Currently teaching my history of Ireland course in preparation for a study-abroad trip there next week. Participating in one of these has been a long-term goal of mine ever since I came to Reinhardt fourteen years ago, but something has always intervened, so I am very much looking forward to this one. Thanks to star organizer Cheryl Brown and EF Tours, we will be visiting the Dingle Peninsula, the Rock of Cashel, Dublin, Newgrange, Derry, and Belfast. Of course, as with my trip to the Middle East in October, this will likely mean a paucity of blog posts for the duration (5/24-6/9), but I should have some good material to write about upon my return.
• The Turks love their flag. It’s simple, distinctive, and bridges the gap between the secular and the religious. It’s everywhere.
• They also love Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose image (and signature, strangely) is almost as ubiquitous.
• But if you reject the compulsory secularism of Ataturk, and look back with fondness on the Ottoman Empire, perhaps you can display a tughra somewhere.
• I saw this image a few times. Apparently it’s “Turk” in Old Turkic.
• The evil eye is common. Some examples:
• Turkish shopkeepers tend to round prices to the nearest lira, so you won’t acquire many kuruş coins.
• Something amusing for me: a chain of men’s clothing stores named after a former Prime Minister of Canada. (More information at Maclean’s.)
• Postage stamps are still perforated and lickable, not stickers like in the US. But post offices and mailboxes seemed rather rare. You’ll know when you find a mailbox on account of its distinctive yellow, octagonal shape.
• Men can greet each other by performing something that looks like the French “bise,” but instead of kissing on each cheek, they just touch each side of their foreheads.
• Toilets have two flush buttons – apparently one for liquid, and a more powerful one for solids. UPDATE: Apparently this is pretty universal now, and only because Georgia’s plumbing is so backward does it appear novel to me.
• Occasionally you encounter a squat toilet, complete with hose for “wiping.” Where there is no hose, a lot of places require you to put your used TP into a waste paper basket beside the toilet, and not try to flush it.
• Unlike in Egypt, I never saw any donkeys or horses employed to pull carts, but I did see plenty of tractors driving in the streets.
• I stood out for wearing khakis. Every other male wore dark trousers – no shorts. Few people wore sunglasses or hats.
• Few people sported tattoos, dyed hair, or inventive piercings (although the former may have been hidden from me, covered by the long sleeves and trousers).
• More than 50% of women wore hijabs. Hijab wearers could be dressed otherwise as westerners, although many would also wear a long, straight dress in a single color for extra modesty.
• Obesity is nowhere near as common as in the United States.
• Turkish breakfast: cucumbers, olives, cheese, pita and various types of hummus.
• Mosques are everywhere, and regularly issue the call to prayer, although Turks seem to be less into their religion than Egyptians are. The mosques tend to follow the same Turkish pattern, which derives ultimately from the architecture of Hagia Sophia. The tile work in the older mosques is gorgeous.
• There are very few functioning Christian churches.
• Stray cats and dogs are everywhere.
• The crows have a particular black and grey piebald coloration. There were even wild parrots near Topkapi Palace.
• The snails were larger than the ones I’m familiar with in the US. Here is one with a lira coin (slightly larger than a quarter) for scale.
• People still smoke cigarettes more, and in more places, than in the United States.
• Turkish coffee is a thing. You have to order it with or without sugar on account of the way it’s made. It’s served with water so that you can wash down the grounds if you want.
• Tea is also very common, and served in distinctive cups.
• There is a certain improvisational nature to the driving, but it is not as chaotic as in Egypt or China.
• You can’t serve yourself at the gas pump – the attendant will do it for you, and then give you a receipt, which you take into the store to pay. In the store, there is usually a great assortment of candy bars and cookies for sale.
• Cut-out police cars greet you as you drive into the average town.
• In North America a car radio, on the FM dial, will move by increments of .2. That is, if you’re tuning it, 101.1 will be followed by 101.3, then 101.5, then 101.7, etc. My car radio in Turkey was tuned in increments of 0.05, so that 101.10 was followed by 101.15, then 101.20, then 101.25, etc. It did not seem to pick up any more channels.
• Driving around you see some novel brands of motor vehicle, like MAN, Skoda, Scania, or Dacia.
• The English captions could be improved. They all seemed to have been written by non-native speakers who learned the language in school, and consequently weren’t that polished or even literate.
• I found the displays of spices and Turkish treats to be very aesthetically pleasing.
• I found Turkish warning signs amusingly eccentric.
• There are still a few pay phones, although the housing apparently can double as a wi-fi station. I also saw a machine that will charge up your cell phone for some minor consideration.
• Hotels do not provide washcloths. Like in China, you need to turn on your room’s electricity with your hotel key, and there are generally no sheets on the beds.
• Other similarities with China: a pervasive informal economy with haggling, the close grouping of several shops or stalls each selling the same type of goods (jewelry, camping equipment, plumbing fixtures, etc.), occasional “hutong”-style slums, and a more vibrant urban life than one finds in the US – particularly in the form of street restaurants set up on sidewalks or in vacant lots.
• An occasional sight in the countryside: tent villages, and shepherds herding sheep.
• Turks seem generally more reserved and less emotionally or physically demonstrative than Americans. There is a marked lack of legible clothing on adults, or even decals or bumper stickers on cars. If people supported certain sports teams, they generally kept this fact to themselves.
• In fact, there seemed to be little participation in global consumer culture. I heard very little western pop music, saw no dubbed Western television shows, and a lot fewer images of SpongeBob, Minions, Disney Princesses, etc. than you might expect. Turkey seems to enjoy a great deal of cultural autarky – generally, there’s nothing but Turkish content on the television and radio. I kind of respect this.
“When you get back to America, please tell them the truth about Egypt!”, more than one person said to me. So here goes…
You won’t have to fear for your physical safety in Egypt. Tourist police are everywhere, guarding against another Luxor massacre; that sort of terrorism is rare in any event. Furthermore, chances are you won’t be the victim of casual violence or street crime either. Perhaps I am being arrogant on account of being male, large-framed, and able-bodied, but I did not look like a native, and I walked through a lot of run-down neighborhoods and never once felt threatened. Egyptians, actually, seem rather docile. They might look at you longer than they would a native, but that’s it; they won’t try to mug you, or attack you for political reasons. Like most people, Egyptians are fully capable of differentiating between a country’s government and its citizenry.
The major annoyance in Egypt will be seekers of baksheesh. This is a Middle Eastern custom parallel to Western tipping, but far more pervasive. It’s as though no one has a real job, or if they do they aren’t paid anything for it, and your task as a foreigner enjoying such a favorable exchange rate is to help out the locals. The toilet cleaner stands by the door asking that you pay him for having done his job. A mosque has some guy at the door who will keep your shoes while you visit, and then ask you to pay him to get them back. Some guy grabs your suitcase and carries it to the hotel desk, or someone opens a door for you, and wants you to pay him for his trouble. Tourist sites are crawling with people just hanging out who will happily show you some detail or other, and then ask for money for it (and it’s never enough – whatever you give them, they want more!). Then there are the people who know English who come up to you on the street. They ask where you’re going, and then invariably tell you that where you want to go is closed now, or too far away, or not easily accessible “since the revolution.” They’ll then offer to show you something interesting – it sometimes is, but it usually entails paying numerous people along the way, and then the guide himself. Or you’ll end up in his brother’s store, getting the hard-sell treatment for tacky papyrus paintings.
Part of me doesn’t mind helping out the locals. At least they’re offering to do something in return for baksheesh; it’s not like they’re just begging. But begging, in its way, is more honest. When every conversation has an ulterior motive, it gets rather depressing – at least to a westerner, and I’m afraid that I ended up being rather rude to anyone who came up to say hello. And while no individual transaction is all that costly, it adds up – and what is more, there is a run on small bills! You always end up stuck with 100 pound notes, and no way of making change.
The other thing about Egypt is that it is rather dingy. That word kept coming to mind as I walked around. Egypt is largely desert, and desert winds blow the sand everywhere – and it never gets washed away, because it never rains. So everything is coated by a layer of dirty dust, that no one can be bothered to remove. Another word that kept coming to mind was half-assed. You’re reminded again that poverty is not simply a lack of money, but a lack of initiative and of caring about yourself and your environment. Why not clean up the piles of trash that accumulate in the streets, or the manure from all the livestock and pack animals? Why not do something about all the feral cats and dogs? Why not drive better, so that every single car does not get dinged up – or do something about the terrible air quality? Why not just fix things properly?
This is why, if you want to visit the country, I would highly recommend getting a package tour from a reputable company where everything is taken care of: food, hotel, all transportation, and all visits to museums and archaeological sites. This might insulate you somewhat from Egypt’s general malaise.
The formal reason for my trip to the Middle East was that I wanted to investigate the convergence of the veneration of St. George, the fourth-century Christian soldier and martyr, and that of al-Khidr, the revered Muslim wali. That these two figures have, at certain times and places, been identified with each other, despite the traditional animosity between Christianity and Islam, is remarkable. What is really going on? What are the terms of this convergence – does it even exist?
St. George is everywhere in the Middle East. If there are Christian remains, you will find an image of St. George in them. If there is an active Christian community, there is a very good chance that one of its churches will be dedicated to St. George; whatever its dedication, there will certainly be many images of the saint, inside and outside the church building. He is not the only equestrian saint, nor the only military saint, nor even the only dragon slayer, and he was certainly not the only Christian to have been martyred under Diocletian. But somehow people love him the most. I think that one reason is because his dragon slaying is not just visually symbolic, but the illustration of a romantic story about how he rescued a damsel in distress. This sort of thing is always popular. Perhaps more importantly, he is considered a powerful intercessor and miracle worker, something always very important and useful.
Khidr is a somewhat more obscure figure. Although not mentioned by name in the Koran, he is widely identified as the righteous servant of God in Sura 18, “The Cave,” and is charged with instructing Moses. Moses promises to learn humbly and not to question Khidr, but Khidr acts most inexplicably, and Moses cannot help himself. First Khidr bores a hole in the bottom of a boat belonging to some fishermen, then he kills a young boy, and finally he fixes a wall in a town, right after its inhabitants had refused to offer hospitality to him and Moses. With each of these incidents, Moses breaks his promise and expresses disappointed surprise, but Khidr then reveals his reasons: he damaged the boat just enough to prevent it being commandeered by a king, the boy was evil and Khidr killed him so that Allah might give his believing parents a better son, and he repaired the wall because beneath it was buried treasure belonging to two orphans, whose deceased father had been righteous and who would be in no position to defend it should its presence be revealed. The message is that God’s wisdom is beyond human understanding.
Unlike with St. George, I never found anything devoted to Khidr: no pictures, no dedications. People did know who he was. “Khidr,” in Turkish, is rendered as “Hızır,” and I spoke with one man, a Muslim from the area around Sivas, who said that he knew an old man in his village who had met Hızır twice, and who was admired for it. The old man knew it was Hızır because of Hızır’s “bent thumb.” Other people mentioned that Hızır can help people, but it’s more a case of explaining the good luck you might receive. If you’re in trouble, and someone helps you out, you might attribute this to Hızır. (I was reminded of how Grateful Dead fans used to receive “miracles” – concert tickets that they had not made provision for acquiring.)
Since there are very few Christians left in Turkey, there is no longer any question of convergence between St. George and Hızır. The Egyptian scene is somewhat different. Some ten percent of Egyptians are Christian, and the country does not have the same tradition of compulsory secularism that Turkey does – since 1980, Sunni Islam has been the state religion. Furthermore, Egyptian Muslims, perhaps because their own language descends from that of the Koran, seem to know the Koran better than Turks do. When I asked people about Khidr, most of them were able to relate the story from Sura 18, about Khidr’s three successive and seemingly inexplicable actions. When I asked whether Khidr helps people, and whether people offer some sort of thanks to him in return, they were surprised, almost offended. “That’s polytheism!”, one man exclaimed. “We only seek help from God.” Khidr is revered as other prophets are revered, but no one I spoke with admitted to seeking or receiving aid from any of them. “Khidr may have helped people long ago, but not now,” another man explained to me. Thus, despite a list of places allegedly sacred to Khidr that I had compiled from various sources, I could not find a single one that was currently and obviously designated as such. There were no inscriptions, or any people doing things to honor him. I confess I was somewhat disappointed.
But speaking with Christians I heard a different story. In Egypt, in Old Cairo, one finds two churches to St. George – in both places, the Christians claimed that local Muslims did indeed seek help from St. George, whom they called “Khidr.” A priest of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George in Old Cairo said that Muslim women who want to become pregnant will visit the church, and that one can see little plaques in the church in Arabic left by Muslims in thanks for Khidr’s services (although I did not find these and the priest did not have time to show them to me). A sister of the nearby Coptic Convent of St. George said that Muslims will indeed come by – not all the Muslims in Cairo, by any means, but some of the locals from the area will pay the occasional visit to what is designated the convent’s “Chaplet of St. George.” I suppose it helps that certain actions are prescribed here: you can light a candle in front of an icon of St. George, you can touch a cloth roll containing his relics, or, most significant of all, you can be wrapped with the chains that bound him during his martyrdom. I had read about this custom, which dates back at least to the nineteenth century. Allegedly it cures madness or at least headaches, and I could not resist getting wrapped with them myself. In other words, these rituals make it easy for visitors, including any Muslims, to participate in the veneration of St. George.
A similar situation prevails in the Palestinian Territories, where most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslim, but a minority of 1-2% is Christian. The town of Beit Jala, to the south of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, is predominantly Christian, and to the southwest of Beit Jala, in the otherwise Muslim town of al-Khader, is a Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George, complete with a small but handsome church dedicated to the saint. This church is famous in its way: William Dalrymple describes it in From the Holy Mountain (1994), and it once merited a subsection on the entry for St. George on Wikipedia (entitled “Interfaith Shrine,” although the current subsection on “Islamic tradition” does not mention it specifically). These these writings, and others, mention that Muslims come there to pray and offer thanks to St. George, whom they call Khidr. (This would seem to be reflected in the name of the village itself.) I did not get to speak with any of the brothers of the monastery, but I was shown the church by a man in charge of it. He could not speak English very well, although he answered my questions as best he could, and said that yes, Muslims do indeed come by. This church also featured a set of chains (he claimed these ones were the reins of St. George’s horse) in which he had me step through three times and enjoined me to kiss. Of course there were many icons of St. George throughout the church; the most important was a large one displayed behind glass. A three-inch gap existed between the icon and the glass, into which people had deposited petitions and offerings in thanks for prayers answered. Clearly St. George was popular in the area – although I did not see any direct evidence that Muslims venerated him.
The next day, in Beit Jala proper, I had a revealing conversation with a local Christian in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. The current church building dates from 1925, but the site is historic, since it contains a cave that once housed its namesake saint for four years before God called him back to Myra. In 1995, the church was proud to acquire one of the relics of St. Nicholas. Like St. George, St. Nicholas provides miracles: once an old man was commissioned to repair his icon frame, and his light stayed on even though the power had gone out in the city – and even though the light hadn’t been plugged in! “So do Muslims ever ask for miracles?” I asked. “Yes they do,” he replied, “but discreetly – for example, they might ask a Christian to light a candle for their sick son. And yes, in al-Khader, the locals protect the monastery, because they get miracles from St. George there – in fact, they see him riding around on his horse, and fear him.” “Protect?” I asked. “Yes, unfortunately,” he said, “without such local support, Muslim radicals would have destroyed the church long ago.” “But,” I said, “I read somewhere that Israeli oppression brings Palestinians together regardless of religion. Does this not happen here?” “It should,” he replied. “But unfortunately when people get radicalized they don’t think in terms of Israelis, but Jews, and Christians. When people get into the Bible, they withdraw from the world, but when they get into the Koran, they get more materialistic, and lust for power and control.” Obviously a certain sectarian bias might be at work here, but it would seem that, like in Egypt, participating in Christian ritual is something that many Muslims frown upon.
My final church of St. George contained his sarcophagus and is found in the Israeli town of Lod (a.k.a. Lydda), near Tel Aviv. This site has existed since antiquity, and it plays a role in the narrative of both the First and Third Crusades (in 1099 the crusaders returned some relics of St. George to Lydda that they had acquired in Antioch, and instituted a Latin bishopric there; in 1192 Richard the Lionhearted spent six weeks encamped outside the town and may have rebuilt its church, which had recently been destroyed by Saladin). The current building dates from the nineteenth century, and consists of a main nave with a slightly narrower nave to the left. Throughout the church are various “stations” of St. George, including: a chain to try wrap oneself in; a freestanding silver icon in an intricately carved wooden frame; a large icon on the iconostasis (that is, the screen separating the nave from the sanctuary, what in medieval England might have been called the rood screen); the actual tomb of St. George in the crypt; and, in front of the main iconostasis, a stand featuring an icon, some relics of St. George, and a wooden “chalice” holding a glass jar full of oil and a floating tea light (see the photos below). An interesting ritual took place at this stand while I was there: a group of Romanian pilgrims was visiting the church and, one by one, they approached the stand. There, a priest dipped a sort of stylus into the oil, and with it anointed the pilgrims on the forehead, cheeks, chin, and hands. Thus was the power of St. George bestowed on his votaries.
As in Beit Jala, I did manage to speak with a local Christian at this church, who claimed that Muslims have great respect for St. George and that they see him riding his horse around the neighborhood (Lod’s population is about 25% Arab, most of whom are Muslim). But the only evidence I saw here of any Muslim “participation” in the cult of St. George was a Muslim woman who entered the church, took off her shoes as though she were in a mosque, walked into the nave, looked briefly at the iconostasis, and then returned to the door, put her shoes back on, and departed. Given the multiple opportunities to honor the saint in his church in Lod, I can’t say that this seemed particularly meaningful.
So what is going on, really? And whom should one believe? One can understand why Muslims, when asked, would categorically deny that any of them would stoop so low as to participate in Christian religious practice. But one can also understand why Christians would claim that Muslims would participate. What a feather in your cap, if your religion is attractive to others! I don’t think that the Christians were lying necessarily – exaggerating, maybe, but if only a handful of Muslims venerated St. George, their statements about Muslim worship would be true. One possible explanation, according to my Coptic Christian guide at Luxor, is that you can divide people in to three categories: The first are the poorest and least educated, who will do anything they think can help them, without thinking about it too much. The second are in the middle class and educated enough to take their Islam seriously. And the third are the elites, in education and socio-economic status, who don’t take anything religious too seriously. So by this schema, people who pay homage to St. George are uneducated, marginalized, and desperate for miracles, while most other people, i.e. the ones I spoke with, are well versed enough in Islam not to go in for such alternative medicine. This sounds about right.
But are Muslims even venerating St. George? They call him Khidr, after all, a figure from their own tradition. However, they seem to be doing so only in Christian churches. (This convergence was also denied by some of my interlocutors. “Khidr and St. George are far apart,” one man told me. “Khidr is a phantom who goes around as Allah wills it, but he’s not the same as St. George,” said another.) One explanation for this convergence, at least on the West Bank, is that Christians and Muslims have been forced together by Israeli oppression, and that St. George has become a sort of resistance figure for the Palestinians. This may be true for some, although as noted above resistance to Israel is also inspired by radical Islam, which has little time for such syncretism – and it doesn’t explain the convergence between Khidr and St. George that finds in Egypt. Instead, a better explanation was suggested by an Anglican priest I spoke with: we may drive intermediaries out with a pitchfork, but they keep coming back, and if your religion absolutely denies their existence, then you’re forced to use someone else’s. In its way, this operation allows you to keep your monotheism but have your intermediaries too. I would say that such a dynamic also applies to tactile rituals like lighting candles, handling chains, or receiving holy oil: these sorts of actions help satisfy a deep-seated human need, and if they’ve been declared out of bounds in your own religion, you might, if you were so inclined, seek them elsewhere. (This would be especially true in places where Christianity is the religion of a distinct and socially powerless minority, meaning that it is not really a threat.)
If nothing else, it certainly provides contemporary evidence that St. George remains a powerful miracle worker, as he has always been.
Rather than trying to integrate images into the text, I have placed them in an appendix. (There are 68 images in total).
1. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo.
2. St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Convent, Old Cairo.
3. Various other Coptic icons of St. George. Note how many feature the pitcher-bearing youth riding with him, and Arabic script, indicating the everyday language of the Copts.
4. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Al-Khader, Palestinian Territories.
5. Veneration of St. George in Beit Jala and al-Khader.
6. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Lod (Lydda), Israel.
My thanks to Alex Nikas for his comments.
President Trump has announced that that the United States will soon recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, and begin to move the US embassy there. Obviously, this is just a formality – Israelis themselves have long considered Jerusalem their eternal capital, and the Knesset has been there since 1948. This is not how it was supposed to be, of course: the original UN plan was for the city to have an international status, somewhat like Danzig between the wars. But events turned out rather differently: the city ended up divided between Israel and Jordan, and then entirely conquered by Israel in 1967. Many people hold that the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is illegal, but possession is 9/10 of the law, so here we are. What makes Trump’s move so provocative is that no other country formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, nor has its embassy there – most are in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most important city otherwise.
Personally, if I were Israeli, I would not want my capital in Jerusalem. This is largely because I don’t believe that Israel is the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy, but a nineteenth-century settler nation, and Tel Aviv is the perfect symbol for this – Jewish settlers built it themselves from scratch, and the city’s population remains predominantly Jewish. I would be very proud of this. Jerusalem, by contrast, belongs to the entire world, which you will discover if you ever get there. Certainly the Old City is only 1/4 Jewish, and East Jerusalem remains predominately Arab. Why bother trying to impose yourself on all this? An international administration would have been most appropriate for the place – too bad it didn’t come to pass. You could say that Tel Aviv is nowhere near as historic or poetic as Jerusalem, but plenty of countries locate their capitals in such functional places, viz. Ankara, Brasilia, or Ottawa.
Here are some photographs I took of Jerusalem in October.
The Damascus Gate, my first view of the Old City. A common way to get from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem is by shared taxi. You just get in the van, and it leaves when it’s full, taking each passenger to his or her destination. Since very few streets in the Old City can accommodate cars, a taxi driver will drop you off at the gate of your choice. (Actually, I had no idea what gate I wanted, so he just chose for me.) I eventually found the Ecce Homo Pilgrim Guesthouse where I had my reservation; I highly recommend this place if you’re ever visiting Jerusalem.
This is the archetypical scene – the Dome of the Rock over the Western Wall. The minaret to the left is called the Bab al-Sisila Minaret and is one of four on the Temple Mount. The elevated walkway is one of the entrances to the Temple Mount – it is only open at certain times, and you have to line up pretty early if you want to get in (I never managed to). You can just make out, beneath it, the divider between the men’s and women’s prayer sections on the Western Wall.
A close-up of some people in the men’s section. A Haredi Jew prays at the wall, while a worker cleans out the papers left between the cracks. An American fellow traveller who could read Hebrew told me that he wasn’t just throwing them in a trash can, but a genizah, that is, a vessel used to store worn-out sacred texts prior to proper burial in a Jewish cemetery.
On Friday evening, a festive mood prevails.
I saw innumerable groups of Christian pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross, from “I. Jesus is Condemned to Death” near the Lion Gate on the Via Dolorosa to “XIV. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pictured). Each station has at least a chapel associated with it, and often an entire church. The Holy Sepulchre actually contains the last four stations; it is also famously divided among six Christian denominations by an Ottoman firman of 1853, designated the Status Quo. Each denomination jealously guards its rights, and violence can break out over perceived threats to them; the ladder under the upper window in the photo above is known as the Immovable Ladder since “no cleric of the six ecumenical Christian orders may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of the other five orders.”
(I feel compelled to inject my opinion here that as a historian I am interested in sacred space, but as a Christian I don’t care much for it. Christianity is wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. Christianity derives from the Bible and Church tradition, and you can have these anywhere. Whenever people designate a particular place or object as being essential to their faith, they are just asking for trouble – what happens when you lose control over it? Your entire life’s purpose then becomes getting it back, at the expense of everything else that matters.)
Some other Christian churches I saw were:
St. Helena’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, near the Holy Sepulchre. I really liked this one – it was beautifully simple, and had a great courtyard.
St. George’s Anglican Cathedral, outside Herod’s Gate to the north of the Old City. It represents is a little slice of England in the Holy Land. I assume that it was an important religious venue during the Mandatory period.
Interior of the dome of St. Stephen’s Greek Orthodox Church, commemorating the site of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, just outside the Lion Gate to the east of the Old City.
The subterranean Church of the Sepulchre of St. Mary, in the Kidron Valley between the Old City and the Mount of Olives. This one is divided between the Greeks and the Armenians.
On the Mount of Olives, the Roman Catholic Dominus Flevit Church, commemorating the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, from Luke 19.
Fittingly, the window of the Dominus Flevit Church provides a great vista of Jerusalem, through Christian eyes.
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, on the eastern slope of Mount Zion to the south of the Old City. This commemorates the site of St. Peter’s denial of Christ before the cock crowed.
The Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, to the south of the Old City, commemorating the site of the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary (there is a dispute as to whether she actually “died”).
The interior of the Franciscan Monastery of San Salvadore, within the walls of the Old City near the New Gate. I found this one particularly appealing.
In the nearby village of Ein Karem, the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist, commemorating John’s birthplace.
Not too far away in Ein Karem, the Church of the Visitation, commemorating the site where St. Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, while she was pregnant with St. John.
While visiting Elizabeth, Mary came out with the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior…”), recorded in Luke 1:46-55. This passage, in numerous languages, is displayed in the church’s courtyard. (The Church of St. John features the same display, but with the Benedictus, that is, the canticle sung by Zachariah on the occasion of John’s circumcision, from Luke 1:68-79 – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us, in the house of his servant David,” as the Book of Common Prayer has it.)
A bit of trivia: the Greek Orthodox symbol for Jerusalem, I discovered, is a combination of the letters tau (T) and phi (Φ), for taphos, meaning tomb. You see it all over the city. (As it happens I’ve seen this device before in another context: a Dartmouth fraternity, Phi Tau, also uses it.)
The Kidron Valley, to the east of the Old City, is a very popular place for Jewish burials, on the principle that this is where the Messiah will return.
The Ottoman-era Tower of David, just inside the Jaffa Gate. (Alas, I never got inside.)
“Here in the Muristan was situated the first hospital of the knights of St. John of Jerusalem during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1882, the Grand Priory in the British realm of the Most Venerable Order of the hospital of St. John of Jerusalem established an ophthalmic hospital in the Holy City in emulation of the humanitarian and charitable efforts of its mediaeval predecessors.”
Finally, and to return to more mundane concerns: the streets of the Old City are very narrow indeed, and some of them are even covered, giving the occasional impression that you’re in a large indoor mall. This is further emphasized by what’s on sale in the stores – largely souvenirs, and in the case of this store, t-shirts with American sports team logos but with the name rendered in Hebrew script. This I thought was very clever: simultaneously a souvenir of Israel, and a means of supporting one’s favorite team at home, giving tourists extra reason to buy them.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A silver lining of sorts.
On the Turkish side, of course this campaign launched the career of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a great morale boost during the war, and set the stage for the Turkish War of Independence. It wouldn’t surprise me if it also contributed to the contemporaneous Armenian Genocide, although the Turks would never admit to that. (Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey on account of the article on the Armenian Genocide, which has been protected from Turkey’s manic insistence that the atrocity never happened, or that it wasn’t as great a crime as claimed, or that it was never their intention to kill so many people, etc., etc. Why the Turks feel they have to do this has always baffled me. Quite apart from the blatant pigheadedness of denying reality, why bother, when it was the Ottomans who carried it out, not the Nationalists?)
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.
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.
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.
• 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 ready. And 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.