The Times (London)
January 12, 2005, Wednesday
The long war against ‘the Infidel’ left a lasting mark on European
by Michael Binyon
THE great clash of civilisations at the battle of Lepanto in 1571
captured the imagination of Europe, inspiring artists and writers for
decades afterwards. The Ottoman Turks had begun the war the previous
year, to drive and the Venetians from the eastern Mediterranean by
invading their outpost of Cyprus. More than a century after the fall
of Byzantium, Christendom was again facing defeat by its mortal
Europe rallied to the Venetian cause. Spanish and Italian galleys
sailed for Cyprus, under the command of Don John of Austria,
half-brother of Philip II of Spain and a swashbuckling military
adventurer. To Christian Europe, the rampaging Turks seemed
The two fleets met at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece. It took Don
John just four hours to annihilate the Turkish fleet, capturing 117
galleys and thousands of men -a brilliant victory, though one which
in the long run could not halt the Ottomans.
Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese celebrated the victory in extravagant
Even in distant England, Lepanto was hailed as a triumph. Shakespeare
was 7 when the battle took place, and, 33 years later, the Bard made
the Venetian defence of Cyprus the setting for one of his greatest
tragedies. As Othello dies, he reminds the audience of Christendom’s
titanic struggle: “Set you down this;/ And say besides, that in
Aleppo once,/ Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk/ Beat a Venetian
and traduced the state,/ I took by the throat the circumcised dog/
And smote him, thus.”
The clash with the Muslim enemy was a common theme in Shakespeare’s
time. Henry V, courting Kate, asks her whether they should not have a
son “that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard”.
In France, 50 years later, Racine set one of his tragedies, Bajazet,
in the court of sultan Amurat, who captured Babylon in 1638.
But warfare did not stop merchants trading, travellers exploring and
emissaries negotiating. By the 17th century French and Engish traders
had established footholds in Istanbul, along with the ubiquitous
Venetians and Genoese. Working largely through Jewish and Armenian
“dragomans” (interpreters), they exploited the trade concessions
forced upon the sultans by the need for bullion, which had flooded
Europe from South America.
The Europeans settled for co-existence. Five centuries earlier the
Muslims were seen as the greatest challenge to Christendom, and
successive Popes launched crusades. In the long run, all failed. But
while these scarred the European psyche with suspicion of the Muslim
infidel, the Ottomans were regarded differently.
Religious zeal played less of a role than commercial and political
Byzantium had fallen. But trade went on.
And so it had for centuries. Even as the Ottomans closed in on
Byzantium throughout the 15th century, the diminishing city-state had
made alliances and deals. The Ottomans conquered a swath of territory
that brought them up against the Slavs and the Venetians. Serbia had
been beaten at the battle of Kosovo in 1389, a date that has echoed
down its history. Periodically the Venetians and the Habsburgs raised
the battle cry against the Turks, but the clashing empires worked out
a modus vivendi. For years the French kings enjoyed an entente with
Istanbul and even while the Turks were conquering Crete, French
merchants bought carpets, spices and brocades and sold wool, clocks
and luxury goods.
Ordinary Europeans had little contact, however. The big sea power,
Portugal, clashed with Turkish forces at the entrance to the Red Sea.
But Europe was by now looking farther afield -to America, Africa,
India and China. Suleyman the Magnificent tried to conquer all the
Mediterranean, but after the heroic resistance of Malta, defended by
the Knights of St John during the long siege in 1565, made no further
In the Balkans, Ottoman power reached a high point at the second
siege of Vienna, in 1683. But already the empire was decaying from
within. By the 19th century the “Sick Man of Europe” was desperately
trying to modernise its creaking empire. And by the end of the First
World War it was over.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress