Tag Archives: Atatürk

NikoBako reads: Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia — Axel B. Çorlu: “The reconversion of Hagia Sophia is about power…”

23 Dec

I once got into an argument with a Turkish art historian friend of mine after I referred to the eight round canvasses with the first caliphs’ names on them (I think) in Hagia Sophia as “the hideous green billboards”. She, of course, thought they were “cool” or “pastiche-y” or “palimpsest-y”. I thought, and think, that they not only mar the space by covering the joints between the massive square space and the massive dome which are perhaps the most ingenious aspect of this miracle of Roman engineering, but that they were meant to send a clear message of who was now in charge. Hers is a typical “woke” take on these things. In the article below, Axel Çorlu highlights the dangers of such gleefully amoral, post-modern celebrations of funky “conjunctures” and how they essentially elide the historical facts of violence, persecution and appropriation from our picture of the past, and how — in the particular case of Hagia Sophia — these academics end up feeding the discourse of both Ottoman/Muslim triumphalism and the oppression and displacement of religious minorities by the nationalism of the Turkish Republic.

In short, you may want to get past “conquest narratives”; Erdoğan — who justified the reconversion by the “right of conquest” — doesn’t.

My money quotes:

They [Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycıoğlu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present”] conclude this section with the heart of their essay: “…in this essay, we would like to divert the conversation and discuss how the conquest narrative, which is shared by those who oppose and support the decision, does not do justice to Hagia Sophia and its architecturally, spiritually, and emotionally charged history.” This sort of interjection, very appealing to the academic mind, nonetheless includes ominous terminology such as “doing justice” to the Hagia Sophia and its “…emotionally charged history.”

This narrative at once establishes the issue of “justice,” not in the sense of the expropriation and destruction of Christian and/or minority populations and the appropriation of their cultural heritage, but as in, “Let us not be unfair to the Ottomans or the Turkish Republic…” and the fact that those who respond to the Hagia Sophia issue might be affected by the same “emotionally charged” aspects. In other words, the authors are guiding us to focus on “justice,” as long as it is to protect the powerful who do not need any protection –there appears to be no need to consider the concept of justice for the dispossessed, whom the Hagia Sophia also symbolizes. […]

While the republican regime was indeed interested in recasting the Ottoman past (usually not in a very bright light, as it also distanced itself from many of its aspects and dictated a highly selective version of its history) and kept busy trying to prove that “Turks” had existed in Anatolia for millennia through the Hittites and other ancient peoples with an eclectic mix of the racial theories and pseudo-science of the time (including the infamous obsession with the morphology and measurements of skulls), it hardly made an effort to understand, teach, or preserve its Byzantine past, let alone “making a claim” to it, if what we mean by “making a claim” is anything more than a possessive but not inclusive approach.

Indeed, the Byzantine past of Turkey remained either buried, neglected, or carefully molded in the public imagination, as nothing more than the “other” that had happened to be there before.At no point did the republic genuinely try to make a direct connection to the Byzantines beyond their role as the adversary in history textbooks, the adversary that had been vanquished, the adversary that had nothing to do with the ethnicity or cultural heritage of the people in Turkey. […]

Beyond its [the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum] practical use as described, it was neither part of a grand historical or intellectual vision, nor a noble gesture of “tolerance” by a regime that did its very best to eliminate the remaining diversity of cultures and religions in its lands for decades to come through acts ranging from the population exchange with Greece, to the Izmir Economics Congress of 1923 where the elimination of “foreign” bourgeoisie and its replacement with a “national” one was planned, to the Varlik Vergisi (Capital Tax) of 1942, among many other examples. Such a regime surely could not care less about multiculturalism, inclusivity, or the Byzantine past as the authors suggest. […]

This idea also worked very well for the urban Kemalist elite and their newly created middle class throughout the 20th century, because it did not require them to symbolically come to terms with the vast destruction visited upon the minorities of the land, from whom they had acquired significant aspects of their material and cultural wealth via direct or indirect appropriation

I agree that a narrative that “equates Ottoman approaches to Hagia Sophia with iconophobia and iconoclasm is incorrect” but I do not think it is necessarily “marked by Islamophobia and Orientalism” given the fact that Byzantine art and architecture suffered tremendous degradation and damage, sometimes in the name of Islam, and other times at the hands of unscrupulous republican bureaucrats, treasure hunters, or the common public in more recent times. Any scholar, casual observer, or visitor of Byzantine, Armenian, or Syriac heritage sites in Turkey will be more than cognizant of the intentional damage done to frescoes, mosaics, and other elements of Christian architecture. The damage was done over a period of centuries under different conditions, the perpetrators were/are not a homogeneous group, and the practice ranges from officially undertaken projects to “simply” neglected sites. This is an undeniable fact, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that the few token examples in the Ottoman era, republican era or today somehow represent a “preservationist” or “tolerant” attitude when in the vast majority of locations they were covered at best and destroyed at worst. …..Today, the Turkish state uses sites such as the restored Aghtamar Cathedral of the Holy Cross or the Sumela Monastery as tokens of its hollow “multiculturalism” and “tolerance.” As scholars, we have a grave responsibility to challenge this narrative. This multiculturalism narrative and tokenism of Turkey is a propaganda tool designed to cover the simultaneous appropriation and destruction of the past and the present, motivated to a significant extent by the conquest narrative. The conquest narrative was a real factor in history, and it is a real factor today. Ignoring it, reducing it to merely an “incorrect” historical interpretation, or diminishing it to an ahistorical approach is dangerous. […]

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is about power; in a world where power relations past and present influence the lives of millions of people, and history is weaponized for various agendas, we do not have the luxury of pretending to “stay above it” in a noncommittal manner.

The interior of Hagia Sophia with the eight “hideous green billboards”. Getty Images.

For full article, please read below:


Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia


By Axel B. Çorlu, Ph.D.

The recent reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by the (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan regime generated heated debates among scholars, politicians, and the public. A recent article by Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycioglu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present” offers sophisticated but ultimately convenient universalism, where both the past and the present are presented from a distorted lens, with strategic omissions.[1]

According to Blessing and Yaycioglu, there is a binary “conquest narrative” that both the supporters and opponents of the Hagia Sophia reconversion utilize, and that in essence this simplistic view does not reflect the “complex history of Ottoman Hagia Sophia.” The authors go on to label the concerns about the protection of the structure, especially regarding the issue of the mosaics as ahistorical “disinformation,” and offer a “correct” version of history.

I will follow their text in the same order, and point out the multiple issues… (see below)

Continue reading

Turks don’t suffer from Sèvrophobia; they suffer from Lausannitis.

9 Oct

One of today’s Reuters’ titles: Turkey urges U.S. to review visa suspension as lira, stocks tumble is a very deeply unintentional funny.  Is he dyslexic?  Am I?  I’ve read it correctly, yes?  The UNITED STATES is suspending visas to TURKS? The TURKISH lira and TURKISH stocks are tumbling? Right?

There’s been a ton of repetitive commentary again recently — including from me — about how Kurdish, let’s say, “pro-activeness,” in Iraq and Syria, what Kurds think is their right since they played such a key role in kicking ISIS ass, is a menace to Turkey because Turks are still traumatized by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that called for the remaining Ottoman Empire (Anatolia essentially) to be partitioned between the winners of WWI (and the hangers-on and cheerleaders like us), with the Straits and Constantinople internationalized (meaning British), so that Turks would have been left with a rump central Turkey and, I think, a minimal outlet to the Black Sea along the coastal stretch around Sinope.

All of that was changed by Atatürk’s declaration of a Turkish Republic at Sebasteia and the subsequent disastrous defeat of the invading Greek army.  The Turkish War of Independence (please, Greeks, gimme a break and let me call it that for now) was an impressive accomplishment, and if it ended badly for the Greeks who lived there, as we remember every autumn when we recite the Megilla of Smyrna, that’s our fault and especially the fault of Venizelos who, being Cretan, found pallikaristiko demagoguery and dangerous, careerist magandalık irresistible So impressive was Kemal’s accomplishment, in fact, that all the parties involved in Sèvres then got together at Lausanne in 1923 and decided Turkey should get whatever it wants.  Suddenly, the clouds of three centuries of depressing imperial contraction, and massacre and expulsion of Muslims from the Caucasus, the northern Black Sea, the Balkans and Crete were lifted (ditch the Arabs south and call it a country seemed to be the Turkish consensus for whatever was left) and the Turkish Republic went on its merry way.  Sèvres and Sèvrophobia was gone.

What Turkey suffers from now, and has for most of the twentieth century since the events we’re talking about, is a Lausanne-inspired sense of entitlement that is simply breathtaking in its cluelessness.  It’s the kind that leaves you staring at some Turks, silenced and dumbfounded, and unable to tell whether what they just said to you is elegantly, sweepingly aristocratic or just passively asinine.  Lausanne was first; add Kemal’s personality cult (I’m not sure that history ever threw together two bigger narcissists than him and Venizelos; they should’ve been lovers), then, what was always a silenced Ottomanness came out of the closet, allied as it always has been with the seminal triumphalist narrative of Islam itselfand you get Erdoğan!


Now he wants the U.S. to review its Turkey policies?  Who is this man?  Scolding the whole fucking world like we’re a bunch of children.  Let him scold his children — meaning Turks — first, and then maybe we can take it from there.  If I were a German diplomat in Turkey and had been summoned to His Sublime Presence for the nth time in one year to be chastised for something mocking someone in Germany had said about Him, and told “to do” something about it, I would have found it hard to control my laughter.  As an outsider, I find it delightful enough that of all peoples on the planet, Turks and Germans got involved in a multi-episode drama on the nature of irony and parody. But to have him demand shit from all sides…

No, you’re not a “mouse that roared” arkadaşım, ok?  Yes, “all of Luxembourg is like one town in Turkey” (wow…ne büyük bir onur).  Turkey’s a big, scary, powerful country with a big, scary, powerful military, and lots of “soft” cultural and economic power in its region too.  But you’re in a schoolyard with some much bigger cats.  Soon all of them — the United States, Russia, the European Union, Israel and even some who already openly can’t stand your guts — like Iran — are gonna come to the conclusion that you’re more trouble than you’re worth.  Even Germany is no longer so guilt-ridden as to be polite to you.  And I don’t say any of this as a Greek, because I don’t think that when they all get to that exasperated point and temporarily turn to Greece, that Greeks are going to be anything other than the chick you were drunk enough to take home for a one-nighter — Kurds are going to be the rebound girlfriend, though I can’t say right now for how long — but things have been moving rapidly in a direction where the big boys are not going to want to play with you anymore, and they’re going to let you know in a way that won’t be pretty.

Though, as with all bullies, as soon as Erdoğan’s tough-guy bluff-policy on anything is called, he backs down.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination” by Stefan Ihrig

30 Mar

Adolf Hitler in the workshop of the sculptor Josef Thorak, with Thorak’s bust of Atatürk behind him, Munich, February 1937Adolf Hitler in the workshop of the sculptor Josef Thorak, with Thorak’s bust of Atatürk behind him, Munich, February 1937 (click)

From The New York Review of Book.  See whole article: Hitler & the Muslims by Steve Coll in April 2, 2015 volume.

Money quote (at least for our purposes):

“The aim of Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination is to document that the founder of modern Turkey deserves to be remembered as a figure equal to Mussolini in Hitler’s early political imagination. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later glorified as Atatürk, had a record of military action that included cleansing what Hitler believed to be the inherently sapping multiethnicity of the expired Ottoman Empire.

“Indeed, in Ihrig’s account, apart from Atatürk’s personal inspiration, the organized mass killing of Armenians by Turks during World War I—the events now recognized as the Armenian Genocide—explicitly influenced Hitler’s thinking about the extermination of Jews as early as the 1920s. Ihrig quotes a multipart essay published in Heimatland, an influential Nazi periodical, by Hans Tröbst, who had fought with the Kemalists during what Turks knew as the War of Independence:

‘The bloodsuckers and parasites on the Turkish national body were Greeks and Armenians. They had to be eradicated and rendered harmless; otherwise the whole struggle for freedom would have been put in jeopardy. Gentle measures—that history has always shown—will not do in such cases…. Almost all of those of foreign background in the area of combat had to die; their number is not put too low with 500,000. [emphasis in original]’

“In incipient Nazi historiography, Ihrig writes, “the ‘fact’ that the New Turkey was a real and pure völkisch state, because no more Greeks or Armenians were left in Anatolia, was stressed time and again, in hundreds of articles, texts, and speeches.” Of course, the Nazi Holocaust was constructed in its own setting, from its own sources; one should not overemphasize the Armenian precedent, and Ihrig does not. Yet here is a documented example from the early industrialization of ethnic murder in which one campaign of genocide influenced another.

And a key point:

“Politically, Atatürk’s success offered a model of how to overcome the humiliation and prostration imposed on World War I’s losers at Versailles. Atatürk not only seized power through bold action in the name of the Turkish nation, he also forced European capitals to renegotiate the terms of the treaty they had imposed…”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Careful what you wish for…Erdoğan and Ottoman Turkish

5 Jan

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 4.21.54 PM(click)

I always thought that the switch to Latin script was one of Atatürk’s most needless changes, and one that was most pettily symbolic and purposeless.  Yeah, no vowels are a pain, but only for non-native learners, and I also despise nationalist manipulation and deep reform of language in any situation: the Sanskritization of Urdu, for example, in India.  Closer to home, the “purification” of Greek in the nineteenth century and its reverse “demoticization” starting in the 1970s, has made it so that at this point we have no idea what a Greek that was an organic development of Byzantine and Ottoman Greek would have been like and how much richer a medium for our modern literature and speech it could have been before the ideologues got involved.

I was vehemently opposed to the dropping of classical Greek from the curriculum in Greek schools in the heady stupidity of the “Metapoliteuse.”*  You were cutting off Greek kids from the bulk of their literary tradition.  But those were two thousand-year-old texts.  The change in script and the de-Persianization and de-Arabization of modern Turkish** were so radical that by the nineteen-forties, I believe, a young Turk couldn’t read the Turkish of his own nineteenth-century literature.  I don’t think reintroducing the study of Ottoman Turkish is a bad idea and had always said so.  Of course, now — given where it’s coming from — there are Turkish friends who detest me for it.

But “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” I guess.  And ιδού (“bak”) the hero who comes to fix it all…  ERDOĞAN, malaka…  Trying to introduce Ottoman Turkish into the curriculum, but not so young Turks can read the political and ideological thoughts of their nineteenth-century ancestors and their heroic struggle to try and turn what was left of empire into a modern state, much less for the beautiful mystic and erotic poetry that the Ottoman canon consists of…  But probably so that they’re ready to read the Quran and other Arabic texts when the time comes.

I actually have to admit I was caught off guard by this one.  I mean, I knew as far back as the nineteen-eighties that “Ottomanostalgia” could go both ways.  It could turn into a means for young Turks to understand not just their own heritage, but most crucially for the region, a way of understanding their intimate, organic connection to their neighbors in the former Ottoman sphere, and take them out of that strange identity vacuum that the ethnicity-based nation-state creates: where the perception obtains that where your borders end, an entirely new universe inhabited by completely different species begins, and not — as is the historical truth — that the border is an arbitrary marker between a continuum of cultural landscapes and people/s who lived, again, organically intertwined with each other for most of their history.  And to a great degree, as an interest in the Ottoman past has spread out from a nucleus of C-town intellectuals to a broader and more broad-minded, educated middle class, that is what has happened — and to a degree that is simply incomparable to any such growth processes of consciousness in any other contemporary Ottoman successor society.

Or…  It could’ve turned into a new longing for a newly empowered Turkey for expansionist, regional influence and general bullying under a new guise.

What I didn’t expect is that it would come in the form of religious reaction.

Like I said: watch what you wish for.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


* The Μεταπολίτευση: the “repoliticizing” or “re-polis-izing” (in the classical Greek sense of “polis”) — the reanimating, or re-establishing, essentially — of Greek political life in 1974 after the damage done by one of the most tragicomically ridiculous right-wing dictatorships in post-war Europe or Latin America.  It was a time of reaction to things “right” that produced some of the most embarrassingly “lefty” cultural phenomena and attitudes — phenomena and attitudes that have proven remarkably long-lived — among Greeks, and I don’t see a near future in which we’ll recover from those attitudes or be able to strike a mature balance between the poles.  I’ll have to tackle the term a little better in another post of its own.

** I think the Farsi influence on Ottoman Turkish consisted more of analytic, Indo-European structures that had crept into the language and that the “polluting” vocabulary was mostly Arabic.  I remember when I was studying Turkish, I think, wanting to start a relative clause with the relative pronoun “ki” or wanting to make it easy on myself by starting a subordinate clause with the Farsi “çünkü” (“because”) — which everyone does — and being told by my teachers that “That’s not Turkish” and being made to construct some fifteen-syllable “-için” or “-ından” clause instead, which was more “purely” agglutinatively Turkish.  Of course, like all dystopian, totalitarian, social re-engineering projects, this purification of Turkish never got nearly as far as its original orthodox intent, partly because to have done so would’ve been the equivalent of expunging Modern English of every word of Greco-Latin-Norman-French origin in this paragraph, for example highlighted in red — and creating Anglo-Saxon-derived neologisms for all of them.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: