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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Shadows of Turkish ancestors

On historical ties between Ukr aine and our o ver seas neighbor
26 April, 2006 - 00:00

We are more or less informed about the Ukrainian diaspora in different countries depending on our degree of interest in each particular country. Meanwhile, we know basically nothing about the Ukrainians’ life in Turkey. It appears that no other country in the world holds more appeal to Ukrainians than Turkey as far as the fate of their fellow countrymen is concerned. After all, Ukrainians remain under a strong impression of their past relations with Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire as it had been called until Oct. 29, 1923, when the modern Turkish Public was proclaimed.

Ukrainians’ national conscience developed under the influence of the images of Turkish yasir captivity, Cossacks’ campaigns and battles against the Turks and Tatars, and Zaporozhian Cossacks’ life beyond the Danube. Such images have been preserved in folk ballads and historical songs. To this day, albeit now through literature, movies, and the mass media new images of Ukrainians in Turkey are being created, such as those of traitors janissaries or the Ukrainian sultana Roxolana. Historians also tap into these images to find pathos for their works and textbooks on national Ukrainian history, investing them with the authority of scholarly facts. No matter how pleasing these images may be to a Ukrainian’s heart, even despite the tastelessness of their numerous artistic interpretations, they only arouse the need to discover traces of the Ukrainians’ presence in Turkey.

This specific interest of the Ukrainians in Turkey transpired quite early. Panteleimon Kulish visited Istanbul as a tourist in 1861, and his mood during his strolls through Istanbul-Tsarhorod is conveyed by the scenes in his poem ‘Marusia Bohuslavka’:

Like their fields of overgrown weeds,

Flourishing among Tsarehrad
Are prisoners’ bazaars with Cossacks —
A feast for the eyes and bounty for warriors.
As if flowerbeds in gardens
blossoming with poppies,
Muslim harems have come alive
With girls and beautiful women.
Ruthenian children blithely flock
Around plates with pilaf as if white pigeons.

Thankfully, after decades behind the iron curtain the Ukrainians can again travel the world and not only read about it in the Soviet journal Around the World or look at it through the eyes of Movie Journeys Club. However, the human spirit between Ukraine and Turkey did not bring from across the sea any exciting news about our forebears’ deeds in the foreign land. There is no trace of anything Ukrainian. Winds dispersed the smoke of fires and dust over Istanbul a long time ago. The Turks speak Turkish, and no special Ukrainian traits in their faces catch the eye, much like one cannot notice anything heroic in the descendants of Cossacks, who now also travel across the sea. Roxolana’s mausoleum is standing like it did for centuries in the courtyard of the Suleymanie Mosque next to the mausoleum of her husband, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Only in 1998 the Turkish government opened it to tourists. One would wonder about the traces of other prisoners, thousands and thousands of whom, according to Ottoman documents, passed through the customs offices in Kafa, Ochakiv, Akkerman and other ports between the 15th and 18th centuries.

In essence, the above mentioned documents are exactly one of such traces. However, Ottoman archives, no matter how large, storing 100 million cases, do not give away secrets easily. The archives’ volume poses one major problem. Another problem is that the documents are written in the Ottoman-Turkish language. This language was exceptionally rich in words and styles because it borrowed a great deal from the Arabic and Persian languages. Moreover, it was recorded using Arabic letters, while Arabic calligraphy developed numerous kinds of scripts, not all of which can be read easily. Incidentally, financial documents were written using a special script, which only initiated bureaucrats could understand. Understandably, specialists who can read such documents (they are called Ottomanists) are few, and most of them work at universities. In any case, a travel agency is the last place where one should look for them.

Even if there were a travel agency that would hire Ottomanists in hopes of satisfying Ukrainian tourists’ specific interest in their ancestors, this would do little good all the same. The thing is that Turkey, both old and contemporary, is a culturally powerful and independent world. Although it has never been loath to borrow both ideas and people from outside, it was and remains capable of digesting foreign influences. Even though it did not always succeed, it is still very hard to discern foreign admixtures in Turkey. To do so one must conduct special research, that is, to work not with tourists, but in a university setting.

It is all the more difficult to find Ukrainians’ traces because they ended up in Turkey mostly as captives. For a captive to be mentioned in a document was not usual. Yet even if this happened, it is almost never possible to determine the captive’s origins. The circumstances of life in captivity left no chance for preserving one’s national identity, let alone its external manifestations. A captive person permanently lost his connection with his homeland and family. He would become a member of his master’s family (understandably, an inferior member) or merely one of the draft-cattle or a “talking tool” when he ended up at the disposal of the state or eminent nobles, in which case he would be used on galleys, plantations, ore mines, or stone quarries. Symbolically, a captive would be given a new name, while his patronymic would be replaced with his master’s name. This rule applied to all privately-owned slaves regardless of the creed of their owners. Aside from Muslims, other Ottoman subjects - Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, Jews, etc. — also kept slaves. Only at large private or state-owned plantations or services, where large masses of slaves gathered, they kept their original names. Yet, understandably, after converting to Islam, as it usually happened, a captive would choose an Islamic name and patronymic — as a rule Abdullah (“God’s slave”). This is why the Ukrainians had few chances of ever being mentioned in documents. As a rule, it is impossible to recognize a slave from Ukraine even if such persons were mentioned.

Only in isolated cases documents point to captives’ ethnic origins, which were preserved in his or her nickname. Ruthenian captives were massively represented among silk weavers of Bursa in the late 15th — early 16th centuries. These artisans, most of whom became successful masters and merchants, came from among those slaves who were driven from Ukraine to Turkey by Tatar raids during the war of the Crimean — Moscow coalition of Ivan the Third and Mengli-Girey against Lithuania (Kyiv was burned down during that period — in 1482). For this reason, the word “rus” in the names of dozens of people mentioned in the court records of Bursa from that period identified people of Ukrainian origin. Mentions of people with the name “rus” are scattered across court records of different times and in different towns across Turkey. However, from the late 16th century this name could also identify people from Muscovy, who were normally referred to as Moscovs. Thus, not all people with the name “rus” can be considered Ukrainians beyond the shadow of a doubt.

There is another way for tracing down ancestors, though it is rather speculative. The clue comes from medieval physiognomy — a special science on the abilities and traits of character of captives of different complexities and ethnic origins. Such observations developed long before Sigmund Freud in the slave-holding environment as part of the art of buying slaves — a necessary element of the skill of maintaining the household. We know about the observations of “our” 16th-century pamphlet writer Mykhalon Lytvyn on the market prices and reputation of slaves in Turkey, depending on their origin. His observations provide an excursus into the physiognomy of his epoch. The author points out that there was a greater demand in Turkish bazaars for simple and sincere children of the royal people, while the Moskals were cheap because they were considered sly and deceitful. The Ukrainians like to quote this passage, even though it is not likely that such observations were designed as a compliment in the original context. The writer also mentioned the sultan’s favorite wife, meaning Roxolana, and how Christians were used as factotums, eunuchs, scribes, and artisans. It follows from treatises on the qualities of slaves from the 10th century onward that Slavic captives earned a reputation of wise and trustworthy slaves in the Islamic world. Moreover, Slavic eunuchs were considered to be servants most capable of brainwork. Because of increased demand they were “produced” on purpose in large numbers. For this reason, in the 10th — 12th centuries the word “saklab” in the Arabic language was used in a dual sense to identify both Slavs and eunuchs in general, which represents another confusing story. Arabic treatises about slaves were circulated in the Ottoman Empire, and hence remained current. And rightly so, for such knowledge does not come cheap. For this reason it appears that Ahatanhel Krymsky was absolutely correct to point out following Mykhalon Lytvyn that boys from Ukraine would often be castrated. In that case, it would be easy to find Ukrainians in the corps of several thousand white eunuchs who protected the sultan’s castle while teaching various sciences and crafts to the castle’s rookies.

It is hard to tell whether Ruthenians could attain the rank of supreme viziers. Notably, castration was not an obstacle to this. On the contrary, from 1500 this post was regularly occupied by white eunuchs, usually leaders of the corps of white eunuchs — so-called “ak-aha.” However, none of them had the name “rus.” As a rule, they were called “khadym,” which simply meant a servant, but in the specific vocabulary of the sultan’s court it also designated a eunuch. For example, Khadym Ali Pasha was the fist such vizier.

Meanwhile, if the words of Mykhalon Lytvyn are anything to go by, the mass appearance of Ukrainians among the janissaries, as is often believed in Ukraine, seems improbable. The replenishment of this corps was strictly regulated and normally happened by way of purposeful selection of the kind of ethnic material that proved capable of military service. The Ukrainians appeared in the Ottoman market en mass in the late 15th century, when the janissary army had already existed for over a century, which is why it is ruled out that the Ukrainians could pose much of a competition to Bosnians, for example. Finally, the Turks had a generally low regard for the military capabilities of Ukrainian slaves. Suffice it to recall the observations of Evlia Celebi, a famous Turkish traveler of the mid-17th century, who said that hundreds of thousands of Cossack slaves were not capable of revolt, Allah be praised, for otherwise they would have turned the entire Crimea upside down.

Much can be learned about Ukrainians in Turkey from Western European sources. In one instance an English captain rescued some escaped Ruthenian and brought him to England, while in other rebelled galley rowers reached a Christian shore with several Ruthenians among them. Relatively mass examples can be discovered in quite unexpected places. Among other things, the Inquisition busied itself with converting renegades back to Christianity. For this reason it often had to deal with Ukrainian slaves, who were captured on Turkish vessels by Joanite knights, who settled in Malta after being expelled from the Island of Rodos by the Ottomans in 1522. Occasionally, the Inquisition had to use torture to convince such Ukrainians to renounce their faith once again. After all, by that time many of them were freed and earned a good living as Ottoman subjects, while a return to their homeland spelled new hardships.

Still, mass examples are not always the most important ones. For example, extremely valuable is information about the events in the sultan’s family (even those recorded from hearsay), because that is where the Ukrainian trace is most conspicuous. Italian and French diplomatic relations specifically point to the Ukrainian origin of Roxolana and provide a major source of information about the circumstances of her life in the sultan’s palace. Without them it would never have been possible to combine the disparate rumors about this person and provoke the vivid imaginations of both Western Europeans and Ukrainians.

Although far from complete, this account of available information about the Ukrainians’ presence in the Ottoman Empire still makes it possible to make one conclusion. Granted, the Ukrainians became defused in Turkish society, i.e., they lost their national identity. Thus, it is not worth expecting breaking news from Turkey about the discovery of some unknown community of surviving Ukrainians. Among the immigrants from Ukraine only Crimean Tatars to this day continue in Turkey as a separate community. Perhaps this may come as a disappointment to many, but it seems that the Ukrainians’ adventures in Turkey are worth exploring, since they also left their trace in history despite the fact that the enslaved status of most of them in fact deprived them of a possibility to do so. They are filled with manifestations of the strength of mind, spirit, and human dignity, and it is worth remembering that these qualities showed themselves not only in the face of extraordinary circumstances, but also thanks to their upbringing, which is why these stories carry an important message for contemporary Ukrainians.

Of course, the Ottoman civilization is still a world of mystery for the Ukrainians. The Turks have permitted and, most importantly, organized access to their archives for researches from the entire world. Yet it is obvious that it is not that simple to find and discern the necessary crumbs among the millions of documents. Therefore, significant efforts on the part of scholars will be required to create at least a rough idea of our past relations.

Still, this requires efforts from the public as well as from researches. It is important for tourists visiting Turkey to also seek to get to know this very different, albeit very close country. Only by understanding its cultural code can we see what is necessary, and not only what is on the surface. Then we can finally let go of our past of slavery. Meanwhile, our tourists who travel there are captive to their own complexes, which the Turks can easily see thanks to their frequent contacts with the Ukrainians. In the old Turkey our fellow countrymen showed that they could also accomplish what they wanted: they could win freedom in a legal way (this is a separate story), start families and businesses. Put simply, they could find a place in life. They had to put up with converting to Islam and settling in a foreign land, but it was an emotional issue. Plainly speaking, in discovering Turkey the Ukrainians will be following a beaten track.

By Oleksandr HALENKO, historian