The Great Battle Against Islam

The Granger Collection, New York
Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, from 1520 to 1566; sixteenth-century painting by a member of the Venetian school

Ever since the great historian Fernand Braudel consigned isolated human events to l’histoire événementielle, calling them mere “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs,” it has been harder to write of decisive moments in world history. The ineluctable undercurrents of geography and trade, the impact of technologies and climate, conspire to dwarf significant human events. In the face of these groundswells, at the most extreme, battles and treaties and the deeds of “great men” wither into transience.

For the Mediterranean, of course, the flagship of the new history was Braudel’s monumental The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Its legacy is still pervasive. Yet Braudel himself indicated its limitations, and for others the notion of historical turning points has proved irresistible: especially, of late, the watershed between expansionist Islam and European Christianity. This crucial event has been assigned inter alia to the Battle of Tours in 732, where the Frankish leader Charles Martel turned back the Moorish army flooding across France, and variously to the siege and the Battle of Vienna (in 1529 and 1683), which checked the Ottoman advance into Eastern Europe.

In Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, Roger Crowley describes another such civilizational crisis: this one between 1565 and 1571, when the Ottoman Turks pushed westward across the Mediterranean. Their empire was then at its height. They had absorbed Egypt and almost the whole North African littoral; to the east they were battering on Persia, to the north threatening Vienna. Over the Mediterranean itself—ancient Rome’s “center of the world”—the imperial Turkish navies and their corsair auxiliaries were spreading terror down the coasts of Italy and even Spain. But lying strategically across their path, in a pendant below Sicily, was the tiny island of Malta. From here the Knights of St. John, soldier-monks dedicated to recovering the Holy Land, harassed Muslim shipping and even pilgrimage.

Malta’s survival of the great Ottoman siege in 1565 was to become one of the redemptive epics of Christendom. And a greater one was to follow. In 1571 the western Mediterranean powers—Spain, Venice, the Papacy—united at last in fear, put an end to Turkish maritime expansion at the horrifying Battle of Lepanto.

These titanic events, and those preceding them—the Ottoman capture of Rhodes in 1522, the battles for North African ports, the corsair raids on Europe—are the rich meat of Crowley’s book. Empires of the Sea, confessedly, is less a scholarly or innovative study than a work of passionate and informed enthusiasm, much reliant on the formidable histories and compendia of Braudel,…

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