Why do they hate Turkey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zonaro_GatesofConst

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II enters Constantinople, 1453

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

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

Hürrem sultan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-sykes-picot

1. Sykes-Picot plans for the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London

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

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

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A New Pope for Easter

Turkish is a fascinating language, and a challenge for the well-meaning holidaymaker who thinks to pick up a little for the sake of international goodwill. One of its peculiarities is a feature known to linguists as agglutination, whereby grammatical functions are constructed by adding suffixes to a lexical root. There is in theory no limit to the number of suffixes that can be agglutinated, and Turks take pride in the following word: ‘Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?’which has eleven suffixes, and can be rendered into English as ‘Are you one of those whom we have been unable to make Czechoslovakian?’

Of course every country and culture likes to feel that it is the best at, or has the biggest, longest, whatever, of something – it’s a natural human (or at least a male) thing. So as native speakers of English, we understandably dredge our memories for the longest word we know – and maybe come up with ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. It doesn’t quite measure up, but it does at least have a useful and significant meaning (unlike its longer Turkish counterpart): ‘opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England.’ 

Why am I telling you this? Because ‘establishment’ in this context means that Anglicanism is the official state religion of England, which, in turn means that England is not strictly speaking a secular state. The main precedent for this is the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Theodosius I in 380 CE. You might think that the world has moved on a little in the intervening 1630 years, but the English Parliament (wherein twenty-six seats are reserved for senior bishops) is holding the line.

What got me thinking about this was the recent election of a new Pope to preside over the international community of Roman Catholics – more specifically, a couple of discussions that surfaced in a circle of history buffs I follow online. The first was prompted by someone asking the question: If Benedict XVI was not the most intelligent head of state ever, who was?” Now I have to confess, it’s not a question that would ever have occurred to me – not least because I never really think of high intelligence as being a major requirement for a head of state. Nevertheless, once the question was posed, it got me thinking. Is being highly intelligent compatible with being a Catholic? Is the Pope actually a head of state?

Pope Gregory XII, resigned 1415
Well, probably the second question is the easier of the two, so let’s look at that one first. It seems that international law gives diplomatic recognition to two institutions of the Catholic Church: the Holy See and Vatican City. The latter, I was interested to learn, was actually established as an independent state by an agreement, in 1929, between Pope Pius XI and Italy’s ‘Duce’, Benito Mussolini. According to Wikipedia, “Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.” If that sounds positively archaic to you, it’s not surprising. A ‘See’ in RC parlance was originally the chair in which a bishop sat, but has come to mean the area over which the seated bishop has episcopal authority. Twelve of these gentlemen are said to derive their authority from an unbroken succession going back to Jesus’s twelve apostles. One of them, The Holy See, claims pre-eminence on the basis of direct descent from St Peter himself, and its official existence seems to date from some time in the 5th century.

Fine and dandy. I have no problem with Roman Catholics adhering to whatever beliefs give them comfort in the long dark teatime of their souls. Only I don’t quite understand why they get to have international recognition of statehood on the basis of their strange beliefs and their Pope’s alliance with a fascist Italian dictator in the 1920s. If Catholics, why not Presbyterians? Which brings me to the question of intelligence – and I suppose you’d have to admit that people who can pull that kind of stunt on the international community must be pretty smart characters.

It’s self-evident that you do need some kind of smarts to get yourself elected or appointed to a leadership role at that level of society. After all, the Roman Church does claim to have 1.2 billion adherents, even if 1,199,999,880 of them don’t actually have any say in choosing the new fella. But as for intelligence, that’s a curly one. IQ (Intelligence Quotient) used to be thought of as a way of measuring human intellectual capacity, but has gone out of favour in recent years. Former world chess champion Bobby Fisher (IQ 187) probably contributed to that as his genius for chess descended into vitriolic diatribes against the United States and the Jewish people. These days most discussions of intelligence recognize nine different types, one of which, linguistic, may be what Benedict XVI had.

The big thing for me is that intelligence can’t exist in a vacuum. It manifests itself in outcomes, and from those we will judge the mental capabilities of the individual. So it seems to me we can look at the ex-Pope’s intelligence in three ways. First, the guy is undoubtedly smart, and, discounting Tony Blair’s miraculous conversion, I reckon it must be pretty tough to be intelligent and to believe all that stuff that Catholics are expected to believe. So full points to the ex-Holy Father for being able to compartmentalize knowledge, if that’s what he did. On the other hand, it may be that early in his academic life, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger decided that he wanted power, and thought the Church was a good career path, so he mouthed the mumbo jumbo in order to get where he wanted to be – another sign of a certain kind of intelligence, for sure. Then there’s the fact that Benedict resigned – the first Pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415. Undoubtedly, for believing Catholics it’s a disappointment, and not at all the done thing – but in the greater scheme of things, we may think Father Joseph finally saw the error of his ways – and being able to admit your mistakes may be a another indicator of intelligence.

That last comment may seem unduly harsh, but take a close look at the history of Roman Catholicism and you’ll see what I mean. Here I want to touch on the second topic being discussed by my online friends, which involved some scholarly debate on the definition of ‘heresy’, and whether it differed from ‘dissent’, in the context of Christianity. In the course of my Euro-centred Christian-oriented education, I learned that the early followers of Jesus were strong-minded innocent souls suffering terribly at the hands of Roman Emperors, who employed various methods, of which feeding to lions was a favourite, to discourage the spread of the new religion. What I didn’t learn until much later was that, once those Roman Emperors, for reasons of their own, which may or may not have had much to do with actual spiritual experience, decided to ‘establish’ Christianity as the state religion, the apparatus of institutional persecution was turned on those who failed to toe the official Christian line.

The process, essentially was this: the emperor and his sacerdotal henchmen gathered together in various ecumenical councils, most of which were held within the territory of the Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire (in modern Turkey) and formulated a doctrine, or set of articles which would thereafter be required beliefs for ‘orthodox’ Christians. These councils, by the way, were convened 300 years or more after the death of the church’s namesake. The articles of ‘faith’ were designed to include elements which made it relatively easy for adherents of earlier pagan and folk religions to find points of contact with the new official system, while, at the same time, provided a basis for getting rid of troublesome parties who might foster dissent from within. The result was a creed, or creeds, containing ‘truths’ never claimed, as far as I am aware, by Jesus himself, and closing debate on matters that a reasonable human being might consider highly debatable, even irrelevant to the essence of the business.

As an illustration of this, let me include an excerpt from the Athanasian Creed, which came into use in the 6th century, and is apparently still, I understand, subscribed to by mainstream western Christian churches, though, perhaps understandably, no longer much used in everyday worship:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible .  . . . So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Says who? you may ask. Well, I have to agree, you need a certain kind of intelligence to get your head around that, or even to want to think about trying. You might also suppose the word ‘incomprehensible’, included five times in that text, and rightly applied to any entity worth worshipping as GOD by an intelligent human being, would let you off the hook – but not so. Those words were carefully and specifically chosen to allow authorities to weed out deviants from the true path. The Wikipedia entry on heresieslists fifty-four distinct ideas that have qualified as such over the years under ‘established’ church law, the most recent of which involved a nonagenarian lady in Canada whose followers believed she was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and were duly excommunicated by the Pope in 2007. Early heresies tended to focus on what Jesus actually was, given the church’s insistence that his mother was a virgin and his father was the Lord God Almighty. Clearly an incomprehensible God would need an equally incomprehensible agent to carry out such worldly activities, hence the Holy Spirit (or Ghost, if you prefer). Then the debate tended to get entwined in arguments over whether Jesus’s body was actually like yours and mine, or made of some less corporeal stuff; whether he had a normal soul like other mortal men; and whether there was some kind of divine substance in there too, setting him apart from the rest of us.

The consequence of all this was the establishment of a state religion with a very strict code of ‘beliefs’, and the expulsion, excommunication and persecution of dissenters from the party line (labeled heretics, which has a more resonant ring to it, the better to justify punitive action). The big winner was the Roman Empire, by this time, centred on the eastern capital of Constantinople, especially after the fall of western Rome to the barbarians in 476 CE. It’s also pretty obvious that most of the early action in the birth and evolution of Christianity took place in eastern lands, with the West a relative latecomer on the scene.

Still, once they got going, Western Christians set about making up for lost time. Early convocations of bishops formulating the creeds of the established church took place in eastern cities, Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, and you couldn’t really deny their conclusions without getting yourself out on an insecure limb. What you could do, however, was sneak an extra word or two into the text (in Latin so the ordinary Joe wouldn’t notice), then, when the time was right, insist that your version was the correct one, thereby creating a doctrinal split, giving you grounds to excommunicate the other side and set yourself up as the true church. Which is more or less what the Romans did. It’s known in theological circles as the ‘filioque’ controversy, and relates to a word inserted into the 4th century Nicene Creed in Spain some two centuries later. By the 11th century, Western Christendom felt itself strong enough to challenge Constantinople for supremacy, and that word provided doctrinal justification for the Great Schism of 1053.

Not long after, in 1071, Seljuk Turks defeated the Eastern Romans in battle and began serious incursions into territory long-considered part of the European sphere of influence. Pope Urban II’s launching of the First Crusade in 1096, and subsequent Crusading invasions by armies from Western Europe may have been ostensibly aimed at freeing the so-called Holy Lands from the clutches of Muslim unbelievers; but subsequent events suggest that uniting Europe under Papal and Roman Imperial authority played a major part; as did a desire to expropriate and/or plunder wealthy eastern lands and cities; and to demonstrate to Eastern Christians where the real power in Christendom now lay.

Things didn’t work out exactly according to Papal plans, of course. The Holy Roman Empire never really got off the ground. The   Byzantine Empire fell, but to the Ottoman Turks. It was another five centuries, nearly, before those Holy Places returned to Western control, by which time they had been in Muslim hands for most of the previous two thousand years, and continue to cause severe headaches for all concerned.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church had ‘established’ itself as a dominant player in European power games by the beginning of the second millennium, and the concept of heresy was the major tool in its box of tricks for ensuring compliance. It was obvious to many, even in those days, that the search for temporal power had resulted in an organizational structure that had more interest in matters material than spiritual. For four hundred years before the successful emergence of Protestantism in the 16thcentury, various groups (Catharsand Waldensians in France, for example) were challenging the materialism of the established Roman Church, and being viciously suppressed for their idealism.

The Inquisition was not a peculiarly Spanish invention, but it achieved notoriety during the 15th century as the mechanism whereby the Iberian Peninsula was ‘reclaimed’ for Christendom. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave, and the backsliding converted were ruthlessly hunted out. Some modern Catholic sources suggest that there wasn’t as much burning at stakes as we had been led to believe – but the existence of the threat may have been enough to overcome the reluctance of some; and if not, there were less fatal but nonetheless exemplary methods of persuasion, among which foot-roasting was apparently popular.

An interesting concept I came across recently is something referred to in RC literature as ‘The Black Legend’, which argues that most of that Inquisitorial unpleasantness didn’t actually happen, and that stories about events in Spain and Spanish conquests in Central and South America were concocted and spread by Protestants keen to discredit their religious rivals. To me it sounds rather akin to Holocaust Denial. What was the reason for all those Spanish Jews uprooting themselves from their homeland of centuries and resettling thousands of kilometres away in the Ottoman Empire in the 1490s? Maybe they just felt like a change of scenery?

As we head into another Easter weekend, I find myself wondering again about the strangeness of that central event in the Christian calendar. As far as I can learn, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE determined the date of Easter to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, which is why the holiday moves around from one year to the next (a moveable feast, in technical parlance). But you’d want to ask, why would they do that? If you’re commemorating the date Jesus Christ was crucified, why not go for the actual date, or at least fix a date and run with that? Could it have been that a lot of the local populations were partying up large at spring fertility or seed-planting celebrations and the Jewish Passover at that time of year, and the machinery of state decided to make a virtue of necessity? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and then gradually shift the official emphasis. Makes a lot of sense.

Similar theories have been advanced as origins for the stories of Jesus’s virgin birth at the winter solstice, his crucifixion and resurrection at the spring equinox, and the cult of his mother, Mary. Just down the road from the supposed House of the Virgin Mary near the town of Selçuk in Aegean Turkey are the remains of the classical Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek goddess Artemis is linked to the Phrygian female deity Cybele, and the generic Anatolian mother goddess. Virginity was one of their characteristics, as was, paradoxically, a quality of universal motherhood. Associated with Cybele was a young man, Attis, born to a virgin mother who may or may not have been Cybele. Whatever the case, week-long festivities in their honour were being conducted well into classical times, and may have inspired those early church authorities to add sympathetic embellishments to their own creeds.

Well, who knows? It’s all too long ago for anyone to be able to demonstrate sure proof of what actually went on. What we can say with some certainty is that a good deal of what passes for Christian ‘belief’ was determined by power-hungry gentlemen in days of old with very secular imperial aspirations, and a fair amount of rather nasty coercion was applied to ensure that dissidents were silenced or removed to a safe distance. That’s the reason that ‘disestablishment’ movements have constantly resurfaced over the centuries. In the end, the search for truth starts and ends in your own heart. If the new Pope’s ok with that, then I’m ok with him.

A Christmas Message – Origins of Christianity

A few years ago I was travelling through central and eastern Anatolia on a personal expedition to see some of the less accessible sights of Turkey: the Tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in Konya; the statues of the ancients gods on the summit of Mt Nemrut; the sun setting on the waters of Lake Van; the snow-capped peak of Mt Ararat . . . and I spent a couple of days in the eastern city of Malatya. There weren’t many tourists around at the time, and I don’t look much like a Turk, so I attracted a certain amount of interest among the locals – especially when they found I could speak a bit of Turkish.

I was wandering around the bazaar, and one of the stallholders invited me to drink tea. I accepted, and soon a small crowd gathered, one of whom, it turned out, was a Hadji, a much-respected older gentleman who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was clearly something of a theological authority. It was also soon clear that here was a rare opportunity to corner a Christian and interrogate him about the peculiarities of his religion. Muslims in Turkey are quite accepting of Christians and Jews, since we are all members of the same monotheistic family. Nevertheless, there are some perplexing issues. ‘What’s this business about Jesus being the son of God?’ ‘Can you just briefly explain that Holy Trinity thing?’ Well, I know my Turkish wasn’t so good at the time, so maybe I didn’t do total justice to my western Christian heritage. I certainly felt it was a little unfair that I should have been chosen as the spokesman and apologist for my religion and culture in that small group of hospitable but genuinely curious Turkish Muslims.

My old Sunday School – Takapuna, NZ

I was brought up in a good Christian family. I was sent off to Sunday school by church-going parents who contributed generously to the weekly collection, and even served on committees. I did my best to make sense of the stuff they used to tell us in Sunday School and Bible Class, until the age of about 12 or 13, when the questions seemed to demand more than the old superficial answers. I’d find myself mouthing the words of one of those creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) and wondering if I was the only one harbouring secret doubts about all those affirmations that, one assumed, one was expected to believe if one was to call oneself a Christian:


I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.
Well, it’s a big ask, isn’t it! There’s some fairly demanding stuff in there, wouldn’t you say? ‘Son of God’, ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’, ‘resurrection of the body’ . . . It’s a challenge worthy of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, who trained herself to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Not easy without that kind of determination. In fact, only two of the four Gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, make that claim about the Holy Spirit’s paternity – and you can’t help feeling, as you read their words, that they have the ring of something written after the fact; which, of course, they were . . . at least 60 to 80 years after.
And what about Jesus himself? Did he believe his mother was a virgin? References to ‘my Father’ don’t count for much, because God was pretty much everybody’s father figure in those days. Jesus was more inclined to talk about the ‘son of man’, which is a rather more modest claim, and probably has pretty much the same meaning as ‘human being’.
So where do these so-called ‘creeds’ come from? Who concocted them? And who decided that accepting them holus bolus was the sine qua non of being a Christian? I remember one church minister, more adventurous and intellectually credible than most, making some attempt, from the pulpit, to reassure inquiring minds in his congregation that the words of the creed, seen in the correct light, were not as outrageous as they might at first appear. But in the end, the words are there, aren’t they?  You can’t really weasel your way around ‘descended into hell’ and ‘on the third day he rose again’, can you? And, of course, that’s exactly what the writers intended! But who were those writers?
I guess I’d put all such questions on to the mental back burner long before I came to Turkey. I came here to work, unlike some who come on a search for spiritual truth: the touchingly naïve Americans who, from time to time, embark on expeditions to Mt Ararat hoping to excavate the remains of Noah’s Ark; or others convinced that they are praying in the house once inhabited by the Virgin Mary. However, the very existence of such places brought those questions back to mind . . . and, surprisingly, provided unexpected answers to fundamental questions about Christianity, in a country whose population is reportedly 99% Muslim.
One thing you can’t escape from in Turkey is the reality of the early Christian church, and all those places and people: Peter, Paul, John, Mary, Ephesus, Antioch, Galatia . . . At the same time, you come to see also how much the development of Christianity was tied up with its acceptance as a state religion by the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople, and the political realities of that time and place. So, it’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand, you are confronted with the undeniable reality of people, places and events that gave birth to the Christian religion. On the other, you also see that much of the dogma of that religion, the articles of faith which one was expected to espouse as a true believer, were formulated and codified long after the founding events by committees of priests and politicians, for what might often have been pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons.
So let’s start with the real places and people. The Tigris and Euphrates are branches of the river that, according to Genesis, flowed out of the Garden of Eden – and both rise in eastern Anatolia. You’ll be unlikely to find remains of Noah’s Ark, but Mt Ararat can definitely be seen rising to 5185 metres near the border of Turkey and Iran. Head south and west and you will come to the city of Urfa, where you will find a queue of faithful Muslims waiting to enter a cave deemed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
OK, that old stuff, you may say. But what about the New Testament, the actual Christian business? Well, keep heading west towards the Mediterranean coast and you will find yourself in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, the base of St Paul’s missionary activities. You can visit the grotto-church of St Peter, in this city where Christians were, so the story goes, first actually called ‘Christians’. Somewhat more accessible to the tourist resorts of Aegean Turkey lies the town of Selçuk, a short drive or a middling walk from the site of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved cities of the ancient world. It was also the location of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, all of which are to be found not far away in other parts of western Turkey. There is a widely accepted tradition that the apostle John, charged by the dying Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary, took her eventually to Ephesus, where they both drew their last breaths. Certain it is that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had a basilica church built there in the 6th century over what was believed to be John’s final resting place – not far from a restored house held by many to have been the last dwelling of Jesus’s mother, Mary.
I could go on, but you get the point. It was a long time ago, but these are real people, and real places we are talking about here. However, things start getting a little murky when you move from history and geography, into the realms of faith, theology and dogma. Certainly the new religion took off, for one reason and another, and began to be seen by the Romans, who controlled most of the Mediterranean world (and much of Europe) in those days, as a threat to their established way-of-life. The story of the violinist-Emperor Nero is well known – he is said to have passed blame for his own torching of the Imperial City on to the Christian community, which then justified an orgy of bloodthirsty torture and execution lasting from 64-68 CE. More open to debate is the theory that, far from terminating the new religion, Nero’s excesses of violent persecution actually aroused sympathy for the oppressed Christians, and gave the movement strength.
Persecution continued, however, until the reign of Constantine I. He it was who founded the city of Constantinople in 330 CE, and is called ‘the Great’ on account of being the first Christian Roman Emperor. Again, there is some debate about how he acquired his new faith, but clearly, by this point in history, being a Christian had become rather more socially acceptable. The special relationship of a man with his mother is proverbial in the Mediterranean world, and it is known that Constantine’s mother was a Christian. A grander, and rather more ‘imperial’ tale asserts that, on the eve of the battle against his rival Maxentius, to unite the Empire after a period of division, Constantine had a dream instructing him to display the symbolic letters of Christ on his soldiers’ shields. His troops won the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From here began the majestic pageant of Christianity leading to its eventual cultural domination of the world – or its downward slide into politics and corruption, depending on your point of view. Clearly, once Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, there was a need for an orthodox position and a clearly delineated set of beliefs. The first problem that required solving was what to do about the bishops and other high-ranking churchmen who had not only recanted their faith during the years of persecution, but, in some cases, to save their own skins, had actually dobbed in members of their own congregations. Certain purists, known as ‘Donatists’, were, apparently, of the opinion that such turncoats should not be allowed back into the church now that the bad times were over. As we might imagine, however, there is advantage to an emperor in having high-ranking subordinates who can be relied on to toe the party line – and not only were the former apostates allowed back, but many of them returned to high office. Needless to say, there would have been unhappiness in some quarters with this decision.
Nevertheless, having established a coterie of bishops to lead his new institutionalised state church, Constantine called them together in the city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nicaea, incidentally, still exists as Iznik in modern Turkey, and was the location of a major ceramics industry during Ottoman times. But not to digress, the Council of Nicaea was charged with laying down a code of beliefs for the Church, and in doing so, to alienate heretics who might threaten the state monopoly. The ‘heresy’ of Gnosticism had already been dealt with in the previous century; Gnosticism being a mystical religious philosophy predating Christianity, which tended to avoid the more literal-minded excesses of mainstream Christianity. Having got rid of this threat, it was really just a matter of haggling over details, though these details did cause some serious splitting of the one ‘holy catholic church’.
The Nicene gathering had to deal with the so-called ‘Arian’ heresy. Well, I have no intention of trying to explain this or any of the subsequent theories in a similar vein which these and later holy fathers debated at great length, and, in their infinite wisdom, handed down decisions on. Some of them concerned the perplexing doctrine of the Holy Trinity – in particular, what exactly was the nature of the three beings, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and what were their relationships to each other, if, that is, they were actually separate at all, which they weren’t, or aren’t. As Spike Milligan used to say, ‘It’s all rather confusing, really!’
Now you might think, with me, that some matters are better left alone, as being beyond the powers of mere mortals to comprehend; and the details might safely be left to the individual understanding of willing believers. Not so, however. The all-knowing holy fathers apparently felt themselves quite capable of making pronouncements on such matters, and began the tradition of formulating creeds for the guidance of future generations. And the wording of these creeds, far from being broad enough to encompass a spectrum of individual beliefs, was, on the contrary, agonised over at great length, so as to specifically proscribe any deviation from the ’true path’, as determined by the aforesaid holy fathers.
Well, it’s a complex but interesting business. Clearly, the process I have touched on here did not end in 325 CE at Iznik. It continued at Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) in 451 CE, and at other councils throughout the days of the Byzantine Roman Empire. The situation was further complicated by the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054 CE, when Western and Eastern Christendom decided to go their separate ways; and again in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation of the 16thCentury – but we can leave those discussions for another day.
In summary, however, what I want to say is this: I feel a whole lot more comfortable about my Western religio-cultural heritage since coming to Turkey. I have a better understanding of the relationship between the world’s three great monotheistic religions. I have visited places which have added a sense of reality and objectivity to the traditions and culture which I absorbed with the air I breathed through my childhood and education. I have come to see that much of what bothered me, as an inquiring adolescent, about the Christian Church, is, to say the least, of questionable relevance to the philosophy and message of its eponymous founder. And if anything I have said makes you feel a little better in the coming weeks of the festive season, then I will feel my time has been well spent.