Thursday, 3 May 2012

Istanbul: Christianity, Islam, strife and civilisation

If a city can have identity problems then it must be the one I’m in today. 

The tiny village of Byzantium became Constantinople, then reverted to being Byzantium but trasnformed into a metropolis and heart of an Empire, and today it’s Istanbul.

It was pagan, it became Christian and then specifically Orthodox Christian, before succumbing to Islam. Today it’s run by secular authorities while remaining overwhelmingly Moslem in its population.

In fact everywhere we go there are mosques, with minarets in every vista. Which makes me wonder again why the Swiss banned the building of minarets: what’s their problem? Minarets adorn a skyline, far from taking anything from it.

The multitude of mosques will however mean a problem I’ve come to expect from visits to countries with a majority Moslem population: we had a call to prayer thundering through our room this evening; I’m dreading the experience at 6:00 tomorrow morning.

All those identities and those clashing cultures and religions have made Istanbul the vibrant city it is today. And the processes that forged it were never simple, never black and white.

The great Christian bastion, the last of the Levant, fell to Islam and the Turks in 1453 but its back had been broken by the Fourth Crusade two and a half centuries earlier: it never recovered its capacity to resist after the crippling blow the Crusaders inflicted and that made its eventual fall inevitable.

So if the Turks finally took the city, breaching walls that had successfully resisted all previous attempts for a thousand years, a major contribution was made by Crusaders — by people who were ostensibly of the same, Christian faith. That’s what it means to worship the same Prince of Peace.

In fact, because the Ottoman Empire had a great many Christian provinces, there were more Christians among the Turkish besiegers of the city than among its Byzantine defenders.

The fall of the city had massive repercussions on the rest of the world, for better or for worse — I leave it to you to judge. With all trade from the East now necessarily passing though Ottoman hands, and therefore liable to monopoly pricing, it became urgent to find a sea route to the East. So it’s no surprise that just 39 years after the fall of Byzantium, Christopher Columbus managed to make the most monumental error, with the richest results, in the history of navigation, and open up the New World to European colonisation.

The rest is history, as Europe brought its civilising influence to bear on a lot of other peoples who hadn’t asked for it and might well have been more than happy to do without it. It strikes me as fascinating that the first cases of syphilis, a disease imported from the New World, were recorded as far away as Beijing within three years of Columbus’s voyage. What a measure that gives of the spread of European enlightenment to other nations!

All this was running through my mind as we wandered the glorious streets of Byzantine Istanbul this afternoon. Everywhere we went, I saw the key symbol of Islam, the crescent moon. Which made me think of the equivalent for Judaism, the star of David. And then of course the equivalent for Christianity, the cross — an instrument of execution by torture.

Perhaps the Crusaders’ sacking of Byzantium isn’t that surprising after all.

Fortunately, none of this tension and pain was visible on the streets today. Instead, we were treated everywhere we went with friendliness and charm. And constantly met reminders of a gentle and pleasant way of life which we could do a lot worse than to emulate.

A smoke, a tea, a game of backgammon:
the Egyptian couple at the next table understood how to relax
Even a machine-gun toting sentry (‘Jandarma’ it read on his shoulder badge, but he was a lot friendlier than most of the French ‘gendarmes’ it’s been my misfortune to meet) allowed me to be photographed next to him.

The gendarme had a machine gun and a smile
Even a potential threat can be delivered with charm
A city and a nation that has suffered and learned and managed to stay civilised. How sad that so many, in the name of a Christianity which badly needs to address its own deep flaws, want to exclude it from the European community to which it rightly belongs. So far this visit has done nothing but confirm my long-held view that it is high time the European Union invited Turkey in. And not just because this huge, populous, dynamic and above all young nation can contribute so much to our economies — if only by helping solve our pension problems. 

Just because we could do with all that warmth.

No comments: