The Check of the Ottoman Empire


The Battle of Lepanto 1571

Suleyman the Magnificent ruled for forty-seven years, and thirty of them he spent on campaign, tireless and resolute, plodding from one project to the next – Egypt and the Rhodes trouble, Belgrade and Hungary, Tabriz, Baghdad, Vienna. ‘What! Suleyman still here? What a drag!’ wrote the Christian-born poet Yaga Beg, successfully chancing his reputation on very thin ice; and the soldiers, too, grew tired of their leader in his later years. On the Persian front in 1553 the army was murmuring that the Sultan was too old to march – he was fifty-nine. The soldiers wanted to make Suleyman’s eldest son Sultan. Suleyman invited Mustafa to his tent, and had him strangled there.

But in gobbets of Balkan mud, and in the smouldering deserts of Iran time began to establish its dominion over his empire. These were regions a sultan could not cross before his army chafed to be home again for harvest. Suleyman ventured out from Edirne or Bursa year after year with an army larger than any he had amassed before, his grandeur concealing intimations of decline, his reign a feast of ambiguous victories.

Suleyman’s last campaign in 1566 proved little more than a monstrous razzia into Austrian-held territory, for his enemies eluded him, as ever. The Ottoman army spent ninety-seven days on the march before besieging Szigeth. On 7 September 1566 Suleyman died among his troops, in the midst of a siege, in his campaign tent pitched in the mud of Hungary. His Grand Vizier concealed his death from the army and brought the siege to its successful conclusion. The body was embalmed, dressed, and propped up in the litter as if it were alive until the army was almost home. Meanwhile messengers started from the camp to reach Suleyman’s surviving son, Selim.

The poet Baki, who had been the Sultan’s friend and correspondent, mourned:

That master rider of the realm of bliss
For whose careering steed the field of the world was narrow.
The infidels of Hungary bowed their heads to the temper of his blade,
The Frank admired the grain of his sword.
He laid his face to the ground, graciously, like a fresh rose petal,
The treasurer of time put him in the coffer, like a jewel.

The treasurer of time was measuring up the Ottoman Empire, too. The three great Mediterranean powers, Venice, Spain, and the empire itself, all soon toppled into a decline as protracted as it was profound, and a note of exhaustion stole across the whole Mediterranean world. The Venetians heard it, sung softly at dusk beneath the Venetian Rector’s window in Split, ‘a song on everyone’s lips … and it says in this song that the Turk is running water that erodes, and that the Doge is a sandbank which has been carried away little by little by the river.’

In 1570 Suleyman’s old Grand Vizier, Sokullu Mehmet, took the island of Cyprus for the worthless Selim, who died in 1574. It was much against his better judgement, for Sokullu believed that the empire was tired, and needed a period of caution and repose; but an attack on Venetian Cyprus was the price he paid to hang onto power. It proved to be a turning-point for the empire.

There was nothing wonderful about the Turks having a crack at Cyprus. It rounded off their control of the eastern Mediterranean; it swept out a nest or two of pirates. The Greeks of Cyprus welcomed the invaders, as Greek islanders frequently did. Fifty thousand Turks died in the effort to capture Fermagusta; but Ottoman wars were traditionally free with lives. The Venetian commander Bragadino, surrendering at last with full military honours and guarantees of safe-conduct for his troops, was treacherously seized, horribly mangled, and at last flayed alive; the Turkish fleet returned to Constantinople in triumph with his skin stuffed with straw and hanging from a yard arm. It was a gruesome but not unprecedented end, and the Turks had no monopoly on the manner of it.

What distinguished the Ottoman assault from preceding adventures of the kind was the world’s reaction. The attack was perceived, on all sides, as an unwarranted disturbance, as though Turkish conquest was no longer something to be expected but an outrageous upheaval in the natural order. The impetus for the attack was certainly all wrong – the whim of a drunkard, egged on by a Jew, said the western powers bitterly – and it was steeped in palace intrigue. Sultan Selim, the Sot, had a passion for Cyprus wine; his boon companion, Joseph Nasi, a refugee from Spain who had become the court banker, and who as Duke of Naxos was the first Jew to be ennobled for over a thousand years, even hoped to turn Cyprus into a homeland for Jewish refugees from Europe; but to Selim he suggested that the toper should master the source of his good cheer. New powers, too, could be seen stirring in the palace now. Suleyman’s marriage to Roxelana brought the Sultan’s harem out of the Old Palace and into his private apartments in Topkapi, opening a period of harem influence, the so-called Sultanate of the Women, which was to endure until the 1650s and introduced all sorts of political cross-currents into the management of imperial affairs. Don Joseph’s case for Cyprus was supported from the harem by the Jewish-born Nur Banu Sultan, mother of the future Murad III. It was opposed by Selim’s Venetian-born wife, Safiye Sultan.

Cyprus fell, and the drunkard got his wine tax-free. But new powers were stirring in the West. The fall of Cyprus prompted the formation of a Holy League against the Ottomans. Spain, Venice, the Knights of Malta, and various Italian states under the lead of the papacy, put together a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria, a bastard son of Charles V. On 7 October 1571 he sighted the Ottoman fleet in the Gulf of Lepanto, and moved to the attack.

Sokullu Mehmet Pasha possessed superlative powers of imagination, brilliant sources of intelligence, and excellent maps, out of which he concocted a plan to maintain the momentum of Ottoman conquest. His intention was to dig a canal to link the Black Sea and the Caspian, over territories increasingly troubled by Russian Cossack raids. Here the Don and the Volga converge as they flow south over hundreds of miles, until a mere thirty miles divide them as they each turn and debouch into their separate seas. Had the Ottomans been able to launch a fleet through the canal and into the Caspian, they could have struck at Tabriz, the Persian capital, from its rear, avoiding the miserable overland approach through the arid mountains of Upper Armenia and Azerbaijan; gained direct access to the Silk Road from Central Asia for themselves; and erected a barricade against Russian and Cossack encroachments from the north-east, just as the Danube had formed their breastwork in the north-west. Dig the canal, open the Caspian to Ottoman ships and arms, and with a bound the empire might be free.

European discoveries were turning the eastern Mediterranean into a backwater, and the lines of trade and wealth which had lately converged on Constantinople now seemed to be moving away. At the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese had discovered the route to the Indies round the Cape: they began trading straight away, bringing peppercorns to Europe in bulk, and cheap. Soon they had added silk, calicoes, and all kinds of spices to their cargoes, directly challenging the ancient caravan routes through the Middle East. The effect on the empire’s revenues was not immediate, and coffee even substituted for spice in the Cairo trade. In the East itself, while some rulers had of course been delighted to see the Portuguese, others felt threatened and petitioned the empire to do something about it. In 1552 a naval expedition, under Piri Reis, had entered the Red Sea and driven the infidels, with difficulty, back to the mouth of the Persian Gulf; but the Portuguese still throttled off the Egyptian trade routes. (In the seventeenth century the establishment of Dutch and British power in Asia, and their decisive redirection of trade routes to the open ocean, was to deprive Turkey of most of her foreign commerce. In London ‘nabobs’ replaced ‘pashas’ as objects of envy and derision.) In 1580 Murad III was advised by a geographer to dig a Suez canal and ‘capture the ports of Hind and Sind and drive away the infidels’. The Suez project never got beyond the planning stage, for the region was engulfed by a rebellion.

Work began on the Caspian canal, though, in the spring of 1570. Ten thousand troops, and 6,000 labourers, assembled at Kaffa in the Crimea; munitions and supplies were stockpiled at Azov; 500 men led the artillery up the Don and made camp at Perekop. Digging did not begin before the end of August. The Khan of the Crimean Tartars, Devlet Giray, sent 3,000 riders as guards and guides – not many, given the hordes at his control; they proved rather demoralising, describing to the Turkish troops the impossibility of righteous men surviving a Russian summer, when the sun never truly set, and the first and last prayer of the day could never be said. He withdrew them when progress on the canal began to be made. Almost a third had been dug by October, when the fierce steppe winds and the cold nights descended, and the general, ‘Circassian’ Kasim Pasha, broke off to secure the region for the spring, and better weather. One part of his force he sent to Astrakhan, to hold the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian; another he sent back to Azov, where the Don pours into the little sea of that name. The assault on Astrakhan, which was still held by the Russians, was repulsed by a sally; the troops at Azov were surprised by a small Russian army, the supplies went up in flames, and the Russians took their first Turkish war trophies. Disobeying orders, Kasim Pasha abandoned the whole ill-fated enterprise, and embarked his troops; but the flotilla was assailed by storms, and only 7,000 men returned to Istanbul. It seems that the border guards, the Crimean Tartars, preferred to keep their enemies to themselves; and a year after the Ottomans withdrew they demonstrated their own ability in superb style, riding through to Moscow and firing the city, herding 200,000 captives back to Azov.

Distant Lepanto in 1571 brought the Ottomans a defeat which ruled out a return to the steppe. It was the largest battle ever waged in the Mediterranean – 487 ships took part, and 200 of the 245 Turkish ships were sunk. It was the first major defeat the Ottomans had suffered in two centuries, and was remembered by Cervantes, who took part in the battle, as ‘that day so fortunate to Christendom, when all nations were undeceived of their error in believing that the Turks were invincible’. Depictions of the day became a stock-in-trade of western painters, and even G. K. Chesterton wrote a rousing poem about it 350 years later. But it was only the insults which remained full-rigged when the smoke of battle had cleared away; and the sheer costs of the engagement, to both sides, signalled an end to the struggle for the Mediterranean.

Sokullu himself weathered the death of his master Selim the Sot in 1574, and continued as Grand Vizier under the superstitious Murad III. But on 12 October 1579 he was struck down by an assassin’s dagger as he walked through the palace to the divan. The killer’s motives remain obscure: perhaps he was an agent of the Sultan, perhaps a religious maniac. The tide of everlasting victory, the unbarred tide of time, was beginning to turn back, setting up curious whorls and dangerous eddies; and violence and bitterness at the heart of state were grim portents of things to come.

Leave a Reply