The ruler of Moldavia with the longest reign was Stephen the Great, who led the country for close to half a century, between 1457 and 1504.
This is quite an achievement, given the instability of those times. The Romantic posterity turned Stephen the Great into one of the towering figures of history, giving him a place of honor in history textbooks. Many public places all across Romania were named after him, as the staunchest defender of Moldavian independence. In 2006, the Romanian public television station ran a wide-ranging poll, asking Romanians to name what they believed to be the most important figure in Romanian history. Stephen the Great came out the winner. On top of that, in 1992 the Romanian Orthodox Church canonized him, officially making him “Stephen the Great and Holy”.
The one object most famously associated with the ruler is his sword. Historian Carol Konig, expert in medieval weaponry, believes that even though Stephen’s sword has a Western design, it has something peculiarly Moldavian: “There is only one document speaking of Romanian weapons. Stephen the Great, in a letter addressed to Italians, to the Milanese in particular, asks the craftsmen of Milan to manufacture 10 Wallachian swords. This type of Modavian sword can only be the one on display in Istanbul, where there are 3 other similar Romanian swords, of which one has at the top of its handle the inscription ‘I, voivod Stephen’ and the coat of arms of Moldavia. This sword has come to Romania as well; I had the good fortune of doing its paperwork. The sword is not perfect, it has multiple corroded spots, sometimes fairly deep ones. It is also dented, in some places on both sides of the edge.”
The sword now resides in Topkapi Palace, in Istanbul. It is 125 cm long, with the blade measuring 102 cm. The handle is 23 cm long, wrapped in silver cord, and weighs around 2.5 kg. The handle, decorated with Moldavia’s coat of arms, has a disc at the end with the inscription “I, voivod Stephen”, along with a cross. The sword was not the one he used in campaigns, it was ceremonial.
The Moldavian ruler got the sword as a gift from Pope Sixtus the 6th, in 1475, after the battle of Podul Inalt, in recognition of the ruler’s role in defending Christianity. In that battle, a Polish crusader army joined Moldavian and Szekely troops under Stephen’s command, and routed the Ottoman army, led by Suleyman Pasha. In the letter accompanying the gift, the pope wrote: “Your deeds so far, done with wisdom and courage against the infidel Turks, our foes, have brought so much fame to your name that it is on everyone’s lips and are much praised by everyone”.
There are two versions to the story as to how the sword came to be in Turkish possession. One version is that Stephen himself gave the sword to the Sultan shortly before death, in a gesture of fealty towards Ottoman superiority, in his attempt to preserve Moldavia’s independence. The second version is that the sword reached Istanbul during the first reign of Petru Rares, Stephen’s son, who ruled first between 1527 and 1538. The Turks wanted to remove him, because he wanted to join the Hungarian anti-Ottoman initiative, and according to the tale, they sacked Moldavia in 1538, plundering the country’s treasure and taking the sword to their capital.
The sword has never left Turkey. A replica was put on display at the National Art Museum of Romania in 2004, during the celebrations occasioned by the anniversary of five centuries since the death of Stephen the Great. The Turkish government provided the replica as a gift, and it went to the keeping of Putna monastery, the most important religious place built by Stephen the Great, and the place of his burial. In November 2012, another replica of the sword went to the Soroca Museum, in the Republic of Moldova, a gift from the then Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan.