Ottoman graves in Damascus, Erdogan’s obsession
Turkish leader never misses chance to try to regain influence in territories once part of the Empire
Damascus: Behind the Grand Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus, there are two graves, belonging to two Ottoman pilots who crashed in modern day Palestine en route to Egypt, back in 1914. Strangely enough, they are well maintained, not by Syrians, but by paid agents of the Turkish embassy. Although downsized drastically since 2011, the embassy still carries out minimal yet important duties — one of which, it seems, is caring for Ottoman graves in Syria.
Part of that interest, no doubt, is due to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s obsession with his country’s Ottoman past. In 2015, he made headlines by dressing up his entourage in Ottoman military uniform, with feathers and gold helmets, during a dramatic reception welcoming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Decorating the walls were Ottoman iconography and calligraphy. Erdogan is presently toying with the idea of reinstituting Ottoman Turkish at state-run schools, and has modified the Turkish national anthem, which is now played on brass instruments, making it sound “Ottoman”.
Erdogan knows his Ottoman history. He strongly believes his ancestors were backstabbed both by the Arabs and the Europeans, and he never misses a chance to regain influence in territories once part of the Ottoman Empire. Last December, for example, he got rights to rehabilitate the ex-Ottoman port island of Sukain in northeastern Sudan, and in mid-2016, his troops marched across the border into Syria, occupying cities that were once part of the empire.
Before Syrian-Turkish relations were suspended in mid-2011, the Turks sent archivists to Damascus in order to repair, store, and translate Ottoman manuscripts at the Museum of Historical Documents. They were tasked with making sure that the entire Ottoman-era paper-load was in good condition, especially pertaining to the last great sultan, Abdul Hamid II.
Abdul Hamid has been a lifelong inspiration for Erdogan. Ten years ago, he helped bankroll a mega-production about his life, starring Syrian actors.
Although he had never visited the city, Abdul Hamid held Damascus in high esteem, which he called “Sham Sharif” (Damascus the Noble). It was the point of departure for one of the two great Haj caravans to Makkah. During its Umayyad past, Damascus had given Islam its first navy, post service, bureaucracy — and hereditary caliphate. The Umayyads minted their own currency and exported Islam to faraway Europe and China — in addition, of course, to building the Umayyad Mosque, which Abdul Hamid admired greatly. Some of Prophet Mohammad companions, after all, are buried southwest of the mosque, including Bilal, his mu’azzin.
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Prominent Ottoman expert Amr Mallah told Gulf News: “In fact, it was Sultan Abdul Hamid who carried out the necessary repair of the Umayyad Mosque, which had been ravaged by fire in 1893. It was re-opened with great fanfare during his era in 1902.”
Ottoman significance of Damascus
Seven of Abdul Hamid’s children are buried in Takieh Sulaimaniyeh, a mosque complex in central Damascus, built by Sulaiman the Magnificent, facing the present Four Seasons Hotel. Erdogan tried to repeatedly rent it out — or buy it, before 2011. It is now used to sell Damascene crafts and memorabilia.
Abdul Hamid’s son-in-law Ahmad Nami (husband of Princess Aisha) was appointed head of state of Syria in 1926 and considered for the throne of Syria, given his relationship with the sultan.
The oldest heir to the Ottoman throne, Prince Dündar Ali Osman Osmanoglu was born and raised in Damascus as well, after his family was expelled from Turkey. Now aged 88, he lives off a modest state retirement pension with his wife in the neighbourhood of Al Muhajireen, on the slopes of Mount Qassioun.
Also buried in the Syrian capital are two children of Sultan Abdul Majid I, and three children of Sultan Murad V, in addition to a number of relatives, bringing the number of Ottoman figures to a total of 18.
The last person buried at this cemetery was Bader Al Deen Effendi, the youngest son of Abdul Hamid, who died in 1980. The 36th and last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI, was buried there in 1926, after dying in exile in Italy four years after he was dethroned. The graves also include Arif Hikmat Pasha, Abdul Hamid’s son-in-law and a former Ottoman minister of education and Islamic scholar.
All of these Ottoman figures died after the empire’s collapse and had to be buried in Damascus since returning to Turkey was prohibited by the Kemalists.
So important are Ottoman graves for the Turkish president that in early 2015, he sent his troops into Syria, seven months before the Russian military intervention, with orders to dig the remains of Sulaiman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Dynasty. He was buried near the city of Raqqa and his tombstone was built on Sultan Abdul Hamid’s instructions. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne states that his grave is considered Turkish territory, part of an enclave within Syria’s borders, guarded for the past 100-years by Turkish soldiers. Erdogan snatched it — to save it from the clutches of Daesh.
At its apex, the Ottoman Empire included parts of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Crimea and the Caucasus, bestriding three continents with a population of approximately 25 million. As the empire eroded, it lost Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Cyprus and Egypt.