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Study On Busbecqs Letters History Essay


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I would like to analyse some Western European descriptions of the Ottoman Empire from The Turkish Letters, written by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, who described the Ottoman Empire in a series of letters that he wrote when he served Ferdinand I of Austria as the ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire from 1554 to 1562. Included in this paper is my analysis on parts of three of his letters which are concerned with in particular: the Turkish Army, the Turks' openness or lack thereof in borrowing from other cultures, and Christian Slaves. Busbecq presents an absorbing eyewitness account of the Ottoman Empire from the perspective of a well educated Western observer at the time of the Ottomans' greatest ever ruler: Sultan Suleiman 'The Magnificent'. In the letters Busbecq describes some of the workings and details of the Turkish Army, including interesting information on 'The Janissaries'. In another letter he talks about the Turks' openness in adapting military manoeuvres and combat skills of the Europeans such as that of the Greeks, and their reluctance in adopting useful things such as public clocks and printing books. In the third letter he portrays some information on the Christian slaves of the Ottoman Empire. He details impressions on everything he saw and experienced in Turkey from the army, slavery, and other matters and does so with literary talent and though quite gripping there is a strong possibility that his depiction was slightly exaggerated because he was trying to bring about reform at home.

Of particular significance is his account of the Turkish Army where goes into vivid detail about the campaigns. "The Sultan when he sets out on a campaign, takes as many as 40,000 camels with him, and almost as many baggage-mules…" This is an explicit illustration of the organisation, might, and sheer size of the Sultan's army. Busbecq further goes on to describe the Turks' campaign into Persia, the way rations are used, and the importance of the soldiers' health. He also makes note on the Sultan's respect and willingness to help the soldiers whenever he could by assisting ill-fated soldiers who have come across bad luck in losing their horse or suffering from illness or injury. Suleiman the Magnificent is plausibly the most illustrious figure in Turkish history. For the Turks his status is legendary and his reign saw the greatest extension of Turkish power. His devotion to his own religion and his tolerance of other faiths, his charity and generosity, won him the loyalty of his subjects and the respect of his enemies.

The Janissaries represented the well trained and adaptable soldiers for the Turkish army. They were well looked after and respected for their courage in battle, repeated victories, and experience in warfare; hence they were highly valued. They were a product of Suleiman's progressive system.

The Turks adopted from the Europeans many smooth military combat techniques and the use of canons to great effect in their battles, for example the "shooting against the door" which was formerly used by the Greeks and the Turks had adopted from them. Conversely at the same time the Turks were never able to bring themselves into accepting the use of public clocks or to print books. As Busbecq strongly puts it "They hold that their scriptures, that is, their sacred books, would no longer be scriptures if they were printed; and if they established public clocks, they think that the authority of their muezzins and their ancient rights would suffer diminution." This I believe is an understandable stance considering their position and their culture. They did not want their culture to be diluted - this is not to say they weren't tolerant to other cultures but only to keep their own pure from western influence.

The extract of the letter by Busbecq in Documents in World History on Christian slaves portrays completely bleak and miserable image for the slaves: "Youths and men of advanced years were driven along in herds or else tied together with chains…..At the sight I could scarcely restrain my tears in pity for the wretched plight of the Christian population…". This particular document if read by someone not familiar with Busbecq's writings and general view of the Ottomans could be misleading. In his book The Turkish Letters Busbecq explains the advantages of Ottoman slavery and stipulates that it outweighs the drawbacks. For example, young male slaves had the opportunity to have a prestigious career and be trained as Janissaries or diplomats.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq wrote impressions on everything he saw and experienced in Turkey, including landscapes, plants, animals, Islam, ethnic groups, architecture, slavery, military, court practices, clothing, gender and domestic relations, the Sultan himself, and even plants and animals. I think his letters offer lessons in understanding and appreciating cultural differences. It is clear to me that he describes the Ottoman Empire as being powerful and admirable; he makes it obvious that he respects the Ottomans in many ways and almost even considers them as better than the great European nations. Nonetheless I suggest that he may have been exaggerating what he thought and knew about the Ottomans to an extent in an attempt to bring about reform in Western Europe. After all he was writing at or near the time when the Ottoman Empire was at the pinnacle of its power, and one of his aims could have been to frighten European rulers and governments into transformation and improvement. Keeping this in mind I would still consider The Turkish Letters a great source of insight and entertaining reading. The letters are a standard for understanding the Ottoman Empire written with frankness and in great detail by a noted diplomat with an established reputation.

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