Saints and Miracles, Ottomans and Turks

‘Pope canonises 800 martyrs killed by Turks.’ It’s an eye-catching headline that appeared in the Australian ABC news on May 14. Well, first let’s be clear that Pope Francis did not, in fact, pound said martyrs bodies into dust with papal artillery. The process of canonisation refers to an arcane medieval process by which human beings are said to be elevated to sainthood[1].
Well and good – but I’m more concerned about what those dreadful Turks have been up to. More slaughtering and massacring, it seems. When did this heinous crime take place? Not all that recently, it turns out. If you are a devout Catholic and in the habit of commemorating such events, you’ll be able to polish up your rosary beads prior to the 533rd anniversary on August 11 this year.
The clan of Osman, one of many Muslim Turkish principalities dotted around Anatolia, began its rise to prominence towards the end of the 13th century. 1299 is generally accepted as the year they achieved supremacy over their contemporaries, emerging as an entity which rapidly grew into a major empire. By the early 15th century Ottoman armies had made major inroads into continental Europe, and in 1453, their young Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, capital city of the 1000-year-old Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
Now, in case you’re wondering what right those Turkish Ottomans had to be in Italy murdering Christians, you have to realise that Mehmet had a reputation to uphold. He had earned the sobriquet of ‘The Conqueror’ after that business with Constantinople – and anyway, conquering is what empires do; it’s in the definition. Ask the British, the Russians, or a nearby historian. Sultan Mehmet’s target was Rome. Having conquered the Eastern Roman Empire (in fact the only one left since the Western one had fallen to barbarians in the 5thcentury), Mehmet felt he had a right to add ‘Emperor of the Romans’ to his royal CV. Nevertheless, it would clearly increase the credibility of his claim if he also added the actual city of Rome to his dominions.
Evidently the Romans themselves felt the imminence of the threat. When a largish Ottoman force landed at Otranto in July 1480 and began a siege of the city, plans were made for evacuation. Now one thing we should understand at this point is that besieging other people’s cities was perfectly normal practice in those days. A Christian crusading army from Western Europe had done it to Constantinople in the 13th century before that imperial capital ever fell into Muslim hands. Their successful siege was followed by three days of raping, murdering and pillaging, which is another important concept to grasp. Capturing a walled city by siege without the cooperation of the inhabitants was often a long drawn-out process. The usual procedure was to give the local citizens a chance to surrender and be let off lightly. If they chose to resist, however, the consequences were pretty much as you would expect. The victorious general would reward the efforts of his troops with license to let off steam and seize what booty they could, in the ancient and modern senses of the word. Members of the losing side would expect to be killed or sold into slavery as a matter of course. If the Ottoman general Gedik Ahmet Pasha gave the Otrantan males the option of saving their bacon by converting to Islam, he was probably being more generous than most of his contemporaries.  Let’s not forget that, a decade or so after this event, thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the attentions of the Inquisition in Spain took sanctuary in Ottoman domains on the invitation of Sultan Mehmet’s son and successor, Bayezid II.
Still, the first casualty of war is truth, they say. In the ongoing civil war in Syria, the first, I am informed, to be waged in the age of social media, we are seeing the use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube for propaganda purposes. It is in the interests of both sides to demonise the other, and, as we are reminded by a certain well-publicised incident involving a rebel leader, an enemy corpse, a knife and some internal organs, to intimidate the opposition with demonstrations of their own ferocity.
It was definitely not in the interests of the Ottoman besiegers of Otranto to deal leniently with defenders who had put them to considerable trouble. On the other hand, it might well suit the Italian authorities to portray the invading foe as inhuman beasts. So, we are told, 813 men of Otranto, steadfastly refusing to accept the Prophet Mohammed into their lives, were duly beheaded. Incidentally, you might want to ask what the total population of the city was at the time. Estimates range from 8,000 to 20,000. Even if you run with the lower figure, that raises the question of what happened to the other 7,187 citizens Did they convert to save their own lives?
Leaving that question aside, thereafter, by some process not entirely clear, the bones of some of those steadfast gentlemen were installed in the cathedral of Otranto and others in the church of Santa Caterina a Formiello in Naples, where, apparently, they can be seen today, providing a gruesome reminder of, exactly what, I’m not sure – the price of too strict adherence to the Catholic faith? The monstrous inhumanity of Muslims? A general memento mori warning against too great an attachment to things of the world?
Saintly remains in Otranto Cathedral
Whatever, it’s an impressive display, I’m sure you’ll agree. Apparently it provided a focal point for the prayers of a nun, sister Francesca Levote who, diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, was miraculously cured by the intercession of one (or maybe all) of the 813 Otranto martyrs. Hard for the Almighty to turn down a deputation like that, I guess. Certainly that was the feeling of the Holy Vatican Fathers, who decided to count the nun’s cure as one of the two miracles required for canonisation. In the absence of a second one, it was apparently further decided that that requirement could be waived in view of the fact that the Blessed martyrs had been killed ‘in hatred of the faith’. Once again, it’s not easy to know how church authorities established the exact motivation of the Ottoman victors back in 1480, but perhaps they too had divine assistance.
Anyway, it seemed the Otranto 800 were headed at last for sainthood and glory – and not before time, you might think, given that the first step, beatification[2], had actually been taken way back in 1771. In retrospect, it’s a pity that Pope Clement IV couldn’t have moved things along a little faster at the time, since he probably didn’t have to contend with the level of scientific and news media scrutiny that bedevils miracle-workers in the 21st century. Now, apparently, an Italian doctor by the name of Salvatore Toma has challenged the efficacy of the nun’s miraculous cure with a counter claim that he had been treating Sister Francesca with a special mix of chemo and radiotherapy, and was attributing her recovery to his own less divine ministrations.
Well, I have to say, I’m with Hamlet on this one. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Salvatore, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of working miracles, and I wouldn’t want to get into debating the mysteries of divine intervention with their new Pope or any lesser cardinals. As Tristram Shandy remarks in the novel by Lawrence Sterne, ‘So long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him – pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?’
What does disturb me a little, however, is a feeling that, despite Papal protestations to the contrary, there’s a bit of an anti-Islamic thing going on here. Coming at a time when news media in Western societies seem only too ready to stir up the flames of Islamophobia, it ill-behoves leaders of a religion of peace to fan hot coals. I hope it’s not a pre-meditated ploy to distract media attention from persistent accusations of sexual misconduct by priests, and high-level cover-ups.
On the other hand, maybe I’ve got it wrong. I read that Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict have considerably simplified the procedure for beatification (more or less a guaranteed ticket to heaven). In fact, John Paul is said to have handed out more Papal passes than all his predecessors combined since 1590.  Maybe those guys know something we don’t. Is it possible they’ve been given a date for the Second Coming? Maybe they’re working on getting a bunch of Catholics into heaven early to avoid the rush when all those American Pentecostals get Raptured.
Incidentally, Osman, the second Ottoman Sultan, married a Greek Byzantine princess, making their son Murad I no more than half Turkish. He in turn fathered his successor with another Byzantine lady, making Bayezid I at least 75 percent Greek. This was pretty much standard procedure for Ottoman sultans, as was the appointment of non-Turks to the role of Grand Vizier, or chief minister, and other high military and civilian positions. To equate ‘Ottoman’ and ‘Turk’ is as much of a nonsense as identifying ‘English’ with ‘German’.


[1] A person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth.
[2] Beatification is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person’s entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name (intercession of saints). Beatification is the third of the four steps in the canonization process. A person who is beatified is in English given the title “Blessed”.

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