Downton Abbey, Military Coups and the New Turkey

Have you noticed that the ages people tend to consider milestones in a human life-span don’t actually change much at all? You turn 30 – oh no! you think. That’s the end of my youthful irresponsibility. As of today I have to become a mature adult. But in fact you don’t feel any different from the day before when you were 29 years and 364 days. You hit the big 4-oh – and it’s not as bad as you’d feared. What changed? Very little.

The fear really kicks in when you get to 34 or 45. Then you are obliged to face the reality that the next milestone is . . . and that is scary.

‘Downton Abbey’ has become quite a big thing in our household for the last year or so – that teddibly teddibly English drama series dealing with life in the rigid socio-economic strata of a Yorkshire stately home a century or so ago. Lord Grantham is a blue-blooded aristocrat whose main purpose in life is preserving his inherited title, property and lifestyle for succeeding generations. If he has a philosophy it can probably be summarised as ‘God’s in His heaven, the laird’s in his castle, Mrs Patmore’s in the kitchen – all’s right with the world.’

My daughter's marrying an Irish chauffeur?

My daughter’s marrying an Irish chauffeur?

The 20th century had dawned some years previously. 1 January 1900 had come and gone with little to disturb the great chain of being. The venerable Victoria had sat 63 glorious years on the imperial throne before handing over to her sagaciously bearded, solid-looking son Edward (born in 1841). Motorcars had appeared on the scene, but in as yet manageable numbers, retaining the height, cabinetwork and brass trappings of horse-powered carriages; and had yet to impact on equestrian culture.

The real shock was yet to come – and it came with the Great War; the conflagration later to be known as World War I. It wasn’t so much the appalling toll of death and injury. What really ushered in the new century was the social upheaval brought about by the flood of new technology, and the demolition of social barriers between men and women, and social classes.

By Downton’s fifth season, Lord Grantham is starting to lose his way in a labyrinth of previously unthinkable societal changes. His eldest daughter is a youthful widow; his middle daughter has a child out of wedlock . The youngest married the chauffeur before dying and leaving the family with their child as an unbreakable link. Downton Abbey itself is taken over for the war years as a hospital for wounded servicemen. Once idle rich women experience the personal fulfilment of meaningful work and service to others. Young men of all classes fight side-by-side, seeing friends and enemies of all classes burst open to reveal blood, bones and organs equally horrific and disgusting. Many of them come to question whether the war had truly been fought for freedom, or for less noble economic motives. By the time a radio is accepted into the big house and Lady Cora flirts with a male guest, it has become clear that the old world has passed. Whatever was may have been right – but it no longer is.

The Dowager Lady Grantham sums up the whole business in one of her inimitable observations: ‘All this endless thinking – it’s very overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914 nobody thought about anything at all.’

Well, I know I haven’t really said anything new here. It’s no discovery of mine that the First World War marked, for better or worse, the true beginning of the 20th century. As I write this, however, seated at my desk in Istanbul on Tuesday 19 May 2015 I am enjoying a day off work thanks to Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey. On this day, 96 years ago, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, as he was then, disembarked from a ship in the Black Sea city of Samsun. Sultan Mehmet VI was still sitting, albeit precariously, on the throne of the Ottoman Empire. He had charged the young general with overseeing the disbanding of the imperial army, as required by the Treaty of Sevres.

Out with the old - in with the new

Out with the old – in with the new

The pasha didn’t do it. Instead he set about organising a nationalist movement which, four years later, had driven the invading Greek Army out of Anatolia, persuaded the occupying British forces to quit Istanbul, abolished the 600-year Ottoman Empire and supervised the foundation of the modern republic. But what was the nature of that new entity? Its population was less than 14 million. Ten years of virtually uninterrupted war had decimated the young male demographic. 76% of the people lived in rural areas. There was virtually no manufacturing or heavy industry, or mechanised agriculture. Another result of the wars was that Christian citizens, who had filled important sectors in the Ottoman economy, had left, replaced by dispossessed, impoverished refugee Muslims from Greek lands.

It would be a mistake to equate the terms ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’. Turkey held its first truly democratic election in 1950. Three-and-a-half coups d’état [1] between 1960 and 1997 replaced elected governments with military regimes. After the coup of 1980, 650,000 citizens were detained under martial law, 50 were executed and 171 died under torture, not counting the 299 who died in prison from undetermined causes. Newspapers were closed for 300 days, 30,000 civil servants were removed from their jobs; some 30,000 people fled the country and 14,000 had their citizenship revoked.

The architect of that bloody period in Turkey’s history was Chief of General Staff, Kenan Evren, who died two weeks ago at the age of 97. There was much debate over the question of a state funeral for a man who had held the position of President and Head of State for nine years – given that he had recently been convicted for his crimes, demoted to private and sentenced to life imprisonment[2]. He did get an official funeral in the end, but none of the main political parties sent representatives; and Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç was quoted as saying, ‘May God bless everyone who deserves blessing’ – possibly implying that Private Evren’s status with the Almighty was open to doubt.

In America's view, at least. The good old days in Turkey!

In America’s view, at least. The good old days in Turkey!

When I first came to Turkey, the 1980 coup was still relatively fresh in some people’s minds. My teacher colleagues assured me that it had been a necessary intervention to end a period of internecine political violence; that the army had a sacred duty to uphold the Turkish Republic – and there are some in the country who still, overtly or covertly, hold to that position.

More recently, however, some of the assumptions that seemed to be accepted as akin to gospel truths in the 1990s have been overturned, or have just quietly disappeared. As a result of two lengthy and wide-ranging court cases, the role of the military in Turkey seems to have drawn back from active participation in the political process, to a more conventional one of protector against threats from outside. Women choosing, for whatever reason, to cover their hair with a scarf, are permitted to study at universities or work in public and private sector jobs. The existence of two large ethnic or religious minorities, Kurds and Alevis, has been acknowledged and steps taken to allow them to participate fully in the life of the nation. Related to this process, the very name of the republic has become a matter of debate: the ‘Turkish Republic’ implying a homogeneous ethnicity – the ‘Republic of Turkey’ having more inclusive connotations.

Nevertheless, there are those who, for reasons of their own, refuse to accept that these changes are necessary, and persist in accusing the government of working against democracy. The leader of the CHP political opposition recently suggested that there was little to distinguish the present government from the military regime of the 80s. Well, political rhetoric often tends to exaggeration, but even Mr Kılıçdaroğlu must be aware that, had he made such criticism of Kenan Evren and his henchmen back then, at the very least he would have found himself missing a few fingernails, or nursing seriously battered feet.

Go ahead - google it!

Go ahead – google it!

That was a different world, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Turkey was on the frontline of NATO’s Cold War and left wing political activists were considered an unacceptable threat to its security. The existence of the stay-behind Gladio organisation and its covert operations in countries throughout Europe is now so well-documented as to be irrefutable. It was employed by successive United States governments to ensure the continuation of ‘friendly’ regimes in countries as diverse as Iran, Chile, Turkey and Nicaragua.

Covertly orchestrated regime-changes are known to have taken place from the 50s through to the 80s – and who’s to say they are not still happening. If Gladio agents could foment street violence in the 1970s to justify military intervention, who’s to say they, or their post-modern equivalents wouldn’t do it again? The enemy may have changed from communists to Muslims – but if the methods work . . . The US government and the European Union are tying themselves in contortions of sophistry to avoid applying the label of military coup to the ousting (and now threatened execution) of democratically elected Muhammed Morsi in Egypt. The US’s Arab friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates are performing surrogate roles in Syria and Yemen. You might think we are in the early stages of World War III – except as far as I am aware, no one has actually declared war on anyone.

Maybe that’s another sign that the world has changed.


[1] That of 1997 is often referred to as the ‘post-modern’ coup, avoiding the use of tanks, torture and other bloodshed

[2] The sentence is currently under appeal

The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey – Remembering another genocide

You may or may not be aware of the fact, but this Thursday, 21 May, will be commemorated by the global Circassian community as the anniversary of the day in 1864 when their ancestors were finally extirpated from the homeland by the forces of Czarist Russia. An interesting and timely review appeared in the English language daily Hürriyet today. The book itself looks a little expensive but you can get the general gist here:

‘The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey: A Political History’ by Zeynel Abidin Besleney (Routledge, 224 pages, £84)

Activists seeking recognition of the Circassian genocide

Activists seeking recognition of the Circassian genocide

“In the list of ethnicities he likes to recite in speeches praising Turkey’s multicultural richness, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always gives a shout out to Circassians. Unlike the Christian minorities that are routinely ignored in Erdoğan’s public rallies, referring to Circassians carries no political cost. Circassian identity has a fairly low profile in Turkey and Circassian-origin Turks tend to have a fairly limited “national consciousness.”

“The Circassians first came to Anatolia in significant numbers during the 19th century, when up to a million were forced out of their homeland in the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire. Never having the strength to bring together the ethnicities of the largely Sunni Muslim North Caucasus as a united state, Circassia as a country ceased to exist. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians were killed or died, and their land – emptied of its native inhabitants – was offered to ethnic Russians and Cossack settlers. Some people today refer to the events of 1859-64 as the first modern genocide.

“The vast majority of survivors found refuge across the Black Sea in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The many tribal and ethnic groups arriving from the North Caucasus fitted into the multinational Ottoman patchwork, which accommodated Circassianness without imposing an obligation to assimilate. Estimates vary, but today there are thought to be around 2-3 million citizens of Circassian origin in Turkey, and many from the community have risen to the highest stations in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Many Circassians played a key role on the ground in the massacres of Ottoman Christians in 1915.

“This book by scholar Zeynel Abidil Besleney is the most detailed study available of the political development of the Circassian community in Turkey over the past few decades.

Read more

I was also interested to discover that there is another university in the United States that has a Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Newark College of Arts and Sciences University College has a page worth visiting if you are genuinely interested in the subject of genocide. Here’s a brief extract:

Map showing destinations of Circassians expelled from their homeland up to 1864

Map showing destinations of Circassians expelled from their homeland up to 1864

The destruction of the Circassians – who call themselves “Adyghe” – and other indigenous groups of the Caucasus were part of Tsarist Russia’s conquest of the region during the middle-half of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, the Russians aimed to extend its imperial sovereignty and supplant the mostly tribal-based, Islamic-infused population with Slavic, Russophile settlers. A stringent indigenous resistance was brutally put down by the Russians, especially under Tsar Alexander II, who was Emperor of the Russian Empire from 1855 through the end of the Caucasian War in 1864. By the end, hundreds of thousands of Circassians and other indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated, mostly to the Ottoman Empire but also to the lowland regions of the Caucasus where the Russians would better control them. A significant portion of the Circassian population was killed, as the Russians waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign. Thus removed from their ancestral homeland, the Circassians have been uprooted and scattered ever since.” Read more

Turkish Coffee Culture – A 500-year tradition

Rediscovering traditional culture

Rediscovering traditional culture

When I first came to Istanbul back in the dying years of the 20th century it wasn’t easy to find a decent cup of coffee. One of the reasons, I came to understand, was that there had been a time, not long before, when tea bags and instant coffee were restricted imports, and according to that invariable rule of economics, desirability had increased in proportion to scarcity on the market. Nescafe and tea were served everywhere in European-style cups, with the option of Turkish coffee of somewhat variable quality.

In fact, European- or American-style, or low quality imitations thereof, pervaded much of life in Istanbul in those days. Traditional features of Turkish culture had been more or less isolated in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, or relegated to the back streets of the poorer parts of town. High school graduation ceremonies were excruciatingly interminable extravaganzas of deafeningly over-amplified Elgar-esque pomp and circumstance with students regaled in gawdy pseudo-academic gowns and caps and teachers relegated to positions of lackeydom.

Well, times have changed, at least in the world outside private-sector education. Opening the country’s doors to globalisation brought the delights of McDonalds and Burger King, Starbucks and Gloria Jeans to a people starved of hamburgers and quality java. Interestingly, at the same time as international, multi-national and transnational fast-food franchises began to invade the streets of Istanbul, they seemed to trigger an offensive/defensive reaction from local entrepreneurs.

Ottoman coffeehouse

Ottoman coffeehouse

Almost overnight, Turks seemed to discover that their own home-grown culture was capable of competing with, perhaps even bettering the imported offerings. Tasteful chain eateries and up-market boutique restaurants began repackaging döner kebab, lahmacun, çiğ köfte and other local specialities. The last-named traditional delicacy, highly spiced raw minced lamb kneaded into edibility by muscular men from the southeast has been reinvented in vegetarian form. Muhallebeci cafes such as Saray, specialising in irresistible local desserts, have appeared all over town. Simit Sarayı and a host of imitators have not only added a touch of class to the incomparable and indescribable simit, but have begun a reciprocal invasion of their own, taking Turkish fast-food cuisine to Fifth Avenue and Oxford Street. The nargile or water-pipe, not many years ago seen mostly in seedy back-street hang-outs of elderly men, has become a ubiquitous feature of tea-gardens, bars and cafes frequented by the new generation youth.

However, it is coffee culture that has responded most enthusiastically to the threat of foreign invasion. Kahve Dünyası, Kahve Diyarı, Gönül Kahvesi and several other local chains have begun emulating and improving on the coffee and ambience provided by better-known international brands. Roasting and grinding their own brews, packaging them for the drink-at-home market, and adding side dishes of chocolates and lokum (Turkish delight), these post-modern coffee-houses are carrying the fight to Starbucks, and have succeeded in driving Gloria Jeans into the niche market of high-end shopping centres.

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Whatever the link between the modern republic of Turkey and the defunct Ottoman Empire may be, and despite criticism of the AK Party government for its supposed neo-Ottoman aspirations, there is no doubt that Turkey’s people have begun to rediscover and appreciate their own traditional roots and cultures, at the same time as the outside world has begun showing greater interest. In 2013, UNESCO added Turkish coffee to the list it calls The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Currently to be seen in the grounds of Topkapı Palace is an exhibition entitled A Drop of Pleasure – The 500-Year Story of Turkish Coffee.

I have sometimes wondered how primitive human beings first discovered certain gastronomic delights. OK, bananas are pretty straightforward. Pick it off the palm, peel it, eat it – a monkey could do it. Coconuts? A tad more difficult to get at, but once you’ve cracked it open, there it is, ready to eat, or drink, or whatever. But what about olives? Pretty unappetising in their natural state. Who figured out how to soak them and salt them etc to produce the tasty little green or black morsels we love today? Then there’s bread, leavened or unleavened, not to mention beer, wine and spirits. There must have been some disastrous offerings concocted before our ancestors hit on the best recipes. And take a look at a coffee bean straight off the tree. You pick it, roast it, grind it and boil it into something unrecognisable but euphoria-inducing. Who figured that out?

Berries on the Coffea plant

Berries on the Coffea plant

According to legend, it was an Ethiopian goatherd who first stumbled upon the magic properties of Coffea arabica. Apparently his goats had been unusually frolicsome of late, and he came to the conclusion that their high spirits came from munching on the berries of a particular tree growing on the hillsides. He tentatively sampled a few himself but was unimpressed, goats teeth and digestive systems being more sympathetic to rough fare such as gorse and blackberry bushes. Still curious, however, he took a handful home to his more enterprising wife who, after a few unproductive experiments, hit on a method of boiling the leaves and beans together to make a kind of tea.

At first the resulting brew was treated largely as medicinal, and a local doctor acquired quite a reputation for curing just about everything from heart disease to chronic depression. Soon, however, the populace, discovering that coffee beans, unlike money, actually grew on trees,  began bypassing the middleman. The craze spread from Ethiopia to Yemen in happier days before the Saudi Arabs started bombing the bejabers out of them, and the Yemenis are said to have been the first to roast, grind and boil something resembling our modern brew. The drink began finding its way into the Ottoman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century and before long coffeehouses were springing up Istanbul like mushrooms . . . or Starbucks franchises. Coffee drinking and the ritual surrounding its preparation and consumption are credited with exerting a civilising and socialising influence on Turkish culture with its traditional male focus on horses, camels and warfare.

The Topkapı exhibition contains around 800 pictures and artifacts illustrating different aspects of this 500-year story: from potted Caffea bushes to carved stone sarcophagi of Kayseri noblemen depicting the paraphernalia associated with their favourite beverage. Originally the roasted beans were ground to a fine powder with pestle and mortar. Even today, the old method of cooking the coffee on charcoal embers is experiencing a revival. Connoisseurs maintain that coffee needs to be slowly brought to the boil over a period of five minutes or so to bring out the best flavour.

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

The cezve (djezveh), a small specially designed pot in which coffee is cooked, was made from copper, tinned on the inside, narrowing towards the top with a spout for pouring – nowadays available in a left-handed version. Turkish coffee cups are espresso-sized in an infinite variety of designs and decorations. The older style china or porcelain handle-less cup fitted inside a sleeve of worked silver is also staging a comeback, in less-precious metals for general use.

The coffee is measured and prepared according to the number of guests – cold water, ground coffee and sugar (if desired) are mixed together and slowly brought to the boil, at which point froth forms on top. The presence of froth is indispensible, and disappears if the coffee is allowed to continue boiling. Your coffee should be served with a small glass of water and a cube of lokum. According to Turkish culture, drinking coffee is synonymous with friendship. A well known rhyme goes:

Gönül ne kahve ister, ne kahvehane;                       The heart wants neither coffee nor coffeehouse

Gönül ahbap ister, kahve bahane.                The heart wants friendship, coffee is the excuse.

Traditionally it was associated with tobacco-smoking, in nargile or long-stemmed pipes. Formerly public coffeehouses were a male domain, but a recent resurgence has seen the water-pipe culture cross the gender divide.

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

The joys of coffee do not end with the drinking. The cooking process results in a few millimetres of sludgy sediment in the bottom of the cup. For the novice drinker this can create a problem and turn some off the beverage. If you persist, however, you will learn when to take your last lees-free sip, thereafter turning your cup upside down on its saucer while intoning a kind of spell: Neyse halim, çıksın falım (Let the cup show what life will bring me). When the mixture cools, the resulting unique pattern of dregs in the cup can be interpreted by a falcı – usually a woman skilled in the arcane arts of fortune-telling. Which may help to explain why personal psychiatric analysts are less common in Turkish culture.

Afiyet olsun!

Military Coup in Egypt? The truth emerges

Does anyone remember the Watergate Tapes? Recordings of White House conversations back in 1971 which contributed to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon? Technology is a two-edged sword, and it seems former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has been doing her best to ensure that no one will have access to her potentially damaging email correspondence.

Populist revolution or military set-up?

Populist revolution or military set-up?

Apparently the Egyptian military junta that overthrew democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi back in 2013 was not so careful. Reports are starting to emerge of audio recordings casting serious doubt on claims at the time that the generals acted in response to popular opposition to Morsi’s government.

Secret Tapes of the 2013 Egypt Coup Pose a Problem for Obama

“What [the Egyptian generals didn’t realise] is that their words were secretly recorded, and eventually tapes of these alleged conversations would be released to the outside world. 

“The list of plotters included Deputy Defense Minister Mamdouh Shaheen and Gen. Abbas Kamel, the chief of staff to Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the top military commander regarded as the mastermind behind the coup, who is now president of Egypt.

Whose democracy?

Whose democracy?

“The authenticity of the secret tapes has been verified forensically at the request of Morsi’s lawyers by J. P. French Associates, a British company that specializes in voice analysis, the Guardian newspaper has reported. The Egyptian government denies the finding, denouncing the tapes as “fabrications.”

“If genuine, the tapes raise embarrassing questions for U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular.  Besides rigging the legal case against Morsi, the tapes describe the Egyptian military’s role in fomenting the street protests that el-Sisi used to justify Morsi’s removal—a revelation that undercuts the military’s assertion that it took power as part of a popular “revolution,” not a coup.” Read the whole article

If genuine, these tapes will also confirm what Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdoğan has been saying all along. Compare this article published in The Guardian back in July 2013:

"Hold still while our CIA friends put a knife in your back"

“Hold still while our CIA friends put a knife in your back”

The Egyptian Coup is a Warning to Turkey – but will Erdoğan listen?

“The AKP . . .  downplayed the scale of popular opposition to Morsi, and presented the coup as a plot hatched by the Egyptian generals.

“Such conspiracy theories are the legacy of years of oppression of Turkish and Egyptian Islamists by the military-backed secular establishments.

“The uncomfortable truth the AKP does not want to accept is that the massive protests that preceded the coup represented a broad-based rejection of Morsi’s policies.

“The demonisation of opposition as the work of mysterious foreign forces, by both the AK party and the Muslim Brotherhood is therefore not just a misdiagnosis of the problem, it is the problem.” Read the whole article

These revelations could well benefit Turkey’s AK Party government in the weeks leading up to the parliamentary elections on June 7.

A Short Trip to the Black Sea

Last Friday was a public holiday in Turkey – thanks to Karl Marx, the Second International and Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first long weekend we’d had for a while, so Dilek and I decided to forego the pleasures of tear gas and water cannons in Taksim Square, and instead headed out of town on a tour of the western Black Sea region.

Old Ottoman houses in Safranbolu

Old Ottoman houses in Safranbolu

Time was short, and driving in Turkey on holiday weekends is another joy one can do without, so we enrolled in a two-day guided tour of Safranbolu and Amasra. It was a pretty full-on itinerary involving close to a thousand km in a coach and one night in a hotel – but definitely well worth making the effort. Tour arrangements were impressively efficient, and our guide extremely knowledgeable and good-natured.

A sparrow-fart start on Friday morning and a five-hour journey got us to our first destination in the early afternoon. Safranbolu is a small city located some 90 km from the Black Sea coast and 200-odd km north of Turkey’s capital Ankara. The region we were visiting was known in ancient times as Paphlagonia. It’s a rugged, mountainous landscape with fertile valleys, renowned for its hazel nuts, plums, cherries and pears. The Paphlagonians, apparently, were one of the ancient peoples of Anatolia, and warranted a mention in Homer’s Iliad for allying themselves with the Trojans in their war with the Greeks, brought about, as you’ll recall, by Orlando Bloom’s romantic kidnapping of Diane Kruger. Some classical authors suggest the Paphlagonians, consoling themselves for picking a loser, went on to found the city of Venice.

The kiss that launched a Hollywood blockbuster

The kiss that launched a Hollywood blockbuster

Be that as it may, our first port of call has had many names over the millennia of its existence. Whatever the Paphlagonians may have called it, it became Theodoropolis to the Pontic ‘Greeks’ and Saframpolis to the Byzantines. After the arrival of the Turks, the city was known as Zalifre and later Taraklıborlu before assuming its present appellation. There’s not a lot of pre-Turkic history to be seen nowadays. The one surviving Orthodox church, converted to a mosque after the departure of its congregation, was built in 1872 – so it’s more a tribute to the religious tolerance of the Ottomans than a reminder of Byzantine glories.

The city’s claim to fame these days, and its magnetic power for tourists is the picturesque old town centre with hundreds of Ottoman-era houses and mansions in various stages of restoration and dilapidation. So uniformly impressive is the architecture of Safranbolu’s buildings that the city features on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The old town was actually built in a valley and our first stop was the summit of Hıdırlık Hill which overlooks it. In fact the hill has its own intrinsic interest, taking its name from the Hıdrellez Festival which celebrates the coming of spring throughout the Turkic world.

Interior of Yörük Köy house

Interior of Yörük Köy house

Islam in Turkey is decidedly different from that in neighbouring Arab and other Middle Eastern countries. No doubt there are many reasons for this, but one is the influence of Turkic and Anatolian folk beliefs. On Hıdırlık Hill, for instance, there is an open-air praying area more reminiscent of Alevism than orthodox Sunni Muslim practice. The Hıdrellez ceremony includes ritual leaps over a fire, and prayers and incantations aimed at curing of sickness, wish fulfilment and finding a wife or husband. Another characteristic of Islam in Turkey is the influence of Sufi philosophy with its mystical focus on personal spiritual development rather than outward shows of religiosity.

After descending into the town itself we spent a couple of hours wandering around the maze of winding streets in the old market area with a guided tour of one of the old mansions. In Ottoman times the market was organised according to a guild system where practitioners of particular trades, such as shoe-makers, located themselves in certain streets. The only one really surviving to the present-day is that of the ironsmiths, where locks and ornamental door-handles are still manufactured by traditional methods. Before departing we paid an obligatory visit to the premises of Imren and Co., purveyors of lokum (Turkish delight) to the discerning for 73 years. Their most famous product is a sweet flavoured and coloured with saffron, produced locally and the source of the town’s name.

Crocus sativus - source of saffron spice

Crocus sativus – source of saffron spice

Turkey is not a big producer of saffron, but the local product is considered by aficionados to be amongst the world’s best. The word is said to derive from Classical Persian, and evidence has been found of its use in Assyrian and Sumerian societies dating back 4,000 years or more. The product itself is obtained by drying the stigmas of the saffron crocus. To produce one kilogram requires approximately 150,000 flowers and around 40 hours of labour to collect, which explains why saffron is said to be the world’s most expensive spice; that kilogram costing anywhere from $1,100 to $11,000 depending on quality. Its culinary and medicinal properties have made saffron a much sought after ingredient over the centuries, and a dispute over ownership of a shipload of the stuff is said to have caused a 14-year Saffron War in Europe back in the 14th century.

Our day’s itinerary took in two other places of note in the area. The first was Tokatlı Canyon, a geological feature best appreciated from an impressive glass-floored viewing platform cantilevered vertiginously over eighty-metre cliffs. The other was Yörük Village, a smaller edition of Safranbolu old town; its houses a little more dilapidated but somehow more atmospheric in consequence. Yörük in Turkish refers to the semi-nomadic culture of farmers who take their herds from the lowland winter village to upland pastures in the summer. The original inhabitants of this village were of Turkmen stock, settled there after the rise of the Ottomans. They were followers of the Sufi dervish Bektashi sect, and signs of their faith can be seen in the houses and public buildings, including the communal laundry whose 12-sided stone worktop is said to represent the twelve imams of Shi’ite and Alevi belief. Related to their religion or not, who can say, but the villagers also have a reputation for bread-making, and many migrated to Istanbul where they established successful bakeries.

Tokatlı Canyon

Tokatlı Canyon

Our accommodation for the night was in the new city located some two km from the old town. The name of our tastefully designed hotel, Zalifre, was, as you will recall, one of the earlier names of Safranbolu. Apart from tourism, the local economy has been boosted recently by the opening of a large state university – whose influence can be seen in the lively town centre with its modern cafes, bars and nightclubs. A few kilometres down the road is a huge steel works set up in 1939 as one of the new republic’s first ventures into heavy industry.

Another early start on Saturday morning took us over forest-clad mountains to the town of Amasra on the Black Sea coast. Fast-flowing braided rivers rush through deep valleys carrying snowmelt waters to the sea. The potential for dams to produce hydro-electricity is irresistible, and much of this landscape will be under water in a few years.

Amasra is another town that has been continuously inhabited for millennia on account of its natural harbour that provides refuge from the sudden violent storms sweeping across the Black Sea from the north. The Greek name Amastris is said to derive from a niece of the last Achaemenid Persian King Darius III, whose rule was terminated in 330 BCE by the world-conquering depredations of the youthful Alexander.

Amasra on the Black Sea

Amasra on the Black Sea

Thereafter the town passed into the hands of the Romans whose empire morphed into the Christian Greek-speaking Byzantine entity, causing much confusion in the minds of British schoolboys and politicians. Crimea and Ukraine are a short 300-400 km hop across the Black Sea to the north, a geographical proximity leading to much conflict between Russia and the Byzantines, and later the Ottomans. Amasra was sacked by the Rus in 830 CE, and became briefly part of the minor empire of Trebizond in 1204 before the Seljuk Turks moved in. They in turn were superseded by the Genoese, wandering far from their Italian homeland in search of trading opportunities. The Roman Catholic Republic of Genoa controlled the town for 200 years and it was from them the Ottomans seized it in 1460, not from the Orthodox Christian ‘Greeks’.

Amasra was a walled town, and ancient inhabitants bridged the short gap to the larger of two offshore islands, turning the site into a peninsula. Much of the old fortifications remain, including the citadel, rebuilt, of course, over the centuries. You can see reused stones from earlier times, including Genoese crosses and coats of arms, and a time-worn but recognisable head of Medusa beside one of the gates.

A church and chapel survive from Byzantine times, though converted for worship by the newer faith. A market area caters for the tourist trade, selling an interesting range of wooden crafts, some of which are not made in China. There is also a produce market selling preserves, jams, pickles and what not made from local fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy products, butter and cheese, for which the Black Sea region is also noted.

A view from Ağlayan Ağaç

A view from Ağlayan Ağaç

Spring comes a little later in this part of the country, so we were a little disappointed not to get the full show of wild flowers – but the weather was fine and warm, and there were plenty of picturesque vistas, especially from the hilltop district known as Ağlayan Ağaç (click for 360° panoramas). The name means ‘The Weeping Tree’ in Turkish, and the tree itself is a very old cypress that apparently actually sheds tears occasionally during the springtime. The sadly prosaic scientific explanation is that the phenomenon is caused by moist sea air condensing on the leaves of the tree and falling in droplets. Nevertheless, a simple tea garden and a marvelous view over the town and the Black Sea coastline east and west make the steep ascent worthwhile.

Our tour ended with lunch in a seaside restaurant, and a meal of fish accompanied by fresh green salad and locally baked bread. We still had a six-hour coach ride back to Istanbul, but we can definitely recommend the experience and the tour company, etstur.

Love that Noo Yok Tahms!

It seems Western media are finally coming out into the open and recognizing what is truly behind Armenian claims for the government of Turkey to accept responsibility for what happened to their ancestors back in 1915. This from the New York Times:

Did they collude?

Did they collude?

‘Behind the Turkish government’s denials of the century-old Armenian genocide lurks the possibility that survivors and their descendants could be deemed legally entitled someday to financial reparations, perhaps worth tens of billions of dollars or more.

For human rights historians, the Turkish government’s outrage at recent calls to acknowledge the genocide from Pope Francis, the European Parliament, Germany and Austria is intertwined with the reparations question. Such an acknowledgment by Turkey, such historians say, would not only reverse a century of denials, but would also weaken Turkey’s legal defenses from compensation claims.

“You’re talking about a long historical trend of denial,” Mr. McCalpin [a scholar of transitional justice at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica] said of Turkey. “To admit or recognize a genocide also requires acknowledging a wrong, and that is where reparations come in. You acknowledge, and then you move to repair.”

Just a small point here. The Republic of Turkey will celebrate its 92nd birthday in October this year. Despite sleight of pen statements to the contrary, there was no country called Turkey prior to 1923.

Black slaves financing the British industrial revolution

Black slaves financing the British industrial revolution

There was, however, a country called the United States of America prior to its abolition of slavery in 1865, and the NY Times article put me in mind of a song performed by a gospel group, the Staple Singers back in 1971: ‘When Will We be Paid for the Work We’ve Done?’ Click and listen along while following the lyrics below:

When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?

We have worked this country from shore to shore
Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes
We picked all your cotton and laid the railroad steel
Worked our hands to the bone at your lumber mill. I say…
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?

We fought in your wars in every land
To keep this country free, y’all, for women, children and men
But any time we ask for pay or a loan
That’s when everything seems to turn out wrong
We been beat up, called names, shot down and stoned
Every time we do right, someone say we’re wrong
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?

And where did the money end up?

The Triangular Trade – and where did the money end up?

We have given our sweat, and all our tears
We stumbled through this life for more than 300 years
We’ve been separated from the language we knew,
Stripped of our culture, people you know it’s true. Tell me now…
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?

Will we ever be proud of “My country, tis of thee”?
Will we ever sing out loud, “Sweet land of Liberty”?
Will we ever have peace and harmony?
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?

Well, 1971 is a few years ago now, and I’m not sure how the compensation claims are progressing. That line in the second verse struck me as topical though, in view of the events currently unfolding in Baltimore.

Incidentally, it’s not often mentioned in British history books, but an important contribution to the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain was the wealth generated by the Triangular Trade‘The transatlantic slave trade, often known as the triangular trade (duration – approximately four centuries), connected the economies of three continents. It is estimated that between 25 to 30 million people, men, women and children, were deported from their homes and sold as slaves in the different slave trading systems. In the transatlantic slave trade alone the estimate of those deported is believed to be approximately 17 million. These figures exclude those who died aboard the ships and in the course of wars and raids connected to the trade.

Physician, heal thyself!

Physician, heal thyself!

‘The trade proceeded in three steps. The ships left Western Europe for Africa loaded with goods which were to be exchanged for slaves. Upon their arrival in Africa the captains traded their merchandise for captive slaves. Weapons and gunpowder were the most important commodities but textiles, pearls and other manufactured goods, as well as rum, were also in high demand. The exchange could last from one week to several months. The second step was the crossing of the Atlantic. Africans were transported to America to be sold throughout the continent. The third step connected America to Europe. The slave traders brought back mostly agricultural products, produced by the slaves. The main product was sugar, followed by cotton, coffee, tobacco and rice.’

Check out this on a website called The Real Histories Directory: ‘British port towns as well as the burgeoning industrial capabilities of the country were made viable through this trade in humans. Liverpool was the principal slaving port and half of all vessels would dock in the north west of England. London, Bristol and Glasgow shared the remaining spoils. The triangular trade provided markets and resources to enable the British Industrial Revolution to take hold – increasing urbanization, beginning the decline in peasantry and providing the capital to build grand cities and country estates.’

Is there a possible connection between this and the reluctance of US and British governments to come on too strongly to Turkey over the Armenian business?