700 Club Special
The Siege of Vienna
By Erin Zimmerman
The 700 Club
“In the year of our Lord 1529, Sultan Suleiman, the sworn enemy of the Christian faith, set out for Vienna with all his forces in order to defeat Christianity and subjugate it.”
-- Peter Stern, Chronicle of 1529
In the spring of 1529, an army of 75,000 men left the Ottoman capital of Istanbul and headed for the heart of the Holy Roman Empire: the city of Vienna.
“To conquer Vienna was sort of the gateway into Western Europe,” says Raymond Ibrahim, the author of The Al Qaeda Reader. “If you were able to take Vienna, likely other areas would fall quickly.”
The Ottoman leader, Suleiman the Magnificent, had already conquered much of Eastern Europe, and now his army marched, undefeated, toward the West, to claim it in the name of Islam.
Austrian writer Peter Stern described the Muslims’ march of terror through Europe:
“Many thousands of people were murdered or dragged into slavery. Children were cut out of their mothers’ wombs and stuck on pikes; young women abused to death, and their corpses left on the highway.”
“The atrocities will blow your mind, like putting children on pikes,” says Ibrahim. “Oftentimes, they would take Christians that they liked and force them to become Muslims. If they didn’t, they would be tortured, which included gouging their eyes, chopping their appendages off and throwing them in the fire. Anything that your mind can envision went on then.”
The Austrians pleaded for help from Europe’s Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, but Charles, already at war with France, dismissed the danger in Vienna. As a courtesy, he sent a few German and Spanish troops to protect the city: just 1,700 soldiers to fight an army of 75,000.
In late September, the Turks arrived in Vienna and set up camp outside the city. It wasn’t long before they realized that their biggest challenge wasn’t the European army; it was the weather. That autumn was unusually cold and rainy. Suleiman’s secretary described the miserable conditions in his diary:
“It rained so heavily that some of the horses and camels were swept away by the water. Men climbed up trees and spent two days and nights there.”
The rain soaked the Turks’ gunpowder, making it useless, and the floods forced them to leave most of their heavy cannons behind, a decision they would later regret.
On September 28, the Ottoman troops surrounded the city, and the sultan issued an ultimatum to the people of Vienna:
“Let it be known that if you become Muslims, nothing will happen to you. But if you offer resistance, then by Allah the most sublime, your city will be reduced to ashes, and young and old slaughtered.”
“That was the traditional ‘invitation,’ as it was called, preceding the warfare,” says Ibrahim. “’Join us and become Muslims and renounce your Christ, or we’re going to start attacking you.’”
Suleiman warned that in less than two weeks, he would celebrate his victory with breakfast inside Vienna’s largest church, St. Stephen’s cathedral, after he had turned it into a mosque.
The people of Vienna stood their ground and refused to surrender. Abandoned by the rest of Europe and ignored by their own emperor, they realized that no more help was coming… and they were the only thing that stood between Europe and the armies of Islam.
Inside St. Stephen’s, the European soldiers gathered to plan and to pray. They also took an oath of loyalty, which Peter Stern described in his Chronicle:
“Noble and common companions at arms swore to remain in the city as long as there was still life in their bodies… and to die alongside one another for the Christian faith.”
After a few days, Suleiman gave the order to attack. Twice, the Ottomans advanced toward Vienna… and twice, the Austrians turned them back. With no heavy artillery, the Turks had to find a different way into the city, so they started a whole new war… underground.
Hundreds of Turks tunneled under the city and planted explosives to blow up the gates of Vienna, but the Europeans came up with a creative way to find the bombs. They placed barrels of water in the cellars along the city walls, and watched the vibrations in the water to see where the Turks were tunneling. This way, they found most of the mines before they exploded.
The Europeans were outnumbered, but what they lacked in manpower, they made up for in creativity. From inside the cathedral they waged a psychological war against the Turks, and their most powerful weapon was disinformation.
The Austrians planted spies who led the Turks to believe they had reinforcements on the way. Throughout the day and night, they shouted and blew their trumpets to confuse the Turks. According to the Sultan’s diary, their plan was working. Suleiman believed the Holy Roman Emperor himself was behind the city walls, with an army of thousands.
St. Michael’s Day arrived with another heavy rainstorm. This was the day Suleiman had boasted that he would be eating breakfast inside the cathedral. In reality, the Turks were no closer to capturing the city, and as the rain poured down on the Ottoman tents, the Austrians sent the sultan a message from inside the church: “Your breakfast is getting cold.”
Two weeks into the siege, the Ottoman army was in disarray. The soldiers were tired, sick, and running out of food. By now, their commanders had to beat them with sticks just to keep them on the battlefield. The Ottomans decided to launch one final attack, this time using the sultan’s elite troops, the janissaries.
Two days later, the Turks stormed the city, but they were no match for the fierce German pikemen at the gates, and the final battle lasted just two hours.
“Suleiman basically decided that he’s going to leave and save face,” says Ibrahim. “The janissaries got very angry because this is unprecedented. These Ottomans who’ve been taking everything in their path – this was a new blow to them. It was humiliating.”
The next morning, a freak snowstorm swept through Austria, making the Turkish retreat even more difficult. In less than a month, a small group of farmers, peasants, and hired soldiers had defeated the most powerful army in the world. They not only saved the city of Vienna; they singlehandedly stopped the march of Islam through Europe.
“The onslaught of the Ottoman Turkish Empire had stopped; it was an example to them that they could be beat,” says Ibrahim. “From the European perspective… ‘now we know these wild people can be stopped and we know we can do it, and that God is on our side,’ and of course, that became a pivotal part of the narrative.”
The bells of St. Stephen’s, silent throughout the siege, now rang in celebration, and the church, which had served as the military headquarters, became a house of worship once more as the people of Vienna gathered to thank God for their victory. A special hymn was written for the occasion, based on Psalm 127:1:
“Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
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