Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire (Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries)

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Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire (Fourteenth to Seventeenth Centuries)

Major Figures


In the early fourteenth century, as the great Eurasian empires declined, a nomadic Turkoman chieftain named Osman (c. 1258–1326) established the foundations for a new empire, giving birth to one of the longest-lasting dynasties in world history.

His Times

As Genghis Khan ravaged the Middle East in the twelfth century, Islamic nomadic family groups migrated into central Asia. Many of these groups settled into Anatolia (a region roughly equivalent to modern-day Turkey). These restless Anatolia Turkoman beyliks (principalities) were kept in check by the Greek Byzantine Empire to the west and the Turkish Seljuk Empire to the east.

By the fourteenth century, those checks had begun to erode. The Byzantines, ruling a vast empire from Constantinople, often neglected their Anatolian provinces. The Seljuks also controlled far-flung lands, having conquered Persia, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. However, they fell to the Mongols in 1243; this created a power vacuum and triggered a wave of Turkish refugees into Anatolia.

The northwest corner of Anatolia was dominated by a beylik, which came to be known as the Osmanli after its most famous chieftain, Osman. Very little of the early history of Osman’s clan can be historically verified, though it is vividly remembered in folktale.

His Legends

Turkish lore has it that Osman’s grandfather, Suleyman Sah, escaped from the Mongol invasion of Iran around 1200. According to tradition, Suleyman (also spelled Suleiman) drowned crossing the Euphrates River.

Suleyman’s son, Ertogul, is said to have led his men west. On the way, his Turkoman warriors happened across a battle in which a large army was destroying a much smaller force. Joining the small army for honor’s sake, Ertogul’s band helped defeat the larger army, which turned out to be Mongols. The rescued army was led by none other than the Seljuk sultan, Alaeddin, who bestowed a fiefdom on Ertogul in gratitude.

Ertogul was apparently commissioned to guard Sogut, in the northwest of Anatolia, on the border between Byzantine and Seljuk territories. He died around 1288, passing the task down to his son, Osman.

Osman, more aggressive than his father, was not content to remain in Sogut. Legend has it that he received a heavenly vision of a vast tree growing from his chest, supported by the Caucasus, Atlas, Taurus, and Haemus mountains. On the strength of this prophetic dream, Osman married the woman that he loved, Malkhatun, believing that their descendents would rule a great empire.

His History

History records that Osman also took more concrete steps towards his dream. Other Turkoman warlords had already begun to expand their power by absorbing smaller beyliks. In 1299, Osman stopped paying tribute to the Mongol Emperor, thus establishing an independent state. He and his followers, the Osmanli, began to launch raids against Byzantine territories.

Turkish tradition remembers the Osmanli as ghazis (holy warriors) who fought against the infidel Christian empire. Recently, some historians have challenged this view. They claim that Osman, a traditional nomadic warlord, simply took advantage of Byzantine weakness to assert his strength against settled farmland.

In 1301, Osman soundly defeated Byzantine forces near Nicea in a battle that established him as the strongest leader of the region. Whether motivated by jihad (holy war), by nomadic solidarity, or by the spoils of war, Turkoman ghazis from many different beyliks joined the Osmanli. In the face of a growing Islamic army, many Anatolian Greeks began to flee to Constantinople. Others, disgusted by Byzantine weakness and corruption, joined the Turkomans.

Gradually the fortified Christian cities in Anatolia fell before Osman’s forces. He conquered Eskishehir, Inonu, Bilejik, and Yenishehir. Only the strongest Byzantine cities—Bursa, Nicea, and Nicomedia—managed to hold out against him.

His Legacy

By 1308, Osman had surrounded the well-fortified city of Bursa, on the slopes of Mount Olympus. Bursa was sturdily built, well supplied, and stubbornly defended. The siege continued for eighteen long years, but Bursa finally gave in to the Ottomans in 1326.

By the end of the siege, Osman had grown old and sick, and he had placed his army under the command of his son Orhan. Osman died in 1326 and was buried in Bursa. As the new chieftain, Orhan pursued his father’s ambitions, taking Nicea in 1331 and Nicomedia in 1337. Orhan’s son and grandsons would continue these conquests, eventually creating one of the world’s great empires.

Osman is said to have been a handsome and charismatic man, who inspired great devotion in his followers. Despite his reputation for ruthlessness, he ruled justly, generally treating all ethnicities and religions alike. He established an independent state, a standing army, and a legal system for his people. In Europe, his name was corrupted over time to become Othoman, which in turn eventually became Ottoman.

Thirty-five generations succeeded Osman as sultans of the Ottoman Empire; his dynasty was to last until the early twentieth century. The Republic of Turkey abolished the sultanate in 1922, and in 1924, the Ankara government sent all of the royal family into exile. Female members of the sultanate could return to Turkey after thirty years; males would have to wait fifty.

Lazar Hrebeljanovic

As Murad I consolidated his hold on Anatolia and began to push into Europe, he was opposed by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic of Serbia (1329–1389). Later made a saint of Serbia, this legendary figure reunified Serbia and rallied the Slavic Christians to oppose the Turks.

The Serbian Empire

In 1341, civil war broke out in the Byzantine Empire, between the young heir to the throne, John V Palaeologus, and his regent John VI Cantacuzenus. To the east, Serbian king Stefan Uros IV Dusan took full advantage of the resulting chaos. Without fighting any major battle on the open field, Serbia absorbed Macedonia, Albania, and Thessaly from Byzantium. During Dusan’s reign, the Serbian Empire more than doubled in size.

The victories came cheap, given Byzantium’s state of decay, and did not last. After Dusan’s sudden death in 1355, Serbia disintegrated into its own civil war as noblemen vied for the throne. Dusan’s son and heir, Uros V “the Weak,” was compelled to appoint Vukasin Mrnjavcevic as co-ruler.

In 1371, aware of the growing Ottoman threat, Vukasin joined forces with his brother Jovan Ugljesa and marched on Murad I’s new capitol at Edirne. The sultan’s army routed the Serbs at the Battle of the Maritsa River; both Vukasin and Jovan were killed. Later that year, Uros V also passed away.

The Prince

Before his death, Uros V had bestowed the title of knez (prince) on Lazar Hrebeljanovic, a nobleman whose land was situated between the Morava and Ibar rivers. Lazar did not participate in Vukasin’s attack on the Ottomans. Instead, he set up his court in the city of Krusevac, in northern Serbia. It was not long before Christian refugees began pouring into his principality, fleeing the oncoming Turks.

In the power vacuum left by the Serbian defeat, Lazar quickly gained territory and power. Allied with the rulers of Bosnia and Hungary, Lazar helped defeat Nikola Altomanovic of Hum. From this victory he gained the Hum territories, including the mines of Rudnik. (Lazar already possessed the mine of Novo Brdo.) From the silver brought up from these acquisitions, Lazar soon ruled the richest and the most powerful of the Serbian principalities.

Lazar worked diligently to restore good relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Orthodox Church, which had schismed in 1351. The Patriarch of Constantinople agreed to acknowledge the Serbian Church’s autonomy. In return, Lazar relinquished the right of Serbian princes to call themselves emperors.

In 1378, the Church supported Lazar’s claim to the throne of Serbia. They proclaimed him “Lord of the Serbs and the Danube, Stefan Prince Lazar, Autocrat of All Serbs.” Stefan and Autocrat were semi-imperial titles, and Serbian epic poems usually describe Lazar as “tsar” or emperor. Nevertheless, true to his promise, Lazar never took any formal title other than knez.

The Saint

As Islamic incursions in to Europe became more frequent, Lazar and other Christian Slavs found themselves on the defensive. Putting aside their traditional enmities, Balkan feudal lords came together in a coalition, led by Lazar, to stop the Ottoman advance.

In the summer of 1389, the Ottoman army launched an assault on the Kosovo region. On June 15 by the Julian Calendar (June 28 by the Gregorian), Sultan Murad I and his sons met Prince Lazar’s forces in a monumental battle.

The death of Lazar is shrouded in highly emotional and wildly partisan legend. Some say he was killed in battle, while others recount that he was taken prisoner and executed.

What is certain is that the prince died on the “Plain of Blackbirds” where the 1389 Battle of Kosovo was fought. Serbs, viewing Lazar as a national hero and martyr, enshrined his legend in epic poetry and song. After time he came to represent the Serbian predicament, as both a symbol of national humiliation and of nationalistic pride.

A popular Serbian legend recounts that the prophet Elijah appeared to Lazar on the eve of the battle. The prince was given a choice between an empire in heaven and an empire on earth. If he wanted the heavenly empire, he would have to lose both his army and his life. To win the earthly empire, he would have to treat with the Turks. Choosing the everlasting over the ephemeral, Lazar chose to fight.

Lazar’s contemporary, Patriarch Danilo III, wrote that the prince addressed his men before leading them into battle, saying, “It is better to die in battle than to live in shame.”

During his lifetime, Lazar devoted much of his energy to support and spread Christianity in his realm. He ordered that many churches be built, including the magnificent Ravanica monastery where his remains are interred. The Serbian Orthodox Church declared him a saint and made his feast day June 28—the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (also the Feast of St. Vitus).

It was on this date (June 28), more than five hundred years later, that Serbian nationalists assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, plunging all of Europe into World War I.

Murad I

In the late fourteenth century, Murad I (c. 1326–1389) consolidated his rule over Anatolia and set about conquest of southeastern Europe. Under his rule, the Osmanli principality became the Ottoman Empire.

Family and Friends

Murad was born around 1326 into a powerful clan. His grandfather, Osman, had established the Osmanli ghazi as the predominant fighting force of Anatolia. Osman’s son Orhan had reinforced that position, pushing the boundaries of their principality all the way to Europe though he did so partially by invitation.

In 1341, Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III Palaeologus died, leaving the throne to his nine-year-old son, John V Palaeologus. However, the child’s regent John VI Cantacuzenus had himself crowned emperor, setting off a ruinous six-year civil war.

In 1346, Cantacuzenus married his daughter Theodora to Orhan, thus securing an alliance with the Ottomans. Turkish military assistance helped to establish Cantacuzenus’ rule. It also gave the Ottomans their first foothold in Europe. In 1353, the Turks occupied the Greek peninsula of Gallipoli.

The Reign of Murad I

Upon Orhan’s death in 1359, Murad immediately had his three brothers executed. This practice of clearing away potential rivals to the throne became the established tradition of the Ottoman Empire.

Murad continued to expand Ottoman territory into Europe, seizing Edirne (Adrianople) in 1361 and making it his new capitol. Thrace followed in 1364. Two years later, Filibe (Philippopolis) also became part of his emerging Islamic empire.

Alarmed by the rapid advance of Murad’s armies, John V Palaeologus—who had taken back the Byzantine throne in 1354—turned to the Western world. He begged the papacy for help in 1369, converting to Catholicism himself and promising to heal the breach between the Latin and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

However, military intervention did not come from Rome, but from Byzantium’s perennial enemy, Serbia. In 1371, King Vukasin led a coalition of Serbian and Bulgarian armies to try and defeat the encroaching Turks, only to meet a crushing defeat at the Maritsa River. Thereafter, Macedonia lay at Murad’s mercy.

By 1373, John V was forced to acknowledge Murad as his suzerain, or overlord. To the dismay of Christendom, the Byzantine Empire had become a vassal state to the Ottomans.

Despite his success in Europe, the Ottomans still faced challenges at home. In 1371, Murad led a successful campaign against his family’s longtime Turkish rivals, the Karamanlis. Murad also had to deal with a more personal attack. His son Savci allied with John V’s son Andronicus in open rebellion against both fathers. The rebellion was crushed, and Murad had Savci killed and Andronicus blinded.

Murad then turned his attention to the Balkan states, which were in almost total disarray. Plagued by rival noblemen and peasant rebellions, the Serbian Empire folded before Murad’s advance. In 1383, he invaded Serbian Macedonia, capturing Serres. By 1387, Murad had seized Sophia, Nish, and Salonika. The next year, he subjugated Tsar Ivan Sisman of Bulgaria.

The Battle of Kosovo

Unwilling to accept vassalage under Islamic rule, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic of Serbia formed an alliance with Tvrtko I of Bosnia. Together the two assembled an army of Bosnians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Wallachians, and Albanians. This Pan-Slavic coalition launched a counterattack in 1388. With Murad distracted in the east, the Christian alliance was initially successful. They managed to stop the Ottoman advance at Plocnic, on the Serbian-Bosnian border.

Murad returned to the western front. The two armies met on June 28, 1389, in the Battle of Kosovo, which ended in an overwhelming Turkish victory. Lazar was killed in the fighting, along with a huge number of Serbian knights.

The Turks also suffered enormous losses. Faced with defeat, a Serbian officer pretended to yield to the Ottomans. When he came close enough, the assassin fatally stabbed the sultan.

Murad was succeeded by his son Bayezid, who turned Serbia into a tributary state, conquered much of the remaining Balkans, and laid siege to Constantinople.

Bayezid I

The Ottoman sultan Bayezid (c. 1360–1403) lived a colorful life. His people nicknamed him Yildirim (“Lightning Bolt”) for his personal impetuosity and for his deadly, rapid attacks. Like his father (Murad I), Bayezid was a skilled and ruthless warrior, and he significantly expanded Islamic holdings. However, he lacked his father’s political acumen; less adept at assimilating local populations, Bayezid’s strength lay in capturing lands, not in keeping them.

Rise to Power in Asia Minor

After Murad I fell on the plains of Kosovo in 1389, his eldest son Bayezid ascended to the sultanate. Bayezid immediately ordered his younger brother Yakud strangled with a bowstring, as was the usual ritual for succession in the Ottoman Empire.

As sultan, Bayezid first attempted to consolidate his empire in Anatolia. He waged a campaign against the Turkish principalities (such as the Karamanli) who had constantly challenged Ottoman rule. For this task, he employed Serbian and Byzantine soldiers supplied by his vassal states, since the ghazis did not much relish war against fellow Muslims.

The Asia campaign proved largely successful. Making an alliance with Manuel, the son of Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus, Bayezid besieged the city of Konya and eventually occupied the Karamanli lands. He then defeated the emirs of Sarukhan and Mentese, pushing his domains to the Mediterranean Sea. Having formed a fledgling navy, the Ottomans overran Chios Island; however, the more experienced fleets of Venice and Genoa kept them from the other Greek islands.

Bayezid executed his brother-in-law Alaeddin, emir of the Karamanlis, and set up direct Ottoman rule through most of Anatolia. However, the sultan himself preferred to remain in his luxurious court, where he indulged in alcohol and a large harem.

Conflict with Constantinople

In 1391, John V Palaeologus of Byzantium died. His heir, Manuel, had been reduced to a servant (and not a very highly respected one) in the sultan’s court. Hearing of his father’s death, Manuel escaped to Constantinople and assumed the imperial crown.

Bayezid demanded that Manuel continue as an Ottoman vassal, that he pay a higher tribute, and that he install an Islamic judge in the city. To enforce his ultimatum, Ottoman troops marched on the city, killing or enslaving Christian Greeks along the way.

Constantinople lay under siege for seven years, despite Manuel’s attempts at conciliation. The Byzantine Emperor agreed to establish a full Islamic tribunal and to set aside a quarter of the city to Muslim immigrants. The tribute was increased, and a tax levied on vineyards and vegetable gardens.

Fighting in The Balkans

In 1394, Turkish raiders crossed the Danube into Wallachia, invoking the wrath of Sigismund I, king of Hungary. As Bayezid’s chief rival in the area, Sigismund’s fight against the Turkish ambitions turned into a lifelong obsession.

The Hungarian king had ample reason for concern. Sisman of Bulgaria had been defeated by Murad in 1388, and had been permitted to rule as an Ottoman vassal. However, in 1395 Bayezid retook Nicopolis in Bulgaria. Worried that the Bulgarian king might ally himself with Sigismund, Bayezid executed Sisman and absorbed Bulgaria fully into the Ottoman Empire.

In 1396 Sigismund turned to Europe for help. Pope Boniface IX (1356–1404) echoed his call, preaching for an international crusade. Knights gathered from France, England, Scotland, Poland, Italy, and Spain, and many other nations. “If the sky fell on our army,” Sigismund is said to have boasted, “we should have enough lances to uphold it.”

Boasting aside, the Hungarian king was keenly aware of his enemy’s strength, as the other crusaders were not. Careless and overconfident, the Christians captured Nish with much unnecessary bloodshed, then they continued on to Nicopolis.

Bayezid, true to his nickname, advanced swiftly. He burst upon the unprepared Europeans, who fought without a coherent battle plan. The Christians suffered enormous losses during this disastrous crusade and fled as they could. Bayezid ordered a general slaughter of all prisoners. Only the French Comte of Nevers and his entourage were spared, since they promised to bring in a fabulous ransom.

Bayezid and the Mongols

In 1399, Bayezid attempted to seize the city of Constantinople, but was driven back by a small French contingent and two Italian navies. Manuel left the city for a tour of the European courts, attempting in vain to drum up support for his beleaguered city.

Three years later, deliverance came from an unexpected quarter. Full-scale war broke out between Bayezid and the Tartar chieftain Tamerlane, also known as Timur the Lame. Timur’s troops overran Anatolia, in part supported by Turkish lords who had never fully accepted the Ottoman reign. Bayezid himself was taken prisoner. It was widely told that the sultan was exposed to a variety of public humiliations before he died in captivity.

After the death of Tamerlane, the former Ottoman Empire fell into civil war as the various Turkish houses vied for supremacy. Eventually Bayezid’s son Mehmed emerged victorious in 1413.

Murad II

After an Ottoman civil war, Sultan Murad II (1404–1451) took the reigns of power. Though personally a peace-loving, scholarly man, Murad’s reign was marked with almost continual warfare both in Europe and in Asia.

Early Reign

After Bayezid Yildirim was captured in 1402, the Ottoman Empire split as the sultan’s many sons vied for the throne. After eleven years of civil war, in 1413 Bayezid’s son Mehmed managed to consolidate his grasp of most (but not all) of the former empire. The new sultan died in an accident only eight years later.

Mehmed’s son Murad II took over from his father in 1421 at the age of eighteen. Almost immediately upon his ascension, he faced an insurrection by Düsme “False” Mustafa, who claimed to be Murad’s brother. Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus supported Mustafa in the hope that, should he win the sultanate, he would release Byzantium from Ottoman vassalage.

Mustafa made rapid advances into Ottoman territory, but the young Murad rallied and showed his innate military skills. He drove the pretender’s forces back to Gallipoli, laid siege to his stronghold, and stormed it. He then had Mustafa hanged as an imposter.

Triumphant, Murad swore revenge on Palaeologus. Using cannon for the first time, he laid siege to Constantinople. The city held out for months, largely because it could be supplied by sea. In the meantime, the sultan’s thirteen-year-old brother “Little” Mustafa rose against Murad in Anatolia, threatening Bursa. Murad broke off the siege and returned home, where he defeated and beheaded Mustafa. (The people of Constantinople attributed their reprieve to a miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary.)

Murad faced other challenges at home, especially among the Turkish emirs who had supported his rivals. After heavy campaigning, he put down the Menteshe, Aydin, Teke, and Germiyan principalities. By 1428, he had restored the Ottoman state to what it had been under Bayezid.

A Turkish rival, the Timurid Shah Rukh of the Karamanli, also rebelled in Anatolia in 1435. The revolt was put down two years later, but the Karaman province retained its independence and remained a nagging threat on Murad’s eastern border.

The Balkan Crusade

In 1437, the Turk’s most stalwart European enemy, Hungarian king Sigismund, died. Taking advantage of the dynastic struggle that followed, Murad moved north to the Danube and seized the fortress of Semendria. Defeated Serbian despot George Brankovic fled to Hungary, where he pleaded for help. The sultan then laid siege to Belgrade, but failed to take the city.

The boyars (aristocrats) of Hungary, worried by the renewed Turkish raids, decided to offer the crown to Ladislaus III, king of Poland. Together with Transylvanian leader Janos Hunyadi, Ladislaus launched a Hungarian-Polish crusade against Murad in 1443.

Initially the Christians made rapid progress, taking Nish and Sophia, restoring Brankovic to power. Hunyadi’s troops then won a significant victory over the sultan’s army on Christmas day, before harsh weather and short supplies forced them to retreat.

Murad found himself in difficult straits. Heartened by their string of victories, the crusaders were already regrouping. In the meantime, the Karamanli were again causing trouble in Anatolia.

With the help of his Serbian wife, Murad pursued diplomacy and managed to negotiate a truce in June 1444. He agreed to liberate Serbia and Wallachia from Ottoman rule; in exchange, the Hungarians promised to leave Bulgaria in peace.

Tired of war, Murad withdrew to his palace at Magnesia, hoping to lead a quiet life of study and prayer. He left his twelve-year-old son Mehmed to govern Edirne, under the tutelage of Grand Vizier Halil Candarli Pasha.

The Christian West, seeing a child on the sultan’s throne, almost immediately broke the treaty and marched across the Danube. Murad rushed back to the battlefront and handed the crusaders a crushing defeat at Varna.

Late Reign

Having killed Ladislaus and scattered the Slavic army, Murad felt that he had finally secured the peace. This time he formally abdicated his crown to his son, who became Mehmed II.

This retirement, too, was to be short-lived. The Janissaries, a powerful military corps, staged an uprising against the young sultan, and Vizier Halil pleaded with Murad to return to power. Once convinced of the gravity of the situation, Murad rode back to Edirne and sent his son into political exile.

Having once again taken up the crown, Murad also took up the sword. In Attica, he stopped the advance of Constantine, Despot of Morea. In 1448, he also met the irrepressible Hunyadi in the Second Battle of Kosovo. Turkish arms carried the day—the Hungarian and Wallachian troops broke and fled before them.

Then the sultan turned north in an attempt to stamp out the rebellion in Albania. This time, however, his forces met a stunning defeat in 1450. A former Ottoman general, George Castrioti, nicknamed Skanderbeg, led the Albanians. Taken into the sultan’s court at the age of three and brought up a Muslim, Skanderbeg had reclaimed his Albanian identity and turned against the Turks. Murad was shocked and furious at the defection.

Sultan Murad II died of apoplexy in 1451 and was succeeded by Mehmed II, known to history as Mehmed the Conqueror for his successful defeat of Constantinople.

Ladislaus III

In the mid-fifteenth century, Ladislaus III (1424–1444) ascended the thrones of Poland and Hungary. In 1444, he led a crusade into Bulgaria, which ended in disaster at the Battle of Varna.

The Double Kingdom

In the Middle Ages, Eastern European countries did not follow a system of primogeniture to determine the crown’s succession. Instead, the nobles of the land voted to decide the next king. In 1434, a ten-year-old Ladislaus, third of that name, was elected king of Poland. In 1440, hoping for military assistance against the Turks, Hungarian nobles offered him the vacant throne of Hungary.

Ladislaus’s assumption to his second throne did not go unchallenged. The previous king, Albert II (1397–1439), had left behind a pregnant widow: Elizabeth, daughter of Sigismund. A few months after her husband’s death she gave birth to a son, known as Ladislaus the Posthumous. Elizabeth claimed the crown for her child and thus launched a two-year civil war.

Despite her many partisans (including George Brankovic of Serbia), Elizabeth’s bid for the crown did not succeed. Ladislaus III was backed by most of the Hungarian nobles, notably by the Ban of Macva, Nicholas Ujlaki, and the Ban of Severin, Janos Hunyadi. (The term “Ban” denotes a prince or ruler.) Ladislaus installed these two renowned generals along his borders, both to put down Elizabeth’s supporters and to guard against the Turks.

The Long Campaign

Ladislaus also received help from Rome. Pope Eugene IV (1383–1447) was painfully aware of Christendom’s vulnerability to Islamic conquest. He continually—though mostly ineffectively—exhorted Catholic Europe to crusade. The ongoing instability of Hungary and Byzantium, however, frustrated his designs. To rectify the situation, Eugene sent Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini (1398–1444) as papal legate to Buda. Cesarini promised to support Ladislaus, provided that the young king would take up arms against the Turks.

To many Christians, the time seemed ripe to expel the Muslims from Europe. News of Hunyadi’s surprising victories over Ottoman forces in Transylvania lent impetus to the movement.

In 1443, Ladislaus crossed the Danube in an expedition known as the “Long Campaign.” His army consisted of Hungarians, Poles, Serbs and other Slavic people. In short order they captured Nish and Sofia and restored George Brankovic to his seat in Serbia. The Christians were driven back at the Zlatitsa Pass, but they managed to score some victories as they retreated.

The Truce

The Long Campaign (which actually only lasted six months) did not cripple the Ottomans in Europe. However, it struck a strong psychological blow. Venice, Genoa, and Burgundy flooded Ladislaus with congratulations and with promises of future support. Inspired by the crusaders’ apparent success, small uprisings cropped up in Ottoman-controlled lands.

Ottoman sultan Murad II found himself plagued by family connections. His brother-in-law, Mahmud Çelebi, had been captured by the Hungarians. Murad’s wife Mara pleaded with him on behalf of her father, George Brankovic. Another brother-in-law, Ibrahim Bey of Karaman, had started trouble for the empire in the east.

Mara arranged to offer her father a peace settlement, and Brankovic, newly restored to a very shaky throne, accepted it eagerly. Brankovic passed the peace offer to Hunyadi, who took it to Buda. In April of 1444, Ladislaus sent an envoy to negotiate in Edirne.

By mid-June, a treaty had been concluded with representatives of Ladislaus, Brankovic, and Hunyadi. Murad swore to release Brankovic and the king of Wallachia, Vlad Dracul, from Turkish allegiance. Murad also promised to quit as sultan; his twelve-year-old son, Mehmed, would take his place. Hungary in turn promised to observe a truce for ten years.

King Ladislaus’s behavior during this episode is neither creditable nor easily understood. On July 25, he met the ambassadors at Szeged (in present-day Hungary) to sign the sultan’s treaty. Just a few days later, on August 4, he swore—by the Holy Trinity, by the Virgin Mary, by St. Stephen, and by St. Ladislas—to drive the Ottomans out of Europe.

Whether Ladislaus immediately regretted the truce or whether he never intended to honor it, historians may never know. He may have been overly influenced by Cardinal Cesarini, who declared that oaths made to the infidel were not binding.

Onward to Varna

Ladislaus’s forces pushed through Bulgaria, fighting bloody skirmishes with Ottoman troops along the way. Since Murad had retired to Asia, the Hungarians believed that they faced only Mehmed and the child’s paltry army at Edirne. They were thus caught by surprise when they met Murad (who reluctantly returned) and a massive Ottoman army before Varna.

For a while, the Christians fared well against the larger Ottoman force. However, at a crucial moment Ladislaus made a fateful error. Ignoring Hunyadi’s advice, he led a charge against the sultan himself. Murad’s guard, composed of hardened Janissaries, killed the young king and put his head on a pike. Appalled, the crusading army broke and ran.

Christian Europe was stunned and horrified. Many saw the defeat as divine retribution for having reneged on a sacred oath. In Hungary, many nobles refused to believe that Ladislaus had died, and it was two years before they elected his successor—Ladislaus V (the Posthumous), the son of Elizabeth and Albert II.

Janos Hunyadi

As the seemingly invincible Ottoman armies pushed westward, Christian Europeans began to despair for their future. They found a hero in Janos Hunyadi (1407–1456), a brilliant Hungarian solider who spent his life in fierce opposition to the Turks.

Early career

Janos (John) Hunyadi was born in Transylvania to a boyar family. As a teenager he served as a knight in the court of King Sigismund of Hungary, during which time Hunyadi participated in the Czech war against the Hussites. Later he spent two years in Milan, where he learned Italian military techniques from the famed condottiero (mercenary) Francesco Sforza.

In 1437, as a commander of Sigismund’s army, Hunyadi came to the relief of the castle of Semendria, where he successfully beat back the Turkish army. His military services were rewarded with lands and titles: Sigismund’s short-lived successor Albert II made Hunyadi Ban of Severin. Later, ruler Ladislaus III appointed him captain of Belgrade and Voivode (governor) of Transylvania.

By 1439, Ottoman leader Murad II had retaken Semendria and ousted Serbian Ban George Brankovic. Turkish raiders drove further and further north, causing panic throughout the region.

Increasingly, Hungarians saw themselves as the vanguard of the West, Europe’s last defense in the war against Ottoman domination. As a vassal of the king of Hungary, Hunyadi was placed at the very forefront of that war. By 1442 he had defeated and killed Ottoman commander Mezid Bey, whose forces had invaded Transylvania. Shortly afterwards, he crushed the forces of Sihabeddin Pasha, who had come to avenge Mezid.

The Long Campaign

Encouraged by these unprecedented victories, Ladislaus III (now king of Hungary and Poland) launched an offensive against the Turks. With papal blessing, Ladislaus crossed the Danube in 1443. Hunyadi led twelve thousand horsemen in the advance guard.

As the Ottomans pulled back, Hunyadi’s troops made a madly daring advance through the icy passes of the Haemus Mountains. Fighting in deep snow with tenuous supply lines, the Christians were driven back by a counterattack. They rallied and won a victory against the pursuing Turks on Christmas Eve. On February 2, they successfully ambushed an Ottoman force. They took a great many prisoners, including the sultan’s brother-in-law Mahmud Çelebi.

Impossibly low on supplies, the Christian army began the long march to Buda. They arrived skeletal and half-frozen, but were welcomed back to the Hungarian capitol as conquering heroes.

Varna and Vlad

In 1444, the sultan negotiated a ten-year truce with the Christians, which the Christians almost immediately violated. Together with King Ladislaus, Hunyadi marched through Bulgaria, determined once and for all to drive the Turks out of Europe.

The crusaders made steady progress, though Ottoman resistance increased as they pushed closer to the capitol at Edirne. Then, on November 10, 1444, at the city of Varna on the banks of the Black Sea, they met the army of Murad himself.

Outnumbered four to one, the Christians were put to rout, and Ladislaus was killed on the field. Hunyadi barely escaped with his life. On the way home, he fell into the hands of the Wallachian ruler Vlad Dracul. There was apparently no love lost between the two men, and Vlad kept him prisoner for some time in Wallachia.

Upon reaching home, Hunyadi took his place in the interim government, a panel of noblemen. In 1446 they chose Albert’s young son, Ladislaus V, as the new king. As Ladislaus was a six-year-old child (and, until 1452, a virtual hostage in Vienna), Hunyadi ruled Hungary as regent.

Collapse at Kosovo

Hunyadi’s loss at Varna evidently rankled him deeply. Once again, he started to gather allies to expel the Turks. However, the new Pope Nicholas V showed less martial fervor than had his predecessor, and the other European courts only offered vague promises. George Brankovic, Despot of Serbia and Murad’s father-in-law, flatly refused.

In 1448, Hunyadi’s army of around forty thousand men advanced through Serbia, which they treated as enemy territory. They pillaged every city in their path before reaching the Plain of Blackbirds in Kosovo. There the sultan met them with an army around 55,000 strong. Battle was joined on October 17 and continued for three days.

Though the Hungarians were outnumbered, they had superior firearms and inflicted heavy losses on the Ottomans. Nevertheless, the battle was already turning against Hunyadi when eight thousand Wallachian troops defected to the Turks. Hunyadi fled, only to be captured by Brankovic and forced into a humiliating treaty.

Stand at Belgrade

In 1456 Mehmed II renewed his attacks on Hungary, falling on Belgrade with some 200,000 men. This time, Hunyadi managed to hold the defenses against overwhelming odds. It was a signal victory and slowed Ottoman expansion considerably. However, Hunyadi died of the plague shortly after the battle.

After his death, Hunyadi’s widow managed to put their son on the throne. Matthias Hunyadi Corvinus (1443–1490) became one of Hungary’s most capable rulers, and, like his father, kept the Turks at bay. The monarchy collapsed after Matthias’ death, however, and the Ottoman Empire absorbed Hungary by 1526.


After Janos Hunyadi’s unexpected death in 1456, Europe found a new defender: George Castriota , popularly known as Skanderbeg (c. 1405–1468), who defended Albania against Turkish occupation for almost a quarter century.

Ottoman Traitor

Contemporary accounts of Skanderbeg’s life survive, but are so infused with hero-worship that historians doubt their accuracy. Some facts seem clear, however. He was probably born around 1405 into the Castriota family, one of the many Albanian warlord clans. His father John Castriota, willingly or not, became a vassal to the Ottoman sultan. To ensure his loyalty, Castriota was obliged to send his young son to Edirne as a hostage.

As was normal in those cases, George converted to Islam and took the Muslim name Iskander. He seems to have received military training and eventually earned a high rank in the Janissary army. His title thereafter was Iskander Bey, which was later corrupted to Skanderbeg.

Perhaps inspired by some of Janos Hunyadi’s victories in 1443, Skanderbeg defected that year, taking three hundred soldiers with him. He recaptured his birthplace, the mountain castle of Krujë, reconverted to Catholicism, and declared war against the Turks. According to legend he told his countrymen, “I do not bring you freedom; I have found it here with you.”

Skanderbeg seems to have possessed great political skills as well as military acumen. At the time, Albania had little national cohesion; as in Serbia and Bosnia, petty lords feuded endlessly among themselves. For a brief time at least, Skanderbeg managed to unite most of the factions into the League of Lezhe, a loose coalition dedicated to the repulsion of the Ottoman Empire.

He had less success rallying support from outside Albania, though not through lack of effort. He corresponded regularly with the papacy (Pope Callistus II called him “the athlete of Christ”) and sent appeals for aid throughout the Catholic world. In return he received much praise and many promises, but little material benefit. Only Naples and Venice, directly threatened by Ottoman invasion, sent money or troops.

Freedom Fighter

Nevertheless, Skanderbeg’s army forced the Ottomans from Albania and kept them out until after their leader’s death. Albania’s inhospitable terrain helped the cause, and the Albanians under his leadership put up a skilled and courageous resistance. They avoided battle in open fields and instead attacked in the narrow mountain passes. Against overwhelming odds, they defeated the Turks in battle after battle.

In April 1450, Sultan Murad II set out for Albania personally. By May, he had laid siege to Krujë with over 100,000 troops and heavy artillery. Skanderbeg left the castle in the hands of a small garrison, around two thousand strong. He himself took around eight thousand men to a nearby mountain fortress. Against Krujë’s stubborn defense and Skanderbeg’s guerilla attacks, Murad’s host labored in vain for months. Finally, having attempted both to bribe the garrison and to negotiate with Skanderbeg, the sultan had to retreat before the oncoming winter.

Throughout his struggles with the Turks, Skanderbeg had to contend with the normal feudal bickering of Albanian warlords. Venice, while using him as a shield against the Turks, did not want Albania to become too strong. To that end they conspired with local rivals to keep him in check. He also faced defection within his own family, which had old ties with the Ottomans. In 1456, Skanderbeg defeated his uncle, Musa Komninos Golem, who led a Turkish auxiliary force against him. Musa later approached Skanderbeg and begged for forgiveness, promising to fight against the Muslims.

The next year, Skanderbeg’s nephew Hamza, who had converted to Islam, joined forces with Isa Bey and forced the Albanian army back. Skanderbeg fell on the enemy at rest in Tomorrit, killing anywhere from fifteen thousand to thirty thousand Turks and taking a camp full of spoil. He spared Hamza’s life, but exiled him under guard to Naples.

In 1466, after years of intermittent warfare, Mehmed II launched another mass invasion of Albania, and once more assaulted Krujë. Once more the defenses held; after five months, the sultan withdrew in disgust. He left the siege to his commander Balaban, with orders not to withdraw until he starved the castle to its knees. Before long, Skanderbeg had ambushed and captured Balaban’s brother and nephew, Balaban himself was wounded, and the Turkish army fled in disarray.

National Legend

Skanderbeg died of fever on January 17, 1468, in a castle above Alessio. He commended the care of his country to Venice and the care of his infant son to Naples. The Neapolitan court welcomed the child, and Venice garrisoned the fortress at Krujë, but otherwise the West abandoned Albania.

In 1478, the Ottomans invaded and occupied the country. On entering Alessio, the sultan had Skanderbeg’s body exhumed and displayed on the streets. Legend has it that many Turkish soldiers took one of the great warrior’s bones to make them brave in battle.

Skanderbeg’s countrymen preserved his memory throughout the long Ottoman rule. Even today he is revered as a national hero; his standard, a double-headed eagle, flies on the Albanian flag.

Vlad III Dracula

The infamous Vlad III Dracula (c. 1431–1477), also known as Vlad “the Impaler,” has been immortalized in fiction as Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. Ruling Wallachia three times in the fifteenth century, Vlad’s brutal tactics terrorized both his subjects and his enemies.

The Father, Vlad II Dracul

Born an illegitimate son of a princely Wallachian family, Vlad II (1390–1447) served as a young man in Sigismund’s court. There he joined the Order of the Dragon, a society devoted to the fight against the Muslims. In 1431, King Sigismund of Hungary appointed Vlad as governor of Transylvania. Five years later, he made himself king of Wallachia, calling himself Vlad II Dracul (Vlad II, the Dragon).

In 1442, the Ottomans invaded Transylvania. King Ladislaus of Hungary, blaming Vlad for not having protected his borders, removed him from power. The self-styled Dragon then turned to the sworn enemy of his Order, Ottoman sultan Murad II. With Turkish assistance, Vlad returned to rule Wallachia. The throne did not come cheap, however. Vlad was compelled to send his two young sons, Vlad and Radu, to Edirne as hostages.

When the Hungarians launched a crusade in 1444, they called on Vlad for help. Vlad had no wish to anger the Hungarian king or to endanger his sons in the sultan’s court. He compromised by sending his oldest son Mircea to participate in the campaign, which ended in disaster at Varna.

In December 1447, Hungarian noblemen assassinated both Vlad II and Mircea. (Evidence suggests Mircea was buried alive.) Janos Hunyadi, who despised Vlad for his collaboration with the Turks, appointed a puppet ruler in Wallachia.

Vlad III Dracula

Vlad Dracul’s second son Vlad was thirteen years old when he went into exile in Turkey. In 1448, the Ottomans released him and supported him as their candidate in Wallachia. With the Ottoman’s help, he took the throne as Vlad III Dracula (Son of the Dragon). Only a few months later, though, Hunyadi drove him out and installed Vladislov III in his place.

However, Vladislov unexpectedly sided with the Ottomans. Furious, Hunyadi allied himself with Vlad Dracula, in whom he discovered a kindred hatred for the Turks. Vlad took possession of his father’s former Transylvanian landholdings. In 1456, with Hunyadi’s support, he invaded Wallachia and reclaimed the throne.

Many tales exist of Dracula’s reign. Most of these come from sensationalized foreign pamphlets, which were printed for propaganda purposes or as gruesome entertainment. Nonetheless, a clear portrait emerges from the various sources: if even a fraction of the stories are true, Vlad III Dracula was one of the most sadistic rulers of all time.

Dracula instituted an iron rule of law in Wallachia, enforced by brutal torture and casual killing. He is said to have virtually wiped out the established boyars in order to create a more loyal ruling class. Many sources also recount that he murdered the poor and homeless in his land, saying that they drained the country’s strength.

Vlad Dracula’s favorite method of execution earned him the nickname Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”). He skewered his victims on a sharp wooden pole, then left them to suffer slow, agonizing deaths. As a warning for others, the bodies would hang rotting in the air for months. The sentence was carried out for the most minor offenses: theft, adultery, even dishonesty or laziness. It was said that Vlad could leave a golden cup in any village square, and no one would dare steal it.

Scourge of the Ottomans

Besides his mania for law and order, Vlad nursed an obsessive hatred for the Turks. Shortly after coming to power he stopped paying tribute to the sultan and entered into alliance with King Hungary Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443–1490). Around 1461, Vlad crossed the Danube and ravished the Ottoman countryside.

Informed of this, Ottoman sultan Mehmed II stormed into Wallachia with a huge army. He faced bitter resistance from Dracula, who burnt his own villages and poisoned his own wells to deprive the Turks of supplies.

The Ottoman army pressed to the capitol at Tirgoviste. There they found a huge plain covered with impaled corpses; Dracula had arranged a forest of some twenty thousand dead Turks and Bulgarians. At this gruesome sight, Mehmed’s forces simply turned around and left Wallachia.

Their withdrawal was a temporary one. By the end of 1462, Islamic generals had overrun the country, and Vlad Dracula had once again fled to Transylvania. His brother Radu “the Handsome”—a faithful Ottoman vassal—took the throne.

Exile in Hungary

In 1462, Matthias Corvinus intercepted a letter, which indicated that Vlad was conspiring with the sultan against Hungary. Matthias immediately had him arrested and imprisoned in Buda.

Vlad remained in Hungary for the next fourteen years. During that time his captivity became lighter as his relations with the Hungarian court improved. By 1466 he had married one of the king’s cousins.

In 1474, Vlad once again attacked and ousted the Ottoman puppet in Wallachia. He reigned there for the next two years. But the Wallachians had tired of his insane rule, and they largely abandoned him when the Turks attacked again. Vastly outnumbered, Vlad was killed. His head was sent back to Constantinople to prove that the Impaler Prince had finally fallen.

Mehmed II

As the Middle Ages drew to a close, Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (1432–1481) conquered Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. He went on to overthrow Greece and much of the Balkans, establishing the Ottoman Empire as a major world power.

Early Life

Mehmed was the third son of Sultan Murad II. His father preferred Mehmed’s two older brothers, in part because they had been born to respectable Muslim noblewomen. Mehmed’s mother was a slave girl, probably a Christian Albanian.

At the age of two, Mehmed was sent to Amasya, a province of northern Anatolia where his older brother Ahmed was governor. Ahmed died suddenly, and Mehmed (then six) took his place.

A few years later, his second brother Ali (their father’s favorite) was mysteriously strangled in his sleep. Now heir to the throne, Mehmed returned to Edirne to learn the art of statecraft.

In 1443, Murad II concluded a ten-year treaty with Ladislaus III of Poland. Thinking that the peace had finally been secured, the sultan retired to his Asian palaces, leaving his twelve-year-old son to govern the Ottoman Europe.

A Young Sultan Rules in Fits and Starts

A precocious and arrogant child, Mehmed soon alienated his father’s advisors by encouraging an unorthodox Persian mystic. Religious authorities overruled the young governor and burned the Persian at the stake.

Mehmed also faced an uprising from the Janissaries, the military elite. They demanded—and eventually received—an increase in pay. (It was not the last time the Janissaries were to revolt. Although nominally slaves, they became a powerful force in Ottoman government over the centuries.)

When Ladislaus broke the peace treaty and attacked Bulgaria, Murad returned to the Western world to deal with the threat. After defeating the Christians at Varna, and re-establishing Ottoman rule south of the Danube, Murad formally abdicated to Mehmed.

Over the next two years, the situation at the Edirne court once again grew tense. Mehmed’s aggressive militarism (specifically his determination to take Constantinople) led him to clash with Vizier Halil and with the Janissaries. Recalled by his ministers, Murad took back the reins of empire, and banished his son to Magnesia.

Against Constantinople

After Murad’s death in 1451, Mehmed returned to the throne, determined to follow his plans for conquest and glory. He immediately ordered his infant half-brother drowned, and he forced his widowed stepmother to marry again. Rebellious Janissaries were ousted, and the corps reorganized into a more loyalist army.

Despite his early promises to respect Byzantine territories, Mehmed quickly set about constructing a fortress on the European side of the Bosporus Straits. The work progressed at a fevered pace, and the castle—Boghaz Kesen, meaning “Strait Cutter” or “Throat Cutter”—was finished in less than five months. When Constantinople sent a delegation in protest, the sultan arrested and beheaded the ambassadors.

In the spring of 1453, Mehmed besieged and overthrew Constantinople. On entering the city, he immediately began the construction of a magnificent palace. Mehmed saw himself as the heir of Alexander the Great and of the Caesars, as well as the champion of Islam. Accordingly he made Constantinople, the ancient symbol of the Christian Roman Empire, his new capitol.

For the next year, Mehmed attempted to subdue the ever-rebellious Balkans. However, the Ottomans met fierce resistance by Janos Hunyadi at the siege of Belgrade and were driven back. Injured in the leg, Mehmed retired for some time to his palace.

War with the West

After he had recovered, the sultan turned his attention to Greece. In 1458, his armies took Athens. The next year the fortress of Smederevo surrendered to him, finally giving the Ottomans complete control of Serbia. By 1463, the Turkish army had overrun Wallachia and Bosnia, while the navy took the island of Lesbos. Aware that he was closing in on their territories, Venice (with Hungary’s support) declared war.

The war did not go well for the Christians. Mehmed was distracted in Turkey by a two-year struggle with his family’s perennial rivals, the Karamanlis; even so, the Ottomans took Montenegro after a long and horrible siege in 1469. Then they brought the Genoese to their knees, subjugated Crimea, and overran Albania. In the end, Venice sued for peace in 1479, agreeing to pay an annual tribute.

Towards the end of his life, Mehmed suffered from illness and remained mostly in Constantinople. Ottoman generals oversaw the empire’s continued campaigns against Italy, the Balkans, and Syria. In 1481, the sultan died suddenly of stomach pains. It was widely suspected that his heir, Bayezid II, had poisoned him.

Mehmed, known to history as “the Conquerer,” ushered in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. Despite his almost breathtaking personal cruelty, he continued his forebears’ relative tolerance towards non-Muslim subjects. He also patronized the arts and formalized the national code of law.

Selim I

Sultan Selim I (1465–1520) was one of the most important rulers in Ottoman history. In his short reign, he defeated the Persian and Mamluk empires. Under his command, the Turks conquered Armenia, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and they established lordship over the Arabian peninsula.

Ascent to the Throne

Mehmed II’s son, Bayezid II (1447–1512), ruled for thirty-one years. Less aggressive than his father, Bayezid consolidated Ottoman rule rather than expanding it. A patron of the arts and sciences, he tended to delegate leadership to his officials.

More significantly, he distributed power among his five sons. Bayezid appointed each of them to governorships throughout the empire. Once trained in civic and military matters, however, each son felt himself most qualified for the throne. It was not long before they began to quarrel over the succession.

Known to be ruthless, Selim was the youngest and least popular of the princes. As his brothers contended for influence, however, the militant Selim gained the loyalty of the Janissaries and the Balkan governors. In addition, after he led raids on Persian territory and put down insurrections in the eastern provinces, the Khan of the Crimea backed his candidacy.

With this support, Selim moved against the capitol, forcing Bayezid II to step down in 1512. Shortly afterwards, the old sultan died in political exile. When his two remaining brothers continued to press their claims, Selim’s army hunted them down and killed them. Selim also had many nephews killed in order to clear the path of succession for his son, Suleiman.

Persia and Armenia

The most serious challenge to Bayezid’s rule had came not from Europe but from Iran, where Shah (King) Ismail I had risen to power. Ismail’s Safavid dynasty had roots in the Shi’a Islamic sect, and he proved zealous in promoting the faith. To the fury of Ottoman civic and religious authorities, Persian agents constantly agitated among the Shi’ites in eastern Anatolia, causing them to rise up against their Sunni (a different branch of Islam) masters.

Selim’s supporters—especially the Janissaries—expected him to confront Persia, and he soon obliged them. In 1514, Ismail supported Murat, one of Selim’s surviving nephews, in attacking the city of Sivas on the Ottoman border. Selim repulsed the invasion. Then, although the local people had not supported Murat, the sultan ordered a general massacre of Shi’ites in the region. His troops slaughtered some forty thousand people and forcibly relocated thousands of others to the Balkans. This helped to Islamicize the newly subjugated Christian lands and robbed the shah of his followers in Anatolia.

The Ottoman army proceeded into Persia, defeating Ismail at the Battle of Chaldiran. They then pressed forward to capture Tabriz two weeks later. Although local Sunnis welcomed him as a liberator from the Shi’ite Safavids, Selim faced a rebellion among his Janissaries. He withdrew, claiming only northwestern Armenia as the spoils of war.

By the next year, however, the restless sultan had once again marshaled his forces. In short order, the Ottoman army had driven through Kemakh, Chemishgezek, Chapakchur, and Arabkir. Seeing their apparently inexorable advance, regional Kurdish emirs swore allegiance to the sultan.

Selim then laid siege to the city of Mardin. Here he was less successful—the fortress withstood his forces for years. In the meantime, however, the sultan conquered all of northern Mesopotamia, making Kurdish princes and Arab chieftains his vassals.

Syria and Egypt

Turning south, the Ottoman army marched into the Mamluk Empire, which had been founded by the great Muslim leader Saladin in the twelfth century. At the time, this empire ruled Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. The Mamluk state was wealthy but their army was antiquated; they stood no chance against Selim’s military skill and his modern Janissaries.

Selim claimed (falsely) that pretenders to the Ottoman throne received protection from Mamluk sultan al-Ghawri. Thus justified, the Ottoman army advanced through Armenia into northern Syria, taking Dulkadir, Malatya, and Ayntab. On August 24, 1516, they met the Egyptians at Marj Dabik, and Al-Ghawri was killed. Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Damascus likewise fell before the Turks.

Because of Selim’s political skill (to say nothing of his unstoppable armies), Arab religious leaders, caliphs, and chieftains threw themselves at his feet. When the new Mamluk sultan Tuman Bey took power, Selim offered to make him the viceroy of Egypt if he, too, would submit. Tuman Bey sent a defiant refusal, whereupon Selim marched across the Sinai Peninsula, routed the Egyptians at Reydaniyya, and had Tuman Bey killed.

Egypt was then reorganized as the Ottoman province Missir, while Syria became the province of Sham. Learning of this, Sharif Barakat II (guardian of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina) sent the keys to those cities to Selim. In return for his submission, he continued to rule the Holy Places of Islam as a Turkish vassal. The Turkish sultans had formerly been ghazis; Under Selim they became caliphs (guardians of the faithful), foremost rulers of the Islamic world.

Death and Legacy

Having consolidated his hold on the former Mamluk empire, Selim returned to Constantinople. In 1520, he began a journey to Edirne, evidently planning to begin a campaign against Christian Europe. However, he took ill and died en route.

In just eight years, Sultan Selim, known to history as “Selim the Grim,” doubled the size of the Ottoman Empire. When his son Suleiman took the throne, he did so without the usual dynastic chaos. Thanks to his father’s conquests, he also took control of a strong army and a fabulously rich treasury.

Ismail I

From 1501 to 1514, Shah Ismail I (1487–1524) conquered much of modern-day Iran. Although the Ottomans checked his progress, Ismail founded the Safavid dynasty, which was to rule Shi’ite Persia for over two hundred years.

The Sufis

Ismail, son of Haydar who was son of Junaid, was born into the rapidly spreading movement of Shi’a Islam. His father and grandfathers were leaders of the Safaviyeh, a Sufi religious order founded around 1400 by famed mystic Safi Al-Din. Over time, the Safaviyeh adopted the Twelver sect of Shi’a Islam—in other words, they professed the infallible caliphate (religious leadership) of the Twelve Imams—descendants of Mohammed through his son-in-law Ali.

To spread this doctrine, the zealous and charismatic Haydar gathered a band of religious warriors called the Qizilbash (the “Redhats”). Fanatically loyal to the Safaviyeh Grand Masters, these ghazis attached twelve insignia to their distinctive red headgear to represent the imams. When Haydar died in battle in 1488, it is said that the Qizilbash saved his infant son Ismail and took him into hiding.

The Child King

In 1501, at the age of fourteen, Ismail re-emerged, conquered Tabriz, and made it his capitol. The same year he defeated the Aq Qoyunlus (the “White Sheep”), a Sunni tribe prominent in the region. His next few years saw an unbroken string of military victories, as he and the Qizilbash consolidated their hold over all of Azerbaijan. He put down the Uzbeks to the east, and by 1508 he had seized Shiraz, Baghdad, and Herat.

Equally significantly, Ismail proclaimed Ithna Ashari (Twelver Shi’a) to be the official religion of his kingdom. He decreed that Muslims should ritually curse the first three Sunni caliphs (seen as usurpers of the imams) during Friday prayers. Though this aroused the resentment of many Sunni Persians (who, though the majority, were violently repressed), Shi’ism would eventually bring a sense of national identity and unity to the Iranian people.

However, this religious practice also provoked the enmity of their western neighbors in Turkey. Many of the Ottomans’ Anatolian subjects had converted to Shi’ism, and they, too, flocked to the Safavid flag. Ismail exasperated the situation by sending missionaries and spies into Ottoman territory. During 1511–1512, these agents helped provoke a Shi’ite rebellion in the Takkalu province of eastern Anatolia.

Sultan Selim I “the Grim” (one of the less broadminded Ottoman monarchs) brutally squelched the rebellion, executing around forty thousand people. In addition, he forced tens of thousands of survivors to relocate to the Balkans, where they could exert a Muslim influence among the restless Christian natives.

The Young Messiah

By this time, Ismail’s Shi’ite followers had come to look on their young shah as a holy man and possibly something much more. Central to Ithna Ashari is the belief that the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, never died, but would one day return as messiah and redeemer. Many Persians believed Ismail to be this “Hidden Imam.”

Certainly the Qizilbash, undefeated for fourteen years, saw their leader in a divine light. “There is no god but God,” they shouted when charging into battle, and “Ismail is the Friend of God.” One Persian source wrote that the Qizilbash went into battle without armor, confident in their shah’s invincibility.


Relations between Turkey and Persia continued to worsen: the Ottomans launched raids into Safavid territory, and the Safavids promoted pretenders to the Ottoman throne. In 1415, Selim had the ulema (religious elders) issue a fatwa (condemnation) against Ismail, declaring the latter to be a heretic and an infidel. Selim then marched towards Tabriz, sending a very insulting declaration of war before him.

The two armies met at Chaldiran on August 23, 1514, where the Ottomans’ superior artillery soundly defeated the Qizilbash. Ismail barely managed to escape, but his army was decimated and his favorite wife captured.

Selim marched on into Tabriz, which surrendered without a fight. A mutiny among his Janissaries forced him to withdraw, so Selim contented himself with some holdings in southwest Iran. Then he turned his attention towards the Egyptian Mamluk Empire.

Reprieved, Ismail regained his capitol a month later. However, his divine illusions shattered, he never again led the Qizilbash into battle. Rather he retreated, depressed, to his palace. He died ten years later at the age of thirty-six, to be replaced by his nine-year old son Tahmasp.

Despite his disappointment, Ismail’s house remained in power until 1722. Tahmasp proved a capable ruler and managed to hold the empire against numerous invasions. Over time, the Persian people came to genuinely accept Shi’ism, laying the foundations for the modern state of Iran.

Suleiman I

Suleiman I (1494–1566) is remembered as the greatest ruler in his long and distinguished dynasty. Called “the Lawgiver” by the Turks and “the Magnificent” by the Western world, Suleiman reigned over the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.

Early Battles

Suleiman ascended to the sultanate after his father’s death in 1520. As Selim’s only surviving son, he did not have to murder any relatives (a common practice in Ottoman successions).

Suleiman pursued conquest, as had his ancestors; he was devoutly attached to jihad. He also understood that the Janissary army must keep busy outside the Ottoman border or cause mayhem inside it. In 1521, Suleiman succeeded where his grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror had failed; he surrounded Belgrade, bombarded the walls, and forced the fortress’ surrender.

Suleiman then turned his attention to another of Mehmed’s failures—the Knights of St. John, a crusading order who controlled the island of Rhodes. Just eleven miles off the coast of Turkey, Rhodes sheltered Christian pirates who had for years played havoc with Ottoman shipping.

Rhodes was touted as an impenetrable island fortress, though it held only five thousand fighting men and seven thousand civilians. To counter this, the Turkish besieging force numbered well over 100,000 troops and carried an enormous weight of artillery. After a five month brutal siege, the Knights were granted an honorable surrender and the city’s population was spared.

Austria and Hungary

In 1526, the Turks attacked and briefly held Buda, killing King Louis II at the Battle of Mohaçs. The young king’s death left Hungary divided. Hapsburg Archduke Ferdinand of Austria claimed the throne through marriage, but Suleiman did not agree. “Hungary is mine,” the sultan declared. He was determined to give the crown to his Transylvanian vassal, “his slave,” King John Zapolya.

Accordingly, in 1529 Suleiman besieged and very nearly took Vienna, but was forced back by logistical problems and bad weather. Three years later he tried again, but was forced to retreat before reaching the city.

Iraq and Greece

Suleiman then turned east to check Shah Tahmasp I of the Persian Safavid dynasty. Initially he sent Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, his Greek slave and childhood friend. In 1534, Ibrahim marched east and took Tabriz and Baghdad.

Later, the sultan joined Ibrahim and launched a series of campaigns in the region. These floundered, however, due to the Persian’s guerilla tactics. Tahmasp avoided direct battle, drawing Suleiman’s forces deep into harsh terrain. The conflict dragged on, stalemated, until a settlement was worked out in 1555.

The Turks fared better on the water. Suleiman appointed a privateer named Barbarossa Hayreddin (c. 1478–1546), known to the Europeans as Redbeard, as admiral of his fleets. Barbarossa modernized the Ottoman fleet and won a signal victory against the Austrian navy in 1538. Within a few years, the Turks completely dominated the Mediterranean Sea.

In the meantime, Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis (c. 1465–1555) battled the Portuguese for control of the Indian Ocean. Piri, who became famous as a cartographer, secured the Red Sea but failed in the Persian Gulf.

In 1541, the Ottoman armies once more marched on Europe. After six years, they conquered and occupied Hungary and forced Austria to pay annual tribute.

Intrigue at The Palace

Suleiman’s victories stemmed from his diplomatic acumen as well as from his military skill. He thoroughly understood and exploited Europe’s divisions. He allied himself with French king Francis I (1494–1547) against their mutual enemy Hapsburg Emperor Charles V (1500–1558). When Germany exploded over Martin Luther’s Reformation, Suleiman encouraged the conflict by funding the Protestants.

Ironically, politics at home would prove his undoing. His well-liked vizier, Ibrahim, was an efficient administrator, but he aroused resentment from the Turkish elite. Word reached the sultan that Ibrahim had set his ambitions higher than his station, so in 1436, Suleiman had the vizier strangled.

Suleiman’s true favorite in the palace was a Slavic slave girl named Roxelana (c. 1510–1558), with whom he was clearly infatuated. Against all tradition, he married her and moved her into the palace.

Aware that Ottoman princes must succeed the sultan or die trying, Roxelana schemed for her children. She managed to turn the sultan against his eldest and most promising son, Mustafa; the sultan ordered the young man murdered before his own eyes. Mustafa’s brother Jahangir killed himself, leaving only Roxelana’s sons Selim and Bayezid in contention for the throne.

After their mother’s death in 1558, the two brothers took up arms against each other. Suleiman sided with Selim (later known as “Selim the Drunk”). Bayezid was defeated, captured, and executed.

Final Battles

In 1565, over seventy years old, Suleiman attempted once more to rout out the Knights of St. John at Malta. Defeated, the sultan led one last campaign against Hungary. His armies overran the last of the defiant Hungarian fortresses, but Suleiman died on the road.

Suleiman was a great patron of art and architecture, as well as a just and capable administrator. He established enduring codes of law, built beautiful mosques, wrote poetry, and established the Ottoman Empire as a world superpower.

Don Juan

Don Juan of Austria (1547–1578) was born in Bavaria, the illegitimate son of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V. Adopted by the court of Philip II of Spain, he later earned renown at the Battle of Lepanto.

Birth and Childhood

Hapsburg Emperor Charles V reigned in troubled times. As king of both Austria and Spain, he had significant responsibilities both in Europe and the New World. As Holy Roman Emperor, it fell to him to protect Catholic Christendom from both the Muslim Ottoman Emperor and the emerging Protestant Reformation.

Worn down by his burdens, Charles abdicated in 1556, leaving the imperial crown of Austria to his brother Ferdinand I and the throne of Spain to his son Philip II. He retired to a monastery, where he died two years later.

In his will, Charles acknowledged that he had fathered an illegitimate son with an obscure German woman. He had given the child to Spanish foster parents, who called him Jerónimo. Charles asked Philip to recognize the boy and give him an annual allowance.

Accordingly, King Philip brought the twelve-year-old to court, where he was called Juan de Austria (John of Austria) in recognition of his Hapsburg heritage. Over the years he became very popular; in stark contrast with his grim half-brother Philip, Juan was charismatic, athletic, and outgoing. It seems that Charles had wanted Juan to enter the church, but the young man showed no inclination in that direction. Though a fervent Catholic, he evidently wished to defend the faith on the battlefield.

Early Life

Don Juan was about the same age as Philip’s son and heir Don Carlos (1545–1568). Though of very different temperaments, the two became close friends in their teenage years. Unexpectedly, in 1567, Don Carlos approached Juan with a plan to assassinate his father, the king. Horrified, Juan revealed the plot to Philip. Carlos was arrested and died in prison the next year.

As reward for his loyalty, Philip gave his half-brother a significant naval commission. With thirty-three galleys under his command, Juan was ordered to drive North African corsairs from the Strait of Gibraltar. In 1569, Philip ordered him to put down a Morisco revolt in the Alpujarras region of Spain. (The Moriscos were Muslims who had unwillingly converted to Christianity under threat of expulsion.)

Don Juan acquitted himself well in these operations, showing vigor, courage and military skill. Within a few years his zeal and ability—and, perhaps, his good looks and charming manners—had earned the young general an international reputation.

The Battle of Lepanto

In 1571, Pope Pius V put out a call for a combined Catholic effort to check Muslim expansion. Spain, Venice, Tuscany, Savoy, Rome, and the Knights of Malta assembled their navies to form the Holy League, a fleet composed of over two hundred galleys. Pius asked that Don Juan, at the time barely twenty-four years old, be appointed commander of the entire undertaking.

The Holy League sailed to Lepanto (off of Greece) where they engaged the Muslim fleet on October 7, 1571. The forces were evenly matched numerically, but the Christians possessed more modern artillery and better gunners. The Turks, who had so recently seemed invincible, were routed and scattered.

The battle turned Don Juan into a folk hero overnight. Churches throughout Western Europe rang out with praise and celebration of the new champion of Christendom.

Later Career

Though the Holy League withdrew and disbanded, Don Juan continued to fight the Ottomans. He captured Tunis from the Turks in 1573, but he received no support from Spain and lost it the next year.

Philip feared his half-brother’s popularity, and tried to muzzle the young man as best he could. Nevertheless, in 1574 he appointed Don Juan as governor of the Spanish Netherlands. The Low Countries had recently turned to Protestantism and had rebelled under the leadership of William the Silent (1533–1584). Philip hoped that Juan, a beloved war hero, would be able to sway the people back to Catholicism and to Spain.

Don Juan had little taste for his new assignment. As his royal brother feared, his ambitions were of a more lofty nature. With a few others, he plotted to launch a daring attack against England and overthrow Protestant Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). He would then free Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587), marry her, and sit on the throne of England. Philip seems to have encouraged this deluded plan, if only to direct Juan’s energies away from Spain.

Juan met with little success in the Netherlands. The very day he arrived, the Spanish army perpetrated a massive atrocity in Antwerp. Enraged, the Dutch forced the new governor to withdraw Spanish troops from the country.

For the next few years, Juan struggled futilely to retain control. Acting on his own initiative, he defeated the Dutch rebels at Gembloux. The resistance continued, however, and Juan’s health deteriorated. In 1578 he died of typhus, and his body was smuggled back to Spain.

Major Battles

Kosovo, June 28, 1389

The Battle of Kosovo was a turning point in Serbian—and indeed, world—history. To this day, Serbs remember this defeat by the Ottomans as the defining moment of their nation.

The Stage

Throughout recorded history, the many Balkan peoples and principalities had never lived very peaceably together. However, by 1381, the Christian Slavs had put aside their differences against a common enemy: the encroaching armies of Murad I, sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Fighting in the name of Islam, Murad had established almost total control over Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). He had also gradually conquered much of Greece and Macedonia. In 1388, Bulgaria too was forced into submission.

It should be noted that the Ottomans generally allowed their non-Turkish subject peoples a great deal of autonomy and religious freedom. They also brought order and stability to many an ill-governed, neglected fief. Some Christians, eager to throw off the yolk of the Byzantine or Serbian empires, actually welcomed the Muslims as liberators.

A great many Europeans took a different view, however. Unwilling to become Turkish vassals, Christians rallied behind the strongest of the Serbian feudal lords, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic. Through military and diplomatic means, Lazar unified the Serbian lords and managed to arrange an alliance with ruler Tvrtko I of Bosnia. Their combined forces won a few victories over Turkish raiding parties in the early 1380s.

The Battle

In 1389, however, the matter came to a dramatic head. Murad I and his sons led an army westward to Kosovo Polje (“Plain of Blackbirds”). There he was met by Lazar and a pan-Slavic army composed of Bosnians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Wallachians, and Albanians.

Kosovo was a strategically important crossroads, sitting on a watershed between the Vardar and Morava rivers. Surrounded by mountains, Kosovo guards the shortest north-south route across the Balkans.

Very little can be accurately known about the battle, given the scarcity of contemporary witnesses and the total absence of objective reports. The relative size of the armies is unknown. Even the outcome is not entirely clear, though both sides suffered terrible losses.

The battle was later widely accepted as a devastating defeat for the Christians, but it may not have been at the time: the Muslims did not advance to Kosovo but retreated back to their Western capitol of Edirne. All through Europe, thanksgiving masses were said for the death of Murad.

The Dead

It is certain that both Lazar and Murad died that day, but the stories vary in both cases. Some Serbian epic poems describe Lazar’s glorious death in battle. Others lament that he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Turks.

Murad seems to have been assassinated. According to Serbian sources, a knight walked into the sultan’s tent, pretending to surrender. When he got close enough, the assassin (later named as Milos Obilic) stabbed Murad in the stomach. Ottoman writers assert that the Serbian knight was lying on the battlefield, pretending to be dead.

Both Murad and Lazar were considered martyrs by their respective faiths. A later Turkish historian wrote that Murad, seeing that the Serbian army was twice the size of his own, spent the evening in prayer. He offered his own life for the lives of his soldiers, an offer that was apparently accepted.

Serbian legends recount that the Christians (who were vastly outnumbered by the Turks) received a message from the Turks—surrender or be destroyed. Thereupon the prophet Elijah appeared to Lazar in the form of a bird, and offered him a choice between an empire of heaven (to be claimed by battle and death) and an empire of earth (which could be accomplished by negotiating with the enemy). According to the poems, Lazar chose the kingdom of heaven and fought.

The Serbian Orthodox Church canonized Lazar shortly after the battle. Serbs revere his memory to this day. Muslims remember Murad I as a ghazi.

The Legacy

Murad’s son Bazeyid took his father’s place as ruler of the Ottoman Empire. His brother Yakub was immediately executed according to the custom. Then the army fell back to Edirne to crown the new sultan.

Bayezid permitted Lazar’s son Stefan to rule Serbia as a vassal state. Stefan gave an annual tribute to the Turks, as well as lending soldiers for Bayezid’s Asian wars. Serbia had lost a large number of her best soldiers and leaders and would remain under foreign rule for the next five hundred years.

For many Serbs, the Battle of Kosovo came to symbolize the tragic loss of their national sovereignty. The fall of Lazar became a rallying cry for Serbian nationalists from Princip Gavrilo (whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria sparked World War I) to modern Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic (who was indicted for crimes against humanity by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal).

Nicopolis, September 25, 1396

Faced with the seemingly invincible Ottoman armies, King Sigismund of Hungary (1368–1437) called for an international European crusade. The crusaders met the Muslims at Nicopolis, in Bulgaria, where the Christians were soundly defeated.

Call to Crusade (Again)

In 1388, Sultan Murad I had overthrown the city of Nicopolis, forcing Bulgarian king Sisman to accept Turkish suzerainty. When Ottoman ruler Bayezid (Murad’s heir) killed Sisman in 1395 and installed his own ministers in Bulgaria, Hungary found the Muslims at their very doorstep.

As Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund felt himself responsible for safeguarding Christianity from Islam. As king of Hungary, he was keenly aware that his country stood on the border between the two faiths.

Sigismund’s fears were not unfounded. Bayezid was profoundly anti-Christian, and he was not as diplomatic as his father had been. Early in his career, the young sultan had boasted that he would crush Hungary, then continue on to Rome and stable his horse in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Bayezid’s confidence was not unfounded either. His Janissaries were trained, well-disciplined professional soldiers that had seldom seen defeat. By 1395, almost all the lords of Anatolia, Macedonia, Byzantium, Serbia, Wallachia, and Bulgaria paid him tribute.

Sigismund sent emissaries to all of the courts of Europe, begging for aid. Around the same time, Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1350–1425) of Byzantium also launched a desperate appeal to the lords of Christendom—Constantinople was under siege.

Their timing was fortuitous. The Hundred Years War had finally ended, leaving many French and English knights without an enemy to fight. These feudal noblemen had been brought up on glorious (if highly inaccurate) tales of the Crusades. When Pope Boniface IX issued a call for a crusade against the heathen Turks, Europe responded with fervor.

John of Nevers (1371–1419), son of the Duke of Burgundy, left amid great public fanfare with a large French force. Inspired by his example, knights from England, Scotland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Bohemia all marched upon Hungary. By the summer of 1396, a few hundred thousand men had gathered at Buda, the largest crusading force ever collected.

It was also one of the least competent. Most of the Christian knights were amateur soldiers at best, living out a chivalric fantasy several hundred years old. They had no notion of modern warfare, which had been perfected by the professional and highly experienced Ottoman army. The crusaders still fought in heavy armor with broadswords. They stood little chance against the Turkish cavalry, who employed swift, lightly armored mounted archers. Worse, they were unaware of their inadequacies, and they spoke confidently of liberating Jerusalem later in the campaign.

The Crusaders Go Looking for Trouble

Sigismund, on the other hand, was painfully aware of the Turks’ military prowess. He expected an Ottoman assault into Hungary and prepared for a defensive campaign. When the invasion did not come, the Europeans grew restless and went on the offensive. They marched south, capturing Orsova and Nish with much unnecessary bloodshed.

Arriving at the important fortification of Nicopolis, they could not take the stronghold—they had brought no siege engines. Instead they camped around the city and waited, indulging in wine and women.

Bayezid’s army arrived sixteen days later, reputedly up to 200,000 men strong. The Europeans were elated and threw themselves into the fight. The battle opened with initial Christian victories. The French lord Enguerrand de Coucy led a reconnaissance force into the mountains, scattering a Turkish vanguard.

Jealous of de Coucy’s victory, the other French lords entered the fray, ignoring the Hungarian king’s pleas for a coordinated, defensive use of their numbers. Sigismund had proposed that the mounted knights should form a line behind the Hungarian and Wallachian foot soldiers, who were experienced in fighting the Turks.

The chevaliers refused this well-considered battle plan, accusing the Hungarians of trying to steal their honor. Instead they charged up the hill and fell on the Turkish front line, cutting them to pieces.

The Crusaders Find Trouble

Bayezid was as unworried by the crusaders’ initial victory as the crusaders were exultant. As was his practice, he had put his untrained, worthless troops in front as fodder for the enemy. After the seven hundred French chevaliers reached the hilltop, they met some sixty thousand members of the famed Ottoman army.

The Christians were scattered and routed. When the knights were thrown from their horses, their heavy armor prevented them from rising again. Sigismund and a few other lords managed to escape via the Danube River. Thousands of Europeans fled as they could, and many died in a hard retreat on foot through the mountains.

The next day Bayezid ordered a general execution of all of the prisoners. John of Nevers and his men, spared on account of their ransom potential, were forced to watch their fellow crusaders beheaded. The sultan gave a contemptuous speech, daring any Christian knight to return and fight him. Then, not even bothering to give chase, he turned back to resume his blockade of Constantinople.

The international army of 1396 ended in an overwhelming Christian defeat on Christian soil. From that point on, few Western European nations would help oppose the Ottoman Empire.

Varna, November 10, 1444

On the fields before Varna, King Ladislaus III of Hungary and Poland met Murad II of the Ottoman Empire. Although both sides took heavy losses, ultimately the Turks defeated and scattered the Christians.

Breaking the Peace

In June 1444, Sultan Murad II concluded a treaty with the Christian powers. He freed Serbia and Wallachia from Ottoman vassalage in exchange for a ten-year cessation of hostilities between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Believing his western border to be secure, Murad then retired to his Asian provinces.

Ladislaus of Hungary almost immediately violated this treaty and launched a crusade. He was encouraged in this venture by papal legate Giuliano Cesarini and joined by his vassal Janos Hunyadi. However, the Ban of Serbia, George Brankovic, refused to participate. The king of Wallachia, Vlad II Dracul, did not come himself but sent his son and a contingent of soldiers.

In September 1444, Ladislaus crossed the Danube into Bulgaria and began to work his way towards Edirne, the Ottoman capitol. Murad’s twelve-year-old son Mehmed ruled the city, guarded (it was believed) by no more than eight thousand men.

Papal, Venetian, and Genoese ships guarded the Bosporus Straits against any Turkish counterattack from Asia. Ladislaus’ army planned to join with the fleet when they reached the Black Sea.

The land force (around twenty thousand troops in all) advanced through Bulgaria. On November 9, they stopped and camped at Varna, a city on the banks of the Black Sea. There they were astonished to find Murad’s entire army waiting for them, 80,000 to 100,000 men strong.

Murad’s Return

After an initial attempt to remain an ex-sultan failed, Murad had ridden north with his large army, reaching the Dardanelles in October. Finding the passage locked by the Christian fleet, the sultan contrived to cross the Bosporus Straits at night. It is not certain how he managed the passage. It seems that some Christians helped him, perhaps selling him boats. (The pope would later send out a general excommunication of all those involved.)

What is more, the Papal fleet did not sail north in time to aid Ladislaus. Some sources blame the delay on a violent storm; others hint that Murad bribed the Venetians and Genoese.

Whatever the case may be, Murad’s force hurried on to Varna. The Hungarian army found itself massively outnumbered, with no reinforcements in sight on the water. The Turks had cut off their line of retreat, trapping them against rugged hill country to the north and the Black Sea to the east.

The Hungarian leaders held a desperate war council. Some advised taking a defensive position and waiting for the arrival of the fleet. Hunyadi, on the other hand, told the Christian lords that their only hope lay in open battle.

The Battle

Hunyadi was placed in command of the field. The next morning, on November 10, he deployed the Christian troops in a crescent shape. Behind their main line of battle stood a Wagenburg, a fortified ring of wagons and carts.

The Ottomans launched the first attack. Karaca Bey, governor of Anatolia, led his sipahis (feudal cavalry) in an attempt to flank and scatter the Hungarian right wing. Other sipahis then fell on the left wing.

Accounts differ as to the order of battle, but it appears that Hunyadi persuaded Ladislaus to hold the center while he rode out to help with their embattled left flank. Somehow Hunyadi managed to break the Ottomans’ line in that direction. Then he turned back to the right. The Turks put up valiant resistance, but suffered heavy losses, and their leader, Karaca Bey, fell. At this loss, his men apparently broke and ran, leaving the sultan alone on the field with his Janissaries.

At this point, Ladislaus made a fatal error. The young king (Ladislaus was twenty years old), caught up in the excitement of imminent victory, disregarded Hunyadi’s military advice. With five hundred of his men, he attacked the sultan’s guards directly. At first the mad charge was successful, but the Janissaries far outnumbered the Polish knights. Eventually overwhelmed, the king fell from his horse. The Turks chopped off his head and mounted it on a pole.

At this sight, the crusaders panicked and ran to the hills. The Ottomans, having taken massive casualties, withdrew in an orderly fashion and did not pursue that day.

Cardinal Cesarini was among those who fled, and he was never seen again. Hunyadi also escaped, only to be captured by Vlad Dracul. The king of Wallachia harbored a grudge against Hunyadi and imprisoned him for months.

Casualty counts varied widely, but they were generally acknowledged to be enormous on both sides. Several sources indicate that ten thousand crusaders died. The Ottomans lost around thirty thousand troops, about a third of their army.

Constantinople, May 29, 1453

When the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman leader Mehmed the Conqueror, it signaled the end of the ancient Byzantine Empire.

The Ottomans

Throughout the winter of 1452, Sultan Mehmed II planned feverishly for the campaign against Constantinople, the conquest of which had been his dream since childhood. He equipped his army with the best and most modern weaponry money could buy. He paid Urban, a legendary Hungarian metalworker, to construct heavy cannons. One of these was a twenty-nine foot gun named Basilica, which could throw a 1,200-pound ball over a mile.

The sultan assembled an army of more than a hundred thousand men, including twelve thousand battle-hardened Janissaries. He also strengthened the Ottoman navy, constructing a fleet of over one hundred vessels. This meant the Turks were capable of blockading the city from the south for the first time. (Other sieges had failed when Constantinople was supplied by sea.)

Mehmed’s forces went on the march in the spring of 1453, buoyed by their sultan’s obsessive energy. After centuries of decay, the “Golden Apple” of Constantinople lay within their grasp.

The Last Gasp of Byzantium

The entire population of Constantinople barely exceeded fifty thousand, of which only five thousand were soldiers. Some two thousand Italian volunteers joined them, answering the call for Christian solidarity. Among these came Giovanni Giustiniani, an expert in fortifications, who strengthened the long walls of the city as best he could.

Morale was low among the citizens of Constantinople. Western Christendom had failed to come to their rescue. This was not due to lack of pleading; Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus had even agreed to reunite the Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic branch. This concession had brought little material aid and had caused rioting among his people. Rumors of ominous supernatural portents ran through the city as Christians prayed desperately for deliverance. For many, it seemed that the hour of the Antichrist had come.

On April 2, 1453, the last of the Ottoman army arrived at the gates of Constantinople. Emperor Constantine ordered the gates of the city to be closed and the moats to be flooded with seawater. A floating wooden wall stretched across the entrance of the Golden Horn harbor, protecting the ships within.

Four days later, in accordance with Islamic law, the sultan sent envoys demanding the city’s surrender. The emperor refused. Shortly thereafter, cannon fire began to bombard the city.

The Siege

For the next two months, the people of Constantinople stubbornly defended their home. When the bombardment cut through the wall, the defenders hastened to repair the damage, using wood, stone, hay bales, and leather. They poured boiling pitch down on the attackers as they attempted to scale the walls. The Turks wheeled tall wooden towers up to the wall, which the Greeks burned.

The two armies fought before the gates, from the turrets, and under the ground, digging tunnels and counter-tunnels. The air was choked with smoke and noise; the sultan ordered a constant barrage of cymbals, trumpets, pipes, tambourines and war cries, while the emperor replied with the massive, tireless bells of the Byzantine churches.

On April 18, the Ottomans staged a massive assault on the walls. After four hours of intense fighting, the invaders were pushed back. Two days later, four Christian ships managed to fight their way through the naval blockade, bringing a few hundred reinforcements. The contribution was small, but it raised the Greek’s morale.

The sultan was furious. He had ships dragged overland from the Bosporus into the Golden Horn. Once this was accomplished, the city’s defenders could only watch helplessly as Greeks lost control of the water.

In mid-May, Mehmed sent one more messenger. He gave the citizens of Constantinople two choices: they could agree to pay an enormous yearly tribute, or they could evacuate the city. Constantine and his council knew that they could not possibly raise the money, and they refused to abandon the city.

The Conquest

In the early morning May 29, the Turks began a massive assault. Wave after wave of men flung themselves on the city. A well-aimed cannonball shattered a wooden blockade that had patched up one section of the wall, and the Janissaries swarmed in. The Greeks, led by the emperor himself, held the breach for hours, but they were exhausted and hugely outnumbered.

Eventually Giustiniani was badly injured. His men managed to carry him through the city and put him on a Genoese ship. Believing the city lost, many of the Genoese troops fled with him.

The Turks swept through the city, looting and killing. Some of the civilians fought on the streets, or threw bricks down from windows. Others huddled in the churches. Before the end of the day almost all of them had been killed or taken into slavery.

Tradition has it that Constantine cried, “The city is lost, and I am still alive!” He then dismounted, took off the imperial purple, and fought alongside the common soldiers. Killed and buried in a common grave, he is revered in Greece as a martyr and a saint.

The next day, Mehmed entered the city and made straight for the great cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. Marveling at the beauty of the building and giving thanks to God for his victory, the sultan had it converted to a mosque. Constantinople became Istanbul, and it serves as the capitol of the Turks to this day.

Chaldiran, August 23, 1514

Early in the sixteenth century, the imperial and religious rivalry between the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Persian Safavid Empire came to a head. Sultan Selim I and Shah Ismail I met on the field of Chaldiran in Azerbaijan, where superior Turkish firepower decisively won the day.


At the end of the fifteenth century, central Asia lay in turmoil as various Turkish, Uzbek, Mongol, and Tartar warlords battled endlessly for supremacy. This changed in 1501, when Ismail I ascended to the throne of Tabriz at the age of fourteen. Displaying an extraordinary military talent, the young shah set about pacifying the region. Within ten years, he had driven all opposition out of Persia and had captured other important cities such as Baghdad and Khorasan.

From his grandfather, Ismail had inherited religious leadership of the Safaviyeh, a militant Muslim order. In that capacity, Ismail proclaimed the official state religion to be Ithna Ashari—the Twelve Imam’s sect of Shi’a Islam. This faith was to be the foundation of Ismail’s Safavid dynasty. All other forms of Islam were ruthlessly suppressed.

Drained by the violent chaos before his reign, many Iranian Turks were inclined to view Shah Ismail as the Mahdi (a savior), or possibly as a reincarnation of the Hidden Twelfth Imam. Ismail accepted and encouraged this belief—he wrote poetry in which he described himself in frankly divine terms.

Although both Shi’ism and Sunnism teach that such claims are blasphemous, Ismail’s core warriors—the Qizilbash—fought with fanatical devotion under his banner. They were named for their distinctive red headgear, which sported twelve studs symbolizing their devotion to the Twelve Imams.

Selim the Grim Is Not Amused

The Ottomans watched with some dismay at their new neighbors’ advance; the sultan was not pleased when large numbers of his Anatolian subjects flocked to Ismail’s court at Tabriz. This led to a wave of crackdowns against Shi’ites in the Ottoman Empire, which in turn left the border provinces resentful and rebellious.

Safaviyeh missionaries and Persian agents were quick to capitalize on this discontent, provoking open uprisings against the Empire. Relations between Persia and Turkey became poisonous, and cross-boundary raids became more common. Finally, Selim and Ismail exchanged a series of belligerent and insulting letters, after which Selim marched to the east with more than sixty thousand men, composed in part of Janissary infantry and sipahis cavalry.

The Battle

Shah Ismail was outnumbered, but that fact alone does not adequately explain his failure against Selim. The Janissaries were a standing army of disciplined soldiers, equipped with muskets and cannon. The Qizilbash carried no gunpowder weapons; their fighters were nomadic horsemen pulled from feudal levies. They were enthusiastic but unprepared for modern warfare.

The two armies met at the field of Chaldiran, about eighty miles northwest of Tabriz. The Ottoman force entrenched behind wagons and set artillery pieces.

The Persians had never before lost a battle under Ismail. Fired by religious fervor, they charged directly at the Turkish line. Though both sides took heavy losses, the result was a complete rout of the Qizilbash. Their cavalry was mown down by gunfire, Ismail himself was wounded, and the army was forced to retreat.

Threatened by the harsh Azerbaijan winter, the Ottomans made no effort to chase down the defeated Persians. Instead they continued forward and took Tabriz, apparently without a fight. The local Sunni population welcomed Selim as a liberator and urged him to free all of Persia from Shi’ite rule. At the suggestion, Selim’s troops, exhausted by a long trek and a hard battle, came close to mutiny. The sultan contented himself with the provinces of Kurdistan and Diyarbekr and returned to Istanbul.

The Aftermath

The loss was a heavy psychological blow to Ismail, who had believed himself divinely appointed and therefore invincible. Though his government did not flounder, the shah never again appeared at the head of his army. The battle effectively halted the expansion of the Safavid Empire. Furthermore, Iran turned away from the heretical messianic teachings of the Qizilbash and adopted a more orthodox brand of Shi’a Islam.

Ismail’s son and heir, Shah Tahmasp, also learned from his father’s tactical mistakes. When Selim’s son Suleiman marched into Persian territories, Tahmasp never confronted the Turks directly. Instead he followed a scorched earth policy, destroying his own country’s food and supplies so that the invaders could not live off the land. The Turks followed the Persians deeper and deeper into the harsh Central Asian steppes until cold and starvation forced them back. This cat-and-mouse routine continued without significant gains on either side until a peace treaty was concluded in 1555.

Historians often cite the Battle of Chaldiran as the first decisive proof of the importance of firearms in modern warfare.

Rhodes, 1522

During the siege of this island, Suleiman the Magnificent besieged and conquered the Knights of Rhodes, the last of the crusading orders. The hard-won victory helped to give the Ottomans mastery of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Knights Hospitaller

The Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem were a Catholic monastic order whose origins are lost in the early crusades. Though their rule (charter) concerned itself chiefly with medical services and hospitality for pilgrims, the Knights eventually became a military order, dedicated to the crusading cause. Their ranks included both professed monks and affiliated lay knights.

In 1187, the Knights managed to escape Jerusalem when Saladin took the city. They retired to Tripoli until 1291, and then took refuge in the Kingdom of Cyprus. In 1309 they conquered the island of Rhodes and established a fortress there.

Situated just eleven miles off the coast of Turkey, the Knights of Rhodes harassed the Ottoman Empire for centuries. They fought the Barbary pirates (Turkish corsairs) who preyed on Christian shipping and who did a brisk business in Christian slaves. At the same time the Knights of St. John outfitted their own corsairs, who pillaged Turkish merchant ships wherever they could find them. For all practical purposes, they became pirates.

Mehmed Doesn’t Quite Conquer

When Constantinople fell to Mehmed II in 1453, the island of Rhodes found itself surrounded by Ottoman territory. Mehmed, who saw himself as heir to the Byzantine Empire, would not tolerate an enemy stronghold in the very heart of his domain. In 1480, he sent his Greek-born Grand Vizier Gedik Ahmed Pasha to take the island.

The Knights had long expected such an attack. Under their Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson (1423–1503), they had considerably strengthened the already impressive fortifications and had hoarded enough supplies to last three years.

The Ottomans landed on the island with up to 100,000 men. Confident of victory, Gedik forbade his troops to pillage—all spoils, he said, belonged to the sultan. At the same time he raised the black flag, which declared that everyone in the city would be slaughtered or enslaved. In this way he sapped his men of incentive, while giving the defenders a fighting edge of desperation.

The siege lasted from the end of May until August. The Turks’ heavy cannon broke the thick walls in several places, but the defenders managed to withdraw to inner fortifications or to hold the breaches. Finally, having lost almost nine thousand men, Gedik sailed away.

Suleiman Tries Again

D’Aubusson immediately set about repairing and modernizing the fortifications. Walls were rebuilt and thickened, double moats installed, and other up-to-date defenses added to the ancient fortress. By the time the Ottomans attacked again in 1522, the knights at Rhodes could boast one of the greatest strongholds in the world.

The new Grand Master, Phillipe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1464–1534), called for Knights of the Order from all around Europe, bringing their number to around seven hundred. With mercenaries and militiamen, the defenders numbered around five thousand fighters and seven thousand civilians.

Suleiman sent a fleet of almost four hundred ships to surround the island. With over 115,000 men, armed with the most advanced artilleries in the world, the Turks encircled the walls and began bombardment in late July, 1522.

The siege would last a brutal five months. The sultan’s forces launched 85,000 cannonballs at the fortress walls, to little avail. More effective were the underground trenches, which were painstakingly dug up to and under the walls, then mined. The defenders dug their own series of counter-tunnels and countermines. These operations, bloody masterpieces of engineering, slowly ate away at the defenses.

In late September the Turks launched a series of direct assaults, which culminated in a major offensive. However, after six hours of frenzied fighting, the Janissaries were driven back with heavy losses.

By the end of November, the Turks had suffered tens of thousands of casualties, winter was coming on, and disease was spreading through the camp. The Knights, too, had reached their limit. Ammunition was running low. While they had lost fewer than the Turks, they had lost enough, and they could no longer effectively man the breaches.

After another failed assault in early December, the sultan offered the city a way to surrender with honor. Suleiman promised to allow the knights to leave with all of their weapons and valuables. He would also allow full civil liberties, including freedom of religion, to any civilian who wished to stay. The island would be pardoned any tribute for five years.

At first, de l’Isle-Adam insisted on fighting to the death. Eventually, however, the other townspeople prevailed upon him to surrender. On January 1, the Knights of Rhodes marched out of the fortress, their standards flying. Europeans generally praised Suleiman for his generosity towards the city’s defenders.

Rhodes remained in Turkish possession for the next four hundred years. The Order regrouped as the Knights of Malta. In 1565, the Ottomans laid siege to Malta, but could not penetrate the defenses.

Tunis, 1535

As Ottoman privateers took control of the Mediterranean, they clashed with the navies of Italy and Spain, fighting over key fortresses on the north coast of Africa. In 1535, a Christian fleet drove the Turks out of the strategically important city of Tunis.

Piracy in the Mediterranean

Beginning in the sixteenth century, southern Europe lived in dread of the so-called Barbary pirates—Muslim corsairs who preyed on Western shipping and coastal towns. Over the next three hundred years, it is estimated that they carried well over a million Christians into slavery.

The first of these pirates were Moors who had escaped Spain when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. They settled in the Maghreb (northwestern Africa) and took up arms against the despised Spanish. Alongside the usual acts of pillage, kidnapping, and rape, the Barbary pirates helped Moriscos (Moors trapped in Spain and forced to convert to Catholicism) to escape the Inquisition or rebel against the Spanish crown. Therefore, the early Barbary pirates are better described as privateers—private ships using piratical methods to political ends.

The Barbarossa Brothers

The most famous of the Barbary pirates were brothers, Barbaros Oruc (c. 1474–1518) and Barbaros Hizir (c.1478–1546). They were both red-haired, so the Italians called them the “Barbarossa” brothers (“Redbearded” brothers.) Greeks of Turkish extraction, they were first-rate seamen and ferocious enemies of Christian Europe. They pillaged the coasts of France, Spain, and North Africa, finally seizing Algiers in 1518. Oruc was killed in the fighting.

Hizir quickly proved himself a formidable privateer and a skilled leader. Selim I gave him the name “Heyreddin,” meaning “Protector of the Faith,” and appointed him as a Beylerbey (governor). Eager to check Spain’s power, Selim also sent him two thousand Janissaries, four thousand Turkish volunteers, and heavy artillery.

From his base at Algiers, Barbarossa continuously plagued Spanish outposts. In 1522 he took back Velez de la Gomera on the coast of Morocco, and in 1529 he drove the last of the Spanish from the Peñón of Algiers.


In 1530, alarmed by these developments, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave Malta and Tripoli to the Knights of St. John. He also procured the services of Genoesecondottiere (mercenary) Andrea Doria (1466–1560), whose seamanship rivaled Barbarossa’s.

Despite these rivals, the Turks continued their advances. In 1534, Barbarossa took Tunis, driving out the Hafsid sultan Muley Hassan. From Tunis, the privateer could easily strike at either Malta or Sicily. Charles could not allow a sworn enemy to hold such a strategic position.

In June 1535, three hundred ships sailed from Sardinia, carrying thirty thousand men. Led by Charles himself, they laid siege to La Goletta, a fortress on the mouth of the Tunis harbor. After twenty-four days of strong Turkish resistance, the Knights of St. John breached the walls with a gun from one of their massive galleons.

The Spaniards and Italians then pressed on to Tunis, and Barbarossa prepared to hold them off. He neglected to consider, however, that the city still held thousands of Christian slaves. The prisoners revolted, seized the armory, and attacked the Turks from inside the walls. Barbarossa fled, and Charles entered the city with minimal fighting.

Once inside, the emperor authorized his troops to sack the city. The Christian troops went on a three-day spree of atrocities, raping and murdering many thousands of people. They sold as many as ten thousand Moors into slavery. Tunis’s mosques were desecrated and its treasures looted.

Charles manned La Goletta with a Christian garrison and restored Mulay Hassan as his vassal in Tunis.


Most of Barbarossa’s ships had been captured in the lake of Tunis, but he had set aside a reserve at Bone in Algeria. He instantly set sail, not to Tunis or Algiers but to the Spanish Balearic Islands, the last place he was expected. Flying Spanish and Italian colors, his ships were hailed as the triumphant Christian fleet. Having caught the city off-guard, Barbarossa proceeded to sack Minorca, carrying off much treasure and thousands of slaves.

The emperor had no leisure to retaliate. French king Francis I, having made an alliance with Barbarossa and Suleiman I, attacked Italy and set off the second Franco-Hapsburg war. Charles, mad with rage that Francis had negotiated with the Muslims, challenged the king of France to a personal duel. Francis, unsurprisingly, declined.

Barbarossa died in 1546, having scourged the Christian Mediterranean for over forty years. After his death and the decline of Ottoman sea power, the Muslim corsairs began operating out of semi-autonomous North African city-states. The Barbary States, as they were known, inflicted such damage on Western shipping that most major powers paid them a “tribute” to protect their trade. This continued for hundreds of years, until the fledgling United States trounced the pirates in the Barbary Wars of 1801 and 1815.

Malta, 1565

In the mid-sixteenth century, determined once and for all to destroy the Knights of St. John, Suleiman I set his armies upon their fortress at Malta. The defenders managed to beat back the Ottomans in one of the most famous sieges in the history of warfare.

Causus Belli

In 1551, Ottoman privateer Turgut Reis attacked the Knights of St. John, a Catholic order of privateers dedicated to fighting Islam. He did not penetrate their fortress on Malta, but he did enslave the entire population of the nearby island of Gozo. A Christian force hoping to chase down Turgut found Ottoman admiral Piyale Pasha instead, who surprised and decimated the Christians off the coast of Tunisia.

Despite this setback, the Knights of Malta continued to savage Muslim military and civilian shipping. The knights never had more than seven ships, but those ships were impressively built and seldom lost. Their ranks also included some truly audacious seafarers, such as the dreaded Brother Romegas (c. 1525–1581). In 1654, this unusual monk captured a large Turkish merchantman, carrying eighty thousand ducats (gold coins) worth of merchandise. Romegas’s prisoners included the governor of Cairo, the governor of Alexandria, and the sultan’s favorite daughter’s nurse. The court at Istanbul stridently demanded vengeance, and Ottoman ruler Suleiman decided that he had suffered the Knights of St. John to live long enough.


Disguised as fishermen, Ottoman spies slipped into Malta and made detailed drawings of the fortifications, which Suleiman converted into a three-dimensional model at the palace. However, the knights also kept an espionage network in Istanbul, and their spymaster Giovan Barelli managed to relay detailed information on the attack back to Malta.

The Grand Master of Malta was Jean de Valette (1494–1568), a veteran of Rhodes and an old pirate who had spent years chained to a Turkish oar. At the age of seventy-one, he was still a force to be reckoned with. He immediately began raising troops, hoarding supplies, and building up the defenses.

Malta held around seven thousand fighters altogether, 546 of which were knights. Three fortresses guarded the capitol, Birgu: St. Elmo, at the mouth of the harbor; the main castle of St. Angelo; and St. Michael on the peninsula of Seneglea.

The Turkish invasion force appeared on May 18, 1565, around thirty thousand strong. Command was divided between Mustafa Pasha, Piyale Pasha, and Turgut Reis. After some squabbling, they decided on a direct assault on the harbor, believing that small St. Elmo would capitulate after a few days.

The Siege

However, the fortress proved tougher than expected. The massive Turkish guns soon destroyed its walls, but the Christian garrison—a few hundred men—held the defenses for more than three weeks. Under constant bombardment, exhausted, and massively outnumbered, they beat back wave after wave of manned assaults using flame weapons and grenades. When St. Elmo finally fell, the Turks had lost four thousand men, including Turgut Reis. The city of Birgu now came under steady bombardment, which would eventually kill thousands of civilians.

Furious at the costly delay, Mustafa massacred the defenders, disemboweled their officers, and floated the bodies towards St. Angelo. In response, de Valette killed his Turkish prisoners and shot their heads across the harbor.

On July 15, the Turks tackled Fort St. Michael. A hundred small boats approached over the harbor, while soldiers attacked by land. However, the knights had installed sea-level guns below St. Angelo, and these demolished the small fleet and drowned most of those aboard. Reinforced from Birgu, St. Michael drove back the attackers after a day of intense fighting.

On August 7, Mustafa staged another massive assault, breaching the walls and pouring into the city. Even the Grand Master left the fortress to fight in the streets. It seemed that Malta had fallen at last, but at that critical junction, a cavalry regiment charged from Mdina, a city in the center of the island. They fell on an Ottoman field hospital, butchering the sick and wounded within. The Turks believed that Italian reinforcements had arrived and so withdrew.

The Conflict Drags On

Another direct assault failed, so the engineers went to work. The Turks set mines; the Knights set countermines. The Turks built a bridge and a siege tower, both of which the defenders managed to destroy. The siege had devolved into a weary stalemate.

By September, the Turks were thoroughly demoralized. Disease had run rampant in their camp through the punishing African summer, and the rains had begun, rendering their gunpowder arquebuses useless. Supply lines stretched thin across the sea, and the army was starving. They had lost over twenty thousand men; the Janissaries had mutinied. The Turks had already begun to withdraw when reinforcements finally arrived from Sicily. However, after a brief rout at St. Paul’s Bay on September 11, the remaining Ottomans fled.

The victory was much celebrated in Christendom. Money poured in to rebuild Malta, which had lost a third of its people. It was widely believed, then and now, that the knights’ grim defense forestalled an Ottoman invasion of Europe.

Lepanto, October 7, 1571

In this naval engagement, a Christian fleet confronted the Ottoman navy at Lepanto off the Greek coast. In the pitched battle that followed, Western Europe temporarily decimated the sultan’s sea power.


Sixteenth century Europe was a chaotic place, deeply divided both politically and religiously. Sultan Suleiman I, a masterful politician, took full advantage of the Christian disunity. By his death in 1566, he had conquered Hungary and had established the Ottoman Empire as masters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Though far less subtle than his father, Suleiman’s son Selim II “the Drunk” pursued the same expansionist policies. To that end, he built up a huge fleet at Lepanto, on the Gulf of Patras. From there Turkish galleys launched raids against the coastal states of southern Italy, threatening Venice and Rome itself.

The Venetians had traditionally placated the sultan, preferring to trade with the Turks than to fight them. However, when the Ottomans seized Cyprus from them in 1570, Venice turned to their traditional enemies—Genoa, Spain, and the papacy—for help.

Responding to Venice’s plea, Pope Pius V (1503—1572) sent out a general call to Catholic Europe to unite and defend the faith. Catholic Spain, Venice, Tuscany, Savoy, Rome, and the Knights of Malta answered with ships, forming the so-called Holy League. All told, the fleet contained more than two hundred galleys.

In October, news came that the Famagusta fortress on Cyprus had surrendered to the Turks. The Ottomans had promised safe conduct to the defenders, a promise they rescinded once inside. A general slaughter followed; the heads of the Venetian lords were displayed on the street, and the Christian commander was flayed alive.

Horrified, the Holy League decided to make directly for Lepanto, where the entire Ottoman fleet had gathered under the command of Ali Pasha. On October 7, 1571, the two forces met in a massive sea engagement.


The exact numbers of galleys involved is not certain, though it seems that the Muslims slightly outnumbered the Christians. Both fleets arranged themselves in a crescent formation, and both held a small reserve force a distance behind.

The Holy League attacked first. In the front of the Christian line, commander Don Juan of Austria placed six giant galleasses. These ships were ungainly, but could each throw 326 pounds of ordnance in a broadside (an ordinary galley could typically fire ninety pounds).

The galleasses initially inflicted serious losses on the Muslim formation. Nonetheless, the Ottoman north wing managed to outflank their Christian counterparts, who took serious damage. The south wings also clashed violently, and initially the Turks had the best of it. Thereafter the battle devolved into a confused free-for-all. Savage hand-to-hand fighting erupted as galleys closed and boarded one another.

In the center, Don Juan’s flagship the Real charged directly at Ali Pasha’s flagship the Sultana. After a bloody struggle, Ali was killed and beheaded. The crucifix standard was hoisted on the Ottoman flagship, striking a serious blow to Muslim morale.

The battle raged for over six hours before the last surviving Ottoman admiral, Uluj Ali, salvaged what he could and sailed away. Before he withdrew, he set upon the flagship of the Knights of Malta, killing all but one of its crew.


Uluj Ali bore no good news back to Constantinople. Only around forty of the Turks’ galleys had escaped. The Christians seized over a hundred Ottoman ships; the rest were sunk or destroyed. Up to thirty thousand Muslims had been killed or captured. In his fury, the enraged sultan demanded a slaughter of all Venetians and Spaniards in Istanbul, but eventually his ministers managed to change his mind.

The Holy League had lost seventeen ships and around eight thousand men. Indeed, in terms of manpower they ended with more than they started, since they freed more than fifteen thousand Christian galley slaves.

When the news reached the Western world, Europe went wild with rejoicing. Don Juan was feted extravagantly as the defender of Christendom. The immoderate praise excited jealousy—accusations of vanity and ambition would haunt him for the rest of his life.

The victory at Lepanto greatly excited Western imagination and has inspired numerous painters and poets over the years. Novelist Miguel de Cervantes fought in the battle and described it as “the greatest day’s work we have seen done in centuries.”

The Holy League owed its victory to many factors, the most evident of these being superior gunnery. Not only did Western cannon have a longer range, but their guns could be pointed down to target enemy ships below the water line. At the same time, Western hulls were armored with brass and harder to penetrate.

The Ottoman navy began rebuilding at a frenzied pace, and they were soon menacing the North African shore once more. Nevertheless, Lepanto proved a decisive psychological victory for the West, whose technology was steadily advancing beyond the Turks’.

Vienna, 1683

In 1683, the Ottoman army once more bore down on Vienna, which the Ottoman sultan Suleiman had failed to take in 1529. A Christian coalition force rode to the city’s defense and decisively turned back the Turks at the Battle of Kahlenberg on September 12.

The Koprulus

After the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire underwent a long period of stagnation. Turkish government officials slowly became corrupt, perhaps taking their example from a string of weak, decadent, and mentally ill sultans. The Janissaries’ power increased, while their allegiance to the throne waned—in 1622 they went so far as to assassinate Sultan Osman II.

The Ottomans underwent a brief resurgence during the reign of Mehmed IV (1642—1693). Mehmed himself had little to do with it—the sultan chiefly concerned himself with hunting—but his extraordinary grand viziers Mehmed Koprulu and Fazil Ahmed Koprulu once more pushed the boundaries of the Turkish Empire. In 1663, Ahmed led the army into Hungary, where he won a series of battles until he was pushed back at the Battle St. Gotthard. Despite the defeat, the campaign did not end in disaster; the harassed Austrians agreed to a twenty-year truce, upholding Ottoman rule in most of Hungary.

By the time the truce expired, Grand Vizier Kara “Black” Mustafa (1634–1683) had risen to power. What Kara lacked in military talent, he made up for in ambition and personal cruelty. Taking advantage of a Hungarian revolt against Austria, in 1682 Mustafa persuaded the sultan to declare war on Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.

The Siege Begins

In April 1683, around 200,000 Ottomans cut a swatch across Austria, taking the fortress at Györ and the villages of Heinburg and Perchtoldsdorf before reaching the walls of Vienna in mid-July. Kara had permitted indiscriminate slaughter of the Austrian citizenry; now he mounted prisoners’ heads on pikes in view of the city.

To prepare for the upcoming assault, the Viennese demolished buildings outside their walls in order to better expose the Turks to the city’s guns. The city’s commander, Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg (1638–1701), defied Mustafa’s demands for surrender. With a garrison of eleven thousand men, Starhemberg held the defenses for almost two months.

Given the Turks’ numbers, even the most spirited defense could not have prevented them from sacking the city if they had attacked in force. However, Kara preferred a gradual approach. If his troops took the city, tradition demanded that they be allowed a three-day looting spree. In contrast, a negotiated surrender would give all of Vienna’s riches to the sultan, a much better arrangement for Mustafa.

Because of the difficulty of transportation, the Ottoman army carried only light artillery, which could not penetrate Vienna’s modern fortifications. Instead, the Turks employed sappers (engineers who dug trenches up to the city and laid mines under the walls). These succeeded in breaching the defenses several times, but in each case the Viennese threw up barricades and savagely defended them.

Nevertheless, by early September the garrison was desperate, starving, and exhausted. They were at the point of surrender when they saw smoke rising on the horizon, signaling that relief had come at last.

The Holy League

All the previous year, Leopold had tried to rally Christian Europe against the invasion. With the support of Pope Innocent XI, he had managed to persuade the German dukes of Bavaria, Saxony, and Lorraine to help him. Most significantly, he had entered into a defensive alliance with Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696), king of Poland. As Vienna labored under siege, the Christians assembled a multinational force of roughly sixty thousand to eighty thousand troops.

The Holy League, as they called themselves, crossed the Danube and took their places along Kahlenberg hill north of Vienna. In response, Kara redoubled his assaults on the city, determined to take the city before the newcomers were ready for a fight. An intense underground battle ensued between Turkish sappers and Austrian counterminers. Finally, a massive bomb broke the walls on the morning of September 12, but it came too late; at five o’clock that morning, Jan Sobieki’s troops had said mass and had begun to move.

Mustafa had failed to prepare for the relief force: the army had not entrenched, they were poorly deployed, and they had made no effort to prevent the enemy from reaching an advantageous position on the highlands. Once battle was joined, Mustafa compounded his error by splitting his forces. Unwilling to abandon the siege, he had his men fight on two sides at once.

The Austrians took the left wing by the river, the Germans formed the center, and the Polish cavalry swept down from the right. After hours of fighting, the Christians forced their way into the Ottoman camp, which scattered in panic. The Viennese garrison made a triumphant sortie; the Janissaries, caught between the two forces, were slaughtered in the trenches. By sunset the Turks were in full retreat. Startled by the quick victory and afraid of some trick, Sobieski did not order a pursuit until the next day.

Europe rejoiced, lionizing Sobieski, while Mehmed executed Mustafa for his failure. The battle marked the high tide of Ottoman expansion; never again would the Turks menace central Europe.

Zenta, September 11, 1697

In the late seventeenth century, an Austrian force led by Eugene of Savoy surprised and annihilated the Ottoman army at Zenta, effectively ending the Austro-Turkish War.

The Holy League

In 1683, a confederation of Christian powers rescued Vienna from an Ottoman siege. Catholic France abstained from this so-called Holy League; Paris had long allied itself with Constantinople against their mutual foe, Hapsburg Austria. The next year, however, the Treaty of Ratisbon temporarily ended hostilities between Louis XIV of France and the Holy Roman Empire. This allowed Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I to take offensive action against the Turks, which he did. The Holy League pushed the Turks out of Hungary and Transylvania, and in 1688 they retook Belgrade.

There the Christians’ advance slowed, since in 1689 the Austrians joined the Great Alliance against France. The ensuing conflict (called the War of the Grand Alliance, War of the League of Augsburg, and the Nine Years War) diverted troops away from the Turkish front.

The Caged Sultans

In its middle years, the wealthy Ottoman Empire suffered from the decadence of its leaders. For example, Murad III (1546–1595) so indulged in his harem that he sired over one hundred children. As a result, his son Mehmed III (1566–1603), in accordance with a common Turkish practice, was obliged to murder nineteen brothers when he took power.

Horrified, Mehmed’s successor Ahmed I (1590–1617) decided to change the policy of imperial fratricide. Thereafter, royal Ottoman males were locked in a kafe (cage), a secluded set of rooms in the Topkapi Palace. Only when—and if—they ascended to the throne could the princes experience the outside world.

As it turned out, this system did not produce particularly capable sultans. When Mehmed IV was deposed in 1687, he was replaced by his brother Suleiman II (1642–1691), who at the age of forty-five had spent thirty-nine years in the kafe. Thrust onto the throne with no training whatsoever, the poor confused man died four years later. A third brother, Ahmed II (1643–1695), had been caged forty-three years; he also survived only four years.

Ahmed’s nephew, Mustafa II (1664–1703), proved of more vigorous stock. Determined to restore the sultanate to its former glory, he insisted on personally leading the army against the Austrians. Despite his total inexperience in military matters, Mustafa’s enthusiasm met initial success: the Ottomans took several fortresses and drove the Austrians out of Temesvar (in Romania).

Turkey rejoiced at their sultan’s victories, but they were not to last. Unfortunately, Mustafa’s next campaign pitted him against one of the great military minds of their time, Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736).


Eugene was a younger son of French nobility. Snubbed by Louis XIV as a young man, he fled his homeland to enlist with the Austrians. Leopold I gave him a commission in the defense of Vienna in 1683, where he distinguished himself. Eugene quickly advanced in rank and notoriety, and Napoleon would later call him one of the greatest commanders of all time.

In 1697, when Eugene looked over his Hungarian troops—his first independent command—he was not pleased. His 55,000 soldiers were exhausted, hungry, and poorly equipped. They had not been paid for months, and they had orders to remain on the defensive and to avoid unnecessary risks.

Eugene cleaned up the Imperial army as best he could, then set about hunting the Turks. The Ottomans avoided him, however, and instead moved to take Szeged (in present-day Hungary). From there, Mustafa decided to build a pontoon bridge and cross the Tisca River into Transylvania.

Having learned of their plans from a prisoner, the Austrians rode to intercept them on September 11. They achieved total surprise at an opportune moment, for the Ottoman army was halfway across the river. The sultan had crossed first; he waited on the left bank with most of the cavalry, artillery, and baggage. This left the grand vizier on the right bank with only the infantry.

Eugene hastily formed his troops into a crescent formation and fell on the stranded vizier. As the Turks tried to flee, the Austrian right wing rode through the shallow part of the river and cut off access to the bridge. Then they proceeded to slaughter the Ottoman army while their sultan watched helplessly from the opposite bank. Around twenty thousand Turks were cut down; another ten thousand drowned.

To the general acclaim of Europe, Eugene sent a huge booty back to Vienna: three million piasters (Turkish money), thousands of carts and camels, and the grand vizier’s seal of office. Then he went on to raid Bosnia and sack Sarajevo.

Mustafa returned despondent to Temesvar, his European army decimated. Luckily for him, the winter rains were beginning, and Leopold could not immediately press the victory. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Rijswijk was signed shortly afterwards, ending the war with France. Austria was now free to concentrate its efforts in the Balkans.

In 1699, the sultan agreed to the Peace of Karlowitz with Austria, Poland, Venice, and Russia. The Ottomans gave up control of almost all of Hungary and Transylvania, and ceded land to Poland and Venice.

Key Elements of Warcraft


No single factor contributed to the Ottomans’ success so much as their elite military corps, the Janissaries, a standing army of formerly Christian slaves.

The word Janissary means “new soldier.” It seems that they were first organized under Sultan Murad I in the fourteenth century. Initially the corps recruited European boys captured in battle. By 1383, however, the Empire instituted the devsirme; once every five years or so, the Janissaries collected boys from the age of eleven to eighteen from the Christian subject provinces. (At first the selection was made randomly, but later they took the best looking and the most promising.) It is estimated up to 300,000 children were abducted before 1676.

The boys were brought back to Istanbul and placed for some years with a family. After they had adopted Turkish culture, language, and religion, the brightest candidates were sent to serve in the palace. Others moved to the Janissary barracks, where they underwent strict military training. Cut off from family, forbidden to marry, and forbidden any other work, the Janissaries developed an intense esprit de corps, a samurai-like code of personal bravery and fanatic loyalty to the sultan.

Most of the Janissary soldiers came from the Balkans or from Greece. Islamic law forbade the enslavement of a Muslim, so native Turks could not join. Nor could the Janissaries’ sons, since they were born Muslim—this system prevented the rise of a hereditary class.

Those collected by the devsirme were called “slaves of the gate,” but their situation cannot be compared to other forms of slavery. The Janissaries held prestige and often power. Many grew rich from plunder, and some of them became high government officials.

Professional Soldiers

The Janissaries were a standing army, a rarity for the times. In the thirteenth century, most European states levied their peasants or hired swordsman in times of war. Conscriptions were of poor quality and mercenaries of questionable loyalty. Small wonder, then, that the Christians stood little chance. When it came to warfare, the Janissaries literally had nothing else to do.

For centuries, the Janissaries threw down fortresses and kingdoms, virtually undefeated. However, their very strength proved problematic for their masters. Their support was indispensable in the bloody business of succession; most sultans were thus in their debt. Nor did they hesitate to depose a ruler who stood in their way.

In this way, the Janissaries virtually controlled the sultanate by the sixteenth century. In 1566 they demanded the right to marry legally, and soon their sons were admitted. Native Turks, also, could buy commissions. All of this distracted the soldiers’ attention from the battlefield, and before long the Ottomans’ military prowess began to decline.

In 1622, Sultan Osman II tried to rectify the situation, proposing to create a more loyal native Turkish army. The Janissaries promptly revolted. They strangled the sultan and brought Mustafa I (1592–1639) back to the throne.

By the early nineteenth century, the Ottoman military had fallen behind Europe in terms of military power, and Sultan Selim III (1761–1808) made another desperate effort at reform. But the Janissaries, too deeply invested in their privileges, blocked the attempt. In 1807, Selim was deposed and killed one year later.

The Janissaries promoted Mustafa IV (1779–1808) to the throne. However, Selim’s cousin Mahmud II (1785–1839) raised support and took power a year later. Mahmud was in no humor to tolerate the Janissaries’ tantrums. He set to work forming a new army, and when the Janissaries inevitably rose in protest he had them slaughtered en masse by burning them alive in their barracks. The Turks, who by this time loathed the Janissaries, called the event “the Auspicious Day.”


Gunpowder weapons were first introduced to the West in the thirteenth century, resulting in a frenzied arms race throughout Europe and the Middle East. The cannons developed during this time completely changed the face of modern warfare.

The Black Powder

In 1249, English alchemist Roger Bacon recorded a recipe for a volatile combination of carbon, sulfur, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). Mixed in the correct proportions and subjected to a flame, the powder exploded with dramatic effect. The discovery certainly did not originate with him—he writes of “a child’s toy of sound and fire made in various parts of the world” that “can make such a noise that it seriously distresses the ears of men.”

In fact, the Chinese had used gunpowder in fireworks since well before the eleventh century. The knowledge gradually spread across the Middle East before reaching the far West. While the Mongols probably used some forms of gunpowder weapons, it was the Europeans who would fully exploit the invention’s potential for violence.

The earliest recorded use of cannon dates to 1324, at the siege of Metz in northern France. Shaped like a giant tilted vase, the cannon shot a bolt-like projectile. In 1326 the city of Florence commissioned some “cannons of metal” to defend the city walls.

From these simple beginnings, gunpowder weapons underwent a rapid evolution, as kingdoms everywhere scrambled to outdo each other. Initially, bell founders cast small cannon in lightweight bronze, but a burgeoning cannon industry soon developed iron models. Bolt projectiles were replaced by giant stones, and then by cheaper cast iron cannonballs.

The new technology completely revolutionized siege warfare. With cannon, fortresses previously thought to be nigh-impregnable could be taken within a month. Ancient castles and towns had to completely redesign their fortifications. It was not an easy task—cannon could not be effectively mounted on existing fortifications because the recoil would damage medieval walls. Engineers had to cut gun ports into the sides of the fortress to effectively target the besieging army.

On the attacking side, trebuchets and battering rams declined in importance. In their place, gargantuan cannons called bombards became popular among those who could afford them. Manned by teams of as many as twenty men, they hurled enormous stones a great distance, and it was said that their noise alone could demoralize the enemy.

Field Cannon

Before long, the enormous cannons began to shrink again. Lighter, wagon-mounted guns were developed that could be carried onto the battlefield. These guns were dangerous even for their handlers; small imperfections in the barrel could cause them to explode with deadly consequence. Nevertheless, the Hussites used field cannon to great success in the fifteenth century. When deploying their troops, they would circle the gun carts into an impromptu armed fortress called a Wagenburg, which could be held against an enemy charge.

Cannon leveled the battlefield, just as it leveled castle walls. Previously, war casualties reflected the iniquities of the feudal class system. The nobility—mounted, trained in personal combat, and sporting heavy armor—stood a far better chance of survival than the levied peasant foot soldiers. In the gunpowder age, death was more democratic, and victory favored those who invested in technology.

The Ottoman Arsenal

The most famous of the early bombards was cast for Mehmed II by one of the most renowned cannon-smiths of the age, a Hungarian engineer named Urban. When the beleaguered Byzantine Emperor could not afford his services, Urban applied to the Ottoman court. The sultan took a modern approach to warfare, poring over manuals on siege techniques and consulting with military experts from all around the world.

Urban’s first task was to arm the sultan’s new fortress at Boghaz Kesen guarding the straits of the Bosphorus. The gun was finished in three months and passed its first test with flying colors, sinking a Venetian ship that refused to pay the Ottoman toll.

Delighted, Mehmed asked for an even larger gun, to be used on the walls of Constantinople in 1453. This monster gun, nicknamed “Basilica” by the Turks, measured twenty-six feet long and eight inches across, and could throw a 12,000-pound stone over a mile.

Mehmed had to level the roads to carry Basilica into battle. Because of its great weight the barrel cooled slowly, and it could only be fired six times in a day. Nevertheless, it was this great gun, combined with the rest of the Ottomans’ smaller artillery, which eventually broke through the city’s defenses.

The Ottomans continued to acquire the most recent weaponry for their armies, and their armies’ success meant that they could afford to do so. Advanced artillery ensured the sultan’s victory over the Persians and the Mamluks in the sixteenth century.

However, with the exploitation of the New World, Europe’s economy (and therefore its armaments) began to surpass the Turks. Superior batteries contributed to the Holy League’s victory over the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571 and at Vienna in 1683.

Small Firearms

After the introduction of gunpowder, medieval Europe and the Ottoman Empire quickly embraced cannons and field artillery. More slowly but just as inexorably, they also developed handheld gunpowder weapons. Just as cannons revolutionized siege warfare, small firearms changed the face of the battlefield.

The Arms Race

The Chinese first invented firearms sometime in the thirteenth century. It is suspected that the weapons traveled through the Mongols and the Turks before reaching the European courts. For the most part, Asian and African nations did not much develop their own guns. Rather, they tended to copy the most recent firearm design from the West, where centuries of warfare constantly refined the process.

Weapon technology spread in a variety of ways. For instance, the victors in a battle usually captured some of the enemy’s weapons. More commonly, the technology was bought or traded in exchange for help against a common foe. In order to keep the Turks busy, for example, renaissance Christians gave guns to the Persians. Later, the Ottomans armed the Uzbeks against the Russians.

Handheld firearms appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century (the first reference to a “hand gonne” is found in a 1388 English document), but for a long time they were not very popular, having neither the accuracy nor the range of a bow. A good archer could fire ten arrows a minute, while a gunner needed several minutes to reload a primitive gun. Furthermore, early guns were so heavy that the soldier had to carry a forked metal stand to hold the barrel up.

Nevertheless, handheld firearms gradually pushed their way into the renaissance arsenal. After all, it took years to produce a good archer—gunners could be rapidly trained, poorly paid, easily sacrificed, and quickly replaced.

Lock, Stock, and Barrel

As demand grew, handheld firearms underwent a rapid and comprehensive evolution, gradually becoming more effective. Early gun butts were originally straight and held to the chest, as a result of which the recoil often knocked over the gunner. In Germany they began to manufacture bent stocks, which could be rested against the shoulder. Such a gun came to be known as an arquebus (derived from a French word for “hook.”)

The name may equally have derived from the arquebus’ curved firing mechanism, the matchlock. Previous to its invention, soldiers had fired their guns by touching a lit match into the flash pan to ignite the gunpowder. This process required holding the heavy weapon with one hand, which made it difficult to aim. A matchlock arquebus, on the other hand, sported an S-shaped lever with a burning match on one end. When the trigger was pulled, the lever snapped down on the flash pan and fired the shot. A gunner could hold an arquebus with both hands and sight his target along the barrel. On the other hand, the lever match had to burn constantly, so arquebusses could not function well in the rain.

These deficiencies were addressed by the wheel-lock, with an intricate clock-like mechanism, and then by the cheaper flintlock, which created a spark by striking a piece of flint. These weapons did not smoke, so the enemy could not find their location as easily.

Barrels grew lighter as metalworking techniques improved. Sometime in the fifteenth century, gun manufacturers learned to score a spiral on the insides of a barrel—a process called rifling. This gave the ball spin and greater accuracy. Snipers used rifles from a distance, while the average foot soldier carried the cheaper smoothbore musket.

The Gunpowder Battlefield

The flintlock musket, which could put a lead bullet through plate armor a hundred yards away, swept all earlier technologies from the battlefield. Swords, halberds, crossbows, and longbows all gradually gave way to the musketeer. Only the pike remained for a while, deployed in front of the gunmen to protect them against a charge. Later, even the pike would be combined into the firearm in the form of a bayonet.

By the seventeenth century, a musket could be fired once in two minutes. Given their range, this afforded only one volley against an oncoming cavalry charge. Nevertheless, a large enough artillery volley would usually beat back the horses. The age of cavalry had begun to decline, giving way to the infantry.

Given the slowness and inaccuracy of firearms, the size of the infantry was of vital importance. Before long, standing armies swelled in size throughout Europe. Arming and feeding so many soldiers could strain a kingdom’s treasury, so from that point on, the nation with the strongest economy had an overwhelming advantage in war.


Piracy, defined as robbery on the high seas, has existed ever since man first ventured onto those seas. The sixteenth century gave the old story a twist; governments decided to harness pirates as a branch of the military. Kings commissioned captains to plunder another country’s merchant shipping and seaports. This “legitimized” pirate, now called a privateer, would (theoretically) leave his own countrymen in peace while he waged a kind of economic warfare against the enemy.


Some privateers, like Britain’s Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596), were recognized as heroes and given official positions in their national navies. Others were opportunist adventurers, almost as despised at home as they were abroad. Some, most notably the Knights of St. John, fought for religious rather than for political ideals, as did the famed Ottoman admirals Heyreddin Barbarossa, Turgus Reis, and Uluj Ali.

For sovereigns, privateering was appealing in that it was effective and cheap. Privateers earned their living from the ships they captured—their prizes. As plunder from the New World began to flow back to Europe, a privateer stood to become very wealthy indeed.

Contrary to legend, privateers were not interested only in gold bullion or pieces of eight. They could usually sell the prize ship herself to the regular navy, as well as all of the cargo. A lucrative human trade also existed. Privateers demanded enormous ransoms for wealthy prisoners. Others were not so lucky. Any Christian could be sold in the Muslim slave markets, and blacks of any faith fetched a high price in the Christian Americas. Both sides took thousands of galley slaves.

The Barbary States

A booming industry needs a place to do business. Christian privateers repaired to various fortified cities: La Rochelle in western France, Leghorn in Italy, and Valetta, which was founded on the ruins of Birgu on Malta. The Muslims likewise had their ports of call. The most important of these were located on the coast of the Mahgreb, the thinly populated desert of Northern Africa. There, the cities of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers began as vassals of the Turkish sultan, and their privateers fought on the western front of his war against the Hapsburgs.

Algiers, in particular, became the quintessential buccaneer port, providing a thriving market in stolen goods, slaves, prostitutes, ships, and weapons. Not only Turks, but renegade Christians joined the city’s taife reisi (corsair’s guild).

Privateering was ultimately a business venture, and a big one. Between 1560 and 1565, Barbary corsairs all but shut down mercantile shipping to Italy and Greece. Having cleared those waters, they attacked the coast of France, despite that country’s formal alliance with the Ottoman Empire.

The pattern of independence continued as time went on. In fact, after 1580 Constantinople exerted little actual control. When the Ottomans signed a truce with the Spanish in 1581, the Barbary States paid no attention whatsoever. After all, war against the infidel was the foundation of their economies.

Thus the Barbary privateers continued to ply their trade until the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is estimated that in their three hundred years of operation, they enslaved anywhere from one to two million Christians. In 1631, a Barbary raid carried away almost every person in the village of Baltimore in Ireland.

So successful were the Barbary States that European countries often found it easier to pay a “tribute” than to fight the corsairs. By 1700, the British, French, and Dutch had treaties in place to protect their maritime trade. These treaties actually gave them a significant advantage over the weaker nations, who did not have the muscle to enforce any agreements. In other words, the great Christian naval powers came to use the Barbary as privateers against their economic rivals.

One such rival was the fledgling United States, who paid tribute to Tripoli from 1799 to 1801. However, Thomas Jefferson refused to submit to the humiliation and refused the payment. In response, the ruler of Tripoli declared war. From 1801 to 1815, the United States, with their newly formed Marine Corps, fought and defeated the Barbary pirates on “the shores of Tripoli.” Shortly afterwards, Europe would force Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers to abandon piracy as a way of life.

Impact of the Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire

No dynasty as long and powerful as the Ottoman Empire could fail to leave a mark on world history. Osman’s legacy is varied and complex.

Arguably, the Turks made their greatest impact in the art of war. Their standing Janissary army inspired awe from all quarters, not only for their ferocity but for their iron discipline, professional leadership, and up-to-date technology. The Ottomans were also among the first to employ massive artillery in siege warfare. The early sultans invested in their military in payment, in training, in prestige, and in equipment. Europe, after enduring repeated drumming from their “barbarian” neighbors, learned this lesson the hard way.

From their earliest days, the Turks considered themselves the vanguard of Islam’s holy war against the infidel. They were unapologetically aggressive, and for centuries, Christendom justly feared them. While it is true that the Janissaries cut a path of atrocities through Eastern Europe, they were no worse than Christian armies in that regard.

Culturally, the Ottomans were in many ways progressive. Compared to the excesses of the Inquisition, the Ottomans were fairly tolerant of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions within their borders. Their complex code of law was much admired. Rather perversely, their extensive slave system gave rise to a true meritocracy; positions were not granted out of nepotism, as in Europe, but often given to the best slave for the job.

At her zenith, Turkey was the virtual center of the civilized world, where emissaries from India and Persia rubbed elbows with envoys from Italy, Spain, and England. The genius of many nations flowed through Istanbul—Persian poetry, Arab philosophy and science, and Chinese technology. The Ottomans even preserved the dying echoes of ancient Rome and Byzantium. European culture also heavily influenced the Ottomans. This was in part due to their many Christian slaves, who occasionally became high officials in the sultan’s court or favored wives in his harem.

Politically the Ottomans played their part in the tangled game that was European politics: installing puppet rulers in the Balkans, siding with the French against the Austrians, and financing the Protestants against the Catholics. Even the Barbary pirates, only nominally under the sultan’s banner, participated in the ever-shifting web of alliances. The Christian nations may have misunderstood and maligned Turkey, but they respected her as a world power.

The West advanced in part because they learned from the Ottomans; the Ottomans declined largely because they failed to learn from the West. Their navy ruled the Mediterranean but did not venture far beyond it, so they missed out on the riches of the New World. Confident in their cultural superiority, the sultan’s court paid little heed to rumblings of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, and they soon found themselves scientifically and philosophically behind the times.

In the meantime, traditional Ottoman institutions crumbled. The military grew restless and corrupt, while nepotism and bribery ran rampant in the bureaucracy. The new sultans, freed from the Darwinian selection of compulsory fratricide, ranged from weak-willed incompetents to the mentally ill.

The implosion of the Ottoman Empire was to have long-lasting effects. Serbia and Bulgaria broke free of Turkish control in 1877, creating a power vacuum. This led to “the Eastern Question,” as Austria, Russia, and Balkan nationalists strove to exert their influence in the region. Their bickering catalyzed the bloodbath of World War I.

Finally, old resentments still linger in the long memories of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Serbians referenced the Ottoman oppression during the Kosovo Wars in the 1990s, and Muslims speak bitterly of ancient and present-day crusaders. Some people fear that the clash of civilizations between Christendom and Islam—fought for so long, and so hard, and to so little purpose—has yet to resolve itself.

Lord Kinross. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: Marrow Quill, 1977.

Newman, Andrew J. Safavid Iran: Rebirth of a Persian Empire. New York: I.B. Taurus and Co., 2006.

De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History “The Battle of Kosovo: Early Reports of Victory and Defeat” <(Accessed July 2, 2007).