On Trojan horses and Greeks bearing gifts

lindos-view-2009The proverb tells us to beware of Greeks bearing gifts. This dates back to the legend of the Trojan horse, when something that was apparently benign, perhaps miraculous, and surely harmless, turned out to contain all manner of nasties. The gullible Trojans willingly pulled the horse into their city, only to be overrun by the Greek forces hidden within.

Appropriately enough all of this took place on the Aegean shore, where today refugees arrive in large numbers, assembling in the Turkish city of İzmir, not far from the ruins of Troy, to attempt the sea crossing to the Greek islands, toeholds in the EU. The refugees, many of whom hail from Syria, are sometimes portrayed as a modern-day Trojan horse – feigning refugee impoverishment but really the vanguard of an Islamic cultural inundation that threatens European identity.

Such a characterisation is utter tosh, of course, and to further turn the Trojan horse on its head this time it is the Greeks who are doing the welcoming.

In fact, the stories of generosity and compassion coming from Lesbos, among other islands and other locations on the Greek mainland, are legion. As reported in The Conversation, one fisherman from Lesbos explained, “There is not much choice when you find a boat full of scared people in the night.” Caught up in the immediacy and the drama, Greeks have responded with a largeness of spirit that The Conversation says has become contagious amongst Greek communities – but that appears to be in short supply elsewhere at present.

In Lesbos, islanders’ welcoming of refugee communities is said to be having a detrimental effect on the forthcoming season’s tourist bookings in Lesbos, but that doesn’t appear to deter the locals from their good deeds. This speaks volumes of the humanity of the residents of Lesbos. A recent article in The New York Times urges travellers not to turn their backs on the long-suffering Greeks.

It’s not as if Greece doesn’t have enough troubles of its own at the moment. For years it has been wracked by financial turmoil, but neither does this deter Greeks at large from extending a supporting hand to refugee arrivals. In fact, as the government is stretched it appears that individual volunteers and private donations are filling the breach.

Some of this generosity stems from the personal histories of many Greek families. For many Greeks the refugee experience is not that far removed – in the early decades of the 20th centuries significant numbers of Greek families were uprooted from Anatolia, where they had lived for centuries, and made their own passage across the Aegean as refugees to forge a new life in cities such as Thessaloniki and on islands such as Lesbos. The memory is fresh and their empathy (which comes from the Greek ἐμπάθεια, meaning “physical affection”) is strong. In fact, one Greek woman in the mainland town of Idomeni remarked that lending a hand to refugees is a “moral obligation”.

This all stands in marked contrast to the reactions of countries like Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia, which have thrown up razor wire fences to prevent refugees moving northward into Europe. It was these very countries that not so long ago languished on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and who hankered for the freedom that the West offered. That they offer no passage to refugees now is nothing short of mean spirited. They appear to have forgotten that geopolitical fate operates without mercy and sometimes leaves the deserving on the wrong side of artificial boundaries.

But the Greeks at the rocky fringes of Europe are fully aware of the power – and necessity – of the humanist gesture and they seek no recourse in cheap retellings of Trojan Horse allegories. And as this video demonstrates, the refugees arriving are not warriors with evil intent hidden within any metaphorical horse, but people who are filled with hope and gratitude for the hospitality and benevolence that the Greeks are bestowing upon them.

On borders, or the crossing thereof

Gjirokastra-01

Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]

epirus-01

Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]

van-train-station

Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]

 

[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1

 

 

Reasons to be cheerful

01-diyar-boysANOTHER YEAR ends. Hallelujah to that!

It’s been a torrid year in many regards, but it strikes me that there are always reasons to be cheerful.

02-blue-mosqueSkylines, cityscapes, landscapes, wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Hope.

04-galata

First love, broken hearts, bad poetry.

03-deyrul-zafran

Reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, revenge.

06-sulukluhan

Conviviality, community, living-together-ness.

08-kuzguncuk

The changing of the seasons.

09-uskudar-ferry

The freedom to travel, nostalgia, wanderlust, longing for home.

10-mardin-kites

Dreams, disappointments, glorious failures.

11-giragos-candles

Those places where angels hover, unseen.

13-cay-evi-boys

Humanity.

14-deyrul-zafran-vault

Humanity!

Amen.

 

Twilight in Diyarbakır

walls-mardin-kapi So they pushed the clocks forward an hour, marking the end of summer, the changing of the season. In Diyarbakır darkness descends early now, and abruptly. We are some 1000km southeast of İstanbul, as the crow flies, but still in the same time zone. By five o’clock the gloaming (such an apt word, promising so much, somewhere between ‘glow’ and ‘looming’) is all but passed and the street lights flicker on.

It strikes me that at twilight you can see cities at their most candid. Not that the cities of southeastern Anatolia maintain any pretensions or artifice. But in the failing light, as people close up shops, or make their way home, or farewell workmates, or make a last dash to pick up necessities for the evening meal, life is revealed in all of its gritty, mundane, workaday magnificence. Shadows loom, cries seem to hover in the air. If you look up at the right time, a swallow zips overhead.

Clockwise as in a Buddhist pilgrimage, I continue a vague circuit within Diyarbakır’s city walls, an on-again off-again ramble, over several days, that has succumbed to diversions, zigzags, backtracks and unplanned stops. These are the second-longest land walls on earth, after the Chinese Wall. Mighty, in ominous black basalt, they bear the imprints and flourishes of dynasties, empires, fly-by-night warlords who have rumbled through this frontier territory where spheres of Persian, Arab and Turkish influence overlap like a Venn diagram. A litany of dynasties to fire the imagination, if you are given to such things: Seljuk, Ayyubid, Safavid, Artuklu, Karakoyunlu, Akkoyunlu. Seems everybody but the Ottomans.

pondering-mesopotamiaClimbing the steps to Keçi Burcu, a robust tower near the southernmost point of the walls. Inevitably, on the parapet, there is an open-air tea salon. Wooden banquettes against stone walls, and tables with knee-high stools. Locals gather for çay, for countless infernal cigarettes, to chatter and take selfies, while ignoring the view as darkness descends. One young guy sits cross-legged on the battlements, as if he is sentinel over all of Mesopotamia. Below, the Tigris snakes southward.

I descend again, passing Mardin Kapısı, the southern-facing of the city’s four main gates. Further on there is a large fissure in the walls. Outside are sprawling suburbs of cheap, concrete apartment blocks and gecekondu houses. Overhead power lines, rubble-strewn, dusty kerbs. Voices carry on the breeze, snatches of song, a radio broadcast, a dog barks. Even these neighbourhoods, under an eye-shadow-blue swirl of sky and cloud, stippled with pools of orange street light, seem somehow homely, welcome, beckoning at this hour. (Perhaps I’ve been away too long.)

As I reach Urfa Kapısı, the western-facing gate, above a roadside watermelon stall a sickle moon rises, the most perfect of clichés, as if someone has sunk a fingernail into the velvet expanse of sky to let in a crescent of yellow light.

Back inside the walls, passing traffic raises dust and puffs of exhaust, and throws beams of light across shopfronts, trees, the city walls, like search lights perennially seeking out some elusive target. At the centre of town where the east-west and north-south routes cross, dolmuşes gather passengers, everyone headed home, burdened with packages, plastic bags, tubs of produce. And as each vehicle roars off I experience that fleeting shudder of exhilaration that I used to feel as a backpacker. An understated euphoria, a butterfly in the stomach, at the beginning of each new journey, at the anticipation, the what-comes-next that each departure promises.

meryemana-syriacAnother evening, at the Meryemana Church, a Syrian Orthodox church that has stood here, in various incarnations, for nigh-on 1800 years. A flight of pigeons swoops above the belfry. (Shouldn’t that be bats?) By chance, I am here in time for evening prayers, Vespers (another redolent word). I am invited to stay. ‘You can sit,’ the priest, a man who somehow embodies resilience, with a black beard and white prayer cap, tells me.

It’s a small congregation, just the priest, his two children, his wife, a single older parishioner. And me, observing. Prayer is informal, slightly chaotic, not unlike Islamic ritual in its casual aspect. The priest’s genuflections and prostrations resemble nothing so much as Islamic salat, but for the fact that he crosses himself as he rises from each prostration. He then pulls back a curtain to reveal the altar, a sumptuous recess of velvet, electric candles, gilt and almost-baroque ornamentation, all topped with muqarna that would not look out of place in the Alhambra in Granada.

The children chant from the Bible (in Aramaic, the ‘language of Jesus’, as I am later told), as the priest struggles to light a taper with an oven lighter, repeatedly firing the trigger until a shot of blue flame emerges. He then lights a censer, which his son takes and approaches the altar, while continuing his chanting, proceeding to swing it and send clouds of fragrant incense heavenward.

Observing all of this, I can see the seductiveness of faith, the comfort and reliability of ritual as a crutch in the every day, although it must be said that the chanting had an air of going-through-the-motions. At prayer’s end the priest teaches me my first word of Aramaic: ‘towdi’. Thankyou. And I depart into the evening.

Later, in a backstreet, in the darkness, a woman in baggy şalvar and headscarf fans a fire in a cobbled alley, placing torn pieces of cardboard on to her fire, over which she is roasting narrow purple aubergines.

The next afternoon, to see Yeni Kapı, the eastern-facing gate, the only one I haven’t visited. This is a poor part of town. I am warned by a local about thieves, as I have been repeatedly all over town. I never encounter anyone who appears even slightly inclined towards theft. Here the stuccoed walls of humble homes are painted burgundy, puce, pastels in unlikely, exuberant combination, in contrast to the dour black granite of the city walls and the grand konaks, stately homes with  alternating black and white striped door and window arches. From Yeni Kapı I look out over the Hevsel gardens, green plots on the flood plain of the Tigris.

mar-petyunIn Mar Petyun, Chaldean Catholic Church of St Anthony. I had visited here in 1992. Then it was sombre and dilapidated. Now the lights are ablaze, all appears refurbished. An air of rejuvenation. A sign says photography is not allowed, but some locals come in and immediately take selfies, so I too pull out my camera, which I hadn’t done at Meryemana.

On my last night in town, a Kurdish wedding. Hearing, rather than finding it. Drum kit, saz and davul. Amps on 11. Feedback roaring. The drumbeat is so loud I can feel it in the pulse in my throat. On a concrete floor, under a tin roof decorated with coloured fairy lights, this isn’t steam punk. Perhaps dust punk.

The saz rages in wiry, sinuous lines and trills, climbing and crescendoing, occasionally plummeting to sound a fat whoomp. The saz, drum kit and davul, move in different rhythms and sequences, but coming together to mark the end of each stanza with a clattering, clamorous full stop. Boom ka-ka ka-boom!

I can detect no sign of a bride or groom. Seated along the walls are older men, sipping tea. On another side, on knee-high stools, women wearing coloured headscarves are massed, watching. Like coloured birds roosting.

wedding4The centre of attention is the young men, dancing, arms linked, in line. Slim youths, sweaty and raucous, in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. A red tinsel tassel is handed around, giving the bearer permission to break from the line and free form. Each takes their turn in a flurry of jaggedy movements, all bending knees and pointy elbows, shoulders swaying and skittish feet stamping.

The scene strikes me as an outpouring of joy. Of communality. Of shared intent. Some sort of release. I can’t say if it’s appropriate or symbolic, or if it’s just plain poetic. But I am ending my time in Diyarbakır in a blaze of music, light, adrenaline.

Ka-ka ka-BOOM.

wedding2 wedding1

 

 

 

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…

Tracking St George

RECENT RESEARCH suggests that Indo-European languages first arose in Anatolia some time around 8000 years ago, then gradually spread out in a ripple effect across Eurasia, through Persia, south to India and northwest into Europe. This doesn’t mean that all European languages are descended from Turkish, or that the European peoples all have Turkish blood coursing through their veins. The (Seljuk) Turks didn’t arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century, fully 7000 years after these languages began to arise.  It does however lend credence to the theory that this corner of the world has long been home to human populations that were, as one blogger nicely puts it, “fluid and frequently stirred”. Anatolia has long been a melting pot; before that, it appears, it was a launching pad.

With the people moved myths, legends. An anthology of folk tales from the Caucasus, in the same neck of the woods as Anatolia, has just been published by David Hunt, a Caucasian folk literature specialist. This compilation is yet more evidence of the fluidity and well-stirredness (!) of the region and its impact on Europe more broadly, because amid epic sagas and feats of derring do from peoples you’ve never heard of (Ubykhs, Lezgins, Kabardians, anyone?) are tales that have become familiar tropes of folkloricists, bed-time storytellers and raconteurs across Europe and beyond. This is the region that gave us the Golden Fleece; that particular tale isn’t here but David Hunt’s assortment offers several takes on the legend of Prometheus, fables of the Cyclops (a figure that crops up everywhere from Homer’s Odyssey to Slavic tales and The Book of Dede Korkut, an Oghuz Turkish epic from before the Turks arrived in Anatolia), the voyage of the Ark (which we may rightfully classify as a fable, and which everyone knows lodged on Mt Ararat, on the border between Turkey and Armenia) and St George’s almighty tussle with the dragon.

In the last few days I’ve been learning more about St George as I’ve been writing a review of an edited volume of academic papers that documents and interprets instances of religious syncretism and hybridism. (It’s called Shared Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: sounds fascinating, huh? Well, actually it is. And , especially at this time when hotheads, who claim to be religious, are running around howling for blood, it makes salutary and instructive reading.)

One of the most intriguing chapters, “St George the Anatolian”, by ethnologist Maria Couroucli, details in discrete, concise academic prose an intricate lattice work of connections, echoes and parallels between St George and a host of other notables from an incredibly diverse range of traditions. In my excitement (I looooooooooooove this stuff), the page became a blur of names instantly recognised, links only half grasped; a litany, a roll call, a wave of names and golden threads: St George, St Elias (the prophet), Hidrellez (the Turko-Anatolian  harbinger of spring; his name is a hybrid of the Arabic for greenness – Hdr – and a Turkic corruption  – Ilyas – of Elias), a mythological slayer of dragons who arose in Armenian and Persian canons, Alexander the Great, Digenis Akrites (an Orthodox hero of the Byzantine-Abbasid marches) who is descended from two races (hence: Digenis), a trope that occurs through chronicles of Shiite Persia, Greek folk songs, episodes from The Arabian Nights and legends of Sufi mystics in the Balkans. Here is a flurry of legends so ambiguous, so blurred, so overlapping, so passed-around-and-shared, so dog-eared-from-constant-use that they must belong to everyone.

On a recent trip to İstanbul, with junior Gourlays in tow, I witnessed the Turkish fascination with St George. We caught a ferry to Büyükada, one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast which have long been a retreat for well-heeled İstanbullus. A festive air reigned as we left Kabataş, a boatload of tourists, day-tripping locals and Iranian visitors, one of whom insisted I partake liberally of his trail mix (in which dried Persian mulberries featured prominently). Büyükada (Prinkipo in the Greek) is home to a monastery dedicated to St George. On April 23, St George’s Day, the island is swamped with Turkish visitors who come to the monastery to light candles and request the mercies of St George. Even in September, when we visited, there was evidence of the festivities: votive rags tied to cypress trees and coloured threads along the steep cobbled paths that lead to the monastery sited at the peak of the island with views across the European and Asian shores of the great metropolis. You can read a piece I wrote for Eureka Street about the monastery here. Most visitors to the monastery who we saw were Turks, but on the ferry back to the city we encountered all manner of Levantine visitors: Syrians and Lebanese. The journey was a gaggle of Arabic and Turkish and the plaintive cries of the seagulls that followed in our wake, diving for scraps of bread.

Also in Sharing Sacred Spaces, Dionigi Albera and Benoit Fliche document some of the intercommunal practices that happen at the church of St Anthony of Padua, just off İstiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of İstanbul. Despite being written in plain academic prose, some of these struck me as quite moving (well, perhaps I’d been reading too long…): shared breaking of offerings of bread, which is then eaten by both Muslims and Christians in a “paraphrase of the Eucharist”, the case of a female visitor berating a male church attendant who extinguished votive candles before what she felt was an appropriate time (the candles had been lit by Muslim visitors; the woman made the attendant relight them). These are unorthodox practices that belong to no particular tradition, but perhaps belong to all.

I have a memory of visiting St Anthony of Padua. It was in the late afternoon of a weekday in the late autum of 1995. I was with a Turkish friend. A biting wind blew along İstiklal Caddesi, the sky was a bruised grey, lights were flickering on. We lit candles in St Anthony and paused for a while. Back on İstiklal we passed a small boy, in his blue school tunic, cross legged on the pavement beside a set of scales. A cardboard box nearby was intended for coins offered by anyone using the scales. The small boy was so intent on writing his homework in his exercise book that he didn’t even look up as I dropped some coins in the box. I weighed 76kg; Aylin was 49. We departed into the twilight of that eternal city.

Realising the Turkish tapestry

IT SEEMS THAT IN some circles at least there is increasing acknowledgement of cultural diversity within Turkish society and state. In the last week, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bülent Arınç, has restated the government’s commitment to uphold the rights of minorities, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Foreign Minister, has visited Turkey’s non-Muslim leaders.

Such moves will perhaps go some way to reversing the earlier status quo, where Turkey was regarded solely as the domain of Turks, thus shutting out a range of groups – Kurds, Laz, Yezidis, Armenians, Anatolian Greeks, Syriacs – that have for centuries been resident within the bounds of what is now Turkey. Such moves would have been unthinkable not that long ago in Turkey.

There was a time when the very existence of minorities was denied, and the thought of extending rights to any (non-existent) minorities was considered an outrage. I recall reading, during my time living in İzmir in 1994-5, of a politician declaring that the speaking of Kurdish could never be countenanced in the Turkish republic because “that’s separatism”; meanwhile Christopher de Bellaigue in his thought-provoking Rebel Land recounts meeting an army officer who bluntly asserted that there were no such things as minorities in Turkey.

These were the officially sanctioned positions of Turkish nationalists who aimed to stamp out any expression or manifestation of otherness in an effort to reinforce the unsullied, incorruptible, all-encompassing “Turkishness” of Turkey. These were measures aimed at defending Turkey against fragmentation, a result of a mindset that harks back to the twilight of the Ottoman era when Greece and the various Balkan states peeled away to become separate states.

Whether there was ever any likelihood of other states arising out of formerly Ottoman/currently Turkish territory is a moot point, but to my mind, allowing minorities to express themselves within the national framework is a sign that a nation state is vigorous. A robust and open nation should not see ethnic groups other than the dominant one expressing or celebrating their identity as a threat. Diversity within a nation need not automatically lead to fragmentation, indeed it may be seen as an indication of the nation’s strength.

All that aside, there now appears to be a shift from earlier stubbornly held nationalist positions. TRT, the Turkish government broadcasting service, now hosts a Kurdish-language channel; in 2010 officially sanctioned church services were allowed in the Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery near Trabzon, at the Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Island in Lake Van and in the Syriac churches near Mardin for the first time in decades.  Even the military, long a bastion of unbending mono-ethnic nationalism, appears to be softening its position, with Chief of General Staff, General İlker Başbuğ, in 2009, talking of “Turkiye halkı” (the people of Turkey), rather than “Turk halkı” (Turkish people).

An exhibition currently running in İstanbul brings to light a wealth of photos that illustrate some of that multi-ethnic fabric. Entitled “Cultural Diversity in old Diyarbakır”, the exhibition was curated by the most admirable Bir Zamanlar (Once Upon a Time) publishing house, who in recent years have published a range of books detailing Turkey’s multicultural history and legacy. The photos document the family lives and civic contributions of Diyarbakır’s non-Muslim communities in the early years of the 20th century.

You can read more about the exhibition here, and can click through to some of the images. It is a melancholy irony that with their fezzes and dark brows the Armenians and others captured in the photographs are nigh-on indistinguishable from Turks (or indeed of French dandies at the time when you see some of the twirled and waxed moustachios on exhibition). This somehow makes the internecine massacres of the 1910s, where horrors were visited on various populations of Anatolia, all the more poignant – and pointless.

There is still a tiny Armenian community in Diyarbakır, or at least there still was when I visited in 1992. I was led by local youths through the back streets to meet someone they called “Father Joseph”, a wizened man, with a moustache and a key to a church. In a dark corridor he opened a heavy iron door and revealed an ill-lit, rather sombre chamber. It was down at heel and neglected but somehow pulsating with spirituality; it was apparent that those who attended the church – the few remaining Armenians – drew incredible strength from their faith.

Finding an Armenian church here was a revelation to me, as indeed had been a visit some weeks earlier to Nemrut Dağı. Passing through several mountain villages en route to see the monumental stone heads the bus driver had gestured at local people and casually remarked, “Kurdish”. In fact, it was Kurdish youths who led the way to “Father Joseph” and to other churches in Diyarbakır.

It was these experiences that illuminated Turkey for me, making it not just another country, but somewhere with richness and depth, somewhere with so much to be discovered. It’s easy to say as an outside observer, but for me part of the appeal of Turkey is that it is *not* solely Turkish. The very fact that a diversity of peoples have contributed to the fabric of modern Turkey makes it all the more fascinating.

And it makes the country pertinent to or relevant to – indeed part of the family histories of – many peoples other than just the Turks. In 2008, en route to Iran, I visited the Armenian cathedral at Akdamar in Lake Van. I was the sole “Westerner” there; I was surrounded by a crowd of visitors from Iran. I can’t help but wonder if some of them were Armenians resident in Iran who were coming to investigate their own history. (Tellingly, amongst them were several families of Iranian Azeris, too.)

Whether the Armenians I met in 1992 still remain in Diyarbakır I don’t know, but the very fact that politicians, an exhibition and a publishing house can call to the attention of modern Turks an aspect of a previously overlooked, forgotten, repudiated or denied intercommunal history has to be a good thing.