A Bridge Too Far? – What’s happening to Istanbul?

Darius the Great, 6th century CE King of Persia

Darius the Great, 6th century CE King of Persia

Building bridges across the Bosporus Straits has long been a contentious issue. History tells us that King Darius the Great of Persia was the first to achieve the feat back in 513 BCE. Western history has generally viewed Darius I as a ‘bad guy’, since one of his aims at the time was to subjugate the ‘Greeks’ of Athens and Sparta (who were, of course, the ‘good guys’). His dastardly scheme was eventually foiled by the sorely outnumbered but irrepressibly heroic ‘Greeks’ at the Battle of Marathon.

Hollywood scored a major hit with its cinematic version of those days, ‘300’, and is following it up with a sequel. There were some, including the people of Iran, who felt that the first film was a thinly-veiled work of American propaganda focusing on the so-called clash of cultures, East and West; with the West, representing freedom, democracy and other good things, inevitably coming out on top. Interestingly, King Darius probably wouldn’t have got as far as he did without the bridge-building skills of an engineer called Mandocles from the island of Samos – whom Western histories also insist on calling ‘Greek’.

Well, history had to wait two-and-a-half millennia for a second more permanent bridge to be built across the Bosporus. Once again, it was a people on the wrong side of that cultural divide – the Muslim Turks – who effected the construction. Perhaps ironically, the Turks were already in Europe; by far the more populous part of their largest city, Istanbul, lying on the northern shore of the waterway long-regarded by Europeans as the frontier of Asia.

That first bridge in the modern era, despite being a major marvel of engineering (it was the longest suspension bridge outside the United States at the time), and a significant symbolic achievement for the Republic of Turkey on its 50th anniversary, was given the relatively inoffensive title of ‘The Bosporus Bridge’. Fifteen years later, when a second and longer structure spanned the strait, Turks decided to be a little more self-assertive, naming it after Sultan Mehmet I, Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople in 1453. A third bridge, currently under construction, will bear the name of Mehmet’s grandson, Sultan Selim I, known in the West as ‘The Grim’, and to Turks as ‘Yavuz’. It’s not an easy word to translate, but possibly ‘One Tough S.O.B.’ comes close. Selim is remembered as the guy who established the Ottomans as Number One Power in the Muslim world, taking for himself and his descendants the title of Caliph, and tripling the land area of imperial dominions.

Turkey’s current president, Tayyip Erdoğan, continues to field criticism from several directions, and a beef some have is that he seems to see himself as modern-day sultan of a re-emerging Ottoman Empire. Whether he does or not, I can’t say, but possibly he admires some of the qualities of that 16th century Padishah. Certainly no political figure in modern times apart from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has held centre stage for so long – and the great founder of Republican Turkey didn’t have to bother himself with elections.

Yavuz Selim - namesake of the controversial new bridge

Yavuz Selim – namesake of the controversial new bridge

Four Prime Ministers and their governments since 1960 have been ousted by military intervention. Adnan Menderes, who took the original decision back in 1957 to build the first Bosporus Bridge, was actually hanged along with two of his ministers three years later. The crossing was completed in 1973 in the aftermath of a second coup d’état. Alevi citizens of Turkey, who make up somewhere between 10 and 20% of the population, are reportedly unhappy with the choice of Sultan Selim as namesake of the new bridge. Back in 1514, in a power struggle with the other great Muslim empire of the day, the Persian Safavids, Selim apparently put a large number of their ancestors to the sword, and they haven’t forgotten. Governing a country like Turkey isn’t easy.

Nevertheless, those bridges have been built, and most would probably agree they are a good thing – while they may disagree about how many are actually necessary. The symbolism of a positive link between East and West didn’t escape George Dubya Bush back in 2004 when he was in town for a NATO Summit conference. Whether he thought it up for himself, or was manoeuvred into it by less literal-minded aides is open to question; but for sure he made the most of the setting for a photo op shoot. The annual Eurasian Marathon has become an important event on the calendar for those who go in for that kind of masochistic pleasure – and the final stage of the cycling Tour de Turkey crosses the Bosporus in the footsteps of the Persian Darius. Linking Europe and Asia has turned Istanbul into a truly transcontinental city, allowing and encouraging expansion into areas once largely the preserve of the wealthy for holiday homes and hunting lodges.

The population of Turkey’s largest city passed two million in the late 60s, and was still only around 2.5 million when that first bridge was opened. By 1980 there were 1.6 million on the Asian side alone, and the current estimate is five million, more than any other city in the country, including the capital. Ankara. The first wave of new settlers razed the old wooden Ottoman houses in ancient districts like Üsküdar, replacing them with soulless concrete 5-storey apartment blocks, and urban sprawl began to ooze inexorably down the Marmara coast.

In the second decade of the third CE millennium, the new phenomenon is urban renewal. Some concepts of town planning are belatedly entering the thinking of municipal authorities; new residential and commercial developments are moving inland where land is more affordable; and low-rise apartment blocks nearer the coast are giving way to multi-level luxury towers with underground car-parking. Inevitably the exponential growth that has taken place over the last 40 years has exacted a toll on the architectural legacies of previous ages – but there are signs that a new, if also belated, awareness is emerging of the desirability of preserving the remaining stock of historic buildings.

Suadiye Mosque - a little known late-Ottoman gem

Suadiye Mosque – a little known late-Ottoman gem

Dilek’s family home of 30 years is currently being demolished, and we have moved to temporary rental accommodation. The Suadiye mosque nearby, after which our district is named, is undergoing much needed renovation. A row of long-neglected workshops, formerly providing income for the mosque foundation, is being restored for some new undisclosed purpose; and the activity prompted me to take an interest in the building’s origins.

A plaque on the gate informs passers-by that the mosque was built in 1905 to the memory of Suad, beloved daughter of a certain Reşat Paşa (Reshat Pasha), Finance Minister in the government of Sultan Abdülhamit II. The Pasha is better known for his summer getaway, a two-storey twin-towered mansion a kilometre or so away, until recently functioning as an up-market restaurant before it became the location for a popular TV soap, ‘Çalıkuşu’, set in late-Ottoman times.

Kamran and Feride - young lovers in 'Çalıkuşu'

Kamran and Feride – young lovers in ‘Çalıkuşu’

During the term of the present government there has been a growing interest in those days which had previously, perhaps of necessity, been an object of denial by Kemalist republicans. Much of the interest, understandably, has focused on the glory days of empire, the 15th to the 17th century, with the later years of declining fortunes still possibly something of an embarrassment. Abdülhamit’s reputation especially, at home and abroad, is not so good. Although he ruled for 33 years, he is known mainly for suspending constitutional parliamentary rule after a brief two-year trial, and for presiding over a period when minorities within the empire, in particular Armenians, were harshly dealt with. He was finally deposed by the ‘Young Turk’ revolution of 1909.

Perhaps history has been unkind to Abdülhamit, and it is time for a reappraisal. Apparently he was a good family man, having thirteen wives and siring seventeen children. Although reverting to the autocratic methods of his predecessors, he also carried out much-needed bureaucratic reforms and construction of public works including schools, telegraph networks and railways. He was unfortunate in ruling at a time when Russia was aggressively expanding into the Caucasus and the Balkans – and Great Britain was no longer interested in helping to oppose Tsarist imperialism in those regions. Abülhamit’s modernising zeal was tempered with religious/cultural conservatism – his pan-Islamic sympathies, and curtailing of foreigners’ privileges won him few friends in the governments of Western Europe.

Reşat Paşa's modest summer retreat

Reşat Paşa’s modest summer retreat

Perhaps I will return to that interesting sultan in a later post. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that Ahmet Reshat Pasha was a Western-educated economist and one of Abdülhamit’s most trusted ministers, being appointed Grand Vizier in 1900; and his summer retreat in the Kazasker district reflects his status as Number Two Man in the empire.

Few of those palatial holiday homes have survived to the present day, fewer still in good repair. One that attracted my attention recently is located in Bağdat Ave near Bostancı. The avenue is so-called because, if you carry on in that direction long enough without taking a wrong turning, you will probably end up in that ancient city astride the Tigris River. This particular stretch of it, however, is the Champs Elysées of Asian Istanbul, lined with trendy cafés and restaurants, high-end department stores and purveyors of local and imported brand-name clothing and accessories.

'The beauty of the past will enhance the glory of the present'

‘The beauty of the past will enhance the glory of the present’

Cavit Paşa (Djavit Pasha) was a senior army officer, war hero and Member of Parliament in the early republican era. He was one who successfully bridged the transition from empire to republic, having previously served the Ottoman sultans as politician, diplomat and military commander. His summer mansion had fallen into disrepair and was under threat of demolition as the surrounding area modernised and re-gentrified. In the past year restoration work has begun, perhaps inspired by the fact that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself had stayed in the house on several occasions.

In spite of its popularity with the rich and powerful, the Asian side of the Bosporus was pretty inaccessible to the majority of Istanbul’s population. My wife Dilek and her family had a house in Kartal, now terminal station of the new underground Metro line, and thoroughly urbanised. In those days, however, it was pleasantly rural, with market gardens, cattle grazing in fields and clean beaches yet to be cut off by the waterfront highway. In the 19th century, an enterprising fellow established a small general store much nearer to the Bosporus – yet he was known as the ‘crazy grocer’ for setting up shop in the middle of nowhere, and the district bears that name (Şaşkınbakkal) today.

The view from Çamlica Hill

The view from Çamlica Hill

One of the present government’s many controversial projects is the construction of a monumental mosque near the summit of Çamlica Hill. On completion, the mosque will be the largest in Turkey, and will be clearly visible from European Istanbul. The project is attracting criticism for a number of reasons: the huge mosque is another sign of the government’s plan to re-Islamicise the country; Çamlıca Hill is a beautiful spot that shouldn’t be sullied by major construction; the mosque’s architecture is unimaginative, being merely a poor copy of the great edifices of Ottoman times etc. etc.

Well, I have no strong feelings on the matter – but since the 17th century the city’s political and commercial elite have been building their mansions on the hill for its spectacular views of the city. Since the 1980s and 90s the summit has been disfigured by a forest of radio and television masts – whose location and function may be considered by some to be more offensive than a mosque. There has been a suggestion that the physical well-being of worshippers may be affected by electro-magnetic radiation.

In the end, one thing is certain – the population of Istanbul will increase and development will continue apace. The positive signs I see at the present time are that healthy debate is taking place and urban planning is playing a more important role in construction and growth. Istanbul is a national flagship showing the face of Turkey to the world – and the world is starting to pay attention.

New Zealand is home to 3 million people and 60 million sheep?

This post has absolutely nothing to do with Turkey.  I just wanted to share this official information from the NZ Government’s statistics web site about my unfairly disparaged home country:

“It’s widely believed that New Zealand has 20 sheep for every person – information that adds weight to myriad sheep jokes. How accurate is this these days?

Son durak. Kimse kalmasın ;-)

Son durak. Kimse kalmasın ;-)

“To begin with, we must find out how many people live in New Zealand. The population passed the 4 million mark in 2003. Our population clock put the event at precisely 5.30 pm on Thursday, 24 April. “By 31 December 2011, the estimated resident population had reached 4.42 million people.

“Next, we must find out how many sheep we have. According to Statistics New Zealand’s agricultural production statistics, we had an estimated 31.1 million sheep at 30 June 2011.

“This means that the sheep-to-person ratio has fallen to a third of its level 25 years ago. It now stands at a little over seven sheep per person.” Read the rest of the article.

Christmas Turkeys on the Road to Perdition

We had a visit from the Pope recently, here in Istanbul. His Holiness doesn’t live too very far away, but he’s not a regular visitor, so there was good media coverage of the event, here and abroad. According to Wikipedia, Christians in Turkey account for a mere 0.13% of the country’s 75 million people – and RCs are so few they don’t even warrant a mention. There are, however, a couple of quite grand 19th century churches in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, and several prestigious schools sponsored by the French government with beatific names like St Benoit and St Pulcherie dating from times when West European states had their imperialist eyes on the declining Ottoman Empire – so the Vatican feels obliged to show the flag from time to time, I guess.

Two old guys comparing fancy dress

Two old guys comparing fancy dress

Anyway, there he was, Pope Francis, joining local Muslims in prayer at the 17th century Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (known to tourists as the ‘Blue Mosque’), visiting the 1,500 year-old church of Hagia Sophia (these days a museum), and meeting with Bartholomew, ‘His Most Divine All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church’. According to a BBC report, Francis and Bartholomew have a strong personal relationship’, and the two were expected to discuss, amongst other matters, the possibility of patching up the differences that led to the two churches going their separate ways amid great bitterness and mutual excommunications a thousand years ago, back in 1054 CE. The matter is further complicated, of course, by the fact that the Patriarch’s city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, since when, as the BBC article notes, it has been known as Istanbul.

Well, I can’t tell you whether those inter-communal discussions bore much fruit, but if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople to reach an amicable arrangement of revolving leadership or some such compromise. There are too many issues of critical importance to the future of the planet, such as what kind of bread should be used in celebration of Holy Communion, and who did (or did not) sneak an extra word into the basic statement of Christian belief back in the 6th century. There is also the matter of a document used by Pope Leo IX in the 11th century to justify his claim to universal supremacy. The document was subsequently shown to have been a forgery, but this small inconvenience does not seem to have in any way undermined RC doctrine that their Pope is the latest in an unbroken line of succession going back to Jesus Christ himself.

Poe Francis taking a serious interest in the Quran

Pope Francis taking a serious interest in the Quran

Still, it was nice to see those two old guys making conciliatory noises, and rubbing shoulders with their Muslim cousins-in-faith in an Islamic place of worship. To be fair, Pope Francis seems to place less importance on anachronistic fancy dress costumes than his predecessors, and has made some public statements about inequalities of wealth distribution. This may have something to do with the fact that he hails from Argentina – the first non-European Pope, so they tell me, for 1,272 years. He is still, however, holding the line on abortion, artificial contraception and homosexuality – issues on which God Him/Herself apparently has strong views. We know this because the Pope has a direct hotline to God via St Peter and Jesus, and any time he speaks with the full authority of his office he is deemed to be infallible – by virtue of a dogma laid down by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Well, it must be nice to know that, whenever you open your mouth, 1.214 billion people, or 17.5% of the world’s population are obliged to accept what you say as gospel truth. On the other hand, when a guy gets to be 78 years of age, there’s always a chance that he may blurt out something in his role as Pope which is really just an opinion of plain old Jorge Mario Bergoglio[1]. Something of the sort happened just the other day during a general audience at the Vatican when Pope Francis apparently suggested that humans might be reunited with their beloved pets in heaven. Other Popes before him have held out similar hope – but unfortunately it flies in the face of official RC doctrine that says animals cannot go to heaven because they have no souls.

Will you meet him again in Heaven? Would you want to?

Will you meet him again in Heaven? Would you want to?

As a result, Vatican officials have been at pains to point out that Father Jorge may occasionally say things that are not to be construed as official RC dogma – which opens the door for some confusion as to when the Pontiff’s pontifications are to be considered infallible and when not. The current Pope took the name Francis, on assuming office, after St Francis of Assisi, whom he is said to admire. The earlier Francis was a monk of the 12th/13th centuries best known as the patron saint of animals – but he is also said to have visited the sultan (which sultan?) in Egypt in 1219 with a view to converting him to Christianity and putting an end to the Crusades. Which may have been another reason for the current Francis’s visit to Turkey – but I haven’t heard that President Tayyip Erdoğan was influenced to that extent.

In the end, I’m not sure what shocks me most about these papal characters: their jaw-dropping self-righteous arrogance, or their determined literal-minded espousal of a belief system rooted in a culture that died out more than a thousand years ago. In fact, I question whether the Popes themselves truly believe the stuff they expect their flock to swallow without question. These are highly educated guys, remember, and yet they can, we assume with a straight face, make assertions like the following: We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.’

Our Francis, despite, we are told, bringing personal experience of Third World poverty to the Vatican See, continues to assert that Catholics who remarry after getting divorced cannot take Holy Communion. Just last year he excommunicated an Australian priest for deviating from official doctrine. Possibly his most outrageous claim would be ‘It is absurd to say you follow Jesus Christ but reject the Church.’ Of course, you can understand why he’d say it. You can’t have too many people thinking they can be Christians just by following the words and example of the founding prophet – otherwise all those cardinals, bishops and whatnot would be out of a job.

Has the world moved on since 381 CE?

Has the world moved on since 381 CE?

And the sad fact is, they probably deserve to be. Just take a look at so-called articles of faith on which that ‘Church’ is founded. After Christianity became, first accepted by, and shortly after, the official religion of the Roman Empire, seven ‘Ecumenical Councils’ were summoned to determine exactly what ‘orthodox’ Christians should believe. At various venues in the Byzantine Empire (now modern Turkey), bishops gathered together to lay down crucial precepts such as that Jesus Christ is ‘the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. . . who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,’ and that further, ‘he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead. . . We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’

To tell you the honest truth, I used to wonder about some of that stuff when I was a little fellow sitting in church surrounded by devout adults mouthing it all dutifully and, I assumed, believing it in their hearts. What was wrong with me, I wondered. It was a great consolation when, after coming to live in Istanbul, I realised that most of the mumbo-jumbo had been formulated by committees of bishops and priests whose main purpose was to get rid of colleagues who refused to toe the party line. There were seven of these councils up to the end of the 8th century. Most present-day mainstream churches accept their decisions, and insist that their members affirm their belief out loud on regular occasions.

The Roman Catholic Church, after setting out on its own, subsequently held fourteen more such councils, the last of which, known as the Second Vatican Council, was held in 1962-5. Each of these councils added further conditions required for membership of the true Church:

  • The Fourth Lateran Council in 1213 formalised the doctrine of Transubstantiation – which states that the bread and wine used for Holy Communion is actually and mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Much of the mystery seems to consist of the fact that to all appearances the bread and wine still looks pretty much like actual bread and wine. That same council also stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians.
  • The First Vatican Council of 1870 was the one that laid down the doctrine of papal infallibility (mentioned above). The Holy Fathers might have done a lot more besides, except that the Franco-Prussian war intervened, and the Number One Catholic power of the day, and defender of the true faith, France, was given a serious beating. This opened the way for Italians to unite themselves into a country for the first time since Roman Imperial days, annex Rome and threaten the integrity of papal power. There was a brief time when it looked as though the Holy See might have to move to Germany for protection. Wouldn’t that have been interesting!

Well, at least Pope Francis seems to be doing his best to heal wounds and promote meaningful inter-communal dialogue. Prompted by a vague nostalgia for Christmases past, I took myself along to a carol service at the Anglican Christ Church in Beyoğlu/Taksim on Christmas Eve. I could have got over the sad lack of organ accompaniment or any kind of choral grandeur in the service, but the chaplain’s sermon was an appalling anti-Muslim tirade hiding behind platitudes about ‘ours’ being a religion of peace and love focusing on the birth of an innocent little baby – in contrast with the ‘barbarians’ who were now murdering Christians in the lands where ‘our’ faith was born. As I walked out of the building I was sorely tempted to call out something about Tony Blah’s conniving in the slaughter of innocent Iraqi babies not so very long ago – but I swallowed the words and left the faithful to get on with their business. Anyway, I remembered, their Tone had subsequently converted to Roman Catholicism taking the burden of his sins with him.


[1] The Pope’s actual birth name

Banking Wizardry in the Land of Oz

The original Wizard of Oz - an allegory about money?

The original Wizard of Oz – an allegory about money?

Among the blogs I visit from time to time is one produced by the British Museum. On my one visit to the actual institution, a section I overlooked was the Citi Money Gallery which apparently deals with the history of money. Sorry I missed it. Anyway, the museum blog informs me that their collection of money-related objects and artifacts includes a copy of L Frank Baum’s 1900 book ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’.

Probably no one would be paying much attention to Mr Baum or his book these days if MGM hadn’t made a Technicolor film of it in 1939 – the company’s most expensive movie to that date. It wasn’t apparently a box-office hit at the time, losing the Oscar-winning race to ‘Gone with the Wind’. Television reruns in the mid-50s introduced it to a new audience, however, earning it a place in the hearts of post-war baby-boomer Americans, and 2014 marks the film’s 75th birthday.

That’s fine and dandy, you may say, but what’s the connection with the world of banking and finance? Well, according to the British Museum blogger, ‘some economists, politicians and historians believe that the story is actually a monetary allegory.’ Not that L Frank ever made such a claim himself. It seems that the theory only surfaced in 1964 when a high school English teacher, in a flight of fanciful literary analysis, claimed a connection between the exploits of Dorothy and her ragtag trio of traveling companions, and a short-lived late-19th century monetary theory known as ‘bimetallism’.

The film appeared in 1939 - A fable for the Great Depression

The film appeared in 1939 – A fable for the Great Depression

‘Dorothy’s silver shoes walking on a gold road,’ so the story goes, ‘could represent the two metals working together to provide a route towards a stable economy. . . Is the land called ‘Oz’ because this is an abbreviation of ounces, the standard measure for gold? Did farmers (the Scarecrow) need more business sense (a brain) to help them survive during a period of economic instability? Is the all-powerful Wizard really the President, who hides behind a smoke-screen of promises but in fact has very little actual power? Do the different locations of the four witches represent the geographical divides in America? Did advances in industry create automated production lines which reduced the workforce (or created workers with no heart)?’

Can’t you just see the blue-stocking students of that high school English Lit. teacher dutifully writing down all that nonsense, regurgitating it word-for-word in his end-of-semester exam and being rewarded with A+ grades?

The power behind everything

The power behind everything

Nevertheless, that blog post got me thinking. Maybe those guys in the pre-war MGM studio had some allegorical purpose of their own in mind. The United States and much of the developed world had been suffering through the 1930s the effects of a disastrous economic depression. Many perfectly reasonable people believed that the Great Depression, with its miseries of widespread unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, dispossessions, loss of savings, starvation, suicides and police brutality, had been a totally preventable event caused by the greed and selfishness of ruthless bankers and financial speculators. There was a powerful groundswell of opinion that saw a crying need for controls on the financial sector, and wanted governments to seize back the power to create their nation’s credit.

Give them the power and the result is a foregone conclusion

Give them the power and the result is a foregone conclusion

Now I’m not saying those people at Metro Goldwyn Mayer were actually taking a pot-shot at the banking industry – but to me the idea makes a lot more sense than that stuff about bimetallism and ‘Oz’ ounces. Maybe the all-powerful Wizard represents the international banking system which has the whole world under its control. We poor credulous citizens of the world are the Scarecrows, Tin Woodsmen and Cowardly Lions who pathetically believe in the magic of money and the mystical power of banks to solve all our problems. The Wizard (the bankers) use every trick, threat and weapon at their disposal to prevent anyone form challenging their power – while in fact they are really only sad old men fit for not much else but working in a circus. It is our credulity that gives them their power. Dorothy returns home to Kansas and lives (we assume) happily ever after – but sad to say it’s only another American dream.

Orientalism – Alive and well in the NY Times

Turkey is a difficult country to get a handle on. Citizens themselves don’t find it easy. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic in 1923, is credited with uttering many wise words for the guidance of his people. Among the best known: “Happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk.’” He was a wise man, that Mustafa Kemal. He knew he needed to foster a spirit of Turkish nationalism that would inspire a war-weary people to fight once more for the survival of their country. He was equally aware that ‘Turkishness’ was not an easy concept to define, but he wanted to encourage the same feelings of patriotism others invoke when they say, ‘I’m Australian’, ‘I’m British’, or whatever. Try to define any of those words, however, and you may soon find yourself in difficulties. Possibly it’s enough to say ‘I’m American’ and believe it in your heart, without having to provide specific details of your personal creed and ethnic origins.

Camels in Turkey - a photo op for tourists

Camels in Turkey – a photo op for tourists

For that reason, I guess, it’s pretty nigh impossible for outsiders to grasp what is that makes an American or a Turk what he or she is – but of course that doesn’t stop us from trying, and often falling into the trap of stereotyping. In the opening years of the 21st century the Republic of Turkey seems to have emerged as an influential figure in international affairs, with a (sometimes disturbing) will of its own – so it’s not surprising that more attempts are being made to understand what makes Turkey tick.

I’ve just been reading a book review clipped from the New York Times and sent to me by an American friend. The book is ‘Midnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul’ by Charles King, reviewed by Jason Goodwin – and it happens that I have books by both writers on my shelves at home. Mr Goodwin is a Cambridge-educated historian and novelist who clearly has a fascination for the old days of the Ottoman Empire. I haven’t read his novels – the book in my collection is ‘Lords of the Horizons’, a history of the Ottoman saga that begins in the third millennium BCE in the steppes of Central Asia and ends in 1923 when the last Ottoman Sultan is smuggled on board a British warship and spirited away from an empire that has ceased to exist.

Istanbul's Pera Palace Hotel - recently restored to glory

Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel – recently restored to glory

Charles King is probably a more committed historian, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University, Washington DC, an institution, Wikipedia informs me, that is the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States. Feeling a need to learn about a mysterious region that attracts media attention from time to time, I purchased Prof. King’s ‘The Ghost of Freedom – A History of the Caucasus’, which I found both readable and immensely informative.

So I have nothing against either of these gentlemen. I respect their scholarship, writing skills and interest in helping outsiders, especially in the West, to gain better understanding of distant lands and people that continue to influence world affairs. I was, however, somewhat disappointed to find significant errors of fact and misleading statements of opinion in the review which I hope were not sourced from Prof. King’s new book.

Jason Goodwin does concede that Istanbul (and possibly by extension, Turkey) ‘is a rare blend of Islam and democracy’, but he can’t resist beginning his review with reference to the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ demonstrations of 2013. While distancing himself with the use of phrases like ‘many people felt’ and ‘Some suspected’, he manages to work in the one-sided opinion that a dictatorial government and its leader were using police violence to enforce their ‘narrow ends’ on a peace-loving population.

Ottoman army conquers Constantinople - May, 1453

Ottoman army conquers Constantinople – May, 1453

Well, he’s entitled to his views, although as a ‘historian’ one might expect him to be a little more objective – not to say knowledgeable. ‘Constantinople,’ he says in his review, ‘as Istanbul was known in the 1930s.’ Known to who? Even followers of popular music in the USA would be aware that it was ‘Istanbul, not Constantinople.’ and had been for nearly five centuries. And a quick glance at Wikipedia would inform the reviewer that the Pera Palace Hotel was built a good forty years earlier, in 1892, in a district not ‘decimated by fire’ (whatever that means) but even today characterized by an abundance of spectacular 19th century architecture.

Goodwin’s most outrageous sentence would have to be the one where he says that ‘Muslims [were] outnumbered, by one estimate, 15 to one’ in First World War Istanbul. According to 1914 census figures, Muslims in Istanbul numbered 560,434 out of a total population of 909,978 – ten times more than the figure that reviewer’s unreferenced ‘estimate’ would yield. Possibly he is thinking of just the Pera/Galata area on the northern shore of the Golden Horn where traders, ambassadors and other migrants from Europe had been allowed for centuries to take up residence in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’. If so, he should certainly know better. The real Istanbul, even Constantinople, was located on the other shore, enclosed by the walls of the ancient city, and reserved for citizens of the Empire – Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Orthodox Christians.

Goodwin suggests that Professor King’s book tells stories ‘the Erdoğans [referring to Turkey’s President] of today would gladly leapfrog’, and it may well be that the book contains anecdotes and historical asides that are not well known. Leon Trotsky, referred to as ‘Istanbul’s most famous interwar Russian guest’ is said to have preferred Germany, Britain or France. In fact the exiled Russian revolutionary did spend four years on an island off the coast of Istanbul before being granted a visa to live in France. He was, however, never permitted to enter Paris, and was eventually asked to leave the country. Subsequently he spent a brief period in Norway before moving to Mexico where we was assassinated in 1940 on the orders of Josef Stalin. He might have been better advised to remain in Istanbul.

Greek army invades Izmir - May 1919

Greek army invades Izmir – May 1919

I’m inclined to think that Turkey’s current leaders are more knowledgeable about their county’s history than Mr Goodwin would have you believe. They would certainly know, for instance, that the Treaty of Lausanne (signed in 1923) had very little to do with World War I. It was, in fact, an agreement reluctantly accepted by Western powers after the Greek invasion of Anatolia (that they had sponsored) was defeated by Turkish nationalists fighting for their country’s very existence. They would also know that those same Western powers had been manipulating the ‘Eastern Question’ with the use of ‘ethnic labels’ long before the Lausanne agreement was signed. Those powers had been talking about ‘Turkey’ and ‘Turks’ for centuries before that country came into existence and those people had any sense of national identity; encouraging Greek nationalism for at least a hundred years, and Armenians for fifty, with the aim of splintering the multinational Ottoman Empire from within.

Ottoman army liberates Izmir - September, 1922

Ottoman army liberates Izmir – September, 1922

In his book, according to Jason Goodwin, Professor King compares Kemal Ataturk and his republican nationalists to the Bolsheviks in Russia with their ‘show trials, massacres and expulsions.’ If he did indeed make such a comparison, I am disappointed in the learned writer whose work on the Caucasus I found so interesting and informative. Surely he knows that the Bolsheviks were insurrectionists who, rightly or wrongly, overthrew their own legally constituted government, while the Turks had to fight and drive out invading enemies that had occupied their capital city, virtually enslaved their sultan and his ministers, and were intent on dividing the country amongst themselves. I am sure he must know that ‘Turkey’ had long provided asylum for Muslim refugees driven from neighbouring regions by Christian aggressors. Christian citizens, rather than being expelled from the new Republic of Turkey, were exchanged for Muslims from Greece – their situation having become untenable because of their jubilation over the above-mentioned invasion.

Circassian (Muslim) refugees fleeing Russian ethnic cleansing - 1860s

Circassian (Muslim) refugees fleeing Russian ethnic cleansing – 1860s

Well, as our reviewer concedes at last, the story of Istanbul is ‘complex and highly nuanced’, and (this he does not say) historians, like the rest of us, tend to view the world through the filters that lie behind their eyes. Possibly a double-filter is at work here, and Professor King’s work of scholarship has been misrepresented by a reviewer whose Orientalist nostalgia for a land of mystique and intrigue, of exotic harem slave-girls and omnipotent but mentally unhinged sultans immured in gilded cages has prevented him from following the last ninety years of Turkey’s development. Probably I should set aside the review and let Professor King speak for himself.

What worries me, however, is that others may not do this, mistaking the messenger for the message itself. This is all the more likely when there are Turkish nationals contributing to the distortion of their country’s image abroad. Killing time at the airport the other day waiting for my wife to return from a visit to the USA, I picked up a copy of the New York Times. Among other interesting bits and pieces, I chanced on a brief item announcing ‘US Warns of Attack in Turkey’. According to the article, an official US source had suggested that unspecified extremists might be planning an attack on the headquarters of a group opposing the beleaguered Syrian government of Bashar al Asad. The item went on to inform us that the group is based in the city of Gaziantep ‘near the Syrian border’ and contained the following intriguing sentence: ‘The statement, issued by the United States Embassy in Ankara, did not name the supposed planners of the attack, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has been active along Turkey’s 560 mile border with Syria.’ Huh?

Well, first of all I’m wondering why a New York newspaper has to run an article about a vague possible threat to supporters of a civil war thousands of kilometres and an Atlantic Ocean away from downtown Manhattan. But leave that aside. How does the writer justify making a connection, in the same sentence, between unnamed planners, and ISIS or ISIL, the latest in a long line of Islamic bogeymen bringing terror to the West? Why do Western ‘news’ sources insist on referring to Turkey’s government as ‘pro-Islamic? They never seem to feel a similar need to label the US government pro-Roman Catholic, or pro-Zionist despite compelling evidence that it is.

Interestingly, the by-line of this item links it to a woman in Istanbul with the distinctively Turkish name of Şebnem Arsu. She quotes a spokesman from the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara saying ‘the US has intelligence operations all along Turkey’s borders. They must have gathered information that pointed at risks that can’t be dismissed.’ As for me, I’m not convinced those US intelligence gatherers would have the degree of fluency in the Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish languages necessary to operate in the region with greater efficiency than local spooks – but maybe I am underestimating US resources. Be that as it may, it is once again clear that, if you want to gain a better understanding of the modern Republic of Turkey, you’d do well to double check anything you read in the New York Times.

A Mosque in Munich – Book review

The following review appeared recently in the English language daily ‘Hürriyet Daily News’ – an interesting chapter in an on-going tale of woe: US encouragement of extremist groups for its own dubious purposes.

A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’ by Ian Johnson (Mariner Books, 336 pages, $16)

2012005947William ARMSTRONG

Everyone knows by now about U.S. backing for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s – Exhibit A for those shaking their heads at Washington’s foreign policy blunders in the Muslim world. Rather less widely known, at least until this book was written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson, was how that support had precedents at the start of the Cold War in post-World War II Europe, when U.S. and German intelligence jostled for influence over various Muslim groups as anti-communist instruments to undermine the USSR. With a cast including Nazis, the CIA, the German intelligence agency, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a host of flamboyant individual characters, the subject matter certainly makes for a spectacular title.

Johnson begins the tale back in the war, when the Nazis recruited proxy forces from the Muslims of Central Asia and the Caucasus to fight the Soviets on the Eastern Front. After hostilities ended, many ex-soldiers of these units found themselves living in West Germany, as did other Nazi collaborators from the Soviet Union’s Muslim regions and those who were able to flee Stalin’s Russia. Before long, the attention of post-war German and U.S. intelligence agencies would turn to these groups as intelligence sources and voices in the West’s propaganda war against the godless communist bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

The mosque in the book’s title is the Islamic Center of Munich, which started out as a humble community center for Central Asian Muslim refugees in Germany after the war. In subsequent years, however, it would develop to become a hub for U.S. and German governments and several prominent Muslims to jostle for influence at the center of Europe. The U.S. placed its bets with Said Ramadan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood exiled by the Nasser regime in Egypt, who is today better known as the father of prominent Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. The elder Ramadan eventually emerged as the authority at the top of the mosque, which although very humble (it was originally located next to a rubbish tip) ended up becoming the controversial center of a wide range of Islamist activity across Europe, “a center of international Islamism” in Johnson’s words. Read the full article.

Cultural Amnesia – Islamic contributions to modern science and technology

It gives you some idea of the wealth of the Ottoman sultans that the stables of the old Topkapı Palace have been converted into a moderately large museum; not actually dedicated to equestrian pursuits, but housing Istanbul’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam.

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Well, you might think it’s a long name for a museum that won’t contain very much – but you’d be wrong. The MSTI (or in Turkish, İBTTM) features displays and models in fifteen scientific fields from a thousand years of high Islamic culture, beginning in the 7th century and ending at the start of the 17th when Western Europe took over as the centre of scientific research and discovery. Somewhat unusually for a museum in this country, the displays are fully and clearly explained by text in four languages, German, French and English as well as Turkish.

The linguistic competence, and in fact the foundation of the museum itself, are attributable to Professor Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Professor Sezgin taught at Istanbul University until 1960 when he, along with many other intellectuals, was removed from office after the military coup in May of that year. Escaping the fate of the unfortunate prime minister at the time, Prof. Sezgin made his way to Germany where he embarked on a successful academic career specialising in the history of Arab-Islamic science, helping to found a museum in Frankfurt with replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps.

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Several government ministers and the mayor of Istanbul visited the German museum, and were so impressed that they decided to support the establishment of a similar institution in Turkey’s largest city. The old Topkapı Palace stables in the beautiful Gülhane Park had just been renovated, and the museum was opened in 2008 with models and displays related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan has once again provoked mirth in some circles with his claim just the other day that Muslim sailors had discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. Well, some criticism is justified, given that it was actually Native Americans who stumbled upon the place around 12,000 years before Vikings, Portuguese or Muslims even thought about looking – and Americans have been giving thanks as usual this week for their support of the early colonists from England. Nevertheless, Mr Erdoğan has an ally in Professor Sezgin who claims that Islamic scholars had accurately calculated latitude and longitude, and created a partial map of the American continent by the early 15th century at the latest.

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

The Istanbul Museum has a wonderfully informative website, http://www.ibttm.org/ where you can find the text of Prof. Sezgin’s five-volume catalogue of the Frankfurt collection. It’s a challenging read, but the key ideas were summarized in an interview with the learned professor published in Turkish Airlines’ Skylife magazine last year.

Essentially, Sezgin believes that the traditional Western view of a ‘renaissance’ of classical knowledge taking place from the 14th to the 17th centuries is a distortion of the truth. He argues that the accepted idea of ‘The Renaissance’ was a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that Arab and other İslamic scholars had translated the works of classical philosophers from the early days of their conquests in the 7th century, assimilated their knowledge and developed it further. As the Arab Empire spread through the Middle East, North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Prof. Sezgin claims, these advanced ideas were carried as far as Spain and Portugal, thus becoming available to Western Europeans. He goes on to suggest that Crusaders from Europe in the 12th century also came in contact with this knowledge and began bringing it back when they returned to their scientifically and technologically backward homes.

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

I checked out some of those volumes from the Frankfurt Museum catalogue, and for sure there is some thought-provoking material. Professor Sezgin makes the case that, as Muslim Arabs conquered cities that had been centres of learning in the Roman and Byzantine world, Damascus, Emessa, Aleppo, Antioch and Alexandria, they recognised the importance of the knowledge contained there, and took care to absorb it into the new world they were creating. The 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mamun receives special mention for his encouragement and fostering of scholarship and research, particularly in the field of geography and map-making. He had astronomical observatories built in Baghdad and later Damascus. The 9th century Persian scholar Musa al-Khwarizmi is credited with bringing algebra (the word is derived from Arabic) and the decimal place-value number system to the West when his works were translated into Latin. The Latinised version of his name is the source of our word ‘algorithm’ and this Muslim gentleman is sometimes referred to as the father of computer science. Another Persian scholar al-Biruni in the 11th century made important contributions in many fields including mathematics and astronomy where he analysed and developed the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these Islamic scholars to the blossoming of scientific knowledge in Western Europe was recognised by some at the time. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the 14th century when the Crusades were relatively fresh in memory, and ‘Christians’ were in the process of ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula. In his ‘Prologue’ to the Tales, Chaucer describes his physician thus:

Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.’

Of the poor scholar, subject of the Miller’s Tale, we are told, ‘His Almagest and other books great and small, his astrolabe, which he used in his art, and his counting-stones for calculating, all lay neatly by themselves on shelves at the head of his bed.’

Razis, in fact, is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian Muslim physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

Avicen is Ibn Sina, 11th century Persian Muslim scholar, especially known for his writings on philosophy and medicine.

Averrhoes is Ibn Rushd a 12th century Andalusian Muslim polymath, master of philosophy, Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence, psychology, politics, music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.

Almagest refers to Ptolemy’s work on astronomy that came to Europe from Greek via Arabic, and the name used here is Arabic[1].

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

So clearly Chaucer was well aware of the contribution these Muslim scholars had made to European scientific knowledge. One volume of Professor Sezgin’s Frankfurt catalogue deals with the ‘Reception and Assimilation of Islamic Science in the West’. He refers to the research of a 19th century French Arabist scholar, Ernest Renan, who postulated that, because Arabic was the language of educated Muslims, Christians and Jews in ‘Spain’ in the Middle Ages, all had access to the learning of the Islamic Golden Age. Jews in particular, for example the 12th century philosopher Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun) carried this knowledge into Western Europe. Sezgin also refers to the work of a 20th century German scholar, Heinrich Schipperges who identified an Arab physician Constantinus Africanus. This gentleman, in the 10th century, converted to Christianity and became a monk in Salermo, Italy, bringing with him dozens of Arabic medical books which were subsequently translated into Latin. Medical texts written by those Arab scholars mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century.

Possibly Professor Sezgin’s most interesting suggestion is that one of the major reasons for the sudden emergence of Spain and Portugal as leaders in the European ocean-going race and exploration of the New World was their fortuitous inheritance of the astronomical, geographical and mathematical knowledge of the Muslim scientists as they ‘reconquered’ the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. It has also been suggested that the inquisitorial clearing out of Muslims and Jews that ended in Castille in 1614 had a part to play in the fall from prominence of those two early starters in European imperialism.

16th century European image - 'A Moor of Arabia'

16th century European image – ‘A Moor of Arabia’

Wikipedia’s entry on Islamic architecture lists twenty-four prominent buildings from the ‘Moorish’ period still to be seen in present-day Spain, among them the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the Alcazar of Seville. The use of that word ‘Moorish’ is one I never had cause to question before, but there does seem to be some confusion in its origins. As far as I can tell, it is a rendering into English of the Latin word ‘Mauri’, referring to the inhabitants of North Africa and deriving from the Greek word meaning ‘black’. Once the word arrived in English (and other European languages) it appears to have been used pretty indiscriminately to refer to black Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who was non-Aryan and non-Christian. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to deduce that referring to the Arab-Muslim culture that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for the best part of 700 years as ‘Moorish’ was/is a trifle perverse and demeaning. Why would anyone want to do that? And why would you not want to credit the sources of your new scientific discoveries? And then there is a third question that Professor Sezgin raises: If the Muslims were so advanced in the history of science, why are they so far behind now?

Let’s take the last question first, since it clearly has a bearing on the first two. What happened to this Islamic civilisation that had been supposedly so advanced? The first suggestion that Sezgin offers is the Crusader wars that lasted for nearly two hundred years beginning at the end of the 11th century. Although both sides had losses and victories, in the end it was the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries, in terms of the economic damage they inflicted on Muslim society, the negative impact the wars had on the development of science and technology in the East, and the fact that the flow of knowledge was essentially one-way, from East to West. Allied to this was the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, whose conquests extended through Persia, Anatolia and as far as Eastern Europe with the destruction of many centres of culture and learning, following so soon after the deleterious effects of the Crusades.

While it is true that the Ottomans picked up the baton of Islamic culture, forging a powerful empire from the 14th century, Sezgin suggests that they were always fighting a losing battle. Islam’s loss of the Iberian Peninsula and the takeover of scientific and technological know-how by the Spanish and Portuguese meant that those two countries were in a position to round Africa into the Indian Ocean and cross the Atlantic to the American continent. The result was that the centre of geo-political power shifted and Western Europe gained advantages which the Ottomans could never overcome, despite occasional forays in that direction.


Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

That this shift in the balance of power began with the Portuguese and their gaining control of the Indian Ocean was no accident, according to Professor Sezgin. He notes that Portugal had been under Arab rule for nearly 400 years. Western sources generally claim that Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. Sezgin points out, however, that Phoenician sailors had very likely achieved the same feat in the 6th century BCE, and that there was a trade route between Morocco and China in Islamic times. For their navigational, shipbuilding and sea-faring skills, the professor suggests, the Portuguese were indebted to the earlier work of their Arab-Islamic rulers. These skills and knowledge subsequently found their way to the rest of Europe which gradually rose to prominence and eventual superiority over the Muslim World.

Why, however, the West is generally so reluctant to give credit for the true sources of their ‘renaissance’ is another question. In fact, it is not so much that the truth is not known. As mentioned above, Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly aware of the importance of Islamic scholars in bringing their knowledge and that of the ‘Ancients’ to the West – and assuredly this awareness was not his alone. The problem seems to be more that general histories dealing with the Renaissance in Europe and the advancement of science and technology tend to gloss over the key importance of Islamic sources, and make a direct connection with Ancient classical scholars, insisting often that the rediscovery took place in Italy.

Sezgin tactfully refrains from seeking explanations, merely noting that it happened. In the interests of natural justice, we may wish to go further. Possibly the reason for our cultural amnesia lies in the centuries of conflict between Western ‘Christendom’ and the ‘East’ – including the Orthodox Byzantines. The self-evident superiority of those eastern cultures in wealth, civilization, arts and sciences created envy and a need to conquer and belittle their achievements. When the West finally began to assert military and technological dominance, it suited their new self-image to erase that inconvenient and embarrassing period from their collective memory. It wouldn’t be the only instance in history where such a deliberate ‘forgetting’ had been perpetrated.


[1] With acknowledgements to: http://sheikhynotes.blogspot.com.tr/ and http://muslimmuseum.org.uk/chaucers-canterbury-tales/