The view from the other side: Arnold Cassola on the Magnificent Süleyman

Politician and historian Arnold Cassola is keen to portray a different side to the Great Siege story. His latest publication, ‘Süleyman the Magnificent and Malta 1565: Decisions, Concerns and Consequences’ shows a different perspective to this defining narrative of Maltese history

Arnold Cassola - seeking a different perspective
Arnold Cassola - seeking a different perspective

We are trained to make stories out of real-life events. On the one hand, this is both an understandable and useful psychological tactic. It stands to reason that the human mind would need to create coherent narratives to make sense of the chaos that is life. 

And stories – be they fictional or factual – have their own rhythms.

Reams have been written about how to actually structure and put together a little story, and as I’m typing this right now, tons of aspiring novelists and screenwriters are poring over the likes of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Robert McKee’s Story in an attempt to give their own burgeoning tales a semblance of dynamism and plausibility that will help to propel them into the wider world, and to survive in an ever-more crowded stratosphere of media overload.

On the other hand, however, this desire to create stories that are clear, easy to understand and – often, in the long run – pleasing, can create its own problems too. Because historical narrative is a narrative too, at the end of the day. And shrink-wrapping the complex web of any significant historical episode into what amounts to a “good read” or a repeatable tale for the benefit of local folklore – and in the worst instances, propaganda – can lead us to some unpleasant cul de sacs. 

Take the Great Siege of Malta. The defeat of the Ottoman invasion on Malta in 1565, by the Knights of St John, then led by Jean de la Vallette, is a picture-postcard example of how a historical narrative can be distilled for the purposes of patriotic pride, sheer romance and even – at its crudest – a lure for tourists. Part of the reason for this lies, perhaps, with the succinct way its essential elements can be drawn up to be enjoyed – and thus, again, be made repeatable – by all; the broad brushstrokes of it being, ‘The forty-thousand strong invading force tried to invade Malta but, despite being outnumbered, the Knights and the Maltese defeated them’. And, as if to bolster the story with physical, enduring footnotes, the city of Valletta sprang out of the Siege’s ashes; a proud reminder of the victory. 

Which is to say that the enduring appeal of the story is hard to miss, and those without much interest in digging much deeper will remain content to revel in this historical confection. However, with his new publication, the historian and politician Arnold Cassola has decided to crease this flat narrative with a new weave, in the form of his newly-published book ‘Süleyman the Magnificent and Malta 1565: Decisions, Concerns and Consequences’, launched earlier this month by Moorone Editore, and marking a return to a topic that has been a source of fascination for myriad historians – Maltese, and beyond – as well as Cassola himself. 

This time, however – and as the book’s title suggests – the focus takes a hard-left turn from any ‘patriotic’ triumphalism associated with the Knights of Malta, and shifts the focus on Süleyman the Magnificent... the Ottoman sultan who ordered the Siege of Malta and who, if we’re going to go by the superficial reading of the Siege detailed above, stands as the ‘villain’ of the piece. 

On the face of it, the effort may sound like a direct affront to the established Great Siege narrative, at least in the eyes of the popular imaginary. But Cassola is quick to quell any suggestion that what he’s attempting is some kind of comprehensive rebuttal on the back of this – comparatively slim – 126-page volume. In fact, Cassola underlines that his research into the book, conducted under some duress in Istanbul, as he chased important but elusive documents across various libraries and archives, “only confirmed that Süleyman’s invading armada was a very big one... the largest ever invading force to set foot in our country, taking into account the boots on the ground,” Cassola says, adding that the difference between his book and that of other “established Western narratives” lies simply in the fact that he does not set out to “glorify the Order of St John or the Maltese or whatever... I was more intent on bringing out the minor details which involved simple human beings fighting daily on the ground. Apart from also bringing out the human qualities and apprehensions which Süleyman had...”

And indeed, the book does chart a character arc for Süleyman, taking into account his initial optimism for the Siege and building a strong case as to why he would have planned it in the first place. 

Cassola in fact lays down three key reasons for Süleyman to have planned the Siege: economic, religious, and related to pride and prestige. The first was down to the fact that, quite simply, the Knights “were proving to be a big thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire since they were disrupting the trade route between Istanbul, Egypt and, consequently, the rest of the Maghreb area”, all the while themselves being Christian “infidels” in his eyes. Furthermore, Cassola elaborates on how Süleyman was further irked by the news that Muslim slaves were apparently being treated abominably in Malta. 

“The Sultan’s pride must have been well stung when the slaves suggested to him that it was preposterous that the leader of such a huge empire should be humiliated by such a small island that was causing so much damage to the Ottomans,” Cassola writes.

But intimate acquaintances also played their part. Drawing on a contemporary account by the historiographer Bali di Corregio, Cassola also reveals that Süleyman’s favourite concubine Roxelana – who eventually became the Sultan’s wife – was yet another voice lobbying for the invasion of Malta, “since [the Knights] were making it impossible for Muslims to travel on their sacred pilgrimage” as they would intercept their ships for plunder.

“Roxelana was so resolute in her intent that when she died in 1558 she left a considerable sum of money that was to be utilised in what she considered to be a most holy and pious mission. This mission was to destroy Malta,” Cassola writes, commenting wryly that, “One can imagine that having his powerful wife continuously breathing down his neck could not have helped the Sultan to enjoy too many relaxing moments.”

Süleyman the Magnificent
Süleyman the Magnificent

In fact, Cassola notes a stark difference between the Süleyman of 1522 who, having defeated the Knights that year, still showed mercy by giving them time to pack their bags and leave Rhodes with their lives intact. Clearly, seeing the commercial and diplomatic slights as one too many this time, Süleyman decided he wasn’t playing Mister Nice Guy any more. 

“This time, his intention was to completely annihilate the members of the Order of St John, thus preventing them from setting up shop elsewhere to rebuild the prestige and power for which their Order had been renowned for centuries.” 

However, we all know things didn’t pan out as Süleyman hoped, and Cassola poignantly registers not only his dignified response to the ultimate defeat – “until a few months before his death, he was still awarding increases in salary and dishing out promotions to Ottoman soldiers in reward for their participation in the Malta siege” – but also relays his sense of “insecurity” when it becomes clear that the lines of communication between Malta are growing frayed, towards the tail end of the conflict that would define Maltese history forever. 

All in all, Cassola’s book shows us a man of considerable ambition and resolute moral character, whose failed invasion of Malta did register as a temporary failure of military prowess but at the same time, far from undid his considerable stature as both a statesman, and a human being. 

“He was a veritable man of stature, a just and compassionate conqueror, truly worthy of the nicknames that history has endowed him with: The Magnificent, in the western world and The Lawgiver (“Kanuni”) in the Ottoman sphere of influence.”

Cutting away from the black-and-white narrative we’re sometimes encouraged to swallow about the Siege, the publication encourages us to view some of the realpolitik behind the Siege, and in its bid to depict Süleyman’s human side, to lead us to understand some of the rationales behind his actions. 

Above all, however, Cassola hopes that the book, like all good stories, will make “for an interesting read”. And who can blame him?