Turks honor Gallipoli dead as passion for Ottoman past grows

Wed Mar 18, 2015 10:35am EDT
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By Ayla Jean Yackley

GALLIPOLI PENINSULA, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish jets flew overhead and warships cut through rough waters in the Dardanelles Straits on Wednesday to mark the centenary of one of the Ottoman Empire's final victories, as fascination with the imperial past flourishes under President Tayyip Erdogan.

Record numbers of Turks have flocked to these headlands in recent years to pay homage to the defense of the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of World War One.

The area has long drawn visitors from Australia and New Zealand, whose ANZAC forces fought here under their own flags for the first time, and who honor their nations' fallen in graveyards halfway around the world every April 25.

Turks mark what they call the Canakkale war on March 18, when Ottoman forces repelled an Allied assault on the Dardanelles -- the sole maritime outlet for arch foe Russia -- sinking a French battleship and destroying British warships.

"The fates of many peoples were determined in this strait, on this soil, but none more so than our fate as an empire collapsed," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a crowd of officials, soldiers and veterans from later Turkish conflicts as winds whipped the tip of the peninsula.

"Our people fought shoulder to shoulder on these sacred lands to protect the heart of the people and the state. A hundred years later the Turkish state stands against those who seek to divide our people."

The victory was once part of the Turkish Republic's secular founding myth. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, now evokes the "Canakkale spirit" of an Islamic army beating back a superior military force from Turkish soil in his podium speeches.

"The gradual shift towards a more Islamic, more Ottoman perception of the real identity of the Turkish nation ... is why Gallipoli becomes part of the political agenda, as it has now," said Edhem Eldem, a historian at Istanbul's Bogazici University.   Continued...

Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu attends a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of Battle of Canakkale, as part of the Gallipoli campaign, in Gallipoli March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Osman Orsal