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     Volume 2 Issue 135 | September 6 , 2009 |


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Cover Photo: Nazmus Saquib


The Mediterranean history revisited:
A trip to Turkey and Greece

Dr. Tanvir A. Khan

THE Book Club of Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) chose “My name is Red” by Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk to be reviewed and presented on August 02, 2009 in the Department of English in the School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Coincidentally, my family and I were on a vacation to Turkey and Greece at that time. "Enough time to read and critique the book", I thought.

Quite frankly I could not do justice to the 508 pages since I could only cover half the book. But it brought a lot of passages to mind as I passed around the country, specifically the north-western part where the vagaries of the European and Asian continents meet and one can feel the history of this geo-political landscape so very closely.

Some of you might have read earlier in the pages of this daily what we do from the Walker's Club in Gulshan. We do not just walk. We take trips far and wide by other means as well, airplanes included. Traveling with such a group does not only contribute to the experience but also the enjoyment of dissimilar taste buds, both literally and figuratively.

Istanbul was the first hit and why not? I had heard so much about this country and had been quite intrigued about the complexities of this city and its history. This is one city which has undergone tremendous change. Six centuries before Christ Istanbul was founded as Byzantium. Constantinople was its next name as it was refounded in 330 AD. Ottomans conquered it in 1453. Ankara might be Turkey's modern capital but Istanbul is its heart.

Even a decade back, Istanbul was not as modern as it is now, so stated a lot of Istanbulites. The tube, the tram, the double decker buses and the 'twin-buses' with its neat décor are mobile on the streets. Not that a tourist at first sight would be impressed with the sky-line or the buildings at Istanbul especially since the previous city transited was Dubai and having that as the benchmark would be overwhelmingly scaling up the boundaries. Nonetheless, any old city of repute opens up gradually to reflect its characteristics within a few days and that impact was felt by this team as well.

On the second day of our stay we were taken on a cruise down the Bosphorus. It is a sight for sore eyes. The boat could accommodate 100 plus passengers. It was windy and therefore you needed a scarf. The vendors at the river front did brisk business selling these scarves at a user-friendly price. The rivers Thames and Seine are good examples of tourists going on the river cruise only to see the splendor that the town planners have planned for them.

Immediately you are stuck with the stark reality of river Buriganga and the other three rivers surrounding Dhaka. Haven't the policy planners of Bangladesh visited these countries?

The culture of Turkey was depicted by performers on the upper deck of the boat after dinner. The dinner was sumptuous and was a la carte with choice of fresh fish from the Bosphorus. After dinner and the cultural program, dessert was served along with Turkish tea.

The Dolmabahce Sarayi (filled-in garden), the grandiose palace could be viewed from the boat along the Bosphorus and what a sight it was. Sultan Abdul Mecit built it between 1843 and 1856 when the once mighty Ottomans had become the “Sick Man of Europe”. This was built to give the lie to talk of Ottoman decline. His predecessor Sultan Ahmet I (1607-17) had sown the seeds by filling in a little cove in order to build an imperial pleasure kiosk surrounded by gardens. Other wooden buildings were built around it but all burned to the ground in 1814. The empire's bankruptcy was visible but to dispel rumours Abdul Mecit's imperial architects, Nikogos and Karabet Balyan constructed a 'sumptuous, extravagant, over decorated Ottoman-European fantasy'.

The first day at Istanbul was a visit to the Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya, the Blue mosque, Dolmabahce Sarayi and a tour of the city. The team met a number of people while touring the city asking inquisitive questions. They basically wanted to know about the complexities that riddle the Turkish psyche and what led to the conquest of Alexander to the Romans to the Byzantines and ending with the Ottoman Empire which was reborn as a republic on 29 October 1923 at the behest of General Mustafa Kemal.

The east-meets-west concept in Turkey is pretty interesting. Anything that you see specially as far as attire is concerned for both males and females are pretty much European. At the same time you hear the sounds of Azan from a mosque and somehow the scene in front of you and the call for prayers doesn't quite click. Is it because we are used to a different environment or is it that the contrast that one observes is really that impactful which leaves you thinking. Many passersby would look at our spouses clad in shalwar-kameez and sometimes scratch their heads. A Turkish lady asked one of our members how his spouse could manage being comfortable in this attire in the middle of summer although she appreciated the attire itself.

The itinerary included the Topkapi Palace, the great structure of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th century. It houses an exquisite collection of crystal, silver and Chinese porcelain, robes worn by the sultans and their family members. Also on display were the famous jewels of the Imperial Treasury, miniatures, the Holy Mantle and the enshrined relics of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The janissaries and the harem were the most interesting spots dispelling many a thought about abuses and perversion. Quite the contrary! Children, imperial princes were brought up in the Harem, taught and cared for by its women and servants. The women of the Harem had to be foreigners. A favorite source of girls was Circassia, north of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. The Circassian was noted for their beauty, and the parents were often glad to give up their 10 year-old girls in exchange for hard cash. Upon entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, the arts of make-up, dress, music, reading and writing, embroidery and dancing. They had to enter a meritocracy where gradually they would graduate as ladies-in-waiting to the sultan's concubines and children, then to the sultan' mother and finally, if they were the best to the sultan himself.

In the Janissaries, 10 year old boys from Christian families were rounded up by government agents for the sultan's personal service. But it was a road to ultimate advancement since the boy would be instructed in Turkish, converted to Islam, and enrolled in the sultan's service. Those of normal intelligence went into the janissary corps forming the sultan's imperial guard. The brightest went into the palace service and many rose to the highest offices.

Sultan Ahmet Imperial Mosque across from St. Sophia - built in the 16th century by the architect Mehmet -is known as the Blue Mosque because of its magnificent interior decoration of blue Iznik tiles. Inside there is a space for people to pray. We did not lose the opportunity. The Spice Bazaar is filled with the enticing aromas of cinnamon, caraway, saffron, mint, thyme and every other conceivable herb and spice. As always, the spouses had to do some marketing and therefore pashmini shawls, very much Turkish were bought in bundles to be given as gifts to the near and dear ones and a substantial portion for themselves.

The next day we departed for Gallipoli to visit the battlefields. We went by road along the Sea of Marmara and the two straits: Bosphorus and Canakkale at two extremes show the geo-political importance of Turkey.

On the North is the Black Sea and on the south-west is the Aegean Sea which is a part of the Mediterranean. The north-west portion is part of Europe and as soon as you cross the river by ferry you enter the Asian portion of Turkey.

Canakkale is where we ended up on the other side transported by the ferry. It is supposed to be a hub for transport to Troy. The defence of the Strait of Canakkale during World War One led to a Turkish victory over the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) forces on 18 March 1916. It has now become a major holiday spot. Just over 2km south of the ferry pier, the Archaeological Museum holds artifacts found at Troy and Assos. We were put up in a hotel named Karwansaray which was the house of a Judge nearly hundred years back. His family lived there for a few generations and then sold it to the proprietor of this hotel.

The Kabatepe museum has a small information centre with uniforms of different periods, soldiers' letters, rusty weapons and other finds from the battlefield such as the skull of a luckless Turkish soldier with a ball lodged right in the forehead. The Gallipoli campaign lasted till January 1916 (nearly nine months). The damage was more than half a million Allied and Turkish casualties. The crucial element in the success was the leadership of a young officer named Lieutenant-Colonel Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk).

Troy is the name of a place which we have heard so much. This was an opportunity to return after visiting this place and come and tell our friends how Paris had kidnapped the beautiful Helen from her husband Menelaus, King of Sparta. During the decade that the war continued, a new idea crept into the mind of Odysseus to send a wooden horse filled with soldiers leaving it outside the west gate for the Trojans to wheel inside the walls.

Homer's account in Iliad is less than fully historical. One theory has it that the earthquake of 1250 BC broke the formidable walls of Troy and allowed the Achaeans (Greeks) to battle their way into the city (Tom Brosnahan, “Istanbul”, Lonely Planet, 1999). The Trojan War was fought between the Greeks (Agamemnon, Achilles, Ulysses, Patroclus and Nestor) and Priam with his sons Hector and Paris on the Trojan side.

It was time for us to bid adieu to Turkey and experience the waves and visit the islands of the Mediterranean.

(The writer is an Economist and Planner and is currently working as the Registrar of Independent University, Bangladesh)


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