Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Who were the Turks?

Some words about the Turks, who had been the enemy of the Hungarian Kingdom during the Ottoman wars;

The collocations of the name “Turk”

Hungarians in the 15-17th century, just like other Western people, called them just „Turks” in general.
However, a proud and educated member of the Ottoman Empire would have been offended if he had been regarded as a „Turk”. Since the end of the Seljuk Empire, the name „Turk” was collocated with rather negative adjectives. The word „türk-i bi-ebed” or „türk-i bi-idra” stood for the despised laborers, meaning a stupid or simpleton commoner. They were considered not appropriate to take part in the running of the Ottoman State whose subject called themselves Osmanli.
In fact, Turkish nationalism was born mainly in the first decade of the 20th century and the word „Turk” has been appreciated since that time, gaining all the positive meanings now connected to it for the modern Turkish people. But let us take a look at their origin.

The Seljuks

Ethnically and culturally speaking, the predecessor of the Ottoman Empire had been the Seljuk Empire.
Originally, all Turkic tribes that were part of the Turkic dynastic mythological system (for example, Uigurs, Karluks, and a number of other tribes) were designated “Turkmens”. Only later did this word come to refer to a specific ethnonym. The common ancestors of modern Turks and Turkmens were nomadic peoples in the 11th century A.D., quite similar to the ancient Hungarians.

Now, let us talk only about their history after 1071 when coming out from the Caucasian territories, they 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 Seljuk conquerors were Muslims and their new subjects were Christians. Their new homeland needed some time to become mainly Muslim and change their language to Turk. It has largely been done by the mid-13th century, though. While the Hungarians suffered the Mongolian invasion in 1241-42, the Seljuks were attacked in 1243 by the “yellow storm”.

Mongolian warriors

The Sultanate of Rum was defeated in the Battle of Köse Dağ and the Sultanate got disintegrated. The ancestors of the Ottoman Turks appeared in Asia Minor, led by Chieftain Ertogrul in 1250. 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 set foot on the Balkanian Peninsula in 1352. The Ottoman dynasty ethnically belonged to the Oguz Turks, too.

The Turk peoples all considered themselves the descendants of the great Khan Oguz and their traditional laws, the „törü” („törvény” in Hungarian) was the same. Also, not only their language was the same but their religion included common shamanistic elements, parallel to their Muslim faith of course.
They called themselves Turk at the beginning of their rule, just like all Turk-related tribes since the old days of the Turk Empire founded in the steppes in the middle of the 6th century A.D.  This term had no bad meaning at that time among them.

Ottoman army on the march (1566)

Note, some Byzantine sources had called the Hungarians also „Turk” in the 9th century and there are many theories that claim there is a direct relationship between the ancient Turks and Hungarians. Once having been a nomadic people, it is no wonder why the Turks, after the 15th century, it was thought that the Hungarians were their brothers. This concept is quite widespread in our days, too, particularly since the 19th century when new friendships developed between the Turkish and the Hungarian nations. It was the religion that separated the two nations quite significantly. More about the Hungarians here:

One of the Turkish people who liked my posts wrote to me: „Brother, had you embraced Allah, nothing would have stopped us.” I answered him: „Brother, had you embraced Jesus, nobody 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 the „Turk” among them.

Ottoman soldiers in the 17th century

The change in society

By the end of the 14th century, the initial unity of the Ottoman society has been broken. The distance between the leaders and the laborers became strikingly visible: there were the „aszkeri” aka soldiers and the crowds of „rája”, the herds who were working. Yet, all the people agreed that they were Muslims, the descendants of Khan Oguz, they still had the same language and shared the same ancient customs from ancient times. These four elements of common identity had been preserved until the beginning of the 16th century, in general. The man of the age considered himself not just Turk but also a follower of the House of Osman and called their country Osman-eli, the country of Osman.

On the other hand, the leaders of society gradually „monopolized” the term „Osmanli” for themselves and said goodbye to their Turk identity. During the 15th century, the class of „Osmanli-Aszkeri” leaders got divided into other parts and the „top managers” appeared among them who are called „the order of the palace” by historians. Many of them had come from slaves and not from the traditional old Turk families whose power was being diminished by the Sultans. The new privileged class has created its own identity and rules of behavior. They called it the „Osman way” (ebed-i oszmani) and spoke a different language, the Osmanli. Many of the Turk 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 has been fully created by the second part of the 15th century and those who were not able to read or write it, could not become a member of the „top elite”. It has become the language of the high culture and the administration of the state. The social mobility between the classes has also got frozen, the Sultans made their rules firmer by using slave officials instead of the tribal leaders from old families. They made one step further in the first part of the 16th century: only those could become Grand Viziers who were the brothers-in-law of the Sultan. As the sultans’ children came almost exclusively from slave women, the Sultan’s family slowly melted into the leading elite. We have to mention that those high-ranking Ottoman officials who had been slaves (and Muslims), many times kept a good relationship with their Christian relatives living in other countries.

All in all, this very cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed „top elite” has done its best to wipe out the idea of ancient Turk identity. Now, we can understand why the once noble-sounding term „Turk” has developed an offensive and degrading meaning in the Ottoman Empire by the beginning of the 16th century. At the same time, the state tried to prod its subjects to forget their Turk identity and become „good Muslims” instead of it.
As for the Persians, the Egyptians, and other Muslims, they regarded the Osmanli people as the „bastard heirs” of the Byzantine Empire, renegade Christians who became bad Muslims with weak faith.

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

Now we see how the old Turk language was giving way to the Osmanli language by the 16th century, at least among those who had a higher rank in the Ottoman Empire. We should mention that there were several dialects among the speakers of the original Turk language as well. As far as the conquerors of the Hungarian territories are concerned, the Bosnian dialect of the Turk language was more common. As for language, please note that I am intentionally using the Eastern name order for Hungarians.

The Ottoman conquest of Hungary (inside: see a modern map with purple dots)

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

But it is a different topic, now let us talk about their language and ethnic background.
It might be most surprising but there were very-very few ethnic Turks among the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in Hungary. According to the preserved payrolls, we have lists where we can find South-Slavic and Albanian names in 95%. There were about 3% of Turkish people and only 2% of them came from Asia and Africa. This is why Lajos Fekete, the great researcher of the age calls the period rather a „Serbian-Bosnian (rác) Conquest”. Of course, this rate was different when the Sultan launched his great campaigns from home, bringing along all kinds of people of the Empire.

Archeological finds support this, too: there is no or very little trace left of remains of any Turk folk-culture artifacts in Hungary. When the Turkologist Sudár Balázs read the books of  Takáts Sándor, the pioneer of the period’s researchers, he became aware that he mentioned plenty of Turkish traveling musicians who visited the Ottoman garrisons in Hungary, singing the legends of local heroes. He tried to find some written materials which may have been left behind by these musicians and found nothing. Unlike between Hungarian lords, the local Ottomans didn’t exchange many letters with each other so there is just a scant source of these kinds of Ottoman letters. On the other hand, we have thousands of Hungarian letters which are mostly unpublished. Finally, Professor Sudár has discovered the traces of the heroic songs and legends but they were written neither in Turk nor in the Osmanli 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 deeds of Muslim warriors in Hungary. Even our greatest Renaissance poet, Balassi Bálint /1554-1594/ knew them.

As for the Bosnian-Serbian soldiers in the Ottoman army (we called them „rác”), 15-20% of them were Orthodox Christians. The rest of them were newly-converted Muslims and they can be divided into two more groups. There were many of them who kept much of their Christian traditions and culture and were „more lenient” with the local Catholic or Protestant Hungarians and Croatians or Saxons. They were the ones who didn’t give up the habit of drinking wine and were bilingual, using either their old language or the commonly spoken Turk. Many of them used a special mixture of Bosnian-Turk as a dialect. We know stories of how their Pashas or leaders ordered great 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, as a rule, used to drink together on the battlefield all night long after fighting duels between their soldiers, as it was „befitting among the Valiant Order”. On the other hand, there were other newly-converted Muslims among them who wanted to prove themselves worthy to their new masters. They were sometimes savage and cruel, as we can see happen among renegades all over the world.
When Hungary was “liberated” by the Habsburgs in 1699, most of the surviving “Turks” of Hungary stayed here and Christianized, eventually becoming Hungarian.
As for the “Rác” people, there was a rather bloody conflict not just after the Battle of Mohács in 1526 when Szapolyai had to stop their revolt but also in 1704 when they attacked the southern territories of Hungary, right before the War of Independence of Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi.

The Cumans in Hungary

Hungary used to have their “own” Turks, though: the Cuman nation who took shelter in Hungary in the 13th century, fleeing from the Mongols. Their language was very much alive in the 16th century as well as their cultural heritage. They were led by their own leaders but they have been already Christianised as the Lord’s Prayer in the Cuman language from the 16th century proves it.
According to an Ottoman traveler, they spoke, dressed like „Tatars” and lived in yurts in the 16th century. Unfortunately, the Ottoman conquest has caused them huge losses as their tribal land, the Kiskunság suffered much destruction between the Danube and the Tisza Rivers. More Cumans survived in the Trans-Tisza River 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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