In 1529 the citizens of Pressburg (modern day Bratislava) opened fire on an Ottoman fleet that was sailing up the Danube. Three years earlier the town had withstood a siege following the defeat and death of King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia at the battle of Mohács on August 29, 1526. The fleet, under the command of Suleiman bin Selim Khan ‘The Magnificent’ was on its way to Vienna after campaigning in Hungary and taking several towns and fortresses, including Buda, that were in the possession of Ferdinand I, King of Royal Hungary.
The Viennese, aware of the Ottoman advance, prepared their defences, fortifying the city walls, blocking city gates, and building an inner earthen rampart. Operational command was given to the septuagenarian Imperial military commander Count Niklas of Salm. The Ottomans arrived outside the city walls in late September and after Salm refused to surrender began to lay siege to the city. Unseasonable weather in the form of exceptionally heavy rains during the march from Constantinople had forced Suleiman to abandon his heavy cannon, leaving him with only lighter pieces. Initial bombardment proved ineffective, and may well have been used only as cover for mining operations.
Salm had ordered that bowls of water or dried peas be placed at points inside the city walls. If ripples appeared in the water, or the peas were disturbed, this could be taken as evidence that Ottoman miners were near. Six tunnels were discovered in this fashion. Viennese sorties regularly disrupted Ottoman mining, while direct assaults on the city through mining breaches at the Salt and Carinthian Gates were successfully repulsed.
At the practical limits of their lines of communication the Ottoman army suffered from critical shortages in supply, particularly of food and water. The perennial problem of health within a mobilized army also took its toll, while desertion further reduced the army’s numbers. On October 12 Suleiman convened a council to address the growing complaints from the Janissaries, following which a final assault was made on October 14. Repulsed once more by the determined defence the Ottoman army swiftly departed.
The Siege of Vienna marks the high tide of Ottoman expansion into Europe and is arguably the point from which the decline of the Ottoman Empire began. Yet it must be remembered that the campaign underlined Ottoman control of Hungary and that the period from the 1320’s, when the Ottomans crossed the Dardanelles, to 1920, when their empire was finally dissolved, marks 700 years of Islamic rule in Europe.
Islam, as it was for Medieval and Renaissance Europe, remains the ‘other’, an entity that continues to define Europe and the West in terms of identity construction. As Henri Pirenne wrote, “Charlemagne without Mohammed would have been inconceivable.” Circumscribed by Moorish Spain, Muslim North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, the boundaries of Christianity and Christendom were determined by the Islamic world. Yet the boundaries were never as clear cut as the clash of civilizations school of thought suggests.
Contact between Christians and Muslims was always broad and diverse. Venice and other Mediterranean towns and cities conducted trade, often dubiously in slaves; in Spain the Christian kings accommodated Muslim subjects while engaging in the Reconquista; El Cid fought for the Muslim rulers of Zaragoza as well as for the princes of Aragon; John Zápolya, King of Ottoman Hungary, was one of many Christian vassals of the Ottomans; Greek science and philosophy made its way into Christendom via the Arab world; Mohammed himself disputed with Christians about the doctrine of Incarnation; John of Segovia and George of Trebizon campaigned for a Christian-Muslim peace conference.
Today a secular Europe that has largely resolved the problem of church and state by separating them faces an Islamic world in which a significant number of voices, moderate and radical, have rejoined religion and government in the various forms of political Islam, perhaps at its most extreme in Al Qaeda. Within Europe minority Muslim communities represent the wide diversity of Islamic thought and practice and remain, as they have been for 1300 years, an integral part of the European experience, part of the fabric of culture and society.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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