While researching a period 1,500 years ago for my historical novel The Eagle and the Swan set in sixth-century Constantinople, little did I expect the events would have a ripped-from-the-headlines relevance to politics today.

Yet as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrestles with how to put the kibosh on anti-government protests that have engulfed his country since May 31, he might refer to a page from the history of Constantinople, as Istanbul was called in 532 C.E. At that time the ruler, elected by the Senate and confirmed by the Church, the people and the army, faced his gravest threat – the Nika Rebellion.

Similarities abound. Emperor Justinian was, like Erdogan, a man of humble background, born to peasants who raised pigs in the remote Balkan highlands. Erdogan came to Istanbul from Rize Province at age thirteen, attended religious school, and sold lemonade and sesame buns on the mean streets to earn money.

The rule of both men is characterized by social conservatism and intolerance of dissent. Justinian brutally cracked down on unorthodox variants of Roman Catholicism and outlawed pagan practices, homosexuality and prostitution (at the behest of his wife Empress Theodora, an ex-prostitute herself). Justinian banished Athenian philosophers who worshipped the old gods and forbade them to teach. He refused to listen to protesters who complained in the hippodrome of harsh police practices and was paranoid about plotters conspiring to usurp his throne.

Erdogan (a devout Muslim and leader of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party) has backed laws restricting the sale, consumption, and even advertising of alcohol. He’s outlawed smoking and kissing in public, discouraged birth control, introduced Koran classes in primary school, and tried to criminalize adultery. His administration counts more jailed journalists (100) than in China. Students have been imprisoned for protesting dam mega-projects.

Like Erdogan, Justinian was a builder who dearly wished his legacy to be glorious cathedrals throughout what became known as the Byzantine Empire. Justinian personally supervised the construction of the astounding Hagia Sophia basilica and numerous churches and monasteries. Erdogan wishes his legacy to be a canal from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, a third bridge over the Bosphorus, a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks housing a shopping mall, and a mosque in Giza Park, located in the heart of modern Istanbul adjacent to Taksim Square.

This is where the parallels really appear. On May 31, a peaceful group of protesters camped out in the park, determined to save a grove of sycamores from being chopped down. They’re a motley crew, lumped under the rubric of Taksim Solidarity, including women, students, gays, Kurds, members of the marginalized Alevi Muslim sect, greens and anarchists, united against Erdogan’s autocratic style and attempt to impose prudish rectitude on the heirs of Kemal Ataturk’s secular state.

Like Justinian, when confronted with cries for reform Erdogan has been obdurate, ordering police to rout the protesters, who are predominantly peaceful: singing, dancing and camping out in the park. The police have responded with tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Three have died and 5,000 have been injured. Just as in Constantinople a millennium and a half ago, heavy-handed repression and stored-up grievances have caused the protests to spread, with tens of thousands participating.

Not only in big cities like Izmir and Ankara but in forty-five cities in the majority of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces, protests have broken out, with mothers and grandmothers joining to bang pots and pans. “Dictator resign” is the chant.

The mob in the hippodrome too called for Justinian to abdicate but when he refused they rioted, burning down the center of Constantinople after refusing his offer of amnesty and plea for forgiveness. Capitulation came too late to appease the mob.

Things haven’t come to that pass in modern Turkey. But the parallels give one pause. Justinian’s motive was to revive the lost glory of the Roman Empire, which had diminished to just its eastern territories in 532, having lost Britain, Gaul, Spain, Italy and Africa. Humiliated by this decline, Justinian imposed ruinous taxes to scratch up enough wealth to mount an attack on the Vandals in Carthage and reclaim northern Africa for a Neo-Roman Empire.

Erdogan has been called neo-Ottoman, even pictured as a turbaned sultan on the cover of The Economist. Having engineered Turkey’s current prosperity and curbed the coup-prone generals, perhaps he now seeks to restore the glory of the Ottoman Empire with grandiose, historicized building projects and by exerting influence over former territories of the lost Empire.

Erdogan has long ignored smouldering tensions between secular Turks who are Westernized and cosmopolitan (those who’ve chafed at his increasing authoritarianism and micro-management style) and his constituents, uneducated peasants who elected him three times.

It’s basically a culture war. Justinian faced off against both elite aristocrats who hated him and the rabble fed up with his favoritism to one faction of supporters. The rebels then wanted what they do now: their voices to be heeded in an increasingly pluralistic society.

For Emperor Justinian, the revolution started with two boys condemned to be hanged whom he refused to pardon. It consumed his city, only ending when he ordered the slaughter of 35,000 rebels where they congregated in the hippodrome to acclaim a new emperor.

For Prime Minister Erdogan, it started when dissidents wanted to save some trees but has rapidly morphed into a demand for systemic change. Whether it’s ancient Turks of the Late Roman Empire or Young Turks of a secular, democratic state, their cry is the same: “Nika!” – Greek for “Victory”.

As mayor of Istanbul in 1999, Erdogan served four months in prison for inciting religious hatred by reciting a bellicose poem that said, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, the faithful our soldiers.”

His predecessor Justinian long ago learned the dangers of conflating Church and State. Will Erdogan heed that lesson and acknowledge the benefits of tolerance and diversity?


(image credit: Benh LIEU SONG)