Diane Moczar, Sophia Institute Press, $17.95, 256 pages
Once upon a time in the West, our ancestors clashed with peoples from the East. Europe was born at Marathon in 491 B.C., when Athenian hoplites defeated an invading Persian army. The defeat of Darius and his hordes foreshadowed many battles to come.
Long after the ancient era, the threat from the East took on a new dimension with the introduction and spread of Islam. This warrior creed, motivated by holy war against the unbeliever, challenged the West with matchless energy.
One of the most zealous groups of later converts was the Turks led by the warlord Osman, who appeared out of Anatolia in the 13th century. His people originally were driven westward by the relentless Mongols. These “Ottoman Turks” formed their own centralized state out of the surrounding Turkish principalities and began eyeing lands in Greece and the Balkans.
In Islam at the Gates, Medieval historian Diane Moczar briskly chronicles several centuries of Turkish advances on the Christian peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. Her book sheds light on a story that most Americans, schooled in world history from a Western European perspective, know little about. Moczar usefully reminds us that while parts of Europe fought parochial “wars of religion,” Eastern Europe struggled for its very survival.
Supercharged by Islam, the Ottoman Turks justified their will to power as service to Allah. They imposed heavy tribute on conquered peoples, including the “boy tribute” of dersirme: forced conscription into the Ottoman army. The famous troops of Janissaries formerly were Christian lads from the Balkans. The Turks also established the slave trade in their territories. Moczar scoffs at contemporary historians who either minimize or ignore Ottoman abuses. She likewise claims the Turks, in keeping with their former barbaric ways, sometimes slaughtered the inhabitants of captured cities.
European leaders were slow to react. By the 15th century, popes like the courageous Pius II could organize Crusades only with great difficulty. Bigoted Catholic rulers saw little reason to defend Orthodox Christians, and France even forged an alliance with the Turks to counter the Holy Roman Empire. Some Italian city-states made fortunes by trading with the Ottomans. In short, internal disputes, shortsightedness, and greed facilitated the Turkish advance. As Moczar writes, “Fallen human nature got in the way of ideal courses of action.”
Despite the odds against them, some Christian leaders stood up to Turkish power. Many all-but-forgotten heroes emerge in Moczar’s narrative, including the indomitable Skanderbeg, the Catholic ruler of Albania who defeated army after army; and St. John Capistrano, who aided the stern defense of Belgrade.
Nevertheless, the Turks overcame resistance due to superior organization and military power. After conquering Byzantium in 1453, one of the first uses of massed artillery in history, the Turks drove into the Balkans. With French encouragement, the sultan’s armies invaded Hungary and defeated King Louis II at the Battle of Mohacs. But it is worth recalling that Ottomans were expanding eastward and southward as well. In time they conquered Persia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to establish a universal caliphate. At its peak, the empire controlled the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. The formerly Latin lake practically came under Turkish control.
In the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent represented the climax of Turkish expansion and grandeur, and like Alexander the Great, he sought to unite East and West under one universal kingship. But it was during his long rule that Christendom, with some effective political leadership from the Hapsburgs, started turning back the tide.
The Knights of St. John Hospitaller, a society of medieval special forces who attacked Turkish shipping, blocked Suleiman’s goals. He evicted these corsairs for Christ from their fortress headquarters in Rhodes, but the knights settled on the island of Malta. When they captured a merchant ship in 1565 owned by his harem, Suleiman sent an armada to annihilate the knights. After several months of relentless fighting, the knights, aided by Maltese and Spanish troops, outlasted Suleiman’s forces in one of the most celebrated battles of the Renaissance.
Six years later, Don Juan of Austria, half-brother of the king of Spain, would defeat an even larger Turkish invasion in the galley battle at Lepanto. The long decline of Turkish power had begun.
Throughout her compact book, Moczar narrates engagingly. But to cover such a lengthy period in limited space, some pivotal events are breezed over. As for the role of Islam in her story, the reader might conclude that the will to dominate and the push for living space motivated the Turks as much as religious zeal did. Unlike the initial period of Islamic expansion, the Turks aimed for power, not forced conversions, and few Europeans in conquered lands became Muslim.
Thankfully, Europe’s challenge today is not how to confront the Turks, but how to integrate them. Leaders in Western Europe, whose ancestors once struck alliances with the sultans, want Turkey included in the European Union. Central and Eastern Europeans, including Pope Benedict XVI, tend to be more skeptical. Readers of Islam at the Gates will understand their different perspective on history.