Driving back into Istanbul from Ataturk airport felt totally different to a few weeks before but no less exciting.
The landscape and seascape were now familiar, along with the classic architecture of the Mosques, Topkapi, the Galata tower and the iconic Galata bridge and it was just as enthralling, well as long as I kept my gaze from the hideous high rises on the skyline above Beskitas and the Levent district. These have been described as Erdogan’s “Crime against the city” and it is just coming to light that this was not only a way to prop up the economy and garner votes, but to keep an Islamic business class loyal from the profits of corruption on a Putin level.
With a pretty good idea of the geography of the city and my already topped up Istanbulkart, I even felt brash enough to give advice to the taxi driver on the best way to get back to my hotel, Nuruziya Suites, not as cocky as it may seem as the week before a taxi driver dropped me off, well rather suggested I get out, some 100 metres away on the other side of the Pera one way system. It is a city of now 17 million and not only are there daily changes and road works but over 5,000 taxi drivers have been sacked in the last year for having criminal records, so there is a shortage of those who know the way round the place.
The cityscape might be familiar but from my earlier time here but I was fascinated by the mix of peoples, and especially the variety of faces and costume. We all try to understand the world around us in some way and taking photographs of people, especially juxtaposed in something close to their everyday setting ended up being my way of looking at the world. I think, perhaps erroneously, that taking photographs, mainly portraits of the Nuba, Nuer and Dinka some thirty years ago gives me some insight into the ‘what and why’ of the current situation in South Sudan.
I had already photographed many people and after briefly looking at the results I was interested in capturing the variety of faces the Ottoman Empire had bought to the then Constantinople. There were faces of the Turcic peoples that originated initially from close to China, through to the very European faces of the Ottoman Western empire of the Balkans, faces from Arabia and Egypt; and from the Caucasus and the very visually distinctive and colourful gypsies.***
I suppose a common characteristics of the Istanbul male is a squarish head with a moustache although that sounds simplistic even Erdogan looks like this and I did in fact meet a few large bald headed Turks with a huge moustaches that could have been Saracen extras from a Hollywood crusader movie.
In Turkey, apart from faces, which describe your ancestry, ones clothing and general attire give away your religious and political bent. So I was fascintated by what people wore, from the general veil and lime green raincoats for women and plain suits for men who vote for the AK party (Erdogan’s party) to the chic western clothes worn by the mainly young in Pera and Beyoglu.
And as football, the third religion in Turkey after Islam and ‘business’ is the only thing that cuts across all religious and cultural divides, the football shirt you wear from either Galatasaray, Fenabahce, Besiktas or even the national team, is de rigeur for many males from 5 to 40, and can give away much about your background.
This confusing mass of people from most of the western world (minus the football shirt but then replaced by the colour of your shoes worn during the Ottoman period..Turks yellow, Jews blue, Greek black..) led Flaubert to write in about 1850 “that in 100 years Istanbul would be the capital of the world”
That never happened but that same mishmash of the world’s people are still here.
I have a few days to work out my trip voyage round Turkey and after looking at various bus journeys to Black Sea towns or ports, the train is not functioning from Istanbul due to the construction of the new high speed line to Ankara and really the rest of Turkey, I decided finally to fly directly to Trabzon, next to the border with Georgia. From there the plan was inland to the old Armenian city of Erzurum and back through the high plains of Anatolia.
With that sorted, I had a few more days to wander and visit the city. I hadn’t had time for the Archaeology museum last time so first stop after booking the flight and hotel was off to this award winning museum.
The main attraction is Alexander’s sarcophagus, one of many bought from Sidon in the 1880’s. Although never used by him it is one incredible pieces of sculpture. The director of antiquities, Osman Hamdi Bey on hearing of a burial site near Sidon went there to excavate and eventually bought all 20 of these beautiful sarcophagi from the underground necropolis of the Phrygian Kings to be exhibited in Constantinople.
So many people came to see these works of art from a lost age that the sultan agreed in 1891, to finance the building of a museum to house them.
I visited provincial museums all over Turkey and most had sarcophagi of some sort from Hittite, Greek Roman and even Byzantine, they seem to have a bit of a thing for them.
There are also beautiful temple freezes and statues from the Hittite period through to the Roman from all over Turkey, from Troy to Ephesus
Walking back through Gulhane Park I noticed that there a few middle aged couples some with children with many suitcases, perhaps they were Syrians.
The civil war in Syria has meant some 3 or 4 million refugees are in neighbouring countries and not all are Sunnis, there are many Shia or Alawite refugees who cannot, for fear of being murdered, go to the refugee camps inside the Turkish border.
The Alevi and Alawi are reasonably closely linked Shia groups, and many come to Istanbul where the Alevi look after the Alawite refugees mainly in the Gazi and Kadikoy districts.
Although Turkey and many Turks will tell you that it’s a Sunni country there are at least 25% of the population that are Shia and they are the Alevi. To a certain extent sectarianism has already been unleashed by Erdogan, and given the state’s past history and the unaccountable, well only to Erdogan, National Intelligence Organisation ..the MIT, which is not only shipping vast quantities of arms into Syria but also carrying out field operations inside that country against the Alawite regime, there is some concern among the Alevi.
Arriving back at Tunel Square on the way back to the hotel I was confronted by the riot police and just a few protesters as it was still early on this Friday and obviously trouble was expected as the journalists and cameramen were there with gas masks ready.
The riot police, with the AK party thugs were spread across Independence Street discouraging would be protesters from continuing up the street to Taksim.
Someone had told me that the protesters were criminals and young thugs, echoing Erdogan, but as in the general arab spring these were not only the secular, men and women, young and old, the students and the ‘intellectuals’, but the disaffected religious groups like the Alevi and ethnic groups like the Kurds.
Turkey has a very complicated political and social background and to understand the country and perhaps my blog as I travel further east, mentioning the Taksim protests here is a good place, and I hope I don’t bore you, to briefly touch upon social and political splits.
The number of factions in Turkey are overwhelming. There are even splits within Sunnis, with the Gulen movement (Hizmet) which many liken to a cult, controlled by the conservative Fethullah Gülen, who pulls the strings while living in Pennsylvania, which not only controls some 2,000 schools in the region but has tentacles in both the police and judiciary and has been called “an Islamic Opus Dei”. There are also Dervish lodges in Istanbul and even Alevi shamanism in the far reaches of Anatolia.
The Republican People’s Party is the party founded by Atarturk and although it is the main opposition and it was the dominant force in Turkish politics up until the 1990’s it is now a spent force unable even to hold onto the sizeable Alevi vote. The army, was once a protector of secular politics but through fake ‘Ergenekon’ trials which has now turned out to be Erdogan’s corrupt attempt to take the army out of politics The AK Party has a pretty much free reign, not only to rule but to do so by any means, someone described it to me as Islamic Facism.
Apart from that there are at least 35 other political parties, the Kurds of course and the rest with half on the left and the others nationalist, green or extreme right wing. Sprinkle a little outside interference from the US and Saudi over the top and it is a very interesting mix. Inside Turkey there are some restrictions on what can be discussed and there are consequencies for investigative reporting as Turkey is now the world’s biggest prison for journalists, even more than China, and Erdogan is extending the turkish firewall. But as a tourist I felt and was totally safe wherever I went throughout the country.
Later that evening when I was out for something to eat I was caught up in the middle of a police charge..quite frightening .. nothing like a little frisson to get the heart going.
Although the Taksim & Gezi Park protests were ostensibly about the building over one of the only green spaces it was really about so much more.
Although aesthetically most modern construction under the AK Party over the last twenty years has been pretty awful Taksim Square is not really a very beautiful public space but it could be improved rather than built over with another shopping mall, and denying a mostly apartment dwelling population any green space.
The thing I dont really understand when I look at Turkey is the contrast between Erdogan’s desire for modernism and his grand projects and his management of the country that could send Turkey back, after all of Ataturk’s reforms to some fundamentalist dark age, with child brides, restricted abortion rights, the return of the headscarf and now very low women’s representation in politics.
Having got the complexities of Turkish life out of the way there is nothing simpler than a weekend boat trip to the genuinely unspoilt Princes Islands, where there are no cars, only horse drawn carriages and bicycles.
The best way is the regular boat from Kabatas, and the trip, like greek island hopping is entertainment itself.
There are buskers to give you the flavour of modern Turkish music or salesmen with the latest kitchen gadget to get juice from oranges and lemons and the constant round of waiters with trays of tea and juice and snacks.
The boat is full of groups of friends or just lovers off to enjoy a walk or phaeton ride around the island and a fish lunch at one of the many restaurants by the sea.
The furthest Büyükada and probably most beautiful, is covered with pines, bougainvillea and many other mediterranean flowers.
It has wonderful early twentieth century buildings from the Palace hote, the beautiful pier,and some of the best preserved old wooden houses in Istanbul, although some are now being left to rot, probably by developers.
Trotsky was exiled on this island from 1929 to 1933, he lived in a villa by the sea where he wrote his autobiography and his “History of the Russian Revolution”.
Today the villa he lived in is a tumble down wreck and the villa above is probably the best preserved wooden palace in the whole of Istanbul and which recently was the setting of a bosphoros soap opera. Sign of the times, however there are plans to renovate Trotsky’s house as a museum.
After the real bussle of the city these islands have a dreamlike quality.
*** Portraits will be published in a seperate blog at the end and on Flickr later
**Reference for current politics : http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/home.html
*All the photographs are by Michael Jennings are copyright protected and can be used only with permission