Turkey’s “Ghost Empire”

A Turkish academic I once met in a provincial Anatolian city insisted to me that Turkey is a country where a lot goes unsaid, a place where much is buried, and where fairy tales are told to hide a ...

A Turkish academic I once met in a provincial Anatolian city insisted to me that Turkey is a country where a lot goes unsaid, a place where much is buried, and where fairy tales are told to hide a violent past. A Marxist and atheist, he spoke with regret about the disappearance of the Christian minorities who once lived in Asia Minor and of what he saw as the nefarious influence of nationalism and Islamism in the republic. The journalist Alev Scott, author of Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire, would sympathize.

Scott’s travelogue explores the Ottoman legacy in Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Levant. She introduces us to an eclectic cast of historical characters: Ali Kemal Bey, the great-grandfather of Boris Johnson, the British buffoon behind Brexit; Sabbatai Sevi, the self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah from Medieval Izmir; and Evliya Çelebi, the Ottoman historian who described sex as “the greater jihad.” We learn, too, that Lord Byron took a crash course in Armenian in 1816, that politician David Ben-Gurion saw Ottoman Thessaloniki as a model for the State of Israel, and that Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather was kidnapped from the shores of Lake Chad by Ottoman slavers and gifted to the Tsar.

Mostly, however, Scott’s elucidating book teaches us how countries and people remember and forget and weave stories about where they come from. Ottoman Odyssey is about how identities are built out of the wreckage of the past.

Established at the turn of the 14th century, the Ottoman Empire at its height covered Asia Minor, the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East. Islam was the state religion, but the empire was populated by many non-Muslims (dhimmis), so a method of governance that could accommodate difference had to be devised. This led to the formation of the millet system. Under it, the empire’s confessional communities were classed as millet, or “nation” groups, and the dhimmisnamely, Jews and Christians—were left to look after their own affairs. In return for noninterference by the Sublime Porte, these minorities swore allegiance to the Sultan-Caliph, recognized Islam as the dominant religion, and paid a special tax for protection. They were also exempted from military service. With the rise of nationalism, this carefully balanced system began to fray. It finally collapsed during the First World War.

The Republic of Turkey, where Scott’s odyssey begins, was founded out of the empire’s ashes, in 1923, by the secular nationalist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A soldier and statesman, Atatürk viewed Ottoman rule as a theocratic blemish on Turkish history and an obstacle that had prevented Turks from joining the modern West. Though Turkey’s citizens still revere Atatürk as the father of the nation, many now reject his rejection of the Ottoman past. Over the last few decades, and particularly since the rise to power of the Islamo-Nationalist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the early 2000s under now president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there has been a surge in Ottoman revivalism. The empire is now something to be proud of and something to aspire to. “The last century was only a parenthesis for us,” the then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said of the country’s republican history, in 2013. “We will close that parenthesis.”

Scott, who was born in London to a Turkish mother and British father, adopts a more nuanced approach to Turkey’s imperial past. This is admirable, given the politically fraught context in which she was writing. Ottoman Odyssey was initially intended to be a study of Turkey’s Christian and Jewish communities. However, an attempted coup against Erdoğan in July 2016 led to a purge of over 100,000 people deemed to be a threat to the president’s rule. Scott, who wrote an article criticizing Ankara’s paranoid response to the July events, was banned from returning to her adopted home of Istanbul, where she had moved in 2011 to teach at Boğaziçi University. Readers learn a lot about life for minorities in Turkey; however, Scott was forced to broaden the focus of the book and to look beyond the republic’s borders. The result is an engrossing account of the imperial imprint in Turkey—on former Ottoman territories and on the minds of those whose ancestors lived under the Sublime Porte’s rule.


Turkey’s Progressive Past

By James Ryan

One of the main themes of the book is the neo-Ottomanist turn in Ankara’s foreign policy. Under the AKP, Turkey has sought to extend its influence throughout its region and into territories that were once under Istanbul’s sway. The impact of this strategy is most evident in Scott’s chapter on the Balkans. Across southeastern Europe, which once made up the core of the Ottoman Empire’s western territories, Scott finds a plethora of Turkish-funded mosques, Turkish banks, and Turkish photography exhibitions, the last-mentioned celebrating the defeat of the 2016 coup. In Sarajevo, she locates two Ankara-funded universities staffed by Turks (like “Ottoman courtiers sent out to colonize and run the empire”) and observes visitors from Turkey gushing over the legacy of their ancestors. She even learns of Ottoman-inspired tomato fairs.

Scott depicts the AKP’s strategy as “modern wannabe imperialism.” This takes the Ottoman revivalists, who are comparable in many ways to the reactionary nationalists of Brexit Britain, Putin’s Russia, and Trump’s America, too much at their word. It does, however, reflect the (re)emergence of Turkey as a major player in the region over the last two decades. Whatever your definition of “imperialism” may be, there is no doubting the ambition of Erdoğan to close Davutoğlu’s “parenthesis” and—to borrow a phrase—“make Turkey great again.”

All empires need local support, and Scott finds a willing audience for the AKP’s neo-Ottomanism in the Balkans. She meets members of Serbia’s Muslim minority who, faced with the religious chauvinism of the Christian majority, long to become Ottoman subjects once more—what Scott too harshly characterizes as a “historic case of Stockholm syndrome.” In Kosovo, a predominantly Muslim country, the longing for empire is less acute. Still, there is an emotional connection to Turkey. In the words of one Kosovan: “We are just happy that Turkey is strong at the moment.” These encounters reveal something of the historical legacy of the empire. “Nouveau-Ottomanism is not purely a construct of Erdoğan’s, or the AKP’s,” Scott concludes. “Muslims in the Balkans are aware of their Ottoman heritage and already identify with Turkey—there is a ghost empire here ripe for the taking and it just needs to be brought to life.”

Scott has no time for Ottoman nostalgia, whether it is coming from a Turkish government looking to mobilize religious nationalism, or from Muslims in the Balkans trying to reconnect with their past. The empire, she repeats throughout Ottoman Odyssey, was a place where non-Muslims were second-class citizens, and its ghost, she implies, is not worth waking.

This is not to say that she has much sympathy with what came afterward. Minorities within the imperial realm, Scott writes, were subjected to the “exploitative tolerance” of the millet system. But flawed as this arrangement was, she acknowledges that it enabled multiple religious and ethnic communities to live alongside one another. This changed at the turn of the 20th century. “In those years,” Scott writes of the last days of the empire, “most Ottoman citizens could not foresee the impending national identities about to be foisted on them; they identified simply as Muslims and Christians, all subjects of the Sultan.” The rise of nationalism turned this world upside down.

Whatever your definition of “imperialism” may be, there is no doubting ErdoGan’s ambition to “make Turkey great again.”

Beginning with Greece’s war for independence in the 1820s, calls for national self-determination from the empire’s subjects became increasingly vociferous over the following century. The Sublime Porte attempted to combat these separatist tendencies with reforms, including an attempt to create a single Ottoman identity. Such reforms, however, were no match for the centrifugal force of nationalism, which, when combined with interference from foreign powers, tore the empire apart. War and diplomacy led to the drawing of new borders, and Ottoman subjects transformed into citizens of nation-states, becoming “Turks,” “Greeks,” “Syrians,” and so on. Many suffered; neighbors turned on one another and friends became enemies. And what happened during this period, as Scott relates, still shapes relations between the descendants of those involved.

The First World War unleashed the most violent example of this process: the Armenian Genocide. Sultan Abdul Hamid II, a leader venerated by Erdoğan, earned himself the sobriquet the “Red Sultan” for his pogroms against Christian Armenians in the 1890s. It took, however, the conflagration of a world war to turn this into the genocidal violence of 1915. The empire was, by this point, run by the Committee of Union and Progress, a proto-Turkish-nationalist party led by Talaat, Enver, and Cemal Pashas. Determined to stem the Ottoman decline and convinced the Armenian community was en masse in league with the Russians attacking in the east, this triumvirate oversaw the murder of more than one million Armenians. Muslims and Christians had lived together in Anatolia for centuries. Now, thanks to the combination of ethnic nationalism and war, many saw themselves as enemies—and it was the Armenians that paid the heaviest price.

The violent separation of communities did not end with the genocide. In 1923, following a war between Greece and Turkey, the two countries agreed to swap their respective Muslim and Christian minorities. The nationalist logic of the time, as we have seen, was that people who had lived together since time immemorial should no longer be part of the same political entity. This led to an internationally sanctioned “population exchange.” Over one million Orthodox Christians—now narrowly defined as Greeks—and around four hundred thousand newly minted Turkish Muslims were forced to leave their homes, in order to “return” to countries where they had never set foot. This exchange was no genocide. But it was brutal nonetheless, and it marked the end of what remained of the “heterogeneous hotchpotch” of the Ottoman Empire.

For Scott nationalism is little more than “civilized tribalism”—a tribalism that still poisons relations between communities today. The Turkish government, in a case of the denial the academic was warning me about when we met in that Anatolian city, refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. As Scott observes, this has widened the “gulf” that opened in 1915 between Turkey and the Armenian people. Relations between Athens and Ankara are better, but the past still weighs heavily on both. Politicians in Turkey and Greece, Scott points out, still exploit nationalist tensions for political gain. These tensions are particularly discernible when it comes to Cyprus. The Mediterranean island was divided into Greek and Turkish sides in the 1970s, after a civil war forced thousands, including Scott’s grandmother, from their homes. It remains divided to this day.

“What is ‘homeland’—a place or an idea?” In an era of nativist reactions to globalization, this question, with which Scott concludes Ottoman Odyssey, is salient. Who belongs where? Does anyone belong anywhere? Scott quotes the Armenian writer William Saroyan, who offers an uncompromisingly cosmopolitan answer to her question. “There is no Armenia. There is no America and there is no England, and no France, and no Italy,” he writes in Inhale and Exhale (1936). “There is only the earth.” Scott, surprisingly for a self-described “anti-nationalist,” is unconvinced by this rejection of the nation-state. Her experience of exile has made her conscious of the importance of a homeland. “Homeland,” she writes, “is where the collective heart is, and all the turmoil contained therein—and sometimes, that is a place, not just a concept.”

I cannot begin to fathom what it is like to lose a homeland. Unlike Scott and her Cypriot grandmother and millions of displaced people around the world, I’ve never had to contemplate life in exile. Saroyan’s cosmopolitan rejection of the geographical element in identity is, however, appealing. In this period of turmoil, we need to rethink the relationship between geography and identity and build bonds that are not so dependent on land and borders. Scott is right that there is an emotional connection between people and countries, but Saroyan’s observation that there is “only the earth” seems to be the only reasonable foundation for politics in a globalized world.


Correction: February 22, 2019

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Cyprus as an “Aegean” island.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul (2008). Photograph by zoutedrop / Flickr