Today in European history: the Battle of Alcácer Quibir (1578) and the Treaty of Sistova (1791)

Today is the anniversary of a couple of events that wound up having repercussions far beyond what most contemporaries probably thought they would. The first helped lead to the brief unification of Spain and Portugal under a single monarch. The second brought a very long conflict to its final end, though nobody could have known that at the time.

The Battle of Alcácer Quibir in 1578 began with a Moroccan succession crisis and ended with a Portuguese one. The Bani Zaydan, also known as the Saadis, were a dynasty that ruled Morocco for about 100 years, from the second half of the 16th century through the first half of the 17th (they took control of southern Morocco in the first half of the 16th century and grew from there). Under Muhammad al-Shaykh (d. 1557) they were able to eliminate both the Ottoman-backed Wattasid Dynasty of northern Morocco and the Portuguese colonial presence in coastal cities/fortresses like Agadir, Asilah, and the place where this battle was fought, al-Qasr al-Kabir (or Alcácer Quibir for the Portuguese).

Portuguese holdings in Morocco, 15th-18th centuries (Wikimedia | Omar-Toons)

After Muhammad al-Shaykh came his son, Abdullah al-Ghalib (d. 1574), who consolidated his father’s gains and defended them, against the Ottomans in particular. When he died, he was succeeded by his oldest son, Abu Abdullah Mohammed II (d. 1578, which is a spoiler), and here’s where the Saadis ran into some trouble. Abdullah al-Ghalib’s brother, Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik I (d. 1578, also a spoiler–sort of), immediately headed off to Constantinople to ask for help knocking his nephew off the throne. The Ottomans obliged, and sent Abu Marwan back to North Africa to raise an army with Ottoman help, with which he then invaded Morocco and captured Fez in 1576. Abu Abdullah, now a former sultan but still very much alive, decided to head off in search of his own powerful patron, and who better to help him than the kingdom still stinging from losing most of its holdings in Morocco just a couple of decades earlier?

Sebastian I of Portugal, by 16th century Portuguese court painter Cristóvão de Morais (Wikimedia)

The very young (24) Sebastian I of Portugal (d. 1578, again a spoiler) received Abu Abdullah and decided to help put him back on the throne of Morocco. Abu Abdullah’s arrival was fortuitous for Sebastian, since he’d already been getting prodded by his advisers to do something about the Moroccan problem. Said problem was looking more serious now that Abu Marwan had become an Ottoman client, which meant a potential Ottoman threat against the parts of the Moroccan coast that Portugal still held. This succession dispute seemed like the perfect opportunity to not only regain Portugal’s lost holdings but to put a Portuguese client on the Moroccan throne to boot. So Sebastian put together an army (around 18,000 men) and a fleet large enough to carry it, and sailed it to one of the few Moroccan ports still in Portuguese hands. There he met Abu Abdullah, who had another ~6000 men with him, and the combined army marched off to meet Abu Marwan’s forces (a much larger army, probably at least 3 times what Sebastian had) near Alcácer Quibir.

Although we’re well into the era of gunpowder weapons and tactics by now, the battle seems to have gone according to a very old script: the army with a large cavalry, Abu Marwan’s, surrounded and thoroughly decimated the army without cavalry. Abu Abdullah died crossing a river while trying to flee, and though the gravely ill Abu Marwan also died, in this case his death just sort of coincided with the battle. I mean, I’m sure that the exertion of marching off to fight and preparing his men for the fight contributed to his demise, but he didn’t die in battle and probably would have died around this time anyway. His brother, Ahmad al-Mansur (d. 1603), succeeded him, and Saadi Morocco was at peace again. Ahmad actually had quite a successful career as sultan, conquering (albeit briefly) the once-powerful Songhai Empire in Mali among other achievements.

The real fallout of the battle happened, as I say, in Portugal. Sebastian was probably killed in the battle, though in point of fact his body was never recovered and legends persisted in Portugal that he would [extremely dramatic voice] RETURN HEROICALLY ONE DAY IN THE HOUR OF HIS PEOPLE’S GREATEST–well, you get the point. Plenty of con men over the ensuing decades did try to claim that they were the returned Sebastian. We’re pretty sure he died, though, really. Or maybe he always wanted to be a hermit, so he took advantage of the chaos of the battle and fled into the desert. Either way, he wasn’t ruling Portugal anymore. And, because he had no heir of which to speak, neither was anybody else. His uncle, Henry, who also had no heir and was in fact a Catholic Cardinal before this all happened, took the throne, but only lasted until 1580 before he expired. His ~2 years in power were spent desperately trying to pay off the debt incurred by Sebastian for his little gap year adventure in Morocco.

When Henry died, Portugal was invaded by Philip II of Spain (d. 1598), who was Sebastian’s uncle, and “Philip II of Spain” quickly also became “Philip I of Portugal.” The two kingdoms were never united as one kingdom, like Aragon and Castile becoming Spain, but they were both ruled by the same person, which meant that one single man controlled the entirety of both the Spanish and Portuguese Empires at the same time. That’s a lot of territory. You maybe have heard about the Iberian Union, which lasted from Philip’s invasion in 1580 until 1640, and/or the 1640-1668 Portuguese Restoration War, which broke up the Iberian Union? It’s likely that neither of those things would have happened had it not been for the otherwise fairly unremarkable Battle of Alcácer Quibir.

The 1791 Treaty of Sistova is, if anything, even more unremarkable than the Battle of Alcácer Quibir. It ended the equally unremarkable Austrian-Ottoman War of 1787-1791, which started when the Habsburgs jumped into the middle of a war between the Ottomans and the Russians in order that they might gobble up some spoils once the Ottomans had been defeated. The end result was a technical Ottoman defeat, in that they lost Belgrade as well as some gains they’d made across the Danube River early in the war, but it wasn’t anything particularly dramatic. Austria, meanwhile, became desperate to end the war, because apparently some kind of revolution had broken out in France in the meantime and the Habsburgs could see that it was going to require all of their attention. Relatedly, the Habsburgs were trying to negotiate a deal with the increasingly powerful Prussians to jointly oppose that French revolution and to agree not to go to war with each other, and part of that agreement required both kingdoms to give up any designs on eastern expansion. So the war with the Ottomans had to end.

In the treaty, and in their haste to end the war, the Habsburgs gave Belgrade back to the Ottomans (screwing over, incidentally, a lot of Serbs whom the Habsburgs had recently encouraged to rebel against Ottoman control) and settled for a couple of very minor territorial concessions, a sort-of reward for their sort-of victory. What makes Sistova worth commemorating is not anything about the treaty itself, but rather that it, quite unexpectedly, represents the end of the long series of Habsburg-Ottoman wars. The two empires had been in steady conflict, hot and cold, on land and at sea, since the first Battle of Mohács in 1526–i.e., for 265 years–and suddenly it was all over, in perhaps the most nondescript way possible. Literally nobody could have seen this coming.

While the Ottomans began their long conflict with the Habsburgs as the clearly dominant power (though the Habsburgs were no pushovers, as, for example, they proved at Lepanto), when it ended it was the Habsburgs who were the stronger of the two–though, to be fair, both empires had seen better days. The Ottomans would be occupied fighting Russia throughout the 19th century, while the Habsburgs would turn most of their attention to happenings in western Europe, to separatist movements inside their own empire, and to trying and failing to check the continued rise of Prussia. World War I saw both of the empires fighting in the same war again, but this time on the same side, and of course neither one of them would survive that war’s end.

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2 thoughts

  1. The modern Turkish name for the city, İstanbul, derives from the Greek phrase eis tin polin (εἰς τὴν πόλιν), meaning “into the city” or “to the city”. This name was used in Turkish alongside Kostantiniyye, the more formal adaptation of the original Constantinople, during the period of Ottoman rule, while western languages mostly continued to refer to the city as Constantinople until the early 20th century. In 1928, the Turkish alphabet was changed from Arabic script to Latin script. After that, as part of the 1920s Turkification movement, Turkey started to urge other countries to use Turkish names for Turkish cities, instead of other transliterations to Latin script that had been used in the Ottoman times. In time the city came to be known as Istanbul and its variations in most world languages.

    1. “Istanbul” or its Greek antecedents were used to refer to Constantinople informally for centuries before the Ottomans captured it. I’m talking about formal usage here, and the Ottomans retained Constantinople as the city’s formal name. “Istanbul” wasn’t widely used in formal, official contexts until the late 17th century, about 100 years after the events in question.

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