For a piece of land so obviously physically continuous as Eurasia, the difference between east and west has always been remarkable. The meeting point of the two is also remarkable in that it’s so easy to pinpoint; Turkey. There are several possible reasons for this; if we travel back into prehistory, for example, when humanity first walked out of Africa and traveled northwards, some groups of people turned left and settled in Europe; others turned right, eventually reaching the far eastern edge of Asia, and crossing the land bridge to North America that existed thousands of years ago. It would be countless generations before those who originally “turned right” were encountered by their European counterparts.
In general, the earlier that a population splits into separate groups, the bigger the differences between its languages will be. Languages are constantly evolving; if you think English is now a fixed language with a “correct” set of words and rules, consider that every year new words are added to the dictionary. Pick up a book written just a hundred years ago, and the language and grammar used will usually be sufficiently different from today’s (think Shakespeare and Chaucer), to at least impart a flavor of the times as you read it. The difference between “east” and “west”, or Europe and Asia, is due at least in part to the languages, and the distant roots of those languages, that are used in the two areas.
The Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire lasted for over six hundred years in various forms, from the beginning of the 14th century until shortly after the First World War. At its greatest extent, it stopped just short of Vienna, encompassing all of Greece and Hungary. It reached across almost all of north Africa, surrounded the Red Sea on both sides, and connected the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf via Baghdad. It was comparable in its extent to the Roman Empire at its largest – minus Western Europe.
At The Crossroads
With Turkey, the cultural crossroads, at its heart, and wildly different cultures contained within it, it was necessary for the Ottoman Empire to have access to expert translators who understood the necessity of transferring ideas across those cultures. The position of dragoman was a highly respected and extremely necessary one, requiring both advanced language skills and a high degree of diplomatic dexterity, as well as an understanding of the customs and etiquette of a variety of different countries and traditions. Trade was important; not having wars which could be avoided by intelligent and culturally sensitive interactions, even more so.
The dragoman became hugely important in the Ottoman empire, but the role itself was an ancient one. The ability to aid effective communication between east and west has obviously been essential throughout history, and words similar to “dragoman” exist in Aramaic and Hebrew as well as Ge’ez, a North African language now used only by various Ethiopian Christian churches. Variants of the word eventually took hold in many European languages, including French, German, Middle English and Italian – thanks to the dragomans themselves.
While the position of interpreter required an excellent knowledge of Turkish, Arabic and Persian, many of the most well-known and respected dragomans were of Greek origin, at least until the Greek rebellion of 1821 that led to independence from the Ottoman Empire. Alexander Mavrocordatos (1636-1709), for example, as well as being skilled enough in diplomacy and the relevant languages to become a dragoman, was a medical doctor who had studied in Bologna. One of his achievements was to write the treaty between the Empire and Austria, following the battle at the end of the 17th century that halted the western expansion of the Ottomans.
Not all were Greek, of course; Wojciech Bobowski (1610-1675) was a Polish dragoman whose skill in Turkish in particular was demonstrated by his translation of the Bible, which remained the only Turkish version until 2002. His work spread ideas in both directions; he also wrote about the Muslim religion in Latin, and was an accomplished musician who preserved many traditional Eastern compositions.
Following the Greek rebellion, Muslim dragomans from various nations became more prominent, and helped to spread western culture and scientific ideas eastwards, just as their predecessors had brought eastern art and culture into the drawing rooms of Europe. Throughout centuries that cycled between tension, war, peace and trade, the dragomans provided an invaluable link between east and west.