As I sat and wrote these lines with the background music of Rossini’s 1820 opera “Maometto II,” the release of the Turkish film “Fetih 1453” (Conquest 1453) was only a day and a half away, scheduled to premiere in Turkey at 2:53 p.m. (14:53) on Feb. 16. The film’s trailer opens with an (alleged) attribution to the Prophet Muhammad: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will he be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!”
The opera’s eponymous subject Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror), son of Sultan Murad II and Valide Sultan Mara Brankovic, was only 21 years old when he conquered Constantinople on May 29, 1453. (Apparently the film’s producers could not wait a few months more for a more sensational release at 14:53 on May 29.)
Mehmed II was too keen on shariah, and he considered it an Islamic duty to overthrow the Byzantines by conquering Constantinople. Ironically, he had a blood lineage to the Byzantine imperial family – his predecessor, Sultan Orhan I, had married a Byzantine princess, and Mehmed II may have claimed descent from John Tzelepes Komnenos, a grandchild of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.
Even more ironically, the sultan was also known for the religious tolerance with which he treated his subjects, especially among the conquered Christians. His oath “firman” – which he issued to protect Bosnian Franciscans when he conquered that territory in 1463 – is considered the oldest document on religious freedoms.
To some extent, it would be anachronistic to accuse Muslim Turks of occupying other nations’ lands as the darker ages of human race had seen that motive too often regardless of ethnicity or religion.
All the same, it won’t be anachronistic at all to be astonished at the Turkish love affair with the idea of conquest in the 21st century. Instead of shyly (and privately) remembering 1453, the Turks make every cheerful noise to remind the entire world that their country is a too rare commodity in Europe which boasts that its biggest city in fact is a land that once belonged to another nation and was captured by the force of sword.
It is quite hard to think of the British commemorating the conquest of London or the Germans that of Berlin – and noisily thinking this is a virtue: “We are sitting on other nations’ lands! Ah, there is Cyprus too…” Another Turkish producer with a quick eye for $$$$ should soon set off to release a “Conquest 1974,” and another, an “Extinction 1915.”
Sadly, millions of Turks will go to the theaters to feel proud of their ancestors and to visually show their children “our greatness.” We are great not only because “we had the power of the sword” but, even more sadly, because “we still adore the idea.” This is what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan must have meant when he recently said he wanted to “raise devout generations…which should embrace our historic values.”
And it is so amusing that these devout generations get easily offended when someone spelled the original name of the city their ancestors had conquered five and a half centuries ago: Constantinople. They would prefer the “Turkish” name, Istanbul, without knowing that the Turkish name, too, is a variation of one of the city’s Greek names: “stin Poli” - to the City.
Even more amusing is the fact that you can often see these devout generations staging one protest rally after another, fiercely demanding an end to the “Israeli occupation of Jerusalem.” Amusement turns into extreme amusement when, like it happened a couple of years ago, crowds of devout young Turks commemorate the conquest of Istanbul, only to move on to another demonstration, this time to protest the occupation of Jerusalem.
Weird Turkey? Not yet. After the double demonstrations, they would surf the web to find which “traitor” Turk(s) criticized their hooliganism, and flood him/them with extremely creative words of curses and threats.
It is useless to remind them that their ancestors had travelled from the steppes of Asia to capture Constantinople while the Jews are natives of Jerusalem.