The Ottomans had a strong cultural and political presence over the Middle East, North Africa and South Eastern Europe (the Balkans) from the fifteenth century onwards until the late eighteenth century. They managed to rule over an ethnically diverse and multi-religious population, consisting of Arabs, Serbs, Bulgars, Crimean Russians, etc., with great success for most of those four centuries. Compared with the Romans and the Byzantines, who had also spread and dominated the vast Mediterranean region in the past, the Ottomans are less well-known or studied in the West. Today, there is debate and mystery concerning how the Ottomans managed to hold together those various subjects peacefully and with amazing harmony for such a long time.
Some modern Western scholars would ascribe the long-lasting existence of Ottoman rule to oppression and a strong military presence. According to this view, it was fear and terror that brought authority and control over at least the Balkans, a dominantly Christian territory. Careful and accurate scholarship, however, has revealed that this was certainly not the case. The majority of historical sources and archives have so far disclosed highly advanced administrative skills in the Ottoman state affairs. The most recent scholarly works, both popular and academic, have unanimously praised and applauded the Ottomans’ cultural and social contributions to the regions they administered, as well as their equitable treatment of their subjects over long periods of time. The Ottoman experience of social and cultural life provides valuable lessons for those nations that live in these regions today: The value of putting aside ethnic, religious and cultural differences, of living together and cooperating for a better future, and the sacredness of human life and the respect for the right of others to live, as well as freedom of expression and religion all existed in this state.
Historically speaking, Western Europe has always been in contact with the Ottomans through commerce or other forms of international relations. Diplomacy in the Middle Ages and afterwards was made possible by ambassadors. These ambassadors would conduct negotiations regarding disputes and sign new agreements. The observations of these special envoys about their visits formed first-hand reliable information about the unknown “others.” For example, in the year 800 AD, on one of these occasions long before the Ottomans, Charlemagne sent an envoy to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid Caliph, with gifts. On his part, the Caliph also sent many gifts to Charlemagne, one famous one being a clock. In a similar vein, many ambassadors had the chance to see and study Ottoman life closely during their visits. These visits considerably increased in number with the agreement of concessions granted by the Ottomans. The ambassadors would often record their experiences as notes or letters, which have proven to be of indispensable value for us today in studying an era and civilization about which not much is known.
Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1520–1592) was one such ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand. He came to Turkey and wrote about the life in Ottoman lands and their public administration practices. Busbecq grew up at Busbecq Castle as the son of the reputable Busbecq family. He studied in famous schools and like his father and grandfather he followed a career as a servant of the crown. He was first sent to England in 1554, and then appointed as ambassador to the Ottomans under the rule of Süleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul from 1555 to 1562.
For the duration of his service in the Ottoman lands, Busbecq constantly wrote letters to a friend in the Netherlands. These were later on published many times, most recently by Forster and Daniel in 1881 as the Turkish Letters. Widely accepted as one of the world’s first travel literatures, Busbecq describes public life and his adventures in the Ottoman land in the letters in some detail. One of the letters is of particular interest as it sheds light on certain historical aspects related to the Janissaries, the well-trained Ottoman guards.
The word “Janissary” had negative connotations in the West during the Middle Ages. The Ottoman Muslim conquests in Eastern Europe certainly contributed to this. However, Busbecq, after a prolonged visit to the Ottoman sultan, had the chance to evaluate the Janissaries and he developed some sympathy with them. In his letter he describes these guards as being of good character and spiritually elevated. In fact, Busbecq starts this letter with a description of these highly-educated Janissaries, how they function and their duties in the Ottoman lands, as well as their equitable and unbiased treatment of the public, poor or rich, Muslim or non-Muslim:
“At Buda I made my first acquaintance with the Janissaries; this is the name by which the Turks call the infantry of the royal guard… Janissaries are scattered through every part of the state, either to garrison the forts against the enemy or to protect the Christians and Jews from the violence of the mob. There is no district with any considerable amount of population, no borough or city, which has not a detachment of Janissaries to protect the Christians, Jews, and other helpless people from outrage and wrong.”
Busbecq goes on to comment about the gentle and polite disposition of Janissaries. In fact, he seems to be quite impressed by the simplicity and modesty of these guards, praising them highly, as can be seen in his next letter:
“These Janissaries generally came to me in pairs. When they were admitted to my dining room they first bowed, and then came quickly up to me, all but running, and touched my dress or hand, as if they intended to kiss it… After reaching the door, they would stand respectfully with their arms crossed, and their eyes bowed to the ground, looking more like monks than warriors… To tell you the truth, if I had not been told beforehand that they were Janissaries, I should, without hesitation, have taken them for members of some order of Turkish monks, or brethren of some Moslem college. Yet these are the famous Janissaries, whose approach inspires terror everywhere.”
According to Busbecq, these soldiers were ready to act even under extremely harsh conditions, accepting with resignation all that happened due to their faith. The Janissaries were certainly trained to obey their commander under the most severe of circumstances. In addition, Busbecq admired the Janissaries, who would never complain about difficulties:
“On such occasions (war or campaign) they take out a few spoonfuls of flour and put them into water, adding some butter, and seasoning the mess with salt and spices; these ingredients are boiled, and a large bowl of gruel is thus obtained. Of this they eat once or twice a day, according to the quantity they have, without any bread, unless they have brought some biscuit with them…”
Busbecq then goes on to compare the attitudes of these soldiers with their Western counterparts and admits the supremacy of the former with stunning self-assessment and criticism:
“From this you will see that it is the patience, self-denial and thrift of the Turkish soldier that enable him to face the most trying circumstances and come safely out of the dangers that surround him. What a contrast to our men! … On their side is the vast wealth of their empire, unimpaired resources, experience and practice in arms, a veteran soldiery, an uninterrupted series of victories, readiness to endure hardships, union, order, discipline, thrift and watchfulness. On ours are found an empty exchequer, luxurious habits, exhausted resources, broken spirits, a raw and insubordinate soldiery, and greedy quarrels; there is no regard for discipline, license runs riot, the men indulge in drunkenness and debauchery, and worst of all, the enemy are accustomed to victory, we to defeat. Can we doubt what the result must be?”
Thus, Busbecq sets out several universal virtues and ethical and moral principles as belonging to the Janissaries. Selflessness, humility, simplicity, integrity, and honor are among the virtues that Busbecq attributes to the Janissaries. He believes the way that individuals are ranked and merited for a job or promotion in the Ottomans is certainly of importance and may help us at least to partially explain the lofty character of the Janissaries. According to Busbecq, the merits for an important position in public service and authority should be based on character and ability, rather than privileges of birth, prosperity or social status:
“No distinction is attached to birth among the Turks; the deference to be paid to a man is measured by the position he holds in the public service. There is no fighting for precedence; a man’s place is marked out by the duties he discharges. In making his appointments the Sultan pays no regard to any pretensions on the score of wealth or rank, nor does he take into consideration recommendations or popularity, he considers each case on its own merits, and examines carefully into the character, ability, and disposition of the man whose promotion is in question. It is by merit that men rise in the service, a system which ensures that posts should only be assigned to the competent…”
These remarks are astounding, even to us today. Being awarded with a position is based on qualifications and past accomplishments rather than social status and rank. This normative statement certainly has political and social implications. Busbecq continues in his claim even further:
“Those who receive the highest offices from the Sultan are for the most part the sons of shepherds or herdsmen, and so far from being ashamed of their parentage, they actually glory in it, and consider it a matter of boasting that they owe nothing to the accident of birth; for they do not believe that high qualities are either natural or hereditary, nor do they think that they can be handed down from father to son, but that they are partly the gift of God, and partly the result of good training, great industry, and unwearied zeal; arguing that high qualities do not descend from a father to his son or heir, any more than a talent for music, mathematics, or the like; and that the mind does not derive its origin from the father, so that the son should necessarily be like the father in character, or emanates from heaven, and is thence infused into the human body. Among the Turks, therefore, honors, high posts, and judgeships are the rewards of great ability and good service. If a man be dishonest, or lazy, or careless, he remains at the bottom of the ladder, an object of contempt; for such qualities there are no honors in Turkey!”
Nobody is held responsible for the misfortunes or sins of their parents. Everybody is accountable for his or her own deeds. The lofty character of a mother and father does not pass to the children at birth. It is how a child is raised and educated that really matters in society. People who are elevated intellectually or spiritually are those who benefit themselves and society. Without a doubt these universal messages that Busbecq proclaims with honesty are ones that we wholeheartedly support.
In addition to being an indispensable source of information about Ottoman life more than four centuries ago, these letters also provide valuable lessons for policymakers. They remind us that the foundations of great civilizations and military power were lofty values and virtues. Power, when in the hands of the righteous, becomes an instrument for stability and balance. On the contrary, when in the hands of a tyrant, power causes chaos and anarchy in the world. Morality, integrity, equity and fairness, as well as merit, are some of the principles that may guide nations towards progress and prosperity. In a sense, a nation will rise when more of its members become selfless and are able to put the interests of “others” before “their own.” Societies that are made up of people who are ready to sacrifice themselves for the better good of others will indeed inherit a better world for their children. They will also be remembered forever. Those who put their own hedonistic ambitions before all else are doomed to be forgotten. Nobody will remember their lavish and inconsiderate lives or existence. The former U.S. president, J. F. Kennedy once said “Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.” It may be most appropriate for us to conclude as follows: “Ask not how others can help you, but ask how you can help others.”
Osman Nal is an associate professor in finance, Texas Southern University.
- Several uprisings by local populations in different parts of the Ottoman State occurred. But their number was very limited. In the case of the Balkans, for at least 200 years, and in the Middle East for at least 400 years, social life was very calm and stable.
- A useful book on the Ottomans is Ottoman Centuries by Lord Kinross and Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin.
- C. T. Forster and F. H. B. Daniel, eds. The Life and Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Vol. I, London: Kegan Paul, 1881.