Thursday, January 7, 2010

Juahar in Hungary.

Throughout Indian history, and continuing up until the horrors of partition in the 1950s, Hindu women either committed suicide (Juahar or Johar) or were killed by their own to prevent them from falling into the hands of muslims. This practice was simliar to that in other cultures that faced islamic invaders and the story of Szigetvar has many parallels to that of Chittor in India.


Szigetvár, situated close to the city of Pécs in Southern Hungary, was never a particularly large or strong fortress. Its existence, however, had been a thorn in the Turks' side since 1556, when Ali Pasha of Buda had lost ten thousand men under its walls in an unsuccessful siege.

Ten years later Suleiman "the Magnificent", the victor of Mohács, decided that as a preparatory step to the capture of Vienna, Szigetvár must be destroyed. When in August 1566 he arrived with 90,000 troops and 300 cannons under Szigetvár, he was not impressed. To him, Szigetvár was a "molehill."

A few hundred kilometers to the north another army, 80,000 strong, struck camp between Gyor and Komárom. These were the troopsgathered by Emperor Maximilian, King of Hungary, to fend off the anticipated Turkish advance on Vienna after the expected fall of Szigetvár. The efforts of Hungarian leaders to induce Sam Ekhard, the Imperial commander of his force, to aid the beleaguered fortress were of no avail.

Count Miklós Zrínyi, who was then the Ban (viceroy) of Croatia, decided to take charge of the defense himself. With only 2,500 Hungarian and Croatian soldiers he had no illusions about the final outcome. The wives and daughters of Zrínyi's officers refused to leave the city, they wanted to stay with their husbands and fathers until death.

After due preparations for the siege, Zrínyi gathered his men for a meeting during which all swore to defend Szigetvár against the infidels to their last breath. Then red flags were hoisted as a signal to the Turks that Zrínyi was ready for battle.

What made Szigetvár defensible at all were not high hills or strong walls, but the marshes of the Almás Creek which surrounded Szigetvár, a city built on three islands. A dammed lake added to its defense potential. Szigetvár's three islands were connected by wooden platforms built over the water. The largest island was situated in the middle, serving as the base for the "old city." Connected to it on one side was the "new city" and on the other side the fort proper, which included a high point called Nádasdy Hill. From Nádasdy Hill, gun emplacements looked down on the plain around Szigetvár.

The defenders were at an immediate disadvantage, because an unusually dry summer had reduced their best weapon: water, to inundate the marshes. Whatever was left in the lake and moats had been drained by the Turks, who had destroyed the dam in preparation for the siege. As a next step, the Turks built three causeways of brushwood and dirt across the drained lake bed. The Portuguese artillery expert, Aliportug, whom the Sultan had used at the siege of Malta, devised a monster platform, made of forty-two wagons (three wagons wide, fourteen wagons long) fastened together by tree trunks to bridge the gap between the bastion and the causeway.

The Turks took the indefensible "new city," built on the smallest island, in two days, a feat claiming the lives of 3,000 Turks and 300 defenders. But the fortress proper still stood and the guns from Nádasdy Hill continued to batter the attackers, causing heavy casualties.

In his frustration, Grandvizier Ahmed Sokolovits changed tactics. He sent envoys to Zrínyi, promising him eternal possession of all of Croatia and Slovenia if he would only surrender. Zrínyi turned the offer down with contempt. Next, the Turks used arrows to shoot messages written in Hungarian and Croatian to the defending soldiers to induce them to open the gate. The result was the same.

Angered. the Grandvizier ordered the fortress to be bombarded on all four sides day and night. At the same time, his men began sinking shafts to underminethe entrenchments, to no avail. The general attack on the night of August 26 was beaten back with the Turks losing Ali Pasha of Buda, and Ali Borsuk, the commander of Turkish artillery.

Suleiman Dead and Still "Alive"

Suleiman the Magnificent was furious. On August 29, the 40th anniversary of his Mohács triumph, the aged Sultan personally took charge of an all-out attack which was renewed ten times during the day. But this time it was Zrínyi who took revenge for Mohács: thousands of the Sultan's best soldiers were piling up dead or wounded in the ten futile attempts at a breakthrough. The Portuguese Aliportug was one of the first victims, felled on his wagon-bridge trying to crossover with Janissary troops. The defenders even captured the commander of the Janissaries.

The "Magnificent" was crying in shame and anger when he witnessed how his best regiments took to flight from the walls. At the end, when he was helped down from his horse, he was a dying man although he had not been touched by any weapon.

For five days a deadly silence fell upon the Turkish camp while new attempts were made to sink shafts under the fortress. This time the Turks succeeded. On September 5th a shattering explosion demolished Nádasdy Hill, fire engulfing all surrounding buildings. Through the gaps caused by the explosion thousands of Janissaries rushed in and began to sack the buildings in the marketplace, killing women and children. They thought the fortress was already theirs.Not quite. Zrínyi and his soldiers descended on them like avenging angels killing most of the invaders and repelling two new attacks. Turk bodies were piled up in the passages made by the explosion, blocking further attempts to enter. Those who remained alive were seen fleeing like scalded ants from an ants' nest.

Sultan Suleiman could not bear the sight any longer. When the Turkish trumpets signaled retreat again, a fatal stroke felled him.Sultan had come to kill Miklós Zrínyi and ultimately it was Zrínyi whose resistance killed him.

Suleiman died, but he lived for three more days - officially, that is.The Grandvizier believed it was essential to conceal the truth from his troops to prevent general panic. In an act of make-believe unprecedented in history, he had the Sultan dressed up in his imperial robes with a diamond-studded turban on his head and a golden war-hammer in his hand, and placed him in a chair under his tent as if he were watching his troops in review.

This farce continued for three days to allow time for the complete capture of Szigetvár, now practically ruined and with only 300 defenders left under Zrínyi's command. All their cannons and supplies, except for the ammunition, had been destroyed by the flames.
Zrínyi knew that the end was near.

Storming out into Certain Death

The defenders were all prepared to die in keeping with their oath, but first a horrendous task awaited them. Their wives and daughters were still alive in the tower. Should they fall into Turkish hands, they would suffer a fate worse than death, and so, they had chosen instead to die at the hands of their beloved fathers and husbands.After tearful farewells the men plunged daggers into their loved ones' hearts. This was the Hungarian version of Masada. the immortal self-sacrifice of Jewish zealots in a Roman-besieged fortress two millenniums ago.

With this tragic event behind him, Zrínyi donned the silk and velvet garment he had worn on his wedding day, and hung a heavy gold chain around his neck. He discarded his shirt of mail and instead, stuffed his pockets with gold pieces to "provide for my funeral" and with the unsheathed sword of his father in hand he joined his men in the tower yard. He blessed and thanked them for their loyalty.

His men, following their commander's example, also discarded their armor.Then Miklós Zrínyi, with the national flag in one hand, his sword in the other, ordered the opening of the gate behind which enemy troops swarmed on a bridge.

When the gate was flung open Zrínyi's men fired two heavy cannons stuffed with nails and sharp pieces of iron, point blank into the enemy ranks. A moment later

Zrínyi and his 300 men stormed out of the fortress. "Like a fiery ray of lightning he cracked down on them, cutting down everybody within range to make way for himself and for the courageous men following him," wrote the German historian Wagner.

The bridge had been cleared of Turkish troops when the inevitable happened. Zrínyi was fatally hit by two bullets in the chest and by an arrow in his eye. His officers and men also fell - all except three.

Zrínyi's head was promptly severed by the Janissaries and his body placed on a cannon. As a sign of victory, his head was put on a plate and rushed to the Sultan's tent by troops still unaware of the Magnificent's death.

This, however was not the end of the resistance.

Booty-hungry Janissaries invaded the fortress searching for the alleged treasures of Miklós Zrínyi. Thousands jammed the yard and the tower when the last holdout, a young woman hiding in the underground ammunition chamber, threw a flaming torch into the gunpowder stored in the cellar. The terrible detonation which followed buried not only those in the tower but practically everyone in the yard. Thus, it became the burial ground for 3,000 Janissaries.
All told, the Battle of Szigetvár claimed the lives of 2,500 Magyars and Croatians and 25,000 Turks in a siege in which no stones remained unturned.
The remains of the fortress of Szigetvár still stand as a silent memorial to a battle fought for country, faith and honor.

Gabor Vincze

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