Merry Christmas to all

I wrote this back at the end of 2013 – but I can’t think of much to add, so I’m recycling it:

Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas

Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.

For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to have given give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!

White-Christmas

Not much of that white stuff in my home town – or Jesus’s for that matter.

Of course, it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.

I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.

Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.

night before xmas

With thanks to America and the Coca Cola Company

Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.

So, there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.

Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named.

wildhuntsman

Well, Woden did have the long white beard

So, what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.

Of course, such uniformity is impossible.  “There’s nowt so queer as folk” goes the old saying (from days when ‘queer’ had another meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion were evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.

Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:

  • All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
  • The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of ’Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
  • Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
  • Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
  • Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops.

Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennium history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.

Mevlana's tomb Konya-1

Mevlana’s tomb in Konya, Turkey

So, party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.

Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings, we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. 
According to Atatürk, Mevlana was ‘a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.’

17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, to be precise, it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent, given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire with its lunar-based calendar. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (‘Wedding’ in a transcendental sense). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.

At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:

Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.

Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.

Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.

Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.

Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.

Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.

Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.

 

In generosity and helping others, be like a river.

In compassion and grace, be like the sun.

In concealing other’s faults, be like the night.

In anger and irritability, be like death.

In modesty and humility be like the earth

In tolerance, be like the sea.

Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.

 

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Maybe I can start feeling proud of my country again

NZ likely to vote against Trump and the US in UN vote on Jerusalem tomorrow

“Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signalled that New Zealand will criticise US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in a United Nations vote tomorrow. But she stopped short of calling him a bully, as Trump threatened to cut US aid money to countries that voted against him.

jerusalem

In fact there was no state of Israel until 1948 – and Jerusalem hadn’t been under Jewish control for 1,939 years. Some people’s history is certainly BUNK!

Countries will vote tomorrow on the UN General Assembly resolution declaring that Jerusalem’s status can be changed only by direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The US president strongly supported US Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said that the United States “will be taking names” of countries that support the resolution.

“For all these nations, they take our money and then vote against us. They take hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars and then they vote against us,” Trump told reporters in Washington today. “We’re watching those votes. Let them vote against us … We’ll save a lot. We don’t care.”

Ardern was critical when Trump first recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital earlier this month, saying it “will make things difficult” for peace.

Asked about possible aid sanctions, she said: “I would push back strongly and say New Zealand has and will always have an independent foreign policy. We base our decisions on principle, not on being bullied.”

why-jerusalem-is-the-jewish-capital-of-israel-2-638

No reputable historian accepts the Old Testament as a historical document. Archeologists have found no trace of Solomon’s temple – and not for want of trying. At least the writer says “Jewish capital” and not “Israel’s”.

The Palestinians sought the General Assembly vote after the United States on Monday vetoed a resolution supported by the 14 other UN Security Council members that would have required Trump to rescind his declaration on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and not move the US Embassy there.

Unlike the Security Council, assembly resolutions are not legally binding but they do reflect world opinion.

The Israel Institute of NZ urged the Government to vote against the UN resolution and said it should also recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

In fact, if you know your history, you will know that Muslims allowed Jews and Christians to visit, live and build places of worship in “The Holy Land” during the years it was in their domain. The Christian concept of “Holy land” actually didn’t extend to recognising the rights of Jews or Muslims. Jewish students of history might think they have more to fear from Christians than from Muslims.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the Crusades:

“The Crusades were a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Latin Church in the medieval period. The most commonly known Crusades are the campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean aimed at recovering the Holy Land from Muslim rule.

constntnople1204_tintoretto

European Crusaders besieging and pillaging Christian Constantinople in 1204 CE

Pilgrimages by Catholics to sacred sites were permitted, Christian residents in Muslim territories were given Dhimmi status, legal rights, and legal protection. These Christians [and Jews] were allowed to maintain churches [and synagogues], and marriages between faiths were not uncommon.

One of Urban’s aims was to guarantee pilgrims access to the Eastern Mediterranean holy sites that were under Muslim control but scholars disagree as to whether this was the primary motive for Urban or those who heeded his call. Urban’s strategy may have been to unite the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom, which had been divided since the East–West Schism of 1054 and to establish himself as head of the unified Church.

The enthusiastic response to Urban’s preaching from all classes in Western Europe established a precedent for other Crusades. Volunteers became Crusaders by taking a public vow and receiving plenary indulgences from the Church. Some were hoping for a mass ascension into heaven at Jerusalem or God’s forgiveness for all their sins. Others participated to satisfy feudal obligations, obtain glory and honour or to seek economic and political gain.

Massacre-of-Jews-at-Metz

German Crusaders massacring Jews, 1096 CE

Modern historians hold widely varying opinions of the Crusaders. To some, their conduct was incongruous with the stated aims and implied moral authority of the papacy, as evidenced by the fact that on occasion the Pope excommunicated Crusaders. Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled, and their leaders generally retained control of captured territory instead of returning it to the Byzantines. During the People’s Crusade, in 1096, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres.

The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.”

And those looney American fundamentalist “Christians” are still hoping Jesus is going to come back and rapture them from Jerusalem!  Come on, people! It’s been two thousand years! He ain’t coming, I’m sorry to have to tell you.

AND, others, be warned. Accept American money, and become their “b***h”!

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/

Church, Mosque – or what? A taste of Istanbul’s complex history

CollageWorth a visit if you happen to be in Istanbul, the mosque of Molla Zeyrek, formerly the Byzantine monastery church of Christ Pantokrator, has recently undergone a complete restoration. Next door, a tasteful café and restaurant located on a terrace overlooking the Golden Horn offers magnificent panoramic views of Pera district, the entrance to the Bosporus, the imperial mosques of Sultanahmet and Suleiman the Magnificent, with glimpses of the Asian shore behind. The café also features an excellent bookshop selling memorabilia for the tourist who prefers something a little classier than what is to be found in the more frequented attractions.

A little of the building’s history:

Whole monastery

Prior to restoration

Shortly after Constantinople fell to the invading Ottoman armies in 1453, the twelfth-century Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was converted into the Zeyrek mosque. Named after Molla Zeyrek, a well-known scholar who lived during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II, Zeyrek Camii served not only as a religious center but also as a hub for Islamic enlightenment. The church-turned-mosque is one of the finest examples of religious architecture from the Byzantine era in Istanbul and the second-largest surviving Byzantine religious structure in the city after Hagia Sophia. The church and monastery were built by Emperor John II Komnenos to honor his wife’s wishes to house the “poor, sick, and suffering souls.” The north and south churches, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator and the Archangel St. Michael, are connected by an imperial chapel that was used as a mausoleum for the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties. This masterpiece of the middle period of Byzantine architecture consists of extraordinary domes capping the north and south churches and the imperial chapel, with complimentary interiors formed by elegant vaults and arches. Today, the monastery has completely disappeared except for the cistern, some structural elements, and timber houses that served as residences during Ottoman rule, encircling the Zeyrek Camii. Source.

Tiled floor

Interior tiled floor

The Monastery of Christ the Almighty (Pantokrator) was founded by Ioannes II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his wife Eirene, a born princess of Hungary, and built between 1118 and 1137. The south church was built first, then the north church was added, and finally a grave chapel with two oval domes was constructed in the space between both churches after their outer halls in this area had been demolished. This monumental ensemble is the greatest church building in Istanbul after the time of Justinian I, and it is the only one from the later time where we know the name of the architect, Nikephoros. The monastery is known in detail from the surviving foundation document where its buildings, the life of the monks there and the hospital connected to it are described. In the grave chapel, a number of emperors were buried including Ioannes and Eirene themselves, Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) and Manuel II Palaeologos (1391-1425).

The Zeryek Camii complex served as both an important Christian religious and education center and later as a mosque established to educate Muslim students. Zeyrek Camii shares similarities with its not-too-distant neighbor, Hagia Sofia. Both have housed two religions under their majestic domed roofs and have functioned as dominant architectural symbols of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Source.

Molla Zeyrek

The monastery church with the mosque of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror behind

The complex of Monastery of the Pantokrator (Ruler of all), was dedicated to Christ and stood on a hill overlooking the ancient aqueduct of Valens near the geographical center of the city. There are three interconnected churches. The first building was constructed by the Empress Irene between 1118 – 1124. This was the largest church and it was richly decorated with mosaics and rare marbles. Shortly thereafter a large church was built alongside the first one to the south and it was dedicated it to the Vigin Eleosa – “Mercy”. Finally, a wide space between the two churches was vaulted over by two domes and transformed into an Imperial mausoleum dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.

The south church is one of the largest churches built during the Middle Ages in Constantinople with a nave 16 metres square and a dome 7 metres across. The survival of so many huge cathedrals in the capital, like Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles, made the further construction of big churches unnecessary. The pietism of the time and the preference for smaller, community monastic churches also dictated a more intimate size.

View from caf

View from the terrace

The splendid interiors of all three churches were remarked upon in the Middle Ages. The Comnenian Emperors and their wives lavished money and gifts on the monastery, which was covered in golden mosaic tiles, rich marble veneer, precious metals and semi-precious stones. Even the floor was inlaid with a fantastic opus sectile rinceau carpet of carved, colored marbles depicting mythological scenes, hunters and animals. Fragments of stained glass set in lead found in the church indicate the windows of the apse were set with figures of Christ, the Virgin and possibly other saints.

The mausoleum church contained many relics, including the stone upon which, it was claimed, Christ had been anointed after his crucifixion. This mausoleum was filled with the marble tombs of Emperors and Empresses and its iconostasis was said to have been encrusted with gold enamel and gems.

The church was founded as a hospital with many beds and there were nurses and doctors attached to the monastery. It was also a center of learning and art. The founding document for the monastery – its Typicon – survives and outlines all its social functions in detail.

The+Fourth+Crusade+1202-1204.+Original+goal+was+to+conquer+the+Muslim-controlled+parts+of+Jerusalem+by+invading+through+Egypt.In 1204 the city of Constantinople fell to the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade after a series of vast and horrible fires set by the Crusaders. These conflagrations levelled large swaths of the city and consumed art treasures and books created and gathered over 900 years by the Byzantines. These included some of the greatest works of antiquity and a vast trove of Western civilization went up in flames. Catholic looters spread throughout the city to snatch what was left and the booty was thought to be the greatest ever seen.

The soldiers from France, Italy, and all across Europe did not spare the churches of their brother Christians; they stripped them bare of their valuables. The Pantokrator was attacked and looted. The tombs of the Emperors and Empresses were opened and their bodies were stripped. Monks and nuns were murdered and raped. Tens of thousands perished.

1204_sack

“Christian” crusaders loot and sack the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, 1204

The Venetians claimed the Pantokrator as part of their booty and occupied the complex until the Latins were ousted from the city by the Byzantines in 1261. Towards the end – when it became apparent they could not hold on to Constantinople it is said the Venetians removed the enameled panels from the iconostasis of the Pantokrator and shipped them to Venice, where they became the centerpiece of the famous Pala d’Oro. Source.

[That’s Christians for you!]

 

What’s going on out there?

spanish+armada

Another Queen Elizabeth; another woman Prime Minister; another war coming up?

Will another civil war break out in the (Dis)United States?

http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-ed-our-dishonest-president/

Will (Great) Britain declare war on Spain?

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11831007

The upcoming referendum in Turkey pales into insignificance.

More Papal Palaver

The best form of defence is a good attack. It’s an adage applicable to a range of human activities, from chess to warfare – and even religious leaders, it seems, sometimes employ the tactic. The Catholic Church has a bunch of problems these days, from empty pews in its monumental temples, to those pesky accusations of paedophilia and other kinds of institutional child abuse that just won’t go away. So I guess if I were the Pope of Rome I’d probably take time off occasionally from excommunication and beatification duties to go after a soft target or two with the aim of distracting opponents and critics.

pope and noah

Two  old guys in fancy dress pouring water on Noah’s Ark. Are they for real?

And indeed, there he is, dear old Pope Francis, God bless him, visiting his tiny RC flock in Armenia, and taking time, while there, to reaffirm his recent support for Armenian genocidists. One thing he loves about Armenia, apparently, is that its people were the first to make Christianity their official state religion, way back in 301 CE. I guess in his position, he’d have to be a fan of rulers enforcing religious uniformity – though personally, I’m inclined to the view that that’s where most of the intolerance, persecution and violence starts.

Anyway, Francis is firmly of the opinion that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide on poor inoffensive Armenians a hundred years or so ago, that it was the first genocide of the 20th century, and one of its big three holocaustic events. By voicing these statements in his official capacity as leader of an estimated 1.27 billion Roman Catholics, he undoubtedly knows that he is giving powerful tacit support to those who want to hold the modern Republic of Turkey responsible.

Well, once again, I’m not going to get involved in the debate of who did what to how many of whom and when they did it. I do, however, want to take issue with the Pope’s jaw-dropping cultural arrogance in selectively focusing on the 20th century, and on Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and the Ottoman Empire as the worst offenders. First off, that gentleman is boss and CEO of a trans-national organisation that has been persecuting, torturing, enslaving, war-mongering, genociding and paedophiling for most of its 2,000 year history. OK, they’ve done some good stuff along the way too, but come on! That’s not just a glasshouse you’re living in, Frank. It’s a monumental crystal palace built on a foundation of quicksand!

George Clooney

George Clooney was there – but the Kardashians couldn’t make it this time.

And then what’s the big deal with the 20th century? Why pick an arbitrary cut-off point like 1900 CE for your moralising? As if I didn’t know. As far as the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims are concerned (beating the Catholic’s best estimate by 30 million), it was the year 1416, dating from the Hijra of Muhammad and his followers to the city of Medina. The Year of Our Christian Lord 1900 equated roughly to 4597 in the Chinese calendar, and 5660 for those of the Jewish faith. Just another year, in other words. Remember the doomsayers forecasting worldwide computer failure, financial meltdown, and apocalypse now for the year 2000? And what happened? If there is a God out there somewhere, I’m fairly sure He/She doesn’t give a monkey’s whatsit for calendars, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian or whatever.

Still, from Popey’s point-of-view, ignoring those previous 1,900 years allows him to erase some pretty horrendous demographic obliterations. Modern scholarship suggests that the pre-Columbian population of the Americas could have been up to 100 million. Admittedly not all of the deaths were deliberately caused by the Roman Catholic Church in particular and Western Europeans in general – but undoubtedly their actions directly and indirectly led to near total extinction – and the new-comers weren’t too unhappy to see them go.

He can overlook the Roman Catholic Inquisition and the ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian peninsula that turned a scientifically progressive and culturally diverse multi-religious, multi-ethnic society under comparatively tolerant Islamic rule to an exclusively Christian RC preserve where Muslims and Jews were tortured, massacred or forced to migrate. Most of the survivors ended up in the Ottoman Empire whose Islamic government welcomed them with open arms.

Slave sale

Bucks and wenches – people, actually.

Well, maybe you think that’s going back too far in time. OK, let’s think about the contribution made by slave labour and the slave trade to the British Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the USA as an industrial power in the 19th century. According to Wikipedia the transatlantic slave trade uprooted and transported more than eleven million Africans between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Possibly four million more died after being captured and before they even boarded a slave ship. 1.5 million are estimated to have died on the journey, and many more died young as a result of the brutality of living and working conditions. From the 17th century, Britain became the main slave-trading nation, and industrial towns like Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester benefitted greatly from exporting goods such as guns to Africa, selling the slaves purchased, and importing the produce of slave-labour, such as sugar and cotton. Admittedly most Brits were C of E, and not Catholic, but it obviously suits the Western/European version of history to gloss over these realities – and African Americans are still waiting to be ‘paid for the work they done’.

That 1900 date cut-off also conveniently allows the omission of other war crimes and near-genocidal campaigns carried out by the British Empire during the 19th century: violent and punitive ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Maori in New Zealand, the Aboriginal tribes in Australia, the Zulus in South Africa – and the war of 1899-1901 where the Brits are credited with having invented the concentration camp to facilitate their aggression against Boer farmers. We can forget the ruthless brutality with which British rulers suppressed the Indian rebellion in 1857-59, calling it a ‘mutiny’. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 Indians died, most of them as a result of a ‘no prisoners, no mercy’ policy of revenge carried out by the British Army after the rebellion was defeated.

No event in history takes place in a vacuum. There are always reasons and causes not always acknowledged when the victors write their version of history. Ottoman rulers had learned, during the 19th century, what would happen to Muslims when parts of their empire and its hinterland were ‘liberated’ by ‘Christian’ Powers. Muslims were massacred or expelled when the Kingdom of Greece was established in the 1820s. The process was repeated as Imperial Russia expanded southwards into Crimea and the Caucasus – culminating in an event remembered by descendants of survivors as the Circassian Genocide in 1864.

But let’s accept Pope Francis’s arbitrary date for a moment, and consider how sincere he really is in looking for suffering peoples to sympathise with. Exception has been taken to his repeating of the claim that the Armenian tragedy was the first genocide of the 20th century. That honour apparently can rightly be claimed by Germany, and their ‘attempted annihilation of the Herero in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) from 1904 to 1907’.

Algeria

Selective remembering – and forgetting.

Possibly Francis decided not to count official world wars in his brief list, but it seems a pity not to mention World War One, believed by many to have been brought about by an unholy alliance of European Imperialists and capitalist financiers. Seventeen million combatants and non-combatants died and a further twenty million were wounded. He may also have decided to gloss over France’s unsuccessful war to prevent Algerian Independence. Depending on which side you’re listening to, between 350,000 and 1.5 million died between 1954 and 1962, mostly Algerians.

Similar disagreement exists over how many Iraqis died as a result of the United States’ invasion in 2003. Estimates range from 151,000 to over a million – but possibly their importance is lessened by being of the wrong religion. We do seem to know with greater accuracy the number of US military personnel who lost their lives: 4,491. It’s too early to put a figure on the civil war in Syria. Again estimates vary widely, ranging from 140,200 to 470,000. Al-Jazeera claims that 10.9 million, or almost half the population of Syria, have been displaced and 3.8 million have been made refugees.

So it’s not surprising that there is disagreement over how many Armenians died back there in the early 20th century. Of course even the lowest estimate adds up to a terrible tragedy that should never be forgotten. On the other hand, selective remembering and forgetting of historical events almost always has a political purpose, and seekers after truth should be open-minded in their search. Photographs can be used to dishonestly stir emotions – even those taken in the days before Photoshop. Anecdotal evidence also has emotive power, but historians at least cannot rely merely on first-hand accounts of ‘survivors’.

Joseph Hirt

There’s the tattoo right there, see?

A recent item on CBS News highlights the danger. ‘A 91-year-old Pennsylvania man who has for years lectured to school groups and others about what he said were his experiences at Auschwitz now says he was never a prisoner at the German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.’ The admission came after a New York high school history teacher made inquiries when his suspicions were aroused. Joseph Hirt had apparently gone to the extent of having a false prisoner identification number tattooed on his arm.

So, Pope Francis – I am suspicious of your motives.

Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

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.
Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

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.

sivas_turkiye_haritasinda_yeri_nerede

Location of Sivas province

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.

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

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.

Sivas's famous kangal dog

Sivas’s famous kangal dog

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.

Help yourself

Mouth-watering Sivas cuisine

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.

Sivas's 4th century 40 martyrs

Sivas’s 4th century 40 martyrs

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.

Stop the killing - there are better things in life

Stop the killing – there are better things in life

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.