Church, Mosque – or what? A taste of Istanbul’s complex history

CollageWorth a visit if you happen to be in Istanbul, the mosque of Molla Zeyrek, formerly the Byzantine monastery church of Christ Pantokrator, has recently undergone a complete restoration. Next door, a tasteful café and restaurant located on a terrace overlooking the Golden Horn offers magnificent panoramic views of Pera district, the entrance to the Bosporus, the imperial mosques of Sultanahmet and Suleiman the Magnificent, with glimpses of the Asian shore behind. The café also features an excellent bookshop selling memorabilia for the tourist who prefers something a little classier than what is to be found in the more frequented attractions.

A little of the building’s history:

Whole monastery

Prior to restoration

Shortly after Constantinople fell to the invading Ottoman armies in 1453, the twelfth-century Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was converted into the Zeyrek mosque. Named after Molla Zeyrek, a well-known scholar who lived during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II, Zeyrek Camii served not only as a religious center but also as a hub for Islamic enlightenment. The church-turned-mosque is one of the finest examples of religious architecture from the Byzantine era in Istanbul and the second-largest surviving Byzantine religious structure in the city after Hagia Sophia. The church and monastery were built by Emperor John II Komnenos to honor his wife’s wishes to house the “poor, sick, and suffering souls.” The north and south churches, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator and the Archangel St. Michael, are connected by an imperial chapel that was used as a mausoleum for the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties. This masterpiece of the middle period of Byzantine architecture consists of extraordinary domes capping the north and south churches and the imperial chapel, with complimentary interiors formed by elegant vaults and arches. Today, the monastery has completely disappeared except for the cistern, some structural elements, and timber houses that served as residences during Ottoman rule, encircling the Zeyrek Camii. Source.

Tiled floor

Interior tiled floor

The Monastery of Christ the Almighty (Pantokrator) was founded by Ioannes II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his wife Eirene, a born princess of Hungary, and built between 1118 and 1137. The south church was built first, then the north church was added, and finally a grave chapel with two oval domes was constructed in the space between both churches after their outer halls in this area had been demolished. This monumental ensemble is the greatest church building in Istanbul after the time of Justinian I, and it is the only one from the later time where we know the name of the architect, Nikephoros. The monastery is known in detail from the surviving foundation document where its buildings, the life of the monks there and the hospital connected to it are described. In the grave chapel, a number of emperors were buried including Ioannes and Eirene themselves, Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) and Manuel II Palaeologos (1391-1425).

The Zeryek Camii complex served as both an important Christian religious and education center and later as a mosque established to educate Muslim students. Zeyrek Camii shares similarities with its not-too-distant neighbor, Hagia Sofia. Both have housed two religions under their majestic domed roofs and have functioned as dominant architectural symbols of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Source.

Molla Zeyrek

The monastery church with the mosque of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror behind

The complex of Monastery of the Pantokrator (Ruler of all), was dedicated to Christ and stood on a hill overlooking the ancient aqueduct of Valens near the geographical center of the city. There are three interconnected churches. The first building was constructed by the Empress Irene between 1118 – 1124. This was the largest church and it was richly decorated with mosaics and rare marbles. Shortly thereafter a large church was built alongside the first one to the south and it was dedicated it to the Vigin Eleosa – “Mercy”. Finally, a wide space between the two churches was vaulted over by two domes and transformed into an Imperial mausoleum dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.

The south church is one of the largest churches built during the Middle Ages in Constantinople with a nave 16 metres square and a dome 7 metres across. The survival of so many huge cathedrals in the capital, like Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles, made the further construction of big churches unnecessary. The pietism of the time and the preference for smaller, community monastic churches also dictated a more intimate size.

View from caf

View from the terrace

The splendid interiors of all three churches were remarked upon in the Middle Ages. The Comnenian Emperors and their wives lavished money and gifts on the monastery, which was covered in golden mosaic tiles, rich marble veneer, precious metals and semi-precious stones. Even the floor was inlaid with a fantastic opus sectile rinceau carpet of carved, colored marbles depicting mythological scenes, hunters and animals. Fragments of stained glass set in lead found in the church indicate the windows of the apse were set with figures of Christ, the Virgin and possibly other saints.

The mausoleum church contained many relics, including the stone upon which, it was claimed, Christ had been anointed after his crucifixion. This mausoleum was filled with the marble tombs of Emperors and Empresses and its iconostasis was said to have been encrusted with gold enamel and gems.

The church was founded as a hospital with many beds and there were nurses and doctors attached to the monastery. It was also a center of learning and art. The founding document for the monastery – its Typicon – survives and outlines all its social functions in detail.

The+Fourth+Crusade+1202-1204.+Original+goal+was+to+conquer+the+Muslim-controlled+parts+of+Jerusalem+by+invading+through+Egypt.In 1204 the city of Constantinople fell to the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade after a series of vast and horrible fires set by the Crusaders. These conflagrations levelled large swaths of the city and consumed art treasures and books created and gathered over 900 years by the Byzantines. These included some of the greatest works of antiquity and a vast trove of Western civilization went up in flames. Catholic looters spread throughout the city to snatch what was left and the booty was thought to be the greatest ever seen.

The soldiers from France, Italy, and all across Europe did not spare the churches of their brother Christians; they stripped them bare of their valuables. The Pantokrator was attacked and looted. The tombs of the Emperors and Empresses were opened and their bodies were stripped. Monks and nuns were murdered and raped. Tens of thousands perished.


“Christian” crusaders loot and sack the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, 1204

The Venetians claimed the Pantokrator as part of their booty and occupied the complex until the Latins were ousted from the city by the Byzantines in 1261. Towards the end – when it became apparent they could not hold on to Constantinople it is said the Venetians removed the enameled panels from the iconostasis of the Pantokrator and shipped them to Venice, where they became the centerpiece of the famous Pala d’Oro. Source.

[That’s Christians for you!]



Some Thoughts on Terrorism

We had visitors from New Zealand last summer. An old friend from university and his wife spent a few days in Istanbul, then we drove together down the Aegean coast to Bodrum via the towns of Çanakkale and Selçuk. On the way we stopped over to see the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, the ruins of ancient Ephesus, and the nearby house where, according to some, God’s virginal mother, Mary, spent her declining years.

dscf0105It’s always good to catch up with old friends, but I was especially delighted on this occasion because this couple came in defiance of dire warnings from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the dangers of traveling to Turkey.

We picked up our rental car from Atatürk Airport on Tuesday morning, 28 June, missing by a few hours the bomb attack that killed 45 people and injured 230 more. Blissfully unaware of our near miss, our friends went on to enjoy a fortnight of sightseeing and sailing before returning to Istanbul and flying out of the country on Friday 15 July. That evening, as we got ready for bed in our Bodrum retreat, Dilek’s daughter called from the USA to inform us that a military coup was under way in Istanbul and Ankara.

Infantrymen in First World War trenches believed that an incoming artillery shell would, or would not, have your number on it. If it did, your number was up, your name would be inscribed on a war memorial and your mortal remains, if they could be found, interred with appropriate military ceremony. As the years go by, I find myself increasingly willing to adopt that fatalistic view of life and death.

On 22 February 2011 a 6.3 magnitude earthquake caused widespread damage to the city of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. 185 people lost their lives, 115 of them in the collapsing six-storey Canterbury Television building. Among the victims was a young woman from Çanakkale in Turkey. Didem was on a post-graduate scholarship to study international relations at Otago University. That weekend she visited a friend in Christchurch and while in the city, saw a doctor at his surgery in the CTV building. What can you say? Avoid visiting New Zealand, and in particular, stay away from Christchurch?

Dilek and I have just returned from a trip to visit family in New Zealand and Australia. We had a marvellous time with my sisters, children and grandchildren. The weather was delightful, and a welcome break from the cold of a northern winter. The last stage of our journey took us to Melbourne where my daughter lives with her partner and two small sons. On Thursday, 19 January we took a tram to the central city, alighting in Bourke Street and strolling down to the Yarra River. We spent some time munching hamburgers, watching tennis in Federation Square and wandering along the riverbank, enjoying some free entertainment with the little ones. The next day, as we were packing for our return home, a young man drove his Holden Commodore at speed into a crowd of pedestrians in the Bourke St mall, killing five and injuring twenty others. Stay away from Melbourne? Where can you go these days, I ask you?

Still, one comforting thought did come out of the Melbourne tragedy. Police spokespersons were quick to assure us that the killer was not a terrorist. Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said the man “had no links to terrorism”. Acting Commander Stuart Bateson was able to “confirm that this is not a counter terrorism-related incident.” Whatever that means. The best reason I could come up with was that the guy seems to have been of Greek extraction, and therefore, we gather, not a Muslim. Which makes it better, I guess. It was just a random act of gratuitous violence, rather than another manifestation of the global Islamic assault on Christendom.

Then again, I don’t know. I’m not in any way justifying the slaughter of innocent people by fanatics pursuing a political or religious agenda – but I can at least understand where they are coming from. They believe in something greater than themselves, and they are prepared to die for it.

One of my all-time favourite movies is the 1996 historical biopic, “Michael Collins”, starring Liam Neeson as the Irish revolutionary hero who brought the British Government to the negotiating table and paved the way for the foundation of the modern independent Republic of Ireland. According to his Wikipedia entry, Collins “directed a guerrilla war against the British”, creating “a special assassination unit called ‘The Squad’ expressly to kill British agents and informers”. Collins ironically died at the hands of Irish nationalist assassins during a bloody civil war fought over the conditions of independence from Britain. The first president of the Irish republic, Eamon de Valera, is on record as saying “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins; and it will be recorded at my expense.” Without Collins and his campaign of violence, Irish independence might never have been realised. Conventional history, however, prefers to remember de Valera, and play down the role of Michael Collins.

Am I making a case for violent rebellion against one’s lawful government here? By no means! But an important question arises here. To what extent was the British Government in the early 20th century the lawful government of the Irish people? Even peaceful protestors campaigning for Irish independence could be convicted as traitors and executed, or taken out in extrajudicial killings reminiscent of today’s US drone strikes. Proponents of Irish independence had found that peaceful protest got them nowhere, and confronting head on the might of the British Armed forces led inevitably to bloody defeat. They turned to asymmetrical guerrilla tactics, and their cause was successful.


Muslim “detainees” at Guantanamo prison

One might argue there are parallels here with the plight of Muslim countries in the Middle East. Ever since oil emerged as the world’s most important energy source, Britain and the United States have been forcibly interfering in the internal affairs of countries with large reserves of the black gold. Regimes friendly to Western interests have been installed and supported while others choosing to pursue their own national interests have been overthrown, their leaders ousted or killed. George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq massacred tens of thousands, and left a power vacuum where chaos reigns thirteen years after the execution of bad guy Saddam Hussein.

That other bad guy, Muammar Gaddafi was killed and his regime toppled by NATO forces in 2011. Since then, Libya too has descended into political and social chaos. Nevertheless, Nobel Peace laureate, Barack Obama, authorized B-2 bombing strikes on Libya last week, just days before his term in office ended. Are you surprised to learn that Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and ranks 9th in the world?

Again, I’m not supporting Daesh operatives beheading innocent Western journalists – but where do you think they got the idea for those bright orange overalls?


So who’s representing that bottom 50%? And are we surprised that most of them don’t even bother to vote?

But getting back to Melbourne and that non-terrorist tragedy in Bourke St mall . . . I can’t help feeling that there is more to these “random acts of violence” in the West than that that label suggests. Fanatical Muslims may be fighting a losing battle – but at least they have organisations they can belong to that give them a coherent identity, and which they feel are fighting for their rights and beliefs. What about the downtrodden 50% in the United States that share a mere one per cent of their nation’s wealth, while the richest 400 have a minimum annual income of $100 million? Do Hilary Clinton and her armchair liberal supporters give a brass nickel for their disenfranchised poor fellow citizens? The Labour Party in New Zealand celebrated its centenary in 2016. Its founding fathers (and mothers, probably turning in their graves) were socialists fighting for the rights of the working poor. In the 21st century, as George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm”, “The creatures outside looked from pig (Labour Party) to man (Conservative/National Party), and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The left wing revolution in the West has been bought and sold – but those “random acts of violence” carry an underlying message those countries’ leaders would do well to heed. And their privileged citizens should beware of the complacent self-righteousness that allows them to ignore levels of anger in other lands.

I’m not leaving Turkey

When I started writing this blog, nearly seven years ago, my aim was two-fold:

First to present to English-speakers out there an alternative picture of this country to the one they tend to get from their own corporate-controlled mass media, and

Second, to give Turks themselves another view of their history and culture that their own education system does not always do justice to.

i-turkeyI came up with the name “Turkey File”, which, of course, is a not-very-creative pun along the lines of “Anglophile, bibliophile” etc.

I’m not planning to write here about the latest terrorist outrage committed at the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve. I do, however, want to pass on the words of an American citizen, William Rakk, quoted in our Hürriyet newspaper this morning. The young man was wounded in the hail of gunfire that took the lives of 39 innocent young people enjoying the first celebration of 2017. “I want to come back to Turkey,” William said. “This is a beautiful country. The people are great!”

Also on the front page was a brief report about a journalist from Britain’s Independent newspaper. Simon Calder was quoted as saying, “I’m impatient to go to Turkey. The best response to random acts of violence is not to change your behaviour.”

In another positive, the so-called “Islamic-rooted” AK Party government has let it be known that they will not tolerate religious nutters trumpeting that the New Year’s Eve killings were God’s punishment for godless alcohol-drinking sinners. Freedom of speech is an important human right, for sure – but there should be limits, don’t you agree?

A few years ago some religious extremists were demanding that the government turn the Aya Sofia Museum back into a mosque. Mr Erdoğan’s reply at the time was, “When you can fill the next-door Sultanahmet Mosque five times a day, and not just for Friday prayers, we’ll look into it.”

Well last week I had my residence permit for living in Turkey renewed, and I’m happy about that. It is indeed a beautiful country. Its government and its people have been good to me – and I have no intention of leaving.

If you want to be safe, stay home – and there’s no guarantee there either!

“We advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk).

“We advise against all travel to within 10 kilometres of the border with Syria, and to the city of Diyarbakir (Extreme risk).


No sharks!

“We advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to the provinces of Batman, Bingol, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Hakkari, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin, Mus, Sanliurfa, Sirnak, Siirt, Tunceli and Van in south-east Turkey (High risk).”

It was another of the regular advisories that appear in my mailbox from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara. Well, first of all, let me say that I appreciate their concern. It’s nice to know that my government is looking out for me although I am so far from home. And I have registered with them as they ask me to, so I guess I have to accept the stuff they send me as part of the price of citizenship – which I also do appreciate.

I feel sad, however, to see the leaders of my country jumping on the international bandwagon badmouthing Turkey and contributing to the campaign apparently aimed at portraying Turks and their government as corrupt, evil and dangerous. Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians continue to visit this country every year, welcomed by touchingly hospitable locals, as they commemorate the invasion perpetrated by their grandfathers 100 years ago.

I have been living in Istanbul and traveling to all parts of the country for many years and I have to tell you, I feel safer here than on the streets of Auckland, Sydney or London. Certainly this is a dangerous part of the world, and security is necessarily tight – but for heaven’s sake don’t use that as another reason to bash Turkey! Security is pretty damn intrusive in the USA too.


. . . but you’ll be safe in Dubai

Dilek and I recently applied for a visitor’s visa so she can accompany me on a brief 6-day visit to Auckland – and the hoops she has to jump through! These days applications are processed by NZ’s foreign affairs people in Dubai. Now I want you to take a quick look at the map of Dubai and its immediate neighbours. And I would also like to refer you to an article that appeared on in March this year:

‘There’s an ugly side to Dubai that you won’t read about in its tourist brochures — its army of migrant workers. The workers, who are largely from South East Asia, are paid well below the prices charged in the city’s expensive boutiques and glamorous hotels.

The migrant workers are not only at greater risk of exploitation, but are often housed in filthy conditions, with little down time. In short they are the hidden slaves of a rich city.

According to Human Rights Watch, foreigners make up 88.5 per cent of United Arab Emirates residents, with low-paid migrant workers being “subjected to abuses that about to forced labour”.’ 

Eighty-eight per cent of the residents are foreigners! Come on, guys! Fair’s fair! Ninety-nine per cent of Turkey’s population are citizens of the country, the government is democratically elected – and millions of refugees are flooding in from neighbouring countries seeking safety from violence created largely by the interference of Western governments. Let’s have a little positive reinforcement here!

I must admit I haven’t been to the southeast of Turkey for a few years, and even the news media here in Istanbul make that region out to be a pretty dangerous, lawless place. It always surprises me when students from that part of the country assure me things are not as bad as we big city dwellers are led to believe.


There it is – Siirt

Last week there was a four-day culture festival in our new seaside park in Maltepe, featuring the attractions of Siirt: the cuisine, the natural beauty, the history, the local produce and handcrafts. I had to look at a map to see exactly where Siirt is. You’ll notice it is one of those areas that receives a special mention in that NZMFA warning – HIGH RISK!

Well, we figured we’d be ok crossing the road to our local park, so last Thursday we went over to take a look. You’ll see from the map that Siirt is way, way out in Turkey’s southeast, not too far from the border with Syria and Iraq; and pretty near the city of Mosul, currently witnessing major military action as a motley coalition tries to drive out occupying forces of ISIS/Daesh. The majority of Siirt’s population is Kurdish – and that combination of factors might lead one to expect that things would be none too peaceful. Somewhat surprisingly then, the people we spoke to were positive, cheerful folk enjoying their few days in the metropolis, but not all fazed by the prospect of returning home.

We bought two beautiful kilim rugs from a woman who runs a carpet-weaving school for the Siirt City Council teaching her skills to local women, and ensuring they get a fair price for their labours. There were stalls selling Pervari honey from the flowers of upland pastures, dried figs, pistachios and other local delicacies. We bought some interesting cheeses, one of which, yeraltı peyniri, gains its special flavour from having been buried underground for four months – I kid you not! Lunch was a plate of tender lamb roasted in a three-metre deep well lined with fire bricks, followed by the regional dessert künefe, a cake of shredded wheat filled with cheese, soaked in syrup, baked in the oven and topped with clotted buffalo cream and grated pistachio. Mere words cannot do it justice.


Deyr-ul Zafaran Monastery, Mardin

People from Siirt, we learned, pride themselves on knowing three languages Kurdish, of course, but naturally they learn Turkish at school – and historical links to the Middle East mean that Arabic is also common. In the past there was a fourth language, Syriac, spoken by Assyrian Christians, who were tragically caught up in the great imperialist games leading up to the First World War. Some years ago, I visited the city of Mardin, and a nearby monastery, Dar-ul Zafaran. The building has been recently restored, and descendants of the original flock are returning, especially as a result of escalating violence across the border in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, the monastery was built over a much earlier structure, a temple dedicated to Zoroastrian fire worship – an ancient religion predating Christianity and Islam.


The town of Siirt also contains shrines sacred to several important Islamic saints. Veysel Karani was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammed. Originally from Yemen, he journeyed to Medina in the hope of seeing the great man, but his timing was apparently off. Muhammed, however, impressed by Veysel’s piety, sent one of his personal robes as a gift – now preserved in Siirt as a holy relic. Ibrahim Hakkı Erzurumi was an 18th century Sufi mystic, poet, mathematician and physicist who wrote influential books on astronomy and philosophy. Zemzem-ul Hassa Hanım was a pious Muslim woman who lived in the town from 1765 to 1852 and was famed for her wisdom and devotion.

More recently, Siirt gave birth to Emine Hanım, wife of Turkey’s current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who actually represented the province in the National Assembly from 2003 to 2007.

I’m keen to get down that way again, and having met people from the area, we are persuaded that we will be welcomed with bountiful hospitality when we do. Turkey’s southeast may still be a little daunting for visitors from abroad, but don’t cross Istanbul or the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts off your list. To add a little perspective to the tourism business, I came across the following list on a New Zealand website under the heading “Bashing tourists now a national pastime.” In fact I am not publishing the entire list:

  • Elderly Australian Tourist Stabbed in Head at Waihi Beach, Murder Investigation Launched.
  • Haka Thugs Attack French Tourists Near Raglan.
  • Vicious Sex Attack on 5 Year Old Belgian Tourist – little girl severely injured in a frenzied attack as she lay sleeping in a campervan in Turangi.
  • Austrian tourists mugged in Palmerston North.
  • Australian honeymooners lose it all. Two tourists robbed near Milford Sound.
  • Te Anau Troubled By Tourist Attacks – drunken youths attack visitors in Te Anau
  • Swiss Campers’ Tyres Slashed In Kaikoura.
  • Chilean Tourist Robbed, Loses Life’s Work. Robbed in a motel near Auckland international airport.
  • “New Zealand is a wonderful country, but be careful as it’s not so safe” – Swiss campervan tourist loses everything in Whangarei.
  • Honeymoon Couple Lose Precious Photos. British couple robbed outside Auckland zoo.
  • Czech Tourist, Jan Fakotor, Stabbed in a Motueka backpackers.

I also found an opinion piece in mainstream Auckland daily, The New Zealand Herald, where the writer reported:

“In New Zealand, political songs get banned, politicians easily reward themselves with new election advertising funding, donations to local government candidates are still somewhat opaque, taxpayer funds get misused by politicians, and new parties face big barriers to getting into Parliament. It sounds like an authoritarian country rather than a liberal democracy.”

I don’t see any of this reported in Turkey’s media, nor do I see panic-stricken travel advisories warning tourists against visiting New Zealand. Covering your butts is one thing, but let’s get a bit of balance here guys!

Life Goes On

When friends abroad contact me asking how we are getting on Turkey in the midst of the chaos – terrorist bombings, floods of immigrants from war-torn Syria, and the aftermath of a failed military coup – I confess to some feelings of shame.

Not that I have any involvement in any of these activities, you understand. It’s just that Dilek and I, being semi-retired, have spent most of the summer in Bodrum basking in the sunshine and dipping in the sea in this little idyll on Turkey’s south Aegean coast. Events in Istanbul and Ankara seem almost as far away as those in Salez, Switzerland, Paris, France, or Milwaukee, USA.

However, we know it’s a false paradise we are inhabiting. At the end of the month I’ll be heading back to work again in Istanbul. We are well aware of the hundreds of innocent people killed or injured while resisting the automatic weapons and tanks of soldiers whose officers were attempting to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government. We appreciate the additional difficulties that government is facing as it tries to assimilate three million Syrian refugees, and sustain economic confidence at home and abroad in the face of plunging revenue from tourism, anarchy and violence in neighbouring states, black propaganda from abroad, and a damaging spat with Russia.


Wars? Coups? Refugees? What do we care?

This morning, sitting on the balcony enjoying our modest breakfast, casual conversation ceased as our eyes were drawn to a three-masted, square-rigged vessel of impressive size sailing with a brisk wind west to east across our field of vision. We see some pretty nice boats passing by during the summer, but this one was definitely out of the ordinary, and I had to check it out online. It wasn’t hard to find.

Wikipedia has this to say: The “Maltese Falcon is a state-of-the-art full rigged ship which was built by Perini Navi in Tuzla, İstanbul, and commissioned by her first owner Tom Perkins. She is one of the world’s most complex and largest sailing yachts at 88 metres (289 ft).”

Tom Perkins, God rest his soul, was comfortably ensconced on the Forbes billionaire list when he passed away earlier this year. An unabashed member of the American “One Percent”, he gained some publicity for himself in 2014 by comparing contemporary antagonism against the super-rich to Nazi Germany’s victimisation of Jews, and suggesting that the world would be a better place if people could cast votes in proportion to how much tax they paid. I think that part was a joke. As if those guys care about voting when they can pay lobbyists to pressure governments into giving them whatever they want.

Perkins is said to have paid $150 million to build the Maltese Falcon to his specs in 2006, but got bored with it three years later, selling it at a large loss (probably tax deductible) to another finance wizard (or witch) Elena Ambrosiadou. According to Forbes, “the yacht has 11,000 square feet (1,100 m2) of living space [and] fits up to 12 guests in five lower-deck staterooms and one upper-deck VIP cabin.” Of course Ms Ambrosiadou is generally busy making more money, so when she’s not using it, which Forbes tells me is most of the time, you can rent it (with eighteen crew thrown in) for $540,000 a week.


A mere 57 m, but comfortable enough for 12 passengers, I guess

Well, that was today. Star of yesterday’s show was the Meserret II, which we were quite impressed with, until we saw the Falcon. Being a mere 57 metres (187 feet) it was not so easy to find online, and whoever owns it is a little more reclusive than Mr Perkins and Ms Ambrosiadou – but judging by the Arabic name, they must be from around this part of the world. It’s also available for hire, if your budget won’t quite stretch to half a million or so dollars a week. You can still squeeze twelve passengers on board, apparently. They won’t have quite the same living space as on the Falcon, but substantially more than my ancestors had when they sailed half way around the world in 1842 on a 37 metre (120 foot) motorless sailing ship with 250 other emigrants from Scotland.

Anyway, life goes on in Turkey, as you see – and I’m feeling less ashamed of myself now.

A Black Woman in Istanbul

I came across this in my wanderings on the internet recently – thought you might be interested to see it . . .


MadameNoire has teamed up with Black Girl Fly to bring you profiles of Black girls taking travel to new heights. Each week we’ll profile a new lady, giving you the details on her latest adventure and everything you should know about being a fly Black girl abroad. 

Black Girl Fly: Tammy Freeman

Home city: I’m originally from Queens, NY but I currently reside in Northern Virginia.

Why Turkey? I stopped in Turkey on my way to Italy. Going and coming from Italy I elected for an overnight layover in Istanbul, and I’m so glad I did.

Travel companion? Solo traveler

Length of Stay: 2 days (1 day en route to Italy, 1 day en route from Italy to DC)

How much was your flight? Around $800, but I was flying to Naples, Italy. Flights to Turkey as a final destination are a bit less.

What should you know about being a Black girl in Turkey?

Being in Istanbul, I’m sure the locals have seen people from nearly every nationality. Even when I was out among the locals, no one seems shocked by me being there. It’s very much like NY, people seemed unbothered by my presence for the most part. Compared with a place, like Asia, where black skin is treated as an anomaly and most act like they’ve never seen a black person before! Turkey was amazing. Great people, a plethora of things to see and do.

A Short Trip to the Black Sea

Last Friday was a public holiday in Turkey – thanks to Karl Marx, the Second International and Tayyip Erdoğan. It was the first long weekend we’d had for a while, so Dilek and I decided to forego the pleasures of tear gas and water cannons in Taksim Square, and instead headed out of town on a tour of the western Black Sea region.

Old Ottoman houses in Safranbolu

Old Ottoman houses in Safranbolu

Time was short, and driving in Turkey on holiday weekends is another joy one can do without, so we enrolled in a two-day guided tour of Safranbolu and Amasra. It was a pretty full-on itinerary involving close to a thousand km in a coach and one night in a hotel – but definitely well worth making the effort. Tour arrangements were impressively efficient, and our guide extremely knowledgeable and good-natured.

A sparrow-fart start on Friday morning and a five-hour journey got us to our first destination in the early afternoon. Safranbolu is a small city located some 90 km from the Black Sea coast and 200-odd km north of Turkey’s capital Ankara. The region we were visiting was known in ancient times as Paphlagonia. It’s a rugged, mountainous landscape with fertile valleys, renowned for its hazel nuts, plums, cherries and pears. The Paphlagonians, apparently, were one of the ancient peoples of Anatolia, and warranted a mention in Homer’s Iliad for allying themselves with the Trojans in their war with the Greeks, brought about, as you’ll recall, by Orlando Bloom’s romantic kidnapping of Diane Kruger. Some classical authors suggest the Paphlagonians, consoling themselves for picking a loser, went on to found the city of Venice.

The kiss that launched a Hollywood blockbuster

The kiss that launched a Hollywood blockbuster

Be that as it may, our first port of call has had many names over the millennia of its existence. Whatever the Paphlagonians may have called it, it became Theodoropolis to the Pontic ‘Greeks’ and Saframpolis to the Byzantines. After the arrival of the Turks, the city was known as Zalifre and later Taraklıborlu before assuming its present appellation. There’s not a lot of pre-Turkic history to be seen nowadays. The one surviving Orthodox church, converted to a mosque after the departure of its congregation, was built in 1872 – so it’s more a tribute to the religious tolerance of the Ottomans than a reminder of Byzantine glories.

The city’s claim to fame these days, and its magnetic power for tourists is the picturesque old town centre with hundreds of Ottoman-era houses and mansions in various stages of restoration and dilapidation. So uniformly impressive is the architecture of Safranbolu’s buildings that the city features on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The old town was actually built in a valley and our first stop was the summit of Hıdırlık Hill which overlooks it. In fact the hill has its own intrinsic interest, taking its name from the Hıdrellez Festival which celebrates the coming of spring throughout the Turkic world.

Interior of Yörük Köy house

Interior of Yörük Köy house

Islam in Turkey is decidedly different from that in neighbouring Arab and other Middle Eastern countries. No doubt there are many reasons for this, but one is the influence of Turkic and Anatolian folk beliefs. On Hıdırlık Hill, for instance, there is an open-air praying area more reminiscent of Alevism than orthodox Sunni Muslim practice. The Hıdrellez ceremony includes ritual leaps over a fire, and prayers and incantations aimed at curing of sickness, wish fulfilment and finding a wife or husband. Another characteristic of Islam in Turkey is the influence of Sufi philosophy with its mystical focus on personal spiritual development rather than outward shows of religiosity.

After descending into the town itself we spent a couple of hours wandering around the maze of winding streets in the old market area with a guided tour of one of the old mansions. In Ottoman times the market was organised according to a guild system where practitioners of particular trades, such as shoe-makers, located themselves in certain streets. The only one really surviving to the present-day is that of the ironsmiths, where locks and ornamental door-handles are still manufactured by traditional methods. Before departing we paid an obligatory visit to the premises of Imren and Co., purveyors of lokum (Turkish delight) to the discerning for 73 years. Their most famous product is a sweet flavoured and coloured with saffron, produced locally and the source of the town’s name.

Crocus sativus - source of saffron spice

Crocus sativus – source of saffron spice

Turkey is not a big producer of saffron, but the local product is considered by aficionados to be amongst the world’s best. The word is said to derive from Classical Persian, and evidence has been found of its use in Assyrian and Sumerian societies dating back 4,000 years or more. The product itself is obtained by drying the stigmas of the saffron crocus. To produce one kilogram requires approximately 150,000 flowers and around 40 hours of labour to collect, which explains why saffron is said to be the world’s most expensive spice; that kilogram costing anywhere from $1,100 to $11,000 depending on quality. Its culinary and medicinal properties have made saffron a much sought after ingredient over the centuries, and a dispute over ownership of a shipload of the stuff is said to have caused a 14-year Saffron War in Europe back in the 14th century.

Our day’s itinerary took in two other places of note in the area. The first was Tokatlı Canyon, a geological feature best appreciated from an impressive glass-floored viewing platform cantilevered vertiginously over eighty-metre cliffs. The other was Yörük Village, a smaller edition of Safranbolu old town; its houses a little more dilapidated but somehow more atmospheric in consequence. Yörük in Turkish refers to the semi-nomadic culture of farmers who take their herds from the lowland winter village to upland pastures in the summer. The original inhabitants of this village were of Turkmen stock, settled there after the rise of the Ottomans. They were followers of the Sufi dervish Bektashi sect, and signs of their faith can be seen in the houses and public buildings, including the communal laundry whose 12-sided stone worktop is said to represent the twelve imams of Shi’ite and Alevi belief. Related to their religion or not, who can say, but the villagers also have a reputation for bread-making, and many migrated to Istanbul where they established successful bakeries.

Tokatlı Canyon

Tokatlı Canyon

Our accommodation for the night was in the new city located some two km from the old town. The name of our tastefully designed hotel, Zalifre, was, as you will recall, one of the earlier names of Safranbolu. Apart from tourism, the local economy has been boosted recently by the opening of a large state university – whose influence can be seen in the lively town centre with its modern cafes, bars and nightclubs. A few kilometres down the road is a huge steel works set up in 1939 as one of the new republic’s first ventures into heavy industry.

Another early start on Saturday morning took us over forest-clad mountains to the town of Amasra on the Black Sea coast. Fast-flowing braided rivers rush through deep valleys carrying snowmelt waters to the sea. The potential for dams to produce hydro-electricity is irresistible, and much of this landscape will be under water in a few years.

Amasra is another town that has been continuously inhabited for millennia on account of its natural harbour that provides refuge from the sudden violent storms sweeping across the Black Sea from the north. The Greek name Amastris is said to derive from a niece of the last Achaemenid Persian King Darius III, whose rule was terminated in 330 BCE by the world-conquering depredations of the youthful Alexander.

Amasra on the Black Sea

Amasra on the Black Sea

Thereafter the town passed into the hands of the Romans whose empire morphed into the Christian Greek-speaking Byzantine entity, causing much confusion in the minds of British schoolboys and politicians. Crimea and Ukraine are a short 300-400 km hop across the Black Sea to the north, a geographical proximity leading to much conflict between Russia and the Byzantines, and later the Ottomans. Amasra was sacked by the Rus in 830 CE, and became briefly part of the minor empire of Trebizond in 1204 before the Seljuk Turks moved in. They in turn were superseded by the Genoese, wandering far from their Italian homeland in search of trading opportunities. The Roman Catholic Republic of Genoa controlled the town for 200 years and it was from them the Ottomans seized it in 1460, not from the Orthodox Christian ‘Greeks’.

Amasra was a walled town, and ancient inhabitants bridged the short gap to the larger of two offshore islands, turning the site into a peninsula. Much of the old fortifications remain, including the citadel, rebuilt, of course, over the centuries. You can see reused stones from earlier times, including Genoese crosses and coats of arms, and a time-worn but recognisable head of Medusa beside one of the gates.

A church and chapel survive from Byzantine times, though converted for worship by the newer faith. A market area caters for the tourist trade, selling an interesting range of wooden crafts, some of which are not made in China. There is also a produce market selling preserves, jams, pickles and what not made from local fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy products, butter and cheese, for which the Black Sea region is also noted.

A view from Ağlayan Ağaç

A view from Ağlayan Ağaç

Spring comes a little later in this part of the country, so we were a little disappointed not to get the full show of wild flowers – but the weather was fine and warm, and there were plenty of picturesque vistas, especially from the hilltop district known as Ağlayan Ağaç (click for 360° panoramas). The name means ‘The Weeping Tree’ in Turkish, and the tree itself is a very old cypress that apparently actually sheds tears occasionally during the springtime. The sadly prosaic scientific explanation is that the phenomenon is caused by moist sea air condensing on the leaves of the tree and falling in droplets. Nevertheless, a simple tea garden and a marvelous view over the town and the Black Sea coastline east and west make the steep ascent worthwhile.

Our tour ended with lunch in a seaside restaurant, and a meal of fish accompanied by fresh green salad and locally baked bread. We still had a six-hour coach ride back to Istanbul, but we can definitely recommend the experience and the tour company, etstur.