God’s people have sung the Psalms for millennia, especially in dark times when it seems that he has abandoned them. One young man nearly four hundred years ago found himself in a horribly difficult situation. His name was Wojciech Bobowski (c. 1610—1675), a Polish Reformed Christian who at the age of eighteen (or perhaps as old as twenty-eight, depending on the year of his birth) was kidnapped by the Tatars during one of their occasional raids into his homeland. Sources differ on his birthplace, some pointing to the village of Bobowa (hence Bobowski) and others to Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). During his childhood and early youth, he had come to know the Bible thoroughly and to sing the Genevan Psalms, apparently in his native language.
Because Bobowski was intellectually brilliant and an accomplished musician and linguist, the Tatars sold him as a slave to the Ottoman Sultan. In an act reminiscent of Pharaoh’s promotion of the biblical Joseph, the Sultan recognized his gifts and elevated him to the positions of court musician, treasurer and translator. Bobowski at least nominally converted to Islam and came to be known as Ali Ufki. Yet even if his conversion was genuine, he did not leave behind his interest in, and apparent love for, the Bible, which he translated into the Turkish language, in which it came to be known as Kitabı Mukaddes, or “Holy Book.” Well into the twentieth century Ali Ufki’s Bible was the only translation available in the Turkish language.
Ali Ufki also translated the Church of England’s catechism and the works of Hugo Grotius and Jan Comenius into Turkish. He eventually gained his legal freedom and lived out his years in Egypt as a dragoman, or diplomatic interpreter.
Yet it is his translation of the first fourteen Genevan Psalms into Turkish for which Ali Ufki is best remembered today. As it turns out, the distinctive modal flavor of the Genevan tunes made them well-suited for adaptation to the musical system used in the Ottoman Empire. This enabled him to publish his collection, Mezmurlar (Psalms), in 1665. We do not know whether he ever intended to translate the entire Psalter and, if so, why he stopped at 14. Nevertheless, in the first decade of this century increasing numbers of musical performing groups began paying attention to them.
For example, in 2005 the German musical group Sarband, in conjunction with the King’s Singers, produced a recording titled, Sacred Bridges: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Psalm Settings. Featuring Ali Ufki’s renditions of Psalms 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9, most of which are sung in both French and Turkish, this recording brings together two quite divergent musical traditions, and the overall effect is little short of astounding. Employing Turkish instruments, Louis Bourgeois’ sturdy tunes take on the unmistakable flavour of typical Near Eastern music. In fact, a youtube video performance of at least one of these comes complete with whirling dervishes, an addition that would leave the typical Dutch or Hungarian churchgoer reeling.
How well are Ali Ufki’s Psalms known amongst contemporary citizens of the Turkish Republic? Turkey is, of course, a largely Muslim country with a secular constitution enforced by a nervous military fearful of traditional religious loyalties. Christians coexist uneasily under the regime in Ankara. Whether they sing from Ali Ufki’s abbreviated Psalter I cannot say.
However, I received one more surprise in my research into Ali Ufki. When I mentioned his name to my father, who was born in the Greek Orthodox community in Cyprus, he recognized it immediately and said that he knew his work well, especially his Turkish-language Bible.
It is commonly believed that western Asia Minor, heartland of today’s Turkey, was the first place on earth to have a Christian majority during the Roman era. It would be marvelous if God, in his providence, saw fit to use Ali Ufki’s Mezmurlar to advance his kingdom in this once but no longer Christian land.
David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century, and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions. His next book on authority, office and the image of God is forthcoming from Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock. This column appeared in the April 8 issue of Christian Courier as part of his monthly “Principalities & Powers” column.