What is Humanism?

“A rationalistic system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.” (Oxford English Dictionary)
“The rejection of religion in favour of the advancement of humanity by its own efforts.” (Collins Concise Dictionary)
“…a non-religious philosophy, based on liberal human values.” (Little Oxford Dictionary)
“…seeking, without religion, the best in, and for human beings.” (Chambers Pocket Dictionary)
“…an appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality… Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)


Unlike religionists, Humanists have no faith. Having “faith” means having a strong belief in something without proof. Humanists are essentially sceptics. Where religious people might offer supernatural answers to some of the fundamental questions about life, the universe, and everything, we prefer to leave a question mark. Humanists are atheist (meaning “without god”), or agnostic (a term coined by the 19th century biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, to mean “without knowledge”, since Huxley said one cannot prove or disprove the existence of God).
Humanists reject the notion of an afterlife; we think that this life is the only one we have, and we must make the most of it.
Humanists don’t have the equivalent of the Bible or the Qu’ran, or a book of rules to guide us through life, though we may refer to great works of history, philosophy and literature. You don’t actually need to have read the history of Humanist ideas to be a Humanist, but most, being inquisitive, thoughtful people, will investigate the ideas that interest us.
We can trace Humanist influences over 2,500 years to the Chinese sage Confucius and to the philosophers, scientists and poets of antiquity. One was the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who, starting from Aristotle’s principle that human happiness depends on good conduct, defined the good life as one of pleasure and friendship, absence of pain and peace of mind. His disciples included women and slaves, which was almost unheard of at that time. Epicurus said, “Of all the means by which wisdom ensures happiness throughout life, by far the most important is the possession of friendship.”
For centuries, it was unsafe to openly express unorthodox views about religion, but with the dawn of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, it gradually became possible to do so, with caution. Some described themselves as “rationalists”, “secularists” or “freethinkers”, terms that are still used by Humanists today.
Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution made a huge impact on our understanding of where we come from, has been a strong influence on Humanism. The scientist Marie Curie, the 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the authors Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, the first Prime Minister of Independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the American creator of the Star Trek TV series, Gene Roddenberry, are just a few of the influential people who’ve lived by Humanist principles.
Professor Richard Dawkins, a tireless advocate of secularism, said, “I arrived at my beliefs, as everybody should, by examining evidence.” Many Humanists have worked out their own beliefs and are delighted to find that others have reached similar conclusions. Because we are independent thinkers, Humanists differ about many things, but most of us agree about some basic principles. We believe that we should accept responsibility for our own behaviour and how it affects other people and the world we live in. Because we think that this is the only life we have, we believe it’s important to try to live full and happy lives, and to help others to do the same.
Humanists were involved with the establishment of the United Nations; we value human rights, freedom of communication, freedom from fear, want and suffering, and education free from bias and the influence of powerful religious or political organisations.
In his book Humanism, an introduction, Jim Herrick wrote, “Humanism is the most human philosophy of life. Its emphasis is on the human, the here-and-now, the humane. It is not a religion and has no formal creed, though humanists have beliefs. Humanists are atheists or agnostics and do not expect an afterlife. It is essential to humanism that it brings values and meaning into life.”
In 1996, the International Humanist & Ethical Union General Assembly adopted the following resolution. Any organisation wishing to become a member of IHEU is now obliged to signify its acceptance of this statement:
Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality

Note: From: http://suffolkhands.org.uk/humanism/, 27.09.2017


Catalonia and the battle of ideas in the 21st century

Catalonia and the battle of ideas in the 21st century
Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

As a magazine about the Iberian culture PortVitoria could not ignore the recent referendum for independence held in Catalonia on Sunday, 1st October 2017, in which only 42% of the eligible voters participated, but resulted in a 90 per cent ‘yes’ vote. The national administration in Madrid has declared it unconstitutional and Spain’s Constitutional Court outlawed the referendum. Our editor and contributor Norman Berdichevsky, a cultural geographer with extensive knowledge and expertise on Iberian history, discusses various angles of the problem in his paper ‘The Catalonian referendum and what lay behind it’.
Could Catalonia’s referendum rekindle similar movements elsewhere which in turn could trigger a war? Lets examine the two opposing arguments. The ‘no’ argument states that most people are against violence and would prefer the stability of a normal life, even if backwards and faulty, to the instability of a war. The ‘yes’ argument states that Catalonia’s secessionist movement could rekindle similar movements around the world; fuelled by nationalism and ethnic claims, the same type that caused the wars of the 20th century.
In the 21st century, many State-nations face the problems of secessionism as well as subcultural affirmation. These two are connected by a crave for identity, which is the ‘dish of the day’ in the battle of ideas of the 21st century. One thinker who has contributed greatly to enlighten the battle of ideas of the 21st century is Thomas Sowell, an American economist and a Senior Fellow of The Hoover Institution at Stanford University, California. Among his many books, Sowell wrote on subcultural affirmation in his book Intellectuals and Society (2009), where he calls attention for the dishonesty of self-serving intellectuals behind the single issue activism of the 21st century. He writes: “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth, When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” We are pleased to offer the review of Sorwell’s book by David Gordon, a senior researcher at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
The compounding effects of the internet and the world’s super-population have brought the world’s ambiguities too close for comfort, making the battle of ideas in the 21st century much more volatile than of previous times. We in the 21st century should reflect upon the 20th century if we are to prevent the current battle of ideas from turning into war. No one depicted better the war of ideas of the 20th century and the mass movements it created than the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). Ortega had a lifetime interest in capturing reality, and his books are still very relevant in the 21st century. His 1914 book Meditations on Quixote depicts the spirit of Spain itself in the character Sancho Panza. His 1929 book The Revolt of the Masses depicts changes as they were occurring all over Europe, describing the barbarism of lootings, the coerciveness of the mass movements and the homogenization of ideas. Ortega showed that the right to freedom comes with the responsibility to think for ourselves and that there is a relation between thinking and surviving: “We do not live to think, but, on the contrary, we think in order that we may succeed in surviving”. The two essays by Fernando Genovés presented in the current edition of PortVitoria cover the themes of Ortega the thinker and the battle of ideas. They were taken from Genovés 2016 book La riqueza de la libertad, and are offered in their English translation.
December 2017

No Mincing, No Newspeak

Review of the book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.

What is Left? What is Right? What is the New Left? These are some of the questions that Roger Scruton explores in his 2015 book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. This abrasive title undoubtedly relates to the author’s lifetime defiance of the New Left. In it, Scruton describes how New Left academics and other intellectuals empowered themselves by uniting against the common enemy of capitalism and its bourgeoisie, as well as by adopting an idiosyncratic language of its own, akin to the Newspeak in Orwell’s fictitious totalitarian society. Contrary to what the provocative title may suggest, Scruton’s treatment of the New Left is kinder than the treatment he received from its partisans, who cavorted to pin on him the slanderous label of ‘right-wing’. In his straight-forward style, with no mincing or Newspeak, Scruton dissects the irrationalism behind the New Left’s assault on all the things that makes society possible – property, custom, hierarchy, family, negotiation, government and institutions, showing that such assault has been carried out under the belief that it would lead to a society of perfect equality. He also highlights the unfairness of the New Left in comparing its imagined perfect society with real society.

Any outsider who happened to be familiar with British liberalism would be appalled to find out that Scruton’s 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left, his first attempt to pursue the subject, was withdrawn from the bookstores by the publisher due to the pressure received from the academic establishment. If this smacked of the heretic trials of the Ancien Regime, it is because New Left ideology then enjoyed a similar dogmatic status. However, New Left dogmatism ended three years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the process of disintegration of the old Soviet Union. Scruton links the two events when he states that he decided to rewrite his book in 1989, ‘when people began to realize that not everything said, thought or done in the name of socialism had been intellectually respectable or morally right’.

In a special chapter, Scruton examines how the New Left developed its ‘revolutionary consciousness’ that caused the culture wars of the 1980s. The process goes back to the 1960s, when disappearance of the real working class in Britain and in other parts of the Western world, created the perfect conditions for the New Left to emerge. First the intellectuals sought to be recognised as honorary members of the working class and then they started a revolution in their name, to be fought in the world of books. Here is how Scruton describes it:

“For the first time it was possible to observe the ‘revolutionary consciousness’ from close to, while running no risk of violence other than the violence of words. It was possible, in particular, to observe how quickly and adroitly the left-wing message was encased in dogma, how energetically the new revolutionaries went about the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual inquiry away from the fundamental questions that had – from emotional necessity – been begged in their favour, including the question of revolution itself: what, exactly, is a revolution, and what good does it do?”

In describing the birth of the New Left in Britain, Scruton dwells in the idiosyncrasies of British society that facilitated the process, such as the British tradition of treating historians as leaders in the world of ideas and its unique tradition of social and literary criticism. He recalls changes in the British institutions of higher education as early as 1964, which, in his opinion, marked the transition from the Old Left to New Left. Scruton also describes the views of the most influential British socialists at that time, such as the Welsh writer and critic, Raymond Williams (1921-88), and the socialist historians who provided socialist accounts of the Industrial Revolution. Those changes marked the start of the intellectual revolution to take control of culture. In Great Britain, they were concentrated in the humanities departments, where the old set curriculum based on the objective standards of the Enlightenment was gradually replaced by a consensus-driven post-modern curriculum.

Scruton also describes the early days of the New Left in other countries. In Germany, the main drivers of the New Left were the professors and thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research of the University of Frankfurt am Main. The Frankfurt School, as it is better known, pioneered the idea of ‘Marxist humanism’. Although it was closed in 1933 by the Nazis, just three years after it was founded by Max Horkeheimer (1895-1973), it survived through cooperation with universities in the United States, and resumed its operation in Frankfurt in 1951. In addition to Horkeheimer, the Frankfurt School included many big names of the New Left such as Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Erich Fromm (1900-80) and Theodor Adorno (1903-69). Scruton criticises the fact that the members of the Frankfurt School who were given the opportunity to continue their teaching careers in the United States did not pay back in kind. Horkeheimer and Adorno launched a relentless attack on the Enlightenment, claiming it was a product of bourgeois reasoning, while Marcuse denounced America’s ‘repressive tolerance’ and the ‘the totalitarian universe of technological rationality’. Jürgen Habermas (1929-), the surviving representative of the Frankfurt School, is let off the hook for having overcome its ‘stultifying agenda’.

Scruton’s appraisal of the New Left in the United States highlights the pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Edward Said (1935-2003), encapsulated by a set of relativist ideas according to which ‘there is no point to the old ideas of objectivity and universal truth for all that matters is what is agreed.’ According to Scruton, both Rorty and Said inculcated doubt in the American mind and attempted to deprive the American cultural inheritance of the belief of its own legitimacy. Rorty came up with the idea of a new curriculum, a post-modern one, to replace the old curriculum, based on the Enlightenment. As for Said, Scruton states that he scorned and poisoned the way which the West portrayed the East but never considered the way which the East portrayed the West. Said’s attacks included not just the living scholars of the West but the entire Western scholarship, which Scruton presents as evidence of Said’s short sightedness. As it turned out, Said’s seminal book Orientalism was later shown to be the outcome of pseudo-scholarship, when Robert Irwing exposed its mistakes, oversights and downright lies. Scruton completes his criticism of Rorty and Said by showing some great examples of Orient Studies that came out of the Enlightenment, from Galland’s 1717 translation of the Thousand and One Nights, Goethe’s translation of the collection West-Östlicher Diwan (into German), and FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayan’s Rubaiyat. Scruton complements these with Sir William Jones dedication to preserving Persian and Arabic poetry and his pioneering study of Indian languages.

Scruton’s account of the New Left includes the building of its own brand, as distinct from that of the Old Left. He also points out two important things that the New Left preserved from the Old Left: the practice of creating cults around figureheads and the lingo. After recognizing the need for a figurehead that was exclusive to them, the theoreticians of the New Left chose Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian communist revolutionary who was imprisoned by the fascist government from 1926 until his death at age 46. There were two things that drove them to choose Gramsci over any other. The first was Gramsci’s idea of ‘revolutionary praxis’ with which he hoped to create a new and objective cultural hegemony which would replace the bourgeois culture. In a nutshell, Gramsci’s idea consisted of prioritizing ‘practice’ over ‘theory’ and it fitted well with the message the New Left wanted to convey. The second was the circumstances of Gramsci’s death in a fascist prison, a fact that gives credence to the political spectrum conceived by the New Left, where communism is located in one end and fascism the other. All the New Left had to do to make the cult around Gramsci stick was to exaggerate his credentials.

The existence of a political spectrum where the ‘Left’ end is the presumed realm of everything ‘intellectually respectable or morally right’ while the ‘Right’ end is presumed to be the realm of the opposite is a total nonsense, according to Scruton. In an attempt to throw some light on the topic, Scruton points out how the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ originated, in the early days of post-revolutionary France. When the prospect of changing France into a Constitutional Monarchy was being considered, the ‘Estates-General’, a body representing the clergy (First Estate), the nobles (Second Estate), and the common people (Third Estate), which had not met since 1614, was reconvened. In the Assembly of 1789, the representatives of the common people sat on the left of King Louis XVI while others sat on his right. This event marked the start of the association of the Left with the people and the Right with the elite. Since then, many gimmicks have been used to stretch the meaning of the Left to include anarchists, Marxists dogmatists, nihilists and American-style liberals, and to lump fascists, Nazis and economic liberals in the Right. Scruton closes his case by highlighting the common ground that unites communism and fascism:

“Communism, like fascism, involved the attempt to create a mass popular movement and a state bound together under the rule of a single party, in which there will be total cohesion around a common goal. It involved the elimination of opposition, by whatever means, and the replacement of ordered dispute between parties by clandestine ‘discussion’ within the single ruling elite. It involved taking control – ‘in the name of the people’ – of the means of communication and education, and instilling a principle of command throughout the economy.”

A special idiosyncratic language is the other thing that the New Left preserved from the Old Left. Scruton describes it as a “contemptuous Marxist lingo created to denounce, exhort and condemn”. He also tries to show the similarities between the New Left’s lingo and ‘Newspeak’, the official language of Oceania, in Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four. Scruton describes Newspeak as “a new fortified language created for the purpose of creating a ‘politics of truth’ to be used in the place of truth itself.” This lingo, according to Scruton, includes the Manichaean spin on words in order to mislead people to think that there are only two alternatives, as well as the manipulation of the meaning of certain words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘bourgeoisie’. By presenting the word ‘capitalism’ as synonym of exploitation, the New Left gain an excuse to condemn free economies. By presenting the word ‘bourgeoisie’ as ‘a hegemonic propertied class that controls the means of production and therefore exploits the working class or proletariat’ the New Left justifies its call for class warfare. Scruton admits that many of the wrongs in British society identified by the New Left are true but he objects to the way that the New Left describes such wrongs, framing accusations in such a way that do not leave any room for defence either of the people described or of the system that contained them.

The central point that Scruton makes in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is that when the New Left juxtaposes its project against Western Civilization, it is not comparing like with like. Great Britain may have many faults but is a real society. Such is not the case of the ‘Kingdom of Ends’, a term Scruton uses to describe the society of perfect equality imagined by the New Left. He ends his book defending his position that Great Britain should remain as it is and pointing out that any improvements to it must come from within. They should be done through the improvement of civil societies, institutions and personality. By civil societies Scruton means the little platoons that exist across the land such as brass bands, study groups, choirs, cricket clubs, dances, holiday clubs, etc. As examples of institutions Scruton names professional organizations such as the Inns of Court, although these are also civil societies. By personality Scruton means the agency and the accountability of individuals as well as the institutions that include them. In spite of his dislike for the political spectrum terminology, Scruton describes what the so-called Right stands for:

‘The right rests its case in representation and law. It advocates autonomous institutions that mediate between the state and the citizen, and a civil society that grows from below without asking permission of its rulers. It sees government as in every matter accountable: not a thing but a person. Such a government is answerable to other persons: to the individual citizen, to the corporations, and to other governments. It is also answerable to the law. It has rights against individual citizens and also duties towards them: it is tutor and companion to civil society, the butt of our jokes and the occasional recipient of our anger. It stands to us in a human relation, and this relation is upheld and vindicated by the law, before which it comes as one person among others, on equal footing with those who are also subject to its sovereignty.’

‘Such a state can accommodate and bargain. It recognizes that it must respect persons not as means only, but as end in themselves. It tries not to liquidate the opposition but to accommodate it, and socialists too have a part to play in this process, provided they recognize that no change, not even change in their favoured direction, is or ought to be ‘irreversible’.’

Many of the ideas in Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands will be carefully considered by his admirers in Eastern Europe and in Latin America even though he wrote it thinking about Great Britain. Scruton wants to preserve Britain because he loves it and believes that it deserves to be preserved. He also thinks that should the New Left ideology ever become a reality, the result would be slavery. Scruton’s call to preserve society does not exclude micro-adjustments. However, before deciding which adjustments are needed people need to understand society’s two basic components, the state itself and civil society. Scruton’s view is that civil society should apply changes to the state and not the other way around. Therefore, all such changes should be from the bottom up, from changes within people. It is us who need to make a change of life that leads to self-knowledge, which in turn, would allow us to recognize that our happiness depends on wanting the right things, rather than the things that captures our attention or inspire our lust. These suggestions resonate with ideas often associated with the Left and also illustrate the nonsense of the political spectrum.

Scruton does not think that everything that the New Left thinkers wrote is wrong. In his appraisal of Gramsci, for instance, although he rated his work as ‘common sense sociology’ rather than a cutting edge philosophy, he recognised in him ‘a frankness that the more orthodox Marxists lacked’. To Scruton, Gramsci ‘was thwarted by the repudiation of the very idea of objectivity, and by the purely negative work of the comfortable professoriate in America’. Such view suggests that Scruton understood Gramsci better than those who pandered to him.

Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is the outcome of the author’s defiance against the New Left and the new order of things that the New Left sought to introduce in Britain. Scruton got a lot of grief as a result of this defiance and this could explain the streak of pessimism he reveals at the very end of this book, in the form of the questions left unanswered. If the professorship of the West’s top universities can be so mistaken, what hope can be for the rest of humanity? If the human species has a religious need that no amount of rational thought can overcome, would not that make all argument meaningless? If people are more prone to the abstract than to the concrete, is there a point is defending that which is merely real? These questions serves as food for thought for everyone who loves their country and wants to preserve it. Perhaps that was what Scruton had in mind when he asked them.


Jo Pires-O’Brien edits a digital magazine called PortVitoria, about the Iberian culture and its diaspora in the world.


Helen Kirby, reviser


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The Turks in Europe

Review of the book Sultans of Rome. The Turkish World Expansion, by Warwick Ball. London, East & West Publishing, 2012).

To Warwick Ball (WB), an Australian archaeologist with a large field experience in the ancient cultures, there is no pure Western and Eastern cultures. There are plenty of archaeological evidence of the intercultural exchange between Western and Eastern cultures that resulted from their incursions into each other’s territory. WB accepts the fact that ‘every culture looks at history in relation to itself’. However, he thinks that the concept of ‘West versus East’ is wrong, and that it prevents Europe from recognising the Eastern elements in its culture. Sultans of Rome is about the Turks in Europe. It is the third book in a series of four entitled ‘Asia in Europe and the Making of the West’, by East & West Publishing. Its title is taken from a citation of the Seljuk Turks after their victory against the Byzantine army of Emperor Romanes IV in Manzikert in 1071, when they declared to be the new sultans of ‘Rum’, meaning ‘land of the Romans’. The other three books in the aforementioned series deal with the Phoenicians and Arabs (volume 1), Persians (volume 2) and the peoples from the Eurasian Steppe collectively referred to as the Scythians (volume 4).

Perhaps because they were the latest arrival in Europe, or perhaps because they followed a new religion that threatened Christianity, or both, the Turks attracted a great deal of bad publicity in Europe comparatively to other eastern peoples who settled there. The classical example is the portrayal of the Ottomans who sieged Vienna in 1683 as uncouth and barbaric Asians. However, they had been in Europe for over one thousand years, and therefore their invasion was no different than that of the Romans and the Normans. Another example WB cites is more recent. It is the European Union’s reluctance to admit the Republic of Turkey as a member. WB argues that the main reason why Turkey has not been allowed as an EU member is the ongoing tensions between Europe and the Muslims, which is an invalid justification given that secularism is one of the most ‘sacred’ pillars of the EU.

WB starts his discussion about the Turks in Europe by first asking the questions ‘what is Europe?’ and ‘what is a Turk?’ It may come as a surprise to many readers to learn that the population of modern Turkey do not identify themselves as Turks, at least in the ethnic sense, referring themselves as Anatolians. WB cites similar behaviour in other countries. The population of Bulgaria call itself Slav, even though the country itself is named after the Bulgars, a Turk tribe. Another example is the inhabitants of an area in the mid-Volga river which was inhabited by a group of Turks that remained there, and whose current day inhabitants identify themselves as Tatars. WB cites the social anthropologist Fredrik Barth, who stated that ‘group identity is no more than a momentary convenience’, which to him is quite alright as it takes into consideration that people may have more than one identity.

This book is quite academic but its illustrations, consisting of eight maps and 98 colour plates, make it accessible to the lay reader. The plates are useful to capture one’s imagination regarding who the Turks were. The maps help to understand the Turks’ migration routes. Map 1 shows where in the world Turkish is spoken – not only in Turkey but also in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. However, WB shows in the book that there are significant minorities of Turks in China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Ukraine. Map 2 shows the area of the world that in 2011 was served by the Turkish Airlines. Map 3 delineates the First and the Second Turkish empires, as well as the boundaries of the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian Empire before the Turkish-Muslim conquest. Map 4 depicts the boundaries of the Ghaznavid Empire and the Karakhanid Empire. The Ghaznavid Empire was one of the most important of the Middle Ages and the first to bring Islam into India in a substantial scale. The Karakhanid was the original Empire (Kaghnate) and it was later subdivided into Western and Eastern branches. The Karakhanids are especially noted for establishing a written form of Turkish in the eleventh century. Map 5 shows the Seljuk Empire, in Anatolia and Iran, occupying a similar area to the former Persian Achaemenid Empire. Map 6 shows the territories occupied by the Seljuk in Anatolia in 1086 and 1243. Map 7 shows the distribution of the Turkish in the world, including their three great empires: the Ottoman (Anatolia, Northern Africa, Israel, Lebanon Syria and Iraq), the Safavid (Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan) and the Moghul (India). Map 8 shows the Ottoman Empire at its height, occupying the entire Balkans – a region that takes its name from the Balkan Mountains in Southeast Europe, stretching from the east of Serbia to the Black Sea at the east of Bulgaria, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia –, the European part of Turkey as well as Northern Africa, Israel & Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Northern Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Although it is common to hear references to a Turkish language, in reality there are several Turkish languages. They are classified as one of the three branches of the Altaic language group, alongside Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus. Although they first gained a written form in the eighth century in Mongolia, based on the Arabic script, written Turkish was only established later in the eleventh century. Eventually, nearly all Turkish-speaking countries switched to the Latin alphabet. One exception is the Uighurs, one of China’s Turkish minorities, who still use the Arabic script.

Before their islamization, the Turks in China, Mongolia and in the Eurasian steppe toyed with several ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and even Nestorian Christianism. At some point they embraced Buddhism and made it their official religion, although Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion in the normal sense. Europe encountered the Turks after their islamization, under duress, which took place after the internationalization of Islam, right after the Abbasid Revolution of 750, when the caliphate was moved from Damascus to Baghdad. In the year 824 the Arabs penetrated into the Oghuz steppe country (Kazakhstan) and captured some two thousand Turks, which they offered as slaves to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil. These slaves were the first Turks to enter Iraq. A Turkish slave trade was established through which Turkish children were systematically taken into slavery. One interesting parallel that WB makes is with the European metaphor of the ‘noble savage’. When the Turks were first shown to the Arabs they were seen as both beautiful and barbaric, just as the New World Indians were perceived in Western Europe some one thousand years later.

The Turk slaves in the Middle East and Northern Africa were known as Ghulams or Mamluks. They distinguished themselves as warriors, and were put to serve in Muslim armies in special mercenary slave units. Due to their fighting superiority and their detachment from local tribes, they rose in the Middle Eastern society to become the main power in the Muslim caliphate system. The Islamic world gradually became Turkish. After they assassinated the Caliph Al-Mutawarrkil in 861 the Turks themselves became caliphs.

About the ethnic ancestry of the Turks, WB explains that what is known was compiled by the Chinese, and that as it is also the case of other early histories, there is much speculation in the history of the early Turks. They entered China and Inner Mongolia in the late third century CE as part of an alliance of steppe tribes. Its leaders founded the Northern Wei Dynasty in China in 386, centred in Pingcheng, modern Tatung. From China and Inner Mongolia the Turks moved into the Mongolia’s borderlands and southern Siberia, and eventually reached the Eurasian steppe where they became one of the dominant groups. In 552 the Confederacy of Turks in China was defeated, and the Turks forced to move to the Mongolian steppes, where they formed their first Empire, known as ‘Kaganate’, with Bumin as their first Emperor or ‘Kagan’. Bumin, was succeeded by his two sons Muhan (553-72), who ruled the eastern half in Mongolia, and Ishtemi (553-?) who ruled the western half, in present Khazakstan. Their elite cavalry, known as ‘wolves’, had metal armour, and that was one of the reasons for their success. Ishtemi became known as the ruler who overthrew the Hephthalite Empire (a steppe people related to the Huns) of Central Asia and Indian Borderlands. He was also the first Turk to make diplomatic contact with the Constantinople, sending an envoy in 563 to propose an alliance aimed at combating their mutual enemy, the Sasanian Empire of Iran, as well as the Avars (descendants of a dissent Turk group, the Juan-Juan).

In early seventh century a conflict emerged between the Western and the Eastern Turkish Empires. The latter eventually collapsed and its people got absorbed by Chinese groups. By 616/617 the Western Turk Empire penetrated deep into the Persian Sassanian Empire, which occupied roughly the same territory as the Persian Achaemenid Empire that preceded it. In 619 the Western Turkish Empire made further conquests, incorporating the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang Province of China), Ferghana (eastern Uzbekistan), Bactria (a province of the Persian empire located in modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), as well as parts of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, reaching the Indus in 625. Following the death of the ruler T’ung Yabgu in 630, the Western Turkish Empire began to disintegrate. A second Turkish Empire was formed and eventually collapsed.

The main Turkish power that emerged among the others was the Seljuks. They began to move westwards into the lands they referred to by the Arabic word ‘Rum’, meaning ‘land of the Romans’: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Anatolia. In 1071 the Seljuks defeated the army of the Byzantine emperor Romanes IV in Manzikert, when they proclaimed themselves to be the ‘Sultans of Rome’. However, the Seljuks at that time were not interested in extending their conquest to Anatolia. With the passing of time the Seljuks intermarried with the families of native Anatolians, of both Roman and Greek extraction. As WB pointed out, ‘the Byzantine defeat was more symbolic than actual: more destruction to the Byzantine property and lives resulted from the civil war after the Manzikiert defeat than from Manzikert itself’.

The Seljuks were already in decline when another Turk group emerged: the Ottomans, whose name comes from Osman or Otman (Uthman, in Arabic), its first leader. In 1453 the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and their victory marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire. According to WB the European history books have disseminated many incorrect notions about the Ottomans which he hopes to put right. Some examples he cites are: (i) stating that the Turkish capture of Constantinople was an Asiatic conquest, (ii) the description of the Ottomans as hordes from the Asian steppes, and (iii) the portrayal of the Ottomans as enemies of Christianity. As WB pointed out, the Ottomans were Muslims and their expansion was aggressive and even brutal, but they had a highly developed culture and were tolerant of Christianity.

Under the Sultan Selim the first, the new Ottoman Empire settled in Anatolia, from where they incorporated Syria and Egypt. After defeating Persia, Sultan Selim I added to his Empire all of Arab Near East (the Arabic culture). After entering Cairo in 1517, Sultan Selim I added to his title that of Caliph. He was succeeded by his son, Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 until 1566. Suleiman’s reign is considered to be the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople carried on as a world capital of culture and even had a Renaissance of its own.

As pointed out by WB, the Ottomans left a huge cultural footprint in the areas they occupied. Their system of devsirme, which involved taking young boys from their families in order to educate them for the service of the Sultan, is considered the first meritocracy of Europe. Another Ottoman institution, the kulliye, combined the religious and the secular, serving as places of learning, libraries, asylums and kitchens for feeding the poor.

WB proceeds to put right another misconception about the Ottomans regarding the role of women in their society, namely their lack of liberty and rights. He points out that although polygamy is condoned by Muslim law, only some five percent of all their marriages were polygamous in the eighteen century, while the segregation of women was no different than that of the rest of Europe in the same period. Another misconception about the Ottomans that WB dispels is the belief that their defeat in the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571, against a coalition formed by Spain, Venice, Genoa and the Knights of Malta, marked the start of their decline. This misconception is attributed to Miguel de Cervantes, the Hispanic author of Don Quixote, who fought in Lepanto. However, Lepanto changed very little for the Ottomans and did not stop their expansion.

The Ottoman Empire was the peak of Turkish achievement and lasted for over six centuries until it was dissolved in 1923. It began to decline after it was defeated in the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78. As a result of this conflict the Ottoman Empire lost one third of its territory and Christians became the largest segment of its population. WB tries to clear the Ottomans from the accusation of perpetrating the massacre of the Armenian population in their lands just before their empire collapsed. He suggested that the responsibility for the massacre may lie elsewhere since both Greeks and Armenians survived in Anatolia under the Ottoman rule.

In this book WB dispels some significant misunderstandings regarding the Turks. He shows that the Turks who settled in Turkey started their march westwards one thousand years before 1453, the year they conquered Constantinople for the second time. Therefore, the Turks who sieged Vienna in 1683, were not barbarians but a people already established in Europe. WB also shows that present day Turkey was the stage of a great number of civilizations including not only the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans but some of the world’s oldest civilizations. Turkey has the world’s greatest concentration of archaeological sites and its wealth of Classical Greek and Roman architectural remains is unmatched by any neighbouring country. One final thread in this book is in a question left unanswered. If Europe got wrong so many facts about the ancient Turks couldn’t it also be wrong about the Republic of Turkey?


Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, an electronic cultural magazine for Luso-Hispanophones.



Revision: Carl O’Brien



WARWICK BALL. Sultans of Rome. The Turkish World Expansion. London, East & West Publishing, 2012. Review by: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. The Turks in Europe. PortVitoria, UK, v.12, Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236, http://www.portvitoria.com/archive.html.



A Portuguese version of this review is available in the PortVitoria magazine:




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Hello world!

I am a Brazilian woman married to an Englishman and living in the United Kingdom since 1995. I used to be a research botanist in Brazil but after moving to the UK I became a freelance translator and interpreter. In 2010 I founded PortVitoria, a big picture magazine about themes that are relevant to the Western culture in general and to the worldwide luso-hispanophone communities in particular. Visit PortVitoria.com to find more about me.


Check out PortVitoria, a biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centered on the Iberian culture and its diaspora.

PortVitoria offers informed opinion on topics of interest to the Luso-Hispanic world in Portuguese, Spanish & English.

Help PortVitoria to continue by putting a link to it in your Facebook or blog.