The history of Manzikert and national Victory Day
The 947th anniversary of the Seljuk Battle of Manzikert, which is marked as leading the way to Byzantine Anatolia for Turks, is celebrated with strong nationalist emphasis by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party. Indeed, the famous battle has always been regarded as a great day for Turkish history. Nonetheless, it now seems to turn out to be more a significant historical event for the historiography of the New Turkey.
The fact that the coincidence of the date of the battle with the beginning of the last and decisive offensive of the Turkish War of Independence on Aug. 26, 1922, has always been a credit for Turkish nationalists in the Republican era. Nevertheless, Republicans chose the date of the end of the great offensive on Aug. 30 as “Victory Day,” which qualifies as an official celebration.
The New Turkey still celebrates the old Republican days of victory but with less and less reference to the founding father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. That is what happened on April 23, on the anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, as the president refrained from mentioning the name of Atatürk and portrayed the historical event as the victory of the Turkish nation.
Kemalists choose to celebrate Aug. 30 first and foremost as the national day of victory because it was one of the most significant historical days for the newly founded Republic and early Republican historiography. Republicans have been eager to find secular historical roots and have imagined a secular past with references to either the pre-Islamic Central Asian history of Turks or the ancient civilizations of Anatolia.
The revival of greater interest in Manzikert has been initiated by the founding fathers of the Turkish political right in the 1950s after the victory of the Democrat Party, which represented disguised resentments against the Kemalist Republic, since the converted Seljuks and their battle of Manzikert not only represented Turkishness but also had an Islamic quality.
It marked the beginning not only of Turkification but also of the Islamification of Anatolia. As during the 1960s and 1970s, Turkey witnessed the rise of conservative and nationalist right wing politics, Manzikert became a symbol of their Turkish-Islamic imagined community and its past. The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party adopted the name of Alpaslan Türkeş after the Seljuq sultan and commander of Manzikert in the late sixties.
Carole Hillenbrand’s 2007 book Turkish Myth and Muslim Symbol: Battle of Manzikert (Edinburg University Press) is a very illuminating academic work to be viewed concerning the topic. Nonetheless, the author, who is a brilliant historian, falls short of exploring the political context of the Turkish historiography of Manzikert, presumably due to her limited knowledge of modern Turkish political history.
The political-intellectual background of Erdoğan, who is acknowledged by his supporters as the founding father of the New Turkey, firmly derives from the political tradition of the Turkish right wing. Although the right wing political tradition in Turkey is often misleadingly portrayed as moderate conservativism, in fact it has always been a blend of religious conservatism/Islamism and Turkish nationalism with economic liberalism as its window dressing.
The political alliance of the president and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) depends on the meeting of the minds as well as the outcome of pragmatic interests, which are united to shape the myths and symbols of the New Turkey. That is why the anniversary of Manzikert now overshadows national Victory Day on Aug. 30.