Shah Suleyman: The Truly Byzantine Origins of Turkey’s Operation to Rescue a Long-Dead Body from the ‘Islamic Caliphate’

HISTORY, 23 Feb 2015

Robert Fisk – The Independent

Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk

22 Feb 2015 – The 13th-century fall of an obscure king into the river Euphrates, the pride of the Ottoman empire and modern Turkey and a humiliating French retreat after the 1914-18 war provide the truly Byzantine origins of Turkey’s little military operation to remove a long-dead body from the “Islamic Caliphate” this weekend. All that – and the fear that Isis forces might destroy a shrine in civil-war Syria that has been jealously guarded by Turkey since 1921.

To begin this wondrous tale at the start. Shah Suleyman was the king who drowned in the Euphrates River in 1236. He was the father of Ertugrul, who lived by the Sea of Marmara and whose own son, Osman, founded the Ottoman empire. Thus Suleyman’s tomb, at a nondescript village called Jaber-Kalesi, became a foundation stone in the history of the empire which lasted for 700 years and ended after Ottoman Turkey made the fatal mistake of supporting Germany in the First World War.

Forward now to the post-war world of League of Nations mandates in which France was awarded Lebanon, Syria and a hunk of Turkey called Cilicia. But Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the “modern” Turkish state, drove the French out of Cilicia in a guerrilla campaign not unlike that waged by Isis in Syria. And Ataturk, while agreeing to let France rule Syria and Lebanon under the 1921 Treaty of Ankara, insisted on maintaining the Turkish flag over Jaber-Kalesi – in French-controlled Syria. Hence the Turks held on to the very last bit of Ottoman land in the Arab world – no more than two football pitches in size.

More than 90 years later, along comes Isis, whose Wahhabi principles enjoin it to destroy the shrines of worldly rulers. Just a year ago, it gave the Turkish army three days to clear out of Suleyman’s old tomb before it destroyed it. The Turks stayed put. Why?

Well, this was around the time Syrian oil engineers reported the appearance of Turkish mechanics in the Isis-controlled oilfields. A quid pro quo, perhaps? Give us your oil experts and you can keep your old king? Or did something go wrong? Well Ataturk’s army has now driven into “Isis-stan”, dug up the old boy’s remains for reburial and trashed the shrine to prevent the puritans of the “Islamic Caliphate” doing the same.

A deal, of course. In return for more Turkish oil engineers?


Robert Fisk, based in Beirut, is a multiple award-winning journalist on the Middle East and a correspondent for The Independent, a UK newspaper.  He is the author of many books on the region, including The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.

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