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Europe and the Turks: The Civilization of the Ottoman Empire

Bernard Lewis writes that the fall of Constantinople was no “victory of barbarism, but rather of another and not undistinguished civilization.” 

Constantinople in Byzantine timesThis year the Turks have been celebrating the 500th anniversary of their conquest of Constantinople. Turkish rule in Europe began nearly a century earlier, and was firmly established by the time that the occupation of the Imperial city rounded off the Turkish dominions and made Constantinople once again the capital of a great empire. But the anniversary may serve as the occasion for some reflections on the place of the Ottoman Empire in the history of Europe and of the world.

For most Europeans, the loss of Constantinople is a great historical disaster, a defeat of Christendom which has never been repaired. In spite of the present friendly relations between Turkey and the West, there is still a reserve of mistrust, and even at times of hostility, with roots deep in the European Christian past. For most literate West Europeans, the words “Turk” and “Turkey” have complex emotional associations, coloured by centuries of strife ; and for East Europeans the traditional picture of the Turkish oppressor has become part of the national folk-lore. This Western image of the Turk has several sources. The first of these is fear, imprinted on the Western mind during the long period when the Turks were thrusting into the heart of Europe and seemed to threaten the very existence of Christendom. Richard Knolles, the Elizabethan chronicler of the Turks, expressed the feelings of Europe when he spoke of the Turk as “the present terror of the world.” Even in faraway Iceland, men prayed to be delivered “from the cunning of the Pope and the terror of the Turk.” That the latter was no idle fear was shown by the raid of Turkish corsairs on Iceland in 1627, when several hundred captives were carried off to Algiers.

This sense of fear was augmented by the religious hostility between Christendom and Islam, dating back to the first Arab-Moslem conquests, which had wrested the Christian provinces of Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain from the West and incorporated them in the Islamic world. The clash was renewed by the Christian counter-attack in the Westem Mediterranean and in the Crusades, and again by the new Moslem offensive launched into Europe by the Ottoman Turks. Even the secularization of Europe from Renaissance times onwards did not seriously diminish this hostility to Islam. For religious ill-will usually outlives religious belief. Western travellers in Turkey, who were the major source of information to the Western world, with few exceptions reinforced these prejudices. Most of them lacked the perceptiveness and imagination to realize that though the familiar good qualities that they appreciated at home were missing in Turkey, there were others present of a different kind. They did not understand that this was another civilization, with its own ethics and its own standards and values. In more recent times, Western hostility to the Turk was perpetuated by the enthusiasm of the philhellenes who, in their just admiration for Greece, did less than justice to the Turk, seeing in him only the brutal destroyer of the liberties of Hellas, and forgetting the famous words of the Byzantine dignitary Lucas Notaras, 'It is better to see in the city the power of the Turkish turban than that of the Latin tiara.'

In our own time, yet another source of misinformation has been added. Since the spread of nationalism to the Balkans and the Near East, more than a dozen states have risen from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, each with its own national legends of liberation and its own brand of national historiography. Like most liberated peoples, the Balkan, and later the Arab, states tended to blame all the defects and shortcomings of their societies upon the misrule of the fallen imperial masters. More articulate in Western terms than the Turks, they have succeeded in persuading most Western observers of the truth of their version of history.

It might have been expected that the revival of learning in Europe and the growth of scientific history would have brought about a more impartial view and a less prejudiced approach. In fact, they did not. Prejudice, as so often, has been swollen by ignorance. Though it is generally accepted that one does not write French history without some reference to French sources, Western Europeans continued to write Turkish history - renamed the Eastern Question - without any reference to what the Turks themselves had to say about it. But Turkish sources do exist in vast numbers - histories, chronicles, archive documents by the million, many of which have been published. There is no longer any need to view the Turks only through the eyes of their rivals and enemies.

This negative attitude to the Turks, while predominant, is not the only one. There is also what one might call a positive legend of the Turk in Europe - and here I am not speaking of the political and military considerations which from time to time led European powers to sup with the Turk, though with a long spoon. The West had a romantic or heroic legend of the Turk, which again has diverse origins. Sometimes it was the Western doctrine of the 'noble savage' - with the Turk unfiatteringly cast in that role. Sometimes the Turk, like other exotic peoples, was used as a vehicle for social comment in the West; sometimes, too, is a means of anti-Christian - or more specifically anti-Catholic controversy, as when 16th-century Protestant polemists contrasted Turkish tolerance with Catholic repression. Occasionally, one or other national or social group in the West experienced or imagined a feeling of affinity with the Turks. Such, for example, was the pan-turanian myth advanced by some Hungarian intellectuals, who sought a Magyar-Turkish alliance against the common threat of pan-slavism. Such, too, was the attitude of some elements amongst the English ruling classes, who saw in the Ottoman Moslem a gentleman of the established church, and in the Ottoman Christian a factious non-conformist. Broadly, there are two prototypes of the Turk in Western legend, the one expressed in the adjective 'unspeakable,' the other in the word 'gentleman.' Both have little to do with the real Turkey. In what follows, I propose to examine some of the specific charges brought against the Turks, or rather, some of their alleged defects, the existence of which is tacitly assumed as axiomatic, and to see how far they are justified by an impartial examination of the evidence.

A common assumption is that the Turk was a brutal barbarian without culture. But the Ottoman Turks have a rich literature, going back to the 13th century in Turkey, and still earlier among the Eastern Turkish peoples of Central Asia. If not of the level of the earlier Moslem literatures in Arabic and Persian, there is still much that is of more than local value, especially in the great tradition of historical writing. Ottoman historiography consists not merely of annals, but of real history, sometimes achieving even an epic quality. This literature is little, known in the West - but that is hardly the fault of the Turks. More accessible to foreign visitors are the glories of Ottoman art and architecture - the magnificent mosques that still grace Turkey and the successor states; miniatures, metal-work, and the products of the industrial and decorative arts. Not least of these is the characteristic art of calligraphy, often underestimated or misunderstood by Western observers, but capable of reaching a high level of artistic self-expression. Turkish culture is, as one would expect, mainly Islamic, and the educated Ottoman was as familiar with the Arabic and Persian classics as his Western contemporaries with those of Greece and Rome. 

Even an interest in Western civilization, though very limited, was not entirely lacking. Mohammed the Conqueror had a knowledge of Greek, and a library of Greek books. His entourage included the Italian humanist, Ciriaco Pizzocolli of Ancona, and the Greek humanist, Critoboulos. The latter - who was Mohammed’s biographer - mentions his interest in Greek antiquities and remains, and, when describing Mohammed’s wonderment at the Parthenon, even confers upon him the title of 'Philhellene.' After the capture of Constantinople, Mohammed had to keep his promise to his victorious troops to give them free rein for three days in the conquered city, but both Greek and Western writers attest that on the fourth day he took measures to safeguard manuscripts, buildings and relics. Some scholars say that the Turkish conquest of Constantinople was less destructive than that of the Western Crusaders in 1204.

A word often used to describe the Ottoman Empire is ramshackle, and there is a general impression that Ottoman Government was always incompetent, venal and inept. Yet the countless documents in the Istanbul archives show that up to the 16th century the Empire was governed by an elaborate bureaucratic organization, extremely conscientious in its task of administering a vast Empire. One series of registers alone contains a record, in over 1,000 volumes, of towns, villages, population and revenue for the whole Empire from Budapest to Baghdad. The 50,000 and more bound registers, and the millions of papers, still preserved in the Turkish record office show that whatever may have been the faults of Ottoman administration, it was, in the early and middle periods, anything but ramshackle.

Against the charge of destructiveness that is often brought against Turkish rule, the same evidence may be cited. The registers show an increase in population and prosperity in most areas after the conquest, which the travellers - by no means friendly witnesses - confirm. In the Arab lands, Ottoman rule brought peace and security after the heady nightmare of late Mameluke rule. In the Balkans, too, Ottoman Government brought unity and security in the place of previous conflict and disorder. In the wars of conquest, a large part of the old landowning aristocracy was destroyed and their ownerless estates were incorporated into the Ottoman feudal system and granted as fiefs to Ottoman soldiers. Under the Ottoman order, the fief-holder was concerned only with revenue and had no seigneurial rights. Thus, the peasants enjoyed far greater freedom on their farms than previously, while the operation of Ottoman law prevented both the fragmentation and the concentration of land-ownership. This security and prosperity, given to peasant agriculture by a Government which had inherited the ancient loyalty owed by the Balkan peoples to the Imperial Byzantine throne, did much to reconcile them to the other imperfections of Ottoman rule, and account in large measure for the long tranquillity that reigned in the Balkans until the explosive irruption of nationalist ideas from the West. Even to Constantinople, the Ottoman conquest brought a new prosperity, as the city was transformed from a fossil into the flourishing capital of a great Empire.

Another charge is that of tyranny. Certainly the Sultan was no democrat; but after all, democracy, as we know and practise it, has flourished in only a few places, and in most of them is recent and precarious. The Sultan was not a true despot, but the supreme custodian of the God-given Holy Law of Islam, to which he himself was subject. It is true that the Holy Law granted him almost despotic power, and that it did not provide for its own enforcement against him. But ultimately the Holy Law remained the basis of the social and political structure of the Empire, and was observed by the Sultans, whose sovereignty was accepted and respected by the people, both Moslem and Christian, as right and inevitable.

Two other qualities which have been attributed to the Turks are fanaticism and intolerance. The Ottoman Turks were indeed fanatical Moslems, dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of the Islamic state. But toleration is a relative matter. According to the principles professed by modern democracies, toleration means the absence of discrimination. In that sense, the Ottomans were not tolerant, since non-Moslems were not the civic and social equals of the followers of the dominant faith, but were subject to a number of legal disabilities. But this kind of toleration is new and insecure, even in Europe, and it is not reasonable to look for it in the old Ottoman Empire. If we define toleration as the absence, not of discrimination, but of persecution, then the Ottoman record until the late 19th century is excellent. The well-known preference of the 15th-century Greeks for Moslem rather than Frankish rule was not without its reasons. The confrontation of Christendom and Islam has sometimes been compared with the present Cold War. The comparison is valid at many points, but we must remember in making it that the main movement of refugees in the 15th and 16th centuries was from Europe to Turkey and not the other way. When Ottoman rule in the Balkans ended, the Balkan peoples resumed their national existence, with their own religions and languages and national cultures intact. There are no Moslems today in Spain or Sicily, and no speakers of Arabic.

A good example of the way in which European travellers and diplomats misunderstood and misinterpreted Ottoman institutions is provided by the word rayah. According to most of the Western travellers, followed by most Western historians, rayah means cattle, and was applied to the Christian subjects of the Porte, whose predatory attitude to them is expressed in the term. In fact, Ottoman usage until the middle of the 18th century applied the term to the peasant population of the Empire, irrespective of religion. Thus Moslem peasants were rayahs and Christian towns people were not. The word itself comes from an Arabic root, meaning to graze, and would be better translated as flocks, expressing the well-known pastoral ideal of Government, which is common to Christendom and Islam. It is a curious comment on the pattern of Western influence on Turkey, that from the middle of the 18th century the Western misinterpretation of the term passed to the Turks themselves, who began to use it - and sometimes apply it - in the once mistaken Western sense.

With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, some of the traditional charges against the Turks become in part justified. Ottoman culture declined into mere repetition and imitation of earlier models. Ottoman administration ran down until the Empire really was ramshackle. Increasing weakness in the face of foreign invasion and internal rebellion often led to oppression and brutality and tyranny. Suspicion, hatred, fear - and sometimes, we may add, the example of Western intolerance - transformed the Turkish attitude to the subject peoples.

But when all is said and done, it will be argued, the Turks are an alien and hostile element in Europe. Until very recently this description was undeniably merited. But the point should not be exaggerated. It was not barbarians from the Central Asian Steppes who conquered south-eastem Europe, but a civilized Moslem people, and Islam, despite its long conflict with Christendom, has much in common with it. Both share the Hebrew heritage of prophecy, revelation, ethical monotheism and divine law. Both shared - or rather, divided - the Hellenistic heritage, of which Islam preserved the philosophy and science, while the West kept the literature and art. Islam is far more akin to Europe in its cultural traditions than to the true Orient, in India and China. But the Turks were familiar in a nearer and more material sense. They had been in Anatolia since the 11th century, absorbing the ancient races of the peninsula; in Europe since the 14th century. By the time that they conquered Constantinople, they were well acclimatized in the Balkans, mingled with Greek, Slavonic and Albanian blood. Men of Christian birth were prominent at the court and in the army - the corps of janissaries consisted exclusively of such. Mohammed the Conqueror was at home both in Greek and in Greece. In many senses, the Turks were less alien to Constantinople than were the Western Christians.

The loss of Constantinople was certainly a defeat of Christendom and of Europe - though perhaps not so total as was once feared. It is not without significance that the Turks today are celebrating the 500th anniversary of their great victory by the Gregorian and not by the Moslem calendar. Nor was it a victory of barbarism, but rather of another and not undistinguished civilization. The four slender minarets that the Turks added to the Church of Santa Sophia may be, for the Christian, a desecration. But they are not a defacement.

Bernard Lewis was born in 1916 in Stoke Newington, London. He is a historian, Orientalist, and political commentator. He specialises in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West, and is especially famous in academic circles for his works on the history of the Ottoman Empire.

 Roger Crowley assesses how Europe views the Turks in 2010, in From the Archive.

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