Detail from an old house in a Jewish area of Ottoman Istanbul
A lintel of a building in a Greek area of Ottoman Istanbul
The neighborhoods of Ottoman Istanbul sound like they were similar to parts of Queens, New York, if on a smaller scale. As one traveled through the city one would move from Jewish to Greek to Armenian to Turkish concentrations. These were not ghettos – people lived amongst one another – but religio-ethnicities tended to gather around their mosques, churches and synagogues, as well as their work. As described by Professor Sajdi as we walked through them, relations were not a model of post-modern post-nationalism, but there was certainly the co-existence frequently missing from the current Middle East. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis make a similar point in the introduction to their Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, speaking about “two opposing myths on the question of Muslim tolerance and intolerance.” They argue, “One depicts Islam and the Muslims as bigoted, intolerant, and oppressive; its best-known image is Gibbon’s legendary figure of a fanatical warrior riding out of the desert, with the Quran in one hand and the sword in the other, offering his victims a choice between the two. The other myth is of an interfaith, interracial utopia in which Muslims, Christians and Jews worked together in equality and harmony in a golden age of free intellectual endeavor. Both myths are sadly distorted, relatively recent, and products of European, not Islamic, history.” Still, they conclude, “Remarkably, this polyethnic and multi-religious society worked.”
In contrast, turn into one room in the Istanbul Military Museum, and one goes back in time – but not far enough, and not in a good way. The room’s title, “The Armenian Issue,” gives some false hope. “Issue” sounds like one might be presented differing viewpoints. Instead, one reads and views pictures only of horrors the Armenians perpetrated on the Turks. A sign speaks of the “so-called genocide.” There is no gesture towards modern museum standards, much less true scholarly efforts to bring the most accurate information into the displays. It reminded me of Eastern European museums under the communists.
I wonder who today makes the decision to leave this display in place. Who is the head of the Turkish museum authority, for example? Does he come under pressure in international conferences? Are there other Turkish museums that handle the “Armenian issue” with a greater range of evidence, and is this a result of this being a military museum? The museum does not look recently updated – do they have changes in the works? Of course, Turkish resistance to the international consensus on the “Armenian issue” is well known, but I was surprised at the lack of subtlety and rhetorical care taken in this museum’s display.