One of the portions of history that is lost to many modern day people is that of the late middle ages. This was time of the great empires of Islam and Christendom and the various clashes of civilization. Islam had marched out of Arabia from the time of the prophet forward and consumed vast territories and lands in North Africa, the ancient near east and Asia.
The rise of the the Ottomons and the vast empire forged by the Turks and their subjects followed. This era was touched on so little in my education to my impoverishment. In recent years, I've found a great delight learning about these Mediterranean empires of Asia and Europe that shaped the modern world.
My guide into these worlds have been the works of the British historian Roger Crowley. I cannot recommend his books enough with the audio versions being a particular joy to me. Crowley covers the conflicts, trade and intrigue of the various Mediterranean powers exposing the reader to the Habsburgs of Europe, the Ottoman Turks, the wily Venetians and the rise of the ambitious Portuguese. If you like narrative history and creative non-fiction these works are a must.
The following are descriptions of the books from Crowley's site. I have provided links to both Amazon and Audible for any who are interested in picking up a copy. Highly recommended. And no, this is not an ad, we don't do ads here on the POC Blog.
Constantinople: The Last Great Siege tells the story of one of the great forgotten events of world history - the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in1453.
For a thousand years Constantinople was quite simply the city: fabulously wealthy, imperial, intimidating - and Christian. Single-handedly it blunted early Arab enthusiasm for Holy War; when a second wave of Islamic warriors swept out of the Asian steppes in the Middle Ages, Constantinople was the ultimate prize: ‘The Red Apple’. It was a city that had always lived under threat. On average it had survived a siege every forty years for a millenium – until the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, twenty-one years old and hungry for glory, rode up to the walls in April 1453 with a huge army, ‘numberless as the stars’
Constantinople is the taut, vivid story of this final struggle for the city told largely through the accounts of eyewitnesses. For fifty-five days a tiny group of defenders defied the huge Ottoman army in a seesawing contest fought on land, at sea – and underground. During the course of events, the largest cannon ever built was directed against the world’s most formidable defensive system, Ottoman ships were hauled overland into the Golden Horn, and the morale of defenders was crucially undermined by unnerving portents. At the centre is the contest between two inspirational leaders, Mehmed II and Constantine XI, fighting for empire and religious faith, and an astonishing finale in a few short hours on 29 May 1453 – a defining moment for medieval history.
Constantinople is both a gripping work of narrative history and an account of the war between Christendom and Islam that still has echoes in the modern world.
The inhabitants of the Maghreb have it on the authority of the book of predictions that the Muslims will make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians beyond the sea. This, it is said, will take place by sea.’
Ibn Khaldun, fourteenth-century Arab historian
In 1521, Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, prepared to dispatch an invasion fleet to the island of Rhodes. It was to prove the opening shot in an epic struggle between rival empires and faiths for control of the Mediterranean – the White Sea to the Turks – that consumed the centre of the world for sixty years.
Empires of the Sea tells the story of this great contest between the Ottomans and the Spanish Hapsburgs. It is a fast-paced tale of spiralling intensity that ranges from Istanbul to the Gates of Gibraltar and features a cast of extraordinary characters: Hayrettin Barbarossa, the original Barbary pirate, the risk-taking Emperor Charles V, the Knights of St John, last survivors of the military crusading orders, and the brilliant Christian admiral, Don Juan of Austria. Its brutal climax came between 1565 and 1571, six years that witnessed a fight to the finish, decided in a series of bloody set pieces: the epic siege of Malta, the battle for Cyprus and the apocalyptic last-ditch defence of southern Europe at Lepanto – one of the most dramatic days in world history, that fixed the frontiers of the Mediterranean world that we know today.
Empires of the Sea is the sequel to the much-praised Constantinople 1453. It is page-turning narrative history at its best – a story of extraordinary colour and incident, rich in detail, full of surprises and backed by a wealth of eyewitness accounts. Its denouement at Lepanto is a single action of quite shocking impact. Cervantes called it ‘the greatest event witnessed by times past, present and to come’. The book is also a narrative about technology and money. Lepanto was the Mediterranean’s Trafalgar, the last and greatest moment in the age of the galleys before sailing ships with broadside guns swept all before them, and it was paid for, on the Christian side, with Inca gold.
City of Fortune tells the story of Venice’s rise from lagoon dwellers to the greatest power in the Mediterranean. It was an epic five hundred year voyage that encompassed crusade and trade, plague, sea battles and colonial adventure.
Along the way, Venice created an empire of ports and naval bases – the Stato da Mar – which flourished under the lion banner of St Mark and whose sole function was to funnel the goods of the world back into the warehouses of the lagoon. Venice became, for a time, the axis of world trade and the richest place on earth. The city was a brilliant mosaic fashioned from what it bought, traded, borrowed and stole across the Mediterranean basin.
The path to empire unfolded in a series of extraordinary contests – the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 that launched the Stato da Mar, the slugging contest with Genoa fought to the death within the lagoon itself, and the desperate defence against the Ottoman empire. The long arc of ascent, domination and maritime decline is the subject of this book.
Drawing on first hand accounts of crusaders, sea captains and merchants, as well as the state records, City of Fortune is a rich narrative about commerce and empire, seafaring and piracy, and the places where Venetian merchants sailed, traded and died: Constantinople, Crete, Alexandria, the Black Sea, theAdriatic and the shores of Greece. It begins symbolically on Ascension Day in the year 1000 and ends with an enormous explosion off the Peloponnese in 1499 – and the calamitous news that the Portuguese had pioneered a sea route to India, strangling Venice’s lucrative spice trade.
‘The sea without end is Portuguese.’ Fernando Pessoa
In 1497, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and became the first European to sail to India. This feat came off the back of sixty years of coherent effort by the Portuguese to find a way out of the Atlantic Ocean. Then they set about conquering the world.
As remarkable as Columbus and the conquistador expeditions, the history of Portuguese exploration is now almost forgotten. But Portugal's navigators cracked the code of the Atlantic winds, launched Gama’s expedition and beat the Spanish to the spice kingdoms of the East - then began creating the first long-range maritime empire. Driven by crusading fever and the lure of the spice trade, a few thousand Portuguese, equipped with a new technology – ship-borne bronze cannon – joined up the oceans and surprised the world. In an astonishing blitz of thirty years, a handful of visionary and utterly ruthless empire builders, with few resources but breathtaking ambition, attempted to seize the Indian Ocean, destroy Islam and take control of global trade.
This is narrative history at its most vivid - an epic tale of navigation, trade and technology, money and religious zealotry, political diplomacy and espionage, sea battles and shipwrecks, endurance, courage and terrifying brutality. Drawing on extensive first-hand accounts, many of which have never been available in English before, it brings to life the exploits of an extraordinary band of conquerors - men such as Afonso de Albuquerque, the first European since Alexander the Great to found an Asian empire - who set in motion five hundred years of European colonisation and unleashed the forces of globalisation that shape the modern world.