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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.

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