Turkish troops invade Syria to rescue remains of 12th-century patriarch

The body of Suleyman Shah will later be returned to an area in Syria under Turkish control.


Turkish forces entered Syria on Saturday to stage a rescue – of the thousand-year-old remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the man who would found the Ottoman Empire.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Sunday that all 38 Turkish soldiers who had been guarding the tomb were brought home safely in the mission that involved hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles.

Suleyman’s remains have been evacuated to Turkey, Davutoglu said, adding that at a later stage the body would be returned to an area in Syria under Turkish control.

Suleyman bin Kaya Alp is believed to have been born in 1178 and to have been the headman of the Kayi, a Turkic tribe living in the area now largely controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. He is believed to have drowned in the Euphrates River in 1236 while evading Mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan.

Near the purported site of his death was a castle that over the centuries was associated with Suleyman. It was near there in the late 19th century that the Ottoman-style mausoleum in his name was erected. It is not entirely clear whether the remains in the mausoleum are actually Suleyman’s.

Even so, the memory of this patriarch was so important to modern Turkey’s leaders that in a 1921 treaty with France, Ankara retained sovereign control over an eight-quare-kilometer enclave on which the mausoleum was built, 100 kilometers (62 miles) inside Syria.

The land bearing the original mausoleum was flooded in 1973 when Syria created the Lake Assad reservoir by damming the Tabqa River. Through an agreement between Turkey and Syria, the tomb and the Turkish enclave were moved some 65 kilometers to a spit of land closer to Turkey, near the town of Sarrin on the Euphrates.

The outbreak of the Syrian civil war led Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister and now president, to issue a televised warning on August 5, 2012. He said that if necessary, Ankara would “of course do whatever needs to be done” to defend the mausoleum from harm, the Turkish site Sunday’s Zaman reported at the time.

Incidental damage to the site wasn’t the only threat. Erdogan repeated his warning last March, when in a YouTube video the Islamic State threatened to attack the site unless the Turkish forces left within three days. The video has since been deleted.

The Turkish troops did not leave but ISIS did not attack. The force guarding the tomb was beefed up, and in October the Turkish legislature approved the use of military force to defend the tomb. Turkey has now made good on its vow, rescuing the remains and destroying the site, apparently to prevent ISIS from exploiting it.

Suleyman’s grandson Osman Bey was also known as Osman I (1258-1326). He would become the leader of the Ottoman Empire, which grew from a small principality to a world power that would only expire with Turkey’s abolition of the sultanate in 1922.