The early middle ages, and in particular the late 11th Century, was a difficult time for Europe and Christianity in general. In 1055, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy split politically, physically, linguistically, and theologically in the Great Schism, fracturing Christendom in its most trying era.
Islam had been on the march for the last 350 years and nearly 2/3 of Christendom had fallen to the sword of jihad. Most of the bishoprics of the great early Christian thinkers, such as St Ignatius of Antioch, St Clement of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Augustine of Hippo, were under Muslim occupation, not to mention the birthplace of Christ and the Holy City Jerusalem. Even the books of the Bible were a testament (Ha!) of how far Christianity had fallen to Islam: Galatea was recently conquered by the Seljuk Turks, and the travels in the old Roman Empire by John the Evangelist was a contemporary target list for Muslim corsairs, against whom the new(er) Byzantine Empire was powerless. In several instances, the Muslim tide lapped against the walls of their capital, Constantinople. But most disconcertingly, in 1071, the Byzantine Army, including the entire Varangian Guard, was smashed at the Battle of Manzikert, which left all of Anatolia open to conversion.
Furthermore, the remainder of Christendom was going through its own violent spasms, but internally. Feudalism was a decentralized system of power, protection, and production formed to adapt to the trials experienced by Europe during the Barbarian invasions after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it had reached its natural limits. After Charlemagne divided the Carolingian Empire between his sons (the seminal event in European history), feudalism gave rise to a warrior class, the knights, that had little to do but fight amongst themselves. French, Italian, German, Polish, Hungarian, and Scandinavian lands were a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other. Among many other examples, Norman adventuring had conquered England in 1066, Southern Italy in the 1070s and were raiding Byzantine ports in the 1080s, all fellow Christians. A unifying force was needed before Western Civilization tore itself apart.
By the 1090s, Pope Urban II was the most powerful man in Europe. He instituted hard fought, if limited, reforms to Catholicism and the Papacy, and emerged from the struggle determined save Christendom from itself. An astute politician, he first put the Italian house in order and then turned to the rest of Europe. Taking note of the Norman conquest of the Emirate of Sicily and the campaigns of a Spanish warlord, El Cid, he began laying the groundwork for the unification of Christendom. In March 1095, he received a request from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Komenos, for help against Seljuk Turks. It was exactly the impetus he needed (and might even bring Eastern Orthodoxy back into the Roman Catholic fold). He called for a Holy Synod in the city of Clermont, and requested that each bishop bring along the strongest lord in his diocese. More than 600 of the most influential men in Europe showed up.
On 27 November, 1095, Pope Urban II gave an emotional speech that appealed to the men’s sense of chivalry, piety, and most especially, greed. He called for a crusade to reconquer the Holy Lands in exchange for forgiveness of their sins. The response was much more than he dared hope for. To the cheering cries of “Deus Vult!”, “God’s Will!” the lords of the land departed Clermont to make ready for an immediate journey east.
What we would know as the First Crusade had begun.
In 632 CE the Prophet Mohammad died, and his succession became disputed. His first successor was his father in law, Abu Bakr, even though Mohammad’s son in law, Ali ibn Abi Talib claimed Mohammed passed leadership of the caliphate (Islamic State) directly to him. In any case, in a show of solidarity for the small Muslim community, Ali accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership.
Over the next decades, Abu Bakr and his two successors were assassinated during early infighting among the Arabic tribes and Ali became the fourth caliph. Ali’s followers claimed that this was divine will in action because Ali was the only caliph directly chosen by Mohammad. Ali spread the Caliphate from the Arabian Peninsula north to the Caucus Mountains, east across Persia, and west across the north African coast. Ali was assassinated in Kufa (modern Najaf, Iraq) in 661.
Ali’s followers declared his son Hussein Ali the caliph. Hussein Ali was Mohammad’s grandson by blood through his mother, Mohammed’s daughter. But his followers were suppressed by Muawiyah, the son of the assassinated third caliph, who had a larger army and power base in the Levant and Syria. Muawiyah became the first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. But Ali’s supporters did not recognize him because he lacked a blood tie to Mohammad, and fought a low level insurgency in support of Hussein Ali for caliph. Twenty years later in 680, Muawiyah died, and his son Yazid was nominated caliph. In response, Kufa and most of Mesopotamia openly declared for Ali and in rebellion against Umayyad Caliphate. Unfortunately for Ali, he was in Mecca at the time, and this put him in a precarious position, so he raced back to his power base in Kufa with a thousand followers.
On 10 October 680 CE Ali got as far as the Karbala Pass, which was blocked by a vastly superior army led by Yazid. In the ensuing battle, Ali, his family, and all of his followers were massacred. Ali’s followers never forgave Yazid. This led directly to the schism of Islam into the Sunni and Shia branches. Hussein Ali was/is considered a martyr by his followers and they would accept only his descendants as leaders of the caliphate. They would go on to form the Shia branch of Islam when Ali’s followers subsumed Persia, and Islam was influenced by the early Persian Zoroastrianism. Shia’s leadership by bloodline formed a more centralized and hierarchical Islam as seen in Iran with the rule by the Ayatollahs today (all of whom claim to be descendants of Ali, and hence Mohammad). Yazid and his successors went on to form the Sunni, and without a direct blood tie to Mohammad, a much more decentralized branch of Islam. The Shia consider Yazid, all of his successors, and the Sunni in general as usurpers, and this is the basis of the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam today.
After the fall of Fort Saint Elmo at the end of June 1565, the Turks maintained a constant bombardment and launched a series of joint landward and seaward attacks against the Maltese Knights’ main defenses of the town of Birgu, Fort St. Michel, and Fort St. Angelo.
The attacks were devastating but uncoordinated due to the death of the most competent leader, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut Reis who was killed by an errant cannonball during the final assault on Fort St. Elmo. The other two Ottoman commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha, despised each other, and their various schemes undermined the efficient and effective use of the Ottomans’ remaining resources, after losing 1/4th their force at St. Elmo. Nonetheless, they still had 30,000 troops and complete command of the harbor.
The Knights held through these attacks, but only by the slimmest of margins. Many of La Vallette’s subordinates wanted to trade fortifications for time, but La Vallette disagreed. He knew the only wany to defeat the Turks will to fight was to fight for every inch of the defense. Every Turkish assault that was thrown back degraded the Turkish will to continue, and more importantly, delayed the next Turkish assault, as they reorganized.
In the beginning of July, the Turks launched a surprise amphibious attack against the seaward side of the Senglea Peninsula, combined with a landward attack on Fort St. Michel. St Michel was exposed on its harbor side due to the fall of St Elmo, but an enterprising older French knight, Chevalier de Gurial, on his own volition, ordered a battery from the wall of St. Angelo to the shore. The battery waited until the Turks were within 200m before firing and their grapeshot and chainshot killed almost a thousand elite Janissaries. Fort St. Michel would have almost certainly fallen without the actions of de Gurial’s battery, and it allowed the Knights the time to build a palisade along the shore to protect against future attacks.
At the beginning of August, Fort St. Michel was again the focal point of a massive Turkish assault after a mine was exploded underneath one of the bastions creating a breach. The Turks stormed the fort and through sheer numbers forced the remaining defenders back to the chapel. As they were about to be overwhelmed, the Turks inexplicably (to the chapel defenders) fell back in disarray. A raid from the small outpost of Maltese Knights at Mdina, in the center of the island, which was never captured by the Turks, attacked the undefended Turkish camp and gave the impression that the relief army from Sicily had arrived, prompting the Turkish retreat. The Knights and Maltese engineers and citizens immediately repaired the breach and filled the mine. In mid-August, another mine detonated opening a breach in the Birgu wall and the Turks flooded into the town. La Vallette ordered the guns of St Angelo to fire on the town while the 70 year old commander personally led the counterattack to the breach. Despite fierce fighting and many irreplaceable defenders lost to both the Turks and “friendly” cannon, La Vallette and his body guard fought their way to and held the breach as the citizens of Birgu filled it in. An Italian mercenary wrote of La Vallette,
“de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired”.
After the failure of the mines, Mustapha placed his faith in two giant siege towers. On 18 August, he attacked the wall of Birgu again but this time with a great siege tower filled snipers which cleared the top of the wall. But as the tower slowly lumbered forward, La Vallette ordered the base of the wall hollowed out. As the tower neared, laborers removed the few remaining stone blocks, and two cannon were pushed forward. They fired chain shot point blank into the base of the tower, toppling it. The second tower’s base was hastily reinforced against the repeat of the same tactic but as it approached the Maltese removed the blocks and instead of cannon, Knights streamed out and stormed the tower, eventually capturing it.
The tower attacks were Mustapha’s last serious attempts to seize the forts. La Vallette maintained that the Turks were losing will after the repeated failed even though the cost to the defenders was dear. La Vallette was right. On 28 August he moved his army to the small outpost of Mdina, where there was a water source so they could winter there. But as they approached, the few knights and Maltese citizens fired all of their cannon recklessly, using up all of their powder. Mustapha thought this meant they had powder to spare, and having none of his own, fell back to his camp near the harbor. Out of gunpowder, and nowhere to winter on the island, the Turks launched one final assault on 1 September, which was beaten back with heavy losses.
On 7 September Don Garcia of Sicliy landed in St Paul’s Bay on the north side of the island with a relief army. Mustapha took the Turkish army to the southern shore and boarded his galleys the next day. The Siege of Malta was over and the fragmented and petty kingdoms of the “soft underbelly of Europe” were safe from Islamic conquest. The Maltese would rebuild the capital of their island and name it Valletta, after the indomitable Jean Pairsot de Vallette, Grand Master of the Order of St John and Defender of Malta.
For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.
Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.
The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.
That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.
The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took up the banner of Sunni Islam and their jihad exploded across Europe, Asia, and Africa for the next 100 years. By 1565, Ottoman expansion by land had slowed considerably. After conquering the Balkans, the Ottomans ran into the powerful Hapsburg Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the north. To the south lay the Sahara Desert and jungles of Central Africa. And to the east were the powerful Shia Safavid Persians. These obstacles required more deliberate preparations. Only to the West, via the Mediterranean Sea, would an advance prove relatively easier. In 1564, the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, authorized the seaborne invasion of Italy.
The Eastern Mediterranean was already an Ottoman lake, but to cut off Italy from Hapsburg Spain (flush with gold from the New World) required the domination of the Western Mediterranean. Once done, the isolated warring city states and petty kingdoms of the Italian peninsula would be easy prey. There was only one problem: the tiny island of Malta. Malta was situated in the narrowest part of the Sea between Sicily and Tunisia, which blocked any real access for large fleets to the West. Malta was like a fishbone stuck in the throat of the Mediterranean, doubly so because it was the possession of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the crusading orders.
The Knights of Malta, as they were known, were Christianity’s rear guard in the disastrous crusades of the last 500 years. Created to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, they were at the forefront of every major battle and present at every major retreat. They were thrown out of the Holy Land, off the island of Rhodes, and found their new home on the island of Malta, from which they continued the fight against Muslim expansion.
In the sixteenth century, the Knights of Malta no longer went to war on horses, but in galleys. The white cross on blood red background was a feared sight to Ottomans, whose warships were given no quarter, and merchant ships were turned over to their newly freed galley slaves (which invariably meant the slaughter of the Muslim crew). Moreover, they were on the forefront of sixteenth century military efficacy. The Maltese Knights blended a unique mix of Western land technology and Eastern naval technology. Though few in number, they were the Pope’s and Christianity’s first and only reliable defense against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
In May 1565, the Knights of Malta were on their own. Their leader, the indomitable 71 year old Jean de La Valette amassed 700 Maltese Knights, 600 Spanish and Italian knights, 2700 men at arms, and 3000 armed Maltese civilians to defend island. They occupied the three forts, Fort St. Michael, Fort St. Angelo, and the exposed Fort St. Elmo, that guarded the all-important harbor on the north side of the island (Valetta Harbor today). On 18 May 1565, La Valette’s archrival, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut-Reis, arrived off Malta with Grand Vizier Mustapha Pasha and 213 ships and 48,000 warriors, including 8000 of the Sultan’s own Janissaries.
The last land battle of the Crusades had begun.
With the end of the American Revolution, American merchant ships lost the protection of the British Navy. Soon, they became the favorite prey for the Barbary corsairs (Muslim pirates) of the North African coast, particularly the Ottoman province of Tripolitania. Hundreds of American sailors were seized and those not ransomed were either forcibly converted to Islam or sold into slavery. In 1796, President George Washington and Congress paid $900,000 ($15 million today), or 1/6th of the American Federal budget (633 billion with a “b” today), to free 113 American hostages and a yearly tribute of $43,000 (2.5 million today). The hostages were freed, but as ransoms usually go, it was still not enough to stop the depredations.
The US Congress authorized the creation of a navy in 1794, but the initial six frigates weren’t ready until 1798. In 1801, the US declared war on the Barbary States of Morocco and Tripolitania. After three years of blockade and inconclusive fighting during the First Barbary War, President Thomas Jefferson authorized the regime change of Tripolitania, replacing its ruler Jusef Qaramanli with his pro-American exiled brother, Hamet.
In early 1805, a former army captain and consul to Tunis, William Eaton, traveled to Egypt with a Marine detachment under 1st Lt Presley O’Bannon. They recruited 500 Greek, Arab, and Berber mercenaries. They then made a 600 mile trek to capture Derna, the capital of Cyrenacia and the stepping stone to the capital, Tripoli.
The Marines put down several mutinies during the grueling march and the small expedition finally met a small squadron of US ships off of Derna on 26 April, 1805. The next morning, Eaton demanded the Bey of Derna surrender. The Bey, who thought he was safe behind his 4000 warriors, replied, “My head or yours!”. Eaton and his small army, led the Lt O’Bannon and his eight Marines, stormed the town. At 4 pm, they raised the Stars and Stripes over the fortress protecting the harbor.
It’s the first time the American flag had flown over an overseas foreign territory. Impressed with the professionalism and fighting spirit of the U.S. Marines, Prince Hamet gave his Mameluke sword to Lt O’Bannon as a sign of gratitude and respect.
The Battle of Derna is immortalized in the second line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli” and USMC officers wear a replica of Prince Hamet’s sword with their Blue Dress Uniform to this day.
In 1881, the Sudan was a protectorate of Egypt, which was an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire. Citing oppression by “their Turkish overlords”, the Muslim imam Mohammad Ahmad declared himself the “Mahdi” or “Guided One” (The Mahdi is the Islamic term for the messianic herald or redeemer. In Christian terms, he would be John the Baptist. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq considers himself the Mahdi) and declares Jihad against the Egyptian-Turkish administration of the country. Ahmad’s Mahdism, was a very strict, literal, and fanatical version of Islam that had fallen out of favor in Islamic lands since the height of the Ottoman Empire and the failure to capture Vienna two hundred years before.
As the Mahdists grew in strength, they defeated every army sent by the Egyptians to put down the revolt. With no support from Istanbul, the Egyptians increasingly fell under British influence. Exasperated, the Egyptians decided to let the Mahdists have the Sudan and asked for British assistance extracting their garrisons. The British government sent the popular, competent and aggressive General Charles “Chinese” Gordan (he made a name for himself in the Opium Wars in China). Gordan captured Khartoum in March 1884, but he recognized the danger of Ahmad’s radical version of Islam and determined to force the Mahdists to battle.
Ahmad immediately surrounded Gordan’s 8000 British and Egyptian troops, and besieged Khartoum. Gordan planned to use the relief column as the hammer to his anvil to destroy the Mahdists. However, the British government refused for six months to send a relief column and only did so at Queen Victoria’s insistence. In January of 1885, Sir Herbert Stewart’s Desert Column of mostly camel bound troops, entered the Sudan.
The Mahdi sent his own column to intercept and on 16 January 1885 they met at the oasis at Abu Klea. Stewart’s 1400 soldiers, eight cannon and one machine gun formed a square, and the Ahmad’s 13,000 warriors attacked. With the development of the rifle and horse artillery, most Western armies had abandoned the square formation, but Britain continued to use it because of its effectiveness against indigenous armies. (Six years before, the Zulus, easily the best indigenous army in Africa, accomplished the rare feat of breaking a British square at Isandlwana, but they had 4000 killed in the process, and did so only after the British ran out of ammunition.)
The “dervishes” as the British mistakenly called them, couldn’t withstand the massed firepower of the square, even after the machine gun jammed due to sand. The Mahdists took over a thousand killed and wounded, and the Battle of Abu Klea was over in fifteen minutes. Stewart had less than 200 casualties.
Unfortunately, Stewart was too late to relieve Khartoum. On 25 January, the Mahdists stormed the city, and Gordan’s troops, weakened by disease and starvation were overrun. Gordan and all 8000 of his British and Egyptian soldiers were massacred, along with 4000 residents of the city. Many thousands more were sold into slavery. Stewart’s Desert Column arrived just two days later on 27 January, and seeing that the city fell, quickly returned to Egypt.
Ahmad ruled Sudan as a fundamentalist Islamic state for the next 13 years. Although the Mahdists only ruled Sudan for a short time, it proved an incubator for radical Islam, particularly the aggressive and expansionist Wahhabist sect. The Mahdists would provide inspiration to a young Wahhabi, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1902.
Under the pretext of assisting Protestant Hungarian rebels against the Catholic Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire sent a massive army of over 200,000 to seize the southern gateway to Central Europe, the Austrian capital of Vienna. As in the Siege of Vienna in 1529, Emperor Leopold I assumed that the Ottomans needed to seize the fortresses in Hungary along the Danube in order to float their heavy artillery down the river to successfully besiege the city. He fortified and reinforced Vaag, Raab and Commore downstream from Vienna, only to have the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha Pasha surprisingly move overland from Belgrade and strike directly at the heart of Christian resistance to Ottoman expansion in Europe, Vienna. “The head of the snake”, in Kara Mustapha’s words.
In the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire was both simultaneously the splendid and all-powerful Caliphate of Islam, and showing the first signs of becoming the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Ottoman Empire was known later in the 19th century. In the late 17th century Ottoman society stagnated and further conquests had been checked and rolled back in the Northeast and East by an aggressive Imperial Russian Tsardom, in the Middle East by the Safavid Persians, in the Indian Ocean by Portuguese sailors, and in the Mediterranean by the galleys of Spain, Italy, and the Maltese Knights. Only in Transylvania, Hungary and the Ukraine had the viziers of the sultan had any success conquering territory in the name of Islam.
Kara Mustapha was the latest of a long line of the aggressive and competent Albanian Köprülü viziers, and he was by far the most ambitious. He recognized that the Ottoman Empire must expand or its internal governmental and organizational fallacies would bring the Empire down. He saw himself as the future ruler of the heartland of Europe in the name of the sultan. He boasted that he “would water his horses in St. Peter’s Square” and “turn the Basilica into a mosque”. Sultan Mehmed IV, who was enjoying the fruits of being the most powerful man in Islam (his personal hunting grounds were larger than modern day Bulgaria and his personal harem was in the tens of thousands) gave a green silk cord tied as a noose to Kara Mustapha: seize Vienna or strangle yourself. Kara Mustapha wore it around his neck, day and night.
By advancing overland, Mustapha gambled that he could take Vienna before reinforcements from the Empire’s Circles (Circles were an administrative unit of the Holy Roman Empire e.g. Franconian Circle, Bavarian Circle etc.) or a relief force from Poland arrived. Although the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was normally a staunch ally of the Holy Roman Empire’s arch rival, France, the Commonwealth’s elected King Jan III Sobieski signed the Treaty of Warsaw that spring and vowed to come to Vienna’s aid if the Turk’s besieged it, as Leopold was if the same befell Krakow. But Krakow was a long way from Vienna and it took time to assemble a large enough army to do battle with Mustapha and relieve the city. Kara Mustapha’s surprise overland move on Vienna would have been successful had it not been for three men: Prince Hieronim Lubomirski, Count Ernst von Starhemberg, and the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano.
When Mustapha’s Tartar foraging parties were spotted just two day’s ride from Vienna in early July, Emperor Leopold I hastily departed for Linz, entrusting the defense of city to Starhemberg, the military governor of Vienna, and Leopold’s spiritual advisor Marco d’Aviano. Although Vienna was unprepared for a siege, Starhemberg leveled Vienna’s vulnerable suburbs, quickly evacuated most of citizenry, tallied and secured the arms and stores, and tirelessly established the defense and organized the remaining civilians into a militia. The Imperial commander, Charles V Duke of Lorraine gave Starhemberg 1/3 of the Imperial army, about 12,000 men, to defend the walls and man Vienna’s 380 cannon, before he withdrew further into Austria with the remainder to await and gather further reinforcements. The first reinforcements were 3000 Poles under Lubomirski who immediately forced marched from Poland upon news of Mustapha departing Belgrade, and arrived in Vienna just before the Turks invested the town on 15 July 1683.
Mustapha sent the traditional offer of submission to Islam to spare Vienna, but Starhemberg refused, and would have even if he wasn’t just recently informed of the slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, a town just south of Vienna which had accepted Mustapha’s offer, whose inhabitants were massacred anyway. The Turks then tried to bombard Vienna into submission, but without their heavy artillery, was outgunned by the numerous cannon protruding from Vienna’s Walls. Mustapha settled into a siege, and on the advice of his French mercenary engineers and artillerists, ordered his men to dig trenches and his sappers to dig mines. He aimed to break the walls of Vienna from below, the defenders with constant assault, and the will of the population with isolation and propoganda.
Marco d’Aviano was the rock upon which the morale of Vienna sat. Under his leadership, he and the Catholic priests of Vienna gave twice daily sermons to the troops and civilians in the city extolling the virtues of continued resistance. They were the front line in the war against treachery from within and broke up at least one plot to secretly open a small gate to a force of elite Turkish Janissaries. D’Aviano and Starhemberg took Turkish propaganda head on and read aloud leaflets proclaiming promises from Mustapha if the city was surrendered. They had only to point at Perchtoldsdorf and the other broken promises of the Ottoman Empire.
Most able bodied citizens were formed into a militia which Starhemberg skillfully intermixed with his Imperial professionals. Every day and night he visited the sentries on the walls. When Mustapha’s trenches crept closer and the countermining failed to prevent the Turks from breaching the walls, the tireless Starhemberg was there to plug the gap or oversee the repairs. One furious assault in early September was thrown back only because of a desperate countercharge by Starhemberg at the head of a company of shoemaker apprentices. Usually, at his side was the stalwart Lubomirski, whose Poles formed the shock troops that sealed the breaches from the inside. His men were used to the deprivations of a city under siege and provided a stoic example for the citizens of Vienna to emulate. More importantly, Lubomirski and his Poles represented a concrete manifestation of King Sobieski’s promise to come to the city’s aid. No matter how cunning and steadfast the defense of the city, Vienna would eventually fall without assistance from the outside.
In the beginning of September, King Sobieski arrived with his army at Hollabrunn, Austria, where he took command of the 24,000 strong Imperial army under the Duke of Lorraine and 28,000 Germans from Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Franconia under Georg Frederich, the Prince of Waldeck to form a united coalition to relieve Vienna. Though the Duke of Lorraine, as the senior representative of Emperor Leopold and the host nation, was entitled to the command (He also narrowly lost the election to the Polish throne to Sobieski years before), and Price Waldeck brought the most troops, both agreed that Sobieski was the most qualified to defeat the Turks. The Turks referred to Sobieski as “The Lion of Lechistan” for his victory at the Battle of Chocim and had defeated all comers, Islam and Christian, for the past decade and a half. Just twenty years before, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was subsumed by its enemies in a period known as “The Deluge”, when the armies of Sweden, Brandenburg, Austria, Transylvania, Ottomans, Cossacks, Tartars, and Russians completely overran the country. Sobieski was instrumental in the Commonwealth clawing back from that catastrophe. In the late summer of 1683, King Jan III Sobieski was at the head of a coalition army trying to save Christendom from the advances of the Islamic Caliphate.
On 6 September 1683, the army inexplicably crossed the Danube with no resistance at Tulin just 30km from Vienna, even though Mustapha’s Tartar light cavalry under his greatest cavalry commander, Khan Murad Giray of Crimea, observed their every movement. Any delay at this point would have been fatal. Just two days later, Mustapha’s sappers breached the wall and his Janissaries occupied the Burg bastion and the Burg ravelin, and were poised to break through the Löbel bastion. The final tunnels under the Löbel bastion were nearing completion; their detonation would doom Vienna. No matter how valiant the defense by Starhemberg and Lubomirski, the loss of two bastions would allow Mustapha to overwhelm the exhausted and beleaguered garrison. However, a Ruthenian noble under Lubomirski, Jerzy Kulczycki, volunteered to sneak through the Turkish lines to contact Lorraine and returned with news of Sobieski’s imminent arrival, which redoubled Starhemberg’s countermining efforts.
Mustapha gambled again that his sappers could blow the Löbel bastion and take Vienna before the coalition army could relieve the siege. It was a good bet. Sobieski still had to make the approach, and then traverse the ravine and stream crossed Wienerwald (Vienna Wood) before he could attack. Moreover, as Sobieski was granted the position of honor in the line, the right, the Polish army had to climb the Kahlenburg, a steep, rocky hill that Mustapha assumed was impassable to cavalry and cannon.
On the 9th and 10th of September, Polish peasants and soldiers dragged their 131 cannon over the Kahlenburg not wanting to waste the horses on such an arduous task. Two ropes were tied to each gun with 20-30 men pulling on each while an equal number pushed the spokes of each wheel. It was painful and backbreaking work which even the nobles, including the King, participated in. On the afternoon of 11 September, the Polish army lit fires and shot flares into the air to alert the garrison of Vienna that salvation was near. That evening, Sobieski and his Poles came down the Kahlenburg, again without harassment from the Tartars.
Murad was held back by Mustapha, who was preoccupied with the sappers’ progress and refused to believe the Tartar reports. The Khan, offended by his treatment, took his men and rode home, on the eve of the battle.
At 4 am on 12 September, 1683, the Polish cannon with their commanding position on the Kahlenburg fired into the Turkish camp signaling the beginning of the Battle of Vienna. On the left of the coalition line, Lorraine’s Imperial troops were the first to engage, followed quickly by Waldeck in the center. The Poles, reorganizing after the trip over the Kahlenburg, engaged soon thereafter. The battle was a slow process as the ground was cut by vineyards and low walls, each of which was stoutly defended by the Turks. However, Mustapha held back his best troops, the Sipahi’s and Janissaries, from the battle in anticipation of the imminent breach of Vienna’s walls.
The coalition pounded forward. Nevertheless, the Turk’s still outnumbered the attacking Christians. The battle continued all morning and all afternoon. Sobieski counseled his commanders that the objective of the day was to establish an advantageous position from which to begin the next day’s battle. He informed them that no battle of this magnitude could possibly be won in a single day. The broken terrain they were fighting over must be cleared before Sobieski’s trump card, the famed Polish Winged Hussars, could be unleashed to break the Turks.
All afternoon Lorraine and Waldeck begged Sobieski to charge as the Turks begrudgingly relinquished yard by painful yard. Sobieski wouldn’t relent: a premature charge would waste the striking power of the Hussars, who so far had never lost a battle. In a land that prided itself on its cavalry, the Husaria were a cut above. Only the richest and most competent of horsemen could afford and handle the accouterments of the Husaria. Armoured in a thick Sarmatian breastplate and a Germano/Roman helmet on the heaviest warhorse in Europe, the Polish Hussars were dedicated to the shock value of the charge. Heavily armed with an 18ft lance, a longsword like the knights of old, a sabre like any good Polish nobleman, a battle axe or Cossack warhammer for the melee, and a carbine and a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous French musketeers, the Husaria were meant for one thing and one thing only – to break an army with their charge.
The Husaria’s most distinctive feature was not their armour or weaponry, but their panoply. On his back, the well-to-do Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. This exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles on which flew hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars. The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.
The German, Imperial, and Polish infantry and cavalry pounded the Turkish lines, but still Sobieski would not release his hussars, much to the dismay of those who had fought face to face with the determined Turkish defense for almost twelve straight hours. At 4 pm, just an hour or so before the sun set which would bring an end to the fighting, the first breakthroughs occurred. Both Waldeck and then Lorraine reported that the walls and vineyards were cleared, followed closely by Sobieski’s own Poles. However, was there enough daylight to finish the battle before Mustapha’s sappers blew the mines under the Löbel bastion?
Sobieski, observing the disorganization in the Turkish lines and camp before him, gambled that there was. He ordered the Polish Hussars to charge, and every Pole, Austrian, and German with a horse to follow.
At 4:30 pm, 12 September 1683, 3000 Polish Winged Hussars, followed by 20,000 Polish Panzerini and Kozacy, Austrian and German Ritters, and any coalition fighter with a horse, charged the Turkish lines. The battle was in doubt for but minutes. The largest cavalry charge in history passed through the Turkish lines, then the Turkish camp, and didn’t stop until it was at the Gates of Vienna, five miles away. Upon seeing the effects of the charge, Starhemberg and Lubomirski sortied with the entire garrison and struck the elite Turkish Janissaries and Sipahis as they formed to stop the Husaria. The starving civilians of Vienna followed closely behind, fell upon the Turkish camp, especially the herds of cow and buffalo which they butchered on the spot, and ate their fill.
For but a brief moment, all of Christendom was united in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Gates of Vienna. King Jan III Sobieski was accompanied by Starhemberg and Lubomirski around the city to the rousing crowds of jubilant Viennese. The Viennese bakers created a fluffy crescent shaped pastry in honor of the victory over Islam which we know today as the “croissant.” And for the hardier folk, the Jewish bakers boiled some dough in a circle in honor of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. Today, we call them “bagels”. Kulczycki would eventually go on to open Vienna’s first cappuccino café after the battle with 200 sacks of coffee beans captured from the Turkish camp. With the all the magnificent plunder about, no one wanted the beans but Kulczycki. Vienna had coffee cafés previously, but Kulczycki’s was the first to serve the bitter liquid with sweetened steamed milk. He opened the “Blue Bottle Coffee House” and it was an immediate hit. (The café is still there, and yes, I’ve been there.) Word of the victory sparked wild celebration in Rome, Krakow, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and even London and Paris. But it was not to last.
Lorraine quickly sent word to Emperor Leopold that he needed to return promptly so that Sobieski wasn’t recognized as the savior of Vienna. German and Austrian contemporary accounts and later German historians would roll Lubomirski’s exploits into Starhemberg’s, and excise him completely from the historic record. Leopold was offended at Sobieski’s triumphal parade through Vienna and forbade any monument dedicated to him in the city. Waldeck was relegated to a Hapsburg puppet, instead of the leader of a large contingent of fiercely independent Germans who took on the brunt of Kara Mustapha’s defense and allowed the Polish cavalry to seize the day.
The Christian participants went on to form the Holy League against the Turks and reconquered Hungary, Transylvania, and parts of Serbia from the Ottomans. The battle signaled the Ottoman Empire’s irrevocable decline and they would never again threaten Europe.
Kara Mustapha Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, did not escape his green cord – the Sultan’s assassins strangled him in Belgrade on Christmas Day, 1683.
The Eastern Roman Empire, named so since its capital, Constantinople, sat on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, had survived for a thousand years after the fall of Rome to the Goths in the 5th century CE. Beset on all sides, the Byzantine Empire’s resilience was rooted in its flexible and efficient multi-layered defense system. The system began with a superior intelligence and diplomatic organization managed from the “Office of Barbarians”. Should an invader actually attack, they first met the buffer states, Georgia, Armenia etc which provided time for a series of well stocked and provisioned border fortresses to be manned. These strongpoints fixed invaders so they could be defeated by the free peasants of the “themes” or provinces, and the semi-autonomous regional professional armies or tagmata. All of which if necessary could be reinforced by the Emperor’s personal guard and the nobles levy from Constantinople.
This system ended with the catastrophic defeat of the cream of the Empire’s troops at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Byzantine system was amazingly effective on the defense but cumbersome on the offense. In an attempt to expand and recover land lost to the spread of Islam, the emperors during the prosperous 11th century undermined their own defense by making the system so efficient it was no longer effective . Moreover they imposed crushing taxes on the thematic troops, and tried directly controlling the buffer states, namely Armenia, the bulwark of the eastern approaches. In the confusion of the Armenian War, the Seljuk Turks broke into Anatolia and crushed the Byzantine Army sent to expel them. The Byzantines would never recover. No longer would Asia Minor be solely Byzantine: a patchwork of Turkic tribes occupied central and eastern Anatolia.
Over the next 400 years, one tribe would reign supreme and unite the others – the Ottomans. Under a historically uncommon string of energetic, confident and piousleaders, the Ottomans developed their own effective system of offensive jihad. They expanded over Asia Minor and into the Balkans, leaving the Byzantine Empire with just the Peloponnese, Thrace, and the capital, Constantinople.
Constantinople was the Byzantine trump card. If all else failed, the walls of Constantinople had held. They had never been forcibly breached (They had been penetrated by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, but only because a guard left a sally port open). The first ring of the city’s defensive walls was built by Emperor Constantine when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city. The second and third rings were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. Over a thousand years, the Theodosian Walls had withstood twelve separate major sieges by the Rus, Arabs, Sassanids, Avars, Bulgars, Byzantine usurpers, and even the Ottomans.
The Theodosian Walls protected the landside approaches to the city and were 6.5 km long from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. To breach the walls attackers first had to cross a 20m wide and 7m deep moat that could be flooded on command by a series of dams controlled inside the city. The first wall oversaw the moat and the second wall had firing platforms to cover both the moat and first wall. Behind that was the massive third wall which covered the first and second walls. The third wall was 5m thick and 12m high, with 96 towers, one every 70m, providing interlocking fields of fire. The walls and food stores were maintained by the cities’ various factions in an ingenious imperial competition that saw complete obliteration of the faction if the quotas and required work weren’t met. The seaward side of Constantinople was defended by the Imperial fleet which had a secure anchorage behind a massive chain that blocked the Golden Horn. Any assault from the sea was met by the fleet which was equipped with the infamous “Greek Fire”, a flammable concoction that produced a fire that couldn’t be put out with water, and only burned hotter the more you tried to smother it. Modern chemists have not been able to reproduce Greek fire.
However, unlike prior assailants, the Ottoman host in 1453 had several previously unknown advantages. First, Ottoman possessions in both the Balkans and Anatolia isolated Constantinople from assistance by land. The final Crusade called by the Pope ended in disaster in 1444 when Polish, Hungarian and Wallachian crusaders were defeated by Ottoman Sultan Murad II at the Battle of Varna in eastern Bulgaria. The only way to relive a besieged Constantinople was by sea, and by 1452, two massive fortresses closed the Bosporus to Christian ships. Moreover, despite Pope Nicholas V’s pleas, Christendom was not prepared to send assistance: France and England were war weary from the Hundred Years War, which would finally end that autumn. The Germans were busy fighting among themselves. The Eastern Europeans were still trying to hold back the Muslim tide in the Balkans in the wake of Varna. And Spain was in the final stages of the Reconquista. Only the Italian city states could send aid, and those that ran the blockade were woefully inadequate. Finally, Sultan Mehmed II had something that no previous besieger possessed: cannon.
In 1452, a German iron founder and engineer from Transylvania (then part of Hungary) named Orban was showered with funds by Mehmed to build the new German bombards that were revolutionizing siege warfare across Europe. Orban’s largest bombard was nearly 9m long and could hurl a 275kg cannon ball nearly a kilometer and a half (Almost a mile). It was crewed by 400 men and had to be dragged by 60 oxen. Orban’s great bombard was just one of 70 cannon at Mehmed’s disposal for the siege.
On Easter Sunday, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II arrived outside the walls of Constantinople with nearly 100,000 troops, 10,000 of whom were elite Janisaaries, 70 cannon, and 125 ships. Emperor Constantine XI and his commander Giovanni Giustiniani from Genoa had just 11,000 men of which 2000 were Venetian and Genoese and 600 renegade Turks, and 26 ships safely locked behind the great chain in Golden Horn. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Mehemd II immediately, but arrogantly, launched a series of frontal assaults with predictable results. The Byzantine defenders stood firm along the Theodosian Walls just as they had for a thousand years. Constantine XI tried to buy off Mehmed II, but the Sultan wanted the city for his new capital and he knew there would be no better chance to seize it than at that moment. The sultan unleashed Orban’s bombards which over the next six weeks systematically reduced the Theodosian Walls to rubble. To further spread out the Byzantine troops, Mehmed ordered his fleet painstakingly dragged overland and launched into the Golden Horn, bypassing the great chain. On 22 April, the Byzantines attempted to destroy the Ottoman fleet with fire ships, but a deserter warned of the impending assault and the Venetian ships were sunk before they could do damage. The surviving Venetian sailors were impaled on the north shore. In response, Constantine XI ordered the execution of all Ottoman captives, one at a time and in full view of the Ottoman army. The Ottoman fleet built massive floating firing platforms in the Golden Horn which forced the Byzantines to man the sea walls, spreading their few troops dangerously thin.
At night the Byzantines repaired the damage to the walls as best as they could and during the day they countermined. As the Ottomans pounded the walls from above, German and Serbians mercenary sappers undermined the walls from below. Throughout May 1453, dozens of small vicious battles occurred below ground as mines and countermines intersected. In the flickering torchlight, groups of nearly naked men fought with picks, shovels, knives, and fists against foes identified only by the language they screamed in the darkness. After capturing two Turkish officers, the Byzantines knew the locations of all the mines and successfully shut down the Ottoman mining operations. But it was just delaying the inevitable: the Theodosian Walls were breached in more than few places, and Constantine and Giustiniani simply didn’t have enough men to plug the gaps effectively. And no relief force was enroute. The Byzantines were doomed.
On 28 May, as the Ottomans were openly preparing for their final assault, the Byzantines and Italians held religious parades culminating with a co-denominational mass in the Hagia Sophia with both the Italian and Byzantine nobility in attendance. That mass was the first time Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated mass together since the Great Schism of the 11th century and was the last Christian mass in the Hagia Sophia to this day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 29 May, 1453, as the moon waned in the sky, three great Turkish waves crashed against the Theodosian Walls and the sea walls along the Golden Horn. The first two were comprised of irregulars, Serbians, and Anatolian troops and were driven off with great loss by the Byzantines. They did however serve their purpose, they sufficiently weakened and disorganized the defense which was promptly exploited by the Janissaries. In short order, Giustiniani was mortally wounded, and his evacuation from the walls caused the Italians to collapse. Doffing his imperial regalia, Constantine was last seen leading a final futile charge against the Janissaries occupying the Kerkaporta gate. His body was never recovered. The remaining Byzantine soldiers fled home to protect their families while the Venetians and remaining Genoese fled to the harbor to escape.
That evening, Mehmed II rewarded his army with three days of loot, arson, murder, and rape in the city. Battles among the Turks erupted over the slaves and spoils. At the end of the three days, 20,000 of the 50,000 inhabitants of Constantinople were massacred, and the rest were sold into slavery. The Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. The Byzantine Empire was destroyed and the Greek world would never recover. Ancient Rome’s legacy would live on for another thirty years in the Byzantine rump states of Trebizond and Morea. And with rare exceptions, the Ottoman Empire would go on to nearly unchecked expansion for another 220 years.
In the Greek world, Tuesday is known as a day of bad luck. And Turkey is the only Islamic state whose national flag features not a crescent, but a waning moon.