The ritual decapitation of 800 Christians who refused Islam on August 14, 1480 — 540 years ago Friday — sheds much light on contemporary questions concerning the ongoing conflict between Islam and the West.
Background: When he sacked Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Muhammad II was only 21 years old–meaning he still had many good decades of jihading before him. He continued expanding into the Balkans, and, in his bid to feed his horses on the altar of Saint Peter’s basilica–Muslim prophecies held that “we will conquer Constantinople before we conquer Rome”–he invaded Italy and captured Otranto in 1480. More than half of its 22,000 inhabitants were massacred, 5,000 hauled off in chains.
To demonstrate his “magnanimity,” Sultan Muhammad offered freedom to 800 chained Christian captives, on condition that they all embrace Islam. Instead, they unanimously chose to act on the words of one of their numbers: “My brothers, we have fought to save our city; now it is time to battle for our souls!”
Outraged that his invitation was spurned, on August 14, Muhammad ordered the ritual decapitation of these 800 unfortunates on a hilltop (subsequently named “Martyr’s Hill”). Their archbishop was slowly sawed in half to jeers and triumphant cries of “Allah Akbar!” (The skeletal remains of some of these defiant Christians were preserved and can still be seen in the Cathedral of Otranto.)
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Now consider how this event relates to current realities:
First, whenever Islamic individuals or organizations engage in violence against non-Muslims–and cite Islam as their motivation–we are instantly told the exact opposite, that they are mere criminals and psychopaths, and that their actions have “nothing to do with the reality of Islam.”
Yet it was not just run-of-the-mill “Muslims” who committed atrocities atop Martyr’s Hill, but the virtual leader of Sunni Islam, the sultan himself, who further always kept a pack of Muslim ulema–clerics, scholars, and muftis–to guide and confirm his decisions vis-a-vis infidels (including massacring those who reject Islam).
Incidentally, Muhammad II is a hero for Turkey and its president, Erdogan, who recently transformed the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, partly to honor the murderous sultan.
Nor was Otranto an aberration. Over the course of nearly 14 centuries, Islam’s official leaders and spokesmen–from sultans and caliphs to ulema and sheikhs–always spoke and acted just like the Islamic State (or rather vice-versa).
Also interesting to reflect on is how even then, over half a millennium ago, Western nations preferred to engage in denial and wishful thinking than come to grips with reality or aid their beleaguered coreligionists. Soon after the Otranto massacre, Pope Sixtus IV chided an indifferent West accordingly:
Let them not think that they are protected against invasion, those who are at a distance from the theatre of war! They, too, will bow the neck beneath the yoke, and be mowed down by the sword, unless they come forward to meet the invader. The Turks have sworn the extinction of Christianity. A truce to sophistries! It is the moment not to talk, but to act and fight!
Such laments were not uncommon. Nearly a century later, in 1565, as a massive Islamic armament was sailing over to besiege the tiny island of Malta, Pope Pius IV, who was trying to raise an army, complained that the king of Spain “has withdrawn into the woods and France, England and Scotland [are] ruled by women and boys.”
Finally and not unlike today, whereas the mass of Western people was ignorant of Islam’s doings, a minority was always keenly aware, including from a historical perspective. Consider Sebastian Brant’s (b.1457) Ship of Fools, a satirical poem on the gradual nature of Islam’s advances vis-a-vis a “sleeping” Christendom:
Our faith was strong in the Orient/It ruled in all of Asia/In Moorish lands and Africa/But now [since the seventh century] for us these lands are gone . . ./We perish sleeping one and all/The wolf has come into the stall/And steals the Holy Church’s sheep/The while the shepherd lies asleep/Four sisters of our Church you find/They’re of the patriarchic kind/Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch/But they’ve been forfeited and sacked/And soon the head [Rome] will be attacked.
As the poem’s continuity suggests, learned Europeans saw the Ottoman scourge as the latest in a continuum of Islamic terror: for whereas the Arabs were “the first troops of locusts” that appeared “about the year 630,” to quote a contemporary English clergyman, “the Turks, a brood of vipers, [are] worse than their parent . . . the Saracens, their mother.”
Similarly, today’s jihadi organizations–the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Shabaab et al.–are the latest “brood of vipers” to be hatched by the perennial jihad.
Historical portions of this article were excerpted from and are documented in Ibrahim’s Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.
Image credit Loloieg via Flickr, CC BY 2.0