The Turkish President Imagines the Rebirth of the Ottoman Empire in Syria

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could hardly hold back his astonishment when visiting Turkey in 2015 at the dramatic reception in his honour at the presidential palace, a 1,150-room mansion constructed in Ottoman spirit and splendour, with all its iconography and calligraphy, at a cost of no less than $500 million.

Decorating the royal staircase were 16 spear-carrying warriors in golden helmets, standing around their megalomaniac president, or “Sultan,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man famed for his obsession with his country’s Ottoman past.

Months earlier, Erdogan had toyed with the idea of reinstituting Ottoman Turkish at state-run schools and once said that, by 2030, his country would reach the influence and power of the Ottoman Empire during its heyday.

An ambitious project, no doubt, but Erdogan has gone by the book in trying to achieve that ambition, turning a deaf ear to all criticism. He has taken giant steps, ranging from military adventures in Syria and Iran to symbolic ones such as ordering the Turkish national anthem to be played on modified drums and brass instruments, making it sound royal rather than presidential, coming straight out of the Ottoman past.

He has often lamented his country’s borders, imposed after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat at the end of the first world war, and worked hard at challenging them.

At its apex, the Ottoman Empire included parts of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Crimea and the Caucasus, bestriding three continents with a population of approximately 25 million. As the empire eroded, it lost Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Cyprus and Egypt.

The collapse of order in Syria in 2011 gave Erdogan a golden opportunity to achieve his ambition, especially in a lost symbolic city such as Damascus, which the Ottomans once called “Sham Sherif” — “Damascus the Noble.”

The last powerful sultan — Abdul Hamid II, a long-time inspiration of the Turkish president — had a particularly soft spot for Damascus. Ten years ago, at Erdogan’s request, a mega-production was filmed in Egypt, starring front-line Syrian actors, about the life of Abdul Hamid II.

Unlike Erdogan, who was a frequent guest of Damascus before the outbreak of the present conflict, Abdul Hamid had never visited Damascus but relied heavily on an assortment of Damascene advisers, ministers and cooks during an eventful era that started in 1876 and lasted until 1909.

Because of its importance as the point of departure for one of the two great haj caravans to Mecca, Damascus was treated with more attention by the Ottoman government than its size might have warranted. It was the most culturally advanced and historically important Arab city in the Ottoman state, where Islam created its first empire under the Umayyad dynasty in 661.

The Umayyads had a modern navy, a police force, their own currency and exported the Muslim faith to Europe and China. The Umayyads built the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest existing mosque in the world, and many of the Prophet’s wives and companions are buried at a cemetery south-west of the Grand Umayyad, which Erdogan visited often before 2011.

On the south-western side of the Takiyeh Sulaimaniya complex in central Damascus, facing the present Four Seasons Hotel, lies a famous mosque with the graves of seven children of Abdul Hamid II. Also buried at the site are two children of Sultan Abdulmejid I, and three of Sultan Murad V, in addition to a number of relatives, bringing the number of Ottoman figures to a total of 18.

The last person buried at this cemetery was Bader el-Din Effendi, the youngest son of Abdul Hamid II and who died in 1980. The 36th and last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI, was buried there in 1926, after dying in exile in Italy four years after he was dethroned. The graves also include Arif Hikmat Pasha, Abdul Hamid’s son-in-law and a former Ottoman minister of education and an Islamic scholar.

All of these Ottoman figures died after the empire’s collapse in 1922 and had to be buried in Damascus since returning to Turkey was prohibited by the Kemalists.

The mosque was built by Sultan Selim II, with arcaded cells now used to sell Damascene crafts and memorabilia. The Turks tried — and failed — to buy or rent out the place prior to 2011.

Had Erdogan’s regime-change policy worked, he would have loved to march into Damascus to reclaim these highly symbolic graves.

In February 2015, he had ordered his troops to march into the Syrian north to dig up the remains of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Dynasty. According to Ottoman legend, he drowned in 1236 near his burial site and had been interred at Qalaat Jabar in Raqqa governorate only to be moved 85km north in 1973, due to potential floods at the original location. The tombstone was built at Abdul Hamid II’s orders, explaining Erdogan’s additional interest in the matter.

According to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, his grave is in 100% Turkish territory, part of an official and internationally recognised enclave within Syria, where visitors had to provide passports to enter. It was guarded by 40 Turkish soldiers until the operation was carried out in 2015, ostensibly to save it from the clutches of the Islamic State. It has now been relocated to Turkish-controlled territory within Syria, east of the Euphrates River.


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