If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:
The Ottoman Empire in the 17th century is a land of contrasts. I know that sounds like the opening to a bad high school essay, but it’s not wrong. The 17th century ended with the Ottomans signing the first truly disadvantageous treaty they’d ever signed, and while reports of Ottoman decline in this period can be exaggerated, I think it’s fair to say that this was a sign that all was not well. Even if the empire wasn’t declining in absolute terms, its European enemies were clearly catching up to it. At the same time, though, we have to acknowledge that the mid-century (1645-1669) Cretan War, or the Fifth Ottoman-Venetian War if you prefer, brought the Ottoman Empire to its largest territorial extent. Yes, OK, you have to fudge a little to get there—the Ottomans didn’t have a whole lot of day-to-day control over, say, Algeria in this period, even though Algeria is considered part of their empire. But still, the mid-17th century is the closest the Mediterranean has come to being ruled by one entity since the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century.
The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent, bordered in red
The siege of Candia was the centerpiece of the Cretan War and, as it so happens, one of the longest sieges in recorded history at a whopping 21 years and almost five months. The Cretan War was fought over, yes, that’s right, Crete, which, as the Kingdom of Candia, had been part of Venice’s maritime empire since 1205, after Fourth Crusade leader Boniface of Montferrat sold the Byzantine Empire’s claim on the island to Venice. Granted, the Byzantine Empire’s claim to Crete wasn’t exactly Boniface’s to sell, but who’s counting, right? The point is that Venice owned the island, and the Ottomans coveted it. If you’re moving west across the Mediterranean, as the Ottomans wanted to do, Crete was the next major island after Cyprus, which the Ottomans had captured from Venice in 1571. It also happened to be Venice’s last major island possession, which added to its appeal as far as the Ottomans were concerned.
By the 1640s the Ottomans and Venetians, frequent rivals for Mediterranean naval supremacy, had actually been at peace for a while, since the Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War ended in 1573. But in 1644, the Knights of Malta attacked an Ottoman fleet in the eastern Mediterranean that was carrying a few high Ottoman officials and a number of people making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The knights killed most of the officials and took the rest of the people, including the pilgrims, as slaves. The pirates (or privateers, I guess) made for Crete, and depending on which side’s version of events you believe they either stayed there for several weeks and bestowed part of their loot upon the Venetian governor or they had barely landed—without permission—before the Venetian authorities forced them to be on their way. Obviously either story can be seen as self-serving, but the Ottomans believed the former and weren’t about to be persuaded otherwise. Either way, the Venetians do seem to have been caught off guard when a punitive, ~50,000 man Ottoman invasion force arrived at Crete, rather than Malta, in late June, 1645.
The Venetians had several immediate problems. One, they were vastly outnumbered and couldn’t possibly hope to defend the island with a force comparable to the one the Ottomans brought ashore. Venice was not a large state, and the devastation caused by the Thirty Years’ War, which wouldn’t end until 1648, meant that the rest of Europe was unable to offer much assistance. Two, they weren’t especially popular with the Greek Cretans, which explains why the Ottomans were able to sustain a 21+ year long siege on an island some distance from the imperial center at a time when, as we’ll see, they had little ability to send new supplies. The Ottomans easily controlled the countryside surrounding the major Cretan cities, and the locals kept them well-supplied, so they didn’t have to worry about finding food or water. An outbreak of plague in the winter of 1646-1647—which we’ll revisit at the end of this piece—hit everybody on Crete hard but appears to have made it easier for the Ottomans to consolidate control over the rest of the island and prepare to besiege the capital, Candia (modern Heraklion). Which they did, starting in May 1648.
The Ottomans tried but repeatedly failed to break down Candia’s walls, so instead they moved to choke the city off from its water supply, on land, and from Venice, at sea. Venice couldn’t counterattack the Ottomans on land, but they were still a major naval power, and so they attempted to blockade the Dardanelles to prevent the Ottoman fleet from resupplying its army. This tactic worked very effectively for several years, and with a series of engagements in the mid 1650s going Venice’s way the straits remained blocked to Ottoman traffic. This not only affected the army on Crete, which without reinforcements couldn’t do much beyond surrounding Candia and looking menacing, but also began to adversely affect life in Constantinople. The 1656 appointment of a new Grand Vizier, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha (d. 1661), turned the situation around. Köprülü enlarged the Ottoman fleet considerably, and was able to drive the Venetians from the Dardanelles by the end of 1657.
Candia continued to hold out, in part because Ottoman attention was elsewhere. But the conclusion of the Peace of Vasvár in 1664, ending the 1663-1664 Ottoman-Habsburg War, hastened the city’s fall by allowing the Ottomans to shift more resources to Crete. A new army, under Köprülü’s direct command, arrived on the island in late 1666, but even at this the siege took over two more years to conclude, at the cost of tens of thousands more lives—mostly among the Ottomans, who lost far more men overall during the course of the siege than did the Venetians. In the end the Ottomans simply refused to lift the siege, and Candia finally lost its ability to hold out. The defeat of a French relief force in mid-summer 1669 was the last straw for the defenders, who had fewer than 5000 men in fighting condition left at their disposal, and so they surrendered in exchange for safe passage off the island and continued Venetian possession of several smaller islands near Crete and in the Aegean, where Venetian trading ships could stop on their way east.
While all this was going on, the Venetians were actually winning on the war’s second front, in Dalmatia (part of modern Croatia). The Ottomans were at a logistical disadvantage trying to defend this territory, which was so hard to get to from Constantinople but so easily accessible from Venice. Anyway, Crete was the prize, and the Ottomans were happy to trade territory in Dalmatia for it. Crete remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1897, when an uprising (one of a number of 19th century uprisings on the island, whose people wanted to be part of the newly independent Greece) caused the intervention of the European powers and the creation of an independent Cretan state under Ottoman jurisdiction. Crete finally declared its union with Greece in 1908, but that union wasn’t formally recognized until 1913, after the Ottomans suffered defeat in the First Balkan War.
I said I’d come back to the plague at the end of this piece, and the reason is that, fairly recently, research in the Venetian archives has uncovered evidence of a plan, never implemented, for the defenders of Candia to employ biological warfare against the Ottomans. The plan called for a liquid to be made from the spleens and buboes (I know, sorry) of dead plague victims that would then be used against Ottoman camps all over the island. It’s unlikely that this plan would’ve succeeded—the plague bacteria probably wouldn’t have survived long enough—but the Venetians had no reason to know that, and it’s not clear why they wound up nixing the plan. Germ warfare and the bubonic plague have a long history together. It’s long been believed, for example, that the Mongols hurled plague-riddled corpses into the Crimean city of Kaffa (modern Feodosia) in the mid-1340s and that this ultimately led to the Black Death, although modern scholarship is skeptical of the sources for that story and there is research suggesting that Kaffa’s connection to the Black Death may be somewhat overblown.