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Europe -Turkey : a matter of coherence (1)

lundi 10 juillet 2006, par Hans-Peter Geissen

Discussions about European identity and the accession of Turkey to the EU are frequently based on selected traits of historical and/or ideological developments. And so it is with respect to the precarious self-definition of Turkey as a nation-state, too. But both may be based on material grounds as well, which in turn may shift the arrangement of ideas about the meaning of specific historical events.
Hans-Peter Geissen offers to TE’s readers a very specific reflection on the course of the Europe-Turkey relationship throughout centuries.
In order to better understand the fate of the Ottoman Empire in a European context, and to draw some conclusions about useful steps in the near future, he draws a sketch of European history ; very coarse for the deeper past and denser for recent history.

- Hans-Peter Geissen lives in Koblenz (Germany), at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.
Interested in all what concerns faunistics (data about animal species) of the Midrhine region, he is the author of many scientific publications on these issues. He bent on the Turkish issue with a very specific approach so as « to prevent a self-definition of Europe on the grounds of historical or religious mythologies. »


« Europe now has a serviceable model to propose for universal emulation » Tony Judt

I will start with a definition of Europe : I follow the German geographer Herbert Louis (*see below) in that Europe is the region of coherent dense settlement in the west of the Eurasian continent. The coherent density of settlement in turn is based on rain-fed agriculture. Basically it’s not a mere coincidence that the same region is rich in lakes and rivers suitable for fishing and shipping, as both depends on rain. Accidentally, however, the region is also very rich in coasts, inland seas and islands. So some fishing and shipping is widespread since the mesolithics. And it’s located where the axis of Africa meets that of Eurasia, at a point which is quite next to America, too. Geographical features may be considered preconditions of historic developments. For instance, Europe is, geographically, in a quite central position with respect to the inhabitable world, both in history and the foreseeable future.

A specific geographic and ecological setting for Europe

The southeastern borders of Europe are nearly identical with those of present Turkey, but also include Caucasia. At any rate, the Ottoman heartlands (Anatolia and the Balkans) have always been part of Europe, and this holds true for the whole Black Sea region. Then, Southeastern Anatolia south of the Taurus chains, and a stretch of Northern Syria north of the Syrian desert, are the borderlands between Europe and the geographical Orient. SE Anatolia is the main homeland of traditional European agriculture and stockbreeding, and so it is historically basic for the very definition of Europe.

Starting with the Bronze Age, proto-states ruled by warriors emerged. Religion, in that context, became a mediator between the rulers and the ruled, by setting identity-building rituals and ethical standards, among other things. Rulers and religious authorities allied. Here I bypass the developments in the Hittite Empire and the « Arzawa » lands, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire, as well as the Arab incursions, but make a short stop in the later Middle Ages.

The Germanic expansion had caused a specific understanding of society to come into a central position in further developments. In short, decisions were made in an assembly (of warriors or a whole village or tribe), which was holy to the god Tyr or Ziu. Decisions were inforced by an oath holy to the same god. Freedom and peace are basically the same in the word stem « fri » (obviously meaning « undisturbed »), which is also connected to settling, courting, and honour. Irrespective of some Christianizatioon in the meantime, this customary understanding was basic for the first popular (proto-democratic) revolution (the so-called « oath comrades » of Switzerland, 13th to 14th century) and quite some related developments in what today is Britain, Germany, the Netherlands a.s.o., which are connected with assemblies and people’s self-rule, independence, and elections of the leader(s).

But still the late Roman Empire was present in its religious ally, the Roman church, and fought for its own survival and dominance - both against dissidents in the West (worldly leaders as well as religious dissidents), and against the Eastern Roman church(es), basically the Orthodox. And, of course, against Islam, as well as against pagans. The latter three were all objects of crusades, which had the Roman church in alliance with western warrior leaders.

Meanwhile, in SE Europe, the East Roman (ethnically predominantly Greek) Empire was gradually superseded by the Ottomans, basically a subgroup of mainly Turkic immigrants from Central Asia. Being political (warrior) leaders, with respect to religion they were allied with Islam. But they were unique by gradually setting up a system of parallel but hierarchical coexistence of several religions and sects, each of which had a role in the ruler-religion alliance of government and administration.

All those alliances in Eastern and Western Europe had their specific intra-religious divides. Schematically one can speak of the ruler-related « orthodox » and the somehow dissident « heterodox ». Examples of the latter in the East are Paulians, Bogumils, the monophysite churches (e.g., Armenians), Kizilbash (Alevites), in the West Catharians, Waldensians and Protestants, for instance. One may consider that a « heterodox » movement may become « orthodox » if they manage to ally with an actual and successful ruler (like Iranian Shii or European Protestants). In Anatolian Islam some Sufi orders, especially the Bektasiye, had a somewhat intermediate and buffering role for centuries. In England, the ruler could set up the ruler-related Anglican church, and so Roman Catholizism became the « heterodox » sect in the British Isles, politically allied with subjugated Celtic peoples.

European expansions

First excursions leading far from Europe were already done in the Middle Ages, by the Vikings of Hleif Eriksson to North America around 1000 and then in the 13th ct. by the Italian Marco Polo to China. But expansions started in the first half of the 15th ct. by the seafarers of the Portuguese kingdom shipping around Africa. About a century later the Portuguese, Spanish, British, French, and Dutch were crossing the oceans, acquiring and competing for colonial outposts. At the same time the Ottoman Empire expanded beyond the European space into the Arab lands. Another century, and Russian settlers went beyond what is geographically Europe (which includes Western Siberia) to Middle and Eastern Siberia, with Russian administration following those rather anarchic settlements.

One may see certain connections. The troops of Selim I., defeating « heterodox » Turkish tribes and conquering Arabia, were both stemming from the Balkans and non-Muslim to a large degree, ethnically Greek, Slavic, or Albanian (however, a later consequence of those victories was an increasing Sunnitization of the empire, including marginalization of non-Sunnis in the political sphere for some centuries). Spanish seafarers were frequently Italians. Russian geographic exploration, trade, military and administration for instance included Germans, Swedes, Poles, Dutch, French, Danes, Italians, Greeks, and others. Despite many differences it can be said that each of the resulting world empires was dwelling on European manpower (including Anatolians and Tatars in the Ottoman case), which in first instance may be a result of Europe being a large space of rather high settlement density. This includes a rather high economic activity (production potential), not least a high amount of trees suitable for ship building (both however resulting in large-scale woodland devastation and need of reafforestation).

A theocratic view

There was a major rift, too. The common European political space was defined by a ruling aristocracy which frequently intermarried between different states. They saw themselves as equals. The Ottoman Empire could not be included because of different religion, which prohibited intermarriage ; and because the Ottomans did not in fact have a ruling family, but a different and indeed unique kind of household recruited from « Kul » slaves (the marriages of Suleiman II./Hurrem and probably Selim II./Nurbanu, unfortunately, remained episodic). Interestingly, though, also the Swiss, Irish, Finns, Icelanders, and Latvians weren’t integrated into the European ruling elites as there were no (or no accepted) aristocracies for different reasons. As to European Jews, they too were separate for religious reasons.

It may be noted that there is a widespread understanding of a uniform (Christian) Europe and an Ottoman Empire, which belongs to an « Islamic World ». This is basically a theocratic view. It doesn’t meet and never has met neither the geographic-ecological setting, nor the social realities of the Ottoman Empire, nor those of what is called « Europe » here.


* LOUIS, Herbert (1954) : Über den geographischen Europabegriff. - Mitteilungen der Geographischen Gesellschaft in München 39 : 73-93. München

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