Ottoman Conquest of the Balkans

Ottoman Conquest of the Balkans

The weaknesses of the fragmented Balkan states following the death of Stefan Uroš IV Dušan of Serbia in 1355 opened wide the door to the conquest of the Balkan Peninsula by the Ottoman Turks. The Balkan states proved no match for those militantly expansive and highly motivated Islamic invaders, who conquered most of the Balkans (except for its extreme northwestern corner) by the mid-sixteenth century. Its conquest was accomplished in two stages, separated by a decade-long interregnum in the early fifteenth century. The first stage spanned the second half of the fourteenth century, during which Thrace, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Thessaly were acquired outright and Byzantium, Serbia, Wallachia, and much of Morea were reduced to vassal clientage. The second stage, which extended over most of the fifteenth century, accomplished the destruction of Byzantium and the conquest of Constantinople; the total annexation of Serbia and Morea; the outright acquisition of Epiros, Albania, Bosnia, Hercegovina, and much of Croatia; and the imposition of vassal clientage on Moldavia.

Factors in the Ottomans’ Rise and Balkan Conquests

The Ottomans emerged from a welter of small, independent Anatolian Islamic Turkish principalities that succeeded the Seljuk Empire following its defeat by the Mongols in 1243. Most of those states were founded by Turkic tribes previously pushed out of Central Asia into Seljuk territory by the Mongols. Each of them sought to emulate the Seljuks’ former predominance, and all faced the political dilemma, common to nomad-based states, of reconciling nomadic traditions with settled, stable governing institutions. Failure to find a solution to that predicament was the bane of all previous nomad states.

As the nomad states lacked professional standing forces, their essential military foundation was continually threatened by the transitory loyalty of rank-and-file warriors, who followed a particular leader only for as long as he was successful. Nomadic traditions of inheritance, which subscribed to equal division among male heirs, worked against a ruler passing on his territorial possessions whole and to a single successor; a frequent result was civil wars among sons that weakened or destroyed the state. Moreover, the nomad warrior lifestyle worked at odds with settled agrarian and urban pursuits that generated the fiscal and economic resources on which governments depended for stability and longevity. While the rulers of the thirteenth-century Anatolian Turkish principalities primarily depended on nomad warriors for their military strength, they desired the benefits of controlling strong, settled, and organized states. Only the Ottomans ultimately succeeded.

Ottoman origins probably lay in the nomadic Turkic Kayi tribe that entered Anatolia from Iran in the early thirteenth century and became allied with the Seljuk Turks. Their tribal leader—traditionally identified as Ertuğrul—was a Seljuk vassal and received a small piece of territory in northwestern Anatolia that abutted Byzantine lands. Although other Turkish principalities shared borders with Byzantium, only that of Emir Osman I (1281-1324), the first truly historical Ottoman ruler, lay astride the main route to Europe, passing through Byzantium’s most populous and richest Anatolian territories. Throughout his reign, Osman pursued unrelenting warfare against the Christians lying directly across his border.

Islamic precepts combined with Turkic nomad warrior traditions and geography to make Osman’s political situation unique. The concept of holy war ("jihad" in Arabic, "gaza" in Turkish) was central to militant Islam. Many Muslim warriors considered it their sacred duty to expand Islam’s worldly domain by force, buttressed by the promise that those who died in the effort received the immediate reward of everlasting paradise. A Turk warrior fighting in the name of holy war was called a "gazi", but all nomad warriors, whether "gazi" or not, sought to enjoy the benefits—plunder and loot-of the militant lifestyle. With most of Anatolia held by Islamic principalities, holy war could be found only in the northwest fighting Christian Byzantium, and the possibilities for the richest fruits of combat could be found only in Byzantine possessions opposite Osman’s small state. A swelling number of Anatolian warriors were attracted to Osman’s standard, eager to fight for both religious glory and worldly rewards. His principality quickly acquired a multi- or non-tribal character, with loyalty to the house of Osman replacing strictly tribal allegiances.

The "house" of Osman was a crucial factor in the rise of the Ottoman ("Osmanlı") state to preeminence among the Anatolian Turkish principalities. Beginning with Osman and ending with the death of Süleyman I the Magnificent (1520-66), it enjoyed an unprecedented succession of ten consecutive extraordinarily talented and successful rulers ("sultans"). No other contemporaneous Christian Balkan or Muslim West Asian state was blessed with such continuity of effective leadership. Under the house of Osman, traditional nomad attachment to successful commanders became institutionalized as dynastic loyalty, and nomadic mentality gave way to state stability.

One important key to the success was their capitalization on the holy war concept, which provided them with a large, highly motivated military force as well as with a mass following of itinerant peasants and townspeople who flocked to their state from throughout Anatolia seeking new homes and lives in the rich lands captured from Byzantium. The Ottoman principality quickly evolved into a large, heterogeneous, and dynamic frontier society, in which all inhabitants shared an amorphously eclectic lifestyle.

Popular Islamic culture held sway in the Ottoman border state. Holy war was viewed as an absolute duty to be conducted continuously against nonbelievers. None of classical Islam’s conditional restraints on defining "true" holy war were given serious consideration. For Ottoman border society, Islam itself was more oral tradition and "sufism" (the mystical branch of Islam, technically considered "orthodox") than scholarly theology and accepted law schools. Most Ottomans, rulers and ruled alike, were connected in some way with interrelated networks of religious mystical orders ("dervişes"), urban fellowships ("ahis"), and craft guilds ("esnafs") found throughout Anatolia.

The early Ottoman rulers proved extremely adept at welding their diverse followers into a loyal, unified society. They succeeded because they themselves were full-fledged members of that society. Not only were they successful military commanders, they were "gazis" themselves. They were members of mystical derviş orders, leaders of ahi fellowships, and closely tied to the trade guilds. (Each ruler was trained in a particular craft until well into the imperial period of Ottoman history.) Those institutions, networks provided the rulers with financial support, intelligence information, recruiting pools for additional followers, and sometimes fifth-columnists within enemy states. Endowed with stout military and broad popular support, the early Ottoman rulers possessed unique tools for expanding their small border principality into an empire.

To consolidate a stable principality, the Ottoman rulers needed a capital city to serve as a political and economic center. This was accomplished when Osman’s son and successor Orhan captured Bursa from the Byzantines in 1326. Possessing a capital of his own, Orhan began acting the ruler in the accepted classical Islamic traditions of the Seljuks, building mosques, patronizing fellowships and guilds, and attracting Muslim scholars. Soon after Orhan took Bursa, the rest of Byzantine Anatolia fell into his hands, and the Ottoman state became a recognized leading power among the Anatolian Turkish principalities.

By 1354 Orhan could stand on the Bosphorus shore of his lands and peer over at the towering walls and majestic domes of Constantinople on the opposite bank. His state had arrived at an important crossroads, both geographically and figuratively. He controlled the Anatolian access to the most important overland European-Asian trade routes, whose central terminus was the Byzantine capital. He also faced a choice regarding the future road for Ottoman state expansion: To move into Christian Europe or to continue on in Islamic West Asia. The fortuitous acquisition of Gallipoli on the European side of the Dardanelles Strait in 1354 settled the question in favor of continued holy war in the Balkans.

A combination of factors accounted for the Ottomans rapid and vast Balkan conquests. Once again, the Islamic holy war concept lent them a motivating morale that their European foes initially could not equal. Ottoman forces repeatedly overcame unfavorable battlefield odds to defeat their more numerous European enemies. The compact formations and lumbering shock tactics of the heavily armored Europeans were no match for the more lightly armored Ottoman nomadic horse-archers, who relied on speed, fluidity, and deception in combat. Perhaps more important, the Turk warriors commitment to both holy war and their Ottoman commanders consistently gave them the combat advantage in terms of morale and unity of command (which military experts regard as utterly crucial for battlefield success). Their European enemies, on the other hand, fielded armies composed of independent-minded nobles (whose eagerness to fight for their ruler depended on the perceived advantages to themselves such action might bring) and impressed, untrained peasants (who had little to gain by risking their lives), which made high combat morale and obedience to the commander’s orders somewhat problematic on the battlefield. The armies of state alliances and crusades were usually hastily constructed from forces led by rulers jealous of their own positions and often in direct competition with one another, whose motives for united action were based either on personally threatening circumstances or on political and spiritual benefit. Such forces demonstrated little unity of command and battlefield cohesion. The Ottomans consistently won those campaigns that mattered. As the Ottomans victories in the Balkans multiplied, increasing numbers of Anatolian warriors flocked to their ranks, and their territorial conquests grew. In the wake of the advancing armies arrived a steady stream of settlers from the Ottomans cosmopolitan border society in Anatolia. Many came voluntarily, seeking new lives in a new land, settling in the cities and country sides of the newly won territories. Some, such as the more nomadic pastoral tribes (termed yürüks), were colonized at the sultans orders in regions depopulated by decades of warfare or to secure and protect strategic lines of communication. As Ottoman territory in the Balkans expanded, the new arrivals provided both a ready recruitment pool for the larger army needed to serve on the borders and a demographic base to ensure firm Ottoman control.

The sultans of the conquest proved to be master strategists and tacticians. They were open to advice from their subordinate commanders and knew how to delegate authority, with the assurance that their orders would be obeyed. The sultans learned lessons from their own successes and mistakes as well as from those of their adversaries, and they were pragmatic and willing to break with tradition whenever there was a practical reason for doing so (such as adopting early gunpowder weapons, especially artillery, over protests from subordinates that these were “unclean” and not in the tradition of classical Islamic warfare).

The Ottoman rulers’ skills also were manifest in the political sphere. Unlike their European Christian enemies, who were fragmented politically and at odds with one another, the Ottoman sultans enjoyed centralized authority that facilitated consistent political action. The state itself was their personal possession, in which their will was law (so long as it did not conflict with Islamic sacred law, the "Şeriat"). To counteract the traditional nomadic Turkish system of shared inheritance and to guarantee that the state’s unity would be preserved by orderly succession, the early sultans initially designated their eldest sons viceroys ("vezirs") and top military commanders, thus giving them firsthand leadership experience and the opportunity to win the warriors’ allegiance. When, by the mid-fifteenth century, that system proved disruptive, a system of fratricide was institutionalized: Upon a sultan’s death, the son who received the allegiance of the key military, administrative, and religious leaders had all of his remaining brothers killed.

The sultans of the conquest successfully broke the innate restraints of nomadic tradition on their authority by making use of institutions adapted from the Byzantines and Seljuks. To impose some measure of permanent control over their nomad warriors, they created a "service nobility" of sorts by granting tribal leaders and notables lucrative land grants for their support in territories won from the Christians. Those endowments, modeled extensively on the "pronoia" military grants of Byzantium, involved revenues extracted from parcels of land rather than ownership of the land itself. They were conditional upon the recipients fulfilling continued military obligations to the ruler.

To further cement their independent authority, the sultans created an efficient administrative system to furnish a stable source of tax revenues. Initially staffed extensively by experienced Christian advisors from Byzantium and other Balkan states, the Ottoman central government became dominated by the sultans’ personal household slaves, over whom the rulers held the power of life and death. Thus the Ottoman government became the most effectively centralized in all of Europe from the late fourteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries and the envy of many rulers of Christian European states.

Slaves also were key in the sultans creating their own military forces to augment (and counterbalance) the army’s nomad warriors. Following Seljuk tradition, the Ottomans formed standing professional military units of "janissaries" ("Yeni-çeri" in Turkish, meaning "New Troops”) from enslaved prisoners of war, who fell under their direct personal control and were separate from the traditional nomad warrior army. As the empire expanded in the Balkans, so too did the number of Janissaries. Like the slave-administrators, the Janissaries were completely dependent on the will of their ruler—masters, rendering them the most effective standing military force in Europe until the mid-sixteenth century.

Institutionalized slavery provided the Ottoman sultans with the means of breaking the limitations imposed on centralized state development by nomadic traditions through creating an invulnerable power base of their own. Slavery, combined with the sultans) alliances with "derviş" orders, "ahi" fellowships, and guilds scattered throughout their territories, formed the foundation on which they built their strong, centralized state.

Also important in the Ottomans, rise was their rulers’ mastery of diplomacy, coupled with their abilities to understand the inner workings of their enemies and to use that knowledge against them. Many of their Balkan conquests were accomplished through diplomatic, rather than violent, means. The sultans played the divided Balkan Christian states one against another through a series of temporary and shifting alliances, often sealed by deft political marriages with women from the ruling houses of their Christian opponents; Byzantine, Bulgarian, and Serbian spouses proliferated in the sultans’ harems.

The early sultans also realized that the Christian states were disunited internally by the growing institution of feudalism, which they came to understand, respect, and use to their advantage. The peaceful acquisition of troops and revenues was far more preferable in the sultans) eyes than their attainment by costly and disruptive warfare. Typically, the Ottomans threatened their enemies with violent military actions in hopes that their rulers would accept vassalage to the sultans, which entailed paying annual tribute and supplying military forces on demand. Only when such hopes proved unattainable, or when vassals reneged on their obligations, did the Ottomans resort to all-out warfare. Throughout the period of the conquest, Balkan Christian rulers commonly embraced Ottoman vassal status in an effort to preserve their positions and possessions. The fact that Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Bosnian rulers all eventually attempted to break their vassal pledges ultimately resulted in their military defeat and the Ottomans’ outright expropriation of their states.

The sultans of the conquest also understood the religious divisions among their Christian enemies -between Orthodox and Roman Catholic and between main-stream Christians and heretics. For example, during their military operations against the Latins in Greece, Bosnia, and along the Adriatic, the Ottomans played to their own advantage on the Orthodox populations’ deep-seated distrust of Roman Catholicism following the Great Schism of 1054 and the Crusades. When Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1425-48) agreed to reunite the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches on papal terms at the Council of Florence in 1439, the Ottomans used the disaffection of the general Orthodox population in Byzantium to ease their way in conquering the Morea and the Byzantine capital of Constantinople itself

A final factor aiding the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans was the international situation in Europe during the mid-fourteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries. The Balkan Christian states were weak and divided, while disruptive conditions hampered effective concerted action on the part of Western European states. The arrival of the Ottomans in Europe coincided with the ravages of the Black Plague throughout the West, which crippled the westerners’ ability to respond to the Turkish threat. Moreover, Western Europe then was experiencing an era of intense political fragmentation that undercut its medieval order. The Avignon Captivity (1303-78) and the resulting Roman Catholic Great Schism (1378-1418) undermined traditional papal authority. The Holy Roman Empire was transformed into a disunited federation of independent German states by the Golden Bull of 1356, and its Italian city-state possessions broke free of imperial control. France and England were locked in the Hundred Years War (1338-1453). Poland-Lithuania had its hands full with the Teutonic Knights and a rabid internal conflict between the king and the aristocracy.

Only Venice and Hungary, which lay astride most of the Balkans’ northern frontier, were in a position to oppose the Ottomans’ advance. Venice, wracked by plague and demographically small, could do little more than defend its scattered Balkan coastal and offshore possessions. The Hungarians earned lasting national glory by standing against the Turks and taking the lead in three Balkan crusades, in 1396, 1444, and 1448. All three ended in defeat because of the lowered prestige of the papacy, which carried less weight in mobilizing Christian zeal for the fight, and the unwillingness of rulers in the larger Western states to participate, lest rival states prosper in their absence by attacking them at home. All told, Western Europe adopted a defensive posture regarding the Ottomans, effectively abandoning the Balkans to them until the seventeenth century.

The First Stage of Conquest, 1354-1402

Once Orhan decided to pursue holy war against the Christians in Europe, Anatolian Turks were settled in and around Gallipoli to secure it as a springboard for military operations in Thrace against the Byzantines and Bulgarians. Most of eastern Thrace was overrun by Ottoman forces within a decade and permanently brought under Orhan’s control by means of heavy Turkish colonization. The initial Thracian conquests placed the Ottomans strategically astride all of the major overland communication routes linking Constantinople to the Balkans’ frontiers, facilitating their expanded military operations. ln addition, control of the highways in Thrace isolated Byzantium from direct overland contact with any of its potential allies in the Balkans or in Western Europe. Byzantine Emperor John V was forced to sign an unfavorable treaty with Orhan in 1356 that recognized his Thracian losses.

Soon after Orhan’s death in 1360, his successor Murad I (1360-89) captured Adrianople, the most important Byzantine military, administrative, and economic center in Thrace. By transferring his capital from Bursa, in Anatolia, to that newly won European city, which he renamed Edirne, Murad signaled his intentions to continue Ottoman expansion in Europe. Before the fall of Adrianople, most Europeans regarded the Ottoman presence in Thrace as merely the latest unpleasant episode in a long string of chaotic events in the southern Balkans. After Murad designated Edirne as his capital, they realized that the Ottomans intended to remain in Europe at Christendom’s expense.

The Balkan states immediately menaced by the Ottomans' conquests in Thrace -Byzantium, Bulgaria, and Serbia— were ill-prepared to deal with the threat.

Byzantium’s territory was fragmented mostly among the capital at Constantinople and its Thracian environs, the city of Thessaloniki and its immediate surroundings, and the Despotate of the Morea in the Peloponnese. Contact between Constantinople and the two other regions was possible only by means of a tenuous sea route through the Dardanelles kept open by the fickle Genoese. None of Byzantium’s components possessed the resources to defeat the Turks on its own, and concerted action on their part was impossible. The survival of Constantinople itself depended on its legendary defense walls, the lack of an Ottoman navy, and the willingness of the Turks to honor provisions in the 1356 treaty permitting the city to be provisioned.

Bulgaria under Tsar Ivan Aleksandur was in decline. To consolidate his authority over as much territory as possible, he divided the state into three appanages held by his sons. That policy proved only partially successful. In the 1340s a "bolyar" named Balik tore Dobrudzha away from Aleksandur’s control. (Dobrudzha later received its lasting name from a Turkish corruption of the name of Balik’s brother and successor, Dobrotitsa [ca. 1366-85] .)

Bulgaria’s cohesion was shattered further in the 1350s by a rivalry between the holder of Vidin, Ivan Stratsimir, Ivan Aleksandur’s sole surviving son by his first wife, and Ivan Shishman, the product of Aleksandur’s second marriage and the "tsar’s" designated successor. The disunity caused by the half-brothers) antagonisms was magnified during the 1350s and 1360s in the religious sphere by the ascendancy of Hesychism within the Bulgarian Turnovo Orthodox Patriarchate. Intolerant of mainstream Orthodox practices, heretics, and Jews, the Hesychasts, led by the fanatical monk Teodosii, initiated disruptive persecutions that caused popular unrest and a wave of emigrations precisely when the Ottoman threat to Bulgaria reached serious proportions.

In addition to internal problems, Bulgaria was further crippled by Hungarian attack. In 1365 Hungarian King Louis I invaded and seized Vidin province, whose ruler Stratsimir was taken captive. Despite the concurrent loss of most Bulgarian Thracian holdings to the Turks, Ivan Aleksandur became fixated on the Hungarians in Vidin. He formed a coalition against them with Dobrudzhan ruler Dobrotitsa and Voievod Vladislav I Vlaicu of Wallachia. Although the Hungarians were repulsed and Stratsimir was restored to his throne, Bulgaria emerged more intensely divided than previously. Stratsimir proclaimed himself tsar of an "Empire" of Vidin in 1370, and Dobrotitsa received de facto recognition as independent despot in Dobrudzha. Bulgaria’s efforts were squandered to little domestic purpose and against the wrong enemy.

Given Serbia’s preeminence in the Balkans under Car Stefan Dušan, its rapid dissolution following his death in 1355 was dramatic. The powerful regional Serb nobles demonstrated little respect for his successor, Stefan Uroš V. Young, weak, and perhaps mentally handicapped, Uroš was incapable of ruling as his father had. The separatist-minded "bojars" were quick to take advantage of the situation, and Serbia fragmented.

First to throw off Serbian control were the Greek provinces of Thessaly and Epiros as well as Dušan’s former Albanian holdings. A series of small independent principalities arose in western and southern Macedonia, while the Hungarians encroached deeper into Serb lands in the north. Uros held only the core Serbian lands, whose nobles, although more powerful than their prince, generally remained loyal. These core lands consisted of: The western lands, including Montenegro (Zeta); the southern lands, held by Jovan Uglješa in Serres, encompassing all of eastern Macedonia; and the central Serbian lands, stretching from the Danube south into central Macedonia, coruled by Uroš and the powerful noble Vukasin Mrnjavcevic, who held Prilep in Macedonia. Far from preserving Serb unity, Uroš’s loosely amalgamated domains were wracked by constant civil war among the regional nobles, leaving Serbia vulnerable to the rising Ottoman threat.

By 1370 Murad controlled most all of Thrace, bringing him into direct contact with Bulgaria and the southeastern Serbian lands ruled by Uglješa. Uglješa, the most powerful Serb regional ruler, unsuccessfully attempted to forge an anti-Ottoman alliance of Balkan states in 1371. Byzantium, vulnerable to the Turks because of its food supply situation, refused to cooperate. Bulgaria, following Ivan Aleksandur’s death early that year, lay officially divided into the "Empire" of Vidin, ruled by Stratsimir (1370-96), and Aleksandur’s direct successor Tsar Ivan Shishman (1371-95), who ruled central Bulgaria from Turnovo. Young, his hold on the throne unsteady, threatened by Stratsimir, and probably pressured by the Turks, Shishman could not afford to participate in Uglješa’s scheme. Of the regional Serb "bojars", only Vukašin, protector of Uroš and Uglješa’s brother, joined in the effort. The others either failed to recognize the Ottoman danger or refused to participate lest competitors attacked while they were in the field.

Uglješa and Vukasin, accompanied by the latter’s son Marko, led their forces into Western Thrace in September 1371, advancing to the Maritsa River near the village of Ormenion (Chernomen), northwest of Edirne. There Murad launched a surprise attack with his outnumbered troops and annihilated the Serbian army. Both Uglješa and Vukašin perished in the carnage. So overwhelming was the Ottoman victory that the Turks referred to the battle as the Rout (or Destruction) of the Serbs.

What little unity Serbia possessed collapsed after the catastrophe at Ormenion. Uroš died before the year was out, ending the Nemanja dynasty, and large areas of central Serbia broke away as independent principalities, reducing it to half of its former size. No future ruler ever again officially held the office of "car", and no single "bojar" enjoyed enough power or respect to gain recognition as a unifying leader. Vukasin’s son Marko, who survived the slaughter, proclaimed himself Serbian "king" ("kralj") but was unable to make good on his claim outside of his lands around Prilep in central Macedonia. Serbia slipped into accelerated fragmentation and internecine warfare among the proliferating regional princes.

In the aftermath of the Ormenion battle, Ottoman raids into Serbia and Bulgaria intensified. The enormity of the Turks’ victory and the incessant Turkish raids into his lands convinced Turnovo Bulgarian Tsar Shishman of the necessity for coming to terms with the Ottomans. By 1376 at the latest, Shishman accepted vassal status under Murad and sent his sister as the sultan’s “wife” to the harem at Edirne. The arrangement did not prevent Ottoman raiders from continuing to plunder inside of Shishman’s borders. As for Byzantium, Emperor John V definitively accepted Ottoman vassalage soon after the battle, opening the door to Murad’s direct interference in Byzantine domestic politics.

The Bulgarians and Serbs enjoyed a brief respite during the 1370s and into the1380s when matters in Anatolia and increased meddling in Byzantium’s political affairs kept Murad preoccupied. In Serbia, the lull permitted the northern Serb ‘’bojar’’Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic (1371-89), with the support of powerful Macedonian and Montenegrin nobles and the backing of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate of Pec, to consolidate control over much of the core Serbian lands. Most of the Serb regional rulers in Macedonia, including Marko, accepted vassalage under Murad to preserve their positions, and many of them led Serb forces in the sultan’s army operating in Anatolia against his Turkish rivals.

By the mid-1380s Murad’s attention once again focused on the Balkans. With his Bulgarian vassal Shishman preoccupied by a war with Wallachian Voievod Dan I(ca. 1383-86), in 1385 Murad took Sofia, the last remaining Bulgarian possession south of the Balkan Mountains, opening the way toward strategically located Nis, the northern terminus of the important Vardar-Morava highway. Murad captured Nis in 1386, perhaps forcing Lazar of Serbia to accept Ottoman vassalage soon afterward. While he pushed deeper into the north—central Balkans, Murad also had forces moving west along the ‘’Via Ingatia’’ into Macedonia, forcing vassal status on regional rulers who until that time had escaped that fate. One contingent reached the Albanian Adriatic coast in 1385. Another took and occupied Thessaloniki in 1387. The danger to the continued independence of the Balkan Christian states grew alarmingly apparent.

When Anatolian affairs forced Murad to leave the Balkans in 1387, his Serbian and Bulgarian vassals attempted to sever their ties to him. Lazar formed a coalition with Tvrtko I of Bosnia and Stratsimir of Vidin. After he refused an Ottoman demand that he live up to his vassal obligations, troops were dispatched against him. Lazar and Tvrtko met the Turks and defeated them at Plocnik, west of Nis. The victory by his fellow Christian princes encouraged Shishman to shed Ottoman vassalage and reassert Bulgarian independence.

Murad returned from Anatolia in 1388 and launched a lightning campaign against the Bulgarian rulers Shishman and Stratsimir, who swiftly were forced into vassal submission. He then demanded that Lazar proclaim his vassalage and pay tribute. Confident because of the victory at Plocnik, the Serbian prince refused and turned to Tvrtko of Bosnia and Vuk Brankovic, his son-in-law and independent ruler of northern Macedonia and Kosovo, for aid against the certain Ottoman retaliatory offensive.

Murad’s expected assault materialized in 1389. The sultan personally led the largest Ottoman force mustered in the Balkans to that time, which included Christian contingents furnished by Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, and Macedonian vassals, Kralj Marko of Prilep among them. Likewise, Lazar himself commanded the coalition army comprised of troops of his loyal Serb bajars, Brankovic’s Kosovar and northern Macedonian forces, a Bosnian contingent, and some allied Hungarian and Albanian units. The protagonists met at Kosovo Polje (the “Field of the Blackbirds”) on 28 June 1389.

In military terms, the bloody Battle of Kosovo Polje technically was a draw. So much mythology surrounds the engagement that its details largely are obscured. It is certain that both Murad and Lazar were killed—Murad perhaps by a group of Hungarian knights and Lazar, possibly after he was captured, by order of Bayezid I (1389-1402), who replaced his dead father as commander on the battlefield. Both sides sustained huge casualties, and, by the end of the day, the surviving Serbian and Bosnian troops withdrew, leaving the Turks in possession of the field. Decimated to the point that they could not pursue their enemies, the Turks also withdrew to their Thracian territories so that Bayezid could solidify his succession against opposition from his brothers.

Although a draw, Kosovo Polje proved an important Ottoman victory over the Serbs. While the Ottomans could count on an Anatolian reserve to replace their losses, the Serbs, who had mustered all of their able-bodied troops for the battle, were left irreparably weakened. In the three years following the battle, Ottoman raids forced one militarily ineffective Serb regional ruler after another to accept vassalage to Bayezid. Lazar’s young and weak successor Stefan Lazarevic (1389-1427) concluded a vassal agreement with Bayezid in 1390 to counter Hungarian moves into northern Serbia, while Vuk Brankovic, the last independent Serb prince, held out until 1392.

Bayezid, whose nickname was “the Thunderbolt,” lost little time in expanding "Ottoman Balkan conquests. He followed up on his victory by raiding throughout Serbia and southern Albania, forcing most of the local princes into vassalage. Both to secure the southern stretch of the Vardar-Morava highway and to establish a firm base for permanent expansion westward to the Adriatic coast, Bayezid settled large numbers of ‘’yürüks’’ along the Vardar River valley in Macedonia.

The appearance of Turk raiders at Hungary’s southern borders awakened Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxemburg (1387-1437) to the danger that the Ottomans posed to his kingdom, and he sought out Balkan allies for a new anti-Ottoman coalition. By early 1393 Turnovo Bulgaria’s 1van Shishman, hoping to throw off his onerous vassalage, was in secret negotiations with Sigismund, along with Wallachian Voievod Mircea the Old (1386-1418) and, possibly, Vidin’s Ivan Stratsimir. Bayezid got wind of the talks and launched a devastating campaign against Shishman. Turnovo was captured after a lengthy siege, and Shishman fled to Nikopol. After that town fell to Bayezid, Shishman was captured and beheaded. All of his lands were annexed outright by the sultan, and Stratsimir, whose Vidin holdings had escaped Bayezid’s wrath, was forced to reaffirm his vassalage.

Having dealt harshly and effectively with his disloyal Bulgarian vassals, Bayezid then turned his attention south to Thessaly and the Morea, whose Greek lords had accepted Ottoman vassalage in the 1380s. Their incessant bickering among themselves, especially those of the Greek Morean magnates, required Bayezid’s intervention. He summoned a meeting of all his Balkan vassals at Serres in 1394 to settle these and other outstanding matters. Among the sultan’s attending vassals were the Thessalian and Morean nobles, Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1391-1425), and Serbian Prince Lazarevic. At the meeting, Bayezid acquired possession of all disputed territories, and all of the attendees were required to reaffirm their vassal status.

When the Moreans later reneged on their Serres agreement with Bayezid, the angered Ottoman ruler blockaded the Morean despot’s imperial brother Manuel II in Constantinople and then marched southward and annexed Thessaly. The Duchy of Athens accepted Ottoman overlordship when Turkish forces appeared on its border. Although a massive Ottoman punitive raid into the Peloponnese in 1395 netted much booty, events in the Balkans’ northeast saved Morea from further direct attack at the time.

While Bayezid was occupied in Greece, Mircea of Wallachia conducted a series of raids across the Danube into Ottoman territory. In retaliation, Bayezid’s forces, which included Serb vassal troops led by Lazarevic and Kralj Marko, struck into Wallachia in 1395 but were defeated at Rovine, where Marko was killed. The victory saved Wallachia from Turkish occupation, but Mircea accepted vassalage under Bayezid to avert further Ottoman intervention. The sultan took consolation for his less than victorious efforts in annexing Dobrudzha and in supporting a pretender, Vlad I (1395-97), to the Wallachian throne. Two years of civil war ensued before Mircea regained complete control of the principality.

In 1396 Hungarian King Sigismund finally pulled together a crusade against the Ottomans. Comprised primarily of Hungarian and French knights, but including some Wallachian troops, the crusader army, though nominally led by Sigismund, lacked command cohesion. The crusaders crossed the Danube, marched through Vidin, and arrived at Nikopol, where they met the Turks. The headstrong French knights refused to follow Sigismund’s battle plans, resulting in their crushing defeat. Because Stratsimir had permitted the crusaders to pass through Vidin, Bayezid invaded his lands, took him prisoner, and annexed his territories. With Vidin’s fall, Bulgaria ceased to exist, becoming the first major Balkan Christian state to disappear completely by direct Ottoman conquest.

Following Nikopol, Bayezid contented himself with raiding Hungary, Wallachia, and Bosnia. He conquered most of Albania and forced the remaining northern Albanian lords into vassalage. A new, halfhearted siege of Constantinople was undertaken but lifted in 1397 after Emperor Manuel II, Bayezid’s vassal, agreed that the sultan should confirm all future Byzantine emperors. Soon thereafter Bayezid was called back to Anatolia to deal with continuing problems with the Ottomans’ Turkish rivals and never returned to the Balkans.

Bayezid took with him an army composed primarily of Balkan vassal troops, including Serbs led by Lazarevic. He soon faced an invasion of Anatolia by the Mongol ruler Timurlenk (Tamerlane) (1369-1405), and their armies met outside of Ankara in 1402. The Ottomans were routed and Bayezid was taken prisoner, later dying in captivity. The Ottomans were reduced to Mongol vassals. A civil war, lasting Hom 1402 to 1413, broke out among Bayezid’s surviving sons. Known in Ottoman history as the Interregnum, that struggle temporarily halted active Ottoman expansion in the Balkans.

The Second Stage of Conquest, 1413-1521

The Ottoman Interregnum brought a brief period of semi-independence to the vassal Christian Balkan states. Suleyman, one of the late sultan’s sons, held the Ottoman capital at Edirne and proclaimed himself ruler, but his brothers refused to recognize him. He then concluded alliances with Byzantium, to which Thessaloniki was returned, and with Venice in 1403 to bolster his position. Suleyman’s imperious character, however, turned his Balkan vassals against him. In 1410 he was defeated and killed by his brother Musa, who won the Ottoman Balkans with the support of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, Serbian Despot Stefan Lazarevic, Wallachian Voievod Mircea, and the two last Bulgarian rulers’ sons. Musa then was confronted for sole control of the Ottoman throne by his younger brother Mehmed, who had freed himself of Mongol vassalage and held Ottoman Anatolia.

Concerned over the growing independence of his Balkan Christian vassals, Musa turned on them. Unfortunately, he alienated the Islamic bureaucratic and commercial classes in his Balkan lands by continually favoring the lower social elements to gain wide popular support. Alarmed, the Balkan Christian vassal rulers turned to Mehmed, as did the chief Ottoman military, religious, and commercial leaders. In 1412 Mehmed invaded the Balkans, took Sofia and Nis, and joined forces with Lazarevicys Serbs. The following year Mehmed decisively defeated Musa outside of Sofia. Musa was killed, and Mehmed I (1413-21) emerged as the sole ruler of a reunited Ottoman state. I Mehmed faced a delicate political situation in the Balkans. His Serbian,Wallachian, and Byzantine vassals virtually were independent. The Albanian tribes were uniting into a single state, and Bosnia remained completely independent, as did Moldavia. Hungary retained territorial ambitions in the Balkans, and Venice held numerous Balkan coastal possessions. Prior to Bayezid’s death, Ottoman control of the Balkans appeared a certainty. At the end of the Interregnum, that certainty seemed open to question.

Mehmed generally resorted to diplomacy rather than militancy in dealing with the situation. While he did conduct raiding expeditions into neighboring European lands, which returned much of Albania to Ottoman control and forced Bosnian King-Ban Tvrtko II Tvrtkovic (1404-9, 1421-45), along with many Bosnian regional nobles, to accept formal Ottoman vassalage, Mehmed conducted only one actual war with the Europeans-a short and indecisive conflict with Venice.

The new sultan had grave domestic problems. Musa’s former policies sparked discontent among the Ottoman Balkans’ lower classes. In 1416 a popular revolt of Muslims and Christians broke out in Dobrudzha, led by Musa’s former confidant, the scholar-mystic Şeyh Bedreddin, and supported by Wallachian Voievod Mircea. Bedreddin preached such concepts as merging Islam, Christianity, and Judaism into a single faith and the social betterment of free peasants and nomads at the expense of the Ottoman bureaucratic and professional classes. Mehmed crushed the revolt and Bedreddin met a tragic death. Mircea then occupied Dobrudzha, but Mehmed wrested the region back in 1419, capturing the Danubian fort of Giurgiu and forcing Wallachia back into vassalage. Mehmed spent the rest of his reign reorganizing Ottoman state structures disrupted by the Interregnum. The renewed conquest of the Balkans was taken up by his successor, Sultan Murad II (1421-51).

After spending a year consolidating his position, Murad turned his attention to the Balkans. He initiated the sixth Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1422, raided Wallachia, and, after Venice took Thessaloniki from Byzantium in 1423, besieged that city as well, forcing the Venetians to pay tribute. In a series of treaties signed during 1424 with Hungary, Byzantium, Wallachia, and Serbia, Murad gained those signatories acceptance of vassal status and their agreement to pay tribute. Venice, its commercial predominance in the eastern Mediterranean threatened by the strong Ottoman Balkan presence, signed no treaty with Murad, so war persisted until 1430. In that year Murad captured Thessaloniki and forced the Venetians to sign a peace, in which they accepted tributary status and recognized Ottoman control of Macedonia in return for access to the Black Sea and retention of certain Balkan coastal ports. At the same time, the independent city-republic of Dubrovnik was pressured into paying similar tribute to Murad.

Of all the Christian states facing Murad in Europe, Hungary was by far the most dangerous, constituting the principle obstacle to continued Ottoman expansion in the Balkans and to future European conquests in the north and west. Murad became convinced of the need to eliminate Hungarian influence in Wallachia, Bosnia, and Serbia at all costs.

Wallachia fell into anarchy following Mircea’s death in 1418. After 1420 control of the principality had changed hands some nine times between Dan II and Radu II Praznaglava before Voievod Alexander I Aldea (1431-36), an Ottoman vassal, ended the game of musical thrones. Sigismund later arranged for Aldea’s overthrow and replacement by Vlad II Dracul (1436-42, 1443-47), who renounced Ottoman suzerainty. In Bosnia, Tvrtko II, although technically an Ottoman vassal, had once been the creature of Sigismund, and Hungarian pretensions to Bosnia remained strong.

As for Serbia, after Lazarevié died in 1427 the state was weakened once again by dynastic problems, since the dead ruler left no direct heir. During the Interregnum, Lazarevic had grown friendly toward Sigismund, accepting Hungarian suzerainty in 1411 and receiving land grants in Hungarian-held Balkan territory, including the silver mining town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. After Mehmed reunited the Ottoman state, Lazarevic renewed his vassalage to the sultan but retained his client status to Sigismund as well. As he grew ill in the 1420s, Lazarevic designated Djordje Brankovic (1427-56), a powerful Kosovo "bojar", as his successor and had him recognized as both Sigismund’s and Murad’s vassal. Murad invaded Serbia immediately on Brankovic’s elevation to the Serbian throne, and Sigismund thereupon occupied the fortress city of Belgrade, Lazarevic’s former capital, to prevent Murad from acquiring that strategically located stronghold. Brankovic was forced to build the fortress of Smederevo on the Danube, southeast of Belgrade, to serve as Serbia’s new and last capital.

Ottoman raids into Albania, Greece, and Morea intensified in the 1430s. Most local lords of those regions turned to Hungary for help. Therefore, beginning in 1432 Murad concentrated on harassing Sigismund’s kingdom and its allies, paying particular attention to Transylvania. Ottoman military efforts intensified after Sigismund died in 1437. Extensive swaths of Serbian territory were occupied outright, but Murad’s siege of Belgrade proved unsuccessful. His efforts to push on against the Hungarians were cut short in 1439 when he was called to Anatolia to deal with yet another Seljuk Turkish threat to his Asian holdings.

Murad’s European enemies attempted to take advantage of his absence.Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos traveled to Italy in a desperate effort to win military assistance against the Ottomans from the papacy and other Western rulers. The price he paid for promises of aid was the union of his empire’s Orthodox church to that of the Roman Catholic on papal terms. John signed the formal act of union at the Catholic Church Council of Florence in 1439. By the terms of the union, the Orthodox faithful were required to: Recognize the pope as the supreme head of the united Christian church instead of leadership by ecumenical councils alone; accept a Catholic modification to the definition of the Trinity in the Nicaean Creed (the so-called "filioque" clause); substitute unleavened for leavened bread in the sacrament of Holy Communion; and espouse the Catholic concept of Purgatory. In the end, however, John’s effort failed. The pope and the Western rulers were so locked in their own power struggles that no practical material aid ever materialized for Byzantium, while the empires general Orthodox clergy and population so vehemently opposed the union that John and his successors, who dutifully adhered to the agreement, lost most of their subjects) active support. Instead of strengthening Byzantium’s position, the union ultimately only weakened it further.

Murad expended some effort in bringing Albania, Epiros, and the Adriatic coastline under direct Ottoman authority. With Venice, his principal protagonist in those regions, distracted by a war with its rival Genoa, in 1441 Murad captured the Epirote center of Ioannina, and the fractious central and southern Albanian petty lords were stripped of their independence. In 1443, with Murad in Anatolia and hoping to throw off Ottoman authority completely, the Albanian lords united under the leadership of Gjergj Kastrioti, an experienced Albanian warrior who had fought in the Ottoman ranks during Murad’s previous campaigns. For the next two decades Kastriotis fought a fierce and successful guerilla war against the Ottomans in the rugged Albanian Alps, earning the name under which he became famous-Skanderbeg (Lord Alexander [the Great] ).

The Hungarians, now ruled by Wladislaw I Iagiello (1440-44) of the Polish-Lithuanian royal dynasty, saw Murad’s absence in Anatolia as an opportunity for decisive action. Led by their greatest general, Janos Hunyadi, a Magyarized Romanian noble from Transylvania, in 1441 and 1442 they attacked Murad’s skeleton Balkan forces and penetrated deep into Ottoman territory. Hunyadi’s victories mobilized some enthusiasm in the West for a new crusade to expel the Islamic enemy from European soil. Pope Eugenius IV’s (1431-47) efforts to raise a pan-European crusade failed because of the usual rivalries among the leading Western monarchs, so a smaller coalition was hastily formed. Nominally led by King Wladislaw but actually commanded by Hunyadi, the crusading force that took the field consisted of Hungarians, Wallachians under Dracul, Djordje Brankovic’s Serbs, and a large contingent of German and French knights.In 1445 Hunyadi and his crusaders crossed the Danube into Serbia, defeated two Ottoman armies, captured Nis, crossed the Balkan Mountains in winter, and advanced as far as Sofia. Weather and supply problems, however, forced Hunyadi to retire north of the Danube early in 1444. Murad, faced with Skanderbeg’s rebellion and revolts in the Peloponnese, negotiated with the crusaders, signing a ten-year truce at Edirne in 1444 that recognized Serbia’s independence under Brankovic and released Wallachia from Ottoman vassalage. Since he soon after struck a peace with his Anatolian rivals, Murad, sick of war and yearning for personal tranquility, abdicated in favor of his twelve-year-old son Mehmed, believing that the Ottoman state was secure. .

The youthful Mehmed proved unable to control his high Ottoman officials and military commanders. Made aware of the situation, Pope Eugenius urged the crusade’s renewal, and Hunyadi, under pressure from King Wladislaw but concerned over breaking the solemn oaths that bound the Edirne truce, reluctantly agreed. The new effort’s quickly conceived plans entailed a rapid march of the crusader army into the Balkans, where it would be joined by Skanderbeg and his Albanian forces for an assault on Edirne. Meanwhile, the Venetians were to seal off the Straits to prevent Ottoman Anatolian forces from crossing over into the Balkans, and Byzantine troops in Morea were to conduct diversionary attacks. In the end, the plans mostly fell through.

Unfavorable winds prevented the Venetians from closing the Straits, and Murad, hastily emerging from retirement in Anatolia to serve as supreme Ottoman military commander, bribed the Genoese into transporting a large Ottoman force to the Balkans. The Byzantine diversions in the Peloponnese came off as planned, but the crusader army°s main assault went awry. It began later than intended and its manpower was reduced by Brankovic’s refusal to participate, lest he lose Serbia’s newly regained independence. After crossing the Danube, the crusaders were forced to march eastward along its southern bank through northern Bulgaria toward the Black Sea because Brankovic refused them passage through Serbian lands. They arrived outside of the port city of Varna in November 1444 only to discover that Murad had returned and had assembled an army to meet them. In the ensuing battle, King Wladislaw was killed and the crusaders nearly were wiped out. Hunyadi survived only by ignominious flight. Skanderbeg and the Albanians never arrived and, on learning of the debacle, they retired to the fastness of their mountain strongholds.

The Crusade of Varna was the last concerted attempt by the medieval Christian West to drive the Ottomans from Europe. Its failure had profound consequences for the Balkans. As the only effort made to live up to the promises of aid given Emperor John VIII at Florence, its defeat abandoned Byzantium to its fate. The rest of the Balkan Christian states were left to fend for themselves as best they could. Divided, lacking significant military resources, and mostly dependent on Ottoman vassal status for their continued survival, they were in no position to resist serious Ottoman efforts to eliminate them entirely. Serbian Despot Brankovic reaffirmed his vassalage to Murad soon after the battle, and, in 1446, Wallachian Voievod Dracul, sensing the way that the political winds now blew, shifted his allegiance from Hungary to Murad and accepted Ottoman suzerainty.

Having dealt with the immediate danger, Murad resumed retirement but, once again, it was temporary. Mehmed remained incapable of controlling his high officials, and in 1446 a coup by the young sultanis grand "vezir" returned Murad to the throne. Resigned to his fate, Murad acted to secure definitive control over all of the Balkans. Motea was ravaged as punishment for its activities during the failed crusade, and its Palaiologian rulers were forced into tributary vassalage. Most of mainland Greece, except for Athens and a string of coastal ports and offshore islands held by Venice, was conquered outright. In 1447 Murad campaigned in Albania against Skanderbeg’s rebels, but operations were cut short by news of a new crusader invasion led by Hunyadi.

The crusaders pushed through Serbia, despite Brankovic’s refusal to participateor help, and advanced southward into Kosovo. They were joined by troops sent bySkanderbeg and Voievod Vladislav II (1447-56), Hunyadi’s new Wallachian vassal.In October 1448 Murad intercepted the crusaders at Kosovo Polje, the site of Serbia’s defeat almost sixty years earlier. After two days of battle, Hunyadi’s troops were routed, dampening Western crusading zeal and crippling Hungarian offensive capabilities. Wallachia again accepted Ottoman suzerainty, Serbia was rewarded for its neutrality by another decade of vassal existence, and Skanderbeg was left isolated. The Second Battle of Kosovo Polje guaranteed Ottoman control over the Balkans south of the Danube.

Mehmed II (1451-81) again came to the Ottoman throne following Murad’s death in 1451. Older and a good deal wiser, he made capturing Constantinople his first priority, believing that it would solidify his power over the high military and administrative officials who had caused him such problems during his earlier reign. Good reasons underlay his decision. So long as Constantinople remained in Christian hands, his enemies could use it as either a potential base for splitting the empire at its center or as an excuse for the Christian West’s continued military efforts. Constantinople’s location also made it the natural "middleman" center for both land and sea trade between the eastern Mediterranean and central Asia, possession of which would ensure immense wealth. Just as important, Constantinople was a fabled imperial city, and its capture and possession would bestow untold prestige on its conqueror, who would be seen by Muslims as a hero and by Muslims and Christians alike as a great and powerful emperor.

Mehmed spent two years preparing for his attempt on the Byzantine capital.He built a navy to cut the city off from outside help by sea; he purchased an arsenal of large cannons from the Hungarian gunsmith Urban; he sealed the Bosphorus north of the city by erecting a powerful fortress on its European shore to prevent succor arriving from the Black Sea; and he meticulously concentrated in Thrace every available military unit in his lands. A trade agreement with Venice prevented the Venetians from intervening on behalf of the Byzantines, and the rest of Western Europe unwittingly cooperated with Mehmed’s plans by being totally absorbed in internecine wars and political rivalries.In April 1453 Mehmed laid siege to Constantinople. Although the city’s defenders, led by Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos (1448-53), put up a heroic defense, without the benefit of outside aid their efforts were doomed. The formerly impregnable land walls were breached after two months of constant pounding by Mehmed’s heavy artillery. In the predawn hours of 29 May 1453, Mehmed ordered an all-out assault on the battered ramparts. After a brief but vicious melee at the walls, in which Emperor Constantine died bravely, the Ottoman troops broke through and swept over the city. Constantinople, for a millennium considered by many Europeans the divinely ordained capital of the Christian Roman Empire, fell to Mehmed and was transformed into what many Muslims considered the divinely ordained capital of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Renamed Istanbul by Mehmed, the fabled city’s imperial legacy lived on.

After three days of obligatory sacking, Mehmed began consolidating and embellishing his new capital. Justinian’s cathedral of Hagia Sophia was converted into an imperial mosque, as eventually were numerous other churches and monasteries. The rights of non-Muslim inhabitants were protected to ensure continuity and stability for commercial activities. Never fully recovered from the sack of 1204, and suffering from Byzantium’s two centuries of near poverty, Constantinople by the time of Mehmed’s conquest was but a hollow shell of its former self. Its population had dwindled, and much property was either abandoned or in a state of disrepair. The sultan immediately began to repopulate the newly renamed city. Civic and private properties were offered to the public to entice much-needed skilled artisans, craftsmen, and traders of all religions and ethnicities back to the city. Istanbul rapidly grew into a multiethnic, multicultured, and bustling economic, political, and cultural center for the Ottoman state, whose distant frontiers guaranteed it peace, security, and prosperity.

Mehmed, now known as "the Conqueror," determined to centralize his empire. In the Balkans, he decided to eradicate the last vestiges of Byzantium in Morea and to eliminate the surviving Christian vassal princes elsewhere. In 1454 he commenced a series of military campaigns, lasting until 1463, aimed at establishing a solid military defense line along the Danube and the Adriatic against Hungary and Venice.

Serbia ranked first on Mehmed’s agenda. After two years of campaigning, Mehmed acquired southern Serbia and the lucrative silver and gold mines of Novo Brdo. In 1456 a cowed Brankovič permitted Mehmed to march through his remaining lands and besiege the Hungarians in Belgrade. Mehmed’s efforts to take the fortress city were checked by Hunyadi, who arrived with reinforcements at the last moment and forced Mehmed to retire. Soon afterward Brankovic died, and the usual Serbian succession problems reemerged. In the anarchy that erupted, Mehmed laid claim to the Serbian throne, based on his having a Serb stepmother, but continuing problems with Skanderbeg in Albania and the Byzantine despots in Morea prevented him from acting immediately on his claim.

The wily Albanian commander attempted to drive out the Ottoman garrisons stationed in Albania, and Mehmed dispatched a number of expeditions to push Skanderbeg’s forces back into the mountains. While the sultan was thus occupied, the Morean despots, the brothers Demetrios Palaiologos of Mystras (1449-60) and Thomas Palaiologos of Patras (1449-60), fell into civil war. Demetrios was well disposed toward the Ottomans, while Thomas sought help from the pope and other Western rulers against both his brother and the Turks. Their conflict reduced Morea to anarchy.

Mehmed arrived in Greece in 1458 and annexed its northern regions. By early1459 Athens was taken, and a year later Thomas was forced to flee Patras. Demetrios then handed over Mystras to Mehmed. With the fall of Morea in 1460, the ByzantineEmpire ceased to exist. All of Greece, with the exception of the Venetian-controlled ports of Methoni, Koroni, and Pilos in Morea, lay under direct Ottoman authority.A year before Morea fell, Mehmed had moved swiftly north and invaded Serbia one final time, making good on his claim to the Serbian throne. What lands that remained of vassal Serbia were occupied outright by Mehmed’s forces. At the time Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus (1458-90), Hunyadi’s son, was more interested in Central European affairs than in the Balkans, so he gave scant attention to events occurring south of his border. The Serbs’ last stand took place at Smederevo, which fell to Mehmed in June 1459. With its capture, the Serbian state completely disappeared. Only the city of Belgrade, still held by the Hungarians, lay beyond Mehmed”s control south of the Danube.

Following the conquests of Serbia and Greece, Skanderbeg’s Albania continued to cause Mehmed problems. A truce was arranged with the troublesome Albanian in 1461 in time for Mehmed to deal with a Wallachian incursion into Ottoman Bulgaria led by Voievod Vlad III Dracula (1456-62, 1476), a renegade Ottoman vassal (whose cruel pathological character was internationally infamous while he lived and would serve four centuries later as the model for the central character in the vampire novel Dracula that made his name immortal [Hupchick, 2002: 120] ). In 1462 Mehmed invaded Wallachia and drove Dracula out. Instead of annexing the principality, he merely reduced it to vassal status under a new "voievod".

Alarmed by the Ottomans’ consolidation of their Balkan holdings and expansion along the Adriatic coast, Venice encouraged the redoubtable Skanderbeg to break his truce with Mehmed in 1462. Bosnian King-Ban Stefan Tomasevic (1461-65), heartened by Skanderbeg's renewed activities, renounced Ottoman suzerainty and accepted Hungarian protection. Herceg Stefan Vukcic (1455-66), lord of Hercegovina, which had separated from Bosnia in the 1440s, followed suit. Their actions elicited Mehmed’s quick response. He invaded Albania in 1465 and forced Skanderbeg to sign a new truce. Next, he turned north and overran both Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bosnia was conquered outright but Hercegovina, with Hungarian assistance, staved off a similar fate for another eighteen years, until finally falling to the Turks in 1481.

One territory closely linked to the Serbs was Montenegro, a mountainous region to Serbia’s southwest with a small coastline on the Adriatic. In the early 1450s it achieved independence from Brankovic’s Serbia under the leadership of Stefan Crnojevic (ca. 1451-65), who enjoyed Venetian support. Assisted by his state’s rugged terrain, Crnojevic turned back the raiders Mehmed sent against him during the 1450s, although a number of his regional tribal chieftains accepted Ottoman vassalage. After his death, his son Ivan Crnojevic (1465-90) swore vassalage to Mehmed in 1471, but that did not prevent the Ottomans from occupying large portions of his lands. When Ivan reneged on his tribute payments, Mehmed included an invasion of Montenegro in the massive assaults against Albania and its Venetian-held coastal cities that he dispatched in the years 1477 to 1479. Ivan was driven out and Mehmed annexed most of Montenegro.

Mehmed’s moves in the western Balkans frightened the Venetians, who dreaded the continued Ottoman approach to the Adriatic coastline and its string of port cities. They patched together an anti-Ottoman alliance with Hungary and Skanderbeg in 1465. During the war, which lasted until 1479, Venice won possession of a number of Aegean islands but experienced terrifying Ottoman raids into its northeastern Italian holdings. Skanderbeg fought on until his death in 1468, after which Mehmed conquered Albania completely. Hungary held onto Belgrade by fending off Mehmed’s second siege in 1464. Hungarian King Matthias injected a new player into the struggles with the Ottomans by securing an alliance with Moldavian Voievod Stefan the Great (1457-1504).

Moldavia traditionally maintained a policy of vassalage toward Poland to preserve its independence from Hungary. Its location in the extreme northeast, beyond both the Danube and Wallachia, spared it problems with the Ottomans until 1420, when Mehmed I first raided Moldavia after suppressing the Bedreddin rebellion. During the 1450s and 1440s the principality was wracked by civil wars, of which Sultan Murad II took advantage. As the state weakened, Voievod Peter Aron (1455-57) accepted Ottoman suzerainty and agreed to pay tribute, but, given Moldavia’s distance fromOttoman borders, his acts were more symbolic than concrete.

Stefan the Great initially used the Ottoman vassalage inherited from his father as a tool against Hungary, Moldavia’s traditional enemy. He participated in Mehmed II’s invasion of Wallachia against Dracula because, at the time, Dracula was a Hungarian ally. An exceptional military commander and organizer, Stefan captured the Danube commercial city of Kilia from Wallachia in 1465 and defeated a Hungarian invasion of his state two years later. As his successes both on the battlefield and in imposing his authority within Moldavia grew, Stefan ceased paying the annual tribute to the Ottomans, and his relationship with Mehmed II deteriorated. He invaded Wallachia in 1474 and ousted its prince, who was Mehmed’s abject vassal. In response, Mehmed demanded that Stefan resume his tribute payments and turn over the city of Kilia as well. Stefan refused and soundly repulsed Mehmed’s subsequent punitive invasion of Moldavia in early 1475.

The victorious zmievad realized that Mehmed would seek to avenge the defeat, so Stefan sought Hungarian aid by becoming Matthias Corvinus's vassal. Mehmed personally led an invasion of Moldavia in 1476, and his forces plundered the country up to Suceava, Stefan’s capital. Lack of provisions and an outbreak of cholera among the Ottoman troops, however, forced Mehmed to retire, and Stefan went on the offensive. With Hungarian help, he pushed into Wallachia and spent the next nine years fighting a heroic border war with the Ottomans. Stefan’s efforts were the primary reason that the two Romanian Principalities maintained their independence and did not suffer the fate of the other Ottoman vassal states south of the Danube.

In 1480 Mehmed dispatched an army to Italy that marched against Rome to punish the pope for supporting Venice and assorted anti-Ottoman coalitions. The invasion force captured Otranto and was advancing on Rome when news of the sultan’s death in 1481 stopped their advance, sparing Rome almost certain capture.

When Mehmed died, the conquest of the Balkans essentially was complete. His successor Bayezid II (1481-1512) conquered few new territories. He did grant Ivan Crnojevic’s request to govern a small Montenegrin territory, centered on Cetinje, as a tributary vassal to forestall possible Albanian-like guerilla war in that forbiddingly mountainous region. After Djordje Crnojevic (1490-96), Ivan’s successor, was implicated in a failed Albanian uprising, Bayezid forced him out in 1496, and Montenegro was directly absorbed into the sultan’s holdings.

Bayezid also faced a continuing war with Stefan of Moldavia. In 1485, after the Ottomans captured all of Moldavia’s Black Sea coastal territories, Stefan was forced into renewed vassal status and accepted the Ottomans’ gains. Acquisition of those territories linked Bayezid’s lands to those of his Muslim vassals, the Crimean Tatars, and cut off the European Christian states from direct access to the Black Sea. The lucrative Black Sea trade passed completely into Ottoman hands.

So secure was the Ottomans’ control over the Balkans that Selim I the Grim (1512-20), Bayezid's successor, concentrated almost exclusively on conquests in the Islamic Middle East. Only minor Balkan territorial gains were won, mostly on the border with Hungarian Croatia, by Selim’s son Sultan Suleyman I the Magnificent, primarily as supplements to his dramatically extensive conquests in Hungary during the 1520s and 1540s, which brought the Ottomans to the gates of Vienna (1529) and helped earn Suleyman his sobriquet. Significantly, he laid the groundwork for his Hungarian campaigns by first accomplishing what Mehmed II had failed to do- capturing Belgrade in 1521.

ee also

*Ottoman System in the Balkans


*Dennis P. Hupchick, The Balkans, 2002, ISBN 0-312-21736-6
*Lord Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, 1977, ISBN 0-688-08093-6
*R.J.Crampton, Bulgaria 1878-1919, 1983, ISBN 0-88033-029-5
*R.J.Crampton, A coincise History of Bulgaria, 1997, ISBN 0-521-56719-X
*George W. Hoffman, The Balkans in Transition, 1963, D. Van Nostrand Company


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