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Myth and Memory of Mehmed the Conqueror: Turkish Nationalism and the Conquest of Constantinople

From a Byzantine church built in 537 to an Ottoman mosque in 1453 to a Turkish museum in 1935 to a mosque again in 2020, the Hagia Sophia has seen many forms and none of these changes have been surprising.  This is as the form of the Hagia Sophia has been tightly tied to a central myth that upholding Ottoman/Turkish idenity – the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The way Ottomans and Turks have seen and represented this conquest has changed over time. 

While the Ottoman founding myth was “Osman’s Dream”, the Conquest of Constantinople, after  centralisation of the Turk in its retelling, came to represent when Ottomans became Turks and began to represent Turkish greatness. In this way it has functioned as both as a founding myth and a memory of a ‘golden age’. The Sultan Mehmet II has been recorded in history as Fatih (Victor) and he himself adopted a new title, “Kayser-i Rûm” (Caesar of Rome). Under Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s name, today, there are countless bridges, schools, and museums to make nothing of the public memorial and wide-spread use of his signature as decoration. He is a much loved figure even if what he represents is disputed. The way nationalism has utilised this founding myth and golden age in inscribing Turkish identity has varied greatly over time. As we shall discuss, understanding these how this have changed are central to understand the latest turns in Turkish national idenity.

Ernest Renan has long ago pointed to the importance of shared memories of violence-tied greatness in the formation of nations. But, as Anthony Smith argues, binding memories range more widely than that and they are often idealised and exaggerated to what we would associate with the likes of myths. This mixture of memory and myth are difficult to entangle with the threads of truth keeping the myth upright. However, which moment is selected as the founding myth or the golden age, and what is chosen for it to represent, varies with the nationalist fashions of the time. In ethnic nationalism, such as that in Turkey, these moments are remembered often and are used to form central tenets of nationalist idenity. 

These historical recollections of the Conquest inscribe through myth and memory the normative character of the community. Like nation-creating myths, 1453 depicts what is to be desired, admired and emulated. The myth present what is distinctive about that the Turks and what is ideal and should be recreated in modern terms. Harking back to their ancestors, ethnic nationalists can claim the glories of the past and promise its return. As they are linked by blood, people can be told they hold the inner resources to be great again and they are tied together in a collective, determined destiny. 

Such narratives can also take more overtly violent dimensions. Ethnic identity, due to its claims of ancestral continuity with its past, can reach back in time pull structures of violence and its ethical constructions into the present. The fairness of the past violence thus is certain, the enemies are eternal, the heirarchies are unchallenging and the emotions to be felt are clear. These myths justify the sacrifices that may need to be made by the members of the communities and define who gets to live and who gets to die.

These myths also become central in the continual identity-making process that tie the people to their historic homeland. In this way, the locus of the nation’s historical founding and golden ages connects the concept of ancestral homeland with ethnicity. This concept of ‘eternal home’ figures heavily in the cultural heritage of the national community and also affects perception of national rights.   

Turkish identity’s leanings to ethno-nationalist thought leads to the Conquest of Constantinople being a key celebrated national memory. Tracible to the works commissioned by Mahmud II (reigning 1808-1839), remembering 1453 is neither recent nor novel but the reasons for its commemoration have varied significantly (which is not uncommon for nationalistic commemorations). 

A key example for Turkish nationalism is the prominent Young Ottoman, Namik Kemal, who also wrote extensively about 1453. As the Ottoman Empire was dissolving in the wake of its increasingly segmented populations, some members of the Ottoman elite began seeing ethnic Turkish origins and cultural Turkish nationalism as a new source of pride. It should be noted, however, that both of these loci of identity imagined themselves within Islamic terms. They reached back and connected to moments in the past that built their sacred narrative of the ‘holy nation’s ’ history. Devoted to bolstering a Muslim Ottoman identity personified through key heroic figures in history, Kemal credited Sultan Mehmed II with being the paragon of humanity, justice and tolerance while forming a ‘civilised society’ that Kemal would happily call nation. Centrally, Kemal presented this victory as marking the end of the Middle Ages, leading to the beginning of the modern era and giving the Turks in  central role in world history. However, it was only with the Young Turk Revolution (1908) that overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid II and erected a constitution, that 1453 was formally commemorated as public celebration. The memories and myths of Turkish greatness and resurgence that were used by this new Turkish governemnt to legitimate the present.   

However, following the emergence of the Turkish Republic and Kemalist thought, elite Turkish nationalism’s contempt for the past led to a denouncement of the Ottoman legacy. The Hagia Sophia (then-mosque) was converted into a museum to symbolise a bygone era with the Sultans being criticised for their selfish expansionism. Mehmed’s heroic representation, as well as other representations of key Ottoman figures, were replaced by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Nation. However, the Ottoman legacy could not be erased fully. 1453, through fitting into Kemalist narratives of attributing civilisation to the Turks, was still credited for ushering in the Modern Era whilst being used framing Anatolia as the Turkish ancestral home. 

Following Ataturk’s death (1938) and nearing the quincentenary of the Conquest of Constantinople, the Ottoman history began to seep back into the official Turkish identity. Alongside reifications of the Kemalist narrative, the significance of the Ottoman imperial legacy in popular national identity was validated. Ataturk may have remained enshrined and peering down from his portraits and busts found across the nation, but Mehemd II, Fatih, was raised as his near equal. The 1953 celebration, exactly 500 years after the Seige, reflected this. Costing near 17.3 million Lira, occurring across the nation, and lasting a week, the celebrations ensured that myth and memory continued. While the events symbolised the blending of the imperial and the national, the governemnt made clear it was celebrating the central moment of the founding of Turkey. Turkish Soldier marches were followed by ‘Janissary’ marches, sailors pulled model ships from Golden Horn to symbolise Fatih pulling his ships across land while Ulubati Hasan, the first ‘Turk’ to surmount fortifications and plant the ‘Turkish’ flag, was commemorated in brief ceremony. Representative from across Turkey were invited, alongside Armenian representatives, Greek and Jewish communities, to celebrate the 29th of May, the day of the Seige. The party were addressed by Istanbul’s Mayor who echoed Namik Kemal’s descriptions of Mehmet II; he pressed the Sultan’s humble and generous character who was welcomingly greeted by cheering Byzantines women who presented him with bouquets of flowers. These commemorations solidified the myth and memoires of the Seige in Turkish idenity. Mehmet II was presented as a brilliant, determined but pious leader to aspire to while Ulubati Hasan was depicted as strong, fearless man who willing sacrificed himself for the nation for the common Turk to identify with. Claiming the joys of the Byzantines and they justified the Seige and Turkish claims to Anatolia. And through showing and acting out the Siege’s greatness, they pressed what the Turks did and could do again. 

Myth and memories are fluid, however. Finding fault with the state sponsored celebration, a religious nationalist movement National Outlook (Milli Gorus), led by Necmettin Erbakan, launched its own separate commemorations in 1975. Erbakan, later becoming the head of the religiously oriented Welfare Party, declared his “reconquest” of Istanbul and became prime minister in the 1994 municipal elections. Before having to resign within a year of his election, that year’s May 29th celebrations took place and became a point of struggle between Islamist politicians, the secularist military and the meaning of 1453. This tussle over the defining the central tenets of the conquest stretched into the 2000s until Erdogan’s party came into government. During his tenure he instated the 1453 Panorama Museum, moved the celebrations to walk outside of the Hagia Sophia and now, reversed the museum back into a mosque using Mehmet II’s declarations regarding the eternal mosque-hood of the Hagia Sophia as a justification. Erdogan’s use and reimagining of 1453’s has been neither limited nor subtle.  Now, more than in previous celebrations, Fatih’s piety and acceptance of religious freedom and multiculturalism were stressed alongside Turkish greatness. 

As the Ataturk’s certainties and the idea of a singular Turkish identity are increasingly challenged in public discourse, Turkish history has increasingly become a site of contestation. This, however, has deemed the Conquest of Constantinople no less important. From Mahmud II’s histories, to Namik Kemal’s articles to the nation-wide celebrations of the Seige, 1453 is part of the changing myth making process that presses meaning, norms and destiny into the Turkish nation. 

Bibliography:

Brockett, G. D., When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and Its Contribution to World History, The American Historical Review, Vol. 119, No. 2 (APRIL 2014), pp. 399-433.

Smith A. D., LSE Centennial Lecture: The Resurgence of Nationalism? Myth and Memory in the Renewal of Nations, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 575- 598.

Ozkirimli, U. and Grosby, S., Nationalism Theory Debate: The Antiquity of Nations?, Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2007), pp. 523- 537

Gilroy, P., Nationalism, History and Ethnic Absolutism, History Workshop Journal, Volume 30, Issue 1, (1990), Pages 114–120

Anderson, B., Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, (2007).

Pictures that can be used within article:
Both images obtained from: Brockett, G. D., When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and Its Contribution to World History, The American Historical Review, Vol. 119, No. 2 (APRIL 2014), pp. 399-433.

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