Pamuk on the Conquest of Istanbul

You can often tell whether you’re standing in the East or in the West, just by the way people refer to certain historical events. For Westerners, May 29, 1453, is the Fall of Constantinople, while for Easterners it’s the Conquest of Istanbul. Years later, when my wife was studying at Columbia University, she used the word conquest in an exam and her American professor accused her of nationalism. In fact, she’d used the word only because she was taught to use it as a Turkish lycée student; because her mother was of Russian extraction, it could be said that her sympathies were more with the orthodox Christians. Or perhaps she saw it neither as a fall nor a conquest and felt more like an unlucky hostage caught between two worlds that offered no choice but to be Muslim or Christian.

It was westernization and Turkish nationalism that prompted Istanbul to begin celebrating the conquest. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only half the city’s population was Muslim, and most of the non-Muslim inhabitants were descendents of Byzantine Greeks. When I was a child, the view among the city’s more vocal nationalists was that anyone who so much as used the name Constantinople was an undesirable alien with irredentist dreams of the day when the Greeks, who had been the city’s first masters would return to chase away the Turks, who had occupied it for five hundred years—or, at the very least, turn us into second-class citizens. It was the nationalists, then, who insisted on the word conquest. By contrast, many Ottomans were content to call their city Constantinople.

Even in my own time, Turks committed to the idea of a westernized republic were wary of making too much of the conquest. Neither President Celal Bayar nor Prime Minister Adnan Menderes attended the 500th anniversary ceremony in 1953; although it had been many years in the planning, it was decided at the last moment that to do so might offend the Greeks and Turkey’s western allies. The Cold War had just begun, and Turkey, a member of NATO, did not wish to remind the world about the conquest. It was, however, three years later that the Turkish state deliberately provoked what you might call “conquest fever” by allowing mobs to rampage through the city, plundering the property of Greeks and other minorities. A number of churches were destroyed during the riots and a number of priests were murdered, so there are many echoes of the cruelties western historians describe in accounts of the “fall” of Constantinople. In fact, both the Turkish and the Greek states have been guilty of treating their respective minorities as hostages to geopolitics, and that is why more Greeks have left Istanbul over the past fifty years than in the fifty years following 1453.

In 1955 the British left Cyprus, and as Greece was preparing to take over the entire island, an agent of the Turkish secret service threw a bomb into the house where Atatürk was born in the Greek city of Salonika. After Istanbul’s newspapers had spread the news in a special edition exaggerating the incident, mobs hostile to the city’s non-Muslim inhabitants gathered in Taksim Square, and after they had burned, destroyed, and plundered all those shops my mother and I had visited in Beyoğlu, they spent the rest of the night doing the same in other parts of the city.

The bands of rioters were most violent and caused greatest terror in neighborhoods like Ortaköy, Balıklı, Samatya, and Fener, where the concentration of Greeks was greatest; not only did they sack and burn little Greek groceries and dairy shops, they broke into houses to rape Greek and Armenian women. So it is not unreasonable to say that the rioters were as merciless as the soldiers who sacked the city after it fell to Mehmet the Conqueror. It later emerged that the organizers of this riot—whose terror raged for two days and made the city more hellish than the worst orientalist nightmares—had the state’s support and had pillaged the city with its blessing.

So for that entire night, every non-Muslim who dared walk the streets of the city risked being lynched; the next morning the shops of Beyoğlu stood in ruins, their windows smashed, their doors kicked in, their wares either plundered or gleefully destroyed.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 172-173

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