The Last Crusaders: The Great Siege (2 page)

These Knights Hospitaller, these Knights of St John – they were the Bekta
is of Satan.

They were the mad dogs of Christendom.

But at Rhodes, it was not only their own lives they would sacrifice, but the islanders’ too. Fishermen, farmers, merchants and priests, wives and children, infants in arms. What right did the knights have to condemn the whole island to death? None. Not when Suleiman had promised them safe passage to leave, and merciful treatment of any islanders remaining.

Besides, Villiers knew that the fighting was done.

For six long, desperate months, the knights and the people had known nothing but the deafening roar of cannon, the crack of handguns, the hiss of seething, bubbling pitch on castle walls, the ring of steel, the hollow clubbing sound of shield on skull, the stench of blood and burning oil and ordure, the haw of mules, the squeal of pigs, the half-crazed barking of dogs.

Finally there were so few men left to fight. There was no more gunpowder, not a sword left unblunted or a shield undented, and there was the Sultan of the Ottomans offering safe passage.

With grieving and grace, Villiers de l’Isle Adam accepted the terms of surrender.

As the old knight and his men limped away down the stony road to the harbour and Suleiman watched them go, he was heard to murmur, ‘It is with some regret that I drive this valiant old man from his home.’

But they were destroyed as a fighting force. Without a homeland, with not a single fortress to their name, they who once commanded a chain of mighty forts and commanderies right across the Holy Land, the fiercest defenders for Christ – they were no more to be feared now than a toothless old dog.

‘They are out of their time,’ said Suleiman that evening, addressing his vizier. He placed his bare feet in the silver bowl for the slavegirl to wash. ‘They are …’ The scholar Sultan searched for the right word, and found it in the Greek. ‘They are an

The vizier looked nonplussed.

Suleiman would have smiled, if smiling had not been inappropriate for one of his dignity.

‘They belong to the ancient world, the old centuries. In these
days, the new kings and rulers of the Christians have no sympathy for such –
as theirs. The Knights of St John are an embarrassment to them. The Genoans, the Venetians, the French – they would rather trade with us, buy our silks, sell us their grain.’

‘And their armaments,’ the vizier murmured.

Suleiman paused to admire the slavegirl. The softness of her hands, the falling curtain of her hair.

‘Quite so. Though the knights themselves remain our enemies, they are powerless now. The wider Christian world has moved on. It has lost its appetite for war with Islam. It prefers silks, and spices, and gold. It is also bitterly divided against itself, these
endlessly fighting each other over the intricacies of their barbarous faith.’

‘Yet we ourselves wish them nothing but peace.’

‘Of course.’

Suleiman allowed the slavegirl to dry his feet. He looked up at his vizier, eyes smiling.

‘Nothing but peace.’

In the city, the Bekta
is were celebrating the triumph of Islam.

First they attacked the Church of St John. They gouged lumps of plaster out of the brightly painted walls with their crescent yatagan daggers, they spat and urinated and heaped curses on these foul images of the idolatrous Christian dogs. They had confused a Jewish prophet with the unspeakable, the immeasurable, all-seeing, all-knowing Divine. What blinded slaves of Shaitan and his deceits!

They overturned the altar and smashed it to fragments; they flung outside all the relics, ornaments and crucifixes and burned them in a heap in the square. Happily, their religious zeal coincided with their love of lucre, a coincidence often found among men. For some of the Christian ornaments and reliquaries abandoned by the fleeing townsfolk were of finest silver and gold, and readily taken as booty.

They smashed open the ancient tombs of the Grand Masters in the crypt of the church, hoping to find treasure. In vexation at finding nothing but plain wooden crosses and old bones, some seized these crosses and bones and ran about the streets, using them
as clubs. Some especially in the grip of religious fervour found the hospital where a few sick still lay, too ill to be moved, and beat them to death in their beds, raping the women first before killing them.

At dawn on Christmas Day, Suleiman himself rode into the city, sending word that order should be restored. His men had had their reward for victory. He approved of the cleansing of the Christian church, and ordered it to be turned into a mosque, with prayers to Mecca to be said five times daily from tomorrow. But the others had betrayed his own promise of fair treatment. He ordered those who had attacked the hospital to be disembowelled and beheaded, all stray dogs and pigs to be killed, and the streets to be thoroughly cleaned.

He gave another order, which caused surprise among his Janizary guards, but could not be disobeyed. He ordered that the magnificent carved stone escutcheons of the Hospitallers, all along the principal thoroughfare of the city known as the Street of the Knights, were not to be destroyed or damaged in any way.

At the moment that Suleiman rode into Rhodes on Christmas Day, it was said that Pope Hadrian was celebrating Mass in St Peter’s, Rome. As he raised the chalice, a cornerstone fell from the roof above him and smashed to the ground close by.

They said it was an ominous sign that one of the key bulwarks of Christendom had been lost.

From the tilting decks of the
St Mary
, rolling through unforgiving winter seas, the knights looked back not only at lost Rhodes, but at the snow-capped Taurus mountains beyond, the whole of the Levant, the ancient heartlands of Christianity. So many knights, Hospitallers, crusaders, had fought and died to regain those lands for the Cross, over nearly five long centuries. Now all of it was lost.

They sailed west, and three weeks later, Villiers stepped ashore at Sicily with his handful of faithful knights, and all the islanders there to meet him knelt bare-headed in honour of fallen greatness. The knights knelt too, giving thanks to God that they had survived the dangerous winter voyage.

It was a cold day, and the January wind ripped at a tattered
banner the knights brought with them. At one point the wind seemed about to tear the banner free altogether and hurl it contemptuously away, until one knight stood and planted the staff more firmly in the wet sand.

It was the knight called La Valette.

The banner showed the Holy Mother with her crucified Son. Weather-beaten, salt-stained and torn, it bore the motto,

Afflictis spes uniea rebus

In adversity our only hope.

Part I
Istanbul: October, 1564

‘All present, bow the knee!’

‘Bow the knee and bow the head, before the Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s Viceroy on Earth, Lord of the Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, King of Believers and Unbelievers, Emperor of the East and West, Majestic Caesar, Seal of Victory, Refuge of all People, the Shadow of the Almighty, the Destroyer of Christendom!’

Any who did not bow his head would lose it. All bowed.

Now almost seventy years of age, Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the most powerful empire on earth, turned carefully on the high dais and sat back upon the richly gilded, crimson cushioned Throne of the Caliph. Before him, more than a hundred courtiers, viziers, eunuchs and pashas bent low in obeisance. He waited for some time. It was at his word, his whim, that they might arise again, and none other. Let them remain bowed until they stiffened and ached. Let them remember.

At last he gave the nod, and the assembled commanders of his empire stood upright once more.

He surveyed the Hall of Audience, hushed with soft Persian carpets, lit with fine silver filigree lanterns, hung with silks and tapestries. He knew almost everything, but let them think he knew all. His great dark eyes rested on many a face in turn. His once handsome features now sagged, riven with lines of care, and more private sorrows. But he was Sultan and Emperor still.

In the past four decades, had he not conquered from the Pillars of Hercules to the Black Sea, from the heart of European Christendom
to the shores of India? Tomorrow he would have his crier give out his list of conquests once again. Let none think this ageing Emperor was finished yet, or ripe to fall. Let them remember.

‘By the will of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful, Conqueror of Aden, Algiers, Baghdad, Belgrade, Budapest, Rhodes, Nakshivan, Rivan, Tabriz, and Temesvár!’

His kingdom stretched from Austria to Egypt, from Algiers to Tartary and the debatable lands beyond. His galleys ruled the seas from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Only once, in 1529 before the walls of Vienna, had his army been halted. But he was young and foolish then, and had learnt much about the arts of war in the intervening years. Now in his last decade – for a dream of the Prophet had told him he would rule for another ten years yet – he would complete the task appointed to him. He would turn back upon the ancient enemy, Europe, now so weakened and divided. He would at last avenge the shame at Vienna, the insult of the Crusades, and complete the destruction of Christendom.

At the start of next year’s campaigning season, as soon as the first signs of spring appeared, he would march his army to their final victory upon the plains of Hungary, and beyond. Meanwhile the Muslim inhabitants of Spain would rise up in revolt, tying up the greatest of Christian powers in internal civil war, and his allies in Tunis and Algiers, the North African corsairs, would fall upon Sicily, the heel of Italy, and before long, Rome itself …

But first to business, and the afternoon’s tiresome petitions.

All the women departed, being unfit to hear or understand the business of rulership, and all the men except the day’s petitioners and Suleiman’s chief officers.

Today, one petition was different, the news both better and worse.

It was Kustir Agha, Chief of the Black Eunuchs, who approached the throne.

‘Kustir Agha, loyal servant. Speak.’

‘Gracious and Imperial Majesty, may you live a thousand years, and leave a thousand sons.’

Suleiman made a gesture of sharp impatience.

‘Gracious and Imperial Majesty,’ went on Kustir Agha, ‘we have
suffered a grievous loss.’ His breathing was tight, and not just owing to his girth. ‘The
, a rich galley, the richest I owned. With its cargo it was worth 80,000 ducats.’

‘Allah afflicts us all with his storms.’

‘Majesty, it was no storm. It was Christian pirates. It was … our ancient enemy. The Knights of St John.’

Suleiman’s eyes hardened. Kustir Agha must tread very carefully indeed.

‘It was the Sultan’s clemency that allowed the Knights to survive and live on after Rhodes,’ said Kustir. ‘An act of clemency in perfect obedience to the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Yet these Christian savages showed no gratitude. They took to that barren rock of Malta and grew again in power. This latest insult is only one of hundreds. It was the galley of the Chevalier Romegas that committed the insult.’

Suleiman nodded almost imperceptibly. He knew all about this Chevalier Romegas. Perhaps the most dangerous sailor on the White Sea.

‘And with this 80,000 ducats, what will they do?’ Kustir rolled his eyes and held his arms wide. ‘They are celibate men, they have no families, they buy no luxuries. They do not live in fine palaces, nor wear pearls and silks. They live for one thing only. To wage war. With these 80,000 ducats stolen from us, they will only buy new weapons, more powder, build higher the fortifications of their island home. Commit ever greater depredations on your Majesty’s subjects. While the captive master and crew, our Muslim brothers, shiver with prison fever in their rock-cut dungeons, or are driven at the end of a whip to man their galleys.

‘Most Gracious Majesty, there is only one response to such provocation.’

Suleiman allowed a long silence. The deep red sunset of an October evening began to illuminate the slender minarets and high crescents of Istanbul. Then he called forward another man.

‘Mustafa Pasha!’

From the crowd of courtiers and petitioners stepped a tall, lean man with a face darkened by the sun. Old and yet anything but infirm, he strode forward like an arrogant young Janizary, black robe billowing. Others hurriedly made way for him.

Veteran of wars from Persia to Hungary, Mustafa Pasha had been captured once by the Christians, and served an astonishing four years as a galley slave in the fleet of the great Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria. Most galley slaves were lucky to survive a year, before their exhausted bodies were tumbled over the side of the ship for the fish.
Four years
. Of any man who has served as a galley slave, they said, something hard and hate-filled enters into his soul. And Mustafa Pasha already had a heart and a soul of iron on the day he was born.

He escaped the galleys of Andrea Doria by beating the one-legged bosun to death with his own wooden leg, while still chained to the bench. He then levered off his own manacles with the leg, smashed open the heads of four more overseers, strangled a fifth with his whip, jumped over the side and swam ten miles to the Albanian coast. Forty-eight hours later he was scouring the Adriatic in his own warship. He found the galley he’d served on for those four bitter years and sank it, not rescuing even his former fellow slaves from their chains.

He was said to have killed over two hundred men with his own hands, fathered more than fifty sons, daughters too (though they had never been counted), and amassed a private fortune of more than a million ducats. Now seventy, the same age as the Sultan, he fought with the sword every morning for two hours against the finest Janizaries. Only last month he had sliced off a man’s hand. The Janizary, now retired, displayed his stump at the gates of the city to passers-by, with mingled sorrow and pride, saying that he had lost his hand to none other than Mustafa Pasha. People gazed in awe and gave him silver pennies.

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