Finishing Lines – Aqueduct of Valens In Istanbul (Eastern Europe & Me #3)

A very close friend of mine and the man who came closest to being my father figure once told me: “you are notoriously crazy.” I took that as a great compliment. I have always enjoyed what others might consider as bizarre behavior. One of my notoriously crazy habits was a running regime where I ran five miles per day. This was not any great feat by athletic standards except that I did it for fifteen consecutive years no matter how bad the weather or wherever I was in the world. This was wearying in the extreme. My goal was to see just how long I could continue a test of personal endurance. Dodging everything from lightning bolts to buffalos, hailstorms and hell frozen over in -30 degree temperatures, I kept this habit going until one day I started walking rather running. I have never stopped.

Passing through – Aqueduct of Valen in Istanbul (Credit: Mondo79)

Setting The Pace – Running Into Trouble
My self-imposed running regime meant that every time I visited Eastern Europe it was on the agenda. Each morning I darted out the door of a hotel, hostel or house and took off down unknown avenues, across random fields, and through city centers to ensure I met my daily quota. This was downright grueling at times due to jet lag. On other occasions it was ridiculously dangerous. Just try going for a jog down a sidewalk in Istanbul at eight a.m. when everyone in the city has somewhere they have to be. Crossing a heavily trafficked street was an exhilarating experience that had me wondering whether I was finally about to meet my maker in the form of a Turkish commuter. One who was driven damn near mad by some foolish foreigner. I was the type who refused to obey local pedestrian traffic rules such as get the hell out of my way.

As spectacularly stupid as trying to pick my way through Istanbul’s notoriously nightmarish traffic in the city center sounds, the thought of failure was much worse to me. Running was a risk worth taking. Even in Istanbul there were jaw dropping moments that had nothing to do with near death experiences. There are worse things than seeing the sites at a brisk pace. Running beside the Sea of Marmara, along the Theodosian Walls, and following the Golden Horn were worth every bit of dodging I had to do. The most memorable of these experiences came on my first run in the city. I started off hyperaware of the surroundings. My goal was to avoid a catastrophe that seemed to lurk along every sidewalk and street corner. This made it hard to focus on anything other than what was right in front of my face. That was until a strikingly large segment of ancient infrastructure caught my eye.

Narrow passageway – Heading towards the Aqueduct of Valens (Credit: R Prezeres)

Ancient Infrastructure – Extravagant Engineering
Before me I saw a series of stone arches stacked beside and atop one another. This was the Aqueduct of Valens, a multi-storied segment of ancient infrastructure still standing in the Fatih District. A multi-lane, traffic packed boulevard ran beneath it. I was astonished more by the aqueduct’s placement, than its considerable size. The remnants of this segment of the aqueduct survived while the city grew up all around it. I could only imagine what the fully intact aqueduct must have looked like when completed during the late 4th century. The emperor whose name graces it is a bit of a misnomer. Valens (364 – 378 AD) was not the one who started the project. Instead, the aqueduct’s construction began under his predecessor Constantius II (337 – 361). Valens got his name attached to it for being emperor when the aqueduct was completed.  

Passing beneath the aqueduct on foot was a thrill. Especially while watching vehicles along Ataturk Boulevard race beneath the stone arches. This specific part of the aqueduct is known as Bozdogan Kemeri which means Aqueduct of the Gray Falcon. The Bozdogan Kemeri soars to 921 meters in height as it bridges a valley between two hills in Istanbul. One of those hills is home to Istanbul University, while on the other one stands Fatih Mosque. The mosque’s name is the same as the district I was running through and where the ancient aqueduct bridge can be found. I was shocked to find such a huge relic of Roman times amid the city. I should not have been since what I saw was only a very small part of an extravagant system fed by natural springs that brought Istanbul a consistent fresh water supply. At its zenith, the entire system stretched for 451 kilometers (280 miles) into areas far outside of the city.

I could not help but wonder why the Bozdogan Kemeri had survived while so much of ancient Constantinople was either destroyed or buried beneath the modern city. Later I did some research which revealed that the aqueduct did not die along with the Roman Empire. And the death of the Roman Empire in the east was much different from that of the west. The Roman Empire I learned about in school ceased to exist in 476 AD. That was only the case for its western half. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) continued until the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453. The aqueduct was in use during much of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. As a matter of fact, ten of the arches that make up the Bozdogan Kemeri, were constructed during the Ottoman era. Much of the Roman infrastructure would not be surpassed until the modern age. While modern engineering works may be more efficient and state of the art, it is doubtful that any will last as long as the Aqueduct of Valens.

Heavily trafficked – Ataturk Boulevard & the Aqueduct of Valens (Credit: Mister No)

Rate of Mortality – A Lesson In Time
The aqueduct was not only a reminder for me of the Roman world’s legacy, but also of my own mortality. The aqueduct was over sixteen hundred years old. I broke my neck in a bicycle accident just before I turned sixteen. At the time, I ran beneath the aqueduct, I was thirty-six years old. Half my life or more might have already been over. The world goes on without us, the works of humanity last longer than humans. Many of us are fond of saying that all empires fall, but they have still lasted much longer than we ever will. The Aqueduct of Valens taught me a lesson in time. That while time is the best teacher, unfortunately it kills all its students.

Click here for: Fellow Travelers – End Credits: Hungary (Eastern Europe & Me #4)

“I have not told half of what I saw” – Death in Venice (Eastern Europe & Me #1)

His death happened on a Tuesday exactly 699 years, 1 month, and 8 days ago in Venice. Only a week after the new year began, during the dead of a Venetian winter when dampness permeates the skin, and a hypothermic chill finds its way into the bones. The languid waters of the lagoon washed over the pilings upon which this mighty waterborne empire had been built. This was the starting point from which Venetian ships, merchants, and sailors radiated outward to distant shorelines throughout the Adriatic and Mediterranean worlds. In the city’s narrow corridors, serpentine alleyways, and secret passages the Venetians went about their business as they had for seven centuries before this day and would for a further five centuries. These were the days when the Republic of Venice was most timeless. Its beginnings shrouded in myth and mystery. Its endings so distant that they could not have seemed even remotely possible. Yet time was ticking on that day in Venice, ticking away the final moments on the life of a favorite son and world-famous traveler whose exploits would be passed down through the ages. A man who was just as mythical and mysterious as mist floating above the lagoon in the hours between midnight and daylight.

Mist & mystery – Venice

Magical & Fantastical – The Other Half Of It
Like many places whose aesthetics are informed by water, Venice evokes an ecstatic melancholy. A mesmerizing loneliness where the sound of water acts as a reminder that the darkest depths are never far away. It would have certainly been no different on the 8th of January 1324 as the sun disappeared beyond the western horizon and darkness fell upon the city. Sometime between the dead of night and first light of the following day, Marco Polo took his last breath. The famed traveler’s final journey to the darkest side of the human experience was completed in Venice. His death, like the beginning of his life, occurred in the same city where he had been born seventy years earlier. Between Polo’s birth and death, he traveled across a wide swath of the Eurasian land mass. His adventures led to the astonishing stories found in The Travels of Marco Polo.

Polo brought eastern exoticism from the furthest reaches of the Eurasian land mass back to Europe. He melded together imagination and reality as all great travel writers do.  Magical and fantastical, Polo’s travel tales opened a portal into another world. They were the gift that keeps on giving, right up to this very day. Polo was a remarkable man, but he could not escape death. At least not in bodily form. Polo took his last breath sometime deep in the night of January 8th. Before doing so he was said to have told those in his presence some famous last words. After being asked to confess for what many believed were his lies, Polo simply stated, “I have not told half of what I saw.”

Between East & West – Marco Polos Caravan

Minor Miracle – Near Death Experience
My travels have not taken me as far as Polo’s, at least not physically. Psychologically, I have gone as far as Polo, maybe even further. That is because in 1987, I broke my neck in a bicycle accident. Flying over the handlebars after hitting a curb, I crash landed with the back of my neck beneath the rest of my body. I heard my neck crack with a sound that to this very day I am still unable to process without covering my face with my hands. I am still trying to hide from the fate that befell me on that day. Yet fate also saved me, whether it was by divine providence or dumb luck, I still cannot say. From that moment forward everything in my life has been done with the shadow of paralysis, the fear of incapacitation, the dread of death, hanging over me. Every time I take a simple step, lift my arm, or squeeze my hand is a minor miracle. The moment when my life was saved and restarted is one for which I am forever grateful.

That same moment has also given me a great burden, one under which I have cracked from the strain too many times to recount. Travel has helped me cope with the trauma. Some might say I travel to escape. In my mind, I travel to seek. A near death experience has strange side effects that do not become apparent until many years after the event which first stimulated it. With the self-awareness that comes with age, I can now see clearly that my travels to Eastern Europe have been fed by an intense belief that I was destined for places which I could never have imagined, places that when my neck snapped nearly in half were the most distant of dreams. Those dreams became reality when I first set foot in Sofia, Bulgaria. The only way my mind can make sense of that moment, is to believe it was part of some strange destiny. A destiny that I can feel, not with my hands but my heart.

My travels in Eastern Europe are the product of instinct and intuition. They propel me into the unknown in search of something and I do not quite what. I see a reflection of myself in Sofia, Sarajevo and Szekesfehervar, the crumbling manor houses, the peeling paint in railway stations, the concrete apartment blocks painted in pastels, the chivalrous statues of national heroes that no one spoke of in school, the busted up bus stops, the site of the Ukrainian Carpathians from a bad road in eastern Hungary, the first sight of an onion dome upon crossing the border into the Eastern Orthodox world, the fog floating over a valley at early morning in Spis land, the empty palaces that the communists could never quite defeat, these thing and so much more.

With open arms – As seen in Sofia

The Mission – Lands of No Return
I cannot stop seeking and through this blog I cannot stop sharing. This is an obsession, an addiction, a fixation. I am chasing after everything the textbook never tells you and that the shrinks say will kill you. With one foot in the grave and another hanging over a ledge atop the Eger minaret, I feel most alive. I am constantly reminding myself of how on the day I almost died, my life’s mission really began. To travel into lands I knew nothing about, lands from which I can no longer return because I have never left. Instead of spending the rest of my life breathing through an iron lung, I am spending it beyond the old Iron Curtain. This is the story of my relationship with the people, places and events of Eastern Europe. This is the story of Eastern Europe and me. Like Polo, “I have not told you half of what I saw”, but I plan to try.

Click here for: Metaphor & Mirror – From the Foothills to Fuzerradvany (Eastern Europe & Me #2)

Surreal Shores – A Golden Dawn On The Bosphorus: The Orient Express By Boat (Part Four)

The passage by steamship from Varna to Constantinople was anything but romantic. For those who had traveled from the glitter and dazzle of Paris to the surreal shores of the Black Sea by train, the voyage across the water to Constantinople was a decided letdown. The passengers avoided the deck at all costs. A view of the sea was not worth chancing a confrontation with the throngs of refugees. The only thing standing between the bourgeois passengers and this primitive proletariat was a timber barrier and rope. The potential confrontation never took place as the passengers practiced the virtue of avoidance. They resigned themselves to “smoking” in their cabins. The smoking came not from cigarette or cigar smoke, but from a billowing black cloud emitted by the burning of low quality coal. Soon it had pervaded every compartment. Meanwhile the flat keeled Espero was battered and lashed by choppy waves in the tumultuous sea.

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Wikipedia)

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Credit: Wikipedia)

Technological Touchstone – A Question of Time
The ship had launched from the jetty in Varna at dusk. Just after the sun went down the temperature plummeted as an autumn chill gripped the air. A nice meal was prepared for the Orient Express passengers, but most of them were not in the mood for fine dining. This voyage was more about suffering than it was style. All the money in the world would not bring them greater comfort until they washed up on the shores of the Golden Horn at Constantinople the next morning. This watery journey would take a total of 14 mostly excruciating hours. The Orient Express had been a technological touchstone, but the Espero was a reminder of the way things used to be and still were for many travelers who had no choice but to travel by ship. Those who were fortunate enough to make this inaugural journey would be part of a relatively rare travel breed, a small group of people who had successfully completed the Orient Express route by train, ferry and steamship across land, river and sea. This cumbersome system using three types of transport would be the standard until 1888 when the Orient Express’ final rail links were opened in Bulgaria.

What the inaugural voyage gained in adventure by using such disparate modes of transport, it lost in time. Time was of the essence when it came to the Orient Express. The original timetable for the Paris to Constantinople trip showed that it should take 81 hours and 14 minutes. The inaugural journey ended up taking less than that, clocking in at 80 hours. Considering all the stops for ceremonies and side trips the Express had probably done much better than could be expected. Five years later, when the journey could all be done by rail the time was cut to 65 hours, saving over half a day. What made the journey by boat from Varna so ponderously slow was the weather. The open sea was an untamed wilderness of seemingly infinite space that ate away at the ship’s speed.

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

An Astonishing Sight – The Glory Of Constantinople
The Espero, was buffeted by a strong northeasterly wind that limited its average speed to just 12 knots (14 miles per hour). Thus, it is not surprising that the journey took from dusk to dawn for the ship to cover the Black Sea portion of the voyage. The passengers may not have enjoyed much of this seafaring adventure, but the final hours of it were nothing short of spectacular. The Espero entered the Bosphorus strait just as the sun rose. It was an astonishing sight. All the glories of ancient, medieval and more recent history were there for the viewing on both sides of the Bosporus. The ship passed by the rustic medieval castles on the European and Asian hillsides built to guard the entrance to the Bosphorus by the Ottomans. Both of the Sultan’s splendid palaces at Beylerbei and Dolhambache could be seen. The most marvelous sights were the domes and minarets that came into view from the city’s historic core. The ship entered the Golden Horn that morning, just as the city was coming to life.

A more dramatic entrance to one of the world’s greatest cities could not have been planned. All the troubles of the steamship voyage had been worth it. In a few more years, travelers on the Express  would not be able to have the same incredible experience. At the quayside, passengers were greeted by the Belgian Ambassador and some Turkish officials. The Belgian ambassador was there because the brainchild of the Orient Express was Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a Belgian banker. Nagelmackers had traveled with the Express on this inaugural journey. He must have felt an incredible satisfaction when he saw his dream of speedy and reliable transport with first class service connecting western Europe to the near east finally come to fruition.  The passengers had to be just as satisfied. In the process of this journey they had become part of history. Thousands of trips would take place on the Orient Express over the next one hundred plus years, but only one would ever be the first.

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century (Credit: Tristram Ellis)

A Palace Of Transport – Many Happy Returns
The Orient Express passengers were transported by fiacre to the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople. They would relax in luxury. It is doubtful that the Pera’s refinement could best that of the Express. The Compagnie des Wagons-Lits which provided the cars and staff had set a high standard for service that was soon to become legendary. The Orient Express would become forever synonymous  with glamorous travel. The passengers who had just made the inaugural journey could certainly vouch for the focus on high quality customer service. They would get the same treatment on their return trip. The journey would seem shorter since there were no kings or queens to meet, no ceremonial welcoming committees, no officials to press the flesh and no side journeys to state of the art exhibitions. The return journey was more in line with what the Express would become, a palace of transport gliding along the steel rails of western, central and eastern Europe on its way to the mysterious Orient.

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

Siege Mentality: The Hungarian Will To Resist & A Turkish Eclipse At Eger

One of the defining aspects of Hungarian history are the catastrophic military defeats the nation has suffered on a recurrent basis. In 1241, the Mongol Invasion decimated the country. Less than three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks inflicted a devastating defeat at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. They repeated the feat again in Buda a mere fifteen years later. In 1711 Rakoczi’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs ended in a resounding defeat. In somewhat the same manner, the 1848 Revolution brought yet another loss to the Habsburgs (with a major assist from the Russians). Then there was World War I. A conflict that involved more than just lost battles, it also saw the nation’s finest men disappear on far flung battlefields. The Kingdom of Hungary disintegrated in the aftermath, losing 72% of its territory in the peace settlement that followed.  Less than twenty-five years later, caught between the Nazis and Soviets, the Hungarian people were among the worst hit by the violent vortex of the Second World War’s final months. In a sort of dark coda, a decisive blow was delivered by the Soviet Union that brought the 1956 Revolution to its knees.

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Stopping Point: The Walls Of Eger Castle
This succession of military calamities might make a person wonder how Hungary has managed to survive up to the present day. Or they might marvel at the nation’s resilience to rise again and again from the ashes, while sustaining a cultural life that has been the envy of Eastern Europe. It certainly says something about the Hungarian people’s character that they have not just survived, but also managed to thrive despite this history. The subtitle of journalist Paul Lendvai’s popular history of Hungary perhaps says it best, “One Thousand Years of Victory In Defeat.” And no place in Hungary is more reflective of that phrase “Victory in Defeat” than the city of Eger, site of a famous siege in 1552.

By the middle of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks controlled a large part of Hungary and were closing in on Eger. Their goal was two-fold, subdue Eger and move on towards Kassa (present day Kosice, Slovakia) where vast wealth could be found in its gold and silver mines. At the same time, this success would also open a new supply route westward for another attempted siege of Vienna. The Ottomans arrived at Eger with approximately 40,000 men, a load of artillery and surprisingly, a massive herd of 2,000 camels. By contrast, the Hungarian force was a motley assemblage of 2,200 soldiers, peasants and a few dozen women. The defenders withdrew behind the towering walls of Eger castle. They placed their hopes on heavy artillery and the seeming impregnability of the fortress walls.

Siege of Eger Castle - Painting by Béla Vizkelety

Siege of Eger Castle – painting by Béla Vizkelety

Fighting For Kingdom & Birthright: The Siege Of Eger
The vast numerical advantage of the Turks was considerable, but mitigated by the fact that the Hungarians had a fantastic leader in Istvan Dobo as well as an expert tactician, Gergely Bornemissza. Dobo, a land owning noble from northern Hungary, was literally fighting for his family’s birthright. He oversaw the fighting force throughout the battle. His leadership was probably worth several thousand troops. Dobo was able to keep the defender’s morale at a peak level, in contrast to the Ottomans who were riven by infighting. Dobo’s best lieutenant was the infantry commander Bornemissza who had a knack for creating makeshift yet deadly weapons. The most famous turned out to be a water mill wheel filled with gunpowder that would both explode and spread fire. He also developed grenades and powder keg bombs packed with such incendiaries, as oil and sulfur.

Repeatedly the Ottomans found fire raining down on them from the towering castle walls they were unable to scale. Some of this fire came at the hands of female defenders who took to pouring oil on to the enemy, which would then ignite. For thirty-nine bitter and hard fought days, the resourceful Hungarians used every stratagem available to keep the attackers at bay. Finally the Turks withdrew. They had suffered an unexpected defeat. Beaten soundly by a force they had outnumbered nearly twenty to one.

The Women of Eger - Painting by Bertalan Szekely

The Women of Eger – painting by Bertalan Szekely

Defining Traits – The Hungarian Will: Resisting Conquest
The Siege of Eger was a legendary victory that echoed down through the centuries. It became a milestone, often repeated in Hungarian historical lore. Case in point, the most famous literary work on the siege of Eger was written over three hundred years later. In 1899, Geza Gardonyi penned the fictional novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Gardonyi literally walled himself off in his room to maintain focus (and perhaps recreate the same siege mentality of the defenders) while writing the book. It portrays the heroism and courage of the defenders in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Today it is required reading for all Hungarian school students.  Both Eger Castle and Gardonyi’s nearby home can be visited on a trip to the city. Visitors can look down from the castle walls and imagine the Hungarians valiantly fighting off the mighty Ottomans. The Siege of Eger showed the Turks that the Hungarians would not surrender to absolute conquest. This trait, holding out against all odds, gaining small, but important victories among cataclysmic defeats has defined Hungarians in both medieval and modern history.

The Eger minaret

The Eger minaret – all that remains of the Ottoman Turkish presence


The Price They Paid For Not Paying The Price – A Medieval Arms Mercenary & The Fall of Constantinople

We have a saying in the United States that “you get what you pay for.” Of course this is a cliche, but like all cliches there is truth in it. In 1453 this cliche proved especially true as an Ottoman Turkish army besieged the city of Constantinople. Prior to that date, the walls of Constantinople had protected the city – home of the Byzantine Empire – from some 20 plus would be conquerors  over a thousand year period (the Crusaders in 1204 being the notable exception). Besieging armies consisted mostly of barbarian tribes that did not have the technological wherewithal to effect a breach in the walls. Many did not even bother trying. The invention of gunpowder, along with artillery that could magnify this explosive new form of firepower, made the walls of Constantinople vulnerable. This firepower was rapidly developed and put up for sale to the highest bidder. In centuries past the Byzantines would have had the financial means to purchase the latest advancements in weaponry, even if they were unable to develop it themselves. By 1453 the empire had fallen into economic destitution and had been whittled down to a rump state consisting of the city and not much else.

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

The reasons behind the empires desultory state were many. The Crusader force that had breached the walls in 1204 not only plundered the city, but also proceeded to set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople. They then carried out an extensive and thorough pillaging lasting over half a century. By the time the Latins were forced out by the Byzantines in 1261 much of the city and its priceless treasures had been stolen or  lay in ruin. By 1344, the Byzantine Empress Anna had to pawn the crown jewels in order to finance the Byzantine military in a virtual civil war. In 1347, the black death raged throughout what was left of the empire, depopulating Constantinople while leading to the further destruction of its meager economy. It has been estimated that by the mid-14th century the Genoese trading colony in Galata opposite Constantinople had financial revenues six and a half times those of the Byzantine state. Incredibly, Byzantium held on for another hundred years.

The Byzantine ability to hold a vestige of their state together was a tribute to the defensive advantage of the city walls. Yet weaponry was in the works that would make them vulnerable. This technology was being developed all across central and eastern Europe. One notable innovator was a cannon founder and engineer now known to history as Orban. The majority of sources agree that Orban, was a Hungarian from Brasso in Transylvania (Brasov, Romania today). He designed a bronze super cannon. This weapon was the bazooka of the middle ages. It could blast thick land walls into submission. Whoever held this mighty weapon had a distinct advantage in a siege. And it was not just a military weapon, but also a psychological one. An enemy on the receiving end of its barrage, would also be susceptible to an earsplitting, thunderous boom as well as its earth shattering ammunition . There had been nothing like its size or scale in the world up to this time. That made it a weapon of terror as much as anything else. Most importantly, this weapon was for sale to the highest bidder.

Orban offered his cannon as well as his services first to the Byzantines in 1452. The man who would soon become the final Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, would loved to have had the super cannon. The Ottoman Turks were bound to besiege Constantinople in the very near future. The city, which was pretty much the empire at this point, was impoverished. It did not have the manpower to raise a large force that might properly defend it. Only western forces or technology could possibly save it. Constantine XI could not afford Orban the engineer or his bronze super cannon, all he could hope for was generosity. It was not forthcoming. Orban was open to the highest bidder. This happened to be the Ottoman Turks. He soon placed his innovative weaponry in the services of a man who could afford them, Mehmed II, the Sultan who would become Mehmed the Conqueror. What helped make Mehmed the conqueror and Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor was Orban.

So many times in history, we want to believe that courage and honor, skill and cleverness led to military victory. To be sure, when it came to the siege of Constantinople all of these were present. Nonetheless, it also came down to what one side could afford and the other could not. Was this reason for the Ottman’s victory? It is probably not so simple. One weapon does not a military victory make, but absent that weapon perhaps the Turks do not break through the walls and the Byzantine Empire goes on a little while longer. In this case, all parties got what they paid for. Orban got money, Mehmed got the super cannon and Constantine XI paid for his poverty with an historic defeat.  Ironically, the first man to lose his life in this martial equation was Orban himself, who is said to have been killed along with his crew when one of his super cannons exploded. The cannon was one of several decisive factors that led to the Fall of Constantinople, even if only its benefactor Mehmed II lived to see its success.

The tale of Orban selling his services to the highest bidder, even to an empire that was quickly growing into an archenemy of the Christianised western world offers a compelling argument that the west was just as much a threat to Byzantium as the Ottoman Turks and Islam were. The Catholic Kingdoms in the west did not feel it was their duty to defend a depraved and faltering empire. It was a belief that in later centuries they would come to regret when the Ottomans appeared on their own doorsteps. There was no love lost between a Byzantine state firmly rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy and kingdoms across central and western Europe aligned with Catholicism.  The finest historical example of this was the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 fomented by western forces. The sack dealt the Byzantines a blow from which they never recovered. Then there was a man like Orban, he was a Crusader of another sort, for weapons innovation and arms trade. Orban was a mercenary selling his services to the highest bidder. He did not believe in the power of faith, but the power of the purse. That power finally brought Byzantium to its knees and the Ottoman Turks to their greatest glory.

Who Remembers The Armenians? – The Hall of the Armenian Issue With Documents at the Turkish Military Museum

On August 22, 1939, just a week before the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Adolf Hitler gave a speech to German Army commanders Obersalzberg, his home in the Bavarian mountains. In the speech, he is reputed to have said, “Who after all today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” In light of the Holocaust that Hitler fomented against the Jews in the coming years, his quote that day has been seen as a harbinger of not only what was to come, but what the world had largely forgotten. Namely the historical amnesia concerning the massacre of approximately one and half a million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War.

The words of Hitler that fateful day had the ring of truth. It was one of the few times that he ever told the truth about anything. The mass killing of the Armenians languished in obscurity less than twenty-five years after it took place. Today, it’s entirely another story when it comes to remembrance of an event that a majority of historians regard as genocide. The Armenian Genocide is second only to the Holocaust for scholarly as well as popularly studied examples of 20th century genocide. Despite this fact or maybe because of it, a virulent debate still rages today about whether to define what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War One as genocide. To an outsider such as myself, such a debate seems esoteric. If one and half million Armenians lost their lives because of Ottoman policies to marginalize, blame and terrorize them for the Ottoman state’s failures during the First World War, than the state which carried out such actions and the citizens who were party to this act are to blame. If the Armenian community was consciously targeted than it certainly sounds like genocide. If so, then this squarely lays blame at the foot of the Turks, in the same way that blame for the Holocaust is placed upon the Germans. The difference is though, that the Turkish state resists shouldering such blame.

The situation is complicated by several factors, first of which is that the Ottoman Empire no longer exists. The Republic of Turkey which followed it is part of the legacy of that empire, but is also a very different entity. It is national, unlike the multi-cultural Ottoman state it replaced. Secondly, recognition of the Armenian Genocide is interwoven with international politics. Turkey, as a member of NATO and located at one of the most critical strategic points in the world, is a valuable ally that the western world does not want to upset or lose. Thirdly, some Armenians in the Ottoman Empire either actively or passively supported the Russian Empire against their own state. In defense of the Armenians who did this, they were constantly persecuted by the Ottoman state in the decades prior to the war. Nonetheless, this adds a complicating element to the picture. To further muddy the waters, the Turks do not deny that Armenians were massacred. What they deny is that the massacres were genocide. The Turkish position is that it was a product of the war. Of course, massacres occurred, but they were not premeditated. Without going into a long recitation of the historical details, it is enough to say that in sum what we have here is a situation fraught with controversy, vitriol and that has even turned violent at times. The debate continues today.

Headline from a New York Times article dated April 15, 1915

Headline from a New York Times article dated April 15, 1915

This brings me to my recent visit to the Turkish Military Museum. There, deep in the museum, on an upper floor, beyond the exhibits displaying artifacts from centuries of Turkish military conquest, past room after room filled with weaponry used to defeat both eastern and western armies, there is an exhibit area called the “Hall of the Armenian Issue With Documents.” Here I found a retelling of the conflict between the Ottoman Turks and their Armenian subjects that can only be described as horrifying. I think that horror was intended, but not the kind that I experienced.

The exhibition presented provocative documentary evidence of Armenian atrocities against the Turkish population. Photos of the most brutal carried out on Turkish men, women and children. Even in grainy black and white these photos were hard to look at. One showed several children frozen to death, their legs bound to their heads. The exhibition would have us believe that Armenians were attacking defenseless Turkish populations. An uninformed observer would think the Armenians had carried out atrocities of the most brutal nature to ethnically cleanse parts of Anatolia. While I am pretty sure that Armenians did commit violent acts shown in the photos, the exhibition lacks any context whatsoever. The Armenians were a minority under constant threat and were being provoked. They were robbed, pillaged and murdered as scapegoats for an empire in an irreperable state of decay.

My reaction to the “evidence” presented was one of horror, but not so much at the scenes displayed in the photos (sadly I’ve seen the same types of photos in museums detailing the Holocaust and other ethnic cleansing episodes). Instead, I was horrified at how far removed the exhibition was from presenting both sides of the story. It eschewed any contextual information or opposing viewpoint. The vehement one-sided presentation made me actually want to argue the Armenian cause. This is really saying something since I have no Armenian acquaintances or friends. Furthermore, I have always found the Turkish people to be overwhelmingly likable, hospitable and helpful. Nonetheless, this “Hall” with its radically revisionist agitprop displays was a sad commentary on the current state of denial that still plagues Turkish society when it comes to “the Armenian Issue.”

The last casualty of the Armenian Genocide, at least in the Turkish Military Museum, continues to be the truth. The ferocity of denial on display in that exhibition hall would be enough to make even the most ignorant observer suspicious of what was being presented. If the truth is so easily established then why the need to provoke. I certainly hope that the Turkish people take this exhibition down until both sides of the issue can be presented in a dispassionate manner. It is a hallmark of a self-confident society that it can confront even the most uncomfortable truths of its past in a forthright and honest fashion. I spend a lot of time in Eastern Europe and have seen this done well in countries as different as Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine when dealing with the Holocaust and/or the Communist past. The Turkish people certainly have the ability to do the same. They can find the truth about what really happened by studying a wide variety of historical sources. A good place to start would be anywhere outside of this museum.

By Your Neighbors They Will Know You – Understanding Turkey

The Romans had a saying, “By your friends they will know you.” In essence, this meant that you could tell a lot about a person based on who their friends were. Substitute “neighbors” for “friends” and the same could be said of nations. In other words, “By your neighbors they will know you.” If you want to figure out why a nation is the way it is, take a good look at its neighbors.

This is especially true for Turkey. Consider a few of its neighbors: Syria, Iran and Iraq. With neighbors like these who needs enemies. Turkey has to be at turns: tough, worried and extremely vigilant in dealing with these eastern neighbors. The aforementioned three are just problems of the past 30 years or so. Add to this mix, historically bad relations between Turkey and the nations of Armenia, Greece and Bulgaria. There is the potential for a conflict at almost anytime. Turkey’s only really friendly neighbor is Georgia. The situation here has actually gotten better since the Soviet Union imploded. Georgia provides a buffer between Turkey and Russia, at least for the time being. The Turks other neighbor is something known as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region (an exclave of Azerbaijan). Any place with a name like that is certainly troubled. Nakhchivan is nominally independent because Turkey and Russia guarantee its independence for Azerbaijan. The Turks do this mostly to annoy Armenia. When a relationship with an ally is this convoluted it certainly says something about the situation. Then again, this is about as normal as it’s going to get between Turkey and its neighbors.

The Ottoman Turks Conquered & Ruled Over All Of Their Neighbors - Today They Are Surrounded By These Same Peoples

The Ottoman Turks Conquered & Ruled Over All Of Their Neighbors – Today They Are Surrounded By These Same Peoples

To give you an idea of the tough neighborhood the Turks live in, I recall a visit I made to Bulgaria three and a half years ago. Nearly every Bulgar I met who spoke English (mostly young people who usually do not have much of an interest in history or a long historical memory) mentioned “the 500 years of slavery under the Turks.” Time after time, the “500 years of slavery” was brought up as though it had just happened yesterday. Wheras in other Eastern European countries I often hear about the “change of system” meaning the fall of communism, in Bulgaria it was the “500 years of slavery” that was the national mantra of choice. Young Bulgars seemed beholden to this legacy. They had nothing good to say about the centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. Conversely, Bulgaria was one place in Eastern Europe where they seemed to have a positive attitude toward the Russians. And why not? After all it was with Russian assistance that they finally gained independence in the latter part of the 19th century. Keep in mind, that in 2010 when I traveled in Bulgaria they were enjoying historically good relations with Turkey. Well if this is the situation when it comes to the Turks vis a vis the Bulgars, one shudders to think of the situation with the Greeks, Syrians or gasp, the Armenians.

It cannot be said that from a historical standpoint that the Turks did not bring these fraught neighborly relations on themselves. One thing a tourist is bound to notice in Turkey is the aggressiveness of the Turks. This even goes for their friendliness. To say these people go a bit overboard is putting it lightly. Turkish hospitality is legendary, but so is Turkish ferocity. I used to think this aggressiveness was the main reason that the Ottoman Turks (forebears of modern Turkey) created an empire stretching from Persia to the Gates of Vienna. I still believe that to be true. This aggressiveness was feared by foe and friend alike. Yet in modern times the aggressive instinct also comes in handy. It is a way to keep the neighbors at bay.

And keeping the neighbors in their place will be Turkey’s great external challenge in the 21st century. When you have one eastern neighbor that has just used chemical weapons (Syria), another (Iraq) that had a dictator who used chemical weapons on a people (Kurds) that call Turkey home and yet another that is in the process of developing nuclear weapons  (Iran) well you better be prepared. Visiting Turkey, one can not help, but notice how the people stare deep into a stranger’s eyes. It’s as though they are sizing you up. They rarely flinch or look away, it is a form of respect and at the same time a show of toughness. I believe it is the same way the Turks look at their neighbors and by extension the world.

Geography As Destiny (Istanbul As Turkey) – Anything & Everything

Coming from the western world I see geopolitics from the perspective of the United States. My second influence is decidedly European, mainly the western side of the continent including the United Kingdom. A third perspective, strangely enough is Eastern European, mainly Russian. This is mainly due to the fact that I grew up during the last twenty years of the Cold War, a conflict that permeated the daily existence of American life. As for Asia, even with the incredible rise of China it still seems a distant and remote place. When I think of Japan, South Korea and China  they seem beyond foreign. They are distinct cultures which require a great amount of time and energy to comprehend. As for Africa and South America, they are little more than an afterthought, even with all the tangible gains both have made during the past decade. Then there is the Middle East, a place of seemingly ancient religious feuds, authoritarian governments, grim prospects for peace and eternal tumult. I am confused by the byzantine politics and infighting of the region.

Then there is Turkey, close to the Middle East, but not quite part of it. In both Europe and Asia, with elements of Europe, but more influenced by the Orient. Turkey is both an outlier and of great strategic importance. An outlier since it certainly has its act together much more than any of its neighbors, including the European ones (Greece and Bulgaria). But where does it fit in. Commentators assign it to the near East, while hoping that it will both move closer to Europe and at the same time act as a bridge that transmits liberal democratic principles to the Middle East. After spending a week in Istanbul, a place literally (the city straddles Europe and Asia) on the cusp of opposing worldviews. The Orient starts here, Europe starts here (at least geographically), the Islamic World takes hold here and the Classical World has left an its indelible mark. There is truly no other nation in such a critical position.

A View From The Bosphorus - One of the most critical places in the world

A View From The Bosphorus – One of the most critical places in the world

When I crossed the Bosphorus from Eminonu on the European side to Uskadar on the Asian side, I felt like I was at the epicenter of the world, between everything and anything. If I headed East, just a day or two away were countries consumed by war, chaos and dictatorship as well as home to ancient world historical traditions. If I headed west both the Slavic world and the cradle of Classicism were just hours from where I stood. Yet these places, European in orientation, were also riven by economic crisis and corrupt politics. And in between was Turkey, a little bit of both.

The view from the middle of the Bosphorus is beautiful, there is a reason Istanbul market’s itself as “the most inspiring city in the world.” A panoramic sweep of the horizon offers a window on two continents, some of the holiest sites in both Islam and Christianity as well as the home of the Ottomans who conquered both east and west, much like the Romans over a thousand years before them. This is a place that human civilization cannot help but leave its historical, political and spiritual marks on. This is a place that has its own inexorable logic, much like the nation that now controls it. For Turkey today, much it has always been for whatever polity possessed this area, geography is destiny. Whether it ascends or descends will greatly impact the future of our world. Here is the place where everything and anything is always possible.

A Search For Historical Interpretation – Istanbul: An Opportunity Lost

The heart of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet District could be described as a World Heritage Site on steroids. The area’s main tourist sites have had a vast and outsized influence on the history of Europe, the near East and Western Civilization. It is hard to think of a place that rival it. Two of the main sights, Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque stand opposite one another. The former was once the largest cathedral in the world, a physical representation of the power and prominence of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire). The Blue Mosque, so named because of the blue Izmit tiles that cover part of its interior is an outstanding compliment to Aya Sofya. It is surrounded by six minarets, a rarity in the Islamic World. It was the greatest mosque in the Ottoman Empire, which was home to the Islamic Caliphate for many centuries. A visitor standing between the two is confronted on either side by touchstones of human civilization.  These two structures represent religions that not only transformed the world, but continue to shape it.  The area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya is truly the meeting point for east and west. It is said that Istanbul stands on the cusp of both the western world and the orient. This is true geographically, historically and spiritually.

The Aya Sofya - What Does It Really Mean?

The Aya Sofya – What Does It Really Mean?

If that was not enough, just a stone’s throw away from Aya Sofya is Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-15th century up until the mid-19th century. A period that saw their rule both expand and contract over much of the Middle East, north Africa and south-central Europe. Here was the place where much of the power politics of the late Middle Ages and early modern era took place. The decisions that were made within the palace had far reaching effects that still resonate today in the lands once under the sway of Ottoman hegemony. These three sites existence today are living proof both a physical and spiritual connection to the past. Their importance cannot be overstated.

So how in the world did I find myself after a daylong guided tour of these sites so upset about the art of historical interpretation. I will not name the company or guide involved. They were not up to par to say the least. Instead I would like to focus on what made this experience so lacking in history. What I would like to hone in on are some of the things that I found so lacking in this less than educational experience. Before I get started let me answer one question: Why does it matter? Quite simply because this may well be the only opportunity that visitors will ever have to learn about the history of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire as well as two major religions: Islam and Orthodox Christianity. These are all of world historical importance. Furthermore, they will be confronted with unique architectural elements that either are seen nowhere else in the world or happen to be the hallmarks of styles that came to permeate both the Middle East and Europe. This is heady, important stuff and it’s all right there in front of the visitor, but to extract the deeper meanings takes both accurate information as well as a gift for interpretation.

A Short Guide to Better Historical Interpretation
1) Information for information’s sake, is neither memorable nor interesting
I could write the shortest book ever from the facts that I remember after today’s tour. I bet thousands of others could have done the same thing this past year. What good is it to know the height of something. For example, if a minaret is 120 meters high, unless I am told why it is that high or it is compared with a structure of similar height that I can associate it with, in essence what I have learned is something pretty much incomprehensible. Now pile on another ten of these facts in a five minute speech and I become bored. These facts mean nothing unless they are used to create a narrative, make a point or cause the listener to become curious. Facts are a foundation. They are a means to an end, not vice versa.

2) Offer context
I heard Justinian’s name mentioned several times on the tour. Two of the more memorable facts were that Justinian commissioned the building of the Aya Sofya and that he killed 20,000 people in the Nika Revolts that took place in and around the Hippodrome. Now why did a guy who was the driving force behind one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders also kill 20,000 people in something known as the Nika Revolts. (Disclaimer: I knew about Justinian and the history mentioned, but my wife did not.) How in the world could she ever understand such a strange series of events surrounding one man without any context whatsoever. What were the Nika Revolts? Why did Justinian commission the building of the Aya Sofya? I believe there are thousands of visitors who ponder this, but then again they will never get the answer on this tour.

3) People make history
Make people present, not anonymous. Justinian, Mehmet the Conqueror, countless Sultans and Valide Sultans were unbelievably complex figures. It is difficult enough to understand the complexity of great men and women, but when visitors are not informed about their personas it is an injustice to understanding history. People make history, it’s not the other way around. By trying to understand these people, we can also come to better understand how we got to where we are at today. That is one of the many uses of the past.

4) Architecture and layout is a portal into deeper meanings and by extension deeper understanding
For instance, there is a reason that Topkapi palace has four courtyards, this is not happenstance, it is by design. The harem’s position on the palace grounds had more of a political meaning than a physical one. The power is in the placement of features. This goes for everything from the library to the fountains to the imperial council chambers. To get a visitor’s head around this takes a skilled guide. Nonetheless, it would be well worth the effort to make that connection.

5) Use visuals
I figure the average visitor is smart enough to know that the way things look today is much different than 1,500 years ago, 500 years ago or even 100 years ago. Looking at a diagram of the original layout and how it changed or more to the point how it was changed and for what purpose these changes were done is revealing. And this would lead to perhaps the most intriguing question of all, why were some things not changed.

6) Identify less obvious, but no less important perspectives
These can be everything from architectural to cultural to religious perspectives. One thing I heard was this intriguing phrase regarding the Ottoman taking of the city in 1453: “The Conquest of Istanbul.” In the west we call it “the Fall of Constantinople.” What an interesting difference in perspective. To be honest since the city is today Turkish, the correct phrase is: “The Conquest of Istanbul.” That catchphrase is both present and past tense. The phrase “The Fall of Constantinople” is past tense. This is only one example of an endless array of possibilities that could be used to counter cliche and ignorance. It takes a seasoned guide to listen to themselves, consider the statements they are making, but this awareness could lead to ways for better engagement with an audience.

I will finish by saying that the overriding disappointment I had with this tour, was the guide’s ignorance. Not of the facts though, but of how to use them. Because of this the opportunity to better educate a curious audience was lost. Until more thought is given to the art of presentation and style, context and perspective, the importance of people and their stories, the substance of such tour will be lacking.

From East To West – Istanbul and Europe

Driving into Istanbul from Sabiha Gokcen Airport, on the Asian side of the city, gives one an understanding of the massive growth that has occurred here over the past sixty years. Kilometer after kilometer of high rises blanket the hillsides, there is barely a square centimeter of ground that is not covered by development. The endless succession of residential areas adjacent to the highway are clean and well kept, in marked contrast to the tumble down, but evocative griminess of the historic inner city districts such as those along the Golden Horn and in Beyoglu. It seems that the outer districts of the city have been able to handle the incredible growth, but the inner city is another story. Highways and streets are clogged to suffocation by traffic jams. A brown fog hangs over parts of the city. Pollution from automobiles leave a permanent haze of smog hanging over much of the city.

Istanbul's growth as seen from the air

Istanbul’s growth as seen from the air

A first time visitor could be forgiven for thinking that Istanbul has been this way for quite some time. This is not true. According to historical population statistics, in 1950 the city had less than one million residents (983,000 to be exact), this was actually down from 1.12 million  at the start of the First World War. In the early 1950s the population once again hit a million, twenty years later it had doubled, then in less than 15 years it doubled again to nearly 5.4 million in 1985. But wait, almost unfathomably it doubled yet again by 2000. The last census in 2010 put the figure at 13,256,000. This is by far the largest city in Europe, whether Europeans think it is European or not really is beside the point. Istanbul may not be of Europe, but it is still considered to be in Europe. The population explosion came from internal migration, as Turks made their way from the countryside to the ever growing urban metropolis in search of job opportunities. There has been great consternation in Europe about Turkey becoming a part of the European Union sometime in the future. With EU nation’s in demographic decline, soon to be in crisis, an influx of Turks to Europe is inevitable – in some places it has already occurred.  Where will all the Turks go? Well we know where must of them have gone so far, not to Europe, but Istanbul, which continues to grow about ten percent each decade.

It is strange to see a city with such a rich past, also becoming a city of the future. The world is growing increasingly urban and Istanbul continues to be part of that movement. The city is part of a dramatic demographic shift that  has transformed Turkey, moving its people from East to West. As the population movement continues will the Turks continue their movement westward. The border of Bulgaria and the EU is not that far away. If Istanbul can grow from a million people to thirteen times that figure in just sixty years, who knows what the future may hold.