Never Again and Again
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Thursday, November 08, 2007

History's Bloodiest Siege

A hot and fetid June night on the small Mediterranean island of Malta, and a Christian sentry patrolling at the foot of a fort on the Grand Harbor had spotted something drifting in the water.

The alarm was raised. More of these strange objects drifted into view, and men waded into the shallows to drag them to the shore. What they found horrified even these battle-weary veterans: wooden crosses pushed out by the enemy to float in the harbor, and crucified on each was the headless body of a Christian knight.

This was psychological warfare at its most brutal, a message sent by the Turkish Muslim commander whose invading army had just vanquished the small outpost of Fort St Elmo a thousand yards distant across the water.

Now the target was the one remaining fort on the harbor front where the beleaguered, outnumbered and overwhelmed Christians were still holding out: the Fort St Angelo. The Turkish commander wished its defenders to know that they would be next, that a horrible death was the only outcome of continued resistance.

But the commander had not counted on the mettle of his enemy the Knights of St John. Nor on the determination of their leader Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, who vowed that the fort would not be taken while one last Christian lived in Malta.

On news of the grotesque discovery of the headless knights many of them his personal friends Grand Master Valette quickly ordered that captured Turks imprisoned deep in the vaulted dungeons of the fort be taken from their cells, and beheaded one by one.

Then he returned a communiquè of his own: the heads of his Turkish captives were fired from his most powerful cannon direct into the Muslim lines. There would be no negotiation, no compromise, no surrender, no retreat.

We Christians, the Grand Master was saying, will fight to the death and take you with us.

The Siege of Malta in 1565 was a clash of unimaginable brutality, one of the bloodiest yet most overlooked battles ever fought. It was also an event that determined the course of history, for at stake was the very survival of Christianity.

If vitally strategic Malta fell, the Muslim Ottoman Empire would soon dominate the Mediterranean. Even Rome would be in peril.


The Muslims had hundreds of ships and an army tens of thousands strong. The Christians were a ragtag bunch of just a few hundred hardbitten knights and some local peasant soldiers with a few thousand Spanish infantry. Malta looked doomed.

That the Hospitaller Knights of St John existed at all was a minor miracle. They were a medieval relic, an order established originally to look after ailing pilgrims to the Holy Lands during the Crusades 300 years earlier other orders of the Crusades, such as the Knights Templar, had been extinct for two-and-a-half centuries.

They came from countries all over Europe: Germany, Portugal, France, Spain. All that united them was a burning desire to defend Christendom against what they perceived as the ever-encroaching tide of Islam. Yet by the 16th century, an age of the increasing power of nation states, these trans-national zealots were viewed as an embarrassing anachronism by much of Europe.

Already the Turks had forced them from their earlier home, the island of Rhodes. Now the knights had moved to Malta and were threatened once more.

So savage was the fighting, so mismatched the two sides and so important the moment, that I chose the Siege of Malta as the subject of my latest novel, Blood Rock. It was the stage, as we thriller writers say, for epic and mind-blowing history.

But as I researched for my book, I came to realize that what happened on Malta more than 400 years ago is salutary in today's context. For as we know only too well, religious extremism, terror tactics and barbarism still exist.

Malta was no mere siege. It teaches us many things: the need for courage and steadfastness by an entire populace in the face of threat; the fragility of peace; and the destructiveness of religious hate.

Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of Turkey and pitiless ruler of the Ottoman Empire, stared out upon the glittering waters of the Golden Horn estuary of Istanbul. He was the most powerful figure on the planet his titles included Vice-Regent of God on Earth, Lord of the Lords of East and West and Possessor of Men's Necks on account of his habit of beheading servants who displeased him.

His realm and absolute remit stretched from the gates of Vienna to the gardens of Babylon, from Budapest to Aden. He was one of the richest men of all time who never wore the same clothes twice, ate off solid gold plates encrusted with jewels, and took his pleasure in a harem of more than 300 women.

An octogenarian, he was utterly ruthless, employing an assassination squad of deaf mutes to strangle traitors. (The reasoning was that they could never be influenced by the pleas for mercy of their victims, nor tell any tales.)

Suleiman had used them to dispatch both his Grand Vizier (his prime minister) and his favorite sons. Less worthy subjects could be executed by pouring molten lead down their throats.

Yet by the standards of the day and his own dynastic line he was not especially violent. Other sultans had done worse: one, tiring of his womenfolk, had drowned his entire harem - some several hundred strong in muslin sacks at the bottom of the Bosphorus; a second had written into the royal prerogative that he could shoot ten or more citizens a day with his bow and arrows from the roof of his palace.

Suleiman controlled the greatest fighting force in the world. Before him lay an armada of 200 ships ready to sail, an army of 40,000 troops on board. He planned to wipe the barren rock of Malta and the Knights of St John from the map.

These knights lived by raiding and disrupting his Ottoman shipping routes. The last straw had been their capture of the prized ship of his powerful courtier the Chief Black Eunuch.

Because all his "parts" had been cut off by a clean sweep of a razor a metal tube had been inserted into his urethra and the wound cauterized in boiling oil the eunuch was also entrusted to look after Suleiman's harem.

The Sultan did not expect undue trouble exacting his revenge. A mere 700 knights stood in his way. Such a rabble would be quickly cleared.

The Turkish fleet headed across the Mediterranean in March 1565. Aboard the ships were the elite janissary shock-troops the "Invincible Ones" who had carried Islam across Europe with the slashing blades of their scimitars.

Accompanying them were the blackplumed cavalry corps and the infantry as well as the drug-crazed Iayalars who wore the skins of wild beasts and whose raison d'etre was to reach paradise through death as they slit infidel Christian throats in battle.

In late May 1565, the invasion force arrived at the island. The knights awaiting them enjoyed good intelligence of their plans and had asked for assistance from the Christian armies of European nations. Every kingdom spurned their request other than Sicily, which said that if the knights held out, help would eventually come.

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