His name is spelled Dimitrie Cantemir in Romanian, Dmitri Konstantinovich Kantemir (Дмитрий Константинович Кантемир) in Russian, Dimitri Kantemiroğlu in Turkish, Dymitr Kantemir in Polish and Demetre Cantemir in several other languages.
Born in Silişteni (renamed Dimitrie Cantemir and now located in Vaslui County, Romania), Dimitrie was the son of Moldavian Voivode Constantin Cantemir (and brother to Antioh Cantemir, himself Prince), of the low-ranking boyar Cantemireşti family. His mother, Ana Bantăş, was a learned woman of noble origins. (However, not satisfied with his status, Cantemir later forged his paternal ancestry and pretended to descend from Khan Temir, an early 17th century khan of the Budjak Tatars – see Moldavian Magnate Wars.)
His education began at home, where he learned Greek and Latin and acquired a profound knowledge of the classics. Between 1687 and 1710 he lived in forced exile in Istanbul, where he learned Turkish and studied the history of the Ottoman Empire at the Patriarchate's Greek Academy, where he also composed music.
In 1693, he succeeded his father as Prince of Moldavia – in name only, as the Ottomans appointed Constantin Duca, favoured by Wallachian Prince and, despite many shared goals, forever rival of the Cantemirs Constantin Brâncoveanu; his bid for the throne was successful only in 1710, after two rules by his brother (whom he represented as envoy in the Ottoman capital). He had ruled only for less than a year when he joined Peter the Great in his campaign against the Ottoman Empire (see Russo-Turkish War, 1710–1711) and placed Moldavia under Russian suzerainty, after a secret agreement signed in Lutsk.
Defeated by the Turks in the battle of Stănileşti (July 18–July 22, 1711), Cantemir sought refuge in Russia, where he and his family finally settled (he was accompanied by a sizeable boyar retinue, including the chronicler Ioan Neculce). There, he was awarded the title of Knyaz (Prince) of the Russian Empire by Peter the Great and received the title of Reichsfürst (Prince) of the Holy Roman Empire from Charles VI. He died at his Dmitrovka estate near Oryol in 1723 (on the very day he was awarded the Roman-German princely title). In 1935, his remains were carried to Iaşi.
He was married twice: in 1699, to Kassandra Cantacuzene (1682–1713), member of the Cantacuzino family (the daughter of Prince Şerban Cantacuzino), and in 1717 to Anastasia Trubetskaya (1700–1755; from the Trubetskoy house).
Cantemir's children were rather prominent in Russian history. His elder daughter Maria (1700–1754) attracted the attention of Peter the Great who allegedly planned to divorce his wife Catherine and marry her. Upon Catherine's ascension to the throne, she was forced to enter a convent. His son Antioh Cantemir (Antiokh Dmitrievich in Russian) (1708–1744) was also the Russian ambassador to London and Paris, a prominent satirical poet, and Voltaire's friend. Another son, Constantin (Konstantin Dmitrievich; 1703–1747), was implicated in the Galitzine conspiracy against Empress Anne and exiled to Siberia. Finally, Dimitrie's younger daughter Smaragda (1720–1761), the wife of Prince Dmitriy Mikhailovich Galitzine, was a friend of Empress Elizabeth and one of the great beauties of her time.
In 1714 Cantemir became a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin. Between 1711 and 1719 he wrote his most important creations. Cantemir was known as one of the greatest linguists of his time, speaking and writing eleven languages, and being well versed in Oriental scholarship. His oeuvre is voluminous, diverse, and original; although some of his scientific writings contain unconfirmed theories and inaccuracies, his expertise, sagacity, and groundbreaking researches are widely acknowledged.
The best known is his History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire. This volume circulated throughout Europe in manuscript for a number of years. It was finally printed in 1734 in London, and later it was translated and printed in Germany and France. It remained the seminal work on the Ottoman Empire up to the middle of the 19th century – notably, it was used as reference by Edward Gibbon for his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Afterwards, the work was largely contested, for some of its sources were doubtful.
In 1714, at the request of the Royal Academy in Berlin, Cantemir wrote the first geographical, ethnographical and economic description of Moldavia, Descriptio Moldaviae. As many of his books it circulated first in manuscript and was only later published in Germany (first in 1769 in a geographical magazine, and then in 1771 the first edition as a book). Around the same time he prepared a manuscript map of Moldavia, the first real map of the country. It contained a lot of geographical detail as well as administrative information. Printed in 1737 in the Netherlands, it has been used by all cartographers of the time as an inspiration for their own maps of Moldavia.
A well-trained performer and composer of Ottoman music, Cantemir was also one of the most remarkable theoricians it had. His book, Kitâbu 'Ilmi'l-Mûsikí alâ Vechi'l-Hurûfât (Ottoman Turkish for "The Book of the Science of Music through Letters") which he presented to Sultan Ahmed II in 1693, not only deals with melodic and rhythmic structure and practice of Ottoman music, but also contains the scores for around 350 works composed during and before the time of the author, as well as his own, in an alphabetical notation system he invented. For some of the works, the scores presented in this book are the only surviving source and would have been lost otherwise. Some of the works are part of the regular repertory of Turkish music ensembles. In 1999, the Bezmara ensemble have recorded an album, Yitik Sesin Peşinde ("In Search of the Lost Sound") from the Cantemir transcriptions using period instruments.
The most recent publication of his abovementioned work, reprint along with complete transcription and explanations, is: Kantemiroğlu, Kitâbu 'İlmi'l-Mûsiki alâ Vechi'l-Hurûfât, Mûsikiyi Harflerle Tesbit ve İcrâ İlminin Kitabı, Yalçın Tura, Yapı Kredi Yayınları, Istanbul 2001, ISBN 975-08-0167-9. Romanian historian and musicologist Eugenia Popescu-Judetz has numerous works on Cantemir, the most recent of which being a monograph (in English, also translated into Turkish): Prince Dimitrie Cantemir, Theorist and Composer of Turkish Music, Eugenia Popescu-Judetz, Pan Yayıncılık, Istanbul 1999, ISBN 975-7652-82-2.
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