The Ottoman Empire and Hungarian Conceptions of Identity

The Ottoman Empire and Hungarian Conceptions of Identity

By Nusra Khan

Within a larger context of competing imperialist powers, a struggle for territory, and rising nationalist sentiments, Hungary experienced a haphazard Ottoman occupation and endured continually shifting Hapsburg settlements. Both these processes had immense impacts on the conception of Hungarian identity.  A distinct trait of the Ottoman Empire was its allowance of a considerable amount of political autonomy in each its provinces. As a result there was a decided lack of cultural penetration in Hungary, which, when coupled with other competing desires for power, led to the emergence of various conceptions of the ‘Ottoman’ in modern Hungarian historiography.

One of the Ottoman Empire’s distinct traits, in its early stages, was the flexibility of its administrative systems in conquered lands.  Halil Inalci described the Ottomans as “a true ‘Frontier Empire’, a cosmopolitan state treating all creeds and races as one”.In the early fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the words of the scholar, regions were not ‘Ottomanized’ in the sense that the Turkish language, culture, or even belief were imposed on its newly acquired citizens. During this time, governing elites established ample institutions and services to accommodate their practices as can be seen in the Ottoman reign in Hungary, which though short-lived, left numerous traces of Ottoman culture in architecture, social practice, and even in language. In doing so, the Ottomans established a sort of parallel state within Hungary; allowing native practices to remain, while activating, alongside them, new and distinctly Ottoman ones.

Before one can examine the exceptionality of the Hungarian case, the general pattern of Ottoman rule must first be recognised.  The Empire organised itself on the Islamic model, governing on the basis of Shariah law. As such, citizenship was extended to the ‘ahl-al kitab’, or People of the Book: monotheistic believers,  Jews or Christians, who accept the political supremacy of Islam. Such a person automatically became a citizen of the Ottoman Empire, was protected by it and referred to as a zimmi (meaning ‘protected person’) so long as they adhered to specific conditions.[1] Thus the Ottoman Empire did not impose religious conversion or belief, but only a political framework that stressed the importance of being a member of a‘People of the Book’. This stemmed from Islam’s conception of itself as the final and correct interpretation of God’s message, and the successor and resolution to corrupted messages of Judaism and Christianity before it. Thus, Islamic law was applicable only to those who were a part of these revelations.[2]  As Charles Issawi states,

“What was different about Osman and his immediate successors was the fact that they in no way sought to impose their own faith upon those who, attracted by the prospect of booty and slaves, flocked to their banner. On the contrary, in the first one-hundred-plus years of the state, ones religion in no way determined whether or not one could join their endeavor or serve as a member of its ruling elite.”[3]

While the ‘People of the Book’ were to follow the Islamic system, the rest of indigenous populations were given the freedom to largely retain pre-existing administrative structures. Though approval of Ottoman figureheads was required for many processes, most regions were allowed to continue self-governance. This sort of self-governance was institutionalized and is now referred to as the ‘millet system’, essentially a home-rule policy with bases in religion.[4]  In some provinces the use of what is now called the ‘condominium’ feature was used in the Ottoman political structure: the joining of the rule of the former power elite and the Ottoman authorities’, including in the areas of taxation, public administration, and justice. Revenue of the territory went to local power holders; in fact the Porte who is the central core of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul received no income[5]. In most areas, however, the alternative system that was developed to rule over non-Muslims was that of kanuns, or customary laws. These were the pre-established laws of any region, and they had to be approved after conquest by the Ottomans in order to stand.[6]

            The flexibility of the Ottoman’s administrative structures is what drove the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the first place. This, coupled with its proximity to Byzantine (which resulted in the attraction of nomads) and the ‘prospect of booty’ enabled massive military expansion and settlement.[7] One may even go so far as to argue that the decline of the Ottoman Empire was the reorganisation of these policies, which was undertaken in an effort to identify with and gain legitimacy through the Abbasid Empire which was distinctly Islamic, and resulted in a lack of manpower and resource to maintain distant lands.[8] The sheer durability of the empire throughout its reign, the continuity of its dynasty, the enormous volume and high quality of its archives are proof enough of Ottoman success; but, precisely for these reasons the Empire was unable to maintain power and “did not succeed in converting substantial numbers outside the core.”[9] Perhaps the best example of this is the Ottoman reign in Hungary. Its conquest, in 1526 under the rule of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, came at an opportunistic time – the country was still recovering from peasant revolts, was rent with factions, and had a young king and was susceptible to hostile takeover. However, the Hungarian case begins to differ in the time after its initial takeover by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Though he could have easily established greater influence, the Sultan functioned as an ‘absent ruler’ in Hungary, only intervening on the behalf of the elected King John Zapolyai against the Hapsburg ruler Ferdinand.[10] Even after Ferdinand’s recognition of the Turkish conquests, and the payment of a yearly tribute to Suleiman – which essentially meant the acceptance of vassal status – the Sultan did not transform all of Hungary into a vassal state, as he did in Moldavia and Wallachia. Doing so was a departure from the general pattern of the Ottomans, who had transformed much of the Balkans in the same manner.[11]

The later years in Hungary continue to deviate from the previously lax method of Ottoman governance, even after the creation of an eyelet,a primary administrative province of the Ottoman Empire – in Buda.[12] Princely courts and schools teaching Latin remained active as well[13], and magisterial authorities in Hungarian towns continued to exercise their power: they imposed and collected fines, and in the majority of towns, retained the right to impose law and order, alongside the pre-existing noble counties in Hungary who continued to pass regulatory decrees.[14] From the time of Ottoman conquest in the sixteenth century, Hungary “constituted an early modern state with its own method of record keeping, and remained so even after its integration into the empire.”[15] In fact, in the eyalet Buda there were only small numbers of Turks, even in administrative positions. Most were recently converted Bosnian lords along with the flow of incoming Serbs (moving north from the Balkans), so the language, culture and general social practice remained distinctly non-Ottoman.[16] Essentially, the situation in Hungary reflected ‘shared possession and compromise’, more than Ottoman occupation.  Timars – lands granted to citizens but taxed by the Empire, used generally for military purposes –  and regular cadastral surveys were imposed, but, unlike in other provinces, there existed double Ottoman-Hungarian taxation because of the armed strength of the Hungarian military.[17] For instance, the military commander, or dizdar. of the castle at Koppan in the south said to his Hungarian counterpart: “Your village, Nagyegros, is in my possession in Turkey, I mean, it is in my possession in Hungary.”[18]

The explanations for such a divergence in the Ottoman Empire’s rule in Hungary can be attributed, largely, to the number of competing interests in the area, mainly the obstacle in looming Hapsburg power.  Local structures were able to retain such a degree of administrative power simply because of the military balance of power, and above all, the armed strength of the Hungarian border fortress soldiers. The lack of original Ottoman institutional structures, and the hesitancy to erect any,  is apparent in the fact that “towns in the heart of Ottoman Hungary acquired these rights more slowly and with greater difficulty than towns closer to Royal Hungary, but still under Ottoman rule”.[19] While the Ottomans controlled the majority of lands in the early sixteenth century – the Hungarian King John Zapolyai’s eastern provinces, and the semi-autonomous principality of Transylvania – the Hapsburgs kept some power in the western areas[20]. The survival of former Hungarian elite institutions in Royal Hungary, under Hapsburg rule, coupled with the geographical constraint and a rival in the Hapsburg Empire, created a major obstacle for the consolidation of Ottoman power in Hungary.[21]

The implantation of these few distinctly ‘Non-Ottoman’ institutions can be considered the primary means of the preservation of Hungarian identity: a conception of the self in relation to the ‘Other’.  As the Ottomans created various (although few) institutions to assert the Turkish identity, these Royal Institutions, under King Zapolyai, and perhaps even those of Hapsburg Hungary, is what ‘enabled Hungarians in the occupied territories to preserve their ethnic and religious identity, alongside their Ottoman competitors’.[22] The lack of cultural penetration is what allowed this in the first place; with the very basic nature of governance, Ottomans functioned within a very detached, parallel society embedded into that of Hungary. For instance, the notion of the reaya, which translates to ‘members of the flock’, to whom the Sultan was the Shepherd. These sheep were ‘shorn’; their labour was used to supply the goods and taxes that supported the state. [23] Thus citizens that were not followers of the three Abrahamic religions, were considered second class citizens and reaya. The very existence of this illustrates the extent to which the Hungarian was excluded from Ottoman society and with competing Hapsburg and nationalist forces, it is unsurprising that the region underwent several different takeovers, coloring Hungarian history with countless transfers between Ottoman and Hapsburg rule.

The Principality of Transylvania is a testament to the rivalry of the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires. In 1588 it became independent and an Ottoman vassal. As such it was protected by the Sultan, as was recounted by an official to one of the ruling Transylvanian princes, “We shall never let Transylvania be united with Hungary. Transylvania is Sultan Suleiman’s invention and is the property of the Mighty Sultan… We don’t give anyone else what belongs to us.”[24] Thus it was impenetrable by Hapsburg forces, that is, until Vienna’s military access to it was restored, where, “for a century it had guaranteed Hungary’s constitutional liberties by acting as a counterbalance to Hapsburg military power. Now it became the guarantor of Habsburg despotism in Hungary by its use as a military base in the Hungarian rear.”[25]  In fact most of Hungarian history can be seen as a competition in this light; during the Hungarian War of Independence of 1703, Hungarians tried to involve the Ottoman Empire in an alliance against the Hapsburg dynastyand the late eighteenth century saw a series of tug-of-war between nationalists, Hapsburgs and Ottomans, cementing “Hungary’s unhappy fate as the metal between the anvil of Germandom and the hammer of the Ottoman Empire”, to use the metaphor popular among contemporary Hungarians.[26]

By the 1820s, Hungary was dominated by Hapsburgs. Alongside the rest of Europe, it witnessed large-scale, highly nationalistic reform movements. In this pursuit the “Ottoman period of Hungarian history was ‘discovered’, as the struggle against the Ottomans served as an exemplar of the ‘fight for Hungarian liberty’”[27]. This was expressed thoroughly in the fine arts and drama: there was a resurgence in heroes of the Ottoman period. Their struggles against the Ottoman Sultan was transposed into the fight against the Hapsburgs; and steeped in the romanticism of the late eighteenth century, and provided a subjective and emotional view of the world.[28]

The Ottoman Empire shaped the Hungarian nation’s conception of itself in both the past and the present. It is quite easy to pinpoint the physical remnants of Ottoman occupation – but implicit in Hungarian historiography is a reaction to it, either positive or negative, that shapes not only the perception of the Ottomans, but also acts as a sort of canon for continuing discourse around Ottoman Hungary.  The tumultuous reigns of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires created  conflicting nationalisms, apparent in modern Hungarian discourse, particularly in its conception of its past and present identity. Agoston holds both the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans in the same esteem: “the ‘two pagans’ – a term from the early eighteenth century- under whose rule the Magyars suffered almost equally.”[29]  In this sense, historiography was determined, even distorted, by the nationalistic – or anti-nationalistic – sentiment that inevitably resulted in a pro-Turkish and anti-Hapsburg attitude.

A fair amount of scholarly discourse tends towards framing Ottomans in a positive light, using the Empire’s involvement against the Hapsburgs as justification. The Ottomans tend to be perceived as benefactors of Hungarians against the Hapsburgs: they provided generous support and protection for Magyar immigrants after the defeat of their War of Independence against the Hapsburgs in the nineteenth century, whereas the Hapsburgs were quickly named the enemy.[30]  In other cases, dissent and rebellion against Ottoman rule were cited as inspiration for the nationalist movement. An example of this is one of the earliest Hungarian historians, Sandor Takats. Geza David states about him,

“Takats’ political attitudes informed his work as a historian… with regard to the past he became an unshakable supporter of Hungarian independence, and thus showed a great dislike for the Hapsburgs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…Meanwhile, he portrayed the conquering Ottomans and their Hungarian opponents in a highly favorable light, bordering on partiality… it became the age of romanticism and heroism: Turks and Hungarians equally presented as chivalrous, courageous, honest .. Takats ended up giving a rather one-sided and false impression.”[31]

Another interesting manifestation of a pro-Ottoman inclination is evident in the rise of Turanism. Turanism purports a “belief that Hungarians are, like the Turks, the head of a family of ethnicities that spanned Eurasia and number in the millions.”[32] Most Hungarians accept a shared heritage and ties to Turkic peoples in Anatolia and Central Asia. The revival in the study of Magyars – ethnic Hungarians – spurred its popularity, and though later discredited, Turanism – from the ancient Persian term for central Asia, Turan – spawned architecture, art, literature and historical commemoration. As Paul Hanebrink points out, “Turanism was a means to explore that which was most familiar: the deeply rooted ethnocultural memory lying at the heart of the national ‘self’”. Many renowned intellectuals championed Turanism at the dawn of the twentieth century, some seeing it as vital to the promotion of Hungarian business in the Near East, and others promoting it as a foundational framework for connections among Turanian peoples, and still others simply taking pride in this patriarchal conception of Hungarian identity.[33]

            Conversely, there exists a large, anti-Ottoman bias in Hungarian historiography. As if by design, the respected figure of Gyula Szekfu, considered a leading historian of Hungarian history, advances the opposite view. He interprets the Ottoman conquest as a bleak and desolate period. In his multi-volume work, Szekfu “considered the Hungarian wars to have been a struggle between two civilizations, ‘the West and the East’, in which the ‘Turkish slave state seized victory while traces of Hungarian European civilization were wiped out.”[34] As one of the leading scholars, his view is not only represented internationally but can be adopted by those studying under him. According to Szekfu, and various other scholars in this school, Ottoman occupation can be looked back upon as an utter catastrophe. Ottoman advances in the 1500s drove whole villages out of Budapest; the collapse in agriculture changed the ecology, and more importantly, the demographic structure of the ‘core ethnic region’ – what  was once inhabited predominantly by Magyars. The migration, dislocation and economic uncertainty that the Ottomans brought with them stunted the growth of the Hungarian nation.[35]  Another instance of negative Ottoman portrayal is when it is depicted as a means to channel inspiration for other causes. Resistors to the Ottoman Empire have been praised as champions of national heroism. Epic poems, art, and stories served as means to a national pride, all embedded in the Ottoman context. This can be seen in the heightened revival of the 19th century, where Hungary faced no longer Hapsburg or Ottoman threats, but external ones.  In 1948 the new ‘enemy’ to the Hungarian empire was the rise of Communism. The Catholic Church, in an attempt to sway the masses, drew parallels between the Ottoman occupation and the modern Communist movement: “Invoking past battles with the Ottoman Empire, Cardinal Mindszenty associated Communism with this well-established rhetoric of a civilization besieged.”[36]

In the end, varying depictions of the Ottoman period in Hungarian history underscore a central question of historiography itself: how does one define the context and interpretive authority that each nation is situated in. While the Ottoman can be portrayed as vital to the independent Hungarian identity, or the one that most obstructed it, he is nonetheless, along with his counterpart in the Hapsburg Empire, indispensible to a conception of the past and the self, and thus of Hungary.



Agoston, Gabor. “The Image of the Ottomans in Hungarian Historiography.” Acta Orientalia Acadamiae Scientiarium Hung. 61 (2008): 15-26. Lowry, Heath. The Nature of the Early Ottoman State. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Gabor Agoston, “A Flexible Empire: Authority and Its Limits on the Ottoman Frontiers,” in Ottoman Borderlands: Issues, Personalities and Political Change, edited by Kemal Karpat and Robert Zens. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003

Geza David and Pal Fodor, “Hungarian Studies in Ottoman History”, in The Ottomans and the Balkans: a Discussion of Historiography, edited by Suraiya Faroqhi,

Inalcik, Halil. Turkey and Europe in History. Istanbul: EREN Press, 2006.

Kiraly, K. and Pastor, P.  “The Sublime Porte and Ference II Rakoczi’s Hungary: An Episode in Islamic Christian Relations.”  In The Mutual Effects of the Judeo-Christian Worlds: The East European Pattern, edited by Abraham Ascher, Tibor Halasi-Kun, Bela K. Kiraly 129-148.

Paul Hanebrink. “Islam, Anti-Communism, and Christian Civilization: The Ottoman Menace in Interwar Hungary.” Austrian History Yearbook (2009): 114-124.

Sugar, Peter. Southeastern Europe Under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804 (University of Washington Press)

Trade and Money: The Ottoman Economy in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Elena Frangakis-Syrett, The Isis Press, Istanbul, 2007


[2] Sugar, Southeastern Europe, 7.

[3] Charles Issawi, Cross Cultural Encounters and Conflicts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 134.

[4] Sugar, Southeastern Europe, 6.

[5] Gabor Agoston, “A Flexible Empire: Authority and Its Limits on the Ottoman Frontiers.” In Ottoman Borderlands: Issues, Personalities and Political Change, ed. Kemal Karpat et al, 23.

[6] Sugar, Southeastern Europe, 8.

[7] Lowry, Early Ottoman State, 134.

[8] Elena Frangakis-Syrett, The  Ottoman Economy in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Istanbul: The Isis Press, 2007), 71.

[9] Issawi, Cross Cultural Encounters, 135.

[10] Frangakis-Syrett, The Ottoman Economy,70.

[11] Frangakis-Syrett, The Ottoman Economy,70.

[12] Paul Hanebrink, “Islam, Anti-Communism, and Christian Civilization: The Ottoman Menace in Interwar Hungary,” Austrian History Yearbook (2009): 114-124.

[13] Gabor Agoston, “The Image of the Ottomans in Hungarian Historiography,” Acta Orientalia Acadamiae Scientarium Hung. 61 (2008): 15-26.

[14] Agoston, “A Flexible Empire,” 25.

[15] Geza David and Pal Fodor, “Hungarian Studies in Ottoman History.” In The Ottomans and the Balkans: A Discussion of Historiography, ed. Suraiya Faroqhi, 305.

[16] Frangakis-Syrett, The Ottoman Economy,73.

[17] Agoston, “A Flexible Empire,” 24.

[18] Agoston, “A Flexible Empire,” 25.

[19] Agoston, “A Flexible Empire,” 24.

[20] Frangakis-Syrett, The Ottoman Economy,70.

[21] Agoston, “A Flexible Empire,” 29.

[22] David et al, “Hungarian Studies,” 314.

[23] Sugar, Southeastern Europe, 32-33.

[24] K. Kiraly and P. Pastor, “The Sublime Porte and Ference II Rakoczi’s Hungary: An Episode  in Islamic Christian Relations,” in The Mutual Effects of the Judeo-Christian Worlds: The Eastern Pattern, ed. Abraham Ascher et al, 131.

[25] Kiraly, “The Sublime Porte,” 130.

[26] Kiraly, “The Sublime Porte,” 129.

[27] Ibid, 129.

[28] David et al, “Hungarian Studies,” 307.

[29] Agoston, “Image of the Ottomans,” 20.

[30] Agoston, “Image of the Ottomans,” 17.

[31] Agoston, “Image of the Ottomans,” 16.

[32] Hanebrink, “Islam. Anti-Communism and Christian Civilization,” 116.

[33] Hanebrink, “Islam. Anti-Communism and Christian Civilization,” 118.

[34] David et al, “Hungarian Studies,” 117.

[35] Hanebrink, “Islam. Anti-Communism and Christian Civilization,” 314.

[36] Hanebrink, “Islam. Anti-Communism and Christian Civilization,” 319.