Antique collectors funding terrorism

The proceeds would have gone to YPG/PYD

gold

Sumerian gold jewellery

In five separate operations, Istanbul police seized 3,500 year-old Sumerian jewellery, Assyrian and Akkadian seals and Ottoman and Seljuk artifacts. It was understood that the historical artifacts were removed from historical graves in parts of Syria controlled by the PYD, and proceeds from sale of the priceless artifacts would be given to the terrorist organization. Nine people were detained.

Teams from departments responsible for the control of smuggling received information that tombs in regions of Syria under the control of the terror organisation PYD had been opened and the historical artifacts would be brought to Turkey and sold abroad. Following investigations, five separate operations were carried out in two weeks.

Searches were carried out at several addresses, including an antique shop, and artifacts seized included: 153 gold objects belonging to the 3,500 year-old Sumerian culture; religious statuettes from the Byzantine period; and bronze cooking implements from the Seljuk period.

During the two-week operation, nine people were taken into custody, among them an antique dealer. The nine were released after completion of legal formalities.

All the seized artifacts were handed over to the Istanbul Directorate of Museums.

sumerian artefactsContraband Goods police also seized 26,400 historical artifacts last month. In an exercise labeled “Zeus Operation”, dozens of priceless artifacts were seized including a sword belonging to the Mycaenean culture, known as the Sword of Achilles, a bust of Alexander the Great in the style of an Indian god, the royal crown of Helius and a silver medallion of Caesar. Eleven of the thirteen suspects were taken into custody.

The Mycaenean sword had drawn particular international attention. It is understood that the Police had received dozens of thank you phone calls after this operation.

There is no way to prevent artifact smuggling without genuine cooperation between countries, Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said on Jan. 29.

“It is impossible to completely prevent historical artifact smuggling without the sincere cooperation of countries, just as it’s not possible to prevent the global dimension of terror without sincere cooperation in fighting terrorism,” Kurtulmuş said at a ceremony in the capital Ankara showcasing historical artifacts recently repatriated to Turkey.

[My translation]

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Original Hagia Sophia tiles in France

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Ruins of the Achaemenid city Persepolis, Iran

My step-daughter has just returned from a visit to Iran. She was there to deliver a paper at a conference, but was able to do a little sight-seeing. One of the “must-sees” for tourists is the UNESCO-listed ruins of Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Those guys get an honourable mention in the Biblical Old Testament for permitting exiled Jews to return to their homeland and build a great temple in Jerusalem. Their kindness to the Jews, however, didn’t save them from having their magnificent city looted and burned by the army of the Great Macedonian Alexander as he marauded his way east on his mission to conquer the world.

Apparently present-day Iranians are unhappy that many artefacts from Persepolis later found their way into the collections of museums in Europe and the United States. I did a quick check online, and sure enough:

“A number of bas-reliefs from Persepolis are kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. There is also a collection from Persepolis at the British Museum. The Persepolis bull at the Oriental Institute is one of the university’s most prized treasures, but it is only one of several objects from Persepolis on display at the University of Chicago. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum houses objects from Persepolis, as does the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon and the Louvre of Paris hold objects from Persepolis as well.” (Wikipedia)

Inevitably our discussion turned to the matter of other historical and archaeological treasures housed in museums far from their original homes. Step-daughter was sure she’d seen the Rosetta Stone, key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics, in Cairo. I was equally sure I’d seen it in the British Museum – and another online check confirmed that the one in London is the real one. The same institution counts among its most prized possessions, apart from probably more Egyptian mummies than you’ll find in Egypt, the so-called Elgin Marbles – a vast store of marble friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, smuggled away in several shiploads by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the 19th century. Greek governments have repeatedly asked for them to be returned – but the Brits are having none of that.

Elsewhere, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a large section devoted to treasures from the classical city of Ephesus in modern Turkey, including a 70-metre frieze commemorating a (rare) Roman victory over the Parthians in 165CE. The Treasures of Priam, King of Troy (also in modern Turkey) were spirited away in the 1870s by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. They were exhibited in the Berlin Ethnological Museum until 1945 when they disappeared – turning up later (in 1993) in Moscow, of all places. Well, it’s hard to get self-righteous about having stolen property stolen by someone else, I guess.

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A popular conversation piece in 19th century drawingrooms

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori have for years been trying to get back tattooed human heads that were popular with European collectors of cultural curiosities in the early days of colonisation. I’ve recently been made aware (thanks Lara!) of a similar campaign by native American peoples to repatriate human remains from universities in Canada.

It seems the government of Turkey is at the forefront of this worldwide struggle to have purloined cultural and archeological objects returned to their homeland. In recent years, they have won several significant court battles resulting in the handing back of disputed sculptures and other artefacts. One such was the Sarcophagus of Heracles, smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s, seized by port authorities in Switzerland in 2010.

And here’s another interesting one in the news this week:

A panel of tiles in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum were smuggled to France in the 1890s and replaced with imitations, according to museum director Hayrullah Cengiz. 

“You can see the logo seal ‘made in France, Sevres’ behind the tiles,” he said, speaking to the state-run Anadolu Agency. 

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“Identical” ceramic tile panels on the tomb of Sultan Selim II

According to Cengiz, the Hagia Sophia receives nearly two million local and foreign visitors every year. One of the two panels on the sides of the entrance of the tomb of Sultan Selim II, son of Süleyman the Magnificent, are an imitation of the original tiles, he said. 

“The tomb is a work of Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect in the Ottoman state. These tiles were taken to France for restoration in the 1890s by the Frenchman, Albert Dorigny, who came to the Ottoman Empire as a dentist. But they were not returned. Instead, imitation tiles were made in France and mounted in place of the originals. The original tiles are on the right side. You can see the difference between the two panels. These are a perfect example of 16th century tiles.”

Cengiz said the Culture and Tourism Ministry had made a request to the French Ministry of Culture for the tiles to be returned. “These tiles were being exhibited in the ‘Arts of Islam’ section of the Louvre Museum in France. They have recently been removed, most likely due to complaints,” he added.

“The restoration of five tombs here was finished in 2009. It was revealed that these tiles were imitations during the restoration work, as you can easily see the logo ‘Made in France, Sevres’ written behind them. When you look at the difference between the two tiles on the right and the left, you can see the beauty of the original ones. The colors of the others have faded and lost their gloss because they are imitations, even though they have been there for only 100 years. The original ones, which are 400 years old, look brand new,” he said.

Cengiz also said the two panels are made up of 60 tiles and the fake ones were an exact copy of the original. “It is not too difficult to copy them, but as years pass by, the difference becomes evident. Not only did Dorigny smuggle this panel, he probably stole many other tiles from Istanbul museums where he had done restorations in those years.”

Now that was a cheeky one!

Archeology in Turkey – There’s no end to it!

Spotted this in our local news today:

Excavations reveal ancient Germanicia

The ancient city of Germanicia, which was discovered 10 years ago in the southern province of Kahramanmaraş, is progressing to become the Ephesus of the region.

germanicia2Located in the Dulkadiroğlu neighborhood, the ancient city was discovered in 2007 during illegal excavations. Registration, expropriation, excavation and preservation works have still been ongoing to uncover the ancient city that covers an area of 140 hectares, including the neighborhoods of Namık Kemal, Şeyhadil, Dulkadiroğlu and Bağlarbaşı.

Social life in the era was featured by mosaics, which covered the floors in the late Roman era. The mosaics uncovered in different spots during excavations carried out by the Kahramanmaraş Museum Directorate, have entered the archaeology literature in the multi-language publication of the World Mosaic Unions and increased the importance of the region.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, the Provincial Culture and Tourism Director Seydihan Küçükdağlı said works had been ongoing for almost 10 years in the area. So far, 30 out of 50 parcels of land have been expropriated.

germanicia-antik-kenti-nde-kamulatrlior

And of course, the locals have to move.

“Thirteen parcels of land are in the court process and it will soon be resolved. We want this area to be projected as an archeology park, an open museum. The excavations will continue to reveal the mosaics that have been uncovered in two fields and the current archaeological data we have. Each of these parcels are in a different spot. The ancient city of Germanicia will become the locomotive of Kahramanmaraş tourism once it is completely unearthed,” said Küçükdağlı.

So far, they have completed an excavation area of 3,000 square meters and spent 13 million Turkish Liras in two years, said the director.

Some of the mosaics found in the ancient city of Germanicia have been on display in their original places and some at the museum, according to Kahramanmaraş museum director Ahmet Denizhanoğulları.

germanicia 3Last year’s works unearthed very important ruins of graves and walls, said Denizhanoğulları.

“This year, we continued excavations in a different parcel and found very important mosaics. Germanicia is progressing to become the Ephesus of the region. Once it opens for tourism, this place will change the future of our city. These were the highest quality mosaics in their era. They date back to the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. They feature daily life and hunting animal figures. There is also a place we excavated in 2015. It is most likely a church,” said the director.

Art dealer accepts prized coffin’s return to Turkey

Well, here’s an interesting news item. Apparently Swiss law is clear on the matter of stolen antiquities – but publicly encouraging the assassination of a visiting head of state is a grey area.

“Lawyers say a Roman Empire-era coffin depicting the 12 labors of Hercules is set to go home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over a prized artifact that had mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs-office warehouse years ago.

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This undated photo shows a 2nd century BCE sarcophagus in sculpted marble depicting the 12 labours of Hercules. Authorities say thecoffin is set to return home to Turkey, ending a legal battle over an artifact that mysteriously turned up in Geneva’s secretive customs office warehouse years ago (Ministere public genevois via AP)

The Inanna Art Services, a private cultural goods importer that had legal possession of the three-ton marble sarcophagus, had tried for months to block the restitution before deciding two weeks ago “to contribute to the return” by abandoning its efforts in Swiss courts, Didier Bottge, a lawyer for the importer, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

From his clients’ viewpoint, “the case is closed,” said Bottge. Inanna had appealed a decision in September 2015 by the Geneva’s public prosecutor’s office to hand over what it called the “priceless” sarcophagus to Turkey.

The planned handover, expected sometime in the coming months, marks a successful cooperation between Swiss and Turkish authorities at a time of tensions between their two countries.

Swiss authorities are investigating whether any laws were broken when protesters against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the weekend held up a banner bearing the words “Kill Erdogan,” as well as allegations of spying by people linked to Turkey in the Alpine nation.

The decision follows a nearly seven-year legal saga for the sarcophagus after it turned up in the secretive Geneva Free Ports warehouse. Cultural officials have said the coffin, showing scenes of Hercules strangling the Nemean Lion and killing the Hydra, is one of 12 of its kind known in the world.

It’s been traced to the Roman city of Dokimeion, thought to have been in the modern-day province of Antalya in Turkey.”

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The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

The Golden Horn has a special association in Western minds with the magic of a city some still insist on calling Constantinople. As a geographical feature, it is one of the main reasons that city has been settled for more than 6,000 years, and that it was the centre of three major world empires for more than a millennium and a half.

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

In physical terms, the Golden Horn is an estuary of two small rivers some 7.5 km in length, 750 metres across its widest point, and 35 metres deep where it flows into the Bosporus as it joins the Sea of Marmara. With that sea it forms two sides of a roughly triangular peninsula on which the Emperor Constantine established his New Rome in the third decade of the 4th century CE. Twenty-two km of massive defensive walls, mostly still in existence, surrounded the city, and the Golden Horn was the main harbour, port and centre of shipbuilding until well into the 20th century.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, and became the capital of their 600-year empire. The Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, but Istanbul remains the financial, commercial and emotional heart.

Surprising then that the Turkish name for the historical waterway is simply Haliç – derived from the Arabic word for estuary. There is some debate about how the Golden Horn acquired its name in Greek and English. One theory says it symbolises the wealth that entered the legendary city through its waters. That may be so, but it was equally true for the Ottomans. The second explanation, which I prefer, refers to the colours that bathe the harbour as the sun sets in the west – a sight only visible from the north-eastern shore where was located the satellite city housing merchants and ambassadors from Europe. For a thousand years or more, attracted by the city’s fabled wealth, they built their towers, warehouses, churches and palaces, and watched the setting sun enflame the waters separating them from the imperial capital.

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

Last week the adventurous new driver of our staff shuttle bus took a lengthy detour to avoid the deadlocked traffic through Istanbul’s new financial centre coming to be known informally as ‘Mashattan’. Istanbul is a huge city, and there are undoubtedly many areas with which I am not familiar. Our circuitous route brought us to the bank of a medium-sized stream flowing down a surprisingly verdant valley interspersed with sports facilities and amusement parks. The slopes of the valley were lined with modern high-rise apartment blocks, office buildings, and the ostentatious campuses of several new universities. The area is Kağıthane, and for the first time I felt motivated to visit it.

It’s not a very accessible area for those of us residing on the Asian side of Istanbul – but there is a ferry, departing hourly from Üsküdar that crosses the Bosporus and follows a zigzag course up the Golden Horn ending at Eyüp, a district popular with the Muslim faithful. Its second-to-last stop is Sütlüce, my point of disembarkation.

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Whatever doomsayers may tell you, Istanbul is a more salubrious metropolis in the 21st century than it was in the final years of the old millennium. Fish thrive again in the Golden Horn in sufficient numbers to encourage a forest of fishing rods on the Galata Bridge. The water at least looks relatively clean, and certainly doesn’t stink as it formerly did. The industries that lined its banks and the Kağıthane valley have been relocated, their buildings demolished, derelict or converted to new uses.

A prominent landmark near the jetty at Sütlüce is the Haliç Congress Centre, a sprawling complex whose central feature is the old city slaughterhouse, built in 1923 and finally closed in 1984. I am too squeamish to begin imagining what flowed from its bloody operations during the 61 years it served its original purpose.

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

Further along the shore is the campus of Bilgi University, located on what had been the coal-burning Silahtarağa thermal power station, established in 1911, and the sole supplier of Istanbul’s electricity needs until 1952. Electricity generation continued until 1983, and I can only guess at the contribution it made to the city’s air and water as it leached its poisons and belched forth its toxic clouds of smoke. I am assured that there is now a Museum of Energy on the site – but yesterday being a holiday, it wasn’t open to the public. It’s not the first time in Turkey I have been offered this reason for a museum’s being closed. Does it strike you as peculiar?

So I had lunch as I revised my plans, which had involved spending an hour or two learning about energy in Turkey, past and present, with maybe some light being shed on the proposed construction of three nuclear-fuelled power plants. Probably because of the universities, there are now a number of tasteful cafes and restaurants raising the tone of a neighbourhood struggling to shake off a heritage of auto mechanics and tyre repairers.

I was now at the point where the two streams, Kağıthane (or Cendere) and Alibeyköy flow into the Golden Horn, and faced with a choice, I decided to follow the former to see where it would lead. Clearly the valley has been beautified since the days when it was Istanbul’s first industrial area, and home to squatter villages erected by displaced Anatolian peasants flocking to the city in search of work. The stream now flows through an extensive park stretching along both banks for several kilometres, further than I chose to explore. The water still looks uninviting, and the metre or so of grey mud at the water’s edge would likely discourage children trying to retrieve a football. At least it doesn’t stink, however, which places it a little higher on the water purity scale than the Asian stream flowing past the stadium of Fenerbahçe, one of the city’s premier football clubs.

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

The name Kağıthane comes, as one might guess, from a paper factory that was one of the first industries to be established on the banks of the stream. In Ottoman times, the district was known as Sadabad, actually a forest frequented by Sultan Süleiman and his court in the 16th century for riding and hunting. In the 17th and 18th centuries the wealthy built mansions and summer palaces along the banks of the stream. It began to attract a wider public in the early years of the 18th century, the so-called Tulip Age, as the empire increasingly opened its doors to Western influence, becoming a popular location for picnic daytrips, weddings and other festivities. Postcards and engravings, often inscribed with French titles, made their way to Europe, depicting Les Eaux-douce d’Europe – the Sweet Waters of Europe.

What remains from the leisured life of those far-off days? A picturesque 18th century mosque known variously as Aziziye, Çağlayan or Sadabad, extensively rebuilt by two brothers of the Armenian Balyan family that contributed much to the architecture of Ottoman Istanbul. Not much else is to be seen from those days; a stable in the process of restoration, and some stone work half-buried in front of the Kağıthane Council building.

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interestingly, a good deal of that palatial grandeur disappeared in the first half of the 18th century. Ahmed III seems to have been one of the Ottomans’ more controversial sultans. He ascended to the throne in 1703 at a time when the empire was past its glorious best. Nevertheless, he had some notable achievements: he turned the eyes of his country outwards towards Europe, perhaps encouraged by his two French wives, and built good relations with France; his armies achieved unprecedented success against Russia; he fostered literature and the arts; during his reign the first printing press in Ottoman Turkish was set up, and an official fire brigade inaugurated; factories producing china, clothing and paper were founded.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Ahmed made enemies. His reign is particularly remembered as the Tulip Age, and the pomp, splendour and luxury associated with the wealthy upper classes led to a major revolt in 1730.

Patrona Halil was a Janissary of Albanian extraction who somehow managed to incite a revolt that toppled Sultan Ahmed. The insurgents placed Ahmed’s nephew Mahmud on the throne, but treated him as a kind of puppet until, with the aid of the Khan of Crimea, the ringleader was executed and peace restored. In the mean time, however, most of the palaces and summerhouses of Sadabad had been destroyed in a riot of vengeful leveling.

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

The 1730 revolt was followed by another ten years later – and these events are considered by some historians to have been a major factor contributing to the rapid decline of the empire in the 19th century. While the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman elite was the ostensible cause, the Janissaries, for centuries the source of Ottoman military power until their final abolition by Mahmud II in 1826, were a force of reaction in Ottoman society, and one of their major grievances was the Westernising policies of Sultan Ahmed, which placed their very existence under threat.

The Sadabad Palace, one of the chief features of the Kağıthane pleasure grounds, was rebuilt twice more after the riots, by Mahmud II in 1809 and Abdülaziz in 1863. After the First World War it was used as military headquarters by the occupying British forces, then served as an orphanage in the early days of the Republic. During the Second World War the area was handed over to the Turkish military and the remaining palaces were demolished. In the 1950s the process of rapid industrialisation began, factories mushroomed, squatter shantytowns sprang up and the Kağıthane stream turned to a turgid black river of foul-smelling ooze.

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Istanbul is a vast and ancient city with a complex past. A trap for Western visitors is the temptation to interpret events in terms of the context we know from our own education and experience. They can lead us to jump to conclusions that may be quite wrong. Just as in our own countries, a knowledge of past events is crucial to an understanding of the present. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself.

As I wended my way home to Asia, on a route I probably wouldn’t have chosen had I been more familiar with the area, I chanced on two totally unrelated, but nevertheless interesting sights. The first was in a cemetery just outside the Edirnekapı gate in the old city walls. Normally Turks bury their dead with other family members, but these two adjacent graves, in pristine white marble had something in common other than blood

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

relationship. A stone linking the two bore the inscription: ‘We ask God’s mercy for our friends who were martyred when the Mavi Marmara ship, attempting to end the embargo on Gaza, was attacked on 31 May 2010.’ There is no criticism, or even mention of the Israeli Government – just a verse from the Koran on each headstone.

Inside the walls stands the monumental mosque dedicated to Mihrimah Sultan, beloved daughter of 16th century Sultan Süleiman. Near the recently renovated mosque is a construction site with a notice informing passers-by that another restoration is in progress – an old Greek Orthodox Church and its associated buildings. The government of Turkey and the Istanbul City Council come in for a good deal of criticism these days, from a number of directions, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Exploring Istanbul – The old and the new

I’m a little confused about Turkey these days. It seems I am assailed on two fronts by people telling me, on the one hand, that the country is headed for Islamic fundamentalist disaster, possibly orchestrated by the United States of America with Tayyip Erdoğan as their puppet – while on the other, a large proportion of the population seems to believe that Tayyip Bey is a national saviour, leading the country into a new era of prosperity, tolerance and self-confidence. Who to believe?

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus - soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus – soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Sometimes you just have to get out and see for yourself, I reckon. Yesterday I went a-wandering in the old city. My first destination was that corner of the ancient metropolis where the sea wall on the Golden Horn joins the land walls stretching across to the Sea of Marmara. The area is called Ayvansaray, but in former times it was known as Blachernae, after the palace where the last Byzantine/Roman emperors lived. There must have been quite a complex of buildings here in those days – and what little that survives above ground to the present day is said to be one of the few relatively intact examples of late Byzantine secular architecture in the world’.

When I first came to Istanbul in the 1990s, this area was a forgotten part of the city – most of its residents living in poor quality housing with little architectural merit. The nooks and crannies in the city walls and remains of the palaces were inhabited by an even poorer population with no other fixed abode. No doubt archeologists and ancient historians knew of the palaces, but there was no sign that anyone was taking any serious interest. Since 2010 there has been major renovation and reconstruction going on, and I pay a visit from time to time to see how work is progressing. It’s a huge job, of course, requiring major financial investment. One project is restoration of the Anemas Dungeon, located under the long-gone Blachernae Palace. My old guidebook said you would need a torch/flashlight to explore the labyrinth of tunnels – but it would have taken a visitor much braver than I to venture in. Tourists wandering off the beaten track in less isolated parts of the old city have met unpleasant ends. I’m looking forward to the day when the complex opens as a museum so that I can check it out in safety under more reliable lighting.

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

Nearby, another Byzantine Palace, Porphyrogenitus, is also undergoing renovation – and apparently the plan is to turn it into an exhibition hall and conference centre. While I understand those purists who see this as commercially driven sacrilege, I’m not sure what the alternatives are. Leave it as it was, a slowly mouldering heap of rubble inhabited by the city’s poorest? Wall it off behind glass panels so that a few rare visitors could attempt to recreate, largely in their minds, the glory of a bygone age? In reality, the preservation of such buildings is an enormously expensive business, beyond the means of the Turkish government to fund. Some of the finance inevitably has to come from the private sector, or by re-utilising them in some way that will provide an income. Where would the grand cathedrals of Europe be without their entrance fees and charges for photography? Even in countries where the culture and religion are theoretically unchanged?

As I often have cause to remark, Turkey’s biggest problem in being understood – even in understanding itself – is that so much has happened here during its long millennia of recorded and previous unrecorded history. Archeologists and even historians don’t have the facts, and the English language lacks the words to describe, never mind explain, the origins of the people who live in this region today.

The city of Byzantion is said to have been founded by ‘Greek’ colonists in 657 BCE. But who were these ‘Greeks’? Still, if that date is correct, it makes the city pretty near as old as Rome – and one might argue that Rome’s claimed establishment date of 753 BCE owes more to myth and legend than incontestable historical fact. Nevertheless, there we have a city, located on the historical peninsula inhabited by people speaking a language that is a forerunner of modern Greek. Then along came Constantine, Emperor of the pagan Roman Empire, establishing his New Rome (later to be called Constantinopolis in his honour) in 324 CE on the site of Byzantion, and the language of government became Latin.

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

During the course of his reign, Constantine reportedly became a ‘Christian’, and also established the principle of dynastic succession – two serious blows to democracy, sad to say. It wasn’t till 50-odd years later that the Emperor Justinian established ‘Nicene Christianity’ as the imperial state religion – some might say a political rather than a spiritual decision, marking the beginning of that religion’s descent into intolerance, persecution and political manipulation; but that’s another story.

At some point, the locally predominant Greek tongue re-emerged as the language of administration; the western Roman Empire fell, and Constantinople stood alone as capital of . . . what? The Roman Empire, as they themselves believed? Or some other mysterious entity, subsequently, and retrospectively, named ‘Byzantium’ by Western historians. Then the Ottomans appeared, finally conquering the (Eastern) Christian city in 1453 CE, turning it into the capital of their 600-year empire. Certainly the state religion was Islam, but ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Armenian’ Christians, and Jews, were tolerated and given rights of worship, language, education, even administration over their own people. To Western Europe, the Ottomans were ‘Turks’, just as their conquered predecessors had been ‘Greeks’ – but it was a long time, and many generations of inter-marriage with locals, since their ancestors had migrated from Central Asia. However, the power of words is strong to influence minds for good or ill.

But let’s get back to my ramble around that old city, delineated by the majestic walls built by Constantine, and extended by Theodosius II in the 5th century. The walls enclose a roughly triangular area with a perimeter of approximately twenty-one kilometres, so you can’t hope to see much in your three-day visit. My guide for exploring this huge area has been a handy little publication, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’[1], which has allowed me to concentrate on sections of the old city and to discover gems of historical interest in their labyrinthine streets. Yesterday my route took me along the shore of the Golden Horn back towards the Galata Bridge at Eminönü.

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

Certainly Istanbul is changing. Urban renewal is taking place everywhere. Huge state-sponsored projects are under construction alongside those of private sector commercial interests, great and small. Inevitably there will be gains and losses. We will regret the disappearance of some of the city’s old ‘character’ while at the same time, happily availing ourselves of its modern amenities.

My route took me past two old houses, formerly home to two important Ottoman figures, neither of them Turkish or Muslim – Panayotaki Nikosi and Dimitri Kantemir. Despite the sole online reference I found referring to the former as a ‘magnificent villa’ it has been a neglected shell as long as I have known it. The other, however, is in the process of renovation and being turned into a museum. Dimitri Kantemir was a Prince of Moldavia who lived in Istanbul from 1687 to 1710. According to Wikipedia he ‘became a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1714. [He] was known as one of the greatest linguists of his time, speaking and writing eleven languages, and being well versed in Oriental scholarship.’ His writings include works on history, geography, philosophy, linguistics and music. Restoration of his house is a joint project between the Istanbul Metropolitan Council and the Government of Romania.

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

So, whatever people say about the religiosity of the Istanbul City Council, they seem happy to put money into preserving non-Muslim buildings. A little further along the road, work is progressing on the small Orthodox church of St Nicholas. It’s not a particularly ancient building, having been erected in the 19th century – but it stands on the site of a much older Byzantine edifice, its location chosen because of the sacred spring which bubbled beneath it. Another waterside restoration is being carried out on the 19th century Bulgarian church of St Stefan – architecturally interesting because it was made from cast iron sections prefabricated in Austria and shipped down the Danube River.

A chance discovery while I was looking for the Kantemir house was a small mosque with an unusual wooden minaret. This mosque, plaques in Turkish and English informed me, was built by the Grand Vizier Şehit Ali Pasha in 1716 after a certain Ebu Zer Gifari appeared to him in a dream. That gentleman had been a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, and one of the very first to accept the new religion, subsequently bringing many converts.

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

I have been reliably informed that UNESCO has been considering naming and shaming Turkey for allegedly failing to adequately protect and care for the historic peninsula, officially recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. One project that has attracted considerable attention is a bridge recently built across the Golden Horn to carry one line of the city’s new Metro system. The bridge, say critics, is a blight on the historic landscape, disrupting lines of sight on the famous skyline and totally out of keeping with its unique architecture.

Well, I have to tell you, I love that new Metro system. There are some who say it should have been done years ago – but it wasn’t, and now it is. The bridge in question seems to be a reasonable compromise between a living city in dire need of a modern public transportation system, and an archeological paradise containing irreplaceable treasures of several major empires. Without the excavations associated with Metro construction, some recently discovered treasures would never have seen the light of day. Designers of the system have located a station in the middle of the new bridge, meaning that pedestrians can access it from both shores, enjoying, as they do, unparalleled views of the ancient city. I haven’t seen it at night, but I imagine it must be spectacular! And if my calculation of angles is correct, the only part of the city from which views may be obstructed would be the Prime Minister’s very own constituency of Kasımpaşa.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Meanwhile, the private sector too is coming to the redevelopment party. All along the waterside road and adjacent streets, trendy new cafes are sprouting, side by side with refurbished traditional meyhanes and purveyors of that necessary follow-up, tripe soup. Again, despite the local council’s reputation for wowserism, there seems to be no prohibition on alcohol consumption. As well as this small-scale commercial development, larger enterprises are also involved. A foundation set up by the late industrialist Kadir Has has turned buildings of the former tobacco factory into a university campus. Again, purists may object – but the factory was originally built by foreign banking interests who had obtained one of the infamous ‘capitulations’ back in 1884, and had stood empty for twenty years before its current transformation. The old factory also houses the Rezan Has Museum, where you can currently see an exhibition of Urartian jewellery and ornaments dating from the 8th-7th centuries BCE, and a fascinating display chronicling the development of written language, much of which took place in this part of the world.

Next time you are in Istanbul, with a few hours to spare, I really recommend you to follow that route. I can’t say that I am in total agreement with everything the present government of Turkey does – but the evidence of my eyes suggests to me that citizens of and visitors to Istanbul have much to be grateful for. As I wandered slowly around the other day, I passed and was passed by a family of young German tourists, mum and dad with three small kids on foot and another in a stroller. Clearly they were travellers on a budget, as you would be, and not with a tour group. I can’t imagine young parents venturing with children into those parts of the old city ten years or so ago.

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[1] Latest edition published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Council, in association with Culture Co. Earlier editions by Intermedia.

Bodrum to Gallipoli – A week’s wandering in Aegean Turkey

A major benefit of receiving visitors from abroad – apart from the happiness of catching up with family and old friends – is the motivation they provide for getting out and seeing the sights of Turkey through fresh eyes. We had a family wedding in May which brought guests from the USA, and took us down to Bodrum a month or so earlier than usual. Then some old neighbours arrived from New Zealand, and together we took a slow trip through the Aegean region back to Istanbul.
Here are a few highlights:
Myndos is the ancient name for the modern village of Gümüşlük-by-the-Sea where our journey began. There is no evidence to indicate that it had much more importance in those days than it has today – which is perhaps its saving grace. The Bodrum Peninsula is in serious danger of succumbing to the curse of over-development, but the existence of classical ruins beneath its humble surface has so far saved Gümüşlük from the worst depredations. Its small natural harbour and sandy beaches lined with atmospheric fish restaurants and small shops selling tasteful handcrafts, and jams and marmalades made from locally-grown fruits, attract visitors desperate to escape the English breakfasts, English football and Turkish nightclubs that blight other resorts on the peninsula.
Recently archeologists from Bursa’s Uludağ University have been fossicking around remains of temples, churches, theatres and bathhouses – and council workers laying pipes accidentally turned up a Roman necropolis. So far, fortunately, nothing’s been found that’s likely to attract coachloads of tourists or titanic cruise liners.
Magnesia-on-the-Meander. Certainly there are other sites on the road deserving a visit, but this one is a little publicized gem. My previous visits had been in the heat and dust of July or August, so carpets of red, purple and yellow spring flowers made for an extra delight. The city was renowned for its temple to Artemis Leucophryeno which, in its heyday, was little inferior to the better known temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, not much remains today, but a short walk will take you to a 20,000-seater stadium, wonderfully preserved as a result of being buried for centuries under a landslide caused by a 7th century earthquake. Incidentally, our word ‘magnet’ is said to come from lodestones found in Magnesia.
The modern town of Selçuk is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit Ephesus and other neighbouring cities of classical antiquity. Americans and touchingly credulous Roman Catholics climb a nearby mountain to pay their respects at a site purported to be built over an earlier house once inhabited by Mary, mother of Jesus (or of God Himself, if you are of that persuasion). The ‘purporter’ was apparently a stigmatised ecstatic visionary German nun who, despite never having left her home territory of Westphalia, provided directions to the said house, delivered to her in a visitation from the said Mary.
If you do go to Ephesus, I recommend shelling out a few extra dollars for admission to the terrace houses, a work in progress recreating the lives of well-heeled Ephesians back when the apostle Paul was writing to them (well, maybe not to those Ephesians). An international crew of dedicated archeologists is carrying out unbelievably painstaking work reassembling wall frescoes and floor mosaics from thousands of fragments that you and I would probably not even notice.
It is generally understood that carpet-sellers in Turkey are a local hazard to be avoided at all costs. However, an exception to the rule is a government-sponsored co-operative located behind the (currently closed) Selçuk museum on the back road to the 13th century Mosque of Isa Bey. We stumbled upon it by accident and allowed ourselves to be inveigled in. It did, however, turn out to be a worthwhile mishap. Apart from providing a place for master (or mistress) weavers to work and train young apprentices and market their wares, the centre also gives insights into the age-old art of silk production. One interesting fact I learned – the ancient Egyptians used silk threads to cut the stones used for pyramid building. Well, true or not, I have always wondered how those artisans of old were able to accurately cut thin sheets of marble for lining their temples and churches.
It’s a bit of a trek from Selçuk – and probably you need a vehicle of your own – but Aphrodisias is a magical site well worth a visit. At this point I have to give a plug to my friend Adrian. We were fortunate to find him in town, sipping a cold ale at Eksellans Bar on Saturday evening, and he was gracious enough to let us tag along on his Sunday tour. Aphrodisias is, of course, named for the goddess Aphrodite, since there was a major cult of followers located in the city in ancient times. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a connection between the Greek goddess, earlier Aegean deities Cybele and Artemis, and the cult of the Virgin Mary that subsequently developed when Christianity became the state religion in these parts.
For my money, Aphrodisias is a more atmospheric site than the better known, and more accessible Ephesus. Precisely because of its lesser accessibility, of course, you will find fewer tour buses from the cruise liners of Kuşadası. The on-site museum is a treasure house of fabulous sculpture, and the almost intact stadium redolent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’. If you are lucky enough to have Adrian in your party, you will be treated to translations of the many inscriptions for which this site is renowned.
The modern Turkish town of Bergama is located at the foot of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Many of the best finds are more likely to be seen in the eponymous museum in Berlin, but still it’s a spectacular site with a breath-taking theatre built on the precipitous hill. Roman engineers brought water by aqueduct from 40+ kilometres away, and some local inventor came up with the idea of parchment. Apparently commodity traders in Cairo had started stock-piling papyrus in anticipation of a shortage thereby creating a shortage, and got their come-uppance in a big way!
A brisk walk from the bottom of the hill will bring you to the Asklepius Medical Centre, whose residents included the famous physician Galen. Among its patients were some with psychiatric disorders, who were treated with music, dream interpretation and the sound of a sacred spring burbling down the corridor. Incidentally, if you’re looking for place to stay with a little ambience I can recommend the Athena Pension, an old Greek house with a view of the acropolis from its walled garden.
Following our hosts’ recommendation, instead of retracing our steps, we took a back road through Kozak – according to locals, the richest town in Turkey because of its trade in pine nuts. The road brought us out a little north of Ayvalik where we stopped for lunch at a delightful little place called Zeytin Altı Kır BahçesiA Country garden under the Olive Trees. As with many of the best Turkish eateries, its menu was limited to what they do best: grilled köfte and gözleme, both of which were delicious! We also picked up a few local products, fruit juice and a kind of molasses (pekmez) made from mulberries, and some tasty sliced olives in tomato sauce.
Our final stopover was the town of Çanakkaleon the southern coast of the Dardanelles, where we booked a tour to the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, that long-ago exercise in military futility that has nevertheless bequeathed a sense of identity to Australia, New Zealand and the modern Republic of Turkey. My guests and I felt a strong admiration for the Turks who have allowed former invaders to maintain cemeteries to their fallen heroes, to build a large memorial on the crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair, and have even erected a signpost directing visitors to Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove).
One of our fellow travellers on the tour bus was a young Maori lad who told us that he intended to perform a haka in honour of his ancestors who had fought and died for a king and empire to whom they had little cause to feel obligated. It was an impressive one-man performance that brought a tear to my eye – and a little anger against an elderly Anglo-Australian woman who demanded indignantly to know why we had to be subjected to such a spectacle.
A curious incident occurred as we were about to board the ferry that would take us across the water to the town of Eceabat. One of our guides, a young Turkish lass calling herself Zuzu, with a Goth hairdo and numerous body piercings, announced that we would in fact take a later boat because there were a few Turkish police on our intended ferry, and ‘they kill people’. I wonder what what the short-stay tourists made of that.