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"Ottomania" on the rise in Turkey

While the renewed interest in Ottoman culture and history may be commercialisation to some, it can also provide a reference point for Turkish foreign policy and domestic politics. By Menekse Tokyay
"Ottomania" on the rise in Turkey
(SETimes)"Ottomania", the mass interest in everything Ottoman, has become a new trend in Turkey over the past couple of years. The phenomenon is not only seen in the popularity of television series like "The Magnificent Century", depicting the life of Suleyman the Magnificent and his harem.

It is also reflected in the increased sales of Ottoman history books, Ottoman-styled jewelry, museum exhibitions, the restoration of Ottoman buildings and calligraphy.

While the craze has a certain commercial dimension to it, Turkey's Ottoman legacy may be able to provide a reference point for its proactive regional diplomacy, the expansion of markets and overcoming internal divisions within society.

According to Zeynep Ertug, who teaches Ottoman cultural history at Istanbul University, there are two main sources for this increased interest. "The first is the search for an identity by a society which is highly embedded in European culture, while the second one is a belated bourgeoisie becoming increasingly richer and curious about the aristocratic way of life."

However, experts do not see this trend as a move away from the Kemalist ideology of a state that sought to disassociate itself from its Ottoman past in the early Republican era. Rather, the new trend is a reflection of changes in how people see Ottoman culture.

As Professor Emre Alkin of Kemerburgaz University explains, until recently people had been taught that the Ottoman Empire was merely a state organisation.

"However, despite all forced omissions and reluctant remembering, it became evident that Ottoman is in fact a culture of living, covering a wide range of areas from clothes to lifestyle, from cookery to jewelry and decoration," he told SETimes.

The trend has led to an increase of people who have become much more proud of the Ottoman past.

"In fact, for a long time people were uncomfortable hearing that their past was discredited. But now, they are so glad to know that their past was not so bad; on the contrary, it was magnificent," said Ertug.

However, the Ottoman era cannot be taken as a monolithic issue, but rather is composed of different stages, some of them glorious, others marked by defeat. As a result, people can only be proud of specific periods of their Ottoman past with some kind of nostalgia.

"In the long run, it can lead to frustration when someone asks you such a question: Then, why did such a glorious period end?" said historian Ahmet Kuyas of Galatasaray University.

While some experts like Kuyas consider this trend as the maturation of an interest over three or four decades, others see a superficial dimension to it.

"Although the interest in fields related to the Ottoman Empire has never been interrupted, current interest is rather superficial when one compares it to the novels in the past discussing Ottoman as a political heritage," Selim Kuru, associate professor of Turkish and Ottoman Studies at the University of Washington, said.

For Kuru, the interest manifested in TV series, the design of goods in shopping malls, and visual-based publications are a way of reviving Turkey's domestic and international market.

"This recent interest in all that is Ottoman can be rather explained by the fact that this subject matter has gained meta-value within the market economy," he explained.

According to Kuru, this profit-based interest comes at the expense of historical works over the past century by prominent academicians, researchers and artists.

Still, the Ottoman legacy may provide Turkey a reference point in conducting its foreign policy and overcoming problems of identity.

AKP Kayseri deputy Pelin Gundes Bakir said that the Ottoman Empire was a melting pot of different identities and religions in the Balkans and the Middle East.

"The Ottoman Empire was a centre of tolerance, peace and political stability during its five centuries of existence in the Middle East and Balkans. In this respect, it is logical that the Ottoman model provides a reference for Turkey's policies in the Middle East and Balkans," she said.

"History shows us clearly that Turkey has the potential to play a great role in the upcoming decade for ensuring peace, stability and economic prosperity, not only in Balkans but also in the Middle East," Bakir said.

However, the renewed interest in the Ottoman legacy is not an atavistic imperial drive, often dubbed neo-Ottomanism. Rather, it comes as a logical consequence of geopolitical changes and economic needs in the post-Cold War era.

According to Kuyas, what is wrongly dubbed as neo-Ottomanism is in fact the research for new markets in the immediate vicinity of Turkey's geography. "So, it is not a matter of cultural extension, but rather a wish to extend its economic Lebensraum."

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political commentator, also doesn't see it as a neo-imperialist attempt. "On the contrary, if conceived in a reasonable way, it can provide a promising vision to the policymakers."

For Akyol, when remembering the historical links with the Balkans and Middle East, "there is always a risk of over-idealisation if not applied in a reasonable way."

While some have interpreted Turkey's proactive policy in the Middle East as a shift away from the West, Akyol doesn't see the increased interest in Turkey's Ottoman legacy as a rejection of Europe.

"The Ottoman Empire had been already a significant part of European politics with the alliances it established with European powers like France and the UK. So, the Ottoman past cannot exclude Europe although the EU membership path of Turkey is not so promising nowadays," explained Akyol.

Maybe most importantly for domestic stability, the renewed interest in the Ottoman legacy can be a positive step towards rediscovering the pluralism within Turkish society. "In other terms, the Ottoman past can provide the society with a strong reference for identifying its different components, such as Kurdish people or non-Muslims," he said.