Part 2: The fall of Trebizond
But Mehmed’s immediate concern was re-asserting control over the Ottoman vassal state of Serbia. In the following years the Ottoman army waged war against the Serbs and Romanians. Those later battles became infamous for atrocities carried out by the Romanian Prince Vlad III whose mass executions earned him the name Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Dragon). Once the Balkan states had been subdued, the Sultan turned his attention to the Despotate of Morea in Greece. Morea fell to the Ottoman army in 1460 leaving Trebizond as the final enclave of Byzantine civilisation. To shore up support among the neighbouring emirates the Emperor of Trebizond John IV married his daughter Theodora to the rival Sultan of the ‘White Sheep Turkmen’ Uzun Hasan and re-affirmed alliances with neighbouring Georgia and Sinope. John did not live to see his alliances tested. He died in 1459 and his younger brother David ascended to the throne.
Following the winter of 1461 Mehmed again rallied his forces – drawing troops from both sides of the Bosphorus – combining his European and Asian armies. Accounts at the time estimate that the force comprised of 80,000 infantry and 60,000 cavalry led by a former Janissary who had become the Sultan’s Vizier – Mahmud Pasha Angelović. Supporting the army on the Black Sea was a naval force of some 200 galleys and a ten warships under the separate command of Admiral Kasim Pasha. The objective of the campaign was a closely held secret to ensure that the newly conquered Ottoman territories remained subservient.
A few primary sources exist that give an account of the campaign against Trebizond. From the Byzantine perspective the Greek historian Kritovoulos recorded many of the events as they unfolded in his ‘History of Mehmed the Conqueror’. Years later a former Janissary named Konstantin Mihailović would also write about the siege of Trebizond as he experienced it firsthand from within the ranks of the Sultan’s forces. Kritovoulos provides the wider political context while Konstantin offers a rare account of the day-to-day experience of life on the march.
Although Mehmed’s army was one of the largest ever fielded during the medieval period he still faced serious threats from the neighboring Persian and Seljuk Emirates. Konstantin writes that:
Trebizond, like Sinope, lies on that side of the Black Sea. The Trebizond land is mountainous and great, surrounded everywhere by heathens – all Tatars – such as the Great Khan and also Uzun Hazan and Dienik Bey. These Tatar lords preferred to have the Emperor of Trebizond as a neighbour than the Turkish Emperor [Mehmed] of their heathen faith”
Before heading into the mountains around Trebizond Mehmed’s army conducted a show of force for these neighboring Emirates. Mehmed laid siege to Sinope and secured their surrender along with the city of Amaseia. Next he marched his army into the territory of Uzun Hasan and took the fortress of Koylu Hisar on the frontier. Hasan sent his mother, Sara Khatun, to the Sultan’s camp to negotiate on his behalf. Sara was another descendant of the Komnenos family and she attempted to discourage Mehmed from continuing his campaign. From Steven Runciman’s ‘the Fall of Constantinople’;
Mehmed received the Princess graciously. He did not wish as yet to match himself against the White Sheep. He consented to make peace, on condition that he retained Koylu Hisar. But Sara’s attempts to save her daughter-in-law’s homeland failed. ‘Why tire yourself my son’ she asked her host, ‘for nothing better than Trebizond?’ He replied that the Sword of Islam was in his hand; he would be ashamed not to tire himself for the faith”
Once he felt that he had successfully isolated Trebizond diplomatically Mehmed ordered his army to begin the arduous trek over the mountains to the city itself. Meanwhile the Ottoman navy blockaded Trebizond and landed forces under the walls of the city to begin the siege. The Greek historian Kritovoulos recounts that the Byzantines attempted to break out on several occasions;
Twenty-eight days of siege thus passed. During them there were some sorties by the garrison against the besiegers, in which they proved no less strong than the attackers. However, as they were fewer, and were attacked vigorously by larger numbers, they were soon driven back in, and shut up in the city
While the garrison held off the naval forces the full might of the Ottoman army painstakingly made its way though mountain passes- cutting new roads to avoid those held by the remaining allies of Trebizond. Kritovoulos recorded the journey with all the adjectives he could muster;
For this Taurus mountain, although called one mountain, embraces many mountains difficult to cross and difficult to extricate oneself from, and heights stretching above the clouds and steep. There also are very lofty and sheer peaks and deep and yawning precipices, and crags and difficult passes, and chasms, ascents, and declivities, hard and arduous places in plenty. All these make the crossing very difficult and vexatious, and painful and dangerous.
The Janissary Konstantin echoes this account in his ‘Memoirs of a Janissary’;
Rain fell every day so that the road was churned up as high as the horses’ bellies everywhere. . .and so, with great effort, we arrived at a mountain in the Trebizond region. The road descending from this mountain was ruined and blocked [by felled trees]. The Emperor himself had 100 wagons his own. Seeing that because of the wagons the army could go nowhere, for it was so very wet that all the wagons had become stuck, the Emperor ordered that the wagons be cut up and burned, and he gave away the horses to anyone who wanted to take one, And the freight that was on the wagons was all loaded onto camels, for the Emperor, fearing a bad road, in accordance with popular report, had brought with him 800 camels. And from there he marched with the camels from mountain to mountain. . . and from there the Emperor sent 2000 raiders to Trebizond. These were defeated and all killed before Trebizond, and we could get no news of them until the Emperor himself arrived
The Sultan’s Vizier Mahmud Pasha arrived before the main bulk of the army. He sent an envoy to the city – officially to demand the surrender of the Emperor but secretly to make contact with his cousin George Amiroutzes. As the most senior minister in the Byzantine court Amiroutzes held substantial influence. In the past his role as the Emperor’s ‘Protovestiarios’ was available only to eunuchs. The assumption had been that only those unable to have children of their own could be trusted to uphold the interests of the Emperor. By David’s time that tradition had been discarded. Through the envoy Pasha offered Amiroutzes a share of the spoils and a prominent position in the Ottoman Empire if he could convince David to surrender the city. A few hours later the full might of the Ottoman army began to descend from the mountains and take up positions beneath the walls of the city. Amid the thousands of troops were the white-turbaned Janissaries protecting Mehmed himself. Kritovolous records that the terms of surrender offered by Mehmed were simple:
To [David] he promised that he should have special attention from the Sultan, a large territory, a sufficient income for the sustenance and ease of them all, and everything necessary for his contentment. To the entourage he promised the right to live with their wives and children, quite free from evils, and to enjoy their fatherland and their homes. But he also promised that if, now that the great Sultan called on them to make this agreement, they should not consent, they would no longer be allowed even to remember in future the agreements or treaties, if once they decided in their rage and fury to make war. Instead they would be judged by arms and by iron. Being made prisoners in war, they would suffer death and plunder and enslavement and all the dire consequences of war and capture.
Runciman writes that David was placed in an impossible position;
With Amiroutzes continually reminding him that resistance was useless and with Sara writing to give her personal word that he and his family would be honorably treated, David gave way. It is hard to blame him. Uzun Hasan and his Turkish allies had failed him. No Western power could reach him with aid; and the Georgians would not intervene alone. Trebizond with its strong fortifications might have held out for weeks; but no one was coming to its rescue.
David secured for his family and household a guarantee of safety. Some of the Byzantine nobility were also spared and taken with the Komnenos family on ships back to Constantinople. The rest of the city’s inhabitants were dealt with as if the city had been taken by force. Runciman’s account matches up with the other sources:
Every remaining male citizen and many of the women and children were enslaved and divided between the Sultan and his ministers. Other women were shipped to Constantinople; and eight hundred boys were picked for the Janissary corps
The Sultan rewarded Amiroutzes for his loyalty and, a few years later, he proved his loyalty to the Sultan once again. In 1463 Amiroutzes learned of correspondence between David and his niece- Uzum Hasan’s wife. The letters discussed the possibility of sending one of David’s sons to join Hasan’s household. Amiroutzes conveyed this information to Mehmed who considered it treason. In November of that year David, along with his nephew and six of his seven sons, were taken to the Yedikule Fortress within Constantinople and executed. The Sultan gave orders forbidding a burial for the Komnenos men but David’s wife, the Empress Helena, was reported to have dug graves for them by herself in defiance of the Sultan.
In an Epilogue to his History of the Byzantines historian Lars Brownworth refers to the exiled survivors of Constaninople and Trebizond as the embers that ignited the Renaissance:
The fall of Constantinople may have extinguished the last vestige of the Roman Empire, but the immense light of its learning wasn’t snuffed out. Refugees streamed into western Europe, bringing with them the lost jewels of Greek and Roman civilization. The first blush of humanism was just stirring the West’s collective soul, and it received Byzantium’s precious gift with enthusiasm. Partial copies of Aristotle’s works had been well known for centuries, but now Europe was introduced to Plato and Demosthenes, electrified by the Iliad, and captivated by Xenophon and Aeschylus. Byzantine émigrés tutored luminaries as diverse as Petrarch and Boccaccio and the wealthy Cosimo de’ Medici was so impressed by a Byzantine lecturer that he founded the Platonic Academy of Florence. The result was a “rebirth” or “Renaissance,” as it was soon called, during which western Europe was reintroduced to its own roots.
Following Mehmed’s conquests the Janissary corps began to play an even greater role in Ottoman politics. Each Sultan that succeeded Mehmed relied even more heavily on the elite soldiers and they, in turn, demanded greater and greater concessions for their loyalty. Over generations the Janissaries became a pseudo-aristocracy – able to confer their status on their offspring or induct the sons of influential Turkish families without subjecting them to the training or military service. Much like the Praetorian Guard in Imperial Rome they instigated palace coups to replace Sultans that were uncooperative. By the 17th Century the Janissaries were the dominant political force in Ottoman politics. They overthrew the Sultan Osman II and executed him in the same fortress where Mehmed had ordered the Komnenos men to death all those years before. By the time the organisation was disbanded amid a bloody coup in 1826 the Ottoman Empire itself was in decline and the Greek and Serbian populations had successfully fought for and won independence from the Sultan.
Ioulia Kolovou – The Dangerous Women Project; Anna Comnena
Anna Comnena – The Alexiad
Roger Bacon – Opus Majus
Lars Brownworth – Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization
Nicolo Barbaro – Diary of the Siege of Constantinople
Konstantin Mihailović – Memoirs of a Janissary
Daniel Pipes: Military Slaves; A Uniquely Muslim Phenomenon
Brabara Hill: Imperial Women in Byzantium 1025-1204
Steven Runciman – The Fall of Constantinople
Donald M. Nicol – The Last Centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453
Michael Kritovoulos – History of Mehmed the Conqueror