x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turks revel in their glory days

While a portrayal of an Ottoman assault proves to be popular with museum visitors, historians warn of taking too rosy a view of the past.

The Panorama 1453 Museum cleverly depicts the Ottoman assault on Constantinople.
The Panorama 1453 Museum cleverly depicts the Ottoman assault on Constantinople.

ISTANBUL // With the roar of battle filling the air and scenes of fierce fighting all around him, Ismail Uysal said he could not have been happier. "I wish I could have been there," Mr Uysal, a 22-year-old university student, said during a visit to the Panorama 1453 History Museum in Istanbul. The centrepiece of the museum is the inside of a dome covered with a 360-degree painting depicting the successful Ottoman assault on what was then Constantinople on May 29, 1453. A lifelike display of the battleground with cannons, carts, arrows and dug-outs between the visitors' ramp and the painting as well as sound effects with battle cries, war drums, horses and explosions are also part of the exhibition.

"It was an important day," Mr Uysal said about the fall of Constantinople that ended the thousand-year reign of the Christian Byzantine empire and turned today's Istanbul into the capital of the Muslim Ottomans, then an emerging new power which went on to conquer much of south-eastern Europe and the Middle East. "That is how our ancestors came here, came to Istanbul," Mr Uysal said. Wide-eyed admiration for the Ottoman era of the sort expressed by visitors in the Panorama museum is often found in conservative circles in Turkey. Some observers say an uncritical admiration for the past, fuelled by a one-sided way of teaching history in state schools, makes it difficult for modern Turkey to understand and deal with problems that present themselves in today's world.

The museum, which is close to the historic city walls, provides a romantic view of the decisive battle. The painting, covering 2,350 square metres, shows Ottoman soldiers, directed by Sultan Mehmet II on a white horse, storming the city walls of Constantinople. "The conquest of Istanbul was as much a technological marvel as it was an epic story of uncommon valour," Kadir Topbas, Istanbul's mayor, wrote in a brochure for the museum.

"What happened here has great significance for me as a Turk and a Muslim," said one visitor, Mutlu Karabas. Close by, excited schoolchildren were following their teachers around the visitors' platform, pointing out battle scenes to each other. One day last week, the museum, which has attracted tens of thousands of visitors since it opened at the start of the year, was filled with schoolchildren, tour groups and individual visitors. Many expressed awe at what their ancestors did.

"This is my ninth time here but I feel the same way every time," said Derya, a 23-year-old accountant who gave only her first name. "A museum like this was long overdue. It was overdue for us to take possession of our history." Derya led a friend, Tugba, around the display, and both women said the museum made them appreciate the importance of the day Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. "It was a day that makes you proud," Tugba said. "Here you feel even more like a Turk."

School education in Turkey encourages strong nationalistic views. Sara Nur Yildiz, a US-trained historian at the Orient Institut in Istanbul, a German research institution, and a former teacher at the liberal Bilgi University in the city, said Turkish schools use a "non-critical" approach. "They teach people to be proud to be Turkish," she said. That view of history is sometimes expressed in academic circles as well. "There are black pages in the history of every nation," Mehmet Celik, a historian, told a panel at Atilim University in Ankara last year, according to the university's website. "But in the history of the Turkish nation, there is not even one black page."

But Turkey needs to face the fact that not all of its past was golden, critics say. One of them is Selahattin Demirtas, a leading member of the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, Turkey's main Kurdish party. Referring to nationalist protests against recent agreements between Turkey and its longtime foe Armenia to normalise relations, Mr Demirtas told parliament last week that the country had to take a close look at the reasons why so many people still saw Armenians as enemies.

A distorted view of events that led to the death of several hundred thousand Armenians at the end of the First World War had been built into history books in schools, Mr Demirtas said. The official version of history taught in schools played up the fact that Armenian rebels had killed Muslim Turks during the war but treated Turkish aggressions against Armenians "as if they had not happened", he said.

tseibert@thenational.ae