Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu launched a hunt for a lost skull. Standing outside Istanbul's majestic 16th century Suleymaniye Mosque, Davutoglu said he had ordered an investigation into the missing remains of the building's Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, the most celebrated figure of his craft in the history of the empire.
It's believed the master architect's grave, which is located within the mosque complex, was exhumed in the 1930s and the skull removed for analysis by supposed experts at the time to determine Sinan's racial identity. It then mysteriously disappeared in the decades that followed.
"If such a barbarous act happened in this land, there is no way we can approach his tomb and pay our respects," Davutoglu said, according to the Daily Sabah. "We will utilize all our tools, including DNA analysis, to find and return the skull to put an end to this blight to his memory."
The quest for Sinan's skull, you see, is loaded with political baggage. The consensus among historians is that the master architect -- credited with a host of majestic structures, including grand mosques in Istanbul and Edirne -- was a convert to Islam of Armenian or Greek descent. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire comprised a multi-ethnic hodgepodge of peoples and cultures, all living under the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan.
But this legacy was anathema to the founders of the modern Turkish republic, led by its president Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. Turkish nationalism under Ataturk was almost militantly secular and centered on notions of a homogeneous, distinct Turkish identity that allowed little space for religion or minority groups. The muscular identity-building of the Kemalist state, which emerged out of the ashes of the frail Ottoman Empire, even found an admirer in Adolf Hitler.
According to a study from a few years ago, a team of "scientists" inspired by the racial theories of the time opened up Sinan's crypt in 1935 and extracted the skull to make a revisionist point.
"The purpose was to prove he was an ethnic Turk," academic Selcuk Mulayim told Hurriyet Daily News in 2010. "[They] took measurements with compasses and other tools and from these measurements it was decided that he was an ethnic Turk." These researchers were inflamed by a belief in the racial superiority of Turkish stock, which they traced back to the great conquering warbands of Central Asia's steppes, and saw as separate from the Greeks, Jews and Armenians living side-by-side for centuries in Ottoman lands.
"This was just one of the many mind-boggling episodes from the ’30s — that most illiberal era in modern Turkish history," wrote Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol in 2010, referring to the case of Sinan's skull. "The regime, which wanted to wipe out the Ottoman/Islamic heritage and give a new identity and a source of pride to the nation, had found the solution partly in racism."
Some 64,000 graves, including that of Sinan, were apparently dug up in Turkey in the mid-1930s and subjected to various "anthropometric studies." The mania only subsided, Akyol notes, after Ataturk's death in 1938 and the defeat of fascism in much of Europe after World War II. Sinan's skull is believed to have been smuggled to a private collector, lost in some dusty university archive or perhaps even damaged beyond recognition.
The Ottoman rulers of the 16th century were probably far less preoccupied with Sinan's ethnic background, given the staggering diversity of their domains. Meanwhile, Davutoglu's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which has been in power for almost a decade-and-a-half, has a specific interest in making a symbol out of the disappearance of his remains.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a co-founder of the AKP, has done more to rehabilitate the Ottoman past than any other leader in the modern republic's history. This includes trading in a kind of neo-Ottoman nationalism. After his party triumphed in parliamentary elections last November, Erdogan conducted prayers in the Istanbul mosque where Ottoman emperors were traditionally crowned.
"They insulted Sinan's memory by removing it from the rest of his body," Davutoglu lamented outside the Suleymaniye mosque, gesturing to the architect's grand vision. "Sinan amalgamated an entire civilization and left it to us, and we couldn't even protect his body."
This kind of rhetoric has its uses. As WorldViews has written at length in the past, Erdogan and his allies have shifted Turkish politics away from the staunch secularism of Ataturk to a more religious footing, which the AKP tries to anchor in Ottoman history. Just this week, amid ongoing discussions about revising the country's constitution, the speaker of the parliament provoked a hubbub after declaring the new document should be "a religious constitution."
More than preceding Turkish governments, the AKP has taken bigger steps toward unraveling some of the negative aspects of Ataturk's nationalism. They recognized the long-suppressed cultural rights of the Kurds -- Turkey's biggest ethnic minority -- and embarked on a peace process to a decades-long Kurdish separatist insurgency. It collapsed in recent years. The AKP also attempted, though some would say inadequately, to better address the history of the Armenian genocide a century ago.
Critics, though, see political opportunism in Davutolgu's posturing over Sinan's skull.
“If an intact skull did exist and was lost, this would go down in history as a disgrace for the mindset of the 1930s. But this would be nothing compared to the other shameful acts of that mindset," Turkish historian Ayse Hur told Al-Monitor, referring to decades of violence against minority groups and ethnic insurgents that followed thereafter.
The AKP's opponents accuse the party and Erdogan of establishing a majoritarian state that suppresses freedom of speech and quashes dissent.
"It is hard to figure out why Davutoglu has decided to hunt down Sinan’s skull, while he takes no interest in hunting down the perpetrators of [human rights violations] under the AKP, a task for which he is responsible," added Hur.
More on WorldViews