Letters from a pre-Orientalist
William Armstrong - email@example.com‘Turkish Letters’ by Ogier de Busbecq (Eland, 2001, 30TL, pp 175)
Ogier de Busbecq traveled to the Ottoman Empire as diplomatic representative for the Habsburg ruler Ferdinand I in the mid-sixteenth century. It was a difficult duty to undertake, coming at a time when Ottoman-Habsburg hostility was close to its historic height. In fact, Busbecq was first sent to conduct the Habsburg side of peace talks between the two powers, as well as to negotiate a border treaty with the Ottoman authorities.
The “Turkish Letters” take the form of four epistles addressed to fellow Habsburg diplomat Nicholas Michault. Purportedly private letters, they were in fact artificial literary creations, written after Busbecq had returned to Vienna from the notes taken during his travels. Loquacious and (often unintentionally) amusing, they describe the people he met, the local animals, the plants, his fascination with ancient coins, his constant struggle to find adequate supplies of wine for his retinue, as well as his diplomatic fortunes (and, just as often, misfortunes – the third letter describes the circumstances around how the authorities came to hold him as a political prisoner on his return to Istanbul).
Busbecq was one of the earliest Europeans to record his impressions of life within the Ottoman Empire. He did so when the empire was at zenith under Süleyman the Magnificent, a forbidding threat felt across the whole of Europe. Although Busbecq’s attitude was often unapologetically hostile, he was therefore writing without the condescension of subsequent generations and was quick to acknowledge those areas in which the Ottomans excelled at the time: military discipline, professional meritocracy (although exaggerated), and even their methods of keeping animals. His “Turkish Letters” were also written before the clichéd European assumptions of later centuries had gained ground. The Turks he comes across are thus characterized as frugal, patient, sober, and economical - far from the typical empty-headed stereotypes of Oriental exoticism. Similarly, when Busbecq reflects on the restrictive seclusion of Muslim women, his observations are free of any hint of prurient lasciviousness - in stark contrast to later Orientalists.
Like so many who followed, traveling to the East also forced Busbecq to reflect back on his own culture, and these reflections were often unflattering. As Philip Mansel writes in this volume’s informative introduction: “Busbecq’s letters form part of that tradition, almost as strong as that of Christian contempt, of European humanists praising the Ottoman Empire in order to criticize their own societies and advertise … independence of spirit.” While in one sentence Busbecq could be accusing the Turks of “savage barbarism,” in the next he would be admitting: “The grievous bonds wherewith the Turks oppress the Greeks are no worse than the vices which hold us in thrall – luxury, gluttony, pride, ambition, avarice, hatred, envy, and jealousy.” Elsewhere, the Habsburg military forces are compared unfavorably to those of the Ottomans:
On their side are the resources of a mighty empire, strength unimpaired, experience and practice in fighting, a veteran soldiery, habituation to victory, endurance of toil, unity, order, discipline, frugality, and watchfulness. On our side is public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength, broken spirit, lack of endurance and training … license, recklessness, drunkenness, and debauchery are rife.
Although the Ottomans were enemies, Busbecq understood that if he approached them with the right measure of curiosity he could also learn from them. His “Turkish letters” similarly have something to teach the curious modern day reader.
Recommended recent release
‘Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia’ by Nicholas Doumanis
(Oxford University Press, $65, pp 272)