Western media’s love affair with Orhan Pamuk

“They have killed the Istanbul I loved” – a plaintive cry from Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk in an interview he gave recently to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Apparently the poor guy can’t live there any more because his memories have been destroyed.

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Longing for the good old days

Well, I can empathise with Mr Pamuk’s problem. It’s a function of getting old, I guess, and of spending a lot of time away from the place of your birth. I haven’t lived in my hometown Auckland for 16 years. When I go back for a visit now, I hardly recognise the place I once knew so well. But there’s no use crying about it. It’s the way of the world. Some Native Americans possibly wish they could turn back the clock to a time before those Palefaces arrived – but sad to say, they can’t. There is a Turkish saying, “İt havlar kervan yürür”“The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”

But Orhan Pamuk likes to bark, especially in the cause of selling more books – a shameless self-publicist who has no scruples about running down his own country and people to further his own “literary” career.

It’s an interesting exercise to follow interviews Pamuk has given to western journalists over the years, and to observe how his projected self-image has morphed according to his own self-seeking agenda. In the La Stampa interview he says he is “jealous of Western writers” as they are not constantly questioned about politics by interviewers. He claims he has been forced to answer politically charged questions and this has “turned him into a political writer.” This is the guy who, back in 2005, speaking to a Swiss journalist, said that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it”.

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Rubbing shoulders with ordinary Turks in his school days – NOT!

Well, those are politically charged issues in Turkey, as Pamuk knew full well – and many Turks were of the opinion that he was making such statements with a view to attracting the attention of the Nobel Awards committee. It’s a well-known fact that novelists from developing countries unpopular in the West who criticise their own governments give themselves a head start in the race for Nobel honours. When Pamuk achieved his goal of Nobel literary honours in 2006, Turkey’s President at the time, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, broke with his normal practice of congratulating high achieving Turks, and refused to acknowledge his countryman’s Nobel Prize. It should also be noted that Sezer was not aligned with the current AK Party government, but held the presidency by appointment of an earlier secular republican Kemalist administration.

But to return to the Italian report, Pamuk acknowledges that he spends much of his time in New York City, so we can understand that he will be somewhat out of touch with developments back home. “The old houses I love have been destroyed,” he laments. Well, the guy grew up in the old money quarter of Nişantaşı, with parents wealthy enough to send him to the elite American Robert College, to buy carloads of books to feed his passion for reading, and to support him while he dropped in and out of university without ever troubling himself to work for a living. If he had ventured, as a young man, to other parts of his beloved Istanbul during the 1970s and 80s, he would have seen vast swathes of old wooden Ottoman houses bulldozed and replaced by slum shanties for migrant workers from the east of Turkey. But he didn’t. And one thing is definitely true about Mr Pamuk – he was no youthful revolutionary idealist activist during Turkey’s most turbulent period of political upheaval in those decades. In a New York Times interview in 2014, he further admitted that, while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers, he spent most days reading at home in Nişantaşı.”

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Let’s go shopping – in Nişantaşı 😉

In contrast, then, one of the images Pamuk likes to create for himself is that of a lone courageous voice calling his government to task for historical human rights abuses. He was charged, he loves to repeat, with treason for his outspoken support of Armenians and Kurds, and lived abroad in virtual exile for fear of incarceration or worse. What he omits to say is that the charges were brought by an ultra-nationalist private citizen, not the Turkish government, and were subsequently dropped.

But the Western media love him – and that’s probably another reason to be suspicious.

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Hidden History: When Muslims Ruled in Europe — The Most Revolutionary Act

When the Moors Rules in Europe Bettany Hughes (2011) Film Review When the Moors Ruled in Europe corrects many common misconceptions about Muslim rule in Spain between 711 and 1492 AD. Historical and archeological evidence contradicts the prevailing belief that this 700 year rule represented a violent military occupation. At the time Muslim Berbers from […]

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via Hidden History: When Muslims Ruled in Europe — The Most Revolutionary Act

https://turkeyfile.com/2014/11/28/cultural-amnesia-islamic-contributions-to-modern-science-and-technology/

Getting back to Istanbul – and the world of Realpolitik

I’m happy to be back in Istanbul after spending most of the summer at our seaside retreat. We were rocked by a moderately disturbing earthquake in Bodrum – but it seems the big city suffered worse damage from torrential rain and a storm of super-sized hailstones. Gentle reminders from Mother Nature about who’s actually in charge on this planet. Anyway, I have to start work again, a necessary evil in order to sustain a lifestyle above subsistence level.

My good lady is still out of town, so, looking for ways to amuse myself in her absence, I headed over to the European side of the city. I was keen to see Taksim Square, Gezi Park and İstiklal Avenue, having heard so much negative comment about their descent into a black hole of fundamentalist Islamic horror.

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Not easy to get into. Could that be significant?

My first target was Küçükçiftlik Park, which I had seen advertised as venue of the 4th Istanbul Coffee Festival. I passed through tight security before emerging at a ticket booth totally lacking in any kind of queue. On asking the entry price I understood why . . . 35 Turkish Liras! What? Unable to believe what the young lady had said, I asked, “What’s in there? Is it worth it?” I took her momentary hesitation to mean that she herself had doubts, so I headed for the exit. 35 Liras! Last year it had been held in the grounds of Topkapı Palace, and admission was free. So what had changed over twelve months?

While in the vicinity I decided to check out Maçka Democracy Park, a good-sized island of greenery (yes, another one) in the inner city I hadn’t visited in a dog’s age. It was named in happier times when regular military coups ensured the preservation of democracy and secularism, at least for the nation’s ruling elite. It turned out that visiting the park was easier said than done. Clearly much of the lower end has been leased out to whatever private concern is now scalping citizens for entry to the Coffee Festival, and I had to walk a kilometre or so up the hill to find a gate.

Maçka Park has been in the news recently over an event where a couple of scantily clad young women were harangued by a guy who found their short shorts unseemly – giving rise to a series of protest meetings where sisters gathered (in shorts) to assert their rights to expose however much female flesh they thought necessary or desirable. Me? I keep out of such issues. I just try not to ogle too blatantly when vistas of naked leg and cleavage appear before me 😉

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Maçka park cable car

I was pleased to find that the cable car I remembered from years gone by still crossed the valley from Şişli to Taksim – and more pleased yet to find that the spectacular view over woodland to the Bosporus was less disfigured these days by youthful inscriptions etched into the perspex windows of the carriage.

A short walk brought me to Taksim Square, still a rather barren space despite council claims that they had planted a large number of trees. Gezi Park, location of much political excitement four years ago, is actually a rather more accessible and pleasant spot than in former times. The whole area has been closed to motor traffic which has been diverted underground. An exhibition area hosts thematic displays of handcrafts and the wares of micro-businesses. On this particular day, dozens of stalls were purveying second-hand books, classic movie posters and prints of old Istanbul, and several outdoor cafes offered Turkish coffee brewed slowly, in the traditional way, on glowing charcoal.

Feeling a little hungry, I headed down a back street and found a tasteful little restaurant calling itself “Gezzy” where I enjoyed a most delicious pide, a kind of Turkish pizza with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and green peppers.

From there, I carried on down the road known as Tarlabaşı Boulevard. On the downhill slopes to my right spread the colourful neighbourhood featured in numerous Turkish films about the underground life of gypsy music, prostitution in all its multitudinous guises, and the world of crime in general. I remember, years ago, on first seeing the narrow lanes of rundown Victorian tenements (or whatever the Ottoman equivalent was), wondering when the mixed blessing of gentrification would arrive in an area so close to the beating heart of the metropolis. Well, arrive it has – amid much fanfare, accompanied by somewhat justified wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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A green space in central Istanbul – but just try to get in!

I cut back up the hill towards Beyoğlu, passing by the fortress-like walls of the British Consulate. Built in 1845 as an embassy, in ostentatious imperial neo-classical style, adorned with the requisite inscription in Latin and the date in Roman numerals, the enormous edifice provides little in the way of services, to locals or UK citizens. A bombing fourteen years ago that killed a number of Turkish citizens, and accidentally got the Consul-General, led to the building of a defensive wall. Once an important outpost of empire in the Ottoman capital, Pera House these days looks like little more than an expensive anachronism.

The back streets running more or less parallel to İstiklal Avenue, the commercial thoroughfare leading out of Taksim Square, are lined with imposing buildings of similar vintage in various states of decrepitude and restoration: The Pera Palace Hotel, famed for its role in accommodating wealthy travellers disembarked from the Orient Express; the Grand Hotel de Londres, a reminder that French was a more fashionable language than English in those days; the Italianate façade of the Beyoğlu Council building, erected in 1857. These and more recall that for centuries, in Ottoman times, and before, when the city was capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, citizens lived in the ancient city across the Golden Horn. The district known variously as Pera, Galata or Beyoğlu was a satellite town of foreign traders and diplomats.

Most visitors to modern Istanbul take time to visit Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, and providing panoramic views of the city from its 63-metre viewing deck. In those days, the Genoese and their Venetian neighbours controlled trade in the Mediterranean, and it was their contact with Eastern civilisations that contributed to the Renaissance in Europe. Subsequently their control was challenged and more or less replaced by Ottoman power – which may have been a major motivation for Western Europe to get its political act together in the interests of defence.

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Lesser known tower of Galata – with the Church of Peter and Paul lurking behind

I had thought Galata Tower was the only remnant of the walls that formerly enclosed the enclave of Galata, but as I walked down the hill towards the Golden Horn I came across another tower and section of ancient fortification in a sorry state of decay. Turkey is often accused of failing to protect its rich architectural heritage, but when you get out and wander around the city, or the country as a whole, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ancient churches, castles, mosques, temples, bathhouses, theatres, stadiums, city walls . . . Every day, it seems, some farmer ploughing his field turns up the mosaic floor of an opulent Roman villa. This is world heritage – but mostly Turkey is expected to foot the bill for protection and/or restoration. Just as the Middle East refugee tragedy is a global problem – but largely locals are left to house and feed the displaced homeless.

Behind the decrepit tower I caught a glimpse of a bell tower clearly belonging to a Christian church. I wandered round the block trying to get closer, but it was well protected by the walls of a decaying 18th century inn, and a locked gate. Nevertheless, I did identify it as an Italian Catholic church dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul, erected in 1843 to replace a more ancient edifice that had been converted to a mosque in 1475 after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

In the 19th century, the district of Karaköy, at the foot of the hill below Pera, became a major commercial district where banks and other businesses established their headquarters. I’d heard about Salt, Istanbul, and took a quick look in as I passed by. It’s a kind of research library, museum and exhibition centre housed in what was once the HQ of the Ottoman Bank, established in 1863, according to the BNP Paribas website, “by the Turkish government in partnership with French and British financiers” with the aim of “restoring Turkey’s finances to health and helping to modernise the Ottoman Empire”. Yeah, right! Wonder if the Rothschild family were involved in any way. On the wall inside is another inscription in imperial Latin:Extra fortunam est, quidquid donatur amicis; Quas dederis, selas semper habebis opes.”

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Maybe he’s got the best idea. “Leave the wise to wrangle . . .”

My Latin’s a bit rusty these days, but the Internet came up with this translation:

“Who gives to friends so much from Fate secures,
That is the only wealth for ever yours.”

So were those French and British financiers claiming to be friends of the Ottomans? Well, that friendship didn’t turn out so well for the locals in the end, did it! Empires come and go, but leopards don’t change their spots.

Remembering and revising history – Smash that statue!

It seems to have become a worldwide phenomenon recently, almost an epidemic – statue-smashing. It used to be just Islamic fundamentalists – the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example – but suddenly everyone seems to be doing it, and I have to tell you, I’m confused.

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Diogenes the Cynic

Of course, religious fanatics are still at it. In Turkey there’s been a spate of attacks on statues of Atatürk, the revered founder of the Republic. And in Sinop on the Black Sea coast, members of a local conservative religious foundation have taken exception to the effigy of an ancient Greek philosopher that stands on the outskirts of town, demanding its removal.

Well it’s easy to dismiss religious fundamentalists as cranks and nutcases, but clearly there are political motives at work too. We’ve been following with interest events in the USA, where violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia over some controversial statuary, and the trouble has apparently spread further afield. Hundreds of protestors gathered at the campus of North Carolina University insisting that a statue of a Confederate soldier be torn down. Adding fuel to the fire, a prominent businessman, politician and diplomat, Ray Mabus, called such images “monuments to treason” and insisted that they “must be removed now and forever”.

Meanwhile, a news item from Australia informed me that “there is fury” over a statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. In this case, it’s not so much the figurine itself raising hackles, but the inscription on the pedestal claiming that the 18th century British explorer “discovered this territory”. Spokespersons for the indigenous aboriginal community are pointing out that the country wasn’t actually in need of discovering since there had been people living there for 60,000 years or so.

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Carrot adventures

So who’s right, and who’s at fault? Clearly human beings love making graven images – have done since time immemorial – to remember a famous person, to commemorate an event, to show off their wealth or prestige, to worship in place of an invisible deity . . . Most of the time they sit discreetly on their plinths quietly collecting verdigris and bird droppings. Some people think having an enormous model of a carrot (yes, a carrot!) in the New Zealand town of Ohakune is a great idea. Others think it’s pretty stupid, but no one seems to get overcome with blind destructive hatred. Same goes for the giant lobster in Kingston, South Australia. Some local authority in Paris, France, had a 12-metre, 18-tonne bronze thumb erected in their neighbourhood, and I haven’t heard of any complaints. Akşehir in Turkey, birthplace of Nasrddin Hodja, contains several sculptures of the legendary folk philosopher, of which citizens are rather proud.

On the other hand, America’s one-time allies in Afghanistan, the Taliban, attracted much international ire when, a few years ago, they dynamited several large statues of Buddha at the ancient site of Bamiyan. It seems the heresies implicit in the Buddhas overrode any historical value they may have had – at least in the opinion of the dynamiters.

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One of the Buddhas – before the dynamiting

This, then, seems to be the nub of the problem. Carrots, lobsters and thumbs are relatively neutral when it comes to arousing emotional response, either positive or negative. Representations of religion, politics (and sex), however, stir strong feelings. In the years after the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity, zealots of the new faith journeyed around the temples of earlier ages chiselling off female breasts and male appendages from carvings they considered immoral.

We in the post-modern world like to think of ourselves as more enlightened, but many of us have sympathy for the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, who may not have felt the same way about colonial invaders using superior technological might to steal their land and birthright. So what to do about Captain Cook? Remove the statue? Edit the inscription? Is this, as one politician asserted, “Stalinist revision”, or belated sensitive recognition that the ancestors of the aboriginal inhabitants have a valid point?

What about that statue in the Black Sea town? Diogenes the Cynic is believed to have been born there in the early 5th century BCE when it was an Ionian colony, Sinope. Cynical he may have been, but the poor man can hardly be blamed for the tragic events that unfolded a century ago after the Greek military invasion of Anatolia. Feelings still run high in some circles, on both sides of the Aegean, but I suspect current objections to Diogenes represent a small minority of opinion. Attitudes to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, however, are a far more controversial issue in Turkey. For decades a small elite backed by a powerful military controlled the country, fostering a cult-like adoration of the national hero to suppress religious and political opposition to their rule. I read an interesting article the other day in a Turkish newspaper entitled, “Let’s just stop abusing Atatürk.” The writer, Nazlan Ertan, was finding fault with the pseudo-faithful, who decorate their car rear windows with his signature, prefix their Facebook accounts with the initials TC, and claim to know how the great man would vote in elections and referenda if he were around today. And she has a point.

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Robert E Lee in Charlottesville

All of which brings me to the most recent controversy over symbolic statuary – the one currently raging in the United States over the question of whether representations of Confederate heroes or their cause should be permitted in public places. Personally, I don’t care one way or the other, but it seems to me that the issue has become a focus for the lovers and haters of President Donald Trump to vent their hyperactive spleens. And the man does seem to have polarised opinion in the USA in a way that few of his predecessors were able to do. What is clear is that there is still some feeling in Southern states of the old Confederacy that their cause was just, and they were unfairly treated. It seems also certain that the victors, as is generally the case, wrote the history books with their version of the story. Was slavery the only, or even the main issue over which the Civil war was fought? Were those soldiers of the Union really fighting for the rights of black Americans to be treated equally? I have read suggestions that Abe Lincoln himself wasn’t 100% certain about that. Were their opponents in the Confederate army all slave-owners or believers in the system?

More and more of American history is being shown up as mythology and politically motivated censorship. Books such as James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States (and its associated TV documentary series) and Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, are highlighting serious cracks in the foundations of the American ideal. Maybe we should just pull down all the statues everywhere until we sort the whole business out.

Life is Strange!

DSCF0206We went to a concert on Friday evening. It was part of a programme presented by the organisers of the 2017 Gümüşlük Classical Music Festival. The venue is an ancient quarry said to be the source of the stone used in the construction of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s a spectacular and evocative setting, as you can imagine.

Top musicians from Turkey and Europe come to Gümüşlük every summer to run master classes for promising young musicians, and give a series of concerts for holidaymakers lucky enough to be around at the time.

IMG_2057We enjoyed a programme of music by Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Fauré and Brahms played by cellist Dilbağ Tokay and pianist Eren Levendoğlu. It was marvellous – but that’s not actually what I want to tell you about.

We arrived at the venue some 40 minutes early, so we popped over to a restaurant across the road for a coffee to pass the time. As I was waiting to pay the bill, the gentleman ahead of me said “Hello”. Well, I’m accustomed to being identified as a foreigner by Turks wanting to practise their English. “Hello,” I replied. “What’s your name?” The gentleman looked a little taken aback. “My name is Gilles,” he replied. “Ah, are you French?” I asked. Yes he was. We exchanged a few pleasantries during which I told him I’m from New Zealand but I live in Istanbul, and he told me he lives in California. “Nice to meet you, etc etc.”

So we showed our tickets, found our seats in the quarry, and I began leafing through the programme. It soon emerged that my new French acquaintance was actually one of the stars of the festival, a world famous violinist, Gilles Apap! His brief bio informed me that Yehudi Menuhin himself had identified M. Apap as a virtuoso for the 21st century. Sad to say we had missed his one-and-only concert a few days earlier – and I hadn’t even got his autograph.

Well, I checked him out online when we got home. You can visit Gilles Apap’s website here. Not only is he an accomplished classical violinist, his repertoire extends to gypsy music and American folk. As small compensation for my ignorance, I purchased an album from iTunes, Gypsy Tunes. You can listen to a sample here:

Life is strange!

There’s more to Turkey than camels and beaches

This article appeared in our English language daily, Hürriyet Daily News the other day:

Turkish cuisine seeks place at the table

In a bid to banish stereotypes of late-night greasy fast food, Turkish chefs are trying to burnish their image by showcasing the culinary riches the country has to offer. A new breed of cooks has shaken up the Istanbul food scene with an innovative approach to Turkish cooking, while others are on a mission to show there is more to the nation’s cuisine than the perhaps notorious döner kebab.

maxresdefault-5For many outside the country, Turkish food brings to mind images of pitta bread stuffed with shavings of meat roasted on a vertical spit, usually consumed after a heavy night of drinking.  The döner was brought to Western Europe by the Turkish diaspora, especially those in Germany where additions like salad and mayonnaise have made it a heavier meal than in Turkey. But did you ever try karnıyarık, a dish of split aubergines with a meat filling, or çılbır, poached eggs in garlic yoghurt? Ever heard of tulum, a traditional cheese ripened in a goat’s skin, or a dessert called cezerye, caramelised carrot with coconut?

“Turkish cuisine is largely known abroad through döner and kebab,” said Defne Ertan Tüysüzoğlu, Turkey director of Le Cordon Bleu, an international culinary academy, which started in Paris and now has campuses all over the world.

“Turkish cuisine is not well known,” agreed Aylin Yazıcıoğlu, executive chef at Istanbul’s Nicole Restaurant. “The food that comes to mind when people talk about Turkey is, unfortunately, all bad examples. We see this changing slowly. We’ll do our best to change it.  At Nicole, diners are offered a multicourse tasting menu of local products aimed at showing off the best that Turkish cuisine has to offer.

“I believe that in a world geared toward the ‘local,’ we’ve started to understand the value of our cuisine. We’ve started to realize the value of our products,” said Yazıcoğlu. “In our country, everything is available throughout the four seasons,” she added.

Turkish food, she said, has much to offer and needs to promote its greatest assets, such as olive oil. But to truly change perceptions, more work is required. “I can say there’s been a movement but it would be very strong to talk about a revolution. The conditions are not yet ripe for a revolution,” she said.

Close to traditional French cuisine 

Arnaud De Clercq, who has taught at the Istanbul branch of Le Cordon Bleu for the past two years and has worked in Michelin star restaurants in France, described Turkish cuisine as “very rustic” with its focus on sauces, ragouts and stews. “It is close to the traditional French cuisine: beef bourguignon, veal blanquette, lamb navarin – all this you can find here, but a bit different,” he said.  He singled out Turkish meze, the selection of small dishes served as an appetizer at the start of a meal.


n_113991_1“When the Ottoman Empire expanded, it also spread its cuisine,” he said. “You can find Turkish meze in all regions, in all countries and each country adapted it to its own taste, like in Lebanon, in Syria or in Jordan.”

Turkish chef Serkan Bozkurt from the Chef’s Table Culinary Academy, an Istanbul-based cooking school, said perceptions about Turkish cuisine were changing. Today, he said, Turkish restaurants and cafes were blossoming in Europe, with chains like the bakery Simit Sarayı and the Kahve Dünyası coffee shop opening up in London and other places.

The somewhat limited perception of Turkish food overseas, the cuisine has a wide variety of regional differences, with specialties from the western Aegean differing sharply from those in the eastern Black Sea region. Antakya in the southeast has a rich culinary heritage inspired by Aleppo in Syria, while specialties on the Black Sea include dishes such as muhlama, an unusual fondue made with corn flour, butter and cheese.

In a huge country, which spans 784,000 square kilometres, an area bigger than Germany, Poland and Austria together, the cooking styles are very varied, from the herbs and vegetables used in the Aegean, to the meat-dominated specialties of the east, Bozkurt said. Its cheeses alone are likely to impress; Turkey has dozens of varieties, which differ sharply from region to region, he said.

“I always say if a week-long cheese tour was organized in Turkey with trips to its seven regions, people would get dizzy! Turkish cuisine is not confined to meat and kebab,” he said.

Ethnic Sports and Culture

Dilek and I journeyed across the water to Yenikapı last Friday. I’ve been quite enjoying the reactions of mild shock and confusion when I’ve mentioned this to friends and some of my students.

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1,000 year-old ship found in Yenikapı Metro excavations

Yenikapı means “Newgate” in Turkish – and was in fact a gate in the vast fortified walls that surrounded Constantinople, protecting the city against would-be conquerors for a thousand years. Excavations for the underground Metro station turned up a medieval Byzantine harbour and, according to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, witnessed one of the world’s largest archaeological digs between 2004 and 2013”.

Experiencing a revival of its historical importance, Yenikapı has become an important transport hub in the burgeoning metropolis that is modern Istanbul. The new station is a junction of three Metro lines: one passing under the Bosporus and linking (if you still hold with that ancient line of thought) the continents of Europe and Asia; another connecting to Atatürk International Airport; and the third carrying commuters to and from the financial/commercial centre of Maslak/Ayazağa. Vehicular and passenger ferries come and go, to and from destinations on the Anatolian shore of the city, and further afield across the Sea of Marmara.

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Yenikapı City Park – opened 2012

More recently a major project has reclaimed a large area from the sea, creating a 58-hectare recreational area including carparks, sports facilities, picnic areas and space for large public gatherings. And it is this last feature that provokes the raised eyebrows and looks of consternation when I mention our visit.

Residents in our neck of the Istanbul woods, on the Anatolian side of the city, are mostly proud of the fact that their local councils are aligned with the CHP – the Republican People’s Party that forms the largest opposition grouping in Turkey’s National Assembly. Many of them refuse to set foot in the Marmaray trains that take tens of thousands daily to and from the European side. The very word Yenikapı conjures up in their minds huge gatherings of bearded men and head-scarved women mindlessly adoring the nation’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and hell-bent on returning the country to a mythical alcohol-free stone age of compulsory mosque attendance, and women enslaved by the twin evils of motherhood and home-cooking.

etnospor-2017In fact our trip to Yenikapı had no connection to matters political. I had been seeing posters in Metro carriages advertising an Etnospor Festival, and I wanted to check it out. These days I work weekends and have my days off on Thursday and Friday. The advantage of this is that most people are at work, parks are mostly empty, and getting around the city is easy. The downside, on this occasion was that most of the best activities were scheduled for the weekend.

Nevertheless, we saw some pretty interesting stuff. The focus of the festival was competitions in sports popular among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, many of which have strong followings in Turkey today. Oil wrestling is pretty well-known. Forty large men wearing leather trousers cover themselves all over in olive oil and engage in no-holds-barred (seriously!) hand-to-hand combat until only one is left standing.

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A Seljuk mounted archer executing the “Parthian shot”

Archery is a big one. Two crucial technological developments allowed Turkic nomads to fight their way into Europe, overcoming pretty much everyone who stood in their way: the reflex, or recurved bow, and the stirrup. Whereas in the West, archers on foot used a long bow cut from a single length of wood, their Eastern foes had developed a composite weapon which, despite being much shorter, was also more powerful. That and the stirrups allowed skilled horsemen to adopt a whole new range of tactics that proved highly effective, even up to the early days of firearms.

We had a chat with a couple of craftsmen who were making bows in the traditional way. I was amazed to learn that, in the old days, it could take up to two years to produce one bow! Modern techniques have apparently reduced the time to 18 months – but still! Wow!

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Cirit (djirit) – Javelin-throwing on horseback

What I’d really come to see, however, was cirit (djirit). Some words just don’t translate easily from one language to another. I delight in telling my students that there is one word in modern Turkish that comes from our New Zealand Maori language – Kiwi, of course (but the fruit, not the bird). It’s actually surprising how many words have passed from Turkish into English, and not just yoghurt and shish kebab. But cirit is something else. It was a form of combat where guys on horseback riding at full gallop hurled javelins at each other. These days inanimate targets are generally preferred, but the sight is still impressive.

Apart from the sports, there were various displays of handcrafts. The manufacture and trading of silk was an important business in this part of the world. We were treated to a demonstration of how the incredibly fine filaments of silk from cocoons are twisted to make threads that are then woven into scarves and other items of clothing. A craftsman from the eastern city of Gaziantep sold us a pair of hand-made leather slippers just in time for Mothers’ Day. The leather was soft and supple, hand-stitched, and dyed in a wide range of colours.

So we’re glad we went to Yenikapı. It’s a 15-minute ride on the Marmaray Metro from Kadıköy on the Anatolian side, versus a nightmare of snarled traffic on one of the Bosporus bridges. The engineers who built the tunnel claim it’ll withstand a Force 9 earthquake. I hope I never have to put that claim to the test – but that’s not going to stop me using it.