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Observing the Ottomans – Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq in Istanbul (1552-62)

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592), an Imperial subject from Walloon (i.e., French) Flanders, provided Christian Europe with its most comprehensive and informed perspective on the Ottoman power. The illegitimate son of a nobleman, he studied at Leuven/Louvain and a number of Italian universities before entering the service of King (later Emperor) Ferdinand I around 1552. Late in 1554, Ogier traveled to Istanbul for the first time as Ferdinand’s ambassador to the sultan. In 1562, he returned bearing his greatest accomplishment, a peace treaty he had negotiated in Ferdinand’s name with the sultan.

Ogier came to the capital of a young civilization at its peak under Sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520-66), who was called “the Magnificent” by Europeans but “the Lawgiver” by his own people. At the time, Western Christians typically viewed the Ottomans through four distinct lenses: the ethnographic – the Ottomans as an exotic but also comprehensible people; the military – the Ottomans as a conquering race under their sultan, a great warlord, who made war and peace with Christian rulers; the moral – the Ottomans as a cruel, tyrannical, and fearsome race; and, finally, the theological – the Ottomans as agents of the Antichrist, enemies of God and, for the Protestants, spiritual allies of the Roman pope in the world's headlong plunge toward the Last Days. More than any other Christian writer, Ogier brought a vast amount of practical information – much of it accurate, all of it thoughtful – to the ethnographical perspective. He also presented an exceedingly detailed description of Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. His Turkish Letters, first published in 1582 in Latin, were translated into the major European languages. They became the Christian Europeans’ most important source of information on the Ottomans, their civilization, and their empire.

The excerpts reproduced here illustrate two aspects of Ogier's travels to the heart of Ottoman civilization. The first excerpt (A) records his impressions of Istanbul during his first sojourn in the capital. The second (B) offers his reflections on Ottoman and Christian civilization after returning to the Empire in the company of the first Ottoman envoy to a western Christian king.

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A. Ogier in Istanbul.

But I must return to my subject. A messenger was sent to Soleiman with a dispatch announcing my arrival. While we were awaiting his reply, I had an opportunity to see the sights of Constantinople at my leisure.

My first desire was to visit the church of St. Sophia, admission to which was only granted as a special favour; for the Turks hold that the entrance of a Christian profanes their places of worship. It is indeed a magnificent mass of buildings and well worth a visit, with its huge vault or dome in the middle and lighted only by an open space at the top. Almost all the Turkish mosques are modelled upon St. Sophia. They say that formerly it was much larger and that its subsidiary buildings spread over a large area but have now been done away with, and that only the central shrine of the church remains.

As for the site of the city itself, it seems to have been created by nature for the capital of the world. It stands in Europe but looks out over Asia, and has Egypt and Africa on its right. Although these latter are not near, yet they are linked to the city owing to ease of communication by sea. On the left lie the Black Sea and the Sea of Azof, round which many nations dwell and into which many rivers flow on all sides, so that nothing useful to man is produced through the length and breadth of these countries which cannot be transported by sea to Constantinople with the utmost ease. On one side the city is washed by the Sea of Marmora; on another side a harbour is formed by a river which Strabo calls, from its shape, the Golden Horn. On the third side it is joined to the mainland, and thus resembles a peninsula or promontory running out with the sea on one side, on the other the bay formed by the sea and the above-mentioned river. From the centre of Constantinople there is a charming view over the sea and the Asiatic Olympus, white with eternal snow.

The sea is everywhere full of fish, either making their way down, as is their habit, from the Sea of Azof and the Black Sea through the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmora to the Aegean and Mediterranean, or else on their journey up thence to the Black Sea. They travel in such large and densely packed shoals that they can sometimes even be captured by hand. Mackerel, tunny, mullet, bream, and sword-fish are caught in great abundance. The fishermen are usually Greeks rather than Turks. The latter, however, do not despise fish when they are placed before them, provided they are of the kind which they regard as clean; they would sooner take deadly poison than eat the other kinds. I may mention in passing that a Turk would rather have his tongue cut out or his teeth drawn than taste any food which he looks upon as unclean—frogs, for example, and snails and tortoises. The Greeks entertain similar scruples. I had engaged a boy of the Greek religion to serve as a caterer in my household. The other servants had never been able to induce him to eat shell-fish, until one day they placed before him a plate of them so cooked and seasoned that, thinking that they were some other kind of fish, he ate most heartily of them. But when he learnt from their laughter and derision and from the shells which were afterwards shown to him that he had been deceived, you cannot imagine how upset he was. He retired to his chamber and indulged in endless vomiting and tears and misery. It would take fully two months’ pay, he said, to atone for his sin; for the Greek priests are in the habit of charging those who have confessed to them a greater or a less sum for absolution according to the nature and gravity of the offence, and will only grant absolution to those who pay them the price they ask.

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