Turkish delight

Listen to this article


SONS OF THE CONQUERORS: The Rise of the Turkic World
by Hugh Pope
Duckworth £20, 432 pages

Turkish is one of the 10 main linguistic families, its members scattered across a score of states from the Balkans to the Great Wall of China. Turkic peoples dominated the central Eurasian landmass for a good millennium, with the Ottoman empire that collapsed just under a century ago only the last of its imperial manifestations.

Yet the Turkic world today adds up to a good deal less than the sum of its many parts. That is a puzzle, and Hugh Pope sets out to explain it.

Pope is a long-time foreign correspondent in Turkey and the Middle East, whose fluency in Turkish (as well as Arabic and Persian) has enabled him to range across the Turkic world in a way few others could. Already the co-author of Turkey Unveiled, an acclaimed study of modern Turkey, this latest book, Sons of the Conquerors, is the product of deep and wide experience and long reflection. It is beautifully written, with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, a raconteur’s ear for the resonant anecdote, all held in place by a fine weave of history and judicious analysis.

The whole notion of a Turkic world is a bit of a chimera, like the orientalist legend of the Silk Road dreamed up by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen in the late 19th century. As Pope points out, while Chinese chronicles from the 2nd century BC indeed record a price of 40 bolts of silk for each “blood-sweating, heavenly horse” from central Asia’s Fergana valley, and the Romans too probably exchanged gold for Chinese silk, the trade is just as likely to have been sea-borne: “Overland east-west trade and travel rarely prospered through the lands that came to be dominated by Turkic peoples. Distances were too great, slave-snatching brigands too prevalent and rival khanates waged too much war against each other.”

Rather than trade, Pope argues, the “core genius” of the Turks has been military organisation. The creators of more than a dozen empires across the ages, from the elemental force of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane to the more settled dominion of the Ottomans and Moghuls, the main contribution of the Turks has been military and administrative. Tellingly, their high culture of literature and the court tended to be essentially Persian while religion and science was the domain of Arabic.

Even today the Kazakhs - the contemporary Turkic people closest to their nomad roots - are divided into three tribes still known to outsiders as “hordes”, from the Turko-Mongol word ordu, or army.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, put together by military will from the debris of the Ottoman empire, functioned as a key cold war buffer, its generals behaving as lords of the marches separating Europe and the west from the Soviets, as well as from the Middle East.

As the title suggests, the Turks were never conquered. The Austro-Hungarians halted the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna in 1683, preventing them from overrunning Europe and reaching the Atlantic, which became the springboard for the next generation of imperial powers, while the Ottoman empire started a long, two-century decline. Yet the subtitle of the book - The Rise of the Turkic World - is less convincing.

Pope’s excitement at encountering the living manifestations of a shared Turkic culture over such a wide expanse of territory is clearly not something the rulers of these countries share. And while he has occasional stabs at suggesting a pan-Turkic resurgence - especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the terms of Russo-Turkish rivalry in the Caucasus and Central Asia - his narrative tends to subvert this thesis, which he himself appears to find unconvincing.

One can see why. Republican Turkey was built, Pope observes, by refugees such as Ataturk, driven out of countries in the Balkans, south Russia, the Caucasus or the Middle East where their people had been established for centuries. While increasingly confident and self-sufficient, the political and, above all, military culture they developed was essentially defensive.

Embedded in the national pysche is the trauma of how the Ottoman empire was torn asunder by western countries that made and unmade states with casual ease. Turkey may be a long-term Nato ally and European Union candidate, but to this day its reflex action is not to trust western intentions. “Having seen western intervention split Kosovo from Serbia in the Balkans and Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad in the 1990s, the Turkish army was not convinced of western commitment to the territorial integrity of states,” writes Pope. Little wonder, then, that the Turkish parliament voted against allowing the US to open a northern front for the invasion of Iraq.

But, after successfully regrouping in Anatolia, why have the Turks done so little to take advantage of the end of the cold war in central Asia or the Caucasus? The short answer is that after 150 years of Tsarist and Stalinist nationality-mixing and ethnic engineering in these Turkic heartlands, pan-Turkism is for adventurers: Turkey’s strategic interest trumps ethnic ties every time. This book is full of the long, textured answer, and fascinating it is too.

Pope visits the frontline of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for Nagorno Karabagh. In half a page he makes three observations about this deeply mixed-up place. That nagorno is Russian for mountainous, kara is Turkic for black, and bagh is Persian for garden or orchard. That from Tsarist times onwards the Turkic Azeris were prevented from advancing in the army. And this: “A 1950s Soviet-made armoured car stood guard at the Azeri checkpoint, but it was pointing the wrong way and one of its tyres was flat.”

Later, having been duped by a Turkish diplomat into writing that Ankara might come to the rescue of its Azeri brothers, Pope crosses Azerbaijan’s border at Nakhichevan.

”I crossed the bridge that is the only physical connection between the Anatolian Turks and the Turkic world to the east. Officially, the Turks and Azeris had blessed the 100-yard-long steel construction with the name Umut Koprusu, or Bridge of Hope, amid plentiful slaughtering of sheep in 1992. Their hopes were not fulfilled. After a few years, local people went back to the name it had earned during its years of construction: the Hasret Koprusu, or Bridge of Longing.”

This is a rich book. Above all, as Turkey and Europe measure each other up with suspicion, it gives a compelling sense of how the Turkic world, like Russia, bestrides east and west.

David Gardner is a leader writer for the FT

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.