BMCR 2019.02.18

Homer, Troy and the Turks. Heritage and Identity in the Late Ottoman Empire, 1870-1915. Heritage and Memory Studies

, Homer, Troy and the Turks. Heritage and Identity in the Late Ottoman Empire, 1870-1915. Heritage and Memory Studies. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 219; 41 figures. ISBN 9789462982697, 9789048532735 ebook.

Table of Contents

Of all the archaeological sites in Asia Minor explored by westerners since the 19 th century, Heinrich Schliemann’s Troy looms largest. The excavations that Schliemann and Dörpfeld conducted on and around the hill of Hisarlik reified Homer’s poetry, validating the historic materiality of places and people long identified only with literary tradition. While the place of Homer’s epic narrative in the construction of European cultural identity is an oft-told tale, the reception of this poet and his mythological universe in the Ottoman empire and modern Turkey has been far less examined by scholarship in English, even recently.1

Uslu’s book considers the evidence for the reception of Homeric antiquity and of the poet Homer’s stories of gods and men in the Turkish cultural orbit. She draws on archaeological—most prominently Schliemann’s activities at Hisarlik—and documentary evidence, including both published and manuscript sources. Posing the questions of how and to what extent the Ottoman authorities, educated classes, and the public reacted to Schliemann’s sensational discoveries at Troy and to the efforts of some of their countrymen to make the figure of Homer and the mythic narratives attributed to him part of their own cultural sphere, she contends that “Ottoman-Turkish involvement and interest in Homeric heritage” were greater than previous studies have conceded (29). She thus hopes to contribute to the discussion of the global struggle over the eastern Mediterranean’s cultural patrimony, and she largely succeeds.

The introduction opens with remarks about the use of Homer and the Trojan War story in promoting Izmir (ancient Smyrna) and the region of Troy. The city’s identification with the poet is exemplified through place-names and monuments and brought to life by choreographed performances and literary festivals. Çanakkale, the town nearest to the archaeological site, exploits the Homeric connection not only by staging an annual Troy Festival but also by representing the late Bronze Age war waged by the Anatolian Trojans against the invading European Greeks as a precursor of the Battle of Gallipoli (1915), when Turkish troops vanquished a similar invader. She invokes Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire, which has been applied to many European cultural contexts, showing its relevance to Turkish culture as exemplified by the appropriation of and identification with the Homeric heritage for contemporary purposes, and distinguishing it from history, which she follows David Lowenthal in defining as an exploration and explanation of “the past grown ever more opaque over time.”2 She highlights the role of ancient (always capitalized as “Ancient”) Greek literature and art in the development of European nation-state ideology during the 18 th and 19 th centuries, and in particular the dichotomy of East versus West, Asia against Europe, often inspired by Homer. For the Ottoman Empire the 19 th century was a time of political and military decline, compelling it, at least during the Tanzimat (reform) era, 1839–1876, to modernize and Europeanize the state’s political institutions. This entailed equipping the Empire’s new bureaucrats with knowledge of the languages, history, and culture of the Western nations now dominating the hemisphere. In the West, ever-accelerating socio-economic change was matched by an ever-increasing desire for history and heritage. Among its manifestations was the zealous amassing of antiquities and their formal public display in museums, a practice the Ottomans also adopted. Foreign archaeological activity, specifically Schliemann’s and Dörpfeld’s excavations at Hisarlik, stimulated popular and official interest, attracting special scrutiny and legal restrictions. Turkish attention to the Troad, already intense because of the Dardanelles’ strategic importance, became still stronger when the Trojan War was conflated with the Ottoman Empire’s historic defense of the strait against British and ANZAC forces in 1915.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters and an epilogue. Chapter I covers the activities, both licit and illicit, of Schliemann in the Troad during the 1870s. Uslu’s basic account of his archaeological exploits and interactions with Frank Calvert (whose knowledge of the area’s antiquities was offset by his limited means and his inadequacies as a publicist) after having made “a fortune in business” (38) depends heavily on published sources and studies.3 She performs valuable service by describing the legislative and bureaucratic environment of Schliemann’s fieldwork and the treatment of artifacts in the late Ottoman period, especially with her translations and discussions of several of the communications related to obtaining excavation permits and dividing up finds for removal from Ottoman territory, together with color figures of many of these documents.4 Turkish reactions to Schliemann’s acquisitive enterprises were not limited to regulations and official censures. Figure 17 (81) shows an 1874 cartoon from a Turkish satirical magazine, envisioning a conversation between Schliemann and his wife Sophia, in which she asks what they will have left after his promises of some finds to the Ottomans, others to the Greeks, and yet others to the American ambassador, and he replies “everything!”

Chapter II examines the reception of Greco-Roman culture by the Muslim elite of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time as their government tried to restrain Schliemann, Turks came to take pride in the antiquities of their own land and become collectors themselves. The collections, facilities, and mission of the Imperial Museum continued to expand, with emphasis on Classical civilization. From the early 1880s on, the storerooms swelled under the supervision of Osman Hamdi Bey, its first Turkish director, who led the excavations at Nemrut Dağı, Sidon, and Lagina (102-108). Münif Pasha, minister of public instruction, was a leading light in the movement to introduce Enlightenment ideas, translating various French works, including Voltaire’s dialogues, into Turkish (90-92). A few words about Uslu’s handling of the modern scholarship utilized are in order here. While this material is well chosen, she resorts to direct quotation too frequently to convince me that she has assimilated other scholars’ findings in a critical way. It is equally disconcerting to find Münif Pasha’s correspondence with Schliemann among the primary sources referred to, since Uslu states that it “reveals an erudite and sophisticated bureaucrat with a deep passion for archaeology and antiquities” (88-89, on 88), apparently without having examined the dossier herself.5 Other learned civil servants translated the plays of Molière and Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque; the latter work would enjoy huge popularity and was even used to teach prose composition (92-94; 144-146). Enlightenment authors attracted greatest interest, and French was the preferred language of aspiring intellectuals and the polyglot, polyethnic cosmopolitan elite (94-102). But the intellectual Westernization of the Ottomans, often coupled with interest in their Empire’s manifold layers of human history, brought them into conflict with Westerners whose nations, having already embraced a more narrowly romanticized version of the Greco-Roman cultural heritage, now wanted Anatolia’s tangible relics.

Chapter III continues in similar fashion, describing the attempts of Ottoman officials to protect their nation’s antiquities from Westerners who had appropriated the inheritance of ancient Greece and Rome as an emblem of their own superior culture. Hampered by the waning empire’s economic and military weakness, conscientious civil servants such as Bedreddin Efendi (119-121) and Osman Hamdi Bey (122-129) fought an uphill battle against Schliemann’s international political connections, reinforced by ever-closer Turkish-German ties and boundless determination to prevail over supervisory personnel. The legal restrictions that Schliemann continually sought to elude covered the excavation of sites, collection/disposition of artifacts, and procedures for surveying and measuring. Schliemann was moreover not the only Westerner who tried to circumvent Turkish antiquities law: after 1884, when more stringent regulations were introduced, Carl Humann and Frank Calvert were equally keen to evade official oversight (128, 132).

Chapter IV adopts a literary-historical approach to consider Homer and Troy in Ottoman literature. Despite the educational initiatives of the Tanzimat period and the activities of Schliemann since the 1870s, no translation of Homer’s epics into Ottoman Turkish existed until 1885, when bureaucrat and poet Na’im Fraşeri published his rendering of the first “song” of the Iliad, with a biographical preface that informed readers about Homer’s life and work (135-137). Uslu affirms that Homer and Homeric themes were known to earlier Turkish writers and poets, and that Mehmet II self-identified with the Trojans and had “a valuable Greek edition of the Iliad ” in his personal library (138-142).6 The fact that “mythology” and “pagan gods” are essential to Homeric poetry was the real stumbling block to Ottoman intellectuals’ wholehearted acceptance of the epics. In a Muslim empire (unlike the post-Enlightenment, Scripture-critical West), anything associated with polytheism was suspect as incompatible with Islam, and any enthusiasm for identifying with Homer and his heroes was tempered by France’s cultural influence, which stressed emulation less than did Britain or Germany. Challenges of translation compounded the difficulty: no concept equivalent to “mythology” existed in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, nor did these languages have a poetic rhythm analogous to the Homeric hexameter (147-152). Uslu surveys various translations and re-interpretations of Homer’s “tales” of Troy in essays, books, and plays from the final decades of Ottoman rule. She states that Homer the poet was much admired, especially for the Iliad, which Turks preferred, stimulated by Schliemann’s discoveries and a focus on geographical connections, especially Izmir as Homer’s hometown (152-162).

Chapter V completes the narrative of interactions between Turkish civil servants and Western archeologists, most notably Osman Hamdi Bey (171-175), Schliemann, and Dörpfeld. The controversy launched by Captain Bötticher, an armchair archaeologist who asserted Schliemann’s Troy was merely a cremation cemetery ( Feuernekropole), and the two conferences intended to quell it fill several pages (169-171) which regrettably omit Zavadil’s recent book on the subject and show a shaky grasp of German.7 After Schliemann’s death (December 26, 1890, not “Christmas Day,” so 179), his trusted associate Wilhelm Dörpfeld continued the fieldwork at Troy. Dörpfeld’s more conscientious approach increased scholarly knowledge of the city’s chronology, while his greater attentiveness to local requirements improved relations with local officials and other guardians of Turkey’s cultural patrimony (179-182). Osman Hamdi Bey’s further struggles against Frank Calvert’s illegal activities (183) occurred in a climate of deepening Turkish suspicion of all foreign activity in the Dardanelles (182-185); all visitors to Troy were required to apply for permission to enter the site, recorded, and observed. By the eve of World War I, local Turkish interest in Troy had grown and excursions to the site became fashionable, although the popular press also mocked “neo-Hellenist” notions (Figs. 39-40, 188-189).

These circumstances and mentalities lead into the Epilogue (191-198), which focuses on the Turkish defense of the Dardanelles at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, with its consequences for the career of Mustafa Kemal (the future Atatürk) and modern Turkey’s perception of Troy. Kemal’s successful leadership of Turkish troops against British and ANZAC forces at Gallipoli where, he reportedly told his men, “I am not ordering you to fight, I am ordering you to die,” was swiftly woven into the myth of the man who became leader of the new Turkish state. A 1918 essay presented an extended comparison of Homer’s Iliad with Gallipoli, to the Turks’ advantage; other literary prose and poetry featured analogous references. Uslu points out that although the Turks lost the war, interest in Homer remained strong. The final sentence (198) quotes Mustafa Kemal’s “We avenged Troy,” reputedly uttered at the end of the Greek-Turkish War in 1922.

Despite its deficiencies, this book opens up perspectives on the place of Homer and Homeric archaeology in the construction of modern Turkish identity, showing how a text central to western European culture was employed by a people whose history straddles West and East.


1. See also, however, Z. Çelik, About Antiquities: Politics of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire (Austin 2016), especially Ch. 3 and 4.

2. P. Nora, Les Lieux de mémoire, 7 vols. (Paris 1984-1992); Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past, ed. P. Nora and L. D. Kritzman, trans. A. Goldhammer, 3 vols. (New York 1996-1998) and D. Lowenthal , Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (London 1996), are featured on 20-21, whereas Jan Assmann’s fine-tuning of this discourse ( Das kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen [Munich 1992]; English ed. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination [Cambridge 2011]) is absent.

3. E.g., E. Meyer, Heinrich Schliemann: Briefwechsel II (Berlin 1958); D. A. Traill, Schliemann of Troy (New York 1995); S. H. Allen, Finding the Walls of Troy (Berkeley 1999).

4. Uslu is, however, mistaken about the name and nationality of Philipp Anton (not “Anton Philip”) Dethier, Director of the Imperial Museum 1872-1881 who, despite his name, was German, not French (E. Eldem, “The Archaeology of a Photograph: Philipp Anton Dethier and his ‘Group for the History of Greek Art’” JdI 127-128 [2012-2013]: 499-530).

5. On 88, at n. 26, Uslu notes only that the dossier (12 letters and telegrams from Münif, plus one from Schliemann’s hand, in French) is kept in the Schliemann Archive of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens’ Gennadius Library.

6. Neither the date nor the editor/publisher of Mehmet II’s Greek Iliad is stated.

7. M. Zavadil Ein trojanischer Federkrieg. Die Auseinandersetzungen zwischen Ernst Boetticher und Heinrich Schliemann (Vienna 2009). The German “scharfes S” (ß) is invariably written as “b” (173 n. 28, 179 nn. 30, 32, 178 n. 55), and the Austro-Hungarian emperor “Franz Joseph” becomes the Dutch “Frans Joseph” (132).