Wednesday, 21 February 2007


Just back from a long weekend in Istanbul.

It was 15 years since we were last there. I wondered if globalisation and Turkey's attempts to join the EU had made many changes.

Last time we were there the country had not long returned to civilian rule and there were armed paramilitary police on every street corner - not this time. Starbucks and MacDonald's were in evidence. And the sellers of counterfeit perfume in the Egyptian Spice Bazaar were saying ' very good price - cheaper than Tesco - cheaper than Asda.'

But even so it is still probably the most exotic city you can visit without leaving Europe. And in times like these when the divide between the Western and Islamic worlds are deeper than they have been for centuries, probably everyone in the West should make an effort to visit.

Of course Turkey isn't actually an Islamic country, but then Britain isn't a Christian country either. And maybe this ambiguity is what makes it so interesting.

There is no better symbol of this than the Hagia Sophia. One of the oldest churches in the world, it was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in part at least to get one over the rival church based in Rome. It was looted not when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, but by the crusaders in 1205 who thought it was a safer bet to attack their Orthodox rivals than mess with the Saracens in the holy land. Actually when Constantionople did fall to the Turks and they converted it into a mosque they carefully covered up the Christian iconography, making it possible for the secular Turkish republic to uncover the original Byzantine decoration in the 1930's. The result is a museum that is probably the only place in the world where you can find an Orthodox altar piece of the Madonna and child next to Arabic calligraphy from the Koran.

It is convenient to judge Islam by what we know of the nutty fundamentalists today. But we forget that the Ottoman empire was possibly the first multicultural society with an amazing degree of toleration for Catholic, Orthodox, Jew and Muslim at a time when pogroms, crusades and inquisitions were a regular feature in the West.

Don't go looking for some sort of harmonious paradise in modern Turkey. It's recent history has walked a narrow precipice between populist fundamentalism and repressive secular nationalism. As a member of Amnesty I have a folder of letters addressed to Turkish politicians over the years.

But I can remember school trips to France - the idea was to broaden our horizons. Most of the time we were more concerned with smuggling back bangers and flick-knives. Maybe it could be more relevant now for kids to spend a weekend in Istanbul.

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