The Sultan’s order was clear: capture the stronghold of the Knights of St. John in Malta. But the Ottomans did not manage it 458 years ago, even with many times the superiority, and the conquest of the Christian Western Mediterranean did not take place.
The Ottoman admiral Pijali Pasha (1515-1578) was made for such a task. After Suleiman I the Magnificent’s victory over Louis Jagiellonian at Mohács in 1526, this son of Catholic Croats reached the center of the Ottoman Empire through the so-called devširme (deduction of non-Muslim youths from the Balkans, later trained as elite janissaries) where they soon discovered that we were slumbering in it military talent. Pijali became commander of the guard and was appointed governor of Gallipoli.
However, his passion was the sea. In cooperation with Muslim pirates who set out on marauding expeditions from Tunis and Algiers, he built the Ottoman naval fleet. In 1554 he was appointed kapudan pasha (commander of the admiralty). The reward was like something from an oriental fairy tale: He got the daughter of Suleiman’s son Selim as his wife.
The fleet with which Pijali arrived in Malta five years later was the result of a large-scale naval building program that drained a third of the Ottoman Empire’s state revenue: 130 galleys, 30 galeos, ten large galleons and more than 200 transport ships for 40,000 men.
The sight was stunning. “A Turkish fleet was seen fifteen or twenty miles from Malta. Her white sails covered half the horizon,” one terrified defender described the scene as she approached Malta 18 May 1565 Pijali Pasha’s ships were approaching. The order from Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent was clear: The Christian Johannite state, which controlled access to the western Mediterranean, was to be destroyed.
The Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Malta (Johnites) Jean Parisot de la Valette had only 500 knights available against this superiority. Together with the mercenaries, the militia and a few adventurers, the sum total was barely 8,000 men.
But they barricaded themselves in the complex system of fortifications that the Knights of Malta built after their arrival on the island in 1530. La Valette also had the wells poisoned, so that the besieging Turks soon had problems with supplies. Local resources could not support such a large army for a long time, which put the Ottoman command in a time crunch. The island had to be conquered before the winter storms arrived, otherwise the Turks would have to return home.
Another problem with the Ottoman army was that it was not clear who actually commanded it. Although Mustafa Pasha was the commander-in-chief, he had to listen to the experienced admiral Pijali Pasha on the order of the Sultan. In an effort to gain an anchorage, he finally convinced Mustafa Pasha against his will that it was necessary to attack the fortress of St. Elmo, which was blocking access to Marsamxett Harbour.
The heads of the Turks served as cannon balls
Pijali was convinced that the capture of the fort would be a matter of a few days, but its small garrison held out until 23 June. The Turks lost eight thousand men in the fighting, which angered Mustafa so much that he had the heads of the slain knights impaled on spears and displayed in the harbor. La Valette reacted similarly to this cruelty: he had all the captured Turks beheaded, which he then fired from cannons into the enemy camp.
Despite all the atrocities, Malta was not conquered. The morale of the Turks was undermined by epidemics, and on September 7 the Spanish army under the command of the Viceroy of Sicily García de Toledo arrived to help the island. By that time, only the last eight hundred defenders of the original approximately eight thousand were defending Malta. After an initial half-hearted resistance, Mustafa finally had to give way to the Spanish, embarked his exhausted men and departed with nothing. The dead and wounded totaled 25,000 on the Ottoman side.
The Great Siege of Malta is one of the key battles of the 16th century and prevented the Turks from expanding further into the Christian part of the western Mediterranean. In addition, it greatly tarnished the reputation of the Ottoman Empire, which never attempted to conquer Malta again. Fortifications were then built on the island and the new fortress (the most modern in the Mediterranean) was named Valletta – after Grandmaster Jean de la Valette.
However, Pijali’s career was not affected by the failure in Malta. He repaired his reputation in the following years when he conquered Chios and Cyprus and was the first Turkish admiral to be appointed vizier until he was sent into retirement after palace intrigues.
This may have saved him from the death that found his successor when he suffered a crushing defeat at Lepanto in 1571 in a battle against Spain and its allies. Pijali Pasha was then called into service again to ensure Ottoman naval supremacy at least in the Levant. In 1573 he undertook his last great expedition to Apulia and died five years later.
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Source: Zprávy – Tiscali.cz by zpravy.tiscali.cz.
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