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Wednesday, April 06, 2011


I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Merzifonly Kara Mustafa Pasa (above). He looks so sad in his portrait, as if he had just eaten something that disagreed with him. History records that he was despised for his petty meanness and infamous for his avariciousness. Both of those charges were true. Mustafa Pasa always wanted a bigger piece of the pie. But the larger truth may be that his greatest sin, historically, was having been born with the perfect skills to be a sous chef. He was a brilliant organizer. His attention to detail and precision was legendary. He could calculate a bribe as quick as greased lightening. But what he lacked was a firm will to turn up the heat and sear the meat. Unfortunately, his Sultan, Mehmed IV, found he didn’t like living in a tent. So in 1683 he went home before the main course was ready. And that left Kara Mustafa alone in the kitchen, a Grand Chef with no limits on his fastidious obsession with detail.
Sultan Mehmed IV (above) was always trying to convince people that he was who his titles said he was. He made his first entrance into history as an infant, when his father, in a fit if temper, tossed the baby boy down a toilet. The servants rescued the boy, but Mehmed bore the scar from that experience his entire life, physically on his forehead (ala Harry Potter), and figuratively on his ego. Instead of a cold simple diplomatic declaration of war - or more practically, a disarming surprise attack - on March 31st, 1683 Mehmed sent Austrian Hapsburg King Leopold I a letter dripping with adolescent bravado.
Mehmed IV informed Leopold (above), “We will destroy your little country with our Army… Above all WE order you, to wait for us in your city…so WE can behead you…We will exterminate you and all of your followers, as you are the lowest creatures of God, as all unbelievers are, and erase you from the face of the earth. WE will expose the big and little to gruesome pains first and than give them to a vicious death. Your little Empire, I will take from you and its entire population I will sweep off the earth.”
In the realm of braggadocio Mehmed IV letter has to rank right up there with George Bush’s 2004 invitation to the Iraqi resistance to “Bring it on.” Still, it wasn’t as if either side needed a reason for this new war. The Christians and the Muslims had been butchering each other in the Balkans for 300 years, since the fall of Constantinople. In the first century of these wars Vlad the Impaler (Christian) made his reputation having 20,000 P.O.W's (Muslim) impaled on stakes. And then he had lunch. Things just got worse from there. As Andrew Wheatcroft explains in his recent book, “The Enemy at the Gate”, “Many of the horror stories of these wars are true: the massacres and the atrocities, the endless lines of newly enslaved Hungarians in Sarajevo on their road of tears to Istanbul….The Hapsburg armies also flailed men alive, impaled prisoners, took slaves, raped captives. Savagery was a weapon of war used by both sides.” This was ethnic cleansing practiced by experts.
During the winter of 1682-83 Kara Mustafa was in his element as he prepared the way to war. He oversaw the building and repairing of roads and bridges up to the border between Austria and Ottoman Hungry. Supply depots were established for ammunition and food. And then, in early May of 1683, an Ottoman army of 150,000 men under the direct command of Mehmed IV marched easily from Istanbul to Belgrade, just 300 miles from serving Vienna flambe' .
But after reaching the border between war and peace the Sultan handed over command to Kara Mustafa and returned to his dinner parties in Istanbul. And from this moment things started to go wrong with the expedition.
A month later, now under Kara Mustafa’s command, an advance guard of 40,000 Tartar cavalry reached the outskirts of Vienna. Remembering the note from Mehmed, King Leopold had gathered up 80,000 of the residents of Vienna and taken them to the west, to Linz, leaving just 5,000 citizens behind in the Austrian capital, defended by 11,000 soldiers and 370 cannon.
Kara Mustafa felt he had to offer the commander of Vienna a lesson in Ottoman diplomatic cusine. The lesson was served up in the little village of Perchtoldsdorf, 6 miles east of Vienna, where King Leopold had a summer estate.
The citizens first tried to defend their town. And only that failed, on July 16th, did they surrender. Having been forced to wait for sevice, Mustafa was in no mood to be generous. He released his troops who “…massacred the surrendered garrison with their sabers, slaughtered noncombatant civilians, and then incinerated a church and tower packed with women and children.” (World History of Warfare; Archer & Ferris) Christian fricassee.
However this horror hors d'oeuvre did not have the intended effect. As their own aperitif “The Viennese responded by impaling severed Turkish heads in full view of their trenches and later flayed live captives.” (ibid) Muslim a al carte. Mustafa had no choice now but to lay in a seven course siege of Vienna.
And here technology was on the side of the defenders, thanks to the invention of the “trace Italienne”, also known as the Star Fort. This design replaced the vertical masonry walls which had failed to defend Constantinople against the Ottoman solid artillery shot.
Instead, as Wikipedia explains, “forts became both lower and larger in area. Low brick "curtain walls" filled with earth, absorbed enemy shells. Cannon embrasures allowed defenders to safely target any enemy artillery positions. An exterior ditch or moat (often water filled) kept enemy cavalry and troops at a distance." Mustafa would now have to poach the city, taking the time to tunnel beneath the moats and undermine the forts. With odds in his favor of 800 to 1, this was certain to work. So Kara Mustafa ordered his men to begin digging.
All through August the Ottoman engineers tunneled, hollowing out massive galleries underneath Vienna’s outer crust. In early September, when these were packed with gunpowder and exploded, an almost 12 mile line of fortifications simply collapsed; Vienna was al dente. The defenders were almost out of food and ammunition. Then, on September 6, 1683, as the Austrians prepared for the literal last ditch defense of their city, out of the muddy waters of the mighty Danube River, arose a hero; Jan Sobieski, King of Poland.
Sobieski’s original not-so-heroic plan had been for an alliance between himself and the Ottomans against Leopold’s Austria. But finding Mehmed IV was not interested in sharing Vienna, Sobieski joined up with the Austrians instead. The newly christened “Holy League” had about 80,000 men outside of Vienna, still giving Mustafa a numerical advantage of almost 2 to 1. But Mustafa refused to relese the bird in his hand. The last fortress had already been undermined, the charges planted and the fuses set. Whatever happened with Sobieski’s army, the final act of the siege would be played out on September 12, 1683.
The Polish King chose as his battle ground a hill (Kahlen Berg) rising like a great dinner roll 1,500 feet above the Danube flood plain,  just outside the walls of Vienna. On this hill a large part of the Ottoman army was camped, including Mustafa in his red tent. But anticipating Sobieski’s plan, at four that morning, Mustafa launched a spoiling attack against the League’s troops.
As the armies threw themselves against each other all morning long atop the hill, the Ottoman engineers were finishing their preparations underground. At about one that afternoon they lit the fuses and sealed the mine from their end. But an Austrian counter-mining operation then broke into the underground gallery and at almost the last second extinguised the fuses. Vienna would not fall this day. Kara Mustafa had run out of time.
Sensing the Ottoman forces were exhausted, at about five o’clock Sobieski launched a massed cavalry attack (20,000 men and horses), led by his distinctive “winged angels”. The well dressed Polish riders devoured the Ottoman troops, and swept them from the hill.
By 5:30 Sobieski was entering Mustafa’s personal tent and the Ottoman army was in full retreat toward the twin cities of Buda and Pest. Kara Mustafa had lost 15,000 dead and wounded and 5,000 captured, while the “League” had 5,000 dead. As history tells the tale, Sobieski got the glory while the Hapsburgs got the empire.
To celebrate the miracle of victory the bakers of Vienna invented a new pastry, twisted into a crescent in rememberance of the Ottoman crescent flags. In Austria the pastry is called a “Vienniuserie”. When Marie Antoinette introduced the treat to France in 1770, it was given the name by which the rest of the world knows it; the “croissant”. A more suspect legend says Sobieski introduced the bagel to Poland commemorate the stirrups of his victorious cavalry, and that Europe’s first taste of cappuccino was in bags of coffee left behind by the fleeing Ottoman troops, or perhaps what was left behind was some tasty “Vienna Roast” coffee. There may be an element of truth in some or all of these stories, but true or not, they are legendary. And delilicous.
Mustafa regrouped his forces at Belgrade, and put them into defensive positions, in case the Austrians tried to quickly follow up their victory. But Sobieski and Leopold’s armies were as exhausted as the Ottoman troops, and the Hapsburg prince was not interested in taking undue risks. Leopold knew that time was on his side, now.
The final casualty of the battle of Vienna was Kara Mustafa himself. On December 25, 1683, a date with little meaning to a Muslim, the soldiers came for him. He waited for them with his collar open, and stretched his neck so they might wrap the traditional silk rope around his throat. Ever attentive to details, his last words to the assassins were, “Be certain to tie the knot correctly.”
Then several men pulled the knot tight until the life was squeezed out of Mustafa. His decapitated head was carried to Istanbul and presented to Mehmed IV in a velvet bag.
His grave was disgraced and lost by conquering Hapsburg armies a generation later, and his headstone now rests in the Bugarian/Turkish border town of Edirne, as either a warning or a promise, depending on which side of the border you are standing on. And I understand that modern Edirne is a good place to pick up a cup of cappuccino and a croissant. Bon appetit.
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