Art and Diplomacy in Ottoman Constantinople

By Mansel, Philip | History Today, August 1996 | Go to article overview

Art and Diplomacy in Ottoman Constantinople


Mansel, Philip, History Today


In The Muslim Discovery of Europe (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982) Bernard Lewis states that, for Ottomans, 'the idea of an alliance with Christian powers, even against other Christian powers, was strange and, to some, abhorrent'. In reality, alliances with Christian powers were a natural and inevitable aspect of Ottoman policy from its earliest days.

Ottoman soldiers first crossed into Europe, after 1350, as allies of either the Byzantine emperor, John Cantacuzenos or the city of Genoa. Thereafter the Ottoman empire rarely lacked Christian allies. Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, was an ally and trading partner of Florence. Far from alliances seeming 'strange' or 'abhorrent' to the Sultan, on occasion he discussed policy with, and was entertained by, Florentines in the cosmopolitan district of Pera, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople itself. He had long been at war with Venice. However, after peace in 1479, Ottoman-Venetian relations became sufficiently relaxed for the Sultan to ask the Doge to find him a competent painter: hence Gentile Bellini's portrait of the Sultan, painted in Constantinople in 1480, today in the National Gallery in London.

The relations of the Ottoman Sultan with other Muslim rulers such as the Shah of Persia and the Mogul emperor were frequently hostile and, although embassies were exchanged, never attained the level of permanent diplomatic representation. The Shah was hated as a Shia 'heretic', and feared as a rival for territory in the Caucasus and what is now Iraq. The Mogul emperor, conscious of his descent from the great Timur, conqueror of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II in 1402, challenged the Ottoman Sultan's claim to be sole Caliph and 'asylum of the universe'.

Another barrier was the length of the journey -- six to nine months -- between Delhi and Constantinople. In contrast, the journey between Venice and Constantinople took three to six weeks. By the mid-sixteenth century, soon after their appearance in Western capitals, permanent embassies had been established in Constantinople by the kings of France and Poland, the Holy Roman Emperor and the states of Genoa and Venice.

The Ottoman Empire was not only a great military power, whose territory stretched from Algeria to Armenia, and from the Danube to the Gulf: it also ruled an area of immense economic and religious significance to Christian powers. Constantinople became one of the diplomatic capitals of Europe -- in the words of a later French diplomat, the Vicomte de Marcellus, 'a centre of minuscule and complicated negotiations such as do not exist in other political headquarters'. Constantinople embassies were considered so important that they were a nursery of future foreign ministers (such as Hoepken of Sweden, Vergennes of France, Thugut of Austria).

A Constantinople embassy, however, could be perilous. If the Sultan was displeased by a foreign government's declaration of war, or evidence that it was surreptitiously helping an Ottoman enemy, its ambassador might be humiliated, or imprisoned in the fortress of the Seven Towers by the Sea of Marmara. Imprisonment was the fate of Imperial ambassadors in 1541, 1596 and 1716; of French in 1616, 1658, 1659, 1660 and 1798, Venetian in 1649 and 1714 and Russian in 1768 and 1787. The ambassador could not be certain that he would emerge alive -- although all did.

However most ambassadors remained unharmed in the capital, during !embassies which could last very long indeed: Count Jacob Colyer stayed in Constantinople as representative of the United Provinces from 1683 to 1725. A 'perfect master' of Turkish and Greek, according to Prince Dimitri Cantemir, an Ottoman official who subsequently deserted to Russia, Colyer entertained Ottoman officials 'freely' at his house and, by plying them with wine, learnt 'all their secrets'.

With no European power, however, did the Ottoman Empire have closer relations than with France.

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