Focusing on the writings of Ahmed Midhat Efendi, this paper asks how Turkish-speaking intellectuals used insights from comparative philology to support an Easternist cultural orientation for the Ottoman Empire. From the 1880s onwards, ideas about the kinship of ‘Turanian’ languages reinforced a growing conviction that the ‘Western’ Turks of the Ottoman Empire shared a history with the ‘Eastern’ Turks of Central Asia. While this Turanian hypothesis failed as a project of political unification, this paper argues that it helped shape the development of various fields of late Ottoman knowledge production such as history-writing, mythology and musicology. The paper takes as its point of departure Ahmed Midhat Efendi’s ‘Ahmed Metin ve Şirzat’ (1892), described by the author as ‘a novel based on historical facts’. The work follows the Mediterranean sea voyage of Ahmed Metin, a young man intent on retracing the journey of Şirzat, a fictional Seljuk prince. Midhat Efendi uses the novel to educate the reader about the Eastern roots of the Turkish people, claiming that the Turks founded Chinese civilisation, and that Turkish ancestry went back to the days of the Prophet Noah. I examine the novel’s historical digressions in light of Midhat Efendi’s personal engagement with the nascent discipline of Turcology, notably at the Eighth International Congress of Orientalists in Stockholm (1889), where he met the Hungarian scholar Arminius Vambery. Through the character of Ahmed Metin, Midhat Efendi also discussed the importance of Eastern peoples recovering their own mythological traditions, paralleling his advocacy of an ‘Eastern music’ in his journalistic output. However, the scope of this East shifted depending on context, synonymous at times with the Muslim peoples of the region and at other moments stretching to all colonised peoples. Midhat Efendi's colleague Necip Asım, for instance, criticised European notions of classical literature that excluded Eastern works from Egypt, China, Persia and Turan. At the same time, though, he wrote of the need to cultivate a national Turkish music free from Arabic, Persian and Byzantine influence. In exploring how Midhat Efendi and others reconciled this philologically driven recovery of a distinctly ‘Turkish’ cultural heritage with a commitment to the revival of the ‘East’ as a whole, this paper draws attention to how comparative philology supported competing projects of identity politics in this period.
All Middle East