The Crimean Tatars

The forefathers of the Crimean Tatars

The first Tatar destruction in 1241 in the Chronicle of Thuróczy (published in 1488)

Many people think that the Mongols (we called them Tatars) only invaded Hungary twice: once in 1241-42 and later in 1285. We know how devastating the first attack was in 1241, but the Mongols were promptly defeated in 1285. Note that according to the latest research, the first invasion was not as severe as historians thought. The Mongols withdrew their forces from the Kingdom of Hungary in 1242, and not only because of their internal problems.

Mongols, 13th century

The Hungarian medieval army was more effective against them because it included both Western and Eastern elements: that is why the Hungarians were always so successful against the Eastern nomads and the Western attacks at the same time. Let us not forget that King Béla IV was strong enough and was able to take back the western counties of Hungary from the Germans quite easily right after the Mongols withdrew. The birth of the Crimean Khaganate also dates back to the 13th century. Later they attacked Hungary and Transylvania several times.

The Pontus region was formerly inhabited by the Cumans, who were conquered in the 13th century by the Mongols, who came from the Far East and invaded westwards. Some groups of Mongols settled here and, mingling with the Cuman-Kipchak tribes, took part in the development of the Crimean Tatar people. This area was part of the Mongol Empire, which also occupied Moldavia and Wallachia, and was also settled by Mongol groups, including the Cumans, the Pechenegs, and the Uz. Some of them merged with the Romanians, while the rest formed the heterogeneous Moldavian Tatars.

COA of the Crimean Khanate

The Mongol Empire later split into other hordes. The territory of the Khanate was taken over by the Golden Horde. The Tatars carried out numerous raids against Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Serbian territories. Some Tatars settled in other countries (modern Russia, Lithuania, and Ukraine), offering their armed services to the rulers of these countries and often fighting against their countrymen. By that time, the Crimean Tatars had already adopted the Muslim religion.

Europe in 1500 (Source: Szajci)

The Crimean Khanate broke away from the Golden Horde in the 15th century, as did the Ryazan, Kasimov, Astrakhan, and Siberian Khanates. In addition to the new state, other sub-principalities were formed, such as Yedizhan, Buzak, Dobrudja, and the Nogai Horde. The Moldavian Tatars, on the other hand, did not develop an independent khanate and were outside the jurisdiction of the Crimean Khan, but were often found in the Crimean and Turkish armies.

The Khanate waged constant wars of plunder against its neighbors and amassed considerable booty. It profited greatly from the slave trade, as well as from taxes on port cities acquired from the Italians (including Kaffa, and modern Feodosia) and Greek colonial cities founded in Crimea in antiquity. The capital of the Khanate was Bakhchiserai.

The Crimean Khanate

The leader of the Tartars (or Tatars) became Giray Khan in 1449. After Giray died in 1466, his sons fought over who should succeed their father, allowing the Ottomans to consider taking over the entire Crimean Peninsula. Eventually, Mengili Giray took the throne through Ottoman intervention, but only after swearing allegiance to the Ottomans.


However, this did not stop him from cooperating with Muscovy after the Ottomans attacked the southern coast of Crimea in 1475 and took over the Genoese colonies and the Greek Principality of Theodoros. The Ottomans then tried to replace him with his son Erminak, who was only too happy to swear allegiance to the Ottomans and help them conquer the remaining Genoese colonies. As there were many Crimean notables in the Ottoman service, they were able to convince Fatih Sultan Mehmed II that Mengili was the better man to lead the Tatars against the enemies to the north. Mengili agreed to provide military and financial assistance to the Ottomans whenever needed.

a Crimean Tatar

This established Ottoman control over the Crimean Tatars. It would last for three centuries, providing the sultans not only with another base from which to control the Black Sea but also with a regular supply of fighting men. The power of the Crimeans was not extensive, hardly extending beyond the Crimea itself, but with Ottoman help, they were at least able to avoid being absorbed by Muscovy… They remained the main Ottoman buffer to keep the Russians away from the Black Sea for another two centuries.

a Crimean Tatar (picture: Wacław Pawliszak)

However, the Khans enjoyed independence from the Ottomans, who needed them to supply scouts and cavalry for their frequent military forays into the Balkans and battles with the Poles, Hungarians, and Austrians. Crimea supplied Istanbul with slaves, grain, salt, timber, fish, and meat. The slave trade was particularly lucrative, especially for women, as Ukrainian and Russian women were highly prized in Istanbul for their beauty.

Ottoman miniature of the Szigetvár campaign showing Ottoman troops and Crimean Tatars as vanguard (1566)

Historian Alan Fisher has estimated that as many as one million members of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were taken into slavery between 1474 and 1694. As for the Hungarians, we know how much money it cost to ransom the entire Transylvanian army from Crimean captivity in 1658. The Crimean economy was strongly based on the slave trade, and they were very good at it. When they accompanied the Ottoman armies to Hungary, the local Turks often warned the Hungarians of their coming. The Ottoman soldiers in their garrisons in the lands they occupied in Hungary had contempt for the Tatars because of their unnecessary cruelty.

Suleiman’s mother

Sultan Selim I

No wonder Sultan Suleiman wanted to give Hungary to the Tatars when he was angry. His mother, Ayşe Hafsa, was a Crimean Tatar who was married to Sultan Selim. She was believed to be the daughter of Mengili I Giray, although there is no proof of this. From the time Suleiman took the throne in 1520 until she died in 1534, she was the Valide Sultan and the first of many influential ones. As a result, the Crimeans had a strong influence on Sultan Suleiman.

Sultan Suleiman I

At the height of its power in the mid-16th century, the Crimean Khanate was able to successfully attack Muscovy and its allies, even burning Moscow in 1571 as part of its efforts to expand its territory into the Caspian-Volga region. The following year, however, the Crimean Tatars were decisively defeated at Molodi, about 40 miles south of Moscow. Only 20,000 of the 120,000-strong Tatar army survived to return to Crimea. This was the last time the Ottomans and Tatars attempted to invade north of the Black Sea.

The Crimean Khanate, 1600

The Cossacks took advantage of the weakness of the Crimean Tatars in the early seventeenth century and raided the peninsula at will. The seventeenth-century Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi mentions the destruction of Crimean cities and the trade routes that had brought great prosperity to the area. At that time, he thought that the only safe place was the Ottoman fortress of Arabat.

The Tatars take over the role of the Akinji

The Battle of Gyurgyevó (Giurgiu) took place on October 27-30, 1595. It was part of the Long Turkish War (1591/1593-1606), and the Ottoman army led by Pasha Sinan suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the troops of Prince Báthory Zsigmond of Transylvania. Almost all of the irregular Akinji cavalry was killed in the battle, and after this time the Ottomans preferred to use Crimean Tatars as irregular cavalry: they were even better at burning and looting than the Akinji.

the statue of Evliya Çelebi in Eger, Hungary (photo: Rostás Bea)

To illustrate their military activity, I would like to quote from Ahmed Defterdar’s letter to the Sultan’s Council, in which we learn about the Tatar raid on the lands of Nádasdy Ferenc between 19 and 25 January 1603:

“This is a letter from Ahmed, the Chief Defterdar, the collector of the revenues of the Treasury in Belgrade.
He gives the following information:
On the 20th day of this Sábán month (02 February 1603) the Tartar Khan’s own messenger arrived here. He brought a reliable verbal message and a letter from the Khan.
The Tatar Beys called Pasha Ahmed and his brother Bey Arslan, together with the soldiers of the Sultan in Pozsega, more than 12,000 Tatars in all, had managed to get some skilled spies (guides) from Kanizsa. On the 6th of Sábán (19 January 1603) they entered the land of the unbelievers, and on the 12th of Sábán (25 January) they returned to Szigetvár Castle with their booty unharmed. They burned down the outlying settlements of the castles of Moroni [Moson?], Szonbu Tahl [Szombathely] and Lindok [Alsólendva] in the territories of Nádasdy [Nedazs oglu] and Batthyány [Pañani], crushed the scum and took prisoners, drove off their animals and set fire to 800 neighboring villages; they took the captives and the animals to Belgrade.
There were 10,000 slaves and 20,000 animals. As no one in Belgrade or Kanizsa ever looked at the slaves and animals, they took them to Buda to sell them. (…)
The answer of Sultan Mehmed – may Allah’s mercy be upon him – came next: I have acknowledged it, it was a great work. “


The last attacks

Although the Crimean Tatars continued to participate in Ottoman military campaigns, the decline among the Ottomans meant they would return home more often than not without booty. At the same time, the Europeans and the Russians were equipping their armies with more modern, better weaponry. Warfare continued throughout the 18th century until finally with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774, the Crimea became independent of the Ottoman Empire and from then on had to side with Russia.

A Crimean Tatar in 1703

Oddly enough the Ottoman sultan as caliph was granted the right to remain as the religious leader of the Crimean Tatars. The peninsula was finally annexed to Russia in 1783. Yet, the Tatars posed a threat until the mid-18th century to Transylvania. You can find many fortified Saxon and Székely churches from the region on my page where the locals tried to find shelter against them.

You can also read about a Tatar raid against Transylvania that took place in 1658:

The Monument of the Szárhegy Battle, and the burial mound of the Tatars behind it

Part of the source I used includes the research of the Nádasdy Ferenc Bandérium. (In.: Dávid Géza – Fodor Pál: Magyar vonatkozású török államiratok a tizenötéves háború korából. I. (Hadtörténelmi Közlemények 1983/2.)

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