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Count Dracula's War on Islam
A True Story of Power, Cruelty and Betrayal
by Robert Henderson

Dracula leading a charge against Islamic troops in the Battle with Torches in Romania, 1492 (by Theodor Aman).
Dracula leading a charge against Islamic troops in the Battle with Torches in Romania, 1492 (by Theodor Aman).

The Crusades had failed.  The holy lands were firmly in control of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.  Defeated, European knights vowed to one day return and free Jerusalem from the Islamic Turks and the Order of the Dragon was born.  To be a knight of this Order, you had to proclaim a solemn vow to continue to fight against the enemies of Christianity, in particular the Ottoman Empire.  But betrayal awaited this determined group of knights.

Ottoman Cavalry riding past dead Christian troops, 1444. (by Stanisław Chlebowski)
Ottoman Cavalry riding past dead Christian troops, 1444. (by Stanisław Chlebowski)

      Vlad II, a Romanian war lord joined the Order of the Dragon and was re-named Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Dragon.  The Holy Roman Emperor in turn recognized Vlad as the rightful leader of the Romanian region of Wallachia which by 1436 was firmly under his control.  But with the Ottoman Empire at his doorstep, Vlad chose to betray his Order and the Holy Roman Empire by assisting the Islamic forces in their invasion of neighbouring Transylvania. In response, Vlad was stripped of his right to Wallachia.  But the ensuing melee provided the Ottoman sultan with an opportunity.

     The Ottomans conquered Wallachia, Vlad Dracul was reinstated as ruler and Wallachia became a vassal to the Turks.  In essence Vlad controlled a buffer zone between the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire and he was beholden to the Ottoman sultan to remain in power.  To ensure Vlad’s shaky loyalty, the sultan took as a hostage his teenaged son and heir, Vlad Dracula.

The Ottoman or Turkish Empire at the time of Dracula
The Ottoman or Turkish Empire at the Time of Dracula (Wiki)

     As the sultan’s hostage Vlad Dracula witnessed first hand how the Ottoman leader kept control of his empire.  He ruled with ruthlessness and cruel consequences to those who did not obey him. Young Dracula remained in the gilded cage of the sultan’s court for five years. Despite Ottoman efforts, Vlad Dracula never converted to Islam. But during his time with the Ottomans, he witnessed the sultan abdicate to his young son, only to return to power to defeat Christian forces in 1444.  Insurrections within the empire were crushed and rebels were publicly executed by slow impalement.

     At the age of 19, Dracula learned that the Transylvanians had conquered Wallachia, killing his father in the process. The Ottomans seemed to encourage Vlad’s efforts to take back Wallachia, but their military support was lacklustre.  Without needed supplies and armed men from the sultan, Vlad Dracula turned to the other major power in the region for help: Hungary.

     Real Face of Dracula or Vlad the Impaler
The true face of Dracula who murdered tens of thousands. (Ambras Castle)

     After six long years of preparation, Dracula invaded Wallachia and overthrew Vladislav, the Transylvanian-backed ruler and murderer of his father. In fact, Vlad Dracula took the opportunity to personally kill his father’s murderer during hand-to-hand combat.  Dracula had come home.

     Fresh with power, Vlad Dracula proclaimed himself as ruler of Wallachia, the tenth one in the past fifty years.  Some chose to plot to depose him, with support from neighbouring Transylvania. Dracula lashed out. Much like the Ottoman strategy he observed during his teenage years, Dracula proceeded to destroy any who opposed him.  He immediately purged the ranks of the Wallachian nobility.

    Vlad then invaded Transylvania, plundering bordering villages and impaling those he captured on stakes.  So frequent was his use of this slow and torturous form of execution that he became known as Vlad the Impaler. The Germanic Transylvanians spread rumours throughout Europe that Vlad Dracula also drank the blood of his victims. Publications of Vlad’s notorious deeds became popular social fodder in German-speaking regions, cementing Dracula’s place in history. 

Original Wood Cutting of Vlad Dracula and his "forest" of Transylvanian victims.
Original Wood Cutting of Vlad Dracula and his "forest" of Transylvanian victims. Dracula was
accused of drinking human blood.  War propaganda often made similar claims against an enemy of cannibalism
.

     By 1462, Dracula had vanquished all his opponents.  His satisfaction was short lived however as the Ottomans then demanded a jizya or tax be paid by all non-Muslims. This was followed by the new sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror, demanding that Vlad come pay homage to him personally.  Yet when Vlad’s father had done this many years before, it had ended with both of them firmly under Turkish control: him as a hostage and his father a puppet.  Dracula’s fears were soon verified. He learned that the new sultan intended to ambush and imprison him.

Vlad Dracula receives the Sultan's Envoys.  They are put to death. (by Theodor Aman)
Vlad Dracula receives the Sultan's Envoys.  They are put to death. (by Theodor Aman)

    Dracula embraced the strategy that the best defence is a good offense.  In February, he attacked Ottoman territory in Bulgaria, slaughtering tens of thousands by impalement. This stick in the eye woke the Ottoman beast.  

     The sultan gathered his Islamic army and marched against Dracula’s Wallachia.  Sultan Mehmed intended to place a new leader in Wallachia, Dracula’s own brother Radu “the Beautiful”.  Radu was in fact a boyhood friend and lover of the sultan. He had converted to Islam and was greatly favoured by the sultan. Radu stood beside Mehmed at the fall of the last Eastern bastion of Christianity: Constantinople.  Radu was a 23-year-old commander within the Islamic Janissary cavalry when Mehmed’s vast army moved against his brother Dracula.

     Vlad Dracula responded.  He could not defeat the sultan on an open battlefield so he embraced guerilla warfare, complete with brief lightning attacks on Islamic forces.  Dracula burned his own villages and crops, diverted streams to create swamps, poisoned wells and drinking holes, and removed livestock to the mountains. When it arrived, the Turkish army had nothing to eat or drink. 

     Even germ warfare was not beneath Dracula.  Ill subjects suffering from leprosy, tuberculosis or the bubonic plague were sent to infect the invaders.  Disease spread through the ranks of the Sultan’s army.  Still the Ottomans advanced.  Dracula had to switch tactics and devised a fatal strike to the heart of his foe. 

     Plague victims in the 15th Century.  One of Dracula's weapons.
Plague victims in the 15th Century.  One of Dracula's weapons.

On June 17, 1492 the Sultan and his army of 100,000 troops had settled into their encampment on the road to Dracula’s capital of Targoviste.  Unbeknownst to them, Dracula disguised as a Turk easily circulated through the tented city.   Fluent in the Turkish language from his time as a hostage, Vlad Dracula was able to locate the Sultan’s heavily guarded tent.  His reconnaissance completed, Dracula withdrew.

     The cover of darkness was needed.  As soon as night fell, a glow appeared on the horizon.  It grew larger and moved closer to the Sultan’s camp. 

    Torches in hand, Dracula and thousands of horsemen stormed into the encampment with the sole purpose of killing the Sultan Mehmed.  The Battle with torches was a scene of chaos and carnage. Turks, horses, and camels were cut down.  In the confusion, Dracula entered the wrong tent, allowing his intended victim to escape.  His plan thwarted, Dracula disappeared back into the darkness.

Chaos of Battle. Dracula's cavalry sounded horns to add to the confusion.
Chaos of Battle. Dracula's cavalry sounded horns to add to the confusion.

     The following day, the Ottoman army marched on Dracula’s capital.  A gruesome sight welcomed them.  It was a ghost city, populated only by the corpses of 20,000 Muslims, impaled on stakes. On the tallest stake stood the limp figure of Hamza Pasha, one of the Sultan’s governors.  Dracula had fled Wallachia and taken refuge in Transylvania to continue his guerilla war against Islam. 

Impaling of Muslims by Dracula outside his capital city
Impaling of Muslims by Dracula

     How could Islamic forces defeat a shadow?  Faced with the choice between hunger and ongoing night-time incursions by Dracula, or retreat from the cursed lands of Wallachia, Sultan Mehmed chose the latter.   Leaving a small force, and enslaving all the Wallachians they could find, the Ottoman army withdrew. 

     Dracula had won, but the cost was overwhelming.  Vlad was a refugee with only a small band of fighters.  His nation was in ruins.  He could only watch as his brother Radu grew in popularity with Wallachians in opposition to Vlad the Impaler’s tyrannical reign. But Dracula was not easily defeated. In an effort to take back and rebuild Wallachia, he again turned to the King of Hungary for help. Another betrayal awaited, and not to Vlad’s advantage.  The Christian King seized and imprisoned him.

     Thirteen long years later, the Ottomans inched closer to the Hungarian frontier and Dracula was released to wage war again on Islam.  He was reinstated as ruler of Wallachia, but his reign was short lived. Dracula was purported to have been killed during an Ottoman attack on Wallachia. Others suggest he was betrayed and assassinated by Wallachian nobles.  Eerily the date and circumstances of Dracula’s demise remain a mystery.

The story of Vlad Dracula inspired Bram Stoker to create the fictional vampire Count Dracula in 1897.   Elements of Vlad are sprinkled throughout the pages of his horror novel: drinking of blood; Transylvania terrorized; night attacks; and death by a wooden stake.  However the real Dracula was much more frightening.

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