The Ottoman Tales I: The Hem of His Garment

This is the first in a series inspired (somewhat) by Noel Barber’s The Sultans.

Although it’s largely forgotten these days (along with most important history, especially by Americans) for five centuries the Ottoman Empire loomed large in every sense of the word.  In its highest days (under Suleiman the Magnificent/Lawgiver) it threatened Christian Europe, a threat made more credible by Europe’s own religious and political divisions.  As Winston Churchill said, the Turks challenged the world; dismissing them then and now is unwise.

Until the opening of India and later China, the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed all the Middle East except for Persia/Iran, was “the Orient” for Europeans, thus when rail service ran from Paris to Constantinople/Istanbul it was the “Orient Express”, and their view was an interesting one.  For present day Christians, because of the current copyright expiration date of 1923 (the year after the Empire ended) much of the public domain commentaries and Bible study materials were produced in Ottoman times (such as this) and thus their view of the Middle East was different from the one we have today.

In some ways, it was clearer; although Middle Easterners don’t change as much as we or they would like to think they do, with stuff like this, the Ottoman world was, in many ways, close in technology and custom to the one we see unfold in the pages of Scripture.  The Turks, like the Romans, were better adapters than originators; they borrowed deeply from both Byzantine (itself a descendant of Rome), Persian and Arab civilisations.  They also lived in an autocratic society; democracy is still no mean feat in the Middle East, as the Arab Spring reminded the world.

To look at one good aspect of this, let’s start with a familiar passage of Scripture:

And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour. (Matthew 9:20-22 KJV)

I say “familiar”; for Pentecostals, it’s mind-numbingly so, it’s a favourite of Pentecostal preachers.  And it’s not the only place in the New Testament where someone got the idea of touching the hem of Our Lord’s garment:

And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret. And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased; And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.  (Matthew 14:34-36 KJV)

The Ottomans put fair stock in touching or kissing this hem.  When Sultan Abdul Hamid II was enthroned in 1876, he went in procession to the Eyub Mosque (the Friday procession of the Sultan and his retinue to the mosque for prayers was one of the highlights of the week for residents of Constantinople).  Once the dervishes had girded him with the sabre–the Turks were and are a military people–the Sultan took three steps towards his Grand Vizier (prime minister) who kissed the hem of his garment in the name of the people.  This gesture was done even under duress; in 1808, when Sultan Selim III was murdered and Mahmud II ended up as Sultan, his soon to be Grand Vizier Bairactar kissed the hem of the new Sultan’s robe.  (Bairactar didn’t last long; he was murdered by the Janissaries, but ultimately they came to the same end).

Although most of our ministers focus on the woman with an issue of blood desiring healing from Jesus, her choice–and others’–of the hem of the garment suggest that they were additionally making a declaration of Jesus’ royalty.  Such declarations were not lost on the Jewish leadership, who feared that Jesus’ objective was to become a secular king in opposition to both Rome and themselves.  (For a take on this with another Ottoman illustration, click here).

But although the woman’s declaration was certainly correct, Our Lord had another kind of kingdom in mind:

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  (John 18:36-37 KJV)

And that’s something that many in the world–both Jesus’ followers and his opponents–still do not understand.

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