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The Search for Kara Mustafa Paşa

by Peter Davis

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One night at a party,
a casual discussion with a friend led me to agree
to write an article on Kara Mustafa for a local gazette.
I should have known better!

Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha was described by a Turkish friend as "not a nice man" -- and further reading supports that conclusion. That is, when one has found out where to read further. My first port of call was to my Encyclopaedia of Military History by Dupuy & Dupuy. I found very little there apart from fixing him as the Grand Vizier who led the last Ottoman Army against Vienna in 1683. From there I moved on to a couple of histories of the Ottomans getting more and more frustrated at the paucity of information on Kara Mustafa himself.

At this stage I wrote to Harold Smart (a respected Australian researcher and writer on things Ottoman) and received details of figures and his own notes on KM by return. This only added to the confusion -- through no fault of the Reverend Gentleman but rather because he produced two versions of KM's antecedents.

The hunt was now really on. I went to Jason Goodwin's Lords of the Horizons (which I recommend strongly, as a most readable study of the Osmanlis -- and which is rather different from the usual). I wrote to him for further details and was recommended to John Toye's Siege of Vienna which I obtained -- and researched for sources where I could find them. The warning lights should have flashed here as Toye states, "The records are too meagre, there can be no proper biography of this cardinal figure in European History." Nevertheless, I perused Britannica, began a search for a copy of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (EI) and subsequently received a photocopy of the relevant article. With that, I finally had enough to begin writing this article...

Kara Mustafa was born. That is a fact. When he was born and where he was born are more problematical. The date of his birth was around 1044 (AH) which translates to 1634-35 AD (MS) according to official Ottoman records. (A French Ambassador writing before KM became Grand Vezir, suggests that he was some ten years older.) The place of his birth is more uncertain, but as he is generally referred to as Merzifonlu [which translates as "from Merzifon" (Mersovan)], the odds lie with him being born near Merzifon (itself near Amasya) in the Black Sea region of northern Anatolia.

His social status is also in dispute as, on one hand, he is described as coming from the dregs of the people of Trabzon [the Black Sea port] yet on the other he is described as the son of a sipahi -- a soldier who held land from the Padishah in return for military service of himself and retinue, rather like a feudal knight, with difference that the rank and estate were not hereditary. According to the EI, his father's name is given variously as Derwish Beg, Urudj Beg, and Hasan Beg.

One undisputed fact is that he was taken into the household of the Köprülü family. This family, of Albanian origin, produced a string of Grand Vezirs and other effective servants of the Osmanlis. Again there are versions of how he found such a place. Here seems a reasonable point to consider these conflicting matters.

When he reached a place of power KM would have ensured that such official records as existed would paint him in a good light. The European diplomats and merchants tended to denigrate him because of his bitter xenophobia, towards Christians and Westerners, and his actions towards themselves, such as trying to use their ships as part of the Ottoman war effort, charging them heavily for the renewal of trading privileges, and generally treating them with less respect than they expected or were even accustomed to.

Mustafa's nickname of Kara (black) is generally agreed to refer to his swarthy complexion and he is reputed to have been good-looking. However two authors refer to a scarring of his face when he was leading the fire-fighting troops against a burning fat-rendering business and was scalded by exploding mutton fat. Another thing certain is that he was no coward.

His character could have been described as black for many reasons, not least for his avarice. He worked assiduously at raising money for his Padishah whilst enriching himself at the same time... An Italian representative describes him as totally venal, cruel and unjust. He is alternately described as only conforming outwardly to Islam and also as being a devout believer. One story, which might amuse, records that he removed the tax on alcoholic beverages as it was un-Islamic for the state to benefit from the sale of alcohol. This move pleased the pious and delighted the drinkers. It is rare that any politician pleases anyone, let alone everyone!

KM's rise to power was steady and not unrelated to his powerful foster-family. One version, and this time we will stick at one, is that he served his foster-father, (and father-in-law) Mehmed Köprülü who, when he was made Governor of Damascus, raised KM to the rank of Silahdar, and later Mühürdar and still later Aga. When Köprülü Ahmed became Grand Vezir he appointed KM as his telhisī with the task of bearing messages to the Padishah. When Ahmed captured the fortress of Yanova, KM carried the news to the Padishah who took him into his external employ as kücük mirahur. He was later appointed beylerbeyi of Silistria but gave up this post in 1661 to convey the Valide Sultan from Edirne (Adrianopolis) to Istanbul. He became a vezir and was appointed vali of Diyarbakır.

Mehmet Köprülü died and his son Fazil Ahmed Köprülü became Grand Vezir and KM became Kapudan Pasha, commander of the Imperial Fleet in the Aegean. When his foster-brother campaigned in Hungary (1663), KM was appointed Kaymakam (deputy Grand Vezir). His influence with the Padishah grew.

As Kaymakam, his duties were largely ceremonial, but the EI suggests that he was plotting to replace Fazil Ahmed as Grand Vezir. As we have noted -- not a nice man! He was effectively demoted to the rank of Third Vezir to make way for a boon companion of Mehmed IV, though KM remained close himself, accompanying the Padishah on the vast hunting expeditions which earned Mehmed his nickname of Mehmed Avci (the Hunter).

In 1672 KM saw active service during the Polish Campaign. He was present at the siege of Khotin, commanded the right wing at the opening of the siege of Kamaniçe and, as plenipotentiary, negotiated the peace settlement which added Podolia to the Ottoman Empire, and by which the Western Ukraine was recognized as an Ottoman Protectorate. His influence with the Padishah grew and in 1675 he was wedded to the Padishah's daughter, Kücük Sultan, no doubt having to divorce his Köprülü wife, according to custom. When the Grand Vezir fell ill, KM took over his public duties and, when he died in 1676, his job.

During his seven years of office, KM raised large quantities of money for his Lord -- and for himself. An Italian observer described him as tutto venale, crudele e ingiusto (utterly venal, cruel and unjust), though a Dutch reporter observed him to be een stout ende prompt, ondernement man (a daring, ready and enterprising man). He was widely knowledgeable about European affairs. Toye comments, "There is occasional praise by diplomats for his courtesy. More often they were bewildered, and cowed, by his arrogance . . ." There are many references to the size of Kara Mustafa's household, the splendour of his stables and horses, the number of his concubines, and the avarice which sustained them all; but one Englishman, resident in Istanbul in 1676, added that he had earned the reputation of a "Great Souldyer, and a Great Courtier and of a very Active Genious..." Toye goes on to say, "The actions of this Ottoman politician, rather than the words of others about his character, prove to be his only trustworthy memorial."

Politically, KM's main interest lay in the problems on the northern frontiers of the Empire, problems made no less difficult by the actions of Russia and the instability of Hungarians and the Cossacks. In 1677 he led an unsuccessful Russian Campaign to pull the defecting Cossacks back into line. Another campaign in 1678 resulted in the capture and destruction of the Cossack stronghold of Cehrin. He had fortresses built on the Dnieper and the Bug rivers -- and a campaign in 1681 resulted in a truce with the Russians, thus freeing him to tackle the problem of Hungary. In 1682 KM recognised the dissident Thokoly as ruler of all Hungary while refusing to re-negotiate the old Treaty of Vasvar (Eisenburg -- August 10, 1664).

Following the great Alay Alay, Kara Mustafa and the Padishah left Istanbul for Edirne, from where KM went on against Vienna -- and kismet. The campaign itself is well documented and lengthy, so that it will be treated here but briefly. The march itself, through Belgrade and Pest, went well and adequate supplies were available on this well-trodden route. It should be remembered that Ottoman territory reached half-way between Pest (Budapest) and Vienna itself. On arriving at Vienna, KM began to lay siege and finally encircled it.

It is appropriate at this stage to consider KM's motivation for this move against Vienna. The Ottoman Empire consistently waged war to extend and secure its frontiers which included the Balkans, what is now Greece, the Northern areas of the Black Sea, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Arabia, Egypt, and the north African littoral. The move to secure the north-western borders and to extend Islam was natural. There are suggestions, however, that KM saw himself leading the Empire's troops into new territories which he would govern, becoming the de facto Sultan of the West. It was not to be.

The forces against him were those of the Emperor Leopold, led by Duke Charles of Lorraine, in alliance with the Polish Army of King John Sobieski, one of the most noted generals of his day. By error on the part of KM, who did not properly secure his flanks, the Western forces fell upon the rear of the besiegers and drove them off. KM escaped with his life managing to save the Sancakı Şerif, and, of course, his treasure. The siege was raised and the Western armies, now reinforced by troops from Brandenburg and Baden, proceeded to harry the Turks.

KM retired to the fortress of Belgrade and gave orders for the execution of many senior officers including Janissaries. The Aga of the Janissaries made his way to Belgrade. On Christmas day the messengers of the Padishah, supported by the Aga approached KM and, on the Padishah' s instructions, bade him hand over his seal of office, the keys of the Ka'ba, and the Sancakı Şerif.

Having handed over the symbols of his authority, he asked, "Am I to die?" When being informed that that was the case, he replied, "As God pleases." He then bent his neck to the silken bowstring and went to his death. His head was struck from his body and taken to the Padishah. The failure of this campaign marked a high point of the Ottoman Empire, though it was to last for another two and a half centuries. Courage alone was no longer enough.

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Thanks to the artist Mike Taylor (Kent, England) -- for the first illustration above.
Thanks to the publishers at Karacan Oxford for the others...74

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