With Nobel Prize winners and businessmen all over the world, with a NATO army and locally produced aircraft, Turkey is easily the most successful Moslem country. But the problems begin with this statement. Have the Turks a native talent for adapting to whichever empire they happen to encounter, in modern times the American? Or is it that there is a special form of Turkish Islam? Or does it come from the simple fact that the Ottoman Empire, taking over from Byzantium, was originally largely Christian? Another conflict divides the nation, and, now, almost to the point of civil war. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the famous figure of Turkish modern history. As military leader, he led the fight for independence, and defeated all comers. Then, before he died in 1938, he introduced reforms of a thoroughgoing sort, including the exclusion from public life of all religion. Is the vast difference between Turkey and her neighbours to east and south ascribable to these reforms – an introduction of the European Enlightenment in a Moslem heartland? The Islamists were prevented from persecuting and have never stopped complaining that they were thereby persecuted. In today’s Turkey they are taking a certain revenge, and a tense election is coming up.
The most substantial of Atatürk’s reforms was the change, in 1928, from an Arabic to a Latin script. This meant that the Turks could become literate, as they mainly now are, but it was also an affront to the religious. Arabic was the language in which Archangel Gabriel had communicated God’s wisdom. That wisdom made do with three vowels, themselves not powerful, but it needed complicated consonants, four versions of “z”, for instance. The Turks have eight vowels and their consonants are mainly simple. Literacy before the change was extremely low, and a Latin or Cyrillic script therefore made sense if the general idea was mass literacy. Now Turkey has a substantial printing industry, and translates about forty times as much as the entire Arab world. If she is the most successful Moslem country, here is one plausible explanation. And it has something to do with Hungarians, from the introduction of the printing press in 1726 to the substitution, in the modern alphabet, of a “c” for the sound indicated by the Hungarians’ own, odd-looking, “gy”. That in turn is part of a much larger story, the role of Hungarians in the making of Turkey. It is not easy to judge, but their influence is probably greater than that of any other European nation, starting with the Transylvanian who designed the great gun that was used against the walls of Constantinople in 1453, proceeding through the printing press and on to the recording by Bartók of Anatolian folk music in 1937. At every stage you will find Hungarians, sometimes of course in surreal moments, as with Zsa-Zsa Gabor, who was married to the father of a highly respected left-wing writer and academic, Murat Belge. Hungarians were also consulted as to the modernisation of the language, and their Turcologists, György Hazai, István Vásáry and Pál Fodor in the lead, have been distinguished.
It helps of course that Hungarian and Turkish have something in common. This is so much so, that the Byzantines confused the two. On the part of the Hungarian royal crown presented by the Byzantine Emperor, there is a picture of King Géza I (1074–1077) with a Greek inscription referring to him as krales Tourkias. Hungarian and Turkish have a parallel grammar, both being Lego-languages in which all depends on the addition of suffixes, and words can still be meaningful even if containing twenty-five letters. They were pulled apart, as Hungarian was influenced by Latin and German, while Turkish was strongly affected by Persian and Arabic, but the older words are strikingly similar even for the uninitiated: árpa for barley, sátor and çadır (the origin of chador) for tent, nyereg and eyer for saddle. When Bartók came to Anatolia in 1937 the general idea was to show that Turkish music was Balkan, not Middle Eastern, and he had been involved, as a young man, in a rather similar enterprise in Transylvania, designed to prove that Romanian folk music had Hungarian connections. He and the composer Adnan Saygün went round the western Anatolian countryside with a large recording machine. It took the peasants some time before they were convinced that this was not a western invader with a bomb, and Bartók had to say a few words in Hungarian to show that he came from a far-removed branch of the Turkish race. The peasants were convinced, and were recorded, though the results, on screeching wax discs, brought proofs for the specialist of Bartók’s idea of a huge shared musical heritage since millennia.
It also helped that Hungary owed to the Ottomans some traits of her culture, and had even been preserved by them under the Ottoman push. Until the late fifteenth century she had been a great power, holding the frontiers of Christendom. Then she semi-disintegrated amid the general civilisational destruction associated with the Turkish military state, and was partitioned between Habsburgs and Ottomans, who protected the independence of Transylvania. The Ottomans were not interested in converting their subjects to Islam, because non-Moslems paid a tax that contributed much to the finances of the Empire. The Habsburgs were indeed interested in such conversion to Catholicism, and the Counter-Reformation came to western Hungary, whereas elsewhere Protestantism survived and flourished, especially in its Calvinist variant. This, as in Scotland, involved grim endeavour as regards education, and enterprising Transylvanians made their mark in Istanbul. The best-known of them was Ibrahim Müteferrika (original name unknown), born in Kolozsvár in 1675, and he became highly influential as a diplomat. But he is chiefly known as the promoter of the first Ottoman printing press in 1726. As a diplomat he had become interested in the European world, the Renaissance, the origins of Protestantism, and he collected books of his own. With the support of the first truly westernising Grand Vizier, he set up his press, with a two-volume Arabic–Turkish dictionary; two dozen works followed, until obscurantist opposition closed him down in 1742. The Hungarian contribution to Turkey was always on the side of modernisation from then on. Islam can be very obscurantist, of course, but there were other problems: the books were extremely expensive, and the literate population was very low. Ottoman printing did not get underway until much later, and even then the bulk of its not considerable output consisted of lives of saints. The educated classes took their learning, including novels and plays, from France.
Ibrahim Müteferrika was only one of a large number of Christians who took Ottoman service, with conversion – obligatory – to Islam. But in the later eighteenth century, a different element entered, of men who were consciously Hungarian, and were interested in where they came from. One such, also a Calvinist, was the Szekler Sándor Csoma (Kőrösi) born in about 1784, who was the sixth child of a poor family, went through the Bethlen College in Nagyenyed where you paid for your education by doing manual work, and became interested in the Orient. This story ends with the first grammar of Tibetan, a statue in Calcutta, and a dedication from Count Széchenyi on behalf of the Hungarian nation. As in a sense with Bartók, the booster stage was an intense drive to recapture the identity of national culture after the Habsburg–Ottoman occupation. Around 1800, people romantically but correctly guessed that a dominant strain of the Hungarians came from Central Asia (hence the use of Attila as a first name, though it also has anti-Habsburg connotations). Little Csoma found his way through innumerable privations – he got a cheap ticket to Cairo because the ship had been condemned for plague – and went via the Ottoman Empire much further east. There were other Hungarians involved on this trail, but they had their greatest boost in 1848.
There had always been Hungarian exiles, survivors of this or that rising against the Habsburgs. In 1849 came the greatest – some 15,000 soldiers and their dependents, led by Lajos Kossuth himself. The Austrians demanded their extradition and the Sultan earned the praises of Liberal Europe when he refused: Kossuth spent two years in exile there, before leaving for an ecstatic welcome (along with Garibaldi) in England and the USA. Others stayed in Ottoman service – the prize goes to General Bem, of Polish origin who, after six weeks, became, as Murad Pasha, governor of Aleppo – and fought with the Ottoman army in the Crimean War. György Kmety had a distinguished record in the siege of Kars as Ismail Pasha, and here there was a moment of chivalry. When Kars fell to the Russians in 1855, the British General Williams told his Russian counterpart that there were Hungarian officers who were liable for extradition. The Russian – a Count Muraviev – understood, and allowed the officers to leave for Erzurum, unmolested. However, the greatest of these exiles was Ármin Vámbéry. In his way, he was a characteristic product of this era. He was of Jewish origin, but abandoned that, and took up as a very young man with Protestant nationalists; as such he came to Istanbul, and very soon picked up Ottoman Turkish. Pasha families used him as confidential agent, and he went to Persia; there, he thought he should investigate the origins of the Magyars, and betook himself to Central Asia. A local Khan – who shortly before had thrown British officers into a snake pit – saw him, and learnedly discussed with him whether their languages had anything in common. It was decided, not really. Perhaps the music? The Khan’s orchestra produced interminable wailings. Vámbéry, challenged to sing something Hungarian, produced excerpts from Don Giovanni. He then went on to survey Central Asia, a survey that led to the findings of another Hungarian, Sir Aurél Stein, of a fantastic Hellenistic–Buddhist–Chinese civilisation under the sands of the Taklamakan Desert. Vámbéry went on, via the Budapest Academy of Sciences, to get a high British decoration, and to weekend with Queen Victoria at Windsor. Since Istanbul is a city of mauvaises langues almost on the level of Budapest, he was said to have stolen books from the Sultan’s library.
Around 1900, when Hungarian re-awakening reached its apogee, all of this turned in a scholarly direction, and Count Pál Teleki set up a society, Turán, with a journal, to encourage research. The Turkish Republican Party set up an office in Budapest and Turkish students came to study agriculture in particular. Turkish diplomacy supported clandestine Hungarian attempts to break with Germany in 1943, and helped save the life of many persecuted persons after Germany occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944, Prime Minister Miklós Kállay receiving asylum at their Embassy for a time. In Turkey, as ever, there were Hungarians – Sultan Abdülhamit’s cook, Kemal Atatürk’s gardener – and nowadays they are everywhere to be found, speaking with that typewriter-like intonation that ranges between B flat and D sharp. But they stand on the shoulders of giants.