The father of modern hermeneutics Hans-Georg Gadamer once remarked that history lives on in our daily language, conversations, memories, jokes and historical references. It provides a background for much of what we think and say about ourselves and others. History is never out of fashion because it provides an explanation for the present and offers hope for the future.
The recent interest in popular history in Turkey is a case in point. Popular books and magazines on late Ottoman and early Republican history are bestsellers. They can be purchased even at grocery stores now – a small revolution for the way ordinary Turks interact with books. There is a plethora of books, articles, documentaries and debates on everything from the reign of Abdülhamid II and Palestine to the Turkish War of Independence and the multi-party political history after 1950. The country's best novelists use historical settings in the Ottoman Empire and/or the Republican period to tell their stories. Nationalists, neo-nationalists, globalists, liberals, Islamists, leftists, conservatives and others refer to history to substantiate their arguments. The hugely successful TV series "The Magnificent Century," telling the story of Süleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century, has been followed by at least half a dozen other historical dramas. Interest in academic and popular Turkish history is growing by the day.
What we are talking about, however, is not simply a chronicle of events, as E. H. Carr noted in his classic "What is History?" published in 1961, but rather "history." As opposed to a chronicle of events, history is an attempt to make sense of the past and explain why things happened the way they did. What is even more important than history is the memory that accumulates over the centuries and provides a socio-cultural context for an intelligent interpretation of historical events. Interest in the past is driven by a desire to understand history and memory and how the two together establish a heritage.
Some outside observers take a rather simplistic and condescending view of this interest and label it as neo-Ottomanism. They are wrong, just as they err on many aspects about Turkey. Like every nation that studies its history, the citizens of Turkey are interested in their history in order to understand who they are and what kind of future they want to build. The Turkish interest in Seljuk, Ottoman or Republican history is no different from that of Americans, Italians, Indians, Arabs or Jews in their histories.
This is a good thing for Turkey. The reason is that the major questions of history are questions about the present and the future. History teaches us, but it also disciplines. It enlightens us, but also gives direction. It enables us to look into the past so that we can prepare for the future. Ottoman and Republican history has much to offer about the current debates on state-society relations, multiculturalism, cultural cross-pollination, inclusivism, tolerance, national unity and other critical issues. The rich experience of Ottoman culture and society helps soften the rough edges of nationalism and instill a sense of globalism. It also provides a bulwark against Euro-centrism and reductionist readings of history.
In the case of Turkey, this is inevitable, since history and memory have shaped not just a single group, but a constellation of nations and religious communities for over half a millennium. The term "Ottoman" was never confined to the descendants of Osman, the founder of the empire, a single group of people or state elites. Rather, it signified a way of doing things, a collective paradigm in statecraft, economic production, social cohesion, arts, religious co-existence and political strategizing.
In this sense, the Ottoman state was never about the history of Turks or Muslims alone. It was the last great cosmopolitan history after the end of the Roman Empire, but with far greater implications for the emergence of the modern world. It was a history of military conquests and conflicts, but also culture, education, art, trade, urbanism and diplomacy. Recovering this history and understanding its achievements and failures can help us better appreciate our history and identify Turkey's position in the present day world.
Obviously, it would be self-defeating to replace Euro-centrism with another ethno-centrism. That is why it is important to take a world history point of view and see things within the context of global history. The new interest in history should be channeled to study the histories of other nations, i.e., Chinese, Indian, African, Latin American, as well as European and American. Ottoman and/or Republican history should be placed within a larger context of global connections and interactions that have shaped our modern world. As a matter of fact, this is what underlies the works of such prominent historians as Halil İnalcik, Fuat Sezgin, Kemal Karpat, Cemal Kafadar, Şükrü Hanioğlu, İlber Ortaylı, Şevket Pamuk, Engin Deniz Akarlı and others, all of whom approach Ottoman-Turkish history from a world history point of view.
Reconciling with history in a critical manner is key to avoiding the two extremes of historical nostalgia and collective amnesia. This is an effort to understand the triumphs and failures of the past so that we can derive lessons from our immensely rich heritage for our present and future.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey