The commemoration in Istanbul for a long-dead Ottoman official came to a close. Once everyone had made their way from the graveside, a curious cemetery guard approached and tried to puzzle out the single word of Ottoman Turkish inscribed on the back of the headstone. “Was his name Ali?” the guard asked and then craned his neck around to check the modern Turkish on the front of the grave; he was happy to see he’d correctly read the Ottoman swirls.
The people of Turkey live surrounded by such puzzles. Whether inscriptions over old doorways, dedications on crumbling Ottoman fountains, or on the pages of old family letters – any Turkish written before 1928, is, to most people here, unintelligible.
This is because since that date, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who had founded modern Turkey five years earlier, decreed that Turkish would be written with Latin letters. Before 1928, Turkish was written with the Arabic alphabet. (The new Turkish alphabet did not contain q, w or x – omissions later used to suppress written Kurdish, but not other foreign languages, and certainly not the “www” of the World Wide Web. Only in September this year did the Turkish government relieve the country of this absurdity and allow Kurdish to be used in schools, political propaganda, and place-names.)
Atatürk’s new alphabet drew a remarkable demarcation and made the past even more of a foreign country. Since 1928 the people of Turkey have grown up unable to read their own history. But today, through the Quran courses, religious schools and Ottoman Turkish classes that have become more popular and accessible, more and more people are learning to decipher the cursive of their forebears.
“This came with the support from the Turkish government over the last 10 years,” said Efdaluddin Kılıç, a teacher of Ottoman Turkish at the Caferaga Medresesi, a 450-year-old Ottoman schoolhouse, just steps away from Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Under the school’s arches and arcades students learn paper marbling, miniature painting, calligraphy, ceramics, and Ottoman Turkish. “All these so-called ‘Ottoman arts’ have been given more space in galleries and more research is being done at universities,” Kılıç said.
And it's not just cultural. It's also big business. The façades of the new Istanbul Finance Centre will – at the government's request – be done-up with Ottoman motifs. Every season seems to bring with it a new film, theme park or exhibition celebrating Istanbul's 1453 Muslim conquest. A TV ad for the "1453" housing development even stars proprietor Ali Agaoglu audaciously riding a white horse, an unsubtle reminder of the steed Mehmet the Conqueror first rode into town 560 years ago. Turkey's favourite recent export is The Magnificent Century, a TV soap opera set in the court of Sultan Suleyman I.
And most famous – perhaps now infamous – is the government’s suspended plan to build an imitation Ottoman barracks to house a shopping mall, destroying, in the process, central Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Fans and critics alike see promotion of the Ottoman past – whether through sentimental mimicry or substantive cultural education – as an ideological act, that is, a countering of decades of “official” Turkish history, which exalted the modern republic over its collapsed imperial predecessor.
“If you put Ottoman classes in high schools, it’s not something scientific, it’s ideological. If the state supports a TV series about Ottoman history, it’s not educational, it’s totally ideological,” said Mehmet Fatih Uslu, teacher of comparative literature at Istanbul’s Sehir University.
And to understand why Turkey’s current government – the openly religious Justice and Development Party led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – might feel justified in supporting things that counter Turkey’s founding ideology, one need look no further than the alphabet change itself.
The new alphabet was one of a set of radical decrees by which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his colleagues reshaped society according to “modern” and “European” ideals during the early years of the republic.
“The change of alphabet may be the most important revolution of the Kemalist era,” says Uslu in his Sehir University office. The new alphabet was promoted as better suited to Turkish and as a way to communicate better with the technologically advanced countries of the West. Turkish did come to look like French, German and English, but more importantly, Uslu explained, the new alphabet created a hole in society.
“Not only did it make it impossible to read Ottoman Turkish, it made it harder to read the Quran, to learn Arabic,” said Uslu. “It really cut something very deep. It was not only a wall to the Ottoman past, it was also a wall to Islamic culture.” The space once occupied by Islam could then be filled with new “modern” influences.
"It was a totally avant-garde project. It was a futurist project," said Uslu, who is also translator of University of Oxford linguist Geoffrey Lewis's history of the Turkish language reform, wonderfully subtitled A Catastrophic Success.
Uslu argues that Atatürk's programme had a European objective, but was also in line with contemporary European ideas, such as those of Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who, in 1909, wrote the Manifesto of Futurism.
It is tantalising perspective – and suggests a broader question for historians: What is revealed by comparing the transformation from Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic with other modernist movements in Europe that also passed through the crucible of the First World War?
Turks have never fully renounced their Ottoman heritage. And indeed, as the empire ceased to exist and the republic emerged, many apparent breaks and ruptures were actually continuations of Ottoman trends, only more radical.
All school kids in Turkey, for example, know Atatürk changed their alphabet – personally tinkering with it, and famously teaching it across the country. But few learn that a new alphabet had been a project of Ottoman intellectuals and statesmen for decades.
Creating and exploiting Turkish nationalism was another late Ottoman policy that found radical expression in the new republic. Though policies like the alphabet change were designed to cut the influence of Islam on society, being Muslim remained the sine qua non of the new Turkish nationalist identity. It was assumed that Kurds, as Muslims, could be assimilated into “Turks”, and as such, were denied their distinct identity and disenfranchised from their language. Meanwhile the marginalising, deporting, and massacring of different religious groups during late Ottoman times (including the Armenian Genocide) gave way to wholesale population transfers once the Lausanne Treaty established the Turkish Republic – Orthodox Christians to Greece, Muslims to Turkey.
“The alphabet change has many things in common with the loss of Ottoman Christians” Uslu said. “They were here, they were important, and we’ve totally forgot them now.”
“Does this loss make our society ill in some way? This is a very difficult question,” Uslu said. That people lack awareness of the loss, Uslu argued, has contributed to many of the problems faced today by minorities in Turkey – Kurds, Alevis, and non-Muslims. “If we want to solve these problems we must understand our Ottoman past, our Islamic past, our Christian past.”
At the Caferaga Medresesi, as he checked the calligraphy homework of a student named Nasser from Chicago, Efdaluddin Kılıç made a similar point but from a different angle. Policies such as the alphabet change, Kılıç said, “allowed Islamophobia to take root in Turkey.” Suppressing Islam’s influence on society and tying that policy to the values of the new republic created an environment in which the spectre of Islam could be exploited, he said. Kurds will tell you something similar happened to “Kurdishness”.
Underlying newly legalised letters and the fashion for Ottoman nostalgia is a debate over Islam, modernity, Westernisation and identity that stretches back generations into the history and heart of Ottoman society itself.
Caleb Lauer is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Istanbul.