Original Hagia Sophia tiles in France

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Ruins of the Achaemenid city Persepolis, Iran

My step-daughter has just returned from a visit to Iran. She was there to deliver a paper at a conference, but was able to do a little sight-seeing. One of the “must-sees” for tourists is the UNESCO-listed ruins of Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE). Those guys get an honourable mention in the Biblical Old Testament for permitting exiled Jews to return to their homeland and build a great temple in Jerusalem. Their kindness to the Jews, however, didn’t save them from having their magnificent city looted and burned by the army of the Great Macedonian Alexander as he marauded his way east on his mission to conquer the world.

Apparently present-day Iranians are unhappy that many artefacts from Persepolis later found their way into the collections of museums in Europe and the United States. I did a quick check online, and sure enough:

“A number of bas-reliefs from Persepolis are kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. There is also a collection from Persepolis at the British Museum. The Persepolis bull at the Oriental Institute is one of the university’s most prized treasures, but it is only one of several objects from Persepolis on display at the University of Chicago. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum houses objects from Persepolis, as does the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon and the Louvre of Paris hold objects from Persepolis as well.” (Wikipedia)

Inevitably our discussion turned to the matter of other historical and archaeological treasures housed in museums far from their original homes. Step-daughter was sure she’d seen the Rosetta Stone, key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics, in Cairo. I was equally sure I’d seen it in the British Museum – and another online check confirmed that the one in London is the real one. The same institution counts among its most prized possessions, apart from probably more Egyptian mummies than you’ll find in Egypt, the so-called Elgin Marbles – a vast store of marble friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, smuggled away in several shiploads by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the 19th century. Greek governments have repeatedly asked for them to be returned – but the Brits are having none of that.

Elsewhere, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a large section devoted to treasures from the classical city of Ephesus in modern Turkey, including a 70-metre frieze commemorating a (rare) Roman victory over the Parthians in 165CE. The Treasures of Priam, King of Troy (also in modern Turkey) were spirited away in the 1870s by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. They were exhibited in the Berlin Ethnological Museum until 1945 when they disappeared – turning up later (in 1993) in Moscow, of all places. Well, it’s hard to get self-righteous about having stolen property stolen by someone else, I guess.

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A popular conversation piece in 19th century drawingrooms

New Zealand’s indigenous Maori have for years been trying to get back tattooed human heads that were popular with European collectors of cultural curiosities in the early days of colonisation. I’ve recently been made aware (thanks Lara!) of a similar campaign by native American peoples to repatriate human remains from universities in Canada.

It seems the government of Turkey is at the forefront of this worldwide struggle to have purloined cultural and archeological objects returned to their homeland. In recent years, they have won several significant court battles resulting in the handing back of disputed sculptures and other artefacts. One such was the Sarcophagus of Heracles, smuggled out of Turkey in the 1960s, seized by port authorities in Switzerland in 2010.

And here’s another interesting one in the news this week:

A panel of tiles in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum were smuggled to France in the 1890s and replaced with imitations, according to museum director Hayrullah Cengiz. 

“You can see the logo seal ‘made in France, Sevres’ behind the tiles,” he said, speaking to the state-run Anadolu Agency. 

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“Identical” ceramic tile panels on the tomb of Sultan Selim II

According to Cengiz, the Hagia Sophia receives nearly two million local and foreign visitors every year. One of the two panels on the sides of the entrance of the tomb of Sultan Selim II, son of Süleyman the Magnificent, are an imitation of the original tiles, he said. 

“The tomb is a work of Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect in the Ottoman state. These tiles were taken to France for restoration in the 1890s by the Frenchman, Albert Dorigny, who came to the Ottoman Empire as a dentist. But they were not returned. Instead, imitation tiles were made in France and mounted in place of the originals. The original tiles are on the right side. You can see the difference between the two panels. These are a perfect example of 16th century tiles.”

Cengiz said the Culture and Tourism Ministry had made a request to the French Ministry of Culture for the tiles to be returned. “These tiles were being exhibited in the ‘Arts of Islam’ section of the Louvre Museum in France. They have recently been removed, most likely due to complaints,” he added.

“The restoration of five tombs here was finished in 2009. It was revealed that these tiles were imitations during the restoration work, as you can easily see the logo ‘Made in France, Sevres’ written behind them. When you look at the difference between the two tiles on the right and the left, you can see the beauty of the original ones. The colors of the others have faded and lost their gloss because they are imitations, even though they have been there for only 100 years. The original ones, which are 400 years old, look brand new,” he said.

Cengiz also said the two panels are made up of 60 tiles and the fake ones were an exact copy of the original. “It is not too difficult to copy them, but as years pass by, the difference becomes evident. Not only did Dorigny smuggle this panel, he probably stole many other tiles from Istanbul museums where he had done restorations in those years.”

Now that was a cheeky one!

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Cultural Amnesia – Islamic contributions to modern science and technology

It gives you some idea of the wealth of the Ottoman sultans that the stables of the old Topkapı Palace have been converted into a moderately large museum; not actually dedicated to equestrian pursuits, but housing Istanbul’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam.

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Professor Fuat Sezgin, specialist in Islamic science and technology

Well, you might think it’s a long name for a museum that won’t contain very much – but you’d be wrong. The MSTI (or in Turkish, İBTTM) features displays and models in fifteen scientific fields from a thousand years of high Islamic culture, beginning in the 7th century and ending at the start of the 17th when Western Europe took over as the centre of scientific research and discovery. Somewhat unusually for a museum in this country, the displays are fully and clearly explained by text in four languages, German, French and English as well as Turkish.

The linguistic competence, and in fact the foundation of the museum itself, are attributable to Professor Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Professor Sezgin taught at Istanbul University until 1960 when he, along with many other intellectuals, was removed from office after the military coup in May of that year. Escaping the fate of the unfortunate prime minister at the time, Prof. Sezgin made his way to Germany where he embarked on a successful academic career specialising in the history of Arab-Islamic science, helping to found a museum in Frankfurt with replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps.

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, Istanbul

Several government ministers and the mayor of Istanbul visited the German museum, and were so impressed that they decided to support the establishment of a similar institution in Turkey’s largest city. The old Topkapı Palace stables in the beautiful Gülhane Park had just been renovated, and the museum was opened in 2008 with models and displays related to astronomy, mathematics, geography, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan has once again provoked mirth in some circles with his claim just the other day that Muslim sailors had discovered the American continent 300 years before Columbus. Well, some criticism is justified, given that it was actually Native Americans who stumbled upon the place around 12,000 years before Vikings, Portuguese or Muslims even thought about looking – and Americans have been giving thanks as usual this week for their support of the early colonists from England. Nevertheless, Mr Erdoğan has an ally in Professor Sezgin who claims that Islamic scholars had accurately calculated latitude and longitude, and created a partial map of the American continent by the early 15th century at the latest.

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

16th century Ottoman observatory, Istanbul

The Istanbul Museum has a wonderfully informative website, http://www.ibttm.org/ where you can find the text of Prof. Sezgin’s five-volume catalogue of the Frankfurt collection. It’s a challenging read, but the key ideas were summarized in an interview with the learned professor published in Turkish Airlines’ Skylife magazine last year.

Essentially, Sezgin believes that the traditional Western view of a ‘renaissance’ of classical knowledge taking place from the 14th to the 17th centuries is a distortion of the truth. He argues that the accepted idea of ‘The Renaissance’ was a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that Arab and other İslamic scholars had translated the works of classical philosophers from the early days of their conquests in the 7th century, assimilated their knowledge and developed it further. As the Arab Empire spread through the Middle East, North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Prof. Sezgin claims, these advanced ideas were carried as far as Spain and Portugal, thus becoming available to Western Europeans. He goes on to suggest that Crusaders from Europe in the 12th century also came in contact with this knowledge and began bringing it back when they returned to their scientifically and technologically backward homes.

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

Musa al-Khwarizmi, inventor of algebra

I checked out some of those volumes from the Frankfurt Museum catalogue, and for sure there is some thought-provoking material. Professor Sezgin makes the case that, as Muslim Arabs conquered cities that had been centres of learning in the Roman and Byzantine world, Damascus, Emessa, Aleppo, Antioch and Alexandria, they recognised the importance of the knowledge contained there, and took care to absorb it into the new world they were creating. The 9th century Abbasid caliph al-Mamun receives special mention for his encouragement and fostering of scholarship and research, particularly in the field of geography and map-making. He had astronomical observatories built in Baghdad and later Damascus. The 9th century Persian scholar Musa al-Khwarizmi is credited with bringing algebra (the word is derived from Arabic) and the decimal place-value number system to the West when his works were translated into Latin. The Latinised version of his name is the source of our word ‘algorithm’ and this Muslim gentleman is sometimes referred to as the father of computer science. Another Persian scholar al-Biruni in the 11th century made important contributions in many fields including mathematics and astronomy where he analysed and developed the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these Islamic scholars to the blossoming of scientific knowledge in Western Europe was recognised by some at the time. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’ in the 14th century when the Crusades were relatively fresh in memory, and ‘Christians’ were in the process of ‘reconquering’ the Iberian Peninsula. In his ‘Prologue’ to the Tales, Chaucer describes his physician thus:

Well read was he in Esculapius,
And Deiscorides, and in Rufus,
Hippocrates, and Hali, and Galen,
Serapion, Rhazes, and Avicen,
Averrhoes, Gilbert, and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatisden, and John Damascene.’

Of the poor scholar, subject of the Miller’s Tale, we are told, ‘His Almagest and other books great and small, his astrolabe, which he used in his art, and his counting-stones for calculating, all lay neatly by themselves on shelves at the head of his bed.’

Rhazes, in fact, is Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian Muslim physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

Avicen is Ibn Sina, 11th century Persian Muslim scholar, especially known for his writings on philosophy and medicine.

Averrhoes is Ibn Rushd a 12th century Andalusian Muslim polymath, master of philosophy, Islamic theology, law and jurisprudence, psychology, politics, music theory, and the sciences of medicine, astronomy, geography, mathematics, physics and celestial mechanics.

Almagest refers to Ptolemy’s work on astronomy that came to Europe from Greek via Arabic, and the name used here is Arabic[1].

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

13th century Mustansiriya University, Baghdad

So clearly Chaucer was well aware of the contribution these Muslim scholars had made to European scientific knowledge. One volume of Professor Sezgin’s Frankfurt catalogue deals with the ‘Reception and Assimilation of Islamic Science in the West’. He refers to the research of a 19th century French Arabist scholar, Ernest Renan, who postulated that, because Arabic was the language of educated Muslims, Christians and Jews in ‘Spain’ in the Middle Ages, all had access to the learning of the Islamic Golden Age. Jews in particular, for example the 12th century philosopher Maimonides (Musa ibn Maymun) carried this knowledge into Western Europe. Sezgin also refers to the work of a 20th century German scholar, Heinrich Schipperges who identified an Arab physician Constantinus Africanus. This gentleman, in the 10th century, converted to Christianity and became a monk in Salermo, Italy, bringing with him dozens of Arabic medical books which were subsequently translated into Latin. Medical texts written by those Arab scholars mentioned in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ were translated into Latin in Toledo in the 12th century.

Possibly Professor Sezgin’s most interesting suggestion is that one of the major reasons for the sudden emergence of Spain and Portugal as leaders in the European ocean-going race and exploration of the New World was their fortuitous inheritance of the astronomical, geographical and mathematical knowledge of the Muslim scientists as they ‘reconquered’ the Iberian Peninsula in the 14th and 15th centuries. It has also been suggested that the inquisitorial clearing out of Muslims and Jews that ended in Castille in 1614 had a part to play in the fall from prominence of those two early starters in European imperialism.

16th century European image - 'A Moor of Arabia'

16th century European image – ‘A Moor of Arabia’

Wikipedia’s entry on Islamic architecture lists twenty-four prominent buildings from the ‘Moorish’ period still to be seen in present-day Spain, among them the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba and the Alcazar of Seville. The use of that word ‘Moorish’ is one I never had cause to question before, but there does seem to be some confusion in its origins. As far as I can tell, it is a rendering into English of the Latin word ‘Mauri’, referring to the inhabitants of North Africa and deriving from the Greek word meaning ‘black’. Once the word arrived in English (and other European languages) it appears to have been used pretty indiscriminately to refer to black Africans, Arabs, Muslims, and pretty much anyone who was non-Aryan and non-Christian. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to deduce that referring to the Arab-Muslim culture that ruled the Iberian Peninsula for the best part of 700 years as ‘Moorish’ was/is a trifle perverse and demeaning. Why would anyone want to do that? And why would you not want to credit the sources of your new scientific discoveries? And then there is a third question that Professor Sezgin raises: If the Muslims were so advanced in the history of science, why are they so far behind now?

Let’s take the last question first, since it clearly has a bearing on the first two. What happened to this Islamic civilisation that had been supposedly so advanced? The first suggestion that Sezgin offers is the Crusader wars that lasted for nearly two hundred years beginning at the end of the 11th century. Although both sides had losses and victories, in the end it was the Europeans who were the main beneficiaries, in terms of the economic damage they inflicted on Muslim society, the negative impact the wars had on the development of science and technology in the East, and the fact that the flow of knowledge was essentially one-way, from East to West. Allied to this was the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century, whose conquests extended through Persia, Anatolia and as far as Eastern Europe with the destruction of many centres of culture and learning, following so soon after the deleterious effects of the Crusades.

While it is true that the Ottomans picked up the baton of Islamic culture, forging a powerful empire from the 14th century, Sezgin suggests that they were always fighting a losing battle. Islam’s loss of the Iberian Peninsula and the takeover of scientific and technological know-how by the Spanish and Portuguese meant that those two countries were in a position to round Africa into the Indian Ocean and cross the Atlantic to the American continent. The result was that the centre of geo-political power shifted and Western Europe gained advantages which the Ottomans could never overcome, despite occasional forays in that direction.

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Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

That this shift in the balance of power began with the Portuguese and their gaining control of the Indian Ocean was no accident, according to Professor Sezgin. He notes that Portugal had been under Arab rule for nearly 400 years. Western sources generally claim that Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. Sezgin points out, however, that Phoenician sailors had very likely achieved the same feat in the 6th century BCE, and that there was a trade route between Morocco and China in Islamic times. For their navigational, shipbuilding and sea-faring skills, the professor suggests, the Portuguese were indebted to the earlier work of their Arab-Islamic rulers. These skills and knowledge subsequently found their way to the rest of Europe which gradually rose to prominence and eventual superiority over the Muslim World.

Why, however, the West is generally so reluctant to give credit for the true sources of their ‘renaissance’ is another question. In fact, it is not so much that the truth is not known. As mentioned above, Geoffrey Chaucer was certainly aware of the importance of Islamic scholars in bringing their knowledge and that of the ‘Ancients’ to the West – and assuredly this awareness was not his alone. The problem seems to be more that general histories dealing with the Renaissance in Europe and the advancement of science and technology tend to gloss over the key importance of Islamic sources, and make a direct connection with Ancient classical scholars, insisting often that the rediscovery took place in Italy.

Sezgin tactfully refrains from seeking explanations, merely noting that it happened. In the interests of natural justice, we may wish to go further. Possibly the reason for our cultural amnesia lies in the centuries of conflict between Western ‘Christendom’ and the ‘East’ – including the Orthodox Byzantines. The self-evident superiority of those eastern cultures in wealth, civilization, arts and sciences created envy and a need to conquer and belittle their achievements. When the West finally began to assert military and technological dominance, it suited their new self-image to erase that inconvenient and embarrassing period from their collective memory. It wouldn’t be the only instance in history where such a deliberate ‘forgetting’ had been perpetrated.

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[1] With acknowledgements to: http://sheikhynotes.blogspot.com.tr/ and http://muslimmuseum.org.uk/chaucers-canterbury-tales/

 

Exploring Istanbul – The old and the new

I’m a little confused about Turkey these days. It seems I am assailed on two fronts by people telling me, on the one hand, that the country is headed for Islamic fundamentalist disaster, possibly orchestrated by the United States of America with Tayyip Erdoğan as their puppet – while on the other, a large proportion of the population seems to believe that Tayyip Bey is a national saviour, leading the country into a new era of prosperity, tolerance and self-confidence. Who to believe?

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus - soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus – soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Sometimes you just have to get out and see for yourself, I reckon. Yesterday I went a-wandering in the old city. My first destination was that corner of the ancient metropolis where the sea wall on the Golden Horn joins the land walls stretching across to the Sea of Marmara. The area is called Ayvansaray, but in former times it was known as Blachernae, after the palace where the last Byzantine/Roman emperors lived. There must have been quite a complex of buildings here in those days – and what little that survives above ground to the present day is said to be one of the few relatively intact examples of late Byzantine secular architecture in the world’.

When I first came to Istanbul in the 1990s, this area was a forgotten part of the city – most of its residents living in poor quality housing with little architectural merit. The nooks and crannies in the city walls and remains of the palaces were inhabited by an even poorer population with no other fixed abode. No doubt archeologists and ancient historians knew of the palaces, but there was no sign that anyone was taking any serious interest. Since 2010 there has been major renovation and reconstruction going on, and I pay a visit from time to time to see how work is progressing. It’s a huge job, of course, requiring major financial investment. One project is restoration of the Anemas Dungeon, located under the long-gone Blachernae Palace. My old guidebook said you would need a torch/flashlight to explore the labyrinth of tunnels – but it would have taken a visitor much braver than I to venture in. Tourists wandering off the beaten track in less isolated parts of the old city have met unpleasant ends. I’m looking forward to the day when the complex opens as a museum so that I can check it out in safety under more reliable lighting.

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

Nearby, another Byzantine Palace, Porphyrogenitus, is also undergoing renovation – and apparently the plan is to turn it into an exhibition hall and conference centre. While I understand those purists who see this as commercially driven sacrilege, I’m not sure what the alternatives are. Leave it as it was, a slowly mouldering heap of rubble inhabited by the city’s poorest? Wall it off behind glass panels so that a few rare visitors could attempt to recreate, largely in their minds, the glory of a bygone age? In reality, the preservation of such buildings is an enormously expensive business, beyond the means of the Turkish government to fund. Some of the finance inevitably has to come from the private sector, or by re-utilising them in some way that will provide an income. Where would the grand cathedrals of Europe be without their entrance fees and charges for photography? Even in countries where the culture and religion are theoretically unchanged?

As I often have cause to remark, Turkey’s biggest problem in being understood – even in understanding itself – is that so much has happened here during its long millennia of recorded and previous unrecorded history. Archeologists and even historians don’t have the facts, and the English language lacks the words to describe, never mind explain, the origins of the people who live in this region today.

The city of Byzantion is said to have been founded by ‘Greek’ colonists in 657 BCE. But who were these ‘Greeks’? Still, if that date is correct, it makes the city pretty near as old as Rome – and one might argue that Rome’s claimed establishment date of 753 BCE owes more to myth and legend than incontestable historical fact. Nevertheless, there we have a city, located on the historical peninsula inhabited by people speaking a language that is a forerunner of modern Greek. Then along came Constantine, Emperor of the pagan Roman Empire, establishing his New Rome (later to be called Constantinopolis in his honour) in 324 CE on the site of Byzantion, and the language of government became Latin.

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

During the course of his reign, Constantine reportedly became a ‘Christian’, and also established the principle of dynastic succession – two serious blows to democracy, sad to say. It wasn’t till 50-odd years later that the Emperor Justinian established ‘Nicene Christianity’ as the imperial state religion – some might say a political rather than a spiritual decision, marking the beginning of that religion’s descent into intolerance, persecution and political manipulation; but that’s another story.

At some point, the locally predominant Greek tongue re-emerged as the language of administration; the western Roman Empire fell, and Constantinople stood alone as capital of . . . what? The Roman Empire, as they themselves believed? Or some other mysterious entity, subsequently, and retrospectively, named ‘Byzantium’ by Western historians. Then the Ottomans appeared, finally conquering the (Eastern) Christian city in 1453 CE, turning it into the capital of their 600-year empire. Certainly the state religion was Islam, but ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Armenian’ Christians, and Jews, were tolerated and given rights of worship, language, education, even administration over their own people. To Western Europe, the Ottomans were ‘Turks’, just as their conquered predecessors had been ‘Greeks’ – but it was a long time, and many generations of inter-marriage with locals, since their ancestors had migrated from Central Asia. However, the power of words is strong to influence minds for good or ill.

But let’s get back to my ramble around that old city, delineated by the majestic walls built by Constantine, and extended by Theodosius II in the 5th century. The walls enclose a roughly triangular area with a perimeter of approximately twenty-one kilometres, so you can’t hope to see much in your three-day visit. My guide for exploring this huge area has been a handy little publication, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’[1], which has allowed me to concentrate on sections of the old city and to discover gems of historical interest in their labyrinthine streets. Yesterday my route took me along the shore of the Golden Horn back towards the Galata Bridge at Eminönü.

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

Certainly Istanbul is changing. Urban renewal is taking place everywhere. Huge state-sponsored projects are under construction alongside those of private sector commercial interests, great and small. Inevitably there will be gains and losses. We will regret the disappearance of some of the city’s old ‘character’ while at the same time, happily availing ourselves of its modern amenities.

My route took me past two old houses, formerly home to two important Ottoman figures, neither of them Turkish or Muslim – Panayotaki Nikosi and Dimitri Kantemir. Despite the sole online reference I found referring to the former as a ‘magnificent villa’ it has been a neglected shell as long as I have known it. The other, however, is in the process of renovation and being turned into a museum. Dimitri Kantemir was a Prince of Moldavia who lived in Istanbul from 1687 to 1710. According to Wikipedia he ‘became a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1714. [He] was known as one of the greatest linguists of his time, speaking and writing eleven languages, and being well versed in Oriental scholarship.’ His writings include works on history, geography, philosophy, linguistics and music. Restoration of his house is a joint project between the Istanbul Metropolitan Council and the Government of Romania.

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

So, whatever people say about the religiosity of the Istanbul City Council, they seem happy to put money into preserving non-Muslim buildings. A little further along the road, work is progressing on the small Orthodox church of St Nicholas. It’s not a particularly ancient building, having been erected in the 19th century – but it stands on the site of a much older Byzantine edifice, its location chosen because of the sacred spring which bubbled beneath it. Another waterside restoration is being carried out on the 19th century Bulgarian church of St Stefan – architecturally interesting because it was made from cast iron sections prefabricated in Austria and shipped down the Danube River.

A chance discovery while I was looking for the Kantemir house was a small mosque with an unusual wooden minaret. This mosque, plaques in Turkish and English informed me, was built by the Grand Vizier Şehit Ali Pasha in 1716 after a certain Ebu Zer Gifari appeared to him in a dream. That gentleman had been a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, and one of the very first to accept the new religion, subsequently bringing many converts.

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

I have been reliably informed that UNESCO has been considering naming and shaming Turkey for allegedly failing to adequately protect and care for the historic peninsula, officially recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. One project that has attracted considerable attention is a bridge recently built across the Golden Horn to carry one line of the city’s new Metro system. The bridge, say critics, is a blight on the historic landscape, disrupting lines of sight on the famous skyline and totally out of keeping with its unique architecture.

Well, I have to tell you, I love that new Metro system. There are some who say it should have been done years ago – but it wasn’t, and now it is. The bridge in question seems to be a reasonable compromise between a living city in dire need of a modern public transportation system, and an archeological paradise containing irreplaceable treasures of several major empires. Without the excavations associated with Metro construction, some recently discovered treasures would never have seen the light of day. Designers of the system have located a station in the middle of the new bridge, meaning that pedestrians can access it from both shores, enjoying, as they do, unparalleled views of the ancient city. I haven’t seen it at night, but I imagine it must be spectacular! And if my calculation of angles is correct, the only part of the city from which views may be obstructed would be the Prime Minister’s very own constituency of Kasımpaşa.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Meanwhile, the private sector too is coming to the redevelopment party. All along the waterside road and adjacent streets, trendy new cafes are sprouting, side by side with refurbished traditional meyhanes and purveyors of that necessary follow-up, tripe soup. Again, despite the local council’s reputation for wowserism, there seems to be no prohibition on alcohol consumption. As well as this small-scale commercial development, larger enterprises are also involved. A foundation set up by the late industrialist Kadir Has has turned buildings of the former tobacco factory into a university campus. Again, purists may object – but the factory was originally built by foreign banking interests who had obtained one of the infamous ‘capitulations’ back in 1884, and had stood empty for twenty years before its current transformation. The old factory also houses the Rezan Has Museum, where you can currently see an exhibition of Urartian jewellery and ornaments dating from the 8th-7th centuries BCE, and a fascinating display chronicling the development of written language, much of which took place in this part of the world.

Next time you are in Istanbul, with a few hours to spare, I really recommend you to follow that route. I can’t say that I am in total agreement with everything the present government of Turkey does – but the evidence of my eyes suggests to me that citizens of and visitors to Istanbul have much to be grateful for. As I wandered slowly around the other day, I passed and was passed by a family of young German tourists, mum and dad with three small kids on foot and another in a stroller. Clearly they were travellers on a budget, as you would be, and not with a tour group. I can’t imagine young parents venturing with children into those parts of the old city ten years or so ago.

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[1] Latest edition published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Council, in association with Culture Co. Earlier editions by Intermedia.

Bodrum to Gallipoli – A week’s wandering in Aegean Turkey

A major benefit of receiving visitors from abroad – apart from the happiness of catching up with family and old friends – is the motivation they provide for getting out and seeing the sights of Turkey through fresh eyes. We had a family wedding in May which brought guests from the USA, and took us down to Bodrum a month or so earlier than usual. Then some old neighbours arrived from New Zealand, and together we took a slow trip through the Aegean region back to Istanbul.
Here are a few highlights:
Myndos is the ancient name for the modern village of Gümüşlük-by-the-Sea where our journey began. There is no evidence to indicate that it had much more importance in those days than it has today – which is perhaps its saving grace. The Bodrum Peninsula is in serious danger of succumbing to the curse of over-development, but the existence of classical ruins beneath its humble surface has so far saved Gümüşlük from the worst depredations. Its small natural harbour and sandy beaches lined with atmospheric fish restaurants and small shops selling tasteful handcrafts, and jams and marmalades made from locally-grown fruits, attract visitors desperate to escape the English breakfasts, English football and Turkish nightclubs that blight other resorts on the peninsula.
Recently archeologists from Bursa’s Uludağ University have been fossicking around remains of temples, churches, theatres and bathhouses – and council workers laying pipes accidentally turned up a Roman necropolis. So far, fortunately, nothing’s been found that’s likely to attract coachloads of tourists or titanic cruise liners.
Magnesia-on-the-Meander. Certainly there are other sites on the road deserving a visit, but this one is a little publicized gem. My previous visits had been in the heat and dust of July or August, so carpets of red, purple and yellow spring flowers made for an extra delight. The city was renowned for its temple to Artemis Leucophryeno which, in its heyday, was little inferior to the better known temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, not much remains today, but a short walk will take you to a 20,000-seater stadium, wonderfully preserved as a result of being buried for centuries under a landslide caused by a 7th century earthquake. Incidentally, our word ‘magnet’ is said to come from lodestones found in Magnesia.
The modern town of Selçuk is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit Ephesus and other neighbouring cities of classical antiquity. Americans and touchingly credulous Roman Catholics climb a nearby mountain to pay their respects at a site purported to be built over an earlier house once inhabited by Mary, mother of Jesus (or of God Himself, if you are of that persuasion). The ‘purporter’ was apparently a stigmatised ecstatic visionary German nun who, despite never having left her home territory of Westphalia, provided directions to the said house, delivered to her in a visitation from the said Mary.
If you do go to Ephesus, I recommend shelling out a few extra dollars for admission to the terrace houses, a work in progress recreating the lives of well-heeled Ephesians back when the apostle Paul was writing to them (well, maybe not to those Ephesians). An international crew of dedicated archeologists is carrying out unbelievably painstaking work reassembling wall frescoes and floor mosaics from thousands of fragments that you and I would probably not even notice.
It is generally understood that carpet-sellers in Turkey are a local hazard to be avoided at all costs. However, an exception to the rule is a government-sponsored co-operative located behind the (currently closed) Selçuk museum on the back road to the 13th century Mosque of Isa Bey. We stumbled upon it by accident and allowed ourselves to be inveigled in. It did, however, turn out to be a worthwhile mishap. Apart from providing a place for master (or mistress) weavers to work and train young apprentices and market their wares, the centre also gives insights into the age-old art of silk production. One interesting fact I learned – the ancient Egyptians used silk threads to cut the stones used for pyramid building. Well, true or not, I have always wondered how those artisans of old were able to accurately cut thin sheets of marble for lining their temples and churches.
It’s a bit of a trek from Selçuk – and probably you need a vehicle of your own – but Aphrodisias is a magical site well worth a visit. At this point I have to give a plug to my friend Adrian. We were fortunate to find him in town, sipping a cold ale at Eksellans Bar on Saturday evening, and he was gracious enough to let us tag along on his Sunday tour. Aphrodisias is, of course, named for the goddess Aphrodite, since there was a major cult of followers located in the city in ancient times. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a connection between the Greek goddess, earlier Aegean deities Cybele and Artemis, and the cult of the Virgin Mary that subsequently developed when Christianity became the state religion in these parts.
For my money, Aphrodisias is a more atmospheric site than the better known, and more accessible Ephesus. Precisely because of its lesser accessibility, of course, you will find fewer tour buses from the cruise liners of Kuşadası. The on-site museum is a treasure house of fabulous sculpture, and the almost intact stadium redolent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’. If you are lucky enough to have Adrian in your party, you will be treated to translations of the many inscriptions for which this site is renowned.
The modern Turkish town of Bergama is located at the foot of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Many of the best finds are more likely to be seen in the eponymous museum in Berlin, but still it’s a spectacular site with a breath-taking theatre built on the precipitous hill. Roman engineers brought water by aqueduct from 40+ kilometres away, and some local inventor came up with the idea of parchment. Apparently commodity traders in Cairo had started stock-piling papyrus in anticipation of a shortage thereby creating a shortage, and got their come-uppance in a big way!
A brisk walk from the bottom of the hill will bring you to the Asklepius Medical Centre, whose residents included the famous physician Galen. Among its patients were some with psychiatric disorders, who were treated with music, dream interpretation and the sound of a sacred spring burbling down the corridor. Incidentally, if you’re looking for place to stay with a little ambience I can recommend the Athena Pension, an old Greek house with a view of the acropolis from its walled garden.
Following our hosts’ recommendation, instead of retracing our steps, we took a back road through Kozak – according to locals, the richest town in Turkey because of its trade in pine nuts. The road brought us out a little north of Ayvalik where we stopped for lunch at a delightful little place called Zeytin Altı Kır BahçesiA Country garden under the Olive Trees. As with many of the best Turkish eateries, its menu was limited to what they do best: grilled köfte and gözleme, both of which were delicious! We also picked up a few local products, fruit juice and a kind of molasses (pekmez) made from mulberries, and some tasty sliced olives in tomato sauce.
Our final stopover was the town of Çanakkaleon the southern coast of the Dardanelles, where we booked a tour to the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, that long-ago exercise in military futility that has nevertheless bequeathed a sense of identity to Australia, New Zealand and the modern Republic of Turkey. My guests and I felt a strong admiration for the Turks who have allowed former invaders to maintain cemeteries to their fallen heroes, to build a large memorial on the crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair, and have even erected a signpost directing visitors to Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove).
One of our fellow travellers on the tour bus was a young Maori lad who told us that he intended to perform a haka in honour of his ancestors who had fought and died for a king and empire to whom they had little cause to feel obligated. It was an impressive one-man performance that brought a tear to my eye – and a little anger against an elderly Anglo-Australian woman who demanded indignantly to know why we had to be subjected to such a spectacle.
A curious incident occurred as we were about to board the ferry that would take us across the water to the town of Eceabat. One of our guides, a young Turkish lass calling herself Zuzu, with a Goth hairdo and numerous body piercings, announced that we would in fact take a later boat because there were a few Turkish police on our intended ferry, and ‘they kill people’. I wonder what what the short-stay tourists made of that.

Another Anzac Day in Turkey – Modern myths and legends

Another Anzac Day is just a few weeks away. It’s not the big one. 2015, in fact, will see the centennial of that dreadful exercise in military futility known in English as the Gallipoli Campaign, and to Turks as the Çanakkale War. Next year visitor numbers will be limited, I understand, to politicians, celebrities and ordinary folk lucky enough to have their number drawn in a ballot.
‘Evacuation’ – Anzac statue in
Australian War Memorial Museum
This year, I guess, there are fewer restrictions, and the usual crowds of pilgrims from Downunder will converge on the beaches, battlefields and cemeteries where more than eleven thousand of their grandfathers left their mortal remains during eight months of bitter trench warfare.
One reason I am writing this a little early is that I wanted to bisect the dates selected by Turks and Anzacs to commemorate the event. For Turks, in fact, it has passed. 18 March is when they celebrate their victory – sadly ironic for Australians and New Zealanders who remember 25 April as the day our boys first came ashore at Anzac Cove. As far as Ottoman Commanders were concerned, the major threat came from battleships of the combined French and British navies attempting to storm through the Dardanelles, heave to at the entrance to the Bosporus, train their 15 inch guns on the Sultan’s palace and offer him the chance to come out quietly with his hands up.
Like many well-laid and not-so-well-laid plans of mice and men, the naval gambit didn’t come off. Three battleships (one French and two British) were sunk by the shore batteries and mines inhospitably emplaced by Ottoman defence forces. The Royal Navy and its French allies beat a strategic retreat, and Plan B was put into action. Plan B was, of course, the beach landings with which we antipodeans are more familiar. For their part the Ottomans, trusting in conventional military wisdom which favours the defenders in a marine-based invasion, backed themselves to turn it back – which they ultimately did, after eight months of fairly pointless slaughter.
These days, however, what we descendants of those Anzac lads choose to commemorate is something more symbolic. At the time, of course, the British Empire was still claiming to rule the seas and an empire on which the sun never set. New Zealanders, at least, were still colonials and thinking of Britain as ‘Home’; the King and Country they were fighting for, George V and Mother England. Many of us these days, rightly or wrongly, look upon 25 April 1915 as the date we began to grow up as a nation, to cut the imperial apron strings and to forge our own identity. The brave young men who performed above and beyond the call of duty in those Gallipoli valleys and on the ridges planted the seeds of independence and self-determination in our national psyche.
The actual day of commemoration in Turkey may be different, but that bloody struggle has an equally important place in the popular consciousness. Defeat in the First World War heralded the end of the 600-year Ottoman Empire. Victory in the Çanakkale War marked the beginning of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who went on to lead the resistance movement that turned back a military invasion, expelled occupying forces and founded the modern Republic of Turkey.
Legends abound on both sides of extraordinary courage, heart-rending pathos and minor events with major repercussions. One such is known to Turks as ‘the watch that changed a nation’s destiny’. One of the crucial engagements of the campaign took place on the ridge of Conk Bayırı (Chunuk Bair). During that closely fought encounter, a piece of shrapnel is said to have struck Col. Mustafa Kemal in the chest – the watch in his breast pocket taking the impact and very likely saving his life. Turks often say, ‘If not for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there would be no Turkey.’
‘A Man and his Donkey’
Melbourne War Memorial
On the Anzac side, an enduring story is that of Private Simpson who, with his trusty donkey, earned fame and gratitude by ferrying wounded comrades back to the shore under constant fire in an area known as Shrapnel Gully. Prints of the man and his beast hang on walls of RSA clubrooms, and a statue by sculptor Wallace Anderson in the Australian War Memorial in Melbourne enshrines the legend.
In Turkey too, statues are to be found that embody the courage and self-sacrifice of young men who managed to retain their humanity in those inhuman conditions. There is Corporal Seyit, a gunner who is reputed to have carried single-handedly three artillery shells weighing 275kg to the shore batteries silenced when the shell crane was damaged.
Another, in a location known to Anzacs as Pine Ridge, immortalises the deed of a Turkish soldier who carried a wounded Allied officer to safety.  According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, the officer, a captain, ‘lay in no man’s land while a ferocious battle raged around him. A white flag tied to the muzzle of a rifle appeared from a Turkish trench and the shooting suddenly stopped. A Turkish soldier climbed from the trench, picked up the officer, delivered him to the Australian lines and returned to his own side.’ The story is considered reliable since it was reported by a Lieutenant Richard Casey who later became Governor-General of Australia.
It is a surprising thing to me that Turks seem to harbour no resentment against the descendants of those Anzacs who invaded their country and killed eighty thousand of their young men. On the contrary, I have found that my New Zealand nationality seems to give me a special status in Turkey. We are accorded free-of-charge a three-month visitor’s visa when we enter the country – a gesture, I am sad to say, our government does not reciprocate. The magnanimous words of Atatürk to the mothers of Anzac soldiers killed in action are often quoted:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well
I was a little saddened, then, to read the following article in my local Turkish newspaper last week (I am translating directly from the Turkish):
“On the 99th anniversary of the Çanakkale Naval Victory, and as Anzacs prepare for ceremonies commemorating their war dead, an 89 year-old insult has come to light.
A statue entitled ‘Evacuation’ in the collection of the War memorial Museum in the Australian capital city Canberra depicts an Anzac soldier leaning against a gun carriage with a Turkish flag under his feet . . . and beside the flag a human skull assumed to belong to a Turkish soldier. The gun carriage on which the Anzac soldier is leaning represents war and the disaster of Gallipoli. The Turkish flag and skull on which he is standing symbolize the territory they invaded and the enemies they killed.
The Museum’s website contains photographs, and information that the statue was modelled in clay in 1925, moulded in plaster in 1926 and cast in bronze in Melbourne in 1927. According to notes on the website, the 82 cm-high statue was later bought by the Australian War Memorial Museum and added to its collection.
While our boys during the Çanakkale War were waving a white flag to pause hostilities and behaving like gentlemen in carrying a wounded Anzac soldier back to his own trench, the continued presence of this statue in the collection after 89 years has drawn a reaction from history scholars.
Every year on Anzac Day, April 25, Australians and New Zealanders coming to pay their respects to their forebears are welcomed at Kanlısırt on the Gallipoli Peninsula by a monument depicting a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Anzac soldier in his arms.”
Well, I checked it out and it’s true. There is such a statue in the Australian War Memorial Museum, and it seems to contain the details the Turkish columnist was objecting to. The sculptor referred to earlier, Wallace Anderson, served in France during the First World War, so he had first hand experience of the conflict. Apparently he saw it as his artistic mission ‘to show the public the qualities of Australian servicemen, rather than just the details of war’. This particular piece, entitled ‘Evacuation’, according to the museum website, portrays an ‘idealised depiction of Australian manhood’, an admirable sentiment, as far as it goes. We should recognize, however, that what may have been important to Australians and New Zealanders back there in the 1920s may have been superseded by the requirements of living in the 21st century global village.
One of the myths of Gallipoli, from an Allied point-of-view is that, although we were unsuccessful, we put up an almighty fight, and in the end, by remarkable feats of ingenuity and cunning, managed to spirit ourselves away from under the noses of the Turkish gunners without major loss of life. It is just possible, however, that those Ottoman commanders, seeing the invaders were obviously intent on vacating the premises, and buggering off back to wherever they had come from, elected to let them go without inflicting more unnecessary casualties. It may have been deemed necessary, in Australia in 1925, to maintain the myth by suggesting that, in spite of the manifest failure of the Gallipoli invasion, our boys had trampled on the Turkish flag and inflicted heavy casualties on those young men defending their homeland – but 90 years on we may want to accept that such jingoistic imperialism belongs, at best, to the footnotes of history.
One of my favourite New Zealand writers, Maurice Shadbolt, produced a book based on interviews he carried out in the early 1980s. Realising that the Gallipoli generation would not be around much longer, Shadbolt hunted out a number of survivors and visited them in old folks’ homes around New Zealand. ‘Voices of Gallipoli’ is a collection of transcripts of the interviews he conducted with these men, now in their 80s, some of whom had not spoken of their experiences from that day to this. Their poignant recollections convey, with dramatic simplicity, the contrast between the idealised heroic glamour of war and the dehumanising squalor, terror and personal loss of the Gallipoli experience:
“I lost my dearest friend, Teddy Charles, that day.  We joined up together and saw the campaign through together until Chunuk Bair.  There were no officers left, no NCOs. Just soldiers.  Teddy led thirty men forward to try and hold the ridge.  He called, “Come on, Vic”, but I was impeded by Turkish fire.  We never saw those thirty men again.  Later, in the dark, I thought I heard Teddy’s voice calling for his mother, then for me. But then the place was crawling with Turks and I couldn’t get to him.  He’s still on Chunuk Bair, a pile of bones.”
“Veterans of the Wellington battalion remember a member of the machine-gun section being sentenced to death for sleeping at his post. It happened in late July at Quinn’s Post. The sentence was remitted on medical grounds as the man had not been relieved from sentry duty at the proper time.  He continued to serve on the peninsula and was killed in the August battles.”
Interestingly, there is very little information about this book online – it seems to be out of print and I was unable to find an in-depth review. How many years must pass before we are able to view historical events with dispassionate objectivity? Very occasionally we are permitted a glimpse into a ‘familiar’ event through the eyes of another observer – and the experience can be sobering.
I read another Turkish source suggesting that, if the invasion of Gallipoli had succeeded and Allied forces had been able to supply and reinvigorate the Czarist Russian military, as was their aim, the Bolshevik Revolution might have been delayed and perhaps never have occurred. The red tide of British Imperialism might have flowed a little longer – and that of Soviet Communism faded before it began. The world might have been spared the mindlessly suffocating half-century of Cold War threats and posturing.

History is full of ‘Ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’ . . . and it’s worth remembering that there are at least two sides to every story.

Protecting Turkey’s Byzantine Heritage

Last weekend we took a ride on the new Marmaray Metro. We dove deep underground near the market at Kadıköy (ancient Chalcedon), boarded a train and rode one stop to Ayrılık Çeşme at ground level where we transferred to another line, plunging immediately into the earth again. Passing under Üsküdar (formerly Scutari of Florence Nightingale fame) we entered the tube that would take us, in a brief six minutes, below the waters of the Bosporus to Sirkeci, once terminal of the legendary ‘Orient Express’. Our destination, however, was one stop further, Yenikapı (Newgate), in days gone by, site of Roman Constantinople’s main harbour of Theodosius Caesarius.
Sad to say, not much of this history is readily detectable by the casual observer today. There are Eastern Orthodox (and Armenian) churches in Kadıköy, but none survive from the days when Roman bishops held their Ecumenical Council there in 451 CE to codify tenets of the new state religion, Christianity. There is, I understand, a small museum dedicated to that legendary Imperial British Lady of the Lamp, but it is tucked away in one corner of a vast military barracks, and requires official permission to visit. There is certainly a cavernous excavation next to the modern station at Yenikapı where archeologists unearthed thirty-five sunken Roman galleys and other treasures, delaying completion of the Metro line by two or three years – and a purpose-built museum to house and display these relics and artifacts, so all is not hopelessly lost.
The Yenikapı Metro station is an impressive modern structure that will eventually be a major transport hub for Turkey’s largest city, providing connections to four rail lines as well as access to passenger and vehicular ferries crossing the Sea of Marmara and the mouth of the Bosporus to Asian Istanbul and other cities in Anatolia. The station’s interior is tiled with images representing the layers of history uncovered during excavations, dating back to 6,500 BCE.
Exiting the station, we crossed the street and set off towards Divan Yolu, once the Mese, the main shopping thoroughfare of Roman Constantinopolis. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind so we took a zigzag course through back streets to see what turned up. What we chanced upon was a brick edifice of antique design, sporting a minaret but clearly owing its architecture to an earlier period of history. It was built on a kind of raised terrace and accessible by a broad stairway. Beneath the stairs however, was an intriguing entrance that we decided to explore first. Inside was a very large circular space filled with small shops selling leather goods, jackets, bags and such. Of more interest, to me at least, were columns of obvious antiquity, topped by carved capitals.
Bodrum Mosque – Myrelaion Church
To cut a long story short, we visited the so-called Bodrum Mosque on the terrace above and questioned one or two locals, without learning much about the history of our discovery. A little research was necessary and I can now share with you the following.
Jan Kostenec, writing in the Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World identifies the circular building as a rotunda, built in the 5th century and reputedly the second largest in the Roman/Byzantine world after the Pantheon in Rome. Experts apparently argue about its original function. Possibly it was part of a palace for the royal princess Arcadia; or perhaps a market place with a secondary function as a place of execution, similar to the practice in present day Saudi Arabia. Much later the rotunda was converted to a cistern and used as the foundation for a palace built in the 9th century. Subsequently it was reinvented again as a nunnery when its owner Romanos Lekapenos became emperor in 920 BCE. A small church known as Myrelaionattached to the convent survives as the present day Bodrum Mosque whose architecture had first caught our attention. It is said to contain the remains of six members of the Lekapenos dynasty.
Well, it is undoubtedly a bathetic end for a 1,500 year-old Roman rotunda to find itself functioning as a not-very-up-market bazaar for bargain-hunting tourists. And very likely there are Eastern Orthodox Greeks, archeologists and historians of the ancient world who would be disappointed to see a 1,200 year-old Byzantine church serving as a place for Islamic worship. Especially since very few of the congregation would have any awareness of, or interest in the history of the building in which they pray. The Turkish Government and its citizens come in for a good deal of criticism for their careless neglect and even destruction of their archeological inheritance. I read a report published by the TASK Foundation (for the Protection of History, Archeology, Arts and Culture) in 2001 entitled ‘Archeological Destruction in Turkey’. The report was prepared by a group labeled collectively the TAY Project and aimed to document all the archeological settlements in Anatolia and Thrace – a monumental task but indisputably worthy.
The report lists 313 sites all over Turkey representing periods from Paleolithic to Medieval Roman/Byzantine and explains why and how they are under threat. The most common reasons given are uncontrolled housing development and road building, which are said to account for fifty percent of the destruction. Among other causes, one is ‘unconscious usage’, an example of which is the tilling of the old defensive ditch surrounding the walls of ancient Constantinople for market gardens.
Well, those TASK people are right, of course. The land area of modern Turkey has been home to more human civilisations and prehistoric settlements than probably anywhere else on the face of the earth. It is a paradise for archeologists and a priceless treasure house of antiquities holding keys to unlock many mysteries of humanity’s march to post-modernity. Still, the implication that destruction only began after the Ottoman conquest, and worsened under the Turkish Republic is maybe a little unfair.
Statue of the Tetrarchs –
note the prosthetic foot
Much of Imperial Constantinople was, in fact, already in ruins by the time Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror led his troops into the city in 1453. Our rotunda, for example, is believed to have been in a ruined state by the 8th century, before being rebuilt in its new palatial identity. The population of Constantinople had declined from an estimated one million to around fifty thousand by the mid-15th century and nothing remained of the once great Roman/Byzantine Empire beyond the mighty walls. Much of the destruction had in fact been wreaked by fellow Christians of the Fourth Crusade who sacked and pillaged the city in 1204 CE. An example of this is a porphyry sculpture known as the Tetrarchs, currently located in the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The statue depicts four Roman emperors who ruled concurrently from 293 to 313 CE and originally adorned the Philadelphion, one of the main squares of Roman Constantinople. Archeologists working around our Bodrum Mosque in the 1960s unearthed part of the missing foot of the fourth emperor. You can see it in the Istanbul Archeology Museum – though the statue in Venice is probably a tad more impressive.
It should be remembered that by the time of the Fourth Crusade, Constantine’s capital was already more than eight hundred years old, at least four centuries older than Manhattan, New York, which itself has lost many of its heritage buildings, and is looking distinctly seedy in parts. It is only quite recently that we have started to become aware of the level of civilisation attained by Native Americans before they were largely wiped out after the arrival of Europeans.
Quite naturally the victorious Ottomans wanted to build symbols of their own power in their new capital, as we can see from the imperial mosques and other monumental structures dotted around older parts of the city. At the same time, however, those early sultans encouraged the return of Christian former citizens as well as the immigration of others such as Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Many churches continued to perform their original purpose. Undoubtedly some were converted to mosques, but it could be argued that this conversion preserved architecture and interior decoration that might otherwise have been destroyed. The marvellous mosaics and frescoes to be seen in St Sophia and Chorachurches (now museums) were not removed, but plastered over out of Islamic sensitivity to idolatry, and have been subsequently revealed by archeologists in all their glory. These beautiful works of Greco-Roman art date, however, from the 10th century or later, older ones having been removed by Orthodox Christian authorities themselves during the Iconoclastic period brought on by spiritual competition from the dynamic new Muslim religion.
Certainly much of the character of old Constantinople/Istanbul has been lost during the rapid urban development of the Republican period. Again, however, mitigating arguments can be made. At least Turkey’s industrial revolution with its accompanying rural to urban migration and rapid population growth has taken place in an age more inclined to the preservation of antiquities. How much remains of medieval London or Paris, for example? Further, the Republic’s new secular leaders ordered at least those two major Byzantine churches to be converted from mosques to museums, not ideal perhaps from an Orthodox Christian viewpoint, but arguably less offensive.
At the same time, however, as New Yorkers like Pete Hamill[1]will sadly tell you, no city can be preserved in a nostalgic time warp. The population of Istanbul has exploded from two million in 1970 to something like fifteen million today, with all that implies in terms of building construction, demands for water, power and telecommunications, roads, bridges, public transport, industrial development, retail outlets, sports facilities and entertainment centres. Town-planning authorities at national and local government level are caught in a constant tug-of-war between the demands of modern city-dwellers and the wishes of archeologists. 
Istanbul stands on possibly the world’s largest unexcavated archeological site. Clearly, however great your interest in history, you will find it hard to justify demolishing a large chunk of the modern city to gain access to what lies below. Construction of the Marmaray Metro may have buried irretrievably places of archeological importance – but without it much would have remained inaccessible and undiscovered.


[1] American journalist and writer of many books including ‘Downtown – My Manhattan’

Tomb Robbers and Cultural Linguistics

Do different languages confer different personalities? The question was raised in an articleI chanced upon the other day. The magazine was The Economist, and I confess it’s not part of my regular reading fare. Nevertheless, the piece struck a chord with me because I am pretty sure I become a different person in certain subtle ways when I speak Turkish.
It’s not just that there is a whole range of set phrases in Turkish you can trot out in almost every imaginable social situation, though that’s part of it: when someone cooks you a meal, emerges from the shower or hairdresser, is working when you are not; when a friend’s relative has passed away, someone does you a good turn or you want to admire a new baby, there’s a neat little ready-made phrase you can offer. On my annual trips downunder to see family, I often feel tongue-tied in these situations.
But there is more to it than that. Turks, in fact, have a saying: “Bir lisan, bir insan; iki lisan, iki insan” . . . “One language, one person; two languages, two people”. As an example, Turkish has no word for frustration, that “feeling of distress and annoyance resulting from an inability to change or achieve something”[1]. What Turkish does have (and English does not) is a marvellous verb halletmek, meaning to find a solution for a problem, where the solution may not necessarily be one hundred percent ethical or even legal, as in Hallederiz, abi – We’ll sort it out, mate.
You can understand the cultural need for such a word from the existence of another delightful verb oyalamak, meaning to put someone off with trumped-up excuses. This activity is especially found in offices or workplaces where someone in a position of responsibility doesn’t actually want to do something, or accept responsibility for something that you quite reasonably thought he or she should do or accept responsibility for. A foreigner like myself will probably feel some frustration in this situation, whereas a Turk will find a way to halletmek the matter.
Turkey’s Minister of Culture inspecting sarcophagus
(Click for a slideshow)
One of my regular sources of news and information is the Turkish daily Hürriyet. Last weekend a small item announced the opening of an unusual exhibitionin the south Aegean town of Milas: İbretlik Sergi. Well, sergi is Turkish for exhibition, no problem with that – but I had to look up the other word, and I now know it means a lesson learned the hard way, in the school of hard knocks, as our old Grammar School headmaster Henry Cooper used to say. No single word for that in English!
The exhibition apparently features tools employed by a gang police caught in the act of grave robbing. OK, a little ghoulish interest there, perhaps, but hard to see crowds flocking in, you may think – but listen up. The grave in question is believed to be the last resting place of Hekatomnos, King of Caria in the 4th century BCE, and father of the better known Mausolus, whose monumental burial place in nearby Halicarnassus (Bodrum) was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Carians, it seems, are something of a historical mystery. Their civilisation existed in southwest Anatolia long before Greek-speaking peoples arrived in the first millennium BCE. There is some relationship with the Leleges, indigenous inhabitants of Anatolia, and both spoke a now extinct Indo-European language related to Hittite. The Carian kingdom was incorporated into the Persian Empire in 545 BCE but our man Hekatomnos apparently managed to achieve a measure of independence for his people. His capital was Mylasa, but other important cities were Knidos, Myndos and Latmos, all of which sites can be seen by the visitor to modern Turkey. In the mountains above present-day Milas archeologists are working on the site of a temple to Zeus Labraundos, a cult said to have been founded by Hekatomnus. Its symbol is labrys, a double-edged axe symbolising creation and said to be the origin of the word labyrinth.
Anyway, it seems that the Milas tomb raiders had rented a property adjacent to the site and, over a period of time, dug two tunnels six and eight metres long into the crypt. According to reports, the gentlemen involved are locals but clearly they knew what they were looking for, knew exactly where to look, and had some serious financial backing. The equipment they had at their disposal is not what would normally be found in a Turkish villager’s toolkit given that they had to drill through a thick marble wall to enter the burial space.
Turkey’s Minister of Culture, Ertuğrul Günay announced the discovery of the robbery back in 2010, and said at the time it was obvious that artifacts and treasures had already been removed, presumably for sale on the lucrative antiquities black market. Fortunately the gang was apprehended before they had managed to make off with the large elaborately carved sarcophagus, or the coloured frescoes decorating the interior walls. The Archeological Institute of America listed the Milas tomb as one of the top ten discoveries of 2010, so it is a little disappointing, surprising even, that thieves got to it first.
Of course the entire area of Turkey is one vast actual and potential archeological dig, containing continuous layers of civilisation dating back at least ten thousand years, so it is inevitable that some wonderful new site will on occasion be accidentally discovered by a farmer working in his field or a tourist out for a stroll. However, it is evident that this tomb was not such a chance find. In April last year the government of Turkey made an official application to have UNESCO add it to that organisation’s list of important historical sites. In their submission, the writers note that the mausoleum of Hekatomnos was discovered by a German scholar Jacob Spon back in 1675. Admittedly the burial chamber the thieves were working in was ten metres underground, but you would think that, in the intervening 325 years someone might have thought it worthwhile to fossick around a little below the surface.
Well, clearly someone finally did. Ten locals were netted in the police raid back in 2010, and five of them have been subsequently charged with offences under Turkey’s strict laws relating to the theft and smuggling of antiquities. However, Mr Günay is convinced, probably correctly, that those taken into custody were not working alone, and he has vowed to investigate the likelihood that they were in the pay of a person or persons outside the country who were providing scientific and financial backing.
I have heard it offered as an excuse for the retention of priceless ancient treasures in offshore museums that Turkey is unable to look after its history and allows its own people to destroy relics of ancient civilisations. It’ll be an interesting twist if wealthy foreign backers are proved to have been employing local labour to do their acquisitive dirty work for them. I have found Turkish people generally to be honest and tolerant, particularly in their dealings with foreigners. I will be sad if the hard lesson they learn from events like this results in a tougher attitude towards us.


[1] According to my Apple desktop dictionary