Turkey’s Bipolar National Anthem

By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 29 March 2020

Photo by Wikimedia

National anthems are, by definition, bombastic, over-the-top, full of braggadocio and glittering generalities. But even in such an unrestrained musical category, Turkey’s national anthem stands out as an exemplar of hyperbole, blood-and-guts vows, triumphalism, self-pity, and paranoia.

The Turkish anthem also has the rare distinction of being the only national rah-rah whose title is made up two foreign words—İstiklal Marşı (‘independence’ and ‘march’ in Arabic and French respectively.) As well, with forty-one lines, the Turkish anthem must be one of the longest. One can only imagine the cruel imposition on millions of Turks who are expected to remember the rambling and interminable lyrics.

Poet, politician and academic Mehmet Ersoy (1873-1936) wrote İstiklal Marşı in 1921. Several years later Ersoy moved to Egypt. During a trip to Lebanon he contracted typhoid and died shortly after.

Almost every line of the anthem is an invitation to disbelief and ridicule because of excesses in expression, absence of logic, or historical truth. Perhaps unsure whether his feverish lines had conveyed his ultra-nationalist bipolar message, Ersoy peppered his lyrics with eighteen exclamation marks. Ersoy also couldn’t differentiate between an exclamation mark and a semi-colon. The English translation of the anthem  has a number of such illogical English phrases as “take shame” and “unhand not”.

“Fear not; For the crimson banner that providing ripples in this glorious dawn shall not fade,” starts the anthem. It’s not clear who is addressing whom. Is it the poet-politician-academic Ersoy addressing Turkey or Turkey addressing the Turks?

The third line refers to the star on the Turkish flag: “For that is the star of my people…It is mine, and solely belongs to my valiant nation.” Thus Turkey appropriates a symbol that has been universally in use since at least 1,000 BCE.

Ottoman Turkey adopted the crescent-and-star in the mid-18th century, borrowing it from Christian Byzantium (it was the flag of Byzantine Constantinople). When Ersoy wrote the lines about “Turkey’s star”, a dozen nations—including the U.S.–had the identical five-point stars on their flags. Now there are at least fifty states—from Angola to Zimbabwe—with the same star on their flags. Tunisia’s flag is almost identical to the Turkish flag.

The anthem describes the “Turkish” star as “coy”. Coy means simpering, arch, flirtatious, kittenish, and skittish. A simpering star representing a nation? Addressing the star, Ersoy wrote: “Do not frown…please smile upon my heroic nation. Why that anger? Why that rage?” Putting aside the “anger/rage” tautology, “heroic nation” is a humorous description of a nation that had just lost its empire during WWI. Immediately prior to that, it had lost the Balkan Wars and for nearly two hundred years had been given a bloody nose by Tsarist Russia.

“Freedom is the right of my nation,” declares the martial song although Turkey has never experienced freedom—whether under the Ottomans, the Young Turks, Ataturk’s dictatorship, or Erdogan’s dictatorship lite.

In the next line, Ersoy contradicts himself: “I have been free since the beginning and forever shall be so.” It’s obvious Ersoy is referring to Turkey. Turkey free from the beginning?

He continues: “What madman shall put me in chains?” Was Ersoy inadvertently referring to dictator Ataturk? President Ismet Inonu? General Cemal Gursel? The various military juntas? Erdogan?

Even when excusing Ersoy/Turkey for the excessive language, one has difficulty swallowing such hyperbole as “I am like the roaring flood, trampling my banks and overcoming my body. I’ll tear apart mountains, exceed the Expanses, and still gush out!”

Vividly expressing the innate Turkish hostility to the West and civilization itself, the anthem has this four-line stanza:

“The horizons of the West may be bound with walls of steel,
But my borders are guarded by the mighty bosom of a a believer.
Let it bellow out, do not be afraid! And think: how can this fiery faith ever be extinguished,
By that battered, single-fanged monster you call “civilization”?

The most outrageous stanza is reminiscent of a grotesque scene from “The Night of the Living Dead” movie. After mourning ‘martyrs’ buried in Turkey, the anthem promises: “Martyrs would burst forth should one simply squeeze the soil!”

Yes, the skeletons of Bloody Sultan Abdul Hamid, genocidiers Talaat, Enver, Jemal, and Ataturk would crack the sod and pop from underground in a scene Stephen King might have imagined. Pity Turkish kindergarten children who have to sing the morbid words every morning per government law.

Addressing Allah, Ersoy says:

“Oh glorious God, the sole wish of my pain-stricken heart is that
No infidel’s hand should ever touch the bosom of my sacred Temples!”

 However, it’s fine that 2,434 Armenian churches and 450 monasteries in   Turkey lie in ruins or are used as bars, for storage, or as dumps.

There’s no let-up as Ersoy limns, “Let noble sound prevail thunderously across my eternal homeland… my fatigued tombstone…prostrate [myself] a thousand times in ecstasy…my lifeless body shall burst forth from the earth like an eternal spirit…our every last drop of blood may finally be blessed…noble sound prevail thunderously across my eternal homeland.”

The drivel continues:

“For freedom is the absolute right of my ever-free flag.
For independence is the absolute right of my God-worshipping nation!”

Was dictator Ataturk who squelched freedom aware of this factoid? Does Erdogan who jails journalists and judges, shutters newspapers and blocks social media?

Despite his excesses, Ersoy is circumspect about referring to national origin which is essential for most national anthems. According to Turks, a Grey Wolf was the “mother-creator” of Turks: she was a lactating wolf in Central Asia who nursed the first Turks. Perhaps Ersoy knew the wolf exalted by Turks as their matriarch is scientifically known as the Iberian Wolf–from Spain. Turks are already in denial about their origins. That they got their matriarch’s identity and its habitat wrong would shatter their shaky sense of Turkish selfhood.


    1. When it comes to Turkish genocidiers, wonders never cease. Here we have 139-year-old Enver Pasha–who kicked the bucket 98 years ago courtesy of an Armenian soldier, has not only come back to life but has written in English. Perhaps after rotting underground for 98 years the “Bungler of Sarikamish” can’t see well unless the letters are in caps. Maybe I should apologize to the murderous cadaver for writing in lower case. Enver, who knew some broken German, must have picked English when he was 8 ft. under. It should return to the worms to learn how to punctuate: his inane comment is free of punctuation, even of a period in the end.

  2. This anthem was written when Turkey was fighting an independence war against western powers and supposed to lift the fighting sipirits of people. Your translation is terrible and this article obviously has different agendas. You could make fun of any national anthem if you tried hard like this.

  3. Umut,
    —The Turkish national anthem remained unchanged long after what you call “independence war.” If there was an independence war it was that of the people whose homelands had been occupied by the racist, authoritarian, theocratic, and lawless Ottoman Sultanate for hundreds of years.
    —The translation is the official one. Google.
    —The article’s only agenda was to reveal where the hearts and minds of Turks were.
    —Since you claim all national anthems can be made fun of, It would be helpful if you provided a funny national anthem.

  4. To Umut,
    You say the anthem’s lyrics are excessive because they were written when Turkey was fighting for its independence against the western powers. Most anthems are written under such circumstances and not in peacetime. As well, by 1921, the First World War had been long over and Turkey was occupied in killing its remaining minorities (Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks) and were sharpening their swords to eliminate the Kurds.
    In light of recent Erdogan statements that Turkey is part of Europe and should have been admitted into the EU, it’s interesting to note one of the anthem’s stanzas:
    “The horizons of the West may be bound with walls of steel,
    But my borders are guarded by the mighty bosom of the believer.
    Let it bellow out, do not be afraid! And think how can this fiery faith ever be extinguished,
    By the battered, single-fanged monster you call “civilization”?
    If Angela Merkle, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, etc. heard the above anti-Europe lyrics, I am sure they would embrance Erdogan and all 60 million Turks.

  5. After you translated a poem with google translate, you made comments that seem completely biased. I am calling out to the objective brains who are open to learning something. This article is complete nonsense. The Armenian Genocide never took place. Although the Turkish government repeatedly appealed to Armenian historians to examine the national historical archive, they could not get any results. Kurdish people are brothers of Turks, PKK terrorist organization kills babies, including Kurdish people.

  6. Turkish anthem is one of the most passionate anthems with rage and aggression as it should be. Has anybody managed to put chains on Oghuz Turks ? none. Turks have concrete track records of showing respect and dignity to all the other ethnic groups they interacted with since they enter the middle east and anatolian regions in 10th century. Except Armenians ? why is that ? I don’t see anything special about nor see Armenians as threats.

  7. Osman,
    It would be useful to re-read the article. Consider that Turks made an unprovoked invasion of Armenia. Since then, Turks have occupied 90 percent of Armenia which is now called “Kurdistan”. It was Sultan Abdul Hamid II who ordered that “Armenia” be erased from maps and be replaced by Kurdistan. Following those events, Turkey persisted massacring Armenians (mid-1890s and in Adana in 1909) with the bloodshed culminating in the Genocide of Armenians in 1915 which the world recognizes as a fact but Turkey denies it. There will never be friendship between Armenia and Turkey unless justice is done. The current agreements between Turkey and Armenia are forced by Turkey and don’t mean much to Armenian people although cornered by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia is amenable to the forced friendship.

  8. Yusuf and Osman,
    Out of curiosity, I checked what your letters were referring to. Imagine my surprise upon discovering the article you are attacking was published in March 2020. It’s interesting that it took you more than two years to put down your deep thoughts. Were your letters delayed because they had to go through Ankara government channels before approval was granted for the lame rebuttals? Bottom line: the Turkish anthem sounds like something which would excite a knife-wielding juvenile delinquent.

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