Turkey’s soap-led cultural flowering

IS IT PART OF A prime minister’s role to pass judgement on the nation’s prime-time TV broadcasts? It may remain open to question, but as noted in an earlier post, Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed his disapproval of the hugely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. The Turkish viewing public doesn’t appear to be taking his tut-tutting to heart if the 1.2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook for the series are any indication (as noted on the official website). Muhteşem Yüzyıl and other historical TV series have been credited with inspiring interest in other Turkish artforms, particularly novels, both within Turkey and beyond.

In fact, the popularity of the TV series is increasing beyond Turkey’s borders. Sociologist Nilüfer Narlı, from Bahçeşehir University, notes that soap operas are raising Turkey’s profile in the international arena, particularly in the Arab world and the Balkans, a projection of soft power in the  cultural sphere in formerly Ottoman domains. This is happening not only at an diplomatic level, as government officials from Turkey and its neighbours interact, but also at an individual level as the television-watching public ponders the narratives, events and themes of historical Turkish soap operas and of the history (or histories) that lie behind them.

blue-mosque-2010At the vanguard is Muhteşem Yüzyıl, appropriately enough as the series focuses on the life of Süleyman, perhaps the most celebrated of all Ottoman sultans, and commander of the Ottoman campaign against Vienna in the 1520s. Formerly known only as a ruler and military figure, Süleyman, through this portrayal, is now seen as an individual, a lover, a human figure, which is prompting – presumably only in some quarters – a reappraisal of the Ottoman era in the Balkans.

As reported in the SE Times, revisiting history can provoke different reactions.  Birgül Demirtaş, an Ankara-based Balkan expert, argues that in the wake of Muhteşem Yüzyıl the Ottoman centuries, previously regarded in the Balkans as a “black page”, are now being re-evaluated through a prism of “common history”. On the other hand, Milica Mijovic, from the Serbian publishing house Narodna Knjiga, while conceding that “everyone across the region watches it”, remarks that period dramas such as Muhteşem Yüzyıl have made the “Balkans almost nostalgic for a not-so-fabulous past”. It’s not unequivocal enthusiasm, is it?

The Bosnians, perhaps most likely to be fans on the basis of their shared Islamic faith, are lapping it up. A competition, which attracted hundreds of applicants, was run on the Bosnian channel Televizja OBN to find people who most resemble Sultan Süleyman and his bride Hürrem and who would ring in the New Year in Sarajevo. Well, presumably the competition was to find people who look like Halit Ergenç and Meryem Uzerli, the actors who portray the great sultan and his one true love respectively, rather than the actual real-life historical figures. (For mine, Meryem Uzerli has something of Kate Hudson about her, but I’m not sure if the real Hürrem did…)

aya-sofya-2008One can only wonder if the Turkish premier approves of a sultan-look alike performing a midnight countdown, but his earlier condemnation of the series resonated in some quarters. Turkish Airline THY promptly dropped Muhteşem Yüzyıl from its inflight entertainment services after Erdoğan’s criticism. However, one carrier’s loss is another’s opportunity, it would seem, because Emirates promptly snapped up the series for its own inflight channels. This is the first Turkish TV series to have featured on any of the Arab airlines, a situation which will probably win the drama an even wider viewing audience.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s outburst, which was duly echoed by various of his AKP parliamentarians, has been greeted with dismay from many observers. The Erdoğan government had earlier been praised by demonstrating itself willing to confront aspects of Turkey’s history which had been taboo and to make some efforts to address, or at least discuss, past wrongs. There are various skeletons in closets that the AKP were willing to examine, but which had long been denied or glossed over by the Kemalist apparatus, or on which debate had been stymied by staunch Kemalists. The AKP’s approach was initially welcomed as part of a grand reckoning  that could see Turkey casting off historical millstones and forging on in a new era of openness and accountability. However, as columnist Semih İdiz has written, it would appear that AKP is no more an impartial in its approach to history than the Kemalists were. Agendas are still imposed, and histories must be viewed through particular prisms, just different ones to those in play before.

Perhaps it’s just history repeating itself – a historical re-enactment, if you will – this time with different actors and different spectators choosing alternative rose-coloured glasses to embellish the view.


Sharing sacred spaces

ohrid-dance-1A new issue of the Levantine Review has just been published, and appropriately enough in the lead up to Christmas it includes my review of Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean, a scholarly volume of papers from European anthropologists and ethnologists detailing shared customs, rituals and devotional practices.

Christmas may not necessarily be a ‘space’ that is shared, but in our globalised world it is observed well beyond the bounds of Christendom. Perhaps this is partly due to pervasive Westernisation, but of course the Christmas story and festival has echoes and parallels in other traditions, and Jesus, at the heart of the celebration, in theory at least, is revered in Islam as well as Christianity.

Christmas is often sold as the season of goodwill to all men (OK, humanity may be more appropriate); Sharing Sacred Spaces records many an instance of goodwill amongst adherents of various faiths. It is an investigation into shared experiences, intermingling, communal living and devotional practices in the Mediterranean littoral, from Morocco to Lebanon, by way of Turkey and the Balkans. I have already referred to this volume in earlier blog posts, including one about St George and one about Sarajevo (a post which, two months old, is still receiving a gazillion hits – anyone got any idea why?).

gazi-husrevThe chapters of the book are ethnographic studies, most of which include the ‘thick description’ that was called for by the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that is, close observation of cultural and social practices, human activities, everyday rituals; what makes the description truly ‘thick’ is the in-depth analysis of the political, environmental and societal contexts in which these events occur.

Even though the volume may be looking at sharing and intermingling in sacred spaces, it struck me how commonplace so many of these interactions were, not out of the ordinary but part and parcel of daily life as it has been unfurling for, in some cases, centuries, life as it had been before the encroachment of the perils and constraints of modernity. There may also be something of the all-happy-families-are-the-same/every-unhappy-family-is-unhappy-in-its-own-way dictum in the intercommunal and interconfessional interactions recorded in this volume for they are as complicated as they are diverse.

ohrid-taxiAnd while this is a scholarly collection, there is enough observation of ritual, custom and practice to appeal to some general readers with an interest in the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of the chapters are exercises in immersion, or so they seemed to me as I read. They evoke the feel of olive-wood tesbih/rosary beads, the curls of incense smoke, the excitement of crowds gathered, the whisper of feet on flagstones, light through arched windows, icons, candles. The miscellany of religious practice, the accoutrements that contribute to sanctity, the power of objects invested with spiritual dimensions, the soulfulness of things.

The various authors who contributed to Sharing Sacred Spaces clearly spent a long time in the field: to observe, analyse, and in some way understand the customs, events and ritual related. It was enough to evoke some melancholy on my part at missed opportunities in my own itineraries over the years, places that I have observed but not sought to truly comprehend, places like St Anthony’s in Beyoğlu in İstanbul, the neglected, yet operational, Armenian churches in Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. These are places where tradition persists and modern practice evolves and people come and go despite perceived divisions that may exist between them and despite sometimes hostile political environments. Intercommunal interaction can continue in places such as this, as Galia Valtchinova elegantly put it in her chapter of this volume, as long as there is an ‘equilibrium between earthly powers and divine order’. Long may this equilibrium reign…

In a lather: Ottoman soaps

bosphorus-2008ALL HISTORY is contested. This is pointedly true in Turkey, a country which for decades wilfully ignored its imperial history, but which has – all of sudden – rediscovered its Ottoman past. Increasingly, Turks are taking pride in an era when the Turkish polity was the dominant player in the broader region, when the sultans, ensconced in the so-called Sublime Porte, called the shots in southeastern Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.

This is yet another aspect of neo-Ottomanism, a multi-faceted concept, which for some means a projection of soft power, for some signals resurgent expansionary intent on the part of an ‘Islamist’ government and for others Turkey’s re-acquainting itself with its neighbours.

In the cultural sphere, neo-Ottomanism means renewed appreciation for and use of the motifs, iconography and tropes of Turkish history. It also means soap operas. And the biggest soap opera inside and outside of Turkey at the moment is Muhteşem Yüzyıl (literally “Magnificent Century”), which depicts the life of Sultan Süleyman I, widely regarded as the greatest of all Ottoman sultans.

So, what’s to be contested? Plenty, it seems… Rather than allowing the Turkish viewing public an escapist, broadly fictionalised, weekly instalment that allows them to muse on the glories of the House of Osman, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has weighed in, decrying the series. He declared that the government had issued warnings to the producers and had suggested the judiciary rule against the series. Erdoğan’s beef appears to be with certain historical inaccuracies and the show’s unhealthy preoccupation with the goings-on of the harem and depiction of Süleyman engulfed in miscellaneous palace intrigues rather than in the saddle, where, as Erdoğan has it, he spent 30 years, on campaign, extending the boundaries of the realm and the glory of Islam.

Blogger and academic Ece Algan has posited that Erdoğan sees himself as a latter-day Süleyman, the man who will lead the Turks to another cultural and geo-political zenith, thus tawdry portrayals of Süleyman detract from his image as a statesman, a world leader.

Whatever the case it seems to have escaped Erdoğan’s notice that Muhteşem Yüzyıl is a soap opera. Aimed at a mass market. The show is about entertainment, not historical accuracy, nor projections of soft power. In fact, a real-life descendant of the Ottoman sultans has remarked as much. The son of the last Ottoman şehzade (prince), Osman Selaheddin Osmanoğlu, told Hürriyet Daily News he watches the show “but I don’t take it seriously since it is only a soap opera”.

And an entertaining soap it is. (Plenty of episodes, beginning with the first, are viewable online.) It doesn’t qualify as a bodice ripper (Islamic sensibilities are at work here, whether historically accurate or not!!), but there’s plenty of sumptuous costumes, the full measure of outlandish Ottoman headgear, elaborate sets, hammy acting, battle scenes and cheap-looking CGI. All of this, as well as requisite plot lines involving the duplicity, conniving, emotional manipulation and rampant bitchiness (counterpointed by macho posturing) from the assembled cast. It amounts to a hell of a lot of fun.

There is an element of Orientalist fantasy to it all, which perhaps explains some of its appeal to modern Turkish viewers. Indeed, Orientalist stereotypes – intrinsically negative – creep into many portrayals of Turkey in popular culture. Of these, Lauren Rosewarne notes the swarthy, soccer-obsessed, underhanded baddies in recently released Taken 2, which is set in İstanbul. Of course, the (Western) hero here is honourable and upstanding, in contradistinction to aforementioned baddies. (For some added locational authenticity (!), Taken 2 features a fight scene in a hamam.)

blue-mosque-interiorOrientalist considerations aside, TV viewers are lapping up Muhteşem Yüzyıl. It has attracted a domestic and international audience of some 150 million, much of it, ironically enough, in former Ottoman possessions of the Balkans, but also in central Asia, southern Europe and the Arab world. The size and spread of this audience isn’t lost on Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry who appeared somewhat bemused at Erdoğan’s recent outburst and pointed out the economic benefits of such a wildly popular show.

That said, the series has no shortage of detractors within Turkey. Thousands have registered their displeasure with the Turkish broadcasting watchdog, noting the perceived decadence and licentiousness of the intra-palace goings-on as portrayed. Perhaps it is to this gallery that Erdoğan is playing. Alternatively he may be attempting to distract attention from more pressing, intractable political issues. Or it could be just more evidence of a worrisome authoritarian streak, which seems to becoming more pronounced after a decade in power. (Witness his ramming through planning of a controversial, oversize mosque – for some, large to the point of vulgarity – on İstanbul’s Çamlıca hill.)

Concerns with the themes and impact of Turkey’s historical soap operas are not restricted to elements within Turkish society. The Macedonian parliament has moved to ban Turkish shows on the grounds that due to the popularity of Turkish buy-ins Macedonian-made shows aren’t getting a look in, but also because, in the words of the Information and Society Minister, “to stay under Turkish servitude for 500 years is enough”.

Exactly how watching a foreign-made TV programme amounts to servitude may not be immediately obvious to all, but in this corner of the world memories are long and often nationalism-infused, so even innocuous phenomena like soap operas may be seen as the vanguard – or aftertaste – of cultural subjugation. Like I said, all history is contested, and agenda driven. Now, it seems, so is the mundane act of sitting down to watch the tellie.

Despot in Epirus

THE GREEK ECONOMY is in a parlous state, being largely dependent on EU bail-outs. Winning extra funds hardly counts as a Eureka! moment, a concept which the ancient Greek Archimedes gifted us. Currently, successive bundles of EU benevolence are only bestowed if the Greek government implements further austerity measures, something that Greeks don’t appear to be too happy about.

A while back an alternative panacea (another Greek concept!) was sought. A Greek-Australian treasure hunter undertook a search in the mountains of northern Greece for the long-lost – and possibly fictional – booty of Ali Pasha, a 19th-century Ottoman-appointed governor of a swathe of territory across northern Greece and Albania. It was hoped that the loot would be so substantial that it would shower riches on its discoverer and service a decent portion of Greece’s national debt. In the wash up, like current and future EU handouts, it didn’t amount to untold wealth; in fact, nothing was found, apparently.

His loot may remain undiscovered, but it is well known that Ali Pasha’s capital was at Ioannina (Ιωάννινα), now the capital of the Greek administrative region of Epirus. Ioannina is one of the most intriguing cities in Greece, I think. It forms a neat counterpoint to Gjirokastra across the Greek-Albanian frontier. While Gjirokastra, an Albanian museum city, reveals a distinct Greek imprint, Ioannina on the Greek side of the border displays the legacy of its Albanian-Ottoman history. Only 90 kilometres separates the two. Their physical proximity is matched by similarities in environment and in the movements of peoples over the centuries. Perhaps rather than being exclusively, classifiably Greek or Albanian cities both of them are elemental Balkan entities, essential creations of their individual terrains and histories.

Approaching Ioannina from Igoumenitsa on the Ionian coast in 2004, I was struck by the Balkan nature of the terrain. The twists of the road as it climbed, flowering pomegranates, the implausibly pink fairy-floss blossom of tamarisk (it was May). Purple-grey rock, Spanish broom and groves of myrtle. Out of the corner of my eye I saw, in a gravelly layby, Greek soldiers in camouflage chatting while leaning on the bonnet of their jeep beneath shady plane trees. I told myself – somewhat fancifully – that I was heading into frontier territory. Returning in 2008 I travelled effortlessly on the Via Egnatia motorway built with EU money.

Ioannina has had something of a roller-coaster history. It was noted as well fortified by Procopius in the 6th century. Later it received large numbers of Greek refugees who fled Constantinople when it was rolled by the knights of the fourth Crusade in 1204. At this point, Ioannina was an important city in the despotate of Epirus (presumably ruled by an eponymous despot), but it was to be captured by the Serbs in the late 14th century. The Ottoman Turks then romped in in 1430 taking the city without bloodshed; Epirus remained part of the Ottoman realm until 1912. A scholarly paper by Brendan Osswald investigating the ethnic composition of medieval Epirus reveals that this period saw extensive ethnic and cultural mixing, not always happily it must be said.

Ottoman control didn’t herald the smothering of the Greek identity of the city, despite what some Greek nationalists might assert. Greek aristocratic families in Ioannina retained their privileges and estates after the conquest, living alongside Turks, Albanians and Jews. Capitalising on the city’s favourable location at the meeting point of trade routes across the Balkans, local merchants grew wealthy and endowed the city with schools, grand buildings and printing presses (the height of technological advancement at the time). A 18th-century French visitor opined that it was “a little Marseille” and the poet William Haygarth, during the reign of Ali Pasha, regarded it as the capital of Greece (a country, which at that point, didn’t exist). Ioannina became a centre of Greek literacy and learning – the centre of the “Greek Enlightenment” which fed an awakening sense of Greek nationhood. One 19th-century observer commented that “all Greek authors” were either schooled here or had links to the city.

It is Ali Pasha, of Albanian descent, however, who remains the most notorious Ioanninian. The French diplomat and writer François Pouqeville recounted his meeting with Ali Pasha, remarking on “the lightning of his eyes, his starting convulsive twitches; I observed his discourse apparently vague, but full of purpose and artifice”. Pouqeville, an early Hellenophile, observed that “the fire of his little blue eyes… impressed on me the alarming idea of deep cunning, united with ferocity” and noted freshly cut-off human heads that were planted on stakes in the pasha’s court.

Lord Byron after meeting Ali Pasha called him the “Muslim Bonaparte”. Katherine Fleming used this designation as the title of her monograph on Ali Pasha. Fleming says that most writing on Ali has high “titillation” factor; he is seen as a colourful character and is portrayed as such albeit in a negative way. Pouqeville’s depiction, Fleming asserts, is “exaggerated, biased and unreliable” highlighting picturesquely unctuous aspects of his temperament and exploits to portray him – as many other writers have – as the archetypal “Oriental” despot.

Pouqeville was dismissive of Ioannina, which “like all other towns of Turkey, consists of a dirty bazaar; of crooked streets, not one of which deserves notice”. Parts of Ali Pasha’s Ioannina are still standing. It is these that make the city unlike any other that I have seen in Greece. The Mosque of Aslan Pasha, standing on a headland jutting into Lake Pamvotis, is an Ottoman mosque unlike any that I have ever seen in Turkey, with an air of dilapidated elegance, untouched since (presumably) 1912. The slate roofs of houses on the island in the lake are identical to those in Gjirokastra. A wonderful unnamed gift shop outside the entrance to Ali Pasha’s citadel sells wooden Karagöz shadow puppets (Καραγκιόζης in the Greek) similar to those found in Turkey. There has clearly been a whole mess of cultural mixing going on here for centuries.

But there are quintessentially Greek aspects to the city, too: the tailor in the Old Town with his Singer sewing machine sitting in the window of his shop, and the old local I spied as I was eating my dinner in the tavern who came in to claim what was clearly his regular table where he sat all night wordlessly observing the goings on. These things will no doubt continue no matter what the state of the Greek economy.

Turkish footprints in Europe: redux

FOLLOWING ON from my recent post about neo-Ottomanism and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan receiving an award in Sarajevo, it seems that Turkish efforts in the Balkans extend beyond diplomacy. Turkish initiatives at preserving the architectural heritage of the Balkans were recently recognised. The SE Times reported in September on restoration works that the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency have been undertaking in various Balkan countries. As detailed in the SE Times article, a Harvard art documentation specialist, András Riedlmayer, highlighted the Ottoman heritage of the Balkans as the common heritage of all the Balkan peoples.

Such an observation echoes that of the historian Maria Todorova who remarked that it’s not a matter of looking for the Ottoman legacy *in*the Balkans, rather it is the case that the Balkans *are* the legacy of the Ottomans.

This idea, when considered alongside reawakening Turkish interest in the region, is likely to make plenty of people living in the Balkan states pretty stroppy, if not give them the willies… Balkan nationalists of all stripes swear black and blue that the period of Ottoman rule was one of unremitting woe and deny that there is any Turkish imprint in the cultures of the modern Balkan states.

It would be wrong to construe Ottoman rule as a period of universal bliss, but to insist that there was no cultural exchange, no fruitful impact, no mutual accommodation, that people who lived alongside each other for centuries had no appreciable, enduring, positive impression on each other is nothing so much as blinkered. To insist that a particular culture could have been in stasis for – in some cases – up to 500 years only to emerge undiluted, untainted by Turkish influences, once the Ottomans were expelled from the Balkans is just bloody mindedness.

Even as nationalists in the Balkans are doing their best to forget the Ottoman era, many a modern Turk is re-acquainting himself with the events and personalities of the same period. ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ also manifests itself as an awakening interest amongst Turks in their own recent history, a departure from the official line that has for so long highlighted ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ and dismissed the past.

Turkey’s recent home-grown enthusiasm for Ottomanica is not without its own nationalistic offshoots. You can bet your boots that Turkish nationalists would be just as loud as Balkan nationalists in denying there was any Turco-Balkan symbiosis that contributed to their modern culture; they would state that Turkish culture is just that and nothing more – Turkish – and that centuries interacting with Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Romanians, Vlachs, among others, contributed nothing. Of course, this position is just as implausible as that proposed by Serb or Greek nationalists. So while we can say that the Turks have left a sizable footprint in Europe it is also the case that Europe has left an indelible mark in Turkey.

Turkish nationalists’ re-imaginings of Ottoman history are sometimes highly revisionist. Soap operas and blockbuster movies take on a Disneyfied air. National stereotypes are clumsily drawn,  goodies are implausibly noble, and baddies take venality to new heights…

The high-tide mark – as it were – of (Ottoman) Turkish expansion into Europe was on the outskirts of Vienna. The first tilt at Vienna was made under Süleyman the Magnificent in 1529, resulting in one of the few tactical retreats the Ottomans experienced under his leadership. Süleyman’s reign is the subject of a wildly popular TV series, Magnificent Century, which appears to boast many of the characteristics of a bodice-ripper and which has been viewed by enthusiastic audiences across Europe and Central Asia.

Meanwhile the path that Süleyman and his army followed as they advanced on Vienna has been designated as a long-distance walking route, the Sultan’s Path.  Starting at the tomb of the sultan, at his namesake mosque, the Süleymaniye, in İstanbul it passes through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary to end in the centre of Vienna. And while Süleyman’s route was a means to a military confrontation, the newly designated trail is intended as a “path of peace, a meeting place for people of all faiths and cultures”.

The Sultan’s Path is one of many long-distance paths in Turkey. The names of some of these trails –  St Paul Trail, the Lycian Way, Abraham’s Path, Via Egnatia, among others – reveal the Greek, Roman and Biblical legacies of Anatolia and the cultural impressions laid down in Turkey *before* the arrival of the Turks in the 11th century.

The most recently opened path is a cultural route in İznik. It is hoped that this will become a catalyst for slow and sustainable tourism in the area. It will allow people to travel at ground level, so to speak, feeling the rugged hide of the Earth beneath their feet. And as part of the European Institute of Cultural Routes’ network of paths that stretches across Europe, it may well demonstrate the interconnectedness of Europeans of all persuasions who for countless centuries have been striking out on foot to destinations distant and encounters unknown.

Musing on İzmir, Aegean metropolis

The Journal of Turkish Weekly recently published a review I wrote of Ottoman Izmir: the Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port. You can read my review here.

It is an interesting book, a scholarly investigation of a period during the mid-19th century when İzmir (then generally known as Smyrna) experienced unprecedented growth, thriving as a multicultural trading port linking the fertile Anatolian hinterland and the markets of the eastern Mediterranean and Europe more broadly. Written by an art historian, Sibel Zandi-Sayek, the book aims to present a non-partisan view of the machinations and interactions of the city’s very ethnically diverse citizenry at a time when a centralising Ottoman bureaucracy and foreign powers were seeking to capitalise on burgeoning trade networks and shifting geopolitical dynamics.

İzmir is Turkey’s third city but it is generally outshone by the star quality of İstanbul and Ankara’s capital-city kudos. İzmir’s 19th-century boomtown persona was effectively extinguished in 1922, when triumphant Turkish armies expelled a Greek expeditionary force and the historical core of the city was put to the torch. Today it is a busy, workaday city without any particular distinguishing feature, its multicultural history all but eradicated. The wholly admirable Bir Zamanlar publishing house in İstanbul is currently holding an exhibition of postcards displaying the diversity and vibrancy of İzmir in the early 20th century.

İzmir was the city I lived in for a bit over a year in 1994-5, teaching at a private language college in the bayside neighbourhood of Alsancak. At the time I was blissfully unaware of its colourful past, spending my time generally underwhelmed by ranks of tower blocks and pedestrianised promenades lined with interlocking tessellated pavers where once stood the bustling neighbourhoods and “polyglot enclaves” of Levantine entrepreneurs, Greek and Maltese stevedores, Frankish merchants, Armenian traders and printing presses that clanged through the day to produce periodicals and flyers in five different scripts and many more tongues. Back in the day, Izmir even had its own dialect of Greek, known as Smyrneika.

In retrospect I can recognise that there is a significant historical imprint on the modern city. Looking at some of the 19th-century maps in Zandi-Sayek’s book I can see that the avenues of Alsancak, and the broad avenues of neighbourhoods nearby, follow the same routes as the streets of 19th-century Smyrna.  I recall once crossing a side road not far from the Alsancak waterfront promenade and realising with some amazement that the man-hole cover before me was labelled in Arabic script. Not far from here, was the Greek consulate, one of few remaining historical buildings on the waterfront. There has been some controversy about the consulate lately, with some media reporting that the Greek government has put it up for sale.

There were also some neighbourhoods of Ottoman-era houses climbing a hill behind the bazaar at Kemeraltı. I would wander there sometimes in the afternoons with a friend.  We would climb the steep, narrow streets spying the architectural accoutrements of an earlier age: wooden shutters, latticed balconies, window grates of wrought iron. Life was lived on the streets here. Women tended basil plants in empty olive-oil tins; aged men sat on doorsteps to watch the streetly goings-on; children giggled and kicked balls down steep flights of steps. Smiling locals would ask us where we were going, and we’d smile back and say we were just wandering, at which point they would decide we were crazy. One bemused child, skipping beside us, asked, “Why do you come here? Everything is dirty and ugly and old.” Everyone offered directions to us, convinced that we could only come that way because we were lost. I wrote in my diary at the time that after almost a year in İzmir I felt that I had finally found the beating heart…

Mucking in in Sarajevo

TURKISH PRIME MINISTER Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently in Sarajevo to receive an award for his “international contribution to the development of culture and cultural heritage of Sarajevo”. This was the Isa-Beg Ishaković Award, named in honour of the Ottoman founder of Sarajevo, who in 1461 transformed a scattering of villages into a city. Isa-Beg Ishaković, a contemporary of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, left a substantial legacy in the Balkans, building bazaars, bathhouses, a mosque and the palace (saray in the Turkish) that gave Sarajevo its name, also endowing buildings which remain in the modern Macedonian capital, Skopje.

As well as patron of Sarajevo, Isa-Beg Ishaković was an Ottoman general. And here’s where hackles are raised. The fact that the Turkish premier should be in Sarajevo claiming an award named after a soldier who conquered in the name of the House of Osman, which had an unashamedly imperial, expansionary mission, conjures spectres in certain quarters. One of these is  neo-Ottomanism, something that Erdoğan’s government has been accused of.

Like most isms, neo-Ottomanism is open to various interpretations. Some see it as a resumption of Turkish adventurism, wanting to roll back the clock to an era of conquest and Turkish overlordship of the Balkans. In this region of jousting nationalisms, a Turkish presence is intimidatory and pervasive for some: apparently during the Balkans wars of the 1990s the Muslims (Bosniaks) of Sarajevo were disdained as “Turks” by Serbian nationalists and paramilitaries. A less predatory interpretation paints neo-Ottomanism as the resuscitation of cultural and economic ties across south-eastern Europe, a Turkish re-engagement  with its immediate geographical  neighbourhood – a region flatly ignored for most of the 20th century during Republican Turkey’s decisively westward tilt.

It’s certainly true that Turkey-Bosnia relations have become closer of late. Turkey is supporting Bosnia’s bid to join NATO. But it is not just a case of Turkey drawing closer to a fellow Muslim community or seeking to sideline or dominate non-Muslim governments. The Trilateral Istanbul Declaration of April 2010 saw Turkey signing an agreement with both Bosnia and Serbia to create a “consultation mechanism between our countries” concerning political developments in the Balkans with a particular emphasis on rehabilitating relations between Serbia and Bosnia.

This is all well and good, but isn’t this a region of “ancient hatreds” and intractable ethnic antagonisms? Well, perhaps not. Received wisdom has been largely flavoured by the horrors of the wars of the 1990s but that period aside the states of the former Yugoslavia have historically seen no more or fewer episodes of bloodshed and warfare than the rest of Europe, or elsewhere. Different peoples lived alongside each other for centuries and just got on with life. That’s not to say that it was some sort of Utopia, but members of different ethnic communities weren’t constantly at each other’s throats.

In fact, even during the bloody years of the mid-90s, ethnic lines could be crossed, everyday interactions unfurled between Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians. And in instances documented in a book entitled Good People in an Evil Time by Svetlana Broz, the granddaughter of Yugoslav strongman Tito, people sheltered, protected, gave succour to individuals, neighbours, sometimes strangers from other communities, whom, according to the swirls of nationalist fervour that ruled the day, were their enemies.

This is perhaps just a continuation and extension of the practice of komšiluk, or taking care of neighbour’s shrines (from the Turkish komşuluk: neighbourliness), recorded throughout the 20th century in Bosnia and documented by the Slovenian anthropologist Bojan Baskar in Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean. Beyond just the maintenance of shrines, it appears that this extended to inter-communal financial contribution or helping in the actual building of places of worship, so that Catholics would contribute to the building of a mosque and Muslims participate in building a church. So rather than traditions of division and hatred with which the Balkans are stereotyped, it appears that the very opposite was true: the tradition was to muck in together.

Erdoğan picked up on this when in Sarajevo, saying it was a city of “ coexistence where people live in peace and friendship.” It is certainly a buzzing city, where life is lived at close quarters. It’s a city of music, culture and art, walkable and compact, filled with human warmth. But for all of the amicable interaction that happens on a human scale, the political arena is still beset by nationalistic rivalries and antagonisms. Debates between Serb and Croat-Muslim political groups about who should fund Bosnia’s cultural institutions have been frozen for some time, leading to the recent closure of the National Museum and placing the future of other museums hanging in the balance.

Clearly in Bosnia there are still scores to settle, or ground to be regained. Recent habits of chauvinism die hard, and some wounds, perhaps, have not healed. Political bickering and nationalist interests are putting in jeopardy cultural artefacts created during an era before nationalism(s) when coexistence was a given.

Chronicles of a stone town

MARKETING TYPES and wanna-be travel writers like to write of particular destinations as ‘unique’. They’re right of course: no single place is duplicated anywhere in the world, so by definition every destination is unique.

I don’t think that’s what they’re getting at, though. Perhaps, what they’re trying to say is that certain destinations are distinctive, that is, different in subtle ways to other destinations, boasting characteristics that are unlike other places, distinguishable, perhaps even idiosyncratic.

Whatever! To my mind, Albania is one  of the more distinctive – not unique! – destinations in Europe. Its recent history saw it hermetically sealed from the rest of the Continent (as well as the Soviet realm, with which it shared at least some ideological affinity). The Albanians are thought to have descended from the Illyrians, a people who faded into the mists of history (but for a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; well actually he writes of the Illyrian shore, not the people). And the Albanian language is unrelated to any other.

The most famous Albanian at present is probably the writer Ismail Kadare. The winner of the inaugural Man Booker Prize and several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kadare incorporates elements of myth, legend, allegory (designed to outmanoeuvre and skewer socialist-era censors), Balkan lore and history into his writing. One of his most well-loved – and I suspect autobiographical – novels is Chronicle in Stone, set in his birthplace of Gjirokastra during the 1940s and presented through the eyes of a young boy. The Fall of the Stone City, Kadare’s latest novel, recently translated into English, returns to Gjirokastra during WWII, and, going by reviews, is comprised of a familiarly intriguing brew of myth and history, dream and reality.

Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the idiosyncratic, despotic socialist strongman who ruled Albania from WWII until 1985. Hoxha declared his home town a “museum city”, thus it was spared the depredations of post-War socialist architects with their bevies of cement mixers; it retains the bulk of its historical building stock. Yet for all its exalted “museum” status and important place in Albanian history it has a very heavy Greek imprint. Gjirokastra, after all comes from the Greek: agyros (αργυρός, “silver”) + kastro (κάστρο, “castle”).

Gjirokastra climbs a steep hill above the Drinos River, in southern Albania not far from the Greek border. It’s easy to see why the stone motif features in Kadare’s novels about the city, and why he has a predilection for myths and legends. It’s an atmospheric settlement in a rugged, wind-whipped location, backed by calloused mountains. It’s fair to say that Gjirokastra is distinctive! From the lower, new town, steep, cobblestone streets rise to the bazaar area and residential neighbourhoods and beyond to the eponymous and fabulously gloomy kastro, which, when I visited, was framed by a constant halo of hovering crows.

Wandering the upper town is hard work. The winding cobbled streets are undeniably atmospheric, a melange of white-washed garden walls, mighty, jagged plane trees. On the verges and in garden plots grow wild fig, poppies, honeysuckle. The topography of a town straddling a hillside works against a casual stroll. Locals clearly get used to the gradient though: I noticed grandmothers dressed all in black striding purposefully up ascending paths, their sinewy calf muscles bulging in knee-high stockings.

Gjirokastra is notable for its signature, 19th-century kullë mansions (from the Turkish kule, “tower”). Sturdy and imposing they are built in three storeys, topped with weighty, limestone roof tiles. These tiles are very much of the area, elemental building materials that are drawn from the very landscape. They also feature in architecture south of the border in Greece, in Epirus, particularly in the towns of Ioannina and Metsovo.

The Gjerë Mountains form a barrier between Gjirokastra and the Ionian Sea. When I crossed the mountains the bus had to slow at the pass to allow a shepherd and his flock of fat-tailed sheep cross the highway. The shepherd’s wife led a couple of horses that were carrying large milk canisters and a young sheep dog nestled amongst woven bags. Descending to the Drinos Valley, we then turned left and headed north past villages all with Greek names.

After my stay in Gjirokastra I had to head south to Greece. I arrived in the bus station in the lower town early in the morning. I’d missed the first bus of the day to the border. Having no Albanian I found it difficult to determine when the next would leave. I tried French to no avail, and then, on a whim, Turkish – again, no dice. Finally, using my best travellers’ sign language I managed to convince a minibus driver to take me. He charged me well over the odds, I’m sure. There was no change from the note that I proffered.

We set off, heading south along the Drinos Valley. The driver whistled merrily. My fare was probably a substantial contribution to his retirement fund. He stopped for a couple of passengers, women in cardigans and headscarves. All of them looked at me, the lone traveller with a backpack, then chatted animatedly with the driver. All handed over smaller notes than I had.

Just short of the border, he took on another woman. She climbed aboard and declared, “Kαλημέρα.” Kalimera! Good morning! They were speaking Greek. Perhaps if I’d tried my best traveller’s Greek in the lower town I would’ve had a cheaper ride.

When we drew to a halt I thanked the driver: ευχαριστώ πολύ. He looked puzzled, then grinned broadly and wished me bon voyage – καλη ταξίδι – and I lined up to cross the border, leaving the stony hills of Albania for the stony hills of northern Greece.