From Indifference and Contempt to Love and Hate. The Perception of ‘Franks’ in Ottoman Culture

author: Edhem Eldem, Boğaziçi University
published: Feb. 25, 2008,   recorded: September 2007,   views: 8737

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From the very start of their rise to statehood, the Ottomans have been confronted and exposed to a wide variety of western peoples and cultures: Venetians and Genoese in the 15th, French and Austrian in the 16th, British and Dutch in the 17th centuries … Most of these early contacts were characterised by a general feeling of indifference, mixed with a considerable amount of contempt deriving from an imperial sense of superiority and a marked bias against infidels falling outside of Islamic jurisdiction. This general feeling of mistrust did not preclude interaction between Ottomans and Westerners, be it at a diplomatic, institutional, communal, or individual level; yet they remained superficial and sporadic, all the more so if one considers that contacts were almost exclusively one-sided, the Ottomans generally comfortably remaining at the receiving end of such relations.

Things began to change in the 18th century as a result of a rapidly growing web of communication between the West and the Empire, and, most of all, due to a gradual change in the rapport de force between the two worlds. Confronted with the first concrete signs of western predominance, the Ottomans—especially members of the ruling elite—felt a greater urge to intensify their contacts with, and understanding of, western peoples and culture. Though not yet westernisation per se, this process gradually paved the way to the extraordinary intensity that relations with the West would acquire during the 19th century. Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that perceptions of the Franks, now redefined as Europeans and/or Westerners—with all the civilisational connotations that came with the terms—would change radically: indifference was no longer possible; contempt had lost its justification. The Ottomans moved toward a love/hate relationship with the West, which can still be felt underlying the complex feelings of Turks toward Europe today.

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