Celebrating World Turkish Coffee Day!

turkish-coffee-pots-for-saleSorry I’m a bit late with this. If it’s not too late, get down to your nearest “Kahve Dünyası” – I’m told you’ll get a cup of Turkish coffee on the house!

Here’s a little Turkish verse to accompany it:

Gönül ne kahve ister, ne kahvehane

Gönül ahbap ister – kahve bahane.

The heart needs neither coffee not coffeehouse.

The heart seeks friendship – coffee is the excuse.



Urban Renewal in Istanbul – Tilting at windmills

Kült mkz

Former St Euphemia School and Eglise N.D. du Rosaire

Dilek and I went to a concert of classical music last night. The setting was a small but beautifully restored Roman Catholic church in the Istanbul district of Rasimpaşa. There was a chamber orchestra and a talented young pianist, Nilüfer Kıyıcılardan, playing a programme of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

We arrived twenty minutes early and were fortunate to find two of the last unclaimed seats – somewhat surprising, given that the venue is not on any well-beaten social track, and the event had received little publicity. I had stumbled upon it accidentally during the week while researching for this post.

These days Istanbul resembles what I imagine New York City to have been during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a vast construction site. Tunnels are driving under, and bridges over the Bosporus and the Gulf of Izmit; subterranean Metro lines burrow in all directions beneath the city; vast commercial and residential projects rise to the winter sky; hectares of run-down inner city blocks are giving way to new up-market apartments; and domed monumental mosques springing up to occupy landmark sites; all presided over by multitudes of arachnoid construction cranes.


‘1453’ – a new conquest of Istanbul by megalomaniac developers

Not everyone is happy, of course. I wrote a piece some years ago on a conflict between local residents and guests at an art gallery opening that made international news at the time. Many of us prefer shopping in local traditional small businesses to the homogeneity of climate-controlled malls; and have questions about the wisdom of allowing the national economy to be dominated by a bloated and parasitic financial sector. Local residents whose families may have lived in a neighbourhood for generations are resentful of being pushed out by the new urban yuppie class – some of the latter even mourn the loss of traditional colour that inevitably accompanies such development. Lovers of the atmospheric decay that characterised old Istanbul in recent memory have issues with way restoration is carried out on world heritage buildings. And then there are the megalomaniac property developers who seem to ride roughshod with impunity over zoning and town-planning regulations.

Yeldeğirmeni (1)

Abdülhamit I’s windmills

Me? I’m ambivalent, I guess. I’m appalled when I look out a window on our university campus and see the abomination of the Ağaoğlu ‘1453’ development blighting what was once a forested landscape. On the other hand, I love the Marmaray Metro, and feel sorry for those who refuse to ride it for fear that the waters of the Bosporus will pour in upon them while their train is half way through. I’m a fatalist when it comes to such matters. But I want to tell you about my recent discovery – the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy.

One thing I learned is that the neighbourhood goes by two names. Until recently it was known by its official one, Rasimpaşa, after a small mosque dedicated to a relatively minor Ottoman official who served as mayor of Istanbul for a couple of months in 1878. Tradition says that Rasim’s loving wife, Ikbal Hanim, had the mosque built on the site of an earlier ruin. Be that as it may, more picturesque, and arguably more significant is the district’s earlier history.

Valpreda bn 1

Italian Valpreda Apartment Building

Tourist brochures about Istanbul often mention that Khalkedon (Kadıköy) was originally a larger city than Byzantium/Constantinople across the water. The name is translated as ‘City of the Blind’ in tribute, apparently, to the failure of its inhabitants to recognise the obvious superiority of the other site. Dating from 675 BCE, its defensive walls are believed to have extended as far as Rasimpaşa.

The Asian city’s importance waned after the foundation of Constantinople as capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Following its conquest by the Ottomans, its environs became a popular location for the city’s elite to build summer mansions on the banks of the Haydarpaşa Stream that once flowed there. There were also barracks and a training ground for imperial cavalry and infantry. The Marmaray Metro line currently terminates at a station in front of the modern Tepe Nautilus shopping mall. The station is called Ayrılık Çeşmesi, and the eponymous fountain was the gathering point for Ottoman armies departing on campaigns to the east, and caravans of pilgrims setting out for Mecca. As an interesting aside, the fountain is said to have been commissioned by Kızlarağası Gazanfer Ağa – whose title refers to his responsibility for the ladies of the imperial harem. Nice work if you can get it! In the late 18th century, Sultan Abdülhamit I had several windmills erected to supply the needs of the military and local residents – and from the Turkish word for windmill (yel değirmeni) comes the name that is supplanting the memory of that short-lived city mayor.


5659 in the Jewish calendar = 1898 C.E.

From the mid-19th century Rasimpaşa began to take on a more residential character. The present pattern of streets was laid out, and Istanbul’s first post office opened there. The city had always been prone to disastrous fires, and after a particularly bad one that devastated the Kuzguncuk district, Jewish families moved in and established Istanbul’s first apartment buildings. The Hemdat Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving in Istanbul, entered service in 1899 after Sultan Abdülhamit II stepped in personally to moderate in a violent quarrel between the Jews and the Orthodox and Armenian communities. It seems Christians objected to the construction of a synagogue in the district. It is said that the Jewish community named the synagogue in a way that recognised their gratitude to the sultan for his assistance – the Hebrew consonants for ‘Hemdat’ can also be read as ‘Hamid’. Anyway, in the interests of natural justice, the Orthodox lot were allowed to erect their own place of worship, the church of Ayia Yeorgios, a few years later in 1906. Both buildings are still standing, though their congregations have been sadly depleted over the years.

Taş frn 2

Simits with a touch of history

Development became more rapid in the early 20th century with the building of the Haydarpaşa train station as a key link on the Berlin-Baghdad railway line. Italian stonemasons came to work on the project, as well as German architects, engineers and builders. The edifice that currently serves as Orhangazi Primary School was also built around this time to provide education for the children of the German professionals. Among the more noteworthy apartment blocks from this time are the five-storey Italian (Valpreda), Demirciyan and Kehribarcı buildings.

Underlining the multicultural character of the district, and the tolerant attitude of the Muslim Ottoman government, Roman Catholics even managed to get a big foot in the door. A gaggle of nuns calling themselves the Oblates[1] of the Assumption established a school in the name of St Euphemia in 1895. RC education continued here until some kind of dispute took place with the Republican government in 1934. As a result, the nuns departed and the school was taken over by the Turkish Ministry of Education, eventually assuming its present role as Kemal Ataturk Anatolian High School. Next door to the school is the small (now deconsecrated) church dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Sacred Rosary, where Dilek and I were privileged to hear last night’s delightful concert.

Street art 2

Mural-İst street art

A recent article in the Kadikoy Life magazine contains an interesting quote by a former resident of the district:

“The bakers, sweets and helva-sellers were Turkish; the grocers and restaurateurs, Greek; the greengrocers and chemists, Jewish; the butchers, Armenian, and the dairymen, Bulgarian. People from every religion and ethnic background lived happily together. Our neighbours to the right were Greek, the ones on the left were Turks; directly opposite were Armenians, next to them another Greek family, and on the far side, they were Jewish. Neighbourly relations were excellent; we all respected each other’s special days.”

Sadly, the tide of history brought cataclysmic events on to the world stage that destroyed the harmony of those halcyon days – waves of violent nationalism, the slaughter of the First World War, the Greek invasion of Anatolia, and the Turkish War of Liberation. The world would never be the same, and Istanbul suffered as much as anywhere.

Kamarad cafe

Cem and İnci brewing coffee for connoisseurs

I was motivated to explore the neighbourhood after visiting a café recently, run by the daughter of a friend. Trendy cafés are sprouting there like truffles in a Piedmont autumn, and Kamarad is one of the latest. İnci and Cem are catering to the true coffee connoisseur, importing beans from various sources in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Columbia), roasting and grinding them on site, and offering delicious brews produced by the method of your choice: the familiar espresso machine and French press, or more esoteric techniques, chemex and V60. They are also supplying beans to other businesses nearby.

One of the more striking features of the new Kadıköy is the proliferation of enormous surrealistic outdoor murals that confront you unexpectedly as you stroll around the narrow back streets. Kadıköy Municipal Council has sponsored an annual street art festival, Mural-İst, for the last four years. Seven local and nine foreign artists have turned their talents to the enlivening of the neighbourhood, with impressive results.

The old days will never return, of course, but the new/old district of Yeldeğirmeni may be showing the way to a better future.


[1] Oblates, it seems, are one step down in the holy orders, following less stringent rules than is usual for monastic orders.

Turkish Coffee Culture – A 500-year tradition

Rediscovering traditional culture

Rediscovering traditional culture

When I first came to Istanbul back in the dying years of the 20th century it wasn’t easy to find a decent cup of coffee. One of the reasons, I came to understand, was that there had been a time, not long before, when tea bags and instant coffee were restricted imports, and according to that invariable rule of economics, desirability had increased in proportion to scarcity on the market. Nescafe and tea were served everywhere in European-style cups, with the option of Turkish coffee of somewhat variable quality.

In fact, European- or American-style, or low quality imitations thereof, pervaded much of life in Istanbul in those days. Traditional features of Turkish culture had been more or less isolated in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, or relegated to the back streets of the poorer parts of town. High school graduation ceremonies were excruciatingly interminable extravaganzas of deafeningly over-amplified Elgar-esque pomp and circumstance with students regaled in gawdy pseudo-academic gowns and caps and teachers relegated to positions of lackeydom.

Well, times have changed, at least in the world outside private-sector education. Opening the country’s doors to globalisation brought the delights of McDonalds and Burger King, Starbucks and Gloria Jeans to a people starved of hamburgers and quality java. Interestingly, at the same time as international, multi-national and transnational fast-food franchises began to invade the streets of Istanbul, they seemed to trigger an offensive/defensive reaction from local entrepreneurs.

Ottoman coffeehouse

Ottoman coffeehouse

Almost overnight, Turks seemed to discover that their own home-grown culture was capable of competing with, perhaps even bettering the imported offerings. Tasteful chain eateries and up-market boutique restaurants began repackaging döner kebab, lahmacun, çiğ köfte and other local specialities. The last-named traditional delicacy, highly spiced raw minced lamb kneaded into edibility by muscular men from the southeast has been reinvented in vegetarian form. Muhallebeci cafes such as Saray, specialising in irresistible local desserts, have appeared all over town. Simit Sarayı and a host of imitators have not only added a touch of class to the incomparable and indescribable simit, but have begun a reciprocal invasion of their own, taking Turkish fast-food cuisine to Fifth Avenue and Oxford Street. The nargile or water-pipe, not many years ago seen mostly in seedy back-street hang-outs of elderly men, has become a ubiquitous feature of tea-gardens, bars and cafes frequented by the new generation youth.

However, it is coffee culture that has responded most enthusiastically to the threat of foreign invasion. Kahve Dünyası, Kahve Diyarı, Gönül Kahvesi and several other local chains have begun emulating and improving on the coffee and ambience provided by better-known international brands. Roasting and grinding their own brews, packaging them for the drink-at-home market, and adding side dishes of chocolates and lokum (Turkish delight), these post-modern coffee-houses are carrying the fight to Starbucks, and have succeeded in driving Gloria Jeans into the niche market of high-end shopping centres.

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Whatever the link between the modern republic of Turkey and the defunct Ottoman Empire may be, and despite criticism of the AK Party government for its supposed neo-Ottoman aspirations, there is no doubt that Turkey’s people have begun to rediscover and appreciate their own traditional roots and cultures, at the same time as the outside world has begun showing greater interest. In 2013, UNESCO added Turkish coffee to the list it calls The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Currently to be seen in the grounds of Topkapı Palace is an exhibition entitled A Drop of Pleasure – The 500-Year Story of Turkish Coffee.

I have sometimes wondered how primitive human beings first discovered certain gastronomic delights. OK, bananas are pretty straightforward. Pick it off the palm, peel it, eat it – a monkey could do it. Coconuts? A tad more difficult to get at, but once you’ve cracked it open, there it is, ready to eat, or drink, or whatever. But what about olives? Pretty unappetising in their natural state. Who figured out how to soak them and salt them etc to produce the tasty little green or black morsels we love today? Then there’s bread, leavened or unleavened, not to mention beer, wine and spirits. There must have been some disastrous offerings concocted before our ancestors hit on the best recipes. And take a look at a coffee bean straight off the tree. You pick it, roast it, grind it and boil it into something unrecognisable but euphoria-inducing. Who figured that out?

Berries on the Coffea plant

Berries on the Coffea plant

According to legend, it was an Ethiopian goatherd who first stumbled upon the magic properties of Coffea arabica. Apparently his goats had been unusually frolicsome of late, and he came to the conclusion that their high spirits came from munching on the berries of a particular tree growing on the hillsides. He tentatively sampled a few himself but was unimpressed, goats teeth and digestive systems being more sympathetic to rough fare such as gorse and blackberry bushes. Still curious, however, he took a handful home to his more enterprising wife who, after a few unproductive experiments, hit on a method of boiling the leaves and beans together to make a kind of tea.

At first the resulting brew was treated largely as medicinal, and a local doctor acquired quite a reputation for curing just about everything from heart disease to chronic depression. Soon, however, the populace, discovering that coffee beans, unlike money, actually grew on trees,  began bypassing the middleman. The craze spread from Ethiopia to Yemen in happier days before the Saudi Arabs started bombing the bejabers out of them, and the Yemenis are said to have been the first to roast, grind and boil something resembling our modern brew. The drink began finding its way into the Ottoman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century and before long coffeehouses were springing up Istanbul like mushrooms . . . or Starbucks franchises. Coffee drinking and the ritual surrounding its preparation and consumption are credited with exerting a civilising and socialising influence on Turkish culture with its traditional male focus on horses, camels and warfare.

The Topkapı exhibition contains around 800 pictures and artifacts illustrating different aspects of this 500-year story: from potted Caffea bushes to carved stone sarcophagi of Kayseri noblemen depicting the paraphernalia associated with their favourite beverage. Originally the roasted beans were ground to a fine powder with pestle and mortar. Even today, the old method of cooking the coffee on charcoal embers is experiencing a revival. Connoisseurs maintain that coffee needs to be slowly brought to the boil over a period of five minutes or so to bring out the best flavour.

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

The cezve (djezveh), a small specially designed pot in which coffee is cooked, was made from copper, tinned on the inside, narrowing towards the top with a spout for pouring – nowadays available in a left-handed version. Turkish coffee cups are espresso-sized in an infinite variety of designs and decorations. The older style china or porcelain handle-less cup fitted inside a sleeve of worked silver is also staging a comeback, in less-precious metals for general use.

The coffee is measured and prepared according to the number of guests – cold water, ground coffee and sugar (if desired) are mixed together and slowly brought to the boil, at which point froth forms on top. The presence of froth is indispensible, and disappears if the coffee is allowed to continue boiling. Your coffee should be served with a small glass of water and a cube of lokum. According to Turkish culture, drinking coffee is synonymous with friendship. A well known rhyme goes:

Gönül ne kahve ister, ne kahvehane;                       The heart wants neither coffee nor coffeehouse

Gönül ahbap ister, kahve bahane.                The heart wants friendship, coffee is the excuse.

Traditionally it was associated with tobacco-smoking, in nargile or long-stemmed pipes. Formerly public coffeehouses were a male domain, but a recent resurgence has seen the water-pipe culture cross the gender divide.

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

The joys of coffee do not end with the drinking. The cooking process results in a few millimetres of sludgy sediment in the bottom of the cup. For the novice drinker this can create a problem and turn some off the beverage. If you persist, however, you will learn when to take your last lees-free sip, thereafter turning your cup upside down on its saucer while intoning a kind of spell: Neyse halim, çıksın falım (Let the cup show what life will bring me). When the mixture cools, the resulting unique pattern of dregs in the cup can be interpreted by a falcı – usually a woman skilled in the arcane arts of fortune-telling. Which may help to explain why personal psychiatric analysts are less common in Turkish culture.

Afiyet olsun!

So Long, and Thanks for all the Coffee – Getting out of Yemen

Once upon a time, in the city of al-Mukha, there lived a Sufi mystic, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadili. He used to travel around the region and was much respected for his wise teachings and his ability to heal the sick. One day, while in Ethiopia, he saw a flock of birds whose unusual activity and excited behaviour attracted his attention. He noticed that the birds were feeding on the berries of a certain plant, and he decided to try the berries himself. On tasting them, however, he found them to be unpleasantly bitter. He tried roasting them, but they became too hard to eat. Finally he boiled them to soften them, and the result was a fragrant brown liquid which he drank. Within a short time he found himself revitalised and full of energy. Subsequently he returned to his hometown and began using his new miracle drug in the treatment of patients. The success of his cures established his reputation, and he was made a saint.

Palestinian women grinding coffee in happier days

Palestinian women grinding coffee in happier days

Abu al-Hasan’s hometown is better known to most of us as Mocha, in what is now Yemen. We may not be able to precisely locate the city on a map, but we are almost certainly aware of it as an item on Starbucks’ menu of available beverages – and the wise Sufi’s medicinal berries were, of course, the fruit of the coffee plant.

Coffee aside, Yemen’s main appeal to the rest of the world has been its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Empire added it to their dominions in 1538, largely for its importance in guarding sea access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (against the Portuguese) – though a side benefit was their discovery of the joys of coffee-drinking. A century or so later ‘java’ culture passed into Western Europe when the first coffee house was opened in Vienna. There is, I understand, no truth to the legend that Sultan Mehmet IV’s unsuccessful siege of that city in 1683 was motivated by a desire to punish the Viennese for infringement of patent.

Where to find Yemen

Where to find Yemen

The rising red tide of British imperialism washed ashore on the coast of Yemen in 1838 when the Brits bombarded and seized the port of Aden – subsequently signing treaties of ‘friendship and protection’ with the local Arab tribes. The port became a vital refuelling station for steamships on their way to India, the Jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown, and South Yemen remained a British Protectorate until 1967.

North and South Yemen united in 1990 to form a single independent state, whose independence, however, has been fraught with difficulties, and the county has struggled to free itself from outside interference. President for the first 22 years of its existence was Ali Abdullah Saleh, under whose guiding hand Yemen attained the status of a kleptocracy[1], and a ranking of 164th out of 182 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In spite of this, his misguided support of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbour in 2000, the neighbouring Saudi royal family have been transferring large payments into the pockets of tribal leaders and certain members of the regime, and the US Government has been providing annual military aid to Saleh, amounting to $140 million as recently as 2010. Despite the existence in Yemen of a major Al Qaeda franchise (AQAP) Saleh apparently managed to convince George Dubya Bush that he was an ally in the ‘war against terror’.

George Dubya had nothing against Muslim dictators

George Dubya had nothing against Muslim dictators

Who can know what’s really going on? The Saudis and the US were angry with Saleh for opposing the use of force against Iraq back in 1991 – yet his friendship with Saddam Hussein had made him popular with Washington in the days when Saddam was the enemy of their enemy Iran. Both countries were conspicuous by their non-involvement in Yemen’s Arab Spring protests in 2011 in spite of the brutality with which the demonstrations were suppressed. More recently they began to support internal demands for Saleh’s resignation – but his replacement was his own vice-president, and Saleh was to be granted immunity from prosecution.

Now it seems we have a new militant Islamic group in the region – Houthi rebels who are apparently of Shi’ite persuasion with close links to Iran. This, I guess will be another headache for the US Government as it attempts to build bridges with its former implacable foe. As Houthi forces have captured the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the US state Department has closed its embassy there and instructed US citizens to leave the country. This apparently means more than the loss of employment for a few diplomatic staff. It seems that the Sanaa Embassy was the headquarters of CIA operatives coordinating a campaign of drone-strike killings in the area. According to a news report in Time Magazine, ‘There were 23 U.S. drone strikes reported in Yemen last year, 26 in 2013 and 41 in 2012.’ In 2009 US warplanes targeting Al Qaeda training camps wiped out an entire village with a salvo of cruise missiles, killing as many as 60 civilians, among them 28 children.

13th century gate at Yemen's capital, Sanaa

13th century gate at Yemen’s capital, Sanaa

That Time article quoted President Obama, in a breath-taking sound-byte of political understatement, saying, ‘Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability.’ Apart from the brutal suppression of internal dissent, the country ranks among the world’s poorest, with 45% of the population living in poverty. So perhaps we should not be altogether surprised that some militants, Muslim or otherwise, might be tempted to seek a solution of their own.

The country’s neighbours, however, immediately went crying to the United Nations, insisting that the international community should take forceful action. Those neighbours expressed their call to arms via the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) which consists of such shining lights of democratic freedom and champions of human rights as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their goals for Yemen, they say, are ‘preserving legitimacy’ and ‘resuming the political process’ – and if the UN doesn’t do the right thing, they may take matters into their own hands.

You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the USS Cole returned to naval service after repairs following that attack 15 years ago. Its most recent deployment, on 8 February 2015, was a cruise into the Black Sea ‘to promote peace and stability in the region.’ My source here is a website calling itself US Naval Forces Europe-Africa/US 6th Fleet. The report goes on to say: ‘Cole’s presence in the Black Sea will serve to reaffirm the U.S. dedication to commitment towards strengthening the partnerships and joint operational capabilities amongst U.S., NATO and regional Black Sea partners. Cole entered Black Sea in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The United States continues to demonstrate its commitment to the collective security of our NATO allies and support for our partners in Europe, in light of the on-going Russian intervention in Ukraine.’

America's beloved Black Sea partners

America’s beloved Black Sea partners

Not merely ‘commitment’, you notice, but ‘dedication to commitment’! Incidentally, those ‘regional Black Sea partners’, apart from Ukraine, are Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia – all of them located some distance from the Atlantic Ocean. I suspect it is exactly that kind of aggressive American foray into Russia’s backyard that has prompted President Vladimir Putin to start drawing lines in the sand.

By the way, the Yemeni gentleman who brought coffee to the world way back when was, of course, a Muslim. The belief system of the Sufi (Tasawouf in Arabic) ‘has been referred to as a path, a journey, a journey of the heart. Such a journey has a beginning; a point of departure that leads towards a destination. A Sufi takes an inner journey to attain the knowledge of Self, a knowledge that leads towards the understanding the Divine. A journey towards understanding such truth will necessarily involve steps; one has to pass through stations of learning, awareness and understanding.’

Don’t we need a little of that in the world these days!


[1] A country whose ruler uses his power to steal the country’s resources

The Kadıköy Bull – A picaresque tale

I don’t spend a lot of time in Starbucks. It’s not that I have any major philosophical objection to them. Their website tells me it is their “mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit,” and I applaud that. It also asserts that they are “passionate about ethically sourcing the finest coffee beans, roasting them with great care, and improving the lives of people who grow them.” No exploitation of labour in the developing world either. I can sip my latté with a clear conscience.
Kadıköy’s rampaging bull
So there I was, the other day, in Altıyol Starbucks, Kadıköy, sitting high above the intersection where six roads intersect and the antique tram turns right into Bahariye Avenue pedestrian mall. With a few minutes to spare and nothing much else to attract my attention, I found myself reading the text of an informative mural on the back wall, purporting to tell the history of the Kadıköy Bull.
Altıyol is a popular meeting point for locals heading for an evening out in the district’s multitude of bars, cafés and restaurants. It’s an easy location to find, even for those unfamiliar with the area, because right there, on an island in the middle of the intersection, is a very realistic life-sized bronze statue of a well-endowed bull, head lowered, vicious-looking horns ready to gore and maim. Say, “I’ll meet you at The Bull”, and everyone will know where you mean. Ask for directions to ‘The Bull’ and anyone will point you the way.
Nevertheless I was curious to learn how, when and why the taurine beast had come to be in that location. Republican Turkey is replete with statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, mounted on a rampant stallion, at a blackboard instructing children on the use of his new Latin alphabet, or merely standing presidentially dignified in a well-cut suit gazing pensively into the future. Graeco-Roman Constantinople was, I understand, well supplied with imperial statuary mounted on pedestals in squares and fora around the ancient city. Ottoman Istanbul, however, a Muslim city, did not go in for idolatrous representations of the human form (or animal for that matter). So the Kadıköy Bull is a beast of a different nature.
So I read with interest the information on the back wall of the Altıyol Starbucks. ‘The Bull’, it informed me, was created by the French sculptor Isidore Bonheur in 1864 and erected, so to speak, in a square in the then French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. I say ‘then’ because that region has long been disputed. Lorraine is undoubtedly French – but German Shepherd dogs are alternatively known as Alsatians, a fact which hints at the problem. So it was that when Prince Otto von Bismarck was aggressively uniting Germany, his Prussian army humiliated the French and seized the disputed borderlands, acquiring, in 1871, as an incidental spoil of war, the bull in question. In Germany it remained, the Starbucks wall tells me, until Kaiser Wilhelm gifted it to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V in 1917.
All well and good – but I couldn’t resist googling that French sculptor, Isidore Bonheur. Sure enough, there was such a gentleman (1827-1901), and he did indeed specialize in animals, his bulls being apparently of particular note, one even having found its way to Venezuela . . . but not to Turkey, according to a definitive list of his oeuvres.
So I did a little more googling, and found varying stories on several websites. According to Milliyet newspaper archives, the statue was actually commissioned in 1864 from another French sculptor, Pierre Louis Rouillard (1820-1881) by Sultan Abdülaziz. It seems that sultan was quite a fan, and ordered a number of other pieces at the same time – which I now intend to keep an eye out for. A list of Rouillard’s works, however, states that The Bull was still in France for the Paris Exposition of 1878, and that M. Bonheur did in fact have a hand in its construction.
Another Turkish site, Finans Caddesi, concurs in attributing The Bull to the combined efforts of Rouillard and Bonheur, but returns to the Starbucks date of 1917. Originally, they tell us, he was set up in the grounds of the Beylerbeyi Palace – admittedly constructed as a summer getaway by said Abdülaziz in the 1860s, which may account for some of the confusion. This source, however, maintains that our bovine beast was actually a present from Kaiser Wilhelm to Enver Pasha, Ottoman Minister of War and leading member of the Young Turk triumvirate which more or less ruled the empire during the First World War. The Pasha was Number One OttoMAN at that time, but his star lost its glitter when his country was defeated. Sacked by the sultan, he and his two buddies Talat and Cemal fled into exile, presciently anticipating the Court-Martial that found them guilty in absentia of war crimes (including the infamous deportation of Armenians) and condemned them to death.
Enver, it seems, attempted to stay involved in the affairs of his country after the foundation of the Republic, but was not much loved by the founding president, Mustafa Kemal, which pretty much sealed his fate. According to biographers, deprived of a role in the new Turkey, Enver Pasha turned to meddling in the affairs of another new state, Soviet Russia, and was killed in a skirmish while fighting for his vision of a Pan-Turkic union in Central Asia. Originally buried where he fell in Tajikstan, his remains were apparently brought back to Turkey in 1996 and reinterred in the Istanbul district of Şişli.
But getting back to our Bull . . . according to Finans Caddesi, he was moved to the grounds of the new Hilton, opened in 1955 as Istanbul’s first modern five-star hotel. From there, for some reason, in 1969 he was relocated to Kadıköy, to the garden of the old local government building on the waterfront, whence it was a short rampage up the hill to his present site at Altıyol. Whatever the actual route taken, our beast, despite his seemingly immovable bronze bulk, has apparently made quite a tour of the city.
Well, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Enver Pasha – an important figure in Turkey’s march to modernity, despite his tarnished reputation. Then I came across a website, Bir Istanbul Hayali, which took me back to the other claim involving Sultan Abdülaziz’s 1864 order, insisting that the controversial critter had been put to pasture in the garden of the newly constructed Beylerbeyi Palace in 1865. From there, for some reason, he was conveyed to a more rural setting, the so-called Bilezikçi Çiftliği (Farm), whence he subsequently visited a couple of aristocratic manor houses and had a spell in front of the Lütfi Kırdar Sports and Exhibition hall in Harbiye, before eventually finding his way to Kadıköy, first to the old council building on the waterfront and thence to the Altıyol intersection in 1987.
So who do we believe? Another site I visited was insistent that our Bull had been spotted at a Universal Exhibition in Paris. Faded photographs seem to confirm this, though there appears to be confusion over the date – this source sets it in 1867, however there was indeed an exhibition in 1878, and another in 1889 celebrating the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. It is, of course, possible that there was more than one bull, but then that begs the question – where are the others now?
Isn’t the Internet a fabulous monument to the genius of humanity! Here I am sitting at my desk at home following these leads in a way I couldn’t have imagined not so very long ago. One of my favourite relatively unknown heroes is the guy credited with inventing the ‘www’, an Englishman by the name of Tim Berners-Lee. Well, to be fair, Good Queen Bess II did honour him with a knighthood in 2004, and in 2012 the Sultan of Oman awarded him the Sultan Qaboos Order for Culture, Science and Arts (First Class) – but still, where would Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been without him? And who made all the money? But thanks to Sir Timothy I have been able to roam through space and time from the Bull in Kadıköy to the estate of a wealthy Ottoman Armenian back in the mid-19th century, and to learn about a talented and unusual musician in 21st century Los Angeles.
Names are important, aren’t they? And I liked the sound of that website Bir İstanbul Hayali – ‘An Istanbul Dream’. Maybe that’s why the name of that farm caught my eye – Bilezikçi Çiftliği. There has been much ado in recent months about one of the Turkish Government’s mega-projects, a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, whose construction requires building approach roads through one of the city’s last extensive sylvan areas, the Belgrade Forest. Well, apparently the so-called Bilezikçi Farm is an extensive estate adjoining that forest, named after the Armenian Bilezikçiyan family who owned it back in Ottoman times.
The first hit in my next Google search turned up a news itemfrom Milliyet newspaper in April 2006 reporting that one of Turkey’s largest companies, Alarko Holding, owned by a Jewish gentleman, İshak Alaton, was upset with the government. Apparently Alarko Holding was/is the current owner of the 400 hectare ‘Bilezikçi’ estate which borders on the Belgrade Forest – and in the interests of free market capitalism, was planning, for the benefit of wealthy foreign residents of Istanbul, a major development incorporating 4,000 luxury villas and sports facilities including basketball and volleyball courts, and a golf course.
Public park – or villas for wealthy foreign ex-pats?
According to the report, the government decided to step in and expropriate the estate, with the aim of turning it over for public recreation and forestry research, offering to pay Alarko €6.1 million as compensation. It seems Mr Alaton and his team believed they would get a good deal more from the wealthy foreigners, and were taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights – an interesting interpretation of ‘human rights’, you might think. As far as I can gather, the case has not yet been resolved – although construction on the 3rd Bosporus Bridge is well under way and the government continues to field a good deal of criticism over it.
As for the Bilezikçiyan family, like many of their congregation, they were extremely successful and influential people back in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Another source tells me that, in the 1850s, a certain Agop Bilezikçiyan and several other Armenian businessmen were involved in the establishment of Turkey’s first limited liability company, Şirket-i Hayriye, forerunner of the company that today runs Istanbul’s ferries. In 1910 their large rural estate was sold to a buyer referred to simply as Abraham Pasha, and shortly after, in 1913, passed into the hands of a certain Nimetullah Hanım, wife of that Enver Pasha we spoke of earlier.
What happened to ‘The Bull’ during those lost years? Did it ever, in fact, graze in the pastures of the Bilezikçiyan Farm? And what became of the Bilezikçiyans themselves? I have no idea how common it is or was among people of Armenian descent. I did come across a passing reference to the name in a fascinating paperdiscussing the activities of Armenian separatist gangs in Anatolia during the First World War. And undoubtedly Enver Pasha was no big supporter of Armenians. On a more peaceful and artistic note, I turned up a contemporary ‘Armenian Los Angeles-based musician and composer’, John Bilzikjian whose music I intend to hunt out.

In future, when I pass that muscular masculine bronze brute posing for photographs at the Altıyol traffic lights, I will perhaps muse a little on the transitory nature of human affairs, the complexities of history and the need we all have for a thread to lead us safely out of the labyrinth.

What Have Turks Given the World?

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

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


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

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