Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Museums a Powerful Weapon in Political Battle for Turkey’s Past and Future

Turkey- Hagia Sophia
People walk in front of the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine church converted to a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and now a museum in Istanbul. Photo AFP


Like any country proud of its storied history, Turkey is no stranger to museums. From imperial palaces to towering temples, Turkey has converted some of its most impressive architecture into centres of learning and commemoration. But as with any repository of information, these museums are increasingly being used as a weapon in the political battle for the country’s past and future.

In many ways the history of modern Turkish museums began in the late 19th century, when Osman Hamdi Bey, a painter and important cultural figure, initiated a law that prohibited the export of Turkish artistic and archaeological treasures. However, the most dramatic shift in Turkish museums occurred with the founding of the secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Marking the end of the Ottoman period, the country’s new leaders sought to reconstruct Turkish history and identity not around Ottoman poles but around Anatolia’s ancient history as a cradle of civilisation. Museums and academic institutions celebrating the Anatolian ethnographies, religion as a historical artefact and even Ottoman grandeur soon sprung up.

Tellingly, the first museum designed and built in the republic lauded Turkey’s pre-Ottoman ethnography. The legacy of this work can still be seen today, not just in museums but also in the streets and institutions of the capital: Ankara is home to statues and universities bearing the sun disk design of the Hittite, an ancient Anatolian civilisation.

With the death of Ataturk, considerable effort was put into enshrining him and republican sacrifices in Turkish learning. The subterranean levels of Anitkabir, Ataturk’s resting place in Ankara, double as a museum to the war of independence following World War One. With time, Canakale, the battleground where Turkey fought off the Gallipoli invasion, was also populated with museums and memorials to the Turkish victory and loss of life on both sides.

These sites of education were to play a key role in helping consolidate the new markers of national pride and patriotic values. A good example is the Republican Museum, the location of the republic’s first parliament in Ankara.

The focus of Turkey’s official museums remained largely unchanged until the millennium and the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This Islamist party had a troubled history with the republican establishment, including the jailing of their soon-to-be leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Before long, museums became a site for retelling the national story.

When a museum is no longer a museum

The most high-profile and emblematic scuffle over museums has centred around Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral turned Ottoman mosque that sits at the heart of Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district. It is precisely the building’s patchwork-like affiliation to different religious groups through Istanbul’s history that has shaped the contention around it today. In the early years of the republic, Ataturk decreed that the site be turned into a museum, converting it from the mosque status that it had held for centuries. Today, it recalls the building’s past use by both religions.

In line with Turkey’s move away from religion more broadly following the fall of the Ottoman dynasty and dissolution of the Caliphate, not to mention the republic’s secular foundations, the site’s daily use was secularized, with the muezzin’s call to prayer silenced and prayer within the building forbidden. As one of the crown jewels of Ottoman Islam in Turkey and a powerful symbol of the conquest of the Muslim Ottomans over Christian Byzantines and Europeans, this secularizing move was a neutering of sorts of Ottoman pride.

Erdogan has sought to undo this. With his nostalgia for the country’s imperial past and distaste for secularization, he has made repeated calls for the museum to be reconsecrated as a mosque. These calls appear to fit his ideological goals rather than any practical need for a further place of worship in the district (given the large mosques in the vicinity of Hagia Sophia), and there may even be logistical obstacles to doing so: the museum’s roof is adorned with metre-tall images of angels, figurative depictions that Islam typically prohibits.

Nearly two decades after the AKP came to power, Hagia Sophia remains a site of learning and education and not one of worship, despite the occasional protest by Muslim worshippers. Yet the museum’s future is by no means assured, and it could eventually fall victim to its value as a political tool to shore up Erdogan’s support.

Low-hanging fruit

The AKP was quick to begin refocusing national museums on the country’s Ottoman past, which the party idolises. One of the most striking additions to Istanbul’s museum scene was the Panorama 1453, which opened in 2009. Featuring an enormous depiction of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, it was a clear marker of where the AKP felt that museums should be directing their attention.

The diorama lies somewhere between historical museum and entertainment venue and, again, this is typical of the post-2000s museum scene. Few new historical museums have opened since, with the authorities instead relying on architecture, processions and even political gimmicks, such as actors dressed as historical warriors to welcome visiting dignitaries at the presidential palace, to affirm this messaging.

Other places of worship have also been mired in changing evaluations of history. Many of Turkey’s old churches, many abandoned when their congregations fled persecution, have been left to fall into ruin, the role of Christians in Turkish history largely forgotten or erased. In a few high-profile cases, Orthodox churches have been beautifully renovated, perhaps as a means of currying favour with Russia, or as proof of Ankara’s ostensible stance towards minorities in the face of widespread human rights concerns.

With the past years’ tourism boom, museum visits have increased, with over 6 million visits in 2018. Authorities have expanded facilities and marketing at Turkey’s most famous historical sites, including Troy and Ephesus. They have also stepped up efforts to have archaeological treasures looted from Turkey typically by European expeditions returned to their homeland.

One of the most famous of these is the Tem-ple of Artemis, large parts of which were taken to the British Museum in London and to Austria. So far these efforts have had limited success, and little has been done to promote historical research within Turkey, with many of the most important archaeological digs still led by foreign experts.

In this environment, it is important to note Turkey’s independent museums. Although few in number, the Museum of Innocence, opened by writer and academic Orhan Pamuk, the Rahmi M. Koc Museum, which celebrates Turkey’s industrial advances, and others have been able to carve out a space of relatively free expression in an era of crackdowns on liberal thought and dissent in the country.

With museums largely subsidised or free for Turkish citizens, the importance of connecting Turks with the country’s past is obviously valued. Yet as museums increasingly become a political and ideological battle-ground, history is proving to be a powerful weapon indeed.