, given the other demands on manpower at the beginning of the war. Unfortunately it was already too late. By 7 December, Townshend’s 10,000 men were under siege by a Turkish force of 10,500 and eight more Turkish divisions, recently released from Gallipoli, were massing near Baghdad.

Townshend calculated that there were enough supplies in Kut to last a month. Fortunately he had evacuated the cavalry on the day before the Turks arrived because there was little forage. However, Townshend was told that it might take two months for a relief force to arrive. Even so, he kept his men on the full daily ration because he planned to break out. General Nixon, on the other hand, ordered him to remain and hold as many Turkish troops around Kut as possible.

The Turkish commander, Nur-Ud-Din, and his German counterpart, Baron von der Goltz, were given straightforward instructions. They were to drive the British out of Mesopotamia. In December they made three large-scale attacks on Townshend’s position. These were beaten off with high losses on both sides so the Turks then set about blockading the town. At the same time, Turkish forces were dispatched south to prevent any British relief columns reaching Kut.

In the following January a British expeditionary force led by Sir Fenton Aylmer set out for Basra. However, their efforts w ere repeatedly repulsed at Sheikh Sa’ad, the Wadi and Hanna, involving them in heavy losses. They met similar resistance in March, this time at Dujaila.

A second relief operation began in April under Sir George Gorringe. He managed to get far enough to meet up with Baron von der Goltz and the Turkish Sixth Army, piercing their line some twenty miles south of Kut. The expedition then ran out of steam and it was abandoned on 22 April. A final attempt to reach the town on the paddle steamer Julnar also failed, although small quantities of supplies were dropped by air. By this time, sickness in the town had reached epidemic proportions.

On 26 April 1916 Townshend was given permission to ask the Turks for a six-day armistice. They also agreed that ten days’ food could be sent to the garrison while the talks were underway. If he were allowed to withdraw, said Townshend, he would give the Turks £1 million sterling and all the guns in the town, along with a guarantee that his men would never again engage with the Ottoman Empire. Khalil Pasha, the military governor of Baghdad, wanted to accept, but the Minister of War Enver Pasha demanded unconditional surrender. He wanted a spectacular victory so that British prestige was damaged as much as possible.

During the armistice period Townshend destroyed everything that was useful in the town and on the 29 April the British garrison surrendered. It was the greatest military disaster ever to have befallen the British Army. There were 227 British officers, 204 Indian officers and 12,828 other ranks – of whom 2,592 were British. All of them were marched into captivity.

While Townshend himself was treated as an honoured guest, his undernourished men were force-marched to prison camps where they were savagely beaten, many being killed in acts of wanton cruelty. More than 3,000 men perished in captivity and those who were released two years later were little more than walking skeletons.

Approximately 2,000 British losses were sustained during the fighting at Kut-al-Amara and another 23,000 troops were lost in the attempts to relieve the trapped army. The Turks lost 10,000 men.

It was a grave error to have made a stand at Kut. Until then the British had the initiative in the fighting in Mestopotamia. The loss of Kut and the Poona Division stunned the British and their Allies and it provided a huge morale boost for both the Turks and the Germans, particularly because it came so soon after Britain’s ignominious withdrawal from Gallipoli.

Baron von der Goltz did not live to witness the triumph. He died of typhus ten days before the surrender, although there were persistent rumours that he had been poisoned by a group of young Turkish officers. Townshend was released in October 1918, in time to assist in the armistice negotiations with the Ottoman Empire.


Baghdad: The Ottoman Death Knell

The British reversed the humiliation of their surrender at Kut-al-Amara in February 1917 by retaking the town. The Anglo-Indian Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force then advanced another fifty miles up the River Tigris to al-Aziziyeh where the regional commander-in-chief Sir Frederick Stanley Maude ordered them to wait until he had received confirmation from London that a march on Baghdad was in order. Their target lay another fifty miles up the river.

This hiatus gave the regional Turkish commander-in-chief Khalil Pasha a chance to plan his defence of Baghdad. He had some 12,500 men under his command, including around 2,300 survivors from the fall of Kut-al-Amara. Two divisions of 20,000 men under Ali Ishan Bey were on their way to Baghdad across the desert from western Persia (Iran), but it was unlikely that this force would arrive in time to help in the city’s defence. Even if they did, the Turks would still only have 35,000 men at their disposal when they faced a British army of 120,000. The British would also be supported by cavalry, a flotilla of gunboats and planes for spotting and light bombing.

Khalil dismissed the option of avoiding this unequal fight by retreating from Baghdad. Simply handing the southern capital of the Ottoman Empire over to the British would be too much of a humiliation for the Turks. He also rejected the option of creating an aggressive ‘forward’ defence by abandoning work on the fortifications at Ctesiphon. For some reason, Khalil also discounted the flooding of the overland approaches to Baghdad. This would have caused Maude’s men immense difficulties and the threat of flooding remained a worry for the British even after the capture of the city.

Instead Khalil chose to defend Baghdad itself. He built defences on either side of the Tigris to the south of the city and then he deployed the Turkish Sixth Army to defend the southeast approaches to the city along the Diyala River.

After waiting for a week at al-Aziziyeh, Maude resumed his advance on 5 March 1917. Travelling up the east bank of the Tigris he reached the Diyala three days later. Small-scale crossings under the cover of darkness on the following evening resulted in the successful establishment of a small bridgehead on the north bank. Taking the bulk of the forces across the well-defended river proved to be less easy. Instead, Maude built pontoon bridges several miles downstream and moved the main body of his forces to a position from where they could cross to the west bank of the Tigris. His aim was to outflank Khalil’s defences along the Diyala and move directly on to Baghdad.

However, the German Army Air Service had just brought planes into the area. They spotted what the British were attempting to do and informed Khalil, who then moved the bulk of his forces across the Tigris, so that he would be able to counter a British attack from the southwest. He left just one regiment on the Diyala which the British overrran on the morning of 10 March. Khalil was effectively outmanoeuvred.

Khalil’s next priority was to guard his rear so he moved his forces to the west of their position in Tel Aswad. Their task was to protect the railway that started from Baghdad and ran all the way back to the heart of the Ottoman Empire and on to Berlin. The battle for Baghdad was then halted by a sand-storm. The Germans urged Khalil to stage a counterattack but by the time the weather had cleared he had decided to pull out of the city. At eight p.m. on 10 March the retreat from Baghdad was under way.

On the following day Maude’s troops entered the city without a struggle. Baghdad’s 140,000 occupants lined the streets, cheering and clapping. For the last two years the Turkish Army had been requisitioning private merchandise and shipping it out of the city. General Maude issued a proclamation that read:

People of Baghdad, remember for twenty-six generations you have suffered strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her allies for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity or misgovernment. Our armies do not come to your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.

However, Iraq did not gain its independence. The League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to run Iraq as well as Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Egypt. There was an uprising in 1920, so the British installed Lawrence of Arabia’s friend Prince Faisal as king. He promised to safeguard British oil interests in Iraq, for which Britain paid him £800,000 a month.

Some 9,000 Turkish prisoners were taken at the fall of Baghdad. Britain had sustained 40,000 casualties over the entire campaign, many having died from disease. Maude himself contracted cholera after drinking contaminated milk. He died on 18 November 1917 and was buried just outside the city walls of Baghdad.

The capture of Baghdad was a decisive propaganda blow for the Western Allies and it ended Turkish activity in Persia. Meanwhile Maude’s force moved on rapidly to capture the strategically vital railway at Samarrah.

It Is Better to Die in Battle Than to Live in Shame


The rise of Slobodan Milosevic, the man who was to become Serbian president, was sealed by an apparently impromptu speech he gave in Kosovo Polje on 24 April 1987. The leader of the League of Communists of Serbia emerged from a meeting of angry Kosovo Serbs who were complaining of harassment at the hands of the local ethnic Albanian-dominated authorities:

First I want to tell you, comrades, that you should stay here. This is your country, these are your houses, your fields and gardens, your memories. You are not going to abandon your lands because life is hard, because you are oppressed by injustice and humiliation. It has never been a characteristic of the Serbian and Montenegrin people to retreat in the face of obstacles, to demobilise when they should fight, to become demoralised when things are difficult. You should stay here, both for your ancestors and your descendants. Otherwise you would shame your ancestors and disappoint your descendants. But I do not suggest you stay here suffering and enduring a situation with which you are not satisfied. On the contrary! It should be changed, together with all progressive people here, in Serbia and in Yugoslavia. . . . Yugoslavia does not exist without Kosovo! Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo! Yugoslavia and Serbia are not going to give up Kosovo!

Soon after 1389 the Serbian Patriarch Danilo recorded what he claimed was a speech given by Prince Lazar to his men on the eve of combat:

You, oh comrades and brothers, lords and nobles, soldiers and vojvodas [dukes] great and small. You yourselves are witnesses and observers of that great goodness God has given us in this life. . . . But if the sword, if wounds, or if the darkness of death comes to us, we accept them sweetly for Christ and for the godliness of our homeland. It is better to die in battle than to live in shame. Better it is for us to accept death from the sword in battle than to offer our shoulders to the enemy. We have lived a long time for the world; in the end we seek to accept the martyr’s struggle and to live forever in heaven. We call ourselves Christian soldiers, martyrs for godliness to be recorded in the book of life. We do not spare our bodies in fighting in order that we may accept the holy wreaths from that One who judges all accomplishments. Sufferings beget glory and labors lead to peace.

In all of European history it is impossible to find any comparison with the effect of Kosovo on the Serbian national psyche. The battle changed the course of Serbian history, but its immediate strategic impact was far less than many subsequently came to believe. Its real, lasting legacy lay in the myths and legends which came to be woven around it, enabling it to shape the nation’s historical and national consciousness. This came about through a particular set of historical and political circumstances in the decades following the battle. A legend was created around the character of Lazar, primarily by monks, which was later preserved through the tradition of cycles of epic folk poetry. These provided a link to past glory and more importantly an inspiration for the Serbs in the nineteenth century and during the Balkan Wars when the time was ripe to shrug off Ottoman domination.

In the late 1980s, with Milosevic acting as cup-bearer, the Serbs were again to drink from the Kosovo chalice and, fortified by its heady brew of nationalism, they marched confidently into war and disaster. The irony is that Milosevic had predicted that ‘Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo’, yet it was Yugoslavia’s fate to disintegrate with Kosovo, as the fissures that spread from the unhappy province managed to splinter the rest of the country. That did not mean of course that Kosovo, with its majority ethnic Albanian population, would be happy to stay in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. Far from it. By the end of the twentieth century what remained of Yugoslavia, then just Serbia and Montenegro, would face utter catastrophe as the conflict that began in Kosovo eventually exploded into war.


The Battle and Its Aftermath

Because it has become so central to the Serbian story, Kosovo can rightly be described as its historical crossroads. But for the Turks in the late 1380s it had no such metaphysical connotations. It was simply the next domino in their conquest of the Balkans. Much of it lay under the control of the powerful local lord Vuk Brankovic. Its plains were rich and fertile and its mines gave forth an abundance of minerals, especially gold and silver.

After the Battle on the Maritsa in 1371 the Turks spent time consolidating their rule in Bulgaria and Macedonia. By the mid-1380s, however, they began to raid Serbia itself. It was clear to all that a decisive battle was coming, especially if the Serbian lords did not submit and agree to become vassals beforehand. In 1389 Sultan Murad, acknowledging the importance of the coming conflict, not only led his troops personally but came to Kosovo with his two sons, Bayezid and Yakub. On the Serbian side the main contingents were led by Lazar and Vuk Brankovic. King Tvrtko of Bosnia had sent men under the command of Vlatko Vukovic. There were most probably also some Albanian contingents under Lazar’s flag plus mercenaries from many parts of the region, as there were in the Turkish ranks too.

Considering the vast repercussions of the battle it is striking how little hard information there is about what actually happened. Later myth-makers and hagiographers were to compose histories crammed with a wealth of detail, such as Danilo’s account of Lazar’s eve-of-battle speech, but very little of this has any grounding in fact. All we know for sure is that Lazar and Sultan Murad died, along with many others. Vuk Brankovic, Vlatko Vukovic and Bayezid survived, and immediately after the battle the Turks retreated to Edirne (Adrianople), their capital at that time. Today Kosovo is written and talked about as the great Serbian defeat, the end of empire and the beginning of centuries of Ottoman bondage. Yet none of this is strictly true. First, many of the initial reports from Kosovo, far from lamenting a great Christian catastrophe, celebrated a triumph over the Turks. Secondly, as we have seen, the Serbian Empire had begun to collapse as far back as 1355 after the death of Dusan. Thirdly, after the battle, a form of Serbian state, the so-called despotate, survived, on and off, for another seventy years. Despite the constant threat from the Turks, the despotate was to see a Serbian cultural renaissance, the most important monuments of which are the monasteries of the Morava valley.

The very first record of the battle that has come down to us was made by a Russian monk who was on Turkish territory at the time, close to Constantinople. Writing twelve days after the battle he noted the death of the sultan but said nothing of victory or defeat. By contrast King Tvrtko in Bosnia was soon trumpeting his victory. On 1 August 1389 he wrote to the senate of the Dalmatian town of Trogir informing them of the sultan’s defeat. He then wrote to the Florentine senate. This letter has not been preserved, but their reply has been. In it he is congratulated on the victory and, significantly, reference is made to twelve men ‘who broke through the enemy ranks and the camels tethered round about, opening a way with their swords, and reached Murad’s tent.

‘Blessed above the rest was he who, running his sword into the throat and skirt of the leader of such a great power, heroically killed him.’

At the time the question of who had killed the sultan did not seem very important, but in later chronicles the man was named. He was Milos Obilic, or in earlier writings Kobilic. No historian can say with absolute certainty whether Obilic was an historical character, but his name came to loom ever larger, not only in Serbian epic poems about the battle but also in the national pantheon of heroes.

Gradually reports of the battle began to filter across Europe but they were either unspecific about its outcome or they talked of a Christian victory. As in Chinese Whispers these reports also tended to become ever more distorted in the telling. By the time they reached Paris, for example, the French chronicler Philippe Mesière recorded that the sultan ‘had been completely defeated. . . . Both he and his sons fell in the battle as well as the bravest of their army.’ These reports did not talk much about the death of Prince Lazar, who, at least in the west, was an obscure Balkan princeling.

A wealth of modern scholarship has examined scores of chronicles, Serbian, Turkish and others, written in the decades after the battle. What appears to have happened is that both sides, reeling from the loss of their leaders, now needed to consolidate power in the hands of their successors. On the Turkish side this was swift and bloody. After Murad’s death Bayezid summoned his younger brother Yakub, murdered him and then hurried home to Edirne to secure his succession.

On the Serbian side it was the consolidation of power in the hands of Lazar’s clan which gave birth to the myth of Kosovo. Lazar’s widow Milica needed to secure the succession of their son Stefan, who in 1389 was still a young boy. Apart from retaining power, she had other urgent matters to attend to. Although it was not immediately evident that Kosovo was a military defeat, its implications were soon becoming clear, While Lazar’s Serbia had been relatively wealthy and strong, it was no long-term match for the far more powerful Ottomans. If both armies had suffered heavy losses, only the Turks had a plentiful supply of fresh manpower to call upon when they returned home. No sooner had Bayezid secured his succession than the Turks were back demanding that Milica submit to his authority. With the Hungarians threatening the north, there was little choice. What had been Lazar’s Serbia became a vassal state. Stefan and his brother Vuk were not yet old enough to lead troops for Bayezid, but tribute had to be paid including the despatch of Lazar’s fourteen-year-old daughter Olivera to grace Bayezid’s harem.

In a bid to shore up her power-base against the potential threat of the other marauding Serbian lords who might now want to partition her lands, Milica put church scribes to work to sanctify Lazar in order to bolster Stefan’s claim on power. So, as the scribes eulogised his ‘saintly’ father, young Stefan, like the Nemanjas, could also claim to be a ‘sapling’ from a ‘holy root’. It would be too cynical to suggest that securing the position of young Stefan was the only reason for the canonisation of Lazar, but it was certainly a powerful motivation. In medieval society the church was the main source of news and information for ordinary people. As Lazar had been favoured by the church above the other Serbian lords of the time, its priests were happy to play their part.

Within a few years of the battle Stefan Lazarevic was old enough to fulfil his obligations as a vassal most importantly he was required to come to the Sultan’s aid along with his soldiers. This led to a curious situation, but one which was then accepted as fate. While Lazar himself was being venerated as a saint and as the man who had given his life to save the Serbs from Murad’s Turks, his son was now fighting for Murad’s son Bayezid, who was also his brother-in-law.

Immediately after the battle, Bayezid had successfully consolidated his power, and there were ever fewer Balkan Slav leaders left who had not yet submitted to his authority. In 1396, however, the Turks had to confront the last serious crusade against them, but, in part thanks to Stefan’s intervention, the Christians were defeated. In 1402, though, Bayezid’s luck turned. This time the threat came from the east. Bayezid’s army suffered a crushing defeat at Angora (Ankara) at the hands of Timur (Tamerlane), the Mongol leader who had begun to build up his empire in far-off Samarkand. Bayezid was captured and was said to have been carried around in a cage until he died. Timur’s incursion into Asia Minor did not last long and his power crumbled after his death in 1405. However, the damage he wrought on the Ottomans was considerable and the episode managed to give a respite to the rump Byzantine Empire still lingering on in Constantinople. Stefan Lazarevic, who had fought at Ankara with Bayezid, now seized his chance to slip the Ottoman leash. Escaping from the battlefield, where his men had defeated a Tartar unit, he collected his sister Olivera from Bayezid’s harem and paid a visit to the emperor in Constantinople, Manuel II Palaeologus. He conferred on Stefan the title despot or ruler, which in Byzantine terminology does not have the negative connotations that it has in English.

Following the demise of Bayezid, his sons plunged into a bloody civil war in a bid to secure the succession. By 1413 it was over and Despot Stefan once again had to submit to Ottoman suzerainty. His nephew and successor Djuradj Brankovic (1427-56) tried to organise resistance with other Christian powers but, as usual, their own short-term interests came first. In 1427 the Hungarians made a deal with the Turks by which Djuradj Brankovic would be recognised as despot of a semi-independent buffer state which was to lie between them. It was not to last. The Turks occupied Serbia briefly in 1439 and again finally in 1459 when Smederevo, the purpose-built Danube fortress town and capital of the despotate, fell. On the map, Serbia as anything else but a far-flung Ottoman province ceased to exist. In the minds of the Serbs, however, Serbia was simply awaiting its resurrection.

High Noon of the Serbian Empire



The thirteenth century was a period of steady expansion and consolidation for Serbia and the Nemanjas. The tribal zupans became lords and nobles, while peasants were increasingly reduced to serfdom on the feudal estates. Apart from agriculture the mainstay of the medieval economy was mining. During the reign of Stefan Uros I (1243-76) several new lead, copper and silver mines were opened. Saxon Germans were brought from Transylvania as miners and commercial links with Italy were strengthened. Throughout the middle ages Ragusa (Dubrovnik) played a key role in the economy of the region as its main commercial and entrepôt port city.

Abroad, in 1261, the Byzantine Empire was restored in Constantinople. Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus won back some of the old imperial lands, but his state was to remain weak.

The Serbian kings continued to seek immortality in their monastical bequests. Uros I was the founder of Sopocani, and Milutin (1282-1321) of Gracanica, which is close to modern Pristina. Under Milutin, the gold mines of Novo Brdo started work, and lead is still mined there. Milutin’s fourth wife was Simonida, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor. She had originally come to him as a child bride despatched from Constantinople at the age of six. In Gracanica’s church her frescoed portrait shows her perfect oval face topped by a magnificent crown. Her body is wrapped in sumptuous bejewelled robes. Under Milutin, Byzantine tradition, court customs and institutions came ever more to be emulated and Simonida’s mother, the Empress Irene, in Constantinople would shower her son-in-law and daughter with precious gifts. Milutin’s claim to the throne, which he in fact wrested from his brother Dragutin, who had in turn seized it from his father Uros I in war, is emphasized by means of another frescoed Nemanjic family tree. It shows him at the top with angels bringing him the crown and other symbols of his power and majesty. Milutin was clearly no longer content with being just the king of a peripheral Balkan backwater, even if St Sava had buttressed the Serbian kings’ claim by invoking divine right. He had begun to hunger for something more. Desanka Milosevic, who has written about Gracanica, notes that Milutin’s portrait atop the family tree contained in it an important political message for those who could decode such symbolism:

With this act, with this painting, the king had all the prerogatives of power of the Byzantine Emperor, except for the title. The crown, the garments, the lros and the sceptre were all identical to the Byzantine Emperor’s. Before Milutin, something like this would have been absolutely unthinkable, for only the Byzantine Emperor was Christ’s regent on earth and only he ruled by God’s grace.

Today Gracanica, like the other Serbian monasteries of Kosovo, stands like a small Serbian island in an Albanian sea. By the time of Serbian Nemanjic rule in Kosovo and Metohija, to give the region its full Serbian name, the majority of its population was most probably Serbian. As the British historian Noel Malcolm has written, ‘all the evidence suggests that they [Albanians] were only a minority in medieval Kosovo.’ Albanian historians dispute this claiming they were in the majority while Serbian historians claim that, if there were any Albanians in Kosovo at all, only insignificant numbers were present. Whatever the true proportions, difficult to assess anyway because of assimilation and the more fluid nature of identities then, things began to change after the Ottoman conquest and especially after the great Serbian migrations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this period the movement of Albanians, mostly Muslim converts, into Kosovo began to change the region’s ethnic make-up, leading inexorably to a situation by which Serbs were eventually to become a small minority.

There is something pathetic then in the small clusters of people who gather for mass in Gracanica’s vaulted gloom of an icy-cold winter’s evening. Before the war in Kosovo they were a poignant reminder of past glories. Now, in what has become a Serbian enclave whose physical security at the dawn of the twenty-first century was only assured by Swedish troops, they had become a living remnant of Serbian history.

When the English writer Rebecca West visited Gracanica in 1937, twenty-five years after the Serbs had recaptured Kosovo from the Turks and in an era when the Serbs still bathed in the reflected glory of their First World War heroism, she saw the church in an entirely different light:

From the immense height of the cupolas light descends on three naves, divided by three gigantesquely sturdy columns, and arrives there multicoloured, dyed by the frescoes which cover every inch of the wall. There is here a sense of colossal strength, of animal vigour, of lust so lusty that it can sup off high pleasures as well as low, and likes crimson on its eye as well as wine on its tongue and a godhead as well as a mistress.

Although the Nemanjic monasteries were all of course Orthodox there was still not the total alienation between the two branches of Christendom that in this region was to develop later. The Nemanjas married Catholic princesses and, during the several conflicts between brothers or between sons and fathers that plagued the Nemanjas, one side often allied with a Catholic party such as Hungary and would pledge to bring Serbia into the Roman fold.

Born in 1307 Dusan was to be the greatest of the Nemanjic monarchs. He seized power from his father Stefan Decanski and had him locked up in the fortified town of Zvecan. In 1331 Dusan was crowned king of Serbia and two months later Stefan Decanski was strangled.

Dusan had his father buried in Visoki Decani High Decani, the monastery Stefan Decanski himself had begun to build and which his son was to continue. It is one of the most striking of all the Serbian monastery churches. While indubitably Byzantine and Orthodox inside, its outer walls are lined with strips of polished marble recalling the western, Dalmatian and Italianate styles of the time. Indeed its main architect was a Catholic, Fra Vita from the coastal town of Kotor. Stefan Decanski is celebrated as a saint, and his sarcophagus is opened on important feast days. Although Dusan was to be the greatest Serbian leader to date, he was not canonised because of his presumed part in the murder of his father.

With Byzantium at the time plunged into civil war, Dusan now seized the opportunity to expand the old Serbian state based around Raska and Kosovo. Soon he had taken all of Macedonia save Salonika and also much of Albania. After that Epirus and Thessaly, deep in modern Greece, were to fall to him. In 1343 Dusan supported John Cantacuzenus as a claimant to the throne of Byzantium. Cantacuzenus’ daughter had already been married to Orhan, the leader of the increasingly menacing Ottoman Turks. After his alliance with the Serbs broke down, Cantacuzenus called on the Turks to help fight the Serbs. It was a turning point not just for the Balkans but for the whole of Europe too, for in this way the Turks made their first major incursions on to the continent. Cantacuzenus had appealed to the Turks because Dusan’s ambition now embraced the throne in Constantinople itself. Such divisions within the Christian ranks were of course characteristic of the times and could only profit the Turks. Within just over one hundred years they had not only overwhelmed what remained of the Serbian state but had taken Constantinople as well.

In the meantime Dusan had himself crowned the ‘Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks’. The coronation took place in Skopje, in Macedonia, on Easter Sunday in 1346. Later he added the Albanians and Bulgars to his title. Only a patriarch could crown an emperor, but as Dusan * was in conflict with Constantinople the patriarch there clearly could not approve such a move. Dusan therefore had to create his own patriarch. He convoked a council of Serbian and Bulgarian churchmen and had them promote the most senior Serbian archbishop, Joanikije, to the status of patriarch. This led to a schism with the church in Constantinople. Dusan did not fulfil his ambition to take the city as he died suddenly in 1355.

Dusan has come down through history with two suffixes to his name. One is ‘the mighty’ in recognition of his short-lived empire. The other is ‘the lawgiver’ because of the new legal code he introduced in 1349 and which was expanded in 1354. The code, like Sava’s Nomocanon, was based on Byzantine models but adapted and expanded. Its first part deals with church matters and the ‘Latin heresy’. However, a large section is devoted to the medieval fight against crime, including bribery, theft and the forging of coins. Other portions deal with issues ranging from taxation to border lords, who are to be punished if they fail to prevent enemy incursions. Punishments were severe but no more so than elsewhere in Europe. Juries were selected from the defendant’s peers, but there was no question of equality before the law. Slaves, serfs, nobles and others were punished according to a sliding scale, with the lowest classes bearing the heavier punishments. Article 51 is a good example:

If any lord take a noblewoman by force, let both his hands be cut off and his nose be split. But if a commoner take a noblewoman by force, let him be hanged; if he take his own equal, let both his hands be cut off and his nose split.

Retreat from Empire

By 1355 Serbia was an empire which stretched from the Danube to the Peloponnese. It had a strong ambitious leader, an established dynasty and a national church, and it was by far the most powerful state in the Balkans. After Dusan’s death everything began to unravel. He was succeeded by his son Stefan Uros V, who had neither the authority of his father nor his military abilities. He is often dubbed Uros the Weak. John Cantacuzenus wrote at the time that Uros’ first challenger for power was his uncle Simeon, who sought:

to rule over all the lands of Serbia, thinking that his claims were stronger, and many of the Serbian landed aristocracy supported him. And Uros, the king’s son, gathered an army to protect his fatherland from his uncle. But his mother, Jelena, did not join either him or her brother in law, Simeon. Instead she took many cities for herself. . . . The most powerful members of the aristocracy drove out the humbler and the weaker members, seized any of the surrounding towns they could grab; some then joined the king and some Simeon, his uncle, not as vassals and subjects to their master, but rather as allies and friends offering support. . . . And thus broken and divided into a thousand parts, they started quarrelling.

While the general picture painted by Cantacuzenus is accurate, his time scale is blurred. He does not say for example that the first attacks on the empire came, not from within the Serbian camp, but from outside. With support from the Venetians a local ruler managed to wrest areas now in modern Albania from Serbian control. Those parts of Greece which had been part of the empire soon fell away too, with Simeon declaring himself emperor there. In the north Serbia was attacked by the Hungarians. In Zeta the Balsic family, whom both Serbs and Albanians claim as their own but were most probably intermarried, managed to take power, which they held until 1421.

By 1361 two brothers, Vukasin and Jovan Ugljesa, known to literature as the Mrnjavcevics, had emerged as leading actors on the political stage. These great feudal landowners from Macedonia were later to be condemned for usurping power from Uros. In fact, according to Rade Mihaljcic, a leading expert on the period, they at first worked with him, unlike his treacherous uncle Simeon. However, the Mrnjavcevics did have ambitions and, to the fury of the nobility of Raska, Vukasin was declared king under the nominal sovereignty of Emperor Uros. As Uros had no children this placed the Nemanjic succession in jeopardy. After 1365 Uros faded from the political scene, remaining emperor in name only. Slated for succession then was the son of Vukasin. He is known to history and in the legends that were to be woven around him as young King Marko or Kraljevic Marko.


Battle on the Maritsa

In the end there was to be no final power struggle. As Dusan’s empire crumbled away, it soon became clear that the balance of power in the Balkans was shifting. The main threat to the Serbs was no longer the Bulgarians or the Byzantines but the military might of the Ottoman Turks, who were rapidly advancing from out of Asia Minor. In 1371 Vukasin and Jovan Ugljesa died at the Battle on the Maritsa river, where the Serbs met the Turks in battle. Soon afterwards Uros died and with him ended the rule of the Nemanjic dynasty. The Battle on the Maritsa was a crushing victory for the Turks, and as a consequence Bulgaria, Macedonia and parts of southern Serbia fell under their sway. In strategic terms its consequences were far greater than those of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, but because of the myths and legends that have grown up around the latter the first has tended to be forgotten.

As there was obviously no native Turkish or Muslim population upon which to base the Ottomans’ Balkan rule at this time, the first stage of conquest was generally to leave a defeated territory under the control of its native rulers. Some did not even wait to be conquered, bowing before the overwhelming force of the Turks and submitting to the sultan’s authority. The price of power though was that these rulers became vassals. This meant that not only did they have to pay tribute to the sultan but they had to fight alongside him when called upon to do so. Kraljevic Marko became the first Serbian leader to fight with his men in the army of Sultan Murad I (136089). His career as a Turkish vassal did not preclude him from becoming one of the central figures of Serbian folklore, in which his character often defies his master, the sultan. One legend about him has him saying on the eve of battle: ‘I . . . pray God to help the Christians, even if I am the first to be killed in this war.’

After the Battle on the Maritsa, what remained of Serbian land was divided between several feudal lords. The Balsic family had already taken control of Zeta. The feudal lord Vuk Brankovic held parts of Raska, Kosovo and northern Macedonia, while one Lazar Hrebeljanovic rose to prominence in the region covering today’s central Serbia and parts of Kosovo including the citadel and mines of Novo Brdo. Lazar also greatly expanded his territory on the border of Bosnia when, in alliance with the Bosnian leader Ban Tvrtko Kotromanic, he fell upon the zupan Nikola Altomanovic, partitioning his lands between them in the autumn of 1373.

As the hero of the Battle of Kosovo and the figure that above all others bestrides Serbian history from the downfall of the Serbian state to modern times, it is striking that so little is known of Prince or Knez Lazar until 1371. Later eulogies and chronicles sought to magnify his origins, but apart from the fact that he was born around 1329 near Novo Brdo little is known for sure. He appears to have served at Dusan’s court in a noble capacity, and he clearly distinguished himself, acquiring the title of knez and marrying Milica, who came from a junior branch of the Nemanjic family.

With his successful conquest of Nikola Altomanovic’s lands Lazar was now emerging as the most powerful of the lords ruling the territory of the former Serbian kingdom. He made alliances through marriage, Vuk Brankovic was his son-in-law, and he came to be supported by the church ‘as the most suitable person for uniting the traditional lands of the Nemanjics and for restoring their state’. Lazar welcomed many churchmen to his territory who had fled the lands now under Turkish rule. Clearly seeing the coming danger, they encouraged him to seek a reconciliation between the Serbian church and the patriarchate in Constantinople. Relations had been broken after Stefan Dusan’s coronation in 1346. Lazar mended the breach, and formal renunciation of Dusan’s excommunication was read over his tomb in Prizren in Kosovo. Lazar was generous in giving to the church. Among the most important of his foundations was the delicate Ravanica monastery church which stands in the Morava valley in central Serbia.

As his power grew, Lazar started to describe himself as the ‘ruler of all Serbs’, though this was an ambition rather than a reality. At the same time Ban Tvrtko had had himself crowned ‘King of the Serbs and of Bosnia’ at the monastery of Mileseva in 1377. Despite this apparent clash of aims the two remained on good terms. Possibly Lazar deferred to Tvrtko here because the latter had Nemanjic blood in his veins while Lazar did not. At the time it was widely believed that Vukasin had died at the Battle on the Maritsa because he had taken the title ‘king’ without springing either directly or indirectly from the Nemanjic ‘holy root’.

The Turkish advance through south-eastern Europe was greatly aided by the divisions among the Christian leaders. By the time of the fateful Battle of Kosovo, Lazar may have been the biggest lord on the Balkan block but that was not enough, despite the support he was to receive from Vuk Brankovic and King Tvrtko. Lazar’s Serbia had been strengthened by the arrival of refugees from the lands which had already fallen under the Turks, but still this did not mean his principality had power enough to resist for any length of time. Moreover, the system of Christian vassal princes ensured that Serbs, among others, made up a part of the force which faced Lazar’s army at Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, on 28 June 1389.

A Naval Engagement In The Bosphorus


Venetian “Galley of Flanders.” Illustration of a 15th-century trade galley from a manuscript by Michael of Rhodes (1401–1445) written in 1434.


For Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI a successful defense of the city depended on relief from Christian Europe. The endless round of diplomatic missions that preceded the siege had all been undertaken to beg or borrow men and resources for the cause of Christendom. Daily the population looked in the direction of the setting sun for another fleet – a squadron of Venetian or Genoese war galleys, their beaked prows surging up the Marmara to the beating of drums, the rallying of war trumpets, the lion flags of St. Mark’s or the gonfalons of Genoa cracking in the salt wind. But the sea remained ominously empty.

In effect the fate of the city hung on the complex internal politics of the Italian city-states. As early as the end of 1451 Constantine had sent messengers to Venice to report that the city would fall without help. The matter had been debated by the Venetian Senate at length; it was the subject of prevarication in Genoa; in Rome the pope was concerned but required evidence that the union of the churches had been fully implemented. In any case he lacked practical resources to intervene without the Venetians. Genoa and Venice eyed each other in cold commercial rivalry and did nothing.

Constantine’s appeal to the West rested on notions that were religious and medieval, but they were directed at states whose motivations were economic – and surprisingly modern. The Venetians were largely indifferent to whether the Byzantines were unionists or not and had little appetite for the role of defenders of the faith. They were hard-nosed traders, preoccupied with commercial agreements, the security of their sea routes, and the calculation of interest. They worried about pirates more than theology, about commodities rather than creeds. Their merchants studied the price of what could be bought and sold – wheat, fur, slaves, wine, and gold – the supply of manpower for the galley fleets, and the pattern of Mediterranean winds. They lived by trade and the sea, by discount, profit margins, and ready coin. The doge was on excellent terms with the sultan, and trade with Edirne was profitable; furthermore Constantine had considerably damaged Venetian interests in the Peloponnese in the previous twenty years.

It was in this spirit that in August 1452 a minority of senators actually voted to abandon Constantinople to its fate. The lack of concern was modified the following spring as reports trickled in of the throttling of trade routes to the Black Sea and the sinking of Venetian ships. On February 19 the Senate decided to prepare a fleet of two armed transports and fifteen galleys to sail on April 8. The organization of the expedition was entrusted to Alviso Longo with cautious instructions that included a helpful dictat to avoid confrontation with the Ottomans in the straits. He finally departed on April 19, one day after the first major assault on the walls. Others made similarly uncoordinated efforts. On April 13 the government of the Republic of Genoa invited its citizens, merchants, and officials “in the East, in the Black Sea and in Syria” to help with all means the emperor of Constantinople and Demetrios, despot of the Morea. Five days earlier it had been authorizing loans to arm ships against the Venetians. At about the same time the pope had written to the Venetian Senate informing them of his desire to get up five galleys, on loan from the Venetians, for the relief of the city. The Venetians, ever sticklers for a debt, accepted the commission in principle but wrote back reminding the papacy that the cost of galleys for the failed Crusade of Varna in 1444 was still outstanding.

Pope Nicholas had however already undertaken one prompt initiative at his own expense. Fearful of the fate of Constantinople, in March he hired three Genoese merchant ships, provisioned them with food, men, and weapons, and dispatched them to the city. By the start of April they had reached the Genoese island of Chios off the Anatolian coast but could proceed no farther. The north wind that impeded the Ottoman fleet held the Genoese at Chios for a fortnight. On April 15 the wind shifted to the south and the ships set sail. By the 19th they had reached the Dardanelles where they fell in with a heavy imperial transport, laden with a cargo of corn the emperor had purchased from Sicily and commanded by an Italian, Francesco Lecanella. They swept up the Dardanelles and passed the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli unopposed – the entire fleet had decamped to the Double Columns. The ships were in all likelihood similar to those that had seen off the Ottomans at the boom a few days previously: high-sided sail-powered vessels, probably carracks, described by the Ottoman chronicler Tursun Bey as “cogs.” On the swell of the south wind they made rapid time up the Marmara so that by the morning of April 20 the crews could make out the great dome of St. Sophia forming on their eastern horizon.

The lookout for a relieving fleet was a constant obsession in the city. The ships were seen at about ten in the morning, and the Genoese flags – a red cross on a white background – identified. The news caused an instant stir among the people. Almost simultaneously the ships were also sighted by Ottoman naval patrols, and word was sent to Mehmet in his camp at Maltepe. He galloped down to the Double Columns to deliver clear and peremptory orders to Baltaoglu. Doubtless stung by the failure of his fleet at the boom and the reversal at the land walls, Mehmet gave a message to commander and fleet that was unequivocal: “either to take the sailing ships and bring them to him or never to come back alive.” The galley fleet was hurriedly made ready with a full complement of rowers and crammed with crack troops – heavy infantry, bowmen, and Janissaries from his personal bodyguard. Light cannon were again loaded on board, as well as incendiary materials and “many other weapons: round and rectangular shields, helmets, breast plates, missiles and javelins and long spears, and other things useful for this kind of battle.” The fleet set out down the Bosphorus to confront the intruders. Success was imperative for morale, but this second naval battle was to be fought farther out in the straits where the vagaries of the Bosphorus’s extraordinary winds and local currents were less predictable and the demands on ships could be exacting. The Genoese merchantmen were battering up the straits with the wind astern. The Ottoman fleet, unable to use their sails against the wind, lowered them as they rowed downstream against a choppy sea.

By early afternoon the four ships were off the southeast shore of the city, keeping a steady course for the tower of Demetrios the Great, a prominent landmark on the city’s Acropolis, and well out from the shore, ready to make the turning maneuver into the mouth of the Horn. The huge disparity in numbers filled Baltaoglu’s men “with ambition and hope of success.” They came on steadily, “with a great sounding of castanets and cries towards the four ships, rowing fast, like men wanting victory.” The sound of beating drums and the braying of zornas spread across the water as the galley fleet closed in. With the masts and oars of a hundred ships converging on the four merchantmen, the outcome seemed inevitable. The population of the city crowded to the walls, onto the roofs of houses, or to the Sphendone of the Hippodrome, anywhere that had a wide view of the Marmara and the entrance of the Bosphorus. On the other side of the Horn, beyond the walls of Galata, Mehmet and his retinue watched from the vantage point of an opposing hill. Each side looked on with a mixture of hope and anxiety as Baltaoglu’s trireme drew near to the lead ship. From the poop he peremptorily ordered them to lower their sails. The Genoese kept their course, and Baltaoglu commanded his fleet to lie to and rake the carracks with fire. Stone shot whistled through the air; bolts, javelins, and incendiary arrows were poured up at the ships from all directions but the Genoese did not waver. Again the advantage was with the taller ships: “they fought from high up, and indeed from the yardarms and the wooden turrets they hurled down arrows, javelins, and stones.” The weight of the sea made it hard for the galleys to steady their aim or to maneuver accurately around the carracks still surging forward with the south wind in their sails. The fight developed into a running skirmish, with the Ottoman troops struggling to get close enough in the choppy sea to board or to fire the sails, the Genoese flinging a hail of missiles from their castellated poops.

The small convoy of tall ships reached the point of the Acropolis unscathed and was ready to make the turn into the safety of the Horn when disaster struck. The wind suddenly dropped. The sails hung lifeless from the masts, and the ships, almost within touching distance of the city walls, lost all headway and started to drift helplessly on a perverse countercurrent across the open mouth of the Horn and toward Mehmet and his watching army on the Galata shore. At once the balance shifted from the ships with sails to the galleys with oars. Baltaoglu gathered his larger vessels around the merchantmen at a slight distance and again pelted them with missiles, but with no greater effect than before. The cannon were too light and too low in the water to damage the hulls or disable the masts. The Christian crews were able to put out any fires with barrels of water. Seeing the failure of raking fire, the admiral “shouted in a commanding voice” and ordered the fleet to close in and board.

The swarm of galleys and longboats converged on the cumbersome and disabled carracks. The sea congealed into a struggling mass of interlocking masts and hulls that looked, according to the chronicler Doukas, “like dry land.” Baltaoglu rammed the beak of his trireme into the stern of the imperial galley, the largest and least heavily armed of the Christian ships. Ottoman infantry poured up the boarding bridges trying to get onto the ships with grappling hooks and ladders, to smash their hulls with axes, to set fire to them with flaming torches. Some climbed up anchor cables and ropes; others hurled lances and javelins up at the wooden ramparts. At close quarters the struggle developed into a series of vicious hand-to-hand encounters. From above, the defenders, protected by good armor, smashed the heads of their assailants with clubs as they emerged over the ships’ sides, cut off scrabbling hands with cutlasses, hurled javelins, spears, pikes, and stones down on the seething mass below. From higher up in the yardarms and crow’s nests “they threw missiles from their terrible catapults and a rain of stones hurled down on the close-packed Turkish fleet.” Crossbowmen picked off chosen targets with well-aimed bolts and crewmen deployed cranes to hoist and drop weighty stones and barrels of water through the light hulls of the longboats, damaging and sinking many. The air was a confused mass of sounds: shouts and cries, the roaring of cannon, the splash of armored men falling backward into the water, the snapping of oars, the shattering of stone on wood, steel on steel, the whistling of arrows falling so fast “that the oars couldn’t be pushed down into the water,” the sound of blades on flesh, of crackling fire and human pain. “There was great shouting and confusion on all sides as they encouraged each other,” recorded Kritovoulos, “hitting and being hit, slaughtering and being slaughtered, pushing and being pushed, swearing, cursing, threatening, moaning – it was a terrible din.”

For two hours the Ottoman fleet grappled with its intractable foe in the heat of battle. Its soldiers and sailors fought bravely and with extraordinary passion, “like demons,” recorded Archbishop Leonard begrudgingly. Gradually, and despite heavy losses, the weight of numbers started to tell. One ship was surrounded by five triremes, another by thirty longboats, a third by forty barges filled with soldiers, like swarms of ants trying to down a huge beetle. When one longboat fell back exhausted or was sunk, leaving its armored soldiers to be swept off in the current or clinging to spars, fresh boats rowed forward to tear at their prey. Baltaoglu’s trireme clung tenaciously to the heavier and less well-armed imperial transport, which “defended itself brilliantly, with its captain Francisco Lecanella rushing to help.” In time, however, it became apparent to the captains of the Genoese ships that the transport would be taken without swift intervention. Somehow they managed to bring their ships up alongside in a practiced maneuver and lash the four vessels together, so that they seemed to move, according to an observer, like four towers rising up among the swarming seething confusion of the grappling Ottoman fleet from a surface of wood so dense that “the water could hardly be seen.”

The spectators thronging the city walls and the ships within the boom watched helplessly as the matted raft of ships drifted slowly under the point of the Acropolis and toward the Galata shore. As the battle drew closer, Mehmet galloped down onto the foreshore, shouting excited instructions, threats, and encouragement to his valiantly struggling men, then urging his horse into the shallow water in his desire to command the engagement. Baltaoglu was close enough now to hear and ignore his sultan’s bellowed instructions. The sun was setting. The battle had been raging for three hours. It seemed certain that the Ottomans must win “for they took it in turns to fight, relieving each other, fresh men taking the places of the wounded or killed.” Sooner or later the supply of Christian missiles must give out and their energy would falter. And then something happened to shift the balance back again so suddenly that the watching Christians saw in it only the hand of God. The south wind picked up. Slowly the great square sails of the four towered carracks stirred and swelled and the ships started to move forward again in a block, impelled by the irresistible momentum of the wind. Gathering speed, they crashed through the surrounding wall of frail galleys and surged toward the mouth of the Horn. Mehmet shouted curses at his commander and ships “and tore his garments in his fury,” but by now night was falling and it was too late to pursue the ships farther. Beside himself with rage at the humiliation of the spectacle, Mehmet ordered the fleet to withdraw to the Double Columns.

In the moonless dark, two Venetian galleys were dispatched from behind the boom, sounding two or three trumpets on each galley and with the men shouting wildly to convince their enemies that a force of “at least twenty galleys” was putting to sea and to discourage any further pursuit. The galleys towed the sailing ships into the harbor to the ringing of church bells and the cheering of the citizens. Mehmet was “stunned. In silence, he whipped up his horse and rode away.”

The immediate consequences of the naval engagement in the Bosphorus were profound. A few short hours had tipped the psychological balance of the siege sharply and unexpectedly back to the defenders. The spring sea had provided a huge auditorium for the public humiliation of the Ottoman fleet, watched both by the Greek population thronging the walls and the right wing of the army with Mehmet on the shore opposite.

It was obvious to both sides that the massive new fleet, which had so stunned the Christians when it first appeared in the Straits, could not match the experience of Western seamanship. It had been thwarted by superior skill and equipment, the innate limitations of war galleys – and not a little luck. Without secure control of the sea, the struggle to subdue the city would be hard fought, whatever the sultan’s guns might achieve at the land walls.

Within the city, spirits were suddenly high again: “the ambitions of the Sultan were thrown into confusion and his reputed power diminished, because so many of his triremes couldn’t by any means capture just one ship.” The ships not only brought much needed grain, arms, and manpower, they had given the defenders precious hope. This small flotilla might be merely the precursor of a larger rescue fleet. And if four ships were able to defy the Ottoman navy, what might a dozen well-armed galleys of the Italian republics not do to decide the final outcome? “This unhoped-for result revived their hopes and brought encouragement, and filled them with very favourable hopes, not only about what had happened, but also about their expectations for the future.” In the fevered religious atmosphere of the conflict, such events were never just the practical contest of men and materials or the play of winds, they were clear evidence of the hand of God. “They prayed to their prophet Muhammad in vain,” wrote the surgeon Nicolo Barbaro, “while our Eternal God heard the prayers of us Christians, so that we were victorious in this battle.”

Comte de Bonneval in Ottoman Service


Claude Alexandre, Comte de Bonneval (1675 – 1747, Istanbul.

Ahmed III had reigned for twenty-seven years. Against all expectancy, his nephew remained on the throne for twenty-four. For thirteen months after his accession, foreign envoys looked on Mahmud as a mere puppet of Patrona Halil and his bully boys, rebels who set fire to most of the exquisite palaces and kiosks of the Tulip Years. Their leader grew rich very quickly, as boss of a city-wide protection racket. Momentarily it seemed he might find an even broader field in which to peculate; on 24 November 1731 the Sultan invited Patrona Halil and his chief supporters to come to the palace in order to discuss plans for another Persian War. No such discussion took place. Soon after their arrival in the Topkapi Sarayi, Patrona Halil and his associates were seized, and strangled on the spot. Mahmud could now rule in his own right, entrusting the administration to Grand Viziers sympathetic towards westernizing reform, but more cautious than Damat Ibrahim and less tenacious of office.

Much survived the Patrona Terror, most notably Muteferrika’s printing press. There was even an imperial tulip festival each spring, albeit trimmed down to economy size. Like Ahmed III, Mahmud showed an interest in books and education, at least in his capital city: a small library outside the Mosque of the Conqueror and a primary school attached to the mosque of Ayasofya are still standing. He also completed a project, abandoned in the previous reign, for supplying water piped from outlying reservoirs to Pera, Galata and the northern shore of the Golden Horn; the octagonal water distribution centre (taksim), erected on the Sultan’s orders, is still at the top of Istiklal Caddesi (modern Istanbul’s Regent Street or Rue de Rivoli) and has given its name to Taksim Meydani, which it is tempting to call Istanbul’s Piccadilly Circus.

These projects belong mainly to Mahmud I’s later years, as also does the patronage he extended to the building of Stamboul’s first Baroque mosque, the Nurousmaniye Cami, next to the Bazaar. He had begun his personal rule by giving urgent attention to defects in the methods of tax collection; a new law improving the efficiency of the timar system was issued as early as January 1732. Later in that same year Ibrahim Muteferrika presented the Sultan with a printed edition of his own treatise, some fifty pages long, an inquiry into the science of ruling the nations, Usul ul-hikem fi nizam al-uman. He described the types of government existing in other states, urged the sovereign to relate external policies to the geographical structure of neighbouring lands, and suggested how the Ottomans might learn from the military science and discipline of infidel armies—towards whom Muteferrika dutifully showed a tactful contempt. Mahmud I was impressed; and, like many later Sultans, he turned for advice to a foreign expert. The Comte de Bonneval would, he hoped, modernize the Ottoman army, making it once again the conquering vanguard of Islam.

Claude-Alexandre, Comte de Bonneval, a French general from the Limousin, had every confidence that he could live up to what he assumed to be the Sultan’s expectations. He was fifty-two when in 1727 he entered Ottoman service, having fought for and against Louis XIV and served under Prince Eugene against the Turks before falling out with his commanding general and spending a year in prison. The Venetian Republic had nothing to offer him and so he travelled down to Ragusa (Dubrovnik), crossed into Bosnia, accepted conversion to Islam, and made ready to fight for the Sultan. After a few months observing the Ottoman army, he prepared a memorandum for Mahmud I, explaining how he would create new fighting units of infantry and artillery, to be trained by young hand-picked officers; and how he would restore the Janissaries as an élite fighting force by grouping several orta in the corps into regiments, thus giving officers a regular ladder of promotion on the model of the French and Austrian armies which he already knew so well. Foreign-born military advisers—German, Austrian and Scottish officers, in particular—had played a considerable role in modernizing the Russian army: one in four of Peter the Great’s senior commanders was a non-Russian, and the new guards regiments founded by his successor, Empress Anna, were almost entirely raised and trained by foreigners. To assist him, Bonneval knew he would have three somewhat younger French officers who had converted to Islam, together with some Irish and Scottish soldiers of fortune and, possibly, some Swedes. On paper there seemed no reason why ‘Ahmed’—as Bonneval was now known—should not give the Sultan a fighting force to match the army of his northern neighbour.

The vicissitudes of Bonneval’s career well illustrate the difficulties facing any reformer at the Sultan’s court. In September 1731 the Grand Vizier Topal Osman invited him to modernize a single section of the Sultan’s army, the humbaraciyan or bombardier corps, responsible for making, transporting and firing all explosive weapons (mortar bombs, grenades, mines) on land or aboard a naval vessel. He was provided with a training ground and barracks outside Üsküdar, consulted over the construction of a cannon foundry and musket factory, and asked to draft a memorandum for the Sublime Porte on foreign policy. But six months later Grand Vizier Topal Osman was replaced by an Italian-born convert, Hekimolu Ali, who was so dependent on the conservatively-minded Janissary leaders that he dared not support army reform until he had been in office for some two years. By the autumn of 1734, however, Bonneval was back in grace: on his recommendation a military engineering school was set up in Üsküdar; and in January 1735 he was made a high-ranking dignitary, entitled to two horsetails.

For the last twelve years of his life Claude-Alexandre became Kumbaraci Osman Ahmed Pasha. He could not, however, rely on Mahmud’s continued support. Yet another Grand Vizier came into office in July 1735, and a year later the Pasha was exiled from the capital to Katamonu in northern Anatolia; funds for the bombardiers and the new army institutions were at once cut off. Somehow, in 1740, he slipped back to Üsküdar, but Janissary suspicion and jealousy made certain he never again enjoyed great influence. His grandiose plans for modernizing the army were ignored, although he was allowed to continue running his military engineering school until his death at the age of seventy-two. ‘A man of great talent for war, intelligent and eloquent, charming and gracious’, commented a French envoy; ‘very proud, a lavish spender, extremely debauched and a great philanderer.’

Bonneval’s reforms contributed to the success of Ottoman armies in the sporadic campaigns from 1736 to 1739 against Russia and Austria. Sultan Mahmud’s armies recovered much of Serbia, including Belgrade, and strengthened the Ottoman hold on Bosnia. Throughout Mahmud’s reign the Sublime Porte had to look defensively to the east, as well as to the north and west, for in Persia the ruthless Khan Nadir Afshar seized power and in 1737 was recognized as Shah. Mahmud and Nadir exchanged gifts: an ornate oval throne, plated with gold and adorned with pearls, rubies and diamonds, was presented by the Shah to the Sultan; while Mahmud in return sent to Nadir a golden dagger, with three large emeralds in the hilt beneath another emerald which covered a watch. But despite such costly diplomatic courtesies, Sultan and Shah were at war for most of Nadir’s reign, fighting largely indecisive campaigns in Mesopotamia, although the Persians gained some success in the southern Caucasus. The danger receded with the assassination of Nadir in 1747, an event which enabled the Sultan to recover the golden dagger he had presented. Both gifts are on show in the Topkapi Sarayi treasury, the dagger having (in 1964) featured in Topkapi, a film based upon Eric Ambler’s thriller The Light of Day.

Shah Nadir’s murder came at the start of an unexpected interlude in Ottoman history. Between 1746 and 1768, the Empire was at peace. Never before had twenty-two years passed without war along at least one frontier; and the country was to enjoy no comparable respite until the Kemalist Revolution and the proclamation of a republic. Yet as the Ottoman Empire was essentially a military institution, the ‘long peace’ proved curiously debilitating. Only one Grand Vizier—Koça Mehmed Ragip, in the late 1750s—tried to arrest the decline of effective government; he dispatched troops to stamp out banditry in Rumelia, Anatolia and Syria; and he appointed supervisors to check corruption in the evkaf and ensure that the revenue from religious endowments was applied to pious or charitable work. But despite Ragip’s efforts three familiar abuses soon crept back into the administration: the sale of offices; nepotism; and the taking of bribes. Instead of building on the reforms of the past quarter of a century, the Janissaries sought to put the clock back. Turkish printing virtually ceased, to the great relief of the professional scribes and calligraphers who had feared competition. After Ibrahim Muteferrika’s death in 1745 only two volumes were published in eleven years, and the press thereafter stood idle until 1784 when Sultan Abdulhamid I issued an imperial edict on the need to re-establish Turkish printing. A similar halt was called to all efforts at army or navy reform. Bonneval’s military engineering school only outlived its founder by three years; and almost two decades passed before any further attempt was made to modernize the Ottoman army.

During the ‘long peace’ it is doubtful whether the Sultans or their viziers in Constantinople were fully aware of the extent to which the empire was falling apart. The North African lands, from Libya westwards, were by now no more than nominal vassal states. In 1711 Ahmed III had recognized the hereditary rule of the Qaramanli family in Tripolitania and the Husaynid dynasty as beys of Tunis, as well as accepting the right of local Janissaries to nominate a governor in Algeria who would share power with three provincial beys. In Cairo a rapid succession of Ottoman viceroys had proved ineffectual: Egypt was virtually ‘governed’—a euphemistic verb in this context—by rival Mameluke princes, working sometimes with and sometimes against the resident Janissaries. The chronic civil war permitted Bedouin to encroach on the fertile lands of the Nile delta, gravely hampering cultivation; there was a major famine in Cairo on four occasions during the reign of Egypt’s nominal sovereign, Sultan Ahmed III. The famines were almost as bad in Mesopotamia, where Bedouin incursions brought the desert back to a fertile region on the Tigris north of Baghdad. In Mosul, Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus by the middle of the century, the vali was, in effect, a hereditary governor-general, his family forming an embryonic local dynasty safeguarded by a private army. Syria forwarded to Constantinople no more than a quarter of the revenue claimed by the imperial government as tribute money; and other outlying provinces were no better. Even the few imperial duties laid on local governors were sometimes disastrously neglected. The most notorious incident was the failure of local notables who had secured the hereditary governorship of Damascus from the Sultan to protect the pilgrim caravan from attack by Bedouin horsemen on its way to Mecca in 1757; on that occasion the raiders left 20,000 devout Muslims dead, among them a sister of the spineless Sultan, Osman III—who died from apoplexy soon after news of the raid reached his capital.

Osman’s successor, his cousin Mustafa III, much admired Frederick the Great’s generalship; and in 1761 a treaty of friendship with Prussia, sweetened with trade concessions, held out prospects of a new twist to the European alliance system. Unfortunately Mustafa attributed Frederick’s success to the alleged attention given by the king to his astrologers. This misunderstanding of the Prussian way of government led Mustafa to decide that if the stars were said to favour a Sultan’s ambitions, the ‘long peace’ must end. With such calculations helping to shape policy, it is hardly surprising that in October 1768 a war party at court had no difficulty in convincing Mustafa of the need to challenge Catherine the Great’s Russia.

Predictably, after years of military neglect, the Ottomans fared badly. Three Russian squadrons sailed from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. A protest to the Doge for allowing ships from the Baltic to enter the Adriatic at Venice suggests a basic ignorance of Europe’s geography. Naval intelligence was low, too. A curious strategy which used the ships of the fleet as anchored forts in Cesme harbour enabled the Russians to win an easy naval victory and put troops ashore near Smyrna (Izmir). Within a month the Russians gained a striking victory on land, too, when an army moving southwards into Moldavia scattered Ottoman troops at Kagul, on the river Pruth. By early 1772 Empress Catherine’s armies controlled much of the Crimea and all of Moldavia and Wallachia, the heartlands of modern Roumania.

In tactics and strategy, it was a dull war. Until the last months neither belligerent produced a commander who showed tenacity or initiative. ‘The Turks are falling like skittles,’ ran a contemporary Russian saying, ‘but, thank God, our men are standing fast—though headless.’ At last, in the early summer of 1774, a brilliantly executed thrust by the Russian general Alexander Suvorov threatened to carry the war into Bulgaria. Mustafa III had died from a heart attack in the preceding January; the new Sultan—his forty-eight-year-old brother, Abdulhamid I—was a realist. After six years of war, and with Austria threatening support for Russia in the field, the Sublime Porte wanted to end the fighting, if only to provide a respite in which the new Sultan could build up his army and his fleet. On 21 July 1774 peace was concluded at Kuchuk Kainardji, a Bulgarian village south of the Danubian town of Silistria and now known as Kainardzhi.

The Kuchuk Kainardji settlement is historically far more important than the war which preceded it. ‘The stipulations of the treaty are a model of skill by Russia’s diplomats and a rare example of Turkish imbecility,’ reported the Austrian envoy, Franz Thugut. If Abdulhamid I merely wanted a pause between rounds in a long contest, there is no doubt his negotiators served him poorly, since there was about the territorial settlement a sense of finality. Just as the Peace of Karlowitz in 1699 pushed back the frontier of Islam in central Europe, so Kuchuk Kainardji seventy-five years later acknowledged the dwindling of Ottoman power around the northern shore of the Black Sea. The Sultan gave up Ottoman claims to suzerainty over the Crimea and the Tatar steppe land, acknowledging the independence of the Muslim ‘Khanate of the Crimea’ (absorbed in Russia nine years later). At the mouth of the river Dnieper the Turks ceded to Russia a relatively small section of the Black Sea coast which supplemented the cession of the port of Azov. The Russians also acquired the fortresses of Kerch and Yenikale, which controlled the straits linking Azov to the wider waters of the open sea; and, further south, they were accorded special rights in Wallachia and Moldavia (although these ‘Danubian Principalities’ remained within the Ottoman Empire).

These territorial changes were a humiliating recognition of Russia’s new status in a region where the Ottomans had enjoyed two and a half centuries of almost unchallenged mastery. But the Russians gained an even greater concession—freedom for their merchant vessels to trade with the ports of southern Europe and the Levant. For the first time since the Turks secured control of the Straits, the vessels of another country were allowed to trade in the Black Sea and to sail out through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean. At the same time, Empress Catherine and her successors were promised the right to maintain a permanent embassy in the Ottoman capital, like the Austrians and the French, and also to establish consulates in every major port of the Sultan’s empire. This concession made it easier for the Russians to send agents to disaffected provinces in south-eastern Europe, notably to Greece.

If, as many writers believe, Franz Thugut was referring to the religious clauses of the settlement rather than to its territorial and commercial aspects, his judgement is open to question. Confusion over their precise character has sprung from inconsistencies between the original versions, in Russian, Turkish and Italian, of the treaty, intensified by later translations into French, the common language of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century diplomacy. It was long assumed that the religious Articles curtailed the rights of the Sultan, thereby hastening the decline of his empire: in reality they enhanced his authority by giving him wider personal responsibilities than any previous treaty had acknowledged. For the first time the Ottoman assertion of universal Islamic leadership received international recognition: Article 3 stipulated that ‘as supreme caliph of the Mohammeddan faith . . . His Sultanian Majesty’ retained spiritual jurisdiction over the Muslim Tatars when they gained political and civic independence. This claim was based upon the totally unsubstantiated tale that in 1517 the Caliphate had been formally transferred from the Abbasids to Sultan Selim I. Although effective jurisdiction over the Tatars survived for less than a decade, Article 3 had a lasting significance, for it confirmed the pontifical status assumed by the Sultans after being girded with the sword upon their accession. Over the following century and a half, respect for the spiritual pretensions of the Ottoman Caliphate increased as the territorial extent of Ottoman sovereignty contracted.

Even more controversial were Articles 7 and 14, relating to Orthodox Christendom. ‘Henceforth Orthodoxy is under Our Imperial Guardianship in the places whence it sprang,’ Empress Catherine proclaimed in a manifesto welcoming the treaty, eight months after it was signed; and many later Russian statesmen—and some Tsarist and French historians—were to insist that the settlement gave a Russian sovereign the right to protect Orthodoxy, its churches and its believers, throughout the Ottoman lands. This extreme interpretation of Kuchuk Kainardji led to the Eastern Crisis of 1853 and thus, indirectly, to the Crimean War. But Article 7 is specific in according ‘firm protection of the Christian faith and its churches’, not to the ruler in Russia, but to ‘the Sublime Porte’. Since the Article does not mention a particular religious denomination, the Sultan would seem to have possessed a protective obligation towards all Christian churches within his empire, not merely the Orthodox; and later Ottoman reformers—Sultans and their ministers—often supported an impartial Muslim-Christian equality of status under the law. The treaty does, however, authorize the building and maintenance of a public ‘Russo-Greek’ church ‘in the street called Beyöglu of the Galata district’ (Article 14). It is to this building that Article 7 refers when it promises that the Sublime Porte will ‘allow ministers of the Russian imperial court to make various representations in all affairs on behalf of the church erected in Constantinople’.

No ‘Russo-Greek’ church was ever built in the ‘street called Beyöglu’. It is still possible to walk down the old ‘Grand Rue de Pera’ and visit three Roman Catholic churches, one nineteenth-century Anglican church, and several former embassy chapels; other Christian religious institutions are mentioned in the older guide books; but there is no evidence that the building proposed by the treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji progressed even as far as a foundation stone. This is hardly surprising; had Russia erected a specific place of worship under the protection of the Sublime Porte, it would have become difficult to assert that the treaty gave ‘ministers of the Russian imperial court’ a generalized right to champion the interests of Orthodox believers in the Empire as a whole. At Kuchuk Kainardji the Ottoman diplomats may have surrendered more lands and more commercial concessions than Abdulhamid I intended. But they were not ‘imbeciles’. Their legalistic minds defined religious rights even down to the naming of a street. They conceded far less than Catherine claimed. Where they failed was in underestimating Russian sharp practice.

Siege of Pleven


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


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


Date: July 19-December 10, 1877

Location: Pleven (Plevna) in northern Bulgaria

Opponents (* winner)

*Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians



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

Ottomans: Ghazi Osman Pasha

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

Ottomans: Probably more than 50,000


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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