Turkey celebrates Victory Week

Turkish president Erdoğan marks 1071 victory at Malazgirt

Turkey’s president on Aug. 25 marked the anniversary of the Battle of Malazgirt (Manzikert), a historic victory for the Turks in Anatolia nearly a millennium ago, praising Turkish people’s determination to protect their independence.

MalazgirtThe Battle of Malazgirt on Aug. 26, 1071 saw Seljuk Turks led by Sultan Alparslan defeat a Byzantine army and open up Anatolia for Turkish domination.

In a written message, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “Defying a host of attacks from inside and out, our people have clung to this soil for almost 1,000 years thanks to the soul of Malazgirt.”

Turkey’s biggest safeguard is the “determination of our people to protect their independence, their motherland, and their future,” even in the face of economic attacks, he added.

Erdoğan also released a separate message honoring Victory Week, which marks two key historical victories by Turkish forces: the Battle of Malazgirt and Great Offensive of Aug. 26, 1922, which saw invading Greek forces’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Turkish army.

He lauded the Great Offensive – the biggest military operation of the Turkish War of Independence – as a “milestone in the struggle for independence.”

“Our beloved people protected their national and spiritual values at the cost of their lives throughout history,” he wrote.

The 96th Victory Day on Aug. 30 commemorates Turkey’s victory in the Battle of Dumlupınar, in the Aegean province of Kütahya, part of the Great Offensive.


Şeb-i Arus: A Death and a Wedding – Bringing people together

I had to work last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy, but I was doing a favour for a young colleague who wanted to swap her afternoon classes for mine in the morning. The reason? She was heading to Konya for the weekend.

42 magic cube

42 – More than just a number

I’ve had occasion to write about Konya before. First and foremost, number plates on the cars of its citizens are prefixed with its administrative number, 42. The mystical significance of that number is strengthened by the city’s history as the home and last resting place of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher also known as Mevlana or simply Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Khorasan, in present day Afghanistan, but his family moved to Anatolia in 1228 on the invitation of the Seljuk Emperor, Alaeddin Keykübad – the one mentioned in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Undoubtedly the Seljuks recorded dates using the Islamic lunar calendar, but it has been determined that Rumi passed away on 17 December 1273. Accordingly, a two-week festival is held every year in Konya to mark the event, known as Şeb-i Arus in Turkey.

channel 42

Konya television

The phrase Şeb-i Arus is an interesting mix of Persian and Arabic words meaning ‘Wedding Night’. These two languages bear a similar relationship to modern Turkish as Latin and ancient Greek do to modern English: they were the languages of religion, science, medicine, literature and the arts, and scholarship in general. The founders of the Republic of Turkey, aiming to make a clean break with their Ottoman past, attempted to ‘return’ to a pure Turkish, employing a Latin alphabet. The latter reform was successful (though not everyone was happy) but the former was doomed to failure from the start.

But why ‘Wedding Night’ you may ask. The reason is that, according to the Sufi philosophy, the true life of the spirit begins after the death of the physical body – so that material ‘death’ is in fact a transition to a higher plane of existence whereby the human soul is ‘wedded’ to the ultimate reality.

don't be sad

Grieve not! The thorn in your foot brings news of the rose you were seeking.

Well, not all of us are able to dismiss so lightly the apparent reality of life on Earth. Veil of illusion it may be, but the world of friends, family, study, work, marriage, children, food and shelter, sickness and health, demands our attention – and we ignore its demands at our peril. So what’s a person to do?

Sufism (Tasavvuf in Turkish) is not a sect of Islam – it has been called the inner, mystical dimension of that religion. Its appeal to non-Muslims is its rejection of the dogma associated with orthodox religions. According to the Mevlana website Rumi’s doctrine ‘advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him all religions were more or less truth.’ . . [Like India’s Mahatma Gandhi, he] looked with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike.

sema 2

Sema ceremony

Orthodox Sunni Muslims represent the majority in Turkey, and Sufism is a largely Anatolian phenomenon. Its followers regard it as the purest form of Islam, but most of its sects were outlawed after the foundation of the Republic because they were perceived as politically reactionary. The Mevlevi followers of Rumi, however, were permitted to continue as a kind of living cultural treasure because of their emphasis on the spiritual importance of music, poetry and dance. Interestingly, these are also features of Alevi worship – whose adherents represent a substantial twenty per cent minority in modern Turkey.

Alevism is a heterodox belief system which seems to defy simple definition. Like the Alawites across the border in Syria and elsewhere, they trace their origins back to the disputed question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammed on his death. They differ from the Alawites, however, in that some of their practices and traditions seem to stem from older Turkish folk beliefs. In this they appear to have something in common with Sufism, though there is no officially recognised connection.


Ney musician in Persian culture

The most obvious identifying feature of Mevlevi worship is Sema – the characteristic ‘whirling’ of devotees accompanied by a chorus of chanting, and the eerie, breathy music of the ney. The dancers wear tall brown felt headgear and white robes that swirl outwards as they spin with one hand turned down to the earth, and the other upwards towards the heavens.

The dance represents a mystical journey of the spirit towards truth and perfection, leaving the ego behind. The dancer returns from this spiritual journey ‘as one who has reached maturity and greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.’ You might think the world could do with more of that!

The ney is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is a kind of flute with a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. It is identified symbolically with the life force, the spirit breathed into earthly creatures by their source and creator (click to hear the sound).

For two weeks every year, a festival is held in Konya,  location of a striking green-tiled tomb housing Mevlana Rumi’s mortal remains. Thousands of visitors, from all over Turkey and further afield, congregate for festivities culminating in the ‘Wedding Night’ on 17 December. This coming Thursday will mark the 742nd anniversary of his death – and Rumi’s words still serve as inspiration for people of all faiths.

opening doors

If every door opened immediately, hope, patience and desire would have no meaning

∞ “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

∞ “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”

∞ “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”

∞ “You were born with potential.

You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness.

You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.

You have wings.

Learn to use them and fly.” 


Istanbul concert, December 2015

∞ “I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.

I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.

With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.

Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.

Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.

I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.

Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”

The Magic of Forty-two – Konya and Keyrings, Carpets, Christmas and Yellow Canaries

I worked at a boarding school in New Zealand years ago, and one of my more cynical teaching colleagues told me, one day, when I was complaining about the difficulty of gaining access to some room, I forget exactly where . . .  ‘Locks are to keep the teachers out,’ he said. It’s a variation on the theme: ‘Keys are for honest people’.
Well, I guess, at least by that definition, I am an honest person, because I always seem to have bunches of them. The drawers in my desk are full of keys whose purpose I have long since forgotten but am afraid to throw out because I am sure that, a week after I do, I will remember what crucial lock they would have opened.
These days I try to be more systematic, and as an aid to memory, I am attracted to gizmos that will allow me, at a glance, to identify the purpose of a particular bunch of keys. One of the things I love about the Turkish language is that it has a word for these things. ‘Anahtar’is Turkish for ‘key’ and ‘anahtarlık’ is one of those decorative thingos to which you attach a bunch of keys, allowing you to immediately understand that they are yours, and that they open the doors at your workplace, or home, the car, or whatever. ‘Keyring’ doesn’t really do justice to the concept, does it?
Incidentally, the Turkish language is full of these marvellous words, which you don’t really appreciate the lack of until you return to English and find that you just can’t say what you wanted to say any more. ‘Kaçıncı?’ is another one. It means ‘How manyth?’ As in ‘JFK, ABD’nin kaçıncı cumhurbaşkanıydı?’ ‘JFK was the how manyth president of the USA?’In case you were wondering, he was the 35th, which for some reason, Americans seem to find important. A residual hankering after dynastic imperial grandeur perhaps.
As usual, I am digressing. What I wanted to tell you was that, as a result of moving to rental accommodation in consequence of our house being in line for demolition for the purposes of urban renewal, I acquired another bunch of keys. Scanning the display of key whatsits in our local locksmith’s, I was attracted to a bronze doodah in the shape of the numeral ‘42’. What could I do? I had to buy it – and of course I intend to tell you why.
Pretty much everyone knows that a cult developed around the number 42 after it featured in a memorable episode in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Adams, along with Spike Milligan, was, of course, one of the two great geniuses of the 20th century. In this particular episode, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built ‘Deep Thought’, the second greatest computer in the universe of time and space. They then tasked it with producing the ultimate ANSWER, to Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, it was a tricky question, requiring a good deal of deep thought, but the mega-computer finally came up with the answer (after 7.5 million years of calculation) which was . . . forty-two.
Another thing I love about living in Turkey is that my shoe size, which for the previous 30 years I had thought was 8, in fact turned out to be 42 – a much more emotionally satisfying number, at least for a male of the species. ‘42 also happens to be the year in the 19th century when two ships, the ‘Jane Gifford’ and the ‘Duchess of Argyle’, arrived under sail in the embryonic British colony of Auckland, New Zealand, disgorging immigrants from the old country, among whom were George and Eliza Scott, my paternal great-great-great grandparents.
All very interesting, you say, but what about that key doohickey? What do Turks care about your shoe size, ancestry, even Douglas Adams, great as he was? And you are absolutely right – they don’t give a dingo’s kidney. Something that is very important to them, however, is the fact that their country is divided into 81 administrative districts, known as ‘İl’. For a long time the list was alphabetical, beginning with Adana as number 1 and progressing to Zonguldak at number 67. Sad to say, the best-devised human systems are prone to decay, and there are now a further fourteen ils, no’s 68 to 81, upsetting the satisfying logic of the original list.
An important aspect of this system is that the number plates of cars in Turkey all begin with the digits of the il in which they were registered. Residents of other cities can immediately recognize and resent a driver from Istanbul by his or her distinctive ‘34’ number plate. Another beauty of the system is that it allows Istanbul drivers to immediately identify an out-of-towner and add an extra personal touch to their abuse of his (or her) driving incompetence. 
But getting back to my key whatchamacallit, ‘42’ is in fact the il number of Konya, an Anatolian city located exactly where it should be, right there between 41 Kocaeli and 43 Kütahya. Which reminds be of another episode from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide’ featuring an extra-terrestrial being known as Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged – but I refuse to be diverted!
One of the reasons it is difficult for those of us from the ‘New World’ to understand what goes on in the ‘Old’ is that it is just so damn old! Konya itself is believed to have been inhabited since at least 3000 BCE, although excavations at a nearby site known as Catal Höyük have revealed a Neolithic proto-city dating back to 7,500 BCE. Konya (or Iconium) was incorporated into the Hittite Empire around 1500 BCE, and subsequently taken over successively by Phrygians, Cimmerians and Persians before Alexander the Great came hurtling through on his mission of world domination in 333 BCE. Kings of Pergamum ruled Iconium during the Hellenistic period until it passed into the hands of the Roman Empire in 133 BCE. It gets a mention in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 14, where Paul and Barnabas are said to have stirred up some trouble among the locals with their preaching. A certain Tertius of Iconium was, they say, the original scribe who recorded Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for posterity. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the city came under repeated attack by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th – 9th centuries and was razed on more than one occasion.
Seljuk Turks began seizing control of Anatolia after defeating the Byzantine Graeco-Roman army at Manzikert in 1071 CE. The resulting Seljuk Empire or Sultanate ruled much of Anatolia as far as the Mediterranean Sea and almost to the Aegean. Around 1100 CE the Sultan Kılıçarslan established his capital at Konya. Defeating him and his Islamic Empire was one of the main objects of the First Crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1096 – although, perhaps ironically, it was the Mongols under Genghis Khan who finally put an end to the Seljuks.
One of Konya’s contributions to Western civilization was a particularly fine type of hand-woven carpet, of which the 13th century explorer Marco Polo is reputed to have said they were the most beautiful in the world. Certainly they were much sought after by the wealthiest European families, and featured in the art of several painters, most notably Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
Konya is also the place where the iconic Turkish folk philosopher, Nasrettin Hodja breathed his last, and where Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current government, his first. These days, however, the city is probably most renowned as the last resting place of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, founder of the Mevlana sect of Islam. Rumi, as he is known in the West, was a 13th century Sufi mystic whose followers are sometimes called Whirling Dervishes, and who was, according to Wikipedia, ‘the most popular poet in America in 2007’. As everywhere in Turkey, when you visit Konya, there are special mealsthat should be eaten: okra soup and etli ekmek, for example – the latter a kind of elongated pizza featuring the meat of local lamb.
Well, enough of Konya. Though you might wonder whether it acquired the number 42 purely because of its place in an alphabetical sequence, or if there were mystical mathematical forces at work. For sure there’s something going on with that ‘42’ business. Experts in number theory tell me that it is, in fact, a primary pseudo-perfect number, which may be significant, given that such numbers apparently satisfy the Egyptian fraction equation, whatever that may be. We in New Zealand remember 1642 as the year a Dutch mariner by the name of Abel Janszoon Tasman got himself lost in the South Pacific Ocean and stumbled upon our South Island in the false impression that it was part of South America. Apparently the local Maoris killed and ate a few of his sailors, which perhaps deterred his countrymen from returning – that and the fact that they would have been unlikely to find it by following his directions.
A century earlier, in 1542, our Scottish ancestors crowned a new queen, Mary I, who, I gather, was only six days old at the time, which may have been a bad move in view of how things subsequently turned out for Bonnie Scotland. 1742 was the birth year of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, sometimes referred to as ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’. In spite (or possibly because) of his opposition to the abolition of slavery, Dundas gained some popularity in the land of his birth, helping to establish the New Town of Edinburgh and commemorated by a 46 metre neo-classical column in the main square. According to his Wikipedia entry, Dundas was the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money – though it seems he was acquitted, whether from innocence, good luck or a good lawyer is not made clear.
The original Tweety Bird, 1942
And what of more recent times? Well, the following have nothing to do with Scotland, Konya or Douglas Adams, but I can tell you, for instance, that, in 1942, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Trinidadwas severely damaged by a salvo of its own torpedoes and soon after scuttled by her own crew. 1942 was also the year when Bing Crosby recorded ‘White Christmas’, that schmaltzy Irving Berlin song said to be the biggest-selling single of all time. ‘Der Bingo’, as he is referred to in the Andrews Sisters’ song ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, nudged out the Pope and the favourite baseball player of the day in 1948 to top the poll for ‘most admired man alive’ – one assumes the poll was conducted in the USA. His own family seem to have been less admiring – eldest son Gary having published a book in which he portrayed his father as ‘cruel, cold, remote and both physically and psychologically abusive.’ The Wikipedia entry reports that two of Bingo’s other sons committed suicide.
To end on a happier note, 1942 saw the first appearance of Tweety Pie, the yellow canary bird featured in Warner Bros Looney Toons cartoons. Tweety (or Sweety), another icon of US culture, is indelibly etched in the childhood memories of generations of kids with his most famous line, ‘I tawt I taw a puddy tat!’

So there you have it . . . Do numbers have a special significance or life of their own? Undoubtedly many people believe they do. Most of us, if pressed, will admit to having a number we consider to be personally ‘lucky’. Results of a poll published the other day in The Guardian announced that seven is the world’s favourite number. Well, seven is a factor of 42, but I’m sticking with the larger multiple. It seems to me to encapsulate much of the true meaning of life – if we only knew what the question was!

Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas

Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.
For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!
Of course it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.
I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.
Norse god Odin
painted by Georg von Rosen
Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red and white have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.
Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.
So there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.
Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named (coincidentally Christmas day this year, so you may want to mention him in your prayers).
So what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.
Of course, it is impossible.  “There’s nowt so queer as folk” goes the old saying (from before ‘queer’ took on its current meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion are evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.
Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:
  • All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
  • The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of  ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
  • Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
  • Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
  • Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops. 

Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennia history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.
So party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13thcentury Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.
Tomb of Mevlana Rumi, Konya, Turkey
Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. 
According to Atatürk, Mevlana was ‘a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.’
17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, truth to tell it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (hence ‘Wedding’). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.
At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:
Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.
Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.
Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.
Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.
Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.
Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.
Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.
In generosity and helping others be like a river.
In compassion and grace be like the sun.
In concealing other’s faults be like the night.
In anger and irritability be like death.
In modesty and humility be like the earth
In tolerance be like the sea.
Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.

On Artifact Smuggling, Religious Tolerance and the Winter Olympics

History, as I have remarked before, is a fascinating subject, rather less certain in its account of events than ordinary citizens may be generally aware. One of the reasons for starting this blog was my discovery, after coming to live in Turkey, that the version of affairs in this part of the world that I had grown up with did not always accord with the way people around here viewed them.

Another example of this came to my attention as I paid my annual visit to the Aegean town of Selçuk to visit two English friends. Selçuk has long been a popular base for tourists visiting the sites of cities and temples important in the ancient classical world: Ephesus, Miletos, Didyma, Priene and more. Recently it seems to have become increasingly popular with Christians flocking to see the actual locations of events seminal to the establishment of their own religion.

In spite of their reputation in the Western world, Muslims have never had major objections to Christians practising that religion. Arabs and Turks may have conquered and occupied the ‘Holy Lands’ for around 1,200 years, but they were fairly tolerant of pilgrims from Christendom wishing to visit. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, who couldn’t even get on with each other, Ottoman Sultans ruled a vast Empire that included all shades of Muslims and Christians, and offered sanctuary to Jews fleeing persecution by European overlords.

All the guidebooks will tell you that the population of modern Turkey is ninety-nine percent Muslim – yet ironically many locations mentioned in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments lie within its borders. Especially targeted by Catholic tourists is the house said to have been the residence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is believed to have come to the city of Ephesus after her son’s crucifixion. On the citadel hill of Selçuk itself are the remains of a huge basilica church, erected by the Roman/Byzantine/Greek Emperor Justinian in the 6th century over a grave supposed to be last resting place of Jesus’s favourite disciple John.

Description of John
and his basilica church
It is a credit to the people and government of Turkey that, not only do they respect these sites of enormous significance to Christian history, but they also allow foreign Christian organisations to restore and maintain them, and even display their own descriptions and commentaries. A text to be seen at the entrance to the basilica site is credited to the American Society of Ephesus, whose HQ, apparently, is in Lima, Ohio. The text provides details of the life of John, with Biblical references, and the history of the church itself. One sentence in particular caught my eye because some words had been scratched out. ‘Prior to the invasion by the Seldjuk Turks, the town of Selcuk was known as Ayasoluk, meaning ‘Devine Theologian’ in honor of St John.’ Leaving aside the minor errors in the sentence, the interesting thing for me was that beneath the scratched-out section was the hand-written, barely legible word ‘conquest’. It may be a small amendment, but is nonetheless indicative of a slightly different take on the history of Asia Minor – a part of the world that has had countless conquerors over many millennia.

Enlarged section of text
with deleted ‘invasion’
Well, one consequence of that Turkish invasion, or conquest, was perhaps that less value was given to the temples, churches and artwork of their predecessors, the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. There’s nothing unusual in that, of course. When the Roman Empire turned to Christianity, pagan temples were destroyed, mined for their stonework, or converted to new uses such as churches. Statues celebrating the naked human body had breasts and genitalia chiselled off. Interest in Classical civilisations and their artifacts is a relatively recent development in Western Europe, accelerating from the later years of the 18thcentury.

One result was a rising popularity in exploring the cities and temples of antiquity, and whisking away statuary and other relics to private collections. The building of public museums really began with the British Museum in 1759, and blossomed into the ‘Museum Age’ in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consequently, in the 19th century the removal of ancient treasures became more organised, professional, and at least more for the benefit of a wider public. There is much debate these days on the subject of archeological finds displayed in museums around the world. However, it was only in the early years of the 20th century that stricter controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts, so it is difficult to make a strong case for the return of pieces taken prior to that. Nevertheless, there is an argument that major relics such as the so-called Elgin Marbles would be better displayed in Athens than their present location in London WC1.

During my brief stay in the town of Selçuk, I visited again the remains of the ancient city Magnesia-on-Meander. I was fortunate to have two knowledgeable guides in my friends Robert and Adrian, without whom much of the richness of the city would have remained unknown to me. The site is located some 30 km south of the better-known city of Ephesus and the two seem to have been of a similar size, which makes Magnesia very attractive to archeologists.

The first of these to begin serious exploration was a French team around 1840. They were particularly interested in a large temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, a major deity in this part of the world, and worshipped in Magnesia as Artemis Leukophryene, she of the white eyebrows.  It was said that the goddess had appeared to the inhabitants of the city prior to construction of the temple, and the building was ingeniously designed so that, at certain times of the year, the light of a full moon would shine through an opening above the main entrance, progressively illuminating the statue of Artemis inside, recreating the epiphany to the wonderment of assembled worshippers.

The Magnesia Artemesion may not have been as grand as its counterpart in Ephesus, renowned as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World – but still it was one of the larger Hellenistic temples, built around 200 BCE, architecturally innovative and boasting a 175 metre-long frieze depicting the mythological war between the Greeks and the Amazons. A forty-metre section of the magnificent frieze subsequently found its way to the Louvre Museum in Paris where it may still be seen. A further twenty metres, along with many other finds were later relocated to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin after a German team of archeologists carried out excavations in the 1890s.

Scylla and the sailors –
minus stolen heads

Since 1984, archeologists from Ankara University have been working at the Magnesia site. With Turkish nationals overseeing the dig, and international agreements in place to outlaw the smuggling of antiquities, you might think that the treasures of Turkey would be safe at last – but you would be wrong. In 1989 excavations began uncovering a building identified as the Market Basilica, and the most remarkable find was an elaborately carved column capital featuring a scene from the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer in which two fearsome monsters, Charybdis and Scylla, combined forces to devour Odysseus’s crew of sailors. When discovered, the capital was in near-perfect condition, but almost immediately persons unknown, unable to make off with the entire 3.5 tonne marble block, contrived to break off the head and right arm of the monster Scylla which, we must assume, found their way to some private collection abroad.

A more famous case involves the unearthing of a stash of treasure known as the Lydian or Croesan Hoard. Croesus, proverbially one of the richest rulers in the ancient world, was king of the Kingdom of Lydia in the 6thcentury BCE, with his capital at Sardis in Western Turkey. The site was illegally excavated in the 1960s, a small hoard of buried treasure found, and the loot sold off, again, to persons unknown. Eventually some of the items turned up at an exhibition in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, resulting in an expensive six-year legal battle initiated by the Turkish Government.

After the court case, the artifacts were returned to Turkey where they went on display in the Uşak Archeological Museum, but in 2006 it was discovered, due to an anonymous tip-off, that some of the pieces were fake. An investigation revealed that a gang which included the Director of the Museum had been selling them off and substituting imitations in their place. Following negotiations with officials of a museum in Germany, a golden brooch in the shape of a winged seahorse, identified as part of the missing hoard, was returned to Turkey.

Just this week, another similar theft came to light. In 2000, excavations at the site of the ancient city of Akmonya, also in the Uşak Province, brought to light a floor mosaic from the classical Roman period depicting the goddess Tyche/Fortuna. Shortly after being unearthed, the mosaic, measuring 75 cm by 150 cm, was stolen from the site. As a result of investigations by Interpol and a special branch of the Turkish Police with responsibilities for artifact smuggling, a gang of eight persons were apprehended with the mosaic in their possession. After thirteen years they were in the process of spiriting the goddess out of the country – an indication of how valuable the trade is, how organised the criminals are, and how difficult it is to catch them.

To conclude this discussion, and to illustrate the extent to which millennia of civilisations overlap in this remarkable country, as well as to indicate how that history continues to influence, for better or worse, events of the present, I would like to take you back to the site of ancient Magnesia-on-Meander. Not far from the Artemesion temple is the shell of a medium-sized mosque dating from the Beylik period in the early 15thcentury – a kind of intervening age of smaller fiefdoms or principalities following the collapse of the Seljuk Turkish Empire, and before the rise of the Ottomans. Interestingly, however, the mosque is known by the name of Çerkez Musa, or Moses the Circassian. Apparently a group of refugees from the Caucasus area established a village here in the 18th century after fleeing from Russian imperial expansion – the beginnings of a programme of Russification and ethnic cleansing of Muslims that continued for two centuries and is still causing problems today.

One of these problems is centred on the city preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sochi lies in the eastern Black Sea region beside the Caucasus Mountains, and word has it that it will host the most expensive games ever, winter or summer! The estimated price tag of $50 billion is said to have been substantially inflated by extensive bribery and corruption. Who can know? But one thing seems certain: the local and international Circassian community will be using the occasion to publicise their claims of atrocities, expulsion and genocidethat allegedly took place after the Russian military machine completed its conquest of the territory in 1864. I guess we can be equally confident that the Russian state will be doing its best to ensure that high volume celebrations of Olympic competition and togetherness drown out whatever message the Circassians try to convey to the outside world.

Which brings me back to our starting point – my constant rediscovering, in this quarter of the planet, that many of the historical ‘facts’I thought I knew, turn out, at the very least, to be highly debatable. There are two sides to almost every story, and in the interests of fair play, we should maintain an open mind to the possibility of alternative versions.

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.

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.