June 17, 1462 Son of the Dragon

In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for extraordinary cruelty.

Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.  Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”. He nearly kept one of them too, until stumbling into the real-life story of Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and front-line warrior, against the Jihad of his day.

In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “the Devil”. In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”.

166-vlad-tepes_246_9379154c5086651cL.jpgStoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL”. In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for his extraordinary cruelty. There are tales of Țepeș disemboweling his own mistress. That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries.  Some 24,000 of them. That he dined among forests of victims, spitted on poles. That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.

In 1436, Vlad II became voivode (prince) of Wallachia, a region in modern-day Romania situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains.  The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, and dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back..

A weakened political position left Vlad II no choice but to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, in the form of an annual Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and a contribution of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as Janissaries in the elite slave army of the Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was taken hostage by the Sultan in 1442, along with his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu.  The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time and both became skilled horsemen and warriors. Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing an incandescent hate for his captors which would last all his life.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II set his sights on the invasion of all Europe.

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Fall of Constantinople

The younger Vlad gained the Wallachian throne three years later and immediately stopped all tribute to Sultan Mehmed II, by now risen to 10,000 ducats per year, and 1,000 boys.  When a group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, the Prince ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls.

Vlad now consolidated power as his reputation for savagery, grew.  According to stories circulated after his death, hundreds of disloyal boyars (nobles) and their allies met their end, impaled on spikes.

Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, now amassed power of his own, setting his sights on campaigns against Anatolia, the Greek Empire of Trebizond and the White Sheep Turkomans of Uzun Hasan.   Throughout this period, Romanian control of the Danube remained a thorn in his side.

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Danube River

Pope Pius II declared a new Crusade against the Ottoman in 1460, but Vlad Țepeș was the only European leader to show any enthusiasm.  The Hungarian General and Ţepeş’ only ally Mihály Szilágyi was captured by the Turks, his men tortured to death and Szilágyi himself sawed in half.

Țepeș invaded the Ottoman Empire the following year.  In a letter to Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus dated February 11, 1462, Țepeș wrote:  I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with him (Sultan Mehmed II).

The Sultan invaded Wallachia at the head of a massive army, only to find a “forest of the impaled”.  The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen long and seven stades wide”.

To give a sense of scale to such a horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena.

Vlad DraculaOutnumbered five-to-one, Ţepeş employed a scorched earth policy, poisoning the waters, diverting small rivers to create marshes and digging traps covered with timber and leaves. He would send sick people among the Turks, suffering lethal diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and bubonic plague.

From his years in captivity, Ţepeş understood Ottoman language and customs as well as the Turks themselves.  Fearless, he would disguise himself as a Turk and freely walk about their encampments, gaining valuable intelligence on the Sultan’s organization.

On this day in 1462, the Son of the Dragon launched a night attack on the Ottoman camp near the capital city of Târgoviște, in an effort to assassinate Mehmed himself.  Knowing that the Sultan forbade his men from leaving their tents at night, a force of some 7,000 to 10,000 horsemen fell on Mehmed’s camp three hours after sunset.  The skirmish lasted all that night until 4 the next morning, killing untold numbers of Turks, their horses and camels.  Ţepeş himself aimed for the Sultan’s tent, but mistook it for that of two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha.

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The Battle With Torches by Romanian painter Theodor Aman. It depicts the The Night Attack of Târgovişte,

Mehmed II “The Conqueror” survived the Night Attack at Târgovişte.  In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would twice be deposed only to regain the throne but never able to defeat his vastly more powerful adversary.

“Vlad the Impaler” was exiled to Hungary where he spent much of his time, in prison.  He died fighting against the Ottomans in December 1476 or January 1477, his body cut into pieces and his head delivered to the Sultan.  Drăculea is buried in an unknown grave, stories of his cruelty told and retold in Russian, German and a hundred other languages.  Five hundred years later, the Son of the Dragon is remembered as the un-dead vampire, Count Dracula.

 

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August 10, 1920, Ottoman Empire

Throughout the period, the “secret sauce” of Ottoman power was an army of elite infantry called “Janissaries”.  Janissaries were Christian slaves, usually taken as spoils of war, or sold into slavery as children. They came from all over the Ottoman Empire, though the sons of Greek, Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian Christians were preferred. Turkic and Jewish boys were never forced to comply with the Janissary system.

The Anatolian Peninsula is the westernmost point of Asia, forming the northern coastline of the eastern Mediterranean.  Today we call it Turkey.  In the 13th century it was home to a collection of small emirates and Ghazi (Warrior for Islam) principalities, called ‘Beyliks’.

The Turkish tribes united under Osman Bey in 1299 grew to become one of the most powerful forces in history.  A 600-year empire called the Ottomans.

The Ottoman victory at Kosovo in 1389 marked the end of Serbian power in the Balkans.  Christian Europe launched a Crusade six years later, in an effort to relieve the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople, by then virtually all that remained of the eastern Roman Empire.  This, the last of the major Crusades, was crushed at Nicopolis, in modern day Bulgaria.  After the battle, a handful of nobles were held for ransom, those judged to be younger than 20 were sold into slavery.  The rest, as many as 3,000 knights, were bound together in groups of three, and systematically beheaded.  Never again would Greater Europe be altogether free of Islamic influence.

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Siege Cannon of Sultan Mehmet II

By the 15th century, Ottoman controlled lands surrounded the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople.  The forces of 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to the city in 1453, its ultimate defeat and sack punctuating the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and the birth of the “New City” – Istanbul.

Throughout this period, the “secret sauce” of Ottoman power was an army of elite infantry called “Janissaries”.  Janissaries were Christian slaves, usually taken as spoils of war, or sold into slavery as children. They came from all over the Ottoman Empire, though the sons of Greek, Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian Christians were preferred. Turkic and Jewish boys were never forced into compliance with the Janissary system.

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Janissary recruitment in the Balkans

Janissaries weren’t free, nor were they common slaves. They were subject to severe discipline, but paid salaries and retirement pensions, forming a distinct social class in Ottoman society. As boys, usually 10 to 12, they were taken from their parents and given to Turkish families to learn the language and customs. They were then enrolled in Janissary training, indoctrinated into Islam, and kept under 24-hour supervision.

Janissaries were prohibited from growing beards and taking up a skill other than war, and were forbidden to marry.

They were an elite slave army, in many ways resembling a modern army.  Janissaries were the first to wear unique uniforms, first to be paid regular salaries for their service, the first to march in cadence, to music. They lived in barracks and made extensive use of firearms, campaigning with their own medical teams of Muslim and Jewish surgeons operating mobile hospitals behind the lines.

suleiman-i-2-sizedThe Ottoman Empire reached the height of its power during the 16th and 17th centuries, under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. One of the most powerful states in the world and ruling over 39 million subjects, the Ottoman Empire controlled a territory spanning three continents:  over two million square miles.

Serbia went to war with the Sultan for its independence in 1804, followed closely by Greece. Sultan Selim III attempted to modernize the army, but his reforms were opposed by the religious leadership and by the Janissary corps. Selim’s reforms would cost him his throne and ultimately his life, but internal order was restored in 1826, when Mahmud II put the Janissary Corps down in a bloody “reform”.

The Ottoman Empire then entered a period of decline, from which it would never emerge. Still one of the five continental Great Powers by the turn of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was “the Sick Man of Europe”, with its many minority populations pushing for independence.

Loyalty-obsessed to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II told a reporter in 1890 that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear”.  Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered in the pogroms of 1894-96.

The Armenian genocide began in earnest with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians within the Ottoman Empire of any semblance of leadership and begun on “Red Sunday”, April 24.  Detainees began to be deported within the Ottoman Empire by the end of May, their number reaching 2,345.  Most, were eventually murdered.

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Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor.   Women, children, the elderly, and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert.  Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and outright murder. By the early 20s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

To this day, it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times wouldn’t use the term, until 2004.

This April, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

The Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the losing side during WWI, its ultimate disintegration beginning on August 10, 1920, when representatives of Sultan Mehmed VI signed the Treaty of Sèvres.  Future conflicts and treaties would shape and refine the borders, but the “Middle East” as we know it, was borne of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Empire c1900

Mustafa Kemal and his “Young Turks” demanded complete independence, the Treaty of Lausanne creating the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923.  Kemal became the country’s first president, granted the honorific “Atatürk” (“Father of the Turks”), in 1934.  Multi-party democracy was established in 1946.  Ever since, the Turkish military and judiciary have viewed themselves as defenders of the Kemalist ideals of a secular Turkish state.

Today, the former seat of the Ottoman Empire is 95% Muslim.  The philosophical descendants of Atatürk vie with those of Erdoğan, the modern, constitutionally secular state, versus the fundamentalist theocracy.

Last year, elements of the Turkish military staged the 6th coup since 1960, in opposition to the increasingly Islamist policies of President Erdoğan, a man who once likened democracy to a bus:  It gets you to your destination…then you get off.  One man, one vote, one time.  The coup was put down with a death toll of 265. 3,000 soldiers were arrested, and some 2,700 judges, fired.

As a NATO member, Turkey is privy to some of the US’ most closely held military secrets. Some 50 thermonuclear weapons are housed at Incirlik Air Base, 68 miles from the Syrian border, currently the hottest combat zone, on the planet.  The strategic thinking behind such basing decisions are difficult to understand, at best.  No aircraft currently based in Turkey, is capable of carrying even one of these weapons.

One might wish the history unfolding before our eyes, was more of a political issue, here in the States.