Pantomime warriors serious business for Turkey’s Erdogan

Soldiers from the 16 former Turkish states paraded to welcome Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, January 15, 2015. — AFP file pic
Soldiers from the 16 former Turkish states paraded to welcome Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, January 15, 2015. — AFP file pic

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ISTANBUL, Jan 22 — They have been mocked for looking like extras from a low-budget historical drama and criticised for having only the most tenuous connection with reality.

But the 16 costumed warriors whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan included in the honour guard for visiting dignitaries and representing various Turkic empires going back over two millennia serve a serious purpose.

Commentators say Erdogan wants to impress on his own public, and outsiders, that Turkey is a great power with a heritage that goes well beyond the modern republic founded in 1923 to the Ottoman and earlier great empires.

“The president has been mobilising these elements of the past,” said Ilter Turan, professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, pointing to a plan by Erdogan to make Ottoman Turkish language lessons compulsory in schools. 

“This symbolism appears part of this package,” he told AFP.

The figures represent the 16 purported states of Turkic history from the Xiongnu confederation in today’s Mongolia in the 2nd century BC to the Ottoman empire, taking in the Mughal empire, Timurid empire and a host of lesser-known states along the way.

‘Like a dressing gown’

The problem is that such an idea of simple historical continuity, linking states from the early days of nomadic Turkic peoples in southern Siberia to their migration into Anatolia and Europe, has never been widely accepted.

Meanwhile, the appearance of the warriors, bedecked in gleaming helmets, clutching spears and with some rather fake-looking facial hair has left them open to derision.

They made their first appearance on January 12 to greet visiting Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, who looked distinctly awkward surrounded by the armour-plated warriors.

In a sign they will be a feature of all ceremonies at Erdogan’s controversial new presidential palace, they were wheeled out once again to welcome Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on January 15.

That Erdogan is in deadly earnest was shown when a senior Turkish medical professor was forced to step down after mocking the figures on Twitter.

“The one wearing the dressing gown represents which state?” quipped Hasan Herken, formerly dean of medicine at Pamukkale university, with a circle around one gowned figure. His tweet has since been deleted.

Meanwhile, Tulay Babuscu, an MP in the pro-Erdogan ruling party, caused a storm by hailing the 16 figures as a return to the Ottoman empire following a 90-year break after the founding of the modern Turkish republic.

Senior opposition lawmaker Umut Oran said he would take Babuscu to court for insulting Turkey after describing the modern Turkish republic as a “90-year advertising break”.

‘No longer relevant’

Commentators have pointed out that there remains doubt as to whether all of the states were indeed actually Turkic and many date back to well before Turkic peoples converted to Islam.

“Half of these 16 empires date back to pre-Islam or a period where Turks were shamans or pagans,” wrote Cengiz Candar in the Radikal newspaper online, accusing Erdogan of having an “excessive fondness for display”.

Others have complained about reducing hugely complex Turkic history and the migration of Turkic peoples from Asia to Anatolia — their current home — to a mere fancy dress show.

Prominent columnist Kadri Gursel wrote in the Milliyet daily that the Islamic-rooted ruling party wanted to win “the support of conservative-nationalist voters for an authoritarian regime with a superficial Ottomanism built on slogans and symbols”.

“That period and that mindset no longer exist. They are no longer valid or relevant in today’s Turkey,” he wrote.

Curiously, the warrior representing the Ottoman era, which ran from the 14th century to the 1920s, is an armour-clad fighter from its period of greatest expansion when its rule extended from central Europe to the Gulf.

Turan said that while the warriors had irritated republicans, they were aimed at pleasing the ruling party’s core support of religious conservative voters ahead of June legislative elections.

“It is important to capture the fancy of the population particularly when elections are six months away, giving the impression that it is this government that is carrying Turkey to great power status,” he said. — AFP

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