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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

Prolegomena to an outline of Turkish history

Afet İnan
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Türk tarihinin ana hatları: Methal kısmı (Prolegomena to an outline of Turkish history)

2Originally published: Istanbul, Devlet Matbaası, 1931

3Language: Turkish

4The excerpts used are from the original, pp. 1–2, 5–6, 8–11, 69, 73–74.

About the author

5Afet İnan (Ayşe Afetinan) [1908, Selanik (Gr. Thessaloniki, present-day Greece) – 1985, Ankara]: scholar and national activist. She was a recent graduate of the ‘Bursa Teacher’s School’ when, in 1925, Mustafa Kemal met her in Izmir and took interest in her education. The same year, she was sent to Lausanne by the government to learn French. Upon her return in 1927, she became a history teacher at the newly founded ‘Music Teachers’ School’ in Ankara. Thereafter, under the directives of Mustafa Kemal, she dedicated her entire academic life to the mission of elaborating, explaining and proving the Republican ‘History thesis,’ based upon a monogenistic glorification of the Turkish race as the source of all human civilization. In 1930, hoping to promote her as the intellectual mouthpiece of the immanent ‘cultural revolution,’ the Republican leader assigned the young and inexperienced teacher the task of delivering the opening speech in the ‘Sixth Congress of the Turkish Hearths.’ The congress was followed by the founding of the ‘Turkish Hearths Committee for the Study of Turkish History,’ entrusted with the task of delineating a workable outline of Turkish history that would act as the template for history textbooks. Within months, the committee produced the 600-page ‘Outline of Turkish history,’ edited by Afet İnan. İnan also participated actively in the foundation of the Turkish Historical Society (1931) and served as its vice-president for many years. She eventually received her doctoral degree in anthropology from Geneva (1938) under the supervision of the eugenics advocate Eugène Pittard. Her thesis was based on an extensive anthropometric study of 64,000 skeletons from Anatolia and Thrace, conducted in 1931 with the support of the Ministry of Health, through which İnan claimed to demonstrate the phenomenon of racial continuity in Turkey from the Neolithic Age to the Modern era. İnan is considered to be an ‘adopted daughter’ of Mustafa Kemal, although this was never registered in official terms. As her guardian, intellectual supervisor and confidant, the Republican leader made her the first female scholar to join the ranks of the revolutionary elite. Afet İnan is considered to be among the founders of early Republican nationalism. A prominent icon of the Kemalist regime, she represented the active and emancipated Turkish woman, serving the needs of the Republic with a strong and unwavering sense of indebtedness.

6Main works: Vatandaş için medeni bilgiler [Civilizing norms for the citizen] (1930); Türk tarihinin ana hatları: Methal kısmı [Prolegomena to an outline of Turkish history] (1931); Türk halkının antropolojik karakterleri ve Türkiye tarihi [Anthropological characteristics of the Turkish people and the history of Turkey] (1947); The emancipation of the Turkish woman (1962).


7By the beginning of the 1930s, following two brief experiments in multiparty democracy, the ruling Republican People’s Party (hereafter, RPP) founded by Atatürk had fully confirmed its monopoly on power. Marked by increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian leanings, the single party regime (inspired by the rising tenor of fascism in European politics) sought to establish the ideological foundations of the secular Turkish Republic. Thus, under the directives of the unassailable leader Mustafa Kemal, the far-reaching cultural revolution of the new Republic (regulating and transforming all areas of daily life, from dress to the alphabet) was consolidated and extended into the academic realm. The ultimate aim of the positivist ruling elite was to mobilize scholarly fields such as history, archaeology, anthropology and linguistics, and corroborate the ‘deep historical roots’ of Turkish national identity in ‘scientific’ terms.

8While the Republicans seemed to deny the role of race and ethnicity in the construction of a “harmonious, unified and classless society,” the question of ethnic origins and character (first elaborated in the writings of Yusuf Akçura) remained an essential ingredient in the making of modern Turkish national identity. What the young Republic needed at this point was a new ‘myth of origins’ that went beyond the now largely dispossessed Ottoman past, and revealed the superiority, rootedness and ethnic purity of the Turkish nation. Hence, with the explicit directives of Mustafa Kemal, a ‘Committee for the Study of Turkish History’ was founded in 1930 within the institutional framework of the ‘Turkish Hearths’ (a pre-Republican organization that acted as the locus of early Turkish nationalism). Composed mostly of high ranking bureaucrats and a limited number of scholars (such as Afet İnan and Yusuf Akçura), the Committee was assigned the mission of synthesizing the general outlines of a comprehensive history of the Turks, the propagation of which would be enabled by all government agencies (the people’s houses, schools and ministries). The agenda of the study group was divulged personally by Mustafa Kemal to Afet İnan in the following terms: investigating the pre-Ottoman and ancient history of the Turks, revealing their crucial role in the forming of world civilization and proving to the world that the Turks were a white, Aryan race (with no connection to the uncivilized Mongols or the secondary ‘yellow race’) which was equal in status to the Europeans.

9In a matter of months, under the editorship of Afet İnan, the committee produced the 605-page ‘Outline of Turkish history’ (only a hundred copies were published so as to be presented to experts and the Kemalist coterie). Although the Republican inner circle was well aware of the severe shortcomings of this haphazardly assembled document, it was nevertheless approved as the first draft of the official narrative on the national past, and considered to be a preliminary sourcebook for the design of new history curricula for elementary and high schools. The primary objective of the study was described as follows in the Introduction: “To reveal the mysteries of the Turkish genius and moral character, to demonstrate to the Turk himself his own uniqueness and power and to explain that our national development is embedded in deep racial roots.” In 1931, as the ‘Turkish Hearths’ were appropriated by the RPP and the Committee turned into an ‘Association’ (soon to evolve into the ‘Turkish Historical Society’), thirty thousand copies of an abridged version of the text, the ‘Prolegomena,’ were published and used as a supplementary textbook for high schools.

  • 1 Denoting a short and broad skull form, associated in physical anthropology with the Indo-Aryan rac (...)

10Although inspired by the works of some nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury Orientalists, the fundamental argument of the ‘History Thesis’ was largely unfounded and speculative. It maintained that in prehistoric times, the ‘original homeland’ of the Turks in Central Asia (roughly demarcated by Transoxania, the Hindu Kush Mountains and Lake Baikal) housed an immense inner sea which nourished the first civilized farming societies of the world. It is claimed that in the Neolithic period the drying up of the sea due to changing climactic conditions caused a massive wave of migrations from Central Asia. Hence the Turks, ancestors of all brachycephalic,1 Indo-Aryan societies, spread their superior talents and culture to different parts of the world (from the Americas to Africa), kindling the ancient civilizations of China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean and Asia Minor. The theory not only helped inscribe the Turkish nation in a distant and venerable past, but also initiated what was soon to become a popularly established narrative on its perpetual state of ‘migration,’ conceived as a grand civilizing mission that played a fundamental role in the history of human progress. The ‘inseminating’ role of the Turks was also observed in the realm of language. Within the confines of the ‘history thesis,’ Turkish was distinguished as the ur-language that had a formative impact on the major languages of the Ancient world (the First Language Congress of 1932 was to be followed by the launching of the ‘Sun Language Theory,’ which defined Turkish as the world’s oldest language).

11The ‘History thesis’ was expected to constitute an essential building block in the formation of Kemalist ideology and perform as a fundamental instrument in the cultural organization of the nation state. Claiming to operate within academic and positivistic parameters, it helped define and confirm Turkish national identity in ethnic and linguistic terms. Thus, the ‘Outline,’ as the founding document of the ‘Kemalist history thesis,’ reveals a complex cultural agenda that also bespeaks of the deep-seated dilemmas and insecurities of the early Republican politics of identity. The major challenge of the endeavor undertaken by İnan and the Committee was to reconcile the demands of a locally defined, ethnocentric and self-celebratory nationalism with the broader transformative program of fully integrating with Western civilization and becoming European. By fabricating the image of proto-Turks as prime movers in the founding of great ancient civilizations, the ‘History thesis’ helped ‘naturalize’ and appropriate the entire edifice of Western civilization, while implicitly contesting the Eurocentric biases and the pro- Hellenic exclusivism of the standard narrative on the origins of ‘world history.’ Extending Turkish presence and glory back into the prehistoric period was not only a means of boosting national pride, but it also contributed to the secularist bracketing of the Ottoman past as one among many episodes in the broader history of national success. Furthermore, in identifying the Aegean and Anatolian societies of the Ancient period (the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Trojans, and the Hittites) as being of pure Turkish stock, the Committee helped define the Turks as the autochthonous population of Anatolia, hence thwarting the claims of other rooted ethnicities (Greek, Armenian, Kurdish) on what was now considered to be the true Turkish homeland (cherished in tandem with the ancient and indistinct homeland in Central Asia).

12Although designed to denounce the Eurocentric biases of western historiography and promote a vision of eternal Turkish superiority, the ‘Outline of Turkish history’ was harshly criticized by many reputable (and sternly nationalistic) Turkish scholars for being deceptive and outright racist. Nevertheless, the ‘Prolegomena’ was used as a preliminary template for designing a new range of elementary and high school textbooks on Turkish history. Although major revisions were made in these textbooks (especially by the Education Council of 1943, which had more moderate and universalistic leanings), to this day, the predominant trope of ‘ancient Turkish migrations’ endures, with the accompanying maps that illustrate a complex web of arrows radiating to the world from the Inner Asian steppes.

13Among the significant and lasting impacts of the ‘History thesis’ was its stimulating role in the development of Turkish scholarship on the history and archaeology of Ancient and Classical Anatolia. Ankara University’s ‘Faculty of Letters, History and Geography’ was instituted in 1935 with the intention of generating scientific testimony for the ‘History thesis.’ Yet, while the initial momentum of the official thesis declined rapidly after 1937, the institution flourished as a major center of original research in fields such as archaeology (many new surveys and excavations were conducted around Anatolia and Eastern Thrace), philology (the curriculum included courses on Ancient Greek, Latin, Hungarian and Chinese) and anthropology. The new emphasis on ‘Anatolian civilizations’ also engendered a more inclusive brand of nationalism based on land, counterbalancing, albeit in limited scale, the highly ethnocentric overtones of the Republican mainstream. A peculiar intellectual offshoot of this tendency was the ‘Blue Anatolia’ movement, initiated in the 1950s by a group of left-wing cosmopolitan intellectuals. Dedicated to disseminate in Turkey the universal values of Humanism, members of the ‘Blue’ movement promoted the image of Anatolia, the true homeland of Western Turks, as a unique melting pot of myriad cultures, and as the essential wellspring of all Mediterranean civilizations.


Prolegomena to an outline of Turkish history

The Turkish homeland

15The area encircled by the line starting from Great Khingan Mountains to the Baikal basin, through the Altay Mountains, the Itil basin, the Caspian Sea basin, the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakorum and Kunlun Mountains and the Yellow River, reaching back again to the Khingan Mountains, is called the Central Asian plateau. The outlined plateau is the motherland of the Turks. […]

16Thousands of years before the dawn of history, there existed vast inner seas in the Turkish motherland, which have now been replaced by deserts, steppes, marshes and shallow lakes. The eager seeds of the earliest civilizations thrived in the shores of these very seas, and in the lovely and bountiful valleys carved by its gushing rivers […].

17In other parts of the world, while people still lived in a state of deepest savagery, inhabiting caves and tree hollows, the Turkish motherland enjoyed the civilization of wood and metal. The moment that truly and definitively separates humanity from savagery, the period of domesticating animals, started there first. Farming, the initial stage of nature’s surrender to human will, began in this location. […]

18The ancient Turkish sea, extending from the Caucasus through the Tian Shan mountains to the interior of the Gobi desert in the East, was nourished by waters from the extensive glaciers that covered the grand mountains of the area. Turks thrived here, due to the favorable natural conditions of the location. [Yet,] the end of the ice age changed the climactic conditions in the Great Turkish Sea basin. Gradually, the receding ice cap withdrew to northern Asia and to its highest mountains. The waters diminished […]. Thus, as Central Asia dried up, it was overtaken by sand, and living conditions became extremely harsh in a land that once sheltered millions of people. As the ice receded and the wide inner seas evaporated, Central Asia’s doors to the west opened wide. Later, in the course of thousands of years, Central Asia became an immense human ocean that overflowed, with unremitting waves, into China, India, Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe […]. For at least nine thousand years, the great Turkish raids and migrations continued, at times like unrelenting, gushing, devouring floods, and at times like secret streams flowing underneath the sand—all constituting a grand, civilizing movement. The underlying factors of the climactic change in question are still being investigated by several scientists. The change has also had profound effects on the history and social life of the Turks who remained in the motherland […]. It forced a part of the Turkish race into a nomadic mode of subsistence. Nomadism emerged as a necessity in Turkish history due to pressing climactic factors. Turks who lived in suitable climactic and geographical conditions never inclined towards a nomadic way of life. […]


19In search of better climes, the Turks took the paths they deemed most suitable and branched out to the four corners of the world, spreading the seeds of their civilization. They fought the primitive natives they encountered, and either drove them out or civilized them by penetrating into their societies. Through their much superior level of intelligence and advanced weapons, they encountered no problems in subjugating [the natives], settling in the land, and exercising their rule. In uninhabited areas, they settled wherever they found appropriate, and became the autochthonous peoples of these lands. […]

20Leaving aside the fabricated accounts on the origins of Chinese civilization, notoriously claiming a history of 100,000 or even 2,000,000 years, the Turks’ initial advance into northern China should be taken back to 7,000 BC […]. With the level of their cultural accumulation, their high and noble morality, and their plain and unblemished faith, the Turks developed a civilization in China that remained until the recent centuries as one of the most significant in the world. […]

Asia Minor, Sumer, Akkad, Elam and the Hittites

21When the Turks arrived in lower Mesopotamia, all the riverbanks were swamped. The talent and skill these migrating groups displayed in eliminating the damage of water through trenches, channels and systems of proper irrigation must be considered ample proof of their high level of civilization even at the time of their arrival […]. The civilization founded by these groups is known as Sumer-Akkad-Elam.

22Today, with ongoing research, the beginnings of Anatolian civilization have been traced back beyond 4000 BC. For at least seven thousand years, therefore, the Turks have been inhabiting Anatolia as its autochthonous population […]. Further investigations in Anatolia will surely reveal that at the time of their first migrations, the Turks brought a highly evolved civilization to this land. […]

The Aegean basin

23A group of the Turks that moved westward found suitable areas of settlement in the eastern Aegean basin. The Mediterranean civilization is the bejeweled crown of human skill and aptitude. It comprises areas and periods such as Troy, Crete, Lydia and Ionia, and can be traced back to four or five thousand years before the Christian era. The question is, who created the Mediterranean civilization, that remarkable feat of delicate splendor? What nation bequeathed the resplendent beauties of the Knossos palace to eternity? […] Did all the brachycephalic peoples of the Neolithic Mediterranean belong to the same family? Solid anthropological evidence confirms that these brachycephalic groups occupied the Aegean islands between the Ancient and Late Mycanean periods. Most assuredly, these people came from Central Asia, the source of all brachycephalic people in the world. […]

False and hostile claims about the Turks

24The time is over for the hostile claims and false accusations about Turks, who, allegedly, are a bellicose nation with no share in civilization, living solely with the desire to conquer the lands of others. It is time to acknowledge the uncivilized and inhuman nature of these primitive conjectures which originate from age-old Christian agendas that breed hatred and hostility among one section of humanity against another […]. The aim of this work is to depart from historical proof and remind the Great Turkish Nation of its dignified past. For centuries, this nation has been very unfairly slandered and its service and labor in the formation of the earliest civilizations has been persistently denied. […]

25At the end of his historical speech to the nation, His Excellency Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk addressed our youth, warning them about all possible dangers the nation might face, and continued by saying: “Child of the Turkish Future! Your duty, even amidst these dire circumstances, is to save the Republic and its independence. The power you need is embedded in the noble blood you carry in your veins.”

26With the guidance and inspiration he provided for the compilation of these notes, our Great Leader, the shining example of the Turks’ historical glory, added the following words to the aforementioned speech:

27“Turkish Nation! You are the pride of humanity not only through your heroism and martial skills but also through your intellect and civilization. History is full of praise and eulogies to the civilizations you have founded. Although your march has been stalled and interrupted for a few centuries by the political and social factors threatening your existence, the intellectual and cultural inheritance of ten thousand years continues to dwell in your soul as an unsullied and inexhaustible force. Carrying the memories of thousands and thousands of years, history points towards the place you deserve in the ranks of civilization. Move forward and ascend! This, for you, is both a right and a duty!”


1 Denoting a short and broad skull form, associated in physical anthropology with the Indo-Aryan races.


Ahmet Ersoy (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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