Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

by Roger Crowley


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In 1521, Suleiman the Magnificent, Muslim ruler of the Ottoman Empire, dispatched an invasion fleet to the Christian island of Rhodes. This would prove to be the opening shot in an epic clash 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 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. 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. Empires of the Sea is a story of extraordinary color and incident, and provides a crucial context for our own clash of civilizations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812977646
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 108,087
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 Venetians thought the knights indistinguishable from corsairs and regarded them as a menace second only to Ottoman imperial ambitions.

The knights’ impact certainly outstripped their resources. There were never more than five hundred on Rhodes, drawn from the aristocracy of Europe, supported more or less willingly by the local Greek population and mercenaries. They comprised a small well-organized military elite with a powerful sense of mission whose nuisance value was out of proportion to their number. Their galleys lurked in the aquamarine lagoons and rocky inlets of the Asian shore, quick to snatch passing traffic—boatloads of pilgrims from Istanbul bound for Mecca; timber for Egypt from the Black Sea; cargoes of spices from Arabia; honey, dried fish, wine, and silk. Their reputation was fearsome among friend and foe alike. To tackle a Hospitaller galley was to take on a scorpion. “These corsairs are noted for their energy and daring,” wrote the Ottoman chroniclers. “They disrupt life, causing all sorts of losses to merchants, and capturing travelers.” To Muslims, they were, and always had been, the archenemy, the “evil sect of Franks, the worst sons of Error, the most corrupted of the Devil’s spawn”; the Muslim general Saladin had slaughtered his Hospitaller captives without compunction during the Crusades. Their allegiance to the pope made them doubly loathsome in Ottoman eyes. Worse still, they ran a market on the island for the sale of Muslim slaves. “How many sons of the Prophet are captured by these children of lies?” mourned the Muslim chroniclers. “How many thousand of the faithful are forced to turn infidel? How many wives and children? Their wickedness knows no end.”

Successive sultans perceived Rhodes as a menace, an affront to sovereignty—and unfinished business. Mehmet had sent a large invasion force to take it and been humiliated. When Selim, Suleiman’s father, captured Egypt in 1517, the position of Rhodes astride the sea route to Istanbul increased the island’s strategic threat. The early decades of the sixteenth century were a time of hunger in the Eastern Mediterranean, and food supplies for the capital were critical. “The said Rhodians are inflicting great losses on the sultan’s subjects,” noted the Venetian diarist Sanudo in 1512, the year the knights captured eighteen grain transports bound for Istanbul and forced up the prices there by 50 percent. Complaints to the sultan grew audible: “They don’t let the ships of merchants or pilgrims bound for Egypt pass without sinking them with their cannon and capturing the Muslims.” To Suleiman this was not just a strategic threat; his position as “head of Muhammad’s community” was at stake. The taking of Muslim slaves on the very doorstep of his realm was intolerable. He now decided to crush “the vipers’ nest of Franks.”

nine days after suleiman had written his victory letter in Belgrade, the man to whom it was addressed set foot in Rhodes. His name was Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam, a French aristocrat who had just been elected grand master of the Order of Saint John. He was fifty- seven years old, the descendant of a family with a long history of dying for the Crusades. His ancestor had conducted the order’s last- ditch defense at Acre in 1291. L’Isle Adam must have been under few illusions about the task ahead. The voyage from Marseilles to take up his post had been ominous with portents. Off Nice, one of his vessels caught fire; in the Malta Channel, the Order’s great flagship, the Saint Mary, was blasted by a lightning bolt. Nine men fell dead; a crackle of electricity flashed down the grand master’s sword, reducing it to twisted scrap, but he stepped away from the scorched deck unharmed. When the ships put in at Syracuse to repair the storm damage, they found themselves shadowed by the Turkish corsair Kurtoglu, cruising offshore with a powerful squadron of galleys stripped for war. Under cover of darkness, the knights quietly slipped from the harbor and outran their pursuers on a westerly wind.

When he read Suleiman’s letter, L’Isle Adam framed a terse response, distinctly short of pleasantries and any recognition of the sultan’s grander titles. “Brother Philippe Villiers de L’Isle Adam, Grand Master of Rhodes, to Suleiman, sultan of the Turks,” it began. “I have right well comprehended the meaning of your letter, which has been presented to me by your ambassador.” The grand master went on to recount the attempt by Kurtoglu to capture the ship on which he was traveling, before concluding with an abrupt “Farewell.” At the same time, he dispatched a parallel letter to the king of France: “Sire, since he became Grand Turk, this is the first letter that he has sent to Rhodes, and we do not accept it as a token of friendship, but rather as a veiled threat.”

Table of Contents

Prologue: Ptolemy's Map     xiii
Map: The Mediterranean c. 1560     xviii
Map: The Siege of Malta     xx
Map: The Battle of Lepanto     xxi
Caesars: The Contest for the Sea
The Sultan Pays a Visit     3
A Supplication     23
The King of Evil     34
The voyage to Tunis     44
Doria and Barbarossa     57
The Turkish Sea     66
Epicenter: The Battle for Malta
Nest of Vipers     85
Invasion Fleet     98
The Post of Death     108
The Ravelin of Europe     123
The Last Swimmers     135
Payback     142
Trench Wars     156
"Malta Yok"     173
Endgame: Hurtling to Lepanto
The Pope's Dream     191
A Head in a Dish     204
Famagusta     221
Christ's General     231
Snakes to a Charm     242
"Let's Fight"     255
Sea of Fire     266
Other Oceans     278
Epilogue: Traces     289
Author's Note and Acknowledgments     293
Source Notes     297
Bibliography     311
Index     317

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"A masterly narrative that captures the religious fervor, brutality and mayhem of this intensive contest for the 'center of the world.'" —-Kirkus Starred Review

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Empires of the Sea 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 41 reviews.
B-2 More than 1 year ago
Remarkable detailed and easy to read book . It is well researched account of the naval, social and political struggle between the Ottoman Empire and Western powers in the Mediterranean. Book describes the historical events of which were quite significant and dramatic yet much less known to the public than omnipresent eight wives of Henry VIII etc. I grade the books as Buy and Keep (BK), Read Library book and Return ( RLR) and Once I Put it Down I Couldn't Pick it Up ( OIPD-ICPU). This one is BK ( all right, RLR if you are not a history fan).
ChetVA More than 1 year ago
I was very impressed with Crowley's first book (1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West) and was anxious to read the next installment. Crowley has a style that is easy to read and understand and turns what some might consider "dry" history into a colorful and exciting narrative that reads more like a novel. I found this book a real page turner and couldn't put it down. Looking forward to reading his next book on Venice!
CarlW1958 More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the action in here and learned quite a bit. A very good refresher on a key point in western civ.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This historical accounting pulls the reader in and is hard to put down. I purchased this book a while back and had it on the shelf for future reading and picked it up recently after returning from a cruise among Greek Islands and Turkish ports. The author makes it easy to imagine being in the places discussed in this book and wets your appetite to learn more about the region and its history.
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Prior to the 20th century, the Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle in history. Empires of the Sea features a blow-by-blow account of the battle, a rousing victory for the forces of Christianity amidst a sea of defeats at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, ruled by the mediocre Selim II. Despite huge losses, the Ottomans would remain a powerful force in the Mediterranean and remain so for much of the next four centuries.The more interesting part detailed the siege of Malta. This epic battle for a strategic location consumed the later years of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. About 9000 Knights Hospitaller and men-at-arms fended off a force of 40,000 Turks and Barbary corsairs while awaiting relief from Spain and Venice. The Turks took as much as 30,000 casualties in the assault before moving on to easier targets.Empires at Sea is at times overly melodramatic, but is otherwise a less-than-engaging accounts of these Renaissance-era battles. Part of the problem with Lepanto was, in spite of the massive loss of life and scope of the destruction, the battle didn't really matter -- it didn't change the power balance of the world. Suleiman is a pretty fascinating character, and I think this book gave him short-shrift, as if his legacy was tied to the failure of his subordinates at Malta. The Sultan and his elite Janissaries were the dominant force during this era, but Crowley clings to the Christian successes. At this point in history, the Christian successes during the Reconquista were 80 years past, but the Turks were on the ascendant even if their Berber brothers were faltering.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This engaging history, based mostly on secondary sources, has a strong narrative arc, in three parts: the groping of the Ottoman and Spanish Hapsburg empires towards a confrontation in the sixteenth century; the unsuccessful siege of Malta by the Ottoman empire in 1565; and the destruction of a Turkish fleet at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. The author tries to be even-handed, but at crunch points his adverbs ('luckily', 'unfortunately') side with the Christians - though this may be just for purposes of having a satisfying narrative, since at both Malta and Lepanto the Christians are presented as underdogs who win against unlikely odds. The author suggests that Christian Europe was lucky to have survived the two encounters, and that an Ottoman victory in either case might have ultimately resulted in an Ottoman invasion of Rome. I do not have enough background in the period to evaluate that claim, but have the sense that this book is best read as a dramatic telling of the narrative history, rather than for its analysis. The author's use of quotes suggests a stronger interest in telling the story engagingly than in getting the analysis exactly right. For example, discussing the inflationary effect of Spanish New World silver on naval conflict between 1540 and 1570, Crowley writes, "Warfare had always been costly; in the sixteenth century it rocketed. The price of ship's biscuit - a critical expense in sea warfare - quadrupled in sixty years; the commensurate total cost of operating Spanish war galleys tripled; price increases rippled across Europe and lapped at the shores of the Ottoman world too. War had become an expensive game. 'To carry out a war, three things are necessary,' remarked the Milanese general Marshal Trivulzio presciently in 1499, 'money, money, and yet more money.'" To his credit, Crowley dates the quote - lifted from another 2004 book on the battle of Lepanto - and adds the qualifier 'presciently'. Still, whatever its original context, the quote can't have been referring to the inflation caused by Spanish gold. There are several other moments in this book where I found myself thinking, that's a colorful detail, but it doesn't really support the point being made. However, the reading was a pleasure. The strongest impression the book leaves - greater for me than any lessons about geopolitical history -- was of the sheer brutality, not just of war, but also of what passed for peace around the Mediterranean in the 1500s. Crowley presents piracy and the wholesale destruction of both Christian and Muslim communities as commonplace. Indeed, the maritime economy ran on a particularly vicious form of slavery -- captive rowers at the oars of pirate ships and warships -- that chewed up lives at an appalling rate. That brutality ultimately makes it hard to root for either side in the wars Crowley describes; it's mostly a relief that they finally reached a stalemate after Lepanto.
ecurb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley is a history book that reads like a good novel. I have read several fiction and non-fiction books about the Siege of Malta and I found this one to be the best so far. Crowley combines the right amount of facts and figures into the text and also shows some of the personality of the participants. I plan on reading "1453" soon and look forward to more from Roger Crowley. 4 1/2 STARS
hugh_ashton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this much more than the Fenian book I read and reviewed recently. The style was easier to digest, despite there being just as much information for me to acquire, and I learned a lot. What was staggering to me was the amount of incredible cruelty on both sides - not that the author gloated over it or revelled in it, but it was so obviously a part of life at that time that it is impossible to ignore. The military, religious and political jousting that went on between the different nations, even those nominally on the same side, are all well described and explained. I definitely finished this book with a much better understanding of the nuances of that time than when I started to read it.Wonderful stuff for an alternative history if things had gone the other way, and the Ottoman Empire had sacked Rome (which could have happened relatively easily).
Zare on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Crowley manages to immerse the reader in the world of international intrigue and historical events set during the 15th and 16th century with such ease it is remarkable.If you like Harold Lamb's historical novels, Goldsworthy's or Keegan's style you'll enjoy Crowley's book.Even if you are not into history give this book a try, you will not be disappointed.Recommended.
Smiley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent, fast paced, accurate account of the battle of Lepanto. As usual, the subtitle is a bit overblown, but less than other books,While this popular history was an excellent read, and I did enjoy it while learning something new, by the end it left me wanting something. Can't describe it better than that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very well written account of the epic struggle for control of the Mediterranean Sea between the Catholics and Moors. Had the Catholics failed in their battle to maintain control of the Mediterranean against overwhelming odds,the scourge of Islam would have overrun Europe and the tide of history would have been changed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
rcbn More than 1 year ago
How these 16th century battles of Islam against Christians defined present day Mediterranean Sea religious influence. How what happened five centuries ago determined what religion and culture are present today!
Ecster More than 1 year ago
Having read the individual history of the empires vying for control of the Mediterranean, this book ties in the events from the overall perspective in a very interesting manner.
HarryTNY More than 1 year ago
If you like History, you must read this one. Very entertaining.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having fallen in love with Malta when there on a trip, I read everything I can about Malta. This book as certainly not a disappointment. Loved that it also includes the lead-up to seige of Malta and what happened to Suleiman after Malta held on and the Muslims were forced to leave. In case you don't know; the date of the defeat of the Muslims at the siege of Christian Malta was September 11. Sound familiar to anyone! Yes, that is why that date was chosen for an attack on USA; payback for their defeat in the 15th century, which was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
I bought this book as we prepare to cruise the Mediterranean once again. The knowledge gleaned from this well written book is immeasurable bringing the violent history to life. As I read the book I kept saying to myself, "I didn't know that". On a Nook the drawings are too small which is an issue with most books but that is not the author's issue. It did not detract from the book's content. If you are into religious history, history in general, or if you are going to cruise the Mediterranean, I highly recommend reading this in advance. It's a great book also if you've already been to the Mediterranean.
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