Between the world wars, Turkish schoolchildren imbibed a version of their nation’s past drawn up under the close supervision of Kemal Atatürk, the Father of the Nation himself. Their four-volume history unambiguously asserted the Turks’ central role in the development of world civilization; its maps displayed a fantastic array of bold red lines that snaked outward in all directions from their original home in the Inner Asia heartlands, tracing their peregrinations as far afield as China and Scotland, not to mention the Iberian Peninsula, Morocco, Sudan, India and Java. Had the Turks really left nowhere or nothing untouched? The Hittites were claimed as theirs; so were the Macedonians, Germans, Etruscans–and even for a time the Prophet Muhammad.
Today the Turkish History Thesis looks like another case study in twentieth-century nationalist myth-making, like Himmler’s Tibetan Aryans, French Gauls or King Fuad’s Pharaonism. Yet there was a truth at its core. As those school maps implied, Anatolia–the home of the Turkish Republic–was just one of the Turks’ numerous destinations: But if so, what really was the relationship between modern Turkey and what its intellectuals once called the “Outer Turks” of Central Asia?
Until recently, this was merely a matter of antiquarian interest for most people west of Istanbul. No longer. Last year, London’s Royal Academy hosted a blockbuster of a show titled “The Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600.” Beginning on the borders of seventh-century China, with Buddhist cave paintings from Xinjiang, home today to the Turkic Uyghurs, placed next to massive Kyrgyz stone cupbearers from Central Asia, the exhibition offered a magnificent panorama of cultures and demonstrated through carpets, ceramics, carvings and miniatures how Turkic-speaking peoples acted as the intermediaries for a fusion of Chinese, Persian, Arabic and European traditions. The exhibition ended in 1600, at the summit of Ottoman power, as if to suggest that the Ottoman sultans, Europe’s own Turks, were where this Eurasian world-historical process reached its culmination. But this display of Ottomania–a craze, currently sweeping Istanbul, that has branded everything from Sufi jazz bands to tourist gift shops–was very much a reflection of the present moment. A new generation of Turks is again knocking at Europe’s door, and the show was obviously designed to assert–just as Atatürk’s History Thesis did in the 1930s–Turkey’s civilizational credentials, in a spirit simultaneously defiant and hopeful.
What the exhibition also underscored is that Europe is not the Turks’ only option. Indeed, as the negotiations over European Union membership finally sputtered into life, the country announced the opening of the new billion-dollar oil pipeline from Baku to the Mediterranean, with an equally important gas pipeline not far behind. Turning itself into the hub for the vast fuel reserves of the Caspian basin, it is also looking eastward–to Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics–and rediscovering its past. Turkish membership is the single most important issue likely to confront the EU over the next decade, and the two books reviewed here provide plenty of help in understanding what this transformation of Turkey’s place in the world implies for international affairs. Carter Vaughn Findley’s The Turks in World History is a panoramic and scholarly survey of the Eurasian longue durée, written by a well-respected American historian of the Ottoman Empire; Sons of the Conquerors by Hugh Pope, an experienced correspondent who runs the Istanbul bureau for the Wall Street Journal, contains incisive political and cultural reportage of the same area over the past decade. Between them, they allow us to explore the complex connection between Turkey and the Turks, and in the process to see more clearly where Europe fits in.