Constructing the Past in Turkey

by tigermanifesto

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Foreground: image of Ataturk, father of the modern Republic of Turkey. Midground: remaining pillar from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus Background: Mosques and churches as well as a fortified hilltop.

Construction is as common as tobacco-choked air and urban haze in modern Turkey, the result of an expanding economy and a need to circulate and realize capital pouring into the country. The ruling AK Party, known for using populist Sunni rhetoric to win popularity, also uses its capitalist state muscles to spread the capital around in a politically beneficial way. Political patronage networks, therefore, snake all over the country and, like in Japan to this day, construction reigns at the top of the chain of being. All of this I either knew or suspected before coming here to Turkey. What’s more intriguing, however, is the way that the archaeological digs and historical sites are articulated into this same construction/patronage complex. Numerous fine examples of mosques, city walls, and other structures are undergoing unnecessary renovations both for the sake of making them appear more palatable and to provide stimulation to local economies. This is the so-called “chain of happiness,” where you have a party official or sympathetic contractor at one end and a whole series of people who benefit from the income that pours into the city for these projects.

The naive sense i used to have about such projects is that they were primarily determined by intellectual discovery and the pursuit of knowledge. Of course, in a country like Turkey, sponsorship of such projects is in the interest of national pride––as they are in other places, especially Egypt––and you often see Turkish flags and other nationalist icons in museums and around dig sites.

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Curiously enough, not intended to be an exhibit in the Ephesus museum. It’s one of the first things you see when you come through the door.

This line of observation illustrates two important ideas for Marxists to consider:

1. The omnipresence of the state as an entity not only in ideological reproduction but also in the distribution of wealth. This is basic for Marxists, but if we recognize politics as a contest among classes for state power and the use thereof––with the later dissolution of the state through socialism––considering how to deal with matters of archaeology, nationhood, and development is essential. The current regime is elitist and blatantly propagandistic in its treatment of important historical sites. What is the nature of a socialist transformation of these areas?

2. Understanding that the past, as Benjamin put it, part of the spoils of victory for the ruling class is control over the past and people’s relationship to it. This is certainly the case in Turkey, whose multifarious layers of deep history are by now fully articulated to the aims of its capitalist state.

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