Scenes From a Fifteen Hundred Year War

In 529 CE, not quite sixteen hundred years ago, Muhammad and ten thousand or so followers seized the city of Mecca and destroyed the hundreds of shrines of other religions in the city. By his death, Islam had expanded to much of the Arabian peninsula. Two hundred years later it had conquered North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Empire, most of Spain, and parts of Central Asia. Muslim warriors and raiders penetrated far into France, but were handed a big defeat at Tours in 732 CE. After that, something like stalemate settled over the Muslim Christian divide for much of the next 700 years. Nearly all of that Muslim advance was at the point of a sword. The political systems established under Muslim rule waxed and waned but cultural conquests remained remarkably durable.

By the dawn of the Sixteenth Century, the struggle between Muslim and Christian had again intensified. Spain had defeated the last Muslim power on the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, by Roger Crowley, opens with Mehmet II's ascent to the roof of the now 1000 year Church of Saint Sophia to contemplate the empire he had just conquered with the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, but quickly moves on to 1521, when his great-grandson, Suleiman the Magnificent, decided to conquer the Crusader/Pirate stronghold of Rhodes.

Rhodes, a fifty mile long spearpoint of an island, lies only 11 miles off the coast of Turkey, and its strategic position astride the routes of merchants bound for Egypt and pilgrims headed to Mecca made it a spear point in the Sultanate's side. After a long and bloody siege, the knights were dislodged, and after that the Ottomans came to dominate the sea at the center of the world. Muslim pirates based in North Africa, like the Barbarossas, backed by the increasingly aggressive fleet based in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) terrorized the coasts of Christian Europe. Hundreds of towns and villages were pillaged and millions of Christians murdered or carried off to the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli. A series of catastrophic defeats repeatedly smashed Spanish naval power in the Mediterranean.

Suleiman took on the title of Caesar, and made it clear that his objective was Rome. Crowley's book is the story of the ensuing struggle, with a significant emphasis on the struggles of the European Christian side. In all things, Europe was hogtied by its deep divisions: Catholic vs. Protestant, Catholic Spain vs. Catholic France, Venice vs Rome and Genoa. Spain, having treated its remnant population of Moriscos badly, had a large hostile fifth column ready to cooperate with the pirates in its midst. The King of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, had his own vast and unruly empire to deal with. Suleiman pressed the Hapsburg flank in Hungary and ultimately at the gates of Vienna. Protestant Netherlands was in revolt. Italy was a fragmented and fractious nightmare.

It's a good story, and Crowley tells it brilliantly. It might even inform us a bit on the world of today, six-hundred and fifty years down the road.

An excerpt from the epilogue:

Both sides were soon afflicted by economic malaise. Philip defaulted on his debts in 1575; the years after 1585 saw fiscal crisis start to rack the Muslim world too. The slogging maritime war, and the particular cost of rebuilding the fleet after Lepanto, increased the steepening gradient of taxation in the sultan’s realms. At the same time, the influx of bullion from the Americas was beginning to hole the Ottoman economy below the waterline, in ways that were barely understood. The Ottomans had the resources to outstay any competitor in the business of war, but they were powerless to protect their stable, traditional, self-sufficient world against the more pernicious effects of modernity. There were no defensive bastions proof against rising European prices and the inflationary effects of gold. In 1566, the year after Malta, the gold mint at Cairo— the only one in the Ottoman world, producing coins from limited supplies of African gold— devalued its coinage by 30 percent. The Spanish real became the most appreciated currency in the Ottoman empire; it was impossible to strike money of matching value. The silver coins paid to the soldiers grew increasingly thin; they were “as light as the leaves of the almond tree and as worthless as drops of dew,” according to a contemporary Ottoman historian. With these forces came price rises, shortages, and the gradual erosion of the indigenous manufacturing base. Raw materials and bullion were being sucked out of the empire by Christian Europe’s higher prices and lower production costs. From the end of the sixteenth century globalizing forces started stealthily to undermine the old social fabric and bases of Ottoman power. It was a paradigm of Islam’s whole relationship with the West.

Crowley, Roger (2008-07-01). Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World (Kindle Locations 4818-4824). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I read the Kindle edition. The only problem with it is that maps and pictures don't come out very well.


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