After my latest CNN piece, a few of my friends noted that they thought I was going to talk about the Nika riots and Justinian, then compare them to today’s unrest in Istanbul.
I considered it. Civil unrest in Constantinople has, in fact, brought down many an emperor over history, though in this light Constantinople is not especially distinct. Big cities generate urban unrest; sometimes urban unrest can only be curbed with sacrifice. Other times, as with the Nika riots, the army is sent in to “pacify” the mob and brutal repression follows. That may still happen in Istanbul, though I hope not. It’s what I fear.
And there are lots and lots of other examples of mobs and riots and unrest leading to political change in the history of Byzantium. As a scholar, I write about the Fourth Crusade, an episode in which the power of the urban mob led to race riots, emperors being deposed, and to some extent to the unlikely outcome of Latin conquest.
But I don’t see this language emerging from Turkey. The Young Turk rebellion is one template that might make sense from the protestors’ side. Perhaps more importantly, Erdoğan is not an oriental Sultan. He has a strong electoral mandate and wields his political power mercilessly. Democracy is not, of course, a panacea, but this is no despot elected by rigged elections. Erdoğan and his movement successfully motivated large swathes of Turkish society to vote for him, in part to bring more Islam into public life, in part in response to the army, and so forth. To read Erdoğan as a Sultan is orientalism, I think.
But that doesn’t mean he is above using those symbols for his own benefit. Orientalism can be useful for a movement like this one, to claim trappings of power and authority that don’t otherwise accrue to a lawfully elected Prime Minister.
So – no Justinian essays today. Now if Erdoğan would marry a former stripper, I’m ready to write about Theodora at any moment.