Suleyman the Magnificent and the Five Victories: Belgrade, Rhodes, Mohacs, Tabriz and Baghdad, 1520–36 Part II


The Ottomans did not follow up their decisive victory at [the battle of] Mohacs and advance further west.

Thus it was that, in 1526, the traditional invasion road that led into the Balkans was taken once again. Most such annual campaigns had culminated in the siege of some Danubian fortress town, but this year was to be different. For the Hungarian army composed of King Louis II, his bishops, magnates, nobles and knights, had advanced to give battle. At five in the afternoon a feint by Turkish cavalry drew a counter-attack from the massed ranks of heavily armoured Magyar nobles. The Turkish light cavalry then opened their ranks, so that the Hungarian knights charged straight into a prepared line of some three hundred Ottoman cannon, lined hub to hub, backed by several thousand janissaries. A large portion of the Magyar cavalry fell at the first cannonade. Within two hours the fighting was over. The Hungarian ruling class, all mounted up and clad in obsolete armour, was blown apart. It need not have happened, for the Hungarians were on the point of being reinforced by two experienced allies. Peter Frankopan was leading to their aid an army recruited from Croatia and Slovenia, as was John Zapolya, who was marching down from Transylvania.

The political vacuum caused by the slaughter of the Hungarian nobility on the field of Mohacs would take some six years to sort itself out. The Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand (Charles V’s younger brother) and Sultan Suleyman each tried to absorb chunks of the ancient kingdom of the Magyars. This dispute over Hungary would culminate in the Ottoman siege of Vienna, which still echoes through the European subconscious, although the essential truth was that the two opponents were geographically too far apart to do each other much damage. It took the Ottoman army four months to march from Istanbul to Vienna in 1529, so there were only two weeks left for the actual siege. When you compare this with the six months that it took the Ottomans to reduce the city of Rhodes, the seriousness of the attack on Vienna is put in perspective. There was, however, another time for the Ottomans to show the Austrians how efficient they were as an army of engineers. The siege trenches were cut in double-quick time and artillery batteries established, but then it was time to pack up tools and return home. Nor was there any great disparity in armaments or siege-craft between the two sides. If anything, the Germans alone had a slight technical edge over the Ottoman janissaries, for they were the acknowledged world leaders in mining and smelting.

Archduke Ferdinand was, however, able to transform the Turkish threat against Vienna into a political godsend. Although the history of Austria and the Habsburg dynasty might now be thought of as inseparable, this was not always so. The origin of the Habsburgs was not in the Austrian Alps but in the upper valley of the Rhine (in the south-west corner of Germany that borders modern Switzerland and Alsace), but the Turkish threat of 1529 gave them the opportunity to forge a unitary kingdom out of the jumble of lands they had long possessed in the east. This patchwork of counties, bishoprics and hereditary duchies, within Tyrol, Styria, Carinthia and the Windish Mark, would be transformed into the Osterreich (‘Eastern Kingdom’), or Austria. This was just what the Dukes of Burgundy had tried to achieve in western Europe, but despite centuries of effort had failed. And this was not all. The death of King Louis II at the Battle of Mohacs allowed Archduke Ferdinand to aspire to two other crowns, those of Hungary and Bohemia. For a passed-over second son, Ferdinand was doing well. But perhaps it is no surprise, for he was brought up in the court of his grandfather, Ferdinand of Aragon, one of Europe’s most brilliant, opportunistic, cynical and successful monarchs.

There were deeper currents at play which help explain the meltdown of Hungarian military strength at Mohacs. For Hungary was at war with itself. Just twelve years before Mohacs, in 1514, a crusade had been summoned by an ambitious Hungarian archbishop. Once again, just as in the days of Janos Hunyadi, the nobility showed no interest. Leadership passed into the hands of George Dozsa, a poor Transylvanian gentleman. His call brought a response from the peasants, who had soon formed a massive forty-thousand-strong crusading army which rapidly turned radical, purging the land of the hated class of idle nobles, who were exempt from every form of tax, tithe and labour. The Hungarian nobles had armed themselves to meet this threat to their existence and lifestyle. In a brief but terrifyingly violent civil war that left fifty thousand dead on the two sides they reasserted their military control over the nation. Dozsa and his inner council of peasant commanders were punished in a manner which was designed not to be easily forgotten. They were all starved for fourteen days in solitary confinement. Then Dozsa was killed in a manner befitting a peasant king. He was placed on a red-hot iron throne, a heated crown was then hammered on to his skull and a red-hot sceptre pushed into his lap. His starving confederates were then let out of their cells and tore his charred flesh from his bones to assuage their desperate hunger.

Dozsa’s brutal execution would find its legal equivalent in the Tripartite Code that was made law that winter at the Diet of Nobles. This declared that the Hungarian peasants had ‘forfeited their liberty and become subject to their landlords in unconditional and perpetual servitude’. The peasant had no right over his master’s land save bare compensation for his labour. Every species of property was judged to belong to the landlord and the peasant was to be denied the right to ever invoke justice or law against a noble. It has been called ‘the most inhuman measure in European history, dictated by a savage vindictiveness’. So when the Hungarian nobles were shot to pieces on the field of Mohacs, it was not just the Ottoman Sultan who had something to celebrate. To the peasants of Hungary the Turkish victory came as a form of liberation.

Sultan Suleyman personally commanded the second invasion of Hungary in 1529 (which culminated in the two-week siege of Vienna), as well as that of 1532, which confirmed what everyone suspected, that an Istanbul-centred Ottoman Empire had reached its logistical western limits. The truce that the Sultan signed with Archduke Ferdinand’s ambassadors in 1533 was a direct manifestation of this geopolitical fact.

By the summer of 1532 the Sultan had also become seriously concerned about the actions of the Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria, who had seized the ports of Nafpaktos and Coron in western Greece in a brilliantly orchestrated operation. If this had been the action of a Venetian squadron it would have been irritating but containable, but Doria’s master was Charles V. The King of Spain, Sicily and Naples now held two bridgeheads in eastern Europe that were supported by an aggressive fleet. Fortunately there seemed to be a ready solution at hand, for the Sultan and his grand vizier had plans which would allow him to acquire an aggressive fleet manned by an equally brilliant sea captain. Barbarossa, the celebrated corsair of the North African shore, was going to be transformed into the Lord High Admiral of the Ottoman Navy.

Clearly the Sultan thought this action, the destruction of the Christian fleet in the central Mediterranean, was going to be but a small sideshow. Nothing else can excuse him of the greatest mistake of his life. For just as he was preparing to strike against Christendom he also committed his empire to a war on a second front. No sooner had a truce been signed with Ferdinand, Archduke of the Austrians, than he dispatched his trusted grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, to initiate a war of conquest in the East. In the winter of 1533 the Ottoman army advanced into the Kurdish mountains that occupy the borders of the two rival empires. In the spring he advanced ever further east, taking the Safavid capital of Tabriz that summer. It was then that the Sultan asked his grand vizier to hold the army in this exposed frontier position while he made a three-month progression across the centre of Anatolia. So that the Sultan and his grand vizier could together lead the Ottoman army south to occupy Baghdad and central Iraq. It was a great moral victory, for now all the great medieval seats of the old Muslim Arab Caliphate: Medina, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad were within the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire. Suleyman was never to make an official claim to the Caliphate before a council of the scholars of Islam but henceforth it started to creep into official correspondence. Although he was the acknowledged leader of orthodox Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, it is astonishing to see how the more extravagant, quasi-religious, mystical claims of the Shia now started to be borrowed by the Ottomans. Even in such a hallowed place as the new mosque that he would build in Istanbul one finds these extraordinary claims:

The Caliph, resplendent with Divine Glory, Who performs the Command of the Hidden Book and executes its decrees in regions of the inhabited Quarter: Conqueror of the Lands of the Orient and the Occident with the Help of Almighty God and His Victorious Army, Possessor of the Kingdoms of the World, Shadow of God over all Peoples, Sultan of the Sultans of the Arabs and the Persians.

The claim to be the ‘Shadow of God’ is in itself an almost unspeakable heresy to any Muslim with even a passing acquaintance with the message of the Koran. The madness of power would have seemed to have already began to warp the mind of the young prince, who, when he had ascended to the throne in 1520, had been observed to be ‘a wise lord, and all men hope for good judgement from his reign’.

That judgement was to decay further. He had already commissioned a quadruple crown from a Venetian goldsmith, a bizarre piece of regalia one-upmanship to the tiara worn by the Pope in Italy, which was displayed at state receptions. It was of course completely against the known teachings of the Prophet, who poured scorn on the pomp and pride of kings and their golden ornaments. Worse was to come.

For shortly after he returned from his great victory in Iraq, Suleyman invited Ibrahim Pasha to the palace to enjoy a private supper in his rooms in the Topkapi Palace. This was normal practice for the two friends and indeed a room was always kept furnished within the Sultan’s palace for the grand vizier’s personal use. In the middle of the night of 15 March Suleyman stood outside the doorway of this room and made a signal with his hands. A squad of his deaf-mute slaves then advanced into this chamber and strangled his childhood friend. Ibrahim did not go quietly into the night but put up a ferocious struggle, and ‘for long afterwards bloodstains could still be seen on the walls of the room in which he had been sleeping’. His lifeless body was taken out through the palace gardens to a boat which conveyed it to a secret burial place.

The city awoke to find that the Sultan’s own men stood at guard outside the grand vizier’s sprawling palace, instantly recognisable as its terraces had been decorated with statues of marble and bronze. All exits were sealed so that his wealth could return back to his master’s treasury. By breakfast the quip of the wits had already circulated around the city, that the makbul, the favourite, had been transformed into the maktul, the executed. In death all Ibrahim Pasha’s faults were aired: how ruinously expensive the two-year-long Baghdad campaign had been, what a botch he had made of the siege of Vienna and how he had been so loathed by the janissaries that they had even sacked his palace in 1535 though it stood right in the centre of the city. It still stands, though now transformed into a museum of Turkish art where you can walk the terraces that overlook the great monuments of the Hippodrome which Ibrahim would also have gazed upon, the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III and the brazen serpent-headed column that came from Delphi. The bronzes that Ibrahim had brought back as part of the victory spoil from Hungary were smashed up after his death, though the massive candlesticks fetched out of the cathedral at Budapest remain where he placed them: beside the prayer niche apse in the Ayia Sophia.

The Sultan had destroyed his best friend and his most brilliant adviser. Ibrahim Pasha had a profound understanding of the uses of naval power and the vital role of commerce in strengthening the state. The second half of Sultan Suleyman’s reign would not be lacking in grandeur, but after Ibrahim Pasha’s death nothing ever worked out so well as when the two childhood friends had governed the empire together. The gap would, however, be filled. A pair of brothers, corsair captains from the shores of North Africa, would rise to become the swords of Islam and champion the Ottoman Empire against the Christian Crusaders.

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