Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars


Photo: David Sallay

The castle of Eger (Erlau in German) is in north Hungary. As it is, after long hesitation I added it to the Ottoman Occupied Lands because after a heroic period it was taken by the Ottomans, after all. Eger was guarding the roads toward the mining cities in the west of Upper Hungary and to the east, to the great city of Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau). Look at the animation video of the Pazirik Kft that shows us the construction of Eger before 1552:

Photo: H. Szabó Sándor

The city was already a bishop center in Saint Istvan’s age in 1009. Its stone castle was built after the year 1248. The famous wine production dates back to the 14th century, however, the red wine was produced only later. During the Ottoman wars, the warriors drank white wine, unlike what the legend says. (Note, I use the Oriental name order for Hungarian names where family names come first.)

Enjoy this trailer:

In the autumn of 1552, Captain Dobó István and his 2200 soldiers were successful in defending the fortress and northern Hungary from the expanding Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman army was led by Kara Achmed Pasha and numbered 35-40,000 men from the Rumelian army (and an Anatolian contingent) and the troops of Ahmed Pasha from Buda. The Ottomans had 16 zarbuzans (very large siege cannons) as well as 150 medium and smaller pieces of artillery and a fleet of two thousand camels, which proved to be highly useful in the collection and transportation of wood to the site used for the construction of temporary siege platforms.

The defenders had 6 large and about a dozen smaller cannons and about 300 trench guns with ample supplies of ammunition. During the siege, Dobó’s officer Bornemissza Gergely devised primitive but lethal grenades and powder keg-sized bombs to use against the attackers as well as a water-mill wheel packed with gunpowder which he rolled into the Ottoman ranks. His secret lay in the gunpowder not simply exploding but sparking even more fire. He loaded these weapons with oil, sulfur, and flint in order to shower the enemy with burning missiles.

Eger in 1595 (by Pazirik Ltd.)

The Ottomans had expected an easy victory, but the bravery of the castle’s defenders, as well as Dobó’s inspired leadership, resisted and repulsed repeated Ottoman assaults. Even after the storage tower containing 24 metric tons of black gunpowder exploded and caused extensive structural damage, the invaders still could not find a way into the castle compound. The defenders’ losses amounted to about one-third of their ranks, including those killed and permanently maimed in combat.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

There was significant in-fighting between the two Ottoman leaders, Pasha Ali and Pasha Ahmed. Ahmed was the senior and contributed twice as many troops to the united army, but Ali showed more strategic talent and proved his skill in artillery, heavily damaging the castle walls with his battery of just four large siege guns.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

During the siege, the Ottoman army ran out of gunpowder and cannonballs (which were carved out of marble) at least twice, limiting Ahmed’s use of heavy artillery for a week or more. The end of autumn arrived earlier than usual with heavy rain and freezing nighttime temperatures. Reduced rice rations and allegations of corruption among the officers caused discontent among the Ottoman troops. After 39 days of bloody, brutal, and intense fighting the Ottoman Army withdrew, beaten, and humiliated.

The tombstone of Dobó István (photo: Thaler Tamás)

Despite the failure at Eger, the Ottomans had no reason to lament the campaign of 1552, for they had taken Veszprém, Temesvár, Szolnok, and Lippa as well as some twenty-five Hungarian strongholds. Despite the difference in troop numbers, Eger’s strong walls and the high morale of its defenders allowed the fortress to withstand five major assaults and continuous cannon fire (excluding the ones stuck in the walls of the stronghold, almost 12,000 cannonballs landed inside the fortress before the siege ended).

The Women of Eger (by Székely Bertalan): find this picture in a jigsaw-puzzle form in my Shop

The women of Eger had also been taking their sizable part in fighting on the walls and their heroism has become legendary. (It was all the more humiliating for the Muslims.) The point was, that Dobó István and his soldiers successfully defended the fortress and it was the first time the Turks had been defeated after the Battle of Mohács in 1526. The famous Hungarian poet, Balassi Bálint also served here for a few years beginning in April 1578. After the victory, Dobó and his officers resigned, in order to protest King Ferdinand’s refusal to contribute any material help to the defense.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

Bornemissza Gergely was appointed to take over command of the fortress. He was later ambushed, captured, and hanged by the Ottomans. The fortress of Eger remained defiant of Ottoman attacks until 1596 when 7,000 defenders, mostly foreign mercenaries, capitulated to the Ottoman forces personally commanded by the Sultan, Mehmed III. The town remained in Ottoman hands for 91 years. The minaret, which was built at the end of the 17th century, preserves the memory of this period. Among all the buildings of this type, the minaret of Eger is found at the northernmost point of the former Ottoman Empire.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

During the Turkish occupation, Eger became the seat of a vilayet which is an Ottoman domain including several sanjaks. Churches were converted into mosques, the castle rebuilt, and other structures erected, including public baths and minarets. It was the northernmost city of the Ottoman Empire where one could see a minaret. The castle of Eger was starved into surrender by the Christian army led by Charles of Lorraine in 1687 after the castle of Buda had been retaken in 1686. Eger was relieved from Turkish rule in December 1687.

Photo: Pudelek

Although the reoccupation was done by a siege (which starved out the defenders) and not by a bombardment, the town fell into a very poor state. According to the records, there were only 413 houses in the area within the town walls which were habitable and most of these were occupied by leftover Turkish families. The first writer of note to draw on the story was the Hungarian renaissance poet and musician Tinódi Lantos Sebestyén (c. 1510–1556), whose account may have come partly from eyewitnesses. The siege can also be read in English because in the 19th century there was a Hungarian writer, Gárdonyi Géza, who wrote his novel, „Eclipse of the Crescent Moon”. 

Episcopal Palace (Photo: Antissimo)

In the 1960s a famous film was made about this siege in Hungary but I have heard fake news that they are working on a new version in Hollywood now. I doubt there would be a new movie soon. Eger has become an emblem of national defense, a symbol of patriotic heroism, and the superiority of a national army over an unmotivated foreign mercenary force.

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Looking at the pictures taken in 2020-2021, there are still many things to complete in Eger castle. Here are more photos of Eger castle, the first two sets were taken by Lánczi Imre and Ádám Attila in 2020-2021: