BOOK IV

ISLAM AND THE SLAVIC EAST

1715-96

CHAPTER XVI

Islam

1715-96

I. THE TURKS

IN the eighteenth century Christianity was caught between Voltaire and Mohammed—between the Enlightenment and Islam. Though the Moslem world had lost military power since Sobieski’s repulse of the Turks from Vienna in 1683, it still dominated Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Asia Minor, the Crimea, South Russia, Bessarabia, Moldavia, Wallachia (Romania), Bulgaria, Serbia (Yugoslavia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Greece, Crete, the Aegean Isles, and Turkey. All these except Persia were part of the immense empire of the OttomanTurks. On the Dalmatian coast they touched the Adriatic and faced the Papal States; on the Bosporus they controlled the sole naval outlet from the Black Sea, and could at will block the Russians from the Mediterranean.

Crossing from Hungarian territory into Moslem lands, one would at first note little difference between Christian and Mohammedan civilization. Here too the simple and pious poor tilled the soil under the overlordship of the clever and skeptical rich. But beyond the Bosporus the economic landscape changed: hardly fifteen per cent of the terrain had come under cultivation; the rest was desert, or mountains permitting only mining or pasturage; there the characteristic figure was the Bedouin, black and parched with the sun, and wrapping himself complexly against the sand and the heat. The coastal cities or incidental towns hummed with trade and handicrafts, but life seemed more leisurely than in Christian centers; women stayed at home, or walked in stately dignity under their burdens and behind their veils, and the men moved unhurried along the streets. Industry was nearly all manual, and the craftsman’s shop was a frontal annex to his home; he smoked and chatted as he worked, and sometimes shared his coffee (qahveh) and his pipe with a lingering customer.

By and large the common Turk was so satisfied with his civilization that he had not for centuries tolerated any significant change. As in Roman Catholic doctrine, tradition was as sacred as sacred scripture. Religion was more powerful and pervasive in Islam than in Christendom; the Koran was the law as well as the gospel, and the theologians were the official interpreters of the law. The pilgrimage to Mecca annually led its moving drama over the desert and along the dusty roads. But in the upper classes the rationalist heresies voiced by the eighth-century Mutazilites, and continued through the Age of Faith by Moslem poets and philosophers, received a wide and secret assent. From Constantinople in 1719 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu reported:

The effendis (that is to say, the learned) … have no more faith in the inspiration of Mohammed than in the infallibility of the pope. They make a frank profession of deism among themselves, or to those they can trust, and never speak of their law [the dictates of the Koran and the traditions] but as a politic institution, fit now to be observed by wise men, however at first introduced by politicians and enthusiasts.1

The Sunni and Shi‘a sects divided Islam, as Catholicism and Protestantism divided Western Christianity; and in the eighteenth century a new sect was founded by Mohammad ibn-Abd-al-Wahab, a sheik of the Nejd—that central plateau which we now know as Saudi Arabia. The Wahabites were the Puritans of Islam: they condemned the worship of saints, destroyed the tombs and shrines of saints and martyrs, denounced the wearing of silk and the use of tobacco, and defended the right of each individual to interpret the Koran for himself.2 In all the sects superstitions were popular; religious impostors and bogus miracles found ready credence; and by most Moslems the realm of magic was considered as real as the world of sand and sun.3

Education was dominated by the clergy, who held that good citizens or loyal tribesthen could be more surely made by disciplining character than by liberating intellect. The clergy had won the battle against the scientists, philosophers, and historians who had prospered in medieval Islam; astronomy had relapsed into astrology, chemistry into alchemy, medicine into magic, history into myth. But in many Moslems a wordless wisdom took the place of education and erudition. As the wise and eloquent Doughty wrote: “The Arabs and Turks, whose books are men’s faces, … and whose glosses are the common saws and thousand old sapient proverbs of their oriental world, touch near the truth of human things. They are old men in policy in their youth, and have little later to unlearn.”4 Wortley Montagu, in a letter of 1717, assured Addison that “the men of consideration among the Turks appear in their conversation as civilized as any I have met with in Italy.”5 Wisdom has no nationality.

Poets have always abounded in Islam. The awesome deserts, the encompassing sky, and the infinity of stars on cloudless nights stirred the imagination, as well as religious faith, with the sense of mystery, and the blood idealized with impeded desire the charms that women wisely enhanced with concealment and modesty. In 1774 Sir William Jones, in Commentaries on Arabic Poetry, revealed to alert minds in Western Europe the popularity, elegance, and passion of poetry in Islam. Greatest of Ottoman poets in the eighteenth century was Nedim, who sang in the time of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-30):

Love distraught, my heart and soul are gone for naught, . . .
All my patience and endurance spent. . . .
Once I bared her lovely bosom, whereupon did calm and peace
Forth from my breast take flight. . . .
Paynim [pagan] mole, paynim tresses, paynim eyes, . . .
All her cruel beauty’s kingdom forms a heathenness, I swear.
Kisses on her neck and kisses on her bosom promised she.
Woe is me, for now the Paynim rues the troth she pledged while-ere.
Such the winsome grace wherewith she showed her locks from ‘neath her fez;
Whatsoever wight beheld her, gazed bewildered then and there. . . .
Ruthless, ‘tis for thee that all men weep and wail in drear despair. . . .
Sweeter than all the perfumes, brighter than all dyes, thy dainty frame;
One would deem some fragrant rose had in her bosom nurtured thee. . . .
Holding in one hand a rose, in one a cup, thou comest, sweet;
Ah, I know not which of these—rose, cup, or thee—to take to me.
Lo, there springs a jetting fountain from the Stream of Life, methought,
When thou madest me that lovely lissom shape of thine to see.6

Women had to take what advantage they could of their lissom shapes, for once their lilies and roses faded they were lost in the recesses of the harim. This term was applied not only to the wives and concubines of the husband but to all the females of his household. Seclusion was still their lot in the eighteenth century; they might go out, but (after 1754) they had then to veil all but their alluring eyes, and no male but father, brother, husband and son might enter their apartment. Even after death this separation of the sexes was supposed to remain: saved women would have their own Elysium, apart from the men; saved men would go to another Paradise, where they would be entertained by houris—heavenly nymphs periodically revirginized. Adultery by women was severely punished, and was rare; Arabs swore by “the honor of my women” as their securest oath.7 Lady Mary reported that the Turkish women whom she had been allowed to meet did not resent their separation from the men. Some of them she thought as fair in face and figure, and as refined in manners, as “our most celebrated English beauties.”8 Admitted to one of the many public baths, she discovered that women could be beautiful even without clothing. She was especially charmed by the ladies in a bathing establishment at Adrianople. They invited her to undress and bathe with them; she begged to be excused. “They being all so earnest in persuading me, I was at last forced to open my shirt and show them my stays; which satisfied them very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my power to open it; which contrivance they attributed to my husband”; and one of them remarked, “See how cruelly the poor English ladies are used by their husbands.”9

The Turks were proud of their public baths, and generally considered themselves a more cleanly people than the Christian infidels. Many persons in the upper and middle classes went to a “Turkish bath” twice a week, more of them once a week. There they sat in a steam room until they had sweated abundantly; then an attendant manipulated every joint, massaged the flesh, rubbed it with a coarse cloth, washed it; we do not hear much about arthritis in Turkey. Some other diseases flourished, especially ophthalmia; sand and flies infected the eyes. But the Turks, as we have seen, taught Europe to inoculate for smallpox.

They had no doubt that their civilization excelled that of Christendom. They admitted that slavery was more widespread in Islam, but they saw no real difference between slaves in Turkey and serfs or servants in the Christian world, and Lady Mary and etymology agreed with them. They were as zealous as we in the love and care of flowers; they too, as in Constantinople under Ahmed III (1703-30), had feverish competitions in cultivating tulips; apparently it was the Turks who, through Venice and Vienna and the Netherlands, introduced to Christian Europe the tulip, the Oriental hyacinth, and the garden ranunculus, as well as the chestnut and mimosa trees.10

Art in Turkey was now in decline, as in most Christian lands. The Turks considered themselves superior in pottery, textiles, rugs, decorations, even in architecture. They had inherited the art of endowing abstract painting with logic, communication, and significance. They gloried in the splendor of their faïence (as on the Fountain of Ahmed III in Constantinople), the unfading gleam of their tiles, the strength and delicacy of their weaves, the sturdy brilliance of their rugs. Anatolia and the Caucasus were noted in this age for the lustrous pile and strict geometrical design of their carpets, especially of their prayer rugs, whose columns and pointed arches kept the bent worshiper facing the mihrab that indicated, in each mosque, the direction of Mecca. And the Turks preferred their domed and tiled and mina-retted mosques to the spires and arches and gloomy grandeur of Gothic cathedrals. Even in this declining age they raised the majestic mosques of Nuri-Osmanieh (1748) and Laleli-Jamissi (1765), and Ahmed III brought the style of the Alhambra to the palace that he built in 1729. Constantinople, despite its tangled streets and noisome slums, was probably the most impressive, as well as the largest, of European capitals; its population of two million souls11 was double that of London, three times that of Paris, eight times that of Rome.12 When Lady Mary looked out upon the city and the port from the palace of the British ambassador, she thought they constituted “perhaps, all together, the most beautiful prospect in the world.”13

Over this Ottoman Empire, from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, reigned the sultans of the decline. We have considered elsewhere14 the causes of that decline: the movement of Asia-bound West-European commerce around Africa by sea instead of overland through Egypt or western Asia; the destruction or neglect of the irrigation canals; the expansion of the empire to distances too great for effective central rule; the consequent independence of the pashas and the separatism of the provinces; the deterioration of the central government through corruption, incompetence, and sloth; the repeated rebellions of Janissaries repudiating the discipline that had made them strong; the domination of life and thought by a fatalistic and unprogressive religion; and the lassitude of sultans who preferred the arms of women to those of war.

Ahmed III began his reign by allowing the Janissaries to dictate his choice of a grand vizier. It was this vizier who, when he led 200,000 Turks against the 38,000 troops of Peter the Great at the River Prut, accepted a bribe of 230,000 rubles to let the cornered Czar escape (July 21, 1711). When Venice incited the Montenegrins to revolt, Turkey declared war against Venice (1715), and completed the conquest of Crete and Greece. When Austria intervened, Turkey declared war against Austria (1716); but Eugene of Savoy defeated the Turks at Peterwardein, and compelled the Sultan, by the Treaty of Passarowitz (1718), to evacuate Hungary, to cede Belgrade and parts of Wallachia to Austria, and to surrender to Venice certain strongholds in Albania and Dalmatia. An attempt to balance these losses by raids on Persia brought more reverses; a mob led by a bath attendant killed the Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, and forced Ahmed to abdicate (1730).

His nephew, Mahmud I (r. 1730-54), renewed the struggle with the West to determine by war the flow of taxes and the doctrines of theology. One Turkish army took Ochakov and Kilburun from Russia, another recovered Belgrade from Austria. But the military decline of Turkey was resumed under Mustafa III (1757-74). In 1762 Bulgaria declared itself independent. In 1769 Turkey opened war with Russia to prevent the spread of Russian power in Poland; so began the long conflict in which the armies of Catherine the Great inflicted fatal repulses upon the Turks. After Mustafa’s death his brother Abdul-Hamid I (1774-89) signed the humiliating Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (1774), which finished Turkish influence in Poland, South Russia, Moldavia, and Wallachia, and Turkish control of the Black Sea. Abdul-Hamid renewed the war in 1787, suffered disastrous routs, and died of grief. Turkey had to wait for Kemal Pasha to end two centuries of chaos and make it a modern state.

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