Politics

Growing nostalgia in Turkey for the glory days of the Ottoman Empire

Beams of sunlight cut through the steam like lasers, while bathers loll contentedly in the warm, mineral-rich water under a magnificent domed roof. Built in the 16th century, the Rudas Baths in Budapest is one of Europe's last functioning Ottoman hamams, an enduring legacy of empire on the northernmost fringe of the Sultan's domains.

At the height of their power, the Ottomans ruled over one of the greatest empires in history. Their lands and vassal states reached from present-day Algeria to Azerbaijan, Kosovo to Kuwait. Defeated by the Allies in the First World War, the empire was dismembered and the Caliphate abolished.

The empire was divided under the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret pact drawn up in 1916 between France, Britain and Russia. Sykes-Picot was further adjusted at the 1920 San Remo conference, which conferred League of Nations mandates for the conquered Ottoman lands. Sykes-Picot and San Remo were a colonialist project that imposed nation-states, such as Syria and Iraq, with arbitrary borders.

But the modern nation-state fitted poorly in the Balkans and the Middle East. It ignored the ethnic, religious and tribal mosaic in favour of an invented national identity. Multi-ethnic Yugoslavia proved a fragile construct, easily smashed on the nationalist anvil. Syria and Iraq too have fractured along ethnic and religious lines. Post-Ottoman national identities are collapsing, and almost a century later, the consequences of the break-up of the Sultans' empire still shape our world.

Turkey's election results have put paid to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's grandiose plans to further cement his grip on power. But his legacy endures. Turkey is now much a more Muslim country, where there is a growing nostalgia for the glory days of the Ottoman conquests. The capture of Constantinople is now seen as a epoch-making moment in Turkish history, says Caroline Finkel, author of Osman's Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. "The year 1453 is a far more significant part of Turkish identity than it was twenty years ago, as a key factor in the legacy of conquest."

The Kurds and the Albanians, two peoples at either end of the Ottoman empire, were split across several states, says Tim Judah, author of The Serbs. "Issues that were solved in the context of an empire do not work in nation states with arbitrary borders. The Albanians got a state, but are also spread across Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The Kurds did not get a state and were spread across Syria, Iraq and Turkey." The legacy of Ottoman governance still shapes Balkan politics today, says Judah, combined with the mentality of the Communist era. "It's an unhealthy mixture of back-room dealing, pay-offs, nepotism and the use of the secret police, combined with rumours and conspiracy theories."

The collapse of Iraq, Syria and the extreme stresses in Lebanon stem from the failure to implement democracies that take account of the region's ethnic and religious diversity, says Eyad Abu Shakra, Middle East commentator at Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. "All the new entities born out of Sykes-Picot have a multitude of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities but very few have acknowledged this. The failure – due to both internal and external reasons – to devise a representative democracy with proper checks and balances, that accommodates diversity, respects human rights and is based on institutional and constitutional democracy will lead to what we are witnessing in Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon."

In Raqqa, Syria, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, Isis has pledged to destroy Sykes-Picot, remove the borders between Arab lands and rebuild the Caliphate. The world is horrified by Isis's brutality, but perhaps the Sultans' pan-nationalism still has something to teach. A pan-Arab commonwealth, modelled in part on the Ottoman empire and the European Union, with open borders, freedom for minorities, independent institutions and protection under the rule of law could bring stability. "Trying to create common institutions across a region as huge as the Arab world would be a tremendous challenge," says Dr Fred Anscombe, of London University, an expert on the Ottoman empire. The region is resource-poor, apart from oil, which has warped economic conditions. "An Arab Union or Commonwealth is potentially a good idea but it would take a long time to build."

Editor's Pick