Exhuming Turkey's Past

Ottoman Revivalism, Then and Now

The Sultan Ahmet mosque in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire. Abdullah frères / Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of February 22, over 500 Turkish soldiers drove into Syria to extract the remains of Suleyman Shah—grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire—from a small mausoleum on the banks of the Euphrates River. Though Suleyman Shah was never terribly famous or important as far as Ottoman ancestors go, the tomb was part of Turkey according to a 1921 treaty, and its guards were technically on Turkish soil. Since both had been surrounded for months by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that withdrawing the remains and their guards was a means to protect national honor. “Countries which do not look after their historic symbols cannot build their future,” he said. The opposition, meanwhile, was quick to accuse the government of sacrificing Turkish territory for the first time in nearly a century.

This incursion into Syria has naturally renewed concerns that modern Turkey is, in a manner, exhuming its Ottoman past. Indeed, such accusations arose as early as 1937, only 15 years after the end of the Ottoman Empire, in response to a different territorial conflict with Syria. According to historian Sarah Shields, the French imperial officer Damien de Martel invoked the specter of neo-Ottomanism when Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, demanded that France cede Alexandretta (now the southern Turkish province of Hatay) to Turkey, even though Syrian nationalists considered it an illegal annexation. Ataturk’s demand, as Martel warned at the time, was proof that he would soon “return to the politics of the sultans” and begin a reconquest of the Near East.

From the 1930s to 2015, Turkey has indeed brandished neo-Ottoman rhetoric to support a range of different, even contradictory, policies. Examining the evolution of how this term was used can help explain the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s current foreign policy dilemmas in the Middle East. 


Ataturk’s foreign policy was largely neutral and isolationist. With the exception of Alexandretta and,

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