Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Siege of Trebizond (1461) - The End of Byzantium

Muslim Turkish soldiers dressed in Ottoman Janissary outfits take part in a ceremony to mark the 558th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) by Ottoman Turks, in Istanbul May 29, 2011.

Muslim Turks Destroy
the Last Byzantine Outpost

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the invading Ottoman Turks was not the last of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Despotate of the Morea in southern Greece was a province of the Eastern Empire and managed to survive the fall of the city. The failure of the despots to pay their annual tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, and finally their own revolt against Ottoman rule, caused Mehmed to come the Morea in May 1460 thus ending this last Byzantine province.

But there was one last shred of Byzantine rule left - - - The Empire of Trebizond.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204 the Empire of Trebizond was created out of Byzantine provinces in the Crimea and along the Black Sea coast. With political power divided among many small states the new Greek speaking Empire was able to survive for centuries.

The Greeks in Trebizond hung on to their ever shrinking coastal Empire by their fingernails. With the aggressive growth of the Muslim Ottoman state the position of Trebizond became more and more precarious.

The Empire of Trebizond

A Georgian army under the command of Alexios and David Komnenos attacked Byzantine from the east in late March or early April 1204. According to Georgian chronicles the expedition took eight days, reached Trebizond via Lazia and seized the town in April. The local commander doux Nikephoros Palaiologos, did not put up an effective defense against the more powerful Georgian force.

On April 13, 1204, Constantinople fell to the Crusaders, where they established the Latin Empire. According to Georgian sources, newly incorporated territories were given to Alexios and David Komnenos, where they established a pro-Georgian state that would be known as Empire of Trebizond. Alexios was proclaimed emperor, while David was appointed strategos

Some scholars believe that the new state was subject to Georgia, at least in the first years of its existence, at the beginning of the 13th century.

Emperor John II of Trebizond officially gave up his claim to the Roman imperial title and Constantinople itself 11 years after the Nicaeans recaptured the city, altering his imperial title from "Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans" to "Emperor and Autocrat of all the East, Iberia and Perateia"

The Empire of Nicaea had reestablished the Byzantine Empire through restoring control of the capital.  

With Constantinople as the main prize, the Empire of Trebizond basically continued to exist by staying under the radar in the hope that no one would notice them. That strategy basically worked until 1453, but with the city captured Ottoman eyes started looking for new conquests.

Fortification plan of Trebizond

The Citadel of Trebizond

The Walls of Trebizond

The Walls of Trabzon are a series of defensive walls surrounding the old town of the city of Trabzon.

Constructed on foundations dating back to the Roman era with cut stones from former structures at site, the walls stretch from the hill on the backside of the old town to the Black Sea shore. The walls further divided the city into three parts; the Upper Town or "fortress", the Middle Town and the Lower Town. The upper and middle towns are flanked by steep ravines cut by the Zagnos and Tabakhane streams to the west and east respectively, while the lower town extends to the west of Zagnos.

The Upper Town functioned as the citadel and as the acropolis of the city. It is believed that the citadel was built as the first construction in 2000 BC. Some early sources mention the existence of ruins of structures such as hippodrome, tower, bath and palace. The citadel underwent various modifications in the history. 

The walls of the Upper Fortress are higher than of the other parts. It is fortified in the south with higher and thicker walls and towers. During the Roman Empire period an aqueduct was built to supply the Upper Town with a freshwater source. The Upper Town was accessible through a double gate with the Middle Town. The Imperial Palace of the Empire of Trebizond was located in the Upper Town.

The Lower Town stretches in the west from Zağanos Tower down to the sea. Also this part of the fortifications were built by Alexios II of Trebizond. 

The most of the city walls are still standing and are among the city's oldest buildings. In fact, their oldest part can be dated back to 1st century AD during the Roman Empire era. Historical sources provide information about older stages of their construction. Xenophon, who visited the city in 5th century BC also mentioned the existence of city walls.

Possible Look for a Trebizond Soldier
Modern reconstruction of 15th century Byzantine archer based on contemporary icons of the Crucifixion. The helmet shows western (Italian) influence and it is based on findings from ”Chalcis Armory”. The double head eagle though is again unlikely as it was strictly an imperial family emblem and chroniclers talk about a double lion emblem. Armor courtesy of hellenicarmors.gr and boots courtesy living history association Koryvantes.
Byzantine Militia

The Siege of Trebizond (1461)

The Palaiologan dynasty fled the conquered Despotate of the Morea in 1460 for Italy.  That left Trebizond as the last free Greek state with ties to the ancient Roman traditions.

With the Turks controlling Constantinople help would not come from the West. Always short on manpower the Trabizond Emperor John IV spent years building alliances in the East with the Georgian princes to the east and with Uzun Hassan of the Ak Koyunlu. The Muslim rulers of Sinope and Karaman appear to have been enlisted as allies by John or Uzun Hassan.

The new Emperor David saw that support from the West against the Ottomans was not coming together. David prematurely asked the Sultan for a remission of the tribute paid by his predecessor. Even worse, he made these demands through the envoys of Uzun Hassan, who made even more arrogant demands on behalf of their master. Sultan Mehmed's response was, "Go in peace, and next year I will bring these things with me, and I will clear up the debt."

That answer came the summer of the next year: a fleet under his admiral Kasim Pasha sailed along the Black Sea coast of Anatolia towards Trebizond while the Sultan led an army from Bursa eastward towards the city.

In the spring of 1461, Mehmed fitted out a fleet comprising 200 galleys, and ten warships. At the same time, Mehmed crossed the Dardanelles to Bursa with the Army of Europe and assembled the Army of Asia; one authority estimates the combined force consisted of 80,000 infantry and 60,000 cavalry.

The number of Ottoman troops was no doubt inflated by historians and maybe by the Sultan himself for propaganda purposes to intimidate neighboring nations.

The Ottoman land campaign, which was the more challenging part, involved intimidating the Emir of Sinope into surrendering his realm, a march lasting more than a month through uninhabited mountainous wilderness, several minor battles with different opponents, and ended with the siege of Trebizond.

The Emirate of Sinope, ally to Trebizond, falls to the Ottomans

Trebizond Ally Sinope Surrenders

Commanding the army, Mehmed led his land troops towards Ankara, stopping on the way to visit the tombs of his father and ancestors. He had written the ruler of Sinope, Kemâleddin Ismâil Bey to send his son Hasan to Ankara, and the young man was already there when Mehmed reached the city, and received his overlord graciously. 

Mehmed made his interests quickly known: according to Doukas, he informed Hasan, "Tell your father that I want Sinope, and if he surrenders the city freely, I will gladly reward him with the province of Philippopolis. But if he refuses, then I will come quickly." Despite the extensive fortifications of the city and its 400 cannon manned by 2,000 artillerymen, Ismail Bey caved in to Mehmed's demands; he settled on the lands Mehmed gave him in Thrace.

Leaving Sinope to his admiral Kasim Pasha to arrange its government, Mehmed led his armies inland. The march was difficult for the men. Konstantin Mihailović, who served in the Ottoman army in this campaign, writing his memoirs decades later recalled no landmarks between Sinope and Trebizond, yet the travails of the journey were still vivid in his memory:
And we marched in great force and with great effort to Trebizond—not just the army but the Emperor [i.e. Sultan Mehmed] himself: first, because of the distance; second, because of harassment of the people; third, hunger; fourth, because of the high and great mountains, and, besides, wet and swampy places. And also rains fell every day so that the road was churned up as high as the horses' belly everywhere.
The path the Ottoman army took is not known. Kritoboulos states that Mehmed crossed the Taurus Mountains.
After marching for 35 days the Sultan encountered Sara Khatun, mother of Uzun Hasan; she had come to negotiate a treaty of peace between the Sultan and her son. While Mehmed agreed to a peace treaty with Uzun Hasan, he refused to include Trebizond as a party to it.
Meanwhile, the fleet under Admiral Kasim Pasha and assisted by a veteran seaman named Yakub, had left Sinope and came into sight of Trebizond. As was the common practice of the time, the crews of the ships consisted of armed men, and once the ships had landed these armed sailors disembarked and began to encircle the city.
The sailors set fire to the suburbs and set about besieging the city. One historian said despite daily assaults, "no headway was made" to breaching the walls. The men of Kasim Pasha's fleet had besieged the walls of Trebizond for 32 days when the first units of the Sultan's army under his Grand Vizier Mahmud Pasha Angelovic crossed over the Zigana Pass and took up positions at Skylolimne.

Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror

Emperor David was given an opportunity before the Ottoman assault began in earnest, to capitulate. He could either surrender his city and not only save his life and wealth, as well as those of his courtiers, but also receive new estates that would provide him the same income; otherwise, further fighting could only end with the fall of Trebizond and David not only would lose his life and wealth, but any survivors would suffer the fate of a captured city.

The walls of Trebizond were massive and elaborate; David expected his relative Hassan Uzun to arrive at any moment to relieve the siege, or perhaps his ally the King of Georgia, or perhaps even both. 

No allies appeared with an army to assist Trebizond. In the end, the Emperor David Megas Komnenos chose to surrender his city and empire, and trust that that Sultan Mehmed would be merciful. 

The Emperor said he would surrender if given estates of equal value, and if Mehmed married his daughter. When Mehmed arrived the next day with the rest of his army, Mahmud reported the developments. The news that David's wife had escaped to Georgia angered the Sultan, and at first declared he wanted to storm the city and enslave all of its inhabitants. But after further deliberations Mehmed accepted the offered terms.

On the day Sultan Mehmed arrived, Thomas, son of Katabolenos, was sent before the gates of Trebizond to repeat the terms of surrender offered the day before. The people of Trebizond prepared "many splendid gifts" and a select group of "the very best men" emerged from the city and "made obeisance to the sultan, came to terms, exchanged oaths, and surrendered both the town and themselves to the Sultan." 

After these exchanges, Emperor David left the city with his children and courtiers and did homage to the Sultan; the latter "received him mildly and kindly, shook hands, and showed him appropriate honors", then "gave both him [David] and his children many kinds of gifts, as well as to his suite."

On 15 August 1461, Sultan Mehmed II entered Trebizond, and the last capital of the Romaioi had fallen. This date was the 200th anniversary of Michael VIII Palaiologos' recapture of Constantinople from the Latin Empire. 

Mehmed made a detailed inspection of the city, its defenses and its inhabitants, according to Miller, who then quotes Kritoboulos, "He [Mehmed] ascended to the citadel and the palace, and saw and admired the security of the one and the buildings and splendoor of the other, and in every way he judged the city worthy of note." 

Mehmed converted the Panagia Chrysokephalos cathedral in the center of the city into Fatih Mosque, and in the church of Saint Eugenios he said his first prayer, thus giving the building its later name, Yeni Cuma ("New Friday").

Ottoman Janissaries


After taking possession of the city, Sultan Mehmed garrisoned 400 of his Janissaries in Trebizond’s Imperial castle.

The Sultan's fleet returned to Constantinople by October 1461, their weapons and materiel almost unused.   Mehmed proceeded overland back to Constantinople.

He placed Emperor David, his family and his relatives, his officials and their families with all of their wealth on the Sultan's triremes which took them to Constantinople.

The rest of the inhabitants of Trebizond, however, were treated harshly. They were divided into three groups: 

  • One group was forced to leave Trebizond and resettle in Constantinople; 
  • The next group became slaves either of the Sultan or of his dignitaries; 
  • And the last group were left to live in the countryside surrounding Trebizond, but not within its walls.

The Sultan also took 1,500 children to become his personal slaves.  Some 800 male children were forced to become Muslims and conscripted into the Janissaries, while the Ottoman admiral was left to garrison the city.

Emperor David was settled in Adrianople together with his family, and received the profits of estates in the Struma River valley, comprising an annual income of some 300,000 pieces of silver. However, David Megas Komnenos, descendant on the male side of Byzantine Emperors, was too prominent a symbol of the fallen regime and too inviting of a potential rallying-point for any potential Greek resistance.

In time the royal family was taken to Constantinople and imprisoned in the Beyoğlu jail, where with five others the last of the Komnenoi were executed with the sword on 1 November 1463 at the fourth hour of the night. 

Other members of the family fared little better. His daughter Anna, whom he had offered in marriage to Mehmed, was taken to the Imperial harem, later she was married to Zaganos Pasha but not long afterwards they divorced and she was handed to a son of Elvan Bey. Maria Gattilusio, the widow of David's older brother Alexander, joined the harem.

Trebizond was the last outpost of Byzantine civilization; with its fall, that civilization came to an end. 

"It was the end of the free Greek world," wrote Steven Runciman, who then noted that those Greeks still not under Ottoman rule still lived "under lords of an alien race and an alien form of Christianity. Only among the wild villages of Mani, in the southeastern Peloponnese, into whose rugged mountains no Turk ventured to penetrate, was there left any semblance of liberty."

Ottoman Empire Reenactors

(Morea)      (Chaldia)      (Walls of Trabzon)      (Trebizond)      (Trebizond)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those fierce Mani .
They handle freedon as others in the islands , monstly Crete , until western powers came to help greeks freedon fighters for independence in the XIX century .
Until now greeks proundly stand for freedom in those part of the world .