It’s 1462. The Ottoman army is advancing under the orders of Sultan Mehmet II through the Romanian countryside toward Târgovişte, medieval capital of Walachia. They expect a hard fight but instead find the city deserted-a foul stench in the air. Along the main road beyond the city they find the calling card of the most notorious warrior in European history.
Corpses of Turks and Bulgarian Muslims spitted on wooden stakes line the road for miles: some men impaled through the abdomen; others killed with a pole forced up through anus and out the mouth. Hamza Pasha, a Turkish general and the most senior of all the dead, rots on the highest stake. Sultan Mehmet II, not a naturally squeamish man–during the siege of Constantinople he often impaled men guilty of treachery or cowardice–turns over command to his generals with orders to retreat. He’s had enough of facing Vlad Dracula in battle.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 unleashed chaos in southeast Europe. The Byzantine Empire had stood as a bulwark against the Turks. In the years following the sack, the only serious threat to Ottoman hegemony is the Kingdom of Hungary. Only one thing separates the two nations: the Kingdom of Walachia.
Walachia’s rolling plains south of the Carpathians and command of the lower Danube. make the country an unwilling battleground. The Walachian ruling family, however, is long accustomed to this precarious niche. Dracula’s father, Vlad II, attempted to keep Walachia out of the dispute but his lukewarm stance against Ottoman expansion got him deposed by the Hungarians. He immediately allied with the Turks and regained his throne in 1444, sending his two sons, Radu and Vlad as hostages, proof of his vassalage to Sultan Murad II.
Vlad Dracula was about 13 when he and his brother were taken to Egrigoz in western Anatolia. Though their lives rested on their father’s loyalty, they were treated with respect. They had tutors who taught them logic, fighting, Islamic theology and Turkish. They also met figures of the Ottoman court-most importantly, Mehmet II.
By the mid 1440’s Mehmet had been through quite a bit himself. As a boy he was no one’s pick to become Sultan at a time when all rival claimants to the Ottoman throne killed each other until only one was left. Mehmet became the sole heir when his two half brothers died under suspicious circumstances and was elevated to Sultan in 1444 when his father abdicated. He was, however, twice removed from power by war and the intrigues of his viziers and would not finally be secure until 1451.
It must have been a bizarre introduction. Vlad Dracula and Mehmet II were both born into royalty and were about the same age. As boys they each had to be beaten by tutors for rebellious behavior. As men both were suspicious, proud and moody. Each had a chip on his shoulder: Mehmet because he had been deposed and was held in low regard by the Ottoman court; Vlad because he was a prisoner of an Ottoman state that his father was not strong enough to fight. They would become remarkably similar rulers. They rewarded talent at the expense of entrenched aristocracy. On the battlefield both understood psychological warfare-particularly the value of shock. They were practically twins-and as a consequence they loathed each other.
Radu, on the other hand, enjoyed Ottoman life and converted to Islam. He and Mehmet were fast friends, some even say lovers. Radu would become known throughout his life for his pro-Ottoman leanings and would consistently be an Ottoman candidate for the throne of Walachia, ruling four times over the course of 13 years.
In 1447 Vlad II was executed-in point of fact he had his face ripped off by pro-Hungarian boyars. As sons of a dead prince, the boys were released. Dracula, elevated by the Sultan to the Walachian throne, became Vlad III while Radu chose to remain with the Ottomans. For the rest of his life Vlad III would number his brother among his mortal enemies for this defection.
Vlad’s first reign lasted only months; the Hungarians almost immediately invaded and deposed him. He fled to the protection of his uncle in Moldavia until 1451 when arrived in Budapest. He soon impressed his enemies with his intimate knowledge of the Ottomans and gained their support. The Hungarians launched a joint expedition to oust the Ottomans from Serbia and Walachia in 1456 and after nine years Vlad regained the throne.
In most respects Vlad III lived a normal life. As Prince he brought gravity to his office. Known for his scrupulous honesty and the cruelty with which he handled treachery and corruption, his punishments are infamous. In addition to impaling he was known for boiling, blinding, flaying and roasting his victims.
Ever restless, he freely moved about his realm. “Dracula’s Castle” in the Transylvanian town of Bran is a stately edifice overlooking one of the most picturesque mountain passes in Romania. Just about all historians, however, assert that Dracula never lived there and may have only been there once as a prisoner on his way to Budapest. His preferred home in Târgoviste, however, is largely a ruin far less accessible to the public.
For the first three years of his reign Dracula maintained an icy peace with the Ottomans but in 1459 Hungarian enthusiasm for war was once again brimming over. Dracula decided to make his stand. He stopped paying the annual tribute of gold and Walachian boys to be trained as Janissaries. Mehmet sent his own men into Walachia to take captives and plunder; these Dracula set upon and impaled. In reaction Mehmet sent Hamza Pasha with 1000 troops to kill Dracula. Vlad learned of the ambush, trapped Turks in the mountains and killed them all, effectively declaring war.
In the coming fight Dracula’s leadership would prove his greatest asset. He knew the terrain on which he was fighting. As a general he was brilliant and fearless. Most importantly Vlad knew his enemy well. He knew Mehmet’s weaknesses–pride and impatience. He knew Turkish military tactics. He even used Turkish dress and language to his advantage. Once, when attacking the Ottoman stronghold of Giurgiu with a contingent of disguised riders, he captured the town by ordering the defenders to open the gate in flawless Turkish.
In 1461 he killed every Turk and Muslim he could find in southern Walachia and then crossed into Bulgaria. In a 1462 letter to the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus he claimed, “We killed 23,884 Turks and Bulgars without counting those whom we burned in homes or whose heads were not cut but our soldiers…thus your highness must know that I have broken the peace…” He then intercepted a much larger army of 18,000 sent by Mehmet to sack the port of Brǎila and killed more than half of them. Finally, Dracula had Mehmet the Conqueror’s undivided attention.
Mehmet brought the largest army assembled since the fall of Constantinople to deal with the Walachian upstart. Dracula attempted to prevent Mehmet from crossing the Danube but the Janissaries managed to establish a bridgehead and the Walachians withdrew, resorting to a scorched earth strategy of burnt crops, poisoned wells and deserted towns to deprive the Turks of any forage. Dracula had his men dig lethal pitfalls and divert streams to create marshland. He even resorted to biological warfare, sending people sick from tuberculosis and plague amongst the Turks. Still Mehmet advanced.
Finally the Sultan cornered Dracula in a mountain hideout near Târgoviste and laid siege to his army. Dracula’s response would be the highlight of his career. He once again donned a Turkish disguise and with a handful of men descended into the enemy camp. He was able to discover the size and organization of Mehmet’s army and even tried to locate and kill the Sultan, himself. Most importantly, however, Dracula learned that Mehmet had ordered his troops not to leave their tents at night in the unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. Returning to his own camp, Dracula formulated a plan still remembered for the havoc it created.
He struck after sunset on June 17th,1462 and continued attacking the Ottoman camp in waves until just before dawn. The Walachians approached silently and then, coming upon the camp, shrieked, blew bugles and brandished torches as they came out of the darkness. They set fire to tents and defensive fortifications, killing anyone who ventured out into the night. Then they disappeared, regrouping to attack again. No one knows how many men were killed on either side but psychologically the Ottomans were terrified. The following day Mehmet pursued inflicting a few thousand casualties but when the Ottomans encountered the gruesome spectacle left for them in Târgovişte they promptly gave up the chase.
Tired of guerilla war, Mehmet decided to defeat Dracula through diplomacy. Vlad had so alienated the Walachian nobility during his reign that his brother Radu was able to convince them to make him prince instead. Dracula was captured in Transylvania and imprisoned, first in Bran and then later in the Hungarian town of Visegrad, a breathtaking hilltop citadel overlooking a bend in the Danube about thirty miles north of Budapest. After 12 years in irons Dracula was able to again sweet talk the Hungarians into releasing him and once more he brought war to the Turks in Bosnia and, in alliance with his cousin, Stephen of Moldavia, seized the throne of Walachia a final time in 1476. He was, however, soon abandoned by the Moldavians and his own people. The Turkish army swept in immediately and annihilated his forces.
No one knows how Vlad Dracula met his end. Some say he fell in battle while others maintain that the Turks captured and beheaded him. His legend has lived on for centuries in woodcuts and engravings depicting the tortures for which he was famous. During the 19th century, however, Bram Stoker made Dracula truly immortal.