Robert Elsie | AL Art | AL History | AL Language | AL Literature | AL Photography | Contact |


Robert Elsie

Texts and Documents of Albanian History

BACK  |  AL History
The Fortress of Shkodra, ca. 1903 (Photo: Franz Baron Nopcsa).

The Fortress of Shkodra, ca. 1903
(Photo: Franz Baron Nopcsa).

George Merula:
The Siege of Shkodra

The Italian humanist and historian George Merula (1430-1494), also known as Georgius Merula Alexandrinus or Giorgio Merlano di Negro, was born in Alessandria in northern Italy. He studied in Milan under Francesco Filelfo in 1444-1446 and later in Rome, Padua and Mantua. From 1465-1482, he was professor of rhetoric in Venice. Invited back to Lombardy by Ludovico il Moro of the powerful Sforza dynasty, he taught in Padua (1483-1485) and finally at the Accademia in Milan (1485-1494). Aside from his editions and commentaries of many Roman authors, Merula is the author of a moving description of the Turkish siege of Shkodra (Bellum Scodrense), composed in Latin in September 1474. The fortress of Shkodra finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in January 1479.

George Merula of Alessandria conveys his greetings to Jacob Merula and Francesco Gambarini.

I assume you are all waiting anxiously to find out what the savage and mighty enemy of Christianity (1) has been preparing to do against us, in particular if we take account of what he accomplished this summer. Had he attained his objectives, he would easily have committed the greatest massacre planned for many years.

Initially, he intended to attack Italy and to plunge the country into strife, just as our forefathers had suffered severely, who, like beasts, spent centuries hiding in the most isolated recesses of the mountains and in the depths of caves (2). In fact, the Turk initially beat the King of Persia (3), soundly defeating a good portion of his army by the favourable position he had taken and by means of the military equipment he had. The Persian cavalry, trounced and scattered by the attack and all the commotion, abandoned the battlefield and fled. Then he decided to attack that part of Macedonia which is situated along the Adriatic coast, and turned his attention to the region now called Albania. Had he taken that country, all the coastline including Dalmatia and Liburnia (4) would have fallen immediately under his sway, and, using the workforce there, at very little expense, he would have built a great naval fleet. Then, using his fleet to protect the Adriatic, he would have taken Apulia and Calabria since the distance across the sea from one side to the other is not great, and would thus have secured himself a means of penetrating further into Italy. He was waiting for a favourable moment to let his whole army feed on enemy land.

It was thus at the very time when the harvest was drawing near on the fields of Epidamnus (Durrës) and the other coastal regions, that he summoned his general, whom the Turks in their language call the Pasha of Roumelia, to his headquarters in Moesia, in order to muster an army. This man, having gathered there over one hundred thousand soldiers, and with no one knowing what he intended to do, i.e. whether he intended to attack Pannonia or to cross over to Asia, he pretended to return to Thrace and Adrianople but, after marching for two continuous days, he turned back, traversing in one night the road he had been travelling along. About the middle of May, sending sixty cavalrymen as an advanced guard, he suddenly, without warning, attacked and routed the Macedonians. Then, having taken prisoner all the scouts on the road before word could spread of his unexpected victory, he advanced and set up camp near Shkodra, which was once a Roman city.

Shkodra, situated on the border with Dalmatia and Macedonia, is a well-fortified city, virtually on all four sites, both from its natural position and because of its constructed fortifications. Around the fortress are high cliffs and from up top, one can observe all the plains below. On one side there is a more gradual slope which leads one up to the fortress. The waters of the Buna River flow by, right past the bottom of the hill. Along this river, the waters of a lake, of recent formation, flow into the sea. The river is slightly larger than our Tanaro (5). Do not be surprised that I claim the lake is of recent origin, since it is not mentioned by the Greek writers Strabo and Ptolemy, nor by the Roman authors Pomponius Mela and Pliny. When they mention the region, they refer only to the Drin River. This river flows past Lissus, now called Lezha, which separated Dalmatia from Macedonia. We may assume that, had the lake existed in ancient times, the said, well-known geographers would not have been silent about it. And indeed, islands and boulders from it have found their way into the sea, and other rivers and springs erupt from the earth there, new ones every day, so that one is led to the conclusion that the lake in question was formed a long time after the above-mentioned writers. It has a circumference of one hundred thousand paces and is no smaller than Lake Como and Lake Garda, two well-known lakes of our Cisalpine Gaul.

The local people call the town Shkodra in their language and the language of their forefathers, whereas the Italians have now given it a new foreign name, Scutari. The ruler of this town was Antonio Loredano (Antonius Lauretanus), a man who would have been the pride of his grandfather Petrus, and who was a worthy son of Jacob. It is to him that go the honour and glory of saving the town, or better said, of defending Christianity. In addition, he paid honour to his lineage because he managed to do something quite extraordinary by defeating such a savage enemy.

When he learned that such a huge army was about to attack in the land of Moesia, Antonio Loredano, worried for himself and for his town and knowing the strategic importance of Shkodra for the Turks, gave orders that all grain, wherever it could be found, be gathered and stored within the walls. On the day before the arrival of the barbarians, he summoned and gathered around him in the fortress some of the young men of the countryside who had come down from the mountains. He then gave orders that water be carried up to the town by means of beasts of burden, as much as would be needed for a long siege.

On June 4th, while lightly armed soldiers were surrounding the town with a vanguard and many men were running in all directions to loot and plunder, and while volunteers were making themselves ready for war, the (Ottoman) commander himself made his appearance with the other part of the army. This man, if we can call a man someone who was a eunuch and who once guarded the sultan's harem, is said to be healthy, robust, and more courageous than clever as a soldier in carrying out his duties. The sultan had promoted him to this level of merit for his achievements in war. He brought with him men skilled in the martial arts, strong of body and courageous. They were followed by equipment and one thousand camels loaded with bronze for casting cannons which are usually used to batter and knock down ramparts.

When this huge army arrived, the whole coastal region was terrified. Even the inhabitants of the coastline of Illyria and Macedonia were petrified, fearing that they would fall prey to the barbarians. Some of them fled into the rugged mountains, while others, having escaped the town, took refuge on the islands with the women, children and cattle. Some had made their way to the mouth of the river and were waiting for ships to take them anywhere, wherever fate should wish.

When the Senate received the news, the fine and noble leaders of Venice recruited new soldiers and gathered a great deal of money without any difficulty. They did not hesitate in giving generously to provide all material necessary to repulse the enemy. They sent money and help in particular to those leaders who were ruling over large parts of the lakeside so that they might be able to resist barbarian attacks in perilous gorges and canyons.

In addition to him was Triadano Gritti (Triadanus Grittus), commander of the fleet and an octogenarian, who despite his advanced age, showed fine resistance and was well concentrated on carrying out his task as best he could. No one believed that he could do it because it was a singular feat. At that time, he was travelling in the Aegean Sea, checking up on the islands thereabouts, and had just arrived at Chios when he heard that Shkodra, a town of great strategic significance, had been surrounded. Turning back, he set off for the Adriatic Sea, gathered his naval forces and entered the mouth of the Buna River, giving orders that his triremes and biremes should sail up the river, using oarsmen, because, in addition to the current of the river, the winds were blowing in the opposite direction. When he arrived at a certain spot where stone embankments had been built out into the water to slow down the current and where fishermen had constructed little huts to catch fish, he realized that the boats could go no further. He decided, in order to be on the safe side, to spend the night near the old church of Saint Sergius (Shirq), which is situated about five miles from the town. He intended the next morning at the break of dawn to embark upon caiques and small boats to see if he could find some route so as to come to the assistance of those under siege. When the enemy found out about the plan from some escaped oarsmen, and realized that the whole fleet could be blocked by them throwing logs into the river at the point at which it was at its narrowest, and thus stop the triremes from advancing, orders were given without delay that all other activities be suspended, that trees be cut down, and that most of the army cross over to the other side of the river so that our soldiers could be attacked from both banks with all sorts of missiles and weapons.

In the midst of such preparations, and while all paths were being strictly guarded to prevent the Venetians from using their spies and escapees to find routes in, a Greek fellow, once taken prisoner by the Turks and forced into servitude, but later appointed by the pasha as a high-ranking official of the region, reflecting on the religion in which he had been raised and educated, jumped onto the pasha's steed, stole his lance and galloped off to the place where the ships were anchored. He asked to speak to the commander of the fleet and, having boarded one of the triremes, he revealed the enemy plan and informed the Venetians that they were in great danger. As soon as the Venetians heard this, orders were given that the whole fleet be armed and made ready for battle. Ropes were unfastened, anchors were weighed and the sterns of the ships were turned around. The triremes were positioned in a line so that, at an appropriate distance from one another, they could advance against the current. But the moment the sun came up, they could hear from all sides the neighing and galloping of horses, the firing of military equipment and arms glimmering in the distance, and such was the din and clamour that anyone not used to it would have been crippled by fear. The Turks then began shooting arrows and slinging stones at the fleet wherever they could reach it, some using their bare hands, others using equipment. Nonetheless, the fleet advanced, but so great was the amount of stones and missiles hurled at the ships that it seemed that a hailstorm had broken out and covered the vessels. Those who were further away and could not shoot, urged their comrades on with screams and shouts. The Venetians for their part, seeing that they were in a difficult position and were being shot at from both sides, began to attack the enemy with scorpions and rifles and other pieces of invented recently equipment, called bombards and spingards.

The enemy attack was thus repulsed. They landed on the riverbank and chased the foe for over ten thousand paces, breaking their force. Both sides hastened to gain control of a certain site where the river flows through a narrows between two hillocks. There, the two banks are so close to one another that a trireme can hardly get through. The barbarians, with their remaining forces, endeavoured to arrive there first and take up position. They realized full well that they could impede the advance of our ships by throwing logs and harpoons into the water. The Venetians for their part, with the oarsmen rowing as fast as they could, sailed forth with their biremes and triremes, hoping that their great efforts would pay off once they passed the narrows, upon which the barbarians had set their stores. However, whether it was the will of God or it was due to the virtue and courage of the two sides, both the Venetians and the barbarians arrived at Scala (this is what they called the narrows between the two prominent hillocks) at almost the very same time, and a terrible battle took place there. But our men survived the peril. None of their ships - not even one caique - was impeded or caught. This enraged the barbarians all the more because they had already suffered one defeat. Our forces were heading towards the mouth of the Buna and they began attacking the last trireme with rocks and other projectiles, using in their fury whatever they could find. Now the Turkish horsemen, having regrouped, rode right into the river and attacked the oarsmen by seizing the oars with their bare hands. They would not let go of them for dear life except when our men chopped off their hands or threw some very heavy object at them.

Finally, without any of our men being taken prisoner, the fleet sailed and reached a safer location, though five hundred men had been wounded and eighteen had been killed. The Turks themselves had suffered a massacre. This became clear the next day when, following the barbarian withdrawal, our men returned to the church of Saint Sergius so that those under siege realized that they occupied a lofty position. They wanted to make it known to the enemy that they had withdrawn for tactical reasons and not out of fear. There, along the riverbanks, they came across great numbers of bodies of men and horses, some of them floating in the water. Our men, unable to endure the stench, returned to the mouth of the Buna. In the meantime, the enemy had built a bridge, connecting the two banks. They then set up tents along the river and left some ten thousand horsemen there to guard them. Then they departed to plunder all those prosperous reaches and loot the villages, setting fire to homes and destroying fields of grain.

At the same time, the Venetians were transporting wooden planks covered in pitch to Acruvium. Acruvium is a town now known as Kotor. From there, all the material was to be transported by men and beasts of burden over the rugged and pathless mountains and was to be unloaded at the lakeside. There, carpenters were to construct lake boats, more for the war than for the needs of transportation. In addition, over one thousand sailors were then seconded to guard the lake in light boats and dugouts. They were to pursue and harass the enemy which had set up tents along the banks of the river. Although they did their utmost to come to the assistance of those under siege, they did not succeed. This was, firstly, because the barbarians held guard day and night at a narrow gorge between the mountain and the river, the site only five hundred paces wide. The guards did not move from the site, even when shot at from the mountain and from boats at the same time. Secondly, a treacherous vojvode, to save his possessions, took a bribe and did not give our men the support they needed. Because they no longer trusted this fellow and because their tents along the lakeside were unprotected, our men out on their boats abandoned their strategy of direct attack and limited themselves to small guerilla actions, yet never leaving enemy forces a moment's peace. The latter could not even go out to fetch drinking water without placing themselves in mortal danger. Once, when the barbarians were out looting like thieves and searching for local villagers hiding in the dense forests, some three hundred of them went down to a spring to drink water. There, they were attacked by the local inhabitants, assisted by our soldiers. Our men surrounded them and chopped them to pieces. Unaffected by the fighting were several rocks and islands in the lake where beautiful monasteries had been constructed by Greek clergy. All these people would otherwise have been heartlessly ravaged.

Meanwhile, the enemy made ready some cannons of enormous proportion. They were of such a calibre that, when shot at, the ramparts of the fortress shuddered and most of them collapsed. Nevertheless, those under siege had stored enough material to defend themselves and to repair the fortifications, which proved to be necessary now that the town was without walls. They took a pile of beams and nailed them together, erecting them with earth and mud and thus creating an improvised barrier, like strong ramparts, to fend off the enemy attack. The barbarians then began to launch cannonballs with their bombards, indeed one thousand nine hundred times, destroying both the ramparts and the houses, and believing that their army would now have no problem conquering the city. Orders were given that all iron tools, wooden instruments and other material used for repairing walls and homes be made ready for the attack, so that when their forces took the city, they would at least be sure to reap the benefits of the victory after so much trial and tribulation.

The assault began with piercing shouting, the beating of drums and the blowing of trumpets. Bonfires were lit on all four sides of the fortress. Then they stopped for prayer, adoring the new moon as they lay on the ground, as is their custom. One must know that the Ottomans never engage in a full battle before the new moon, which they greet with great devotion. As such, on August 15th, the pasha promised great reward to those who would could climb the slopes to the fortress, mustered his army, and with two shots from the cannons, gave signal for the attack. The moment he gave the sign, they all rushed out of the camp and ran forth. With great din and clamour, taking with them movable mantlets, beams and poles with hooked prongs, they clambered swiftly up the mountain, rock by rock, path by path.

According to a plan he had prepared before the start of the siege, Loredano, who was second to none in bravery and the martial arts, deployed his forces in such a way that the townspeople, together with the Italian garrison and the young men from the countryside, would be in position, but that they would keep silent and hidden. In this manner, the enemy would not hesitate to approach the base of the fortress. He then chose three hundred men who were to wait at the open square of the fortress, arms in hand, to fend off anyone who attacked them.

Most of the archers were then positioned around the ramparts and a signal was given, a great cry, to call the population out to the walls. The Turks then began their advance on the walls against which they placed their ladders, and in fury started to attack from all sides, such that those within the city did not know which side needed the most attention and where to deploy emergency reinforcements. It was in this strategy that the barbarians had placed their hopes. With a hail of missiles and cannonballs engulfing the fortress, the forces under siege rushed forth with all the arms at their disposal and began to attack the enemy which had already reached the top of the hill. Some of those on the ramparts began hurling huge torches and sharp javelins down at them, whatever they could find, but, where they were able, the Turks held their ground and replaced one another. Nearby was the pasha giving orders, urging his men on, praising the most courageous of them and cursing the cowardly and the lame. Whenever he saw any men retreating, he menaced them with his sword and sent them back into battle, threatening otherwise to execute them on the spot. Thus, although most of the Turks were unable to fend off the stones and missiles being hurled at them from above, and many of them were struck dead and fell to the ground, no one dared to retreat or move from the spot. The people of Shkodra, for their part, prepared kegs full of stones which they hurled down the cliffs on the steepest sides. These struck the Turkish fighters swarming below. They also hurled baskets of sticks and rushes dipped in pitch and set them on fire. The conflagration lit up the area and made it highly visible, to the great assistance of those under siege. Who knows how many enemies were burned and consumed by the flames? For the Turks had begun their siege in the dark of night in order to cover up their dastardly plan and tactics. The savage fighting continued all night long. Those under siege did not have a moment's rest.

The next day, the attack grew even stronger. The barbarians believed that they had already gained a victory. Therefore, midst the wounded and the missiles, they advanced, trampling over bodies until they reached the edge of the fortifications themselves. In the sections where the ramparts had been knocked down, they brought forth poles with sharp metal hooks which they fixed against the walls. By using those sharp ends, they struck and wounded the defendants, even pulling some of them off the ramparts. But the men of Shkodra were not frightened and held their ground, fighting off the enemy with swords and axes, chopping them to bits on the spot. The defendants from above were slaughtering so many of the enemy with all sorts of weapons and missiles, defending the town with all their courage and with all the strength they had in them, and the battle had reached its zenith. Then, behold!, the barbarians on all sides of the fortress began to withdraw.

The sun had been up for three hours and the ladders of the attackers with the men still on them plunged to the ground. Then the Turkish army began to show weakness and lose courage. The townspeople were heartened by this. Their courage and morale had reached a new height. They sprang over the ramparts and leaped to set upon the fleeing enemy forces who were running back towards their tents. They kept at them right until they reached the enemy encampment, where a savage and bloody battle took place between the two sides, and the tents were shredded and destroyed. Beams and logs were set on fire and, as the wind was blowing against the Turks, some of them were burned and consumed by the flames, while others choked in the smoke and ran away in flight.

The men of Shkodra returned to the town with the banners of the enemy army and the heads of some of the commanders killed during the attack, and exposed them on the ramparts. Brandishing their shining swords, they made great fun of the enemy, challenging them back to battle.

The pasha had been struck on the thigh by a boulder and was wounded. As far as could be learned from letters from princes in the region and from the narratives of those who had escaped the fighting, about seventy thousand men, indeed the majority, were wounded in the battle. There were hardly any fighters who returned to camp without having been wounded. There were no tents in which one could not hear the moaning and groaning of the injured. The fighting had indeed been so savage that the pasha wrote to Sultan Mehmed and reported of the valiant courage of those under siege and of the great damage they themselves had suffered.

In addition to all these events, in the months of August and September, the region is so pestilential that the local people can barely endure the debilitating climate, not to speak of the foreigners there suffering from the deprivations of military life and living outdoors under appalling conditions. For this reason, many of our men as well as the Turks who survived the carnage, perished of fever caused by the bad air and stagnant water of the marshes. When the Ottomans realised what was happening, they gave orders for the siege to be lifted, although they knew that their authority would be weakened if they withdrew their forces.

Thus, at the break of dawn on August 17th, the Turks, after setting fire to their tents, withdrew from the region of Shkodra in complete silence. This was either, as mentioned above, because they were racked with disease and unable to deal with the virulent climate, or because another enemy was attacking them, or, more likely, because they had lost all hope that they could take the city, in view of the fact that those inside the town would resist all the more and would put up with all manner of suffering. Perhaps they were also unnerved by the arrival of Italian cavalrymen on ships, who had landed in Durrës, because they would soon arrive to support the neighbouring army and would utterly destroy the Turkish forces, weakened as they already were.

At any rate, fate was with us. Had the Turks taken Shkodra, it would have given them a base for crossing over to Apulia and advancing in the direction of Rome. There is no man on earth more ruthless than that tyrant. His objective is to occupy Rome. This is shown by the fact that, while they were attacking Shkodra, one could heart voices shouting: "To Rome! To Rome!" They believed that by taking Shkodra, there would be no one left to stop them on their advance to seize the Roman Empire. Once Italy had been conquered, they would be masters of both Romes, i.e. the old one which had once ruled the globe, and the new one which Constantine, one thousand two hundred years ago, having expelled the Romans from Thrace, renamed Constantinople.

I have no words to describe the bravery of the people of Shkodra, and their steadfastness and patience in the face of all these adversities. They achieved what the people of Saguntum in Spain failed to achieve at the time, or what the people of Cassilina failed to achieve in Italy when they were surrounded by Hannibal, as history tells us. Six thousand souls had gathered in the narrow confinements of that fortress - men, women and children - whereas those able to defend the town were not more than two thousand. The rest were not able to bear arms for war.

During the siege, water began to be scarce. The people in the fortress started to drink rainwater collected in holes and to eat partially scorched grain. Not much time passed before they were completely devoid of water, or had very little (because no rain had fallen for a period of fifty days). Those who were not fit for fighting were not given any water at all. Thus, not being able to moisten their parched lips and to slake their hunger, about three thousand people died in appalling and inhuman conditions: women in their husbands' arms, babies in front of their parents, sisters and little brothers in view of the elder brothers. The people were so resolved and tempered by the difficulties they were in, that the remaining food was reserved only for those who were able to fight. In the end, even the water which had been rationed, began to run out (each man received only two cupfuls a day). Once the thirsting masses had emptied the stagnant dregs remaining in barrels and could no longer endure the siege, having abandoned all hope of salvation, they resolved, following the example of brave men, to set upon the enemy in a lightning attack, either to breach a path for themselves or to die fighting like men.

Loredano, who had prepared a plan for all eventualities, with prudence and incomparable humanity, managed to calm the masses down, who in their despair had taken such a dire decision. He was not ashamed to beg and appeal with words of humility to those affected by extreme tribulation. Falling to his knees before them and with tears streaming down his face, he flung open his arms and told them he was willing to give them the blood of his veins to drink and his heart to eat if they would only hold out another two - at the most three or four - days amidst the calamity of war and siege. Since requisite help was on its way, the enemy would be repulsed and our men's name would be revered for many generations to come. Though they might have lost hope in assistance coming, they ought still to place their faith in our Lord on the cross, who would save them from that perfidious and inhuman tyrant. And thus it happened. Almighty God in his mercy, taking pity on the people's great suffering, came to their assistance in a most unexpected way.

As I subsequently learned from letters, Blessed Christ saved his people from the clutches of the infidel because, in all the fighting only fifty persons were killed by the siege and less than one hundred were injured. Two cannonballs of the enemy fell right in the midst of a large mass of people gathered together, and yet only two of them perished. This is tantamount to a miracle. So strong was the assistance our Lord provided to his flock that he saved them from the enemy and all those weapons.
During the war, disease, caused by the unwholesome atmosphere in the marshes, killed others among our men, including two captains, Lodovico Bembo (Ludovicus Bembus), the Venetian ambassador, and Triadano Gritti (Triadanus Grittus), the commander of the fleet. In lieu of them, Antonio Loredano was appointed as the new Venetian ambassador and later as prefect of Shkodra. Everyone rejoiced at this appointment because they all felt that under the leadership and bidding of this man, the Turkish advance would be broken and the Turks would be routed completely. As in ancient times when the Scipio family subjected Carthage to the rule of Rome, thus ridding the latter of its rival, the new leader, Loredano, would sap Ottoman power and return triumphant over such a savage enemy.

The Turks are now constructing a great fleet in Constantinople, as has been reported recently by those who have come from that port. And the city is being revived and fortified as much as possible. All manner of material is being gathered, and skilled experts have been summoned from all corners to carry out fortification and armament activities. Great threats are to be expected from that powerless though haughty tyrant, whose plans this year turned into a disaster. To his great disgrace, he lost over twenty thousand men in the Shkodra campaign alone.

When his youngest son, out leading the elite of his forces in the territory of Cilicia against the Persians, heard of the perdition of the army, he fell ill and died. The sultan then had Mehmed Pasha strangled, one of his advisors and comrades in arms who had taken Euboia and defeated the Persians in battle, either because he feared some treachery or because he wanted to avenge the death of his son who, it is said, was poisoned by Mehmed because the young man had been pursuing his wife and had taken her from her husband. And, as if that were not enough, he had his brother impaled, killing him under the cruelest of torture. He even killed his wife and children by such means.

Our horsemen in the Peloponnesian war took the Turkish pasha and two thousand horsemen prisoner and put them all to the sword. In addition to this, they seized the invincible fortress of Rampani, after taking it by surprise and killing the guards.

By prayer and worship, we may beseech the help of the Almighty, by the grace of whom things are going better and better, that he avert that plague and calamity from his people. If our profanity and evil deeds do merit punishment, let him chastise us with another curse and further affliction, given that many are the scourges of sinners and that God is not lacking in the means of avenging crime. Be of good health.

Venice, 10 September 1474


(1) The reference is to the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II the Conqueror (reign 1451-1481).
(2) The reference is here, no doubt, to the Germanic invasions of the Italian peninsula in the early Middle Ages.
(3) The battle of 1473 in which the Ottoman sultan defeated Uzun Hasan of Turkmenistan.
(4) Ancient term for northern Dalmatia.
(5) River flowing through the author's native Alessandria in northern Italy.

[Georgius Merula Alexandrinus, Bellum Scodrense. Translated by Robert Elsie.]