The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

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

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

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

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

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

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

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

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

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

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

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

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

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

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

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

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

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

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

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

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

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

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

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

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

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

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

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

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

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

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

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

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Scholarly Review of Turkey File

One of the highlights of my summer was learning that my book ‘Turkey File’ based on this blog had been reviewed in an academic journal –  The Journal of American Studies of Turkey (Spring 2015, Issue 41). I was delighted, flattered, and a little surprised. I thought my writings were far too opinionated to be taken seriously by anyone in academia. Well, the learned gentleman does make that point, in fact, in his final paragraph – but on the whole, it’s a positive review. And I just had to share it with you. By the way, that book, and its successor are both available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

Turkey File. Alan F. Scott. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. p/bk 189pp. ISBN 978-1470082470. Price $9.95.

Turkey File coverAlan Scott recently published the corpus of his blog, “Turkey File,” into a short book of the same name. The book represents a New Zealand expat’s attempt to demystify currents in Turkish society and politics for a Western audience. It’s especially apt at problematizing the notion of Turkey as an escalation of West-versus-East dilemmas. In unseating these generalizations, the author should be praised for incorporating his substantial historical familiarity to consider trends across the Turkish cultural-social- political spectrum.

The book is a chronological arrangement of twenty-nine short entries. The first probes the problem of ancient Greek artifacts removed from Anatolia and the last questions issues of gay rights and Syrian refugees. Although there seems to be little reasoning behind the arrangement of the topics, the unpredictability suits the inviting tone of the book — a thoughtful mélange which compels the reader to want to know more.

A number of these essays are particularly successful at making us reconsider our preconceptions of the modern Turkish republic. The chapter entitled “Short, and Sweet! – The Symbolism of Aşure” is a brusque and elegant argument against the clumsiness of “attempting to glibly define Turkey and its people …to locate them on some arbitrary continuum of civilization is risky” (66). Furthermore, his introductory overview of the Armenian genocide deserves mention, wherein he condemns overly simplified popular discourses of the event as an iteration of a Nazi-styled holocaust. His approach to the events that occurred in early 20th century Ottoman Anatolia takes issue with the lack of scrutiny on the role of the Russian empire in facilitating the removal of Armenians. However, he refrains from placing blame on any one single actor, calling for more subtle historical inquiries instead of furthering complacent comparisons to other international tragedies.

Scott provides similarly enlightening examinations of the problem of religion in his work. In “Religion and Turkey,” he frames his arguments in terms of the Alevi minority –complicating the notion that Turkey persists as a battleground between Islam and the secular. His chapter on “the Turkey-Israel Connection” also challenges popular conceptions of religion in Turkish society (47-55). Here, Scott historicizes the “cooling” off of relations between the two states into the present day, as well as considering the position of Jews in post-Ottoman Turkey.

Some of Scott’s essays present a somewhat less definite characterization of Turkish politics and society. For example, he presents the problem of “the Turkish Invasion”/ “the Peace Operation” of Cyprus purely in terms of history – and all in four pages (108-12). I would argue that the conversation could not be considered complete without a more thorough appreciation of the violence, attempts at unification, and the politicians’ involvement which led to the partition of the island. The contemporary politics of unification and relations with the European Union might also deserve some acknowledgement here.

Scott’s chapter on Turkey’s accession to the European Union feels similarly incomplete (169-74). This essay reads as a dismissal of Sarkozy and Merkel’s apparent disinterest in bringing Turkey into the fold. A fuller account of the Turkey-EU relationship might consider the many tangible impacts the negotiations have had on Turkish society – including further economic integrations with EU member states and human rights reforms.

Finally, Scott’s final essay, “Gay Rights and Syrian Refugees,” reads as an especially uncritical inquiry into the status of marginal communities in Turkish society. He contends that it is difficult to find instances where gay people are discriminated against in Turkey and that gays are oppressed in much more severe terms in other countries. Unfortunately the point of this essay isn’t very clear –is Scott arguing that gays should be content with their lot in the modern Turkish republic? (169)

Many of the shortfalls of Turkey File would be resolved with a more thorough positioning within the contemporary scholarly literature. Scott’s dependence on his own knowledge provides a unique voice on Turkish society. Unfortunately the result is a mixed bag: sometimes a fresh perspective on mired issues is offset by oversimplifications. The work is generally a positive overview and is highly recommended for anyone looking to move beyond popular discourses in understanding the complexity of the modern Turkish republic.

Paul Kramer University of Auckland

Ayşedeniz Gökçin – Pink Floyd for virtuoso piano at Gümüşlük Classical Music Festival

Eren Levendoğlu playing in the old Gümüşlük church

Eren Levendoğlu playing in the old Gümüşlük church

One of the highlights of our summer holiday is the annual Festival of Classical Music held in Gümüşlük. We’ve been following it since its early days of free concerts near the seaside village. In those days the concerts were held in an old church with a special atmosphere created by stones recycled from the ancient city of Myndos, and the chirping of swallows nesting in the rafters.

The popularity of the festival soon outgrew that small venue, however, and a couple of years ago it was moved to a larger and more spectacular location. There is not much to see of Myndos nowadays. The small natural harbour still provides safe anchorage for fishermen and pleasure craft; finely shaped black stones and white marble columns can be seen reused in more recent buildings, half-submerged in coastal waters, or beckoning secretively from farm paddocks – but the city still awaits serious archeological attention. A few kilometres along the coast towards the new billionaires’ playground of Yalıkavak, however, is evidence that here, once upon a time, was a large thriving centre of a vanished civilisation.

8 August concert in the quarry

8 August concert in the quarry

The new venue for Gümüşlük Festival concerts is the quarry where workers of bygone times hewed the black stone to construct ancient Myndos. A sign in the trendy modern village claims that Mark Antony and Cleopatra called in here on their way to Egypt, and it is also evident that sufficient stone was quarried to build a town of some size and importance. The modern festival audience sits with its back to the sea, facing a raised stage whose backdrop is the illuminated rock face carved out by human hands and subsequently softened and reshaped by millennia of wind and water. Even before the music begins, it is impossible not to be affected by the interplay of historical and natural forces that has been shaping this land since the very birth of human civilisation.

Part of the appeal of the Gümüşlük Festival is its down-home flavour. A driving force in its success has been the devotion of Eren Levendoğlu. A highly talented classical pianist in her own right, born in London and educated in South Africa, Ms Levendoğlu has helped to create, on a shoe-string budget, an event where young musicians come to study in a summer camp under the guidance of older mentors from Turkey and further afield. The concerts provide a showcase and inspiration for young talent, as well as bringing acclaimed musicians to an unpretentious holiday audience. They are always a delightful sensory experience – but last night’s was something very special.

Ayşedeniz Gökçin adjusting the blu tack for her Pink Floyd performance

Ayşedeniz Gökçin adjusting the blu tack for her Pink Floyd performance

Ayşedeniz Gökçin is a young Turkish pianist/composer who has made a name for herself in the crossover world of rock and classical music. She had already been marked for greater things before leaving Turkey to further her musical education in London and Rochester, NY.

Her programme here featured her arrangements of Pink Floyd and Nirvana, as well as a composition of her own, interpreting the life and death of Kurt Cobain. The young lady won the admiration of her audience with her wholehearted and idiosyncratic playing style – and their hearts with her delightfully natural commentary between pieces. Her playing involved not only a sensitive and highly skilful touch on the keyboard, but some fascinating fiddling ‘under the hood’ as she  made mechanical adjustments to strings and hammers with ‘blu tack’ and who knows what, to create special audio effects. Chatting cheerfully and comfortably with the audience, she noted at one stage that she was the same age as Cobain when he committed suicide, but she had no immediate plans of her own in that direction – which we were all happy to hear.

You can find Ayşedeniz’s website here, and listen to her Pink Floyd arrangement on YouTube. I’m told that the Pink Floyd guys themselves have been so impressed they’ve got links to her on their own website. For my money, though, you really need to see her perform live. In Gümüşlük she played a Michael Jackson arrangement as an encore, leaving her audience whistling and calling for more.