Sultan Erdoğan Conquers Istanbul

Posters in Istanbul inviting passersby to celebrate the 562nd anniversary of the “glorious conquest” of Istanbul in the company of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Mehmet Dursun

This past Saturday, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conquered Istanbul. The Turkish president, his entourage and large crowds came together for a "glorious" conquest (fetih) festival to celebrate the 562nd anniversary of the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople in 1453 CE.

The historical jubilee doubled as a political rally organized by the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is currently in the throes of heavy campaigning as Turks prepare to head to the polls on June 7.

This hybrid event was laced with nationalistic symbols and religious rhetoric, including red Turkish flags emblazoned with the crescent moon and green banners inscribed with the Muslim profession of faith or shahada.

Although the shahada is a monotheistic creed widely found in mosques and other religious items, it is a newcomer to the visual culture of political paraphernalia in Turkey, where the Arabic script is otherwise not widely known. The shahada is also a hallmark of contemporary Islamist iconographies, and it adorns the top of ISIS flags.

As the crowds gathered among streamers wafting in the seaside breeze, several war jets zipped over Istanbul's historical peninsula—and most noticeably, above Hagia Sophia.

War planes flying above Hagia Sophia during the opening ceremony of the conquest festival on May 30, 2015. Mehmet Dursun

Upon the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, this architectural gem of Christendom was immediately converted into a mosque by Mehmed the Conqueror (Fatih). Through the centuries, minarets and other mosque elements were added to the structure until it became classified as a museum during the 1930s.

Since then, various Islamist groups in Turkey have called for Hagia Sophia to be reinstated as a functioning mosque. In ever increasing ways, today the building is providing an architectural pivot and backdrop for political and religious differences.

Once the jets faded into the horizon, several speakers took the stage to sound the trumpet of past and future Turkish victories. Without fail, all made strategic use of triumphalist vocabulary as they unleashed a myriad of "conquer and build" metaphors. This rhetorical tactic came as no surprise since the event was publicized under the revivalist rubric "Rebirth and Regrowth" (yeniden diriliş, yeniden yükseliş).

First to emerge was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who welcomed attendees as the "children of our conquering ancestors." He then praised the conquest of Constantinople, noting that the capital of Byzantium was in shambles in 1453. Under the Ottomans, however, the city was restored to its imperial grandeur and beauty under the apparatus of a world empire—a magnificent rebirth he quickly equated to the AKP's building boom of the past decade.

Davutoğlu's speech not only delivered a smooth analogy, it also closely mimicked slogans found on many AKP campaign banners now hanging on buildings all across Turkey. These large-scale visuals itemize the party's many accomplishments in the construction sector—such as the building of roads, tunnels, subways, trains, bridges, hospitals, airports, etc.—and include the catchy campaign motto, "They speak, AKP acts."

Gruber Figure 3
AKP campaign banner shows Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and lists the party’s many accomplishments in the construction sector. Mehmet Dursun

Couching their political opponents as idle babblers, AKP leaders package themselves as movers and shakers—and, in Saturday's festival, as the offspring of the valiant Ottoman conquerors of Constantinople as well.

A little later, with the stage girdled by a ceremonial Ottoman military corps, out came the president. As he walked up to the stage, a Super Bowl–like announcer introduced him through the bombastic, rhyming and triply repeated honorific title, "Fatih Han Recep Erdoğan!"

This newly christened Mehmed the Conqueror then proceeded to recite a portion of the Koran pertinent to the occasion. He selected the first verse of the "Chapter of Victory," in which God is recorded as stating to Muhammad, "Verily, we have granted you a clear victory" (Koran 48:1).

Besides this Koranic verse often used in Islamic warfare, Erdoğan also peppered his speech with other Arabic-language expressions, most especially invocations to God as "My Lord!" (Ya Rabbi!). Through this combination of Turkic titulature and Arabic prayers, Erdoğan thus presented himself as a warring yet devout imperial ruler.

Although tinted with a patina of Ottoman history and Islamic religiosity, the event nonetheless functioned largely as an AKP rally. Erdoğan attacked his political adversaries, in particular Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the People's Democratic Party, and Fethullah Gülen. While the former may impede the president from gaining a supermajority in parliament and thus cut short his intention to rewrite the constitution to grant himself unprecedented powers, the latter is seen as attempting to establish a parallel state in Turkey.

Erdoğan also extended his authority beyond the country's borders by telling attendees that Turkey must serve as the custodian and protector of oppressed Muslim communities worldwide. He spoke of freeing Jerusalem and helping Syria, whereupon he issued an open threat against the "spies" who released a video documenting a Turkish weapons shipment possibly destined for Islamist rebel groups in Syria.

Last but not least, Erdoğan also made reference to Cairo's Rabaa Square, a symbol of the crimes committed against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the recent death sentence imposed on former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Rabaa, he proclaimed while making a four-fingered hand gesture, is "our Rabaa." His rhetorical strategy and physical signaling effectively conjoined the AKP with its Muslim political brothers further west.

The whole affair then wrapped up with an Ottoman band playing a military march and the screening of a dramatic new film on the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople produced for the occasion. Among the movie's most striking scenes is the shahada called from one of Hagia Sophia's Ottoman-period minarets.

These many images and narratives of conquest, building and victimhood articulated and diffused by the AKP found their jingoistic apotheosis in Saturday's fetih fiesta. They are neither new nor confined to such festivals, however. For example, one week prior, a rather similar demonstration was held in front of Hagia Sophia.

Several hundred protesters stood before the Byzantine monument issuing slogans demanding that it be "unshackled" from the yoke of secularism. They carried a large-scale poster of Mehmed the Conqueror's endowment deed, which establishes the building as a mosque and warns that God's curse will be upon anyone who attempts to alter its status.

At this demonstration, protesters also carried green shahada banners and yellow flags imprinted with the four-fingered Rabaa symbol as they chanted: "Get out Sisi, we are with you Morsi!" Here then, global Islamist political discourse coupled the notions of subjugation and deliverance as embodied in none other than Hagia Sophia.

A demonstrator in front of Hagia Sophia carrying a yellow flag imprinted with the four-fingered Rabaa sign, a symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Mehmet Dursun

These campaign, conquest and media events reveal a neo-Ottoman autocratic Erdoğan acting out his delusions on an epic scale. His "Fatih complex," enabled by those around him, likewise betrays Turkey's slide toward a semitotalitarian regime through an expansionary vision of the role of the state and belligerent discourse on global Muslim victimhood.

In addition, these uncanny collusions between myth and reality have many Turks wondering whether their president is insane. This latest festival, which combined proxy war games and fancy forms of playing dress up, will certainly not assuage their fears about Erdoğan's Ottomaniac tendencies.

For their part, those in the opposition continue to hold their own rallies and produce counternarratives and images. Among them are satirical diversions of the neo-sultanic project cultivated by Erdoğan himself, warning him that "this people will never bow down to you."

A poster showing a cartoonish Sultan Erdoğan with an inscription warning him that “this people will never bow down to you.” Gezi Park, summer 2013. Mehmet Dursun

The elections on June 7 will be determining in this regard: Either the Turkish president will be able to write the conclusion to his own epic tale, or else he will have to loosen his tight grip on the reins of power in Turkey.