The Fall of the Ottoman Empire

(And the Battle of Vienna)


The Ottoman Empire made one last effort to resume its glory as a conqueror by capturing Vienna in 1683. As a result of corruption within the government, demoralization of the people, and mismanagement of the military, the Turks were doomed to fail, writes the late William Stearns Davis, a former professor of history at the University of Minnesota. According to Davis, the sultans abused their power, making it difficult for the last great viziers, Mohammed and Ahmed Kiuprili, to overcome a century of corruption and stagnation. Led by ambitious vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha, the Turks advanced on Vienna, and a surprised Austria nearly lost the city. The king of Poland, however, arrived on roads unprotected by the Turkish army, and after days of fighting, liberated Vienna from the Turkish troops that surrounded it. Kara Mustafa Pasha escaped but was killed on December 25, 1683.



For over two hundred years after the crossing of the Hellespont the Ottoman sultans, despite occasional repulses, seemed steadily advancing from glory to glory. But after the conquest of Cyprus in 1571, they won few additional territories. For a little more than a century the boundaries in the Near East remained fairly static, then in 1683 the Turks made a new and vigorous effort to resume their conquering path by capturing Vienna. They failed absolutely, and very soon were struggling as desperately on the defensive as had been the West when Suleyman Ist [1520-1566], was girt with the sword of Osman.


The Causes of Ottoman Decline

What were the causes of this century of stagnation (always equivalent to degeneration in an Oriental despotism), and of this decisive reverse? Some of the more general factors were undoubtedly these:

I.                    The Ottomans had now driven through relatively weak South Slavs and Magyars, and were directly opposed to the more military Germans and Poles.

II.                 In their rear they always had Persia, a rival Moslem Empire, quite strong enough to press hard on their eastern Sanjaks whenever the sultans became too involved in the West.

III.               The Ottomans had now been in Europe over two hundred years, an extremely long time for an Oriental race and dynasty to retain its virility and aggressiveness.

IV.              He development of the art of war into a real science under the impulse of such great captains as Alexander Farnese [regent for Philip II of Spain], Maurice of Nassau [stadtholder of the Dutch Republic], and Gustavus Adolphus [king of Sweden] was something which the Turks were unable to imitate. The tactics that had quite sufficed against Louis of Hungary at Mohacz had become hopelessly antiquated by the middle of the seventeenth century when the Turks had to confront soldiers trained in the horrible but effective school of the Thirty Years’ War.

    The Ottomans in fact would doubtless have experienced a great military disaster long before 1683 had not this period of their stagnation coincided with the century of the Wars of the Counter Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and of the first decades of Louis XIV; when Christian powers were rending one another, and when Austria (the Turks’ most formidable neighbor), very often had the Swedes or French upon her back. The feuds of Christendom were thus once again the salvation of Islam.

    Nevertheless, in addition to these various factors over which, circumstances considered, the Ottomans might possibly have pleased that they had no control, there were other evils more specific which were not really beyond the powers of a vigorous government to rectify. The first two Kiuprili viziers (1656-1676) did indeed accomplish something in preventing the ruin of the state, but they were after all, only ministers and not sovereigns, and they were in a position to treat merely the symptoms, not the fundamentals of the disease. During the seventeenth century the following concrete abuses were helping to pull down the still vast and imposing Ottoman Empire.


The Abuse of Power  

The Padishahs [Turkish Sultans] had “become invisible.” Many of them had been reared in the harem in strict seclusion until totally bereft of any political education. They were incessantly trembling for their lives, until some revolution called them not to the bowstring but to supreme power. The Sultans had now ceased to preside at the council of viziers, to hear litigants, or to enjoy any opportunity to get unbiased reports about bad deeds of their officials.

    Along with this evil, there went the inordinate influences of harem women and of eunuchs.

Even if these persons were not iniquitous, they had never the least ideas of what might benefit the state. Frequently their intrigues could induce the Sultan to depose or even to bowstring [strangle with a bowstring] a highly competent vizier. “The Sultan governs no longer; the grand vizier is hindered in governing; the power is actually in the hands of Negro eunuchs and purchased slave-girls.”  This of course was hardly true of the two great Kiuprili viziers, but it never ceased to be a constant danger.

    The outrageous taxation of the subjects, especially of the Christian rayahs, [a person who is not Mohammedan], wrought general demoralization. The imperial officials increased taxes at pleasure, and often levied new and unauthorized imposts. “The tears of the oppressed will drown the Empire in waves of perdition.” All this in other words, meant economic decline and fiscal demoralization.   


Figure 1: Turkish Sipahi Commander

The feudal sipahis—holders of the military fiefs—by the seventeenth century, were allowed to evade systematically their martial duties. Many fiefs were awarded as perquisites to harem women, to court eunuchs, to the Sultan’s dwarfs and mutes—persons utterly incapable of the slightest military service. The result was that this feudal cavalry, once a great factor in the armies, dwindled down to some 7,000 or 8,000 riders, and these, were often inefficient and ill-disciplined. Most serious for the government was the change in recruitment of the Janissaries [elite troops].






Figure 2: Charging Janissary troops

In the seventeenth century the blood-tax of Christian boys was dropped, and Moslems (to the general satisfaction of the Faithful) were now allowed to enroll in this privileged corps.  Under Suleyman Ist, there had been some 12,000 Janissaries; a century later there were over 46,000. But their devotion and discipline were now utterly relaxed. They lost much of their value in battle; yet in Constantinople, they often terrorized populace and Sultan by their outrageous mutinies and constant demands for more bounties and perquisites. “The formidable corps of ‘slave soldiers’ had given place to an impudent and seditious city guard.”

    Along with this recruitment of the guard-corps from the regular Turkish population went a corresponding decline of the promotion of “Slaves” and other ex-Christians to high office in the army and civil service. The administrative incapacity of the native Moslems wrought endless confusion in “The Ruling Institution”. The ablest of the Kiuprili viziers failed in the end to reinvigorate the state, thanks largely to sheer inability to find competent officials to execute good laws…(…)Ahmed Kiuprili was defeated indeed in the great Battle of St. Gotthard by the Austrians, but in other wars (with the Poles and the Venetians) he was usually successful. Unfortunately a large part of his worthy civil reforms perished with him, when in 1676 there died this true “light and splendor of the nation; the conservator of good laws; the vicar of the shadow of God.” It was not in the power of Mohammed IV to find a third prime minister like unto him. The next grand vizier, Kara Mustafa (“Black Mustafa”), who held power from 1676 through 168, was rather a showy ambitious personage, exceedingly covetous, who never subordinated his personal schemes to the weal of the Empire. The result was that, the forces of decay, partially arrested by the two grand Kiuprilis, resumed their potency, and, was presently blazoned to the world by a great military disaster.


The Battle of St. Gotthard

Without power to affect fundamental reforms it is not surprising that even the great Kiuprili viziers could not give back to the Empire successful aggressiveness. The Ottoman military pride, however, died very hard. The monarchy was still indeed imposing in its size. It could still muster armies extremely formidable to the weaker European powers or to those beset by desperate feuds with their Christian neighbors. During a twenty-five year war (1644-1669), during which, Venice vainly sought effective help from the West, the Turks wrested from her Crete (Candia”) and practically banished her from Greek waters, save only from her possession of Corfu (old Corcyra) and other Ionian Isles. In 1672, the Sultan became involved in a war with Poland, in which the Turks captured and for years retained possession of the strong fortress Kamienec Podolski and wrung from the ill-governed Slavic “Commonwealth” the cession of most of Podolia. This last result, however, was far more due to the generally distracted state of Poland rather than to any inferiority of her armies.


    Figure 3: Polish winged hussars at Chocim    


When in 1673 the struggle was renewed, and Kiuprili laid siege to the other great fortress of Chocim, it was only to see his army sorely defeated in a great pitched battle. This was by no means the first indication that the Ottoman leaders would have done well to hesitate ere they attempted offensive warfare with the scientifically organized and commanded armies of the greater Christian powers. As a rule, during this period Turkey had at least nominally kept up the old relations with France, and considered her an “ally”; but this friendship often became very cold. Louis XIV, much as he hated Austria, was entirely willing to teach the Sultan that he could only hope to prevail over the “Holy Roman Emperor” when he made Ottoman ambitions subserve French policy. In 1664 Ahmed Kiuprili ventured to invade the Austrian lands in a year when the Emperor and Louis were actually at peace. The French king promptly offered so large an army to assist the Austrians that the latter became alarmed lest they be put under too heavy obligations.

    They only accepted 6,000 troops, but these were the very pick of Louis’s forces under the Count de Coligny. Kiuprili, with a host of 120,000 Orientals, meanwhile advanced, ravaging the Christian territories, until by the monastery of St. Gotthard on the Raab he met the Imperialists… with the new French auxiliaries. There were barely 20,000 Christians in the entire army, but they were led by great captains. When the Vizier saw the white perukes of the French as they charged to battle he demanded in amazement, “Who are these girls?” But, raising their dreaded cry, “Allons! Allons! Tue! Tue!” Coligny’s men speedily scattered the Janissaries with a terrific onslaught. The Turks were driven discomfited from the field. The Emperor (fearing too much French assistance) soon, it is true, made peace on terms extremely favorable to the Ottomans, but the latter indeed should have had their warning. St. Gotthard had taught the world that the small Western armies, properly led, could now rout the Sultan’s huge hosts in open battles.


The Second Siege of Vienna

Matters thus drifted until 1683, when the grand vizier, Kara Mustafa,--Ahmed Kiuprili’s son-in-law, to be sure, but no heir to his probity and intelligence,--opened his ears to the projects of certain Hungarian rebels against the Hapsburgs. He mobilized the whole available strength of the Ottoman Empire and undertook to do that which Suleyman Ist had failed to accomplish. With over 200,000 men, he pushed up the Danube against Vienna.

    The moment seemed not ill-chosen. Louis XIV was probably about to resume his old wars with Austria. The French king even exerted his diplomacy to prevent the Hapsburgs from getting allies, his own apparent desire being that Vienna should fall, and that then he (as the all-powerful champion of Christian civilization) could intervene to expel the Turk to his own great benefit. Kara Mustafa in his turn appears to have been dreaming a disloyal dream of carving out a separate kingdom for himself in the Danube valley. In any case, when he made his attack, Leopold of Austria was taken almost unawares. He could barely throw 13,000 men into Vienna and flee himself to Passau, calling loudly for help to the lesser German princes, and especially to the valorous John Sobieski, the elective king of Poland, the victor of Chocim. The latter responded fairly promptly, not because he loved Austria greatly, but because the safety of Poland would have been in sore jeopardy if the Turks were once fairly ensconced at Vienna.

   Sweeping up the Danube valley with his enormous host, swollen now by Wallachian [of what is now Romania] vassal contingents and by Hungarian malcontents, Kara Mustafa encamped before Vienna on July 14, 1683. The failure of the Austrian ministers to realize their danger early, and bring up prompt assistance almost ruined the situation for their master. The Imperial general, Charles of Lorraine, with a very weak field army, did his best to ease the pressure on the garrison by cutting off the Turkish supplies, as well as by a valorous and successful defense of Pressburg. If, however, the grand vizier had known his business, or Count Stahremberg (the governor of the besieged capitol) had flinched in the slightest, Vienna at least for the moment would have gone the way of Constantinople. Kara Mustafa, however, wasted several precious days getting comfortably encamped in the suburbs, and in that short interval the garrison got the defenses in some kind of order. Then at length, began the incessant assaults and the inflexible resistance…


The Deliverance of Vienna

The Polish army had mobilized slowly, and slowly it had been joined by a force of Saxons, Bavarians, and various other German volunteers. Added to Charles of Lorraine’s forces, the whole relieving host numbered barely 70,000, but they were soldiers hard and fit, the match for any in the world, save possibly their French rivals. While Stahremberg looked forth from St. Stephen, John Sobieski from the Kahlenberg was viewing the besieged capitol. Even across the years may be realized his tension when he beheld “the immense plain covered with pavilions, and innumerable multitude of horses, camels and buffaloes. Two hundred thousand men, all in motion…while [around the city] the fire of the besiegers was incessant and terrible, and that of the besieged such only as they could contrive to make”, with the tall steeples of Vienna barely appearing above the haze of fire and smoke.

    Sobieski instantly saw, however, that the vizier had delivered himself into his hands. Kara Mustafa had dwelt in a fool’s paradise. Confident that the Poles could not arrive ere the city surrendered, he had neglected to block the roads by which the relieving army must approach.

The experienced Ibrahim, Pasha of Buda, now besought him to draw off his best troops from before the walls, and dispute the difficult ravines west of the city, by which alone the rescuers could advance. The vizier would have none of this advice. He virtually allowed the Christians to advance with his own army spread in a long thin circumference around Vienna, with no sufficient concentration at the point where Sobieski was sure to strike. The king exultantly took in the situation at a glance. “This man knows nothing of war,” he declared, “We shall certainly defeat him!”


Figure 3: Sobieski's winged hussar cavalry at Vienna

On the morning of the 12th, the Poles and the Imperialists rushed down from the Kahlenberg. There was hard fighting at some of the villages, but on the whole, the Christian victory was surprisingly easy. Once Sobieski had received intelligence as to where best to stage his cavalry’s advance, the vicious battering charges of the famous Polish winged cavalry and the German cavalry, followed by the rest of the Polish army, swept away the Ottomans after some bitter fighting later in the afternoon. The Janissaries were caught in the trenches between the relieving army and the rejoicing garrison and were almost cut to pieces to the man. The gallant Polish winged cavalry swept right through the Ottoman camp with Sobieski himself, taking Kara Mustafa’s tent with all its opulent riches, as they pushed the Turks into a wild rout from the battlefield. By nightfall, the whole great Infidel host was flying in headlong rout, in one of those enormous panics that now and again seize Oriental armies. At next dawn, the victors looked around for foes to contend against. They were nowhere. At ten o’clock that morning, the rabble of the Turks was racing across the Raab, covering in one night, a journey they had consumed eight days in making on the initial advance.

    The besiegers lost 10,000 men slain outright (their headlong flight prevented greater slaughter), 300 heavy cannon, and 5,000 tents. Treasure of 15,000,000 crowns was taken, whereof 4000,000 were in the vizier’s private coffers. All the Turkish standards were captured, save only the “Sacred Standards of the Prophet,” which the fugitives saved by desperate exertions. Days later, the Turks attempted to regain their morale and regrouped, counter-attacking the pursuing Polish army at Parkany, but were again severely repulsed and routed.

    Kara Mustafa fled precipitately to Belgrade, leaving the Christian allies to sweep into the Hungarian fortress. At Belgrade, frantic with wrath and terror, he proceeded to execute those sagacious officers whose military advice he had wantonly disregarded. But before he could slay them all, the news of this calamity had reached Stamboul. In anguish and fury, the Sultan ordered the ministers of death to Belgrade. On December 25, the bowstring in its turn, tightened around Kara Mustafa, and all his ill-gotten surviving wealth was confiscated for his master’s treasury.

    The Second Siege of Vienna marks the “high tide” for the attack of the Turanian Turks upon Europe. Doubtless they could not have made Vienna a second Constantinople set on the edge of Germany, but, if even for a while, they had possessed themselves of the city, the blow would have inflicted in one way or another upon Western civilization would have been great. Such a calamity, Polish king John Sobieski averted. “This time”, the Turks had been repelled from Central Europe, “never again to return thither.”




Excerpted from William Stearns Davis,  A Short History of the Near East (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922)