Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fatih Maps

Nick Danforth, Georgetown University

Fatih Sultan Mehmet II's conquest of Constantinople, on Tuesday May 29th, 1453, was not only one of the most important events in Ottoman history, but in world history as well. So it is not surprising, then, that for at least 60 years people in Turkey have been putting forward rival interpretations of Fatih's accomplishment. Most recently, the movie Fetih 1453 turned the conquest into, among other things, a story about fatherhood. The film reminds us all that after spending long hours working at the office or planning your assault on the walls of Byzantium, it's important to take time to play with your kid. Because what matters, in the end, is not having the world call you conqueror but having your child call you dad.

Anyways, as an op-ed in in (tomorrow's) Today's Zaman and a photo collection from OHP suggest, the 500th anniversary of the Fetih in 1953 served as an opportunity for Turkey's leaders to present Fatih as an enlightened, tolerant secular, Western-Oriented leader. In short, a good Kemalist five centuries ahead of his time. The image above, for example, is the annual highway map from the Karayollari Mudurlugu, invoking Fatih as a symbol of engineering prowess in order to tout the Democrat Party's road-building program. At the same time, as the cartoons in our photo album show, the opposition used this same interpretation of Fatih to criticize the government for not doing more to improve Istanbul's infrastructure.

Yet not everyone accepted the Kemalist appropriation of the Ottoman past. In subsequent decades others have tried, with equally little concern for historic truth, to paint Fatih as a pious Muslim leader who captured Istanbul in accordance with Koranic prophecy. It is perhaps a tribute to their success that a number of scholars have documented the recent Islamicization of Fatih (see, for example, Alev Cinar or Etienne Copeaux) but few people are aware of his earlier secularization.

The map to the left comes from a book (1) discussing the persistent rumor that Fatih designed the castle of Rumeli Hisari so that its shape would spell out "Ya Mohammad" in Arabic script. Writing in 1953, the author, despite providing this nice graphic, went to great lengths to explain that this was sheer coincidence, and the design of the castle was based purely on strategic, not religious motives. In one of the anecdotes favored by his secularizers, Fatih is supposed to have rebuked several of his spiritual leaders believed their prayers had brought down the city walls by drawing his sword, pointing to the blade and saying "This... is sharper than your prayers."

(1) Anadolu ve Rumeli Hisarlari Tarihi, Esat Sezai Sunbulluk, Onan Basimevi 1950.