In 1521 Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I, known to his subjects as “the Lawgiver” and to Europeans as “the Magnificent,” seized Belgrade, and five years later he defeated and killed King Louis II of Hungary at Mohács, thus dividing Hungary and Croatia between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. In 1529, however, Suleiman’s attempt on Vienna—the ultimate central European prize—ended in failure. Intermittent but indecisive fighting between the rival empires followed.
On May 1, 1566, Suleiman led a 150,000-strong army from Constantinople in an all-out campaign to take Vienna. After reaching Belgrade on June 27, however, he learned of a devastating raid on the Turkish encampment at Siklós from Szigetvár, a castle in Hungary garrisoned by some 2,300 Croatian and Hungarian soldiers. Leading the garrison was Croatian-born Count Nikola IV Zrinski, a veteran of the 1529 siege of Vienna and numerous other engagements.
Suleiman resolved to eliminate Szigetvár and Zrinski before pressing on to Vienna. Ailing and gout-ridden in the 46th year of his reign—the longest of any Ottoman sultan—Suleiman established an observation point on Similehov Hill and delegated field command to his grand vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha. On August 6 the Turks made a general assault which was repulsed. Szigetvár (Hungarian for “Island Castle”) was bounded by water on three sides, limiting the Turks’ approach and enhancing the strong fortress as a force multiplier.
The next month was marked by more costly assaults, relentless cannonading, occasional counterattacks by the defenders, and continuous Turkish efforts to undermine the walls with explosives and wood-fueled fires at the corners. As Zrinski and his desperate troops put up a ferocious defense, Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian II assembled an 80,000-man army at Györ, yet he made no move to relieve Szigetvár.
On September 6 Suleiman died at age 71 of a heart attack. Concerned about the effect on troops’ morale at that critical juncture, Grand Vizier Sokollu kept the sultan’s death secret for 48 days. The siege would end within 48 hours.
On the morning of September 7 Turkish artillery set the stronghold ablaze. Zrinski addressed his 600 remaining troops. “Let us go out from this burning place into the open and stand up to our enemies,” he reportedly said. “Who dies—he will be with God. Who does not—his name will be honored. I will go first, and what I do, you do. And God is my witness, I will never leave you, my brothers and knights!”
The Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Park in nearby Cserto memorializes the 1566 battle. / Getty Images
As the Turks surged across a narrow bridge toward the castle, defenders greeted them with a mortar barrage of iron fragments that killed about 600 of the enemy. Then Zrinski, eschewing his armor, led a final counterattack, only to take two musket balls to the chest and an arrow to his head. When the rallying Turks finally overran the castle, seven defenders managed to flee, and the Turkish Janissaries spared a few of those captured in admiration for their courage. The rest were slain.
Turkish casualties were estimated at upward of 20,000, but they would suffer more when a rumor of treasure drew thousands into the newly taken castle. They found no riches, but they did find the magazine—just as a slow fuse left by Zrinski reached the powder. Another 3,000 Turks died in the resultant explosion.
Following this pyrrhic victory the Turks canceled their Vienna campaign and did not threaten the Hapsburg capital until 1683. Thus France’s Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, retrospectively declared Szigetvár “the battle that saved civilization.” Regarded by Croatians and Hungarians similarly to how Greeks regard Thermopylae, the siege inspired numerous literary works, including the 1647 epic poem “Szigeti Veszedelem” (“Island Peril”), by Zrinski’s Hungarian-born great-grandson Miklós Zrínyi, and the 1876 Croatian opera Nikola Subic´ Zrinski, by Ivan Zajc.
In 1994 officials established in nearby Cserto the 1-acre Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Park, a memorial funded by Turkey, largely built in Ottoman style and featuring a larger-than-life bronze bust of Suleiman by Turkish sculptor Metin Yurdanur. When Hungarians vehemently objected, officials commissioned Yurdanur to add a bust of Zrinski. The opposing commanders appear side by side, looking forward, rather than facing each other as antagonists. MH