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Why Turkey’s president cares so much about an 11th-century battle

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Readers of Today's WorldView know we've spent a fair amount of time on the rise of "blood and soil" nationalism in various countries in the West. Populist movements, anti-immigrant parties and demagogic leaders have all appealed to narrow visions of identity, steeped in histories of battle and heroic sacrifice.

But for an even more strident variation of the theme, look to recent events in Turkey. This past week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared at two different ceremonies honoring historic Turkish victories. On Wednesday, he commemorated Turkey's "Victory Day," the annual holiday that marks the triumph of Turkish forces over a Greek army at the Battle of Dumlupinar in 1922. The battle is seen as a cornerstone in Turkey's emergence as an independent nation out of the ashes of World War I and is closely associated with the revered founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan, however, preceded his nod to Ataturk with a very different commemoration. On Aug. 26, he journeyed east to the district of Malazgirt, near the Armenian border, where he celebrated the 946th anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert, complete with nomadic yurts and actors dressed in medieval chain mail. It was the first time such an official ceremony had taken place, and it was steeped in political symbolism.

In 1071, an army of Seljuk Turks defeated the forces of the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert, striking a decisive blow that paved the way for Muslim settlement of Anatolia and the eventual blossoming of the Ottoman Empire. For Turkish nationalists, the battle offers a kind of mythic starting point for the Turkish nation, and Erdogan seemed eager to claim both the Seljuks' ethnic and religious legacies for his own.

"We are proud of our ancestors who walked with glory, honor and victory into the center of Europe after entering Anatolia from Malazgirt, with the red flag in one hand and the green sanjak in the other,” Erdogan said on Saturday, referring to the Turkish flag and the standard of Islam. He summoned the spirit of the Seljuk warlord Alp Arslan, who legend says stood before the ranks of Seljuk warriors on the battlefield.

"This victory gained our people a new homeland and a new future," Erdogan said.

Of course, there is no country in the world where the past isn't political. The United States is locked in its own emotive debates over Confederate statues. Neo-fascists in Greece still claim the history of ancient Spartans fighting off the invading Persians. Ethno-nationalists in Europe look to epic clashes with Arab armies as defining episodes in their own national stories.

But, for Erdogan, the past is even more viscerally prologue. As I've written before, the Turkish president has set about remaking his country in his image — and simultaneously wresting it away from Ataturk's rigidly secularist legacy. Erdogan, whom critics accuse of steadily eroding Turkish democracy in a bid to consolidate power, counts on the support of more pious Sunni Muslim Turks, many of whom believed their cultural identity was suppressed in the years before Erdogan's rise to power.

To that end, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have cultivated nostalgia for the faded Ottoman Empire, whose perceived decadence and religiosity Ataturk and other early Turkish modernizers sought to reject.

"Erdogan wants to have his own holiday, which is why he is appropriating the anniversary of Manzikert," said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey scholar and author of "The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey." "Appropriating Manzikert, a battle in which victory opened the gates for Byzantine and Christian Anatolia to be captured by Turks and, subsequently become Islamicized, allows Erdogan to cast himself as a great defender of the Turkish nation and the global Muslim community."

Pro-Erdogan columnists dutifully hailed the significance of Erdogan marking the Manzikert anniversary.

"We are going to return to our political genetics, our regional perception, and our historical wealth," wrote Ibrahim Karagul, a particularly strident ultranationalist. "We will know that doors opened to us through the 1071 Manzikert victory, 946 years ago, are similarly in question again today, that a similar turn is taking place in the world history, that an amazing power change is in question and that we are witnessing a turn in history."

Husseyin Gulerce, another columnist, pointed to the one-year anniversary of a failed coup attempt against Erdogan's rule and linked its defeat to the Seljuk triumph and Ottoman resistance in World War I. "The 15th of July treason," he wrote, referring to the coup attempt, "was the greatest attack experienced in this era from the crusader mentality that tried to stop us, even tried to destroy us, at Manzikert and at Gallipoli."

Erdogan faces a complicated political moment. At odds with ethnic Kurds whose votes he once won in droves and bent on eradicating Gulenists — followers of an exiled Turkish cleric accused of fomenting the coup — from Turkish society, he is now focusing on winning greater support among Turkish nationalists.

"Publicly celebrating a historical victory that has always been most popular among Turkey's conservative nationalists fits nicely with Erdogan's political evolution," said Nicholas Danforth, a Turkey expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an occasional WorldViews contributor. "The Seljuks are the perfect meeting place, chronologically and geographically, of Erdogan's Islamist Ottoman nostalgia and the fixation on ethnic and Central Asian Turks that marked much of traditional … Turkish nationalism."

Of course, the Battle of Manzikert was hardly as decisive as Erdogan and his followers now make it seem. It took almost four centuries before the Ottomans, the descendants of the Seljuk clans, managed to capture what is now Istanbul. It's also worth noting that the Seljuks at Manzikert were perhaps connected more culturally to what's now Iran than Turkey. But, as ever, politicians aren't about to let the complexities of the past get in the way of a good story.

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