In the same year that Pope Leo X condemned the errors of the recalcitrant Augustinian, Martin Luther, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire died. It was 1520, and Selim I left the throne of the mighty Turkish Empire to his only surviving son, Suleiman, who would come to be known to history as “the Magnificent.” Every Ottoman sultan was expected to glorify Islam by adding territory to the empire, and the Ottomans’ victorious and bloody march through Christendom since the late fourteenth century showed no signs of slowing at the beginning of the sixteenth.
Suleiman was the grandson of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, but he quickly overshadowed the great achievement of his ancestor. While Mehmet focused on conquering the “Queen of Cities,” Suleiman set out during his forty-six-year reign to conquer the world. His forces conquered Baghdad, Belgrade, Budapest, and Rhodes. As the empire reached what would be its furthest reach, Ottoman military planners knew that land conquests were important but insufficient: control of the seaways was vital. Therefore, the Ottomans embarked on a campaign to control the “center of the world,” the Mediterranean Sea.
Suleiman’s desire to control the Mediterranean was thwarted for a time, however, by a Catholic military religious order: the Knights Hospitallers on the island of Malta. An Ottoman fleet successfully conquered the Knights’ previous home island of Rhodes in 1522, but Suleiman allowed the surviving Christian warriors to leave the island due to their gallant and tenacious defense. The Knights settled on the strategic island of Malta and harassed Ottoman naval vessels for the next thirty years. By 1565, Suleiman could no longer ignore the problem of the Knights, so he assembled an army of 40,000 warriors, a hundred artillery pieces, and one hundred thousand cannonballs and set out to attack Malta. He was certain of the imminent victory of Islam, but once more the Knights would prove their mettle and push back against the Ottoman horde.
The Knights had used Malta as their base of operations for almost forty years when the great Ottoman invasion fleet arrived. The Master General of the Order, Jean de La Valette, a veteran of the siege of Rhodes, knew the situation was desperate, so he sent a summons to all the Knights in Christendom to come to the island’s defense. He recognized that if Malta fell, the Muslims would gain a strategic base from which to launch an invasion of Sicily, Italy, and ultimately the very heart of Christendom, Rome.
The Ottomans arrived on Malta in May 1565 with a 180-ship fleet that sailed into and took the main harbor, unopposed. La Valette had placed his greatly outnumbered troops in several forts around the harbor. The Ottomans disembarked and arranged their camp in a crescent shape, as was their custom. The Christian defense centered on Fort St. Elmo, at the tip of the largest and most strategic peninsula, as it commanded the entrance to the harbor. Recognizing the importance of the fort, the Ottoman commanders decided to attack it on May 25. Ottoman engineers estimated it would fall in four or five days, but their calculation proved substantially incorrect.
As the calendar turned to June, the Ottomans had succeeded in capturing only the outer trench. The fight was brutal, seeing bitter hand-to-hand combat, heavy sniper activity, and a near-continuous Ottoman artillery barrage. Although the defenders fought bravely, it was only a matter of time before the fort would fall.
The defenders knew the end was near when a cannonball decapitated the fort’s commander on the twenty-sixth day of the siege. The Ottomans launched what proved to be the last attack on June 23 against the sixty Christian defenders remaining (out of an original strength of 1500). Only five ultimately survived the siege. The Ottoman commander (Mustapha Pasha) hoped to demoralize the remaining Christian troops across the harbor so he ordered some of the bodies of the dead Knights stripped of their armor, their hearts ripped out and heads cut off. Each headless corpse was then marked with a cross cut into the chest and nailed by the hands and feet to a wooden crucifix, which was placed into the water to float across the harbor to the remaining Christian defenses. La Valette responded to the Ottoman atrocity by beheading captured Muslim soldiers, loading the heads into his cannons, and firing them into the Muslim camp.
This grotesque exchange illustrates the fact that both sides knew this was a fight to the death, and that the stakes both for the Islamic caliphate and for Christendom could not be higher.
Those who died at Fort St. Elmo gave the other defenders of Malta time to consolidate and reinforce their positions, but the respite was short-lived. Fighting was intense through the month of July, and in early August an Ottoman assault nearly broke the Christian defenses. The hour was so desperate that even Maltese civilians, including women and children, manned the walls to push back the Turks. The remaining days of August were filled with intense trench combat that produced a stalemate, and casualties on both sides were heavy.
The Christian defenders received news on September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the arrival of the long-awaited Spanish relief force in eighty ships. A few days later, on September 11, 1565, the Spanish reinforcements began their march towards the harbor to relieve La Valette’s troops. Aware of their vulnerability, the Ottoman commanders tried a risky, and ultimately futile, attack against the Spanish relief force. The fresh Spanish forces easily routed the Ottoman troops, who were wearied after four months of heavy fighting.
The Ottomans retreated hastily to their waiting ships in St. Paul’s Bay, the famous site of St. Paul’s shipwreck fifteen centuries before, and sailed home. Malta was saved and with it, Christendom. Pope Pius IV offered La Valette the cardinal’s hat for his valiant and brilliant defense of Malta, but the humble warrior refused the offer. He lived another five years, dying from a stroke after returning from a hunt on a hot summer day. He was buried on the island he so nobly defended.