If I got one euro for every time someone made a blanket statement about ‘those Muslim refugees’ coming to Europe and how they cannot be integrated because ‘they’ are so different from ‘us’, I would have enough money to bail out Greece right this second. Unfortunately, so far no one has taken me up on this deal and so disregarding the truckload of responses I have up my sleeves regarding these comments, I will instead show rather than tell what history has to say about this distinct characterization. In this first piece of the article series Europe’s Forgotten Stories: A Counter-Narrative, I will therefore examine the broad case of the Ottoman Empire and its far-reaching influence on Europe to demonstrate how the often-presumed dividing line between Europe and ‘the Muslim world’ is not so much an empirical fact as it is a distinct narrative. To do so, I take the reader on a ride through European history starting in the 15th and ending in the 18th century with several pit stops along the way at selected instances of cultural interaction between Ottomans and Europeans that influenced the course of history.

A notable date to start with is the year 1479, in which the Treaty of Constantinople ended the fifteen-year war between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice (Renda, 2006, p. 2). This event had vast implications for the course of cultural relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe at large as it dramatically increased cultural exchange among them (ibid., p. 4). Famous architectural designs by European jewels like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci would not have been as impressive were it not for their contact with different ideas and architectural practices from their Ottoman neighbours (ibid., p. 5). Later in the 16th century, the political pressures Suleiman the Magnificent put on the Catholic Habsburgs eventually enabled the spread of Protestantism and facilitated Luther’s success (ibid., p. 7), which illustrates how the narrative of ‘Christianity versus Islam’ is not an adequate rule of thumb as it is often made out to be. Living up to his name, the political influence and personal life of Suleiman the Magnificent also served as a source of inspiration for literary works, ballets, and operas in Europe (ibid.). During the same period, the famous Italian painter Lorenzo Lotto (see painting on the right) and the German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein portrayed Middle Eastern carpets for the first time not as something distinctly Ottoman but as part of a European setting (ibid.).

Moreover, remember those gorgeous, puffy dresses in Jane Austen movies like Pride & Prejudice (see painting on the left)? Turns out that they are not a strictly European design either; rather, towards the 17th century Ottoman dresses had left quite an impression so that their fabrics and styles started to be used for ballroom dresses, particularly for masked balls (Inal, 2011, p. 245). This stark influence continues during the time of ‘mutual interest’ in the 18th century, when iconic European musicians incorporated the cultural exchange with the Ottoman Empire as a source of inspiration: Mozart, Haydn, Verdi, Beethoven, and Rossini are just few examples of composers who fused Turkish melodies or motifs with their works and as such transcended the supposed cultural divide (Renda, 2006, p. 12).

Of course, the very term ‘cultural exchange’ implies that Europeans simultaneously had a decisive influence on the Ottomans as well. Indeed, not only were European motifs such as the baroque and rococo style implemented in Ottoman architecture and furniture design, but canvas painting also only developed after encountering this art form in the West (ibid., pp. 15-16). However, given that the export of cultural elements is very much part and parcel of European history whereas the import thereof is falsely portrayed as having European origins (Horoz, 2013), this article – as well as the series at large – sheds light on the other side of the story. Although one could accuse this approach of cherry picking as well, the key behind forming a counter-narrative is that instead of picking cherries from one particular tree (read: perspective) time and time again, it is important to pick as many cherries from as many different trees as possible, so to speak. Doing so feeds historical facts from across society into the supposedly neat boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, thus blurring the line between the two and giving way to a more interconnected picture. Only by realising that ‘the Muslim world’ is not some mysterious faraway land but actually consists of regular human beings like me and you, it will become clear that there is no need to believe them to be incompatible with ‘our culture’. Throughout history Europe has seen an incredible amount of migration, interactions, and most importantly cultural diversity, which makes it such a warm and welcoming place to people from all over the world; if we only let it.


Next up: Based on this rather broad sketch of Ottoman influence on Europe, the next article will focus on how two seemingly different women from these two regions together changed the course of European history. Stay tuned!

By Cindy Langer, Editor in Chief of the European Student Think Tank – EST Board of 2017-18.