Archive for January, 2007

On Greeks and Jews

January 29, 2007

On Sunday morning I finally manage to find the Greek Orthodox Church near Taksim Square open for orthodox mass. Some twenty-odd elderly souls, seven priests including their helpers. Chanted mass. More old ladies come in and kiss the picture of Jesus in the aisle. Magnificent church bearing witness to the wealth of the Greek community in Istanbul. And indeed, as mentioned in the blog on the Pope’s Visit to Istanbul, the Patriarchate in Istanbul is the leader of the 150 million of orthodox Christians in Greece, Russian, Serbia and Bulgaria but the flock is now very very small, no more than 2,000 Greeks now live in Istanbul.

Down Istiklal Caddesi, La Grande Rue de Péra, and I stop by for mass at San Antonio de Padua. A few more faithful here, some tourists, I think, as we are exhorted to look for Dio by a fresh-faced Italian priest. Italian presence, particularly from Genoa and Venice, was strong both before and after the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453.

I forego the service at the Dutch chapel and look for the English church. Gates locked. A number of Indians nearby, a couple taking water in for the afternoon service.

Down to Tophane and then to Galata to look for the Jewish Museum. I spot the Synagogue. Must be on the other side. Go up and turn right. Many young guys milling around. There’s a police checkpoint and metal detector going down to what seems to be the Museum. Well, nowadays many Jewish museums around the world have them. I’m surprised the Jewish Museum is so popular, particularly with these young men. I show my kimilk, my identity card, to the policeman, and ask him whether the Jewish Museum is there. No it is the genelev. I don’t know the word. Light dawns on me, this is Brothel Street. I’ve passed here several times and been asked if I want a lady. I am again. But the whores seem to stay indoors, not hang around bars like the Russian Natashas I have seen in other areas of Istanbul.

I finally find the Jewish Museum, a converted synagogue near Galata Bridge, near the traditional banking area of Istanbul. Balkan Jews were treated better by the Muslims than the Byzantines, and in the mid 1300s flocked to the “land where the flag with the crescent brought justice”. Many Jews came to Constantinople and Smyrna (Izmir) to escape the Spanish Inquisition in 1483. They were well accepted by the Ottoman Empire, who encouraged foreigners to settle in Constantinople and increase its wealth. The members of the Janissary Guard were initially all slaves, mostly from the Balkans; many of the harem slaves were Circassians. Just before the First World War, over 20% of the population of Istanbul were Greeks, and a similar proportion Armenian. These two groups, along with the Jews, some 5% of the population formed the trading and merchant class. The Greeks were the dragomans, the court interpreters. The Ottomans exacted taxes from the foreign national groups, the millets, but generally left them alone to run their own communities and increase the wealth of the Ottoman Empire. Harmony it seems, at least until near the end of the Empire, and the Armenian massacres of 1915, the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922 when Greece was awarded the area around Izmir, followed by increasing Turkish nationalism, and restrictions in foreigners to enter certain professions like dentistry, law and pharmacy. This was later followed by the looting of Greek businesses in 1955.

Islamists in France and elsewhere might ask: we left them alone to run their own communities. Why don’t they leave us alone to run our societies as we want to?

Most Istanbul Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, Spanish mixed with a few Hebrew and Yiddish words. A few speakers still survive, and newspapers in Ladino with names like La Boz de Turkiye and La Buena Esperansa were published until the 1980s. Most learnt Turkish, as they became more and more integrated. I examine wedding invitations from the inter-war period. No Ladino here. All were printed in French, the language of Pera society. A few are also in Turkish.

The Jewish Museum is full of encomiums to both the Ottoman Empire and the Republic. In 1933 Albert Einstein sent a letter to Atatürk asking him to accept 33 top Jewish scientists who had lost their jobs in Germany, and Atatürk welcomed them. In the Second World War various Turkish Schindlers saved Turkish Jews in the Nazi occupied areas. But then came Israel, and nearly all the Turkish Jews flocked to the new state, which was, in geographical terms, just down the road. But, unlike the Greeks, the Jews bore Turkey no bitterness, perhaps explaining the close relationship between Israel and Turkey today.

My Turkish teacher in Brazil, Hadi, tells me he learnt Greek from his Greek neighbours in Beyoglu in the 1940s and 1950s, but now Istanbul has been linguistically cleansed, apart that is, from the ever-increasing number of tourists, whose lingua franca is English.



The Funeral of Hrant Dink

January 23, 2007

The route of the funeral march was eerily like that of my “Stroll around Istanbul’, the subject of my first blog, through the old European area of Pera, over the Golden Horn and into Old Stamboul. I got off the Metro at Shishli and walked down Halaskargazi Avenue where I was soon caught up in the crowd.



The hearse had just left the Agos office, outside which Dink was killed, for the Armenian Patriarchate over the Golden Horn, and we followed behind, a very long way behind, for it seemed that all Istanbul was here, or at least Istanbul’s critical mass, it’s Europeanized middle-class, sick of Law 301, or rather, as the posters were saying “Katil 301″, ‘Killer 301”, through which anyone can be convicted for insulting Turkishness, which, in most cases, has meant questioning the official version that there were no deliberate mass killings of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915, that there was no genocide. Killings there, says the official version, on both sides. It was war: Turkey was fighting with Germany, and many Turkish Armenians were helping the Allies.

No one has yet been convicted. Hrant Dink got off with a six-month suspended sentence. Elif Shafak was acquitted after being brought to trial when a character in her The Bastard of Istanbul, raised the Armenian Question, and Orhan Pamuk’s trial was abandoned on a technicality. But Article 301 brings these writers into the public eye, and that of the ultra-nationalist groups.

This is what happened with Dink. The story is well-known by now. The unemployed 17-year-old kid, Ogün Samast, from Trabazon, on the Black Sea coast, was befriended by Hasal Yayal, who had spent ten days in prison in 1994 for trying to blow up MacDonalds. With a group of similar no-hopers, he was brainwashed and given shooting lessons by Yayal. Nationalist websites sharpened his hatred of Dink. Ogün was chosen to be the assassin because he was the best shot and fastest runner. He made three reconnaissance trips to Istanbul before last Friday. Then, when Dink went out to the bank, fired three times, killing Dink instantaneously. His image was picked up by the CCTV. His father contacted the police. Ogün was arrested as he returned to Trabazon and confessed. The question now is whether this was just a small group of nutters or something much more closely orchestrated, with émininces grises in high places. The amateurness of the murder, with no attempt to hide his face from the camera, his keeping the gun and returning home give one the idea it was a very amateur affair, but many suspect otherwise.


“Hepimiz biraderleriz, hepimiz ermeniyiz”, “We are all brothers, we are all Armenians”, is the favourite slogan we shout as we descend in the springlike January sun in this winterless Europe to the Golden Horn. All traffic has been diverted. many have taken a day off work. And it is the university vacation. We are all Armenians, not Turks, thus belying one of the myths of the Turkish Republic. And in Kumkapi, in Old Stamboul, our destination, the old Armenian ladies in their white headscarves are out in mourning for Hrant Dink, a link with a culture many of them have lost and a language their grandchildren do not speak.


Hrant Dink’s picture is pinned up next to that of Atatürk in the local photocopying shop. An unlikely combination, as Atatürk was hardly a friend of the Armenians. Let’s go to Ziya Gökalp’s The Principles of Turkism, published originally in 1920, and the most influential work behind many of the concepts behind Atatürk’s Republic. I use Robert Devereux’s 1968 translation, Brill, Leiden.

Gökalp developed the concept of Turkish nationalism for the new Turkish Republic, founded when Atatürk defeated the Greeks in 1922, when the last Sultan was deposed. It would be centred on folk Anatolian values; 97% of Turkey was now, after all, in Anatolia.It would be anti-Ottoman. And it would be Turkish. Other languages and cultures would be excluded. Those brought up in Turkey would be made to feel Turkish and would be expected to give all they had for the Turkish cause. Whether of Albanian, Arabic, Thracian or Syrian origin, they would share “a common language, religion, morality and aesthetics” (p.15). Their spirituality would be directed towards their nation, which would be”a source of rapture”(p.16), and only our native society “envelops our soul in ecstasies and makes our life happy” (p.16). We should befriend all those who say “‘I am a Turk'”, but, more somberly, “Punish those, if there be any, who betray the Turkish nation”(p.16).

As did Hrant Dink in the eyes of seventeen-year-old Ogün Samast……


January 8, 2007

The ingenuous first-time visitor to Ankara, capital of Turkey, nearly 500km east of Istanbul, now a sprawling city of some three million, might be tempted to think that it is a kind of Brasília. This was me in 2000. Open up the hinterland; move away from the coast to the interior; develop unused resources.

But the truth is hardly this. Ankara was Atatürk’s chosen base and capital, from which he could direct resistance operations in the 1919-22 War of Independence. Istanbul was in the hands of the puppet government, run by the last Sultan, Mehmet VI, Vahideddin, and which had agreed to the Allies’ demands for the dismemberment of Turkey after the First World War, with only a rump remaining. Slowly Atatürk mustered forces. The Armenians and the Kurdish resistance were defeated in the East. Agreements were made with the French on the Syrian border and the Italians in the South. The war was fought against the Greeks who had been awarded the area around Izmir, Smyrna, on the Aegean. The Greeks nearly took Ankara, but the Turks held out and booted them out of Izmir in September 1922.

And Ankara became the capital of the Republic. It was safer, less open to attacks from mercenaries, had a railway to Istanbul, contacts with the East, and now all the Balkans had been lost, it was much more central. In central Ulus you see the first National Assembly Room, a large school classroom, where the delegates sat at undersized desks. And the assembly that was later built down the road was not much bigger.

One hears little negative about Atatürk here in Turkey, particularly in educated, university circles. Yes, he was a womanizer, an alcoholic. His economic policy was highly centralized and statist, but that was a sign of the times. He was pretty tough on the Armenians and Greeks, but it was war after all. There is a strong sense that Turkey would not exist in its present form if it had not been for Atatürk. In one word, he gave Turks pride. Indeed, as mentioned in a previous blog, to most educated Turks, especially women, he is a symbol of enlightenment and freedom.

I have not yet been to North Korea but do know that the few tourists allowed in have to make an obligatory visit to the mausoleum of Kim II Sung. The highlight of any trip to Ankara is the visit to Anit Kabir, the mausoleum of Atatürk, the shining Parthenon. Firstly walk along the 262 metre long approach, guarded by stone lions, symbol of the ancient Hittite people who lived in Anatolia. Then enter the museum to see Atatürk’s clothes and accessories lovingly preserved: his seal, letter cutter, glasses, washing set, jumpers, caps and goggles, swimming trunks. Then see panoramas of Atatürk’s finest moments: Gallipoli, the defence of Sakarya and the Great Attack on the Greeks at Izmir. See the equestrian portrait of Atatürk, paintings of women behind the scenes providing clothes and making weapons. Contrast the painting of Greek soldiers massacring civilians with the holiday camp atmosphere of Anzac POWs at Gallipoli cutting each other’s hair and playing football with their Turkish captors.

Learn all about the beginnings of the Turkish Republic. See pictures of 1920s uncovered emancipated women: the first Turkish female surgeon; the first woman university professor; the first beauty contest; the first Ladies’ Teacher Training College; see some of the first female students with their jaunty peaked caps. And dancing, mixed ballroom dancing. It had always been confined to Pera, the European area of Istanbul. Now government employees in distant Ankara were required to waltz and foxtrot, dance with their wives, betrothed, unheard of! You can catch a little of the sense of entering a much freer world. A few women also fought at the front. See a bust of Kara Fatma, who fought on the Armenian front together with some ten other women after her family had been killed by Armenians.

And then climb up to the Mausoleum and pay your respects.

Anatolia had been a part of the Ottoman Empire which had been looked down upon, the land of hicks and peasants, whose Turkish was rough and uncultivated, while elegant Ottoman drew on Persian and Arabic. But now Anatolia comprised 97% of the Turkish Republic as nearly all the Balkans had been lost. The Turkish language was purged of its foreign elements, the Roman alphabet was introduced. In 1925 Atatürk set up the Turkish Historical Society to discover a suitable past for the Turkish nation. That they did: the forerunners of the Anatolians had not been a mish mash of primitive barbarians and Neanderthals but rather a highly sophisticated and literate people, the Hittites, who flourished from 1600 to 1200 BC. They had a sophisticated legal system, preserved in a cuneiform script on stone tablets, made gorgeous pottery and jewellry, and women played a central role in the state.

They were followed by the Phrygians, who arrived in Anatolia in 1200 BC from the Aegean. One form of the legend says that the Oracle at Telmissus, the ancient capital of Phrygia, decreed to the Phrygians, who found themselves temporarily without a legitimate king, that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. Midas, not he of the gold, a poor peasant, happened to drive into town with his father Gordias and his mother, riding on his father’s ox-cart. Before Midas’ birth, an eagle had once landed on that ox-cart, and this was explained as a sign from the gods. Midas was declared a king by the priests. In gratitude, he dedicated his father’s ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus and either tied it to a post or tied its shaft with an intricate knot of tree bark. It was further prophesied by an oracle that the one to untie the knot would become the king of Asia. Thus the Gordian Knot, broken only by Alexander the Great.

The Sultans

January 4, 2007

“… an unbroken line of weaklings”, following the first ten Ottoman Sultans who built up the Empire. “The twenty-five sultans who followed Suleiman were, almost without exception, totally lacking in any of the qualities needed to rule” (Lords of the Golden Horn, Noel Barber, p.51). “Between [Suleiman] and his immediate successors, who ceased with surprising suddenness to be either soldiers or statesmen, there was no gradation whatsoever. Enervated and enfeebled by seclusion and idleness, filled with ennui, , they sought pleasure and diversion in every form of extravagance, self-indulgence and vice” (Beyond the Sublime Porte, Barnette Miller, in Barber, p.51) .

Selim II (1566-1574), Selim the Sot, a notorious drunkard, sent an army to capture Cyprus as his stocks of his favourite Cyprus wine needed replenishing. He got his wine, but only after massacring 30,000 Christians in Nicosia and Famagusta. Shakespeare’s Othello fictionally led the attack of the Venetians to retake Cyprus in 1571. Selim died after drinking a bottle of Cyprus wine at a draught and broke his skull on entering the bath.

Selim’s son Murad III (1574-1595) had a fondness for opium and then wine, also loved painting and clock-making, had little interest in ruling and was much more interested in the new female slave that was presented to him every Friday. Important decisions were made by the Queen Mother, Nur Banu, or the Italian Sultana, Baffo, or the Grand Vizier, Sokolli. Murad fathered 103 children. Twenty of his sons and twenty-seven daughters survived him, and seven of his wives were pregnant when he died.

On taking office, Mehmet III (1595-1603), following the advice of Mehmet the Conqueror, had his nineteen brothers strangled with the silken bowstring by the deaf mutes of the court. The seven pregnant widows of Selim were drowned, and the remainder of the harem was retired to the Old Seraglio. Mehmet died at the age of 52 “wholly given to a sensual and voluptuous life, the marks whereof he continually carried about him, with a foul, swollen, unwieldy and overgrown body” (Lords of the Golden Horn, p.67).

Then Ahmed I (1603-1617), unwilling to execute his siblings, founded the Kafes, the cage. Instead of killing his brothers he had them locked in the Seraglio, often for many years, with a modest harem, and deaf mutes to converse with. Ahmed introduced tobacco into the Ottoman Empire and died of consumption at the age of 28. He was succeeded by Mustafa I (1617-1618), who had spent ten years in the cage and immediately appointed his favourite pages, who were still children, to be governors of Cairo and Damascus. He was deposed and sent back to the cage after three months.

The Ottoman Empire was beginning to die. In fact, the British Ambassador appointed by James I, Sir Thomas Roe, likened the Ottoman Empire to the corrupt Sultans: “an old body, crazed through many vices that remain where youth and strength is decayed” (in Lords of the Golden Horn, p.71).

He was succeeded by his nephew Osman II (1618-1622), whose favourite pastime was archery, particularly on live targets. After four years of misrule, the powerful Janissary soldiers decided he must go.

Murad IV (1623-1640) was a different cup of tea. He managed to assert his power over the Janissaries by gathering around him loyal troops and executing the Janissary leaders when they least expected it. During his reign he cut off the head of any man who aroused the slightest suspicion. In 1637 he executed 25,000 subjects, many by his own hand. He forbade smoking and opium, patrolled the taverns by night, executing any offender on the spot and exercising the royal prerogative of taking ten innocent lives a day by sinking any boat that came too near the palace walls.

Ibrahim (1640-1648), in the Cage from the age of two to twenty-four, was even worse, filling his beard with diamonds, ordering all the sable furs in the Empire to be brought to him, and drowning his 280 concubines when one was discovered pregnant, probably by a eunuch. He was removed and put back in the cage.

For the next century and half the viziers ruled. Mehmet IV (1648-1687) was much more interested in hunting than anything else, even his falcons were adorned with diamonds. Mustafa II (1695-1703) led a hopeless attack on Hungary. The Ottoman Empire was now looking weaker and weaker, but the great powers feared that it might all fall into the hands of Russia.

Ahmed III (1703-1730) was famous for his parties and wild extravagances, his tulip festivals, his sugar gardens where guests would nibble the statues when they felt peckish. Mahmud I (1730-1754) was mostly interested in playing Peeping Tom in the harem. Then Osman III (1754-1757) with his fetish for food. Mustafa III (1757-1773), who rashly went to war against Russia and lost Crimea.

The French Sultana of Abdul Hamid I (1773-1789), Aimée, was responsible for frenchifying her husband’s court and that of her nephew, Selim III (1789-1807). Napoleon attacked Egypt, but was defeated by Admiral Nelson, and the Ottoman Empire entered an alliance with Britain. But he tried unsuccessfully to assert his power over the Janissaries by introducing a new Army, and was strangled. Aimée’s son, Mahmud II (1808-1839), founded a medical school with French doctors, introduced a census, built the first bridge over the Golden Horn and replaced the pantaloons with tight black trousers plus the fez.

Abdul Mejid (1839-1861) is known as the builder of the Dolmabahçe. Tired of the gloomy passages of Topkapi Palace, he had a magnificent rococo palace built, one of the top tourist attractions today, with of course the second largest chandelier in the world. Constantinople was becoming fashionable, Parisian, and members of the harem were even permitted to step out of their carriages into shops, but of course, the Ottoman state was now bankrupt, dependent on loans from the European powers.

Abdul Aziz (1861-1876) hardly improved the finances, increasing the numbers of concubines to 900, guarded by 3000 black eunuchs. The cost of running the Dolmabahçe palace was 2 million pounds a year, a lot of money at that time. 500 servants, 400 musicians, 30 guests to dinner every evening, 200 looking after the menagerie, 400 grooms; a slave to look after the royal backgammon set; another to cut his nails. Abdul Aziz was deposed by the powerful Pasha or minister, Midhat Pasha, and replaced by the demented Murad V (1876-1876), who spent only three months on the throne.

Abdul Hamid II (1876-1908) lived in fear, so he built himself another palace, up on the hill above the Dolmabahçe. I visited it today. Yildiz (Star) Palace, is surrounded by military installations. The closed gate leads to faded stucco buildings, built by the Italian architect, d’Aronco, many of which were part of the harem. In the palace, now a museum, we are told of Abdul Hamid’s love of carpentry and pottery. Down below is Yildiz Park, containing the outhouses of the complex we visit Yildiz Porcelain factory, the euphemistically named Yildiz Shale, or Chalet, the palace for official guests which is even larger than the palace itself. He tried to withdraw himself into his own world. All food had to be tried by the Chief Chamberlain, then a cat and a dog. he was only deposed by the Young Turks on 23 April 1908. The 900-strong harem was disbanded.

His brother, Mehmet V (1908-1918) , who had been allowed no friends, newspapers or books for 35 years and who had devoted his energies to the harem, took over. He was in the hands of the Young Turks and took Turkey into World War I on the side of Germany declaring the Holy War, the Jihad against the Allies, with disastrous consequences. After the war his son Mehmet VI (1918-1922) was in charge of the puppet government which divided up much of Turkey amongst the Allies. The last of the Sultans was finally deposed on 17 November 1922 and sailed away to San Remo to spend the rest of his life in exile.