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.
Category Archives: Armenia
After a long period when no one of consequence came to Istanbul, and local journalists interviewed all foreigners who turned up at the Hilton Hotel, the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky published a long piece entitled “Flight from Byzantium” in The New Yorker.
Perhaps because he was still smarting from W. H. Auden’s brutal review of the book recounting his journey to Iceland, Brodsky began with a long list of reasons he’d come to Istanbul (by plane). At the time I was living far from the city and wanted to read only good things about it, so his mockery was crushing, yet I was glad when Brodsky wrote, “How dated everything is here! Not old, ancient, antique, or even old-fashioned, but dated!” He was right. When the empire fell, the new Republic, while certain of its purpose, was unsure of its identity; the only way forward, its founders thought, was to foster a new concept of Turkishness, and this meant a certain cordon sanitaire to shut it off from the rest of the world. It was the end of the grand polyglot multicultural Istanbul of the imperial age; the city stagnated, emptied itself out, and became a monotonous monolingual town in black and white.
The cosmopolitian Istanbul I knew as a child had disappeared by the time I reached adulthood. In 1852, Gautier, like many other travelers of the day, had remarked that in the streets of Istanbul you could hear Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Italian, French, and English (and, more than either of the last two languages, Ladino, the medieval Spanish of the Jews who’d come to Istanbul after the Inquisition). Noting that many people in this “tower of Babel” were fluent in several languages, Gautier seems, like so many of his compatriots, to be slightly ashamed to have no language other than his mother tongue.
After the founding of the Republic and the violent rise of Turkification, after the state imposed sanctions on minorities—measures that some might describe as the final stage of the city’s “conquest” and others as ethnic cleansing—most of these languages disappeared. I witnessed this cultural cleansing as a child, for whenever anyone spoke Greek or Armenian too loudly in the street (you seldom heard Kurds advertising themselves in public during this period), someone would cry out, “Citizens, please speak Turkish!”—echoing what signs everywhere were saying.
Dumneazu blogger Zaelic comments:
True, but with holes in it. On my last trip to Istanbul I managed to find myself in several situations where other languages indigenous to Istanbul were openly used. Kurdish and Laz were not rare among my friends. On the street where we lived in Beyoglu (known as the Tomtom Kapitan neighborhood) Kurdish was never rare, Arabic was common and occaisionally I heard Romani. I found Ladino spoken both at the booksellers shops near Tunel, as well as on the Princess Island of Burgaz Ada. Also Greek on Burgaz Ada, as well as Pontic Greek among some Muslim Rumca-speaking friends from the Black Sea coast (who moved back to Istanbul after being raised speaking Rumca in Germany! They essentially had to learn Turkish in Turkey – in Essen they spoke Rumca as kids and thought it was Turkish! On the weekend ferry to Buyuk Ada – where the upper class Armenians of Istanbul have their weekend homes – I heard a lot of Armenian, something which my American friend who has resided in a strongly Armenian neighborhood of Istanbul for years (Samatya) says came as a great surprise to him. I wouldn’t say that Pamuk is wrong, but things have loosened up in the last five years… people are less afraid to be heard speaking languages in the streets that have often been confined to the kitchen.
For a skeptical take on either Pamuk’s
Istanbul and his memories of Brodsky and Auden or the translation thereof, see House of Mirth, who notes that Auden, not Brodsky, was the author of the travelogue about Iceland.
A lengthy post on a new blog, Tibeto-Logic, by a serious scholar of Tibet begins with unexpected tales of cathedral bell diplomacy in mountain realms of Central Asia in centuries past.
In the heart of Armenia, both corporeal and spiritual, stands the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, about 1700 years old, and founded on a still more ancient fire altar. Although not so well known to the world at large, it is a very holy place for Armenian Christians, more or less equivalent to the Vatican for Roman Catholics or the Jokhang for Tibetan Buddhists. Inside a tower attached to the Cathedral is a large bell with a Tibetan inscription. I haven’t yet been able to see a photograph of the letters, but hope to before long. It isn’t certain when the bell came to Armenia, but it is at least possible that it was supplied at the time the bell towers were built. The main bell tower was finished in 1657 by the Catholicos Yakob, and was further decorated in 1664. Soon after, in 1682, three further bell towers were added by Catholicos Eliazar. I’m told the Tibetan bell was still there last summer.
In the heart of the old city of Lhasa still today lies the Buddhist ‘Cathedral’ known as the Jokhang. Carbon datings have apparently confirmed that the main wooden structure of the Jokhang really does date back to its founding in the first half of the 7th century during the reign of Emperor Songtsen Gampo, who died in 649 give or take a year. As strange as this might sound, there is or was a Christian bell, minus its clapper, hanging in the vestibule of the Jokhang, although at the moment it may lie in storage. It was left as a relic of the Capuchin missionaries, who kept a chapel in Lhasa during the first half of the 18th century.