The Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300-1922) was for a long period one of the dominant forces in the Middle East, North Africa and South-Eastern Europe. From 1453 onwards the Ottoman sultans ruled over a vast empire from their capital, Istanbul. Contacts with Europe sometimes had the character of military confrontations, but also witnessed periods of peaceful co-existence. However, throughout this at times eventful history there were also cultural relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, which resulted in exchange and mutual influence. In 1612 the first Dutch ambassador traveled to the Ottoman Empire in order to establish direct diplomatic relations, especially since they had a common enemy: Spain.
While the Ottomans hoped to conclude a political and military alliance with the upcoming naval power of the Netherlands, the Dutch –as an upcoming economic power-- were especially interested in direct relations for commercial reasons. Interestingly, even before the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire in 1612, there had already been contacts between the Dutch and Ottomans on various levels: Dutch pilgrims travelled through Ottoman lands on their way to Jerusalem, merchants frequented Ottoman ports in the Levant (under foreign flags), and already in the 16th century individual diplomats, travelers, artists and scholars from the Netherlands visited lands belonging to the Ottoman Empire for various purposes.
In general we can say that especially these groups --diplomats, merchants, travelers, artists and scholars-- played an important role in cultural contacts between both countries throughout the Ottoman period. News, knowledge and information about the Ottoman Empire reached the Netherlands directly via these groups, although the indirect route via other European countries (Venice, Austria, France) that often maintained more close relations with the Ottoman Empire was important as well. Until the late 18th century, Ottoman diplomatic practice did not allow for Ottoman ambassadors to reside in foreign countries. Instead the Ottomans used envoys for incidental missions. As a consequence, the Ottomans were (initially) more dependent on indirect sources for their knowledge and information about the Netherlands than the Dutch were. Over time contacts between the Dutch and Ottomans have led to interesting forms of cultural exchange and influence. These cultural contacts between the Netherlands and the Ottoman Empire materialized on various -often interrelated and overlapping- levels:
- Dutch diplomats, merchants, travelers, artists and scholars who visited the Ottoman Empire produced written and visual information about the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans, and the Ottoman culture (documents, reports, travelogues, drawings, paintings). This category also includes Dutch (re-)use of such information (for texts or visual art), as well as the use of products of Ottoman culture without ever having visited the Ottoman Empire themselves (for instance Ottoman carpets and clothing in 17th-century Dutch paintings).
- The Dutch who settled in the Ottoman Empire, and formed small communities in Istanbul and Izmir, contributed to Ottoman “Levantine culture” in various forms (for instance in churches and cemeteries, residential architecture, painting)
- Products of Ottoman culture - documents, manuscripts, objects of art/material culture - came to the Netherlands and ended up in archives, libraries, private- and museum collections. Sometimes these objects influenced Dutch culture (for instance carpets, ceramics and tiles, and their ornamentation).
- Ottoman cultural phenomena and the objects belonging to these phenomena came -usually indirectly- to the Netherlands and were (first adapted and then) incorporated into Dutch culture (for instance coffee culture). Some of these cultural phenomena even returned to the Ottoman Empire in their Dutch form, being reintroduced in Ottoman culture (for instance flower bulbs in horticulture).
- Products of Dutch culture came, directly or indirectly, to the Ottoman Empire. Sometimes these objects influenced Ottoman culture, as can be seen in for instance tiles and their ornamentation.
In general, diplomats and merchants played the most important role in the direct contacts between the Ottoman Empire and the Netherlands. Dutch-Ottoman relations throughout the Ottoman period were mainly commercial relations; diplomacy served these economic relations and cultural exchange or influence was often an unintended – but often very interesting – by-product of these contacts.