to destroy the written word you need only a torch and a Turk.
(The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo)
Turkey formed her new secular republic under the leadership of Atatürk in 1923, who aimed to create a modern and stable country. This was in the aftermath of the First World War, a period in which the map of Europe was being radically redrawn. Several countries won their independence, and, with the rise of communism, the boundaries of east and west began to shift once again. Turkeys relations with the rest of Europe entered a new era, and the image of the Turk changed in turn.
However, today, when this entity Europe is still viewed by some as a Christian club, it is worth looking into the image of the Turk in European imagination. It is an image that has its origins in a mixture of fact, fantasy and fear.
Many of us are aware of the Late Victorian and imperialist projections of the Turkish people as a threatening race, culminating in the notorious reference by the European powers to Turkey as the sick man of Europe in the Congress of Berlin in 1878. What we may not realise is that these attitudes are based upon a long pre-history in which the Western image of the Orient was shaped by a considerable body of literature, stretching from Christopher Marlowe to Thomas Carlyle. It is this glimpse of a colourful and deep pre-history which I wish to explore here.
Religion and power
During the middle ages, Europes perception of the east was centred on questions of religion. What kind of religion was Islam? Indeed could it be considered a religion at all? At that time the answer was unequivocal: Mahomet was the Antichrist, and the spread of Islam was a success for the devil.
The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299. By the 14th century it was rapidly gaining in power, pushing its boundaries as far west as the Danube. Increasingly, Islam was to be associated exclusively with this new and threatening political presence.
The might of the Magnificent
Between the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and the treaty of Karlofça in 1699, the Ottoman Empire continued to expand rapidly. During the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (152066) in particular, the Empires frontiers were pushed to the gates of Vienna, precipitating a confrontation between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottomans.
To his own people, Suleyman was known as Kanuni, meaning law giver, but it was during the reign of the Magnificent that Europe truly learned about Ottoman military force.
Suleyman captured Belgrade in 1521, and Rhodes in the following year. He defeated the Hungarians and added the south-central portion of Hungary to his empire. He waged wars against Persia and conquered the region around Erzurum. The naval strength of the Ottomans by 1538 was formidable. His trusted admiral Barbarossa (Hizir Hayreddin Pasha) won a sea battle against the combined naval forces of Venice and Spain.
Englands imagined empire
Meanwhile, the English literary imagination had been creeping east. Writers, such as Sir John Mandeville with his travel tales (circa 1366), and Lydgate with his Fall of Princes (1431), were drawing literary attention to the eastern world already offered to the European imagination as lands of mystery and exoticism.
But it was only with the reign of Elizabeth I (15581603) that any concrete relationship between the Ottoman Empire and England developed.
At that time the Venetians were losing their power as the main traders in the Mediterranean. Not only had they lost the trade ports of Cyprus, Crete and Corfu to the Turks, but trade in the Mediterranean was brought to a standstill by SpanishPortuguese, SpanishOttoman and OttomanIranian wars.
The way was open for a country to exploit these trade routes. England was able to capitalise on its naval power, and with this unprecedented motion beyond the borders of Christendom, English literature began to depict the Turk in earnest.
The spread of knowledge
With the invention of the printing press and the rise in literacy, the English public had come to believe in the authority of the printed word, in the knowledge they received from books. Printed texts became important tools for spreading knowledge, true and false.
Histories were invested with a particular aura of veracity, and it is on the mixture of fact and stereotype purveyed by these works that the fictional presence of the Turk in English literature was largely based. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Dryden all draw upon a limited corpus of material to generate their overwhelmingly negative images of the Ottomans.
In his play Tamburlaine, Marlowe gave his Christian public the Ottomans they really wanted to see. Marlowe depicted the 14th century king of Samarkand as a ruthless monarch, utterly without mercy, but endowed with the requisite courage and will to subdue the Moslem world of Turks, Syrians, Persians and Tartars.
Bejazet is based on the historical Ottoman Sultan Beyazit. In a dramatic moment of Christian wish-fulfilment, the Mongol Tamburlaine puts the Ottoman Sultan in a cage and parades him around the stage. Rather than suffer such an indignity, Bejazet takes his own life by banging his head against the iron bars.
Marlowes main historical sources were the Vita Magni Tamerlanis (1551) by Petrus Perondinus and Pedro Maxia, whose Life of Timur in his Silva (Madrid, 1543) was anglicised by Fortescue in his Foreste (1571).
Schismatics and Mahometans
With the rise in Protestantism, the image of the Turk became embroiled in sectarian polemics. As Europes non-Christian other, the Turk was often compared to the opposing Christian sect.
The military threat of the Ottomans attracted two main responses, both subsumed into the sectarian polemic: the call to crusade and the call to recognise Muslims as a scourge sent from God. Thomas More observed of Martin Luther and his followers that:
among their other heresies [they] hold for a plain conclusion that it is not lawful to any Christian man to fight against the Turk though he come into Christendom with a great army and labour to destroy all.Hence, Marlowes Tamburlaine is the scourge of God par excellence, albeit in the context of bringing down divine retribution upon the Ottoman Sultan.
Bejazet: First, thou shalt rip my bowels with thy sword, And sacrifice my heart to death and hell. Before I yield to such slavery.
Tamburlaine: Base villain, vassal, slave to Tamburlaine, Unworthy to embrace and touch the ground, That bears the honour of my royal weight. Stoop, villain, stoop! Stoop, for he bids, That may command thee piecemeal to be torn, Or scattered like the lofty cedar-trees Struck with the voice of thundering Jupiter
Marlowes depiction of Beyazits cruelty may have been influenced by John Foxs Acts and Monuments, published in 1570, in which Bejazeth is seen as deserving punishment for his cruel treatment of Christians:
Bejazeth, the cruel tyrant, after this victory won and the tyranny showed upon the Christians, returned again to his siege of Constantinople. Fully bending himself to conquer and subdue the same; which thing no doubt he had accomplished, but that the providence of God had found such a means the Timurlanes king of Perth, which with a hundred thousand horsemen and swarms of footmen, like a violent flood overrunning Asia and pressing upon Syria and Sebastia, had taken Orthobules, the son of Bejazet prisoner, and afterward slew him, exercising the cruelty upon his prisoners as Bejazet had done before upon the Christians in so much that he neither spared sex nor age of the Turkish multitude.
Tamburlaine, although infidel himself, is chosen as Gods scourge against the Turks. His infidelity is total, since it includes an infidelity also to Islam itself:
Now, Casane, wheres the Turkish Alcoran, And all the heaps of superstitious books Found in the temples of that Mahomet Whom I have thought a god? They shall be burnt.
Here, Marlowe follows the custom of the day in his conflation of Islam and Turkishness. Islam is represented by Marlowe as an absence of faith an other defined purely by opposition. The Ottoman, by clinging to this non-faith can only be seen as inferior to the apostate Tamburlaine.
The other face of the other
But 16th century images of the Turks were not all negative. Although they were always mentioned in texts as the other or the adversary, their military tactics and nature of government were much admired. As early as 1513 Machiavelli in The Prince extolled the wisdom of Turkish rule, colonising a conquered country to maintain direct rule:
Such was the course adopted by the Turk in Greece, who even if he had respected all the institutions of that country, yet could not possibly have succeeded in holding it, if he had not gone to reside there.
The valiant knight of Rhodes in Kyds Soliman and Perseda (1592) says of the Soliman, I must confess Soliman is kind/ Past all compare, and more than my desert, while George Peele in his Battle of Alcazar (1588) describes Amuraths soldiers as brave and honourable.
Shakespeare, writing at the same time, often exploited the common image of Turks as licentious, deceitful womanisers. But, in common with Machiavelli, he too allowed a sense of admiration for Turkish military prowess to creep in. In Othello one of the senators of the Venetian state recognises the strategic expertise of the Turks, saying that the Turks are most probably bent on conquest of Cyprus not Rhodes: We must not think the Turk is so unskilful/ To leave that latest that which concerns him first.
Aleppo was a Syrian city in the Ottoman Empire. According to Sir Anthony Sherley, George Manwering had suffered a humiliating experience in Aleppo where a Turk had taken him by the ear and had marched him up and down the street while the bystanders threw stones at him and spat upon him.
And say besides, that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk Beat a Venetian, and traded the state I took by throat the circumcised Dogge And smote him thus
This again is an example of the literary imagination re-circulating material drawn from a finite store of common knowledge about the Turk. Again and again in Shakespeare, the Turks appear as exemplars of unchristian behaviour:
What! Think you we are Turks or infidels? Or that we would, against the form of law, Proceed thus rashly in the villains death. (Richard III)
Wine Loved I deeply, dice dearly, and in woman out-paramoured the Turk. (Edgar in King Lear)
Why, Tis a boisterous and a cruel style, A style for challengers; why she defies me, Like Turk to Christian (Rosalind in As You Like It)
In the 17th century, several translations of the Koran appeared, as well as lives of the prophet Mohammed and histories of the Turks. This was more to do with a curious interest in the exotic than a sudden interest in comparative religion, but it is notable that the corrupting influence of Islamic material was deemed to be weaker than in the past.
In the introduction to his translation of the Koran (1649), Alexander Ross argues that there is nothing in so manifest a forgery as the Koran that could possibly attract a Christian, and therefore reading it is not dangerous. Thomas Fuller says in The Historie of The Holy Warre published in 1639,
to give the Mohammadans their due, they are generally good fellows in this point [the virtue of tolerance] and Christians among them may keep their consciousness if their tongues be fettered, not to oppose the doctrine of Mohammad.
Negative images of the Turks are seen in works such as the sermon of the famous preacher Isaac Barrow, Of the Impiety and imposture of Paganism and Mohammedanism, and Humphrey Prideauxs The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet.
Richard Knolles Hystorie of the Turks (1603) reflected this sharp hostility. Knolles wrote
by craft the Turk first passed over into Europe; by little and little he crept into that kingdom; he never kept faith with any; he grew to this height rather by cunning than strength: and are you become so blind as to think it better to keep your promise with the Turk devoid of all faith and humanity rather than the faithful Christians and especially the most holy Bishop.
But in the sphere of historical writing, more objective material was also beginning to circulate. Sir Paul Rycaut who had spent six years in Turkey produced a seriously informative work named The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, Containing the Maxims of The Turkish politic, The Most Material Points of The Mohammedan Religion (1668).
Such as he Meccan prophet used of yore, To whisper councils in their patrons ear And veiled their false advice with zealous fear.
Drydens AurengZebe (1675) presents the Orient as a battleground; but this time it is the Mongol Kings sons that fight with each other. In Don Sebastian (1689) the Muslim world is again described as cruel, tyrannical, and sensual. The Mufti, the highest authority among Muslims, appears as the comic character in the play. Nevertheless, Dryden uses the eastern element in his play to give it that exotic air that was still so in demand.
With the start of the 18th century, the interest in the Middle East and Turkey increased. On a political level, the Turks no longer presented such a fearful threat. When the Karlofça treaty was signed on 26 January 1699, the Empire lost most of its European possessions, and Ottoman branches of influence in Europe began to wither.
The empires military forces were weakened by the wars with Austria and Russia, while the question of control of the eastern trade was causing major unrest in the Middle East.
While the influence of the Ottomans in Europe receded, the European powers pushed their influence aggressively eastwards. The East India Company promoted the idea that in order to develop the commercial deals with the east one had to first study their culture and language.
The English public still enjoyed the exotic other of Turkish Tales and the Tales of the Arabian Nights.
However, amongst the many writers dealing with the Turkish theme in their books, we see a more authentic picture of the East emerging in Lady Mary Wortley Montagus The Turkish Embassy Letters (171618), Beckfords Vathek (1786) and Johnsons Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759).
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu came to Istanbul when her husband was appointed ambassador. In her letters she draws attention to the fact that the knowledge of Turkey available in England was generally biased.
This redoubtable woman confessed herself more interested in the Turkish way of life and people than the architecture and the setting, remarking in one of her letters, I took more pleasure in looking on Fatima than on the finest piece of sculpture. She also draws attention to the fact that many religious leaders have invented out of their own heads a thousand ridiculous stories in order to decry the law of Mohammed. She wrote admiringly about the inoculation against smallpox used by the Turks for many years, introducing the practice to England.
The heroic in history In the 19th century, it became easier and easier to travel: touring to the Middle East became very popular. The atmosphere of the real east in Byrons works, for example, have the grounded knowledge of one who has lived in and experienced the east before he wrote about it.
But a more balanced appraisal of Islam and its prophet had to wait for Thomas Carlyle. Although not among his most popular works, his lecture The hero as Prophet. Mahomet: Islam, given in a series entitled Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History, argued that the stature of a hero depends on the number of his believers and the length of time he has been believed. He wrote:
The word this man spoke has been the life-guidance now of a hundred and eighty millions of men these twelve hundred years A False man found a religion? Why, a false man cannot build a brick house.At this point, the history of Turkey's projected image entered a new stage, becoming absorbed into Atatürk's modernisation of the Ottoman Empire.
The understanding of a different culture is preceded first of all by an objective interest followed by an effort of will. The correction of false 'knowledge', however commonly held, is possible. For the interested, modern technology facilitates access to the sources of true knowledge. Learning about a foreign culture, besides being a fascinating pursuit, is also one of the major ways one can help create world peace and understanding, an understanding that is of vital importance in our troubled times. If we cultivate this desire and will, it will truly be worth the effort.