That the description of being ‘where east meets west’ is applied to so many cities – ranging as vastly in look and location as from Sarajevo to Singapore – is of course an indictment of its essential vapidity. But to the extent that it's true of any city, it is surely truest of Istanbul, that ancient imperial capital with its spinal Bosphorus river across which the lands of Europe and Asia are quite literally ‘bridged’. In this distinction – of being a single city adjoining two continents – Istanbul is unique. Less trivially, and not coincidentally, it has the further unique distinction of being the former seat of four epochal empires – Roman; Byzantine; Latin; and Ottoman – making it in effect the global centre of power for more than 1,500 consecutive years. That these empires (as we sometimes forget) were officially faith-based gives the city the additional distinction of being the only former capital of both Christendom and the Islamic caliphate. And finally, in its latest form within the borders of modern Turkey, its people were the first in history to have thrown out the Islamic shari’a in favour of a secular constitution.
The city today bears the stamp of each of these origins, if in different ways and to uncertain extents. To take them broadly in order, the ‘European’ cloth of the tapestry is evident from the moment one steps into Atatürk International, which flexes the bulk and polish of a Schiphol or a Gatwick without the gilded glitz of, say, a Dubai. On the roads, the restraint and consideration shown to fellow drivers are truly foreign to anyone accustomed to the Middle East, as is the thoughtfully built and efficiently run public transportation system. The food, on the other hand, is unmistakeably ‘Asian’, as the faintest whiff of the Eminönü Spice Bazaar will confirm. Indeed, much of what is now eaten in the Arab world descends from traditional Ottoman cuisine: from the döner (shawarma in Arabic) and the şiş kebap (shish kabab) to the baklava sweets (baqlawa) and more (the Arabs were able to return the favour with their lahm b’ajin, the meat pastry now rendered in Turkish as lahmacun). In terms of dress, there’s been a good deal of cross-pollination, with about as many heels and skirts as headscarves and skull caps (on which more later). Perhaps above all else, it’s in the language that the cultural DNA is most nakedly revealed: distinctly Balkan to the ear, the vocabulary is nevertheless replete with loanwords not only from Arabic and Persian (including the most basic of all, merhaba, from the Arabic marhaba) but also from the West (one purchases a jeton to ride the tram, for instance). These adopted words persist despite attempts since the formation of the Republic in the 1920s to replace them with ‘purer’ Turkish equivalents – an initiative that also brought about the enforced Latinisation of the old Ottoman script. As we shall see, this is not the only way in which the Turks have not entirely taken to the ‘Reforms’ imposed by Atatürk.
In the 4th century AD, around the same time that Constantine ‘The Great’ was making Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire, the need was felt for a new capital east of Rome to address the vast territorial gains made in that direction. It was decided that the strategically-located city then known as Byzantion best met the requirements, and what was to become Constantinople was in fact briefly named Nea Roma, or ‘New Rome’. Much of the city as it was then remains visible in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul today, from the Hippodrome with the surviving section of the Serpent Column to the Basilica Cistern now lying beneath Yerebatan Street. But the most striking creation of what became the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire was the Hagia Sophia cathedral completed in the 6th century during the reign of the emperor Justinian.
|Egyptian obelisk in the Hippodrome|
|Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya 'Museum'|
This magnificent building - whose signature dome would inspire the Sultanahmet and Süleymaniye mosques a thousand years later, and which was in fact itself later converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II - was by far the largest of its kind worldwide; a record it held for nine centuries until the building of the Saint Mary cathedral in Seville. After five hundred years as the ‘Ayasofya’ mosque, it was eventually stripped of its religious status by Atatürk and is today strictly referred to as a ‘museum’, much to the fury of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims alike.
Indeed, the ‘museum’ is nothing if not a damning testament to religious hatred and tyranny. Repeatedly sacked and pillaged throughout its existence – by the Islamic invaders but more devastatingly by the Catholic Crusaders (whose loathing of the Orthodox Church is still very much alive in eastern Europe today) – it’s a wonder the thing still stands at all. In addition to the four minarets added to the exterior by the Ottomans, inside one finds Islamic calligraphy on great black discs crudely affixed like cheap stickers to the walls, in places just metres from the original Christian mosaics. And the mosaics themselves tell a sordid story of their own; many of them depicting Christ and Mary shoulder to shoulder with Constantine and Justinian – brazen attempts to deify the emperors and thus render themselves, and their authority, infallible. That the Byzantine empire turned out to be very much fallible, and that it was an orgy of violence and despotism while it lasted, is a lesson in humility that far too few religions appear to have learned (not least of them Catholicism, which actually does still use the word ‘infallible’ in official descriptions of the pope).
|Inside the Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya|
|Christian mosaics behind Islamic calligraphy|
|From left to right: Constantine, Mary, Jesus, Justinian|
Of course, Atatürk couldn’t convert every house of worship into a museum, and the two most marvellous mosques still in use – the Sultanahmet, or ‘Blue’ one to the east of the Hippodrome; and the Süleymaniye one further to the west – have generously been made open to the public free of charge (entrance to the Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya costs 20 TL, or $11). These skyline-defining structures, exquisitely sculpted of marble and granite, are examples not only of the egos of the Sultans Ahmet and Süleyman (‘The Magnificent’) but also of the genius of the architect Mimar Sinan, the ‘Michelangelo of the East’, whose legacy extends from the Tekkiye Mosque in Damascus to the Sokolović Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet perhaps the most interesting relic of the Islamic period is the colossal Topkapi Palace, personal residence of the Sultan and seat of the Ottoman government from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Built on the ruins of the ancient Great Palace of Constantinople, the grounds of what we now call the Topkapi Palace Museum - which effectively comprise an entire borough of the city – are the very height of Ottoman glory and greed; containing not just the old living quarters of the Sultan and his 4,000-strong support staff, but a mosque, a Byzantine church, a library, a treasury, a hospital, a mint, and over a hundred acres of gardens and courtyards. Within these walls can be found an 86-carat diamond; thrones made of solid gold and ebony; emeralds and rubies the size of golf balls; and the most exquisite porcelain of China. One can also find several purported belongings of the Prophet Muhammad, including his swords; his cloak; a tooth and even the individual hairs of his beard (why anyone should want to see these, I couldn’t say). Most famously, one can also find the Harem; the private quarters where the Sultan lived in the company of his hundreds of concubines. These often very young women were bought, donated or simply stolen into slavery and put to whatever use the Sultan desired. A New York Times article elucidates the grotesque way in which the girls were forced to feign interest in their owner and master:
At times up to 300 young women lived here, most of them in tiny cubicles, including four wives, the favorite concubines, the young up-and-coming odalisques. Harem girls were captured in wars or bought as slaves; some were offered by their parents. Russian and Georgian girls were considered great beauties and much in demand. [The Sultan’s] Mother apparently had the first choice and alloted the girls different tasks so that they might or might not be noticed. If you were an odalisque you could try to catch the sultan's eye when you served his coffee or when he called for the girls to parade and perform dances for him. If he offered you his handkerchief, you knew.
One must never forget that this monstrous combination of slavery and rape is wholly licensed by the tenets of Islam. The Qur’an makes repeated reference to slaves as ma malakat aymankum, or ‘what your right hands possess’, e.g., Suras 4:24; 23:5-6; 70:29-35:
And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess.[The believers are those] who guard their modesty, save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy.And those who preserve their chastity, save with their wives and those whom their right hands possess [...] These will dwell in Gardens, honoured.
Muhammad himself had a number of concubines – indeed, the canonical tafsir, or exegesis, of Ibn Kathir tells the illuminating tale of Maria the Copt, the concubine whom Muhammad swore never again to see after his wife Hafsa found the pair of them in bed. “Why bannest thou that which Allah hath made lawful for thee, seeking to please thy wives”? was the Almighty’s contemptuous response (Sura 66:1). Thus the Ottoman Sultans, in consigning thousands of girls to lives of abuse and abjection, were in fact only following the example of their moral and spiritual tutor.
Which seems as good a reason as any to celebrate the day in 1924 when the inaugural President of the Republic of Turkey put a stop to all that forever, abolishing the caliphate and establishing the first secular country of the former Muslim world. That state would quickly go on to grant equal rights to women in things like education and marriage; outlaw the degrading practice of polygamy; and give its female population the vote long before supposedly enlightened nations such as France and Canada would do the same. The social and economic dividends of these revolutionary steps were suggested by Turkey’s joining of NATO in 1952 (it remains the only Muslim-majority country in the organisation) and its candidacy – recognised in 1999 - for membership of the European Union.
Today, however, these hard-won gains face a threat that cannot easily be exaggerated. Never entirely accepted by the Turks from the start, over the years Atatürk’s constitution has had to be upheld by a powerful military establishment that can be as ruthless as it needs to be against its enemies, perceived or actual. Or at least that was the case until July of this year, when in an event that went largely unnoticed outside the country – and is still not nearly well enough appreciated - the entire leadership of the armed forces simultaneously resigned. This major and unprecedented move, described by the Milliyet columnist Asli Aydintasbas as “the symbolic moment when the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins”, was in response to the arrests of dozens of generals on what may or may not be fabricated charges of plotting to overthrow the government. The man behind all this, of course, is the Prime Minister and top Atatürk-despiser, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
An incredible amount of loose talk has it that Turkey strikes the ideal balance between the secular and the Islamic (when Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party won last month’s elections in Tunisia, for example, he cited the Turkish “reconciliation between Islam and modernity” as though to negate fears about his own non-secular proclivities). Yet Erdoğan’s entire political career, from the day he joined the now-banned Islamist ‘National Salvation Party’ as a teenager, has been focused on advancing the former at the expense of the latter.
As the Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, elected on the Islamist ‘Welfare Party’ ticket (also now banned), Erdoğan illegalised the sale of alcohol in city-owned establishments. Having presumably been on the military’s hit list for some time, the man describing himself as a “servant of the shari’a” was eventually arrested and imprisoned in 1998 for the somewhat ridiculous crime of ‘inciting religious hatred’ for reading a poem at a rally that contained the lines:
The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the believers our soldiers.
Since coming to high office in 2003, Erdoğan has, to borrow a phrase used by Patrick Cockburn in another context, done as much harm as he can and as much good as he must. His ‘Justice and Development’ party attempted to criminalise adultery in 2004, a blatantly Islamist move defended by Erdoğan as a question of “human honour”. At a NATO summit in 2009, the Turkish delegation made enemies of everyone in the room when it threatened to veto the appointment of the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Rasmussen, to the post of Secretary-General, on the preposterous and fascistic grounds that he had not censored the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in the Danish media – something the Danish constitution would not have allowed him to do even if he had wanted to. This sinister piece of galling impertinence led the French Foreign Minister to publicly withdraw his support for Turkey’s EU bid. And while Erdoğan has become something of a hero in the Arab world for (rightly) standing up to the Israelis, his defence of Palestine rests on the insulting notion of it as an ‘Islamic’ territory. Certainly, he seems to mind much less about slaughter and military occupation when the subjects of Armenia, Cyprus or Kurdistan are brought up – not to mention that he’s happy enough in the company of mass-murderers such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (“my good friend”) and Omar al-Bashir, whom he defended from the charges brought against him by the International Criminal Court by saying it was “not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide”.
And then of course there is the drink question. Happily, the ban from the ‘90s has been repealed, but Erdoğan has never been one to give up easily on the imperatives of moral policing. Indeed, for the fruits of the grape and grain he appears to reserve especial distaste. After yet again raising taxes on alcohol in October, his advice for disgruntled drinkers was to “consume less alcohol”, echoing the call he made last year for Turks to eat grapes rather than drink wine. The courts had to get involved in 2007 to block a proposal to create designated “red zones” outside the cities in which alcoholic venues could be quarantined. While I was able to get a glass of raki easily enough in the famously convivial Beyoğlu district, the atmosphere was slightly but perceptibly diminished by the brand new law banning outdoor seating. This of course came after a series of restrictions introduced in January on things like advertising alcohol and the way in which it may be served at events (not for free, and not to anyone younger than 24). That package was to spark one of the most heartening sights of the year: crowds of protesters gathered in city centres across the country, each man and woman equipped with a brimming tumbler of tipple, in what they called a “drinking action” demonstration. To irk the forces of clerical fascism and get jolly drunk in the process is as fine a day’s work as any.
There are still a lot of Turks, in other words, for whom secularism and individual liberties mean a great deal (there had, after all, been a number of rather larger rallies in 2007, when over a million people took to the streets to protest the presidential nomination of Erdoğan’s ally, Abdullah Gül). Whether they outnumber their more pious compatriots, however, is unclear. Peter Hitchens – a man with whom I very often disagree – made the interesting observation that while in the seriously Islamist country of Iran, the young women have a healthy contempt for the veil, in Turkey a very ugly kind of zealous conservatism appears to have become the fashion:
The Iranian women mock the headscarf as they wear it, pushed as far back as possible on the head, revealing as much bleached-blonde, teased hair as the piety police will allow.
Their message is: 'The law can make me wear this, but it cannot make me look as if I want to.' The young Turks, by contrast, are saying: 'This is how I want to look, even if the law says I cannot.' For the scarf is banned by law in many universities and in government offices, and they view this ban as a challenge they must defy.
There is no simpler way of making the point that, while Iran is a secular country with a Muslim government, Turkey is a Muslim country with a secular government.
If Turkey truly hopes to be a First World nation, it would do well to start taking large strides away from, rather than toward the ideals that have turned life in the great Persian nation into a waking nightmare. And unless it wishes to lose its few remaining secular friends, it will have to come to terms with being the graveyard of the Islamic empire, and not the soil of its rebirth.