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.
October and November are big months in modern Turkey. Three important dates in the history of the Republic are commemorated:
- 6 October – The liberation of Istanbul
- 29 October – The foundation of the Republic
- 10 November – The anniversary of the death of the founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
I’ve been in this country long enough to have witnessed a few annual returns of these dates, and it seems to me that of late the celebrations have become somewhat muted. Possibly that’s understandable. The elitist old guard have taken a bit of a beating in recent years from the new political kid on the block, the Justice and Development Party. The AKP, to use its Turkish initials, ‘Islamic-rooted’ as the foreign press persistently tells us, has been governing the country since 2003. Despite vociferous opposition from the left, right and centre of the traditional political spectrum, the AKP has won majorities in five parliamentary elections, and succeeded in having its candidate elected president in the first general election ever held for that position.
The country’s military leaders, long-established protectors of the sanctity of the constitution (which they wrote), have been nudged back to the more conventional role of defending the state from outside threats. Middle-aged social mediaholics, prefacing their Facebook profile names with the initials TC (for Turkish Republic) are convinced that the country is plunging headlong into a dark medieval night of alcohol prohibition, judicial beheadings and compulsory black burqas for women. You can understand their despair, given their total inability to make an impact at the ballot box.
As for me, I’m an optimist. Foreign visitors to Turkey have long been puzzled by the seemingly idolatrous adulation accorded to statues, photographs and death masks of the nation’s founder. I, at least, have read enough about Atatürk’s achievements to sympathise with the veneration accorded him. In a nutshell, if it hadn’t been for Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no country remotely resembling the modern nation of Turkey would exist today.
I do feel, however, that the time is right for authorities to lay aside the conventional blind adoration and work towards a realistic appraisal of Atatürk the man. While this may require some acceptance of his human failings, it will, I am convinced, result in a more profound appreciation of the mental and moral strength required to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against his people in those days.
I worked in a school for some years whose commitment to secular Kemalism would rank among the more dedicated. From the day they entered our doors, pupils were drilled in the minutest details of the great man’s life, the colour of his eyes (piercing blue), the names of his father, mother and sister (Ali Rıza, Zübeyde and Makbule respectively), the colour of the family home in Salonika (pink); and encouraged to shed tears of grief at 9.05 am every 10th of November. By the time they reached high school, it was difficult to get them to attend school ceremonies on those most sacred days in the Republican calendar. Most of them had had enough. Which struck me as sad.
Another thing that struck me as sad – and somewhat surprising in view of the school’s dedication to the lore of secular republicanism, was how many of my students thought that the Liberation of Istanbul had something to do with the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by the 15th century Sultan, Mehmet II. Very few seemed to be aware that, after leading the army of National Salvation to victory against the invading Greeks, and driving them out of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal turned his troops northwards towards Istanbul, faced down the threat of war with the mighty British Empire, and watched the invaders leave as they had come, without firing a shot. The disgrace to Great Britain actually led to the collapse of David Lloyd George’s government and Winston Churchill’s (temporary) exile to the political wilderness. Whether Kemal Pasha’s eyes were blue, brown or bloodshot red, you’d think that would be something worth telling kids about.
29 October was the date in 1923 when the newly established parliament of Turkey proclaimed the foundation of the Republic. It has enormous symbolic importance, and is celebrated annually as Turkey’s equivalent of America’s 4th, and France’s 14th of July. As an actual historical event, however, the proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of a situation that had already existed for over three years. The nation’s Republican parliament (Milli Meclis) had been inaugurated on 23 April 1920, in the new capital city of Ankara. Nevertheless, Turkey without Istanbul would be inconceivable, and one might argue, therefore, that winning that city back from the armies of occupation was an event of unparalleled significance.
Undoubtedly the fledgling Republic of Turkey suffered a great loss when its first President passed away on 10 November 1938. On the other hand, they were lucky to get him at all. Few nations in the world have been blessed with a leader whose multi-faceted genius encompassed military victories against fearsome odds, constitutional revolution, and statesmanship on the international stage. And of course, no one lives forever. Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened to Christianity if Jesus Christ had been allowed to see out his three score years and ten, instead of being martyred in the prime of life at the age of 33? Atatürk made it to 57, and it could be argued that his best years were behind him. How would he have dealt with the traumas of the Second World War, and pressure to give his people the vote? Possibly it’s for the best that we didn’t have to find out.
It does seem to me though, that the outpourings of grief on anniversaries of his death, sincere though they may be, militate against a genuine appreciation of Atatürk’s outstanding achievements. Certainly he lives on in true Turkish hearts, and in that sense, is not actually dead – but the reality is that he’s not coming back. The Republic needs to move on, and to do that, 10 November provides an opportunity to give thanks for his life, and to begin evaluating, with a vision unclouded by tears of mourning, exactly what relevance his legacy has for Turkey in the 21st century.
Strange to say, my inspiration for this post did not actually come from any of those dates listed above. Last week there was a festival held in our new park by the seaside at Maltepe. Entitled ‘Sivas Günleri’, it was a celebration of the cultural identity of a region in central Anatolia east of Ankara. Sivas, its citizens driving cars whose number plates are prefixed with ‘58’, is, in area, the second-largest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and one of the most sparsely populated.
It was a very Turkish festival. Two large marquees had been erected in the vast public square of the new park. The larger of the two housed displays of Sivas’s various districts, displaying local handcrafts and traditional costumes, and serving tea and snacks to mustachioed middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, one assumes hailing from those parts. There was also a central auditorium with a stage from which various minor dignitaries were holding forth about whatever these kind of guys like to hold forth about – with a rather sparse audience exhibiting scant interest in what they had to say.
The adjacent marquee held more appeal, not only for me, but for the crowds in attendance. It contained a number of restaurants serving Sivas cuisine, and stalls purveying local produce: honey, fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, and a marvellous variety of peculiarly Turkish delicacies. I bought a doll in traditional costume for my granddaughter, Kiri, and a packet of sweets made from hazel nut paste, which were a taste sensation! Then, since it was around lunchtime, and my salivary glands were in a state of high excitement, I allowed myself to be enticed by the sight of lamb carcasses rotating on spits over hot coals, and sat down to a meal of sırık kebab. Words cannot describe . . .
But what has this got to do with the Turkish Republic and its revered founder, I hear you ask. Well, Sivas, in contrast to its current relative insignificance, has a very colourful history. My sources tell me there was a Hittite settlement in the area as early as 2,600 BCE, though little is known about the town until the Roman general and political luminary, Pompey, founded the city he named Megalopolis, which later became Sebaste. You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the name ‘Sebastian’ derives from the Latin adjective meaning a citizen of that city.
Apparently Sebaste was quite a hive of early Christianity, back in the days when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp it out – and consequently is remembered for a number of martyrs, by churches that go in for that sort of thing. One particularly memorable event involved forty soldiers back in the 4th century who, to demonstrate the error of their ways, were exposed naked overnight on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Well, nights can get pretty chilly out there on the Anatolian steppe at an altitude of around 1,500 metres, and there weren’t many signs of life the next morning; but to make certain, local authorities had the bodies burned and the ashes cast into a nearby river.
Continuing the tradition of misfortune, Sebaste’s location at the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire exposed it to the earliest depredations of Turkic invaders in the 11th century. By the 12th century it had become Turkish to the extent that it served as one of the capitals of the Seljuk Empire, and in 1408, was incorporated into the expanding Ottoman dominions. In spite of Muslim conquest, however, Armenian and Orthodox Christian communities survived, with their churches, into the 20th century.
The Republican connection dates from September 1919. British and French armies had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul at the end of the First World War, and their governments began the process of dismembering the empire according to plans they had been making in secret for some years. The last straw for Turkish patriots was when a Greek army, sponsored by the victorious allies, landed in Izmir, intent on re-claiming their once extensive Byzantine territories.
There is some debate about the circumstances surrounding Mustafa Kemal’s departure from Istanbul and arrival in the Black Sea port of Samsun on 19 May 1919. Nevertheless, that date is recognised in modern Turkey as the beginning of the War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). He wasn’t alone, of course, but it was undoubtedly Kemal Pasha’s charisma that inspired his war-weary people to one further struggle. Two congresses were held, in Erzurum and Sivas, laying the groundwork for the forthcoming conflict, and these two cities are recognised as crucial in the foundation of the Republic.
Sivas has two other claims to fame. One is its status as the home of the kangal, a large breed of dog renowned as a guardian of livestock and villagers against wolves, bears and jackals.
The other, less honourable, is a shameful event that took place on 2 July, 1993. On that date, the city was the venue for a cultural festival attended by a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were Alevi. A mob of religious extremists set fire to the Madımak Hotel where many of the visitors were staying, resulting in 35 deaths.
Again there is some debate about the reasons for the attack. Some say it was targeting a gentleman by the name of Aziz Nesrin, who had angered orthodox Sunni Muslims by translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, into Turkish. Others say it was more generally directed at the Alevi community as a whole. It was asserted at the time that local police stood by and allowed the arsonists to do their work unmolested. That’s entirely possible – although the government of the day did seem to do its best to bring perpetrators to justice.
Well, the 1990s are not so long ago, when you think about it. Those were bad times in Turkey, as opponents of the present government should not forget. The history of Sivas has a lot to teach us, if we choose to listen.
Football is a game that comes in many guises – and a word that arouses strong emotions. In much of the world it is played with a round ball, propelled, as the name suggests, with the foot; and rules that seek (at least) to prevent players engaging in bodily contact and injuring each other. In American football by contrast, the primary aim seems to be exactly that – launching yourself deliberately and with maximum force at an opponent so that players only survive by suiting themselves in helmets and body armour – and activity involving the egg-shaped ball seems largely incidental. In between these extremes are varieties of rugby football, union and league, preferred in outposts of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, former industrial regions of Wales and Northern England, and the playing fields of public school purveyors of education to English aristocracy and sons of Arabian sheikhs. Here pretty much any part of the body can be employed for pretty much any purpose, but rules of fair play demand that you don’t deliberately set out to maim someone who doesn’t actually have the ball in hand. Then there is Gaelic Football; and that peculiar mix of basketball, football and pro wrestling played almost exclusively in the Australian State of Victoria.
In my school days in New Zealand, ‘footie’ was very definitely rugby, and the round ball game was for ‘girls’ – by which was meant, not the female of the species, but males whose actual manhood was open to question. A common feature of the ‘girls’ game seemed to be players throwing themselves to the ground for no apparent reason and carrying on as though some medieval Spanish inquisitor was applying hot coals to the soles of their feet. In rugby, on the other hand, it is considered bad form to show any emotion whatsoever even when suffering the effects of the most heinous foul by an opponent. Correct protocol requires that you store the memory and exact on-field vengeance when opportunity arises – thereafter repairing to the nearest pub and forging lifetime bonds of brotherhood over oceanic quantities of ale.
Well, boys will be boys, and violence in one form or another seems to be an integral part of our biological makeup. Perhaps one of the advantages of the semi-licensed in-match carnage of rugby is that it lessens the need for off-field acts of aggression. Soccer football has always seemed more prone to post-match riots, mass tramplings of spectators and street hooliganism – for the very reason, perhaps, that the game itself offers so little opportunity for that kind of masculine self-expression.
I recall being mildly shocked at my first experience of a football match in Istanbul. It was a derby between two of the city’s big three clubs, and squads of police were ensuring that supporters of the two sides were ushered to viewing areas separated by high walls and razor wire. When all were seated and the match began, police in riot gear armed with automatic rifles ringed the pitch with eyes focused on the crowd. I was impressed, truth to tell, by the fact that, far as I could see, not one turned at any stage to see what was happening on-field. After the final whistle, joyous fans of the victorious local lads were obliged to remain in their area while visitors were escorted safely off the premises and sent mourning and rampaging on their way.
More recently, in the street demonstrations that continued for a month or two after the Gezi Park incident of May/June 2013, many of the participants identified themselves as followers of one or other of the Big Three Istanbul football clubs, perhaps the most prominent being the Beşiktaş group calling themselves Çarşı. It’s an innocuous enough name, meaning ‘market’ in Turkish, referring, I guess to the retail shopping precinct near the Bosporus waterfront where supporters congregate en masse on match days in club colours, knocking back cans of Efes Pilsen and psyching themselves up for the big event. The apparent innocuousness of the name Çarşı belies the intent of its members: the stylised version seen on banners having the ‘A’ of Anarchy as its second letter, accompanied by the slogan, ‘Çarşı, her şeye karşı’ (‘We’re against everything’). Over the summer holiday period, of course, players get a break from their weekly grind of night clubs, fast cars, beautiful women and football – leaving hordes of loyal supporters at a loose end.
The Gezi Park business, it might be said, erupted at a fortuitous time, providing off-season training opportunities for sports fans who joined forces with battle-hardened left-wingers, middle-class youth and head-scarved aunties, united by a common hatred of Prime Minister (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan. There was much talk in news media, at home and abroad, of peaceful tree-huggers confronted, gassed and beaten by faceless hordes of government enforcers. Undoubtedly there were a few genuine nature-lovers amongst the protesters – but political demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful, and it’s not easy in the heat of the moment to distinguish a peacenik from a Molotov cocktail-hurling anarchist. I have just received another of the regular mailings sent out by my compatriots in the NZ Embassy in Ankara reminding me: ‘New Zealanders in Turkey are advised to avoid all political gatherings, protests and demonstrations as even those intended to be peaceful have the potential to turn violent. Police may use tear gas and/or water cannons to disperse demonstrations.’
And you’d better believe it. I’ve been living in this country for a few years now, and I can tell you, those ‘Gezi Park’ protests were no new phenomenon. I remember George W Bush visiting Istanbul for a NATO summit in 2004. The whole city came to a standstill; public transport including Bosporus ferries was put on hold, and the waterfront at Kadıköy turned into a battlefield. The first ever ‘May Day’ rally held in Taksim Square in 1977 became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ after around 40 demonstrators were killed and up to 200 injured by security forces.
Violent public demonstrations against the government have a long pedigree in Istanbul. In fact, the tradition can be traced back to ancient times when the city then known as Constantinople was capital of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, the connection between sports fans and political protest was a factor in those days too.
Visitors to Istanbul these days inevitably gravitate to the Sultanahmet area within the walls of the ancient city where many of the most famous tourist attractions are to be found: the cathedral/museum of Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cistern and several of the important museums. Just in front of the main gate of Sultan Ahmet’s mosque can be seen three intriguing columns that once stood in the centre of the hippodrome – an immense stadium where up to 30,000 singing, chanting, screaming supporters urged on their favourite teams in the chariot races that were one of the main forms of entertainment. Where the Blue Mosque now stands was the Great Imperial Palace with a connecting passage to the kathisma or viewing box where the emperor and his retinue sat to observe proceedings.
In Rome itself there had been four teams competing in the races, identified by their colours, the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites – but when Constantinople became the centre of empire, just two remained. The Blue and Green charioteers divided the city into two mutually antagonistic bands of fanatical supporters drawn from all walks of life, extending their influence far beyond the confines of the hippodrome into activities normally associated with street gangs and political parties. Betting was, of course, an important feature of the competitions. Drivers, though their lives might be short, could also make good money, and the most successful were enviably wealthy.
Members of the aristocracy generally took an interest in one or other of the teams, and were not above manipulating supporters to exert pressure on an unpopular emperor by street demonstrations and riots. Such activities seem to have been fairly common, but by far the most famous is the event known as the Nika Riots of January 532 CE.
Emperor at the time (from 527 to 565 CE) was Justinian I, who seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure. Most of our knowledge of this period comes from the writings of a scholar known as Procopius of Caesarea. His official works on the wars and the buildings of Justinian depict an emperor deserving the epithet ‘Great’, despite his humble peasant origins. Justinian, with his general Belisarius, recovered some of the western territories lost to ‘barbarians’ in the previous century. His ambitious building projects included reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia cathedral which still stands today. He is renowned for his complete revision of Roman Law and for being the last Latin-speaking Roman Emperor; is venerated as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church; and Procopius was fulsome in praising the beauty of his wife, the Empress Theodora.
In addition to his official histories, however, Procopius also produced a work known as the Secret History, discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library. Here, the historian tells a different story. Justinian and Belisarius were hen-pecked and incompetent, manipulated by ruthless and ambitious wives. The Emperor himself is described as cruel and amoral, fleecing his citizens rich and poor alike, and killing without hesitation any who opposed him. His wife Theodora may have been beautiful, but in her previous life she had been one of the city’s more spectacular harlots, engaging in public displays of obscene exhibitionism, and entertaining a significant sampling of the male population. Which may go some way towards explaining why Justinian missed out on beatification by the Roman Church.
But back to the Nika Riots. In an attempt to curtail the political activities of the Blues and Greens, the Emperor had arrested several of the ringleaders and had them sentenced to death, much to the chagrin of supporters who demanded their release and Justinian’s resignation. Rioting broke out in the hippodrome and spilled out on to the streets, with rioters holding the Imperial Palace in a state of siege for five days. Fires were lit and much of the city was burned to the ground, including the previous church of Hagia Sophia. Members of the Senate joined in the anarchic activities and declared a replacement for Justinian, Hypatius, nephew of a former emperor.
Justinian, apparently, had pretty much given up hope of hanging on to his throne, and was getting ready to abandon ship. His good lady Theodora, however, was not ready to give up the life of power and luxury she had worked so hard to attain, saying she would prefer to die. Shamed into action, her husband, by a cunning mixture of double-dealing and brute force, turned the tables on the would-be usurpers. His generals, Belisarius and Mundus led a company or two of regular soldiers into the hippodrome and the resulting punitive slaughter left some 30,000 rioters dead.
Justinian ruled for a further 33 years, rebuilt the city and secured his reputation – at least in the eyes of the Eastern Church. But as far as we know he never played football.
When the Roman Emperor Justinian I presided over the dedication of Hagia Sophia, the great church he had ordered rebuilt in Constantinople, he is reputed to have said, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’ Justinian ruled the Empire from 527 to 565 CE, and is referred to by some as ‘The Great’, for his efforts to reconquer western territories and restore the imperial glory lost to ‘barbarians’ a century before. His reign may also mark the beginning of the confusion over this part of the world that has bedevilled Western minds for a thousand years.
Justinian is said by some to have been the last ‘Roman’ emperor, and to have been the last to speak Latin as his first language. Others prefer to call him a ‘Byzantine’, and to focus on Hagia Sophia’s long history as the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for many centuries. Roman or Byzantine, the Emperor was justly proud of his new cathedral, completed in 537. So proud was he, indeed, that he compared his achievement with that of the Hebrew King Solomon, whose legendary temple in ancient Jerusalem continues to serve as a powerful symbol of . . . certain things that we needn’t discuss here.
Having heard this tale often repeated, I was surprised to learn just the other day that the great Justinian may have had a more immediate and pressing reason for making his proud boast. With this story we will begin our stroll around the UNESCO-listed historic quarter of Zeyrek.
If you walk from Aksaray towards the Golden Horn, before passing under the great aqueduct of the 4th century Emperor Valens, you will see on your left, or perhaps smell, a large fenced-off area, somewhat overgrown, with the ruins of obviously ancient masonry below the level of the street. What you are seeing is all that remains of the 6th century church built and dedicated to St Polyeuctus by the fabulously wealthy Roman Imperial Princess Anicia Juliana. Possibly because of her Roman connection, this lady may have harboured some resentment towards the Constantinopolitan line, and wished to make a point with the church she endowed.
Whatever her motive, the good princess funded the construction of the largest basilica church in town just as our man Justinian was ascending the throne. Little remains of the great edifice apart from vaulted foundations and scattered fragments of marble columns and capitals – but in its day it was apparently spectacular in its ostentatious display of wealth. What may have particularly got Justinian’s goat was Juliana’s claim, expressed in a self-glorifying inscription, that her new temple had been specifically designed to rival or overshadow that of Solomon. What self-respecting emperor could stand for that?
Hagia Sophia is one of modern Istanbul’s major tourist attractions. St Polyeuctus, sad to say, is now little more than a home for the homeless – which accounts for the aroma assailing our nostrils as we pass by. Both churches, however, had lapsed into hard times long before the city fell to its Ottoman conquerors in the 15th century. Juliana’s grand project had fallen into ruin by the 11th century, and much of its gorgeous decoration had been reused in other buildings. Siege and conquest of Constantinople by crusading Christians from the West in 1204 saw Hagia Sophia itself converted to a Roman Catholic church – and many of the city’s treasures carried off to Venice, Vienna and Barcelona. Spare a thought for the passing of once-mighty empires as you pass by.
We have some walking ahead of us, so I suggest a hearty meal to build up your reserves of energy. A year or two ago The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled the 10 Best Meat Restaurants in Istanbul. Continue down the main road and just before arriving at the aqueduct, veer left into an open square featuring the statue of an Ottoman warrior mounted on a stallion leaping over the heads of several surprisingly calm-looking gentlemen in robes. The horseman is Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople and namesake of the district, Fatih, where we now find ourselves. Ahead you will see a side road passing under one of the arches of the ancient aqueduct which will lead you into another world of street-vendors, halal butchers, and on the right, our next port of call: Siirt Şeref Kebap Restaurant. Don’t waste time studying the menu – what you want (with apologies to vegetarians) is a dish of Büryan Kebap, small pieces of barbecued lamb served on Turkish bread, and maybe perde pilavı, a miniature castle of rice, chicken, walnuts, currants enshrined in a thin pastry shell. If you have room for dessert, the house speciality is dondurmalı irmik helvası, a baked semolina-based sweet with a heart of ice cream and topped with a squirt of chocolate sauce. What more can I say?
Take your time strolling down the street, enjoy the ambience, buy some honey or dried fruit and nuts if you can carry them. After the shops end and the road narrows, you will arrive at a small, newly renovated but evidently historic building labeled as the tomb of Zembilli Ali Efendi, Şeyhülislam (chief religious authority) at the beginning of the 16th century. Ali Efendi was apparently such a venerated character that people were afraid to seek his advice face to face. The preferred method was to place written questions in a basket (zembil) lowered from an upper storey window for delivery to the great man above. Answers would be delivered by the same means to supplicants waiting respectfully on the street below. Some present-day Turks living in upper-storey flats preserve this custom when dealing with their local grocer.
Preliminaries over, we are now ready to visit the main attraction in the Zeyrek quarter which did, in fact, give its name to the entire neighbourhood. Major restoration work is currently in progress, so getting inside is more difficult than formerly – but even from the outside the structure is impressive. The building that Molla Zeyrek took over after the Ottoman Conquest as a madrasah, an educational complex, had been built in the early 12th century as a monastery dedicated to Christ Pantokrator. After Hagia Sophia, it is the second largest Byzantine religious edifice still standing. What remains consists of two churches on either side of a smaller chapel, and the mortal remains of numerous Byzantine dignitaries, including several emperors and empresses are buried here.
You won’t be hungry yet, I’m sure, but it will be worth your while to order a coffee in the Zeyrekhane Restaurant next door. The view over the old city, the Golden Horn, the Bosporus and newer suburbs on the European and Asian shores is not to be missed, and the price of a coffee will also buy you a photo op. If you have an Internet connection you may like to visit Byzantium 1200, a remarkable website showcasing computer reconstructions of Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments.
The Zeyrek district is notorious as a labyrinth of narrow tortuous streets and steep stairways, so I’m not going to attempt directions. I came here once by taxi with friends from New Zealand, and the driver had no idea where he was or how to get where he were going. Follow your nose and ask your way to Haydar Caddesi (Avenue). The locals are sure to be helpful.
Not far beyond Zeyrek Mosque is another former Byzantine church, now known as Eski İmaret Camii (Mosque). There is some scholarly debate, but the majority opinion seems to be that this church was part of the monastery complex of Christ Pantepoptes, built around the end of the 11th century by Anna Dalassena, mother of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Few visitors find their way to this secluded corner of the old city. Getting inside the building isn’t a problem, though little survives of the interior decoration other than a marble doorframe or two. It was converted to a mosque immediately after the Ottoman Conquest and its Muslim name refers to the fact that it was the location of a soup kitchen (İmaret) for feeding the poor. Sources tell me that the church stands atop another of ancient Constantinople’s numerous cisterns – though access is sadly not yet available. This must be one of the few mosques in the Islamic world without a minaret – the one it had collapsed in 1955 and has never been rebuilt – in fact, sixty years on they haven’t even cleared away the rubble.
Find your way back to Haydar Avenue and wander slowly down the hill. You will pass the ruins of an old hamam (Turkish bath) built by the architect Sinan to the order of Haydar Pasha, a 16th century Ottoman general whose name is more famously preserved in the great railway station at Kadıköy.
In fact we are now leaving the Zeyrek quarter and entering Cibali, which runs down to the coast of the Golden Horn. On the way we will come to the 16th century mosque of Atık Paşa (1272-1333) a Sufi mystic, poet and contemporary of Orhan Gazi, son of the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty, Sultan Osman. The mosque was erected to the memory of Atık Paşa by a descendant, Sheikh Mehmet Ağa, and the tombs of several other religious luminaries of the time are located nearby. Most interesting to me, however, was a small octagonal stone structure across the road on whose iron gate a modest sign announced that it housed the sacred remains of Asüde Hatun, wet nurse of Sultan Beyazid II. Beyazid, who reigned from 1481 to 1512, is my favourite Ottoman Sultan, and this touching gesture placed him higher again in my estimation. He is better known for opening the gates of hospitality to Jewish refugees fleeing the attentions of the Inquisition in Spain – thereby, as he is reputed to have said, impoverishing the Spaniards and enriching his own empire at the same time.
A little further on you will arrive at the back wall of the Kadir Has University campus, formerly the state tobacco factory. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially for its small museum, but you need to approach it from the coast road, so it is not on our itinerary today. The street we are now in, however, is of some interest. A sign in Turkish and English informs us that Nalıncı Kasım Street is named after a gentleman who was master of an art peculiar to the Ottoman Empire, the making of a particular species of clog or shoe (nalin) worn by women when walking in rough or muddy roads. The nalin consists of a wooden platform sole mounted on two high blocks, held in place by a leather strap. What made it special was the elaborate design of mother-of-pearl or worked silver with which it was decorated. Needless to say, the level of materials and artistry reflected the wealth of the wearer. The sign mentioned above quotes a saying from Ottoman times: ‘Batılı, Osmanlının nalını bulsa, gerdanlık diye, boynuna takar’ – ‘A Westerner, finding a nalin on the ground, would wear it around his/her neck as a pendant’ – perhaps a condescending comment on the Orientalist passion of Europeans for all things ‘Turkish’.
St Polyeuctus, to whom that church was dedicated, was apparently a wealthy officer in the army in the 3rd century who became a Christian at a time when doing so was not altogether the done thing in polite Roman circles. With the zeal of a new convert, not content with observing his new-found religion in the privacy of his own home, Polyeuctus made a public statement by forcibly interfering with what he considered a pagan procession carrying idols authorised by the Emperor Decius. Adhering strictly to the words of St Luke (14:26-27), he maintained his stand despite the pleas of his wife and children – and was, predictably, tortured as a prelude to execution by beheading.
I’m not altogether sure what message we should take from the example of St P. It’s pretty clear, though, that, leaving earthquakes aside, much of the destruction of ‘pagan’ art and architecture was carried out by those early Christians once they gained the upper hand. That being so, we may be grateful that the Muslim Ottomans showed a less hostile attitude, such that at least some of the works of their Byzantine predecessors can be visited and appreciated today.
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?
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.
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.
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’, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Latest edition published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Council, in association with Culture Co. Earlier editions by Intermedia.
|Syrian refugees in Turkey – Let them drive Lamborghinis|
|How about one of these? Click for a price|
|Bodrum Mosque – Myrelaion Church|
|Statue of the Tetrarchs –
note the prosthetic foot