The Crescent in retreat

Cyprus is especially good on castles, including Paphos, Buffavento, Kyrenia, Kolossi and a few more, reflecting the island’s long and eventful history as a major trading stopover in the Mediterranean.


Paphos Castle

When it was finally conquered by the Turks in 1570 after a long and brutal siege the Venetian commander Bragadino was flayed alive, his skin then being stuffed with straw and paraded through the streets of Famagusta. This sort of atrocity created a bad press for the Turks in Europe and the likes of the humanist Erasmus as well as King James I of England pushed for a new crusade against the Ottomans to keep them at bay.

The culture of the ancient Greeks formed the basis of European education at that time, and there was a strong undercurrent of Philhellenism, a desire to liberate the proud and cultured Greeks from their Turkish masters.

When the Turkish fleet was defeated for the first time at the Battle of Lepanto a year later, in 1571, there was wild rejoicing throughout Europe.


Battle of Lepanto

The author of Don Quixote took part, incidentally. The Ottomans were forced to put their European adventure on hold and turned their attention to Persia in the east instead. Things did not go too well there, either, with Shah Abbas I capturing Baghdad from the Turks with the help of some rebel Janissaries from the Sultan’s army. As a reward for this he had them boiled in oil afterwards.

It’s not only Greeks bearing gifts that you shouldn’t trust. I personally never trust anyone, which saves a lot of disappointment. As Schopenhauer said, ‘Other people’s heads are too wretched a place for true happiness to have its seat.’



In 1683 the Turkish siege of Vienna, which had terrified the whole of Europe, was finally lifted by Jan Sobieski and his Polish army, and the Ottomans said farewell to the West forever. The Sultan, Mehmet IV, had his commander Kara Mustafa strangled on his return to Istanbul. The Turkish army left behind thousands of executed captives on the field before the city and a lasting legacy in the croissant, cooked up by the Viennese to celebrate their victory.


Endgame in Vienna

All this boiling, flaying, strangling and general brutality has often made me wonder how medieval and later executioners learned their trade. Were they apprenticed to their fathers at an early age and instructed in the fine art of killing and maiming, up to their elbows in blood on the scaffold when their more normal chums were still at school? Well, the answer is yes. I was just reading a book, ‘The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century’, by Joel F Harrington, which provides much insight into that alien and ultra-violent world.

Execution of Peter Stump, Cologone - 1589

Execution of Peter Stump in Cologne, 1589

Franz Schmidt ended up being a professional executioner through sheer bad luck when the Margrave of Brandenburg just happened to pick his father from a crowd to execute three gunsmiths who had attempted to assassinate him. What followed was social ostracism, with the Schmidt family members thereafter banned from all public buildings and honourable professions, and never invited to tea at the neighbours’.

Frantz Schmidt

Franz Scmidt at work

Franz by the end of his career, necessarily following in his father’s footsteps, had personally killed 394 men, women and boys and had tortured and mutilated many others. He took it upon himself to redeem the family honour with the Emperor, and as well as doing his allotted job well and conscientiously he unusually kept a diary, which has become a valuable social document from those turbulent times.

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