Ed West marvels at Norman Stone’s gripping account of Turkey’s journey from East to West
Turkey: A Short History
BY NORMAN STONE THAMES AND HUDSON, £16.95
Norman Stone begins his story with the establishment of Istanbul University in 1933 under Atatürk’s young Turkish Republic. The Turks were fortunate, as that year German academics fled in their droves to escape the Nazi regime. Over 1,000 ended up in Istanbul, some of them there to reform the language, which involved removing a large number of Arabic words (and Persian, in the case of matters of emotions and food) as part of Atatürk’s drive to drag Turkey into the modern world.
The change of alphabet was perhaps the most significant sign of Turkey’s transformation, but also its fascinating place in the world – both European and Asian, both historically reviled and loved in the West, Muslim but in a very un-Arab way, the destroyer of Byzantium and, as Stone claims, its saviour, its people a hybrid of central Asian, Anatolian, Greek and half a dozen other groups.
The early Turks came from the Altai region in Central Asia, between modern-day Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan, Turk (literally “strongman”) being the name of the most dominant of their warlike tribes. Between the sixth and 11th centuries the Turkic peoples expanded west, overcoming far more sophisticated and civilised nations, although today there are different interpretations.
While “little Greeks or Iranians learn that their ancestors, elegantly clad in white, discussed poetry in the subjunctive while dignified matrons beamed over gambolling sheep, and flaxen-haired maidens stirred the pot, until, out of the blue, squat and hairy savages, offering rapine, arrived”, little Turks “learn that effete civilisations, eunuchs, etc, were given some sort of vigour by the arrival of their ancestors”.
The Seljuk Turks entered Baghdad in 1055, embraced Islam, and several centuries of expansion followed. In 1396 the Turks beat a combined European force at Nikopolis in Bulgaria, and 50 years later they took Constantinople, ending a millennium of Byzantine rule and two millennia of Hellenistic domination in the Mediterranean. But it was not quite the downfall western historians have traditionally presented. The key to Turkish success was their tolerance, so that “the common people on the whole welcomed Turkish rule, which was honest and predictable: its taxes were lower, whereas the Latin administration produced exactions and serfdom”.
In Constantinople, the Orthodox Grand Logothete (Chancellor) said he preferred the sultan’s turban to the cardinal’s hat. And while Hagia Sophia became a mosque, the Christians hung on to nearly all the other buildings, and the Orthodox church was to remain the biggest landowner in Ottoman Empire, its patriarch addressed as “great prince”.
Various attempts to drive the Turks out through holy war failed, and even the great Spanish victory at Lepanto in 1571 was not a clash of civilisations, as “Spain and Turkey had more in common than had Spain with England or Turkey with Persia”.
Spain and Turkey certainly had one enormous thing in common – they both began to go downhill at the peak of their glory, in the late 16th century. Turkey’s rot was cultural; while the West pushed forward, the empire became more Islamic and pious. Greek books disappeared from the libraries, beggars clustered around the pious institutions, the only ones safe from the state, and the productive element was left to foreigners and religious minorities. Sharia law prevailed and the sultans even banned alcohol (and Murat IV executed thousands for smoking).
Meanwhile, the royal household degenerated into an Oriental caricature, so that the sultans kept a harem of mistresses who fought it out to make their son the next sultan, the winning mother having all his half-brothers murdered. By the second half of the 18th century the Ottomans realised they would have to catch up; a Frenchman by the name of Baron de Tott installed a corps of bombardiers, but artillery required mathematics, and the religious authorities had closed down the school of mathematics 50 years earlier because they saw it as the devil’s work.
There were increasing problems with Greek nationalism too, which would result in an independent Greece in the 1840s and would culminate in a decade of bloodshed between 1912 and 1922, including two Balkan wars, a Great War and the Greek-Turkish War.
Perhaps the most notorious incident of that period was the Armenian genocide, a subject of such sensitivity that in France it is a crime to deny it. Stone had best avoid holidays in Provence, then.
After 1918 the Allies aimed to occupy Turkey and carve it up, and the Treaty of Sèvres left the Turks with a small state covering central Anatolia. It was humiliating, and brought a Muslim reaction. The Turks rallied around a military genius named Mustafa Kemal, who would later adopt the title Atatürk, “father of the Turks”. He raised an army, and in 1921 the Turks beat the Greeks, until then on the ascendant. But Kemal knew when to stop, and did not want to provoke the British. He built up his new capital in Ankara until in August 1922 he attacked and conquered Smyrna.
The Turks burned down the Christian quarter and the following year “came the crowning and dismal consequence” of the hatred between Turks and Greek. Half a million Muslims, many Greekspeaking, fled; in return a million Greeks, many Turkish-speaking, left Anatolia. Some 250,000 Greeks remained in Istanbul until 1955, when a final pogrom ended two and a half millennia of Greek life there. The abiding hatred between Greeks and Turks colours recent history, but it should not overshadow the achievements of the Turkish republic. Atatürk died, “vastly respected”, in 1939, and remains a deity for Turkish secularists.
Today, Turkey remains at the crossroads again, and many Turks and their friends in the west fear growing Islamisation. But for now Turkey remains a success story, “the only country between Athens and Singapore where, judging by the refugees, people actually wanted to live”. Stone cites a telling statistic in his book: some 11,000 books are translated into Turkish every year; just 300 into Arabic.