Camel greeting

Thursday, 25 July 2013

On Artifact Smuggling, Religious Tolerance and the Winter Olympics

History, as I have remarked before, is a fascinating subject, rather less certain in its account of events than ordinary citizens may be generally aware. One of the reasons for starting this blog was my discovery, after coming to live in Turkey, that the version of affairs in this part of the world that I had grown up with did not always accord with the way people around here viewed them.

Another example of this came to my attention as I paid my annual visit to the Aegean town of Selçuk to visit two English friends. Selçuk has long been a popular base for tourists visiting the sites of cities and temples important in the ancient classical world: Ephesus, Miletos, Didyma, Priene and more. Recently it seems to have become increasingly popular with Christians flocking to see the actual locations of events seminal to the establishment of their own religion.

In spite of their reputation in the Western world, Muslims have never had major objections to Christians practising that religion. Arabs and Turks may have conquered and occupied the ‘Holy Lands’ for around 1,200 years, but they were fairly tolerant of pilgrims from Christendom wishing to visit. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, who couldn’t even get on with each other, Ottoman Sultans ruled a vast Empire that included all shades of Muslims and Christians, and offered sanctuary to Jews fleeing persecution by European overlords.

All the guidebooks will tell you that the population of modern Turkey is ninety-nine percent Muslim – yet ironically many locations mentioned in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments lie within its borders. Especially targeted by Catholic tourists is the house said to have been the residence of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is believed to have come to the city of Ephesus after her son’s crucifixion. On the citadel hill of Selçuk itself are the remains of a huge basilica church, erected by the Roman/Byzantine/Greek Emperor Justinian in the 6th century over a grave supposed to be last resting place of Jesus’s favourite disciple John.

Description of John
and his basilica church
It is a credit to the people and government of Turkey that, not only do they respect these sites of enormous significance to Christian history, but they also allow foreign Christian organisations to restore and maintain them, and even display their own descriptions and commentaries. A text to be seen at the entrance to the basilica site is credited to the American Society of Ephesus, whose HQ, apparently, is in Lima, Ohio. The text provides details of the life of John, with Biblical references, and the history of the church itself. One sentence in particular caught my eye because some words had been scratched out. ‘Prior to the invasion by the Seldjuk Turks, the town of Selcuk was known as Ayasoluk, meaning ‘Devine Theologian’ in honor of St John.’ Leaving aside the minor errors in the sentence, the interesting thing for me was that beneath the scratched-out section was the hand-written, barely legible word ‘conquest’. It may be a small amendment, but is nonetheless indicative of a slightly different take on the history of Asia Minor – a part of the world that has had countless conquerors over many millennia.

Enlarged section of text
with deleted 'invasion'
Well, one consequence of that Turkish invasion, or conquest, was perhaps that less value was given to the temples, churches and artwork of their predecessors, the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. There’s nothing unusual in that, of course. When the Roman Empire turned to Christianity, pagan temples were destroyed, mined for their stonework, or converted to new uses such as churches. Statues celebrating the naked human body had breasts and genitalia chiselled off. Interest in Classical civilisations and their artifacts is a relatively recent development in Western Europe, accelerating from the later years of the 18th century.

One result was a rising popularity in exploring the cities and temples of antiquity, and whisking away statuary and other relics to private collections. The building of public museums really began with the British Museum in 1759, and blossomed into the ‘Museum Age’ in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consequently, in the 19th century the removal of ancient treasures became more organised, professional, and at least more for the benefit of a wider public. There is much debate these days on the subject of archeological finds displayed in museums around the world. However, it was only in the early years of the 20th century that stricter controls were placed on the removal of ancient artifacts, so it is difficult to make a strong case for the return of pieces taken prior to that. Nevertheless, there is an argument that major relics such as the so-called Elgin Marbles would be better displayed in Athens than their present location in London WC1.

During my brief stay in the town of Selçuk, I visited again the remains of the ancient city Magnesia-on-Meander. I was fortunate to have two knowledgeable guides in my friends Robert and Adrian, without whom much of the richness of the city would have remained unknown to me. The site is located some 30 km south of the better-known city of Ephesus and the two seem to have been of a similar size, which makes Magnesia very attractive to archeologists.

The first of these to begin serious exploration was a French team around 1840. They were particularly interested in a large temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, a major deity in this part of the world, and worshipped in Magnesia as Artemis Leukophryene, she of the white eyebrows.  It was said that the goddess had appeared to the inhabitants of the city prior to construction of the temple, and the building was ingeniously designed so that, at certain times of the year, the light of a full moon would shine through an opening above the main entrance, progressively illuminating the statue of Artemis inside, recreating the epiphany to the wonderment of assembled worshippers.

The Magnesia Artemesion may not have been as grand as its counterpart in Ephesus, renowned as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World – but still it was one of the larger Hellenistic temples, built around 200 BCE, architecturally innovative and boasting a 175 metre-long frieze depicting the mythological war between the Greeks and the Amazons. A forty-metre section of the magnificent frieze subsequently found its way to the Louvre Museum in Paris where it may still be seen. A further twenty metres, along with many other finds were later relocated to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin after a German team of archeologists carried out excavations in the 1890s.

Scylla and the sailors -
minus stolen heads
Since 1984, archeologists from Ankara University have been working at the Magnesia site. With Turkish nationals overseeing the dig, and international agreements in place to outlaw the smuggling of antiquities, you might think that the treasures of Turkey would be safe at last – but you would be wrong. In 1989 excavations began uncovering a building identified as the Market Basilica, and the most remarkable find was an elaborately carved column capital featuring a scene from the ‘Odyssey’ of Homer in which two fearsome monsters, Charybdis and Scylla, combined forces to devour Odysseus’s crew of sailors. When discovered, the capital was in near-perfect condition, but almost immediately persons unknown, unable to make off with the entire 3.5 tonne marble block, contrived to break off the head and right arm of the monster Scylla which, we must assume, found their way to some private collection abroad.

A more famous case involves the unearthing of a stash of treasure known as the Lydian or Croesan Hoard. Croesus, proverbially one of the richest rulers in the ancient world, was king of the Kingdom of Lydia in the 6th century BCE, with his capital at Sardis in Western Turkey. The site was illegally excavated in the 1960s, a small hoard of buried treasure found, and the loot sold off, again, to persons unknown. Eventually some of the items turned up at an exhibition in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, resulting in an expensive six-year legal battle initiated by the Turkish Government.

After the court case, the artifacts were returned to Turkey where they went on display in the Uşak Archeological Museum, but in 2006 it was discovered, due to an anonymous tip-off, that some of the pieces were fake. An investigation revealed that a gang which included the Director of the Museum had been selling them off and substituting imitations in their place. Following negotiations with officials of a museum in Germany, a golden brooch in the shape of a winged seahorse, identified as part of the missing hoard, was returned to Turkey.

Just this week, another similar theft came to light. In 2000, excavations at the site of the ancient city of Akmonya, also in the Uşak Province, brought to light a floor mosaic from the classical Roman period depicting the goddess Tyche/Fortuna. Shortly after being unearthed, the mosaic, measuring 75 cm by 150 cm, was stolen from the site. As a result of investigations by Interpol and a special branch of the Turkish Police with responsibilities for artifact smuggling, a gang of eight persons were apprehended with the mosaic in their possession. After thirteen years they were in the process of spiriting the goddess out of the country – an indication of how valuable the trade is, how organised the criminals are, and how difficult it is to catch them.

To conclude this discussion, and to illustrate the extent to which millennia of civilisations overlap in this remarkable country, as well as to indicate how that history continues to influence, for better or worse, events of the present, I would like to take you back to the site of ancient Magnesia-on-Meander. Not far from the Artemesion temple is the shell of a medium-sized mosque dating from the Beylik period in the early 15th century – a kind of intervening age of smaller fiefdoms or principalities following the collapse of the Seljuk Turkish Empire, and before the rise of the Ottomans. Interestingly, however, the mosque is known by the name of Çerkez Musa, or Moses the Circassian. Apparently a group of refugees from the Caucasus area established a village here in the 18th century after fleeing from Russian imperial expansion – the beginnings of a programme of Russification and ethnic cleansing of Muslims that continued for two centuries and is still causing problems today.

One of these problems is centred on the city preparing to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sochi lies in the eastern Black Sea region beside the Caucasus Mountains, and word has it that it will host the most expensive games ever, winter or summer! The estimated price tag of $50 billion is said to have been substantially inflated by extensive bribery and corruption. Who can know? But one thing seems certain: the local and international Circassian community will be using the occasion to publicise their claims of atrocities, expulsion and genocide that allegedly took place after the Russian military machine completed its conquest of the territory in 1864. I guess we can be equally confident that the Russian state will be doing its best to ensure that high volume celebrations of Olympic competition and togetherness drown out whatever message the Circassians try to convey to the outside world.

Which brings me back to our starting point – my constant rediscovering, in this quarter of the planet, that many of the historical ‘facts’ I thought I knew, turn out, at the very least, to be highly debatable. There are two sides to almost every story, and in the interests of fair play, we should maintain an open mind to the possibility of alternative versions.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Revising History – the mutability of political reputation

Revising history -
or just widening the road?

Alaşehir is a small town in the Aegean region of Manisa. It’s not a particularly noteworthy place, and its major claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Kenan Evren, the seventh president of the Republic of Turkey (1980-1989). Until just the other day a bronze statue of the former president overlooked a major intersection in the town . . . until, that is, it was removed by council workers and taken into storage for safe-keeping. The official story is that the roads are being widened to improve traffic flow, and the statue will be re-erected ten metres down the road in the near future. Well, let’s see. The thing is, Kenan Evren was senior general in charge of the 1980 military coup in Turkey, so his rise to presidential glory was a trifle controversial. These days such military intervention in the democratic process is somewhat out of fashion, and those responsible for past coups, including the 93 year-old General Evren, are being called to account in the courts. Citizens in some parts of the country are finally finding the courage to ask for an account of what happened to family members who ‘disappeared’ as recently as the 1990s.

As for me, I’ll be casting a curious eye from time to time in the direction of those roadworks in Alaşehir. 

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Democracy is a Difficult Path - but the alternative is a lot worse!

My Turkish newspaper today has an article on the front page about a proposal to turn one of Istanbul's islands into a museum. Yassiada was where three members of Turkey's democratically elected government were imprisoned, tried and executed by the perpetrators of a military coup which ousted the Democrat Party government of Adnan Menderes on 27 May 1960.

Menderes has been forgiven (for whatever he was supposed to have done) by subsequent Turkish governments to the extent that he has a large mausoleum in his honour next to the ancient walls of old Istanbul/Constantinople. His name is remembered in numerous avenues and boulevards around the country, as well as the international airport of Turkey's third largest city, Izmir.

Nevertheless, those three politicians suffered the ultimate penalty of execution by hanging, and all have living relatives for whom forgiveness of the generals may be more difficult. Two of them, the wife and daughter of Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan, are objecting to the proposed museum, calling the site the island of tears, a  bitter pun on its name in Turkish. 

Turks who experienced the 1960 coup are getting on in years - and even the military takeovers of 1971 and 1980 are fading into history. Nevertheless, the possibility of a repeat performance has not gone away. I draw your attention to an article in the English edition of Zaman newspaper:

Selling our democracy to the West
Ali Bulaç

The Islamic Revolution of Iran and the explosions that have been erupting in the Middle East since 2010 have made it clear that autocratic regimes will be replaced by their Muslim counterparts.

Although its inception dates far back in time, this process had been halted by the West. The first blow came when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of elections in Algeria in the early 1990s. France rushed to put juntas into action and made them stage a coup in Algeria. By releasing a grant of $292 million to the military-ruled Algeria one week later, the European Union shamelessly supported the coup. In 1996, the Welfare Party (RP) of Turkey secured 21 percent of the national vote and was entitled to form a coalition government with the secular True Path Party (DYP). However, it was overthrown with the coup of Feb. 28, which was made possible with collaboration from the US and Israel and endorsement from the EU. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) approved the closure of the RP without being bothered with concerns of legal legitimacy. In 2006, fair elections were held in Palestine and Hamas won; Carter announced the elections were fair and proper. Israel arrested more than 40 elected deputies, ministers and the speaker and sent them to jail; the US and the EU said that Israel was entitled to do so. The presidential elections in which Mohammed Morsi secured 52 percent of the vote were extremely fair and legal. But one year later, the junta overthrew him with collaboration from the US, Israel and the EU. Read more

Saturday, 13 July 2013

What's Going on in Turkey These Days?

The following piece appeared in today's English edition of Zaman newspaper. I'm not commenting - just putting it here with a recommendation that you check it out:

Normalcy, but how?
Markar Esayan

Turkey fell into a crisis right at a moment when no one was expecting it. While it was clear that the run-up to local, general and presidential elections might see some political turbulence, no one thought the country would boil over so thoroughly, moving a hair's breadth from civil war.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government must also have been unprepared; it was seriously shaken by the crisis. What's clear now is that Turkey can no longer shoulder the politics of polarization, and that the manipulation of said polarization has become riskier than ever. Many say -- and it's apparent -- that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to handle the politics of polarization with mastery. This is true.
At the same time, claiming that this polarization is what Erdoğan wants is skewing the truth. Since the end of 2002, when the AK Party came to power, the party has been the focus of constant harassment, its agenda the target of endless attempts to raise tension. The years 2003-04 saw a series of coup plans that were known to both the military's General Staff headquarters and the government. The generals behind these coup plans used military and civilian tools to keep the national agenda as infused with tension as possible and to try to portray the AK Party as opposed to secularism. Read more