In the 16th century, the Mediterranean was considered the center of world, and this book is about the great battles and sieges that took place when the armies of Islam and Christendom tried to dominate that world. In 2005, Roger Crowley published a book called 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West in which he recounted the events of the siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. In the present volume the saga continues, he chronicles the expansion of the Ottoman empire under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent and his son Selim.
Crowley's first book was not only brilliant, it was also a commercial success; this volume should do as well or even better, for it is narrative history at its best. Crowley, who reads Turkish, was able to consult Ottoman diaries and modern works in Turkish. His accounts of the many land and sea battles are vivid, dramatic and multilayered, as they tell the story from different points of view.
The story begins in 1521 when the Knights of St John (a Christian military order) were routed from the island of Rhodes by the Ottomans and forced to retreat to Malta. The Ottomans were making gains everywhere around the Mediterranean with the help of their allies the Barbary pirates. It was a time of Islamic ascendency as the European powers were in disarray from internal squabbling.
The bulk of the book deals with the siege of Malta (1565). This was arguably one of the most heroic and odds-defying battles in history. About 600 Knights of St John were up against 30,000 Ottoman Turks. The battle was expected to last about 4 hours, instead it lasted 4 months, with the Turks ultimately retreating. Crowley's account of bravery and brutality is unparalled. He tells of how wounded soldiers were placed in chairs with their sword in hand fighting to the death.
The Ottoman siege of Malta failed but their invasions of Cyprus (1570) and Famagusta (1571) were successful. They also attempted to invade Lepanto in 1571. Crowley here gives us another great set-piece. While the siege of Malta took place at a fortress, this battle took place on the sea; in fact it was the largest sea battle before World War I. Crowley gives a fine diquisition on the relative merits of sail ships and oar-driven ships (galleons). The European forces prevailed as they had the more mobile oar-driven ships. Also an unpleasant reminder that these ships were manned by slaves (galley slaves). About 40,000 men died in about 4 hours, the highest rate of slaughter not seen until, again, World War I. One young writerly soldier named Miguel de Cervantes - wounded in battle - thought it to be the greatest event of the ages.
The Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto were great stories, but they were just two conflagrations of the complex geopolitics of the 16th century Mediterranean. Crowley has done an excellent job, not only of describing the main events, but also filling in the background with rich detail.