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Empires of the Sea

Roger Crowley
Faber & Faber, 341pp

Empires of the Sea: The final battle for the MediterraneanIn these days of Al-Qaida, it is heartening to read a story that shows not only that jihad is nothing new but how the west was saved from Islamic conquest by its defeat. In 1521 Sultan Suleiman wrote to the Knights of St John in Rhodes, boasting of Ottoman conquests, and the destruction 'of their inhabitants either by sword or fire, the remainder being reduced to slavery'. The letter - a rebuke to those who claim that jihad is only defensive - declared his intent to capture the island.

Christendom was not innocent. Rhodes waged a maritime crusade against the Ottomans, capturing ships and enslaving Muslims. But within two years it was captured, and the Knights relocated to Malta, from where they continued their crusade. Spain compounded the problem by expelling its Muslims, who went to north Africa and avenged themselves through further maritime jihad - the beginning of the Barbary Corsairs.

Crowley's exciting volume tells of the infamous Barbarossa brothers, whose naval jihad raided Italy and Spain, enslaving thousands. Just as Bush wanted Bin Laden dead or alive, immense sums were offered by Europeans for the capture of the Barbarossas in either condition. They were intentionally cruel and brutal, aiming to terrorise Christians, just as Al-Qaida have declared. Like them, they not only attacked the infidel, but also sought - successfully - to remove a Muslim ruler in Algiers.

Faced with such a threat, the Habsburg Emperor Charles V gave Malta to the evicted Rhodes Knights in return for an annual tribute of a falcon (hence the Maltese Falcon). Malta proved a fitting stronghold both in offence and defence, and remained in the Knights' hand until Napoleon. The Knights engaged in their own corsairing against Muslims. In reply, Suleiman attacked Malta in 1564. One can only admire the pluck of the defenders. Crowley notes: 'Even Protestant England said prayers for Catholic Malta'. Had the Ottomans conquered the island, it would have given them a strategic stranglehold in the Mediterranean.

In 1570, Turkey launched a jihad against Venetian-owned Cyprus. The Turks had a treaty with Venice, but the Ottoman mufti told the Sultan that Islamic law allowed the breach of a treaty to recapture a land that had been taken from Muslims. One this basis, a restored modern Caliphate, as many Muslims urge, could attempt to re-conquer the Balkans, the Iberian Peninsula, much of France, and Sicily!

The attack led Venice, the Habsburgs and the Papacy to form the Holy League. They could not save Cyprus, but at the battle of Lepanto destroyed Ottoman naval power for a while: a hundred ships were sunk, 25,000 men killed. It did not end Ottoman aggression, but with the Maltese victory, it 'scotched grandiose Ottoman schemes of proceeding to Rome'. Thus, in terms of Ottoman maritime offensive jihad, it may be called the Turkish Stalingrad. However, the Ottoman D-Day was still centuries away, and as Al-Qaida have demonstrated maritime jihad has yet to disappear.

Anthony McRoy