What is behind Erdoğan’s Palace Fetish?

Definitely, Erdoğan has an obsession with palaces. Journalist Murat Bardakçı recently reported that Yıldız Palace, a 19th century Ottoman palace most famously used by Sultan Abdülhamit II, was now allocated for use of the Turkish presidency. In her last state visit to Turkey, Erdoğan hosted Chancellor Merkel there. Only in İstanbul, presently there appears to be three presidential residences: Huber Villa (Tarabya campus), Çengelköy Villa that is lately renewed and Yıldız Palace. Now I say “villa” and “residence” but you should know that they are actually compounds comprising of many buildings.

Mabeyn Pavillion at Yıldız Palace Compound.

The Great Mabeyn Pavillion at Yıldız Palace.

Çengelköy Villa is also known as Vahdettin Villa, named after the last Ottoman sultan who is regarded as a disgraced figure by many. Mostly because he ordered Atatürk’s death as he opposed İstanbul’s rule in his bid to start war of independence. The sultan eventually left İstanbul by a British vessel. Yet, unsurprisingly, in the “alternative” history writing of the Islamists, he is a revered ruler who actually sent Atatürk off to Anatolia to start the war of independence. But then the sneaky Atatürk betrayed him and abolished the sultanate, Islamists believe. Erdoğan’s choice to utilize Vahdettin Villa says a lot. The same thing goes also for the Yıldız Palace that is associated with Sultan Abdülhamit II who is another a poster boy for conservatives. A very smart leader, Abdülhamit II sought to unite whatever remains of the Ottoman Empire through Islamic identity as the Empire had lost most of its provinces in Europe and held generally Muslim-populated lands. Some Islamists go as far as seeing him as a saint and his rule as an anti-thesis for secular system. In addition to being a figure of greatness, he is also a victim as he was deposed by the progressive Young Turks that restored the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. Of course, Islamists do not know and/or go great lengths to overlook the fact that Abdülhamit was pretty much a European monarch: he loved opera, theater, Sherlock Holmes novels and, according to one of his grandsons Ertuğrul Osmanoğlu, drinking rom.

Changes in Ankara are pretty much in line with those in İstanbul. In an unprecedented move, Çankaya which was built in Atatürk’s time and had been the residence of the Turkish presidents since, was given to the Prime Ministry. In historic Çankaya’s stead, a new palace with 1150 rooms that could be rivalled by only Ceausescu’s palace in size and tastelessness, was built in 2014. The official cost was $615 million but Turkey’s Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) rejected to state the real cost of the presidential complex because it could “hurt the economy”. With a bigger palace came also a much bigger budget: from 55 million Turkish lira in 2008, the Presidency’s budget increased to 397 million ($137.7 million) in 2015. The money wasted was not the only cost, however. The complex was built on Atatürk Forest Farm. The construction destroyed much of the one of Atatürk’s most important legacies, hundreds of trees were cut down. Though from the Gezi Park protests, you may already know that Erdoğan is no big fan of green spaces. Nor is he a fan of the law. So the construction went on despite the court decision to halt it.

Much as I dislike the reasons behind choosing these specific historic structures for use of presidency, I support restoring and renewing them as well as occasionally using them for various state events. That would be a perfectly reasonable way to keep them alive. But does the office of presidency need this many palaces? Or is it one man’s ego that needs them so much? Erdoğan’s supporters seem to believe that the recent presidential extravagance displays “greatness” of Turkey. For them, it is a display of power both in international stage and in the domestic arena, a restoration of the former glory of the Ottoman Empire. Though I think the Ottomans fancied by them so much would have strongly disagreed with them. In the peak of its power, the vast Ottoman Empire was being ruled from Topkapı Palace that was indeed very modest compared to palaces in Europe and Russia. The greatest Turkish architect Sinan, the head architect of Suleiman the Magnificent, never really built a single mighty palace but many mosques, bridges and baths… Until the protocol of 19th century made it necessary, Ottoman emperors did not think to build and live in lavish palaces. Of course, the Empire was weak in the 19th century and perhaps, through the palaces matching those of Europe, it needed to show that it was still in the game. In the 15th and 16th centuries, might of the Empire could be observed in its mosques, military structures, fountains not in its original, practical but extremely modest palaces… So, a look at the history shows that there exists a negative correlation between power of the Turkish state and the level of fancy for palaces.

Topkapı Palace

Topkapı Palace

Restoring residences of Sultan Vahdettin and Sultan Abdülhamit II as presidential offices, destroying much of Atatürk Forest Farm, abandoning Çankaya as presidential residence and holding state events in İstanbul so frequently as if it were the capital of the country are intensely ideological choices. In the process, laws are ignored, as is economic rationality. The whole thing that is costing too much and gaining nothing for the people, is being presented as a necessary step to increase the country’s international recognition. The people who are still obsessively envisioning an Ottoman comeback are more than willing to swallow this.

Hence, behind every shining object in these palaces, there is a something very rotten.

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İstanbul’s Third Bridge: Why So Grim?

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

The 2nd Bosphorus Bridge, named after Mehmet the Conqueror.

In 1995, then the Mayor of İstanbul Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said:

A third bridge is a murder for İstanbul. It is nothing but massacring the remaining green areas in the city’s north by zoning the area for construction. I hope the government will change without this murder being committed.

The government of the time changed and so did Erdoğan’s position, dramatically. Now he is taking the credit for building that third bridge that he once fiercely opposed. As can be seen from Erdoğan’s past remark, topic of a new bridge on Boshphorus has always sparked controversies. But distinctively, the current debate focuses more on the bridge’s name than on concerns about urban development. Without any open criteria, surveys or consultations with NGOs, the government announced it had named the bridge after 9th emperor of the Ottoman Empire Yavuz Sultan Selim (Yavuz being his nickname, usually translated as “the Grim” or more correctly “the Stern”) who is, to put it mildly, a highly unpopular figure among Turkey’s large Alevi community that practices a uniquely heterodox way of Islam.

Alevis openly expressed their opposition, due to the fact that many Anatolian Alevis were persecuted and killed during Selim’s campaigns against Safavid Iran at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Balkız, head of Alevi-Bektaşi Federation, said “We, Alevis, will not pass through that bridge.” Columnist Yavuz Semerci stated he would continue calling it “The Third Bridge” instead of “Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge”. Prof. İzzettin Doğan, honorary president of an umbrella association of many Alevi NGOs, said “A mistake was made at a time when sectarian wars are being provoked in the region. Selim is believed to be responsible of massacre of countless Alevis…” Renowned historian Prof. İlber Ortaylı suggested that the name Mimar Sinan who was the chief architect of three Ottoman sultans, would be more appropriate. Even Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who is controversially close the ruling party AKP, spoke up: After talking of cultural and emotional “bridges” between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey, he said “Because of one bridge, let’s not destroy many others”. Other intellectuals also voiced similar concerns and suggestions.

Of all the thirty-six sultans the Ottoman Empire had, choosing Selim the Stern sends a message, people believe. This issue is clearly a part of a wider “war of symbols” that is now occurring within an extremely polarized Turkish society. But to understand this domestic squabble that has historical roots, we should separate it from the bigger picture and take a look at Selim’s legacy and what it means for both conservatives represented by the ruling AKP and also Alevis.

As can be understood from his nickname, Selim was ferocious: he killed his brothers Prince Korkut and Prince Ahmet along with their sons and dethroned his peaceful father Bayezit II in a coup. (This kind of makes Erdoğan’s praise of Selim ironic, considering how he dramatically portrayed himself and Mohamed Mursi as victims because of “coup attempts” in Turkey and Egypt’s actual coup.) He was always very war-like. Even when he was Sancakbeyi (a title close to governor) of Trabzon and a prince, he attacked Georgians, took Kuban and made bold moves against the Safavids — actions greatly exceeding his authority. He had a very angry character. He never tolerated the officers who failed and lied to him, was famous for having his Grand Viziers executed. There’s no doubt that he was a military genius: He won every battle he fought decisively, used the latest technology of his time to bring his enemies to their knees. İlber Ortaylı points out that he passed through Sinai desert with fewer casualties than Cemal Paşa did during World War I.

Selim’s reign was not long -only 8 years- but in his short era the Empire’s lands more than doubled. He visited İstanbul only once, in his childhood and during his rule, he spent almost all his time on military campaigns. So, he barely lived in İstanbul, which according to some, makes his name less relevant for the bridge which will become one of the symbols of the city.

At the beginning of 16th century, Shah İsmail I of Safavid Empire made Shia the official sect of Iran, had it embraced as also a kind of ideology and was trying to export it to Anatolia. The Shah sent his militants to Anatolia to spread the Safavid doctrine of Shi’ism. Even as a young prince Selim was aware of the threat and angry at his father for not taking action against the Safavids. So after taking his father’s throne by force and eliminating the possible candidates for emperorship, he started his Iranian campaign in 1514. After following Shah’s army for months, Ottoman army met Safavid forces on a plain called Chaldiran. There, the Safavids suffered a disastrous defeat that forced the wounded Shah flee from the battlefield. The Ottomans advanced even further and took Tabriz which was then the capital of Iran. During the war, many Alevis were killed and the incidents left a mark in the memory of their community. It’s said that 40.000 Alevis were killed, although some experts question this figure as 16th century’s census documents (a.k.a. tahrir defterleri, special documents that include many statistics for taxation) do not indicate such a loss of population.

There was also a cultural side to the war. The Safavid dynasty and its army were Turkish, as well, which made it easy for some Turkmen Beys in Anatolia to pledge their allegiance to the Shah. The Ottoman Empire was more cosmopolitan, urban, and orthodoxly Islamic. The Safavids, however, were representing a more rural and Anatolian culture, more tolerant of Turkmen Alevis’ nomadic roots and heterodox ways, therefore, I daresay they were “more Turkish” in some respect. For instance, today an average Turk in Turkey would understand poems of İsmail I much better than he would understand Selim’s poems, for Selim used a Turkish that is mixed with Persian and Arabic (in some poems he used only Persian), whereas İsmail’s Turkish was pure, clear and closer to modern Turkish.

The conflict was ultimately more strategic than sectarian. Selim was relentless towards Anatolian Alevis not because he believed their faith was twisted but because he saw them as collaborators of the Shah. He didn’t give Alevis the kind of autonomy that he granted the Kurdish tribes who were located to today’s South-East Turkey to encounter Iranian influence.

His Mamluk campaign is another factor that enhances Selim image in minds of today’s conservatives. Between 1516 and 1517, with three battles, Selim annihilated Mamluk Sultanate, ruled by a Turkish-Circassian dynasty, conquering much of the Middle East including the sacred cities of Islam. For that he took the title “Servant of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina”. Most of the sacred objects exhibited today at Topkapı Palace in İstanbul were brought in his time. More importantly, he was the first Ottoman emperor to officially take the title “Caliph of Islam”.

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Tomb of Selim the Stern (Photo taken by Sinan Doğan)

Hence, for most of those represented by AKP, Selim is a hero, whereas, for Alevis, he is an oppressive and atrocious figure. A well-known law professor Hüseyin Hatemi, went as far as saying “For Alevis, Selim is what Hitler means for Jews.” Undoubtedly, the bridge bearing his name will be a reminder of past sufferings and bloodshed for the country’s large Alevi community. And instead of pride, they will take offense from that grandeur structure. Among all Ottoman emperors, Selim is perhaps the most divisive figure. That’s why many other names that are more relevant and less controversial were recommended to the PM. But his “my way or the high way” attitude still continues.

For long, Alevis have been at odds with the AKP government over a number of matters. They have been expecting reforms regarding the status of their temples, structure of Directorate of Religious Affairs, contents of compulsory religion lessons at schools and so forth. Yet the PM’s recently unveiled democratization package addressed none of these issues, causing disappointment and anger. For that, they now feel even more excluded.

Plus, choosing Selim the Stern seems to be a promotion of an identity that is more Muslim and “Ottoman” less Turkish, more “imperial” less national. That’s why he has a special place in conservative minds. That’s why 122 schools in Turkey bear his name. That’s why the bridge’s foundation ceremony was conducted with prayers and lots of references to Ottoman glory. Yet, a part of the society, the part that is socio-economically more developed, the part that joined massive Gezi Park protests, does not intend to wear this identity whatsoever. This is not because they hate “Ottoman” and “Selim” images particularly, but because they hate the fact that the government tries to make them to be like its own voters who are more pious and obedient.

A bridge is supposed to connect, but considering the motives of the government, it seems that this one is doomed to divide.