Entries with tag turkey .

“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Ottoman Icon”

It is no small irony that across the globe the edifice and image most widely associated with Turkey, Istanbul, and even perhaps Islam, is a sixth-century Orthodox Christian church—the magisterial Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom.” Built by some 10,000 workers between 532 and 537, its patron, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, inaugurated the construction of Hagia Sophia in the imperial capital of Constantinople with the proclamation that the Church of the Holy Wisdom would be a cathedral like “one that has never existed since Adam’s time, and one that will never exist again.”

Remarkably, Justinian’s boastful claims proved to be as correct as they were visionary. For virtually a millennium, Hagia Sophia was Christendom’s largest, most revered and awe-inspiring church. Hagia Sophia was the unrivalled ecclesial hearth of the Christian Church before the Western schism, the physical epicenter of the Orthodox Christian world, and the wondrous, breathtaking symbol of Byzantine grandeur and purpose. Indeed, for both contemporaries and historians, Hagia Sophia constituted the greatest achievement of late ancient and medieval architecture, an enduring masterpiece that embodied Byzantine civilization’s quintessential, sophisticated respect and quest for symphony and balance between the ethereal and the physical, majesty and beauty, place and boundlessness, science and mystery, creative genius and humility. Despite Hagia Sophia’s present diminished and abused condition, it is not difficult for even today’s visitor to appreciate the description found in a famous Russian ambassadorial report sent from Constantinople in 987 to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, of what one encountered upon entering the great cathedral: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.”

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, virtually all of the city’s surviving cathedrals and churches were—after being desecrated and thoroughly plundered—forcibly seized and turned over to the Turks’ religious establishment to be converted to mosques and used as Muslim properties. The conquering sultan, Mehmet II, personally oversaw the conversion of Hagia Sophia. Crosses were demolished and exchanged for crescents, altars and bells were destroyed, icons were burned or hacked to pieces, mosaics and frescoes depicting Christian imagery were plastered over, and most of the cathedral’s priests were killed or enslaved. In time, four colossal minarets were erected to surround Hagia Sophia, producing the iconic image that has come to be globally associated with Ottoman Constantinople and Turkish Istanbul.

Mehmet took great satisfaction in his belief that he had fulfilled Mohammed’s prophecy articulated in the Hadith: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” Thereafter, Constantinople and Hagia Sophia represented for the Ottoman Turks much more than merely their empire’s capital and preeminent mosque, respectively. The conquest of Christianity’s greatest city and church was understood by Mehmet and his successors as divine proof of the leading role in the Muslim world to which the Ottoman Empire was entitled, a belief also manifested by the Turks’ subsequent relocation of the Islamic Caliphate to Constantinople.

Indeed, the purpose for the construction of the massive minarets that now tower over Hagia Sophia was to project to the world Islam’s triumph over Christendom’s greatest empire, city, and church. The capture of Hagia Sophia confirmed and symbolized in the Ottomans’ imagination their belief in the superiority of their state and faith over all other nations and all religions, a putative affirmation of their providential role and destiny in history. Hence, the Ottomans formally dedicated their greatest, most celebrated single piece of loot—Hagia Sophia—as Great Fatih Mosque, or “Great Conquest Mosque.”

Despite the Turks’ conviction that their mastery over the great, coveted prizes of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia signaled their inevitable conquest of the remainder of Christian Europe, the Ottoman state showed signs of weakness by the sixteenth century and by the seventeenth century began a long, miserable decline and recession that culminated in the complete dissolution of their empire in the early twentieth century. Led by the Turkish nationalist, Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey, which emerged in the early 1920s to succeed the Ottoman Empire and to abolish the Caliphate, was premised on secularism. Kemal’s modern Turkey was a rejection of the Islamic theocratic system that he and his modernizing nationalists held responsible for the collapse of the old Ottoman order.

Kemalist Turkey did not, however, decouple Islam from its nation-building project. The Kemalist state’s efforts to create a homogeneous Turkish society included assigning a prominent role to Islam as a defining cultural feature of Turkish national identity, or “Turkishness.” In short, official “secularism” involved the use of Islam by the state as an instrument to impose conformity to a uniform model of “Turkishness.”

In modern Turkey secularism has produced neither freedom for all faiths nor separation of church and state. Instead, Turkish secularism has meant state control of religion through the official policy carried out by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, the governmental institution responsible for regulating and directing Islam in Turkish society). Likewise, the Kemalists’ non-Western, non-democratic version of secularism has also meant that Turkey’s non-Islamic religions and communities, inasmuch as they are regarded as impediments to universal “Turkishness,” are to be viewed with suspicion, treated with hostility, and subjected to a policy of steady, systematic persecution, with the goal being their final elimination.

Symbols and symbolism were, of course, very important to the Kemalist nation-building project. It was, consequently, neither a surprise nor a move that produced any resistance when Mustafa Kemal, presiding over Turkey’s one-party “secular democracy,” closed Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship in 1931 and reopened the historic structure as a museum in 1935. Just as Sultan Mehmet in the fifteenth century appreciated the symbolism of converting Hagia Sophia, the grandest of Christian cathedrals, to a Muslim Ottoman mosque for the furtherance of his imperial ambitions, President Kemal in the 1930s understood the symbolic value of transforming Hagia Sophia from a mosque—the quintessential iconographic symbol of the Ottoman Islamic past—to a Turkish museum for the advancement of his modern secular nation-building project at home and for the promotion of his country’s image abroad.

The second part, and conclusion of this essay, which explores the recent political and religious uses of Hagia Sophia by the current post-Kemalist, Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is forthcoming under the title “Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon.”

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Demre, Turkey: Santa Claus Will not Be Coming to this Town

“The first thing you see is barbed wire; a fence has been put up to keep looters out, although the gate is wide open, and there is very little left to loot.  Within the barbed wire enclosure are a caretaker’s cottage and a small shed.  Down a steep incline, some 15 or 20 feet below ground level, stands Hagios Nikolaos, the Church of Saint Nicholas.  Part of the left side of the church of St. Nicholas is still buried under silt, and the original entrance is inaccessible.  Access now is down the incline, past fallen columns and other archeological rubble.  The mosaic tiles on the floor are broken, filthy or missing; the frescoes that remain on the walls are faded and decayed; interior columns and capitals lie where they have fallen.  After we had prowled around the church for a while, the caretaker or guide entered.  In three trips to Turkey we have found bilingual and multilingual Turks in the most remote areas, but at this major Christian shrine in Anatolia the guide speaks only Turkish.  Anxious to help, however, he took us to the sarcophagus which we had already recognized as the one usually identified as the original tomb of St. Nicholas.  The guide pointed to it and spoke the only English he knew, ‘Santa Claus’.”

Thus reads in part a 1975-report prepared for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the appalling conditions at the looted and neglected Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra, Asia Minor, or today’s Demre, Turkey.  Since this report was published, recognition of the enormous profit potential of exploiting this historic site as a tourist destination and as a public relations prop has led the Turkish authorities to steadily improve physical conditions at the Church of Saint Nicholas.  Yet, through the subsequent decades of tourist development at Demre, Turkey’s contemptuous disregard for the sacred character and cultural importance of the church at Myra and its saintly namesake has remained unchanged.

Nikolaos, or Nicholas, of Myra, was born in the city of Patara on the Lycian coast of Asia Minor around 275 AD, at a time when most of Asia Minor had been Greek for many centuries.  Born to a wealthy Christian family, Nicholas would become a beloved public figure during his lifetime and would be canonized as a saint after his death.  Revered among both his fellow Greek and other Christians for his dignified courage in the face of brutal persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian and renowned for his gift-giving and aid to children, the sick, and the poor, Nicholas became the immensely popular bishop of Myra, a port city near Patara.  According to most accounts of his life, Nicholas was present at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, where he was a staunch defender of Orthodox Christian beliefs.  Saint Nicholas, is, of course, universally regarded as the inspiration for the legendary character known as Santa Claus, who brings Christmas gifts to children around the world.      

Nicholas was buried in his church—a Byzantine basilica—in Myra, which by the sixth century had become a well-known shrine and destination for religious pilgrims from throughout the Byzantine Empire and beyond.  Since 1087, however, the remains of Saint Nicholas have reposed principally in Bari, Italy.  In the spring of 1087, three ships with sailors and merchants from Bari returning home from trading in Antioch, anchored in Myra’s harbor.  The sailors—likely Greeks themselves, given that Bari and its surrounding region of Apulia were still predominantly Greek-speaking at that time—disembarked from their vessels, proceeded to the well-known church and shrine of Saint Nicholas and, acting like lawless pirates, broke open the saint’s tomb and spirited most of Nicholas’ bones away to their ships, narrowly escaping ahead of the local townspeople who were in pursuit of the thieves.  When the remains were safely landed in Bari in May, a solemn promise was made by the city’s people to build a magnificent church to honor Saint Nicholas.  A crypt to shelter the relics of the saint was consecrated in 1089.  Almost a century later, in 1197, the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was completed as the resting place for most of Saint Nicholas’ remains.  The basilica has served for more than eight centuries as a beautiful, sacred, dignified, and safe pilgrimage destination for both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

Until recently, Turkey had little interest in historic Myra, Saint Nicholas, his church, and his popular legacy as the ancestor of Santa Claus.  For most Turks, Myra was little more than yet another place name in a seemingly endless list of villages, towns, and cities ethnically cleansed of their original Greek inhabitants in the early 1920s, an uncomfortable local reminder of a Greek and Christian past in Asia Minor better erased and forgotten in the face of the Turkish national project.  Some of that, however, has changed as Turkey has developed a burgeoning tourism industry. 

In the last two decades, the Turkish state has aggressively coopted and marketed ancient Greek ruins and medieval Byzantine churches as “Turkish national and cultural treasures.”  Indeed, virtually the whole of Turkish international tourism is built on the exploitation of the physical remains of Greek civilization, ancient and medieval, in Istanbul and Asia Minor.  Notwithstanding this fact, the Greek and Orthodox Christian character of these historic sites are, as a matter of policy, negated by the Turkish authorities, that typically present such antiquities to unknowing foreign visitors as Hittite, Roman, “native Anatolian,” or simply Turkish in origin. 

Myra and Saint Nicholas have not escaped this state-coordinated policy.  The facilities around the Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre have been improved and expanded in order to profit from the rise in tourism to Turkey.  In its official publications, government website, and state-sponsored travel blogs, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism identifies the Greek city of Myra merely as a Lycian town.  Likewise, the Turkish Ministry sidesteps Saint Nicholas’ Greek and Orthodox Christian identity and distorts his image by labeling him, anachronistically, as a bishop from Turkey, using language sufficiently vague and misleading to leave uniformed readers with the imprecision that Saint Nicholas was a Turk.

Having declared Saint Nicholas Turkish national patrimony, the Turkish state has launched a campaign to take possession of the saint’s remains.  In a BBC piece, filed in December 2009, by Istanbul-based journalist, Jonathan Head, the writer noted that “even without the bones, the town of Demre has not been shy about cashing in on its most famous native son—today visitors to the Byzantine church there are greeted by a large, plastic Santa statue, complete with beard and red snow-suit.”  This vulgar, insulting statue was later removed from the grounds outside the Church of Saint Nicholas under pressure from the Russian government.  In January 2013, the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ertugul Gunay, told reporters about his government’s claims on the relics of Saint Nicholas and Ankara’s intention to build a “Santa Claus” museum in Demre: “When we build a museum in this town (Demre), naturally the first thing we will ask for are the remains of ‘Father Christmas.’  These bones should be exposed here and not in a city of pirates.”  The Turkish authorities’ casual assertion that holy relics can be transferred from a consecrated, sacred tomb and shrine to an entrance-fee secular museum, reveals either the cultural ignorance or the religious contempt for Christianity of Turkish officials—in either case, this fact makes clear why Turkey is unfit to take possession of the relics of Saint Nicholas.   

Since 2012, the Turkish government has enlisted the state scholar responsible for archeological research at Myra, Nezat Cevik, to lead the campaign for the “return” of Saint Nicholas’ relics to Turkey.  Cevik has, not surprisingly, urged Turkish state authorities to aggressively pressure both the Italian government and the Vatican, under the threat of financial retribution, to surrender Saint Nicholas’ relics to Turkey.  Curiously, Cevik, a professor at Akdeniz University, has ignored cultural or historical arguments to support Turkey’s demands.  Instead, Cevik has unabashedly emphasized the significance of Saint Nicholas’ relics in terms of tourism, commercialization, and profit, stating “the number of tourists visiting the church in Demre will drastically increase when the bones are returned.”                       

In principle, decent people everywhere may take umbrage with the way in which the Roman Catholic Church came into possession of most of the remains of Saint Nicholas.  In retrospect, however, decent people everywhere must also be grateful for the theft of those relics in 1087.  Had Bari’s sailors not made off with Saint Nicholas’ relics, where would those relics be today?  Perhaps we can answer that question by considering the fate of the tombs and remains of the hundreds of saints whose relics reposed amidst a vast thousand-year old Christian space filled by hundreds of monasteries and cathedrals, and tens of thousands of churches and parishes that covered Asia Minor before the arrival of the Turks.  We know where those tombs and relics, desecrated by Ottoman violence and intolerance or destroyed by Turkish nationalism, are—they have been cast into oblivion, as if they never existed.  Bari’s sailors justified their actions in Myra, and perhaps aimed to allay their possible latent guilt, by arguing that they stole the relics of Saint Nicholas in order to protect them from the advancing Turks.  We cannot know if such claims were sincere, but what is clear is that without such “piracy” we would have no relics of Saint Nicholas to revere today.                

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra remains in ruins, a casualty of Turkey’s longstanding, continuous campaign against Christianity.  “Secular” Turkey continues to seize historic Orthodox churches and turn them into mosques.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, its institutions, and the dwindling Orthodox Christian population remaining in Turkey continue to face religious persecution and harassment.  In occupied Cyprus, Turkey has conducted such a thorough and systematic campaign of religious and cultural cleansing against Christians and their historical patrimony that the Islamic State’s similar actions in Iraq and Syria almost pale in comparison. 

An unrepentant Turkey, which, only a century ago, murdered three million of its own citizens because they were Christians, is not a proper home for the sacred remains of the kind-hearted, selfless, giving man we, as Orthodox Christians, revere as Saint Nicholas, and the world loves as the jolly, sweet, joyous Santa Claus.  Given its history, and its unwillingness to come to terms with its own past and present, it is morally repugnant that Turkey would seek to profit from the bones of a yet another dead Christian.  Saint Nicholas may have lived and died in Myra, but Demre is a place to which he should never go, this Christmas, or any other time.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Constantinople, Rome, and Washington: Deference and Indifference in US Relations with two Ancient Sees: Part One

Before arriving in Saudi Arabia on March 28 to personally assure Riyadh of Washington’s continued support for the world’s most oppressive and reactionary theocratic Islamic polity, President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican to discuss, among other issues, international religious freedom and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and beyond.  The irony was lost on the American media.

Generally, the media portrayed the papal-presidential conclave more as a glowing, much-anticipated, highly publicized meeting between two charismatic international celebrities, than as an introduction between two heads of state, each with enormous global power and influence.  Following a few obligatory pronouncements on peace, and after coming together on the importance of promoting awareness of the need to help the world’s poor, the pope and president politely found little else—certainly not in the spheres of culture, religion, and society—to agree on. 

The differences between the two leaders did not prevent the pope and president from moving beyond formal cordiality to a lighthearted rapport, launched by President Obama’s presentation of a deeply symbolic and thoughtful gift to Francis—a beautiful chest (filled with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden) made from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary in Baltimore, site of the first Roman Catholic cathedral erected in the US. 

Upon meeting in the pope’s study, Pope Francis gave President Obama a restrained smile as they shook hands.  In an excited voice the president said, "It's wonderful meeting you. I'm a great admirer. Thank you, sir. Thank you."  Reiterating his deference, President Obama added, "It's a great honor.  I'm a great admirer.  Thank you so much for receiving me."  The pope responded with a simple “thank you.”  Shortly before his meeting, the president had lavished praise on Francis, telling members of the Italian press, "The Holy Father has inspired the peoples of the entire world—and me too—with his commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for people who are the poorest and most vulnerable among us."  After his meeting with the pope, President Obama met briefly in Rome with both the president and prime minister of Italy, an event that drew virtually no American media interest.   

President Obama’s recent trip to the Vatican, where he had met Pope Benedict XVI in July 2009, marked his first meeting with Pope Francis but it was not his first meeting with a head of one of Christianity’s five ancient Patriarchal Sees.  In fact, President Obama met with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, in April 2009.  Barack Obama’s meeting with Bartholomew was the byproduct of his first presidential trip abroad, in which he aimed to woo the predominantly Muslim societies of the Middle East, beginning with Turkey.  However, unlike his recent meeting with Pope Francis, President Obama’s first meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was not characterized by deference and excitement, lavish praise of Bartholomew for the Turkish press, or even the presentation of a gift.  In stark contrast to his meeting with Francis, the president treated his meeting with Bartholomew as a 9:45 AM working coffee break.         

To be fair to President Obama, his behavior towards the Ecumenical Patriarch was entirely consistent with that of his immediate predecessor.  Indeed, when President George W. Bush visited Turkey in June 2004, he refused, in deference to the wishes of the Turkish state, to meet with Bartholomew in the latter’s enclaved headquarters in the Phanar district of Istanbul.  Instead, Bush deigned to receive Bartholomew at a hotel, in a gathering that included other “religious community leaders” from Istanbul.  When President Obama finalized the agenda for his April 2009 trip to Turkey, his aides made it clear that, despite his original plans to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch in the Phanar, President Obama would instead be willing to receive Patriarch Bartholomew in a hotel, at a gathering including other “religious community leaders” from Istanbul.

According to the official explanation for President Obama’s demeaning volte-face, severe constraints on the president’s very limited time in Turkey ultimately made it impossible for him to schedule a meeting at the Phanar with Patriarch Bartholomew.  This justification was incredulous.  Given President Obama’s allocation of several hours to a roundtable discussion with Turkish high school and college students, as well as other trivial public relations events, it is doubtful that the president’s aides could have not found the time in his schedule for a visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate—the ecclesiastical center of one of the world’s major religions, an ancient See for 300 million Orthodox Christians.

Many observers reasoned that President Obama’s obvious appeasement towards the Turkish state was neither surprising nor remarkable.  According to such views, the Obama administration’s early high-profile statements of concern for the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, followed by an unwillingness to take seriously those pronouncements, is a practice that conforms to long-established US policy behavior.  After all, such a gull approach to the issues of state persecution and violations of religious and other civil freedoms facing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Orthodox Christians in Turkey represents continuity in Washington’s engagement with Ankara, at least since the administration of Richard Nixon and the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger.

Washington’s attitude towards the Ecumenical Patriarchate has not, however, been always defined by deference to Ankara.  Indeed, before the US became, for all practical purposes, the subservient partner in the Washington-Ankara axis, American policymakers did not view respect for the legal rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Orthodox Christians as irrelevant to, and incompatible with, the maintenance of a productive alliance with Turkey.  In fact, there was a time when US policymakers invested considerable value in and support for the welfare and vitality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople—a subject this blog will address in its next essay.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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