A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Short-Lived Republic of Hatay, 1938-39

Today was MEI's Center for Turkish Studies' Third Annual Conference, and coincidentally tensions are continuing to ratchet up between Turkey and Syria over the Turkish F-4 downed by Syria late last week. Following its take-off from a Turkish air base, the aircraft, which the Turkish opposition is now saying may have been accompanied by an aircraft from another NATO country, operated over the Turkish Province of Hatay and then over the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast where it was shot down. Today there are reports of Turkey reinforcing its troop presence in Hatay, the small thumblike projection of Turkish territory along the coast that includes the historic city of Antakya (Antioch) and the port of Iskenderun (Alexandretta).  I thought this might be an appropriate time for one of my historical asides, on the short-lived "Republic of Hatay."

State of Hatay Stamp with Map
At least until fairly recently Syria claimed the Hatay, and showed it as Syrian territory; it was part of the French Mandate of Syria after World War I, but France separated it from Syria and oversaw its transfer to Turkey before World War II. As part of that transfer process, it briefly became an independent state, prior to voting to join Turkey; it was formally called the State of Hatay and informally as the Republic of Hatay. Though never really intended to remain independent, it issued a few stamps and adopted a flag based on Turkey's during the transition period. Much of the story can be found here.

France had pursued a divide-and-rule policy under the Mandate, creating separate Alawite and Druze substates within Syria while combining Christian and Muslim parts of Lebanon into "Gran Liban"; the Sanjak of Alexandretta, as the Hatay was then known, was problematical as an ethnic mix of Arabs and Turks, and a religious mix of Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians (including many Armenians). From 1923 onward the Turkish republic claimed it as Turkish territory (Atatürk said it had been Turkish "for 40 centuries"), while Syrians insisted it was an integral part of Syria. France was prepared to find a modus vivendi that would improve its relations with republican Turkey. Turkey took it to the League of Nations and the League in 1937 created the Sanjak of Alexandretta as a separately-administered part of Syria with France and Turkey sharing defense responsibilities.

Flag of Republic of Hatay 
(note star is outlined, not solid)
In September 1938 the region — called "Hatay" in Turkish from the word "Hittite"; the coinage is said to be Atatürk's — became formally independent, adopting a constitution making Turkish the primary language and French a secondary one; the teaching of Arabic was allowed where it already existed. Its flag was reportedly designed by Atatürk, which tells you which way everyone knew the wind was blowing. By July of 1939 it had voted for, and the Turkish Grand National Assembly approved, its annexation into the Turkish Republic. After a few months, the Republic of Hatay was no more.

Syrians still think Turkey basically stole it; Turkey considers it integrally Turkish.

One thing I should clarify: In the film Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade, the action moves to a place identified as the State of Hatay, though this Hatay has a different flag, is apparently Arab, is ruled by a Sultan, and contains among other things Petra and the Holy Grail. I'm not 100% certain but I think this may be a sign that you should not take the Indiana Jones series as accurate accounts of history, geography and archaeology.

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