Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded to mockery of his claim that Muslim explorers discovered America by accusing Muslims who doubted him of not having “self-confidence” and calling for all schools to teach that Muslims arrived in America in the twelfth century.
Erdogan originally made his remarks last week, claiming that, because texts by Christopher Columbus mentioned a “mosque” on American soil, this meant that Muslims had colonized the Americans long before his arrival in 1492. “Muslim sailors arrived in America from 1178. Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast,” Erdogan argued, in response to the news that the Cuban government, extremely oppressive of all religions, had banned construction of a mosque in Havana bankrolled by the Turkish government.
Turkish officials are especially interested in building a mosque in Cuba because of claims by Cuban Muslims that they have been systematically oppressed and have no place to worship. This is true also of Cuban Christians and anyone flouting the nation’s Marxist system with any public display of religious beliefs.
Experts seem to agree that Erdogan’s claim is based on a line in Columbus’ diaries that describes a hill on the island of Cuba (named Juana by the Spanish monarchs that funded Columbus’ journey) as appearing “a manera de una hermosa mezquita“– “in the way of a lovely mosque.” It is unclear how Erdogan arrived at 1178 as the year in which Muslims allegedly reached Cuban shores.
Having received the requisite ridicule from the international community, Erdogan doubled down on his claim that Muslims had established a presence on Cuba. “Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast,” Erdogan argues, adding that “very respected scientists in Turkey and in the world” agree with him (there are, indeed, some Islamist scholars in the Middle East that make this claim).
To those who doubted that Muslims reached the new world, he urged to free themselves from “a lack of self-confidence.” “Some youth of our country have begun objecting to this without doing any research or paying attention to discussions. Not only youths but also some very senior figures have begun disputing it,” he noted, “Why? Because they still do not believe a Muslim can achieve this.”
Erdogan also called on Turkish education to make a difference in spreading his false narrative: “A big responsibility falls on the shoulders of the national education ministry and YOK (higher education board) on this issue… If the history of science is written objectively, it will be seen that Islamic geography’s contribution to science is much more than what’s known.”
Erdogan is correct that, in the West, the contributions of the Muslim world to the culture of the Americans is underrated. Spanish, the most widely understood language in the Western Hemisphere, borrows heavily from Arabic due to the centuries-long presence of Muslims in southern Spain, as well as trade with the medieval Turkish empire. Damascus, Syria was long understood to be a hub of cultural achievement in the Middle Ages, when Europe had been overtaken by religious war. The Ottoman Turkish empire, specifically, made significant strides in the Middle Ages before its expansion was halted suddenly after the Battle of Lepanto, in which Sultan Selim II (“Selim the Drunkard“) was defeated by Spanish King Philip II in 1571.
Which is to say the Muslim Middle East is responsible for many achievements in modern and medieval history, none of which have anything to do with the discovery of America. Turkey, specifically, had even less to do with that achievement, as its most successful ruler, Suleyman the Magnificent, was not even born until two years after Columbus’ fateful journey.
While Columbus’ journey is universally credited with bringing Europeans the awareness of the existence of the Western Hemisphere, Erdogan is not alone in attempting to undermine the achievements of the Spanish empire under Ferdinand and Isabella, then Europe’s most powerful monarchs. Many Anglos and Anglo-Americans have taken to celebrating the alleged arrival of the Viking Leif Ericson on Canadian soil 500 years before Columbus, based on records describing Ericson arriving in a place he called “Vinland.” Nordic archaeologists in the 1960s discovered two artifacts that led them to proclaim “conclusive” evidence that Columbus could not be credited with changing the history of the world, though there is still no evidence that any development of civilization, mass migration from Europe, or significant interaction with Native Americans followed the alleged settlement of “Vinland.”