The Turkish Conundrum

Roger Crowley finds that modern European concerns about Turkey are anticipated in an article by Bernard Lewis, first published in 1953.

In October 1953 the historian Bernard Lewis wrote an article for History Today about the Ottoman Empire and its relations with Europe. The occasion was the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople; his purpose was to plead for a more balanced assessment of the empire and to accord it an honourable place in world history, to see the fall of Constantinople not as a ‘victory of barbarism, but rather of another and not undistinguished civilization’.

Lewis laid out the historiography that has informed European views of the Ottomans. The events of 1453 happened on the cusp of the printing revolution; one of its first uses was to disseminate virulent accounts of ‘the damnable menace of the Grand Turk of the infidels’; particularly influential was the 17th-century bestseller, Richard Knolles’ The General History of the Turks, about ‘the present terror of the world’. Out of these antecedents has come a complex set of emotional associations about the Turks, coloured by racial memory, admiration for classical Greece and the development of modern nationalisms which have skewed an objective assessment of a great world civilisation:‘for most Europeans,’ Lewis argued,‘the loss of Constantinople is a great historical disaster, a defeat for Christendom which has never been repaired.’

While drawing a distinction between the heyday of the empire in its pomp and its ramshackle exodus in the 19th and 20th centuries, he sketched the achievements of the mature empire – its comparative tolerance, its efficient governance, its creation of peace and security within the Arab lands and the Balkans, its stability, its regeneration of an ossified Byzantine Constantinople, the beauty of its art and architecture. Above all, Lewis pleaded for a study of the Turks through their own eyes and their own words rather than through the prejudices of western travellers. 

Fifty years down the road, how does Lewis’s perspective stack up? The Ottomans have certainly become more familiar to us as our philhellenism has dimmed. The dominance of classical education and the perspectives of Gibbon have all but vanished.Outside the Orthodox world few would hold the loss of Constantinople as a great Christian disaster or as the death of the Roman world. Meanwhile, the Turks have been coming towards us. In 1953 Istanbul was a foreign country; now it’s an EasyJet ride away. The Royal Academy’s 2005 exhibition unfolded their ascent from nomad origins to the Topkapi palace for a huge audience. Orhan Pamuk’s modernist fictional take on that inheritance has intrigued western readers.

Lewis himself has been a prime mover in a new wave of Ottoman scholarship in the West. Excellent surveys by historians such as Colin Imber and Caroline Finkel have met Lewis’s pleading to hear the Turks in their own words; Philip Mansel has celebrated Constantinople’s vitality after 1453; Jason Goodwin’s meditation on Ottoman history has been something of a minor popular success. 

Yet it has to be said that Turkey has moved up the scale of interest in Western Europe not just because of city breaks, Nobel prize-winning novelists and the beauty of Iznik tiles. Perspectives on the country’s past have been caught up in the intense slipstream of modern times: the critical position of Turkey in a post-9/11 world and the jousting over entry into Europe have framed what used to be called the Eastern Question in new ways. It is still possible to catch the tone of suspicion Lewis mentioned in Pope Benedict’s statement that Turkey has always been ‘in permanent contrast to Europe’; and in the words of the Dutch EU commissioner, Fritz Bokelstein, that Turkey’s entry into the Union would mean that the defence of Vienna in 1683 ‘would have been in vain’. On a subliminal level the West’s language borrowings record a deep ambivalence towards its eastern neighbour – on the one hand an experience of civilisation and pleasure (‘tulip’,‘kiosk’ and ‘divan’), on the other a fear of the alien: ‘horde’ is derived from the Turkish word for ‘army’.

The Ottomans remain a conundrum, both distant and very near. The last subjects of the Ottoman Empire are still alive, yet its language is so dead that Turkish people cannot read their grandparents’gravestones. Its life was so long that it encompassed both the golden age of Suleiman the Magnificent and the decline of the Sick Man of Europe; the open-armed welcome to the Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the fate of the Armenians in 1915. Lewis was inviting us to salute the majesty of the former but has been accused of airbrushing the latter. The Ottomans puzzle the Turks almost as much as they do outsiders. Ataturk encouraged his new republic to jump over the decadent Ottoman centuries and claim connection with the ‘purer’Turkishness of their central Asian origins. In the process the Turks too have been left with a soul-searching debate about ethnicity, history and identity. A clear perspective on the multiple faces of the Ottoman Empire remains a work in progress. 

Read the original article by Bernard Lewis, first published in 1953.

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