Ottoman fleet carrying 40,000 of the world's elite warriors set sail from
Constantinople, bound for the tiny island of Malta. The island was defended
by 500 Knights of St. John, 8,000 militia, and every woman and child who
could light a fuse or overturn a pot of boiling oil. On the 18th of May, the
massive fleet was sighted. A fast galley was dispatched, carrying an urgent
message to the Christian rulers of Europe:
The battle for Malta had begun.
The Histories of the Middle Sea
by Darius, called the Preserver
Court Historian to the Sultan Achmet
“It is well
recorded that in the third year of his reign, Suleiman had driven the
Order from their fortress of Rhodes. The young sultan was greatly moved
by the gallantry of the knights who so bravely defended their island.
Rather than executing those who survived, as was his right, he showed
them mercy, allowing them to sail away in exile. He did so after the
grand master, L’Isle Adam, gave his solemn oath that the Order of St.
John would never again raise arms against the Ottomans.
was broken as quickly as it was made. Even now the knights interfered
with the holy pilgrimage of the faithful to Mecca, and their raids grew
bolder with time. In recent years the Order had taken nearly fifty
Muslim ships. Most lately Romegas had captured the Sultana, a
ship owned collectively by the chief white eunuch, the women of the
seraglio, and the sultan’s own daughter, Mirahmar. Her favorite nurse,
an old woman, was taken captive along with the governor of Alexandria,
and of course the ship’s holds were brimming with precious cargo. In the
great ebb and flow of events of empire, it was but a minor thorn in
Suleiman’s side, yet it inspired the mullahs to soaring rhetoric in
their calls for jihad against the godless knights. It was one thing to
plunder, the mullahs said, but the Order’s interference with the
pilgrimage was an affront to Allah.
To capture the island of the knights would right an old
wrong and give the Ottomans command of a strategic jewel, permitting the
sultan to marshal his forces there should he decide to move against
Sicily and Italy. Time was critical, Suleiman’s viziers counseled him,
for the Christian allies remained weak after their great defeat at
Djerba. It was important to strike before they could regain their
advantage lay in the disarray of the European courts and the diplomatic
isolation of the knights. It did not require an astute observer to see
that there would be precious little help to the island from the
Christian princes of Europe. The German emperor was occupied with his
own borders, which the Ottomans were harrying at every opportunity. The
French king Charles was a mere boy of fourteen, and firmly under the
thumb of his mother, Catherine de Médicis. Mother was leading son on a
tour of France, which was preoccupied by the religious conflicts that
would so consume it in years to come. Why journey a fortnight to kill a
Turk when there were so many Huguenots near at hand? Besides, the king
had treaties with the Porte to honor, treaties of commerce and
prosperity. While Charles would give no aid to Suleiman, the many French
knights among the Order would simply have to fend for themselves, with
the good wishes of a grateful king.
English queen would sit upon her Protestant throne and lament the loss
of a Christian citadel, but her hand was too weak to be raised in
defense of a nest of troublesome Catholic knights, particularly if in so
doing she might lend aid to the Spanish. The pope had few troops, and
what little money he had was dedicated to exterminating the Calvinists
and Lutherans seething like serpents at his door.
Philip, the Spanish king, was in a position to do anything at all. If
Malta fell, it was his own soft Sicilian belly that would next feel the
sting of the Ottoman scorpion. Yet his resources were spread thin, and
his long-standing enmity with other European rulers only added to his
Suleiman believed that the Maltese themselves so hated the foreign
knights who ruled them that they would do little to help them in a
time to strike.”
— From Volume VII
The Great Campaigns: Malta
An excerpt from Ironfire
Book Six: The Siege
18 May, 1565
heard the rumble of cannon fire from St. Angelo.
He scrambled to the entrance
of the cave and slipped outside. A moment later he stood atop the hill by
the carob tree, from where he had a grand view. Although he had been
expecting the sight for months, the scale of it stunned him.
“May Elohim preserve us.” His
voice was but a whisper.
Elli clambered up from below
and stood next to him. Huffing from the exertion, she took her husband’s
hand in her own. A moment later Elena and Moses joined them, and then Cawl,
Villano, and Cataldo and their families. They stood in silence, trying to
absorb the enormity of it. Even Moses stopped his play and straddled his
mother’s hip, staring in silent awe.
The sun was just rising,
burning away the predawn mists to reveal an Ottoman sea. The horizon was a
forest of masts and sails, above a solid field of ships of every
description. Still some distance away, the fleet sailed in the form of an
arrowhead, moving inevitably, almost casually, toward the island. At the
point of the arrow were the galleys, their oars waving and dipping, their
goose-winged lateen sails stretched before them. Behind them were the larger
galliots, and behind those the roundships, merchantmen of two thousand tons
or more, very high fore and aft, their decks a woodland of pikes and
halberds, the turbans and helmets and blades of the soldiers providing
bright splashes of color and flashes of light. There were flags and banners
and pennons of every description, heralding the identities of the pashas and
aghas and their proud regiments. Every deck bulged with guns and
stores and men.
Fençu led the others back
inside. It was, he reminded them, the eighth day of the month of Sivan, in
the year 5325 of the Hebrew calendar. His voice echoed off the rock walls as
he led them in prayer.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord
our God, the Lord is One.
“In this time of Shavu’ot,
a time when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, a time when the first fruits
were brought to the Temple, let us remember that death is not a tragedy, but
a beginning. In this, thy temple of M’korHakhayyim that is the source
of life, O God, let thine enemies who breach its spaces know the might of
When his prayer was finished
they drank goat’s milk sweetened with honey. Elena and Cawl ran outside to
bring in all the chickens and their three remaining goats. Maria had taken
the rest with her to Birgu. The cook fire was put out for fear the smoke
might be seen. Fençu
cut the throat of one of the goats and butchered
it. The other goats would follow sooner or later, depending on when the
Turks might come close enough to hear them bleating.
The Jews of M’kor Hakhayyim
took up their posts, to watch and wait.
In Birgu, in the conventual
chapel of St. Lawrence, where it was the eighteenth day of May, Anno Domini
1565, the Grand Master solemnly addressed his knights. Behind him, resting
in its jeweled silver case on a stand of velvet, was the most sacred of the
Order’s relics, the severed hand of John the Baptist. “A swarm of barbarians
are rushing upon our island. It is the great battle of the Cross and the
Crescent that is now to be fought,” La Valette said, in his voice of iron.
“We are the chosen soldiers of Christ. The hope of all Christendom rests
upon our efforts. If Heaven requires the sacrifice of our lives, there can
be no better occasion than this.” His knights shared the body and blood of
Christ, took up their armor and weapons, and streamed from the church,
racing for their assigned stations.
Aboard the galley Alisa
it was the Sabbath, the seventeenth day of the month of Shawwal, in the year
972 of the Hijrah of the Prophet. Beneath a fluttering green banner of
Mohammed emblazoned with the red crescent of the Ottomans, Asha Raïs
finished his ablutions and knelt on his prayer mat. He faced the rising sun,
pressing his forehead to the mat. He listened to the fervent prayer of the
mokkadem on the flagship, whose voice floated like the morning mists
over the water and through the fleet.
“And those who disbelieve
will be gathered unto hell, that Allah may separate the wicked from the
“The wicked he will place
piece upon piece, and heap them all together, and consign them unto hell.
Such verily are the losers.
“And Allah said, ‘ I will
throw fear into the hearts of those who disbelieve, then smite the necks and
smite of them each finger. . . .’”
In the parish church of St.
Agatha’s in Birgu, Monsignor Domenico Cubelles celebrated Mass, assisted by
his vicar, Giulio Salvago. The bishop called upon the Angel of Death to
strike down the Lord’s enemies.
“In the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. O loving and mysterious Father,
preserve Thy soldiers who fight darkness in Christ’s name. We remember the
words of Jesus, who said, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in
earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of
the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. . . .’”
Women crossed themselves and
clutched their children and wept. Men crossed themselves and clutched their
weapons and set off to their posts.
Across the piazza, the bell
chimed in the watchtower. From the quay beneath Fort St. Angelo, a fast
galley set out for Sicily, carrying the Grand Master’s urgent message to
The battle for Malta had begun.
the Age of Ironfire...