Cyprus Lost to the Ottoman Turks

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, through a series of intermittent wars extending over more than a century, Ottoman Turkish forces surged inexorably through the territories of Venice's empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. By 1570 the Ottomans were ready to assault the greatest source of Venetian wealth and power in the Eastern Mediterranean: the island of Cyprus.

Location mapThe attack on Cyprus came in July 1570 after ample warning. Venice cobbled together an alliance with the Pope and the Spanish Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but the allied fleets wasted the spring and early summer in dithering. Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, fell quickly to the Turks. Venice then pinned her hopes on a successful defense of the heavily fortified citadel city of Famagusta on the northern coast. The defenders withstood the siege for a year, but Turkish forces overwhelmed them in July 1571.

Upon surrender of the city, the Turks undertook a brutal torture of the Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, that has remained one of the most brutal and bitterly remembered episodes in all Venetian history.

The long and heroic defense of Bragadin and his comrades at Famagusta at least provided Venice time to re-energize its erstwhile allies, the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. Emboldened by the Turkish victory at Famagusta, the Turkish fleet had entered the lower Adriatic. In October 1571 at the Gulf of Patras near Lepanto they found arrayed before them the combined fleet of Venice and her allies. The Venetians on the left wing totally routed their Turkish opponents. The battle at the center, under the direct command of the Holy Roman Empire commander, swayed longer in the balance, but victory at last fell to Venice's allies. Only the right wing, under the dunderheaded leadership of a Genoan commander, failed to achieve success.

Lepanto is remembered as one of history's greatest naval engagements. The magnificent victory of the European allies stalled--but did not stem--the Turkish tide of westward expansion. Certainly, it did not serve to return Cyprus to Venetian control. Nonetheless, it succeeded in dispelling the aura of invincibility that had gathered about the Turks.



1998 C. I. Gable