The Ottoman Revival

Foreign Policy: One clear day in February, when Ali Babacan visited Yemen, his hosts brought him to a centuries-old, mud-brick building outside Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. There, about a dozen tribal leaders were waiting for the Turkish foreign minister with curved daggers drawn. If Babacan was at first startled, he soon realized that he was being greeted in a way once reserved for newly arrived Ottoman governors—complete with drums and a traditional dance that had probably not been performed for a Turkish official in almost a century.

Not so long ago, top Turkish officials didn’t bother to visit Yemen, or for that matter most other countries in the Middle East. In the nearly 90 years since the founding of the modern Turkish Republic, its leaders have tended to equate the East with backwardness, and the West with modernity—and so focused their gaze primarily on Europe. Meanwhile, Arab countries, once ruled by sultans from Istanbul, looked upon Turkey with a mixture of suspicion and defensive resentment.

Today that’s changing. Not only is Turkey sending emissaries throughout the region, but a new vogue for all things Turkish has emerged in neighboring countries. The Turkish soap opera Noor, picked up by the Saudi-owned MBC satellite network and dubbed in Arabic, became a runaway hit, reaching some 85 million viewers across the Middle East. Many of the growing number of tourists from Arab countries visiting Istanbul are making pilgrimages to locations featured in the show. In February, Asharq Alawsat, a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, took note of changing attitudes in a widely circulated column, “The Return of the Ottoman Empire?”

This new mood started at home. Since it first came to power seven years ago, Turkey’s government, led by the liberal-Islamic Justice and Development Party, has taken a different approach to its role in the region. The mastermind of this turnaround—“neo-Ottomanism,” as some in Turkey and the Middle East are calling it—has been Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister’s chief foreign-policy advisor. In his 2001 book, Strategic Depth, he argued that in running away from its historical ties in the region, Turkey was also running away from political and economic opportunity. His strategy has paid off, literally, for Turkey. Trade with the country’s eight nearest neighbors—including Syria, Iran, and Iraq—nearly doubled between 2005 and 2008, going from $7.3 billion to $14.3 billion. And, from being on the verge of war with Syria a decade ago, Ankara is now among Damascus’s closest allies in the region.

The Ottoman past is also in the air in Turkey. At a recent government rally, one enthusiastic supporter unfurled a banner proclaiming the prime minister “the last sultan.” Moviegoers have been flocking to see a new spate of Ottoman-themed films, from The Last Ottoman, an action flick set during World War I, to Ottoman Republic, a comedy imagining daily life in modern Turkey if the sultans were still in charge.

Istanbul’s newest cultural attraction is the municipal-run Panorama 1453 History Museum, a granite-clad building just outside the city’s ancient walls that tells the story of the Ottomans’ conquest of Byzantine Constantinople. In the gift shop, visitors can buy everything from cuff links emblazoned with the sultans’ seal to a 1,000-piece puzzle showing Mehmet the Conqueror entering Constantinople on horseback.

On a recent visit, I met a group of head-scarved women who were taking in the sights and sounds of the museum’s main exhibit: a circular diorama depicting Mehmet the Conqueror’s victorious final assault on Constantinople’s walls. “This is beautiful, most beautiful,” said one 28-year-old schoolteacher with a big smile, as the sound of thunderous cannon fire played in the background. “We must know our history.”

Nationalism is nothing new in Turkey. Yet for much of the last century, it has meant rejecting the country’s Ottoman history. Today it means claiming it.

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