The Siege of Vienna in 1683 was arguably one of the most important events in Islamic history because of the potential stakes and the aftermath of the result. The Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry had already lasted for almost two centuries leading up to 1683. This rivalry was marked by long periods of coexistence (brought about by treaties) with violent outbursts of conflict. At the expiry of one such treaty, those in charge in Constantinople decided to pursue aggression towards their long-standing rivals. There are differences as to what the motivations behind this Ottoman aggression were; some historians claiming the Sultan only ordered the capturing of border fortresses in Upper Hungary; whilst others argue the decision to besiege Vienna was taken by the Sultan’s chief Vizier, Kara Mustafa, an ambitious man belonging to the Koprulu family who had monopolised the position of Viziership for half a century. Expansionism served a key aim for Kara Mustafa – to play a distracting role to the internal issues faced by the Ottomans, notably the increasingly damaging role played by the Janissaries.
The Ottoman army, along with the help of its Calvinist Hungarian allies, besieged Vienna with a force of around 150,000 soldiers. The Hapsburg Emperor, Leopold I, was immediately forced to flee the city. By the beginning of September the Ottoman miners had dug underground tunnels to Vienna’s inner walls and actually made significant headway; at the same time, the siege had dragged on for six weeks and living conditions had taken its toll on the city.
In the backdrop of such dire straits for Vienna, Jan Sobieski showed up at the head of the Holy League army (which had been brought together by Pope Innocent XI). Roughly 70,000 Holy League troops descended upon the Ottoman forces on September 12. The ensuing battle would last for 15 hours and resulted in the decisive defeat of the Ottomans. Apparently, it took the Holy League a week to collect all the booty left behind by the Ottomans.
The fact that the Ottomans targeted the capital of it’s rival, not once but twice (a disastrous attempt had previously been made by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1529), whilst the Hapsburgs couldn’t dream of conquering Constantinople, shows how unequal the rivalry was. But that changed after 1683. When the Holy League forces, led by Jan Sobieski defeated the Ottoman forces just outside of Vienna and lifted the siege, the Ottoman Empire began a stubborn decline which saw their power erode whilst their European adversaries gained strength. In fact this battle is often seen as the turning point in the rivalry between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Beyond 1683, Muslim states launched no direct assaults on Europe; from that point on, Europe was in the ascendance.
If you’re interested in military history, check out this video we did on Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187!
Known in Turkish as Çaldıran Muharebesi and جنگ چالدران (jeng-e chalderan) in Persian, the Battle of Chaldıran is one of the most important battles in the last 500 years of the Middle East as the decisiveness of the Ottoman victory over their Persian Safavid foes led to long-term ramifications which saw the Ottomans emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East.
Though the battle was fought between the Ottoman Sultan Selim I and Safavid Shah Ismail I on 24 August 1514, the origins of the battle began about a decade before with Sultan Bayezid II. After Shah Ismail, a follower of the Twelver Shi’a Sufi sect known as Safeviyye, established the Safavid Empire in 1501, he also decreed that the new Iranian state would be a Shi’a state—effectively a mass conversion of the formerly majority Sunni region.* This served two purposes: first, it would separate the Safavid Empire from its rivals, the Sunni Ottomans and second it would allow Shah Ismail to take a special position as the sheikh in Safeviyye belief, making the Qızılbash—Azeri Turkish fighters who followed the order—loyal to him. This was difficult for the Ottoman Sultan to ignore as it directly undermined his power on an ethnic and sectarian level – losing the Turkish Qizilbash to a Shi’a leader who proclaimed himself the lawful leader of the Muslim community.
The Qizilbash were spread around the region in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Azerbaijan. Because they spanned the territories of two empires, Bayezid became suspicious of them. After some campaigns, Ismail managed to capture some key cities in Eastern Anatolia such as Erzincan in 1501. Bayezid then prevented the Anatolian Qizilbash from going to Iran and executed anyone suspected of having gone. Two successful reconquest campaigns by Sultan Bayezid and Şehzade (prince) Selim, brought part of the Eastern Anatolia region under Ottoman control.
Sultan Selim sent an army of up to 100,000 Rumelian** and Anatolian troops from the Ordu-yi Hümayun (Ottoman Army) to East Anatolia aimed at fighting Shah Ismail. The army established a military center at the Chaldiran plain and soldiers were posted on hills. Shah Ismail must have been fairly confident against the encroaching Ottomans because of his military successes thus far and the fact that he had been working with the Vali of Diyarbakir, Ustacluoğlu Mehmet and Mir Abdülbaki. On the battlefield, Shah Ismail managed to kill the Beylerbeyi (Vizier) of Rumelia himself, but Sultan Selim had brought a far higher number of troops and the latest war technology. Ismail’s small army was less organised and their weapons were less advanced, so the Ottomans were able to win in one day. Selim’s troops continued and entered Tabriz, the Safavid capital city on 6 September 1514.
After the fighting ended, several major events occurred. First, the alliance between the Mamluks—the rulers of Egypt, Syria, and the Hijaz—and the Safavids ended. This made it significantly easier for Selim to expand the Ottoman Empire into the region, conquering the Mamluk territories in five months. Second, the Ottomans now controlled the Van-Tabriz part of the Silk Road that had previously been under Safavid control. Third, important Anatolian and Mesopotamian cities such as Erzincan, Bayburt, Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Bitlis all became Ottoman territories, which solidified Ottoman control of Anatolia.
Shah Ismail had not only lost the battle but also his aura of invincibility; up until Chaldiran, the Shah was seen to have prophetic-martial qualities and had not lost a major battle. At Chaldiran, Shah Ismail had two of his wives and his entire harem captured by his Ottoman foe; he subsequently became depressed and effectively became an alcoholic – he virtually stopped participating in governing his realm until he died in 1524. More positively, the loss at Chaldiran persuaded the Safavids to adopt more modern weaponry which led them to become one of the Gunpowder Empires.
The Battle of Chaldiran offers two particularly important insights. It reinforced the necessity of a constant pursuit of technological progress – since the Ottoman superiority of weapon, exemplified by their usage of rifles and cannons, was was a key reason for their triumph over the Safavids, who still relied heavily on swords and non-gunpowder instruments. Secondly, it is also a lesson about the harshness of fate – since Shah Ismail was riding a military win streak for almost 20 years, the Battle of Chaldiran knocked this once indefatigable champion of war to his knees and he never recovered. This forces the question – was Shah Ismail really that great? Isn’t it more difficult and therefore admirable to get up after being knocked down than to remain unbeaten and never demonstrate the ability to bounce back from defeat?
* Even though Shah Ismail himself was an Azeri Turk, the Safavid Empire is considered Persian because it ruled over the historically Persian-controlled territories and even self-identified as an “Iranian state”.
At the ripe age of 26, Suleiman I inherited the Ottoman Empire in 1520 at a period when it was going through aggressive expansion. He would further this expansion of territory whilst embellishing the state in a manner which earned him the sobriquet “Magnificent”. Domestically, he reformed the judicial system so emphatically that he was referred to as “Kanuni” (Lawgiver) by his subjects. Over the course of a 46-year reign, he left a definitive mark on the Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1494, Suleiman received a high-quality education in the imperial school at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, studying science, history, literature, theology and military tactics. In keeping with Ottoman tradition princes were required to command a certain province, so Suleiman gained crucial experience of governorship when he served in various provinces of the empire. He also learnt spoke four languages Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Serbian. The Ottomans had the tradition of every Sultan acquiring a skill in a certain craft, Suleiman became a skilled jeweler.
In 1521, Suleiman’s mother gave him Aleksandra, a young slave girl from modern-day Ukraine whose father was an Orthodox priest. In time she would become Hurrem Sultan, the favourite concubine and later legal wife of Sultan Suleiman. Sultan Suleiman freed Hurrem Sultana and married her in 1533. He was the first Ottoman Sultan to wed for almost 200 years. He also wrote poems to Hurrem Sultan under the pseudonym Mugib. She went on become super powerful to the discomfort of many in the imperial administration. Perhaps her greatest rival was Prince Mustafa, heir and son of Suleiman through another wife. The power struggle in the Ottoman empire between Prince Mustafa and Hurrem Sultan ended decisively when Mustafa was falsely accused of trying to overthrow his father – he was called to the Sultan’s tent where he was strangled in front of his father in 1553.
Suleiman’s Grand Vizier at the beginning of his reign was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who was his childhood friend. Gaining a reputation after crushing rebellions in Syria and Anatolia, Ibrahim Pasha gained too much power and made a fatal mistake when he awarded himself a title including the word ‘Sultan’ which could have been taken the wrong way by Suleiman. His downfall was cemented when he trod on the toes of the Hurrem Sultan after giving his support to Prince Mustafa, he was consequently executed in 1536.
Right from the beginning of his reign in 1520, Suleiman sought to further Ottoman expansion into Europe and when the Hungarians refused to pay tribute in exchange for peace and even cut off the nose and ears of the Ottoman ambassador, he had found his reason for war. First on his list was Belgrade, the key to central Europe; a siege of the city lasted two months in 1521 until the Ottomans emerged victorious. In the summer of 1526 Suleiman gained an even more momentous victory when at the Battle of Mohacs. The Ottoman army outnumbered the Hungarians by 3:1 and had 300 canons. After five hours of battle the Hungarians were heavily defeated and became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
In a bid to end the Hapsburg Empire’s meddling in Ottoman Europe, Suleiman attempted to strike at the heart of the Hapsburgs: Vienna. But in the end the 1529 Siege of Vienna failed due to bad weather and overstretched supplies lines. Yet it still shows how powerful the Ottomans were that they almost conquered their enemies capital.
Suleiman also established the Franco-Ottoman alliance with Francis I of France in 1526 to counter the Hapsburg Charles V. In order to highlight the supremacy of the Ottomans, look at the letter written from Suleiman to Francis:
I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the shadow of the God on Earth… All this your saying having been set forth at the foot of my throne, which controls the world. Your situation has gained my imperial understanding in every detail, and I have considered all of it.
The Ottoman Navy had undergone a tremendous transformation under Selim I but Suleiman expanded this project beyond his father’s achievements. In 1522, he put this newfound naval confidence to the test by besieging the island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller, the last remnant of the Crusaders who invaded the Middle East 400 years ago. Suleiman used 400 ships and personally led an army of 100,000 soldiers. After heavy casualties on both sides over a five month period, Sultan Suleiman decided to offer generous terms which were accepted by the defenders. The Knights Hospitaller were given twelve days to leave and take with them their weapons and religious icons.
Suleiman was aided in his quest for Mediterranean domination by famous admirals such as Hayreddin Barbarossa. In 1538 at the Battle of Preveza in Greece Barbarossa defeated the Holy League alliance of the Spanish Empire, Portuguese Empire, Papal States and the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa. The Ottomans even went on to sack the coast of Italy, Spain and Sicily. After Preveza, the Ottoman Navy emerged as the dominant naval power throughout the Mediterranean. The Ottoman fleet also fought for control over the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese.
He did however also suffer setbacks, most notably the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. After four unsuccessful months, the Ottoman fleet pulled back with great casualties after aid from Spain as well as a resilient defence from the Maltese spelled out Ottoman defeat.
In the east, the Ottoman’s main opponent was Safavid Persia and in the year 1533 Sultan Suleiman order his Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha to lead his army into the east. Tabriz was taken without resistance. The scorched-earth policy of the Persians, along with the harshness of winter caused many Ottoman casualties. Yet this was not enough to stop the momentum of the Ottomans, as Sultan Suleiman conquered Mesopotamia, part of Georgia and Azerbaijan from the Safavids.
As well as enjoying a positive military reputation, Suleiman I is often commended for the judicial reforms he introduced, hence his nickname “Kanuni” (Lawgiver). The Ottomans had established themselves as a preeminent power mainly through the sheer force of its military prowess, but the circumstances the Ottomans found themselves in by Suleiman’s reign, a wide array of ethnicities occupying a vast realm, required a more nuanced approach to the maintenance of law and order.
Suleiman’s reign saw the introduction of many vital reforms in the Ottoman legal system. Taxes were streamlined through the establishment of a transparent tax rate based on income; he went further by removing many of the superfluous taxes imposed by his father Sultan Selim I. Bureaucracy underwent a similar process of reform; meritocracy was encouraged to be the standard of qualification for employment, rather than nepotism or personal discretion. In this sense, an overt and conscious attempt was made to hold all Ottoman citizens to the law. In order to compliment the multi-cultural nature of the empire, Suleiman denounced blood libels* against Jews in 1553 and freed Christian farm labourers from Serfdom.
Sultan Suleiman died in 1566 during a siege in Hungary. He was 71 years old and spent over ten years in military campaigns. In a twisted way, his hard-work and success paved the way for a future filled with complacent and incompetent Sultan’s. Future Ottoman Sultan’s would find themselves more intrigued by the pleasures of the Harem or uninterested in leading the imperial army to war or under the influence of other interest groups.
* Blood libels – The belief that Jews would kidnap and sacrifice children for their own rituals.
Check out our YouTube video on Suleiman the Magnificent!
Check out Kallie Szczepanski’s concise and insightful article on Suleiman:
One of the most epic encounters on the battlefield took place in 1402 in Anatolia. The Battle of Ankara was between the two most powerful men of their day – Timur of the Timurids and Bayezid of the Ottomans – with the result bringing about the near collapse of one of these Empires.
On the one side was a man who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and worked hard to replicate the Mongolian leader’s achievements; Timur had conquered an empire stretching from China in the East to the Mediterranean in the West, in the process conquering and destroying some of the most iconic cities in history. He had inflicted defeats upon powerful states such as the Delhi Sultanate in India and the Mamluks in Egypt.
On the other side was a leader who had brought his realm international acclaim by defeating a Crusade; Sultan Bayezid of the Ottoman Empire had defeated the combined forces of many European kingdoms at the Siege of Nicopolis in 1396 (also referred to as the Crusade of Nicopolis) which earned him the nickname ‘Yildrim’ or Thunderbolt. On the eve of the Battle of Ankara Bayezid was preparing to attack Constantinople, which he had been blockading since 1390.
Timur claimed sovereignty over many of the Turkmen rulers in Anatolia, so when Bayezid attacked them, it gave Timur a favorable excuse to declare war on the Ottomans. But the two leaders had been exchanging unpleasant letters for years before and the natural rivalry between two leading conqueror’s in close proximity of each other was always going to make the prospect of a conflict inevitable. Bayezid reluctantly decided to abandon the siege of Constantinople when he heard Timur was moving in his direction.
It is surprising to learn that a man as accomplished as Timur could be underestimated considering all that he had achieved, but that’s just what Bayezid did. As Bayezid marched toward his foe, he rejected his generals advice to wait for Timur at Ankara which would have been advantageous due to their familiarity with the environment. Timur took his forces around the Ottomans so that he ended up being behind them and actually made use of Bayezid’s old camp at Ankara. Now Bayezid had to force his troops to march back in the direction they came from in haste to relieve Timur’s siege of Ankara. All of this marching took place during the midsummer heat, meaning that the Ottoman forces would have been exhausted when they arrived at the battle site. What’s more, they discovered that Timur had diverted the main water supply available to them.
The number of troops on the battlefield have often been exaggerated in historical accounts, with some suggesting numbers as high as 1.5 million on each side! Considering the swiftness of their movement, each side must of had around 20,000 troops.
Despite being tired and thirsty, the Ottomans fought well; this is especially true of the Serbian contingent under Bayezid’s brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic. The key moment in the battle came when the Tatars, on Bayezid’s side, switched sides and began attacking the Ottomans. Their allegiance had been previously bought by Timur. In the midst of the confusion, Bayezid’s troops’ broke rank and were decisively defeated by the Timurids. Bayezid himself narrowly managed to escape into the mountains but Timur had the area encircled and soon captured his opponent.
Bayezid was kept in a golden cage for a few months before he died in captivity – A humiliating end to a man who had enjoyed such heights of power and prestige. His Empire lay in ruins as his sons began fighting amongst themselves, a period known as the Ottoman Interregnum (1402-1413). In a remarkable comeback story, the Ottomans would bounce back to enjoy far more glory than they had experienced before the Battle of Ankara. Constantinople was gifted an extra 50-years as the seat of the Byzantine Empire. As for the Timurids, Timur ravaged Anatolia before casting his eyes eastward, but the decades of being in the saddle had caught up with him and at the age of 70 he died on his way to attack China in 1405. Soon after his Empire was divided amongst his family, in the process it created a cultural renaissance in cities such as Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and Herat (Afghanistan).
Check out our YouTube video on the Battle of Ankara!
“The crossroads of the world. Many generations of men have ruled this city, but they have never subdued her. She always bounces back.” Yusuf Tazim, Assassin’s Creed.
Origin & Name
About as iconic as a city could wish to be, this city has had its name changed three times by three different civilisations. Its story started out as Byzantium, a Greek colony in 657 BC – named after the mythological figure of King Byzas. Eventually it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople in honour of its patron Emperor Constantine in 330 AD. The Ottomans did not officially change its name but over time its Muslims citizens referred to it by another name – which came about as a development from the Greek phrase ‘es tein polin’ (‘in the city’). In fact, it was only officially renamed Istanbul in 1930.
Istanbul has had two significant chapters in its history; respectively serving as the capital of the Eastern Roman (later known as Byzantine) Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Byzantine Empire (395-1453)
Since Antiquity, the city has benefited from its strategic location straddling Asia and Europe but did not really achieve any real kind of splendor until the Roman Emperor Constantine made it his capital in 330 AD. After the final partition of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire which became known as the Byzantine Empire developed a distinctly Greek identity as opposed to its Roman roots.
A significant event in this period was Emperor Justinian’s rule (527-565 AD). During his reign, the Nika Riot occurred (532 AD) and tore the city up – after which Justinian was able to rebuild the city with many splendid monuments such as the Hagia Sophia.
Constantinople remained a key cosmopolitan city until the Medieval period but was handicapped by warfare and conflict, much of it coming from Islamic powers. Some conflicts came in the shape of sieges (e.g. 674 AD; 860 AD) which had to be fended off. These were defended due to Constantinople’s impressive fortifications as well as technological developments such as “Greek Fire”.
The city was eventually conquered by an unlikely source: members of the Fourth Crusade from Europe. It was a short-lived foray, 1204-1261, but it did retard the progress of the city as loot was rampant. When the Byzantines recaptured it in 1261, they found a city which had gone financially bankrupt with a decreasing population. One of its most visible monuments today, the Galata Tower, was built in 1348 by the Genoese contingent in the city.
Ottoman Empire (1453-1922)
The Byzantines would hold on to the city for almost 200 more years before the surging Ottomans, who had throughout this time been taking over territory on both the Asian and European side of Constantinople, conquered the city in 1453. Mehmet I succeeded where others had failed by dragging his ships inland across the Golden Horn*. He allowed his troops three days of looting, after which he spent the remainder of his reign (1451-1481) rebuilding the lost grandeur of the new Ottoman capital. Sultan Mehmet commissioned the construction of the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest markets in the world), Topkapi Palace and the Fatih mosque.
In 1509 a catastrophe known as the “Lesser Judgement Day” devastated the city – an earthquake followed by a tsunami killed 10,000 people and destroyed more than 1000 houses. But to highlight the peaks and valleys of this city’s history, this dark day was followed by generations of Ottoman Sultans who contributed to Constantinople’s glory by building magnificent mosque’s and monuments. These are scattered throughout the city but are most conspicuous in the Fateh District. The architect Mimar Sinan (1489-1588) was responsible for many of these sites.
Constantinople continued to be a major world city even as the Ottoman Empire’s power began dwindling from the 18th century onward. It eventually became romanticised in the ‘Orientalist‘* imagination of many Western Europeans.
Republic of Turkey (1923 – Present)
Istanbul was briefly occupied by the Allies after World War One when the Ottoman Empire emerged on the losing side. In the aftermath of the Nationalist victory during the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa ‘Ataturk’ Kemal moved the capital of the new-born state to Ankara and thus the newly-named Istanbul suffered. But from the 1940’s onward, Istanbul reclaimed some of its former glory when it gained incentive from immigration and increased commercial activity. Some of this would be at the expense of certain historical sites which were sacrificed as the price for propelling the city’s economic growth.
The city is a product of all the glorious cultures and civilisations that have come in contact with each, whether through trade, conflict or dialogue. This is most evident in its architecture; the Hagia Sophia was a church which was transformed into a mosque. The fact that almost every layer of its history has been allowed to flourish; pagan, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, speaks volume of Istanbul’s confidence as a city to feel pride in every aspects of its heritage. This is refreshing to see in a region of the world which is so rich in history but is struggling to come to terms with it.
* Golden Horn – The channel of water separating Istanbul.
* Orientalist – The European tendency to view Islamic cultures as exotic and uncivilised during the 19th and 20th century.
Did you know?
The old city stands on a peninsula, meaning it is surrounded by water! It has seven hills – the majority of the historical landmarks are situated within this small area.
Check out our YouTube video on Istanbul!
A massive thank you to everyone who sent us photographs of Istanbul! An even bigger thank you to the generosity and skill of the photographers featured in this article: