Following the Islamic Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire massively expanded under the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”. 1516 – ’17 alone saw an expansion of some seventy per cent of Ottoman landmass, with the conquest of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.
Selim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, in Turkish the “Law Giver”, a man who, at his peak, would rule over some fifteen to twenty million subjects, at a time when the entire world population numbered fewer than a half-billion.
By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula.
The “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.
Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation with Suleiman I.
This, the second of three conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian territories of Dalmatia.
Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.
Roxelana is unique in all Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over affairs of the Ottoman Empire.
She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of his brother Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and brother Bayezid, in coordination between himself and his father.
Surrounded as it was by Ottoman territory, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”, as one contemporary historian described it.
The island had long been a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force moved inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace.
By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.
At this point, Venetian defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with some 1,500 cannon.
The heroic defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, were begging him to surrender.
According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas the lives and property of a city taken by storm, were forfeit.
Terms of safe passage were agreed upon by the survivors yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell.
A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was murdered. Bragadin himself was later removed from his cell, his untreated wounds raging with infection. He was skinned alive in the public square and his hide stuffed with straw, reinvested with full military insignia and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.
Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion. In the end, Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed, put to death in the most hideous manner, imaginable. Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571 gave a coalition of Christian maritime states time to assemble naval forces, in numbers sufficient to defend the Mediterranean coast.
The Crescent met the Cross on this day in 1571 near a place called Lepanto, in what’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”. The European side was outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, to a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.
The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.
What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience. The Christians possessed some 1,815 guns, to fewer than half that number on the Ottoman side.
Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary. The Ottoman fleet was crushed, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.
While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion into the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.
Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph at Lepanto amounted to little: “You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.