Previously in this series, I discussed how Western advances in science and technology championed by Prince Henry “the Navigator” led to the Age of Discovery.
This period starting in 1415 with the conquest of Ceuta in northern Africa is one of the most accessible expressions of the broader secular advance of the West as part of the Renaissance, marking the beginning of the eclipse of Islamic civilization by its millenial rival. In 1498, the decades-long Portuguese effort led to one of the most important milestones in the history of East-West relations: the Circumnavigation of Africa by Vasco da Gama.
From that point onward the Muslim world would lose the advantage of accidentally being at the crossroads of the Old World. Trade would follow the path of least resistance not through its extortionate channels, but around.
Yet the Islamic world, confident of its superiority on religious grounds, would remain essentially immune to this external progress. It lumbered on with myopic self-satisfaction. Nothing Western, it seemed, could penetrate its preconceptions of cultural primacy. Nothing, that is, except a good-sized cannon ball.
Hence the importance of the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, in which a coalition of European navies dealt the Ottoman fleet a decisive defeat. The Muslim Ottoman threat to Europe, ominously heralded by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and shockingly reiterated by the Siege of Vienna–the capital of the Holy Roman Empire!–in 1529, was finally stemmed.
Indeed, the naval victory over the Ottomans signalled the beginning of a broader trend. The Western powers began to achieve consistent military superiority over the East, in terms of navigation, engineering, weaponry and tactics. Even when Europe was most vulnerable (during the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-48), Muslim vigor had already dissipated. No new inroads were made, save the later (1683) attack on Vienna, which represents a fleeting martial revival, and no more. The victories of the West over the Ottomans would come quickly and consistently from now on. Even relatively backward Russia would make regular gains at the Muslims’ expense, and a new question would arise in European circles: the “Eastern Question”–the question of how to dispose of Ottoman spoils.
Another more fundamental question was also broached in some circles: why was the West exceeding its rival? What was the source of this newfound military superiority and cultural dynamism? For the first time in centuries, the Islamic world began to look upon the West as a civilization it could learn from. But what lessons would it learn?
More on this as Middle East Milestones continues…
Of course, you can learn the full story in the upcoming Powell History lecture seriers, the Islamist Entanglement.