Photo credit: Battle of Vienna 1683 by Jerzy Kossak
In 1683, a vast Ottoman army camped outside the gates of Vienna. For centuries thereafter, the siege and final decisive battle that took place would be cast as a defining moment in a clash of civilizations — that time the forces of Islam were halted at the ramparts of Christendom.
Yet look just a little bit harder, and that tidy narrative falls apart. The Ottoman assault had been coordinated in league with French King Louis XIV. And perhaps more than half of the soldiers seeking to capture the Austrian capital were Christians themselves. There were Greeks, Armenians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, all fighting alongside Arabs, Turks, Kurds and others in the Ottoman ranks.
One of the main figures joining the Turkish campaign was Imre Thokoly, who was a Protestant born in what’s now Slovakia and an avowed Hungarian nationalist. Tens of thousands of Hungarian peasants who were angry at the rapacious behavior of the Catholic Church, and the imperial Habsburg dynasty in Vienna had rallied to Thokoly’s banner. His alliance with the Ottomans enabled the rapid Turkish march toward the Austrian capital.
It reflected, writes British academic Ian Almond in his 2009 book “Two Faiths, One Banner: When Muslims Marched With Christians Across Europe’s Battlegrounds,” how “little use terms such as ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ are to describe the almost hopelessly complex web of shifting power-relations, feudal alliances, ethnic sympathies and historical grudges” that shaped much of European history.
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