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Lepanto: A Category of the Spirit

There are days and places in history when time seems to stand still and, in the space of a moment, the fate of future centuries is decided.  At dawn on October 7, 1571, the spectacle would have made a strong impression on anyone who looked out at the waters breaking upon the straits that join the Gulf of Patras to the Gulf of Corinth, formerly called the Gulf of Lepanto, after an old fortified city that rose up from the sea.  A gigantic fleet advanced slowly, with the south wind at its back.  About 270 galleys and a massive number of light craft formed an enormous and threatening semicircle that occupied the seas from the mountainous coasts of Albania to the north and the shoals of Peloponnesus to the south.  At the center of the advancing crescent, on the admiral’s flagship (the Sultana), a green banner waved in the breeze.  The flag had been brought all the way from Mecca, and into its fabric the name of Allah was woven in gold 28,900 times.  In September 622 of the Christian era, a man declaring himself the prophet of this deity had issued a call for the conquest of the world.  The religion he founded summed up its mission in its name: Islam, submission.

Now, confronting the power of Islam, came a smaller fleet.  Sailing into the wind, using only the power of oars, the ships lined up in the shape of a cross.  The red and white flagship, the Royal, was...

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