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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jerry Brotton Viking. 338 pp. $30

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The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

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

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

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

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

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

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

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

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

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

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

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

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

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

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

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

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

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

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

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

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

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

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

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

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

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

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

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

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

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

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

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

Beauty and the Beast – An Ottoman fairy tale

‘How much more interesting is this place than Dubai?’ The words were spoken by a tourist holding the door for his wife and teen-aged daughter as they boarded a taxi near the waterfront at Eminönü. Dilek and I had just descended from the terrace of Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the sentence wafted to my ear on a gentle breeze as we strolled towards the Marmaray Metro station for a train that would take us under the Bosporus back to the Asian side of the city.
I didn’t hear the reply our anonymous tourist received from his female companions. Possibly stony silence was the best response to an insensitive male unable to comprehend the joys of seven-star hotels and 24/7 duty-free shopping. Certainly Istanbul has no kilometre-high mega-skyscrapers, artificial islands in the shape of the world’s major landmasses, fully enclosed climate-controlled football stadiums or multi-million dollar tennis tournaments featuring Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and their globetrotting ATP buddies.
Sinan the architect and Princess Mihrimah
What Istanbul does have is a recorded history of more than two thousand years, evidence of human settlement going back a further 6,500, and a geography that is home to locations featuring in the myths, legends and folk tales of at least four major civilisations. What Istanbul does have is religious and secular structures dating from centuries when the 600-year Ottoman Empire was the major Mediterranean power and terror of Europe. What Istanbul does have is columns, mosaics, statuary and churches from the days when, as Constantinople, it was capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire – first in the latter years of its pagan existence, and later in its Graeco-Christian embodiment. I could go on, but you get the picture. Istanbul is a realplace – a multi-cultural city whose geo-political significance stretches back into the dim mists of time immemorial.
Dubai, on the other hand, as Wikipedia informs us, receives no mention in anyone’s records until 1095 CE, and ‘the earliest recorded settlement in the region dates from 1799. Dubai was formally established on June 9, 1833, by Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al-Maktoum when he persuaded around 800 members of his tribe of the Bani Yas, living in what was then the Second Saudi State, to follow him to the Dubai Creek by the Abu Falasa clan of the Bani Yas. It remained under the tribe’s control when the United Kingdom agreed to protect the Sheikhdom in 1898 (from what, I can’t help wondering) and joined the nascent United Arab Emirates upon independence in 1971 as the country’s second emirate.’
Maşallah! as Turks say. Good for them! And you have to appreciate what those Bani Yas tribesmen have achieved in the intervening 43 years. As for me, however, I willingly pay a little more for my annual airfares to and from New Zealand to avoid stopping over there. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that those United Arab Emirates represent just about everything that is wrong with the modern (or post-modern) world. And I think that’s what our anonymous English tourist was getting at, whether or not his wife and daughter agreed with him.
But let us retrace our steps just a little. Dilek and I were descending the stairs from the elevated terrace of Rustem Pasha Mosque to the Levantine chaos of Hasırcılar Street – and I want to tell you why.
In fact we were rewarding ourselves for a successful journey to the outer reaches of European Istanbul. Our building has been declared an earthquake risk, and we have had to find alternative accommodation for a year or two while it is demolished and rebuilt. In such a case, the government, God bless them, will pay some compensation for expenses and inconvenience incurred. To lodge your claim however, you must make your way to the one and only office authorised to process it – situated in Küçükçekmece, a little-known and less-visited location some 50-plus km from our new abode. The expedition did at least give us the opportunity to make use of Istanbul’s much-vaunted public transport system, and we rode four Metro lines before taking a 20TL taxi ride for the last stage.
Our reward, then, for finding the office, lodging our claim and getting back to civilisation, was a delicious lunch and a wander around the ancient streets of old Istanbul. Eminönü stands near the mouth of the Golden Horn, a deep inlet of the Bosporus which divides the old city from the ‘newer’ European enclave of Galata/Pera, and provided a second watery defence for the triangular Seraglio Point, site of the Roman, Byzantine and later, Ottoman, capitals. In Ottoman times, Eminönü was the commercial port of the city, and the Egyptian, or Spice Bazaar (built in the 1660s), a bustling outlet for the riches of the Orient.
A modern visitor to the Egyptian Bazaar may emerge from its western gate, lured by the irresistible aroma of freshly roasted beans emanating from the premises of Mehmet Efendi, purveyors of coffee to discerning Istanbul residents since 1871. From here you may force your way (politeness will get you nowhere) through the teaming throngs in Wicker-workers’ Street to a shopping experience unlikely to be met with in any air-conditioned Dubai commercial fantasyland. You may sample the indescribable gourmet delicacies of Namlı Pastırmacısı; purchase balloons, paper hats and other party essentials in wholesale quantities; or pass through a time warp to ironsmith workshops selling knives, axes, billhooks, scythes, forks, ploughshares and other agricultural implements from a bygone age.
After a hundred metres of this you may need a breath of fresh air. Keep an eye out for a dingy timeworn stone staircase on your right. Lay aside Western fears of muggers and rapists lying in wait, ascend two flights through the gloom and you will find yourself in one of the less-frequented gems of Imperial Ottoman Istanbul – the mosque of Rustem Pasha, Grand Vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent, husband of the Sultan’s beloved daughter, the Princess Mihrimah, and one of the richest men in the richest city in the richest and most powerful empire of 16th century Europe, possibly the world.
Rich he may have become, but Rustem was born a simple swine-herding OpukoviĆ in the Croatian town of Skradin. His path to unimaginable wealth and power began when he was whisked away from family and hearth in the grip of the devshirme system, whereby likely young lads from remote regions of the empire were brought to the capital to be educated and trained as future civil and military leaders. Fabulously rich he may have been, but Rustem, it seems, was no fine figure of handsome Ottoman manhood. He did, however, have the major advantage of being held in high esteem by Suleiman, Sovereign of the House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Emperor of Rome and Successor of the Prophet. In consequence, this ‘squat ugly man’ won the hand of the Sultan’s seventeen-year-old daughter, gaining at the same time, and in true Turkish fashion, the support of her mother, the legendary Roxelana (Hürrem Sultan).
Suleiman, contemporary of English Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, is generally considered to have reigned over the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power and influence. His death, on a military expedition to Hungary in 1566, began the slow decline that concluded, some 350 years later, with defeat and dissolution at the end of the First World War. Many reasons have been offered for this decline – but few focus on the role played by our man Rustem.
One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of Ottoman sultans was the system of royal succession. The imperial harem housed a bevy of fair women at the beck and call of the padishah. The first male offspring produced therein was the natural successor to the throne (Shehzade), and any subsequent boy children born would be quietly strangled, when the time came, to ensure a calm and peaceful transfer of power.
Suleiman, the tenth Ottoman Sultan, was the first to break with tradition and honour his favourite concubine Hürrem (Roxelana) by making her his one and only official wife. Inconveniently, however, one of her harem sisters, Mahidevran (also known as Gülbahar) had already given birth to the senior heir, Mustafa. Needless to say, the favoured royal wife was having none of that, and contrived, with the aid of her son-in-law Rustem, to have the young Mustafa done away with, allegedly by five hitmen whose tongues, as a precaution, had been slit and their eardrums broken so that they would hear, and subsequently speak, no evil.
The way was thereby cleared for Hürrem Sultan’s eldest son Selim to ascend the throne on the death of Suleiman. Sadly for the great empire, he was not half the man his father had been. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Sot’, Selim II, it seems, was a little too partial to drink, and not much inclined to military exploits or affairs of state. Apart from the unflattering epithet, he is best known for presiding over the Ottoman naval defeat at Lepanto, considered by some historians as the turning point in their hitherto successful advance into Europe.
No blame, it seems, was ascribed to Rustem Pasha during his lifetime for his hand in the fateful conspiracy. According to Wikipedia, when he died in 1561 ‘his personal property included 815 lands in Rumelia and Anatolia, 476 mills, 1,700 slaves, 2,900 war horses, 1,106 camels and 800 Qur’ans’. One thing he not have, however, was the love of his wife Mihrimah. Legend has it that the royal princess was beloved of the illustrious architect Sinan. Although thirty years her senior, Sinan outlived Mihrimah and immortalized his vain love for her, if the tales are true, in the construction of two beautiful mosques, one near the city walls at the gate of Edirnekapı and the other on the Asian shore of the Bosporus at Üsküdar.
‘Mihrimah’ means ‘sun and moon’ in Persian, a language that made a significant contribution to Ottoman Turkish; and the royal princess is said to have been born on 21 March, the spring equinox. The stories, which I have so far been unable to verify personally, say that Sinan constructed the two mosques in such a way that, as the sun sets behind the single minaret of the one at Edirnekapi, Mihrimah’s birthday will be celebrated by the moon rising between the two minarets of the other at Uskudar – a touching and very Turkish tale, given that the great architect carried his unconsummated love to his grave at the age of 98.

Find your way to the Rustem Pasha Mosque
If by chance you ever find yourself in the vicinity of the New Mosque (1660) and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in district of Eminönü, and you feel you can brave the jostling multitudes in Hasırcılar Street, do climb that stairway and pay a visit to the mosque of that erstwhile Grand Vizier. The building is sheathed inside and out with spectacular glazed tiles from the workshops of Iznik, famed for the colour and beauty of their ceramics. A particular secret guarded by those Iznik craftsmen was production of the colour red, which features prominently in the Rustem Pasha tiles. There are many larger mosques in the Islamic world – probably one or two in Dubai for all I know – but few more beautiful and historically interesting.

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.

The Soft Power of the Idiot Box – Turkish TV in the Arab Spring

The Turkish word for a TV series or soap opera is ‘dizi’ – and ‘dizzy’ is probably a good word to describe the effects that Turkish TV series are having these days in this part of the world. For a start they are huge business in Turkey itself.  There is a series for every niche market in the country. From the working class lives of ‘Coronation St’ and ‘East Enders’, through the decadent wealthy suburbia of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and the James Bond machismo of ‘Valley of the Wolves’, there is a local show with appeal for every sector of Turkish society.
Sultan Süleiman and his desperate housewives

If you promise to keep my secret, I will confess that most weeks I sidle alongside my good lady, Dilek, on the couch in our living room and up-date myself on the constantly frustrated attempts of the eponymous heroine to bring her rapists to justice in the series ‘Fatmagül’, and more recently, the on-again off-again relationship of Kuzey and Cemre[1]in ‘North and South’. Lead actors in these shows are household names in Turkey, commanding salaries comparable to the CEO of a medium size business. Their pictures and latest escapades are everyday fare in the gossip pages of local newspapers, and scandal-hungry paparazzi lie in wait behind every Ferrari and Audi SUV.

So seriously do Turks follow the labyrinthine twists and turns of their on-screen heroes and heroines that some have difficulty separating the actor from his or her role. It was reported that one avid fan had slipped a note into the hand of Selçuk Yöntem, the thespian playing middle-aged Adnan Ziyagil in ‘Forbidden Love’, warning him that his young wife Bihter was cheating on him. Beren Saat, the real-life persona of beautiful Bihter, is adored by thousands of adolescent male Turks, whose tender hearts have been dealt a bitter blow by her recent engagement to local pop star Kenan Doğulu.
But it’s not just Turks who are going dizzy over the dizis. Waheed Samy, general manager of Egypt-based Memphis Tours, was reported as saying he believed that Turkish TV series ‘are responsible for a 50% increase in the number of tourists to Turkey.’ ‘Forbidden Love’, based loosely on a 1900 novel known in Turkish as ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’, was one of the first Turkish series to be dubbed into Arabic. It reportedly attracted 85 million viewers at the peak of its popularity, setting off a trend that has grown into a multi-million dollar industry with far-reaching effects in the Arab world. One journalist referred to the phenomenon recently as ‘the Turkish TV series spring’ – a reference to the more violent events taking place in public squares of the same countries.
Abdullah Çelik, a spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, was quotedas saying that revenue from the sale of local TV series abroad had reached $65 million by the end of 2010 – up from zero in 2006. Monetary figures were not available for 2011, but he went on to say that 10,500 hours of TV series had been sold abroad that year. Not a small thing in times of global economic recession.
Of course, it is not merely the economic effects of this ‘soft power’ revolution that is attracting attention. A recent article on Euro News reported interviews with young people from Arab countries explaining the appeal of these Turkish shows:
“(What you see in this series is) you can be Muslim and you can be modern. They show that part of life (that) some of the Arabic people (are) deprived of – technology, nice living, modern life. They show the part of life that we don’t have in some of our countries,” said Auhood, an Iraqi tourist.
“It (the series) shows all the Muslim people can be open minded, open life, they can have modern life style,” added Asma, from Egypt.
It could be said that the possibility of Islamic culture coexisting comfortably with modern democracy as portrayed in these programmes is doing more to undermine autocracy and inequality in Arab countries than all the munitions supplied by the arms industries of the major world powers.
Still, it seems not everyone in Turkey is happy with the direction the Turkish film industry is taking. An Istanbul MP said she believed that these series hurt the image of Turkey abroad by glorifying corruption and immorality. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, entered the debate in the past week with pointed criticism of the enormously popular ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’, set in the 16th century Ottoman Golden Age of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. His beef seemed to be that the real Suleiman spent much of his life in the saddle, leading his victorious armies to conquests throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, even to the gates of the Hapsburg capital, Vienna. The screen version of the illustrious Padishah, known to Turks as ’The Lawgiver’, seems to have a preference for other mounts in the inner sanctum of Topkapı palace’s harem.
Well, you can see the PM’s point, and, as a keen amateur historian, I have some sympathy for the argument that says young Turkish kids are getting a distorted picture of the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power – an image perhaps more in line with that of Western Orientalists, who portrayed the ‘Grand Turk’ and his ‘Divan’ as dissolute, debauched and degenerate, ready to avail themselves of sexual opportunities in whatever form they came most conveniently to hand.
Conversely, not everyone is as devoted to the search for historical truth as we may be ourselves. I watched, in a cinema not so long ago, another recent product of the Turkish film industry, ‘Çanakkale’. Çanakkale, as my readers will know, is a town on the Dardanelles Straits that lent its name to the First World War fiasco we in the West know as the Gallipoli Campaign. The ‘Çanakkale War’ is dear to Turkish hearts, being the only theatre of the ‘Great War’ where Ottoman forces achieved significant success. The details and myths are well known to every Turkish child, and the film reinforces them all – from the heroic exploits of artillery corporal Seyit, single-handedly lugging 12 inch shells for the shore-based batteries, to the fob watch of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) which saved the future president from a shrapnel fragment in the heart.
The thing is, though, I have yet to meet anyone (and I mean Turks here) who actually liked the film. Sad to say, bayonet charges, sinking Royal Navy battleships, and life in the trenches may be true-life events, but they don’t capture the hearts and minds of cinema-goers and couch potatoes. We don’t get to know anyone in the film, and consequently we don’t engage with it. Steven Spielberg understood this, which is why he didn’t call that film ‘The Normandy Invasion’ – but invented a GI private by the name of James Ryan, thereby generating a touching story with human interest, and probably making a good deal of money into the bargain.
Furthermore, there may well have been younger generations of viewers for whom ‘Saving Private Ryan’ brought to life an important historical event that might otherwise have remained remote and meaningless to them. There may even have been some who left the theatre with an urge to learn more about the war their grandfathers fought in all those years before. For the rest, it was a couple of hours of entertainment; incidentally presenting to the world out there an American view of themselves they would like us all to believe. And why not? Cinema as nationalist propaganda is not to be underestimated. Just ask the Greeks.
Huh? Run that by me again. How did the Greeks get into this? Well, apparently the board of their state-run TV channel ERT just last week fired their general manager over a documentary focusing on the effects of Turkish TV series on Greek society. It seems that series such as ‘The Magnificent Century’, ‘The Bitter Age’ (‘Acı Hayat’) and ‘The Tulip Age’ (‘Lale Devri’) have gained a large following on the other side of the Aegean – and this is disturbing divines of the Orthodox Church and ultra-nationalists of the so-called ‘Golden Dawn’ movement. The ERT board evidently bowed to political pressure and Mr Kostas Spyropoulos’s head rolled.
So what’s the answer? I’ve never been a big TV watcher, so personally, I probably wouldn’t care much if all the series, soap operas and made-for-TV dramatisations of great classics disappeared from the air waves. Nevertheless, I recognise that I represent a tiny minority of the world’s population, most of whom are mesmerised by what they see on the idiot box. For that reason if no other, it seems to me that Turks should be pretty happy about how Turkish television is forging a new image for their nation on the world stage.
My step-daughter, Perin, for her doctoral dissertation, came up with an interesting term ‘Wild-Westernisation’, to describe the uncontrolled processes by which the Republic of Turkey has been assimilated and is assimilating itself, into the modern world. Turkey has long suffered from a poor image abroad, as a result of forces largely beyond its own control. It’s my feeling that there is currently a parallel reverse process going on which we might term ‘Wild-Turkification’, whereby a new image for the country is being shaped by media events like ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ and the ‘Eurovision Song Quest’. I think, if I were representing the country at a political level, I would be inclined to go with the flow, and bathe in the reflected glory, now that those uncontrollable forces have taken a turn for the better.


[1] Pronounced Jem-reh

Neo-Ottomanism: A new direction for Turkey?

Once upon a time I dabbled a little in politics, to the extent that I actually tried twice to get myself elected as a Member of Parliament. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. I guess my main motivation was to preserve my right to criticize. People would say, ‘Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you do something constructive to change things?’ I wasn’t successful, of course, and I’m equally glad, in retrospect, that I wasn’t. To get elected on a party ticket you have to juggle the dictates of the party itself, the fickle winds of public opinion, the oppressive power of the media circus, your own desire for power, and your private beliefs and personal integrity. All too often, the still small voice of the latter is drowned by the insistent bellowing of the former.

All politicians know this, of course, and choose to pay the price for success, so you can’t feel too sorry for them. Barack Obama should have known (if he truly didn’t) before swearing the presidential oath, that the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to shut down Guantanamo and stop the torture; that adhering to the demands of the Armenian diaspora would run him into difficulties with the Turkish Government; and that the too-big-to-fail US banking sector would force him to help them out of their self-dug hole with a multi-billion dollar taxpayer-funded handout. Democracy is the machinery that allows us to call politicians to account when they stray too far from the path we want them to follow. Never fear, America, here comes Sarah Palin to the rescue!

I guess have a longish history as a political sceptic, but I do feel a certain sympathy for those charged with the responsibility of forming Turkey’s foreign policy these days. Neo-Ottomanism is a word I hear bandied around a lot. The implication seems to be that Turkey is moving away from the Western orientation it has followed since the founding of the republic, turning instead towards the Central Asian and Middle Eastern regions associated with its Turkic and Ottoman origins. The argument clearly has appeal for those, abroad and at home, wishing to label Turkey as eastern, Islamic, uncivilized and ‘other’; and the present government as all those things, plus backward-looking and anti-democratic. What do I think? Let me share my thoughts . . .

The Turkish Republic had its birth in a land devastated by decades of war – and it has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth. The Ottoman Empire had been reduced by a century of nationalist splintering from within, and imperialist manipulation from without, to a shrunken rump on the verge of collapse. The last nationalist movement to emerge was Turkish nationalism, forced into self-awareness by the threat of imminent destruction. In order to foster this national identity, the leaders of the republican independence movement were obliged to create an identity of Turkishness, to decimate the elitist Ottoman language and exalt its poor Turkish relation; to develop myths of a legendary Turkish past, and sever ties to the Islamic Empire which had finally been brought to its knees by Western European power.

Osman Gazi,
founder of the Ottoman dynasty

The new Republic had, from its inception, an uncomfortable relationship with the Ottoman Empire from which it sprang. Osman Gazi, the founder of the Ottoman state, was a 13th century Turkish warlord. The Ottoman Sultans, for centuries, claimed, largely by dint of military might, the title of Caliph, or leader of the Muslim ‘nation’. Nevertheless, though officially Muslim, the empire contained relatively autonomous populations of Jews and Christians, as well as the various Islamic communities. The Ottomans did not regard themselves as ‘Turkish’. Turks were the warriors and tillers of the soil. The basis of the Ottoman language may have been Turkish, but it had substantial overlays of Arabic and Persian, incorporating three distinct language families[1]. The Ottomans were a ruling elite intermarrying with Russian and Greek princesses, and happily mingling with maidens fair from the conquered lands of Europe. In its declining years, however, their Empire had become a virtual puppet of the European Great Powers, accepting support and indignities from all and sundry to eke out its existence a little longer. When the armed forces of France and Britain occupied Istanbul at the end of the First World War, the ‘virtual puppet’ status became reality. The Sultan and his ministers were compelled to sign at Sevres a treaty that would have dismembered the once mighty empire. The final insult must have been the Entente-sponsored invasion of Anatolia by the army of Greece, intent on re-establishing its ancient Byzantine glory.


In short, we can say that the founders of the Turkish Republic had to split from and deny pretty much everything that the Ottoman Empire had represented. The fostering of a Turkish national identity required a rejection of all things Ottoman, even religion – yet the new state, unlike its predecessor, was now almost exclusively Muslim. Contradictions abounded, so, of necessity, there was some rewriting of history, some adjusting of reality, some myth-creation in order to ensure the survival of a nation that, like Hans Andersen’s ugly duckling, no one else in the world really wanted.

It is only recently that Turks have started to become comfortable with their Ottoman heritage. Sufficient time has passed that they can begin to feel pride in the achievements of ancestors whose existence cannot be denied. Most of the excesses of early republican nationalism and secularism are being quietly put away on high shelves. Atatürk himself insisted that the ezan, the Muslim call to prayer, should be intoned in Turkish. Now that is a dead issue. Even the most ardent Kemalists seem content to hear Arabic broadcast at high volume five times (or more) a day from a forest of increasingly lofty minarets. One of the most popular drama series on television these days is “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (“The Magnificent Century”), set in the 1500s, during the reign of Sultan Süleyman, generally acknowledged to have presided over the Ottoman Empire at the zenith of its power. Modern Turkey is achieving a synthesis, as its middle class multiplies and the process of urbanization accelerates, of modernity, economic consumption, globalization, secular democratic government, Islamic traditions and Turkishness. That is as it should be. The government may try to direct these processes but it cannot control them.

So far, then, I have been looking at the domestic situation in Turkey, but of course, there is another aspect to the label of Neo-Ottomanism. When the Turkish Republic came into being, its founders resolved to turn towards the West in the search for a new direction. The founding principles included democratic republicanism, separation of religion and government, state-sponsored economic development, and reforms of alphabet, language, clothing and religious practices. Europe represented the goals of the new republic, and all things Western and European became desirable. Although remaining neutral during the Second World War, Turkey sent armed forces to the Korean conflict, and was a major military contributor to NATO defences during the Cold War. I have recently learned that, when President JF Kennedy was indignantly ordering the Soviets to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, the United States had bases in Turkey with missiles trained on the USSR. I suspect the Soviets knew about these, were not too happy about them, and very likely had Turkish locations pretty high on their list of targets to hit, should the need arise. It was a risk the Turkish Government took, one assumes out of a desire for friendship with the West.

At this point, I would like to quote from Wikipedia on the subject of Turkey’s attempts to gain admission to the European Union. I am aware that some people disparage Wikipedia as a source, but on this one I’m prepared to trust them. You can check the facts elsewhere if you have the time and the inclination:

“Turkey’s application to accede to the European Union was made on 14 April 1987. Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union (EU) and its predecessors since 1963. After the ten founding members, Turkey was one of the first countries to become a member of the Council of Europe in 1949, and was also a founding member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1961 and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1973. The country has also been an associate member of the Western European Union since 1992, and is a part of the “Western Europe” branch of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) at the United Nations. Turkey signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was officially recognised as a candidate for full membership on 12 December 1999, at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. Negotiations were started on 3 October 2005, and the process, should it be in Turkey’s favour, is likely to take at least a decade to complete. The membership bid has become a major controversy of the ongoing enlargement of the European Union.”

It looks to me as though Turkey has been pretty determined, one might say patient, in its efforts to be accepted into the European fold. I am well aware of the arguments against acceptance, however, spoken and unspoken, and (just between you and me) I suspect that a blue moon will rise over a cold day in hell when the EU finally welcomes Turkey aboard as a full member. So what are the Turks to do in the mean time?

The key issue that makes Europeans shy away from inviting Turkey into their club, namely religion, is the very factor that gives Turks an advantage when it comes to dealing with nations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Muslims have felt marginalized by Western societies for a long time now, and the accelerating speed of modernization has served to accentuate the sense of superiority in the West, and corresponding sense of exclusion in the rest of the world. Turkey, with its unique combination of secular democracy and traditional Islamic viewpoint, coupled with the detachment that its Turkishness brings to the mix, finds itself in a position to play a mediating role in an area that remains a mystery to most in the West. Central Asian Turkic republics, freeing themselves from decades of oppression by Russian and Soviet conquerors, see Turkey as the big brother that has trodden the difficult path they themselves aspire to follow. Middle Eastern states have a more problematic relationship with their liberal neighbour, but still, Turkey stands as an example of a country that has managed to achieve impressive political, social and economic freedoms while retaining its Islamic identity.

Is it any wonder, then, that the government of Turkey, and the private sector of its own accord, have been working to build bridges with neighbouring states in their immediate vicinity and further to the east? Can Western nations continue dangling carrots while holding Turkey at arm’s length, and at the same time, seriously expect the Turks to forego all other international contact in the hopes of future acceptance? The United States at least, has a pragmatic approach – unlike France for example, they refrain from grandstanding to special interest groups at home who have a historical axe to grind. They encourage EU members to adopt a more positive approach to Turkey’s membership application – even if only because of Turkey’s strategic geo-political significance. Britain also pushes Turkey’s case from time to time – though a cynic might suggest this stems more from its desire to maintain a Euro-sceptic position than from any great love for Turks as a race.

In the mean time, we see Turkish construction companies working in partnership with locals in Kazakhstan and Libya, and Turkish educational foundations building schools. We have seen the Turkish government (in league with Brazil) trying its own approach to ease international tensions over Iran’s nuclear development programme. We are seeing tent cities established near the southeast border to accept thousands of refugees fleeing violence and oppression in neighbouring Syria. Students from 130 nations are currently in Ankara to participate in the 9th International Turkish Language Festival.

In 2010 Istanbul was chosen as one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture, and, major projects were carried out all over the city to showcase its historical riches. Twenty-one million Turkish Liras were spent on a three-year restoration of the 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque, simply the best of many architectural treasures built during the reign of that ‘Magnificent’ sultan. But it is not merely Istanbul and Ottoman treasures that demand huge sums for historical restoration and preservation. A farmer near the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, better known for its coal mines, recently uncovered, while digging foundations for a hothouse on his property, the perfectly preserved mosaic floor of a 3rd century Roman villa.

Then there are the Ottoman heritage buildings beyond the boundaries of modern Turkey. The international community recognises the debt owed to the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome, and there is no difficulty in raising money to restore and preserve classical remains, wherever they may be located today. The British Empire left its architectural footprint all over the world, from Sydney to Kolkata, Istanbul to Shanghai. Most of those cities are in countries that have long-since thrown off the colonial yoke, yet they are happy to find new uses for the buildings. The Ottoman heritage is a different matter. In the Balkans and Greece, emergent Christian states couldn’t wait to erase all traces of their Muslim Ottoman past. In Central Asia, a century or two of Russian and Soviet hegemony, and economies with little surplus for luxuries, have combined to the detriment of important historical sites. Recently the Turkish Government has been involving itself in the restoration of their historical heritage in neighbouring nations. There are critics who see this as yet another aspect of emerging Neo-Ottomanism. Yet imagine the outcry if Turkey allowed, never mind contributed to, the decay and destruction of a 15th century church or cathedral within its borders. Without Turkish Government involvement, the six-century-old Fethiye Mosque in Athens would continue its descent into rubble; the Orhun inscriptions in Mongolia, the oldest known written documents of Turkic history, would meet the same fate, as would, probably, the madrasah where Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi was born in Afghanistan.

As I said in my opening paragraphs, I don’t generally have much sympathy for politicians. Dealing with criticism is part of their job, as are making unfulfillable promises and obfuscating the truth. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the present Turkish government gets more than its fair share of unreasonable criticism. Can they really be in the United States’ pocket, and at the same time, have a shariah and Neo-Ottoman expansionist agenda? Should they spend tax-payer money restoring and caring for their historic buildings, or leave them to rot and decay – and if restoration is the decision, who should decide which ones and where? Should Turkey cut itself off from contact with its Muslim and Central Asian neighbours in the hopes of currying favour with Europe? The path of political success is a minefield, and I’m pleased, when I look back, that New Zealand voters kept me from it.


[1] English, in comparison, though indebted to several major sources, is pretty pure Indo-European.

What Have Turks Given the World?

In my previous post, I attempted to show that Western Europe tends to have a rather stereotyped and historically questionable view of Turks which colours their dealings with the modern Republic of Turkey. I wasn’t trying to argue for any cultural identity to replace the misconceptions, and certainly not to suggest any kind of cultural superiority. Nevertheless, the article seems to have provoked a response in some circles, and a question I have been asked is: What have those Turks actually given the world?
 
‘The problem is that Turkey was never part of the Enlightenment, and didn’t produce a Madame Curie or any significant medical or scientific discovery that benefited mankind that has any resonance with people in the West.’
 
Well, it’s a fair question, I guess, if a little unkind, and I’m grateful for it because it has given me a theme for this article – and new inspiration doesn’t always come easily. An apparently simple question, however, does not always elicit a simple answer. I guess, if there is a unifying theme to these articles, that would probably be it. One question often leads to another, and yet another, and before you know it, you have a 2,500 word rave!
 
At the outset, then, it’s important to define our terms. Who, exactly, do we mean when we say ‘Turks’ or ‘Turkey’. As I tried to suggest in my previous post, Westerners tend to have a rather confused concept of Turkish-ness – and even ‘Turks’ themselves would have difficulty defining the word. In an earlier article I discussed the concept of ‘Greek-ness’, another term that tends to be confused in the mind of the ordinary Westerner-in-the-street. Do we mean the people of the modern nation we Westerners call ‘Greece’? Or do we mean the citizens of the loose confederation of city-states we choose to call ‘Ancient Greece’? Do we include the ‘Greek’ speaking, ‘Greek’ Orthodox citizens of the Byzantine Empire? In both of the latter cases, the majority of the people concerned actually lived on the ‘Turkish’ side of the Aegean Sea, so you see the nature of the problem.

 
Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, is often quoted as saying: “Happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk.’” It wasn’t just rhetoric. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, with major assistance from the European victors of the First World War. Nations were being created from the ethnic groups that formerly made up the Empire: Greeks, Bulgarians, ‘Yugoslavians’, Armenians . . . In order to save at least the Anatolian heartland of the Empire, Ataturk was obliged to create a national identity that could be fought for. So, if you wanted to live in the new country, and you said you were a Turk, that’s what you would be.
 
There is an analogous situation in New Zealand, where a proportion of seats in the Parliamentary House of Representatives are reserved for members of the indigenous race. There are no blood or DNA tests, or examinations of skin, eye and hair colour; nor is there any compulsion. Essentially, if you identify with the concept of Maori-ness, say you are Maori, and have your name entered on the Maori electoral roll, the law of the land will consider you Maori.
 
So, the first definition of ‘Turk’ we can consider would be ‘a citizen of the modern Republic of Turkey.’ If we accept this narrow sense of the word, then there was no ‘Turk’ and no ‘Turkey’ prior to 1923. However, I suspect that is not what the questioners have in mind. It’s certainly not a definition that would be accepted by the Armenian genocide activists, who insist that modern Turkey is responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire. So we need to look for something else.
 
One of the points I was trying to make in last month’s article was that the present-day citizens of modern Turkey have very little in common with the Turkic tribes that emerged in waves from the steppes of Central Asia from time immemorial, despite what Turkish school kids are taught in their history lessons. The connection is probably comparable to the relationship between the modern citizens of the United Kingdom, and the Anglo-Saxon migrants who invaded ‘England’ in the 5th century CE. In fact, given that the existing religion and culture in Anatolia were stronger, the Turkish cultural influence was very likely less. Nevertheless, I will resist the tempting diversion of asking what those Anglo-Saxon tribesmen (and women) gave the world. I will merely direct the curious reader to a wee poem, much loved by my Scottish kinfolk, entitled ‘Wha’s Like Us?’ – in which thirteen key inventions of English daily life are shown to have been actually invented by Scotsmen.
 
Anyway, I don’t want to be seen as avoiding the issue, or using cheap debating tricks to turn the tables on my interrogators. So, let me address myself to what is probably the spirit of the question: What did those Turkic invaders from the steppes give the world? And I hope I may be allowed to include the Ottomans here. If modern Turks are expected to shoulder responsibility for the sins of their predecessors, it seems unreasonable to deny credit for their virtues.
 
Well, let’s start with the Central Asian Turks, since those are the ones who started the problem in the first place. If they’d just stayed where they were, Europeans would’ve been a lot happier and more comfortable. They could have just kept on fighting each other in their petty little wars and not had to bother about uniting against a major outside threat. If nothing else, it might have saved them from having to take collective responsibility for the present-day debts of the Greeks and the Irish. Certainly they wouldn’t have had to fight the Crusader Wars; and they could have continued traveling overland to Asia, so they might never have had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and maybe they’d never have ‘discovered’ America. In which case, Native Americans would probably have been a lot happier too – and maybe quite a number of Africans and their descendants could have continued to live undisturbed in their benighted ignorance.
But enough of the negatives. Are there any positives? Well, yoghurt, for a start. You knew that one, didn’t you! What about the stirrup? Bet you didn’t know the Turks brought that out of Central Asia and it didn’t reach Europe until the 7th century CE. However, once it arrived, it apparently caused great upheavals. Some historians have even claimed that it led to the birth of feudalism. And on a related subject, take the composite reflex bow, a handy little weapon that allowed mounted horsemen to shoot arrows to deadly effect. Despite its small size, it is claimed to have a 50% greater range than a longbow, with less effort required to bend it. Of course, its advantages faded with the introduction of firearms – but then, gunpowder itself came from China! I’m not going to claim shish kebab for the Turks, since ‘kebab’ apparently originated in Persia – but the word ‘shish’ is indisputably Turkish. The making of felt from wool is another debatable one, since its origins are lost in the mists of time – but the Turks certainly had it early, and used it to good effect in making tents and clothes to withstand the rigours of winter on the steppes. Then there is Turkish delight, which I will return to later; and the Turkish bath . . .
Let’s move on to the Ottomans, rulers of an empire that lasted from 1299 till 1923 – a five-century regime that compares favourably in duration with pretty much any other empire you could name. In fact, if you care to include their predecessors, the Seljuks, whose empire extended from the Central Asian steppes to the shores of the Aegean, you could add at least another two centuries to that. Hard to imagine that anyone could rule anyone or anywhere for that length of time without leaving some kind of cultural mark. However, specifics are called for, so let’s delve in . . .
 
I have to confess that one thing that has prevented me from really familiarising myself with the growth and spread of Islamic culture, has been its sheer complexity and multifariousness. My eyes tended to glaze over as I read of Sassanids and Abassids, Samanids and Ghaznavids, and other clearly important ‘-ids’ who succeeded each other in controlling ‘the East’ for centuries after the armies of the Prophet emerged from the Arabian desert.
 
However, if you would like a grotesquely over-simplified nutshell version of what was going on, you could do worse than think in terms of a Turko-Persian culture, which, from the 8th century, began to take over from the Arabs and spread its influence from Bengal to Asia Minor, absorbing, moulding and synthesising, as it grew, the languages, sciences, literatures and technologies with which it came in contact. Initially Turks were apparently brought in by the dominant Persians to serve as soldiers and palace guards, but eventually they themselves rose to dominate their one-time masters.
 
Now I would like to draw back a step from this breathtakingly outrageous oversimplification to consider what happened when these Turks entered the world of Arabic-Persian Islam. Undoubtedly they saw much that was new and impressive, and they learned to take on board the ways of their adoptive culture. We may further imagine that the Turks who were brought in for martial purposes were predominantly male. From this we may suppose that, if they were not to die out in a generation, they must have found spouses from among the resident population. Another step of logic will tell us that the Turkic blood would quickly have mixed itself with that of the Persians and others who dwelt in this enormous area.
Recent studies suggest that the DNA of present-day inhabitants of Anatolia resembles that of peoples throughout the Mediterranean area. It seems that the Turkic tribes of Central Asia made a barely detectable contribution to the genetic make up of the modern day ‘Turk’. This is more or less as we would expect if we accept estimates that the late Byzantine population of Anatolia was around 12 million, and the inflow of ‘Turks’ from the 11th century is unlikely to have exceeded one million. Nevertheless, those ‘people of the West’ whom my questioner is representing would, I am sure, want to include the Ottomans within their definition of ‘Turks’ so I’m going to run with that. In so doing, I want to return to that Turko-Persian culture we were discussing in the previous paragraph-but-one.
One thing is very clear if we take the trouble to look at the historical development of Islam as a world religion. It began with the Arabs in what is now Saudi Arabia, but within a century it had spread beyond their control, and by the 13th century, it was the dominant religion of several empires extending into Central Asia, India, West Africa, Malaya and parts of Europe. Without wanting to go into the details of how it happened, we know that, by the early 16th century, the Ottoman Sultan had assumed, as one of his many titles, that of Caliph, political leader of the Muslim ‘nation’. The language of the Ottomans, the ruling elite of the Empire, was an amalgamation of Persian and Arabic on an essentially Turkish base, written in a modified version of the Arabic alphabet. The Ottomans were the last manifestation of the Turko-Persian culture, until their demise at the end of the First World War.
Turkish coffee and Turkish Delight

 

What I’m getting at here, in case you were wondering, is that it’s not terribly easy to identify which of the multitude of gifts to world civilisation that spring from that Turko-Persian Islamic culture can be directly attributed to ‘Turks’. Coffee is a case in point. It seems it was first consumed as a drink in a form we might recognise in Mokha, Yemen, in the 15th century, from where it spread throughout the Middle East, and thence to Europe via the Venetians towards the end of the 16th century. Well, who was in control of the Middle East in those days? And who were the Venetians trading with? The Ottoman (Turks) of course. We tend to associate the tulip flower with the Netherlands – but in fact it was first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire, and the word itself comes to us from Persian by way of Ottoman (Turkish).
 
Tin-glazed pottery originated in Persia in the 9th century and reached its peak as an art form in the Ottoman Empire (Iznik, in modern Turkey), from where it passed into Europe, emerging as Delft ware in Holland in the late 16th century. The Sufi order of mystical Islam was not a ‘Turkish’ development, but its greatest figure, Mevlana Rumi, although born in Persia, lived most of his life in the Anatolian city of Konya, at that time (13th century) capital of the Rum Sultanate of the Seljuk Turks.
 
If you are ever in the Turkish city of Edirne (former Adrianopolis) near the border of Turkey and Greece, I advise you to visit the mosque complex of Sultan Beyazit II. The ‘külliye’, as it was called in Ottoman Turkish, is now a museum. From its construction in the late 15th century, it included a medical school and hospital, part of which was given over to treatment of the mentally ill. Contemporary documents show that such treatment included soothing sounds such as the playing of music, the running water of fountains and manual tasks such as basket-weaving. As an interesting comparison, the Royal Hospital of Bethlehem in London served as the city’s ‘lunatic asylum’ well into the 19th century. It was notorious for the brutal treatment of inmates, and, as late as 1814, 96,000 people paid a penny to stare at the antics within its walls. The word ‘bedlam’, a corrupted form of Bethlehem, entered our language from this source.
 
That 15th century Ottoman hospital was not an isolated aberration. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Islamic culture, from the 9th to the 13th century, produced the world’s first hospitals, and the world’s oldest degree-granting university. The concept of ‘doctorate’ originated in their teaching of law and the issuing of licenses to practise. İbn al Hasan (Latinised as Alhacen or Alhazen) is credited with being the world’s first true scientist. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have it on good authority that you can see, in a chamber of the US House of Representatives, a likeness of the 16th century Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, in recognition of his codification of an entire system of jurisprudence.
 
Well, from such heights, how can I descend to the bathetic depths of baklava, Turkish Delight and sherbet; of sofas and divans; of kiosks, bazaars, lutes and Turkish carpets; of syrups, elixirs and genies? I don’t intend to even mention the Turkish bath. It seems unlikely that those Asian invaders brought them brick by brick on horseback from the steppes. Simply, I would like to leave you with two verses form the Rubaiyat of the 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam:
 
But leave the wise to wrangle, and with me,
The quarrel of the universe let be,
And in some corner of the hubbub couched,
Make game of that which makes as much of thee.
 
There with a loaf of bread, beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou
Beside me, singing in the wilderness,
And wilderness is paradise enow[1].

[1] I think he wanted to say ‘enough’, but it didn’t rhyme!