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OTRANTO, Italy—Islamic State beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and several other Westerners have stunned Americans, but that’s because we don’t know much about the history of cities like Otranto.
I read the deathly news stories while exploring this city at the heel of the Italian boot. Walking on rain-soaked cobblestones, I headed to Otranto Cathedral, a Norman church built in 1068 on the remains of a much earlier church. Just to the right of the church’s altar is the shrine to the 800 martyrs, three walls stacked with skulls and bones.
The story of those skulls begins on May 29, 1453, when Ottoman soldiers broke through the seemingly impregnable walls of Constantinople—now Istanbul, Turkey. Their leader, the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II, rode proudly into the city and promptly turned Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great sixth-century church, into a mosque.
Mehmet II may then have said his final goal was to stable his horses in St. Peter’s in Rome. Whether or not the general uttered those words, Otranto became the first stop: In 1480 he sent a fleet of some 250 ships with 18,000 soldiers to establish a beachhead for the march to Rome.
The assault on Otranto, then a city of 6,000 to 12,000 (sources differ), began on July 29. By Aug. 14, with thousands of citizens killed defending their city, Otranto was in the hands of Ottoman soldiers who killed Archbishop Stefano Agricoli and Bishop Stephen Pendinelli—who, according to historic accounts, was sawed in two.
The surviving women and children went to the slave markets. Muslims gave male survivors aged 15 to 50 the choice to convert or be beheaded. Led by a courageous tailor named Antonio Primaldi—or Pezzulla in some accounts—about 800 of the men refused and one by one suffered beheading on the Hill of Minerva just outside the town.
Historian Norman Housley, author of Crusading and the Ottoman Threat, 1453-1505, says it was “the fall of Otranto, rather than Constantinople, that constituted 15th century Europe’s ‘9/11 moment.’” King Ferdinand I of Naples rallied his forces. Mehmet II died on May 3, 1481, distracting the Ottomans with wars of succession. In September, Naples soldiers, with help from papal and Hungarian forces, recaptured Otranto. The Ottomans never landed on Italian soil again.
Some historians question the beheading story, but the Roman Catholic Church does not: It beatified “the 800 Martyrs” in 1771. That’s the third of four steps to declaring them Catholic saints, but the process stalled until 1980, when Pope John Paul II visited Otranto, and 2006, when Benedict XVI reopened the canonization process.
On May 12, 2013, Pope Francis declared all 800 martyrs to be saints: “They refused to deny their faith and died professing the Risen Christ. Where did they find the strength to stay faithful? In the faith itself, which enables us to see beyond the limits of our human sight, beyond the boundaries of earthly life.”
Muslims and Catholics are fighting over the last days of James Foley, beheaded by Islamic State on Aug. 19. Foley had said his Christian faith sustained him when he was a captive in Libya for 44 days in 2011. He told Marquette University’s magazine that “prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released.” But a Belgian Muslim, Jejoen Bontinck, who spent time with Foley during his second captivity, says the journalist converted to Islam.
Bontinck is hardly a reliable witness, since he is now in a Belgium jail awaiting trial for his membership in Sharia4Belgium, a terrorist group. But if Foley did say some words in the hope of relief from prolonged beatings, waterboardings, and hangings by his shackled ankles, so what? Catholic priest Luke Mata of Los Angeles says torture mitigates or absolves culpability: Foley most likely died a faithful Roman Catholic, just like the martyrs of Otranto.
—Roberta Ahmanson is a freelance writer who lives in California