When Turks Civilized the World

Clive Foss looks at the way in which Kemal Atatürk rewrote history as part of his radical modernization of the Turkish nation.

Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk as he became known, the undisputed ruler of Turkey from 1923 to 1938, was very fond of young ladies – to such an extent that he adopted four of them. One, named Afet, was an eighteen-year-old history student whose family Kemal had known in his native Salonica. Like the other girls, he encouraged Afet to pursue her studies, so that she eventually got a doctorate and rose high in the Turkish historical establishment. According to her own account, one day in 1929, she came to the Gazi (a favourite title, Victor over Infidels) with a problem. She had read in a French geography book that the Turks were a yellow race, generally considered second-class human beings. This provoked a reaction in Kemal, who had light hair and blue eyes. ‘No, that can’t be’ he said, ‘let’s get busy about it’.

Kemal was determined to refute any notion that the Turks were part of the yellow race, that they had no capacity for civilization, and particularly that anyone else might have a historical claim on the homeland of Asia Minor. He wanted to know who was the original population of Turkey, how the first Turkish civilization was formed and by whom and what was the place of Turks in world history. He threw himself into the project, taking time from the duties of state; he assembled a large historical library and ordered experts to study it. Ministers, MPs, professors and teachers were all to read and report to him. Wherever the Gazi was – in Ankara or Istanbul or his favourite spa, on the boat or the train – he found time to work and to call meetings which might last well into the night. He held discussions over a dinner table full of books and papers in a room that looked like the school it was becoming.

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