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”.
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.