Ottoman Nostalgia

Ninety-four years today, the Armistice of Mudros ended the First World War in the Middle East. It was signed aboard a British battleship harbored at a Greek island, by an English admiral and a minister of a government that would cease to exist within four years, an indirect result of the armistice he signed.

Ottoman Troops at Constantinople, 1453
Ottoman troops at Constantinople, 1453 – Wikimedia

That government was the Ottoman Empire. After becoming one of the most powerful states in the world in the 15th century (it conquered Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 1453) and 16th century (when its armies penetrated deep into Christian Europe), it suffered military reverses, lost ground to other empires and internal nationalist movements, and — despite attempts at modernization in the 19th century — became widely known as the “sick man of Europe” in the modern era. Already in permanent decline after a revolution in 1908, the Empire was essentially partitioned after hostilities ceased in 1918. French soldiers occupied Istanbul the day after the war ended in their own country (the British came the next day), and Britain, France, Greece, Italy, and others sought to take pieces of the multinational empire soon thereafter.

A Turkish nationalist movement fought back starting in May 1919, eventually declaring a secular republic of Turkey in 1922 (while other territories — e.g., Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Arabia, what’s now Iraq) largely came under European control or influence.

So it’s more than a bit interesting that there’s a kind of renaissance of interest in and celebration of the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey, as reported Monday in the New York Times. The epic film Conquest 1453 has become the highest-grossing movie in Turkish history (despite having a male lead whom one IMDB reviewer called “fake Aragorn”), has “spawned a television show with the same title and has encouraged clubs of proud Turks to re-enact battles from the empire’s glory days and even dress up as sultans and Ottoman nobles.”

Popular TV series and miniseries are set in the 16th and 18th centuries, with the producers of the latter planning to build their own theme park recreating the Istanbul of the Empire. And the Turkish victory over British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops at the Battle of Gallipoli (1915) is the subject of four new movies, including one starring Mel Gibson as a British commander. (Gibson starred as an Australian soldier in the great 1981 film on Gallipoli.)

Poster for Conquest 1453What’s caused this “rehabilitation” of the Ottoman Empire in a country where secularist, republican authorities — seeking “to break with a decadent past” — had history courses in Turkish schools focus on the period of imperial decline? The Times article points to Turkey’s emergence as a regional power, the encouragement of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the growth of an “Islamic bourgeoisie” at home (Muhammad makes a cameo in Conquest 1453), the popularity of such fare in the Arab world (exporting Turkish soap operas generated $70 million in revenues last year), and the financial crises in Europe that have caused Turks to cool on joining the EU and instead look “increasingly eastward.”

Reporter Dan Bilefsky also takes pains to note the criticism that this wave of nostalgia (or “triumphalism”) has received from within Turkey itself. One film studies professor exemplified the ambivalence of many intellectuals:

The Ottoman revival is good for the national ego and has captured the psyche of the country at this moment, when Turkey wants to be a great power…. It terrifies me because too much national ego is not a good thing. Films like ‘Conquest 1453’ are engaging in cultural revisionism and glorifying the past without looking at history in a critical way.

And one columnist received death threats after suggesting that Conquest 1453 would pave the way for Extinction 1915, in commemoration of the genocidal slaughter of over a million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire.

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