Turkey: Ottoman Empire enjoys an image turnaround after years in the cultural wilderness

ISTANBUL (AP) — This month, a troupe of 100 musicians, dancers, acrobats and robed actors is performing an Ottoman-style spectacle near Topkapi Palace, once home to the sultans. An exhibition of Ottoman poetry is on display at Istanbul's international airport. Ottoman cuisine, a fusion of flavors from old imperial lands, is in vogue.

It's quite a turnaround. For most of the last century, Turks were told to look askance at the Ottoman Empire. Nostalgia for the 1453 conquest of Constantinople and other early triumphs was fine — but the excesses of the sultans were the stuff of decay, no model for modern Turkey.

Today, the legacy of the Ottomans is enjoying a makeover.

Turkey is a regional power that no longer sees itself as a junior partner of the West. Its diplomats and entrepreneurs reach out to Iraq, Iran, Syria and other lands once ruled from the Ottoman court. The roots of this confident campaign lie partly in the protocol, pluralism and Islamic piety of the imperial past.

These selective views, the old and the new, mirror a contemporary clash over Turkey's identity. It pits old secular elites in state entities such as the courts and military against an educated class of devout Muslims that has controlled the government since election in 2002.

"This is a point of real contestation: what is the Ottoman Empire for Turkey?" said Donald Quataert, author of "The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922" and a longtime researcher into the lives of Ottoman peasants and workers. "They've been arguing about this for 100 years. It's been going back and forth."

At one time, the Ottoman sultans commanded vast swaths of territory from Istanbul, which spans the European and Asian continents. Their armies marched as far as the gates of Vienna. The rise of European powers compounded their decline, and the empire dissolved in war and chaos at the beginning of the 20th century. The mass killing of Armenians, deemed a genocide by many international experts despite Turkish objections, happened in the last years of Ottoman rule.

Any discussion of its legacy must include Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a war hero who founded the Turkish republic in 1923 as colonial powers gobbled up former Ottoman territories. He abolished the caliphate and its traditions of dress and language, viewed as symbols of stagnation. Secularism was the creed, the West was the model.

Today, Ataturk's image adorns state offices, shops and many private homes. Roads and sports stadiums bear his name. A huge mausoleum in the capital, Ankara, harbors his remains, and most visiting foreign dignitaries are expected to pay tribute. It is a crime in Turkey to insult the memory of Ataturk, whose name means "father of the Turks."

Many Turks, including those who resent how he curtailed religious expression, believe Ataturk saved Turkey in a time of crisis. But increasingly, even staunch supporters admit unquestioning devotion is out of sync with democracy.

"The changes of the republic, like many other things in this country, were imposed from the top and not designed by the public itself, and this is a bad habit of our people," said Ahmet Hicyilmaz, a publicist in Istanbul.

Ataturk's unrelenting nationalism allowed little room for minority rights, seen as a dire threat to state unity. Ottoman advocates, however, note the sultans were generally tolerant of Christians and other minorities in a tactic that may have extended the empire's life.

On Sunday, for the first time since the fall of the empire, Orthodox Christians led by their spiritual leader, Patriarch Bartholomew I, held a Mass at an ancient monastery cut into the side of a mountain near the Black Sea. The Byzantine-era monastery of Sumela was abandoned in 1923.

Turkish nationalists have objected to Bartholomew using the term "ecumenical" to describe his Istanbul-based patriarchate, fearing it implies a Vatican-style state on Turkish soil. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to Ottoman times when asked about the matter by a journalist during a May visit to Greece.

"When it comes to the question of ecumenical, if the term did not bother my ancestors, than it does not bother me," Erdogan said, using an Ottoman-era term for ancestor — "ecdad" — instead of the modern Turkish term, "ata."

Erdogan, a fierce critic of Israel, has cited the Ottoman Empire as evidence that Turks are not anti-Semitic. Many of Turkey's Jews trace roots to Spain, where Jews fled persecution in the 15th century and were welcomed by the Ottomans.

"Republican history taught the Ottoman era in a very backward and negative light," Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee, wrote in an email to the Associated Press. "We are now correcting the imbalance on our historical perceptions."

The Islamic-oriented government, however, objects to the term "neo-Ottoman," which has been used by some commentators to describe Turkey's outreach to former colonies. Turkey says it has no hegemonic intent.

Even Kurdish rebels fighting the Turkish state for autonomy are looking to imperial history to press their case. A recent rebel statement quoted a top leader, Murat Karayilan, as saying Kurds always enjoyed autonomy under Ottoman rule.

Now that the Ottomans are back in favor, there is the danger of glossing things over. Many Turks know Piri Reis, an admiral and mapmaker, as a key figure in Ottoman marine history. Fewer know that he was beheaded after a falling out with authorities.

Historian Ilber Ortayli, head of the museum at Topkapi Palace, said the Ottoman empire was the "basic identity" of the Turkish people, excluding some minority groups. He said Turks were studying the period in earnest, though the road to full understanding was long.

"We didn't learn it well," he said. "Our knowledge is full of mistakes and black holes."


Associated Press writer Erol Israfil contributed to this report.