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.
Gallipoli was long a defining moment in Turkey’s national consciousness. Young colonel Mustafa Kemal - later known as Ataturk - was its great hero, going on to found the secular republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.
The victory stopped the Allies from entering the straits and taking Istanbul, but resulted in an eight-month standoff. Some 130,000 soldiers perished, 87,000 of them from the Ottoman side, before the Turks, under German command, repulsed the enemy.
The Allied campaign was hampered by poor planning. Military strategists still visit the battlefields to draw lessons.
“All sides fought courageously at Canakkale but it was Turks who won a much-deserved victory. Canakkale is impassable,” British Ambassador Richard Moore said in Turkish on Twitter.
Yet it would prove to be one of the Turks’ few successes in the war. In November 1918, the Allied fleet sailed through the Dardanelles and took Istanbul without a single casualty.
“Elsewhere you lose a battle, but win the war. In Turkey, we lose wars, but talk about winning the battle,” Edhem said.
“The spirit of this place is with us always,” said Sadegul Asal, 35, who traveled from Istanbul with her husband and three sons to visit monuments on the 100th anniversary.
“If it were not for the martyrs lying here, our nation would not exist, and without our nation, neither would we,” she said, dressed in a dark head scarf and a long black coat.
The renewed interest in Canakkale has spawned new memorials and tourism centers to lure Turks, whose visitor numbers have climbed six-fold since the AK Party founded by Erdogan took office in 2002, according to Bill Sellars, an Australian writer who has lived on the Gallipoli peninsula for more than a decade.
Visitors pray at the monuments and tour guides talk of the “hand of God” intervening on the Ottoman side.
“This was the first time the Ottoman Empire recorded a major military victory against world powers for 150-odd years,” Sellars said. “The empire was in decline. The 18th of March marked a point where that tide at least briefly was stemmed.”
Gallipoli is generally considered to possess the best-preserved World War One battlefields, but Sellars feared construction work that has destroyed trenches and disturbed human remains may jeopardize that status.
The site where Ataturk entreated his men to fight on in the “Canakkale spirit” is now a car park, he said.
Focusing on the success of the March 18 battle may also distract from a shameful side of the war: the deportation and deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians beginning in April 1915.
Armenians say that was a government-orchestrated genocide which wiped out a civilization. Turkey denies a systematic campaign, arguing as many Muslims died in internecine warfare amid the collapse of the empire.
Erdogan angered his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan when he invited him and other world leaders to attend international centenary commemorations of the Gallipoli campaign on April 24, the date Armenians consider the start of the genocide.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Janet McBride