This May 29th marked the 559th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul. Thousands of people gathered in the soft drizzling rain on the Golden Horn in the evening to watch the celebrations. Some climbed trees to get a better view of the stage that had been set up on the water, others contributed to the atmosphere by wearing Ottoman costumes. Almost everyone was waving the national flag. Before the spectacle began, the organisers played a neo-Ottomanist militaristic tune on a loop. “This is infectious,” said my friend swaying to the music, along with the vigorously flag-waving crowd, “It reminds me of what Woody Allen said about not being able to listen to too much Wagner for fear of wanting to conquer Poland.” As the proceedings commenced, a voiceover reminded the crowds of Sultan Mehmet’s statement before the conquest – “Either I will take Istanbul or Istanbul, me.” Heavy cheering ensued. They may not have been the Sultan’s actual words, but almost everyone in the crowd would have been familiar with them given that they had been emblazoned over the city on the posters of the summer mega blockbuster Fetih 1453.
When Fetih 1453 (Conquest 1453), a historical epic about the conquest of Istanbul, was released in February – the premiere showed as a matinee at 14.53 – it was the most expensive film to have been made in the history of Turkish cinema. The film boasts 16,000 extras, CGI effects, numerous sword fights and battle scenes, free use of violence and a cameo voice-over by the Prophet himself. The film’s ambition meant an ever-expanding budget during filming and trouble with financing. By the time shooting had wrapped up the film had taken the best part of three years and an estimated $17 million to be made. Still, the producers need not have worried about the budget, which was massive by Turkish standards. On just the opening weekend, a staggering 1,405,000 viewers flocked to the movie theatres to watch the film. It was the best opening weekend any Turkish film had ever seen. Since then, Fetih 1453 has become the highest grossing Turkish film of all time, earning back about three times the cost of making it.
The success of the film is, perhaps, not all that surprising given that its release has coincided with a period of particularly strong love for all things Ottoman in Turkey. Much has been made of the current government’s so-called ‘neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy, but interest in Turkey’s Ottoman past has very much become a feature of cultural life in the country, with ‘Ottomania’ affecting realms from food to fashion. Soon after the film’s release school children were taken on school outings to see the film. A restaurant in the heart of Istanbul’s touristic Sultanahmet district that specialises in Ottoman food brought out a special ‘Conquest Menu’. More recently, when the football club Galatasaray won the Süper Lig trophy the Turkish daily Radikal used the Fetih poster to report and celebrate the club’s victory. The club’s manager Fatih Terim, whose name literally means ‘conqueror’, was shown as the conqueror of Istanbul.
Swords and Sandals; Violence and Hedonism
I went to see the film expecting a historical piece that follows the journey of Sultan Mehmet II and his successful siege of Constantinople. What I ended up seeing was a story about the conquest that gets mostly co-opted by a love triangle between the heroic Ulubatlı Hasan (a character of dubious historical reality, but one who is nevertheless celebrated in Turkish folklore as planting the conquering Ottoman flag on the Byzantine palace and getting shot down by arrows in the process), the Genoese commander of the Byzantine forces, and a cross–dressing female canon member of the Ottoman army who makes the victory possible. As a way of assurance that the film was not completely insane, my Turkish friend guaranteed that all school children did learn the Ulubatli Hasan version of the conquest (though there was no love triangle mentioned). “In school when we had to draw the conquest, I remember drawing Ulubatli Hasan planting the Ottoman flag, with tons of arrows in him.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for all the money spent on the film, it has come in for criticism from critics and historians for its recreation of the past, and especially its depiction of the Byzantines, who are painted with broad brushstrokes as evil hedonists. A Byzantine historian friend fumed that the film was so off the mark that “it seemed the makers had not even bothered to read a basic history of the period”. Journalist Andrew Finkel says he saw the film as an unconscious celebration of war
The critic Emine Yıldırım was even harsher on the film writing “Obviously, the filmmakers did a lot of research and expended a lot of effort to depict the Ottoman state as genuinely as possible, but why has this not also been the case for the Byzantines? In the film, Emperor Constantine XI and his statesmen seem to have been transplanted from a comic book universe where there are no grey lines between good and evil.” The simple oppositional set up of the film not only ignores the fact that there were a large number of Greeks who were fighting on the Ottoman side, but also some of the continuity the Ottomans themselves saw between Byzantine and Ottoman rule. On his conquest of the city, Mehmet claimed the title ‘Caesar of Rome’.
Apart from problematic historical representation, a fault found in many a historical blockbuster, there is also the violence. Journalist Andrew Finkel says he saw the film as an unconscious celebration of war. At the end of the film, once Constantinople has been conquered, Sultan Mehmet enters the Hagia Sofia where a group of terrified Byzantines have been hiding, kisses a baby and declares that the citizens of the city have nothing to be afraid of and can practice their religion as they like. Though the scene is based on historical fact, coming on the back of endless minutes of violent battle scenes, it seems too superficial a gesture. The film also makes a big play of Mehmet allowing the defeated army to bury the King Constantine’s body as per their rituals, though in actual fact the fate of the last Byzantine Emperor’s body or its burial place is highly disputed. It is this kind of token nod to tolerance that caused Yıldırım to declare the film a “muddled pool of hypocrisy” that not only engenders antagonism against the West, but also reinforces an aspiration for superiority. The columnist Burak Bekdil added to the sentiment writing, “Sadly, millions of Turks will go to the theatres to feel proud of their ancestors and to visually show their children “our greatness.” We are great not only because “we had the power of the sword” but, even more sadly, because we still adore the idea.”
The Conquest in Public Consciousness
These criticisms, however, were just a few in a sea of praise for the film, which includes that of Prime Minister Erdoğan who said it was “well done”. Finkel believes Fetih 1453 has a continued resonance because in many ways the story of the conquest has significance not just for the political classes who want to re-enact that ultimate triumph again and again but also for the many people who have come or want to come to Istanbul. Despite being banished to the side-lines by the new Republic in its first decades, Istanbul has been the throbbing heart of the country and a magnet for migration since the 1950s. Today the city is home to nearly 15 million people. According to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the city has seen a migration of nearly 11 million people over the last fifty years. “You can say that Istanbul has been conquered multiple times even in my lifetime,” says Finkel. “The Istanbul of today is not the city it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s or even the ‘90s. The notion of conquering the city and making it one’s own has a strong resonance.”
In spite of the early Republic’s rejection of all things Ottoman, the conquest of Istanbul has one of the two main central dates in Turkish historiography. After the 1980 coup, the military government embarked on a wide-ranging cultural project of Turkish-Islamic synthesis. In the run up to the coup the country had been racked by violent divisions between the left and right-wing political groups and it was hoped that Islam and Turkish nationalism in combination would prove to be an all-inclusive ideology. It was a final consolidation of the re-embrace of religion that had first become visible in Turkish politics and public culture in the 1950s. After the Welfare Party (the predecessor of the currently-ruling AK Party) won the 1994 Istanbul municipality elections, there was a determined effort to reinstate 1453 as the defining event in the life of the nation. In the Istanbul neighbourhood of Üsküdar, two red sculptures of the dates 1453 and 1923 overlook the Bosphorous. One is the year the city was conquered, the other the year the Republic was established. It might be too simplistic to say that 1453 is now more important, but the release of Fetih has certainly contributed to a certain swagger and nationalistic pride over the conquest and made it even more central to popular culture and politics in Turkey today.