Book Review of Cross and Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of South-Eastern Europe (14th-15th Centuries)
Posted by William Young on August 18, 2011
David Nicolle. Cross and Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of South-Eastern Europe (14th-15th Centuries). Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84415-954-3. Maps. Chronology. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 256. $39.95.
Dr David Nicolle is the author of numerous books dealing with medieval European and Islamic warfare, including Constantinople 1453: The End of Byzantium (2000), Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade (2001), Crusader Warfare (2007), and Knights of Jerusalem: The Crusading Order of the Hospitallers 1100-1565 (2008). He has been a prolific writer for the Osprey military history series. In the present study, the author provides a narrative that examines the complex history of Southeast Europe and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Nicolle addresses the culture of the numerous groups of people in the region, including government and politics, economics, religion, law, literature, as well as military tactics and equipment. His study focuses on the turbulent history of the Middle East and the gradual unifying effect of Ottoman military might over a fragmented Anatolia and Southeast Europe.
The main thrust of this study that will interest military historians is on the Ottoman conquest of Southeast Europe. By the fourteenth century the Byzantine Empire was weak militarily. The Byzantines needed the alliance of the Ottoman Turks in the struggle against Christian Balkan states. 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. As Nicolle writes: “This would thereafter be the launch-pad for the Ottoman state’s eventual conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula” (p.64). In fact, the Byzantines soon turned to the Serbs and Bulgarians for assistance against the Ottoman Turks. But, the Ottomans, under Emir Murat (Murad) I (1362-89), pushed deep into Thrace, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Serbia. He became “one of the most remarkable conquerors in medieval European history” (p.66). Having captured Adrianople in eastern Thrace, Murat I renamed it Edirne and established the capital of the Ottoman Empire there in 1365. He conquered western Thrace and Macedonia in 1371-76, and then obtained the vassal states of Bulgaria in 1376 and Dobruja in 1388. Murat I took the title of sultan in 1383. He led the Ottoman forces that defeated the Serbs at the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389.
Bayezit (Bayezid) I (1389-1402) picked up where his father left off. He forced Serbia and Bosnia to become vassals of the Ottoman Empire in 1389, followed by Wallachia in 1391. The Ottomans had control of the southern Balkans, having reduced the Byzantine Empire to the area immediately surrounding Constantinople. In 1393, the Turks captured Nikopol (Nicopolis) in Bulgaria. At this point, in 1394, Pope Boniface IX, with encouragement from the threatened states of Hungary, Venice, and Genoa, declared a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The crusade would include ground and naval forces from France, Burgundy, Hungary, Knights of St. John, the German Empire, Italian city-states, Byzantine Empire, and various other Christian states. The crusade ended at the Battle of Nikopol, where the Ottomans soundly defeated the Crusaders, in September 1396. The author stresses that, “the best Crusading army that western Christendom could muster had been utterly defeated in its first real battle” (p.123). As a result, the Kingdom of Hungary was gravely weakened in its defense against the Turkish threat. Fortunately, Bayezit I turned his attention away from Europe to the danger of Timur-i Lenk (Tamerlane) on the Asian front. Timur had already overrun large parts of Russia, Iran, India, and Central Asia. In 1400, Timur moved his army into Anatolia and northern Syria, capturing Damascus in 1401, and then outmaneuvering and defeating Bayezit I at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. The Sultan was captured (and died in captivity) while the shattered Ottoman army fled to the west. Timur ravaged Turkish lands to the Aegean Sea, capturing Izmir in 1402. Nicolle points out that “the defeat . . . could have spelled the end of the Ottoman state, but the fact that it did not do so says a great deal for the inherent strength of early Ottoman government and military systems” (p.136). Fortunately, Timur turned towards the goal of conquering Chinese territory.
The Ottoman Sultanate remained in turmoil for a number of years. The Ottoman Empire experienced a series of civil wars between the four sons of Bayezit I for control of the Sultanate. As a result, Serbia, Bosnia, and Wallachia threw off Ottoman control. Eventually, in 1413, Mehmet I (Mehmed) (1413-21) emerged as the leader of the Ottomans. Ottoman power would rise under the leadership of Mehmet I, his son Murat II (1421-44, 1446-51), and his son Mehmet II (1444-46, 1451-81). The Ottomans regained the lost Balkan provinces by 1524, and forced Dubrovnik (Ragusa) to become a vassal state in 1430, followed by conquering Epirus and southern Albania in 1431-33. The growth of Ottoman power resulted in King Wladislaw (Wladyslaw) III of Poland-Hungary launching a crusade against the Turks in 1443. However, Murat II defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Varna in 1444. “Once again,” so declares Nicolle, “a victory against the biggest and best-equipped army that Western Christendom could send against them brought huge prestige to the Ottomans” (p.153). Now the Turks forced Morea to become a vassal state, and then imposed direct rule over Bulgaria in 1446. Shortly thereafter, in 1448, Janos Hunyadi, the Regent-Governor of Hungary, led a Hungarian-Wallachian invasion of Ottoman territory. This time the Turkish army under Murat II defeated the invaders at the Second Battle of Kosovo. The Turks now dominated the Balkan Region.
The youthful Mehmet II sought to conquer the fragmented remnants of the Byzantine Empire. The main goal was the city of Constantinople, technically a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Constantine XI Palaiologos (1449-53). The author points out that in “purely military terms the Byzantine Empire was now a very minor player in the events of south-eastern Europe” (p.176). But Constantinople was protected by massive walls, a small army and navy, and held the strategic island of Imroz off the mouth of the Dardanelles. Even so, the Ottomans had the advantages of a larger naval fleet, massive siege guns, and a large army against the Byzantines and their allies in the siege of Constantinople in 1453. The actual siege lasted for fifty-four days before the Turks overran the city. “The impact of the fall of Constantinople on the Byzantine world,” Nicolle writes, “was of course catastrophic and sent shock waves across Orthodox Christendom . . .” (p.217).
Mehmet II “the Conqueror” next turned towards Wallachia, Moldavia, and Greece, taking control of most of the Balkans by 1460. All that was left to resist Turkish power in the region were Venetian enclaves around Greece and the Balkans, Venetian and Genoese outposts in the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, as well as Genoese outposts in the Crimea. The Aegean and Black Seas, however, would become Ottoman lakes in the late fifteenth century, and the Venetian Republic and its overseas empire would continue its struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. The Turks would raid into northeastern Italy in the late 1490s and soon be knocking on the door of the Kingdom of Hungary.
Nicolle’s Cross and Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of South-Eastern Europe (14th-15th Centuries) is a good introduction to the early Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Southeast Europe. It conveys the complex history of the region with its numerous fragmented states over several hundred years of history. It is highly informative, but the author goes off track at times from the theme of the Ottoman’s conquest of Southeast Europe and the study almost becomes a general history of the region. The book has a few typographical errors and mistakes, which the editor should have caught, resulting in frustration and confusion for the reader. It also lacks notes citing the sources used. Overall, however, this study is useful for general readers and undergraduate students.
Dr William Young
University of North Dakota