This year marks the 20th anniversary of the commandeering of four commercial airliners by a group of Islamic jihadists. The planes were subsequently used to attack the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth plane, its intended target being either the Capitol Building or the White House, was brought down when its passengers attacked the jihadist hijackers.
The details of those tragedies are well known, so I won’t repeat them here.
What is less known is why the hijackers chose the date of Sept. 11 on which to stage their attacks. That answer requires a deep delve into the history of the Ottoman Empire and its struggle with Christian Europe to dominate the Mediterranean world, and by extension Western Europe, from the 15th-17th centuries.
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In the early 13th century Turkic tribes from the central Asian steppes began to migrate into the Seljuk kingdom in Anatolia. By 1299, they had organized a Turkish state in northwest Anatolia under Osman Bey. From that point on they would be known to history as the Ottoman Turks.
Over the next century and a half, the Ottomans conquered most of Anatolia and the eastern Balkans. In 1453, Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople. It was the symbolic beginning of an Ottoman Empire that at its peak, in 1590, would cover two million square miles of territory. The Ottoman dynasty would rule for 632 years, from July 27, 1299 to Nov. 1, 1922.
The Ottoman Empire along with the Safavid and Mughal empires have been called by some historians the “gunpowder empires,” because they were able to utilize Chinese advances in the development of gunpowder and metallurgy to develop sophisticated firearms, especially artillery and small arms.
The development of artillery and firearms had far-ranging implications for 15th-century warfare. Not only did it mark the beginning of the end of the age of mounted knights, but it also became a powerful driver for the monarchical consolidation of Europe’s petty states.
Artillery was expensive and required specialized training to operate correctly. Only larger states, with the administrative infrastructure to collect taxes from their inhabitants and enough wherewithal to train and maintain standing armies, could afford a significant force of artillery.
The term “Gunpowder Empires” was first coined by Marshall G. S. Hodgson and William H. McNeil, two historians at the University of Chicago.
The concept has been challenged by other historians who have cited other, contributing factors in the rise of those empires and their varying use of firearms and artillery — quite high for the Ottomans and very low for the Safavids.
Ottomans dominant, technically advanced
Nonetheless, there is little doubt, that by the middle of the 15th century, the Ottoman military was the most technically advanced in Europe and posed a significant threat to the Christian kingdoms to its west.
This was especially true from the early 16th century through the late-17 century when the Ottoman military seemed unstoppable as it steadily expanded across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. That sense of invincibility was especially true of Ottoman naval power.
In a series of conflicts lasting from the early 15th century until the early 18th century, Ottoman naval forces swept the Genoese out of the Black Sea, fought seven separate wars with the Venetian Republic, clashed repeatedly with the Holy League and laid siege to European strongholds from Malta to Vienna to Tripoli.
In the process, the Ottomans marched up the Ionian and Adriatic coast of the western Balkans, took Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Greece and the Aegean islands and solidified their hold on the Eastern Mediterranean.
Elsewhere, the Ottomans took control of much of the North African littoral, conquered Egypt and expanded their territory to include a significant portion of the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf.
In 1529, an Ottoman fleet destroyed a Spanish fleet at Formentera in the Balearic Islands. In 1537, they staged amphibious attacks on Calabria and Puglia and besieged Corfu. More defeats for Europe followed: Preveza (1538), Algiers (1541), Naples (1544), Ponza (1552), Piombino (1555) and Jerba (1560). Ottoman naval successes were a remarkable achievement for a people from the Central Asian steppes that until the 13th century had no maritime traditions.
By the beginning of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was arguably the first Mediterranean superpower since the Roman Empire at its peak. Its land and naval forces had consistently proven superior to anything that Christian Europe could muster.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Ottoman juggernaut would roll over Western Europe — an event that would have inevitably reset the trajectory of Western civilization on a completely different and difficult-to-ascertain arc.
Rise of Spain, Christian wins derail Ottomans
Two events, however, cut short the Ottoman ambition to sweep to the Atlantic. Starting in the 16th century, fueled by the wealth of the New World, Spain emerged as a military superpower in its own right to counterbalance Ottoman might.
It’s often forgotten that it was the gold and silver from the Americas, first that looted from the Aztec and Inca empires, and later from the exploitation of their mines and other deposits in the Mexican highlands and the Andean foothills, that financed the rise of Spain’s military forces.
The second event was a series of unlikely and lopsided victories by Christian Europe against the Ottomans that would finally end the myth of Ottoman invincibility.
The first was the Siege of Malta in 1565. The Ottomans saw the conquest of Malta as the first step toward conquering Sicily, then conquering the Kingdom of Naples, and eventually marching up the Italian peninsula and taking Rome. The Turks had attempted an invasion of Malta with some 10,000 soldiers in 1551, but quickly broke it off. This time, however, they were serious.
The Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, dispatched an army of 40,000 soldiers, including 6,500 crack Janissary troops from the Imperial guard, and 200 ships to conquer Malta.
The island was guarded by a force of approximately 600 Knights Hospitaller of St. John, Jerusalem, and Rhodes (later to be given the sobriquet Knights of Malta), and some 6,000 foot soldiers, made up roughly 3,000 Spanish, Italian Greek, and Sicilian soldiers and 3,000 Maltese volunteers.
Notwithstanding being outnumbered seven to one, the Knights and their troops hung on through a siege that lasted three months, three weeks and three days, and daily, murderous artillery bombardments, before a relief force from Sicily finally came to their aid prompting the Ottoman withdrawal.
Christians better prepared in Cyprus
The second victory occurred six years later, in 1571, at the naval Battle of Lepanto. Fearful that another siege of Malta was inevitable and responding to the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus, then a Venetian possession, Pope Pius V organized a second Holy League made up primarily of the naval forces of Spain, Venice and the Papacy, along with ships from the rest of the Hapsburg Empire, Genoa, Tuscany/Pisa, Savoy, Urbino, and the Knights Hospitaller.
The fleet represented 70 percent of European naval power. Its goal, incredibly risky given the Ottoman’s naval success, was a decisive showdown. Phillip II put his half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, in command. The newly minted admiral was just 25 years old.
He had no command experience and his entire naval record consisted of serving for three months on a Spanish fleet engaging the Barbary Corsairs.
Indeed, his claim to fame was that he was the best dancer at the Spanish court, and had a reputation for being so charming that none of the women at court could resist his advances. Despite what should have been an inevitable disaster, the Holy League prevailed, decisively defeating the larger Ottoman fleet.
The battle took place in the Gulf of Patras. It included 600 ships, the largest naval force since Octavian Caesar and Marcus Agrippa met the fleets of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra VII Philopator at Actium. Ironically that battle was also fought in the Ionian Sea not far from Patras.
Lepanto represented the largest naval force ever assembled between the battle of Actium in 31 BC and the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.
Second Ottoman Siege of Vienna
The last decisive battle that would mark the apex of Ottoman power in Europe occurred in 1683, during the Second Ottoman siege of Vienna.
Vienna sits in the Vienna basin, a natural gap between the eastern Alps and the western Carpathians. The Danube flows through the Vienna basin on its way to the Black Sea. Historically, this was the invasion route into Europe from the southeast, as well as an important trade route that linked Western Europe with the Black Sea and the eastern Balkans.
The frontier between Ottoman Hungary and Habsburg Austria had been the scene of repeated military clashes between Habsburg and Ottoman forces. In 1683, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV dispatched an army of approximately 170,000 soldiers and 150 cannons to lay siege to Vienna.
The city was defended by 15,000 soldiers and 8,700 civilian militia backed by 370 pieces of artillery.
The siege lasted for roughly two months. By September, short of food and ammunition, the city was on the verge of collapse when an 80,000-strong relief army arrived under the command of King John III Sobieski, the head of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The force consisted of Austrian and German troops of the Hapsburg Empire and Polish forces. Sobieski’s army included a force of 3,000 Polish heavy cavalry, the famed Winged Hussars (Husaria). The Hussars wore an elaborate wooden frame on their backs festooned with feathers, giving the impression they had wings.
The battle began at 4 a.m. Sobieski was in overall command and was leading the troops at the center and right flank of the Polish-Hapsburg line. Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, commanded the troops on the left flank.
The Ottoman forces, trying to both take the city of Vienna while engaged with Sobieski’s army, increasingly found themselves pinned down between Vienna’s walls and Sobieski’s troops. At 5 p.m., Sobieski ordered a cavalry attack, which he personally led, of some 20,000 mounted troops, including the 3,000 Polish Winged Hussars.
This was the largest cavalry charge in Western history. The charge broke the Ottoman line. Three hours later, the Ottoman forces surrendered.
The Battle of Vienna, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Kahlenberg Mountain, lasted a total of 16 hours. Combined with the earlier Ottoman defeats at the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto, it would represent the apex of Ottoman power in Europe. It would also mark the end of the European fear of Ottoman invincibility.
The Ottoman Empire would survive for another 239 years. It remained a formidable military force, especially against smaller states, but it would never again threaten Western Europe. On the field of battle outside Vienna in 1683, Western civilization as we know it, for better and for worse, was saved.
The day that battle was fought was Sept. 11.
Jihadists picking up Ottoman gauntlet
The choice of Sept. 11 as the day to stage the jihadist attacks on the United States was not a coincidence. It was intended to send a powerful message, that modern day jihadists were taking up the gauntlet that the Ottoman Empire had lost in Vienna in 1683.
That they were renewing what they saw as a Christian-Muslim conflict that had persisted since Bedouin tribesman had first burst out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century.
Admittedly, the notion of an enduring Christian-Muslim struggle spanning centuries is the view of a very small minority. It’s not one shared by a majority of the world’s Muslims, or for that matter the world’s Christians. It is nonetheless a powerfully attractive concept that is at the base of much of the world’s jihadist sentiment and which continues to inspire jihadists, would be and otherwise.
The recent successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan are a startling reminder of the power of ideas rooted in history, testament to their enormous appeal and popularity.
Unfortunately, all too often, we are led by a political class that is both ignorant of history and ambivalent toward it. Leaders who think history is yesterday’s news cycle. Against an opponent that is both inspired by its history and is oblivious to time, America is at a distinct disadvantage.
The attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and the tragedy of Afghanistan some 20 years later, is simply the latest example that we ignore history at our peril.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.