Camel greeting

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Armenian Remembrance Day - from the Turkish Coalition of America

TCA Responds to President Obama's Armenian Remembrance Day Statement

The Turkish Coalition of America expresses its deep disappointment in President Obama's repeat of the same one-sided and historically inaccurate pronouncement as he does on every April 24th to appease certain hateful, single-issue Armenian groups. TCA will again send a package of books and documents to the White House in the hope that they will be read and that the office of the Presidency is not used again for such dissemination of half-truths.
This tumultuous and brutal period of our shared history, during which time innocent Ottoman Muslims suffered even more losses, many at the hands of Armenian militia and Armenians fighting under Russian uniforms, requires more reflection. Repeating narratives that are not based on solid scholarly findings, citing inflated Armenian casualty figures, and unjustly allocating the total blame for this tragedy on the Ottoman Turkish side only serves to reinforce each side's current position and damages the chances of reconciliation. Read more . . . 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Turks and Anzacs - A strange friendship

Overcoming Conflict: How The Battle Of Gallipoli Sparked A New Friendship – OpEd

By Onur Işçi and Sevin Elekdağ

Every year on April 25, Turks join with Australian and New Zealand friends to commemorate ANZAC Day. On this day 98 years ago, with the Allies at their side, the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACS) landed on the Gallipoli peninsula to invade the Ottoman Empire’s capital, modern-day Istanbul, and take control of a precious WWI supply route to Russia. As support for the war waned, the British came to Australia with a propaganda machine aimed at encouraging young Australian men to sign-up to fight in this war on a foreign land half a would away. Over the next nine months, the Turks fought a bloody battle against the ANZACs, and while the Ottoman army ultimately prevailed, both sides suffered great hardships and heavy casualties. Read more

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Ding Dong. Who's There? A Witch and a Wizard

A Facebook group had, it seems, been planning for several years to make ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’, from the 1939 film ‘The Wizard of Oz’, No 1 song in the UK when Margaret Thatcher died. I have no idea what’s topping the charts in Venezuela these days, because I’ve been busy marking student essays at the university where I work. Maybe that’s what did it. An essay topic insinuated itself into my brain, and like the Ancient Mariner’s woeful agony, wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d buttonholed you and shared my tale, so here it is:

‘Compare and contrast the lives and political careers of Hugo Chavez and Margaret Thatcher’

The world lost two colourful and controversial political figures in 2013. Both had served long terms as leader of their countries: Hugo Chavez as President of Venezuela for fourteen years; Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Britain for almost twelve.

Both leaders divided their nations into dramatically polarised groups - those who loved them and those who hated and detested them. Both achieved considerable international recognition during their lifetime. Time ranked Chavez among the world’s '100 Most Influential People' in 2005 and 2006. The same weekly had Thatcher in its ‘100 Most Important People of the 20th Century’. The British magazine New Statesman (admittedly leftist) placed Chavez eleventh on their list of ‘Heroes of Our Time’. A BBC poll to find the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ had Dame Maggie at number sixteen on the list – a ranking somewhat devalued, I fear, by its having Princess Diana in third place.

Pouring cold water in Northern Ireland
Thatcher is said to be the only post-war Oxford-educated PM not to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by her alma mater. Chavez on the other hand received several such awards, from universities as far away as South Korea, Russia and Beijing.

Both were ideologues, committed to particular, somewhat extreme political doctrines which they single-mindedly applied in the face of strong opposition: Thatcher to the monetarism of Milton Friedman, and Chavez to socialism and populism, and his revolutionary heroes, Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara.

Both formed strong bonds with like-minded leaders on the international stage: Thatcher with US presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the Father, Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Prime Minister of apartheid-era South Africa, PW Botha; Chavez with South American neighbours Fidel Castro and Rafael Correa, and Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad.

Thatcher crushed the unions, broke down the traditions of collective workplace bargaining, championed an individualistic, free-market privatised economy where financiers were given free reign, and paved the way for a new society with summers of content for the wealthy and an underclass tucked away out of sight, occasionally rising in disorganised protest and ruthlessly suppressed. British Labour MP Glenda Jackson, speaking in a parliamentary debate after Thatcher’s death, described that lady’s achievement as ‘the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country.’

Chavez took on the problems of poverty and slums associated with uncontrolled urbanisation, addressed the evils of inadequate food production and profiteering, and reduced poverty in Venezuela from 59 to 24 percent of the population. He was the leader of a South American nation struggling with the legacy of colonialism, corruption, large-scale poverty and huge inequalities of wealth distribution.

Thatcher, on the other hand, headed a West European country with a history of imperialist and colonial exploitation, and the sixth largest economy in the world, who went to war with a much poorer and technologically inferior South American state to preserve her nation's right to own a tiny island in the South Atlantic Ocean 12,500 km from its own shores. Cynics have suggested that, if not for the wave of jingoistic patriotism and media frenzy generated by this ten-week mini-war, Thatcher might have been a one-term rather than a three-term Prime Minster. Even her first election victory, in 1979, was achieved with the support of former National Front voters, who deserted their far right nationalist whites-only party to side with the 'Iron Lady'.

Both premiers came from relatively humble origins – Thatcher, daughter of a Grantham grocer, who did, though, own two stores; Chavez born to small-town working class parents. Margaret Hilda Roberts, however was able to marry a millionaire businessman, Denis Thatcher, who financed her through law school (after her first career as a chemist foundered), supported her in her early political career, and purchased their two comfortable homes, in Chelsea and rural Kent. In an interview in 1970, Hubby Thatcher is quoted as saying, ‘I don't pretend that I'm anything but an honest-to-God right-winger – those are my views and I don't care who knows 'em’. Funny how those right-wing loonies always seem to find a way to bring God in on their side. Maggie’s father-in-law, incidentally, was apparently born in New Zealand, so I and my fellow Kiwis can claim some interest in the Baroness’s rise to power.

The Venezuelan leader died in office after a battle with cancer, still popular enough in his own country to have been re-elected to a fourth term as president in 2012. The dear departed Briton was more or less obliged to resign as PM in 1990, shortly before the first Gulf War, which she had egged on – and in the face of serious opposition to her iniquitous poll tax. She lived to see Britain plunged into an economic crisis from which it still has not recovered, brought about in large part by her policies of deregulating the finance sector and fostering greed-driven capitalism. According to reports, she went slowly insane, afflicted with dementia for the last thirteen years of her life.

Perhaps Thatcher's most shameful legacy was facilitating the destruction of an alternative political voice representing the viewpoint of ordinary people. Her long-term political crony, Lord Howe of Aberavon put it differently: 'Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.' Indeed, the subsequent Labour Government under Tony Blah was ‘labour’ in nothing but name.

Whatever you may think of Hugo Chavez, he kept alive the belief in other possibilities - at considerable personal risk. He was actually ousted in 2002 by a coup (said by some, himself included, to have been supported by the United States and the CIA). This belief is lent strength by the fact that the coup leaders had so little local support they were forced to hand back the reigns of power to Chavez after a mere forty-seven hours, making it possibly the shortest military takeover in history. Well, to be fair to Dame Maragaret, she did survive an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army in 1984, and no one would deny that she had the courage of her dubious convictions. According to one source, she was turned down for a job in 1948 as a research chemist for ICI on the grounds that she was ‘headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated’. Violence in Northern Ireland increased considerably in her first term of office, and nine IRA members died on hunger strikes in English prisons. After the assassination attempt, however, she did seem to moderate her stance on Ireland, so perhaps she was not entirely unresponsive to the alternative point-of-view.

Thatcher’s economic policies have sometimes been credited with putting the ‘Great’ back in Great Britain – though the gloss seems to have gone off the ‘Great’-ness again in the last year or two. Even at the time, however, it depended very much on where you were looking from. Her first term as Prime Minister saw a decline of thirty percent in manufacturing output, and unemployment reaching an all-time high of three million plus. Much of her apparent success could be attributed to the huge sell-off of state assets, and increased profits for the companies that survived.

After her resignation from active politics, Thatcher was employed by tobacco giant Philip Morris as a ‘geopolitical consultant’, in a role similar to that played by Aaron Eckhart in the 2005 movie ‘Thank You For Smoking’ – only Thatcher was for real.

As for Hugo Chavez, it would be hard to find a national leader with more starkly contrasting economic and social policies. Undoubtedly, he had the major advantage of heading a country said to have the world’s largest reserves of crude oil. Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem necessarily to oblige a government to show concern for its people.  Chavez’s so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ nationalised several key industries, increased spending on health and education, and aimed to develop systems facilitating participatory democracy. His ‘Mission Zamora’ was a reform programme aimed at redistributing land to the landless. Needless to say it was vehemently opposed by vested interests who hired assassins to terminate supporters and beneficiaries of the reforms. In 2009, Chavez and other like-minded South American leaders established the Bank of the South as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund, which they perceived as pursuing an unsympathetic political agenda. Former World Bank chief economist, Nobel Laureate and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz is on record as expressing approval of this project.

Of course, Chavez had his critics abroad as well as at home. He did not endear himself to the Younger Bush’s administration with his criticism of the US invasion of Iraq. The organisation Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2008 claiming that government action in Venezuela was eroding the independence of the judiciary and ‘undercutting journalists’ freedom of expression’. To put that in perspective, HRW’s headquarters is in the Empire State Building in New York City, and its principal source of funding is George Soros – of whom I have written before.

One example of the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela is a case involving a judge Maria Afiuni, who was arrested on charges of corruption. Apparently she had released on bail a banker charged with large-scale fraud and illegal currency trading. HRW and other groups including the US Department of State felt that the learned judge was being unfairly treated. Chavez’s government was of the opinion that she might have been unduly influenced by under-the-table incentives. Who’s to know?

Well, no doubt debate over the legacies of these two late lamented will go on, with little agreement possible between entrenched positions. Baroness Thatcher was seen off at a state funeral on Wednesday with much British pomp and ceremony. Sadly, some might feel, US President Obama was otherwise engaged, and Hilary Clinton declined her invitation. In their stead the US was represented by George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney – relics, one might think, of a more clearly defined political age.  Former apartheid South African President FW de Clerk was there – but not Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, current president of Argentina, who, I understand, was not invited.

Chavez’s funeral was apparently a less formal, more musical affair. Ms de Kirchner was in attendance, as were Cuba’s Raul Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko as well as Brazil’s Dilma Vana Rousseff. Actor Sean Penn and Hollywood director Oliver Stone had kind words to say, as did maverick film-maker Michael Moore, who quoted Chavez as saying, on their meeting in 2009, ‘He was happy to finally meet someone Bush hated more than him.’ A man could have worse things inscribed on his tombstone.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Tulips from Istanbul

Spring is a beautiful season in Turkey. The weather is not necessarily all you might wish, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good.  Even the concrete megalopolis of Istanbul puts on a fine show, as trees break into blossom and green leaf. For the last seven years the Metropolitan Council has sponsored a tulip festival in April – this year is the 8th annual event, and according to reports, 14.5 million bulbs of 270 different varieties have been planted in parks, verges and median strips around the city.

Apart from the spectacular colour the blooms are bringing to the lives of city-dwellers, the project must have created employment for a goodly number of nursery-workers, gardeners, drivers, landscape designers, manufacturers of irrigation systems, middle managers and who knows what other peripheral occupations. There are even new opportunities for museum curators and academics. One feature of this year’s festival has been the establishment of a tulip museum in Emirgan Park beside the Bosporus on the European side of the city – with funding provided for research.

Turkey's wild flowers have an international reputation amongst those in the know. Apart from the deep layers of history, sites connected with the early development of Christianity and the glory days of Islamic civilisation, tourists visit Turkey, especially in spring, for  its natural wonders, particularly the beauties of its endemic flora. Poppies, pansies, daisies, primroses, crocuses and a myriad other wildflowers grow in abundance and turn on vivid displays in this season. Most commonly cultivated tulips, I am told, derive from the genus tulipa gesneriana, which grows naturally in Turkey, and was brought to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

It's an interesting plant, the tullip. Much of its dazzling colour variety, apparently, is the result of a disease, a non-fatal virus - a kind of benign tulip version of yellow or scarlet fever, perhaps. While some people have an allergic reaction to the leaves and petals,  tulip bulbs, it seems, can be eaten in safety. They can, in fact, be dried, pulverised and used to make a kind of bread, as, I understand, some Dutch people were obliged to do during the dark days of the Second World War. The flavour, however, was not sufficiently appealing for the practice to catch on, and most Dutch citizens these days prefer to admire the flowers and eat bread from the local bakkerij. Nevertheless, some insist that a petal or two adds a little je ne sais quoi to a fresh salad, and true afficionados claim to have made an acceptable tulip wine.

Not the Ottomans, though, as far as I can learn. Wine drinking is generally frowned on in traditional Muslim societies, and, while the upper echelons of society may have fancied a drop from time to time, they tended to stick with the grape variety, the vine being also native to the region, and its fruit in plentiful supply.

Paper marbling with tulip
The word ‘tulip’ itself comes to us from the Persian language via Ottoman Turkish. Somewhat perversely, we didn't borrow their  word for the actual plant and flower, which is ‘lale’ in both languages. What we got was the Persian word for a turban, that wended its way slowly through several European tongues like Italian and French, mutated and deformed as it went - in a process similar to that undergone by our word ‘mosque’. In Persia, the tulip was intimately bound up in art and literature with romantic love and passion, especially of the unrequited kind - a theme also much admired in Turkish tradition. Islamic societies tended to avoid depicting the human form, or even animals - a prohibition attributed to reaction against the Orthodox Christian practice of kissing and praying to pictures and statues, which Muslims viewed as idolatry. As a result, Islamic art makes much use of geometric designs and stylised floral patterns. The Ottoman ceramic tiles and porcelain ware that reached their highest form in the 16th and 17th centuries often featured tulips, along with carnations, roses and daisies. In recent years the art of marbling (ebru) has experienced a resurgence of popularity, with those floral motifs being incorporated into the traditional swirling patterns.

It is not known for certain who first introduced the tulip to Western Europe. It is known, however, that the flower was a gift from the Ottomans, as were coffee, Turkish carpets and the art of making fine porcelain. Two gentlemen in particular tend to receive credit for the introduction. The first is Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, a Frenchman who served as ambassador from Ferdinand I to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century. Now I know it’s not strictly relevant, but I just have to tell you about Ferdinand. He was born in Spain to an interesting couple referred to by historians as Joanna the Mad and Phillip the Handsome (so I guess she wasn’t that mad). Ferdinand himself compiled an impressive CV during his life, holding, at various times, the titles of Archduke of Austria, King of Bavaria and Hungary, King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperor.

But getting back to de Busbecq, he was apparently a man of eclectic interests, renowned as one of the pioneers of travel literature, compiling a vocabulary of an obscure Germanic dialect known as Crimean Gothic, and turning up lost gems of classical literature while rummaging through Ottoman libraries. He was fascinated by Anatolian flora and fauna, and sent tulip bulbs to his friend Charles l'Ecluse, a doctor employed in the service of the Habsburg Emperor, Maximilian II. L'Ecluse succeeded in getting the bulbs to grow, first in Vienna, and later, after, after taking up a post as professor at Leiden University in 1593, in the Netherlands.

Tulips were an instant hit in Holland. The Dutch seem to have a knack for growing unlikely plants in their inhospitable northern clime. I learnt recently that they have supplanted Spain as Europe's largest exporter of tomatoes; and I hear plans are afoot to take over the supply of bananas from Ecuador, with large-scale production of pineapples and coconuts to follow. But I digress. We were discussing the popularity of tulips in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, and indeed, so popular were they that, by 1637 they had resulted in a major financial crisis - a classic ‘bubble’ that later became a case study much loved by students of the ‘dismal science’.

The story goes that popularity of and demand for tulip bulbs caused the price to rise in proportion to their scarcity on the market. Entrepreneurs with an eye for a fast guilder moved out of other less lucrative operations (such as selling marijuana in the days before the Dutch legalised it) into the tulip bulb business. Inevitably, stockpiling occured, and soon a bustling futures market developed, with prices skyrocketing to unimaginable heights – at least to primitive folk unaccustomed to dotcom booms and suchlike phenomena characteristic of more advanced civilisations. At the peak of tulipmania the price of a bulb increased twenty-fold in a month. Some speculators were selling up their worldly possessions to invest in tulips and make their fortunes. One optimistic soul is reputed to have exchanged ‘two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer, two tons of butter, 1,000 lb. of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes and a silver drinking cup’ for one particularly desirable bulb.

Well, as you might have expected, it all ended in tears, certainly for those who failed to get out in time. The ‘bubble’ burst in the winter of 1636/7, many investors lost their shirts, not to mention their beds, swine and hogsheads, and the economy was thrown into depression for several years. The Dutch continued to love tulips, albeit in moderation, and learnt a healthy respect for the dangers of speculative ‘bubbles’.

The Ottomans, meanwhile continued to paint pictures of tulips inside the domes of their mosques, and secretly present yellow blooms to beloveds who would never love them back, in an altogether more restrained fashion. That all changed, however, on the accession of Sultan Ahmet III in 1718. The next twenty-two years are known in Ottoman history as Lale Devri (‘The Tulip Age’), a time when the social elite adopted the tulip as its symbol of status and wealth. Ahmet is an interesting example of the cosmopolitan nature of Ottoman society, born in Dobruja, on the border between modern Bulgaria and Romania, his mother being an ethnic Greek, and his two wives, French. His reign was also a time when the Ottomans began adopting an openness towards Europe, perhaps recognising that their own greatest days of glory were in the past. Nevertheless, Ahmet was the last Ottoman Sultan to have significant military success against Russia – and during his reign the printing press was belatedly employed for the production of books in Ottoman Turkish. Imperial architecture underwent a major change at this time with the adoption of baroque influences on mosques and other monumental buildings. One of my favourite mosques in Istanbul is Yeni Valide Camii, which was built for Ahmet's mother in the seaside township of Üsküdar on the Asian coast of the Bosporus.

I can’t leave this discussion here, because I know I will once again be criticised for pro-Turkish, pro-Muslim favouritism, so I’m going to share with you a little snippet of information I learnt about my Christian forebears, in particular, John Calvin, one of the key figures in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. His doctrine, known as Calvinism, underpins the Presbyterian Church among others, and its main principles can be recalled to mind by use of the simple mnemonic TULIP:

T – for Total Depravity, which means we are all sunk deep in sin and cannot save ourselves from hell and damnation.
U – for Unconditional Election, which means that God has already decided who He’s going to save, and nothing you or I can do will change His Divine decision.
LLimited Atonement. Essentially, Jesus died for us sinners, but only those on God’s special list will get the benefit.
IIrresistible Grace. If you’re on that list, God’s gonna get you, whether you want to be saved or not.
PPerseverance of the Saints – If you’re on that list, you’re on it for good and all. Do what you like, you can’t get off it.

Well, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me if you believe in TULIP, you’re living in a pretty fragile glasshouse, and you’d better not throw stones at anyone else’s religious beliefs.

To end on a more positive note, if you get along to that museum during this year’s Istanbul Tulip Festival, you can download an app on your smart phone which will read barcodes on the blooms and identify their names and special features. If you leave your address with the organisers, I’m told they will send you a tulip bulb. No lasts of rye or tuns of beer required – just free, gratis and for nothing.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Feeling Sorry for Israel and Iran

The Prime Minister of Israel has officially apologised to his Turkish counterpart. It's big news in Turkey. Israel doesn't say sorry. They do stuff that, if any other country did it, would be a virtual declaration of war, or at least a major international incident - then they brazen it out and get away with it. So this must be a first.

In case you missed it, the incident that elicited an apology was the killing, by Israeli military personnel, of nine Turkish citizens on board a Turkish civilian ship, the Mavi Marmara, in May 2010. The Israeli action wasn't entirely unprovoked, it must be admitted. The Mavi Marmara was carrying food and other necessities of life to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip suffering under an Israeli blockade. The Israeli government gave the Turkish vessel what they considered fair warning, then boarded with armed soldiers, and in the ensuing struggle, nine Turks were killed.

Well, it's a complex issue, to be sure. As far as the Israelis were concerned, they were justified in using force to repel foreign nationals from interfering in an internal security matter. From the Turkish point of view, they were bringing humanitarian aid to people suffering from Israeli oppression in what most of the international community considers illegal incursion into, and occupation of another people’s sovereign territory. The result was a three-year freeze of diplomatic relations between two relatively democratic, Western-friendly states in a region where those two qualities are not so widespread.

Nevertheless, the Israelis didn't want to apologise, you can be ninety-nine percent sure of that. Not just because of national pride and reluctance to lose face, but because they more than likely still believe they did the right thing. It's no coincidence that the apology followed closely on the heels of US President Obama's visit to Israel and talks with PM Netanyahu.  And here, I fear, is the danger for Turkey.

Israel gets away with its aggressive, arrogant behaviour on the world stage because its government believes that the US will back them when the chips are down. Some of this US support is undoubtedly due to residual sympathy for what happened to Jewish people in the Second World War, and some to a continued belief by US Bible Belters that the fate of Israel and the Holy Places are somehow bound up with the last trumpet, the second coming of Jesus Christ, the Rapture and the Day of Judgment. US Presidents play along with this, of course, but of far greater importance are American strategic interests, particularly with regard to a continuing supply of oil and the need for an excuse to send in the military when this supply is threatened.

So, why, we should be asking ourselves, is President Obama suddenly so interested in the hurt feelings of Turkey, that he steps into a seemingly minor local dispute and puts the Israelis in an embarrassing position that they will certainly resent? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that everything has a price. As we learnt from ‘The Godfather’, when a favour is called back, you do it. I just hope, for Turkey's long-term welfare, the price is not one they will regret having to pay.

I saw recently the results of a Gallup poll showing that ninety percent of Americans place Iran at the top of their list of countries they view with disfavour - ahead of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. Even North Korea, which claims to have missiles aimed directly at US targets, received a better rating. Well, no doubt those Americans have their reasons, and it's a fact that Iran (or Persia, as it was formerly known in the West), was a thorn in the side of Western empires millennia before Christopher Columbus was a gleam in his father's eye. It is also probably true that Iranians, at least some of them, have contributed to their unfavourable rating by US citizens. Nevertheless, they are next-door neighbours of Turkey, and hence of mine. The Turkish language, Turkish literature, art and music owe a debt of gratitude to the ancient culture of Iran, and most Turkish people recognise this. So I would like to take a quick look at some positives, in the interests of natural justice.

Iran is indisputably an ancient land, home to some of the very earliest human civilisations. The oldest cities have been dated to the 5th millennium BCE, and people there developed the art of writing around the same time as the Egyptians and the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. By the 8th century BCE, the Medes had established an empire that was a power in the region, and Zoroastrianism had emerged as a forerunner of the great monotheistic religions, all of which have their roots in the Middle East.

The Persian Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE, and these were the guys who caused so much trouble for the Greek city-states. Our modern marathon race is said to have originated when a messenger ran back to Athens to announce his side’s victory in a decisive battle. If the Greeks had lost that one, we Westerners might have a more intimate knowledge of Persian/Iranian culture. The Persians are also credited with being the first to establish a professional army and civil service, both of which concepts seem to have retained their popularity down to our own times. Perhaps the brass hats in the Pentagon should show some gratitude.

There was a relatively brief interlude (of a century or so) when history's ultimate megalomaniac, Alexander, passed through on his self-appointed task to conquer the world before his 30th birthday. His Hellenic successors held on until the Parthians regained local ascendancy around 250 BCE, giving endless trouble to the Romans, and establishing a limit to their eastward expansion that has pretty much survived to the present day. Visitors to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna will be impressed by the vast Parthian Monument, originally set up in the Aegean city of Ephesus to commemorate one of the rare Roman victories over their eastern neighbours.

Parthians gave way to Sassanids, but the fighting continued even after the Romans converted to the Christian religion of peace. All in all, the Roman-Persian Wars went on for over seven hundred years, and it has been suggested that the Muslim Arab conquests of the 7th century CE were facilitated by the fact that both sides had fought themselves to the point of exhaustion – a lesson there perhaps for modern-day empires.

Iran's strategic location between East and West has made it a major target for invasion and conquest throughout history. After the Arabs, came Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and Tamerlane in the 14th. Each time, however, the strength of native Iranian culture allowed its people either to shrug off or to absorb the conquerors. Most persistent of the invaders were the Turkic tribes who began their incursions in the 10th century. At first employed as slave warriors, they slowly assumed positions of power, while at the same time adopting much of Iranian culture. One major outcome was the Seljuk Turkish Empire that ruled Persia and Asia Minor/Anatolia into the 12th century. These were the people whose westward march threatened the existence of the Roman/Greek/Byzantine Empire, and prompted Western Christendom to launch its Crusading armies eastward.

The Golden Age of Persian culture coincided with this rise, morphing into a distinctive Turko-Persian identity which produced a great flowering of art, music, philosophy, architecture, science and literature. Much of the culture and knowledge that ended Europe's Dark Age, and fuelled the incipient Renaissance can be said to have originated in the cross-cultural contact with contemporary Muslim society. The reason is that here was where the knowledge of Indian, Hellenistic and earlier Persian thinkers was brought together and developed.

In medicine, the Academy of Gondishapur housed the first training hospital where medical treatment and knowledge were systematised. In part, this institution owed its fame to an influx of scholars from Edessa in the Byzantine Empire after the Christian Emperor expelled them for their unorthodox beliefs. Muhammed ibn Zakariya Razi (Rhazes) was a pioneer of paediatrics and ophthalmology around 1000 CE. Shortly after, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote his “Canon of Medicine” which was still being used as a textbook in some European universities into the 17th century.

In mathematics, Abu Abdallah Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (Algoritmi) is credited with introducing the decimal place value system to the West, and our word 'algebra' derives from the Arabic title of his book on quadratic equations. Al-Kharaji has been called the father of algebraic calculus, and Omar Khayyam, better known in the West for his poetry, also did pioneering work in geometry and algebra. Speaking of poetry, in 2002, Time magazine published an article informing its readers that the 13th century Persian mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (Mevlana) was the most popular poet in America. The game of chess, with much of its vocabulary, came to us via Iran. Our word 'rook' for 'castle' comes from the Persian word for the castling movement. 'Pawn' is a direct borrowing, as are 'check', the word ‘chess’ itself from 'Shah' (king), and 'mate'. And just to confirm that European prejudice against its Eastern neighbours is not a new phenomenon, the Georgia Tech Paper Museum informs us that the introduction of that very useful material was impeded for several centuries by Papal Decree, on the grounds that it was ‘a manifestation of Moslem culture’.

The Safavid era began in Iran around 1500, and its peak of power coincided with that of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. This could be another reason for Western Europe to be grateful to the Iranians. Had it not been for the distracting influence of their wars with the Ottomans, the gates of Vienna might not have stopped Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors from further territorial gains - and who know where they might have finished up?

One of Turkey's main economic disadvantages is its surprising lack of fossil fuel resources, given the wealth in that respect of its Middle Eastern and Central Asian neighbours. On the other hand, it could equally be argued that absence of such petroleum riches has saved Turkey from the outside interference and manipulation that has plagued its 'more fortunate' regional brethren. Iran, with proven resources ranking it second in the world for natural gas, and fourth for petroleum, has been a target for foreign powers since the mid-19th century: first Russia and Great Britain, and more recently, the United States.

An earlier edition of Time, January 7, 1952, featured another Iranian on its cover – Mohammed Mossadegh. Democratically elected by a majority of his people, and holding hopes for leading his country into the modern world of liberty and justice for all, MM made the mistake of trying to secure a more equitable share of Iran's mineral wealth for its own people. In nationalising the nation's petroleum industry, he incurred the wrath of the British government. Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded newly elected US President Eisenhower to instruct the CIA to promote a coup deposing Mossadegh and reinstating Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as 'Western friendly' Shah. Twenty-six years of friendship and cooperation with the West, at the expense of looking after the folks back home, led to growing internal opposition, culminating in the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the currently ongoing troublesome rule of the mullahs.

If any of the foregoing surprises you, you may like to share it with friends who are keen to start another war in the Middle East. In the words of George Santayana, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”