Friday, November 21, 2014

The Myth of the Caliphate

The Round City of Baghdad, constructed by Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur and illustrated above by Naji el Mir. Today's post, taken from an article on Foreign Affairs, critiques the myth of the Caliphate as an enduring political institution. But honestly if any aspiring Caliph wants to rebuild a city that looks like such a cool, perfectly geometric map of itself I fully support them.

In 1924, Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk officially abolished the Ottoman caliphate. Today, most Western discussions of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the extremist group that has declared a caliphate across much of Iraq and Syria, begin by referencing this event as if it were a profound turning point in Islamic history. Some contemporary Islamists think of it this way, too: there’s a reason, for example, that Lion Cub, the Muslim Brotherhood’s children’s publication, once awarded the “Jewish” “traitor” Ataturk multiple first prizes in its “Know the Enemies of Your Religion” contest.

Even if today’s Islamists reference the Ottomans, though, most of them are much more focused on trying to re-create earlier caliphates: the era of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, who ruled immediately after Muhammad’s death in the seventh century, for example, or the Abbasid caliphate, which existed in one form or another from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries (before being officially abolished by the Mongols). By conflating the nineteenth-century Ottoman royal family with these caliphs from a millennium ago or more, Western pundits and nostalgic Muslim thinkers alike have built up a narrative of the caliphate as an enduring institution, central to Islam and Islamic thought between the seventh and twentieth centuries. In fact, the caliphate is a political or religious idea whose relevance has waxed and waned according to circumstance.

The caliphate’s more recent history under the Ottomans shows why the institution might be better thought of as a political fantasy—a blank slate just as nebulous as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—that contemporary Islamists are largely making up as they go along. (If it weren’t, ISIS could not so readily use the same term to describe their rogue and bloody statelet that Muslim British businessmen use to articulate the idea of an elected and democratic leader for the Islamic world.) What’s more, the story of the Ottoman caliphate also suggests that in trying to realize almost any version of this fantasy, contemporary Islamists may well confront the same contradictions that bedeviled the Ottomans a century ago.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Africa Uncolonized?

Recently this cool map (below left) by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon has popped up in a few places, including Strange Maps and Africa is a Country. It shows one imaginative rendering of what Africa might look like today had the continent never been colonized by Europeans. Now I'm still hoping at some point to commission a definitive guest post about Ottoman maps of Africa from someone who knows more about them, but with Cyon's map making the rounds I thought it was only fair to share different set of imaginative cartographies addressing the same subject. Here is a distinctly non-European vision of how the political map of Africa should have looked if European imperialism had just been kept in check: behold Afrika-i Osmaniye.

Quite a few of the maps in Ottoman atlases from the late 19th and early 20th century boldly claim a large swath of Northeast Africa for the Ottoman Empire. In addition to preserving the fiction of Ottoman sovereignty over the Barbary Coast, Egypt and by extension Sudan long after these regions had been effectively taken over by England and France, these maps extend Ottoman claims to Somalia, Uganda and Kenya. Only Ethiopia, presumably since it had its own distinctly independent, definitively non-Muslim government, is excluded from this ambitious rendering of Ottoman Africa.

Anyways, everyone should check out Mostafa Minawi's podcast on the Ottoman Scramble for Africa to find out more about the politics of the period. Suffice it to say, the Ottomans seem to have been a century or so ahead of Nikolaj Cyon in imagining what Africa would have looked like without European colonization, and it looked an awful lot like Ottoman colonization. To be fair, these were Ottoman maps very clearly drawn in response to the Ottoman experience of European imperialism, but I think the broader point holds. What's striking about Cyon's map is that it quite openly reflects the legacy of Arab and Islamic influence in Africa. It seems entirely plausible that if we really tried to imagine an alternative history without Europe, Cyon's map would become a representation of Middle Eastern imperialism in Africa, and we would actually need some Saudi Cyon to come along and draw an imaginative cartography of how Africa might have looked free from that legacy.

Friday, November 14, 2014

From Florina to Golyazi: the other side of the Population Exchange

The town of Golyazi, with Ulubat Lake in the background, seen from the site of the former Greek cemetery.

20th century Turkish nationalism continues to offer Western journalists its fair share of dwindling ancient minority stories. There are the Greeks of Istanbul, the Jews of Antakya, the Suriyani of Mardin and the Armenians of Vakiflar, just to name a few. All powerful stories - and tragic - but read together they also suggest a tendency to fetishize the dying at the expense of the living. Maybe America, as a nation of successful immigrants, is particularly susceptible to a guilty fascination with the plight of those who remained behind. But we of all people should realize there is another side to the story.

The town of Golyazi lies on a lakeside promontory in a particularly beautiful part Anatolia just west of Bursa. Abandoned by deported Christians in 1923 and resettled by Muslims deported from northern Greece, it stands as something of a monument to both the cruelty and dislocation of the Turkish-Greek population exchange as well as the endurance of those who survived it. Golyazi has two graveyards, one destroyed and one still standing. The first evokes the loss of those deported, the second evokes the meaning of their post-deporation lives.

When I visited Golyazi with my father in October 2013, we had to ask a few people in order to find the site of the town's Greek cemetery. Once we got there we had to ask again to find out if we were really in the right place. The former graveyard was a field of bare, rough gravel on a hill overlooking the lake, marked by a few pomegranate trees and the husks of their dead fruit. Like all to many physical reminders of Anatolia's Christian inhabitants, it had been destroyed by the government, apparently bulldozed at the orders of a local mayor in the 1960s.  All too often these acts of destruction accompanied international conflicts, over Cyprus usually, in which minority populations and their history became victims in Greece and Turkey alike. Destruction often proceeded in a retaliatory fashion, Turkey demolished Orthodox churches, Greece converted abandoned mosques into stables.

An old shepherd, at work among the weeds and rocks, confirmed that this was the Greek cemetery, then began to tell us about its destruction. He was, in fact, was eager to express his outrage at the state's disrespectful treatment of the dead. He said he had insisted at the time that it was immoral to tear up a graveyard whatever the faith of the people buried there. And, he continued, though those who ordered the destruction never admitted their error, his view had subsequently received divine confirmation when, some nights after the work was finished, villagers saw a spectral blue light descend on the hilltop.

After hearing his story and admiring the view out over the lake, we walked down the hill to the Muslim cemetery, sprawling near the surprisingly well preserved remains of the Greek orthodox church on a road into the village.

A group of graves facing the road caught our attention. Indeed, the epitaph on the oldest was designed to do just this -- "Ey Follower of Muhammet, Don't Just Glance and Pass By..." I was perhaps not the right person to recite a Fatiha, but reading the stones -- all bearing with the names of the now Greek cities where the interred had been born -- suddenly evoked a sense of the lives that had been built after the exchange. 
The inscriptions, from left to right, read as follows:

Selim Duran, from Filoruno [Florina], a prayer for his soul, born 1923, died 1998
Demir Duran, son of Selim, of Filorina, one of the population exchangees
Huvel baki, Dervish Duran, son of Demir Born 1338, died 1971
Saliha Duran, Daughter of Hasan, Born 1295, Died 1967

The dates span Turkey's conversion from the Islamic to Latin calendar, though Demir Duran's oldest son seems to have given his birthdate in Latin, the younger son in Hijra. But even with a rough estimate the advanced age of all the deceased becomes apparent. Selim Duran, for example, died at 75.

As Turkey has begun wrestling with the legacy of a century of nationalism, it is increasingly common to hear condemnation of the the population exchange that brought the Durans to Golyazi. Yet there is also something ahistorical, about this condemnation, almost a refusal to recognize the full extent of the 20th century's tragedies. Among other things, the population exchange is easier to talk about than the fate of the Armenians. There is a neat reciprocality to the exchange that makes makes nationalism the villain, not one particular nation.

But this is hardly a story unique to Turkey. In the history of much of 20th century Europe and the Middle East, deportees were the lucky ones. Here, by the lakeside, were the graves of an entire family that, after living out full lives, had been buried together, in graves laid out side by side, overlooking their new home. This was a fate reserved for all too few people in the last century.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adorable WWI Propaganda


Of all the great WWI propaganda I've seen, these post-cards, courtesy of Chris Trapani  and Esin Pektas, are certainly the most endearing. Perhaps not as adorable as the Mini Mehter kids, they are way less ominous than most of the images to be found at, where you can purchase your own original. If anyone knows anything more about these let us know. Germany, needless to say, is the one driving the wagon and giving Turkey an encouraging pat on the back in the second card.

If nothing else, though, these picture make me regret abandoning my kickstarter campaign to develop a line of child-sized Pickelhaube. The problem, as I recall, was that we couldn't decide whether to market them under the slogan "Baby Bismarck" or "Otto von Baby."

Anyways, if you want to see more martial babies just read on after the break. Apparently this is an entire genre. Seriously, does anyone know what the story is?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Geological Map of Turkey

These kinds of highly colorful 19th century geological maps are, I think, widely recognized as some of the most beautiful maps ever made. Come to think of it, they actually look a lot like ethnographic maps, but you can enjoy them without thinking about ethnic cleansing. Americans may be familiar with Harold Fiske's amazing 1944 map of the history of the Mississippi river, but needless to say you can find these maps for every country you want. Here's a nice one of Britain. Anyways, the image above is excerpted from a huge geological map of Europe. Click here for the whole thing.

Lest it seem as if, faced with the pressures of the fall semester, we have completely abandoned any serious political or historical analysis in favor of just publishing nice-looking maps, a quick story about the politics of geology in the map at left. I first came across this while compiling a series of maps illustrating the wide range of Turkish cartographic claims to Cyprus in the 60s and 70s. This one, needless to say, makes Cyprus appear a natural geologic extension of Turkey, with the island's two main mountain ranges being the continuation of the ranges that traverse Hatay. Needless to say, though, it turns out the maps published in the late 30s were all dedicated to showing that the mountain ranges of Hatay were natural extensions of the Taurus mountains, and therefore that Hatay was, geologically speaking, a natural part of Anatolia.

Ultimately among the many arguments advanced by nationalists for claiming particular territories over the years, geology has seldom been a prominent one. But, looking at these maps, its hard not to imagine an alternative history in which geologic rather than ethnic nationalism became the foundation for modern European states. Iceland, it appears, would emerge as the one pure Litho-state, built on a solid foundation of Trachyte and Basalt. A greater Scandinavia would also emerge, united by its common granite identity, after suppressing or assimilating minority regions of Devonian-era rock. England, in turn, would be the Balkans of this alternative world order, hopelessly divided between rival clans tracing their origins back to obscure fault-lines in the Eocene, Pliocene, and even Ordovician.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hatay in History

Back when Hatay used to be the part of the Turkish-Syrian border everyone paid attention to, I thought it would be interesting to write up some of the things I discovered during my ill-fated effort to do research on the region's experience during the 1940s. Fortunately, I was able to join forces with Noga Malkin, who knew all about what was going on there now from her work with refugees in the region, and we put together an article on Hatay covering the past, present and future. Among other things, it discusses the status of refugees in Turkey, as well as the inescapable rumors of a special referendum in 2039 that could return the province to Syria. The article also serves as an opportunity to finally post this great map of Hatay (full size here) which Kerim Bayer sent me ages ago. When compared to a modern map, this one also shows, among other things, that the current province of Hatay is not the exact territory of the Sanjak of Alexandretta that became part of Turkey in 1939. Rather, the current Turkish province was extended to include some areas north of the former border to as to make the population of the territory as a whole more Turkish. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Chaldiran at 500

Given my ongoing fascination with the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul, I am excited to publish a guest post today from my friend Gennady Kurin about the commemoration (and non-commemoration) of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Chaldiran in Iran. Gennady is currently a doctoral student at Cambridge researching Ottoman-Safavid relations. This cool Chaldiran graphic, designed by Mehdi Fatehi, can be seen at full size here.

The Five hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Çaldıran and how the Ottoman-Safavid conflict has shaped the Middle East.

The Middle East is rapidly changing. Yet, many crises the region is currently facing and the realities it lives with remain largely misunderstood. Here is an attempt at shedding some light on the past and the present of Turkey, Iran and everything in between as well as contextualizing some key factors determining the policies of these states, and showing how the shared history is used in constructing counterproductive political discourses.

Five hundred years ago on the 23rd of August, on a plain in northwestern Iran, today merely sixty kilometers from the Turkish border, a battle was fought inaugurating more than a century-long conflict between the Ottoman Empire and its eastern neighbor – the Safavid state. The immediate consequences of this battle and the many wars that followed were not just changes in the political landscape and redrawing of state borders. The religious and ideological dimensions of this clash have reshaped the Middle East, laid the foundations of some contemporary conflicts and can be said to have created Turkey and Iran as we know them today. Thus, anybody interested in the history and politics of this region can and should understand it in the context of the Ottoman-Safavid struggle.

While the world is passively watching the developments in Iraq and Syria and the Western countries are trying to decide what their policy towards the Islamic State should be, it is in fact Turkey and Iran that are key to finding long-term solutions to some of the problems the region is now facing. Having a history of military and religious-ideological struggle these two countries, willingly or not, seem to be slipping into another potentially very dangerous conflict with their support for either Sunni or Shi’a factions. And just like the ultimate outcome of this early modern sectarian conflict the current crisis is very unlikely to bring about anything other than chaos and destruction. This text should serve as an introduction to a series of articles about the conflict and how it has reshaped the region in question.