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.

DSCF0474

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.

yss-bridge

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.

anadolu-hisari

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.

camlica-mosque

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.

anadolu-kavagi

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.

Advertisements

What Would Atatürk Say – if he came back today?

One of the things that impressed me in my first years living and working in Turkey was the seemingly unabashed patriotism in evidence everywhere I looked – pictures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic in every school classroom and government office; statues of the great man in every public square throughout the land; the national anthem sung with fervour at football matches, public ceremonies and school assemblies; the army held up as the sacred guardian of democracy and secularism; the nation’s flag an object of pride and revered symbol of those who had spilt their blood, even given their lives to establish the Republic of Turkey.
‘That watch changed the destiny of a nation’
For me, coming from a country where the gloss of patriotism had been long since tarnished by the lies of scheming politicians, it was a touching experience to be amongst a people so clearly imbued with such loyalty to their nation and belief in the rectitude of their young republic. I remember, in New Zealand, a time when cinema audiences would stand, as the curtain rose, to a stirring performance of ‘God Save our Gracious Queen!’ Younger generations would hardly imagine that such naïveté was ever possible.
That gracious lady was queen, not of New Zealand alone, but of the British Empire, whose star was beginning to fade. The loss of India, embarrassment in Egypt, Iran and Malaya, and the rise to global supremacy of the USA and the USSR, were beginning to push Westminster, London, to the sidelines of world affairs. The threat of nuclear global annihilation, the madness and hypocrisy of the war in Vietnam and a growing awareness of the plight of minority peoples were producing a generation of youth cynical about those in power and not afraid to express their opposition. As New Zealanders remained seated prior to watching the latest exploits of James Bond on cinema screens, the British national anthem was sent happy and glorious to the trashcan of colonial history.
Of course, there are those who may still shed a tear for the passing of a great age, which undoubtedly brought benefits to the world as well as harm. So it is understandable that, in Turkey, there are fears in some circles that abolishing the requirement for primary school students to recite the Oath of Turkishness marks the end of Atatürk’s secular experiment, and clearly demonstrates the anti-republican agenda of the incumbent government. But is it really so?
The secular republic that Mustafa Kemal and his followers established in 1923 was paradoxically overwhelmingly Muslim in the composition of its population. The imperial ambitions and expansion of its northern and western neighbours over two centuries had seen a huge influx to the Anatolian heartland of Muslim refugees expelled from their ancestral homelands, and the encouragement of nationalist secessionist activities within the Ottoman Empire.
When that empire was fighting vainly for its very existence in the First World War, and shortly after its death republican forces expelled foreign armies of occupation, the continued presence of Christian minorities became virtually untenable outside of cosmopolitan Istanbul. The freedom-fighting spirit that Mustafa Kemal harnessed to fight the invaders was a pragmatic coalition of Turkish nationalists, patriotic Ottomans and proud Muslims of many backgrounds. There was a need to unite against a common enemy that inevitably masked differences which later emerged: indigenous groups (Kurds, Laz, Arabs) and refugee immigrants (Circassian, Crimean Tatar, Greek) with their own distinctive languages and cultures; Muslims who did not identify with the Sunni majority (Alevi); Jews and tiny remaining Christian groups, all of whom, to a greater or lesser extent, found themselves obliged to mouth jingoistic slogans of Turkish nationalism with which they felt little affinity.
So the oath that children in schools had been obliged to recite since 1932 has finally been shelved as part of the democratisation package recently introduced by the Turkish parliament. Will that mean the end of secular Turkey? I don’t think so. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk laid down six principles as the foundation stones of his new republic: republicanism, nationalism, secularism, populism, étatism, and reformism/revolutionism. Since his day, the country has been ruled by a ‘secular’ elite. When an elected government strayed too far from the ‘approved’ path, the army could be relied on to step in, remove them and guide the nation back . . . to what?
Nationalism is only one-sixth of those six principles – and to retain its integrity in the long-term, the republic must formulate a definition of ‘nation’that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Secularismmeans separation of church (or mosque) and state – it doesn’t mean the abolition of religion. The vast majority of Turkey’s population is Muslim. All democratically elected governments have to pay lip service to this, and most have done far more. Populism means equality, but you don’t have to be long in Turkey to see that there is an unofficial class system lurking not far below the surface, and the military has been intimately bound up with its preservation. Etatism was a mixed economic model that allowed for private enterprise while acknowledging a need for state involvement and oversight – perhaps the ‘Third Way’ that Tony Blah’s New Labour Party in the UK was seeking but never found. Free market capitalists hate it, of course, since it implies state-imposed limits on human greed – and this Kemalist principle fell from favour. What happened to reformism/revolutionism? Successive governments became conservative and used Kemalism/Atatürkçülük as a stick to ensure conformity.
Alongside the statues and pictures of Atatürk you will always find sayings attributed to Turkey’s great founder and leader. Once again, however, there has been a tendency to pick and choose which ones will be remembered and which laid aside. Perhaps the most important of these is the one which goes (freely translated): ‘It is not enough to see my face. The important thing is to understand my ideas and my motives.’[1] Atatürk himself said, ‘There are two Mustafa Kemals: one is the creature of flesh and bone you see before you; the other is the spirit of revolutionary idealism that lives inside all of us.’[2]
Being a true Kemalist, then, is not about hanging his picture on your wall and admiring his steely blue eyes. It does not mean just taking on board the principles that suit your interests and quietly sidelining the others. The words in Atatürk’s Address to Turkish Youth cut two ways – if your fortresses and shipyards are under foreign control it is your duty to rebel and fight. He achieved what he did, founded the republic with vision, determination, popular support and strong leadership. Following him now and in the future means studying his ideas and understanding what he did and why he did it.
For one thing, Atatürk recognised that military victory was only the beginning of the new republic’s struggle. In the long-term, all the achievements of the army would be lost without continued economic development and sharing of prosperity amongst all citizens, not just the privileged few. Leadership does not mean sitting comfortably in your palace enjoying the benefits of civilisation while sending others to do the fighting and the dying. Ataturk won the respect of his people and the right to make hard decisions that not everyone agreed with – including many of the privileged elite – by being a leader who led from the front. He was prepared to put his credibility and life on the line. In the 1915 action known in Turkey as Anafartalar, and to Anzacs as Chunuk Bair, he was at the head of his troops setting an example for others to follow, and the fob watch that stopped a fragment of shrapnel from entering his heart is a powerful symbol of this.
Atatürk is often called the first teacher of the new republic. He emphasised the importance of education for all, and one of the aims of his alphabet reform[3] was to make literacy more accessible. Everyone knows that the education system in Turkey is in desperate need of a makeover. The state system is seriously underfunded, and allowing the private sector to take up the slack is not the answer. It may quieten the privileged minority who can afford to send their children to private schools, but it does not provide quality education. In the end, the main aim of private business is to maximise profits, which, whatever idealistic slogans are propounded by the owners, translates to bums on seats, window-dressing and reducing teacher salaries, which are always the largest item of expenditure.
In recent years the government of Turkey has been pushing ahead with moves to revamp the constitution. These moves have met with considerable resistance from the conservative opposition. From their objections, an outsider might get the impression that the existing constitution was the sacred one written by Atatürk and his brothers-in-arms back in the 1920s – a document akin to the Ten Commandments, set down in stone for all time, infallible and immutable. In fact, the document they so staunchly defend was penned by the generals who carried out the military coup in 1980. It instituted provisions to keep Kurds out of parliament, suppress left wing politics, and used religion and extreme nationalism to gain support for its moves. That constitution is desperately in need of change, but it takes time to carry out serious structural reform in a democratic environment. When criticism comes from both extremes, we may think that the reformers have got it about right. The first necessary change was to pull the teeth of the military who had been the force behind those wishing to retain the status quo. Europe and the US may secretly prefer to deal with dictatorial regimes when doing so simplifies the business of looking after their own interests – but they will never welcome such countries into equal partnership. For Turkey, accepting the result of the ballot box is an important step on the road to establishing a truly democratic republic.
The foreign policy of the government is another area in which Turkey comes in for considerable criticism. On the one hand, it is said that Mr Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is in the pocket of the United States, slavishly doing their bidding like a well-trained lapdog. On the other hand, the accusers assert that Turkey is following a Neo-Ottoman path aimed at undoing secular democratic reforms and restoring Islamic Shariah law. It’s hard to imagine that both accusations can be true – although US friendship with the hand-amputating, woman-flogging Wahhabi extremist Muslim Saudi royal family suggests that they have fewer objections to fundamentalist Islamic dictators than they would have us believe.
Interestingly, the government of Turkey is about to purchase a new rocket defence system from China. The project was put out to tender and the Chinese bid was not only the lowest, but the Chinese also included in the deal an undertaking to share technological expertise, and help Turkey to carry out much of the manufacturing of hardware within its own borders. Tenders from Western nations (and Russia, whose bid was also passed over) did not include such cooperation. Of course, no country, especially one as strategically located as Turkey, can afford the luxury of divorcing itself from the world’s only superpower. However this government has proved to those with eyes to see that it is by no means in America’s pocket, and is capable of formulating and following its own policies for the good of its own people.
A recent news item announced that New Zealand had been visited by several Chinese warships – I wonder what US leaders think of that. NZ, however, unlike Turkey, is far from the highways of geo-politics and strategy, and like a small child, can count on a little parental indulgence. When NZ’s Labour government back in the 70s instituted a ban on nuclear-powered and armed vessels in its waters, the US were naturally peeved, but they lived with it. I wonder if the Chinese vessels currently in Auckland Harbour have nuclear technology on board, or if the Chinese government would let on if they did.
Getting back to Atatürk, he sought and received help from Soviet Russia during Turkey’s War of Liberation. Atatürk was not a Communist but he was a realist. The West would divide and annihilate his country. They were supporting the Greek invasion. If the new Soviet state would aid his struggle, he would accept their aid and deal with the consequences later. As far as I understand, there were none. No doubt Turkey’s membership of NATO meant that it had the backing of the US and Western Europe to discourage Soviet incursion during the Cold War – but the West too undoubtedly benefited from Turkey’s large military, and from being able to locate bases on Turkish soil. It wasn’t a one-way street.
The second decade of the twenty-first century is shaping to be an interesting one for Turkey. The economy continues to show strong signs of good health and growth. Undoubtedly, political problems in the region continue to pose problems, not only locally, but for the world beyond. Turkey is on the spot. It has a long history of dealing with its neighbours, and Western powers would do well to soft-pedal their criticism and lend an ear to what Turkish spokespersons on foreign policy have to say. As for the people of Turkey, I have heard some express a nostalgic wish for a resurrected Atatürk to return to the nation’s helm. It can’t happen, of course – but I suspect that, if he were looking down from somewhere on high, he would not be totally disappointed with the current state of the republic he founded.


[1] Beni görmek demek, mutlaka yüzümü görmek değildir. Benim fikirlerimi, benim duygularımı anlıyorsanız ve hissediyorsanız bu kâfidir.
[2] İki Mustafa Kemal vardır: Biri ben, et ve kemik, geçici Mustafa Kemal… İkinci Mustafa Kemal, onu “ben” kelimesiyle ifade edemem; o, ben değil, bizdir!
[3] Abolishing the Arabic alphabet in favour of a Latin-based one.

Piyale Pasha – the man and the mosque

Istanbul is a huge city. Visitors from abroad tend to concentrate on the Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) area of the old city, and the shopping/entertainment neighbourhood of Taksim/Beyoğlu. The modern expansion of the city began in the late 1960s when the population was around two million. Now the official count is 13.5 million, but, as with other cities in the megalopolis class, a lot depends on where you draw the boundaries.
Piyale Pasha
16th century Ottoman admiral

In the 16th century, at the peak of Ottoman power, the imperial capital of Istanbul/Constantinople was still enclosed within the 22 kilometres of defensive walls built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century. Nevertheless there was, in addition, much activity outside. The satellite settlement of Galata across the Golden Horn continued its role as trading centre and residential suburb for non-citizens of the empire: Venetians, Genoese and other Europeans drawn by the magnetic attraction of this gateway to the East. The town of Scutari/Üsküdar on the Asian shore served as launching pad for the pageantry and adventure of annual pilgrimages to the Muslims’ holy city of Mecca. The Ottoman navy, scourge of the Mediterranean littoral, had its main base, shipyards, cannon foundries and other associated industries on the northern shore of the Golden Horn and around the corner as far as the Bosporus village of Beşiktaş.

Despite the exponential growth of Istanbul’s population and fears, or at least claims, that the present government of Turkey has been trying to recreate a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence, those glory days of empire are long gone. Passenger ferries and other small craft were still being built in the Golden Horn shipyards in the 1980s, and repairs carried out in the dry-dock until more recently – but the decision has at last been taken, as in London and other world cities, to find new uses for the disused docklands area: a hotel or two, modern shopping no doubt, recreational facilities such as parks and cycleways. You can observe the pattern in Liverpool, Gloucester, Melbourne, Australia, even my own home town of Auckland, New Zealand.
Of course those docklands areas contain much of their cities’ heritage, and sensitive redevelopment must include preservation of buildings with historical significance, perhaps adapting them for modern purposes such as up-market apartments, museums and art galleries. One advantage of such urban renewal is that it brings new life and visitors to parts of a city that may have been neglected no-go zones for many years.
One such area of Istanbul is the neighbourhood of Kasımpaşa. The current Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, continues to attract more than his fair share of criticism, and one sticking point for some modern Turks seems to be that he was born and raised in this ‘mahalle’which, if there were a railway track nearby, would definitely be on the ’wrong’ side. For his part, the PM seems quite proud of his humble origins – and they may arguably contribute to his popularity among the less exalted echelons of Turkish society.
Mosque of Piyale Pasha, Kasımpaşa

Mosque of Piyale Pasha, Kasımpaşa

On Sunday I ventured, in the company of a Turkish friend, into the interior of the ‘hood in search of a mosque I had seen from a distance, but never visited. Perhaps it’s a measure of the status of Kasımpaşa that the taxi driver we hailed to drive us had no idea about the location or even the existence of Piyale Pasha Mosque, and dropped us off within sight of another one nearer the waterfront – or perhaps, on reflection, he was nervous about plunging too far into unknown territory.

By dint of asking directions and walking a kilometre or so, we did eventually arrive at the building we were seeking – a large 16thcentury stone edifice set in an uncharacteristically (for Istanbul) green area of fig trees, walnuts and market gardens. There is some mystery about the building itself, in part because its design is also uncharacteristic of mosques of the Ottoman Imperial period. The general rule, modelled on the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, is a large single dome covering the inner sanctuary – but Piyale Pasha, or his architect perhaps, reverted to an earlier design with six smaller domes supported by two granite columns in the prayer area. Most sources credit the mosque to the architect Sinan, shining star of Ottoman architecture – but the unusual design leaves some room for doubt.
Piyale Pasha himself seems to have been an interesting character, not least because he chose to locate his memorial mosque far from the capital’s commercial and residential hub. Sources say he was of Croatian origin, captured (in battle?) and brought to Istanbul at the age of 11 where he was then educated in the palace itself. He went on to become a provincial governor and later an admiral in the imperial navy, testimony to the eclectic and meritocratic nature of Ottoman society at the time.
Surprisingly, Piyale Pasha is not well known, even in Turkey, despite marrying the daughter of Sultan Selim II and becoming his grand vizier. His fame is overshadowed by older colleagues, Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha and Turgut Reis. Nevertheless, he seems to have achieved considerable success in his own right, his raids on coastal towns of Italy and Spain forcing Christian states into some semblance of unity to defend their territories. Ottoman forces in the second half of the 16th century came to control the Aegean and much of the Mediterranean, including the North African coast and the strategic island of Cyprus – which, incidentally, they seized from the Catholic Venetians, not the Orthodox Greeks.
Interior of Piyale Pasha Mosque

Interior of Piyale Pasha Mosque

Perhaps Admiral Piyale suffers from his close association with a sultan often considered to have begun his empire’s downward slide. Certainly Selim II had a hard act to follow. His father, Suleiman, known in English as the Magnificent, ruled for 45 years, and is generally regarded as having presided over the Ottoman Golden Age. During his son’s 8-year reign, on the other hand, Ottoman forces suffered major setbacks against Russia, and Christian Europe at the Battle of Lepanto. Selim apparently had a reputation for enjoying a tipple, and one of his achievements was reopening bars and meyhanes closed by his father in the later years of his rule. The Wikipediaentry asserts that the unlucky sultan died as a result of a head injury sustained when he fell in his bathroom after a session of over-indulgence.

Well, maybe that’s one reason why PM Erdoğan has some reservations about the benefits of drinking alcohol. Certainly, when he breaks a bottle of sparkling grape juice over the 3rd Bosporus Bridge in the opening ceremony, he will want to make it clear that the structure will be named for Sultan Selim I and not Selim II.
In a more serious vein, I noticed, when visiting Admiral Piyale’s mosque, recently renovated, that the mihrab (sacred altar) is beautifully decorated with ceramic tiles, and high on the walls runs a lengthy Koranic text in elegant Ottoman/Arabic calligraphy – while the rest of the walls and interior of the domes are uncharacteristically plain. Several articles I read stated that interior decoration had originally been more elaborate. They also noted that the mosque had been extensively rebuilt in the 19thcentury. Reading between the lines, it would seem that there was a time when Piyale Pasha Mosque fell into disuse and disrepair, and perhaps prey to theft and desecration.
Interestingly, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture has begun taking steps to repatriate a display of tiles in the Paris Louvre Museum it claims were removed from the Kasımpaşa mosque and exported illegally. Authorities at the Louvre, needless to say, deny the claim, and say the tiles were acquired between 1871 and 1940 ‘in conditions that were perfectly legal and in line with the rules of the time.’
The Wikipedia entry says that  ‘a number of identical Iznik tiled lunette panels that are now on display in different museums including the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are believed to have been removed from the Piyale Pasha Mosque in the 19th  century.’ It goes on to say that ‘Two tiles from another lunette panel and a pair of tiles that probably came from the mihrab were sold at auction by Christie’s in 2004.’
In fact, while roaming around the internet on this subject, I came across this item up for auction at Bonhams‘An Iznik pottery tile, Turkey, circa 1575, Provenance: Greek private collection.


This elegant tile relates directly to lunette panels in the Louvre, the Musee des Art Decoratifs and the Gulbenkian Foundation. The first of these panels came from the Piyale Pasha Mosque (1573) in Istanbul.’
Well, it’s none of my business. I’m happy that Parisians and other visitors to the Louvre have the opportunity to see such examples of high Ottoman art – and if it helps them to a better understanding of their Muslim neighbours, perhaps the tiles should stay where they are. 

Neo-Ottomanism: A new direction for Turkey?

Once upon a time I dabbled a little in politics, to the extent that I actually tried twice to get myself elected as a Member of Parliament. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. I guess my main motivation was to preserve my right to criticize. People would say, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you do something constructive to change things?’ I wasn’t successful, of course, and I’m equally glad, in retrospect, that I wasn’t. To get elected on a party ticket you have to juggle the dictates of the party itself, the fickle winds of public opinion, the oppressive power of the media circus, your own desire for power, and your private beliefs and personal integrity. All too often, the still small voice of the latter is drowned by the insistent bellowing of the former.

All politicians know this, of course, and choose to pay the price for success, so you can’t feel too sorry for them. Barack Obama should have known (if he truly didn’t) before swearing the presidential oath, that the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to shut down Guantanamo and stop the torture; that adhering to the demands of the Armenian diaspora would run him into difficulties with the Turkish Government; and that the too-big-to-fail US banking sector would force him to help them out of their self-dug hole with a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-funded handout. Democracy is the machinery that allows us to call politicians to account when they stray too far from the path we want them to follow. Never fear, America, here comes Sarah Palin to the rescue!

I guess have a longish history as a political sceptic, but I do feel a certain sympathy for those charged with the responsibility of forming Turkey’s foreign policy these days. Neo-Ottomanism is a word I hear bandied around a lot. The implication seems to be that Turkey is moving away from the Western orientation it has followed since the founding of the republic, turning instead towards the Central Asian and Middle Eastern regions associated with its Turkic and Ottoman origins. The argument clearly has appeal for those, abroad and at home, wishing to label Turkey as eastern, Islamic, uncivilized and ‘other’; and the present government as all those things, plus backward-looking and anti-democratic. What do I think? Let me share my thoughts . . .

The Turkish Republic had its birth in a land devastated by decades of war – and it has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. The Ottoman Empire had been reduced by a century of nationalist splintering from within, and imperialist manipulation from without, to a shrunken rump on the verge of collapse. The last nationalist movement to emerge was Turkish nationalism, forced into self-awareness by the threat of imminent destruction. In order to foster this national identity, the leaders of the republican independence movement were obliged to create an identity of Turkishness, to decimate the elitist Ottoman language and exalt its poor Turkish relation; to develop myths of a legendary Turkish past, and sever ties to the Islamic Empire which had finally been brought to its knees by Western European power.

Osman Gazi,
founder of the Ottoman dynasty

The new Republic had, from its inception, an uncomfortable relationship with the Ottoman Empire from which it sprang. Osman Gazi, the founder of the Ottoman state, was a 13th century Turkish warlord. The Ottoman Sultans, for centuries, claimed, largely by dint of military might, the title of Caliph, or leader of the Muslim ‘nation’. Nevertheless, though officially Muslim, the empire contained relatively autonomous populations of Jews and Christians, as well as the various Islamic communities. The Ottomans did not regard themselves as ‘Turkish’. Turks were the warriors and tillers of the soil. The basis of the Ottoman language may have been Turkish, but it had substantial overlays of Arabic and Persian, incorporating three distinct language families[1]. The Ottomans were a ruling elite intermarrying with Russian and Greek princesses, and happily mingling with maidens fair from the conquered lands of Europe. In its declining years, however, their Empire had become a virtual puppet of the European Great Powers, accepting support and indignities from all and sundry to eke out its existence a little longer. When the armed forces of France and Britain occupied Istanbul at the end of the First World War, the ‘virtual puppet’ status became reality. The Sultan and his ministers were compelled to sign at Sevres a treaty that would have dismembered the once mighty empire. The final insult must have been the Entente-sponsored invasion of Anatolia by the army of Greece, intent on re-establishing its ancient Byzantine glory.


In short, we can say that the founders of the Turkish Republic had to split from and deny pretty much everything that the Ottoman Empire had represented. The fostering of a Turkish national identity required a rejection of all things Ottoman, even religion – yet the new state, unlike its predecessor, was now almost exclusively Muslim. Contradictions abounded, so, of necessity, there was some rewriting of history, some adjusting of reality, some myth-creation in order to ensure the survival of a nation that, like Hans Andersen’s ugly duckling, no one else in the world really wanted.

It is only recently that Turks have started to become comfortable with their Ottoman heritage. Sufficient time has passed that they can begin to feel pride in the achievements of ancestors whose existence cannot be denied. Most of the excesses of early republican nationalism and secularism are being quietly put away on high shelves. Atatürk himself insisted that the ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, should be intoned in Turkish. Now that is a dead issue. Even the most ardent Kemalists seem content to hear Arabic broadcast at high volume five times (or more) a day from a forest of increasingly lofty minarets. One of the most popular drama series on television these days is “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (“The Magnificent Century”), set in the 1500s, during the reign of Sultan Süleyman, generally acknowledged to have presided over the Ottoman Empire at the zenith of its power. Modern Turkey is achieving a synthesis, as its middle class multiplies and the process of urbanization accelerates, of modernity, economic consumption, globalization, secular democratic government, Islamic traditions and Turkishness. That is as it should be. The government may try to direct these processes but it cannot control them.

So far, then, I have been looking at the domestic situation in Turkey, but of course, there is another aspect to the label of Neo-Ottomanism. When the Turkish Republic came into being, its founders resolved to turn towards the West in the search for a new direction. The founding principles included democratic republicanism, separation of religion and government, state-sponsored economic development, and reforms of alphabet, language, clothing and religious practices. Europe represented the goals of the new republic, and all things Western and European became desirable. Although remaining neutral during the Second World War, Turkey sent armed forces to the Korean conflict, and was a major military contributor to NATO defences during the Cold War. I have recently learned that, when President JF Kennedy was indignantly ordering the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, the United States had bases in Turkey with missiles trained on the USSR. I suspect the Soviets knew about these, were not too happy about them, and very likely had Turkish locations pretty high on their list of targets to hit, should the need arise. It was a risk the Turkish Government took, one assumes out of a desire for friendship with the West.

At this point, I would like to quote from Wikipedia on the subject of Turkey’s attempts to gain admission to the European Union. I am aware that some people disparage Wikipedia as a source, but on this one I’m prepared to trust them. You can check the facts elsewhere if you have the time and the inclination:

“Turkey’s application to accede to the European Union was made on 14 April 1987. Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union (EU) and its predecessors since 1963. After the ten founding members, Turkey was one of the first countries to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1949, and was also a founding member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1961 and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1973. The country has also been an associate member of the Western European Union since 1992, and is a part of the “Western Europe” branch of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) at the United Nations. Turkey signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was officially recognised as a candidate for full membership on 12 December 1999, at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. Negotiations were started on 3 October 2005, and the process, should it be in Turkey’s favour, is likely to take at least a decade to complete. The membership bid has become a major controversy of the ongoing enlargement of the European Union.”

It looks to me as though Turkey has been pretty determined, one might say patient, in its efforts to be accepted into the European fold. I am well aware of the arguments against acceptance, however, spoken and unspoken, and (just between you and me) I suspect that a blue moon will rise over a cold day in hell when the EU finally welcomes Turkey aboard as a full member. So what are the Turks to do in the mean time?

The key issue that makes Europeans shy away from inviting Turkey into their club, namely religion, is the very factor that gives Turks an advantage when it comes to dealing with nations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Muslims have felt marginalized by Western societies for a long time now, and the accelerating speed of modernization has served to accentuate the sense of superiority in the West, and corresponding sense of exclusion in the rest of the world. Turkey, with its unique combination of secular democracy and traditional Islamic viewpoint, coupled with the detachment that its Turkishness brings to the mix, finds itself in a position to play a mediating role in an area that remains a mystery to most in the West. Central Asian Turkic republics, freeing themselves from decades of oppression by Russian and Soviet conquerors, see Turkey as the big brother that has trodden the difficult path they themselves aspire to follow. Middle Eastern states have a more problematic relationship with their liberal neighbour, but still, Turkey stands as an example of a country that has managed to achieve impressive political, social and economic freedoms while retaining its Islamic identity.

Is it any wonder, then, that the government of Turkey, and the private sector of its own accord, have been working to build bridges with neighbouring states in their immediate vicinity and further to the east? Can Western nations continue dangling carrots while holding Turkey at arm’s length, and at the same time, seriously expect the Turks to forego all other international contact in the hopes of future acceptance? The United States at least, has a pragmatic approach – unlike France for example, they refrain from grandstanding to special interest groups at home who have a historical axe to grind. They encourage EU members to adopt a more positive approach to Turkey’s membership application – even if only because of Turkey’s strategic geo-political significance. Britain also pushes Turkey’s case from time to time – though a cynic might suggest this stems more from its desire to maintain a Euro-sceptic position than from any great love for Turks as a race.

In the mean time, we see Turkish construction companies working in partnership with locals in Kazakhstan and Libya, and Turkish educational foundations building schools. We have seen the Turkish government (in league with Brazil) trying its own approach to ease international tensions over Iran’s nuclear development programme. We are seeing tent cities established near the southeast border to accept thousands of refugees fleeing violence and oppression in neighbouring Syria. Students from 130 nations are currently in Ankara to participate in the 9th International Turkish Language Festival.

In 2010 Istanbul was chosen as one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture, and, major projects were carried out all over the city to showcase its historical riches. Twenty-one million Turkish Liras were spent on a three-year restoration of the 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque, simply the best of many architectural treasures built during the reign of that ‘Magnificent’ sultan. But it is not merely Istanbul and Ottoman treasures that demand huge sums for historical restoration and preservation. A farmer near the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, better known for its coal mines, recently uncovered, while digging foundations for a hothouse on his property, the perfectly preserved mosaic floor of a 3rd century Roman villa.

Then there are the Ottoman heritage buildings beyond the boundaries of modern Turkey. The international community recognises the debt owed to the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome, and there is no difficulty in raising money to restore and preserve classical remains, wherever they may be located today. The British Empire left its architectural footprint all over the world, from Sydney to Kolkata, Istanbul to Shanghai. Most of those cities are in countries that have long-since thrown off the colonial yoke, yet they are happy to find new uses for the buildings. The Ottoman heritage is a different matter. In the Balkans and Greece, emergent Christian states couldn’t wait to erase all traces of their Muslim Ottoman past. In Central Asia, a century or two of Russian and Soviet hegemony, and economies with little surplus for luxuries, have combined to the detriment of important historical sites. Recently the Turkish Government has been involving itself in the restoration of their historical heritage in neighbouring nations. There are critics who see this as yet another aspect of emerging Neo-Ottomanism. Yet imagine the outcry if Turkey allowed, never mind contributed to, the decay and destruction of a 15th century church or cathedral within its borders. Without Turkish Government involvement, the six-century-old Fethiye Mosque in Athens would continue its descent into rubble; the Orhun inscriptions in Mongolia, the oldest known written documents of Turkic history, would meet the same fate, as would, probably, the madrasah where Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi was born in Afghanistan.

As I said in my opening paragraphs, I don’t generally have much sympathy for politicians. Dealing with criticism is part of their job, as are making unfulfillable promises and obfuscating the truth. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the present Turkish government gets more than its fair share of unreasonable criticism. Can they really be in the United States’ pocket, and at the same time, have a shariah and Neo-Ottoman expansionist agenda? Should they spend tax-payer money restoring and caring for their historic buildings, or leave them to rot and decay – and if restoration is the decision, who should decide which ones and where? Should Turkey cut itself off from contact with its Muslim and Central Asian neighbours in the hopes of currying favour with Europe? The path of political success is a minefield, and I’m pleased, when I look back, that New Zealand voters kept me from it.


[1] English, in comparison, though indebted to several major sources, is pretty pure Indo-European.