Hundreds of years of Muslim conquests came to a head at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7 in the year 1571. Islamic forces had been spreading through force of arms, capturing or pillaging every Christian settlement across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe. The Ottoman Empire had formed out of Turkey off the backs of slave labor and a thirst for global domination. The world of Christendom lay divided and scattered, with cooperation a scant sight among followers of God in those days. Under the direction to conquer all of the world for Allah and enslave the entire population of the Earth, the Ottomans made for another push to break the spirit of the Christian world once and for all. The Battle of Lepanto was a pivotal moment in human history whereby many nations which stood apart came together at a critical time to stop the world from plunging into total darkness.
Prelude to the Battle
Many Christian capitals of the world had fallen to the Muslim conquest in the ages prior. Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Hippo, Tunis, Carthage had all fallen. This was largely due to the disorganization and division among the world of Christendom following the Protestant Reformation. The many different sects stood apart and refused to work together, even in the face of annihilation. On the other hand, the Ottoman Empire commanded unity through a vision of world subjugation and the crack of the whip against the backs of unwilling slaves. In fact, part of the reason the Ottomans raided shores and captured so many slaves was due to the high attrition rate of their labor force. Christian slaves were worked to death in about 5 years and needed to be replenished. In this manner, the Islamic forces were conquering Christian lands by aggressively eating their way through the population, enslaving the people and working them to death and replacing them.
A new caliph was expected to expand the territory of the Islamic empire to a greater extent than their predecessor. Thus, in the year 1571, Ali Pasha was given command of a massive fleet and ordered to move into the Mediterranean Sea with the goal of conquering all of Italy, making way for a broader invasion of Europe. Ali Pasha raided the forts and villages along the Adriatic shoreline, taking new Christian slaves to replenish the ship rowers that perished from the heavy labor of moving the Turkish ships with little food or rest. At the same time, he sent another contingent to capture, rape, and pillage Cyprus. The dark forces stormed the island nation and laid waste to Nicosia. They destroyed churches, burning them all to the ground. The Muslims also ordered older women beheaded and took the men and young women into thralldom.
The worst of the atrocities was yet to come, however. The Muslim army of darkness marched along the coastline of Cyprus and laid siege to the city of Famagusta under the command of Lala Mustafa Pasha. Here, the valiant defenders held out for several weeks under constant fire and enemy reinforcements. The city’s defense was led by General Marcantonio Bragadin, who was said to be an exceptional leader who inspired the warriors of Cyprus to hold the city against overwhelming odds and with little food or ammunition for such a long period of time that the attacking commander became furious from losing so many of his own men. Nevertheless, with constant enemy reinforcements arriving by sea and no help to come for the brave defenders, the city eventually fell, and General Bragadin surrendered himself in an attempt to negotiate safe passage of the city’s survivors to outside the combat zone.
Darkness Rises and Shadow Engulfs
It was at this time the tone of the conflict changed for all those involved. The defenders fought bravely and fought well, inflicting over 100,000 casualites on the attackers while suffering less than 9,000 casualties of their own. However, they could not hold out forever, and after the surrender of Famagusta on August 1, the Islamic forces beheaded the few hundred remaining defenders and piled them up around Mustafa’s tent. General Bragadin was then mutilated with his ears and nose chopped off, and he was forced to walk around the city on all fours with a dog collar for the world to see. The general was made to carry heavy bags of dirt on his back as he crawled and kissed the ground by Mustafa’s feet whenever he passed the evil man.
His torture did not stop there, however. After he collapsed, General Bragadin was tied to the mast of a ship in the Islamic fleet, and then raised and lowered repeatedly in and out of the water. Lastly, the general was brought to the town square, stripped naked, and tied up with his hands bound above his head. Then, he was slowly skinned alive from head to toe by the executioner. His flesh was stuffed like a doll and hoisted once again on the highest mast of the Muslim fleet and paraded around as a trophy. Word spread of the evil which laid waste to Cyprus, reaching all corners of the world of Christendom, and beckoning righteous souls to stand against the army of darkness marching upon their shores.
Light Shines Into the Dark
Word of the dark march of the Islamic empire was known long before the invasion of Cyprus. Pope Pius V had established the Holy League some months before in May. However, there was still much division among the world of Christendom. Despite the existential threat they faced, it was difficult to get people to work together in a coordinated effort. That changed for many when news of the horrors inflicted on the island nation of Cyprus spread.
One of the first to learn the fate of General Bragadin and Famagusta’s survivors was Don Juan of Austria, also known as “John” of Austria. At 22 years of age, he was given command of the entire joint fleet of the Holy League that was ordered to defend Italy and the Mediterranean Sea from the dark forces of the Ottomans. They were shocked to learn they would be arriving too late. Many under his command were also uncertain and hesitant about the effort entrusted to them. Christendom stood divided in their hearts from the Reformations, despite them all being together in that moment. However, once they learned of the evils which had transpired on Cyprus at the behest of the Muslim invaders, their shed their hesitations like a dead skin and stood renewed in their certainty of what they must do. It was up to them to stop the world from plunging into darkness, and them alone. If they failed, the world would fall, and evil, tyranny, slavery, and repression would spread to consume all the lands as the light was snuffed out from every corner of the Earth.
The Holy League was a joint force consisting of brave souls from Spain, Venice, Genoa, the Papal States, Savoy, Urbino, Tuscany, as well as from the Order of Saint Stephen, and the Knights of Malta. They all held different beliefs and generally did not work together following the massive division caused by the Reformation. It was rare to see them together, and certainly rare to see them on the same side of a coming battle. However, they all knew what was at stake for them and their children should they fail to come together on this day and find victory for their people. Hundreds of thousands of Christians had been abducted and forced into slavery at the hands of the Muslim forces. If the dark army was not stopped, it would spell doom for the whole world.
And so, the combined forces of the Holy League followed their young leader Don Juan straight into the belly of the beast with courage and bravery, against a foe which threatened to swallow the Earth. The whole joint fleet joined in prayer to God on their approach. They prayed for protection from the foe they were about to face and for the strength to overcome any threats to life, liberty, and the seeds of the free world.
Shadow Recedes and Darkness Pushed Back
The joint Christian fleet arrived to find themselves outnumbered. About 200 ships of the Holy League carrying 60,000 souls faced down almost 300 Turkish vessels with over 84,000 Muslim swords. Naval combat at the time relied largely on attaching ships and engaging in melee combat, as ranged weapons were not yet so advanced. The Holy League approached the invaders in two lines, and the Turkish fleet prepared to fight for their claim in their signature crescent formation. Many of the ships of the Holy League sailed into battle emblazoned with a crucifix on their hull. The wooden cross on the flagship of the joint fleet, the La Real, remains on display in Barcelona to this day.
Don Juan took point with his ships at the front of the formation, alongside the large, heavily-armored ships with the new cannons which the Turkish forces likely had never seen before. The Knights of Malta were behind Don Juan’s attachment in reserve, with the Venetian ships on the left flank close to the shoreline and the Genoese fleet on the right. The sailed into the waters of the Mediterranean ready to liberate Cyprus and expel the darkness from their lands.
Ali Pasha was at the helm of the Muslim flagship, the Sultana. The windy conditions forced the Turkish fleet to sail forward in a straight line, disrupting their usual crescent formation. The Ottoman forces relied on felling clouds of arrows on their targets as they approached before closing the distance and initiating boarding action.
The battle lasted for five hours as the outnumbered Holy League fought fiercely to break the lines of the dark empire. The long range cannons of the Christian forces wrought havoc on the Turkish fleet before they were close enough to engage with arrows, but eventually the gap was closed. Once in close, the early firearms of the Holy League and their broadside cannons continued to pepper and sink many of the enemy ships. Still, the Ottoman forces managed to unleash many clouds of arrows on the Christian fleet, leaving many of the brave vessels floating dead in the water. However, many warriors of the Holy League were equipped with the latest body armor designed to deflect bullets, which often repelled the wooden arrows of the Muslim forces.
Cannon fire broke the chains keeping many of the Christian slaves in place and rowing the Muslim ships while sitting in their own feces, urine, and blood. As a result, many of the slave rowers were freed and uprisings occurred on the Muslim ships. Meanwhile, the Christian ships were rowed by volunteers who knew what was at stake and gave the battle all their heart. The superior technology of the free market Christian forces gave them access to early firearms which wreaked havoc on the Muslim forces, which had not attracted as many entrepreneurs with their heavy emphasis on slavery and thus still relied entirely on bows and arrows. The freedom fighters of the Holy League may have been outnumbered, but they were by no means outgunned.
The battle raged on and the warriors of Christianity wore down the Turkish slavers with their superior technology and hearts burning with the fire of courage. They suffered heavy losses due to the overwhelming numbers of the Muslim invaders, but eventually the slave-driven fleet of the Ottoman Empire faltered to the forces of light who would later give birth to the free world. The battle reportedly ended after the third attempt to board the Sultana was successful, Ali Pasha was beheaded, and his head mounted on a pike atop the Muslim flagship. The darkness faded and the shadow was forced to retreat as the spirt of the invaders was broken. With the lines of evil shattered, the seas were saved and light returned to the lands. It would seem the prayers of the Holy League were answered, and good triumphed over evil once again.
A Lasting Legacy
The Battle of Lepanto stands tall in human history as one of the great clashes between good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, and liberty versus tyranny. The Turkish slavers of the Ottoman Empire were sent reeling back into the abyss from whence they came by the freedom fighters of the Holy League. The light had prevailed once more over the forces of darkness, and the world was spared from an age of oppression which would have stifled the growth of liberty for centuries more. With the defeat of the darkness at the Battle of Lepanto, the oppressive Muslim expansion was halted and never again took shape in the form of a major military offensive. The division among Islam led to more focus on infighting rather than expansion, and the free world was allowed to be born and to flourish.
To me, the Battle of Lepanto embodies the importance of putting aside our differences and standing together against existential threats to freedom, liberty, and the prosperity of good over evil. During those times, many in the world of Christendom preferred to have peace with the Ottoman Empire in spite of the raids and slavery because it was profitable. Peace is a noble goal, but its pursuit can reach a point where refusing to fight becomes detrimental. When that point is reached, it is critical to put aside our profits and our differences to pick up a sword and slay the forces of evil amassing at our door. That is what the Holy League understood, and it is a timeless lesson to be retaught across the ages.
What do you think of the Battle of Lepanto? Have you ever heard of it before? This is hardly a comprehensive retelling of those events. I would encourage everyone to read more of the world during that time. There are many parallels to the challenges faced today.
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