The Polish School of Oriental Languages in 18th century Istanbul

The Polish School of Oriental Languages in 18th century Istanbul

For centuries, the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ottoman Empire has been intertwined. The border between the two countries was uneasy, and the stake of competition was control over the lands lying in the Black Sea basin. The Tatar invasions kept the Polish king awake, while the Sultan had a similar problem with the Zaporozhian Cossack excursions. However, in times of peace, trade and cultural exchange flourished. Nevertheless, it was hard to find competent translators…


“It is a disgraceful and dangerous defect of the Commonwealth, that there is so poor knowledge of the pagan languages within the kingdom…”

The author of this quote, Wojciech Miaskowski, the chamberlain of Lviv, was aware of the importance of having an appropriate translator in diplomacy. He was the envoy who set out on his way to the Sublime Porte with a heavy heart. His mission fell out at an extremely chaotic moment: after the death of Sultan Murad IV in 1640, his unstable brother Ibrahim took the throne. It was not known what to expect from the new Padishah.

Sultan Ibrahim I. Graphic made by Pieter de Jode. Image source: Rijksmuseum (public domain)

Miaskowski reached the capital of the Turkish empire via Khotyn and Bucharest. Chamberlain had an Armenian interpreter, but he had little respect and understanding for the diplomatic importance of the mission. A representative of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth passed through an interpreter his reluctance to obey the obsequious protocol obligatory under the previous sultan. However, the behavior of the hired servant led to an upheaval during the first audience, which Miaskowski described in his account:

The interpreter graciously referred to me that I would be welcomed and respected as a great envoy. But then it turned out that my translator did not say it out of fear to the Grand Vizier, as an Armenian (…). When we were about to enter the Emperor’s chamber, through the interpreter I reminded the Vizier of his words about the greeting ceremony. The interpreter told something else went to the Grand Vizier, and something else to me…

Fortunately, despite the faults of the Armenian translator, the diplomatic mission did not fail. A treaty was agreed: invasions of the Cossacks and Tatars will be stopped; trade between the Commonwealth and Turkey was also secured. Thanks to the favor of the Grand Vizier Kemankeş Kara Mustafa Pasha, Miaskowski managed to free many Polish prisoners. They were Poles taken captive after the Battle of Cecora twenty years earlier and women that were taken into slavery during raids. In Istanbul, slave-owners raised a great outcry: they must not be short of galley slaves and servants in their houses, gardens, and farms! However, despite the pressure of the influential mother of the Sultan, the cunning Kösem Sultan, the Grand Vizier kept his word, and Miaskowski returned to the country with a large group of freedmen- even those born already in Turkish captivity.

But Chamberlain was aware that Polish diplomacy could achieve much more if it had the help of better translators. Using the services of unreliable intermediaries could harm the entire interest of the Polish-Lithuanian state, and the natives often, fearing for their lives, tried to avoid their duties or act to the detriment of foreign diplomats. Contemporaries were well aware of these shortcomings.

Between East and West

This, of course, did not mean that there were no speakers of Oriental languages in the Commonwealth. On the contrary: there were whole families where such knowledge became a tradition! Let’s take a look at Miaskowski’s account once again:

Sir Herburt and sir Ożga were more fortunate because they had services of sir Krzysztof Dzierżek, standard-bearer of Trakai Voivodeship, introduced the Arabian language to his house and he taught his kin.

The first representative of the family who became interested in the Turkish language was Krzysztof Dzierżek. He was sent to Stambul by King Sigismund Augustus to learn the language of the Ottoman state. His teacher was a certain Ibrahim Bega … previously known in the Commonwealth as Joachim Strasz. Ibrahim was a “poturczenieć”: man converetd to Islam. Strasz was taken into slavery as a child, and as an adult, he made a career at the Sultan’s court as a diplomat.

Skirmish between Poles and Turks, 1633. Image source: Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie (public domain)

Thanks to his knowledge of Turkish, Dzierżek became a valued royal agent, and his skills were invaluable both in diplomacy and during military campaigns. Since then, many members of Dzieżek family served as translators and diplomats.

Another famous family living at the border between East and West was the Otwinowski family. Samuel Otwinowski (1575-1642), after spending many years in Stambul, returned to his homeland, serving as an interpreter for the great military leader (hetman), Stanisław Żółkiewski. Otwinowski became famous for the first European translation of the poem Gulistan by the medieval Persian poet Sadi of Shiraz. In the Polish version, the title was Giulistan, that is, a rose garden. One of the phrases of this work was placed at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In Otwinoski’s translation, it reads as follows:

The School of Oriental Languages

However, it was not until the 18th century that there was a real initiative to establish a school to prepare translators of Oriental languages ​​for the service of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This educational institution was established around 1766 by King Stanisław August Poniatowski, last ruler of the independent state. It was in line with the ruler’s other reform efforts. A year earlier, the School of Chivalry was established to educate the future officer corps for the Polish-Lithuanian army. Both institutions were supported by the state treasury.

An oriental language school operated in the Galata district of Istanbul, formerly also known as Pera. In the early-modern period, this area was home to Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and representatives of European countries. It was a meeting place for traders, diplomats, and seafarers; Christians of different denominations had their temples here.

Galata in 17th century. Fragment of the view published in Civitates orbis terrarum. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

With the mission of establishing a school, two diplomats were sent to Turkey: Zygmunt Everhard (who was ennobled for his service) and counselor Karol Boscamp-Lasopolski, an expert in Turkish affairs and a Russian agent. The first caretaker of the facility was Piotr Crutta, who came from an Albanian family that traditionally raised translators. The school educated only a few students at a time. The first-year group consisted of four boys: Stanisław Pichelstein (son of the famous Regina Salomea Pilsztynowa, called the first female Polish doctor, who made an unprecedented career in Turkey), Jasny Nikorowicz, Michał Derdekał, and Piotr Giuliani.

By the decision of the Sehm, the funds for the maintenance of the school were borne by the treasury of both the Crown and Grand Duchy. Due to the bad economic situation, the narrow stream of money became even narrower, which is why the number of students decreased over time. The school taught not only oriental languages ​​(Arabic, Turkish, Persian), but also Italian and French. The curriculum was also enriched with the skills necessary for diplomats and learning about the culture of the Oriental countries. At one point, the school was headed by her pupil – Stanisław Pichelstein.

The school has become not only a place of education but also a kind of diplomatic post of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At that time, relations between Turkey and Poland were tense, not because of mutual skirmishes at the border, but because of Russian influence in Poland. At the end of the 18th century, the Commonwealth became the de facto protectorate of Moscow, whose ambitions posed the greatest threat to the Sublime Porte. The School of Oriental Languages ​​has become a pretext for the Polish presence in Istanbul.

Józef Mikosza – man of the Enlightenment

Józef Mikosza (1744-1825), the so-called teacher of national history, laws, and customs, was sent to Istanbul by King Stanisław Poniatowski in 1782. It seems, however, that its main task was not to educate students but to stimulate trade between Turkey and the Commonwealth. Mikosza monitored the situation in Turkey and informed the authorities in his homeland about potential goods that could be traded. In 1783, he sent a letter to the Political and Historical Diary, a periodical published in Warsaw:

From Constantinople on 25 Aug. 1783

Knowing well how much trade is needed for our country, and taking into account what advances [i.e. profits] could be made in the future, I could not fail to be pleased with His Lord’s first step, which is not only evidence of his more particular resolution, but also an essential sign of patriotism in spirit, directed towards showing other neighbors the path and pursuing benefits for country through trade. Apart from Poles themselves, all nations of our age are pursuing to bring wealth from other parts of the world to their thresholds.

Border between Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 18th century. Image source: Polona.pl (public domain)

At the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Józef Mikosza became involved with the Russian government, and after 1795 he was an interpreter for the Russian governor of Kamieniec Podolski, where he died in 1825. Mikosza left an extremely interesting legacy – his accounts and insights about Turkey, which were collected and printed as Political observations of the Turkish state, government, religion, forces, customs, and nations under this living reign. This work was translated into other languages ​​and enjoyed great popularity at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. At the very beginning of her account, Mikosza mentioned one of the students of the Oriental School:

For a safer crossing through the Turkish country, I thought I needed to have a passport from pasha of Khotyn. Sir P. Giuliani, the translator of His Majesty, came to this place intentionally to help me obtain a passport.


(…) Mr. Giuliani told pasha that I was a Pole, that I was going to Istanbul and I demanded a passport. There was no question of what and why. He ordered the secretary to provide a document for me, and in 15 minutes I got my passport. Besides, I was given a bowl of food and coffee.

This small passage is proof of how useful professional translators were in diplomatic service. It is a pity that the project of establishing a special school to educate translators was only realized when the Commonwealth was about to collapse. Along with it, after almost thirty years of operation, the Polish School of Oriental Languages ​​in Istanbul ceased to exist.

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