Istanbul – A stroll in the old city

DSCF0025Turkey’s been going through some difficult times in the last year or so. Fortunately for Turks, their economy is not dependent on one factor: oil, like Venezuela, or tourism, like the Maldive Islands.

Nevertheless, tourism is a big earner, and that sector took a few hits in recent years. A trigger-happy Turkish pilot (let’s call him that) shot down a Russian Mig  – and in retaliation, Russian holiday-makers were ordered to stay home in their frozen wastes instead of flocking to the beaches on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Then various wealthy Western governments (including my own beloved New Zealand) started advising their citizens to avoid visiting the country – though I think the annual Anzac Day pilgrimage was relatively unaffected.

Well, the Turkish Lira’s not doing so well at present, but (or maybe, so) the tourists have been flocking back. The people at Bloomberg published a piece of research showing that Turkey ranked 4th this year in a list of ten countries “where tourism is skyrocketing”. Then the “editors and experts” of Time Out produced a list of the “Fifty Coolest Neighbourhoods in the World”, and Istanbul’s Kadıköy was on it.

Now I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about the effects of tourism on a country’s economy, not to mention its natural environment. And I have some doubts about the taste of people who would rank Los Angeles at No. 9 and Istanbul at No. 43. I was also a little surprised to see London’s Peckham come in at No. 11. When I worked there briefly as a high school teacher 20 years ago, “cool” was not a word I ever heard applied to the district, but clearly times have changed.

Still, these days, I think most Turks will be grateful for any encouragement they receive from western news sources.

Anyway, I was moved to get out on an overcast Tuesday and check out some of what Istanbul has to offer. I took a ferry over to Eminönü in the old city, and headed for the Archaeology Museum.

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One of my favourite trees, a plane tree by the tram station at Gülhane. Not as big as our Tane Mahuta, but it must be a few centuries old, and seems remarkably healthy.

 

 

 

 

DSCF0028Model of a Byzantine-era trading boat in the museum garden. One of 37 ships dug up from the ancient Harbour of Theodosius during excavations for the Yenilapı Metro Station. It was a 10-metre-long and 2.30-metre-wide cargo ship, and is supposed to be the most accurate example to date of a small commercial ship once used in the Middle East.

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One of a group of votive statues dating from the 3rd century CE found during excavations beside the Golden Horn in 1949-50. Believed to have been part of a nymphaion (commemorative fountain) or a museion (a building dedicated to the works of the Muses).

 

 

 

DSCF0007A sarcophagus dating from the Imperial Roman period. There was a vast necropolis in the city of Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) that was used between the 6th century BCE and the 3rd century CE.

DSCF0009Sections of pipe used to bring water from forests outside the city of Constantinople to cisterns in the city which then supplied the fountains and public baths.

DSCF0010DSCF0037Part of the head of one of the serpents forming a column in the centre of the Roman hippodrome. The headless creatures can be seen entwined outside the gates of Sultanahmet Mosque.

 

DSCF0012A mosaic panel discovered in the Kalenderhane Mosque, formerly a Byzantine Church dating from the 12th century.

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DSCF0042A fountain presented as a token of friendship to Sultan Abdülhamid II by the German Emperor in 1895. Abdülhamid is generally condemned in the West as one of the more evil Ottoman sultans (“The Red Sultan”), accused of slaughtering thousands of helpless Armenians in what are often labelled the “Hamidian Massacres”. Well, clearly Kaiser Wilhelm viewed the matter differently. I’d strolled past that fountain many times before without making the connection.

DSCF0057A recently restored Roman underground cistern built by the Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century CE – opened to the public with free admission!

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The large building behind is the home of an organisation calling itself the World Academy for Local Government and Democracy! It seems this NGO is actually based in Istanbul! You can visit their website:

http://wald.org.tr          Turkish

http://wald.org             German

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Strolling around old Istanbul – and not thinking about the election

We had a three-day holiday to celebrate the end of the Ramadan month of fasting. Left alone, I did some wandering around less frequented parts of the old city.

Mahmut II tomb2

Monumental cemetery  – tombs of late Ottoman luminaries including three 19th century Sultans: Mahmut II, Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid II

Cerrah Mehmed Paşa Cami3

Cerrah Mehmed Pasha Mosque, 1583. The architect, Davut Ağa was a pupil of the great Sinan

Arkadios Column2

Only the base remains of the 5th century Arkadios column, centre of a flourishing slave market in former times

Koca Mustafa Paşa Complex2

Koca Mustafa Pasha mosque complex – built in 1489 on the site of a former Byzantine monastery. The tomb contains the remains of a royal princess, daughter of the Emperor Constantine XI, who is said to have converted to Islam.

Hekim Ali Paşa Complex2

Interior of Hekimoğlu Ali Pasha mosque, built by an 18th century Grand Vizier.

Haseki complex3

Haseki mosque complex – the third largest in Istanbul, built by the architect Sinan on the orders of Hürrem Sultan, wife of Süleiman the Magnificent. The complex contained schools, a hospital and a soup kitchen to feed the poor.

Giant walnut

Ancient walnut tree, dating from who knows when?

Çinili Cami

Recently restored mosque (in Üsküdar) of Kösem Sultan, one of the greatest Ottoman women – built in 1640, and known as Çinili, or the Tiled Mosque, because of the beauty of its decorative ceramic tiles.

Çinili Cami5

Mihrab (altar) and mimber (pulpit) in Çinili Mosque – afer a four-year restoration.

Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque

Imperio-Otomano

Turned back at the gates of Vienna!

Ottoman history is undergoing something of a revision in Turkey these days. Despite its portrayal in the West, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious state. The concept of Turkishness and Turkish nationalism emerged in the late 19th century in response to the rise of national independence movements within the Ottoman Empire, encouraged by the so-called Great Powers of Europe. During the 19th century, the Empire lost much of its former territory as a result of wars which the European powers justified by claiming to champion the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. When oil began to replace coal as the fuel of choice, and it was discovered that vast resources of “black gold” lay within their domains, it became increasingly fashionable to brand the Ottoman government as bloodthirsty barbarians slaughtering their poor downtrodden minorities.

At its greatest extent, in 1683, The Ottoman Empire covered more than 3 million km2 spread over three continents. As late as 1820, Muslims made up no more than 60% of its population. The website Lost Islamic History has this to say:

Yıldız Hamidiye

Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque – opened 1886

“While analyzing the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic character, one must keep in mind that much of the empire’s population was not Muslim. Large communities of Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Catholics all lived in the empire. At some times, Muslims even formed a minority of the empire’s population. At no time in the empire’s history were non-Muslims forced to abide by any Muslim laws. Instead, a system of religious pluralism, known as the millet system, was implemented. In the millet system, each religious group was organized into a millet, or nation.

Each millet was allowed to run by its own rules, elect its own leaders, and enforce their own laws on their people. For example, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had the Orthodox Christian community of the city elect a new patriarch, who served as their leader. By not enforcing Islamic laws on non-Muslims, the Ottoman Empire ensured social and religious stability and harmony within its borders for much of its history. Contrary to this, throughout the rest of Christian Europe, religious freedom only began to take root in the 1700s and 1800s. Denial of rights and persecution of non-Christians continued, however, as is seen in the Holocaust of the 1940s and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnians in the 1990s.”

dome

The dome in Yıldız Mosque

The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates:

“The purpose of the millet system was to keep the different peoples of the empire separated in order to minimize conflict and preserve social order in a highly heterogeneous state. Christian hatred of Muslims and Jews, however, led to constant tension and competition among the different millets, with the Jews being subjected to “blood libel” attacks against their persons, shops, and homes by the sultan’s Greek and Armenian subjects. Those attacks intensified during the week preceding Easter, when Greeks and Armenians were driven into a frenzy by the old accusations, invented in ancient times by the Greek Orthodox Church, that Jews murdered Christian children in order to use their blood for religious rituals. The sultan intervened to provide protection for his Jewish subjects as much as possible, though the fact that many of his soldiers were Christians converted to Islam who retained the hatreds instilled in their childhoods made that intervention difficult.”

Yıldız parkı

The redeveloped Yıldız Park

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after the end of the First World War, what little remained was saved by the efforts of a nationalist resistance movement that employed, of necessity, the uniting principles of Turkish identity and the Muslim religion. The secular republic that emerged from the struggle was, perhaps ironically, more exclusively Turkish and Muslim than the Ottoman state had ever been. An important aspect of its founding mythology was the need to deny a connection with the once-great empire from whose ashes it was emerging.

What has been happening in recent years is a greater willingness to acknowledge the fact that the Ottoman Empire, its history, culture and achievements, are an important aspect of the heritage of the modern Republic of Turkey. Movies such as Fetih 1453 (The Conquest of Constantinople), Dedemin İnsanları (My Grandfather’s People), and popular TV series like Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) and Payitaht Abdülhamid (The reign of Abdülhamid II), have been bringing Ottoman history to life and making it palatable to new generations in the 21st century.

sultan-2-abdulhamitThe case of Abdülhamit II is possibly the most striking example of the revisionist revolution taking place in Turkey. Condemned for years in the West as “The Red Sultan” or “Abdül the Damned” for his alleged atrocities against Armenians, Abdülhamid ascended to the throne in August 1876 at a bad time in Ottoman history. His older brother, Murat V, had been deposed after a brief eight-month reign. Murat himself had taken over from his uncle Abdülaziz who had been ousted and forced to commit suicide. Shortly after getting the top job, Abdülhamid found himself involved in a disastrous war with Russia, which ended with a victorious Russian army at the gates of Istanbul. The British Government intervened to keep Russia in its place, but the Ottomans again lost territory – including the İsland of Cyprus, which the Brits grabbed as a “protectorate”.

Abdülhamid managed to keep his rickety empire afloat for a further 33 years, in the face of increasing threats from within and without. In 1905 he survived an assassination attempt by Armenian revolutionaries, but was overthrown by a coup in 1909, in which, according to a Turkish source, there was Jewish involvement. The Sultan had upset powerful Jewish interests by opposing their plans for a Jewish state in Palestine – at that time in Ottoman territory.

balcony

Elaborately decorated interior, Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque

During his reign, the third longest in the empire’s 623-year history, Abdülhamid:

  • Modernised the army
  • Opened many schools and hospitals
  • Extended postal, rail and telegraph networks
  • Introduced major law reforms
  • Left an impressive architectural legacy

The Yıldız Hamidiye Mosque was opened in 1886 near the Sultan’s new residence on the hill above Beşiktaş. Interestingly, the architect was an Armenian, Sarkis Balyan, whose family had served the Ottoman dynasty for several generations. A substantial portion of the palace grounds have been preserved as a public park – the 46-hectare Yıldız Park has recently undergone substantial redevelopment, and is a restful oasis in the megalopolis that is present-day Istanbul. I’ve been waiting impatiently for restoration of the mosque to be completed. After four years, it was re-opened in March to mark the 100th anniversary of Abdülhamid’s death. I’m told the cost of renovation amounted to 27 million TL (around $US 5 million), and the result is spectacular.

There is a three-storey clock tower in the courtyard. The mosque is entered by a double stairway of white marble, and the interior decoration was designed to exceed that of the palace itself. In recent years students have been learning the neglected skills of Ottoman art and decoration, of which the Yıldız Mosque is a magnificent exhibition. Some of the elaborate woodwork in the interior is said to have been made by the Sultan himself, a skilled cabinet-maker in his spare time.

exterior

Mosque dedicated to Sheikh Tunuslu Muhammed Zafiri

A hundred metres or so downhill towards the centre of Beşiktaş is a smaller mosque dedicated to a Sufi Sheikh, Tunuslu Muhammed Zafiri. Abdülhamid Khan took his religion seriously, and was apparently a devotee of the Şâzelîlik sect that originated in North Africa.

Well, there’s only so much history we can absorb at a sitting – but I’m pleased that the current ongoing review of Ottoman history is opening new angles on the world we all inhabit. It’s not possible to find answers until we know what questions to ask – and I’m constantly finding new questions to which I’m seeking answers.