Part 1: The Threat
At dawn on 18 May 1565, exactly 450 years ago, watchmen manning Malta's coastal defences saw an awesome and terrifying sight. Between them and the orb of the rising sun the sea was black with a mighty battle fleet. Close on 200 ships - the largest naval force to be seen in the Mediterranean since the Romans had held undisputed sway over Mare Nostrum. On board the galleys and galleasses were over 28,000 fighting men, including some of the finest crack troops of the day. Their objective was the capture of Malta, gateway to the western sea. As if this force was not formidable enough, it would be joined during the siege by the thousands more from Muslim North Africa uniting to consolidate earlier land victories and establish an Islamic state ruled from Constantinople. It would be the world's most powerful empire and it would be ruled by a man who was already a legend - Suleiman the Magnificent.
Traditional histories of 16th century Europe tend to highlight the exploits of Charles V, Francis I and Philip II but if you had asked a well-informed contemporary analyst of the international scene who was the most impressive monarch of the day he would have named - albeit reluctantly - Suleiman the Magnificent. The very title - 'Magnificent' - was bestowed by western observers. In his own land he was 'Suleiman the Lawgiver'. In 1520 he became ruler of a vigorously expansionist Ottoman sultanate determined to extend Sunni Islam, not only over Shia 'heretics', but also Christian 'infidels'. Having cut down to size the Shia caliphate of Iran and destroyed the 300-year old Mameluke caliphate of Egypt, Suleiman's father passed to his son an empire extending from Tabriz in the East to Dubrovnik in the West. The new sultan was ready to extend the Islamic state over Europe.
He attacked by land and sea. He planted strongholds along the North African littoral, making the eastern Mediterranean virtually an Ottoman lake. He advanced across the Danube, taking Belgrade in 1521. The road to Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, lay before him. In 1526, at the Battle of Mohács, he faced an army, under Louis II of Hungary, assembled to protect the frontier of Christian Europe. At the end of the day Louis and 15,000 Christian troops lay dead on the battlefield. Three years later Suleiman laid siege to Vienna and was only deprived of the great prize by bad weather. This did not deflect him from his goal, which was nothing less than revivifying the Roman Empire - now to be the Islamic State. The Venetian ambassador to England, watched with alarm Ottoman encroachments and warned,
'The Turk will make naval expeditions and ravage Puglia, perhaps as far as Rome, for Sultan Suleiman always says "To Rome!", "To Rome!" and he detests the Emperor and his title of Caesar, he, the Turk, causing himself to be called "Caesar".
When, in 1544, having inflicted further defeats on the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, he agreed a treaty with Charles V, the document referred to Charles not as 'Emperor', but merely 'King of Spain'. All visitors to Constantinople were impressed by the splendour of Suleiman's person and his court. One described a ceremony in which the sultan appeared wearing a gold chain so heavy that two servants had to flank him to help bear the weight.
For much of the ensuing two decades Suleiman was busy with naval campaigns in the East, partly directed against Portuguese trading interests in the Indian Ocean. But Suleiman knew that control of the Mediterranean was vital in the accomplishment of his long-term strategy. Little-by-little, Ottoman rule was established along the southern coastline and the important island bases. In one action the Order of Knights Hospitaller were driven from their stronghold in Rhodes. They withdrew to Malta and set about turning it into a well-fortified naval base for the defence of the western Mediterranean. To the enemy this seemed like a last desperate measure to stave off the inevitable. The small Maltese population might have been inclined to agree. When, in 1551, the Ottomans attacked the neighbouring island of Gozo, the Knights were unable to defend it. The island was sacked and the Ottomans went on to overwhelm the Knights' last African base at Tripoli. In 1560 Philip II of Spain assembled a massive fleet to retake Tripoli. In the ensuing battle Philip's armada suffered a defeat worse than the one his other armada was destined to experience at the hands of the English in 1588.
On Malta, the commander, Jean Parisot de Valetta, knew that a showdown could not be long avoided. He completed the building of fortifications, sent to Italy and Spain for military reinforcements and waited, with foreboding, for news from his spies in Constantinople. At the end of March 1565 he received the message he was waiting for: 'They are coming'.
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Next time: Part 2: The Great Siege Begins