Siege of Famagusta and Fall of Cyprus Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After an eleven-month siege, Venetian defenders surrendered to the Ottoman Turks and were then treacherously slaughtered. The massacre led directly to the Battle of Lepanto, in which the assembled sea power of Spain and the Italian states crushed the Ottoman fleet.

Summary of Event

A byproduct of the Crusades, the Kingdom of Cyprus lasted nearly three centuries under the Lusignan Dynasty Lusignan Dynasty , creating a lively fusion of French, Greek, and polyglot Levantine elements. It built a lucrative economy around production of wine, salt, and refined sugar, while its strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean made it enormously important commercially. Accordingly, the island attracted the attention of two rival commercial powers, Genoa and Venice, each eager for concessions in the vibrant port of Famagusta on the island’s eastern coast. Cyprus, fall of (1571) Famagusta, Siege of (July, 1570-August, 1571) Bragadin, Marcantonio Baglioni, Astorre Dandolo, Niccolò Lala Mustafa Paşa Piali Paşa Selim II Nasi, Joseph Lala Mustafa Paşa Dandolo, Niccolò Bragadin, Mercantonio Baglioni, Astorre Piali Paşa Querini, Marco Querini, Marcantonio Pius V

In 1376, the Genoese seized the city, holding it until 1464. The Lusignan regime recovered Famagusta with help from the Venetians, who were by then already crucial investors and entrepreneurs in the Cypriot economy. In 1468, the last Lusignan king, James II, married Caterina Cornaro (or Corner), a member of a Venetian family long deeply involved in Cypriot affairs. Caterina gave birth to a son in 1473, several months after the death of her husband. Maintaining Caterina as their puppet, especially after the death of her son (1474), the Venetians became virtual rulers of Cyprus. In 1489, they dispensed with even the pretense of Caterina’s reign: She was made to abdicate her throne and sent back to Venice, Venice, Republic of while Cyprus was officially incorporated into Venice’s maritime empire.

As the last great acquisition of that empire, however, Cyprus was governed less well than other parts of Venice’s efficient dominion. Tradition has perhaps exaggerated Venetian failures, but undoubtedly corruption was unusually rife, and the local Greek population was alienated by the oppressive, moribund, and unreformed feudal institutions that Venice installed on the island. Meanwhile, the Ottomans’ rapid rise to dominate the Levant by the early sixteenth century guaranteed that Cyprus would, sooner or later, become a Turkish target.

Several times during the 1560’, delegations representing the disaffected Greek Cypriots appealed to the sultan in Istanbul as a preferable ruler to come and seize their island from the Venetians. Certainly the Porte was smarting from the Turkish failure in 1565 to conquer Malta. The new sultan, Selim II “the Sot,” was supposedly incited against Cyprus by his Jewish (and rabidly anti-Venetian) favorite, Joseph Nasi, who promised Selim not only rich loot but also freer access to his favorite Cypriot wines. Joined by another favorite, the general Lala Mustafa Paşa, Nasi persuaded Selim to direct an expedition against the island.

The Venetian regime on the island, in serious disarray, had not maintained its defenses consistently. The head of the civil administration in Nicosia, luogotenente Niccolò Dandolo, was notably incompetent, though the military commander based in Famagusta, Marcantonio Bragadin, and an additional general newly sent by Venice, the Perugian-born Astorre Baglioni, were both highly able men. Due to Dandolo’s dithering, only minimal opposition was mounted when the Turkish expeditionary force reached Cyprus on July 1, 1570.

The Turks, under the command of Lala Mustafa and Admiral Piali Paşa (one of the failed commanders against Malta), coasted the southern shore, raiding Limassol and then disembarking at Larnaca. From the outset, the opponents displayed wildly different attitudes toward the island’s Greek population. Fearing an uprising, the Venetians had massacred several hundred Greeks in one area suspected of disloyalty. Mustafa, on the other hand, immediately instituted a policy of promising the locals rewards for support, as well as a milder, less burdensome government once the Ottomans were victorious.

Joined on July 22 by massive reinforcements from the mainland, Mustafa moved on Nicosia, where his menace had been underestimated and defenses were inadequate. Nevertheless, the city held out against a siege of forty-five days, falling only when Mustafa had been strengthened by still more reinforcements. The final, successful assault was mounted on September 9. Dandolo was summarily beheaded as the bloodthirsty Turks swarmed through the city and plundered its enormous wealth. Once-mighty Kyrenia, now hopelessly indefensible, surrendered without a fight. This left the Turks one final and truly formidable obstacle to complete control of the island: Famagusta. Though its defenders numbered barely 8,000, against Mustafa’s forces of some 200,000, the city had massive and updated fortifications, and it had in Bragadin and Baglioni two superlative and deeply respected commanders.

Lala Mustafa and Piali united at Famagusta on September 17, 1570, to invest the city. Conflicts between besiegers and besieged became regular and robust, and they lasted into winter. The Venetian commanders believed that they could preserve Famagusta and, with it, Venetian control of the island. Back in Venice, however, there was more pessimism, and an allied effort at naval relief of Cyprus proved an embarrassing failure. Two enterprising brothers, Marco and Marcantonio Querini, did reach Famagusta in late January, 1570, with a force of fifteen hundred men, bolstering both the resources and the spirits of the defenders. By spring, however, there was renewed concern about food supplies, and Bragadin accordingly expelled numerous militarily useless civilians. The Turks constructed a massive network of trenches around the walls, to allow freer access to them, and a series of ten siege towers was set near the walls, from which the defenders could be targeted. A massive bombardment was begun on May 15. Only prodigious feats of bravery and determination beat back repeated Turkish assaults.

The defenders still hoped for a massive relief, if not by direct reinforcement, then by naval disruption of the Turks on a wide front. Indeed, in Rome on May 25, 1571, the Holy League Holy League was established, by which Pope Pius V, King Philip II of Spain, and the Venetian Republic agreed to mount a massive fleet against Turkish naval might. The Venetians hoped that one result of the alliance would be relief of Famagusta and recovery of Cyprus.

It was too late for Famagusta, however. While the league’s naval preparations dragged on, the beleaguered defenders approached desperation. By July, food supplies were all but exhausted. A series of Turkish assaults in the last days of the month drastically depleted manpower. The two commanders concluded that diminished ammunition and food could no longer sustain resistance. On August 1, 1571, they proposed capitulation, and Lala Mustafa agreed to remarkably generous terms, by which all Italians and any allies could depart in full honor and safety. Arrangements to implement these terms were begun, not without some violence in the streets, but with displays of mutual respect between leaders. The two Venetian generals, with appropriate retinue, were to call upon Lala Mustafa on the evening of August 5 for a formal ceremony of surrender.

Then something went terribly wrong. After initial courtesies, Lala Mustafa fell into one of his characteristic violent moods. He began insulting the Venetian generals, accusing them of atrocities against Turkish prisoners and violations of the surrender terms. His rage mounting, he ordered the arrest and execution of the whole delegation. Baglioni and the others were beheaded, though Bragadin, mutilated facially, was kept apart. This spectacle quickly escalated still further, as the fury of the Turkish troops began to mirror that of their leader. They proceeded to massacre and pillage the city.

Bragadin had been spared for even worse horrors. Imprisoned for nearly two weeks while his wounds festered, the half-dead commander refused to accept conversion to Islam. After an appalling round of public abuse, he was tied to a stake in the main square and flayed alive, before he was finally killed. His body was divided and his skin, tanned and stuffed with straw, was paraded around the city in symbolic degradation. This skin (plus his head) was taken back to Istanbul as part of the loot. Almost a decade later, a Venetian survivor of the siege was able to make off with the skin, bringing it to Bragadin’s family. It was deposited in an urn as part of a memorial erected among the tombs of the doges in Venice’s Church of Saints Giovanni and Paolo—one of its few monuments to a nondoge, reverencing him as a civic martyr to the republic’s honor.

Significance

Too late for Bragadin and the defenders of Famagusta, Venice had some measure of revenge two months later. The struggling armada of the Holy League finally confronted the full Turkish fleet at Lepanto, Lepanto, Battle of (1571) off the Gulf of Corinth, on October 7, 1571, and smashed it in one of the spectacular naval battles of history. Selim readily ordered the building of a new Turkish fleet, under the supervision of Piali Paşa. Lepanto ultimately, if not decisively, spelled the end of the Turkish menace in the Mediterranean sea lanes.

Though Turkish naval power was now on the wane, the Ottoman Empire had acquired a valuable new province, guaranteeing security to its situation in the Levant. Cyprus itself, long with ambiguous ties to the Hellenic world, was now infused with a new Turkish population. It remained in Turkish hands until 1878, when it came under British administration. In the twentieth century, the island became an independent republic (1960), but the tensions between Turkish and Greek portions of the population remained, each fearing annexation by the other’s nation of origin. In 1974, Turkey did indeed invade Cyprus, dividing the island into Turkish and Greek sections, although the division was not formally recognized by the international community. This division has lasted into the early twenty-first century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arbel, Benjamin. Cyprus, the Franks, and Venice, Thirteenth-Sixteenth Centuries. Burlington, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000. A collection of the author’s articles (nine in English, four in French, one in Italian), this constitutes a rare and insightful treatment of the island under the Venetians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bicheno, Hugh. Crescent and Cross: The Battle of Lepanto, 1571. London: Cassell, 2003. A concise account of the fall of Cyprus appears on pages 182-193 and on 204-208, in the broader context of international war with the Ottomans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edbury, Peter W. The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191-1374. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. The best study of the island’s Lusignan era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinross, J. P. D. B. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977. Good general account of Ottoman history for the general reader, including pages on the conquest of Cyprus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. Excellent general history with the Cyprus episode generously treated in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodgers, William L. Naval Warfare Under Oars, Fourth to Sixteenth Centuries. Annapolis, Md.: U.S. Naval Institute, 1939. Classic study of naval tactics with almost one hundred pages devoted to Cyprus and Lepanto.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Setton, Kenneth M. The Sixteenth Century. Vol. 4 in The Papacy and the Levant, 1204-1571. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1984. Covers the fall of Cyprus, closely following the sources, in the context of contemporaneous diplomacy.

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

Sept. 27-28, 1538: Battle of Préveza

Oct. 20-27, 1541: Holy Roman Empire Attacks Ottomans in Algiers

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

May 18-Sept. 8, 1565: Siege of Malta

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

Oct. 7, 1571: Battle of Lepanto

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