Who were the Turks?

The collocations of the name “Turk”

The Hungarians of the 15th and 17th centuries, like other Westerners, called them “Turks” in general.
However, a proud and educated member of the Ottoman Empire would have been offended to be considered a “Turk”. Since the end of the Seljuk Empire, the name “Turk” has been associated with more negative adjectives. The word “türk-i bi-ebed” or “türk-i bi-idra” referred to the despised laborer, meaning a stupid or simpleton commoner. They were considered unfit to participate in the running of the Ottoman state, whose subjects called themselves Ottomans.
In fact, Turkish nationalism was born mainly in the first decade of the 20th century, and since then the word “Turk” has been valued and has acquired all the positive meanings associated with it for the modern Turkish people. But let us look at its origins.

The Seljuks

Ethnically and culturally, the predecessor of the Ottoman Empire was the Seljuk Empire.
Originally, all Turkic tribes that were part of the Turkic dynastic mythological system (e.g. Uigurs, Karluks, and a number of other tribes) were called “Turkmen”. Only later did the word come to refer to a specific ethnonym. The common ancestors of modern Turks and Turkoman people were nomadic groups in the 11th century AD, similar to the ancient Hungarians.

Let us talk only about their history after 1071 when they came out of the Caucasian territories and defeated the Byzantine army at Manzikert. The Seljuks soon shifted the balance of power in Asia Minor and Syria from the European Byzantine Empire to them. The Seljuq conquerors were Muslim and their new subjects were Christian. It took some time for their new homeland to become predominantly Muslim and for their language to change to Turkish. This was largely completed by the middle of the 13th century. While the Hungarians suffered from the Mongol invasion of 1241-42, the Seljuks were attacked by the Mongolian “Yellow Storm” in 1243.

Mongolian warriors

The Sultanate of Rum was defeated in the Battle of Köse Dağ and the Sultanate disintegrated. The ancestors of the Ottoman Turks appeared in Asia Minor in 1250 under the leadership of Ertogrul. According to legend, he had only 400 warriors under his command.
His son was called Bey Osman (1281-1326) and his descendants were the Osmanli, or as many people call them, the Ottomans. The Ottomans were able to gain ground in Europe and entered the Balkan Peninsula in 1352. The Ottoman dynasty also ethnically belonged to the Oguz Turks.

The Turk peoples all saw themselves as descendants of the great Khan Oguz, and their traditional laws, the “törü” (“törvény” in Hungarian), were the same. Not only was their language the same, but their religion contained common shamanistic elements, parallel, of course, to their Muslim faith.
At the beginning of their rule, they called themselves Turks, as all Turk-related tribes have done since the old days of the Turk Empire, which was founded in the steppes in the middle of the 6th century AD.

Ottoman army on the march (1566)

Note that some Byzantine sources had also called the Hungarians “Turks” in the 9th century, and there are many theories that claim there is a direct relationship between the ancient Turks and the Hungarians. Since the Turks were once nomadic people, it is not surprising that after the 15th century, they began to think of the Hungarians as their brothers. This idea is still widespread today, especially since the 19th century when new friendships developed between the Turkish and Hungarian nations. It was religion that separated the two nations. More about the Hungarians here:


One of the Turkish people who liked my posts wrote to me: “Brother if you had embraced Allah, nothing would have stopped us”. I replied to him: “Brother if you had embraced Jesus, no one would have stopped us…”
In the next post, I will write about the changes in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 14th century and we will see how the word “Osmanli” took the place of “Turk” among them.

Ottoman soldiers in the 17th century

The change in society

By the end of the 14th century, the initial unity of Ottoman society was broken. There were the “aszkeri”, or soldiers, and the masses of “rája”, or laborers. But all the people agreed that they were Muslims, descendants of Khan Oguz, who still spoke the same language and shared the same ancient customs. These four elements of common identity were generally preserved until the beginning of the 16th century. The man of that time considered himself not only a Turk but also a follower of the House of Osman and called his country Osman-eli, the land of Osman.

On the other hand, the leaders of society gradually “monopolized” the term “Ottoman” and abandoned their Turkish identity. During the 15th century, the class of the “Ottoman-Aszkeri” leaders was divided into other parts, and the “top managers”, called “the order of the palace” by historians, appeared among them. Many of them were descended from slaves and not from the traditional Old Turk families, whose power was diminished by the sultans. The new privileged class created its own identity and rules of behavior. They called it the ‘Ottoman way’ (ebed-i oszmani) and spoke a different language, the Ottomanli. Many of the Turkish words were replaced by Arabic and Persian words. Even the aszkeri (soldier) class could hardly understand it, let alone the simple peasants.

The growth of the Ottoman Empire

This language was fully created in the second half of the 15th century, and those who could not read or write it could not become members of the “upper elite”. It became the language of high culture and state administration. Social mobility between classes was also frozen, and the sultans tightened their rules by using slave officials instead of tribal leaders from old families. They went one step further in the first half of the 16th century: only those who were the sultan’s brothers-in-law could become grand viziers. Since the children of the sultans were almost exclusively born of slaves, the sultan’s family slowly merged with the ruling elite. It is worth noting that these high-ranking Ottoman officials, who had been slaves (and Muslims), often maintained good relations with their Christian relatives living in other countries.

All in all, this very cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed “top elite” did its best to erase the idea of the old Turkish identity. Now we can understand why the once noble-sounding term “Turk” took on an offensive and degrading meaning in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 16th century. At the same time, the state tried to persuade its subjects to forget their Turkish identity and become “good Muslims” instead.
For the Persians, Egyptians, and other Muslims, the Ottoman people were the “bastard heirs” of the Byzantine Empire, apostate Christians who had become bad Muslims with weak faith.

The „Turks” who conquered 40% of the Kingdom of Hungary:

Now we can see how the Old Turk language gave way to the Ottoman language by the 16th century, at least among those who had a higher rank in the Ottoman Empire. It should be noted that there were also several dialects among the speakers of the original Turkish language. As far as the conquerors of the Hungarian territories were concerned, the Bosniak language was more common than the Turkish. Please, note, that I am deliberately using the Oriental order of names for the Hungarians where surnames come first.

The Ottoman conquest of Hungary (inside it, you can see a modern map with purple dots)

There were many castles on the Ottoman side of the Hungarian frontier, heavily garrisoned by soldiers employed by the Ottoman state. They outnumbered by more than two to one the Hungarian-Croatian castle warriors who faced them along the 1,000-mile frontier. I had mentioned that both sides saw themselves as warriors (or knights?) of the so-called Valiant Order: they had very similar values about honor and bravery and gradually developed their own code of behavior. Here is more about the Valiant Order: 


But that is another topic, let us talk about their language and ethnic background.
It may come as a surprise, but there were very few ethnic Turks among the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in Hungary. According to the preserved payrolls, we have lists where 95% of the names are South Slavic and Albanian. About 3% were Turks, and only 2% came from Asia and Africa. This is why Lajos Fekete, the great researcher of the period, calls it the “Serbian-Bosnian (rác) conquest”. Of course, this ratio was different when the Sultan started his great campaigns from home, bringing with him all kinds of people from the empire.

Archaeological findings confirm this: there are no or very few traces of the remains of Turkish folk culture in Hungary. When Sudár Balázs, a Turkologist, was reading the books of Takáts Sándor, the pioneer of this period, he noticed that he mentioned many Turkish traveling musicians who visited the Ottoman garrisons in Hungary and sang the legends of local heroes. He tried to find some written material that these musicians might have left behind but found nothing.

Unlike the Hungarian lords, the local Ottomans didn’t exchange many letters with each other, so there were few sources of this kind of Ottoman letters. On the other hand, we have thousands of Hungarian letters, most of them unpublished. Finally, Professor Sudár discovered traces of heroic songs and legends, but they were written neither in Turkish nor in the Ottoman language. He was surprised to read tens of thousands of lines of these songs in Bosnian and Serbian languages as part of their folklore. They are about the exploits of Muslim warriors in Hungary. Even our greatest Renaissance poet, Balassi Bálint /1554-1594/ knew them.

As for the Bosnian and Serb soldiers in the Ottoman army (we called them “rác”), 15-20% of them were Orthodox Christians. The rest were newly converted Muslims, and they can be divided into two further groups. Many of them kept much of their Christian traditions and culture and were “more lenient” towards the local Catholic or Protestant Hungarians and Croats or Saxons. They were the ones who didn’t give up the habit of drinking wine and were bilingual, using either their ancient language or the widely spoken Turkish. Many of them used a special mixture of Bosnian and Turkish as their dialect. We know stories of how their pashas or leaders ordered large quantities of wine from the Hungarians, claiming that they had Hungarian prisoners of war who could not drink water.

Ottoman soldiers

There are stories of how the ‘Turks’ and the Hungarian warriors would usually drink together all night on the battlefield after duels between their soldiers, as it was ‘befitting of the Valiant Order’. On the other hand, there were other newly converted Muslims among them, eager to prove themselves worthy of their new masters. They were sometimes savage and cruel, as we see with apostates all over the world.

When Hungary was “liberated” by the Habsburgs in 1699, most of the surviving “Turks” of Hungary stayed here and were Christianised, eventually becoming Hungarian. As for the “Rác” people, there was a rather bloody conflict not only after the Battle of Mohács in 1526, when Szapolyai had to put down their revolt but also in 1704, when they attacked the southern territories of Hungary, just before Prince Rákóczi Ferenc II’s War of Independence.

The Cumans in Hungary

Hungary once had its “own” Turks, however: the Cumans, who took refuge in Hungary in the 13th century, fleeing from the Mongols. Their language was still very much alive in the 16th century, as was their cultural heritage. They were led by their leaders, but they were already Christianised, as evidenced by the Lord’s Prayer in the Cuman language from the 16th century.

According to an Ottoman traveler in the 16th century, they spoke and dressed like “Tartars” and lived in yurts. Unfortunately, the Ottoman conquest caused them great losses, as their tribal land, the Kiskunság, between the Danube and the Tisza rivers, suffered much destruction. More Cumans survived in the Trans-Tisza region, in Nagykunság.
More research is needed to find out how the Cumans fought in defense of their Hungarian homeland against the “Turks”.

(Sources: Professor Fodor Pál, Barta Gábor, and Sudár Balázs.)

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