Mom took me to the Topkapi Palace for four fricking hours. At first it was exciting. The Ottoman Empire lasted for nearly 600 years. I especially liked the treasury and the view -- you could see for miles around Istanbul from the tower -- but we stayed too long. Here's a slide show of the palace from FLICKR.com
Dad is making me write an essay about the Ottoman Empire. There are some good videos on Youtube.com about the Ottomans. Click.
We in the West think of choosing religions almost completely as a personal choice -- a decision one makes to believe or disbelieve. And yet, history and culture play an enormous, unseen role in individual choices. One's religion is often determined by accident of birth. If you're born in Turkey, odds are you're going to be a Muslim, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in Italy, odds are you're going to be a Catholic, culturally if not devoutly. If you're born in America, odds are you're going to be a Christian, culturally if not devoutly, and specifically a Protestant, as 50% of Americans identify as Protestant. although America is increasingly a land of religious (and irreligious) diversity.
When I visit Istanbul, history's influence on today's cultural and religious landscapes is striking. I begin to ponder the "what ifs" of history:
What if the walls of Constantinople hadn't held repeatedly through Byzantine history? Beginning with the attacks of Attila the Hun in 447, Western Europeans (and consequently, America) might be Muslim today. Terry Richardson writes:
History is full of “What ifs,” but it's worth pondering on the significance of the effectiveness of the Lands Walls of Constantinople. If Attila had breached them in 447, would the city have survived as a Christian entity or would the eastern half of the Roman Empire (later known as Byzantium) have collapsed? The Byzantine Empire is seen by most scholars as an effective barrier between the Islamic world to the east and Christian Europe to the west. But had Constantinople, capital and lynch-pin of this great empire, fallen to the besieging Arabs in 717-718, would the tide of Islam indeed have flooded its way across to the Atlantic and left Europe a largely Muslim continent? This is pure speculation of course, but there is no doubt that this incredible defense system played its part in determining the course of world history.
The walls of Constantinople were ultimately breached twice, disastrously for the Byzantines:
In 1204, the sea walls were breached by the Crusaders from Venice and Western Europe. The siege of Constantinople, part of the Fourth Crusade, decimated one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world, leading to its economic ruin.
Ironically, this attack by Catholic Italians against Orthodox Greeks essentially eliminated the opportunity for Christians to dominate the Middle East. Catholic popes centuries later regretted and apologized to the Orthodox patriarch, but the deed was done. Because of infighting among Christians, the Middle East became more Muslim than Christian.
In 1453, the Ottomans, led by Sultan Mehmet, conquered Constantinople, taking it from the Byzantines by breaching the land walls. The Ottomans' success was made possible by technological progress. They fired gunpowder-powered canons into the walls around Topkapi gate, blowing it open. By this time, Byzantium was a "decrepit village whose inhabitants numbered less than 50,000." The Byzantines' ragtag army of 8,000 was no match for the Ottoman force of at least 60,000.
The Ottomans went on to expand their Muslim empire throughout the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, and even reached the gates of Vienna in 1529, resulting in a long-standing rivalry with Europe. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who expanded the empire greatly during his 46-year rule, is still revered in Turkey. But even if the Ottomans had won the Battle of Vienna, it's hard to imagine them over-running Western Europe, due to the clash of cultures and religions. Christianity was well-rooted in Europe by then, unlike 1100 years earlier when Attila and his huns might well have over-run Europe if they had breached the walls of Constantinople.
A friend in her eighties asks a question: "I know the Turks came out of the East in 1200 something to attack and conquer Constantinople. I believe the final capitulation was in the 1400s. At any rate, what is their national background as opposed to Arabs, ergo, why are they Islamic? I no longer have my dear old 1930s Encyclopedia Britannica purchased by my parents to enhance their daughter's education. What a loss to smarter living."
After consulting some books, some Turkish friends, Google and Wikipedia I came up with this answer:
Numerous tribes of Turks were here in present-day Turkey for hundreds of years before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. You are correct that the Turkic tribes came from the east, from Central Asia. In their tribal and pagan roots, their rituals were very much like native Americans, and indeed some Turks believe that native Americans were Turks, in that they migrated from Central Asia across the Bering Strait to North America.
We have a wonderful doctor friend named Tarik Artis whose family roots are in Central Asia, in Kashi Xinkiang to be exact. He is proud to say his family was part of one of the original Turkish tribes. He has cousins in northwestern China. His family looks more Asian, almost Chinese, than Turk.