May 21


There are many dates of births, dates of deaths, events of significance, on this day as on every other, but few are quite so generally unknown, so almost universally overlooked, ignored and unmentioned, to the extent that I am prepared to bet that none of my readers - quite possibly not even my "fellow-Poles" - will have the foggiest notion who I am referring to when I say that Jan Sobieski is the man who, more than any other in the history of the past thousand years, determined the fate, destiny, identity and everything else about Europe. Jan who? Exactly. I shall return to him.

But first, to get the walk-on parts across the lights while they are at amber:

Albrecht Durer, German painter and engraver, born today in 1471

Hernando de Soto, the first European to see the Mississippi:River, born today in 1500

Alexander Pope, English poet and satirist, born today in 1688

Elizabeth Gurney Fry, English reformer, born today in 1780

Henri Julien Felix Rousseau, better known as "Le Douanier" - "the man from the Inland Revenue", or the customs actually - French painter, born today in 1844 (there is a moment in Leonard Cohen's "The Favourite Game", when he looks at Rousseau's "The Sleeping Gypsy" and recognises that his own life has become frozen in torpidity, that there is a spectrum from the passive, vegetal state, the state of hibernation, to the truly active, creative condition of the fully-achieved human, the one who is not simply chronologically adult, but intellectually, emotionally, psychologically adult too - these are my phrasings, not his, but if you read the book you will see that I am merely paraphrasing. I read that book when I was 16, 24, 37, 49, and again at 58, after seeing the very bad movie that had been made out of it. As a companion-volume to his songs, it is simply essential. The painting in question is at the top of the page.

Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov, Soviet physicist and dissident, born today in 1921 (but see October 9)

Rajiv Gandhi, former Indian Prime Minister, assassinated, like most Indian politicians who bear that name, today in 1991. 

So let me return to Jan Sobieski, born on August 17th 1629, in what is now the Ukraine but then was Poland; but the date that matters is this one, today in 1674, the day on which he was elected by the szlachta, the Diet, as King John III of Poland, and vowed to remove the threat of Sharia Law from Europe.

Much of Europe - we tend to forget this too - had been significantly Moslem for centuries, from the 8
th century indeed, when the "Moors" invaded out of North Africa, taking most of Spain and Portugal, southern France, southern Italy, and all the significant islands in the Mediterranean. But by 1492 they were effectively defeated, and thrown out, their mosques converted into churches and cathedrals, their music renamed Flamenco and their ud renamed the lute.

But in the meanwhile the Caliphate had moved, from Mecca to Damascus, from Damascus to Baghdad, and then, in 1453, to Istanbul, the name the Ottomans gave to Byzantine Constantinople when Islam conquered Turkey. And then expansion, north, south, east and especially west, to fulfil the aspiration of al-Lah, whispered in the ear of Mohammed by the angel Jibril: to bring the whole world to a sincere acceptance that al-Lah was the one and only god, and Islam the one and only true faith.

They might well have achieved it too. Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan/Palestine, Cyprus, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Kuwait in the Middle East and the Caucasus; Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Ukraine, Romania, Kosovo, Moldova, Hungary, Bosnia, Slovenia in Europe; all of them still to this day have significant Moslem populations. And then the encroachment upon western Europe, directly upon Venice and Vienna... until it ended at Vienna, on September 12
th, 1683.

The Turks, led by the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, with an additional 15,000 Tatars, had invaded Austria that June, forcing King Leopold to flee to Passau. On July 14th, Vienna was placed under siege, though without sufficient heavy artillery to take down the walls, so slow starvation was the strategy. But three months before this, on March 31st, King John III (Jan Sobieski) signed the Treaty of Warsaw with the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold, committing themselves to come to the other's aid if either Krakow or Vienna was attacked. So the tiny army of Germans and Austrians was now augmented by 30,000 Poles, and Sobieski made very public announcement that he would launch his "Holy War" on September 13th. While the Turks prepared for that appointment, Sobieski secretly moved his plans forward by twenty-fours, and took them by surprise. Most of Kara Mustafa's army fled in panic, those who stayed were decimated.

What was left behind was coffee and croissants, a Moslem presence in the Balkans, and a Europe that no longer needed to fight Crusades, of this kind anyway. Had the Moslems won the Battle of Vienna, there was nothing to prevent them taking Rome next, and establishing Sharia Law across the whole of Europe. I wonder if we should not regard September 12th 1683 as the starting-date for Europe as we know it, post-Christian Europe, bound towards secular Enlightenment.

The link (here) is to the the Polish/Italian movie "The Day of the Siege, September Eleven 1683", also known as "Die Belagerung" (2012), and I leave you to do your own wondering if that date was in Osama bin Laden's mind... 

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