In the north near the island, the numbers were relatively matched, but it was the Venetians who were at a disadvantage: the smaller Turkish galleys and galliots of Mehmet Scirroco’s corsairs could traverse the shallower water closer to shore and get around the Ventian left flank. Only brilliant seamanship prevented a Turkish attack into the vulnerable galley sides. Like Chamberlain at Little Round Top, Agostino Barbarigo refused his line, and when that wasn’t enough he counterattacked with his own galley. Barbarigo was killed when he opened his visor to call out a command in the din battle, and was shot through the eye with an arrow. Only the timely arrival of Alvar de Bazan with galleys from the reserve prevented the destruction of the Christian left.
In the center, Ali Pasha on the Sultana rowed directly at Don Juan on the Real. The two ships were easily discernable to both sides. The Sultana flew the great green banner of the Caliph, inscribed Allah Akbar 28,000 times in gold, while the Real flew the great blue banner of the Crucifix presented to Don Juan by Pope Pius V. The two ships crashed into each other. Legend has it that the only woman of the battle, “Maria the Dancer” disguised in armor to accompany her Spanish lover, was the first Christian to board the Sultana. The two ships locked in a death struggle and became the focus of the battle as galleys on both sides poured troops onto them for the next three hours. Makeshift fortifications appeared on both decks as Christian knights and Turkish Janissaries charged, held, and countercharged in what was essentially a land battle, as more and more ships lashed on.
In the south and furthest away, the galleasses never got into position, leaving Uluch Ali at full strength. Furthermore, he outnumbered Andrea Doria’s squadron significantly and used the open sea to try and outflank the Christian line. This led to a series of maneuvers by Doria to the west that opened a gap between his division and the center division. Uluch Ali, seizing the moment reversed his southern and westward push to outflank Doria and charged into the gap. In it were some Venetian ships that thought Doria was retreating from battle, and were making their way to the center division, and the ships of Maltese Knights whom correctly anticipated Ali’s maneuver. All were overwhelmed and destroyed. The melee in the Center lay exposed to a flank attack.
Despite the severe disadvantages and greater losses than the Christians, the Turks were a hair’s breadth away from victory.
This however was not to be the case, as events in the north would directly affect those in the south, which allowed Don Juan’s advantages discussed previously, his weight of numbers (his rowers could fight unlike the slaves of the Turkish galleys), his firepower and better armor decide the center.
After the arrival of de Bazar to stabilize the north, the fight devolved into a melee as it did in the center. But two factors quickly decided it in the Christians’ favor. First, three separate slave revolts sent confusion into the Turkish line, which led to the second – the shore. The failed flanking maneuver by the lighter Turkish galliots and galleys along the shallows eventually caused the Turkish line to be pinned against the shore, which isn’t in itself bad. But it does confer a psychological disadvantage: there is now a way to escape the battle. Every Turk from that point on had a choice: continue fighting among chained but restless slaves and against heavily armed and armored adversaries in what was increasingly a losing battle, or swim the short distance to safety. The Turkish line collapsed.
This freed Alvar de Bazan and his Spanish reserve to sail south to engage Uluch Ali in the gap opened by Andrea Doria’s maneuvers. His 25 galleys slowed Ali long enough for Don Juan to finally overwhelm Ali Pasha, who simply ran out of men to throw onto the Sultana. Once Uluch Ali was informed that Ali Pasha’s head was seen on a pike, he disengaged and escaped. His 33 galleys were the only Turkish ships to survive the battle.
The ships could be replaced, and were, but the loss of tens of thousands of elite Janissaries, bowmen, and sailors, each of whom took years of training to reach proficiency, much less mastery, meant that never again would the Ottoman Turks seriously threaten maritime invasion in the Mediterranean.
After a 3500 year run, the Battle of Lepanto was the last major navel battle in which galleys played a significant role. The loss of the rams, the success of the galleasses, in particular the broadsides and high decks, were the future. The galleons that ruled the Atlantic were soon adapted to the Mediterranean.
The roar of the cannon from the four Venetian galleasses lumbering ahead of the Christian line unleashed a storm of firepower hitherto unseen in the history of seapower. The large cannon balls smashed into the galleys destroying structure and body alike as the shot from massed harquebuses tore through the heavy robes, turbans, and leather and scale armor of the Turkish troops. With no broadside cannon, few harquebuses of their own, bows could not pierce the Christian soldiers’ armor at greater than 100 yards, and to get that close invited grape and chain shot, there was little the Ottomans could do. The galleasses’ own poor maneuverability had to be used against themselves, so the Ottomans flew past. But the damage was done: sixty Ottoman galleys and galliots were sunk even before the main battle joined, and the Turkish battleline was in disarray.
The drummers increased the beat from cruising speed, then as they approached the galleasses to battle speed, and finally as they approached the Christian line to ramming speed. The critical moment in contemporary 16th century galley warfare was reached: when to fire the bow guns, which were the most destructive weapons in a galley’s arsenal, as evidenced by the withering fire from the galleasses. There was no reloading a galley’s bow guns because the effective range was too short and closing speeds were too great. The one shot had to count. Because the guns had to be fired over the ram, if they were fired too soon, the cannonballs would sail harmlessly over the target. And because the guns couldn’t depress (or fire into the ram), if they were fired too late they would do damage to the target deck which would be terrible for the soldiers but real damage by cannon is done with splinters to the rowers which left the target unmaneuverable and at the mercy of the attacker. At ramming speed, on the rolling deck, with immobile cannon, and firing over the ram, there was but a brief moment to fire the cannon’s single shot accurately.
Don Juan was betting the Ottoman gunners were not experienced enough to do much damage with their guns, and he was right. The Turkish cannon were largely inaccurate, and the Christians easily weathered their fire. But what was more disconcerting to the Turks, the Christians did not respond in kind with their heavier and more numerous cannon.
At least not yet.
At the behest of Andrea Doria, Don Juan ordered the Christian captains to do the unthinkable: saw off the ram. For thousands of years the ram was the most potent weapon on the galley, but in the late 16th century, it was a nuisance. With the rams gone, the bow guns could be depressed and fired at the very last second before collision. The shot then hulled the targets, much worse than the ram could ever do, and showered the rowers inside with deadly splinters. The Muslim archers on the deck were forced to engage in melee, and storm the Christian galley to get off their own immobile, and most likely, sinking ship.
This initial thunderous clash played out dozens of times all along the battle line. The Turks were at a further disadvantage because of another simple innovation: boarding nets. Like the barbed wire extending at an angle atop a chain link fence, the nets prevented the Turks from easily climbing on to the enemy decks. And while they were chopping through the nets, the Turks were easy targets for the pikes and harquebuses of the Christians. Nevertheless, the Turks had the numbers to make a serious fight at Lepanto
As the sun rose over the Gulf of Patras off of western Greece on Sunday, 7 October 1571, the Ottoman Grand Fleet poured in from the Gulf of Corinth to the east, as the fleet of the Holy League flowed in from the northwest through the Ionian Islands. About twenty miles apart they spotted each other. The Christian knights in their bright plate and men at arms in their steel helmets and chest pieces held their swords, polearms and harquebuses aloft as the monks and priests held up their golden crucifixes to create a dazzling spectacle in the morning sun for the Ottomans. The Turks amidst their colorful banners, responded in kind by beating their massive drums, stomping on the decks, and chanting the Koran as the two enormous fleets inexorably rowed toward each other at a strength saving leisurely walking pace.
The respective commanders, Ali Pasha and Don Juan of Austria, were surprised at the fleets opposite them. Both had “good” intelligence that they greatly outnumbered their enemy. It was the reason both chose to do battle today. Don Juan had his from Christian spies and Cretan fishermen whom seemed always one step ahead of the Turkish fleet, and Ali Pasha from Kara Hodje, a former Franciscan friar whom was captured, converted and became one of the most feared, cruel, and cunning corsairs in the Mediterranean (recent converts are always the most fanatical). One month prior, the daring Hodje sailed into Messina harbor at night and personally counted each Christian galley.
But the Cretans didn’t count Hodje and his squadron while he was on his scouting missions, nor the 45 Turkish galliots, small maneuverable corsair ships about 2/3s the size of a normal galley. Don Juan only wanted to know about galley strength so the Cretans never mentioned the considerable number of smaller ships. And Kara Hodje didn’t know of the 60 Venetian galleys recently completed by the Arsenal, nor the six massive ships that dotted the Christian line, whose size and use confounded the Turkish observers.
These six enormous ships could only move under their own power with great difficulty and at the moment were being towed by other galleys ahead of the Christian line. They had great wooden superstructures at the bow and stern, and dwarfed the other galleys. As they got closer, the Turks were horrified to see they were bristling with cannon, fourteen massive cannon in the bow, four more down each side, and six in the stern. These new ships were more gun platforms than sailing vessels and could fire in all 360 degrees. Moreover, these Leviathans were too high to be boarded, except by grappling hook and climbing. The Turkish commanders decided they needed to be bypassed, their fire weathered, and they would be dealt with after the Christian line was broken.
These “galleasses” were Don Juan’s secret weapon, and they were constructed in great secrecy by Venice, whose entrepreneurial captains knew that cannon and sail, not oars and rams, were the future. They were twice as long and twice as high as a normal galley, with twenty times the firepower when, along with the many cannon, the hundreds of additional harquebusiers that packed the decks were taken into account. The galleasses were impenetrable floating fortresses, around which the immense Muslim wave must flow to reach the Christian line.
For five hours the two gargantuan fleets crawled toward each other. Never before in history had so many men and ships faced off against each in other in so small a place: 30,000 soldiers and 40,000 sailors on 208 galleys and six galleasses of the Holy League, and 32,000 warriors and 50,000 rowers on 211 galleys, and 45 galliots of the Ottoman Empire. Both commanders took to small ships to visit each contingent prior to battle, and exhort them and confirm battle plans. When Don Juan returned to his flagship, the Real, it is said that in his youthful exuberance, he danced a jig with his pet marmoset to break the tension.
Just after 10 am, the right wing of the Turkish fleet came within 400 yards of the far left Venetian galleass, and its commander gave to the order to fire.
The Battle of Lepanto had begun, and over the next six hours the fate of Italy, Rome, and Western Civilization would be decided.
Like the island of Corfu the day before, Don Juan of Austria, the Hapsburg commander of the Holy League’s fleet, splashed ashore on the island of Cephalonia at the mouth of the Gulf of Patras to find it devastated. The Turkish fleet anchored at Lepanto barely fifty miles away scoured the nearby Greek islands for extra galley slaves, provisions, and gunpowder for the upcoming clash with the coalition fleet. He was doing the same, even though he paid his rowers, well if they were Christian, not a convict… and if they lived.
With few exceptions, Don Juan’s 208 galleys would seem familiar to the Turks across the bay, or even the Greek and Roman sailors that plied these waters in the ancient past. Naval warfare in the Mediterranean remained remarkably stagnant for two millennia: oared vessels, whether biremes, triremes, or galleys, packed with soldiers attempting to ram, board and either capture or sink the enemy ships until one side broke. But a recent phenomenon changed that equation: industry produced gunpowder and cannon.
Both the Holy League’s and the Ottoman Empire’s galleys were equipped with cannon, usually one large cannon in the bow, flanked by two or four smaller cannon all pointed forward over the massive ram. But the Ottomans had little indigenous armaments industry and relied mostly on cannon either captured or purchased from arms dealers, whereas Don Juan’s galleys had the largest cannon forged in the latest metallurgical techniques by the finest German and Italian cannonsmiths at the time, that is to say in the world at the time. His guns were heavier, larger, and more numerous. Furthermore, his ships were newer: the Ottomans had been raiding since March, and many were in dire need of repair and maintenance this late in the season. Some of the Holy League’s galleys were so new they had no ornamentation – sixty were created at the Arsenal of Venice over 90 days at the end of spring. (Conventional wisdom says Henry Ford invented the assembly line, the Venetians did the same thing 340 years earlier. To impress a Genoese delegation, the Arsenal once built a galley Ikea-style in 24 hours from the stocks of pre made parts. A record that wouldn’t be broken until America started pumping out Liberty ships every eight hours in 1942. The only difference between Ford and the Arsenal was Ford moved the cars along the line, the Arsenal moved the parts and labor along the line.) But the issue with the Venetian galleys weren’t their number but their manning. They had the largest contingent of vessels, but even with every convict, household guard, citizen volunteer, and condottieri in the city that can pull an oar or man a gun, the Venetians still lacked the weight of mass to close with and engage the packed decks of the Turkish galleys. Don Juan had to augment them with infantry, and the only excess infantry he had were Spanish.
Venice in the east and Spain in the west were natural Mediterranean rivals. Since the expedition’s onset, their contention threatened to unravel the Holy League. Don Juan understood that a coalition of this size would probably not repeat in the near future. But Spain, bankrolling the whole endeavor with gold from the New World, wanted to protect its investment, and instead of fighting for Venetian holdings in the Eastern Med, wanted to wait until the inevitable Turkish attack on Italy the next year. Prior to leaving Messina in September, Don Juan placed thousands of Spanish harquebusiers (soldiers with primitive matchlock firearms) on the Venetian ships. Conflict between the crews and soldiers was inevitable.
Off of Corfu on 4 OCT 1571, a Spanish soldier stepped on a Venetian crewman’s toe, which set off a pitched battle on deck that resulted in the Spanish capture of the galley, and subsequent storming of the ship by nearby Venetian crews. Hundreds were killed and wounded. Only the direct intervention of Sebastiano Venier, the overall Venetian commander, prevented the conflict from spreading to more ships. The charismatic, energetic, tactful, but youthful 26 year old Don Juan was barely holding the coalition together. If the Turks refused to sail out and fight he didn’t think he could convince the Spanish to force the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth to engage the Turkish fleet sheltered in their well protected anchorage.
The next day, as his men searched Cephalonia, they found a single Cretan ship whose crew brought news from Cyprus: the fortress at Famagusta had fallen, and the island surrendered to the Turks. This was disconcerting for Don Juan, not because the island fell but because the relief of Cyprus was the raison d’etre of the expedition. The Spanish would surely depart.
That night, Don Juan called a council of war on his flagship, the Real (Re-Al, Spanish for “royal”) between his various commanders where he disclosed the news. The smaller Italian states, Naples, Sicily, Tuscany, Urbino, and Savoy all recognized they were next year’s target, and wanted to continue. The Papal commander, Marc Antonio Colonna, whose boss, Pope Pius V, went through so much trouble to assemble the coalition, of course wanted to attack, as did the Knights of Malta, whom had been at the forefront of the Crusade against the Ottoman Turks for nearly 300 years. But the Spanish were not the only concern of Don Juan’s: he also feared the loss of the Venetians. He thought that without Cyprus as an objective the Venetians would cut their losses. The Ottomans were their biggest trading partner, and this war was draining their coffers. Peace, even a bad peace, would return trade.
However, the Cretans also brought more disturbing news from Famagusta – the Venetian commander Antonio Bragadin was promised safe conduct for his men and the island’s Christian population if he surrendered, but once the gates were opened, the Turks, who lost 50,000 in the siege, turned on the defenders with a vengeance. The soldiers were killed, the civilians sold into slavery, and the officers tortured to death. Bragadin himself was flayed alive, his skin stuffed with straw, and along with the heads of his lieutenants, was displayed aloft on the Turkish flagship, Sultana. Venier, and his supremely competent second Agostino Barbarigo, demanded Turkish blood. The Spanish commander, the fiery veteran admiral Alvaro de Bazan recognized it was now a matter of honor, and threw his support into an attack. Only the wily Giovanni Andrea Doria from Genoa, on secret orders from King Philip II of Spain, advised caution.
Don Juan replied, “The time for advising is over, the time for fighting has begun.”
Doria, not wanting to be labeled a coward, disregarded Phillip’s instructions and agreed to attack.
After his loss at the Siege of Malta the year before, Suleiman the Magnificent turned his attention to expansion into the Kingdom of Croatia and Hungary in 1566. As the massive Ottoman army approached, its foragers and scouts were constantly ambushed and harassed by men of Croatian Count Nikola Zrinski, whom even defeated the Turkish vanguard at the Battle of Siklos. In response, Suleiman decided to make an example of him and marched straight to Zrinski’s ancestral seat of Svigetvar.
Zrinski was a skilled tactician, and a veteran of decades of border skirmishing with the Ottomans and their subjects in the Balkan marches. However, the odds were daunting: he had just 2300 Croatian and Hungarian knights and men at arms to face Sulieman’s 150,000. Svigetvar was very defensible, with two walled sections of the town (one with a medieval castle) separated by the swampy tributaries of a river, and a final star fortress with two baileys. But at 65-1 all Zrinski could hope to do was hold out long enough for Holy Roman Emperor to come to his aid (which he wouldn’t because the Hapsburg administration and the German princes were paralyzed with fear, but Zrinski didn’t know that).
Suleiman arrived on 2 August and was easily repulsed after ordering an immediate assault. So the Ottomans settled into a siege, with their usual constant bombardments, mining and the occasional surprise assault. Zrinski didn’t even entertain the frustrated sultan’s peace envoys, despite the increasingly more lavish promises by Suleiman. By the beginning of September, the New Town fell, the Old Town and castle were burned to the ground, and all that remained was the fortress, held by Zrinski and 600 grim survivors of the previous month. But the Ottomans suffered much worse – 20,000 warriors dead. Moreover, disease caused by the marshy ground was rampant, and Suleiman himself died of dysentery on 6 September. His advisers and viziers, at great pain, kept his death a secret lest it break up the army. They ordered a last assault for the next day.
But Zrinski had other plans. His fortress walls were rubble, the buildings inside were ablaze, and he would attack. As the sun poked over the horizon, with flaming embers drifting down from above, and the drums and yelling of the Turks permeating the air, Zrinski beseeched his men to accompany him on one final charge. They followed.
The stage was set for an epic clash on the causeway. As the Turks surged across the causeway they were surprised to see the gates of the fortress open before them. The surprise turned to horror as they glanced the giant maw of a great mortar leveled at them. The monstrous belch flung nails, cooking utensils, spare daggers, and even door hinges, into the Turks. 600 immediately were slain, and thousand more wounded. More importantly, it cleared the causeway. At the van, Zrinski charged across and his men crashed into the surprised Turks in the Old Town. They cleared the plaza and took the fight into the charred narrow streets and alleyways. But numbers matter, and no 600 men in history could stand against those odds. Zrinksi and his men were overwhelmed.
But that isn’t the end of Zrinski’s tale. Thousands of victorious Turks swarmed into the fortress in bloodlust to butcher the remaining inhabitants. But before he charged, Zrinski had the extensive powder magazine lit with a slow fuse. As the Ottomans were gleefully looting the remains, a massive explosion leveled the fortress, killing thousands and wounding thousands more.
In its state, the Ottoman army could not continue on to Vienna, and it slowly drifted back to Constantinople. Cardinal Richelieu of France called Zrinksi’s defense of Svigetvar, “the battle that saved the civilization”.
For hundreds of years the Byzantine army held back the various waves of Muslim and Steppe invaders because of an effective and efficient defense in depth throughout the empire. The first layer was a superior intelligence system, managed from the “Office of Barbarians” that tracked the movements of tribes on the Steppes, and the activities of the sultans. It gave sufficient warning for Byzantine diplomats to bribe a rival tribe or sultan into war against the impending invader. The next layer was the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which could be reinforced or let fall as needed, but gave time for the next two layers: The first was a series of well stocked, manned and provisioned border fortresses, which could hold out for years if necessary. The next and most important were the troops of the “themes” or provinces, comprised of free peasants who served in times of crisis in exchange for land. Finally, the thematic troops were backed up by the semi-autonomous regional tagmata, or professional armies. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
The system was amazingly flexible and effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In the early 11th century, when the threat of invasion seemed remote, the emperors wanted to recover lost land, and began reorganizing it to better suit offensive operations. Unfortunately, they undermined the critical foundation, the self sufficient thematic peasants, whom made amazing soldiers, chiefly because they, being free, were well equipped, and they had skin in the game defending their own lands. However, that came at a cost because they weren’t productive if they were deployed. The emperors gradually mobilized them less and less, but took increasing portions of their goods, not to pay for more tagmata, which potentially posed a threat to their reign, but to pay for mercenaries loyal directly to emperor (and that didn’t have to return for the harvest). Finally, in their attempt to expand the empire, they directly annexed in a bloody and destructive war, Armenia – the bulwark against the east and north east. The tenacity in which the Armenians fought the steppe invaders was turned against the Byzantines, and it would result in the virtual destruction of the country and the first Armenian diaspora. More importantly, it meant no Armenian buffer.
In the mid eleventh century, the Byzantines were victorious and modestly expanded the empire, but it did not mattter. In 1070, the Seljuk Turks took advantage of the Armenian situation and crashed through the weakened area, and overran the border fortresses devoid of thematic troops. The next year, Emperor Romanos himself led the army against the Seljuk Turks under Sultan Alp Arslan, and on 26 August, was decisively defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in what is now eastern Turkey. The hardcore of the Byzantine Army was destroyed, including all of the tagmata, the households of all the major nobles, and the famed Varangian Guard, the intensely loyal viking mercenaries whom died to a man defending the emperor. Emperor Romanos was captured, and within six years most of Eastern and Central Anatolia would fall.
The Battle of Manzikert would be known as “The Disaster” for the next 500 years. More immediately, 13 years later in 1094, the Byzantines, still reeling from the complete loss of the professional core of its army, would ask the Pope for help against the Turks, leading to the First Crusade.
The Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire had been archrivals for nearly four hundred years: ever since the Eastern Roman Empire split from the Western, and the Sassanids replaced the Parthians in the third century. In the early seventh century, the two old rivals fought a twenty year increasingly expensive and destructive war for control of the Near East and Egypt that in the end resulted in little change to the status quo, and left both empires exhausted. While both empires hammered on each other, the prophet Mohammad preached Islam in the deserts of Arabia, and just after his death, the Rashidun Caliphate was poised to expand beyond the Arabian Peninsula.
In 634, the Muslim Arabs exploded into the Levant (modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria), and quickly overran the Byzantine Christian lands. To the credit of both the Sassanids and the Byzantines, they recognized the threat that the Rashidun Caliphate represented. Byzantine Emperor Heraclius secured an alliance with the Persians, but the damage they did to each other was extensive and complete. Nonetheless, Heraclius concentrated his diverse armies into an overwhelming mailed fist, and in May 636 sought to crush the invading Muslims.
Khalid ibn al-Walid, the supremely competent, dedicated, and faithful Muslim battle commander, was outnumbered at least four to one, and fell back to the Yarmouk River, where if he was defeated, could easily seek refuge in the stronghold of Najd. Heraclius, whose army was wracked with logistics difficulties (the Byzantines never concentrated their armies for exactly this reason; although the bureaucracy was extensive, the effectiveness of the old Roman supply system was long gone), and bickering factions (ditto: the Slavs, Armenians, and Christian Arabs couldn’t get along), felt compelled to fight the Muslims on the ground of their choosing.
The battle began with Muslim warriors challenging various Byzantine commanders to single duels, but after losing several of his best soldiers, Heraclius attacked. For five days, the Byzantines pounded the Muslim lines, but the attacks were uncoordinated, and breakthroughs were never exploited because of the emperor’s cumbersome, complicated, and lethargic command system (one could say it was “Byzantine”… Ba Dum Tiss!). Furthermore, because of the feuding, Heraclius never committed his reserve to the fight: his cataphracts, the most powerful armored mounted force in the world, and hundreds of years ahead of the mounted knights of the West, whom sat watching the battle for most of six days. Conversely, Khalid’s mobile guard, comprised of the best warriors of Islam, consistently and routinely appeared at troubled spots on the line, stabilized it, and quickly moved off to another threatened area to repeat.
Nevertheless, Heraclius’ almost secured victory twice: On the third day, his army broke through the Muslim right which fell back to its camp. But there the defeated warriors were met by their camp followers. The enraged wives and servants used tent poles to beat the warriors back into the line. Not wishing to face the wrath of their women, the ashamed warriors counterattacked. With no follow up, the overextended Byzantines fell back. And again on the fourth day, when Byzantine horse archers (a direct result of experience fighting the Persians) dominated the Muslim Left. The fourth day of the battle would be forever remembered by Muslims as, “The Day of Lost Eyes” due to the uncanny accuracy of the Byzantines. The lack of follow through, and darkness, saved the Muslims.
On the fifth day, Heraclius, whose disorganized army by this point had thousands of casualties and low morale, asked for a truce. Khalid, sensing weakness declined. The next day, Khalid concentrated all of his cavalry in a decisive flank attack, and before his infantry broke, smashed the Byzantine Left in an unexpected charge.
Khalid ibn al-Walid’s stunning victory at the Battle of Yarmouk cemented Muslim control of the Levant for the next 450 years, and was the first Muslim conquest outside of Arabia. It would not be the last.
In 753 BCE the semi-mythical twin brothers Romulus and Remus founded Rome on the site where they were supposedly suckled by a she-wolf as orphans. A thousand years later in the 4th century CE, the unwieldy Roman Empire was split into its eastern and western halves. The Western Roman Empire would fall to the Barbarian invasions of the next century. While the eastern half, or Byzantine Empire because it was centered on the city of Byzantium, which was renamed to Constantinople after the eastern half’s first emperor, Constantine, would last until 1204.
Orthodox Constantinople was captured by Catholic crusaders during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 due to the various political machinations of Venice, the Byzantines, and Crusaders. The Byzantine Emperor was deposed and a Latin Crusader state was established. This fractured the Byzantine Empire into a series of successor states (similar to the fall of Alexander the Great’s empire), most notably the Despotate of Epirus, and the Empires of Nicaea and Trebizond.
Immediately, all vowed to restore the Byzantine Empire and declared war on the Latin State of Constantinople. Nicaea reconquered the city in 1261 and reestablished the Byzantine Empire, but the power of the Empire was broken forever.
The New Byzantine Empire was unable to withstand the Ottoman Turks and most of the successor states were subsumed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Constantinople itself fell to Sultan Mehmed II in 1453.
Mehmed II then turned his attention to the last remaining Byzantine successor state, the Empire of Trebizond, in the mountainous northeast of Anatolia. On 15 August, 1461, David Megas Komnenos, the last Byzantine emperor surrendered the city of Trebizond (modern Trabzon, Turkey), to the besieging Turks.
With the fall of Trebizond, 2,214 years of Roman history came to an end.
de Valette’s and the Knights of the Order of St John’s victory at the Siege of Malta essentially put a cork in the central Mediterranean and prevented Ottoman expansion westward. The elderly Sultan Sulieman the Magnificent, convinced by the Siege that only he could lead his armies victoriously, lashed out at Protestant Hungary but died of dysentery during the campaign. In 1566, he was succeeded by his son Selim II.
Selim was not the same man as his father whom was the greatest of the Ottoman sultans. He had much more interest in leisurely pursuits such as wine and the pleasures of the flesh. After concluding peace with Hungary and a disastrous campaign against the Tsardom of Russia, Selim, aware that he was being compared to his father, decided to seize an easier target closer to home, the Venetian island of Cyprus, the source of his favorite vintage.
In response, the newly elected St Pius V, (one of the Catholicism’s greatest Popes) called for a crusade and a league of nations to oppose the Turk’s invasion of Christian Cyprus. On 7 Mar 1571, the Holy League was formed of most Catholic states on the Mediterranean (except France which habitually opposed Hapsburg Spain and Austria, despite the consequences). However, before a force could be assembled to relieve the besieged Cyprus, the Venetians defending the port of Nicosia capitulated on 1 August 1791.
With the fall of Cyprus, Selim was no longer drunk on wine but on the sweet taste of victory. He vowed to crush Venice for Islam. But first he had to blockade the merchant city and to do that he needed to control the Adriatic. On 13 August 1571, 230 galleys under his grand admiral Ali Pasha with the prized possession of the Ottoman Empire, The Banner of the Caliphs, arrived at a bustling trade port at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth:
The Second Crusade from 1147 to 1149 wasn’t just a disaster for the Outremer, it was also a catastrophe for the Seljuk Turkish Zengid Sultanate, the Abbasid Sultanate of Baghdad, and the Fatimid Sultanate of Egypt. Out of the Islamic victory a young and hungry Sunni Kurdish general, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to history as Saladin, first became vizier to the Fatimid Sultan, then quickly Sultan himself. In the 20 years after the Second Crusade, Saladin united Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Mesopotamia under the new Ayyubid Sultanate. With no Sunni Muslim lands left to conquer, he turned on the remaining three states of the Christian Outremer: the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Despite some setbacks from the leprous King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, he destroyed the main Crusader army at Hattin in 1187, and promptly seized Jerusalem. Saladin then went on to reduce the three Outremer states to ports and small slivers of land along the Mediterranean coast.
In 1189, Saladin paroled Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and commander of the Crusader army at Hattin. Guy, still king by marriage to Sybella went to Tyre, the new capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but Conrad of Montserrat felt that someone so incompetent and arrogant didn’t have the divine right to anything, and told him to move on. Fortunately for Guy, the loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe and launched the Third Crusade, with Tyre being one of the only ports of arrival left for the crusaders. While Conrad was busy with affairs of state and holding back Saladin, Guy was down at the docks politicking and formed his own army from newly arrived French, Sicilian, and Italian crusaders.
To Guy’s credit (but probably because Sybella convinced him not to), he didn’t turn on Conrad but marched his small army to Acre to acquire his own power base, and recapture his own kingdom. The Muslim defenders of Acre outnumbered Guy 2 to 1 but the same reason Acre was so hard to capture, the narrow approaches to the city, also meant that defenders couldn’t sortie in force, and were bottled up by the much smaller crusader army. Guy, reinforced by a Sicilian fleet, settled in for a siege. Eventually Saladin moved to besiege the besiegers. For the next 18 months, a bloody stalemate ensued between Saladin and the besiegers whom were reinforced by a steady trickle of newly arrived crusaders from Europe.
The loss of Jerusalem shocked Europe, and united Europe in a way that really hasn’t been seen since. Anybody who was anybody packed up their stuff and went to the Holy Land, where Guy at Acre was seen as the only one doing anything (even though Sybella died of dysentery during the siege, which revoked his claim to the throne). In 1191, the crusading armies of the Big Four of Europe: Duke Leopold of Austria, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Phillip II of France, and King Richard the Lionheart of England, all descended on Acre (though the elderly Barbarossa died crossing a river on the way, but part of his army arrived).
After eighteen brutal, bloody months of horrible disease and privation in unheard of conditions, the city of Acre was finally on the brink of capitulation. In early July 1191, Saladin received news from the starving garrison that if he didn’t relieve the city, it would surrender. On 11 July 1191, Saladin attacked the combined crusader armies. The Battle of Acre was a grinding, attritional affair that belied the Muslim stereotype of the lightly armed warrior unwilling to come to close combat. Furthermore, both sides knew the final outcome of the siege would be decided at the end of the day. Saladin came close, but failed to relieve the city. Acre surrendered the next day, and Saladin “grieved like a mother who had lost her child”.
Richard and Philip accepted the surrender of the city, and Saladin offered to pay the ransom for the defenders. Richard demanded a hefty sum, plus 2000 Christian nobles, and the True Cross, which Saladin captured in Jerusalem four years before. Saladin agreed to pay in three installments.
The first installment arrived on 12 August, 1191. However, by this time, the crusader army was breaking down. Barbarossa was dead, Phillip had to leave to deal with a succession issue in Flanders, and Richard was a right bastard with Leopold and Conrad, both of whom he felt were his inferiors, so they took their footballs and went home. The ever impatient Richard also felt that Saladin was using the time to reinforce his army (he was, but why wouldn’t he?), and Richard didn’t want to be besieged himself at Acre.
When the second payment arrived on 20 August, it was short many of the promised nobles and the True Cross. The infuriated Richard rejected the payment and was unwilling to wait any longer. That night Richard had the 2700 prisoners taken to a small hill at Ayyadieh, where he had them all beheaded. The decapitated bodies were in full view of Saladin’s army when the sun rose the next morning.
The eighteen month Siege of Acre was Satan’s Vortex that sucked both Muslim and Christian alike into a hellish battle of attrition in which there was no winner. It cost nearly 100,000 dead on both sides, which as a percentage of the population of Europe and the Near East, was worse than the Battle of Verdun nearly 700 years later. The profits of the Medieval Warm Period were spent at Acre. The Siege of Acre and the Massacre at Ayyadieh gutted the Third Crusade, both physically and spiritually. Richard would go on defeat Saladin at the Battle of Jaffa, but due to the losses during the Siege, would not have the strength to seize Jerusalem. A generation of the finest fighting men that Christian Europe could produce were buried around the city. Never again would the crusaders have the strength to retake the Holy Land.
The Siege also eviscerated the Ayyubid Sultanate and fatally weakened it. All of Saladin’s hard work would be undone in a few decades as small minded men took advantage of the weakness. On the surface, the glittering jewel of the Sultanate was as bright as ever, but the warriors needed to defend it lay dead on the hills of the Levant.
The devastation could not have come at a worse time: A new and terrible threat was emerging from the Steppe; one that would prove the greatest challenge to both Christian and Muslim alike.