Tales of Ottoman women – and a little revisionist history

Üsküdar on the Anatolian shore of the Bosporus is one of my favourite districts in Istanbul. I lived there for three or four years in a small apartment I bought before the current property boom began. For the money I paid I would have been lucky to buy a car parking space in downtown Auckland.

salacak view

Looking past the Maiden’s Tower to Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet.

These days Üsküdar is rapidly moving up-market. Its ferry terminals despatch passengers to Beşiktaş, Eminönü and other parts of the city. It is a major station on the Marmara Metro line that dives through a tunnel under the Bosporus, linking “the two continents of Europe and Asia”, if you’re one who believes that Ancient Roman stuff – and a newer line heading out through this huge city’s Anatolian urban sprawl. It has possibly Istanbul’s most magnificent views – from here you can stroll along the Bosporus foreshore and watch the sun setting behind the domes and minarets of the city that served as capital of three major world empires.

The Üsküdar Municipal Council is a go-ahead team providing services to citizens rich and poor, while restoring its rich heritage of Ottoman buildings, constructing major new facilities such as sports and cultural centres, developing parks and open recreational spaces, and encouraging commercial projects.

Florence nightingale2

A little imperialist propaganda. Did she actually get to the battlefields?

Last week I spent a day strolling around my old haunts, bringing myself up-to-date on what’s going on in this fascinating district. In my primary school days we were told about the brave English nurse, Florence Nightingale, who cared for her empire’s soldiers wounded in the Crimean War back in the 1850s. We were never told why those imperial troops were over there fighting the Russians in Crimea. Much like the heroic horsemen of the Light Brigade, ours was not to reason why. Nurse Nightingale’s hospital was in Scutari – and after coming to Turkey I learned that was what Brits insisted on calling Ottoman Üsküdar.

It was a stubborn insistence, obstinately ignoring the fact that Üsküdar, and Istanbul itself, had been in Ottoman hands for 500 years. As you cross the Bosporus on your ferry, one of the many mosques you see was commissioned by Rum Mehmet Pasha, grand vizier of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1469 – four centuries before Ms Nightingale appeared on the scene.

According to official figures, there are 186 mosques in Üsküdar, a tribute to the district’s importance in the religious life of Istanbul’s Muslim community. I have a vivid memory of the first night I spent in my new apartment, woken at an unholy (in my opinion) hour before sunrise on a summer morning by a mind-numbing cacophony of sound from 186 muezzins competing, with the aid of electronic amplification via speakers attached to the tops of their minarets, for the attendance of the prayerful.

Well, it is not my intention to enter into a discussion about the religious ramifications of modern electronics. I am continually learning about the role Üsküdar has played in the life of local Muslims, and I find the subject endlessly enthralling. The final station on the Marmaray Metro line after Üsküdar is called “Ayrılıkceşmesi” – “The Fountain of Departure”. It was here the faithful gathered in bygone days before embarking on the long overland journey to the Holy City of Mecca, a pilgrimage all good Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime.


Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb

High on the slopes between Üsküdar and the neighbouring district of Kadıköy lies the extensive cemetery of Karacaahmet. It is a vast necropolis, these days intersected by busy urban roads, but still providing an important oasis of oxygen-emitting trees for those yet alive in this vast urban conglomeration.

As I passed one entrance of the cemetery I noticed a conspicuous sign calling attention to the Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb. In case you don’t know, a “cemevi” is a place of worship for followers of the Alevi sect. Alevis are an intriguing demographic in Turkey, making up between 10 and 20% of its people. That statistic in itself is thought-provoking, given Turkey’s 80 million population. Why such inaccuracy?

Modern Turkey is a nation of paradoxes, one of which is that, while its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established a secular republic, citizens are still required to state their religion and have it recorded on their official ID document. They don’t have to identify as Sunni Muslim or Alevi but Sunni is what most Turks are, at least in their cultural upbringing. Alevis, on the other hand, insofar as you can pin down their heterodox beliefs, adhere to the Shia branch of Islam – and have traditionally had an uneasy relationship with the Sunni majority. For that reason, I was surprised to see this cemevi so publicly announcing its presence. I had heard of its existence but never previously been able to locate it. I’m happy to see that, in spite of the antipathy many Alevi people seem to feel for the AK Party government, they are at least now able to identify themselves openly – as may not have been the case in the past.


Janissaries – once a feared fighting force. Later more interested in political conservatism.

Then there was the tomb – of someone called Karaca Ahmet, and I just had to check him out. Well, it seems he was a famous Muslim mystic who lived back in the 13-14th centuries. He belonged to the Bektashi sect and was born in Khorasan, way to the east of modern Turkey, but came to Anatolia to bring the good news of Islam to the benighted Christians of the Byzantine Empire. At some later date, the Bektashis espoused Shia Islam and became influential in the military Janissary corps. After overthrowing a sultan or two, the Janissaries were forcibly disbanded by Mahmut II in the early years of the 19th century, and the Bektashis, along with all the mystical sects, were outlawed at the foundation of the republic in 1923. Subsequently it seems they set up shop in Albania, where they continue to flourish.

Strange, strange and strange! Most Alevis I know profess to love Atatürk, who banned the Bektashi sect; and distrust the current AK Party government, who seem to have made their lives more comfortable and secure. The Sunni majority, meanwhile, has a traditional suspicion of their Alevi neighbours, yet they are happy to be buried in the cemetery of Karacaahmet, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Istanbul, and the largest in Turkey. At this stage I am still seeking answers.

Another fascinating feature of Üsküdar is that the largest and best known of its 186 mosques were built for, or commissioned by women. The first you come across as you disembark from the ferry is one dedicated to Mihrimah, beloved daughter of Süleiman the Magnificent, built between 1546 and 1548 by the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan. But I’ve written about Mihrimah before.

Yeni Valide

Interior of Yeni Valide Mosque

Across the road is another fine example of imperial Ottoman architecture, the mosque erected between 1708 to 1711 for Rabia Gülnüş Emetullah, wife of Sultan Mehmet IV and mother of Ahmet III. This good lady had a roller coaster life, born a Christian on the island of Crete, captured and taken as a slave, educated as a Muslim in the royal palace, becoming favourite of the Sultan Mehmet, exiled for a spell when her husband was overthrown, and finally returning to the harem after her two sons, first Mustafa II and then Ahmet III restored her to grace. Her mosque is said to count as its most prized possession, a coat once worn by the Prophet Muhammed himself.

Ahmet III is one of those Ottoman sultans who seem to have suffered from a bad press. He is most known for presiding over “The Tulip Age” and being ousted by a popular revolt of citizens infuriated by the opulent lifestyle of the sultan and his courtiers. I’m of the opinion that he can’t be so lightly written off. Certainly, the Ottoman Empire was on the decline by the time he ascended the throne in 1703. Ahmet, however, made serious efforts to stem the ebbing tide, looking westwards for innovations, belatedly introducing the printing press, fostering literature and the arts and making early attempts at industrial development. He was the last Sultan to achieve military success against the expanding Russian Empire.

The Ottoman court had never been known for parsimoniousness. Ahmet’s lavish expenditures were nothing new. His attempts at modernisation, on the other hand, were – arousing the ire of the Janissaries, who had become a powerful force of reaction. Ahmet was overthrown by a rebellion, possibly with foreign assistance. Its ringleader was portrayed as a romantic figure in France at the time – and Ottoman decline accelerated.


Life and times of Kösem Sultan – updated for the 21st century

Further up the hill behind the Üsküdar market place, in a district less frequented by outsiders, are two older mosques, also commemorating the lives of influential women. Çinilli Mosque is known for its beautiful ceramic tiles, an important art form in a culture that forbade religious icons and the depiction of the human form. That name also obscures the fact that this mosque was commissioned by Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan, another woman of Christian origin who came to the capital as a slave and rose to exert unprecedented influence over the empire’s affairs.

Kösem Sultan was the leading figure in a recent season of Muhteşem Yüzyıl (“The Magnificent Century”), a Turkish series dramatizing goings-on in the Ottoman court at the peak of the empire’s power. She was favourite, and wife of Sultan Ahmet I, who lent his name to Istanbul’s best-known tourist district, and had the famous “Blue Mosque” built. Widowed at the age of 28 after 14 years of marriage, Kösem directed her talents to palace politics at a chaotic time in the empire’s history. Coups and assassinations kept the throne room functioning like a conveyor belt. Through all the oustings and regicides, Kösem maintained her influence, seeing two of her sons ascend the throne, serving as regent for the elder, Murad IV, until he came of age; and briefly for her grandson, Mehmed IV, 7 years old when elevated to the sultanate. Unfortunately for her, Mehmed’s mother had ambitions of her own, and had Kösem strangled in her bedroom at the age of 61.

Atik Valide

The mosque of Nurbanu Valide Sultan, 1583

Nearby is an older mosque, dating back to a more stable time in Ottoman history, when the tradition of fratricide tended to simplify the problem of royal succession. Atik Valide is actually a külliye, a large complex including a hospital, school, soup kitchen, caravanserai and public bathhouse. It was one of the last major works of the great architect Sinan, commissioned by Nurbanu Valide Sultan, the first woman to exercise real power behind the Ottoman throne. Her origins are uncertain, but like those others she came from beyond the borders of the empire. Some suggest she was the illegitimate daughter of a brother of the Doge of Venice. Like those others she was educated in the palace harem and became the wife of Sultan Selim II. Selim, who came to the throne in 1566 on the death of his father, the Magnificent Suleiman, was weak, and relied on the advice of others, especially his wife. His reign, however, lasted only 8 years before he died, ending Nurbanu’s power. Apparently, she turned her hand to funding charitable projects, including the Atik Valide complex, completed just before she died in 1583.

Armenian church

Surp Garabed Armenian church

Despite its important role in Ottoman Muslim history, certain districts in Üsküdar were also home to Christian and Jewish communities. At the top of the hill in Bağlarbaşı, three cemeteries exist side by side, home respectively to the mortal remains of Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Armenian citizens. Not far from Kösem’s mosque is a large Armenian church, Surp Garabed. First built in 1593, it was renovated several times over the centuries, finally being rebuilt in 1888 after the earlier building had been destroyed in a fire. Interestingly that rebuild took place during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, reviled in the west as “The Red Sultan” for allegedly massacring large numbers of innocent Armenians. That surely begs a question or two.

As I wandered back down the hill towards the coast I passed an enormous construction site, the last stage of a mega-project initiated by the Üsküdar Municipal Council. Already completed are new premises for the council itself, a large events hall for hosting weddings and the like, and an impressive indoor sports complex. The huge excavation next door will apparently be filled by a modern shopping mall. Does Istanbul need another shopping mall? Evidently some think so.

Council complex

Üsküdar Council’s mega-development

Emerging on to the level streets of the old commercial district I came upon a smaller monument easily missed: a marble column, a large stone ball, and a brass plate with a barely legible inscription informing passers-by that this was one of the projectiles launched against the walls of Byzantine Constantinople by its Ottoman conquerors back in 1453. That siege witnessed the first major use of cannons in warfare, brought about the end of the eastern Graeco-Roman empire, struck terror in the hearts of Western Europe, and arguably marked the transition from the Medieval to the Modern Age.

Cannon ball

Cannon ball that changed the course of history

Ending this little expedition on the Bosporus waterfront opposite the plush Çırağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, I was intrigued by a row of restored warehouses dating back to the reign of Selim III at the beginning of the 19th century. Taken over by the state alcohol and tobacco monopoly Tekel in the early years of the republic, these stone buildings currently house the State Opera, Ballet and Theatre administration, as well as hosting performances previously located in the Atatürk Culture Centre in Taksim Square. The AKM has been the focus of court cases and protests accusing the government of destroying the secular republican legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Certainly, it is planned to demolish the unattractive 1960s venue – but recently announced plans indicate that its replacement will preserve some features of the original and will still bear the name of Turkey’s revered founding president.

Üsküdar is certainly worth a visit.


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.


“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!]


The world’s largest neo-Ottoman suspension bridge

Yesterday I took a trip to look at a bridge. Sometimes you need to get away from all the politics and violence in the world and just chill out. So I took a ferryboat ride on the Bosporus. The Bosporus is a narrow twisting stretch of water flowing though the middle of Istanbul, joining the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It’s 33 kilometres long, and the ferry ride, popular with tourists and day-tripping locals, takes ninety minutes from Eminönü in the old city to the fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı.


Rumeli Castle in April

It’s a delightful trip, taking you past centuries-old seaside mansions, royal palaces and two early Ottoman castles. The best season is spring, when the coastal slopes are clothed in purple erguvan blossom, known in English as the Judas tree. Cooler weather is also better, because you have a trek ahead – but some times you can’t be picky.

There’s a twenty-minute walk from the ferry wharf up a steepish road to the ruined castle that once guarded the northern entrance to the Bosporus strait. If you want a glimpse of the Back Sea, this is the place to come. The view and the fresh air make the climb worthwhile, and as everywhere in Turkey, there are cafes and restaurants catering for your refreshment needs, be it a cold beer or a gourmet meal. And now you can see the full stretch of the third Bosporus bridge, the main motive for my visit.


The third Bosporus bridge

It’s an impressive structure. Weather conditions out here are pretty extreme. Black Sea storms are legendary. Snow sweeps down from Russia in winter, and summers are pitilessly hot. Earthquakes too are an ever-present threat. The bridge was budgeted to cost $2.5 billion. Its towers rise to a height of 322 metres, and the span between them is 1,408 metres. Huge oil tankers and container vessels constantly ply up and down the Bosporus so the road crosses about 70 metres above the sea.

Like cafes and restaurants, however, political controversy is everywhere in Turkey. There was a time when pretty much every new construction was honoured with the name of the republic’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: bridges, airports, parks, culture centres, city squares, state forests, botanical gardens . . . Fair enough, I guess. There’s a strong case to support the belief that, had it not been for his vision, courage and determination, Turkey would not exist, at least in anything resembling its present form. Foreign visitors, however, rarely grasp this. To most of them it just looks like blind adulation coupled with a sad lack of imagination.

The present government has departed from this almost sacred tradition, adding fuel to the fire of critics convinced that the AK Party, in power since 2003, is steadily undoing the work of the republic’s secular founders and dragging the country inexorably back to a state of Islamic fundamentalism.


The Anatolian Castle

The new bridge across the Bosporus has been named for Yavuz Selim, the ninth Sultan to rule the Ottoman Empire, and the first to claim the title of Caliph, leader and protector of the world’s Muslims. There is a precedent. Admittedly the first bridge, opened in 1973, followed tradition and was officially called the Atatürk Bridge – though I have never heard anyone use that name. The second crossing, completed in 1988 during the term of Westernising prime minister Turgut Özal, is known to everyone as Fatih Sultan Mehmet, FSM for brevity’s sake, after the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople.

Commemorating Selim I, however, has aroused some anger, particularly among the country’s large Alevi community. Back then, in the early 16th century, there was growing rivalry between two expanding powers in the region, the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi’ite Safavid Persians. Depending on who’s telling the story, Qizilbash Alevis were either innocent victims, massacred en masse for their religious beliefs by an evil, vengeful sultan – or traitors to their legitimate ruler who were lending military support to a dangerous foreign power. I’m not getting into that argument. Whatever the truth of the matter, 500 years is a long time to hold a grudge. But that’s the way things often are in this part of the world. Finding peaceful solutions isn’t easy. Maybe the government could have chosen another sultan to immortalise – but Selim I is definitely one of the Ottoman greats.


Çamlıca Mosque

Still, if you’re looking for evidence that Turkey’s current leaders are harking back to their Ottoman past, you can find it. Another new suspension bridge was opened a month or so ago – this one to carry vehicles across the Gulf of Izmit, a major obstacle for holiday-makers heading to the Aegean or Mediterranean resorts. It’s been named “Osman Gazi”, after the founder of the 600-year Ottoman dynasty. Then there’s the park recently completed on the coast of the Marmara Sea on the Asian side of Istanbul. The 130 hectare reserve, developed on land reclaimed from the sea, provides much-needed sports and recreation facilities in a city not rich in such amenities. I haven’t heard anyone actually use the name, but officially it’s “Orhan Gazi City Park”, Orhan being son of that Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan. As if that wasn’t enough, in the wake of the recent failed military coup attempt, the government has renamed the 1973 Atatürk Bridge, “15 July Martyrs’ Bridge”, to commemorate the civilians who lost their lives facing down the tanks and guns of the insurgent soldiers.

Well, it seems to me if you are determined to criticize someone, you can always find cause. The construction industry is booming in Istanbul, with major public and private projects springing up everywhere you look. One huge recent achievement was the building of a tunnel beneath the Bosporus carrying an underground Metro line. Its name? Marmaray, a combination of Marmara (the Sea) and the Turkish word for “rail”. The country’s largest mosque is currently rising on the upper slopes of Çamlıca Hill on the Asian shore, assuredly a symbol of creeping Islamification, though it seems to go by the unpretentious name of “The Çamlıca Mosque”. Another bridge carries a Metro line across the Golden Horn. Official title? The “Golden Horn Metro Bridge “(Haliç Metro Köprüsü). Work is progressing on a third airport for the city, to be known, to the best of my knowledge as the “New Istanbul Airport”. Not very creative, but “Atatürk” was already taken. Undoubtedly the most ambitious of all these mega-projects is “Kanal Istanbul” – a 50-kilometre artificial waterway linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, allowing those tankers and other huge commercial and military vessels to bypass Istanbul’s metropolitan area.

Of course there are voices raised in protest at all these projects, mostly on environmental grounds, since their names are fairly unobjectionable. No doubt there are environmental costs – but, to give merely one example, nothing compared to the cost of a major oil spill if one of those tankers came to grief in the Bosporus. As for names, the power of the people generally prevails. I suspect most Istanbulites will go on referring to the first Bosporus bridge as “The First Bridge”, whatever their President says.

In spite of all this, Western news media, and a vocal minority of Turks, insist that the AK Party government is steadily dismantling the democratic, secular republic, and establishing in its place a neo-Ottoman dictatorship based on Islamic shariah law. Part of the problem, as I have argued before, is that the Western version of history has never fully come to grips with realities in this part of the world. A good deal of the language English-speakers use when talking about modern Turkey has its roots in the ancient civilisations of classical Greece and Rome, and studiously ignores the fact that Turkish, in one form or another, has been the dominant language here for more than seven centuries.

For example, the city of Istanbul is divided by the “Bosporus” strait – that name coming down to us from an ancient Greek myth about one of Zeus’s lovers who was apparently turned into a cow. Similarly, the “Golden Horn”, the estuary that was a major harbour in Byzantine and Ottoman times, is a direct translation of the Greek word. Neither bears any resemblance in form or meaning to the names used by Turks. The much cherished belief that the Bosporus forms the boundary between Asia and Europe owes its origin to the Roman name for its easternmost province, which certainly did not include China, India, or even Iran. The word “Asia” probably derives from the Hittite word “Assuwa”, their name for what the Greeks called “Anatolia”, and the Turks, “Anadolu”. English-speakers insist on referring to the “European” and “Asian” sides of Istanbul – which serves to perpetuate our stereotype of Turks as Eastern, and “other”. Visitors to the city are often surprised to find that parts of the “Asian” shore seem more Western than the “European” side.


The NOT-Genoese Yoros Castle at Anadolu Kavağı

As my ferry wound its way towards the Black Sea, it passed two castles on opposite shores. These were built by Ottoman sultans as they tightened their noose around the neck of the dying Byzantine Empire. The first, on the Anatolian (Asian) side, was the work of Sultan Bayezid I in preparation for his unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 1395. The other, Rumeli Castle on the European side, severed the city’s lifeline to the north, and contributed to its final conquest by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

My objective, however, was that third fortress, known in Turkish as Yoros Castle, with its view of the bridge. In English it is generally referred to as the “Genoese Castle”, another example of our Western determination to ignore reality and reconstruct history as we would like it to have been. The Genoese, active traders in the eastern Mediterranean in those days, did indeed occupy the castle for some years in the early 15th century. It had been built, and controlled for centuries before that, however, by the “Byzantines” – a rather confusing Christian empire who spoke Greek, but considered themselves Roman and certainly not Byzantine. The castle was seized by the Ottomans in the 14th century, and apart from that brief Genoese spell, it has been in Turkish hands ever since.

It’s a beautiful spot, though badly in need of some tender loving care. It struck me yesterday that the Turkish military, who control most of the surrounding area, would be performing a useful public service if they despatched a platoon of soldiers for a couple of hours each week to do a little tidying and landscaping of the castle and its grounds. And the company that runs the ferry service might consider assigning one of their newer vessels to the route, in the interests of international goodwill. I’ll probably never drive over the Yavuz Selim Bridge, but I’m happy to have seen what all the fuss was about.

America’s ‘Turkey’ Problem

Probably most of us living in benighted regions beyond the borders of the United States of America struggle to understand what makes that nation tick. We watch bemused the drawn-out hysteria of presidential elections; and world championship tournaments in sports that no one else plays. Occasionally we are granted an insight into the workings of the American mind that serves more to increase our puzzlement than dispel it – such as my recent discovery of what they mean when they speak of Black Friday.

To citizens of the USA, apparently, Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving, always held on a Thursday, for no particular reason that I could ascertain. That Friday has become enshrined, it seems, as a national day of shopping, kick-starting the consumer frenzy leading up to Christmas and New Year celebrations – thereby getting struggling retailers ‘into the black’. These days, of course, all have their origins in the Christian religion – whose messages of peace and other-worldliness sit somewhat uncomfortably alongside the feverish materialism that characterises the modern celebrations.

With humble penitence for our perverseness and disobedience

With humble penitence for our perverseness and disobedience

Anyway, to outsiders, eating a turkey seems to be the major focus of Thanksgiving Day festivities – but that’s not the problem. What is triggering debate is the encroachment of Black Friday shopping on the traditionally sacred day, established in the Constitution by President Lincoln in 1863 so that citizens could deliver Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And . . . with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.Behind the antiquated language we can perhaps discern admirable sentiments, although they were uttered in the midst of a catastrophic civil war.

America’s ‘Turkey’ problem, however, has more to do with the country than the bird. As First World nations clamour to join President Obama’s coalition of the sycophants, their news media have been criticising the government of Turkey for its perceived reluctance to engage wholeheartedly in his ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ against . . . whoever he thinks he is fighting in Iraq and Syria. But can you really blame them for showing a little hesitation? The US President has already admitted that his operation ‘is going to be a long-term campaign,’ and that would seem to be a reasonable expectation, given that its actual objectives are by no means clear.

George Bush the Father stormed into Iraq in 1991 and foxy Bill Clinton had another go in 1998. George the Son launched his Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002 – the name modified in 2010 by the Obama administration to Operation New Dawn. It’s hard to see much sunshine, though, amidst the smoke from all those billions of dollars of bombs and missiles unless your aim was to kill a lot of Muslims and drive more of them into the ranks of extremist anti-American fanaticism. The main result seems to have been the creation of a power vacuum in the region, in which so-called Islamist fundamentalists are vying for supremacy. I’d been curious about where this new ISIS outfit had come from. Apparently 500 or so senior al Qaeda operatives were busted out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in July last year – so I’m guessing now we don’t need to look much further than that.

Pretty damn close! Kurds in Turkey watch the action in Kobani

Pretty damn close! Kurds in Turkey watch the action in Kobani

Whoever those ISIS people are, it’s fairly evident that they are a symptom rather than a cause of the chaos in the region. The position adopted by the government of Turkey is that the United States and its allies need to consider the bigger picture. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote last week, in an article published in The Guardian newspaper, Beyond Kobani, effective action requires a clear strategy and endgame. Everyone has to be prepared to play their part, and nobody should be left to bear the consequences alone. The number of Syrians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have fled and found refuge in Turkey continues to rise, and is now approaching 2 million people. Over the past couple of weeks 200,000 Syrians have arrived from Kobani. This burden has been appreciated in words but not in deeds. The costs so far have reached $4bn, and Turkey cannot continue to act as if it were the United Nations. A collective responsibility to address Syria’s plight, including a no-fly zone, becomes imperative.’

Sad to say, such apparently reasonable words are not what the United States government wants to hear. Why? Possibly because admitting that Turkey has a valid point will require the USA’s leaders to confront issues that they would rather ignore. Most commentators on US politics these days seem to accept that government policy, both within and without the Homeland is largely shaped by lobby groups. Wall Street, I guess, is Number One – but the Israel lobby is up there with the big ones. A recent article in The Independent called it ‘one of the most potent advocacy groups in Washington DC. . . Fall foul of the Israel lobby, with its financial muscle and ability to put the word out, and, it is said, your political career may be doomed.’ The Greeks also wield some clout, though their focus is rather narrower, aiming mainly at discrediting Turkey in the eyes of Americans and the world. Both groups work together when it suits them, lending support to and seeking it from the Armenian diaspora, especially since the Turkish Government has raised its voice against Israeli expansionism in Palestinian territories.

A little bit of Turkish populist razzmatazz

A little bit of Turkish populist razzmatazz

I turned up an article the other day that I’d put aside a year or so ago. It was published in the English edition of Hürriyet, a Turkish daily not very sympathetic to the current government, and written by one Burak Bekdil. The occasion was the release of a blockbuster movie from the Turkish film industry glorifying the achievements of Sultan Mehmet II in conquering the Byzantine Imperial capital Constantinople. Well, I confess I tried to watch that film,’Fetih [Conquest] 1453’, but I wasn’t able to see it through to the end, so I’m not here to defend its claim to cinematic distinction. What interested me at the time, and strikes me more strongly now is the feeling I got that the writer was not merely reviewing a film – but actually had a personal axe to grind.

Mr Bekdil complained that Turkey is the only country in Europe that celebrates having conquered its largest city from another nation by the sword. He asserted that Sultan Mehmet was too keen on Shariah and wanted to conquer the Byzantines for religious reasons. He made snide references to Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus and the so-called Armenian genocide, and lambasted Turks for refusing to use the word Constantinople. He mocked the Turkish government for its criticisms of modern Israel, claiming that ‘their ancestors had travelled from the steppes of Asia to capture Constantinople while the Jews are natives of Jerusalem’.

I don’t know Mr Bekdil’s ethnicity. He has a Turkish name – but I doubt if any Turk would be so ignorant of his country’s history. The article would be laughable if it weren’t that those lobby groups disseminate the same nonsense, and many otherwise intelligent, educated people in the West seem to accept them as truth.

Asterix beating up Romans - Sad to say he lost in the end

Asterix beating up Romans – Sad to say he lost in the end

In fact Turks really don’t celebrate the conquest of 29 May 1453, and it is not a national holiday, unlike Thanksgiving in the USA. 4 July may commemorate the fledgling republic’s victory over the British Empire – but certainly not much effort was made to restore the land to its native inhabitants. Americans were happy to accept the territorial benefits resulting from British imperial wrongs perpetrated against Native Americans. Perhaps modern French do not celebrate the Roman conquest of Paris and the rest of the country from Asterix and his Gaulish brethren; the English the victory of their Germanic Anglo-Saxon forebears over the native Picts and Celts, but those events happened nonetheless. New Zealanders of Caucasian extraction still insist on celebrating 6 February as Waitangi Day – when Maori chieftains were pretty much conned into signing their land over to Queen Victoria. And Australians turn on major displays of fireworks and what not to laud the arrival of convict ancestors and their military jailers back in 1788.

Was the city of Constantinople seized from another nation? And was the Ottoman conquest driven by religious motives? Pretty questionable. The Byzantine Graeco-Romans represented the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire, a cosmopolitan, multinational entity which in its later years was ruled by emperors who were definitely not Roman/Italian – or Greek. The retrospective concept of a Greek nation happened towards the end of the 18th century with the encouragement of aristocratic English Hellenophiles. By 1453 the once great city of Constantinople had been reduced to its pre-Constantinian scale, a small island of Byzantium in a vast sea of Ottoman domains, with a population of perhaps 50,000. Bekdil concedes that Sultan Mehmet’s mother was Greek and that Ottomans were remarkably tolerant of religious differences. In fact it was probably Mehmet’s family ties to the Greek royals that preserved the city so long, and its conquest was pretty much the last nail in the Byzantine Greek coffin.

Admittedly Turks are not keen on the word Constantinople. I remind my students that the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, not Istanbul, though, as the writer implies, that name may already have been in use before the conquest, if it was in fact a corruption of ‘to the city’, or even of ‘Constantinople’ itself. Anti-Israel protests are pretty rare in Turkey, and not well attended – but the number of countries in the world that actually support Israel’s expansionist policies in Palestine is small – the United Nations frequently objects. Without US support, would that country survive? Equally, modern Greeks, and some English writers who definitely should know better refuse to use the name ‘Istanbul’. Check the old 50s song. It’s been 461 years now, and the chances of Turks packing up and returning to Central Asia are pretty low.

Did Turks come from Central Asia to seize and pillage the great Christian city? That’s pretty dubious history too. A Seljuk Turkish army under the Sultan Alparslan conquered the Byzantine Roman-Greeks at Manzikert in 1071, so they were in Anatolia in force for almost four centuries before capturing Constantinople. Even before that they had been living in the region for a good long time, enough to become Muslims. Ignoring that, however, nine centuries of intermarriage with locals and constant immigration from surrounding lands has ensured that the proportion of Central Asian DNA in modern Turkey is surprisingly low. The concept of Turkishness that continues to feed Western prejudices and nationalist Greek fervour owes more to Western prejudice itself, and to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s need to foster a spirit of national identity than to any real biological genetic inheritance. Bekdil said it would be hard to think of the English celebrating the conquest of London or the Germans of Berlin – though England was conquered by the Norman French in 1066, around the time that the Seljuk Turks won that first crucial victory over the Byzantines, and aristocratic Brits have long been happy to lay claim to Norman French ancestry.

Did the Turks invade Cyprus? Truth to tell, problems there can be attributed more to attempts by the modern kingdom/republic of Greece to annex the island than to Turkish aggression. I have written enough on the Armenian business in the past, and I made a kind of vow not to revisit it, so I’m not going to. If you’re interested click here.

As for the idea of Jews being natives of Jerusalem, that must be one of the more mischievous fictions about in the world today, if in fact it is widely held. Judaism was for a time one of the religions of what is now called the Middle East until its adherents were finally dispersed by Roman Empire in the 2nd century CE. Prior to that and subsequently, Jewish people migrated to all corners of Europe and farther afield, mixing with other peoples and races in their new homes. Hebrew as a language may have been preserved in religious ritual by some, but most adopted other languages – Yiddish and Spanish for example. Hebrew was re-adopted after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947 in much the same way as was classical Greek when Western European powers for political reasons of their own, used their military power to wrest territory from the Ottomans and establish a tiny kingdom they called Greece back in 1821. The Jewish community in Turkey are largely Sephardic Jews whose ancestors, fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, were welcomed by the 15th century Sultan Beyazit. They were arguably more natives of Spain than of Jerusalem, and their language was, and in worship I believe, still is Ladino Spanish.

Joe South - Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Joe South – Walk a Mile in My Shoes

The population of Turkey is predominantly Muslim. It would be surprising if their leaders were not of that faith – just as Americans expect their President to at least pay lip service to Christian doctrine and practices. Perhaps 20% of Turkey’s population is Kurdish – and the current government is trying to solve a problem that has been simmering and sometimes exploding for 90 years. Armenia, Iran and Iraq lie just on the other side of Turkey’s eastern borders; ‘Greek’ islands an almost swimmable distance from its western coast. American singer-songwriter Joe South had a hit in 1970 with the song ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’. You might want to click and listen.

Rebetika, and Zorba the Turk

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’These, I now know, were the actual words (frequently misquoted) of the Spanish-American writer George Santayana. Well, quote or misquote, the message is clear. Sadly, I see this failure of memory all around me. I read an interview the other day with a Turkish artist who, talking of recent political demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere, claimed that respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of speech had declined in this country in the past ten years. As a close observer of events over the past eighteen years, I was surprised. If he had kept to the issue of the preservation of a green area in Taksim, I could have understood his anger – but to make that claim in a country with such a recent history of military coups, civilian disappearances, torture, suppression of minorities, honour killings, and corruption in government, civil service and football is beyond laughable.
Still, there it is. The guy said it, the female interviewer recorded it, the Western media published it, and their public, for lack of an alternative point of view, or perhaps just because they want to, probably believe it. What is sadder, however, is I imagine that guy, as an artist, had a fairly good education, and a lot of other educated young people in Turkey also seem to believe it.
Well, I have written my last words about the Taksim protests. What I want to talk about here is music, and its power to bring people together, if only we can hear its message. I want to talk about a musical genre whose history and origins, even in its homeland(s), are little known or else misunderstood. The reason, in fact, is not solely attributable to the ignorance of the local people. Rather, it is that the history of these people, over the past two centuries, has been so full of trauma and upheaval that they have willingly chosen to forget, and their governments have actually encouraged this process of forgetting, in the interests of building new nations from the ashes of old. So, first of all, a little historical background.
Zorba the Zeybek? – Watch
The 1964 Hollywood movie, ‘Zorba the Greek’, helped to popularise, at home and abroad, a genre of folk music and dance accompanied by a stringed instrument commonly known as bouzouki. Well, Hollywood is Hollywood, of course – and in our heart of hearts we know we shouldn’t accept as gospel all we see on the silver screen. Nevertheless, in the absence of personal knowledge or experience, we may unintentionally incorporate the celluloid tale into our world-view.
A theme I find myself often returning to is the question of how to define a Turk. I have dealt at some length with the complex fabric of history in this part of the world, into which the Turkish invaders wove themselves after their arrival in the 11th century. I have touched on the intermarriage and intermingling of the Ottoman elite with their Christian and Jewish fellow citizens over the course of their 600-year empire. I have discussed the huge influx of refugeesfrom the Crimea, the Caucasus, the Greek peninsula and the Balkans over a two hundred and fifty year period as neighbouring states gained independence from and/or expanded into Ottoman territory, displacing as they did so, their Muslim neighbours who had lived there for centuries.
Parallel to this theme, I have found myself criticising the modern state of Greece, and its Western supporters for what sometimes seems a deliberate distortion of history. Part of the problem, as I have been at pains to explain, stems from the use in English of one word, ‘Greek’to refer to three quite distinct historical and even geographical entities: first, the Ancient Greece of Homer, Socrates, Herodotus and Pythagoras; second, the medieval Byzantine Eastern Roman-Greek Empire; and finally, the modern Kingdom/Republic founded, with the help of Great Britain, France and Russia, in 1830.
Our lack of satisfactory English words to distinguish these three entities, coupled with a sometimes deliberate blurring of the distinctions for political purposes, has made for serious misunderstandings that continue to bedevil international affairs, as, for example, in the case of the Cyprus issue. What I overlooked, however, in my sympathy for the plight of the Republic of Turkey, was the fact that, quite understandably, the government and citizens of modern Greece also experience ongoing problems of identity as a direct result of their traumatic history.
I read recently a book entitled ‘Greece, the Hidden Centuries’[1]which described the period from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1830 – a period of nearly four centuries when Christian Muslim and Jew lived together in an Empire that did not suppress religious, linguistic or cultural identity. In reality, the period of cohabitation extends several centuries before the final conquest of the Byzantine Greek capital. The implications of that time span make nonsense of most attempts to separate ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ cultures.
Another theme running through these posts is the idea that the same historical event may be remembered, described and interpreted in different ways depending on how it impacted on those involved. I have written elsewhere of my surprise at learning that Turks celebrate 18 March as their victory day in the campaign we refer to as Gallipoli, when New Zealanders and Australians remember 25 April as the day we (Anzacs) arrived on the scene.
Turks and Greeks have a similar problem with the event known to historians variously as the Liberation War, the Turkish War of Independence, the Greco-Turkish War or the Asia Minor Catastrophe. For citizens of Turkey, victory in that three-year war opened the door for the establishment of an independent republic. For Greeks, on the other hand, defeat meant the bitter end of their Great Dream – the reincarnation of the once mighty Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire centred on the legendary city of Constantinople.
But that’s not all. Military retreat from Asia Minor in 1922 was a huge reality check for the Greeks who had begun their campaign with encouragement from the European powers victorious in the First World War. Subsequently, seeing the writing of Turkish nationalist victory on the wall, Britain, France and the others abandoned the Greek cause and left their little neo-classical brothers to their fate. That fate they still remember as the Asia Minor Disaster, when up to 1.5 million people identified as Christians were uprooted from their ancestral homes and shipped across the sea to be resettled in mainland Greece. Who were these people?
Sea-faring tribes speaking a language we think of as Ancient Greek spread around the Aegean and Black Seas from the early centuries of the First Millennium BCE, settling on the islands and the mainland coasts. Sometimes conquering and sometimes forming neighbourly relations with the local peoples, they developed cultures classicists know as Hellenic, Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian, which non-academics tend to unite under the blanket term ‘Greek’. This culture is characterised by distinctive features of literature, architecture, sculpture, food and music which, of necessity, incorporated earlier local elements.
Their literature tells us of struggles against their powerful neighbours, the Persians, and the triumphs of the Great Hellenic hero, Alexander, in the pre-Christian millennium. Less well-publicised was their forced incorporation into the classical Roman Empire in 146 BCE. Their history re-emerges somewhat murkily into European consciousness after the adoption of Christianity as that empire’s state religion, and the subsequent fall of the city of Rome, leaving Constantinople as capital of a now Christian, largely Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire.
Aman aman – click to listen
It also brings us, after a lengthy but necessary introduction, to real subject of this post: the musical genre known as rebetika. When the Greek army entered Anatolia in May 1919, they were welcomed as liberators by the predominantly Greek Orthodox Christian inhabitants. When, three years later, the Turkish nationalist forces drove out the invading army, the position of those Christian citizens of the Ottoman Empire, now perceived as traitors, was clearly untenable. I have not the time or space here to examine the claims and counter claims of property destruction and human atrocities that took place in these years. Suffice it to say that an exchange of populations took place, whereby Christians from Anatolia (Asia Minor) went to mainland Greece, and vice versa Muslims from the other side of the Aegean.
Those Christians, numbering, it is generally agreed, around 1.5 million, arrived in a poor country with a total population of around seven million. Many of them were educated middle class people with a good standard of living who know found themselves homeless, jobless and destitute. They brought with them little besides the cultural identity forged by twenty-five centuries in Asia, the last six of them, side by side with Muslims of Turkish ancestry.
The musical genre that flourished in the sub-culture inhabited by these ‘Asiatic’ Greeks is known as rebetika, and attained its peak of artistic expression in the 1930s. It has been called the ‘Greek Blues’ – not because of any similarity of sound, but because it was the musical expression of the soul of a dispossessed people. Performers and audiences were alienated from mainstream society by their poverty and foreign identity, their association with crime and prisons, with drug use and alcohol, and with disreputable bars and cafes.
The very word rebetikais problematic, and has spawned its own academic field of study, rebetology. One problem for the layperson is the alternative form rembetika. This has come about in typical English fashion, whereby scholars or other intellectuals employ peculiar features of spelling in an attempt to represent the derivation of a word. Words of Greek origin suffer particularly from this affectation, as in the use of the letter ‘c’ to represent the Greek letter kappa, and ‘ph’ to represent Φ (F). The Greek letter that looks like a B is actually pronounced as V. The B sound is represented in Greek by the digraph ‘MP’. Well, scholars love to show off their knowledge, so in goes the M to the English word. Unfortunately, P is P in both languages, so with a patronising nod to actual pronunciation, B was substituted. Stick with rebetika, and you’ll be fine.
Then there is the Greekness of the music, which, according to Hollywood’s Zorba, is essential and fundamental. However, in the light of the history outlined above, we will be not at all surprised to find the same songs being sung on the eastern coast of the Aegean, and clearly not because they were imported from Greece. Again, unsurprisingly, Zorba’s famous dance and some key vocabulary associated with Rebetika music, reflect the genre’s Anatolian origins – though the use of Greek or English versions of Ottoman place names in the literature tends to mask this. The folk dance known as hasapiko is said to have originated in Constantinople (Istanbul); zeybekiko and tsifteteliare clearly derived from Turkish words. The zeybekswere irregular militia of nomadic yörükorigins with a kind of Robin Hood reputation for protecting poor villagers from rapacious landlords. Their charactistic male dance is well known in Turkey, as is the çiftetelli, a chain of dancers, often performed at weddings and other social celebrations.
One source I read claimed that the bouzouki was unknown in Asia Minor – but a more credible writer gave the origin of the word as the Turkish bozuk, which was apparently applied to a kind of tuning. Certainly the bağlama is everywhere seen and heard in Turkey, and its origin has been traced to ancient Mesopotamia. A feature of Rebetika is the taksim, a kind of improvised solo often introducing the song and setting the mood, as well as demonstrating the virtuosity of the musician. That source above stated that the word comes from Arabic, which it may well do – but it is nevertheless used in Turkish, and undoubtedly came to Greece with those Anatolian refugees.
Well, this is not a competition. It doesn’t really matter whether you call those small cups of strong coffee with the annoying centimetre of sediment, Turkish or Greek. Gyrosor döner kebap, they both taste good in a sandwich. The simple fact is that people who live as neighbours and intermarry for centuries will inevitably share aspects of their separate cultures, taking and giving until whose is what and what is whose will be lost in the mists of time.
Unfortunately for the majority who just want to live their lives, raise their children and wash down their gyros with a Turkish coffee, history, like religion, can become a political football. Politicians and other seekers after power love using ‘-isms’ to divide and rule, to unite their supporters and manufacture an enemy.
The concept of nationalism that blossomed in Europe from the romantic movement of the late 18th century began as a search for cultural roots lost in the modernisation and urbanisation of the agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was quickly seized on, however, by political leaders, to unite and divide. The Ottoman Empire, consisting as it did, of diverse religious and cultural groups, and occupying territory coveted by rival empires, was particularly vulnerable.
It’s hard to lose an empire. Ask the Brits. When you’ve once ruled an empire on which the sun never set, it’s not easy to adjust to being the world’s sixth largest economy and a relatively minor player on the stage of international affairs. You can’t help hoping the good times will come again. For the Greeks, the loss of their imperial capital Constantinople and their subservience to the Ottomans were wounds that never healed. As Ottoman power declined and powerful ‘friends’ in Europe encouraged them to imagine that their former lands could be recovered, it was all too easy to believe.
The Asia Minor Disaster was brought about by the manipulation of European powers for their own political and economic ends. Greeks were encouraged in a highly questionable enterprise, and left in the lurch when the project went sour. Sadly, albeit understandably, the Greeks subsequently focused their anger and frustration on their Turkish neighbours rather than on the foreign powers who should by rights shoulder the blame. If you want to read more about rebetika music, I can recommend two articles, Rebetika: An Historical Introduction and Rebetika, A Brief History. They do, however, contain certain statements that contribute to misunderstanding about the historical background. Muslims were expelled from Greece, the first writer says, mainly because the Greek government needed land and homes in which to settle the refugees’, suggesting that the process was begun by the Turks. The second writer goes a stage further. Greek-speaking Turks from the present entity of Greece were shipped en masse to Turkey, and Greeks from what is now Turkey were shipped to Greece (many of them in the face of murder, rape and torture at the hands of the Turks, intent on repeating their massacre of the Armenians).’ The Greeks, we are to understand, were innocent angels in the business. Are we also to assume that the atrocities they committed against each other in their own civil war of the late 1940s they had learnt from Turks?
History and music have lessons to teach us, if we approach both with an open mind. Name-calling and finger-pointing, on the other hand, produce little but misunderstanding and hatred. Listen to the sad voices of rebetika. Try to bridge the gulf and heal the wounds.

[1] Greece, the Hidden Centuries, David Brewer, (IB Tauris, 2012)

In-sultan, Out-sultan: Remembering Bayezid II

I make no claim to an exhaustive knowledge of Ottoman history – but I have an interest, read a little, and enjoy wandering around the monuments of imperial Istanbul. By chance, for a reason I’ll tell you later, I made mention the other day, in one of my classes, of a sultan by the name of Bayezid, who presided over the empire in the late 15th century. One of my students took issue with my facts, and I was left isolated with no support from any of the young lady’s classmates. Now if we had been discussing New Zealand or English history, I might have stood my ground more firmly – but humility and common sense make me reluctant to debate events of Turkish history or politics with locals.
Bayezid II ‘The Just’
Nevertheless, a later check confirmed the accuracy of my memory. There was indeed a Sultan Bayezid, the second of that name, seated on the Ottoman throne at that time. And an article in today’s newspaper suggested why my Turkish students were unfamiliar with him, despite the fact that he ruled for 31 years, making him one of the longer occupants of that illustrious seat. The article was reporting a symposium running concurrently at several universities and historic locations around Istanbul, under the auspices of the Beyoğlu Borough Council. This year was chosen for the event because it marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Sultan Bayezid II. Well, the actual date would have been 10 Rabi I, 918 according to the Islamic Hijri calendar in use at the time, but these days, thanks to the modernising reforms of MK Ataturk, we in Turkey generally convert historical dates to the more widely preferred Gregorian calendar.
Beyoğlu is located on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn from the ancient walled city of Constantinople/Istanbul. That it is now a major entertainment centre of the modern metropolis is attributable to the fact that it originated as a kind of satellite city inhabited and administered by Venetian and Genoese traders, and later became home to diplomatic legations from European governments. As a result, attitudes to the consumption of alcohol were freer than across the water. Apparently, Bayezid II made a major contribution to the regeneration of this area after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul by his father, Mehmet II, and the present-day council want to recognise this.
However, despite his contribution to the establishment of Beyoğlu (an achievement little known outside the council and academia, so far as I can discover), Bayezid is not a well-known sultan, as the newspaper article acknowledges. The reason, they suggest, is that his reign was overshadowed, both before and after, by four of history’s favourite Ottoman rulers. The first was Murat II, Padishah from 1421 to 1451. This worthy inherited a crown that was by no means omnipotent, or even particularly secure. He had to deal with a Byzantine Empire that still had pretensions to greatness; Venetians who pretty much ruled the Mediterranean; and east European potentates who resented Ottoman incursions into their territory. On all fronts he was moderately successful, paving the way for his son, the aforementioned Mehmet, to hammer the last nail into the Byzantine coffin with his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, thereby earning for himself the sobriquet of ‘The Conqueror’.
Bayezid’s son Selim, known in English as Selim ‘The Grim’, ruled for only eight years, but during that time, made the Ottoman Empire undisputed ruler of the Islamic world. He conquered Egypt, incorporated the holy cities of Mecca and Medina into his domains and took for himself the title of Caliph, or supreme leader of the Muslim community. If those three weren’t enough to cast anyone into the shade, next on the scene was the greatest of all. Suleiman, known in the west as ‘The Magnificent’, and to Turks as ‘The Lawgiver’, held the reins of power from 1520 to 1566, making him the longest reigning Ottoman sultan at a time generally regarded as the pinnacle of that empire’s greatness – a hard act to follow, or even to precede, given that historians, like God, operate with the advantage of hindsight.
In contrast with these four mega-monarchs, Bayezid’s achievements are undoubtedly less spectacular. Nevertheless, as the Beyoğlu councillors are keen to point out, they deserve recognition. Given the Ottoman inclination to militarism, and Bayezid’s interest in domestic policies and administrative organisation, it is perhaps understandable that he seems less majestic than his more warlike forebears and offspring. For his achievements in internal affairs he became known as ‘The Just’. One of his major successes was to accept into his empire large numbers of Jews fleeing persecution from the Spanish Inquisition. He is said to have remarked that the Spanish king’s folly was his own good fortune – the Jewish refugees impoverishing Spain by their departure and enriching the Ottomans by their arrival.
At the same time, it would have been impossible for the monarch of a major empire in those days to hold power for thirty years without engaging in a war or two, and Bayezid did his share of fighting. His reign began with the need to defeat his own brother Cem (pronounced ‘Jem’), who, with Egyptian support, had sought to seize the throne. Cem was, in fact, an ongoing threat, and Bayezid’s long-term solution was paying the Venetians a kind of annual reverse ransom to keep the guy out of circulation. Relations with the Venetians, however, were by no means peaceful, and the Ottomans engaged in several battles around southern Greece as the two states competed for control of the eastern Mediterranean. Also at this time, the Savafid dynasty in Iran were a rising power, uniting Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia and other neighbours under the banner of Shi’ite Islam, creating a major new challenge to the authority of the Sunni Ottomans.
Bayezid’s reign ended as it had begun, with a war of succession, involving his two sons, Ahmet and Selim. Initially the two fought each other over who would succeed to the throne – but inevitably dad got caught up in the dispute, and was eventually forced to abdicate by Selim, who had gained the support of the Sultan’s own Janissary regiment.
Well, it’s a grim thing to unseat your own father, so Selim perhaps deserves his English nickname. However, Bayezid seems to have made one or two serious errors of judgement that prevented him from assuming a more prestigious place in history. His entry in the Turkish Wikipedia mentions the following:
Christopher Columbus was, at one stage, experiencing some difficulties getting funding for his proposed trans-Atlantic voyages of exploration. Having been turned down by the king of Portugal, he is said to have next tried his luck in the Ottoman court. Bayezid, however, didn’t take the project seriously, and also rejected him. Subsequently, Columbus applied with more success to the king and queen of Spain, and the Ottomans had four hundred years to rue a lost opportunity. One scrap of good fortune did come their way, though, when a Spanish sea-faring colleague of Columbus fell into Ottoman hands as a prisoner of war. Apparently he had maps of America on him when captured, and these were passed on to the cartographer Piri Reis, of whom more in a later post.
A second unfortunate decision of Bayezid’s seems to have occurred when Leonardo da Vinci, on a visit to the Ottoman capital, drew up plans for a 240-metre bridge to span the Golden Horn. Again, the sultan erred on the side of conservatism, and da Vinci’s project never got off the drawing board. In fact, the suburbs of Beyoglu, Galata and Pera had to wait until 1836 to be linked by such a bridge.
Such are the quirks of history. It might have made a significant difference to the long-term fortunes of the Ottoman Empire if all that bullion from the mines of Central and South America had gone into their royal treasury instead of Spain’s – though, to be fair, it didn’t do Spain much good in the long-term either. It’s also possible that Native Americans might have benefited from the generally more tolerant approach of the Ottomans to conquered peoples – but that’s just idle speculation.
Bayezid gave up his throne on Anzac Day, 1512 (speaking with the benefit of historian’s hindsight), but didn’t live long to enjoy his well-earned retirement, dying a mere month later. History doesn’t tell us that his grim son had anything to do with the business, but I have to tell you, I’ve got my suspicions.
Anyway, next time you’re in Turkey, I’d like to recommend you to include two extra sights on your itinerary. The first is Sultan Bayezid’s grand mosque in central Istanbul next door to the campus of Istanbul University. It was completed in 1506, making it, at the time, the second imperial mosque in the city, a century older than the more famous Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I. The earlier mosque built by Mehmet the Conqueror was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century, however, so the son finally managed a posthumous ‘one-up’ on his father.
The other spot worth a visit, and the reason I happened to mention Sultan Bayezid in my class the other day, is the mosque complex he had built in the city of Edirne near the present border with Greece. These buildings are located outside the town in a picturesque and tranquil spot beside a river, and house a modest but impressive medical museum with displays from a time when Islamic health practitioners seem to have been somewhat ahead of their western counterparts. One wing of the hospital, founded in 1488, was used for patients with nervous disorders, and treatment included listening to music and the sound of water playing in fountains, as well as therapeutic basket weaving.
Well, even if you don’t weave baskets, I hope you find music to soothe your soul this festive season, and a moment of peace to remember the message of love and hope that lies behind all the commercialised brouhaha of Christmas and New Year.
Last time I was in that museum in Edirne I came across this poem, which Dilek and I translated. I take full responsibility for the literary limitations:
      Forever Entwined
In olden times, were in this antique place
Of healing, two young lovers; small
Was the maiden’s room and gloomy,
The boy’s less spacious still.
Dallied they mornings in the yard
Until the hour glass filled with sand;
The maid ringed by a fairy host,
Her beau on a magic steed.
Came to the lovers at last the end;
To health once more were they restored;
But the sweetness of life to them was lost,
Such had been their bliss.
Met they one last time, these two,
Swore to be parted nevermore;
Evading yet all watchful eyes, they
Turned again to their sanctuary.
A guardian spirit taking pity,
Mixed, while Nazir, the doctor slept,
A special potion, of his own brewing,
Into each lover’s cup.
Drinking th’elixir unaware,
The soul of each assumed new form –
The girl, a tree, the boy, wild ivy,
Forever entwined in the silent yard.
                                                               Ahmet Kutsi Tecer
                                                               Edirne 1957

Rescuing Constantinople, liberating Istanbul and de-bunking history

History, Henry Ford apparently actually said, is more or less bunk. It seems he and I have moved closer together over the years. I was always led to believe that he was claiming the one hundred percent bunkishness of history, and I disagreed most fervently. Now I gather he qualified his statement with that ‘more or less’, and I find myself increasingly coming round to the same opinion.

Let me give you yet another example. On Tuesday 29 May, Turks celebrated an event they know as the ‘Conquest of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Fethi). Some four and a half months later, they will celebrate another occasion they remember as the ‘Liberation of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Kurtuluş’u). The second of these dates is always a holiday for the school children of Turkey’s largest city, while the former is not.

Recent excavations related to the construction of Istanbul’s new underground Metro system have put back the date of the first human settlement on the site of this ancient city to around 6,500 BCE. That makes a whole lot of history, doesn’t it! So you can understand Turkish school kids experiencing some difficulties remembering exactly what happened when. The task is complicated, however, by the fact that there seems to have been some tinkering by authorities to ensure that school history books present the approved version.

Getting back to those two dates above, it surprises me anew every year to find how many of my Turkish students seem to think that 6 October was the day when Turks ‘liberated’ Istanbul from the Byzantine Greeks. In fact, what happened was that, after Mustafa Kemal and his Turkish nationalist army had chased the modern Greek forces out of Anatolia in 1922, British and other allied troops that had been occupying the Ottoman capital since the end of the First World War, decided to up sticks and head for home.

Turkey’s most expensive film to date
I guess when you’re a kid at school, having an official day off is always going to be a powerful reason for remembering a date – so perhaps it’s a good thing that Prime Minister Erdoğan has stated his intention to make 29 May a public holiday in future. In that case, kids next year are much more likely to learn that the date will mark the 560th anniversary of an earlier Tuesday, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious army into the Byzantine Greek capital of Constantinople after a seven-week siege in 1453. Perhaps some of the confusion will be cleared up too, if the name of the celebration is altered to recognise the self-evident fact that the city didn’t become ‘İstanbul’ until after it had been conquered – some would say, until long after.

Perhaps it’s not so much history itself, but our knowledge and understanding of it that is ‘bunk’. And just possibly the reason is that certain ‘authorities’ have vested interests in fostering misunderstandings. When you compare what the average Turk knows about the history of Constantinople/Istanbul with the knowledge most of us in the West have, you perhaps get a better sight of the problem.

The event of 29 May 1453 is generally referred to in Western histories as ‘The Fall of Constantinople’. Some writers credit the influx of Greek scholars fleeing the city as a key element in the Europe Renaissance. Some consider the Islamic takeover to have been the spur that prompted Columbus and others to launch themselves across the Atlantic in search of India. The successful employment of gunpowder and cannons against the medieval world’s best-fortified city is often taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages. These claims are interesting, and undoubtedly debatable, but I will leave the debate to more able scholars. Of more relevance to my immediate purpose is the oft-heard claim that the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottomans was ‘a massive blow to Christendom’. It has even been said to mark ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. 

Now I don’t know what you were taught when you were at school, but I have a pretty clear memory of being told that ‘Rome fell to the barbarians’ in 476 AD/CE. The main authority for that precise date seems to have been the 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon. I also have hazy memories of Christians having been thrown to lions, but I can’t remember if these were sourced from the same book or the same teacher; nor do I have a clear memory of whether the barbarians were God’s punishment for what the Romans did to the Christians, or if they were just an unfortunate coincidence.

What I definitely do not remember being told was that, 140 years before the German upstart Odoacer deposed the resident Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, an earlier emperor, Constantine, in response to the declining importance of Italy, and the rising importance of Asia Minor, had established a ‘New Rome’ at the mouth of the Bosporus Strait. While it was clear that, at some point, those ‘old Roman’ citizens had given up feeding Christians to lions, and transformed themselves into good Catholics, I do not remember its being made clear that the ‘Roman Empire’ continued in the east for another thousand years until finally laid to rest by that 21 year-old Ottoman sultan on that fateful Tuesday in 1453.

So why the confusion about the end of the Roman Empire? I guess part of the problem stems from the fact that those ancient ‘Romans’ used the name of their capital city as the basis for naming their empire – as if the British Empire had instead been known as Londonian. A second source of confusion is that the conferring of ‘Roman citizenship’ was used as an instrument of control and government, and was not restricted to residents of Rome itself, or even Italy. As a result, citizens in Constantinople, and elsewhere in Asia Minor continued to think of themselves as ‘Romans’ long after the fall of the city of Rome and its western Empire – and long after they had ceased speaking Latin and had reverted to the use of Greek. That’s why modern-day Turks still refer to their Greek-speaking citizens as Rum, and their church as Rum Ortodoks.

However, we can’t just blame the ancient Romans and Greeks for the confusion. Europeans have always had problems defining their relationship with their eastern cousins. For a start, there was bitter competition in the Middle Ages between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. Doctrinal differences related to such issues as the Holy Trinity, the true nature of Jesus, and what sort of bread to use for the Sacramental Feast were the ostensible reason – but perhaps more important was the envy of Roman Popes for the temporal power of the Eastern Church. Papal attempts to resurrect the western Roman Empire in holy guise made it impossible to accept the existence of a rival in the east – which henceforth became known as ‘Greek’. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Churches finalised their split in what became known as The Great Schism, and relations went from bad to worse.

Around this time, traders from the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi began setting up shop across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. Of course, both sides derived benefits from the arrangement, while at the same time friction also developed. Locals resented the accumulating wealth and arrogance of the foreigners, especially when their mutual rivalries broke out into violence. Resentment came to a head, apparently, in April 1182 when the local population went on a festive spree of riot and murder, known to historians as the Massacre of the Latins.

Latin revenge, however, was not long in coming. Roman Popes had been unleashing crusading knights eastwards for a hundred years, partly in response to appeals from the Eastern Emperors for help against the spread of Islam. The fourth and last of these crusades was, it seems, something of a fiasco. Shortage of funds for the journey obliged participants to render military services to the Doge of Venice. Subsequently they found their way to Constantinople, which they proceeded to besiege and sack in April 1204, installing a Latin Emperor of their own. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have lost sight of the main purpose of their venture (viz. fighting Muslims), and very few of their number managed to engage with any.

When those Latin Crusaders sacked, looted and destroyed the capital of their eastern rivals, subjecting its citizens to three days of rape and murder, the Pope of the day, the ironically named Innocent III, who, one assumes, had sent them in good faith to fight Saracens, Turks and other assorted infidels, was apparently somewhat upset, and gave their leaders a sound telling-off. Nevertheless, after piles of booty from the pillaged imperial capital began to appear in Rome, it seems the Pontiff found it in his heart to forgive his errant knights, and allow them back into his church. Today, visitors to St Marks Cathedral in Venice can see the copper statues of four prancing horses that had stood over the main gate of the Hippodrome in Constantine’s New Rome for nine centuries – just the most famous of the looted treasures.

The Greeks did succeed in winning back their capital some fifty-odd years later, but by then irreparable damage had been done. The Byzantine Empire (as it came to be called in later years) had been mortally wounded. By the time the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmet decided to add Constantinople to his growing empire, there was, in fact, very little of Imperial Rome remaining outside the city walls. Nevertheless, capturing the ‘Queen of Cities’ was not an easy task. Apart from the Fourth Crusaders, Persians, Arabs, Slavs, Bulgarians, even Vikings, had assailed the mighty walls on many occasions without success. This time, however, the Ottomans were determined, and laid their plans well. Even so, had ‘Christendom’ really wanted to stave off that ‘massive blow’ to their power and prestige, and turn back the Islamic Ottoman threat, you would think they could have made a little more effort.

Now, with the Ottoman forces massed outside those walls, might have been a good opportunity for the Western Church to show a little temporal solidarity – but they didn’t. Pope Nicholas V did, apparently, make a half-hearted call for another Crusade, but the call fell on deaf ears. Apart from a few hundred Genoese and Venetians with a financial interest in supporting their Greek patrons, the last descendants of Imperial Rome were left to fight their final battle alone. As history records, their valiant defence was at last broken, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered the city that would become his own capital.

History, at least the western version, is a little quieter on the aftermath of the conquest. As we mentioned above, the victorious Latin knights rampaged for three days through the city of their Christian cousins in 1204. To be fair to the Crusaders, a three-day mayhem of killing and looting was the standard reward for an army that had been put to the trouble of besieging and capturing a walled town. England’s noble King Henry V, according to Shakespeare, gave the French defenders of Harfleur a final warning:

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds . . . (Henry V, III, iii)

So we may be surprised to learn that the Muslim Ottoman Sultan called off his ‘blind and bloody soldiers’ after one day of such sport. He also allowed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to maintain his seat in the new Ottoman capital. According to one source, ‘As a strange side-effect of the Muslim conquest, the doctrinal integrity of eastern Christendom was preserved: instead of the compromises with the Vatican that might otherwise have been inevitable, the patriarchate was able to hold to its view on the issues, such as the nature of the Trinity, that had led to so much bitter argument.’

And there he can be found to this day, ministering to his flock from his sanctuary in Istanbul, largest city of the Turkish Republic, with its ninety-nine percent Muslim population: Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, First Among Equals in the Eastern Orthodox communion. History, if not one hundred percent bunk, at least needs careful watching.