That is no country for old men.
East meets West is cliche — so how about this? If Europe and Asia were kissing, the Bosphorus would be their swapped saliva. Actually I feel less of the Asian influence and more of the Middle Eastern though certainly Westernism is dominant. I’ve only been here for a few days, but I have this overwhelming sense that Turkey is a key to helping the West and Islam carry on a useful conversation. Of course, as anywhere the press focuses on extremes — at the opening today of a new anti-American Turkish film on the Iraq war a U.S. diplomat was quoted as saying it “does not purport to be a factual version of events” while an exiting moviegoer was quoted as saying it “should make Americans see why the world doesn’t like them” — but this ignores the majority between the poles. Turkey — perhaps Istanbul only, so I generalize — has a proud tradition of multicultural tolerance and is especially proud of its merger of Western notions of spiritual freedom and Islam. One colleague here described it to me as a “pre-secular secularism.” That is, a tradition of religion being between one’s self and god that pre-dates the various massive religious institutions that have called Istanbul home.
Meanwhile, the Muslim world ignites over cartoons of their prophet and the West hoists the standard of free speech. At least one member of the Turkish administration has voiced concern that freedom of speech has limits. Not having travelled extensively here and knowing that Turkey has had its share of bomb-wielding idiots I can’t say I know what the populace thinks. Still, I think the mostly-happy symbiosis of occidental outlook and Muslim mores bears study as the world struggles to figure out how to to de-escalate tensions.
Two days ago I spent most of my time at the Topkapı Sarayı, palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 to 1853. It is an interesting complex, so much more human-scale than the Forbidden City in Beijing, though the similiarities and timeline of the twilight of the Ottoman and Qing empires is interesting to consider together. By far the most visited section of the palace is the harem. Empty, of course, the harem still captivates imagination. Almost like softcore porn, the empty rooms titillate with what might have been.
The museum halls are well done. Small selections or jewels, arms, and gifts from foreign potentates make up the majority of the collection. There is s special hall devoted to religious icons. The irony is that I had only just finished noting the Catholic obsession with saintly body part idolatry when we stumbled on the holy relics hall. There I saw pieces of the prophet Mohamed’s beard, his tooth, and a foot imprint. For a religion so faithfully non-representational (see cartoon furor) this seemed all very odd to me. There was also a letter from Mohamed to the Copts (Egyptian Christians) entreating them to join his tribe and faith and, stranglely, a gold-encased severed arm of John the Baptist. In the relic room a müezzin sat in a glass-enclosure like a UN translator and sang lines from the Koran.
One of the highlights were talismanic tunics covered in the tiniest Arabic script I’ve ever seen. Entire books from the Koran had to be inscribed on a single shirt. An impressive and literal embodiment of the holy word. Word made flesh, so to speak.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.