This month I want to reward my loyal readers who waded through my 3000-word piece on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in October. I hereby present you with 499 words on the subject of defining Turkish society. In fact, if the Guinness people have a category for ‘Absurdly short answers to impossibly complex questions’, I think I stand a fair chance of getting a mention in the next edition. However, to mute the howls of protest from wise heads who may feel that 499 words are insufficient to do justice to such a subject, I wish to plead in my defence that 500 was the word limit imposed for entries to an essay competition entitled ‘Changing Turkey in a Changing World’. The question was:
Where do you locate Turkish society in the civilizational context? Is it Eastern? Islamic? Western? Post-western? Sui generis? Please explain why.
Ok, here we go . . .
A Melange of Cultures
Each year Muslims prepare a delicacy known as ashure in remembrance of Noah and his people, who survived the flood of God’s anger. Search for the recipe of this ancient dessert. You will find many experts willing to share their knowledge – but little agreement, other than that it has a large variety of ingredients. For this reason, ashure has been used as a symbol of multi-culturalism. Yet, in the end, it is just a dessert – one item in the culinary wealth that is Turkish cuisine. How much more difficult to define the peoples currently in possession of this land lying at the meeting point of Asia and Europe!
Excavations at Çatal Höyük, near the Turkish city of Konya, have revealed a site dating from 7500 BCE, the oldest centre of civilisation on earth. The modern name, Konya, derives from ancient Iconium, which was a city in the time of the Hittite empire, around 1500 BCE. It was an important city in the kingdom of the Phrygians, in the 8th Century BCE, later falling to the Persians, and again to Alexander the Great, before being assimilated into the Roman Empire. The Book of Acts records that St Paul preached a sermon there around 50 CE. Its Christian history ended in the 11th century when Konya became the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate, and Muslims still visit the tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in this iconic Turkish city.
Plunge a spade into the ground anywhere in Turkey, and you will find traces of similar antiquity. Preparations for Istanbul’s year as ‘European City of Culture, 2010’ have been slowed by the city’s archaeological riches. Work on the Metro line has unearthed thousand year-old harbours and ships from Istanbul’s days as capital of the Byzantine Empire. In the last thirty years, its population has swelled from three million to more than fifteen million. Shopping centres comparable to any in Europe exist in proximity to shantytowns of migrants from the Anatolian heartland, where methods of agriculture have changed little in two millennia.
The European stereotype of a Turk is the image evoked by names such as Genghis Khan – squat, swarthy, muscular Mongolian horsemen, thundering in hordes out of the Asian steppe, raping, pillaging and burning – locating themselves on the lower rungs of a rational person’s ladder of civilisation. Yet even the physical characteristics of a Turk are hard to classify. Almost every shade and combination of skin, eye and hair colour will be met, and a striking range of body shapes and sizes, from Naim Süleymanoglu, the pocket Hercules weightlifter who measured 1.47 m and won three Olympic gold medals from 1988 to 1996, to Sultan Kösem, who, at 2.47 m, was recently recognised by the Guinness people as the world’s tallest living man.
One thing can be said with certainty: attempting to glibly define Turkey and its people, and to locate them on some arbitrary continuum of civilisation is risky. Your stereotypes may bounce back to confound you.