Diana Darke

What did the Ottoman Empire ever do for us? Quite a lot, in fact

Contrary to the prevailing view, the Turkish civilisation had an egalitarian, multi-cultural outlook which protected Jews

October 21, 2022 10:32

November 2022 marks the centenary of the Ottoman Empire’s demise and much attention, as usual, will be focussed on the final bloody decades. Western Europe’s prevailing view of their gigantic eastern rival has tended to be overwhelmingly negative, with deeply embedded stereotypes like “the terrible Turk” and “the Ottoman yoke” drowning out any narrative that dares to highlight a few positives.

But an empire that lasted over 600 years, spanned three continents and ruled over 30 million subjects comprising more than 70 ethnicities speaking 12 different languages must have got something right.

The secret of Ottoman success lay in its egalitarian approach, as in Bursa, the model Ottoman city and first capital, which was designed from the bottom-up, around the needs of the community. When UNESCO added Bursa to its list of World Heritage Sites in 2014, it cited the city as an example of “exceptional urban planning… with its social, religious and commercial functions reflecting the values of the society and the values it accepted from its neighbours, during long years of migration from Central Asia to the West… in the integration of Byzantine, Seljuk, Arab, Persian and other influences.”

Theirs was the most cosmopolitan state on earth, with community services free to all, irrespective of religion or ethnicity. From the outset, in 1299, Osman, as leader of the Turkmen tribe that gave the empire its name, accepted that if their state was to prosper in a world surrounded by enemies, they needed people with the skills that they themselves, as nomads, lacked. Spiritual guides in the form of Sufi dervishes, honest traders and merchants, craftsmen, artisans, poets, scribes and civil servants with organisational abilities were all welcomed, no matter what their religion or ethnicity. As a result, the empire flourished and was, on the whole, run by people of genuine ability. The same mindset informed their approach to refugees, whom they consistently welcomed and supported.

When Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Jews from Spain in 1492, the Ottoman sultan received them warmly, understanding that grateful refugees, after being helped and supported by the state to get back on their feet, would become productive, tax-paying citizens. “You call Ferdinand a wise king,” mocked the sultan, “he who makes his land poor and ours rich!”

Expulsion of religious minorities was a common feature of the European landscape from the late Middle Ages onwards. Those who did not follow Christianity were cast out, especially after the powerful medieval pope Innocent III forbade Christians from living, working or trading with Jews. England expelled its Jews in 1291, France in 1343 and many German states in the early 1400s. Renaissance Europe expelled thousands of Jews, not only from Spain and Portugal but also from Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The Spanish Sephardim, reviled by the Inquisition, were stripped of their wealth and banished. As a result, from the 16th century onwards, the Ottoman Empire hosted the largest Jewish communities in the world, with Istanbul and Thessalonica their biggest centres. Along with other non-Muslims, the Sephardim simply had to pay the poll tax (a sum that was lower than their previous tax obligations in Catholic Spain) and to pledge obedience.

In the mid-15th century, a rabbi from Istanbul spread the word to Jews in Spain: “Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of. We possess great fortunes; much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes, and our commerce is free and unhindered. Everything is cheap and every one of us lives in peace and freedom.

“Here the Jew is not compelled to wear a yellow star as a badge of shame, as is the case in most of Germany, where even wealth and great fortune are a curse for a Jew because he therewith arouses jealousy among the Christians and they devise all kind of slander against him to rob him of his gold.

“Arise my brethren, gird up your loins, collect all your forces and come to us.”

Antisemitism baffled the Ottomans. When occasional anti-Jewish riots broke out in Constantinople, they were invariably stirred up not by Muslims but by Christians accusing Jews of the ritual kidnapping, murder and eating Christian children.

Jews enjoyed the protection of the Ottomans against persecution till the end of the 19th century and Jews remain the largest minority in Istanbul to this day.

Russia compounded the refugee problem by repeatedly initiating wars against Ottoman territories as part of its imperial agenda. The native populations of Circassia and Abkhazia were dispossessed and ejected, forcing the Ottomans to take in more than 800,000 Caucasian refugees. In response, the Ottoman state mounted the first ever organised set of actions to a mass influx of forced migrants, issuing a Refugee Code in 1857.

Local towns and cities were asked to open up their mosques and churches to shelter and feed the exiles, while various local authorities levied municipal taxes per head to help fund the necessary food and clothing. Each immigrant family was provided with an initial amount of capital and a plot of state land so that they could start life anew as agricultural workers.
The refugees were given exemptions from conscription and taxation for six years in Rumelia (the Ottoman province that would later be known as the Balkans), or 12 years in Anatolia or Greater Syria. In many ways, Ottoman statecraft represented the complete opposite of modern nationalism, in that their system of government tolerated, even encouraged, multiculturalism, thereby facilitating their longevity.

When it came to state responsibilities like public health, the Ottomans extended the same facilities to all, without discrimination. They provided free, clean running water at public fountains, public baths and 1,400 public toilets in the capital Istanbul at a time when most Europeans believed it was cleaner not to bathe at all.

Throughout their rule, persistent plagues, including the Black Death, afflicted the empire, which they managed to control through mask-wearing and quarantine stations along the Dardanelles where ships would self-isolate before being allowed into the capital. They developed a smallpox vaccination in 1717, well ahead of Europeans, and by 1840 vaccinations were free to all and obligatory for civil servants, students and the military, as well as for refugees displaced by Russian invasions of Ottoman territory.

The Ottomans treated mental illness with kindness, believing it could be cured through the calming influences of music, flowing water, nature, gardens and plant life, aided by a simple vegetarian diet and herbal teas, at a time when sufferers in Europe were either abused or locked up.

Animals were likewise cared for, with the first animal hospital, the Helpless Stork Foundation, set up in the 19th century for treating broken wings. Caring for street animals like cats and dogs was regarded as a religious duty.

To this day, the sentiment lives on in a Turkish law guaranteeing the protection of strays from cruelty, resulting in a special bond between the people of Istanbul and street dogs, touchingly documented in the 2021 film Stray.

The Ottomans, as nomads accustomed to living alongside nature, were instinctive environmentalists in ways we could learn from today. The court architect Sinan (who died in 1588) was so environmentally aware that in designing the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, he made sure that the soot from thousands of candles and oil lamps was funnelled by air circulation into a filter room before the clean air was then released into the city. The soot itself was channelled into a water fountain where it was mixed to create high-quality ink for calligraphy. This ink had natural insect repellent properties, thereby protecting precious manuscripts and prolonging their life — it was recycling perfection, with 16th century flair.

Travelling across multiple borders in today’s powder keg mix of unviable, mutually antagonistic states in the Balkans and the Levant, I sometimes find myself wondering if people really were happier once they were “freed from the Ottoman yoke”.

‘The Ottomans: A Cultural Legacy’ by Diana Darke is published this month
by Thames and Hudson (£25)

October 21, 2022 10:32

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