The will o’ the wisp and the Ottoman seal make a comeback in Turkey

Mr. Punch's History of the Great War Ottoman Empire William O the Wisp

Cartoon from Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War, depicting the Ottoman Empire being led astray by a will o’ the wisp named William, presumably after Kaiser Wilhelm. (Image by Liz Cameron, of her Grandfather’s book likely sent to him whilst he was in the trenches in France)

The puppets are all snowed in thanks to Blizzard Juno…and in order to stave off cabin fever, Karagöz led the charge to find some good reading in our vintage book collection.  Hacivad Bey, our resident history buff, came across my Grandfather’s copy of Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War.

Mr. Punch makes a brief commentary on the state of the Ottoman Empire.  During this phase, the Ottoman Empire was famously referred to as “the sick man of Europe,” which the puppets find interesting given the ongoing saga around the European Union’s possible accession of Turkey and debates about whether Turkey is, or is not, European.

Reference to “the sick man of Europe” was indicative of the fact that the once-great power that was the Ottoman Empire was crumbling.   For over half of a millennium, it had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, held a tight grip on vast swathes of Central Europe, and encompassed Arab lands as far down as Egypt. By the time of World War One, however, all that remained outside of Turkey were Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine and parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Image from the cover of Mr. Punch's History of the Great War depicting the puppet Punch of Punch and Judy fame

Image from the cover of Mr. Punch’s History of the Great War depicting the puppet Punch of Punch and Judy fame (Image by Liz Cameron)

The puppets wave me off, with Karagöz in the lead, saying “M’Lady, we KNOW all of this already, let’s focus on interpreting the cartoon you found in Mr. Punch’s book.  He is a lover of anarchy, and a kind spirit to the Karagöz puppets, so, on with it!” And so, dear reader, take a gander at the cartoon we found in Grandpa’s old musty book.

You will note that a will o’ the wisp is referred to in the cartoon’s caption.  So let me start with that, non-Brits and non-Anglophiles out there may not know of this character, so let me fill you in. As a child, my Granny warned me about the will o’ the wisp who laid in wait within the nearby marsh – to lead people astray with his glowing light.  This British mythic creature made a big impression on me…and was used in this cartoon to suggest that the aging and sickly Ottoman Empire had lost its way thanks to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (see the text from Mr. Punch at the bottom of this post).

As I thought through my interpretation of the cartoon, I couldn’t help but think of all of the talk in Turkey around the maudlin glorification of the Ottoman Empire.  This glorification manifests in several ways, the first of which caught my eye in the form of window decals with the Ottoman seal on cars all over Turkey.  This was a precursor to certain political figures’ attempts to glorify (themselves? No, of course not!) the nation by doing things like staging a costume show with sixteen soldiers in costumes from all of the alleged Turkic empires and generally ranting and raving on about the greatness of Turkey in some quite cringeworthy ways.  I must say, at times it seems to me that the Will O’ the Wisp is back, leading Turkey astray yet again, taking it down a dangerous garden path, to be sure.  Time will tell. The puppets are glad to be observing it all from afar, as are we.

Ottoman nostalgia is making a comeback…according to Joshua Walker and many others…

Mr. Punch’s commentary that went along with this cartoon:

“A new and possibly momentous chapter has opened in the history of the War by the attempt to force the Dardanelles. At the end of February the Allied Fleet bombarded the forts at the entrance, and landed a party of bluejackets. Since then these naval operations have been resumed, and our new crack battleship Queen Elizabeth has joined in the attack. We have not got through the Narrows, and some sceptical critics are asking what we should do if we got through to Constantinople, without a land force. It is a great scheme, if it comes off; and the “only begetter” of it, if report is true, is Mr. Winston Churchill, the strategist of the Antwerp expedition, who now aspires to be the Dardanelson (LOL, says Karagöz) of our age. Anyhow, the Sultan, lured on by the Imperial William o’ the Wisp, is already capable of envying even his predecessor:

Abdul! I would that I had shared your plight,
Or Europe seen my heels,
Before the hour when Allah bound me tight
To WILLIAM’S chariot-wheels!”

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4 Responses to The will o’ the wisp and the Ottoman seal make a comeback in Turkey

  1. Nice thoughts and I love the cartoon from Punch. There is so much political upheaval now, and it is possible to imagine a greatly changed Europe emerging, also possible to imagine a greatly strengthened Europe. Despite such a fever of longing among some for a new Ottoman Empire, a new Caliphate, an empire defined by Sharia Law and Arab custom, it seems so unlikely, but, if they find money sources that are hugely helpful, even that may come to pass. Unsettled times – and who knows where they will lead?

  2. Alan says:

    allegory within allegory – as with the days of Mr Punch the mighty Russian Bear is back and Europe is crumbling under the weight of its own venility. Where then, Turkey? The bear’s paw has slid quietly behind the neo-Ottoman’s back and is drawing the Turk back towards Asia. The wheel is turning and the spheres are chiming . .

  3. lizcameron says:

    Thanks, Nancy. Yes indeed, where will it lead? M. worries deeply about this and hypothesizes that Turkey is headed for rebirth as an Islamic state. I am not as pessimistic, but I am not a Turk, so who knows.

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