The Invention of the Turks

Posted by richard Category: Uncategorized


150 years ago, there were no Turks. One may take this statement as a provocation or as a
cathartic liberation from those national phantasms that have infected the better part of the
world’s population, principally the Europeans—and them to no less a degree than the
contemporary Turks themselves. A short odyssey through the genesis of a people.


If your identitiy is reliant on an enemy, then your identity has become a mental illness.”
Hrant Dink (1954–2007)


That, according to our latest and most enlightened state of wisdom, all natonalities are in
some respect constructed, doesn’t mean that they haven’t become concrete realities by now
But are there peoples who are more constructed than others? Of course. Take the Turks, for
example. This should not be seen as an expression of Eurocentric disparagement, since the
Austrians, for one, have shared the same fate. In both these cases, those population
segments, which imagined themselves, linguistcally and culturally, riding on the coatails of
their respective dynastic power, missed out on nationalism as the newest battle cry of
history and, unlike the ambitous minorities and separatists (Hungarians, Slavs, Greeks,
Armenians…), became what was left over in a game of mutual nationalizaton. The Austrians,
henceforth, were helplessly torn between a German and a new Austrian identity; being
Turkish was imposed from above by decree. And the more insecurely this new identity’s
knees wobbled, the more unrelentingly it was dragged onto the parade ground.


Impure Blood


When Cem Özdemir, co-chair of the Green Party in Germany, in June of 2016 once more brought up the mass murder of the Armenians, he elicited from Turkish President Erdoğan an insult whose double meaning
could only originate in the 20th century: “Kani bozuk,” meaning “impure blood” as well as
“without character.” Erdoğan was being quite literal, otherwise he wouldn’t have challenged
Özdemir to prove his Turkish ancestry with a blood test.

Blood tests will indeed instruct us about cholesterol, bilirubin, or uric acid levels, but up till
now they are still mute on a test subject’s ethnicity. Yet why should the President of Turkey
show less ignorance than all the German and what not intellectuals who, long before him,
had recast the ancient blood metaphor as a bloodstained biologism?

What human genetics are now certainly capable of is the detection of so-called
haplogroups. These are partcular combinations of alleles on the Y-chromosome that shed
light on genetic relationships. And those are far older than most of the cultures, languages,
and migrations known to us. Which makes genetic testing a terrifc tool for the
deconstruction of national myths — as long as those tests aren’t interpreted inaccurately,
meaning in support of an alternative mythology. For instance, if such testing were to reveal
that Tyroleans have fewer gene sequences in common with Germans than with Crimean
Tatars, it wouldn’t mean that the Tyroleans are descendants of the later, but would merely
suggest migrations which took place 20,000 or more years ago; it would indicate gene pools
on which the fake nations we know merely foat like a film of grease on a mess hall–soup

Had Erdoğan surrendered to the same blood test he ordered of Cem Özdemir, more
than likely the results would have shown the leader of the German Green Party more closely
related to the “ancient” Turks than Erdoğan himself. Özdemir’s ancestors were Circassians
and came from the Caucasus. There, the haplogroups C, Q, and O, which also predominate
among Central Asian Turkic-speaking people, make up the lion’s share, whereas with the
populatons of Anatolia and in the wider Middle East, Mediterranean, and European regions
the groups E3b, G, J, I,L, N, K2 and R1 are most frequently encountered. To be exact: Among
modern Turks, “Central Asian” gene sequences make up about 3.4 percent.
Does this by any chance mean that only 3.4 percent of Turks are descended from
Turks? That the people who bow before Kemal Atatürk and wave the Turkish fag are 96.6
percent Turkized Anatolians of diverse ancestry?

Not necessarily. For even the deconstruction of the national ofen operates from
false assumptions about peoples and cultures. For starters, the confusion, prevailing since
the Romantic period, of linguistc groups with ethnic groups, and the subsequent looming
notion of expansive master races who brush aside weak and decadent civilizations to impose
their culture and genetic material on the conquered.

By about 1820 the classical Dorians were already regarded in Germany as the most
popular role model for the assertive powers of noble barbarians. And Austrians or Croats
who believe that German or, respectively, Slavic blood is pulsing through their veins are
infected by the exact same essentalization of linguistc categories. As we now know from
more recent studies of classical antquity, the Dorian migration was by no means a
population food but a slow-seeping infiltration, and the Dorianizing of the Peloponnese a
mostly peaceful acculturaton lasting centuries. And it was the same with the Germanization
of Austria, the Slavicization of the Balkans, and the Turkifcation of Anatolia, which took
place not so much by sword but with tme.

When by the early middle ages the frst Turkophone bands of nomads reached the
area, they had already absorbed various non-Turkish populations, primarily from the
Caucasus, as well as Iranian-speaking ones. For the mounted invaders from the steppes were
never the homogeneous nations that we picture them as, but were politcal interest groups.
If it wouldn’t be so nonsensical from a scientific point of view, we could say that the Turks
upon their arrival in Turkey were no longer pure Turks.


Anatolian Tapestry


The last Ottoman census took place in 1914, the most recent Turkish one in 2005. During this
tme, ethnic affiliaton in the modern sense was never surveyed. This category simply hadn’t
been conceived of yet; the Ottoman officials were only looking for religious confession and
language. In the ensuing Republic of Turkey, meanwhile, no other category besides it was to
be known. A positve avowal of any other ethnicity but Turkish had to be concealed as much
as possible.

From time immemorial, the Anatolian peninsula had been a colorful patchwork of
ethnicities (which the Turkish state colored in red and painted star and crescent moon
upon). And despite a creeping, though not yet forced, initial Turkization, the multiculturalism
of the area survived until the end of the Ottoman Empire.

An ethnological Atlas from 1900 covering the area of modern Turkey would most
likely show the speakers of Western Iranian idioms—the Kurdish dialects Kurmanji, Sorani,
and Zazaki—in a slight majority, towards Persia interspersed with Turkophones. Moving
westwards, the ratio of Kurdish speakers to Turkophones would shift in favor of the later,
though Kurdish villages were to be found all the way to the Aegean Taurus Mountains.
Frequently, these would be testaments to the deportatons by which the Ottomans resettled
rebellious Eastern tribes—Kurdish and Turkmen ones, mostly Bektashi, no Sunnis—to exert
better control over them. In much of Eastern Anatolia, Armenians would actually outnumber
Kurds and Turkmens. The Black Sea coast, all the way to Istanbul, would be populated by
speakers of a western Georgian language called Lazuri. These Islamic Laz people would
change in the East at Batumi over into the likewise Muslim Ajarians who themselves find
their linguistic extension in the Christan Kartvelians, i.e., the Georgians. On the Black Sea
coast, immediately proximate to the Lazuri, geographically and culturally (aside from
language and religion), we would have the Pontic Greeks. There would be big Greek
communities also in Cappadocia, among them Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christans called
Karamanlis. Although there has never been a consensus as to whether they were Turks who
had adopted the “Christian faith” or Turkized Greeks, they would nevertheless be expelled to
Greece during the populaton exchanges of 1923—proof of how closely ethnicity was
identified with religion back then. The Western one-size-fits-all, preassembled model of a
congruence of linguistc and cultural community was, afer all, an intellectual fabrication and
needed time to entrench itself in the minds of a new politcal class.

The Linobambaki of Cypres (Muslim converts, formerly Catholic), the Islamic Cretans,
and the Armenian-speaking Muslims would decades later be absorbed into the newlycreated
Turkish ethnos. The big cities of the Mediterranean seaboard, for instance Smyrna
(Izmir) and Kydonies (Ayvalık), are around 1900 almost exclusively populated by Greeks. The
Greek community in Istanbul back then would be far larger than that of Athens, the more so
since a big chunk of Attica’s population was still speaking Albanian. Albanians had also
settled down as peasants in Western Anatolia. The farther south, the higher the numbers of
Christian and Muslim Arabs. In what is today south-central Turkey, and in Syria and Iraq,
lived Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Arameans, all of them Christians, the later still speaking a
derivative of the biblical Aramaic. With the end of the Ottoman-Russian Caucasian War in
1864, the entire Circassian (Adyghe) population of the Caucasus was given refuge in the
Ottoman Empire. Many of them were resettled on the Balkans and on the Golan Heights in
Syria. The largest Circassian community lives today in the Northeastern Turkish province of

In the cities, large communites of Sephardic Jews. About 1900, afer the founding of
several Christian states on the Balkans, millions of Muslim émigrés and expellees were
settling in Istanbul and all over the Aegean coast: Slavophones from Bulgaria, Serbia, and
Bosnia, Albanians and Greeks. The larger part of today’s Turkish population of Izmir, the
former Smyrna, is descended from those immigrants who chose not to live under Christian
rule. Their adoption of the Turkish language preceded the nationalist Turkifcaton and was
more likely due to a cultural bond with the Ottoman Empire. Hundreds of years before that,
Christians had already called them Turks.


Ottoman Turkophobia


One always has to keep in mind that the Ottoman Empire in its early period was a European
domain. Before the Ottomans brought Constantinople and the Turkish emirates in Anatolia
into subjection, they had established their power base on the Southern Balkans. By the 16th
century, all the important Oriental dynasties—the Ottomans, the Safawids in Persia, and the
Moguls in India—were of Oghuz-Turkish extraction and thus are no help at all to us in
determining the ethnic composition of their subjects. The Ottomans applied themselves in a
very lax and pragmatic way to their ostensible mission of furthering the spread of Sunni
Islam. And forcing their own language on their subjects was even as an idea utterly
inconceivable to them, an attitude in which they differed not the slightest from all forms of
government prior to bourgeois nationalism. The cultural continuity to their Central Asian
nomadic origins served them foremost as a symbolic entrenchment of their clan rule. Later,
Ottoman Turkish attained the status of the language of administraton, of lingua franca, and
of prestige. In the military domain, which was based on and existentally required expansion,
several variants of Turkish spread within the vast portions of the populace that the Ottoman
host locked on to. Famously, the language of the Seraglio, the sultan’s court, and the
Osmanli upper strata consisted of an uncodified mélange of Turkish, Farsi, and Arabic.
Tracking language use down the social pyramid, the ratio of Turkish within this mixture
increases, though it stll incorporates enough alien elements to distinguish it markedly from
the ethnically cleansed standardized Turkish of modern Turkey.


As to Who Is A Turk, We Determine That


But if a clear Turkish identity was lacking among the Muslim population, even among its
Turkish-speakers, how then is it possible that the Christian West had already had, since the
Middle Ages, a clearer concepton of the “Tuerke” than they themselves? Is “Turk” as a
homogeneous category an ascription by others? Bingo! That’s exactly how it is! The term
“Turchia” had found its way from Arabic to Italy in the middle ages. Xenonyms based on
geography or ethnicity served as rough guides, people were named for the country they
lived in (Englisher) or for their reigning dynasty: Turkey was the land of the Great Turk.
Moreover, in the early modern period, the “Turks” inherited from the North African Moors
and the Southwest Asian Saracens the mantle of most prominent Muslim pest of the

In Vienna, Greek, Vlach, Armenian, Slavic, and Jewish merchants from the Ottoman Empire
were called Turks well into the 18th century. Little wonder, for they, being able to evade the
Otoman dress code abroad, dressed more Oriental than the Orientals. In the Balkans, the
alleged ethnonym “Turk” meanwhile, meant something quite diferent: It was the name
Christians applied to all Muslims, especially to Bosnian and Albanian renegades, ethnic Turks
being—if there even were any at all—at best a teeny-weeny minority in Southeast Europe
during the entre period of Ottoman rule. The “Turci” had adopted the religion of the Turks
(meaning the Osmanli) and thus became in the eyes of Christians simply Turks for the sake of
convenience or the convenience of slight pejoration.

In the Asiatc heartland of the Empire, the term Turk was reserved for peasants and
craftsmen, generally carrying a derogatory overtone. No member of the Ottoman upper
stratum, not even an administratve official risen from the masses, would ever have called
himself Turk.


Dönme and Yörüks


But who then were the folks that could be rightully called ethnic Turks? The only
economically relevant Turkish bourgeoisie was made up of the so-called Dönme,
descendants of the Jewish followers of the heretic 17th-century Rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi who
had, following his example, converted to Islam and had over time adopted Ottoman Turkish
as their first language. As the driving force behind secularization in the late Ottoman Empire,
they were to be defamed as fake Turks with the first peak of Turkish natonalism.
If there were contenders for a primal Turkish element in Anatolia, it would have been
the Yörük, Turkmen nomads who already in Byzantine times drove their herds down from
summer to winter pastures, not giving much of a damn if the grass was growing in Christan
or Muslim domains. The punchline: Turkish natonalism’s romantic courtship of these
anarchic clans has to this day been fairly unrequited. Simply put, but stated with all due
irony, we may contend that the only Turks who are genuinely Turkish don’t consider
themselves as such. And if a distinct Yörük identity survived at all, a partcularily strong
loyalty to Turkey was certainly never among its characteristc features, owing to a nomadic
mentality that is never easy to square with a modern central state and the fact that, as
Alevites, many Yörüks remained distrusted outsiders.

In a certain respect we might say that a considerable part of ethnic Turks are Yörük-
Turkmen made sedentary whose path to the phantasm of a uniform Turkish ethnos was only
insignifcantly more direct than that of the turkized Lazi, Armenians, and Kurds. The
“Turkish” peasant population in the Southern Balkans descended almost exclusively from
Yörüks who had been deported thither by the Otomans but always kept their dialects. They
were neither strict Sunnis nor representatives of an imperial power; all the same, they were
massacred and expelled in 1821 by insurgent Greeks and in 1912 by units comprised of
Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks—simple peasants who earlier had risen, together with their
Christan peers, against Muslim and Christan authorites alike.


Pan Turks and Young Turks


No Turkish fascist from the so-called Grey Wolves (whose ideology can’t make do without an
aggressive antisemitsm, even if it wanted to) would want to know that his Turanism—this
Pan-Turkish nationalism built on a supposed homogeneous Turkicity extending from Bosnia
all the way to Siberia—is owed the speculations of two Jewish turkologists, León Cahun from
Lorraine and the German-speaking Ármin Vámbéry from Pressburg (Bratislava). The later’s biography is
so unbelievable that not even a Karl May could have come up with it (and unlike him,
Vámbéry travelled the countries he wrote about). In his younger years he had been, just like
so many other German-Hungarians, a strong advocate of Magyar nationalism. On his quest
for the Hungarians’ Turkish wellspring, he acquired several Oriental languages, converted to
Islam, travelled disguised as a Dervish in Persia and Central Asia, became friends with Sultan
Abdülhamid II. (whom he used to call “a whoreson”), hired out as a Britsh agent, professed
atheism, and was, according to Theodor Herzl, a veritable cynic, who rejected his Turanism as
academic humbug.


Yet the Seed Was Sown


Even the personnel of the Young Turk reform movement refect the ethnic diversity of the
empire quite nicely. Just to pick a few: Mahmud Shevket Pasha, of Chechen and Turkish
ancestry, was called “The Arab” because he was born in Baghdad and grew up there. Talaat
Pasha, first Grand Master of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Turkey, was a slavophone Muslim
Pomak from a Bektashi family. Ibrahim Temo was Albanian from Macedonia (his brother
Nuri Sojliu was one of the signatories of the Albanian Declaration of Independence). The
physician and poet Abdullah Cevdet Karlıdağ, the most radical partisan of the ant-Islamic
wing and an early advocate of the Kurdish cause, was Kurdish, as was İshak Sükût. Mizancı
Murat was a Dagestani. Nâzım Bey, one of the personages mainly responsible for the
Armenian genocide, was a Dönme from Salonika, and Ahmed Rıza, the only Ottoman
parliamentarian who in 1915 condemned the deportation of the Armenians as
unconstitutional, was meanwhile one of the few in the movement who could be considered
an ethnic Turk (and by the way, his mother was an Austrian actress). The founder of the
state Kemal Mustafa, however, most likely descended from Macedonian Albanians and
Balkan Yörüks.

As 19th-century Europe had so amply demonstrated, the road to national
consciousness always led through a bourgeois middle class. Which in the Ottoman empire
manifested in a bustling merchant and producer bourgeoisie comprised of Armenians,
Greeks, Jews, and, increasingly, Bulgarians. The politcal representatives of the former two
groups saw themselves as legitmate heirs to the crumbling empire. Among Turkophones,
only the Dönme played roughly in the same economic league, the remainder were peasants,
administrative officials, soldiers, and bazaar craftsmen. Already at a congress in 1914, the
Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress had demanded the strengthening of the
Muslim Turkish middle classes. Business concessions would henceforth only be awarded to
Muslims, in blatant discrimination against the economically dominant Christians. Even
though the rhetoric remained inclusive, Greeks and Armenians were not trusted; the former
because of their ambitions for a Greater Greece, the later due to the separatism shown by
some of their representatives. This preferental treatment of Muslim actors became the
cornerstone of a Muslim bourgeoisie. Without the elimination and intimidation of the
competition—the expulsion of the Greeks and the almost complete annihilation of the
Anatolian Armenians—the urban Turkish middle classes could not have formed so rapidly.
Those Greek and Armenian communities who remained in Turkey experienced constant
discrimination and were pressured to assimilate. In 1949, higher tax rates were also levied
by law on the Dönme; they were no longer genuine Turks.


How Turks Are Made


Afer the founding of the Italian State, the writer-politcian Massimo d’Azeglio had declared:
“We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” Playing precipitous catch-up, the young
Turkish state’s identity politcs turned into a spoof of its European role-models. The model
for this ethnically homogeneous gigantomania, which was taken straight and without change
from the archenemy, from Greece, was the Megali Idea of President Venizelos, which had so
miserably failed on what had now become Turkish soil. And just like the “Turks” had a hard
time fipping the switch from Ottoman to Turkish consciousness, Byzantines had not really
turned into Hellenes. And though the Greeks had by and large been expelled from Turkey,
their warmonger’s model for cultural order was borrowed. The mission of the Turkish
Language Associaton initiated by Atatürk was to design an artfcial Turkish scrubbed of its
Ottoman past and cleansed of the numerous borrowings from other languages. Inside
twenty years a development was advanced in Turkey which in Europe had taken a whole
century. The rest is history. The biggest hurdle on this path was the giant Kurdophone
minority. Every Kurdish child growing up between 1930-1980 had his or her mother tongue
beat out of her or him, was made fun of for speaking an allegedly degenerated Turkish which
was really an imitaton of nature sounds, corrupted and crunching like the snow under one’s
feet. Paradoxically, this discriminaton was of greater service for the emergence of a
collectve Kurdish identity than all the prior Kurdish agitaton.

What this text meant to show was the fact that the larger part of the Turkish
population is descended from diverse and bilingual Balkanian and Anatolian human beings
who, over the course of centuries, had adopted the administrative language and the lingua
franca of the Ottoman Empire or were in the Turkish Republic raised as Turks. Although we
lack sound data for it, people whose ancestors had since time immemorial spoken nothing
but a Turkish dialect and therefore could be considered candidates for a Turkish people in an
ethnic sense, had, before the founding of the Republic, always been in the minority—which
is insofar beside the point as the Turkophones themselves identified as everything other
than as members of an ethnic group.

But how is it possible, in light of fanatic, Turkish fag waving masses, to invent an
entire people? The historian Benedict Anderson was not at all surprised by this; two
generations of nationalist schooling would totally suffice, he thought. No reason to point an
accusatory finger at the “Turks,” what was argued here may turn out to be merely a
beginning, to lif, with the help of critcal historical science and critcal ethnology, from every
national people on the globe its false beard. I suggest the Austrians as the next object for


Translated from the German by J. Weinkirn & S. Seaward

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