Erdoğan and the Long Shadow of Lepanto
Sign of the times: on September 27, according to the McClatchey newspapers, Turkey took delivery of a spanking new warship, the TCG Heybeliada. The 300-foot corvette is the first in modern times built in Turkey's own shipyards. A sister ship is reportedly undergoing sea trials.
In an unusual move, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan attended the ceremony and delivered the principal address. Even more unusual (although, unfortunately, it's becoming typical of the direction of Turkish foreign policy in the Age of Obama) was what the newly reelected PM said.
Erdoğan began by pointing out that the ceremony was taking place on the 473rd anniversary of the Battle of Preveza in northwestern Greece. There, in 1538, an Ottoman naval fleet defeated a Christian alliance put together by Pope Paul III. After routing the Holy League, the Turkish admiral, the fabulous Hayreddin Barbarossa ("Redbeard") went on to besiege the Venetian stronghold of Corfu and to raid the Spanish-held Calabrian coast of Italy.
How very odd.
Hayreddin was the Sultan's greatest admiral. His tomb, a public park, a statue (complete with a fine patriotic poem), and a major boulevard are all major destinations in modern Istanbul. The mausoleum stands next to the Turkish Naval Museum. Traditionally, Turkish warships salute Hayreddin's tomb with a cannon shot when embarking from the former Sublime Porte.
Said the Turkish Prime Minister: "I recommend the international community take the necessary lessons from the Preveza victory. Turkey's national interests in the seas reach from its surrounding waters to the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean." Turkish President Abdullah GUl then underlined Prime Minister Erdoğan's message.
Notice, please, that Turkey's newly announced zone of national interest runs right past Israel. That's no coincidence. It was only this month when Prime Minister Erdoğan blasted Israel for defending its use of naval force to maintain a blockade of the Gaza Strip against the so-called peace flotilla last year. Erdoğan sent the Israeli ambassador to Turkey home and also tore up several military cooperation agreements between the two nations.
Erdoğan also threatened that the Turkish navy -- Turkey's a NATO member, be it noted -- might escort any second Gaza peace flotilla to Gaza. That and the PM's remarks this week are only part of a larger Turkish drive to establish a sphere of influence -- both political and military -- across the Near and Middle East. Turkey is also presently locked in confrontation with both Greece and Israel over oil drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Once again, we see the return of history.
The Greeks and the Turks. The Turks, remembering the Ottoman past. The Kurds (Saladin's people). The Jews. The Arabs. Not least, the Iranians, heirs to the Persians. Earlier this year, Iran sent its own warships through the Suez Canal and into the Eastern Med (specifically, to Syria). If President Obama's and the Democrats' planned scale-back of the U.S. military comes to fruition, we can expect more of this.
Meanwhile, the underreported pushing and shoving among the navies and air forces of China, the United States, Vietnam and the ASEAN nations in, under, and above the South China Sea continue apace. As in the Eastern Med, the issues are access to oil, domination of the potential battle space, and economic choke-points: the Straits of Malacca and the Suez Canal.
By the way, what are Turkey's national interests in the Indian Ocean? Just asking.
For now, however, how very odd of Prime Minister Erdoğan to make his bellicose allusion to history on the very eve of the Christian naval victory over the greatest Ottoman fleet ever assembled. One must ask: who briefed the PM? Doesn't he know about the Battle of Lepanto?
There, off the southwestern coast of Greece, on October 7, 1571, another Christian fleet, also assembled by a pope and commanded by Spain, decisively defeated an Ottoman fleet bent on invading the Western Med. It was intended to be a first step towards the Muslim conquest of Western Europe. Eastern Europe had already been taken. Lepanto was the first attempt at a Muslim drive into Western Europe since Martel defeated the Arab army at the Battle of Tours on October 10, 732.
It would not be the last.
Pope Pius V, as G.K. Chesterton tells in his poem, Lepanto, was no pacifist. The first pope to wear white (he was a Dominican monk; Pius V is the reason popes since then have worn white) called for "swords around the Cross" -- and got them. A new Holy League formed.
Sultan Selim had told his men that if they cleared the Med of Christian warships, he would personally lead the Ottoman army to Rome. St. Peter's, filled with the Renaissance art and architecture of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bramante, would become a mosque. Its church bells -- as had been done in 997 by the Muslim armies of the Caliph's commander, Almansur, with the bells of Spain's Santiago de Compostela above the tomb of St. James -- would be upended and filled with oil, to burn in honor of Allah.
The issue was judged so important that Protestant fighters came from Lutheran Germany and Elizabethan England to join under the pope's banner.
Catholics of the time attributed what happened at Lepanto to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. It is said that, at a certain moment, the direction of the wind changed. The result is captured in numerous paintings, including by Tintoretto, Veronese, and Vicintino in Venice and Titian in Madrid, among others.
Instead of a victory, the cream of the Ottoman fleet was destroyed (80 ships sunk and 130 captured, including the Sultana, the Ottoman flagship -- grappled and carried by storm by the Christian flagship) and 30,000 of the Sultan's men were killed, wounded, or captured by the Holy League. Some 12,000 Christian galley slaves were freed.
Because the pope had ordered that the Rosary be said continuously until the result of the Ottoman invasion was known, October is today the Month of the Rosary, with October 7 celebrated on the Catholic liturgical calendar as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Originally, it was the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, as numerous churches and works of art commemorate across Europe.
The Sultan's banner, by the way, once hung in the Vatican. It's since been, er, lost. The banner was made of green silk and supposedly bore the name of the Prophet some 28,000 times, in gold thread. The Battle of Lepanto is also the reason that "Our Lady, Help of Christians" is one of the Virgin Mother's titles, so ordered by the Holy Father.
Why is this relevant? The 1500s were not, to put it mildly, a politically correct time. Why bring up all this unpleasant history now -- in the 21st century?
Well, we didn't. The Turkish prime minister just did. What in the world was he thinking?