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Western presentation of the Ottoman Turks
Jan 1, 1993

The Turks have never been detached, in Western imagination, from other Islamic nations of the Middle East even though they are of a completely different geographical, cultural and, above all, linguistic origin. They came to Anatolia from Central Asia some seven hundred years ago with a language of the Ural-Altaic group, quite distinct from the Indo-European or Semitic groups. Most Western historical reflections about the Turks were in particular reference to the Ottoman Empire which was not, as thought in the West, a single national entity, but an ordered and generally just regime over a plurality of different peoples and faiths.

In spite of their long history and culture, and except for the period of the Crusades, the Turks hardly figured in Western consciousness until the conquest of Constantinople. Most of the West’s information about them came from the travel or diary recollections of merchants and traders who travelled to the Middle East and the Levant. Later, more copious publications appeared: journalistic or pamphleteering papers; formal studies aiming to describe the history, government, manners, religion, etc. of the Turks; books specifically about Islam as the West wished to have it portrayed, and (later still) plays and operettas with lavish ‘Oriental’ settings with important roles for ‘Turks’ or ‘Moors’ (Aksoy, n.d., p.344).

The earliest English book on Turkish history, the General History of the Turks (1603), was widely used as a standard reference work in Europe. Despite the fact that it was praised by many literary figures like Johnson, Southey and Lord Byron, the work has subsequently been criticized as an outrageously prejudiced collection of bits and pieces. As Bisbee remarks (1951, p.7) ‘whenever an educated Turk (looked) into Western histories of civilization or books on Turkey, he ran into unpleasant passages about his own people.’

Increasing Western interest in the Ottoman system of government, Ottoman culture, traditions and religion, occasioned further studies: for example, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668), A Compendious History of the Turks (1660), Political Reflection Upon the Government of the Turk (1656). In seventeenth-century France too there were several publications which influenced opinion throughout Europe; the Ottoman Empire was at this time a still powerful entity and perceived by Christian Europe as a real threat.

During the eighteenth century, Ottoman decline allowed European powers to play the Ottoman government for their own (often conflicting) political interests. At the same time, literary attentions turned to the Ottoman territories as it became easier than before for travellers to go to Ottoman regions, particularly Istanbul, to satisfy their curiosity and fantasies about the ‘mysterious East’. A distinct fashion in literature became clearly established around 1775-1825 (Brown, Wallace, Cable 1936, pp.70-80). Among other well-known English travel writers of the period were Lady Mary Montague, Charles Thompson, Richard Pococke, Lord Baltimore, Richard Chandler, Elizabeth Craven, and Rev James Dallaway.

The negative image of the Turk in the West derived from the religious fanaticism of Crusaders who were taught to see Muslims as children of the devil or heretic followers of an impostor.

The word ‘Turk’ was thus mainly used either as a generic name for an Islamic state with its characteristic military and government institutions, or as a description of negative character type, of someone by instinct cruel, heartless, etc.

The best known literary images of Turks appeared in Elizabethan plays which used Turkish history as source material, generally turning on conflict or opposition between Christians and Turks. Simon Shepherd (1986, p.142) makes this interesting comparison between the ‘Turk’ and the ‘father’ figure in what he calls the Marlowe period.

There was a fashion for plays about the Turks (and other Islamic nations) in late Elizabethan drama. Similarly, many plays centred on the figure of a father, whereas after the 1590s young men became central. Turks and fathers are topics specific to the Marlowe period, although they are not necessarily connected...

Another significant analogy in those plays is made between Catholic cruelty and Turkish. In other words, Protestant propaganda could designate the alleged cruelty of Catholics in general and Spaniards in particular as Turkish. This contrasts with Foxe’s address to Protestants when he spelled out the true reality of religious intolerance among Christians: The Turk with his sword is not so cruel but the Bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us.... Such dissension and hostility Satan had sent among us that Turks be not more enemies to Christians than Christians to Christians, Papists to Protestants... (quoted in Shepherd, 1986, p.144)

In most plays sensuality seems to be the dominant characteristic of the Turks. The plots of tragedies in particular turn on various ‘Turkish’ characteristics such as cruelty, revenge, intrigue, pride, passion, terror, treachery, and the like. The Turks are portrayed as the embodiment of such excesses in, for instance, Marlow’s Jew of Malta in John Mason’s The Turks, in Grevilles Mustapha, etc.

In other plays, a somewhat different Turkish stereotype is the figure of the wicked tyrant who is always either a Turkish Sultan or Pasha or general. He usually separates two virtuous lovers (the male character is the Christian Westerner, and the female one is a naive Turkish beauty) after becoming infatuated with the girl he has kept in his possession through force. The strength of the woman’s fidelity to her true lover is either rewarded by God with a happy reunion with him, or she prefers death to the tyrant’s love. Yet another stereotype is the intriguing woman who provokes rivalry among the courtlers enamoured of her. These rivals vie with each other to obtain her love but all fail, losing their lives in the struggle. (Aksoy n.d.,pp.343-8)

In the course of the nineteenth century as more and more people of different occupations and with different objectives travelled to Turkey, the use of these images and myths about the Turks in literary texts reached its height. It was quite the fashion to visit Ottoman lands in order that the travellers might, as it were, confirm for themselves, myths already mediated to them about the Turkish people, their culture, religion, language, etc.

Vathek, originally composed in French and published in London in 1786, was written by Beckford, who had not even once visited the region he was writing about. He used his own family home as the primary setting for his Eastern tale, colouring and transforming it with the resources of a vivid imagination; he is reported to have said: ‘I had to elevate, exaggerate, and orientalize everything’ (Beckford, n.d., p.9). The work reflects the characteristic themes of ambitious quest for power, sadistic sensuality, sexual perversity, etc., developed through a number of scenes and episodes and all wholly imaginary.

Having regarded Vathek as a model for his own work Byron chose a Turkish setting when telling a tale of horror during a contest with Shelley, Mary Shelley and himself. He set his story about a vampire in Izmir: this betrays all too clearly his association of Turkey with crime, horror and cruelty (Prothero, 1902, Appendix IX).

The Western image of the Ottoman world would, of course, be quite incomplete without the various feminine motifs of the veil and the harem and their associations of secret and/or forbidden eroticism, alongside vague notions of something religiously and culturally bizarre. The overwhelming impression from the nineteenth century travellers’ and Orientalists’ writings is that the women of the country were lecherous and voluptuous under despotic repression. In Byron, again, the heroines of the Turkish Tales, Leila, Zuleika, and Gulnare are represented as the beautiful, helpless victims of a despot for whose sake the Western protagonist, or the Byronic hero, confronts his antagonist. The romance turns upon ‘rescue’ from the ‘veil’ (the hidden) and the ‘harem’ (the forbidden).

During the year of the war (1854) and after, many Europeans of diverse professions came to Istanbul and witnessed the Ottoman Empire at the moment of its complete helplessness and (despite the rhetoric of modernizing reforms) inefficiency and administrative incompetence. All of which contributed to the final disenchantment with the myth of the powerful Turk. The books written at the time express a general disenchantment with the East, but particularly with the Turks, which was largely brought about by the defeat. Istanbul, once the fairy-tale location of the East, became the focus of that disenchantment.

Almost as a natural consequence of the Turks defeat, their image in the West shifted into often contemptuous, demeaning caricature. This is particularly noticeable among some Victorian writers such as Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

Thackeray satirizes the Oriental romance and the realities of travel in ‘Punch in the East’, a series of articles he contributed to Punch, and mocks the Byronic romanticization of Turkish themes in ‘Mehmed Ali and the Sultan’ (Spielmann, 1899). Dickens, in his ‘Roving Englishmen’, debunks the sea voyage to Istanbul through his description which ends ‘Oh no! we should have been off anywhere but in Turkey’ (Household Words, 1854-56, IX, p.143). Also (p.142) he describes Turkish soldiers–once powerful, barbarous, cruel, etc.–thus: ‘There is no enthusiasm in martial ideals of glory. Our friends will go listlessly into the battle and listlessly out of it.’ He adds; I know that in saying this, I am not according to popular or agreeable sentiment. The romantic notions of a Muslim warrior are very different; but I know the Turkish soldier pretty well, and pity him sincerely for I know the causes which have sunk him so low.


  • Aksoy, Yildiz (n.d.) ‘The Turks in 18th Century English Theatre’ unpub. diss. Erzurum: Ataturk Unýversity, Dept. of English Language and Literature.
  • Bisbee, Elenor (1951) The New Turks: Pioneers of the Republic (1920-1950), Philadelphia: Unýversity of Pennsylvania Pres.
  • Brown, Wallace, Cable (1936) ‘The Popularity of English Travel Books About the Near East; 1775-1825’, Philological Quarterly, 15, p. 70-80.
  • Shepherd, Simon (1986) Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre, UK: Teh Harvester Press.
  • Beckford, William (n.d.) The Episode of Vathek, London: Stephen Swith.
  • Prothero, Rownland (ed.) (1902) Byron’s Works: Letters and Journals; London: John Murray.
  • Curzon, Robert (1897) Monasteries of the Levant, London :Georoge Newnes.
  • Spielmann, Marion H. (ed.) (1899) Contributions of W.M. Thackeray to Punch from 1843 to 1848, London: Harper and Brothers.
  • Dickens, Charles, (1854-1856) Household Words; IX.