Some in authority see the issue as another attempt by the moderate pro-Islamist government to wind back Turkey’s Westernising reforms.

 

Last month, Justice and Development Party (AKP) Education Minister Husayn Celik floated the idea that the teaching of Ottoman in state schools would boost cultural awareness and allow a new generation of scholars to flourish.

 

However, these and other proposed educational reforms, including allowing greater access to Quran courses, quickly brought a backlash from some Turkish academics and the powerful armed services .

 

Critics claimed the plans were driven by the government’s desire to promote religious conservatism rather than scholarship.

 

There were even suggestions that Celik wanted to return to the Ottoman written script, abolished in 1928 as one of the key reforming policies of modern Turkey’s founding father, Kamal Ataturk.

 

Plans shelved

 

Within days, the Minister’s proposals, like those of the expanded religious classes, were shelved.

 

A vocal critic of many of the government’s policies, from education to how the AKP deals with negotiations over reunifying Cyprus, has been General Hursit Tolon, the commander of Turkey’s Aegean Army.

 

Recently there have been some who have given intense support to or have protected anti-secular circles,” he said.

 

As a historian, I wish I had had the chance to learn the Ottoman language. It would have been wonderful and I regret not having learned it


Sahin Aldogan,
an Ottoman Empire researcher 

“Those who believe that military is turning a blind eye to covert anti-secular activities are mistaken.”

 

Government response

 

Celik hit back at his critics, saying they were stifling free thought and democracy.

 

With every change we try to introduce there are screams, with people saying ‘the country is slipping from our hands, as does secularism and Ataturkism’,” he said.

 

“The Republic is our crown, but this is not enough on its own. We have to crown the Republic with democracy.”

 

However, Celik’s proposal has received some support, with historians and academics arguing that the vast resources of Turkey’s Ottoman past, much of it lodged in the state archives, can only be utilised if the pool of Ottoman scholars is deepened.

 

One of those is historian Sahin Aldogan, a researcher into the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

 

As a historian, I wish I had had the chance to learn the Ottoman language,” he said. “It would have been wonderful and I regret not having learned it.”

 

Documents rotting

 

However, Aldogan, who cannot access the Ottoman archives after being dismissed from the military for being a left winger, said he understood the storm Celik’s proposed reforms had created.

 

When I say it would be good to learn to read Ottoman it is fine but when the Minister says this it is a problem,” he said.

 

As an undeveloped country we have lots of prejudices. We are on a tightrope trying to balance fears of the revival of the Caliphate in the country on one side and sacrificing everything for globalisation on the other. This is a dangerous and tense line. It is difficult to say where it starts and ends.”

 

With every change we try to introduce there are screams, with people saying ‘the country is slipping from our hands, as does secularism and Ataturkism’”

Husayn Celik,
Turkish education minister

With the limited number of people who can make use of the Ottoman records - less than 12,000 accessed the archives in the first 80 years since the abolition of the Sultanate - combined with the fact that less than a quarter of the holdings are catalogued and are decaying, Turkey’s past is fading fast.

 

That there are Ottoman archives to be argued about is a small miracle in itself.

In the 1920s, such was the Republican reaction to all things Ottoman, a large part of the archives was sold to Bulgaria for scrap paper, only to be bought back some years later when its value, especially for dealing with legal matters such as land titles, were realised
.

 

Palestinian interest

 

An interesting and topical example of the archives’ worth came with a request from the Palestinian government a few years ago. The Palestinians sought access to the Ottoman deeds to title for many sites granted under the Empire to Christian churches in Jerusalem.

 

A number of these plots have subsequently been sold off to Israelis, though the Palestinians claim that a search of the Ottoman archives will show the land still belonged to Muslim foundations and have only been leased or loaned to the churches, thus giving ammunition to contest Israeli ownership of parts of the holy city.

 

According to Oguz Cebeci, an associate professor in English Language and Literature at Istanbul’s private Yedi Tepe University, the near blanket ban on learning Ottoman for so many years has cost Turkey dearly.

 

The changing of the writing has been a very severe blow to us at the cultural level,” he said. “To cut the links with the past is the near destruction of society. History is being erased".