The Pope’s Visit to Istanbul

Having lived in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, for a long time, I, quite unnaturally, expected something quite different. There were no fawning crowds, not even of the curious, no parade with Papamobile, no open air mass, no waves to the crowds. Not Ratzinger’s style, maybe. But not a single banner welcoming him. No badges, buttons, magnets. Of course, Turkey nowadays is nearly 100% Muslim. But even so… 

And what did we find? A military operation: large swathes of Istanbul were cut off. The whole of the Sultanhamet Square with the Haghia Sophia on one side, the Sultanhamet Mosque on the other, and the Roman Hippodrome in between was cut off and protected by armies of police. After the protests against the visit last Sunday, people in high places were worried. Police leave was cancelled, and reinforcements were called in from outside Istanbul. But protests were muted. 

TV was what mattered. I got home to see the Pope and the Turkish Minister for Religion strolling through Haghia Sophia, the great monument of Byzantium, dedicated in 537AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and then turned into a mosque when Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453. Only in 1935, in a gesture of goodwill to Greece, did Atatürk order it to be turned into a museum. Many wish that one day it will become a church again; ikewise, others see no reason for it having stopped being a mosque. A prayer here would have been fatal… 

Only in the Blue Mosque, Sultanhamet. A TV picture broadcast to the whole world. 

But the Pope didn’t come here for that. Apparently not. The main aim was to meet the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartolomeos I, the “leader amongst equals” and help solve the schism which dates back to 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, deepened in 1204 by the sacking of Constantinople during the fourth Crusade. 

If you look hard, you will see that Istanbul is full of churches. Small Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches in Karaköy, Kadiköy, Arnavutköy, the village of the Albanians; an Armenian church and crumbling school in Beshikitash; the large Greek church in Chiangir; the various Greek Orthodox churches in Fener, where the Patriarchate still stands; and many, many others. And the Jewish synagogue down by the Galata bridge. But they are all closed, except for the Catholic Church on the Istiklal Caddesi. I ask when they will open. Maybe Sunday, the locals say, maybe not. 

What happened to the thriving communities of Greeks and Armenians and Jews? I read that today, of Turkey’s 70 million people, only 65,000 are Armenian Christians, 2,000 are Greek Orthodox, and 23,000 are Jewish. In 1914, of a population of a million, 22% of the inhabitants of Istanbul were Greek orthodox, 25% Armenian, and 5% Jewish. How did Turkey become almost a monolingual country? The Armenians, Jews and Greeks were the traders and craftsmen of the Ottoman Empire. They paid their taxes and many thrived. There was never any pogrom against Jews in the Ottoman Empire. During the First World War, when Turkey was fighting on the side of Germany, the apparent support of the Allied forces by the Greeks and the Armenians antagonized the government of the Young Turks, resulting in the killing of many Armenians in the east, now a very hot potato, and which Turkey may need to acknowledge, or at least investigate, in order to get into the EU. The Greeks were given the area around Izmir, or Smyrna, after the First World War, but were driven out by Atatürk’s nationalist army in 1923. The Turkophile nationalistic policies of the Republican government resulted in many losing their Armenian or Greek heritages and integrating into Turkish society. Many Armenians emigrated to France and, together with the Greeks and Jews, the US. Israel welcomed the Jews in 1947. And the looting of Greek businesses in 1956 sent many Greeks, nearly all born in Istanbul, to Thessalonica, Athens or New York. So now I hear no Greek or Armenian in Istanbul 

The Republic invented the myth of Turkish nationalism. Whether they were of Greek, Slavic, Italian, Hungarian, Albanian, Circassian or Anatolian origin, those born and bred in Turkey and brought up to speak Turkish would feel a sense of national unity and belonging to the Turkish nation. But on TV I see the Spanish Celta Vigo baiting the Turkish Fenerbahçe fans with a “Freedom for the Kurds” banner. But this story will come later…


4 Responses to “The Pope’s Visit to Istanbul”

  1. Noélia Borges Says:


    It is very interesting to observe the presence of multicultural issues in your work, mainly when after the “The Harem and the Black Eunuchs” – (the local and traditional culture of Turkey) you come with the Pope’s visit (the global). I like this intersection of culture!!!

  2. Marleine Paula Marcondes e Ferreira de Toledo Says:


    Você captou de maneira muito melhor que as Tevês o significado de “the Pope’s visit to Istanbul”. Nem foram necessárias as imagens. Você as criou com palavras. Aguardo “the next story”!

  3. Paulo Edson Says:

    Hi John,

    Always nice reading your Turkish Journal!

    all the best

  4. Gisele Says:

    Multiculturalism is the term that pops up from reading this last wonderful writing of yours! the good and bad of multiculturalism is all there…!
    it certainly makes one wonder about social constructions, the good and evil aspects of going into nationalism and ethnicity!
    Most of all, your speaking of it from the perspective of the local, also! Inevitably, Brazilian (whatever that may mean…)…but certainly, the Brazilian expectation very present there…in the beginning…You have grown into a Brazilian!!
    (could that be more plural ?)
    thank you for your writing,
    Gisele Wolkoff

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