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  • Writer's pictureWreckwatch Ed

Pirates of the Mediterranean: Infidels & Heretics

By Sean Kingsley, Editor-in-Chief, Wreckwatch

All photos courtesy of Enigma Recoveries, UK

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And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,

And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross…

From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,

And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.

Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton, 1929


Far from anywhere, the deep seas of the Levant have hidden the most unlikely of pirate relics. A colossal Ottoman ship, 2,100 metres down, was heading from Alexandria in Egypt to Istanbul around 1630. Onboard the colossal 43 metre-long trader were the wonders of 14 cultures and civilisations. The earliest Chinese porcelain found in the Mediterranean turned up next to Indian pepper and turquoise jars from Persia, coffee cups and water jars from Yemen down the Red Sea, Ottoman tobacco pipes and Italian jugs from Montelupo. The supertanker helping make the modern globalised world may have been delivering fineries to the Caliph Murad IV’s palace in Istanbul.

On the seabed Enigma Recoveries and their contractor, Odyssey Marine Exploration, discovered enigma upon enigma, but nothing rewound the clock to the time of the ship’s sinking more than one delicate find. The end of a walking stick was once a cherished high-status belonging of a merchant or janissary treading the ship’s decks. It was preserved next to a rich vein of artefacts inside the hull: a turquoise Persian jar, tobacco pipe, a bronze merchant’s weighing balance, 13 Chinese porcelain cups still stacked inside a wicker basket and an Ottoman storage jar stuffed with Indian peppercorns.

This was no plain length of wood. An elaborate arrow motif was engraved into its underside and on the narrow edge two ships, one towing the other. The 400-year-old artist didn’t illustrate his own trader. Instead, he unlocked a horrifying fear locked in his mind. A large galley at left tows a smaller galley at right. The bigger ship is surprisingly detailed with a rostrum (ram tip), the arrumbada (fighting platform) pierced by a centreline cannon, artimon (foremast), telaro (rowing frame), outrigger frame and at far right the poop deck and officer’s quarters all visible. What was on the merchant’s mind when he idled away the hours engraving his walking stick?

The Enigma ship (Site 71Sd) was armed with bad intentions. In the bows and stern it carried six cannon, five iron and one bronze, ready to shoot in any direction. The guns fired stone cannonballs and dirty bombs, pebbles mixed with glass sherds and lead shot crammed into wooden cannisters.

The galleys incised onto the walking stick were the architects of naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea between the mid-15th and mid-17th century, a frontline vehicle of war in the clash of civilisations between Christianity and Islam. The larger ship seems to have been designed with 15 or 16 banks of rowing frames in mind. It could have been a galiot, a fast and highly manoeuvrable galley with 16-20 oars per side rowed by two men to each oar. Galiots were normally around 27 metres long and 3 metres wide and designed with a single lateen-rigged sail on one mast. A low freeboard helped raiding.

The galley at right flies the flag of Christendom and can be identified as a ship of the Order of the Knights of St John in Malta. So, an Ottoman galiot has captured an enemy galley belonging to the legendary Knights of Malta, which it is towing into port. The Catholic infidel ship has been incised undersized, an artistic licence no doubt intended to exaggerate the winning Ottoman triumph.

The Knights of the Order of St John based on Malta were legendary 17th and 18th-century corsairs – authorised pirates – and the only forces on the high seas Muslim forces feared. The Ottoman Empire became the leading Mediterranean seapower after taking Constantinople in 1453. The vermillion-red Maltese devil galleys protected Christian shipping and crusaded against Muslims. Around 230 men sailed their slave-powered fighting machines. It was said there was not a ship in the Mediterranean that a Maltese galley could not outpace and overtake.

From Istanbul the Ottoman Empire stretched from the shores of Morocco to Syria and north into Transylvania. The human and fiscal resources made available to fight Mediterranean warfare was immense, only equalled by Habsburg Spain and at times France. Ottoman forces hit the headquarters of the Knights of the Order of St John in 1565, resulting in the Great Siege of Malta from 18 May to 11 September that year. Heretic and infidel would remain at constant war for the next century. In May 1571, Spain, Venice and the Pope consummated the Holy League alliance, agreeing to maintain 200 galleys, 100 sailing vessels, 50,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry.

After the Ottoman’s conquest of Egypt in 1517, and the rise of sea trade between Alexandria and Istanbul, the knight corsairs became an increasing irritant. Their centuries-old Eastern influence ended in 1522, when Suleiman the Magnificent seized Rhodes. Soon after, the temporarily nomadic Order accepted Emperor Charles V’s gift of Malta and Gozo as a base of operations in 1530.

The Order’s brotherhood of 500 knights and the Congregation of the Galleys founded in 1596 was small but committed. Between 1590 and 1670 the island’s population almost doubled from 32,000 to 60,000 as adventurers from all of Europe poured in to pursue the corso. By the 17th century, every knight had to complete four caravanes cruises of six months each. Becoming a seaman was a key part of a knight’s curriculum. In 1632 some 1,284 slaves were based in Malta to power the galleys. Over 280 contracts were signed off for attacks on the Near East from 1600 to 1624.

The knights called themselves pirates, soldiers engaged in navigis ad piraticum. Each year they set out on two devastating caravanes manning five galleys. The main target was the Ottoman highway linking Alexandria and Istanbul, where convoys shipped essential Egyptian grain, rice and luxury goods from the Indian Ocean to the imperial capital. Quarantine registers surviving in Malta list 338 prizes dragged back to the island between 1654 and 1694, an average of eight a year.

The knights attacks were vicious. As well as losing their goods and ships, enemy merchants would be dumped naked on a desolate shore or cast adrift in the middle of the sea in a boat with no food. The value of the seized cargoes was high, usually ranging from 2,000 to 3,500 reales per ship. The Knights of Malta had a terrifying near 100% success rate against Muslim shipping.

The Enigma ship plied the empire’s richest sea lane at the very end of the empire’s golden age, when Ottoman pride could peer into the mists of recent memory and recall times of Mediterranean supremacy.

The long forgotten ship engraving hidden so personally on the underside of a rich merchant or janissary’s walking stick was probably a case of wishful thinking – a hope and a prayer that his ship would reach journey’s end without running into the red devils of Malta.

The Site 71Sd wreck was found seriously under-loaded. Did it succumb to crusading pirates, its crew, passengers and part of its cargo stolen and the ship cut loose to haunt the backwaters of the eastern Mediterranean? Neither history nor archaeology can say for sure.

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