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Forum LockedConquest of Cyprus by the Ottomans in 1570-1571

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    Posted: 24-May-2009 at 17:57


The Conquest of Cyprus by the Ottomans in 1570-1571 through the perception of contemporary Western sources


By Ladislav Kadlec



“[The sources in this article contain] a number of information bulletins of the sixteenth century, published in Venice and in other Italian and European cities, on the subject of the War of Cyprus in the years 1570 – 1571 between Western Christian states and the Ottoman Empire. An example of an advanced form of ‘communication’ in modern times, the bulletins in the collection were intended, in the times in which they circulated, to meet the needs of communication of the Western public as to an outstandingly important event – the war for the domination of the island of Cyprus.” (Koumarianou, Catherine. Avvisi (1570-1572) The War of Cyprus. Nicosia: Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, 2004.)


The original Avvisi were reprinted in the above book and illustrate the period Western view on the events that transpired on the island of Cyprus. They are all printed between the years 1570 and 1572 and describe events as they happen (geographical distances and contemporary communication permitting) by the very nature of the avvisi as proto-newspapers. The purpose of this review is not to offer a modern historical view, but rather to offer to the public a glimpse of the period perception. The avvisi are currently in the custodianship of the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation and can be found under their appropriate code (BCCF B-XXX), with the exception of the first source, which is from the Collection of Vakis Papanastasiou. The language in parentheses indicates the language of the original document.



The Ottoman Empire has for a longer period of time attempted to bring the region of the Eastern Mediterranean under its control. By the year 1570 and following the conquests under their most famous of leaders, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent have conquered Anatolia only 60km to the north of Cyprus, the Levantine coast to the East and Mameluke Egypt to the South. With Rhodes wrested from the Knights of St. John and Chios from the Genoans, the natural target was a wealthy Venetian outpost: Cyprus. The Venetians have for a long time expected an assault and have spend considerable wealth to fortify the main cities of the island, which they purchased from the last monarch at the end of the 15th century, as well as paid the Porte an annual tribute. Despite all of this and an on going truce, Sultan Selim II. was vehement about taking direct control over Cyprus. By the year 1570, the following letter arrived in Venice bearing an ultimatum:


Collection of Vakis Papanastasiou (German)


“The providence of the Gods has given me the right to destroy the faith of the Christian and to become the sovereign of all. I greet all of you who have in an unjust and abusive manner inveighed against me. And you give me the right to take revenge and to crush both you and those who support you, who are guilty of the bloodshed which they have caused among my brethren…You took Cyprus out of my hands in a crafty and improper way, and for that I shall attack you with all the powers that I possess on land and sea, I will you out, I will put you all to death, I will lat waste every thing and I will humiliate you. This is the law which our great prophet Mohamed has entrusted to us.”


BCCF B-059 (Italian)


The Venetians decided to resist and began hurriedly to seek allies in Europe. However this would take time as the Christian powers were involved elsewhere whilst the centralized Ottomans have in advance mustered their forces and prepared for war. The invasion began by the summer of 1570.


“Today, which is the 25th day of July, the news arrived that the Turks landed in Cyprus more than 200 thousand men, cavalry and infantry, and twelve thousand soldiers, as well as four thousand horsemen, who were on their way to camp at Famagusta”


“Of this war of the Turks against my lords of Venice, from what one can hear, the cause was Mustaffa Pasha, in order to win the favour of the Sultan, and, in part, the Ragusans…and the bad offices of Gian Miches, Duke of Naxos, who put it abroad that these my lords were starving and that the fire at the Arsenal had destroyed all the galleys so that they could not construct more than 60. It was prompted by information of this kind that the Turks embarked upon the war against my lords, believing – in the face of these misfortunes – the surrender of Cyprus without a fight certain, and that if they if not take it by fair means, they would win it by force.”



BCCF B-081 (Italian)


The Turks land on the western coast of Cyprus and quickly proceed to conquer the capital, Nicosia with its brand new, but not quite completed , modern star-shaped fortifications. The city is put to the sword and as a result all other places of importance (Kyrenia) surrender immediately. Within three months of their landing (June 15th) the entire island is occupied by the Turkish army, with one exception. The premier port of Cyprus, the fortified city of Famagusta.


“On Saint Vito’s day, 30 Turkish galleys, constituting the vanguard of the armada, arrived at Paphos, while the next day, the whole of it arrived. On 3 July, they came to Alykes and immediately began to disembark they army without any obstacle. Finally, they camped outside the walls of Nicosia.


On Saint James’ day and on 2 August, the Turks took the moat and made inroads at four bastions which were not yet completely fortified. And they remained there until 8 September. And the next night, towards the dawn of the 9th [of September], some 1500 janissaries attacked in rabid fury, for an hour and a half, and they took Nicosia. When they had entered, they slaughtered anyone they encountered, so that of the whole population, Italians and Greeks, some were killed and others taken prisoner, apart from some who fled to Famagusta.


The reason why [the city] was taken so quickly was, it is said, that there was no leader or governor inside [the city] and that the Italians were fewer in numbers than was needed. All the burden of the toil and the defense fell upon those few unfortunate Italians and the Greek nobles, who never tired, day and night.


Then, in three days, the Turkish army marched as far as here, to Famagusta, and it was on 13 September that they appeared and immediately began to construct trenches and fortifications to install their artillery.”


BCCF B-080 (French)


The news printed in Paris by September of 1570 is quite optimistic and reports a number of small scale successes of the Christian armies. Among them a small skirmish in the East. Of course by that point Cyprus has fallen and the main Ottoman force is camped outside the walls of Famagusta, their last target.


“Moreover, we have had news from Cyprus of 15 July that the Turks have landed at a harbour near Famagusta thirty soldiers to strike at that city of Famagusta, in which is Sforze Pallavicine [a] captain general with a very good garrison of good and brave soldiers. And that the same sir Pallavicine has ordered underground mines to be constructed all round the city and that when those thirty thousand Turks were preparing for an onslaught on the city, they set fire to these underground mines and thus ten thousand Turks were killed. Then the same lord came out with his soldiers and also attacked the rest, and some were taken prisoners and some escaped.”


BCCF B-183 (German)


The dramatic siege of Famagusta lasts more than anyone had expected, but due to the dwindling of supplies of food and gunpowder, the garrison enters into negotiations with the Turkish commander.


“When the Turks took Nicosia, the royal capital of Cyprus, after a cruel siege, and enslaved it, using, as is their wont, the most harsh and inhuman means, all fled to the great fortified port of Famagusta, which is on the sea. On 16 February 1571, however, when [Venetians] had the order to reinforce the fleet, they sailed from Crete and arrived at Famagusta. With them were four thousand regular army, eight hundred picked soldiers from the Italian possessions, three thousand inhabitants… and some two hundred Albanians.


However, in the same way that all the necessary measures had been taken in the city for its defence, the enemy outside examined all opportunities which they had of attacking the fortifications. … At the beginning of April, Ali Pasha arrived in Cyprus, safe and unharmed.


On 25 April, the Turks made a base to set up their cannons and again one trench after the other, and all this great speed and with great art. And in order to finish everything quickly, they worked even at night, which was easier, about forty thousand men.


[The defenders] raised a new fortification wall opposite and in the face of the enemy trenches, in order to be able to strike at the enemy and to drive them far off.


Three officers … were responsible for making munitions and in this they were assisted by al the levels of the people, men who knew and had experience.


One day, however, three hundred inhabitants from the city of Famagusta with all their .. weapons, followed by many Italian marksmen, charged out, but, unfortunately, they were assaulted by the enemy who were in the ditch and the trench...which they had made close up. Although to begin with, they put the enemy to flight and killed many, in the end they suffered a great disaster. Three hundred were killed and around sixty wounded. For this reason and so that no one else would be exposed to this danger, no one now went outside the walls.


The enemy little by little drew close with their ditch and their trenches there where the trenches of the Christians were and when they had finished with these preparations also, they began on 19 May to bombard the city of Famagusta with sixty-four great cannons… Mustafa was the commander of the whole camp and himself directed the operations.


To begin with, things were not so bad, only the walls had sustained damage and bombs fell inside the city. The cannons which were inside the city of Famagusta, on the other hand, had caused major damage outside to the enemy, but he little by little strengthened his attacks.


And when the skirmishes began, everyone and the Greeks together, who were keeping watch on the walls, defended the city with heroism. The Lord Bragadino was on the Andrucci castle, the Lord Astor Baglione on the tower of St. Napa, the Lord Thiepolo in the Campo Santo, and this so that they could watch as close quarters what was going forward, in order to encourage the soldiers and the marksmen and to punish the cowardly.


During those days, when they began to bombard the city’s fortifications, the lord Bragadino and the lord Baglione put out a decree that they should distribute to the Greeks, the Italians and the other soldiers who were at the gates wine, vegetables, cheese, cheese and pickled meat in portions. When someone did not seek more to eat, his reward for that was 2 Golden each day for bread.


Even behind the trenches and the fortifications works which they had made, the enemy could not rest for a single moment, but lived in fear and despair. But when the war supplies and the gunpowder of the Christians started to be in short supply, the officers gave an order that no one should fire more than thirty shots in a row, and that in the presence of an officer, so that the munitions were not wasted.


When, finally, the Turks managed to encircle the fortified positions of the Christians, with greater losses on both sides, they began to bombard the fortifications from five different points.


[The Venetians] dug openings in the walls and placed marksmen in all the trenches, so that no one could any longer venture out.


The Turks, however, continued to pile up stones and rubble in the ditch to make it level so that they could cross to reach the fates and the trenches, which they succeeded in and arrived close to the walls at two points. As they went into the ditch, they took protect themselves by using sacks full of cotton and bundles of wood, and so those of the Christians who had undertaken the defence could no longer strike at them, even though, as is well known, it is very difficult to protect oneself from below when being attacked from above.


Then the Christians attempted to hold back the onrush of the Turks be digging openings in the ground to prevent them… But however much they dug to prevent them, they were unable to find them in the parts when they dug, though they could be heard beneath.


On 21 June, the enemy managed to fire the bastions at the tower from the building with the munitions and had blown up the walls and the fortification. [In a few days] another frigate arrived from Crete and brought the news that the Christians of Famagusta would soon and securely obtain reinforcements from the others. This news gave great joy and courage to all who were within the city and all together…worked to close the breaches in the walls, using the rubble and the stones and the sacks which the Greeks had brought. And so the Christians made good again by night from the beginning all the damage which the enemy caused by the day. No one enjoyed sleep and peace, but rather the contrary, all the soldiers were standing on the walls and their officers with them, giving them instructions. And no one found any peace, not only at night, but neither by day, under the burning sun. And the enemy without made a tumult all day long, in order to irritate those who were within the city.


By the night of 8 July…it was now impossible for the Christians to hide behind [earthworks] and those who worked to repair them were in great danger.


When the numbers of the Christians who remained there dwindled, they were forced, by the bombs which were falling, to abandon their position. And they raised new trenches and fortified positions inside the city using the double protective cover.


On 14 July, the Turks attempted to demolish the fate with cries of triumph and set up their flags next to their cannons, opposite the gate. But the lord Baglione and the lord Bragadino heartened the soldiers and all together they charged out from the fate to kill the Turks and drive them away from here. They also lit the fire which they had prepared on the left side and four hundred Turks were killed. The lord Baglione himself seized a Turk and took the flag from his hands.


The next day the Turks blew up a part of the walls, but they achieved nothing by this and did not continue with other attacks. Rather, they made earthworks in the ditch and surrounded the city in order to protect themselves better, and they filled the trenches with the rubble and they did all this hidden behind the tents, so that the Christians should not see them and realize what they were doing.


All the women of Famagusta helped by carrying various things, by boiling water in the great cauldrons or doing other jobs, nor did they fail to present themselves, nor did the clergy, at the posts which had been appointed from them, to work on to carry stones, water and other things. And wherever they saw a fire, they put it out at once.


The enemy continued to besiege the city, using other stratagems. But the moment had come when in the city there was nothing left but hope in God, in the bravery of the officers and in the loyalty and courage of the soldiers. The wine was finished, fresh or pickled meat had likewise run out, only a little cheese still remained (which it was impossible to buy even with a great deal of money). For this reason, they began little by little to slaughter all the animals … and to eat whatever they could find, stale bread or whatever else, and to drink water mixed with vinegar.


The Turks in the meantime had managed to place explosives below the walls at many points, particularly at three sensitive points on the bastion next to the central gate. And no one any longer found any rest.


The corps of Italian soldiers had largely dwindled; there remained only eight hundred persons who were still unscathed, but they were exhausted and worn out by the sleepless nights and the unbearable heat. And of the Greeks, most had been lost and the best soldiers had been killed.


For these reasons, all these who had remained inside the city resolved to prepare a letter, which they wrote on 20 July, and to give it to their lords, the lord Bragadino and lord Baglione. In this letter, they explained that the whole city and its fortifications were in a very poor condition, that only a few soldiers remained and even less food, war supplies and other items. That there was no longer any hope that reinforcements would come and they themselves had done whatever they could up to now to defend the city, putting their lives, their health and whatever else they had in danger. And that in order to save the honour of their wives and children, they could not offer resistance to the enemy and that it was preferable to surrender a honorable terms so that their wives and young children who were more in danger of slavery and dishonour would be able to escape.


While all this was afoot, the enemy approached even closer to the city, setting up fortifications and preparing explosives which they fired off altogether on 29 July.


The city’s position grew even worse. Only seven tons of gunpowder had remained and there was a great shortage of food. For this reason, all the officers together resolved, invoking the power of God, to surrender the city and its fortifications to the Turks, but on condition that no one should be harmed.


Thus in the evening of 1 August they raised white flags on the walls in order to show that they wished to capitulate. Mustafa, the leader of the Turks, sent his representative to the city of Famagusta. And it was decided that two hostages should be held by each side until they reached a final agreement.


The lord Baglione discussed and negotiated the agreement with the two Turkish hostages. They arrived at the conclusion that all the inhabitants of the city should leave without any of them being harmed, taking their weapons, their flags and all their goods which they could convey with them and, further, five carts and three of the strongest horses, and all this, having been loaded on to the ships, should go, unharmed, to Candia of Crete. On the other hand, it was agreed that the Greeks should remain in their homes and that no harm should befall them because of their Christian faith.

This agreement, as was right, was accepted by Mustafa himself, who also signed it. After this, ships sailed into the harbour of Famagusta and the soldiers loaded all the goods, while the Turks observed all that had been agreed and harmed none of the Christians. On the fifth of August towards evening and when almost all were on board the ships and were ready to set off, and the nobles wished to go with them, count Hector Martinengo went in the morning with a letter to find Mustafa himself to inform him that the Christians were ready to hand him the keys of the city.


However, the answer which Mustafa gave them … filled everyone with disquiet, as he told him to tell his superiors that Mustafa would enter the city when he could and wished to do so himself. And that he would very much like to see and to make the acquaintance of the governor of the city of Famagusta for his valour and knightly deeds, which were certainly to be praised.”


BCCF B-183 (German)


The negotiations however break down and a dramatic turn of events sees the hopes of the Christian survivors dashed. The Christians offer the following version of events.


“When this reply of Mustafa reached the hands of the lord Bragadino, it was agreed that the nobles of the city should all meet together … to go to the tent of Mustafa himself. There, to begin with, he received them with friendship and frankness. Mustafa invited them to be seated and started to converse with them. In the end, however, he accused them of giving given orders the previous night to kill certain Turks ho they had taken prisoner and were holding in prison. The nobles of the city of Famagusta replied that he was telling lies, but at the point Mustafa became enraged and gave orders that they should all be seized and bound hand and foot.


On 7 August, Mustafa entered the city of Famagusta [and] for five whole days … the Turks were spreading fear and death everywhere.


That day, the seventh of August, a Friday, the Turks celebrated with great feasts and they seized the lord Bragadino, in the presence of Mustafa himself, and they took him everywhere on the ruined fortifications of the city. … And when they reached the fortified positions, where the Christians during the siege of the city had thrown stones and boiling oil on the Turks, they forced him to bend and kiss the earth. Then they took him to the sea, made him sit on a wooden seat and raised him high up so all the Christians from the ships, the Christians who a little time before had been taken prisoner and were bound with chains, could see him. Then they took him to the central square of the city of Famagusta, took away from him the two sacks [of stones] which he was laden, bound him, and began to torture him with appalling torments. * But however much they tortured him, the lord Bragadino neither played the coward or lost his courage. On the contrary, he cried out to his enemies that they had betrayed their faith and he charged them with their dishonourable and tyrannous practices. And then, after he had shown great endurance, God quietly called him to Himself. When he expired, the Turks flayed him and, having filled his skin with straw, hung it high up on a pole and took it as far as Syria so that all Christians would see it and realize how the Turks were making a mockery of them. “


BCCF-B183 (German)


The same avvisi however also reprints the wording of the letter from the Ottoman commander to the Sultan and offers a very different version of events. Unfortunately it is beyond the scale of this review to offer analyses upon the factual basis of either claim.


“In the city they had already started to collect together their goods, the nobles and the rest of the officers, and to load them on to the ships which were anchored in the harbour to convey the Christians, which was a proper and good thing, as their nobles and superiors said. But when, in the evening, the Christians had loaded all the goods on to the ships and most of them were now ready set forth, an order was given to kill fifty Turks (whom they still had imprisoned in the city) and they killed them all except two. These two escaped and went and to the pasha. The next day the pasha, when the officers came from the city to find him, told them everything that he had heard, how they had given an order to kill the Turks whom they were holding imprisoned. Yes, they were the ones, replied the senior of the Christians and what was done was done well. But the rage of the commander Mustafa flared up and he gave orders that they should kill the fifty Christian soldiers, the nobles and the officers on the spot. But the others, those who were on board the ships, he bound them all in the chains and sold as slaves. On the other hand, those remained in the city came to no harm. Then we arranged in the churches whatever is necessary for our faith and we began to pray to our Lord and God and to beseech Him to give health to our lord. Other fortifications such as these we had never seen in our lives.”


BCCF – B230 (Venetian)


On October 7th the fleet of the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League (consisting of Hapsburg Spain, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, Savoy, Knights Hospitaller, Tuscany and other Italian states) clash off the coast of Greece at Lepanto(in which Miguel de Cervantes was wounded and lost his left arm). The result is a crushing defeat of the Turkish fleet that thrills Europe. However the strategic impact of the battle is minimal. Cyprus is firmly within the Ottoman hands by then (Famagusta having fallen two months prior) and during the winter lull in campaigning the Turks rebuild their entire fleet. By 1572 the Holy League shows signs of disunity and Venice seeks to return to its mercantile endeavors and signs a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire ceding Cyprus to the Sultan. The only consolation to the Christians is the tactical triumph at Lepanto and a fictional lamentation of Sultan Selim II. upon hearing the news that appears as a poem in the final avvisi concerning the War of Cyprus.


“Blessed be the name of the Lord, who by the presence of that holy martyr [Bragadino] in paradise and by his supplications swiftly granted him revenge on those dogs, since after a short space of time in a miraculous manner he crushed their armada, granting the Christians so signal and eternal a victory.


Selim was in a hall at a great feast with nobles and damsels when the news – which for him was neither good nor welcome – arrived: that of his ruined armada nothing remained. And he struck his head against the wall, howling with cries to reach the stars, while in his rage his breath was poison.


[Sultan Selim ends the lamentation:]


“Knowing, then, that I shall have so bad an end, what else am I to do but to try to save myself? In order to escape the ultimate disaster, I will present myself to the Pope. He will absolve me and that is the best thing he can do. And he will rightly teach me the faith when I seek mercy at his feet.

And when the holy farther has forgiven me, I shall ask him to baptize me on the instant. When that happens, I will gave feasting and song. And everyone will rejoice at that. All my bitter tears will turn to joy, since I will have repented of all the cruel acts which I have committed.

Since  it has pleased the Lord of Glory to leave an eternal memorial of me.”

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