Beware of Turkey’s Sacred and Secular Geographies

It is easy to forget that there are no maps of the world, only maps of worldviews.(1) And even though blind materialism and economic utility seems to reign in many parts of the world, there still exist sacred geographies: places of perceptual beliefs and traditions that feature geopolitical realities which provide meaning. Turkey is no exception to this universal principle. A principle in which the seeker encounters historical identities, purposeful living, and a sense of belonging to a larger integrated community.

It was to be expected, then, when Turkish lawmakers voted to authorize military force against the Islamic State in Syria and Levant (ISIL). At issue was ISIL’s fatal mistake of threatening to overrun and destroy the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman I who founded the Turkish-Ottoman Empire. As part of the 1921 Treaty of Ankara, which ended the Franco-Turkish War, Turkey kept Suleyman Shah’s tomb, making it a Turkish enclave guarded by elite Turkish troops.

In times past, destroying sacred sites has been a powerful weapon to dominate the history and memory of others. Considered to be a form of mentacide, such destruction seeks to eliminate a people’s collective identity and culture. States that try to either eradicate holy sites or alter their tangible past do so to make a people’s collective history and memory conform to their own. Instead of remembering exactly what “was,” a subjugated and repressed people are forced to conform to what “is.” It is psychological and cultural genocide.

Turkey is a modern anomaly, a land with a lost empire emerging into a powerful state and proud past. Not very long ago, the Ottoman Turks presided over an area encompassing Asia Minor, North Africa, the Middle East, western Asia, the Balkans, and Hungary. From the Suleymaniye in Istanbul to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo; the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Africa; the Great Mosque of Damascus in Syria; the al-Aqsa Mosque in Al-Quds/Jerusalem; and numerous venerated burial sites, they were the overseers.

Even though the Turkish-Ottoman Empire was semi-defeated at the end of World War I, and though Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, secularized Turkey, Turkey has recently gone through a transformative period. In 1980, after a military coup, the state started to draw upon Islamic education to fight leftist movements. Meanwhile, academia concentrated on the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, specifically as defenders of Islamic achievements and in providing security, justice, and toleration.

In 1999, the 700th anniversary of the establishment of the Ottoman state by Osman was celebrated throughout the country. Schools were established and books written to commemorate the event.(2) And since Islamist parties were either prevented from running or were barred by the army from taking office, Turkey’s election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002, a member of a party with Islamist roots and a record of revivalist statements, was a major milestone.(3)

Every child internalizes the dream Osman I had: a large tree that grew out of his stomach foretold his descendants ruling a considerable realm. They are also mindful of the words on Suleiman The Magnificent’s Mosque: “Possessor of the kingdoms of the world, shadow of God over all peoples…” No wonder that PM Erdogan was called the “last Ottoman sultan” after confronting Israel over Gaza at the WEF and then storming off a stage, and after visiting Syria and giving a long speech about their common heritage.(4)

Suleyman Shah’s tomb is one of many sacred places dedicated to Turkey’s revered past, a past that entails a world view of a Greater Turkey. Along with bordering the Balkan Peninsula, Turkey impacts Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. As an island nation, it affects the Black Sea and Ukraine and the Mediterranean Sea and Cyprus. Together with Iran, their population of almost 150 million people is larger than that of all twelve Arab nations to the south which comprise the Fertile Crescent and Arabian Peninsula.(5)

For secularists, Turkey is a stable platform in the midst of chaos, an exemplary republic enjoying the level of diplomatic influence that dramatically effects regional politics. It also controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, giving it a great geographical advantage. And near Suleyman Shah’s tomb is the Southeast Anatolia Project, whose centerpiece is the Ataturk Dam which provides irrigation for two thousand square miles of arable land.(6) If ISIL ever approached either region, it would be an act of war.

But make no mistake, Turkey will fight on its own terms against ISIL, just as Iran is doing. With one of the world’s largest armies, one million personnel, it is unique in that it is predominantly Islamic, but a member of NATO. Therefore, its equipment and training has been based on Western standards. Its special forces consists of 5000 men and one counterterrorist battalion, which can be deployed at very short notice. All three of its airborne, para-commando, and para-marine brigades, have experienced extensive action.

If historical memory can be a source of renewal within the desert of organized forgetting, then sacred memorials can be a source of meaning within the wastelands of a chaotic world.(7) Regarding ISIL or any other threat to Turkey‘s aspirations, PM Erdogan declared: “Every Turkish citizen knows heir duty, and will continue to do what is necessary.”


(1) Devereux, Paul. Sacred Geography: Deciphering Hidden Codes In the Landscape. New York, New York: Octopus Books USA, 2010., p. 9.

(2) Furtado, Peter. Histories Of Nations. London, United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2012., p. 160.

(3) de Blij, H.J. and Peter O. Muller. Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. Danvers, Massachusetts: John Wiley & Sons, 2004., p. 362ff.

(4) Furtado, Peter. Histories Of Nations., p. 161.

(5) Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge Of Geography. New York, New York: Random House Publishers, 2012., p. 285.

(6) Ibid., p. 285.

(7) Giroux, Henry A. The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2014., p. 58.