Troy and Gallipoli

Wikipedia.

The Hellespont, also known as the Dardanelles, leads from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and thence, through the Bosporus, to the Black Sea. These Turkish Straits are the only maritime route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Our notions of geography lead us to designate one side of this route as as “European” and the other as “Asian,” but of course, since both sides are nowadays ruled by Turkey, there is culturally nothing distinguishing one side from the other. The passages themselves remain of vital strategic interest. Maritime transit through them is governed by the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (1936), which gives Turkey ultimate control but guarantees free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. Warships are another matter, and post-WWII Soviet obstreperousness on the issue was one of the reasons why Turkey joined NATO in 1952. (With Turkey threatening to leave this alliance, will the Russians finally realize their dream of controlling the route?)

Google maps.

The shortest distance across the Hellespont appears to be from the vibrant city of Çanakkale on the Asian side to a small town called Kilitbahir on the European.

Kilitbahir from Çanakkale harbor.

I had fun imagining that this is where Xerxes built his pontoon bridge (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7), although it was probably built elsewhere, and regular ferry service now obviates the need for such an expedience.

In the late Bronze Age, of course, entrance to the Hellespont was guarded by the city of Troy, on the Asian side (the “Troad”). One iteration of Troy was besieged and ultimately destroyed by Mycenaean Greeks around 1250 BC, although the city was soon rebuilt. The story of this Trojan War is one of the great themes of Western literature, and Troy itself became one of the great sites of nineteenth-century archaeology.

Walls of Troy VII (late Bronze Age). Troy VII is commonly seen as the Troy of the Trojan War, so Homer would have attributed these walls to Poseidon and Apollo.

I enjoyed walking around the site, which was more extensive than I was expecting, although it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. Troy kept getting destroyed and rebuilt from the early Bronze Age until the Byzantine era, when any status it had as the guardian of the Straits was superseded by Constantinople (and enervated by a retreating coastline). This means that there are any number of layers to the site, but they are all mixed together – or at least that is how they now appear after a century and a half of archaeology, and you really have to use your imagination to perceive how each successive settlement may have appeared in its day. But I would say this activity is preferable to getting your photo taken at the reconstructed Trojan Horse near the entrance.

As a friend said, “You’d think the stairway would have tipped them off.”

Actual artifacts from the site (i.e., what Schliemann allowed the Turks to keep) are on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (You’ll have to go to Moscow to see the rest of this horde.)

On the other side of the Hellespont is the Gallipoli Peninsula, a name that has become synonymous with a military campaign that took place there over three thousand years later. During the First World War, the Ottomans had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Britain, and Russia. Britain (specifically, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty) thought it would be a good idea to land troops at Gallipoli, march on Constantinople, and secure the Bosphorus for Russia. We’re used to thinking of the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe, but they were competent enough in 1915 to repel the allies’ naval attack, and pin their troops on the beach for ten months, despite repeated attempts at breaking through. The whole thing has gone down as another futile campaign in a futile war.

Diorama, Gallipoli Battle Museum, Eceabat.

However, even the futility has become meaningful. The sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand (“Anzac”) troops at Gallipoli are solemnly commemorated in those countries every April 25, the day when Anzac troops first landed. The location of the battle, and its ineffective progress, have also drawn specific comparisons to the Iliad, the chief literary representation of the Trojan War, which does not dwell on the ultimate Greek victory but the endless and apparently pointless killing that had to transpire first. The ostensible reenactment of this at Gallipoli “served as a military origin myth” for Australia, and could “contextualize the nation and its people within the continuous mythical and historical narrative of Western Civilization.”

Ari Burnu Cemetery, Anzac Cove, Eceabat.

The Coptic Church

Coptic Cross, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Some background: the Fourth Ecumenical Council was held at Chalcedon, now a part of the Kadıköy district of Istanbul, in AD 451. It is famous for ruling that Jesus had two natures – he was both fully God and fully man – against a contrary position that held that Jesus had one nature, in which the divine and the human were inseparably united. Detractors called this position “monophysitism,” while its adherents preferred “miaphysitism.” Chalcedon led to a schism that has never been completely healed. Of the five great Christian patriarchates of the time (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome), Alexandria and Antioch refused to accept the judgment of the Council, and retained a belief in miaphysitism. These patriarchates are now designated the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, respectively, and along with the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Malankaran (Indian) Orthodox Churches, comprise a group known as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches, all of which reject the view that Jesus, while on Earth, had separate natures.*

(Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, recognizes the Council of Chalcedon, and comprises a somewhat larger communion. Although most Christians under the rule of the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Antioch became members of the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches, there are Chalcedonian (“Greek”) Orthodox patriarchates for these cities too, and there remain Chalcedonian patriarchates for Jerusalem and Constantinople – four of the original five members of the pentarchy. These are all liturgically Greek, and together with the actual Church of Greece comprise Greek Orthodoxy. These churches are in communion with other “autocephalous” Eastern Orthodox churches, including churches for Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. One must also keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church has actively missionized to the Orthodox, whether Eastern or Oriental, and so there is now Armenian Catholic Church, a Syriac Catholic Church, a Coptic Catholic Church, a Greek Catholic Church, and so on – collectively these are the Eastern Catholic Churches.**)

Door, Coptic Cairo.

Approximately ten percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, the vast majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox. (According to Wikipedia, the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt number about twelve million souls, with the Greek Orthodox in second place at 300,000, and the Coptic Catholics in third at 200,000). Probably the best place to explore Christian Cairo is around the Mar Girgis (“St. George”) metro station, where one can find numerous Christian monasteries, cemeteries, and churches. The largest and most obvious is actually Greek Orthodox, but the rest are Coptic, and quite historic. 

Pulpit and screen, Church of St. Barbara, Old Cairo.

Nave, Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (the “Hanging Church”), Old Cairo.

Nave, St. Sergius and St. Bacchus Church (“Abu Serga”), Old Cairo.

As you can see, in Coptic churches the sanctuary is closed off from the nave by a screen, which in these three cases consists of intricately carved and inlaid woodwork. Other features include a marble pulpit on the left side of the nave, pillars (often different in style from each other, representing the different apostles, according to my guide), and a wooden ceiling representing Noah’s Ark. Abu Serga Church takes great pride in its status as place of refuge for Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus from the persecution of Herod the Great in Judaea. The church has numerous icons of the Flight into Egypt, and in the crypt, one finds a well from which they drank.

Actually, Abu Serga is not the only place they stayed. Tradition holds that the Holy Family did a grand tour of Egypt during their sojourn there, bestowing bragging rights on many places.

Around the walls of the nave in the average Coptic church, one tends to find banks of icons, sometimes with glass cases beneath them, containing cloth “rolls” which, I was told, hold relics. One can deposit petitions or offerings in the glass case. This set of icons can be seen in St. Shenouda’s Church, slightly to the north of the three mentioned above.

Icons, St. Shenouda Church, Old Cairo.

And these two are in the nearby Antique Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as “El Damshiria.” Note all the petitions to the saint on the right.

Icons, Church of El Damshiria, Old Cairo.

Some of the more popular saints include:

Saint Menas, the fourth-century soldier, ascetic, and martyr, usually shown between the two camels that brought his body back to Egypt from Phrygia.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a pair of Roman soldiers executed in Syria under Emperor Galerius.

Saint Anthony the Great, founder of Egyptian monasticism, and Saint Paul of Thebes, also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit.

Saint Mercurius, a third-century soldier and martyr under Emperor Decius. The image of him riding a horse and brandishing two swords over his head (and spearing a prostate man with a lance) is very common and represents a posthumous miracle. During the reign of the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-63), Saint Basil prayed before an icon of Saint Mercurius and asked him not to let Julian return from his campaign against the Persians. The image then disappeared, only to reappear later with a bloodied spear. Soon afterwards, news arrived of the death of Julian, killed in battle by an unknown soldier.

Saint George. Note the appearance of the miniature pitcher-bearer riding with him.

Veneration continues for more recent deaths: the image of Mother Irini (1936-2006), visionary, miracle-worker, and abbess of the Abu Sefein Convent in Old Cairo, was common….

… and votaries pray at her shrine at Abu Sefein.

Sister Theophania of St. George’s convent also gave me a little book on the life of Father Yostos (1910-76), a monk at the monastery of St. Anthony and a miracle-worker.

In Old Cairo one may also visit the newly-restored Coptic Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from Coptic history. My thanks to my guide Yasir Magdi for showing me around.

Beyond Old Cairo, one can find Coptic Churches here and there throughout the city. The most important is St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District, which took me a while to find. It is also, as you can see, under restoration.

Although the Coptic Orthodox Church is officially the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, where St. Mark reputedly founded it, the seat of the patriarch has been in Cairo since the eleventh century, and in this church building from 1968. Since 2012, when Shenouda III died, the office has been held by Tawadros II, whose name was selected from a shortlist of three candidates by a blindfolded boy, believed to be guided by the hand of God. The Coptic patriarch uses the title “Pope,” the only other one besides the Bishop of Rome to do so.

The word “Copt” derives ultimately from the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning “Egypt,” and Copts are quite proud of their status as the descendants of the ancient Egyptians. St. Mark’s efforts in Alexandria won a great number of converts who were native Egyptians (i.e. neither Greek nor Jewish, as were most of the original Christians), and the Coptic language is a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian of the Roman Era. (You can see examples of its script in some of the photos above – it is essentially the Greek alphabet, with seven extra characters.) Alas, it is purely a liturgical language nowadays – most Copts speak (and worship in) the same Arabic language as their neighbors. If anything sets them apart, it is a discreet tattoo that many of them will get on their inner wrists, as a memento of their faith. I must record that all the Egyptian Muslims I spoke with insisted that the Copts were their brothers and fellow Egyptians – although the level of security around Coptic churches (a necessary precaution following some recent unfortunate incidents) would suggest that not everyone shares this opinion. 

* Voltaire: “Assuredly, I understand nothing of this; no one has ever understood any of it, and that is why we have slaughtered one another.” Actually, I think that other concerns usually hang on such abstruse questions. In the case of Chalcedon, I would not be surprised if the much older Patriarchate of Alexandria resented the growing influence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

** There is also the Church of the East, the result of the earlier Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431, which condemned Nestorius, who had emphasized the distinction between Jesus’ human and divine natures. Those Christians living in the Persian Empire refused to accept this condemnation, and were consequently known as Nestorian Christians. The Assyrian Church of the East continues this theological tradition

Postscript: Prior to this trip, it never occurred to me where Antioch is currently located. It is in Turkey, specifically in Hatay Province, and is known as Antakya. Hatay Province is the little bit of Turkey that sticks down along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Google maps.

Hatay was at one point controversial – and in some ways still is. As a result of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) the area, designated the “Sanjak of Alexandretta,” was assigned to the French Mandate of Syria. It contained a significant Turkish population, however, which inspired (and probably directed) by Atatürk, started instituting reforms similar to his, and agitating for closer ties to Turkey. Upon the expiration of the French Mandate in 1935, these Turks managed to elect two “independentist” MPs for Alexandretta, who succeeded in getting the French to endorse its independence as the State of Hatay (Atatürk’s name for the place, after the word for “Hittite”). So from September 1938 until June 1939, Hatay was an independent country, with its own flag, looking suspiciously like Turkey’s.

Wikipedia.

A referendum in Hatay approved of Anchluss with Turkey; that Turkey trucked in tens of thousands of its citizens for the vote certainly helped achieve this result. Syria protested, but to no avail – the French were hoping to prevent Turkey from going over to the Germans, as it had in the First World War, and so allowed the merger to go forward. Upon annexation by Turkey many of the Arabs and Armenians of Hatay decamped for Syria, fearful that they would not be welcome in the Turkish ethnostate; certainly the Patriarchates of Antioch, whether Syriac or Greek, are now headquartered in Damascus.

Saint George

The formal reason for my trip to the Middle East was that I wanted to investigate the convergence between the Christian St. George, the subject of my doctoral dissertation, and al-Khidr, a revered Muslim wali usually identified as the righteous guide of Moses in Sura 18 of the Koran. I do have some things to say about this convergence although I am still preparing my thoughts. In the meantime, allow me to share some St. George discoveries.

• Yesterday, a package arrived from Turkey that I had sent to myself. It looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to the box, but the contents were surprisingly undamaged. Among them was a postcard from Cappadocia, and a guidebook for the Göreme Open Air Museum. It seems that in Cappadocia, St. George was frequently twinned with St. Theodore, his fellow warrior saint and equestrian dragon slayer. The way to tell them apart is that St. George rides a white horse, while St. Theodore’s is red.

Postcard: “Cappadocia, Gülşehir, Karşı Church, Hagios Georgios and Hagios Theodoros fighting with the dragon on their horses.”

In the image below George is on the left, and Theodore on the right, but both saints kill the same dragon, which is a nice instance of teamwork. On account of the dragon, the church where the painting appears is named Yılanlı Kilise (“Snake Church”) – although its original dedication was to St. Onuphrius.

From Murat E. Gülyaz, Göreme Open Air Museum (Istanbul: Secil Ofset, n.d.), 49.

A simple and handsome portrait of a single St. George, in the Chapel of St. Basil. I like how his horse gets a halo too.

From Murat E. Gülyaz, Göreme Open Air Museum (Istanbul: Secil Ofset, n.d.), 40.

• I have seen a lot of icons of St. George, but before this trip I had never seen one of St. George, riding his horse, slaying a dragon, watched by the princess… and with a little man riding on his horse with him.

What is going on here? According to a discussion on Monachos.net, it represents a posthumous miracle of St. George:

During their invasion of Paphlagonia the Agarenes (Moslems) took many people into captivity, among them a young boy who was a servant in the church of St. George in Phatris. Some of the prisoners were killed, the rest turned into slaves. The boy was of such beauty that he was chosen as a servant for the Arabian ruler. As he rejected the offer to become a Muslim, he was sent to work in the kitchen. In his misfortune the poor boy prayed to Saint George. Once at evening, when he was lying in bed, he heard a voice coming from the yard and calling his name. The boy opened the door and saw a rider who caught him and placed behind himself on the horse. Then the steed rushed forward and started to gallop. The rider brought the boy to a certain building, and then disappeared. The exhausted youth fell asleep and next morning was awakened by the people, who were dismayed because his Arabian clothes suggested the presence of enemies. The boy recognised those people as monks. As it transpired, he had been brought to Monastery of St. George. All of them went to a church to offer a thanksgiving prayer to God for saving the youth.

Interesting, but I prefer the explanation of Hosam Naoum, Dean of the Anglican Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem, with whom I was privileged to speak. Note that the figure takes the form of a man, not a boy, and note what he is holding. The motif derives from Luke 22, when Jesus tells Peter and John (emphasis added):

Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make readyAnd they went, and found as he had said unto them: and they made ready the passover.

In other words, a man bearing a pitcher will lead the way to the site of a miracle – in the Gospels the Last Supper, in the icons the destruction of evil, represented by the dragon.

• Finally, another novel image for me: St. George seated between his parents, St. Gerontios and St. Polychronia.

You know that a saint is important when he starts to be supplied with relatives – who are themselves saints by association. Their names, respectively meaning “Old Man” and “Woman of Many Years,” suggest that they were later inventions. The fact that his father was from Cappadocia, and his mother from Lydda, may also be seen as an attempt at explaining one of George’s place-designators, and the location of his principal shrine.

More on St. George to come!

Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.

Theater.

Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!

Israel

Israel is one of the world’s great hotspots; perhaps the greatest, now that the Troubles in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat and the Civil War in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s true that violence in Israel has tapered off too, but it seems that everyone has an opinion on Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian Arabs whom they conquered at their founding, and then in the Six-Day War in 1967. These opinions roughly follow a left-right axis, with those on the left favoring Palestinians, and those on the right Israel. I think that this pattern was set during the Cold War: once Israel allied with the United States, and the Arab world the Soviet Union, well, that’s all that most people needed to know about who the good guys and who the bad guys were. That the United States picked Israel, even after such things as the Suez Crisis, the attack on the USS Liberty, or the shenanigans of Jonathan Pollard, is usually seen as a testament to the outsized influence of American Jews, who tend to be visceral partisans of Israel for obvious reasons, combined with the influence of American Evangelicals, who support Israel on account of their dispensationalist theology.

But I think that politics on a left-right scale doesn’t completely explain things. Allow me to share with you my own theory: you can divide the world into two types of people. The first group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want from now on – they’re certainly entitled to their own ethnostate. The second group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so you’d think they’d be careful not to cause other people to suffer too (cf. “You shall not oppress the stranger that is within your gates, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). In other words, we have a conflict between tribalists and universalists. Universalists simply don’t like hypocrisy, and they think that Israelis are hypocrites, having suffered oppression, and then proceeding to dish it out to other people. They believe that even if the Holocaust was “unique,” it still doesn’t justify the Apartheid state the Israelis have constructed. 

Alas, Zionism, of necessity, is tribal. The direct connection between the Shoah and Eretz Yisrael is taught in Israeli schools, and is on full display at Yad Veshem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. The museum there takes the form of a maze that gets tighter and tighter as you proceed through it, emphasizing how there was no escape from Nazi persecution. But as you come to the end you step out onto a terrace that affords a beautiful vista of the valley of Giv’at Beroshim – the idea being that the land of Israel is the answer to the problem of Jewish suffering.* I actually overheard an Israeli tour guide discounting this idea. He said that nowhere else in the world is the Holocaust taught this way, and furthermore the idea does not go over well with the Arabs. He said that President Obama, when he gave a speech in Cairo in 2009, specifically referenced it, and the guide imagined a telephone conversation a half hour afterwards between Obama and Netanyahu, who may have exclaimed: “Are you nuts?! Never say that to Arabs! To them, the Holocaust was a project carried out by European Christians – and it’s now Middle Eastern Muslims who are paying the price for it!” No, said the guide, that the State of Israel was founded after the Holocaust is simply a chronological coincidence. The Jewish settlers in Palestine could have declared their independence in the 1930s, but then the war intervened and prevented it from happening. The Holocaust is why Israel deserves to be strong, and to take its security seriously, but its existence is another matter entirely. The Jews have a right to their own state in the Levant because… that’s where their ancestors lived in the first millennium BC! (And how well does that idea go over with the Arabs? I stood there wondering. Are they just meekly supposed to accept the notion that they’ve been squatting for 1500 years?)

But I found that other people believe this too. If Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, then it is simply the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy. In Jerusalem I spoke with a guy, a real settler type, who was carrying around a large Israeli flag, “just for fun.” He actually referred to the West Bank as “Judaea/Samaria” and said that archaeologists recently uncovered some more artifacts there from the First Temple period. “How can you ‘occupy’ your own country?!” he asked.

But I’m afraid that the Palestinians weren’t much better in their uses of history. Two of them matter-of-factly told me that the Jews lost the rights to their land after the Romans destroyed their temple in AD 70, and expelled them in the 130s. Clearly God was judging them.

How can you argue with people who think like this?

My personal feeling is that Israel is no less legitimate than any other country created in the twentieth century – but this legitimacy has little to do with the Holocaust, and even less with any history recorded in the Bible. Instead, Israel is a settler nation, like Canada, the United States, or Australia. Enough people moved there, bought up enough land,** constructed the apparatus of a state, wheedled the Balfour Declaration*** out of the British, and then recognition of their independence from the UN. What more do you need? Its treatment of the Palestinians is distasteful, of course, but it would really have helped if the Arabs had not declared war on the state in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and in 1987, and in 2000, and continue to carry out attacks even now. I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with people who so readily resort to violence, and that there is great deal of merit in Golda Meir’s claim that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” In any event, I was surprised at how much pro-Palestinian sentiment the Israelis tolerate. The settler pictured above claims that the police will confiscate his flag as “too provocative” when he shows up at certain rallies. And I was amazed at some of the t-shirts on sale in the Old City expressing things that would never be allowed, say, about Armenians or Kurds in Turkey.

Self-government may be preferable to good government, but having been to both places now I think I would rather live on the West Bank than in Egypt. As tribal as Zionism may be, functionally it does produce some positive externalities for everyone.

* Fr. Richard LeSueur of St. George’s College, Jerusalem first pointed this out to me.

** Alan Dershowitz, in The Case for Israel, makes a big deal about land ownership. According to him, it is self-justifying. (By this notion, I guess the Chinese who have turned Vancouver into “Hongcouver” have the right to declare their independence – in fact, they already constitute a nation! It suggests that every sovereign state ought to take immigration, and real estate, very seriously.)

*** Courtesy Tom MacMaster, an interesting dissenting view on the Balfour Declaration by the Jewish Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:

Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman. I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.

When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah.

I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens.

I deny that Palestine is to-day associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.

Islam

Some notes from my first visit to Muslim-majority countries.

• The adhan, the call to prayer, is given over loudspeakers five times a day. I confess that I did not find it aesthetically pleasing, especially when you’re in an area with lots of mosques and there’s a great cacophony of competing adhans. But even on its own the chant seems the opposite of tuneful. I really think the muezzins could mix it up a bit.

• The Friday noon prayer is the most important one, the one at which the imam gives a sermon. I did not get to witness this from inside a mosque but I did stop for tea down the street from a mosque in Cairo while the sermon was going on. I knew this because the sermon was being broadcast over the same speakers that issue the adhan. I could not understand it but the imam sounded very emphatic and angry. Afterwards, the cafe filled up with men and boys coming out of the service.

• It seems that it’s not enough to read the Koran, you have to listen to it. The Turkish airways inflight entertainment system on the way over featured a Koran option, which you could listen to with subtitles in the language of your choice.

The television in my hotel room in Istanbul featured several channels broadcasting the Koran. Businesses would often have televisions on and turned to such channels, and taxi drivers would have it on their radios as they drove around. You’ll know it’s the Koran because it’s not just being read, but chanted, by a reciter known as a qari. You can listen to several examples of this chanting on YouTube. (It’s somewhat interesting, but like the adhan, not particularly tuneful.) One guy told me that this is how the angel Gabriel actually revealed it to Mohammad, and you have to learn the chanting from someone who learned it from someone who learned it from someone, etc. going all the way back to the Prophet.

• It is most meritorious, upon hearing the adhan, to stop what you’re doing, make your way to the nearest mosque, and join your fellow believers in communal prayer. Of course, not everyone is able to do this (it seems that most people who went to prayer were elderly men), and I wonder if the imam doesn’t get pretty lonely at certain times. All the same, you can stop in at the mosque and pray on your own if you can’t make the prescribed time. If you can’t make it to a mosque you can unroll a prayer rug and pray in the direction of Mecca on your own. This is not as meritorious but better than not praying at all.

• “Woman in Burqa Condemns Woman in Chador” read a headline in The Onion once, and I must confess that I found female Muslim garb rather confusing. Most Muslim women at least cover their hair with a hijab, although not everyone does, and it did not seem that there was necessarily tension between the two camps (although I’m sure I was missing a lot). But you would think, for example, that high school girls would naturally congregate into two groups based on whether or not they were wearing this most obvious symbol of religious observance. However, in Turkey I saw several groups of high school students taking tours of museums, with about 50% of the girls wearing hijabs, and the other 50% with their long dark hair just flowing out for all the world to see, and it seems that everyone got along; the presence or absence of a headscarf was seemingly irrelevant to social interaction.

Outside of this context, many Turkish women went further than the hijab, and would also wear a long, straight dress of a solid color – some went even further and wore a complete niqab (that is, a black cloak-like garment including a face covering with only a slit for the eyes). Do these people talk to each other?

(I regret that I have no photos but I did not want to risk offending people by taking pictures of them.)

• Men do not seem to have a similar sartorial decisions to make, at least not in Turkey. In Egypt a lot of men wear the taqiyah, a knitted skull cap, although fewer than women who wear a hijab. Men can also wear the jellabiya, a long beige dress, sometimes with a turban, but I think this is more cultural than religious. Here I am with Mahmoud, one of the excavators of Karnak Temple, who is wearing this garb.

And here is Ahmed (seated) and his standing assistant, my felucca pilots on the Nile and jellabiya wearers.

• If there is a male equivalent to the hijab, in Egypt it is the zebiba or prayer bump that appears on one’s forehead as the result of the constant ritual prostrations one must do. I assume it is meritorious to acquire one.

• Some of the more popular tourist mosques have banks of pamphlets, and even missionaries, proselytizing for Islam. They take great pride in the purity of their monotheism, as demonstrated by this sectarian propaganda on the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem.

Another thing they take pride in is how Koran 55:20-21 has been vindicated by science. The relevant verses read: “He has made the two bodies of water flow. They will one day meet. Between them is now a barrier; they encroach not one upon the other.” According to a pamphlet I received: “A physical force called surface tension prevents the waters of neighbouring seas from mixing due to the difference in the density of these waters. It is as if a thin wall were between them. This has only very recently been discovered by oceanographers.” So there you go.

• Everyone I spoke to insisted that Isis and Al-Qaeda do not represent Islam, and resented people thinking that they do. I was happy to hear this, although one always wonders how situational people are being – and why so many other people do believe that Islam justifies violence….

• To return to Turkey, everyone knows that Erdoğan’s schtick has been to undo some of the compulsory secularism of Kemal Atatürk. A colleague leant me a book entitled Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by American journalist Stephen Kinzer and first published in 2001, on the eve of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party coming to power. Kinzer, it seems, had a cautiously positive attitude towards that movement: secularism might be fine as a principle, but when it’s compulsory, it is just as stultifying as any established religion. Why should it be scandalous that a cabinet minister’s wife should wear a headscarf? Why should it be forbidden for a female university student to wear a headscarf? Kinzer, perhaps on account of his own nationality, favored an American-style secularism, whereby no law shall be passed establishing a religion… or prohibiting the free exercise of the same. I do not know if Erdoğan has completely lived up to this promise. I spoke to some people who were appalled by his program – yet his party keeps getting reelected, and has not yet been displaced by a Kemalist coup. So Turkey does seem to be getting more Islamic. A fellow traveler told me that far more women wear the headscarf now than they did twenty years ago. It says something that there’s a Koran channel on the inflight entertainment system on Turkish Air, as does the notice that that their food “is prepared according to Islamic principles.” Such principles do not, for now, prevent the serving of alcohol on Turkish Air, but in Turkey itself beer is now pretty expensive, and served only during limited hours, on account of new laws. (The same fellow traveller told me that a restaurant wouldn’t serve him a beer if he was sitting at a table on the sidewalk, because the Islamists who lived across the street enjoyed spying on and complaining about the place.) I was surprised to see a qari practicing his craft in Topkapı Palace, a state-run museum.

Perhaps most interestingly, Erdoğan has sponsored a mosque-building program throughout Turkey, including an extremely large six-minaret one on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I believe this is it on the skyline.

Çamlıca Republic Mosque.

At its groundbreaking ceremony in 2016, Erdoğan said: “When a donkey dies it leaves behind its saddle, when a man dies he leaves behind his works. We will be remembered for this.” I think he is right.

Mosques

Some notes:

• The Muslim worship space, of course, is called a mosque. It is essentially an empty room, which can be as small as the living room in a suburban tract house, or as large as a minor-league hockey arena. The floor is usually carpeted, and larger mosques feature large chandeliers that are suspended from the ceiling all the way down to about ten feet off the floor.

Interior, Prince’s Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

• Generally you’ll know it’s a mosque by the presence of one or more minarets – tall “steeples” that rise from the corners of the building. The number is significant, although I do not know the precise reason why some mosques warrant more minarets than others. Historically, the müezzin would climb up one of the minarets to issue the adhan – that is, the call to prayer, which is done five times a day. Nowadays, he gives the adhan over a PA system, connected to loudspeakers on the minarets. Turkish minarets are generally tall, round, and thin, while Egyptian ones tend to be squatter, and can be square or octagonal in shape.

Sultan Ahmed (“Blue”) Mosque, Istanbul.

Mosque, Necmettin Erbakan Square, Ankara.

Mosque of Qani-Bay, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Mosques can also be signified by the presence of a dome over the main structure. In Turkey, most mosques follow the pattern established by Hagia Sophia, where a large, central dome over the main room has a circle of windows along the base to let in light. Also like Hagia Sophia, several half-domes can “cascade” down from the central one.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul.

In Egypt, domes can be smaller, more vertical in shape and/or not centrally placed.

Mosque of Mahmoudiyah, Cairo.

Mosque of Umm Sultan Shaaban, Cairo.

• Usually there is some means of making ritual ablutions on the way in – in the grander mosques there is an entire front courtyard with an ablution block devoted to this function.

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Istanbul.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Muhammad Ali Mosque, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Some mosques, however, consist of nothing more than large courtyards, with the “room” for prayer simply a deep colonnade on the far side as you walk in. I believe they are known as Persian style mosques. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo is one such.

Al-Hakim Mosque, Cairo.

• “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground,” God commands Moses in the Book of Exodus. Muslims retain this tradition; one must always remove one’s shoes before setting foot inside a mosque. (In fact, I would highly recommend wearing sandals or loafers if you are going to be visiting a number of mosques in a given day – constantly having to retie your shoes gets old rather quickly.) 

• But that’s not all: modest dress is required in other ways, too. (Not to worry, they’ll lend you a headscarf and/or a wrap-around skirt if you’re dressed immodestly.)

• In large mosques that tourists want to see, there is generally a viewing area at the back of the central room. Only men who wish to pray are allowed to go further. (Women who wish to pray are granted their own area, usually at the back of the mosque, and behind a screen.)

• On the opposite wall once you enter are two features you can’t miss: the mihrab and the minbar. The mihrab is nothing more than a niche in the wall, indicating the qibla, that is, the direction towards Mecca and thus the direction one faces for prayer. The minbar, usually to the right of the mihrab, is a pulpit from which the imam gives a sermon following the Friday noon prayers. It consists of a staircase going straight up; it doesn’t look like your average church pulpit.

Mihrab and minbar, Elvançelebi mosque, Çorum Province, Turkey.

Mihrab, Vasat Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Gazi Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Molla Ferani Cami, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Sahib Ata Mosque, Konya.

Mihrab and minbar, Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo.

Mihrab and minbar, mosque of Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun, Cairo.

• Mosques famously do not feature sculpture or (much) representational art, in keeping with the monotheistic prohibition of images. This means that their decoration consists of intricate designs or texts from the Koran. (In Turkey, these are often rendered on tiles.) I’m certain that there are art historians who would be able to delineate the history and meaning of all of these…

• As far as I can tell mosques do not have the same connection with burial that Christian churches have traditionally had, but some mosques do have cemeteries outside of them, or outbuildings that serve as mausolea for important people.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Sultan Süleyman Turbesi, outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Şehzadeler Türbesi (“Prince’s Tomb”), outside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

• But just as it was meritorious, in Catholic Europe, to sponsor the building of a church, so also it was meritorious to sponsor a mosque – thus the multiplicity of mosques in Istanbul and in Cairo, which may not have been justified by the population numbers. But as to who owns the title to the mosques, or who is responsible for their upkeep, or who appoints the imam… these things, at present, I do not know.

Atatürk

After the Turkish flag, the most common icon of Turkishness is the image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, victor of the Battle of Gallipoli, hero of the Turkish War of Independence, and founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. You would expect, perhaps, to see his portrait in certain government buildings or on the currency, but like the flag, he’s everywhere. Every town, it seems, has a statue or a bust of him on display. I was not invited into any private homes, but I was astounded to discover his portrait up in at least half of the businesses I went into. This must have been something like the place Lenin enjoyed in the old Soviet Union. However, there seems to be a greater variety of Atatürk portraits than there were portraits for Lenin, and many of them humanize their subject to a greater degree.

At Atatürk Airport, Istanbul.

In the Istanbul Postal Museum.

Overlooking a square in Ilhara, Aksaray Province.

In a square near the Yeni Mosque, Istanbul.

On the road between Konya and Selçuk.

At a gas station between Troy and Çannakale.

In a restaurant in Marmara Ereğlisi, Tekirdağ Province.

In the main Istanbul post office.

A triple portrait in a hotel in Marmara Ereğlisi.

In Selçuk, Izmir Province.

In a village near Marmara Ereğlisi.

The banner of Hürriyet (“Liberty”), a major Turkish daily newspaper.

One might think that such a personality cult is unworthy of a modern state but at least Turkey does not demand that portraits of the current leader appear everywhere. And it’s true that Atatürk had some genuinely impressive achievements, and that he really does enjoy the admiration of a broad swath of the Turkish populace.

His mausoleum in Ankara, designated Anıtkabir (“memorial tomb”), is a marvel to behold. Here is a view of a model of the whole complex (which itself occupies just one part of a large park).

You enter from the right, between the gate houses, and walk down a 262m-pathway designed the Road of Lions. It is lined with recumbent lion statues, meant to evoke Hittite sculptures. I wondered why the road seemed to be paved so oddly; according to Wikipedia: “A five centimeter gap separates the paving stones on the Road of Lions to ensure that visitors take their time and observe respectful behavior on their way to Atatürk’s tomb.”

At the end of the Road of Lions you come to the Ceremonial Plaza, meant to accommodate up to 15,000 people.

Surrounding the plaza is a colonnade, punctuated by short towers containing things like Atatürk’s car and the gun carriage that carried his coffin, but the main attraction is the large building to the northeast, the Hall of Honor.

If you ascend the steps you enter a hall containing Ataturk’s symbolic sarcophagus, a large granite block on a dais. This is where ceremonial wreath-laying occurs – I was pleased to witness an instance of this, although it was too dark to take good photographs. A soldier marched in, followed by two more carrying a wreath, followed by the group sponsoring this particular wreath-laying. The soldiers passed the wreath to the group’s leader, who placed it in a circular depression on the dais.

Atatürk’s actual tomb is in a room directly beneath the sarcophagus, and you can’t go into it. They do, however, show a large photo of it – the grave is surrounded by urns containing earth from various places in Turkey. But far more interesting on this level is the museum detailing Atatürk’s life and times. I liked his clothing and accessories in particular – he prescribed western dress for the Turks, and he seems to have had pretty good taste in this department himself. There were dioramas portraying the Battle of Gallipoli, and the Turkish War of Independence was given much attention. You are probably aware that the British and French helped themselves to the Arab Ottoman provinces (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq) – what I did not know is that the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) divided Turkey itself among several occupying powers. The Armenians and Kurds were to get a great swaths of eastern Turkey, and Greece the area around Smyrna and most of European Turkey. The rest of the country was to be divided into British, French and even Italian zones of influence. Only about a third of what is now Turkey, centered around Ankara, was to be directly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. This was a more punitive settlement than even the Treaty of Versailles, and nationalists, led by Atatürk, set up a provisional government in Ankara and recruited an army to fight against it. They had home-field advantage, and a great deal of motivation; the Powers did not really put many resources into defending their zones, and the Greeks and Armenians proved to be hapless fighters. The nationalist assembly, now called the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, was recognized by the UK, France, and Italy as the legitimate government of Turkey at the Lausanne Conference, called in order to renegotiate the Treaty of Sèvres (this effectively abolished the Ottoman Sultanate). The resulting Treaty of Lausanne (1923) recognized complete Turkish independence under the rule of the GNAT, at the small price of guaranteeing international freedom of navigation through the Bosphorus and Hellespont. (It also set the stage, unfortunately, for population exchanges between Turkey and Greece, with all the misery that those entail.)

But you can’t help but admire Atatürk’s role in defending his homeland and securing Turkish independence. As if that weren’t enough, as first president of the Republic of Turkey he proceeded to reform it, sometimes quite forcefully. He prescribed western dress, going so far as to ban the Ottoman fez. He substituted the Roman alphabet for the Arabic one (something which I certainly appreciate). He required Turks to adopt a surname (the Assembly granted him the name Atatürk – “father of the Turks” – and technically it’s anachronistic to refer to him by this name for any period prior to 1934). He established state-run primary schools throughout the land. And most famously he imposed the principle of laïcité – that is, the state was to be secular, even forbidden to express any religious sentiments at all. Again, impressive achievements, although when you’re visiting his museum you’re left wondering if he had any flaws or made any mistakes. Certainly the photos of the “Turkish peasants killed cruelly by Greek soldiers” or “Women and children killed by the Armenians in the Subatan village on April 25, 1918” don’t really tell the whole story there! Of course, like your average Presidential Library and Museum in the United States, it’s really not going to present a “balanced” view of its subject, although the Turkish law against “insulting the legacy of Atatürk” does seem just a trifle bit oversensitive.

One more photo from Anıtkabir, of a sign on the way in. Atatürk died in 1938, but if you tip the 8 over onto its side, it becomes an infinity sign, as though to suggest that Atatürk lives forever!

But what if you are happy to be Turkish, but don’t agree entirely with Atatürk’s program (usually designated “Kemalism”) – particularly the “compulsory secularism” aspect of it? No one was willing to defame Atatürk to me, and thereby break the law and a powerful social taboo. Instead, I heard things like “Ataturk never said anything against Islam; it was the people who came after him who really ran it down” (and indeed, I was surprised to discover that Atatürk’s body was “shrouded according to Islamic traditions” and that he was buried “with his face towards Kiblah [Mecca]”). Or: “Atatürk was great, but so were some of the modernizing sultans in the nineteenth century, why can’t we honor them as well?” So far no one has readopted the fez (although plenty of women now wear the Islamic headscarf, even in Istanbul), and no one has started rendering Turkish in Arabic script, as a way of disavowing Kemalism. No one has put up portraits of Ottoman sultans – or of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for that matter. Instead, it seems that we have the phenomenon of “dueling signatures.” As you can see in a couple of the photos above, it’s not only Atatürk’s face that people love to see, but his signature as well. You can get a decal of it for your car.

But if you admire the Ottomans, if you think that Turkish history did not begin in the 1920s, if you see no reason why Islam cannot play a greater role in Turkish national life, perhaps you can get a decal of a tughra.

A tughra is the stylized Arabic-script signature of an Ottoman sultan that appeared on the state seal during his reign. Unfortunately, they all look more or less the same and I could not discern exactly which sultans were being referenced. The bottom one, I believe, is that of Mahmud II (1808-39); I do not know who the top one belongs to.

Money

One of the delights of traveling is seeing what foreign countries put on their currency (it’s even better when the exchange rate works in your favor). For no real reason, here are some shots of the leftover bills in my possession.

• It goes without saying that Kemal Atatürk should appear on the obverse of all Turkish bills (he’s on all the coins too).

Other people only appear on the back, like Aydın Sayılı, historian of science.

It’s nice how they vary the portraits of Atatürk, and how many of them have him smiling (unlike, say, those of Mussolini or Lenin).

On the reverse of the twenty lira note, a portrait of Ahmet Kemalettin, designated Mimar Kemalettin (“Kemalettin the Architect”), who was active in the late Ottoman and early Republican periods.

• Egyptian bills have two sides, which I would designate “tourist” and “local.” The tourist side features motifs from ancient Egypt, English writing, and western numerals.

The local side features Arabic writing, real Arabic numerals, and Muslim architecture, in this case the Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo (which I saw; it is beautiful and actually houses the tomb of the last Shah of Iran).

The fifty pound note follows the same pattern: the tourist side has the Temple of Edfu…

…the local side has the Abu Huraiba Mosque (according to Wikipedia, anyway – I did not get to see it).

By the way, here is a clock face from the Cairo metro, showing the full range of Eastern Arabic numerals. Prior to this trip I had no idea there were such things, but they are widely used in Egypt, including on automobile license plates. Interestingly, you read them left to right, even though Arabic script itself goes right to left.

• I think Israel has the best designed bills. The most recent fifty New Shekel note features Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky.

It is nice of them to include Arabic and English on the reverse. (Actually, this trip revealed to me just how lucky we Anglophones are, that our language is the world’s lingua franca – perhaps I should say lingua anglica? An Egyptian man marries a Japanese woman, and they communicate in English. A Palestinian shopkeeper speaks to a Turkish customer – in English. An Egyptian tour guide leads a group including Chinese, Indonesians, Argentinians, and Brazilians – English is the language everyone knows. There was a time when French held this position, and indeed I got to speak some French with an Egyptian nun who had been educated in that language. On account of the American Empire, however, practically everyone is now obliged to learn this originally obscure German-French hybrid with three present tenses and a really bizarre spelling system. USA! USA! USA!)

• Finally, just for fun: I met a German couple in Istanbul who gave me this note. It is a real note, with a serial number and all the security features, it’s just worth zero Euros. Apparently the EU will allow the printing of them from time to time as souvenirs, to commemorate various things – in this case, the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The caption, “God’s mercy is free,” goes very well with the fact that the bill itself is “free.” Thank you, Bertold and Anne Stegemann!

The reverse includes the usual EU hodgepodge. I see Germany (Brandenburg Gate), Italy (the Coliseum), France (Eiffel Tower), Spain (Sagrada Família) and Belgium (Mannikin Pis) represented. I don’t know who belongs to the tower on the left.

The Turkish Flag

You’ll never be confused about what country you’re in when you’re visiting Turkey. The Turkish flag is everywhere – on government buildings, of course, but also on mosques, businesses, and private homes. Large ones can serve as awnings over street markets. I thought Americans loved their flag but we have nothing on the Turks.

Why should this be? Well, one of the main reasons is that it is a great design, simple and recognizable. I’ve referenced this video before, but it’s worth doing so again, particularly its invocation of Ted Kaye’s Five Basic Principles:

  1. Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
  3. Use Two or Three Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
  4. No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing on any kind or an organization’s seal.
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

As you can see, the Turkish flag certainly follows all of these principles, surely one of the reasons why it has “complete buy-in from an entire cross-section of the [country],” and produces a “positive feedback loop between great symbolism and civic pride” (4:35 and 5:45 in the video). I would add that the flag’s field is a dark color, which contrasts nicely with the sky as it flies, and furthermore the way the star is positioned makes it impossible to fly the flag upside-down – always a useful thing to remember when designing a flag!

But I think there’s even more to the flag than just the cleanness of its design. The fundamental political divide in Turkey right now is between Kemalists and “Erdoğanists” – that is, between those who favor a secular Turkey, as established in the 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and those who want more official acknowledgement of Islam, the religion of 99% of Turks, as currently promoted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014 (and Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014). An Islamic state, of course, was the previous dispensation, the state ruled by the Ottoman sultans from Constantinople until 1923. Yet the flag is not seen as the flag of either the secular or the religious faction, but as the birthright of every Turk. For as much of a modernizer as Atatürk was, he retained the Ottoman flag as the flag of the Republic of Turkey, with only minor modifications in the shape of the star and crescent.

Nineteenth-century Ottoman flag. Wikipedia.

Thus, I would say that the flag bridges the gap between Turkey’s two political poles, and even its specific symbols work on more than one level. To most Americans, the star-and-crescent device instantly evokes “Islam,” and indeed it appears in many Islamic flags: Tunisia, Pakistan, and Algeria all come to mind. But the star-and-crescent does not actually have Islamic origins. Apparently it derives ultimately from Anatolian paganism, specifically the cult of Artemis, protectress of Ephesus. So the symbolic progression seems to be: Anatolia > Ottoman > Islam. As religious as the device may now be, it seems that secular Turks can take pride in it as well, as representing the heritage of their land.

As an emblem you can also have a little fun with it: