Sword at hand re-conquering Hagia Sophia alla Turca

Not practically, but theoretically the recent scene at Hagia Sophia was not un-reminiscent of Al Baghdadi’s Mosul Friday sermon. This is not who we are. We must be better than this and we are better than this. The year is 2020.

“A thousand horsemen, we were full of joy like children / A thousand horsemen, that day we came out on top of a giant army” –two lines from a well versed poem from one of the great mid-20th century Turkish poets as I reminisce and freely translate them without consulting Saint Google. Harking back to past glory always helps to overcome the daily struggles of our petty lives. Especially when you are a teenager that is and especially when “the daily struggles of life” mean in short, sexual deprivation. Yet, you manage to grow up, like others do, along the way.

If you still insist or feel free to act as a teenager though when you are a fully grown up person, the same leeway would not and in my humble opinion should not be given to you. That moment as a rule of thumb is when I get up and abruptly leave the raki table. Especially, when and if you shoulder the burden of being a government representative, like I did for a mere twenty years’ service. Hence, I winced and had that imaginary itch when I watched the Head of Religious Affairs climbing the steps of the pulpit at the Hagia Sophia “mosque” seemingly trying to find his balance on his ceremonial sword that he used as walking stick. 

That choreographed moment was intended to be as solemn as possible, I could see that, but the gentleman in question who at best did not appear to be too far from Watteau’s “Pierrot” in his white gown, was at worst similar to an archetypical mid-eastern operetta general. True, quite exceptionally both Turks and Greeks fought and won their own respective independence wars to establish their founding myths against each other. One can also, for sure if one casually holds a raki or an ouzo glass at hand, go back in history to muse about the Trojan War, the legend of Aeneas, Emperor Constantine and Sultan Mehmet the Second. One founded Lavinium/Rome, the other founded the new Rome of the East, and the third conquered it in turn to claim himself Emperor of Rome and to set his eyes firmly on the “old” Rome. 

Tellingly perhaps, certain historians claim that both Mehmet the Conqueror and Atatürk the Founder of the Republic of Turkey, have felt in their own times the urge to visit the ruins of ancient Troy at the north Aegean coast. One is free to approve or disapprove of their legacies but one cannot claim that neither of these figures suffered from an inferiority complex or that neither of them lacked a clear vision of what they were set about to build. Because iconoclasts but also builders both of them were, and not slayers or destroyers. Sultan Mehmet at the tender age of 21 age entering Istanbul or Mustafa Kemal who proclaimed after the great victory of 1922 “armies, your first target is the Mediterranean, forward!” were dreamers equivalent to, say, ones who engaged in a race to put the first the first man on the moon. 

Did the sorry faced government official in question here-above in his funny, extravagant and anachronic clothing would ever consider to have a glance for example at the map of the Bay of Edremit with the Island of Lesvos closing or opening it to high seas depending on the way you look at it based on your politico-cultural stance? Would he ever ponder about the Virgil’s Legend of Aeneas? Would he ever stop on his tracks while aimlessly taking a walk on a sunny summer day and leaned forward to first smell the leaves and then kiss the fruit of an olive tree? Beyond modernity, progress and enlightenment, there is something called plain and simple joy of being alive and gratefulness as opposed to teenage anger and that is accessible to each and every single of us. At times one must allow himself to be amazed by the sun-licked beauty of stonemasonry, olive and pine trees and the bountiful blue sea.    

Growing up means also facing your own demons. “Man up!” the saying goes, when facing tough challenges. Experience in life indeed includes that stomach turning moment when, with your head on your pillow, you remember that particular time when you had overacted and kind of ridiculed yourself. But growing up also probably means laughing it over and turning the page once for all and make peace with your past. How does a nation grow up though? What role do the leaders play in that process? One thinks for example of the famous Warsaw knee-fall moment of then German Chancellor Willy Brandt.  A perfect image of how a man grows up and turns into a giant by making himself smaller in the eyes of the others, by disappearing at the service of his country. 

Our city, my city too as my ancestors lived here at least since mid-19th century, duly claims the “where east meets west” motto. Strolling around in the Frank Quarter (the Genovese half or Pera) you walk past a palace-like building where Italian Donizetti “Pasha” composed his sweet polyphonic melodies for his boss, Sultan Abdulaziz. Further up, you reach the beer factory that was founded by the Swiss Bomonti Brothers with the blessing of the darling of today’s islamists Sultan Abdulhamid II –half of which is ironically or not so ironically just demolished as its site is allocated to the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Take a boat across the Bosphorus to Çengelköy and you can see the house where exceptionally talented artist Mr. Seyfi Dursunoğlu a.k.a. “Huysuz Virjin” lived who passed away at the age of 88 few days ago. He had left the government service to create a “trans” character, a female twin to himself with a no holds barred approach of satirical performance and turned himself to a popular pillar of İstanbul’s night life.    

Pluralism, tolerance and cosmopolitanism had always been the dominant traits of this city sitting across the two continents. When Sultan Mehmet conquered the city, its population was down to fifty thousand. When he had passed away almost thirty years later it had jumped up five times not only with Muslims but also with Armenians, Greeks, Levantines and Jews. Istanbul’s unique and resilient character somewhat managed to weather the Armenian Genocide, the allied invasion following the WW1, the Wealth Tax, the September 6-7th 1955 pogrom, the political violence of 1970s, the terror attacks of 2000s. Not practically, but theoretically the recent scene at Hagia Sophia was not un-reminiscent of Al Baghdadi’s Mosul Friday sermon. This is not who we are. We must be better than this and we are better than this: Multi-kulti “Huysuz Virjin” with his dual character is more Istanbul than the mono-chrome government official who paused as a fake latter-day “şeyhülislam.” The year is 2020.

September 13, 2021 The new cold war