Professor Halil İnalcık is the greatest living Turkish historian. Born in 1916, İnalcık recently published a remarkable book, “The Survey of İstanbul 1455.” Noting that he has been working on İstanbul and Ottoman Sultan Fatih Sultan Mehmet over the last six decades, İnalcık once again shares some information that will make you forget what you already know. He believes that the Western view of İstanbul is prejudiced and untrue. Fatih did not destroy İstanbul. Instead, he built a civilization out of a mess in this great city. According to İnalcık, Turkey must deal with its domestic matters immediately, starting with the making of a new constitution.
İnalcık waved from his balcony to welcome us to his home, which is full of books. He describes the home as his workshop. Despite being 97 years old, İnalcık looks pretty healthy and quite jovial. He showed us the rooms where he concentrates on his work related to his up-and-coming books. On the wall is a picture of his wife, Şevkiye İnalcık, who died in 1989. A housekeeper takes care of everything in the house and everything he needs. Everything in the house has a story. But the chair facing the balcony is most important for İnalcık because he sits over there and talks to the tree in the yard. He even reads poems to that tree. His only wish is to complete his studies. He adds, “Pray for me so that I can live more than 100 years.”
You are known as one of the few leading authorities on Ottoman studies. Do you still believe that there are other studies that you need to complete?
Well of course I do. I am still excited about writing. Every part of the house is a different workshop. One room is filled with books on Fatih [Sultan Mehmet] and İstanbul. And another room hosts my preparations for the second volume of a book on the Ottoman state. My dinner table is surrounded by books on the Byzantine Empire. A guest of mine recently asked me where I dine. In addition, I reserve another corner of my house for my studies on Russia. My life is based on writing books. I do not want to die before completing them. There are four ongoing books; 80 percent of them are completed.
May God extend your life; in a few years you will turn 100.
Yes, I will be 100 three years from now. And I look forward to it because I am still ambitious to write. Pray for me so that I can live more than 100 years and that I get to meet you to talk about my new books. I barely go out because of rheumatism. I need to take care of myself.
What do you do to preserve your health?
There is this clarity of mind associated with involvement in scholarly activities. This is what everybody says. I am 97, and I am not senile. In addition, I go to bed and wake up early. You might be surprised that I go to bed at 10 p.m. and get up at six in the morning. I eat a small amount of cheese for breakfast. There is always olives and olive oil on my table, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers and eggs. … I quit smoking 40 years ago. There was a gentleman at a dinner hosted by Mustafa Şükrü Elekdağ [former Turkish ambassador to the US] in Washington. I noticed he was unable to speak. I asked the people there why. They said he had cancer because of smoking. The next day, I quit.
Have you ever thought about taking a break and getting away from working?
There is this cruise; I wanted to take a world trip on that. I intended to do this. But I had my mind on my books. They never leave me. So, I just couldn't get away.
‘They brought my library by airplane'
Was it difficult to leave behind all the work you were pursuing in the US and return to Turkey in 1992?
[Academic] İhsan Doğramacı told me that he wanted to bring me from the US to Turkey. And I told him that I could not do it because if I left my books and settled in Turkey, I could not finish my work. I also told him that I had 10,000 books in the US. Doğramacı said they would bring the books to Turkey. And he did. He paid $17,000 to carry my books by airplane. And an institute carrying my name was founded. A special room was reserved for my collection. Many historians have used these books.
Since coming to Turkey, you have added a whole new dimension to Ottoman history studies. Ottoman archaeology -- in which you took the lead -- was an unknown field.
Archaeologists told me that there could be no such thing as Ottoman archaeology. But I tried to explain that the initial stages of the empire could be illuminated by these excavations. And I held the first excavation in Bursa Bey Palace, the first palace in the Ottoman state. Due to these excavations, the ceilings of the palace have been revealed. This work sheds light on the initial phase of the Ottoman state.
Your studies on the initial stage of the Ottoman state are an indispensable part of your life. In addition, you also do research on the empire's recent past. For instance, you said that you have been involved in a multidimensional work on Russia. What is the reason for focusing on Russia?
No state is interrupted all of a sudden. There is continuity. History never repeats itself. The culture of a nation survives. Like the former Russia under the rule of the tsars did, Russia is trying to transform Turkey. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's tone on the Syrian matter is threatening. Our relations seem pretty intimate. But the overall Russian policy is as follows: above all, to keep control over the straits [the Bosporus and the Dardanelles]. We resolved this problem through the Montreux Convention. Turkey seeks balance between Russia and the West. When this balance works against Europe, Turkey is in danger. The US has replaced the UK in global politics. However, this leadership has been undermined in recent years. The economy is the main issue in the West. Russia, in alliance with China, has emerged as a great power. The global strategy is working against Turkey. We were good friends with our neighbors two years ago. Diplomacy was fairly successful. But Russia has a foxy approach and policy. It surrounds and contains Turkey from the south. The actual matter is Russia and the West. For this reason, the Eastern question continues. Europe and Russia discuss Turkey's future. Turkey's survival depends on the intentions of the two big powers.
How do you see Turkey's place in the context of global strategy?
There has been a visible change in global politics in recent years. Europe will no longer remain influential when Russia controls Turkey. Russia is fairly strong against Turkey. Why are the big powers involved in a huge struggle in Afghanistan? Afghanistan is the ceiling of Asia from which you can control China, Pakistan, India and Iran. This is the reason for the ongoing struggle over there. Afghanistan is the center of global politics. Earlier on, China and Russia wanted to seize control over there. Now the Western powers want to do this. China and Russia are expelling the West from Afghanistan. The reason why this is important is this: We are in an alliance with the Western front, and we are losing. Russia and China have formed an alliance against the West. Putin has an extensive sphere of influence. This is Russian policy. Unfortunately, Turkey is still surrounded by enemies.
What is your approach vis-à-vis the Syrian issue?
Syria never becomes a friend. It acted as one for a while. We have an agile and smart leader. The Turkish leaders, be it from the AK Party [Justice and Development Party], the CHP [Republican People's Party] or the MHP [Nationalist Movement Party], need to see the danger. But they are concerned about attracting more votes. As a historian, I make this observation. The 100th anniversary of the Balkan Wars should tell us something. For them, the priority is to get more votes. A government would inevitably focus on domestic matters as election time approaches, regardless of the complicated foreign policy issues.
Iran cannot be trusted
There has been much going on recently in our foreign policy. What do you think about it?
Turkey is now in a state of confusion and ambivalence. Above all, the statesmen need to think about the future of the Turkish state. Our foreign policy is constantly provoked. We have to act carefully and with vision. In the long term, our Iraq policy does not seem good. Iran cannot be trusted anyway. It has never been a trustworthy state in its history.
As a historian, what would you see about the Western approach vis-à-vis Turkey? Is there any change in the Western front?
The West has never forgotten the conquest of İstanbul and Hagia Sophia. The European pro-crusader approach continues to be held through the Vatican. The idealist young people of Europe are working against Turkey. And there is also this self-determination issue. Our nation-state has adapted to this policy of the West. Turkey entered this stage after the 1912 Balkan War: to maintain national rule based on Turkish ethnicity in Anatolia. The ideology that the era of constitutional anarchy figures adopted was that the Islamic Caliphate ended after the European part was lost. [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk was one of these figures.
What should be resolved in domestic matters?
The constitution issue should be resolved immediately. Making a new constitution is a milestone for Turkey. In the ceremony in 1998 when I was awarded the Medal of Honor, I said the Constitution should be amended immediately. Our Constitution is a patchwork; it includes everything. However, constitutions should take care of the main issues. It should identify the main principles of the state. There will always be problems if we focus on the details. The Constitution itself is an issue in Turkey. The main principles are always the same in the American Constitution. The text should be a constitution rather than a collection of laws.
‘I would have become a man of letters'
Like history, literature is also part of your life. Have you produced any literary works?
Did you know that I am a poet as well? (He stands up and takes a look at the tree in the garden and reads a poem of his he wrote in English.) I said: “O poplar, you see every spring; but will I see the next spring?” I observe the change in the poplar throughout the year. I see the birds and the falling leaves. To whom should I speak? I tell my story to the poplar. I have poems that I wrote based on traditional Ottoman style.
What poet do you like?
Fuzuli. When I was younger, I followed Nazım [Hikmet]. I would have become a man of letters. But things changed when I enrolled in the Faculty of Language, History and Geography.
What is your favorite novel?
“The Blue and the Black” [Mavi ve Siyah] by Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil. I love Peyami Safa. But in terms of style, Refik Halit is extremely different. Sadly, we have killed that style and language. It is a shame. Those who want to look intelligent or intellectual use English and French words. I am strongly against this. This is a betrayal of Turkish culture and language. Foreign words are frequently used to look smart. Recently, I heard a minister speaking. Within an hour, he used 30 foreign words. This started with the era of the Tanzimat. We are unable to preserve the Turkish language used by Ömer Seyfettin and Refik Halit.
Did you ever want to write a novel?
Of course. When I was young, I started a novel. I wrote about a love affair between a Muslim Turk and a Bulgarian girl in Bulgaria. It was a novel depicting the contrast between Muslims and Christians. I started this when I was 16 in Balıkesir. I excelled in math and literature. My classmates loved me; I represented the class. I read the novel in parts to the class. They used to listen to me. But then it was gone.
When did you first fall into love?
Let's not get into that now. (Laughter)
Current historians tell stories
It is hard to become a complete historian. At the present time historians tell stories. You should learn six languages in order to become a good historian. You should speak Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, French, German and English. Otherwise, you cannot compete with European historians. But I did this. Five academies admitted me as a member. Can you believe that? Instead of their own men, they picked me. In writing articles, I rely on archives and reliable documents and sources. The life of a society within a time and place is called history. This is why a historian should be competent in sociology, economy, culture, geography and everything. My engagement with literature has helped me a lot as a historian for imagination and style.