Common rhythms and songs unite Greeks and Turks

n_101555_1I’m passing on this article that appeared in my local English language paper today:

Though often at odds in the past, Greece and Turkey share a bond revealed not only in food or language but also in music celebrated on both sides of the Aegean Sea.

Turks and Greeks have preserved many similarities when it comes to music, from style to instruments and lyrics.

Cooperation between Turkish and Greek singers has been a stalwart and singers and musicians from both countries are known on both sides of the Aegean Sea.

Ömer Faruk Tekbilek, a Turkish multi-instrumentalist and composer who has worked with Greek musicians in the past, performed in Athens in June while a concert on the island of Lesbos showcased dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of Konya.        

Asia Minor and Istanbul music – the kind played by motley bands  featuring violins, lyres, and other stringed instruments such as baglamas, outis, saz, santouris, bouzoukis and clarinets – are especially prevalent in both countries. 

“The songs found in both musical traditions mainly come from the region of Marmara and they are popular folk songs with lyrics in both languages, some of which were recorded in Greece from the late 1920s until the Second World War,” according to Nikos Andrikos, from the musicology department of Ionian University and research associate at the Technological Educational Institute of Traditional Music in Arta.

Read the whole article.

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Greece’s Hidden Centuries – Revising History and Forgiving the Turks

A news item earlier this year announced that a mosque in Thessaloniki, had been opened for Muslim worshippers. Not such a big deal, you might think, if you are resident in another major European city where mosques are a not uncommon feature of post-modern multi-culturalism. The situation in Greece, however, is an altogether different story, for a number of reasons.
  • First, until the early 20thcentury there were over twenty mosques in that city, known in those days as Selanik, and a major city of the Ottoman Empire. Now there is one, and that opened in April this year.
  • Second, Athens is the only European capital city that does not have a functioning mosque.
  • Third, the newly re-opened mosque in Thessaloniki is actually 111 years old but served in its intended capacity for only twenty-one of those years. It was closed, along with all the other mosques in the city, in 1923, after the unsuccessful Greek invasion of Anatolia necessitated a population exchange according to religious affiliation.
  • Fourth, the Yeni, or New Mosque, as it is called, designed by an Italian architect, is notable for its interior and exterior design. One writer describes it as: ‘A hybrid of European and Islamic styles, fusing Baroque, neoclassical, and Byzantine, it also contains Jewish features.’ The reason for this last peculiarity is that Thessaloniki/Selanik, was, in Ottoman times, one of Europe’s main centres of Jewish religion and culture. Some of those Jews, however, as a result of events I have described elsewhere, converted, at least overtly, to Islam – while continuing, according to some, to retain the practices of their original faith behind closed doors. 

Greece and its next-door neighbour Turkey have a strange relationship, whose intricacies can only be understood by a study of their shared history. Visitors from one country to the other find great similarities in the cuisine – and citizens of both nations argue heatedly about who actually invented Turkish/Greek coffee, the delicious sweet pastry baklava, or the stuffed vine-leaves known as dolma/dolmas. It has been said jokingly of Britain and the United States that they are two countries divided by a common language. It might be said of Greeks and Turks that they are one people divided by two religions.
Some months ago I referred to a book I had been reading, ‘Greece, the Hidden Centuries’, and I undertook to write about it in more detail. In the mean time, my attention was captured by political events in Turkey and Egypt, and my promise remained unfulfilled. The situation in Turkey, at least, appears to have settled down somewhat, and what’s happening in Egypt is there for all to see – so the time has come to tell you about that very interesting book.
The author, David Brewer, seems to be an unusually modest chap and you won’t learn much about him personally from Amazon’s author page, or even a Google search. The notes in my copy of the book told me simply that Mr Brewer ‘is the author of “The Flame of Freedom: The Greek War of Independence, 1821-1833”. After studying Classics at Oxford University, he divided his life between teaching, journalism and business before devoting himself to the study of the history of Greece.’
What you will find, if you visit the Amazon website, is an interesting range of opinions indicating clearly that the author has ventured into controversial territory, and challenged the strongly held beliefs of some readers. As one reviewer comments, the book is obviously anathema to the average Greek whose notions of the period are derived from his grandmother, his church, and from Greek political thought.’
One such Greek writes: ‘it is evident by his conclusions that it is simply biased and one sided. I am sorry Mr Brewer, but you have it very wrong on this one. I do not recommend this book.
With all due respect to that Greek reviewer and his grandmother, you’d have to think that an Oxford Classics graduate would have some sympathy for the Greek cause. That he took the trouble to write a history of the Greek War of Independence (fought to break free from the Ottoman Empire) would suggest a continuation of that sympathy into modern times, and perhaps some detailed knowledge of the subject. In his introductory notes to the book under discussion, Brewer informs the reader that, out of respect for the Greeks who prefer to hold that they were ruled by Turks rather than Ottomans, and have never accepted the loss of their Byzantine Empire, he will speak of Turks and Constantinople (rather than Istanbul). This in itself should convince an objective reader that the author has gone to some lengths to avoid upsetting Greeks – even at the risk of offending Turks.
Brewer sets out the rationale for the book in his prologue, subtitled ‘The Greek View of Turkish Rule’, which he begins with an anecdote about the arrival of an Ottoman official in a Greek village in 1705. The purpose of his visit was to recruit fifty youths who would be taken to Istanbul to be trained for service in the Sultan’s court or the elite military unit known as Janissaries. There could be no refusal of course, but the villagers not only refused – they killed the official then formed a band of outlaws whose principal occupation was robbing and murdering Turks. Needless to say, the Ottoman authorities took a dim view. Retribution was forceful and brutal.
The anecdote illustrates the approved Greek view of Ottoman rule. Greeks were virtual slaves, the flower of their male offspring were torn from their families by force, and any attempts to assert their human rights met with vicious suppression. This state of affairs continued from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the foundation of the modern kingdom of Greece in 1833. During that black period of almost 400 years, referred to as Tourkokratia, Greeks were under constant pressure to change their religion, were not allowed to build churches, had to educate their children in secret to keep their language alive, and were heavily taxed. It was a dark age where Greeks were cut off from the processes of modernisation going on in the rest of Europe, and the Turks left nothing of value to show for their four centuries of rule.
Challenging this received version of history is not a task undertaken lightly. In his final chapter, ‘Some Conclusions’, Brewer gives an account of an attempt by the Greek government in 2006 to introduce a new school history textbook for twelve-year-olds. He quotes the Minister of Education, Marietta Yannakou, as saying, ‘I believe in truth, in what really happened in history. We must not tell children fairy tales at school.’ In the face of fierce opposition from the Church, some academics and the leader of the far-right political party, the textbook was withdrawn for some judicious revision. In spite of that, Ms Yannakou lost her parliamentary seat in the 2007 election, and the book disappeared from the education agenda.
Between his prologue and his concluding remarks, Brewer covers all the pertinent issues in a detailed but readable fashion. What was the status of Greeks before the Ottomans arrived? What actually happened when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople? Would Greeks have been free and happy if not for the Ottomans? Were all Greeks of one mind on the question of freedom and independence? Did they get what they wanted in the end?
Brewer limits his discussion largely to the Greek mainland and the islands in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas generally considered to be their territory. In fact, however, as he says in his prologue, the Greek dream, formulated shortly after gaining independence from the Ottomans, was the recreation of former Byzantine glory, a Great Idea (Megali Idea) envisaging an empire centred, not on Athens, but on Constantinople. The likelihood of this, however, had disappeared long before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious troops into that city.
The once great Roman Empire had lost its western half when the city of Rome fell in 476 CE. The increasingly Greek eastern Romans had two peaks of imperial greatness in the 6th and 10thcenturies – but found themselves constantly under threat from Arab and other Islamic expansion from the south and east, and later from their Crusading western Christian brethren. The latter, despite their stated purpose of evicting the Muslim infidels from the ‘Holy Lands’, set up kingdoms and principalities in former Byzantine territories, even besieging, sacking and occupying for 57 years, the imperial capital in the early 13thcentury.
In fact, long before 1453, Greeks were predominantly a subject people – and even after that year, their overlords were not Turks alone, but Europeans, especially Genoese and Venetians, masters of the Mediterranean until the rise of Ottoman power largely supplanted them. So, it was not from the Greeks themselves but from the Venetians that the Ottomans seized mainland Greece, Chios and other Aegean islands in the early 16thcentury, and Cyprus in 1570. Venetians had ruled the island of Crete for 400 years before finally surrendering it to the Ottomans in 1669, and for twenty years after that, were still trying to reconquer the Greek mainland. Brewer suggests it is at least open to debate whether Greeks were better off under Venetian or Ottoman rule, given that the Italians were Catholics whose Church had no great love for their schismatic eastern cousins.
President Obama meets with Bartholomew I,
Patriarch of the Orthodox Church
based in Istanbul, Turkey
Contrary to the commonly painted portrait of the Turks as brutal suppressors of subject peoples, Muslims viewed Christians and Jews as ‘people of the book’. Orthodox Christians, Jews and Armenian Christians ‘each formed a partly self-governing community, a millet. Each had a spiritual head who was also to some extent the political leader: for the Jews it was the Chief Rabbi, for the Armenians the Gregorian Patriarch, and for the Orthodox, the Orthodox Patriarch’. According to Brewer, 100 years after the conquest of Constantinople there were 77 churches on either side of the Golden Horn. Even today, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs continue to minister to their flocks from headquarters in Turkish Istanbul. My research indicates that there are sixteen synagogues in modern Istanbul and somewhere between forty and 123 churches. I can’t account for the discrepancy, but even the radical Armenian website Armenian Weekly admits that there are 28 active Armenian churches. According to Wikipedia, at the beginning of the 20th century (70 years after mainland Greece became independent) there were 1.8 million Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire. Even after the enforced population exchange of 1923, 200,000 of those ‘were permitted to remain’ – all of which suggests that life under Ottoman rule must have had some compensations.
Returning to Brewer’s book, the author makes the interesting suggestion in his prologue that ‘Greek bitterness about past rulers largely depends upon what happened after that rule ended, and has rather less to do with the nature of the rule itself.’ Genoa and Venice, even Italy itself, no longer wield much power in world affairs, so there is little to be gained from venting spleen on them. Russia proved an unreliable ally over the centuries of Ottoman rule – but in the end, with Britain and France, helped to win the naval battle[1]that secured Greek independence. Besides, they are fellow Orthodox Christians (at least in history and traditional culture), so it’s harder to hate them. It might have been a different story, however, if they had been allowed to fulfil their ambitions of capturing Constantinople/Istanbul and controlling the Bosporus Straits.
The Turks, however, for better or worse, continue to occupy that city of cities, and show no signs of relinquishing their hold. It was Turkish nationalists who turned back the Greek invasion of Asia Minor, on which they had embarked with the encouragement of their European allies, especially Great Britain. When their erstwhile friends left them in the lurch, there was little to be gained by aiming recriminations in that direction. It was Turks who drove the Greek army into the sea in the victory that ensured Ottoman Orthodox Christians would have to be uprooted from their ancestral homeland, to be exchanged for Muslims expelled from the Greek mainland, in what Greeks came to know as the Asia Minor Catastrophe. For Turks, on the other hand, it is the War of Liberation..
Brewer concludes his final chapter with a quotation from a modern Greek poet, George Seferis: ‘The Greeks say it was the Turks who burned down Smyrna[2],the Turks say it was the Greeks. Who will discover the truth? The wrong has been committed. The important thing is: who will redeem it?’
It’s a step in the right direction that the Greek government is reopening a mosque in Thessaloniki – though we might wonder why they chose that one, with its dubious Islamic provenance, rather than the 15th century Hamza Bey Camii, which suffered the indignity of being used as a cinema before being abandoned to decay. As for Athens, plans for a mosque there seem to have stalled for a variety of reasons. Again, rather than reopening one of the historic mosques in that city, despite Turkish government offers to finance the project, the Greek government planned to erect a new building from scratch, according to a Reuters report, in a disused naval base littered with weeds and rubble in a rundown neighborhood.’ Even that humble proposal, however, seems to have foundered on the rocks of opposition from the ultra-right Golden Dawn Party. Greek construction companies are showing a reluctance to tender for the job, allegedly from ‘fears of intimidation’.
Brewer’s achievement in this book is to draw attention to a major act of historiographical distortion. Of course all countries prefer to view their own history in terms flattering to themselves, or evoking sympathy for their plight. In this case, however, the Greek ‘fairy tale’ has found wide acceptance beyond their own shores. It is not merely 400 years of history that have been hidden. From the final conquest of the Greek city states by the army of Rome in 146 BCE to the foundation of the independent kingdom in 1832, there was no Greek political entity as such. The Byzantine greeks are a Western construct. That empire considered itself Roman, and its church, Roman Orthodox (Rum Ortodoks in Turkish). It has suited Western powers, for various political and quasi-religious reasons, and for a thousand years or more, to pretend otherwise.
Thanks to David Brewer for lifting the veil. I found his argument to be well researched and convincing. While detailed notes and an extensive bibliography lend scholarly credibility, the author’s style is lively and accessible to the non-academic reader. I think he has got this business pretty right, and I emphatically recommend this book.
Greece: The Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence David Brewer (IB Tauris, 2010)


[1] Battle of Navarino, 1827
[2] Modern Izmir

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)

Redefining Democracy – and getting the monkey off Turkey’s back

I’ve spent several years trying to define and or describe Turkey and its people on this blog – and now I feel I’m ready to tackle one of the world’s really big questions. What is this ‘democracy’ thing that people keep talking about?
William J Clinton to the contrary, it was the USA’s 16th President Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, who asserted that 750,000 of his citizens would die in the Civil War ‘that government of the people, by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ Well, he didn’t know the exact figure at that stage, of course, but he must have known it would be a lot. He was, we assume, expressing his support for a democratic system of government, despite the fact that the vast bulk of the US population in those days was not eligible to cast a vote.
Lambs to the slaughter – so what’s changed?
The word ‘democracy’ has a long history, yet as a concept, it has only relatively recently become widely accepted as a desirable goal, and among political leaders, tends to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. Encyclopedia entries and tourist brochures describing the modern nation of Greece often refer to that land as the cradle of democracy. In truth, however, the much vaunted Athenian system of Cleisthenes lasted a mere two hundred years, more than two and a half millennia ago – and at best allowed for the participation of perhaps twenty percent of the population.
Subsequently, there was not even self-government in that small corner of the Mediterranean until the 19th century when the Great Powers of Europe wrested it from the Ottoman Empire. Even then, self-government is a misleading term, given that said Great Powers installed, first a German, then a Danish Prince on the throne of the kingdom they had created. The foreign-imposed monarchy lasted, on and off, until 1967 when it was finally deposed by a military coup, whose generals ruled the country with an iron fist until 1974. So it seems democracy as a political system has an uncertain, questionable pedigree at best.
Still, it’s a worthy aim, for all that. However, you can understand that some might view it with cynicism. Check any collection of quotationson the subject: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.(Winston Churchill);The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.’ (Charles Bukowski).
Apart from the cynics, much of the other wisdom has to do with the fragility of the concept when put into practice, and its vulnerability to abuse and manipulation: ‘Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. (Franklin D. Roosevelt);A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful.’ (Charles W. Pickering).   Education of the masses is seen as an indispensable component, as is constant vigilance, by which we may understand, an effective system of checks and balances – not to mention a need for honest folks in high places, and probably compulsory polygraph testing for lying and hypocrisy, especially in the case of high court judges.
The big problem is that in any country or institution, the ruling elite is always understandably reluctant to surrender its grasp on power. As they are forced to give up concessions to populist reformers – abolition of slavery, universal suffrage (especially for the non-wealthy, and for women), an open press, the secret ballot, objective supervision of vote-counting and so on – they are obliged to find more subtle ways of ensuring that votes cast do not unduly hamper their pursuit of riches and power.
One such method is the sophisticated, expensive and lucrative system of political lobbying. According to Wikipedia: ‘Wall Street lobbyists and the financial industry spent upwards of $100 million in one year to “court regulators and lawmakers”, particularly since they were “finalizing new regulations for lending, trading and debit card fees.” . . . Big banks were “prolific spenders” on lobbying; JPMorgan Chase has an in-house team of lobbyists who spent $3.3 million in 2010; the American Bankers Associationspent $4.6 million on lobbying; an organization representing 100 of the nation’s largest financial firms called the Financial Services Roundtable spent heavily as well. A trade group representing Hedge Funds spent more than $1 million in one quarter trying to influence the government about financial regulations, including an effort to try to change a rule that might demand greater disclosure requirements for funds.’ Given this level of expenditure, what would you say are the chances of persuading Congress that Wall St needs a little more regulating?
Another method of circumventing the democratic process is the creation of ‘flexible’ labour markets – which essentially means the removal of manufacturing and service industries from countries with high labour costs (read ‘a reasonable standard of living for all’) to poor countries where workers can be exploited for wretchedly low wages and conditions. A useful side benefit of this ‘flexibility’ is a level of ‘structural’ unemployment in the original country such that those who do have jobs can be frightened into accepting lower pay and reduced conditions.
Parallel to this ‘flexible labour market’ runs the establishment of a senior management elite with the power to remunerate themselves beyond King Croesus’s wildest dreams for their achievements in reducing costs and maximizing profits for their companies. Since most of their work force is either employed for slave-labour wages in distant third world lands, or too frightened and de-unionised to complain, and the unemployed, on the whole, don’t have a voice, we don’t hear a lot of criticism. There have, admittedly, been protests in France over the salary package of Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, though even the French government couldn’t convince him it was excessive. Reutersreported recently that, Ghosn earned 2.79 million euros from Renault in 2011 and 9.92 million from Nissan in its corresponding financial year, making him one of the highest-paid CEOs in France or Japan.’ In the same article, it was noted that, ‘Renault is cutting 7,500 jobs over three years . . . and is demanding union concessions on pay, flexibility and working hours in return for guarantees to keep French plants open.’ Interestingly, my Turkish dailyreported the other day that Mr Ghosn had agreed to a 30% cut in salary if workers in Turkey’s Renault plant accepted the company’s new contract. Nice to see the developing world fighting back! Still, it must be comforting to know that you can take a 30% cut and still make 9.6 million euros for a year’s work, if work is what the gentleman in question actually does.
It seems, for the most part, that corporate CEOs can pretty much do what they like, especially those in the financial sector, who don’t have to worry about uppity union representatives from the factory floor. Nevertheless, you can’t be absolutely sure some bleeding heart President isn’t going to get nervous about the effect all this is having on the morale of the nation as a whole, and start trying to change things. Lobbying alone may not be sufficient. Political campaign funding is a tried and tested means of buying the support of the people’s elected representatives. A recent phenomenon, or at least one that has recently been brought to light, is known as “dark money”[1]. What we have here is wealthy individuals hiding behind seemingly public-spirited organizations donating large sums to politicians’ election campaigns.  Huffington Post gives some examples: The Karl Rove-founded Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the shadowy American Future Fund, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent $295 million since the beginning of 2011, targeting candidates from President Barack Obama on down to the most contested House and Senate races, all without disclosing the names of their donors to the public.
‘These groups are organized as either social welfare nonprofits under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code or, in the case of the Chamber of Commerce, as a trade association under section 501(c)(6). Since these groups qualify for tax-exempt status, they are also exempt from disclosing their donors, which political committees are required to do.
‘In total, these “dark money” groups have combined to spend $416 million on the 2012 election.’
Once you have these systems in place, you can pretty much guarantee that things will go the way of big business. On the other hand, there remains the problem of investigative news media that may probe and embarrass your tame politicians. It’s not a major problem, since your big business probably owns most of the media anyway – but still you may get the occasional maverick. What you really need to do is ensure that your system is so deeply entrenched and unresponsive to uncontrolled influence and change that most of the citizens who might want reform have been effectively disenfranchised. A post-election article in Time Magazinenoted that large numbers of reporters slaved throughout the presidential campaign to ferret out lies and contradictions perpetrated by candidates:
‘Clear examples of deception fill websites, appear on nightly newscasts and run on the front pages of newspapers. But the truth squads have had only marginal success in changing the behavior of the campaigns and almost no impact on the outside groups that peddle unvarnished falsehoods with even less accountability. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” explained Neil Newhouse, Romney’s pollster, echoing his industry’s conventional wisdom.’ Clearly both political party machines are happy to play fast and loose with the truth, secure in the knowledge that the system is stacked against accountability.
In consequence, voter turnout in US Presidential elections seems to reflect a lack of belief in the electoral system. It is estimated that 57.5% of eligible voters turned out at the polls in 2012. Mitt Romney was ridiculed and lambasted for stating that 47% of voters would vote for Obama no matter what, so he didn’t have to worry about them. In fact, 43% of US voters, approximately 93 million citizens, have been so effectively cut out of the democratic process that neither party needs to think about them.
Which brings me to my next point in the sorry tale of exemplary democracy. Does anyone really understand how representatives are sent to the US Congress and Senate, and how a President is elected? And if they do, can they explain to what extent the results actually reflect the wishes of US voters? The current system for electing a US President was designed by the founding fathers at the birth of the Republic, allegedly to guard against potential evils, one of which was the dominance of party politics. In fact, the same two parties have been taking turns to screw the country for the past 160 years, the ‘Democrats’ since 1832, and the Republicans since 1854. Interestingly, at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War, the Democrats were actually the pro-slavery party – another bend sinister on the ancestral escutcheon of democracy.
Former First Lady Hillary Clinton is said to have told the European Parliament in 2009, ‘I never understood multi-party democracy. It’s hard enough with two parties.’ If Madame Clinton actually did utter those words, and if they truly reflect her opinion, you’d have to wonder whether she has the mental equipment to cast a responsible vote, never mind carry out the duties of Secretary of State or, God forbid, President of the most powerful nation on Earth! For Mrs Clinton’s information, the majority of the world’s democratic states employ a proportional representation electoral system which allows for the presence in their legislative assemblies of several political parties – and most of those countries have a higher turnout at the polls than the USA. Not surprising when you remember that the media were telling us prior to the 2012 election that, if you didn’t live in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada or New Hampshire, you might as well stay home for all the difference your vote would make to the final result.
One of the things that have impressed me about Turkey in recent years is the capacity for change within the system. When I first came to this country in 1995, the AK Party currently in power did not exist. Now, none of the parties involved in government at that time can manage a single representative in parliament. Very likely, Mrs Clinton would struggle in such an environment. She wouldn’t know which lobbyists to listen to, or which unaffiliated public interest group to accept campaign funds from – or even which party to join. The Turkish system may be tough on politicians, financiers and retired army generals, but it does keep Turkish voters interested. And I suspect a good number of those 93 million non-voting Americans would make more effort if there were a little more choice on their voting papers.
Undoubtedly there are social and economic problems in Turkey. The education system is desperately in need of serious expert attention, for instance, and the gulf between rich and poor is unacceptably high. On the other hand, the nation has so far avoided the worst effects of the world financial crisis that has battered its European neighbours Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even the UK. The home of modern democracy seems to have silenced its discontented poor for the time being, but tens of thousands have been taking to the streets regularly in the PIIGS nations in recent months to protest their governments’ imposed ‘austerity’ measures.
‘Austerity’, needless to say, is generally understood to mean reducing pensions and social welfare benefits for the retired and unemployed, cutting back the public sector workforce, and reducing spending on education and public health. Little in the way of belt-tightening is required from the banking and finance sectors – Irish banks, for example, have reportedlyreceived 64 billion euros in government handouts to keep them solvent. Furthermore, those government handouts are funded from tax paid by the diminishing pool of wage and salary earners, or more likely, given their indebtedness, by government borrowing from banks. In the mean time, the UK parliament has published a report announcing plans to try and collect billions of pounds in tax from US multinational corporations such as Starbucks, Google and Amazon, who use a technique referred to as ‘profit-shifting’ to pretty much avoid paying any tax at all. The New York Times reported the other day that, Starbucks said . . . that it was reviewing its British tax practices after the company disclosed recently that it had paid no corporate tax in Britain last year despite generating £398 million in sales.’ Unfortunately, the article goes on to say, the British Government expects that their campaign to extract a little internal revenue from these sources will cost them at least £77 million.
Still, the British taxpayer has got it soft compared to his or her American counterpart. According to a recent article in Time, the Pentagon is splashing out $400 billion dollars to purchase 2,457 Lockheed F-35 fighters that are apparently starting to show many of the attributes of a white elephant. At approximately $160 million each, the single-seat warplane costs about the same as a 204-seater Boeing 767. I don’t remember seeing that voters were offered the opportunity to say yay or nay to this project in last year’s national presidential poll – but I suspect not. The same article quotes a Republican senator saying that US spending on ‘defense’ now accounts for 45% of the world’s total.
Well, so much for the power of a democratically exercised vote, and the fair spread of the tax burden over those able to pay. What about equality before the law, another foundation stone of a democratic system? A recent study carried out in New Zealand by an academic at Victoria University found that white-collar fraudsters are far less likely to spend time in jail than denizens of society’s lower echelons hauled into court for welfare benefit cheating – in spite of the fact that the sums of money involved are invariably much larger in the former group.
Like me, you may be following the case of Jesse Jackson Jr, former Chicago Democrat congressman once talked about as having the potential to become the first black president’, who has admitted charges of channelling campaign funds to his personal use. Apparently Jesse Jr delegated the responsibility for the family tax forms to his wife Sandi, a Chicago City Councillor – who is also facing charges for filing false returns. Let’s see what happens to them, bearing in mind that a blue-collar employee who steals from his or her employer is usually treated harshly by the justice system. And then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief with plans to run for President of France. His stellar career was derailed when a hotel maid accused him of sexual assault. Stauss-Kahn’s lawyers were able to discredit the woman and avoid criminal prosecution, but she subsequently brought a civil case against him. The latest news is that the case has been settled out of court for an undisclosed, but presumably large sum. Well, you’d have to wonder why the guy would want to do that if he was, in fact, innocent. You can’t help feeling that Big Abe’s famous words could be modified these days to: Government of the people by a small and privileged elite largely for the benefit of that latter group. Monsieur Dominique, incidentally, would have been standing as a Socialist candidate!
Anyway, where does all that leave us? I’m sure you knew or suspected most of the foregoing, even if you may not have known all the fine details. I fondly remember the days when my own name was on the ballot paper in New Zealand, which made casting a vote in national elections so much easier. These days it seems I don’t qualify to exercise democratic voting rights in New Zealand or Turkey, so for the most part, I just sit on the sidelines and offer helpful comments. Still, I do feel that the Western media should assist in getting their own national houses in order before criticising too harshly democracy in Turkey and elsewhere.


[1] coined by the Sunlight Foundation

Turkish Wine – Rediscovering an ancient art

I come from a beer-drinking country. Well, we’re not as mono-cultural as we once were, thank God. When I was a kid, New Zealand culture could be pretty much summed up by the three words: Rugby, Racing, and Beer. There was an institution known as ‘The 6 O’clock Swill’. This phenomenon owed its existence to the fact that pubs in NZ used to close their doors at 6 pm, or shortly thereafter. Those who had built up a thirst during their working day (mostly men at that period of our history) had one hour to get to the nearest watering hole and quaff as much ale as they could before the law of the land decreed that they should get out and head home to their loving wives and/or families. As you may imagine, this was not conducive to the development of civilised drinking habits – and the effects are still felt, a generation or two on.
A selection of Turkish wines
Of course, other alcoholic beverages were available. The more sophisticated or perhaps feminine might sip sherry, or something euphemistically labelled ‘Pimms’. Continental tastes were provided for by immigrants from Eastern Europe, who produced something distantly akin to red wine, commonly referred to as ‘Dally Plonk’. Unshaven gentlemen of no fixed abode were sometimes to be seen on park benches sampling this brew from bottles concealed in plain brown paper bags.
I’m happy to say, we are a more civilised nation these days. A referendum in 1967 extended bar hours to 10 pm – allowing for less frenetic speed drinking. Somewhere around the late 1970s, a wine culture started to gain a foothold. Citizens began to discover the surprising fact that moderate consumption of alcohol could accompany a meal and intelligent conversation. The drinks themselves could become a topic for discussion: “Well, I’d say this full-bodied red shows dark rich berry, chocolate and spice characters enhanced by subtle toasty oak nuances, what would you say darling?” “Oh do shut up, Charles, and pass the bottle, won’t you?”
These days, teachers and civil servants nearing retirement age aspire to establishing a boutique winery in Hawkes Bay or Marlborough, or some other location where the micro-climate is conducive and the real estate prices more affordable. New Zealand wines have a well-earned reputation abroad, winning medals at international events, and wine exports are a nice little earner for our humble economy. New Zealanders of a certain class pride themselves, not only on knowing the difference between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, but also on what vintages of which particular vineyards produced the best ones.  
What I want to say here is, though, this didn’t happen over night. An increasingly wealthy society and an expanding middle class availed themselves of greater opportunities to travel abroad and see for themselves the older oenophile cultures of Europe. Organisations of wine producers brought together like-minded entrepreneurs who exerted persuasive pressure on governments to create a favourable climate for growth, and on the media to help in educating the populace and building a potential market. Another factor has undoubtedly been a hard-line approach by authorities to drivers who drink, such that it is a brave soul who gets behind the steering wheel after even one beer or glass of wine.
Two generations, then, have seen radical changes in drinking patterns of New Zealanders (and our Australian cousins, though I have to confess, they were always a little ahead of us). These days, executives and other high-flyers watch rugby matches while sipping quality wines in corporate boxes with their spouses or paramours. Of course, remnants of the old ways live on in footie clubs and suburban beer barns – but as a nation, we have diversified in many fields, and alcohol consumption is one measure of this.
So, what about Turkey, you’re asking. Weren’t you going to say something about that? And so I am. The land occupied by the modern Republic of Turkey is one of the birthplaces of human civilisation. Asia Minor and the plains between the two rivers, whose waters rise in south-eastern Turkey, witnessed the first domestication of animals and the growing of crops for food, the moulding and firing of clay to make pots, and the early stages of metallurgy. Hand in hand with the march of civilisation went the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. It seems likely that the first wild grapes were cultivated here, and the first hesitant steps taken on the road to producing an award-winning pinot noir. The classical civilisations of Greece and Rome enjoyed their wine. They even assigned responsibility for it to a junior member of their divine pantheon – the Romans, Bacchus, and the Greeks, Dionysus. After the Imperial authorities gave up massacring and otherwise persecuting Christians, and Romans and Greeks joined the ranks of the Saved, apparently they didn’t let their new faith stand in the way of imbibing an amphora or two of Bacchus’s nectar.
Grape cultivation and wine production in Asia Minor continued in good heart until the Muslim Ottomans took over. The Prophet Muhammed was, I understand, quite specific in his proscription of wine for true believers. Why didn’t he mention beer, cider, Pimms and other spirituous liquors (if, in fact, he didn’t. My Arabic is not up to checking the original text to see what his exact words were)? Well, one reason very likely is that, in the evolution of alcoholic beverages, distillation arrived relatively late on the scene. Scotch whisky may now be regarded as a traditional tipple North o’ the Border, but most of the great whisky houses in fact date from the 19th century, as by the way, do most of the clan tartans. Anyway, the Prophet’s lack of omniscience on this one left an alcoholic loophole for Turks to slip through. For some at least, obeying the letter of Koranic law and abstaining from wine is enough – and the considerably more powerful rakı, with an alcohol content of 45%, is readily accepted.
It also helped that the Ottomans adopted a tolerant approach to religious minorities within their borders. Jews, Orthodox Greeks and Armenians were not only permitted to observe their religious customs, speak their own languages and educate their children relatively unmolested, they were also allowed to grow their grapes, trample the vintage, ferment, bottle, sell and imbibe the fruit of the vine pretty much according to established practice. More than a few Sultans, most of whom anyway were born to Christian mothers, are reputed to have liked a drop from time to time – and no doubt some of their Muslim subjects saw little harm, occasionally, in joining their Brothers-of-the-Book in a glass or two for friendship’s sake.
Nevertheless, it must be true that, for a considerable period, at a time when European civilization was making great strides towards modern alcoholic sophistication (and in other fields too for all I know), wine production within the Ottoman domains failed to keep pace with developments in France, Italy, Germany and so on. When the Ottoman Empire breathed its last and the Turkish Republic came into existence in 1923, its first president, among a host of better known reforms, freed up the production and consumption of spirituous and fermented liquors. While tobacco and spirits were under state monopoly, wine, probably in deference to the status quo, was left in the hands of private producers – though the state did also establish its own vineyards and wineries.
Tezcan Gürkan, owner of Ganoswineries in Mürefte, began his career with the state Tekel organisation. His vines produce a range of boutique wines, red and white, under the Krater, and the more up-market Ganos label. Tezcan Bey has mixed feelings about the current state of the wine industry in Turkey. He is passionate about its long history, and its potential to compete in world markets, owing to the country’s congenial climate and fertile soils.  In terms of human health, he points out, the benefits of moderate wine consumption, especially red wine, in reducing the risk of heart attack, diabetes and even some forms of cancer, have been well publicized. Tezcan Bey further notes that, in the past ten years, during the tenure of the present AK Party government, locally produced wines have improved markedly, both in variety and quality. He is enthusiastic about wines produced from local grape varieties such as boğazkere, öküzgözü and kalecik karası. While accepting that Turkey’s climate is more conducive to the production of red wines, he also mentions the potential of narince and other white varieties in certain microclimates. On the other hand, he is less sanguine about the future, given the punitive level of taxation targeting alcohol in Turkey. I can attest to this from my own experience, having seen the cost of a mid-price red wine at the supermarket checkout almost double in the past five years.
Still, it’s not government policy alone that is impeding the industry’s growth. That same bottle of Angora or Villa Doluca, selling for 20 Turkish liras at Migros, will probably add sixty to eighty liras to your bill at a restaurant. The Ministry of Tourism would do well to take a look at the effects of such pricing on visitors to the country. It may be that Turks themselves, weighing up relative value for money, will go for a bottle of rakı with four times the alcohol content – but foreign visitors are more likely to drink one bottle of wine instead of two, and feel scalped into the bargain.
Nevertheless, the younger Gürkan generation seems more optimistic. Tezcan Bey’s son, Doruk, recognizes the potential of a growing, and increasingly sophisticated middle class in Turkish cities. One measure of this is the regular appearance these days, of articles in Turkish newspapers and magazines discussing wine, local and imported, and the industry itself. As was the case in my own home country, the twin processes of increasing awareness, and growing demand feed off each other.
Still it is evident that the Turkish wine industry is nowhere near to achieving its potential as an export earner for the nation. A recent article in Hürriyet newspaper examined and compared the state of play in a number of comparable countries, in terms of grape vine acreage and wine production. According to their figures, Turkey has the fourth largest area of vines measured by hectares. Only Spain, France and Italy have more grapes under cultivation. In contrast, however, Turkey’s comparative wine production is minuscule, at 75 million litres, ranking it way below even New Zealand, with a fraction of the vine acreage. NZ’s wine exports, incidentally, generated 868 million dollars of income, and clearly Turkey has the potential to surpass that.
The big problem, as I see it, and Gürkan ‘pere et fils’ among others, apparently agree, is the lack of a large and knowledgeable local market. Whatever the sector, economies of scale determine whether an enterprise will succeed or fail. New Zealand has been able to develop its wine exports because locals drank enough of the stuff to get the business up and running. Turkey, with a population approaching eighty million, had a large enough local market to support the establishment of car manufacturing, electronics and whiteware factories, and a large textile industry – which have then been able to move out into more competitive global markets. New Zealand, unfortunately, with its four-and-a-half million people, lacks this major advantage. Clearly what Turkish wine producers need and seem to lack, is an umbrella organisation that will speak for them, arguing the case for government support of the industry, and engaging in general campaigns to raise public awareness.
As one who enjoys a glass of wine, and appreciates the local product, I’m following developments in the sector with interest.

Of Marbles, Midas and the Mona Lisa

I’m reading a book at the moment: ‘Greece, The Hidden Centuries’, by historian David Brewer. It’s subtitled, ‘Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence.’ Brewer is a classics scholar with a particular interest in the history of Greece, and this book raises many issues that challenge received wisdom. Perhaps I’ll review the book in another post – but for now I want to focus on the chapter entitled ‘Travellers to Greece’, which deals with visitors from Western Europe during the two hundred years from the late 16th to the late 18th century.
Brewer notes that, from the late 17th century, as interest grew in Greek antiquities, the removal to England and France of whatever could be moved became a kind of competition between the two nations. Even at that time there seems to have been some argument about whether collectors were saving the monuments from destruction, or simply looting, and wreaking their own destruction in the process. Possibly the most famous of these uplifted treasures is the collection of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, after the English Lord who arranged and financed their removal to London. Brewer ventures his opinion that the controversial statuary should be returned to Greece.
No doubt the UK Government, and the curators of the British Museum, where the Parthenon marbles are displayed, will be in no hurry to acquiesce in this matter. An entire new gallery was added to the iconic museum in 1937, solely for the purpose of displaying these priceless relics of ancient Greece. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, I would like to take this opportunity to commend officials of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who have decided to make an important gesture in the controversial field of relocating antiquities. It seems that the museum had acquired twenty-four pieces of ancient jewellery back in 1966, at a time when museums generally were rather less fussy about checking the provenance of purchases. Recent study of the items has suggested that they could originate from the city of Troy, now in northwest Turkey.
King Midas of Gordion,
with his golden daughter
Apparently a deal has been worked out between the American museum and the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry, providing for the jewellery to be loaned indefinitely to Turkey. Archeologists from Pennsylvania University have been working on excavations at Troy, and Gordion, some seventy kilometres from the Turkish capital, Ankara, and the institution is planning an exhibition of artefacts from the latter site. The Turkish Government continues to support the archeological work, and will allow the loan of treasures from Gordion for the exhibition.
Gordion was the capital of ancient Phrygia, a kingdom at its height during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. Its wealth became proverbial, and one of its kings, Midas, is remembered for his ill-considered wish to turn everything to gold with the touch of a finger. Excavations at the city have recently unearthed a tomb believed to be that of Midas’s father, so the exhibition should generate considerable interest.
Not all attempts to repatriate archeological treasures, unfortunately, meet with such amicable resolution. It is reported that the Italian National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage have petitioned the French Government for the return of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Da Vinci was, of course, Italian, and is believed to have painted his best-known work in Florence between 1503 and 1506, so you might think the NCHCEH have a case.
Sad to say, such matters are rarely so simple. Some years ago, while on a cycling holiday in France, I found myself in a Val de Loire town called Amboise, where I paid a visit to the main attraction, the Chateau de Clos Lucé. I was fascinated to learn that da Vinci had spent the last three years of his life here, at the invitation of the French King Francis I. International travel was not so easy in those days, and the great artist, at the age of 64, made the journey from Italy, over the Alps, on a donkey, with the Mona Lisa, and a couple of other prized paintings, in his saddle bags. Of course, a royal invitation is hard to turn down, more especially in the 16th century, but still, it’s a big trip for an old guy, huh! One reason the offer seemed particularly attractive was that Leonardo just wasn’t getting the commissions in his homeland that he once had. A couple of younger rivals, Michelangelo and Raphael had apparently sidelined him.
So, there it is, in France, the Mona Lisa – where it has been for nigh on five hundred years. It has moved around a bit from one royal palace to another, to safe places in time of war, on loan to the Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence, and even to a thief’s apartment for a couple of years.  These days you can see it hanging in the Louvre in Paris – and I have a strong suspicion that the Italians’ chances of getting it back are on a par with the likelihood of the Brits’ handing back the Parthenon marbles.

Timeo Danaos et Dona Ferentes – It’s All Greek to Me

I used to think I had a handle on the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Not that I’m a great classicist, but I did spend a few years at school studying Latin, so I knew, for example:
·       The Greeks organised themselves in city states, rather than an empire, as the Romans did;
·       The Greeks came before the Romans (well, the Romans conquered the Greeks, which amounts to the same thing, I suppose);
·       The Latin language more or less took over from the Greek (at least with regard to the classical world);
·       The Roman Empire fell to the barbarians in the 5th century CE;
·       Ancient Greece was an area that more or less corresponded to modern Greece.
Then I came to Turkey. The first thing I noticed was that Turks have two words in common use for ‘Greek’: ‘Yunan’ and ‘Rum’. The first word denotes the people who live in the modern state of Greece: while the second refers to the Greek-speaking people who live (or rather, for the most part, lived) in Istanbul and Anatolia. If you want to talk about the ancient ones, it gets more complicated.
The second thing I noticed as I wandered around ancient structures in Istanbul, was that there were, indeed, inscriptions in Latin (as you would expect in a city that was once the capital of the Roman Empire); but there were far more inscriptions in Greek, also pretty ancient, but clearly of a later date than the Latin ones.
I don’t know about you, but I hate things like this. They make me want to find out why – so here’s where I’ve got to so far . . .
A quick peek at Wikipedia will inform you that there is quite a host of names that have been applied over several millennia to the people we, in English, are happy to think of as ‘Greek’. The one the (modern) Greeks themselves generally prefer is Hellene, which dates back to a mythological origin (somewhat similar to the role played by Hawaiiki in Polynesian cultures). The mythical patriarch, Hellen, apparently begat four sons, who respectively sired the eponymous tribes, Aeolian, Dorian, Achaean and Ionian. Our word ‘Greek’ derives from the Latin word for the Greek-speaking people who migrated to Italy in the 8th century BCE. Homer, so I’m told, used the words Argives and Danaos, to refer to the guys who came to Troy in the thousand ships launched by the face of their kidnapped princess, Helen (with one ‘l’). Persians, apparently, used the word Yunani (from Ionian), and you will remember that this is one of the words modern Turks use. Ottomans, I gather, used the word ‘Roman’ (Rum) for their ‘Greek’ neighbours (for reasons which will be examined below), and this is the origin of the other word used in modern Turkish.
So . . . Luckily, we have the Julietian principle to apply here: ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. Unfortunately, it’s rather easier to agree on what a rose is, than to settle on a concept of Greek-ness which everyone will accept. Still, never let it be said that this blogger shied away from a tricky task.
The people that we like to refer to as ‘Greek’ in English can trace their roots way back to tribes that settled in the ‘Greek’ peninsula in prehistoric times (2000-1500 BCE) after coming from . . . no one is very sure where. However, one point is important to stress from the outset: there is no easily defined continuity of geographical location and religion, even of language and culture, which can be traced from that time to this.
The culture that most English-speakers think of as ‘Ancient Greek’ began to appear after what is often referred to as the ‘Dark Age’, around 800 BCE. For various reasons, apparently involving food shortages and violence, ‘Greek’ speaking peoples began to move into Italy and across the Aegean to Asia Minor (now Turkey) and the region of the Black Sea. At this time, there was undoubtedly a common base of language and culture which was inevitably influenced by that of the peoples with whom they came in contact in their new lands.
Another point must be emphasised here. Despite the common language and culture, these ‘Ancient Greek’ peoples organised themselves in city-states, which, not infrequently, fought each other. There was no overall coming-together into anything we would recognise as a nation, let alone an empire. While there were loose confederations of city-states when the need arose to face a common enemy (such as the Persians), these federations themselves fought each other in struggles for supremacy.
I have no intention of trying to detail the to-ings and fro-ings of these city states (Athens, Sparta, Ephesus, Miletos and so on) and leagues (Delian, Peloponnesian, Ionian etc). It is sufficient for my purpose to note that there were, in what we like to think of as ‘Classical Greek’ times, city states on both sides of the Aegean Sea, and that those on the eastern coast made as great a contribution to the civilisation as did those on the so-called ‘Greek mainland’.
There seems to be much debate about the setting of dates for ‘classical’ Greek civilisation. While some scholars claim a continuity from the Minoans (c. 2700 BCE) through to the adoption of Christianity (4th century CE), others prefer to focus on important changes that create distinctly different cultural and political entities. Should we consider the currently dominant USA as part of the continuing supremacy of English culture and civilisation; or is the US a distinct entity which superseded the British Empire as the major world power? I ask merely to illustrate the nature of the problem.
Whatever your answer, it is clear that the centres of ‘Greek’ civilisation and culture continued to move east. Alexander the Great, who hailed from Macedonia, conquered Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, even venturing as far as India. It’s easy to overlook the fact that the guy died when he was 32, and his so-called empire lasted 10 years at the most. Nevertheless, his conquests did usher in the Hellenistic Age, whose cultural centres were Antioch (in modern Turkey) and Alexandria (in Egypt). The language and culture of this age we tend to consider ‘Greek’ – but how ‘Greek’, in fact, were they?
Coming back to Greece itself (in the modern sense of the word), ‘mainland Greece’ passed from Macedonian control into the hands of the Roman Republic / Empire in 146 BCE. Undoubtedly ‘Greek’ civilisation was enormously influential in helping to shape the culture, religion and political institutions of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, again, it must be noted that political control was in the hands of the Romans, and the language of power was Latin.
Well, I’m skipping a few more centuries while Rome held indubitable sway over most of the lands under consideration here. We’re passing forward to 330 CE when the Roman Emperor, Constantine I built his ‘New Rome’ on the site of the earlier city of Byzantium, and it became Constantinople. At this point, there’s no doubt that we are still talking about the Roman Empire. But, over the next few years, strange things happened. First, Constantine began to tolerate Christians; then his successor, Theodosius I, made Christianity the state religion in 380 CE. Parallel to the spread of the new religion, the city of Rome lost its political dominance and ‘Greek’ began to bubble back to the surface as the language of Constantinople, and hence the Roman Empire.
So, the Greeks are back, you may think – but I’m sorry, it ain’t that easy. Despite the fact that they were using ‘Greek’ as their language, these people (I’m avoiding the use of a label here, for reasons which will become clear as we go) perversely continued to think of and call themselves Romans. Their neighbours to the east, Persians and the emerging Islamic world, also apparently continued to think of them as ‘Romans’.
It was in the West, however, that serious problems of perception and nomenclature began to emerge. First we have ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, often dated at 476 CE. But clearly those Easterners continued to think of themselves as the Roman Empire until their pretensions were finally put to rest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Then we have the ‘Christianisation’ of the Roman Empire, which was a good thing, of course, since it put an end to all that persecution and feeding to the lions and what not (which was clearly a bad thing). But on the other hand, it also put an end to the glorious ‘classical’ civilisation of Greece and Rome (pagan and polytheistic, of course), which assumed greater and greater significance and influence in Europe after the Renaissance – so perhaps ‘Christianisation’ wasn’t such a good thing. And then there was the emerging rivalry between the Church of Rome and their Eastern cousins in Constantinople, which resulted in the ‘Great Schism’ in 1054. From this point it was clearly impossible for Westerners to think of those guys as ‘Roman’. Not only was the Western Church ‘Roman’, but a kind of virtual ‘Holy Roman Empire’ had begun to emerge in the 9th century, which didn’t want any other claimants to the title (never mind that the claim may have had a better foundation). The best way to undermine their claim was to highlight the errant nature of their brand of Christianity, and the fact that their language was Greek, not Latin. So, Europeans at this time tended to refer to them disparagingly as ‘Greeks’.
This usage continued pretty much into the 19th century, despite the fact that some scholars had begun to employ the word ‘Byzantine’ for the Greek-speaking, Eastern Orthodox empire centred on Constantinople.  So where did that word come from? Well, we know that it was the name of the ’Greek’ city whose site was taken over when Constantine wanted a location for his ‘New Rome’ in the east. But that was 330 CE – why bring back a name that had long since fallen out of use? It’s a bit like calling Paris, ‘Lutetia’, apparently the name it went under in Roman times. I love Lutetia in the spring time. Huh?
See, the thing is you’ve been calling this Roman Empire, ‘Greek’ for centuries, which was no big problem so long as the only other ‘Greek’ thing you had to worry about was a classical civilisation that had existed a couple of millennia earlier. But suddenly, in the 1820s, you get the opportunity to assist the disintegration of a contemporary empire whose continued existence is getting in the way of your own imperialist expansion, namely, the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, your big opportunity involves helping to establish a new state on the Mediterranean peninsula you like to think of as the home of ‘Greek’ civilisation, and what can you call this new kingdom if not ‘Greece’ – especially since, by doing so you will guarantee the support of your own educated elite who have a well-entrenched love of everything (Ancient) ‘Greek’. Incidentally, as noted above, the modern ‘Greeks’ don’t use a word in any way resembling ‘Greece’ when speaking of their own country. But in English, at least, you’ve now got three ‘Greeks’: ancient, medieval and modern! None of them having much more in common with each other than do the ancient Germanic tribes, Anglo-Saxons and the modern United Kingdom.

Obviously, the best solution was to rename the most inconvenient of the three: hence the reappearance of the word ‘Byzantine’ to refer to the eastern Roman Empire that had continued to exist for a thousand years after the fall of the Western one. Hey presto! Talk about rewriting history!
Well, after reading that meandering and staggeringly outrageous summary of 5000 years of history, you may be forgiven for asking, what’s your point, mate? For that I’d like to return to the words of my title for this piece: ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ The words were reportedly spoken by the Trojan priest Laocoön warning his people of the dangers of the Trojan (or more properly, ‘Greek’) horse. They didn’t listen, of course – and the main reason was because shortly after uttering his warning, Laocoön and his two sons were strangled by monstrous sea serpents, a misfortune interpreted by contemporaries as a sign of divine disapproval. You may know the statue, which is quite famous. Laocoön uses the word ‘Danaos’, usually translated into English as ‘Greek’ – and we may take the fate of him and his sons as a warning to exercise caution when we ourselves use the word ‘Greek’.