Notes from the Field

  • by Barbara Karl
  • November 13, 2014

Capturing Flags

Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires were uneasy neighbors. Over long periods the borders were not precisely fixed—let alone completely sealed—and remained porous. Though they were in constant economic and diplomatic contact, this period was often marked by turbulence. The Ottomans fought wars of varying intensity against the Austrian Habsburgs in the Balkans and against the Spanish Habsburgs in the Mediterranean. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman army dominated the field, advancing as far west as Vienna as early as 1529; it was not until the end of the seventeenth century that the Habsburg armies were able to drive the Ottomans back. The Battle of Vienna in 1683, in which the second Ottoman siege of the city was lifted, was a turning point in this history, marking the retreat of the Ottomans and the further advance of the Habsburgs into the Balkans.

Tangible mementoes of these hostile encounters survive in the form of booty. Abundant plunder from the Ottoman-Habsburg wars are still housed in Vienna’s museums, dateable to the periods of conflict from the later sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Among the various army camp artifacts are a large number of simple Ottoman cotton flags and rather fewer valuable silk flags. Two of the latter are the focus of my recently published article in Textile History [1]. Both flags were booty pieces captured from the Ottoman army. The first is directly linked to the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683; the second was captured a year later near Hamzabeg, not far from Ofen. The captured flags both appear in a 1684 publication explaining the meaning of the flags and translating its inscriptions for the European reader (figs. 1 and 2).

FIG. 1. Print of the Ottoman flag captured by King Jan Sobieski from the tent complex of Kara Mustafa Pasha in 1683. From L. Maracci, Gründliche Verdolmetsch- und Außlegung der Sprüch, Sinnbildnuß ... so sich auff denen, von dem Erb-Feind Christlichen Namens Anno 1683 den 12. Sept., bey Entsätzung der Stadt Wienn, und Anno 1684 den 22. Julij bey Hamzabegh ... eroberten Haupt-Fahnen befinden (etc.) (Vienna: Leopold Voigt, 1684), p. A III. © SLUB Dresden/Digitale Sammlungen, aus: Hist.Turc.407,14.

 

FIG. 2. Print of the Ottoman flag captured by Charles of Lorraine near Hamzabeg in 1684 (now in the Wien Museum). From L. Maracci, Gründliche Verdolmetsch- und Außlegung der Sprüch, Sinnbildnuß ... so sich auff denen, von dem Erb-Feind Christlichen Namens Anno 1683 den 12. Sept., bey Entsätzung der Stadt Wienn, und Anno 1684 den 22. Julij bey Hamzabegh ... eroberten Haupt-Fahnen befinden (etc.) (Vienna: Leopold Voigt, 1684), p. B IV. © SLUB Dresden/Digitale Sammlungen, aus: Hist.Turc.407,14.

 

Both flags date roughly from the third quarter of the seventeenth century and were most likely produced in imperial workshops located in Istanbul. They feature a complex inscription program focusing on Qur’anic verses that served to remind soldiers of their faith, while invoking a divinely protected victory; the inscription also placed the Ottoman soldiers in a direct line of succession from the earliest fighters of Islam, the comrades-in-arms of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sultan entrusted the valuable and intricately woven silk flags to his most important commanders before they went into battle. Once captured, they became formidable propaganda tools for the enemy. The first of the two flags was sent to the Pope in Rome and hung up in St Peter’s to commemorate the victory at Vienna. The second was paraded through Vienna’s own streets and hung in the cathedral where it was shown to the populace once a year to commemorate the day the siege on the imperial capital was lifted. Thus, the captured flags—once powerful symbols of Muslim Ottoman strength and power—were transformed instead into relics of a victory over one of the perceived hereditary enemies of the Holy Roman Empire. Display of the captured flags affirmed the Catholic sense of mission embodied by the Pope as vicar of Christ and secured the place of the Habsburg Emperors as the divinely ordained earthly protectors of Christendom against what were then perceived as infidel intruders.


Barbara Karl is Curator of Textiles and Carpets at the MAK-Museum für angewandte Kunst/Gegenwartskunst in Vienna. She will be a Research Fellow at the Bard Graduate Center from October to November 2014.


[1] Barbara Karl, “Silk and Propaganda: Two Ottoman Silk Flags and the Relief of Vienna, 1683“ in: Textile History, 45 (2), Maney Publishing, 2014, pp. 192-215.

 

 

 

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