(Book Review: Islam at the Gates: How Christendom Defeated the Ottoman Turks by Dr. Diane Moczar; Sophia Press.)
It is my habit when I sit down to read a book, with the intention of reviewing it, to take pen in hand in order to mark off the most important, most interesting, and most striking passages. Half a dozen pages into Islam at the Gates this practice became counterproductive. Every page was filled with stars, brackets, exclamation marks and marginal comments, so much so, that my enjoyment of this gem was being hampered by constantly interrupting the reading of it to write some kind of notation. So, I decided that I would give it a reading once through, then return for a reread, making my usual marks at that time.
Dr. Moczar refers to the history of the Ottoman Turks as “a drama — a tragedy — in five acts.” We are currently living in Act Five of the drama. The subject of this book is Act Four. In order to understand Acts Four and Five, the book begins with a quick background review of Acts One through Three. Act One includes the emergence of the new religion of Islam in the mid-seventh century out of the Arabian Peninsula and into the Christian lands of North Africa, Spain, Palestine and Syria. Spread by “the new chosen people,” the Arabs, often by the sword (or jihad, a term with which we have become unsettlingly familiar), Islam was considered for a time as just another heretical Christian sect. After all, many Christological heresies had arisen early on in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, far from Rome and papal authority. Here the Eastern emperors in Constantinople jealously guarded their version of Catholic Orthodoxy, and, as a result, five ecumenical counsels had to be called, three in Asia Minor and two in the imperial city, to settle doctrinal issues in the two centuries before the advent of Mohammedanism.
Acts Two and Three
Act Two encompasses the conquests of the followers of the new religion in its early days — the Arabs riding north and west from their peninsula as far as Spain and Portugal, even into southern France, where they were stopped at the Battle of Tours/Poitiers by Charles Martel in 732. The Iberian Peninsula endured their occupation for almost eight hundred years, until they were finally expelled by Los Reyes Catolicos in 1492. Some may think that the Arab Muslims were “more benevolent” than the succeeding Turks, and while that may be true, considering the vicious barbarity of the latter, the Arabs were far from benign conquerors. The Arabian Muslims and the North African Berbers (both are referred to as Moors) destroyed churches and monasteries, sold their Christian captives into slavery, dehumanized and humiliated the dhimmi (Christians and Jews living under them who refused conversion), and were not above attempting conversion by torture (or threat of it). For example, in 1066, the entire Jewish population of Granada, about 3,000, was massacred; in eighth-century Armenia and Syria, Christians were herded into their own churches and burned alive for refusing to apostatize.
Act Three brings us to the replacement of the Arab Muslims as the main anti-Christian force with the Seljuk Turks, beginning in the eleventh century. Byzantium was weakening while new waves of Turkic tribes moved westward out of the steppes. With the disastrous defeat of the Christians at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Eastern Empire was left defenseless and the Seljuks moved into former Arab Muslim holdings, including Palestine. Constantinople begged the Western Catholic powers time and time again for help against the new foe; usually the only sympathetic respondent was the Pope. Apparently, the kings of Europe were too embroiled in their own squabbles to realize the threat that faced them in the East. As we know, the Crusaders did attempt to protect the Holy Land for Christianity, and they were successful for a time, but, after two hundred years of fighting, Palestine eventually fell completely to the Muslims with the loss of Tripoli (1289) and the Fall of Acre (1291).
Up to this point, Dr. Moczar makes it perfectly clear that it was the Muslims who were the aggressors in these first six hundred years of conquest. It did not matter if they were Arab, Berber, Seljuk or Ottoman; they were on the march and jihad was their religion.
Which now brings us to the next six hundred years and the main body of the book — Act Four — the entrance of the Ottomans upon the scene.
The Ottoman Turkish Empire began with just another tribe of Turkic nomads on the move from the East. It was the adoption of Islam that really gave these nomads la cause de guerre. With the ascendancy of Osman as leader (from whose name the Empire takes its own), this relatively unimportant tribe of nomads developed a cohesiveness that gave them the push to begin what would become a gigantic, far-flung empire that encompassed lands from the Persian Gulf in the east to the Balkans, Greece, and even to “Gates” of western Europe — an empire that lasted for more than twelve hundred years. Osman Bey (General) won battle after battle, beginning in 1301 with the defeat of the Greeks in the Battle of Baphaeon; his son, Orhan Bey succeeded him and drew recruits from other tribes because of his continued successes in battle. The Ottomans were on the move!
The year 1354 marks the fateful step from Asia into Europe. After victories all over Asia Minor, sadly, with the collaboration and co-operation of some Christian Byzantines, the Turks gained a foothold in Europe, moving out from their launching spot on the peninsula of Gallipoli. It must be remembered that Christianity, especially in the East, was not at all united. There were petty jealousies and rivalries all over the Balkans, Greece, Thrace, Serbia, and elsewhere. The Ottomans were clever to take advantage of that situation. As they advanced, they also took advantage of uneducated Christians, Christians in name only, who were ignorant of the Creed and more easily persuaded to save their skin by apostasy.
The Driving Force
As the author, Dr. Moczar points out, the driving force for the conquering Ottoman Turks was always one thing — jihad! Eliminating the unbeliever by the sword (or other slower, more excruciating means) if he refused to convert, taking his lands, his wealth, his women and his children were commonplace. In fact, there is even evidence that Murad, the son of Orhan, who succeeded him as sultan, engaged in human sacrifice. This should not have been allowed under Islamic law. Was it a holdover from earlier pagan days? Dr. Moczar considers this likely, but this barbaric reversion, mixed with the low regard that the Turks held for the lives of their slaves and other subjugated people, certainly contributed to their engaging in this satanic practice.
The history of the Ottoman Turks is so turbulent and complex that it is impossible to do it justice here. I decided, therefore, to select a few of the many highlights of the succeeding two hundred pages, which covered those six hundred years, in order to encourage our readers to make this exceedingly interesting and important book a welcome addition to their library.
The Ottomans had a peculiar “advance force” of troops, the likes of which had never before been seen in history. These fanatical troops practiced a type of Islamic mysticism. It was their job to whip up the spirits of the real fighting men of the army, while at the same time striking fear into the opposition. They screamed and hollered, they whooped, and some of them whirled. The effect they had on the poor innocent Christian settlers in lands being overrun by the Turks was to make them give up and run away! Dr. Moczar states that their importance cannot be understated.
The Practice of Devsirme
It was commonplace for the Ottomans to capture as many slaves from the conquered populations as they could. These could be used for their own purposes or sold in slave markets. However, the brutal practice of devsirme developed over a period of time. It was the “boy tribute” required of the poor wretches who lived under their rule. Each year, every family had to give up one or more of their sons aged fourteen to twenty. These young Christians would be taken to the Sultan’s court to be raised as good Muslims. They were educated to serve in the diplomatic corps or to become members of the elite fighting Janissaries. They could never marry, but could rise to relatively high positions at court. (I related the exciting story of Scanderbeg, the Albanian Janissary who returned to his Christian roots in my review of Dr. Moczar’s Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know.) It is estimated that about one fifth of the children of Eastern Europe, numbering possibly one million, were taken by the Ottomans in this heartless manner.
The institution of içoglan — the stealing of younger boys aged six to ten was practiced as well for a similar purpose. Given the penchant for Turkish pederasty, the fate of many of these children must have been horrible.
Of course, the greatest loss for these youngsters was that of their homeland, their families, and, most of all, their Faith.
The Fall of Constantinople
A new sultan, Mehemmed II, ascended to the throne in 1453 when he was only twenty one years-of-age. He determined that it was time to conquer the great Christian city of Constantinople for Islam. He began by building two large forts nearby. The Eastern emperor, Constantine XI, who had accepted the Union with Rome of the Council of Florence (signed by his predecessor, John VIII and the Greek Patriarch in 1439), sent urgent messages to Rome in the hopes that Western armies might march eastward and help them defend the city. Sadly, the theological differences between the eastern Christians and their western counterparts so divided them that many of the Orthodox who opposed the Union believed “better the turban than the tiara.” Catholic leaders held almost equal antipathy toward their Orthodox Christian brothers, citing the failure of the Greek schismatics to join them in the Crusades. Mehemmed’s army of eighty thousand (by some accounts) marched on Constantinople in early April. The defenders had a pitifully small number of soldiers, perhaps two thousand, and whoever else could bear arms. The great city’s defense was always its massive walls, which in one thousand years had never been breached.
Mehemmed had a secret weapon, a huge cannon, thirty feet long whose half-ton shot could blow holes in any wall. Although slow and cumbersome, the new siege weapon pulverized the thick walls into powder. After six weeks, and much gnashing of teeth, especially Mehemmed’s when things weren’t going his way, the Sultan threw everything he had into the final siege. The Christians prepared themselves for the end by gathering into the great cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, both Catholic and Orthodox, confessing and receiving the Sacrament from their respective priests.
When the Turks poured through the great breaks in the wall, the brave Emperor Constantine threw off his royal attire and fought — and died — like a common soldier. As was the wont of the Turks, the city was given over to pillage and looting, killing, and rapine. The “useless” — the old, infirm, infants — were slain mercilessly. The “useful” were taken as slaves or for the Sultan’s harems.
Dr. Moczar compares the practice of the Ottomans in commandeering Christian churches and turning them into mosques or museums to the same practice engaged in by Russian Communists. Sadly, many of the higher-ups of the Orthodox co-operated with their Ottoman conquerors in an attempt to save their own skins. Many times, that strategy did not work.
Naturally, the Turks’ great victory of capturing the Eastern Christian capital energized their zeal for further conquest, and conquer they did, moving closer and closer into Europe with each victory.
We will speak briefly of Famagusta because it became the battle cry for the final victory — of the good side this time — at Lepanto. Selim II the Sot was now sultan. Some of his underlings convinced him that the island of Cyprus, in Venetian hands, produced magnificent wines. Selim was not a patch on his predecessor, Suleiman the Magnificent. His primary interest was drinking wine and writing poetry extolling its virtues. So in 1571, he readily agreed about Cyprus and made an attack on the island, expecting the Orthodox inhabitants to come over to the Turkish side. Three months into the siege, they still had not breached the walls of Famagusta, the island’s capital. By this time, the inhabitants of the city were beginning to starve, and their general, Bragadino, agreed to terms of surrender: all the inhabitants would be spared and allowed to leave the island. This would not be the first time, nor the last, that the Turks reneged on terms of surrender. When the two generals met to hand over the keys to the city, harsh words were exchanged, and as they say, one thing led to another. General Bragadino’s attendants were hacked to pieces, his young pages were carried off in chains, and the city’s residents were massacred. Poor General Bragadino had his nose and ears cut off, was subjected to even further humiliation, and was finally flayed alive when he refused to convert. He died whispering prayers. His skin was stuffed and paraded around and finally flown from the flagship of the Ottoman general. Nice folks, those Ottomans!
As usual, the monarchs of Europe were not to be relied upon to send help against the Turks. Some of them — Elizabeth of England, Charles IX of France — were even allied with the enemy. Philip II of Spain was much occupied with his American ventures. The one person who saw the reality of the danger was Pope Pius V. When he called for troops, the best he got was the half brother of Philip II, Don Juan of Austria, but he was good enough. A Holy League was formed consisting of the Papal States, Spain, and Venice (who was an on-again-off-again ally of the Turks). The Catholic sea powers of the Italian peninsula joined them. Don Juan managed to assemble 208 ships, fewer than the Turks, but, as it turned out, enough.
Help was sent from the Archbishop of Mexico in the form of a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, still unknown in Europe. She flew from the flagship of Admiral Andrea Doria. Pius V marshaled the Catholic world to say Rosaries for victory. When word reached the fleet of the atrocities at Famagusta, the crusaders, particularly Bragadino’s two brothers who were ship commanders, were galvanized for battle. The forces engaged on October 7, 1571. For the exciting “rest of the story” of Lepanto, read the book!
Other Ottoman Atrocities
It is hardly impossible to imagine brutality as severe as that of the Ottoman Turks against Christians. However, the Turks were not so nice to each other, either. Naturally, when the sultan has a harem full of “wives,” many children ensue. It was common practice for the next in line to the throne to secure his position by getting rid of other claimants. These could include his own brothers and nephews. How, you ask, was this done? Well, it was not permitted to shed royal blood by stabbing or running through with the sword. The preferred method of doing away with one’s rivals was by having them strangled!
The final ten pages of this book encompass a fascinating summary of the “whys” and “what-ifs” of the Ottoman incursion into Europe. It is a fascinating read and I will tempt you only by saying that Dr. Moczar quotes one of my favorite Catholic writers, Hillaire Belloc, who predicted that there will be a resurgence of Muslim military power in the future. (Belloc wrote in the 1930’s.) On the other side, she quotes Lybian dictator Moammar Gadhafi who boasted in a speech in 2006 that “the fifty million Muslims of Europe will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades, without guns, without conquests.” Anyone with eyes to see knows that the latter is happening right now.
This is a fascinating — and frightening — story of saints and sinners, brave and cowardly kings, Catholic heroes of many nations — some whose names we know and some who will remain known only to God — who lived in perilous but exciting times. You will do yourself a great service to read, and re-read, this wonderful book.
Purchase the book, Islam at the Gates: How Christendom Defeated the Ottoman Turks by Dr. Diane Moczar; Sophia Press at store.Catholicism.org!