Who was Ali Ufki?
Ali Ufki, whose birth name was Wojciech Bobowski, was a Polish man who spent many years of his life in Istanbul (then Constantinople) and made invaluable contributions to the culture and politics of the Ottoman Empire.
He was born in 1610 in Bobowa, near Gorlice. He was raised in a Protestant family and had started a career as a church musician. Around the age of 18, he was captured as a prisoner in a war and was brought to Istanbul.
Because of his music training he was sold to the court of Sultan Murat IV. In the palace he received education in the Enderun, the palace school. The Enderun primarily recruited students via devshirme system, where Christian children were receiving education and were converted to Islam.
After his education in the Enderun he was taken into the palace where he served as a musician, treasurer and interpreter. He was an important figure in the Ottoman state. He extraordinarily spoke 17 languages, among which were Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, German, Greek, Spanish, Italian and Latin, next to Polish.
He produced so many great works that astonishes one by the variety of his masterful skills. He translated the Bible into Ottoman Turkish, which for long served as the only complete one. He translated the Psalter into Ottoman Turkish and composed music for them in Ottoman music style. He wrote a grammar book of the Ottoman Turkish language, wrote poems in Turkish. The music he composed are considered among the most important in 17th century Ottoman music. Furthermore, he released two manuscript anthologies of Ottoman music, known as Mecmûa-i Sâz ü Söz (Collection of Instrumental and Vocal Works), thus helped those musical works survive to this day.
He did not enter Turkey voluntarily; he was taken as a prisoner. The times were like that. And yet he achieved a very high position in the political and cultural life of the Ottoman Empire. Did such careers – of people of not only Polish origin, of course – happen often then?
It did happen often. One of the reasons for this was the devshirme system that I mentioned above, where the Christian children would be taken into the Enderun, palace school, and receive education on various fields such as religion, literature, poetry, music, arts, languages, mathematics, geography, strategy and so on. They would also be educated on the Ottoman bureaucracy and some would later serve in the state, which was the case with Ali Ufki.
Another notable figure as an example to this would be Architect Sinan (1490-1588). He was born in the Ottoman Empire and had either Armenian, Greek, Albanian or Christian Turk origins, as there are different views on this. Sinan was taken into the Ottoman service under the devshirme system and was sent to Constantinople to be trained as an officer of the Janissary Corps. He later became the greatest architect of the classical period of Ottoman architecture, with the construction of more than 300 major structures and many other smaller projects.
Still, being trained in the palace school was not the only way how non-Muslims would be granted important ranks in the Empire. Sometimes people with distinguished skills would also reach up to these points with their accomplishments.