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.