on 16 November 2014
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.
on 24 July 2013
There is little more that I can say about this book that has not already been said. What I do know is that I have just started reading it for the third time. Yes it is that good. The author grabs your interest on page one and holds you captive until the final sentence. This is a story of Great Empires conflicting with one another, wishing to expand and swallow up the lands and peoples they do not possess. It is a story of fascinating characters who you will love, hate, fear and certainly be in awe of,be they Kings, Sultans, high ranking Knights, Janissaries or poorly low ranking cannon fodder or desperate civilians. The entire book could have been composed from the brilliant mind of an accomplished author of historical fiction but this is historical fact and those who populate its pages were real people. The descriptions of and the readers realization of what a galley slave had to endure will give many readers the shivers. The coastal populations of both Christian and Moslem lands bordering the Mediterranean lived in fear of being enslaved by roving bands of pirates and corsairs. Tens of thousands, including women and children were snatched and taken from their lands to spend the rest of their lives chained to a galley bench or sold into slavery both in Christian and Moslem lands. The descriptions of the land and sea battles between these two Empires are fascinating and again will astound. All in all this is nothing short of a masterpiece and deserves the awards it has gained.
This book is, as many other reviewers have mentioned, how narrative history should be written so that all can enjoy a fantastic read. Although not a novel, it reads just like one of the best historical novels. Despite what some others have mentioned, Roger Crowley presents what I find to be a rather well-balanced view.
While the Sultan did view himself as the Defender of the Faith and the Kings of Spain believed they had a similar role to play, this has little to do with the so-called modern "Clash of Civilizations" that has supposedly emerged and became so fashionable a few years ago. There was an obvious streak of religious fanatism on both sides, and the heroïc Knights of St John were nothing, if not fanatical, just like all of hte Military Oders always had been. Whether the "Turks" were the aggressors or not, they certainly were the ones that were - this time - threatnening Western Europe of invasion. However, you can also make the point that whatever Djihad was involved was pay-back for the Crusades. As you will have noticed, I put "turks" between brackets, if only because many were in fact converted Christians, especially in the fleet (and starting with the Barbarossas themselves).
One point that the author clearly makes out is the contrast between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian side, where coalitions, included the one that won at Lepanto were more about convergence of interests than anything else. Moreover, because of these conflicting interests, not all the Christians were united, with France AND England being the two biggest exceptions.
The book does make out the siege of Malta and the battle of Lepanto as its two main climaxes, and quite rightly so. However, Crowley is also careful not to make too much of either event. They certainly were major setbacks and Lepanto was the first naval defeat of the Ottomans at sea, but the Grand Turk was bo no means defeated and the fleet would be rebuilt to its former strength within a couple of years.
An interesting point, which is alluded to a couple of times but not discussed in-depth, is whether the Ottoman Sultan really had the intention of conquering Italy or even Spain by sea. It doesn't seem to be the case and the main thrust of Soliman's campaigns were on land, across the Balkans and into Hungary and Austria. The attackes on Malta and Cyprus (and, much later on, the subsequent attacks against Venetian possessions such as Crete) were not necessarily the first steps of such a conquest. They may have been, much more simply, driven by the need to put an end to the Christian raids on Turkish shipping. In reverse, the same kind of argument applies to Charles the V attacks on Algiers and Tunis (with the added element of slave raiding). Interestingly, and if this was the objective, in both cases, they failed in their strategic aim, even when tactically victorious in battle so that, by 1580, the situation in the Mediterranean was more of stalemate, despite the glamourous victory of Lepanto...
A superb read and recommended for anyone who wants to learn about this fascinating period. There are certainly other books on the same period. However, to my knowledge, this is the onlyone that covers all of these 60 years in such a fabulous way.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 12 December 2009
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.
My generation was taught 16th Century history as though it concerned little more than the Tudors generally and Henry VIII in particular (with his clashes with several wives and a Pope), and the Armada. The view didn't extend far beyond the coast of France.
Meanwhile and not that far away, there was a titanic struggle between empires fighting for control of what had, until that century, been the centre of the world - the Mediterranean. The conflict was passed off as a clash between two great religions - Christians (or, at least Catholics) and Muslims - but was really about territory, power and money and driven to a substantial extent by the tradition that the Turkish leader was not confirmed in his accession to the throne until he had won a great military victory.
Ignorant as you may be (and I certainly was) of this near hundred years of conflict, everything you need to understand the events and the global and historical context is here, including powerful thumbnail sketches of the characters of the principle protagonists.
Four starts rather than five? Yes. Maybe I am being a bit picky, or even churlish, but I would have like a little more detail of the weapons and tactics. I have not before seen an assertion that an arquebus could be used for sniping!
Overall the book is a superb example of history can be presented in an easily readable and engrossing way without being superficial.
on 24 September 2013
It takes but a single Turkish consonant to fall from makbul to maktul.
A great book on the straight sea fights between the Ottomans and Catholic King Charles of Spain. The book was surprisingly easy to follow as it had none of the dry bits usually attached to historical narratives. Most enjoyable bit was the fight between the great admirals Barbarossa and Doria. I loved the occasional side stories from the Sultan's palace to the Kings lair which kept me well captivated.I never imagined a colition between the French king Francis and a Muslim Sultan Sulaiman against their common foe Charles of Spain. The lust for power can indeed be overpowering as as anything seems to go.
The author has done a tremendous service to present a very vivid tale of a great struggle on the sea between Madrid and Istanbul, laced with detailed descriptions of dresses, sounds and arms. I loved the build up to the last battle in Lepanto and the crescendo achieved. I felt as if I was there myself. This is a great history book which is written in a very engaging manner and almost reads as a mythical story which goes to the credit of the author.
on 4 August 2013
I read this on the Kindle (more on this point later). I was pleased with the amount of background information the author brought in (without becoming dry and technical) as well as individual stories of the participants involved. This incuded personality traits and the hopes and fears of the people of the time. If you want to read about the sea and land wars of the time covered then chances are this book is for you.
Now, the Kindle edition, I did not spot any typos, but the pictures can be a little compressed and therefore the detail of maps etc can be hard to read (even zoomed in), but of course the detail is in the writing so this, I feel, does not impact too much. The problem with a Kindle is that you do not know where the story ends and the "acknowledgements" "credits" etc start. So it was a bit of a jolt to see that start at 75% on the Kindle. Even so the remainder is still worth a breeze through as it has pictures, authors information on why so much detail from hundreds of years ago is so readily available to source for the book etc.
All in I was pleased with my decision to buy.
(edited later for typo)
on 4 October 2013
A very readable account covering the struggle between the Western States and the Turkish Empire following the Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean, including the Siege of Rhodes, Malta, Cyprus and finally the Battle of Lepanto, the greatest battle between oared galleys in history. This book is not just about the battles but gives an account of what it was like to live under the constant fear of a corsair raid, either Muslim or Christian. Anybody living within reach of the coast from Spain to Istanbul could end up in the slave markets of North Africa or Madrid. This is a "must read" for anyone who is interested in the history of Venice, the Knights of St John or the Turkish Empire and, dare I say it, anyone who wants to know more for their holiday in Rhodes, Malta or Cyprus. We, with our insular view of history, taking Tudor England as the be all and end all should look at the broader picture of this time in history, and this book is an excellent start.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 6 October 2009
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 December 2012
Possibly the most enjoyable book I have ever read. A real page turner. Compelling. Must be the best author on this period of history, Roger Crowley, writes with verve and intelligence. I never thought he could surpass his previous book on Constantinople but I think he has. Truly brilliant writing. Excellent.