How Islam influenced Polish civilization
The cultural exchanges between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Islamic world (Ottoman Empire, Crimean Khanate, and Persia) followed a pathway in accordance with political events and left significant oriental traces on Polish civilization.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe and it was subject to influences from the West and the East. At that time, along with the Poles and Lithuanians, the Commonwealth was also inhabited by Ruthenians, Germans, Jews, Italians, Greeks, and Scots as well as Armenians, Tatars, Hungarians, and Walachians. Each of these nations contributed to the creation of a rich, exotic, multifaceted Polish civilization, known as “Sarmatism.”
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Even though Poland belonged inside the scope of Western civilization and has remained faithful to it for more than a millennium, there was a profound impact of the Islamic civilization on the Polish art of war, fashion, and decorative arts.
“Sarmatian” military dress and fashion
After the 16th century, the Polish army exerted far-reaching influences on the development of Western armies and it was an important channel for the transfer of Ottoman-Tatar military expertise to Europe. It was King Stefan Batory of Hungarian-Transylvanian origin (1576-1586) who was responsible for the wave of oriental influences that swept over Poland and Lithuania. At that time, the process of Ottomanization in Hungary and Transylvania had already settled profoundly; therefore, as a result of contact between these states and the Ottoman Empire, a passion for things and concepts with an Islamic touch spread throughout the Commonwealth.
During a long part of the “Sarmatian” period, Hungarian style of attire owed a great deal to Ottoman and Persian influences and was dominant among Polish noblemen. By the late 16th century, most of the Polish army and nobility were dressed in the Hungarian-Ottoman style. Numerous contracts were carried out in Istanbul for Polish noblemen, but these alone could not address the huge demand.
Many workshops opened up in Poland. They were largely staffed with Armenian and Greek craftsmen making clothes, weapons and other items in Ottoman style. Moreover, wealthy noblemen often kept captive Tatars and janissaries in their courts, but they also dressed their Polish pages in a similar way to that of the Persians and their bodyguards to that of Circassian warriors. This passion even drove them to dress Jewish orchestras in a similar way to that of janissaries.
Ottoman inspired Polish dress
By the early 1600s, the Polish cavalry had adopted most of the weapons used by the Ottomans and Tatars as well as many of their redoubtable tactics. The hetmans (commanders) used the Ottoman baton of command and tughs, which denoted rank among the Ottomans, were carried aloft behind them.
In addition, the exotic appearance of Poles abroad, especially on diplomatic missions to other European states, caused sensation: Tatar and Cossack hairstyles; spectacular clothes gilded with gold; precious silks; even golden and silver horseshoes, fastened loosely to ensure that they would swing conspicuously during entries into several European capitals.
French, German, and Italian city populations gathered en masse to witness these splendid processions and they admired the splendid “Sarmatian” style of dress of Polish delegations. This orientalized “Sarmatian” fashion became a famous symbol of the healthy, straightforward, and patriotic Polishness.
The husaria (hussar cavalry) was the most basic and famous Polish military formation. It was a felicitous combination of the military expertise of the East and the West. It was the best cavalry formation of all time, gaining numerous significant victories, like those over the Swedes at Kircholm in 1605, over the Russians at Kluszyn in 1610, and over the Ottomans at Chocim (1673) and Vienna (1683).
The wings – wooden frames carrying eagle, ostrich, swan, or goose feathers – of the Polish hussars, undoubtedly their most prominent feature, seem to be closely linked to their origins in the vast Ottoman lands. The delis or “hot-heads” of the Ottoman army, famous for their display of wings and feathers in the most bizarre of manners, inspired Polish hussars to use wings to scare the enemy – not by any whistling sounds that they are alleged to have made, but by their sheer visual impact.
Polish Hussars – Ottoman Delis
In addition, there was also Ottoman impact on Polish infantry. The standard model for 16th-17th century Polish infantry was the hajduks. The term “hajduk” is derived from the Turkish word haidud meaning “marauder.” This type of foot-soldier came to the Polish lands via Hungary and was patterned to some extent after the fearsome Ottoman janissary infantry. Finally, the semi-heavy cavalry called pancerni resembled heavily armed mounted Ottoman sipahis wearing mail shirts and mail caps and they carried Ottoman style kalkans (circular shields made of silk and fig wands) and fought with short lances and bows.
The Tatar Muslim community has lived in the Polish lands for more than five centuries; they speak Polish as their native language, identify with Polish civilization, and have amassed their own extraordinary military lore on the participation of Tatar soldiers in the most significant moments of Polish history. They refer to themselves as Polish Tatars or Lipka Tatars. More than half of the present-day Polish Tatars live in the area of Bialystok.
Tatar mosque in the village of Bohoniki, Poland
Tatar influence on Polish cuisine is significant. Typical Tatar dishes are spicy, high-caloried and easy to prepare. These fearsome warriors of the steppe taught Poles to marinate meat and Tatars’ lambs were very popular among Polish kings and noblemen. The most famous dish having Tatar roots on Polish tables is the Tatar steak made from minced beef, eggs and spices and served raw.
Other spectacular Tatar delights, which are part of the Polish cuisine today, include: pierekaczewnik, potato cake (baba ziemniaczana) and trybuszok. Moreover, kolduny is another popular Tatar dish, a sort of dumpling typical of Lithuania and eastern Poland. The Tatar version of dumpling is stuffed with lamb and a bit of broth.
As for Tatar desserts, czak czak is a delicious cookie, which proves that Tatar culture is deeply rooted in the Islamic world. Just like Arabic and Turkish sweets, it is a sort of cookie with plenty of raisins and nuts, soaked in oil and honey. Moreover, delicious halva is also a famous dessert, which was spread across the Commonwealth by Tatars.
Poles also had an extreme interest in the beauty of Islamic art, which was not appreciated in southwestern Europe at that time. During the 17th century, the orientalization of Polish taste and lifestyle was obvious. Islamic hangings replaced Flemish tapestries and oriental arms accompanied paintings on the walls of palaces and manor houses.
King Jan Sobieski was the greatest connoisseur of the Orient and lover of Islamic art among Polish monarchs. When he defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Chocim, he captured a silk embroidery studded with “two thousand emeralds and rubies,” which he gave later as the most ostentatious gift he could think of to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. However, the duke put it away and wrote “una cosa del barbaro lusso” about it in his inventory.
Persian and Ottoman decorative arts played a great role in the “Sarmatian” period. Polonized Armenian and Greek merchants were often dispatched by monarchs and noblemen to the Muslim lands, with instructions to buy various precious objects, among which are gold-threaded silk carpets, tents, textiles, Iznik ceramics, Persian Gulf pearls, horse trappings, and damascened sabers. In addition, major marketplaces along the southeastern border territories of the Commonwealth – Lwow, Zolkiew, Zamosc, Kamieniec Podolski – exerted themselves to realize large-scale production of various objects in Islamic style, partly from imported raw materials and semi-manufactured products.
In the 18th century, Poland continued her traditional trading with the East and still abounded in her favorite oriental goods: textiles, rugs, spices, exotic fruits, precious rubies, Yemen coffee, belts and processed “Morocco” leather. At that time, Polish wealthy noblemen desired more exoticism, which was reflected for the most part in ephemeral park architecture and in figural decorations using Ottoman motifs. Thus, in Polish palaces could one find Ottoman-style gardens and baths.
Finally, King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last monarch of the Commonwealth, also had extreme orientalist passions. This led him to establish a school of Ottoman and Persian languages in Istanbul in 1766 for the Polish diplomatic staff. With the loss of Poland’s independence in 1795, the chief political and cultural force of the Polish émigrés focused on France and the Ottoman Empire. Some Poles continued to be obsessed with Islamic art until the end of the 19th century.
The modern era
Relations between Poland, which regained her independence in the 20th century, and Islamic states have continued and developed in the present century, chiefly in economic and cultural fields. Departments of Turkish, Persian, and Arabic studies have been founded at some Polish universities. Polish orientalists have significantly contributed to the development of Eastern studies and they have gained international recognition.
Echoes of “Sarmatism” have remained in the Polish national consciousness, nourished with works of “Sarmatian” and Islamic art, along with numerous objects of historical value that have been amassed in several Polish museums.
Inside the mosque at Bohoniki
Today, about 30,000 Muslims, including Polish Tatars, live in Poland, and they comprise a mere 0.5% of Poland’s population. Although the migrant community is small, it is diverse: the largest group of Muslim newcomers is from Arabic countries, but there are also Turks, Bosnians, and refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria. These few Muslims will continue to enrich Polish civilization.
Miltiades Varvounis is a prominent Greek-Polish historian and freelance writer, with a thorough knowledge of the history of Central Europe. He has written several books in Greek and English, including “Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe.”