Ottoman Empire 2.0?

Across the Balkans, relics of Ottoman glory and decline, such as mosques, bridges and hamams, exist in various states of disrepair. Can they be brought back to life?

Alev Scott | Published 05 Sep 2019

Occupying British troops march past the Nusretiye mosque in Istanbul in 1920, as the Ottoman Empire collapses. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

The First World War brought the Ottoman Empire to its knees. The sultan’s alliance with the kaiser had gone horribly wrong. British forces held the capital Istanbul; most of the territories had fallen and Greek troops were ravaging the west of Turkey. But east of Istanbul, a maverick general was masterminding a resistance from the arid Anatolian steppes. By October 1923, the last Ottoman sultan had fled on a ship to Malta, the British had left Istanbul and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had founded a new Republic of Turkey from the city of Ankara.

The fall of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire marked the end of an incredible period of diversity. At its zenith, the Empire stretched from Mecca to Budapest, from Algiers to Tbilisi, from Baghdad to the Crimea, connecting millions of people of different religions and ethnicities. An Ottoman subject was an Eastern Orthodox Christian from Odessa or a Jew from Mosul, a Sunni Muslim from Jerusalem or a Catholic Syriac from Antakya. The sultan, who was also the caliph, leader of the Islamic world, allowed non-Muslims to organise their own law courts, schools and places of worship in return for paying ‘infidel’ taxes and accepting a role as second-class citizens: a system of exploitative tolerance that allowed diversity to flourish for centuries in the greatest empire of early modern history.

Today, Turkey is a comparatively homogenous nation state and its former diversity can be sensed almost as a palpable absence. It lies in shadows and silence, in obsolete place names, faded inscriptions and a surplus of antiques.

Walk up the marble steps from Istanbul’s Taksim Square to Gezi Park and you are walking on tombstones taken from a demolished 16th-century Armenian cemetery a few miles down the road. Climb into the hills above the Mediterranean coastline and you find the abandoned homes of Greek Orthodox Christians and Jews. Float in a hot air balloon above the chimneys of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia and you pass over cave churches where locals congregated less than 100 years ago.

The interior of St George's church, Belisirma, western Cappadocia, late Byzantine period. The church was used throughout the Ottoman era.

The fates of Turkey’s minority communities were tied to the demise of the Empire. When Atatürk created the republic, the aim was clear: it was to be for self-identifying Turks only. Such a dramatic reordering of what remained of a once vast empire was necessary for its survival, but the stiflingly nationalistic atmosphere of the new republic forced many of the remaining communities either to leave or to relinquish their real identities so as to pass as ‘Turks’. Minorities became even more invisible as the decades passed and their cultural impact dimmed; the families and congregations who remain have a proud but sad attachment to the past.

Some Turkish towns near the Syrian border, on the edge of the Arab world, still echo the centuries of life that existed before Turkey ironed everything out into homogeneity. In their synagogues, mosques and churches, congregations are tiny but still congregating. The towns of Antakya and Mardin, for example, are still home to both Christian and Jewish congregations. A large signpost to HALEP (Aleppo) on the road from Hatay airport to Antakya serves as a reminder of the proximity of Syria’s devastation, 20 km away.

Antakya lies north of the port of Iskenderun on the Mediterranean coast. Its surrounding province of Hatay used to be part of Syria and existed as an independent state for one year in 1938 before being subsumed into Turkey in 1939, a sore subject for Syrians ever since. Refugees from the Syrian civil war have been pouring into Hatay province since 2011, many of them Sunni Muslims fleeing the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad across the border, though some are also fleeing the Sunni rebels in nearby villages; the divisions between the two groups mean that, increasingly, the refugees leave for the relative urban anonymity and safety of Istanbul.

Those who live in Antakya like to compare it with prewar Damascus and the town does have a Middle Eastern feel, particularly the ancient warren of the medina: baking sandstone houses, souks, narrow streets overhung by fig trees and vines, criss-crossed by the odd chicken or goat and children darting through heavy wooden doors open to the hurly burly of family life within. In shops and cafés, Arabic is liberally scattered through conversation and the Turkish has the harsh aspiration of the south-eastern accent and Arabic mother tongue.

I visited in May 2014, at a moment of tension between local Alawite and Sunni populations. On my way to the Catholic pilgrim house where I would stay the night, a meandering walk led me via the smell of warm caramel to a tiny atölye (atelier) making stewed walnuts and pumpkin slices, bubbling away on little stoves in sugar water. I passed Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic churches and a synagogue, which attracts only a handful of elderly worshippers. The old faithful attend their services doggedly and narrate the centuries-old histories of their communities with undimmed enthusiasm. When they speak of themselves, however, it is usually with a melancholic bent, conscious that they are literally dying out. The Jewish man showing me around the empty synagogue looked bowed down by sadness. At one point in the tour he stopped and turned to me: ‘I sometimes worry that when I die there will be no one left to bury me.’ The energy of the medina seemed to dissipate in this echoing testament to past faith.

Much of the religious and cultural richness due to the empire’s proliferation of minorities has disappeared in its former hubs. In cities which have kept that richness, serious tensions have grown over the last century, of nationalism and sectarianism, particularly in the Middle East. Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, all of which were under Ottoman control until the end of the First World War, are the most obvious examples, but in the Balkans, too, there is a legacy of conflict, particularly between Muslim and Christian populations, that speaks of the damage caused by the Empire’s rupture.

The Stari Most bridge, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, early 1900s.

In certain parts of the Balkans – particularly in Muslim-dominated places such as Bosnia and southern provinces of Serbia and Kosovo – the current Turkish government has made attempts to resuscitate the faded Ottoman glory. The violent Yugoslavian history of Mostar, for example, in the south-west of Bosnia, has now been overshadowed by its Ottoman history as tourists flock to see the reconstructed Stari Most bridge, built in 1566. In the centre of the town, the twisted alleyways are packed full of souvenir stands under the eaves of striped black and white Ottoman houses. Most of the tourists wandering around are mildly adventurous middle-aged Turks, bussed in from Sarajevo to the north. After their excursions, they sit in restaurants by the river, eating kebabs and marvelling at the legacy of their ancestors: ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’, they gush. I witnessed a lot of this nostalgic tourism at play in the Balkans, a strange tour of inspection of former territories by modern Turks; a collective basking in reflected historical glory.

From the 14th century onwards, the Balkans made up the core of the Ottomans’ western territories; most of Greece had come under Ottoman control by the end of the 15th century and Suleiman’s Balkan conquests of the 16th century stretched to the gates of Vienna in the west and eastwards to Odessa in southern Ukraine. This regional dominance lasted until the early 20th century, when the emergence of the nation state inspired rebellion among people made aware of ‘Bulgarian’ or ‘Greek’ identities. Greece was a trendsetter, rebelling in 1821 and establishing itself as an independent state in 1830. Nearly a century later, Bulgaria, Crete and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared themselves independent in 1908. Sultan Mehmet V fought desperately to keep these territories in the First Balkan War of 1912 and lost. It was the beginning of the end.

Today, mosques, bridges, caravanserais and hamams existing in various states of disrepair across the Balkans are physical relics of Ottoman glory and decline. The bridges have survived best; the Stari Most bridge in Mostar is one of the most famous, but is surpassed in grandeur and cultural legacy by the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge in Visegrad, subject of the 1943 historical novel Bridge on The Drina, by the Bosnian Nobel Laureate Ivo Andric. Surprisingly, the Communist authorities oversaw the building of new mosques in the 20th century, but many of these and the existing Ottoman ones were destroyed in the Balkan wars between 1992 and 1995. Turkey has come to the rescue, flexing its regional muscles after a century’s rest.

In the past 16 years of Erdoğan’s rule, his government has been busy building new mosques and rebuilding Ottoman mosques and hamams, with millions of euros of taxpayers’ money. A few hundred yards from the Stari Most bridge is a perfectly restored 16th-century hamam, oddly sterile, and in Skopje, capital of Macedonia, the entrance hall of the 15th-century Çifte Hamamı has been transformed into a modern art gallery. To give an imperfect Western analogy, this spending pattern is the equivalent of the current Italian government single-handedly restoring Roman ruins across Europe with a view to promoting both Italy’s imperial past and, by extension, its current standing in the world.

The Balkans are a historical twilight zone, unforgiving on first-time visitors confronted with its chequered imperial chronology. As I travelled around the region, I was looking for the legacy of the Ottoman Empire in all its forms – architectural, political and social – and found it in the dungeons of Sarajevo’s burnt library, the cafes frequented by Turkish-speaking car mechanics in the Kosovan countryside, old tea gardens in Skopje and haunted wooden mosques in Bulgaria. The Balkan landscape is dominated by mountains, rivers and forests, a jagged terrain notoriously difficult to govern, even for the Ottomans. Like the rest of the Empire, the Balkan territories were controlled as vilayets, or administrative regions, which were divided into smaller districts called sanjaks, ruled – theoretically – from hundreds of miles away by Constantinople. The government of these districts was entrusted to local pashas, who were expected to keep an eye on both the Muslim and more numerous Christian and Jewish subjects. To tackle the challenging mountain districts, the Ottomans chose powerful men to rule their own; two dozen Grand Viziers were chosen from modern Albania alone.

In the aftermath of the USSR, the decline of the European Union and the rise of religious tensions, the Balkan states are trying to define themselves in the 21st century. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria, half-completed buildings are everywhere. This unrealised construction boom mirrors the semi-constructed, aspirational state of the countries themselves. The region is ripe for more powerful states to carve out influence; Russia and Turkey are gaining on the ebbing influence of the EU and NATO in the former Yugoslavia and its surroundings.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a study in modern, ‘soft’ imperialism; while 500 years ago the country was occupied by Ottoman forces, it is now occupied to a surprising extent by Turkish money, poured into schools, media, construction and cultural projects in an attempt to recreate some approximation of past influence. I visited Mostar on a sweltering day in July 2017. I passed over the Stari Most bridge to the east bank of the Neretva, where a magnificent orange-striped building flies a Turkish flag; this is the Yunus Emre Institute, a governmental organisation set up by then-Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan as a kind of cultural centre franchise in 2007, with branches all over the world. The single staff member on duty in the Mostar branch – a burly man who spoke Turkish with a strong Bosnian accent – looked astonished to see me. The building was empty, the walls plastered with Turkish language charts (‘B for Baklava’, etc), pristine classrooms awaiting phantom hordes of eager Bosnian students. Despite boasting only 12 Turks, Mostar also maintains a Turkish consulate.

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was founded by the Ottomans in 1461 and is a painfully beautiful city of cemeteries, surrounded by hills occupied by Serbian paramilitaries less than 30 years ago and still haunted by trauma. Every slope within the city hosts a swathe of white tombstones, many of them the graves of those killed in the recent war, others clearly Ottoman, with the turban-like headstone of the Sufi Bektashi order. Signs of the war are everywhere: the restored town hall was once a library, shelled by Serbian forces in 1992. In the fire that resulted, one and a half million books, many Ottoman, were burned; in the underground archive space, once used as dungeons, only black-and-white photographs of the collection remain. On the floors and walls of the building itself, almost too perfectly restored, the replicated Jewish star of David and Islamic-style calligraphic art reflect the multi-layered history of the city, visible today because of punctilious archaeologists paid by the EU.

A Muslim cemetery near the National Library in Sarajevo, 2015.

Erdoğan and his AKP government have always been aware of the political advantages of resurrecting influence in the Balkan region, especially for trade, but there is a more emotional impetus behind this: Erdoğan identifies as an Ottoman leader in troubled modern times and his self-belief has translated into a strange reality. Sometimes he signals his Ottoman credentials with heavy-handed symbolism, sitting in his newly built, 1,000-room White Palace in Ankara with all the trappings of a modern sultan and other times explicitly, such as when he lamented the precise loss of Ottoman territories at the fall of the Empire in 1923:

In 1914, our land covered two and a half million square kilometres. Nine years later it fell to seven hundred and eighty thousand square kilometres.


‘Our land’ is the key: Erdoğan and his fellow founders of the AKP both assume and actively promote a political continuum between the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey which does not exist; nearly 100 years has passed since the Empire’s collapse and much has changed since Atatürk founded a new nation state. During the liberation of Mosul in 2016, Turkish state TV broadcast maps of an enlarged Turkey encompassing northern Iraq, an old Ottoman territory – an explicit sign of imperialist pretensions. If the Balkans were as vulnerable, perhaps the map would include those territories. As it is, the Turks are playing it softly in the West.

There may be no political continuum between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey but there are social and cultural ones. In Turkey itself, the heartland of the empire, signs of the diverse life of the country’s Ottoman past are still there, in the people, language and architecture, and the same goes for many countries that once formed part of its sprawling empire, from Lebanon to Bosnia – if you know where to look.

Alev Scott is the author of Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire (riverrun, 2018). The article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of History Today with the title 'The Empire Strikes Back?'