It has been easy to dismiss the Turkish president’s almost daily reinvention of traditions and the pomp and ceremony that go with it as silly and contrived.
By receiving the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at his ostentatious new palace, in a theatrical, melodramatic setting, flanked by 16 men dressed in historical costumes, Mr Erdoğan once again demonstrated his determination to shape the Turkish institutions in his own image.
In Monday’s official ceremony, 16 spear-and-sword carrying, armoured and colourfully cloaked guardsmen each represented the empires of Turkish history, ranging from the Great Hunnic Empire of 204 BC to the Ottoman Empire, replaced by the modern Turkish Republic in 1923.
What looked like a cloak-and-dagger scenery soon became obvious as an enactment symbolising the 16 stars of the official seal of the Turkish presidency.
Originally, made up of a sun and 20 stars, the seal was later redesigned with reduced number of 16 stars when a legal amendment was passed in 1985. The number and the choice of the past Turkic states included in the seal have caused controversy ever since.
Photos of Mr Erdoğan, shaking Mr Abbas’ hand, with costumed soldiers lining the presidential palace stairs on either side, were greeted with widespread mockery inside and outside Turkey. “Erdoğan meets Abbas with military dress show” headlined Hurriyet Daily News. “Abbas welcomed at Turkish presidential palace by Erdoğan – and 16 warriors” commented The Guardian. “Gandalf, R2-D2 and the Hulk join Erdoğan-Abbas ceremony”, quipped Aljazeera .
Even the staunchly pro-government paper Yeni Safak called it “an unusual ceremony”.
Social media had a field day but there were angry comments, too, reminding people that Britain, France and many other countries had similar traditions. What was wrong with Erdoğan’s ceremony? Was it any worse than the dazzling pomp and pageantries of Britain, parading bear- fur capped soldiers?
Someone using the name CUMHURBAŞKANI @AKKULIS (President at AKLOBBY) tweeted: “Those idiots, when riding the Queen’s horse drawn carriages saying ‘wow, how fabulous’ are now finding our leader comical for taking national pride from our history.”
Columnist Melih Altınok at Türkiye newspaper commented that Norwegians dressed their soldiers as Vikings in official ceremonies; Vatican was defended by Swiss soldiers dressed in 16th century Rafaelesque costumes; in Greece, the presidential guards were dressed in skirts.
Of course, Mr Erdoğan is not the only leader presiding over vainglorious splendor. Many countries, among them most established democracies, have official occasions full of symbolism and pomposity, too.
What sets them apart from Mr Erdoğan’s 16 warrior-led show are the centuries old tradition and continuity in their institutions. A stately display, a procession or a pageant that symbolise both the past history and the present identity of the country as a whole cannot be laid on by a new president overnight. If created artificially for political reasons, those ceremonies that do not unify the country, and the symbols that are not common to all groups in society, being devoid of tradition and historical context, are bound to be seen just as that- mere spectacles.
Feeling of pride in your own country’s history and tradition is a splendid thing. Traditions give continuity and help develop spirit of belonging. For good or bad, many leaders have played an important role shaping or altering customs and conventions of their nation but very few have managed to single-handedly rewrite its history.
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