When Worlds CollideJOHN JULIUS NORWICH
In all European history, there is no more stirring story than that of the long struggle between Christianity and Islam for mastery of the Mediterranean.
The story begins, essentially, in the early hours of May 29, 1453 -- it was a Tuesday -- when the army of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror burst through the walls of Constantinople and put an end, after 1,123 years and a siege lasting 55 days, to the Byzantine Empire. The story concludes a little more than two centuries later with Islam's final triumph, on Sept. 26, 1669 -- a Sunday -- when, after 465 years as a Venetian colony, the island of Crete saw the banner of St. Mark lowered for the last time.
In "Empires of the Sea," Roger Crowley has taken as his subject the six decades from 1520 to 1580, the middle act -- and by far the most important -- of this tremendous drama. The act contains five main scenes. The first is set on the island of Rhodes in 1522, where for six months the Knights Hospitallers of St. John heroically resist the army of Mehmet's great-grandson, Süleyman the Magnificent, before their inevitable surrender.
For the second scene, the spotlight moves to the Barbary Coast -- the strip of North Africa running between Tangier and Tunis. Piracy here had always been endemic, but after 1502, when Ferdinand and Isabella evicted all Muslims from Spain, it assumed the dimensions of a holy war. The climax of this war came in 1535, when Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor -- by now effectively the leader of Christendom -- personally led a naval expedition to Tunis against the most dangerous of the pirates, known in Europe as Barbarossa. The foray proved successful, up to a point; but Barbarossa escaped to continue the fight, and the Muslims had their revenge when they utterly destroyed a Spanish fleet off the coast of North Africa.
After their departure from Rhodes, the Knights had wandered for seven years until, in 1530, Charles had given them the island of Malta, at a nominal annual rent of one falcon -- the famous Maltese Falcon. Malta provides the backdrop for scene three, which presents us with another siege, perhaps the greatest in Mediterranean history. It occurred in 1565, and the story has never been better told. Mr. Crowley has an astonishing gift for narration; his account is as exciting as any thriller. When we read of the arrival of the long-awaited fleet -- the "Gran Soccorso" -- from Spain we can hardly suppress a cheer. And when, a few pages later, what is left of Süleyman's once-great army drags itself back to the waiting ships we mop our brows with relief.
Malta had escaped; five years later, Cyprus -- scene four -- was not so lucky. The island had been a Venetian colony since 1488, but after the fall of Rhodes, as Mr. Crowley notes, "Cyprus was an anomaly, Christianity's forward position in a Muslim sea." In 1570, the Turks attacked. There were two sieges, but the stories of these are overshadowed by a third tale, about the victors' infamous treatment of the Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. After surrendering on honorable terms, he was dragged around the walls of the city of Famagusta, hauled to the yardarm of the Turkish flagship, and then tied naked to a column and flayed alive. His skin is still preserved in Venice, above his tomb in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
The last scene in Mr. Cowley's drama is the Gulf of Lepanto, where from dawn to dusk on Oct. 7, 1571, just a year after the atrocity in Cyprus, was fought the last naval battle in history in which oared galleys, ramming each other head-on, played the major role. It was also the bloodiest. On one side were the combined fleets of Spain, Venice and the papacy, commanded by the bastard son of Charles V; on the other, the Turks. It ended in an overwhelming victory for the Christians. According to the most reliable estimates, they lost only 12 galleys sunk and one captured; Turkish losses were 113 and 117, respectively.
Lepanto is remembered as one of the decisive battles of the world, the greatest naval engagement between Actium, in 31 B.C. (which was fought on almost the same spot), and Trafalgar, in 1805. But it did not mark the end of the pendulum's swing. Venice did not regain Cyprus; only two years later it was to conclude a separate peace with the sultan, relinquishing all its claims to the island. Nor did Lepanto mean the end of such losses: In the following century, Crete was to go the same way. As for Spain, it did not increase its control of the central Mediterranean. Within three years, the Turks were to drive the Spaniards from Tunis and reduce the area -- as they had already reduced most of Algeria to the west and Tripolitania in the east -- to the status of an Ottoman province.
I have already mentioned how well Mr. Crowley tells a story; but he does much more than that. His analyses of the political and economic background to the events he describes so brilliantly are intelligent and perceptive, and he is a superb portraitist. We are left with clear and unforgettable pictures of all sorts of figures from this great drama, including Süleyman, Charles V, the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John, the pirate Barbarossa and Pope Pius V. I enjoyed every page of "Empires of the Sea" and was sorry indeed when I turned the last one.
John Julius Norwich. "When Worlds Collide." The Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2008).
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich CVO (born 15 September 1929) is an English historian, travel writer and television personality. Lord Norwich is the author of Paradise of Cities: Venice In the 19th Century, The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, Byzantium: The Apogee, among many other books.
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