Cruelty and Mercy – Righting the Wrongs of History

I was doing a little shopping in my local area of Istanbul the other day and I dropped into a small hardware shop. There was an elderly chap behind the counter, and I guess he doesn’t get a lot of customers, so he was keen to chat. As usual, I was picked as a non-native as soon as I walked in the door, and he wanted to know where I was from. Like most Turks I have met, he was happy to come across a foreigner, especially one who knew enough Turkish to hold up the other end of a conversation.
Something I have started doing recently in these situations, after exchanging a few pleasantries, is to ask my new acquaintance where he is from. Turks get around a lot, and you can’t assume everyone you meet originates from Istanbul. Even if he was born there, a Turk will probably still identify strongly with his ‘memleket’, the place where his family came from.
Well, it turned out that the gentleman was from Bulgaria, as are quite a number of Turks you will meet. It seemed a good opportunity to ask when and why he had come to Turkey. In response, he held out his left hand and directed my gaze to the thumbnail – or the place where you would normally expect to see a thumbnail. ‘They pulled it out,’ he said simply. ‘This too, ‘he said, indicating a large rough scar on his forehead. He didn’t take off his shoe, but he added that the big toe of his left foot had been crudely amputated with an axe. ‘They wanted us to change our names,’ he explained, ‘and I am proud of my Turkish name.’
So he’d come to Turkey, along with more than 300,000 other Bulgarian Turks who fled anti-Muslim persecution in the late 1980s, leaving behind houses and most worldly possessions.
Now I want to make it clear here that he wasn’t complaining, and his tone wasn’t bitter. He had made a new life for himself and his family in Turkey, and he seemed content. He was merely responding matter-of-factly to my questions. I did a little subsequent reading on the subject, and, to be fair, this persecution of Turkish Muslims took place under the old Communist regime, which was overthrown not long after. The new government restored rights and freedoms to Muslim Bulgarians, and many of the refugees chose to return from Turkey. I visited Sofia briefly in 2004, and saw a historic mosque in a prominent location. An important landmark on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul is a 120 year-old Bulgarian Orthodox church, so these must be good signs.
I saw another good sign in my Turkish newspaper a day or two later. Two hundred members of an extended ‘Süryani’ family were celebrating a reunion in their ‘memleket’, the south-east Turkish town of Mardin, whence they had fled to various countries because of terror and violence.  At a colourful traditional ceremony, they reopened the doors of the 700 year-old mansion they had inherited from their forebears.
Well, of course, such an event begs several questions, among them: What actually happened to make these people leave in the first place? And shouldn’t someone be held accountable for that?
Maybe someone should – but unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find a person, or government that can be persuaded, or forced, to shoulder the blame. The present government of Russia is understandably reluctant to accept responsibility for atrocities carried out by Imperial Czarist Russia. Republican Turkey regrets events that took place under the Ottoman Sultans, but shares this reluctance to assume guilt. Perhaps, if the United Kingdom became a ‘United Republic’, they might be able to distance themselves from some of the worst excesses carried out in the name of the British Empire.  You can’t help feeing a little sorry for the modern Brit sometimes.
But I know these are not matters to be treated lightly. Historical wounds leave deep scars, and national pride thrives on the memory of past injustices. We New Zealanders know how difficult it is, with the best intentions, to right the wrongs of history. Historical facts themselves can be elusive will-o’-the-wisps, even when the history is less than 200 years old. How much more difficult, then, in a land which witnessed the dawn of history itself!

You can commonly see, in Turkey today, agricultural implements and conveyances that hark back to the very earliest days of civilisation. They are not much used nowadays. Mostly they are to be seen on display in gardens or antique shops: ancient stone olive presses, primitive sleds and the spoke-less wheels attached to a revolving axle as in the picture. Such wheels were introduced in the third millennium BCE prior to the invention of spokes, but have been in use in Turkey within living memory.


Did you get that? Let me just run that by you again: the third millennium BCE! We’re talking four to five thousand years ago here, long before any Turk set foot in the region now known as Anatolia. And, we could also add, for that matter, quite some time before any Greek. History goes back a long way in this part of the world – the practice of writing is generally accepted as having emerged simultaneously around 3000 BCE in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. Check out the table on the left, a list of civilisations that succeeded each other over a period of 4000 years until the Ottomans hammered the last nail in the Byzantine coffin with their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Spare a little sympathy for the Turkish school boy or girl, tasked with memorising all that – and, in fact, I left out much of the finer detail.
Historians and archeologists are not always 100% certain where these various peoples came from before they established their kingdoms and empires in this ancient land. The period of 600 years after 1300 BCE, here labelled the ‘Ionian Collusion’, you will find elsewhere referred to as the ‘Anatolian Dark Age’, marked by invasions and conquests of the mysterious ‘Sea People’. Nevertheless, we can be fairly sure of two things. First, human nature being what it is, there would have been a fair amount of bloodshed and slaughter of the vanquished by the victors. Second, the nature of invasions being what it is, there would also have been a considerable amount of assimilation and accommodation taking place in the aftermath, such that elements of the earlier culture would have mixed with elements of the new to produce a new synthesis.

Well, we can find plenty of examples of the bloodshed and slaughter, and I have touched on some of the more recent ones here and elsewhere, so it is not this on which I wish to focus. Rather, I want to speculate a little on the assimilations and accommodations that must have taken place.
One fact historians do agree on is 1071 CE as the date of the battle which saw the beginning of the Turkish conquest of Anatolia. The Byzantine army was defeated, the Emperor taken captive, and the Turkification / Islamicisation of Anatolia begun. But how many Turks actually entered Anatolia at this time, and what percentage did this represent of the total population of the area? What happened to those predominantly Christian, Greek-speaking local inhabitants? Were they slaughtered? Did they move en masse to friendlier lands? Were they forcibly converted, along the lines of later Christian inquisitorial methods? Or did the majority of them survive, gradually adopting the customs and practices of their new overlords, while intermarrying with them and passing on some of their own ways and traditions?
I make no claim to expertise in this complex area. To this day, Turks and Greeks squabble over who invented baklava, dolma (dolmadhes), döner kebab (souvlaki) and Turkish (Greek) coffee. Nevertheless, it’s easier to imagine the Turkish bath having developed from its Roman predecessor, rather than having been dismantled and carried on horseback from the steppes of Central Asia. It is undeniable that the imperial mosques of Ottoman Istanbul derived their architectural inspiration from the soaring dome of Hagia Sophia. The rakı and fish which characterise a Turkish night on the town clearly owe more to Mediterranean than Mongolian geography.
But what of that Byzantine Empire overrun by marauding Turks in the late Middle Ages? The name ‘Byzantine’ itself, as I have pointed out before, was never used by those imperial people to describe themselves. In their eyes they were Roman, direct descendants of the founding twins nourished by a she-wolf on the banks of the Tiber. The Turks themselves recognise this in the word they use (Rum) to refer to the Greek-speaking peoples of Anatolia. But there’s the rub, you see. The prevailing opinion in Western Europe was that real Romans spoke Latin; and for sure they weren’t Christian. Once the Pope started trying to resurrect the Roman Empire in the West, albeit in holy guise, there was no room for another competing one in the East. The Eastern Romans suffered in the eyes of the West because they had adopted too much of the local culture, despite, of course, having conquered (and maybe even having killed some of) whoever had been there before them.
Then there is the matter of Christianity which, simplistic Western views notwithstanding, was born and raised in the Middle East and Anatolia. Evangelism is a tricky business, made easier if you can find ways of melding your new religion with the culture and traditions of the prospective converts. I remember seeing a mural in a small Roman Catholic church in the backblocks of northern New Zealand. The depiction of the Saviour was noticeably brown and Polynesian in appearance. No doubt those early missionaries were able to draw an analogy with the Maori demi-god Maui, son of an earthly mother and the immortal guardian of the underworld, whose rebellious streak and supernatural powers brought great benefits to the lives of the mortals with whom he lived.
Christian visitors to Turkey often visit a humble building near the modern town of Selçuk, said to mark the spot where Jesus’s mother lived, having been brought there by the apostle John after the traumatising death of her son. Hard to know for sure, of course, though the Pope himself, on more than one occasion, has given credence to the story by visiting and praying at the site. More verifiable, however, is the long tradition of mother goddesses in the Aegean region of Anatolia. The Phrygian goddess Cybele mated with another semi-deity, Attis, who later reportedly cut off his own genitals, inspiring a cult of eunuch priests (a more certain way of enforcing celibacy rather than merely relying on self-restraint – perhaps the RCs should be looking into that). Cybele seems to have morphed into the popular Greek goddess Artemis, with connections to the moon goddess Selene, the Roman goddess Diana, and the Carian goddess Hecate. Who’s to say those early Christian evangelists didn’t find going with the local flow sometimes mutually beneficial?
What I’m suggesting here is that the twin processes of conquest and assimilation have been going on in this part of the world for millennia, and it’s an impossible task to separate and isolate the individual components of the culture and people that exist in Turkey today.
Take as another example the archeological excavations at Kültepe, some 20 kilometres from the modern Turkish city of Kayseri. The site is also known by its ancient name of Karum Kanesh, where Kanesh was a city inhabited by local Hittites from around 2000 BCE, and Karum, a satellite trading outpost of Assyrian merchants from Mesopotamia. Clearly the two peoples learnt each others’ tongues, and the visitors even taught their hosts the cuneiform alphabet in which have been preserved the earliest surviving inscriptions in the Hittite language.
This practice of allowing traders to set up a permanent trading base adjacent to a major city evidently continued until recent times. The city of Constantinople / Istanbul was enclosed within the ancient city walls until little more than a century ago. Across the Golden Horn, the settlement of Galata / Pera was the home of Genoese and Venetians in the Middle Ages, and later, of European Levantines; and where the embassies of foreign powers were located until the new Turkish Republic chose to site its capital in Ankara. The Christian districts of Pera and Kadıköy (Chalcedon) on the Asian shore of the Bosporus retain a more open attitude to alcohol consumption and related entertainments than is customary among Muslim communities.
We seem to have travelled a long way from my local ironmonger from Bulgaria, and I confess I have led you on a rather labyrinthine journey: to Mardin and Russia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, Selçuk and Kayseri, before returning at last to Istanbul. Was there a point to it all? It’s easy to imagine the violent loss of a thumbnail and a toe arousing anger and even hatred against the perpetrator of the action, especially if the violence could be associated with matters of nationalism, religion and ethnic identity. The line separating anger and hatred from bomb-throwing and vicious revenge is easily crossed, and escape from the accumulative circular spiral of grievance and vengeance is difficult. Unscrupulous seekers of power know this and use it for their own ends. In the final analysis, as the poet William Blake said, cruelty and mercy both have a human heart, and what use to make of that heart is ours to choose.
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2 thoughts on “Cruelty and Mercy – Righting the Wrongs of History

  1. One of the favorite aspects of my job is to see cultural influences on works of art. Even much of American art, which is my domain, reflects international trends, starting at the very beginning, of course, when Europeans began to settle in North America, bringing their cultures with them. We are often so shortsighted when we do not value the intermingling of cultures.

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