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.

Faces of Turkey

Man fishing, Galata Bridge, Istanbul

Not much to say in this post, except that perhaps another “Turkic trait” (see post of 11.05) is that Turks like to have their pictures taken. This goes especially for the men, but to some extent even for Turkish women, whose Islamic sense of modesty does not seem to reach as far as their Arab sisters. I chalk this up not only to an eagerness to be accommodating (especially to a foreign tourist) but perhaps also a little bit of vanity–from Istanbul to Tashkent, Turks love to see themselves on that little LCD screen, and then pose endlessly, drawing into the frame their family members and neighbors. We thank them heartily for their cooperation!

Two children from Northern Cyprus in school uniform

Children, Sultanhani, Turkey

A couple ladies, from Ankara and Istanbul. Both of these women happen to be wearing headscarves, but that is far from typical in less traditional parts of the country, such as Istanbul.

Young boys, Istanbul. The second boy is actually an Uzbek, from Uzbekistan, now a resident of Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood (see post of 11.08).

Some young men. The first, as well as the man pictured first in this post, shows the surprisingly fair coloration that some Turks have; the third reminded us physically of someone one might meet in Tajikistan or Pakistan’s Hunza Valley; and the fifth is simply too good-looking to be selling fish sandwiches, even if in highly visible Eminonu, Istanbul.

Middle aged and older.

Iran to Sweden

It being our second visit of reasonably good length to the city of Istanbul, and as long-term travelers perhaps not as energetic in re-visiting all of the typical sights, we thought that we would make our way to an Istanbul neighborhood described in the Lonely Planet as being the staging post for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from points east looking to go to points west, a key stop on a modern day underground railroad for those trying to escape persecution or simply looking for opportunity not offered in their homeland. Such migrant ghettos have intrigued me for a while, and I had no doubt that Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood would be an uncommonly interesting place, with its diversity of ethnic makeup and the transitory nature of its population. But I did not expect from our visit the richness of the experience that we ended up having.

I timed our visit with market day, and produce and other goods filled the streets. While most of the vendors and customers were Turkish, we saw in the mix children from Uzbekistan and young men from various African countries. Stores advertised passenger and freight services to Russia and the Ukraine. We had a light snack at a local lokanta and walked through the market, taking pictures as we have in so many others this year.

Phone centers hint at the national origins of Kumkapi’s diverse residents.

But our Kumkapi experience was to be much more personal. It was about lunchtime when, while snapping some pictures of a vegetable vendor, we exchanged a few words with a gentle Asiatic-looking man in his late 20s or early 30s who spoke a fair amount of English. This smaller man was with a much heartier western-looking man of similar age and an older western-looking man. The three spoke to each other in a common tongue, Farsi, giving away their national and ethnic origins, as the three confirmed to us in our brief conversation. The smaller man was Hazara Afghan, but from Iran, while the other two were Iranians (though of Turkic descent, it turned out). They were an unlikely threesome, and after we heard a little about what each was up to in Istanbul, we could hardly resist when they invited us for lunch.

We followed them to their cheap pension a few blocks away, six beds to a room but comfortable enough. For lunch the five of us shared a pot of ghormeh sabzi packed in from Iran by the elder and a couple chickens bought from across the street, together with rice and a thin Afghan-style bread. They gave us the choicest meat and kept our glasses full of soda, treating us as guests in their room despite the fact that we were all travelers away from home. As we ate, they told us their stories.

We learned that the younger Iranian had been living in Istanbul for two months, seemingly a libertine escape from his unemployed and dull existence back home. He is in his mid-twenties, but looks a bit older, as Iranians often do. His father had come to Istanbul to retrieve him, not only dismayed by his son’s phone calls for more money but to ease the concerns of the mother, who was crying for her son to return home. The father was concerned, too, at his son’s apparent lack of maturity–“No wife, no job!” he said, shrugging–but did not seem disapproving of his son’s lifestyle in Istanbul, which evidently revolved around women and alcohol. The father was no fan of the Islamic Revolution, frequently interrupting himself mid-sentence with a heartfelt “goddamn Iran,” and saw no harm in his enjoying a beer or two (or, for that matter, his son’s seeing a prostitute or two) while in Turkey. “No beer, no whorehouse, Iran is very bad. Goddamn Iran! Goddam Iran!” he told us, shaking his head.

But more interesting than the story of the prodigal son and the liberal father was the story of the Afghan. But perhaps even to refer to him as an Afghan is misleading. Like so many people of Afghan descent living in Iran, Iran is the only home he has ever known–his family left war-torn Afghanistan when he was still a baby. Like other Afghan refugees in Iran, his family has lived very much among the Iranians, after all speaking a similar native tongue, but never became fully integrated, instead suffering much discrimination at both personal and official levels. Finally having had enough, and after some legal troubles arising from an interview he gave to a reporter, the Afghan decided to leave, parting with his elderly father and the only home he knows in order to find a better life in Europe. His model, a nephew who made it to Sweden and was living happily there.

Of course, and it was with some shame and a sense of helplessness that he acknowledged it to us, his journey is not “legal.” From Iran he paid $1300 to be smuggled across the border, in a truck full of other Afghan refugees, and the use of a fake passport (or rather a real passport but with his picture tampered into it), complete with Turkish entry stamp, to use in Turkey (the passport eventually had to be returned, presumably to be used over and over). He left Iran a month ago–the first time in his life. From Turkey he would go by fishing boat to Greece, then from Greece to Italy, then from Italy to France, and eventually hopefully to freedom and documents in Sweden. He didn’t want to break the law but felt he had no choice, no chance for a life in Iran, especially after his run-in with the Iranian authorities (an event that might help him qualify for asylum somewhere, I imagine). He was clearly bright, educated and proficient in English–no doubt a productive citizen for any country that would accept him. But first he had to get there.

After lunch we left the pension and walked south to the coast, stopping by at a store to pick up a few tall cans of Efes Xtra beer (none for the Afghan, who doesn’t drink), which we sipped while watching the sun go down on the Sea of Marmara. Derek took some pictures of some hefty giggling Sudanese ladies exercising on the playground equipment nearby. The night was getting chilly, and the Iranian son insisted I wear his sports coat.

We talked about our experiences traveling in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world. When we mentioned the Iranian pilgrims in Damascus, the father explained that there were two kinds of Iranians, those who traveled to Syria for pilgrimage and those who traveled to Turkey for alcohol and sex. The father thought (as we heard so often in Iran) that the whole of Iran was clinically depressed, and he looked forward to eventually retiring, selling his house and emigrating. The father explained how, when the Revolution came, everyone thought they would be free of the tyranny of the Shah, only to realize six months later that things were getting incomparably worse instead. The father explained that he was afraid even to be seen talking to us, Americans, that the “Iranian FBI” kept a watchful eye on the movements of Iranian nationals outside the country. He held out his hand to show that it was actually shaking.

After finishing our beers, we walked with the two younger men back toward town. We walked with them first to an employment agency, where they were due for a meeting that ended up not happening. The Iranian was helping the Afghan find work, so that he could save some money for the next legs of the journey. This involved temporarily surrendering his passport, what for us would have been a nerve wracking amount of trust in people that, judged by their profession–finding under-the-table jobs–may not be too trustworthy. (The Afghan would go on to find a job as a shoemaker, his trade, for $400 a month plus room and board, the first $150 of which would have to go to the employment agency as a finder’s fee.)

The young Iranian asked us if we’d been to Taksim, Istanbul’s nightlife district, perhaps assuming, as non-westerners from conservative countries seem apt to sometimes, that coming from the rich and licentious West our lives must be all about booze and discos. He seemed disappointed when we said that we did not go out much, and he took us on a little detour to the nearby street where Iranian and Russian men go for alcohol and prostitutes, a dreary assortment of bars and restaurants with multilingual touts and bored-looking women of all ages. The Afghan explained how he’d never even spoken to a woman before, and was intrigued enough to visit one of these restaurants. After trying without success to explain that he wanted only to talk to one of the women, he admitted that he had no money and was thrown out. The evening getting late, the two walked us to the tramway and we headed back to our Galata hotel.

We’re about to leave Istanbul and Turkey, headed for a long journey of our own, but one on a straightforward series of trains and with our U.S. passports in hand, a journey with no doubt as to our eventual arrival at the destination. When the Afghan feels he has saved enough, he too will move on, but who knows what luck he will or will not have. When we first told him that we were American–he never having been outside of Iran we were probably the first Americans that he had ever met–he explained to us how his English textbook said that Americans were warmer and more open than Brits. “And it said that America is the Land of Opportunity–I never forgot this.” He can’t go to America–it’s too far and, despite the millions who manage to make it in every year, our doors are still not open enough to accept all of even the most deserving immigrants. And so for him, his journey is from Iran to Sweden.

(We will try to stay in touch with him, by email, to see how things turn out–look back here for updates.)

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.


Every nation has its heroes. For the United States, two of the top candidates would no doubt be Abraham Lincoln, for preventing the dissolution of the Union and for his stance against slavery, the country’s greatest stain, and George Washington, for leading the country to victory in the War of Independence and serving as its first president. In some countries, especially many monarchies or de facto monarchies, the current ruler is placed on a highly public pedestal for adoration (see post of 5.4). Communist Russia, China and Vietnam all chose to honor their “greatest” leaders by embalming them and putting them on display. No country I can think of, however, can lay claim to a man whose stature in the country is as monumental, and as well-deserved, as Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At a teahouse in Cappadocia

Ataturk is several heroes wrapped up in one. First, and perhaps foremost, he was a great military general, who not only was victorious in important First World War battles but more importantly saved the country from disintegration after the war. Upon the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the First World War, there was a definite possibility that the Turks would lose not only the more far-flung outposts of their empire, such as now Iraq, the Levant and Arabia, but substantial territory in the Turkish-ethnic heartland of Anatolia (now Turkey). The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, carved Anatolia up into several pieces to be occupied by the victorious Allied powers, including France, Britain and Italy, and, perhaps more perilously for Turkey, Greece was rewarded for its war efforts with an Anatolian concession, around the city of now Izmir, which went beyond occupation to a sort of attempted integration of a significant part of Anatolia into Greece through conquest and ethnic cleansing. It was up to the forces of the new Turkish Republic, led by Ataturk, to fight back–including by quickly gaining the support of France and Italy–and save the homeland, to create a new Turkish state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

Like George Washington and so many others, Ataturk turned his military role into a political one, first by transferring his First World War hero status into a role as a republican revolutionary against the Ottoman Empire and then by using his leadership in the Turkish War of Independence against the Brits and the Greeks to become the first president of the new Turkish Republic.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

It is his actions as president that to me define his stature, his paramount importance to Turkey. Ataturk had a singular determination to create a modern and westernized Turkish state, which could only be accomplished by creating a new Turkish national identity. The radical reforms that Ataturk introduced are almost too great and numerous to believe, ranging from the national language and legal system, to people’s dress, to religious life and the role of women in society. Even with complete cooperation from all within the country, even with a hundred years much less the fewer than twenty that Ataturk had, it would have been miraculous to institute such changes over an entire nation.

In Turkish Cyprus. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the native Cypriots of Turkish descent cherish Ataturk as much as the more recent immigrants from Turkey, who make up a significant percentage of the population of Northern Cyprus.)

Language. The Turkish language as used by the Ottoman court was infused with Arabic and Persian and written in Arabic script. Ataturk reformed the Turkish national language on the spoken vernacular and invented a new alphabet based on the Latin alphabet. The reformed and standardized national language no doubt improved literacy and communications, and the modified Latin alphabet in particular makes traveling through Turkey today far easier and makes the country, its language and even its people seem to the westerner less foreign than the Arab world or Iran.

Dress. Ataturk outlawed much traditional dress, including traditional male hats and headdresses, which were associated with titles (including religions offices), and burqas. Ataturk was the foremost model of clothing reform and in every depiction is exceedingly dapper in modern and stylish, almost movie star-glamorous, western dress. One of Turkey’s greatest contemporary controversies stems from this reform–it is hotly disputed whether women should be allowed to wear headscarves, required by Islamic custom, in schools and official settings.

Religious affairs. Ataturk in many ways ended Islam as it was practiced in Turkey. The office of the caliphate, the nominal head of all Sunni Islams, was abolished in 1925 and to this day there is no Sunni caliph. When it became clear that religious institutions threatened the Republic and its reforms, all religious convents and dervish lodges were also banned. All religious education was shut down, to be replaced with modern secular education.

Legal system. Ataturk changed the legal system from one based on Islamic law to a secular civil law system.

Women’s rights. Women gained complete legal equality, including the right to vote, which was not only radical for a predominantly Muslim country but not far behind Christian ones (the U.S. nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920). Ataturk’s wife (of his rather short-lived only marriage, which produced no offspring (other than perhaps the denim vendor below)) presented a public face to the new possibilities for women in Turkish society.

Other international standards. Turkey adopted the western calendar, clock and weights and measures. Ataturk also passed a law requiring the adoption of surnames, at which point in time he was given his new surname of “Ataturk,” meaning “Father of the Turks.”

Ataturk look-alike (selling jeans), Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

When we see countries that seem lost today, we often think, “This country needs an Ataturk.” But Ataturks are not easy to come by. Also in the 1920s, Mohammed Reza of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty attempted a similar secularization and modernization of Iran. The extremely painful backlash came in the form of the Islamic Revolution. Ataturk, through force of personality and political will, was able to impress upon his country the importance of his reforms in such a durable manner that Ataturk is a living influence to this day, more than seventy years after his death. Even when it appears that some secularism may be rolled back in favor of religious freedom, the defining principles of Ataturk’s reforms are not in doubt, and his positions and statements still carry immense weight in Turkish political discourse–“What would Ataturk do?”

The Anit Kabir, Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara, a massive hilltop complex complete with a museum dedicated to Ataturk and Turkish nationalism. Ankara itself is an Ataturk creation–Ataturk felt it important to remove the nation’s capital from the various entrenched influences of Istanbul and so made the small town of Ankara, more centrally located in the middle of Anatolia, the new capital of the country.