‘Turkish village becomes latest doomsday hotspot‘, ran one headline last week. This is the news that 60,000 people are descending on a small Turkish village, where it is thought the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven: the village has a ‘positive energy’ which will save people from the impending catastrophe. To help these survivalists get through the next week, local businessmen are even selling specially bottled ‘wine of the Apocalypse‘. It is ironic, in a way, that in the 21st century Turkey is seen as a place where one can find safe haven from Armageddon. In early modern Europe, the Turks were closely associated with the End Times; indeed, for many Europeans, they were the root cause of it.
In the 1520s, as the all-conquering armies of the Ottoman sultan marched through the Balkans, into Hungary, and towards the gates of Vienna, many Europeans were convinced that the visible world was about to end. The astonishing advance of the Ottoman Turks seemed to be proof that the Last Days were at hand, and that the struggle between the faithful and the infidel was nearing the prophesied final battle.
Ever since the fall of Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans had been seen as a manifestation of the Antichrist, and generations of theologians tried to explain the rise of the Ottoman Empire by way of apocalyptic predictions in the Bible. The ‘Great Turk’ (the sultan) was presented as one of the kings from the East described in the Book of Revelation, due to appear after an angel had emptied his vial and dried up the Euphrates. He was seen as Gog or Magog, who would be released at the end of time, or as one of the three heads of the eagle in the apocryphal Book of II Esdras.
For many Christians, the number 666 (the number of the ‘Great Beast’ of the Book of Revelation) had long been closely associated with Islam: sixteenth-century commentators insisted that Islam could be dated from 666 A.D., while further back, in 1213, Pope Innocent III had added 666 to the date of the Hegira (622 A.D.) to prove that Islam would not survive the thirteenth century.
Dubious calculations aside, the widespread belief in the coming of the Apocalypse did have far-reaching implications in the sixteenth century. The Protestant message of reformer Martin Luther would almost certainly not have had such wide appeal without the popular expectation of imminent change. Luther situated the Ottomans within his own apocalyptic vision of the world, tinged as it was by a robust pragmatism. In various writings and sermons, Luther initially presented the Ottomans as the scourge by which God justly punished Christians for their sins. Yet as fortress after fortress fell during the 1520s, and Germany itself was threatened in 1529, Luther began to emphasize instead that the Ottomans were the ‘Last Enemies of God’ and should be resisted at all costs.
For many of Luther’s more radical contemporaries, the rapid rise of the Ottomans was actually a positive, reassuring sign that the reign of the saints was at hand. The bookseller Hans Hut, for instance, believed that the Ottomans would act as God’s instrument to destroy his enemies (Catholics and mainstream Protestants), before the millennium could begin. Hut predicted that the current world would end on Pentecost 1528, and instructed his followers to sell all of their worldly goods in preparation. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for him, he didn’t live to see his apocalyptic timetable proved wrong, meeting his demise the previous winter while trying to escape from the local authorities in Augsburg.
What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that certain aspects of this apocalyptic thought were actually shared by the Ottomans themselves. In the sixteenth century the millennium of the Islamic calendar was drawing near, and many Muslims were convinced that the world would end in the Hijra year of 1000 (1592). Islamic apocalpyticism sparked off a series of major revolts in Turkey between the 1510s and the 1530s. In their wake Ottoman theologians argued that the end (or rather, renewal) of the world would be fulfilled by a messianic Ottoman sultan – the ‘great conqueror’ who would provide the conditions for the revelation of the Truth.
The waves of apocalypticism experienced by both Europeans and Ottomans in the sixteenth century show that, behind the mutual contempt, the early modern Christian and Islamic worlds had more in common than either realized, or would ever have admitted. In a broader sense, apocalyptic predictions have much to reveal about the anxieties and preoccupations of the times we live through. In years to come historians are going to have a field day looking at the pronouncements of Harold Camping, as well as the activities of the ‘survivalists’ going to Turkey this week. Having said that, ‘wine of the Apocalypse’ sounds like a good idea to me, whether we are heading for the End or not.
If you’d like to read some of Phil’s research on the Ottomans, you can see his article on ‘Commerce Before Crusade? France, the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary Pirates, 1661-1669’, French History 23.1 (2009), pp. 1-21 [log-in needed]