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Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World Paperback – May 12, 2009
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Is the West engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with the Islamic peoples of the Middle East? According to Crowley, that clash occurred in the sixteenth century, when Islam, under the leadership of the Ottoman Turks, seemed poised to dominate most of Europe. The “impregnable city” of Constantinople had been taken in 1453, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Turks were ensconced in the Balkans. The key to the struggle between the Turks and the Christian West was control of the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea. The Turks had a formidable fleet, while the divided, quarreling Christian states seemed particularly vulnerable. Yet, through a combination of valor, military skill, and blind luck, the Christian West prevailed. Crowley’s exciting saga shows this struggle as grim, heroic, and inspiring. At the siege of Malta, a few hundred knights, remnants of a crusading order, held off 30,000 invading Turks. At Lepanto, Christians and Turks engaged in a naval bloodbath that decisively stemmed the Islamic tide. A beautifully written chronicle of a great and seminal struggle. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“[Crowley] offers exquisitely delicate insights and undulating descriptive passages. Yet in his descriptions of the battles, his prose is so taut and tense, it is impossible not to be caught up in the harrowing action.”—Christian Science Monitor
“A masterly narrative that captures the religious fervor, brutality and mayhem of this intensive contest.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Gripping . . . This is a rare combination of a history book that reads with the detail, insight and pace of a novel.”—Tampa Tribune
“Crowley has an astonishing gift for narration; his account is as exciting as any thriller.”—Wall Street Journal
“Crowley’s page-turner history . . . deserves to be this [season’s] most recommended nonfiction book. . . . Rich in character, action, surprise, what transpired in those few desperate weeks is one of history’s best and most thrilling stories.”—Dallas Morning News
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
I must admit to prejudice here. I still have my copy of Ernle Bradford's magnificent history The Great Siege--paperback, from 1966, cost 5 shillings, and getting quite threadbare from rereading every few years. When one great book like this can spawn a 40-year interest in the subject, you know that you have an outstanding work indeed. Bradford's book is almost entirely limited to the siege of Malta, whereas Crowley's book covers this in under 100 pages. You get much more detail with Bradford, and a dramatic sense of the struggle, much more so than with Crowley. The focus is narrower--so for breadth, turn to Crowley, for depth to Bradford. Both books will give you a look at the personalities involved, and both convey the aspects of warfare at the time. So this is a good addition to your history shelf.
I highly recommend reading this book - there is a lot to learn from it.