Military history

Part Five

CHAPTER TWELVE

“Turban’d and Scimitar’d”

THERE IS A DARK LITTLE LITHOGRAPH BY NICOLAS-TOUSSAINT Charlet that shows how Parisians learned of the destruction of the Egyptian-Ottoman fleet at Navarino in 1827. Charlet takes us inside a very humble house, where the neighbors have come to hear the news. A child stands on a table with the newspaper and reads to the gathering of adults. Other children play and dogs roll around on the floor in a typically domestic scene. This picture tells us quite a lot about who was literate and who was not, and shows the process by which the written and printed word was spread far beyond the limits of those who could read for themselves. But since the first days of printing in the 1450s even the unlettered had been able to “read” some things for themselves: pictures.

Images usually have a surface message, but for those who had learned the key, the pictures were charged with deeper meanings.1 Even the illiterate were used to reading images. Not every household in England that owned a copy of John Foxe’s History of the Acts and Monuments of the Church (1563), better known as his Book of Martyrs, was able to follow the text of its more than a thousand pages.2 Nor would they necessarily have been interested in the early persecutions of Christians under long-forgotten Roman emperors. But they could understand the powerful woodcuts and would painstakingly decipher the short captions that described the torments suffered in their own day. For English Protestants these images and the stories were reminders of Catholic oppression and tyranny. Foxe’s book was so enduringly popular that new editions were still being reprinted three centuries after its first publication.

Depictions of the Turk were similarly replete with symbolism. Swords, bows, and spears took the place of the pyres on which the Protestant martyrs suffered, but were just as much perpetual reminders of violence, threat, and danger. And sometimes sexual excess and perversity were suggested instead of savagery. In some images all these elements were present. Many Europeans were convinced that Muslims were pederasts and sodomites. The Turks were held to be devotees of impalement, one of the few forms of cruel punishment not practiced in the West. The depictions of this implied both unnatural sex and excessive cruelty.3

But not all pictures were of this type. Many showed the solemnity of Ottoman life, the Turks’ sumptuous apparel, and their dramatic townscapes full of fine buildings. The Renaissance image of the Turk had multiple facets, some admiring and curious, some fearful. But just as it was difficult for a seventeenth-century Englishman to see a picture of Rome and not recall the Protestant martyrs burnt at Smithfield, the image of the East was tainted with dark or salacious overtones. Every depiction, as Lacan suggested, has been supercharged by the ways in which it has been used before.

Specific images developed slowly. At first few European artists had any notion of how to draw a “Saracen,” so they made them look like Westerners, wearing the same armor, riding the same horses, and often carrying the same arms. So in a picture of the battle of Mansourah in 1250 (during the Seventh Crusade), Louis IX of France is distinguishable from his Muslim opponents only by the crown on his head.4 Gradually, identifying marks appeared. In the windows of the Habsburg chapel at Königsfelden in Switzerland, Saracens were differentiated from Christians by the stylized scorpion emblems on their shields.5 But they still wore European-style armor. It was in Spain, unsurprisingly, that more realistic images were first painted showing infidels as being very different from their Christian adversaries.6 An altarpiece in Valencia showed King James I of Aragon aided by a saint in a battle with the Moors. His adversaries, with their dark features, flowing robes, and heart-shaped shields, could never be mistaken for Christian knights.

THE VIEW OF THE ISLAMIC WORLD IN THE WEST WAS LARGELY imprinted during the two centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This period coincided with the development and spread of the printed word and image in the West. By the late seventeenth century, what the infidel looked like, and how he behaved, had become common knowledge. Hostility to the Islamic world, as I have suggested earlier, had very distant antecedents.7 But printed images, painted works of art, sculpture, and objets d’art gave that hostility a visual identity, which to some extent changed and shifted over time, as new elements were introduced. But the very basics that constituted the infidel enemy remained more or less the same, although their ordering and arrangement altered over the centuries. The process of identification was both visual and textual. Quite often images and words were not in harmony. Sometimes the pictures invoked older and more visceral responses than the written texts that accompanied them. The gap between image and text grew during the eighteenth century, narrowed during the nineteenth, and narrowed further in the twentieth century.

The actors also changed. Until the nineteenth century, the infidel was “the Turk,” but during the first half of that century, Europe also rediscovered what the travel writer A. W. Kinglake called in his book Eothen (1847) “the True Bedouin.”8 The desert dweller was imbued by many Europeans with the qualities of the noble savage that could never be applied to the Ottomans. Forty years after Eothen, Charles Montagu Doughty published his Travels in Arabia Deserta in two substantial volumes. He made heroes both of the desert and of those who lived in it. The French conquest of North Africa also threw up distinctively Arab heroes, such as the Algerian Abd el Kader, who became a latter-day Saladin and noble enemy. The change in the role of images in nineteenth-century publications meant a much greater diversity in what was depicted and how it was presented. Printed images became games that an increasingly educated market could read and decipher. As a consequence of that cultural shift, it is a mistake to search for a single stereotypical perception, the sense of unmitigated hostility of the Middle Ages. Images and texts in the nineteenth century and later are both more complex and more allusive, for they assume a literate audience. The Punch cartoons that I discussed in chapter 10have to be read in context: not for nothing was Punch’s secondary title “The London Charivari,” a colloquialism for a cacophony or hubbub. It took some skill to make sense of the discordance.

Yet despite these new styles and modes of presentation, older attitudes toward the infidel East still remained. Quite how this shadow first developed is not at all clear. Early (fifteenth- and sixteenth-century) images alone could not, I suggest, root the idea of the infidel particularly deeply. For one thing they did not exist in any great number.9 About “Turks” there was nothing like the plethora of mordantly abusive (and highly memorable) Lutheran images of the pope and his cardinals. Here images usually made visible and specific what had already been named. But with the “Turk” the visual form sometimes anticipated the words. Take the deeply curved saber, often with an absurdly broad tip that made it look like some kind of meat cleaver: we call it a scimitar. The first recorded usage of the word “scimitar” in English to refer to a curved Turkish sword came in 1548, long after the image had become a visual signifier of the fierce and dangerous Turk. Quite where the word had originated no one knows. It was not a Turkish term, and has no obvious etymology.10 Yet it became emblematic of the infidel. In, for example, Molière’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme, first performed in 1670, a strange “Turkish Ceremony,” delivered in an outlandish “lingua franca,” was used to ennoble the gullible Bourgeois, Monsieur Jourdain.11 The objects that transform him into a noble Turk are a turban and a scimitar. The Bourgeois first appears “dressed in the Turkish style, but without a turban [turbanta] or scimitar [scarcina].” Then, ceremoniously, “the Mufti” bestows these on him and, lo, he becomes a Turk. “Scimitar” and “turban” remained symbols of the Turk well into the twentieth century. Dr. George Horton, American consul general in Smyrna, in his Turcophobe book The Blight of Asia, published in 1922, described how “the Turk, wherever his scimitar reached—degraded, defiled and defamed—blasting with eternal decay Roman, Latin civilization, until when all had gone he sat down satisfied with savagery to doze into hopeless decrepitude.”12

A “scimitar” featured in the first printed images of the outlandish Turks that had been based on observation.13 These appeared in The Pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Peregrinatio in terram sanctam) written by a secular official of the cathedral of Mainz, Bernard von Breydenbach. In April 1483, he began a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the company of the artist Erhard Reuwich and a number of aristocratic travelers. Breydenbach always intended an account printed with wood engravings since he made Reuwich sketch the places they visited, as well as a set of images of the people in the Holy Land. The most dramatic features of the book were the panoramic views of the ports the party passed through, especially the pullout view of Venice, more than six feet in length, and one of the earliest depictions of the Queen of the Adriatic.

Reuwich, even in his panoramas, had a wonderful eye for social detail. He sometimes took a high-angle perspective, looking down on an urban scene, but also incorporating the surrounding countryside. Here we can see robbers holding up travelers and other crimes, women washing clothes, and punishments being executed. Breydenbach’s writing was competent, but it was Erhard Reuwich’s woodcuts that made the work stand out. Other images were embedded in the text, such as a group of Turks riding, Saracens with their women, a Jew with bags of coin, travelers settling down to a meal. The image of the Jew struck an uncertain note, but the rest showed only curiosity and no obvious hostility.14

Breydenbach’s book was first printed by Reuwich in Mainz in 1486, and subsequently appeared in some twelve editions, in Latin, Dutch, German, Spanish, and French.15 It became a staple ingredient in later compilations such as Samuel Purchas’s famous compendium, or history of the world, Purchas His Pilgrimes, first published in 1625.16 In the dedication of the first part to Charles, Prince of Wales (soon to be King Charles I), Purchas wrote that he had “out of this chaos of confused intelligences framed this historical world by a new way of Eye Evidence.” “Eye Evidence” was very different from the fantasies of Sir John Mandeville, and wrong or grotesquely opinionated though some of Purchas’s witnesses may have been, they had indeed seen with their own eyes what they described.17

But with The Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, both author and illustrator had seen the sights—at the time this was highly unusual. Reuwich’s depictions became one standard source for future images of the East. His Turks and Saracens wore turbans and flowing robes. They were all armed, with characteristic bows and “scimitars.” Their faces were lean and hawkish. Yet not all readers would see the same images when they read Breydenbach’s text. The French edition published in Lyons in 1488 was a free adaptation by Nicholas le Huen, with fanciful copper engravings instead of Reuwich’s woodcut originals. Over time the range of images supposedly depicting the Ottomans, some based on “Eye Evidence,” increased enormously. Indeed, these depictions came to epitomize the mysterious East in all its aspects. In many biblical scenes, Jews of the time of Jesus Christ wore the flowing robes and capacious turbans of sixteenth-century Turks.

These same elements—robes, curved swords, and turbans—became (with the omnipresent crescent) the emblems of a mortal enemy. In Othello, Shakespeare succinctly described the enemy (the “circumcised dog”) in terms his audience would recognize. He calls him “a malignant and a turbaned Turk.”18 Suggestive details were essential. In 1522, the well-known Nuremberg artist Hans Sebald Beham produced a single-sheet engraving of the contemporary Turkish attack on the island of Rhodes, then occupied by the Knights of St. John. Some of the details seem out of place. Beham’s besieged city of Rhodes looks like a south German town. His Turks fire Western-type field guns, and advance like the German mercenary infantry, known as landsknechts, on the breaches in the city walls. Their ships at sea are potbellied Atlantic vessels, not sleek Mediterranean galleys.

But a few deft symbolic touches specified an unmistakably Eastern and mighty enemy.19 The attackers all wear turbans, they carry curved swords. They have Eastern-style war tents, each decorated with a crescent half-moon, while on the foreshore an unfortunate (and we presume) Christian has been impaled on a stake. The Turks appear as disciplined and implacable opponents. Beham’s large engraved image was intended for an affluent audience, but similar visual components appeared on numerous cheaper pamphlets and broadsheets in Germany in the first half of the sixteenth century. Also in 1522, an anonymous pamphlet called A Little Book About the Turks: A Useful Discourse or Conversation Among Several People went through four editions, and was reprinted again in 1527 and 1537.20 There were many more “informative” publications, all dwelling on the new Turkish danger, a powerful enemy who had captured the impregnable island of Rhodes and the well-defended fortress of Belgrade within a few months. Most of these had very short texts of four or five pages only, and many had illustrated covers or some engravings within.

How people “read” these pamphlets and illustrated books is impossible to know.21 But the images themselves seem to me to provide the key. Michel de Certeau devised a wonderfully vivid phrase—“a laminated text”—to describe the situation where two different and contrary types of material are bonded together.22 He was thinking about types of written text and not of the relationship between image and text, but the tensions I found were similar to the examples that he gave. Laminating an image to a text on the same page creates instability. The text is read sequentially, from the top left to the bottom right of the page; anything interrupting that flow distorts meaning. So even the most appropriate image is never wholly harmonious with the text. The image is there to attract attention. It is read or understood in ways very different than the words that surround it.

The repertoire available to a woodcut artist was much more limited than the resources available to a writer. In practice, woodcuts were intended to be simple and dramatic, and so often, in this context, heightened the fierce and bellicose qualities of the Muslim infidels. When the printer Johann Haselberg wrote and published his own pamphlet in 1530, exhorting Emperor Charles V to attack the Turk, he commissioned a front cover depicting the two armies. The turbaned host led by Sultan Suleiman, “the arch-enemy of the Christian faith,” confronts the forces of Christendom led by Emperor Charles. The latter wears peacock’s feathers on his helmet, symbolizing immortality and resurrection. The cover image strongly influenced how the inside text was understood. Then, as now, a reader absorbed the text with that image in mind.

In the period bounded by the Turkish destruction of the Hungarians at the battle of Mohacs in 1526 and the Turkish defeat at Lepanto in 1571, ever more potent and complex ways of portraying the malevolent and powerful Ottomans were devised. Beham’s fairly simple imagery was superseded by increasingly convoluted designs. At the end of the sixteenth century, the court artists of Charles V’s great-nephew Emperor Rudolf II got to work on the “Turkish menace,” and produced Baroque masterpieces. However, despite their sophistication, the images were still governed by the same limited range of basic themes that reached back to the incunabula, the very first printed books. Jan Müller’s engravings from this era show swords and scimitars, bows and arrows, and even grander turbans. These elements remained the fundamental visual signature of the Turk.

The arrangement and deployment of these symbols—weapons and costume—began to alter subtly in the first decades of the eighteenth century, in part, remarkably, as a result of a shared interest in flowers. Flowers had been highly visible in the Ottoman capital from the mid–sixteenth century. By the 1630s the famous Turkish traveler Evliya Chelebi was estimating that there were some 300 florists in Constantinople. The open meadows along the Golden Horn were filled with tulips and lilacs in the spring and the lilacs’ scent was intoxicating. The introduction of the tulip to Europe from Turkey in the mid–sixteenth century, first to Augsburg in 1559, then to Antwerp and the Habsburg domains in the Netherlands between 1562 and 1583, revived a passion for flowers and gardens in the West. Mass production of blooms developed into an industry in the Netherlands, and tulip bulbs were exported across Europe. The Margrave of the small state of Baden Durlach had more than 4,000 tulips in his garden by 1636, all carefully listed in his garden registers.23

This “Tulipomania” that gripped Europe during the seventeenth century eventually subsided (after making many fortunes and breaking many more). But it had an aftershock in the Ottoman domains early in the eighteenth century. Sultan Ahmed III had an excessive passion for tulips, and his reign, between 1703 and 1730, became known as lale devri, “the Tulip Era.” The blooms that decorated his palaces were not the wild native Turkish or Persian varieties but the products of European horticultural ingenuity. These exotic (and often diseased) specimens, as gaudy as parrots, marbled in different colors, were called “bizarres” or “fantasticks.” They were very different from the simple slender flowers long revered by the Turks. Yet they were ravishing and infinitely seductive to the Ottoman taste. The French ambassador reported in 1726 that there were

500,0 bulbs in the Grand Vizier’s garden. When the Tulips are in flower and the Grand Vizier wants to show them off to the Grand Seigneur [the sultan] they take care to fill any spaces with Tulips picked from other gardens and put in bottles. At every fourth flower, candles are set into the ground at the same height as the Tulips and the pathways are decorated with cages of all sorts of birds. All the trellis work is bordered with flowers in vases, and lit by a vast number of crystal lamps of various colours.24

This was not quite the old image of cruel barbarity.

It is impossible to be precise about the date but certainly beginning in the Tulip Era the symbolic connotations of “the Turk” began to gather new and extended meanings. The similarity of the tulip’s appearance to a turban was first noted by the Habsburg ambassador to Constantinople Ghislain de Busbecq in the 1550s. He was passionate about flowers and, based upon this visual connection, mistakenly gave the tulips their name—a corruption of the Turkish for turban, tulban. But turbans, once the symbol of Eastern violence, now acquired an additional, softer connection. When the first Ottoman embassies came to France in the 1720s, turbans, heavy silks, furs, and flowing robes suddenly became immensely desirable. The fashion for being painted in Oriental dress, à la Turque, spread throughout Europe’s aristocracies. For the West, flowers, silks, and flowing robes suggested an indolent life rather than the rigors of the field of battle (although the evidence of earlier images showed that turbans and kaftans had done nothing to hinder the Ottomans in war).

À la Turque was also a fashion suggestive of the boudoir, and highly eroticized images of the Ottomans began to proliferate. Where once the limitless and boundless energy of the sultan and his pashas had evoked blood and gore, now images of them suggested ravening lust, raw sex, and brutal passions in the harem.25 Early in the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson’s satires in The Harem depicted this connection with an obscene directness, but the same association appeared in myriad if less direct images. The scene had shifted from the field of glory to the bedroom. The “young sultanas in the seraglio” in the harem of little girls (and the harem of little boys) in the marquis de Sade’s One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom were the dark side of à la Turque.26

THERE IS NO ACCURATE TOTAL FOR IMAGES MASS-PRODUCED IN THE Western world between 1480 and 1800. In seventeenth-century Netherlands alone the number reaches the many millions.27 Cheap popular literature often had a decorative cover image, often disconnected from the detail of the text. The picture defined the genre, such as a horrible murder or a romance. But by the eighteenth century a more elevated role for the printed image had also emerged. The “pattern book” for this concept of publication was the great Encyclopédiepublished by Denis Diderot between 1751 and 1772, in seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates.28 Diderot had originally intended a close integration between words and images, but the circumstances of the publication of the Encyclopédie and the physical separation of images from related text made this impossible. In handling words and images together the Encyclopédie had a number of successful precursors. One of the most ambitious was The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations of the Known World, in seven volumes, published by the noted engraver Bernard Picard.29

Picard was born a Catholic in Paris. His dazzling talent as a draftsman first emerged during his training at the Académie Royale. But in his thirty-seventh year he settled in Amsterdam and converted to Protestantism. He was already an established and successful engraver when he conceived the idea of a comprehensive and comparative study of all the religions of the world. The nineteenth-century Catholic writer Count Joseph de Maistre lambasted Picard’s “Protestant burin” because he attacked the Spanish Inquisition which Maistre sought to defend.30 This trivialized Picard’s objective, which was to depict all religions equally. The texts of the many editions of the book vary considerably. The first version, published in Amsterdam between 1733 and 1743, was the work in the form that Picard intended. In the second part of the seventh volume, in a note to the reader (Avis au lecteur), he denounced the 1741 French edition, which had been “adjusted” to meet the requirements of the censor. The Amsterdam volume reprinted the new material that had offended Picard. The various English editions were abridged and reworked. But while the texts altered, the pictures remained. In one sense, this is not surprising: Picard’s renown was as an engraver, and the texts were written and rewritten by a number of different authors, around his images.

However, it is odd that one particular illustration, perhaps the most sophisticated in the entire work, should have escaped the censor’s attention. In the seventeenth century the frontispiece—inside the book, usually facing the title page—had developed as a visual epitome of the book, rather like the dust jacket in the twentieth century. By the eighteenth century readers had become used to these visual arguments.31 Picard’s engraving was extraordinarily complex, and to make sure there was no ambiguity he provided a long caption. But he did not describe in this everything that he showed. Protestant sectarians stand side by side with the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church. Behind them are pagodas and fanciful idols, while to one side animists worship animals and the powers of nature. But in the foreground there is a little cliff, no more than a few feet high, and on the ground at the foot of that cliff sit the Muslims.32 The reader immediately inferred by their clothes, weapons, and wild look that these were Muslims. Another sure sign was that they are grouped around a signature camel. It was no accident that they sit next to the mouth of hell, with the anguished faces of the damned grimacing through the thick iron grille. This single image, unlike any other in the many volumes of Picard’s “scientific” history, captured an idea that every Christian would recognize: the Muslim infidels were “below” every other faith and they were close to hell’s mouth, through which they might soon pass. This was an impression that any Western reader would receive from this frontispiece, the essence of the entire work. It expresses the great power of the infidel stereotype, built up over centuries, despite Picard’s intention to cleanse himself of all prejudice.

The Ceremonies and Religious Customs is an early example of the Enlightenment’s desire to document the known universe in all its aspects. This vast task included recording the mysterious world of the East, but this project was flawed. Europeans instinctively believed in the immutable timelessness of the East, and this attitude suffused many of the great projects of accumulated knowledge. One of the first was Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s survey of the military power of the Ottoman Empire. Marsigli had made a surreptitious visit to the Ottoman lands between 1679 and 1680, and wrote the text of his report on his return.33 Fifty years later, two years after Marsigli’s death in 1730, it was published. He had been working on the illustrations up to a few days before his death.34 But by that time, the military structure of the Ottomans was not the powerful machine it had been in the period before the disastrous failure outside Vienna in 1683.

Nothing of this decline appears in the book as published. It was copiously illustrated, and Marsigli’s manuscripts in the library of the Royal Armory in Stockholm show a neatly handwritten text with drawings and watercolors in position. For the rest of the eighteenth century (and bizarrely, beyond) Marsigli’s seventeenth-century vision was taken to be a largely up-to-date statement on Ottoman military might. His book was published in French, then in Italian, and even, in 1737, in St. Petersburg in a Russian edition.35 A more remarkable suspension of temporality took place with the translation of the imperial ambassador Busbecq’s famous Latin Letters into English. Busbecq described the Ottoman Empire as he remembered it from the 1550s. In 1744, his Letterswere marketed in English by an enterprising bookshop/publisher as “containing the most accurate account of the Turks, and neighbouring nations.”36

Through the eighteenth century an ever-growing number of Western artists visited the Ottoman domains and painted or drew what they saw. Some, like Jean-Baptiste Van Moeur and Jean-Etienne Liotard, spent long periods in Constantinople, but the world they depicted was part real and part fantasy. Liotard, and others, specialized in painting Westerners in Constantinople dressed in authentic Ottoman costumes. Antoine de Favrey’s picture of 1754 was entitled Turkish Women, but it is highly unlikely that his models were, as he suggested, Ottoman Muslim women. The images these artists created were much more exact and “accurate” than those produced a century before. But they also painted for a market that demanded that they portray what they could not possibly have seen. No male artist could have entered a woman’s bathhouse or the private quarters of an Ottoman house where the women and children lived. Fleeting impressions became fixed as an immovable depiction of the empire. The artists painted the formal ceremonial court dress of Ottoman officials on grand state occasions. The Western audience assumed that these were the clothes Ottomans wore every day, winter and summer. European artists lived among Western diplomats and expatriates, or among the Ottoman Christian or Jewish communities. Not surprisingly, they reflected the mores, interests, and prejudices of their hosts.

However, there was one huge work in the eighteenth century on the Ottoman Empire that presented what the author, Ignatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson, saw as the empire’s underlying reality. He was determined, for the first time, systematically to show the Ottoman world to the West, faithfully illustrating the text so that word and image told the same story in a General Picture [Tableau général] of the Ottoman Empire, Divided into Two Parts, of which One Contains the Muhammadan Legislation, the Other the History of the Ottoman Empire. This aim was born out of frustration. Half-Armenian, half-French, Catholic, born an Ottoman subject, and spending his life until middle age in the Ottoman domains, he was increasingly angered by the plethora of books and images that failed to portray that world as he knew it. In his preamble (Discours préliminaire) he was very precise about his intention. Other authors, he declared, had only looked at the surface of this vast state, “without understanding the [underlying] causes. Illusions and error result from these distant, superficial and fleeting perspectives.” This misapprehension had serious consequences. “Absolute ignorance” and “barbarism,” said d’Ohsson, were the usual epithets applied in Europe to the Ottomans. In reality he was even more of an enthusiast for the empire than most Muslim Ottomans. One, Ebu Bekir Ratib, Ottoman ambassador to Vienna in 1792, wrote that “God knows, he is so zealous for the Sublime State that if I say [he is] more so than we [are], I would not be speaking falsely.”37

D’Ohsson’s ambition for his project knew no bounds. His book was to be published by the royal press, the Imprimerie de Monsieur, using the finest printers in Paris, run by the Didot family. The engravings were to be carried out by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, the best practitioner of the day. The three elephant folio volumes, and the seven smaller octavo volumes of the “popular” edition, contained only the smaller part of his vaunting vision.38 Carter Findley described this as “a vast never-to-be-completed survey of Islamic and pre-Islamic history, from ancient Egypt and Iran to the Mongols; this was to be followed by a history of the Ottoman Empire [from distant origins to 1774], and then—this part being the Tableau général—the legislation of the Ottoman Empire.”39 Thus, only one aspect of the grand plan ever emerged into print in its full glory. Reading it now, it seems like a precursor (in publishing terms) of the grandest publication of the nineteenth century: the French imperial Description of Egypt (Description de l’Egypte). D’Ohsson’s first two huge volumes, published in the late 1780s, must have been known to Napoleon as he planned to immortalize his own entry into Egypt in 1798–9.

For almost two centuries “M. de M*** d’Ohsson” has seemed as romantic and mysterious a character as Alexander Dumas’ count of Monte Cristo. Was the baron d’Ohsson really the descendant of an ancient Swedish noble family, or was he simply an Armenian trader who worked in the Swedish embassy in Constantinople? He was the son of Oannes Mouradgea, an Ottoman Armenian in the service of the Swedish consulate in Izmir, and Claire Pagy, the daughter of a French consular clerk in the same port. In 1740 Ignatius was born in Pera, a European quarter of Constantinople across the Golden Horn. He followed his father and became a translator to the Swedish embassy in 1763; by 1768 he was chief translator. He was appointed chargé d’affaires in 1795, and later briefly held the highest post in the Constantinople embassy, head of mission.

An advantageous marriage to the daughter of a rich Armenian merchant banker, Abraham Kuliyan, had financed a style of life far beyond his income as a translator. By 1780, Ignatius was also in business with his father-in-law, as well as working for the embassy. In 1786, the king of Sweden allowed him to change his name in honor of an uncle who had shown him “paternal kindness.” This figure was, it seemed, conveniently called d’Ohsson, an imaginative rendering by Ignatius of his uncle’s Armenian patronymic Tosunyan, which meant, roughly, “raging bull.” This francophone appellation carried him a long way. In 1780, he was given a Swedish title of nobility, and he progressed from “le sieur Mouradgea” through “le chevalier de Mouradgea” to, finally, “le chevalier d’Ohsson.” At the French court he presented himself as an unambiguously Oriental figure. Amid the perruques, satins, and silks, he strode about in the flowing robes of an Ottoman official and the tall and peaked fur hat worn by embassy translators. His wife died in 1782, and from 1784 to 1792 he lived in Paris to oversee the publication of his great work.

The project had been in his mind since 1764, when he read one of the first Turkish printed books from the long-defunct press of Ibrahim Müteferrika, which I shall discuss in the next chapter. D’Ohsson planned his Tableau with care over many years. He employed artists to paint and draw locations, costumes, and grand events in conditions of secrecy. His governing principles were accuracy and utility, and the result was a work that lacked the sensationalism of the many Western images. The most telling example of this difference is in his engraver’s portrayal of the women’s bath. By the late eighteenth century this had already become a site of fevered lubricity for Westerners. What happened within could only be imagined, since men had no access. But the later painting by Ingres of The Bath was both the apogee of a long tradition of depicting naked female flesh en masse and also the beginning of a fertile theme in Orientalist art. How did d’Ohsson’s book display the women’s (as well as the separate men’s) bathhouse? The only naked flesh on show was that of a mother discreetly feeding her infant; everyone else was clothed in the tradition of Eastern modesty. Even on this point, where his Western audience expected a different (and possibly titillating) vision of the Ottomans, d’Ohsson adhered to what he knew to be true.

The first volume of the de luxe edition appeared in 1787, the second in 1789. The third and final volume was published in 1820, thirteen years after his death, by his son Abraham. Publication of what he hoped would be a mass market edition began in 1788, but that too was only completed in 1824. Plans for an English translation never came to fruition, nor did schemes for a grand Viennese German-language edition, although parts did appear in German, Swedish, and Russian, while a curious hybrid version was published in Philadelphia in 1788. The latter held out the allure of “Exhibiting Many Curious Pieces of the Eastern Hemisphere, relative to the Christian and Jewish Dispensation; with various Rites and Mysteries of the Oriental Freemasons.” D’Ohsson’s dignified presentation of a true image of the East had been debased. There is an extraordinary graphic quality to both his writing and to the carefully designed images that make his words real. But the market demanded something different: “Curious Pieces,” depicting Oriental lust, despotism, and cruelty. By the time that publication was finally completed, any substantial audience for the Tableau was about to vanish. After the massacre of Chios in 1822, few people in France wanted to read or see anything that presented the Ottomans in a benign light.

D’Ohsson’s attempt to defy the dominant discourse was doomed to failure: not even three volumes in elephant folio could disrupt it. But the form that the discourse took was not immobile. The West’s image of the Ottoman East, Asli Çirakman suggests, moved from a wide disparity of conflicting views in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a single consistent hostility in the eighteenth. However, this process of change continued, and not always in the same direction. In her view, in the first period the image was a simple tyranny, in the second it appeared as a more complex despotism.40 But if we take the story forward into the nineteenth century, the shape changes again. After 1829, when the Ottomans abandoned the seductive silks and furs and put aside the turban in favor of the fez and Stambouline frock coat, they began to be depicted in the West as new men, set on the path of progress. Yet they still carried the irredeemable taint of their origins, as Gladstone presented it in his diatribe of 1876:

They are not the mild Mahometans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladins of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain. They were, on the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity … For the guide of this life, they had a relentless fatalism: for its reward hereafter, a sensual paradise.41

Over the centuries, under Western eyes, the Muslim infidel had assumed many different guises.42 They had been Agarenes, Ishmaelites, Saracens, Moors, Turks, Tartars, Bedouins, Arabs. With each iteration the image of the infidel became more precise. Visually speaking, an Agarene or an Ishmaelite or even a Saracen has no particular shape. It is just a name. But Moors, Turks, or Bedouins have a very precise and definite visual image. They have become fixed, in the sense that a photographic image is chemically “fixed” and made permanent, by printed images and by works of art.

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