Eclipse of the Crescent Moon: The 1552 Siege of Eger Castle

This is a story about the determination and ingenuity of the castle defenders, combined with the military expertise of their commander István Dobó, who were able to fend off the mighty Ottoman forces.

“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 as the steward of the royal household to collect episcopal tithes for the bishop of Eger, and he did so with a firm hand. The collected taxes were divided such that two-thirds of the total income would go towards 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], in anticipation of the imminent Ottoman attack. Dobó took several measures to prepare for the attack, including strengthening the castle’s defenses, improving its armaments, and building up supplies. He even went so far as building a plank fort in Szolnok, located about 100 kilometers south of the castle, with the intention of creating another line of defense in 1550.

In the meantime, Bishop György Martinuzzi of Nagyvárad (Oradea), who was also 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. However, Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sent troops to Erdély lead by Pasha Kara Ahmed to prevent this unification. In 1551, Ottomans captured the castles of Becse (Bečej), Becskerek (Zrenjanin), Csanád and Lippa (Lipova), but were unable to occupy Temesvár (Timisoara), which was surrounded by an extensive swamp. However, in the following year’s campaign, even Temesvár fell. During the same time, the army of Pasha Ali of Buda occupied Veszprém and several other northern castles. In a final blow, he defeated the entire royal army of the northern parts of Hungary in the battle of Palást on August 10, 1552.

After the two Ottoman armies united at Szolnok, the guards stationed there fled in fear upon seeing the huge army of the attackers. As a result, the last stronghold on the way to Eger fell into the hands of the invaders without a single stroke of a sword. Emboldened by this victory, the Ottoman army advanced towards Eger and began to surrounded it on September 9th. The defenders of the castle, numbered barely 2,000 people, now had to face the besieging army, which was estimated to have 45,000 soldiers. The imbalance in power between the two sides was further illustrated by the fact that the castle had only 4 siege cannons and 15 field cannons, while the attacking Ottoman army had more than 20 and 100, respectively.

At the beginning of the siege, the Ottomans attempted to weaken the castle walls by deploying seven strategically positioned siege canons. Following this initial artillery barrage, the first major assault against the castle was launched on September 29th. However, the attackers proved defenseless against the defenders’ bullets fired from the castle’s shielded positions, and the ingenious incendiary weapons thrown at them by the thousands. Those who eventually reached the walls and attempted to climb them were met with fierce resistance from castle’s women, who doused them with boiling water and tar. Despite the desperate struggle that lasted for days, defenders emerged victorious.

Thus, the besiegers continued to fire on the castle walls and then build access ramps on the breached sections. On October 11th, the Ottoman troops launched another attack. Despite suffering devastating losses, the Ottoman military leadership persisted in their attacks for an additional two days. Along with the exhaustion caused by the prolonged campaign, the Ottoman army was also plagued by epidemics, inadequate supplies, dissatisfied soldiers, and increasingly cold weather. Finally, after 38 days of fighting, on October 17th, the Ottoman forces abandoned the siege and returned to their winter camp. The castle was left in ruins, with over 300 of its defenders killed and approximately 200 injured.

The victory of Eger marked a crucial moment in 16th-century Hungary as it was the first time a Hungarian castle was able to resist the might of the Ottoman forces. István Dobó played a crucial role in this triumph due to his expertise in the military principles of the time and his excellent organizational skills. Furthermore, his strong character, exemplary courage, and fairness toward his soldiers were all contributing factors to their success. It is worth noting that all the defenders who remained in the castle volunteered for the battle despite being aware of the perilous struggle that awaited them.

The news of Eger’s remarkable defense spread rapidly throughout Europe, with war reports published in Austria and Germany. This event challenged the belief in the invincibility of the Ottoman forces. This heroic achievement in Hungarian history has also inspired many artists, including poets, novelists, painters and filmmakers. Sebestyén Lantos of Tinódi, one of the greatest Hungarian ballad writers of the time, wrote the first account of the events in a poem just a few weeks after the siege.

The most renowned literary work inspired by these events is Géza Gárdonyi’s historic novel ‘Egri Csillagok’ [Stars of Eger – Title of the English version: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon] published in 901. While walking among the remains of the castle, he became curious about its history. Regarding his interest, he noted the following in his diary: “Is it possible to write a novel that does not only use the past as a stage, but rather be a lamp: illuminating the intriguing darkness of bygone centuries?” Before writing the novel, he conducted thorough researched on the events and their context to create a 16th-century story with the utmost authenticity. In the end, he was able to offer a timeless account of the historical events that readers can experience through his characters’ lives.

“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.

Today, visitors can explore the ruins of the Egri vár [Castle of Eger] and learn about its illustrious history through various exhibits and displays. The castle’s fortifications, including towers, walls, and underground passageways, offer a glimpse into its past glory and the battles that took place there. As they walk through the castle, visitors can imagine what life was like in medieval times and learn about the strategies and tactics used in war.


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