Candia under siege
The city of Candia with its fortifications, 1651
The Ottoman royal line seemed like a Juggernaut against the fractured and random genealogies of the other servants of the empire, but there were other families, all the same. The descendants of the Prophet’s sister were all known as emirs, and were entitled to wear distinctive green turbans. They were allowed to be judged, but not punished, by men. They remained, Cantemir tells us, ‘Men of the greatest Gravity, Learning and Wisdom’ until they turned forty, when they would become ‘if not quite Fools, yet they discover some sign of levity and stupidity.’ The descendants of the vizier who had concealed news of Mehmet I’s death, working his corpse like a puppet, enjoyed the title of khan, and resolutely kept away from affairs of state ‘for fear of losing everything. They have greatest honours paid them by the Sultan, who visits them twice a year, eats with them, and lets them visit him, when he will rise a little from his seat and say peace be with you, and even ask them to sit down.’
Out in the provinces lived descendants of the old chieftains who had spearheaded the invasions. As late as the nineteenth century Muslim landowners in the valley of the Vistritza, surrounded by feudal retainers, claimed that their lands had been in the possession of their ancestors for more than six hundred years, perhaps as a result of a politic change of faith. In many ulema families, traditions of learning and piety had been handed down from father to son for generations. Endowments were often managed by the descendants of the founder: the gatekeeper at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for example, remains to this day a descendant of the Muslim appointed to the office in 1135, and may say that his family has seen the Ottomans come and go. Above all the Girays, traditional khans of the Crimean Tartars, had the blood of Genghis in their veins and were, by persistent report, heirs to the empire if the Ottoman line should fail.
Family loyalties had always existed among the kapikullari, in spite of the slave theory. Suleyman’s young Grand Vizier, Ibrahim, looked after an old Greek sailor who often arrived roaring drunk outside his house. Ibrahim would lead him home, the handsome, smooth-shaven youth, counsellor to the foremost sovereign of Islam, shepherding his drunken old father through the streets of Constantinople. People thought well of him for it, and made no effort to see in the younger man the faults of his father, for they did not hold much by heredity, having proved again and again how carefully selected men could be trained to the pitch of perfection. Family bonds could be carried too far. Suleyman’s last Grand Vizier, Sokullu, was a Serb by birth; he did much to preserve the Sultan’s mystique by keeping alive the memory of Suleyman’s grandeur through the reign of the jovial and worthless Selim the Sot, and into that of his successor; but he was an arrant nepotist, and went so far as to create a Serbian patriarchate for the benefit of a relative. People remembered this when Sokullu was assassinated in 1579 on his way to the council chamber, and they thought it on the whole a just reward.
In the seventeenth century the pressure to admit the sons of slaves into palace service became irresistible. In 1638 the boy tribute was formally abandoned, and a few years later, in the 1650s, the empire acquired a sobriquet, such as Venice – La Serenissima – enjoyed, or the possibly ironic La Humillima, ‘Most Humble’, by which the Knights of Malta chose to designate their irreducible presence in Valetta. From now on she was known as Baba Ali, or ‘High Gate’, La Sublime Porte. The new name indicated, perhaps, that the Ottomans were settling to the Mediterranean world; but it marked a shift in the balance of power, too, from the Sultan himself, the Grand Turk, to his more anonymous officials, for the Gate in question was in fact the residence of the Grand Vizier. With the boy tribute formally abandoned the way was cleared for the establishment of dynasties; and for fifty years after 1656 the government was controlled by the most famous dynasty of the lot, so sure of itself that one of its members went so far as to contemplate the destruction of the Ottoman line as a means of renovating the flagging energies of the empire.
Its founder was one of the very last tribute boys, and his career to 1656 was a traditional one. By shrewd alliances and steady service in both Constantinople and the provinces he had reached the position of governor of Tripoli. By the age of seventy-one Ahmet Koprulu was living ‘a private and stoical life at Constantinople, in expectation of even the smallest Bashalic. Indeed he enjoyed the name and honour of a Basha’, but he had few friends in the capital. He was not rich. He found it hard to keep up the retinue expected of a pasha of his rank, and avoided public appearances.
Only death could free the Kapikulu from his duty of obedience. In 1656 the summons came from the Valide Sultan Turhan, mother of the young Mehmet IV. For the past eight years, grand viziers had followed one another in rapid succession as the factions jostled for position and the office became sacrificial – fourteen grand viziers rolled over as first Kösem and then, after her murder in 1651, Turhan herself clung to the reins of power. The Venetians, in defence of Crete, were blockading the Dardanelles. Shipping was at a standstill and the link with Egypt – commands from the Porte, and grain from the Nile – was broken. On 4 March 1656 the army in Constantinople revolted over pay – further debasement of the coinage was one consequence of the political friability – and demanded the heads of thirty high officials. Turhan gave way, and the unfortunate men were hanged at the gate of the Blue Mosque.
In desperation, Turhan turned to Ahmet Koprulu. Before accepting the position of Grand Vizier, Koprulu demanded written guarantees that the Sultan would not listen to any court gossip and that no one would countermand any order he might give. Turhan surrendered her regency to him, and the young Sultan Mehmet left Constantinople for the freer atmosphere of Edirne, where he and his successors were to remain for fifty years. Koprulu promptly demonstrated his grim efficiency by executing the pasha who had abandoned Tenedos to the Venetians, suppressing the spahi revolt and purging the corps. But he also beat the Venetian fleet, broke the blockade of the Dardanelles and allowed a return to Tenedos and Limnos. The rebellious George II Rakci, Prince of Transylvania, was summarily replaced by a more amenable ruler.
Evliya Celebi’s patron, Melek Pasha, was governor of a Black Sea province at the time, and he soon received a letter. ‘It is true’, Koprulu wrote, ‘that we, were raised together in the imperial harem, and are both protégés of Sultan Murad IV. Nevertheless, be informed from this moment that if the accursed Cossacks pillage and burn any one of the villages and towns on the coast of Ozu province, I swear by God Almighty that I will give you no quarter and will pay no heed to your righteous character, but I will cut you into pieces, as a warning to the world. Be wary therefore, and guard the coasts. And exact the tribute of grain from every district, according to the imperial command, in order that you may feed the army of Islam.’
Melek had suffered a brief spell as Grand Vizier himself. Consequently he was not at all offended by the tone of the letter, it rather buoyed him up. Koprulu, he reminded Evliya, ‘is not like other Grand Viziers. He has seen much of the hot and cold of fate, suffered much from poverty and penury, distresses and vicissitudes, has gained much experience from campaigning and he knows the way of the world. True he is wrathful and contentious. If he can get rid of the segban vermin in the Anatolian provinces, restore the currency, remove the arrears, and undertake overland campaigns – then I am certain that he will bring order to the Ottoman state. For as you know,’ Melek added mildly, ‘breaches have occurred here and there in this Ottoman state.’
In 1665 Koprulu sent the first ever Ottoman ambassador to Vienna, marching into the infidel city under a forest of standards and banners, to the sound of kettledrums and to the consternation of the people. Koprulu was convinced that the breaches could be repaired if only the empire could recapture the military manner, which Koprulu, and others, saw as the real cause of the empire’s former success.
In the 1640s when Sultan Ibrahim launched his crazed search for ambergris, and furs, two men in the empire dared to cross him. One was a judge in Pera who, dressed as a dervish, declared: ‘You may do three things: kill me – and I shall die a martyr; banish me – there have been earthquakes here recently; or fire me – but I resign.’ The other was a soldier, a janissary colonel adored by his 500 men, who had served in the longest and most bitter siege, of Candia, the capital of Crete, that the Ottomans ever conducted. Black Murad was met off the boat by a treasury official demanding amber, furs and money. He rolled his eyes, ‘bloodshot with wrath’. ‘I have brought nothing back from Candia but gunpowder and lead,’ he thundered. ‘Sables and amber are things I know only by name. Money have I none and, if I am to give it to you, I must first beg or borrow it.’ He escaped a ruse to murder him, and was apparently instrumental in the deposition of the Sultan.
Men like these were Koprulu’s natural allies. Many of the abuses he attacked so vigorously were symptomatic of changes over which he had no control, but the terrible old man took them for the cause, and went about rooting them out with murderous energy and application. He was remembered, not as subtle or farsighted, but as a stern traditionalist, whose notions of reform were fierce and corrective. Fiscally rigorous, he controlled expenditure and regularised tax income so that the soldiers received their pay in full, and even on time, and when he died, at eighty-five, in 1669, the empire’s books were very nearly balanced.
The Venetians in 1644 had allowed a Maltese fleet with Ottoman prizes to anchor off the southern shore of Crete. They had received a boy captured by the Knights of Malta on board the flagship of the pilgrimage fleet, supposed by the knights to be the Sultan’s son.* Ibrahim, mad as ever, was all for going against Malta; but his advisers suggested Crete itself, to be taken by surprise. Venetian apologies for the error were graciously received, and a fleet which left the Dardanelles on 30 April 1645 sailed with the avowed object of taking Malta from the knights. Surprise was a dependable weapon in the Ottoman arsenal; when once asked where the army was headed, Mehmet II himself had replied: ‘If a hair of my beard knew my schemes, I would pluck it out.’
The Venetians were old hands at the game, and not easily duped. For over two hundred years they had been shuffling diplomacy with war, and in the slow war of attrition they seldom overplayed their hand. They had beefed up the Cretan garrisons, and raised the militia. The Ottomans soon overran the entire island nonetheless, reaching the walls of Candia in July 1645. Here the Venetians resolved to make a stand; and they stood so redoubtably that a generation passed without the Ottomans being able to take the citadel. In 1648 a Venetian fleet imposed a blockade on the Dardanelles. The military humiliation which called forth Ahmet Koprulu also sealed Sultan Ibrahim’s fate. ‘Traitor!’ he cried to the men who came to announce his deposition. ‘Am I not your Padishah?’ ‘Thou art not Padishah, for as much as thou hast set justice and holiness at nought, and hast ruined the world. Thou hast squandered thy years in folly and debauchery; the treasures of the realm in vanities; and corruption and cruelty have governed the world in thy place. You have made yourself unworthy, by leaving the path in which your ancestors walked,’ their leader retorted. Several days before the fatwa allowing Ibrahim’s execution was issued by the Mufti, a few hours before sunset on 8 August 1648, the principal dignitaries of the empire paid homage to Sultan Mehmet IV – a few admitted at a time lest a crowd should frighten the eight-year-old boy.
The Candian siege dragged on, through the minority of the new Sultan, the appointment of Ahmet Koprulu in 1656, and the succession of his son as Grand Vizier. Fazil Ahmet, ‘Breaker of the Bells of the straying and blasphemous nations’, reined back the ferocity of his father’s rule, and gave the empire a decade of wise and mild leadership; he was able to spend three years between 1666 and 1669 personally conducting the siege, and running the empire at the same time. The Venetians had chosen to make Crete the proving ground for Venice’s desire to maintain the status of a great power, but when, in desperation, they tried to buy the Ottomans off, Fazil Ahmet answered curtly: ‘We are not moneydealers. We make war to win Crete.’
The beleaguered garrison hung on until their citadel was a termite nest. Volunteers came from all over Christendom; the Turks pressed the assault with brilliant engineering – a skill in which they excelled, until they forgot it entirely, and had to be retaught by the French in the nineteenth century the principles of parallel trenches which they themselves had invented. In the last three years of the war, 30,000 Turks and 12,000 Venetians were killed. There were 56 assaults and 96 sorties; both sides exploded exactly 1,364 mines each. But on 6 September 1669 Morosini – destined to be known as Morosini the Peloponnesian for his reconquest of the Greek peninsula – surrendered on honourable terms, and Crete became Ottoman.
It was, however, one of the last extensions of Ottoman power: the very last, perhaps, in the settled world. To the north, in that vastness of the expiring steppe north of the Black Sea, Poland, Russia and the empire struggled to master the Cossacks, and to enfold Podolia and the Ukraine in their own dominions; and here the Ottomans seemed at first successful. By 1676 they had forced the Poles, under their king, Jan Sobieski, to cede the entire region; the great fortress of Kaminiec was theirs, and the horsetails were planted in the black earth of the Ukraine; but Fazil Ahmet died three days after the treaty was signed. The Cossacks of the steppe brought their flirtation with the Ottomans to an end, more impressed with the efficiency of Russian arms. The vizierate passed to a protégé of the Koprulu family, Kara Mustafa, ‘Black Mustafa’, whose face had been disfigured in a city fire.
In June 1683 the war train paraded through the streets of Edirne, then headed upriver to Sofia and Belgrade. Carried along with it was the Sultan, Mehmet IV, a man more familiar with the pleasures of the chase than the arts of war. At Belgrade he stopped to hunt while his great army pressed on up the Danube, into the heart of Central Europe, under the command of Kara Mustafa, a man, in the words of a near contemporary, ‘no less valiant than wise; warlike and ambitious’. A Hungarian rebel had called for Ottoman aid; the Habsburgs seemed suspiciously eager for peace.
Kara Mustafa made the fateful decision at the outset of the campaign not to name his destination. Austria and Poland hurriedly promised to aid each other in the event of an attack. As soon as Ottoman troops crossed into Habsburg territory, the emperor requested Polish assistance.
In Vienna there was pandemonium. A Habsburg army sent forward to engage the Turks had rapidly retreated in the face of what seemed like a tidal wave of men. Perhaps a quarter of a million Ottoman soldiers had been amassed for this extraordinary campaign; and with them – around and before them, swelling their ranks and fanning out with terrifying effect – rode the Tartars who had joined the army of their overlord from their distant home in the Crimea. Everyone feared them, the Turks no less than the Christians; they looked after their own interests.