Tales of Ottoman women – and a little revisionist history

Üsküdar on the Anatolian shore of the Bosporus is one of my favourite districts in Istanbul. I lived there for three or four years in a small apartment I bought before the current property boom began. For the money I paid I would have been lucky to buy a car parking space in downtown Auckland.

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Looking past the Maiden’s Tower to Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet.

These days Üsküdar is rapidly moving up-market. Its ferry terminals despatch passengers to Beşiktaş, Eminönü and other parts of the city. It is a major station on the Marmara Metro line that dives through a tunnel under the Bosporus, linking “the two continents of Europe and Asia”, if you’re one who believes that Ancient Roman stuff – and a newer line heading out through this huge city’s Anatolian urban sprawl. It has possibly Istanbul’s most magnificent views – from here you can stroll along the Bosporus foreshore and watch the sun setting behind the domes and minarets of the city that served as capital of three major world empires.

The Üsküdar Municipal Council is a go-ahead team providing services to citizens rich and poor, while restoring its rich heritage of Ottoman buildings, constructing major new facilities such as sports and cultural centres, developing parks and open recreational spaces, and encouraging commercial projects.

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A little imperialist propaganda. Did she actually get to the battlefields?

Last week I spent a day strolling around my old haunts, bringing myself up-to-date on what’s going on in this fascinating district. In my primary school days we were told about the brave English nurse, Florence Nightingale, who cared for her empire’s soldiers wounded in the Crimean War back in the 1850s. We were never told why those imperial troops were over there fighting the Russians in Crimea. Much like the heroic horsemen of the Light Brigade, ours was not to reason why. Nurse Nightingale’s hospital was in Scutari – and after coming to Turkey I learned that was what Brits insisted on calling Ottoman Üsküdar.

It was a stubborn insistence, obstinately ignoring the fact that Üsküdar, and Istanbul itself, had been in Ottoman hands for 500 years. As you cross the Bosporus on your ferry, one of the many mosques you see was commissioned by Rum Mehmet Pasha, grand vizier of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1469 – four centuries before Ms Nightingale appeared on the scene.

According to official figures, there are 186 mosques in Üsküdar, a tribute to the district’s importance in the religious life of Istanbul’s Muslim community. I have a vivid memory of the first night I spent in my new apartment, woken at an unholy (in my opinion) hour before sunrise on a summer morning by a mind-numbing cacophony of sound from 186 muezzins competing, with the aid of electronic amplification via speakers attached to the tops of their minarets, for the attendance of the prayerful.

Well, it is not my intention to enter into a discussion about the religious ramifications of modern electronics. I am continually learning about the role Üsküdar has played in the life of local Muslims, and I find the subject endlessly enthralling. The final station on the Marmaray Metro line after Üsküdar is called “Ayrılıkceşmesi” – “The Fountain of Departure”. It was here the faithful gathered in bygone days before embarking on the long overland journey to the Holy City of Mecca, a pilgrimage all good Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime.

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Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb

High on the slopes between Üsküdar and the neighbouring district of Kadıköy lies the extensive cemetery of Karacaahmet. It is a vast necropolis, these days intersected by busy urban roads, but still providing an important oasis of oxygen-emitting trees for those yet alive in this vast urban conglomeration.

As I passed one entrance of the cemetery I noticed a conspicuous sign calling attention to the Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb. In case you don’t know, a “cemevi” is a place of worship for followers of the Alevi sect. Alevis are an intriguing demographic in Turkey, making up between 10 and 20% of its people. That statistic in itself is thought-provoking, given Turkey’s 80 million population. Why such inaccuracy?

Modern Turkey is a nation of paradoxes, one of which is that, while its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established a secular republic, citizens are still required to state their religion and have it recorded on their official ID document. They don’t have to identify as Sunni Muslim or Alevi but Sunni is what most Turks are, at least in their cultural upbringing. Alevis, on the other hand, insofar as you can pin down their heterodox beliefs, adhere to the Shia branch of Islam – and have traditionally had an uneasy relationship with the Sunni majority. For that reason, I was surprised to see this cemevi so publicly announcing its presence. I had heard of its existence but never previously been able to locate it. I’m happy to see that, in spite of the antipathy many Alevi people seem to feel for the AK Party government, they are at least now able to identify themselves openly – as may not have been the case in the past.

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Janissaries – once a feared fighting force. Later more interested in political conservatism.

Then there was the tomb – of someone called Karaca Ahmet, and I just had to check him out. Well, it seems he was a famous Muslim mystic who lived back in the 13-14th centuries. He belonged to the Bektashi sect and was born in Khorasan, way to the east of modern Turkey, but came to Anatolia to bring the good news of Islam to the benighted Christians of the Byzantine Empire. At some later date, the Bektashis espoused Shia Islam and became influential in the military Janissary corps. After overthrowing a sultan or two, the Janissaries were forcibly disbanded by Mahmut II in the early years of the 19th century, and the Bektashis, along with all the mystical sects, were outlawed at the foundation of the republic in 1923. Subsequently it seems they set up shop in Albania, where they continue to flourish.

Strange, strange and strange! Most Alevis I know profess to love Atatürk, who banned the Bektashi sect; and distrust the current AK Party government, who seem to have made their lives more comfortable and secure. The Sunni majority, meanwhile, has a traditional suspicion of their Alevi neighbours, yet they are happy to be buried in the cemetery of Karacaahmet, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Istanbul, and the largest in Turkey. At this stage I am still seeking answers.

Another fascinating feature of Üsküdar is that the largest and best known of its 186 mosques were built for, or commissioned by women. The first you come across as you disembark from the ferry is one dedicated to Mihrimah, beloved daughter of Süleiman the Magnificent, built between 1546 and 1548 by the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan. But I’ve written about Mihrimah before.

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Interior of Yeni Valide Mosque

Across the road is another fine example of imperial Ottoman architecture, the mosque erected between 1708 to 1711 for Rabia Gülnüş Emetullah, wife of Sultan Mehmet IV and mother of Ahmet III. This good lady had a roller coaster life, born a Christian on the island of Crete, captured and taken as a slave, educated as a Muslim in the royal palace, becoming favourite of the Sultan Mehmet, exiled for a spell when her husband was overthrown, and finally returning to the harem after her two sons, first Mustafa II and then Ahmet III restored her to grace. Her mosque is said to count as its most prized possession, a coat once worn by the Prophet Muhammed himself.

Ahmet III is one of those Ottoman sultans who seem to have suffered from a bad press. He is most known for presiding over “The Tulip Age” and being ousted by a popular revolt of citizens infuriated by the opulent lifestyle of the sultan and his courtiers. I’m of the opinion that he can’t be so lightly written off. Certainly, the Ottoman Empire was on the decline by the time he ascended the throne in 1703. Ahmet, however, made serious efforts to stem the ebbing tide, looking westwards for innovations, belatedly introducing the printing press, fostering literature and the arts and making early attempts at industrial development. He was the last Sultan to achieve military success against the expanding Russian Empire.

The Ottoman court had never been known for parsimoniousness. Ahmet’s lavish expenditures were nothing new. His attempts at modernisation, on the other hand, were – arousing the ire of the Janissaries, who had become a powerful force of reaction. Ahmet was overthrown by a rebellion, possibly with foreign assistance. Its ringleader was portrayed as a romantic figure in France at the time – and Ottoman decline accelerated.

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Life and times of Kösem Sultan – updated for the 21st century

Further up the hill behind the Üsküdar market place, in a district less frequented by outsiders, are two older mosques, also commemorating the lives of influential women. Çinilli Mosque is known for its beautiful ceramic tiles, an important art form in a culture that forbade religious icons and the depiction of the human form. That name also obscures the fact that this mosque was commissioned by Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan, another woman of Christian origin who came to the capital as a slave and rose to exert unprecedented influence over the empire’s affairs.

Kösem Sultan was the leading figure in a recent season of Muhteşem Yüzyıl (“The Magnificent Century”), a Turkish series dramatizing goings-on in the Ottoman court at the peak of the empire’s power. She was favourite, and wife of Sultan Ahmet I, who lent his name to Istanbul’s best-known tourist district, and had the famous “Blue Mosque” built. Widowed at the age of 28 after 14 years of marriage, Kösem directed her talents to palace politics at a chaotic time in the empire’s history. Coups and assassinations kept the throne room functioning like a conveyor belt. Through all the oustings and regicides, Kösem maintained her influence, seeing two of her sons ascend the throne, serving as regent for the elder, Murad IV, until he came of age; and briefly for her grandson, Mehmed IV, 7 years old when elevated to the sultanate. Unfortunately for her, Mehmed’s mother had ambitions of her own, and had Kösem strangled in her bedroom at the age of 61.

Atik Valide

The mosque of Nurbanu Valide Sultan, 1583

Nearby is an older mosque, dating back to a more stable time in Ottoman history, when the tradition of fratricide tended to simplify the problem of royal succession. Atik Valide is actually a külliye, a large complex including a hospital, school, soup kitchen, caravanserai and public bathhouse. It was one of the last major works of the great architect Sinan, commissioned by Nurbanu Valide Sultan, the first woman to exercise real power behind the Ottoman throne. Her origins are uncertain, but like those others she came from beyond the borders of the empire. Some suggest she was the illegitimate daughter of a brother of the Doge of Venice. Like those others she was educated in the palace harem and became the wife of Sultan Selim II. Selim, who came to the throne in 1566 on the death of his father, the Magnificent Suleiman, was weak, and relied on the advice of others, especially his wife. His reign, however, lasted only 8 years before he died, ending Nurbanu’s power. Apparently, she turned her hand to funding charitable projects, including the Atik Valide complex, completed just before she died in 1583.

Armenian church

Surp Garabed Armenian church

Despite its important role in Ottoman Muslim history, certain districts in Üsküdar were also home to Christian and Jewish communities. At the top of the hill in Bağlarbaşı, three cemeteries exist side by side, home respectively to the mortal remains of Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Armenian citizens. Not far from Kösem’s mosque is a large Armenian church, Surp Garabed. First built in 1593, it was renovated several times over the centuries, finally being rebuilt in 1888 after the earlier building had been destroyed in a fire. Interestingly that rebuild took place during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, reviled in the west as “The Red Sultan” for allegedly massacring large numbers of innocent Armenians. That surely begs a question or two.

As I wandered back down the hill towards the coast I passed an enormous construction site, the last stage of a mega-project initiated by the Üsküdar Municipal Council. Already completed are new premises for the council itself, a large events hall for hosting weddings and the like, and an impressive indoor sports complex. The huge excavation next door will apparently be filled by a modern shopping mall. Does Istanbul need another shopping mall? Evidently some think so.

Council complex

Üsküdar Council’s mega-development

Emerging on to the level streets of the old commercial district I came upon a smaller monument easily missed: a marble column, a large stone ball, and a brass plate with a barely legible inscription informing passers-by that this was one of the projectiles launched against the walls of Byzantine Constantinople by its Ottoman conquerors back in 1453. That siege witnessed the first major use of cannons in warfare, brought about the end of the eastern Graeco-Roman empire, struck terror in the hearts of Western Europe, and arguably marked the transition from the Medieval to the Modern Age.

Cannon ball

Cannon ball that changed the course of history

Ending this little expedition on the Bosporus waterfront opposite the plush Çırağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, I was intrigued by a row of restored warehouses dating back to the reign of Selim III at the beginning of the 19th century. Taken over by the state alcohol and tobacco monopoly Tekel in the early years of the republic, these stone buildings currently house the State Opera, Ballet and Theatre administration, as well as hosting performances previously located in the Atatürk Culture Centre in Taksim Square. The AKM has been the focus of court cases and protests accusing the government of destroying the secular republican legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Certainly, it is planned to demolish the unattractive 1960s venue – but recently announced plans indicate that its replacement will preserve some features of the original and will still bear the name of Turkey’s revered founding president.

Üsküdar is certainly worth a visit.

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Western media’s love affair with Orhan Pamuk

“They have killed the Istanbul I loved” – a plaintive cry from Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk in an interview he gave recently to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Apparently the poor guy can’t live there any more because his memories have been destroyed.

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Longing for the good old days

Well, I can empathise with Mr Pamuk’s problem. It’s a function of getting old, I guess, and of spending a lot of time away from the place of your birth. I haven’t lived in my hometown Auckland for 16 years. When I go back for a visit now, I hardly recognise the place I once knew so well. But there’s no use crying about it. It’s the way of the world. Some Native Americans possibly wish they could turn back the clock to a time before those Palefaces arrived – but sad to say, they can’t. There is a Turkish saying, “İt havlar kervan yürür”“The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”

But Orhan Pamuk likes to bark, especially in the cause of selling more books – a shameless self-publicist who has no scruples about running down his own country and people to further his own “literary” career.

It’s an interesting exercise to follow interviews Pamuk has given to western journalists over the years, and to observe how his projected self-image has morphed according to his own self-seeking agenda. In the La Stampa interview he says he is “jealous of Western writers” as they are not constantly questioned about politics by interviewers. He claims he has been forced to answer politically charged questions and this has “turned him into a political writer.” This is the guy who, back in 2005, speaking to a Swiss journalist, said that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it”.

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Rubbing shoulders with ordinary Turks in his school days – NOT!

Well, those are politically charged issues in Turkey, as Pamuk knew full well – and many Turks were of the opinion that he was making such statements with a view to attracting the attention of the Nobel Awards committee. It’s a well-known fact that novelists from developing countries unpopular in the West who criticise their own governments give themselves a head start in the race for Nobel honours. When Pamuk achieved his goal of Nobel literary honours in 2006, Turkey’s President at the time, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, broke with his normal practice of congratulating high achieving Turks, and refused to acknowledge his countryman’s Nobel Prize. It should also be noted that Sezer was not aligned with the current AK Party government, but held the presidency by appointment of an earlier secular republican Kemalist administration.

But to return to the Italian report, Pamuk acknowledges that he spends much of his time in New York City, so we can understand that he will be somewhat out of touch with developments back home. “The old houses I love have been destroyed,” he laments. Well, the guy grew up in the old money quarter of Nişantaşı, with parents wealthy enough to send him to the elite American Robert College, to buy carloads of books to feed his passion for reading, and to support him while he dropped in and out of university without ever troubling himself to work for a living. If he had ventured, as a young man, to other parts of his beloved Istanbul during the 1970s and 80s, he would have seen vast swathes of old wooden Ottoman houses bulldozed and replaced by slum shanties for migrant workers from the east of Turkey. But he didn’t. And one thing is definitely true about Mr Pamuk – he was no youthful revolutionary idealist activist during Turkey’s most turbulent period of political upheaval in those decades. In a New York Times interview in 2014, he further admitted that, while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers, he spent most days reading at home in Nişantaşı.”

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Let’s go shopping – in Nişantaşı 😉

In contrast, then, one of the images Pamuk likes to create for himself is that of a lone courageous voice calling his government to task for historical human rights abuses. He was charged, he loves to repeat, with treason for his outspoken support of Armenians and Kurds, and lived abroad in virtual exile for fear of incarceration or worse. What he omits to say is that the charges were brought by an ultra-nationalist private citizen, not the Turkish government, and were subsequently dropped.

But the Western media love him – and that’s probably another reason to be suspicious.

Getting back to Istanbul – and the world of Realpolitik

I’m happy to be back in Istanbul after spending most of the summer at our seaside retreat. We were rocked by a moderately disturbing earthquake in Bodrum – but it seems the big city suffered worse damage from torrential rain and a storm of super-sized hailstones. Gentle reminders from Mother Nature about who’s actually in charge on this planet. Anyway, I have to start work again, a necessary evil in order to sustain a lifestyle above subsistence level.

My good lady is still out of town, so, looking for ways to amuse myself in her absence, I headed over to the European side of the city. I was keen to see Taksim Square, Gezi Park and İstiklal Avenue, having heard so much negative comment about their descent into a black hole of fundamentalist Islamic horror.

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Not easy to get into. Could that be significant?

My first target was Küçükçiftlik Park, which I had seen advertised as venue of the 4th Istanbul Coffee Festival. I passed through tight security before emerging at a ticket booth totally lacking in any kind of queue. On asking the entry price I understood why . . . 35 Turkish Liras! What? Unable to believe what the young lady had said, I asked, “What’s in there? Is it worth it?” I took her momentary hesitation to mean that she herself had doubts, so I headed for the exit. 35 Liras! Last year it had been held in the grounds of Topkapı Palace, and admission was free. So what had changed over twelve months?

While in the vicinity I decided to check out Maçka Democracy Park, a good-sized island of greenery (yes, another one) in the inner city I hadn’t visited in a dog’s age. It was named in happier times when regular military coups ensured the preservation of democracy and secularism, at least for the nation’s ruling elite. It turned out that visiting the park was easier said than done. Clearly much of the lower end has been leased out to whatever private concern is now scalping citizens for entry to the Coffee Festival, and I had to walk a kilometre or so up the hill to find a gate.

Maçka Park has been in the news recently over an event where a couple of scantily clad young women were harangued by a guy who found their short shorts unseemly – giving rise to a series of protest meetings where sisters gathered (in shorts) to assert their rights to expose however much female flesh they thought necessary or desirable. Me? I keep out of such issues. I just try not to ogle too blatantly when vistas of naked leg and cleavage appear before me 😉

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Maçka park cable car

I was pleased to find that the cable car I remembered from years gone by still crossed the valley from Şişli to Taksim – and more pleased yet to find that the spectacular view over woodland to the Bosporus was less disfigured these days by youthful inscriptions etched into the perspex windows of the carriage.

A short walk brought me to Taksim Square, still a rather barren space despite council claims that they had planted a large number of trees. Gezi Park, location of much political excitement four years ago, is actually a rather more accessible and pleasant spot than in former times. The whole area has been closed to motor traffic which has been diverted underground. An exhibition area hosts thematic displays of handcrafts and the wares of micro-businesses. On this particular day, dozens of stalls were purveying second-hand books, classic movie posters and prints of old Istanbul, and several outdoor cafes offered Turkish coffee brewed slowly, in the traditional way, on glowing charcoal.

Feeling a little hungry, I headed down a back street and found a tasteful little restaurant calling itself “Gezzy” where I enjoyed a most delicious pide, a kind of Turkish pizza with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and green peppers.

From there, I carried on down the road known as Tarlabaşı Boulevard. On the downhill slopes to my right spread the colourful neighbourhood featured in numerous Turkish films about the underground life of gypsy music, prostitution in all its multitudinous guises, and the world of crime in general. I remember, years ago, on first seeing the narrow lanes of rundown Victorian tenements (or whatever the Ottoman equivalent was), wondering when the mixed blessing of gentrification would arrive in an area so close to the beating heart of the metropolis. Well, arrive it has – amid much fanfare, accompanied by somewhat justified wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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A green space in central Istanbul – but just try to get in!

I cut back up the hill towards Beyoğlu, passing by the fortress-like walls of the British Consulate. Built in 1845 as an embassy, in ostentatious imperial neo-classical style, adorned with the requisite inscription in Latin and the date in Roman numerals, the enormous edifice provides little in the way of services, to locals or UK citizens. A bombing fourteen years ago that killed a number of Turkish citizens, and accidentally got the Consul-General, led to the building of a defensive wall. Once an important outpost of empire in the Ottoman capital, Pera House these days looks like little more than an expensive anachronism.

The back streets running more or less parallel to İstiklal Avenue, the commercial thoroughfare leading out of Taksim Square, are lined with imposing buildings of similar vintage in various states of decrepitude and restoration: The Pera Palace Hotel, famed for its role in accommodating wealthy travellers disembarked from the Orient Express; the Grand Hotel de Londres, a reminder that French was a more fashionable language than English in those days; the Italianate façade of the Beyoğlu Council building, erected in 1857. These and more recall that for centuries, in Ottoman times, and before, when the city was capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, citizens lived in the ancient city across the Golden Horn. The district known variously as Pera, Galata or Beyoğlu was a satellite town of foreign traders and diplomats.

Most visitors to modern Istanbul take time to visit Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348, and providing panoramic views of the city from its 63-metre viewing deck. In those days, the Genoese and their Venetian neighbours controlled trade in the Mediterranean, and it was their contact with Eastern civilisations that contributed to the Renaissance in Europe. Subsequently their control was challenged and more or less replaced by Ottoman power – which may have been a major motivation for Western Europe to get its political act together in the interests of defence.

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Lesser known tower of Galata – with the Church of Peter and Paul lurking behind

I had thought Galata Tower was the only remnant of the walls that formerly enclosed the enclave of Galata, but as I walked down the hill towards the Golden Horn I came across another tower and section of ancient fortification in a sorry state of decay. Turkey is often accused of failing to protect its rich architectural heritage, but when you get out and wander around the city, or the country as a whole, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ancient churches, castles, mosques, temples, bathhouses, theatres, stadiums, city walls . . . Every day, it seems, some farmer ploughing his field turns up the mosaic floor of an opulent Roman villa. This is world heritage – but mostly Turkey is expected to foot the bill for protection and/or restoration. Just as the Middle East refugee tragedy is a global problem – but largely locals are left to house and feed the displaced homeless.

Behind the decrepit tower I caught a glimpse of a bell tower clearly belonging to a Christian church. I wandered round the block trying to get closer, but it was well protected by the walls of a decaying 18th century inn, and a locked gate. Nevertheless, I did identify it as an Italian Catholic church dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul, erected in 1843 to replace a more ancient edifice that had been converted to a mosque in 1475 after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

In the 19th century, the district of Karaköy, at the foot of the hill below Pera, became a major commercial district where banks and other businesses established their headquarters. I’d heard about Salt, Istanbul, and took a quick look in as I passed by. It’s a kind of research library, museum and exhibition centre housed in what was once the HQ of the Ottoman Bank, established in 1863, according to the BNP Paribas website, “by the Turkish government in partnership with French and British financiers” with the aim of “restoring Turkey’s finances to health and helping to modernise the Ottoman Empire”. Yeah, right! Wonder if the Rothschild family were involved in any way. On the wall inside is another inscription in imperial Latin:Extra fortunam est, quidquid donatur amicis; Quas dederis, selas semper habebis opes.”

Just fishing

Maybe he’s got the best idea. “Leave the wise to wrangle . . .”

My Latin’s a bit rusty these days, but the Internet came up with this translation:

“Who gives to friends so much from Fate secures,
That is the only wealth for ever yours.”

So were those French and British financiers claiming to be friends of the Ottomans? Well, that friendship didn’t turn out so well for the locals in the end, did it! Empires come and go, but leopards don’t change their spots.

No Green Spaces left in Istanbul??

Future shock

It’s hard for all of us, guys!

In 1970 a guy called Alvin Toffler published a best-selling book “Future Shock”. According to his obituary in the NY Times, “Mr. Toffler was a self-trained social science scholar and successful freelance magazine writer in the mid-1960s when he decided to spend five years studying the underlying causes of a cultural upheaval that he saw overtaking the United States and other developed countries.”

Way back then Toffler identified a phenomenon causing serious global anguish:

“The accelerative thrust triggered by man has become the key to the entire evolutionary process on the planet.” Amazon review

“Today the force of change is almost tangible” Toffler “discusses change and what happens to people; how they do and don’t adapt.” Bookrags review

Toffler was American, and he was writing primarily about the United States of America – and it was their movers and shakers who were responsible for most of the “Future Shock” we were/are experiencing. So, while you can feel some sympathy for US citizens struggling to cope with modernity, at least they get most of the benefits. What about the rest of us, in less privileged parts of the world? Afghanistan? Somalia? New Zealand? Or even Turkey?

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Give him a homespun cotton loincloth, and . . .  Yeah, maybe.

Contemporary Turkey is a divided society, if you listen to the doom-sayers. The leader of the opposition CHP Party is currently trekking through the summer heat on a Gandhi-esque march from Ankara to Istanbul seeking “justice”. And, I hope he finds it – although it’s a rather less easily identifiable commodity than common table salt*. He is accompanied by numbers of supporters who, like may others, have been struggling to adjust to rapid changes taking place in their country whose population has doubled to nearly 80 million since 1970, and whose largest city, Istanbul, has grown from less than three million, to 15 million or more in the same time period.

But, I don’t want to talk about justice, or the difficulties involved in adapting to a changing world. In the current heatwave I’m more interested in finding a shady tree to sit under – and again, if you hearken to those prophets of doom, I’ll be lucky to find such a thing in Istanbul outside a tree museum. Joni Mitchell sang that Big Yellow Taxi song about the concretification (yep, I just made that word up!) of America, also back in 1970. I’m not sure if the New York city fathers ripped up any concrete to plant trees as a result, but we were all proud of Joni for singing that song.

Well, I was concerned about the disintegrating ecosystem of Planet Earth in my youth – and I’m probably more concerned about it now. I recycle our household rubbish, walk, ride a bicycle and use public transport where possible, and carry my supermarket purchases home in reusable natural fibre bags. On the other hand, I do find very tiresome the constant harping by certain people on Turkey’s AKP government and its wanton destruction of the country’s natural and historical heritage.

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Aftermath of Gezi Park demo, 1 June, 2013

What I also find surprising is some of those people are foreign visitors who have been in the country a month or two, maybe a year or two, and talk authoritatively about how things used to be in Turkey, in some mythical golden age they have been told about. Just over four years ago, at the end of May 2013, a series of anti-government protests broke out, ostensibly sparked by the city council’s plans to develop the iconic Taksim Square and its environs. Part of the project aimed to rebuild an Ottoman-era military barracks building demolished in 1940 and replaced with a small green space we learned was officially called Gezi Park.

I have no intention of delving into the politics of the matter. What I can say, however, is that the square was badly in need of a revamp. On one side stood a 20-storey 70’s glass tower housing the five-star Marmara Hotel; opposite the hotel, a busy terminal station for buses heading to other parts of the city. On the other two sides, a soulless 60’s era Soviet-style structure known as the Atatürk Culture Centre facing the blank brick wall of a large water reservoir partly masked by a huge garish TV screen. In the middle of the treeless concrete square itself, a Metro underground station could be reached only by crossing the two or three lanes of speeding buses, yellow taxis and joy-riders that maintained a kind of lethal spinning asteroid belt around it. Behind the bus terminal lurked Gezi Park itself – four hectares of trees, grass and asphalt mostly invisible from surrounding streets, and consequently popular with the neighbourhood’s homeless, youthful glue-sniffers and aging alcoholics. Not a place you would probably have chosen for a family picnic.

Gezi Park quickly, however, became a focal point for those who, for one reason and another, hated the Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his AK Party government. Foreign news media took up the cry that Turkey’s political leaders were destroying “one of Istanbul’s last green spaces” as they buried the beautiful, historic city beneath a pall of tar and cement.

Now I don’t know how many of the protesting tree-huggers have actually been back to Gezi Park since the protests of 2013 ended. I am fairly sure that the widely televised violence of those protests has been a factor in the decreasing numbers of foreign tourists and local revellers visiting the Beyoğlu/İstiklal area which, by all accounts, has lost most of its former vibrant energy. And I am amazed to hear still repeated such claims as “Throughout the vast metropolis there are only a handful of actual parks, a few stretches of grass along the Bosporus and lone trees peeking through the concrete in other places.”

 

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Foreground: 1,000-year old Byzantine Pantokrator monastery, currently undergoing extensive restoration

“Constant renovation and reconstruction,” I read recently, “has demolished historic buildings and in some areas completely changed the city’s landscape. . . The current government isn’t known for prioritizing the environment and even relative to other major world cities, Istanbul actually has a pretty poor percentage of green space.”

Istanbul is, as the writer noted, a vast metropolis, its historic heart the capital of three world empires stretching back at least 1700 years. I can’t tell you what vast sums the local and national governments have been spending to restore ancient churches, palaces, city walls, mosques and other monuments that had been left to moulder in picturesque decay by former administrations. I can’t say exactly how much time and money was lost while the building of underground Metro lines was paused so archaeologists could rummage with delight among long-buried Roman harbours and necropolises; nor how many times engineers had to redraw the design for a rail bridge across the Golden Horn to meet the objections of UNESCO World Heritage inspectors.

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Halil Pasha Topçu Barracks building – demolished in 1940 to make way for Gezi park

What I can tell you, with absolute certainty is that Gezi Park is not only NOT one of Istanbul’s last green spaces, it is surely one of its least attractive and significant. I can also assure you that, from personal firsthand observation, the current government has done far more than any of its predecessors to clean up and beautify the urban landscape, in spite of the exponential population growth of recent years. They were even planning to RE-build a formerly demolished historically important building next to Gezi Park – for which they were also vociferously criticised.

When I first came to Istanbul in 1995, residents suffered from frequent outages of electricity and an unreliable water supply. The Golden Horn, streams and rivers stank like open sewers, and no one swam in the turgid waters that lapped the shores. What parks remained in the inner city from former times were neglected and generally strewn with rubbish. Since the AK Party government came to power in 2003, people have begun to swim again at beaches along the Sea of Marmara coast, and fish for their dinner in the Golden Horn off Galata Bridge.

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Bosporus view from Gülhane Park – Yıldız Park in the middle distance

Not far from that bridge, if you walk up the hill towards the ancient cathedral museum of Hagia Sophia, you will pass the gates of Gülhane Park on your left. It’s worth a visit. Its 16 hectares of beautifully laid out gardens and majestic trees provide a sanctuary for migrating birds like storks and cranes; cliff top tea gardens offer a glorious view of the Bosporus across to Asia (if you still believe that stuff about Asia Minor); and the former imperial stables house a fascinating museum celebrating the scientific and technological achievements of Islamic civilisation.

A short bus or taxi ride will bring you to Beşiktaş, a trendy district of bars, restaurants and open-air fish markets where you can visit the Naval Museum, with displays relating to the glory days of Ottoman sea power. Tucked away down a side street you may stumble across Ihlamur Park, which features a small Ottoman hunting lodge surrounded by pretty gardens – an unexpected oasis in a busy neighbourhood. If you’re looking for more extensive greenery you can walk or take a taxi to Yıldız Park, 37 hectares of landscaped woodland, artificial streams, waterfalls and small lakes, with several restaurants and cafes for formal dining or an open-air snack. At the upper end of the park is Yıldiz Palace museum, the last residence of Ottoman sultans before they faded into history.

If you look across to the Asian shore you will see a similar “green space” across the water. Fethi Pasha Park, 13 hectares in extent, has a maze of sheltered walkways, restaurants and cafes and beautiful tree-framed views of the Bosporus across to the European shore. More adventurous souls may catch a taxi or local transport to Çamlıca Hill – in fact two hills whose summits are the highest points in Istanbul, with spectacular panoramic views. Those doom-sayers will probably tell you that this idyllic spot has been desecrated by the construction of a large new mosque – if “desecration” is the right word for a building dedicated to spiritual searching. Anyway, don’t believe them. The mosque, visible from all over town, has had little real impact on Çamlıca’s park and woodland. In fact the hilltops have long been blighted by dozens of lofty radio and television masts – and part of the development plan is to erect a 365-metre tower that will amalgamate all the masts into one, as well as housing two restaurants and a viewing platform that are absolutely on my list of must-visits when they are completed.

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Getting away from the concrete in Validebağ Park

I must say that residents on the Asian (or more correctly, Anatolian) side of the city are more fortunate than their European neighbours in terms of green spaces – which may account for the skewed outlook of foreigners who tend to prefer districts nearer to Western Europe. I will briefly mention two more beautiful parks well worth a visit. Not far from Çamlıca Hills is another former Ottoman imperial woodland, Validebağ Park, 10 hectares of semi-wilderness including a former royal palace that served as the location for a much-loved Turkish classic comedy movie based on the escapades of a gang of over-grown schoolboys.

If you’re looking for something new, and are open-minded enough to accept evidence that the government’s reputation for environmental barbarism is not deserved, check out Orhan Gazi City Park on the Marmara coast in the district of Maltepe. This massive project reclaimed 130 hectares from the sea and created a huge recreation area planted with thousands of trees and laid out with carefully tended gardens of roses and seasonal flowers, tulips, begonias, pansies, marigolds . . . There are 63 ha of picnic area, 7.5 km of bicycle track not counting a 400-metre velodrome; basketball, volleyball and tennis courts; artificial turf football fields, a large gymnasium, running tracks, a skateboard park, children’s playgrounds, several outdoor stations with exercise equipment, as well as the ubiquitous cafes and tea gardens. Also, for devout Muslims, two mosques, in case they are caught short when the call to prayer is heard.

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Historic mosque in Sadabad Park, Kağıthane

Well, I could go on to talk about Sadabad Park in the district of Kagıthane, for many years a polluted industrial wasteland now gradually being restored to something resembling the small slice of heaven once known as the Sweet Waters of Europe. I could rhapsodise about the Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanical Garden located in an unlikely apex of converging motorways in the district of Ataşehir – but I won’t. If you live in Istanbul, or have time to spend while you’re here, get out and visit these or others of the many spectacular “green spaces” in this beautiful “city of the world’s desire”.

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  • Mahatma Gandhi led a march in 1930 to protest against the British monopoly of salt production and sales. It was a symbolic act of defiance against the British Raj. At the time of his selection as party leader, some remarked on Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s resemblance to India’s national hero – though the Turkish chap is more often seen in a suit than a homespun cotton loin-cloth.

What are they doing to Istanbul?

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An edifice of some significance!

A month or so ago I had cause to visit a commercial office block on the southern slopes of Istanbul’s highest hill, Çamlıca. In fact there are two such hills: Büyük Çamlıca rising to 260 metres above sea level; and the smaller Küçük Çamlıca, some 30 metres less in height. As my taxi approached our destination my eyes were drawn to a narrow tower-like structure under construction near the summit of the smaller peak. Clearly it would be an edifice of some significance, and I was surprised I knew nothing about it.

After doing a little research, I can now share with you the following information:

The tower’s primary purpose will be to replace the dozens of unsightly radio and television masts that have disfigured the scenic hills of Çamlıca for decades. The first stage will be a reinforced concrete structure 220 metres high topped by a 165 metre antenna mast.

Adding in the height of the hill itself, the top of the mast will rise 565 metres above sea level. The tower will also fulfil a secondary role as a tourist attraction. It will be set in an extensive park offering recreational and picnic facilities, and will have two restaurants and viewing decks, at 176 and 180 metres, providing unsurpassed panoramic views of the city and hinterland.

Supporters of the project argue that the new tower will be a symbol of modern Istanbul, visible from beyond the city’s boundaries. They point out that creating a public park will guarantee the hill is preserved from speculative private development, and replacing the existing forest of radio and TV masts will actually beautify the hills of Çamlıca.

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The new Çamlıca Mosque – and the forest of TV/radio masts

There is, of course, some controversy boiling around recent developments in this iconic urban location. Attracting most criticism has been the construction of an enormous mosque, the largest in Turkey, on the northern slope of Büyük Çamlıca. Contrary to the claims of some opponents, it will not be dedicated to President Erdoğan, but will be known as the Çamlıca Republic Mosque. Its size is certainly impressive. The central dome has a diameter of 35 metres and a height of 72 metres. Four of its six minarets will rise to 107 metres, the other two to 90 metres, and it is expected to provide praying space for 37,500 worshippers. The project will also house a conference hall, art gallery, museum and a library.

Interestingly the mosque was designed by two female architects. Breaking with tradition, its layout is said to be female-friendly and features special provision for the disabled. Despite its size, however, the Çamlica Mosque is still a long way short of being the world’s largest. That title is held by the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine and the place which Muslims worldwide turn towards while offering daily prayers, that structure covers an area of over four million m2, and is said to accommodate four million worshippers during the Hajj period.

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The new tower after completion

Personally I have no problem with the size or location of the Çamlıca Mosque. Like the TV Tower nearby, it will be set in a large park that will ensure public access to this important recreational area, and will guarantee that no future private development restricts entry to those with the money to pay. Moreover, the population of Turkey is largely Muslim, so building an emblematic mosque in its largest city does not strike me as something to be shocked or surprised about. What did surprise me was learning that the country’s largest mosque was previously the Sabancı Merkez Camii in the southern city of Adana – named for one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, thus nicely uniting the conflicting forces of God and Mammon.

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Proposed landscaping around the tower

If I really wanted to get excited and protest about something, I might turn my attention to another vast construction not far away: the Emaar Square “Community”. This huge project, financed by the same Dubai company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, will include a 180-room five-star hotel, 1,000 luxury residences, 40,000 m2 of office space, and a mega-shopping mall featuring an “underwater zoo”.

Does Istanbul need another mosque? Who am I to say? I am certainly pleased that those ugly TV antennae will disappear from Çamlıca Hill. However, when it comes to another soulless shopping centre purveying the same luxury brand clothes and watches to mega-rich globe-trotters in another generic multi-storey five-star hotel – Nup. Don’t need that.

“Love will save this world”

In my current employment I work weekends, so Thursday and Friday are my days off. In fact I like it this way. Population and vehicle density are so bad in Istanbul these days, you may as well stay home on Saturday and Sunday, unless you want to spend hours snarled up in traffic jams.

dscf0510So I’m happy having my weekend when almost everyone else is working or at school. Today it was really starting to feel like spring. I turned off the heating, opened a couple of windows, then went out for a longish walk.

There’s a pretty park not far from our place, laid out in 1973 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. Council workers have been busy planting pansies and tulip bulbs. The tulips won’t bloom for a couple of weeks or so, but, with the sun shining, the rows of yellow,  purple and whie pansies looked great. There were also leaf and blossom buds appearing on some trees, so probably the worst of winter is behind us.

I made a circuit down towards the railway line where progress is continuing on track and stations for the new High Speed Train. Much of the city is under reconstruction these days, it seems – adding to the traffic chaos as truck and trailer units carry away demolition rubble, and concrete mixers and hydraulic pumps shuttle around the building sites.

As I approached the pedestrian overpass crossing the horrendous racetrack linking the coast road with the two main motorways, my eye was caught by a sentence of graffiti crudely painted on one of the steel pillars:

dscf0513“Bu dünyayı sevgi kurtaracak,” it read. And once again I felt happy to be in Turkey. Western graffiti of the artistic or obscene variety has been increasingly in evidence around Istanbul in recent years. Especially during the few months when the so-called “Gezi Park” protests were going on, there was some pretty unpleasant stuff being daubed on walls around town.

This one, however, gave me hope that all is not lost. The anonymous scribe was assuring us that: “Love will save this world.”

Nice to think there are people around who still believe that.

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.