“The strength of the walls is not in the stones but in the souls of the defenders.”
Géza Gárdonyi: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon (1901)
In 1544, István Dobó was appointed steward of the royal household to collect episcopal tithes for the bishop of Eger. He collected the taxes due to the bishop with a firm hand. Two-thirds of the total income was to be spent on maintaining the castle, while the remaining one-third went to the bishop. In 1548, King Ferdinand I promoted Dobó to the captain of the Egri vár [Castle of Eger]. Primarily, in preparation for the imminent Ottoman attack, Dobó strengthened the castle’s defenses, improved its armaments, and built up supplies. In 1550, he even built a plank fort in Szolnok, about 100 kilometers south of the castle, with the intention of creating another line of defense.
Meanwhile, Bishop György Martinuzzi of Nagyvárad (Oradea), the Governor of Erdély (Transylvania), called for the unification of the Kingdom of Hungary and Principality of Erdély under the rule of King Ferdinand I. To prevent this, Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sent troops to Erdély lead by Pasha Kara Ahmed. During 1551, they captured the castles of Becse (Bečej), Becskerek (Zrenjanin), Csanád and Lippa (Lipova), but failed to occupy Temesvár (Timisoara), which was surrounded by an extensive swamp. However, during next year’ campaign, this castle also fell. At the same time, the army of Pasha Ali of Buda occupied Veszprém and several other northern castles. As a final act, he defeated the entire royal army of the northern parts of Hungary in the battle of Palást on August 10, 1552.
The two Ottoman armies united at Szolnok. Seeing the huge army of the attackers, the frightened guards fled the scene. Thus, the last stronghold on the way to Eger fell into the hands of the invaders without a single stroke of a sword. From here, the confident Ottoman army continued towards Eger and surrounded it on the 9th of September. The defenders of the castle, which barely numbered 2,000 people, had to face the besieging army, which had an estimated 45,000 soldiers. Another example of the inequality in power between the two parties is that the castle had only 4 siege cannons and 15 field cannons, as opposed to the 20 and more than 100 pieces of the attacking Ottoman army.
At the beginning of the siege, the Ottomans tried to weaken the castle walls with seven strategically placed siege canons. After this artillery preparation, the first major assault against the castle took place on the 29th of September. However, the attackers remained defenseless against the bullets of defenders shooting from the castle’s shielded positions and the ingenious fiery weapons thrown at them by the thousands. Those who eventually reached the walls and tried to climb up were confronted by the women of the castle, who poured boiling water and tar on them. The desperate struggle that lasted for days ended with a victory for the defenders.
Thus, the besiegers continued to fire on the castle walls and build access ramps on the breached sections. On 11th of October, the Ottoman troops were able to launch another attack. Despite the devastating losses, the Ottoman military leadership continued the attacks for another two days. In addition to the exhaustion caused by the long campaign, the Ottoman army was also weakened by, epidemics, insufficient supplies, the dissatisfaction among soldiers, and the increasingly cold weather. Finally, after 38 days of fighting, on the 17th of October, the Ottoman forces gave up the siege and returned to their winter camp. During the siege, the castle was turned into ruins, more than 300 of the castle defenders were killed and about 200 were injured.
The triumph of Eger was a crucial event in 16th-century Hungary: for the first time, a Hungarian castle was able to defend itself against the might of the Ottoman forces. István Dobó played a decisive role in the victory due to his knowledge of the military principles of the age and his excellent organizational skills. His strong character, exemplary courage, and fairness toward his soldiers all contributed to the triumph. It is also important that all the defenders of the castle who remained here volunteered for the battle. They were also aware that a perilous struggle awaits them.
News of Eger’s stout standing spread quickly throughout Europe with Austrian and German printed war reports. Thus the belief in the invincibility of the Ottoman forces was shaken. This heroic achievement in Hungarian history has inspired many poets, novelists, painters and filmmakers. The firs account of the events was written by Sebestyén Lantos of Tinódi, one of the greatest Hungarian ballad writers of the age. He described the siege in a poem just a few weeks after the incident.
The most famous literary work inspired by the events is Géza Gárdonyi’s historic novel ‘Egri Csillagok’ [Stars of Eger – Title of the English version: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon] (1901). As he walked among the remains of the castle, he became curious about its history. About his concerns, he wrote the following in his diary: “Is it possible to write a novel that would not use the past as a stage, but it would rather be a lantern: shedding light on the intriguing darkness of bygone centuries?” Before writing the novel, he conducted a thorough researched on the events and their context in order to create a 16th-century story with the greatest possible authenticity. Ultimately, he was able to give a timeless account of the historical events that readers can experience through the lives of his characters.
“You, a stronger force than all forces: mother’s love! You, sunlight embodied in a human form! You, holy flame descended from the heart of God, fearless, strong weakness! You, who leave your safe shelter, your soft pillow, all your treasures to pass through the forest of death for your lost loved ones! You, who sink into the depths of the earth, you, who want to break through the wall with your weak arm, on which hundreds of thousands of armed beasts roar helplessly! You, who do not know the impossible, when it comes to someone you love, even if you have to suffer, die together – I admire you, female heart! ”
Géza Gárdonyi: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon (1901)
The bravery of Eger’s women was immortalized in Bertalan Székely’s painting “Egri nők” [Women of Eger] (1897). The dominant figure in the painting is a woman holding a sword in front of the Ottoman invaders. Apparently, she takes the place of her husband who fell during the fight. There are other women standing next to her who are throwing stones at the attackers. Dobó’s soldiers can only be seen in the background of the painting.