In 1521, Suleiman the Magnificent, Muslim ruler of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, dispatched an invasion fleet to the Christian island of Rhodes. This would prove to be the opening shot in an epic struggle between rival empires and faiths for control of the Mediterranean and the center of the world.
In Empires of the Sea, acclaimed historian Roger Crowley has written his most mesmerizing work to date–a thrilling account of this brutal decades-long battle between Christendom and Islam for the soul of Europe, a fast-paced tale of spiraling intensity that ranges from Istanbul to the Gates of Gibraltar and features a cast of extraordinary characters: Barbarossa, “The King of Evil,” the pirate who terrified Europe; the risk-taking Emperor Charles V; the Knights of St. John, the last crusading order after the passing of the Templars; the messianic Pope Pius V; and the brilliant Christian admiral Don Juan of Austria.
This struggle’s brutal climax came between 1565 and 1571, seven years that witnessed a fight to the finish decided in a series of bloody set pieces: the epic siege of Malta, in which a tiny band of Christian defenders defied the might of the Ottoman army; the savage battle for Cyprus; and the apocalyptic last-ditch defense of southern Europe at Lepanto–one of the single most shocking days in world history. At the close of this cataclysmic naval encounter, the carnage was so great that the victors could barely sail away “because of the countless corpses floating in the sea.” Lepanto fixed the frontiers of the Mediterranean world that we know today.
Roger Crowley conjures up a wild cast of pirates, crusaders, and religious warriors struggling for supremacy and survival in a tale of slavery and galley warfare, desperate bravery and utter brutality, technology and Inca gold. Empires of the Sea is page-turning narrative history at its best–a story of extraordinary color and incident, rich in detail, full of surprises, and backed by a wealth of eyewitness accounts. It provides a crucial context for our own clash of civilizations.
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Roger Crowley was born in 1951 and spent part of his childhood in Malta. He read English at Cambridge University and taught English in Istanbul, where he developed a strong interest in the history of Turkey. He has traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean basin over many years and has a wide-ranging knowledge of its history and culture. He lives in Gloucestershire, England. He is also the author of 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Sultan Pays a Visit
10 September 1521, from Belgrade
First the drumroll of imperial titles. Then the threat:
Suleiman the sultan, by the grace of God, king of kings, sovereign of sovereigns, most high emperor of Byzantium and Trebizond, very powerful king of Persia, of Arabia, of Syria, and of Egypt, supreme lord of Europe, and of Asia, prince of Mecca and Aleppo, lord of Jerusalem, and ruler of the universal sea, to Philip de L’Isle Adam, Grand Master of the island of Rhodes, greetings.
I congratulate you upon your new dignity, and upon your arrival within your territories. I trust that you will rule there prosperously, and with even more glory than your predecessors. I also mean to cultivate your favour. Rejoice then with me, as a very dear friend, that following in the footsteps of my father, who conquered Persia, Jerusalem, Arabia and Egypt, I have captured that most powerful of fortresses, Belgrade, during the late Autumn. After which, having offered battle to the Infidel, which they had not the courage to accept, I took many other beautiful and well-fortified cities, and destroyed most of their inhabitants either by sword or fire, the remainder being reduced to slavery. Now after sending my numerous and victorious army into their winter quarters, I shall myself return in triumph to my court at Constantinople.
To those who could read between the lines this was not an expression of friendship. It was a declaration of war. Suleiman, great-grandson of Mehmet the Conqueror, had just inherited the Ottoman throne. According to custom and tradition, he was obliged to mark his accession with victories; each new sultan had to legitimize his position as “Conqueror of the Lands of the Orient and the Occident” by adding fresh territories to the world empire. He could then distribute booty, secure the loyalty of the army, and indulge in the ritual forms of propaganda. Victory letters—assertions of imperial power—were sent out to impress the Muslim world and intimidate the Christian one, and the new sultan could then start building his mosque.
An accession also had to be accompanied by death. The sultan was required by law to kill all his brothers “in the interest of the world order,” to scotch the possibility of civil war. A mournful line of children’s coffins would be carried out of the palace harem to the muted sobbing of women, while stranglers with bowstrings were dispatched to distant provinces to hunt down older siblings.
In Suleiman’s case there were no such deaths. He was the sole male heir. It is likely that his father, Selim, had executed all his other sons six years earlier to snuff out preemptive coups. The twenty-six- year-old was uniquely blessed in his inheritance. He acquired a powerful, unified empire possessed of unrivaled resources. To pious Muslims, Suleiman was the harbinger of good fortune. His name—Solomon— chosen by opening the Koran at random, presaged a ruler dedicated to wisdom and justice. In an age of portents, all the circumstances of Suleiman’s accession were significant. He was the tenth sultan, born in the tenth year of the tenth century of the Muslim era. Ten was the cipher of perfection: the number of the parts of the Koran, the number of disciples of the Prophet, the commandments in the Pentateuch, and the astrological heavens of Islam. And Suleiman stepped onto the world stage at a moment of imperial destiny.
His reign would overlap and compete with the claims of a jostling crowd of rival monarchs: the Hapsburgs, Charles V and Philip II of Spain; the French Valois kings, Francis I and his son Henry II; in England the Tudors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I; in Muscovy, Ivan the Terrible; in Iran, Shah Ismail; in India, the Mogul emperor Akbar. None would have a keener sense of imperial mission or make for themselves more lofty claims.
From the start Suleiman made a powerful and calculated impression on the foreign ambassadors admitted to his court. “The sultan is tall and slender but tough, with a thin and wiry face,” wrote the Venetian Bartolomeo Contarini. “Rumour has it that Suleiman is aptly named . . . is knowledgeable and shows good judgement.” His countenance was sober, his gaze steady, his caftans simple but magnificent. His height and physical presence were enhanced by the size of the enormous spherical turban pulled low over his forehead, and by his pale face. He meant to impress with the splendor of his person and his court. Soon he would lay claim to the title of Caesar and envisage control of the Mediterranean.
He had two immediate victories in mind. Keenly aware of the achievements of his forebears, Suleiman had dreamed, since boyhood, of completing the twin conquests that had eluded his great- grandfather Mehmet. The first was the storming of the fortress of Belgrade, the gateway to Hungary. Within ten months of his accession, the sultan was encamped before the city walls; by August 1521 he was saying prayers in its Christian cathedral. The second conquest was intended to advance his claim to be “Padishah of the White Sea.” It was to be the capture of Rhodes.
the island to which Suleiman now turned his attention was a strange anachronism—a freak Christian survivor from the medieval Crusades located within touching distance of the Islamic world. Rhodes is the most substantial and fertile of a belt of limestone islands—the Dodecanese, the twelve islands—that stretches for a hundred miles along the coast of Asia Minor. Rhodes lies at the southwest end of the group; the northern marker is the whitewashed monastery island of Patmos, one of Orthodox Christianity’s holy sites, where Saint John the Divine received the revelations of the New Testament. These islands are so closely intertwined with the bays and headlands of the Asian shore that the mainland is always a presence on the horizon. From Rhodes the crossing is a bare eleven miles, just a couple of hours’ sailing time with a smart wind, so near that on clear winter days the snowy Asian mountains, refracted through the thin air, seem almost within touching distance.
When Mehmet took Constantinople in 1453, Christian powers still held the whole of the Aegean Sea in a defensive ring, like an arch whose strength depended on the interdependence of each stone. By 1521, the entire structure had collapsed; yet against gravity, Rhodes, the keystone, survived as an isolated Christian bastion that menaced the Ottomans’ sea-lanes and cramped their maritime ambitions.
Rhodes and its accompanying islands were held in the name of the pope by the last remnant of the great military orders of the Crusades, the Knights of Saint John—the Hospitallers—whose fortunes closely mirrored the whole crusading enterprise. Originally founded to provide care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem, they had also become, like the Templars and the Teutonic Knights, a military fighting order. Its members took lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the pope; their cardinal purpose was to wage unceasing war on the infidel. The Order of Saint John had fought in every significant action in the long wars of the Holy Land until they were cut down, almost to a man, with their backs to the sea at Acre in May 1291. In exile they searched for a means to continue this struggle, and their eyes alighted on the Greek Christian island of Rhodes. In 1307 they attacked and captured it. Rhodes became Western Christendom’s deep position against the Islamic world, a launchpad from which a new counteroffensive for Palestine could be prepared at some point in the unspecified future.
In the town of Rhodes the knights created a small feudal bastion, a last outpost of the Latin Crusades, subject only to the pope, paid for from the rents on the Order’s huge land holdings in Europe, and dedicated to holy war. The Holy Religion, as the knights called themselves, understood fortified places; they had generations of experience of frontier defense in Palestine. They had constructed Crac des Chevaliers, the greatest of the Crusader castles, and they now fortified the town with bravado and reinvented themselves as sea raiders, building and equipping a small squadron of heavily armed galleys, with which they plundered the Ottoman coasts and sea-lanes, taking slaves and booty.
For two hundred years, the Hospitallers maintained an uncompromising piratical presence on the edge of the Muslim world, holding
the Dodecanese as a chain of fortified islands to pen in the Turks. The knights even managed to keep a toehold on the mainland itself, at the fortress the Turks called Bodrum—the castle of Saint Peter the Liberator. The fortress served both as an escape route for Christian slaves and as a propaganda tool for raising funds for the Order’s mission throughout Europe. The knights, well aware of the fate that had befallen the Templars, managed their image carefully as the Shield of Christendom.
European opinion of the knights was mixed. For the Papacy, Rhodes carried a huge symbolic weight as the outer line of defense against the infidel, manning a maritime frontier in continual contraction as the Byzantine inheritance crumbled before the Islamic advance and one
by one the bright ring of islands fell to the Ottomans. Pope Pius II lamented that “if all the other Christian princes . . . had shown themselves as tireless in their hostility to the Turks as the single island of Rhodes had done, that impious people would not have grown so strong.” Even after the fall of Constantinople, Rhodes continued to nourish the Holy See’s most cherished project—the possibility of an eventual return to the Holy Land. Others were less charitable: to Christian maritime traders, the Hospitallers were a dangerous anachronism. The Order’s acts of piracy and blockades of Western trade with Muslims threatened to destabilize the delicate peace on which commerce depended. The Ven...
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