Wojciech Bobowski: The Pole Who Bridged the East & West
In the 17th century, Wojciech Bobowski lived as a captive in the Ottoman Empire. However, he was not idle in his captivity: he created the first ever anthology of traditional Ottoman music and translated the Bible into Turkish. Although somewhat obscure today, his cultural impact is seen as one that helped bridge the cultural spheres of Christianity and Islam.
Wojciech Bobowski, sometimes known as Albert Bobowski or Albertus Bobovius, was a Polish musician, translator and writer that lived in the 17th century. He is also known under his Turkish name Ali Ufki as he spent most of his life in the Ottoman Empire. In 2017, the scientific journal Turkish World published a paper by Hande Devrim Küçükebe and Fikret Türkmen, entitled Turkish Folk Poetry and Folk Music in Mecmuâ-İ Sâz U Söz by Ali Ufkî Bey which mentions two of the Pole’s key achievements:
He noted the türküs (Turkish folk songs) in Western notation for the first time and this was his most important deed.
Between the years 1662 and 1664, he translated the Holy Bible into Turkish which he also defined as his most important work.
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But before we get into the fascinating details of these two accomplishments, let’s go back and look at how Bobowski found himself so deeply involved with Turkish culture in the first place.
Captured as a slave
The life of Wojciech Bobowski is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Due to a lack of sources, many facts about his life, like his dates of birth and death, are uncertain. Most of what we know about him comes from comparative analysis of various writings which sometimes contradict one another.
In his manuscripts Wojciech Bobowski left little information about himself, usually nothing more than a signature. (…) So most of what we know about him comes from the correspondence and memoirs of European diplomats, travellers, Orientalists and writings for which Bobowski acted as an informant.
Wojciech Bobowski (Ali Ufkí) – Polak na Osmańskim Dworze by Agata Pawlina, published by the University of Białystok
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Bobowski was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, most likely in Lviv, around the year 1610. Scholars are, however, certain that he received a thorough musical education in his homeland. Some claim he must’ve been a nobleman to have received such schooling, but also could’ve a commoner educated, for instance, at a monastery. He was captured by Tatar invaders in his early twenties (probably between 1633 and 1634). Having learned of his musical skills his captors decided to sell him – as a valued specimen – to the Ottoman court.
A clever musician
In the Ottoman Empire Bobowski converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his name to Ali. After furthering his education at the Enderun Mektebi school for pages, he was placed as a courtier at the royal palace in Istanbul. He ended up staying there for close to twenty years. The role chosen for him was that of a musician.
Bobovius, who spent 19 years in Topkapı Palace, completed his education, learned Turkish and got acquainted with Turkish music and its instruments very closely. He became such a master in santur that he was called Santurî (santur player).
Article from Turkish World, edited by MK
Bobowski is also known to have played the saz, a traditional string instrument shaped like a lute with an elongated neck. But it was his knowledge of musical notation that made him so special.
Here they learn music by memorising it, the ability to write it down is seen as miraculous. And in class I quickly wrote down everything I learned so I wouldn’t forget it. The Turkish masters having seen this ability of mine treated me with respect and admiration. Because of this I was made conductor of the pages’ choir. Other students often forgot the melodies and words of the tunes they learned. Then they’d come to me so that I would refresh their memory and they’d be grateful for it.
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Apparently, the Pole was the only one at the serai (palace) capable of writing down music. No wonder he was made conductor! He went on to become a music teacher and earned himself the nickname ‘Ufki’ which means witty, or clever.
Singing of separation
Bobowski’s notations eventually led to the creation of the first ever anthology of traditional Ottoman music. Penned in ca. 1650, and titled Mecmuâ-İ Sâz U Söz, it contains over 500 vocal and vocal-instrumental tunes from the 16th and 17th centuries. Among them you can find folk songs (the aforementioned türküs) as well as religious hymns (ilahi-s), as well as classical compositions. These he would learn from various musicians he encountered at the palace and he would write their names next to the tunes they taught him. Thanks to this, we know who contributed to the book’s creation – it included melodies by such musicians as Kul Mustafa, Öksüz Aşık and Geda Demuroğlu.
Bobowski himself is known to have written at least a dozen compositions in the Mecmuâ-İ. Here’s the last stanza of the poem he wrote for a tune of his called Separation Song. The song seems to shed a bit of light on the Pole’s feelings toward his lost homeland:
Given that Mecmuâ-İ is the first monument of Turkish musical notation and, as such, has saved many traditional tunes from oblivion its value is simply priceless. Ottoman music is unique – blending influences from places like Persia, Arabia, Europe, India, China and Japan, it’s considered rich and refined.
A fun fact about Bobowski’s anthology is that he wrote down the notes from right to left so that the sheet music would correspond to the Ottoman script used for the lyrics. The manuscript is currently part of the British Library’s collection. Between the years 1665 and 1673, Bobowski also created another musical work, an Ottoman adaptation of fourteen psalms composed by Claude Goudimel for the Genevan Psalter.
Forgotten for 150 years
Around the year 1652 Wojciech Bobowski finally left the Topkapi palace. It’s believed that he became the servant of a nobleman travelling to Egypt and was freed in recognition of his good service. Afterwards, he settled down in the European part of Istanbul.
Scholars agree that aside from having great musical talent, the Pole was equally gifted linguistically. He is credited with knowing over ten languages: Polish, Turkish, Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, French, Italian, German and English. Thus, as a freeman, he made a living as a translator. He worked for the English embassy in the Ottoman Empire and also accepted various commissions from individuals to translate books.
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He translated linguistic works into Turkish (for example Comenius’ Latin textbook under the title ‘Janua Linguarum Reserata’) and religious treatises (such as Hugo Grotius’ ‘Deveritate Religionis Christianae’).
The Pole Who Translated the Bible For the Turks, paper by Agata Pawlina, 2016
But Bobowski’s most significant work was the translation of the Bible into Turkish. He was the first one to translate it in its entirety – both the Old and New Testament – into the language of the Ottoman Empire. This amazing feat took him two years and was completed in 1664. Interestingly, it’s unknown what language Bobowski was translating from. Some speculate it might have been French or English. What’s also quite surprising is that this translation remained unpublished for well over a century due to the passing of one of the people who commissioned it:
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With the death […] of the project’s main sponsor Lurens de Geer, printing was put on hold. (…) Wojciech Bobowski’s unpublished manuscript had been forgotten for 150 years.
The Pole Who Translated the Bible For the Turks, paper by Agata Pawlina, 2016
It wasn’t until 1827 that this work – created to building a better understanding between the three great monotheistic religions – was published as a whole.
Bridging the East & West
Those who write about Wojciech Bobowski often highlight his role as a link between the East and West. Here’s a quote from Ipek Aynuksa’s 2016 paper Ali Ufki Bey: Well-Known Musician, Forgotten Political Figure published in the Polish scientific journal Stosunki Międzynarodowe:
Ali Ufki’s religious dichotomy created the uniqueness of his contributions.
As a learned person, who was multilingual and had a deep understanding of both Christian and Muslim culture, Bobowski became the go-to person for Europeans seeking to gain knowledge about the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, in the mid-17th century he made the acquaintance of many diplomats and travellers visiting Istanbul. The celebrated French orientalist Antoine Galland, the first European translator of One Thousand and One Nights, is known to have studied the Turkish language and customs under Wojciech Bobowski. Such schooling was also received by the Polish-Austrian diplomat and linguist Franciscus Meninski.
What also helped bridge the two cultures were Bobowski’s original writings. Agata Pawlina writes that he ‘created grammar books and dictionaries of the Turkish language for educational purposes.’ He also penned De Turcarum Liturgia, Peregrinatione Meccana (A Treatise Concerning the Liturgy of the Turks), explaining the intricacies of the Muslim faith to Europeans in an unbiased way. In Europe, this book was a major source of information on Islam for centuries.
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Bobowski also wrote two works about life at the Topkapi palace. The 1667 Serai Enderun is an account of his early years at the serai, whereas The History of Koisem, or the Queen-Mother from 1665 tells of a plot to murder Sultan Mehmed IV. Both these works are filled with intriguing historical details about customs, clothing and more.
It is the custom in the Grand Signiors Court to speak by using signs, to prevent noise, and as if there were some point in it of Majesty and decency, they have practised this mute language so fully, that they are able to recount stories in it.
Toward the end of his life, around 1668, Wojciech Bobowski became involved with the Ottoman court once more – only this time as a freeman. He worked as a translator for Sultan Mehmed IV. He passed away ca. 1675, the place of his burial remains unknown.
The music lives on
Today, the life of Wojciech Bobowski remains quite obscure. Even despite the fact that 2010 was declared the ‘Year of Ali Ufki’ in Turkey.
With his personality and contributions, Ali Ufki was a sui generis individual who had influence on Ottoman and European decision-makers, which makes him an (…) actor worth considering in international relations.
Ali Ufki Bey: Well-Known Musician, Forgotten Political Figure, paper by Ipek Aynuksa, 2016
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Bobowski’s translation of the Bible was eventually published dozens of times (the first Turkish publication in Latin script was published in 1932) and has served as the base for a newer edition from 1988. Yet despite all his accomplishments not even one of his works, including the translation of the Bible, has seen a full critical edition. Thankfully, records with music from his Mecmuâ-İ continue to be made. In February 2019, there was even a concert of his music held at the Allerheiligen Church in Munich. Perhaps the music he saved from oblivion will save his memory from oblivion too.