Geo Italy - n. 20
Istanbul, the double
life of the Mistress
of the Bosphorus
the west, a day marked by the cadence of the mosques. To the
east, a cosmopolitan spirit forged by numerous ethno-religious
minorities: Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Armenian
through these two moods of a city shaken by elections that
decide the country's future. And discover that what frightens
the Turks today is not Islam, but an erstwhile demon: nationalism.
Dositheos' black tunic darts among the narrow passages of
Fatih, a quarter in the ancient heart of Istanbul, and disappears
behind the walls of a stone palace. The elderly clergyman
has no time to lose: there's a patriarchy to manage. Of course
the flock here in Fatih is rather scanty: 80 followers in
all. But an additional 13 million 500 thousand Orthodox Greeks
in the world look to this palace as their Vatican, a legacy
of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire. And they must not be
disappointed. Dositheos returned to Istanbul in 2003 for this
very reason. "We have very few priests", the patriarch
Bartholomew I kept telling him. And so, after thirty years
in Germany as a biologist in a pharmaceutical company, he
donned the long garment and tall headdress. Today, from the
windows of the patriarchate, he looks out and sees how changed
his city is.
1923, when general Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed the death
of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the new Turkish Republic,
Istanbul was a metropolis of a million inhabitants. Turks,
Russians, Genoese, Balkans, Serbs, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds:
one out of three professed a religion other than Islam. Becoming
part of Europe was not an issue, because all of Europe was
there, assembled in one city. Today, the Istanbul known as
Alem Penah (refuge of the world) no longer exists.
In its place is a sprawling giant that houses ten million
inhabitants, only 1% of whom believe in a god other than Allah.
A percentage that reflects the rest of Turkey: 99.8% Islamic.
Higher than in neighboring Iraq, in Syria and in Lebanon.
Yet it is also the only country where State law prohibits
entering any public place wearing a veil or other religious
symbols. A paradox that today is borne out in the streets,
when millions of Turkish demonstrators defend the secularism
that Ataturk established as a pillar of national identity.
But they are at odds with the country's growing Islamization.
Evidenced by the Prime Minister, Tayyp Erdogan, a devout Muslim.
Who was imprisoned on charges of inciting religious hatred
and who sent his daughters to study in the United States,
so that they could flaunt the veil even in the halls of the
university. The future of Turkey will depend on the outcome
of the ongoing clash between secular and Islamic factions
(amplified by the elections of July 22).
to the cosmopolitan Istanbul of one time? To find out we have come
to Fatih, one of the oldest quarters of the city, on the southern
edge of the Golden Horn. The history of that cosmopolitanism has
been written here since the Muslim Mohammed II conquered Constantinople
in 1453: he christened it Istanbul, but allowed it to remain the
capital of Eastern Christianity, granting freedom of worship. Since
that time, under the protective wing of Allah, Orthodox Greeks have
prospered and become educated, wealthy and powerful. In 1923, there
were 150 thousand of them in Istanbul alone. Today there are barely
4 thousand, 80 of them here in Fatih. "All elderly, poor and
nostalgic," says Father Dositheos. "The churches are open
on alternate Sundays, the priests say Mass there on a rotational
basis. The seminary, instead, which closed in 1971, never returned
to operation. And for the Turkish government, Bartholomew I is the
leader of a parish, certainly not the Ecumenical Patriarch of world
How did things get to this point? The fact is that Ataturk founded
the new Turkish Republic on secularism, but also on the ethnic nationalism
expressed in his famous words: "Happy is he who calls himself
a Turk". Consequently, in 1923, one million 350 thousand Greeks
were sent back to their land of origin and the same thing happened
to thousands of Turks living in Greece. It was the first act of
an ethnic cleansing that would continue throughout the century.
Father Dositheos' face darkens. I ask him whether the growth of
Islam and the attacks against Christians in recent months worry
him. He replies with an illustration: "Not far from here is
the church of Meryem Ana (Mother Mary). We will go there:
you will see Muslims and Orthodox praying side by side. The truth
is that five centuries of Islam failed to drive us apart. A century
of nationalism, however, has reduced us to a voiceless minority.
And this is what worries me: today I see a new, dangerous nationalism
Dositheos' black tunic slips out of the walls of the patriarchate
and is lost in the crowd, blending in with the chadors teeming in
Fatih's winding streets. Here all the faces are veiled. And as we
move further and further on, the veil becomes increasingly enveloping,
until it is transformed into an immense black sheet, leaving visible
only the eyes, that never focus on anything. We are in Çarsamba:
the domain of Muslim fundamentalists. To get there, we ask directions
from a street vendor. "Are you going to see the women with
the veil?" he asks us, as if it were a protected wildlife preserve.
Then showing us the way he adds: "Good luck". Appropriate
wishes, since a BBC crew had been beaten for violating the extremely
religious quarter. Fatih is the Islamic face of Istanbul, but also
its poor one. In the early morning, on Malta Carsi street, Mehmet's
bar is shrouded in a cloud of smoke. In a little while a man will
come through the doorway and choose those who will bring food home.
"Every day at least 50 people come here looking for work",
Mehmet says. "But I have seen people sit for a month without
being hired for even one day". We lose ourselves in the streets
of the quarter. Off the beaten track, the eyes capture snapshots
of slums on the outer reaches: gutted facades, children playing
in the rubble or sniffing glue amid the garbage, run-down shacks.
The smell of burnt rubber permeates the air.
"At one time Fatih was Istanbul. Now it's just a district:
the poorest and the most fundamentalist", says Yahya Koçoglu,
director of the quarter's monthly. "It all began in the Fifties,
when the wave of migration from Anatolia poured into the city. Men
and women abandoned their reassuring farming community to find themselves
lost in the metropolis. Where could they go? What work could they
do? To welcome them here in Fatih, they found the mosque. That offered
food, clothing and education in exchange for faith, or better yet,
external signs of faith: a long beard and a chador. Behind the mosque
were the ancient religious brotherhoods, the tarikat, that
today are charitable institutions, supported by prosperous Muslims
living in Turkey or abroad". The tarikat were abolished
in 1925 by Ataturk, as part of the package of reforms that were
to secularize Turkey. But, in actuality, they never disappeared.
Indeed, in 1980, when the military government thought of using religion
as a shield against the threat of communism, they attained public
legitimacy. And so the army, assigned by Ataturk to be the watchdog
of secularization, suddenly found itself in the role of guardian
of traditional values. By the time the military realized that it
was time to do an about face, it was too late, the process of Islamization
had already been triggered.
Justice and Development Party (AKP) is heir to this Islamic revival,
maintaining strong contacts with the tarikat and conservative movements.
Still, in his five years of government, Turkey has made more progress
along the road to modernity (and toward Europe) than in recent decades.
The Kurds are allowed to speak their own language, a right denied
them since the dawn of the Republic. And the army, which in the
last 50 years has performed four coups, has been put on a leash.
"Islam is growing because it is championing the cause of Europe
and of democracy", Yahya tells me. "Do not be fooled by
the black veils".
Absorbed in conversation we arrive at Balat, in the northern part
of Fatih. It was Istanbul's ancient Jewish quarter, but today it
is hard to find even one remaining family. Even in the hospital,
the only Jewish element is the kosher cuisine. The cooks, all Muslims,
point us to an old greengrocer's shop, not far from one of the quarter's
two synagogues. David Behar, 80 years old, is sitting amidst crates
of cucumbers and bunches of bananas. "Are you Spanish?"
he asks us with eyes full of hope. "Italians", we reply.
He does not hide his disappointment: his family, along with tens
of thousands of Jews, came here from Spain in 1492, when the Catholic
Isabella decreed the expulsion of all Jews who would not convert
to Catholicism. The Ottoman Empire took them in without trying to
convert them. And like the Orthodox Greeks, the Jews too prospered
under the Ottoman Empire. In 1923, there were 200 thousand of them
in Turkey, 60 thousand in Istanbul alone. "Fine times, those
David recalls. "Today there are ten of us in the synagogue,
counting the children. There isn't even a Jewish butcher anymore
for me to be able to eat kosher". Where have they all gone?
"Out of the country or to other quarters of Istanbul, like
my children: Fatih has become too poor for them". Or too Islamic?
"I've lived next door to Muslims since I was born, I've been
in business with a Muslim for half a century and now you want to
make me think that I should fear Islam?", he breaks off abruptly,
stares down at us from the walls: the father of the country protected
the Jewish community for the entire period of his rule. During the
Second World War, Turkey was one of the few countries where Jews
felt safe. Nevertheless, today only 25 thousand of them remain,
almost all in Istanbul. "After the war, many Jews emigrated
to the United States or Israel", Tilda Levi, a journalist from
the Istanbul Jewish weekly Shalom, tells me. "Not because
of hostility on the part of Islamic Turks, but rather for economic
reasons: hoping to find a better life there". Did something
change in 2003, when two car bombs killed 25 people in Istanbul
synagogues? "Yes, what's happened is that, like all the Jews
in the world, we have become a target for Al Qaeda, certainly not
of Turkish Islam".
Fatih and also Europe: the gateway to Asia is an arm of the sea
500 meters wide and 32 kilometers long, the Bosphorus. We cross
it on a ferry, headed to a quarter called Moda. There is no reason
why a traveler arriving in Istanbul should delve into the sedate,
Fifties atmosphere of these streets. Except one: to find a remnant
of the old empire, a place that has never awakened from the cosmopolitan
dream. Where Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Islamics and Syrians continue
to live next door to one another. Moda is a sort of village on the
Sea of Marmara, where the gory news reports of recent years seem
like a radio crackling in the distance.
The limpid notes of Grieg greet us in the pharmacy at Moda Caddesi
133. The wooden counter frames the face of an old man with small
eyes and enormous eyebrows. Melih Ziya Sezer, 75 years old, invites
us into the back, to a small studio where he writes poetry. A small
mirror cleverly positioned allows him to keep an eye on the entrance
to the shop. He has lived in Moda since 1937 and is the historical
memory of the quarter. "At one time, nobody said Muslims, Greeks,
Armenians: we were all Turks, who grew up together and lived side
by side together. But I do not see a growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
If there is, it's manipulated from outside Turkey by powers that
do not want us in Europe. We Muslim Turks are very moderate".
An elderly lady has materialized in the little mirror. "Come",
Melih gestures to us, "I will introduce you to a friend".
A distinguished 70 year old woman greets the pharmacist warmly and
looks at us questioningly. Emilia Pandelera is Greek Orthodox, and
her eyes widen in astonishment at our questions. "Forgive me,
it's just that I find it so strange to have to talk about religion",
she says. "It's new to me, being asked what God I believe in.
Here in Istanbul it has never happened".
We leave the pharmacy to knock at number 3 Bademalti Sok, a few
streets further on, where a 50 year old Armenian conceals the sale
of pirated disk and film copies behind a front of blank cassettes.
Extremely nervous, he refuses to tell us his name. Then he relaxes:
"My name is Cem", he mumbles. "But no photographs".
His family moved to Istanbul three generations ago. "I was
born in Moda and have always lived here", he tells us. "I
attended the Armenian school, but my best friends are Muslims. Put
two Armenians together and they end up fighting. That's how we are.
Well, to tell the truth, I also fought with my wife, who is an Azeri
Muslim, and so we separated. She raised our son in the mosque, but
I take him to church as well".
The Armenians are the largest minority in Turkey, after the Kurds.
They almost all live in Istanbul, where they came in the Sixties-Seventies
because they did not feel very safe in the countryside. Here they
have churches, schools and hospitals. There are around 60 thousand
of them: very few compared to the period of the Ottoman Empire,
when they were renowned as artisans and fine jewelers, silversmiths
and traders. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the seed
of ethnic nationalism infected them too. Like the Greeks, Serbs,
Romanians and Albanians, they began to dream of an Armenian nation.
But, unlike the others, they were much more vulnerable, because
they were in the heart of the empire. And they paid the price for
it: in the last decade of the nineteenth century and in 1909 tens
of thousands of them were killed. The reason why, at the outbreak
of the First World War, many Armenians sided with the Russians against
the Ottomans. Just as many fought in the ranks of the imperial army,
but that was not enough: the entire community was accused of treason.
In 1915, the government of Young Turks ordered the mass deportation
of Armenians from eastern Anatolia. On April 24, the date of the
Genocide, hundreds of Armenian politicians and intellectuals were
arrested in Istanbul. Mass murders, torture and violence followed.
Missionaries told of mass graves, rivers filled with bodies, deportations
to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. At
least one million Armenians died in the span of a few years. But
that genocide is still taboo in Turkey. Just to name it is to risk
imprisonment. "When I heard about the murder of the Armenian
journalist Hrant Dink last January, I thought that it is not easy
to be Armenian today in Turkey", Cem goes on. "But then
I looked at everyday life and I realized that nothing has changed
in the relations between people".
Cem shuts the door of the shop and walks with us through the streets
of Moda. He slips into a covered passageway, peers through the window
of a shop with yellow walls and gestures for us to go in. Alì
is the most popular barber in the quarter. His name reveals that
he is an Alevite Muslim. That means that on Friday he does not go
to the mosque, but makes up for it by spending the entire weekend
in the cemevi: the community prayer and cultural house. He
goes there with his wife, his children and 400 Alevites. They eat
together, listen to the spiritual leader (dede) and pray,
but in their own way, that is, with singing, dancing and the music
of the saz, a kind of lute. The Alevites do not have to kneel to
Allah five times a day. They do not impose the veil on their women
and are not required to abstain from alcohol. They are descendants
of Anatolia, of that plateau where the Turkomans, fleeing from the
steppes of central Asia, converted to Islam, but continued to keep
alive the shamanic practices of the eastern plains and Zoroastrianism,
without denying the influence of Christianity. A thousand years
have passed since then, but Turkish Islam has not forgotten that
syncretism. Like the Shiites, the Alevites revere Alì, grandson
of Mohammed. Like the followers of Zoroaster, they worship fire.
They are opposed to religious hierarchy, like the Sufi mystics.
And they do not eat rabbit meat, as the shamanic tradition of the
nomads of the steppe dictates. There are 20 million of them in Turkey,
one third of the population, with 2 million in Istanbul alone.
father was from Tunceli, in eastern Anatolia. "When nationalism
began to spread through the multiethnic empire", he tells us,
"our ancestors scattered in the mountains, because they were
considered allies of the Persian Shiites. But one fine day Ataturk
arrived with his banner of secularism, and for them he was a new
Alì". But the situation soon changed: "Beginning
in the Fifties, and even more so in the Eighties, nationalism sought
support in a Sunni identity and for us it has gotten steadily worse.
In 1974 I moved to Istanbul because I no longer felt safe".
Four years later the dramatic persecutions against the Alevites
on the border with Syria began. In 1993, in Sivas, 37 Alevite artists
and intellectuals died in a fire caused by Sunni extremists in a
hotel where they had gathered. Alì, who has meanwhile said
goodbye to his Armenian client and is getting ready to trim a distinguished
Sunni professor's hair, concludes: "Of course, fundamentalism
is on the rise, but what country does not have its extremists?".
The point is: which radicalism will be victorious in Turkey? The
conservative Islamism supported by the powerful tarikat,
or the neo-nationalism that months ago legitimized the army to again
have a say in political life? Perhaps only one thing could curb
them both: Europe. Which however, exactly 30 years after Turkey
put forth its request to enter it, appears increasingly remote.
by Annalisa Monfreda © Geo Italy, August 2007
Photographs by Paolo Verzone
Translation by Anne Milano Appel