Getting back to Istanbul – and the world of Realpolitik

I’m happy to be back in Istanbul after spending most of the summer at our seaside retreat. We were rocked by a moderately disturbing earthquake in Bodrum – but it seems the big city suffered worse damage from torrential rain and a storm of super-sized hailstones. Gentle reminders from Mother Nature about who’s actually in charge on this planet. Anyway, I have to start work again, a necessary evil in order to sustain a lifestyle above subsistence level.

My good lady is still out of town, so, looking for ways to amuse myself in her absence, I headed over to the European side of the city. I was keen to see Taksim Square, Gezi Park and İstiklal Avenue, having heard so much negative comment about their descent into a black hole of fundamentalist Islamic horror.

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Not easy to get into. Could that be significant?

My first target was Küçükçiftlik Park, which I had seen advertised as venue of the 4th Istanbul Coffee Festival. I passed through tight security before emerging at a ticket booth totally lacking in any kind of queue. On asking the entry price I understood why . . . 35 Turkish Liras! What? Unable to believe what the young lady had said, I asked, “What’s in there? Is it worth it?” I took her momentary hesitation to mean that she herself had doubts, so I headed for the exit. 35 Liras! Last year it had been held in the grounds of Topkapı Palace, and admission was free. So what had changed over twelve months?

While in the vicinity I decided to check out Maçka Democracy Park, a good-sized island of greenery (yes, another one) in the inner city I hadn’t visited in a dog’s age. It was named in happier times when regular military coups ensured the preservation of democracy and secularism, at least for the nation’s ruling elite. It turned out that visiting the park was easier said than done. Clearly much of the lower end has been leased out to whatever private concern is now scalping citizens for entry to the Coffee Festival, and I had to walk a kilometre or so up the hill to find a gate.

Maçka Park has been in the news recently over an event where a couple of scantily clad young women were harangued by a guy who found their short shorts unseemly – giving rise to a series of protest meetings where sisters gathered (in shorts) to assert their rights to expose however much female flesh they thought necessary or desirable. Me? I keep out of such issues. I just try not to ogle too blatantly when vistas of naked leg and cleavage appear before me 😉

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Maçka park cable car

I was pleased to find that the cable car I remembered from years gone by still crossed the valley from Şişli to Taksim – and more pleased yet to find that the spectacular view over woodland to the Bosporus was less disfigured these days by youthful inscriptions etched into the perspex windows of the carriage.

A short walk brought me to Taksim Square, still a rather barren space despite council claims that they had planted a large number of trees. Gezi Park, location of much political excitement four years ago, is actually a rather more accessible and pleasant spot than in former times. The whole area has been closed to motor traffic which has been diverted underground. An exhibition area hosts thematic displays of handcrafts and the wares of micro-businesses. On this particular day, dozens of stalls were purveying second-hand books, classic movie posters and prints of old Istanbul, and several outdoor cafes offered Turkish coffee brewed slowly, in the traditional way, on glowing charcoal.

Feeling a little hungry, I headed down a back street and found a tasteful little restaurant calling itself “Gezzy” where I enjoyed a most delicious pide, a kind of Turkish pizza with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and green peppers.

From there, I carried on down the road known as Tarlabaşı Boulevard. On the downhill slopes to my right spread the colourful neighbourhood featured in numerous Turkish films about the underground life of gypsy music, prostitution in all its multitudinous guises, and the world of crime in general. I remember, years ago, on first seeing the narrow lanes of rundown Victorian tenements (or whatever the Ottoman equivalent was), wondering when the mixed blessing of gentrification would arrive in an area so close to the beating heart of the metropolis. Well, arrive it has – amid much fanfare, accompanied by somewhat justified wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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A green space in central Istanbul – but just try to get in!

I cut back up the hill towards Beyoğlu, passing by the fortress-like walls of the British Consulate. Built in 1845 as an embassy, in ostentatious imperial neo-classical style, adorned with the requisite inscription in Latin and the date in Roman numerals, the enormous edifice provides little in the way of services, to locals or UK citizens. A bombing fourteen years ago that killed a number of Turkish citizens, and accidentally got the Consul-General, led to the building of a defensive wall. Once an important outpost of empire in the Ottoman capital, Pera House these days looks like little more than an expensive anachronism.

The back streets running more or less parallel to İstiklal Avenue, the commercial thoroughfare leading out of Taksim Square, are lined with imposing buildings of similar vintage in various states of decrepitude and restoration: The Pera Palace Hotel, famed for its role in accommodating wealthy travellers disembarked from the Orient Express; the Grand Hotel de Londres, a reminder that French was a more fashionable language than English in those days; the Italianate façade of the Beyoğlu Council building, erected in 1857. These and more recall that for centuries, in Ottoman times, and before, when the city was capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, citizens lived in the ancient city across the Golden Horn. The district known variously as Pera, Galata or Beyoğlu was a satellite town of foreign traders and diplomats.

Most visitors to modern Istanbul take time to visit Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, and providing panoramic views of the city from its 63-metre viewing deck. In those days, the Genoese and their Venetian neighbours controlled trade in the Mediterranean, and it was their contact with Eastern civilisations that contributed to the Renaissance in Europe. Subsequently their control was challenged and more or less replaced by Ottoman power – which may have been a major motivation for Western Europe to get its political act together in the interests of defence.

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Lesser known tower of Galata – with the Church of Peter and Paul lurking behind

I had thought Galata Tower was the only remnant of the walls that formerly enclosed the enclave of Galata, but as I walked down the hill towards the Golden Horn I came across another tower and section of ancient fortification in a sorry state of decay. Turkey is often accused of failing to protect its rich architectural heritage, but when you get out and wander around the city, or the country as a whole, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ancient churches, castles, mosques, temples, bathhouses, theatres, stadiums, city walls . . . Every day, it seems, some farmer ploughing his field turns up the mosaic floor of an opulent Roman villa. This is world heritage – but mostly Turkey is expected to foot the bill for protection and/or restoration. Just as the Middle East refugee tragedy is a global problem – but largely locals are left to house and feed the displaced homeless.

Behind the decrepit tower I caught a glimpse of a bell tower clearly belonging to a Christian church. I wandered round the block trying to get closer, but it was well protected by the walls of a decaying 18th century inn, and a locked gate. Nevertheless, I did identify it as an Italian Catholic church dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul, erected in 1843 to replace a more ancient edifice that had been converted to a mosque in 1475 after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

In the 19th century, the district of Karaköy, at the foot of the hill below Pera, became a major commercial district where banks and other businesses established their headquarters. I’d heard about Salt, Istanbul, and took a quick look in as I passed by. It’s a kind of research library, museum and exhibition centre housed in what was once the HQ of the Ottoman Bank, established in 1863, according to the BNP Paribas website, “by the Turkish government in partnership with French and British financiers” with the aim of “restoring Turkey’s finances to health and helping to modernise the Ottoman Empire”. Yeah, right! Wonder if the Rothschild family were involved in any way. On the wall inside is another inscription in imperial Latin:Extra fortunam est, quidquid donatur amicis; Quas dederis, selas semper habebis opes.”

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Maybe he’s got the best idea. “Leave the wise to wrangle . . .”

My Latin’s a bit rusty these days, but the Internet came up with this translation:

“Who gives to friends so much from Fate secures,
That is the only wealth for ever yours.”

So were those French and British financiers claiming to be friends of the Ottomans? Well, that friendship didn’t turn out so well for the locals in the end, did it! Empires come and go, but leopards don’t change their spots.

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Same old story, 100 years on – “100 Yıllık Terane”

dscf0497I’ve been cruising past the sign for a week or so now – a huge billboard strikingly designed in red and black and white, located near a busy intersection on Istanbul’s Baghdad Avenue. It’s a long way from Baghdad, Iraq, of course, but once upon a time this road was probably the main route to that legendary city of the Near East. These days, Baghdad Ave, at least around where that billboard is, is the premier shopping district on the Asian side of the city – and a popular strip for young unattached wealthy males to prowl in their Porsches and Lamborghinis searching for an impressionable and willing young lass to whisk off to designer paradise.

The local council is unapologetically CHP – meaning they, and the citizens who elected them, are implacable foes of the AK Party that governs the country and manages the broader Istanbul Metropolitan region. So I suspect there are a few locals gnashing their teeth over this billboard – if they’ve actually noticed it, or managed to work out what it’s all about. I don’t want to undervalue the intelligence of those implacable foes – but sometimes I wonder whether their brains are actually engaged with their mouths.

The huge red and black billboard is advertising a book. That in itself is something of an oddity in a culture not especially given to reading for information or pleasure. I passed it several times myself before deciding to take a closer interest. I checked it out online, and then, my curiosity aroused, dropped into a nearby bookstore and purchased a copy: “100 Yıllık Terane” by Taha Ün – subtitled “This kind of coincidence is only seen in films”.

Well, I’m still a slow reader of Turkish, and the introductory pages are pretty heavy going – but Mr Ün, a journalist and amateur historian, I gather, has found a very interesting thesis. He is revisiting the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, in particular, a period of 33 years from 1876 to 1909 when Sultan Abdulhamid II was on the throne. He wasn’t the last Ottoman Sultan, and by no means a major threat to Europe, but he has possibly the worst reputation among the 36 scions of the House of Osman. Taha Ün has looked back on how that Abdulhamid was depicted in the Western press – and drawn 180 pages of fascinating parallels with the 15-year tenure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Prime Minister first, and now President of the modern Republic of Turkey.

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Crusaders conquering CHRISTIAN Constantinople in 1204

It’s a subject that needs airing – and not only to a Turkish audience. In fact I suggest that the determination of Western opinion-leaders to blacken the image of Turkey and earlier Islamic civilisations is centuries-old. For two hundred years after the first Crusade in 1095 CE, Western “Christendom” launched wave after wave of ruinous invasion on sophisticated civilisations in the Near East, with little concern as to whether they were Muslim or Christian.

There was a period of two centuries or so after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 when Western powers, not yet in the ascendancy, were obliged to find ways of getting along with their powerful Muslim neighbour. That began to change, however, after a coalition of European forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Thereafter Ottoman power went into slow decline – to the delight of rising Western Empires eager to add its territories and wealth to their own expanding spheres of influence.

Tourists in Istanbul tend to spend much of their time visiting historical sights in the Sultanahmet area. Ahmet I reigned from 1603 to 1617 and was responsible, among other achievements, for commissioning the famous “Blue Mosque”. He is not to be confused with Sultan Ahmet III, who ruled the Empire for twenty-seven years at the beginning of the 18th century until deposed by a military coup.

Ahmet III’s reign is commonly known to historians as the “Tulip Era”, in reference to a craze for the bulbs and flowers among Ottoman court society. The uprising of Janissary soldiers that overthrew Ahmet in 1730 is generally portrayed in Western histories as a popular revolt against “the excessive pomp and costly luxury” of the Sultan and his court. The figurehead of the uprising, Patrona Halil, a Janissary officer of Albanian extraction, apparently found time and leisure from his insurrectionary duties to pose for a romantic portrait by the French artist Jean Baptiste Vanmour.

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Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Ahmet III had actually been doing his best to cultivate good relations with France – incidentally at a time when that nation was not notable for democratic treatment of its own citizens. Apart from growing tulips, and living in the lap of luxury – a lifestyle not altogether shunned by his French contemporary, Louis XIV – the Ottoman Sultan “left the finances of the Ottoman Empire in a flourishing condition . . . without excessive taxation or extortion procedures”. He was probably the first of his line to look Westward with an eye to emulating European progress. He was a patron of literature, architecture and the arts in general, promoted commerce and industry, and authorised the introduction of printing presses for producing books in the Ottoman language. During Ahmet’s reign the Ottomans came close to destroying the power of the emerging Russian Empire – and it is perhaps here that we may seek the reason for his negative portrayal in the West.

Apparently King Charles XII of Sweden was given sanctuary by the Ottomans after his army had been defeated by the Russians in 1709. Refusing to hand over the Swedish monarch brought Ahmet into a war with his northern neighbour, which was going badly for the Russians until the Safavid Persians attacked the Ottomans in the east. At least one historian has argued that the resulting peace treaty possibly turned the course of history, in that it saved Tsar Peter, who subsequently went on to become the Great Emperor of Russia, from possible capture and imprisonment.

That looks like quite an impressive list of achievements for a guy who ascended the throne at the age of 13; and it might seem a trifle unfair to write him off with a belittling reference to tulips and luxurious decadence. Russia had had close diplomatic relations with Persia since at least the middle of the 16th century. As their power increased, it is likely that they saw benefits accruing from stirring up conflict between the two Muslim empires to the south – and not impossible that the Shi’ite Persians hoped to win favour with Russia and territorial gains for themselves by striking the Sunni Ottomans while they were otherwise engaged. It is also possible that Western interests were served by fomenting internal strife against Sultan Ahmet when he looked as though he might be turning the tide of Ottoman decline. But it’s just a theory, you understand.

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Selimiye Barracks – still an Istanbul landmark

Anyway, let’s move forward another hundred years. By the beginning of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was really struggling. Western Europe was well into its industrial revolution; the Big Three, Britain, France and Russia, were expanding on all fronts; and military defeats by their troublesome eastern neighbour had become a thing of the past. Selim III ascended the throne in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, with reform on his mind, particularly in the fields of education and the military. The landmark four-towered army barracks on the Asian shore of the Bosporus near Kadıköy stands as a symbol of his efforts. They were cut short, however, by forces of conservatism within the Empire, the Janissary army, religious leaders and the hereditary elite, who, fearing the loss of their traditional power, joined forces to overthrow and murder him. Selim’s two successors both had brief reigns and came to nasty ends, before his great-nephew Mahmud II took over in 1808.

Bucking the trend of recent years, the 30th Sultan managed 31 years on the throne and died of natural causes. He carried out far-reaching reforms in administrative, fiscal and military matters. One of his major achievements was abolishing the Janissary corps, once-feared symbol of Ottoman military might, that had long since become more active as a force of reaction, overthrowing and sometimes assassinating reform-minded Sultans. Mahmud went on to set up a more equitable taxation system; curb the power of local governors; establish a modern army and navy; and institute clothing reforms that brought his subjects more into line with Western conventions. Interestingly, it was he who introduced the fez in place of the traditional turban – though that headgear itself later came to be seen as a symbol of Ottoman backwardness.

Once again, however, the machinations of European powers worked against Mahmud’s positive moves. “The Eastern Question” assumed increasing importance as a motive behind the foreign policies of Western governments. The essence of the question was: “When will the Ottoman Empire finally collapse and disintegrate – and which of us will get what parts of it when it does?” British, French and Russian governments might, of course, have different answers to this question, with the result that sometimes they worked together against the Ottomans; and sometimes supported the Ottomans against each other, bolstering them up to suit their own interests while doing their best to undermine them and assist the break-up of the Empire from within.

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Prince Otto of Bavaria – King of “independent” Greece, 1830

The Greek War of Independence that began in 1821 illustrated the complexities of the Eastern Question. Russia, always keen to get access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, saw advantage in championing the Sultan’s Eastern Orthodox Christian subjects to rebel, and bring the Bosporus Straits and the Aegean Sea under Russian control. Britain and France wanted to keep Russia bottled up in its frozen wastes. A compromise was brought about when the navies of the three Great Powers combined to smash the Ottoman and Egyptian navies, and create an “independent Greek” state. Just how “independent” became clear when a Roman Catholic Prince from Bavaria was installed on the throne of the new kingdom, whose finances were supported by loans from Britain and the Rothschild bank.

The very name “Greece” in fact carried little or no significance for the “Greeks” themselves, who preferred (and still prefer) variations on the theme of “Hellas”. British aristocrats supporting the “Greek” struggle had confused ideas about returning modern-day locals to the pagan glories of mythological ancient times they remembered hazily from their Etonian school days. Modern Hellenes laboured under the misconception that they would be permitted to re-establish a Christian Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople. Dream on!

Nevertheless, a precedent was set for the Great Powers to support downtrodden Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire, encouraging them to rebel and bring down the wrath of the Ottoman government on their heads – whereupon said great Powers would be justified in getting involved with a nationalist struggle on humanitarian grounds.

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So, which empire showed more humanity?

This new strategy of the Western powers proved a major nightmare for Mahmud’s son, Abdulmejid (Abdülmecid), Sultan from 1839 to 1861. The new monarch is remembered in Turkish history as the initiator of Tanzimat (Reorganisation), an ambitious programme of reforms encompassing finance, the civil and criminal law, the establishment of modern universities, equal treatment for religious minorities in the Empire, and the abolition of slavery. According to Wikipedia, he had “plans to send humanitarian aid of £10,000 to Ireland during its Great Famine, but later agreed to reduce it to £1,000 at the insistence of British diplomats wishing to avoid embarrassing Queen Victoria, who had made a donation of £5,000.”

His attempts to combat the rise of separatist nationalist movements, however, by legislating for equal rights, and promoting “Ottomanism” as a unifying doctrine were undone by Great Power support for Christian minorities. While Britain and France were lending support in the Crimean War to contain Russian expansion, the Russians themselves were driving out the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus, and, following the example of “Greek independence”, inciting Armenian Christians in eastern Anatolia to rise up against their lawful government.

Abdulmejid died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 and was succeeded by his brother, Abdülaziz. Despite his continued attempts to modernise the Empire, Ottoman travails continued. He attempted to cultivate ties with France – which was undermined by France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Britain, as always, proved an untrustworthy ally, by this time more interested in acquiring Ottoman territories after the construction of the Suez Canal. The British Government originally opposed the French project but, later took over the canal, and extended its influence into Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Increasingly desperate, the Ottoman government turned to Russia for assistance, but Russian support for nationalist independence movements in the Balkans meant there was little hope to be gained from that quarter. Abdulaziz struggled on for fifteen years before mounting crises at home and abroad led to his deposition in 1876. There is some disagreement over his subsequent death – did he top himself, or was he “offed”?

Whatever the case, the once mighty empire was in an almighty mess. Abdulaziz’s nephew lasted 93 days on the throne before being ousted on the grounds of insanity. His younger brother was crowned Abdulhamid II on 31 August 1876. Within fifteen months the Ottomans had fought and lost a disastrous war with Russia, whose forces were massed at the very gates of Istanbul/ Constantinople. Only last minute interference by the British Navy averted total defeat – but most of Ottoman territory in the Balkans was lost, and the Brits made off with the island of Cyprus.

Which brings us back to that book. There seems to be some revision of history under way in Turkey these days. Of necessity, the founders of the Republic dissociated themselves from the Ottoman Empire, on whose ashes they hoped to build a new nation. In looking to the West for inspiration and guidance, they took on board Western perceptions of Ottoman history depicting its rulers as corrupt, decadent and brutal. An unfortunate side effect of this process was a loss of identity, a feeling of inferiority that manifested itself in attempts to leapfrog 900 years of history and establish a semi-mythological connection to Turkic forebears in Central Asia. All of which bolstered Western stereotypes of swarthy, camel-riding barbarians not fit to be granted entry into Europe.

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Sultan Abdulhamid II

An important new industry in Turkey is producing television drama series that have been finding surprisingly enthusiastic audiences, not only at home, but in the Middle East and as far away as South America. Yesterday the first episode of a new historical drama was screened: “Payitaht: Abdülhamid”. The title is somewhat cryptic – possibly implying that, for better or worse, this guy WAS the sole governing power of the Empire at that time. Apparently the series deals with the last thirteen years of that controversial Sultan’s reign, from 1896 to his deposition in 1909. Another sign, perhaps, that Turkey is no longer satisfied to be defined by Western stereotypes.

England’s eye-opening foray into the Muslim world in the 16th century

I’ve just finished reading “The [jaw-dropping] Untold History of the United States” by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. Here’s another untold history I haven’t yet read – but the review looks interesting, so it’s on my list:

“In a year when the election of London’s first Muslim mayor and the Brexit vote made headlines, the publication of historian Jerry Brotton’s new book, “The Sultan and the Queen,” seems particularly appropriate. While histories of 16th-century England generally emphasize the country’s isolationism, Brotton argues that to the contrary, England actively sought closer ties with the Islamic world. “The Sultan and the Queen” explores a less-well-known aspect of Elizabethan history, namely England’s nascent commercial and political relationships with the Muslim powers of the day: the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Morocco.

9780525428824-fullsize-cmykIn 1570, Queen Elizabeth I’s excommunication from the Catholic Church led to England’s exile from its European trading partners as well as its release from papal edicts against trade with Muslim nations. When merchants proposed that England seek closer links with the Muslim world, Elizabeth agreed. North America had not yet become a source for significant exports, so from these Muslim lands England hoped to gain sugar, spices, silk, cotton and even potassium nitrate to make gunpowder. During the queen’s nearly 45-year reign, she sent numerous delegations to powerful Muslim empires, frequently with purposes that extended beyond business.

At the time, England was not the dominant world power it would later become, and little was known about Islam or life in Muslim lands, despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire was much more formidable than England. In England, Muslims were known as Saracens, a racialized term that referred to Arabs or dark-skinned Crusaders. Yet in many ways, Brotton asserts, the Muslim world in 1578 was much more cosmopolitan than England. Writing of an English soldier’s first visit to Morocco during this period, Brotton observes that coming from “the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestant and Catholic, the multiconfessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock,” with its “Berbers, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Africans, Moriscos and Christians” as well as the many languages spoken in its streets.

As trade relations became more firmly established, hundreds of Muslims traveled to England, where the English reported on their unfamiliar clothes and customs. When the Moroccan sultan al-Mansur sent a delegation in 1600 to London (ostensibly for trade but covertly to discuss the prospects of a joint attack on Spain), witnesses noted that in addition to being “strangely attired and behavioured,” the emissaries “killed all their own meat within their house. . . . They use beads, and pray to Saints.”

It is impossible to read these words and not think of the Syrian refugee crisis, one of many moving reminders of why this book is particularly resonant today. History is long, even if cultural imaginations often hardly extend back before the colonial period. “The Sultan and the Queen” evokes an England struggling to find a place for itself in a world that it had not yet learned to dominate, and often making colossal diplomatic blunders in the process. Brotton is a gifted writer who is able to present this history as an exciting series of critical and suspense-filled encounters. His masterful blending of the influential stage dramas of the day with the historical incidents that influenced them makes theater and history come alive. In a lesser writer’s hands, both Shakespeare and the fevered political engagements with the Muslim world could easily have come across as dry relics of the distant past.

As England, like so many countries these days, tacks between isolationism and integration, between building walls and welcoming refugees, Brotton’s colorful and fascinating history of earlier encounters between England and the Muslim world is a potent reminder that in many respects, we have been here before.” Read the full review in The Washington Post

THE SULTAN AND THE QUEEN
 The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam

By Jerry Brotton Viking. 338 pp. $30

The world’s largest neo-Ottoman suspension bridge

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

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Rumeli Castle in April

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

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

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The third Bosporus bridge

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

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

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

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The Anatolian Castle

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

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

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Çamlıca Mosque

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

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

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

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

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

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The NOT-Genoese Yoros Castle at Anadolu Kavağı

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

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

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

Why do they hate Turkey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II enters Constantinople, 1453

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1. Sykes-Picot plans for the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London

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

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

A Stroll through Nature and History – Yıldız Park and Abdülhamit II

The storks are back. I saw a muster of them a week or so ago. Or it could have been a phalanx. According to Wikipedia, the terms are interchangeable. Whatever, there were hundreds of them circling in the sky over the financial district of Levent as I headed home from work. In fact the birds don’t nest in Istanbul, but they gather here twice a year as they depart for, or return from their annual migration to warmer climes for the winter.

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Spring tulips in Yıldız Park

So another spring is with us in Turkey. The swallows flew in a week before the storks, Persephone is on leave from Hades, and at least two ‘cemre’ (djemreh) have fallen. What’s a ‘cemre’, you may ask. Well, despite its being a Turkish word, I have yet to find anyone who can actually give a definition. Nevertheless, three of them are said to fall in the spring time, warming the air, the water and the earth – and then it’s summer.

In recent years the Istanbul Metropolitan Council has sponsored a tulip festival, and this year they’ve planted 8.5 million bulbs in parks around the city. This man-made riot of colour supplements the display of the ubiquitous erguvan (Judas tree) that splashes both banks of the Bosporus with dense bunches of purple blossom. You’ve got a brief two-week window of opportunity, so if you’re in town, you need to get out and feast your eyes. This year our choice settled on Yıldız Park.

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Yıldız sincabı – Check out the squirrels

Yıldız is an interesting and picturesque area located on the slopes above the coastal districts of Beşiktaş and Ortaköy on the European side of Istanbul. Despite hysterical claims three years ago that the government was destroying the city’s last green areas, Yıldız Park is just one of its many beautiful natural reserves. These 29 hectares (73 acres) of semi-wilderness and ordered gardens are what remain of a forest formerly used for hunting by Byzantine and Ottoman aristocrats. Probably what saved this remnant for posterity was being chosen as a safe haven by one of the last Ottoman Sultans.

Abdülhamit II was the 34th Padishah, and one of its longest-reigning, ascending the throne in 1876 with the empire facing external threats on all its borders, as well internal rebellions, and managing to survive until deposed in 1909. In spite of, or possibly because of, holding a beleaguered fort for 33 years as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around him, Abdülhamit is regarded in the West as some kind of devil incarnate – and his time on the throne, even in Turkey, as a period to be quietly avoided.

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Sultan Abdülhamit II, 2nd from the right

Nevertheless, I have to tell you, I’ve got some sympathy for the man. A little like George VI of England, Abdülhamit ascended the throne somewhat unexpectedly. However, George’s rise to monarchic splendour came as a result of his older brother’s infra dig marriage to an American divorcee. Abdülhamit’s elder sibling was forcibly removed from office after a brief 93 days on the throne. This was the second such event in a matter of months, the royal princes’ uncle, Abdülaziz, having been deposed by his ministers earlier in the year. Uncle Aziz was found dead five days later – whether by his own hand or that of another, history does not tell us. So it was an inauspicious beginning for the 34 year-old Abdülhamit, and the fact that he retained his throne for 33 years is testament at least to his commitment and determination.

Things were not going well for the Ottoman Empire, and had not been for some time. The Great Powers of Europe, in particular, Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire (where are they now?), and Russia, were keen to see it disappear, and to pick up the pieces for themselves. After 1870, two Johnnie-come-latelies, Italy and Germany, appeared on the scene, with similar intentions. All that really stood between the Ottomans and final dissolution was the self-seeking determination of each of those European powers to see that they got the best bits and the others didn’t.

So the Ottomans survived Russia’s expansionist plans in the 1850s because Britain and France decided it was in their interests to help out. They were fast losing interest, however. Russia’s pretext for starting the Crimean War, its ‘altruistic’ desire to champion the Ottoman’s oppressed Christian minorities, was recognised as a clever ploy, and that was the beginning of the end.

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Yıldız Palace and Hamidiye Mosque – fading glories of the 600-year Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire had for centuries been an obstacle to European incursions into Asia, and to Russian desire for access to the Mediterranean Sea. When the Suez Canal was opened under French control in 1869, that region suddenly assumed even greater importance for European trade. John D. Rockefeller founded his Standard Oil Company a year later, and ‘black gold’ slowly began to assume crucial significance. Put two and two together, and you can see why the downfall of the declining Ottoman Empire was pretty much signed and sealed. – and why its 34th Sultan was on a hiding to nothing when he got the big job.

Interestingly, despite his reputation in some circles for despotism and bloody massacres of innocent minorities, there had been expectations that Abdülhamit would continue the modernisation and democratisation processes set in motion by his father Abdülmecit (ruled 1839-61). Circumstances were against him, however.

  • In 1860 Christian-minority Maronites rose up in Lebanon and established a peasant republic. Pretty advanced stuff for Middle Eastern peasants in those days! Britain and France threatened to intervene on their behalf, and the Ottomans were obliged to accept a Christian governor in Lebanon.
  • In 1860 there was a rebellion on the island of Crete in support of enosis – union with the recently established ‘independent’ kingdom of Greece. ‘Christian’ Greeks claimed that Muslims had massacred Greeks, in spite of which, the latter managed to seize control of the island with the assistance of thousands of Greek troops from the mainland.
  • The Russian invasion of the Caucasus saw Crimean and Circassian Muslims massacred and displaced, and hundreds of thousands of them sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after the Russians final victory in 1864.
  • The ‘Balkan Crisis’ began in 1875 as the Habsburgs and Russia attempted to annex Ottoman territory. Public opinion in Europe was aroused by reports that the Ottoman administration was using bashi-bazouk troops to commit atrocities against the innocent local Christians. In fact there were atrocities committed by both sides, of course. The bashi-bazouks admittedly had a long-standing grudge since most of them were recently settled Crimeans and Circassians who had seen first-hand what Christians did to Muslims.
  • In June 1876, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire with the tacit support of Austria-Hungary and Russia. The European Powers held a conference in Istanbul/Constantinople to sort the issue out, but neglected to invite the Ottomans.
  • Meanwhile, in 1877, the Russians opened a new front threatening the Ottomans in the Caucasus. Their forces, led by Armenian commanders, captured several Ottoman towns in the east, and laid siege to others. What happened to the Muslims out there is generally overlooked in Western historical accounts – but it may well have contributed to later events when the Ottomans regained control.
  • Back in the west, Russian forces were at the gates of the Ottoman capital, whatever you like to call it (Constantinople? Istanbul?), and it was only the threat of intervention by the British Royal Navy that brought about a truce. And while everyone was looking the other way, the Brits grabbed the island of Cyprus.

The cost of all this to the Ottoman administration was disastrous: great losses of territory, not to mention prestige; a huge influx of impoverished refugees from the new ‘Christianised’ countries; enormous expenses leading to crippling debt; and a reputation in the West for savagery and barbarity Turks are still struggling to live down.

So poor Sultan Abdülhamit was up against it right from the start. Other supposedly enlightened nations have resorted to a state of emergency and suspension of freedoms with less reason – and yes, our man did suspend the recently introduced constitution. Well, I guess there are times when democracy just doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. And it was obvious that even his own ‘loyal’ governing classes were all-too-ready-and-willing to depose their monarch in times of trouble.

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Judas trees flowering in Yıldız Park

But what about Yıldiz Park, and Istanbul in the springtime? What happened to that story? Well, the new sultan clearly felt that his father’s palace, Dolmabahçe, designed by his Armenian architects, and beautifully located on a spectacular Bosporus-shore location, was a little vulnerable. Consequently he took the decision to built a new home for himself a little further from the sea higher up in the forest. Possibly by this time, Armenians were shifting their loyalties, and responsibility for the royal building programme had been handed over to an Italian, Raimondo D’Aronco.

The palace complex comprised a number of buildings including accommodation for visiting dignitaries, a theatre and opera house, and a porcelain factory. Most of these buildings are now open to the public, apart from one retained by the government for receptions and office space. The Chalet Pavilion, where the sultan lived with his family, is now a museum, as is the carpentry workshop. Among Abdülmecit’s many hobbies and interests, he was a skilled carpenter/cabinet-maker and much of the furniture in the palace was made with his own hands. The porcelain factory still produces exclusive pieces for the high-end market – though more European than Ottoman in design, and they don’t appeal to me much.

In spite of his evident interest in Western technology and culture, Abdülhamit began to turn increasingly towards the practice of Islam, and his role as Caliph, leader of the world’s Muslims. This is hardly surprising, given that Christian subjects of the empire, despite having been allowed to build their schools and churches, practice their religion, speak their languages, educate their children, hold important positions in the empire, make pot-loads of money, and generally mind their own business for centuries, were beginning to seek support from foreign imperialists.

Interestingly Abdülhamit, in his capacity of Caliph, is said to have supported the United States’ conquest of the Philippines by requesting that Muslims there accept and support US sovereignty – which they duly did, and scant thanks the Ottoman Sultan got in return. It just goes to show, huh?

Tunuslu Şeyh Muhammed Zafir

Abdülhamit’s personal spiritual teacher

Anyway, the Sultan, as one might expect of an educated man, was interested in the mystical aspects of religion, and in fact was a follower of one of the Sufi dervish sects. The Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque, on the right as you walk up the hill from Beşiktaş, was dedicated to the Shadhili (Şazeli) Sufi order, and the Sultan’s personal spiritual guide, Sheikh Hamza Zafir, is buried in the grounds[1]. The mosque itself is named for Ertuğrul Gazi, father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Further reflecting Abdülhamit’s focus on his Ottoman roots, another mosque in the grounds of the Central Military HQ further up the hill, bears the name of Orhan, son of Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan.

A third mosque, grandest of the three, and worth a visit, except that it is currently undergoing extensive restoration, is the imperial Yıldız Hamidiye, completed in 1886 in a combination of Neo-Gothic and traditional Ottoman architecture. The long, narrow Serencebey Park that now isolates these historic buildings from the frenetic traffic of Barbaros Boulevard used to be a public square, and was the site of an assassination attempt on the Sultan in 1905 by Armenians seeking revenge for the much publicised ‘Hamidian Massacres’ – which perhaps need to be seen in the context of our earlier historical discussion.

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Turkey’s President Erdoğan hosting Germany’s Merkel at Yıldız Palace

I suggest a walk starting from the ferry buildings in Beşiktaş, up the hill through the Serencebey Park where, apart from the mosques, you will pass the statue of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, revolutionary poet, politician and diplomat, who spent some years in voluntary exile in Paris because of his opposition to Abdülhamit. Clearly there is ambivalence in Turkey about their Ottoman heritage. After passing the campus of Yıdız Technical University, take a right at the traffic lights and cross over the motorway leading to the Bosporus Bridge. You’ll catch some intriguing glimpses of the bridge and the strait before arriving at the gate of Yıldız Park. Enjoy the peace, the trees, the flowers and the wildlife. Visit the porcelain factory shop. Stop for a coffee, a snack or a meal at one of the several cafes and restaurants. Pay a visit to the Chalet Museum. Emerge at sea level beside another stylish little mosque of the period, Küçük Mecidiye, opposite the gates of Çırağan Palace, now a five-star Kempinski hotel. Stroll back to Beşiktaş to complete your circuit. It’ll be a day well spent.

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[1] As an aside, Sheikh Shadili, founder of the sect, is reputed to have discovered coffee drinking in the Arabian town of Mocha, way back in the 13th century, whence the practice journeyed slowly westwards, eventually reaching America – another thing they don’t seem very grateful for.

Urban Renewal in Istanbul – Tilting at windmills

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Former St Euphemia School and Eglise N.D. du Rosaire

Dilek and I went to a concert of classical music last night. The setting was a small but beautifully restored Roman Catholic church in the Istanbul district of Rasimpaşa. There was a chamber orchestra and a talented young pianist, Nilüfer Kıyıcılardan, playing a programme of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

We arrived twenty minutes early and were fortunate to find two of the last unclaimed seats – somewhat surprising, given that the venue is not on any well-beaten social track, and the event had received little publicity. I had stumbled upon it accidentally during the week while researching for this post.

These days Istanbul resembles what I imagine New York City to have been during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a vast construction site. Tunnels are driving under, and bridges over the Bosporus and the Gulf of Izmit; subterranean Metro lines burrow in all directions beneath the city; vast commercial and residential projects rise to the winter sky; hectares of run-down inner city blocks are giving way to new up-market apartments; and domed monumental mosques springing up to occupy landmark sites; all presided over by multitudes of arachnoid construction cranes.

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‘1453’ – a new conquest of Istanbul by megalomaniac developers

Not everyone is happy, of course. I wrote a piece some years ago on a conflict between local residents and guests at an art gallery opening that made international news at the time. Many of us prefer shopping in local traditional small businesses to the homogeneity of climate-controlled malls; and have questions about the wisdom of allowing the national economy to be dominated by a bloated and parasitic financial sector. Local residents whose families may have lived in a neighbourhood for generations are resentful of being pushed out by the new urban yuppie class – some of the latter even mourn the loss of traditional colour that inevitably accompanies such development. Lovers of the atmospheric decay that characterised old Istanbul in recent memory have issues with way restoration is carried out on world heritage buildings. And then there are the megalomaniac property developers who seem to ride roughshod with impunity over zoning and town-planning regulations.

Yeldeğirmeni (1)

Abdülhamit I’s windmills

Me? I’m ambivalent, I guess. I’m appalled when I look out a window on our university campus and see the abomination of the Ağaoğlu ‘1453’ development blighting what was once a forested landscape. On the other hand, I love the Marmaray Metro, and feel sorry for those who refuse to ride it for fear that the waters of the Bosporus will pour in upon them while their train is half way through. I’m a fatalist when it comes to such matters. But I want to tell you about my recent discovery – the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy.

One thing I learned is that the neighbourhood goes by two names. Until recently it was known by its official one, Rasimpaşa, after a small mosque dedicated to a relatively minor Ottoman official who served as mayor of Istanbul for a couple of months in 1878. Tradition says that Rasim’s loving wife, Ikbal Hanim, had the mosque built on the site of an earlier ruin. Be that as it may, more picturesque, and arguably more significant is the district’s earlier history.

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Italian Valpreda Apartment Building

Tourist brochures about Istanbul often mention that Khalkedon (Kadıköy) was originally a larger city than Byzantium/Constantinople across the water. The name is translated as ‘City of the Blind’ in tribute, apparently, to the failure of its inhabitants to recognise the obvious superiority of the other site. Dating from 675 BCE, its defensive walls are believed to have extended as far as Rasimpaşa.

The Asian city’s importance waned after the foundation of Constantinople as capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Following its conquest by the Ottomans, its environs became a popular location for the city’s elite to build summer mansions on the banks of the Haydarpaşa Stream that once flowed there. There were also barracks and a training ground for imperial cavalry and infantry. The Marmaray Metro line currently terminates at a station in front of the modern Tepe Nautilus shopping mall. The station is called Ayrılık Çeşmesi, and the eponymous fountain was the gathering point for Ottoman armies departing on campaigns to the east, and caravans of pilgrims setting out for Mecca. As an interesting aside, the fountain is said to have been commissioned by Kızlarağası Gazanfer Ağa – whose title refers to his responsibility for the ladies of the imperial harem. Nice work if you can get it! In the late 18th century, Sultan Abdülhamit I had several windmills erected to supply the needs of the military and local residents – and from the Turkish word for windmill (yel değirmeni) comes the name that is supplanting the memory of that short-lived city mayor.

Synogogue

5659 in the Jewish calendar = 1898 C.E.

From the mid-19th century Rasimpaşa began to take on a more residential character. The present pattern of streets was laid out, and Istanbul’s first post office opened there. The city had always been prone to disastrous fires, and after a particularly bad one that devastated the Kuzguncuk district, Jewish families moved in and established Istanbul’s first apartment buildings. The Hemdat Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving in Istanbul, entered service in 1899 after Sultan Abdülhamit II stepped in personally to moderate in a violent quarrel between the Jews and the Orthodox and Armenian communities. It seems Christians objected to the construction of a synagogue in the district. It is said that the Jewish community named the synagogue in a way that recognised their gratitude to the sultan for his assistance – the Hebrew consonants for ‘Hemdat’ can also be read as ‘Hamid’. Anyway, in the interests of natural justice, the Orthodox lot were allowed to erect their own place of worship, the church of Ayia Yeorgios, a few years later in 1906. Both buildings are still standing, though their congregations have been sadly depleted over the years.

Taş frn 2

Simits with a touch of history

Development became more rapid in the early 20th century with the building of the Haydarpaşa train station as a key link on the Berlin-Baghdad railway line. Italian stonemasons came to work on the project, as well as German architects, engineers and builders. The edifice that currently serves as Orhangazi Primary School was also built around this time to provide education for the children of the German professionals. Among the more noteworthy apartment blocks from this time are the five-storey Italian (Valpreda), Demirciyan and Kehribarcı buildings.

Underlining the multicultural character of the district, and the tolerant attitude of the Muslim Ottoman government, Roman Catholics even managed to get a big foot in the door. A gaggle of nuns calling themselves the Oblates[1] of the Assumption established a school in the name of St Euphemia in 1895. RC education continued here until some kind of dispute took place with the Republican government in 1934. As a result, the nuns departed and the school was taken over by the Turkish Ministry of Education, eventually assuming its present role as Kemal Ataturk Anatolian High School. Next door to the school is the small (now deconsecrated) church dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Sacred Rosary, where Dilek and I were privileged to hear last night’s delightful concert.

Street art 2

Mural-İst street art

A recent article in the Kadikoy Life magazine contains an interesting quote by a former resident of the district:

“The bakers, sweets and helva-sellers were Turkish; the grocers and restaurateurs, Greek; the greengrocers and chemists, Jewish; the butchers, Armenian, and the dairymen, Bulgarian. People from every religion and ethnic background lived happily together. Our neighbours to the right were Greek, the ones on the left were Turks; directly opposite were Armenians, next to them another Greek family, and on the far side, they were Jewish. Neighbourly relations were excellent; we all respected each other’s special days.”

Sadly, the tide of history brought cataclysmic events on to the world stage that destroyed the harmony of those halcyon days – waves of violent nationalism, the slaughter of the First World War, the Greek invasion of Anatolia, and the Turkish War of Liberation. The world would never be the same, and Istanbul suffered as much as anywhere.

Kamarad cafe

Cem and İnci brewing coffee for connoisseurs

I was motivated to explore the neighbourhood after visiting a café recently, run by the daughter of a friend. Trendy cafés are sprouting there like truffles in a Piedmont autumn, and Kamarad is one of the latest. İnci and Cem are catering to the true coffee connoisseur, importing beans from various sources in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Columbia), roasting and grinding them on site, and offering delicious brews produced by the method of your choice: the familiar espresso machine and French press, or more esoteric techniques, chemex and V60. They are also supplying beans to other businesses nearby.

One of the more striking features of the new Kadıköy is the proliferation of enormous surrealistic outdoor murals that confront you unexpectedly as you stroll around the narrow back streets. Kadıköy Municipal Council has sponsored an annual street art festival, Mural-İst, for the last four years. Seven local and nine foreign artists have turned their talents to the enlivening of the neighbourhood, with impressive results.

The old days will never return, of course, but the new/old district of Yeldeğirmeni may be showing the way to a better future.

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[1] Oblates, it seems, are one step down in the holy orders, following less stringent rules than is usual for monastic orders.