In 1565 the Grand Master of the Knights was a Frenchmen of Gascony, Jean Parisot de la Valette by name, who was by then (like Sultan Suleiman himself) in his seventies, but still vigorous. Piety and military acumen were his leading virtues: he was the very model of the warrior-priest, a kind of throwback to a dying medieval age. The religious fervor of the Knights had of late diminished, much as the chivalric piety of the medieval age itself was dying, and many of them had become worldly, sensuous, and arrogant. But La Valette, when he became Grand Master, aimed to check this corruption. Ernle Bradford calls him, “that rarest of human beings, a completely single-minded man.” His lieutenant was an Englishman, in exile from his homeland where Catholicism was proscribed; and it was this latter who decoded the reports from spies in Constantinople that the Turks were again massing against the Knights. The Order was the last vestige of that great Christian counterattack known as the Crusades, and the Sultan was now determined to stamp it out forever. Communiqués were sent all over Europe, calling the Knights to the defense of their last island home.
For the strategists of the Turks, including an old Algerian corsair called Dragut, Malta was more than just the remnant of an antique military order: it was the key to a proposed offensive in the western Mediterranean, an offensive that was to cow the Spanish and if possible carry the jihad to the very doors of St. Peter’s. And in any case, since Sicily, Sardinia, Majorca, and southern Spain itself had once been Islamic lands, it was a duty imposed upon the Sultan, by the iron principles of jihad, as duly constituted ruler, the successor to the caliph, to recover them from the infidel. Lands where the banners of the Crescent had once flown proudly must be returned to the Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam). The presence of the Maltese Knights barred such a project; and therefore the reduction of the island would be a prelude to a wider war. Said Dragut: “Unless you have smoked out this nest of vipers, you can do no good anywhere.” In March of 1565, a fleet of nearly 200 vessels, bearing some 40,000 soldiers (including 6,500 elite shock troops known as the Janissaries), assembled in the Golden Horn for the Sultan's inspection. Dragut made two astute recommendations: move against the isle early in the season, and detach a significant flotilla to menace the Spanish mainland, thereby preventing aid from the Emperor. Once the invasion began, the more confident among the Sultan's advisers anticipated the victory to come — in a matter of days.
The victory never came. Across Europe news of the bravery of Knights — outnumbered five to one or more — rang like a great tocsin. All throughout that brutal summer on the sun-baked isle, the Turks had been repulsed, time after time, in their attempts to take the Christian fortresses of Malta. One such fortress had been reduced to rubble by Turkish artillery, and its garrison (almost every one of them already dead) desecrated by enraged Turks; but the other had held. Casualties among the Sultan’s army had been terrible, and disease ran rampant. The stiffness of the resistance, added to the depredations of pestilence and heatstroke, had won for Western Christians their first great victory over the Turk. La Valette’s final address to his men has come down to us:
A formidable army composed of audacious barbarians is descending on this island. These persons, my brothers, are the enemies of Jesus Christ. Today it is a question of the defense of our faith — as to whether the Gospels are to be superseded by the Koran. God on this occasion demands of us our lives, already vowed to his service. Happy will be those who first consummate this sacrifice.
The date of this victory has for us a certain resonance: it was September 11, 1565.
From that day we may date the decline of Turkish power on the Mediterranean. Six years later at Lepanto, a vast Ottoman fleet was decisively beaten by a comparable fleet of the Christian Holy League in one of the largest and bloodiest naval battles ever fought. The Knights were there on that day too. On another September 11, 1683, the Polish King John Sobieski led an army to relieve Vienna from a Turkish siege, in a battle that marks the end of the Turkish advance into Europe. These dates may strike us today as very ancient indeed; the reader may wonder what significance they have to us. The answer is that they form the conclusion to a very long story, a great tale of human drama, mostly forgotten now by a forgetful people k a drama that, on yet another September 11th, was renewed here in America. It is the story of the Jihad.
There can be little doubt that this story, now updated to include our own contributions to it, will bulk bigger for our children and grandchildren than it does for us. Jihad has come to America, as it once came to Byzantium, which was Rome; as it once came to Latin North Africa, and extinguished that ancient civilization; as it once came to Spain, to France, to Italy, to Greece and the Balkans; to India and to Russia; and, much more recently, to Great Britain, to Spain again, to Bali, to the Philippines, to Canada, to Denmark; and to a dozen other places. Jihad is a fact: a massive and glaring fact. It is the religious doctrine that has motivated men to make war against the Unbeliever for fourteen centuries.
The idea of religious war is not something modern man ever really contemplates; he only shudders at it. But this, for our enemies and thus inevitably also for us, is a religious war, whether or not we in the secular world of the West will take it seriously. If men choose to make war against you on religious grounds, you cannot change the fact of this religious war by wishing it weren't so. This one, moreover, has been a very long war, waged over souls and for the souls of whole nations; therefore it has been slow and erratically conducted. Rare is the war that occupies the leaders of more than one generation of men; rarer still is the war that occupies leaders of more than one age of men. This one has occupied medieval men, renaissance men, modern men, and it will surely implicate postmodern men. It began in what we call the Dark Age and has not yet ended; and we would do well not to sneer at a war that has gazed with patient, jaded eyes on the Battle of Tours, the fall of Constantinople and the Siege of Vienna; the victory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and her defeat; the break up of Catholic Europe and the decay of Protestantism; and the rise and fall of Feudalism, Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, each in turn.
On this day, when we remember the act of treachery and malevolence that finally made manifest to us this war, it is foolish to abstract it from its historical context. It is foolish to remember New York, September 11, 2001, and never once think about Vienna, September 11, 1683, or Malta, September 11, 1565; or even Constantinople, May 29, 1453 or Tours, October 7, 732. We might as well talk obsessively about Normandy and say nothing of Pearl Harbor or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. We might as well fix our attention on Gettysburg and cultivate perfect innocence of Ft. Sumter or First Manassas. No, we must show more imagination than that. We must bring ourselves around to see that there are older and more implacable things on this earth than what our predilections tell us, and that the Jihad is one of the oldest and most implacable.