Bonding to Vienna

In discovering the places and myths of shared history, we sometimes find that we have known each other all along

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | May 2011

On visiting Vienna from the U.S. in 2006, Turkish born psychiatrist Vamik Volkan took himself one beautiful Sunday afternoon up to the Kahlenberg, for a pleasant walk in the countryside and the view across the valley. Also out for a stroll that day, were groups of Turks, all ages, families, friends one after another, all out for the air. Curious, he stopped to ask many of them why they were there.

"Sixteen times, I heard the same answer," he told journalist Irene Brickner of the Austrian daily Der Standard in a recent interview, clearly still amazed. "Don’t you know what this place was? At the 2nd Turkish Siege of Vienna, this was the site of the tent of the Great Visier!"

Astonishing, he thought, that all of these Turkish immigrants would spend their free time coming out to distant spot in the Vienna Woods to catch a whiff of Turkish mythology, which was, in fact, even a story of defeat. That was 1683, when the King of Poland swooped down and defeated the Turkish army just on that hill.

"Their identity is not yet Austrian enough," he speculated, "perhaps because they experience so much social pressure."

Perhaps… But I can’t help thinking Volkan may have missed the point. I remember our excitement parts of our history in Austria when we first came back in the mid 90s. On the Praterstrasse we discovered the birthplace of Max Steiner, the composer for Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. And near our flat in the Karmeliter Viertl, that house of violinist Fritz Kreisler.

But best of all we could go to Dürnstein in the Wachau, where Richard the Lionheart had been captured and imprisoned by the Dukes of Babenberg, on his way back from the Crusades. Although traveling disguised as a monk, he had been identified in a tavern when his servant paid for their keep with a gold sovereign.

Richard was eventually found by his servant Blondel, who had wandered through the countryside playing the king’s favorite song on his lute, until the minstrel heard the tune whistled back from the king’s tower keep. He hastened home and returned months later with a huge ransom, And Richard was freed. Lovers of Robin Hood know the rest of the tale...

I’ve always loved this story, and still do. It’s about loyalty, friendship, and high Romance with a capital "R". And about being saved because you remembered the tune. I had heard the tale first as a child, in a far away land called New York. And to find that Dürnstein was so near to our new home here, and even that we could visit the ruins of the castle itself – where in this wonderful law-suit free land the children could climb to their heart’s content – was wondrous indeed. Part of our history as well as Austria’s was here; some of our ancestral lore was also theirs.

So far from being a sign of separatism, or lack of integration, it was a linking of cultural arms. Silly as it sounds, we were bonding.

So when I hear about all those Turkish families climbing the Kahlenberg to visit the site of the Great Visier’s Tent, I suspect that perhaps they are bonding too. They have discovered that part of their history is here in their adopted land, on hallowed ground, consecrated by their heroes, made legend by their honored dead.

It’s like the Normandy beaches, Gallipoli or Flanders Fields.

And it belongs to all of us.

[Correction: the site of the Great Visier's tent was near the corner of Neustiftgasse and Kellermanngasse in Vienna's 7th District, now marked by a gilded stone statue of a horseman. It was not, as previously stated, located on Kahlenberg hill.]

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