Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

October and November are big months in modern Turkey. Three important dates in the history of the Republic are commemorated:

  • 6 October – The liberation of Istanbul
  • 29 October – The foundation of the Republic
  • 10 November – The anniversary of the death of the founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

I’ve been in this country long enough to have witnessed a few annual returns of these dates, and it seems to me that of late the celebrations have become somewhat muted. Possibly that’s understandable. The elitist old guard have taken a bit of a beating in recent years from the new political kid on the block, the Justice and Development Party. The AKP, to use its Turkish initials, ‘Islamic-rooted’ as the foreign press persistently tells us, has been governing the country since 2003. Despite vociferous opposition from the left, right and centre of the traditional political spectrum, the AKP has won majorities in five parliamentary elections, and succeeded in having its candidate elected president in the first general election ever held for that position.

The country’s military leaders, long-established protectors of the sanctity of the constitution (which they wrote), have been nudged back to the more conventional role of defending the state from outside threats. Middle-aged social mediaholics, prefacing their Facebook profile names with the initials TC (for Turkish Republic) are convinced that the country is plunging headlong into a dark medieval night of alcohol prohibition, judicial beheadings and compulsory black burqas for women. You can understand their despair, given their total inability to make an impact at the ballot box.

sivas_turkiye_haritasinda_yeri_nerede

Location of Sivas province

As for me, I’m an optimist. Foreign visitors to Turkey have long been puzzled by the seemingly idolatrous adulation accorded to statues, photographs and death masks of the nation’s founder. I, at least, have read enough about Atatürk’s achievements to sympathise with the veneration accorded him. In a nutshell, if it hadn’t been for Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no country remotely resembling the modern nation of Turkey would exist today.

I do feel, however, that the time is right for authorities to lay aside the conventional blind adoration and work towards a realistic appraisal of Atatürk the man. While this may require some acceptance of his human failings, it will, I am convinced, result in a more profound appreciation of the mental and moral strength required to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against his people in those days.

I worked in a school for some years whose commitment to secular Kemalism would rank among the more dedicated. From the day they entered our doors, pupils were drilled in the minutest details of the great man’s life, the colour of his eyes (piercing blue), the names of his father, mother  and sister (Ali Rıza, Zübeyde and Makbule respectively), the colour of the family home in Salonika (pink); and encouraged to shed tears of grief at 9.05 am every 10th of November. By the time they reached high school, it was difficult to get them to attend school ceremonies on those most sacred days in the Republican calendar. Most of them had had enough. Which struck me as sad.

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

Another thing that struck me as sad – and somewhat surprising in view of the school’s dedication to the lore of secular republicanism, was how many of my students thought that the Liberation of Istanbul had something to do with the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by the 15th century Sultan, Mehmet II. Very few seemed to be aware that, after leading the army of National Salvation to victory against the invading Greeks, and driving them out of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal turned his troops northwards towards Istanbul, faced down the threat of war with the mighty British Empire, and watched the invaders leave as they had come, without firing a shot. The disgrace to Great Britain actually led to the collapse of David Lloyd George’s government and Winston Churchill’s (temporary) exile to the political wilderness. Whether Kemal Pasha’s eyes were blue, brown or bloodshot red, you’d think that would be something worth telling kids about.

29 October was the date in 1923 when the newly established parliament of Turkey proclaimed the foundation of the Republic. It has enormous symbolic importance, and is celebrated annually as Turkey’s equivalent of America’s 4th, and France’s 14th of July. As an actual historical event, however, the proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of a situation that had already existed for over three years. The nation’s Republican parliament (Millet Meclisi) had been inaugurated on 23 April 1920, in the new capital city of Ankara. Nevertheless, Turkey without Istanbul would be inconceivable, and one might argue, therefore, that winning that city back from the armies of occupation was an event of unparalleled significance.

Undoubtedly the fledgling Republic of Turkey suffered a great loss when its first President passed away on 10 November 1938. On the other hand, they were lucky to get him at all. Few nations in the world have been blessed with a leader whose multi-faceted genius encompassed military victories against fearsome odds, constitutional revolution, and statesmanship on the international stage. And of course, no one lives forever. Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened to Christianity if Jesus Christ had been allowed to see out his three score years and ten, instead of being martyred in the prime of life at the age of 33? Atatürk made it to 57, and it could be argued that his best years were behind him. How would he have dealt with the traumas of the Second World War, and pressure to give his people the vote? Possibly it’s for the best that we didn’t have to find out.

Sivas's famous kangal dog

Sivas’s famous kangal dog

It does seem to me though, that the outpourings of grief on anniversaries of his death, sincere though they may be, militate against a genuine appreciation of Atatürk’s outstanding achievements. Certainly he lives on in true Turkish hearts, and in that sense, is not actually dead – but the reality is that he’s not coming back. The Republic needs to move on, and to do that, 10 November provides an opportunity to give thanks for his life, and to begin evaluating, with a vision unclouded by tears of mourning, exactly what relevance his legacy has for Turkey in the 21st century.

Strange to say, my inspiration for this post did not actually come from any of those dates listed above. Last week there was a festival held in our new park by the seaside at Maltepe. Entitled ‘Sivas Günleri’, it was a celebration of the cultural identity of a region in central Anatolia east of Ankara. Sivas, its citizens driving cars whose number plates are prefixed with ‘58’, is, in area, the second-largest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and one of the most sparsely populated.

It was a very Turkish festival. Two large marquees had been erected in the vast public square of the new park. The larger of the two housed displays of Sivas’s various districts, displaying local handcrafts and traditional costumes, and serving tea and snacks to mustachioed middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, one assumes hailing from those parts. There was also a central auditorium with a stage from which various minor dignitaries were holding forth about whatever these kind of guys like to hold forth about – with a rather sparse audience exhibiting scant interest in what they had to say.

Help yourself

Mouth-watering Sivas cuisine

The adjacent marquee held more appeal, not only for me, but for the crowds in attendance. It contained a number of restaurants serving Sivas cuisine, and stalls purveying local produce: honey, fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, and a marvellous variety of peculiarly Turkish delicacies. I bought a doll in traditional costume for my granddaughter, Kiri, and a packet of sweets made from hazel nut paste, which were a taste sensation! Then, since it was around lunchtime, and my salivary glands were in a state of high excitement, I allowed myself to be enticed by the sight of lamb carcasses rotating on spits over hot coals, and sat down to a meal of sırık kebab. Words cannot describe . . .

But what has this got to do with the Turkish Republic and its revered founder, I hear you ask. Well, Sivas, in contrast to its current relative insignificance, has a very colourful history. My sources tell me there was a Hittite settlement in the area as early as 2,600 BCE, though little is known about the town until the Roman general and political luminary, Pompey, founded the city he named Megalopolis, which later became Sebaste. You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the name ‘Sebastian’ derives from the Latin adjective meaning a citizen of that city.

Apparently Sebaste was quite a hive of early Christianity, back in the days when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp it out – and consequently is remembered for a number of martyrs, by churches that go in for that sort of thing. One particularly memorable event involved forty soldiers back in the 4th century who, to demonstrate the error of their ways, were exposed naked overnight on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Well, nights can get pretty chilly out there on the Anatolian steppe at an altitude of around 1,500 metres, and there weren’t many signs of life the next morning; but to make certain, local authorities had the bodies burned and the ashes cast into a nearby river.

Sivas's 4th century 40 martyrs

Sivas’s 4th century 40 martyrs

Continuing the tradition of misfortune, Sebaste’s location at the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire exposed it to the earliest depredations of Turkic invaders in the 11th century. By the 12th century it had become Turkish to the extent that it served as one of the capitals of the Seljuk Empire, and in 1408, was incorporated into the expanding Ottoman dominions. In spite of Muslim conquest, however, Armenian and Orthodox Christian communities survived, with their churches, into the 20th century.

The Republican connection dates from September 1919. British and French armies had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul at the end of the First World War, and their governments began the process of dismembering the empire according to plans they had been making in secret for some years. The last straw for Turkish patriots was when a Greek army, sponsored by the victorious allies, landed in Izmir, intent on re-claiming their once extensive Byzantine territories.

There is some debate about the circumstances surrounding Mustafa Kemal’s departure from Istanbul and arrival in the Black Sea port of Samsun on 19 May 1919. Nevertheless, that date is recognised in modern Turkey as the beginning of the War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). He wasn’t alone, of course, but it was undoubtedly Kemal Pasha’s charisma that inspired his war-weary people to one further struggle. Two congresses were held, in Erzurum and Sivas, laying the groundwork for the forthcoming conflict, and these two cities are recognised as crucial in the foundation of the Republic.

Sivas has two other claims to fame. One is its status as the home of the kangal, a large breed of dog renowned as a guardian of livestock and villagers against wolves, bears and jackals.

The other, less honourable, is a shameful event that took place on 2 July, 1993. On that date, the city was the venue for a cultural festival attended by a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were Alevi. A mob of religious extremists set fire to the Madımak Hotel where many of the visitors were staying, resulting in 35 deaths.

Stop the killing - there are better things in life

Stop the killing – there are better things in life

Again there is some debate about the reasons for the attack. Some say it was targeting a gentleman by the name of Aziz Nesrin, who had angered orthodox Sunni Muslims by translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, into Turkish. Others say it was more generally directed at the Alevi community as a whole. It was asserted at the time that local police stood by and allowed the arsonists to do their work unmolested. That’s entirely possible – although the government of the day did seem to do its best to bring perpetrators to justice.

Well, the 1990s are not so long ago, when you think about it. Those were bad times in Turkey, as opponents of the present government should not forget. The history of Sivas has a lot to teach us, if we choose to listen.

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2 thoughts on “Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

    • That’s what it’s all about. And while I am not generally a fan of politicians and political parties, I appreciate the achievement of Turkey’s current government in breaking the cycle of military coups.

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