The Military Museum and Mehter Band
Whether fighting for the Ottoman Empire or the modern Republic, the Turkish war machine has a long and storied past, and it’s all breathlessly recounted in the Military Museum near Taksim Square. While visiting the museum, it’s almost compulsory to take in a performance of history’s most famous military musical squad: the Mehter Band.
The Military Museum is huge. That’s the first thing we noticed during our visit — the collection of weapons, paintings, stories, artifacts, and dioramas is overwhelming, and only the most dedicated army enthusiast is going to be able to fully appreciate the museum’s depth. For us, it was enough to amble through, stopping when an especially cool gun or painting caught our eye.
If you limited your knowledge of history to the information provided by the museum, you’d probably conclude that the world has never seen a fighting force like the Turkish military. Undefeated throughout the ages! The museum revels in one glorious victory after the other… and only the victories. We couldn’t find a single word about any defeat or setback.
But were it dedicated to a sober and accurate analysis of the past, the museum wouldn’t be as popular. We were shocked by the number of people visiting, almost all of them locals. We eavesdropped on a guy relating the magnificent details of the 1521 Battle of Belgrade to his non-Turkish (and visibly bored) girlfriend, and tailed two older gentlemen who were perhaps a bit too fascinated by the pistol collection. And when we sat down in the auditorium for the Mehter Band’s performance, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The hall seats at least 1000, and was completely full.
Established in the 13th Century, the Mehters were history’s first military band, formed to inspire Ottoman forces and instill fear in their enemies. They’re the inspiration for a musical style in Spain called “a la turca“, as well as Mozart’s famous Turkish March, and led to the formation of similar military bands throughout Europe.
But the days of marching into a field of battle are long since past, and the Mehter Band now exists only to thrill the crowds at the Military Museum. Their performance was pretty good, even for those of us without much interest in martial music. Very loud. The crew which marched out onto the stage was 55 strong and consisted of only a few flutes and trumpets. The rest were drummers and singers. And every man in the band had a full, bushy mustache, although half of these were glued-on.
Even if your interest in Turkish military history is lacking, the museum is worth the price of entrance just for the spectacle of a standing-room-only crowd thrilling to marching music performed by guys in fake mustaches. Not something you’re likely to see anywhere else.