The Ulu Mosque from 1399 in Bursa is not green – it is white with amazing black accents. Under twenty domes, the central one of which is all glass, one finds a large open space divided by thin colonnades. In the center is a fountain – something I have never seen before in a mosque. And on every wall are huge Arabic inscriptions written in “mirror script” – the word or verse is written from right to left as usual, and then meets its mirror image in the middle. Some are elongated and some are heightened, some are accented with red script, and all are absolutely gorgeous. Carved into the wooden pulpit stairway is a representation of the cosmos. For the first time I felt the real disadvantage of being on a tour – I very much wanted to sit on the carpet and spend time taking in the sacred space and time.
Around the world, people make choices to emphasize the history they want to remember and deemphasize the history they wish forgotten. Most vivid in my recent experience is the example of Israel, where plaques describing the ancient Biblical or modern national history of locations are everywhere, but one can come across historic sites from the more than 1000 years of Muslim rule with no notation whatsoever. Today, did I come across another example of selective historical ignorance in Iznik, ancient Nicaea?
The Council of Nicaea, where the Christian Church standardized its beliefs, met in this town, possibly in the ancient cathedral of Aya Sofia. This 4th or 5th century church was turned into a mosque in the 14th century. In those times such an offensive move was not surprising or limited to a particular religion. Famously, the same happened to the much larger Aya Sofia in Istanbul, and in Spain a century later the great mosque of Cordoba was turned into a church. When Ataturk was secularizing Turkey in the 1920s, he sought to reduce this kind of interreligious insult by making both Aya Sofias into museums. I find this a wise decision. Allow all people to learn from the site, and one can worship nearby if one wishes. Now the current Turkish administration has returned the Nicaean holy site to an active mosque. I probably would not have made this change. I could see justification for such an action, however, if it were combined with agreements to sustain the Christian history of Iznik’s Aya Sofia. In the last year, however, the signs explaining to visitors the ancient frescos, the apse, and the location of the old altar have been removed. A detailed introductory poster has been replaced with a shorter poster. Meanwhile several Muslim rondels have been hung up.
Will the explanatory texts be updated, better lit, and returned? I hope so. As I would in Israel, or in the United States, in Turkey I argue that human happiness is not a zero-sum game, and that one can worship as one wishes without suppressing the ability of others to worship as they wish.
The Empire is gone, but if you want a taste of a wealthy hill town from the Ottoman 19th century, go to Yoruk Koya. It was first settled in the 13th century by the Yoruk, nomadic peoples from Khorasan. They people from Yoruk Koya and the better known nearby Safranbolu made a lot of money as Janissaries – as soldiers and later as bakers – in the capital. A 1929 census showed that over half the bakers in Istanbul were from these towns 250 miles from Istanbul! They brought this wealth back with them, and built beautiful multi-story wood houses. Some of the names of the people still reflect their work in the military – one last name means “armorer” for example.
Interestingly, the Janissary Corps was not orthodox Sunni – instead it followed a set of customs called “Bektashi” after its Sufi founder Haci Bektash. “For those who have Awareness, a hint is quite enough. For the multitudes of heedless mere knowledge is useless.” Among their different traditions was a more equal relationship between men and women – in Yoruk Koya traditionally women could pass by the café without covering their faces, and men and women could drink alcohol together. (Orthodox believers sometimes exaggerated these difference to imply moral laxity.)
The area has seen layers of loss. The Bektashi were disbanded as a Sufi order along with the Janissaries in 1826, merging them with the more approved Mehlevi order. Then Ataturk made all sufi orders illegal when he sought to unify the country under a secular Turkish identity in the 1920s. Also in the 1920s Turkey and Greece agreed to a “population exchange,” and up to 20% of Greek-speaking Christians who lived in the area were moved to Greece. Still, in Yoruk Koya and Safranbolu one can see details that indicate the Bektashi heritage of their inhabitants. They followed a numerological system, and many wall paintings in the houses have the specific numbers worked into their decorations. I came across a Greek inscription from the 1840s. Some graves have carved on the top the headgear of the Sufi dervishes (leaders) buried there.
I also experienced a more immediately physical connection with the area’s history by spending part of an afternoon in the historic Cinci hamam. Built in the 17th century, the marble-slabbed sicaklik (hot room) is capped with a traditional dome with small glass windows. Metal wrought faucets spill into bowls stamped with the name of the hamam. A massage there was both invigorating and an aesthetic experience.
If you’d asked me the subject of Ottoman poetry, I would have told you it was God. I would not have been completely wrong, but Professor Sooyong Kim of Koc University surprised me today with some of additional possible interpretations.
First, “ghazal” poetry was love poetry, and one
interpret it as referring to the writer’s love for God. It was repetitive and not supposed to be original. The poets leaned heavily on conventions – the beloved was always moon-faced, fair-skinned, black-haired, cypress slender. As Prof. Kim said, the themes were similar to country and western music: I have a beloved, the beloved ignores me, so I go drinking at the meyhane (the tavern). The poet writes in the first person in the first and second stanzas, and in the third stanza switches to the third person.
So far, ghazal poetry sounds a bit odd to modern ears but nothing too surprising. (Actually, I suppose drinking forlornly because God won’t respond to one’s entreaties could be considered a very modern attitude.) What I did not expect, however, is that Ottoman Turkish had gender neutral pronouns. Thus, ghazal poetry could be written about a beloved and one need never say if that person was a male or a female. Often, indeed, the subject was meant to be a boy. But was the writer was expressing homosexual love? Perhaps – or perhaps, says Professor Kim, the poet could have been speaking in Platonic ideal terms.
So…is a particular ghazal poem about God? about a woman? about a man? Was it meant to express physical or spiritual love? Your guess is as good as the next interpreter’s.
Istanbul between the Sultanahmet Mosque and Hagia Sophia was hopping this evening. The streets were full of families walking, kids playing with glow sticks, food vendors of all kinds, and musicians. Last year I commented on my blog that Sukkot in Israel is like Christmas. I’ve never felt the joy of Ramadan (or Ramazan as they say in Turkish) before – it also feels like Christmas…only hot and at night.
Here a sign strung between two minarets of the Sultanahmet says “Welcome to the month of Ramadan!”
On a free stage in the park whirling dervishes were dancing, and we heard the instrument that Rumi says sounds most like the human voice. Tonight I’ve been told that drummers will walk through the streets at 2:30am to wake everyone to prepare for the predawn meal. As far as I can tell not many people in this area of Istanbul will need to be awoken – I think they’ll still be up!
I should say that today in another area of Istanbul there was far less joy – the police again beat and tear-gassed protesters in Taksim Square. We are far away from that activity, both atmospherically and physically. Still, my thoughts are with the people who are trying to push for a more democratic Turkey.
One of our professors, Dana Sajdi, a Palestinian-Jordanian, told a fascinating story today about her grandfather. He and her parents had difficulty understanding each other, because her parents were committed Pan-Arabists. Her grandfather, however, saw himself in a much more cosmopolitan light. He even continued to wear the fez, which her parents seemed to think was a little backward. Through her studies, however, Professor Sajdi has begun to interpret the Ottoman Empire as in some senses a critique of nationalism and has more sympathy with her grandfather’s identity as an Ottoman subject. Her father remains very critical of the “Turkish occupation” as he conceives of it, but Professor Sajdi argues that, while not romanticizing the empire, its characteristics in its last years is not how it would have been experienced across its history.
As she mentioned later in reference to Andalusian Spain, one can think of Ottoman history at times as a kind of convivencia, though she does note that one can overdo that reading both in the Ottoman and in the Spanish contexts.
This strikes me as an interesting question for students of the Middle East – to what extent can the Ottoman Empire be read as an anti- or post-nationalist model?
Arriving in Taksim Square, my first reaction was the mix of normalcy and police presence. A few blocks off the square there are busses and busses of police, hanging out in the shade, checking their cell phones, having coffee. In Gezi Park, which is cordoned off with police tape, there are police and muscular young gentlemen in civilian clothes (hmmm…who could they be?) sitting at the tables enjoying the afternoon breeze. I think if you are higher ranking you get to sit in the park, while the lower ranks have to stick near the bus.
In and around the square there is the occasional semi-automatic rifle armed cop, but not very many. This afternoon the mission is not “make your presence felt.” Perhaps the biggest giveaway is the line of water-hose armored trucks parked on one side of the square. When a man volunteered to give me directions, he ended with “You know we are having a war here. Be careful.” (I think he was enjoying trying to frighten the tourist.) But there are many, many people out strolling and shopping.
I had the chance to talk at length with one young woman who has been very involved in the protests. Hanging just inside her apartment door were her hard hat, goggles and filtration mask.
She seemed extremely optimistic, and when I asked her, she agreed and explained why. “When friends used to come, they saw the economy doing well and the nightlife in this neighborhood – you know, the ‘modern Islamic democracy.’ I had to tell them that this was not the whole story. For example, in this neighborhood I can live alone as a woman, but just one neighborhood over a wife can be beaten for talking to a man. Now the whole world knows [that the government does not always protect human rights].”
I mentioned to her how odd I found Prime Minister Erdogan’s use of the word terrorist, when the protesters were plainly young secularists using non-violent tactics almost exclusively. “Yes! But actually I hope they [the government] continue to talk like this. It shows people who they really are. The AKP is not backing down at all. They just keep pushing. For example, Ramadan begins soon. Their plan for Gezi Park is to give AKP [Erdogan’s party] people tickets and let them into the park for Iftar [the breaking of the fast on Ramadan evenings]! I mean, if you are not wearing a scarf you do not count for this government.”
I asked her what was next. “I think we should go to parliament – form our own political party.” I asked her about the current opposition party. “They are arrogant…I mean, they want what is best for the people, not like Erdogan. But the CHP – you know, this is Ataturk’s party, and they treat him like a god. I mean, I have no problem with Ataturk, but this is too much. We should bring together our own political party.”
Egypt’s military just gave Morsi 48 hours to “comply with the peoples’ wishes.” Some tweets I found insightful: “Raise your hand if you think a highly disciplined religious movement that survived arrests and killings for 85 years is going to go quietly.” – Evan Hill, Cairo-based journalist. “Choice facing Egyptian people: Generals who’ve proved they can’t govern. MB ditto & an opposition that can’t get organized enough to govern.” – Paul Danahar, BBC Middle East Bureau Chief. “The one thing I can say with certainty is this: I have no idea of how any of this will play out. I am as in the dark as you are.” – Mahmoud Salem, Egyptian secular activist.
In May 2012 I was in Egypt as the people expressed great enthusiasm for their first free elections. I then watched as the democratically elected president worked the military out of power and expressed his willingness to work with all parties. I was hopeful, and nowhere near as critical of his ties with the Muslim Brotherhood as many others.
Then came the steady decline – forcing representatives of the other religious groups and the seculars out of the constitutional process. Anti-semitic rantings from several years prior emerging. Losing control of the Sinai. More and more people becoming nervous – with a corresponding drop in the economy.
Yesterday’s protests were amazing to watch, though obviously concerning as well. After all, setting a precedent for toppling an elected leader isn’t ideal. And now the army is here to “help.” I’m reminded of the title character’s deadpan reaction in the 1985 film “Fletch” when confronted by an armed crooked cop: “Thank God. The…police.”
I don’t know the route forward, but I hope this is the bumpy road to progress and not the backsliding to some form of authoritarian or oligarchic rule.