Today in 1480 during the Battle of Otranto, Ottoman troops behead 800 Christians for refusing to convert to Islam; they were later honored in the Church.
The attack on Otranto was part of a planned, yet abortive Ottoman action that occurred in, what has been described as, the “Invasion of Italy.” In August, 70 ships of the fleet attacked Vieste. On September 12, the Monastero di San Nicholas di Casole, which accommodated one of the richer libraries of Europe, was destroyed. In October 1480, the coastal cities of Lecce, Taranto, and Brindisi were attacked. On July 28, 1480, an Ottoman fleet of 128 ships of which 28 were galleys arrived near the Neapolitan city of Otranto in the region Apulia.
The city was besieged starting May 1, 1481. On 11 August, after a 15-day siege, Gedik Ahmed ordered the final assault, which broke through the defences and captured the citadel. When the walls were breached the Ottomans began fighting their way through the town. Upon reaching the cathedral “they found Archbishop Stefano Agricolo, fully vested and crucifix in hand” awaiting them with Count Francesco Largo and Bishop Stefano Pendinelli. “The archbishop was beheaded before the altar, his companions were sawn in half, and their accompanying priests were all murdered.” After desecrating the Cathedral, they gathered the women and older children to be sold into Albanian slavery. According to some historical accounts, a total of 12,000 were killed and 5,000 enslaved, including victims from the territories of the Salentine peninsula around the city.
Eight hundred able-bodied men were told to convert to Islam or be slain. A tailor named Antonio Primaldi is said to have proclaimed “Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him.” To which those captive with him gave a loud cheer. On August 12 they were led to the Hill of Minerva (later renamed the Hill of Martyrs). There they were to be executed with Primaldi beheaded first.
This version has come under some criticism by Muslim scholars. From the Ottoman side it is disputed that large-scale executions took place; the bones to be found in the Cathedral of Otranto are claimed to be actually those of fighters killed during the Ottoman invasion (but recent research have found that some bones were of women and children).
Meanwhile, on May 3 the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed II, died, with ensuing quarrels about his succession. This possibly prevented the sending of Ottoman reinforcements to Otranto. So in the end the Turkish occupation of Otranto ended by negotiation with the Christian forces, permitting the Turks to withdraw to Albania.
Since it was only 27 years after the fall of Constantinople, there was some fear that Rome would suffer the same fate. Plans were made for the Pope and citizens of Rome to evacuate the city. Pope Sixtus IV repeated his 1471 call for a crusade. Several Italian city-states, Hungary, and France responded positively to this. The Republic of Venice did not, as it had signed an expensive peace treaty with the Ottomans in 1479. In 1481 an army was raised by king Ferdinand I of Naples to be led by his son Alphonso II of Naples. A contingent of troops was provided by king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary.
Image: In August 1480, clergy and survivors of the Ottoman siege of Otranto took refuge in the cathedral. The Ottoman force eventually broke in and killed those inside, turning the church into a stable or a mosque and destroying its 13th-century frescoes. After Otranto was retaken in 1481 by a force under Alfonso V of Aragon it was turned back into a church and heavily rebuilt to house the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, who had been executed after the 1480 siege. The reconstruction included the rose window on the gabled west front, with 16 rays of fine Gothic tracery converging at the center according to the canons of Gothic architecture. In the south aisle is the Chapel of the Martyrs, built by order of Ferdinand I of Naples and rebuilt at public expense in 1711. This houses the relics of the martyrs in seven large coffins. Behind the chapel’s altar is the “stone of martyrdom,” traditionally held to be that used to behead the martyrs.
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