Gallipoli battlefield place of veneration for modern Turks

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A record of 40,000 to 50,000 Turks are expected to visit Gallipoli battlefield to mark the centenary. The place also has tremendous importance for Turks and the power of its symbolism has only grown in the last years.

Gallipoli battlefield place of veneration for modern Turks

Gallipoli battlefield place of veneration for modern Turks

/ Çanakkale (Turkey) – 23 April 2015 05:04 – AFP (Dilay GUNDOGAN) / SCENE

Osman Eksi, a 28-year-old Turkish firefighter, surveys the World War I monuments on the Gallipoli peninsula and wonders if there would have been a post-Ottoman Turkey if his forefathers had not shown such heroism.

“If our martyrs had not sacrificed themselves at Gallipoli, had there not been such bravery displayed on the frontlines, there would be no freedoms for us to enjoy today,” said Eksi.

“It’s a key moment for us, a crucial battle for the Turkish people who united in one body, one heart,” he said.

In English-speaking countries, the battlefield sites have become strongly associated as a place of pilgrimage for young Australians and New Zealanders who come to remember the sacrifices of their ancestors.

But the place also has tremendous importance for Turks and the power of its symbolism has only grown in the last years under the rule of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of the battle’s 100th anniversary this week.

The Ottoman Empire ended WWI on the losing side, exhausted and facing collapse.

But the resistance of Ottoman forces in the nine-month battle is celebrated as a triumph that helped the creation of the modern state in 1923.

The Battle of Gallipoli left tens of thousands dead on both sides, with some sources putting the numbers killed on the Ottoman side at 86,000.

But their resistance thwarted the Allies’ aim of pushing eastwards to take Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. After a botched campaign the last Allied troops were evacuated in January 1916.

Turks call it “Canakkale Zaferi” (The Canakkale Victory), after the name of the western province containing the Gallipoli Peninsula.

“Canakkale gecilmez” (Canakkale cannot be trespassed) is a common phrase in the nationalist vocabulary of Turks.

The battle also led to the emergence of young colonel Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, who went on to found the secular republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

– ‘No ordinary place’ –

“For Turks, Gallipoli is not an ordinary touristic place,” said tour guide Filiz Yavuz as she ushered a group of Turks through the headstones at the Turkish 57th Infantry Regiment Cemetery.

“This is our biggest cemetery,” Yavuz said. “A total of 7,000 martyrs rest on the river bed below.”

Mustafa Kemal had personally commanded the regiment — the first unit to join the land battles — and famously told them: “I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.” The regiment was almost completely wiped out.

Turks usually ask their guides about tales of Turkish heroism and gallantry as well as actions of Ataturk during the Gallipoli campaign, Yavuz said.

But they lament that the Turkish side of the Gallipoli story has often been ignored by the Western world.

“Australians go through Gallipoli very briefly, visiting mostly the Anzac monuments. But for the Turks, every inch of soil is sacred,” she said.

Officials say that a record of 40,000 to 50,000 Turks are expected to visit this high ground above the Aegean Sea to mark the centenary.

“Before I came here, I thought we were going to visit a few cemeteries, take a few pictures, drink tea and go back home,” said Ismail Turk, 65.

“I’m amazed to see that such a big war took place on these lands and it came to determine our country’s fate.”

– ‘Keep the spirit alive’ –

Kemal Dokuz, regional director of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, said Turkey has been preparing for the centenary for at least five years with a budget of $50 million (46 million euros).

But he said that the AKP has been investing in the peninsula since it came to power 12 years ago as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bids to revive the country’s Ottoman past.

He said that 500 million Turkish lira ($180 million) had been spent, from constructing new monuments on the battlefield to renovating historic buildings dating back to the Ottoman era.

He added that the authorities also want to make sure the Gallipoli story reaches all school students, including a pledge that every Turkish student makes a trip to the Gallipoli at least once.

“Anniversaries come and go,” Dokuz said. “But the Gallipoli spirit will last a lifetime. We will do whatever we can to keep it alive.”

Ataturk had in 1934 famously paid tribute to the enemy soldiers who found their final resting place in Turkey.

And as he contemplated the scene, Osman Eksi expressed pride that the calamity had with time brought people closer.

“I also witnessed the unifying power of the war here,” he said.

“Once we were enemies but now we are friends.”

Tags : Turks, modern, Veneration, place, Battlefield, Gallipoli

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