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UNESCO - Dialogue among Civilizations

How we see others,
how others see us

Proceedings of the International Symposium
Paris, 13 and 14 December 2001

Texts from two Turkish-speaking regions

Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont
Director of Research at CNRS

At the time when European navigators were pushing back the boundaries of the known world further than the imagination had ever ventured, and discovering, with mixed feelings, members of the human race until then undreamed of, the Turks, those traditional wanderers of vast open territories, likewise found themselves often confronted by ‘others’, in the form of peoples hitherto unknown to them except through the h[1]aziest of notions and the most distant connections. This kind of discovery, and the way in which certain Turks were curious from the outset about this new globe of the world established by Europe’s seafarers and geographers, is a subject that really merits a whole meeting to itself; but here we shall try to shed at least a little light on this vast and virtually unresearched field.

The first Turkish speaker who springs to mind in connection with cultures ‘seen through other’s eyes’ is Babur (1483–1530), originally a minor Timurid king in Central Asia. By the end of a life of adventure he had conquered Kabul (1504) and then northern India (1526), where he founded the august dynasty of the Great Mughals, which lasted for three centuries. A great war leader and subtle politician, Babur was also a cultivated man who, among other writings, set down his memoirs in his mother tongue (the Chagatai Turkish of his native Ferghana) in preference to the more usual Persian; it was one of the earliest instances of this genre in any of the literatures of the Islamic world. This ‘Book of Babur’[i] is not only an invaluable document on the life of a man whose actions left a lasting mark on history, but also a record of the view of the world entertained by a prince of his time and cultural background. People, animals, plants, rivers, mountains: nothing escaped his inquisitive scrutiny or his incisive mind. I shall be quoting here one or two passages from his text relating to some of the peoples he came across in the course of his career.

He clearly defines himself as Turkish, and describes himself thus to the rulers of the Punjab, claiming rights over that land by his descent from Timur (Tamerlane) and, perhaps, from the Turkish dynasties who had reigned in northern India since the time of Mahmud of Ghazna. ‘The Turks’ possession of these lands goes back to ancient times. Beware!’, so said his envoys in 1519, to the inhabitants of Bhira.[ii] ‘Provoke not the Turks, emir of Bayana! For their recklessness and courage are known! ’ was his threat to the governor of that place in 1526.[iii] ‘Turk’, however, is as ambivalent here as in the language of what is now Turkey where, in those days and for a considerable time afterwards, it also meant ‘uncultured peasant’.[iv] For example, Babur had said of his paternal uncle, Sultan Ahmad Mirza, King of Samarkand, that he was ‘a Turk, rude and simple; one of no natural parts’.[v] Whatever we make of this ambiguous ‘Turkishness’, we can observe that it did nothing to incline this ruler and memoir-writer towards any policy of solidarity either with his Timurid kin, or with the emirs of ancient descent from Turks of Transoxania or Khorasan: his critical judgement took precedence over any other consideration, and he was often merciless.

Though descended through his mother from Genghis Khan, Babur speaks of the Mongols with obvious antipathy, due to his unhappy experiences with them: their insubordination,[vi] and their inveterate taste for pillage, even at the expense of their own allies:[vii] 

The right wing of the enemy beat our left wing and then turned against our rear. As the vanguard remained over on the right, our front was unprotected: the enemy’s people attacked us from in front and from behind, and started shooting arrows. The Mongol army which had come to support us could not bring itself to fight any more, but straight away left off to set about plundering our people and pulling them off their mounts; nor was that the only time they acted thus, for this is how these miserable Mongols always behave. If they win, they seize the booty; if they are beaten, they despoil their own side, unhorse them and seize some of the booty. 

The Afghans (that is to say the Pashtun) received contradictory appraisals from Babur. No doubt, for the sake of the tribes loyal to him, particularly those of Bibi Mubaraka, the consort he had taken from among the Yusufzai, he moderated the expression of his mixed feelings towards these perpetual rebels[viii] with their outlandish customs,[ix] especially those who dominated northern India, who ‘must be destitute of all common sense or prudence. Incapable of judging a situation and deducing a course of action, they are as incompetent as enemies as they are ignorant of the ways of friendship’.[x] Gul-Badan, Babur’s daughter, displayed much the same opinion when she observed of the mother of Ibrahim Lodi (the sultan of Delhi, conquered and killed by Babur at the decisive battle of Panipat in 1526) who had tried to have Babur poisoned: ‘She had no appreciation for the respect he was according her; but then, ignorance is the rule among these people: it is well known that each thing will return to its essence’.[xi]

As for India and its Hindu inhabitants, Babur found it a disconcerting world, where everything was not only different from in his own country ‘beyond the mountains’,[xii] but eventually seemed to him the reverse of everything he had been used to until then:[xiii] 

India is a land of little charm. There is no trace of beauty among its people; nor have they any trade, intercourse, or exchanging of visits. They have neither character, nor ability, nor wit; neither generosity nor manly qualities. In their arts and crafts, and in their writings, there is no order, no symmetry, no rectitude, no uprightness. They have no good horses or dogs, no good vines, no good melons or other fruit, no ice, no cool water. In the bazaars, one finds no good dishes, no good bread. They have no hammam [sauna], no madrasa [college], no candles, no torches, no chandeliers . . . 

Mutatis mutandis, this is strangely reminiscent of a passage in a description of the first Jesuit missions to Japan:[xiv]  

In many other things, one might scarcely believe how much their food and clothing is unlike our own. Take the sense of smell: they cannot bear the perfumes we use, but light incense of quite a different sort for themselves. In matters of taste, they hold our food in abhorrence, while we think nothing of their sauces. We drink cold water: they drink it hot, summer as well as winter. As for hearing, our ears cannot bear to hear their music. We admire white teeth, they black ones, a most amazing thing, and are perpetually blackening them with some kind of dye. In public, husbands go in front of wives, and parents before children; the servants follow behind. They mount a horse from the right; we, from the left. We uncover our heads in greeting; they, the feet, with a little shake of their slippers or sandals. We get up when some friend approaches; but they lower themselves. Among us, precious stones are held in honour, while among them it is vessels of iron, or of pottery. We give our invalids mild things, well cooked, but they feed them on salty, sharp foods, served raw: we give them chicken or other fowl, while they advise fish, or shellfish. The medicines we give by mouth are mostly foul-smelling and bitter: theirs are very mild, and smell good. We often bleed our patients; they never. And there are many other such points of difference; so that though they may not be our precise Antipodes (as that is not yet well determined), still they truly seem quite our opposites in their ways. . . . And of course the customs of Europe are no less derided by them than theirs are by Europeans; and if, in discussing neatness or beauty, anyone happens to poke fun at one of their habits, they readily give as good as they get. 

Our Jesuit’s last sentence does at least betray the beginnings of a dawning awareness, which in his day was quite a rarity: that, to others, we ourselves are the ‘others’.

But to return to Babur, the way he presents India makes it quite clear that he did not appreciate his latest conquest, from any angle; with every passing day, each reminder of his mountainous lands, of Kabul and Transoxania, only stirred his longing to return there. For the rest, India had, in his eyes, no advantage other than being ‘a big country where silver and gold are plentiful. . . . Another advantage is that artisans and labourers are to be found there in infinite abundance.’

We have tried analysing Babur’s text in terms of the three criteria for determining ‘otherness’ suggested by Tzvetan Todorov:[xv] 

To account for the differences that exist in actuality, we must distinguish among at least three axes, on which we can locate the problems of alterity. First of all, there is a value judgment (an axiological level): the other is good or bad, I love him or do not love him, or, as was more likely to be said at the time, he is my equal or my inferior (for there is usually no question that I am good and that I esteem myself). Secondly, there is the action of rapprochement or distancing in relation to the other (a praxeological level): I embrace the other’s values, I identify myself with him; or else I identify the other with myself, I impose my own image upon him; between submission to the other and the other’s submission, there is also a third term, which is neutrality or indifference. Thirdly, I know or am ignorant of the other’s identity (this would be the epistemic level); of course there is no absolute here, but an endless gradation between lower and higher states of knowledge. There are of course relations and affinities among these three dimensions; but no logical implication; one cannot therefore be reduced to another, nor predicted on the basis of another. 

Attractive as this interpretative framework is, we have to admit that it yields no convincing results in the case of Babur: he rarely issues any definitive condemnations of other societies – or if he seems to, these are more or less qualified elsewhere; nevertheless, he often betrays his deeply rooted feeling of natural superiority, as a Turk of the blood of Timur and Genghis Khan. There is no identification with ‘others’ here, but some attempt to more or less assimilate the best of his new subjects in his own culture. As for curiosity, and the desire to know more about other people and places, these are scarcely a consideration. With a little rearrangement, perhaps, of Tzvetan Todorov’s framework we could make it work better in the context of a non-European observer contemplating a foreign world that is equally non-European; particularly where the observer is not seized at the outset with the same admiration as Hernán Cortés had for the Aztec civilization: ‘considering that these are barbarians, so very distant from knowledge of God and intercourse with other, rational nations, it is wonderful to see what they have managed to achieve in every way.’ In Babur’s case we look in vain for any sign of interest in Indian civilization, or its treasure house of science and wisdom.

We now offer a few remarks concerning the views of Haidar Mirza, a cousin of Babur on his mother’s side and related to the clan of the Kashgar khans. He turned to their service after a career under Babur and his son Humayun, and also wrote his memoirs – in Persian – combining his own reminiscences with his ‘Chronicle of Rashid’, dedicated to his nephew the Khan of Kashgar. Without going through all the opinions he gives on the populations he came across between the Ganges plain and eastern Turkestan, we can note his very severe judgements concerning the inhabitants of Kashmir, a region he himself conquered. Thus we read: ‘the enemy, composed partly of Afghan auxiliaries and partly of Kashmiri unbelievers’,[xvi] and these, we may imagine from such a description, would have been Hindus or other ‘pagans’ in our Muslim author’s eyes. Not a bit: he is writing of fellow Muslims, whose fault is excessively zealous observance of religious practices: 

To this very day, there is an aura of bigotry around the people of Kashmir. . . . We must hope that, thanks to the blessing of uprightness and fairness of our lord the King of kings [Akbar, Babur’s grandson], Kashmir may attain spiritual and temporal unity, and that all things to do with worship and religion may proceed without being marred by hypocrisy and bigotry.[xvii] 

The confines of our subject here do not allow more than a very rapid glimpse of the attitude to this question held by those other Turks at the other extremity of the Islamic world: the Ottomans. This also would provide material for many days’ discussion, even just to define the scope and terms of such a study. In fact we shall merely touch on a few scattered contributions from the ten-volume work of Evliya Çelebi (1611–84). This is an account of the travels he made in the course of half a century within and beyond the borders of the Ottoman lands. Himself a frequenter of the councils and entertainments of the great – and, officially, of the sultan himself – his reminiscences mingle some very precise and extremely valuable information with stories which, though highly improbable, were well calculated to hold the attention of his powerful audience. We may readily acknowledge, therefore, that his view of peoples and cultures must correspond more or less with their notions; and that he may accordingly be taken as remarkably representative of his particular circle and time.

There is a great difference in his assessment of the non-Muslims he mentions depending on whether they are foreigners or Muslim subjects. The Franks (the unbelievers of Europe, in their various forms), are mentioned as much for their immorality as for their intelligence and cleverness – somewhat suspicious virtues. Among the many examples we could give of such ambiguity, let us quote this one: ‘The Austrians are powerful unbelievers; good warriors, cunning, full of Satan’s spirit – and there are very many of them’.[xviii]

However, these reservations are greatly diminished as soon as he turns his attention to the various non-Muslim communities which the Ottoman Government recognized within its borders. We should point out, for example, the following paean of praise, no less, for the Copts: 

Many thousands of chroniclers have described this fortress of Alexandria . . .. But, of all of them, the ones most worthy of belief are the chronicles of the Copts, who relate that after the fall of Adam on earth, the [papyrus] reed was given to the lord Enoch. From that day to this, the Coptic people has never ceased to write down events as they happened. Though unbelievers, they have at no time uttered false or obscure reports, which is why their chronicles are prized among peoples of all religions. 

Later, in the description of Rosetta, we read that the Copts ‘are the most trustworthy of the secretaries that serve Egypt’s notables’. Many other similar testimonials are to be found in the tenth and last volume of Evliya Çelebi’s ‘Book of Travels’, which is devoted to Egypt and the Sudan.

Halfway between the ‘bad’ unbelievers beyond the borders and the ‘worthy’, but non-Muslim, Ottoman subjects, we find another category: those non-Muslims who have managed to keep their independence while paying tribute to the Porte [Ottoman court]. This is the case of the Ragusans, on whom Evliya Çelebi’s judgements are mixed. First of all, he shows the well-known Turkish taste for folk etymology: he uses for Ragusa/Dubrovnik the form Dobra-Venedik, or (given the Slavonic dobro meaning ‘good’) ‘Good-Venice’, in contrast to ‘Venice the Rebel’, detested by Ragusans and Ottomans alike, with which the latter had been at war in Crete for nearly twenty years at the time of writing (1664). Among the better qualities of these people of Dubrovnik (whose spoken Slavonic the author fails to distinguish properly from the Latin they used in their liturgy), we find this quaint defence of the Latin language, the principle of censorship, and the precision befitting a historian: 

In truth, among the various languages of all the Nazarene nations, the clearest and most eloquent, as elegant and agreeable as Persian in its rules of proper use and of the science of grammar, is this ancient language, Latin. The chronicles written in this language are worthy of belief among all the nations. They never write anything contrary to the truth; indeed, if someone composes a work, all the Popes study that book and its chronicle, and if no unwarranted word is found, no exaggeration or deficiency, then it receives the mark of approval of all these, and the seal of the twelve officials. Next, the order is given that the book shall be printed. These are unbelievers who master the science of the stars in an extremely minute and thorough manner, and have accomplished soothsayers, surgeons, phlebotomists and chroniclers. 

Nevertheless, their science sometimes leads them into practices that the author regards as absurd; for instance, when he himself was subjected for the first time to quarantine on arriving in Ragusan territory: 

In this land of unbelievers, they have a caravanserai called the ‘lazaret’, where all merchants, their caravans and their followers must stay if they come from India or from Yemen, from Samarkand, from Arab or Persian countries, from the shore of the Threshold of Felicity [Istanbul], or the other shore, that of the vizier of Bosnia [Sarajevo] and the Pasha of Herzegovina [Mostar]; in short from any country, as they may perhaps carry the plague. The lazaret officials question them, to know their names and many details about them; and I can vouch for it that there are some who stay there for forty days; others for ten, seven or three days at the least. . . . If merchandise must be taken into town that has not remained there for forty days, they soak one end or edge with vinegar, and the unbelievers who mount guard over the lazaret carry it into town and sell it there. In other words, according to their vain beliefs, the plague cannot enter the town with such merchandise, provided it has had vinegar poured on it. 

Although the Ragusans regularly paid tribute this did not in fact guarantee their trustworthiness. Admittedly: 

At the start of each year, their ambassadors come before all others, and have even made their peace anew each year with the Ottoman dynasty from the time of Orhan Ghazi. But once they are again under the wing of the Sublime State, then peace appears (though a cover of faith is maintained), as the greatest of plagues. 

But in fact: 

They have made peace with seven kings, and with the Ottoman dynasty, and they pay them tribute. But, in return, it appears that they get from the emperors with whom they have made peace twenty times the amount of tribute they have given. They are unbelievers whose baseness is on a level with the ground; cunning, and like the demons who live in hell. 

And again: 

These are accursed swine. By the doing of these unbelievers, devices and devilments spread among all the unbelievers. In particular, it is these unbelievers from ‘Good-Venice’ who are misleading our present enemy, Venice the Great . . . and are supplying it with foodstuffs behind the scenes. 

In the end, then, the author’s conclusion is that it would be better to annexe outright this rich territory with its important strategic position, but whose inhabitants clearly inspire in him the much-vaunted sentiment of attraction/repulsion so often seen in the views which cultures have of each other: 

As this Good-Venice is a port and way-station, it offers untold treasures. This is why all the unbelievers there are merchants and accountants, who calculate to the thousandth part of one-sixth of a dirhem.[xix] They are skilled in astronomy. These are unbelievers utterly noble and upright; and as well endowed with reason as Aristotle himself. In short, it is an extremely prosperous and opulent land of unbelievers. May God grant it to the Ottoman dynasty! It is an easy matter; and if this den, this land of churches, was once fully vanquished, the other lands of the unbelievers would soon follow. May God make it possible! 

If we quickly review Tzvetan Todorov’s three suggested axes of interpretation, we see that these extracts from the ‘Book of Travels’ of Evliya Çelebi do lend themselves to the first (the others are at once good and bad – possibly the observer’s equal) and to the third (the observer wonders about the others’ identity), but not at all to the second (the observer considers himself manifestly distant from these others, does not seek to get closer or more similar to them, and in no way considers the possibility that others may likewise have a view of him). Nevertheless, it does seem that we need to experiment with this framework, using a greater number and no doubt a more carefully considered choice of examples. We need to recall that the pioneer in the Ottoman world of the assimilation of European sciences and techniques, the encyclopedist Kâtip Çelebi (1609–57), was the contemporary of our traveller, and that the critical and ‘positivist’ current of thought which he began marks a complete break with the world view of Evliya Çelebi. 

[i]. Le Livre de Bâbur. Bâbur-nama. Memoires du premier Grand Mogol des Indes (1494–1529) [The Book of Babur. Babur-nameh. Memoirs of the first Great Mughal of the Indies (1494–1529], introduced and translated from Chagatai Turkish by Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont, annotated with assistance from Mohibbul Hasan Hasan. Unpublished Mughal miniatures from the sixteenth century, photographs by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. Preface by André Miquel, Paris, Imprimerie Nationale (coll. Orientale), 1985. [Most recent English translation: The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, translated and editied by Wheeler M. Thackston, Oxford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0195096711. Also the 1922 version by Annette Susannah Beveridge, Vols. I and II, New Delhi, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1979. The quotations given here are translated from the French.]
. Le Livre de Bâbur, op. cit., p. 218. Page references are to the French translation (1).
[iii]. Ibid., p. 283.
[iv]. Among the many examples we could mention, one of the most remarkable is a play on words developed by Ottoman scholars from etrâk, Arabic plural of türk: etrâk-i bî-idrâk, ‘Turks destitute of all understanding’, which is applied to the Turkmen of Anatolia who were frequently in revolt. The subject is one that could be developed to a vast extent; for the awareness of Turkish identity is expressed from the very first texts known in this language. On an inscription he left in Mongolia in the early eighth century, the great khan Bilge Kagan proclaims: ‘The appeal of the people of China, who effortlessly give us so much gold, so much silver, so much silk, is a soft appeal, and its riches are soft. Insinuating themselves with their soft appeals and their riches, the Chinese drew in the Turkish people. Letting themselves be overcome by these soft appeals, many of thine own, O Turkish people, are dead. Abandoning the dark forest, many looked to the south and said “I would settle in the plain!”’ Bilge Kagan admonishes the Turks; they must remain Turks: ‘If thou goest in that land, O Turkish people, thou shalt die! But if thou bidest in the woods of Ötüken, where there are neither riches nor cares, still shalt thou keep, O Turkish people, an everlasting empire!’ Three hundred years later, when the Seljuk Turks established their protectorate over the Abbasid caliphate, Mahmud of Kashgar in Baghdad composed a veritable encyclopedia, in Arabic, of the Turkish world; and on the first page we read: ‘Mahmud, son of Husain, son of Muhammad, says: “I have seen that God has made the sun of empire to rise in the constellations of the Turks, and all the circles of the heavens to revolve above their States; God has given them the name of Turks, and has made them governors of all the world. It is from them that He has brought forth the rulers of our time. He has put into their hands the reins of government of the nations of the world. He has set them above all others. He has strengthened them as befits His justice. He has given glory to those who have worked with them and, because of the Turks, has made each of their desires come true.”’ In the age of the Ottomans, this identity became to a great extent merged within the general feeling of a Muslim commonwealth and as the cracks appeared in the nineteenth century and national feelings grew in the various millet [autonomous religious community] of the Empire, the Turks were the last to become aware of themselves as a nation.
[v]. Le Livre de Bâbur, op. cit., p. 50.
. Ibid., p. 85: ‘From the Mongols always come evil and devastation. So far they have rebelled against me five times; and that does not mean they have rebelled because we did not understand each other; for they have repeatedly done the same with their own khans.’
. Ibid., p. 101. Account of the battle (1501) of Sar-e Pol, near Samarkand, against the Uzbeks.
. Ibid., p. 142: ‘There is also the district of Bangash, surrounded by Afghans, bandits of the great routes, such as the Khugyani, the Khirilji, the Turi and the Landar. Its secluded position is a pretext for the inhabitants not to submit voluntarily to paying taxes. I have not yet had time to make them see sense.’
. Ibid., p. 148: ‘When the Afghans are no longer able to resist their adversary, they come before him with grass between their teeth, to signify: “I am thy ox”. We ourselves have seen this custom in that land.’
[x]. Ibid., p. 219.
. Gul-Badan Begam, Le livre de Humâyûn [The Book of Humâyûn], French translation from the Persian by Pierre Piffaretti, edited with introduction and additional extracts from Persian chronicles, by Jean-Louis Bacqué-Grammont, p. 44, Paris, Gallimard (Connaissance de l’Orient), 1996. English: The History of Humâyún (Humâyún-nâma), by Gul-Badan Begam (Princess Rose-Body). Translated, with introd., notes, illus., biog., app., by Annette S. Beveridge. First published in 1902. Oriental translation fund, New Series 1, London (reprinted in 1989, New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors).
[xii]. Le Livre de Bâbur, op. cit., p. 257: ‘India . . . is a strange country, and quite another world from our own. Everything is different there: mountains and rivers, forests and plains, villages and lands, fauna and flora, people and language, rain and wind.’ The reader is referred to the article by Alessandro Bausani, ‘L’India vista da due grandi personalite musulmane: Babar e Biruni’ [India as seen by two great Muslims, Babar and Biruni], Al-Biruni. Commemoration Volume, Calcutta, Iran Society, 1961.
[xiii]. Ibid., p. 279. See also p. 259: ‘Town and country in India are alike, as disagreeable as can be. There is no difference whatsoever between the towns and the countryside. The gardens have no walls; nothing but flat ground, just about everywhere.’
[xiv]. Histoires des Indes de Jean Pierre Mafee Bergamesque, de la Societé de Jesvs. Où il est traicté de leur descouverte, navigation, & conqueste faicte tant par les Portugais que Castillans [Histories of the Indies, by Giovanni Petro Maffei of Bergamo, SJ. An Account of the Discoveries, Voyages, & Conquests Made by Both the Portuguese and the Castilians], p. 702, Lyon, Jean Pillehotte, 1603. [Latin orig. Ioan. Petri Maffeii, Bergomatis, e Societate Iesu, Historiarum Indicarum libri XVI. Cologne, Birckmann, 1590; orig. Florence 1588.]
[xv]. La conquête de l'Amérique. La question de l’autre, p. 233, Paris, Seuil (coll. Points), 1991. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, p. 185, New York, Harper Books, 1984.
[xvi]. The Tarikh-i-Rashidi of Mirza Muhammad Haidar, Dughlat. A History of the Moghuls of Central Asia . . . , translated by E. Denison Ross, p. 128, London, Sampson Law, Marston and Company, 1895.
. Ibid., p. 129.
[xviii]. In the present author’s ‘Recherches sur le quartier de Tophane et l’artillerie ottomane, I. Textes et images commentés’ [Researches on the Tophane district and the Ottoman artillery, I. Annotated texts and illustrations], Anatolia moderna – Yeni Anadolu, Vol. VIII, p. 21, Paris, Éditions Adrien Maisonneuve, 1999. The other passages from the ‘Book of Travels’ of Evliya Çelebi quoted here were translated into French by the present authors, and will be published in forthcoming works. [In English, there is Evliya Çelebi, Narrative of Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa translated by R. J. von Hammer (London, 1884); much of the material is now available in Evliya Çelebi’s Book of Travels. Land and people of the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century. A corpus of partial editions, edited by Klaus Kreiser, Vol. 5, Leiden/New York/Cologne, E. J. Brill, 2000, ISBN 90-04-11624-9.] English translations here are from the French.
[xix]. 1/6000 ´ 4.233 g, or 0.000 7055 g.


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