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.

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“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!]

 

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What’s the US Government doing in the Middle East?

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Trump is just a distraction from the main issue!

Despite the “Christian” West’s thousand-year infatuation with the “Holy Land”, first Europe and now the United States have succeeded in creating an unholy mess in a region that was once at the forefront of the civilised world.

For more than 60 years, the Republic of Turkey has been a loyal ally of the Western alliance, allowing the US Government to operate military bases and nuclear missiles in its territory, putting its own people at risk during the Cold War. In return Turkey’s interests and approaches for closer relations have been ignored or treated with disdain.

In the latest outrage, the US Government is providing major logistical support to a Kurdish group in Syria known as YPG, which they insist is important in the fight against ISIS/Daesh.

Who exactly are these YPG people? As far as the Turkish government is concerned, they are part of a separatist movement working towards an independent Kurdish state that will incorporate areas of Iraq, Syria and eastern Turkey. They are linked to the PKK, an internationally recognised terrorist network that has been carrying out violent attacks in Turkey for decades. The “Kurdistan” they want to establish not only poses an unacceptable threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity, it is by no means desired by the majority of Kurdish people in Turkey.

So why is the USA supplying these separatist militants with military hardware? Clearly the ISIS/Daesh excuse is untrue. The Turkish Government has made it clear that they will work with the US to end the ISIS/Daesh threat, and such an alliance will finish the business quickly and efficiently. It seems that, contrary to their stated aim, finishing off ISIS/Daesh is not actually what the US Government wants. What they do want, it seems clear, is an “independent” oil rich Kurdistan whose puppet government will be dutifully grateful to the United States. And to hell with the interests of loyal ally Turkey.

US dispatches 100 new trucks packed with military equipment to YPG

1 August 2017

US arms to YPG

Clearing mines for the US arms-carrying convoy

The United States dispatched 100 new trucks consisting of military equipment to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria on July 30, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency has reported.

The trucks were reported in the city of al-Hasakah, located in northeast Syria, before heading to the northern parts of Raqqa.

The dispatched trucks were indicated to have entered the region under YPG control though the Iraqi border.
The vehicles were reportedly carrying heavy weapons, cranes, Hummer trucks and jeeps.

With the last aid provided by the U.S., the number of trucks that reached the YPG amounted to 909.


In June, a total of 120 trucks and up to 689 more trucks were sent to the organization until July 27, the agency said.

According to a budget report received by the Anadolu Agency at the start of June from the Pentagon, the U.S. military provides weapons to various armed groups in Syria, including the YPG. This aid reportedly includes a total of 12,000 Kalashnikovs, 6,000 machine guns, 3,500 heavy machine guns, 3,000 U.S. made RPG-7s and 1,000 U.S. made AT-4 or Russian made SPG-9 anti-tank munitions to be given to the armed groups.

The U.S. President Donald Trump authorized the arming of the YPG in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on May 9, causing ire in Ankara.

The Turkish government considers the YPG to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has long pressed Washington to stop its support for the group, as it says that the arms provided to the group are handed over to the PKK.

Same old story, 100 years on – “100 Yıllık Terane”

dscf0497I’ve been cruising past the sign for a week or so now – a huge billboard strikingly designed in red and black and white, located near a busy intersection on Istanbul’s Baghdad Avenue. It’s a long way from Baghdad, Iraq, of course, but once upon a time this road was probably the main route to that legendary city of the Near East. These days, Baghdad Ave, at least around where that billboard is, is the premier shopping district on the Asian side of the city – and a popular strip for young unattached wealthy males to prowl in their Porsches and Lamborghinis searching for an impressionable and willing young lass to whisk off to designer paradise.

The local council is unapologetically CHP – meaning they, and the citizens who elected them, are implacable foes of the AK Party that governs the country and manages the broader Istanbul Metropolitan region. So I suspect there are a few locals gnashing their teeth over this billboard – if they’ve actually noticed it, or managed to work out what it’s all about. I don’t want to undervalue the intelligence of those implacable foes – but sometimes I wonder whether their brains are actually engaged with their mouths.

The huge red and black billboard is advertising a book. That in itself is something of an oddity in a culture not especially given to reading for information or pleasure. I passed it several times myself before deciding to take a closer interest. I checked it out online, and then, my curiosity aroused, dropped into a nearby bookstore and purchased a copy: “100 Yıllık Terane” by Taha Ün – subtitled “This kind of coincidence is only seen in films”.

Well, I’m still a slow reader of Turkish, and the introductory pages are pretty heavy going – but Mr Ün, a journalist and amateur historian, I gather, has found a very interesting thesis. He is revisiting the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, in particular, a period of 33 years from 1876 to 1909 when Sultan Abdulhamid II was on the throne. He wasn’t the last Ottoman Sultan, and by no means a major threat to Europe, but he has possibly the worst reputation among the 36 scions of the House of Osman. Taha Ün has looked back on how that Abdulhamid was depicted in the Western press – and drawn 180 pages of fascinating parallels with the 15-year tenure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister first, and now President of the modern Republic of Turkey.

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Crusaders conquering CHRISTIAN Constantinople in 1204

It’s a subject that needs airing – and not only to a Turkish audience. In fact I suggest that the determination of Western opinion-leaders to blacken the image of Turkey and earlier Islamic civilisations is centuries-old. For two hundred years after the first Crusade in 1095 CE, Western “Christendom” launched wave after wave of ruinous invasion on sophisticated civilisations in the Near East, with little concern as to whether they were Muslim or Christian.

There was a period of two centuries or so after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 when Western powers, not yet in the ascendancy, were obliged to find ways of getting along with their powerful Muslim neighbour. That began to change, however, after a coalition of European forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Thereafter Ottoman power went into slow decline – to the delight of rising Western Empires eager to add its territories and wealth to their own expanding spheres of influence.

Tourists in Istanbul tend to spend much of their time visiting historical sights in the Sultanahmet area. Ahmet I reigned from 1603 to 1617 and was responsible, among other achievements, for commissioning the famous “Blue Mosque”. He is not to be confused with Sultan Ahmet III, who ruled the Empire for twenty-seven years at the beginning of the 18th century until deposed by a military coup.

Ahmet III’s reign is commonly known to historians as the “Tulip Era”, in reference to a craze for the bulbs and flowers among Ottoman court society. The uprising of Janissary soldiers that overthrew Ahmet in 1730 is generally portrayed in Western histories as a popular revolt against “the excessive pomp and costly luxury” of the Sultan and his court. The figurehead of the uprising, Patrona Halil, a Janissary officer of Albanian extraction, apparently found time and leisure from his insurrectionary duties to pose for a romantic portrait by the French artist Jean Baptiste Vanmour.

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Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Ahmet III had actually been doing his best to cultivate good relations with France – incidentally at a time when that nation was not notable for democratic treatment of its own citizens. Apart from growing tulips, and living in the lap of luxury – a lifestyle not altogether shunned by his French contemporary, Louis XIV – the Ottoman Sultan “left the finances of the Ottoman Empire in a flourishing condition . . . without excessive taxation or extortion procedures”. He was probably the first of his line to look Westward with an eye to emulating European progress. He was a patron of literature, architecture and the arts in general, promoted commerce and industry, and authorised the introduction of printing presses for producing books in the Ottoman language. During Ahmet’s reign the Ottomans came close to destroying the power of the emerging Russian Empire – and it is perhaps here that we may seek the reason for his negative portrayal in the West.

Apparently King Charles XII of Sweden was given sanctuary by the Ottomans after his army had been defeated by the Russians in 1709. Refusing to hand over the Swedish monarch brought Ahmet into a war with his northern neighbour, which was going badly for the Russians until the Safavid Persians attacked the Ottomans in the east. At least one historian has argued that the resulting peace treaty possibly turned the course of history, in that it saved Tsar Peter, who subsequently went on to become the Great Emperor of Russia, from possible capture and imprisonment.

That looks like quite an impressive list of achievements for a guy who ascended the throne at the age of 13; and it might seem a trifle unfair to write him off with a belittling reference to tulips and luxurious decadence. Russia had had close diplomatic relations with Persia since at least the middle of the 16th century. As their power increased, it is likely that they saw benefits accruing from stirring up conflict between the two Muslim empires to the south – and not impossible that the Shi’ite Persians hoped to win favour with Russia and territorial gains for themselves by striking the Sunni Ottomans while they were otherwise engaged. It is also possible that Western interests were served by fomenting internal strife against Sultan Ahmet when he looked as though he might be turning the tide of Ottoman decline. But it’s just a theory, you understand.

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Selimiye Barracks – still an Istanbul landmark

Anyway, let’s move forward another hundred years. By the beginning of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was really struggling. Western Europe was well into its industrial revolution; the Big Three, Britain, France and Russia, were expanding on all fronts; and military defeats by their troublesome eastern neighbour had become a thing of the past. Selim III ascended the throne in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, with reform on his mind, particularly in the fields of education and the military. The landmark four-towered army barracks on the Asian shore of the Bosporus near Kadıköy stands as a symbol of his efforts. They were cut short, however, by forces of conservatism within the Empire, the Janissary army, religious leaders and the hereditary elite, who, fearing the loss of their traditional power, joined forces to overthrow and murder him. Selim’s two successors both had brief reigns and came to nasty ends, before his great-nephew Mahmud II took over in 1808.

Bucking the trend of recent years, the 30th Sultan managed 31 years on the throne and died of natural causes. He carried out far-reaching reforms in administrative, fiscal and military matters. One of his major achievements was abolishing the Janissary corps, once-feared symbol of Ottoman military might, that had long since become more active as a force of reaction, overthrowing and sometimes assassinating reform-minded Sultans. Mahmud went on to set up a more equitable taxation system; curb the power of local governors; establish a modern army and navy; and institute clothing reforms that brought his subjects more into line with Western conventions. Interestingly, it was he who introduced the fez in place of the traditional turban – though that headgear itself later came to be seen as a symbol of Ottoman backwardness.

Once again, however, the machinations of European powers worked against Mahmud’s positive moves. “The Eastern Question” assumed increasing importance as a motive behind the foreign policies of Western governments. The essence of the question was: “When will the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate – and which of us will get what parts of it when it does?” British, French and Russian governments might, of course, have different answers to this question, with the result that sometimes they worked together against the Ottomans; and sometimes supported the Ottomans against each other, bolstering them up to suit their own interests while doing their best to undermine them and assist the break-up of the Empire from within.

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Prince Otto of Bavaria – King of “independent” Greece, 1830

The Greek War of Independence that began in 1821 illustrated the complexities of the Eastern Question. Russia, always keen to get access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, saw advantage in championing the Sultan’s Eastern Orthodox Christian subjects to rebel, and bring the Bosporus Straits and the Aegean Sea under Russian control. Britain and France wanted to keep Russia bottled up in its frozen wastes. A compromise was brought about when the navies of the three Great Powers combined to smash the Ottoman and Egyptian navies, and create an “independent Greek” state. Just how “independent” became clear when a Roman Catholic Prince from Bavaria was installed on the throne of the new kingdom, whose finances were supported by loans from Britain and the Rothschild bank.

The very name “Greece” in fact carried little or no significance for the “Greeks” themselves, who preferred (and still prefer) variations on the theme of “Hellas”. British aristocrats supporting the “Greek” struggle had confused ideas about returning modern-day locals to the pagan glories of mythological ancient times they remembered hazily from their Etonian school days. Modern Hellenes laboured under the misconception that they would be permitted to re-establish a Christian Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople. Dream on!

Nevertheless, a precedent was set for the Great Powers to support downtrodden Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, encouraging them to rebel and bring down the wrath of the Ottoman government on their heads – whereupon said great Powers would be justified in getting involved with a nationalist struggle on humanitarian grounds.

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So, which empire showed more humanity?

This new strategy of the Western powers proved a major nightmare for Mahmud’s son, Abdulmejid (Abdülmecid), Sultan from 1839 to 1861. The new monarch is remembered in Turkish history as the initiator of Tanzimat (Reorganisation), an ambitious programme of reforms encompassing finance, the civil and criminal law, the establishment of modern universities, equal treatment for religious minorities in the Empire, and the abolition of slavery. According to Wikipedia, he had “plans to send humanitarian aid of £10,000 to Ireland during its Great Famine, but later agreed to reduce it to £1,000 at the insistence of British diplomats wishing to avoid embarrassing Queen Victoria, who had made a donation of £5,000.”

His attempts to combat the rise of separatist nationalist movements, however, by legislating for equal rights, and promoting “Ottomanism” as a unifying doctrine were undone by Great Power support for Christian minorities. While Britain and France were lending support in the Crimean War to contain Russian expansion, the Russians themselves were driving out the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus, and, following the example of “Greek independence”, inciting Armenian Christians in eastern Anatolia to rise up against their lawful government.

Abdulmejid died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 and was succeeded by his brother, Abdülaziz. Despite his continued attempts to modernise the Empire, Ottoman travails continued. He attempted to cultivate ties with France – which was undermined by France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Britain, as always, proved an untrustworthy ally, by this time more interested in acquiring Ottoman territories after the construction of the Suez Canal. The British Government originally opposed the French project but, later took over the canal, and extended its influence into Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Increasingly desperate, the Ottoman government turned to Russia for assistance, but Russian support for nationalist independence movements in the Balkans meant there was little hope to be gained from that quarter. Abdulaziz struggled on for fifteen years before mounting crises at home and abroad led to his deposition in 1876. There is some disagreement over his subsequent death – did he top himself, or was he “offed”?

Whatever the case, the once mighty empire was in an almighty mess. Abdulaziz’s nephew lasted 93 days on the throne before being ousted on the grounds of insanity. His younger brother was crowned Abdulhamid II on 31 August 1876. Within fifteen months the Ottomans had fought and lost a disastrous war with Russia, whose forces were massed at the very gates of Istanbul/ Constantinople. Only last minute interference by the British Navy averted total defeat – but most of Ottoman territory in the Balkans was lost, and the Brits made off with the island of Cyprus.

Which brings us back to that book. There seems to be some revision of history under way in Turkey these days. Of necessity, the founders of the Republic dissociated themselves from the Ottoman Empire, on whose ashes they hoped to build a new nation. In looking to the West for inspiration and guidance, they took on board Western perceptions of Ottoman history depicting its rulers as corrupt, decadent and brutal. An unfortunate side effect of this process was a loss of identity, a feeling of inferiority that manifested itself in attempts to leapfrog 900 years of history and establish a semi-mythological connection to Turkic forebears in Central Asia. All of which bolstered Western stereotypes of swarthy, camel-riding barbarians not fit to be granted entry into Europe.

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Sultan Abdulhamid II

An important new industry in Turkey is producing television drama series that have been finding surprisingly enthusiastic audiences, not only at home, but in the Middle East and as far away as South America. Yesterday the first episode of a new historical drama was screened: “Payitaht: Abdülhamid”. The title is somewhat cryptic – possibly implying that, for better or worse, this guy WAS the sole governing power of the Empire at that time. Apparently the series deals with the last thirteen years of that controversial Sultan’s reign, from 1896 to his deposition in 1909. Another sign, perhaps, that Turkey is no longer satisfied to be defined by Western stereotypes.

Why do they hate Turkey?

I used to think that most of the Turks I met were paranoid, their outlook clouded by a persecution complex, obsessed with the conviction that everyone out there hated them. These days, however, I have more sympathy. Listen up.

First of all, I’m not talking about a full-blown international conspiracy here – though I’m reasonably sure there are conspiratorial elements at work. What I’ve got in mind is something much deeper and more subtle: a kind of millennia-long propaganda programme; a brainwashing process that began in the 11th century, and continues to this day.

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Statue of Seljuk Sultan, Alp Arslan, in Muş, Turkey

Everyone who has passed through the education system in Turkey can tell you of a battle that took place in 1071 CE out in eastern Anatolia/Asia Minor. Known as Malazgirt to Turks, and Manzikert in English, the battle saw the defeat of the Byzantine Roman Emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, by the army of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. Historians generally agree that this battle marked the beginning of the end for the Eastern Roman Empire, though it staggered on, steadily shrinking, for a further four centuries. Certainly it was the first time a Christian Emperor had been taken captive by Muslim forces, and began the incursion of Seljuk Turks into the Anatolian heartland of the Byzantine Empire.

Twenty-four years later, by 1095, the initial entry had become a flood, and the new Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, sent a plea to his Christian brothers in Rome for military assistance. Pope Urban II responded favourably, and his impassioned speeches to Roman Catholic Europe launched the First Crusade in 1096. But what was that Crusading business really about?

Certainly the Pope and his Roman Catholics had no great love for their Eastern Orthodox brethren. Centuries of doctrinal conflict had led to the Great Schism in 1054, when Eastern and Western Churches made their split official and final. Consequently, there was no help forthcoming from the West when those Seljuk Turks won their great victory seventeen years later.

Supporting the Eastern Empire soon morphed into liberating the so-called ‘Holy Lands’ from Muslim occupation as the main motivation for Crusaders. This also seems less than convincing, however, given that those lands had been in Muslim hands for 400 years. It is far more likely that the Roman Pope was keen to unite Western Christendom – currently engaged in vicious internecine warfare – and establish a Holy Roman Empire with temporal power to match that of his eastern rivals. The Muslim operation was more of a pretext, deriving from the need to create a fearsome enemy, a bogey that would inspire and unite Christian warlords with religious fervour. Sound familiar?

So was born the thousand-year hatred of Turks – never mind that the Muslims in possession of Jerusalem were mostly Arabs; and zealots of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, laying aside earlier pretense, besieged, captured, desecrated and  pillaged Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Christians they were supposed to be helping.

Crusaders and Turks had their ups and downs, but it was other Turkic invaders and their Mongol cousins that finally ended the Seljuk Empire in the mid-12th century. It wasn’t long, however, before another, more ambitious and durable Islamic empire began to rise. Ertuğruloğlu Osman is generally credited with founding the Ottoman dynasty in 1299. By 1400, Osman’s successors had brought Anatolia under their control, and extended their reach into the Balkans. Fifty-three years later they completed the demise of the eastern Byzantine Christian Romano-Greek Empire (a rather confusing entity) by conquering their last stronghold, the fabled city of Constantinople.

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Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II enters Constantinople, 1453

The fall of Constantinople was a matter of some ambivalence in Western Christendom. First and foremost, Roman Catholics saw their Eastern cousins as heretics and rivals, and once again refrained from sending military assistance. On the other hand, as historian John Julius Norwich has observed, those eastern Christians had acted as a buffer against Muslim westward expansion for 800 years. Without their resistance, the whole of Europe might have been overrun, and we might all have a more personal first-hand knowledge and understanding of Islam. The Eastern capital may have been the centre of heresy and dissolute corruption in the eyes of Western Papists, but its fall undoubtedly sent shivers of dread running down their spines.

Far from creating an exclusively Muslim domain, however, the Ottoman conquerors ruled over an empire that was indisputably multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious. Islam was the official state religion, but its adherents included Arabs and Kurds, and were not exclusively Turkish. Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Jews were given freedom to worship in their own churches, educate their children in their own schools, bury their dead in their own cemeteries, speak and write their own languages, conduct business, make money, build palatial houses, and serve at the highest levels of Ottoman society.

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Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana) wife of Suleiman the Great, and definitely not Turkish

As for the Ottoman sultans, they were a mixed lot from the earliest days. The mother of Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, was from a Christian family, possibly Italian or Serbian. Mehmet’s own consorts included women from non-Muslim families, and the mother of his successor, Beyazit II was reputedly of Greek or Albanian origin. This trend continued for centuries, making nonsense of the Western fiction labelling the Ottoman Sultan ‘The Grand Turk’. European insistence on referring to the Ottoman domains as ‘Turkey’ clearly owed more to a desire to belittle a dangerous opponent than any actual ethnic reality.

The danger to Europe was ever-present to the end of the 17th century, when Ottoman forces were finally turned back from the gates of Vienna in November 1683. So the stereotype was firmly established – European Christendom had had 600 years to develop a fear and hatred of ‘Turks’ – regardless of whether or not that’s what these people actually were.

Then the tone changed. Western Europe moved into its ‘Enlightenment’ period. Its wealth, industry, science, technology, and military effectiveness began to overtake that of its Ottoman rivals. Victories over their Eastern neighbours became increasingly common, and territorial expansion went into reverse. What began as a patronising Orientalist Ottomania for eastern fashions gradually turned into supercilious arrogance by the 19th century. Czar Nicholas I of Russia is credited with coining the term ‘The Sick Man of Europe’; and the dominant concern of the European ‘Great Powers’ Britain, France, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire in international affairs was ‘The Eastern Question’: simply put, when would the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate, and which of them would get what when it did?

For the last hundred years of its existence, what kept the Ottoman Empire afloat was primarily the selfish desires of those ‘Great Powers’ to see that, individually, they got the best bits and the others didn’t. The building of the Suez Canal and the discovery of oil in the Middle East increased the importance of the eastern Mediterranean to the West. Mainland Greece was forcibly seized from the Ottomans in 1830, and the puppet Kingdom of Greece established with the support of Britain, France and Russia. The islands in the Western Aegean were ‘given’ to the new kingdom at that time. In the Balkan Wars of 1812-13, Greek and Italian troops seized the eastern islands, the seizure given ‘official international’ recognition under the Sevres and Lausanne Treaties (see maps below). Subsequently the Italians gifted their share of the islands to Greece, and precedent had been established for later events in Rhodes and Cyprus.

While the European Powers were systematically dismembering the territories of the Ottoman Empire, it was necessary for them to at least pretend that their motives were pure. In consequence, it suited them to foster in the public mind an image of ‘The Turk’ as unbeliever, barbarian and monster. This, then, justified their aggression and seizing of territory under the guise of protecting the Christian subjects of a cruel and ruthless regime. Their own ethnic cleansing of Muslims from areas they conquered took place far enough from home that it could be swept under the carpet. Ottoman attempts to stem the tide could be portrayed as characteristic incidents of gratuitous barbarity, justifying further crusading action.

All such pretence finally evaporated in the aftermath of the First World War. It is generally accepted that harsh reparations enforced by the victorious allies led to Germany’s economic collapse, and the rise of Adolf Hitler. It is less well known that the machinations of those victors, in particular Britain and France, created the conditions that pretty much directly produced the current turmoil in the Middle East.

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1. Sykes-Picot plans for the Middle East

Britain and France, with Russian concurrence, signed the secret Sykes-Picot agreement (see Map 1) in 1915 whereby Ottoman territory would be divided amongst them, with some allocations to Greece and Italy. The Treaty of Sevres (Map 2), signed in 1920 without the participation of the USA or Greece, more or less confirmed the Sykes-Picot boundaries. It was all very nice and tidy – and ‘Turkey’ would have to content itself with a rump of central Anatolia and Black Sea coastline.

treaty-of-sevres-corrected

2. Sevres Agreement – they would have if they could have!

What happened to upset their plans was the emergence of Turkish nationalism which – European insistence on the name ‘Turkey’ notwithstanding – had previously been pretty much non-existent. For three years, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk) led an army of liberation that drove the invading Europe-sponsored Greek military out of Anatolia, and forced the British and French to quit Istanbul, which they had been illegally occupying since 1919. The modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, at last bringing into existence a ‘Turkish’ state on which that thousand-year hatred could be focused. I am as sure as I can be that Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, Russia, have never forgiven Turkey for those humiliations.

In the 93 years since, Turkey has slowly turned itself from an economic basket case, destitute after decades of war, into a modern nation with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It hasn’t been an easy road. Turkey’s location at the gateway between Europe and the Middle East; and on the frontline in the Cold War with Soviet Russia, has meant that it would never be left alone to work out its own destiny. Unbeknown to most of us in the West, the United States maintained several military bases in Turkey during the Cold War, with nuclear-armed missiles aimed, from point-blank range, at targets in Russia. President JF Kennedy’s 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis takes on a different aspect when viewed in this context.

The 1974 crisis in Cyprus, when Turkey’s Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sent troops to the island to secure a Turkish sector, has led to unceasing international censure and accusations. It was, however, within the power of the British Government at the time, as guarantors of the treaty establishing the independence of Cyprus, to step in and make the Turkish action unnecessary – which they declined to do. In contrast, the action of Armenia, in invading and occupying the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, within the internationally recognised boundaries of Azerbaijan, arguably a less justifiable intervention, has been met with an almost universal silence from Western nations so unforgiving in their criticism of Turkey.

From 1960 to 1997, the Republic of Turkey experienced four military interventions that overturned democratically elected governments – according to some, with the connivance of United States administrations. Three of those coups resulted in periods of martial law, accompanied by detention, imprisonment without trial, torture and ‘disappearances’ of political ‘dissidents’. Many academics were removed from their positions in universities, and intellectuals obliged to flee the county.

Since the AK Party became the government in 2002, military intervention in the political process seems to have passed into history. Inflation of banana-republic proportions that had plagued the country for decades, was wiped out virtually overnight. Public transport and provision of water and electricity in the major cities has improved out of sight. Service over the counter in state offices has become an orderly process relying on numbered queues rather than crossing a public servant’s palm with silver. Medical treatment in state and private hospitals is now more accessible to all, and the Third World chaos formerly reigning in state clinics is also a thing of the past.

In spite of this, news media in the United States and Western Europe are unrelenting in publishing articles belabouring Turkey for its alleged descent into autocratic Islamic fundamentalism. They are aided in their propaganda by discontented Turks who seem to be hoping that they can enlist outside support for political ‘change’ they have been unable to achieve through the ballot box.

Sadiq Khan MP at Westminster, London, Britain  - 11 Oct 2012

Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London

The ongoing problem for the West, however, is that they have never quite been able to bring Turkey under their direct control. Attempts in the past at invasion and occupation failed. The present government has, at least so far, been able to forestall attempts through the courts and by the military, to remove them from office. The current refugee crisis, not of Turkey’s making, but imposing a huge burden on its economy and infra-structure, has been turned into a powerful lever forcing European leaders to enter into negotiations in a way they have previously refused to do.

We live in interesting times. As I write this, citizens of London have just elected a Muslim Mayor whose parents were immigrants from Pakistan. Well, at least he’s not a Turk – but still, it looks like an event that will require some shifting of mental gears in the birthplace of democracy.

Cultural Amnesia – Islamic contributions to modern science and technology

It gives you some idea of the wealth of the Ottoman sultans that the stables of the old Topkapı Palace have been converted into a moderately large museum; not actually dedicated to equestrian pursuits, but housing Istanbul’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam.

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Well, you might think it’s a long name for a museum that won’t contain very much – but you’d be wrong. The MSTI (or in Turkish, İBTTM) features displays and models in fifteen scientific fields from a thousand years of high Islamic culture, beginning in the 7th century and ending at the start of the 17th when Western Europe took over as the centre of scientific research and discovery. Somewhat unusually for a museum in this country, the displays are fully and clearly explained by text in four languages, German, French and English as well as Turkish.

The linguistic competence, and in fact the foundation of the museum itself, are attributable to Professor Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Professor Sezgin taught at Istanbul University until 1960 when he, along with many other intellectuals, was removed from office after the military coup in May of that year. Escaping the fate of the unfortunate prime minister at the time, Prof. Sezgin made his way to Germany where he embarked on a successful academic career specialising in the history of Arab-Islamic science, helping to found a museum in Frankfurt with replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps.

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Several government ministers and the mayor of Istanbul visited the German museum, and were so impressed that they decided to support the establishment of a similar institution in Turkey’s largest city. The old Topkapı Palace stables in the beautiful Gülhane Park had just been renovated, and the museum was opened in 2008 with models and displays related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan has once again provoked mirth in some circles with his claim just the other day that Muslim sailors had discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. Well, some criticism is justified, given that it was actually Native Americans who stumbled upon the place around 12,000 years before Vikings, Portuguese or Muslims even thought about looking – and Americans have been giving thanks as usual this week for their support of the early colonists from England. Nevertheless, Mr Erdoğan has an ally in Professor Sezgin who claims that Islamic scholars had accurately calculated latitude and longitude, and created a partial map of the American continent by the early 15th century at the latest.

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

The Istanbul Museum has a wonderfully informative website, http://www.ibttm.org/ where you can find the text of Prof. Sezgin’s five-volume catalogue of the Frankfurt collection. It’s a challenging read, but the key ideas were summarized in an interview with the learned professor published in Turkish Airlines’ Skylife magazine last year.

Essentially, Sezgin believes that the traditional Western view of a ‘renaissance’ of classical knowledge taking place from the 14th to the 17th centuries is a distortion of the truth. He argues that the accepted idea of ‘The Renaissance’ was a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that Arab and other İslamic scholars had translated the works of classical philosophers from the early days of their conquests in the 7th century, assimilated their knowledge and developed it further. As the Arab Empire spread through the Middle East, North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Prof. Sezgin claims, these advanced ideas were carried as far as Spain and Portugal, thus becoming available to Western Europeans. He goes on to suggest that Crusaders from Europe in the 12th century also came in contact with this knowledge and began bringing it back when they returned to their scientifically and technologically backward homes.

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

I checked out some of those volumes from the Frankfurt Museum catalogue, and for sure there is some thought-provoking material. Professor Sezgin makes the case that, as Muslim Arabs conquered cities that had been centres of learning in the Roman and Byzantine world, Damascus, Emessa, Aleppo, Antioch and Alexandria, they recognised the importance of the knowledge contained there, and took care to absorb it into the new world they were creating. The 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mamun receives special mention for his encouragement and fostering of scholarship and research, particularly in the field of geography and map-making. He had astronomical observatories built in Baghdad and later Damascus. The 9th century Persian scholar Musa al-Khwarizmi is credited with bringing algebra (the word is derived from Arabic) and the decimal place-value number system to the West when his works were translated into Latin. The Latinised version of his name is the source of our word ‘algorithm’ and this Muslim gentleman is sometimes referred to as the father of computer science. Another Persian scholar al-Biruni in the 11th century made important contributions in many fields including mathematics and astronomy where he analysed and developed the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these Islamic scholars to the blossoming of scientific knowledge in Western Europe was recognised by some at the time. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the 14th century when the Crusades were relatively fresh in memory, and ‘Christians’ were in the process of ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula. In his ‘Prologue’ to the Tales, Chaucer describes his physician thus:

Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.’

Of the poor scholar, subject of the Miller’s Tale, we are told, ‘His Almagest and other books great and small, his astrolabe, which he used in his art, and his counting-stones for calculating, all lay neatly by themselves on shelves at the head of his bed.’

Rhazes, in fact, is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian Muslim physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

Avicen is Ibn Sina, 11th century Persian Muslim scholar, especially known for his writings on philosophy and medicine.

Averrhoes is Ibn Rushd a 12th century Andalusian Muslim polymath, master of philosophy, Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence, psychology, politics, music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.

Almagest refers to Ptolemy’s work on astronomy that came to Europe from Greek via Arabic, and the name used here is Arabic[1].

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

So clearly Chaucer was well aware of the contribution these Muslim scholars had made to European scientific knowledge. One volume of Professor Sezgin’s Frankfurt catalogue deals with the ‘Reception and Assimilation of Islamic Science in the West’. He refers to the research of a 19th century French Arabist scholar, Ernest Renan, who postulated that, because Arabic was the language of educated Muslims, Christians and Jews in ‘Spain’ in the Middle Ages, all had access to the learning of the Islamic Golden Age. Jews in particular, for example the 12th century philosopher Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun) carried this knowledge into Western Europe. Sezgin also refers to the work of a 20th century German scholar, Heinrich Schipperges who identified an Arab physician Constantinus Africanus. This gentleman, in the 10th century, converted to Christianity and became a monk in Salermo, Italy, bringing with him dozens of Arabic medical books which were subsequently translated into Latin. Medical texts written by those Arab scholars mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century.

Possibly Professor Sezgin’s most interesting suggestion is that one of the major reasons for the sudden emergence of Spain and Portugal as leaders in the European ocean-going race and exploration of the New World was their fortuitous inheritance of the astronomical, geographical and mathematical knowledge of the Muslim scientists as they ‘reconquered’ the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. It has also been suggested that the inquisitorial clearing out of Muslims and Jews that ended in Castille in 1614 had a part to play in the fall from prominence of those two early starters in European imperialism.

16th century European image - 'A Moor of Arabia'

16th century European image – ‘A Moor of Arabia’

Wikipedia’s entry on Islamic architecture lists twenty-four prominent buildings from the ‘Moorish’ period still to be seen in present-day Spain, among them the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the Alcazar of Seville. The use of that word ‘Moorish’ is one I never had cause to question before, but there does seem to be some confusion in its origins. As far as I can tell, it is a rendering into English of the Latin word ‘Mauri’, referring to the inhabitants of North Africa and deriving from the Greek word meaning ‘black’. Once the word arrived in English (and other European languages) it appears to have been used pretty indiscriminately to refer to black Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who was non-Aryan and non-Christian. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to deduce that referring to the Arab-Muslim culture that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for the best part of 700 years as ‘Moorish’ was/is a trifle perverse and demeaning. Why would anyone want to do that? And why would you not want to credit the sources of your new scientific discoveries? And then there is a third question that Professor Sezgin raises: If the Muslims were so advanced in the history of science, why are they so far behind now?

Let’s take the last question first, since it clearly has a bearing on the first two. What happened to this Islamic civilisation that had been supposedly so advanced? The first suggestion that Sezgin offers is the Crusader wars that lasted for nearly two hundred years beginning at the end of the 11th century. Although both sides had losses and victories, in the end it was the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries, in terms of the economic damage they inflicted on Muslim society, the negative impact the wars had on the development of science and technology in the East, and the fact that the flow of knowledge was essentially one-way, from East to West. Allied to this was the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, whose conquests extended through Persia, Anatolia and as far as Eastern Europe with the destruction of many centres of culture and learning, following so soon after the deleterious effects of the Crusades.

While it is true that the Ottomans picked up the baton of Islamic culture, forging a powerful empire from the 14th century, Sezgin suggests that they were always fighting a losing battle. Islam’s loss of the Iberian Peninsula and the takeover of scientific and technological know-how by the Spanish and Portuguese meant that those two countries were in a position to round Africa into the Indian Ocean and cross the Atlantic to the American continent. The result was that the centre of geo-political power shifted and Western Europe gained advantages which the Ottomans could never overcome, despite occasional forays in that direction.

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Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

That this shift in the balance of power began with the Portuguese and their gaining control of the Indian Ocean was no accident, according to Professor Sezgin. He notes that Portugal had been under Arab rule for nearly 400 years. Western sources generally claim that Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. Sezgin points out, however, that Phoenician sailors had very likely achieved the same feat in the 6th century BCE, and that there was a trade route between Morocco and China in Islamic times. For their navigational, shipbuilding and sea-faring skills, the professor suggests, the Portuguese were indebted to the earlier work of their Arab-Islamic rulers. These skills and knowledge subsequently found their way to the rest of Europe which gradually rose to prominence and eventual superiority over the Muslim World.

Why, however, the West is generally so reluctant to give credit for the true sources of their ‘renaissance’ is another question. In fact, it is not so much that the truth is not known. As mentioned above, Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly aware of the importance of Islamic scholars in bringing their knowledge and that of the ‘Ancients’ to the West – and assuredly this awareness was not his alone. The problem seems to be more that general histories dealing with the Renaissance in Europe and the advancement of science and technology tend to gloss over the key importance of Islamic sources, and make a direct connection with Ancient classical scholars, insisting often that the rediscovery took place in Italy.

Sezgin tactfully refrains from seeking explanations, merely noting that it happened. In the interests of natural justice, we may wish to go further. Possibly the reason for our cultural amnesia lies in the centuries of conflict between Western ‘Christendom’ and the ‘East’ – including the Orthodox Byzantines. The self-evident superiority of those eastern cultures in wealth, civilization, arts and sciences created envy and a need to conquer and belittle their achievements. When the West finally began to assert military and technological dominance, it suited their new self-image to erase that inconvenient and embarrassing period from their collective memory. It wouldn’t be the only instance in history where such a deliberate ‘forgetting’ had been perpetrated.

____________________________________

[1] With acknowledgements to: http://sheikhynotes.blogspot.com.tr/ and http://muslimmuseum.org.uk/chaucers-canterbury-tales/

 

The Magic of Forty-two – Konya and Keyrings, Carpets, Christmas and Yellow Canaries

I worked at a boarding school in New Zealand years ago, and one of my more cynical teaching colleagues told me, one day, when I was complaining about the difficulty of gaining access to some room, I forget exactly where . . .  ‘Locks are to keep the teachers out,’ he said. It’s a variation on the theme: ‘Keys are for honest people’.
Well, I guess, at least by that definition, I am an honest person, because I always seem to have bunches of them. The drawers in my desk are full of keys whose purpose I have long since forgotten but am afraid to throw out because I am sure that, a week after I do, I will remember what crucial lock they would have opened.
These days I try to be more systematic, and as an aid to memory, I am attracted to gizmos that will allow me, at a glance, to identify the purpose of a particular bunch of keys. One of the things I love about the Turkish language is that it has a word for these things. ‘Anahtar’is Turkish for ‘key’ and ‘anahtarlık’ is one of those decorative thingos to which you attach a bunch of keys, allowing you to immediately understand that they are yours, and that they open the doors at your workplace, or home, the car, or whatever. ‘Keyring’ doesn’t really do justice to the concept, does it?
Incidentally, the Turkish language is full of these marvellous words, which you don’t really appreciate the lack of until you return to English and find that you just can’t say what you wanted to say any more. ‘Kaçıncı?’ is another one. It means ‘How manyth?’ As in ‘JFK, ABD’nin kaçıncı cumhurbaşkanıydı?’ ‘JFK was the how manyth president of the USA?’In case you were wondering, he was the 35th, which for some reason, Americans seem to find important. A residual hankering after dynastic imperial grandeur perhaps.
As usual, I am digressing. What I wanted to tell you was that, as a result of moving to rental accommodation in consequence of our house being in line for demolition for the purposes of urban renewal, I acquired another bunch of keys. Scanning the display of key whatsits in our local locksmith’s, I was attracted to a bronze doodah in the shape of the numeral ‘42’. What could I do? I had to buy it – and of course I intend to tell you why.
Pretty much everyone knows that a cult developed around the number 42 after it featured in a memorable episode in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Adams, along with Spike Milligan, was, of course, one of the two great geniuses of the 20th century. In this particular episode, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built ‘Deep Thought’, the second greatest computer in the universe of time and space. They then tasked it with producing the ultimate ANSWER, to Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, it was a tricky question, requiring a good deal of deep thought, but the mega-computer finally came up with the answer (after 7.5 million years of calculation) which was . . . forty-two.
Another thing I love about living in Turkey is that my shoe size, which for the previous 30 years I had thought was 8, in fact turned out to be 42 – a much more emotionally satisfying number, at least for a male of the species. ‘42 also happens to be the year in the 19th century when two ships, the ‘Jane Gifford’ and the ‘Duchess of Argyle’, arrived under sail in the embryonic British colony of Auckland, New Zealand, disgorging immigrants from the old country, among whom were George and Eliza Scott, my paternal great-great-great grandparents.
All very interesting, you say, but what about that key doohickey? What do Turks care about your shoe size, ancestry, even Douglas Adams, great as he was? And you are absolutely right – they don’t give a dingo’s kidney. Something that is very important to them, however, is the fact that their country is divided into 81 administrative districts, known as ‘İl’. For a long time the list was alphabetical, beginning with Adana as number 1 and progressing to Zonguldak at number 67. Sad to say, the best-devised human systems are prone to decay, and there are now a further fourteen ils, no’s 68 to 81, upsetting the satisfying logic of the original list.
An important aspect of this system is that the number plates of cars in Turkey all begin with the digits of the il in which they were registered. Residents of other cities can immediately recognize and resent a driver from Istanbul by his or her distinctive ‘34’ number plate. Another beauty of the system is that it allows Istanbul drivers to immediately identify an out-of-towner and add an extra personal touch to their abuse of his (or her) driving incompetence. 
But getting back to my key whatchamacallit, ‘42’ is in fact the il number of Konya, an Anatolian city located exactly where it should be, right there between 41 Kocaeli and 43 Kütahya. Which reminds be of another episode from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide’ featuring an extra-terrestrial being known as Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged – but I refuse to be diverted!
One of the reasons it is difficult for those of us from the ‘New World’ to understand what goes on in the ‘Old’ is that it is just so damn old! Konya itself is believed to have been inhabited since at least 3000 BCE, although excavations at a nearby site known as Catal Höyük have revealed a Neolithic proto-city dating back to 7,500 BCE. Konya (or Iconium) was incorporated into the Hittite Empire around 1500 BCE, and subsequently taken over successively by Phrygians, Cimmerians and Persians before Alexander the Great came hurtling through on his mission of world domination in 333 BCE. Kings of Pergamum ruled Iconium during the Hellenistic period until it passed into the hands of the Roman Empire in 133 BCE. It gets a mention in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 14, where Paul and Barnabas are said to have stirred up some trouble among the locals with their preaching. A certain Tertius of Iconium was, they say, the original scribe who recorded Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for posterity. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the city came under repeated attack by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th – 9th centuries and was razed on more than one occasion.
Seljuk Turks began seizing control of Anatolia after defeating the Byzantine Graeco-Roman army at Manzikert in 1071 CE. The resulting Seljuk Empire or Sultanate ruled much of Anatolia as far as the Mediterranean Sea and almost to the Aegean. Around 1100 CE the Sultan Kılıçarslan established his capital at Konya. Defeating him and his Islamic Empire was one of the main objects of the First Crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1096 – although, perhaps ironically, it was the Mongols under Genghis Khan who finally put an end to the Seljuks.
One of Konya’s contributions to Western civilization was a particularly fine type of hand-woven carpet, of which the 13th century explorer Marco Polo is reputed to have said they were the most beautiful in the world. Certainly they were much sought after by the wealthiest European families, and featured in the art of several painters, most notably Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
Konya is also the place where the iconic Turkish folk philosopher, Nasrettin Hodja breathed his last, and where Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current government, his first. These days, however, the city is probably most renowned as the last resting place of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, founder of the Mevlana sect of Islam. Rumi, as he is known in the West, was a 13th century Sufi mystic whose followers are sometimes called Whirling Dervishes, and who was, according to Wikipedia, ‘the most popular poet in America in 2007’. As everywhere in Turkey, when you visit Konya, there are special mealsthat should be eaten: okra soup and etli ekmek, for example – the latter a kind of elongated pizza featuring the meat of local lamb.
Well, enough of Konya. Though you might wonder whether it acquired the number 42 purely because of its place in an alphabetical sequence, or if there were mystical mathematical forces at work. For sure there’s something going on with that ‘42’ business. Experts in number theory tell me that it is, in fact, a primary pseudo-perfect number, which may be significant, given that such numbers apparently satisfy the Egyptian fraction equation, whatever that may be. We in New Zealand remember 1642 as the year a Dutch mariner by the name of Abel Janszoon Tasman got himself lost in the South Pacific Ocean and stumbled upon our South Island in the false impression that it was part of South America. Apparently the local Maoris killed and ate a few of his sailors, which perhaps deterred his countrymen from returning – that and the fact that they would have been unlikely to find it by following his directions.
A century earlier, in 1542, our Scottish ancestors crowned a new queen, Mary I, who, I gather, was only six days old at the time, which may have been a bad move in view of how things subsequently turned out for Bonnie Scotland. 1742 was the birth year of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, sometimes referred to as ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’. In spite (or possibly because) of his opposition to the abolition of slavery, Dundas gained some popularity in the land of his birth, helping to establish the New Town of Edinburgh and commemorated by a 46 metre neo-classical column in the main square. According to his Wikipedia entry, Dundas was the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money – though it seems he was acquitted, whether from innocence, good luck or a good lawyer is not made clear.
The original Tweety Bird, 1942
And what of more recent times? Well, the following have nothing to do with Scotland, Konya or Douglas Adams, but I can tell you, for instance, that, in 1942, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Trinidadwas severely damaged by a salvo of its own torpedoes and soon after scuttled by her own crew. 1942 was also the year when Bing Crosby recorded ‘White Christmas’, that schmaltzy Irving Berlin song said to be the biggest-selling single of all time. ‘Der Bingo’, as he is referred to in the Andrews Sisters’ song ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, nudged out the Pope and the favourite baseball player of the day in 1948 to top the poll for ‘most admired man alive’ – one assumes the poll was conducted in the USA. His own family seem to have been less admiring – eldest son Gary having published a book in which he portrayed his father as ‘cruel, cold, remote and both physically and psychologically abusive.’ The Wikipedia entry reports that two of Bingo’s other sons committed suicide.
To end on a happier note, 1942 saw the first appearance of Tweety Pie, the yellow canary bird featured in Warner Bros Looney Toons cartoons. Tweety (or Sweety), another icon of US culture, is indelibly etched in the childhood memories of generations of kids with his most famous line, ‘I tawt I taw a puddy tat!’

So there you have it . . . Do numbers have a special significance or life of their own? Undoubtedly many people believe they do. Most of us, if pressed, will admit to having a number we consider to be personally ‘lucky’. Results of a poll published the other day in The Guardian announced that seven is the world’s favourite number. Well, seven is a factor of 42, but I’m sticking with the larger multiple. It seems to me to encapsulate much of the true meaning of life – if we only knew what the question was!

Protecting Turkey’s Byzantine Heritage

Last weekend we took a ride on the new Marmaray Metro. We dove deep underground near the market at Kadıköy (ancient Chalcedon), boarded a train and rode one stop to Ayrılık Çeşme at ground level where we transferred to another line, plunging immediately into the earth again. Passing under Üsküdar (formerly Scutari of Florence Nightingale fame) we entered the tube that would take us, in a brief six minutes, below the waters of the Bosporus to Sirkeci, once terminal of the legendary ‘Orient Express’. Our destination, however, was one stop further, Yenikapı (Newgate), in days gone by, site of Roman Constantinople’s main harbour of Theodosius Caesarius.
Sad to say, not much of this history is readily detectable by the casual observer today. There are Eastern Orthodox (and Armenian) churches in Kadıköy, but none survive from the days when Roman bishops held their Ecumenical Council there in 451 CE to codify tenets of the new state religion, Christianity. There is, I understand, a small museum dedicated to that legendary Imperial British Lady of the Lamp, but it is tucked away in one corner of a vast military barracks, and requires official permission to visit. There is certainly a cavernous excavation next to the modern station at Yenikapı where archeologists unearthed thirty-five sunken Roman galleys and other treasures, delaying completion of the Metro line by two or three years – and a purpose-built museum to house and display these relics and artifacts, so all is not hopelessly lost.
The Yenikapı Metro station is an impressive modern structure that will eventually be a major transport hub for Turkey’s largest city, providing connections to four rail lines as well as access to passenger and vehicular ferries crossing the Sea of Marmara and the mouth of the Bosporus to Asian Istanbul and other cities in Anatolia. The station’s interior is tiled with images representing the layers of history uncovered during excavations, dating back to 6,500 BCE.
Exiting the station, we crossed the street and set off towards Divan Yolu, once the Mese, the main shopping thoroughfare of Roman Constantinopolis. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind so we took a zigzag course through back streets to see what turned up. What we chanced upon was a brick edifice of antique design, sporting a minaret but clearly owing its architecture to an earlier period of history. It was built on a kind of raised terrace and accessible by a broad stairway. Beneath the stairs however, was an intriguing entrance that we decided to explore first. Inside was a very large circular space filled with small shops selling leather goods, jackets, bags and such. Of more interest, to me at least, were columns of obvious antiquity, topped by carved capitals.
Bodrum Mosque – Myrelaion Church
To cut a long story short, we visited the so-called Bodrum Mosque on the terrace above and questioned one or two locals, without learning much about the history of our discovery. A little research was necessary and I can now share with you the following.
Jan Kostenec, writing in the Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World identifies the circular building as a rotunda, built in the 5th century and reputedly the second largest in the Roman/Byzantine world after the Pantheon in Rome. Experts apparently argue about its original function. Possibly it was part of a palace for the royal princess Arcadia; or perhaps a market place with a secondary function as a place of execution, similar to the practice in present day Saudi Arabia. Much later the rotunda was converted to a cistern and used as the foundation for a palace built in the 9th century. Subsequently it was reinvented again as a nunnery when its owner Romanos Lekapenos became emperor in 920 BCE. A small church known as Myrelaionattached to the convent survives as the present day Bodrum Mosque whose architecture had first caught our attention. It is said to contain the remains of six members of the Lekapenos dynasty.
Well, it is undoubtedly a bathetic end for a 1,500 year-old Roman rotunda to find itself functioning as a not-very-up-market bazaar for bargain-hunting tourists. And very likely there are Eastern Orthodox Greeks, archeologists and historians of the ancient world who would be disappointed to see a 1,200 year-old Byzantine church serving as a place for Islamic worship. Especially since very few of the congregation would have any awareness of, or interest in the history of the building in which they pray. The Turkish Government and its citizens come in for a good deal of criticism for their careless neglect and even destruction of their archeological inheritance. I read a report published by the TASK Foundation (for the Protection of History, Archeology, Arts and Culture) in 2001 entitled ‘Archeological Destruction in Turkey’. The report was prepared by a group labeled collectively the TAY Project and aimed to document all the archeological settlements in Anatolia and Thrace – a monumental task but indisputably worthy.
The report lists 313 sites all over Turkey representing periods from Paleolithic to Medieval Roman/Byzantine and explains why and how they are under threat. The most common reasons given are uncontrolled housing development and road building, which are said to account for fifty percent of the destruction. Among other causes, one is ‘unconscious usage’, an example of which is the tilling of the old defensive ditch surrounding the walls of ancient Constantinople for market gardens.
Well, those TASK people are right, of course. The land area of modern Turkey has been home to more human civilisations and prehistoric settlements than probably anywhere else on the face of the earth. It is a paradise for archeologists and a priceless treasure house of antiquities holding keys to unlock many mysteries of humanity’s march to post-modernity. Still, the implication that destruction only began after the Ottoman conquest, and worsened under the Turkish Republic is maybe a little unfair.
Statue of the Tetrarchs –
note the prosthetic foot
Much of Imperial Constantinople was, in fact, already in ruins by the time Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror led his troops into the city in 1453. Our rotunda, for example, is believed to have been in a ruined state by the 8th century, before being rebuilt in its new palatial identity. The population of Constantinople had declined from an estimated one million to around fifty thousand by the mid-15th century and nothing remained of the once great Roman/Byzantine Empire beyond the mighty walls. Much of the destruction had in fact been wreaked by fellow Christians of the Fourth Crusade who sacked and pillaged the city in 1204 CE. An example of this is a porphyry sculpture known as the Tetrarchs, currently located in the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The statue depicts four Roman emperors who ruled concurrently from 293 to 313 CE and originally adorned the Philadelphion, one of the main squares of Roman Constantinople. Archeologists working around our Bodrum Mosque in the 1960s unearthed part of the missing foot of the fourth emperor. You can see it in the Istanbul Archeology Museum – though the statue in Venice is probably a tad more impressive.
It should be remembered that by the time of the Fourth Crusade, Constantine’s capital was already more than eight hundred years old, at least four centuries older than Manhattan, New York, which itself has lost many of its heritage buildings, and is looking distinctly seedy in parts. It is only quite recently that we have started to become aware of the level of civilisation attained by Native Americans before they were largely wiped out after the arrival of Europeans.
Quite naturally the victorious Ottomans wanted to build symbols of their own power in their new capital, as we can see from the imperial mosques and other monumental structures dotted around older parts of the city. At the same time, however, those early sultans encouraged the return of Christian former citizens as well as the immigration of others such as Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Many churches continued to perform their original purpose. Undoubtedly some were converted to mosques, but it could be argued that this conversion preserved architecture and interior decoration that might otherwise have been destroyed. The marvellous mosaics and frescoes to be seen in St Sophia and Chorachurches (now museums) were not removed, but plastered over out of Islamic sensitivity to idolatry, and have been subsequently revealed by archeologists in all their glory. These beautiful works of Greco-Roman art date, however, from the 10th century or later, older ones having been removed by Orthodox Christian authorities themselves during the Iconoclastic period brought on by spiritual competition from the dynamic new Muslim religion.
Certainly much of the character of old Constantinople/Istanbul has been lost during the rapid urban development of the Republican period. Again, however, mitigating arguments can be made. At least Turkey’s industrial revolution with its accompanying rural to urban migration and rapid population growth has taken place in an age more inclined to the preservation of antiquities. How much remains of medieval London or Paris, for example? Further, the Republic’s new secular leaders ordered at least those two major Byzantine churches to be converted from mosques to museums, not ideal perhaps from an Orthodox Christian viewpoint, but arguably less offensive.
At the same time, however, as New Yorkers like Pete Hamill[1]will sadly tell you, no city can be preserved in a nostalgic time warp. The population of Istanbul has exploded from two million in 1970 to something like fifteen million today, with all that implies in terms of building construction, demands for water, power and telecommunications, roads, bridges, public transport, industrial development, retail outlets, sports facilities and entertainment centres. Town-planning authorities at national and local government level are caught in a constant tug-of-war between the demands of modern city-dwellers and the wishes of archeologists. 
Istanbul stands on possibly the world’s largest unexcavated archeological site. Clearly, however great your interest in history, you will find it hard to justify demolishing a large chunk of the modern city to gain access to what lies below. Construction of the Marmaray Metro may have buried irretrievably places of archeological importance – but without it much would have remained inaccessible and undiscovered.


[1] American journalist and writer of many books including ‘Downtown – My Manhattan’