Erdoğan and the Long Shadow of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto (Click to enlarge)

Source: American Thinker

Read more: The Battle of Lepanto and Our Lady of the Rosary – G. K. Chesterton

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 Erdogan 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.

Erdogan 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 Erdogan’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 Erdogan 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. Erdogan sent the Israeli ambassador to Turkey home and also tore up several military cooperation agreements between the two nations.

Erdogan 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 Erdogan 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?

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  1. I suspect that Recep Bey is standing at the forefront of a Turkish republic awaking from decades of hüzün (collective melancholy). It is very interesting that the AK Party is consciously embracing Ottoman history; this is a break from Atatürk’s republicanism. On the whole, I don’t think it this is an out-and-out bad thing, but then I am a bit of a Turkophile.

    I agree with you about Obama’s foreign policy. It boggles the mind why the administration neglects Turkey. We need to engage Turkey comprehensively. Our neglect has allowed Turkey to play us off against Russia and Iran.

    Anyway, an interesting post!

    • George Michalopulos says

      Sam, you’re kidding, right? Obama’s first trip was to Turkey. And then there was the grovel session at that universtity in Cairo where he informed the world that the Renaissance was made possible by the scholars there. And of course, NASA’s primary mission is to make the Islamic world feel better about themselves.

      • I am not kidding. Are you, my friend? Obama’s trip to Turke does not indicate a sustained engagement with Turkey. I refer you to the work of the excellent Claire Berlinski on this topic. None of the other items you cite are instances serious diplomatic activity.

        As to the Renaissance, much of ancient Greek Philosphy was preserved and then reintroduced to the west by Muslim scholars. Averroes and Al-Farabi to name two. So the West owes a bit of thanks to the Muslim world, no? But groveling, as you say, is a bit much.

        • George Michalopulos says

          Sam, I’m not a reflexive Islamophobe. Being an amateur historian, I find much to admire in Islamic civilization and much to not admire in the Renaissance (I prefer the High Middle Ages). True, the Arabs did preserve Aristotle, but so did the Byzantines. And the monasteries of the West preserved Plato even during the benighted Dark Ages (AD 500-800 more or less).

          My beef is that we Westerners should stop apologizing for the West. Our civilization stands on its own merits.

          • George:

            Thanks for your response. I didn’t suspect you of being an Islamophobe. You protest too much! I think we are in agreement here, in the main. But, I would say that Western Civilization–making allowances for what that phrase actually encompasses–stands and falls on its own merits.

            Again, thanks for the interesting post.


    • Carl Kraeff says

      It is not a matter of engaging the Turks; it is a matter of keeping them and others in check. However, since the decline of the United States in terms of economic, political and military power, NATO is in disarray, there are no adults in charge and children, like Putin, Erdogan and others, are feeling their oats. I blame Mr Obama and liberals for this sorry state. Besotted with fantasies about world government, transferring resources from defense to entitlements, and a deep dislike of America herself, these folks have cracked open Pandora’s box.

      • Wow. Children? Such condescension! Turkey and Russia look out for their own interests. As they should. As we should look to our national interest. To call them children is so very adult. We need to be the better option for Turkey.

        • Carl Kraeff says

          Sam–this is an expression that describes a free-for-all situation where there is a power vacuum. But, of course you knew that condescendingly charged me with condescension. Lovely.

          • Mr Kraeff:

            I appreciate you response. You are correct. Children with no adult supervision connotes a power vacuum. It also suggests that the countries described as children cannot act in a responsible fashion. It is that aspect of your simile that I took–and take–issue with.

            Perhaps I did your original post an injustice by not responding to it in full. I am not sure why you posit “keeping them and others in check” as the goal of America’s foreign policy. It is a conclusory statement offered with no support. Such a policy, it seems to me, is at odds with America’s foreign policy traditions. Please correct me if I am wrong here.

            I agree with you in so far as Mr Obama has not conducted a robust engagement with Turkey. He has dropped the ball on this one. As to a Pandora’s box? At least in the case of Turkey, I would not be quick to agree. The amazing expansion of prosperity Turkey has experienced under the AK Party will probably help to stabilize the country. At least that is my speculation. It is only speculation though.

            As to transferring money from defense to entitlements, I cannot comment because I am not aware this had occurred. If it did occur, one suspects that it won’t continue to occur with a Republican controlled House.

            En fin, my response to you was not condescending; it was very sarcastic.

            Wishing you the all the best,


  2. We can hope for an end to US led wars and a scale back of the US military to a defensive posture as consistent with most of our history.

    • Lola J. Lee Beno says

      A defensive posture means we’re already on the way to losing a war.

    • Carl Kraeff says

      Which will give you chaos, instability and wars–just the sort of thing that a merchantile power like the USA needs!

  3. cynthia curran says

    That’s true George about Obama talking about the height of Islamic Civilization in the middle ages compared to the west. But what is forgotten is Islam built upon the old classical world as regards science and math. A defensive posture doesn’t mean you are always losing the war. Take the fame Theodosian Wall. It helped to keep the Huns out with some bribery and the Huns moved over from Constantinople to Italy.

  4. Patrick Henry Reardon says

    Thank you for posting this, George. Lepanto has always had great significance to my soul.

    When I pray my daily Rosary, I sometime do so at a kneeling bench near my bed. Hanging on the wall beside that kneeling bench is a portrait of Don Juan of Austria. It hangs there as a comfort to the soul.

    It was unfortunate that Pope Pall VI, as an expression of misguided good will, returned to Turkey the battle flags captured at Lepanto.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Fr, Again, I thank you for the breadth of your knowledge. I didn’t know that about Paul VI. I wonder if he felt compelled to do so in order to “open the door” to the Phanar. Sigh, if so. Yet again another example of our Church being held hostage to hostile regimes. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that Evangelism happens in spite of us, not because of us.

    • Fr Reardon, Father Bless!

      I find the image of you kneeling by your bed, saying the Rosary, and being comforted by the image of Don John of Austria a rather unique one. Almost like something out of Trollope. Is it common in the Antiochian Archdiocese? 😉



  5. I just by accident found this site and its wonderful entries in the course of adding material to my classes. I have some scholarly articles on Cervantes and Islam, including Lepanto, that are now available online at my website and that might be of interest, at