Three hundred and thirty-two years ago today Kara Mustafa, the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, was executed in Belgrade on the orders of the Sultan. The following guest essay by Miltiades Varvounis describes the historical background to this grisly Christmas Day anniversary.
December 25th 1683: Across Christian Europe, church bells were ringing and priests were opening their church doors for those who had assembled to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth. However, in Ottoman Europe there was silence everywhere, since the ringing of church bells was prohibited by Islamic law. Occasionally, only screams mixed with howls of agony from crows and wolves could be heard throughout the Balkan region.
During this time an execution was taking place in Belgrade, Serbia. The silken bowstring pulled by several janissaries on several sides pierced the throat of an Ottoman high-ranking official. The victim’s heartbeat grew weaker and weaker; the same heart which used to spread hate and fear across Europe. As he struggled to draw oxygen into his lungs, the trumpet sounds of Death became louder and more apparent. The executioners were amazed at how their victim continued to resist and breathe, as deep groans were heard from him. However, the unfortunate man was losing the struggle and finally let go. His body quivered back and forth, moving slightly, and then was motionless. The silken bowstring finally forced the life out of him and put an end to all the darkness he had spread. Death had taken his soul to the gates of Hell.
That soul belonged to nobody other than the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Kara Mustafa. But who was this little-known but pivotal figure in the history of the world, ignored by the extreme majority of historians?
Kara Mustafa was just another ambitious figure from the East who tried to conquer the heart of Europe during the centuries-old clash of civilizations between the East and the West. The East had been desperately trying to subdue the West for at least 1,200 years before the rise of Islam. To give just a few examples: the arrogant Persians had invaded Europe in an attempt to conquer the Greeks in the 5th century B.C. After the beginning of Christianity, bloody conquests by the East continued through the attempts of nomadic tribes. Among these nomadic tribes were the Huns, the Bulgars, the Magyars, and the formidable Avars who besieged Constantinople in 626 A.D.
After Mohammed’s death in 632, the new Muslim caliph in the Arab world, Abu Bakr, directed Islam into many centuries of continual imperialist, merciless conquest and subjugation of unfortunate nations through invasion and war. The territories conquered by Muslim invaders stretched from Portugal to Indonesia, from Hungary to Nigeria, and from the depths of Asia to New Guinea. Arabs, Mongols and Ottomans — all of them tried to pass through the gates of the West. Pre-Islamic and Muslim generals such as Attila and Suleiman the Magnificent, among others, were so close to gaining a catastrophic victory onto the heart of Europe. Quite significantly, none of them was so close to achieve this goal as Kara Mustafa himself. Indeed, it was not the remarkably famous sultans, khans or warlords, but an unknown Ottoman official was the greatest danger the Western world has ever faced. So, who was that mysterious man who almost managed to succeed in conquering the very heart of Christendom?
Kara Mustafa’s early years are shrouded in mystery. He is generally referred to as Merzifonlu. The odds lie with his being born in 1634 near Merzifon (near Amasya) in the Black Sea region of Turkey. According to the Venetian Giambattista Donaldo, an ambassador to Istanbul, he was the son of a vegetable vendor, but in another account he is said to be the son of a sipahi — a soldier who was granted land from the sultan in return for military service. Whatever his true background, there is one undisputed fact about his life: he was taken into the household of the notable Koprulu family. This family of Albanian origin produced a string of effective grand viziers (prime ministers of the Ottoman Empire) and other worthy officials of the sultan.
Luck smiled on Kara Mustafa when his patron Mehmed Koprulu was made grand vizier, and raised his protégé to the rank of silahdar agha (palace officer). During that time Kara Mustafa learned a valuable lesson from his patron: a successful vizier must be feared, not loved. On the death of Mehmed Koprulu, his son Ahmed Koprulu, became the grand vizier and Kara Mustafa was made the admiral of the Aegean galley fleet that battled against the ships of Venice. He fought in the Cretan campaign (1645-1669), and became renowned for his reckless courage. As a deputy grand vizier, Kara Mustafa saw further active service in the Polish campaign of 1672, where he was present at the siege of Kamieniec Podolski.
When Ahmed Koprulu died in 1676, Kara Mustafa took his job. Sultan Mehmed IV showed respect and blind faith to his new grand vizier, admiring Kara Mustafa’s manly figure and fearless personality. Indeed, Kara Mustafa was tall, good-looking and powerfully built, with a luxuriant black beard and dark features (that gave him the nickname of Kara, meaning black). From what we know about Mehmed IV, his extensive reading and his love of heroic literature on glorious deeds by great men, it was not a surprise that he rewarded Kara Mustafa, not only with the office of grand vizier, but also with the hand of an Ottoman princess in marriage.
Beyond anything else, Kara Mustafa, despite being a devoted Muslim, showed a disgusting level of wealth and atrocious cruelty. An Italian diplomat described him as “utterly venal, cruel and unjust,” while another Dutch report described him as “a daring, and enterprising man on the alert.” European diplomats in Istanbul were bewildered by his arrogance, and they were aware of his hatred towards the West.
Upon taking up his new public duties, Kara Mustafa concentrated on the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire. In 1678 he led a successful campaign against the Russians with the capture and destruction of the stronghold of Cehrin. After that victory, he had fortresses built on the Dnieper and Bug rivers. Three years later his Russian campaign ended positively for the Ottomans with a truce. After this campaign, Kara Mustafa felt it was a good time to wage a full-scale aggressive war in the West against the Habsburgs. He knew the Habsburgs were busy with defending their positions in the German lands and in the Low Countries against the rising power of France. Moreover, the Hungarian Protestants under Imre Thokoly had rebelled against Vienna, and in 1682 Kara Mustafa recognized him as the ruler of all Hungary.
On August 6th 1682, Sultan Mehmed IV agreed to Kara Mustafa’s proposal to mount a military campaign against the Habsburgs the following year with the full military might of the Ottoman Empire. It was a moment of triumph for the ambitious grand vizier. Kara Mustafa yearned for renown; he desired a triumph that would surpass every other victory in history. To destroy the Habsburg Empire and being hailed as the Conqueror of Vienna was an irresistible project for his megalomaniac personality. He wanted to succeed where Suleiman the Magnificent had failed. The latter had besieged Vienna in 1529 and had been defeated because of the weather and the prowess and valiance of experienced German mercenaries.
Significantly, at the time nobody in the Christian world believed that Ottomans would risk besieging Vienna, since the city and whole of Austria was dotted with new-style fortresses along the Danube frontier. Even the Ottoman commanders believed that the plan was to attack some fortresses and march back home. Indeed, there was no talk of an attack on Vienna; even the sultan did not authorize officially such a plan. However, Kara Mustafa demanded a better outcome, a decisive success by cutting the head of the snake (eradication of the House of Habsburg). Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that Kara Mustafa’s secret intentions were to set himself up as the governor and de facto sultan of Western and Central Europe. Nobody in the European courts expected that this grand vizier without an impressive military record would dare to capture Vienna, the gateway to the entire Christian world.
Nevertheless, a formidable army of nearly 200,000 men was put together under such a determined leader with such ambitious goals. After raising the horse-tail standards, that horde of armed men marched towards Austria for one purpose: to bring darkness and death to the West. The desperate Habsburg Emperor Leopold I called for alliance with several German princes and Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland. The Habsburgs had a plan to secure the whole of Hungary against the invaders, expecting Kara Mustafa to lay siege on several fortresses across the Danube. Insufficiently-informed and ill-prepared, the Habsburgs did not imagine that Kara Mustafa had a temerarious desire to surpass Alexander the Great’s fame, with a libido for appeasing his greediness. The Habsburg command had no clear strategy and no understanding of Ottoman intentions. Most believed that Kara Mustafa would march straight on to Gyor, the Habsburg stronghold in the southern reaches of the Danube, and storm it. They were mistaken.
On July 7th, messengers brought catastrophic reports to Leopold I from the Hungarian border. The vast Ottoman forces were on the move, spreading like a tidal wave, burning villages and setting fire to cornfields. An expert on psychological warfare, Kara Mustafa, with his plan to head directly for Vienna, caused Leopold I to flee from the capital in a panic-stricken manner. Seeing their emperor abandoning them, the people of Vienna were infected with the madness of the crowd. It was said that more than 50,000 people fled from the city during the following days.
In mid-July, Kara Mustafa’s army began the siege of Vienna, which was guarded by 11,000 Christian soldiers. At the same time the Habsburg envoy in Warsaw begged for Polish assistance. By early September, the determined grand vizier had taken a portion of the walls and appeared to be on his way to victory. However, he made some tactical mistakes such as neglecting to fortify his camp or secure the Viennese hills. On the other side, the Habsburgs waited desperately for the arrival of the Polish army under King Jan III Sobieski so as to save the city. Fortunately, for the sake of desperate Habsburgs, The Poles arrived on time. And it was the Warrior-King of Poland who would determine the future of Europe by leading the combined Christian armed forces against the forces of darkness.
Kara Mustafa displayed no sign of panic and terror, despite the presence of a large Christian force in the hills above his camp and the city. He decided to maintain pressure on the besieged city and counter the new threat by dividing his vast forces. It was a risk that could give him both Vienna and a glorious victory over a united Christian relief army, thus earning him immortal fame throughout the Islamic world.
On September 12th 1683, more than 70,000 Polish, German and Austrian troops attacked the Ottoman force numbering between 60,000 and 80,000. Less than 20,000 Janissaries remained in the trenches before the city walls, ready for the final assault. The battle that lasted 12 hours consisted of a series of local encounters in several areas. The Tatars, allies of the Ottomans, proved unreliable and fled the scene of battle, an event that would prove significant for the final outcome. Despite the good disposition of his troops, Kara Mustafa was unable to stop a devastating flank attack led by Sobieski’s fearsome winged hussars. While the flanks of his army were being wiped out, the brave Kara Mustafa led his entourage in a final desperate attack, but in vain. In the face of the risk of losing the flag of the Prophet (the Holy Banner) and being cut off, Kara Mustafa was persuaded by his subordinates to withdraw from the battle and save his army from being annihilated. His courage was not enough to provide him with the greatest victory of all time. He fled through his vast camp and joined his fleeing army. The siege of the gates of Europe was over.
The defeat cost Kara Mustafa his life as he was executed, ironically, on December 25th 1683, on the order of Mehmed IV. The sultan’s decision proved to be a fatal mistake, since only Kara Mustafa was able to provide an effective and organized defense against the Christian forces during the first stages of the Great Turkish War (1683-1699).
The deeds of Kara Mustafa and Jan III Sobieski marked the turning point in the centuries-old clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. In fact, the West recovered and struck back, finally ending Ottoman domination in southeastern Europe. The Battle of Vienna marked the end of the expansion of Islam into the heart of the Western world. A nightmarish, possible scenario of a Europe being divided by the Ottomans and French was avoided.
History regards Kara Mustafa wrongly as an incompetent military leader who made many tactical errors during his campaign. However, the truth is that Kara Mustafa was just a mediocre tactician and a feared grand vizier with organizational skills. Actually, despite his mistakes during the siege, he performed well during the battle by leading his forces with courage against a formidable army led by the best generals of Christendom at the time. It was his greedy determination and lack of fear that nearly allowed Kara Mustafa, closer than anybody else, to deliver a fatal blow to the Christian world, and thus changing the course of history. But fate was not kind to him.
Very few Westerners are aware of the fact that this ambitious warrior of Allah who wanted to spread darkness into Europe failed and took in his last breath on the most important day of the Christian calendar. And the past continues to whisper into the ears of historians to ultimately pay attention to this neglected figure: the greatest danger the West has ever faced.
Miltiades Varvounis is a Greek-Polish historian and freelance writer, with a thorough knowledge of the history of Central Europe. He has written several books in Greek and English, including “Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe.”