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The Non-Clash of Titans

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | December 7, 2010 | Comments ()


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Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

This one's all exposition and very little action, so better get yourself in a contemplative mood.

We open with a map of Europe. It looks old-timey, and the flowing script makes you hope - or dread - that vampires are somehow involved. The camera pans down a bit. We lose sight of England, Scandinavia and Russia, but look! There's Tunisia, and Egypt, and Iraq, oh my!

If you split this map diagonally, threw a dart at it, and that dart landed in the upper left half, it would probably have to swear fealty to the House of Habsburg, so please don't do that. In the 16th century, virtually everything that wasn't bolted down found itself in Habsburg hands, either directly or as dominions of the Holy Roman Empire. There were exceptions, of course. The bookends were facing outwards - Portugal west, towards her colonies, unmindful yet of the Dutch menace, and Poland east, to that handsome Lithuanian lad she'd decided to go steady with, though already thinking "Is that Russia I can see from my house?"

Oh, and please don't disturb the crazy lady in the middle, stabbing left and right - that's just France losing her shit over being the meat in a Habsburg sandwich.

If the dart landed in the lower right half, things get even simpler: welcome to the Ottoman Empire! Algerian corsairs and Crimean Tatars, Egyptians and Serbs, Hungarians and Syrians - everyone's wearing the united colors of Ottoman! (Seriously, the Ottomans color-coded their populace: Greeks wore black trousers, Armenians purple, Jews blue, etc.)

In the early 1500s, these gargantuan conglomerates found themselves simultaneously being helmed by two of the most accomplished rulers in their respective histories -- Emperor Charles V and Sultan Suleiman I. Though their empires clashed repeatedly in the Mediterranean, the sovereigns personally met in battle only once, to deliver quite possibly the greatest anti-climax of that era. This is the story of what didn't happen.

"Let others wage war, you, fortunate Austria, marry" was the word on the street. Charles V was something of a Kwisatz Haderach of the Habsburg dynastic program, achieving a critical mass of inheritance from three major European houses - the Iberian Trastámara, the Burgundian Valois, and the Austrian Habsburgs. In effect, he ruled over the first empire on which the sun never set, which included a huge chunk of Europe, as well as Spanish colonies in the Americas and Asia (the Philippines were named after his son). He was also elected Holy Roman Emperor, which was basically a fancy title for Guy Who Rules Germany, Except Not Really.

Though he delegated the Central European holdings to his brother, the remainder of his realm made for a very busy schedule even in the quietest of times, and High Renaissance was famously anything but. Beyond the Atlantic lay the New World, ready to meet the conquistadors and - obviously - live happily ever after. Italy was going for broke in a marathon clusterfuck of kaleidoscopic coalition wars, racking up no less than 5 during Charles's reign alone. Luckily, at least Germany was peaceful and quiet, except for that Martin Luther fella and OMFG THE WHOLE THING JUST BLEW UP.

He spent most of his reign embroiled in wars, but he was not wild about them - they were either a political necessity, or an unwelcome distraction from his attempts to bind his disparate realms into some sort of cohesive whole. One nation, under God. Fine print: the Catholic one. You can see how this would be a daunting task when Spain alone spoke several languages and consisted of two separate kingdoms. The Castilians pulled across the Atlantic, the Aragonese and Catalans across the Mediterranean. Naples called for a stop to French expansion on the Italian Peninsula, but Antwerp didn't give a damn, as long as the spice flowed. Besançon... well, Besançon was simply confused (and according to its Wikipedia entry "has now only three flowers, but enjoys a proven life quality." Huh?)

The Emperor sometimes succeeded - like he did during the Italian campaigns. Other times, he failed - like in suppressing Protestantism. Eventually, he just gave up.
Suleiman's dominion was the moon to Charles's sun. The West counted the passage of time using the solar calendar, the Ottomans had a lunar one. The Spanish had Aztec gold, the Turks placed higher value in silver. Then there's the imagery of the Muslim crescent, but even though religion played into their conflict - the Ottoman rulers, having been given the keys to Mecca in 1517, could claim the title of Caliphs of Islam, while the Holy Roman Emperor was at that time the ultimate temporal sovereign of the Christian world - it was in no way the deciding factor. To wit: Habsburg hegemony actually caused France, "the first daughter of the Church," to ally herself with the Ottomans, and go so far as to give them Toulon as a base of operations. Similarly, as England was about to be invaded by the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth had absolutely no qualms about asking for help from Constantinople.

The differences ran much deeper though. The Sublime Porte was created through conquest, not inheritance. Dynastic alliances were impossible, if only for the fact that the Ottoman answer to succession crises was legally sanctioned fratricide. Upon ascending to the throne, the new Sultan would have his siblings murdered. The practice culminated in the strangulation of the 19 brothers and 20 sisters of Sultan Mehmed II in 1595, and was abolished in the next generation in favor of keeping the royal kin in the Kafes (or "Cage") within the harem.

Even more baffling to the West was the Ottoman administration. Whereas in the European kingdoms power rested in the hands of the aristocracy, and offices were often hereditary, the Turks relied on a sort of ruthless slave meritocracy. Every four years or so, a number of young, good-looking* boys were collected from the conquered Christian territories, converted to Islam, and subjected to rigorous training. These slaves, called kul, then joined either the army, as part of the prestigious janissary corps, or the administration. The kul answered to the Sultan alone, and served at his pleasure. If they performed well, they rose through the ranks, and nothing stood in the way of them attaining even the highest office in the Empire - that of Grand Vizier - along with fabulous wealth and prestige. Unfortunately, spectacular failures often resulted in a visit from a polite royal missive with a bowstring. The iron logic of Islam prevented the kul from using their power to establish magnate-like dynasties - since no Muslim-born man could be a slave, the converts' children, born into the faith, were barred from taking up their parent's mantle.

This upward mobility was echoed by the Empire's constant expansion. While the Habsburg dominion was all castles and plate armor, vassals and mercenaries, the Ottomans didn't bother surrounding their cities with walls, and their enormous standing army - the only one in Europe - swarmed quickly, the pendulum of its conquest swinging evenly between Europe and Asia. It seemed like nothing could stop them. Having put the Byzantine Empire out of its misery, they swept up the Balkans, as well as down, past Damascus and Jerusalem, into Baghdad, Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis. Once these lands were acquired, however, the Turks pretty much left them be. There was no concentrated effort to bring uniformity to the empire - the state preserved various local offices and customs, and left the provinces to their own devices, as long as they paid their tribute on time. Unfortunately, the relative autonomy had a flipside: if a community failed to police itself properly, it was punished as a whole.

Suleiman himself was very mindful of his majesty. He received foreign ambassadors sideways, so that they addressed his profile. He moved very slowly, as he felt it enhanced his dignity, and for the same reason he banned speech from the innermost circle of the imperial palace, introducing instead the sign language ixarette. (That last reform had a rather unfortunate result down the road, as one of his successors got so accustomed to the silence that he died of shock when an honorary salvo from an Egyptian ship entering the harbor shattered his window.) He was so wary of his public image that he never wore the same clothes twice, and would sometimes go out into the bazaar incognito to listen to what people spoke of him - though unlike his ancestor, Mehmet II, he didn't randomly stab those who recognized him. Still, he was a warrior through and through, and when the time came for war, the whole palace morphed around him into a separate regiment, complete with foragers and a dedicated executioner (better known during peacetime as the head gardener), and joined the army on its march towards the next conquest.

In the 1520s the Ottoman pendulum had once again swung west, towards Europe. Tearing his way through Serbia and Hungary, in 1529 Suleiman reached Vienna itself - the seat of Charles's brother, Ferdinand - but inexplicably turned back. When he returned, 3 years later, leading around 250,000 troops, Charles V was there with his army, to personally supervise the defense. Finally, the time had come for a showdown between the colossi. Let's go with a cliché and say the world held its breath.

And then someone farted.

It was an extended, modulated fart, the kind that milks the initial batch of lowbrow humor way too long, until you roll your eyes and change the channel. Or in military terms: the Ottoman army got held up by a tiny Hungarian garrison, and by the time it reached Vienna, the campaign season was almost over, so they gathered up their crap and went home (for all its mobility, the Ottoman Empire was a seasonal beast, and between April and October it slumbered). Literally fuck-all happened. The titans never clashed. Several contemporaries have reported France yelling "This is bullshit!" The Ottoman pendulum swung back east, towards a new war with Shiite Persia (though it was already beginning to creak suspiciously), and Charles returned to putting out other fires. However, the spread of Protestantism and the resulting infighting between the German princes proved to be the ultimate Son, I Am Disappoint moment, and in 1556 he split his realm, abdicated, and shacked up in a monastery

The Balkan tug of war between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs continued over the next centuries, laying the groundwork for the current fucked-up ethnic and religious situation in the region. Similarly, the Turko-Persian wars are at least indirectly responsible for the Sunni/Shiite quagmire in Iraq. This, however, was not that story.

I like to think that as these two men faced each other at Vienna, they realized that given the amount of symbolism involved, no outcome of their clash would ever be satisfactory, short of maybe one shooting killer rainbows out of his peen as the other tore off his mask to proclaim that he is, indeed, Jesus' twin brother. And that they were secretly relieved their stars would be allowed to fade gradually, much like their empires, instead of burning up in a blaze that just wasn't quite hot enough.

* following the logic that a beautiful body must host a beautiful soul

Wojtek lives in Poland, where rainbows are gray. Sometimes he likes to think he does other things as well.




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