A pivotal moment in Vienna’s long past came in 1683 when the Ottoman Empire laid siege to the city. The outcome changed the course of Austrian and European history and gave birth to numerous stories (and myths).
- Siege lasted around two months
- The Polish king, Jan III Sobieski, eventually relieved the city
- Marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans in Europe
- Allegedly the origins of Vienna’s association with coffee
- Echoes of the siege still found in Vienna’s old town
- See also: Military History Museum
The Ottoman siege
(Karl von Blaas, The Defence of Vienna against the Turks 1683, from around 1685, oil on canvas, 65 x 48 cm, Belvedere, Wien, Inv.-Nr. 2731; Photo courtesy of and © Belvedere, Wien. Reproduced with permission under the terms of Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0. )
One of the great disputes in European history was the war between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman empire, an on-off conflict that began in the early 16th century and lasted almost 300 years.
The Ottomans, centered in modern-day Turkey, conquered large chunks of southeastern Europe during that time, including various Habsburg dominions.
For example, Suleiman the Magnificent’s military endeavours saw the Ottoman empire expand to include much of today’s Hungary and took him right to the city limits of Vienna in 1529 (the first Siege of Vienna). He failed to breach the defences and, with winter coming, called it quits and returned home.
But the second siege of Vienna interests us more, being a rather pivotal event in European and Viennese history.
Like most empires, the Ottomans went through peaks and troughs of size, power and influence. After a less than stellar first few decades in the 1600s, they found themselves on the up again in the 1680s.
And so the Ottomans sought to succeed where Suleiman failed and set off to capture Vienna: a true jewel of the continent, a bastion of Christian Europe, and a vital strategic and trade asset.
To cut a long story short, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha laid siege to Vienna on July 14th, 1683, with an army that far outnumbered the defenders.
Things looked grim for the city. The Habsburg emperor of the time (Leopold I) had already left town with a hastily-assembled overnight bag and an urgent appointment somewhere with fewer people likely to point sharp objects at him. His departure hardly counted as a ringing endorsement of Vienna’s defensive prospects.
(Johann Nepomuk Höchle, Emperor Leopold I. and King Jan III. Sobieski in front of Vienna, undated, poil on canvas, 228 x 448 cm, Belvedere, Wien, Inv.-Nr. 7957; Photo courtesy of and © Belvedere, Wien. Reproduced with permission under the terms of Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 4.0.)
Remarkably, the fortifications and the Viennese held firm long enough for a relief army to arrive in early September.
Led by the Polish king, Jan Sobieski, forces from the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, various states within the Holy Roman Empire, and Habsburg territories defeated the Ottoman army comprehensively.
The end of the siege also marked the beginning of the end for Ottoman incursions and rule in Europe. Historians consider it the major turning point in the long conflict between the two powerful factions, one that saw the Ottomans eventually beaten back to their more traditional borders.
Why is it important?
For the administrative centre of a centuries-old empire, Vienna has led a relatively peaceful existence. As such, major conflicts involving the city – like the 1683 siege – tend to stick in the cultural memory. Vienna’s liberation (or conquest, depending on your perspective) at the end of WWII offers another more recent example.
The fall of the city in 1683 would have dealt a major blow to Habsburg hegemony. It would certainly have led to greater Ottoman influence in Europe, whose map and culture would no doubt be considerably different today. As such, the siege ranks as one of Europe’s most significant Sliding Doors moments.
Equally, I have the impression that the close encounter with the Ottomans also left a different kind of mark on the town: a grudging respect for another, quite different, culture. And the siege also inspired a seemingly unshakeable myth about the origins of Vienna’s cosy relationship with coffee.
According to legend, when the local population emerged from the city to investigate the abandoned Ottoman encampment, they discovered sacks of mysterious dark beans that the invaders had brought with them. And so coffee arrived in Vienna, beginning a long tradition that continues today.
A nice story, but simply not true.
I suspect the myth may have come about since the first formal coffee house in Vienna opened within a year or two of the siege. That privilege went to the Armenian, Johannes Deodat, in 1685.
Other cities in Europe already had coffee houses by that time. For example, London’s first opened over 30 years before Ottoman cannons pointed at Viennese walls. So it seems highly unlikely that coffee arrived in Vienna as a complete unknown.
Another likely myth is that the siege indirectly gave rise to the croissant. Allegedly, a baker created the crescent-shaped Kipfel to celebrate the victory, a baked item that found its way to Paris in the early 1800s and inspired the creation of that French mainstay.
Where to learn more
Remnants of the siege and references to the victory pepper Vienna. For example:
- A few pieces of the old city walls that held firm against the Ottoman cannons and sappers remain today (most of the fortifications disappeared to make way for the Ring boulevard and various prestigious building projects).
- The 5D cinematic experience within the Time Travel tour includes a part dedicated to the siege.
- A plaque outside the Augustinerkirche commemorates the mass that Sobieski attended in the church after lifting the siege.
- The Museum of Military History has a gallery that deals with some of the Ottoman conflicts, particularly the role of Prince Eugene in driving the Ottomans from Europe in the years that followed the siege. You can view a large format painting of the battle and numerous Ottoman army artifacts.
- A golden ball hanging outside No.11 on Am Hof square turns out to be an Ottoman cannonball from 1683.
- Two of the figures on the famous Ankeruhr giant mechanical clock honour participants in the defence of Vienna: the mayor at the time (Johann Andreas von Liebenberg) and the head of the defending forces (Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg). The latter also has a statue in the park outside city hall.
- One of the panoramas in the display hall beneath the giant Ferris wheel deals with the siege.