Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
The sultan wasn’t sure what woke him up.
A ruffle of air, a barely detectable flutter of movement, a disturbance at the edge of his consciousness. Whatever it was, it was enough to cause him to stir within the lush expanse of his bedding and crack open his eyes, slightly at first as they adjusted to the faint light of the glowing embers in the fireplace, then jolting wide once they focused to reveal the tall figure standing by the side of his bed.
‘Salamu alaykum, padishah,’ the man said, his voice calm and low.
The sultan bolted off his pillow, his pulse rocketing with fear as he tried to process what he was seeing: an intruder— an assassin?—here, in his sumptuous chamber, deep in the palace, past an army of guards and eunuchs.
Not just an intruder: the man was, the sultan now realized, naked.
‘What the—who are y—’
‘Shhh,’ the man ordered him, bending down with lightning speed to press one hand firmly against the sultan’s mouth while raising his own index finger to his lips. ‘Be calm and stay quiet, Your Sublimity. I’m not here to cause you any harm.’
Confusion now flooded in alongside the fear. The sultan struggled to breathe evenly and fought to regain some kind of control over his senses, but the barrage of inexplicable stimuli wasn’t giving him any respite, for now that his eyes were finally focused, he could also see that the man’s chest was covered with strange markings. Tattoos of words and numbers and drawings and diagrams, all over his torso.
‘I need you to listen,’ the man said.
He wasn’t speaking Ottoman Turkish, the official language of the empire since its inception. It wasn’t Persian either, a language the educated upper echelon of society could speak and read, mostly used for literature and poetry. No, the man was using an unusual dialect of Arabic, a language the sultan only used when reading and discussing religious verse.
‘But before you do,’ he continued, ‘I need you to believe.’
The man held the sultan’s gaze, then dropped his chin and shut his eyes. He mumbled some words the sultan couldn’t make out. Then he vanished.
He simply disappeared.
The sultan’s head snapped left, right, scanning the vast room in utter panic. What kind of magic was this? Then, a few seconds later, the man reappeared again, without any warning, standing at the far side of the chamber by the two-tiered marble fountain.
‘I’m here to help you, Your Eminence’ the man told the sultan. ‘But in order for that to happen, I need you to believe what I say.’
Another mumble, then he disappeared again.
The sultan was now sitting up, rigid with paralysis. His breathing was frantic, his heart galloping furiously inside his chest. He thought of calling out for his guards. One scream and a dozen of his most trusted janissaries would come charging through the door, sabres drawn. But he hesitated. In part, he was too shocked, too terrified to react. He also thought they might take him for a fool if the intruder wasn’t there.
Before he could ponder things too much, the man was back, where he’d first appeared, right by the sultan’s bed, mere inches from him. Only this time, the intruder reached down to the floor and raised a yataghan, a short sabre with a curved blade that was so sharp it could lop off a man’s head with a single flick. The sultan recognized it as one he kept in a display cabinet by the divan, only it wasn’t there any more. It was now pressed against his neck.
‘If I wanted to kill you, you would have already died a thousand deaths,’ the man said. ‘But as I said, I’m here to be of service. More importantly, I’m here to save you and Kara Mustafa Pasha from a catastrophic defeat.’
Then he disappeared again, and the dagger fell to the ground and clattered against the marble flooring.
Almost instantly, the man appeared again, at the foot of the bed.
The sultan lurched back and slammed against the bed’s gilded headboard. His breath was coming short and fast, and he was overcome with violent shivers.
What was this creature, and how did it know about his plans?
He studied the intruder. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘What are you? Are you’—he hesitated, then asked—‘a djinn?’
The stranger’s face cracked under the hint of a smile. Unlike his father, Mehmed wasn’t mentally unstable or degenerate. He was a quiet and melancholy man, but he had one obsession: the legacy of his conquering ancestors. He was immersed in the mystique of the dynasty to which he belonged, and hungered to mimic his ancestors’ exploits. Lately, he had thrown himself into research to prepare for the coming summer’s offensive, carefully studying the chronicles of past military campaigns that lined the shelves of the imperial archives. But Mehmed was also a pious man, and, as such, was very familiar with the djinns, the supernatural creatures of Islamic mythology romanticized as ‘genies’. They enjoyed free will and could be agents of good and evil.
Without flinching, the intruder watched him in silence. ‘I am a friend who wants to help you achieve success beyond anything you’ve dreamed of,’ he finally told him. ‘And if you heed my words and allow me to assist you, I can promise you that the Golden Apple will only be the beginning of your great and most glorious legacy.’
His words caught the sultan’s breath.
How could this intruder know what they were planning?
Two months earlier, the sultan’s gardeners had planted the imperial tug outside the palace gates—out in the open, for all to see. The meaning of the ancient war banners—tall, elaborately carved crimson poles topped by a flurry of horses’ tails—was well known, as it was a ritual that dated back to the days of the sultan’s steppe warrior ancestors: the Commander of the Faithful would be going to war.
The objective of the campaign, however, was a closely guarded secret.
‘Oh, yes, your eminence. I know all about your meeting with Kara Mustafa last week,’ the tattooed man continued, referring to the sultan’s grand vizier. ‘I know that once the winter snows melt, your army will be marching west. I also know its target won’t be the piddling fortified towns that pepper the lands west of Belgrade. No, your army will be marching on Vienna itself and on Leopold, the usurper who dares call himself Holy Roman Emperor.’
Leopold. The mere mention of the man’s name made Mehmed’s blood boil.
The sultan nursed a hatred for Leopold I that was far more severe than that for his other enemies in Russia or Poland. Mehmed, as the occupier of the old imperial Byzantine throne in Constantinople, considered himself the rightful Kayser-i-Rum—the Caesar of the Roman Empire. To him, the Habsburg monarch was a false claimant to the throne, one who ruled from a distant city that had no historical significance to the old empire. Stripping him of his capital and converting his people to the one true faith would be a most fitting end to his brazen delusions.
‘Listen to me,’ the intruder continued, ‘and you’ll fly the flag of Islam over the Golden Apple and turn its great cathedral into a mosque. And that’ll only be the beginning. Listen to me, and you won’t be known as avci any more. Even fatih won’t be enough. They’ll need a stronger word to describe your conquests.’
Avci. Oh, how he hated that word.
It was as if the strange, naked man was peering into his very soul.
Under previous sultans, the Ottomans had reached the gates of Vienna twice. Both times, they had failed to take the city. And although the empire’s territorial expansion in Africa and Europe during Mehmed’s reign had reached its peak, he couldn’t really claim credit for these triumphs. Those conquests were the work of his grand viziers. Mehmed himself was more renowned for his abilities at hunting down stags and bears in the forests around his palace at Edirne—a far cry from the exploits of his legendary uncle, the sultan Murad IV, who had taken Erivan and Baghdad, and his namesake and illustrious ancestor Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople and toppled the Byzantine Empire at the ripe old age of twenty-one. Both sultans had fully earned their epithets of fatih—the conqueror. Mehmed IV, however, had to content himself with avci—the hunter.
Taking Vienna would change all that.
A barrage of questions assaulted the sultan’s mind. He was scared, beyond any fear he’d ever known. But he was also intrigued.
He calmed his breathing and, after one final internal debate, nodded.
‘Tell me more.’
One year later, almost to the day, in early September of 1683, the army of Christendom was finally within striking distance of Vienna and the Ottoman army that had laid siege to it since the beginning of summer.
Sixty thousand warriors were now gathered on open ground outside the small town of Tulln, lined up in front of its wooden defensive palisade for the grand ceremonial review that would precede their heroic march into battle.
The beleaguered capital was only twenty miles away.
Facing them from outside the large ceremonial tent were their leaders, the princes and dukes that Pope Innocent XI had summoned and financed, all of them illustrious and battle-hardened professional soldiers of the highest order. They were all here to halt the advance of the largest army ever seen in Europe, a Muslim army that threatened not just Vienna but their own states.
At the centre of this pre-eminent line-up was the most senior of them all, the army of liberation’s main commander: John III Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
Sobieski—an ox of a man and a formidable military leader—had ridden in a week earlier at the head of an army of fifteen thousand horsemen. His force included two thousand husaria, the fierce ‘winged’ hussars; with their sixteen-foot lances, spear-like swords, and plumed helmets, they were the most fearsome heavy cavalry of their time.
It had been a long, hard march, and the Polish king was exhausted. Still, as he surveyed his troops, he felt a surge of pride and anticipation. He knew that the hopes of a deeply worried Europe rested most heavily on his shoulders, and he would not disappoint its people. He couldn’t. God had tasked him with saving the Christian states from the heathens. It was, he was certain, his destiny. His eternal place at Saint Peter’s side was assured.
He stood in muted appreciation as the troops, musketeers, dragoons and cuirassiers, their cannon and mortars proudly on display, were paraded before him and the rest of the commanders. As the final regiment took up its position, he turned and glanced at the man to his right, Charles, Duke of Lorraine.
He didn’t need to say anything. His look of utter confidence said it all.
It was a look Lorraine knew well. The duke, who still walked with a limp from a broken leg sustained in battle seven years earlier, was the brother- in- law of the Habsburg emperor. Leopold had appointed him field commander of his forces earlier that year. An affable, unpretentious man, the duke was, like Sobieski, a fierce, courageous soldier who bore his battle scars proudly and commanded great respect and trust from his men.
His presence by Sobieski’s side only heightened the Polish king’s confidence.
With all the troops now in place, the king and the duke led the rest of the commanders in kneeling before their men while the Archbishop of Gran prepared to celebrate Mass and bless the valiant soldiers of Christ. The emperor himself was not there. The cowardly Leopold and his court had fled the capital one week before the arrival of the Ottoman army earlier that summer, and he had no intention of joining the men who were here to save it. He wasn’t alone; more than fifty thousand Viennese had followed their monarch in abandoning the city for safer ground further west. Their places were taken over by an equal number of country folk who fled the neighbouring villages and sought refuge behind the city’s fortified walls—a refuge that was on the verge of collapse.
Sobieski knew how desperate things were. For weeks, the Ottomans had rained cannon fire on the besieged city. At the same time, Ottoman sappers had dug tunnels under its defensive walls and exploded mines to wreck them. The Viennese defenders had so far managed to repel each assault, but they were bloodied, starved and exhausted. From messages sneaked out of the city by intrepid couriers, Sobieski knew it would only take one final well-placed charge to cleave an opening through the fortifications and allow the Turks to stream into the city. He also knew that when that happened, no one would be spared.
The sultan had already sent two missives to Leopold in which he’d laid out his intentions in startlingly clear terms. Ottoman rules of engagement prescribed that any city that did not accede to the sultan’s demand of surrender and open its gates, and whose people did not forsake their religion and convert to Islam, would not be spared. Flayed skins and sacks of severed heads would be gifted to the victorious pasha, and those who were not put under the blade would be enslaved.
Sobieski and the rest of the gathered commanders had also heard first-hand reports of how Kara Mustafa Pasha, the grand vizier at the head of the sultan’s army, had demonstrated that his master would be taken at his word: en route to Vienna, a few miles outside the city, Kara Mustafa had his men slaughter all four thousand citizens of the small town of Perchtoldsdorf—after its garrison had surrendered. They also burned down its church, which was packed with women and children. The people of Vienna had taken note. Kara Mustafa’s bloodthirst ensured that they would fight to the death.
As far away as England and Spain, terrified prayers were given in churches asking for salvation from the heathen invasion.
It would all hinge on the men gathered here, at Tulln.
With the court choristers in mid-hymn, something caught Sobieski’s eye. It came from the far right of the plain, at the very edge of the gathered force: a cloud of dust, topped by several fluttering flags.
The profound solemnity of the moment made the disturbance all the more egregious.
Even from this great distance, he immediately realized what he was looking at: intricately woven silk flags carrying Koranic verses, ones that served to remind soldiers of their faith while invoking a sense of divinely protected victory.
Sobieski stiffened and he glanced at Lorraine. The duke’s face mirrored his own angry scowl. Lorraine had evidently also recognized the sultan’s banners.
The procession caused a ripple of commotion across the gathered troops as it advanced slowly, unhindered. The hot, still air was choked with portent and malice, and yet, the small convoy was allowed to progress. As it drew nearer, Sobieski could now make out three horsemen, each of them carrying a banner and trailing a camel.
They made their way across the ground until they were within fifty yards of the ceremonial tent. A wall of guards moved to block their advance, swords raised. The lead horseman calmly raised his arm and brought the convoy to a halt just before them. Then the three riders dismounted, took a few steps toward the guards and the royal enclosure, and, with the edges of the guards’ swords hovering a hair’s breadth from their necks, bowed.
Sobieski and Lorraine exchanged a confused look. They didn’t know what to make of this. Envoys of the Ottoman host, clearly—but for what reason? Within days, if not hours, they would be engaged in a fight to the death. What did this signify? They could see that the riders were dressed in ceremonial costume and didn’t seem to be armed. More intriguing were the camels, which were huge, adorned with exquisitely embroidered fabrics and precious metal trimmings, and carried large carved-leather packs hung across their backs.
Sobieski studied the lead horseman, who now straightened and slowly pulled his coat wide open, as did his companions, to show that they were unarmed. Indeed, no muskets, pistols or sabres were strapped across their chests. The lead Ottoman turned to show the guards as much, then turned back to face the king and made a gesture asking for permission to approach the enclosure.
The Polish king was a hard and naturally suspicious man, but he was also a pragmatist. If this was another formal demand for surrender, he would have two of the envoys executed before the third, who would be allowed to return to his master to relay its rejection. But a summons for surrender didn’t require three loaded camels. Was there something else on the sultan’s mind? A call to negotiate a truce, perhaps? Something that might spare the inevitable deaths that were to come, even with victory?
The commander of the guards looked to Sobieski for instructions. The king motioned for the riders to be let through. Shadowed very closely by the guards whose swords were still drawn and ready, the three men moved as one, advancing in triangular formation with measured pace until they were standing no more than fifteen feet from the gathered commanders. There, they bowed again.
The leader said, ‘I carry greetings from His Eminence my lord padishah Mehmed the fourth, the Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander of the Faithful and ruler of the black and white seas and of Rumeli, and from his most valiant serasker in this holiest of campaigns, the grand vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.’
Sobieski studied the Ottoman as an interpreter translated his words. The envoy, a tall man who was not out of his twenties, was sweating profusely, but the king saw no fear in his eyes. It was clearly more from the long ride under the harsh summer sun while dressed in full ceremonial regalia: baggy shalwar trousers, long boots, turban and a flowing red coat.
‘My greetings to your eminent master, soldier. And what is the purpose of your venture?’
The envoy bowed again. The two men with him did the same. Then he straightened and looked the king straight in the eye. ‘I have been sent to convey a message from my master.’ Sobieski frowned. ‘And what would that be?’ The man didn’t react at first. Then a wry, curiously serene smile seeped across his face and he said, ‘He wishes you a peaceful journey,’ before adding, ‘Allahu akbar.’
And with that, he slipped his hands in his pockets, and before the king, the guards or any of the commanders could even react, he blew up.
As did the two other envoys and the camels—a massive explosion that ripped through the royal enclosure and reduced it and everything around it to flaming debris.
Confusion and panic streaked across the gathered troops as they watched their leaders disappear in a raging fireball. The real horror, however, was yet to descend on them, the one that was now being heralded by the piercing war cries and the deep, ominous thuds of Ottoman kettledrums echoing out from behind the nearby hills.
In that instant, in a blink of an eye, everything changed.
Sobieski wouldn’t lead his winged hussars to a crushing defeat of the Ottoman army in the fields outside Vienna. He wouldn’t save the city, nor would he stand before the grand vizier’s ravaged camp in victory and proclaim ‘Venimus, vidimus, deus vicit’ (‘We came, We saw, God conquered’). The grand vizier wouldn’t flee to Belgrade, where, on the sultan’s orders, three months later—on Christmas Day, as church bells were ringing across Europe—he would be strangled, decapitated, have his head skinned and stuffed and presented to the sultan at his hunting palace in Edirne. Three years later, the Duke of Lorraine wouldn’t retake Buda from the weakened Ottomans. Max Emmanuel wouldn’t liberate Belgrade two years after that. Prince Eugene of Savoy wouldn’t deal a crushing blow to the sultan at Senta in 1697.
There would be no miraculous victories, no ‘Age of Heroes’. They were all dead, blown to bits in the meadow outside Tulln, with no one to fill their illustrious boots.
Nothing like this had ever been done before.
The Ottoman envoy had used explosives that were twenty times more powerful than gunpowder. In fact, up until that day, the sticks strapped under his coat and stowed in the camels’ pouches had never been seen. And they wouldn’t be, not for another two hundred years. Not until 1867, in fact, when Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist, would invent his Extradynamit blasting powder.
The sheer audacity of the method of attack was also unheard of. Until that day, the concept of a suicide bomber had not existed. It would only rear its ugly head for the first time much later, in Russia in the late 1800s, when Nobel’s invention would become the method of choice for suicidal revolutionary assassins.
Which is how it all should have been.
And all because of a man who stumbled on to a great secret in an underground crypt in Palmyra.