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.
Who is a Turk? worried Turkish nationalists a century ago as the Ottoman Empire’s European provinces slipped from the Porte’s grasp. To counter Russian pan-Slavism and the weak Ottoman response, some of them came up with a new ideology: pan-Turkism. Their raw material was the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had been forced to make their way into Anatolia from the Caucasus, the Crimea and the Balkans. Racially, socially and linguistically diverse, they mainly shared their faith, and many might well have empathized with Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s vision of pan-Islamic solidarity. But after World War I, with the empire on its deathbed and even its Arab provinces lost, religion was not the common denominator to which Atatürk and his fellow republicans would appeal. On the contrary, they abolished the caliphate, dissolved most of the Sufi orders and brought the ulema under close control. Seeing in secularism and state supervision of religion the route to modernity, they took their civil code from Switzerland and their criminal law from Italy, and defined belonging in the new Turkish nation-state through language–stripping Ottoman Turkish of its Arabic and Persian accretions, and writing it in the Latin script. Many refugees found themselves and their children learning a new tongue.
New to them, perhaps, but Turkish was and had long been a kind of lingua franca for merchants, political agitators and pilgrims across much of Central Asia and western China. Ironically, however, as the Turkish Republic rose from the ashes of the old empire, the simultaneous triumph of Soviet Communism curtailed such contacts. Atatürk concentrated on preserving Turkish sovereignty in Anatolia itself. And when his rival and former commander, Enver Pasha, died in battle in 1922, hopes of a pan-Turkish uprising against the Bolshevik regime died with him. Its external boundaries patrolled more rigorously than they ever had been by the tsars, the Soviet Union encompassed the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia and cut them off from their neighbors. Later, Chinese Communist rule in Xinjiang had a similarly isolating effect so far as the Uyghurs were concerned. The twentieth century thus marked both the rise of modern Turkey and the fragmentation of a Turkic oikumene (homeland) that had existed for more than a millennium.
Among the chief creators of that Turkic Eurasia had been the Mongol khans, whose world empire rested on the twin pillars of Turkish and Islam. In 1401 the historian Ibn Khaldun was brought to meet their last great leader, Tamerlane, outside the walls of Damascus. In his works on world history, the scholar had argued that the key determinant of civilization was the endless cyclical struggle between nomadic and sedentary peoples; one could, he argued, see that process at work among the Arabs in the seventh century, for instance, or in the clash between the Berbers of North Africa and the cities of the Iberian Peninsula. Tamerlane, of course, whose conquests extended from Moscow to Delhi, provided the clearest possible illustration of the military power of a nomadic polity. Although neither of the two men could have known it, as they conversed about history, religion and business, Tamerlane was also its last major representative. In the great Mongol eruption of the early fifteenth century, the first phase of Turkic history ended and a second began. Ibn Khaldun’s cycle of history was broken, and the age of Turkic wanderings was replaced by the consolidation of highly organized Turkic empires.
It had all begun, as Findley makes clear in The Turks in World History, about eight centuries earlier. Turks were in demand for their military skills, and many became mercenaries in the Arab armies of the Middle East. In the tenth century, they started to settle in significant numbers in Iran and Syria; soon they were pressing upon the borders of Byzantine Anatolia. In 1071 the Seljuk Turks succeeded where Arab armies had failed, and by defeating a Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, they gradually conquered the Anatolian highlands, pushing the zone of Christendom back to the coast. Since these Turkic invaders had adopted Islam, their victory opened Anatolia to Muslim settlement as well. In fact, Islam was the overwhelmingly favored religion of those tribes that moved south and west, though some Turkic tribes adopted Christianity and others Judaism and Buddhism. (One eighth-century Uyghur ruler became Manichean, testimony to the enduring influence of Persian culture.) But religious conversion was only part of the transition from a nomadic, pastoralist, tribal-based polity to a more sedentary urban state. As groups of tribes made this transition, they allied their own military skills with the bureaucratic and administrative techniques of those they conquered–whether Chinese, Persian or Byzantine. Far from destroying the states they overran, in other words, the Turks were in some respects if not conquered then deeply influenced by those they had defeated. The Mamluk rulers of Egypt ended up speaking Arabic; the Moghuls, Persian and later Urdu.
For nomad dynasties, as Ibn Khaldun stressed, the challenge was not so much conquest as managing to hold on to power for more than one or two generations. Turkish settlement in Anatolia did not immediately bring political stability, and the Seljuks themselves were soon pushed aside as the region was carved up among powerful emirs. The family that became known as the Ottomans was one of the lesser of these dynasties, stationed on the northwestern border with the Byzantines. Starting in the early fourteenth century, they pushed westward, taking over Christian lands in Anatolia and then moving to the European shore. Among their allies were disillusioned Byzantine generals, Catholic-hating Orthodox bishops and Balkan princes, while dynastic marriages brought Christian princesses into imperial harems. From the start, therefore, the Ottoman state was associated, to an extent unmatched by any other Turkic polity, with the world of Eastern Christendom. Even if we do not go as far as the Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga, who claimed that the Ottoman Empire was a kind of “Byzantium after Byzantium,” it certainly owed much to its predecessor. Following the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed’s proud claim to be the emperor of the Romans reflected this European orientation.
Tamerlane had nearly put an end to the Ottomans’ dizzying ascent to world power. Shortly after his meeting with Ibn Khaldun, his Turkic-speaking Mongol army inflicted the worst defeat in Ottoman history, plunging the empire into a two-decade succession crisis. When the empire re-emerged, it was into a very different era. Gunpowder now gave the upper hand to highly organized imperial polities and doomed nomadic dynasties like Tamerlane’s that were unable to adjust. As his successors argued among themselves, the steppe peoples lost their lethality and fell under the control of the empires of Russia and China; the last to go were the picturesque khanates of Bukhara and Khiva in the mid-nineteenth century. Where Turkic states survived, it was because they made the transition to a different form of imperial government–in the Ottoman lands but also in Safavid Persia and Moghul India.
Findley’s lucid exposition mines a rich vein of historical comparison. Although all three dynasties were of Turkic origin, only under the Ottomans were Turkish speakers sufficiently numerous to preserve their tongue as the linguistic foundation of the empire. The fate of Islam in the three empires was very different too: In India, the Moghuls quickly stretched the letter of the religious law in order to come to terms with a predominantly Hindu population; in Safavid Persia, at the other extreme, the dynasty forced Twelver Shiism upon the largely Sunni population. The Ottomans, who conquered Syria, Egypt and the holy places of the Hijaz as their Safavid rivals seized power to their east, reacted by emphasizing the Sunni character of the state and claimed the caliphate for further legitimacy. Of these three dominant powers of southern Eurasia, the Ottomans were the oldest and most successful, easily outlasting the others before finally succumbing in the aftermath of World War I.
Findley leaves no doubt as to the massive impact of Turkic tribes on the history of Eurasia, whether in the earlier phase of nomadic raiding empires or in the later transition to settled dynastic and bureaucratic states. But what–aside from language–did the Turks have in common? Sometimes it seems as if both authors are searching for a set of special racial characteristics of one kind or another. Pope talks a trifle unnervingly about “a universal Turkic look,” a certain recognizable physical type, and he even suggests, buying perhaps a little too readily into the mythology of the Atatürkist military, that the Turks have a special genius for war. For his part, Findley sees a metaphorical carpet being woven on the loom of Turkish historical experience, binding the Turkic world together. But does it really hold? A language of quasi-racial unity that would be shouted down if applied to any European people–who spends much time pondering the unity of the Slavs?–still, it seems, holds an appeal for Turkish specialists.
Not surprisingly, given today’s obsessions, another way of identifying what makes the Turks special involves highlighting their attitude to Islam. Both Pope and Findley, like other contemporary commentators, want to suggest that there is a Turkic form of Islam, more flexible, tolerant and adaptable to the modern world than its Arab counterparts. They see the roots of this in Central Asian shamanism, Mongol religious syncretism and Sufi traditions, and find its political expression in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party. To my ears this explanation is unconvincing. If we are interested in the differences between Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, it is probably neither necessary nor accurate to talk in terms of some benign syncretism–as though external influences are required to drain an essentially belligerent faith of its venom. Such an approach involves a question-begging definition of what Islam “really” is. History and politics are surely more relevant. By preserving Turkish independence and preventing Anatolia from being carved up after 1918, Atatürk marked Turkey out from the less fortunate Arab provinces to the south and gave his successors a unique legacy in the Middle East and fewer grievances vis-à-vis the West. More recently too, as Pope observes, the Turkish regimes and states of the post-cold war era have found that unlike the Arabs, their interests have largely coincided with the policies of the United States. As so often, what we pose as a question of religion is really a matter of geopolitical fortunes.
The truth is that religious and linguistic kinship binds Turks together about as much as it does the Slavs, which is to say not at all. Pope’s adventures around the Turkic world chart its–and his–gradual disenchantment with the vision of a common cultural and political space that briefly seized hold of Turkish politicians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For a moment, the end of the cold war made it look as though the legacies of Atatürk and Enver could be combined. In the early 1990s, President Ozal tried to persuade the rulers of the newly independent Central Asian republics of the benefits of Turkey’s hegemony. But their new political elites were keen to enjoy their newfound freedom. They wanted Turkish know-how and capital; the Azeris wanted Turkish arms in Nagorno-Karabakh. But none wanted to sacrifice independence for a pan-Turkish dream. Since 1993 the pan-Turkish summits have gone nowhere. The Eastern option, driven as late as 1997 from Ankara after the humiliation of being rebuffed for early membership by Brussels, now looks moribund.
In a sequence of superbly reported episodes, Pope explains why. New despots rule most of the Central Asian republics with an iron hand and try to buy off the populace with the proceeds of oil, gas and mineral exploitation. Meanwhile, the legacy of Soviet-era pollution and ecological devastation continues to haunt the region. Despite its vast natural wealth, Azerbaijan has been unable to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh from the equally impoverished Armenians–so much for Turkic military prowess. Turkey itself keeps aloof, providing the Azeris with a lesson in the difference between the rhetoric of racial solidarity and the reality of national interest; Pope describes an Enver Pasha garage that stands forlornly on the way to Moscow Prospekt. As a result, the prospect of Moscow, weakened beyond what anyone could have imagined in 1989, is paradoxically less frightening to the Central Asian republics: After a lot of talk about introducing the Latin alphabet, Cyrillic still rules.
If Pope’s picture of the stagnation of life in Central Asia is deeply depressing, Turkey itself seems to be a country transformed. Starting with the economic liberalization of the 1980s and accelerating with the move toward Europe in the past decade, the country appears galvanized by new energy. Pope hails the provincial entrepreneurs whose goods are Turkey’s chief influence eastward and a powerful reason why Turkey still outweighs Iran as a regional power. This group underpins the rise of Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP and shows, he argues, the compatibility of Islam with capitalism and democracy. Meanwhile, the old state apparatus fights anything more than cosmetic change: At the Aydin police station–whose chief is an honorary mayor of Baton Rouge–they are playing Leonard Cohen through the public address system, but Pope is still kept away from the antiterrorist cells.
And what of Europe, accustomed for so long to see itself as the Turks’ opposite? The historical irony that leaps out of Findley’s invigorating survey in particular is that the inhabitants of present-day Turkey and of its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, were and are in fact the most Europeanized of the Turks, as deeply marked by their proximity to Christendom as Khublai Khan was by China. Indeed, today’s second-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany and the Netherlands, interviewed by Pope, feel more at home there than in Anatolia. They have no difficulty accommodating their religious views–in fact, they find the atmosphere freer in some ways than it was back home, and as the generations pass, the clash between village ways and the new habits of urban life is attenuated. There are thus many reasons to welcome the EU’s recent decision to open negotiations with Turkey. But as Austria’s resistance to this suggests, old stereotypes die hard: It is not only the Turkish History Thesis that needs revision.