What Have Turks Given the World?

In my previous post, I attempted to show that Western Europe tends to have a rather stereotyped and historically questionable view of Turks which colours their dealings with the modern Republic of Turkey. I wasn’t trying to argue for any cultural identity to replace the misconceptions, and certainly not to suggest any kind of cultural superiority. Nevertheless, the article seems to have provoked a response in some circles, and a question I have been asked is: What have those Turks actually given the world?

‘The problem is that Turkey was never part of the Enlightenment, and didn’t produce a Madame Curie or any significant medical or scientific discovery that benefited mankind that has any resonance with people in the West.’

Well, it’s a fair question, I guess, if a little unkind, and I’m grateful for it because it has given me a theme for this article – and new inspiration doesn’t always come easily. An apparently simple question, however, does not always elicit a simple answer. I guess, if there is a unifying theme to these articles, that would probably be it. One question often leads to another, and yet another, and before you know it, you have a 2,500 word rave!

At the outset, then, it’s important to define our terms. Who, exactly, do we mean when we say ‘Turks’ or ‘Turkey’. As I tried to suggest in my previous post, Westerners tend to have a rather confused concept of Turkish-ness – and even ‘Turks’ themselves would have difficulty defining the word. In an earlier article I discussed the concept of ‘Greek-ness’, another term that tends to be confused in the mind of the ordinary Westerner-in-the-street. Do we mean the people of the modern nation we Westerners call ‘Greece’? Or do we mean the citizens of the loose confederation of city-states we choose to call ‘Ancient Greece’? Do we include the ‘Greek’ speaking, ‘Greek’ Orthodox citizens of the Byzantine Empire? In both of the latter cases, the majority of the people concerned actually lived on the ‘Turkish’ side of the Aegean Sea, so you see the nature of the problem.


Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, is often quoted as saying: “Happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk.’” It wasn’t just rhetoric. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, with major assistance from the European victors of the First World War. Nations were being created from the ethnic groups that formerly made up the Empire: Greeks, Bulgarians, ‘Yugoslavians’, Armenians . . . In order to save at least the Anatolian heartland of the Empire, Ataturk was obliged to create a national identity that could be fought for. So, if you wanted to live in the new country, and you said you were a Turk, that’s what you would be.

There is an analogous situation in New Zealand, where a proportion of seats in the Parliamentary House of Representatives are reserved for members of the indigenous race. There are no blood or DNA tests, or examinations of skin, eye and hair colour; nor is there any compulsion. Essentially, if you identify with the concept of Maori-ness, say you are Maori, and have your name entered on the Maori electoral roll, the law of the land will consider you Maori.

So, the first definition of ‘Turk’ we can consider would be ‘a citizen of the modern Republic of Turkey.’ If we accept this narrow sense of the word, then there was no ‘Turk’ and no ‘Turkey’ prior to 1923. However, I suspect that is not what the questioners have in mind. It’s certainly not a definition that would be accepted by the Armenian genocide activists, who insist that modern Turkey is responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire. So we need to look for something else.

One of the points I was trying to make in last month’s article was that the present-day citizens of modern Turkey have very little in common with the Turkic tribes that emerged in waves from the steppes of Central Asia from time immemorial, despite what Turkish school kids are taught in their history lessons. The connection is probably comparable to the relationship between the modern citizens of the United Kingdom, and the Anglo-Saxon migrants who invaded ‘England’ in the 5th century CE. In fact, given that the existing religion and culture in Anatolia were stronger, the Turkish cultural influence was very likely less. Nevertheless, I will resist the tempting diversion of asking what those Anglo-Saxon tribesmen (and women) gave the world. I will merely direct the curious reader to a wee poem, much loved by my Scottish kinfolk, entitled ‘Wha’s Like Us?’ – in which thirteen key inventions of English daily life are shown to have been actually invented by Scotsmen.

Anyway, I don’t want to be seen as avoiding the issue, or using cheap debating tricks to turn the tables on my interrogators. So, let me address myself to what is probably the spirit of the question: What did those Turkic invaders from the steppes give the world? And I hope I may be allowed to include the Ottomans here. If modern Turks are expected to shoulder responsibility for the sins of their predecessors, it seems unreasonable to deny credit for their virtues.

Well, let’s start with the Central Asian Turks, since those are the ones who started the problem in the first place. If they’d just stayed where they were, Europeans would’ve been a lot happier and more comfortable. They could have just kept on fighting each other in their petty little wars and not had to bother about uniting against a major outside threat. If nothing else, it might have saved them from having to take collective responsibility for the present-day debts of the Greeks and the Irish. Certainly they wouldn’t have had to fight the Crusader Wars; and they could have continued traveling overland to Asia, so they might never have had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and maybe they’d never have ‘discovered’ America. In which case, Native Americans would probably have been a lot happier too – and maybe quite a number of Africans and their descendants could have continued to live undisturbed in their benighted ignorance.

But enough of the negatives. Are there any positives? Well, yoghurt, for a start. You knew that one, didn’t you! What about the stirrup? Bet you didn’t know the Turks brought that out of Central Asia and it didn’t reach Europe until the 7th century CE. However, once it arrived, it apparently caused great upheavals. Some historians have even claimed that it led to the birth of feudalism. And on a related subject, take the composite reflex bow, a handy little weapon that allowed mounted horsemen to shoot arrows to deadly effect. Despite its small size, it is claimed to have a 50% greater range than a longbow, with less effort required to bend it. Of course, its advantages faded with the introduction of firearms – but then, gunpowder itself came from China! I’m not going to claim shish kebab for the Turks, since ‘kebab’ apparently originated in Persia – but the word ‘shish’ is indisputably Turkish. The making of felt from wool is another debatable one, since its origins are lost in the mists of time – but the Turks certainly had it early, and used it to good effect in making tents and clothes to withstand the rigours of winter on the steppes. Then there is Turkish delight, which I will return to later; and the Turkish bath . . .

Let’s move on to the Ottomans, rulers of an empire that lasted from 1299 till 1923 – a five-century regime that compares favourably in duration with pretty much any other empire you could name. In fact, if you care to include their predecessors, the Seljuks, whose empire extended from the Central Asian steppes to the shores of the Aegean, you could add at least another two centuries to that. Hard to imagine that anyone could rule anyone or anywhere for that length of time without leaving some kind of cultural mark. However, specifics are called for, so let’s delve in . . .

I have to confess that one thing that has prevented me from really familiarising myself with the growth and spread of Islamic culture, has been its sheer complexity and multifariousness. My eyes tended to glaze over as I read of Sassanids and Abassids, Samanids and Ghaznavids, and other clearly important ‘-ids’ who succeeded each other in controlling ‘the East’ for centuries after the armies of the Prophet emerged from the Arabian desert.

However, if you would like a grotesquely over-simplified nutshell version of what was going on, you could do worse than think in terms of a Turko-Persian culture, which, from the 8th century, began to take over from the Arabs and spread its influence from Bengal to Asia Minor, absorbing, moulding and synthesising, as it grew, the languages, sciences, literatures and technologies with which it came in contact. Initially Turks were apparently brought in by the dominant Persians to serve as soldiers and palace guards, but eventually they themselves rose to dominate their one-time masters.

Now I would like to draw back a step from this breathtakingly outrageous oversimplification to consider what happened when these Turks entered the world of Arabic-Persian Islam. Undoubtedly they saw much that was new and impressive, and they learned to take on board the ways of their adoptive culture. We may further imagine that the Turks who were brought in for martial purposes were predominantly male. From this we may suppose that, if they were not to die out in a generation, they must have found spouses from among the resident population. Another step of logic will tell us that the Turkic blood would quickly have mixed itself with that of the Persians and others who dwelt in this enormous area.

Recent studies suggest that the DNA of present-day inhabitants of Anatolia resembles that of peoples throughout the Mediterranean area. It seems that the Turkic tribes of Central Asia made a barely detectable contribution to the genetic make up of the modern day ‘Turk’. This is more or less as we would expect if we accept estimates that the late Byzantine population of Anatolia was around 12 million, and the inflow of ‘Turks’ from the 11th century is unlikely to have exceeded one million. Nevertheless, those ‘people of the West’ whom my questioner is representing would, I am sure, want to include the Ottomans within their definition of ‘Turks’ so I’m going to run with that. In so doing, I want to return to that Turko-Persian culture we were discussing in the previous paragraph-but-one.

One thing is very clear if we take the trouble to look at the historical development of Islam as a world religion. It began with the Arabs in what is now Saudi Arabia, but within a century it had spread beyond their control, and by the 13th century, it was the dominant religion of several empires extending into Central Asia, India, West Africa, Malaya and parts of Europe. Without wanting to go into the details of how it happened, we know that, by the early 16th century, the Ottoman Sultan had assumed, as one of his many titles, that of Caliph, political leader of the Muslim ‘nation’. The language of the Ottomans, the ruling elite of the Empire, was an amalgamation of Persian and Arabic on an essentially Turkish base, written in a modified version of the Arabic alphabet. The Ottomans were the last manifestation of the Turko-Persian culture, until their demise at the end of the First World War.
Turkish coffee and Turkish Delight


What I’m getting at here, in case you were wondering, is that it’s not terribly easy to identify which of the multitude of gifts to world civilisation that spring from that Turko-Persian Islamic culture can be directly attributed to ‘Turks’. Coffee is a case in point. It seems it was first consumed as a drink in a form we might recognise in Mokha, Yemen, in the 15th century, from where it spread throughout the Middle East, and thence to Europe via the Venetians towards the end of the 16th century. Well, who was in control of the Middle East in those days? And who were the Venetians trading with? The Ottoman (Turks) of course. We tend to associate the tulip flower with the Netherlands – but in fact it was first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire, and the word itself comes to us from Persian by way of Ottoman (Turkish).

Tin-glazed pottery originated in Persia in the 9th century and reached its peak as an art form in the Ottoman Empire (Iznik, in modern Turkey), from where it passed into Europe, emerging as Delft ware in Holland in the late 16th century. The Sufi order of mystical Islam was not a ‘Turkish’ development, but its greatest figure, Mevlana Rumi, although born in Persia, lived most of his life in the Anatolian city of Konya, at that time (13th century) capital of the Rum Sultanate of the Seljuk Turks.

If you are ever in the Turkish city of Edirne (former Adrianopolis) near the border of Turkey and Greece, I advise you to visit the mosque complex of Sultan Beyazit II. The ‘külliye’, as it was called in Ottoman Turkish, is now a museum. From its construction in the late 15th century, it included a medical school and hospital, part of which was given over to treatment of the mentally ill. Contemporary documents show that such treatment included soothing sounds such as the playing of music, the running water of fountains and manual tasks such as basket-weaving. As an interesting comparison, the Royal Hospital of Bethlehem in London served as the city’s ‘lunatic asylum’ well into the 19th century. It was notorious for the brutal treatment of inmates, and, as late as 1814, 96,000 people paid a penny to stare at the antics within its walls. The word ‘bedlam’, a corrupted form of Bethlehem, entered our language from this source.

That 15th century Ottoman hospital was not an isolated aberration. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic culture, from the 9th to the 13th century, produced the world’s first hospitals, and the world’s oldest degree-granting university. The concept of ‘doctorate’ originated in their teaching of law and the issuing of licenses to practise. İbn al Hasan (Latinised as Alhacen or Alhazen) is credited with being the world’s first true scientist. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have it on good authority that you can see, in a chamber of the US House of Representatives, a likeness of the 16th century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, in recognition of his codification of an entire system of jurisprudence.

Well, from such heights, how can I descend to the bathetic depths of baklava, Turkish Delight and sherbet; of sofas and divans; of kiosks, bazaars, lutes and Turkish carpets; of syrups, elixirs and genies? I don’t intend to even mention the Turkish bath. It seems unlikely that those Asian invaders brought them brick by brick on horseback from the steppes. Simply, I would like to leave you with two verses form the Rubaiyat of the 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam:

But leave the wise to wrangle, and with me,
The quarrel of the universe let be,
And in some corner of the hubbub couched,
Make game of that which makes as much of thee.

There with a loaf of bread, beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou
Beside me, singing in the wilderness,
And wilderness is paradise enow[1].


[1] I think he wanted to say ‘enough’, but it didn’t rhyme!
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