Published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire tells the story of a thousand years and more, from before the founding of Constantinople in 330 till after its loss in 1453. Gibbon can be ridiculed for his title: a millenium is a long time to be in decline. The three thick volumes of the Penguin edition took me a long time to read, if not quite as long as Gibbon took to write. I was living in Ankara at the time, but I enjoyed being able to read Gibbon’s work also while visiting the three old imperial capitals: Istanbul, Rome, and Milan.
I happened upon the wonderful New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (1992) in the discount stacks of a shop in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1999. In his introduction, Colin McEvedy holds his to be
a better theme than Gibbon’s. McEvedy’s theme
is not the decline and fall of the Roman Empire but the emergence of Islam and western Christendom. One result of the emergence of Islam is the Turkey that I live in today.
Turkey in Turkish is Türkiye. The term Türk or Turk was supposed to refer to citizens of the new Turkish Republic, whatever their origins. The slogan was, Ne mutlu Türküm diyene:
What happiness for the one who says, I am a Turk. Not the one who is a Turk, but the one who can explicitly identify with the Republic of Turkey. And yet the term Türk had an earlier ethnic meaning, and this has not been forgotten. People today argue over who has
real Turkish blood. People try to impose Turkishness, or else lord their own over others. Thus we have the grafitti in the following photo, which appeared in a tweet of the Voice of Jiyan,
a radical media experience focusing on news and developments from Europe and the Middle East.
The three crescents of the original grafittist are the symbol of the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), an ultranationalist party whose founder’s name was Alparslan Türkeş. Thus I do not think the grafittist was acting out of mere joy. The second grafittist, who turned the crescents into smileys, made the words read,
What happiness to the one who sings folk songs.
The Turkish language has a regular way to name a citizen of any country: add the appropriate form of the suffix -li/-lı/-lu/-lü to the name of the country. Thus the neutral way to refer to a Turkish citizen ought to be Türkiyeli. However, there must be people who are offended by this, if only because it does not respect the redefinition of the term Türk by the great founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. Meanwhile, in English, the term
Turk can be used offensively to mean
a ferocious, wild, or unmanageable person (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ninth edition, 1995). I shall never use the term in that sense. I intend to use it only for those persons who wish to be so called.
The Turkey of today came out of the Anatolia of a thousand years ago. A contemporary account of the eleventh-century Roman or Byzantine Empire is by one Michael Attaleiates, or Michael of Antalya as we may say. Michael’s History is now available in English as volume 16 of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2012), in the translation of Anthony Kaldellis and Dimitris Krallis. Dumbarton Oaks in Washington is now
an institute of Harvard University dedicated to supporting scholarship in Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies through fellowships, meetings, exhibitions, and publications, according to the brochure that I have kept from my last visit a few years ago. My first visit was made surreptitiously, as a teenager; for I had a friend who lived nearby, and he took us for an unauthorized dip in the Dumbarton Oaks swimming pool, one muggy summer night.
I bought the Attaleiates History from Homer Kitabevi here in Istanbul. My reading of it is the occasion of my writing now. I want to talk about the model that it offers for those who wish to be proud of Turkish history.
In McEvedy’s Atlas, most odd-numbered pages show the same geography—Europe, North Africa, and the so-called Near East—in different years: 362, 406, 420, 451, 476, 528, 565, 600, 626, 651, 737, 771, 830, 888, 925, 1000, 1030, 1071, 1092, 1100, 1130, 1173, 1212, 1230, 1278, 1346, 1361, 1401, 1430, and 1483. Paging through, one sees the boundaries of the Roman Empire wax and wane, with two big losses before the ultimate end. The first of the losses is the formal extinction of the Western Roman Empire by the German general Odoacer in 476. The second great loss is of most of Anatolia after the Battle of Manzikert, or in Turkish the Malazgirt Meydan Muharebesi, in 1071.
The victor of that battle was Alp Arslan, or simply Alparslan in Turkish, as in the name of the founder of the MHP. The original Alparslan was Sultan of the Seljuq Turks. According to C. W. Previté-Orton in the Shorter Cambridge Medieval History (1952),
Ferocious as they were in war and rude tribesmen in peace, these immigrant Turks [the Seljuqs] in Moslem Near Asia, or their leaders at any rate, were not impermeable barbarians like their nomad kinsmen of the northern steppes…
Alp Arslan…was master of his dominions, which Nizam-al-Mulk administered in the best oriental tradition. He was almost a chivalrous conqueror, who kept a strict discipline over his troops.
Almost a chivalrous conqueror! I have the two volumes of Previté-Orton’s work because, when I was a child, they looked down on me from my parents’ bookshelves. The jacket of the first volume had the same image that appears on the front of McEvedy’s Atlas: an image of an illumination in the Book of Marco Polo in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The part of the image that covered the spine of the Cambridge History showed a figure in a little boat passing beneath a bridge; but as a child I saw the scene as the grinning face of a man. The streams of water around the boat were the locks of the man’s long hair. As an adult living in Turkey, I have not found Cambridge History to be too useful for local history: its focus is west of here. One might however study the book for such prejudices as seem to be displayed in the quotation above.
Attaleiates has his own prejudices, as when he says,
The Turks are wicked by nature and masters of deceit; they accomplish everything by trickery and unabashed reversals.
This makes his ensuing account of Alp Arslan all the more remarkable. I have seen nothing to fault Alp Arslan for. Maybe a courtier could write such criticisms as are written by Michael Psellus (who was a few years older than Michael Attaleiates) about his own sovereigns in Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (London: Penguin, 1966; translation by E. R. A. Sewter).
Turkish nationalism today holds up Alp Arslan as an object of pride, for having opened up Anatolia to Turkish immigration. I would suggest that he should be emulated: not as a conqueror to inspire Turkish irredentism, but as somebody who is already a victor. Unfortunately he seems not to be emulated, at least not by the current ruler of Turkey, for whom the recent elections can be seen as a victory. After the Battle of Manzikert, Alp Arslan had the Roman Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes in his custody, but was as generous with him as could be. One might find cynical reasons for this; but Michael Attaleiates does not. Perhaps there are Turkish legends about Alp Arslan that I know nothing about. I know just the Greek point of view, from which Alp Arslan is as admirable as the Trojan warrior Hector, nominal enemy of the Greeks, but true hero of Homer’s Iliad.
Before the Turkish Parliamentary election of June 7, 2015, advertisements for the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party named several years as hedef or target: not only 2015 itself, but also 2023, 2053, and 2071. Presumably the AKP wanted to be in power throughout those years, in order to celebrate:
- The hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923,
- the six-hundredth anniversary of the Conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmet II in 1453,
- the thousandth anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert.
In the election itself, the AKP maintained its plurality, but lost its majority. That party’s loss was the gain of the new HDP (Peoples’ Democracy Party). This party came out of the Kurdish southeast, but sought nationwide support. The ten-percent threshold for entering parliament had been designed to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament. Earlier Kurdish parties had got around the restriction by running candidates as independents. The HDP took the chance of beating the ten-percent limit outright, and they ended up doing this handily. They won votes of people all over Turkey: people who were disappointed by the failure of the AKP to pursue its earlier project of making peace with the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party).
The PKK are engaged not in electoral politics, but in armed rebellion against Turkish authority. Some people become upset if you mention the PKK without labelling them as terrorists. Nonetheless, as far as my knowledge goes, the PKK have not engaged in the kinds of mass murders of civilians that have been suffered in Turkey in 2015. In any case, these murders seem to have worked to the advantage of the AKP.
The head of the AKP and the prime minister of the government had been elected President of the Turkish Republic on August 10, 2014. In becoming President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was supposed to make himself above party; but to all appearances, he aimed to continue ruling the country through the AKP, and even to engineer a constitutional change that would allow him to rule directly. After the parliamentary elections of June, 2015, President Erdoğan did what he could to prevent a coalition government from being formed. A coalition was not formed. New elections were called for November 1, 2015.
On June 5, two days before the old elections, at a campaign rally for the HDP in Diyarbakır, four people had been killed by a bomb.
On July 20 in the town of Suruç in Urfa (or Şanlıurfa) Province, a Turkish citizen, blowing himself up, killed about 30 activists (including a student from my own university in Istanbul) who had come to help rebuild the Kurdish town of Kobanî in Syria.
On October 10 in Ankara, two more Turkish citizens, one the brother of the Suruç bomber, killed themselves and about a hundred persons at a peace demonstration. For safety, the HDP cancelled all of its future campaign rallies.
In the November election, the AKP did regain its parliamentary majority, with a share of the vote far greater than the public-opinion polls predicted.
Later in November came the arrest of Can Dündar, editor in chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.
On November 28, laywer and head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association Tahir Elçi was killed, apparently by a police officer’s bullet, near the Four Footed Minaret (Dört Ayaklı Minaret) in Diyarbakır while publicly calling for peace. He had already been threatened with death for saying that the PKK were not terrorists.
A lot more can be said about what is going on in Turkey now, but I am not the one to say it. I have tried to mention some key events, which I have linked to Wikipedia, not because Wikipedia is necessarily authoritative, but because the dubious reader has the power to edit Wikipedia, and the knowledgeable reader ought to edit Wikipedia, and in any case Wikipedia provides a place to start one’s research.
The 1996 Susurluk scandal suggests that the wildest conspiracy theory is not necessarily out of place in Turkey. My guess is that both President Erdoğan and the PKK leadership are not entirely in control of their supporters, but that these supporters are capable of carrying out independently the most extreme measures on behalf of their cause. In a war, there will always be people who profit from the conflict and do not wish to see it end. There must be such elements in the PKK. The AKP apparently benefited electorally from the uncertainty in Turkey that had been brought on by the violence between June and November. If Erdoğan is the master politician that he is supposed to be, how could he not have known that this violence would occur? But in this case, how could he have let it occur?
The victory of his de facto party does not seem to have brought out in Erdoğan the gentleness that Alp Arslan showed to Romanus IV Diogenes. In 1071, after the defeat at Manzikert, Romanus was taken captive along with some of his surviving soldiers. This was possible because Romanus had actually fought as a soldier. The event is described by Michael Attaleiates, who participated in the Battle of Manzikert at about the age of 46, though he was not captured himself. His translators Kaldellis and Krallis render what happened to Romanus as follows; the bold emphasis is mine:
That night he lay down on the ground like all the others in shame and agony, buffeted on all sides by the myriad waves of misery that were sent by his troubled thoughts and the grievous sights that he beheld. On the next day it was announced to the sultan that the emperor too had been captured, and he was at once filled with boundless joy but also with suspicion, for he thought that this was indeed too good to be true, namely that the emperor himself should be captured after being defeated and should be made his prisoner. It was with such an awareness of their human fallibility and with levelheadedness that the Turks reacted to their victory, neither boasting loudly, as people tend to do when things go their way, nor ascribing the deed to their own powers, but rather they ascribed the whole thing to God, as a feat that surpassed their own power to accomplish.
When Sultan Mehmet II entered Constantinople after his victorious conquest on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, he went to the Ayasofya, the Church of Holy Wisdom, and:
Before its gates he dismounted and bent down to pick a handful of earth, which he poured over his turban as an act of humility to his God.
This is the account of Steven Runciman in The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge University Press, 1965). I have not heard that Tayyip Erdoğan engages in such acts of humility, though possibly true humility would mean not letting the acts be known. On the other hand, the true leader will lead by example, an example which is made known. When he wins elections, I believe Erdoğan worships at the Mosque of Eyüp, where new Ottoman Sultans were girded with the sword of Osman. But let us continue with the account by Michael Attaleiates of Alp Arslan’s reception of Romanus IV Diogenes. Again, the bold emphasis is mine; but the italic, the translators’:
Therefore, when the emperor was led before the sultan in his simple military attire, the latter was still unsure and seeking proof of his identity. When he learned from other captives and from the envoys that had previously been sent to him that this truly was the emperor of the Romans, he immediately stood up and embraced him.Do not fear,he said,O emperor, and above all be of good hope that you will suffer no bodily punishment and will, instead, be honored in a manner worthy of your high station. For a man would be foolish if he did not fear that sudden changes of fortune might reverse a situation.He ordered that he be assigned to a tent and given suitable attendants, and then invited him to sup with him and share his table, not placing off to one side but made him sit next to him at an equal station to his rank and share in the same honors. In this way he would meet with him twice a day, talk with him, and raise his spirits with words of consolation and with many maxims regarding the vicissitudes of life. Eight days he spent in his company in this way, sharing conversation and food, and in that time the sultan did not utter even the slightest offensive word to him or point out to him possible mistakes in the management of the campaign. Thus God’s will was shown here as well to be just and infallible, for not only the others but the captured emperor himself came to the opinion that the sultan was worthy of victory. Even if the Turks do not have a law of loving one’s enemy, he unconsciously carried out this divine law through his naturally virtuous disposition. For the All-Seeing Eye grants power not to those who are arrogant but to the humble and compassionate, given that God shows no partiality for individuals, as the divine Paul says. In one of their meetings the sultan asked the emperor,What would you have done if you yourself held me in your power like this?Without any dissimulation or attempt to flatter, he answered him,Know that I would have inflicted much torture on your body.And the other one replied,But I will not imitate your severity and harshness.
There are other contemporary sources. Of these I have only Michael Psellus, who does not give as much detail. Using other sources, Edward Gibbon describes Alp Arslan’s own explanation of his behavior as follows:
The Turkish conqueror smiled at the insolence of his captive; observed that the Christian law inculcated the love of enemies and forgiveness of injuries; and nobly declared, that he would not imitate an example [namely that of Romanus] which he condemned.
Again, Michael Attaleiates had not been captured with Romanus. He reports having made his way to Trebizond, today’s Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast, where he learned the news of Romanus’s release.
Present with us, he says,
were men of the imperial court, among the first in the Senate, who had against all hope escaped the danger with us, though others had been cut down in the battle itself and the flight…Among those who were captured was the protovestes Basileios Maleses, the emperor’s closest associate, invested with the office of the logothetes of the waters, who was also exceptional in terms of his experience and speaking ability.
It is not clear whether Michael would learn the details of Romanus’s capture and treatment by Alp Arslan from Basileios Maleses back in Constantinople. Probably he could not have learned from Romanus himself, because Romanus never made it back to Constantinople as emperor. He was deposed and ultimately sent to Prote Island, what is today Istanbul’s Kınalıada. Meanwhile, the new emperor had him blinded. Michael Attaleiates makes a rhetorical address to that new emperor (Michael VII Doukas), praising Alp Arslan yet again, along with Romanus:
What do you have to say, O emperor, you and those who crafted this unholy decision along with you? The eyes of a man who had done no wrong but risked his life for the welfare of the Romans and who had fought with a powerful army against the most warlike nations when he could have waited it all out in the palace without any danger and shrugged off the toils and horrors of the military life? Of a man whose virtue even the enemy respected when he embraced him genuinely and shared conversation and food with him as a brother, placing a prisoner on a throne of equal status, and, like a good doctor, applying words of consolation like a healing medicine to the open wound of his grief, so that the sultan was recognized as having justly received victory by the verdict of God, proving himself to be humane and revealing such a depth of prudence and forbearance?
How much of what Michael Attaleiates says can be taken as historical fact? In one sense, it does not matter. We have his story of Alp Arslan, at least in the sense that we have the Iliad. What we do with its example is up to us.