Linguistic Confusion

20.06.2019Linguistic Confusion

Ingrid Männl, director of communication at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, presents Tatar diplomatic credentials.

In December 1677, during the Northern Wars against Sweden and while preparing to storm the city of Stettin (Szczecin), which he had placed under siege, Frederick William of Brandenburg, the Great Elector, received a message. A trumpeter announced the arrival of a Tatar emissary from the Crimea. Greatly agitated, the elector had a message sent to his privy councilors in Cölln near Berlin. They were to search the archives for the proper ceremony for receiving this emissary and send the information to him along with an interpreter. The audience on December 9 was ultimately held in Polish. The Tatar emissary also brought a Polish interpreter along and a man named Stryska, the elector’s groom of the bedchamber, interpreted into German. “His Electoral Serene Highness remained seated the whole time with his head covered. The emissary stood while stating his business,” according to a brief memo of record. The translation of the three short diplomatic credentials that the Tatar carried in pouches, was much more difficult. Finally, someone who knew the language was found, a man who was once in service to the elector. He deciphered the letters from Khan Ivas Giray and translated them into Latin, the diplomatic lingua franca of the day.

The letter from Khan Ivas Giray to the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg was once transported in a valuable fabric pouch.
The letter from Khan Ivas Giray to the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg was once transported in a valuable fabric pouch. © Christoph Mack

1. The diplomatic credentials were folded like a concertina for transport. The Tatar emissary, Kirim Gasi, carried three such letters from the Crimea: one from Khan Ivas Giray to the Great Elector (illustration), a second one from the khan to the elector’s wife, and one from the khan’s wife to the elector’s wife.

2. In the Ottoman empire it was common practice from the 16th to the 19th century to transport letters to foreign rulers in valuable fabric coverings. The fabric was chosen according to the ranks of both the sender and the recipient. The sheath made of pale blue and silver brocade contained the letter from Khan Ivas Giray to the Great Elector.

Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz

The letter and the fabric pouch are in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Privy State Archives), Archivstraße 12–14, 14195 Berlin.

3. The translation was in Latin, at that time the language of diplomacy in the Western world. In his letter, the Tatar Khan Ivas Giray assured the Great Elector of his constant friendship. He also hoped that the elector would be gracious and continue their friendly relations. The khan empowered his emissary Kirim Gasi to conduct further negotiations.

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