The Battle of Lepanto was a significant part of history fought between Christianity and Islam. This naval engagement on October 7, 1571, was part of the Ottoman-Hapsburg Wars. The battle was said to have greatly divided the two religions, the East being Muslim-dominated and the West under Catholicism. Although many considered this battle as a Holy War, it was not just merely a battle fought between the Muslims and the Christians but more of a power struggle in terms of land and economic control.

The Holy Fleet

When Sultan Selim II assumed the throne of the Ottoman Empire in 1566, they eyed the island of Cyprus as a strategic necessity for them to take. They found that Cyprus was where the ships of Christiandom would gather to attack Ottoman vessels and was the jump-off point for invasions of the Middle East. Selim knew that if they could wrest control of Cyprus, away from the Venetians, they would be depriving the Christians of their most important forward operating base and their own fleets and trading vessels could get into the Mediterranean Sea to reach other parts of the Muslim Caliphate with ease and relative security.

As the new caliph of the Islamic empire, Selim was expected to expand the existing Muslim lands in order to fulfill Islam’s mission of Jihad and gain the popularity and legitimacy he would need to remain in his position.

By 1571, it was becoming obvious that the Ottomans intended to besiege Cyprus, and Pope Pius V in Rome knew that Cyprus was critical in terms of controlling the sea lanes and trade routes to the Christian Coalition of countries for economic reasons. What the Christians used Cypress for could easily be turned against them as well.  Pius entreated the alliance to strengthen Cypress as a fortress able to repel both invasion and blockade.

Battle of Lepanto – An Allegory. (Paolo Veronese, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Support came from the major seaborne trading nations of Genoa, the Knights Hospitaller of Malta, Savoy, Spain, Urbino, Tuscany, and Venice, and together they formed what was called the “Holy Fleet” led by Don John of Austria. All of these members viewed the Ottoman Empire and its expansion as a threat to their security and maritime trade in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as to the security of continental Europe. The Ottomans were also building a substantial fleet and encounters with them at sea were becoming more and more frequent.  While most battles of the Crusades were fought on land, this was a naval war that would decide who controlled the Mediterranian Sea for decades, if not centuries.

At this time navies were comprised mostly of galleys that moved by a combination of banks of oars and sails. As cannons were so expensive, they carried few guns, and the usual manner of battles at sea consisted of fleets of galleys meeting at sea and the two sides crashing into each other and then having their crews fight it out with swords, spears, axes, and daggers. The Holy Fleet however had their galleys fitted with a great number of cannons, and this would greatly contribute to their success in the battle later on.

A Venetian Galley of the 16th Century. Sir George C. V. Holmes: Ancient and Modern Ships V1: Wooden Sailing Ships

On the other side, the Ottomans were led by Ali Pasha. With him were more than 70,000 men, a large portion of which were Christian pressed into service by the empire to row the galleys. They weren’t slaves per se, but they were chained to their oars and refusal to serve the Pasha would get you beheaded. They should’ve predicted at that time what could’ve likely happened when they took what amounted to Christian slaves to fight against a Christian navy, but they didn’t.

The Battle Ensued

In the beginning, it seemed like the tide was against the Holy Fleet, and they were worried that the Turks would make contact before they could even form a battle line. By noon, however, the tide started to favor the Christians and enabled most of their squadrons to reach their assigned positions.

The battle of Lepanto. (Ernest Slingeneyer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Ottomans circled their ships and attacked the Christians with their archers in hopes that they could turn it into the usual hand-to-hand combat, in which they knew they had the upper hand over the Christians. Don John of Austria let them come in knowing his gun-armed ships enjoyed quite an advantage, allowing him to pummel them as they tried to get into arrow range. About a mile in front of his ships were six large barge-type galleys that stood very tall but flat on top They contained rows of cannons that could shoot nearly a mile.  The Muslims had no idea what they were. As the Muslim ships approached they lost ship after ship at the front of their formation as they tried to close the distance. Muslims favored a crescent formation for their ships but the winds from the back of the formation had straightened out their lines, but as they passed the cannon barges their side guns smashed them to pieces too. Oars and masts splintered and their sides holed by cannon shot, the Muslim ships slowed or stopped.  The larger and higher riding Christian galleys then came alongside them and fired down on their crews with muskets and swivel guns loaded like shotguns. They were slaughtered,

Then the Christians below decks rowing the Muslim ships revolted, breaking their chains and swarming topside, attacking their Muslim masters.

Finally, the two flagships of Ali Pasha and Don John found each other, and Don John led the boarding party aboard Caliph’s ship.  In the hand-to-hand struggle that ensued on deck, Ali was driven back to the rear deck of the ship until a musket ball hit him in the eye, killing him, Don John had Ali Pasha beheaded. His head was then set on the end of a pike and it was affixed to the bow of Don John’s flaship, the Real. When the Ottomans saw their leader’s head displayed on a pike on the bow of the enemy flagship, their morale broke and the remaining vessels turned out about and fled. The slower Christian fleet pursued them for several miles, their crews skewering Muslim survivors bobbing in the water with their pikes as they passed by.

The four-hour battle left some 40,000 dead, mostly Muslims. The number of casualties in so short a span of time makes it one of the most costly battles in human history. It also resulted in some revolutionary changes in warfare.  The bow and arrow as a weapon for serious armies was over and the age of massed firearms had begun.  Lepanto meant that ships and their crews would be gun and cannon-armed and the innovative capitalism of Europe meant they would be able to develop the gun and cannon much faster than the command economy of the Muslim Sultans.

Europe won the arms race at sea against the Muslims decisively, there would never be another Muslim fleet from the South to threaten Europe again.  Even into the 1700s, the Muslims were still using rowed galleys and slaves to try and pick off merchant ships that strayed too close to the African coast.  Until the fledgling US Navy fought and defeated the Barbary Corsairs in two small wars in 1804 and 1815.

Division Within the Religion

The victory of the Holy Fleet further increased Christian influence throughout Europe. However, their supremacy did not last long because the states under the Holy Fleet lacked unity. There were still power struggles amongst the Christian nations, mainly due to military and economic reasons. Thus, the Battle of Lepanto did not only represent a religious battle between the Muslims and Christians but also among the Catholics themselves.

The Ottoman Empire would last until after WWI when it was finally broken up for good in 1918, leaving Turkey as a country, but no longer the seat of an Islamic Empire.