Sunday, March 14, 2010

Istanbul - the place to go

The Other Second City
The Common Review, (Chicago) Winter 2010

Ian Williams

For more than a century, fervent Greek nationalists
have had the “Great Idea.” This entails the recon-
quering of “Constantinople,” a city that reigned
as the capital of the Greek-speaking world for more
than a millennium. On a recent visit to that city, now
called Istanbul, I had what I thought was a fairly great
idea as well. Istanbul is missing its vocation as a center
for pilgrimage. To put it another way, the place could
be reaping a windfall, a gigantic revenue stream from
religious tourism.
This is a lost opportunity and a crying shame. With its
potential attraction to both Christians and Muslims, the
old city would make Rome look like a measly one-ring
circus. Istanbul could bill itself as “The Other Second
City.” It could be not just the second Rome but also the
second Mecca—with the benefits of drinks served on the
side for the infidel and the indifferently faithful.

Istanbul is one of the rare cities that
provides as breathtaking a view
from the inside as from without.
From the vantage point of the seven
hills claimed in emulation of Rome,
you can see all the way down to the
Golden Horn, the Bosporus, and
the Sea of Marmora, and from the
water and opposite shores you can
look up to revel in the sight of the
mosques, ex-churches, and pavil-
ions of Topkapi Palace crowning the
heights of the city that was, without
question, the greatest in the world
for at least a thousand years. From
the sea, the massive wall and towers
that the emperor Theodosius built
sixteen hundred years ago still frame
the magnificent view.
For connoisseurs of urban his-
tory, the city is a rich palimpsest:
successive architectural and reli-
gious scripts have been written
over earlier versions. Unlike many
cities in the Middle East, this one
has avoided invasion. But for most
nonreligious structures, wood was
the material of choice, and fires as
a result have reshaped and renewed
the city over the centuries, with
fatalistic rebuilding on the founda-
tions each time a structure burns
down. The churches, mosques—and,
I should add, bathhouses—have
been built of stonier stuff. And they
have lasted.
Following World War I, Kemal
Ataturk’s republican government
showed itself blind not only to the
city’s aesthetic grandeur but also to
its sacred history. Ataturk washed
Istanbul’s Byzantine-Ottoman
ambience right out of his hair and
moved the republic’s capital to the
up-country backwater of Ankara.
There, one of the major monuments
is, fittingly, a column erected for the
emperor Julian the Apostate, the last
non-Christian Roman ruler.
Ataturk and his party were no
friends of Islam. After all, they had
just deposed the caliph himself and
abolished the ancient office. They
also banned the veil and the fez as
symbols of backwardness. They had
no sentimental attachment to the
Ottoman era, which was, after all,
dangerously cosmopolitan, encom-
passing far too many nationalities to
be truly “Turkish.” Indeed, the Otto-
man urge to miscegenation was such
that by the end of the dynasty, any
Turkish genes in the sultan’s family
had been diluted to homeopathically
minute proportions.
taturk and his minions were
mistrustful of the Greeks
as well, not so much on religious
grounds but because of that vocifer-
ous Greek nationalist attachment to
the “Great Idea” and an insistence
on calling the city Constantinople.
Ironically for both sides, far from
being a Turkish nationalist renam-
ing of Constantinople, as both
Greek and Turkish nationalists
saw it, the name “Istanbul” is itself
Greek—from ‘stam Polis’ (“to the
City”). The name is symbolic of the
place’s syncretic nature. Even when
it was a mosque, the Hagia Sophia
kept its name, which means “Holy
While in the West the eccentric
Irish monks kept Greek and Latin
alive during the medieval period,
the Romans in the East were equally
alive and well, speaking and writing
Greek and preserving much of what
was, after all, their own classical
heritage. We should note that today
in the West those eccentric Irish
monks are celebrated. The Romans
in Istanbul, on the other hand, for
their comparable achievement have
traditionally been regarded as devi-
ous, decadent, and decayed.
s reactions to Muslims across
the West, and against the pros-
pect of Turkish membership in the
European Union, show, it is not
as if the West has been prejudiced
in favor of the Byzantines. It’s just
that we hated the Turks more. The
very word “Byzantine” is a Renais-
sance West European attempt to
obscure the direct imperial Roman
succession from Constantine I to
Constantine XI, who died on the
battlements as the city fell to the
Muslim soldier and ruler Mehmet
Fatih, “the Conqueror.”
Despite the bad press about the
cruel and lustful Turk, compared
with the Christian powers of the
West, the Ottomans beginning with
Fatih were a tolerant, multicultural,
and meritocratic culture. Christians
and Jews as well as Muslims flour-
ished and held the highest offices
of the state. Of course, there was a
downside, but I’m really not inclined
to weigh the relative merits of Otto-
man impalement against Christian
breaking on the wheel or hanging,
drawing, and quartering, not to
mention burning at the stake.
The “Byzantines” of Constantino-
ple became partners of the sultan in
running the empire. “Greek” sailors
dominated the commerce, the navy,
and the officially sanctioned piracy
carried on by the empire. Indeed,
under the Ottomans, the Phanariot
Greeks of Constantinople had a
larger territorial sway than in the
last centuries of the empire, reduced
as it was to a few enclaves around
the eastern Mediterranean.
After Ataturk demoted it from
imperial capital to provincial town-
ship, Istanbul went into economic
decline. The Greek population
eroded as well, and most of those
remaining were driven out in a
politically inspired pogrom in the
1950s—not because they were Chris-
tians but because they were Greeks.
Nevertheless, a small remnant
survived. They still call themselves
Romans, “Rumi.”

Chief among the remaining
Romans is His All Holiness,
Bartholomew, archbishop of
Constantinople, New Rome, and
Ecumenical Patriarch, who in the
eyes of the Orthodox is, if not
infallible, first among equals and
certainly merits a twenty-one mass
salute or whatever the equivalent for
princes of churches is, along with the
pope. However, Ataturk’s secularist
and nationalist successors deny the
patriarch’s global manifestation and
regard him as merely the head of the
church in Turkey. They insist that
the patriarch be a Turkish citizen,
but they closed down the only semi-
nary that trained priests in Turkey.
Hidden in a corner in the Phanariot
district, poor Bartholomew cannot
assemble the pilgrims the way the
pope can in Saint Peter’s Square.
This is unenlightened policy and just
plain bad for business.
Ataturk’s followers have been
equally ambivalent about the glo-
ries of the sultans’ Topkapi Palace.
Millions are attracted to London to
go to Buckingham Palace, which
has all the architectural merit of a
public housing project and which is
almost as recent as one, only to see
the changing of the guard. Topkapi
oozes beauty and faith and a history
going back half a millennium.
Above all it is a reminder of a
time when Istanbul was to Islam
what Rome is to Catholicism. It is
testimony that the city still hosts
the head of Orthodoxy. The great
religions may have had their hearts
in Mecca and Jerusalem, but their
heads were in Istanbul and Rome.
Istanbul combines both. It is the
original ecumenical pilgrimage
place, offering you patriarchate
and caliphate in one, churches and
mosques to die for, and relics galore.
For example, “the beard of the
Prophet” is more than just a ste-
reotypical Orientalist invocation.
In Topkapi Palace, the sultans,
doubling up as caliphs, amassed
the Amanat—“the Sacred Trusts.”
Still on display is a collection of the
Prophet’s facial hairs, head hairs,
and even the fragment of one of his
teeth. This is the sort of thing that
the devout are willing to pay to see.
But not enough people know about
it. All it lacks is a strong marketing
campaign with the appropriate state
sponsorship to give the Vatican a run
for the tourist purse.
There are allegedly sixty hairs of
the Prophet’s beard in the collection,
although only one is on display. That
number may seem excessive, if not
so much as Voltaire’s suggestion of
building a fleet with wood from the
Cross and floating it on the Virgin’s
milk, but the ancient accounts report
Muhammad giving away his beard
and hair clippings in his latter days,
which would surely have been cher-
ished by his followers.
Indeed, in contrast, some of the
more dubious relics in the Topkapi
were inherited from the Christians,
such as the skull fragment, arm, and
hand of St. John the Baptist. The
provenance of Moses’s staff, Joseph’s
turban, and Abraham’s cooking pot,
not to mention King David’s sword,
all seem to lack the chain of evidence
of the more directly Islamic relics
such as the hairs and the Prophet’s
“honored standard” that the caliphs
used to rally the faithful in arms.
Despite my instinctive skepticism, I
suspect that the relics of the Prophet
himself actually have more cred-
ibility than the glorified gewgaws
of much of the Christian tradition.
Islam has a political continuity and
places strong emphasis on continuity
of the chain of witnesses. The relics
of the Prophet had been collected in
the palace when the Ottomans were
caliphs, inheritors of a direct politi-
cal tradition. In fact, some of these
relics were brought to Istanbul from
Mecca to protect them from the
Wahabi upsurge, with its disdain for
tombs, relics, and such quasi-idola-
trous habits of Turkic Muslims.
big question debated in the
literature is whether the hair
is natural or dyed. The Prophet, by
tradition, had red hair and beard,
and when I first visited the palace
many years ago, so did I. On my
visit this spring, researching for a
book project, I took a closer look at
the subject.
Because the hair was seques-
trated in a reliquary and behind an
armored case protected by an alarm
system, empirical examination was
limited. However, many traditions
describe the Prophet as a redhead,
joining such distinguished company
as myself, the Norse god Thor, and
Judas Iscariot. However, Muham-
mad was forty when he came into
his prophetic prime. Sadly, by the
time I returned to squint at the
relics, I would have had to dye my
beard to return it to the Barbaros-
san hue it had on my first visit—so
I suspect that the two traditions are
not incompatible. The Prophet was a
natural redhead who wanted to pre-
serve appearances with his (much)
younger spouses in mind.
Although there is now a sheikh
reciting the Koran continuously
in the pavilion, which I do not
remember from before, the relics are
displayed as museum pieces, aids to
study rather than agents of sanctity,
and most of the foreigners arriving
seem to be in search of secular his-
tory. They spend as much if not
more of their time gawking at the
sundry bejeweled tchotchkes of the
sultans as they do at the relics. They
show the same lack of reverence as
the echoing tour parties trotting
at the double through the Hagia
Sophia, which has been for decades
in a dusty state of perpetual repair
and renewal: more scaffolding than
In fact, to get the feel of a genuine
Byzantine church, one has to go to
a working mosque, and one of the
relatively unknown treasures hiding
near the waterfront is the Küçük
Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia,
the former church of SS. Sergius and
Bacchus. Its dome was a forerunner
and template for the big one. It gives
a better impression of the original
church than its larger descendant.
Its marble walls survived, and
around its interior frieze the original
Greek inscription to the emperor
Justinian and empress Theodora
survives intact after fifteen hundred
years. Of course, it helps that it is off
the beaten tourist track—it is right
next to the railway track on which
the Orient Express rattled by for
a century or more—but its seren-
ity and dignity is far more likely to
evoke Yeats’s Byzantium than its
quasi-fossilized successor further up
the hill.
The Islamist Justice and Develop-
ment Party (AKP) is pushing the
boundaries of secularism all the
time and may be amenable to high-
lighting the Amanat aspect of the
Istanbul and Topkapi experience, not
least with the mosques all around.
Lending some of the many hairs of
the prophet to these magnificent
mosques would be a good first
step toward ratcheting up religious
Ironically, some of the Rumi
suspect that the AKP may be more
amenable to their plight than the
secularists and that the role of the
patriarch could be enhanced. So the
vision of Christian pilgrims coming
from all points of the compass may
not be that farfetched. But would it
be any fun coming to an Islamist-
controlled capital?
In fact, the AKP has run the city
for some time. It is true that twenty
years ago, there were far fewer head-
scarves on the women. In those days,
however, as soon as it grew dark, one
noticed a sudden disappearance of
unaccompanied women in the city
center. But that was a Mediterranean
thing as much as Muslim custom.
Now, although the volume of the
electronic call to prayer from the
minarets has clearly been incremen-
tally enhanced, the sudden twilight
disappearance of womankind is
much less apparent.
Secularly dressed women mingle
easily with those in headscarves,
sometimes in the same family group.
But these are not Wahabi women
kept in purdah. They walk to the
mosque hand in hand with their
husbands. Their garb is colorful,
slinky, and often brazenly figure hug-
ging. These are women who frequent
lingerie stores with fashions that
make Victoria’s Secret seem a model
of restraint. Islamist-owned stores
and restaurants do not sell alcohol,
but there seems to be no pressure on
those that do, as many drafts of Efes
beer and raki, in my experience, can
Istanbul is ready to step up to its
destiny. The vision is clear; all that is
needed is the implementation. This
city could be the crossroads between
Islam and the West. The history
of the caliphate, the Islamic relics
and the Ecumenical Patriarch, the
churches and mosques, if given the
chance, could begin to pull in the
pious punters from across the globe.
It may seem odd for a secular-
ist like myself to advocate it, but
many people who could not sprint
across the road to save their lives
have waved their pom-poms for the
economic benefits of staging the
Olympics. More seriously, though,
it must surely be a good stereotype
buster to remind people of the
centuries of coexistence of Christi-
anity and Islam in Istanbul during a
period when the Inquisition burnt
brightly in the West.

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