Rescuing Constantinople, liberating Istanbul and de-bunking history

History, Henry Ford apparently actually said, is more or less bunk. It seems he and I have moved closer together over the years. I was always led to believe that he was claiming the one hundred percent bunkishness of history, and I disagreed most fervently. Now I gather he qualified his statement with that ‘more or less’, and I find myself increasingly coming round to the same opinion.

Let me give you yet another example. On Tuesday 29 May, Turks celebrated an event they know as the ‘Conquest of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Fethi). Some four and a half months later, they will celebrate another occasion they remember as the ‘Liberation of Istanbul’ (İstanbul’un Kurtuluş’u). The second of these dates is always a holiday for the school children of Turkey’s largest city, while the former is not.

Recent excavations related to the construction of Istanbul’s new underground Metro system have put back the date of the first human settlement on the site of this ancient city to around 6,500 BCE. That makes a whole lot of history, doesn’t it! So you can understand Turkish school kids experiencing some difficulties remembering exactly what happened when. The task is complicated, however, by the fact that there seems to have been some tinkering by authorities to ensure that school history books present the approved version.

Getting back to those two dates above, it surprises me anew every year to find how many of my Turkish students seem to think that 6 October was the day when Turks ‘liberated’ Istanbul from the Byzantine Greeks. In fact, what happened was that, after Mustafa Kemal and his Turkish nationalist army had chased the modern Greek forces out of Anatolia in 1922, British and other allied troops that had been occupying the Ottoman capital since the end of the First World War, decided to up sticks and head for home.

Turkey’s most expensive film to date
I guess when you’re a kid at school, having an official day off is always going to be a powerful reason for remembering a date – so perhaps it’s a good thing that Prime Minister Erdoğan has stated his intention to make 29 May a public holiday in future. In that case, kids next year are much more likely to learn that the date will mark the 560th anniversary of an earlier Tuesday, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II led his victorious army into the Byzantine Greek capital of Constantinople after a seven-week siege in 1453. Perhaps some of the confusion will be cleared up too, if the name of the celebration is altered to recognise the self-evident fact that the city didn’t become ‘İstanbul’ until after it had been conquered – some would say, until long after.

Perhaps it’s not so much history itself, but our knowledge and understanding of it that is ‘bunk’. And just possibly the reason is that certain ‘authorities’ have vested interests in fostering misunderstandings. When you compare what the average Turk knows about the history of Constantinople/Istanbul with the knowledge most of us in the West have, you perhaps get a better sight of the problem.

The event of 29 May 1453 is generally referred to in Western histories as ‘The Fall of Constantinople’. Some writers credit the influx of Greek scholars fleeing the city as a key element in the Europe Renaissance. Some consider the Islamic takeover to have been the spur that prompted Columbus and others to launch themselves across the Atlantic in search of India. The successful employment of gunpowder and cannons against the medieval world’s best-fortified city is often taken to mark the end of the Middle Ages. These claims are interesting, and undoubtedly debatable, but I will leave the debate to more able scholars. Of more relevance to my immediate purpose is the oft-heard claim that the fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottomans was ‘a massive blow to Christendom’. It has even been said to mark ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. 

Now I don’t know what you were taught when you were at school, but I have a pretty clear memory of being told that ‘Rome fell to the barbarians’ in 476 AD/CE. The main authority for that precise date seems to have been the 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon. I also have hazy memories of Christians having been thrown to lions, but I can’t remember if these were sourced from the same book or the same teacher; nor do I have a clear memory of whether the barbarians were God’s punishment for what the Romans did to the Christians, or if they were just an unfortunate coincidence.

What I definitely do not remember being told was that, 140 years before the German upstart Odoacer deposed the resident Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, an earlier emperor, Constantine, in response to the declining importance of Italy, and the rising importance of Asia Minor, had established a ‘New Rome’ at the mouth of the Bosporus Strait. While it was clear that, at some point, those ‘old Roman’ citizens had given up feeding Christians to lions, and transformed themselves into good Catholics, I do not remember its being made clear that the ‘Roman Empire’ continued in the east for another thousand years until finally laid to rest by that 21 year-old Ottoman sultan on that fateful Tuesday in 1453.

So why the confusion about the end of the Roman Empire? I guess part of the problem stems from the fact that those ancient ‘Romans’ used the name of their capital city as the basis for naming their empire – as if the British Empire had instead been known as Londonian. A second source of confusion is that the conferring of ‘Roman citizenship’ was used as an instrument of control and government, and was not restricted to residents of Rome itself, or even Italy. As a result, citizens in Constantinople, and elsewhere in Asia Minor continued to think of themselves as ‘Romans’ long after the fall of the city of Rome and its western Empire – and long after they had ceased speaking Latin and had reverted to the use of Greek. That’s why modern-day Turks still refer to their Greek-speaking citizens as Rum, and their church as Rum Ortodoks.

However, we can’t just blame the ancient Romans and Greeks for the confusion. Europeans have always had problems defining their relationship with their eastern cousins. For a start, there was bitter competition in the Middle Ages between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople. Doctrinal differences related to such issues as the Holy Trinity, the true nature of Jesus, and what sort of bread to use for the Sacramental Feast were the ostensible reason – but perhaps more important was the envy of Roman Popes for the temporal power of the Eastern Church. Papal attempts to resurrect the western Roman Empire in holy guise made it impossible to accept the existence of a rival in the east – which henceforth became known as ‘Greek’. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Churches finalised their split in what became known as The Great Schism, and relations went from bad to worse.

Around this time, traders from the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi began setting up shop across the Golden Horn from Constantinople. Of course, both sides derived benefits from the arrangement, while at the same time friction also developed. Locals resented the accumulating wealth and arrogance of the foreigners, especially when their mutual rivalries broke out into violence. Resentment came to a head, apparently, in April 1182 when the local population went on a festive spree of riot and murder, known to historians as the Massacre of the Latins.

Latin revenge, however, was not long in coming. Roman Popes had been unleashing crusading knights eastwards for a hundred years, partly in response to appeals from the Eastern Emperors for help against the spread of Islam. The fourth and last of these crusades was, it seems, something of a fiasco. Shortage of funds for the journey obliged participants to render military services to the Doge of Venice. Subsequently they found their way to Constantinople, which they proceeded to besiege and sack in April 1204, installing a Latin Emperor of their own. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have lost sight of the main purpose of their venture (viz. fighting Muslims), and very few of their number managed to engage with any.

When those Latin Crusaders sacked, looted and destroyed the capital of their eastern rivals, subjecting its citizens to three days of rape and murder, the Pope of the day, the ironically named Innocent III, who, one assumes, had sent them in good faith to fight Saracens, Turks and other assorted infidels, was apparently somewhat upset, and gave their leaders a sound telling-off. Nevertheless, after piles of booty from the pillaged imperial capital began to appear in Rome, it seems the Pontiff found it in his heart to forgive his errant knights, and allow them back into his church. Today, visitors to St Marks Cathedral in Venice can see the copper statues of four prancing horses that had stood over the main gate of the Hippodrome in Constantine’s New Rome for nine centuries – just the most famous of the looted treasures.

The Greeks did succeed in winning back their capital some fifty-odd years later, but by then irreparable damage had been done. The Byzantine Empire (as it came to be called in later years) had been mortally wounded. By the time the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmet decided to add Constantinople to his growing empire, there was, in fact, very little of Imperial Rome remaining outside the city walls. Nevertheless, capturing the ‘Queen of Cities’ was not an easy task. Apart from the Fourth Crusaders, Persians, Arabs, Slavs, Bulgarians, even Vikings, had assailed the mighty walls on many occasions without success. This time, however, the Ottomans were determined, and laid their plans well. Even so, had ‘Christendom’ really wanted to stave off that ‘massive blow’ to their power and prestige, and turn back the Islamic Ottoman threat, you would think they could have made a little more effort.

Now, with the Ottoman forces massed outside those walls, might have been a good opportunity for the Western Church to show a little temporal solidarity – but they didn’t. Pope Nicholas V did, apparently, make a half-hearted call for another Crusade, but the call fell on deaf ears. Apart from a few hundred Genoese and Venetians with a financial interest in supporting their Greek patrons, the last descendants of Imperial Rome were left to fight their final battle alone. As history records, their valiant defence was at last broken, and Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered the city that would become his own capital.

History, at least the western version, is a little quieter on the aftermath of the conquest. As we mentioned above, the victorious Latin knights rampaged for three days through the city of their Christian cousins in 1204. To be fair to the Crusaders, a three-day mayhem of killing and looting was the standard reward for an army that had been put to the trouble of besieging and capturing a walled town. England’s noble King Henry V, according to Shakespeare, gave the French defenders of Harfleur a final warning:

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds . . . (Henry V, III, iii)

So we may be surprised to learn that the Muslim Ottoman Sultan called off his ‘blind and bloody soldiers’ after one day of such sport. He also allowed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to maintain his seat in the new Ottoman capital. According to one source, ‘As a strange side-effect of the Muslim conquest, the doctrinal integrity of eastern Christendom was preserved: instead of the compromises with the Vatican that might otherwise have been inevitable, the patriarchate was able to hold to its view on the issues, such as the nature of the Trinity, that had led to so much bitter argument.’

And there he can be found to this day, ministering to his flock from his sanctuary in Istanbul, largest city of the Turkish Republic, with its ninety-nine percent Muslim population: Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, First Among Equals in the Eastern Orthodox communion. History, if not one hundred percent bunk, at least needs careful watching.
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A Christmas Message – Origins of Christianity

A few years ago I was travelling through central and eastern Anatolia on a personal expedition to see some of the less accessible sights of Turkey: the Tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in Konya; the statues of the ancients gods on the summit of Mt Nemrut; the sun setting on the waters of Lake Van; the snow-capped peak of Mt Ararat . . . and I spent a couple of days in the eastern city of Malatya. There weren’t many tourists around at the time, and I don’t look much like a Turk, so I attracted a certain amount of interest among the locals – especially when they found I could speak a bit of Turkish.

I was wandering around the bazaar, and one of the stallholders invited me to drink tea. I accepted, and soon a small crowd gathered, one of whom, it turned out, was a Hadji, a much-respected older gentleman who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was clearly something of a theological authority. It was also soon clear that here was a rare opportunity to corner a Christian and interrogate him about the peculiarities of his religion. Muslims in Turkey are quite accepting of Christians and Jews, since we are all members of the same monotheistic family. Nevertheless, there are some perplexing issues. ‘What’s this business about Jesus being the son of God?’ ‘Can you just briefly explain that Holy Trinity thing?’ Well, I know my Turkish wasn’t so good at the time, so maybe I didn’t do total justice to my western Christian heritage. I certainly felt it was a little unfair that I should have been chosen as the spokesman and apologist for my religion and culture in that small group of hospitable but genuinely curious Turkish Muslims.

My old Sunday School – Takapuna, NZ

I was brought up in a good Christian family. I was sent off to Sunday school by church-going parents who contributed generously to the weekly collection, and even served on committees. I did my best to make sense of the stuff they used to tell us in Sunday School and Bible Class, until the age of about 12 or 13, when the questions seemed to demand more than the old superficial answers. I’d find myself mouthing the words of one of those creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) and wondering if I was the only one harbouring secret doubts about all those affirmations that, one assumed, one was expected to believe if one was to call oneself a Christian:


I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.
Well, it’s a big ask, isn’t it! There’s some fairly demanding stuff in there, wouldn’t you say? ‘Son of God’, ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’, ‘resurrection of the body’ . . . It’s a challenge worthy of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, who trained herself to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Not easy without that kind of determination. In fact, only two of the four Gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, make that claim about the Holy Spirit’s paternity – and you can’t help feeling, as you read their words, that they have the ring of something written after the fact; which, of course, they were . . . at least 60 to 80 years after.
And what about Jesus himself? Did he believe his mother was a virgin? References to ‘my Father’ don’t count for much, because God was pretty much everybody’s father figure in those days. Jesus was more inclined to talk about the ‘son of man’, which is a rather more modest claim, and probably has pretty much the same meaning as ‘human being’.
So where do these so-called ‘creeds’ come from? Who concocted them? And who decided that accepting them holus bolus was the sine qua non of being a Christian? I remember one church minister, more adventurous and intellectually credible than most, making some attempt, from the pulpit, to reassure inquiring minds in his congregation that the words of the creed, seen in the correct light, were not as outrageous as they might at first appear. But in the end, the words are there, aren’t they?  You can’t really weasel your way around ‘descended into hell’ and ‘on the third day he rose again’, can you? And, of course, that’s exactly what the writers intended! But who were those writers?
I guess I’d put all such questions on to the mental back burner long before I came to Turkey. I came here to work, unlike some who come on a search for spiritual truth: the touchingly naïve Americans who, from time to time, embark on expeditions to Mt Ararat hoping to excavate the remains of Noah’s Ark; or others convinced that they are praying in the house once inhabited by the Virgin Mary. However, the very existence of such places brought those questions back to mind . . . and, surprisingly, provided unexpected answers to fundamental questions about Christianity, in a country whose population is reportedly 99% Muslim.
One thing you can’t escape from in Turkey is the reality of the early Christian church, and all those places and people: Peter, Paul, John, Mary, Ephesus, Antioch, Galatia . . . At the same time, you come to see also how much the development of Christianity was tied up with its acceptance as a state religion by the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople, and the political realities of that time and place. So, it’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand, you are confronted with the undeniable reality of people, places and events that gave birth to the Christian religion. On the other, you also see that much of the dogma of that religion, the articles of faith which one was expected to espouse as a true believer, were formulated and codified long after the founding events by committees of priests and politicians, for what might often have been pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons.
So let’s start with the real places and people. The Tigris and Euphrates are branches of the river that, according to Genesis, flowed out of the Garden of Eden – and both rise in eastern Anatolia. You’ll be unlikely to find remains of Noah’s Ark, but Mt Ararat can definitely be seen rising to 5185 metres near the border of Turkey and Iran. Head south and west and you will come to the city of Urfa, where you will find a queue of faithful Muslims waiting to enter a cave deemed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
OK, that old stuff, you may say. But what about the New Testament, the actual Christian business? Well, keep heading west towards the Mediterranean coast and you will find yourself in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, the base of St Paul’s missionary activities. You can visit the grotto-church of St Peter, in this city where Christians were, so the story goes, first actually called ‘Christians’. Somewhat more accessible to the tourist resorts of Aegean Turkey lies the town of Selçuk, a short drive or a middling walk from the site of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved cities of the ancient world. It was also the location of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, all of which are to be found not far away in other parts of western Turkey. There is a widely accepted tradition that the apostle John, charged by the dying Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary, took her eventually to Ephesus, where they both drew their last breaths. Certain it is that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had a basilica church built there in the 6th century over what was believed to be John’s final resting place – not far from a restored house held by many to have been the last dwelling of Jesus’s mother, Mary.
I could go on, but you get the point. It was a long time ago, but these are real people, and real places we are talking about here. However, things start getting a little murky when you move from history and geography, into the realms of faith, theology and dogma. Certainly the new religion took off, for one reason and another, and began to be seen by the Romans, who controlled most of the Mediterranean world (and much of Europe) in those days, as a threat to their established way-of-life. The story of the violinist-Emperor Nero is well known – he is said to have passed blame for his own torching of the Imperial City on to the Christian community, which then justified an orgy of bloodthirsty torture and execution lasting from 64-68 CE. More open to debate is the theory that, far from terminating the new religion, Nero’s excesses of violent persecution actually aroused sympathy for the oppressed Christians, and gave the movement strength.
Persecution continued, however, until the reign of Constantine I. He it was who founded the city of Constantinople in 330 CE, and is called ‘the Great’ on account of being the first Christian Roman Emperor. Again, there is some debate about how he acquired his new faith, but clearly, by this point in history, being a Christian had become rather more socially acceptable. The special relationship of a man with his mother is proverbial in the Mediterranean world, and it is known that Constantine’s mother was a Christian. A grander, and rather more ‘imperial’ tale asserts that, on the eve of the battle against his rival Maxentius, to unite the Empire after a period of division, Constantine had a dream instructing him to display the symbolic letters of Christ on his soldiers’ shields. His troops won the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From here began the majestic pageant of Christianity leading to its eventual cultural domination of the world – or its downward slide into politics and corruption, depending on your point of view. Clearly, once Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, there was a need for an orthodox position and a clearly delineated set of beliefs. The first problem that required solving was what to do about the bishops and other high-ranking churchmen who had not only recanted their faith during the years of persecution, but, in some cases, to save their own skins, had actually dobbed in members of their own congregations. Certain purists, known as ‘Donatists’, were, apparently, of the opinion that such turncoats should not be allowed back into the church now that the bad times were over. As we might imagine, however, there is advantage to an emperor in having high-ranking subordinates who can be relied on to toe the party line – and not only were the former apostates allowed back, but many of them returned to high office. Needless to say, there would have been unhappiness in some quarters with this decision.
Nevertheless, having established a coterie of bishops to lead his new institutionalised state church, Constantine called them together in the city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nicaea, incidentally, still exists as Iznik in modern Turkey, and was the location of a major ceramics industry during Ottoman times. But not to digress, the Council of Nicaea was charged with laying down a code of beliefs for the Church, and in doing so, to alienate heretics who might threaten the state monopoly. The ‘heresy’ of Gnosticism had already been dealt with in the previous century; Gnosticism being a mystical religious philosophy predating Christianity, which tended to avoid the more literal-minded excesses of mainstream Christianity. Having got rid of this threat, it was really just a matter of haggling over details, though these details did cause some serious splitting of the one ‘holy catholic church’.
The Nicene gathering had to deal with the so-called ‘Arian’ heresy. Well, I have no intention of trying to explain this or any of the subsequent theories in a similar vein which these and later holy fathers debated at great length, and, in their infinite wisdom, handed down decisions on. Some of them concerned the perplexing doctrine of the Holy Trinity – in particular, what exactly was the nature of the three beings, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and what were their relationships to each other, if, that is, they were actually separate at all, which they weren’t, or aren’t. As Spike Milligan used to say, ‘It’s all rather confusing, really!’
Now you might think, with me, that some matters are better left alone, as being beyond the powers of mere mortals to comprehend; and the details might safely be left to the individual understanding of willing believers. Not so, however. The all-knowing holy fathers apparently felt themselves quite capable of making pronouncements on such matters, and began the tradition of formulating creeds for the guidance of future generations. And the wording of these creeds, far from being broad enough to encompass a spectrum of individual beliefs, was, on the contrary, agonised over at great length, so as to specifically proscribe any deviation from the ’true path’, as determined by the aforesaid holy fathers.
Well, it’s a complex but interesting business. Clearly, the process I have touched on here did not end in 325 CE at Iznik. It continued at Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) in 451 CE, and at other councils throughout the days of the Byzantine Roman Empire. The situation was further complicated by the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054 CE, when Western and Eastern Christendom decided to go their separate ways; and again in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation of the 16thCentury – but we can leave those discussions for another day.
In summary, however, what I want to say is this: I feel a whole lot more comfortable about my Western religio-cultural heritage since coming to Turkey. I have a better understanding of the relationship between the world’s three great monotheistic religions. I have visited places which have added a sense of reality and objectivity to the traditions and culture which I absorbed with the air I breathed through my childhood and education. I have come to see that much of what bothered me, as an inquiring adolescent, about the Christian Church, is, to say the least, of questionable relevance to the philosophy and message of its eponymous founder. And if anything I have said makes you feel a little better in the coming weeks of the festive season, then I will feel my time has been well spent.

Where are the Ancient Treasures of Turkey?

Her çiçek bahçesinde
Her eser ülkesinde güzeldir
Every flower is beautiful in its own garden
Every work of art in its own country
(A plaque on the wall of the Selçuk Museum, Turkey)
Another tourist season is beginning. Chartered planefuls of Brits, Russians, Germans, descend again on the resorts of Turkey: Kuşadası, Bodrum, Alanya . . . regale themselves with Efes Pilsen and breakfasts of bacon and eggs as they toast themselves fashionable shades of pink in the unaccustomed heat of the Mediterranean and Aegean sun. Increasing numbers of them, lured by the foregoing pleasures, and the relatively affordable property prices, purchase a slice of local real estate and return to the same villa year after year, or send their neighbours from back home.
For many foreign visitors, this is Turkey. But of course, there are other Turkeys, and many other reasons for visitors to come, no less in the 21st century than in the 13th. For Christians there are places of pilgrimage in this nursery of early Christianity: the great church of St Sophia, the house of the Virgin Mary at Ephesus, St Peter’s first church in ancient Antioch (modern Antakya) to name only three.  For students of history, and those with a passing interest, this is one of the cradles of civilisation, its ancient land buried in layers of more long-gone peoples and empires than probably any other place on Earth: Hittite, Lydian, Lycian, Ionian, Roman, Seljuk . . .
So we visit the museums, the unearthed and reconstructed sites of ancient cities, and, if we have a modicum of imagination, we guess that even the grains of sand, on which we arrange our white plastic şezlong, are the eroded remains of palaces and bath houses, monuments and triumphal fountains of once-great empires. Perhaps, in the raptures of such imaginings, we pick up a fragment of white marble lapped by the waves at our feet, and secrete it in our pack to use as a paper-weight in memory of our travels. What harm in that? Who could object?
I guess it’s a question of scale. There must surely be a continuum of theft, from the accidental accumulation of clay or sand on the soles of my shoes accompanying me back home after my holiday – to the meticulously planned heist which removes a priceless Van Gogh or Monet from the wall of the Müsee d’Orsay to grace someone’s private art collection.
I paid another visit to the museum at Selçuk last summer.  It’s a small museum, but important in that the town of Selçuk is, of course, a popular base for exploring the ruins of the city of Ephesus, once capital of the ancient Aegean region of Asia Minor, and home to the early church to which St Paul addressed one of his famous epistles.
Section of the Parthian monument – see it in Vienna

Among the important archeological finds at Ephesus is the Parthian monument. The Parthians were a  warlike race whose territory lay at the Eastern border of the Roman Empire. There were ongoing wars between the Romans and the Parthians involving victories on either side, but the Romans never succeeded in subduing them. The monument commemorated a victorious campaign undertaken by Roman forces against the Parthians during the reign of the Emperor Trajan in 116 AD, and was decorated with reliefs showing scenes from the wars. Some of the reliefs that once adorned the monument are displayed in the Selçuk Museum – the rest are, apparently, in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. Nice for the Viennese!

If this were a single event in which the priceless remains of an ancient civilisation had been removed from their original site to a museum abroad it would be serious enough. A strong case might be made for their return to Turkey. It is, however, just one instance of countless cases where ancient flowers have been removed from their natural garden to some public museum or private collection in another country. And, as we all know, there is safety in numbers, Why should I return my reliefs until they return their caryatids?
Just a short stroll down the road from the marble columns and friezes of Ephesus is the site of the fabled Temple of Artemis. Of course, as an important goddess in the Greek pantheon, Artemis had more than one temple built in her honour. But this was THE Temple of Artemis, one of the reasons for the fame of the city of Ephesus, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, visitors today will be disappointed if they expect to see more than orderly rows of foundation stones and a half-hearted reconstruction of an ancient column. Those from London especially could have saved themselves the airfare to Turkey, when a tube ride to Russell Square and a short walk to the British Museum would have enabled them to see more of the temple than can be seen in situ.
And for those Brits who read this column in time to save on the plane ticket, while you’re at the British Museum, check out the statues and other remains from the Mausoleum of Hallicarnassus, another of those legendary Seven Wonders. If you were expecting to see much of it during breaks away from the Bodrum nightclubs, you’d be better off ordering another Efes Pilsen.
Still, we can’t blame only the Brits. I’ve already mentioned the Viennese, and in fact it was crusading Christian knights who originally dismantled most of the fabulous mausoleum to build their castle defending the harbour at Bodrum. U.S. presidents would do well to check their history books before siding too readily with those medieval crusaders. On one of their sacred outings in 1204, they stopped off on their way to fight the Muslims in the Holy Land, and sacked the city of Constantinople. Some sources tell us that the sacking of the city and raping of the (Christian) inhabitants went on for three days, during Easter week! Sure the city was conquered by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, but by then most of the riches of the St Sophia cathedral and nearby imperial statuary had already been shipped off to Venice and Florence, where they can, so I’m told by reliable sources, be seen today.
But in spite of all this, many of us still go to Turkey, and not just for the beaches. Of course, it is still a rich storehouse of remains of ancient cultures. What about Troy? You’ve seen the movie, and you know the Greeks sailed across the Aegean to recapture the beautiful Helen. Again, sadly, visitors to Troy are likely to be disappointed. A certain Heinrich Schliemann,19th century German archeologist, and his wife, who apparently rejoiced in the delightfully classical name of Sophia Engastromenos, with the connivance of a corrupt Ottoman official, spirited away the legendary treasures of Troy.
Never mind, you may think. Anyway, I was going to Berlin to check out the Pergamon Museum, which, as you know, was purpose-built to exhibit the altars, statues and friezes taken from the site of ancient Pergamon, near the town of Bergama in modern Turkey. I can kill two birds with the Berlin stone, you may think. But again, you will be disappointed. The Trojan treasures apparently disppeared from Berlin in 1945, and their whereabouts remained a mystery until 1993, when the Pushkin Museum in Moscow announced that they were, in fact, in safe-keeping, stored in their basement, and would shortly go on display. Can making off with already previously made-off-with artifacts be considered a crime? Working on the principle of two negatives making a positive, one might plead not.
Well, I could go on and tell you more about the whereabouts of the treasures of ancient Turkey. I’ve barely touched on the riches of Constantinople and Pergamon, now securely housed elsewhere, and I haven’t even mentioned Sardis, a once grand city at the western end of the trade route linking Mesopotamia to the Aegean region, capital of the proverbial Lydian King Croesus – but I think you get the picture. Luckily for Turkey and the rest of us who love to travel, the best efforts of treasure-hunters and pillagers from the West have as yet been unable to denude Turkey of the wealth of ancient cultures to be found within its borders. Drop a spade into the ground anywhere in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, and the chances are you’ll uncover something of deep historical significance. It’s certainly worth a visit – and not just to Kuşadası!