The Mystery of the Head

The Mystery of the Head

Kara Mustafa Pasha was in the public eye from his marriage sometime in the mid-1600s until approximately 1976 when his purported mummified head was removed from display at the Vienna Museum.  

Kara Mustafa Pasha

 The display of the (alleged) head of Kara Mustafa Pasha in Vienna had particular meaning; it was Kara Mustafa Pasha, as the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, who led Ottoman forces in the 1683 Siege of Vienna. 

How the Siege of Vienna ended is enshrined in history: King Jan III Sobieski of Poland (who was too fat to mount his horse without help at this point, but managed save Christendom anyway) and his winged hussar cavalry flooded down Kahlenberg Hill on 12 September 1683 and the tide of battle – which had seemed to doom the besieged citizens of Vienna a mere 48 hours earlier – turned completely into an Ottoman route.  

The battle at Kahlenberg Hill

Kara Mustafa Pasha managed to seize the holy flag of the Ottomans, order the abandoned war equipment to be destroyed, and order all captives to be massacred before fleeing without his tent.  The tent, incidentally, was taken back to Warsaw, where it was displayed as a curiosity until it disappeared, probably destroyed in World War II.

A photograph of the tent of Kara Mustafa Pasha, taken not long before it disappeared during WWII.

 The Grand Vizier retreated to Ottoman controlled Belgrade, where he was strangled to death with a green silken cord on the orders of Sultan Mehmed IV and then beheaded.  

The Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha had already spread out the prayer rug for the midday prayer…when he saw the Janissary Aga and the Chamberlain, and the Court Marshall approach behind him.  “What are you doing?” asked the Grand Vizier.  The Chamberlain replied, “Our illustrious Padishah is asking you for the Imperial seal, entrusted to you, and the holy flag, and the key to the kaaba.”

Then he asked, “Am I destined to die? Of course, it must be.” …and now that the executioners came in and got their ropes ready, he lifted his beard with his own hands and submitted to doom with the words, “Put the noose on my properly!” The executioners put the noose on him, tightened twice or three times, and then he had given up his spirit.” — excerpt from the diary of the Master of Ceremonies of the Gate

There is no disputing how Kara Mustafa Pasha died.  The dispute comes over what was done with his head after death.  

According to the provenance of the head-no-longer-displayed in Vienna, it was buried in Belgrade, where it was dug up by grave robbers and made its way in trade to Cardinal Leopold Karl von Kollonitsch after the Austrian army took the city in 1688.  From there the head made its way to Vienna, where it was displayed in various museums until 1976, when modern sensibilities advanced beyond the museum display of preserved body parts unless they are a minimum of 2000 years old and a staple plot of horror films. 

However, the Ottoman story is completely different: in this version, the head of the Grand Vizier is taken to the Sultan on a silver platter and presented to him in Edirne.  According to this story, Kara Mustafa Pasha’s head is buried in Edirne still today.  

So which head is most likely the head of the fabled commander of 1683? 

Historic anecdotes about Kara Mustafa Pasha flaying Polish prisoners alive and then stuffing the skins and having them taken to the Sultan as a gift, along with the Ottoman tendency to want to see proof of executions, tend to point toward the head buried in Turkey.  It’s still not a simple calculation, however.  Yet another story reports that the Grand Vizier was strangled, beheaded, his head flayed, and then the skin stuffed and sent to the Sultan, leaving his skull to be buried with his body. 

There really are no good stories of Kara Mustafa Pasha’s end. 

The legacy of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha is tangled.  He had been ordered only to seize border forts of Christian Europe, and instead marched 170,000 men to the Gates of Vienna where he gambled everything and lost.  

Ataturk himself was heard to defend Kara Mustafa Pasha on this basis alone, referring to it as a feat only matched or exceeded by that of Suleiman the Magnificent.  

Regardless, Kara Mustafa Pasha attempted to fly too close to the sun and came tumbling to earth with a loud crash… possibly leaving his head behind so that people could gaze on the visage of the man whose loss was the defining victory of Christian Europe.  

To read more about the Ottomans in the Balkans, please click here.  


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