Protecting Turkey’s Byzantine Heritage

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


[1] American journalist and writer of many books including ‘Downtown – My Manhattan’
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What Happened to the Ottomans? – The ageing of empires

‘I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said, ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, in the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .’
. . . all that remained, in the early 19th century imagination of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, of an ancient, once mighty emperor, Ozymandias, who no doubt thought his empire would last forever. Perhaps Shelley had in mind the empire of which he himself was a subject, currently approaching the zenith of its power, and wished to remind its ruling elite, ever so subtly, that their time too would come, that a little humility might not go amiss.
But it is not generally in the nature of the mighty and powerful to be humble. Wealth and temporal power are mind-distorting drugs imparting to their possessors a sense of entitlement and immortality, endowing them with the arrogance to deny or defy the lessons of history.
The British Empire reached the limits of its global outreach in 1922, the cartographical red dye of its jurisdiction covering 34 million km2, or twenty-five percent of the world’s land area. It lived on for a further thirty years, perhaps, huffing and puffing geriatrically through increasingly insurmountable crises in India, Iran and Egypt, until finally forced to recognise that its place in the unsetting sun of God’s grace and favour had been arrogated by the United States of America.
Out of curiosity, recently I went a-searching online for an answer to the question: ‘Which empire in the history of the world lasted longest?’ It’s a surprisingly debatable question, and not only because of the difficulty in defining what an empire is, though that in itself is problematic. Consider that the British Empire never actually had an emperor (unless you count Queen Victoria’s claim to be Empress of India). Or reflect on whether the United States qualifies for imperial status. Then there is the matter of when you date the beginnings of empire. England’s Golden Age would be considered by many to have been the reign of Elizabeth Tudor – but she wasn’t even Queen of Scotland, never mind Great Britain, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada could be attributed more to good luck or the hand of God than actual naval supremacy. The exploits of Clive in India, between 1748 and 1765, when he acquired that jewel for the British East India Company – an interesting example of privatisation actually preceding state ownership and control – coinciding with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, can be argued with more confidence. If we run with that period, we can credit Imperial Albion with a maximum span of 200 years.
One website I visited announced confidently that the crown for imperial longevity must go to the Romans, asserting that their continuous existence of 2206 years, from 753 BCE until 1453 CE could not be bettered. But do those dates stand up to scrutiny? Sure, what we count as 753 BCE was taken by Imperial Romans as the year of their foundation, all years numbered from there and labeled AUC – the abbreviation for a Latin sentence meaning ‘I’m the emperor so do as you’re told.’ Still, that year is highly questionable as a starting point for Rome’s period of imperial glory, being more mythical than factual. The Carthaginians had some claim to serious Mediterranean rivalry until they were wiped off the map in 146 BCE, but the earliest safely defensible date is probably Julius Caesar’s appointment as dictator in 44 BCE.
Some might argue that converting to Christianity was the death of the Roman Empire, in which case the cut off point has to be 391 CE, when Theodosius I decreed that citizens henceforth would give up their pagan practices and follow Jesus. Even if we allow the Christianised Romans to claim imperial continuity, it is generally agreed that the city of Rome fell to barbarian invasion in 476, and with it, arguably, the eponymous empire ended too. For sure, the Empire of the East continued for a further thousand years – but contemporary Western Christendom was reluctant to count them as Roman, preferring to call them Greeks, by virtue of the language they spoke, and the need to justify the claim of Popes and their earthly disciples to be leaders of a Holy Roman Empire. Well, we could count that one, I suppose, but you can see how the whole definition thing gets exceedingly messy. Even more so if we take seriously the claim of the Ottoman Sultans who, after conquering the eastern capital in 1453, subsequently began, with some justification, to consider themselves heirs to the Romans. In that case we can add a further 480 years to our figure of 2206. To sum up, we could ascribe any figure from a minimum of 435 to a maximum of 2,686 years! You might say the Egyptians could beat that, but then geographical size must be a major factor in defining an empire, and the Nile Valley isn’t really competitive in that department.
Well anyway, I’m not taking sides in that debate. Superior minds to mine, better versed in the minutiae of historical data, continue to wrangle, and in the end, who really cares? The one thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that, in the modern age, with the advance of industrial technology, communications, economic wizardry and military hardware, the lifespan of empires seems to be getting shorter, and the record of the Romans, whatever you think it was, is unlikely to be broken. The Ottoman sultans, with a relatively undisputed collective reign of 624 years, are probably the only contenders for the title in modern times. A question often posed is, ‘Why did their empire collapse?’ and I definitely want to address that – but in the process, I think we should also consider their achievement.
The beginning of serious Turkish incursion into Anatolia is usually accepted as 1071 CE, when the Seljuk Sultan Alparslan defeated the Byzantine/Roman/Greek army led by the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes. The Seljuk Empire stretched from north India to the Aegean coast, from present-day Kyrgyzstan to the Persian Gulf, and the threat it posed to medieval Christendom was one of the major reasons for the Crusades that took place over the next 130 years. There is a good deal of impressive architecture still to be seen in Turkey today from the Seljuks and the Beylik fiefdoms that subsequently divided its Anatolian lands amongst themselves. One of these, led by a certain Osman, from whose name we derive our word Ottoman (Osmanlıin Turkish), rapidly gained supremacy, and began an expansion which would see it, by 1683, control an area of five million km2 spread over three continents, Asia, North Africa and Europe.
Once again, however, the dates are debatable. What serious claim did Osman’s territory have to imperial status in 1299, the year normally cited as the beginning of the Ottoman Empire? In retrospect, the reign of Sultan Suleiman, from 1520 to 1566, is widely accepted as that entity’s Golden Age. Known in English as ‘The Magnificent’, and to Turks as ‘The Law-giver’ (kanuni), Suleiman probably came nearest to bringing Islam to Western Europe, famously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1529.
The Treaty of Karlowitz, signed in 1699 with the so-called European Holy League, is often cited as marking the beginning of Ottoman decline, being the first time they had been obliged to give up previously conquered territory. Nevertheless, it was a further 224 years before the Empire breathed its last. Decline was a long slow process during which it continued to play a significant role in European politics and power games. The Sick Man of Europe was still strong enough, in 1915, to turn back the Royal Navy from the Dardanelles, and repel a land invasion by the British Empire and its allies, while simultaneously under attack on at least two other fronts. The end, interestingly, came from within rather than without. The last sultan, Mehmet Vahdettin, having become a virtual puppet of the occupying forces after World War I, was more or less legislated out of power by the newborn Turkish Republic, and quietly spirited off to England with the tatters of his imperial power.
So why did the Ottoman Empire fall? It’s an academic question. The fact is all empires fall, as Shelley warned. They are born, grow to maturity and experience a Golden Age when they feel themselves invincible and immortal, before lapsing into decline and finally death, or geo-political insignificance – a fate worse than death in the eyes of some. It happened to the Hittites and the Hapsburgs, the Moghuls, the Romans and the British – why should the Ottomans have been different? Perhaps the thing is that we in the West always looked upon the ‘East’ as ‘Other’, and have an enduring resentment of the centuries when power, wealth and prestige were centred there. We want to believe that those civilisations were somehow imperfect and corrupt, and contained within themselves the seeds of their own destruction.
The reality is simpler and universal. ‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.’ The Roman Emperor Constantine I built his second Rome at the southern mouth of the Bosporus Straits because the contemporary world had shifted. The fertility of Asia Minor and its strategic location astride trade routes to the east, combined with Constantinople’s invincibility as a fortified city made it the capital of two major empires for a thousand years.
What happened next, essentially, was that the world shifted again. The European Renaissance, the consolidation of nation states, and a powerful desire to avoid paying tribute for the right to pass through Ottoman territory to access the wealth of India and China, provided the spur to develop instruments of navigation and a new generation of ships that would permit sea-farers to journey west, into the unknown, out of sight of land, with some chance of finding their way home again. The result, within a century or so, was that the Atlantic Ocean became the strategic centre of a new world order. Those European countries fortunate enough to have an Atlantic seaboard, Spain, Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands found themselves in a position to exploit the riches, mineral, vegetable and human, of the Americas, Africa and beyond.
Increasing wealth, competition for resources, a huge boom in international trade, led to the growth of cities, exchange of knowledge, the shift from a rural to an urban industrial society, the development of banking and capitalism – all of which created a situation where military technology advanced along with the ability to maintain professional standing armies.
What happened to the Ottoman Empire? Even at the height of its power in the 16th century, it had reached the limits of its potential for further expansion. Sultan Suleiman’s failure to capture Vienna owed as much to the length of his supply lines as to the strength of Viennese resistance. Over the next two centuries, the Ottoman government lost its main source of revenue as world trade routes shifted to the Atlantic. For that and perhaps other reasons, they were unable to develop a financial system capable of financing industrialisation – their shrinking share of world trade and possibly their lack of coal and iron resources were contributing factors, as was their dependence on taxing agriculture as their second major source of income.
Undoubtedly the Ottoman system of government was anachronistic and inherently unstable in a modernising world. As it became less acceptable to do away with surplus male claimants to the throne, the alternatives produced less competent sultans. Grand viziers came and went too frequently for settled policy-making. Certainly, moreover, there were powerful military and religious elites resisting change in order to hold on to their own privileged positions in society. These tend to be the reasons traditionally offered for the Ottoman decline and fall.
Equally significant, however, were strengths which, over time became weaknesses. Ottoman society, for example, was tolerant of religious minorities, Christian and Jewish, according them freedoms not generally allowed in contemporary western lands. These minorities filled certain specialist roles crucial to the imperial economy. The rise of nationalism in the early 19th century, especially Greek nationalism, created serious divisions in the body politic, and severe weakening of the economy. Added to that was a huge influx of impoverished Muslim refugees displaced by, first the foundation of the kingdom of Greece, and later by the expansion of the Russian and Hapsburg empires into the Balkans, Crimea and Caucasus regions.
In the final analysis, history teaches us, empires rise and fall. As the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard observed, ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ What is true for a human life is equally true for the most powerful temporal empire. As humans engaged with the business of life in general, we lack the perspective to see our individual lives as a whole, and to foresee, or even to conceive our end. So it is with earthly empires. Undoubtedly the Ottomans, faced with the undeniable fact that things were not what they had been, were torn between those who saw economic, industrial and social progress as the only way to compete in the new world, and others harking back to a semi-mythical past where faith was stronger, morality black and white, life simpler and political decisions were more clear-cut.
So what of the present day? A couple of years ago I paid my first visit to the United States. Going there had never been a high priority for me, so I can say I was pleasantly surprised by enjoying my stay in New York City. This is not the place to describe my holiday, but I did come away with one striking impression – that the city had had its heyday. Maybe it was the scurrying rats in the dingy subway stations or perhaps that the main architectural wonders seemed to date from the 1890s to the 1930s. It recalled to my mind memories of huge multi-headlighted cars with aerodynamic wings and fins, symbols of an empire confident in its universal superiority. Sure there were blips, such as when the Russians got the first human into space, but on the whole, American technology was ahead of the field, leading the way to a future of wealth, comfort and abundant leisure for all. The USS United States held the Blue Ribband for Atlantic crossing and the Empire State Building (note the name) was the world’s tallest for forty years.
In retrospect, I think things began to change in the 1960s. The pill and the liberation of women, rock’n’roll and the rise of youth power, the divisive shame of Viet Nam, the oil crisis of the 70s, tales of CIA meddling in the affairs of sovereign states abroad, all contributed to a questioning of purpose and loss of confidence incompatible with continuing imperial hauteur.
Of course the US is still the world’s largest economy, and will remain so for some years to come. However, it is also the world’s largest debtor nation, the debt totalling $17 trillion (106 percent of GDP) in 2013, or $52,000 for every man, woman and child. Were it not for sales of military hardware to Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Egypt, Pakistan, Venezuela and other ‘developing’ nations, the figure would likely be a lot worse. The new World Trade Centre, rising from the ashes of the old in downtown Manhattan will be the tallest man-made structure in the WesternHemisphere. Western financiers were able to derail the Asian economic tiger in 1998, but you can’t see them getting away with the same trick again.
Empires rise and fall. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Feeling Sorry for Israel and Iran

The Prime Minister of Israel has officially apologised to his Turkish counterpart. It’s big news in Turkey. Israel doesn’t say sorry. They do stuff that, if any other country did it, would be a virtual declaration of war, or at least a major international incident – then they brazen it out and get away with it. So this must be a first.
In case you missed it, the incidentthat elicited an apology was the killing, by Israeli military personnel, of nine Turkish citizens on board a Turkish civilian ship, the Mavi Marmara, in May 2010. The Israeli action wasn’t entirely unprovoked, it must be admitted. The Mavi Marmara was carrying food and other necessities of life to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip suffering under an Israeli blockade. The Israeli government gave the Turkish vessel what they considered fair warning, then boarded with armed soldiers, and in the ensuing struggle, nine Turks were killed.
Well, it’s a complex issue, to be sure. As far as the Israelis were concerned, they were justified in using force to repel foreign nationals from interfering in an internal security matter. From the Turkish point of view, they were bringing humanitarian aid to people suffering from Israeli oppression in what most of the international community considers illegal incursion into, and occupation of another people’s sovereign territory. The result was a three-year freeze of diplomatic relations between two relatively democratic, Western-friendly states in a region where those two qualities are not so widespread.
Nevertheless, the Israelis didn’t want to apologise, you can be ninety-nine percent sure of that. Not just because of national pride and reluctance to lose face, but because they more than likely still believe they did the right thing. It’s no coincidence that the apology followed closely on the heels of US President Obama’s visit to Israel and talks with PM Netanyahu.  And here, I fear, is the danger for Turkey.
Israel gets away with its aggressive, arrogant behaviour on the world stage because its government believes that the US will back them when the chips are down. Some of this US support is undoubtedly due to residual sympathy for what happened to Jewish people in the Second World War, and some to a continued belief by US Bible Belters that the fate of Israel and the Holy Places are somehow bound up with the last trumpet, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Rapture and the Day of Judgment. US Presidents play along with this, of course, but of far greater importance are American strategic interests, particularly with regard to a continuing supply of oil and the need for an excuse to send in the military when this supply is threatened.
So, why, we should be asking ourselves, is President Obama suddenly so interested in the hurt feelings of Turkey, that he steps into a seemingly minor local dispute and puts the Israelis in an embarrassing position that they will certainly resent? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that everything has a price. As we learnt from ‘The Godfather’, when a favour is called back, you do it. I just hope, for Turkey’s long-term welfare, the price is not one they will regret having to pay.
I saw recently the results of a Gallup poll showing that ninety percent of Americans place Iran at the top of their list of countries they view with disfavour – ahead of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Even North Korea, which claims to have missiles aimed directly at US targets, received a better rating. Well, no doubt those Americans have their reasons, and it’s a fact that Iran (or Persia, as it was formerly known in the West), was a thorn in the side of Western empires millennia before Christopher Columbus was a gleam in his father’s eye. It is also probably true that Iranians, at least some of them, have contributed to their unfavourable rating by US citizens. Nevertheless, they are next-door neighbours of Turkey, and hence of mine. The Turkish language, Turkish literature, art and music owe a debt of gratitude to the ancient culture of Iran, and most Turkish people recognise this. So I would like to take a quick look at some positives, in the interests of natural justice.
Iran is indisputably an ancient land, home to some of the very earliest human civilisations. The oldest cities have been dated to the 5th millennium BCE, and people there developed the art of writing around the same time as the Egyptians and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. By the 8th century BCE, the Medes had established an empire that was a power in the region, and Zoroastrianism had emerged as a forerunner of the great monotheistic religions, all of which have their roots in the Middle East.
The Persian Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, and these were the guys who caused so much trouble for the Greek city-states. Our modern marathon race is said to have originated when a messenger ran back to Athens to announce his side’s victory in a decisive battle. If the Greeks had lost that one, we Westerners might have a more intimate knowledge of Persian/Iranian culture. The Persians are also credited with being the first to establish a professional army and civil service, both of which concepts seem to have retained their popularity down to our own times. Perhaps the brass hats in the Pentagon should show some gratitude.
There was a relatively brief interlude (of a century or so) when history’s ultimate megalomaniac, Alexander, passed through on his self-appointed task to conquer the world before his 30th birthday. His Hellenic successors held on until the Parthians regained local ascendancy around 250 BCE, giving endless trouble to the Romans, and establishing a limit to their eastward expansion that has pretty much survived to the present day. Visitors to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna will be impressed by the vast Parthian Monument, originally set up in the Aegean city of Ephesus to commemorate one of the rare Roman victories over their eastern neighbours.
Parthians gave way to Sassanids, but the fighting continued even after the Romans converted to the Christian religion of peace. All in all, the Roman-Persian Wars went on for over seven hundred years, and it has been suggested that the Muslim Arab conquests of the 7th century CE were facilitated by the fact that both sides had fought themselves to the point of exhaustion – a lesson there perhaps for modern-day empires.
Iran’s strategic location between East and West has made it a major target for invasion and conquest throughout history. After the Arabs, came Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and Tamerlane in the 14th. Each time, however, the strength of native Iranian culture allowed its people either to shrug off or to absorb the conquerors. Most persistent of the invaders were the Turkic tribes who began their incursions in the 10th century. At first employed as slave warriors, they slowly assumed positions of power, while at the same time adopting much of Iranian culture. One major outcome was the Seljuk Turkish Empire that ruled Persia and Asia Minor/Anatolia into the 12thcentury. These were the people whose westward march threatened the existence of the Roman/Greek/Byzantine Empire, and prompted Western Christendom to launch its Crusading armies eastward.
The Golden Age of Persian culture coincided with this rise, morphing into a distinctive Turko-Persian identity which produced a great flowering of art, music, philosophy, architecture, science and literature. Much of the culture and knowledge that ended Europe’s Dark Age, and fuelled the incipient Renaissance can be said to have originated in the cross-cultural contact with contemporary Muslim society. The reason is that here was where the knowledge of Indian, Hellenistic and earlier Persian thinkers was brought together and developed.
In medicine, the Academy of Gondishapur housed the first training hospital where medical treatment and knowledge were systematised. In part, this institution owed its fame to an influx of scholars from Edessa in the Byzantine Empire after the Christian Emperor expelled them for their unorthodox beliefs. Muhammed ibn Zakariya Razi (Rhazes) was a pioneer of paediatrics and ophthalmology around 1000 CE. Shortly after, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote his “Canon of Medicine” which was still being used as a textbook in some European universities into the 17th century.
In mathematics, Abu Abdallah Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algoritmi) is credited with introducing the decimal place value system to the West, and our word ‘algebra’ derives from the Arabic title of his book on quadratic equations. Al-Kharaji has been called the father of algebraic calculus, and Omar Khayyam, better known in the West for his poetry, also did pioneering work in geometry and algebra. Speaking of poetry, in 2002, Time magazine published an article informing its readers that the 13thcentury Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (Mevlana) was the most popular poet in America. The game of chess, with much of its vocabulary, came to us via Iran. Our word ‘rook’ for ‘castle’ comes from the Persian word for the castling movement. ‘Pawn’ is a direct borrowing, as are ‘check’, the word ‘chess’ itself from ‘Shah’ (king), and ‘mate’. And just to confirm that European prejudice against its Eastern neighbours is not a new phenomenon, the Georgia Tech Paper Museum informs us that the introduction of that very useful material was impeded for several centuries by Papal Decree, on the grounds that it was ‘a manifestation of Moslem culture’.
The Safavid era began in Iran around 1500, and its peak of power coincided with that of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. This could be another reason for Western Europe to be grateful to the Iranians. Had it not been for the distracting influence of their wars with the Ottomans, the gates of Vienna might not have stopped Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors from further territorial gains – and who know where they might have finished up?
One of Turkey’s main economic disadvantages is its surprising lack of fossil fuel resources, given the wealth in that respect of its Middle Eastern and Central Asian neighbours. On the other hand, it could equally be argued that absence of such petroleum riches has saved Turkey from the outside interference and manipulation that has plagued its ‘more fortunate’ regional brethren. Iran, with proven resources ranking it second in the world for natural gas, and fourth for petroleum, has been a target for foreign powers since the mid-19th century: first Russia and Great Britain, and more recently, the United States.
An earlier edition of Time, January 7, 1952, featured another Iranian on its cover – Mohammed Mossadegh. Democratically elected by a majority of his people, and holding hopes for leading his country into the modern world of liberty and justice for all, MM made the mistake of trying to secure a more equitable share of Iran’s mineral wealth for its own people. In nationalising the nation’s petroleum industry, he incurred the wrath of the British government. Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded newly elected US President Eisenhower to instruct the CIA to promote a coup deposing Mossadegh and reinstating Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as ‘Western friendly’ Shah. Twenty-six years of friendship and cooperation with the West, at the expense of looking after the folks back home, led to growing internal opposition, culminating in the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the currently ongoing troublesome rule of the mullahs.
If any of the foregoing surprises you, you may like to share it with friends who are keen to start another war in the Middle East. In the words of George Santayana, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A New Pope for Easter

Turkish is a fascinating language, and a challenge for the well-meaning holidaymaker who thinks to pick up a little for the sake of international goodwill. One of its peculiarities is a feature known to linguists as agglutination, whereby grammatical functions are constructed by adding suffixes to a lexical root. There is in theory no limit to the number of suffixes that can be agglutinated, and Turks take pride in the following word: ‘Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?’which has eleven suffixes, and can be rendered into English as ‘Are you one of those whom we have been unable to make Czechoslovakian?’

Of course every country and culture likes to feel that it is the best at, or has the biggest, longest, whatever, of something – it’s a natural human (or at least a male) thing. So as native speakers of English, we understandably dredge our memories for the longest word we know – and maybe come up with ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. It doesn’t quite measure up, but it does at least have a useful and significant meaning (unlike its longer Turkish counterpart): ‘opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England.’ 

Why am I telling you this? Because ‘establishment’ in this context means that Anglicanism is the official state religion of England, which, in turn means that England is not strictly speaking a secular state. The main precedent for this is the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Theodosius I in 380 CE. You might think that the world has moved on a little in the intervening 1630 years, but the English Parliament (wherein twenty-six seats are reserved for senior bishops) is holding the line.

What got me thinking about this was the recent election of a new Pope to preside over the international community of Roman Catholics – more specifically, a couple of discussions that surfaced in a circle of history buffs I follow online. The first was prompted by someone asking the question: If Benedict XVI was not the most intelligent head of state ever, who was?” Now I have to confess, it’s not a question that would ever have occurred to me – not least because I never really think of high intelligence as being a major requirement for a head of state. Nevertheless, once the question was posed, it got me thinking. Is being highly intelligent compatible with being a Catholic? Is the Pope actually a head of state?

Pope Gregory XII, resigned 1415
Well, probably the second question is the easier of the two, so let’s look at that one first. It seems that international law gives diplomatic recognition to two institutions of the Catholic Church: the Holy See and Vatican City. The latter, I was interested to learn, was actually established as an independent state by an agreement, in 1929, between Pope Pius XI and Italy’s ‘Duce’, Benito Mussolini. According to Wikipedia, “Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.” If that sounds positively archaic to you, it’s not surprising. A ‘See’ in RC parlance was originally the chair in which a bishop sat, but has come to mean the area over which the seated bishop has episcopal authority. Twelve of these gentlemen are said to derive their authority from an unbroken succession going back to Jesus’s twelve apostles. One of them, The Holy See, claims pre-eminence on the basis of direct descent from St Peter himself, and its official existence seems to date from some time in the 5th century.

Fine and dandy. I have no problem with Roman Catholics adhering to whatever beliefs give them comfort in the long dark teatime of their souls. Only I don’t quite understand why they get to have international recognition of statehood on the basis of their strange beliefs and their Pope’s alliance with a fascist Italian dictator in the 1920s. If Catholics, why not Presbyterians? Which brings me to the question of intelligence – and I suppose you’d have to admit that people who can pull that kind of stunt on the international community must be pretty smart characters.

It’s self-evident that you do need some kind of smarts to get yourself elected or appointed to a leadership role at that level of society. After all, the Roman Church does claim to have 1.2 billion adherents, even if 1,199,999,880 of them don’t actually have any say in choosing the new fella. But as for intelligence, that’s a curly one. IQ (Intelligence Quotient) used to be thought of as a way of measuring human intellectual capacity, but has gone out of favour in recent years. Former world chess champion Bobby Fisher (IQ 187) probably contributed to that as his genius for chess descended into vitriolic diatribes against the United States and the Jewish people. These days most discussions of intelligence recognize nine different types, one of which, linguistic, may be what Benedict XVI had.

The big thing for me is that intelligence can’t exist in a vacuum. It manifests itself in outcomes, and from those we will judge the mental capabilities of the individual. So it seems to me we can look at the ex-Pope’s intelligence in three ways. First, the guy is undoubtedly smart, and, discounting Tony Blair’s miraculous conversion, I reckon it must be pretty tough to be intelligent and to believe all that stuff that Catholics are expected to believe. So full points to the ex-Holy Father for being able to compartmentalize knowledge, if that’s what he did. On the other hand, it may be that early in his academic life, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger decided that he wanted power, and thought the Church was a good career path, so he mouthed the mumbo jumbo in order to get where he wanted to be – another sign of a certain kind of intelligence, for sure. Then there’s the fact that Benedict resigned – the first Pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415. Undoubtedly, for believing Catholics it’s a disappointment, and not at all the done thing – but in the greater scheme of things, we may think Father Joseph finally saw the error of his ways – and being able to admit your mistakes may be a another indicator of intelligence.

That last comment may seem unduly harsh, but take a close look at the history of Roman Catholicism and you’ll see what I mean. Here I want to touch on the second topic being discussed by my online friends, which involved some scholarly debate on the definition of ‘heresy’, and whether it differed from ‘dissent’, in the context of Christianity. In the course of my Euro-centred Christian-oriented education, I learned that the early followers of Jesus were strong-minded innocent souls suffering terribly at the hands of Roman Emperors, who employed various methods, of which feeding to lions was a favourite, to discourage the spread of the new religion. What I didn’t learn until much later was that, once those Roman Emperors, for reasons of their own, which may or may not have had much to do with actual spiritual experience, decided to ‘establish’ Christianity as the state religion, the apparatus of institutional persecution was turned on those who failed to toe the official Christian line.

The process, essentially was this: the emperor and his sacerdotal henchmen gathered together in various ecumenical councils, most of which were held within the territory of the Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire (in modern Turkey) and formulated a doctrine, or set of articles which would thereafter be required beliefs for ‘orthodox’ Christians. These councils, by the way, were convened 300 years or more after the death of the church’s namesake. The articles of ‘faith’ were designed to include elements which made it relatively easy for adherents of earlier pagan and folk religions to find points of contact with the new official system, while, at the same time, provided a basis for getting rid of troublesome parties who might foster dissent from within. The result was a creed, or creeds, containing ‘truths’ never claimed, as far as I am aware, by Jesus himself, and closing debate on matters that a reasonable human being might consider highly debatable, even irrelevant to the essence of the business.

As an illustration of this, let me include an excerpt from the Athanasian Creed, which came into use in the 6th century, and is apparently still, I understand, subscribed to by mainstream western Christian churches, though, perhaps understandably, no longer much used in everyday worship:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible .  . . . So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Says who? you may ask. Well, I have to agree, you need a certain kind of intelligence to get your head around that, or even to want to think about trying. You might also suppose the word ‘incomprehensible’, included five times in that text, and rightly applied to any entity worth worshipping as GOD by an intelligent human being, would let you off the hook – but not so. Those words were carefully and specifically chosen to allow authorities to weed out deviants from the true path. The Wikipedia entry on heresieslists fifty-four distinct ideas that have qualified as such over the years under ‘established’ church law, the most recent of which involved a nonagenarian lady in Canada whose followers believed she was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and were duly excommunicated by the Pope in 2007. Early heresies tended to focus on what Jesus actually was, given the church’s insistence that his mother was a virgin and his father was the Lord God Almighty. Clearly an incomprehensible God would need an equally incomprehensible agent to carry out such worldly activities, hence the Holy Spirit (or Ghost, if you prefer). Then the debate tended to get entwined in arguments over whether Jesus’s body was actually like yours and mine, or made of some less corporeal stuff; whether he had a normal soul like other mortal men; and whether there was some kind of divine substance in there too, setting him apart from the rest of us.

The consequence of all this was the establishment of a state religion with a very strict code of ‘beliefs’, and the expulsion, excommunication and persecution of dissenters from the party line (labeled heretics, which has a more resonant ring to it, the better to justify punitive action). The big winner was the Roman Empire, by this time, centred on the eastern capital of Constantinople, especially after the fall of western Rome to the barbarians in 476 CE. It’s also pretty obvious that most of the early action in the birth and evolution of Christianity took place in eastern lands, with the West a relative latecomer on the scene.

Still, once they got going, Western Christians set about making up for lost time. Early convocations of bishops formulating the creeds of the established church took place in eastern cities, Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, and you couldn’t really deny their conclusions without getting yourself out on an insecure limb. What you could do, however, was sneak an extra word or two into the text (in Latin so the ordinary Joe wouldn’t notice), then, when the time was right, insist that your version was the correct one, thereby creating a doctrinal split, giving you grounds to excommunicate the other side and set yourself up as the true church. Which is more or less what the Romans did. It’s known in theological circles as the ‘filioque’ controversy, and relates to a word inserted into the 4th century Nicene Creed in Spain some two centuries later. By the 11th century, Western Christendom felt itself strong enough to challenge Constantinople for supremacy, and that word provided doctrinal justification for the Great Schism of 1053.

Not long after, in 1071, Seljuk Turks defeated the Eastern Romans in battle and began serious incursions into territory long-considered part of the European sphere of influence. Pope Urban II’s launching of the First Crusade in 1096, and subsequent Crusading invasions by armies from Western Europe may have been ostensibly aimed at freeing the so-called Holy Lands from the clutches of Muslim unbelievers; but subsequent events suggest that uniting Europe under Papal and Roman Imperial authority played a major part; as did a desire to expropriate and/or plunder wealthy eastern lands and cities; and to demonstrate to Eastern Christians where the real power in Christendom now lay.

Things didn’t work out exactly according to Papal plans, of course. The Holy Roman Empire never really got off the ground. The   Byzantine Empire fell, but to the Ottoman Turks. It was another five centuries, nearly, before those Holy Places returned to Western control, by which time they had been in Muslim hands for most of the previous two thousand years, and continue to cause severe headaches for all concerned.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church had ‘established’ itself as a dominant player in European power games by the beginning of the second millennium, and the concept of heresy was the major tool in its box of tricks for ensuring compliance. It was obvious to many, even in those days, that the search for temporal power had resulted in an organizational structure that had more interest in matters material than spiritual. For four hundred years before the successful emergence of Protestantism in the 16thcentury, various groups (Catharsand Waldensians in France, for example) were challenging the materialism of the established Roman Church, and being viciously suppressed for their idealism.

The Inquisition was not a peculiarly Spanish invention, but it achieved notoriety during the 15th century as the mechanism whereby the Iberian Peninsula was ‘reclaimed’ for Christendom. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave, and the backsliding converted were ruthlessly hunted out. Some modern Catholic sources suggest that there wasn’t as much burning at stakes as we had been led to believe – but the existence of the threat may have been enough to overcome the reluctance of some; and if not, there were less fatal but nonetheless exemplary methods of persuasion, among which foot-roasting was apparently popular.

An interesting concept I came across recently is something referred to in RC literature as ‘The Black Legend’, which argues that most of that Inquisitorial unpleasantness didn’t actually happen, and that stories about events in Spain and Spanish conquests in Central and South America were concocted and spread by Protestants keen to discredit their religious rivals. To me it sounds rather akin to Holocaust Denial. What was the reason for all those Spanish Jews uprooting themselves from their homeland of centuries and resettling thousands of kilometres away in the Ottoman Empire in the 1490s? Maybe they just felt like a change of scenery?

As we head into another Easter weekend, I find myself wondering again about the strangeness of that central event in the Christian calendar. As far as I can learn, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE determined the date of Easter to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, which is why the holiday moves around from one year to the next (a moveable feast, in technical parlance). But you’d want to ask, why would they do that? If you’re commemorating the date Jesus Christ was crucified, why not go for the actual date, or at least fix a date and run with that? Could it have been that a lot of the local populations were partying up large at spring fertility or seed-planting celebrations and the Jewish Passover at that time of year, and the machinery of state decided to make a virtue of necessity? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and then gradually shift the official emphasis. Makes a lot of sense.

Similar theories have been advanced as origins for the stories of Jesus’s virgin birth at the winter solstice, his crucifixion and resurrection at the spring equinox, and the cult of his mother, Mary. Just down the road from the supposed House of the Virgin Mary near the town of Selçuk in Aegean Turkey are the remains of the classical Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek goddess Artemis is linked to the Phrygian female deity Cybele, and the generic Anatolian mother goddess. Virginity was one of their characteristics, as was, paradoxically, a quality of universal motherhood. Associated with Cybele was a young man, Attis, born to a virgin mother who may or may not have been Cybele. Whatever the case, week-long festivities in their honour were being conducted well into classical times, and may have inspired those early church authorities to add sympathetic embellishments to their own creeds.

Well, who knows? It’s all too long ago for anyone to be able to demonstrate sure proof of what actually went on. What we can say with some certainty is that a good deal of what passes for Christian ‘belief’ was determined by power-hungry gentlemen in days of old with very secular imperial aspirations, and a fair amount of rather nasty coercion was applied to ensure that dissidents were silenced or removed to a safe distance. That’s the reason that ‘disestablishment’ movements have constantly resurfaced over the centuries. In the end, the search for truth starts and ends in your own heart. If the new Pope’s ok with that, then I’m ok with him.

A Passage to India – with David Cameron and Boris Johnson

Well, it seems good Queen Bess is not going to give the Koh-i Noor diamond back to India – in case anyone had seriously expected she would. It will remain there, sparkling in the crown worn by queens of Great Britain, as it has since 1901 when it was set there for Alexandra, Consort of King Edward VII, and placed on her royal head at their coronation.
Now I understand it’s not a popular decision in India, so Elizabeth R is probably secretly pleased she didn’t have to deliver the bad news herself. One of the advantages of constitutional monarchy is being able to delegate such responsibilities to your Prime Minister, or ‘First Lord of the Treasury’, as I learnt he or she is still quaintly known in official circles. As a result, it was David Cameron who was given the task of informing the government and people of the Republic of India that the legendary jewel, expropriated by the British East India Company in 1850, would stay where it was, or is. News coverage quoted Cameron as comparing the diamond to the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’, formerly decorating the Parthenon in Athens, and on display, since 1816, in the British Museum in London – which the Brits also have no intention of returning. So, I guess Cameron managed to upset the Greeks and the Indians with one impolitic word.
Nevertheless, the news wasn’t all bad for India. PM Cameron apparently took the opportunity, while visiting the country recently, to stop by the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and ‘pay his respects’ at the memorial to the hundreds of unarmed Indian civilians who were massacred by soldiers of the British Raj on 13 April 1919 – the first British Prime Minister to do so, so credit where credit’s due. While accepting that the massacre was a ‘deeply shameful event’, Cameron stopped short of offering an apology, saying, I dont think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.’
Well and good, if acknowledging, recalling and understanding what happened is what you actually do. On the other hand, there are knowledgeable people in India today with the feeling that what contemporary British governments prefer to do is sweep past events under the carpet, take a selective view of history and tippex out the parts that don’t fit with the national view of Britishness as characterized by honesty and fair play.
That diamond, for example, was added to Queen Victoria’s jewellery collection by a certain Lord Dalhousie at the conclusion of the Second Sikh War in 1850. If you want to know why the British were fighting wars in India (and Afghanistan) at that time, you’d better look it up elsewhere – it’s a fascinating story. Suffice it to say here that the Sikhs were defeated, their territory, the Punjab, was incorporated into British India, and the Koh-i Noor diamond passed, along with other spoils of war, into British hands.
I don’t know what else they acquired at the time, but the diamond itself was quite a prize. According to Wikipedia, one of Nādir Shāh [an 18thcentury Shah of Iran]‘s consorts supposedly said, “If a strong man should take five stones, and throw one north, one south, one east, and one west, and the last straight up into the air, and the space between filled with gold and gems, that would equal the value of the Koh-i Noor.”’ Still, when you read what happened after the gem got back to England, you can’t help thinking there must have been some guilty consciences. Queen Vickie’s beloved husband Albert apparently had the jewel significantly cut from 186 to 105 carats because he didn’t like the look of it. The Wikipedia entry goes on to tell us, ‘It is believed that the Koh-i Noor carries with it a curse which affects men who wear it, but not women.’ Subsequently the crown in which it is set has only been worn by female British royalty. Well, we’re not scared of that heathen mumbo jumbo, but why take unnecessary risks?
Some seven years after the Sikhs had been subdued, more violence broke out in an event generally referred to in British history as the Indian Mutiny. Indians tend to prefer calling it a nationalist uprising, but Brits justify their position by pointing out that many of the participants were employed as soldiers in the Queen’s regiments. Interestingly, this time, defeat of the rebels was aided by the Sikhs, a proud warrior race. Apparently they chose to support the British because of their hatred and contempt for the Hindu sepoys who had helped to defeat them in the previous decade. Sixty years later, they were perhaps wishing they had taken a longer term view.
The British Empire was starting to creak a little by the early 20thcentury, and the movement seeking Indian independence was growing stronger. Nevertheless, nationalists refrained from taking advantage of Britain’s difficulties in the First World War, even contributing militarily to the imperial cause and taking heavy casualties. When hostilities ended, however, there was a natural desire to get back to business as usual, which meant, among other things, that India would resume its place as literal and figurative jewel in the crown of empire. Nationalist meetings were discouraged and in 1919 large public gatherings were banned.
The crowd that assembled in Amritsar on 13 April was entirely peaceful, with a religious rather than a political purpose. The city is the site of the Sikh Golden Temple, a place of pilgrimage. The crowd assembled in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden), estimated at between twenty and thirty thousand, included unarmed men, women and children of all ages. The official inquiry after the event heard that General Reginald Dyer, wishing to teach a lesson of unquestioning obedience to the Indian people, ordered his troops to fire on the assembled multitude, who had no way to escape from the enclosed space. Firing continued for ten minutes, during which 1,650 rounds of .303 Lee Enfield ammunition were expended. British and Indian sources dispute the number of dead, but indisputable is the fact that these were trained soldiers firing with lethal intent at defenseless civilians from close range. Does the word ‘shameful’ do justice to that, I wonder?
Admittedly, Winston Churchill did, at the time, use the word ‘monstrous’ to describe the atrocity – but generally he seems to have been unsympathetic to, even contemptuous of the Indian people. There was a feeling among the British ruling elite at the time that General Dyer had done the right thing, and certainly India remained subjugated. There also seem to have been attempts made to keep the event a secret, but, As Kurt Vonnegut said later of the 1945 fire-bombing of Dresden, ‘I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid . . . who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on. I was answered by a man who, like[1] myself, was in public relations. He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.
I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, “Secret? My God—from whom?”’
Getting back to the business of acknowledging, recalling and understanding events of the past, I am currently reading an interesting book, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’. The author, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has chosen his one hundred objects from that institution’s stupendous collection. One chapter describes a 2000 year-old Native American carved stone pipe found at Mound City, Ohio. Discussing the use of tobacco, MacGregor mentions that it came late to Europe, and that ‘Bremen and Bristol, Glasgow and Dieppe all grew rich on American tobacco’. I can’t speak for the other three cities, but it is well known that the wealth of Bristol (and Liverpool) derived from what is euphemistically referred to as the Triangular Trade, which involved shipping manufactured goods to West Africa, exchanging them for local natives who were then transported to the Americas and sold as slaves to work on the plantations. The produce of these plantations, part of which was certainly tobacco, was then brought back for sale in Britain, but the whole truth seems to be missing from Mr MacGregor’s glib statement.
Another book I read recently, ‘Colossus’by Niall Ferguson[2], discusses the question of whether the modern-day US is an empire – and there does seem to be reluctance among the rich and powerful to accept that their behaviour is not much different from that of other historical elites. Chapter 35 in ‘100 Objects’ quotes Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and an Oxford classics graduate, as saying, ‘If you think about the tsars [of Russia], the Kaiser, the tsars of Bulgaria, Mussolini, Hitler and Napoleon, all of them have tried to imitate that Roman iconography, that Roman approach, a great part of which began with Augustus’. If you think about Mayor Boris’s list, you might suspect there is at least one major omission.
3rd Century BCE Hellenistic coin
with image of war goddess Athena
An earlier chapter in MacGregor’s book describes a coin with the head of Alexander, dating from around 300 BCE. The obverse of the coin depicts ‘the goddess Athena Nikephoros, bringer of victory, carrying her spear and shield. She is the divine patroness of Greeks and goddess of war.’ When I was a lad in New Zealand in pre-decimal currency days, there were still to be found old bronze pennies from the reign of Queen Victoria bearing the inscription: VICTORIA DEI GRA BRITT REGINA FID DEF IND IMP, which says, in abbreviated form, in the Latin of Imperial Rome, ‘Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of Britain, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India’. The obverse of those pennies bore an updated version of that same goddess Athena. OK, if you want to quibble, a mixture of Hellenistic and Roman iconography, but still . . .
19th century Victorian coin
with image of . . .
As an interesting little sideline, while checking out Mayor Boris, I turned up the intriguing fact that his paternal great grandfather was a Turkish gentleman by the name of Ali Kemal Bey, one of the last interior ministers of the Ottoman Empire, assassinated during the Turkish War of Independence. The grandfather, born in England in 1909, went by the hybrid handle of Osman Wilfrid Kemal. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s parents seem to have preferred their aristocratic German connection in naming their boy child. Make what you will of that!
Anyway, let’s get back to the British Museum. No. 39 of the 100 historical objects is a Chinese painting known as the ‘Admonitions Scroll’, dated somewhere between 500 and 800 CE. MacGregor notes that this scroll had been the prized possession of many Chinese emperors. The Wikipediaentry informs us that its last Chinese location was the Summer Palace near Beijing whence it was uplifted by a Captain Clarence A. K. Johnson of the 1st Bengal Lancers in the aftermath of the so-called Boxer rebellion. This event, in 1899, involved an uprising by Chinese nationalists opposing foreign imperialism and the intrusion of Christianity. The uprising was forcefully put down by a group of like-minded states known as the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), after which there was ‘uncontrolled plunder of the capital and the surrounding countryside . . . along with the summary execution of those suspected of being Boxers’.
Thereafter, with the assistance of Captain Johnson, the priceless scroll found its way to the British Museum. None of this will you find, however, in the above book or on the Museum website, the latter merely stating laconically: ‘Before its arrival at the British Museum in 1903, the scroll passed through many hands.’
Apart from admiring their table-tennis players, I confess I have never taken a lot of interest in the Chinese or their history and politics. However, I am currently feeling more sympathy, since reading about the Scroll, the Boxers, and the earlier Opium Wars (1839-1860) where the British Government used its military might to assert the right of its citizens to import and sell opium in China against the expressed wishes of the country’s rulers.
I am fully aware that, as usual, I have gone on too long, roaming far and wide over large swathes of the globe. I would like to leave you with one final example that may usefully be acknowledged, recalled and understood. After the suppression of that Indian Rebellion or Mutiny of 1857, severe reprisals were taken against those who had participated. One exemplary form of execution employed by the British victors was tying the victims over the mouths of cannons and blowing them into pieces difficult for relatives to reassemble and bury. A Russian artist, Vasily Vereshchagin, painted a recreation of the scene in 1884. There are many reproductions but the original seems no longer to exist. The Wikipedia entry says it ‘was in the United States. According to legend, [it was] bought and then destroyed by the British’.
In spite of the foregoing, I have some sympathy for David Cameron’s position. Most of us, nations, families and individuals have skeletons in our closets. Disinterring long-buried bones for the sole purpose of ascribing blame is unlikely to achieve positive results. On the other hand, true understanding will not come from selective recollection. Lasting peace can never be attained so long as powerful states continue to interfere in, and try to manipulate the internal affairs of others. Nor can it by calling other nations to account for past sins while conveniently ignoring one’s own. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, four centuries ago, ‘God’s bodykins . . . Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping?’


[1] ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, Neil MacGregor (Penguin, 2012)
[2] Colossus – The Rise and fall of the American Empire’, Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2005)

The Don Draper Syndrome – More on looted treasures

There is a popular American TV series, Mad Men, set in and around a New York Madison Avenue advertising agency of the 1960s. The central character is charismatic womanizer Don Draper, whose tragic flaw is his shady past. A certain Private Dick Whitman swapped dog tags with, and assumed the identity of his officer, Lt Don Draper, who died alongside him on active service in the Korean War. The reinvented ‘Draper’ builds a stellar career in the emergent advertising industry, accompanied by his picture postcard wife Betty and their two ideal children.
Sir Charles Nicholson Bart – or was he?
Well, if you follow the series, you know what I’m talking about and how it turns out – if you don’t, it’s worth a look, and I’m not going to spoil a fascinating story for you. What I’m really interested in here is the intriguing business of borrowed identity, and its connection to a topic dear to my heart – the treasures of antiquity: who they belong to and what should be done with them.
With a little time to kill in Sydney on my recent trip to see family downunder, I visited one of the town’s lesser-known attractions, the Nicholson Museum, located on the campus of Sydney University. It’s not a huge establishment by world standards, but is said to have the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. Sydney-siders and Australians generally are indeed fortunate in having access to such a collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman civilizations, and, most interesting to me, a special exhibition showcasing relics of the ancient Etruscans, of whom more later.
Sir Charles Nicholson Baronet was apparently quite a big noise in Sydney back in the mid-19th century. A small plaque near the entrance to the museum informs the visitor that he emerged from humble origins to subsequent fame and fortune – suggesting a fairy tale rags-to-riches, self-made man. A more detailed biography inside explains that Sir Charles had been orphaned as a child and raised by an aunt. The transition from rags to riches had, in fact, been facilitated somewhat by the death of a wealthy uncle who had bequeathed him a substantial fortune.
This fortuitous leg-up set the young man on his path to fame and public honours. He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, later becoming Speaker of the House. He was one of the founding fathers and first Chancellors of Sydney University and, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was regarded as ‘one of the most cultivated men in the colony.’ Financial independence enabled Charles Nicholson to travel extensively through Europe, Egypt and the Near East where, it seems, he amassed a large and valuable collection of Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan antiquities’. One source claims he bought them, which in itself raises interesting questions. This collection he later donated to the University of Sydney, leading to the establishment of the Museum which bears his name and preserves it for succeeding generations . . . only it wasn’t his name!
Sydney historian Michael Turner, his curiosity aroused, as was mine, by the glib contradictions of the Nicholson fairy tale, carried out a lengthy investigation and established that ‘Charles Nicholson’ had in fact been born Isaac Ascough in 1808, son of an unmarried maid from a village in Yorkshire. The identity of the father is not known, but clearly there was a mysterious benefactor whose generosity paid for the young Isaac to attend and graduate M.D. from Edinburgh University in 1833. The Ascough uncle, whose legacy provided the wealth for ‘Charles Nicholson’s’ new life, apparently made his pile as owner and captain of ships transporting convicts from the slums of industrial London to the penal colonies of Australia.
The entry in the ADB, on the other hand, reads: Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), statesman, landowner, businessman, connoisseur, scholar and physician, was born on 23 November 1808 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the only son of Charles Nicholson, merchant, and of Barbara Ascough, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant’, and goes on in a similar vein. Mad Man Don Draper’s transformation pales into small-time insignificance alongside that.
Well, money, like love, is capable of covering a multitude of sins, and charity too, as many a latter-day billionaire will attest. Leaving aside those who acquire it from a lottery ticket, it’s a rare human being that can accumulate a major fortune in one lifetime – and an even rarer one who can do it without resorting to shady practices. Having made one’s fortune, however, the urge to establish oneself as a pillar of society is strong – and what better way than by donating large sums to a worthy cause or two?
It’s mostly speculation on my part, of course. There was nothing illegal about what Uncle Ascough did to accumulate his wealth – the British Government wanted to ship thousands of London’s convicted poor to Australia, and getting the shipping contract could be a lucrative business. Still, a sensitive young man might not be too proud of such an uncle and his line of work, even if he inherited the money on said uncle’s death. The same sensitive man might also feel twinges of conscience about having ‘collected’ thousands of priceless antiquities on his Grand Tour of the Ancient World. He might possibly calculate that, with one large donation to the University Museum, he could sanitise the money he had inherited, assuage his conscience, forestall questioning about his origins, and purchase respectability in a new land. I’m not saying that’s how it was, but isn’t it possible?
Certainly it’s not an uncommon practice among the fabulously wealthy. Take George Soros as an example. His Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘business magnate, investor and philanthropist.’ His philanthropy covers a range of causes, from encouraging democracy in Eastern Europe, through eliminating poverty in Africa, to financing political opposition to the re-election of George W Bush – all worthy objects, you’d have to agree. Mr Soros’s wealth, however, was mostly sourced from edgy financial wheeling and dealing, especially currency speculation on a monumental scale. The Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time blamed Soros for the Asian financial collapse of the late 1990s. More recently, he was convicted by French courts for insider trading related to dodgy activities in the late 1980s. One could argue that this Hungarian-American-Jewish ‘business magnate’ has been one of the prominent engineers of the global financial house of cards that collapsed with such disastrous results for the world economy in 2008.
Of course it’s nice, perhaps even praiseworthy that Soros ‘gave away over $8 billion to human rights, public health and education causes’ between 1979 and 2011. On the other hand, I imagine he still has a few billion left for his own creature comforts; and if that largesse purchased him a place in heaven and a reputation for philanthropy to go with his honorary doctorates from Yale, Oxford and several lesser universities, he may consider the money to have been well spent.
But I digress. Getting back to the Nicholson Museum in Sydney – its collection includes treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt and Cyprus. For locals to see such wonders would otherwise require a time-consuming and expensive journey to some Northern Hemisphere institution – so its existence is lucky for Australians. Nevertheless, when you see that monumental sculpted head of Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II, or the stone capital from a column of the Temple of Bubastis, you can’t help marveling at the achievement of Sir Nicolson-Ascough in getting his collection out of the various countries he visited, and back around the world to Sydney, NSW. For sure, they are not the kind of thing you can stash in a suitcase, conceal in your underwear or secrete in a bodily orifice. We’re talking here about some serious manpower, a bullock cart or two, and maybe even a train of camels, not to mention a couple of industrial-size containers. My guess is he didn’t have to worry about a 23 kg limit for his check-in baggage on the trip back downunder – but still, it’s hard to see the whole enterprise being accomplished without some connivance by local officials who may or may not have been paid off to provide assistance, or at least turn a blind eye.
Undoubtedly regulations regarding the ownership of unearthed antiquities were less stringent in those days, as were those controlling border crossings. At least two books have been published on a phenomenon sometimes known as the Rape of Egypt, which reached its peak around the beginning of the 19thcentury. The passion that overtook genteel Europe has been less offensively referred to as Egyptomania, which, however you look at it, involved the mass theft, removal and/or destruction of vast quantities of mummies, statuary and other relics from tombs and pyramids. Apparently there was a fashion in regency drawingrooms for soirées where three or four thousand-year-old corpses were unwrapped for the titillation of the idle rich. Not all were so  flagrantly destroyed, however, and one of the sights that impressed me on my visit to the British Museum was a room containing more mummies than I saw in the corresponding institution in Cairo.
To be fair, there is a long tradition of victorious empires uplifting and relocating monuments from conquered territories. The hippodrome in Constantinople contained at least three such trophies, two of which can still be seen in present-day Istanbul: the Serpent Column, originally located in Delphi, Greece; and a huge portion of Egyptian obelisk purloined from the Temple of Karnak, where it had been erected by the Pharaoh Tutmoses around 1400 BCE. The third piece was a group of four bronze horses formerly standing over the entrance to the stadium, which can now be seen adorning the facade of St Marks Basilica in Venice, whither they were transported by knights of the Fourth Crusade after the sack and pillaging of their sister Christian city in 1204. It is said that booty from conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE financed the building of the Colosseum in Rome by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus – and who remembers that these days?
Two brothers of Italian extraction, Luigi and Alessandro di Palma Ceonola, served sequentially as American consul to Cyprus in the 1860s and 70s. As a sideline to their consular duties, the brothers carried out archeological excavations, which, after the US ended its diplomatic presence on the island, became a full-time occupation. Their digs resulted in a collection of thousands of valuable artifacts, much of which ended up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while some was sold to collectors in the United Kingdom. Authorities in Cyprus today still, I understand, consider the actions of the brothers as tantamount to looting. More recently, another Australian gentleman with the imposing name of Professor James Rivers Barrington Stewart, carried out extensive excavations of burial sites on the island. It was, I gather, only after Cyprus gained independence from Great Britain in 1960 that controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts.
I spent a significant portion of my high school days attending classes in the Latin language – for which I am, in fact, quite grateful. In an odd way, its peculiarities of noun declensions, verb conjugations and idiosyncratic syntax prepared me for my later, more practical study of Turkish. Hand in hand with the language, we Grammar boys were also expected to acquire a knowledge of Roman life, history and customs. Not a lot stuck, I have to confess, but I do recall that the Roman calendar was dated from a zero year corresponding to our 753 BCE. Following after the lupine siblings Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the great city, was a succession of six kings, the last three of which were allegedly Etruscan.
Well, from those days to these, the Etruscans never crossed my path again – until my visit to the Nicholson Museum. That establishment, as I mentioned, houses a collection of relics of those very Etruscans, and I found myself empathising across the millennia with that lost civilization. Very little, it seems, is known of the people whose language and culture were well nigh obliterated by the Romans who conquered them. What we do know mostly derives from tombs and funerary inscriptions, and suggests that Etruscan civilization arose around the 8th century BCE. The people are thought to have originated from Asia Minor, and spoke a language unrelated to any we know.
Professor Graziano Baccolino of the University of Bologna makes the surprising claim that the Etruscans deserve to be recognized as ‘the true founders of European civilisation’, and suggests that the Romans deliberately denied their debt to these people from the East, falsifying their own history to facilitate the cover up. The English novelist DH Lawrence, in a collection of travel essays entitled ‘Etruscan Places’, waxes lyrical on these ancient folk: The things [the Etruscans] did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.’
He is less generous to their conquerors who, he says, ‘did wipe out the Etruscan existence as a nation and a people. However, this seems to be the inevitable result of expansion with a big E, which is the sole raison d’étre of people like the Romans.’
So it’s not a new phenomenon. Isaac Ascough aka Sir Charles Nicholson is part of a long tradition wherein sons of empire have, for millennia, appropriated the trappings of overthrown civilisations. Just as inevitable, perhaps, is the emerging trend, in today’s world, for descendants of the losing sides to seek redress and perhaps the return of looted treasures. It is not a conflict amenable to easy solution.

The Mosaic of Turkey – untangling the Gordian Knot

One of the pleasures of summer is breakfasting on our terrace overlooking the blue waters of the Aegean Sea: or relaxing in the evening with an ice-cold beer as the sun sinks into the same waters, now turned fiery orange. Mostly the sea is empty, but occasionally the luxury schooners and motor yachts of the rich and famous pass by – and I imagine a time when the same seas would have carried galleys of the Ionian League, of Imperial Rome or the Byzantine Greeks, to marble cities up and down the coast, as they pursued their business of trade or conquest.
The biggest problem most outsiders have in coming to grips with the reality of modern Turkey is its location on a patch of earth which has seen the procession of so many civilisations, a normal human brain switches off from information overload. Mesopotamia has long been known as the cradle of civilisation. If that’s true, the land of Turkey/Anatolia/Asia Minor must, in addition, be kindergarten, primary school, junior high and high school. Archeological excavations at Göbeklitepe in Southeast Turkey have unearthed religious structures erected in the tenth millennium BCE. From then on, one civilisation succeeded another, with the last major world empire here, that of the Ottomans, surviving through to the twentieth century.
Once again, this July, I found myself in the town of Selçuk, visiting an English friend who has made his home there. It’s a very tourist-friendly place, as witnessed by the plethora of visitor accommodation. I passed by hotels and pensions with the enticing (at least to an antipodean like myself) names of Canberra, Wallabies, ANZ, Kiwi, Outback, and Boomerang, settling finally on Jimmy’s Place, with the added attractions of WiFi internet and air-conditioned rooms.
Selçuk çastle, Ayasuluk Hill
Well, it wasn’t my first visit to Selçuk, so I had no need to jostle with tourist crowds at the well-known attractions – but for those of you yet to discover the historical and cultural delights of Aegean Turkey, let me mention a few. Most visitors with an interest in history come to explore the ruins of Ephesus, a major port city of classical Greek and Roman times, and one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean region in those days. With its paved streets, impressive library, open-air theatre, luxury villas and well-preserved public toilets, Ephesus has much to excite the imagination. A short distance down the road is the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. There’s not much left of it these days, but in ancient times it featured on the list of the World’s Seven Wonders.
Those with a more specialized interest in religious history tend to focus on later days when Ephesus was home to an early Christian community, to whom the Apostle Paul addressed one of his famous epistles. It seems likely that Jesus’s mother Mary spent her last years here, having been entrusted by her dying son to the care of the disciple John. There is some uncertainty over the authenticity of the House of the Virgin Mary, located on nearby Bülbüldağı (Nightingale Mountain), although Pope John Paul II did see fit to drop by and pay his respects in 2004. Less open to debate is the ruin of the huge 6thcentury basilica, supposedly built over the grave of St John, and one of the holiest churches of the Byzantine Age.
Christendom began to lose its grip on Asia Minor after the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine Emperor’s army in a major battle in 1071. Before the Ottomans rose to prominence, the Selçuk area fell under the sway of a local clan known as Aydınoğulları. One of its members, İsa Bey, had a mosque built in 1375 which students of Islamic architecture consider important for reasons we needn’t go into here. An interesting side issue, however, is the fact that certain elements from the Artemis Temple, including some of the columns, were apparently used in its construction.
It’s not easy for people like me, from New World nations whose recorded history emerged from the mists of prehistory two to four centuries ago, to fully appreciate the time-frames in which Anatolian civilizations appeared and disappeared. The Mosque of İsa Bey itself fell into disrepair for many years, even converted to a caravanserai at one stage. It is still not fully restored. When it was built, more than six centuries ago, the famous temple from which the columns were taken had been deserted and derelict for perhaps a thousand years, its pagan worshippers long-forgotten.
These are some of the highlights of Selçuk itself. However, visitors often use the town as a convenient base from which to explore ancient sites further afield: the famous lime-stone terraces of Pamukkale and the associated ruins of Hierapolis; the ancient city of Aphrodisias with its remarkably intact 25,000-seat gladiatorial stadium; the impressive excavations of Priene and Miletos, and the remains of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma.
Less well-known, perhaps, is the site of Magnesia on the road from Selçuk to Söke. I was lucky to go with my English local guide, Robert, who was able to point out details and inscriptions which would undoubtedly escape the notice of the casual visitor. The city was known by the Romans as Magnesia-on-the-Meander (source of the English word meaning to wander aimlessly) to distinguish it from the other Magnesia further north from which sprang the modern Turkish town of Manisa. It was a city of some size in ancient times, located in a fertile region with commercial and strategic importance. Currently archeologists are working to excavate a large stadium long buried by a huge landslip, and consequently very well preserved.
I too have made my home in Turkey, though my base is the megalopolis of Istanbul. I do try, in my spare time, to keep up with archeological developments around the country, and even to visit sites of special interest. The task is endlessly challenging and full of interest, but ultimately hopeless, as a small selection of recent news items will demonstrate.
Archeologists from several nations apart from Turkey are currently engaged in extensive digging in numerous sites around the country. Like me, you may not have heard of the ancient city of Kibyra, but I can now tell you that it was a city in Southwest Anatolia near the modern Turkish town of Gölhisar. It is believed to have been founded by the Pisidians about whom you may also, understandably, be a little hazy) in the 3rdcentury BCE. During its five hundred years of prominence, it became one of the largest urban centres in the region, with a cosmopolitan population of Phrygians, Lydians, Lycians and Carians, reaching perhaps 200,000 at its peak. So it’s not altogether surprising that archeologists have recently uncovered a pavement which they believe may prove to be the world’s largest mosaic.
Another spot you may not be familiar with is the mound of Kuriki, near the Southeast Anatolian city of Batman. If you are new to the geography of Turkey, you may be sceptical that such a city exists, but I assure you, it’s true. Excavations here, in the upper reaches of the Tigris River, have been under way for three years and have established that human occupation was continuous from the late Chalcolithic Age (around 5500 years ago). Just last week, archeologists from Turkey’s Çukurova University brought to light a necropolis from the period when imperial Rome was engaged in a struggle with the neighbouring Parthians (of whom I have written elsewhere). So far, finds have included copper jewellery and pottery jugs and containers.
Hittite statue of Suppiluliuma
News of the day in our local paper on 29 July was the discovery, in excavations near Hatay, of a one-and-a-half tonne statue of a Hittite King, believed to be Suppiluliuma. Now I don’t presume to understand how these people can possibly know that, but at least the Hittite language is of Indo-European origin, which makes it more closely related to English than modern Turkish. Still, the Hiitites built an extensive empire that peaked in the 14th century BCE, which is probably why Suppiluliuma is not such a common name in English-speaking countries today. The chief city of the Hatay province, incidentally, is Antakya, the Turkish version of a place Westerners may know better as Antioch. It’s peripheral to my present purpose here, but Antioch was founded by one of the Great Alexander’s generals around 300 BCE, and grew in a short time to rival Alexandria in size and importance.  It is said to be the place where Christians were first called Christians, and visitors can check out the grotto church founded by the Apostle Peter in the first century of the Christian era . . . but that’s recent history compared to the Hittites.
As you can see, archeologists have much work ahead of them, without the need for any new discoveries. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, almost every new construction, large or small, turns up previously unknown and unexpected links with the past. I mentioned above the Turkish city of Manisa, not far from Turkey’s third largest urban centre, Izmir. Labourers working on the foundations of a road underpass last week came across the remains of a necropolis, tentatively dated to the classical Roman period.
Again, perhaps, the find is not totally surprising, given that the ancient city of Sardis is just up the road. Sardis was capital of the kingdom of Lydia, whose 6th century BCE ruler, Croesus, has come down to us as a byword for serious wealth. The city retained its importance under Persian occupation, and the discovery there of a large synagogue apparently obliged historians to reconsider their views about the place of Jews in the later Roman Empire.
Well, if you have followed me this far, and your mind is not thoroughly boggled, congratulations. As I said above, one of the principal reasons outsiders struggle to understand Turkey, and perhaps Turks themselves find their own identity a little confusing, is the incredible mosaic of races, cultures, languages and civilizations that represents the heritage of those who inhabit this patch of the Earth’s surface. I think, if I were a young student in Turkey today, I would give serious thought to embarking on a career in archeology. Perhaps I wouldn’t become as rich as Croesus, but it’s hard to imagine the spectre of unemployment being a serious threat.