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Volume 14, Number 8October 1963

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“Commander of the Sultan’s Galleys”

Control of the Mediterranean was the big prize as two famous sailors squared off.

When the flagship of the Imperial Spanish Fleet, the powerful galley Mora, pulled up to its moorings in the harbor of Genoa on a November day of the year 1544, most of the rowers collapsed across their oars. It was a mass concession to the weariness that came from pulling the big vessel—fifty-six oars, five men to a bench—over the Mediterranean from Majorca.

One galleyman who did not collapse sat in the front row on the right, a muscular figure whose tawny skin, black beard and eyes proclaimed that he was not a European. The headsman of his oar, that is, the one on the inside from whom the other four took their cue as they cut the water with their heavy wooden blade, he had survived four years of the brutal toil that kept sixteenth-century navies operating at sea.

Now, as the shackles were stricken off and the rowers filed ashore, he expected to be incarcerated and put to other strenuous work until the next naval campaign. Instead, the boatswain tapped him on the shoulder and said in the Mediterranean patois that galleymen understood from Barcelona to Constantinople: "Signor Dragut, the Admiral wishes to see you."

"What, the invincible Andrea Doria himself?" There was a mocking note in the question.

"Yes, come with me."

They mounted the dock and advanced toward the admiral who, flanked by his officers, was watching the rest of the galleys of his fleet cast anchor. Andrea Doria spoke first, and to the point. "Signor Dragut, you are a free man. Your Sultan has ransomed you. He considers you worth the three thousand gold ducats we demanded."

Dragut smiled. "Lord Admiral, the mighty Suleiman, whom you call the Magnificent, has always placed too high a value on my services."

It was Doria's turn to smile. "Suleiman the Magnificent knows, as we Genoese know, that without you he cannot hope to hold control of the waters beyond Sicily against the King of Spain."

"You are flattering," replied Dragut. "But why, then, do you not keep me as your prisoner?" The words were velvet, for Dragut knew what the answer would be.

"I do not fear you," said Doria sharply. "I have defeated you in the past, and I will defeat you in the future—should our paths cross again."

"That they will surely do," Dragut replied, almost smiling.

"In Tripoli?"

"In Naples."

Nothing more needed to be said. Bowing an adieu, the erstwhile galley slave disappeared into Genoa to begin his search for a passage back to the nearest seaport in the dominions of Suleiman the Magnificent.

The name of Dragut—corrupted by the European tongue from the original Torghud Reis—was as famous as that of Andrea Doria, Europe's foremost naval commander. An Anatolian, born in what is now Turkey and was then the Turkish territory of the Ottoman Empire, Dragut took to the sea aboard ships plying the Bosphorous below the Golden Horn. He became a fighting sailor during the duel for power that extended from the Riviera to the Levant.

Turkish power, expanding after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, moved around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, from the Balkans through Asia Minor and Egypt, and along the littoral of North Africa as far as Morocco. Such was the great Ottoman Empire at its height under Suleiman the Magnificent.

Meanwhile, Europe was going through a similar develop ment. The Emperor Charles V of Spain built a massive empire that included Germany, most of Italy, Spain, and the vast overseas possessions dependent on Spain. Once the Emperor had solidified his position by defeating Francis I of France, he began to look farther afield for conquests.

Thus Suleiman the Magnificent and Charles V faced one another across the Mediterranean. Each possessed a potent battlefleet, each gave the top command to an admiral of genius. Suleiman had Dragut; Charles had Andrea Doria; and the two naval men largely decided the fate of the Sultan and the Emperor.

They fought one another for the first time in 1538 at the Battle of Trevisa off the west coast of Greece. Andrea Doria brought his galleys up in formation outside the gulf. Dragut, then a subordinate commander, persuaded his admiral to wait for the Europeans to retire under the impression that no battle was going to take place. As Doria swung his warships around toward the open sea, Dragut led the dash out of the gulf that took them from the rear and sank or scattered them.

Two years later Doria got his revenge when his adversary carried the war into European waters. He trapped Dragut's raiding task force, drove it ashore on Sardinia, and captured the Islamic marauder. That was how Dragut happened to pull a Spanish oar as a galley slave until he was ransomed by Suleiman in 1544.

Returning home, raised to the highest command in the Ottoman Navy in 1546, Dragut prepared for a showdown battle with Andrea Doria. Once more Doria outmaneuvered him. The Genoese admiral dashed across from Sicily and bottled him up in the lagoon of the island of Djerba. Back to Naples went the war bulletin: "I have trapped Dragut at Djerba where he has no hope of escape."

The bulletin was premature. Dragut massed his artillery at the mouth of the lagoon and began a furious bombardment of the European fleet. Sure that a sortie was coming, Doria hastily summoned his ships from their battle stations around the island. Whereupon Dragut had his own galleys transported on greased rollers across an isthmus to the open water beyond. As he sailed away, he laughed heartily at the thought of Doria closely guarding an empty lagoon.

This statagem brought Dragut the official title bestowed on him by the Sultan: Commander of the Sultan's Galleys. His proud fellow countrymen bestowed on him an unofficial title: The Drawn Sword of Islam.

He lived up to both titles by becoming the Mediterranean's most famous sailor. He captured hundreds of vessels sailing under the colors of Charles V. He developed the technique of hitting an enemy flotilla in its own harbor just before it was due to sail against him. He took thousands of European prisoners; he rescued thousands of Muslim prisoners. Seaports from Naples to Barcelona had to maintain a special guard against an assault from the sea heralded by the blossoming of Dragut's sails across the horizon.

In 1551 Dragut sent a decoy expedition to lure Doria toward Sicily. Safe from a counterattack, he burst into the harbor of Tripoli, sank or captured the ships he found there, landed a storming party, and wrested the city from the Knights of St. John. This was the decisive battle for North Africa. Coming after the Turkish capture of Tunis, it ensured that the southern littoral of the Mediterranean would remain Islamic.

The only question now was whether the northern shore would fall to Islam. Malta held the answer. Dragut advised against a direct attack on this impregnable stronghold of the Knights of St. John. Overruled, he obeyed orders and landed his men on the island, then led them in a valiant effort to storm the Fort of St. Elmo. Dragut was one of the 6,000 who fell at the foot of its massive walls. Malta held fast. The subsequent European triumph at the Battle of Lepanto ensured that the European shore of the Mediterranean would remain European.

Andrea Doria had died five years earlier (1560), so the two redoubtable antagonists were now gone. The Genoese admiral had prevented the Mediterranean from becoming an Islamic lake. But he knew that the honors were even, for Dragut had prevented it from becoming a European lake. Such was the achievement of The Drawn Sword of Islam.

This article appeared on pages 8-10 of the October 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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