The (Court) Historian and His Library
Ilber Ortayli, a polyglot known for his edifice and deep knowledge of history, was long seen as a public sage. But his donation of books to the presidential library shocked his lovers and his critics.
For Turks of every walks of life and social creed, Ilber Ortayli is a household name known even by teens. His lifelong immersion in history and linguistics endeared him to the public as an intellectual sage, if sometimes haughty and self-righteous, and made him a polyglot of a rare type in Turkey. During his television programs and appearances, his outlook smacks of smugness and aloofness buttressed by a strong sense of elitism.
Ortayli’s rise to national fame from academic obscurity came after his expertise and reputation on the Ottoman history extended beyond the confines of the tight-knitted academic world. Imparatorlugun En Uzun Yuzyili (The Longest Century of the Empire) still remains his magnum opus, and in it, he exhibits a combination of lucid analysis and laborious research over the roots of the Ottoman decline in the face of internal and external challenges during the 19th century. His academic credentials, however, are not without controversy as many historians regard him as a charlatan rather than a well-established historian with a great pedigree.
Despite the disunity and discord over his credentials and self-embellished style, what made him charming was his unswerving opposition to President Erdogan’s anti-democratic policies. When asked by a female TV reporter about the government’s grand project of building a new Turkey, his response was blunt and profane. “Bullshit, they can build nothing with this mindset. Let them eat their own shit.” In his bluntness, laid his deep skepticism toward the intellectual capabilities of the government staff for such an arduous task. His answer became a social media hit.
Ortayli, who publicly had a skeptical view, tinged with elitism, of the Erdogan administration, baffled his large group of fans, if not blind disciples, when he announced to donate his gargantuan library to President Erdogan’s palace last year. The turnaround came as a betrayal and shock to millions of people who frequently locked on to screen to watch this history guru, even though they did not agree with everything he said. Ortayli, for many people, was seen as something of a last stand against a science-mocking team of rulers. His surrender signified the melting space for independent-minded intellectuals and critics of these troubling times.
I was shocked as well. Ortayli was not a court historian and he never got along well with them. But he ended up being one of them in a self-negating move that would go down in public memory as a betrayal.
But the riddle is not just the donation of books. It is who he is leaving his most valuable treasure. Imitating the presidential library format of presidents in the U.S., the Turkish ruling elites came up with the same idea to burnish the Turkish president’s image as a book lover in the same fashion.
But if Ortayli’s sympathy-inducing public tantrums on TV against unlettered people defined who he was, leaving his most valuable items to a man who was never known to seriously have engaged with books would be the most brutal ironies of his life and our time.
Ali Bulac, a journalist and writer, recalls from his days as an advisor to Erdogan while he was Istanbul mayor in the mid-1990s that the incumbent president had a strong aversion against even some 30-page-long book summaries. Convinced that the first Islamist mayor of Istanbul should get familiarity with world politics and history from an intellectual point of view, Bulac unsuccessfully tried to persuade Erdogan to read some of the books he selected for him. He never managed to set Erdogan reading as the new mayor always found an excuse to occupy himself with the demands of his job; going to the opening of a kebap-house or a wedding of his fellow businessmen and their family members.
From his experience with Erdogan, the well-known journalist surmises that the Turkish president might not have read a single book in his adult life over the past 40 years. He shared this note at an editorial meeting in the newsroom of a now-defunct newspaper in Istanbul.
If Erdogan, in a similar fashion with the current U.S. president, had barely touched his finger over the pages of a book to completely read it, then why did Ortayli leave his entire books to the presidential library? For what reason? Isn’t it against what he fought against so far today?
The press statement issued by him to ward off public criticism was far from satisfying. It is quite normal, he reasoned, that he leaves his books to the Istanbul branch of the newly emerging Presidential library. “Was I expected to leave my books to the Library of Congress?” he demurred. It is quite usual, he then asserted, he leaves his books, after 50 years of collection, to a proper library that is open to public access. He noted that some libraries declined his previous offers due to overwhelmed bookshelves and unfavorable conditions.
Apart from this unimpressive rationale presented to the public, no one truly has a cogent explanation over why this self-loving, snobbish and elitist history professor committed such a sin against books. We may never know the full answer. But Ortayli, at least for this writer, has lost his allure and his most important asset: going against the grain. He is no longer an independent historian. He is a court historian, the president’s historian.