Archive for February, 2008

Final Words from Turkey and the Balkans

February 14, 2008

As expected, the headscarf ban was lifted. Turkish girls can now study at university wearing a scarf lightly tied under their chin. My ex-students at Bogazici will no longer have to wear their hoodie woolen hats, and change at the kiosk every time they enter the university. The argument is clear. People should be allowed to wear what they want, and the prohibition was preventing quite a large number of covered girls from studying at university. No burkas or niqabs that cover the whole face will be allowed. It seems the backlash from the disapproving army will not come. The secularists, or rather the doomsday fundamentalist secularists, warn that this is the beginning of the end, and the stable door has now been opened. The next will be schools, and girls who don`t wear the headscarf will feel an overwhelming pressure to do so. Probably nothing much will happen. A few secularist professors will have to swallow their pride.

I think of certain moments of the trip I made around the Balkans. The patriotic flag wavers in Podgorica, Montenegro, on 6th January, orthodox Xmas Eve, so proud of their great nation… of 685,000 people, less than the population of the district of São Paulo in which I live. A certain worry and fear of what the mysterious Albania would be like; then discovering it was messy, but a very pleasant and easy-going place completely free of hassle for the visitor. Even the usually miserable border guards seemed pleased to see me! The ways old ideas die hard. The Turk is still the barbarian, as Sixten in his or her comment suggested. Public School philo-Hellenism is still strong and kicking. Greek culture is still the basis of all Western culture. The Turk is dangerous and treacherous. Don`t let him into Europe.

I made a short trip to Edirne, Adrianopolis, now a town on the Greek and Bulgarian borders, but once, when the Ottoman Empire stretched right to what is now Hungary and covered nearly all of the old Yugoslavia, once of the most important cities in the Empire. It was first captured by the Ottomans in 1361, and was the capital of the Empire for some fifty years before the capture of Constantinople in 1453. Many of the Sultans came here to rest, hunt and build mosques. Sultan Selim built a magnificent mosque named after him and opened in 1575, which is not outdone by any of the Istanbul mosques.

One of the most interesting places is the is the Sultan Bayezid Hospital Complex, built by the son of Mehmet the Conqueror, and first open to the public in 1484. The mosque provided food for the poor, as most mosques did and many still do, medicines for the public, and the complex contained 15th century psychiatric hospital, which is now a museum. Those suffering from psychiatric problems were treated by what we now call aromatherapy, the sound of fountains, occupational therapy, a special diet, and the music of a twelve-piece orchestra. And apparently the hospital treated both rich and poor. Some of those interned were lovers whose parents were probably against their marriage. The famous Turkish traveller, Evilya Çelibi, visited Edirne in 1652:

“When the lovers, who fell into the love sea of Edirne, increase in number in some rooms during crazy spring time, they are brought to this madhouse upon the order of the doctor, chained to their beds with silver and golden chains and each one lies on his/her bed just like roaring lions. Some of them grumble certain words while watching the pool and the fountain, some others listen to the countless songs of birds in the rose garden, vineyard and melon field around that arched dome and start screaming with the tuneless voice of a mad.

In spring time, various flowers such as jasmine, carnation, tulip and hyacinth are given to the patients and by the odor of them patients are healed. However, when these flowers are given to the mad, they either eat or step on them. Some of them watch the fruit trees and grass by crying out various meaningless sounds such as ah daha hel hope pe pohe peko.”

The presidential elections have been held in Serbia. Boris Tadic, the pro-European candidate, just won. His nationalist rival, Tomislav Nikolic, a crony of Milosevic, wanted a reapproximation with Russia. The European Union is relieved. But Tadic says he will not give up and let Kosovo go without a fight. The noises any Serb President must make maybe. And today Putin has accused Europe of double standards and said that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia. But Kosovo independence seems a fait accompli, particularly after the horrors of the attempted ethnic cleansing, when Serbia lost all moral authority, and especially with their powerful US friends, above all Bill and Hillary, and the declaration of independence is expected any day now.


News from Istanbul

February 2, 2008

Turkish Daily News January 25-27

A defining agreement was reached on Thursday between the ruling Justice and development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on a package of constitutional amendments to remove the headscarf ban in universities.

What seems to be an expansion of freedoms might rapidly turn into an Islamic sweep of education and many other areas of public life, warned jurists and sociologists who spoke […] about the ruling Justice and Development Party’s drive to amend the constitution to enable women to wear headscarves in universities.


Sociology professor Nilüfer Narli from Bahçesehir University disagreed and pointed to the “possibility” that pressure might be exerted upon university students who do not wear the Islamic head cover. “female students reaching puberty can demand to wear the headscarf too. If the headscarf is allowed in universities, it will surely spark crisis elsewhere,” she said.

Turkish Daily News Thur Jan31


Women’s organizations are preparing to protest the alliance between the government and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party that aims to pave the way for women to wear the Islamic headscarf in state universities’.


Despite the guarantees given, the implementation will not remain limited o universities [Deniz Baykal] said. “Who will stop it, these guys and their cohorts?”Baykal fiercely scolded at his rivals. The CHP leader was applauded passionately when he noted that the Republic of Turkey founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is being targeted by the understanding of a religious state with this Arab-Wahhabi uniform.”



Turkey’s top general signaled the military’s opposition to lifting the headscarf ban in universities yesterday, a day after the government and the opposition nationalist Movement Party jointly introduced a bill to Parliament.


The military views itself as the guarantor of the country’s secular order and often confronts the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party over the latter’s alleged plans to erode secularism in Turkey. The military failed last year to block to election of Abdullah Gül as president despite stiff warnings.


The is clear evidence of “ethnic cleansing” in Kenya’s Rift Valley since a disputed Dec 27 election, but it does not amount to genocide, the top US diplomat for Africa said yesterday.

Turkish Daily News Jan 25-27

Two gendarmerie soldiers went on trial Tuesday accused of covering up intelligence about the plan to murder Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink months before it occurred, the Anatolia news agency reported

Today’s Zaman, Jan 31

It is time to get the number one in the Ergenkon operation. Critics are already sharing their guesses as to who this man could be who ordered countless brutal attacks and assassinations that have ruined families and damaged Turkey’s stability

Although dozens of arrests have been made in the recent investigations into a crime network accused of involvement in plans for a violent uprising against the government, including General Veli Kücük who seems to be the leader of the network, nobody is convinced that the actual boss of the neo-nationalist group is currently in the hands of the police.

Turkish Daily News Thur Jan 31

Two university students have been sentenced to 15 months in prison for “insulting Atatürk’s spiritual being” after hanging posters advertising the play “vagina Monologues” on a bust of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Anatolia Craft and Industrial high school. The students, Burak A., 21, and Ender Ü., 23 said: “We were drunk. We tore and threw the poster and it flew away and attached itself on Atatürk’s bust.”

Turkish Daily News Fri Jan 25


In the last five years an increasing number of Greeks are choosing Turkey as a place to work and live. While a few decades ago this would seem strange, now thanks to a warming of Greek-Turkish ties and the geographical proximity, being a Greek living in Turkey makes sense.

Turkish Daily News Tue 29 Jan


… the archbishop remained on the warpath for other perceived threats to Greece’s religious and national identity, including globalization, European Union edicts and Turkey’s candidacy to join the EU. “the barbarians cannot join the family of Christians because we cannot live together,” Christodoulos said of Turkey in a 2003 sermon.

The Walls of Constantinople

February 1, 2008

29th May 2007 in São Paulo, Brazil. I’m listening to Radio Cultura when the daily “On This Day” feature is broadcast. Although the state sponsored radio station is completely secular, this announcer seems to have a strong Catholic background. His voice sounds mournful: “On this day in 1453 Constantinople, the greatest city in the world of the time, was lost for Christianity, never to be regained…”. Just over a month later I come to Istanbul to investigate exactly where this happened and to walk along the land walls, the Theodosian Walls, constructed during the reign of Theodosius II, in the first half of the fifth century, and which go right from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, thus sealing off Istanbul completely. Along much of their length they have been reconstructed using modern building materials, thus arousing the wrath of many conservationists, but they do give you an idea of what they originally looked like, and, along many parts they have been cleaned up, no longer serving as shelter to vagrants and the homeless. Indeed, I failed to find too much detritus along the walls: beer cans – there are not too many pubs and bars in the conservative Islamic areas through which the wall passes; but no johnnies, and certainly no used syringes. And the dead horse that had been dumped in the moat when I last passed some five years ago seemed to have been taken away.

John Freely, in Strolling through Istanbul describes the walls: The main element in the defense system was the inner wall, which was about five metres thick at the base and rose to a height of 12 metres above the city. This wall was guarded by 96 towers, 18 to 20 metres high, at an average interval of 55 metres; these were mostly square but some were polygonal. Each tower is generally divided into two floors which do not communicate with each other. The lower stories were used for storage or for guardhouses; the upper rooms were entered from the parapet walk, which communicated by staircases with the ground and with the tops of the towers, where were placed engines for hurling missiles and Greek fire at the enemy. Between the inner and outer walls there was a terrace called the peribolos, which varied from 15 to 20 metres breadth, and whose level was about five metres above that of the inner city. The outer wall, which was about two metres thick and 8.5 metres in height, also had 96 towers, alternating in position with those of the inner wall; in general these were either square or crescent-shaped in turn. Beyond this there was an outer terrace called the parateichion, bounded on the outside by the counter-scarp of the moat which was a battlement nearly two metres high. The moat itself was originally about 10 metres deep and 20 metres wide, and may have been flooded whenever the city was threatened (p.368). Seemingly impregnable…

I start at the Yedikule, the Seven Tower Castle, partly Byzantine and partly Turkish, a kind of Tower of London without the tourist glitz and Beefeaters, and indeed, on this hot summer’s day I am the only tourist here, and the tower is being dismantled from a recent rock gig. But it was used for much the same purposes as was the Tower of London. The towers were used as storage rooms for the state treasures or as dungeons. Many were executed here, including Sultan Osman, on 22 May 1622, aged 17. Evliya Çelebi gives this account of his execution: “They carried him in a cart to Yedikule where he was barbarously treated and at last most cruelly put to death by Pehlivan (the Wrestler). Whilst his body was exposed upon a mat, Kafir Aga cut off his right ear and a Janissary one of his fingers for the sake of a ring on it” (in Freely p.373).

Between the two main towers is the Golden Gate, used as a ceremonial entrance after Byzantine victories, especially after Constantinople was recaptured from the Latins in 1261.

I walk through some of the working-class Istanbul districts, quiet in the hot sun. A few stares and “What is your name?”s. Municipal service depots, mechanics, a few metalwork bucket shops and whole sections of the moat now growing vegetables. I stop for water near the Ibrahim Pasha Mosque, a small mosque designed by the most famous of all the architects, Sinan, responsible for the Blue, Fatih and Süleyman Mosques, which give Istanbul its characteristic skyline. The caretaker shows me around the octagonal mosque and the room where pre-school children have been colouring pictures. He gives me one. I tip him of course.

At Edirnekapi, or Edirne Gate, in the section of the walls formerly known as the Mesoteichion, I see the where the walls were finally breached by the Turks on 29 May 1453. This was always the most vulnerable part of the walls, as the attackers on the outside were higher than the defenders, thus having a considerable natural advantage. The charge was led by a giant Janissary called Hasan, who fought his way up onto one of the towers of the outer wall. He was slain but his companions forced their way into the city, and within hours Constantinople was lost, and Sultan Mehmet II, Mehmet the Conqueror, made his triumphal entry into the city. Evliya Çelebi, one of whose ancestors was present, describes this moment: “The Sultan then having the pontificial turban on his head and sky-blue boots on his feet, mounted on a mule and bearing the sword of Mohammed in his hand, marched in at the head of seventy or eighty thousand Moslem heroes, crying out ‘Halt not conquerors! God be praised! Ye are the conquerors of Constantinople!’”