Apr 11, 2006

Tolerant and multiracial

The Ottoman Empire, says Matthew Kaminski, gives lie to the notion that a Muslim nation cannot reconcile itself with the west.
When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, the Ottomans opened their arms. "Can you call such a king"--i.e., Spain's Ferdinand--"wise and intelligent?" asked Sultan Bayezid at the time. "He is impoverishing his country and enriching mine." Even so, the Ottoman embrace was limited. To take but one example: The Jews brought the printing press to Ottoman lands from Spain and Portugal, but Sultan Bayezid II soon made publishing a crime punishable by death. Only two centuries later, during the so-called Tulip Age, when European influence was at its height, did the Ottomans allow the printing of books in Arabic script.

Throughout the empire's history, architecture expressed its blending character. Ottoman mosques are decorative and warm by comparison with those in Arab countries. They often resemble Christian churches, which isn't surprising, since Armenian architects designed a lot of them. When Sultan Mehmed II captured the seat of the Orthodox Christian church in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom), he turned it into a mosque with only a few alterations.

Practicing a more tolerant strain of Islam, the Ottomans clashed with fundamentalists, like the Wahhabi who rose up against them on the Saudi peninsula in the 18th century. This conflict rages on today in different forms. In the Balkans and now in Iraq, Saudi money pays for the razing of Ottoman houses of worship. The zealots prefer glass-and-steel mosques.

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