Ottoman Empire still has pull for many Turks

As Turks observe 700th anniversary of empire's founding, some feel link

At its peak, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Budapest to Baghdad and encompassed almost the whole of the Balkans and the modern Middle East. In the West its name conjured images of fearsome armies and all the danger and allure of the Orient. Later it was always on the verge of collapse. For modern Turks, who this year are celebrating the 700th anniversary of its foundation, the Ottoman Empire offers a decidedly mixed legacy.

The Ottoman Empire still evokes strong feelings in Turkey. A popular comedian and a nationalist politician almost came to blows during a debate on the subject shown on television recently. Historian Mete Tuncay, at Bilgi University in Istanbul, muses that politics have always included discussion of the Ottoman past: "History seems to be warmer here than in other countries - it's always manipulated for contemporary purposes."

In part, this is because links with some of the Ottoman regions are still alive and deeply felt. They were visible in the intense and widespread public anger over the killings of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya. Surveys have shown that a sizable minority of Turkey's population have parents or grandparents who emigrated from former Ottoman lands in the Balkans and the Caucasus.

It's not unusual, when speaking to Turks about their families, to hear mention of Yugoslavia or Macedonia. And in the decade since the collapse of communism, many Bulgarian Turks have immigrated to Turkey.

More recently, as the Kosovo crisis has escalated, hundreds of refugees have found their way to Turkey - and the Turkish press has reported that most of them plan to stay with relatives here.

"We have a great obligation to these people," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem last week. "For us they are a memorial of history. We want them to be able to claim their own lands, but we will provide every comfort to those who come here."

Aware of the region's potential for conflict, Turkey has tried to improve its relations with former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, signing a tripartite agreement with Romania and Bulgaria and taking the leading role in the formation of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization.

Religion and state

Religion is at the heart of many arguments over the Ottoman legacy. The Ottoman rulers were also spiritual leaders of the Muslim world. But since its founding, the Turkish Republic has pursued a policy of strict secularism. The country, nevertheless, has a strong Islamic movement, and many Islamists look back fondly to the Ottoman past as an example of how religion can be part of the state.

Islamists themselves are divided in their view of the Ottomans - mainly because, as some Islamist writers admit, the Ottoman sultans weren't very pious. Many were famously fond of wine and women.

Thus the Islamists highlight certain parts of the Ottoman legacy and try to explain away the rest. They are not the only ones to adopt this tactic. The version of Ottoman history taught in schools emphasizes the Turkishness of the empire; in fact, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and Greeks took prominent places in the Ottoman court.

Avedis, a Turk of Armenian origin, thinks that the achievements of Armenians and other ethnic and religious groups have been deliberately excluded from the official version of history taught at school. He points out that Sinan, the empire's greatest architect who built many of the mosques that still grace the Istanbul skyline, was born a Greek Orthodox Christian.

Many Turks don't know he wasn't born a Turk - including the tour guides at some of Sinan's most famous buildings, Avedis says.

A distant past for some

For a younger generation of secular Turks, the past really is a foreign country. "We are all children of the republic. The Ottomans are strangers to us," says Aylin, a student.

She is echoing the line taken by the founders of the Turkish Republic, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Everything Ataturk and his colleagues did in the republic's early years was intended to cut the ties to the past.

The last Ottoman sultan, Vahdettin, was sent into ignominious exile. The fez, the distinctive felt hat worn by the Ottomans, was banned, and the spidery Ottoman script, with its Persian and Arabic roots, was replaced by the Latin alphabet.

In those years any celebration of an Ottoman anniversary "would have been unthinkable," according to Hakan Erdem, professor of Ottoman history at Istanbul's Bosporus University. "It was seen as something which had been abolished, done away with."

But nevertheless Mr. Erdem sees ties with the past, pointing out that many respected Turkish institutions - teacher training schools, police force, fire brigade - date back to Ottoman times. And Ataturk himself was following the line of later Ottoman reformers, who saw Westernization and modernization as the empire's only hope of survival.

"Too many people think that history is a kind of reservoir you can draw from when you have a point to prove," says Erdem. He hopes that the anniversary celebrations will give Turks the chance to take a closer look at their past.

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