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Tales from Türkiye


Chapter 1: Thunder Overhead

€15 for a boat trip around the Bodrum coastline in Eastern Turkey. Four swimming stops on the way to taste the crystal clear Mediterranean sea.

Before the trip even got started, the boat turned back to port and we picked up another half dozen passengers running late for the day. That brought the the passenger count towards two dozen, and a real mix of nationalities – Irish, Spanish, English, Russian, Portugeuse, Jordanian and others.

Thunder roared overhead. We turned to see a fighter jet fifty yards above, followed swiftly by a second. Gaza and Israel were top of mind…

“It’s practise for an air show.” said a friendly young Turk on board who was staffing the trip for the day. “In just a few days, Turkey has it’s 100 year anniversary.”

“Turkey is part of NATO. No one is going to attack Turkey”.

Chapter 2: Atatürk

What is today called Turkey (the Republic of Türkiye) was founded as a secular state in 1923 by Atatürk. The man’s face adorned every second building in Turkey as we approached the 100 year anniversary on October 29th 2023.

Prior to Turkey, there was the Ottoman empire. It spanned from Morocco through North Africa and the Middle East. It reached through parts of Ukraine and almost to Vienna.

The Ottoman empire was on the losing side of WWI. Thereafter, the Sultan was offered a far smaller share of land with the condition that he could not stand up a military.

Many officers of the army refused to support this arrangement. Led by Atatürk, they set up a base in Ankara and eventually were recognised as the government of Turkey. Ankara is Turkey’s capital today.

Atatürk made at least two big changes from the Ottoman empire.

  • Turkey would be a secular state – with loose inspiration from European states like Switzerland – a departure from the Muslim Ottoman empire.
  • Turkey would become a parliamentary democracy, moving on from the Monarchy-type rule of the Ottoman empire.

Fast forward through a number of coups in 1960, 1980 and an attempted coup in 2016, Turkey has since converted from a parliamentary to a presidential democracy. Today, the president holds certain powers that were previously held by a prime minister elected by parliament.

According to our tour guide – a man born and living in Istanbul – Turkey has done well in adapting to secularism. Of the two major changes – secularism and democracy – the latter has been harder given the history of autocratic Ottoman rule.

Chapter 3: Cami

Particularly in the old city of Istanbul, you find Muslim women dressed in long gowns and wearing head scarves – occasionally some wearing a face covering tool. In the new city, and on the Asian side of Istanbul, you see hookah smoked in the restaurants, Efes beer at certain bars and tea being sipped everywhere. The call to prayer sounds loudly from the minarets of beautiful colourful mosques (“cami” in Turkish) five times per day. I would wake around 7 am to the sound. Somehow I got used to it by the final days and slept through. By the end of the trip I could make out some of the Arabic words that are blended in a chant by the muezzin (the singer/chanter).

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!
Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah. Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah.
Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah. Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah.
Hayya ‘ala-s-Salah. Hayya ‘ala-s-Salah.
Hayya ‘ala-l-Falah. Hayya ‘ala-l-Falah.
Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!
La ilaha illa Allah.

God is Great! God is Great! God is Great! God is Great!
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God.
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Hurry to the prayer. Hurry to the prayer.
Hurry to salvation. Hurry to salvation.
God is Great! God is Great!
There is no god except the One God.

The morning prayer also includes an extra line:

As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm. As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm.
Prayer is better than sleep. Prayer is better than sleep.

At the back or side of mosques, there were often small books explaining the basics of Islam, why Jesus is a prophet but cannot be God, and the life of Mohammed, the prophet. Men washed their feet at taps and seats on the outer walls of the larger walls. Tourists flow quietly in and out of the mosques, taking off their shoes to enter, some making use of shawls and gowns provided by mosques to cover their shoulders, knees and – for women – their hair.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Chapter 4: Çay lütfen (Tea Please)

With thanks to Atatürk moving Turkish to a Latin alphabet, the Turkish language is approachable. This gave me the opportunity to order a few Türk kahvesi (coffees), and also a few teas.

On a food tour, the guide explained that coffee was previously more popular. When the Ottoman empire included Yemen, it could cheaply source coffee. These days, sipping tea from a glass shaped like an hourglass (see the gallery below) is more prevalent. Much of that tea comes from the Black Sea.

Chapter 5: Ottomans Rule

The Ottomans conquered a wide expanse of land across the middle-east, Europe and North Africa from the 14th to the 20th century.

Their rule was a type of monarchy and they were governed by a Sultan. Oversimplifying:

  1. The oldest son did not automatically become Sultan. It was the first Sultan to reach the palace after his father had died who would become the new sultan. This led to intense competition among brothers, but also to a strong and fierce leader.
  2. Women were brought from outside of Constantinople (former Istanbul) as prospective wives for the Sultan. After spending time near the palace, the best prospects were paired with the Sultan and became his wives. The sons of these wives were eligible to become sultan.
  3. The mother of the new sultan became the new queen mother, a highly influential role in governance. Since no-one natively from inside Constantinople (except the newborn sons) was eligible to be queen mother or sultan, this apparently reduced the risk of internal uprisings.

After the 17th century, fratricide (brothers killing each other) led to the system moving to one where the eldest son was appointed. The tour guide suggested that these Sultans were weaker and this may have contributed in a small way to the empire’s decline.

Chapter 6: Before the Ottomans

Roman rule in today’s Turkey began around 130 BC. Constantine – the Roman Emperor – made Constantinople the capital of the entire empire in AD 330 before dying in AD 337.

There were many emperors over the next decades of unrest, finishing up with Theodosius I. On his death, the Roman Empire then split into east and west in AD 395. Constantinople remained the capital of the eastern empire, which is also called the Byzantine Empire.

Just prior to Theodosius’ death, in AD 390, he transported a nearly 2,000 year old Egyptian monument to Constantinople (yes, it was about 1,800 years old at that time, making it over 3,400 years old today). That monument is still standing in Istanbul today. You can see the photo in the gallery below and it’s called the Obelisk of Theodosius, complete with hieroglyphics.

Chapter 7: A church, a mosque and a museum

In the 500s AD, Emperor Justinian I built the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul (Constantinople then). At that time, the Roman empire had split into east and west but there was still one central christian church. Politically and culturally the eastern and western empires were starting to diverge (the Western Roman empire had fallen by this time, in the late 400s AD), putting pressure on the church to split. The church did split around 1000 AD into the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox church.

In the crusades roughly 200 years later – when Latin Christian armies entered Constantinople – the Hagia Sophia switched from being an Eastern Orthodox church to a Catholic church. This lasted about fifty years in the 13th century before the eastern church took back control. The church was then converted to a mosque under the Ottoman empire in the 15th century AD.

More recently, in 1935, the mosque was converted to a museum as the Turkish state became secular, but was converted back to a mosque in 2020.

Practise vary in mosques as to whether human faces can be displayed on the walls. The church had both angels (four of them) and also paintings of the Virgin Mary and child. In the photo below, you can see curtains that were installed to mostly obscure the view of the Virgin Mary. The faces of three angels are covered, but the fourth was left uncovered when the museum was converted back to a mosque.

Chapter 8: Bazaar

Apparently, there is saffron, and there is Iranian saffron (the good stuff for cooking). Stalls in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar are set up showing three jars of saffron (stamens from the saffron flower):

  • 100 Turkish Lira (~3 Euro) per gram for short broken stamens
  • 250 TL (8 Euro) per gram for medium length stamens
  • 300 TL (10 Euro) per gram for the longest stamens

Everything prepared in jars for sale is of the highest quality and highest price. The tiers of quality appear to provide an illusion of choice that makes you satisfied with your purchase. A laminated Wholefoods receipt for a saffron purchase from California provides further comfort on the relative price difference, although a quick google shows bulk saffron at $1 per gram ($1000 per ton) somewhat dampened that ease.

Chapter 9: Dondurma and Katmer

It’s a pancake folded up with buffalo cream and pistachios inside, then dropped in a deep frier and optionally topped with a silky Turkish ice-cream (dondurma).

“It’s called Katmer” said the waiter – who had moved back to Turkey after 20 years in the US.

“I moved back for the healthcare. There is corruption in many parts of government, but healthcare works well here.”

He said he missed the US.

“I could work there and quickly earn enough for a new car. Not just an old car, a brand new car.”

“Kat… mer” he said at least five times. “Kat”… “mer”.

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