A Surprising History of Turkey in America

How do you get from Christopher Columbus to Butterball by way of Constantinople? Just ask Ataturk.

Images from Wikimedia
Images from Wikimedia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently made the news when he claimed that Muslim seafarers "discovered America" and that when Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba in 1492 he found a mosque, built there by the natives, who were also Muslim. It may sound ridiculous (OK, it is ridiculous), but it says a lot about Turkey’s president and the Islamic chauvinism that makes Erdogan’s "new Turkey" so different from the secular ideals of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ataturk had a similarly inventive view of history. As explained by the Turkish Historical Society he founded, Native Americans were Turks, not Muslims. And also, it was the Turkish admiral Piri Reis who drew the oldest map of America. Instead of embracing a religiously centered bad history, the founder of the modern Turkish state saw the world through the triumphs of ethnic Turks.

Erdogan’s Islamist emphasis may be new, but his country has a venerable tradition of using fantastic claims about non-Western scientific achievements to refute self-congratulatory Eurocentric history. In this light, the president’s absurd claims can be read as a populist parody of all the serious scholarship seeking to remind us of the Muslim world’s very real, often overlooked, contributions to science. After all, who can honestly pretend cranberry sauce tastes better than yogurt — or that it has contributed more to humankind?

As Turkey’s leader in the 1930s, Ataturk gained international attention for his own eccentric historical theories. He claimed the Turks had developed a sophisticated sedentary civilization in Central Asia during the 9th century B.C. Like Native Americans, these early Turks held nature sacred and were really good at archery. But they also perfected innovative technologies like metalworking and animal husbandry well before the rest of the world. Some of these Turkic tribes wandered to America, Ataturk’s historians said, while others spread the light of science to the still-primitive inhabitants of China, India, the Near East, and Europe. Spurious linguistic evidence was used to substantiate claims that ancient civilizations like the Hittites and Sumerians were actually Turks. Turkish scholars went on to suggest that all human language was originally derived from Turkish.

Ataturk’s accomplice in rewriting history was his adopted daughter Afet Inan. After an early nautical map showing the Americas turned up in the archives of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, Inan asserted that 16th-century Ottoman admiral Piri Reis had surpassed Columbus and other European cartographers through the superior technique with which he mapped the new continent. The map is quite striking, and an undeniable tribute to Ottoman cartographic skill. But there was little besides Inan’s nationalist enthusiasm to justify her conclusion that "compared with other maps of the period, Piri’s is the most perfect and original."

And here it’s clear that this was all about ethnic Turkish nationalism: Another of Inan’s best-known efforts involved unearthing the body of Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, in order to prove, using the then-widely accepted technique of skull measuring, that the genius behind some of Istanbul’s most famous mosques had been a Turk rather than an Armenian. Which offers a pretty good reminder of where all this crazy history was coming from. In a 1939 memoir, Inan relates once reading in a French geography book that as members of the "yellow race," Turks had a genotype that relegated them to a "secondary status" in European thinking. Upset, she asked Ataturk if this was right. "No," he replied, "this cannot be true. We need to work on this."

While Western historians at the time and later raised eyebrows at Ataturk’s claims, they often proved sympathetic to the motives, if not the content, of his history. Many saw his narratives about Turkic scientific greatness as a necessary part of building national pride and unity after a century of military humiliation at the hands of the West.

But besides simply being a tool for national aggrandizement, Ataturk’s history was a crucial step toward Westernization. If Turks believed their people invented science, there was no shame in embracing Western technology. And if Turkish was humanity’s original language, there was no harm in borrowing a few French words.

Erdogan may put religion at the center of his invented history instead of Turkishness, but that doesn’t mean his brand of Islamic chauvinism rejects the "Western" or "Christian" scientific tradition that Ataturk so aggressively embraced. Instead, Islamists like the president try to crudely appropriate that legacy — except, of course, evolution — while constantly boasting about opening new technical schools and colleges. And they are understandably eager to challenge an all-too-common narrative in which things like the Industrial Revolution or the discovery of the New World serve as evidence of the Christian West’s unique capacity for curiosity, rationality, and other prerequisites for progress.

The sources, such as they are, for Erdogan’s claim about the Muslim discovery of America represent the absurdist fringes of an important scholarly response to the idea that Islam and science are in conflict, or that Islamic obscurantism caused the Ottoman Empire’s decline. To challenge this dubious history, Turkish and Western historians alike — including the man Erdogan defeated in August’s presidential elections, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu — have amassed considerable evidence of the Ottomans’ technological savvy. These efforts range from serious studies of Ottoman gunpowder factories to scholarly, if a touch desperate, works about an Ottoman watchmaker whose work was so mind-blowingly good that it even impressed a visiting Swiss.

Ditching the narrative of Islam-driven decline actually reveals a striking parallel between Turkey’s historical trajectory and that of Spain, another Mediterranean power, but the one whose explorers really did cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach America. Both were immeasurably wealthy superpowers in the 15th and 16th centuries, impoverished second-tier powers for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, and then, just in a last few decades, dynamic industrial economies likely to keep growing despite clouds on the horizon.

Ironically, Erdogan’s statement about Columbus finding a mosque in Cuba was likely inspired by an Islamist scholar’s overly literal reading of a passage in Columbus’s diary where the explorer compares the shape of a pretty hilltop on the Cuban coast to that of a small mosque, or mezquita, gracing a Spanish mountain.

A politician with greater appreciation of metaphor — or reality — might have been content to draw a more modest lesson from this about Islamic history. Ferdinand and Isabella financed Columbus’s voyage to the New World almost immediately after they finished driving Muslims out of Spain. In this context, it’s telling that despite the bloody fanaticism of Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista, Columbus still saw a mosque’s outline as a defining element of the Spanish countryside — and a beautiful one at that.

It’s an approach to the past that Erdogan once appreciated. In 2005, Erdogan’s Turkey joined Spain as a founding member of the Alliance of Civilizations, an initiative designed to celebrate the interfaith tolerance found in both countries’ histories. Erdogan, of course, insists that Islamic tolerance inspired the Ottoman Empire’s enlightened policies, while Ataturk’s nationalist history attributed it to traditionally tolerant Turkish culture. Never mind that many Turks would agree with both, combining nationalism and religion to argue that the Turkish version of Islam is uniquely tolerant.

In forming the Alliance of Civilizations, both Turkey and Spain were happy to overlook the fact that the Umayyad and Ottoman eras each ended in a frenzy of distinctly intolerant sectarian violence. And just as many Americans are happy to celebrate Thanksgiving and Columbus Day without thinking too hard about what happened to the Native Americans afterwards, Turkish patriots are all too quick to ask about the fate of America’s indigenous people whenever anyone mentions the Armenian genocide.

Western, Turkish, and Islamic chauvinists have all tried to have their way with the historical record over the past century, making the exploration of the New World a testament to their own superiority. So today why not end with a nice historical metaphor that has something for everyone, and, as an added bonus, might even be true?

One plausible explanation — though a minority one — for why Erdogan’s country and America’s Thanksgiving mainstay share the same name is that when early explorers brought an ungainly bird back to Europe from the New World, the continent’s gourmets were slow to embrace its culinary merits. Calling it "the Turkey fowl" was a marketing ploy intended to exploit Ottoman Turkey’s 16th-century reputation for wealth, exoticism, and cultural sophistication.

America provided the bird, Turkey provided the name, and debates about whose religion has the greater capacity for cultural and technological achievement were put off until after the meal.

Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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