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Sailing to Byzantium




Compared to the last time I was here, the city is unrecognizable. On both the European and Asian shores, some 13 million now make up greater Istanbul. The carbon dioxide level of the Great Bazaar on a hot humid Friday afternoon must reach dangerous levels, and seems to suffocate within minutes. The shopkeepers are of course pushy, even provocative, but they offer strangely inviting and creative lines—“It is now my turn to take your money” or “Please don’t smile at me” or “ Stop! That’s mean to laugh at me” or “Let me show you how to spend your money.” Small blocks on the hills of old Constantinople seem to emulate San Francisco Victorian districts, but of course on closer inspection really do not.


I have visited the grand Hagia Sophia twice before, and it even more in middle age evokes a sense of tragedy. Compared to its Islamic copy—the Blue Mosque across the way (built about a thousand years later in a gasp of inferiority thinking that “we can do it better”)—its age and majesty shine out. Turkish guides still claim the minarets were added only to “bolster” the fragile dome, but they neither explain the prior flying supporting arches added for that very purpose centuries before the fall, nor how the dome existed for over a thousand years without the minarets. It needs millions in upkeep and restoration (work on the dome continues), and in comparison to the Blue Mosque, the jewel of old Christendom is rather seedy inside (though better than in the 1970s). Again, quite sad, especially when remembering the frightening narrative of the assembled, who in late May 1453 expected an archangel to rescue them moments before the Janissaries broke in ...


The “Turkish Question”—is it West or East, should it be in the EU, is it a reliable NATO partner?—is hardly a question anymore. Istanbul is Western, its citizens Western in appearance, a liberality prevalent in commerce and discourse. And yet a 100 miles away in the interior, the traditional Middle East and Islam are on the rise. The West cannot decide what Turkey's future is, since it is in the midst of a grand dialogue between itself—between its European West and its fundamentalist East.  Europe will have to await the outcome.


I heard an engaging lecture by the author of the magisterial Ataturk biography, 83-year-young Andrew Mango, who reemphasized his long-held views that Turkey is Westernizing as never before, and belongs with Europe. Our Turkish guide was informative at Tokapi, but often propagandized about Turkish Westernism (e.g., only prejudice he swore keeps it out of the EU), falling into that traditional trope of often bitterly resenting the West that he so eagerly wishes to join, while bitterly resenting Middle East fundamentalism and indigenous prejudices that thwart modernism while chauvinistically praising all things Turkish.


The Dardanelles


This morning we passed through the Hellespont, through the narrows where Xerxes’s bridge brought his army into Europe in the largest sea-borne and supported invasion of the continent until Normandy, 1944. Monuments to Gallipoli dot the coast, as do remains of the Turkish forts.


At the narrowest the strait constricts to about a mile wide. The Gallipoli campaign was probably lost in March 1915 before the landings even began, when mines sunk a French dreadnaught and damaged a few British ships, preventing adequate bombardment and further steaming up the Dardanelles.  Had the mines been properly cleared, the Allied fleet could easily have blasted the cliffs and headed all the way to the Bosporus to shell or occupy Istanbul. All the same, looking this morning at these barren foothills, one wonders how tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders were supposed to be fed and supplied while at the  mercy of Turkish gunners, trained and armed by German specialists. The beaches and hills are naked, dry, and windswept.


 Not far down the coast, around the corner are the waters of Aigospotami and Arginusae. Well over 500 Spartan and Athenian triremes were sunk in these environs between 413 and 404. Going in and out of the Hellespont and the coast of Asia Minor, I tried, from sea with maps, to spot the sites of the battles of Cyzicus, Cynosema, Notium, and Abydos—the ancient equivalent of Western-front butchery, of the last phase of the Peloponnesian War when the struggle was decided here at the mouth of the straits. The Athenians lost the war not 1500 miles away in Sicily in 413, but right here at the even greater catastrophe at the Hellespont between 413-404.


The geography could not be more strategic—the entrance to the breadbasket of the Black Sea grain plains, the Western maritime route out for the Islamic Middle East, the warm-water escape of the Russian fleet, the contested hot spots between Greece and Turkey, the route of overland pipelines from the oil-rich former Soviet Union. Tankers and cargo ships  go by almost minute by minute, port and starboard. Steaming through the Dardanelles is like opening up a book on the history of the West. Through these straits the great Ottoman galley fleet headed west in 1571 to Lepanto. In 1973 in Istanbul I watched US ships, like taxis, waiting for the Soviet fleet to emerge out of the Bosporus, as they immediately tagged and followed each one out into the Sea of Marmara and into the Dardanelles here.


In the last 2500 years these waters and landscapes have never witnessed a 60-year long  period of tranquility and prosperity as we see in the present. What keeps things in order for cruise and commerce ships; what prevents piracy, Greek-Turkish shoot-outs, new Russian belligerence, and Islamic suicide USS Cole-like attacks?


NATO ships and American leadership. Take that away and we’d be back to 1941, 1915, 1571, and 404 B.C. in a few years.We should remember that as we go into $2 trillion debt this year, since very soon this administration will by needs either raise taxes on the middle class or slash the military budget in late 1940s style.