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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 18   16-31 March 2012

The Ottoman Empire and Europe

Professor A. R. Momin

The Ottoman Empire, the largest empire in history, lasted for nearly five centuries, from the mid-15th century until the early 20th. Its boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory extending from North Africa to the Danube and from the Middle East to the Balkans. The Ottomans ruled over a multiethnic, heterogeneous population with a wide-ranging diversity of faiths, ethnicities, languages and cultural traditions.

The Ottoman Empire held a central position in world trade, linking the Middle East and East and South Asia to eastern and central Europe. International trade was an important source of revenue for the empire. The towns of Bursa, Edirne and Sarajevo served as important conduits through which trade with Mediterranean Europe was carried out. The Ottomans exported raw silk, wax, pepper, cotton and metals to Europe and, on the other hand, acquired merchandise from eastern and central Europe. The Polish kingdoms of the Middle Ages traded extensively with the Ottoman Turks. Most of this trade—in textiles, wheat and Arabian horses--passed through Istanbul and the Black Sea ports of the Ottoman Empire.

During the Middle Ages, extensive commercial, diplomatic and cultural links between the Ottomans and the Venetian republic were established. Venice acted as the European gateway for trade with the Ottoman Empire, which was carried out largely through intermediaries such as the Jews, Greek Orthodox and Armenians. The Ottomans supplied to the Venetians raw silk, cotton, coral, grains, spices and leather. In return, they imported from Venice luxury textiles, glass, soap, mirrors and paper. In the mid-16th century, Venetian craftsmen were greatly influenced by Ottoman ceramics, characterised by white-and-blue symmetrical arabesques. After the battle of Lepanto in 1571, European imports of Iznik ceramics increased substantially and their growing popularity led European craftsmen to imitate the designs, colours and motifs of Ottoman ceramics. The Venetians imported lustrous tiles from Ottoman Turkey, which were often used for church decorations.

Venice’s generally cordial relations with the Ottomans were occasionally punctuated by conflicts and confrontations. However, the wars between the Venetian republic and the Ottomans were not motivated by religious zeal or acrimony but by economic and political factors, as in the case of violent confrontations between the Mamluks of Egypt and the Ottomans. The times of peace and diplomatic and commercial exchanges between the Venetian republic and the Ottomans were much longer and durable. Furthermore, even during times of hostility, diplomatic missions, trading activities and exchanges of gifts never came to a halt. As Stefano Carboni has observed, Venetian pragmatism and diplomatic acumen turned Venice into the most respected trading and political partner of the Near East.

Following the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of cordial relations between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire in 1479, the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II sent a letter to the Venetian Signoria or Senate with a request to send to his court a painter, a sculptor and a bronze founder from Venice. The Venetian Senate promptly sent to the sultan’s court Gentile Bellini, the Republic’s official painter, and Bartolomeo Bellano, along with two assistants for each master. Bellini spent two years at the Ottoman court in Istanbul, during which he drew a portrait of Sultan Mehmet II. Bellini and Bellano made several medals of the sultan, of which 15 have survived. In the course of his stay in Istanbul, Bellini keenly observed Ottoman monuments, customs, luxury goods and exotic animals. His deep familiarity with Ottoman culture is reflected in his subsequent paintings. Oriental scenes, designs and motifs are frequently depicted in Venetian paintings, especially in those of Bellini’s famous students, Vittore Carpaccio and Giovanni Mansueti. The visit of Gentile Bellini greatly expanded and strengthened the channels of intercultural exchange and transmission between Venice and the Islamic world.

The Ottoman rulers forged wide-ranging political and diplomatic alliances with the Christian rulers of Europe. Emperor Suleyman sent emissaries to Europe’s Protestant princes and offered them protection. In the early 16th century, Francis I of France’s Valois dynasty forged an alliance with the Ottomans to humble the Habsburg monarchy. During the Italian wars, French and Turkish fleet launched joint raids against the coasts of Italy. The Venetians, who were often accused of being an accomplice of the Ottomans, resisted pressure to join a Christian coalition against them. After the battle of Agnadello in 1509, when the Venetians were confronted with an alliance of all the major European powers, including the Holy Roman Empire, they sent overtures to the Ottomans to form an alliance.

The Ottoman campaigns to capture the Venetian island of Cyprus led to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. There was a naval engagement between the allied Christian forces, joined by Venice, the pope and Spain, and the Ottomans, which culminated in the victory of the Christian forces. After the battle, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who regularly sent lavish gifts to Muslim rulers and dignitaries, is said to have remarked, “Better the turban than the tiara”, the latter referring to the triple papal crown.

In 1701 the Ottoman sultan Mustafa II conveyed his congratulations to King Ferdinand I of Prussia on his coronation, which facilitated the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two powers. In 1790 Prussia supported the Ottomans in resisting the Austro-Russian advance. Prussia’s Frederick II sought to forge an alliance with the Ottomans to countercheck the growing influence of the Habsburg monarchy. The Ottomans and the Habsburg monarch, sworn enemies for nearly three centuries, forged an alliance in the 18th century to counter growing Russian expansion into the Balkans and towards the Black Sea. In the 1850s, France and Britain supported the Ottomans against Russia.

The history of medieval Europe suggests that processes of conflict and cooperation, of peaceful coexistence and confrontation often overlapped and oscillated and frequently transcended religious and sectarian distinctions. Hostilities between Christian and Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages were often motivated by economic and political rather than religious factors. The process of cooperation between Christian and Muslim rulers was mediated and reinforced through military and political alliances, diplomatic missions, trade and commerce and exchange of gifts. Even at the height of the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict, Christians and Muslims living in the two empires continued to engage in trade and business without any rancour, especially in the Hungarian markets.

The degree to which intercultural understanding and symbiosis between Venice and the Islamic world had taken root may be gauged from the following incident. In 1586, the Venetian bailo Lorenzo Bernardo offered two clepsydras to the Ottoman Grand Vizier Siyavush Pasha for a mosque that was being constructed under his patronage. The Grand Vizier was so taken aback that a Christian would make a gift to a mosque that he asked the bailo’s letter to be translated twice.

The Ottoman sultans welcomed and encouraged the immigration of Christians from western, eastern and southern Europe. Emperor Mehmet brought back Greeks to Constantinople from Trebizond and appointed a new patriarch for them. The Calvinists of Hungary, the Protestants of Siberia and the Cossack Old Believers of Russia sought refuge in Ottoman Turkey in their flight from Catholic and Orthodox persecution. The Greek Orthodox, Bosnian Franciscans and Armenian Christians were given substantial freedom and internal autonomy in respect of their beliefs, rites and churches. The predominantly Christian regions of Cyprus and the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece retained their religious and ethnic character even after they came under Ottoman control. As a result of the security, freedom and economic opportunities provided by the Ottoman rulers, the empire’s Christian population increased by three-fold. Interestingly, Martin Luther lauded the Ottoman Empire as an exemplar of religious tolerance. The Christian population of the Ottoman Empire made a significant contribution to the economy, defence and culture. A Hungarian engineer built for the Ottomans a gigantic canon which could only be moved by 100 oxen.

Religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, especially Jews and Christians, enjoyed substantial religious, judicial and cultural autonomy and freedom. Each religious group was designated as an autonomous community (millet) under the charge of its religious head and had the freedom to manage its religious, legal, educational and cultural institutions. The Jews had a chief rabbi and the major Christian groups had a patriarch or bishop. No restrictions were placed on the construction of synagogues and churches. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Gregorian communities were placed under the leadership of their patriarchs. The former included, in addition to ethnic Greeks, all the Slavs and Romanians living in southeastern Europe while the latter included not only Armenians but also Gypsies, Nestorians, Copts and other Eastern Christians.

A large number of Jews who were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century found a hospitable refuge in Ottoman Turkey. Most of the Sephardic Jews settled in Salonica in the Balkans, where they formed a majority of its population. Salonica was taken by the Ottomans from Byzantine rulers in 1430. For nearly five centuries Salonica was under Ottoman rule and its multiethnic populace of Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It is significant to note that Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, a dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews, survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire provided a safe haven for Jewish communities from Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. In addition to Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazis from Germany, France and Hungary and Sicilian Jews settled in Ottoman domains. During the last decades of the 19th century, Jews who faced persecution in Russia and Central Europe were invited to settle in Ottoman territories. Jewish engineers and technicians helped the Ottomans manufacture advanced artillery and sophisticated siege engines. They also made significant contributions to the modernization of agriculture, industry and trade in Ottoman Turkey.

Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Central Europe in the last decades of the 19th century were encouraged to settle in various Ottoman cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were nearly 100,000 Jewish in various Turkish cities. During World War II, some 15,000 Turkish Jews living in France were rescued by Turkey from Nazi persecution. Turkish diplomats in France organised train caravans to take Turkish Jews back to their homeland. In 1944, when France’s Vichy government was on the verge of deporting all 10,000 Turkish Jews living in France to Nazi Germany for extermination, the Turkish foreign minister intervened with the French government, warning that such an act on the part of the French government would lead to the snapping of diplomatic relations between France and Turkey. Vichy was forced to abandon his sinister move.

Turkey also helped thousands of East European Jews living in countries such as Greece, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to escape Nazi persecution. After the war, the Turkish consul in Greece intervened with the Germans to spare the Turkish Jews living in the country and organised boats to carry them to safety in Turkey. The Turkish guards at the Greek-Turkish border allowed Jews coming from Greece and Bulgaria to enter Turkish territory. Camps were set up for the Jewish refugees at Edirne.

It would be a misrepresentation of historical evidence to suggest that Ottoman Turkey was absolutely free from religious intolerance. There were instances at times of churches being converted into mosques and of discrimination and persecution of minorities. But such instances—unjustifiable in Islamic law—were few and far between and constituted exceptions rather than the rule.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, there was great fascination in Western Europe for Turkish art, music, paintings and architecture, which came to be known as Turquerie. Turkish craftsmen excelled in making heavy silk velvets, which were especially suitable as furnishing garments and as wrappings for religious relics. Capes, dalmatics and chasubles made of Turkish-made velvets and used in Roman Catholic ritual are found in church treasuries and museums in Italy, Sweden, Romania, Poland and Bosnia. Ottoman velvets were also used as ceremonial vestments in Russian Orthodox churches. Some of Mozart’s compositions reflect the influence of Turkish music. In the 18th century Turkish merchants introduced coffee in the Habsburg Empire, whence it spread to other parts of Europe.

A great deal of misrepresentation surrounds the history of the Ottoman Empire and the relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Much of this distortion and misrepresentation emanates from the deeply-entrenched and centuries-old prejudice against Islam and Muslims that was harboured in Europe, especially after the Crusades. As Edward Said has succinctly described it, “Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic hordes of hated barbarians. For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma.” In Western demonology, the military exploits of the Ottomans were animated by their “demonic religion” and “savage nomadic ways”. Professor Daniel Goffman, who has written extensively on the relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, points out in his book The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2002) that many misleading perceptions about the Ottoman Empire came from reliance upon historical accounts written by English, French and Italian historians and writers, who wrote their accounts from the outside and with a prejudiced mind. Mercifully, the thick mist of prejudice, falsehood and misrepresentation about the Ottoman Empire is now lifting, thanks to the dispassionate researches of scholars like Daniel Goffman.

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