Hittites, Ottomans and Turks

Can Erimtan

Hittites, Ottomans and Turks

47th Meeting of the PIAC, Cambridge 2004

Throughout the 1930s the Kemalist leadership of the Republic of Turkey was keenly aware of the Turks’ Central Asian roots and origins. Established in opposition to its Ottoman predecessor, the Republic tried very hard to forge a palatable historical reality to present to its population at large, a reality which tried to downplay the value of the Islamic and Ottoman contributions to the development of Turkish history.

The Turkish History Society (UK), founded in 1932, thus started to promulgate the so-called ‘Turkish History Thesis’ (Turk Tarih Tezi) in an effort to alter the historical consciousness of Republican Turks. The ‘History Thesis’ outlined the early beginnings of the Turks in Central Asia, and their precocious achievements in the fields of culture and civilisation. The official interpretation of Turkish history even saw these prehistoric Turks spreading out across the globe, in the process dispersing Turkish civilisation and language among the world’s as yet ‘barbaric’ inhabitants. In doing so, the TTK and Turkey’s wider academic apparatus succeeded in turning the public’s attention to the prehistoric era. But rather than trying to make political capital of this refound prehistoric stature in Central Asia, Turkish nationalism was clearly grafted upon the geographical definition of the Republic.

As a result, Anatolia became the main focus for historical research and investigation, again with an emphasis on ancient and prehistoric times. Arid, in contrast, any hint of political or ideological aspirations beyond the nation’s borders provoked nothing but loathing from Turkey’s leadership. Atatürk’s well-known dictum ‘Peace at Home, Peace Abroad’ [Yurtda Sulh, Cihanda Sulh] provided the boundaries for the rediscovery of the past deeds and achievements of the Turks.

As a result, Turkey’s historiographical establishment and archaeological activity focused attention on the Hittite people, who had settled in Anatolia at the end of the third millennium BC. Their original homeland was unknown, but a Central Asian provenance appeared obvious. Turkish explorers and scholars left no stone unturned, and respected scholarly tomes as well as history school textbooks presented the Hittites as the first Turks to have moved into Anatolia, at a distant time unburdened by the perceived danger of Islam. Instead, the establishment suggested that these ancient people had espoused values and ideals similar to the secular belief system and progressive outlook advocated by the emergent Republic of Turkey.

Thus, the Kemalist leadership promoted a Hittite iconography as the embodiment of its goals and aspirations. Rather than looking towards the Ottomans or the Seljuks for guidance and inspiration, academics, teachers and policy-makers alike presented Republican Turks as the descendants of ancient Hittites. And as a result , the Hittites took their place in the Kemalist psyche as the true forebears of the Turkish state established in 1923. Turkey’s secularist zeal condemned the Ottomans as the standard-bearers of Islam, and the Muslim creed was in turn blamed for hampering Turkish progress and happiness. Thus, Hittites and not Ottomans became the officially approved representatives of Turkey’s past, guiding the Republic into a brave new world.