This is a must read for anyone interested in the clash of civilizations between the European world and the forces of modernity, and those of the Oriental and Islamic, and the disavowal of the modern. The 16th century saw the centralized despotism of the Turkish-Muslim empire attempt to invade and control not only Eastern Europe and parts of Russia; but also the Mediterranean basin. These were decisive moments in history. Thanks to the ability to leverage a supine empire's mass of humanity the Muslim Turk came close to achieving both objectives. How different would be the course of man's development if the Turkish Sultan had taken the Pope's seat in Rome. How colossal would be the human disaster if the Turkish fleets were able to impose their will on the littoral of the Middle Sea, invading, slaving, destroying and conquering during the 16th and 17th centuries ? Would the modern world have still developed in its trajectory ? Or would Europe have been rivened and incapacitated ?
Roger Crowley's unparalleled work in grimy, gripping detail, gives the reader a unobstructed front row view of one of mankind's most decisive eras; stopping the Muslim Jihad in the Mediterranean. The sweep of the book is magnificent and the detail astonishing. It is one of the best historical works one can read. It is devoid of academic neo-Marxist hash. It avoids politically correct revisionism. And it presents the horrific detail of what happened to areas conquered by the Muslim Turk: slavery, butchery, savagery, economic ruin, poverty, little progress and ultimately social collapse. It is frightening to think of how near the Turk was to conquering parts of Western Europe and permanently disfiguring and eradicating Christian culture.
Crowley outlines all of the various political, military and naval dramas in the Middle Sea during the 16th century. For myself two great battles stand out as the most important scenes in this general drama – both of which are given the best possible illustration and detail by Crowley. The first was the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565. The second, was the naval battle of Lepanto in Greece in 1571. If the Turks had taken Malta, Rome and Italy would have fallen to the Saracen. The second battle of Lepanto, fought some 30 odd years after the first engagement, permanently impaired the Turk's ability to cast their power beyond the Eastern Mediterranean. It gave the Western powers time and space to rebuild fleets, re-arm, and repair budgets and balance sheets.
I was particularly fascinated by Crowley's depiction of the siege of Malta. You won't find such detail and knowledge of this vital event in too many other sources. It was one of history's most important battles. Malta, defended by 600 Hospitaller Knights and a few thousand regular and irregular Spanish, Italian and Maltese troops was the 'shield' which protected Western Europe from Turkish naval predations. Lying between Sicily and Africa, Malta was a vital strategic land mass, directly astride the sea borne-trading lanes. If the Turks hoped to conquer Italy, expanding from its potential base at Venice, [at one time Venice was little more than a tribute paying part of the Turkish empire], they needed to take Malta.
Centralized despotisms have unique capabilities to raise men, engage in military campaigns and proceed to war with efficiency and purpose. The rapidity of the Turkish naval advance against Malta was simply astounding:
“The speed, efficiency and logistical skill of the Ottoman war machine had taken the whole of the Mediterranean by surprise.....The spectacle took the breath away: hundreds of ships in a vast crescent drawing forward across the calm sea – 130 galleys, 30 galliots, 9 transport barges, 10 large galleons, 200 smaller transport vessels, 30.000 men....The tumultuous throng probably numbered about 22.000 to 24.000 fighting men supported by 8.000 non-combatants...The core troops were 6.000 janissaries [Christian slave-boys bred to fight as Muslims]...” [p. 114, 118]
It was a formidable force. Against the Ottomans the Christians could muster perhaps 8.000 troops all told. Over half of these were civilians from Malta, pressed into service and quickly trained. No more than 3.000 regular troops, including the 600 Knights, were available. Christian Europe as usual was riven by discord and conflict. Malta was technically the property of the Knights of St. John, given to them by the Pope. The greatest military power was Spain, a state in perpetual conflict with France and the northern Protestant states and always close to bankruptcy. Venice was a duplicitous trading empire, untrusted and unloved by everyone and openly allied with the Turks. Italy was a hodgepodge of independent states and regions, many without the resources to raise professional armies or engage in long term military campaigns. Even though everyone recognized that Malta was vital for Europe's defense, no aid was sent.
“There was a rising tide of panic throughout the sea. Everyone understood the importance of Malta, if Malta it was to be....but Europe rang to the same old drumbeat: disunity and mutual suspicion. The possibility of a united response to the Great Infidel was a remote in 1565 as it had been at Rhodes in 1521 and Preveza in 1538 [both of these were defeats for the Christians, with Rhodes being reduced and the Knights ejected to Malta]. [p.110]
The only available support for Malta would come from the loose coalition of Spain, Naples, Sicily and Genoa, and the raising of an armada of some 80 galleys or large ships which played a significant role near the end of the Ottoman siege of the island. But as usual with the Christian response to Islamic aggression it was almost too little, too late.
The Turks landed on the island in May 1565 and blockaded it with 165 galleys. The siege would last until November 1565 and the devastation would be total. The savagery of this extended battle in an urban setting would find an echo in Stalingrad in 1941. Malta was defended by three large forts covering the main port which contained one of the best deep water harbors in the Mediterranean basin. But the forts and their walls were not developed enough. The Knights had been too tardy and too negligent in expanding and deepening their defenses. This was to cost them many lives.
“No army in the world could match the Ottomans for their grasp of siege-craft, their practical engineering skills, their deployment of huge quantities of human labor for precise objectives, their ability to plan meticulously but to improvise ingeniously...” [p. 126]
The Turks were sophisticated in many aspects of early modern warfare. Turkish technique and skill in the use of cannon, bombardments, sapping, siege towers and psychological terror were without equal. In most ways the Muslims were inferior to the Latins in all matters of warfare, technology, and killing-machine design. For example, cannons and balls in the Muslim world were manufactured in foundries and factories founded by Westerners, and based upon Western methods.
Man for man the Turks were smaller, had a worse diet, were less educated, and were more lightly armed than their Western foes. Whatever advanced armaments the Muslims did possess, were Latin innovations imported into the Ottoman states, or produced by systems set up by Europeans; or were factories producing product which directly copied the Western model. Ship building and heavy armaments were obvious cases in point. But in spite of the Muslim inability to innovate, create and improve, the fact remained that in the dark science of siege warfare the Turks were without equal.
Within 3 months the forts and most of the urban areas protected by the once-stout walls were obliterated by Turkish bombardments. The walls were barely standing. The Turks were blasting their way to victory. With a 3 or 4 to one advantage in men, and hundreds of cannons and mortars, it seemed only a matter of time before the Muslims would break through the defenses and slaughter the defenders.
“After three and a half months of fierce fighting, the harbour area had been reduced to an apocalyptic wasteland...heaps of rubble were all that separated the two sides...by the end of August perhaps ten thousand men had died in the equatorial summer heat.” [p. 181]
Yet somehow the Christians held on. Courage, innovative use of fire [using fire hoops thrown into the Saracen ranks which literally set men wearing baggy clothes on fire], remarkable leadership, and faith all played their roles in keeping the Turk from over-running the urbanized port and massacring the defenders and the besieged civilian population. After 3 hard months of terrible warfare, it was clear by September that the Turk would not win. Ten thousand Christian reinforcements from Spain and Italy, alighted on the island in early September. The remaining 15.000 Muslim troops would have no hope of clearing Malta of the Infidel:
“[On September 8th], Don Garcia's rescue force swept into the adjacent bay at Mellieha, disembarked ten thousand men on the sandy beach in an hour and a half, and put to sea again....It was a complete fluke.” [p. 187]
The Muslims finally retreated in November at the last possible moment before the Mediterranean Sea becomes nigh impassable for oared galley's and short hulled ships. After a number of bloody and ferocious assaults were repulsed by the Christians with huge losses for the Turks, the Muslims relented and accepted the obvious:
“...half [the Turkish] army some ten thousand men, dead in the barren landscape. Behind them they left a shattered island, 'arid, ransacked and ruined' in the words of Giacomo Bosio; of the 8.000 defenders, only 600 were still fit to carry arms and 250 of the 500 Knights were dead. Malta stank of death.” [p.193]
It was total war. Not a building on Malta was left undamaged. The entire urbanized center which surrounded the port was pulverized into dust and small stones. The Muslims had crucified and beheaded hundreds of Christian fighters and left them rotting in the tropical summer heat. Thousands of dead Muslims, massacred by the Christians in the final failed assaults populated the beaches and approaches to the Christian strongholds. Blood turned the water into a blue-red mixture around the areas of siege and shore fighting. The sacrifice was however worth it. Europe was saved by the small force, on the small island belonging to the Knights of St. John. It was one of the most important Christian victories in the long war with Islamic imperialism.
But the Muslim persisted. The year after their crushing defeat at Malta the Turk was again invading Hungary and probing the defenses of Russia. A huge armada of hundreds of large ships was built by 1567 and many of them were employed in another attempt to wrestle the Mediterranean from Spanish and Italian naval control. It took the overwhelming defeat at Lepanto to finally put to rest the Turkish ambition to rule over Rome and dominate the Mediterranean. But even the colossal disaster at Lepanto was not a permanent setback:
“The idea of conquest was central to the sultanate, intricately interwoven with its holder's position as leader of the Muslim world....War was not dependent on personal volition; it was an unceasing imperial project, authorized in the name of Islam. If conquest momentarily faltered, as at Malta, it was a temporary check, soon to be overcome.” [p. 200]
A very good observation. The heart of Islamic theology is war. Mohammed demanded it. The Koran extols it. Despotism's need it. The Turkish Ottoman state was a centralized theological fascism. It could raise great amounts of labor, organize the war machine and rebuild destroyed fleets with alacrity. But it could never compete with fractious, divisive, disputatious, and divided Europe.
The modern elements of freedom, property rights, individualism, inquiry, science, and faith in hope; were already well established by the 16th century in Europe. Europeans possessed societies which were far richer, more powerful, and far more advanced and innovative in all aspects of socio-economy than anything the Turk could imagine. And this ultimately was the reason why the Muslim was destined to fail, and why a small group of Christians could hold on to the island of Malta and slaughter half of the Sultan's besieging army. The combination of reason and faith is lethal.