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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. 

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