Camel greeting

Saturday, 18 December 2010

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!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Those Terrible Turks!

Among the surprises that I experienced in my first year of teaching English in Turkey was calling the roll and finding that one of the students was named Genghis. Well, I have to admit that was after I’d begun to get my head around the idiosyncrasies of the Turkish alphabet, and realised that’s how we write the word spelled ‘Cengiz’ in Turkish. Anyway, there he was, a slightly overweight 15 year-old, with nothing much to distinguish him from his uniformed classmates – Genghis!

Now, of course, I think nothing of it. I have worked with and taught several more Genghises, and suffered no physical harm at their hands. I have had colleagues and students, to all intents and purposes, quite normal, well-adjusted human beings, despite carrying the name Atilla. Kubilays and Timurs have passed through my classes arousing no more interest than if they were so many Michaels or Tylers. Nevertheless, my initial experience of shock, or at least surprise, illustrates an essential disjuncture between the world-views of the peoples of Western Europe and Western Asia. Clearly, an educated, law-abiding, middle-class Turkish couple choosing to name their new-born son Genghis, are unlikely to have in mind the same picture of a barbarian chieftain leading his marauding hordes out of Central Asia that the name conjures up in Western circles.
Genghis Khan and his Heirs -
Exhibition at the Sabancı Museum

What I want to explore here is the thesis that Western views of Turkey have been shaped by historical and societal events going back at least a millennium and a half and continuously reinforced by subsequent events, and by religious and political leaders for their own, sometimes questionable, purposes.

I’m taking, then, as an arbitrary starting point, the activities of one, Atilla the Hun, who terrorised the Western and Eastern Roman Empires in the 5th century CE. This legendary character headed an empire that extended well into Western Europe. His military forays took him through Germany into France and Italy, and threatened the twin capitals of Rome and Constantinople. Atilla’s origins are not entirely clear, but certainly the Huns emerged from Central Asia, and may have spoken a Turkic language. Undoubtedly there is a long-standing association, in European minds, of Turks with mayhem, rapine, and generally uncivilised, anti-social activities.

For some reason, this association does not seem to extend to Arabs, despite the fact that the armies of the Prophet swept through North Africa and into Spain in the 7th century CE, establishing an empire that stretched from Spain to India. Perhaps it is because Europeans recognise the debt we owe to Arab scholars who preserved the writings and wisdom of the classical world, which later fuelled the European Renaissance. Or perhaps it is that the rise of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks established them as leaders of the Muslim world, relegating the Arabs to a minor role in international affairs. Perhaps too, the European mind, for some centuries, considered it unnecessary to distinguish between Turk and Arab, finding it convenient to tar both with the black brush of Islam. In recent years, with rising fears in the West of cross-cultural clashes and axes of evil, the focus has tended to be on the adherents of Islam rather than on Arabs, who have arguably contributed more to the negative image of Muslims in the US and Europe.

Whatever the case, it was the Turks who bore the brunt of Western Europe’s fear of and antipathy towards the Muslim religion, which seems to have emerged strongly in the 11th century. It was in 1096 that Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade – an army (or two) of Christians from Western Europe who set off on the sacred task of defending Christendom from the Muslim ‘invaders’, and liberating the Holy Places (Jerusalem etc) from their clutches. As usual, there is debate amongst historians as to the exact reasons for this and subsequent waves of Crusaders that launched themselves eastwards.

In the first place, there was certainly an appeal addressed by the Byzantine Emperor Alexus Comnenus to the Pope in Rome for his help in fighting the Seljuk Turks who had recently defeated the Eastern Christians in a major battle, and begun serious incursions into Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. While it may seem at first attractive to imagine brother Christians helping each other against a common (heathen) enemy, in fact, there was little love lost between the Eastern and Western churches. It had been only 40 years since the final schism in 1054, which firmly established their mutual incompatibility.

Secondly, it is certainly true that Western Christians were at least partially motivated by the belief that the Holy Places of their religion had fallen into the hands of unbelievers. It is also true, however, that these places had been in the hands of Arab Muslims for more than 400 years. Why the sudden concern, we might ask? Undoubtedly the Turks posed a threat of a different kind. The Eastern Christians had managed to maintain a buffer against Arab Islam, and Constantinople had withstood their attempts to conquer it. The existence of this Eastern barrier had protected Europe from Muslim invasion at a time when it would have been particularly vulnerable. The Arabs were obliged to take the long way around, via North Africa, into Spain, by which time, we may imagine, their supply lines were somewhat stretched. Suddenly, however, in 1071, the Byzantines had been heavily defeated by a Muslim Turkish army – it could have looked like the thin edge of a new wedge.

Third, this event happened at a crucial time in European history. European Christendom was a fragile, relatively new bud. The Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne that had emerged in the mid  8th century, had fallen apart by the middle of the 9th. A century later, the Pope had found a new hero in a German king by the name of Otto, and begun grooming him to be temporal ruler of a new Holy Roman Empire. However, Europeans at that time had no real concept of themselves as such, and Western Europe was divided into numerous warring feudal states. The Seljuk Turks, then, might be seen as a convenient threat whose existence could be used as a means of uniting Europeans against a common enemy. In fact, they were not ignorant barbarians, as their art, architecture, literature and philosophy show. Educated Westerners know the verses of Omar Khayyam, through the translation of Edward FitzGerald, and the Sufi philosophy of Mevlana Rumi. But religious leaders, and seekers of political power are not always interested in the whole truth, and a timely war can help paper over internal divisions and generate a unity of spirit and purpose, as Margaret Thatcher and the Bush father and son can verify.

So, the Seljuk Turks became the Pope’s bogeyman to terrify Western Christians into laying aside their internecine squabbles and uniting under the banner of true religion. They were assured of finding a place in paradise in return for fighting the good fight against the Saracens, pagans, infidels and Ishmaelites who were polluting the Holy Places. It may also be that the Holy Fathers were a little envious of their Eastern Christian brethren who had retained a temporal empire to go with their spiritual dominion, and saw an opportunity to bring them down a peg or two. Certain it is that the forces of the 4th Crusade in 1204 took time on the way to engaging the Muslim foe, to stop over long enough to besiege, conquer and loot the Christian city of Constantinople. That city remained in Western hands until the Byzantines were able to retake it some 50 years later, by which time much of its fabled wealth had been relocated to Italian cities, and Byzantine power had been seriously diminished.

Genghis Khan, on the other hand, deserves much of his bad press. His armies swept through Central Asia and the Near East in the early 13th century. After his death, his son Ogedai continued the thrust into Hungary and Poland. Whether or not the Mongols were Turks is a moot point, but certainly they were not Muslims at this time in history. Muslims in fact suffered at least as much as Christians from Mongol depredations – Persia (modern Iran) was invaded and much of Islamic-Arabic civilisation was destroyed. Ironically, it may well be that Genghis and his Mongol hordes thus assisted Christendom by facilitating their re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

Timur, (Tamerlane), another Central Asian warlord, and another open to several interpretations, is in fact less known in the West, perhaps because he caused more damage to Turks, fellow Muslims and Hindus than to Christians. The Ottoman Empire was on the rise in the late 14th century when Timur and his armies defeated Sultan Beyazit, creating an inter-regnum and a serious blow to the emerging power in Anatolia and the Balkans.

Nevertheless, all these events and characters have been lumped together in European folk history to create an image of ‘The Turk’ that, by the 16th century had crystalised into a heathen figure of darkness and savagery. I haven’t personally counted them, but I have it from a source[1] I have no cause to question, that there are thirty-five references to Turks in Shakespeare’s plays, all of them referring to a fearsome threat in the East. Indicative of the confusion in European minds is the play ‘Tamburlaine’, written by Christopher Marlowe in 1587. Timur, as discussed above, undoubtedly had a far more recent connection to Central Asian Turkishness than the Ottoman Sultan, but English theatregoers were encouraged to cheer Beyazit’s defeat and humiliation at the hands of Marlowe’s hero.  Of course, the reign of Kanuni Süleyman (1520-66), known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent, marked the pinnacle of power of the Ottoman Empire, as his armies achieved dominance through North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe as far as the gates of Vienna, while his navy controlled much of the Mediterranean. The existence and power of the Ottoman Empire at this time were a major spur to the ocean-going explorations of Western European nations, who needed a safer route to the East.

The Ottomans were not, in fact Turks, in any genetic sense of the word. It had been nearly 500 years since their ancestors had conquered the Byzantine army at Manzikert. Modern DNA analysis suggests that the genes of those Seljuk invaders had been thinned by intermarriage with the indigenous inhabitants of Asia Minor. Ottoman Sultans filled their harem with toothsome young lasses from the lands they had conquered, and by the 16th century, Süleiman’s Turkic blood would have been well diluted. To be Turkish, in fact, did not convey a very high status in a cosmopolitan empire whose citizens included Christians, Jews, Arabs and Persians. European use of the title ‘The Grand Turk’ to refer to the Ottoman Sultan, and the name ‘Turkey’ to refer to their dominions, likely sprang from an attempt to belittle and diminish a people they, perforce, had to respect and fear. Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, had his work cut out for him in his attempt to forge a unifying identity from those who remained after other national groups had split off and gone their separate ways.

However, I am jumping ahead of myself here. We are still back around the turn of the 17th century, but the tide was turning in European affairs. The Ottoman Empire was still a major force, and would remain so until its final demise in the First World War. However, new military technology and training, professional armies and the ability to work together against a common enemy were beginning to give an edge whereby rare and infrequent victories over the Ottomans became more regular and eventually the expected norm. Fear of ‘The Turk’ began to be replaced by a curiosity and interest in things Turkish. As trade and diplomatic relationships increased, wealthy Westerners began to imitate and adopt aspects of Ottoman/Turkish art and culture – it was known as ‘Turquerie’, and was particularly fashionable from the 16th to the 18th century. By the 19th century, as the Near East became increasingly accessible to the Western traveller, ‘Orientalist’ artists began to portray ‘Ottoman culture as colourful, exotic and sensual, qualities to be seen the work of the French painter Ingres who was particularly keen on depicting ‘odalisques’ – less exalted members of the Ottoman harem whom Ingres is most unlikely to have seen, particularly in the unclothed state in which he was fond of showing them.

From quaint, sensual and exotic, it was but a skip and a jump for Europeans to accept the diagnosis of the Ottoman Empire, generally attributed to Czar Nicholas I of Russia, as ‘The Sick Man of Europe.’ As the 19th century wore on, the major European powers became more confident in using the Ottomans in their power games, now attacking, now supporting, as they manoeuvred around to ensure that each got the best deal when the ‘Sick Man’ finally expired. The Ottomans, and thereby the Turks, came to be seen as enfeebled, dissolute and corrupt, and fair game for Western empire-builders as they jockeyed for position in the new world that was emerging. It is entirely understandable. The once-feared enemy had become vulnerable, and it was too tempting to mock and belittle now that the threat had passed.

Nevertheless, it can be dangerous to start believing your own propaganda. I have written elsewhere on the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and the war that led to the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s, so I don’t intend to repeat the details here. It is pretty clear, though, in retrospect, that the British and their Allies in the First World War seriously underestimated the ability of Turks to defend their own shores from foreign invasion. It is also clear that certain influential figures in the military misrepresented ‘The Turk’ to the British public. Again, I dealt somewhat harshly with Winston Churchill in an earlier piece, so I’m leaving the poor man alone this time. There is another gentleman, however, who does deserve a little attention. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was undoubtedly a scholar and a gentleman (at least on his father’s side, though he apparently adopted his mother’s family name, for reasons we don’t need to go into here). Nevertheless, it does now seem that some of the more titillating passages in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ may have been influenced by his quirky sexual proclivities, which included paying a military colleague to administer beatings to him.

Coming up to more modern times, I recently watched ‘Midnight Express’, that 70s classic film of a young American’s experiences in a Turkish prison. Well, I guess, it has come to be recognised as a somewhat exaggerated and distorted presentation of Turkey and its justice system. Billy Hayes, the real-life victim, and the scriptwriter who turned his book into a screenplay have subsequently admitted that fairly major liberties were taken in the making of the film. Perhaps there is no significance in the fact that the owner of MGM studios at the time was an Armenian-American, but you can’t help wondering. I have to say that, as I watched it, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, perhaps, US authorities, concerned at the activities of their young citizens abroad, might have had some input, in the interests of scaring them into being more careful. After all, Billy Hayes confessed in the film, if only to his father, that his aim was to make money by selling hashish back in the USA. I don’t know what the law says in Turkey or America, but in New Zealand, if you are caught in possession of more than a certain amount of a particular illegal substance, there is an assumption that you are a dealer.

Well, Turks get a bad press; I guess that’s what I want to say. Some of it, perhaps they deserve. Show me the perfect country and I’ll move there tomorrow. But a lot of it they don’t deserve, and I’ve tried to show how our attitudes in the West have been shaped by ignorance, and sometimes, even by deliberate distortions. Turks themselves are not wholly innocent in the unfortunate image they have abroad. I recently asked some Turkish friends if Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun were Turks. ‘Probably not,’ was the unanimous answer. And perhaps, to be fair, those names are not as common in classrooms as they once were. But sabre-rattling is an activity much-loved of nationalists everywhere, and the ignorant are easily exploited by unscrupulous politicians. In the end, the only defence is true knowledge. Seek it out!

[1] Gönül Bakay:

Monday, 18 October 2010

Art for God's Sake - Gentrification in Istanbul

There has been a lot of doomsday talk in and about Turkey recently, particularly in the lead-up to, and as a result of the recent referendum on the constitution. The essence of the talk seems to be that Turkey is lurching inexorably back into the Islamic world, and eighty-seven years of secular, Western-oriented progress, instigated by the revered founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is being systematically unravelled. The most recent evidence of this retrogression, so the doom-sayers tell us, is the violence that took place in the inner-city district of Tophane, where a gang of thugs, armed with clubs, knives and pepper-spray (an interestingly modern addition to traditional armament) set upon citizens peacefully attending the opening of several art galleries in the area.

Well, let me say at the outset that I do not, in any way, condone this kind of street violence. It is unconscionable that citizens attending such an event, folks you would normally expect to be peaceful, intellectual, even a little other-worldly, should end up in hospital with knife wounds and concussion while going about their lawful business. Art gallery owners, victims, and their friends and families are rightfully angry about what happened on 21 September.

I must admit, there are times when I despair of the world, and feel that the end of civilisation as I have known it, is assuredly at hand. Usually, however, the feeling passes, I get matters back into some kind of perspective, and remember that life, on the whole, is pretty comfortable for me, and others in the circles I generally move in. So let’s step back from the events of that Tuesday night, and try to take a broader view.

First, then, there is the matter of street violence. Of course it’s a nasty matter, and, for those immediately affected, extremely traumatising. However, a scrap which sees five people treated at hospital for relatively minor injuries, and seven taken into police custody, hardly qualifies as an apocalyptic event. In fact, on the microcosmic level, if two of the injured had not been foreign citizens, and those set upon had not been well-heeled attendees of an art gallery opening, the fracas would very likely have received no media attention at all, and certainly not have made international news. Worse things happen, I’m sure, on a pretty regular basis, in any major Western city - and Istanbul has a population of more than twelve million.

On another level, however, there is an important insight into Turkish society provided by this event. Ten years ago, in April 2000, hundreds of supporters of the English Football club, Leeds United, arrived in Istanbul to attend the UEFA Cup match with the local side Galatasaray. Prior to the match, a group of Leeds fans managed to get themselves into an altercation with some natives, with the tragic result that one Englishman was stabbed to death, and another ended up in hospital with a serious knife wound.

Again, you cannot condone the violence, but as a visitor to Turkey, you should take the trouble to look into the local character. Turks are famed for their friendliness and hospitality to visitors. They are generally slow to anger, as anyone knows who has witnessed the anarchy on the roads of Istanbul, and the relatively few incidences of road-rage. On the other hand, it is well known that, once a fight does break out, there is no backing down. Carrying an offensive weapon is not uncommon, and bloodshed is a predictable result. Every year I go to the main police security HQ in Istanbul to renew my residence and work permit. As we enter the premises, of course, we are x-rayed and searched. An interesting variant on what I was used to, however, is the desk to which you can surrender your firearm, where it will be looked after until you have completed your business. For this reason, local bystanders tend to do all they can to prevent an argument escalating to violence. As a general rule, it’s better to avoid getting into a fight with a Turk if you can do so with honour preserved on both sides.

Which brings me to the next level of my analysis: the reasons for the conflict in Tophane. I read an article some months ago in the Turkish Airlines in-flight magazine ‘Skylife’, commenting on the transformation taking place in the historic area of Tophane. Gentrification is a relatively recent phenomenon in Istanbul, but it has long been common elsewhere, and the stages of the process are well known. The writer of the article describes how the gentrification process spread from the fringes of the neighbouring, already developed districts of Cihangir and Beyoğlu. The arty middle-classes were lured by the opening of a large new city art gallery, Istanbul Modern, in a huge old warehouse on the Bosporus shore. They began to see the potential of an area characterised by run-down, but attractive 19th century buildings with low rents or price tags. A new kind of resident moved in; art galleries, antique shops and up-market charcuteries opened, local small businesses found their incomes increasing, and rents began to skyrocket. The city council sees urban renewal taking place at someone else’s expense, and at the same time, the potential to increase property taxes. It happens everywhere, and everyone’s a winner, right?

Unfortunately, wrong. The inevitable corollary of an influx of new residents is the displacement of the old. The old residents, needless to say, are mostly poor with no voice to make themselves heard in the corridors of power. And anyway, what is their argument? You can’t hold back progress. Money talks. If you can’t pay the new rents, you’ll just have to move somewhere cheaper – generally to some soulless outer suburb where services, facilities and public transport are scarce. Add to that, the Turkish concept of ‘mahalle’: the inner-city neighbourhood with an identity created by inhabitants whose families have lived there perhaps for generations; whose children have attended local schools; whose small businessmen mostly live in the area, are on first name terms with their customers and have a vested interest in supporting the local economy. Residents of the mahalle know each other, and know when a stranger turns up. They help bring up each other’s children, are jealous of the reputation of their neighbourhood and for the most part, police themselves. Well, it’s not just a Turkish thing, of course. The same spirit existed in Western cities too, in the past, until it was largely swept away by urban renewal and gentrification.

This, of course, is the point I want to make here. ‘Tophaneliler’ (old residents of Tophane) see their neighbourhood being invaded en masse by new breed of neighbour who cares little, if at all, for the old ways. They feel themselves being pushed out, and perhaps feel some natural resentment. The resentment can easily turn to violence when sparked by an insult, real or imagined: wealthy new-comers drinking and socialising loudly on streets where formerly this was not the done thing; a word of appreciation directed at pretty young neighbourhood lass . . . It’s not hard to imagine a likely scenario. We can acknowledge the logic of it, at the same time as we condemn the violence.

The thing about Turkey is that these processes that we have observed elsewhere, are vastly complicated by the sheer age and complexity of the society that exists here. A little uphill, and west of the Tophane district stands one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks – Galata Tower. The tower was built in 1348 as part of the fortifications of the Genoese citadel of Galata. The Genoese had been granted special rights by the grateful Byzantine Emperor after helping to win back Constantinople from the Latin invaders who had set up shop there after the forces of the 4th Crusade, supported by Genoa’s rivals the Venetians, had besieged and conquered the city.

When the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet I decided it was time finally to add Constantinople to his dominions, Tophane was one of the places he chose to site cannons with which to bombard the city walls. The name Tophane, in fact, means ‘cannon foundry’, and the old Ottoman foundry remains one of the distinctive buildings in the area today; though it now serves a more peaceful purpose as the Culture and Arts Centre of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. The foreshore of Tophane was the place where cargo ships and passenger liners berthed; and before that, had for centuries been docking for warships of the Ottoman Navy. We can imagine the kind of activities that existed in streets back from the waterfront.

Two other historic buildings on the foreshore of Tophane are the Nüsretiye Mosque, and the mosque of Kiliç Ali Pasha. Interestingly, the former, built in 1826, was designed by the architect Krikor Balyan, of a well-known Armenian Istanbul family, members of which served as Imperial Architects to six Ottoman Sultans. The older of these two buildings was designed by Mimar Sinan (the Ottoman ‘Christopher Wren’) and built in 1580 by a gentleman known as Kiliç Ali Pasha. Despite being an Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, he was apparently born in Italy and went originally by the name of Giovanni Dionigi Galeni. Captured by the Ottomans in 1536, he was put to work as a galley slave, before converting to Islam, and rising through the ranks to end his career as Admiral of the Fleet.

Why am I telling you this, you may ask. Merely to illustrate the fact that getting a handle on what’s going on in this part of the world is a complex business. Everyone knows the Ottomans were Turks and they slaughtered Armenians – yet here we have a family of Armenians designing some of the most important imperial buildings (including mosques) and, one must assume, being well rewarded for their time and trouble with money and status well into the 19th century. And the Ottoman Navy, scourge of Christian Europe in the 16th century, commanded by an Italian, who must surely have had ample opportunities to escape long before reaching the lofty rank of admiral.

Events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries irreparably altered the fabric of society in Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole. What was formerly a polyglot mix of peoples, with large populations of Jews, Armenians and Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, European businessmen and diplomats, has ostensibly become a much more homogeneous community of Turkish Muslims. Yet this apparent homogeneity is misleading. Turkishness itself is an elusive concept, imposed on a diverse and divided population in the 1920s to save what remained of the Ottoman heartland.

The Turkish republic, founded in 1923, was a pre-industrial, largely rural state with a shattered economy and a population of around 13 million. By 1950 this had grown to 20 million, of which 75% still lived in small villages. In the 60 years since then, the population has grown to 75 million, and the ratio of rural to urban-dwellers has almost exactly reversed. Two inevitable concomitants of this growth have been: a huge influx of rural poor into the cities, especially Istanbul; and the rapid appearance of a large urban middle class. 

Returning, then, to the point whence we began our odyssey here, the events in Tophane on 21 September this year can be seen as symptomatic of the tectonic changes taking place in the society of modern Turkey. There is a dynamism evident for all to see, in the mushrooming of modern shopping complexes, the spectacular development of transport infrastructure: motorways, airports, underground rail; and the rapid growth of the private health and education sectors, especially universities. At the same time, conservative elements from villages and small towns are more in evidence in the large urban centres; denizens of traditional inner city neighbourhoods are coming into contact with the new middle classes; and inevitably there will be conflicts of interest.

Governing a country as internally diverse as Turkey is no easy task – as the CHP Party is finding, in its attempts to become a credible opposition. To be Republican is one thing; to be a party of the People, quite another. Every democratically elected government of Turkey since the first free election in 1946 has had to compromise between the secular ideals of the Atatürk revolution, and the religious beliefs of the majority of voters. Compromise, however, is the essence of politics – and the ability to compromise on issues of national importance, the mark of a mature democracy. It’s been thirty years since Turkey had its last military coup, and the likelihood of another seems increasingly remote. That has to be a healthy sign.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Turks are Coming! Another force in world rugby?

I come from a rugby-mad country. New Zealanders love sport in general. We are lucky to be born in a country where nature is kind – the weather is mild and there is plenty of open space. Children have the opportunity to choose from an unlimited range of physical activities, but the Number One choice is, and always has been, rugby football.

When I was a kid at primary school, there were two choices for a boy: play rugby, or be a ‘poofter’ (if you don’t know the word, look it up). These days, there are far more options available, and NZ has produced champions in almost every kind of sport, from lawn bowls to boxing; from speedway racing to yachting; from field hockey to middle distance running, rowing, kayaking and putting the shot. The NZ men’s soccer team competed in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, finishing unbeaten in their group, ahead of Italy. The men’s basketball team performed creditably in the recent World Basketball Championships in Turkey.

However, NZ has a small population, and it is not possible to compete consistently with the top countries in the world in every sport. From time to time a world-beating player or team appears, but we may have to wait many years to achieve the same success again. This is true in every sport – except rugby. Rugby is king of sports in New Zealand, and the honour of the nation is carried on the broad shoulders of our national rugby team, the All Blacks. When the All Blacks play against another country, it is far more than a mere sporting event – the result may be the cause of nationwide rejoicing or mourning.

Bleeding for his country -
and the William Webb Ellis Trophy
But not all matches are of equal importance. Apart from New Zealand, there is one other country for which rugby is the number one sport. And I use the word ‘sport’ here advisedly. The other country is South Africa, and the rivalry between these two countries can be compared to the televised bouts of ‘World Wrestling Entertainment’, except rather more serious and infinitely less theatrical. When the All Blacks emerged victorious from their most recent match with the South African Springboks, the NZ coach, Graham Henry, had this to say about his team: ‘These are the guys I would want to have beside me in a war!’ And I’m sure he wasn’t joking. When it comes to smiling, Henry would make the Turkish football coach, Fatih Terim, look like a stand-up comic.

Speaking of the ‘Imperator’ and the Turkish national football team brings me, in fact to the point of this blog. I read an article in my Turkish newspaper the other day, in which the president of the Youth and Sports Development Council announced that they were intending to introduce rugby to Turkish youth – and my heart skipped a beat. The rugby-playing nations of the world have managed to keep their game out of the hands of the Turks – until now! It could be the beginning of the end. My pick is that, if the Turks really get into the game, they’ll have a fair chance of getting their name on that William Webb Ellis trophy by 2019. ‘Yeah, sure!’ I hear you say. But listen up . . .

If there’s one nation on Earth that knows about war, it’s the Turks. If you had to choose a group of guys to have on your side in the event of one, you could do a lot worse than pick a bunch of Turks. Look at a list of the largest empires in world history. The Ottoman Empire comes in at No. 5. If you’re prepared to relax your definition of ‘Turk’ a little to include the Mongols, they’re actually at No. 2; and pretty obviously you don’t build an empire of that size without doing a fair amount of fighting. In fact, if it hadn’t been for some pretty desperate resistance by Hapsburg forces in 1529 and 1683, the Ottomans might well have conquered Vienna and made major inroads into the heartland of Europe.

A glance back further into history reveals that this Ottoman threat to Europe was no surprise. Before the Turkish emir Osman founded the Ottoman dynasty in 1299, Turks had been fighting as hired warriors in the armies of most major regional powers for several centuries. The Persians, Egyptians, Byzantines, Venetians, and even, interestingly (and, of course, more recently), the United States of America, have all availed themselves of Turkish mercenaries at one time or another.

In the 70 years from 1853 to 1923, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and finally disintegrated, its people fought no fewer than seven major wars, beginning with the Crimean War, and ending with the War of Independence, out of which emerged the modern republic of Turkey. Of course, apart from the last named war, there weren’t a lot of successes for the Turks to boast of in that period – but for sure, they weren’t short of fighting practice. If the British hadn’t swallowed their own rhetoric in the 19th Century about the Ottoman Empire being the ’Sick Man of Europe’, they might have been a little less sanguine about their chances of success in the Gallipoli invasion of 1915. The Turks may have been short of technology, but they remained dangerous foes when backed into a corner.

Coming up to the present day, there is still universal compulsory military service for all male citizens of Turkey. Furthermore, it is not a mere token training. The majority of young men serve fifteen months in the armed forces, and many of them see action in the east of the country in the on-going struggle with Kurdish insurgents.

However, Graham Henry’s remarks notwithstanding, rugby is a sport – a fact attested to by the intention of the International Olympic Committee to include it in the Games from 2016. So let me return to my other reasons for thinking that Turkey may well become a force to be reckoned with.

Turks love football. In fact, the word ‘love’ doesn’t really do justice to the emotions that football arouses in the Turkish breast. It’s my opinion that the rivalries between supporters of Turkish football clubs have their roots in the factional riots originating in the chariot races of Ancient Rome, which periodically laid waste the city of Constantinople (old Istanbul, of course). Not only do the supporters of competing Turkish clubs not mingle during a match, but large numbers of uniformed, seriously armed police stand guard to ensure they do not come to blows, or worse.

However, the football that inspires this fanaticism is not rugby. It is, of course, the ‘poofter’ variety played with a round ball, indulged in by the misguided majority of the world’s nations, in which players hurl themselves to the turf in paroxysms of agony when an opponent approaches within spitting distance. Turks are, actually, quite good at this pansy version of football, though their results on the world stage tend to be somewhat erratic. It’s my opinion that one of the chief reasons for this is that Turks are not very good at feigning injury, and are more likely to stoically refrain from showing weakness in competitive situations.

Nevertheless, the Turkish national soccer/football team did finish 3rd in the 2002 FIFA World Cup – a creditable performance which put them in the same company as international powerhouses, Brazil and Germany. According to that newspaper article I mentioned earlier, the Turkish Sports Development people have recognised the need for large skilful athletes in fielding a rugby team. Wrestling and handball are two important sports in Turkey, and they suggest that similar talents are useful in rugby too. Further, they are focusing on the recruitment of players two metres in height, 110 kg in weight, capable of running 100 metres in around 13 seconds.

One thing that struck me when I first came to Turkey was how many short men there were. However, in a country of 70 million people, there is a wide range of body shapes and sizes, and a Turk by the name of Sultan Kösen recently entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s tallest man. In the World Basketball Championships (a sport unsympathetic to normal-sized human beings), held last month, the Turkish Men’s team finished runners-up to the USA. We may safely assume that they won’t have a problem finding fifteen guys large enough to foot it with the man-monsters of the other rugby-playing nations.

I want to finish with a brief anecdote from my early days in Turkey. When I first came to this country, I took up a position teaching English in a high school in a suburb of Istanbul. My students were of no great intellectual stature, but they were cheerful, outgoing and enthusiastic, keen to initiate a ‘green’ foreigner into the intricacies of Turkish culture. One morning, after our lesson ended and we broke for lunch, a group of 16 year-old lads offered to demonstrate for me a popular playground game known as ‘Long Donkey’. Later, of course, I understood that this ‘game’ is totally off-limits in Turkish schools, but at the time I was keen to learn about local customs, and reluctant to hurt the feelings of my pupils. So the lads proceeded to clear a space in the classroom by moving the desks and chairs around, and the game began.

Let me explain how ‘Long Donkey’ is played. Two teams are chosen. The numbers don’t really matter, but let’s say, on this particular day, there were seven a-side. A coin is tossed and one team becomes the ‘donkey’. The leader of the team braces himself in a standing position facing a wall, and the rest of his team bend over and grasp the player in front in a long, scrum-like formation. The other team, meanwhile, withdraw themselves as far away from the ‘donkey’ as possible, and conduct themselves as follows: the first player takes a running jump, aiming to land himself, with as much force as possible, on the back of the ‘donkey’. The object, as you may guess, is to collapse the ‘donkey’, or, failing that, to remain on its back so that, when the next player follows, the combined weight is increased. 

All players in the jumping team take their turn, and, if the ‘donkey’ is collapsed, a point is scored, or not, as the case may be. Team roles are then reversed, and the game continues until the players tire of it, someone is seriously injured, or the police are called, whichever comes first.

Well, luckily I was able to put a stop to my first experience of 'Long Donkey' before we went that far – and, fortunately, before any of my Turkish teaching colleagues came on the scene. But ever since that day, I have been wondering what would happen when and if Turks were able to combine their love of football with their enthusiasm for ‘Long Donkey’. It seems that the rugby world is about to find out.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Cruelty and Mercy - Righting the Wrongs of History

I was doing a little shopping in my local area of Istanbul the other day and I dropped into a small hardware shop. There was an elderly chap behind the counter, and I guess he doesn’t get a lot of customers, so he was keen to chat. As usual, I was picked as a non-native as soon as I walked in the door, and he wanted to know where I was from. Like most Turks I have met, he was happy to come across a foreigner, especially one who knew enough Turkish to hold up the other end of a conversation.

Something I have started doing recently in these situations, after exchanging a few pleasantries, is to ask my new acquaintance where he is from. Turks get around a lot, and you can’t assume everyone you meet originates from Istanbul. Even if he was born there, a Turk will probably still identify strongly with his ‘memleket’, the place where his family came from.

Well, it turned out that the gentleman was from Bulgaria, as are quite a number of Turks you will meet. It seemed a good opportunity to ask when and why he had come to Turkey. In response, he held out his left hand and directed my gaze to the thumbnail – or the place where you would normally expect to see a thumbnail. ‘They pulled it out,’ he said simply. ‘This too, ‘he said, indicating a large rough scar on his forehead. He didn’t take off his shoe, but he added that the big toe of his left foot had been crudely amputated with an axe. ‘They wanted us to change our names,’ he explained, ‘and I am proud of my Turkish name.’

So he’d come to Turkey, along with more than 300,000 other Bulgarian Turks who fled anti-Muslim persecution in the late 1980s, leaving behind houses and most worldly possessions.

Now I want to make it clear here that he wasn’t complaining, and his tone wasn’t bitter. He had made a new life for himself and his family in Turkey, and he seemed content. He was merely responding matter-of-factly to my questions. I did a little subsequent reading on the subject, and, to be fair, this persecution of Turkish Muslims took place under the old Communist regime, which was overthrown not long after. The new government restored rights and freedoms to Muslim Bulgarians, and many of the refugees chose to return from Turkey. I visited Sofia briefly in 2004, and saw a historic mosque in a prominent location. An important landmark on the shores of the Golden Horn in Istanbul is a 120 year-old Bulgarian Orthodox church, so these must be good signs.

I saw another good sign in my Turkish newspaper a day or two later. Two hundred members of an extended ‘Süryani’ family were celebrating a reunion in their ‘memleket’, the south-east Turkish town of Mardin, whence they had fled to various countries because of terror and violence.  At a colourful traditional ceremony, they reopened the doors of the 700 year-old mansion they had inherited from their forebears.

Well, of course, such an event begs several questions, among them: What actually happened to make these people leave in the first place? And shouldn’t someone be held accountable for that?

Maybe someone should – but unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find a person, or government that can be persuaded, or forced, to shoulder the blame. The present government of Russia is understandably reluctant to accept responsibility for atrocities carried out by Imperial Czarist Russia. Republican Turkey regrets events that took place under the Ottoman Sultans, but shares this reluctance to assume guilt. Perhaps, if the United Kingdom became a ‘United Republic’, they might be able to distance themselves from some of the worst excesses carried out in the name of the British Empire.  You can’t help feeing a little sorry for the modern Brit sometimes.

But I know these are not matters to be treated lightly. Historical wounds leave deep scars, and national pride thrives on the memory of past injustices. We New Zealanders know how difficult it is, with the best intentions, to right the wrongs of history. Historical facts themselves can be elusive will-o’-the-wisps, even when the history is less than 200 years old. How much more difficult, then, in a land which witnessed the dawn of history itself!

You can commonly see, in Turkey today, agricultural implements and conveyances that hark back to the very earliest days of civilisation. They are not much used nowadays. Mostly they are to be seen on display in gardens or antique shops: ancient stone olive presses, primitive sleds and the spoke-less wheels attached to a revolving axle as in the picture. Such wheels were introduced in the third millennium BCE prior to the invention of spokes, but have been in use in Turkey within living memory.

Did you get that? Let me just run that by you again: the third millennium BCE! We’re talking four to five thousand years ago here, long before any Turk set foot in the region now known as Anatolia. And, we could also add, for that matter, quite some time before any Greek. History goes back a long way in this part of the world – the practice of writing is generally accepted as having emerged simultaneously around 3000 BCE in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. Check out the table on the left, a list of civilisations that succeeded each other over a period of 4000 years until the Ottomans hammered the last nail in the Byzantine coffin with their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Spare a little sympathy for the Turkish school boy or girl, tasked with memorising all that - and, in fact, I left out much of the finer detail.

Historians and archeologists are not always 100% certain where these various peoples came from before they established their kingdoms and empires in this ancient land. The period of 600 years after 1300 BCE, here labelled the ‘Ionian Collusion’, you will find elsewhere referred to as the ‘Anatolian Dark Age’, marked by invasions and conquests of the mysterious ‘Sea People’. Nevertheless, we can be fairly sure of two things. First, human nature being what it is, there would have been a fair amount of bloodshed and slaughter of the vanquished by the victors. Second, the nature of invasions being what it is, there would also have been a considerable amount of assimilation and accommodation taking place in the aftermath, such that elements of the earlier culture would have mixed with elements of the new to produce a new synthesis.

Well, we can find plenty of examples of the bloodshed and slaughter, and I have touched on some of the more recent ones here and elsewhere, so it is not this on which I wish to focus. Rather, I want to speculate a little on the assimilations and accommodations that must have taken place.

One fact historians do agree on is 1071 CE as the date of the battle which saw the beginning of the Turkish conquest of Anatolia. The Byzantine army was defeated, the Emperor taken captive, and the Turkification / Islamicisation of Anatolia begun. But how many Turks actually entered Anatolia at this time, and what percentage did this represent of the total population of the area? What happened to those predominantly Christian, Greek-speaking local inhabitants? Were they slaughtered? Did they move en masse to friendlier lands? Were they forcibly converted, along the lines of later Christian inquisitorial methods? Or did the majority of them survive, gradually adopting the customs and practices of their new overlords, while intermarrying with them and passing on some of their own ways and traditions?

I make no claim to expertise in this complex area. To this day, Turks and Greeks squabble over who invented baklava, dolma (dolmadhes), döner kebab (souvlaki) and Turkish (Greek) coffee. Nevertheless, it’s easier to imagine the Turkish bath having developed from its Roman predecessor, rather than having been dismantled and carried on horseback from the steppes of Central Asia. It is undeniable that the imperial mosques of Ottoman Istanbul derived their architectural inspiration from the soaring dome of Hagia Sophia. The rakı and fish which characterise a Turkish night on the town clearly owe more to Mediterranean than Mongolian geography.

But what of that Byzantine Empire overrun by marauding Turks in the late Middle Ages? The name ‘Byzantine’ itself, as I have pointed out before, was never used by those imperial people to describe themselves. In their eyes they were Roman, direct descendants of the founding twins nourished by a she-wolf on the banks of the Tiber. The Turks themselves recognise this in the word they use (Rum) to refer to the Greek-speaking peoples of Anatolia. But there’s the rub, you see. The prevailing opinion in Western Europe was that real Romans spoke Latin; and for sure they weren’t Christian. Once the Pope started trying to resurrect the Roman Empire in the West, albeit in holy guise, there was no room for another competing one in the East. The Eastern Romans suffered in the eyes of the West because they had adopted too much of the local culture, despite, of course, having conquered (and maybe even having killed some of) whoever had been there before them.

Then there is the matter of Christianity which, simplistic Western views notwithstanding, was born and raised in the Middle East and Anatolia. Evangelism is a tricky business, made easier if you can find ways of melding your new religion with the culture and traditions of the prospective converts. I remember seeing a mural in a small Roman Catholic church in the backblocks of northern New Zealand. The depiction of the Saviour was noticeably brown and Polynesian in appearance. No doubt those early missionaries were able to draw an analogy with the Maori demi-god Maui, son of an earthly mother and the immortal guardian of the underworld, whose rebellious streak and supernatural powers brought great benefits to the lives of the mortals with whom he lived.

Christian visitors to Turkey often visit a humble building near the modern town of Selçuk, said to mark the spot where Jesus’s mother lived, having been brought there by the apostle John after the traumatising death of her son. Hard to know for sure, of course, though the Pope himself, on more than one occasion, has given credence to the story by visiting and praying at the site. More verifiable, however, is the long tradition of mother goddesses in the Aegean region of Anatolia. The Phrygian goddess Cybele mated with another semi-deity, Attis, who later reportedly cut off his own genitals, inspiring a cult of eunuch priests (a more certain way of enforcing celibacy rather than merely relying on self-restraint – perhaps the RCs should be looking into that). Cybele seems to have morphed into the popular Greek goddess Artemis, with connections to the moon goddess Selene, the Roman goddess Diana, and the Carian goddess Hecate. Who’s to say those early Christian evangelists didn’t find going with the local flow sometimes mutually beneficial?

What I’m suggesting here is that the twin processes of conquest and assimilation have been going on in this part of the world for millennia, and it’s an impossible task to separate and isolate the individual components of the culture and people that exist in Turkey today.

Take as another example the archeological excavations at Kültepe, some 20 kilometres from the modern Turkish city of Kayseri. The site is also known by its ancient name of Karum Kanesh, where Kanesh was a city inhabited by local Hittites from around 2000 BCE, and Karum, a satellite trading outpost of Assyrian merchants from Mesopotamia. Clearly the two peoples learnt each others’ tongues, and the visitors even taught their hosts the cuneiform alphabet in which have been preserved the earliest surviving inscriptions in the Hittite language.

This practice of allowing traders to set up a permanent trading base adjacent to a major city evidently continued until recent times. The city of Constantinople / Istanbul was enclosed within the ancient city walls until little more than a century ago. Across the Golden Horn, the settlement of Galata / Pera was the home of Genoese and Venetians in the Middle Ages, and later, of European Levantines; and where the embassies of foreign powers were located until the new Turkish Republic chose to site its capital in Ankara. The Christian districts of Pera and Kadıköy (Chalcedon) on the Asian shore of the Bosporus retain a more open attitude to alcohol consumption and related entertainments than is customary among Muslim communities.

We seem to have travelled a long way from my local ironmonger from Bulgaria, and I confess I have led you on a rather labyrinthine journey: to Mardin and Russia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, Selçuk and Kayseri, before returning at last to Istanbul. Was there a point to it all? It’s easy to imagine the violent loss of a thumbnail and a toe arousing anger and even hatred against the perpetrator of the action, especially if the violence could be associated with matters of nationalism, religion and ethnic identity. The line separating anger and hatred from bomb-throwing and vicious revenge is easily crossed, and escape from the accumulative circular spiral of grievance and vengeance is difficult. Unscrupulous seekers of power know this and use it for their own ends. In the final analysis, as the poet William Blake said, cruelty and mercy both have a human heart, and what use to make of that heart is ours to choose.