‘Death to the Turk, the Turk to Death’

Istanbul sits astride two continents, and from this capitol city of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Sultans across the centuries sent massive armies to war against Christendom.

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, sending shockwaves across Europe. One interesting reaction to that event was the 1456 carnival play — “The Turkish Carnival Game” — by a Nürnberg armorer and gunsmith named Hans Rosenplüt. Much of the play is a stinging rebuke of the Holy Roman Empire. The Sultan himself, Mehmed the Conqueror, visits Germany, telling citizens there of a paradise where no taxes are levied. He also reads out a list of the worst sins committed by Christians. A messenger from Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, responds:

Your beard will be shorn off with sickles and your face washed with vinegar and seeded with chalk and ashes. Your god isn’t going to be able to plug up that hole (for) your head is going to hop over a sword’s blade. And if I knew your head wouldn’t slice off neatly, I myself would beat you so you’d have to shit yourself.

Given that the Turks and Christians were embroiled in a war that threatened the existence of the Holy Roman Empire, the main theme of the play is unexpected. As Edwin Hermann Zeyde explains, in his 1918 book, The Holy Roman empire in German literature:

If we consider that at the time when this extravaganza was written the very existence of the Empire was imperilled by the Turkish menace, we can better appreciate the acrid irony of the situation here portrayed. There can be no doubt about the impression that it made on contemporaries; it brought home to every reader the hopeless discord and internal rottenness of the imperial government.

On the other hand, “The Dance of Death” may have been a more common reaction to the “Turkish menace.” By the time “Døde-Dands” was printed in Copenhagen in 1762, the Turks had captured many of the formerly Christian territories around the  Mediterranean, occupied Hungary and the Balkans, and repeatedly attacked Austria and Poland.

From “Døde-Dands”, printed in Copenhagen in 1762. It is not related to the life-sized painting from 1463, “Death from Lübeck”, which showed Death in a dance with 24 humans from all walks of life. Various publications and works of art titled “The Dance of Death” were published in Europe after 1500. See The Dance of Death.

Death to the Turk

Barbarian! who steps on the cross of Christ with your feet,
and who are pleased with the impostor Mahomet;
In the dance of death you must now dance with me,
and receive the wages of your wickedness by false witnesses.
The paradise of lust that Mahomet describes,
shall be revealed for you in a moment;
But if you don’t get a company of maidens,
then a flock of devils will certainly meet you there.
My arrow shall soon stand in your infidel heart.
What your inveteracy did not learn in time,
you will receive knowledge of in eternity,
where you shall stand beside your Mahomet.

The Turk to Death

Will you separate me from this life so murderously,
and represent my paradise as Hell?
Then you are the tyrant that the word calls you,
who’s great greed is most insatiable.
I will not be blessed by Christ’s cross and death.
The prophet Mahomet shall give me his heaven.
If his paradise it not full of sensual pleasures,
then no Turk has accused him for the hope.
Something in my soul moves by the arrival of Death;
but that must be terror, that Death brings along.
I won’t care for conscience.
Open up the eternity and just close Life’s door.

When Death lays hand on evil and infidel heart,
the soul surely experiences a part of Hell’s pain.
Although its inveteracy doesn’t admit it;
but between hope and fear goes the way of all flesh.

From Dutch engraver Caspar Luyken (1672-1708), we get a glimpse of the peoples involved in these centuries of conflict. One hundred of Luyken’s engravings were published in Nuremberg in 1703. Quite a few were of Turkish individuals, which is not surprising since, as the 2003 Dover edition points out, the Turks laid siege to Vienna in 1683.


From Istanbul to Gottorp: Maps for the Journey

“Mina stared at the rough men across the fire, felt the eight hundred miles of darkness at her back, and wished she could be a girl again. She unconsciously rubbed her calloused fingers together in a nervous rhythm. Fifty hard days ago in Ankara, Pococke’s caravan had veered south for Aleppo while her map insisted that she go east. Since the roads overflowed with soldiers aiming for Erivan Fortress, since Erivan lay between her and the Caspian Sea, and since traveling alone meant a quick death at the hands of bandits or worse, she had joined the camp followers on the road to war.”

— From Empires of Truth, Chapter Two, “Out of the Faithful Nation.”

Eight hundred miles have fallen behind her, and the journey has only just begun. In her pack, a stolen manuscript of uncertain origin might make her fortune or seal her fate. Ahead lay an uncharted path through the Caucuses to the Caspian Sea, where, if God or Allah wills it, she will be allowed to join a caravan bound for the Baltic.

It has been almost five years since I set out on my own journey of creation. Six drafts later, after countless hours of research, the story is coming to its end. Below are some of the old maps I’ve used for routes and place-names. Some of the cities along Mina’s route include Istanbul, Ankara, and Erzurum. Crossing into Armenia, under the watchful gaze of Mt. Ararat, she travels through Erivan, Berdkunk and Kot. At the eastern end of Lake Gokcha (now called Sevan) the pass of Zodsk leads her into Persia, and the city of Berdaa. Turning south, she travels to Ardebil, known today for its carpets but famous in the 1600’s for its cats. A day’s journey takes her to Astara, on the western shore of the Caspian. Northward she crosses the Volga River into Astrakhan, where sturgeon, melons and rock-salt are staples of trade. Two thousand miles to the northwest, the Neva River links to the Baltic Sea, the location of modern-day St. Petersburg. Along the Baltic coast to Reval, Riga, Stralsund, Lubeck, and finally Schloss Gottorp where the journey ends.

I hope you enjoy these maps as much as I do.

‘I have learned from your letter of the wonderful agreement that allows you now to blow fire out of your sweet little Anna’s ass’

Lucas Friedrich Behaim was a young man recently returned to Nurnberg from four years of “bachelor journeying”. It was 1612, less than a decade before the continent would explode into thirty years of war, and Lucas wanted to get married.

His story is told in the book, Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany, by Steven Ozment. Love letters and other correspondence between family members and the betrothed take us back in time, and into the minds of the long-dead lovers.

Lucas is a passionate Lutheran, but he is also a man who has experienced the world. His youthful travels took him to Paris, Venice, Crete, Tripoli and Jerusalem, among other cities. He only missed seeing Constantinople because his ship was rerouted due to a report of plague.

His letters to his beloved, Anna Maria Pfinzig, are — as Ozment says — full of  “lust and piety”, a fact which did not much surprise me.

Dear Maiden Bride, in my solitude, I contemplate your good and faithful heart intently and I am comforted by it alone. I rejoice in it with my whole heart, and yes, I kill most of my leisure in such pleasant thoughts of you. … Therefore, I ask you very kindly, my darling, to send me a portrait of your beautiful physical form, so that I might, from time to time [by looking at it], know true consolation and singular joy when such sad thoughts arise.”

Unbeknownst to their parents, Lucas and Anna had exchanged private vows before their wedding, a fact which thankfully remained hidden from Nurnberg’s disciplinary Committee of Ten. The agreement was known to several of their family members, notably Lucas’s cousin Albrecht who wrote Lucas a letter of his own, the text of which did surprise me.

“I have learned from your letter of the wonderful agreement that allows you now to blow fire out of your sweet little Anna’s ass, something I would also dearly like to do to her myself, if only my own dear maiden would give me permission. Were she to do so, I think it could not be better done than by inserting my self-extended reed into her from the front and then blowing bravely into it, whereupon the coals and excess heat generated in her hind quarters would sail forth. If this plan of mine pleases you, perhaps you could write to my maiden [Juliana] and ask her if I may be allowed to try it. For were I to proceed without her foreknowledge, the soup would surely turn sour and kind words become dear. I am also pleased to learn that your penis is loyally standing by you, giving you your first wakeup call of each day. I shall make this happy news known to Anna Maria on Sunday, Capis Casari, when I console her and counsel fond patience [during your absence].”

Clearly, the pious Lutherans of the Early Modern age were not as pious as we sometimes believe.


Nurnberg, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1572