How Erdogan reoriented Turkish culture to maintain his power
Turkey’s president has made a spectacle of the Ottoman past, using monuments and TV shows to rally his voters. His cultural opponents have faced censorship, or jail.
At the final sundown before the first round of voting in the toughest election of his two-decade rule, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Hagia Sophia for evening prayers — and to remind his voters of just what he had delivered.
For nearly a millennium the domed cathedral had been the epicenter of Orthodox Christianity. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it became one of the Islamic world’s finest mosques. In the 1930s, the new Turkish republic proclaimed it a museum, and for nearly a century its overlapping Christian and Muslim histories made it Turkey’s most visited cultural site.
President Erdogan was not so ecumenical: In 2020 he converted it back into a mosque. When Turks return to the ballot box this Sunday for the presidential runoff, they will be voting in part on the political ideology behind that cultural metamorphosis.
Join the crowds at the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque now, leaving your shoes at the new long racks in the inner narthex, and you can just about glimpse the mosaics of Christ and the Virgin, today discreetly sheathed with white curtains. The famous marble floor has been upholstered with thick turquoise carpet. The sound is more muffled. The light’s brighter, thanks to golden chandeliers. Right at the entrance, in a simple frame, is a presidential proclamation: a monumental swipe at the nation’s secular century, and an affirmation of a new Turkey worthy of its Ottoman heyday.
“Hagia Sophia is the crowning of that neo-Ottomanist dream,” said Edhem Eldem, professor of history at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “It’s basically a transposition of political and ideological fights, debates, polemical views, into the realm of a very, very primitive understanding of history and the past.”
If the mark of 21st-century politics is the ascendancy of culture and identity over economics and class, it could be said to have been born here in Turkey, home to one of the longest-running culture wars of them all. And for the past 20 years, in grand monuments and on schlocky soap operas, at restored archaeological sites and retro new mosques, Mr. Erdogan has reoriented Turkey’s national culture, promoting a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman past — sometimes in grand style, sometimes as pure kitsch.
After surviving a tight first round of voting earlier this month, he is now favored to win a runoff election on Sunday against Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of the joint opposition. His resiliency, when poll after poll predicted his defeat, certainly expresses his party’s systematic control of Turkey’s media and courts. (Freedom House, a democracy watchdog organization, downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free” in 2018.) But authoritarianism is about so much more than ballots and bullets. Television and music, monuments and memorials have all been prime levers of a political project, a campaign of cultural ressentiment and national rebirth, that culminated this May on the blue-green carpets beneath Hagia Sophia’s dome.
Outside Turkey, this cultural turn is often described as “Islamist,” and Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., have indeed permitted religious observances that were once banned, such as the wearing of head scarves by women in public institutions. A Museum of Islamic Civilizations, complete with a “digital dome” and light projections à la the immersive Van Gogh Experience, opened in 2022 in Istanbul’s new largest mosque.
Yet this election suggests that nationalism, rather than religion, may be the true driver of Mr. Erdogan’s cultural revolution. His celebrations of the Ottoman past — and the resentment of its supposed haters, whether in the West or at home — have gone hand in hand with nationalist efforts unrelated to Islam. The country has mounted aggressive campaigns for the return of Greco-Roman antiquities from Western museums. Foreign archaeological teams have had their permits withdrawn. Turkey stands at the bleak vanguard of a tendency seen all over now, not least in the United States: a cultural politics of perpetual grievance, where even in victory you are indignant.
For this country’s writers, artists, scholars and singers, facing censorship or worse, the prospect of a change in government was less a matter of political preference than of practical survival. Since 2013, when an Occupy-style protest movement at Istanbul’s Gezi Park took direct aim at his government, Mr. Erdogan has taken a hard turn to authoritarian rule. Numerous cultural figures remain imprisoned, including the architect Mucella Yapici, the filmmakers Mine Ozerden and Cigdem Mater, and the arts philanthropist Osman Kavala. Writers like Can Dundar and Asli Erdogan (no relation), who were jailed during the purges that followed a failed military coup against Mr. Erdogan in 2016, live in exile in Germany.
More than a dozen musical concerts were canceled last year, among them a recital by the violinist Ara Malikian, who is of Armenian descent, and a gig by the pop-folk singer Aynur Dogan, who is Kurdish. The tensions reached a grim crescendo this month, shortly before the first round of voting, when a Kurdish singer was stabbed to death at a ferry terminal after declining to sing a Turkish nationalist song.
In the days after the first round of voting, I met with Banu Cennetoglu, one of the country’s most acclaimed artists, whose commemoration of a Kurdish journalist at the 2017 edition of the contemporary art exhibition Documenta won acclaim abroad but brought aggravation at home. “What is scary right now compared to the 90s, which was also a very difficult time, especially for the Kurdish community, is that then we could guess where the evil was coming from,” she told me. “And now it could be anyone. It is much more random.”
The strategy has worked. Independent media has shrunk. Self-censorship is rife. “All the institutions within art and culture have been extremely silent for five years,” Ms. Cennetoglu said. “And for me this is unacceptable, as an artist. This is my question: when do we activate the red line? When do we say no, and why?”
Nationalism is nothing new in Turkey. “Everybody and his uncle is a nationalist in this country,” Mr. Eldem observed. And the Kemalists — the secular elite who dominated politics here for decades until Mr. Erdogan’s triumph in 2003 — also used nationalist themes to spin culture to their political ends. Turkey’s early cinema glorified the achievements of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Archaeological digs for Hittite antiquities aimed to provide the new republic with a past rooted even more deeply than Greece and Italy.
In the 2000s, Mr. Erdogan’s blend of Islamism and reformism had Turkey knocking at the door of the European Union. A new Istanbul was being feted in the foreign press. But the new Turkish nationalism has a different cultural cast: proudly Islamic, often antagonistic, and sometimes a little paranoid.
One of the signal cultural institutions of the Erdogan years is the Panorama 1453 History Museum, in a working-class district west of Hagia Sophia, where schoolchildren discover the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in a painted cyclorama. At one point, a painting in the round might have been immersion enough. Now it’s been souped up with blaring video projections, a wildly nationalist pageant styled like the video game “Civilization.” Kids can watch Sultan Mehmed II charge toward Hagia Sophia, while his horse rears up in front of a celestial fireball.
There’s a similar backward projection in Turkey’s television dramas, which are hugely popular not just here but internationally, with hundreds of millions of viewers throughout the Muslim world, in Germany, in Mexico, all over. On shows such as “Resurrection: Ertugrul,” an international hit about a 13th-century Turkic chieftain, or “Kurulus: Osman,” a “Game of Thrones”-esque Ottoman saga airing every Wednesday here, past and present start to merge.
“They are casting the discourse of Tayyip Erdogan in the antique ages,” said Ayse Cavdar, a cultural anthropologist who’s studied these shows. “If Erdogan faces a struggle right now, it is recast in an Ottoman context, a fictional context. In this way, not the knowledge about today’s struggle, but the feeling of it, is spread through society.”
In these half-historical soap operas, the heroes are decisive, brave, glorious, but the polities they lead are fragile, teetering, menaced by outsiders. Ms. Cavdar noted how frequently the TV shows feature leaders of an emerging, endangered state. “As if this guy has not been governing the state for 20 years!” she said.
Culture came on the agenda during the runoff, too, as Mr. Erdogan showed up to inaugurate the new home of Istanbul Modern. The president had praise for the new Bosporus-side museum, designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano — but he couldn’t help bashing the creations of the previous century, with what he described as a misguided abandonment of the Ottoman tradition.
Now, the president promised, an authentic “Turkish century” was about to dawn.
Assuming he wins on Sunday, his neo-Ottomanism will have survived its strongest test in two decades. The cultural figures with the most to regret are of course those in prison, but it will also be a bitter outcome for the academics, authors and others who left the country in the wake of Mr. Erdogan’s purges. “A.K.P.’s social engineering can be compared to monoculture in industrial agriculture,” said Asli Cavusoglu, a young artist who recently had a solo show at New York’s New Museum. “There is one type of vegetable they invest in. Other plants — intellectuals, artists — are unable to grow, and that’s why they leave.”
Turkey’s minorities may face the greatest hazards. At the memorial museum for Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, I looked through copies of his independent newspaper and watched footage of his television chat shows, each an admonishment of contemporary Turkey’s constricted freedom of expression. “Civil society actors are becoming more prudent,” said Nayat Karakose, who oversees the museum and is of Armenian descent. “They do events in a more cautious way.”
For Mr. Eldem, who has spent his career studying Ottoman history, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia and the “Tudors”-style TV dramas are all of a piece, and are less confident than they seem. “Nationalism is not just glorification,” he said. “It’s also victimization. You can’t have proper nationalism if you’ve never suffered. Because suffering gives you also absolution from potential misconduct.”
“So what the naïve Turkish nationalist, and especially neo-Ottomanist nationalist, wants,” he added, “is to bring together the idea of a glorious empire that would have been benign. That’s not a thing. An empire is an empire.”
But whether or not Mr. Erdogan wins the election on Sunday, there are headwinds that no amount of cultural nationalism can stand against: above all, inflation and a currency crisis that has bankers and financial analysts flashing a red alert. “In that future, there’s no place for heritage,” Mr. Eldem said. “The Ottomans are not going to save you.”