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92 of 93 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History as it should be written.
The conflict between Ottoman Turkey and Christian Spain for mastery of the Mediterranean basin had a huge influence on the development of the modern world, yet is probably not something you know very much about, even if you studied history at school. Roger Crowley deals with the key period of this struggle during the 16th Century in a page-turner of a narrative peopled...
Published on 5 Jun 2008 by Michael Edwards

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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great story
Crowley does an extraordinary job putting together three extraordinary stories that marked the 16th Century in the Mediterranean: The siege of Rhodes, the siege of Malta, and the Battle of Lepanto. These stories, especially that of the siege of Malta, makes the book read like a novel, most enthralling and nail biting.

Although Crowley has written a very...
Published on 21 Oct 2008 by Borja Echegaray Aguirrezabal


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92 of 93 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History as it should be written., 5 Jun 2008
By 
Michael Edwards (Gloucestershire U.K.) - See all my reviews
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The conflict between Ottoman Turkey and Christian Spain for mastery of the Mediterranean basin had a huge influence on the development of the modern world, yet is probably not something you know very much about, even if you studied history at school. Roger Crowley deals with the key period of this struggle during the 16th Century in a page-turner of a narrative peopled with almost larger-than-life personalities - Suleiman the Magnificent, Bluebeard the Pirate (actually there were father and son Bluebeards) - Andrea Doria, the mercenary Admiral, and a supporting cast of Kings and Popes. What becomes clear is how very close the Ottomans came to extending their Empire into France, Italy and Spain, and how much better organised they were than the European powers who faced them.
The centrepiece of the book is the siege of Malta. The heroism of the defenders would not be believed if it were fiction, and the complex tale is told with exemplary clarity.
You may find parallels in the 21st Century, but Roger Crowley wisely doesn't labour them. Read it twice!
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Empires of the Sea, 4 Dec 2008
By 
Read a review in the Wall St. Journal which wetted my appetite. Being a history buff it intrigued me. The book was an excellent read, covering the Seige of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto and the Contest for the Center of the World in the sixteenth century. The constant battle for supremacy in the Christian/Muslim world with it's shattering disregard for human life. After it was all over little had really changed and that state of affairs continues to this day. Magnificent descriptions of battles, especially the sea battle at Lepanto which is described as "Europe's Trafalgar" during which 40,000 were killed in four hours and really ended the crusades of the time.
There is a lot to relate to in today's world.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pacy narrative history lifted by two gripping set pieces, 10 Dec 2009
By 
Kentspur (Er...Kent) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This is a pacy, easy-to-read overview of the steady westward movement of the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth century Mediterrean and it's crunching full stop at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Like the many books on the Crusades, it has modern resonances and maintains an even-handedness throughout.

The strengths are the descriptions of the siege of Malta- in particular - and the cataclysmic battle of Lepanto. The weaknesses are a little bit of 'reaching' to make this area, perhaps, more fundamental to modern Europe than it actually was - describing the conflict as a 'world war' for example and the failure to convey what the combatants in a naval battle are actually trying to do or achieve. How does a sea battle 'work'? I am sure the author was trying to avoid the level of detail that takes a book like this - very much a popular history - into a military history sales cul-de-sac, but I felt this undercut some of the tension. The siege description was far more gripping.

Nevertheless in a decent epilogue, Roger Crowley makes the pithy point that rising prices and cheap labour costs in the Christian West did as much to undermine the Ottomans as Don Juan's galleys. Capitalism wins again!
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars EMPIRES OF THE SEA, 22 Jun 2009
By 
Hillpaul (West Sussex, GB) - See all my reviews
Another cliff-hanger from Crowley as he tears aside the veil of a `clash of civilisations' to show the people beneath, some of whom, yes, fought for Christianity or Islam, some of whom like Hayrettin Barbarossa fought for revenge and profit as much as for the Prophet. Some like the countless thousands of galley-slaves fought to stay alive (the supply of whom stripped coastal regions and perpetuated the war in a self-feeding cycle).More realpolitik than religion, this is Pirenne's divided Mediterranean, both sides aping the defunct Roman Empire, trying to project their version of it. Starting with the siege of Rhodes and Famagusta whose commander met a gruesome end, skinned alive and the skin stuffed and dressed in finery and sent to the Sultan, this book tells the next chapter of Ottoman expansion after the Fall of Constantinople and a grim remorseless story it is.
Thematically structured into two parts, the siege of Malta and the battle of Lepanto, both presented as huge triumphs in the West, Cervantes describing Lepanto as the `greatest event witnessed by ages past, present and to come', slight setbacks in the East.
As for Malta, forget the Alamo which held out for two weeks, the fight to hold St. Elmo's fort which held out for a month would read like a pot-boiler if it were not true, down to the very end when its captain Miranda had himself tied to a chair because of his wounds and waited by the gate with his pistols and his swords for the Janissaries who stormed the building.
Lepanto where the two fleets blundered into each other, produced an apocalyptic battle that is hard to credit when reading the story in the comfort of an armchair. The rate of death, 40,000 in the first four hours, would not be equalled until WWI.
A loss which the Ottomans were able to replenish within a year, but the value of Lepanto and Malta was to show that the Ottomans could be beaten on land and at sea. The West gave up trying to reconquer the Holy Land and the Ottomans refocused on Eastern Europe where logistical overstretch and a moribund intellectual outlook eventually did for them. Both recognised the de facto split in the Mediterranean which exists to today.
Narrative history at its best. I can't wait to see what he does next.
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great story, 21 Oct 2008
By 
Crowley does an extraordinary job putting together three extraordinary stories that marked the 16th Century in the Mediterranean: The siege of Rhodes, the siege of Malta, and the Battle of Lepanto. These stories, especially that of the siege of Malta, makes the book read like a novel, most enthralling and nail biting.

Although Crowley has written a very accurate and detailed account of these clashes between the Christian and Muslim worlds, one gets the impression, that he tends to minimize the role of Christian leaders, their armies and the importance of their victories, and maximizes that of the Ottoman side. For example, he doesn't give much importance to the conquest of Tunis by Emperor Charles V, while he gets to the detail with other minor Turkish exploits.

The author is notably pro Turkish throughout most of the book, presenting the Christians as more religious fanatics than the Muslims, when probably both were exactly the same. The fact that Crowley lived for a long period of his life in Istanbul may explain this and that he recreates himself longer when detailing the fascinating ottoman world. This is perfectly clear, when at the end of the book he goes through the list of mausoleums and great internments of all the ottoman main characters, while he ignores the final resting place of the Christian kings and admirals.

However, the book is fully recommendable, and anybody interesting in this period of history, and in the last of the crusades, will surely enjoy it.
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35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb narrative history of an epic struggle, 4 Aug 2008
By 
David Burke (Ireland) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
The clash of civilisations is not a new notion. Civilisations have clashed for thousands of years, as rival tribes and nations with varying cultural mores and religious beliefs have struggled for supremacy.
In recorded history, Greek fought Persian, Roman fought Carthaginian (and countless others), and Christian fought Muslim.
It's the latter that we think of today when we shudder at the memory of 9/11 or sigh over the pointless loss of life in the Middle East.
This is a struggle that has flared up intermittently since the First Crusade in 1096 brought a motley crew of robber knights, religious zealots and sundry opportunists to wrest the holy places of Palestine from the hands of their Muslim overlords.
The crusades petered out towards the end of the 13th century, but at least one of the organisations that was born in the blood and sand of the Middle East survives today. They are the Knights of Malta, and while we know them as providers of an excellent voluntary ambulance and first aid service, their history was not always as peaceful.
The Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta figure largely in a marvellous new book which chronicles one phase of the Christian-Muslim conflict, the bitter struggle for mastery of the Mediterranean between 1521 and 1580.
In Empires of the Sea Roger Crowley brings back to mind half-remembered history lessons - the fall of Rhodes, the rise of the Barbary corsairs, the siege of Malta and the decisive battle of Lepanto.
Most people now who think of Malta in military terms focus on the siege during World War II when the tiny mountain top between Sicily and North Africa withstood months of attack by the German and Italian air forces. For its endurance, the island and its people were collectively awarded the George Cross, the highest British civilian award for gallantry.
But almost 400 years earlier, the Maltese and their then rulers, the Knights of St John, were tenacious in the defence of their stronghold against a huge Ottoman army which besieged them from May to September 1565.
The Ottomans, referred to by most of their oppponents as the Turks, although they comprised many more races, were experts at siege warfare. Crowley has already written about their capture of Constantinople and this book starts with the attack on Rhodes in 1522 after which the Knights were allowed to sail away to Malta. Among those who left was a young knight, Jean de la Valette, who as Grand Master of the order presided over and inspired the successful defence of Malta forty years later.
La Valette is just one of the giant personalities who people this account. On the Ottoman side are the sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent and his son Selim; the military commanders, Ali Pasha and Mustapha Pasha; the fearsome corsair Barbarossa; and many more.
For Christendom there are Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and after him his son, King Philip of Spain; the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria; the Venetian Sebastiano Venier; and the great Romantic hero Don Juan of Austria. Don Juan was the illegitimate son of Charles, half-brother of Philip, and his victory at the crucial naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 sparked innumerable poems, songs and dramas. He was even celebrated by GK Chesterton in his poem "Lepanto" as late as 1915.
If the personalities are giant, the events are huge. Vast amounts of gold were poured into building and equipping ships on both sides, and at times the losses were enormous. The naval battles were fought with galleys, rowed often but not always by slaves, which rammed each other to provide platforms for fierce hand to hand fighting.
The book reads like a thriller. It is narrative history, and the narrative it relates would scarcely be credible if it were presented as a work of fiction.
Heroes and villains abound, often in the same camp. Both sides are capable of great cruelty and great courage. In the siege of Malta La Valette stands in his armour in the front line of the defence as the Turks swarm up the rubble of a defensive wall.
At the last minute, on the most dangerous day of the siege, as in the most clichéd war movie, the cavalry literally comes over the hill and attacks the undefended enemy camp in the rear. The almost-triumphant Turks break off the attack to retrieve their valuables and re-take their camp, and valuable breathing space is gained.
Tales of individual heroism crowd the bigger picture. The commanders fought alongside their men. At Lepanto Ali Pasha, the Ottoman chief, shot dozens of arrows at his enemies as his flagship was captured. Don Juan danced a galliard on the gun platform as they sailed towards the enemy. A man hit in the eye by an arrow plucked it out, eyeball and all, tied a cloth around his head and continued fighting.
The battle was a turning point in history - never again did the Ottomans pose such a threat to the West. Up to this, even Rome was at risk from their ambitions.
Having just finished this book, I am inclined to go back to the beginning and start all over again. I certainly hope to do so before I visit some of the places where great and terrible deeds were accomplished. If you enjoy your history embellished with colour and enlivened with anecdote, this is the book for you.
One quibble, though: it's surprising that Faber, the publishers of poetry, were not more assiduous in their editing. Scrabbling is one word that is grossly over-used by the author, and discrete does not have the same meaning as discreet.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Empires of the Sea, 11 Jan 2009
By 
Mr. A. Walker-powell "Tony Powell" (Sydney NSW Australia) - See all my reviews
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This is a splendid book for the general reader. In about 300 pages Crowley describes the Christian/Muslim 16th Century conflict in the Mediterranean. The end of that century also marks the end of the supremacy of the Mediterranean in the West, which until then had been the centre of Western Civilization. Crowley creates a picture in words as the reader is transported, Google-Earthlike, from Philip II sitting like a spider in the centre of a web directing the business of the Spanish Empire to Suleiman flamboyantly extending the Ottoman Empire. The description of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 is so vivid that I felt I was an observer standing on the poop of Don John's flagship. It seems to have had a similar effect on Roger Crowley because he wrote that Lepanto was the biggest battle in the West until Loos in 1916 (sic). Loos was fought in 1915 and I believe the battle of Tannenburg between Russia and Germany in 1914 was considerably bigger. More relevant is the fact that in terms of men and ships Lepanto was not surpassed until the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War 2.
Today's technology enables the reader to use Google Earth to see the battle sights. Forts St Elmo and St Angelo in Malta can be viewed looking as I imagine they were 500 years ago. The reader can see the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth the same as when Don John of Austria saw it before Lepanto.
The only material concern that Crowley did not discuss was the question of hygiene in the Siege of Malta. Until the Boer War, army losses due to sickness and wounds were greater than those killed in action. The Knights of St John as part of their hospitaller remit cared for the sick. I understand that they minimized sickness in their galleys by transferring the slaves to cells in Fort St Angelo when the boats returned from operational duty and temporarily lowering the boats to the bottom of the harbour so that they could be freed of the slaves' excrement and other accumulated filth. I understand that sickness among the besieging Ottoman forces was a major concern. I would be surprised if sickness was a similar problem in the Knight's forces.
Although the events happened up to 500 years ago the conflict is topical: players and locations are different, but the struggle between the West and militant Islam goes on. One could substitute George Bush and the United States for Charles V and Spain, for example. Although there are examples of chivalrous behaviour between opposing commanders of the like of Don John of Austria and the Ottoman fleet's commander, Ali Pasha, the behaviour of Lala Mustapha, the Ottoman commander before Famagusta was of unspeakable brutality. His action of having the surrendering Venetian commander Marcantonio Bragadin, skinned alive whilst under the protection of a truce is so horrific that it continues to poison relations between Turkey and the West, to this day..
Empires of the Sea is well worth having. What splendid movies that include the Siege of Malta or the Battle of Lepanto could be made!
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent example of history writing at it's best, 16 Nov 2014
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The period covered by this book is an enthralling one, and, in many ways, the story is the final end of the crusades. Although the crusades that everyone thinks they know about were long over, their effects were still reverberating around the Mediterranean. The European Christians had long since left the Levant, but their residue were still very much alive, such as the Knights of Malta, and the Ottoman Empire was still growing at the expense of much of South East Europe. Whilst some in Europe still had fanciful ideas of new crusades, the Ottomans were slowly expanding, and politically, each new Sultan needed to produce victories to consolidate his position. This led to decades of conflict.
This book tells the story admirably. It is a difficult story to tell; there are so many strands to bring together that it could easily be either too detailed or too vague. The author, for me, gets it just right, and tells the story in a clear, but authoritative way.
In many ways, it is hard to see how the Ottomans failed. They were a ( reasonably) united single entity, whereas Europe was a mess of conflicting countries and states with little or no common ground or purpose. The road to the eventual outcome is told clearly and sometimes reads almost like a good novel. Although there were victories and defeats on both sides, from the perspective of the time, there was no clear winner. Only with hindsight can we see that eventually, the Ottomans turned inward, and Europe turned largely westward to the New World. This rift, which led to each side lacking understanding of the other, is still affecting us today.
Anyone who has an interest in history will find this book very worthwhile reading.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written but very biased, 12 Dec 2009
By 
This book is well written and it has been extensively researched. The narrative is engaging and dynamic, making it an enjoyable read. My only objection is the evident bias of the author who constantly praises the Ottoman Empire and its rulers and ridicules and belittles the Christian side to the point of describing the victories at Malta and Lepanto as "fluke".

He also constantly tries to put at the same level the atrocities committed on the civilian population, when it is evident who was the aggressor at the time. The suffering of the tens thousands of Christian civilians captured and sold as slaves during the period does not prompt any criticism, whilst there is plenty for the Spaniards for the expulsion of the Moors.

It is also interesting how he does not make any comments about Islam as a religion but is not shy to criticise
Popes Pius IV and V, making rather disparaging remarks and ridiculing their motives and their faith.

Fortunately this will be very apparent to the reader and once the unbalanced comments are ignored, the book provides a thrilling read and brings back to life some of the most important characters of the Renaissance.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The final blunting of the Muslim threat to Southern Europe in the 16th century, 6 Oct 2009
By 
trini "HWS" (Hertfordshire, England) - See all my reviews
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Empires of the Sea - The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580, by Roger Crowley (Faber & Faber paperback, London, 2008)

After the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Christian Constantinople (Byzantium), the eastern capital of the last remnants of the Roman Empire, in 1453 AD, the victorious Sultan there saw himself as the successor to the Byzantine emperor, as the new Caesar, destined to rule not only over the former Eastern Empire around Constantinople (now Istanbul), but eventually over the whole of the former Roman Empire in western Europe too, even in Rome itself.

The consequence of this vision was that for most of the next 250 years the Ottoman Empire operated a two-pronged campaign against Christendom. One prong, by land, thrust north and northwest from Constantinople/Istanbul, through the Balkans, Hungary, the fringes of Poland and Russia, and into Austria itself. The second prong, though again aimed ultimately at the conquest of Christian territory, consisted of sea-borne invasions south and west into the eastern and western Mediterranean, trying to mop up the remaining islands and fortresses that were still in Christian (often Venetian) hands around Greece and Turkey in about 1500, and then aiming for total control of the Mediterranean so as to threaten all the islands and coastline of Christian southern Europe, from the Adriatic to the straits of Gibraltar. Crowley tells the story of this second, Mediterranean prong, between 1521 and 1580.

For decades, one Christian bastion prevented the Muslim fleets from being able to dominate the Mediterranean: the tiny island of Malta, which the Knights Hospitaller of St John, driven out of Rhodes by the Turks thirty years earlier, had turned into a fortress. The first half of Crowley's book deals with the climactic attack on Malta by an overwhelmingly stronger Turkish fleet and army in 1565, and the dogged defence of the island by the Knights, backed by the total commitment of the native Maltese civilian population, with promised but ever-delayed support from the Papacy and the Christian countries to the north. Eventually, a Christian relief force did arrive on Malta, the Turkish besieging army was routed and their fleet driven off, with huge Turkish losses in men and ships. Thus in 1565 the greatest Turkish threat so far had been repulsed.

The second, and even more crucial Mediterranean battle, described in the second half of Crowley's book, was the naval battle in 1571 at Lepanto, in the Gulf of Corinth on the western side of Greece.

As Crowley points out, before Lepanto the Muslim-Christian wars in the Mediterranean had been largely about the capture of forts and cities and islands, with the fleets being involved as part of the larger strategy of land conquest. But in 1571 the Christian powers of Western Europe (the papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Venice and Genoa - with the notable exception of France) had assembled a fleet that sailed east to face the rebuilt Turkish fleet, and although on both sides the leadership was divided as to whether it was wise to risk its whole fleet in one throw of the dice, in fact the Muslim fleet left the protection of its shore batteries to challenge the Christians on the open sea, and the Christian fleet, under the command of the young and inexperienced but charismatic Don John of Austria, made the decision to accept this challenge. The ensuing battle ended with the total destruction of the Muslim fleet and the eclipse of Turkish naval power in the Mediterranean.

Crowley's book links very usefully with another publication in 2008, The Enemy at the Gate (Andrew Wheatcroft, Pimlico, London, pb), to my review of which I refer the reader. Wheatcroft's book tells the story of the land-based northern prong of the Muslim thrust at the heart of Europe, where the decisive battle came much later, at the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. A Muslim victory there would have opened the whole of Western Europe to Turkish domination. But Vienna was saved by the arrival of relieving Polish troops in the nick of time, the Turkish army was routed, and the next 250 years saw the Turkish frontiers in Europe pushed back gradually to their present enclave, the city of Istanbul and its environs.

Crowley usefully reminds us that the confrontations between Islam and Christendom were waged against a background of ongoing internal power struggles in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds. In western Europe, the birth and growth of Protestantism led to religious wars which split Christendom; France and the Holy Roman Empire (plus Spain) struggled to be the dominant power in Europe; Genoa, Venice, France and Spain competed for Mediterranean trade. France comes out very badly from all of this. It invariably set its own political interests above those of the Catholic Church and Christendom as a whole, often weakening the Christian stand by allying with the Turks against the rest of Christendom or with the Protestants against the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. The Muslim world also faced rivalries, both religious and territorial like the Sunni/Shi'a divide, but also fresh waves of invaders from Asia into eastern Muslim lands, conflict with Iran, and North African intra-Muslim struggles.

One book cannot be a total history of all the centuries of interlocking Christian and Muslim history, Near Eastern, European, Mediterranean and North African, but
Crowley's book, like Wheatcroft's, helps to explain why fear of the Turks dominated the Mediterranean and Central European Christian nations for so many centuries - the unrelenting Turkish pressure against Christian frontiers, until Turkish defeat at Lepanto in 1571 and before Vienna in 1683 and the subsequent gradual decline of Turkish power.
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