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!

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.

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:

 

Douglass and Anthony

It is just and fitting to celebrate the American Revolution, but one must also remember that, at the start, not everyone partook of its bounty equally. The tacit recognition of slavery is the original sin of the American republic; that women could not vote is now outrageous to us. Where was the “liberty” for these people? As the nineteenth century wore on, the movement to abolish slavery completely grew ever stronger, culminating in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Women’s suffrage took longer – it was guaranteed on a national basis for all types of election with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, although many states had earlier granted the women the right to vote in other elections.

It’s safe to say that the two biggest figures in these movements were Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. They both happen to be buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York. We made sure to visit their graves.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and escaped to New York at age 20. He became an anti-slavery activist and was known for his powerful oratory on the subject; his Narrative Life (1845) was a best seller which fueled the abolitionist cause and whose proceeds allowed Douglass to purchase his legal freedom. He was also the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention (1848), which launched the American Women’s Rights movement. The town, located about fifty miles to the east of Rochester, seems quite proud of this heritage.

Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed when we got there, but I certainly appreciated the display of the Nineteenth Amendment Victory Flags.

The (heavily restored) original venue. The Convention’s “Declaration of Sentiments” (a feminist twist on the Declaration of Independence)  is inscribed on a wall on the other side of the greenspace in the foreground.

As an aside, Seneca Falls represents a stop on the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, a which connects the Erie Canal to Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake (two of New York’s Finger Lakes). I thought this was a nice nineteenth-century scene. (The town is also the fictional “Bedford Falls, N.Y.” from the film It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Susan B. Anthony was not actually at the Seneca Falls Convention, but with its main organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she met in 1851, founded the Women’s Loyal National League (an abolitionist society) and in 1866 the American Equal Rights Association, which was dedicated to equal rights for men and women. Anthony, famously, was arrested for voting in Rochester in 1872, and refused to pay the fine; the authorities decided not to pursue the matter. In 1878, Anthony penned what was to become the Nineteenth Amendment, and up until her death she gave countless speeches in favor of the cause. Her grave in Mount Hope is a pilgrimage site of sorts for those who value a woman’s right to vote.

Philadelphia

Happy to have experienced Philadelphia for the first time this summer. Unfortunately, we did not get to spend too much time there, but we did get to see the two biggest historical attractions: the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. As a bonus we got to learn something about Benjamin Franklin.

The Liberty Bell, so-called from the 1830s, was cast in London for the legislative building of the Province of Pennsylvania (now designated Independence Hall). The idea is that the bell was rung to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, although there is no documentary proof that this actually happened. Its distinctive large crack developed some time in the early nineteenth century, rendering it unringable – but granting it a great amount of what Stephanie Trigg would call “mythic capital.”

You get to see it in the Liberty Bell Center, run by the National Parks Service, located across the street from Independence Hall. Annoyingly, you have to pass through an airport-level security checkpoint to get in, but the NPS does give you information about the object’s history and its place in the American psyche – it used to go on tour throughout the country, and in the nineteenth century became a symbol of the desire for liberty by African-Americans and women, in addition to being reproduced countless times in various media.

UPDATE: I just received this in the mail:

Also, I saw these at a local supermarket:

Here are a couple more:

Independence Hall isn’t quite as well-known a symbol as the Liberty Bell, but it certainly has been influential architecturally (see buildings at Dartmouth, Berea, Mercer, Rust, Dearborn, etc.)

The building’s original function was as the seat of the colonial legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania. The first floor housed the supreme court on one side, and the legislative chamber on the other. It was in the latter of these that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence (July 2, 1776), and members of the Constitutional Convention drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787.

Our NPS interpreter (a recent Temple University BA in English) explains the room’s history.

A fun fact: the Declaration of Independence was printed before it was handwritten. The representatives spent two days debating what exactly they were going to accuse George III of before sending it to the printer on July 4 (the reason that this date now marks Independence Day); they regathered in August to affix their signatures to a manuscript copy, which is now on display in the National Archives in DC.

(Related: the first printer of the Declaration was John Dunlap; in 1777 Congress commissioned Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore to print a new edition [the “Goddard Broadside“] including the signatories’ names; she boldy printed her own name at the bottom.)

Walking down the street afterwards we were accosted by Ben Franklin (a.k.a. actor Rick Bravo), with whom we had a good chat.

He enjoined us to visit his house further down the street. Not much of it still exists, although a “ghost house,” designed by architect Robert Venturi, now outlines where it once was, with concrete hoods that allow you to view the foundations of the original structure.

On the west side of this “Franklin Court” is the Benjamin Franklin Museum, a brutalist structure put up for the bicentennial in 1976. The National Parks Service has recently redone the exhibits, and they provide an informative and interactive view of Franklin’s career. To the north end of the court is a print shop (one of Franklin’s jobs was as a printer), where NPS employees will demonstrate the use of an eighteenth-century printing press. An adjacent working post office (Franklin served as the first Postmaster General) will allow you to send letters with specially designed cancellation marks.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is now on my reading list for the summer.

Mount Vernon

By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.

Photo: Susanna Good

The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).

Photo: Susanna Good

The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.

But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).

Paducah

Stopped by Paducah, Kentucky on our way to St. Louis on Saturday. We thought we would visit the National Quilt Museum, which was very nice. We then stayed for lunch and ended up discovering Paducah’s flood wall murals. Paducah is on the Ohio River, which drains close to 200,000 square miles of United States territory and is thus prone to occasional flooding. As a result of a particularly devastating flood in 1937, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed floodwalls to protect the city from the river; they seem to have worked. What is most interesting is that since 1996 the walls have been decorated with mural paintings illustrating Paducah’s history. What a great idea! You’ve got a flat surface – why not use it to burnish local pride? Unfortunately none of my photographs turned out, but you can see examples on the Internet. Chief artist Robert Dafford has produced a series of paintings that are interesting, edifying, accessible, and professionally done. It’s worth a look if you’re ever passing through.

Although river traffic isn’t what it once was, the Ohio is still a major transportation thoroughfare, as you can notice from the numerous barges on it. If you want to learn more about the industry, visit the River Discovery Center.

Paducah seems to be thriving, it its way. What I would like to know is why Cairo, Illinois is not. We pass through there from time to time; the place looks like a miniature Detroit.