Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Here I Stand Up to My Ankles in the Med - The Last Crusaders

Last year I spent my holiday with the family on Rhodes, the smallish Greek island with a grand history, just off the Turkish coast. Cities sprang up here around 3,000 years ago, providing legendary Olympic boxing champions and some great classical philosophers. Later, its rethorical schools provided crucial stages in the education of the Roman elite, among whom Caesar. However, the civil war that ended the republic of Rome also led to the destruction of Rhodes.

The island never returned to those glory days, but slowly recovered under the Byzantines and the Genoese. A third golden (or rather silver) age occurred under the rule of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem between 1309 and 1522. The Knights ended up on Rhodes after choosing the better part of valour by leaving the Holy Land in 1291. Although they first found shelter on Cyprus, the destruction of their fellow crusading order, the Templars, by the French king in 1305 suggested that they'd better get a place for themselves and prove themselves still relevant as a crusading force.

In 1306 a small expeditionary force took two strongholds on Rhodes and in 1309 the Hospitallers agreed a deal to take over the whole island, including its strategic port in the capital. From then on they preyed on Muslim ships (and a lot of Christian ones as well), expanding their outposts to surrounding islands and the Turkish mainland. The Mameluke rulers of Egypt tried to retaliate by besieging Rhodes unsuccessfully in 1440 and again four years later.

But the fall of Byzantium in 1453, the position of the island so close to the Ottoman mainland and across its commercial arteries effectively doomed the Knights' presence. And this is where my choice for holiday reading nicely intersected. I brought along Barnaby Rogerson's The Last Crusaders, which covers the struggle for control of the Mediterranean between 1450 and 1590. What better excuse than to put the great sieges of Rhodes in 1480 and 1522 in the bigger picture? Also, I had just received my copy of the reprinted boardgame Here I Stand, which just begged for some background knowledge to the game.

For players of Here I Stand, the Mediterranean may appear like a minor theatre compared to the epic struggle of the Reformation. And true, the climax of the struggle between Spain and the Ottomans lies beyond the scope of the game. But the southern conflicts already drew much of the attention of the Habsburgs before the big climax of the 1560s and 70s. Francis I, king of France, entered into an alliance with the Turkish Sultan to keep Charles V off balance. The great advance of Suleyman through the Balkans occurred at the same time as the battle of Pavia and the sack of Rome. Later, Charles himself chose to organise his own crusades to Tunis and Algiers rather than take on the Protestants in Germany. Therefore, The Last Crusaders is an excellent companion for putting the game in perspective.

The book is a well written narrative of the developments in the major powers in this conflict: Portugal, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Moroccan dynasties and the Barbary corsairs. It first describes their rise in the late 15th century and then the clashes in the 16th century, culminating in the epic sieges and battles of the 1560s and 1570s, such as Malta, Cyprus and Lepanto. After that, Rogerson contends, all parties involved decided that the cost of control of the Mediterranean were too high and diverted limited means from other crucial conflicts. They either disinvested their overseas commitments or accepted a de facto truce that would never be broken.

Not only is the book fully within the narrative tradition, it also is heavily dependent on biography. All the main players' life and character are sketched in detail, while even the relatively minor cast gets ample attention. In this book, their ideas, childhood trauma's and anxieties determine policies, rather than geopolitical considerations. This provides for a much better read than more analytical studies, but tends to obscure a few larger developments that Rogerson has skilfully woven into the book. Rather than summarise it all, I'm going to pick out those from the book that drew my attention and are relevant to Here I Stand, but I think there is a lot more in the books than what I touch upon here. For example, there's great stuff on the famous corsair captains such as the Barbarossa brothers, Dragut and Uluj Ali and the role of Jewish merchants in the markets for military goods.

Rogerson is a travel writer and historian with long experience in Africa and the Middle East. I only realised while reading the book that I'd already consumed another book by Rogerson, The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad, which covers the history of the first Caliphs and the schism between the Sunni and Shia in the years immediately following the death of Muhammad. A very engaging and interesting book in itself, the main point for my story here is that Rogerson has a pretty good understanding of the Muslim world and the political implications of religion.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the initial weak legitimacy of the Ottoman dynasty, having no direct hereditary links to the Prophet. On the one hand it influenced their plans for conquest to the point that they strove to control religiously important centres like Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina and to appear as defenders of the faith. On the other hand it also increased the intensity of the conflict following the Shia revival of Persia under sha Ismail, which posed a powerful millenarian alternative to Ottoman rule.

Considerations of religiously founded legitimacy also played its part in the rise of the dynasty in Morocco in response to Portuguese expansion. The Sufi brotherhood traditionally organised communal charity and education and mediated between warring tribes. The authority they derived from these religiously valued activities gave them greater legitimacy when taking up the struggle against the foreign invaders, be they Portuguese, Spanish or Ottoman. It allowed them to first usurp the role of the traditional rulers of southern Morocco, and later to unify the country under their rule.

Religion of course also played a role for the Christians. On the one hand in the crusading tradition of the knightly orders, but also in the sanction of royal rule. After the conquest of Granada in 1492 the pope elevated the Spanish monarch to 'Catholic Kings', which was a major boost to the weak claims of Isabella of Castile to her throne. The crusading tradition strongly supported the position of the Portuguese kings against their Braganza rivals. This could also have negative effects when viewed from a geopolitical perspective, as attempts to strengthen control over Morocco for a long time came at the expense of expansion into Asia and the New World.

But apart from legitimising new and older ruling dynasties, the holy war also became political and part of the process of state formation. Both in Portugal and Spain the knightly orders were put under royal control, and even mere promises of crusade could garner Papal and noble support for extra taxation. The pope granted the 'Catholic Kings' unprecedented control of the clergy and the Inquisition, which became an important tool in keeping the nobility and commercial classes in order.

And strengthening the state was crucial to participate in the game of power and conquest. Access to the new technology and the ability to use it on a grand scale now determined the outcome of military conflict (showing the influence of Rogerson's former tutor Geoffrey Parker). The period covered in this book is that of the military revolution, which was driven by the increasingly destructive power of siege guns which in turn necessitated improved fortifications.

Also, the power struggle required larger armies for longer campaigns, including more specialised troops like gunners and engineers. This necessitated the use of mercenaries rather than noble contingents. Major campaigns now took years of preparation including fleet building programmes and the establishment of vast arsenals.

The Ottomans built up the most powerful siege park which allowed them to blast through the walls of Byzantium, Cairo, Rhodes and Belgrade but also field artillery that won them battles like Mohacs. Use of ships as gun platforms gave the Spanish, Venetians and their allies victory in the climactic battle of Lepanto in 1571. But the large scale use of state of the art machinery drove up the bill and made states seek sources of revenue and intensify the pressure on traditional sources.

By the end of the period all players in the book had mastered the new rules of the military revolution. The Portuguese were driven from Morocco by improved gunnery which made the cost of maintaining their trading posts on the coast prohibitive. Spain was driven from Tunis and Tripoli. The Ottomans were stuck at the end of their logistic lines and economic ability to support expenses.

All this conflict was accompanied by large scale destruction of human lives and property. Sieges with horrendous casualties were followed by brutal sacks which left cities depopulated. Religious minorities were force to convert or cast out with similar results, although the refugees from Spain and Portugal repopulated cities abroad such as Tetouan in Morocco and Thessaloniki in Ottoman Greece (as well as Antwerp and later Amsterdam). Ironically, this greatly damaged the Portuguese and Spanish economies in the long run.

Rogerson is keen to point out that at this time the Muslim world was more civilised and sophisticated than the Christian. Standards of personal hygiene and personal modesty were higher, but also tolerance for other religions. To me this kind of discussion of moral high ground is always touchy, especially because Christianity and Islam have gone through different developments since then which tend to cloud our interpretation. The picture is mixed at best and bleak in any case by today's western standards.

The added taxation of the Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire and especially the forced release and conversion of part of the youth if Christian communities surely didn't mean life under the Turk was hunky dory, but for Jews it was certainly better than forced conversion or expulsion as in large parts of Europe. In some cases, as on Cyprus in 1571, the Ottomans were greeted as liberators by Christians. As far as slavery was concerned there was little difference in attitude between Muslims and Christians, and the Ottomans would persecute the heretical Kizilbas movement as bitterly as the Habsburgs would go after the Protestants.

According to Rogerson, the Hospitallers came out on the worse side of the spectrum, contrary to what present day tourist guides of Rhodes would like to you to believe. Some Byzantine possessions refused their offer of protection and rather faced the Ottomans unaided. They raided Muslim and Christian shipping indiscriminately and used the captives to row their galleys. Jewish refugees from Spain were sold by them into slavery. To their merit, however, they provided some of the best medical care to everyone.

All in all the behaviour of the order and the strategic position of the island made Ottoman attack inevitable. The knights withstood the first Ottoman siege in 1480 by a whisker, and were only saved by the struggle for the succession of Mehmet the Conqueror a year later. A rebuilding programme significantly strengthened the defenses but the next attempt in 1522 ended with the honourable retreat of the Knights of St John to Malta, where they withstood yet another Ottoman siege in 1565 and continued their activities until Napoleon conquered the island.

Rhodes spent several mostly quiet centuries under Ottoman rule until the Italians conquered it in 1912. Apart from a sprinkling of nice old mosques in the capital and a colonial extension of the town the impact of these two peoples seems limited. Rhodes is now a Greek holiday island much like the others in atmosphere, but with that historical bonus of a few largely intact fortresses. I heartily recommend a visit.

Full disclosure: I have no connections whatsoever to the Greek Bureau of Tourism.

This post appeared earlier on Fortress Ameritrash.


  1. Looks like a goood trip! I really enjoyed that book as well and was considering a trip to Malta some time as a result. I might switch to Rhodes instead now.

  2. BTW - interesting to see Here I Stand has been reprinted. I've played part of a game of Here I Stand online, and while I'm not sure about the game itself, it did generate some ideas for how to handle conversion and heresy in a potential medieval megagame that I might get around to some time...

  3. It was a good trip, although I didn't get to see as much of the town and fortresses as I'd have liked. There's a limit to the amount of rocks young kids can put up with, apparently. But there's other stuff on the island worth visiting in terms of remains of ancient cities ruins, akropoles, Hospitaller castles and Italian colonial architecture. I'd say that Rhodes and Malta are about even in those terms. Both could keep you pleasantly occupied for a week.

    The trouble with the game is that it has a high threshold to surmount before you can play and it takes looong. I've managed to get the required number of players together on two occassions, but enthusiasm quickly dissipated because of rules and slowness. I'm still eager to try one of the other multiplayer CDGs like Successors.


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