The empire strikes back

What appears as a new fact on the ground is that the Ottoman Empire’s spirit has been revived in the body of modern Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
September 12 marked the anniversary of one of the most important milestones in Turkish history: the 1980 military coup d’etat. Due to the unrest and violence between rightist and leftist groups and ongoing anarchy, the Turkish Armed Forces (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri, or TSK) organized a takeover of power from the Demirel government.
To unite the fragmented Turkish society, the leaders of the coup adopted an ideology called the “Turkish- Islam Synthesis,” which was seemingly at odds with their traditional Kemalist secularism. According to this ideology, Turkishness would be an empty identity without Islam, and Islam owes its endurance to Turkish historical heroes. Consequently history textbooks – and in fact, the entire education system – were redesigned to emphasize the new agenda.
The effects of this coup are still felt in Turkish culture and politics. Turks are still living with the 1982 constitution instituted following the coup, and Neo- Ottomanism has become a cultural phenomenon.
The Gallipoli War of 1915 is depicted as the historical point at which the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic intersected. Thanks to that war, in which the Ottoman army that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led defeated the British, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), Turkish-Islam ideologues were able to marry the Ottoman Empire with the new Turkish Republic. They emphasized the war heroism of Atatürk, the republic’s founder, and his title as an “Ottoman officer.” Hence people began to view the founding of the republic as a continuation of a historical process in which Turkey was the Ottoman Empire’s successor state.
Although the generals voluntarily handed over power to a democratically elected government in 1983, this synthesis of Turkish identity and Islam continued as part of the policies of the succeeding leaders.
The effects of the Turkish-Islam Synthesis began to be manifested in 1999, the 700th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s establishment. To celebrate, the Ministry of Culture issued an enormous budget for a worldwide cultural campaign that included concerts, fashion displays, exhibitions and historical symposiums.
The former chairman of the Turkish History Association, Prof. Yusuf Hallaçoglu, argued that on this momentous anniversary, the Turkish state could reconcile itself with its Ottoman past. Books about the Ottoman Empire began to appear on best-seller lists, and an important intellectual contribution to this revival, the Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, was published in 12 volumes.
In April 2001, the seeds of Turkey’s current foreign policy were planted. Ahmet Davutoglu, who has been minister of foreign affairs since 20090, published a book, Strategic Depth (Stratejik Derinlik), in which he argued that owing to its Ottoman heritage, Turkey should act as a key player in both regional and global politics. In a December 2010 interview with The Washington Post, Davutoglu revealed his Neo-Ottomanist ambitions.
Neo-Ottomanism, which stems from the Turkish-Islam Synthesis, contends that Turkey should promote its engagement with the nations formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and influence their policies.
Davutoglu suggested that if “the Ottoman Empire ruled over [what are today] 45 different sovereign states, then why shouldn’t these states unite under the Ottoman Commonwealth just like the British Commonwealth? Naturally, Turkey is the legitimate successor state of this empire.”
Another important indication of the republic-empire reconciliation was the government’s reaction to the 2009 funeral of the last Ottoman crown prince, Ertugrul Osmanoglu. With permission from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cabinet, Osmanoglu was buried in the compound of the tomb of his grandfather, Abdülhamit II. Ministers, governors and the special envoy of the Turkish president attended the funeral.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL effects of the Turkish-Islam Synthesis and Neo-Ottomanism are apparent in Turkey’s most famous TV series, The Magnificent Century (Muhtesem Yüzyıl). Based on the 46-year reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and Hürrem, the slave girl who later became his wife and queen, the series glorifies the Turks by depicting the Ottoman Empire as the superpower of the world where European envoys are humiliated in the sultan’s court and European states are helpless against the Ottomans’ absolute power.
The Magnificent Century offers many subliminal messages to its target audience. For instance, the emphasis on the advantage of “one strong, just leader” may refer to Erdogan’s presidential ambitions; Suleiman’s execution of the rebelling Janissaries may parallel the government’s response to the TSK coups and Ergenekon trials, in which many TSK generals have been arrested, accused of organizing a coup d’etat against Erdogan’s government.
The series is a ratings monster that has been broadcast on the national channels of 17 countries. Even so, due to scenes that depict the harem and allude to sexuality, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council has received 70,000 complaints. The most important of these was from Erdogan, who strongly condemned the series as an act of disrespect toward the historical figures it depicted.
However, he has chosen to utilize the series’ ratings power. When criticizing France’s Nicolas Sarkozy for the French Parliament’s enactment of the Armenian Genocide bill, Erdogan read a letter that Suleiman the Magnificent had written in 1525 to embattled French King François, who had requested Ottoman military aid to liberate France. The letter demonstrated both the superiority of Turkish power over French, and the historical Turco-Franco friendship. Notably the same letter had been read on The Magnificent Century a few weeks before.
The series’ success created a domino effect; a capitalist Ottoman fever spread to almost every aspect of society. For example, the Marshall Dye Company tried to attract Turkish consumers’ attention with “Marshall Ottoman Colors,” and Bingo cleanser unveiled the “Palace Series.” Moreover, Suleiman the Magnificent began to appear in commercials for Digiturk, the leading Turkish broadcasting cable firm.
Has Halı (Sultan’s Carpet) became the most successful company of this period. Due to the new Ottoman perspective, Has Halı could penetrate the Turkish president’s official residence, Çankaya. Ottomanism even reached the motorcycle sector: One of the boldest and most post-modern Ottoman capitalist inventions is Kanuni Motorcycles (Kanuni, or “law maker,” was the title of Suleiman).
Due to high demand, Turkish media began launching new Ottoman projects such as the film The Conquest of 1453, a masterpiece of Turkish cinema. Over 6.5 million people watched the film, which is based on Mehmet the Conqueror’s 15th-century conquest of Istanbul and, as the movie declares, his transformation of the Ottoman State into a “world empire.” Another film is Once Upon a Time in the Ottoman Empire: Rebellion (Bir Zamanlar Osmanlı: Kıyam), in which wellknown Turkish actors Türkan Soray and Tolga Karel bring to life the Empire’s Tulip Period (1718-1730).
The most audacious project has not yet been launched. Osman Sınav, the director of the famous Valley of Wolves (Kurtlar Vadisi), is finishing his new “historical Ottoman valley of wolves” called Karakeçili. Sınav told the media that “Karakeçili will be based on the Abdulhamit II’s reign, where many international events, such as the Zionist Movement’s leader [Theodor] Herzl’s meeting with Abdulhamit II and the 1915 Armenian incidents, will be covered.”
ARCHITECTURE, OF course, was not immune to Ottoman fever. The Mimar Sinan Mosque in Atasehir Istanbul was recently built in the style of “Selatin Mosques” – cathedral-sized mosques that the sultans built. At the mosque’s inauguration ceremony, Erdogan declared that the Asian side of Istanbul needed more Selatin mosques, effectively referring to himself as a sultan since he had given the order for the building’s construction.
Additionally a new university, still under construction in Ankara, has been named after Sultan Yıldırım Beyazıt (r. 1389-1403); its entire campus is being constructed in the Ottoman style.
Hotels are also following the Ottoman trend. Two prominent examples are WOW Topkapı Palace Hotel (founded 1999) in Antalya and Les Ottomans Hotel (founded 2006) in Istanbul, which offer foreign and local tourists a complete Ottoman experience.
WHEN SPEAKING about Turkey, one should never ignore the all-important game of football. The Fenerbahçe- Panathinaikos football match in 2002 witnessed an Ottoman reaction against Turkey’s historical rival, Greece. During the game, Turkish fans opened a huge banner showing Mehmet the Conqueror on his horse and the slogan “Istanbul since 1453,” intended to enrage the Greeks.
Another notable event was Irish President Mary McAleese’s visit to Turkey in 2010. McAleese explained that Ireland had never forgotten the shipment of Ottoman vessels that Sultan Abdulmajid (Abdülmecit) sent to the Drogheda port during the Irish famine of 1847. She emphasized that the emblem of Drogheda United Football Club contains the Turkish elements of a crescent and star – evidence that Ottoman fever has resonated beyond Turkey.
Today there are many debates over whether Turkey is becoming more Western and democratic, or more Eastern and autocratic. What appears as a new fact on the ground is that the Ottoman Empire’s spirit has been revived in the body of modern Turkey. However, time will tell whether the modern Turkish state has the ability to follow through on its grandiose ambitions.
The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of History in Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is a junior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.