Monday, September 22, 2008
Modern Turkish History
It's 9:35 pm here and Peter is reading a book on modern Turkish history. We are headed to Ankara on Wednesday am (we have a reception with the other Fulbrighters at the US Ambassador's residence Thursday night) and Peter is eager to see the tomb of Ataturk. For those of you who don't know, he (Mustafa Kemal, now known as Ataturk) is the father of the Republic of Turkey. He led the military against the British and Greek forces in the 1920s and formed the Turkish Republic. He is the one who made Ankara the capital, and who Westernized Turkey a great deal through such measures as banning the wearing of the head scarf for women and the fez for men and demanding that the Turkish language be written in the Latin alphabet rather than Ottoman script (which looks a lot like Arabic). He is everywhere here -- on the money, on every official building, his portrait hanging in restaurants like some people hang pictures of the Pope back in America. He is the symbol of modern Turkey more than anything else, and is held in such high regard that to say anything negative about him is regarded as a crime. Sometimes it is difficult not to laugh just a little when we see a statue of him that is not particularly well-proportioned -- like the one outside Topkapi where he is posed like Abraham Lincoln on the Lincoln Memorial but his head is just a bit too big for his shoulders, which are a bit too broad for his torso, etc. This is especially true in some of the famous paintings or photographs of him in which he bears striking resemblance to Bela Lugosi. But we try our best to be respectful. Even when he has a tophat.
Our turistic excursions this week, which have been a bit limited by the rainy weather, have revolved quite a bit around modern Turkish history. Our main outing was yesterday, Sunday, when Peter and I walked to the Turkish Military Museum. Ironically, when the museum collection was first formed in the 17th century, it was housed in the church of Hagia Eirene, which means Holy Peace. Now, it is housed in the former military academy which was attended by guess who? Of course, Ataturk. There is even a recreation of one of his classrooms, where they display, among other things, the gradesheet from his class. Now there's a nightmare for all of us: 100 years after we graduate in the middle of our class (he was 6 out of 12), thousands of people a year troop through every year to look at our grades in every subject!
But there is much more in the museum than just Ataturk's classroom. There is a rather amazing panoramic life-size diorama of the fall of Constantinople to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 (from the point of view of the Turks of course), lots of weapons from the 15th century on, and from many countries. Some were given as gifts to various Sultans, some not quite so willingly. One of the most interesting exhibits was of flags of ships from various nations that were captured by the Turks at one time or another. There was a Union Jack among them, but most interesting of all was one captured from a ship of the Byzantine state of Lavaron in a 15th century naval battle.
Other highlights include the chain that was stretched across the Golden Horn during the Seige in 1453 -- according to history/legend, Mehmet got his navy past it by pulling his ships up off of the Bosphorus and carrying them across the Galata shore of the Golden Horn (through our neighborhood no less) and putting them back in the Horn on the other side of the chain. Outside the museum visitors can also see two of the cannons that were used by Mehmet during the seige.
Also, we visited the Hall of Martyrs. It seems that the word "martyr" is used differently in Turkish tradition (perhaps in Islamic tradition in general?). Every soldier who is killed in combat fighting for their homeland is considered a martyr. The Hall of Martyrs bears the names of many who died, especially fighting at Gallipoli, as well as the famous words of Ataturk "Peace at home, peace in the world" in the languages of many countries. One interesting detail in this hall was the uniform and Koran of a soldier who fought at Gallipoli. According to the museum text, he was wearing the Koran around his neck, and it protected him from shrapnel, and although the edges are apparently damaged, the area with the words is not, showing, of course, the holiness of the words of the Prophet. This is very striking considering that a similar story is often told of an American soldier who was saved from a bullet by the Bible in his pocket, or something similar.
Another detail of interest: apparently the Turkish military was the first military in the world to fire a torpedo from a submarine.
But by far the highlight of the Military Museum was the concert by a military band which was dressed in traditional Ottoman costumes, including big fake moustaches. Well, some of them were fake anyway. The guys in armor and the ones with the long white hats are dressed as Janissaries, the personal guard of the Sultans and the most highly-trained of the Ottoman military units. The music was very good, and it was actually possible to imagine that seeing a line of Janissaries marching towards you would have been a terrifying thing (even with the moustaches).
All in all, we saw only just over half of the museum I think, so we might make a trip back sometime. Some of you will be sorry to hear that the shooting gallery that used to be open to the public so they could try out Turkish firearms was closed in the 1920s, but the Museum is still worth a visit.
In other thrilling news, yes, we did figure out how to use the washing machines and driers. But our clothes are once more lying all around our apartment drying since the electricity in that part of the building went out before we could get them into the dryer this evening. Neither electricity nor running water is guaranteed 24 hours a day here, although the Center does have a generator and a 40 ton water reservoir that the director says will provide enough to withstand a siege. Apparently the generator only provides electricity to some rooms though, and the washroom is not one of them. But we would rather have it here in our apartment than in there.
Speaking of the apartment, here are a few pictures, finally. It's difficult to photograph because the flash makes everything look white, and without the flash it's a bit dark. But the walls are a pleasant sage color really.