Photo: Sotheby’s New York, via Wikimedia Commons | Lizenz: Public Domain

Vienna or Enemy at the Gate

“Asia begins at the Landstrasse.” Prince Metternich

In 2017 I made it down to Austria from Berlin for a long weekend in March to research the Balkans in Vienna. I stayed in Ottakring, Vienna’s balkanized 16th Bezirk, interviewed various musicians from the Balkan scene and found a city that was then, as ever, a gateway to the East.

While making our rounds in Ottakring, my host, the journalist Christoph Baumgarten, and I ran into the Austrian SPÖ politician Rudolf Hundsdorfer– who was canvassing for votes at the famous Ottakring Brunnenmarkt. Later he made an appearance at a concert of Bijelo Dugme, a kind of Yugo Rolling Stones, where, during a musical interlude, he appealed for the Balkan vote, a bid that was met with a mixture of cheers and derisive hoots.

In talking with Christoph, I learned that there was a hierarchy of immigrants in Vienna. While the Serbs and Croats may have been denigrated a generation or so earlier as Tschuschen – a Viennese term of derision along the lines of spic, dago or wop – lately they had fallen into the graces of conservative Viennese – in contrast to the more problematic Muslim Turks, who were being made to feel increasingly unwelcome in Vienna these days (at the time of my visit a controversy was brewing regarding a move by the right wing FPÖ to close pro-Erdoğan Turkish mosques where the imams were being funded by the Turkish government).

Vienna has been suffering a Turkish neurosis ever since the prolonged Turkish wars of the 16th and 17th century, when Vienna was harried by Ottoman forces most famously in 1683, when Austria narrowly escaped Ottoman vassalage.

The famous Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi accompanied the Ottoman forces on an inconclusive Vienna campaign, and in the eighth volume of his seyahâtnâme he penned some memorable impressions of Vienna, which he visited in 1665-66. The observations are very revealing of how the Turks regarded Austria and Vienna in the 17th century. They also show up some crucial differences between the two societies, Austrian and Turkish, containing within them the key to the Ottoman demise in the long drawn out clash of civilizations.

What impressed Çelebi the most, it seems, was the proliferation of dazzling mechanical devices, in particular the marvelously inventive clocks: “alarm clocks, clocks marking prayer times, or the month and day, or the signs of the zodiac, clocks on a monthly or daily calendar, chiming wall clocks,” contrivances that were more uncanny than anything and seemed to Çelebi to be the product of a diabolic spirit. 

From Çelebi’s impressions it can be inferred that even at this point in time when the Ottoman Empire was still in ascendance, the West was a tick more technologically advanced than the well-organized but rather retrograde Ottoman Turkey – a fact which would ultimately spell the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in its grappling for power alongside the countries of the West.

At the center of Çelebi’s Vienna impressions is the 137 meter high cathedral of St Stephen – the Steffl – which, during the fist siege of Vienna in 1529 Sultan Süleyman allegedly refused to bomb because it could have served as an impressive minaret, should the city be taken. The cathedral would have been the ultimate destination during the planned sack of Vienna, much like Hagia Sophia was the final object of Fatih Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1543.

“This great cathedral glitters like the gold mine of Mt Akra in Kurdistan and dazzles the eyes like a mountain of light. It is such a brilliant temple of Messiah-worship (Christianity),” writes Çelebi.

Particularly awe-inspiring was the organ, a to an Ottoman Turk, unheard of mechanism, with an “awesome, liver-piercing sound, like the voice of the Antichrist, that makes a man’s hair stand on end. In short, an unlettered man who listened to this organ would say it is the miracle of the prophet David and of Jesus the Spirit of God. But really it is neither a saint’s miraculous grace nor the miracle of a prophet. It is only white magic, a concatenation of musical instruments that scatters the wits of the listener.”

Casting the Ottomans as the cruel and bloodthirsty enemy at the gates, has been till today the most saleable approach of presenting the Turkish siege of Vienna – the Clash of Civilizations approach.

However, I wish to present another picture, as a Muslim looking at it from the perspective of someone who had lived in Istanbul for a while and for more than ten years following in the traces of the Ottomans in the Balkans. I have a different motive. In fact, I see the Turkish conquistadors as the tragic heroes of the siege of Vienna in 1683, and their failed bid for Vienna as a lost chance for Islam to gain a toe-hold in the West.

It is tempting to play the “what if” game. For the Ottomans had equally potent claims to the title of guardians of the Holy Roman Empire as the Habsburgs. Fatih Sultan Mehmet II – a keen student of Roman history – had already usurped the eastern branch of the Roman Empire (Rum) by wresting Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453.

Furthermore, Mehmet IV styled himself as a second Fatih Sultan Mehmet – and his plan of sacking Vienna was a sequel to the conquest of Constantinople. He was just expanding the Roman empire west, as he saw it. The conquest of Vienna and opening a holy mosque would, in Ottoman custom, make him the legal ruler of the West. Indeed, Suleiman I had called himself ‘Caesar of all the lands of Rome, master of the lands of Caesar and Alexander’. Leopold I, in Mehmet IV’s eyes was just a petty Austrian duke, ill-suited to the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

In the end the attempt at conquering Vienna proved to be a touch foolhardy – an act of hubris – rather like Hitler’s misguided Stalingrad campaign. The Ottomans had overtaxed and overextended themselves, lured by tantalizing and deceptive promises of inevitable glory far into enemy territory. 

Ultimately they had ignored the changed rules of war at their peril. Still, sticking by their tried and true formula of swift frontal attacks and agile hand-to-hand combat superiority of the Janissary shock troops, they proved to be outmatched by the Austrians application of new technological advances, in particular the use of firearms in battle, as well as Western tactical methods of waging war, which tilted the field of war in the Austrians’ favor. 

On a one-on-one basis the Turkish warrior was still far superior to the Austrian, but the Austrian had an intelligence of organization in his favor. It was thus rather like watching German football as opposed to Italian or Brazilian football. The German may be boring to watch, but it was his organizational genius that won games at the end of the day.

The Ottoman Turks never managed to take Vienna. The allied armies of John III Sobieski, King of Poland, John George, the Elector of Saxony, and the young Max Emmanuel, Elector of Bavaria, who swept in at the eleventh hour to trounce the Turks.

Mopping up the remains of the Turkish encampment outside the walls of Vienna in 1683, a precious booty fell into the hands of the Austrians, consisting of 600 gold-filled bags, numerous precious stones, valuable weapons, boxes made of pure gold, clocks and carpets, 15,000 tents, 10,000 oxen, 5,000 camels, 10,000 sheep and almost all of the Ottoman guns – things to be found today scattered across the museums of central Europe. 

The Ottoman guns, on the other hand, were melted down and used to cast the large bell of St Stephen, which ultimately – perhaps as a result of the curse of the Ottomans – fell one day and split apart.

The Ottomans may be history, but these days their Turkish descendants have managed what they weren’t able to achieve – conquering Vienna peacefully at the tip of the döner knife.

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