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The Great Siege as seen from the Turkish perspective

Arnold Cassola: Süleyman the Magnificent and Malta 1965: Decisions, Concerns and Consequences. 2017.

There are probably few sieges written about more than the 1565 Siege of Malta, but much of it is written from the Christian side, which the Order of St John in Malta so dough­tily defended. Cassola is, I think, the only Maltese scholar to have written entirely on it as seen from the Turkish Ottoman viewpoint in his 1994 book The Great Siege of Malta and the Istanbul State archives, his 1998 book written with Idris Bos­tan and Thomas Scheben, The 1565 Ottoman ‘Malta Campaign” register, and in now this book under review.

The transcription by the Turkish authorities of two archival volumes referring to the Siege, from Otto­man Turkish into modern Turkish, has made their study easier to a broader band of scholars. Both the 1998 volume and the present 2017 volume, co-authored by Cassola, have greatly benefited by this.

This volume is important as it goes into Süleyman’s detailed pre­pa­rations for the Maltese campaign, which involved employing  tens of thousands of soldiers and a good many warships and auxiliary ships. While he instructed his governors general, or beylerbeyi, to provide specified numbers of men, he made sure that during the campaign his fortifications remained well garrisoned. Some other senior officials were detailed to provide men for particular regiments. He also sent instructions about the baking and provision of ship’s biscuits to last during the campaign and on the return journey.

The book makes it clear, as did previous volumes, that not all the warriors were recompensed with just wages. Some were rewarded with a timar, a small military fief. During the siege of Malta, when warriors having a timar died, comrades would speedily request that the fief be assigned to them.

Cassola shows that Süleyman was keen on victory in Malta for reasons both political and personal. When his army and fleet returned to Istanbul, having suffered a great defeat, Süleyman did not raise a fuss, which made some scholars reluctant to admit that the Malta campaign was a great blow to him. It is more reasonable to con­clude that, towards the end of a long and largely victorious life, he put up a fake show of indifference to something of importance having gone wrong. He must have made sure that his expressions of indignation were not in any way reflected in the official written record.

The archives record instructions, for instance, to bring three ship­loads of provisions in August when things were still not going disastrously with the siege, and some successes were being achieved, such as the capture on three occasions of Christian frigates trying to slip through the Ottoman navy. They also record the fierce assaults on Fort St Michael and on Birgu’s Post of Castille, led by commander-in-chief Mustapha Pasha himself. According to Balbi’s diary of the siege, the latter was stunned when his turban was knocked off by a shot and had to remain in hiding in a ditch until night fell.

Süleyman in Istanbul was far from Malta, so news about what was going on reached him after a long delay. Thus, he did not learn of Fort Elmo’s capture until four weeks had passed. He did not see at the time the map commissioned by Mustapha following the capture of that fort, a map, now at the Topkapi Palace Museum, illustrated on page 102. The quality of the illustration does not seem very good, but careful study shows the Order’s flag flying over Birgu and Senglea, surrounded by the Ottoman forces. The map was meant to raise Turkish morale even further following the fall of St Elmo, but perhaps it was never shown to Süleyman when he knew the outcome of the whole campaign.

The volume has several illustrations in colour and a few in black and white. A good number of them are somewhat small in size, but as the quality is frequently good, they give a good idea of the Ottoman soldiers’ uniform and accoutrements. The reproductions of bust portraits of the Ottoman leaders, such as one of Piyale Pasha on page 32, are often good, but it is easy to imagine that the one of Turgut Reis (Dragut) on page 61 was made long after the warrior’s death below the walls of St Elmo during the siege.

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