A Midnight Memory from Balkans

Once I was crossing the border from Croatia to Serbia by the train. Being a Turk, me and my friends had been warned a few times about strict rules on this border pass and that Turks had an even higher risk of a brief interogation by Serbian police. As placing on our couchettes we instantly understood that whole the way would be a torture since a few meters away there was an English semi-drunken group yelling, singing and obviously disturbing all the car. Well, at some point, after a few serious warns by the ticket controllers, they got silenced and fell asleep. Around the halfnight we were asleep happily enjoying the eventual silence. At 3 o’clock in the middle of a beautiful Balkan morning Serbian border police woke everbody up and start checking process. They searched the drunk English group almost down to their pants and checked every bit of their documents, laptops, bags and etc. Clearly the police didn’t fancy their appearance and sobriety, thus worried us even more about what to come. However, our checking was way much quicker and our Turkish passports were instantly got stamped by the first look. We were surprised to see such good approach by the Serbian police looking more like military units rather than simple officers we were used to see in other parts of Europe. In fact, they didn’t check all passports after the first. Plus, before leaving, a Serbian policeman gently told us “Hvala” (‘Thank you’ in Serbocroatian) handing the passports back and smiling “İyi akşamlar” (‘Good evening’ in Turkish) and left us all stunned to hear Turkish in the middle of nowhere at chilly rainy darkness of 3 AM in morning.

I’m not sure whether you regret reading such long seemingly-pointless personal memory or not but I just wanted to share it. It’s wonderful to hear your native language in the time you expect to hear least. Please let foreigners hear it from your voice if you can, do not hold it back. Also, I do not anymore believe in presumptions on international prejudices and swift judgments that strongly exist, after a great time in Serbia following the good start in the border.

Why Didn’t Ottomans Colonize the New World As They Could Do Easily?

Ottomans never had a nautical vision. Until famous era of formerly-pirate naval lords of Ottomans, no one in that huge empire even dreamt a dominion over Mediterranean. Also, before safely routing to New World, Ottomans had to overcome many strong navies such as Venice, Genoa, Knights of Rhodes, Spain, Papacy and etc.

Either in era of founder members or much later terrific emperors of three continents, Ottomans had never had a tradition on seas and usually chose to hire a previously prepared fleets and let them act freely by some terms. Most of these seamen were based in Algeria or Tunisia and therefore, interested in with their local business and practically useful tasks like conquests of Rhodes, Cyprus, Crete and Djerba. Expending vast treasure of empire, captains like Barbarossa, Dragut, Piri and Uluç, these bold bad-ass men grown-up in ships and spent years oaring for higher ranked war-lords, these guys were very experienced in navy and, at least for some period, made Ottomans the greatest threat for European coasts. They were very skilled in bulding-up a Mediterranean power, but that was all. They knew every single girth in shores of Europe, North Africa and Near East but saw no benefit from those in Brazil or Canada. They were not visionary navigators like the Portuguese.

Even worse, it was proved that age of fearsome Turkish captains of 16th century didn’t teach anything to Ottoman high classes when only visionary man in bureucracy with a comprehension of discovery age was officially executed due to his failure in Indian Ocean. This last hope of a bright, modernised Ottoman state policy to become was known as Piri Reis. Many people heard about him and his brilliant world map but only little knows he was executed by the order of Suleyman the Magnificent, in the days of top glory in Ottoman history.

(Only remained part of Piri Reis’ world map. It was famed with suprising details such as accurate description of Antarctican mountains and meticulous drawing of northern borders of South America.)

In little while, Ottoman superiority in Mediterranean has faded away and the navy turned into a useless, outdated piece of rotting woodwork. Thanks to witting force of Venice and Italian states, besides, uninterest of Spain and France to poor old-school Mediterranean trade rather than New World, Ottomans were clueless about their misery in the sea for two centuries, thinking of Mediterrenean an already-conquered castle. After Andrea Doria securing the western half of Mediterranean sea, European students of developing school of naval arts have lost their appetite to regain the eastern half.

At the end, standing like an antique remnant of Medieval seamanship, one would call a funny joke seeing it in the middle of an age when newer technologies sparked up every day as the blanks in world map were being filled up ongoingly, whole Ottoman navy was burned out by Russians in the Raid of Chesme. Sultanate in Constantinople was shocked. People were angry cause their sons were burned alive in ships incapable of any defence against great Russian navy. A vizier, Cezayirli Hasan Pasha, issued Sultan Selim III, a pretty reformist sultan, urging that they have to catch up Western vision of navy. This was how the first still-operating university in Istanbul was founded, Mühendishane-i Bahr-ı Hümayun -“Imperial School of Naval Engineering” – (today known as Technical University of Istanbul). In those years, Russian naval force was behind that of the English, Swedish or French.

But it was too late. New World was already conquered and Ottomans were 300 years behind. It was years needed before a proper intelligent group of military men to rival oncoming opponents. When Ottomans even got aware of importance of the discoveries, Spain was already nearing end of her age of colonies.

In its peak, Ottomans reached as far as British Isles and Iceland which they ravaged. By the efforts of Piri Reis, responding call of Muslim sultan of Aceh for help, Ottomans sent a navy to the Indian Ocean and tried a few failed attempts to break Portuguese rule there. These two events are drawing borders of both Ottoman reach and Ottoman vision in seas. Sultanate of Aceh has officially remained a far-eastern protectorate of Ottoman Empire until that late year of 1903, when Duth army ended the Sultanate. However, Aceh never saw a royal delegate of Ottoman dynasty which was the higher authority the island presented herself. This was how Ottoman Empire has been indifferent and unaware to overseas.

(Sultanate of Aceh was famous with female admirals and rulers called ‘Sultana’. Right downwards you might see Keumalahayati, a femme fatale admiral operating Sultanate navy, died in combat with Portuguese colonialists. Aceh was known with her dominating naval technologies, maritime tradition and a royal academy of naval sciences in Muslim world and Keumalahayati was one of the brightest in this tradition, after her education in the academy she led a long, gory resistance against Portuguese invasion.)


As for any realistic approach on possibility of Muslims early reach in America, there’s only one single doubt. Yes, there is one. In 1511, a Portuguees king regent in Java, Alfonso de Albuquerque, was handed a local atlas with Arabic script and gave it to a cartographer to make copy of it. The original atlas was later lost in an accident but the copy remained. Weirdly, in that Javanese atlas Brasilian coastline was very deeply accurate. It was strange because discovery of Brasil was just eleven years before, in 1500. Thus, some contemporary historians mention a possibility of Arabian reach to America in 15th century, earlier than Columbus.

Obviously, this is just a claim, a mystery hard to solve. There’s no further evidence to prove such great hypothesis. Also, eleven years is also something, an information about Brasilian coastline may have been heard by Muslims in that eleven years. We know that information was quickly spread among seaman society regardless of religions or ethnicity. Eleven years might be an explanation by Occam’s razor.

Through my reading in peer views I have found three other concrete reasonings for Ottomans’ absence in New World. I wish to discuss to them under this title either.

  1. European naval technology was better that Asian and Middle Eastern rivals.
    This is quite true. Most of European countries have longer maritime tradition. Italy, inheriting Roman maritime commerce network through strong fleets of Venice and Genoa, has been the flagship of Europe in Mediterranean trade since Punnic Wars and raised the most influential navy masters in the sea. Vikings, a populace featured by their skills in the waters from Baltic to Canada, contributed a lot to Western European naval skills as they violently inhabited shores across the continent and ended Arabian superiority in the Mediterranean which was proven in regain of Sicily. By rivalries such as Anglo-French in the Channel and Anglo-Hispanic in the Biscay, Europeans expanded their experience in oceanic waves and, lastly but not leastly, the dogfight between Portugal and Spain over Canary Islands and Guinea, frequently stirred up until papal sponsored Treaty of Torsedillas, has marked the crescendo of European naval technology, which soon proven to be an immence difference-maker in horrifying tides of oceans as compared with Muslim maritime abilities.However, on contrary of some prejudiced radical Eurocentricist historical views, Ottoman state was very adaptive, flexible and open-minded for the needs of its age. When appeared to be necessity, Ottomans created a tremendous stable army out of nothing else than a vagrant, indisciplined cluster of nomadic horseriders. As they faced with impregnable walls such as Constantinople, Ottoman army had hired very skilled artillery masters from Europe and soon, as most of historical records didn’t fail to indicate, Ottoman artillery was among the best in the world. When it came to establish a balance between increasing expenditure and local unrests in recently annexed lands, Ottoman taxation system swiftly got into very efficient use and for centuries fed for the fortune of Ottoman military operations required.

    Additionally, there were many convert captains in Ottoman navy. Fame of the Barbary pirates were pretty spread in 16th century and any couragous seaman got in trouble with laws was keen to piracy. This made Turkish-Barbary pirates one of best escapes in that age; they were sponsored and politically supported by mighty Ottomans and donated a well-based haven in North Africa and literally gifted an official permit for their violant art of plunder. If a young skilled European captain settled to convert to Islam and accepted to present his force to Sultan’s power on the sea in belligerence when needed, he would be very welcomed in tranquil waves of Mediterranean. In that years, the basin has still been promising luscious treasures for bandits willing. Ottoman navy, hence, found various external guides already familiar with trans-oceanic seaways and New World could lead Sultan’s ships across the Atlantic.

    One of most famous convert pirates of Barbary was Yusuf Reis, or as known in English records, Jack Ward. After dealing with local fishery in royal waters of England in his early maritime career, Ward had had offical permission of piracy from the Queen in 1558 as Anglo-Spanish war emerged as a big threat for the kingdom. He gained the nickname of “Birdy” among British sailors for he was famed to always act quickly and always give the slip every time Spanish armada was on his neck. However, attacking a Danish ship full of Catholic captives, Ward has been arrested by England navy and sent to be jailed to Caribbeans. Not much long after, he managed to breakaway and a stole large French ship he later named “Little John”. Acknowledging he was unsafe in Channel water after being a long-time Spanish enemy, an English jailbreaker and thief of a French ship, he routed towards Mediterranean and he consequently joined Ottoman pirates. Several accounts including William Lithgow, a Scottish traveler visited Ward in Tunisia later, issues that he became a Muslim devout that he even quitted drinking alcohol and changed his name to Yusuf. Even after his death of plague in age of 70, he remained a public legend in England and a play about his life was written and staged in London with title “A Christian Turn’d Turk”.  Four hundred years later, Hollywood filmmakers also found this historical figure inspiring and, thus, created most iconic pirate figure on the screen ever, Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean series. Another character in the series, Barbarossa, was also a direct inspiration of an Ottoman pirate, the highest ranked admiral in fleets named Hayreddin Barbarossa.



    Although these chances  I mentioned upwards, Ottomans didn’t update their navy, never. They could have easily done in a geography including countries with sea-based economies like Greece, Levant or Egypt, yet they didn’t even try for a long-long time until when it was too late. So, I think this reasoning has some point but cannot claim a big share in overall justification.

  2. Ottomans were too busy with their continental conflicts that they couldn’t have opportunity to look overseas.
    This is also quite acceptable by its core. Ottoman borders were full of enemies as Habsburgs were massing their forces with the motive called Holy League while only realistic chance of Ottomans was desperately trying to make a functional alliance with France, which never gave major benefits; on the side, the Safavids of Iran were still holding desires for Mesopotamia and Azerbaijan and in fact dared a few eventually failed attempts to invade on. By the way, Russian pressure on Crimean Tatars, only genuine ally of Ottoman Empire, was increasing to pin them down in the peninsula and hindering them for further cooperation with Ottoman forces threating Eastern Europe. Surely, Ottoman masterminds were busy with such issues, opportunities and conflicts along the borders rather than some semi-fairytale land ten thousands of kilometers away.Nevertheless, the situation was pretty similar for European colonists. The greatest masterpieces in Age of Discovery happened as the news from fierce destructions of continental wars such as Thirty Years War, Seven Years War, Succession War of Spain and etc. still been fresh. Spain and England were continuously at war with each other, the Netherlands were always feeling a threat of total annexation, France was going bankrupt head over heels, Portugal was barely staying up with the supports of English throne. Moreover, these countries also had to deal with continent-wide religious unrest caused by Martin Luther and his vigilants and most of them suffered at least a few civil wars.

    All of these problems didn’t slow their hardworking passion in Americas down, indeed, they just transported their conflicts to the other side of the ocean and, thus, their battlegrounds gained variety. I don’t see vastly rich Ottoman treasure and ambitious Ottoman war heros wouldn’t enjoy to get into the adventures in New World. Actually, aside long and tiring war periods, Ottoman history has also witnessed some relieving eras such as Period of Tulip, famous with long-time peace in foreign affairs and an enjoyable idleness for Ottoman high class in Istanbul, also whole reign of Bayezid II, who was known with his strict, boring piety and unwillingness to breake any peace. Both of the time-slots I propose were simultaneous with climax of discovery events overseas. Therefore, I don’t think of Ottoman campaign was any significantly harder than colonialist Europe.

    (Colonial map of Americas in 17th century when Ottoman Empire was enjoying a total domination in Mediterranean trade.) 


  3. Ottoman naval bases were too far from oceanic routes, Sultanate suffered a geographical deficit.
    The reason three is where I disagree. Straits of Gibraltar have never fallen into tight grip of Spain or Portugal and Ottoman navy very often raided Spanish and Catalunian ports just without hesitation. After victories in Preveza and Djerba, whole Mediterranean shores were under the swords of Ottoman captains for some while and they could reach even further easily. And guess what, they did. Küçük Murad Reis led expeditions reaching until Iceland and British Isles where they were paid tributes and held captives. Vivid and profiting ports of English throne like Plymouth, Portsmouth and Baltimore has been sacked by Turkish sailors and many more had to agree paying yearly tributes. Island of Lundy in Bay of Bristol was invaded and based by Ottoman navy as rest of operations and punishments of disrespecting Atlantic ports were here planned. Sack of Baltimore has been a so deep impact that whole population ashore chose to relocate inner lands, afraid of a Viking-like Turkish invasion in Britain. Also, Turkish attack in Iceland later became a folk-tale, Tyrkjaránið, and rumours about sight of Turkish ships have remained a mass-nightmare in Iceland population. Turkish pirates all over the world was known to be bloody fearful, adventurous, far-reaching criminals with a strange concept of morality for captives, such as religious freedom, good behaviour on women and staying loyal to ransom deeds.(A depiction of Tyrkjaránið in the eyes of an Icelander, among hundreds of captives abducted to be sold as slaves, 27 Icelanders have been ransomed and freed. Their later accounts on their time in Turkish fleet provides us a first-hand documentation on Ottoman pirates’ life.)


    In other half of the world, Özdemir Pasha was assigned to capture Ethiopia and Sudan, which he succeeded. Basing his assaults in Yemen, Özdemir Pasha organized several landings to the Africa and finally captured a large territory reaching Djibuti. Thus, the world beyond Red Sea and Horn of Africa was all open for Ottoman conquests. All bases from in civilized Africa, Arabian Peninsula and haven of Basra was under Ottoman rule as the Portuguese overseas empire were turning her attention on goods of Indian Ocean. However, after the Indian Expeditions of Piri Reis era, Ottoman navy almost never took action in the oceans.

    Thus, I think the picture is clear now. For an empire in such large scale that of Ottomans, participating the colony races wasn’t unreachable. Through the efforts of dominating three continents by the land, a maritime domination was, as if, gifted to Sultans in Istanbul by legendary captains of empire, yet, Sultanate failed, or forgot, to open the box of the prize and let it rot in memories of 17th century. The empire lacked a visionary policy in a rapidly changing world and suffered its hard consequences in the end.

    (A current pub in Baltimore, the sack of port by Muslim corsairs in 1631 remains to be remembered in such details.)


On Eurocentricist Misconceptions about the Janissary

In recent years I noticed there’s a huge amount of misinformation and confusing views on Janissary system. Here I wish to explain as far as I learnt about it.

  • Janissary system wasn’t always same. Between the time of first Janissaries and last ones who blamed to be “bandits” and “bullies” everthing changed. I will try to summarize them below.
  • The response for Ottoman Janissary system varied of a large scale from some families deliberately crippling their children not to let them go, to making celebrations for their child selected to be a Janissary.
  • The reactions was mostly about socioeconomical situation of families. Rather rich families resisted against the system. Poverty-stricken Albania and mountainous Bosnia wasn’t really reluctant, however. Through years, Armenia, another mountainous territory, got integrated into system and became a major Janissary source. Beginning from 1550-1560s, increasing cost of Janissaries and slowing expansion of imperial borders led recruiters to select by voluntariness since need for manpower was in decrease and Janissaries made up a huge part of state expense.
  • Janissary System wasn’t only for non-Muslim populace in Balkans. There were many Turks in Janissary guild and also Muslim Albanians, Muslim Kosovans, Muslim Bosnians, also, became a part of it. On the other hand, Jews were totally out of system, there has never been a Jewish origined Janissary. This was probably because they were well niched in critical economic issues of the empire.
  • Initially recruiting only Balkanese children, the system later included Anatolia, Syria and Egypt either. An interesting point is that Balkan origined Janissaries, whether Greek, Serbian, Turkish or Bulgarian, always hold their superiority above others and usually reached higher ranks way easier than others.
  • Janissaries don’t recognize ethnicities. Muslim identity, either Muslim family-born or converted, was only criterion recognized. Strangely, by years Janissaries adopted an unorthodox version of Islam called “Alevi-Bektaşi”, a religious sect still sometimes discriminated in Turkey and most of Islamic countries. Nevertheless Sultanate never interfered it and apparently respected their choice. So, my point is Janissary system wasn’t utilized to persecute non-Muslims or non-Turkish ethnicities, this is just wrong.
  • So, why did Ottomans need such guild later caused big problems? Firstly, Ottomans were just a small “beylik” in a rather secure poart of Anatolia far from Mongolian pressure and close to rotting Byzantine lands, with nomadic warrior Turkics lack of discipline. In a certain point, the state needed a disciplined, stable army to defend expanding borders. Turkic nomads were too problematic to get settled and recruited for army, this is why Ottomans never liked them until the end. Christian population wouldn’t even care to fight for Ottomans, unless they converted to Islam and moreover, Christian solidiers in army was way out of tradition. In the beginning of 15th century Ottoman army started with Hungarian and Serbian war technicians hired for worldwide-powerful Ottoman artillery force. Then, disciplined military of Serbian Kingdom proved their success in alliance with Ottomans in campaigns against common enemy, Byzantines. This was the origin of Janissary idea. So, Ottomans used the power of money and demanded children as future soldiers. They had to set a royal army always under banners. This made a risk of reaction in Balkan subjects of empire but also created a chance of high level education and a bright career for even those in poverty.
  • Janissaries weren’t only military units. Actually, majority of high ranked Janissaries were skilled intelectuals and technocrats didn’t participate further conflicts after rookie years. Most important architect of Ottoman history was a Janissary. More than half of Ottoman Viziers, Grandviziers, Pashas, governors, diplomats, poets, bureucrats were Janissaries. Many of governorships were traditionally given to Janissaries. Guild of Janissaries claimed its own economy, own budget and own hierarchy. As rest of army hardly had a share of loot and never got paid a salary, Janissaries owned what they captured, got promoted for every successful operation, plus received a salary. This is why many families were happy about their children became a Janissary.
  • In time, they participated in politics. They killed Sultans, they conspired coups, they refused to battle (a famous occasion when Selim II was almost captured all of Iran but Janissaries just wanted to return home), they asked their salary raised, they supported some Pashas and opposed others. They rebeled and usually succeeded. In the end, they ruled at least nearly half of Ottoman politics and by second half of 18th century they all turned into parasites for the treasure. It ended with a mass-destruction when Sultanate managed to create an modernated, seperate army “Eşkinci Ocağı” which Janissaries have always seen a rival for their position, and the people of the empire were fed up with their militaristic despotism and recklessness. After an official declaration for dismissal of Janissaries and a demonizing “fetva” from Şeyhülislam (highest rank religious authority in Ottoman Empire) referring their Alevi-Bektaşi leans I told upwards, the HQs of Janissaries were shot until demolished and witch hunt in the streets of Constantinople was kept on until every single dead body of Janissaries were torn apart.

    (Below, you see modernated army of Mahmud II, recent heavy losses of disintegrating empire led Sublime Porte to take action in military reforms which eventually was not enough to save the sultanate but the attempts reasoned an elite class of intellectual officers to establish modern Turkish republic.)