Saturday, December 10
Укр Eng
Log In Register
20 September, 2013  ▪  Oleksiy Sokyrko

The Cross Versus the Crescent Moon

The Battle of Vienna took place 330 years ago. It was the final and most significant battle between Christian Europe and the Muslim East

The Vienna victory over the Ottomans on September 12, 1683, was a landmark event in the history of the continent for a number of reasons. By that time, the Ottoman Empire’s expansion in Europe had already lasted for several centuries but the Sultan’s army had never been as close to the heartland of the united Christian empire and the legacy of the Roman Caesars – the Holy Roman Empire. The Ottoman seizure of Constantinople in 1453 was followed by the fall of a slew of European capitals and the defeat of many powerful armies. Christian Europe proclaimed that the advance of Islam was the biggest threat and God’s punishment. However, it lacked the unity and agreement to join its efforts in the struggle against the Porte. This lasted until the late 17th century when the conflict escalated to the point of life or death.    


 A slew of failed European Crusades that were supposed to end Turkish aggression in the 15-17th centuries made it clear that none of the countries under the Ottoman threat could resist it on its own. Meanwhile, potential allies were torn apart by disputes and disagreements: France and Austria struggled for leadership in Western Europe and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth competed for leadership in Eastern Europe (the conflicts in the 17th century largely concerned Ukraine). The Ottoman Empire played skillfully on the ambition-driven squabbles of European monarchs.

In the second half of the 17th century, Istanbul eagerly helped Ukrainian Cossacks in their wars against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Hungary in their struggle for independence from Austria. The Ottomans used their help to Hungarians in the 1681-1682 revolt led by Prince Imre Tekeli (recognized as the king of the Upper Hungary by the Turks) in the protestant provinces that were disappointed with economic and church policies of catholic Austria as an excuse to once again invade the territory of the Habsburgs. In spring 1683, the Ottoman Army gathered in Edirne, marched to Serbia, crossed it and got close to Vienna. By mid-July, it had completely blockaded the city. Emperor Leopold I with his court and numerous refugees that outnumbered his army fled the capital and turned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for help. Luckily, the two countries had signed a joint anti-Ottoman action treaty a year earlier.

READ ALSO: Cossack Battle of Cannae

Polish King Jan III Sobieski initially planned to fight the Turks in Podilia and concentrated his forces in Lviv. After Leopold’s plea for help, however, the army was sent to Krakow from where it headed towards the Danube. Strategically, this was the correct decision, but less so politically, since Poland’s eastern and southern frontiers remained under threat from Tatars and Hungarians. Thanks to this swift reaction, the allies gathered a huge army above the Danube that included nearly 21,000 Polish soldiers with 28 cannons; 18,500 Habsburg troops and 70 cannons commanded by Charles V, Duke of Lorraine; and almost 29,000 soldiers and 50 cannons from allied German princedoms, including Saxony, Bavaria, Swabia and Franconia, commanded by the Elector of Saxony, Johann Georg III and Prince Georg Friedrich of Waldeck. On September 3, the allies decided to delegate the command of this motley army to Jan Sobieski as the highest ranking person and the most experienced commander in wars against the Ottomans.

He came up with a simple and decisive plan to rescue Vienna: unlike the German and Austrian marshals who suggested luring the Ottomans as far as possible from the city and forcing them to withdraw with ongoing raids, the king intended to deal them a crushing blow in a general battle and force them to capitulate. The attack was to start from the side of the Vienna Woods so that the allies’ left wing could cut through the Ottoman camp besieging Vienna and help the city garrison. The right wing, together with the centre, was supposed to go in a general attack, engaging with the enemy’s main units. When the battle began, the 80,000-strong Ottoman army looked like a dangerous opponent, albeit visibly exhausted: they had already been dealing with the city’s desperate resistance for two months.

On the morning of September 12, the Ottoman commander, Grand Vizier Kara-Mustafa Pasha decided on a sudden attack against the coalition army to prevent the latter from taking convenient positions that would allow them to block his units. His biggest mistake though, was the plan for frequent intense attacks to force Vienna to capitulate. As a result, the troops he sent to attack the Polish-German-Austrian army were too few.  

Initially, the allies’ left wing moved too far ahead. The Ottomans followed and found themselves cut off from the Danube for a while. In the afternoon, the coalition’s army corrected its positions, pushing the Ottoman cavalry on the right flank and was thus ready for the final attack. Thus began at 5p.m. with a frontal attack by the German and Polish cavalry. The Ottomans were pushed back along the entire frontline.  

This cavalry attack, led by the famous Polish winged hussars and recognized as the biggest cavalry operation with over 20,000 people involved, was decisive to the outcome of the battle. The Ottomans began to withdraw, which rapidly turned into a chaotic retreat. The trenches and camps they built to besiege Vienna were the only things that saved them from being completely surrounded and destroyed. Although Sobieski’s plan to wipe out the Ottoman Army failed, the outcome of the battle was fantastic: Kara-Mustafa Pasha lost 15,000 of his troops, the entire artillery and a huge caravan with generous trophies for the winners.


At that time, Ukraine had a longer love-hate history with the East that traced back to the times when farmers and nomadic cattle breeders settled on its territory. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, constant contacts with the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire as its suzerain developed a very specific type of relations, in which hostility and resistance were curiously intertwined with completely peaceful pursuits such as trade, mutual borrowings and so on. Almost a third of the Ukrainian nobility, especially that from Kyiv, Left-Bank Ukraine and Podilia, had Turkic surnames. Prince Dmytro Vyshnevetskyi, one of the first Cossack leaders, was best known by his non-Slavic surname, Baida. Even the word “Cossack” is of Turkic origin.

Over several generations, the Rus nobility and Ukrainian Cossacks got used to living in the steppes where military campaigns regularly alternated with trade transactions, while the busurmans – the Cossack name for Muslims - were condemned but hardly treated as strangers. The steppe knights, given the title of the “forefront of Christian Europe” by European polemists, were more familiar with Turks and Tatars and better accustomed to wars with them than the West European military. This made Cossacks and the Ukrainian nobility an integral part of virtually all anti-Ottoman coalitions and military campaigns, including the Battle of Vienna in 1683.

READ ALSO: The Battle of Batih Won Independence for Cossack Ukraine in 1652

Sobieski realized that he would not win this war without the assistance or at least the neutrality of the Cossacks in the spring of 1683 before the Turkish army began its campaign. With financial assistance from the Pope, the Polish king decided to hire three Cossack units of 1,200-1,500 people. However, the enlistment campaign kicked off too late and relations between the Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were too unstable and ambiguous. As a result, only a small 150-strong unit of Right-Bank and Zaporizhia Cossacks led by Rittmeister Apostol-Shchurovskyi arrived at Vienna. The rest were crossing the Danube, having joined allied forces in Hungary, when the fate of the besieged Vienna was already decided.

Many units of the royal Polish and Lithuanian army were also late for the Viennese Ball. Yet, the Cossacks got in early enough to participate in the final phase of the campaign when the Ottomans were forced out of Hungary. In November 1863, Cossack units led by Vasyl Iskrytskyi, Semen Korsunets, Jan Myslishewski and Maksym Bulyha invaded the Hungarian town of Szechenyi, which was well-fortified by the Ottomans, in the avant-garde of the royal army and essentially made it surrender without resistance. In autumn of the same year, Cossack units helped Polish troops to defend Podilia which was being attacked by the Turks and Tartars in an attempt to pull part of the Christian coalition army out of there. Another victory overshadowed by the one in Vienna was a march to Moldova by Right-Bank Cossacks, led by Stefan Kunytskyi. After passing through Mohyliv, Yampil, Soroky and Chisinau, the Cossacks met Belgorod and Budjak Tartars (Belgorod and Budjak, as well as Kiliya and Ismail, mentioned below, are all in Odesa Oblast today), who were returning from Vienna, scattering them along the Danube. On their way back, the Cossacks took over and robbed Kiliya and Ismail. 

The contribution of the Ukrainian nobility in the Vienna victory was not so clear. In the late 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth included some Ukrainian territories – the Volyn, Podilia and Rus provinces. Cossack units controlled some of these while in others, the rule of the nobility was restored. Even though Right-Bank Ukraine was almost devastated after the bloody turmoil of the Ruin (a period in Ukrainian history between 1657 when Bohdan Khmelnytsky died and 1687 when Ivan Mazepa came to power – Ed.) and could not provide enough military, the local nobility still lived “on horseback”, at the ready, whether there was war or peace for several centuries. The ranks of the royal army were filled by the nobility who had moved from Kyiv and Left-Bank Ukraine to Right-Bank Ukraine during the Khmelnytsky Uprising. With little land and the urge to fight, these knights joined the elite Polish hussar and pancerny – armoured cavalry – banners (companies) that fought against the Ottomans near Vienna.


Battles are won by commanders, while politicians take credit for the victories. The Vienna Victory was the last chord in the Ottoman advance through Europe, and the beginning of the end of Ottoman victories and the might of the Ottoman Empire. The war on the continent lasted another 16 years, ending with the Karlowitz Peace Treaty in 1699 that brought a time-out in the Ottoman threat but resulted in lengthy squabbles within Europe – the War for the Spanish Legacy (1701–1714) and the Great Northern War (1700–1721). The Habsburg Empire was ultimately unable to gain leadership on the continent, as neighbouring France was carving off the frontiers of the German world from the West while the Habsburgs fought against the Ottomans. This changed in the early 18th century, when Vienna signed a treaty with Russia, a new European superpower. Two black eagles – Austrian and Russian – began to plot against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, their old ally in anti-Ottoman coalitions, to divide it between themselves at the end of the century and ultimately deprive Cossack Ukraine of its autonomy. 

However, this was all yet to come, while in September 1683, Christian Europe was celebrating a triumph of the cross over the crescent moon. Pope Innocent XI designated September 12 as the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary to honour Our Lady of Częstochowa, the protectress of the Polish king and army in the anti-Ottoman campaign. Numerous trophies that came into the hands of the victorious allies played their part in history, becoming the richest collections of Turkish antiquities in Austrian and Polish museums. Others, such as coffee, ended up in the hands of Halychyna (Galician) nobleman Yuriy Franz Kulchytskyi (Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki in Polish). It started the long-lasting coffee drinking tradition in Europe while Vienna became the first European city where coffee shops acted as clubs for the nobility and bourgeoisie,and the latest news was discussed over a cup of the aromatic drink.  

READ ALSO: Stara Samar

Along with numerous Ottoman war trophies, Turkish musical instruments came into the hands of the European soldiers: cymbals, timpani, tambourines and horns. Legend has it that these instruments were the original basic set of wind instruments and drums for the classic military band. They also introduced Europeans to Turkish music, the motifs of which can be heard in music written by the most famous European composers of the 18th century.

The outcome of the Battle of Vienna was important for both East and West, and had a unique echo in Ukrainian history. Coffee as the “wine of Islam” as well as Turkish weapons, music, clothes and many household items had been widely used in Ukraine long before the battle. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was equally accepted, as Ukrainian Cossacks and soldiers of the Polish crown did not need interpreters to speak to each other, were dressed, armed and conducted warfare in a similar manner, and felt like members of one military community. The European cultural space was just coming into being at that point, developing its own system of orientations and contacts. Wars were virtually the only means of intercultural exchange. Fortunately, muses have gradually taken over cannons in the process.

Related publications:

Copyright © Ukrainian Week LLC. All rights reserved.
Reprint or other commercial use of the site materials is allowed only with the editorial board permission.
Legal disclaimer Accessibility Privacy policy Terms of use Contact us