Camel greeting

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Turkish Puns - handle with care!

Understanding puns, I guess, is one of the signs that you are making progress in another language. I remember the first one I 'got' in Turkish, and how good it made me feel. It was a pastry/pie shop (börekçi in Turkish) in the Beyoğlu area of Istanbul, and it was called Hamurabi. Well, I'm sure you've heard of the ancient Babylonian king, whose name is normally spelled with two 'm's, renowned for codifying one of history's first legal systems. You may not know that hamur is the Turkish word for 'dough' or 'pastry', and ağabey (pronounced abi), means 'big brother', but is also used as a term of respect for a male older than oneself. 

Never mind the pun, Hamur abi itself is not readily translatable into English, but perhaps 'Mr Pastry' comes close. Why I'm telling you this is because a Turkish colleague took issue with my spelling of the Ottoman sultan's name in my previous post. Before going to press, I did actually check it, and found that the name of the Padishah in question could be written Bayezid, Beyazit, Bayazıt or Bayazıd. One source of the difficulty is the fact that, in those days, the Ottomans were using the Arabic script, which had to be rendered into European tongues using a Latin alphabet, at a time when spelling rules were pretty much non-existent.

Another problem is that the name is not Turkish in origin, but Arabic or Persian - the sources I checked didn't seem to agree. One of the peculiarities of the Turkish language is vowel harmony among the syllables of a word, and Beyazit/Bayezid breaks the rules. Turks also tend to de-vocalise the final '-d' in borrowed Arabic names like Ahmed. Anyway, English sources seem to prefer the former spelling, which is why I chose to run with that one. However, my colleague Ömer pointed out that beyazit in Turkish can also mean 'white street dog' . . . which is why I am now going back to that post and respectfully adjusting the spelling.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

In-sultan, Out-sultan: Remembering Bayezid II

I make no claim to an exhaustive knowledge of Ottoman history - but I have an interest, read a little, and enjoy wandering around the monuments of imperial Istanbul. By chance, for a reason I'll tell you later, I made mention the other day, in one of my classes, of a sultan by the name of Bayezid, who presided over the empire in the late 15th century. One of my students took issue with my facts, and I was left isolated with no support from any of the young lady's classmates. Now if we had been discussing New Zealand or English history, I might have stood my ground more firmly - but humility and common sense make me reluctant to debate events of Turkish history or politics with locals.

Bayezid II 'The Just'
Nevertheless, a later check confirmed the accuracy of my memory. There was indeed a Sultan Bayezid, the second of that name, seated on the Ottoman throne at that time. And an article in today's newspaper suggested why my Turkish students were unfamiliar with him, despite the fact that he ruled for 31 years, making him one of the longer occupants of that illustrious seat. The article was reporting a symposium running concurrently at several universities and historic locations around Istanbul, under the auspices of the Beyoğlu Borough Council. This year was chosen for the event because it marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Sultan Bayezid II. Well, the actual date would have been 10 Rabi I, 918 according to the Islamic Hijri calendar in use at the time, but these days, thanks to the modernising reforms of MK Ataturk, we in Turkey generally convert historical dates to the more widely preferred Gregorian calendar.

Beyoğlu is located on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn from the ancient walled city of Constantinople/Istanbul. That it is now a major entertainment centre of the modern metropolis is attributable to the fact that it originated as a kind of satellite city inhabited and administered by Venetian and Genoese traders, and later became home to diplomatic legations from European governments. As a result, attitudes to the consumption of alcohol were freer than across the water. Apparently, Bayezid II made a major contribution to the regeneration of this area after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul by his father, Mehmet II, and the present-day council want to recognise this.

However, despite his contribution to the establishment of Beyoğlu (an achievement little known outside the council and academia, so far as I can discover), Bayezid is not a well-known sultan, as the newspaper article acknowledges. The reason, they suggest, is that his reign was overshadowed, both before and after, by four of history’s favourite Ottoman rulers. The first was Murat II, Padishah from 1421 to 1451. This worthy inherited a crown that was by no means omnipotent, or even particularly secure. He had to deal with a Byzantine Empire that still had pretensions to greatness; Venetians who pretty much ruled the Mediterranean; and east European potentates who resented Ottoman incursions into their territory. On all fronts he was moderately successful, paving the way for his son, the aforementioned Mehmet, to hammer the last nail into the Byzantine coffin with his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, thereby earning for himself the sobriquet of ‘The Conqueror’.

Bayezid’s son Selim, known in English as Selim ‘The Grim’, ruled for only eight years, but during that time, made the Ottoman Empire undisputed ruler of the Islamic world. He conquered Egypt, incorporated the holy cities of Mecca and Medina into his domains and took for himself the title of Caliph, or supreme leader of the Muslim community. If those three weren’t enough to cast anyone into the shade, next on the scene was the greatest of all. Suleiman, known in the west as ‘The Magnificent’, and to Turks as ‘The Lawgiver’, held the reins of power from 1520 to 1566, making him the longest reigning Ottoman sultan at a time generally regarded as the pinnacle of that empire’s greatness – a hard act to follow, or even to precede, given that historians, like God, operate with the advantage of hindsight.

In contrast with these four mega-monarchs, Bayezid’s achievements are undoubtedly less spectacular. Nevertheless, as the Beyoğlu councillors are keen to point out, they deserve recognition. Given the Ottoman inclination to militarism, and Bayezid's interest in domestic policies and administrative organisation, it is perhaps understandable that he seems less majestic than his more warlike forebears and offspring. For his achievements in internal affairs he became known as 'The Just'. One of his major successes was to accept into his empire large numbers of Jews fleeing persecution from the Spanish Inquisition. He is said to have remarked that the Spanish king's folly was his own good fortune - the Jewish refugees impoverishing Spain by their departure and enriching the Ottomans by their arrival.

At the same time, it would have been impossible for the monarch of a major empire in those days to hold power for thirty years without engaging in a war or two, and Bayezid did his share of fighting. His reign began with the need to defeat his own brother Cem (pronounced 'Jem'), who, with Egyptian support, had sought to seize the throne. Cem was, in fact, an ongoing threat, and Bayezid's long-term solution was paying the Venetians a kind of annual reverse ransom to keep the guy out of circulation. Relations with the Venetians, however, were by no means peaceful, and the Ottomans engaged in several battles around southern Greece as the two states competed for control of the eastern Mediterranean. Also at this time, the Savafid dynasty in Iran were a rising power, uniting Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia and other neighbours under the banner of Shi'ite Islam, creating a major new challenge to the authority of the Sunni Ottomans.

Bayezid's reign ended as it had begun, with a war of succession, involving his two sons, Ahmet and Selim. Initially the two fought each other over who would succeed to the throne - but inevitably dad got caught up in the dispute, and was eventually forced to abdicate by Selim, who had gained the support of the Sultan's own Janissary regiment.

Well, it's a grim thing to unseat your own father, so Selim perhaps deserves his English nickname. However, Bayezid seems to have made one or two serious errors of judgement that prevented him from assuming a more prestigious place in history. His entry in the Turkish Wikipedia mentions the following:

Christopher Columbus was, at one stage, experiencing some difficulties getting funding for his proposed trans-Atlantic voyages of exploration. Having been turned down by the king of Portugal, he is said to have next tried his luck in the Ottoman court. Bayezid, however, didn't take the project seriously, and also rejected him. Subsequently, Columbus applied with more success to the king and queen of Spain, and the Ottomans had four hundred years to rue a lost opportunity. One scrap of good fortune did come their way, though, when a Spanish sea-faring colleague of Columbus fell into Ottoman hands as a prisoner of war. Apparently he had maps of America on him when captured, and these were passed on to the cartographer Piri Reis, of whom more in a later post.

A second unfortunate decision of Bayezid's seems to have occurred when Leonardo da Vinci, on a visit to the Ottoman capital, drew up plans for a 240-metre bridge to span the Golden Horn. Again, the sultan erred on the side of conservatism, and da Vinci's project never got off the drawing board. In fact, the suburbs of Beyoglu, Galata and Pera had to wait until 1836 to be linked by such a bridge.

Such are the quirks of history. It might have made a significant difference to the long-term fortunes of the Ottoman Empire if all that bullion from the mines of Central and South America had gone into their royal treasury instead of Spain's - though, to be fair, it didn't do Spain much good in the long-term either. It's also possible that Native Americans might have benefited from the generally more tolerant approach of the Ottomans to conquered peoples - but that's just idle speculation.

Bayezid gave up his throne on Anzac Day, 1512 (speaking with the benefit of historian's hindsight), but didn't live long to enjoy his well-earned retirement, dying a mere month later. History doesn't tell us that his grim son had anything to do with the business, but I have to tell you, I've got my suspicions.

Anyway, next time you're in Turkey, I'd like to recommend you to include two extra sights on your itinerary. The first is Sultan Bayezid's grand mosque in central Istanbul next door to the campus of Istanbul University. It was completed in 1506, making it, at the time, the second imperial mosque in the city, a century older than the more famous Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I. The earlier mosque built by Mehmet the Conqueror was destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century, however, so the son finally managed a posthumous ‘one-up’ on his father.

The other spot worth a visit, and the reason I happened to mention Sultan Bayezid in my class the other day, is the mosque complex he had built in the city of Edirne near the present border with Greece. These buildings are located outside the town in a picturesque and tranquil spot beside a river, and house a modest but impressive medical museum with displays from a time when Islamic health practitioners seem to have been somewhat ahead of their western counterparts. One wing of the hospital, founded in 1488, was used for patients with nervous disorders, and treatment included listening to music and the sound of water playing in fountains, as well as therapeutic basket weaving.

Well, even if you don’t weave baskets, I hope you find music to soothe your soul this festive season, and a moment of peace to remember the message of love and hope that lies behind all the commercialised brouhaha of Christmas and New Year.

Last time I was in that museum in Edirne I came across this poem, which Dilek and I translated. I take full responsibility for the literary limitations:

      Forever Entwined
In olden times, were in this antique place
Of healing, two young lovers; small
Was the maiden’s room and gloomy,
The boy’s less spacious still.

Dallied they mornings in the yard
Until the hour glass filled with sand;
The maid ringed by a fairy host,
Her beau on a magic steed.

Came to the lovers at last the end;
To health once more were they restored;
But the sweetness of life to them was lost,
Such had been their bliss.

Met they one last time, these two,
Swore to be parted nevermore;
Evading yet all watchful eyes, they
Turned again to their sanctuary.

A guardian spirit taking pity,
Mixed, while Nazir, the doctor slept,
A special potion, of his own brewing,
Into each lover’s cup.

Drinking th'elixir unaware,
The soul of each assumed new form -
The girl, a tree, the boy, wild ivy,
Forever entwined in the silent yard.

                                                               Ahmet Kutsi Tecer
                                                               Edirne 1957

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Soft Power of the Idiot Box – Turkish TV in the Arab Spring

The Turkish word for a TV series or soap opera is ‘dizi’ – and ‘dizzy’ is probably a good word to describe the effects that Turkish TV series are having these days in this part of the world. For a start they are huge business in Turkey itself.  There is a series for every niche market in the country. From the working class lives of ‘Coronation St’ and ‘East Enders’, through the decadent wealthy suburbia of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and the James Bond machismo of ‘Valley of the Wolves’, there is a local show with appeal for every sector of Turkish society.

Sultan Süleiman and his desperate housewives
If you promise to keep my secret, I will confess that most weeks I sidle alongside my good lady, Dilek, on the couch in our living room and up-date myself on the constantly frustrated attempts of the eponymous heroine to bring her rapists to justice in the series ‘Fatmagül’, and more recently, the on-again off-again relationship of Kuzey and Cemre[1] in ‘North and South’. Lead actors in these shows are household names in Turkey, commanding salaries comparable to the CEO of a medium size business. Their pictures and latest escapades are everyday fare in the gossip pages of local newspapers, and scandal-hungry paparazzi lie in wait behind every Ferrari and Audi SUV.

So seriously do Turks follow the labyrinthine twists and turns of their on-screen heroes and heroines that some have difficulty separating the actor from his or her role. It was reported that one avid fan had slipped a note into the hand of Selçuk Yöntem, the thespian playing middle-aged Adnan Ziyagil in ‘Forbidden Love’, warning him that his young wife Bihter was cheating on him. Beren Saat, the real-life persona of beautiful Bihter, is adored by thousands of adolescent male Turks, whose tender hearts have been dealt a bitter blow by her recent engagement to local pop star Kenan Doğulu.

But it’s not just Turks who are going dizzy over the dizis. Waheed Samy, general manager of Egypt-based Memphis Tours, was reported as saying he believed that Turkish TV series ‘are responsible for a 50% increase in the number of tourists to Turkey.’ ‘Forbidden Love’, based loosely on a 1900 novel known in Turkish as ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’, was one of the first Turkish series to be dubbed into Arabic. It reportedly attracted 85 million viewers at the peak of its popularity, setting off a trend that has grown into a multi-million dollar industry with far-reaching effects in the Arab world. One journalist referred to the phenomenon recently as ‘the Turkish TV series spring’ – a reference to the more violent events taking place in public squares of the same countries.

Abdullah Çelik, a spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, was quoted as saying that revenue from the sale of local TV series abroad had reached $65 million by the end of 2010 – up from zero in 2006. Monetary figures were not available for 2011, but he went on to say that 10,500 hours of TV series had been sold abroad that year. Not a small thing in times of global economic recession.

Of course, it is not merely the economic effects of this ‘soft power’ revolution that is attracting attention. A recent article on Euro News reported interviews with young people from Arab countries explaining the appeal of these Turkish shows:

“(What you see in this series is) you can be Muslim and you can be modern. They show that part of life (that) some of the Arabic people (are) deprived of – technology, nice living, modern life. They show the part of life that we don’t have in some of our countries,” said Auhood, an Iraqi tourist.

“It (the series) shows all the Muslim people can be open minded, open life, they can have modern life style,” added Asma, from Egypt.

It could be said that the possibility of Islamic culture coexisting comfortably with modern democracy as portrayed in these programmes is doing more to undermine autocracy and inequality in Arab countries than all the munitions supplied by the arms industries of the major world powers.

Still, it seems not everyone in Turkey is happy with the direction the Turkish film industry is taking. An Istanbul MP said she believed that these series hurt the image of Turkey abroad by glorifying corruption and immorality. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, entered the debate in the past week with pointed criticism of the enormously popular ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’, set in the 16th century Ottoman Golden Age of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. His beef seemed to be that the real Suleiman spent much of his life in the saddle, leading his victorious armies to conquests throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, even to the gates of the Hapsburg capital, Vienna. The screen version of the illustrious Padishah, known to Turks as ’The Lawgiver’, seems to have a preference for other mounts in the inner sanctum of Topkapı palace’s harem.

Well, you can see the PM’s point, and, as a keen amateur historian, I have some sympathy for the argument that says young Turkish kids are getting a distorted picture of the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power – an image perhaps more in line with that of Western Orientalists, who portrayed the ‘Grand Turk’ and his ‘Divan’ as dissolute, debauched and degenerate, ready to avail themselves of sexual opportunities in whatever form they came most conveniently to hand.

Conversely, not everyone is as devoted to the search for historical truth as we may be ourselves. I watched, in a cinema not so long ago, another recent product of the Turkish film industry, ‘Çanakkale’. Çanakkale, as my readers will know, is a town on the Dardanelles Straits that lent its name to the First World War fiasco we in the West know as the Gallipoli Campaign. The ‘Çanakkale War’ is dear to Turkish hearts, being the only theatre of the ‘Great War’ where Ottoman forces achieved significant success. The details and myths are well known to every Turkish child, and the film reinforces them all – from the heroic exploits of artillery corporal Seyit, single-handedly lugging 12 inch shells for the shore-based batteries, to the fob watch of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) which saved the future president from a shrapnel fragment in the heart.

The thing is, though, I have yet to meet anyone (and I mean Turks here) who actually liked the film. Sad to say, bayonet charges, sinking Royal Navy battleships, and life in the trenches may be true-life events, but they don’t capture the hearts and minds of cinema-goers and couch potatoes. We don’t get to know anyone in the film, and consequently we don’t engage with it. Steven Spielberg understood this, which is why he didn’t call that film ‘The Normandy Invasion’ – but invented a GI private by the name of James Ryan, thereby generating a touching story with human interest, and probably making a good deal of money into the bargain.

Furthermore, there may well have been younger generations of viewers for whom ‘Saving Private Ryan’ brought to life an important historical event that might otherwise have remained remote and meaningless to them. There may even have been some who left the theatre with an urge to learn more about the war their grandfathers fought in all those years before. For the rest, it was a couple of hours of entertainment; incidentally presenting to the world out there an American view of themselves they would like us all to believe. And why not? Cinema as nationalist propaganda is not to be underestimated. Just ask the Greeks.

Huh? Run that by me again. How did the Greeks get into this? Well, apparently the board of their state-run TV channel ERT just last week fired their general manager over a documentary focusing on the effects of Turkish TV series on Greek society. It seems that series such as ‘The Magnificent Century’, ‘The Bitter Age’ (‘Acı Hayat’) and ‘The Tulip Age’ (‘Lale Devri’) have gained a large following on the other side of the Aegean – and this is disturbing divines of the Orthodox Church and ultra-nationalists of the so-called 'Golden Dawn' movement. The ERT board evidently bowed to political pressure and Mr Kostas Spyropoulos’s head rolled.

So what’s the answer? I’ve never been a big TV watcher, so personally, I probably wouldn’t care much if all the series, soap operas and made-for-TV dramatisations of great classics disappeared from the air waves. Nevertheless, I recognise that I represent a tiny minority of the world’s population, most of whom are mesmerised by what they see on the idiot box. For that reason if no other, it seems to me that Turks should be pretty happy about how Turkish television is forging a new image for their nation on the world stage.

My step-daughter, Perin, for her doctoral dissertation, came up with an interesting term ‘Wild-Westernisation’, to describe the uncontrolled processes by which the Republic of Turkey has been assimilated and is assimilating itself, into the modern world. Turkey has long suffered from a poor image abroad, as a result of forces largely beyond its own control. It’s my feeling that there is currently a parallel reverse process going on which we might term ‘Wild-Turkification’, whereby a new image for the country is being shaped by media events like ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ and the ‘Eurovision Song Quest’. I think, if I were representing the country at a political level, I would be inclined to go with the flow, and bathe in the reflected glory, now that those uncontrollable forces have taken a turn for the better.

[1] Pronounced Jem-reh

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Istanbul's Heritage Under Attack

First off, let me say that I feel remarkably safe living in Istanbul. Of course there are parts of town better avoided in the wee small hours, but that goes for pretty much everywhere, doesn’t it? My fellow Kiwis in the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara thoughtfully send me warnings from time to time about steering clear of places where people congregate – but in a city of fifteen million plus in a country of eighty million, that’s easier said than done. Certainly I’ve been shying away from towns near the Syrian border lately, where rockets and mortar bombs have been straying over from the neighbour’s backyard, making life difficult for Turkish villagers. But I don’t have much call to go down that way, and it hasn’t been such a great hardship.

So I was kind of surprised to read an article published recently in the Economist, circulating among Turkish friends and colleagues, announcing that Istanbul’s heritage is under attack. Well, ok, it’s only the city’s heritage they’re talking about, and there seems to be no immediate threat from chemical weapons and high explosives, but still . . . We all know what happened to the Buddhas of Bamiyan when the Afghan Taliban decided they were a bad influence on the Muslim population. Attacking my heritage can be the thin end of a nasty wedge – you can’t afford to ignore these things. So I read the article.

The first thing I noticed was that there was no byline. Whoever wrote it was, for one reason or another, not revealing his/her identity. I don’t know what the Economist’s policy is on this. I would have thought that normally they’d want to give their correspondent recognition, or at least add an explanation that the writer feared for his life or liberty if his identity was known. Nevertheless, let’s move on.

His or her reason for putting pen to paper seemed to be the announcement of plans to build two large new mosques in prominent parts of the city – Taksim Square, the heart of the old European quarter’, and Çamlıca, ‘Istanbul’s tallest hill’. Now I don’t wish to get embroiled in a debate about whether citizens and ratepayers need these new mosques. It seems to me there’s a good deal of construction going on in Istanbul these days that the majority of people could well do without: huge shopping centres mushrooming everywhere, alongside residential towers of skyscraper proportions . . .

I will note, however, that one of the buildings that attracted my attention on my first visit to Taksim Square was a large Greek Orthodox basilica. As you walk down the two-kilometre stretch of Istiklal Avenue, you will pass two equally impressive Roman Catholic churches, not to mention the monumental palaces of former European embassies, now inhabited by their less prestigious consulates. Stroll down side streets off the main avenue and you will find a large Anglican church, one or two minor Armenian and Orthodox places of worship, and several Jewish synagogues. OK, there is a mosque on Istiklal Avenue, currently undergoing renovation, but considerably less grandiose than its Christian neighbours. If you continue down the hill at the end of the main street, you will find another one, catering, I imagine from its size, to a small congregation of locals. That’s it. Does the area need another mosque? Well, at least it’s open to debate – and after all, Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim.

As for Çamlica, and the Economist columnist’s assertion that the proposed mosque will ‘dominate the city’s skyline’, anyone who knows Istanbul is well aware that the hill in question is about ten kilometres from the old city. A tourist standing on Çamlica Hill will see the Blue Mosque as a small detail in the distance – and we may safely assume that another tourist, back in the Sultanahmet area, would probably not even know where to look to locate the Hill of Çamlica. If he did, he would more likely notice the forest of television and telephone masts that currently adorn the slopes and summit.

I’m not going to spend time rebutting each of the writer’s nonsensical assertions – that the Blue Mosque’s silhouette has been blighted by skyscrapers, the nearest of which would be five kilometres away in another direction; that urban renewal is pushing out the colourful encampments of ‘gypsies, transvestites and minorities’, whoever the ‘minorities' may be; and the implication that Turkey may have been better off when the army was staging regular coups to oust democratically elected governments. I have a feeling I recognise the writing style, and if I had to hazard a guess, I would say the anonymous author is Andrew ‘What Everyone Needs to know About Turkey’ Finkel. Wonder why he’s stopped signing his name.

One of the big problems with Turkey's heritage is that no one is a hundred percent sure what it is – or, at least, opinion is strongly divided on the subject. Modern Greeks and Hellenophiles of the old school would very likely deny Turkey's right to be considered heir to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Yet Ottoman Sultans of old felt they had a good claim. Republican Turkey's relationship to that same Ottoman Empire is itself contentious. In founding the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had to do away with the imperial line and its claim to the Islamic Caliphate. The current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has attracted some criticism for allegedly seeking to recreate a Muslim Ottoman state with himself as Padishah. Now, however, it seems the Istanbul elite have adopted the Ottomans as their own, and are defending their right to glory in the life and loves of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent through a popular soap opera. It’s a confusing business, for sure.

A former English colleague of mine worked, as a young man, on an archeological dig in the centre of old Istanbul. They were excavating the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church, St Polyeuctus. I passed by the site recently with some visitors from abroad, and found it fenced and neglected, clearly home to a community of otherwise homeless souls. It would take a brave and determined student of history to gain entrance and examine the remains today. I can understand Chris's anger with the city authorities who have allowed the fruits of his sweat and toil to deteriorate to a barely recognisable heap of overgrown rubble.

Nevertheless, there are numerous churches of similar vintage in this antique city, still standing and even undergoing tasteful restoration. The 5th century Church of St Sergius and Bacchus, although these days serving as a mosque, has been beautifully renovated at some considerable expense. In fact, it was not marauding Muslim Turks who ravaged St Polyeuctus and suffered it to collapse and decay. My research tells me that the venerable building had already fallen into disrepair by the 11th century, and its end came when Crusaders stormed the city of their fellow Christians in 1204. Their orgy of looting and destruction included carrying off what remained of St P's legendary treasures. I’ve mentioned before the equestrian statue adorning the façade of St Mark’s basilica in Venice, removed thither from the Hippodrome in Constantinople.  Another feature of St Mark’s, so I'm told, is the Pilastri Acritani, the so-called Pillars of Acre, a pair of beautifully carved columns uplifted from St P’s at the same time.

Luckily for Turkey, and for the kind of history buff tourist who prefers to see ancient relics more or less in situ, there are still plenty of such to be found. A few years ago I visited the city of Antakya in the eastern Mediterranean near Turkey’s border with Syria. Antakya is perhaps better known in the west as Antioch, founded by one of the Great Alexander’s generals in the 4th century BCE, and later to become one of the cradles of Christianity. It is said that here Christians were first called ‘Christians’, and the grotto church of St Peter the Apostle is one of the oldest churches in the world. The highlight of my visit was seeing the archeological museum, which houses a fabulous collection of spectacular mosaics dating from classical Roman times. In those days, Antioch ranked with Alexandria as one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world. Sadly, it fell on hard times later as a result of disastrous acts of God and man. The natural disasters were earthquakes, an all-too common occurrence in these parts. The man-made ones were primarily the Crusades, which saw the great city succumb to a series of sieges and conquests from which it never recovered. Antakya’s fate is paralleled by that of its patron goddess Tyche, whose magnificent statue was removed and is now, I understand, to be found in the Vatican.

Orpheus Mosaic returns to Turkey
Protecting the heritage of Constantinople, Istanbul, and now Turkey, is a task that, even today, requires constant vigilance. You may have seen a news item in the past week referring to a mosaic depicting the legendary character Orpheus, until recently a prized piece in the collection of the Dallas Museum in Texas, USA. It seems the Dallas authorities accepted the argument that the mosaic was illegally removed from Turkey before the museum acquired it in 1999, and have since returned it. I'm not making light of this. That's a huge gesture on the part of those Texans. For a start, they paid big money for the mosaic. And of course it's irreplaceable. They're never going to get another one like it, so you have to take off your stetson to them. As an aside, according to the press release I read, a certain Italian art dealer is currently under investigation in his home country for ‘trafficking in looted antiquities.’

Getting back to the mosaic, it was discovered near the south eastern Turkish city of Şanlıurfa, and that's another place well worth a visit. More commonly referred to as Urfa, and renowned for a particularly delicious kebab dish, the city was known in the classical age as Edessa - but its history goes way back into the 'foggy ruins of time'. Devout Muslims are to be seen queuing for entry to a cave, said to be the birthplace of Father Abraham, an important prophet for Jews, Muslims and Christians. A few kilometres south towards Syria is the town of Harran, noted for its peculiar dome-shaped mud brick houses (mostly home to livestock these days), and perhaps the world’s oldest university. Legend has it that Abe's son Isaac found his wife-to-be, Rebekah, here as she filled her buckets with water from the town’s well.

Now I want to ask you, whose heritage is all that? Is it Turkey's? Israel's? Mine? Yours? The modern Turkish Republic occupies a patch of land that has hosted more diverse civilizations than probably any other place on earth. Whether by good management, good luck, good intentions or simply a slower pace of industrial development, much has been preserved that has elsewhere been lost. In the 21st century, Turkey is starting to take its place among modern developed nations, with all that implies in terms of population growth and construction of factories, dams, nuclear power stations, shopping malls and transport networks. Undoubtedly, gypsy encampments and transvestite bars will give way to urban renewal and gentrification, as in other world cities - and some local colour will be lost.

What can you do? Istanbul is a living city. People need jobs and transport. A metropolis choking with motor vehicles needs a rapid rail system, and one stage in its construction involves building a bridge across the Golden Horn. My understanding is that project engineers have been in consultation with the World Heritage people from UNESCO, and the design has already been modified once or twice. A friend of mine told me he visited Istanbul back in the 1970s, when dancing bears were to be seen on street corners. No doubt they added quaint medieval colour to tourist Istanbul – but the bears are probably happier these days, and we must hope their trainers have found more humane and socially acceptable employment.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Albanian Independence Day

You may have missed it - I very nearly did myself - but Wednesday 28 November marked the 100th Anniversary of the emergence of Albania as an independent nation. OK, Albania may not be a country that makes a loud beep on your international radar. Its population, hovering on either side of three million, depending on which source you look at, undoubtedly ranks it among the minnows of Europe. If you have any mental image of the country at all, chances are it's not awfully positive. Perhaps you've seen the "Taken" movies, where ex-CIA agent Liam Neeson single-handedly dispatches an extended family of spectacularly incompetent Albanian bad guys intent on killing him along with his lissom wife and daughter.

Well, I admit it - I do empathise with small countries struggling to make a splash in the ocean of world opinion. Coming as I do from a nation whose population is creeping towards the five million mark, I know what it's like. 'Oh, you come from Auckland - California, right?' or more commonly, when someone picks the accent, 'So, what part of Australia are you from?' Perhaps that's another reason I have a soft spot for Turkey. Not that we can compare in terms of land area (about one-third) or population (one-sixteenth), but no one knows much about either of us.

Love Albania :-)
By chance I have a young Albanian colleague at work who proudly informed me of Wednesday's importance in the Albanian national consciousness. I use that phrase because Miranda herself comes from Kosovo, and there is a significant Albanian diaspora in many European and major US cities, who have, apparently, been celebrating somewhat noisily in the past week. Miranda is the second ethnic Albanian I have come to know quite well while living in Istanbul. The other, Dritan, hosted me for a few days on a work-related visit to the Albanian capital Tirana a couple of years ago. I can't say how typical these two are of their race, but I can say they are two of the most intelligent, talented, hard-working, sincere and honest young people you could hope to meet. Unlike us New Zealanders, born with the God-given gift of English as our native language, Albanians struggle with the harsh truth that no one much wants to learn their tongue. Perhaps that's why these two seem to have a gift for learning others - French, Italian, English, Serbian, Turkish, Russian . . .

Anyway, as I said, I had the opportunity to visit their beautiful country in January 2010. It's always better to see a new country with a local guide, especially when you don't know the language. Albanian at least belongs to the Indo-European family, which perhaps makes it easier for us than Turkish - but I didn't pick up much in my three days there, apart from learning that 'Albania' bears no resemblance whatsoever to the word the natives use for their own country: Shqiperie! Still, the Germans have to put up with us calling them 'Germans', so they're in good company I guess. But not to digress, Dritan and his family made me wonderfully welcome, and I had the opportunity to see three cities, Tirana itself, Shkodra and Vlore.

Dip into travel books and websites about Albania; you'll find they all mention the scenic beauty, the mountains, beaches . . . and the flora and fauna, which apparently represent one of the last remnants of primeval Europe, its extensive forests providing habitats for wolves, bears, the almost extinct European lynx, and the golden eagle, Albania's national symbol. Well, I'm proud of our kiwi, of course, but an eagle is something else, isn't it! Still, that's another thing we New Zealanders have in common with Albania - a small population and minimal industrial development have some advantages in terms of preserving nature. Two of my enduring memories of the country, apart from the marvellous hospitality of the people, are of the majestic mountains. My first sight of them was as my plane approached Tirana from the Adriatic coast. And later, dining with my hosts at a restaurant beside Lake Shkodra as a full moon rose behind snow-capped peaks on the far shore, turning the still waters to a sea of silver.

As my grandmother used to tell us kids, every cloud is lined with silver, and its natural beauties must be the silver lining for a country that has had more than its share of cloud cover over the years. Albania achieved independent statehood in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire was entering its last years, but if its people had thought they would be left alone to determine their own destiny, they were to be sorely disappointed. Like their neighbour Greece eighty years previously, they were thoughtfully provided with a king from the extensive aristocracy of Germany - William of Vied. During the First World War they were invaded by Greece and later by Italy, regaining independence for another spell in the 20s and 30s, when a gentleman by the name of Ahmet Bey Zogu seems to have played a pivotal part.  This multi-faceted character apparently got himself elected to office once or twice, participated in a couple of military coups on the winning, then the losing side, ending up in a royal role as King Zog the First (to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a Zog the Second), before being finally sent packing when Mussolini’s Italians mussoled in in 1939. After the Italians surrendered, the Germans moved in till the end of hostilities in 1945. Perhaps these experiences help to explain why Albanians chose a singularly isolationist road of their own in the chaos that enveloped Eastern Europe when peace finally broke out.

Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with the iron hand of ultra pure communism for forty years until his death in 1985. So pure was his dogma that, in his eyes, post-Stalinist Soviet Russia lacked doctrinal credibility, and he threw in his lot with Red China. The country that, after 1990, emerged blinking into the brave new world of capitalism triumphant, was, as one might imagine, somewhat behind the developed world in the trappings of material modernity. Average per capita income is still among the lowest in Europe[1], the urban architecture of Tirana itself has an Eastern bloc austerity, and the beaches are mostly free of five-star hotels and holiday villages – which could, of course, be seen by some as an advantage.

For the present, Albania’s independence looks fairly secure. Capitalist development, for better and worse, is under way, and one of the things that struck me in Tirana (apart from the ubiquity of Mercedes Benz motor cars) was the vibrant café scene – a sure sign of post-modern urban sophistication. Other things that caught my attention were the frequency of Turkish Muslim names among the people, and the large mosque occupying a strategic spot in Tirana’s main square – reminders that Albania was ruled by the Ottomans for nearly five centuries, from 1431 until the Conference of London brought formal recognition of independence in 1913.

The initial conquest was apparently a protracted process, drawn out by the pugnacious determination of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Albania’s very own Alexander the Great, who organised resistance to Ottoman military power for thirty-five years, before the end came in 1478. Even then, he might have been successful if the promised assistance from Papal Europe had shown up.  Albanian relations with the rest of Europe, it seems, have long been problematic.

Nevertheless, having finally come under Ottoman suzerainty, Albanians seem have taken to their new situation with a will. It is said that more than two dozen Grand Viziers of the Empire were of Albanian extraction, including several members of the Köprülü family, who served with distinction during the glory days of Ottoman power. The majority of their countrymen apparently converted to Islam at this time, which accounts for those names I found familiar on my visit.

But how to account for the name ‘Albania’? Even allowing for our English tendency to mangle unfamiliar words from other languages, it’s hard to see how the local name could have been mutilated to that extent. Admittedly, even with a modicum of good will, it’s not easy to make an Anglo-Saxon tongue do ‘Shqiperie’. My researches showed that ‘Albania’ owes its origins to Medieval Latin, and seems to have been applied fairly indiscriminately to remote places of minimal geopolitical significance. Scotland, the land of my fathers (and mothers) picked up that label at one time in its history – probably around the time when medieval monks had a monopoly on Western education, and were instructing their students that ‘here be dragons’, and traveling too far in any direction would likely result in your falling off the edge of the world. Anyway, maybe that’s another reason I feel empathy for Albanians. If the monks had known about New Zealand in those days, they’d probably have called it Albania too.

Well, I’m sorry I missed the centennial celebrations. If I’d heard in advance, I’d have been tempted to head off to Tirana with a bottle of duty-free whisky and spend the evening with Dritan’s family. I’ll bet it would have been a good night!