How the Occupation of Istanbul Shaped the Modern Middle East

Erdag Goknar discusses the ramifications of the post WWI-partition of the Middle East. Photo by Julie Harbin
Erdag Goknar discusses the ramifications of the post WWI-partition of the Middle East. Photo by Julie Harbin

At the end of World War I, the defeated capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul, was “a city of poverty and refugees” with a multi-ethnic population of 1 million, with 100,000 refugees including Balkan Muslims, Russians, Crimean and Caucasian Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Turks.

“Multiple ethnicities and languages mixed and mingled. Each brought with it a separate ideology and vision,” said Duke Associate Professor of Turkish & Middle Eastern Studies Erdağ Göknar, speaking last week as part of the provost office's Thomas Langford Lectureship.

When the British, French, Italians and Greeks arrived to occupy the city in 1918, they ignored the cosmopolitan space of the city, focusing instead on nationalities. The logic of emphasizing national groups was informed by Wilsonian principles of national self-determination. This was the same logic that led to the greater partition of Ottoman territory that Göknar said reconstituted the Middle East and whose violent consequences can be seen throughout the region today.

There were parts of the city that protested the occupation (mostly Muslims) and parts of the city that celebrated it (the minority populations). The occupation prefigured a human tragedy, what some scholars call the “unmixing” of people (“a euphemism for religious or ethnic cleansing”), as Göknar said.

allied survey, 1922

A 1922 Allied survey of the region divided the area into nationalities.

“The partition led to the emergence of the new republics, mandates and kingdoms that constitute the modern Middle East,” said Göknar. The occupation ended the Ottoman Empire, led to the nationalization of the Eastern Mediterranean, and, importantly, spelled the end of a multi-confessional Middle Eastern cosmopolis, he added. 

“Clearly the Middle East has never recovered from this particular partition and we live with its effects today,” he said. “If we fast forward and we think about the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the logic of partition happens along similar faultlines…and I think it’s an indictment that we haven’t developed the geopolitical means or a means of international law to prevent this. What we’re talking about is a kind of ethnic cleansing or genocide that happens when we change these borders.”

Ahmed Sultan protests

A 1920 protest meeting in Sultan Ahmed Square.

Göknar devoted the second part of his lecture to the “lasting historical trauma” of occupation, “which has persisted as a subgenre of Turkish literature.” 

Three writers of the Republican era (1923-50) wrote the first novels about occupied Istanbul: feminist and nationalist Halide Edib (1884-1964); the Kemalist ideologue Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu (1889-1974); and Turkey’s first impressionistic, modernist author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1902-62). 

These novels, and those that continue to be written today about the Occupation period, said Göknar, “reveal the occupied city to be a productive space -- a crucible out of which the modern Turkish subject is formed as a subject in crisis, struggling uneasily between poles of Islam and state, tradition and modernity and City and Nation.”

He stressed the importance of continued scholarship on the occupation, which has been overlooked, proposing also that the Turkish nation and its identity “were created through the forces of occupation rather than simply by overturning them.”

“Analysing the occupation not only enables us to better understand the Kemalist cultural revolution that followed immediately in its wake, but the dialectic between religion and state that elucidates the current Turkish political field, the rise of the Islamically oriented (ruling) AK Party, and Turkey’s relations with the EU as well as the Middle East.”

Göknar was one of 4 or 5 Duke faculty members chosen this school year to receive the Thomas Langford Lectureship Award. His primary research focus is on legacies of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkish literature, history and culture, with a secondary focus on representational politics in the Middle East. Other research interests include, the novel, national historiography, Islam and Sufism, the city, and the "image of the Turk.”

Langford awardees are selected from all the new or recently promoted faculty members — based on their embodiment of Langford’s dedication to teaching, research and service and the appeal of their research to an interdisciplinary faculty audience.  The award was created in 2000 to honor the legacy of Thomas Langford, who served as Divinity School faculty member, dean and provost at Duke.