View of The ancient Genoese fortress of Kafa to the temple of the Iver Icon of the Mother of God on the Black Sea coast.

Kaffa, Crimea – – The Siege

By Henry Kuhlman


Conflict over trade rights devolved between Genoese merchants and the Mongol Golden Horde. Besieged in 1345, the fortress at Kaffa, held on…..

            Batbayar was a Mongolian boy of seventeen, camped outside the fortress.                           


Narrator: Fifty-five years later (the year 1401), Batbayar relates his story to grandchildren on the Mongolian Steppe in a Mongolian Ger–two thousand miles east of Kaffa.

My post was near the northern rampart, outside the reach of most Genoese arrows. New, only one month in camp, I was a cook’s helper and guarded Genoese prisoners caught fleeing Kaffa. With us were Venetian warriors. They fought with us to drive Genoese traders from the port. I looked forward to plundering when the fortress fell and, of course, their women.

The sickness began in our stables and granaries. It spread faster than wind-blown grass fire on the Steppe. Most of my friends got the fever. Oozing sores grew from dead black skin—three days of moans and cries to Allah, then death. At night, I led horse-drawn wagons with rotting corpses to the moat outside the buttress.  Thinking the sickness spread on bad air, the smell drove Genoese archers from the parapet.

My prisoners died, all but two. Mongol comrades died in waves like drifting snow. Piling up, too many for the wagons, Colonel Elbek ordered Gers erected next to the moat. When fever set in, men went there. Slave girls fed the living boiled goat meat, boortsog cakes, horse blood, and tea. Each night, we tossed the dead over in the moat onto the piles.

While I was giving water to the sick in my battalion, the fever struck me like a sledgehammer.  My stomach muscles knotted like the twisted ropes on our mangonel catapults. I found an open blanket in a moat ger. I expected death in three days. My hands and feet grew numb and clammy. On the second day, I drank the Airag (fermented horse milk) flasks from dead comrades on my left and right. I took their gold rings and coins and the boots from one. I drank the flasks quickly, and the pain eased. That night I got two more flasks from corpses before they took them. In the morning, I was drunk but alive. My fever broke that night. The next morning, I got up and walked back to camp. Some were happy to see me. I gave them hope. Some were afraid of me and thought me a witch. Eight of every ten died.

Genoese, Turks, Persians, Russians, and others trapped inside the fortress panicked. They watched with horror the decimation of the mighty Golden Horde. Many tried to flee. We caught most. Women became nursemaids for the sick. We cut the throats of males.

The Great Kahn realized that after the first week of the plague, the siege of Kaffa would fail for the second time. A year earlier, fifteen thousand Mongols died when reinforcements arrived by ship from Italy.

Kahn Janibeg gave the order. Wagon by wagon, we hauled corpses from the Gers to the mangonels. We loaded two corpses of rotting Mongols into the iron basket head. Nested on top the corpses, we put the heads of captured Genoese. War drums rumbled like an approaching storm, increasing in tempo until the snap of the catapult. The drums, suddenly silent, replaced with the swish and flailing sounds of jellied bodies arching over parapets. The sounds from inside the walls were what Kahn Janibeg had calculated. Genoese collected the dead and threw them into the sea from the southern buttress, where the bloated floated like corks.

Under a white flag, an envoy for the Genoese parlayed with Mongol representatives on the open space between our mangonels and the fortress.

They requested to abandon Kaffa if granted safe passage on their sailing ships back to Italy. Kahn Janibeg allowed four ships food and water for the two-week passage.

We, the living, went home.


*** Epilog ***

Fever took hold in the ships. Dead were thrown overboard. Stops in Venice, Naples, Pisa, and Genoa gave beachhead to the bacteria hosted by fleas and spread by air and by touching those infected. Siena, Florence, then into France, north to England, then Russia. Twenty million died of Black Death in five years, over half the population of Europe. Kaffa recovered and continued as a center for the white slave trade and goods along the Silk Road. Today, it is ruled by the Russian Horde.

Photo: View from the wall of the ancient Genoese fortress of Kaffa to the temple of the Iver Icon of the Mother of God on the Black Sea coast.

Henry Kuhlman headshot
Hank, born a Nebraska farm kid in 1948, escaped the prairie after college. His occupations have spanned Air Force fighter pilot, an international airline captain, a corporate executive, a farmer, rancher, mobile home park owner, Miami condo president, failed businesses, environmental activism.  He has an MA in management. Hank writes for an aviation journal. 

In addition to writing, Hank loves wings of all kinds – hang gliding, paragliding, sky diving, ultralight flying. Yet nothing compares to the wings of birds. Humans cannot match their grace, efficiency, or complexity. Hank thinks birds are the most beautiful animals. His specialty is photographing wings at work, doing what all wings do, overcome gravity.

Kaffa, Crimea is in the running for the Chanticleer 2023 Short Story Award.

5 thoughts on “Kaffa, Crimea – – The Siege”

  1. Linda Lee Keenan

    History is tied together with a compelling story, as if the author lived through the worst of it. The scenery is deadly detailed, brought to life nearly 700 years after the black plague. So well written!

  2. Thank you Linda. The history of that era is so important to future civilizations. The plague changed everything.

  3. You brought this slice of history to life through your character’s memories. Vivid imagery showed the horror of the plague, especially as you recounted how the bodies were disposed of. Great writing!

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