Synchronicity has been chiming, as it does. The Ottoman Empire looms on my historical horizon. It started with a tent…
Next weekend, our hometown hosts the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show. My newspaper created the program for the event, producing about a dozen features on particular artists and events. The Show’s fundraising event is a virtual presentation on The Tentmakers of Cairo. I interviewed, via Zoom, its organizer, Jenny Bowker, who discovered the ancient Street of the Tentmakers when her husband was Australia’s Ambassador to Egypt. You can read the story here.
The interview’s tone was set when we immediately went off on a jaunt down a side trail regarding an artifact held in an historical museum in Vienna — a tent whose panels were sewn by the ancestors of today’s Tentmakers; a tent that was captured when Polish King Jan Sobieski’s Winged Hussars charged into the Ottoman camps and broke the 1683 Siege of Vienna…
The epic expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the resistance staged by fractious European powers is the forge of early modern history. In 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror brought an end to the venerable, thousand-year Byzantine Empire, with the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul).
This conquest is depicted in an enjoyable Netflix docudrama that I binged a couple of weeks ago on a night when I needed to do nothing more than lay about and absorb a historical drama…
For the next 200 years, the Islamic Ottoman Empire posed a mortal threat to Christian Europe. Militarily and administratively far advanced over their adversaries, the Ottomans penetrated and gained dominance in the Balkans and twice knocked on the city gates of Vienna, the key to Central Europe. The Barbary Corsairs, who for hundreds of years acted as a kind of piratical naval auxiliary operating out of fortified towns on the coast of North Africa, nearly turned the Mediterranean Sea into a Turkish lake.
They raided for slaves on the coast of Europe as far afield as Scotland and Ireland, and thousands of people were taken to be sold in their slave markets. The 16th Century Corsair admiral Dragut (“The Drawn Sword of Islam”) was the great maritime military genius of the age, and an absolute badass sea warrior.
The epic stand of the Knights of St. John and the Maltese people in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 prevented Suleiman the Magnificent from invading Sicily and rolling up the Italian peninsula. (It also provided the setting for my all-time favorite historical novel, The Religion, by Tim Willocks).
The fight for Malta was hellish. The Turks made the loudest noise in the history of mankind to that point with a massive bombardment of Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the entrance to the Grand Harbor. The scale of this cannonade would not be equaled until the Napoleonic wars 250 years later. It was unbearably hot on the rock in the middle of the Mediterranean summer, and the dead that multiple assaults piled in the ditches around the fortifications swelled to bursting and stank to high heaven.
Janissaries — Christian children captured by the Turks in the Balkans and raised to fight for Islam — battled hardened Knights of crusading heritage in a savage, no-holds-barred clash of the finest professional warriors of the age.
To terrorize the garrison, the Ottoman force beheaded a contingent of St. Elmo’s defenders, nailed them to crosses and floated them across the harbor to Fort St. Angelo. The commander of the Knights of St. John, a tough old bird named Jean de la Valette, ordered his Ottoman prisoners beheaded and the heads loaded into cannons to be fired into the Ottoman siege lines. Terror for terror; horror for horror.
Knights and Maltese militia dropped hoops blazing with a Renaissance version of napalm onto Janissary assault formations, which broke as the warriors’ robes caught fire and they burned alive.
The Anthology of Heroes Podcast offers an excellent multi-part series on the Great Siege of Malta.
The Ottoman dominance of the eastern Mediterranean and North African coast played a material role in turning the eyes of the European powers outward, toward the New World and the route around the Cape of Good Hope to India. The rivalry with the powerful empire shaped Europe’s history.
A side note: It might do some folks some good in these wicked sensitive times — where Imperial Expansion, Colonialism, and Slavery are thought to be particular sins of and indelible stains on Western Civilization — to reflect on the history of the Ottomans, who were masters of all three elements of empire.
I wasn’t consciously working a theme — but my subconscious was certainly churning on the history of this great marital civilization. For my workout on Saturday, I got it into my head to fire up some Turkish martial music — and found the soundtrack for the TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century).
By turns stirring and romantic; all beautiful and, well… magnificent.
The production itself appears to be a soapy historical drama recounting the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Ottoman Sultan — the one who attempted the conquest of Malta. Apparently the show, which is a huge international hit, sparked controversy because of those soapy (read sexy) elements. Recep Tap Erdogan, Turkey’s head of state, is not a fan — which only leads us into temptation, right?
I cannot say how far I might venture down this side trail. The Ottoman Empire was the Enemy of the West and thus the enemy of my people. But a magnificent and might foe they were, worthy of knowing. And if that music does not stir your blood…