Walled Cities of the Muslim World

Walls of Taroudannt, Morocco

Encircling walls have been, historically, a common feature of cities around the world. Beijing’s and Paris’s old walls may have been replaced by ring roads quaintly maintaining references to the old gates, and few big cities have maintained their walls (Istanbul comes to mind), but most of the cities of the world were at all point surrounded by walls protecting the urbane and civilized from the relative lawlessness of the hinterlands as well as foreign invaders. Walls distinguished what was inside, the developed density of organized city life, and what was out.

I don’t want to get into causes–an interesting discussion, no doubt–but many of the greatest walled cities that survive into the present day seem to be in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem are some of the most fabled, while smaller but still notable examples include Khiva in Uzbekistan, Lefkosa/Nicosia in Cyprus and Meknes in Morocco. Even among the Muslim cities that have lost their walls, many such as Old Delhi and Kashgar have retained much of that old walled atmosphere.

Walls of Cairo

Walls of Lefkosa/Nicosia

Walls of Khiva

That old walled city atmosphere–what is it? It has a lot to do with density–when walls constrain the growth of a city, urban life is forced to develop inward and upward, and life of every sort fills the alleys. Commerce and markets–the souqs so characteristic of Muslim cities–consume much of the urban core. Families are seen strolling from home to workshop to restaurant to hammam. And just as safety was one of the main reasons for building walls, to be able to maintain the order of civilized life inside, safety still reigns in these cities. Children run in the side streets, and scale and proximity somehow prevents the anonymity of city life from developing, every neighbor a constant presence.

We thought that we had a pretty thorough experience of Muslim walled cities by the time we got to Morocco, but we were pleasantly surprised. Of all the walled cities that we have visited, none equals the atmosphere of Fez–probably the most genuine, authentic and atmospheric walled city in our travels. More than any place else, one feels a continuity in Fez–a sense that the same people have occupied the same homes and narrow alleys for hundreds of years, living their lives in very much the same ways. Below, some images of Fez.

Fez is actually two different walled cities in one, with a substantial royal enclosure to boot. Here, the walls of Fez al-Jadid, or “New” Fez.

Markets fill many of the main arteries of traditional walled cities. Sometimes, covered.


Commerce is not limited to the “traditional”–here, a Credit Agricole branch.

Complementing the markets are warehouses or inns, called funduqs or khans, for merchants and merchandise.

Greeting neighbors, perhaps on the way to the mosque beyond

Fresh water and proper sewage facilities are of course essential to the functioning of a city–perhaps the single civil engineering technology most important to life in density. The street of Fez are still filled with fountains, public restrooms and hammams.



And room for industry as well. The famous tanneries of Fez are still in full production, not only for the local market but for import abroad.


Reuse of Religious Sites

Another nice thing about traveling to so many places, especially within a reasonably condensed timeframe, is that you can easily recognize phenomena that recur in diverse settings and compare their manifestations. One such common phenomenon is the co-opting of places of worship for one religion by another (usually newer) religion, or, more simply put, the reuse of religious sites.

Examples are legion. Among the most famous that you may be aware of is the Pantheon in Rome, a Roman pagan temple that was turned into a Christian church in the 7th century, one of several such conversions in Rome. One of the single most contentious pieces of real estate in the world is Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the site of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque and formerly the site of the First and Second Temples of the Jewish faith. The most holy site of Islamic worship, the Kaaba in Mecca, used to be an ancient pagan shrine (and is believed to be built around a meteorite rock). An example familiar to the New Yorkers among you may be the Christian use of the Temple of Dendur, a Roman-era Egyptian temple which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when its home on the Nile was to be flooded by a new dam. An Asian example would be the temples of Angkor, which were alternatively Buddhist and Hindu depending on the religion of the reigning power.

Why were all of these sites and buildings, and so many others, reused? Well, the sites were probably reused because places of worship are often built at meaningful or strategic locations, such as city centers and hilltops. After a conquest or upon conversion of a population, the powers that be of the ascendant religion probably felt that the location occupied by the older faith was too prime, and that to establish the prestige of the newer faith it must take up that particular space. Or, even if location was not a consideration, perhaps the new religion reused the site because it wanted to reuse the building. Why adopt an existing building instead of building something new? I suppose there are two main reasons for this. The first is simply pragmatic. Places of worship are often built with heavy stones at enormous cost. To destroy an existing edifice and to rebuild in even a shade of its former self (certainly it would not do to have the new structure, presumably for a religion that is coming into greater favor, pale in comparison to the old) may be beyond the financial or technological means of those of the newer faith. Second, and perhaps a more generous reading, is that the newer religion views the old site and structure as having some sort of special, mystical quality to it. In some cases, as with the transition from Judaism to Christianity or either to Islam, sites retain their significance because the newer religion incorporates, to a certain extent, existing stories and beliefs. But even in other cases, such as the leap from the Roman pagan religion to Christianity, there is superstitious value, credibility and prestige attached to existing places of worship. Even if the talismanic value is simply limited to the reminder that the new religion defeated the old, the purported reason that an obelisk stands in the middle of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the reuse has purpose and value.

Whatever the reasons, reused religious sites are incredibly helpful to an understanding of the history of a place because they establish, visually, the pattern of conquest of a given location, or the adoption of faith and conversion of a given population. The reused religious sites become tangible markers of some of the greatest conflicts or social transformations in history, whether, in the case of the Pantheon, the adoption of the Christian faith by the Roman Empire or, in the case of the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the many changes of hands of the city of Jerusalem.

Our trip this year could be said to be a celebration or study of a single historical movement, the spread of Islam from the time of Mohammed to the present. Traveling through so much of the Islamic world has given us an experience mirroring in some ways the journey of the religion itself, from the Arabian desert outward. One common observation on the expansion of Islam is that it happened incredibly rapidly. Compared to, say, Christianity, which had to survive in secret for hundreds of years after the death of Christ before official recognition by the Roman Empire, the military conquests of the just-enlightened Arabs came extremely quickly, streaming out of Mecca and Medina in the seventh century to spread from Andalusia to Afghanistan by the eighth century. As quick as the Arab conquests were, however, the actual spread of Arab culture among and adoption of the Islamic faith by the peoples living in those territories, as well as the spread of the religion beyond those lands, has been a gradual process that is ongoing today. The religion’s expansion is still very much active, the Islamic faith having traveled deeper west into Europe, further south in West and East Africa, and outward east in Indonesia, since the travels of ibn Battuta in the 14th century.

Islam’s expansion has not come at no cost to other religions, given that currently Islamic societies previously had other beliefs, just as the Roman empire was pagan before it was Christian. In the Middle East, the arrival of Islam has largely meant a transformation from Christian into Muslim. The Levant, Jesus’s home and a homeland for the Christian church itself (see posts of 4.21 and 4.23), is now largely Muslim, save certain enclaves (see, e.g., post of 5.22). Coptic Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism, has faded to a small minority in an increasingly Islamic population, though in the case of Nubia Christianity was dominant as recently as the 14th century (see post of 10.01). The capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire itself, Constantinople, was conquered by the Turks in 1453 to become an Islamic city and for centuries served as the great capital of the Ottoman Empire, which reached even further into Christian southeastern Europe before its collapse in the early twentieth century.

As with other religions before it, Islam too has reused existing religious sites, and, for the Middle East portion of our trip, the three most memorable reused religious sites are churches-turned-mosques, reflecting the religious history of the region: the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Ayasofya of Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque of Cyprus.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

During the expansion of the Christian faith, it was of course the Christians who were adopting existing (pagan) religious sites for their own use. The list of such reused buildings and sites are too numerous to list, but include the Pantheon in Rome, and temples at Baalbek and Palmyra among the sites we have visited this year. In some cases, such as at Baalbek, the Christians used the existing pagan structures as a sort of quarry and foundation, rebuilding on the site using the pre-fabricated masonry at hand; in others, such as the Pantheon, things were pretty much left in place, a new altar and cross to designate the new faith.

Damascus was always a great city, going back far earlier than the life of St. Paul, and when the Christian faith came into power, the Christians converted the principal religious site of the city, the Temple of Jupiter, into their own house of worship. The Church of St. John the Baptist in the heart of the Old City of Damascus was probably among the greatest of these “new” churches of the Byzantine Empire.

The Roman colonnade leading to the old temple, still very much in place

The Christians reused not only the site itself, but many of the stones and columns of the old temple.

But the Christians were not to have the last word. After the Arab conquest swept through Damascus in the seventh century, and the new Umayyad caliphs wanted to make their architectural statement on their new capital of the Arab empire, they chose the most obvious site in the city, the site of the old Temple of Jupiter and the Church of St. John the Baptist, for their great mosque. It is said that the rights to the site were negotiated with the Christians of the city; no doubt the parties’ relative positions of power factored heavily into the balance. It is disputed to what extent the Umayyads kept the structure of the Christian church and to what extent the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was itself largely a new construction on the same site. However, all concede that the new mosque, if not a strict conversion of an existing building, was built with a great deal of influence from Byzantine Christian religious architecture, and certainly reused some of the very pieces of the old church. The Umayyad Mosque was one of the first great architectural statements of the Islamic faith, and so it might be said that through this building Islamic architecture as a whole owes quite a debt to Christian religious architecture (which in turn owes a debt to pagan religious architecture).

Main prayer hall, which resembles the nave of a church. The shrine in the middle is said to house the head of John the Baptist, the namesake of the old church. Muslims, who accept to an extent the stories and teachings of the New Testament, believe in the holiness of both John the Baptist and Jesus (for whom a minaret at the Umayyad Mosque is named).

In Greek, the language of the eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, an inscription of Psalm 145 reads, ironically, “Your Kingdom, Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” This doorway is on the south side of the mosque, the side on which the Umayyads built their (non-extant) palace.

Byzantine statuary incorporated into the outside wall of the mosque. One Damascus resident whom we met suggested that this was a statue of Christ–likely not, but it was certainly part of the former Christian church (and in turn possibly lifted from its pagan predecessor).

Ayasofya, Istanbul

Although the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus may be the earliest great example of a Christian church to Islamic mosque conversion, it is by no means the most famous: that title certainly goes to the Haghia Sophia or Ayasofya in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Church of Holy Wisdom or Haghia Sophia was built in the 6th c. AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who remarked at its completion that he had in fact constructed the greatest building ever built. And even today, his statement seems a plausible boast–in the sheer scale of its massive dome, not to mention the art that remains on its walls even today, the Ayasofya is with few equals, anywhere in the world, for houses of worship or for buildings of any kind.

Justinian presents the Haghia Sophia to the Virgin Mary, left.

The Haghia Sophia suffered much damage over the years, including in the Fourth Crusade, a savage looting of Constantinople by Western Europeans, but finally met its greatest transformation after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, after which Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer ordered the conversion of the Haghia Sophia into a mosque, making modifications such as the addition of minarets and a mihrab.

Quranic script medallions inside the great dome

But the conversion was far from a stripping of the building’s Christian history. The new inhabitants generally covered up rather than destroyed much of the great Christian art within the church, and even left some of it in plain sight. Twentieth century restorations have brought some of the covered art back into light.

Crosses are still very much visible, erased but not all that effectively or wholeheartedly.

Virgin Mary with Christ on upper left, Arabic script on lower right.

Just as the pagan Roman basilica became a model for Christian churches to come, the Ayasofya became a model for Turkish mosques, with many Istanbul structures mimicking the Ayasofya. Given the centrality of Istanbul and Turkey to Islamic architecture generally, and the construction of Turkish-style mosques in other parts of the world, the Ayasofya, like the Umayyad Mosque, can be said to have acted as a conduit for bringing Byzantine Christian architectural traditions into the Islamic world.

The Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, on right, Ayasofya on left

The Ayasofya, converted into a museum by Ataturk, still draws Christian pilgrims.

Selimiye Mosque, Cyprus

As significant as the Haghia Sophia/Ayasofya is in the history of the Byzantine Empire and Istanbul, and its status as perhaps the most historically monumental reuse of a religious building, it is not the most striking mosque-to-church conversion that we ran across on our trip. For sheer transparency of conversion, the Selimiye Mosque in Nicosia, North Cyprus, is hard to beat–no other place of worship I have ever seen looks so much like the very form of a place of worship of another faith.

The building now known as the Selimiye Mosque started its life, as is quite obviously apparent, as a Christian church, more specifically a Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral during the 13th-15th century Lusignan reign of Cyprus. After the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in the 16th century, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. But, as you can see, apparently little other than construction of minarets, a paint job and the addition of a mihrab were effected–the building is very much a Gothic cathedral in form.




At the lower left, note the “re-orienting” of the church toward Mecca, effected by the construction of somewhat odd raised, offset platforms. While the nave still stubbornly points east, worshippers face south-southeast, the direction of Mecca, or qibla, from Cyprus.

The Turkic World

I discussed in a previous post (post of 8.03) how I sometimes think of the world in networks. Our trip is largely based on one such network–the network of Islamic countries, spanning from Senegal in the west to Indonesia in the east. One of the greatest and most basic misconceptions about the Islamic world–one which would probably be dispelled with just a few seconds’ thought but nonetheless persists–is that all Muslims are Arabs and vice versa. It is true that all Arab countries are predominantly Muslim, but it is false that all Arabs are Muslims–see posts of 4.16, 10.01 and 10.21. Also, while the Arab countries form in many senses–geographical and historical, among others–the “core” of the Islamic world, the world of Islam is of course far broader than just the countries of the Arab League; the faith of Mohammed spreads northwest of Syria into the Balkans, southwest of the Maghrib into the Sahel, northeast of Iraq into Central Asia and southeast of Oman all the way to Indonesia. Further, not only is the Arab world not coterminous with the Islamic world, but Arab ethno-linguistic identity is not without competition for primacy in the world of Islam; almost as important, arguably, is the Turkic world.

Turks, an originally nomadic people of the plain, originated in Central Asia but spread far west, through Iran and the Anatolian peninsula into the Balkans. The leading Turkic power in relatively recent history, the Ottoman Empire, conquered not only the Christian Byzantine Empire but most of the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Sultan was for much of its history recognized as the Caliph, or head, of all Muslims. And the Turkic footprint goes well beyond the Ottomans. Many of the great Arab empires were ruled by a Turkic military class, including Mameluke Egypt, and Turkic troops were involved in intrigues as far west as medieval Morocco. Turkic influence in the Persian world is also hard to underestimate–the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal India were both Turkic in “ethnicity” (if Persian in courtly culture, see post of 3.28), and much of Iran itself is Turkic, from the Azeri Turks to the Turkic nomads of the southeast, from the Qajars and to possibly even the Safavids. Turks were, historically, phenomenally successful in occupying the seats of power in the Islamic world.

Today, areas that are almost exclusively Turk include Turkey, Azerbaijan, the “Stans” of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang (also called East Turkistan, see below), an area thousands of miles across. Additionally, it is estimated that some 25% of Iran’s population is Turkic (and at least some Iranian Turks whom we met very much identified themselves as being Turks, somehow different from the Persian majority). Trade still runs along this network. Turkish Airlines flies to all of the Central Asian capitals. We saw Turkish restaurants and grocery stores in Tajikistan (technically Persian and not Turk, but effectively a part of the Turkic world because of its Central Asian location), and Turkey exports food products all the way east to Xinjiang. We saw Uzbek embroidery for sale all over Cappadocia and in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. [Bukharan embroidery travels along another network–the Jewish world–from Uzbekistan to Tel Aviv, where we also saw embroidery for sale–those Uzbeks sure must be busy churning out all that cloth!]

Embroidery, from thousands of miles away, on sale at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

The Ottoman Empire, and Turkic rule over all of the Middle East, may be gone, but Turks in Turkey are well aware of their leadership role within the greater Turkic world. We saw one decommissioned mosque in Istanbul being used as a cultural center for Balkan Turks and another titled the East Turkistan Foundation – Cultural Center (“East Turkestan” is the name for Xinjiang favored by those with separatist leanings). On the walls of the East Turkistan Foundation were photographs of great Uyghur leaders, people who are no doubt labeled dangerous rebels by the PRC government, as well as the flag of East Turkistan, essentially a blue Turkish flag. The friendly Turk who welcomed me to look around started by asking where I was from, and was relieved that I was not Chinese, half-jokingly suggesting that if I were he would have tossed me out. Of course, the Turkish defence of Cypriot Turks is also well known (see post of 10.27).

So what are the Turkic legacies on the rest of the Islamic world (and perhaps especially Iran), given hundreds of years of Turkic leadership? I think that perhaps the best way to answer that question is to consider things that the Turkic world, from Turkey to Xinjiang, have in common. Some observations on the Turkic world:

We had been to Turkey and Central Asia before this trip, but those prior visits (2001 and 2003, respectively) were far enough apart in time that it did not occur to us how Turks in Turkey physically look compared to Central Asian Turks. Visiting the two regions in quick succession, we realize now how similar Turkish Turks and Central Asian Turks (be they Turkmen, Uzbek or Uyghur) are, from an ethno-physical perspective. Given the thousands of miles separating Turkish Turks and Uyghurs, it is a pretty astonishing fact (although, I should note, the Kyrgyz are the odd man out, looking as east Asian as they do).

A young Turkish woman who would fit in perfectly in the Stans

One of my favorite pasttimes, the hamam [hammam] (see post of 4.27), known popularly as the Turkish bath, exists all over the Turkic world, from Istanbul to Uzbekistan, as well as parts of the Arab world that were subject to Turkic influence, such as Egypt and the Levant. My best guess is that the Turks adopted this custom from people that preceded them (especially the Romans), and there are certainly hamams that predate or are otherwise not originally Turkic (such as in Syria or Morroco), but Turks adopted the hamam as their own and very much contributed to its survival and popularity.

Buyuk Hamam, Nicosia, Cyprus (sadly closed, according to a guidebook since an American tourist claimed to have been molested by a masseur (the tourist clearly needed to be enlightened on the many services offered by hamam attendants throughout history–see post of 4.27))

Ottoman-era hamam, Nablus, West Bank

There is certainly a lot of great food and a developed cuisine in Turkey, but Turks from Turkey to Xinjiang are most famous for grilling meat, recalling the Turks’ nomadic days, and the kebab has risen to claim a central role in many cuisines of the Islamic world as a whole, especially in the Levant and Iran. Some foods of non-Turkic origin seem to have traveled great distances through the Turkic network: Chinese style dumplings were adopted by Mongols and then Turks, resulting in manti (from Chinese mantou) “ravioli” being served from Tashkent to Istanbul. (I should note that they don’t really get all that tasty from west to east until you get to China.) Turkish ayran and Iranian doogh (a salty yoghurt beverage Derek thinks of more as a sauce to be added once the food is already in his mouth than a drink) are, no doubt, essentially the same drink.

Making shashlyk, Uzbekistan

Grilling kofte, Istanbul, Turkey

Making manti, Istanbul, Turkey

Soup, Tasucu, Turkey. The first spoonful brought Central Asia to our minds immediately (not really a good thing, when it comes to flavor).

Other Turkic commonalities? Religious moderation and friendliness come to mind. Looking at the Islamic world as divided into Arab, Persian and Turkic spheres of influence, the Turkic clearly stands out for the moderation of its religious practice. I’m not sure whether this is a “Turkic” trait, or whether it’s because of the influences of Ataturk and Communism (in Turkey and Central Asia, respectively), but in an age when some Islamic countries lean dangerously toward the fundamentalist, it is perhaps healthy for there to be a countervailing moderate voice of the religion from the Turkic world. From a traveler’s perspective, the Turkic world stands out for including some of the friendliest parts of the world. Turkish Turks, despite the hordes of tourists that arrive each year, remain endearingly generous and hospitable. One man we heard of who biked from Europe to Asia believed that Uzbekistan and Iran were by far the friendliest and most welcoming countries, with repeated offers of (free) food and lodging, and, from our experience, other than some Turkmen and Kyrgyz who seem to be stuck in a Soviet mindset, Turks from Istanbul to Turpan are almost uniformly friendly.

Mosaics

Our trip may be focused on the world of Islam, but our route took us through a great deal of the former Greek and Roman worlds, from the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus and the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the Byzantine Dead Cities of Syria. Traipsing through such ruins, one sees a great deal of columns and inscriptions–carved in heavy stone, masonry stands the test of time. But another form of ornamentation is apparently delicate and durable in equal parts, and comprises a core bulk of ancient artwork that survives today: the mosaic.

Mosaics are the main representational artwork that survives from ancient times; when paintings have disintegrated or faded, they provide insight into the styles, tastes and beliefs of the day. In this post, I thought I would show you photographs of some of the most impressive or otherwise noteworthy mosaics from our trip, from all over the (expanded) Greek and Roman worlds.

From Palmyra, now in the National Museum in Damascus

Some masterpieces from the Syrian Hauran:

The cities of Suweida and Shahba possess some of the most remarkable mosaics of the Roman world. The second picture below in particular struck me for its sophisticated sense of light.


From Bosra. Bosra and Palmyra may have been part of the Roman Empire, but, in speaking Aramaic and Greek, and using camels, life in the Syrian desert certainly wasn’t the same as life in Rome.

The “Map Mosaic” of Madaba, Jordan, is famous for its depiction of the eastern Mediterranean. The second image is a close-up of the Jerusalem portion of the map, showing not only the major gates and streets but also churches, many of which have survived to this day.

Other works from Madaba. The second image shows “editing” that was done during the iconoclastic period, when depiction of living animals was held improper (as in Islam)–the equivalent of the modern black box over nipples or *bleep* over swear words.

Some masterpieces from Paphos, Cyprus:

These two mosaics from the House of Aion featured some of the smallest tesserae we’ve seen–they are high resolution mosaics.

The house in which this mosaic was found is called the Villa of Theseus; this grand work shows the Minoan labyrinth of Theseus, complete with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur in the center.

This mosaic in the House of Dionysus is a true standout for its sense of the third dimension and perspective.

Mosaics were not always original creations, but were often ordered from a catalog of designs. This Rape of Ganymede mosaic was apparently larger than the space for which it was intended, leading to the eagle’s clipped wings. In another instance in Paphos, a tableau was bungled by the mistaken placement of a wrong character (of the same name as the right one), presumably picked, like clip art, from a stock selection of representations.

From the Sassanid city of Bishapur, Iran, on display at the National Museum in Tehran. The Persian Sassanids were, for a period, Rome’s greatest enemy, once capturing the Roman Emperor. Some say that this mosaic in the Sassanid capital of Bishapur was made by Roman captives.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was built during the Islamic era, but it is said that its construction was very much in the Christian Byzantine tradition, perhaps utilizing Byzantine artisans (and was in fact built on the site of, and perhaps utilizing some remains from, a Christian church). Almost all of the mosque’s surfaces were covered in mosaics, although few of the original works survive today. (See also post of 4.10.)

I can speculate on several reasons mosaics survived so well over time. First, most mosaics were designed to be walked on, and so must have been able to take a fair amount of wear and tear. Second, mosaics were already made up of small pieces, and so there is nothing really to break apart. Since they were already on the ground, they had nowhere to fall, and the collapse of walls and other debris thereon served as protective layers. Finally, another reason that mosaics survived was that they are made of stone–the colors are not pigments that are quick to fade with exposure. Given the beauty and durability of this art form, it seems a shame that we don’t make more mosaics today. Madaba today has a mosaic school, and great quantities of mosaics are produced for the souvenir trade. What do you think are the most memorable mosaics of the modern era? The ones that come to my mind include the mosaics of the New York subways, the Tiffany mosaics inside the Marquette Building in Chicago and the mosaic of 1980 Hong Kong inside Wan Chai’s Hopewell Centre.

Modern mosaic in Penjikent, Tajikistan

Greeks and Turks

Traveling from Palestine to Cyprus, two infamously divided/occupied lands, it occurred to me how so many hostile pairs are, to outsiders, so similar. This post is entitled Greeks and Turks, and it is on them that I wish to focus, but first let’s start with some other pairs. Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs: Conservative factions of both groups have relatively severe rules on gender (such as men and women worshipping apart), neither eat pork, both have dietary certification regimes (kosher and halal) and their languages are not horribly far apart. Indeed, Jews and Arabs belong to the same Semitic ethnic group. Is there any doubt that many Jews look like Arabs and many Arabs look like Jews, however offensive it may be to point this out to either such subgroup? Chinese, Koreans and Japanese–however much hostility there may be against the Japanese for 20th century history, let’s face it, no-one can tell east Asians apart 100% of the time. They all use chopsticks to eat rice and salty side dishes, drink tea and have a tendency to fall in line and respect hierarchy. As much as Iranians may hate Israel and Zionists, for whom do they reserve a perhaps deeper well of hate and mistrust? Sunni Saudis. Never mind that many outsiders don’t even know that Persians are not Arabs, or the distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam. And what minority in Iran suffers from the greatest discrimination? Probably the Afghanis, who speak the same language and share much of the same culture as Persians.

But back to Greeks and Turks. Despite all of the conflict between North and South Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot confirmed to us that it is impossible to physically identify a Cypriot as Greek or Turk. He explained that the two communities intermarried for hundreds of years, often dividing up the children of a mixed marriage so that the boys became Christian and the girls Muslim, or vice versa. In fact, prior to the conflicts of the last forty years, it seems that Cypriots didn’t even think of themselves as Greek or Turk, but only as Christian or Muslim–simply a difference of faith rather than ethnic identity. Cypriot cuisine itself is a hybrid of Greek and Turkish food, and does not vary between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities–both eat fish meze and grill halloumi/hellim. During British control, we were told, Greek and Turkish Cypriots attended together English-language schools, only separating for classes in their respective mother tongue.

Greek

Turk

Setting the Cypriots aside, are Greeks from Greece and Turks from Turkey all that different? Both cultures dine on the small appetizers called meze, drink an anise liqueur called ouzo or raki (not too different from pastis or sambuca, for that matter), drink a thick sludgy coffee called Turkish coffee or Greek coffee (or, it in Cyprus, Cyprus coffee) and snack on a shawarma-like food called döner or gyros. They may be easier to distinguish in appearance than Jews and Arabs or Chinese and Japanese, but there are certainly some physical traits (e.g., hairiness) that they notoriously share in common.

Turkish Coffee

Greek Coffee

No doubt these similarities come from centuries of cohabitation. Ever since the Turks arrived from Central Asia into the eastern Mediterranean, they have been living together with Greeks (and Armenians–see post of 5.17), who had established cities in the region more than a thousand years before. Although the hostility in the early twentieth century (or the late twentieth century, in the case of Cyprus) resulted in Greeks and Turks moving apart into their own sovereign states, essentially to the exclusion of Greek and Turkish minorities within the other state, cultural similarities developed over centuries of living together cannot help but persist.

The same goes for the Jews and the Arabs, and east Asians. I suppose, in the end, that it could be all those years of living together, and all the similarities, that generate the hostility. Cohabitation, especially over hundreds of years, creates the opportunity for regretful incidents, periods of hostility for which grudges are held. Neighbors, with whom there were centuries of trade, cultural exchange and even intermarriage, become mortal enemies. That these opposing cultures are so similar means that, to foster a sense of uniqueness in national identity, there is a constant need to define against, to emphasize differences lest identity become muddled, and so every Chinese child is told that to be proud to be Chinese means in part to hate Japanese, and every Greek child is told that, despite appearances to the contrary, Greek identity is a world apart from, and superior to, Turkish identity. Another example of this is Uzbekistan, which denies the Tajik heritage of some of its citizens and greatest cities, to enforce a stronger sense of Uzbek identity (see post of 7.08). At times we need to forget the past, focus on similarities with our neighbors and not our differences and spend more time thinking about how to work together to promote mutual well-being rather than using scapegoats to promote a shorter-sighted ethnocentric nationalist agenda. The European Union seems to be showing us that this is possible–hopefully the rest of the world can follow its lead.