Posts Tagged ‘fall of the ottoman empire’

‘“Our Spirit.” A Modern Ottoman Interpretation of Ottoman History’

“In order to
be able to govern a community well, it is necessary to have
understood it; in order to understand it, it Is necessary to know its
spirit. I take it that up to the present our spirit has not been
analyzed. This is a very broad subject for investigation. As a brief
introduction to it, I offer this rough draft of an essay.

"This is
certain : we belong to a people originally nomad shepherds. For
example, like the primitive Germans, the property of our ancestors
consisted in flocks. Being under the necessitiy of searching for
pasture, they had no permanent centers of life. They were satisfied
with a camp instead of a house, and in the place of heavy household
effects, they contented themselves with huge saddle bags and meager
supplies which were easy to transport. In this way they passed on to
us the instinct to go lightly laden. It can be said that even to-day
you will not find a Turkish home without its travel boxes.

ancestors, like well trained shepherds, were dexterous, devout,
imaginative, and openhearted. Because they managed flocks that were
always obedient to them, they became accustomed to authority. It is a
well-accepted sociological principle that the customs of ancestors
consti- tute the most important of the factors which determine
character. The fact that our ancestors were accustomed to authority
has created in us a ‘tendency to tyranny.’ I remember a saying which
I used to hear frequently twenty or twenty-five years ago: ‘An Abdul
Hamid burns in the spirit of every one of us.’ And we see every day
that those who reach places of authority among us act somewhat like
shepherds, and treat the people somewhat as if they were a flock of
sheep. I have not yet seen in our country a government which, except
under pressure and necessity, challenges thought, explains its
policies, and calls for an expression of popular will from us in one
way or another, as if we were men. When the subject is looked at in
this light, the yoke of the past appears to hang on our necks with
all its burdensomeness.

"Neither the
palace nor the Divan at any time demanded thought, shrewdness, and
intelligence from the people. Their sole and perpetual demand was
obedience. They expected from us immeasurable, unending, and
universal tractability. This constant obedience has become a very bad
mold for our spirit. In our most liberal judgments a form of
servitude can be detected. Our minds cannot draw a deep intellectual
breath; and our intellects are not commensurate with the liberty
demanded by our hearts.

"If you look
closely, our history is six centuries of tyranny. The pyramid of
government from top to bottom was an apparatus of oppression. It
quite flattened out the Turkish soul whose exaltation was its holy
task. Every official stamp is a pollution of the spirit of the
people. Our feelings with reference to the rulers of our affairs can
be summarized in a few words: the state of being cowed. We recall
that one name of a subject was ‘slave.’ In reality, bad government
has stamped us a little with the spirit of the slave. We were
accustomed to mistrust and deception and, although outwardly pleased
with the government, at the bottom of our hearts we were critical.
Our historians are interpreters of popular sensibilities: ‘Under a
layer of deceit a deep ocean of contempt,’ they say.

"Upon these
original endowments there were grafted on to our spirits in
succession three civilizations: the Seljuk, the Moslem, and the
Byzantine. The Seljuks had brought to Western Asia the civilization
of the Persians with whom they had been in contact for a century and
a half. In their life and art there was a strange Persian flavor.
They spoke Turkish but they wrote Persian. Among the Seljuks as among
the Persians, Islam had assumed the form of mysticism.

Bey and our ancestors who were with him naturally were influenced by
this Seljukian civilization which was originally Persian. Thinking it
poor and contemptible, they did not deem the language which they had
brought with them from Central Asia suitable for official
correspondence and for literature. Our language was left open to
Persian words without rule or limitation. Along with Persian thought
and literature a tendency to emphasize details had its influence on
our spirit. We lost the power to master the general form of the
intellectual and artistic aspects of our life, as a shepherd surveys
a landscape. Our minds were seeking both beauty and truth in elements
and details.

"Our poets,
disregarding the thought structure of a poem, exhibited diffused and
disordered art in its couplets and hemistichs. Structural beauty was
sought, not in the general make-up of our buildings but in their
interior designs and detailed ornamentation. The beauty of our music
also was found in simple melodies rather than in the harmonious
movements of music. In painting, even, principles of art inspired by
Persia were prevalent. There was no science of perspective; there
were no rules of arrangement; there was no eloquence of exposition;
the only beauty held in honor was that of very fine lines and

"On the
other hand, the influence of Moslem culture began to be felt in court
and sanctuary. Our vocabulary was thrown open to Arabic words for the
sake of law and religion. Our intellect remained under the discipline
of Arab learning.

"After we
entered Constantinople we found ourselves in contact with Byzantine
civilization. The Byzantine legacy was a mixture of good and evil.
For example, on the one hand, well-filled libraries, advanced fine
arts, lofty sages, and wise historians were found. On the other hand,
superstitions, lethargy, superficial culture, a paper government,
moral indulgence that was open to criticism, bribery, legal delays,
the arrest of justice because of hair-splitting distinctions.

Persian, nor Arab, nor Byzantine civilization was suited to our
character. For in our minds there is no great aptitude for minute
philosophizing like the Persians, nor for fine analysis like the
Arabs, nor for devotion to aesthetics like the Byzantines. The Turks
are an active folk. Like the English and the Romans they could excel
in the field of activity and achievement. In our veins there was a
wealth of life. This ought to have been discovered and directed
toward fruitful efforts. Bewildering success was promised to the Turk
in agriculture, commerce, and industry on land and sea. The object of
our attention ought to have been science and art, especially their
practical aspects. Our old leaders misunderstood progress. They
fancied that a far-flung kingdom of territory would assure general
happiness. They dissipated the life of the nation in ceaseless

"Our worthy
religion suited as it is to every type of worldly progress, every
development, and every phase of evolution in the hands of extremely
conservative men suspicious beyond reason, became, so to speak, a
thickened and congealed social factor. We could not sufficiently
realize the comfort arising from the breath of civilization which
fills Islam. Some forbidden things were emphasized in an excessive
degree, and some lawful things were abused. For example, on the one
hand women were imprisoned in ignorance and blindness, on the other
hand decorated dungeons, consisting of fifty or sixty rooms, were
opened for women under the name of Pashas’ harems. The one was abuse
of the veil, the other was abuse of concubinage.

"We have
heaped upon the path of our history a mass of the ruins of things
that have vanished. We ought to have bound these together in a
unified system; we could have done this by the grace of Islam. We did
not do it. Our countrymen have lacked cohesion. This land of ours has
been too early stopped up with a mass of the sediment of division. We
left to other elements duties which were suited to the native ability
of the Turk. We allowed the Turk to become intoxicated with his
political supremacy, and we yielded to the flaccidity of Byzantium.
The faithful and persistent Turk grew laxer and laxer.

"If the Turk
had received an historical training suited to his temperament, like
the English, he would have been a model of persistence and
perseverance, and he would have been as devoted to national
traditions. Our ancestors followed a single purpose for centuries
without faltering. Today any movement which continues for a few
months shakes us like a disease. Afterwards giving way to some other
movement,it disappears. I can assert that every movement among us
grows old before it reaches maturity and leaves no trace in its path.

national traits are, in a word, negative. Living in the present we do
not really master the present, let alone live through the past. For
every one of us history begins with his swaddling clothes and ends
with his tomb. We are not subject, as it were, to time and place.
Sons destroy what their fathers built, and no one thinks about the
founding of a spiritual structure which shall be the dwelling place
of conscience for our race. At the same time all of us imagine that
we are laying foundations, and what we call a foundation is such a
house of cards as is built in the morning but torn down by the wind
in the evening.

connection with the past is this only: we bear the torture of our
long line of forefathers. We have no definite plan based on the
experience of history. Once in a while in our political actions,
well-thought-out phases appear but you never see a phase tested by
life. If you probe a little into our administrative policies that
seem most fundamental, you will find their roots suspended in
emptiness; as if the freedom that is necessary for administration is
to be found in such emptiness.

the spirit of the Turk has received an historical training which has
overwhelmed his character, because of the mass of ruins with which he
has come in contact. We have wanted without selection to make use of
the products of civilization which have come to our hands. The spirit of the
Turk has been urged on in directions contrary to its capacity.

aspects of our nature have not been allowed to develop. We have been
able to exhibit a puny, hybrid civilization. If we had followed a
line of development congenial to our original endowments, the social
calamities which we have experienced would have been each one a
lesson in regeneration, and our life in general would have become a
line of shrewd progress. What use is it that the fine dough which
makes up the spirit of the Turk has been kneaded by unskillful

– Jenab Shehabeddin Bey, Professor of the Turkish Language and Literature in the University of Stamboul. “Our Spirit.” Peyam-Sabah {Morning News), January 31, 1921.

– from Clarence Richard Johnson, ed., Constantinople to-day; or, The pathfinder survey of Constantinople; a study in oriental social life.  New York: MacMillan Company, 1922. pp. 57-62

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