Camel greeting

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Mosaic of Turkey – untangling the Gordian Knot

One of the pleasures of summer is breakfasting on our terrace overlooking the blue waters of the Aegean Sea: or relaxing in the evening with an ice-cold beer as the sun sinks into the same waters, now turned fiery orange. Mostly the sea is empty, but occasionally the luxury schooners and motor yachts of the rich and famous pass by – and I imagine a time when the same seas would have carried galleys of the Ionian League, of Imperial Rome or the Byzantine Greeks, to marble cities up and down the coast, as they pursued their business of trade or conquest.

The biggest problem most outsiders have in coming to grips with the reality of modern Turkey is its location on a patch of earth which has seen the procession of so many civilisations, a normal human brain switches off from information overload. Mesopotamia has long been known as the cradle of civilisation. If that’s true, the land of Turkey/Anatolia/Asia Minor must, in addition, be kindergarten, primary school, junior high and high school. Archeological excavations at Göbeklitepe in Southeast Turkey have unearthed religious structures erected in the tenth millennium BCE. From then on, one civilisation succeeded another, with the last major world empire here, that of the Ottomans, surviving through to the twentieth century.

Once again, this July, I found myself in the town of Selçuk, visiting an English friend who has made his home there. It’s a very tourist-friendly place, as witnessed by the plethora of visitor accommodation. I passed by hotels and pensions with the enticing (at least to an antipodean like myself) names of Canberra, Wallabies, ANZ, Kiwi, Outback, and Boomerang, settling finally on Jimmy’s Place, with the added attractions of WiFi internet and air-conditioned rooms.

Selçuk çastle, Ayasuluk Hill
Well, it wasn’t my first visit to Selçuk, so I had no need to jostle with tourist crowds at the well-known attractions – but for those of you yet to discover the historical and cultural delights of Aegean Turkey, let me mention a few. Most visitors with an interest in history come to explore the ruins of Ephesus, a major port city of classical Greek and Roman times, and one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean region in those days. With its paved streets, impressive library, open-air theatre, luxury villas and well-preserved public toilets, Ephesus has much to excite the imagination. A short distance down the road is the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. There’s not much left of it these days, but in ancient times it featured on the list of the World’s Seven Wonders.

Those with a more specialized interest in religious history tend to focus on later days when Ephesus was home to an early Christian community, to whom the Apostle Paul addressed one of his famous epistles. It seems likely that Jesus’s mother Mary spent her last years here, having been entrusted by her dying son to the care of the disciple John. There is some uncertainty over the authenticity of the House of the Virgin Mary, located on nearby Bülbüldağı (Nightingale Mountain), although Pope John Paul II did see fit to drop by and pay his respects in 2004. Less open to debate is the ruin of the huge 6th century basilica, supposedly built over the grave of St John, and one of the holiest churches of the Byzantine Age.

Christendom began to lose its grip on Asia Minor after the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine Emperor’s army in a major battle in 1071. Before the Ottomans rose to prominence, the Selçuk area fell under the sway of a local clan known as Aydınoğulları. One of its members, İsa Bey, had a mosque built in 1375 which students of Islamic architecture consider important for reasons we needn’t go into here. An interesting side issue, however, is the fact that certain elements from the Artemis Temple, including some of the columns, were apparently used in its construction.

It’s not easy for people like me, from New World nations whose recorded history emerged from the mists of prehistory two to four centuries ago, to fully appreciate the time-frames in which Anatolian civilizations appeared and disappeared. The Mosque of İsa Bey itself fell into disrepair for many years, even converted to a caravanserai at one stage. It is still not fully restored. When it was built, more than six centuries ago, the famous temple from which the columns were taken had been deserted and derelict for perhaps a thousand years, its pagan worshippers long-forgotten.

These are some of the highlights of Selçuk itself. However, visitors often use the town as a convenient base from which to explore ancient sites further afield: the famous lime-stone terraces of Pamukkale and the associated ruins of Hierapolis; the ancient city of Aphrodisias with its remarkably intact 25,000-seat gladiatorial stadium; the impressive excavations of Priene and Miletos, and the remains of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma.

Less well-known, perhaps, is the site of Magnesia on the road from Selçuk to Söke. I was lucky to go with my English local guide, Robert, who was able to point out details and inscriptions which would undoubtedly escape the notice of the casual visitor. The city was known by the Romans as Magnesia-on-the-Meander (source of the English word meaning to wander aimlessly) to distinguish it from the other Magnesia further north from which sprang the modern Turkish town of Manisa. It was a city of some size in ancient times, located in a fertile region with commercial and strategic importance. Currently archeologists are working to excavate a large stadium long buried by a huge landslip, and consequently very well preserved.

I too have made my home in Turkey, though my base is the megalopolis of Istanbul. I do try, in my spare time, to keep up with archeological developments around the country, and even to visit sites of special interest. The task is endlessly challenging and full of interest, but ultimately hopeless, as a small selection of recent news items will demonstrate.

Archeologists from several nations apart from Turkey are currently engaged in extensive digging in numerous sites around the country. Like me, you may not have heard of the ancient city of Kibyra, but I can now tell you that it was a city in Southwest Anatolia near the modern Turkish town of Gölhisar. It is believed to have been founded by the Pisidians about whom you may also, understandably, be a little hazy) in the 3rd century BCE. During its five hundred years of prominence, it became one of the largest urban centres in the region, with a cosmopolitan population of Phrygians, Lydians, Lycians and Carians, reaching perhaps 200,000 at its peak. So it’s not altogether surprising that archeologists have recently uncovered a pavement which they believe may prove to be the world’s largest mosaic.

Another spot you may not be familiar with is the mound of Kuriki, near the Southeast Anatolian city of Batman. If you are new to the geography of Turkey, you may be sceptical that such a city exists, but I assure you, it’s true. Excavations here, in the upper reaches of the Tigris River, have been under way for three years and have established that human occupation was continuous from the late Chalcolithic Age (around 5500 years ago). Just last week, archeologists from Turkey’s Çukurova University brought to light a necropolis from the period when imperial Rome was engaged in a struggle with the neighbouring Parthians (of whom I have written elsewhere). So far, finds have included copper jewellery and pottery jugs and containers.

Hittite statue of Suppiluliuma
News of the day in our local paper on 29 July was the discovery, in excavations near Hatay, of a one-and-a-half tonne statue of a Hittite King, believed to be Suppiluliuma. Now I don’t presume to understand how these people can possibly know that, but at least the Hittite language is of Indo-European origin, which makes it more closely related to English than modern Turkish. Still, the Hiitites built an extensive empire that peaked in the 14th century BCE, which is probably why Suppiluliuma is not such a common name in English-speaking countries today. The chief city of the Hatay province, incidentally, is Antakya, the Turkish version of a place Westerners may know better as Antioch. It’s peripheral to my present purpose here, but Antioch was founded by one of the Great Alexander’s generals around 300 BCE, and grew in a short time to rival Alexandria in size and importance.  It is said to be the place where Christians were first called Christians, and visitors can check out the grotto church founded by the Apostle Peter in the first century of the Christian era . . . but that’s recent history compared to the Hittites.

As you can see, archeologists have much work ahead of them, without the need for any new discoveries. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, almost every new construction, large or small, turns up previously unknown and unexpected links with the past. I mentioned above the Turkish city of Manisa, not far from Turkey’s third largest urban centre, Izmir. Labourers working on the foundations of a road underpass last week came across the remains of a necropolis, tentatively dated to the classical Roman period.

Again, perhaps, the find is not totally surprising, given that the ancient city of Sardis is just up the road. Sardis was capital of the kingdom of Lydia, whose 6th century BCE ruler, Croesus, has come down to us as a byword for serious wealth. The city retained its importance under Persian occupation, and the discovery there of a large synagogue apparently obliged historians to reconsider their views about the place of Jews in the later Roman Empire.

Well, if you have followed me this far, and your mind is not thoroughly boggled, congratulations. As I said above, one of the principal reasons outsiders struggle to understand Turkey, and perhaps Turks themselves find their own identity a little confusing, is the incredible mosaic of races, cultures, languages and civilizations that represents the heritage of those who inhabit this patch of the Earth’s surface. I think, if I were a young student in Turkey today, I would give serious thought to embarking on a career in archeology. Perhaps I wouldn’t become as rich as Croesus, but it’s hard to imagine the spectre of unemployment being a serious threat.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Debasing the Currency – Dismantling Turkey’s secular state

It seems the Turkish government has recently issued a batch of one-lira coins and the customary portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of the Republic, is not on them. Clearly, some say, this is a further indication of the ruling AK Party's hidden agenda to overturn the secular state and return Turkey to religious shariah rule. So, if not Ataturk's, whose face will grace the obverse side of the new coin? An Ottoman Padishah's? That of the current president, AK Party's Abdullah Gül, or some historical religious leader?

Commemorative coin provokes debate
In fact, I gather that the new minting is to mark the tenth anniversary of an event which has been a major cultural success for the people of Turkey - the so-called Turkish Language Olympics. One side of the coin, a limited edition of one million, will bear the usual denomination of value, while the other will carry a special commemorative design. In addition, wealthy enthusiasts will also be able to purchase a sterling silver fifty-lira coin. Now you might wonder about the pretentiousness of such a grandiose title for competitions in a language that has no serious claim to lingua franca status, and furthermore, poses major challenges to would-be learners from other language backgrounds. I can personally attest to the difficulties English-speakers face. A language based on the principle of adding multiple suffixes to a root word such that a single word can require an English sentence to translate, and moreover insists that every vowel in attached suffixes must harmonise with the root according to complex rules that most Turks find difficult to explain, clearly has more in common with Martian or Betelgeusian than any terrestrial language.

Nevertheless, in the ten years since the first Turkish Language Olympiad was held, the number of participating countries has grown from seventeen to one hundred and thirty-five. Students from these countries compete in tests of grammar, oral skills, writing essays, reciting poems, singing songs, theatre and general culture. If I were a Turk, I think I would be pretty proud of this event, and the way it was raising the global profile of my language and culture. Evidently the government is, and its members made the decision to issue a commemorative coin. 

It's not such an uncommon thing to do, in fact. Many reputable nations with democratically elected governments do it from time to time, without arousing the ire of, or even much interest among their citizens. Since 2004, for example, there have been 126 different commemorative two-euro coins issued by Euro-zone countries. The United States Mint has a similar programme producing quarter dollars for commemorative purposes. There is a branch of learning, numismatics, involving the study of coins, ancient and modern, and some people actually engage in it as a hobby.

Nevertheless, it is still possible that the present government of Turkey has some more sinister motive in its minting of the new coin. So I did a little digging, and here's what I turned up . . .

Ataturk's picture was put on Turkish money when he became the new Republic’s first president in 1923. Interestingly, after his death in 1938, a law was passed requiring Turkish currency to bear a portrait of the current president. Accordingly, for the next twelve years the face of Ataturk's close friend and successor, Ismet Inönü, could be seen adorning liras and kurushes throughout the land. The change back to Ataturk occurred in 1950, when Turkey's first democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes came to power. Sadly for Menderes, his support for the revered founder was not enough for at least some members of the secular Kemalist military, who ousted him in a coup in 1960, convicted him of violating the constitution and had him hanged along with two of his ministers.

When the AK Party government erased six zeroes and issued the new Turkish Lira in 2005, it was remarked by many that the previously grim face which had adorned the hopelessly devalued old currency (1,700,000 to the US dollar) had been replaced with a smiling Atatürk. Some saw this as a sign that the great man was pleased to see his nation's money returning to credibility. Undoubtedly, wherever he was, he must have had serious misgivings about the competence of his political successors, who were powerless to curb the hyper-inflation that had turned the TL into a joke of Weimar German proportions by the 1990s.

I have observed before that I have a long-standing suspicion of politicians of all political persuasions. I tend to judge them by their actions and results rather than their words, which can be misleading to say the least. I have no loyalty to any political party, certainly not in Turkey, where I do not have the right to vote. I can say, however, that the last nine years have seen a period of political maturity and stability such as Turkey had not experienced for some considerable time. The AK Party was brought to power in polls whose fairness has not been questioned as far as I know; and has been resoundingly returned in two subsequent elections. In that time inflation has been reduced to internationally acceptable levels, and economic growth ranks with that of powerhouses like China, India and Brazil. The Turkish government has pursued a foreign policy which has reached out to neighbouring states in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, while maintaining ties of friendship with Europe and the United States. At the same time, Turks have resisted pressure to involve themselves in regional conflicts such as Iraq and Syria, despite strong pressure from Uncle Sam, and provocation from Bashar al-Assad.

Again, if I were a Turk, I think I would feel some pride in the way my country’s international standing had risen in recent years and in the manifest signs of increasing wealth and growing national self-confidence all around me. I might feel some misgivings about the continuing disparities of wealth distribution, and the obvious lack of a credible opposition party in the legislature. But I hope I might try to channel these feelings into positive political action, rather than constantly harping on about peripheral issues like headscarves and whose picture is on the back of my one-lira coin.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

True religion in Turkey and elsewhere

We live in a godless world, and that’s a fact. Now whether it’s because God is actually dead, as Friedrich Nietsche asserted, or because He has just given up on the human race and planet Earth, and taken His attentions elsewhere, I can’t say, but it must be one or the other. How did I come to this conclusion? I did what people usually do in this post-modern world when faced with a difficult question or an existential dilemma . . . I did a Google search. I keyed in ‘true religion’, and I want to share my findings with you. I must admit, I didn’t check out all 226,000,000 results, but of the thirty-three on the first three pages, twenty-six were links to a brand of jeans. Sure, seven of them would take you to sites with a more spiritual content, but four of those were on page three – and I’m not sure how many Google-searchers get even that far.

There it is - Search over!
Well, Nietzsche published his famous statement in 1882, so I can’t claim to have made an astonishing new discovery. Nevertheless, as with all complex ideas, one can read and intellectually engage with it, but not immediately experience or internalise its full import. Many years ago, as a student in a senior English literature class, I remember our professor asking how many of us had read the Bible. Few hands were raised, and certainly not mine. ‘Then how,’ asked the professor, ‘can you presume to study English literature when you haven’t read its single most important influence for most of the centuries of its development?’  

Later, as a teacher of literature myself, I would sometimes need to explain to my students a reference in a text we were studying. It shocked me a little to find how few students in a New Zealand high school had even second-hand knowledge of the best-known biblical stories. Interestingly, those who did were more likely to be of Maori or Polynesian, than European descent. The quotation is variously attributed to Jomo Kenyatta and Bishop Desmond Tutu, but it applies equally to New Zealand: ‘When the whitemen came, we (Maori, African, Native American . . .) had the land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed, and when we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’

I have written elsewhere of how coming to Turkey gave me new insights into the influence of politics and government on the development of the ‘belief’ systems of Christianity. At the same time, I found myself looking with new eyes on the Muslim religion which was now all around me. Like Western visitors before me, I was fascinated by the call to prayer, emanating eerily from the minaret of my local mosque. As a child of the 60s, I turned to Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, for information. Not every Turk can tell you what the holy gentleman is saying, so, for those needing assistance, this is it:

(4x) Allāhu Akbar                                                 God is [the] greatest.
(2x) Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah                     I bear witness that there is no deity except God.
(2x) Ash-hadu anna Muħammadan-Rasulullah     I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
(2x) Hayya 'ala s-salah                                          Come to prayer
(2x) Hayya 'ala 'l-falah                                           Come to success.
(2x) Allāhu akbar                                                  God is great
La ilaha illa-Allah                                                  There is no deity except God

It’s Arabic, of course, which bears a similar relationship to Turkish as does Latin to English – that is, it is the traditional language of religion and higher learning. To correct a misunderstanding in the minds of many Westerners, the word Allah is the Arabic for God, preceded by the definite article al-, and not the name of some pagan deity entirely unrelated to the focus of Christian worship. In the Muslim religion, Christians (and Jews) are ‘People of the Book’, part of the same great monotheistic tradition, and therefore brothers (and sisters) or at least cousins in religion.

Now no doubt some of you are thinking – this guy has been in Turkey so long, and seems so sympathetic, he’s probably become a Muslim himself. But no. In the first place, I incline to the Mahatma Gandhi, Donovan school of thought. I’m equally Buddhist, Baptist, Jew and Muslim, and equally none of them. And in the second place, I have an aversion to pain, and a strong attachment to that intimate part of my anatomy the removal of which seems to be regarded by institutional Islam as an important component of true belief. This, then, brings me back to the problem I experienced above with my search for true religion.

Check all the sources you like, you’ll find that religion is a difficult concept to tie down. The 19th century German philologist Max Müller wrote that the original meaning of the Latin word religio, from which our word religion is derived, was ‘reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things’. In other words, it was a personal business, a feeble attempt by human beings to deal with the metaphysical, existential problems that most of us encounter in the course of a lifetime. This denotation of religion you will still find in modern dictionaries. However, it is the conflict between this and the other meaning of the word that causes most of our difficulties. The other meaning of course, is an ‘institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’. It was institutional religion which persecuted Christians in Roman times, and which, when its turn came, used the tools of the Inquisition to torture and murder. It was institutional religion which Karl Marx called ‘the opium of the people’ for its power to induce acceptance of oppression instead of revolt.

Well, the struggle goes on, not only between religions, but within them as well. I have no intention of examining the struggle between Christendom and Islam. Enough nonsense has been written elsewhere, based seemingly on the assumptions that such a thing as Christendom still exists, and that Islam has some kind of unified integrity. Similarly, the tension within Christianity between the individual search for spiritual truth and the need of the institution to control by the imposition of doctrinal and ritual uniformity are well documented. What I want to look at is the situation in contemporary Turkey where the forces of secular modernity are supposedly in conflict with the AK Party government, whose secret agenda is said to aim at returning the country to the Shariah rule of orthodox Islam.

The personification of secular modernity in Turkey is the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who inspired and united nationalist forces, building a nation from the ashes of the moribund Ottoman Empire. One of the six principles on which he established the new state was the separation of church (mosque) and government. He saw religion as an anchor holding back his people from taking their place among the world’s modern states. To break the stranglehold of religion, he banned traditional forms of clothing (such as the fez), replaced the Arabic alphabet with a customised Latin-based one, outlawed the mystical dervish sects which constituted a serious threat to his programme of reform, and mandated the use of the Turkish language in place of Arabic in religious services – including the call to prayer. For eighteen years from 1932, the words heard from minarets in Turkey were these:

Tanrı uludur
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm
Tanrı'dan başka yoktur tapacak.
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm;
Tanrı'nın elçisidir Muhammed.
Haydin namaza, haydin felaha,
Namaz uykudan hayırlıdır.

Well, there’s something about the vernacular that appeals to populist philosophies, yet is anathema to organised religion. One could probably trace a correlation between the availability of the Christian Bible in English and other native tongues, and the long slow decline in religious observance in those countries. Probably Atatürk knew this. Surprisingly, then, it was the Democratic Party government of Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, that reinstituted the use of Arabic in Turkish mosques, among other Islam-friendly moves. Menderes epitomises for me some of the contradictions that perplex the foreigner in Turkey. He oversaw a period of rapid economic growth and Westernisation, while making major concessions to his majority Muslim electorate. He achieved a kind of superman reputation in his lifetime as a consequence of surviving a plane crash that killed most of his fellow passengers, yet ended his life on the gallows, hanged by the perpetrators of a military coup that seized power in Turkey in 1960.

Menderes was later exonerated, and his reputation restored to the extent that his name is honoured today in boulevards, airports and prestigious state high schools throughout the land. But the fact remains that he undoubtedly began the process of undoing Atatürk’s secularising reforms which has continued under subsequent regimes. Many of those secular Turks mentioned above, who maintain that the AK Party government has a secret Islamic agenda, see signs of this in PM Erdogan’s moves to pull the teeth of the Turkish military. In Turkey, the army has been seen by ‘secularists’ as having an almost sacred role to ensure the sanctity of the secular state, to the extent that they have applauded the generals when they have staged coups to overturn democratically elected governments.

Somewhat ironically, then, the last such military regime, which seized power in 1981, was also happy to make major concessions to the Muslim electorate, appealing to religion and extreme nationalism in order to suppress left-wing dissent. When the generals stepped back and handed power over to a civil administration, their choice for Prime Minister was Turgut Özal, formerly MP for an overtly Islamic party. Again, somewhat ironically, the Prime Mister deposed by the coups of 1970 and 1981 was a certain Süleyman Demirel, who later returned to office and installed a puppet PM in his place, before having himself appointed President of the Republic. In spite of this, when I first came to Turkey in the mid-1990s, Demirel too seemed to have restored his reputation and become a pillar of Kemalist secularism.

In another strange mating of secularism and religiosity, Demirel’s female successor Tansu Çiller, at the time a great symbol of Turkish progressiveness, formed a coalition with the Islamist Party of the day, allowing Necmettin Erbakan to become the republic’s first openly Islamic Prime Minister. Erbakan’s tenure was short-lived, however, and he was politely urged to stand down by the generals, in what has become known as Turkey’s ‘post-modern’ coup of 1997.

Returning then to our consideration of religion above, it’s hard to see much ‘reverence for God or the gods, or careful pondering of divine things’ in all these political machinations.  There is ample evidence in Turkey’s recent history that secular politicians and even the military guardians of secular Kemalism have been only too ready to play the religion card when it suited their purposes. So it does seem a little hypocritical now for the same people, and/or their followers to ride the high horse and attack PM Erdogan and his government for introducing relatively innocuous reforms such as allowing women wearing headscarves to study at university.

I do feel that a country such as Turkey, which struggles with serious inequalities of wealth distribution, could leave the building of mosques and the payment of religious leaders to local congregations and independent organisations. But funding of these by the state is not an innovation of the present government, and even the secular opposition are not interested in making such change an election issue. At the same time I have some sympathy for those who wish to see minarets continue as a feature of the modern Turkish skyline. I remember another of my professors drawing attention to an engraving of 17th century London, in which church spires were the prominent architectural feature. His point, as I recall, was that a comparison with the same view today might suggest something about modern-day priorities.

Of course, the problem is vastly more complicated, and I have no wish to oversimplify. Those 17th century London churches were representative of a religious establishment inextricably bound up with the government and the ruling elite of the day, and not necessarily a sign that their builders had any great interest in a search for spiritual truth. And I have similar misgivings when the muezzin of our local mosque wakes me around 5.30 these summer mornings with six minutes and 30 seconds of Arabic amplified by modern electronics and broadcast through loudspeakers attached to the highest point of his minaret. Perhaps he is genuine as he intones that extra line inserted into the morning edhan: ‘As-salatu khayrun min an-nawm’ (praying is better than sleeping) – but I would credit him with more sincerity if I knew he had actually climbed the spiral staircase to the lofty balcony, and used the unassisted decibels that God had given him.

Well, I don’t know if I have helped any of you here in your search for true religion. If the search comes to nothing, we can at least take consolation from the fact that globalisation is bringing our disparate institutional religions closer together. Witness the Shard Tower, recently opened in London, and now the highest building in Europe, financed, apparently by the Royal family of Qatar. And if you want a quick personal solution, get yourself a pair of those jeans.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

More Treasures of Turkey – Lost and found

The Turkish government has been making some waves in international circles lately with attempts to reclaim antiquities found within its borders now located in public museums and private collections abroad. Clearly there are rights and wrongs on both sides of the debate, and each case must be judged separately on its own merits.

I read an interesting item in my local newspaper the other day. A gentleman in the US was cleaning out the North Carolina home of his recently deceased parents when he came across a fragment of a stone tablet and the head of a small statue. The inscription on the tablet is in Greek, and, though no official dating has been carried out, the items are likely to be between one and two thousand years old. Apparently this gentleman’s father served in the US armed forces and was based for many years in Turkey. His son Mark assumed that his father ‘requisitioned’ (I think is the military euphemism) the items at that time, and has informed the appropriate Turkish authorities that he wants to return them to their rightful home.

If this were an isolated incident it would be noteworthy and laudable, and certainly Mark is to be commended for his honesty. Surprisingly, the article goes on to say that, in the last five years, 3616 similar items have been returned to museums and antiquities authorities in Turkey.

Roman sarcophagus found near Antalya
In the mean time, there are plenty more ancient relics waiting to be discovered beneath the soil and waters of this amazing land. Just last week, a Turkish recreational diver spotted what he thought was a white plastic deckchair partially buried in sand. On closer investigation, it turned out to be an elaborately carved marble sarcophagus. According to the report, the guy was swimming in the sea not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Justinianopolis near modern Antalya, so his find is not altogether surprising. Still, I imagine there are not too many countries in the world where a diver would come across such a treasure by accident.

The curator of the Bodrum Museum, which specializes in undersea relics, said the sarcophagus is an excellent specimen, dating from Roman times, with relief carvings of Eros and Medusa on three sides. It took a salvage team six hours to raise it from the seabed where it had lain for more than a millennium.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Will the real Muslims please stand up?

As usual at this time of year we’re in Bodrum, enjoying the Aegean sea and sunshine along with the rich and famous from Istanbul and further afield. Fortunately, the rich and famous don’t venture much to our part of the peninsula, so we don’t have a paparazzi in every tree with a metre-long telephoto lens that can detect a patch of cellulite or an incipient beer belly at a range of two kilometres or more.

Saudi prince and daughter? Wife?
This last week the local glitterati have been somewhat overshadowed by the presence of a certain Arab gentleman with the impressive name of El-Velid Bin Tallal Bin Abdülaziz El Suud. According to reports, he is a/the nephew of the Saudi King, and CEO of Saudi Arabia Incorporated, in Turkey with his wife and daughters to enjoy some of the freedoms that  are generally frowned upon back home.

Fair enough. Even royals need to let their hair down occasionally, and what better way to do it than on your 88-metre gold-plated yacht anchored offshore from one of Muslim Turkey’s more relaxed summer resorts. The yacht, of course, is not for actually travelling in – the princely family apparently arrived from Riyadh, or wherever they live, in their private plane. Anyway, you wouldn’t expect them to fly Gulf Air or Turkish Airlines would you? But this is no footling Lear Jet like any run-of-the-mill executive CEO. It seems our Saudi neighbours arrived in their personal full-size 747 Jumbo.

Well, I’m happy for them, I have to say. Maybe they’ll pick up some good ideas while they’re in Turkey and there’ll be a little less stoning, whipping and beheading after they get back home. Perhaps the daughters will get a taste for bikinis and décolleté evening wear, and persuade the Wahhabi religious police to relax the dress code for Saudi women. Now that the Prince has experienced the freedom of cycling around the Turkish countryside in a skimpy pair of shorts, he may think about allowing his national athletes at the London Olympics to compete in more sporty outfits.

Who knows? The power of example to influence others is well-known. Turkey may not possess all the freedoms that citizens of Western democracies take for granted, but the rights to don a bikini for a day at the beach, or sip a cold beer while reclining on your deckchair are not to be undervalued.