A nation promotes itself

A documentary film, ‘Karadeniz: A Turkish Voyage’, tells the inspiring tale of a traveling exhibition dispatched by ship from the young Republic of Turkey to the great ports of Europe.

It’s another historic day in Marseilles. Always bustling, the port today is inundated by an invasion of ‘high society’. A heady scent of perfume wafts up from the beautiful women in their starched linen ‘sailor collars’. As the municipal band plays the Marseillaise one last time before switching to an elegant waltz prelude, the long-awaited ship glides slowly into the harbor. Its high white deck trimmed with hundreds of colorful flags, the close to five-thousand-ton ship with a single smokestack approaches the dock. Along the quay the French gaze at the ship and the flags flying all over it. Handsome banners in an appealing shade of red and with a dazzlingly white crescent and star. When the spectators on the quay look at the deck, what they see is a mixed group of men and women passengers, leaning against the railings and staring back at them, and they can’t believe their eyes. They were expecting the passengers on this ship from the ‘East’ to have an ‘oriental air’ about them. But what they see is something completely different. These ‘Eastern’ visitors, waving and smiling and peering back at them from the upper and lower decks, are no different from themselves! The men in dark suits, white shirts and neckties, most of them held with elegant tiepins. And the women standing next to them even more stylish! Most of them in simple black dresses of silk and muslin and with boyishly short, wavy hair, they literally scintillate in the  Mediterranean sunshine. The ship greets the Marsilians with a single long, merry whistle. A wooden rope ladder is let down and made fast to the quay. The French begin to board. An officer guides them into an exhibition hall. Passing through a salon decked with a winter garden where an orchestra is playing and into the exhibition hall, the visitors stare at the items on display in speechless awe. Glazed Kütahya tiles of turquoise blue; Ottoman, Nomadic, Seljuk and Persian carpets in a thousand and one patterns and colors; Hacı Bekir ‘Turkish Delight’ flavored with rosewater, cinnamon and gum Arabic; entirely handmade glass vases and rosewater vessels incrusted with emeralds, rubies and turquoise.
It is 21 August 1926. The French are viewing the products on display with awe as a red flag with a star and crescent waves from the deck of the ship, which is identified in giant letters broadside as the ‘Karadeniz’ [Black Sea]. The as yet only three-year-old Republic of Turkey has been displaying its flag for several months in Europe’s major ports to show everyone what a newly reborn nation can do.

All these things come to life in your imagination as you watch the documentary, ‘Karadeniz: A Turkish Voyage’, which is being shown at the Ottoman Bank Museum, an adjunct of Garanti Bank. Actually two major projects are underway simultaneously at the museum, casting new light on Turkey’s efforts to promote herself. One of them is the documentary already mentioned chronicling the voyage of the steamship Karadeniz, which set sail from Turkey at the behest of Atatürk to visit the major ports of Europe as a traveling exhibition. The other is an exhibition entitled, ‘Designing a Nation: The European States in the 1920s and 1930s’, which depicts the political regimes in that period in the countries on the ship’s itinerary.
The story of the Karadeniz documentary, sponsored jointly by Garanti Bank and the Netherlands Culture Fund, is especially interesting. While combing through the archives, a researcher by the name of Eray Ergeç, who worked for a firm called Fatusch in Holland, came across a news item concerning a Turkish exhibition ship that had visited Holland in 1926. The report described the arrival in Amsterdam of the ship, which had set sail from Turkey at Atatürk’s behest to visit various European ports for the purpose of promoting the young Republic. Eventually Prof. Dr. Bülent Çaplı of the Ankara University College of Communications also got caught up in researching this little known story. Following two years of study, a photograph and papers were uncovered documenting the ship’s visits in the ports of Europe, and a documentary was made to bring this event to the light of day before it vanished forever in the dusty archives of history. While Amsterdam was used  for coordinating the film, whose overall coordinator was Gülay Orhan, Bülent Çaplı and Bulent Özkan also carried out studies in Ankara. The filmscript was written by Tannur Arat and Nedim Olgun, and the ‘logbook’ sections are based on the memoirs of Captain Süreyya Gürsu, Celal Esat Arseven and Orhan Kızıldemir. With an original soundtrack composed by Emre Irmak, the film was directed by Soner Sevgili.

Watching the documentary, viewers are caught up in the wake of the Karadeniz, the steamship that underwent three months of special maintenance prior to its European voyage, which lasted exactly eighty-six days and carried a total of 285 people - artists, journalists, MPs, teachers, musicians and navigators - in an extraordinary venture to promote the new Republic of Turkey to friend and foe alike. They watch with pride as the MPs of the as yet only three-year-old Turkish Republic struggle to find financial backing. They witness the emotional fervor stirred up by Trade Minister Ali Cenani Bey’s speech, which began, “My lords, it is no easy thing to organize a trade exhibition. So I considered instead a traveling exhibition. Let us borrow a steamship from the Maritime Lines. The Karadeniz, for instance...”. They behold a feverish round of activity and then, in the end, the dazzling white ship that set sail in the pale blue waters of the Marmara leaving a trail of white foam in its wake. And how a man with blond hair and a spark in his blue eyes sent the ship off with a wave of his white handkerchief from a yacht moored at Dolmabahçe Palace. And those who consider how that sandy-haired man only seven years earlier on 19 May 1919 had made exactly such a voyage to Samsun to save his country will glow with pride to see how a republic was born.