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!

Those Terrible Turks!

Among the surprises that I experienced in my first year of teaching English in Turkey was calling the roll and finding that one of the students was named Genghis. Well, I have to admit that was after I’d begun to get my head around the idiosyncrasies of the Turkish alphabet, and realised that’s how we write the word spelled ‘Cengiz’ in Turkish. Anyway, there he was, a slightly overweight 15 year-old, with nothing much to distinguish him from his uniformed classmates – Genghis!

Now, of course, I think nothing of it. I have worked with and taught several more Genghises, and suffered no physical harm at their hands. I have had colleagues and students, to all intents and purposes, quite normal, well-adjusted human beings, despite carrying the name Atilla. Kubilays and Timurs have passed through my classes arousing no more interest than if they were so many Michaels or Tylers. Nevertheless, my initial experience of shock, or at least surprise, illustrates an essential disjuncture between the world-views of the peoples of Western Europe and Western Asia. Clearly, an educated, law-abiding, middle-class Turkish couple choosing to name their new-born son Genghis, are unlikely to have in mind the same picture of a barbarian chieftain leading his marauding hordes out of Central Asia that the name conjures up in Western circles.

Genghis Khan and his Heirs –
Exhibition at the Sabancı Museum

What I want to explore here is the thesis that Western views of Turkey have been shaped by historical and societal events going back at least a millennium and a half and continuously reinforced by subsequent events, and by religious and political leaders for their own, sometimes questionable, purposes.

I’m taking, then, as an arbitrary starting point, the activities of one, Atilla the Hun, who terrorised the Western and Eastern Roman Empires in the 5th century CE. This legendary character headed an empire that extended well into Western Europe. His military forays took him through Germany into France and Italy, and threatened the twin capitals of Rome and Constantinople. Atilla’s origins are not entirely clear, but certainly the Huns emerged from Central Asia, and may have spoken a Turkic language. Undoubtedly there is a long-standing association, in European minds, of Turks with mayhem, rapine, and generally uncivilised, anti-social activities.

For some reason, this association does not seem to extend to Arabs, despite the fact that the armies of the Prophet swept through North Africa and into Spain in the 7th century CE, establishing an empire that stretched from Spain to India. Perhaps it is because Europeans recognise the debt we owe to Arab scholars who preserved the writings and wisdom of the classical world, which later fuelled the European Renaissance. Or perhaps it is that the rise of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks established them as leaders of the Muslim world, relegating the Arabs to a minor role in international affairs. Perhaps too, the European mind, for some centuries, considered it unnecessary to distinguish between Turk and Arab, finding it convenient to tar both with the black brush of Islam. In recent years, with rising fears in the West of cross-cultural clashes and axes of evil, the focus has tended to be on the adherents of Islam rather than on Arabs, who have arguably contributed more to the negative image of Muslims in the US and Europe.

Whatever the case, it was the Turks who bore the brunt of Western Europe’s fear of and antipathy towards the Muslim religion, which seems to have emerged strongly in the 11th century. It was in 1096 that Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade – an army (or two) of Christians from Western Europe who set off on the sacred task of defending Christendom from the Muslim ‘invaders’, and liberating the Holy Places (Jerusalem etc) from their clutches. As usual, there is debate amongst historians as to the exact reasons for this and subsequent waves of Crusaders that launched themselves eastwards.

In the first place, there was certainly an appeal addressed by the Byzantine Emperor Alexus Comnenus to the Pope in Rome for his help in fighting the Seljuk Turks who had recently defeated the Eastern Christians in a major battle, and begun serious incursions into Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. While it may seem at first attractive to imagine brother Christians helping each other against a common (heathen) enemy, in fact, there was little love lost between the Eastern and Western churches. It had been only 40 years since the final schism in 1054, which firmly established their mutual incompatibility.

Secondly, it is certainly true that Western Christians were at least partially motivated by the belief that the Holy Places of their religion had fallen into the hands of unbelievers. It is also true, however, that these places had been in the hands of Arab Muslims for more than 400 years. Why the sudden concern, we might ask? Undoubtedly the Turks posed a threat of a different kind. The Eastern Christians had managed to maintain a buffer against Arab Islam, and Constantinople had withstood their attempts to conquer it. The existence of this Eastern barrier had protected Europe from Muslim invasion at a time when it would have been particularly vulnerable. The Arabs were obliged to take the long way around, via North Africa, into Spain, by which time, we may imagine, their supply lines were somewhat stretched. Suddenly, however, in 1071, the Byzantines had been heavily defeated by a Muslim Turkish army – it could have looked like the thin edge of a new wedge.

Third, this event happened at a crucial time in European history. European Christendom was a fragile, relatively new bud. The Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne that had emerged in the mid  8th century, had fallen apart by the middle of the 9th. A century later, the Pope had found a new hero in a German king by the name of Otto, and begun grooming him to be temporal ruler of a new Holy Roman Empire. However, Europeans at that time had no real concept of themselves as such, and Western Europe was divided into numerous warring feudal states. The Seljuk Turks, then, might be seen as a convenient threat whose existence could be used as a means of uniting Europeans against a common enemy. In fact, they were not ignorant barbarians, as their art, architecture, literature and philosophy show. Educated Westerners know the verses of Omar Khayyam, through the translation of Edward FitzGerald, and the Sufi philosophy of Mevlana Rumi. But religious leaders, and seekers of political power are not always interested in the whole truth, and a timely war can help paper over internal divisions and generate a unity of spirit and purpose, as Margaret Thatcher and the Bush father and son can verify.

So, the Seljuk Turks became the Pope’s bogeyman to terrify Western Christians into laying aside their internecine squabbles and uniting under the banner of true religion. They were assured of finding a place in paradise in return for fighting the good fight against the Saracens, pagans, infidels and Ishmaelites who were polluting the Holy Places. It may also be that the Holy Fathers were a little envious of their Eastern Christian brethren who had retained a temporal empire to go with their spiritual dominion, and saw an opportunity to bring them down a peg or two. Certain it is that the forces of the 4th Crusade in 1204 took time on the way to engaging the Muslim foe, to stop over long enough to besiege, conquer and loot the Christian city of Constantinople. That city remained in Western hands until the Byzantines were able to retake it some 50 years later, by which time much of its fabled wealth had been relocated to Italian cities, and Byzantine power had been seriously diminished.

Genghis Khan, on the other hand, deserves much of his bad press. His armies swept through Central Asia and the Near East in the early 13th century. After his death, his son Ogedai continued the thrust into Hungary and Poland. Whether or not the Mongols were Turks is a moot point, but certainly they were not Muslims at this time in history. Muslims in fact suffered at least as much as Christians from Mongol depredations – Persia (modern Iran) was invaded and much of Islamic-Arabic civilisation was destroyed. Ironically, it may well be that Genghis and his Mongol hordes thus assisted Christendom by facilitating their re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

Timur, (Tamerlane), another Central Asian warlord, and another open to several interpretations, is in fact less known in the West, perhaps because he caused more damage to Turks, fellow Muslims and Hindus than to Christians. The Ottoman Empire was on the rise in the late 14th century when Timur and his armies defeated Sultan Beyazit, creating an inter-regnum and a serious blow to the emerging power in Anatolia and the Balkans.

Nevertheless, all these events and characters have been lumped together in European folk history to create an image of ‘The Turk’ that, by the 16th century had crystalised into a heathen figure of darkness and savagery. I haven’t personally counted them, but I have it from a source[1] I have no cause to question, that there are thirty-five references to Turks in Shakespeare’s plays, all of them referring to a fearsome threat in the East. Indicative of the confusion in European minds is the play ‘Tamburlaine’, written by Christopher Marlowe in 1587. Timur, as discussed above, undoubtedly had a far more recent connection to Central Asian Turkishness than the Ottoman Sultan, but English theatregoers were encouraged to cheer Beyazit’s defeat and humiliation at the hands of Marlowe’s hero.  Of course, the reign of Kanuni Süleyman (1520-66), known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent, marked the pinnacle of power of the Ottoman Empire, as his armies achieved dominance through North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe as far as the gates of Vienna, while his navy controlled much of the Mediterranean. The existence and power of the Ottoman Empire at this time were a major spur to the ocean-going explorations of Western European nations, who needed a safer route to the East.

The Ottomans were not, in fact Turks, in any genetic sense of the word. It had been nearly 500 years since their ancestors had conquered the Byzantine army at Manzikert. Modern DNA analysis suggests that the genes of those Seljuk invaders had been thinned by intermarriage with the indigenous inhabitants of Asia Minor. Ottoman Sultans filled their harem with toothsome young lasses from the lands they had conquered, and by the 16th century, Süleiman’s Turkic blood would have been well diluted. To be Turkish, in fact, did not convey a very high status in a cosmopolitan empire whose citizens included Christians, Jews, Arabs and Persians. European use of the title ‘The Grand Turk’ to refer to the Ottoman Sultan, and the name ‘Turkey’ to refer to their dominions, likely sprang from an attempt to belittle and diminish a people they, perforce, had to respect and fear. Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, had his work cut out for him in his attempt to forge a unifying identity from those who remained after other national groups had split off and gone their separate ways.

However, I am jumping ahead of myself here. We are still back around the turn of the 17th century, but the tide was turning in European affairs. The Ottoman Empire was still a major force, and would remain so until its final demise in the First World War. However, new military technology and training, professional armies and the ability to work together against a common enemy were beginning to give an edge whereby rare and infrequent victories over the Ottomans became more regular and eventually the expected norm. Fear of ‘The Turk’ began to be replaced by a curiosity and interest in things Turkish. As trade and diplomatic relationships increased, wealthy Westerners began to imitate and adopt aspects of Ottoman/Turkish art and culture – it was known as ‘Turquerie’, and was particularly fashionable from the 16th to the 18th century. By the 19th century, as the Near East became increasingly accessible to the Western traveller, ‘Orientalist’ artists began to portray ‘Ottoman culture as colourful, exotic and sensual, qualities to be seen the work of the French painter Ingres who was particularly keen on depicting ‘odalisques’ – less exalted members of the Ottoman harem whom Ingres is most unlikely to have seen, particularly in the unclothed state in which he was fond of showing them.

From quaint, sensual and exotic, it was but a skip and a jump for Europeans to accept the diagnosis of the Ottoman Empire, generally attributed to Czar Nicholas I of Russia, as ‘The Sick Man of Europe.’ As the 19th century wore on, the major European powers became more confident in using the Ottomans in their power games, now attacking, now supporting, as they manoeuvred around to ensure that each got the best deal when the ‘Sick Man’ finally expired. The Ottomans, and thereby the Turks, came to be seen as enfeebled, dissolute and corrupt, and fair game for Western empire-builders as they jockeyed for position in the new world that was emerging. It is entirely understandable. The once-feared enemy had become vulnerable, and it was too tempting to mock and belittle now that the threat had passed.

Nevertheless, it can be dangerous to start believing your own propaganda. I have written elsewhere on the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and the war that led to the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s, so I don’t intend to repeat the details here. It is pretty clear, though, in retrospect, that the British and their Allies in the First World War seriously underestimated the ability of Turks to defend their own shores from foreign invasion. It is also clear that certain influential figures in the military misrepresented ‘The Turk’ to the British public. Again, I dealt somewhat harshly with Winston Churchill in an earlier piece, so I’m leaving the poor man alone this time. There is another gentleman, however, who does deserve a little attention. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was undoubtedly a scholar and a gentleman (at least on his father’s side, though he apparently adopted his mother’s family name, for reasons we don’t need to go into here). Nevertheless, it does now seem that some of the more titillating passages in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ may have been influenced by his quirky sexual proclivities, which included paying a military colleague to administer beatings to him.

Coming up to more modern times, I recently watched ‘Midnight Express’, that 70s classic film of a young American’s experiences in a Turkish prison. Well, I guess, it has come to be recognised as a somewhat exaggerated and distorted presentation of Turkey and its justice system. Billy Hayes, the real-life victim, and the scriptwriter who turned his book into a screenplay have subsequently admitted that fairly major liberties were taken in the making of the film. Perhaps there is no significance in the fact that the owner of MGM studios at the time was an Armenian-American, but you can’t help wondering. I have to say that, as I watched it, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, perhaps, US authorities, concerned at the activities of their young citizens abroad, might have had some input, in the interests of scaring them into being more careful. After all, Billy Hayes confessed in the film, if only to his father, that his aim was to make money by selling hashish back in the USA. I don’t know what the law says in Turkey or America, but in New Zealand, if you are caught in possession of more than a certain amount of a particular illegal substance, there is an assumption that you are a dealer.

Well, Turks get a bad press; I guess that’s what I want to say. Some of it, perhaps they deserve. Show me the perfect country and I’ll move there tomorrow. But a lot of it they don’t deserve, and I’ve tried to show how our attitudes in the West have been shaped by ignorance, and sometimes, even by deliberate distortions. Turks themselves are not wholly innocent in the unfortunate image they have abroad. I recently asked some Turkish friends if Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun were Turks. ‘Probably not,’ was the unanimous answer. And perhaps, to be fair, those names are not as common in classrooms as they once were. But sabre-rattling is an activity much-loved of nationalists everywhere, and the ignorant are easily exploited by unscrupulous politicians. In the end, the only defence is true knowledge. Seek it out!

Touching Down in Turkey – Surprises for a Western visitor

When I first came to Turkey in 1995, I knew little about the country. In fact, that is not entirely true. As a New Zealander, I had grown up with the stories of the Gallipoli campaign, that bloody sideshow of the First World War, which cost so many lives and achieved so little. Brought up in a church-going family, I was well-versed in the scriptures and gospels, especially the epistles of Paul to the churches of ancient Christendom. As a student of a model English grammar school, I spent five years studying Latin and the achievements and culture of the Roman Empire. Being a reader, and having an interest in history, I knew, of course, of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. I had even heard of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and somewhere or other had come across the modern Turkish alphabet, a deceptively familiar yet not-quite-accessible version of our Latin-based one, with its peculiar accent marks and unexpected cedillas. My studies of 19thcentury European history had familarised me with ‘The Eastern Question’ and ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, and my readings of Shakespeare had mixed ominous references to the ‘heathen Turk’ with the folk culture that embodied names like Gengiz and Attila with a power of evil beyond the capacity of mere words.
Model English grammar school
Yet I had no concept of the country that is the modern Republic of Turkey. I had all these snippets of knowledge buzzing around in what I liked to think of as my world-view. But I had no unifying idea that they all occurred within the boundaries of that little known and little understood nation on the back-doorstep of Europe.
Perhaps it was to my advantage that I came from a country far from the fast-lanes of geopolitics. There was no visible Turkish diaspora in New Zealand to imbue me with a prejudice against migrant workers. My prejudices were more deep-seated and subliminal, but nonetheless real, being part of the cultural baggage I carried as an educated product of an Anglo/Euro-centric system and culture.
Almost from the moment the wheels of my British Airways Boeing hit the tarmac at Atatürk Airport, I found these cultural assumptions challenged in ways that I had never imagined. In the thirteen years since then, while making a life for myself as a teacher of English in Turkey, I have continued to benefit from the mind-expanding shocks and jolts that strike the foreigner in this much-misunderstood land.
I remember looking at an atlas, on first coming to Turkey. It was quite a good atlas, a reputable publication which I had bought while reading Geography at Auckland University. I still have it, in fact, and I have counted twenty-one pages on the British Isles, ten pages on the US of A, and even little old New Zealand warrants a two-page spread. Interestingly, however, there is not one single page devoted to the modern Republic of Turkey, a country three times the size of New Zealand, or Great Britain, or Japan, and in population, second only to the united Germany among European nations.
It is a small thing, perhaps, and of no special significance. I’ve never been a fan of conspiracy theories. But again, I couldn’t help being puzzled when I learnt that the Turks celebrate 18 March as Victory Day in their Çanakkale War (what we know as the Gallipoli campaign). Hang on a minute!  We (ANZACs etc) didn’t even get there till 25 April! As educated adults, we need to feel confident that history has an objectivity that places it above partisan politics and racial stereotypes, so how to account for this major disparity of dates? In fact, as I intend to discuss in a later article, the Gallipoli landings were Plan B, made necessary because of the failure of Plan A. For the Turks, their success in turning back the Royal Navy from the Dardanelles was the more important part of the victory. For the British Empire, no doubt, that was a setback better consigned to the footnotes of history.
Historical events, dates and personages are one aspect of the construct of the world that we all carry with us. But there is another, less overt, perhaps more powerful force shaping our judgments of other peoples and races: the proverbial wisdom, folk knowledge and cultural assumptions that we inhale with the air of the society in which we grow up and receive our education. So Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun have such a basic existence in the consciousness of Western minds that no knowledge of history is necessary to conjure up images of marauding barbaric hordes sweeping out of the Asian steppe, laying waste all in their path like an invasion of killer bees. When I learned that the principal of my school, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman of scholarly bearing was called Genghis, it required in me a shift of mental gears. Hearing also that Atilla was the name of that polite, hand-raising, homework-doing young lad in my year 9 class was a further surprise for which my Euro-centric upbringing had not prepared me.
I would like to share some of the experiences I have had since I first came to this surprising country, and some of the eye-opening knowledge that has come my way, bringing me to a better understanding of a place that has become my second home.
Among the topics I intend to cover are:
  • The Ancient Treasures of Turkey – what was there, and where is it now?
  • Çanakkale / Gallipoli – There are two sides to even the best-known stories.
  • The Fall of Constantinople – and the clash of civilizations.
  • The Turk through the ages – that bad press goes back a long way!
  • Benevolent dictators – could there ever be such a thing? And did Turkey have one?
  • Cyprus – what are the Turks doing there anyway?
  • The origins of Christianity – divine revelation and political expediency.
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire – what actually happened when the barbarians came roaring through?