The Sultan of the Ottomans
Soleyman's titles resounded through the high Council chamber like a roll of drums:
Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah's deputy on Earth, Lord of the Lords of this World, Possessor of Men's Necks, King of Believers and Unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and West, Emperor of the Chakans of Great Authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy Constellation, Majestic Caesar, Seal of Victory, Refuge of all the People in the whole World, the Shadow of the Almighty dispensing Quiet in the Earth.
His ministers, admirals, and generals prostrated themselves and withdrew. It was the year 1564, and Soleyman the First, Sultan of Turkey, was seventy years old. He had just taken the decision to attack the island of Malta in the spring of the following year.
His had been a life of unparalleled distinction from the moment when he had succeeded his father, Selim, at the age of twenty-six. Known in his own country as the Lawgiver, and throughout Europe as Soleyman the Magnificent, he had truly earned these appellations. He had reformed and improved the government and administration of Turkey, and had made her the greatest military state in the world. He was unequalled as a statesman, and was a poet in his own right.
If the Turkish people for these reasons called him 'The Lawgiver', the people of Europe for their part had good reasons for conceding to him the respectful title of 'The Magnificent'. His conquests alone justified it, and Europeans have always lavished more respect upon conquerors than upon lawgivers. In the course of his Sultanate, Soleyman had added to his dominions, Aden, Algiers, Baghdad, Belgrade, Budapest, Nakshivan, Rhodes, Rivan, Tabriz, and Temesvar. Under him the Ottoman Empire had attained the peak of its glory. His galleys swept the seas from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and his kingdom stretched from Austria to the Persian Gulf, and the shores of the Arabian Sea. Only at the walls of Vienna in 1529 had his armies faltered.
At the age of seventy, with so many resounding triumphs behind him, it might have been expected that the Sultan would wish to take his ease and watch the decline of day over the Golden Horn. But to Soleyman in his old age there remained only the desire for power, the ambition to extend his conquests. Even if he had not been ambitious himself, those who surrounded him would never have allowed him to rest.
'So long as Malta remains in the hands of the Knights,' wrote one of his advisers, 'so long will every relief from Constantinople to Tripoli run the danger of being taken or destroyed...' 'This cursed rock,' wrote another, 'is like a barrier interposed between us and your possessions. If you will not decide to take it quickly, it will in a short time interrupt all communications between Africa and Asia and the islands of the Archipelago.'
It was forty-two years since Soleyman, in the prime of his life and at the head of a vast fleet and army, had driven the Knights of St John from their island fortress of Rhodes. He had felt for them, then, an unwilling but respectful admiration. Had he not said in the presence of his advisers, 'It is not without some pain that I oblige this Christian at his age to leave his home'? It was the sight of the seventy-year-old Grand Master, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, preparing to embark with his Knights from the captured island that had prompted this reflection. Now, at the same age himself, the Sultan was less moved by chivalry, and more by a desire for vengeance.
The sandstone rock of Malta had proved an even greater irritant than Rhodes. Rhodes had been so close to the shores of Turkey that, in the last years of their residence there, the Knights' sallies had been almost neutralized. The movement of the Order's galleys had been quickly made known to the captains of the Sultan's warships and merchantmen. Yet, even so, they had still managed to harry the trade of the Levant, and interrupt the shipping between Alexandria and Constantinople. Malta, however, was worse, because it was so far distant from Constantinople that it was less easy to spy upon the Order's movements. Furthermore, the island's position in the very heart of the Mediterranean gave it the command of the east--west trade routes. Everything passing through the channel between Sicily, Malta, and North Africa was at the mercy of the Maltese galleys. They let few opportunities slip through their fingers.
To a ruler who had added thousands of square miles to his empire, the possession of an almost barren island might seem unimportant. To a ruler whose daily bread was adulation, who had grown weary of the title, 'Conqueror of the East and West', the island and its Knights were an irritation hardly to be borne.
It seemed as if the Knights, like gadflies, were determined to provoke the anger of the lion. Soleyman might mistrust the advice of his ministers. He could hardly, however, ignore the words of the greatest Mohammedan seaman of his time, the corsair Dragut.
Dragut, although a pirate, was allied to the Porte and in recent years had been careful to pay his duties and respects to the Sultan. He was, like Soleyman himself, a fighter and an opportunist. Soleyman heeded him more perhaps than his own Admiral Piali. When Dragut said: 'Until you have smoked out this nest of vipers you can do no good anywhere,' the Sultan was prepared to listen.
Recent events had confirmed Dragut's opinion. When the Spanish Emperor, Philip II, had mounted an armada against the port of Penon de la Gomera, the Knights of Malta had assisted him with their galleys, and had added the weight of their experience, seamanship, and military ability, to the Spanish forces. Penon de la Gomera, which lay on the North African coast due south of Malaga, had long been a favourite port and anchorage for the corsairs of the Barbary coast. Its capture by the Christians was as much a blow to Moslem pride as its economic loss was important. The Knights had successfully attacked one of the Sultan's ports on the Greek coastline. Ranging south of Malta, they had also captured a number of Turkish merchantmen. Soleyman was reminded that, 'The island of Malta is swollen with slaves, true believers, and that among the distinguished men and women held there to ransom are the venerable Sanjak of Alexandria, and the old nurse of your daughter Mihrmah.'
Soleyman's daughter, Mihrmah, was one of the chief advocates of an attack on Malta. The child of his favourite wife, the Russian-born Roxellane, Mihrmah never ceased to remind Soleyman of the account that still had to be settled with the Knights.
The capture of a great merchant ship belonging to Kustir-Aga, chief eunuch of the seraglio of the Sultan, was the ultimate provocation. It was an act which led Mihrmah and all the other members of the harem to raise their voices in protest. This merchantman, whose freight was estimated by the contemporary Spanish writer Balbi as being worth 80,000 ducats, was seized between the islands of Zante and Cephallonia by three Maltese galleys led by the greatest sailor that the Order of St John possessed, the Chevalier Romegas. The ship was bringing valuable luxuries and merchandise from Venice to Constantinople and, in the manner of the time, the principal ladies of the Imperial harem had taken shares in the venture. Captured and towed back intact to Malta, together with all its cargo, its loss mocked the Sultan's favourites. Kustir-Aga, the chief eunuch, a personage of great power in the 'boudoir politics' of imperial Turkey, was not likely to lose any opportunity of reminding his lord and master of the constant depredations of the Knights.
The odalisques of the harem prostrated themselves before the Sultan, crying for vengeance. The Imam of the great Mosque, prompted no doubt by members of the court, was not slow to remind Soleyman, that True Believers were languishing in the dungeons of the Knights. They were being flogged like dogs at the oars of the very galleys which were raiding the empire's shipping.
'It is only thy invincible sword,' the Imam proclaimed, 'that can shatter the chains of these unfortunates, whose cries are rising to heaven and afflicting the very ears of the Prophet of God. The son is demanding his father, the wife, her husband and her children. All, therefore, wait upon thee, upon thy justice, and thy power, for vengeance upon their, and your, implacable enemies!'
It was unlikely that the Sultan, whose prudence and ability had been proved in as many council chambers as battlefields, was swayed entirely--if at all--by this clamour for vengeance. Malta was small, but, as he knew well, it was the keystone of the Mediterranean. Within its magnificent harbours he would be able to shelter his fleets, which would then be free for the conquest of Sicily and Southern Italy. The island was small, but it could be the fulcrum to the lever with which he might make the Mediterranean a Turkish lake. From it he could strike at what a later war-leader called 'the soft underbelly of Europe'. The capture of Kustir-Aga's merchantman, the effrontery of the attacks on his merchant shipping and coastal ports were additional factors, but irrelevant to his grand design.
Soleyman was well aware that the Knights of St John were not like other Christians. They were men who had dedicated their lives to an eternal war against his religion, and against everything that Turkey, as the leader of the Moslem world, represented. He had fought them at Rhodes and he knew that death in battle was something they sought as ardently as did his own Janissaries. He knew their reputation as sailors and corsairs. He had questioned his own sea-captains who had been in action against the Knights.
'Their vessels,' he had been told, 'are not like others. They have always aboard them great numbers of arquebusiers and of knights who are dedicated to fight to the death. There has never been an occasion when they have attacked one of our ships that they have not either sunk it, or captured it.' His sea-captains were in error there, for the records of the Knights show a number of occasions when their attempts on Turkish vessels were unsuccessful. In the main, though, it was true that in skill, seamanship, and fighting ability, there was no single vessel in the Mediterranean that could compare with a galley commanded by one of the Knights from Malta. Soleyman knew enough of their prowess to respect them as adversaries. Even as an old man, he would never have decided to attack their island-base purely on a matter of pique or prestige.
In October 1564 at a formal council, or Divan, presided over by the Sultan, the question of Malta and of a possible siege of the island formed the issue of debate. Not all of those present were in favour. Some envisaged an extension of the empire beyond Hungary and pressed for a large-scale military campaign in Europe. Others were for driving straight at the heart of their chief Christian adversary, and making an attack on the coast of Spain. Others, again, urged the capture of Sicily. Soleyman was reminded of the poverty and insignificance of Malta. 'Many more difficult victories,' they said, 'have fallen to your scimitar than the capture of a handful of men in a little island that is not well fortified.'
It was the Sultan himself who pointed out that Malta was the stepping stone to Sicily, and beyond that, to Italy and southern Europe. He envisaged the day when 'The Grand Seignior, or his deputies, master of the whole Mediterranean, may dictate laws, as universal lord, from that not unpleasant rock, and look down upon his shipping at anchor in its excellent harbour.' Piali, admiral of the fleet, and Mustapha, Pasha of the army, were not slow to grasp the sound strategy behind Soleyman's desire to attack the island. When the Divan concluded, the decision had been taken to invest Malta in the spring of the following year.
The edict went forth. The might of the Ottoman Empire--'that military state par excellence...built upon an ever-extending conquest--' was to be deployed against the minute island of Malta, and against the Knights of the Order of St John. The Sultan himself had spoken: 'Those sons of dogs whom I have already conquered and who were spared only by my clemency at Rhodes forty-three years ago--I say now that, for their continual raids and insults, they shall be finally crushed and destroyed!'