Ms Bilge Esirgen spoke to us on June 17th of Turkey: a Different Culture. She is Language Assistant at University of Salento and introduced the Circle to a new meeting place, the splendidly restored library and grounds on viale De Pietro, the Biblioteca Ognibene. The speaker made clear from the outset what she considered singular in her country. Bridging Europe and Asia over the Bosphorus, Turkey managed to contain remnants of most of our national beginnings.mj
Turkey has been inhabited for ten millennia. Even before the twelfth century the territory had been the scene of multiple states. There had been the Hittite, Urartian, Phrygian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Armeno-Georgian. From the eleventh century onward the distinctive imprint of Islam was everywhere. We could sympathise with our speaker whose task it was to give an overall view of this mighty panorama in sixty minutes or so. It meant nothing less than evoking a good part of human history. Ms Esirgen chose to show us and comment on the most impressive landmarks.
Doubtless what strikes the visitor most today are the five great mosques of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia, Byzantine masterpiece and Christian Basilica, became a mosque, Ayasofya for Turks, after the Ottoman conquest. Its fifteen-hundred years marks the melding of Constantinople and Istanbul. The Blue or Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a thousand-year-younger, unsurpassed example of Ottoman Art. Süleymaniye Mosque is the great Ottoman architect Sinan’s prime work, blending Byzantine and Islamic traditions. Fatih Mosque, the first great imperial mosque built by the Ottomans after the conquest, maintains a particular pious aura. It was rebuilt in a classic style after an 18th Century earthquake. Rüstem Pasha Mosque is another of Sinan’s works. It displays its walls of Iznik tiles in a dominant site by the Galata Bridge.
Cappadocia is probably the second most admired attraction for contemporary visitors. Situated in Central Anatolia, southeast of Ankara, the region was originally settled by the Hittites, coming from western Europe 2000 years before Christ. Previous volcanic eruptions had produced ash that with time became tuff, a soft stone resulting in a landscape that has long been described as resembling the surface of the moon. Its fairy-chimney rock formations are an international curiosity.
The situation of Turkey, between the Black and the Mediterranean Seas, appears mind boggling when we consider the countries with which it shares borders: Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Each of these contribute something to the cultural mix held together by the cement of the Turkish language. Twenty per cent of the population are Kurds, an ethnic presence for millennia, now numbering up to twenty million. So Diyarbakir, with its walls often compared to the Great Wall of China, is very much a Kurdish town. Mardin, down the road, has a population of Kurds and Arabs and is capped by the Kale, a Roman citadel extended by the Byzantines, held for periods by the Arabs and the Selçuk Turks to be besieged without mercy by the Mongols.
All this is a world away from, say, Bursa, a large city in the northwest, near Turkey’s own sea of Marmara, whose atmosphere and monuments reflect the early Ottoman Empire. Its Ulu Cami or Great Mosque with its emphatic Selçuk arches and twenty domes could, in fact, be a Ottoman notice of arrival. Travellers might expect that Edirne, another Ottoman city near the Marmara, would share Bursa’s features. However, Edirne, to coin the phrase, is yet another world. Dubbed Hadrianopolis by the Romans, within Thrace on the Greek border, very near Bulgaria, Edirne was a centre of Greek Orthodoxy till a century ago. It has a distinctly Balkan flavour, with a population of European Muslims come from Macedonia, Bosnia and Bulgaria who worship in the architect Sinan’s final work, the magnificent Selimiye Camii.
The picture of Turkey Ms Esirgen gave us held a truth so obvious that it could remain unspoken. There is no easy summary to express the layered human wealth of the place called Turkey. It is as rich and woven as civilization itself.