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Trip Adler

Historical Study A-40


Long Paper
5/12/04

Accounts of the Ottoman Empire by Busbecq and Montesquieu: The Role of Orientalism

For centuries Europeans have had changing perceptions of the Middle East that

have been shaped by various forces. I would like to analyze two very different Western

European descriptions of the Ottoman Empire from two different times, and analyze why

they are so different. The first is The Turkish Letters, written by Ogier Ghiselin de

Busbecq, who described the Middle East in a series of letters that he wrote when he

served Ferdinand I of Austria as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1554 to 1562.

The second account of the Ottoman Empire is that from The Persian Letters, written in

1720 by Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Bréde et de Montesquieu. Although his

depiction is told through a story in the form of fictional letters supposedly written by

Persians, Montesquieu paints a picture of the Ottoman Empire and voices his opinion of

it. What is most noticeable about these two accounts is the contrast between them.

While Busbecq praises the Ottoman Empire for many great aspects, Montesquieu

describes these same aspects in different ways and disparages them. But why does such a

difference exist? It is true that both of these individuals wrote about the Ottomans at

different times and had different motives in their writing. However, I want to suggest that

at least part of the difference can be accounted for by Orientalism as it is defined by

Edward W. Said in his book Orientalism. This style of dealing with the Middle East is

present in Montesquieu’s writing and explains where his inaccurate facts and negative

attitude comes from. I begin this paper by describing with specific examples how
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Busbecq and Montesquieu offer opposite accounts and opinions of the Ottoman Empire.

I then explain that Montesquieu is an Orientalist, which is not true of Busbecq, and this is

one of the main reasons why such a drastic difference exists between the two.

It is first important to understand the two different ways that Busbecq and

Montesquieu treat the Ottoman Empire. The point of comparison that I would like to

start out with is how the two writers describe the system by which individuals gain higher

positions within society. Busbecq praises the Ottoman system because “no single man

owed his dignity to anything but his personal merits and bravery; no one is distinguished

from the rest by his birth.” He thinks that this is a good system, because “there is no

struggle for precedence, every man having his place assigned to him in virtue of the

function which he performs” (59). This is just a small part of the many elaborate and

praiseworthy descriptions that Busbecq gives of this Ottoman system. In contrast,

Montesquieu comments on the system of Ottomans obtaining high positions within

society, but offers a very different opinion. He does this through the voice of the Persian

Usbek in one of his letters. In the context of discussing how “sick” the Ottoman Empire

is, he explains in a negative tone that pashas “obtain their offices only by bribery” (36).

Having the means to bribe one’s way into a high position is almost the opposite of

obtaining such a position through merit. Busbecq and Montesquieu offer opposite

descriptions and opinions of this aspect of the Ottoman Empire.

A second part of Ottoman society that Busbecq and Montesquieu disagree on is

the treatment of women. Busbecq describes a good way in which women are treated,

which is one of the strengths of the Ottoman Empire. He explains that most sultans do

not marry wives and only have children with slave women. However, he provides a
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rational explanation for why this is true. The tradition began after Sultan Bajazet I, who

after “having been defeated and having fallen, together with his wife, into the hands of

Tamerlane, underwent many intolerable sufferings, but there was nothing which he

regarded as more humiliating than the insults and affronts to which his wife was

subjected before his very eyes” (28-9). Therefore, sultans only have slave wives upon

whom “disgrace would fall less heavily than upon legal wives.” So this system is

practiced for the sake of women. Busbecq goes on to elaborate and same that “the Turks,

indeed, do not think less highly of the children of concubines or mistresses than of those

born from wives, and the former possess equal rights of inheritance” (29). While

Busbecq praises this system, Montesquieu disparages the treatment of women in the

Ottoman Empire less than two hundred years later. The main way that he expresses this

is through the story that he tells about Usbek and his harem. (It should be pointed out

that this story technically takes place in Persia, not the Ottoman Empire. However,

Montesquieu is not so careful to be accurate that it must be assumed that he is

commenting only on Persia. The story that he tells is meant to apply to the entire Middle

East, including the Ottoman Empire.) In the story, the relationship between Usbek and

his harem is representative of relations between men and women in the Middle East. The

way that Usbek controls his harem through fear is expressed in the letter that Roxana, one

of the women in the harem, writes to him: “How could you have imagined me credulous

enough to believe that I existed only to adore your caprices, that in permitting yourself

everything, you had the right to thwart my every desire? No: I have lived in slavery”

(272). It is clear that Montesquieu presents women as being unhappy with their situation

in which they are dominated by men. Again we see that Busbecq and Montesquieu tell
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different versions of the way women are treated and have different attitudes toward what

they talk about.

While on the topic of the treatment of minorities, I would like to comment on the

different descriptions of the Ottoman institution of slavery. As before, Busbecq respects

that Ottoman system while Montesquieu only has bad things to say about it. Busbecq

explains that the advantages of Ottoman slavery outweigh the drawbacks: “The Turks

both publicly and privately gain much from slavery” (101). Meanwhile, Montesquieu

expresses negative thoughts about the Ottoman institution through the voice of a

Frenchman who talks to Usbek. He explains, “What most offend me among your

customs is that you are required to live with slaves whose minds and hearts always reflect

the baseness of their condition; these servile creatures, who beset you from infancy,

weaken and eventually destroy in you those sentiments of virtue implanted by nature”

(59). He goes on to explain the problems with slavery in the Middle East. This is

basically the voice of Montesquieu explaining one of the many aspects of society that

contributes to the weakness of this part of the world.

Both of these writers also comment on the characters of the Ottoman people and

how these traits contribute to either the strength or weakness of the empire. As usual,

Busbecq acclaims them for several reasons, such as their discipline, frugality, and

practicality. In describing their discipline, he says, “What struck me as particularly

praiseworthy in that great multitude was the silence and good discipline” (61).

Throughout The Turkish Letters, he frequently brings up the thrift of the Ottomans: “The

Turks are so frugal and think so little of the pleasures of eating that if they have bread and

salt and some garlic or an onion, and a kind of sour milk, […] they ask for nothing more”
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(52). Here and in other places, he goes on to elaborate on how with such economy, in

addition to patience and sobriety, the Ottomans can “struggle against the difficulties

which beset them, and wait for better times” (111). Such a character trait present in their

society contributes to the strength of the empire. One additional point by Busbecq is how

the Ottomans are very practical in certain ways. Examples of this are the clothes that

they wear, which lack useless trimmings and are very warm, and the fact that they are

always careful to carry tents that can hold many men. While Busbecq praises the

Ottomans for these qualities, Montesquieu seems to have differing opinions. Rather than

considering the Ottomans as disciplined, he explains, “an insolent militia submits only to

its own caprices.” Rather than being frugal, pashas “enter the provinces penniless and

ravage them like conquered countries.” An additional contrast, is rather than being

practical, Montesquieu explains their impracticality when it comes to war: “These

barbarians have so completely abandoned the arts that they neglect even the art of war,

and while European nations become constantly more refined, these people remain in their

outmoded ignorance and consider adopting new instruments of war only after they have

been used a thousand times against them” (36). It is these flaws and others that have

made the Ottoman Empire as sick as Montesquieu explains.

The last point of contrast between these two writings that I would like to bring up

is the difference in how the power of the sultan and others in authority is described.

Busbecq does explain that the sultan has absolute authority and “that his slightest wishes

ought to be obeyed,” but at the same time, he makes this sound acceptable, by saying that

he is “full of majesty” (59) and that “his dignity of demeanour and his general physical

appearance are worthy of the ruler of so vast an empire” (65). Meanwhile, Montesquieu
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describes this same power and authority, but with a negative attitude: “No title, no

possession prevails against the whims of those in authority” (36). Another quote

describes this evil despotism: “A Persian who, by imprudence or misfortune, attracts the

displeasure of the prince is sure to die” (170). While Busbecq makes it seem that

authority uses its power to do good and make careful decisions, according to

Montesquieu those in control make evil and fanciful choices.

It is clear that Busbecq describes the Ottoman Empire as being extremely

powerful and admirable, while Montesquieu considers it weak with many problems. It

seems that their differing opinions are a direct result of both the different knowledge that

they have of the Ottoman Empire and the conclusions that they draw from what they

know. The next logical question to ask in analyzing these two primary sources is why

they differ so much. It might make sense that the difference in these descriptions is due

to actual change in the Ottoman Empire. It is well known that the empire did decline, or

at least decline relative to Western Europe, in the period from its peak in the sixteenth

century when Busbecq wrote about it, up through the eighteenth century in the time of

Montesquieu. However, decline of the empire does not account for the radically different

attitudes seen between the two writers. It also does not account for the extreme

difference in the descriptions of Ottoman institutions. There is no way that the position

of women or the characters of the Ottoman people changed in less than two hundred

years as much as the disparity seen between the descriptions of Busbecq and

Montesquieu. The difference between the two writings is not due entirely to an actual

change in the Ottoman Empire.

Another possibility for why such contrast exists between these two writings is that
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both Busbecq and Montesquieu were exaggerating what thought and knew about the

Ottoman Empire in an effort to bring about reform in Western Europe. In Busbecq’s

case, he was writing near the time when the Ottoman Empire was near its peak in power,

and one of his objectives was to frighten European rulers and governments into

reforming. This is clear when he says, “I tremble when I think of what the future must

bring when I compare the Turkish system with our own; one army must prevail and the

other be destroyed” (111-2). Therefore, he exaggerates the greatness of Ottoman

institutions and the overall power of the empire because he wants Europeans to feel like

they have some serious competition. Meanwhile, it can be argued that while

Montesquieu is talking about the Middle East, he is doing this to make a point about

France to get it to reform. He focuses on how horrible the institutions are in the Middle

East to show France what it should not be like. Therefore, while Busbecq exaggerates the

greatness of the Ottoman Empire and uses this version as a model for what Europe should

be like, Montesquieu exaggerates the sickness of the empire, and uses this as a model for

what France should not be like.

It is possible to account for the drastic difference between the writings of Busbecq

and Montesquieu using the facts that the Ottoman Empire did decline relative to Western

Europe between the times of their writings, and that they both exaggerated there points in

opposite directions to provide commentary on Europe. However, I would like to provide

an additional reason for this disparity, and that is that in Montesquieu’s book there is a

much stronger presence of an attitude characterized by Orientalism. This term in the

usage that I will be using was coined by Edward Said. He defines Orientalism as “a way

of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European
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Western experience” (1). (By the Orient, he is referring to the entire Eastern part of the

Eurasian continent, but this does apply to the Middle East and specifically the Ottoman

Empire.) To be more precise about the meaning of the word, he provides three separate

definitions. This first is the academic designation, which refers to the study of the Orient.

The second is “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological

distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (2). The

third and final definition treats Orientalism as a way of dealing with the Orient, and Said

calls this “modern Orientalism” (22). This did not get started until the late eighteenth

century. The specific definition of Orientalism that we are dealing with in The Persian

Letters is the second one. The first definition is not the best choice, because we are going

beyond simply the study of the Ottoman Empire in comparing Busbecq and Montesquieu,

and we are discussing the different attitudes that these Europeans have. The third

definition is also not relevant, because we are looking at a different time frame.

Therefore, we a talking about the “style of thought” used by Montesquieu that leads to

the specific attitudes that he has.

I would like to elaborate on exactly what this second definition of Orientalism is,

and how it applies to Montesquieu but not Busbecq. Said explains several key aspects of

this definition of Orientalism, and two of them help us understand how only Montesquieu

is an Orientalist and how this contributes to the disparity between the two accounts. The

first idea about Orientalism is that it involves the idea that to Europe “the Orient was

something more than what was empirically known about it. […] European understanding

[…] was ignorant but complex” (55). Often the image of the Orient was due to

“European imagination” (56). Based on these ideas, it easy to see why Orientalism is not
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present in Busbecq, because he actually visited the Ottoman Empire, and did his best to

accurately describe what he saw there. For example, he actually observed the Ottoman

system of slavery or the frugality of the Ottomans, and did his best to recount what he

learned. However, Montesquieu never actually traveled to the Ottoman Empire. The

knowledge that he had of this part of the world was based on what he read from other

travelers. Therefore, it is much easier for him to invent details not based on empirical

evidence and to use his own imagination. It is hard to believe that Montesquieu could

write so elaborately on such things as how slavery works and the characters of the

Ottomans without ever having been there. Therefore, Montesquieu’s misunderstanding

and inaccurate recounting of the Middle East is due to his Orientalist attitude, and this

attitude, in turn, causes his account to be so different from that of Busbecq, who was not

an Orientalist.

The second aspect of this particular definition of Orientalism that can be applied

to the writing of Montesquieu but not that of Busbecq is that Orientalism always involves

the Orient being “inferior to a European equivalent” (72). While “Europe is powerful and

articulate, Asia is defeated and distant” (57). In the words of Said, Islam in the eyes of

Europeans eventually came “to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of

hated barbarians” (59). It is obvious that these attitudes are present in Montesquieu, such

as when he disparages the Ottomans for their system based on bribery and their evil

rulers. However, we see the opposite in Busbecq, because he respects the Ottomans in

many ways and almost considers them superior to the great European nations. Related to

this “inferiority” of the Orient, there is the idea in Orientalist writing that the Orient is

incorporated “on a theatrical stage whose audience, manager, and actors are for Europe,
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and only for Europe” (71-2). We see this in Montesquieu’s portrayal of the harem, but

not in Busbecq’s attempts to accurately describe the role of women. The fact that

Montesquieu has this Orientalist attitude in which the West is just better than the Middle

East explains why he offers so many negative opinions on that part of the world. In

summary, the information that Montesquieu gives about the Ottoman Empire is not only

very different from the more accurate version of Busbecq, but also is presented with a

much more negative attitude, and this can in part be explained by his being an Orientalist.

Busbecq and Montesquieu are two different Western Europeans from different

times who wrote very different accounts of the Ottoman Empire. While Busbecq

described and praised certain Ottoman institutions, Montesquieu less than two hundred

years later described the same institutions in a very different way and disparaged that

which he wrote about. This disparity between the two accounts can be explained by

actual change in the Ottoman Empire and the different reasons that the two writers had

for commenting on the Middle East. However, I have suggested that the presence of

Orientalism in the writing of Montesquieu but not that of Busbecq also helps explain the

difference between the two. This shows us that we cannot take all European accounts of

the Middle East literally, because many powerful forces, such as Orientalism, can

influence individual writers. As a result of this, Western perceptions of the East have not

matched reality for centuries. For all this time and even today, the nature of these views

has played a key role in the conflict that has existed between these two parts of the world.
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Works Cited

Busbecq, Ogier Ghiselin de.  The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq.  

Translated by Edward S. Forster.  Oxford:  Oxford UP, 1927.

Montesquieu, Charles­Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Bréde et de.  The Persian Letters.  

Translated by George R. Healy.  Cambridge:  Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.

Said, Edward W.  Orientalism.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1978.