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E - 164 : Muslim Crescent on Peter's Mosque?

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Title Page of the Video "Why did the Ottomans not conquer Italy?"

Speculating about alternative outcomes in history is a bit esoteric but sometimes fun. It alerts us to a course of history that could have been possible but did not happen. Kind of knew that Pope Paul III (1534 – 1549) built the Vatican’s renaissance walls in fear of the Turks. But never looked into it closely until I came across a video on YouTube titled “Why did the Ottomans not conquer Italy?” Not agreeing with all of its conclusions, the question asked is valid: why did they not conquer it? Could the Muslim Crescent have been planted on the St Peter’s dome by the Ottomans?

The Blue Mosque may have been built in Rome over the St Peter's Basilica

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire expanded quickly into the Balkan. During the first Ottoman-Venetian War (1463 – 1479), its huge army pushed to Athens, took in 1470 Venetian Negroponte (today’s Euboea), occupied the Peloponnese and invaded Albania albeit Skanderbeg, the Albanian leader, held them back for a while. The Ottoman Empire got access to the Adriatic at Vlore though, just opposite Otranto. We have been to the wonderful Bay of Vlore during our first week of sailing in 2019.

By 1480, the Ottomans had also built a large navy with more than 200 ships, primarily to support its operations on land. An expeditionary force of 20’000 men and 160 ships sailed in 1480 to Rhodes and tried in the summer to dislodge the Knights of St John. But it lacked the logistics for a prolonged siege. By end of July, the Ottoman Force run out of ammunition and had to stop the heavy bombardment necessary for breaching the massive walls. Those of you who visited Rhodes with us in 2017 would agree that such an undertaking would take a while. With the tail between their legs and fearing the wrath of Sultan Mehmet II, they left Rhodes and sailed to Otranto.

Otranto in Apulia

Sultan Mehmet II, called “The Conqueror” in Turkey, reigned from 1432 to 1481 and had ambitions far beyond Constantinople. He wanted to be a new Alexander and Caesar and build an Empire reaching from the coasts of the Atlantic to the Indus Valley and from the steppes in Kazakhstan to the Niger in Africa. He made no secret of his ambitious plans. He knew that the Italian towns with their Medieval walls could not withstand his artillery having just proved it when taking Constantinople. Rome was in his eyes the second Constantinople. With 10% of global church revenue, the Pope had more financial clout than any Christian King and was since 1095 the center of every crusade against the Infidels. Capturing Rome and planting the Muslim Crescent on the St. Peter’s Basilica (the old one - construction of today’s basilica started only in 1506) seemed to be a worthy goal and would open the door to an Ottoman Europe.

Mehmet II talking to the Ambassador of Florence about his Ambitions

The Ottoman forces arrived early August 1480 in Otranto and breached the town walls within two weeks. Lacking the strong defenses and the zeal of the Knights of St John, the locals were no match for the aggressive Turks. Once the town capitulated, a massacre ensued. It is said that the Ottomans put 12’000 people to the sword and enslaved the remaining 5’000. Not the best PR Strategy when you want to conquer Italy…There will be more details in my blog on Otranto which we shall visit during the 3rd week of this year's sailing.

The Ottoman Empire now had a bridgehead for marching on Rome. Cobering the 620 km from Otranto to Rome would only take a months. However, the logistic for such a huge undertaking was not in place, the fleet too inexperienced to secure the sea lanes and the 20’000 strong army too small for the job. The Turks retreated to winter quarters in Albania and left a garrison of 800 men to hold their bridgehead. But the simple existence of the bridgehead frightened the hell out of Pope Della Rovere. Hastily, he arranged a coalition to evict the Turks. It would take 12 months though. The Ottoman garrison was battle hardened and was convinced their army would return in summer 1481. But in 1481 Sultan Mehmet died and his ambitious plans were shelfed. The garrison surrendered and sailed back to Albania.

The Venetian Fortress of Palmanova only 108 km to the north-east of Venice

The plan of conquering Italy remained a priority for the Ottomans though. The defeat of the Hungarian Kingdom opened an alternative route to Italy. Ottoman Cavalry reached Venetian Friuli in 1472 and regularly raided it. Venice had to build the fortress of Palmanova, only 108 km from Venice, to keep the raiders away. Eventually, invading Italy via Hungary was too cumbersome. Pulling heavy siege artillery over land was not feasible. These artillery pieces required transportation by water. But Rome was too lucrative a target to let go. It was not only rich and had symbolic value. The Pope also finance most of the Spanish and Genovese war galleys - a big obstacle in the Ottoman's expansion plans.

King Francis I and Sultan Suleiman the Great - the two Monarchs never met in Life

With the Franco-Turkish Alliance (1536 – 1553) between French King Francis I and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the old invasion plans were dusted off. Francis I’s fear of losing his beloved France to Charles V, the German Emperor and Head of the House of Habsburg, let him to conclude an alliance treaty with the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman was interested too in order to revenge the loss of Tunis to Charles V. the year before. The House of Habsburg was the biggest obstacle to the westward expansion of his Empire. By 1536 the Ottoman Fleet wintered in Toulon in 1536 and conducted joint operations against Nice the following year.

Francis gave Suleiman this 4 Layer Tiara as a present - the Pope's Tiara has only 3 Layers - the Symbolism of the Gift is striking! A Monarch mightier than the Pope

The Turkish-French plans for military cooperation were quite precise. In 1537, Francis I was supposed to invade the Lombardy and take Milan and Genoa whilst Suleiman would attack Italy from the south and raid with his fleet the Mediterranean coasts of Italy, Spain, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily. For the invasion, Suleiman concentrated an army of 300’000 men with 100 galleys in the bay of Vlore, ready to strike. An advance Turkish Force landed in Castro in Apulia in July 1537, but pulled back when word came down that Francis I had attacked the Netherlands instead (have not found out why yet). Being left alone, Suleiman then decided to take Corfu from the Venetians. But Corfu was far too well fortified. A modern fortress like Corfu could resist for several months to even the biggest attacker. When the sailing season came to an end in October, Suleiman and his forces lifted the siege and returned home. The invasion of Italy was never seriously considered again.

The threat for Rome in 1537 was tangible and far more serious than the one in 1480. This time round, the Ottoman Navy dominated the Mediterranean and operated everywhere with impunity. The 100 plus galleys under the capable and ruthless leadership of Corsair Admiral Barbarossa had no match. Even Andrea Doria, the famous Genovese Admiral, avoided a head on battle. It was too risky. The Ottoman fleet was perfectly able to secure the sea lanes to Italy and ship the siege artillery and all necessary supplies to an invading force.

Pope Paul III worried a lot about the Ottoman Threat

No wonder then that Pope Paul III was in high alert in 1536 and did everything to strengthen and modernize the Aurelian Walls which date back to the Roman Empire. When we queue for the Vatican Museum these days, we do this around these walls. The Muslim Crescent never made it on the top of the St Peter’s Basilica. But had the French King kept its word, it could well have been possible. We may all be Muslims now, but definitely would speak Turkish rather than English at university.

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