Kazakh warrior in padded armour, 15th-16th century


Alert systems as well as forts and bastions were also set up on the coasts and islands, which the opposing fleets and pirates of all sorts threatened. In its Stato da mare, Venice especially undertook impressive fortification projects with state-of-the-art technology against the Turks. But that statement must be qualified, since one of Venice’s finest accomplishments, the citadel of Nicosia in Cyprus, fell into the hands of the Turkish besiegers within two months; by contrast, the siege of Famagusta, which did not benefit from the same technical advances, lasted no fewer than eleven months.

In the marine zones, the notion of border was obviously hazier, and defense meant primarily control of strategic points.

In that sense, the entrances to the straits leading to Istanbul represented an essential “border” for the Ottomans. The first fortresses they built on the Bosphorus before the taking of Constantinople—Anadolu Hisri, constructed by Bayezid I in 1394, and Rmeli Hisri, built by Mehmed II in 1452—were intended to blockade the Bosphorus and thus prevent any rescue by sea of the besieged Byzantines. Once the city was captured, the sultan was anxious to preserve it from all external aggression. The threat came primarily by sea, usually from the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean, since the Black Sea was becoming an “Ottoman lake.” Under these conditions, it was the entrance to the Dardanelles especially that the conqueror was anxious to fortify, building new fortresses on either side of the strait: Kal‘e-i Sultniye in Asia, near ancient Abydos; and Kilid al-Bahr on the European coast. He also had the island of Tenedos (Bozcaada) fortified. Süleyman the Magnificent would again restore the two castles in the Dardanelles in 1551, but they gradually fell into neglect in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, since the decline of Venice left few worries in that regard. By contrast, during the War of Crete, they once again became a very sensitive zone. Mehmed II’s two castles were again restored and two new forts built at the entrance to the Aegean Sea: Sedd al-Bahr on the European bank and Kum Kal‘e on the Asian side. During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–1774, because the Russians had entered the Mediterranean, there was a need for two new forts on the banks of the Dardanelles. A French volunteer of Hungarian origin, Baron François de Tott, supervised their construction.

In the meantime, the outlet of the Bosphorus onto the Black Sea had in turn become a “border” to be defended: the danger began to appear in the early seventeenth century, as a result of the sudden appearance in the strait of a new and bold adversary engaged in worrisome exploits, the Cossacks of Ukraine. To parry these blows, Sultan Murad IV built two new fortresses on either bank of the Bosphorus, at its extremity, near the two present-day castles of Rmeli Kavai and Anadolu Kavai. Evliya Çelebi calls them the “padlocks of the sea” (Kilid al-Bahr kal‘eler).

With the rise of the Russian threat, which became in the eighteenth century the chief peril to the empire’s integrity, that end of the Bosphorus became the most sensitive point of the Ottoman borders. In the Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–1771, even though the Russian fleet appeared in the Mediterranean and not the Black Sea, the Ottomans felt the need to reorganize the defense of the Bosphorus by building new fortifications on both its banks, and at the entrance to the Black Sea. Selim III (1789–1807) would further develop and improve that new defense system, known as the “seven fortresses” (kil‘-i seb‘a).


The mention of the Cossack incursions and of the Russian advance in the Black Sea brings us back to another segment of the Islamic-Christian front in Europe, the northeastern one. It was less visible than the Habsburg front because less central to Europe, but it was also a theater for centuries-old confrontations in the name of the Cross and the Crescent. In that enormous zone delimited to the north by the fringes of the taiga, to the south by the Black Sea, to the west by the Lower Danube, and to the east by the Volga, the conflict between Islam and Christendom (Catholic and Orthodox) predated the Ottomans. It went back to the Islamization of the Golden Horde, itself a legacy of the Mongol conquest of the region. In 1475, Sultan Mehmed II became the suzerain of the Tatar khanate of Crimea, which had emerged some decades earlier from the dismantled Golden Horde. In addition, the Ottomans would have direct access to a certain number of strongholds and territories south of that entity, at the mouths of the great rivers on the north side of the Black Sea. The kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania, joined by the Union of Lublin in 1569, and the grand principality of Moscow, which would gradually become the empire of the tsars, stood opposite that Muslim region, beyond the steppes. Within that natural environment, Muslim and Christian states were separated not by a more or less linear border but by huge, almost unpopulated and undeveloped spaces. These were the “wildlands” (dikoe pole in Russian; dzikie pola in Polish), a land border that was in many respects more like a sea border. That vast territory would give rise to the Ukraine, whose very name alludes to the fact that it was a border (krai, ukraina).

North of that zone, Poland and Lithuania built a line of fortresses designed to protect the southern border zones of their territories. These were the cities of Bar, Kanev, Braslaw, Vinnitsa, Wlodzimierz, Kiev (former capital of the first Russia), Kamenec, and Chmielnick. Farther to the northeast, the Muscovites also built their line of fortresses between Bolhov and Tambov, but from the sixteenth century on, that border began to advance to the south.

These fortresses were in the hands of representatives of great noble families, who were both military governors (starosts) and very large property owners. Included among these great Polish-Lithuanian names were the Sanguszkos, the Sienawskis, the Ostrogskis, the Proskis, and the Winiowieckis (Višniaveckis). Some, such as a noble from Silesia, Bernard Pretwicz, starost of Bar, would become semilegendary heroes in the fight against the Turks and the Tatars. In 1552, Sleyman the Magnificent expressly requested that Pretwicz be removed. King Sigismund Augustus gave the sultan satisfaction, transferring the troublemaker to Trembowla, a stronghold farther from the border. But other champions of the anti-Turkish struggle immediately replaced Pretwicz on the border.

Altogether south of that zone, where the great rivers flow into the Black Sea, stood the Ottoman fortresses: Kili (Chilia) on the Lower Danube, and Aqkerman (Cetatea-Alb, Belgorod Dniestrovskij) on the Lower Dniester, both conquered by Bayezid II; Bender (Tighina), farther upstream on the Dniester, annexed by Sleyman; and Jankerman (Özü, Ochakov, Ochakiv) on the Lower Dnieper, built by the khan of Crimea between 1492 and 1495 and occupied by the Ottomans in 1538. To these were added Kefe (Caffa, Feodosija) and the other Ottoman fortresses on the southern and southeastern coast of Crimea; Kersh and Taman on the Cimmerian Bosphorus (the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov); and, in the Sea of Azov, Azov (Azak) at the mouth of the Don, which the Ottomans and the Russians would fight over from the end of the seventeenth century to the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja in 1774.

As for the khanate of Crimea, it was within the purview of a tribal and clan organization and was based on a plunder economy. The Tatar hordes would raid the villages and cities on the border to bring back booty, especially slaves, who supplied the Ottoman market. Caffa was the hub of that traffic, as it had been in the Genoese period. The frequency and intensity of the raids were a function of the relations between the khan on one hand, the king of Poland and the prince of Moscow on the other. Depending on the period, the khan was sometimes the ally of Poland, sometimes that of Russia. The payment of a tribute governed these alliances; to the extent that it was actually paid, it served to compensate the loss of revenue resulting from the reduction in the number of raids. Beginning in 1513, therefore, Crimea was allied with Poland-Lithuania against Moscow, in exchange for the Polish king’s pledge to pay an annual tribute of fifteen thousand florins, so that, as Khan Muhammad Giray wrote, “his kingdom may be spared.” There was nothing absolute about the guarantee, however, since the khan was far from in control of all that activity, which stemmed in large measure from a constellation of autonomous actors. As Khan Mengli Giray wrote to King Alexander Jagellon in 1506, in response to the king’s complaints: “Hungry people, when they are on horseback, must feed themselves wherever they can find food.” In addition, some Tatar groups were entirely independent of the khan. Wandering nomads north of the Black Sea, they are designated in the sources by the names of the Ottoman fortresses that they used, as needed, for bases and refuges.

As a result of all that, the “politics of the steppes” cannot be reduced to a binary confrontation between Islam and Christendom; it was the result of a complex game between protagonists acting at different levels. The rulers might be at peace, as the sultan and the king of Poland were continuously for the greater part of the sixteenth century, but that in no way prevented local actors—Polish-Lithuanian great lords on the border, Ottoman pashas or the chiefs of Tatar hordes, all at great distances from their respective capitals—from having their own interests and objectives. In fact, they had the upper hand in a very active Kleinkrieg, whose end was unlikely, particularly since the raids of one camp came in response to those of another.


A new phenomenon emerged from a desire to respond effectively to the raids of the Tatars by returning them in kind: “Cossackry,” or at least, the use the Polish-Lithuanian defense would make of the Cossacks.

The term “Cossack” comes from a Turkish word, kazak, which designates a dissident, a rebel, a bandit. It is especially used in the Ottoman sources to designate the groups of Tatars independent from the khan. And just as there were Muslim kazak, there would be Christian Cossacks. Within that context, the term was first applied to elements at odds with the established order of feudal society, particularly peasants fleeing the exploitation and oppression of the Polish-Lithuanian magnates. These dissidents settled, seasonally or permanently from the start, in the no-man’s-land separating the Christian borders from the Tatar regions. Historians differ a great deal about the origins—in reality fairly obscure—of the phenomenon, and their respective interpretations are usually not devoid of ulterior motives, whether ideological, national, or social. In any event, the migrants took refuge particularly in what was called Niz, the Dnieper Valley beyond the river rapids. There they engaged in a kind of ideal life, rugged to be sure, but free and virile, combining hunting, fishing, the harvesting of honey, and out-and-out banditry. They lived in small groups but could also band together for actions on a larger scale, under the authority of charismatic leaders from their ranks or, paradoxically, under great border lords. Relations were ambiguous between the border nobility and these dissidents, who called into question the established order and, when necessary, struck blows to it, but who in other respects represented a labor force invaluable for opposing the Tatar raids. The Cossacks themselves could not be totally at odds with the interior, on which they remained dependent, if only for their necessary supplies of arms and gunpowder. In addition, once their leaders began to emerge, the Polish model of nobility did not fail to exert its attraction on them. The best illustration of these ambiguities is provided by a case that has greatly divided historians, that of the Lithuanian prince (of the Orthodox faith) Dimitrij Višniavecki, who was also the prototype for Bayda, the hero of Ukrainian popular tales. Named starost of Kanev and Cherkasy by the king of Poland, Višniavecki was, in the 1550s and 1560s, one of the most visible successors of Bernard Pretwicz in the fight against the Tatars. In August and September 1556, he traveled down the Dnieper at the head of a private army and occupied the island of Malaja Hortica, fifteen kilometers south of the last rapids. There he built a fortress, the first milestone in the “camp” (se) of Zaporogue Cossacks, or “Cossacks of the rapids,” which somewhat later was set up on another island in the Dnieper, Tomakovka, some sixty kilometers farther south. The se became a base for launching Cossack raids, whose troops were now more rigorously organized and structured. The Zaporogue army included regiments subdivided into tens and hundreds. Each regiment elected delegates to a council that itself chose a supreme leader, designated by two partly homophonic terms: hetman (from the German Hauptmann) and ataman (an old Turkish term). The many lexical borrowings from the Turko-Tatars only illustrate the Cossacks’ extensive imitation of their antagonists. They resembled each other, in fact, but only to better stand in contrast: it was said that any man who presented himself to the hetman to become a Cossack would be accepted only after a ritual consisting primarily of making the (Orthodox) sign of the cross.

After the major Tatar raid against Moscow in 1571, conducted by Khan Devlet Giray I, as a result of which the Russian capital was partly destroyed, not only Russia but the Poland of King Stephen Báthory felt the need to secure their hold over the Cossacks. They organized a new defense system that included guard posts manned by a special category of “Cossacks” who were better controlled by the states, the “registered Cossacks” (reestrovye). Relatively effective against the Tatar raids, they were more or less docile and maintained shifting relationships with the “true” Cossacks. The last two decades of the sixteenth century and the first four of the seventeenth century were the golden age of Cossack military power—a stateless army that had become an insuperable factor in regional policy. Their actions occurred by land and by sea. They had always been skillful at moving across the great rivers of the steppe, but in about 1600, they equipped themselves with an actual fleet of vessels, small but sturdy and easy to handle, by means of which they increased the number of their brilliant exploits. Venturing into the Black Sea, they attacked the Ottoman ports: Varna, on the Bulgarian coast, was plundered in 1614; Sinop, in northern Anatolia, met the same fate in 1614. At the same time, they momentarily occupied another neighboring stronghold, Trabzon (Trebizond), and attacked Beykoz, on the Bosphorus on the outskirts of Istanbul. The Cossacks seemed ready to repeat the assaults of the old Varegues against the walls of Constantinople in the early Middle Ages. In the early seventeenth century, the hetman Peter Sahaidchany, originally from western Galicia, fled Poland to seek refuge in Cossack territory, where he ultimately imposed his supreme authority. Like Višniavecki before him, he became a hero of legend, the inspiration for many anecdotes. (In one of these, extenuating circumstances led him to exchange his wife for a pipe and tobacco.) In 1617, he supported Poland in its war against Moscow, which earned him the position of commander of the “registered Cossacks.” An indefatigable actor in the struggle against the Tatars on the steppe, he seized Ottoman Kefe in 1616 and took the opportunity to liberate the Christian slaves there. During the 1621 Ottoman campaign of Osman II in Khotyn, he again took Poland’s side. But the emergence of that new power was ultimately a danger for Poland and for the Ottomans, though they did not fully realize it for some time. The two states therefore agreed to prevent the Cossacks from becoming in their turn a state that would disrupt the political balance of the region. The Ottomans, however, who had only limited confidence in the capacity for Polish resistance, did not believe they could forgo organizing a new defense system north of the Black Sea, rehabilitating some of their old fortresses and constructing new ones. Moreover, they placed the forts and cities of Bujak (the region between the mouth of the Danube and that of the Dniester) under the authority of a Nogay Tatar leader, Kantemir Mirza. In addition, the energetic Murad IV, wishing to increase his control over a khan of Crimea still inclined to shake off Ottoman tutelage, in 1624 dismissed Khan Muhammad Giray and named as his successor another member of the dynasty, Janibeg Giray, who had been waiting in the wings on the island of Rhodes. Yet Muhammad Giray refused to give in and attempted to remain in place. To carry out that bold plan to defy the Porte, he and his brother, the qalgha Shahin Giray, concluded an accord with the Zaporogue Cossacks in December 1624. The sultan seems to have yielded. The episode is noteworthy, since for once, these two buffer forces, Tatars and Cossacks, similar in nature and antagonistic in principle, came together, while the two “established” states, seeing their creatures about to escape their control, united to stop them. The Ottomans played their trump card, the Nogay leader Kantimir Mirza, against the rebel khan and once more removed Muhammad Giray. He and his brother tried again to resist by taking refuge in Poland, where they formed an army of forty thousand men, composed of Tatars but also of Polish adventurers and Zaporogue Cossacks. The two rebels were finally defeated. As a result, the khans of Crimea would more than ever be under the sway of the sultan of Istanbul, who appointed and dismissed them as he liked, until the Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja imposed the autonomy of Crimea, a prelude to the Russian takeover. As for the Cossacks, Poland and then Russia went on subjugating them. In 1638, the Polish armies, aided by the “registered Cossacks,” stamped out the most intractable elements of Cossackry and eliminated their institutions. A large number of Zaporogue Cossacks then took refuge on the left bank of the Dnieper. There they came into contact with other Cossacks, known as the Don Cossacks. Finally, at the instigation of their hetman, Bohdan Khmelnicki, they came under the control of Russia, by the terms of the Treaty of Perejaslav (1654).