While undertaking a larger study on the biases and commonplaces in Romanian popular history, we encountered several deep-rooted preconceived ideas of the image of the Turk amidst the largest section of the Romanian people. We must point out clearly that ours was not a study of history, but rather a study of what we have called “third-form [third-grade] history”-the elementary teachings on history all nations present to their youngest pupils, often mixed with mythology and legend, often historically inaccurate, often anecdotal and literary rather than fact-based. With all its shortcomings as to precision and method, “third-form history” has by far more practical importance and more force than real, serious, factual history because it reaches the souls of all the citizens in a nation, and it is there to stay as it has reached those souls at an early stage and shapes later, more mature opinions.
It is our observation that the popular image in Romania of the Turk as an enemy is a late, nineteenth-century acquisition, triggered by the political motives of contending Romanian groups at the time, and it has rolled on ever since with no real justification in “third-form History,” including in school textbooks. For the first four hundred years or so of common, close ties in Romanian–Turkish history there is no serious indication leading us to think that the Turk’s image was the image of the “enemy” for Romanians as a whole. The Turk’s image, as it emerges from the chronicles of the time, is essentially based on religious difference-he is “the Pagan,” the believer in a “wrong belief,” just like the Catholic (“the Papist”) or the Mosaic (“the Jew”). The difference in religion does not necessarily entail hostility or enmity.
Things change in the nineteenth century when Moldova and Walachia are disputed by the Russian and the Ottoman empires, to the point that legends of the Moldovan capital of Iasi say that the local princes had a huge double-sided painting with a portrait on one side of the Sultan and on the other side of the Tsar: according to which empire’s troops entered the capital, they would display one side of the painting or the other. This is probably a legend or an exaggeration, but it is illustrative of the political atmosphere in the extra-Carpathian Romanian Principalities, an atmosphere proper for the development of pro-Russian and pro-Ottoman partisan groups-political parties, in all but name. Later, there would also emerge a pro-Western “party.” It was in order to accomplish their immediate and local goals that the anti-Ottoman “parties” forged the image of the Turk as an enemy.
This image was forged against a rather favorable popular image the Turk had gained after centuries of rather tolerant suzerainty. A popular rhyme of the time-still quoted by the national poet Mihai Eminescu late in the second half of the nineteenth century-claimed that “Our affairs would have been prosperous if the Turk was not as he is; a master warrior, but a poor diplomat.” (“Bine ne-ar fi fost în toate, dacă turcul n-ar fi fost / Mester numai la războaie, da-n diplomatică, prost!”). The evaluation, while notably precise-the Ottomans fought bravely and successfully the Tsarist troops in the 1806–1812 war, but made a disadvantageous peace, handing over the eastern part of Moldova to Russia, on account of the betrayal of their grand dragoman, the Greek Nicolae Moruzi-does not lack sympathy and understanding for the Turk. But instead of this Romanian frustration taking an anti-Russian or even anti-Greek form, it took, thanks to “third-form history,” an anti-Turkish form. Like all biases, this one too proved to be self-entertaining, and rolled through the centuries with nothing to fuel it after the 1877 Romanian Independence war, a war of doubtful utility for Romania, in Mihai Eminescu’s opinion (as well as, modestly, in ours), since after the 1829 Adrianopolis peace, the advantages of Turkish suzerainty far outweighed the disadvantages.
But the change for the worse of the Turk’s image as a result of local political interests in the nineteenth century is frustrating to the truth-seeking researcher for reasons lying deeper in history, namely, the fact that the Romanian people owes to a degree the free conservation and development of its identity throughout the late Middle Ages to the full observation by the Turks of the original treaties between the two nations. We shall further develop this subject.
The original peace treaties between the Ottoman Empire and the principalities of Walachia and Moldova-the so-called “old capitulations”-were agreed by the Turks with the greatest princes in the history of these countries: with Mircea the Old for Walachia at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and with stefan the Great for Moldova, at the end of the same century. Both these treaties were agreed after the Romanians had obtained brilliant military victories against the Turks. Therefore, their accepting Turkish suzerainty was considered, according to Islamic principles, as willing surrender, not as surrender obtained by force. Walachia and later Moldova were thus considered “Dar-ul-Sulh,” Lands of Peace. According to the Qur’anic recommendations, such countries received much better treatment than countries conquered by the sword-“Dar-ul-Harb,” or Lands of War. This treatment was inferior only to that received by Muslim countries-“Dar-ul-Islam,” or lands of Islam. While the neighboring peoples-Bulgarians, Serbians, for a short time Hungarians-received the “Dar-ul-Harb” treatment and lost their autonomy, being ruled by Turkish generals, the Romanian principalities of Walachia, Moldova and for a short time Transylvania enjoyed the “Dar-ul-Sulh” treatment.
Practically, this meant three main provisions in the “old capitulations”:
a) the interdiction of Turks’ ownership of land north of the Danube (with the exception of four bridgehead cities-“raia”).
b) the interdiction of religious proselytism by Turks north of the Danube.
c) the political autonomy of the principalities, which were to be ruled by Christian princes.
Later, the “old capitulations” were repeatedly transgressed by the Moldovan and Walachian princes, allowing in principle the Turks to transgress in their turn the three above-mentioned main provisions. However, they felt Qur’an-bound and Islam-bound to continue treating the two principalities as “Dar-ul-Sulh.” It is our opinion that this constancy of the Turks in observing the treaties, namely the three provisions, allowed the Romanians to maintain and develop their national and religious identity during the late Middle Ages in much better conditions than the neighboring peoples.
And it is a pity that this merit of the Turks, and of Islam, does not find its way into “third-form History” textbooks in Romania for presentation to the young.
Died on January 8, 2009, Victor Nitelea was a former expert, Romanian Commission for UNESCO and a leading Romanian journalist.
Victor Nitelea (April 8th 1952 – January 8th 2009) was my best friend in Romania. He was a unique person in many ways-an intellectual with a vast ability to incorporate sound knowledge and wisdom in politics and history as well as in mathematics and engineering. When he told me that he had written a dissertation on table tennis, I told him that it would not be a surprise if he came out with another thesis on spacecraft.
The Great Stefan told his child with his dying breath, “You can always trust Turks as they never betray you.” Victor had a deep trust in me as his Turkish friend. We had long, delightful discussions. He was a good listener, while his knowledge was enough to be the only speaker in any conversation.
He wrote fourteen books, was columnist on several journals, and appeared regularly on TV shows. He had a beautiful mind and was a popular face in the community. It was very sad hearing the news that he had lung cancer. I could not imagine the coming days without his company. Romania was not only losing an intellectual but also a good believer. Victor was a monotheist, saying that God cannot be associated with partners. He had deep respect for the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Before he died, he gave me an article about the relationship between Turks and Romanians. For him, it was because of Turks that Romania still exists as a nation and as a country. Sharing this essay with The Fountain readers is, I hope, a fair treatment of his legacy.
I had the chance to meet him many times. I hope this essays provides an opportunity for The Fountain readers to have a conversation with Mr. Nitelea.
Dr. Ahmet Ecirli, University of Bucharest, Department of Sociology