Monday, 29 June 2015

ISIS v. THE WEST - 1565

Part 2 : Dark Days - The Great Siege Begins

The waters of the bay were littered with floating wooden crosses. To each was nailed the decapitated corpse of a warrior who had died trying to defend the island. This was the gruesome sight which presented itself to Malta's citizens in the last days of June 1565. After a month-long siege the fortress of St. Elmo had been obliterated by Muslim artillery and its 1,500 surviving inhabitants had been butchered. The incident has a horribly familiar ring to it. We recognise the fanatical nihilism of terrorists who justify their own most inhuman impulses by reference to the creation of a worldwide Islamic state from which everything not in accord with Sharia law would have been purged.

The summer of 1565 was the high water mark of Sunni expansionism. Many in Europe who heard the news from Malta feared that civilization was about to be trampled into dust by the advancing Ottoman barbarians. Malta, it seemed was doomed and would become the main staging post for IS attacks against Italy and Spain and neither the Alps nor the Pyrenees would be adequate barriers to the continued advance of Koran-waving, death-or-glory zealots.
And there is another sad similarity between events today and 450 yeaers ago. De Valette, the Grand Master of the Knights Templer and governor of the island, had sent repeated desperate pleas for aid to the European governments. All he had received was a token force of 600 men from Sicily. The major western powers were too involved in their own rivalries to be distracted by the fate of one small island. In distant England Queen Elizabeth warned of the potential danger to Christendom but she did not despatch one soldier or one silver penny to the relief of Malta.

De Valette had to contend not only with unfaourable military odds (The Turks numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 as against a defending force of about 6,000) but with a panicking civilian population. Unlike the multitudes fleeing the war zones in Syria and Iraq today, the Maltese had nowhere to run to. They persistently plagued the grand master with demands for food and with unwanted military advice. If any politico-military figure of the 16th century deserves a place on the roll of courage that figure is the 70-year-old Jean Parisot de Valette. The Ottomans attacked his stronghold from several angles but every time he responded with tactical skill and personal bravery (He was frequently seen in the forefront of the battle). He trusted to two things - the arrival of reinforcements and the dwindling enthusiasm of the enemy. The invaders were suffering heavy losses - but, then, they could afford to. Would the unexpected tenacity of the Maltese force the invaders to withdraw? Would any European government heed his urgent pleas for help? Only time would tell.
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Next time:  Part 3: The End