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For much of the 16th century, the Muslim Ottoman empire fought with Christian powers for control of the important trading routes and cities in the Mediterranean. The Ottoman empire grew powerful during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1522 it conquered the island of Rhodes where the Christian order of the Knights of St John (also called the Knights Hospitaller), had lived since 1282. This left the Knights without a home until the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them the island of Malta in 1530. The Knights remained at war with the Muslim Turks over religion.

In May 1565 Suleiman decided to attack the Knights of St John and besieged Malta with a large fleet of ships. There were four times as many Turks as Knights, but the Knights had a strong leader in Jean Parisot de la Valette. Fighting continued until September when reinforcements arrived from Sicily and the Turks withdrew.

Selim II then tried to expand the Ottoman empire by invading Cyprus in 1570. At that time Cyprus belonged to the Venetians. They immediately appealed to Pope Pius V for help and he assembled a Holy League of Rome, Venice, and Spain. Don John of Austria, half-brother to Philip II of Spain, was given command of a vast fleet of some 200 ships. The Turkish fleet, of about the same size, was drawn up in Lepanto Bay near Corinth in Greece. On 7 October 1571, Don John of Austria his fleet and defeated the Turkish fleet of 230 galleys, led by Ali Pasha. They fought furiously for three hours, and more than 200 ships were lost. The Ottoman fleet lost all but 40 of its galleys, while the Christian fleet lost just 12 ships. It was the last major naval battle to use oar-powered galleys, like those of ancient Greece and Rome. The battle was a brutal affair of boarding parties and hand-to-hand fighting. More than 30,000 men drowned in one afternoon.

The jubilant League believed the Turks crushed for ever, but they soon regained control of almost all the Mediterranean. In 1573, Don John captured Tunis from the Ottoman Turks.

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