Cycle of Violence

The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Centre of the World by Barnaby Rogerson

Books History Islam Literature Middle East

History tends to be taught in neatly packaged themes — the Crusades, Tudors and Stuarts, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorians, the rise of fascism, etc. In modern educationspeak, these are called “modules”. Barnaby Rogerson defies the modular. For although his sweeping narrative has a distinct form, it is sinuous and multi-faceted and offers myriad delights. And it is written with immense flair.

Last year, Roger Crowley published Empires of the Sea, a superb narrative history of the Mediterranean conflict between the Ottoman sultans and the Habsburg emperors that lasted from 1521 to 1580, a follow-up to his equally praiseworthy account of the siege of Constantinople in 1453. Rogerson ranges further in both time and place. He enfolds the events covered by Crowley’s two books within the wider span of the 150-year Portuguese “crusade” against Morocco that started with the siege of Ceuta in 1415 and culminated in the Battle of Ksar-el-Kebir (otherwise known as the Battle of the Three Kings) in 1578. He argues with persuasive ingenuity that the aggressive policy of Portugal towards Morocco was the matrix not only of the Mediterranean conflict with the Ottomans but of the trade along the Western coast of Africa that would eventually reach as far as India and Brazil. 

Although Portuguese forces never penetrated the Moroccan interior for long — no inland crusader kingdoms were established — their attacks “so damaged the
Moroccan Sultanate that it was most unlikely that it would be able to come to the aid of Granada”, when Ferdinand of Aragon promoted the Reconquista and, later, when his successor Charles V harried the coasts of Algeria and Tunisia. In turn, “the combination of the expulsion order against Jews and the Inquisition’s obsessive inspection of those who had converted would transfer hundreds of thousands of able, clever and well-informed Jews into the territory of Spain’s Muslim enemies, especially that of the Ottoman Empire”. Profits from the West African trade were invested in artillery that helped Portugal retain its forts along the Moroccan littoral, while in turn the cannonry that later helped it dominate the Indian Ocean was “the result of continuous technical evolution during Portugal’s long crusading war against Morocco”. Apart from Vasco de Gama, Portugal barely rates a mention in the history taught in schools, but here Rogerson restores it to a key role in the history of the 15th and 16th centuries. 

The medieval crusades (there were nine, the last being in 1271-72) had complex causes, of which popular piety formed a substantial element. Yet in these later Mediterranean “crusades”, it is “difficult to extract any sense of a religious morality from the actions of either the Muslim or Christian leadership”. Instead, there is the ubiquitous horror of the sack, whereby vanquished
cities were thrust into a hellish maelstrom of massacre, rapine, pillage and enslavement — “the prospect of a sack, not salvation, underwrote every successful jihad or crusade. Be it Ceuta or Constantinople.” Other commercial imperatives also loomed large. The enormous Ottoman military machine had to be appeased by an unceasing campaign of conquest. Charles V practically bankrupted the Spanish exchequer through his crusading ventures. A key factor (highlighted in Empires of the Sea, though overlooked by Rogerson) was how, in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, galleys rowed by slaves conducted raids to replenish the supply of galley slaves.

Nevertheless, Rogerson gracefully interweaves the crusaders’ exploits with the Muslim aspect of this history (“a mission that has never been attempted before”). The antagonism of the Ottoman sultans towards their Shia neighbours in Persia, the Mamelukes in Egypt and the sultans and emirs of North Africa is painstakingly evoked, as are the internecine perils of Ottoman court life, in particular the grisly fate of supernumerary male offspring when one generation yielded to the next — strangulation with a greased bow-string by a gaggle of deaf-mutes, followed by funeral pomp and interment in a suitably ornate mausoleum. “Turning the pages of Ottoman dynastic history,” sighs Rogerson, “is like descending into the most violent dream cycle, wading through a living paranoia, fed by real fears and a need to function like a serial-killing Herod the Great.”

As a “child of the Mediterranean” — the result of his father’s military postings — but also as one who was for many years a travel writer himself (specialising in North Africa), Rogerson’s immersion in the region repays handsomely in his effortless conjuring of place and atmosphere. His battlefield descriptions are kinetic and his perception of Christian and Muslim court politics acute, while his reflections about the poisonous nature of Ottoman dynastic relations are tender. And he knows just how often to introduce an element of grand guignol — as with the rebellious Hungarian peasant leader who was made to sit on a red-hot iron throne and wear a red-hot iron crown while his starved, captive followers tore the charred flesh from his body. Or the defeated Christian commander at Famagusta, who was skinned alive by two Jewish butchers and whose straw-stuffed integument, dressed in his Venetian senator’s robes, was sent on a tour of the coastal ports of Cyprus before finally arriving in Istanbul.