Cross & Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of Southeastern Europe
Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2010. 256 pp. ISBN: 9781844159543
Dr. David Nicolle is perhaps best known as the prolific author of many of the books in the Osprey series, but he is also author of a number of full-length studies. With this recent release, Nicolle once again delves into the realm of military history and has released another superb title, this time involving the complicated region of Southeastern Europe and Anatolia, focusing primarily upon the growth of the Ottoman Empire and the interaction between this power and other competing powers in the region, including the Byzantine Empire. Nicolle’s history is not one of rapid expansion and rapid decline, but one in which a slow process of expansion occurs, and does not end with the fall of Constantinople. As the author writes, “What is even more significant is the fact that these awe-inspiring military achievements were followed by more than three centuries of consolidation, then by a prolonged rather than a precipitous decline.” (xiii) Indeed, the Ottoman Empire existed until the end of the First World War—a point well into modern times.
Nicholle’s main thrust is the Ottoman conquest of southeastern Europe, although he takes some time in beginning with this theme. He first fills chapters on the situation of the weakened Byzantines in the fourteenth century, the nomadism of the Turks, the rise of the Seljuk Turks and some cultural information on the various groups of the region. In 1353-55, the Ottomans gained their first foothold on the European continent as an ally of the Byzantine Emperor. The Turks manned the fort of Çinbi and neighboring towns on the Gallipoli peninsula. But they soon ventured further into Thrace, ultimately capturing the territories that would become some of their core territories. Indeed, the author wrote of its strategic importance that “a more solid bridgehead was established in and around the Gallipoli peninsula. This would thereafter be the launch-pad for the Ottoman state’s eventual conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula.” (64) Such was the danger posed that the Byzantine Emperor John Cantacuzenos, the Ottomans’ erstwhile ally, approached his old enemies as possible allies against the Ottomans. But, as luck would have it, and almost by historical accident, an emir named Murat took over the Ottoman position and proceeded to greatly expand Ottoman territory, taking most of Thrace and Macedonia, establishing the vassalage of Bulgaria and Dobruja, establishing the Ottoman capital at Edirne (the re-named Adrianople), and defeating the Serbs in the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, an event about which the author wrote surprisingly little.
Another great leader would follow Murat—his own son Bayezit I. Bayezit continued with the Ottoman conquests, forcing Serbia and Bosnia to become vassal states and reducing the Byzantine Empire to a greatly reduced area of that immediately surrounding Constantinople. In 1393, the Turks captured Nikopol in Bulgaria, leading Pope Boniface IX to declare a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The crusade would be a massive multi-national force including French, German and other continental forces, and a large contingent led by Sigismund of Hungary. Ultimately, the crusade ended badly for the European armies on Monday, 26 September 1396, at the battle of Nikopol. The French forces ultimately attacked too soon and with poor intelligence, allowing the crusader army to be spread out and to be beaten piecemeal. The crusade was supposed to be the beginning of a larger enterprise, but instead it became the “impossible dream” of the fifteenth century. Apart from skirmishes and massacres of prisoners, this army accomplished little, having been, in the words of the author “utterly defeated in its first real battle.” (123) Fortunately for the now-weakened Kingdom of Hungary, Bayezit I turned his attention away from Europe towards the greater danger of the Asiatic warrior Tamerlane, who had already conquered much territory in central Asia and Russia and was now moving westward towards the Ottoman lands. In the ensuing Battle of Ankara, Tamerlane defeated Bayezit and captured the Sultan, who duly died in prison. The Ottomans were spared a further onslaught when Tamerlane decided to focus his efforts once again in the East.
An extensive period of chaos followed this catastrophe. Bayezit’s four sons fought an extended civil war for the leadership of the Sultanate, with a somewhat surprising winner (Mehmet I) ultimately emerging. He and his successors experienced another period of rising power and territorial expansion, to the extent that, in 1443, King Wladislaw III of Poland-Hungary launched a crusade against the Turks. Once again, the Crusaders were beaten, this time in November of 1444 at the battle of Varna, which left the Crusading army routed and King Wladislaw dead on the field. Only four years later, another crusade was called, led by Janos Hunyadi, which led an invasion into Ottoman territory, and this too was defeated, resulting in second battle of Kosovo which in turn left the Turks firmly in control of the Balkan region. This in turn was followed by the resistance movement of Vlad the Impaler in the region of Transylvania, a somewhat minor if rather famous episode.
Ottoman power continued to grow while that of the neighboring states continued to wane, and Nicolle builds nicely towards the final contest between the Ottomans and the Byzantines, which is usually thought to culminate in the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Some detail is given to the youthful Sultan Mehmet II, who sought to make a name for himself with the conquest of this greatest prize, although the city itself was technically already of vassal state, ruled by the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last of the Byzantine emperors. The empire itself was not strong or even united. There were in fact two entities that could and did claim this title, the “Empire” of Trebizond being the other state. Constantinople itself was protected by massive walls, a small army and navy, and some strategic defensive locations. The actual siege of the city lasted fifty-four days, and the wall was pounded by Turkish cannon with some projectiles weighing 1000 pounds. The Byzantines held out for aid from the west which did not arrive, and the city duly fell. Nicolle succinctly wrote that the fall “was of course catastrophic and sent shock waves across Orthodox Christendom as a whole.” (217) While this is perhaps an understatement, it is clear the city did not equate to the whole of Byzantine territory. So Mehmet II began with its conquest, gaining control of most of the Balkans by 1460, and began battles against the Venetians, who largely were left to defend the trade interests of the west, and Nicolle devotes an entire chapter to this struggle. By the 1490s this struggle was largely over and the Turks proved able to conduct raids even into Italy itself.
Nicolle’s Cross & Crescent is a strong introduction to the history of the Ottoman Empire and its conquest of southeastern Europe. The author does a fine job of conveying this history of several centuries and writes in a very readable style. The work is strengthened greatly by the inclusion of numerous chapters of cultural history that put this epic struggle into context. Chapters such as “Religion and the Sword” and “Turks, Nomads & Peasants” give great insight into the cultural, religious, and political situations of the neighboring areas. In addition, the author does a fine job of introducing and discussing characters of great importance that are poorly known in the west, such as Stefan Lazarevic, Mircea of Wallachia, Janos Hunyadi, and King Wladislaw of Poland-Lithuania. Similarly, he brings to life many of the Turkish rulers to the extent that the sources allow.
On the whole, Nicolle’s approach works. There are, however, some instances where it does not seem to work as well. His first chapter, “A Chaotic Background” is aptly named. He conveys a sense of the chaos the region, but the technical Turkish terminology often seems to detract from the writing. Although this is particularly acute in the beginning of the work, it is an issue that seems to crop up in areas throughout the work. There are also a few interesting omissions: neither battle of Kosovo is detailed much at all, while the famous battle of Manzikert (1071) is not mentioned even in passing. By way of contrast, the failed Crusade of Nikopolis and the conquest of Constantinople get several chapters each. Virtually no sources are cited, although there is a helpful if short bibliography and a very useful glossary and index. Unfortunately, the book has a large number of typographical errors, including one on the first page of the table of contents. These increase in number as the book progresses, and no editor seems to have caught them. This is admittedly a minor complaint, but it is noticeable and does distract slightly from the overall quality of the work. Overall, the work is very useful for students of medieval and military history, and would be suitable for use by undergraduate and graduate students. It also works well for those interested in the general history of the region and in military history, but because of its sometimes complex terminology and relatively unfamiliar subject matter, it is perhaps not for everyone in the general public.
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