‘Jesus Was Turkish’: the Bizarre Resurgence of Pseudo-Turkology

A theory that claims multiple leaders – from Jesus to Barack Obama – are actually Turkish and that modern nations are little more than portions of a greater Turkic whole is gaining traction in many countries

‘Jesus Was Turkish’: the Bizarre Resurgence of Pseudo-Turkology
The Turkish Presidential Seal is seen on the gate of Turkey’s new Presidential Palace. Each of the 16 stars represents a historic Turkish empire / Volkan Furuncu / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

You would be forgiven for not knowing that former U.S. President Barack Obama was a Turk. Or that Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad were, likewise, of Turkic origin. You would be forgiven for not knowing that Russia is really a great Turkic nation, that Kazakhs and the Japanese are genetically identical or that the legendary English King Arthur was, you guessed it, a Turk.

You would be forgiven because none of this is true. Yet in countries from central Europe to Central Asia and everywhere in between, supposed historical facts like these and the theories they support have made their way from the minds of overzealous and pseudo-academics into national school textbooks, popular culture and, indeed, official government ideology.

Hanging prominently in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s office, for example, is a 16-pointed star representing his presidential seal, the oldest presidential seal still in use in Europe. Each point represents the “16 Great Turkic Empires,” which include Attila’s Huns, the Uyghur Khanate, the Timurid and Mughal empires and many more. None of which have anything to do with modern Turkey.

That does not stop Erdoğan from drawing legitimacy from the concept. In 2015, when he hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the two posed for photos with 16 warriors dressed in costumes to represent these “Great Turkic Empires,” showing that the far-fetched pseudo-historical concept is alive and well.

Turkic peoples are simply those who speak Turkic languages, and Turkology is simply the academic study of those peoples and their languages, history and origins. Some confusion may arise from the fact that the country of Turkey adopted the name of the broader collection of ethnic groups, and in English both are referred to as Turks. But the two concepts are distinct. Kazakhs, Azeris, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tatars and many more are Turks, though very different from the Turks of Turkey. Their languages are similar, and long ago they shared a common tongue. But centuries of divergent history have separated the people and their languages significantly.

What Turkic peoples do share is that they can all trace their origin to the Eurasian Steppe, a vast expanse of flat grassland that stretches from the eastern borders of Europe all the way to China. Before they settled down, they were nomadic, traveling long distances across the Eurasian supercontinent every year with the changing of the seasons. Occasionally, these nomads would conquer nearby settled civilizations like Persia, China or India, but those efforts always resulted in quick assimilation into the native culture, rather than the other way around. Though many nomadic states were incredibly powerful, they left few written sources.

This means that the study of many Steppe peoples — including the great Mongol Empire — is uniquely mediated through the words of the conquered instead of the conquerors. This makes the study of historical Turkic states and peoples incredibly difficult, and it leaves plenty of room for imagination or outright invention.

Turkey’s presidential seal and other bizarre claims are rooted in a set of outlandish and pseudoscientific theories regarding Turkic peoples known as “Pseudo-Turkology.” While Turkology is as legitimate a field as any, Pseudo-Turkology is something else altogether, stretching far beyond the realm of academia into the land of fiction posing as fact.

At the confluence of anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics and genetics, and with little, if any, regard for the methods and traditions of those fields, Pseudo-Turkology has a singular goal in mind: to fill the national void left by the ambiguity of Steppe history with an expansive and glorious history that would be the envy of any other nation.

Ancient civilizations become historical Turkic states. Major historical figures become great Turks. Modern-day nations become nothing but lost portions of a greater Turkic whole. Turks become not just another people, but the people from which all others are descended: the very source of civilization itself.

While the average Westerner may be familiar with such ideas through YouTube and Twitter, Pseudo-Turkology has a far longer history and deeper presence in Turkic countries than is usually acknowledged. It developed hand-in-hand with the modern Turkish state and its identity, but today Pseudo-Turkology is an international phenomenon that has experienced a major renaissance over the past few decades thanks to globalization.

Pseudo-Turkology can be traced to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when romantic nationalism and scientific racism merged with archaeology and early anthropology to produce fantastical genealogies of Steppe peoples and project modern national, ethnic and “racial” categories into the past. It was a tendency encouraged by the challenges of Turkology itself, as well as the political demands of early Turkish nationalism.

The first modern Turkic country to secure its independence was Turkey in 1923. Before that, Turkey as we know it today was only one component of the larger Ottoman Empire. Likewise, Azerbaijan and today’s Central Asian republics found themselves under the rule of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Further east, the Uyghurs were — and still are — under China’s control, while several smaller Turkic ethnic groups such as the Tatars and the Chuvash have remained part of the Russian Federation.

Following Turkey’s independence in a hard-fought struggle against Greece and the Western powers, the country’s founders — Mustafa Kemal Atatürk chief among them — were immediately faced with a dilemma. Having just excised their country from its Ottoman overlord, they needed a new state identity that would triumph over the last six centuries of Ottoman rule. Atatürk envisioned a secular, nationalist state on the Western model but was left with a country in which religion was the primary source of identity, not race or nation.

Pseudo-Turkology, inspired by the Western intellectual fashions of the day, offered a way out.

While the Kemalist state-building project was fundamentally Western-oriented, Turkey did not find a reciprocal embrace in the West. Longstanding racist attitudes in Europe meant Turkey and other Turkic peoples were looked down upon, if not explicitly considered an “inferior race.” European philologists and linguists even considered Turkic languages themselves “uncivilized” compared with their “civilized” Indo-European counterparts.

In 1932, the Turkish Language Institute was founded to “purify” the Turkish language of non-Turkish elements, chiefly ones from Persian and Semitic languages, and coin “authentic” Turkish words to replace them. Besides many Turkic neologisms, the institute produced one of the foundational elements of Pseudo-Turkology: the “Sun Language Theory.”

The Sun Language Theory posited that the Turkish language is both civilized and the source of all human language and therefore all human civilization. With a mix of historical philology, psychological theories, and psychoanalytic concepts borrowed from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, linguists from the institute claimed that language had been invented by sun-worshipping proto-Turks in Central Asia as they babbled at the sun. They then allegedly migrated to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

The theory fit nicely with another state-directed Pseudo-Turkological theory of the time, the Turkish History Thesis, which likewise theorized that Turks had brought civilization to China, Europe, India and elsewhere when they migrated from the Eurasian Steppe.

Ultimately, Pseudo-Turkology was a key element of the creation of modern Turkish identity, based not on the Muslim faith but on a fantastical national history and racialized ethnic identity.

What criticism these early Pseudo-Turkological theories received could not outweigh the power of state patronage. Both theories found a welcome audience in the Turkish nationalist elite — and in Atatürk himself — and found their way into Turkish textbooks as fact, where they were taught as such for years, while many Pseudo-Turkological ideas associated with these theories persisted for decades.

Among other innovations, Pseudo-Turkology served as justification for Turkish state policy toward the Kurds, which alleged that Kurds are simply “mountain Turks” who have forgotten their language. During the 1980s, books continued to be published through state-funded institutions with titles like “The Kurds, Turkish in Every Aspect,” “A Turkish Clan from Turkistan: The Kurds” and “He Is Turkish Not Kurdish!” Such books were provided free of charge to schools, libraries, prisons and villages.

Theories and statements along the lines of these titles are still commonplace in Turkey, and Pseudo-Turkology enjoys widespread appeal both among the public and in academia. In the words of Turkish professor Çakir Ceyhan Suvari, at least some Pseudo-Turkological views “are shared and embraced by a clear majority of the academics studying identity and ethnicity issues in Turkey.”

Such views are also espoused by extreme pan-Turkist groups, which seek the unification of all Turkic peoples. Turkey’s Grey Wolves and the Nationalist Movement Party are not only renowned for propagating the most outlandish and extensive canon of myths arising from Pseudo-Turkology but also make up part of Erdoğan’s political base.

All these theories may have been confined to Turkey had it not been for one event in particular: the collapse of the Soviet Union.

From 1923 to 1991, Turkey was the only independent Turkic state on the planet. Then, five more Turkic countries appeared on the map as sovereign states: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Since then, cooperation between Turkic states has blossomed in politics, education and economics, and even in war. Nothing epitomizes this more than the Turkic Council, formed in 2009 as an intergovernmental organization, which by the end of this year may evolve into a formal international organization.

Erdoğan has been particularly keen on institutionalizing this body following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, in which Turkey and Azerbaijan’s shared Turkicness played a prominent role in both country’s propaganda efforts. There is a common pan-Turkist phrase, repeated by the leaders of both countries, that they are “one nation with two states.”

Cooperation in education is particularly noteworthy since tens of thousands of Central Asian and Azeri students have studied in Turkey or at Turkish-funded institutions every year since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is a joint initiative of the Turkish and Kyrgyz governments and one of the most important institutions of higher education in Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, the Journal of Turkic Civilization Studies was founded there, its first issue opening with a long essay from the editor on various Pseudo-Turkological claims about the Turkicness of the ancient Scythians. The issue also opens with a congratulatory letter from Erdoğan himself — then prime minister — praising the need for more “scientific” journals like that one.

Cooperation between Turkic states is, of course, nothing pernicious. These nations do indeed share much in common in terms of language and history, and it is natural for them to form the basis of common understanding. What is notable, however, is that such cooperation has facilitated the spread and legitimization of Pseudo-Turkology in Turkic countries where such theories are not integral to national identity.

Indeed, Pseudo-Turkology has even been adopted in some countries that are not Turkic at all. In no case is this as clear as in Hungary — the latest country to become an observer to the Turkic Council.

There is no contemporary debate in mainstream academia as to whether Hungarian is a Turkic language. Although the theory was proposed in the 19th century, the debate was largely settled in the 20th century when Hungarian’s Finno-Ugric origin was proven decisively. Then, like today, the association of Hungary with Turkic countries is accompanied by the anti-Western and pan-Turkist ideology of Hungarian Turanism.

Turanism, taking its name from an old-fashioned way of describing Central Asia, the heart of the Eurasian Steppe, is a pan-nationalist ideology that seeks close cooperation between “Altaic” peoples. The “Altaic” language group was essentially a 19th-century dumping ground for languages that European linguists did not know how to classify, including Hungarian and Turkic, and even Mongolian, Japanese, and Korean. Many Hungarian intellectuals believed the connection was real, however, and developed the idea into the anti-Western and fervently nationalist political ideology of Hungarian Turanism.

As with Pseudo-Turkology, Hungarian Turanism is also backed up by theories about Hungarians being Scythians and involved in all sorts of major historical events stretching back millennia. For the past decade, the far-right and officially Turanist party Jobbik has flourished in Hungary, winning around 20% of the vote in the last three elections. One of its key electoral pledges in 2010 was the establishment of a new research institute that would prove the “truth concerning the ancient roots of the nation” — an attempt to have the state elevate Turanism to the level of official ideology.

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist government have taken their own Turanist shift. On a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013, the hegemonic Hungarian leader declared: “We are equal in political terms in the European Union, but genealogically we are different. When we go to Brussels, we do not have any relatives there. But when we come to Kazakhstan, we have close people here.” The same year that Hungary became an observer to the Turkic Council, the speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, László Kövér, gave the opening address at the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries, proudly declaring: “Our Turkic brothers have accepted us as one of them.”

At a meeting of the Hungarian Turan Foundation, Orban publicly endorsed the notion that Hungarians are “Kipchak Turks” and descendants of Attila the Hun (confusingly, Attila’s Huns are not the same people as modern Hungarians).

Every other year, a major event called the Great Kurultaj takes place in Hungary, where representatives from 27 “Turkic nations” gather for a cultural program of various games and exhibitions. Though it is a private event, it has the endorsement of the former speaker of Hungary’s Parliament, Sándor Lezsák, and is put on by the Hungarian Turan Foundation, which is supported by the government of Turkey through the Turkish government’s Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.

All this is part of Orban’s “Eastern opening.” As his government’s relations with the West have become strained, Orban has looked east for allies, and in the Pseudo-Turkological concepts in Hungarian Turanism, he has found a ready-made cultural affinity to share with the Turkic world that also fits nicely with nationalist and anti-Western political goals.

Even in Turkic countries where Pseudo-Turkology has not reached the heights of state power, it has found a different role in the niche of folk history.

“Jesus Christ was a Kazakh?” reads a headline from Nur.kz, Kazakhstan’s largest news agency, the article opening with the line, “Not a single scholar has refuted his point.” Another headline in the Russian tabloid Express Gazetta reads: “Zakiryanov’s Theorem: WE’RE ALL KAZAKHS.”

Kairat Zakiryanov is a Kazakh mathematician who espouses another branch of Pseudo-Turkology. By page three of his book, “The Turkic Saga of Genghis Khan and the KZ Factor,” Zakiryanov endorses the Sun Language Theory and writes in his biography that he is from Eastern Kazakhstan, “said to be the ancestral homeland of the Sumerians.” His website also claims he is a recipient of the title “Knight of the Genghis Khan Order,” which was “established by the descendants of noble families of Great Rome and Great Byzantium,” implying Rome and Byzantium are historic Turkic states.

If there was any doubt that Pseudo-Turkology, in its various incarnations, was alive and well, Zakiryanov has quashed it.

In fact, it has taken root even in Russia. In a country where “alternative history” is a genre unto itself, aided by widespread mistrust of authorities and official state narratives, one particular brand of pseudo-history entitled “New Chronology” has become immensely popular. While it developed separately from Pseudo-Turkology, it is essentially a Russian mirror of it, taking Russia’s own challenges of identity arising from its relationship to the Steppe and Turkic peoples and solving them with a convoluted, anti-Western, Turko-Slavic synthesis.

Anatoly Fomenko, a renowned mathematician and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, alleges in a series of conspiratorial books that Russian historiography is a falsification; the result of a Western conspiracy to conceal the existence of a great Turko-Slavic empire, Great Tartary. In this alternate world, Christopher Columbus, Jesus Christ, Moses and many more were all Russian, and millennia of history were faked by the Normans and Polish Jesuit priests.

Like Pseudo-Turkologists, Fomenko does not use traditional historical methods like reading and analyzing primary sources from the period or observing archaeological evidence. Instead, he uses a mixture of mathematics and astronomy to reinvent human history. His books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Russia and have won him high-profile adherents like the legendary chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

Fomenko’s theories are now so well established that in 2019, with financial backing from billionaire Vadim Yakunin, an entire museum dedicated to them was opened in the medieval Russian city of Yaroslavl. The local government did not object, and local news channels praised the opening, failing to mention criticism of the theories.

In the words of historians Stephen Brown and Konstantin Sheiko, far from simply occupying space on the “lunatic fringe of pseudo-academia,” Fomenko’s works have moved to a “central position in Russia’s mainstream political debates.” For example, Sergey Glazyev, a former top adviser to President Vladimir Putin and commissioner of the Eurasian Economic Union, endorsed Fomenko’s theories in 2020. Unlike Western historical myths that “belittle the role of the Russian people in the history of mankind,” Fomenko “puts the Russian world at its proper place at the center of world civilization,” Glazyev said.

Fantastical mythmaking is a feature shared by all nationalisms, but its particular appeal in Turkic countries is accentuated by the mysteries and ambiguities of a long but unrecorded history on the Steppe.

Brown and Sheiko described the alternative history movement in Russia as “history as therapy.” It is a fitting description of Pseudo-Turkology as well.

Turkic countries have suffered greatly over the last century and a half. After the brutality of World War I, Turkey was set to be wiped off the map by the diktat of Western powers, a fate already shared by every other Turkic people. During Soviet rule, the traditional nomadic lifestyle of Turkic Steppe peoples was derided by official Soviet historiography as backward, uncivilized and feudal — something to be ashamed of, not proud of.

On the margins of the development of global capitalism, or in the furnace of communist social and economic engineering, Turkic peoples have borne the brunt of modernity’s failures and experienced few of its successes. Ancient history, invented or otherwise, offers a refuge. Pseudo-Turkology, which places Turks at the very heart of the history of all human civilization, provides a source of unlimited pride.

A century ago, Atatürk saw in Pseudo-Turkology a way to restore Turkey’s confidence and overturn Western notions of Turkish inferiority. He could hardly have foreseen that decades on, people in Turkey and beyond would be taking Pseudo-Turkology to new extremes. Nor could he have envisioned that nearly a century later, Russian nationalists would see the same utility in the same patterns of thought.

Pseudo-Turkology is alive and well not just because people are drawn to such exaggerated national mythmaking but because these theories have large-scale support from both private and public institutions. In the neo-nationalist political climates of Ankara, Baku, Budapest and beyond, Pseudo-Turkology and its variants are back in vogue.

As Zakiryanov, Fomenko and plenty of other Pseudo-Turkologists have shown, there is no limit to the extremes of historical fabrication that Pseudo-Turkology can reach. As long as people continue to believe in them, Pseudo-Turkological theories will survive and thrive. Few seem willing or able to put an end to their resurgence.

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