I feigned a mighty interest in science; and, by dint of pretending, soon became really attached to it. I ceased to be a man of affairs … I resolved to leave my native land, and my withdrawal from court supplied a plausible excuse. I waited on the king; I emphasized the great desire I had to acquaint myself with the sciences of the West, and hinted that my travels might even be of service to him.


It would be of some use to explain how the sandy country of Brandenburg came to wield such power that greater efforts have been marshalled against it than were ever mustered against Louis XIV.



Since the eruption of Islam from the Arabian deserts in the seventh century, there have been repeated clashes between West and East. The followers of Muhammad waged jihad against the followers of Jesus Christ, and the Christians returned the compliment with crusades to the Holy Land – nine in all between 1095 and 1272 – and the reconquest of Spain and Portugal. For most of the past 300 years, give or take the odd temporary setback, the West has consistently won this clash of civilizations. One of the main reasons for this has been the superiority of Western science. This advantage, however, did not always exist.1

It was not only religious fervour that enabled the successors of the Prophet Muhammad to establish a caliphate which, by the middle of the eighth century, extended from Spain, right across North Africa, through its Arabian heartland, north through Syria and into the Caucasus, then eastwards across Persia and into Afghanistan – all the way from Toledo to Kabul. The Abbasid caliphate was at the cutting edge of science. In the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) founded in ninth-century Baghdad by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Greek texts by Aristotle and other authors were translated into Arabic. The caliphate also produced what some regard as the first true hospitals, such as the bimaristan established at Damascus by Caliph al-Waleed bin Abdel Malek in 707, which was designed to cure rather than merely house the sick. It was home to what some regard as the first true institution of higher education, the University of Al-Karaouine founded in Fez in 859. Building on Greek and especially Indian foundations, Muslim mathematicians established algebra (from the Arabic al-jabr, meaning ‘restoration’) as a discipline distinct from arithmetic and geometry. The first algebraic textbook was The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing (Hisab al-Jabr W’al-Musqabalah), written in Arabic by the Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī in around 820. The first truly experimental scientist was a Muslim: Abū ‘Alī al-H˙asan ibn al-H˙asan ibn al-Haytham (965–c. 1039), whose seven-volume Book of Optics overthrew a host of ancient misconceptions, notably the idea that we are able to see objects because our eyes emit light. It was Ibn al-Haytham who first appreciated why a projectile was more likely to penetrate a wall if it struck it at right angles, who first discerned that the stars were not solid bodies, and who built the first camera obscura – the pinhole camera that is still used today to introduce schoolchildren to the science of optics. His studies were carried forward by the work of the late thirteenth-century Persian scholar Kamal al-Din al-Farisi on rainbows.2 The West owes a debt to the medieval Muslim world, for both its custodianship of classical wisdom and its generation of new knowledge in cartography, medicine and philosophy as well as in mathematics and optics. The English thinker Roger Bacon acknowledged it: ‘Philosophy is drawn from the Muslims.’3

So how did the Muslim world come to fall behind the West in the realm of science? And how exactly did a scientific revolution help Western civilization take over the world, militarily as well as academically? To answer those questions, we must travel back more than three centuries, to the last time an Islamic empire seriously menaced the security of the West.

The year was 1683 and once again – just as had happened in 1529 – an Ottoman army was at the gates of Vienna. At its head was Kara Mustafa Köprülü, Grand Vizier to Sultan Mehmed IV.

An Anatolian dynasty established in the ruins of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans had been the standard bearers of Islam since their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Their empire did not have the great eastward sweep of the Abbasid caliphate,* but it had succeeded in spreading Islam into hitherto Christian territory – not only the old Byzantine realms on either side of the Black Sea Straits, but also Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. Belgrade had fallen to the Ottomans in 1521, Buda in 1541. Ottoman naval power had also brought Rhodes to its knees (1522). Vienna might have survived (as did Malta) but, having also extended Ottoman rule from Baghdad to Basra, from Van in the Caucasus to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, and along the Barbary Coast from Algiers to Tripoli, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66) could legitimately claim: ‘I am the Sultan of Sultans, the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the distributor of crowns to the monarchs of the globe, the shadow of God upon Earth …’ The mosque in Istanbul that bears his name is an enduring vindication of his claim to greatness. Less well known is the fact that Suleiman also built a medical school (the Dâruttib or Süleymaniye Tip Medresesi).4 A law-maker and a gifted poet, Suleiman combined religious power, political power and economic power (including the setting of prices). In his eyes, the mighty Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was merely ‘the King of Vienna’,5 and Portugal’s merchant adventurers were no better than pirates. With Suleiman on the throne, it was far from inconceivable that the Ottomans would rise to the Portuguese challenge in the Indian Ocean and defeat it.6

In the eyes of the late sixteenth-century envoy Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the contrast between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires was alarming in the extreme:

It makes me shudder to think of what the result of a struggle between such different systems must be; one of us must prevail and the other be destroyed, at any rate we cannot both exist in safety. On their side is the vast wealth of their empire, unimpaired resources, experience and practice in arms, a veteran soldiery, an uninterrupted series of victories, readiness to endure hardships, union, order, discipline, thrift and watchfulness. On ours are found an empty exchequer, luxurious habits, exhausted resources, broken spirits, a raw and insubordinate soldiery, and greedy quarrels; there is no regard for discipline, license runs riot, the men indulge in drunkenness and debauchery, and worst of all, the enemy are accustomed to victory, we to defeat. Can we doubt what the result must be?7

The seventeenth century saw further Ottoman gains: Crete was conquered in 1669. The Sultan’s reach extended even into the Western Ukraine. As a naval power, too, the Ottomans remained formidable.8 The events of 1683 were therefore long dreaded in the West. In vain did Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I* cling to the peace that had been signed at Vasvár in 1664.9 In vain did he tell himself that Louis XIV was the more serious threat.

In the summer of 1682 the Sultan made his first move, acknowledging the Magyar rebel Imre Thököly as king of Hungary in return for his recognition of Ottoman suzerainty (overlordship). In the course of the following winter an immense force was assembled at Adrianople and then deployed to Belgrade. By June 1683 the Turks had entered Habsburg territory. By the beginning of July they had taken Győr. In Vienna, meanwhile, Leopold dithered. The city’s defences were woefully inadequate and the City Guard had been decimated by a recent outbreak of plague. The rusty Habsburg forces under Charles of Lorraine seemed unable to halt the Ottoman advance. False hope was furnished by Leopold’s envoy in Istanbul, who assured him that the Turkish force was ‘mediocre’.10

On 13 July 1683 this supposedly mediocre force – a 60,000-strong Ottoman army of Janissaries and sipahi cavalry, supported by 80,000 Balkan auxiliaries and a force of fearsome Tatars – reached the gates of Vienna. In overall command was Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Köprülü, whose nickname Kara – ‘the black’ – referred as much to his character as to his complexion. This was a man who, after capturing a Polish city in 1674, had flayed his prisoners alive. Having pitched his camp 450 paces from the city walls, Kara Mustafa presented the defenders with a choice:

Accept Islam, and live in peace under the Sultan! Or deliver up the fortress, and live in peace under the Sultan as Christians; and if any man prefer, let him depart peaceably, taking his goods with him! But if you insist [on resisting], then death or spoliation or slavery shall be the fate of you all!11

As the Muslim conquerors of Byzantium confronted the Christian heirs of Rome, bells rang out across Central Europe, summoning the faithful to pray for divine intercession. The graffiti on the walls of St Stephen’s Cathedral give a flavour of the mood in Vienna: ‘Muhammad, you dog, go home!’ That, however, was the limit of Leopold’s defiance. Though the idea of flight affronted his ‘sense of dignity’, he was persuaded to slip away to safety.

The Ottoman encampment was itself a statement of self-confidence. Kara Mustafa had a garden planted in front of his own palatial tent.12 The message was clear: the Turks had time to starve the Viennese into surrender if necessary. Strange and threatening music swept from the camp across the city walls as the Ottomans beat their immense kös drums. The noise also served to cover the sounds of shovels as the Turks dug tunnels and covered trenches. The detonation of a huge mine on 25 July successfully breached the city palisades, the first line of defence. Another massive explosion cleared a way to the Austrians’ entrenchment at the ravelin, a triangular free-standing outer fortification. On 4 September the Turks nearly overwhelmed the defenders of the central fort itself.

But then, fatally, Kara Mustafa hesitated. Autumn was in the air. His lines of communication back to Ottoman territory were over-extended. His men were now running short of supplies. And he was uncertain what his next move should be if he actually succeeded in capturing Vienna. The Turk’s hesitation gave Leopold vital time to assemble a relief force. Before the Ottoman invasion he had signed a treaty of mutual defence with the Kingdom of Poland, so it was the newly elected Polish King Jan III Sobieski who led the 60,000-strong Polish–German army towards Vienna. Sobieski was past his prime, but intent on glory. It was in fact a motley force he led: Poles, Bavarians, Franconians and Saxons, as well as Habsburg troops. And it made slow progress towards Vienna, not least because its leader’s grasp of Austrian geography was quite shaky. But finally, in the early hours of 12 September 1683, the counter-attack began with a burst of rocket fire. The Ottoman forces were divided, some still frantically trying to break into the city, others fighting a rearguard action against the advancing Polish infantry. Kara Mustafa had done too little to defend the approach routes. At 5 p.m. Sobieski launched his cavalry in a massive full-tilt charge from the Kahlenberg, the hill that overlooks Vienna, towards the Ottoman encampment. As one Turkish eyewitness put it, the Polish hussars looked ‘like a flood of black pitch coming down the mountain, consuming everything it touched’. The final phase of the battle was ferocious but swiftly decided. Sobieski entered Kara Mustafa’s tent to find it empty. The siege of Vienna was over.

Hailed by the defending Viennese as their saviour, Sobieski was exultant, modifying Caesar’s famous words to: ‘We came, we saw, God conquered.’ Captured Ottoman cannon were melted down to make a new bell for St Stephen’s that was decorated with six embossed Turkish heads. The retreating Kara Mustafa paid the ultimate price for his failure. At Esztergom the Turks suffered such a severe thrashing that the Sultan ordered his immediate execution. He was strangled in the time-honoured Ottoman fashion, with a silken cord.

A host of legends sprang up in the wake of Vienna’s relief: that the crescents on the Turkish flags inspired the croissant,* that abandoned Ottoman coffee was used to found the first Viennese café and to make the first cappuccino, and that the captured Turkish percussion instruments (cymbals, triangles and bass drums) were adopted by the Austrian regimental bands. The event’s true historical significance was far greater. For the Ottoman Empire, this second failure to take Vienna marked the beginning of the end – a moment of imperial overstretch with disastrous long-term consequences. In battle after battle, culminating in Prince Eugene of Savoy’s crushing victory at Zenta in 1697, the Ottomans were driven from nearly all the European lands conquered by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Treaty of Karlowitz, under which the Sultan renounced all claims to Hungary and Transylvania, was a humiliation.13

The raising of the siege of Vienna was not only a turning point in the centuries-old struggle between Christianity and Islam. It was also a pivotal moment in the rise of the West. In the field of battle, it is true, the two sides had seemed quite evenly matched in 1683. Indeed, in many respects there was little to choose between them. Tatars fought on both sides. Christian troops from Turkish-controlled Moldavia and Wallachia were obliged to support the Ottomans. The many paintings and engravings of the campaign make it clear that the differences between the two armies were sartorial more than technological or tactical. But the timing of the siege was significant. For the late seventeenth century was a time of accelerating change in Europe in two crucial fields: natural philosophy (as science was then known) and political theory. The years after 1683 saw profound changes in the way the Western mind conceived of both nature and government. In 1687 Isaac Newton published his Principia. Three years later, his friend John Locke published his Second Treatise of Government. If one thing came to differentiate the West from the East it was the widely differing degrees to which such new and profound knowledge was systematically pursued and applied.

The long Ottoman retreat after 1683 was not economically determined. Istanbul was not a poorer city than its near neighbours in Central Europe, nor was the Ottoman Empire slower than many parts of Europe to embrace global commerce and, later, industrialization.14 The explanation for the decline of imperial China proposed in the previous chapter does not apply here; there was no shortage of economic competition and autonomous corporate entities like guilds in the Ottoman lands.15 There was also ample competition between Ottomans, Safavids and Mughals. Nor should Ottoman decline be understood simply as a consequence of growing Western military superiority.16 On closer inspection, that superiority was itself based on improvements in the application of science to warfare and of rationality to government. In the fifteenth century, as we saw earlier, political and economic competition had given the West a crucial advantage over China. By the eighteenth century, its edge over the Orient was a matter as much of brainpower as of firepower.



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