93rd Anniversary of the Republic of Turkey

Cumhuriyet Bayramınız kutlu olsun!

To commemorate the 93rd anniversary of the official founding of the Republic of Turkey, I’m passing on this piece posted on the Turkish Coalition of America website:

unnamedOn October 29, 1923, the newly recognized Turkish parliament proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, formally marking the end of the Ottoman Empire. On the same day, Mustafa Kemal, who led the Turkish National War of Liberation and was later named Atatürk (father of Turks), was unanimously elected as the first president of the Republic.

Turkey had effectively been a republic from April 23, 1920 when the Grand National Assembly was inaugurated in Ankara. When the Turkish parliament held its first session in 1920, virtually every corner of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was under the occupation of Allied powers. Exasperated by the Ottoman government’s inability to fight the occupation, the nationwide resistance movement gained momentum. With the Allied occupation of Istanbul and the dissolution of the Ottoman Parliament, Mustafa Kemal’s justification for opening the resistance movement’s new legislative body was created.

With the opening of the Assembly, Ankara became the center of the Turkish national struggle for liberation. The National War of Liberation culminated in the emancipation of Anatolia from foreign occupation, the international recognition of modern Turkey’s borders by the Treaty of Lausanne, and finally, the founding of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923. October 29, or Republic Day, is an official Turkish holiday celebrated each year across Turkey and by peoples of Turkish heritage worldwide.

Following the founding of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk embarked on a wide-ranging set of reforms in the political, economic and cultural aspects of Turkish society. These reforms have left a lasting legacy of which the peoples of Turkish heritage are proud: the conversion of the newly founded Republic into today’s modern, democratic and secular Turkish state.

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What’s Going on in Turkey? (Update)

Dilek and I are safe and sound in Bodrum a long way from the action in Ankara and Istanbul. In fact we first heard about it when her daughter contacted us from America to ask if we were ok.

It’s hard to know exactly what happened/is happening. It seems a faction in the military did try to stage a takeover of the government. They took over the state TV channels and got them to read a statement saying they were intervening because of the present government’s undemocratic, anti-secular activities, there was a state  of emergency and a curfew. I’ve had mails from NZ MFA saying the same thing and advising me to stay indoors 😉

We went to bed last night after watching proceedings on private TV channels and reading sketchy reports on foreign websites. Woke up this morning and it seems the coup failed, soldiers involved have mostly surrendered and are being taken into custody.

People have died, including some civilians, but not very many it seems. At this stage I would say it was a really stupid thing to do – I mean for a few officers to take matters into their own hands, though it has happened before in Turkey of course. If it was an attempted coup and it has failed it will surely cement Mr Erdogan’s position in Turkey – and also anger those who hate him and would have been happy to see him overthrown and put in prison again.

Who was actually behind this? That’s an interesting question. Mr Erdogan is making non-specific accusations, but Fethullah Gulen has denied any involvement. It brings to mind the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002. To what extent are the US and the CIA involved in these kind of activities?

Anyway, we’ve got the TV on and are following events. Will post again when things become clearer.

Governing Turkey – listening to the experts

‘Türk demek, Turkçe demektir. Ne mutlu Türk’üm diyene!’
The words are written on a banner one of our neighbours has strung from the balcony of his house. To be fair, we are not in Istanbul. We’re at our summer retreat near Bodrum; the summer season hasn’t officially opened, few people are around, and I’m hopeful our ultra-nationalist neighbour will pack his banner away before the place starts to fill up.
The modern Republic of Turkey is a complex state – that is probably the main message I aim to convey through this blog; and the words on our neighbour’s banner provide a brief glimpse into this complexity. The second sentence is generally attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father. Faced with the need to unite a diverse people to fight for national survival in the aftermath of disastrous defeats and in the face of foreign invasion and occupation, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (as he was then) played the one card that had any hope of success – the trump card of national identity. “How happy,’ he announced, ‘is the one who says ‘I am a Türk!’”
At the time, it must have been a risky gambit. The 600-year Ottoman Empire was on its knees, its capital, Istanbul, under foreign occupation, and its remaining territories under sentence of partition. The Sultan and Caliph, nominal ruler of the Empire and leader of the world’s Muslims, was a virtual prisoner and puppet of the occupying forces. ‘Turkishness’ itself was not a quality to be especially proud of. The ruling class were Ottomans, their language a hybrid of Turkish, Persian and Arabic, written in an Arabic script intelligible only to an educated few. The royal family had for centuries been breeding with women selected from the upper classes of non-Muslim and non-Turkish neighbours. Talented individuals from non-Turkish, non-Muslim nations within the Empire (especially Greek, Armenian and Jewish) had filled key positions in the imperial economy. Actual ‘Turks’ were more likely to be soldiers or farmers.
Those soldiers, and a good number of the farmers, had been fighting and dying for an empire whose boundaries had been shrinking for a century or more. Why would they be happy? Why would their mothers, fathers, sisters and children be happy? That Atatürk managed to inspire and unite them for one more deadly struggle against enemies bent on their destruction goes a long way towards explaining why the people of Turkey hold him in such reverence. The second sentence on our neighbour’s banner expresses an aspect of national consciousness beyond the mere lexical meaning of the words themselves.
The first sentence is a little more problematic, and I haven’t heard that they were ever spoken by Atatürk himself. The word ‘Türk’ can be rendered in English as ‘a Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ in the sense of national identity. ‘Türkçe’ means ‘the Turkish language’. The writer wants to say, I think, that the Turkish language is the soul of the Turkish nation. He or she may even be implying that native speakers of other languages can not be considered Turkish. If that is the case, it is rather unfortunate. There has been a good deal of house construction and renovation going on in Bodrum and Turkey recently. Many of the contractors and probably most of the workers are Kurdish. They are undoubtedly citizens of Turkey, but the majority of them would have, of necessity, learned the Turkish language after starting school. Until recently they were denied the right to speak their language and even to give their children Kurdish names. The fact that Turkey’s current government has relaxed these prohibitions and opened up discussion on the Kurdish issue is, ironically, one of the factors arousing anger amongst political opposition groups.
Another irony, perhaps, is the reason that those Kurdish people remained in the Republic when others left – they were Muslims. After Turkey’s War of Independence ended in 1922 with the defeat of the invading Greek army and the evacuation of occupying British troops from Istanbul, there was a major exchange of populations in which hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims were uprooted from their homes and sent, Muslims to Anatolia and Christians to the Greek state across the water. The result was that, however secular Atatürk’s intentions, his new Republic was overwhelmingly Muslim in demographic composition.
This religious-versus-secular contradiction is not the only paradox inherent in the new entity that was Turkey. Emerging as it did from the ashes of the discredited Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey had an uneasy relationship with its immediate predecessor. On the one hand the military, architectural, artistic and culinary achievements of its illustrious golden age were matters of great pride. On the other, its slow decline had left its people with a sense of inferiority and in its final death throes there were undoubtedly shameful events. Restoring national pride was a key goal of the new administration, at the same time as there was recognition of the need to follow a modernising path already trod by Western nations.
In fact, ‘restoring’ pride is probably not the correct word to use when talking about Turkish nationalism. ‘Creating’ perhaps better addresses the problem faced by the Republic’s early leaders. In a sense it was necessary to retrospectively leapfrog the Muslim Ottomans, the Christian Byzantines and the pagan Romans and to create a heritage of pure Turkishness based on those warrior horsemen (and women) who had spread out of Central Asia in waves from time immemorial. It was necessary to idealise the pre-Islamic spirituality of shaman tribesmen (and women) and to divest the corrupted Ottoman language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings. Connections were made to ancient Anatolian civilisations such as the Hittites, and a new Latin-based alphabet facilitated widespread literacy at the same time as it separated modern Turkey from its more recent history.
Without a doubt there must have been elements in those early days that were strongly opposed to the goals and methods of Atatürk and his colleagues: the religious elite and the simply devout villager must have been alarmed at the processes of secularisation. Educated intelligentsia must have been furious that years spent studying the Ottoman language would be devalued. Well-heeled urbanites, especially in Istanbul, may have felt uncomfortable with the inclusive, at times almost socialistic rhetoric of the new leader. As years went by, some at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum may have felt aggrieved that the rhetoric was slow to produce the promised brave new world.
It would require a large book to examine all the disparate groups that make up the modern Republic of Turkey. European neighbours may fear that opening their EU door to Turkey would lead to a flood of immigration to their economic paradise. Since the foundation of the Republic, Turkey itself has been a magnet drawing refugees seeking a safe haven from strife and oppression; the most recent being almost a million impoverished Syrians. Governing this country is no easy task – and it would not be surprising if its own citizens harboured some uncertainties about the best direction for reaching a happy future.
As an example, I would like to cite the case of a high-profile, highly educated, financially comfortable, internationally recognised Turkish gentleman. Orhan Pamuk is an acclaimed novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. As I remember, when that award was made, the response in Pamuk’s homeland was somewhat muted. Lately, however, his star seems to have risen and in recent months he has been the subject of some media attention. Possibly the key to this is an interviewpublished in several Turkish dailies on May 23 under a headline quoting Pamuk as saying it was “impossible for an honest person not to criticise the [Turkish] government.”  
Well, I have some history of criticising governments myself – but I find myself almost feeling sorry for Mr Tayyip Erdoğan and his team. These days the blame for pretty much everything is laid at their feet, and it seems to add weight to the criticism when it comes from someone with celebrity status. Last year it was a motley crew of actors and actresses from Hollywood and the UK. I’m not exactly sure why people assume that, because someone has achieved success in sport, pop singing, piano playing or movie acting, their opinions on national and international affairs must be worth publicising. Occasionally one or two do decide to put their credibility on the line by entering politics – footballer Hakan Şükür in Turkey and actress Glenda Jackson in England come to mind – and they would probably admit that doing is somewhat more difficult than talking.
Nevertheless, Mr Pamuk talks; in this instance, apparently, in Lyon, France while attending an international forum on “The Novel”. No doubt the French media are fond of Mr Pamuk, given that they have been trying to pin a charge of genocide on the Turkish people for years. Pamuk got himself in a spot of bother in 2005 after giving an interview where he was quoted as saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.” His version of the story makes much of the fact that he was charged with “public denigration of Turkish identity” and had to flee the country. He tends to play down the details that the interview was with a newspaper in Switzerland (this country?); that the prosecution was brought by an ultra-nationalist lawyer who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in the ‘Ergenekon’military coup conspiracy trial; and that Pamuk himself received little more than a judicial slap on the wrist. One might compare the fates of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who are still trying to escape the clutches of the US justice system for telling the truth on a number of issues with serious implications for world peace.
The latest club for belabouring the government in Turkey is the deaths of 301 miners in a coal-mining accident two weeks ago. Certainly such events are unacceptable in a country with aspirations to rank among the world’s developed nations. Certainly the tragedy highlights problems with workers’ rights, workplace safety and collective bargaining in Turkey. On the other hand, those miners were working in dreadful conditions 400 metres underground for subsistence wages to extract coal, most of which is burned to produce electricity. In my opinion, some of those critics piously blaming the government for the Soma mine tragedy would do well to examine their personal carbon footprint before casting the first stone.
I don’t wish to single out Mr Pamuk for unfair criticism, but it does seem to me that he represents a section of Turkish society that is a little out of touch with the reality of life for the majority of his countrymen and women. In February this year, The New York Timespublished an article entitled “Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.” I don’t know where Mr Pamuk lives these days – the interview was apparently conducted mostly in the artsy Cihangir neighbourhood of Istanbul where the writer has recently opened a ’museum’ based on the fictional events in his novel “The Museum of Innocence”. I’m curious because the article neglects to mention that Pamuk is Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at New York’s Columbia University, and I’m wondering whether he commutes from Istanbul to carry out his teaching responsibilities.
Apart from gentrified Cihangir, Pamuk’s Istanbul also includes the plush old-money district of Nişantaşı, and the leafy Bosporus campus of Robert College where tuition will cost you an arm and a leg, even if your child manages to pass the entrance exam. The NY Times article asserts that Pamuk’s “work is as grounded in [Istanbul] as Dickens’ was in London”, while admitting later that (very unlike Dickens) “Most of Mr Pamuk’s characters are members of the secular elite”. To be fair, there may have been some difficult times for the Pamuk family, since young Orhan’s father apparently “frittered away much of his fortune through a series of bad investments”. However, he was still able to provide his son with a car and money for weekly visits to bookshops where he would “fill the trunk with books”. The bookshops were near the campus of Istanbul University where Pamuk was a student in the 1970s. At that time left wing protesters were being shot, imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in events leading up to and following two military coups. Pamuk, by his own admission, “while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers . . . spent most of his time reading at home in Nişantaşı.”
Well, you can’t blame the guy for that, even if it does imply a splash of pinkish armchair socialism. What surprised me more was reading that little Orhan’s first experience of foreign travel was a summer in Geneva with his father at the age of seven – and that he didn’t leave Istanbul again until he was 30. I feel sure the interviewer must have made an error in transcribing his notes here – but if not, I cannot comprehend how a Turkish citizen of such narrow geographical experience could claim to have any understanding of his country and its people.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other hand, knew his people intimately. Another reason for his almost mythical status in Turkey is that, when the bullets and shrapnel were flying on that crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair/Conk Bayırı in 1915, he was leading his lads from the front rather than sitting at home reading.

Rescuing Constantinople, liberating Istanbul and de-bunking history

History, Henry Ford apparently actually said, is more or less bunk. It seems he and I have moved closer together over the years. I was always led to believe that he was claiming the one hundred percent bunkishness of history, and I disagreed most fervently. Now I gather he qualified his statement with that ‘more or less’, and I find myself increasingly coming round to the same opinion.

Let me give you yet another example. On Tuesday 29 May, Turks celebrated an event they know as the ‘Conquest of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Fethi). Some four and a half months later, they will celebrate another occasion they remember as the ‘Liberation of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Kurtuluş’u). The second of these dates is always a holiday for the school children of Turkey’s largest city, while the former is not.

Recent excavations related to the construction of Istanbul’s new underground Metro system have put back the date of the first human settlement on the site of this ancient city to around 6,500 BCE. That makes a whole lot of history, doesn’t it! So you can understand Turkish school kids experiencing some difficulties remembering exactly what happened when. The task is complicated, however, by the fact that there seems to have been some tinkering by authorities to ensure that school history books present the approved version.

Getting back to those two dates above, it surprises me anew every year to find how many of my Turkish students seem to think that 6 October was the day when Turks ‘liberated’ Istanbul from the Byzantine Greeks. In fact, what happened was that, after Mustafa Kemal and his Turkish nationalist army had chased the modern Greek forces out of Anatolia in 1922, British and other allied troops that had been occupying the Ottoman capital since the end of the First World War, decided to up sticks and head for home.

Turkey’s most expensive film to date
I guess when you’re a kid at school, having an official day off is always going to be a powerful reason for remembering a date – so perhaps it’s a good thing that Prime Minister Erdoğan has stated his intention to make 29 May a public holiday in future. In that case, kids next year are much more likely to learn that the date will mark the 560th anniversary of an earlier Tuesday, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious army into the Byzantine Greek capital of Constantinople after a seven-week siege in 1453. Perhaps some of the confusion will be cleared up too, if the name of the celebration is altered to recognise the self-evident fact that the city didn’t become ‘İstanbul’ until after it had been conquered – some would say, until long after.

Perhaps it’s not so much history itself, but our knowledge and understanding of it that is ‘bunk’. And just possibly the reason is that certain ‘authorities’ have vested interests in fostering misunderstandings. When you compare what the average Turk knows about the history of Constantinople/Istanbul with the knowledge most of us in the West have, you perhaps get a better sight of the problem.

The event of 29 May 1453 is generally referred to in Western histories as ‘The Fall of Constantinople’. Some writers credit the influx of Greek scholars fleeing the city as a key element in the Europe Renaissance. Some consider the Islamic takeover to have been the spur that prompted Columbus and others to launch themselves across the Atlantic in search of India. The successful employment of gunpowder and cannons against the medieval world’s best-fortified city is often taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages. These claims are interesting, and undoubtedly debatable, but I will leave the debate to more able scholars. Of more relevance to my immediate purpose is the oft-heard claim that the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottomans was ‘a massive blow to Christendom’. It has even been said to mark ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. 

Now I don’t know what you were taught when you were at school, but I have a pretty clear memory of being told that ‘Rome fell to the barbarians’ in 476 AD/CE. The main authority for that precise date seems to have been the 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon. I also have hazy memories of Christians having been thrown to lions, but I can’t remember if these were sourced from the same book or the same teacher; nor do I have a clear memory of whether the barbarians were God’s punishment for what the Romans did to the Christians, or if they were just an unfortunate coincidence.

What I definitely do not remember being told was that, 140 years before the German upstart Odoacer deposed the resident Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, an earlier emperor, Constantine, in response to the declining importance of Italy, and the rising importance of Asia Minor, had established a ‘New Rome’ at the mouth of the Bosporus Strait. While it was clear that, at some point, those ‘old Roman’ citizens had given up feeding Christians to lions, and transformed themselves into good Catholics, I do not remember its being made clear that the ‘Roman Empire’ continued in the east for another thousand years until finally laid to rest by that 21 year-old Ottoman sultan on that fateful Tuesday in 1453.

So why the confusion about the end of the Roman Empire? I guess part of the problem stems from the fact that those ancient ‘Romans’ used the name of their capital city as the basis for naming their empire – as if the British Empire had instead been known as Londonian. A second source of confusion is that the conferring of ‘Roman citizenship’ was used as an instrument of control and government, and was not restricted to residents of Rome itself, or even Italy. As a result, citizens in Constantinople, and elsewhere in Asia Minor continued to think of themselves as ‘Romans’ long after the fall of the city of Rome and its western Empire – and long after they had ceased speaking Latin and had reverted to the use of Greek. That’s why modern-day Turks still refer to their Greek-speaking citizens as Rum, and their church as Rum Ortodoks.

However, we can’t just blame the ancient Romans and Greeks for the confusion. Europeans have always had problems defining their relationship with their eastern cousins. For a start, there was bitter competition in the Middle Ages between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. Doctrinal differences related to such issues as the Holy Trinity, the true nature of Jesus, and what sort of bread to use for the Sacramental Feast were the ostensible reason – but perhaps more important was the envy of Roman Popes for the temporal power of the Eastern Church. Papal attempts to resurrect the western Roman Empire in holy guise made it impossible to accept the existence of a rival in the east – which henceforth became known as ‘Greek’. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Churches finalised their split in what became known as The Great Schism, and relations went from bad to worse.

Around this time, traders from the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi began setting up shop across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. Of course, both sides derived benefits from the arrangement, while at the same time friction also developed. Locals resented the accumulating wealth and arrogance of the foreigners, especially when their mutual rivalries broke out into violence. Resentment came to a head, apparently, in April 1182 when the local population went on a festive spree of riot and murder, known to historians as the Massacre of the Latins.

Latin revenge, however, was not long in coming. Roman Popes had been unleashing crusading knights eastwards for a hundred years, partly in response to appeals from the Eastern Emperors for help against the spread of Islam. The fourth and last of these crusades was, it seems, something of a fiasco. Shortage of funds for the journey obliged participants to render military services to the Doge of Venice. Subsequently they found their way to Constantinople, which they proceeded to besiege and sack in April 1204, installing a Latin Emperor of their own. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have lost sight of the main purpose of their venture (viz. fighting Muslims), and very few of their number managed to engage with any.

When those Latin Crusaders sacked, looted and destroyed the capital of their eastern rivals, subjecting its citizens to three days of rape and murder, the Pope of the day, the ironically named Innocent III, who, one assumes, had sent them in good faith to fight Saracens, Turks and other assorted infidels, was apparently somewhat upset, and gave their leaders a sound telling-off. Nevertheless, after piles of booty from the pillaged imperial capital began to appear in Rome, it seems the Pontiff found it in his heart to forgive his errant knights, and allow them back into his church. Today, visitors to St Marks Cathedral in Venice can see the copper statues of four prancing horses that had stood over the main gate of the Hippodrome in Constantine’s New Rome for nine centuries – just the most famous of the looted treasures.

The Greeks did succeed in winning back their capital some fifty-odd years later, but by then irreparable damage had been done. The Byzantine Empire (as it came to be called in later years) had been mortally wounded. By the time the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmet decided to add Constantinople to his growing empire, there was, in fact, very little of Imperial Rome remaining outside the city walls. Nevertheless, capturing the ‘Queen of Cities’ was not an easy task. Apart from the Fourth Crusaders, Persians, Arabs, Slavs, Bulgarians, even Vikings, had assailed the mighty walls on many occasions without success. This time, however, the Ottomans were determined, and laid their plans well. Even so, had ‘Christendom’ really wanted to stave off that ‘massive blow’ to their power and prestige, and turn back the Islamic Ottoman threat, you would think they could have made a little more effort.

Now, with the Ottoman forces massed outside those walls, might have been a good opportunity for the Western Church to show a little temporal solidarity – but they didn’t. Pope Nicholas V did, apparently, make a half-hearted call for another Crusade, but the call fell on deaf ears. Apart from a few hundred Genoese and Venetians with a financial interest in supporting their Greek patrons, the last descendants of Imperial Rome were left to fight their final battle alone. As history records, their valiant defence was at last broken, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered the city that would become his own capital.

History, at least the western version, is a little quieter on the aftermath of the conquest. As we mentioned above, the victorious Latin knights rampaged for three days through the city of their Christian cousins in 1204. To be fair to the Crusaders, a three-day mayhem of killing and looting was the standard reward for an army that had been put to the trouble of besieging and capturing a walled town. England’s noble King Henry V, according to Shakespeare, gave the French defenders of Harfleur a final warning:

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds . . . (Henry V, III, iii)

So we may be surprised to learn that the Muslim Ottoman Sultan called off his ‘blind and bloody soldiers’ after one day of such sport. He also allowed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to maintain his seat in the new Ottoman capital. According to one source, ‘As a strange side-effect of the Muslim conquest, the doctrinal integrity of eastern Christendom was preserved: instead of the compromises with the Vatican that might otherwise have been inevitable, the patriarchate was able to hold to its view on the issues, such as the nature of the Trinity, that had led to so much bitter argument.’

And there he can be found to this day, ministering to his flock from his sanctuary in Istanbul, largest city of the Turkish Republic, with its ninety-nine percent Muslim population: Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, First Among Equals in the Eastern Orthodox communion. History, if not one hundred percent bunk, at least needs careful watching.

The Liberation of Istanbul

In 2007 a Turkish graphic novel named ‘Son Osmanlı’ (The Last Ottoman) was turned into a film named for its hero, Yandım Ali. Released under the English title of ‘Knockout Ali’, the film made little impact elsewhere, despite achieving considerable popularity in its home country. Not so surprising, really. The Turkish film industry is one of the largest producers of films in Europe, but few of its oeuvres find much viewership beyond the borders of the home country.

A Turkish Robin Hood

Yandım Ali is a latter-day Robin Hood figure, roaming the streets of Istanbul/Constantinople immediately after the First World War. His city, however, is under occupation, with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men replaced by the British military. If you can find your way past the Turkish accents of local actors roped in to play the parts of British officers, you see a population chafing under the injustices and oppression of a foreign invader. Ali is the handsome tough guy whose national pride cannot tolerate the bullying arrogance of the occupying forces, but his puny opposition is doomed to failure without a good King Richard to give it focus. The Lionheart’s role is filled by a young Turkish officer, Mustafa Kemal, about to embark on a momentous quest to liberate his people.


Well, you’re saying, I can see why that didn’t attract much interest outside Turkey (except maybe among ex-pat Turkish communities in Germany and elsewhere). It’s pretty clearly a hopelessly slanted, highly romanticised piece of anti-British propaganda. And of course, romanticised and slanted it is indeed. But sometimes it is good for us to see another slant on events we think we understand, in order to appreciate the slant that has influenced our own perspective. ‘O, wad some power,’ said Rabbie Burns, ‘the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us.’ Such insight is not always a comfortable thing, but ‘Yandim Ali’ begs a question or two that I’d like to investigate. Once again, a trip back in time is necessary . . .

The Istanbul of Yandım Ali was, of course, the capital city of the Ottomans, the ruling elite of an empire which had exerted a major influence on the domestic and foreign policies of European nations for more than 600 years. The empire was at its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, only finally being turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683. From then on its decline was gradual but inexorable, though its existence, albeit in an ailing capacity, continued to shape the policies of the Great Powers of Europe throughout the 19th century, up to and including the First World War. The workings of this influence were covered by the term, ‘The Eastern Question’, which can be summarised as: ‘When will the Ottoman Empire finally fall apart, and which of us (i.e. the European Great Powers) is going to get what when it does?’

Two great driving forces of events in the 19th century were Nationalism and Imperialism. Clearly these forces are, in essence, mutually contradictory. As the Great Powers of Europe expanded their empires, it goes without saying that they impinged more than a little on the sovereign rights of national groups within their expanding borders. It may be said that the one thing the leaders of the Great Powers agreed on was the need to suppress nationalist minorities. At the same time, however, they were not averse to employing the disruptive power of such minorities when to do so suited their own expansionist goals.

The later years of the Ottoman Empire provide several examples of this ambivalent approach to nationalist self-awareness. Contrary to the bad press they frequently receive on the subject, the Ottomans were remarkably tolerant of differences of language and religion within their borders. Of course, Islam was the official religion, and Ottoman Turkish the language of government. However, Orthodox Christians (as well as, incidentally, Armenians) and Jews were allowed to practise their religion and use their own languages and alphabets provided they paid their taxes. I would not be the first to suggest that it was this tolerance by the Ottomans of national differences within their empire that contributed to and hastened its disintegration.

However that may be, it is certainly true that the one area where the Great Powers of Europe were remarkably tolerant, even encouraging of the aspirations of nationalist minorities, was within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. In an earlier article I touched on the support given by Britain, France and Russia to the cause of Greek independence in the 1820s. In 1827, fleets of these three nations combined to defeat the Ottoman navy, paving the way for the foundation of the modern kingdom of Greece. Why ‘kingdom’ you may ask? Well, because it allowed the big brother nations to install someone from their own ranks, the 17 year-old Bavarian Prince Otto, who became King of the new ‘Greece’. Less than 30 years later, Britain and France were in league with those same Ottomans, smashing the Russians in the Crimea. What had changed? Pass on another 60 years and you’ll find Britain and France, back together with Russia again, intent on finishing off the Ottomans who were now supported by Germany! Make sense?

Let me give you a quick run-down. First, the Greeks. Well, they were Christians, weren’t they? Obviously being oppressed by those terrible Muslim Turks. Never mind that Greek Christians within the Ottoman Empire were allowed to speak their language, practise their religion, hold important positions and get rich. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, at least as far as Western Europeans were concerned, Greek Christianity was not the right sort. There was always a major danger that they would unite with (or be subjugated by) their Orthodox cousins, the Russians. Then there was the confusing business of what you actually mean when you say ‘Greek’. Philhellenes on the continent (see my previous article) had a hazy idea of Greek-ness as being an ancient, classical, pagan but nonetheless romantic birthplace of modern civilisation centred on Athens. Modern Greek nationalists, on the other hand, were more inclined to imagine a medieval Orthodox Christian empire centred on Constantinople.

So, if you were a British political leader in the 19th century, you might find it convenient to give moral, and even logistical support to the cause of Greek independence, since it would be useful to have a grateful puppet-state in the eastern Mediterranean. On the other hand, you might also feel a little nervous of the southward-expanding Russians, who were encouraging, for their own ends, the nationalist aspirations of Christian minorities within the Ottoman borders. Especially since the Russian brand of Christianity had a lot more in common with those ‘oppressed’ brothers (and sisters).

Another complicating factor was the appearance on the stage of Europe, in the 1870s, of two ‘new’ powers with imperialist aspirations: Italy and Germany. Illustrating perfectly the dichotomy that existed in Europeans’ minds of the time with respect to imperialism and nationalism, these two emergent powers owed their existence to the nationalist dream of uniting people with a common linguistic, racial and cultural heritage. Having achieved this goal, however, they immediately entered into competition with the older powers in the field of empire building (and, hence, of course, in overriding the nationalistic ambitions of others).

It is also obvious that, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the importance of oil as a new source of energy, added to the strategic importance of the Suez Canal for access to India, the ‘jewel’ in the British Imperial crown, increased the tensions and power games in the Near (Middle) East. Western Europeans are not generally known for their love of Arabs, yet they were only too ready to lionise TE Lawrence as he championed Arab nationalism against the evil Ottomans.

Well, sorry for the digression – it’s not my aim to make a detailed examination of 19th century power politics. Just to give enough background to follow what I want to say about the aftermath of World War I as it affected the country we now know as Turkey.

The European summer of 1914 was ignited by the assassination of an Austrian archduke (whatever an arch-duke may be) with little other claim to fame. By the beginning of August, all the major powers of Europe were at each other’s throats, with the exception of the Ottomans who were understandably uncertain who, if anyone, they should support.

This situation was resolved for them in October largely owing, once again, to our old friend, Winston Churchill. The Ottoman navy had been a major client of British shipyards for some years, and had recently ordered two modern battleships, paid for by public subscription. Winston’s brainwave was, apparently, to ensure Ottoman neutrality by ‘requisitioning’ these battleships for the duration of the war, and paying a kind of rent for their use in the British navy. Germany seized the opportunity to present the Ottomans with two modern warships of their own, and immediately proceeded, after hoisting the Ottoman flag, to sail across the Black Sea and bombard one or two Russian ports and bases. Not much room left for diplomatic manoeuvring after that!

Well, it took four years, and a lot of death and destruction, but the upstart Germans were eventually brought to their knees, especially after the entry of the USA into the war in 1917 (once again, if you can believe the rumours, with some behind-the-scenes manipulation on the part of W.L.S. Churchill). Once it became obvious that they had backed the wrong horse, the Ottomans requested an armistice, which took place on October 30, 1918 on the Aegean Island of Lemnos. Perhaps they expected reasonable treatment from their former allies, especially since they hadn’t actually invaded anyone else’s territory – but they were to be disappointed. Within two weeks, British and French troops had occupied the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, and there they remained as an army of occupation for the next five years.

The two members of the Entente Cordiale then set about implementing plans long-held, to divide up the Ottoman Empire and erase it from the world map. The instrument used was the Treaty of Sevres, signed on 10 August 1920. Interestingly, neither the United States nor Russia was party to this treaty. Under its terms, the Ottoman government would continue to rule in name, but in reality as a political and financial puppet of the Allies (France and Britain). Ottoman ‘war criminals’ would be handed over to the Allies for trial and punishment. Most of the Near/Middle East, Palestine (there was no Israel in those days), Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were given as ‘mandates’ to Britain and France – and a mini-kingdom was established around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, one assumes, as a sop to Arab nationalism. France also laid claim to a large chunk of modern Turkey north of Syria, while the Italians were given most of Mediterranean Anatolia, including offshore islands. A new nation-state of Armenia was to be established, with its border extending to the Black Sea around the modern Turkish port of Trabzon.


There were a few bitter pills to swallow there, you’d have to think – but representatives of the Ottoman Government duly signed. Perhaps they truly believed there was no alternative. Enter ‘Yandım Ali’ and Richard the Lionheart! What precisely was the spark that ignited the tinder of Turkish nationalism is open to debate, but it’s hard to imagine your average Mehmet on the Karakoy omnibus being pleased to see his ‘Greek’ neighbours and fellow citizens dancing in the streets of Istanbul (Constantinople) and Izmir (Smyrna) as they welcomed the invading forces. It is said that the French general entered Istanbul mounted on a white horse, as his conquering Turkish predecessor, had done in 1453. Perhaps the last straw was the sight of an army from mainland Greece (backed by their big brothers, Britain and France) landing on the Turkish mainland from whence their ancestors had been expelled 466 years previously.

Whatever the final cause, certain it is that Turkish nationalism was stirred into life. A four-year struggle ensued, at the end of which the Greek invaders were again expelled, and the Italian, British and French governments decided to cut their losses and withdraw. The Treaty of Sevres lapsed for want of support and was replaced by a new Treaty, signed at Lausanne, Switzerland, recognising the existence of the new Republic of Turkey. On 6 October, thousands of Istanbul school children will have a holiday to celebrate getting their city back.