Another Dardanelles Epic

Dragging on for 25 years, the war over Crete fought between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice offers the original evidence that “there is no passing the Dardanelles!”.

The year 2005 marked the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, which constitutes a modern epic in its own right. Second and third generation offspring of the French, British, New Zealand and Australian soldiers who fought here against the Turks came together again in 2005, as they do every year, at the Dardanelles to honor their forebears in a noble gesture of friendship.
This 1915 war, which saw the loss of hundreds of thousands of men on both sides, also produced an epic hero in the figure of Mustafa Kemal, the youthful commander of the Turkish troops in their battle against superior enemy forces. But another Dardanelles epic was written almost 350 years ago in the longest war in Ottoman history, the war for Crete, fought from 1644 to 1669 against the Republic of Venice.

ISTANBUL UNDER THREAT

It was one of Sultan Murad IV’s greatest aims to conquer the island of Crete with its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea. But he died in 1640 short of realizing that aim. Under popular pressure, his brother Ibrahim who succeeded him mounted a campaign against Crete four years later. Overrunning Crete within a short time, the Ottoman forces won a great victory in the first phase of the war, spreading throughout the entire Mediterranean. The fortresses of Khania and Resmo were captured, but there was one place where the Ottoman army got bogged down: the Fortress of Candia. The Republic of Venice in turn moved quickly so as not to forfeit this, its last shred of territory in Crete, to the Ottomans. To cut off supplies of food and munitions to the island, they laid siege to Istanbul and, in the initial phase of the hostilities, captured the islands of Bozcaada (Tenedos) and Limni (Lemnos) which lie close to Çanakkale on the Dardanelles. Immediately afterwards they blocked the straits. This posed a great danger for the people of Istanbul, who could even have starved to death since Istanbul’s grain supply through Syria and Egypt was interrupted.
As if all this were not enough, the Ottoman Empire was also being rocked from within. Sultan Ibrahim was deposed and murdered and succeeded by his son Sultan Mehmed IV, who was still a child. Besides the empire’s financial woes, uprisings had also begun in Anatolia; and the weakness of the Ottoman fleet only exacerbated the empire’s plight. Sultan Mehmed IV’s mother, Hatice Turhan, brought Köprülü Mehmed Pasha to the grand vizierate in order to rectify the situation. It was the supreme ambition of this grand vizier, who had the staunch backing of the populace, to lift the Venetian blockade of the Dardanelles. But for this he first had to strengthen the fleet and the empire’s finances. The fleet was launched in record time. The time was now at hand to write a Dardanelles epic.

BLACK MEHMED’S SHELL

The Ottoman fleet set sail from Istanbul for the Dardanelles in 1657 but was unsuccessful in its first skirmish with the Venetians, who had increased the number of their ships. Köprülü Mehmed Pasha, who was commanding the fleet, followed the battles with astonishment. Finding the wind unfavorable, some of the Ottoman ships had cast anchor in the open sea off Kumburun where they were exposed to enemy attack. The admiral of the Venetian fleet went on the offensive in hopes of exploiting the situation to secure a victory. But a shell fired by a bold gunner by the name of Black Mehmed was to alter the outcome of the entire battle; the shell hit the gunpowder depot of the admiral’s ship, which quickly sank to the bottom of the sea. Although the Venetians tried to remount the attack, their morale was shattered and they failed. And so the Venetian blockade of the Dardanelles came to an end. Meanwhile the Ottomans went into action again at Bozcaada and Limni. All that remained was to annex Crete to the Ottoman territories, and this was accomplished after Köprülü Mehmed Pasha’s death by his son, Fazıl Ahmed Pasha, exactly 12 years on from the victory in the Dardanelles. In a virtual Crusade, French, Maltese and Papal forces aided Venice, while England provided indirect support to the Ottomans. This protracted war, which sorely strained Ottoman resources, finally ended in 1669 with the capture of Candia Fortress following a three-year siege.

THE ‘OFFICIAL’ DOCUMENTS

Let us now acquaint readers with the two fortresses that played such a key role in the Ottoman victory in the 17th century battle for the Dardanelles, Seddülbahir and Kumkale, both built by Köprülü Mehmed Pasha. Seddülbahir was constructed in 1659 after the Venetians had set fire to the Ottoman fleet in the harbor at Morto and captured the islands of Bozcaada and Limni. While this fortress was being built, opposite it, on the Anatolian shore, Kumkale was also being erected. Let us hasten to add that these two fortresses played a major role in beating back the enemy in the 1915 battle for Gallipoli as well.

All the illustrations that accompany this article were made in the 17th century and included in a two-volume Istanbul album by an anonymous Istanbul commercial artist. In this album, which was commissioned to a local artist at the behest of the Italian ambassador Soranzo, are, besides scenes from the Dardanelles battle and the situation of the Venetian Embassy in Istanbul at the time of that battle, 19 portraits of the sultans, and depictions of buildings, monuments and scenes of everyday life in Istanbul. The German professor Franz Taeschner, whose valuable studies on Turkish history and culture are well known, bought the first volume of the album from a family in 1910 and published a lithograph copy of it in 1924. Here, however, only four of the 55 pictures are in color, the rest being in black and white. The original of this album was in all probability destroyed in the bombardment of Berlin during the Second World War. As for the other volume, it passed from the hands of Emmanuele Cigogna to the Museo Civico Correr at Venice along with other rare books and manuscripts. The epics of the conquest of Crete in the 17th century and of the Gallipoli campaign, whose 90th anniversary we just left behind, both go to prove one thing: There is no passing the Dardanelles!