Turkey’s Chase for the ‘Red Apple’

Over the last five years, Turkish President Erdoğan and his allies have repeatedly used the image of the Red Apple (Kızıl Elma) as a symbol of their ambitions for Turkey

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Turkey’s Chase for the ‘Red Apple’
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony marking the 949th anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert, Aug.26, 2020/Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Turkic archers on horseback gallop as they unleash their arrows, Ottoman infantry rush to repel an attack in World War I, and modern Turkey’s army shows off its prowess. “To the Red Apple!” declaims President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a voiceover.

The aim of this striking video merging different eras is clear — to claim continuity throughout 1,000 years of Turkish history, from the exploits of the Turkic tribes who began to win control of Anatolia a millennium ago, to the young Ottoman troops who resisted an Allied invasion in 1915 at the Battle of Gallipoli, to the exploits of modern Turkey under the rule of Erdoğan himself.

But why the reference to a single piece of colored fruit?

Over the last five years, Erdoğan and his allies have repeatedly used the image of the Red Apple (Kızıl Elma) as a symbol of their present and future ambitions for a fast-developing, economically independent Yeni Türkiye (new Turkey).

Above all, the Red Apple is a symbol of a vision and quest for modern Turkey — to wield influence and hegemony well beyond its borders into Muslim-majority lands formerly ruled by the Ottomans in the Balkans, Middle East, and the Caucasus.

“When asked where they were going, they said they were ‘going to the Red Apple,’” Erdoğan said of Turkish troops who in early 2018 took part in one of three major operations Ankara has launched inside Syria in the last few years. “This is the thing. Yes, we have our Red Apple.”

To outsiders it may seem bizarre to produce the bucolic image of a fruit to project military and political ambition and power. But the Red Apple is a symbol with roots extending long before Erdoğan that equates with Turkey’s centuries-old pursuit of global power.

But what is extraordinary about this symbol that has become central to the ideology of modern Turkey is that both its origins and meaning are mysterious, even to those who use it so emphatically to promote their beliefs. As in all quest myths, such as the Holy Grail, the pursuit is as important as the end goal.

The usual explanation is that the Red Apple was a term for a globe held by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in a giant statue that once stood outside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, symbolizing a desire for world domination. The symbol was then taken up by the Ottomans, Turkish nationalists, and now by Erdoğan himself as he seeks to draw inspiration from the imperial era.

For Turkish nationalists, the country’s cultural borders extend well beyond the limits of the political frontiers accepted by the country’s founder, Kemal Atatürk, when modern Turkey was created in 1923 in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in World War I and the Turkish victory in the War of Independence against Greece.

Erdoğan stated this credo plainly in a speech in November 2016: “Turkey is bigger than Turkey. We know this. We can’t fit into 780,000 square kilometers. The borders of our heart are quite different from our physical borders.”

In the last five years, Erdoğan has increasingly taken on the mantle of nationalism, and a political alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party strengthened his grip on power and helped him win the 2018 presidential election.

These same nationalists have long dreamed of far-fetched concepts like a Turan Army, a force that would include all the Turkic peoples stretching out to Central Asia to project Turkic power across the world.

The nationalist poet Ziya Gökalp, a writer oft quoted by Edoǧan in his speeches, wrote a poem in the early 20th century titled “The Red Apple” in which he declared: “Our last desire in this mortal world / We are Turkish, we will arrive to the Red Apple.”

Those images mixing the arrow-firing Turkic horsemen and the young Mehmetçikler (an affectionate term that refers to soldiers) in World War I are from a video published in August 2020 on Erdoğan’s social media channels to mark the 949th anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert.

In that battle, Seljuk Turks inflicted their first significant victory over the Byzantines in Anatolia, famously even taking the Byzantine Emperor Diogenes prisoner.

The mixing of images of different epochs in the videos — all accompanied by the frenzied strains of the Mehter Band, the Ottoman military orchestra — make clear Erdoğan’s emphasis on a consistent thread running through Turkish history that links together the millennium leading up to his own rule. These feats are united by the constant pursuit of the Red Apple.

In speeches, Erdoğan has repeatedly described Turkish history as a continual march forward, marked by heroic deeds on the way. The thread begins with Manzikert, followed by the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, the 1915 resistance of the Allied invasion at Gallipoli, and the War of Independence led by Atatürk, to name just some of the key dates.

He has, more than any Turkish leader in modern times, glorified the Ottoman era, portraying the modern republic as a continuation of that epoch and not a rejection of its terms. Among the sultans whose reputation he has sought to resurrect are Selim I, who conquered swaths of the Middle East during a reign of just eight years in the 16th century, and Abdülhamid II, long dismissed as a conservative reactionary but now portrayed as a leader who stood up to the West.

It is a vision of Turkish history as a near-mystical quest for greatness, a continuous pursuit of the Red Apple. And Erdoğan’s desire to etch himself a place in Turkish history on a scale that at the very least ranks alongside that of Atatürk has always been crystal clear. He wants his two decades of rule to be very much a part of this thread and its deeds — to go down as a modern destan (epic) in the great saga of Turkish heroism.

The ideology is not just abstract and political but also backed up by wildly popular TV dramas. Not limited to kitschy romance stories set in the present, they include historical epics such as “Diriliş: Ertuğrul,” about the early years of the Ottoman conquests, and “Payitaht: Abdülhamid,” which makes a hero out of Abdülhamid II, the last sultan to wield real power.

Erdoğan claims his building of a new Turkey is part of this historic march and a continuation of the exploits of the Seljuk warriors at Manzikert almost 1,000 years ago. This thread leads directly to the exploit that he most insistently refers to above all others: the defeat of the July 15, 2016, coup bid against his rule.

“For us, the Red Apple is a big and strong Turkey. It is the happy march of our nation which wrote epics from Manzikert to 15 July,” was how Erdoğan’s powerful communications advisor Fahrettin Altun described the videos released in August.

The attempted coup and its aftermath remain controversial outside Turkey. It was followed by a massive crackdown that encompassed opponents of Erdoğan who were deeply critical of the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, the person blamed for the plot. The context and timeline of key events on that fateful July night also remain unclear.

But for Erdoğan and his supporters, what happened that night was simple — the people of Turkey of all generations and sections of society rose up to mount tanks and stand in the way of armed troops to defeat a terrorist plot, thereby writing another destan in the annals of Turkish history. Every year when Turkey remembers the anniversary of the coup, billboards go up nationwide glorifying the 15 Temmuz destani, the epic of July 15. And this march towards the Red Apple continues.

In recent years, Erdoğan has taken steps to fulfill his pledge that Turkey’s destiny lies well outside its current borders. It launched three major military operations in Syria, giving Ankara de facto control of a large swath of the north of the country. Turkish soldiers were sent into Libya to ensure a favorable government remained in charge in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Turkey has sought to project its influence in Muslim regions from the Balkans (notably in Bosnia) to Africa (especially Somalia and Sudan), the Middle East, and Central Asia.

In the past few months alone, this quest for the Red Apple has been intensified, causing even greater controversy and putting Turkey at risk of severe EU sanctions. It sent hydrocarbon research vessels including the Oruç Reis — named after an Ottoman seaman regarded in the West as a pirate — into eastern Mediterranean waters, which Greece regards as a violation of its sovereignty. Most boldly of all, it gave military support to Azerbaijan’s offensive to retake control of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In that conflict, Turkey deployed its arsenal of highly sophisticated drones, which had already shown their effectiveness in Libya. They are one of the key pillars of Ankara’s military strategy and feature prominently in the August videos, taking their place alongside the mustachioed, arrow-firing warriors in chainmail.

Turkey was also accused of deploying its own forces and even sending Syrian militia fighters to wage the conflict on behalf of Muslim Azerbaijan against Christian Armenia.

Azerbaijan, now repeatedly described by Erdoğan and state media as dost ve kardeş ülke (friendly and brotherly state), triumphed in the conflict, winning back control of a swath of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories. The terms of the peace deal mean that Turkey, which shares a minute but significant border with Azerbaijan’s exclave Nakhchivan, could have unfettered access to the Caspian Sea.

But as he hailed the victory by Azerbaijan, Erdoğan, in true Red Apple style, also vowed that the quest in the Caucasus was far from over.

“Azerbaijan’s saving its lands from occupation does not mean that the struggle is over. The struggle carried out in the political and military areas will continue from now on many other fronts,” he said.

The nexus of the quest for the Red Apple has always been Istanbul, the origin and inspiration of the myth, and the anniversary of its conquest in 1453 is now celebrated with increasing fervor every year, with gargantuan firework displays and reenactments. Posters with the message, “Istanbul’un fethi kutlu olsun” (congratulations on the conquest of Istanbul) go up to mark the anniversary, as if the conquest had taken place the day before.

Erdoğan, a former mayor of the city, has done more than any other leader since the Ottomans to change the face of Istanbul, building a new bridge across the Bosphorus Strait named after Sultan Selim, train and road tunnels beneath the Bosphorus, as well as a vast new airport that may one day be named after him.

Having lived in Turkey for five years from 2014-2018, I witnessed the sometimes ruthless momentum of this development drive firsthand, watching from my window as buildings and even an entire museum were demolished to make way for the hugely ambitious Galataport development on the Karaköy dockside.

But there has also been a shift in the identity of the city to project a more determinedly Islamic front, a move symbolized in 2020 by changing the great Byzantine edifice of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and renaming it the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, or Ayasofya-i Kebîr Câmi-i Şerîfi.

The 1453 conquest is not just a question of history, and many around Erdoğan suspect Europeans of harboring a sneaking regret, as they look out over the mosque-studded skyline, that the Byzantines ever lost control of the city in the first place.

“The conquest of Istanbul changed the course of history and turned the Ottomans into a world state,” Erdoğan’s advisor Ibrahim Kalin wrote in 2018. “Europeans never forgave the Ottomans for taking Istanbul.”

Will this quest for the Red Apple, this surge in Turkish ambition that has ruffled the West, ever stop? Under Erdoğan at least, the answer is no — this march forward under the banner of the historical narrative that he has created must never halt. The mixture of pushing fast development, espousing nationalism while looking back on the past, is now built into the DNA of his rule.

For a leader who has mixed ideology with pragmatism, it has its limits too. Turkey has been remarkably mute over the plight of the Turkic Uighur minority in China as its own relationship grows with Beijing. China has now ratified an extradition treaty with Turkey that activists fear will be used to deport Uighurs who have taken refuge in Istanbul and other cities. Turkey has done little to champion the cause of the Tatars in Russian-annexed Crimea, largely only bringing up the issue during moments of tension with Moscow.

Erdoğan, 66, has set out development goals for Turkey with targets that ultimately lie beyond his own lifetime. The staging posts in this march are 2023, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of modern Turkey (also a presidential election year); 2053, the 600th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul; and 2071, the millennium anniversary of the battle of Manzikert, when Erdoğan would be 117 years old.

“We will build Turkey in 2023 together with you,” he told Turkish youth in an address in 2017. “The next ‘Red Apple’ is the Turkey of 2053, where we are entrusting you with everything. Likewise, you bear the responsibility of bringing the 2071 vision to the next generations.”

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