Today we remember September 11 for what happened in 2001. But it is a memorable day for another event as well: one of the turning points of history.
Between 1667 and 1698, Europe battled the Ottoman Empire, an empire that endured from 1299 until 1923. From the 1500s through the 1600s the Empire was at the height of its powers and controlled most of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa: the modern nations of Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Syria, Lebanon Israel, Iraq, Iran, parts of Saudi Arabia (including the Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina) were all part of the Ottoman Empire by 1683. During this period of ascendency and power, the Ottomans under the Sultan Mehmed IV had their eyes on the conquest of Europe and were pressing toward the city of Vienna in modern Austria.
They repaired and built roads and bridges leading into Austria and moved large quantities of ammunition to staging areas leading to Vienna. Finally, on January 21, 1682 the Ottoman army itself mobilized. Then on August 6, the Ottoman’s declared war. Months passed before the Ottomans began their full scale invasion, however. This allowed the Habsburg forces in Austria time to prepare defenses and to assemble alliances with other Central European rulers. The most significant of those alliances was with Poland. The Habsburgs made a treaty promising to support the Polish king Jan III Sobieski if the Ottomans attacked the Polish city of Krakow, and Sobieski promised to send his army if Vienna were attacked.
The Ottoman siege of Vienna finally began on July 14. At the very beginning, the Ottoman’s demanded surrender. There were only 11,000 troops and 5000 citizens in Vienna at that time. But they refused to surrender to the Ottomans. The leader of the troops, Ernst Rudiger Graf von Starhemberg, had just received news that the nearby town of Perchtoldsdorf had agreed to such a surrender. Upon their surrender, the Ottomans had slaughtered all its citizens.
Thus, the Viennese decided it was better to die fighting than to die after surrendering. Though the Ottomans had a larger army with very good cannons, the fortifications of Vienna were very strong. The Ottomans attempted to breach the city walls by digging tunnels underneath them and filling the tunnels with gunpowder. Meanwhile, the Ottomans cut off the food supply into Vienna.
By the time the first forces arrived in August, 1683 to aid in the defense of Vienna, the defenders in the city were in desperate straits of hunger and fatigue. On September 6, the Polish army finally arrived, led by Jan III Sobieski. Soon additional forces from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia arrived.
Meanwhile, the Ottomans repeatedly blew up large sections of the defending walls of the city. But despite the large gaps in the city walls, the Ottomans were unable to get inside the city. The various armies that had come to defend Vienna finally joined together under the command of the Polish king Jan III Sobieski and on September 11-12, 1683 they succeeded in utterly defeating the Ottoman army and driving it back from Vienna.
By the time they were victorious, there were 84,000 troops defending Vienna. They had faced a much larger Ottoman force of between 150,000 and 300,000 troops. The Ottomans lost at least 15,000 men dead or wounded, plus another 5000 captured compared to the loss of about 4500 of the defending troops killed or wounded over the day long battle.
The Ottomans abandoned enormous amounts of material: cannons, tents and cattle. Following the victory, the commander of the troops that had been besieged in Vienna, Ernst Rudiger Graf von Starhemberg, hugged and kissed the king of Poland and called him “my savior.”
This one battle determined the ultimate course of the entire war and meant that Europe would not be overrun by the Ottomans. Although the Ottomans continued fighting against the Europeans for another 16 years, the battle marked the end of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. In fact, the Ottoman Empire began losing territory. By the time the conflict ended in 1699 with the Treaty of Karlowitz, the Ottoman Empire had lost much of their territory in Europe, including Hungary and Transylvania.
By the time World War I began in 1914, the Ottoman Empire was a shadow of its former self and was generally referred to as the “sick man” of Europe. It made the mistake of joining Germany in that conflict. When Germany lost World War I, the Ottoman Empire lost as well and its land holdings in Africa and Asia were divided up among the victorious forces: England took control of Egypt, Palestine and Iraq, leaving the Ottomans with only Turkey. England had promised to establish a Jewish state in part of Palestine with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which was then incorporated into the peace treaty that the allied forces made with the Ottoman Empire after World War I ended. France took control of Syria and Lebanon. Greece became an independent nation nominally aligned with the Ottoman Empire, though even before the peace treaty was signed, the Ottoman Empire was rife with conflict and revolution.
By 1923 the forces of change enveloped the pitiful remains of the once mighty Ottoman Empire. The last Sultan was overthrown and a secular government was established by Mustafa Kemal, forming the Republic of Turkey, which today remains a relatively modern, secular, unitary, constitutional republic. It is also a member of NATO.