Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, pages 38-40
Istanbul: A Great European City
By Ian Williams
AFTER HALF a millennium of Crusader-style propaganda, Westerners all know that Turks eat babies. But in fact, walking the streets of Istanbul with a six-month-old baby is a revelation: adult males—as much as, if not more than women—could not resist coming up to stroke the baby’s hand and chin.
The city defies expectations and stereotypes and now looks like the cosmopolitan world capital it was for so many centuries. It is an organic growth of ultra-modern high rises rising from a seedbed of traditional wooden houses, sadly being reduced to mulch by time and gentrification. Apart from the great monuments, the Roman walls, the mosques and churches, it is sad that so little of the ancient city survives, but that is because the all-too-flammable wood that has been the favored building material for millennia has led to urban renewal by conflagration.
Old Ottoman wooden houses crumbling on the backstreets are eloquent testimony to the relative fragility and evanescence of the city’s fabric over the centuries. A lamp overturned could do as much damage as barbarian invasion, and even Ottoman palaces went up in flames.
My favorite part of Istanbul is Sultanahmet, which clusters on the hills near the Topkapi Palace. A few decades ago, Sultanahmet was a louche quarter of gangsters and smugglers. They have moved on, but it still maintains a definite charm.
The narrow, steep and winding cobbled streets allegedly follow the Ottoman strictures: they were to be no wider than three horsemen could ride abreast. In many of them, their stirrups would have tangled with each other, and in any case the Sipahis—members of the Ottoman Empire’s elite mounted cavalry force—would have crashed their helmets on the overhanging medieval-style upper storeys.
Nevertheless, such restrictions do not prevent cars from trying to squeeze past pedestrians up the steep slopes and around the hairpin bends.
In keeping with their multi-faceted exterior walls, the roofs of Sultanahmet are a Harry Potter fantasy of tumbled tiles and random angles and equally random chimneys poking out, enhanced by rooftop flower pots and the new talismans of satellite dishes. Concrete in bright hues of yellow and pink escapes the Third World ubiquity of turquoise blue, and is interspersed with wooden and corrugated iron additions and extensions.
Two views of Küçük Ayasofya (Photo I. Williams).
The area is undergoing serious gentrification, but only in a few favored cases does that involve repairing and repainting the topsy-turvy blackened wood structures. Rebuilding is done mostly in concrete, often with the same eccentrically shaped exteriors, and from a quick view of construction techniques they are unlikely to be much more durable than the rickety, and sometimes deserted, wooden houses alongside.
Perhaps the best indication of Turkey’s accretive civilization is the incredible archaeological excavations taking place in Yenikapi, just south of Sultanahmet. To set the contrast, I once stood in the Beersheba museum, in a confiscated mosque, perusing the Israeli Department of Antiquities time chart—in which the mosque did not exist, since history stopped in 660 and resumed in 1900.
When, during the digging for a new underground railway tunnel, Turkish archaeologists discovered the silted-up remains of a Byzantine harbor with the preserved remains of 9th and 10th century ships, they did not concrete over the inconvenient reminder. Instead they delayed the hugely expensive project while they excavated and rescued the relics. Indeed they went digging even further, and took the origins of the city back to Neolithic times.
The archaeologists assured me that there was no popular upsurge against the display, rather pride in this reinforcement of the antiquity of their city.
One of the joys of Istanbul is stumbling across ancient churches and mosques nestled among the houses, quite apart from the better-known and huger monuments such as Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Sultan Ahmet mosque that gives the district its name. One of the relatively unknown treasures hiding near the waterfront is the Küçük Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia, since it was a template for the big one when it was built.
The original late Roman Arches can be seen in the dome, and the adapted Arab style on the outside wall. In the foreground are the chimneys for the kitchens to feed pilgrims and travellers.
Ironically, as an immaculately maintained and cleaned working mosque, in some ways it gives a better impression of the original church than its larger descendant, whose shabbiness, reconstruction work, dust and thronging tourists demand an effort of the imagination to conjure up its original effect. Its marble walls survived intact, while around its interior walls the Greek inscription to the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora also remains intact after 1,500 years.
Indeed, shocking to more conservative Muslims, the Ottomans surrounded their holy places with graves and tombstones, emulating the Christian tradition. Indeed, one great Christian practice they adopted enthusiastically was collecting relics. The Amanat in the Topkapi Palace preserves relics of the Prophet and others. There may be some room for doubt about the rod with which Moses struck the rock, for example, but with a continuity of tradition and polity from the Prophet’s days, the hair from his head and beard, the fragment of his tooth and the original standard lends them serious credibility.
To fundamentalists, however, their provenance would not diminish their idolatrous nature—indeed, some emissaries were sent from Mecca specifically to protect them from iconoclasm. Fortunately, as the ruling AKP in Turkey is demonstrating, Turkish Islam covers a wide spectrum, and is self-reliant enough to eschew the excesses of more austere fundamentalists.
To some extent, it has little option. After the Ottomans, Kemal Ataturk constructed a Turkish identity that was not confessional, unlike many others in the region. That secularist identity—which can be fairly fundamentalist itself—has its drawbacks, one of which has certainly been the restrictions placed on the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and the seminary that used to supply candidates.
Those restrictions exist not because he is Christian, but rather because he is seen as “Greek” Orthodox, and has indeed been taken to court for claiming the title of ecumenical. It is a very shortsighted stance, which not only raises human rights issues for EU accession, but also deprives the city of prestige and tourism and pilgrimage dollars. As the sultans realized, it is better to have such a potent title to hand than drive it into exile!
History is always seen through the prism of the present, or the more recent past. The Cold War/Clash of Civilizations view places like Istanbul as a front line between Islam and Christianity, or more recently between Islam and Judeo-Christianity. The West looks at the Sufi-inspired Islam of the Turks and Balkans through a lens ground from the sand of the Saudi desert.
In reality, of course, these are crossroads and meeting places rather than battlegrounds. Istanbul is often regarded as a Turkish nationalist name imposed to erase the Greek past inherent in Constantinople, when in reality it is the Greek words “to the city,” the polis, that was its basis, while Constantine is a Latin name.
To confuse the simplicities of retrospective nationalism even more, the “Greeks” of the Byzantine Empire never called themselves either Byzantine or Greek. They were Romans. It was Westerners trying to assert the legitimacy of the Holy Roman Empire in the face of it being, as Voltaire quipped, neither Roman nor Holy who foisted these names on the citizens.
And right up to the end of the Sultanate, the Phanariots, the Greeks of Istanbul, were a considerable proportion of the cosmopolitan population of the Ottoman capital—and indeed crewed the navy and filled the bureaucracy.
Although, sadly, most of the Phanariots were driven out in the 1950s, some still remain, along with Armenians, Bosnians and Uzbeks and other peoples from along the Silk Road.
Turkish Islam is distinct from its more southerly forms. Sunday is the day off in Turkey and the environs of the Eyup mosque, allegedly the burial place of the Prophet’s standard-bearer, as revealed in a dream to a sultan, swarmed with the visibly pious, men in skull caps and women in chadors pinned across their face coming to pray. But the men and their wives walked hand in hand, and on less solemn occasions fundamentalist feminine fashion includes colorful figure-hugging silk attire, with chic headscarves surrounding immaculate maquillage.
However, as the more pious immigrants from the Anatolian hinterland move into the city, the headscarves are certainly more widespread, even if they coexist with miniskirts and tight blouses from the more secular. Another audible testimony to growing Islamic power is the decibels from the minarets, which are distinctly louder than they used to be. I am inclined to be fundamentalist on this issue. I think the muezzen should climb the minaret and use his lungs to benefit his own soul and body, and delight the ears of sleeping citizens. More secular citizens also complained that beer and raki were disappearing from supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, but that was the whim of the proprietors, not a legal edict.
This mixture of Islam and secularism, despite the occasional atavistic whiffs of authoritarianism, made Turkey a sensible place for President Barack Obama’s first major visit abroad, sending discrete but strong signals across the region. The country, as its involvement with Damascus has shown, is a possible partner in winning a Middle East peace process, an essential part of which is to persuade Muslims that the U.S. is not irredeemably Islamophobic—or, for that matter, irredeemably Israelophilic. It was well worth his blocking our access to the Blue Mosque on his visit.
One cannot help but suspect that Obama’s immediate predecessors would not have made a walk around the mosque and a trip to a Muslim country their first priority, especially if they had been accused of being a crypto-Muslim, and if their host had publicly dressed down Israeli President Shimon Perez on global TV.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of course, gained immense popularity across the Muslim world, and indeed much further, for his sermon to the Israeli leader at Davos, when so many others prevaricated on or supported Israel’s attack on Gaza. Interestingly, the tidal wave of obloquy that would normally have deluged over him was muted—and then almost silenced. The Turkish armed forces are Israel’s only ally in the area.
The generals may have their own disagreements with Erdogan, but let their Israeli counterparts know that they would be unhappy with foreigners calumniating a Turkish leader. Hence the rapid silence which overcame the initial vociferous pro-Israel indignation. Even Obama benefited from the amnesty!
One lesson is clear: successful conduct of foreign policy comes by talking to foreigners, not listening to domestic lobbies. The other is that Turkey should be in the European Union. There are legitimate hurdles on minority issues—but the Muslim majority population should not be a bar to membership. Istanbul is one of the great European cities and should take its place with London, Paris, Madrid and Berlin.