Tag Archives: Ottoman Empire

Coffee, Culture and History

Confession: I drink a lot of coffee.  Probably too much.  I also like to observe people.

Recently, when in coffee shops, I’ve started casually making a tally of the of people who are spending their time in these special places with their attention focused on some digitally connected device.

Not counting customers in line, or placing an order, the ratio consistently runs at around 65-75% percent.  My how things have changed.


The year 1683 marked one of the most dramatic turning points in European history, at least as pertains to central and western Europe. For one, it marked the high-water mark for Islamic influence and territorial martial acquisition by the Ottoman Turks.

To push their domination further and more completely into Europe, they laid siege to Vienna.  A massive army of 170,000 under Ottoman Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa — allied with rebellious Protestant Hungarians, who chafed under Austrian rule — surrounded the fortressed city and cut it off from supplies and communication.  And then proceeded to wear down the great city’s defenses over two months’ time.

Greatest extent of the Ottoman Turk Empire

There is no end to imagination of how the history of Europe would be different had this siege succeeded, as was expected by most. Or if the Ottoman armies had simply bypassed Vienna and moved onward into, say, modern day Germany and Poland.

But Vienna was the center of culture for many hundreds of miles, and – as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – was a much desired jewel for both the Turks and their rebellious Hungarian allies.

In early September, as the Viennese defenses were beginning to fail and capitulation seemed imminent, there was a great surprise!! A huge rescue force arrived. Many armies, formed from dozens of German and Polish principalities, appeared on the hills outside of Vienna.  The city had held on just long enough, despite a defense garrison of only just over 1,000 fighting defenders. Early on September 12th the Ottoman army moved to attack the rescuers.  But they badly underestimated the size and breadth of the northern allies’ position.  The Ottomans charged.  Most of the German and some of the Polish northern armies – usually estimated at some 74,000 men total – swept down to meet the Ottomans on their flank and rear.

The battle raged for some 12 hours; nearly a quarter of a million men engaged in bloody, ruthless, hand-to-hand combat. Attack and counter-attack. Over and over; back and forth. Just when it appeared as though the Turks might claim the day – and Vienna – they were blunted by another surprise.  The Poles had effectively kept 18,000 horse-mounted men in reserve; this because they were delayed in their long slog through the mountains and forests.  Immediately perceiving their opportunity, the Poles thundered along a wide front … down from the wooded hills into the plains, striking the Turks who were already engaged with Germans and other Poles. At some 18,000 strong, military historians regard this as the single largest cavalry charge in history.  [And, now that we have entered the asymmetric-terrorist-nuclear-digital-cruise missile-drone era of warfare, it will ever likely ever remain so.]

Caught quite unprepared – the battle had already waged 12 hours; where did these fresh horse-mounted troops come from?? – the Turks were delivered a coup de main, in fact, the coup de grace, by the Poles, who nonetheless suffered heavy casualties themselves.  After two more withering hours, the surviving Turks fled the battlefield, but only after butchering their prisoners and attempting to destroy much of their military matériel. They soon abandoned their encampments in nearly complete disorder. [1]

Vienna, the center of culture and power in central Europe, was saved.

The booty left behind by the Turks included innumerable tents, much grain, many sheep & cattle (soldiers had to be fed, after all), horses, mules, and, according to King John Sobieski who led the largest Polish army, “… no small number of camels.”

Two other items of interest they left behind.

The first was a vivid memory among the Viennese: a memory of countless Ottoman Turkish flags emblazoned with the Islamic crescent flying outside the city walls. As a consequence of this, the Viennese are said to have invented that delectable morning snack called the croissant (which in addition to being the French word for “croissant” is, of course, the French word for “crescent”).

This legend has much merit.  The croissant did not become hugely popular in France until nearly a century later, in 1770, when Marie Antoinette – she who was born in Vienna and of Austrian royal blood – arrived and married the young man who was soon to become Louis XVI. [2]

[To be fair, there is evidence that versions of the croissant were enjoyed in and around Vienna before 1683.  So perhaps the victory merely inspired its colossal growth in popularity.]

Ottoman Military Flag — 17th Century

The second item of interest left behind was mountains of coffee beans. The confused Viennese, Germans and Poles thought this might be some sort of food source. Ugg, it tasted awful. Perhaps it was food for cattle, or camels. But they wouldn’t touch it either. So they began burning it as fuel; mmmmm – it did smell pretty interesting.

Coffee beans, grinding and imbibing for solo pleasure and social drinking was known to few in Europe, principally only the Mediterranean trade-centric towns like Venice. But it was unknown inland and to the west.

It took enterprising world-traveler and Viennese citizen Georg Franz Kolschitzky to figure out the secret. Through his earlier travels in eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, he had learned the magic of roasting and grinding the beans for use in preparing something very akin to the stimulating beverage we know today.

And so was born the legacy of the Viennese coffee house.

The coffee cache rescued, Kolschitzky’s coffee recovery became the basis of the very first coffee house, as we know it. In fact, there is a street named after him and this “gift” in Vienna: Kolschitzkygasse.

There were tables for cards. Tables for pool. Available newspapers and pamphlets provided stimulus for conversation. Life slowed down long enough to enjoy the company of old friends, and new acquaintances: to chat about current events, young children, doddering uncles, or a spouse’s quirks.

Please excuse me while I tell an old but appropriate story.

A professor once placed a large glass carafe on a table in front of his class and poured it full of golf balls. He asked the class if the carafe was full. They all said “yes”.

He then took out a bag of marbles, and poured them in too, bouncing and jiggling the carafe, until not a single marble more could be added. Is it full now? Most still said “yes.”

He then produced a large bag of sand, and poured that in as well, until every conceivable pore was filled. Is it full now? Still, most said “yes.”

Then he walked over to his pot of freshly brewed coffee. He poured two cups and dumped them into the carafe before it came right to the brim.

Is it full now? Yes, they all agreed.

The professor concluded. Yes it is now full. And here is your lesson for the day. Life is never so full that you cannot enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend. Especially if you take care of the big things first.

The concept of the coffee house – a place to catch up with friends, chat idly or heatedly – took off and spread across Europe. And came to America. It was a beautiful thing.

But now I see all those people with their faces and attention drawn to electronic screens – not even looking or talking to their friends alongside them who are at the very same table (who are doing the very same thing) – and I can’t help thinking: have we lost something important? Is our social fabric decaying that quickly?

If I had a coffee shop, I think there were would be no wifi and I’d make it a faraday cage so customers couldn’t get data or calls on their phones… unless they went outside to the sidewalk tables. I’d have a payphone and front desk phone. But, I would supply free music, newspapers and refills. It would bomb terribly, wouldn’t it?

Wishing you peace and hoping to share a cup or two with any, or all, of you in the near future.[3] Perhaps we can share a croissant too, and raise our cups in a toast to the salvation of the good parts of European culture; as long as we take care of the big things first.


Joe Girard © 2017

[1] At the battle’s conclusion, the “Christian” victors returned the favor by slaughtering many of the surviving Turks who could not escape and could not be exchanged.
[2] Davidson, Alan (1999). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press. p. 232

[3] In MY version of the story, the professor poured in a couple of beers.