More lies about Turkey!

Istanbul-Kadikoy-pubs

An evening out in Kadıköy

I had a meal and a drink in Kadıköy with a mate last Friday. Or was it a drink and a meal? Anyway. Kadıköy, once known as Chalcedon, has a long history of Christian settlement, and consequently a flourishing alcohol-fuelled entertainment economy. Despite loudly expressed fears that the AK Party government is dragging the country back to a medieval nightmare of Islamic fundamentalism, the labyrinthine streets of Kadıköy are packed most nights with revellers of all ages, knocking back beer, wine, rakı, or whatever beverage takes their fancy, unmolested by religious police. Even during the holy month of Ramadan.

Anyway. Gunther and I don’t see each other that often these days. We used to work together at one of Istanbul’s plethora of private universities (forty-one is the most recent figure I could find – FORTY-ONE!!). Our meetings inevitably descend into political argument, although I do try to steer towards other topics. My mate is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s AK Party government. Well, I can handle that. I’ve heard a thousand times all the arguments churned out ad nauseam proving that RTE* is the worst thing that’s happened to Turkey since Thanksgiving (sorry, that was a stupid joke – I could have said Winston Churchill).

hitler_bushIt also happens that Gunther, as you might guess, comes from German stock – and is intensely proud of the fact. To hear him tell it, Germany is indisputably the greatest country in the world, its economy driven by superior German brains and hard work, its industries second-to-none. Well, leaving aside the question of why he has chosen to make his home in Turkey rather than the Teutonic paradise of his birth, I found myself gagging over some of the outrageous claims he made to substantiate his thesis. Admittedly I have no formal background in the study of German history – which Gunther claims to have. Nevertheless I read, and take an interest, as one does. After our latest heated debate, I came home and checked the facts that I thought I knew, and which Gunther had vehemently contradicted:

  • Germany’s economy was in tatters after the First World War as a result of the huge punitive reparations demanded by the victorious allies, France and Britain.
  • The Weimar government was saved from imminent disaster by funding from the United States, enabling them to meet their obligations to those creditors.
  • When Wall Street crashed in 1929, the USA called in its foreign loans, throwing the German economy again into severe recession.
  • Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was funded by German and American bankers and industrialists to keep out the Communists who had become enormously popular with the working classes as a result of the Weimar government’s misguided austerity measures.
  • The Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements was founded in Basel in 1930, and, among other dodgy activities, laundered ill-gotten Nazi money during the Second World War.
  • In 1953 a conference in London agreed to cancel most of Germany’s debt and “reschedule” the rest. The United States, under the Marshall Plan, gave $1.3 billion in aid to assist in the rebuilding of Germany after the destruction of WW2.

Why am I telling you this? This is a blog about Turkey, isn’t it? The thing is, some people vociferously assert misinformation and even outright lies from behind a façade of superior authority (academic or otherwise), relying on the ignorance of their listeners or their own loud voices to carry their arguments.

I was reminded of this when reading an article about Turkey the other day. The piece, Why Turkey Chose Qatar, appeared on a website, The National Interest. For a start, the byline attributed it to two people with Turkish names, Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu , which you might immediately think gave them credibility. Moreover, Mr Erdemir was a member of Turkey’s National Assembly from 2011-2015, is a respected academic, and is now on the staff of the US-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). End of argument, you might think. Clearly this guy must know what he’s talking about. And in case he needed to check his facts, he had a helpful research assistant, Ms Tahiroğlu, backed by the no doubt exhaustive resources of the FDD.

Nothing daunted, I read the article, made a few notes, did a little research of my own, and here’s what I found.

First up, Aykan Erdemir was a representative of the CHP (Republican People’s Party), sworn enemies of Mr Erdoğan’s AK Party government, and frustrated losers of so many elections everyone’s lost count. Why did he leave political life after four short years in parliament? Who knows? Maybe he thought he could achieve his purpose better with American backing from abroad.

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What have the Yemenis done to Saudi Arabia or the USA?

Anyway. What were these two authoritative Turks writing about? Of course you are aware that the freedom-loving, democratic governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have imposed an embargo on Qatar on the grounds that their wealthy oil-rich neighbour is supporting terrorism. The “terrorists” in question are the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran – and the concerted Arab action was announced immediately after their governments had been visited by US President, Donald Trump. The Big DT didn’t actually mention that he had suggested the embargo, but he was proud to announce he had sign a deal with the Saudi royals for the supply of $110 billion worth of US military equipment, most of which is being used to terrorise the impoverished, starving people of Yemen.

Now some might argue, and indeed do, that the Muslim Brotherhood has been doing its best to work peacefully through the democratic process to bring change in Middle East countries. They actually won Egypt’s first truly democratic election in 2012, before being ousted by a military coup a year later. Turkey’s Prime Minister at the time, Mr Erdoğan, made no secret of his objections – which no doubt upset powerful interests in the USA and Israel. Some might also argue that someone needs to represent the interests of Palestinians suffering under the expansionist aggression of the Zionist Israeli government – and Hamas tries to do this. They might go further and suggest that US hawkishness towards Iran is driven by oil needs and their support for Israel, right or wrong.

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Mohammed Morsi – first democratically elected president of Egypt

But Aykan and Merve are not among those people. The main thrust of their argument is that Mr Erdoğan and the government of Turkey are acting purely from venal financial motives, largely aimed at increasing the personal fortunes of the Erdoğan family. I’m not going to dignify the argument by repeating it here. You can read the article for yourself if you’re interested.

More pertinent, I believe, is the way the writers seek to portray the Saudi coalition as the “good guys” in the current stand-off, and Turkey, Iran and Qatar as “cast[ing] their lot with Islamists”. Mr Aydemir’s paymasters, whoever is funding the FDD Defenders of Democracy, seem to have decided that the slave-based economies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the oppressive military dictatorship of Egypt, are worthy of defending. The government of Israel is staying on the sideline, but if I were a betting man I’d put safe money on their being involved in the whole shady business.

Turkey is depicted as being in “a downward spiral of isolation due to its reckless foreign policy”, “estrang[ing itself] from the region’s Sunni camp, led by Saudi Arabia”. Well, Turkey’s people may be mostly Sunni Muslims, but their moderate brand of Islam bears no resemblance to the extremist Wahhabi hypocritical Shariah violence of the Sauds. Erdoğan is accused of nurturing some kind of “game plan” for Washington, trying to curry favour with President Trump after “ruining his relationship with Barack Obama”. Well he certainly seemed to hold his own in the macho hand-shaking competition, which you can still view on Youtube despite the fact that their administrators keep removing the clips.

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Well worth a look

Incidentally, I checked out “The National Interest” website. As you might expect, with a name like that, they unabashedly admit that their business “is not . . . about world affairs. It is about American interests . . . guided by the belief that nothing will enhance those interests as effectively as the approach to foreign affairs commonly known as realism—a school of thought traditionally associated with such thinkers and statesmen as Disraeli, Bismarck, and Henry Kissinger.” THINKERS! Not war-mongers, you’ll notice. And according to the FDD website, their “distinguished advisors include Sen. Joe Lieberman, former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former State Department Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, Gen. P.X. Kelley (ret.), Francis “Bing” West, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, former CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Richard W. Carlson,  and Forbes CEO Steve Forbes.” Interesting company for our two Turkish academics to be keeping.

tellalieonceBut I’m saving the best till last. That article about Turkey and Qatar was chock full of links to other sites, suggesting that the material had been exhaustively researched, and was therefore beyond reproach. Just on a hunch, I decided to check one out at random. The final paragraph sums up the writer’s case and includes this statement: “For all these reasons, Turkey chose Qatar in the recent Gulf crisis. Indeed, it would have had little choice to discard such a lucrative partnership at a time of brewing economic crisis at home.” That link will take you an archived OECD report written in 2001, a year or so before the AK Party came to power, when Turkey had been plagued for decades with incompetent coalition governments, embedded hyper-inflation and regular military coups. The leaders it refers to are the Prime Minister and President at the time, Bülent Ecevit and Ahmet Necdet Sezer. OUT-RAGE-OUS! Check the other links if you have time. They are probably equally dishonest. Disinterested academics? Phooey!

I read a sad article in our local Hürriyet Daily News the other day, informing me that Over 8.5 million Turks received psychological treatment in 2016”. Statistics released by the health Ministry also showed that the use of antidepressants increased by 25.6 percent between 2011 and 2016” and “one out of every eight people . . . has applied to a hospital for mental and neurological disorders”. 

9aa63d24f038b03f13bdffdc7582c30dFor some reason, the newspaper chose to seek comment from Independent Member of Parliament, Aylin Nazlıaka, who expressed the opinion that “The solution is to remove the common perception and belief that the justice system is not objective and fair. The solution is getting rid of the pressure on people who have opposing views and thoughts. The solution is creating a Turkey whose people are hopeful about today and tomorrow, that produces [opportunity] and that has equality of opportunity. The solution is the normalization of Turkey by removing problems such as terror and unemployment.”

Well, Ms Nazlıaka could be right – and it may help if the CHP leader, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu finds the “justice” he is seeking on his current protest march from Ankara to Istanbul. On the other hand, some of those depressed citizens might try looking around to see the good things happening in their beautiful country instead of paying heed to the self-seeking and biased criticisms of foreign leaders and dishonest “academics”.

 

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  • Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
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The Ancient District of Üsküdar – Palace intrigues and Sufi mystics

Üsküdar is said to have 180 mosques. I haven’t counted, but I well remember the first night I spent – or at least the first day I awoke in that blessed quarter of Istanbul. It was a summer’s morning in August. I had just taken over tenancy of a small flat on the Asian shore of the Bosporus and spent a tiring day moving house. I was jolted awake around 6 am by a muezzin seemingly bellowing the call to prayer centimetres from my ear. In between phrases, another marginally more distant brother took up the call, and another, and another. When they finished others took over – and the performance went on for a good twenty minutes.

The mosques of Shemsi Pasha and Rum Mehmet Pasha

The mosques of Shemsi Pasha and Rum Mehmet Pasha

As time passed, I grew accustomed to the pre-dawn chorus (though I usually kept my bedroom window closed at night, whatever the weather), and I actually bought a flat of my own in the neighbourhood. It’s a locality steeped in history, whose recorded origins date from the 7th century BCE when it was founded by Greek-speaking colonists who named it Chrysopolis. In those days it was a small city with its own harbour, having strategic importance for trade and the collection of tax from ships passing through the strait to and from the Black Sea.

After the Roman Emperor Constantine I established his ‘New Rome’ at Byzantium on the opposite shore, Chrysopolis was the focal point for trade routes to Asia, and the mustering zone for military campaigns in that direction. It was also a key outpost for invaders aiming to conquer the imperial city across the water – an Arab army in the 8th century and Ottoman forces in the 14th. Chrysopolis became Skoutarion in the 12th century after a Byzantine imperial palace was established in the vicinity – and that name evolved over subsequent centuries into Üsküdar as we know it today.

Present-day Üsküdar has a reputation for being one of Istanbul’s more solidly Islamic communities, as we might guess from the number of mosques, but clearly it hasn’t always been so. Three large cemeteries located side by side in the Altunizade neighbourhood, one for the Armenian congregation, one for Eastern Orthodox faithful and the third for Muslims, attest to a greater cultural diversity in days gone by. There are still at least two Eastern Orthodox and four Armenian churches, as well as two Jewish synagogues in the district – not to exclude a somewhat infamous Roma community in the Selamsiz ‘hood just up the hill from the apartment I purchased.

Atik Valide complex - memorial to Nur Banu Sultan

Atik Valide complex – memorial to Nur Banu Sultan

Üsküdar’s role as a centre for trade was apparently the main attraction for Armenians. Caravans carrying goods from the east ended their journey here, before the building of the railroad. Armenian merchants established schools and churches, built houses and buried their dead for centuries after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. Testimony to Ottoman tolerance of religious and cultural diversity can be found in a recently restored courthouse established by Sultan Mehmet II more than five centuries ago. It was here that the Padishah issued many of his edicts on the governing of his expanding empire. One related to the conquest of Bosnia in 1478. In a firman dated April of that year, Mehmet decreed that, so long as they accepted his rule, the religion of his new subjects was to be respected, and their churches should come to no harm.

An interesting story is told about this courthouse exemplifying the justice system of the time, and the respect accorded to judges. The conqueror of Constantinople was having a palace built in his new capital. Apparently the Greek architect made an error in his measurements and several columns were cut too short, whereupon the Sultan had one of the errant craftsman’s hands cut off as a salutary example to others of his trade. The architect, however, appealed to the court, won a decision in his favour, and the judge ordered the Sultan’s hand amputated according to the requirements of Shariah law. The architect, perhaps wisely, decided to forgo the pleasure of such strict application of retributive justice, and accepted a generous payment of compensation instead.

As well as its function as a centre of trade, Üsküdar also served, in the days before rail and air travel, as departure point for annual pilgrimages to the sacred city of Mecca. This may account for the district’s popularity among wealthy benefactors seeking to gain a foothold in heaven by building a mosque or two before passing on to meet their Maker. Interestingly some of the largest mosques in the area were established in the name of women of the royal household. All visitors to Üsküdar know the two monumental buildings on either side of the main road beside the ferry wharf: the older built in 1548 by master architect Sinan and dedicated to Mihrimah, beloved daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent – the other commissioned by a loving son for his mother. Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan was the wife of one Sultan and the mother of two more, the second of whom, Ahmet III, had the mosque built on her death in 1710.

Tiled interior of Çinili Mosque - forgetting Kösem Sultan?

Tiled interior of Çinili Mosque – forgetting Kösem Sultan?

Lesser known, but more intriguing are two mosques located uphill from the main market area. Çinili Cami is so-called because of the beautiful ceramic tiles decorating its interior. Although erected to the honour of Mahpeyker Kösem Valide Sultan, the mosque does not bear her name. Sultana Kösem was the wife of Ahmet I, whose ‘Blue Mosque’ in the Sultanahmet area is one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions. Like most of the women in the royal harem, Kösem was not ethnically Turkish. She was a Christian of Greek origin, although conversion to Islam was a requirement for ‘serving’ the Sultan. After her royal husband died in 1617 there were some problems with succession resulting in Kösem’s son Murat IV ascending to the throne in 1623 at the age of eleven. For the next 38 years until her death in 1651, Sultana Kösem virtually ruled the Ottoman Empire during the last years of its imperial glory. She was official regent to the eleven-year-old Murat, unofficial ruler during the reign of her second son İbrahim on account of his much-publicised mental instability, and regent again on the accession of her juvenile grandson Mehmet IV in 1648.

This ambitious lady, perhaps the most powerful woman in Ottoman history, is reported to have attended meetings of the Divan seated behind a curtain. With some reputation for brutality, she possibly did not endear herself to all her subjects. Legend has it that she was scheming for the removal of the ten-year-old Mehmet, whose mother, learning of the plot, commissioned ‘Tall Suleiman’, chief black eunuch of the harem, to strangle the venerable grandmother, allegedly with her own hair. And the mosque she had erected to preserve her name for posterity, in fact, does not.

The Sultana Nur Banu was perhaps less influential in Ottoman politics than Kösem, but her mosque complex built in 1583 is considerably grander, and has kept her name alive for future generations. She was probably a highborn Venetian (and Christian) or possibly a Spanish Jew, attaining pre-eminence in the harem and becoming the wife of Selim II, sometimes known as ‘The Sot’. Possibly acquiring administrative skills while her husband was otherwise engaged, Nur Banu became Valide Sultan[1] on his death in 1574 when she engineered the accession of her son Murat III. This she managed, it is said, by concealing Selim’s death and preserving his mortal remains in a casket of ice until Mehmet could make the journey to Istanbul from Edirne where he had been serving as governor.

Trinkets for sale to the  devout visiting tomb of Sufi mystic

Trinkets for sale to the devout visiting tomb of Sufi mystic

Nur Banu effectively ruled the empire during her son’s reign in partnership with the grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha. Communication with the world outside the harem was apparently carried out by a servant woman, Esther Handalı whom some have suspected of being the royal dowager’s lover. The complex of buildings that bears her name is the second-largest mosque foundation in Istanbul, including public baths, hospital, schools, alms-house and caravanserai. In the end it was possibly her Venetian roots that were her undoing. It is said she was poisoned by a Genoese agent whose masters had been angered by policies favouring their great Mediterranean trading rival.

One of the oldest mosques in Istanbul can be seen overlooking the water as you pull into Üsküdar on your ferry from the European shore. Its distinctive brick structure sets it apart from the other stone edifices nearby. Mehmet Pasha, of Greek ethnicity, was vizier to Mehmet the Conqueror but fell from favour before his mosque was completed, strangled on the Sultan’s command in 1470 – illustrating the transience of worldly status and the risks of serving a powerful master. Also catching the eye of the ferry passenger is the seaside mosque of Shemsi Pasha – a miniature gem by that indefatigable architect Sinan. Apart from the mosque, the commissioning vizier left little else to posterity other than a tongue-twister to test students of the Turkish language: ‘Shemsi Pasha Pasaji’.

Bülbülderesi Cemetery

Bülbülderesi Cemetery

The home of my accounts with the Garanti Bank for some years was the Ahmediye Branch, and I recently discovered the reason for the name. Ahmet III, the loving son mentioned above, ruled the empire from 1703-1736, gaining a reputation for sound financial management and a Western-oriented outlook – possibly in part attributable to the influence of his two French wives. During his reign the printing press was somewhat belatedly introduced for the publishing of texts in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. Ahmet’s rule was also characterised by a craze for tulips among the aristocracy, bulbs being re-imported from Holland after actually originating in Anatolia. A small but picturesque mosque in a back street behind my bank was built to honour this sultan by an admirer, Emin Ahmet Aga in 1722. A large ornamental fountain also commemorating the third Ahmet is located on the foreshore next to the Mihrimah Mosque.

Üsküdar is rarely explored by visitors to Istanbul, but it’s a popular destination for locals in the know. Kanaat Restaurant behind the Mihrimah Mosque is an unprepossessing eatery with a reputation for fine food far surpassing its humble appearance. A little further up the road on the left you will see a small ancient cemetery in a copse of cypress trees, an ornamental fountain and gate, and a sign announcing that here is to be found the tomb of Sheikh Mustafa Devati. Monumental mosques are the most obvious feature of Islam in Turkey – but there is another less ostentatious aspect of the religion that has a strong hold on people despite the efforts of the secular and religious establishments to suppress, or at least discourage it.

Sufi mysticism played an important role in the spiritual life of citizens in Ottoman times, from the Sultan down to the lowliest commoner. Among people who hold a place for religion in their lives there are those who enjoy the company of others while communing with their God; who like to congregate in grand purpose-built edifices at fixed times and perform rituals of worship prescribed by others with specialist knowledge. Some, however, prefer a less public, more personal, internalised approach to the Deity, believing that certain individuals have achieved spiritual union with God, and are capable of passing on their knowledge, or at least acting as intermediaries who can help realise the needs and wishes of their less-exalted brethren. There were numerous such sects in former times, each with its own leaders and saints, the best known in the West being the 13th century mystic poet Mevlana Rumi.

Displays of kite culture in an unusual museum

Displays of kite culture in an unusual museum

After the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 with secular separation of ‘church’ and state as one of its founding principles, Sunni Islam was brought under state control and became the ‘official’ religion. Sufi sects and mystical brotherhoods were considered breeding-grounds of reaction and opposition to modernisation, and were outlawed. Ninety years of republican government, however, has clearly not been sufficient to erase all traces of long-established folk beliefs. In the 17th century Sheikh Mustafa Devati was a teacher in the school associated with the Valide Sultan Mosque mentioned above. Subsequently he resigned all official duties, assuming the role of resident wise man and spiritual guide at the mosque that bears his name and subsequently became a centre of Sufi worship and ceremonies.

A little less accessible, but better known to Istanbulites of a certain persuasion is the establishment dedicated to Aziz Mahmut Hüdayi and housing his tomb. The sainted Mahmut (1541-1628) was, in fact, the spiritual master of Sheikh Mustafa, and served as a judge and teacher in Edirne, Egypt, Damascus and Bursa before setting up shop in Istanbul, inspiring sultans and common people alike with his miracles, conversation, poems, sermons and advice. His life spanned the reigns of eight sultans, and he is said to have been greatly respected by Murat III and Ahmet I. An interesting feature of such tombs is a notice placed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs listing activities that are not considered orthodox Sunni practices, among them, lighting candles, tying pieces of cloth to trees and fences, leaving votive offerings of food, asking the saint for help in the curing of illness, and whirling – indicating that such hangovers from ancient folk religion and dervish ceremonies may still be considered effective among certain sections of the populace.

Gravestone honouring the first Turkish casualty in Izmir after the Greek invasion

Gravestone honouring the first Turkish casualty in Izmir after the Greek invasion

Another curious site worth visiting in Üsküdar is the cemetery of Bülbülderesi (Nightingale Stream). The graveyard is accessible from a street called Selanikliler Sokak, and is a little unusual for a Muslim burial ground in that many of the tombstones are decorated with photographs of the dear departed. Many of those interred here evidently migrated to Istanbul from the city of Salonika after it was occupied by Greek forces in 1912. In Ottoman times, Salonika was a major port and commercial centre with a large population of Sephardic Jews. It was also home to a community known as ‘Dönme’ or ‘converts’, followers of the 18th century self-styled Messiah, Sabatai Zevy – who, with his devotees, made himself sufficiently unpopular with Ottoman authorities that he was given the choice of conversion or death. Taking the pragmatic option saved him from martyrdom but also undermined his credibility, I guess, and the movement fizzled out. There has long been suspicion that forced conversion failed to win the hearts of the Dönme, and some may have continued surreptitiously practising their traditional faith. The illustrated gravestones by Nightingale Stream perhaps lend credence to this theory. In this cemetery, incidentally, you can find the last resting place of Dr Şükrü Bey, Town Clerk in Izmir, who allegedly opposed the Greek invasion in 1919 and became its first Turkish casualty.

Well, if I had more time and space, I might tell you about the Kite Museum, where Mehmet Naci Aköz displays spectacular creations from around the world, sells personalized designs and runs classes to instruct children in the art of kite-flying. I might speculate on the achievement of Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, 17th century proto-aviator, who reportedly flew under his own power from the Tower of Galata across the Bosporus to land in what is now Doğancılar Park. I might tell you of the Selimiye Barracks, built by a later modernizing sultan, Mahmud II, in 1828, and housing a museum commemorating Florence Nightingale, pioneering nurse to British troops wounded fighting for Queen and Empire in the Crimean War of the 1850s. Brits of a classical bent liked (and may still like) to refer to Üsküdar by its Greek name of Scutari. The ancient harbour of Chrysopolis, however, has long since been filled in, and nightingales no longer sing on the tree-lined banks of burbling streams – but Üsküdar will handsomely repay a day spent exploring its labyrinthine streets.

[1] Mother of the reigning sultan

Alevis in Turkey – Is reconciliation possible?

The English word Turkey (with a capital ‘T’) comes from the Turkish word ‘Türkiye’ which means land of the Turks. It was not used by the Ottomans to describe their empire – but by Europeans to identify the Ottomans as ‘other’, to demonise, perhaps, and belittle a feared foe. The term really had no validity until 1923 when an indigenous army defeated an invading force from the Greek mainland, liberating the Anatolian heartland and the imperial capital Istanbul from foreign occupation.
Map of Turkey showing areas of
concentrated Alevi populations
The victorious leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk), and his team, set about creating a new nation state from the ashes of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Without repeating details covered elsewhere, it is important to understand that the dissolution of that empire had been assisted by military defeats at the hands of foreign neighbours and nationalist liberation movements from within over the previous two centuries or more.
Building a new nation state required a philosophy and identity which citizens could relate to and fight for – the result was Turkish nationalism and the Republic of Turkey, not necessarily in that order. The pillars of that national identity were the Muslim religion, the Turkish language and Turkish ethnicity, meaning a connection to the tribes that had poured out of Central Asia for centuries before the Ottomans hammered the last nail into the Byzantine Graeco-Roman coffin by conquering Constantinople in 1453.
The Muslim character of the new state was confirmed by an obligatory population exchange at the conclusion of the Independence War in 1923. Orthodox Christians, who were believed to have supported the Greek invasion, were dispatched to the Greek mainland, their places taken by Muslims sent in the opposite direction. Armenian Christians had already mostly been seen off in events I have also discussed elsewhere. Right from the very beginning, then, there was an uncomfortable disjunction inherent in the establishment of the new state: secularism was one of Atatürk’s six founding principles, yet religion was a major determinant in the composition of Turkey’s population.
Turkey is not alone in its discomfort, of course. The partition of British India after independence was won in 1947 involved a vast movement of population whereby Hindus from the newly created Pakistan were exchanged for Muslims from the new Union of India. Religion, language and ethnic origin may be powerful forces to be harnessed by ambitious political leaders seeking to foster unity and create a national identity. The melting pot of history, however, has produced a mix of humanity in which purity in any of those factors is, at best, elusive – and so it is in the Republic of Turkey, despite the best efforts of Kemalist law-makers to legislate for ‘Turkishness’.
In spite of the post-independence population exchange, modern India has almost as many followers of Islam as does Pakistan. Only one other country, Indonesia, has more Muslims. Similarly, many Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christians continued to live in Turkey, especially Istanbul, though admittedly numbers declined as a result of international incidents, particularly involving next-door-neighbour, Greece. Members of the Jewish community have long made their homes in this part of the world, their numbers increased by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. The republican state continued to grant them freedom of religion, language, education, culture and economic life.
So, it is evident that the Muslim pillar of Turkishness was flexible enough to include some Jews and Christians, and this was done openly. More problematic, however, has been the inclusion of other larger groups within the population who, while coming within the broad category of Muslim, have not been able to fit comfortably into the Turkish national identity.
The most obvious group in this context is the Kurdishpeople. I don’t intend to get embroiled in a discussion of this issue here, but suffice it to say that, in spite of their Islamic faith, Kurds in Turkey speak an Indo-European language totally unrelated to Ural-Altaic Turkish, and are ethnically quite distinct. Also among the native Muslim population are small communities of Arabic, Laz, Zaza and Romani speakers, not to mention later refugee groups from the Balkan and Caucasus regions, many of whom retain their own languages and cultural traditions.
These communities undoubtedly have issues with the concept of Turkishness that presupposes ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and those issues bind them together within their own groups. There is, however, another significant demographic, numbering, depending on whose estimate you take, somewhere between ten and twenty-five million, or fourteen to thirty-three percent of Turkey’s population. These are the people known as Alevi, and the huge disparity between the upper and the lower figure perhaps sounds a warning that something mysterious is, or has been going on.
One interesting feature of Alevismis that it is to be found in both Turkish and Kurdish communities – it cuts across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Perhaps that is not so surprising, because Alevism is a religious faith. However, when it comes to describing the characteristics of that faith, the waters become muddy. A word often associated with Alevism is heterodox (the opposite of orthodox), meaning that its tenets, beliefs and rituals are difficult to pin down. This is probably because it has never been the established religion of any state or empire. Having no central authority to demand conformity, Alevis have a certain freedom to follow their own tastes and inclinations. On the other hand, another word that recurs in discussions of Alevism is endogamous, which means that there is social pressure to marry within the faith. In other words, you and I may have difficulty grasping the concept, but Alevis themselves are quite confident in their own identity.
OK, enough preamble. Let’s make some effort to understand what makes them special. Some sources insist that Alevism is a sub-branch of Shia Islam – a potential problem in Turkey where the majority follow the state-approved Sunni path. Other sources insist, however, that the most important influence is pre-Islamic folk religions such as the shamanism of the original Turkish tribes. It seems, in fact, that both arguments are probably true, which is why some suggest that Alevism is actually the true spirit of Turkish Islam.
If you have been following events in Syria, and making some attempt to understand what’s going on there, you have probably heard that one reason Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have widespread support is, he belongs to the minority Alawi sect. Some sources will tell you that ‘Alevi’ is the Turkish form of the Arabic ‘Alawi’ – but beware! There are apparently crucial differences, and Alevism seems to be a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon – this despite the fact that many Kurds adhere.
Confused? Let’s take a closer look at those elements outlined above. First up, most of us are aware that there are two main sub-divisions of the Islamic faith: Sunni and Shia. As with the big divisions of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant), it is easy to see the differences now, in ritual practices and sacred architecture. It is more difficult to understand how the original divergences came about, even for members of the group – and as for explaining to outsiders . . . Try it some time! So it is with the Muslim religion.
When the Prophet, God’s messenger Muhammed, died in 632 CE, he unfortunately did not leave instructions as to who would succeed him in the leadership role. Some of his followers believed that it should stay in the family, and opted for Ali, cousin of the late departed and sufficiently esteemed by him to have married Muhammed’s daughter. Others, however, held that only a democratic election could produce the most capable leader, and they duly followed that procedure, opting for Muawiyah, a gentleman with some reputation for military prowess.
Without going into too much detail, in 680 there was an event known to history as the Battle of Karbala, when descendants of Muawiyah (led by his son Yazid) defeated and killed Ali’s son Hussein and most of his family and supporters. One result was the establishment of the Umayyad (Sunni) dynasty, who went on to build an enormous empire covering most of the Middle East, North Africa and into Spain, thereby earning the right to insist on their particular brand of orthodoxy. The Shia group, on the other hand, were effectively disempowered and dispersed, existing happily enough, perhaps, in their own small isolated endogamous communities, developing their own rituals and traditions – until the emergence of the Safavid dynasty in Iran in 1501, which controlled an empire that included all of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Safavid Iran was one of the Islamic “gunpowder empires”, along with its neighbours, the Ottoman and Mughal empires.’ The Safavids, in their wisdom, opted for Shia Islam, thereby establishing that sect’s first major power base – and inevitably coming into conflict with their neighbourly brethren in gunpowder, the Ottomans.
Well, we can assume that, as is the nature of state-sponsored religions, Safavid Shi’ism took on characteristics of dogma and orthodoxy. At the same time, as conflict grew between the Iranian Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, it would be understandable if the Iranians looked for support amongst their Shia brethren within the Ottoman domains. Those brethren, however, as a result of centuries of heterodoxy, had evolved into Alevis. No doubt some of their number would have seen allying themselves with a powerful big brother as a way of escaping orthodox Sunni hegemony. Probably most of them would have been just as happy to get on with their lives without becoming involved in international politics. Unfortunately for the silent majority, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, known in English as Selim the Grim, on his way to the eastern frontier with an army to fight the Safavids, had his minions draw up a list of Shia Alevis (referred to as Kizilbash) of whom 40,000 are said to have been rounded up and slaughtered.
To sum up the Islamic position, then, Alevis are Muslim but not necessarily Turkish (although they live in modern Turkey); Muslim but definitely not Sunni Muslim; of Shia origin but definitely not orthodox Shi’ites. Some characteristics of the Alevi belief system are as follows:
  • Freedom of belief and worship. Heterodoxy lies at the core of Alevism. They reject the orthodoxy of rituals and practices enforced by state-sponsored religion. In a sense, Alevis are true democrats – but their free spirits have made them, in the eyes of some, dangerous rebels.
  • Following logically from the previous point, Alevis do not accept the requirement to pray five times daily, and do not involve themselves in the culture of the mosque. Grand architecture is not required (cf. Methodism) for the communal service of worship known as cem(jem) or cemevi. Unlike orthodox Islam, services involve music, ritual dance and discussion.
  • An eclectic philosophy and system of worship which seem to include elements of folk religion, and even, perhaps, Christianity, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. The use of fire, for example, in some rituals, seems evocative of the ancient Persian religion.
  • The concept of a spiritual path to be followed, requiring the guidance of a dede (teacher or mentor). The path has a sequence of four ‘gates’ to be passed through, of which the lowest is religious law. In this, Alevism bears the mark of Sufism, ‘an inner, mystical dimension of Islam’ which emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries, and was extremely influential in creating the so-called Islamic Golden Age from the 13th to the 16thcenturies. In the West we know of Sufism particularly through the writings of the 13th century mystic, Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi. Alevis tend to follow the path of a contemporary, Haji Bektash Veli. There were numerous Sufi sects in Anatolia, but these came under pressure in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, and were finally banned altogether by the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Well, I hope I have covered some of the most important aspects here. If you want a detailed explanation of Alevi beliefs and practices, you will need to look elsewhere. My reason for putting finger to keyboard on this particular subject is the appearance of a democratisation package of proposed law reform prepared by the Turkish government. The package apparently contains provisions such as: cemevis will be given the status of “beliefs and cultural center,” and in addition, the expenses of cemevis such as electricity and water bills will be covered by the state, while dedes (Alevi religious leaders) will be paid a salary by the state.’ The move is part of a wider programme initiated by Turkey’s AK Party government aimed at broadening the scope of democracy in Turkey to include groups such as Kurds and Alevis who have hitherto felt marginalized by the state’s insistence on the concept of Turkishness discussed earlier.
Undoubtedly, it is time for Turkey to move on from the rigid nationalism that characterized the formative years of the Republic. There are good signs. There is now a more natural acceptance of the place of the Ottoman Empire in Turkish history. It is now possible to utter the words Kurdishand Alevi in polite conversation without warning fingers being raised to lips and fearful glances directed around the room. The civilian government is in the process of assigning a more conventional role to the nation’s armed forces where, one hopes, they will be less likely to stage military takeovers.
Nevertheless, the burden of history and misunderstanding is great. Hardline Kemalists find it difficult to imagine a world where headscarves and other symbols of religion are seen outside the mosque, and the army does not step in when the ballot box seems not to have produced a desirable government. Alevis, even more so, have centuries of oppression to exorcise from their minds before they can truly believe that reconciliation means more than enforced assimilation. The 7thcentury Battle of Karbala still figures in their worldview, as does the 1514 massacre by Selim the Grim – which is why there was such an angry reaction to the proposed name for the new Bosporus Bridge. The recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials have suggested that conspirators in the so-called ‘deep state’ have planned and even carried out violent attacks on prominent Alevi citizens in order to fan the flames of sectarian hatred. Whether or not that is true, there are certainly more recent events, such as the 1993 Sivas hotel fire which contribute to a siege mentality among Alevis. Adding to the mix, the AK Party government of Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is portrayed as representing conservative Sunni İslam – and they themselves undoubtedly contribute to this perception.
Clearly, there is work to be done. Nationalist and sectarian hatred are the enemies of democracy and freedom. Ignorance and fear fuel the fire and unscrupulous seekers of power and wealth fan the flames. The spiritual path of Alevism leads towards the perfect human being, ‘defined in practical terms, as one who is in full moral control of his or her hands, tongue and loins (eline diline beline sahip); treats all kinds of people equally (yetmiş iki millete aynı gözle bakar); and serves the interests of others. One who has achieved this kind of enlightenment is also called eren or munavver.’[1]
Not easy to do, but it sounds like a worthy goal.
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With thanks to Zeynep and Ender for sharing their knowledge. Any errors, however, are my responsibility.


[1]  Wikipedia – the bold words are Turkish

In-sultan, Out-sultan: Remembering Bayezid II

I make no claim to an exhaustive knowledge of Ottoman history – but I have an interest, read a little, and enjoy wandering around the monuments of imperial Istanbul. By chance, for a reason I’ll tell you later, I made mention the other day, in one of my classes, of a sultan by the name of Bayezid, who presided over the empire in the late 15th century. One of my students took issue with my facts, and I was left isolated with no support from any of the young lady’s classmates. Now if we had been discussing New Zealand or English history, I might have stood my ground more firmly – but humility and common sense make me reluctant to debate events of Turkish history or politics with locals.
Bayezid II ‘The Just’
Nevertheless, a later check confirmed the accuracy of my memory. There was indeed a Sultan Bayezid, the second of that name, seated on the Ottoman throne at that time. And an article in today’s newspaper suggested why my Turkish students were unfamiliar with him, despite the fact that he ruled for 31 years, making him one of the longer occupants of that illustrious seat. The article was reporting a symposium running concurrently at several universities and historic locations around Istanbul, under the auspices of the Beyoğlu Borough Council. This year was chosen for the event because it marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Sultan Bayezid II. Well, the actual date would have been 10 Rabi I, 918 according to the Islamic Hijri calendar in use at the time, but these days, thanks to the modernising reforms of MK Ataturk, we in Turkey generally convert historical dates to the more widely preferred Gregorian calendar.
Beyoğlu is located on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn from the ancient walled city of Constantinople/Istanbul. That it is now a major entertainment centre of the modern metropolis is attributable to the fact that it originated as a kind of satellite city inhabited and administered by Venetian and Genoese traders, and later became home to diplomatic legations from European governments. As a result, attitudes to the consumption of alcohol were freer than across the water. Apparently, Bayezid II made a major contribution to the regeneration of this area after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul by his father, Mehmet II, and the present-day council want to recognise this.
However, despite his contribution to the establishment of Beyoğlu (an achievement little known outside the council and academia, so far as I can discover), Bayezid is not a well-known sultan, as the newspaper article acknowledges. The reason, they suggest, is that his reign was overshadowed, both before and after, by four of history’s favourite Ottoman rulers. The first was Murat II, Padishah from 1421 to 1451. This worthy inherited a crown that was by no means omnipotent, or even particularly secure. He had to deal with a Byzantine Empire that still had pretensions to greatness; Venetians who pretty much ruled the Mediterranean; and east European potentates who resented Ottoman incursions into their territory. On all fronts he was moderately successful, paving the way for his son, the aforementioned Mehmet, to hammer the last nail into the Byzantine coffin with his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, thereby earning for himself the sobriquet of ‘The Conqueror’.
Bayezid’s son Selim, known in English as Selim ‘The Grim’, ruled for only eight years, but during that time, made the Ottoman Empire undisputed ruler of the Islamic world. He conquered Egypt, incorporated the holy cities of Mecca and Medina into his domains and took for himself the title of Caliph, or supreme leader of the Muslim community. If those three weren’t enough to cast anyone into the shade, next on the scene was the greatest of all. Suleiman, known in the west as ‘The Magnificent’, and to Turks as ‘The Lawgiver’, held the reins of power from 1520 to 1566, making him the longest reigning Ottoman sultan at a time generally regarded as the pinnacle of that empire’s greatness – a hard act to follow, or even to precede, given that historians, like God, operate with the advantage of hindsight.
In contrast with these four mega-monarchs, Bayezid’s achievements are undoubtedly less spectacular. Nevertheless, as the Beyoğlu councillors are keen to point out, they deserve recognition. Given the Ottoman inclination to militarism, and Bayezid’s interest in domestic policies and administrative organisation, it is perhaps understandable that he seems less majestic than his more warlike forebears and offspring. For his achievements in internal affairs he became known as ‘The Just’. One of his major successes was to accept into his empire large numbers of Jews fleeing persecution from the Spanish Inquisition. He is said to have remarked that the Spanish king’s folly was his own good fortune – the Jewish refugees impoverishing Spain by their departure and enriching the Ottomans by their arrival.
At the same time, it would have been impossible for the monarch of a major empire in those days to hold power for thirty years without engaging in a war or two, and Bayezid did his share of fighting. His reign began with the need to defeat his own brother Cem (pronounced ‘Jem’), who, with Egyptian support, had sought to seize the throne. Cem was, in fact, an ongoing threat, and Bayezid’s long-term solution was paying the Venetians a kind of annual reverse ransom to keep the guy out of circulation. Relations with the Venetians, however, were by no means peaceful, and the Ottomans engaged in several battles around southern Greece as the two states competed for control of the eastern Mediterranean. Also at this time, the Savafid dynasty in Iran were a rising power, uniting Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia and other neighbours under the banner of Shi’ite Islam, creating a major new challenge to the authority of the Sunni Ottomans.
Bayezid’s reign ended as it had begun, with a war of succession, involving his two sons, Ahmet and Selim. Initially the two fought each other over who would succeed to the throne – but inevitably dad got caught up in the dispute, and was eventually forced to abdicate by Selim, who had gained the support of the Sultan’s own Janissary regiment.
Well, it’s a grim thing to unseat your own father, so Selim perhaps deserves his English nickname. However, Bayezid seems to have made one or two serious errors of judgement that prevented him from assuming a more prestigious place in history. His entry in the Turkish Wikipedia mentions the following:
Christopher Columbus was, at one stage, experiencing some difficulties getting funding for his proposed trans-Atlantic voyages of exploration. Having been turned down by the king of Portugal, he is said to have next tried his luck in the Ottoman court. Bayezid, however, didn’t take the project seriously, and also rejected him. Subsequently, Columbus applied with more success to the king and queen of Spain, and the Ottomans had four hundred years to rue a lost opportunity. One scrap of good fortune did come their way, though, when a Spanish sea-faring colleague of Columbus fell into Ottoman hands as a prisoner of war. Apparently he had maps of America on him when captured, and these were passed on to the cartographer Piri Reis, of whom more in a later post.
A second unfortunate decision of Bayezid’s seems to have occurred when Leonardo da Vinci, on a visit to the Ottoman capital, drew up plans for a 240-metre bridge to span the Golden Horn. Again, the sultan erred on the side of conservatism, and da Vinci’s project never got off the drawing board. In fact, the suburbs of Beyoglu, Galata and Pera had to wait until 1836 to be linked by such a bridge.
Such are the quirks of history. It might have made a significant difference to the long-term fortunes of the Ottoman Empire if all that bullion from the mines of Central and South America had gone into their royal treasury instead of Spain’s – though, to be fair, it didn’t do Spain much good in the long-term either. It’s also possible that Native Americans might have benefited from the generally more tolerant approach of the Ottomans to conquered peoples – but that’s just idle speculation.
Bayezid gave up his throne on Anzac Day, 1512 (speaking with the benefit of historian’s hindsight), but didn’t live long to enjoy his well-earned retirement, dying a mere month later. History doesn’t tell us that his grim son had anything to do with the business, but I have to tell you, I’ve got my suspicions.
Anyway, next time you’re in Turkey, I’d like to recommend you to include two extra sights on your itinerary. The first is Sultan Bayezid’s grand mosque in central Istanbul next door to the campus of Istanbul University. It was completed in 1506, making it, at the time, the second imperial mosque in the city, a century older than the more famous Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I. The earlier mosque built by Mehmet the Conqueror was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century, however, so the son finally managed a posthumous ‘one-up’ on his father.
The other spot worth a visit, and the reason I happened to mention Sultan Bayezid in my class the other day, is the mosque complex he had built in the city of Edirne near the present border with Greece. These buildings are located outside the town in a picturesque and tranquil spot beside a river, and house a modest but impressive medical museum with displays from a time when Islamic health practitioners seem to have been somewhat ahead of their western counterparts. One wing of the hospital, founded in 1488, was used for patients with nervous disorders, and treatment included listening to music and the sound of water playing in fountains, as well as therapeutic basket weaving.
Well, even if you don’t weave baskets, I hope you find music to soothe your soul this festive season, and a moment of peace to remember the message of love and hope that lies behind all the commercialised brouhaha of Christmas and New Year.
Last time I was in that museum in Edirne I came across this poem, which Dilek and I translated. I take full responsibility for the literary limitations:
      Forever Entwined
In olden times, were in this antique place
Of healing, two young lovers; small
Was the maiden’s room and gloomy,
The boy’s less spacious still.
Dallied they mornings in the yard
Until the hour glass filled with sand;
The maid ringed by a fairy host,
Her beau on a magic steed.
Came to the lovers at last the end;
To health once more were they restored;
But the sweetness of life to them was lost,
Such had been their bliss.
Met they one last time, these two,
Swore to be parted nevermore;
Evading yet all watchful eyes, they
Turned again to their sanctuary.
A guardian spirit taking pity,
Mixed, while Nazir, the doctor slept,
A special potion, of his own brewing,
Into each lover’s cup.
Drinking th’elixir unaware,
The soul of each assumed new form –
The girl, a tree, the boy, wild ivy,
Forever entwined in the silent yard.
                                                               Ahmet Kutsi Tecer
                                                               Edirne 1957

Religion in Turkey

The Turkish government has recently announced an official opening of discussions on the subject of Alevism, the second-largest religious group in the country after the majority Sunni Muslims. This ‘açılım’ in Turkish, represents a significant step forward for Alevis, who have experienced repression and even persecution, not only in the Republican period, but earlier, under the Ottoman regime.

I’m happy about this new spirit of openness that seems to be pervading Turkey’s political scene these days. There may be bumps in the road to begin with, but in the end, good will come of it. I’ve been doing a little research into the Alevi sect, and various sources confirmed what I had previously heard: that there are 10 to 20 million of these people living in the Republic. Well, even if you take the lower figure, that’s a significant group in a population of around 70 million.

Still, you’d have to wonder why the figures couldn’t be a little more precise, especially in a country which takes regular censuses, and likes to see a citizen’s religious affiliation on all forms of personal ID. I was also intrigued to note that the origins of the Alevi faith are controversial, and apparently it is even hard to define precisely what they believe.

It is generally accepted that Alevism is closer to Shi’i Islam than to the Sunni variety (the majority in Turkey); and that it has close ties to the mystical Sufism of the 13th century saint, Hadji Bektash Veli. Some sources, however, suggest that it predates Islam, and has its roots in an earlier folk religion, perhaps Persian; and that it was influenced by close contact with the various strands of Christianity which were developing and separating in the early days of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

It’s not my intention here to examine, in any detail, the tenets of faith of the Alevis, even if they had been clearly codified; but some general concepts have a certain appeal:

  • Love and respect for all people (The important thing is not religion, but being a human being)
  • Tolerance towards other religions and ethnic groups (If you hurt another person, the ritual prayers you have done are counted as worthless)
  • Respect for working people (The greatest act of worship is to work)
  • Equality of men and women, who pray side by side. Monogamy is practiced.
  • They even, it is said, enjoy a drink now and again, and apparently consider their stricter Sunni brethren as unnecessarily rigid in their code of Islamic conduct.

Well, you may feel inclined to wonder why people holding such apparently innocuous (perhaps even laudable) beliefs would need to be suppressed or persecuted. As usual, the more you dig in this remarkable country, whether literally or metaphorically, the more details you unearth, and the more complicated the story seems to become. However, if you are a follower of this blog, or even an occasional visitor, you will likely have observed that my aim is to seek the overview, the big picture, rather than to lose my thread in scholarly minutiae.

So, I’m going to jump to an issue which generates a great deal of heat (even parliamentary fisticuffs) in contemporary Turkey – the question of whether the ruling AK Party has a hidden agenda aimed at dismantling the secular state and substituting Islamic Shariah law. ‘What’s the connection?’ you may ask, and of course, I’m going to tell you. Once again, I have no intention of plunging into the mire of Turkish politics, and examining the rights and wrongs of women wearing headscarves, or defending the record of a government which slew the dragon of hyperinflation, and kept Turkey out of the Iraq invasion without unduly damaging its friendship with America. Party affiliates are quite capable of dealing with these issues. Rather, I want to examine the deeper-seated reason why I believe Turkey will never descend into Islamic fundamentalism.

The reason is, in my opinion, the incredibly broad-based, eclectic nature of religion in this part of the world variously referred to as Asia Minor, Anatolia and the Republic of Turkey. The Alevi religion, so briefly outlined above, seems to me a microcosm of the processes that have shaped the beliefs of the people who now inhabit this ancient land, and resist all attempts to box and categorise them.

A short anecdote to illustrate my point, found in a Turkish newspaper (‘Hürriyet’): 
Hadji Burhanettin lives in the east Anatolian town of Doğubeyazit. The word Hadji before his name tells us that he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, which gives him a certain lay authority in matters of religion. His two sons came to Istanbul to start a business, and decided that manufacturing denim jeans was the way to go. Of course, it’s a competitive market, and you need to position your product carefully. According to the story, the lads decided to produce the world’s sexiest jeans, and named their brand ‘G-Point’ (I think they meant to say ‘G-Spot’ but both words have the same meaning in Turkish), with a stylized male arrow symbol as their logo. At first, their father was furious. How would he maintain the gravitas of his Hadji status when local friends and neighbours found out what his sons were up to in the sin capital of Turkey? Apparently, however, as money from sales of the sexy apparel began to flow, the patriarch found it in his heart to overcome his initial scruples and accept the obvious sign of divine approval.

There is an admirable pragmatism there, wouldn’t you agree? Even if the logic may be a little doctrinally unorthodox. Clearly, if it wasn’t ok with God, He wouldn’t let the guy’s sons make a profit. But I don’t want to make light of religion in Turkey. Rather, I want to look briefly at the forces that have molded it, and thereby come at an explanation of why things are as they are.

The people call their country ‘Türkiye’, the land of Turks – and while, prior to the First World War they were happy enough to consider themselves subjects of a diverse Ottoman Empire, they have spent the last 87 years working to persuade themselves that ‘Turks’ is what they are. We ‘Europeans’ know that ‘Turks’ were part of the heathen horde that swarmed out of the Central Asian steppes wreaking mayhem and terror on Christendom and Western civilization until they were finally turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683. Well, we may not have known the exact date, but you know what I mean, right?

Turks themselves seem, for the most part, relatively content these days to accept a variation of the same theme, with a few details added, and warrior heroism substituted for brutish barbarianism. Back in Central Asia, of course, the religion was shamanism, but on the way westwards they became Muslim, defeated the Roman/Byzantine Empire, set up their own Ottoman Empire and eventually mutated into the present Republic of Turkey. Of course, as gross over-simplifications go, that one is staggering in its presumptuousness. Nevertheless, while it may omit one or two details, I submit that the overall picture would not be unacceptable.

Most Turks would be surprised to learn, then, that their Turkic ancestors, in their advance along the Silk Route, became Buddhist for a time, and were undoubtedly influenced by other religions moving in the opposite direction, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism to name but three, before settling on Islam after prolonged contact with Arab armies and culture moving east. It has been suggested that the adoption of Buddhism first, and later Islam by Turkic leaders may be attributable more to the desire for a unifying religion to solidify their growing temporal power, than to higher spiritual motives. And then there was the influence exerted on slave warriors in the service of Arab and Persian armies. At the same time, conversion to the new religion was made easier by aspects of theological concurrence with the old one, a point I want to return to later.

Anyway, from here (Bactria, Sogdia and other little remembered Central Asian states) it is a mere hop step and a jump to the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire, where the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan met and defeated in battle the heirs of the Roman Empire, who had ruled the eastern lands for 600 years after the fall of Rome. The year was 1071, and it marks the beginning of the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, and the beginning of the end of the eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire.

We can say that what followed was a gradual process whereby a predominantly Muslim Turkish-speaking Anatolia replaced the earlier Christian Greek-speaking one. However, already we have mentioned some of the influences that influenced the development of the Turkish brand of İslam that entered Anatolia at this time. Also, it is likely that, not only had these Turks lost their central Asian racial purity from centuries of miscegenation by the time they invaded Anatolia, but that the process continued after their arrival, and continues to this day.

Leaving aside the mixing of races and cultures that undoubtedly followed the invasion of Anatolia, let us look briefly at some of the religious interactions that took place.

We have already mentioned Zoroastrianism in passing. This was the predominant religion of the Iranian/Persian peoples, and its origins trace back to the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) at least a thousand years before the Christian Era. It is sometimes claimed that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion, and that many fundamental beliefs of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are derived from it. Unlike its successors, however, Zoroastrianism was apparently not ‘monolithic’ – i.e. there was some scope for divergence of opinion among believers without the need for excommunication or other forms of compulsion.

It is likely that the religion known as Gnosticism also sprang from this root. It seems to have been a more elitist set of beliefs, again, lacking a single strict dogma. While Gnosticism absorbed aspects of Christianity, it apparently placed more emphasis on the teachings of Jesus rather than his death and resurrection. Its growth as a religion kept pace with that of Christianity in the early centuries, but, lacking a central organization, it fell prey to oppression and persecution once its rival became the official state religion – a sad but typical illustration of how the oppressed are only too happy to assume the role of the oppressor as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

One thing that is very clear is that there has been, for millennia, a struggle, in this part of the world, between what one might consider the true nature of religion (the essentially personal search which attempts to give meaning to an apparently chaotic universe through an understanding of the material and spiritual natures of humanity), and the desire of succeeding rulers to impose a unified doctrine and system of religious observance which would give cohesion (not to say malleability) to their subject peoples.
One of the early great heretics of the Christian church was a gentleman by the name of Marcion, a 2nd century theologian who lived in the Black Sea city of Sinope. The essence of his teachings was that the Hebrew God of the Old Testament and the Heavenly Father of the New Testament were separate – the latter being the superior deity, while the capricious, vengeful Yahweh was a lesser force – the demiurge that created the material world. What happened to Marcion? He was excommunicated by the mainstream church and his teachings suppressed.
Another sect of Gnosticism that acquired a following for a time was Manichaeism, inspired by its prophet Mani, who lived in the 3rd century CE. Again it was perceived as a serious threat by orthodox Christians, but perhaps contained within it the seeds of its own downfall, encouraging, as it apparently did, strict ascetic practices and even celibacy. Women, it seems ‘were considered forces of darkness, binding men to the flesh’, which also seems unlikely to prove successful in the long-term from an evolutionary point-of-view, but may have spawned beliefs that seem to persist among some Muslim believers.
In our wanderings through Central Asia earlier, we came across a sect of Christians known as Nestorians. These were followers of an other reject from mainstream Christianity, Archbishop Nestor of Constantinople, who fell foul of his brethren for advancing the dangerous heresy that it might not be 100% accurate to call Mary the ‘Mother of God’. I have to admit I have wondered about that myself from time to time. In my travels in Turkey, I couldn’t help noticing that the area of Aegean Turkey where Mary is reputed to have spent her last years, was also important in the worship of Artemis and her divine predecessor, Cybele. Artemis was a complex creature, noted for her virginity as well as celebrated as a mother goddess – and known locally as the Lady of Ephesus.  Cybele was an earlier Phrygian earth mother deity associated with fertility, sometimes referred to as the Mother of the Mountain. Given that it is generally easier to convert people to a new religion if you can show major correspondences with their own, you could be forgiven for thinking that the process may have been at work around here. ‘Hey, that’s a coincidence. We’ve got her in our religion too – only we call her Mary!’
But to return to the Nestorians and their heretical brethren: one thing that these various sects, cults and religious deviants did achieve – it is generally accepted that the creeds formulated by Ecumenical Councils of the early institutionalised Christian church at such places as Chalcedon (Kadıköy), Ephesus and Nicaea (İznik) were a direct response to the threats they posed. So, the strange, surreal, somewhat over-the-top articles of faith that one is expected to ascribe to as a Christian reciting the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed can be understood as a kind of legalese trickery to weed out heretics and deviants who might threaten the unity of the new state-sponsored religion.
Anyway, the result was a host of breakaway groups establishing their own forms of ‘orthodoxy’ – Syriacs, Copts, Armenians and so on – not forgetting the Roman Catholics themselves, who made their final split in 1054. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What about the Muslims, I hear you asking. Weren’t you, in fact, writing about them? And of course you are right. But it is important to recognise that these two religions, Christian and Muslim, lived side by side in Anatolia for more than eight hundred years, and for sure, their beliefs and practices rubbed off on each other. Islam, for example, is notoriously unsympathetic to anything smacking of idolatry – statues or pictures of divinities or any human beings for that matter. Undoubtedly it was a reaction to the growing popularity and power of the new religion that produced the iconoclastic movement and led to the destruction of statues, images, icons, frescos and so on in the Byzantine Christian Church in the 8th century CE.
On the other hand, Muslims in Turkey have a rather more tolerant approach to the consumption of alcohol than their co-religionists elsewhere. Religious authorities in Turkey clearly feel the need to remind visitors to certain tombs that prayers should be addressed to God rather than to a (dead) human, and that the tying of pieces of cloth to nearby trees is discouraged. Nevertheless, these and other practices persist, and suggest a survival of belief in the intercession of saints, and probably more ancient folk customs.
The 13th and 14th centuries in Anatolia are notable for the rise of a mystical offshoot of mainstream Islam, Sufism. Hadji Bektash Veli and the poet Yunus Emre, for example, proposed that a person could draw nearer to the divine during his/her mortal life by following a certain path under the guidance of a spiritual master or ‘father’. Undoubtedly, the belief that enlightenment is more readily found as a result of a personal search than by following state-defined practices is strongly embedded in Turkish culture. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, banned, however, in 1925, all Sufi orders, and shut down their lodges. There is an irony here, in that the followers of these orders, like the Alevis, tend to support the secular republic, on the grounds that it is more likely to extend tolerance than a monolithic Sunni establishment. Perhaps their faith and persistence are about to be rewarded.
Whatever the outcome for the Alevis themselves, I see the new spirit of openness in debate on this and other issues long swept under the carpet, as perhaps heralding a new maturity in the development of democracy in this controversial and ambiguous meeting place of Europe and Asia. It is also interesting that the opening of such issues to discussion has been instigated by a government often accused by secular Turks of supporting a conspiracy to reintroduce Shariah law. In the end, I have confidence in Turkish people themselves. Hadji Burhanettin back east in Doğubeyazit is not likely to let religious beliefs be imposed on him by outsiders who think they know better.