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On his journey of 1717 that took him through Lecce, Bishop George Berkeley noted the dread felt by dwellers along the coast. They feared “the Turk”. It inclined them to live in cities, to avoid travel by night, and to watch for alerts by smoke signal between a network of coastal towers. Professor Rosita D’Amora in her absorbing talk to the Berkeley Circle explained just why “Mama! The Turks are coming” was a distress call heard all around the Mediterranean.


She began by considering how the Ottoman Empire that stretched over three continents and six centuries has been written out of history. This is readily confirmed by anyone who has had the good fortune to have lived in both London and Istanbul. In England, it’s impossible for a single day to escape references to the British Empire. In Turkey, you feel that even today’s Turks would rather not talk about the Ottomans. There are reasons, of course, and we might be lucky enough to have Professor D’Amora explain them to us on another visit.


For now, she clarified the meaning of Turk. For Europeans, it was anyone from the huge Ottoman Empire. Mama could have been fearful of an incursion from the present-day suburbs of Vienna or from sailors out of Morocco on the far Atlantic Coast. The Ottomans never said Turk. For Europeans, it was synonymous with Muslim and in popular speech meant excessive or enigmatic behavior. Shakespeare’s Othello was a converted Muslim and a Turk in his outlandish jealousy. After Jews, Turks were the European’s first ‘other’, before Africans, Asians, and whoever will be so honored next.


Professor D’Amora reminded us that in the centuries that an aggressive Christianity dominated Europe, it was their religion that made the Muslim Turks different. This became clear in her fascinating research into the slaves taken by pirates who were thought Turks, often called Moors or Saracens It was Europe’s religious authorities that organized the ransom. They were more interested in saving the captives from apostasy or forced conversion than from a life of servile labor. We also learned that Europe too took its share of Muslim captives with the same intention of selling them back for profit. This was in tune with the overall tenor of the Professor’s talk. The Ottoman-Western divide was complex as the ambiguous role of the Venetian Empire suggests. A simplified version of most conflicts can be formulated in two opposing sides, but in the case of the Ottomans in Southern Italy, we have been instructed in only one of them.


This is particularly true of the Terra d’Otranto, where the two sides actually met in battle. Much has been made of the defeat of the Turks there in 1480, which made Otranto a symbolic powerhouse of the faith that drove the Ottomans from Italy. In fact, the Turkish troops were withdrawn because they were more useful elsewhere. It was a case of an elephant treading on a cricket. You have to dig deep in Istanbul archives to find mention of Otranto. But the history and folklore of the cricket’s Southern Italy is a treasure house of recalls. Professor D’Amora showed us some pertinent illustrations of the impact:


The Portrait of Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini (1480); the graffito of the Battle of Lepanto at Muro Leccese (1570); Titian’s painting of the Battle of Lepanto Allegory (1573); the figure of the Turkish prisoner on the front of the basilica of Santa Croce, Lecce (1590); a depiction of Pio Monte della Misericordia, the charitable institution in Naples active in ransoming slaves, some of whom named Oronzo, connecting them to Salento (1601); the detail from the Obelisk at Porta Napoli, Lecce, with the dolphin biting the crescent moon. (1822).


In London in his famed ballad ‘Lepanto’ of 1911, the Catholic convert Gilbert Keith Chesterton was still harping on about the defeat of the Turks. In Italy, the remembrance has even appeared in experimental art. Carmelo Bene, born in Campi Salantina, presented his film, Nostra Signora Dei Turchi, at the Venice Film Festival of 1968. It was based on his novel of the same name. 

Vast indeed was the perspective Professor D’Amora opened for us.


Peter Byrne

Mama! The Turks Are Coming


Foto di Meg Jerrard su Unsplash

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