Turkish Dates

Turkish Dates (29th May 1453 and 15th July 2016, to name but two)

What is it about dates – and I mean the day and the month rather than the year (easy-peasy) – which lends them such prominence in Turkish public life?  They are everywhere.  In my recent A Coup in Turkey (Chatto, 2021; out in paperback with Vintage in 2023) – where I headed each of the book’s fourteen chapters, along with its prologue, epilogue and postscript, with such a date – I had reason to marvel at the degree to which they serve as the names of streets, neighbourhoods, schools, conference centres, sports halls, stadia, bridges, dams, forests and much else besides.  Such dates tend to commemorate great victories, if often gained at grievous cost; victories for the most part military, like the fall of Istanbul to the Ottoman Turks on 29th May 1453, but also social or political.  It led me to reflect that Turkish dates must be impressed upon the minds of Turks in a way apt to strike Brits – very few of whom could give (beyond the year) the date of Trafalgar, say, or Waterloo, or the death of Churchill – as decidedly curious.

Because I’m interested in Turkey, and because my recent writings have had occasion to reference two such dates, any mention of 27th May and 15th July automatically brings the country’s first (successful) coup on 27th May 1960 and its last (failed) one on 15th July 2016 to mind; but as these happen to be the dates respectively of my wife’s birthday (in 1966) and our wedding anniversary (1995), it may be said that the dates which so graphically evoke Turkey’s lamentable record of military intervention in civilian life have at least done their bit to maintain domestic harmony in this household – by serving as reminders that it’s that time of the year when am to I buy gifts and reserve tables.

It happens that 15th July – now the ‘Democracy and National Unity’ holiday – is enjoying peak prominence just now; it’s hard to move in Turkey without encountering the date emblazoned across some such edifice or other.  Given the see-saw nature of Turkish politics, however, it may reasonably be asked how long the holiday will continue to be observed once its great supporter, President Erdoğan, leaves office, as he must eventually do even if he does not recognise the fact.  Consider the fate of 27th May, the ‘Freedom and Constitution’ holiday which was first celebrated in 1961 before suffering a long decline in observance prior to its abolition in 1982, when the  suppressed constituencies which had resented the 1960 coup, among them the young Erdoğan, achieved sufficient political influence to see it off.  It’s true of most such dates, of course, that they are as much a cause of resentment to some Turks as they are a matter of celebration to others; and as such serve as a truer measure of ideological and political division than of national achievement.  Perhaps, then, they are not such a good thing.

All of which is a preamble to the point of this blog, which is to observe that the centenaries of many of Turkey’s most revered dates are all but upon us.  In fact, if we had but noticed, they have been taking place for some years now, starting in 2015, on 18th March – as Canakkale University calls itself – in commemoration of the day a century earlier when the Turks mounted their successful naval defence of the Dardanelles prior to the Allied landings at Gallipoli; and in 2019, on 19th May – the national holiday known as Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day (and the name of Samsun University), the centenary of the day Atatürk raised the flag of Turkish resistance against the proposed dismemberment of Anatolia.

The rest will be upon us in quite a rush: 30th August – ‘Victory Day’ – when in 1922 the Turks declared victory against the Greeks in the War of Independence; and 9th September – as Izmir University calls itself – when days later they captured the city then known as Smyrna.  Other centenaries – of the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate on 1st November 1922, and the departure on a British battleship of the last Sultan on 17th November of the same year – may be less heralded; but they are reminders of a momentous, eventful and deeply conflicted history.

It is all due to come to a head on 29th October next year, the centenary of the declaration of the Turkish Republic.  What are we to make of Turkey as it completes its century?  How should we respond to its 100th birthday?  To wish it well, surely, for despite its problems Turkey is a truly remarkable country, not to say an amazing holiday destination; and to hope, perhaps, that with every passing year it achieves the kind of social harmony and prosperity which will allow it to dispense at last with all those infernal dates.