Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
A 16th-century engineer whose work almost defeated the Ottomans (arstechnica.com)
206 points by petethomas on May 28, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

A personal anecdote from a non-historian:

Some years back I took a holiday in Malta.

Taking the ferry to Valletta, climbing the ramp up from the dock, I was shocked to see the scale of the fortifications. I knew it was a strategically important place, but what surprised me was how obviously the entire walled peninsula of Valletta seemed to have been constructed first and foremost as a fortress. It's easy to forget the scale and scope of historical conflict and the effort that went into it, and this was a stark reminder.

The other thing that surprised me was that they had the old suits of armor of the commanders of the order, and I was surprised how big they were. I'm pretty tall (6"6) and was surprised to see the suits were close to my height. Presumably bigger than the men that wore them, but what occurred to me was "these are the guys who made it to the the top of their organization, the commanders, and they must have been very big for their time. This is probably an organization that values brute strength."

I don't know if that's a valid inference or not, but Malta definitely left the impression it was created by folk who mean business.

This linked article is really interesting context, makes me realize why Malta was built so well.

Isn't there still a correlation between status and size these days? Tall with good hair and you're already leadership material...

It's amazing how much of that story could have been written yesterday. Tunneling is still used in the middle-east as a war tactic. North Korea tunnels to South Korea. The value of engineering ;) Embargoes are essentially siege tactics.

There's even a correlation between height and intelligence (presumably due to nutrition).

> Isn't there still a correlation between status and size these days?

Yes. The wage gap between short men and huge men makes any perceived gender based wage gap between male and female look very, very puny.

Sorry for the nitpick, but:

Why do you present the height-based wage gap as a fact, while presenting the gender-based wage gap merely as "perceived"?

Is there more evidence for the former wage gap than for the latter? Or, is the one type of discrimination more acceptable than the other?

Not the original poster, but:

A number of the gender based wage gap studies that have made a splash in the press have neglected to account for multiple facets of employment and occupational risk leading to conclusions showing an outsize pay gap... They've documented inequal outcomes in the market based on equivalent experience or education across sectors without controlling for inequality of physical-demands and employment distribution... The popular press then extrapolates these findings inartfully, leading to a shared sense of gender discrimination that is not borne out by the broader market.

I know this is something of a hot button topic, so I'll be extra clear: women and men are of equal value, and deserve equal pay for equal work, naturally. But we have to own the fact that, statistically, men really should be earning more at work as long as men are doing the majority of high-risk occupations and women are taking more time off of work when having children. There are a lot of different studies, but last I dug into this when you start comparing more apples-to-apples you find that the gender gap is nowhere near the oft cited 0.75 cents on the dollar.

There is a gender pay gap, though it's quite difficult IMO to pin that gap on broad sexism given a few cultural factors. Namely men being 6 times more likely to ask for a raise at work, men being more likely to measure self-worth at work through money and not peer approval, societal pressures for men to be a 'provider', and for men to measure self-worth almost exclusively through career success.

While we're looking at why young men are more likely to find themselves doing EOD work or high-voltage wire repair than women, lets also remember that the physical difference between the sexes can, in fact, be a life or death matter in some occupations... And if we want to compare employment outcomes by years of education taken, we really need to quantify how dirty and dangerous jobs oriented towards physical labour would ideally be gender-represented in the market. Ie Sewer repair technicians and plumbers and construction skew male and high paying compared to white collar positions with the same length of training - are we really going to expect 50% female representation in those fields?

Height based studies, on the other hand, are much easier to setup controls for. Outside of the far extremes height doesn't fundamentally impact employment opportunities, and demographically are much easier in terms of experimental design. As long as those studies control for certain kinds of physical work which self-select towards large/small people we should be able to get a reasonable grasp of how the world responds to taller people. Last I checked a few inches in height meant a significant increase in yearly takehome pay, management opportunities, and attractiveness as a mate.

Bottom line: easier studies that aren't politically loaded tend to give us better data than harder studies that are rich with social and political subtext... Women should get paid as well as men, but we can't pretend that Geese and Ganders are one and the same. Deep sea welders get paid a lot of money and jobs like that will create a statistical gender pay gap as long as they are not equally distributed among the genders.

This comment, at the very least, should make think a bit more critically when reading or listening to stories about the gender pay gap. Thanks!

Crowley's Empire of the Sea (mentioned elsewhere) talks about this a lot.

We talk about the knights now as though they were some kind of priests, but in reality they were pretty much ferocious pirates with a religious sanction.

By pure happenstance, my wife and I took a tour of the Eastern Mediterranean and ended up in both Rhodes and then Malta where we learned about the Knights of St. John, the seiges by the Ottomans and the rest.

The fortress of Rhodes, now much restored by the fascist regimes of the early 20th century as a showpiece, is indomitable. The recorded histories say that Suleiman the Magnificent brought nearly a quarter million men to take the island. The defense was 700 knights, 500 archers and about 5,000 lower units.

After six months, as the story goes, the fortress was much battered, but still had not completely fallen. The Knights of St. John had lost the bulk of their men, but were still defending. Suleiman's forces on the other hand had suffered massive casualties -- depending on the source somewhere between 5,000 to several tens of thousands.

One of the local stories says that after the six months of siege, Suleiman communicated with the Knights something along the lines of "I am in awe of the defenders of this fortress. I have lost half my men, and you no doubt have lost half of yours. If you lay down your arms, you and any who wish to leave will be granted safe passage off of Rhodes."

Other histories I've looked into have different, but similar terms along those lines.

The Knights accepted and moved to Malta. The locals of Rhodes thus count the Fortress at Rhodes to have been surrendered but never to have fallen.

We toured that fortress and it's one of the most obviously formidable fortifications I've ever seen. Ever single square meter of it was designed to trap humans and place them into undefendable positions where they could be caught in an easy cross fire and slaughtered. It almost looks like something from science fiction in parts: layers of walls with straight line shots between them, approaches to gates with multiple overlapping fields of fire.

This approach in particular has really stuck with me - http://l450s.alamy.com/450s/cx91gf/knight-fortress-in-rhodes...

Nearly every hole you see there at ground level was designed for cannon with support fire from above by archers and other small arms. A person trying to breach this gate would be consumed by shots from nearly a dozen positions. The alternative approaches along the wall were all clear cut open spaces that could swallow thousands of men and set them up for easy pickings.



Succeed in that, and you get another layer of walls with more places to get killed. And more and more and more. If you look down this corridor, you'll see some stone spheres. Those I was told were representations, and perhaps even some original, canon balls. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Rhodes_o...

Imagine scaling the wall to the right in the picture, making it across that open shooting range, then setting up ladders or something to scale the wall on the left.

Thanks for sharing. While searching for more, I found a higher-resolution photo of your first image:


And there are several more great photos on the rest of the Wikipedia page:


Suleyman was not only a great military mind, but an extremely astute politician as well. One thing the article fails to mention is that Suleyman didn't just let the people of Rhodes "go free" after their defeat, the Knights Hospitaler had to hand over their fortresses in Kos and Bodrum as part of the deal. This was a smart move as the castle in Bodrum was much better fortified, and Suleyman got it without, in essence, firing a shot. For this reason, the castle in Bodrum is extremely well preserved and a must see if you want to get a sense of crusader architecture.

I liked this part of the article:

"Suleiman was respectful and generous in victory. The citizens of Rhodes were to be exempt from both taxation and conscription for the next five years. Tadini was allowed to leave. He went to the colonies of Genoa, where he again fought invading Ottoman forces and again lost.

The Order of St. John was allowed to leave in peace and build a new fortress elsewhere. They did so on Malta, where their walls could be built on stone and therefore could not be undermined. Toward the end of his life, Suleiman sent a force to conquer Malta. This time the siege failed, in part because he was not there to keep order or impose his implacable will."

This kind of graciousness in warfare does not seem to exist in modern times. Weird, considering how brutal war in those times looks compared with today.

The Siege of Malta or the Christan/Ottoman conflict as a whole is generally not considered a shining light of graciousness. During the Siege of Malta, both sides bombarded each other with human heads. A few years later at the Siege of Famagusta, the Venetians were promised safe passage if they surrendered, only to have the survivors murdered and the commander flayed alive, stuffed with straw, paraded through the streets on an ox and brought as a gift to the Sultan.



> This kind of graciousness in warfare does not seem to exist in modern times. Weird, considering how brutal war in those times looks compared with today.

Well, there was a ton of brutality then as well. Probably even much worse than today.

I think so too. In our recent conflicts when you were caught you might get shot, the ancients used torture-killing so cruel I can't even read about it without feeling sick. Not even the Nazis used something like the Brazen Bull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazen_bull), and that's just a simple device and procedure, they were much more inventive than that in the past. 1000 years ago those involved in the assassination attempt on "Der Führer" would have faced far more horrible deaths than they actually got. It seems to me even the most evil Nazis didn't have 1% of the imagination of the ancients (possibly excluding Dr. Josef Mengele, but he didn't think a about how to create pain, he just didn't care if his subjects did).

Modern war is methodical. If it's rational to destroy something, it will be destroyed.

Medieval or ancient wars were a bit more emotion driven.

There's a fantastic book by Roger Crowley called Empires of the Sea that covers the Habsburg-Ottoman war for control of the Mediterranean. The early chapters go into great detail on the Siege of Rhodes, including Tadini's efforts, and how the lessons learned there would set the stage for later battles (particularly Malta and Lepanto) and the end of Ottoman supremacy. For anyone interested in this article or the era in general I can't recommend it enough.

Definitely adding that to my reading list. My understanding is that the Ottoman strategy for controlling the Mediterranean was to go the "long way 'round" and control as much of the surrounding ports, as opposed to the Knights Hospitaler, the Genoese, and the Venetians who took the approach of building unmatched naval strength.

As an example, during the siege of Constantinople, the Genoese and Venetian navies were ultimately defeated when the Ottomans literally carried their ships over land to get behind the other's defensive line.

I came here to recommend this. Crowley's book on the siege of Constantinople is great too.

Interesting note. It's a funny thing that in the current climate nobody mentions the underpinning of the conflict depicted in the article, hundred of years of struggle between Christianity and Islam.

Wikipedia: >According to Ottoman understanding, the state's primary responsibility was to defend and extend the land of the Muslims and to ensure security and harmony within its borders within the overarching context of orthodox Islamic practice and dynastic sovereignty

That's the state propaganda. Turkic people in that area are later arrivals, and the Ottoman Turks basically pinned their legitimacy on the religion of the region. Suleiman was "generous" because the state propaganda of the time was "Ottoman Justice".

Consider a hypothetical history with Persian empire not falling to Muslims and Byzantine also enduring. Best buddies forever or likely the same pattern of pull-push on borders and a cultural clusters boundary condition?

Geography is the key here, not people's misunderstanding regarding the meaning of it all.

As if almost anything written about events in history is not propaganda. There is barely any complete truth. English Wikipedia in general just spews same thing western historians words, others do the same to fit their agenda. History is a joke.

Well, not really what I was saying. More like 'geography is history' ala 'character is destiny'.

History is not a joke. Just use the scientific approach of comparing and contrasting various sources.

For people who love alternative history stories, the "Ring of Fire" series (starting with "1632", which you can get for free at http://www.baen.com/1632.html) is highly recommended.

The Suleyman portrait there (in http://ericflint.wikia.com/wiki/Ottoman_Empire) is also rather astute.

Great series of books, I'll second this recommendation

Great read!

"...an early genius of military engineering, Gabriele Tadini." But more than 1500 years before him there were others such as Archimedes and Caesar.

I wonder if Tadini was a polymath similar to other great military engineers like Archimedes and Leonoardo who would have been living at the same time as him.

I'd wager that everyone back then who made a name for himself with intellectual pursuits was a polymath. Simply because knowledge was hard to come by and you couldn't specialise so much that you remained ignorant about the grand scheme of things of everything else, like it is possible today.

Or alternatively, the breadth of human knowledge was small enough that one person could hold most of it in their head.

One of my favorite party questions is, "Who was the last man who knew everything?"

I doubt, that there ever was such a man.

For example knowing about plants and animals. We as whole humanity are still far from knowing them all on the earth, so how could somebody from history knew them all?

And even if you only count "everything" as the whole current knowledge of humanity, then also no, as there are for example tribes in the jungle who know about plants or hunting technics the genius in europe never heard of.

> I doubt, that there ever was such a man.

I've heard this question before. I think it's more useful to think of it as "When was the last era when it was possible for one person to know everything that's known?"

Doubtful that there ever was such a particular person, at least because of geography, as you point out, and different concerns in different parts of the world. But there must have been such an era; I don't know when that was.

Apparently he knew Tartaglia, who was a figure of the type you have in mind...

> or crenelations for releasing boiling oil

In various trips to the UK and dozens of castle walking tours, almost to a guide they said (paraphrasing) "no one used boiling oil. It was way too precious a commodity." Water, sure.

> Villiers (the leader of the defenders) had ignored the many warriors who told him the same (that the city was no longer defensible), but listened to the engineer (Tadini).

This made my day. :)

This event was covered in part II of Extra History’s series on Suleiman the Magnificent:


Most people casually interested in the crusader period know about the Knights Templar. But it turns out the Knights of St. John are just as fascinating, still exist, and have sovereign status similar to a nation-state. They built the impressive fortifications at Rhodes, which have technically never been defeated (they surrendered after a six month siege and only with the word of Suleiman the Magnificent that the survivors would be granted safe passage off the island). Then moved to Malta where they built an even more impressive set of fortifications and civic structures.

The Knights were composed mostly of nobles from Europe and thus brought tremendous wealth with them. Initially they set up hospitals in the 12th century to care for pilgrims traveling from Europe to the Holy Land. That role grew into a militarily defensive role and then grew some full-on military features by the 14th century.

Being composed of rich Nobles, the order at one point may have had access to more wealth than the entire rest of the Roman Catholic Church during this time period. During the early Malta period of the 16th century, the Knights built one of the most incredible and beautiful buildings I've ever seen. The outside isn't much to look at, but the inside is one of the most decorated buildings I've ever been in -- pictures don't really do it justice. The local "real" Cathedral built by the Catholic Church looks positively spartan in comparison even though it also is a beautiful building.



The order survived into the modern age, and over the ages did a number of works, continued to administer Malta, and happened to colonize parts of the Caribbean. Weakened during both the Protestant Reformation and the Napoleonic wars, but returned to the roots as a human welfare and religious group. They eventually changed their name to "the Sovereign Military Order of Malta" (SMOM) which they keep to this day as the oldest surviving order of chivalry.

Amazingly it actually is a "sovereign" order, meaning they're viewed in many circles to have power equal to that of a minor nation-state even though they have no territory at all -- the only example in the world today. For example, SMOM is a permanent observer in the U.N. [1] and maintains diplomatic relations with 106 countries. It can enter into treaties, issue passports, coins and postage. Their headquarter buildings in Rome are treated as Embassies and enjoy diplomatic extraterritoriality.

1 - https://www.un.int/orderofmalta/

2 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereign_Military_Order_of_Ma...

But I'm sure, by the scale of successful conquests on the ottoman side; there are several successful engineering innovations at their end as well. What makes Tadini's work note-worthy is the usual 'David vs Goliath' emphasis and also Ottoman Empire did not survive; history is written (mostly re-written) by the victors !

Usually a claim is most effective if it has some substance, for example some proof. Could you please provide some references to those innovations instead of shaming another culture, who is remembering one of its lost ones?

Also the knight orders have not survived. Should I blame the victors (whoever they are, as in this story the Ottomans won, for example), for writing history?

I will have to remember to mention this article to the next person I play Stratego with.

Oh, the last sentence reveals the purpose of the article"

"See, kids, the reason mass surveillance ala Snowden has to exist is because the other side mines and we undermine, its always been like this."

I up voted this post because I think the greater conversation regarding astroturfing and media conditioning us to accept certain policies needs to be had, but I think you could have found a better way to say it.

It seems that mining is still used today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwTj0tWMh2A

Interesting subject, but why does it feel like I'm reading a passage from a standardized test?

Followup: why the downvote? This article has a bizarre and amateurish ending:

  "Despite Tadini's losses, his methods have continued to 
  influence combat into the present. Mining and 
  countermining, with all their attendant surveillance and 
  engineering, are still staples of warfare."
This is actually worse than a passage from a test -- it sounds like a student essay written in response. It's little better than:

  In conclusion, Tadini's mining is still influential today.
which is vague, abrupt and unsubstantiated -- the article makes no mention of mining in the current day. Am I the only one who finds this odd?

I notice you're new to HN. Welcome! https://news.ycombinator.com/newswelcome.html

To understand what makes HN different from other sites, you may want to familiarize yourself with the guidelines: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

In particular, we try to write comments that are interesting to read. That rules out swipes and one-line dismissals: calling something amateurish, or complaining about downvotes.

HN has a lot to offer as a community, and we started out as a tight-knit group of refugees from sites like Reddit. This place has grown up a lot since then, but those fundamentals were the reason for HN's success.

Your second comment was better than your first -- a substantive dismissal is always preferable. And you can write comments like that if you really want to. I usually find it's more productive to focus on what's cool about a piece. There's usually something.

However if an article is mistaken, that's worth calling out. Some of the best HN comments are refutations. Though you'll want to be certain you're correct, or else you'll get called out yourself. :)

Thank you for the reply. Having lurked on HN for a while, I'm used to some negativity, or at least very critical, comments. So when most of the comments for this piece appeared positive something seemed off.

Anyway, I appreciate the environment on HN and the steps users like you take to preserve it.

Registration is open for Startup School 2019. Classes start July 22nd.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact