Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A bloody and brutal clash of faiths chronicled in The Great Siege

From The Week of January 28, 2013

Self-sacrifice is a force without peer. For notwithstanding the promises religion makes to the faithful, to ease the burden of death with the sweetness of heavenly reward, no one can be certain of anything beyond this life. It may well be that this is all we have: this body, this family, this spouse, these children. One chance, one dream, one opportunity to be what we will be. Knowing this, that some among us can summon the bravery to knowingly surrender that existence, with all its pleasures and its pains, for something as nebulous as a cause, a belief, an understanding of what is right, is beyond description. Fortunately, we have examples to illustrate where words fail. Ernle Bradford does so capably in his expeditious chronicle of a pivotal moment in human history.

Having stormed out of the desert sands of seventh-century Arabia to conquer considerable swaths of western Asia, the Islamic ottoman empire was near the peak of its powers when, in 1565, it launched an invasion of Europe, dispatching 30,000 well-drilled imperial troops across the waters of the Mediterranean and into the heart of a Christian continent. All that stood between this mighty force and the shores of Italy was Malta, a tiny archipelago commanded by the knights of St. John and populated by the native Maltese with whom the knights had an uneasy peace. It should have been an easy matter for the great ottoman empire to overwhelm this ragtag force of civilians and soldiers whom they outnumbered, by some estimates, three to one, converting the rock into a base from which they could send devastating attacks into mainland Europe. But a series of military missteps by the ottoman commander gave hope to the Christian garrison that they might hold out for the time it would take re-enforcements to be sent from Sicily.

Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of the knights and the civilians who supported them, a siege meant to last days ended up lasting months. The Maltese fortifications, pounded almost daily by Turkish guns, somehow withstood countless attempts to breach them. Betrayals and deceptions, violence and vehemence, characterized the conflict which bled the turks so badly that, instead of pressing onto Italy and forever rewriting western history, they withdrew back to Istanbul where their ambitions for western conquest would forever be but dreams of magnificent sultans.

While it lacks that spark of brilliance, The Great Siege is a solid, informative chronicle of a key moment in recent western history. Mr. Bradford dutifully walks the reader through the siege's ebbs and flows, sparing neither side when tallying the brutalities in which both sides indulged. He renders the commanders of the belligerents with a steady hand, commendably refusing to succumb to historiography when the opportunity to do so must have been tempting indeed. For the brave band of virtuous westerners fending off the horde of eastern savages is a narrative that all-but writes itself. But such simplicities do a grave injustice to history that is, as always, far more gray than white or black.

Mr. Bradford, here, is at his best, though, while capturing the ugliness of a medieval siege and the toll it took on the men dragged into it. The sacrifice of life, willing and otherwise, on both sides, is remarkable. More over, the depravities of the conditions the combatants were forced to endure is enough to cool the temper of even the most hot-headed warmonger. For here, the glories of war are rarely spotted. Instead, one is left with a chronicle of the churning, grinding nature of battle that is as sobering as it is edifying.

Lacking the prose and the biographical background to make it great, but in every other respect a well-constructed chronicle of the highs and the lows of war. (3/5 Stars)

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