What are they doing to Istanbul?

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An edifice of some significance!

A month or so ago I had cause to visit a commercial office block on the southern slopes of Istanbul’s highest hill, Çamlıca. In fact there are two such hills: Büyük Çamlıca rising to 260 metres above sea level; and the smaller Küçük Çamlıca, some 30 metres less in height. As my taxi approached our destination my eyes were drawn to a narrow tower-like structure under construction near the summit of the smaller peak. Clearly it would be an edifice of some significance, and I was surprised I knew nothing about it.

After doing a little research, I can now share with you the following information:

The tower’s primary purpose will be to replace the dozens of unsightly radio and television masts that have disfigured the scenic hills of Çamlıca for decades. The first stage will be a reinforced concrete structure 220 metres high topped by a 165 metre antenna mast.

Adding in the height of the hill itself, the top of the mast will rise 565 metres above sea level. The tower will also fulfil a secondary role as a tourist attraction. It will be set in an extensive park offering recreational and picnic facilities, and will have two restaurants and viewing decks, at 176 and 180 metres, providing unsurpassed panoramic views of the city and hinterland.

Supporters of the project argue that the new tower will be a symbol of modern Istanbul, visible from beyond the city’s boundaries. They point out that creating a public park will guarantee the hill is preserved from speculative private development, and replacing the existing forest of radio and TV masts will actually beautify the hills of Çamlıca.

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The new Çamlıca Mosque – and the forest of TV/radio masts

There is, of course, some controversy boiling around recent developments in this iconic urban location. Attracting most criticism has been the construction of an enormous mosque, the largest in Turkey, on the northern slope of Büyük Çamlıca. Contrary to the claims of some opponents, it will not be dedicated to President Erdoğan, but will be known as the Çamlıca Republic Mosque. Its size is certainly impressive. The central dome has a diameter of 35 metres and a height of 72 metres. Four of its six minarets will rise to 107 metres, the other two to 90 metres, and it is expected to provide praying space for 37,500 worshippers. The project will also house a conference hall, art gallery, museum and a library.

Interestingly the mosque was designed by two female architects. Breaking with tradition, its layout is said to be female-friendly and features special provision for the disabled. Despite its size, however, the Çamlica Mosque is still a long way short of being the world’s largest. That title is held by the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine and the place which Muslims worldwide turn towards while offering daily prayers, that structure covers an area of over four million m2, and is said to accommodate four million worshippers during the Hajj period.

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The new tower after completion

Personally I have no problem with the size or location of the Çamlıca Mosque. Like the TV Tower nearby, it will be set in a large park that will ensure public access to this important recreational area, and will guarantee that no future private development restricts entry to those with the money to pay. Moreover, the population of Turkey is largely Muslim, so building an emblematic mosque in its largest city does not strike me as something to be shocked or surprised about. What did surprise me was learning that the country’s largest mosque was previously the Sabancı Merkez Camii in the southern city of Adana – named for one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, thus nicely uniting the conflicting forces of God and Mammon.

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Proposed landscaping around the tower

If I really wanted to get excited and protest about something, I might turn my attention to another vast construction not far away: the Emaar Square “Community”. This huge project, financed by the same Dubai company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, will include a 180-room five-star hotel, 1,000 luxury residences, 40,000 m2 of office space, and a mega-shopping mall featuring an “underwater zoo”.

Does Istanbul need another mosque? Who am I to say? I am certainly pleased that those ugly TV antennae will disappear from Çamlıca Hill. However, when it comes to another soulless shopping centre purveying the same luxury brand clothes and watches to mega-rich globe-trotters in another generic multi-storey five-star hotel – Nup. Don’t need that.

The world’s largest neo-Ottoman suspension bridge

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

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Rumeli Castle in April

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

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

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The third Bosporus bridge

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

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

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

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The Anatolian Castle

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

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

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Çamlıca Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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The NOT-Genoese Yoros Castle at Anadolu Kavağı

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

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

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

Millions stand for democracy in Turkey

Was this reported in your local news media?

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Standing up for democracy in Istanbul

Millions of people gathered Aug. 7 at a meeting venue in Istanbul’s Yenikapı area for a massive joint democracy rally to protest the July 15 coup attempt, putting an end to three weeks of demonstrations following the failed takeover.

The rally was a rare event in which the leaders of three political parties took the stage upon a call made by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leaving aside their political differences.

The event began with Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate reciting from the Quran.

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Remember that picture from Tiananmen Square? This is Turkey!

“That night, I realized that I am a part of a very great nation,” said Orçun Şekercioğlu, who came to the stage on a wheelchair. He was wounded by coup soldiers on the Bosphorus Bridge as he was standing against tanks.

“July 15 has opened a door of consensus for Turkey,” Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kılıçdaroğlu said, while addressing the crowd. “There is a new Turkey now,” he said. “All political party leaders should learn lessons from the coup attempt. That includes me.”

“I am happy because I can see the rise of Turkey,” Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahçeli said in his address to millions from all walks of life. “July 15 is a milestone for Turkey,” he said, praising the citizenry’s strong stance against the coup soldiers at the cost of their lives.

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This is a huge one, for those who know Turkey!

Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar received a big round of applause when he took the stage. Along with Akar, other members of the top brass who were taken hostage by the coup plotters were present at the meeting. Akar once again said U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen was responsible for the coup.

President Erdoğan arrived in Yenikapı in a helicopter alongside first lady Emine Erdoğan. Mr Erdoğan started his speech by thanking the people who stood against the tanks and planes used by the coup plotters during the failed takeover. He wished his condolences to the 240 people killed by putschists, of whom 172 were civilians, 63 were police officers and five were soldiers. He also wished speedy recovery to the 2,195 wounded.

During Erdoğan’s speech the crowd repeatedly shouted that they wanted the death penalty to be reintroduced. “If parliament accepts the reintroduction of death penalty, I will accept it,” he told the crowd, adding that the death penalty exists in the U.S., Japan and “many other countries.”

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The Aegean region is a stronghold of opposition to the government, but . . .

“We’re here to show that these flags won’t come down, the call to prayer won’t be silenced, and our country won’t be divided,” said Hacı Mehmet Haliloğlu, a civil servant who traveled from the Black Sea province of Ordu for the rally. “This is something way beyond politics, this is either our freedom or death,” he said, a large Turkish flag over his shoulder and a matching baseball cap on his head.

Repeated announcements were made in the area regarding a ban on carrying party flags or party slogans. Millions of Turkish flags were seen in the area, as well as the flags of Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Posters of Erdoğan and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, were also hung around the venue.

The “Democracy and Martyrs Rally” was held as the last in a series of meetings to protest the failed takeover, which is believed to have been masterminded by the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ).

Read the whole article

It has been estimated that 3.5 million people turned up for the meeting in Istanbul – and large crowds attended similar gatherings in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces.

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“There is a new Turkey now!”

In spite of that, I could find no mention in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald or the New Zealand Herald.

BBC News chose to report: Turkey’s president backs death penalty!

Apart from the Beeb, the other sites I visited focused on the possible abdication of the Emperor of Japan; continuing violence in Libya, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan; and the possibility that Oscar Pistorius may have tried to top himself.

Is there disappointment out there that the attempted coup in Turkey didn’t succeed? It sure looks like it from where I’m sitting.

Anti-Turkey Bullswool

My New Zealand diplomatic people in Ankara send me regular updates on how they view the security situation in Turkey. Recently I got this one:

‘We now advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk). This is an increase to the risk level for Ankara and Istanbul.’

On 9 April 2016, the US Embassy in Ankara advised US citizens of credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya.

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While in Brussels don’t forget to ride the Metro

So if you had been thinking of a trip to Turkey in the near future, you may now be reconsidering. On the other hand, Auckland’s number one (and only) newspaper, The NZ Herald, published a travel advisory on 23 March entitled ‘Why you need to visit Belgium’. The piece begins:

‘We love Belgium. This week’s terror attacks in Brussels have cast a pall over a beautiful country.

The best thing Kiwi travellers can do? Put Belgium on the list for your next European visit. Here are five reasons to visit the home of Tintin and great chocolate.’

Well, I’m ok with The Herald’s position here. In fact, the best response to terror is to get on with your life and not bow to the fear. I do, however, find the contrasting advice somewhat paradoxical. Especially given the rather limited list of attractions the writer offers to recommend Belgium:

Apparently the food is great, though specifics boil down to chocolate, waffles and hot chips! There’s a comic culture, and it’s not just about Tintin! Beer is plentiful and available in 1,000 varieties. There are lots of markets, and Christmas time is especially lovely. AND THE CLINCHER . . . There are 67 kilometres of coastline! That’s about the same length as Auckland’s Muriwai beach, in the entire country!

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Picturesque Belgian beach

The whole glowing article took 435 words – approximately the number of people you can expect to rub shoulders with per square metre of beach, I’d say, during Belgium’s month-long summer. My guess is, if you don’t have local friends to entertain you, you’ll be lucky to last a week. I’m not going to begin to list the attractions of Turkey. I reckon you could spend 435 days here, and do something memorably different every day.

Sadly, Western news media everyday publish ‘news’ and opinion pieces denigrating Turkey and its government. I have in front of me a page from CNN’s website penned by a Turkish academic and follower of the shadowy ex-pat. Fethullah Gülen. It’s not so long ago that Gülen was arousing much suspicion in his adopted homeland, America, and was the evil bogeyman of Turkey’s secular elite. In the last couple of years, however, there has been an about-face, and the mysterious Muslim cleric seems to have become the darling of anti-government propagandists within the country and abroad. We hear the same criticisms repeated again and again:

President Erdoğan is polarizing Turkish society.

In fact, a noisy minority of Erdoğan-haters has been doing its best to polarize Turkish society since the AK Party was elected to govern in 2002.

The state cracked down brutally on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, and holding public protests has become a life-risking activity.

Political protests in Turkey have always been known for violence. The so-called Gezi Park protests attracted a motley collection of anti-Erdoğanists with nothing in common other than their hatred of him. Some of the protesters may have been well-meaning tree-huggers, but there was the usual hard core of anarchic vandals.

The government is waging a war of terror on peace-loving Kurdish villagers.

The AK Party government made genuine efforts to work out a peace process with its Kurdish minority, including the establishment of Kurdish-language TV channels and the opening of a previously impossible dialogue. The US government, on the other hand, has been supporting and supplying Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria for years for its own ends, making it more difficult to find a solution in Turkey. The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization.

Opposition media and members of parliament are harassed by the government and its supporters.

Political opposition to government policies is one thing – libelous personal attacks and deliberate incitement to violence quite another. Freedom has its limits.

Erdoğan has been seeking to change the constitution to create an all- powerful, executive-style presidency.

This is what the United States already has. But anyway, Mr Erdoğan can’t change the constitution by himself. There is a democratic process that must be followed. The USA might benefit from public debate on its own incomprehensible electoral system.

Reporters Without Borders call Turkey “the biggest prison for journalists in the world.”

This is nonsense. Who are these journalists that are in prison? Can we see a list of names?

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Memories of Turkey’s 1980 military coup linger on

The writer of this article, Alp Aslandoğan, says: ‘I was a middle school student in the 1970s during another period of instability, when armed groups thrived and thousands of young people were killed. I’m even more worried for Turkey now.’

I would wonder what a 12-year-old child of a privileged Turkish family really understood of the political chaos that reigned in his country in the 1970s; chaos that began with a military coup in 1960 when the Prime Minister was summarily hanged by the coup-leaders, and continued through the 1990s until the most recent military intervention in 1997. Anyone who says that Turkey is less democratic now is either ignorant of his (or her) own history, or deliberately distorting the facts for some ulterior purpose. ‘Thousands of young people were killed’ then – and it’s worse now?

Then there are the accusations of government corruption. Even if these accusations had been proven, which they haven’t, they would pale into insignificance beside previous governments that twiddled their thumbs while presiding over decades of banana-republic inflation, as they allowed 90% of the country to languish in medieval backwardness.

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Not everyone loves him either

Like me, you may have been following with interest the current scandal unfolding as a result of the ‘Panama papers’ leaks. One of my foreign colleagues, outspoken critic of Turkey’s AKP government, expressed surprise that Mr Erdoğan and his people had not been mentioned as involved in this ocean of money-laundering and tax evasion. British Prime Minister Cameron, however, has been named, and is facing calls to resign from his own citizens and local media.

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New Zealand police dealing with protester

New Zealand, it seems, is one of the countries recommended by lawyers Mossack Fonseca to their mega-rich clients as a reliable place to hide cash. Prime Minister John Key has made no secret of his grand scheme to turn our tiny nation into the Switzerland of the South Pacific. And what exactly does that entail? Mr Key has made a name for himself over the past year for his sponsorship of a project to change NZ’s flag, pushing ahead with referenda despite apparent lack of public support. Just yesterday it emerged that much of the financial backing for Mr Key’s questionable project came from ‘wealthy Chinese donors’ wooed at secret private fund-raising luncheons – which must surely raise speculation as to how much the NZ PM’s political success depends on those same wealthy Chinese donors. Despite his government’s repeated denials, it seems certain that the property boom making Auckland houses amongst the world’s most unaffordable, has been driven by rich Chinese ‘investors’.

Another frequent criticism leveled at Turkey’s government is that they are ‘Islamic-rooted’, whatever that means. So it was with interest that I read on Friday that Democratic presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, beloved of the American intellectual Left, has accepted an invitation from Pope Francis to attend a conference in the Vatican just four days before the New York Primary. According to NBC, ‘Since 1972, the winner of the popular vote in every presidential race won the Catholic vote, going by the exit polls. From Nixon in 1972 to Obama in 2012.’ And what has the Catholic Church got to say about a woman’s right to choose? Anyone? Anyone?

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Bernie Sanders – friends in high places

So don’t expect too much from President Sanders, is my advice, even if he does manage to edge out Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination – and whichever capitalist ignoramus the Republicans select. Previous darling of the liberal Left, Barack Obama, has had eight years to close Guantanamo Prison as he promised – and those unconvicted inmates are still waiting. On Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that “civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been” in past U.S. drone strikes, but said the administration is now “very cautious” about striking where women or children are present. Good to hear – especially for those families of civilians killed in previous US drone strikes. Mr Obama went on to say, “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately.” As far as I’m aware, however, the United States has not actually declared war on any of those countries whose citizens they are killing with drone strikes. But maybe that’s just a semantic quibble.

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Not the only beach in Turkey – and five months of summer

Anyway, what I really want to say here is, if you were thinking of a trip to Turkey, don’t be put off by the bad publicity. If you’re American, you or your children are probably more likely to be shot by a disaffected nutcase in a random massacre; or if you’re an Asian in New Zealand, to get mugged on the street by young hooligans. It’s a dangerous world – but Turkey is a beautiful country. There may not be a thousand varieties of beer, but there are a thousand-and-one other things to do.

“Turkey is like a dream”

This article appeared in our local newspaper ‘Hürriyet’ this morning. I couldn’t find anything in English, so I’m translating it for you. You can read the whole article here (but you can’t rely on Google translation).

Syrian restaurantA Little Damascus in the Heart of Istanbul

A mere 250,000 of the 2.2 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria have found a place in camps. About 330,000 are living in Istanbul. It’s unclear when the war in Syria will end, so they are settling in as though they will never return. There are schools, radio stations, arts and cultural groups. Just like London’s China Town, Syrians have established their own settlement in the district of Fatih. Desserts from Aleppo, döner from Damascus, coffee from Lattakia . . . bookshops and cafés, poetry readings and music are adding a new dimension to the city’s culture.

In this district there are places where the only language you will hear is Arabic. Especially after 4 pm, the streets come to life. Syrian students, girls and boys, families, men and women, flock into the streets. In one small area there are eighteen restaurants. We dropped into one called ‘Tarbush’. It was so crowded we couldn’t find a seat. While we were there, people were constantly coming and going. There were families, businessmen and students – but all were Syrian. Even the street-vendor outside was Syrian.

Syrian restaurantThe proprietor, Muhammed Nizar Bitar, came to Turkey when the war broke out in 2011 and started a small operation making hummus. He explains how similar  Syrian and Turkish cultures are:

“When we first opened, 90 per cent of our customers were Syrian and 10 per cent Arab. As time went by, Turks began to come, and now they make up 35 per cent of our clientele. The main topic of conversation among Syrian families is their new life. Old-timers say to new-comers, ‘Turks go to bed early, so don’t use the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner at night.’

“Turkish restaurateurs come and ask for recipes. Some of them are looking for Syrian chefs. We have no trouble finding ingredients. We can easily find the vegetables and spices we need. For example, we were looking for ‘mulubiye’, which you call ‘nane’ (mint). What we call ‘keshke’ is known as ‘tarhana’ here. Turkey is like a dream for us.”

A Black Woman in Istanbul

I came across this in my wanderings on the internet recently – thought you might be interested to see it . . .

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BEING A BLACK WOMAN IN ISTANBUL

MadameNoire has teamed up with Black Girl Fly to bring you profiles of Black girls taking travel to new heights. Each week we’ll profile a new lady, giving you the details on her latest adventure and everything you should know about being a fly Black girl abroad. 

Black Girl Fly: Tammy Freeman

Home city: I’m originally from Queens, NY but I currently reside in Northern Virginia.

Why Turkey? I stopped in Turkey on my way to Italy. Going and coming from Italy I elected for an overnight layover in Istanbul, and I’m so glad I did.

Travel companion? Solo traveler

Length of Stay: 2 days (1 day en route to Italy, 1 day en route from Italy to DC)

How much was your flight? Around $800, but I was flying to Naples, Italy. Flights to Turkey as a final destination are a bit less.

What should you know about being a Black girl in Turkey?

Being in Istanbul, I’m sure the locals have seen people from nearly every nationality. Even when I was out among the locals, no one seems shocked by me being there. It’s very much like NY, people seemed unbothered by my presence for the most part. Compared with a place, like Asia, where black skin is treated as an anomaly and most act like they’ve never seen a black person before! Turkey was amazing. Great people, a plethora of things to see and do.

Dreams and Buildings have Tales to Tell – in the back streets of old Istanbul

I am often asked what brought me to Turkey. These days I tend to reply, ‘The Hand of God’. People in Turkey can accept that as an answer, and to me it seems as good an explanation as any other. That was the first time. As for the second, I’m a lot clearer on that. It was a dream that clinched my return.

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500 year-old mosque of Ahi Çelebi

I’m not a big believer in the meaningfulness of dreams, and I certainly don’t let them direct my life – except that once. Even then, an objective observer might question the wisdom of basing a life-changing decision on what could be simply the sub-conscious mind playing around. All I can say is, arguments for and against seeming to be in a state of balance, something was needed to tip the scales. And that dream did it – sent me on a 17,000 km journey to a new life.

But I’m not here to tell you about my personal journeying. I just wanted a lead-in to a more interesting story involving a far more intrepid traveller. I don’t know how many mosques there are within the twenty-two km walls of old Istanbul. I’ve read that there are 185 in Üsküdar across the water, so I guess there must be more than that, and it’s the larger ones, of course, that tend to attract the most attention.

The mosque of Ahi Çelebi, minding its own business on the shore of the Golden Horn beyond the Galata Bridge, is easily missed. It was in a state of dilapidation until recent restoration, and was possibly more noticeable then for its obvious antiquity. Its original sponsor was a distinguished medical practitioner who served four sultans during the Ottoman Empire’s days of greatest glory. At the age of 90 he made the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all good Muslims, but failed to complete the round trip, falling ill and passing away in the year 1524 in Cairo, where he was buried with full honours.

A century and a half later, another Ottoman gentleman of note, Evliya Çelebi, dreamed a dream in which he found himself beside the mosque of the renowned doctor. On entering, he was amazed to encounter the spirits of the Prophet Muhammed and several other holy men. Wishing not to miss such an opportunity, Evliya begged the Prophet to intercede for him for God’s mercy. Unfortunately, a little overawed by the grandeur of the occasion, his tongue tripped over the Arabic word for intercession, and instead produced a similar sounding word meaning ‘journey’. Muhammed clearly had a sense of humour, and promised to take care of both. Evliya Çelebi henceforth embarked on a remarkable expedition taking him all over the Ottoman Empire as far as Vienna, across into North Africa, and later into the neighbouring Muslim empire, Safavid Persia. He described his experiences in his Seyahatname, one of the great travel books in any language according to the cognoscenti.

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Eminönü skyline at sunset

Three centuries further on, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, after a successful struggle to found the Republic, in which Turkish nationalism played a major role, implemented a programme of reforms, one of which was an attempt to rid the language of its extensive Arabic and Persian borrowings. His aim was a pure Turkish language written in a simplified Latin alphabet. Well, the latter was a success, for which modern students of Turkish are grateful – but the former was doomed to failure. Imagine trying to rid English of its words derived from Latin and Greek, in an attempt to return to pure Anglo-Saxon! So when I struggle in Turkish with words like tatbikat, talimat, tamirat, tadilat, tarikat, whose meanings cover such diverse concepts as ‘religious cult’, ‘earthquake drill’ and instructions to my bank for an automatic payment, I remember and sympathise with that wanderer of old.

Across the road from Ahi Çelebi’s mosque are grander buildings which I’m not going to tell you about. You can find them in any good guidebook: Yeni Cami, the New Mosque, completed in 1665; the elaborately tiled mosque of Rüstem Pasha, son-in-law of Suleiman the Magnificent; and the 17th century Egyptian or Spice Bazaar. Instead I want to lead you into a back street behind the New Mosque to a large, but seemingly abandoned five-storey office building dating from the late 19th century.

Sansaryan Han

Sansaryan Han – Deserted and quiet these days

Known as Sansaryan Han, its deserted state is apparently owing to an on-going court case involving the Armenian Patriarchate and the Istanbul Metropolitan Council. The building was constructed by an Armenian architect, Hosep Aznavour, among whose other works are the old tobacco factory that now houses Kadir Has University, and the Bulgarian church dedicated to St Stephen, an eye-catching structure a little further up the Golden Horn.

Originally designed for commercial use, Sansaryan Han was later bequeathed by its owner, Mıgırdıç Sanasaryan (apparently the correct spelling) to the Armenian church, and functioned as an orphanage and school for children from Erzurum in eastern Anatolia – a fact which may be related to other events involving Armenians in that region around that time.

My Turkish sources, without going into detail, tell me that the Ottoman Government took over the building some time after 1915, but for the next twenty years there was ongoing litigation about its true ownership, which seems to have ended in 1935. At first serving as offices for various government departments, Sansaryan Han was gradually taken over by the police force’s security section, and, by the 1940s, had begun witnessing the activities for which it became notorious in later days.

For some years the corridors of the former orphanage echoed with the screams of detainees subjected to torture for their political beliefs and/or activities. Prisoners were subjected to falaka (traditional beating on the soles of the feet) and electric shocks in sensitive parts of the body, either to extract confessions, or merely to show them the error of their ways. When not undergoing the tender ministrations of police interrogators, they were kept in cells known somewhat morbidly as ‘tabut’ (coffins), measuring 150 cm in height by 80 cm square, so that they could neither stand upright, nor lie down. Just when the police left off these practices is not clear – but they occupied Sansaryan Han until 1990, and there is evidence to suggest that political dissidents were still being subjected to physical ill-treatment well into the 1980s.

Hidayet Camii

Another small but interesting mosque – Hidayet Camii

Apparently there were plans to refurbish the building for use as a five-star hotel, but the legal dispute over its ownership resurfaced and is continuing. Perhaps it’s just as well. There must be a few ghosts of former inmates lurking to disturb the slumbers of well-heeled visitors.

Somewhat ironically, quite nearby there is another easily missed, but architecturally interesting small mosque named Hidayet. This is actually one of my favourite words in Turkish, meaning ‘a God-inspired desire to seek the way of truth.’ Evidently Turkish police back in the good old days found the ways of the Almighty too slow, and preferred to rely on more direct methods.

Hidayet is not an old mosque by Istanbul standards, having been first commissioned by Sultan Mahmut II in 1813. Its wooden construction led to its destruction in one of the fires that regularly laid waste to the city, and the present structure was erected by Abdülhamid II in 1887. The latter sultan ruled the empire for 32 years in probably the most difficult period of its 600-year history. It’s not a grandiose edifice, and it’s tucked away unobtrusively in a quiet corner. Nevertheless, the design is interesting, with an arched stairway leading up to the prayer hall, and a passage opening on to the waterfront square at Eminönü. The architect, in fact, was a ‘French Ottoman’ (work that one out!) who founded the first school of architecture in Turkey and taught there for twenty-five years until 1908. Among his better-known works are the Pera Palace Hotel, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Marmara University’s Haydarpaşa campus and the Ottoman Public Debt Administration building (now home to Istanbul High School).

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The Legacy Ottoman Hotel

Once again I’m going to by-pass more frequented locations, though you should visit the sweet shop of Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, the country’s oldest company, and purveyor of Turkish delight to the discerning since 1777. On the other side of the road you can’t miss the Legacy Ottoman Hotel, five-star accommodation housed in a tastefully renovated building formerly known less pretentiously as the Fourth Vakıf Han. Designed as commercial offices in 1911, construction was interrupted by the First World War, and not completed until 1926. Nevertheless, the unfinished building served as accommodation for French troops during the occupation of the city – until its liberation by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist republicans in 1923. The building was designed by another prominent architect of the day, Ahmet Kemaleddin, one of the pioneers of the First Turkish National Architectural Movement that bridged the final years of the empire and the early years of the republic. Interestingly, he was involved, in 1925, in the project to restore the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, site of much strife these days between Israelis and Palestinians.

If you have an hour or two to spend, I really recommend launching into the labyrinth of narrow streets behind Yeni Cami that will bring you eventually to one of the lower gates of the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı). This was the commercial heart of old Istanbul, and modern-day merchants carry on their trade in buildings dating back to the 15th century.

Mahmut Pasha was an Ottoman gentleman of Serbian descent, who served two terms as Grand Vizier in the mid- to late 15th century. It is said that his family had held high rank in the Byzantine Empire, but his prowess as a soldier and his literary talents as a poet won him the hand of a daughter of Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople.

Mahmut Paşa Hamamı

Interior of Mahmut Paşa’s hamam, a little the worse for wear

Evidently Ottoman palace politics continued the intrigues that had characterized their Christian predecessors. Mahmut lost his position as vizier in 1468 as a result of some behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by his successor – but was reinstated four years later. This time, however, he made a more powerful enemy. Word has it that Sultan Mehmet’s son Mustafa entertained Mahmut’s wife one night while the vizier was absent from the city on a military campaign. The aggrieved husband made a public fuss, divorcing the errant wife – for which sin he was dismissed a second time, and executed in 1474.

During his years of ascendancy, Mahmut Pasha endowed a mosque complex that is one of Istanbul’s oldest. Completed in 1462, the mosque is characterized by the architectural style of the earlier Ottoman capital, Bursa. Imperial mosque design changed markedly after the conquest of Constantinople, influenced by the vast domed structure of Hagia Sophia cathedral. Mahmut Pasha’s mosque has been damaged and repaired several times over the centuries, and is currently undergoing a major restoration. Nearby, textile merchants are plying their trade in the 550 year-old hamam that was part of Mahmut’s legacy. Anywhere else in Europe, one imagines, a monumental edifice of such antiquity would have been lovingly restored and put to use as a museum or some other culturally sensitive purpose. In Istanbul, it is undoubtedly on the list of heritage sites, patiently waiting for its turn to come.

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Kösem Sultan, then and now

In recent years a major industry has developed in Turkey producing soap operas and drama series for television. A bewildering multitude of such programmes parade nightly across screens throughout the nation, catering to virtually every niche in the socio-economic and religio-cultural spectra. Several of them have even migrated with remarkable success to foreign fields as diverse as the Muslim Middle East and Roman Catholic South America.

One of the big hits of the last three years has been a period costume drama, ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ dealing with events surrounding the reign of Süleiman the Magnificent, who ruled the empire from 1520 to 1566. Well, when you’re on to a good thing, you’d be mad to let it go – and the producers decided it was well worth a follow-up project. The new series is called ‘Kösem’ after the woman who played a significant role through the reigns of four sultans in the 17th century.

Büyük Valide han

17th century Büyük Valide Han

Born Anastasia on the Greek island of Tinos around 1590, she was brought as a slave at the age of 15 to the harem of Sultan Ahmet I, who gave her the name Mahpeyker on her conversion to Islam. She quickly became Ahmet’s favourite, and later his wife, taking the name Kösem. Ahmet himself is not recognised as one of the great Ottoman rulers, having lost a major war with his Savafid Persian neighbours, and earning, perhaps by way of compensation, a reputation for excessive religiosity. He is mainly remembered for constructing the large mosque next to Hagia Sophia, known to tourists as the Blue Mosque.

Ahmet died of typhus at the age of 27, and Kösem had to take a back seat briefly, until her son Murat IV came to the throne in 1623 in rather dodgy circumstances at the age of 11. Kösem exerted considerable power as the sultan’s mother, and regent until he came of age. Murat the man was celebrated for his enormous physical strength, but also died young, at 27, reputedly of cirrhosis, suggesting that he had not inherited all of his father’s strict Muslim practices. He in turn was succeeded by his younger brother Ibrahim, nicknamed ‘The Mad’. Ibrahim’s mental instability ensured that Kösem continued to wield effective power, manipulating her son through his appetite for women. It is said there were 280 young ladies in his harem at its greatest flowering, and, despite his psychological infirmity, Ibrahim managed to father three future sultans.

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Crescent moon setting behind the dome of Yeni Cami

By this time, however, the empire was in danger of descending into chaos, threatened from without by Venetian aggression and the depredations of Maltese pirates, and by rebellion from within. In 1648, Ibrahim was seized and imprisoned by an uprising of Janissaries, and subsequently executed with the consent of his loving mother. Kösem’s consolation in her grief was the accession of her grandson, Mehmet IV for whom, since he was only six years of age, she once again took the role of regent. Her downfall, ironically, came at the hands of Mehmet’s mother, Turhan Hatice, who had the seemingly indestructible grandmother strangled by the chief black eunuch of the harem, using, depending on who’s telling the story, a curtain in her bedroom, or her own hair.

Kösem’s memory is preserved, after a fashion, in the large inn she had built, Büyük Valide Han, said to be one of the city’s biggest. That and, of course, the TV drama series currently screening on Thursday evenings at 8 pm on Star TV. There is less talk these days, of Turkey’s government attempting to establish a neo-Ottoman Empire – but imperial history is clearly back in fashion with the contemporary citizenry.