Early Turkish Archaeology as a Reflection of History

Early Turkish Archaeology as a Reflection of History



In 1923, the Republic of Turkey formed amidst the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. The inland city of Ankara was immediately instated as the new capital, days before even the nation itself was founded. A change of capitals may appear nominal, an exchange of one name and one place for another, but I find it symbolic of the seismic shift in national self-conception that defined the early years of the new Turkish republic. The nation of historic Istanbul is not the nation of Ankara: the two capitals represent two different understandings of Turkish values and identity. The political leaders of the new republic thought so too, pitting the cities against each other in a “repertoire of contrasts” (Kezer, pp. 20). As Ankara came to encapsulate the values of the new nation, Istanbul became isolated and outmoded in comparison. Still, the modern state of Turkey did not emerge fully-formed from the Ottoman dissolution. How, then, did the remains of a multiethnic empire model itself into a homogeneous nation-state? 

My research is grounded in the formative years of the Turkish nation, from the 1920s to the 1940s, under the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Archaeology was an invaluable tool for the early nation-state. Many sites on Turkish territory had been excavated previously by European explorers, but it was not until this era that a distinctly Turkish archaeology emerged. In analyzing its emergence, I cover parts of the nineteenth century as well to investigate how Turkey negotiated its Ottoman heritage in the early years of the republic. Finally, I examine how archaeology helped Turkey to conceive of itself, both in relation to its past and to the rest of the world. Though the Turkish archaeological paradigm has long changed, its role in constructing an early national identity still resonates today. 

New Turkey

The long-lasted Ottoman empire, founded around the 14th century, had been weakening for some time, but World War I became its death knell. Allied forces first partitioned off parts of the empire under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.1 In addition to occupying Ottoman land, the treaty also placed Turkish territory under severe political restrictions. Turkish nationalists, led by commander Mustafa Kemal, fought back. Ultimately, the Turkish War for Independence ended in victory; the intolerable first treaty was replaced by the more favorable Treaty of Lausanne.2 In 1923, the modern Republic of Turkey was born. 

Military leader Kemal, or Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”), became the first Turkish president. Kemal believed that a sense of pride needed to be instilled in the Turkish citizenry. In Ottoman society, no one had identified as Turkish; to do so was actually considered degrading.3 For the new nation to succeed, Turkish self-image needed rehabilitation. Thus, as part of a series of modernization reforms, Kemal’s goal to raise national self-esteem became a matter of actual policy. 

The Turkish Historical Society was founded in 1930 and commissioned by Kemal to investigate the origins of the Turkish people. The scholars concluded that Turks were the most primordial race, originating in Central Asia. Climate change had forced their descendants to migrate to other parts of the world: China, Europe, India, etc. The earliest of these migrants, those who were still biologically “Turkish,” settled on and civilized the Anatolian peninsula (Atakuman).

This claim, presented at the First Turkish Congress of History in 1932, came to be known as the Turkish History Thesis.4 The thesis had both territorial and cultural implications. First, it argued that the Anatolians were proto-Turks, tied together by genealogy. Thus, their history was also Turkish history, and their territory a Turkish territory. Second, by making Anatolia a Turkish homeland, Turkey laid a claim onto its early civilizations (and erased their ethnic diversity). Of particular veneration were the Bronze-Age Hittites, an advanced people known for establishing the empire of Hattusa. 

Significantly, most of the conference attendees were not political figures, but history teachers.5 For Atatürk, history and education were essential sites for the formation of national identity. General literacy in Turkey more than doubled in the two decades of Ataturk’s presidency. Such policies occurred concurrent to language reforms promoting a distinct, Latinized Turkish language separate from Arabic, the mother tongue of the Ottoman Empire.6 Turkish linguists spent the early years of the republic adapting Ottoman Turkish from an Arabic script to a phonetic alphabet.7 By 1930, Ataturk’s cabinet had decreed that the new Turkish was the only language to be nationally taught and spoken. Generations of Turkish citizens’ primary exposure to history and language was defined by these ethno-cultural imperatives.

These impositions would not have been so effective on the empire of even a decade previous. But the Turkish nation, by shedding its Ottoman heritage, also abandoned the empire’s heterogeneity. The forced deportation and genocide of over a million Armenians by Ottoman forces during WWI was continued in part by the Turkish Independence Party.8 Likewise, a massive “population exchange” occurred between Turkey and Greece at the war’s end, with hundreds of thousands of Greeks leaving Turkey and vice versa. Between 1914 and 1924, the non-Muslim populations in Turkish territory decreased by over 90 percent.9 A far more (though not completely) homogeneous group was left behind, making Kemal’s “Turkish” cultural ideal easier to enforce. These changes facilitated the success of the Turkish Reformation, which gave the nation its own set of language, customs, and historyin short, a distinct ethnocultural identity. 

But it was not enough for Turkey to have claimed a noble ancestry for itself. Alone, these historical theories were just fantasies of ancient power and relevance. For its heritage to hold weight in the modern day, it needed to be proven with material evidence. Atatürk acted immediately: barely a year after the First Turkish Congress of History, state-organized archaeological expeditions began. 

Forays into Archaeology

The sites and artifacts of interest were, at first, almost exclusively Anatolian. Turkish researchers did not follow in the footsteps of earlier European archaeologists, who largely congregated around Greco-Roman sites: Pergamon, etc.10 One notable Turkish archaeological find was the sun disc. These discs were first excavated from Alacohoyuk in the 1930s. Likely once used in religious ceremonies, they were immediately adopted as material proof of a Hittite heritage. They feature at what is today the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (but was, at the time of its founding, the Hittite Museum), and serve as the logo for several Turkish banks, universities, etc.11 

Ironically, these discs were eventually accredited to the Hatti, an earlier Bronze Age tribe. But for the early Turkish nation, their origin was clearly Hittite. Carrying this connotation, they christened a contemporaneous national movement, the Sun Language Theory. Formulated by the Society of Turkish Language, it argued that all Indo-European languages could trace their roots to a prenatal Turkish. As such, modern Turkish was a reclamation of an ancient, esteemed language. Paralleling its cousin historical thesis, the Sun Language Theory aimed to establish a “primordial link […] between the Turks and the oldest civilizations in the world.”12 

These links were often tenuous, even verging on pseudo-scientific. When presented at the Second Turkish Historical Conference in 1937, the theory was derided by foreign commentators.13 Still, in only five years, Turkish archaeology had progressed significantly. Several field journals had been founded; new museums were created and populated by the day; not to mention the rapid advancement of excavation. Alacahoyuk in particular caused great excitement: archaeologists had discovered a wealth of intricate metal artworks and ritual artifacts on-site.14

Kemal’s approach to archaeology was efficient and positivistic: he viewed it as a “science of history.” Its status as an “imported discipline” (i.e. Western) and its focus on natural phenomena made it the perfect tool for Turkish nationalism.15 Archaeological evidence of Anatolian culture, found on Turkish soil, connected the pre-historical myth to the modern nation. As a new and uncertain nation trying to distance itself from the ugly past, archaeology was essential for justifying Turkey’s very existence.

Ottoman Innovation

But the specter of the dead empire lingered. In many ways, Kemal’s Turkish Reformation mirrored the Ottoman Tanzimat (“Reorganization”) a century previous. After decades of slow decline, made more prominent by increasing territorial concessions to the West, liberal reformists decided that modernization was needed for the continuation of the empire. A number of policies were passed in the nineteenth century, reforming Islamic politics and culture with Western techniques.16

During this time, Ottoman elites became increasingly interested in antiquities. In the early 1800s, the sultanate had been permissive of European presence, often turning a blind eye to archaeological wreckers and artifact smugglers. (Note the infamous case of the Elgin Marbles.) However, the latter half of the century saw a surge of archaeological protectionism. By 1884, Osman Hamdi Bey, a renowned painter and statesman, had helped pass several laws regulating antiquities excavation and ownership.17 More and more Ottomans, like Hamdi, were conducting their own excavations. But the most prominent archaeological practices of the time were antiquities collections and displays. 

The first official museum, the Imperial Museum of Antiquities, was established around the 1850s and officiated in 1868 (today the Istanbul Archaeological Museum).18 Several other collections, primarily containing military acquisitions or proprietary art, began soon after.19 These museums were not the “universal museums” of the modern day: primarily an elite preoccupation, they were “certainly not [made …] to enlighten the public.”20 As Wendy Shaw states, the museum rose out of nineteenth-century colonialism and the distinct narratives of imperial culture. The ability to display the captive material goods of different peoples, to present them together in an act of invisible dominion, constituted a new “language of power.” (Shaw). Museums were one way to renew the empire’s cultural cache, putting it on par with other imperial (read: Western) powers. 

Posocco argues that Ottoman museums, in exercising the language of empire, also served the “proto-nationalist” purpose of crafting an Ottoman nation. The “nation” it was trying to encapsulate was, of course, very different from that of its republican successor, Turkey. The subjects of the nineteenth-century Ottoman empire were multifarious: Turks, Kurds, Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks, etc. And the imperial museums were not too picky about the origin of their artifacts (though there was a particular interest in Greco-Roman work). 

Ultimately, the narrative framing of Ottoman archaeological displays fell short of real nationalism. Many great artifacts were collated, but they lacked ideological value once put together in imperial show-and-tell. These curations “jumped from one autonomous collection [of Ottoman identity] to another […] none of which promoted a model of cultural progress with its apogee in Ottoman modernity.” (Shaw, pp. 58). When considered through this framework, the logic of Ottoman collections becomes clearer. They were, as nationalism scholar Benedict Anderson said, “the late colonial state’s style of thinking about its domain.”21 

In contrast, Islamic art also became highly esteemed, but only by the turn of the twentieth century, near the end of the empire. Faced with impending imperial decline, modernization was put aside in favor of conservation.22 The late Ottoman resurgence of Islamism seemed to represent a turning point from imperial “proto-nationalism” to a modern nationalism more closely resembling that of the Turkish nation-state.

The new Turkish government under Kemal was explicitly secular; the Islamic caliphate and its religious traditions were forcibly disavowed.23 But the form of that secular nationalism was not dissimilar to that of late Ottoman Islamic nationalism. Both movements were domestically oriented, building what Benedict Anderson describes as an “imagined community” bound by common practices and beliefs. Compare this centralized identity to the “autonomous” treasures of the earlier Ottomans. Their grand but incoherent displays of material culture ultimately failed to inspire national loyalty (Shaw).

Kemal tried to distance the Turkish republic from its Ottoman past. He erected barriers of language, origin, and nation, creating a narrative rift between Turkey’s Ottoman heritage and its modern self-image. Still, the Tanzimat period and the following Islamic revival played a part in paving the way for the new Turkish identityand its archaeology. Protectionist measures securing Turkish sites against foreign skullduggery, for example, built upon pre-existing Ottoman regulations.24 Turkish ethnographic and archaeological museums, too, owed much of their infrastructure to earlier Ottoman collections. Though their practices were quite different, Turkish archaeologists nevertheless owed a debt to their Ottoman predecessors. 

Looking Westward

Both the Ottoman empire and the Turkish republic could not escape the orientalism of the West. Their self-consciousness of the “European gaze” framed, to some extent, their distinct archaeological pursuits. For the Ottomans, it further motivated the “universalist and encyclopedic” accumulation of material cultureart, antiquities, artifacts.25 Not only did they adopt the Western curatorial practice, they also tried to craft themselves in the West’s image. Many of the artifacts in early imperial displays were Greco-Roman. Presenting classical antiquities in an Ottoman context was a way to claim a pseudo-European cultural indigenity, linking the Greeks and Romans to themselves. Even the facade of the Ottoman Imperial Museum was modeled after the mythical Sarcophagus of Alexander, giving the modern empire roots in the ancient Greek canon.26 

The Turks, who were preoccupied enough with Anatolia, appear to be freer of foreign influence. However, the Turkish History Thesis and the archaeology it promoted was as much a response to the perceptions of the West as it was to Ottoman biases. If Anatolia was Turkish, then Turkey could be a member of that pantheon of nations tracing their roots to great civilizations. The thesis also responded to Western racism. It proposed an alternative to the European denigration of the Turks as a “secondary Mongoloid race.” (Atakuman, pp. 219). In 1939, Turkish anthropologist Afet Inan even measured 64,000 people’s heads, then compared the dimensions to those of excavated Hittite skulls. The results not only gave evolutionary evidence of Anatolia’s Turkishness, they also showed that the Turks were a brachycephalous race, just like eastern Europeans. (Atakuman).

Though the Turks were, in a way, fitting themselves to a Western standard, they did not do so by co-opting “Western” art or artifacts like the Ottomans had previously. Old Greek and Roman sites on Turkish territory were not considered culturally Turkish. Their artifacts were already being mined by European archaeologists; claiming them would be a losing battle. Kemal and his cabinet instead used the idea of Anatolia to carve out an identitarian niche. No other nations had yet laid claim to it, and territorially it made sense. Anatolian civilizations were Turkish, and according to the thesis, highly influential to neighboring Aegean societies like Greece.27 Through this, “an […] image of Anatolia emerged as the cradle of European civilization.” (Atakuman, pp. 229). The Turkish History Thesis thus inverted Western narratives of Turkish barbarism. Turkey could not be considered inferior any longer when European culture itself had developed from the Turks.

& Onward to the East…

As the Turkish nation nears its centennial, it continues to negotiate with many of the struggles of its founding. Through the years, Turkey has grappled with its situatedness in the context of larger debates about Eastern and Western identity. These narratives of place are not only culturally significant, but also have geopolitical implicationsmembership in the E.U., for instance. 

Archaeology, as always, remains a battlefield of cultural identity and political desire. Today, Turkey still largely conceives of its heritage as Anatolian: Kemalism successfully left its mark (Atakuman). However, in recent years, the schism between Turkey and the Ottoman empire has grown far less pronounced. The resurgence of Islamic sentiment, in particular, has helped Turks to reconcile with their Ottoman history in a movement known as neo-Ottomanism. Some now argue, for example, that the past Turkish bias against Islamic and Ottoman archaeology must be remedied.28 Turkish people no longer popularly identify with the Westernized Kemalist nation. By reconnecting with Ottoman heritage, they may now be leaning towards the opposite ideal, “Western-style capitalism and a Turkish culture.”29 

Turkey spent its formative years looking to the West as inspiration; its archaeology developed accordingly. Now, it may be turning towards the Islamic East. No matter which direction Turkey will take, its archaeological interests remain relevant. Studying the founding years of Turkish archaeology not only sheds light on the past, but suggests how changing political priorities may reflect a new sense of Turkish nationhood.

  1. J.F. Goode, Negotiating for the past: archaeology, nationalism and diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941 (University of Texas Press, 2007).
  2. Goode, Negotiating for the past.
  3. M. Özdogan, “Ideology and Archaeology in Turkey,” in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, ed. L. Meskell (Routledge, 1998), 111-24.
  4. T. Tanyeri-Erdemir, “Archaeology as a Source of National Pride in the Early Years of the Turkish Republic,” Journal of Field Archaeology 31, no.4 (2006):381–393
  5. Tenyeri-Erdemir, “Archeology as a Source of National Pride,” 381-393.
  6. Goode, Negotiating for the past.
  7. K. Kilinç, “’The Hittite Sun Is Rising Once Again:’ Contested Narratives of Identity, Place and Memory in Ankara,” History and Memory 29, no. 2 (2017): 10
  8. Z. Kezer, Building modern Turkey: State, space, and ideology in the early republic (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).
  9. B. Hamit, “The general ottoman and Turkish contexts, from the tanzimat (1838) to the suppression of the Dersim Rebellion (1938),” SciencesPo, 2008
  10. Goode, Negotiating for the past.
  11. Kilinç, “’The Hittite Sun Is Rising Once Again:’ Contested Narratives of Identity, Place and Memory in Ankara,” 10.
  12. Kilinç, “’The Hittite Sun Is Rising Once Again:’ Contested Narratives of Identity, Place and Memory in Ankara,” 11.
  13. Tanyeri-Erdemir, “Archeology as a Source of National Pride,” 381-393.
  14. Ö Harmanşah, “Monuments and Memory: Architecture and Visual Culture in Ancient Anatolian History,” Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia (10,000-323 BCE), eds.S. R. Steadman & G. McMahon (2011), 624-652
  15. Tanyeri-Erdemir, “Archeology as a Source of National Pride,” 381-393.
  16. Özdogan, “Ideology and Archaeology in Turkey.”
  17. E. Eldem, “An Ottoman archaeologist caught between two worlds: Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910),” in Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage in the Balkans and Anatolia: The Life and Times of F.W. Hasluck, 1878-1920, ed. D. Shankland (Gorgias Press, 2010), 121-150)
  18. B.T. Özkaya, “The British Museum, Müze-i Hümâyun and the Travelling ‘Greek ideal’ in the Nineteenth Century,” New Perspectives on Turkey 50 (2010): 9–28
  19. G. Cephanecigil, “Istanbul Museums in the Ottoman Era,” History of Istanbul
  20. L. Posocco, “Osman Hamdi Bey and the Dawn of the Ottoman Museum: a Bourdieusian Approach. International Journal of Humanities,” Social Sciences and Education 8, no. 10 (2022): 30
  21. Kilinç, “The Hittite Sun Is Rising Once Again,” 8.
  22. Cephanecigil, “Istanbul Museums in the Ottoman Era”
  23. B. Hamit, “The general ottoman and Turkish contexts,” SciencesPo.
  24. Özdogan, “Ideology and Archaeology in Turkey.”
  25. S. Redford, “’What Have You Done for Anatolia Today?’: Islamic Archaeology in the Early Years of the Turkish Republic,” Muqarnas 24 (2007): 245
  26. Özkaya, “The British Museum, Müze-i Hümâyun and the Travelling ‘Greek ideal’ in the Nineteenth Century.”
  27. C. Foss, “Kemal Atatürk: Giving a New Nation a New History,” Middle Eastern Studies, 50, no. 5 (2014): 826–847
  28. Özdogan, “Ideology and Archaeology in Turkey.”
  29. E. Batuman, “Ottomania,” February 9, 2014
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