In the fall of 1566, the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent set out to conquer Hungary. The ruler of the Ottoman Empire was already 72 years old, and no longer healthy; his soldiers noticed he was having difficulty riding his horse.
In September he made his way back home. Six servants marched alongside the imperial carriage while reading verses from the Koran. Inside, the sultan sat upright, his nose pointy as a hawk's, his face ashen, concealed behind curtains. Every once in a while he was revealed to the soldiers' eyes for a moment, and then disappeared again. But the man in the carriage was not the sultan; he was a double who had been brought from the imperial estate. The sultan himself was dead, and his embalmed corpse was hidden far in the back of the carriage.
Shortly before he died, the sultan managed to jot down angrily that one of the battles was not being waged as he had desired. Possibly he knew that it was not just that battle that was in question: Indeed, Suleiman the Magnificent had dreamed of a worldwide Muslim empire - and died without realizing his dream.
Perusal of the Hebrew edition of Wikipedia gives the impression that Suleiman's chief achievement was building the wall that to this day surrounds the Old City of Jerusalem. The British historian Roger Crowley does not even mention the Jerusalem wall in his best seller, "1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West" (Hyperion, 2006 ) about the Turks' efforts to conquer the world.
The book, which has just come out in Hebrew, reconstructs a titanic struggle for Europe's soul, which went on for decades, between Islam and Christianity. It was a war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, good against evil, believers against infidels. In Crowley's book all of them come across as pirates at best, and more than once as cannibals.
Crowley writes well. He is the son of a British seaman, and his childhood was spent in Malta, the picturesque island south of Italy that a Turkish admiral once claimed did not exist: "Malta yok." Suleiman the Magnificent did not believe that, and a few years later dispatched his navy to conquer the island from its Christian rulers. The sultan's forces placed Malta under what became known as the Great Siege. The decisive battle took place after three and a half months, between the end of August and the middle of September 1565.
By then about 10,000 soldiers had been killed there. The Muslims did their best to bury their dead in mass graves, but countless swollen corpses floated in the harbor or lay limbless on the battlefield.
"Each front line was marked by tattered flags and the rotting heads of their enemy," Crowley writes, the air stank of rotten flesh and gunpowder. Both sides sometimes stood only a few paces from each other. "We were sometimes so close to the enemy that we could have shaken hands with them," wrote an Italian soldier named Francisco Balbi.
The first autumn rains tormented everyone. The soldiers shot at each other with bows and heavy harquebus guns and cannons, some of which fired stone balls. The Muslims landed on Malta and their numbers far exceeded those of the Christians, but they had trouble conquering the island's fortresses. The Christians were able to block them, but had a hard time expelling them. Spies and traitors, adventurers and swindlers misled the commanders of the forces on both sides; also on both sides there were "battles among generals."
The Turks would chew hashish before they began shooting; the Christians prayed to the Good Lord. Spain's King Philip II dispatched aid to Malta from Sardinia. Lala Mustafa Pasha, commander of the Ottoman ground forces, ordered his people to start packing the expensive cannons. He made one last attempt to breach Malta's defensive walls, but in the meantime the relief boats from Sardinia had arrived. Within an hour and a half they had put 10,000 men on shore - and returned to sea. The Ottomans began to depart.
From the walls of the city of Birgu they could be seen leaving. A knight whose sainted name was known far and wide climbed atop the defensive wall and launched into a prayer of thanksgiving. He managed to get through the first verse before the remaining Ottomans killed him. It was their parting shot, Crowley writes.
It was a century steeped in drama, but the Great Siege of Malta is considered a central event. Some ascribe its roots to Saladin's war against the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. There are commentators today who find in those wars relevance to what looks to them like a revival of Islam's dreams to conquer the world. Either way, nobody contributed to the Muslims' murderous image more than that same Lala Mustafa Pasha. The man survived his defeat at Malta and retained his power even after the death of Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1570 he conquered Cyprus.
Crowley reconstructs, evidently with glee, what Mustafa did with the governor of Famagusta, Antonio Bragadin, a Venetian. At first he merely chopped off both his ears and nose, then he ordered that his skin be removed. "He was dead before the butcher reached the waist," Crowley observes with precision. A Venetian patriot managed to obtain remnants of the skin and take them home, where meanwhile people were telling the story that Mustafa's butcher was a Jew.
A pleasure to read.