Neo-Ottomanism

I have no idea whether the title of this post is a real thing, but it seems to describe Erdogan’s schtick, at least as revealed in a recent speech (from The Conversation, via Instapundit):

On our third trip to Istanbul, my wife and I visited the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace, once the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire. As we toured the 285-room palace my wife was struck with not just how well preserved it was, but that it was one of at least five palaces from the Ottoman era in Turkey that are now museums open to the public.

This is telling, because it is not something found across the rest of the Middle East and Arab world, where such palaces are still very much in use as palaces – for example, the nine palaces in Jordan. Turkey is a modern republic created from the heart of the former Ottoman empire, established since the 14th century. Few of the other former regions of the empire across the Middle East and North Africa can boast of such a long political history, with countries such as Jordan not yet even 100 years old.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is well aware of this fact, and does not distinguish between glorious empire and modern republic. “The Republic of Turkey is also a continuation of the Ottomans,” he declared in a recent speech. The empire is more than a memory. It is a symbol of political clout, and the prospect of once again leading the Muslim world. This symbolic power is captured by the presidential palace at Ankara, a towering structure that puts the mansions of modern-day monarchs to shame. At a cost of over US$500m, Aksaray or “white palace” is bigger than Trump’s White House or Putin’s Kremlin, and has led critics to say the president is acting “like a sultan”.

Erdoğan seeks a return to Islam’s golden age. Increased public finance has been made available for Islamic schools – Erdoğan attended an Islamic school, one that has since been named after him and enjoyed an US$11m upgrade. “The joint goal of all education and our teaching system is to bring up good people with respect for their history, culture and values,” Erdoğan emphasised at a ceremony to reopen his childhood school. These values include an understanding of Ottoman achievements over Western ideas.

More at the link, although as a commenter at Instapundit said, “so he’ll be seeking out the most direct blood-descendant of Mehmet the Sixth to re-establish the House of Osman and sit on the renewed palatial throne? They are still present, scattered around Europe but it is known who they are.

“Because there can be no ‘Ottoman Empire’ without them.”

Quite right! I remember thinking along these lines when I visited China back in 2005. “Tibet has always been a part of China,” our hosts helpfully explained to us. “China has not always been ruled by the CCP,” I was too polite to counter. “Where is the Son of Heaven these days?”

It’s always amazing how we remember what we want to remember, how we cherry-pick what we want from the past and turn it into a moral example, while ignoring everything else as “just something they did.”

Ottoman Turkish

Earlier on this blog, I wrote that “no one has started rendering Turkish in Arabic script, as a way of disavowing Kemalism.” But apparently I spoke too soon! From Hürriyet:

Ottoman Turkish should be taught in schools, Erdoğan says

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has once again said Ottoman Turkish should be taught in schools, accusing the early Republican period’s “language revolution” of “destroying” the Turkish language.

“It is one of the biggest problems in recent history that our language has become a subject of political discussions. In the name of ‘language revolution,’ our Turkish was attacked by unpleasant, dull and soulless words.

The bond between our nation and its old civilization was tried to be weakened,” Erdoğan said on March 15 at the award ceremony of a high school’s composition contest at the presidential complex in Ankara.

Ottoman Turkish is an old form of Turkish using Arabic script, with many words borrowed from Persian and Arabic. As part of cultural reforms to create a Western-style secular state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, replaced Ottoman Turkish with the Latin alphabet.

Paul Halsall comments:

I think Erdogan has a certain justification. As it stands now many modern Turks cannot understand anything written 80 years ago or earlier.

I seem to recall that the Chinese Communist Party considered a move to using only pinyin but did not precisely because it would create cultural barrier with the past that would be uncrossable for most future Chinese.

Lord Kinross (Patrick Balfour) in his travelogue Within the Taurus: A Journey in Asiatic Turkey (1954) p. 13, recounts how upset many Turks were on being forced to give up the fez, and the widespread approval of King Edward VIII in Turkey because on a visit to Istanbul in 1936 the then Prince of Wales had asked why no Turkish music was heard on the radio. It had been prohibited by Ataturk, but thanks to the Prince’s inquiry it was once again played on the radio for all.

Sun Language Theory

My friend Tom MacMaster recently told me about something I did not know: the Sun Language Theory, which “makes Nazi race theory look sane.” Wikipedia:

The Sun Language Theory (TurkishGüneş Dil Teorisi) was a Turkish nationalist pseudoscientific linguistic hypothesis developed in Turkey in the 1930s that proposed that all human languages are descendants of one proto-Turkic primal language. The theory proposed that because this primal language had close phonemic resemblances to Turkish, all other languages can essentially be traced back to Turkic roots. According to the theory, the Central Asian worshippers, who wanted to salute the omnipotence of the sun and its life-giving qualities, had done so by transforming their meaningless blabbering into a coherent set of ritual utterings, and language was born, hence the name.

The article further states that “the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, not only gave the theory official backing and material support, but also was himself a very important contributor to its development.” 

Part of me admires how the Turks take pride in themselves and their country. But I confess that I find this sort of thing (others: Erdogan’s theory that the Turks made it to the New World in 1178, or the denial of a certain genocide carried out under cover of World War I) utterly baffling.

Is it simply not possible to value your country, and the truth, simultaneously?

Things I Noticed in Turkey

• 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.

• A couple of other flags: the Iraqi Turkmen flag, and the flag of the Turkish minority of Western Thrace.

• 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.

Saint George and al-Khidr

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.

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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.

A sculpture that greets you as you climb the stairs to enter the church, indicating its patron saint.

Inventive typography in a “Hagios Georgios” roundel.

A shrine in the church, containing an icon of St. George.

A close-up of the icon, entirely silver except for St. George’s face.

In the same church: another icon, made entirely of silver, with offerings.

2. St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Convent, Old Cairo.

The courtyard of the convent, with the exterior entrance to the Chaplet of St. George on the left.

A closer view of the exterior entrance of the Chaplet of St. George.

A scanned postcard, showing the interior entrance to the Chaplet of St. George and its seven-meter-high wooden doors.

In the Chaplet, a Coptic icon of St. George, with velvet roll containing relics. Normally this roll is contained in the glass case beneath the icon, although it can be taken out and handled for devotional purposes, as it is here.

A painting of St. George hanging above his chains. A nearby sign reads: “The Persian King Dadynos gathered seventy rulers to put the great martyr St. George on trial. They used all sorts of torturing instruments including a chain to which he was chained. This chain is a cause of blessing because it was put on the body of the martyr and on it his blood ran. We believe that the things that touch the bodies of saints become a blessing as the bible said about Paul, “So that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried a way from his body to the sick and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them,” Acts 19:12. This chain is now found in the central compartments of the shrine through it and by faith a lot of miracles have been taking place. It also wrestles with evil spirits also unclean spirits come out of many who are possessed.”

Elsewhere in the chaplet, a mosaic of St. George.

Another mosaic of St. George, this one with a crown of martyrdom being presented by two angels.

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.

Icon of St. George, St. Shenouda’s Church, Old Cairo.

Icon of St. George, St. Shenouda’s Church, Old Cairo. I confess that I am unclear on who the stripped, bound figure near the dragon is supposed to represent.

Icon of St. George, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo. I like the appearance of the banner in this one.

Icon of St. George, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Icon of St. George, Abu Serga Church, Old Cairo. I like the brutalist castle.

Postcard: “Icon of St. George, Al Muallaqah [Hanging Church], Old Cairo.”

Postcard: “The ancient icon of the great martyr St. George inside the internal chamber of the antique shrine, 17th century.”

Postcard: “1. A Coptic icon of the great martyr St. George measuring 61cm x 94cm painted on wood – 19th century A.D. 2. A chain to which St. George was tied during his tortures.”

4. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Al-Khader, Palestinian Territories.

Map showing location of St. George’s church and monastery, al-Khader, in relation to Beit Jala, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. Google Maps.

The main entrance to the monastery.

A view of the exterior of the church from the courtyard, and a minaret from the mosque across the street.

The monastery courtyard.

The church as one enters it.

A view of the church’s decoration.

The main icon, George killing the dragon, surrounded by scenes from his martyrdom. Note the lamps in front, and the prayers and offerings behind the glass.

A close-up of the bottom left of the icon above: pictures of people being prayed for.

A close-up of the bottom middle of the icon above: valuables left for St. George in gratitude for prayers answered.

A bank of St. George icons.

A Slavic icon of St. George, given in “By Yuri Father and Yuri Junior and Family in 2014.”

A twinned portrait of Saints George and Demetrius. I’m not exactly sure whom Demetrius is supposed to be killing.

Saint George the soldier-saint, with armor, lance, shield – and bow and quiverful of arrows, something I have never seen him depicted with before.

Saints Eudocimus, Sergius, Keladion, and George.

An inventive depiction of the various tortures, and martyrdom, of St. George.

Elsewhere, one final depiction of St. George and the dragon.

5. Veneration of St. George in Beit Jala and al-Khader.

An arch in al-Khader, with St. George and Palestinian flag.

Close-up of the carving on the arch.

Interior of St. Nicholas’s Greek Orthodox Church, Beit Jala, Palestinian Territories.

Icon of St. George in St. Nicholas’s Church, Beit Jala.

Icon of St. George in St. Nicholas’s Church, Beit Jala.

Statue of St. George and the dragon welcoming visitors to Beit Jala.

Roundel of St. George on a house in Beit Jala.

Plaque of St. George on a house in Beit Jala.

Icon of St. George in a workshop in Beit Jala.

Icons of St. George in a workshop in Beit Jala.

6. From St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Lod (Lydda), Israel.

Postcard of a watercolor painting showing the church of St. George. The monastery (obscured) is across the street. The El-Umari mosque is in the foreground on the right.

A photograph of the other side of the street, showing the monastery. Note the flags of Greece and of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (a red cross of St. George with the tau-phi device on it).

The door to the church.

Immediately to the right of the door as one enters, a bank of candles that pilgrims can light.

Behind the pilgrim in the photo, a stand containing an icon of St. George with his parents…

…and “The Holy and Miracle Working Chain of St. George,” which you can pull out and wrap yourself in.

A pilgrim tries on the chain.

Near the chain stand (you can see it on the left in this photo), a carved wooden stand for a silver icon of St. George, with suspended lamp.

A scanned postcard of the icon above.

To the right of the chain stand as you face it, the main iconostasis of the church.

A scanned postcard of the second icon from the left in the iconostasis, showing all the details of the dragon-slaying legend: Jesus is blessing St. George, while an angel crowns him, and the pitcher-bearer rides in his saddle. The princess, her parents (her father holds out the keys to the city in an act of surrendering to the saint), their castle, and other buildings of the city (bottom right) flesh out the picture. This image also shows a collection of votive offerings to St. George (these were no longer on the icon when I saw it).

Backing up from the iconostasis, and just to the right of the silver icon, we find one of the entrances to the crypt.

And in the crypt, we find the shrine of “St. George the Trophybearer.” This site has existed since antiquity although this particular shrine was sponsored by “Patriarch Cyril” – likely Cyril II of Jerusalem, reigned 1846-72. (This is not my photograph – it is a souvenir plaque given to me by Sister Theophania of St. George’s Convent, Old Cairo.)

A close-up of the mosaic in the crypt, showing St. George in his original aspect as a young, beardless soldier with armor, spear, and shield.

To return to the main nave, in front of the iconostasis, we find this stand, featuring a cabinet containing a blanket, a silver icon containing two relics on either side of a standing St. George, a color icon (reproduced below), and a chalice containing a candle and holy oil.

A scanned postcard of the icon in the stand above. The caption can be translated “Holy Monastery of Saint George in Lydda – Saint George”

A priest imposes holy oil on a pilgrim.

A picture of St. George and the dragon, framed by numerous scenes from his passion and martyrdom.

Another image of St. George and the numerous tortures he endured, scanned from a pamphlet in the church.

Four roundels painted on the ceiling, of Saints Procopius, Demetrius, Stephen, and George. The three warrior saints are dressed as soldiers.

A recently-placed mosaic of St. George, indebted to western iconography, especially with respect to the plate armor and helmet plume.

Finally, a gentle reminder of the Mandatory period.

***

My thanks to Alex Nikas for his comments.

Hittites and Egyptians

History’s first peace treaty dates to c. 1259 BC, and was ratified between the Hittite state in Anatolia and New Kingdom Egypt. I had the opportunity to see remains of both civilizations on my recent trip. They’re quite different from each other.

Ancient Egypt is very well-known. Their monuments still stand after millennia, and their style is unmistakeable. The pyramids of Giza to the west of Cairo are perhaps the most famous remains, but the New Kingdom (1500-1000 BC) was ruled from Upper Egypt, specifically Thebes, now known as Luxor. By this point Egyptians were no longer building pyramids, but they certainly had not lost their taste for monumental architecture. On the east bank of the Nile, you can visit two massive temple complexes, Luxor and Karnak. These were once connected by the so-called Avenue of the Sphinxes, a 1.5 mile road lined with recumbent sphinx sculptures, part of which is still visible.

Luxor Temple consists of pylons, obelisks, hypostyle halls, massive sculptures, and incised hieroglyphics on almost every vertical surface. Of course, one could spend one’s entire career studying the history of its construction, use, excavation, and restoration, which like that of most Egyptian monuments is ongoing. The signs suggested that Luxor Temple was used for the Opet Festival when, once a year, statues of the Theban Triad of gods were brought from the Karnak Temple to the Luxor Temple, in a celebration of rebirth and renewal.

Originally there were two obelisks, but the other one is now in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Behind the remaining obelisk are two “pylons,” wall-like structures that mark the temple’s entrance. The vertical incisions once held flagpoles.

The Karnak Temple is within walking distance of the Luxor Temple (although not to worry, plenty of cab drivers will offer to take you in their horse-drawn carriages if you don’t want to go on foot). Between the two temples is the Luxor Museum, which is much smaller than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and displays fewer artifacts, but I think it’s a good example of the “less is more” principle – what they do have is of a pretty high quality, and the building is architecturally pleasing too. I was glad to see the mummy that Emory returned to Egypt in 2003.

The Karnak Temple is even more impressive. It is certainly more extensive. Here is a model of the whole thing as it may have looked at its height.

And here are some shots of its current condition.

Of course, the Karnak Temple, the main home for the gods Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, comprises an entire field of study. I enjoyed speaking with Mahmoud (referenced below) and one Ben Pennington of the University of Southampton, who was drilling core samples that would help reveal the fluvial (and settlement) history of the place going back some 7000 years.

And this is just on the East Bank! On the other side of the Nile, one finds the various mortuary temples constructed for New Kingdom pharaohs, like Hatshepsut or Ramesses III.

Then there’s the famous Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs were actually entombed. King Tut’s tomb (designated KV62), although the most famous, was actually one of the smallest. Most of the tombs go quite a long way down into the limestone cliffs – workers would start digging it at the beginning a king’s reign, and keep on going until he died. They they had seventy days to finish everything up, which is why none of them is 100% complete. Of course, thieves stole all the grave goods long ago, but the decoration remains intact. Photography was strictly prohibited, however.

As I say, all this is very impressive. The Egyptians obviously had a wealthy nation and a strong, highly centralized state that could commandeer sufficient surpluses, and redirect them to architectural projects for which they clearly had a large class of highly skilled artisans. The desert clime of Egypt has probably helped preserve these for the ages, and you can’t help but admire their work, so many thousands of years later.

The Hittite state, by contrast, has not left remains as impressive. No one even knew there were Hittites until the late nineteenth century, when archaeologists began uncovering evidence of their Bronze-Age civilization in Anatolia. That they were named “Hittites,” after the Biblical “children of Heth,” is a matter of convenience – debate continues about whether or not the identification is valid. As more and more was uncovered, two things became apparent: the Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, representing the first appearance of that particular language family in the narrative of Western Civilization, and they were pioneers in the smelting of iron, and are thus forerunners of the Iron Age, which succeeded the collapse of their state around 1180 BC.

Hittite artifacts may be viewed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums and in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, but to view an actual archaeological site, you have to travel to Boğazkale, in Çorum Province. There you can walk around Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite empire. It takes the form of a circular wall, enclosing an area several acres in size, with numerous settlements within it. A model greets you as you enter.

But most of what you’ll see comprises nothing more than building foundations.

The Hittites eventually adopted cuneiform writing, which is how we know their language was Indo-European. Prior to that time, they employed a script known as Hittite hieroglyphics; these may be seen inscribed on this rock…

…and in this chamber.

On the exterior wall around Hattusa, we find the famous lion gate.

But on the whole, this picture conveys the sense I got when I visited: the Hittites adapted themselves to their environment, rather than trying to master it. The mountain forms a natural defense that they incorporated into their city.

By this criterion, the Egyptians were far more “civilized” than the Hittites. You wonder how there could ever have been any agreement between them based on the notion of equality.

But I couldn’t help but wonder whether living in ancient Egypt wasn’t like living in North Korea, with the only difference being that people had more to eat. Here we have an entire state set up to satisfy the whim of a single individual. (It’s true that the Luxor and Karnak Temples were ostensibly for the gods, but it was clear that each pharaoh took pleasure in adding something to them, and thereby glorifying himself.) The only art allowed was propaganda that honored the gods/the pharaoh, and in the approved style (did it not get boring after a while?!). All the building remains that I saw around Luxor were ceremonial in some way. Constructing it provided employment for people, and demonstrated the strength of the state, but does it not simply represent massive wealth destruction?* Hattusa, by contrast, was an actual city, with a wall, and functional buildings within it like houses and administrative space, in addition to temples, which were much more modest in scale. Obviously, the Egyptians would have had these too, but they were completely overshadowed by their massive temples. My guide suggested that the Egyptian penchant for construction bestowed meaning and dignity on everyone – building and decorating were meritorious in the eyes of the gods, and constituted a form of prayer. But I can’t help but think that a better way of arranging a society would be to allow greater material advantages to accrue to its populace. If nothing else it shows that you don’t need an elaborate material culture to hold your own in the fields of warfare and diplomacy.

* Cf. George Orwell, 1984:

Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built.

Troy and Gallipoli

Wikipedia.

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

Google maps.

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

Kilitbahir from Çanakkale harbor.

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

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

Walls of Troy VII (late Bronze Age), commonly seen as the Troy of the Trojan War.

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

As my friend Mark Skoczylas pointed out, “You’d think the stairway would have tipped them off.”

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

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

Diorama, Gallipoli Battle Museum, Eceabat.

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

A silver lining of sorts.

Ari Burnu Cemetery, Anzac Cove, Eceabat.

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?)

Akbaş Şehitliği (Akbaş Martyr’s Memorial), Eceabat.

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!

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.