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.

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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.

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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 Abdülhamit’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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The German Jew Who Became an Ottoman Pasha

“A multiculturalist’s delight”

I came across this on ‘The Daily Beast’, and found it interesting, so I’m passing it on. In spite of becoming an Ottoman Pasha, the nearest he got to the imperial capital, Istanbul, apparently, was Albania. Nevertheless, he seems to have been a quite protean character.

Mehmed Emin Pasha was born a Jew in Germany, converted to Christianity and then Islam on his way to being named a ruler of an Ottoman province.

48574369.cachedThe story of Mehmed Emin Pasha, born a Jew as Isaak Eduard Schnitzer and Baptized as Eduard Carl Oscar Theodor Schnitzer, is a multiculturalist’s delight. This Jewish doctor who turned Christian, then Muslim, could be the cosmopolitan poster child, proof that we are all one and that distinctions don’t matter. But universalists beware; this pasha was no Zelig, fitting in chameleon-like at colorful historical moments. This shapeshifter adapted smoothly but stood out boldly, proving that the best way to contribute to the world is to root identities in particular cultures and act on core ideals.

Schnitzer was born in Oppeln, Silesia on March 28, 1840, into a German Jewish family that had already broken from the ghetto’s provinciality. Schnitzer’s father was a merchant, a proper German burgher wannabe. He embodied the Enlightenment delusion that we could, as John Lennon would sing, “all live together as one.” But Schnitzer’s father had made the classic Enlightenment deal with the devil. To become emancipated, to prosper, most Jews felt compelled to abandon much of Judaism—even though they would only be accepted marginally as Europeans.

Schnitzer was derailed temporarily when he failed to file his licensing paperwork on time and could not practice medicine. Ever-resilient, he left for Istanbul. Arriving in Antivari in Montenegro along the way, he resumed his medical practice far away from German supervision. One of those annoying Europeans with a genius for language, he mastered Turkish, Albanian, and Greek, along with many of the standard Romance languages.  This poly-lingual environment so suited him, he became the port’s quarantine officer, processing immigrants.

Always climbing, Schnitzer charmed his way into working for northern Albania’s governor, Ismail Hakki Pasha. In perhaps his creepiest move, Schnitzer returned to Germany in 1873, after his boss died, claiming the widow and children as his wife and kids. That arrangement ended abruptly, mysteriously in 1875, leading to Schnitzer’s plunge into the Muslim world.

Arriving in Khartoum in December 1875, he became “Mehmet Emin,” and returned to practicing medicine. He also participated in the nineteenth-century European traveler’s zoology and ornithology mania, sending specimens to museums back where such people believed it counted, the capitals of Europe. The governor of Equatoria—a territory covering modern-day Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan—invited Emin to become chief medical officer. In 1878, Emin was appointed governor, becoming a “Bey.”

The Sudan was roiling, with the messianic, Arab-African Mahdi Revolt of 1881 causing chaos. In 1885, Emin’s popular dispatches to European newspapers described his adventures. The next year the Ottoman Empire made Emin a pasha, confirming his prominence in North Africa and Western Europe.

In 1890, Germany hired Emin Pasha to launch his own expeditionary force around Lake Victoria in East Africa to “make known to the population there that they were placed under German supremacy and protection, and to break or undermine Arab influence as far as possible.” German imperial politics, tensions with the native soldiers, and bouts of disease beleaguered him for two years until the Anglo-German agreement of July 1, 1890 ceded this territory to England.

Ultimately, Emin’s Western idealism did not suit East Africa. In late October 1892, two enraged Arab slave traders murdered him. Read the whole article.

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

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

Ahi Çelebi Camii

500 year-old mosque of Ahi Çelebi

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

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

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

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

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Eminönü skyline at sunset

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

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

Sansaryan Han

Sansaryan Han – Deserted and quiet these days

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

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

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

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

Hidayet Camii

Another small but interesting mosque – Hidayet Camii

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

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

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

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The Legacy Ottoman Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kösem Sultan, then and now

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

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

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17th century Büyük Valide Han

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

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

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Crescent moon setting behind the dome of Yeni Cami

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

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

The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

The Golden Horn has a special association in Western minds with the magic of a city some still insist on calling Constantinople. As a geographical feature, it is one of the main reasons that city has been settled for more than 6,000 years, and that it was the centre of three major world empires for more than a millennium and a half.

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

In physical terms, the Golden Horn is an estuary of two small rivers some 7.5 km in length, 750 metres across its widest point, and 35 metres deep where it flows into the Bosporus as it joins the Sea of Marmara. With that sea it forms two sides of a roughly triangular peninsula on which the Emperor Constantine established his New Rome in the third decade of the 4th century CE. Twenty-two km of massive defensive walls, mostly still in existence, surrounded the city, and the Golden Horn was the main harbour, port and centre of shipbuilding until well into the 20th century.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, and became the capital of their 600-year empire. The Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, but Istanbul remains the financial, commercial and emotional heart.

Surprising then that the Turkish name for the historical waterway is simply Haliç – derived from the Arabic word for estuary. There is some debate about how the Golden Horn acquired its name in Greek and English. One theory says it symbolises the wealth that entered the legendary city through its waters. That may be so, but it was equally true for the Ottomans. The second explanation, which I prefer, refers to the colours that bathe the harbour as the sun sets in the west – a sight only visible from the north-eastern shore where was located the satellite city housing merchants and ambassadors from Europe. For a thousand years or more, attracted by the city’s fabled wealth, they built their towers, warehouses, churches and palaces, and watched the setting sun enflame the waters separating them from the imperial capital.

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

Last week the adventurous new driver of our staff shuttle bus took a lengthy detour to avoid the deadlocked traffic through Istanbul’s new financial centre coming to be known informally as ‘Mashattan’. Istanbul is a huge city, and there are undoubtedly many areas with which I am not familiar. Our circuitous route brought us to the bank of a medium-sized stream flowing down a surprisingly verdant valley interspersed with sports facilities and amusement parks. The slopes of the valley were lined with modern high-rise apartment blocks, office buildings, and the ostentatious campuses of several new universities. The area is Kağıthane, and for the first time I felt motivated to visit it.

It’s not a very accessible area for those of us residing on the Asian side of Istanbul – but there is a ferry, departing hourly from Üsküdar that crosses the Bosporus and follows a zigzag course up the Golden Horn ending at Eyüp, a district popular with the Muslim faithful. Its second-to-last stop is Sütlüce, my point of disembarkation.

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Whatever doomsayers may tell you, Istanbul is a more salubrious metropolis in the 21st century than it was in the final years of the old millennium. Fish thrive again in the Golden Horn in sufficient numbers to encourage a forest of fishing rods on the Galata Bridge. The water at least looks relatively clean, and certainly doesn’t stink as it formerly did. The industries that lined its banks and the Kağıthane valley have been relocated, their buildings demolished, derelict or converted to new uses.

A prominent landmark near the jetty at Sütlüce is the Haliç Congress Centre, a sprawling complex whose central feature is the old city slaughterhouse, built in 1923 and finally closed in 1984. I am too squeamish to begin imagining what flowed from its bloody operations during the 61 years it served its original purpose.

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

Further along the shore is the campus of Bilgi University, located on what had been the coal-burning Silahtarağa thermal power station, established in 1911, and the sole supplier of Istanbul’s electricity needs until 1952. Electricity generation continued until 1983, and I can only guess at the contribution it made to the city’s air and water as it leached its poisons and belched forth its toxic clouds of smoke. I am assured that there is now a Museum of Energy on the site – but yesterday being a holiday, it wasn’t open to the public. It’s not the first time in Turkey I have been offered this reason for a museum’s being closed. Does it strike you as peculiar?

So I had lunch as I revised my plans, which had involved spending an hour or two learning about energy in Turkey, past and present, with maybe some light being shed on the proposed construction of three nuclear-fuelled power plants. Probably because of the universities, there are now a number of tasteful cafes and restaurants raising the tone of a neighbourhood struggling to shake off a heritage of auto mechanics and tyre repairers.

I was now at the point where the two streams, Kağıthane (or Cendere) and Alibeyköy flow into the Golden Horn, and faced with a choice, I decided to follow the former to see where it would lead. Clearly the valley has been beautified since the days when it was Istanbul’s first industrial area, and home to squatter villages erected by displaced Anatolian peasants flocking to the city in search of work. The stream now flows through an extensive park stretching along both banks for several kilometres, further than I chose to explore. The water still looks uninviting, and the metre or so of grey mud at the water’s edge would likely discourage children trying to retrieve a football. At least it doesn’t stink, however, which places it a little higher on the water purity scale than the Asian stream flowing past the stadium of Fenerbahçe, one of the city’s premier football clubs.

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

The name Kağıthane comes, as one might guess, from a paper factory that was one of the first industries to be established on the banks of the stream. In Ottoman times, the district was known as Sadabad, actually a forest frequented by Sultan Süleiman and his court in the 16th century for riding and hunting. In the 17th and 18th centuries the wealthy built mansions and summer palaces along the banks of the stream. It began to attract a wider public in the early years of the 18th century, the so-called Tulip Age, as the empire increasingly opened its doors to Western influence, becoming a popular location for picnic daytrips, weddings and other festivities. Postcards and engravings, often inscribed with French titles, made their way to Europe, depicting Les Eaux-douce d’Europe – the Sweet Waters of Europe.

What remains from the leisured life of those far-off days? A picturesque 18th century mosque known variously as Aziziye, Çağlayan or Sadabad, extensively rebuilt by two brothers of the Armenian Balyan family that contributed much to the architecture of Ottoman Istanbul. Not much else is to be seen from those days; a stable in the process of restoration, and some stone work half-buried in front of the Kağıthane Council building.

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interestingly, a good deal of that palatial grandeur disappeared in the first half of the 18th century. Ahmed III seems to have been one of the Ottomans’ more controversial sultans. He ascended to the throne in 1703 at a time when the empire was past its glorious best. Nevertheless, he had some notable achievements: he turned the eyes of his country outwards towards Europe, perhaps encouraged by his two French wives, and built good relations with France; his armies achieved unprecedented success against Russia; he fostered literature and the arts; during his reign the first printing press in Ottoman Turkish was set up, and an official fire brigade inaugurated; factories producing china, clothing and paper were founded.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Ahmed made enemies. His reign is particularly remembered as the Tulip Age, and the pomp, splendour and luxury associated with the wealthy upper classes led to a major revolt in 1730.

Patrona Halil was a Janissary of Albanian extraction who somehow managed to incite a revolt that toppled Sultan Ahmed. The insurgents placed Ahmed’s nephew Mahmud on the throne, but treated him as a kind of puppet until, with the aid of the Khan of Crimea, the ringleader was executed and peace restored. In the mean time, however, most of the palaces and summerhouses of Sadabad had been destroyed in a riot of vengeful leveling.

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

The 1730 revolt was followed by another ten years later – and these events are considered by some historians to have been a major factor contributing to the rapid decline of the empire in the 19th century. While the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman elite was the ostensible cause, the Janissaries, for centuries the source of Ottoman military power until their final abolition by Mahmud II in 1826, were a force of reaction in Ottoman society, and one of their major grievances was the Westernising policies of Sultan Ahmed, which placed their very existence under threat.

The Sadabad Palace, one of the chief features of the Kağıthane pleasure grounds, was rebuilt twice more after the riots, by Mahmud II in 1809 and Abdülaziz in 1863. After the First World War it was used as military headquarters by the occupying British forces, then served as an orphanage in the early days of the Republic. During the Second World War the area was handed over to the Turkish military and the remaining palaces were demolished. In the 1950s the process of rapid industrialisation began, factories mushroomed, squatter shantytowns sprang up and the Kağıthane stream turned to a turgid black river of foul-smelling ooze.

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Istanbul is a vast and ancient city with a complex past. A trap for Western visitors is the temptation to interpret events in terms of the context we know from our own education and experience. They can lead us to jump to conclusions that may be quite wrong. Just as in our own countries, a knowledge of past events is crucial to an understanding of the present. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself.

As I wended my way home to Asia, on a route I probably wouldn’t have chosen had I been more familiar with the area, I chanced on two totally unrelated, but nevertheless interesting sights. The first was in a cemetery just outside the Edirnekapı gate in the old city walls. Normally Turks bury their dead with other family members, but these two adjacent graves, in pristine white marble had something in common other than blood

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

relationship. A stone linking the two bore the inscription: ‘We ask God’s mercy for our friends who were martyred when the Mavi Marmara ship, attempting to end the embargo on Gaza, was attacked on 31 May 2010.’ There is no criticism, or even mention of the Israeli Government – just a verse from the Koran on each headstone.

Inside the walls stands the monumental mosque dedicated to Mihrimah Sultan, beloved daughter of 16th century Sultan Süleiman. Near the recently renovated mosque is a construction site with a notice informing passers-by that another restoration is in progress – an old Greek Orthodox Church and its associated buildings. The government of Turkey and the Istanbul City Council come in for a good deal of criticism these days, from a number of directions, but let’s give credit where credit is due.