Greek philosophy in the court of Mehmet the conqueror

MARIA MAVROUDI

Abstract


 

The paper discusses the reasons for the interest in certain products of Greek literary culture at the court of Mehmet the Conqueror. Ptolemy’s Geograpy was translated from Greek into Arabic at his command. We also have the Greek-into-Arabic translation of an eclectic assortment of texts: the Late Antique pagan revelation known as the Chaldean Oracles, its commentary by Georgios Gemistos-Plethon, and excerpts from Plethon’s Book of Laws. In addition, we know that Greek manuscripts were copied or collected for the court of Mehmet the Conqueror and his heirs at least until 1520. The paper argues that the interest of early Ottoman intellectuals in Greek literary heritage was neither an effort to become acquainted with ancient Greek knowledge in order to emulate the Italian Renaissance, nor an endeavor to understand the culture of the Byzantine Christians in order to rule them more effectively. Rather, it was motivated by a desire to address political, social, and intellectual problems that were important for Ottoman Muslims. The paper argues that the Chaldean Oracles and Plethon’s texts generated interest among Ottoman intellectuals because they pertained to human unification with the divine, an important goal of Sufi practice towards the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. In addition, these texts could aid the purposes of magic, interest in which is also attested among Muslim intellectuals around the Ottoman court. The Geography could serve not only astronomy but also astrology and eschatological calculations. Many of the Greek texts known to have been copied at the court of Mehmet the Conqueror pertain to the same topics and could help shape the apocalyptic expectations which abounded in Ottoman society during this period. More broadly, both Byzantine and Islamic thought (the latter mostly through the repercussions of the 9th- and 10th-century translation movement from Greek into Arabic) shared some of the same philosophy and science that had its roots in Graeco-Roman antiquity. In addition, Late Byzantine intellectuals were acquainted with certain aspects of Islamic science, especially the tradition originally articulated in 13th-century Maragha, which was widely popular also among Early Ottoman intellectuals. This means that certain aspects of Byzantine and Ottoman thought could be understood as compatible, and for this reason 15th-century Byzantine philosophical and scientific thought could be used in order to elucidate its Ottoman counterpart.


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