The fall of Constantinople to the massed Ottoman armies of Sultan Mehmed II on 29th May 1453 was a cataclysmic event, signalling the beginning of a crisis in the western and Mediterranean world. A new superpower had been born and the shockwaves were felt for several centuries to come. For Otranto, a small sea port in south-east Puglia, the tremors were soon give rise to a furious tsunami.
Despite his enormous success in bringing the Roman Empire to an end, the 21 year-old Mehmed did not rest on his laurels. First he pushed into the Balkans, carving out a significant chunk of territory and then he turned to the west, eyes fixed on the greatest prize of all: Rome, symbol of European power and home to the Roman Catholic Church!
And so it was that the self-styled Kayser-i Rûm (Caesar of Rome) set about planning an invasion of Italy. The obvious first port of call, so to speak, was Brindisi on the Adriatic coast of Puglia. Bad weather intervened, however, and the route changed: on 29th July 1480 the enormous Ottoman fleet, carrying 18,000 troops under the command of Gedik Ahmed Pasha, was sighted approaching Otranto.
Despite being protected by a garrison of just 400 soldiers, the Otrantini refused to surrender. Their resilience is the stuff of legend but after two weeks fighting the Pasha and his men finally stormed the castle, laying waste to the town and its population. All males over 15 were killed and the women and children were sold into slavery. The total number of deaths was in the thousands.
Some modern historians, such as Nancy Bisaha and Francesco Tateo, have questioned details of the traditional account. Tateo notes that the earliest contemporary sources describe execution of up to one thousand soldiers or citizens, as well as the local bishop, but they do not mention conversion as a condition for clemency. Bisaha says that more of Otranto’s inhabitants were likely to have been sold into slavery than slaughtered.
However, other historians, such as Paolo Ricciardi and Salvatore Panareo, think that, in the first year after the martyrdom, there was no information about the massacres in the Christian world and only later – when Otranto was reconquered by the Neapolitans – it was possible to get details of the massacre from the local survivors who saw it.[
However, according to the traditional version, worst was yet to come: 800 surviving Otrantini had barricaded themselves inside the Cathedral with their Bishop, Stefano Agricoli. On gaining entrance, Gedik Ahmed Pasha demanded they convert to Islam or face certain death. To a man, the 800 refused. Pour encourager les autres the Pasha ordered his men to quarter and behead the Bishop. Yet still the 800 refused to renounce their faith, spurred on by a rousing speech from a simple tailor named Antonio Pezzula.
Now, faced with no alternative except that of losing face, the Pasha was obliged to carry out his threat. The 800 were marched up to the top of the Hill of Minerva where, one by one, they were beheaded. It was the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, 14th August, 1480.
The prisoners were led to the Hill of Minerva (later renamed the Hill of Martyrs). There they were to be executed with Primaldi to be beheaded first. After the blade decapitated him “his body allegedly remaining stubbornly and astonishing upright on its feet. Not until all had been decapitated could the aghast executioners force Primaldi’s corpse to lie prone.”[ Witnessing this, one Muslim executioner (whom the chroniclers say was an Ottoman officer called Bersabei) is said to have converted on the spot and been impaled immediately by his fellows for doing so.
By giving the various rulers in Italy, including King of Naples, Ferdinand I, time to amass their forces, the long drawn-out siege of Otranto had arguably saved Rome. The Ottomans continued sacking other towns in Puglia but quickly realised that time was no longer on their side. Leaving a garrison in Otranto, they set sail for home with the intention of returning the next spring.
However, in May 1481, Sultan Mehmed II suddenly died, throwing the Ottoman Empire into temporary confusion. Back in Puglia the King of Naples’ troops laid siege to Otranto and, after several months, retook the town, killing the entire Ottoman garrison in the process. Gedik Ahmed Pasha lasted little longer: unwanted by the new Sultan, he was thrown into prison and executed on November 18th, 1482.
And the Blessed Martyrs of Otranto? Their bodies were gathered up and taken back to the cathedral, where they still reside today, a constant reminder of the power of faith.
Or does it?
At a time when religious antipathy is on the rise between Muslim and Christian, Francis, the ‘good’ pope, canonized the martyrs, placing into question his political nous. Who can save the catholic church, in so much turmoil over the predatory conduct of its priests? Not even the Martyrs of Otranto.
3 May 2019
*Please note much of this article is taken from the Thinking Traveller and Wikipedia (references below) and from a description of a visitor to Otranto, my friend, Claire Kennedy.