Turks Reclaim the Ottoman Empire ; New Interest in History Is Helping Rehabilitate a Decadent Part of the Past

By Bilefsky, Dan | International Herald Tribune, November 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Turks Reclaim the Ottoman Empire ; New Interest in History Is Helping Rehabilitate a Decadent Part of the Past


Bilefsky, Dan, International Herald Tribune


Led by film and television, Turks today are expressing a fascination with the country's Ottoman history.

Since the lavish, feel-good Turkish epic "Conquest 1453" had its premiere this year, the tale of the taking of Constantinople by the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II has become the highest-grossing film in Turkey's history, released in 12 countries across the Middle East and in Germany and the United States. But its biggest impact may be the cultural triumphalism it has magnified at home.

"Conquest 1453," or "Fetih 1453" in Turkish, 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. The producers of "Once Upon a Time Ottoman Empire Mutiny," a television series about the 18th-century insurrection against Sultan Ahmet Khan III, said they planned to build a theme park where visitors would be able to wander through a reproduction of Ottoman-era Istanbul and watch sword fights by stuntmen. At least four new films portray the battle of Gallipoli, the bloody World War I face-off between the Ottomans and Allied forces over the straits of Dardanelles and one of the greatest victories of modern Turkey. The coming "In Gallipoli" has sought out Mel Gibson to star as a British commander.

The Ottoman period, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries, was marked by geopolitical dominance and cultural prowess, during which the sultans claimed the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world, before the empire's slow decline culminated in World War I. For years the period was underplayed in the history taught to schoolchildren, as the new Turkish Republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 sought to break with a decadent past.

Now, as Turkey is emerging as a leader in the Middle East, buoyed by strong economic growth, a new fascination with history is being reflected in everything from foreign policy to facial hair. In the arts, framed examples of Ottoman-era water print designs, known as Ebru and associated with Islamic motifs, have gained in popularity among the country's growing Islamic bourgeoisie, adorning walls of homes and offices, jewelry and even business cards.

The three-year-old Panorama Museum, which showcases an imposing 360-degree, 45-foot-tall, or nearly 14-meter, painting of the siege of Constantinople, complete with deafening cannon fire blasts and museum security guards dressed as Janissary soldiers, is drawing huge crowds.

And in the past few years there has been a proliferation of Ottoman-themed soap operas, none more popular than "The Magnificent Century," a sort of "Sex in the City" set during the 46-year reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The Turkish show pulpishly chronicles the imperial household and harem, including the rise of Suleiman's slave girl-turned-queen, Hurrem. Last year it was broadcast in 32 countries, including Morocco and Kosovo.

The empire's rehabilitation has inspired mixed feelings among cultural critics. "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," said Melis Behlil, a film studies professor at Kadir Has University here. But, she warned: "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."

Faruk Aksoy, the 48-year-old director of "Conquest 1453," said he had dreamed of making a film about the conquering of Istanbul ever since he arrived there at the age of 10 from Urfa, in Turkey's rugged southeast, and had been mesmerized by Istanbul's imperial grandeur. …

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