This article originally appeared on VICE France.
The Anatolian peninsula is the westernmost region of the Asian content, separated from southeastern Europe by the Bosporus, which splits Istanbul in two. Before becoming part of modern-day Turkey, the region was once the centre of the immense Ottoman Empire, which at its peak in 1683 stretched from Yemen to Austria, Azerbaijan to Tunisia.
“I wanted to evoke this idea of Neo-Ottomanism,” said French photographer Mathias Depardon, author of the book Transanatolia, whose cover depicts a large bloodstain mimicking the shape of the Ottoman Empire. “This is the sentiment we’re seeing mirrored in the current government’s expansionist strategy, which has helped President Erdogan rail up support from his far-right electorate,” he said.
Neo-Ottomanism is a political ideology promoting Turkish political engagement in regions formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s position in international affairs has largely shifted from a Western ally, a member of NATO and an EU candidate, to a powerful leader in the Islamic world.
Over the past decade, Turkey has intervened in conflicts in different Islamic countries, including Iraq, Syria, Libya and, most recently, in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey has also pursued aggressive gas exploration in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, igniting tensions with its neighbour, Greece. Today, Erdogan sees himself as a “sort of caliph [Muslim ruler] of the Turkish-Muslim world”, said Depardon.
Depardon spent many years in Turkey, but was jailed for 32 days and eventually banned from the country in 2017 while on assignment for National Geographic magazine, accused of working without a press card. Before his arrest, he reported on Turkey’s plans to build numerous dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which will generate electricity and provide irrigation to the region.
The so-called Southern Anatolia Project will ultimately comprise of 22 dams, but critics say it will have a huge impact on the water flows to Turkey’s neighbours, Syria and Iraq, and create tension between the countries. Last year, the controversial Ilısu Dam on the Tigris river flooded the 12,000-year-old city of Hasankeyf, displacing thousands of residents.
In his newly-published book, Depardon focused his lens on Turkish influence both at the country’s borders and beyond – from the Black Sea and Azerbaijan to East Turkestan, home to the Uyghurs in northwestern China.
“When I lived in Turkey, there was a ‘Sultan menu’ at Burger King,” Depardon said, “and the most popular TV shows celebrated the Ottoman period.” He said this nostalgia towards a sense of lost power would show up in the most unexpected places, like a small restaurant overlooking the Black Sea, complete with plastic chairs, checked tablecloths and a retired fighter jet on display.
The rural region on the shores of the Black Sea is where President Erdogan grew up, and remains one of his conservative AKP party’s strongholds to this day.
In Transanatolia, we’re shown the face of this new Turkey, shaped by the power-hungry Erdogan’s nationalism. Nowhere is this vision more clear than in Istanbul’s Başakşehir neighbourhood, a gated community for Turkish elites complete with artificial lawns, lavish buildings and grand, brand-new mosques. The neighbourhood’s Başakşehir Football Club has become synonymous with its biggest fan, President Erdogan himself, representing the values of the AKP party in opposition to Turkey's traditionally secular status quo.
Depardon’s photos range from documentary-style to posed portraits. As well as being imprisoned in 2017, the photographer said he was followed and stopped by the police many times. “Let’s just say there is some tension in these areas,” he said.
Under Erdogan’s regime, Turkey has been imprisoning journalists at an alarming rate, with 67 reporters currently in jail as of January, 2021. It’s why Transanatolia was initially published in France – although a small publishing house in Istanbul, MAS Matbaa, ended up printing the book, too.
Still barred from entering Turkey indefinitely, Depardon has kept travelling along the edges of the country. He continues to investigate what he calls the “water war of Mesopotamia”, or Turkey’s control over the water resources of the region. Although he still hopes to be able to return one day, he said the project was a way “to close the chapter” on his years in Turkey.
Scroll down to see more pictures from the book.