1. Government

Were they civilized? Of course; the notion that the Turks were barbarians as compared with the Christians is a self-propping delusion. Their agricultural methods and science were at least as good as those of the West. The land was tilled by tenants of feudal chieftains who in each generation had to earn their holdings by serving the sultan satisfactorily in administration and war. Except in textiles, ceramics, and perhaps in arms and armor, industry had not yet developed a factory system as in Florence or Flanders, but Turkish craftsmen were famous for their excellent products, and the absence of capitalism was not mourned by rich or poor. The merchants had not reached in sixteenth-century Islam the political influence or social position then accorded to them in Western Europe. Trade between Turk and Turk was noted for its relative honesty, but between Turk and Christian no holds were barred. Foreign commerce was mostly left to foreigners. Moslem caravans moved patiently over the ancient and medieval land routes into Asia and Africa, even across the Sahara; and caravansaries, many of them set up by Suleiman, offered the merchant and traveler resting places on the way. Moslem vessels, till 1500, controlled the sea routes from Constantinople and Alexandria through the Red Sea to India and the East Indies, where exchange was made with goods borne by Chinese junks. After the opening of India to Portuguese merchants by the voyage of Da Gama and the naval victories of Albuquerque, the Moslems lost control of the Indian Ocean, and Egypt, Syria, Persia, and Venice entered into a common commercial decline.

The Turk was a man of the earth and the sea, and gave less thought to religion than most other Mohammedans. Yet he too reverenced mystics, dervishes, and saints, took his law from the Koran, and his education from the mosque. Like the Jews, he shunned graven images in his worship, and looked upon Christians as polytheistic idolaters. Church and state were one: the Koran and the traditions were the basic law; and the same ulema, or association of scholars, that expounded the Holy Book also provided the teachers, lawyers, judges, and jurists of the realm. It was such scholars who, under Mohammed II and Suleiman I, compiled the definitive Ottoman codes of law.

At the head of the ulema was the mufti or sheik ul-Islam, the highest judge in the land after the sultan and the grand vizier. As sultans had to die, while the ulema enjoyed a collective permanence, these theologian-lawyers were the rulers of everyday life in Islam. Because they interpreted the present in terms of past law, their influence was strongly conservative, and shared in the stagnation of Moslem civilization after Suleiman’s death. Fatalism—the Turkish qismet or lot—furthered this conservatism: since the fate of every soul had been predetermined by Allah, rebellion against one’s lot was impiety and shallowness; all things, death in particular, were in the hands of Allah, and must be accepted without complaint. Occasionally a freethinker spoke too frankly, and, in rare instances, was condemned to death. Usually, however, the ulema allowed much liberty of thought, and there was no Inquisition in Turkish Islam.

Christians and Jews received a large measure of religious freedom under the Ottomans, and were permitted to rule themselves by their own laws in matters not involving a Moslem.27 Mohammed II deliberately fostered the Greek Orthodox Church because the mutual distrust of Greek and Roman Catholics served the Turks in countering crusades. Though the Christians prospered under the sultans, they suffered serious disabilities. Technically they were slaves, but they could end that status by accepting Mohammedanism, and millions did. Those who rejected Islam were excluded from the army, for Moslem wars were ostensibly holy wars for the conversion of infidels. Such Christians were subject to a special tax in lieu of military service; they were usually tenant farmers, paying a tenth of their produce to the owner of their land; and they had to surrender one infant out of every ten to be brought up as a Moslem in the service of the sultan.

The sultan, the army, and the ulema were the state. At the sultan’s call each feudal chieftain came with his levy to form the sipahis or cavalry, which under Suleiman reached the remarkable figure of 130,000 men. Ferdinand’s ambassador envied the splendor of their equipment: clothing of brocade or silk in scarlet, bright yellow, or dark blue; harness gleaming with gold, silver, and jewelry on the finest horses that Busbeq had ever seen. An elite infantry was formed from captive or tributary Christian children, who were brought up to serve the sultan in his palace, in administration, and above all in the army, where they were called yeni cheri (new soldiers), which the West corrupted into Janissaries. Murad I had originated this unique corps (c. 1360), perhaps as a way of freeing his Christian population from potentially dangerous youth. They were not numerous—some 20,000 under Suleiman. They were highly trained in all the skills of war, they were forbidden to marry or engage in economic activities, they were indoctrinated with martial pride and ardor and the Mohammedan faith, and they were as brave in war as they were restlessly discontent in peace. Behind these superlative soldiers came a militia of some 100,000 men, kept in order and spirit by the sipahis and the Janissaries. The favorite weapons were still the bow and arrow and the lance; firearms were just coming into use; and at close quarters men wielded the mace and the short sword. Suleiman’s army and military science were the best in the world at that time; no other army equaled it in handling artillery, in sapping and military engineering, in discipline and morale, in care for the health of the troops, in the provisioning of great numbers of men through great distances. However, the means were too excellent merely to serve an end; the army became an end in itself; to be kept in condition and restraint it had to have wars; and after Suleiman the army—above all, the Janissaries—became the masters of the sultans.

The conscripted and converted sons of Christians formed most of the administrative staff of the central Turkish government. We should have expected that a Moslem sultan would fear to be surrounded by men who might, like Scanderbeg, yearn for the faith of their fathers; on the contrary, Suleiman preferred these converts because they could be trained from childhood for specific functions of administration. Very likely the bureaucracy of the Ottoman state was the most efficient in existence in the first half of the sixteenth century,28 though it was notoriously subject to bribery. The Diwan or Divan, like the cabinet in a Western government, brought together the heads of administration, usually under the presidency of the grand vizier. It had advisory rather than legislative powers, but ordinarily its recommendations were made law by a kanun or decree of the sultan. The judiciary was manned by qadis (judges) and mullas (superior judges) from the ulema. A French observer remarked the diligence of the courts and the promptness of trials and verdicts,29 and a great English historian believed that “under the early Ottoman rulers the administration of justice was better in Turkey than in any European land; the Mohammedan subjects of the sultans were more orderly than most Christian communities, and crimes were rarer.”30 The streets of Constantinople were policed by Janissaries, and were “probably freer from murders than any other capital in Europe.” 31 The regions that fell under Moslem rule—Rhodes, Greece, the Balkan—spreferred it to their former condition under the Knights or the Byzantines or the Venetians, and even Hungary thought it fared better under Suleiman than under the Hapsburgs.32

Most of the administrative offices of the central government were located in the serai or imperial quarters—not a palace but a congeries of buildings, gardens, and courts, housing the sultan, his seraglio, his servants, his aides, and 80,000 of the bureaucracy. To this enclosure, three miles in circuit, admission was by a single gate, highly ornamented and called by the French the Sublime Porte—a term which, by a whimsy of speech, came to mean the Ottoman government itself. Second only to the sultan in this centralized organization was the grand vizier. The word came from the Arabic wazir, bearer of burdens. He bore many, for he was head of the Diwan, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the army, and the diplomatic corps. He supervised foreign relations, made the major appointments, and played the most ceremonious roles in the most ceremonious of European governments. The heaviest obligation was to please the sultan in all these matters, for the vizier was usually an ex-Christian, technically a slave, and could be executed without trial at a word from his master. Suleiman proved his own good judgment by choosing viziers who contributed a great deal to his success. Ibrahim Pasha (i.e., Abraham the Governor) was a Greek who had been captured by Moslem corsairs and brought to Suleiman as a promising slave. The Sultan found him so diversely competent that he entrusted him with more and more power, paid him 60,000 ducats ($1,500,000?) a year, gave him a sister in marriage, regularly ate with him, and enjoyed his conversation, musical accomplishments, and knowledge of languages, literature, and the world. In the flowery fashion of the East Suleiman announced that “all that Ibrahim Pasha says is to be regarded as proceeding from my own pearl-raining mouth.” 33 This was one of the great friendships of history, almost in the tradition of classic Greece.

One wisdom Ibrahim lacked—to conceal with external modesty his internal pride. He had many reasons to be proud: it was he who raised the Turkish government to its highest efficiency, he whose diplomacy divided the West by arranging the alliance with France, he who, while Suleiman marched into Hungary, pacified Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt by reforming abuses and dealing justly and affably with all. But he had also reason to be circumspect; he was still a slave, and the higher he raised his head the thinner grew the thread that held the royal sword above it. He angered the army by forbidding it to sack Tabriz and Baghdad, and trying to prevent its sack of Buda. In that pillage he rescued part of Matthias Corvinus’s library, and three bronze statues of Hermes, Apollo, and Artemis; these he set up before his palace in Constantinople, and even his liberal master was disturbed by this flouting of the Semitic commandment against graven images. Gossip charged him with despising the Koran. Sometimes he gave entertainments surpassing those of Suleiman in cost and magnificence. Members of the Diwan accused him of talking as if he led the Sultan like a tamed lion on a leash. Roxelana, favorite of the harem, resented Ibrahim’s influence, and day by day, with feminine persistence, filled the imperial ear with suspicions and complaints. The Sultan was finally convinced. On March 31, 1536, Ibrahim was found strangled in bed, presumably as the result of a royal command. It was a deed whose barbarism matched the burning of Servetus or Berquin.

Far more barbarous was the law of imperial fratricide. Mohammed II had phrased it frankly in his Book of Laws: “The majority of the legists have declared that those of my illustrious children who shall ascend the throne shall have the right to execute their brothers, in order to ensure the peace of the world; they are to act accordingly”;34 that is, the Conqueror calmly condemned to death all but the eldest born of his royal progeny. It was another discredit to the Ottoman system that the property of a person condemned to death reverted to the sultan, who was therefore under perpetual provocation to improve his finances by closing his mind to an appeal; we should add that Suleiman resisted this temptation. As against such vices of autocracy we may acknowledge in the Ottoman government an indirect democracy: the road to every dignity but the sultanate was open to all Moslems, even to all converted Christians. However, the success of the early sultans might have argued for the aristocratic heredity of ability, for nowhere else in contemporary government was so high an average of ability so long maintained as on the Turkish throne.

2. Morals

The diversity of Ottoman from Christian ways flagrantly illustrated the geographical and temporal variation of moral codes. Polygamy reigned quietly where Byzantine Christianity had so recently exacted formal monogamy; women hid themselves in seraglios, or behind veils, where once they had mounted the throne of the Caesars; and Suleiman attended dutifully to the needs of his harem with none of the qualms of conscience that might have disturbed or enhanced the sexual escapades of Francis I, Charles V, Henry VIII, or Alexander VI. Turkish civilization, like that of ancient Greece, kept women in the background, and allowed considerable freedom to sexual deviations. Ottoman homosexuality flourished where “Greek friendship” had once won battles and inspired philosophers.

The Turks were allowed by the Koran four wives and some concubines, but only a minority could afford the extravagance. The warring Ottomans, often far removed from their wonted women, took as wives or concubines, currente thalamo, the widows or daughters of the Christians they had conquered. No racial prejudice intervened: Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian, Hungarian, German, Italian, Russian, Mongol, Persian, Arab women were welcomed with open arms, and became the mothers of children who were all alike accepted as legitimate and Ottoman. Adultery was hardly necessary under the circumstances, and when it occurred it was severely punished: the woman was obliged to buy an ass and ride it through the city; the man was flogged with a hundred strokes, and was required to kiss and reward the executioner who dealt them. A husband could secure a divorce by a mere declaration of intent, but a wife could free herself only by complex and deterrent litigation.

Suleiman remained a bachelor till his fortieth year. Since the wife of Bajazet I had been captured and allegedly abused by Timur and his Tatars, the Ottoman sultans, to forestall another such indignity, had made it a rule not to marry, and to admit none but slaves to their bed.35 Suleiman’s seraglio contained some 300 concubines, all bought in the market or captured in war, and nearly all of Christian origin. When they expected a visit from the Sultan they attired themselves in their finest robes, and stood in line to greet him; he saluted courteously as many as time allowed, and placed his handkerchief on the shoulder of one who especially pleased him. That evening, on retiring, he asked that the recipient should return his handkerchief. The next morning she would be presented with a dress of cloth of gold, and her allowance would be increased. The sultan might remain in the harem two or three nights, spreading his bounty; then he returned to his own palace, to live day and night with men. Women rarely appeared in his palace, and took no part in state dinners or ceremonies. Nevertheless it was considered a great honor to be assigned to the seraglio. Any inmate of it who reached the age of twenty-five without earning a handkerchief was freed, and usually found a husband of high estate. In Suleiman’s case the institution did not lead to physical degeneration, for in most matters he was a man of signal moderation.

Social life among the Ottomans was unisexual, and lacked the gay stimulus of women’s charms and laughing chatter. Yet manners were as refined as in Christendom, probably more refined than in any lands except China, India, Italy, and France. Domestic slaves were numerous, but they were humanely treated, many laws protected them, and manumission was easy.36 Though public sanitation was poor, personal cleanliness was common. The institution of public baths, which the Persians seem to have taken from Hellenistic Syria, was transmitted to the Turks. In Constantinople and other large cities of the Ottoman Empire the public baths were built of marble and attractively decorated. Some Christian saints had prided themselves on avoiding water; the Moslem was required to make his ablutions before entering the mosque or saying his prayers; in Islam cleanliness was really next to godliness. Table manners were no better than in Christendom; meals were eaten with the fingers off wooden plates; there were no forks. Wine was never drunk in the house; there was much drinking of it in taverns, but there was less drunkenness than in Western lands.37 Coffee came into use among the Moslems in the fourteenth century; we hear of it first in Abyssinia; thence it appears to have passed into Arabia. The Moslems, we are told, used it originally to keep themselves awake during religious services.38 We find no mention of it by a European writer till 1592.39

Physically the Turk was tough and strong, and famed for endurance. Busbeq was astonished to note how some Turks received a hundred blows on the soles of their feet or on their ankles, “so that sometimes several sticks of dogwood are broken on them, without drawing any cry of pain.” 40 Even the ordinary Turk carried himself with dignity, helped by robes that concealed the absurdities of the well-fed form. Commoners donned a simple fez, which dressy persons enveloped in a turban. Both sexes had a passion for flowers; Turkish gardens were famous for their color; thence, apparently, came into Western Europe the lilac, tulip, mimosa, cherry laurel, and ranunculus. There was an esthetic side to the Turks which their wars hardly revealed. We are surprised to be told by Christian travelers that except in war they were “not by nature cruel,” but “docile, tractable, gentle... lovable,” and “generally kind.” 41 Francis Bacon complained that they seemed kinder to animals than to men.42 Cruelty emerged when security of the faith was threatened; then the wildest passion was let loose.

The Turkish code was especially hard in war. No foe was entitled to quarter; women and children were spared, but able-bodied enemies, even if unarmed and unresisting, might be slaughtered without sin.43 And yet many cities captured by Turks fared better than Turkish cities captured by Christians. When Ibrahim Pasha took Tabriz and Baghdad (1534), he forbade his soldiers to pillage them or harm the inhabitants; when Suleiman again took Tabriz (1548) he too preserved it from plunder or massacre; but when Charles V took Tunis (1535), he could pay his army only by letting it loot. Turkish law, however, rivaled the Christian in barbarous penalties. Thieves had a hand cut off to shorten their grasp.44

Official morals were as in Christendom. The Turks were proud of their fidelity to their word, and they usually kept the terms of capitulation offered to surrendering foes. But Turkish casuists, like such Christian counterparts as St. John Capistrano, held that no promise could bind the faithful against the interest or duties of their religion, and that the sultan might abrogate his own treaties, as well as those of his predecessors.45 Christian travelers reported “honesty, a sense of justice... benevolence, integrity, and charity” in the average Turk,46 but practically all Turkish office-holders were open to bribery; a Christian historian adds that most Turkish officials were ex-Christians,47 but we should further add that they had been brought up as Moslems. In the provinces the Turkish pasha, like the Roman proconsul, hastened to amass a fortune before the whim of the ruler replaced him; he exacted from his subjects the full price that he had paid for his appointment. The sale of offices was as common in Constantinople or Cairo as in Paris or Rome.

3. Letters and Arts

The weakest link in Ottoman civilization was its poor equipment for the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. Popular education was generally neglected; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Instruction was mostly confined to students intending to study pedagogy, law, or administration; in these fields the curriculum was lengthy and severe. Mohammed II and Suleiman took time to reorganize and improve the madrasas, and the viziers rivaled the sultans in gifts to these mosque colleges. Teachers in these institutions enjoyed a higher social and financial status than their counterparts in Latin Christendom. Their lectures were formally on the Koran, but they managed to include literature, mathematics, and philosophy; and their graduates, though richer in theology than in science, kept fully abreast of the West in engineering and government.

Only a small minority of the population could read, but nearly all of these wrote poetry, not excepting Suleiman. Like the Japanese, the Turks held public competitions in which poets read their offerings; Suleiman took a courtly pleasure in presiding over such Parnassian games. The Turks honored a hundred poets in this age, but our immersion in our own grandeur and idiom has left us unaware of even their greatest lyric poet, Mahmud Abdu’l-Baqi. His career spanned four reigns, for though he was forty when Suleiman died, he had another thirty-four years of life in him. He gave up his early trade as a saddler to live by his verse, and would surely have suffered want had not Suleiman befriended him with sinecures. Adding praise to profit, the Sultan wrote a poem on the excellence of Baqi’s poetry. Baqi paid him back in a powerful dirge mourning Suleiman’s death. Even in the translation, which loses dignity by seeking to preserve the multiple rhymes of the original, something of the poem’s passion and splendor emerges:

Prince of Fortune’s cavalier! he to whose charger bold,
Whene’er he caracoled or pranced, cramped was earth’s tourney-square!
He to the luster of whose sword the Magyar bowed his head!
He, the dread gleaming of whose brand the Frank can well declare!
Like tender rose-leaf, gently laid he in the dust his face;
And Earth, the Treasurer, placed him like a jewel in the case.
In truth he was the radiance of rank high and glory great,
A Shah, Iskander-diademed, of Dara’s armed state;
Before the dust beneath his feet the Sphere bent low its head;
Earth’s shrine of adoration was his royal pavilion’s gate.
The smallest of his gifts the meanest beggar made a prince;
Exceeding bounteous, exceeding kind a potentate! ....
Weary and worn by this sad, changeful Sphere, deem not thou him;
Near God to be did he his rank and glory abdicate.
What wonder if our eyes no more life and the world behold!
His beauty fair, as sun and moon, did earth irradiate ....
Now let the cloud blood drop on drop weep, and its form bend low!
And let the Judas-tree anew in blossoms gore-hued blow!
With this sad anguish let the stars’ eyes rain down bitter tears,
And let the smoke from hearts on fire the heavens all darkened show ...
The bird, his soul, hath, huma-like, aloft flown to the skies,
And naught remaineth save a few bones on the earth below...
Eternal may the glory of the heaven-high Khosru dwell!
Blessings be on the monarch’s soul and spirit—and farewell! 48

The Turks were too busy conquering powerful states to have much time for those delicate arts that had heretofore distinguished Islam. Some fine Turkish miniatures were produced, with characteristic simplicity of design and breadth of style. Representative painting was left to the scandalous Christians, who in this age continued to adorn with frescoes the walls of their churches and monasteries; so Manuel Panselinos, perhaps borrowing some stimulus from Italian Renaissance murals, frescoed the church of Protaton on Mount Athos (1535–36) with paintings freer, bolder, more graceful, than those of Byzantine times. The sultans imported artists from West and East—Gentile Bellini from Venice, Shah Kali and Wali Jan, miniaturists, from heretical Persia. In painted tiles, however, the Ottomans needed no alien aid; they used them to dazzling effect. Iznik made a name with the excellence of its faïence. Scutari, Brusa, and Hereke, all in Asia Minor, specialized in textiles; their brocades and velvets, adorned with floral themes in crimson and gold, impressed and influenced Venetian and Flemish designers. Turkish carpets lacked the poetic brilliance of the Persian, but their stately patterns and warm colors evoked admiration in Europe. Colbert induced Louis XIV to order French weavers to copy some Turkish palace rugs, but to no avail; the Islamic mastery remained beyond the reach of Occidental skill.

Turkish art reached its peak in the mosques of Constantinople.* Not even Mashhad in its crowded architectural splendor, nor Isfahan in the days of Shah Abbas, perhaps only Persepolis under Xerxes, equaled, in Persian or Moslem history, the grandeur of Suleiman’s capital. Here the spoils of Ottoman victories were shared with Allah in monuments expressing at once piety and pride, and the determination of the sultans to awe their people with art as well as arms. Suleiman rivaled his grandfather, Mohammed the Conqueror, in building; seven mosques rose to his order; and one of these (1556), taking his name, surpassed St. Sophia in beauty, even while imitating its assemblage of minor cupolas around a central dome; here, however, the minarets, raising their treble prayer to audacious heights, served as sparkling counterpoint to the massive base. The interior is a confusing wealth of decoration: golden inscriptions on marble or faïence, columns of porphyry, arches of white or black marble, windows of stained glass set in traceried stone, pulpit carved as if it were a lifetime’s dedication; this is perhaps too sumptuous for reverence, too brilliant for prayer. An Albanian, Sinan, designed this mosque and seventy more, and lived, we are told, to the age of one hundred and ten.

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