Conversion of Hagia Sophia earlier this year from a secular museum to a Muslim mosque has highlighted the historical debate, and underlying political tension, regarding the role of Islam in the modern Turkish state, and, seemingly related, Turkey’s recent trend toward autocracy in its governance.
Roman Emperor Constantine defeated the army of Licinius in the Roman Civil War of 324 A.D., following major battles at Adrianople (modern Edirna, Turkey); at the Hellespont (modern Dardanelles seaway); and at Chrysopolis (modern eastern Istanbul). Constantinople was dedicated shortly afterward, in 330 A.D., on the site of an ancient Greek settlement, and rapidly expanded on the Roman urban model, establishing the city as capital of the “Eastern Roman Empire”, (aka “Byzantine Empire”), located at the nexus of Europe, Russia, the Mideast and Asia, and connecting the Black and Mediterranean seas through the Bosporus Straight. Constantine, while deferential to Rome’s traditions of paganism, advocated Christianity through his career, constructing numerous Christian churches through the empire, but waited until his deathbed to formally convert to Christianity, delaying his baptism so that he could have all of his cumulative lifelong sins forgiven before dying, and hoping his conversion might allow him to survive his illness. It did not, and the emperor who Christianized the Roman Empire, and thus much of Europe, was buried at the church he constructed, the Church of the Holy Apostles, in his namesake city, in 337 A.D.
Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) was built as a Christian cathedral two centuries later, in 537 A.D., by Roman Emperor Justinian, to demonstrate the authority of Rome’s predominant Christian faith in the eastern capital of its rapidly declining empire. The mosque sits on a high hill looking over central Istanbul, and across the Bosporus to the furthest western point of Asia. The structure measures 65,000 square feet of floor area, larger than a football field, with a dome 180 feet high and 108 feet wide; it remained the largest Christian church in the world for a thousand years, until completion of larger cathedrals at Milan, Seville and Rome in the 16th-17th centuries. The structure was converted to a Muslim mosque in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror, when the Ottomans gained control of the city, and made it the capital of their expanding empire. Hagia Sophia remained a mosque for the next five centuries, until 1935, when it was converted to a national museum to symbolize the secular nature of the modern Turkish state.
The Ottoman Empire at its peak controlled all of modern Turkey; all of the Levant including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Iraq; both coastal regions of the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden; Egypt and the entire northern coast of Africa to Morocco; all of Southeast Europe including Greece, the Balkans; Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary; southern Russian regions including Black Sea coastal areas of southern Ukraine, all of Crimea, and the southern Caucasus including all of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan; so that the empire’s territory wrapped the entire eastern Mediterranean, the entire Red Sea, the entire Black Sea, and connecting seaways including the Suez, the Dardanelles, the Bosporus, and the Sea of Marmara. The Ottoman population was primarily Muslim and Turkic, but the empire, and its capital at Constantinople, were multi-ethnic, with minority Kurd, Russian, Arab, Persian, European, and Armenian populations; and predominantly Muslim, but with multiple minority religious communities, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Jewish and Armenian Christian communities. By the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had increasingly atrophied, and the “sick man of Europe”, ruled for 600 years in medieval form by a sovereign, the Sultan, with a religious ideology watched over by its Caliph, overseeing Islamic Shariah Law, had lost control of some territory and held only formal authority over other outlying regions.
In the 1870’s, Christian and nationalist rebellions in southeast Europe and the southern Caucasus led to harsh suppression by Ottoman forces in the Balkans and Bulgaria. In the case of Armenia, this oppression was just the beginning of increasingly harsh waves of pogroms continuing through World War One, when, caught in a border war between the Ottoman and Russian armies, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were massacred. This led to strong diplomatic protests by the British, French and Russian powers, all vying for control of the Ottoman Empire and the borderlands of the eastern Mediterranean and the Suez, Dardanelles and Bosporus seaways. To appease these powers, reformers in the Ottoman bureaucracy pressed their modernization cause, and the Sultan agreed to the first Ottoman Constitution with a Parliament, established in 1876, and retaining primary authority with the Sultanate, under continuing oversight of the Caliphate. Declaration of war by Russia, and subsequent intervention by Britain and France, led to negotiated independence for Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro; autonomy for Bulgaria/Macedonia as a prelude to independence; and additional concessions to Russia in the Caucasus including border areas of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Sultan suspended Parliament in 1878, determined to restore the empire’s authority over lost territories, and using increasingly harsh suppression against minorities and anti-monarchists to maintain power over the empire.
Below is a map of the The Ottoman Empire in 1881, the year of Kemal Ataturk’s birth. At this time the empire still included all of modern Turkey; most of southeast Europe; most of the Levant; Egypt and coastal Libya; and both coasts of the Red Sea. But Greece and Hungary had gained independence; southern Ukraine, Crimea and the southern Caucasus, including Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, had been ceded to Russia through warfare; Bulgaria and Macedonia were on an official path to independence; Algeria had come under control of France; and Egypt and Libya were effectively controlled by local tribal chieftains and sultans.
At the time of Ataturk’s birth, Europe and America were at peace; Britain was at the height of its empire; Germany was politically consolidated and growing its industrial, economic and military power rapidly; France had recovered from its lost war with Prussia and was expanding its colonial holdings; and Japan had opened its markets and was laying the groundwork for its future industrial might. American, British and European scientists, businessmen, doctors and engineers were trading, teaching, and building globally, spreading the new faith of investment, science and industrialization, playing out under the umbrella of colonialism, and based upon rationalism, rather than religious ideology.
Constantinople’s location caused it to develop as a major intercontinental trading center, and control of its strategic waterways was a historic, ongoing source of competition among the British, French and Russian powers. The city was always one of the largest cities in the world, its population growing to one million by 1950, then, largely as a function of its integration into the world economy through modernization of the Turkish state and society, the city grew much more rapidly, reaching 16 million today, making it the world’s 15th largest city, and remaining the primary driver of the modern Turkish economy.
Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, was born 1880-81 in Salonica, an ancient Greek seacoast city in western Thrace. Ataturk’s life spanned the final stages of decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and is closely intertwined with the long road to reform, independence, secularization, modernization, and democratization of the Turkish state, a path Ataturk came to embrace, dominate and direct as he rose through his nation’s military and political ranks to its leader as President.
As a junior army officer, Ataturk stationed in Paris as an observer of the French Army, and came to recognize that the Ottoman military must modernize if it was to protect itself from the more advanced European and Russian powers. As political tensions between reformers and monarchists exacerbated, the “Young Turks”, a collection of Ottoman intellectuals, politicians, physicians, civil servants and army officers, ultimately led a confrontation with the Sultan when the army marched on the capital in 1908 and forced a restoration of the Ottoman Constitution. Ottoman fear of domination by Britain, France and Russia led to the reorganization, training and modernization of its army based on German military doctrine, as well as the Ottoman alliance with Germany in World War One. While his nation lost the war, Ataturk emerged famous for his role in the defeat of the British miitary at Gallipoli, and for his successful confrontation of British and French armies in the Levant. At the end of the war, Ataturk returned to the capital and used his newfound fame, joining the broiling political environment there, aligning with other reformers, to pursue greater ambitions for modernization of the nation’s government, society, and economy, so that the nation would be able to control its own fate.
The bulk of the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by the Allies at the post-war Versailles Conference, where the British and French were granted colonial “mandates” over modern Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Bulgaria and Macedonia were granted full independence. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia gained independence briefly before returning to Russian control. Kurdistan was not recognized and its ethnically and culturally distinct population was divided by new borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Combined British and French powers quickly took control over the remnant of the Ottoman Empire, roughly modern Turkey, and centered their lightly defended administration in its capital, planning additional partition of the rump state.
But the armies and treasuries of the British, French and Russian powers were exhausted by war and revolution. In the aftermath of the war, Ataturk was assigned with his army to Ankara, in the geographic center of Anatolia (Asian Turkey). From here, Ataturk became increasingly resistant, then insubordinate, to instructions of the British and French governing administration, which had superceded the authority of the Sultanate and Caliphate. Ataturk used his Anatolian army to confront the Russians at the Caucasus, threatening recovery of former Ottoman territories, but then conceding significant border areas to Russia, preserving Turkey’s defensible positions, in return for a large shipment of surplus Russian arms to his army in Ankara, and a promise to organize a Turkish Communist party. Next, Ataturk’s newly equipped army confronted French forces in southeast Anatolia, then again made territorial concessions, including the oil rich region of northern Iraq, but again preserving defensible positions, and gaining the disputed French-controlled province of Hatay and its strategic port at Antakya in northwest Syria. At this point, having secured and established the western borders of Anatolia, Ataturk, working with political allies in Constantinople, declared a provisional government; drafted and announced a new constitution; formed a new parliament; denounced the legitimacy of the British and French colonial administration; declared Ankara the capital of the new Republic of Turkey; and the Turkish War of Independence had begun.
The Kingdom of Greece, with encouragement of British and French colonial authorities, immediately laid claims to Thrace and the western coast of Anatolia, based on ancient Greek territorial claims. The Greek army landed at the ancient Greek port of Smyrna (modern Izmir), and gradually advanced to the outskirts of Ankara. After his generals lost several engagements, Ataturk took personal control of the battlefront, and successfully drove the Greek army back to the coast at Smyrna, where they boarded their ships and returned to Greece. The Turkish army then burned the Greek areas of the city and exiled its Greek inhabitants, massacring many civilians. Subsequent negotiations led to division of Thrace between the two countries at the Evros River, retaining eastern Thrace, including the city of Edirna, where Constantine had first defeated Licinius, as Turkish territory, but conceding western Thrace, including Salonica, Ataturk’s birthplace, to Greece, and exchange of ethnic populations between the countries. Demands for Britain and France to relinquish their colonial administration of the capital were negotiated at length, and finally, confronted by Ataturk’s army in its approach to the capital, the colonial authorities capitulated, conceding the new nation’s independence, subject to agreement to international control of the waterways between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Thus the Turkish War of Independence was won in 1923; the independent Republic of Turkey was recognized internationally; Constantinople was renamed Istanbul (“into the city”); the government was seated at the new capital of Ankara, where the rebellion had begun; and the Sultanate and Caliphate were terminated by acts of the new parliament, the Grand Assembly. Thus was the ignominious end of the Ottoman Empire.
Mango’s biography of Kemal Ataturk begins with an insightful discussion of what a nation is – defined by geographic barriers, by ethnicity, by race, by religion, by culture, by lines where armies exhausted themselves – or, as with Turkey, by some combination of all of these. This got me thinking about the development of the American nation; the elements of a nation described by Mango seem similar – European colonial conquest of the continent; subjugation of it native peoples; division of its geography by threat and warfare; overthrow of a monarchy; creation of democratic governing institutions; broad public education; civil war; modernized economic systems; difficult integration of new ethnicities; racial forced labor and near genocide; slow democratization of the vote; etc. So the pieces are the same – it is the geopolitical context; critical decisions of key leaders; the outcome of major historical events; and historic accident that have led to very different destinies.
Underlying much of this is the predominant religious ideology of a nation’s core culture. Gallup polls report Americans describing themselves as Christian or Catholic declining from about 90% 1950-80 to about 65% today, a substantial trend; while those describing themselves as Christian Evangelicals have held steady over this period at +/- 40-45%. It seems understandable that orthodox Catholics and Christian Evangelicals would see the decline of Christianity in the population as a disturbing trend, with the values inherent in the nation ‘s core culture seen to be declining. While America’s Christian Evangelicals have had an increasingly strong organizing political presence, concentrated primarily in the Republican Party, they seem now to have advanced their influence to its most senior levels – State Department; Justice Department; the Supreme Court, and the White House Counsel Office, which protected the President in the FBI counterintelligence investigation; the Mueller criminal investigation; and the Senate impeachment trial for his treasonous conduct. This leads to my analogy with Turkey, and the question whether America’s predominant European, Christian religious ideology, at the core of our culture, is gradually subordinating our secular, democratic governing institutions to more autocratic mechanisms; ignoring scientific evidence and recommendations for addressing the pandemic, climate and other challenges; substituting religious belief for rational analysis; rejecting tolerance for non-European racial, ethnic and religious minorities; and ignoring and rationalizing their mistreatment in our own border regions. All for the purpose of maintaining their view of our cultural standards – America’s own “Holy Wisdom”.