Thursday, July 23, 2015

The road to Kosovo

Battle of Kosovo

Everyone agrees that the assassin of Murad/Murat (The First) was a Serb whose personal name was MiloŇ°  (turkified as Milos,) (anglicized to Milosh). But, after that, identification of the killer begins falling off the track.

One respected historical source says he was a crazed camp-follower. Another claims he was a patriotic Serb nobleman. Since he could have easily been both, we'll just say 'take your pick' -- and move on, to where a more serious argument looms. Because... when it comes to the question of the assassin's correct surname, the matter becomes more important to some.

When Stephen Dushan of Serbia died his empire passed into the hands of his young son Urosh. His vassals soon renounced their allegiance to him and set themselves up as independent princes. One of these Serb leaders, Vukashin, who ruled in Serres, combined his forces with sympathetic Serbian allies and marched northwards towards the Maritza Valley full of hope. But far from driving the Turks out of Lurope they suffered a great defeat on 26 September 1371 at the battle of Cernomen where all the Serbian leaders were killed. This battle, also known as the second battle of the Maritza, was called in the Turkish chronicles 'Sirf sindigi' (the destruction of the Serbs). Murad I was prudent after his victory and left much of Macedonia and Serbia in the hands of local chiefs as his vassals. They included a certain Lazar, who, although connected with the Dushan family did not claim the royal title.

Almost ten years went by before the Turkish advance against Serbia was renewed. In the meantime they struck at Albania and Bulgaria. So confused had been the state of Albania that its rulers were used to calling in foreign troops to aid them against internal rivals, and so it was that the lord of Durazzo called upon the Ottomans as allies in 1385. The price was vassaldom and when the fortresses of Croia and Scutari fell to Murad I he handed them over to his loyal Albanian followers. Elsewhere Thessalonica surrendered in 1387, but Murad I also sought to consolidate his position in Anatolia and took Konya from the Turkish house of Karaman that same year.

Lazar of Serbia seems to have been stung into action by the loss of Sofia in 1385, a defeat that was followed in 1386 by the occupation of the Serbian city of Nis. He was also embarrassed by the use of Serbian vassal troops in the Ottoman Army, so a combined force of Serbs and Bosnians went to war and defeated the local Turkish commander. The victorious army grew, swollen in number by hopeful contingents from Bulgaria, Wallachia, Albania and Hungary. But swift action by Murad I detached Bulgaria from the league and, as he marched north to take on Lazar, he was joined by many sympathetic Serbian nobles.

The resulting armed clash was the famous battle of Kosovo, fought in June 1389, an encounter that still has tremendous significance in Balkan politics today. Among all the legends about the battle and its aftermath three facts stand out. The Ottoman Turks were victorious; Murad I was killed by a Serb at some point, although not during the actual fighting; and Lazar of Serbia was captured and executed in revenge. His son Stephen Lazarevic succeeded him and reigned for many years as a loyal Turkish vassal.

The Serbian challenge

                                                                     Serbian Army


While the Ottomans had been expanding out of Anatolia a different force had been growing in the north to challenge the Byzantine Empire. In 1331 Stephen Dushan ascended the throne of Serbia and spent the next 20 years building up a Serbian Empire. Just like the Ottomans Dushan had taken full advantage of the Byzantine succession dispute to conquer much of Albania as well as parts of Thrace and Macedonia. In 1346 he had himself crowned 'Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks', and invited the Venetians to join him in the conquest of Constantinople. Rumours that he was interested in reuniting the Catholic and Orthodox confessions ensured Papal support for the scheme, but in 1355, just as he was about to set off on a grand crusade, Stephen Dushan died.

Dushan's Serbian Empire rapidly started to crumble after his death, but when the Ottomans occupied Philippopolis in 1363 there was sufficient glory left in the Serbian name to persuade its defeated commander to seek help from that direction. A united force of Serbs, Bosnians and Wallachians joined a Hungarian army under the Hungarian king, Louis the Great, and marched against the Turks at Edirne. But their rapid advance made the crusaders lazy. Less than two days from Edirne they made camp on the banks of the river Maritza and celebrated their progress with feasting. The local Ottoman commander led his predominately light cavalry arm in an ambush by night. The Christians fled across the Maritza, which was in spate, and thousands drowned.

In 1365 the Sultan transferred his capital from Bursa to Edirne, a move of tremendous significance. To locate one's capital on the edge of one's territory next to hostile neighbours was an act of enormous self-confidence, and it proclaimed the sultan's future intentions with profound clarity, Edirne was also a natural centre of horse-breeding and soon became the seat of the imperial stables and stud-farms for the cavalry. Long after the capture of Constantinople it remained a favourite imperial residence.

From Edirne Murad I could look out over his territory as far as the coast of the Black Sea, a stretch of land that encircled the rapidly decreasing area dependent upon Constantinople. The toehold in Europe established at Gelibolu had now been replaced by a mighty presence and a dramatic statement of intent. The Ottoman advance could now continue from a firm base. The greatest phase of the conquests was about to start.