• Devangi Sharma

Siege of Caffa

Biological warfare in 1345

The world today seethes with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is nothing compared to the death and devastation faced by Europe during the Black death, a result of the first known case of biological warfare in history, the 1345 Siege of Caffa.

What is Caffa?

Caffa (now Feodosija, Ukraine) is a port and resort, a town of regional significance in Crimea, a peninsula in eastern Europe flanked by the Black Sea.

History of Caffa

Caffa was established by Genoa in 1266 by agreement with the Mongol rulers who captured Crimea in the 1230’s. It was the main port for the Genoese merchant ships, connected via a coastal shipping industry to Tana, Central Russia, and by overland caravan routes to Sarai and the Far East, virtually monopolizing trade in the Black Sea region.

Relations between Italian traders and the Mongols were uneasy, as many of the Mongols had been practicing Muslims from the 1200s, while the Genoese merchants were Christians. Toqtai, Kahn of the Golden Horde, arrested the Italian residents of Sarai, and besieged Caffa. Relations between the Italians and the Golden Horde remained tense until Toqtai’s death in 1312.

Toqtai’s successor, Özbeg, welcomed the Genoese back, and also ceded land at Tana to the Italians for the expansion of their trading enterprise.

Siege of Caffa: what went down?

The first attack came in 1343, following news of a death of a local muslim in Tana. Sensing impending trouble, the Genoese fled to Caffa. The Mongols under Janibeg demanded the city hand over their prisoners, but on refusal they besieged Caffa and the Italian enclave at Tana. This siege of Caffa lasted until February 1344, when it was lifted after an Italian relief force killed 15,000 Mongol troops and destroyed their siege machines using their access to the sea. Infuriated from the loss, Janibeg returned in 1345 armed with more than mere machinery.

Biological warfare in 1345: onset of the Black Death

As the Mongols were planning their line of attack at Caffa, they were suddenly hit by the Black Death – A plague caused by Yersinia Pestis and transmitted by rodents and fleas. The Black Death had been ravaging Central Asia since 1331, it traveled along Silk Road until it came to Crimea when the siege was ongoing.

“The Tartars (Mongols) were suddenly struck by the pandemic. Falling on all sides as though they had been struck by thunder, with lumps on their joints and dark marks on their faces, they developed a putrid fever and were beyond help, neither from doctors nor their god.” (record of an observer)

However, the Mongols did not want to be deterred by this sudden mishappening and decided to give Caffa a taste of the torment. They mounted the corpses of those infected by the plague onto catapults and rained them down Caffa’s defensive walls; the first known use of biological weaponry in the history of warfare.

Dwellers of Caffa watched as rotten bodies fell from the skies, crashing on their soil, spreading their putrid smell in all directions. Citizens could neither hide nor flee from the havoc that was bestowed upon them. They dumped as many rotten bodies into the sea as they could, but it was already too late; the Black Death prowled in Caffa.

The siege ended in 1347, after negotiations between the Mongols and the city, but by then the plague had begun its work, haunting the world as the worst-case scenario for an epidemic.

Spread of the plague

From Caffa the plague swept through Europe like wildfire, killing thousands in its wake. People fled their homes, unaware of the death that followed them closely, like a shadow. Here’s how the black death travelled across the continent.

- May, 1347 Survivors in Caffa escape by sea. One ship arrives in Constantinople, which, once infected, loses as much as 90 percent of its population.

- October, 1347 Another Caffan ship docks in Sicily. Here the plague kills half the population and moves to Messina. Fleeing residents then spread it to mainland Italy, where one-third of the population is dead by the following summer.

- November, 1347 The plague arrives in France, brought by another of the Caffa ships docking in Marseille.

- January, 1348 A different plague strain enters Europe through Genoa, brought by another Caffan ship that docks there. Italy faces this second strain while already battling the previous one. It also heads east from Sicily into the Persian Empire and through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, and south to Egypt, as well as Cyprus. Venice faces its own outbreak killing 60 percent of the population.

- June, 1348 The plague enters England via Dorset. As it spreads through the town, some escape by fleeing inland, inadvertently spreading it further. The plague hits Marseille, Paris and Normandy, and then the strain splits, with one moving onto the city of Tournai to the east and the other passing through Calais and Avignon, killing 50 percent of the population. The plague also moves through Austria and Switzerland.

- October, 1348

Following the infection and death of King Edward III’s daughter Princess Joan, the plague reaches London. Londoners flee to the countryside to find food. Edward blames the plague on garbage and human excrement piled up in London streets and in the Thames River.

- April, 1349

The plague hits Wales, brought by people fleeing from Southern England, and eventually kills 100,000 people.

- July, 1349

An English ship brings the Black Death to Norway. The pestilence travels to Denmark and Sweden and moving into Russia and also eastern Greenland, forcing the Vikings to halt their exploration of North America.

- March, 1350

Scotland, having so far avoided the plague, hopes to take advantage of English weakness by planning an invasion. While waiting on the border, troops became infected, with 5,000 dying. Retreating soldiers bring the disease back to their families and a third of Scotland perishes.

- 1351

The plague’s spread significantly begins to peter out, possibly thanks to quarantine efforts.

Social, Political and economic effects of the plague in Europe.

The massive death rate and the numbers of survivors fleeing their homes sent social and economic systems spiraling. It became easier to get work for better wages and the average standard of living rose.

Many laborers died, leaving their families with no means of income and creating a drastic labor shortage. Hired laborers began to demand higher wages. Peasant tenant farmers asked for better conditions of tenure when they took up.

The aristocracy tried to pass laws preventing any further rise by the peasants, leading to upheaval and revolution in England and France. It also brought on an unprecedented opportunity for new ideas and art concepts to take hold, directly leading to the Renaissance. A sudden slump in trade occurred, and wars temporarily halted.

Anti-Semitism intensified throughout Europe as Jews were blamed for the spread of the Black Death. Violent mobs attacked Jewish communities, killing many Jews.

The total death count is estimated to be 25 million people throughout Europe. The population of western Europe did not return to its pre-1348 level until the beginning of the 16th century.


What started as an attempt by the Mongols to gain control over the city of Caffa, ended up being one of the deadliest epidemics the world has seen till this day, taking a proportionately greater toll of life than any other known epidemic or war up to that time. The Bubonic Plague never completely exited, resurfacing several times through the centuries.


~ Devangi Sharma