x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turks embrace Ottoman past

The funeral of Osman Ertugrul Osmanoglu, the last surviving grandson of an Ottoman sultan, forces Turkey to re-assess its history.

ISTANBUL // When Osman Ertugrul Osmanoglu was born in an Istanbul palace overlooking the Bosphorus in August 1912, his family still ruled an empire that once stretched from Central Europe to north Africa. Now, with the "last Ottoman's" death at the age of 97, Turkey has lost one of the final living bridges to its pre-Republican past. "He loved Turkey. He was a man who loved the fatherland," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said about Osmanoglu - the last surviving grandson of an Ottoman ruler - who died in Istanbul last week.

An estimated 10,000 people turned out for Osmanoglu's funeral at the weekend. He was buried near the grave of his grandfather, the former sultan, Abdulhamid II, in Istanbul's old city, after midday prayers in the Blue Mosque, one of the landmarks of the Turkish metropolis. Several ministers of Mr Erdogan's cabinet, including the deputy prime minister, Cemil Cicek, took part in the ceremony. The burial at the historic site was made possible by a special government decree.

Having received a Turkish passport only in 2004, Osmanoglu was officially just another Turkish citizen. But the strong crowd and the participation of high-ranking government representatives at his funeral, as well as the fact that Mr Erdogan's first action after his return from the G20 summit in the United States was to pay a condolence visit to Osmanoglu's widow, demonstrated that many Turks still feel attached to their Ottoman past.

"The people of Anatolia love the Ottomans very much," Ilber Ortayli, a prominent historian and director of the Topkapi Museum, the former palace of the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul, told the Star newspaper. The death of Osmanoglu, of kidney failure, marked the end of an era. He was the last person to carry the Ottoman title of prince, Ertugrul Gunay, the culture minister, who also took part in the funeral ceremony, told reporters: "He was born in a palace, and the event was marked with a cannon salute of a hundred shots."

Osmanoglu, whose official title was His Imperial Majesty Prince Osman Ertugrul, was the last male member of the former ruling family who was born when today's Turkey was still under Ottoman rule. Authorities of the young Turkish republic, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, expelled 155 members of the royal household in 1924. The sultanate as an institution had already been scrapped two years earlier. Osmanoglu was attending school in Vienna when his family had to leave Istanbul.

The expulsion of the Ottomans marked the end of a monarchy that had lasted 600 years and had made Anatolia the centre of a world power. After a slow decline, the empire was defeated in the First World War, when it sided with Germany. Ataturk, a former Ottoman general, built the republic on the ruins of the former empire. In the same year they had to leave Turkey, the Ottomans also lost their traditional title as caliphs, or leaders of the worldwide Muslim community, which they had held since the 16th century.

Osmanoglu, who would have come to the throne as Osman IV had it not been for the collapse of the empire, continued to live in Vienna as a young man and moved to the US in 1939. He invested in mining companies in South America and lived in New York. For decades, the grandson of Abdulhamid II was not allowed to return to Turkey because Ankara banned male members of the Ottomans from entering the country until the 1970s.

When he visited Istanbul in 1992, after being invited by the government, he toured the Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus, where he used to play as a child. According to Prof Ortayli, Osmanoglu and his wife, a niece of a former king of Afghanistan, returned to live in Istanbul only about a month ago. In interviews with Turkish media over the years, Osmanoglu was careful to rule out any ambition to return to power or to go into politics. "With a crown or without a crown - no to politics," he once told an interviewer.

Although he declined offers to receive a Turkish passport for many years, he also praised Ataturk, a fact that has been stressed by politicians and media since his death. "Ataturk brought down the Ottomans," he said according to Guneri Civaoglu, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, who interviewed him for Turkish television. "But if it had not been for Ataturk, there would have been no Turkey. It was he who founded Turkey anew. I owe him thanks as well."

Osmanoglu's positive attitude to Ataturk and the republic made it easier for Turks to embrace their Ottoman past. "It was an era that made us proud," Mr Cicek said about the Ottoman centuries. He added that members of the Ottoman family had "never participated in actions directed against the Turkish republic". Observers say reactions to Osmanoglu's death show that there is a new, more positive attitude towards the Ottomans in the country. "In recent years, Turkey has started to know and understand the Ottomans better," Avni Ozgurel, a journalist who has written a book about the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the republic, told Star.

"In the past, people regarded the Ottomans with anger," he said. "But today, people think that the Ottoman heritage is a history to be praised." The new head of the Ottoman family, 85-year-old Osman Beyazid Osmanoglu, was born in exile in France in 1924, a year after the republic was founded. @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae