Istanbul Impressions


posted to on January 8, 2003


Although the main purpose of my visit to Istanbul was to meet my in-laws, I had no doubt that broader cultural and political concerns would make themselves felt. Chief among them was Turkey's role in the impending war with next-door neighbor Iraq, the lingering effects of a severe economic crisis that began in February of 2001, and finally a burgeoning Islamic political movement that had won the recent elections.


After being picked up at the airport and while driving along a major expressway, I was surprised to see that long stretches of Istanbul resemble Los Angeles. The old city is clustered around the Bosphorus Straits, but spiraling out from this hub is an anarchic mass of factories, upscale apartment buildings and slums that serve as workplaces and homes to a large part of a population that now exceeds 13 million and is growing rapidly as impoverished rural folk pour into the city each day from Anatolia.


If you look at the map at, you will get an idea of the dimensions of the city. I would estimate that between the westernmost border in Europe and the easternmost in Asia, the length exceeds 25 miles. Any tourist notions of "walking around Istanbul" only make sense if you limit yourself to the old city; otherwise it would make about as much sense as "walking around Los Angeles."


Istanbul shares with Los Angeles an underfunded and inadequate mass transit system. Even though Istanbul was one of the first cities in Europe to launch a subway in 1874--a horse-driven one at that!--it has not kept pace with the city's rapid growth. For the average citizen, minibuses that are largely owned by mob-run companies have to suffice.


Bural, who had picked me up at the airport, was fairly typical of middle-class Istanbul. Fluent in English, the owner of a sleek Peugot and constantly on his cell-phone, he was the very image of success. Not long ago the company he worked for had been taken over by the Turkish government in a reverse trend against privatization. Since his salary would be slashed after the restructuring was complete, he took preemptive action and launched a human resources consulting company to make sure his income kept pace with Turkey's hyperinflation. Of course, his income would now no longer be guaranteed. Despite some initial success, he was still trying to figure a way to emigrate to Europe or North America since the country's proximity to the seething Mideast worried him.


One other thing that Istanbul shares with Los Angeles is its proximity to a highly dangerous fault line that most experts predict will result in a catastrophic earthquake over the next 25 years or so. On August 17, 1999, an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale hit the city of Izmit in Turkey. Just three months later, a similar quake hit Duzce. Over 18,000 people were killed and more than 15,000 buildings collapsed, causing up to $25 billion in damage. With a high level of corruption in Istanbul responsible for shabby construction standards and substandard emergency relief, it is safe to assume that a major earthquake could have the same kind of lethal impact that was felt in Somoza's Nicaragua.


Whether it would have the same kind of political aftermath is open to question, however. While radical mass action has been the response in Argentina to a devastating economic collapse, Turkey appears eerily calm in face of its own. Except for increased votes for populist Islamic electoral formations, there is not much one can point to as a sign that people are unhappy with the status quo. When I pointed this out to one of my better-informed hosts, she explained to me that there is a key difference between Argentina and Turkey. While displaying superficial similarities as "modernizers", Peron and Ataturk differed on one key question. Peron consciously built up the trade union movement; Ataturk did everything he could to suppress it. As father of modern Turkey, Ataturk's portrait is everywhere--from barbershops to government offices. However, from a class standpoint, his popularity is deepest in the middle and upper bourgeoisie.


The geological fault line obviously has a counterpart in the city and country's precarious location on the political-tectonic plates that divide the Christian West from the Islamic East. If these plates clash with each other at full force, the impact can be as devastating as any earthquake. Istanbul is geographically unique. It is the only city in the world--as far as I know--that straddles two continents. Imagine getting in your car each morning in Asia each morning and driving across a bridge to get to your workplace in Europe. Not only is the city divided spatially, it is also divided culturally and politically. The dialectical tension between East and West has been the subject of many treatments, both literary and analytical. The most recent of note are Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red", a novel set in 16th-century Istanbul, which examines Western cultural encroachments upon the East. The other is NY Times reporter Stephen Kinzer's "The Crescent and the Star", a book I plan to read despite my loathing for this former apologist for the Nicaraguan contras.



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Who are the Turks?


Originally, the Turkmen were horse-riding nomads of the Central Asian steppes who had much in common with the Mongols and other such peoples. While widely regarded as "barbarians", the historical role of such peoples is far more complex as Jack Weatherford explains in "Savages and Civilization":


"Most of the nomads spoke one of the Turkish or Mongol languages, but they also included speakers of European languages, particularly Slavic and Finno-Ugric. The nomads, who combined all the racial groups of Eurasia, formed frequent alliances in which whole tribes would unite, and they frequently absorbed the people whom they conquered as affiliated clans. In addition, they made marriages with settled peoples, accepting European and Chinese women in marriage as well as kidnapping them.


"The names for these people have varied through the centuries. Scythians, Avars, Huns, Magyars, Tatars, Bulgars, Mongols, and Turks. Many of the tribes are lumped together as Mongols because the Mongols were among the greatest of the nomadic conquerors, but they are also often called Tartars, or Tatars, after a Turkish part of the Mongol confederacy. The name Tatar probably comes from the Chinese word ta-ta, which simply meant 'nomad.' For Europeans, they were the fiends of Tartarus, the ancient Greek word for hell, and thus they were often called Tartars.


"The nomads would suddenly appear on the borderlands, sometimes literally traveling faster than the news of their approach. Seemingly without reason, they might turn in another direction, or they could sweep through cities and destroy crops for hundreds of miles. Then they disappeared as quickly as they came, but took with them thousands of slaves and new wives, and hundreds of wagons of bounty.


"As completely capricious as the nomads may have appeared to the settled people, there emerged a decisive pattern and logic to their behavior. They constantly probed and tested the whole length of Eurasia. In decades when China grew strong, they turned toward the west and headed for Europe, or south into Iran or India. In years when these other kingdoms showed more strength, the nomads headed back toward China. They seem to have conquered tribes, cities, and even whole empires with equanimity.


"The movement of any one group sent a sequence of shock waves across the heartland as one tribe was pushed onto another, dislodging smaller nomadic tribes and forcing agricultural peoples in the heartland to flee away from the grasslands and toward the coastal kingdoms. These wandering and displaced hordes themselves became menaces to the people whose lands they invaded.


"For the three thousand years from 1600 B.C. to roughly A.D. 1500, the wandering of tribes and the warfare between settled, civilized people and their barbarian, nomadic enemies became the focal issue of Eurasian civilization. But as the two great traditions fought with each other, they constantly exchanged cultural traits and technology. The nomads sometimes settled among the farmers as their overlords or as their neighbors, but they also moved millions of people in forced relocations.


"In order to survive, each side had to learn the ways and the culture of the other. The Mongols borrowed technology, animals, and ideas from all parts of their territories, and spread them to the other nations, from Europe to China."


(Interestingly, this cross-fertilization is similar to the one that took place during the "dark ages" in Western Europe, if you accept the argument of Perry Anderson in "Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism", a book that I am currently reading. Anderson demonstrates that the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes did not really wipe out pre-existing Roman institutions but absorbed and transformed them as they created a new feudal system.)


What made the conquering Ottomans adopt Islam? According to the superb guide to Istanbul from Knopf publishers (part of a series that includes other major cities and countries, including Paris, Morocco, etc.), it was strictly business in the Don Corleone sense: "In the middle of the 11th century the khans of the Oguz Turks of central Asia adopted Islam in order to control the silk route, in alliance with their former enemies the Arabs. It was an entirely political conversion, and was only a matter of convenience."


This pragmatic attitude toward religion persists to this day. In neighborhoods all around the Istanbul, zoning regulations--such as they are--are trumped by Allah. If houses are built without permission in squatter fashion, all that is necessary is to build a mosque in their midst. As long as the mosque remains standing, no house can be demolished on the land it occupies.


(Another oddity was observed in Istanbul housing. On the edge of one big modern soccer stadium on the Asian side, there is a cluster of hovels that are enclosed by a fence in a barely successful cosmetic gesture, like putting pancake makeup on a very large wart. It was explained to me that the dwellers own deeds to the land, presumably received as a populist gesture during some former Kemalist administration.)


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The Dolmabahce Palace ( was built between 1825 and 1853 as a replacement for the Topkapi palace. It is a 285 room affair with 4 ton chandeliers, silk curtains, gold dining utensils, French provincial furniture, etc. appearing so well preserved that you might expect to see a Sultan walking down the hallway in his pajamas and slippers.


My Turkish hosts explained to me that it is much more interesting than the Versailles Palace, to which it is architecturally and spiritually related, since the furniture had never been taken out and burned by revolutionary-minded peasants as was the case in France in 1789.


Two thoughts have stuck with me about this Ottoman shrine to conspicuous consumption. One, could it be possible that Turkey's current intractable social and economic crisis and, moreover, the failure to develop into a fully modern state be related to the fact that Turkish counterparts of the sans-culottes never trashed such a palace in the course of a bloody bourgeois-democratic revolution? Two, what does it say about the mindset of the Ottoman rulers that they were attempting to a palace in the 19th century that was modeled after 17th century Europe? What this time warp tells me is that the Turkish ruling class--such as it was--had failed to keep pace with the changing socio-economic realities of the capitalist world. Rather than pouring money into gold dinnerware, it should obviously have been building roads and telegraph lines.


For a useful explanation of how this state of affairs came into existence, I refer you to chapter 7 of Perry Anderson's "Lineages of the Absolutist State." Titled "The House of Islam," it focuses on the Ottoman system that was characterized by a combination of 'ghazi', which signifies a militant, crusading Islam, and older Islamic principles that stressed accommodation and trade with the Infidel. Basically, this combination produced a mixture of territorial expansion and open-minded commercial opportunism.


The economic bedrock of Ottoman despotism was the absence of private property in land. The Sultan had unlimited right to exploit all wealth in his realm, from olive orchards in the Balkans, to cotton fields in Egypt producing raw materials for the world market. The absence of an intermediate layer of landed gentry meant that property could not be secured, especially land. To become wealthy and important in the Ottoman Empire meant becoming a state functionary. In sharp contrast to Europe, this entailed a kind of upward mobility for Janissary slaves who could become immensely wealthy and powerful while remaining nominally unfree.


As a corollary of their understanding of property rights, the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans actually had a positive impact on the peasantry. Since the landed gentry of places like Serbia and Bulgaria were liquidated, the peasants would immediately be delivered from the kind of degradation that was typical of Western Europe and, in Anderson's words, "transferred to a social condition that was paradoxically in most respects milder and freer than anywhere else in Eastern Europe at the time."


Yet the elimination of feudal overlords had negative consequences in the long run, for the absence of such elites reduced the possibility of the kind of capital accumulation that might prepare the way for a proto-bourgeoisie. Balkan towns failed to achieve the kind of commercial and intellectual importance that they had in Western Europe at the same time since they were transformed into appendages of Istanbul with Turkish craftsmen and shopkeepers in positions of power.


In the eastern regions of the empire, economic conditions were more sanguine since there was no need to restructure prosperous trading centers according to Ottoman precepts. Instead, the Ottoman army and navy offered protection from piracy on land and sea. This commercial stability led to population growth and other signs of well-being, especially in the cultural arena.


However, the ascendancy of the Mideast under Ottoman rule--just as was the case in the Balkans--had built-in limits. With an absence of a proto-bourgeoisie in the countryside, rural technology improvement lacked the sort of impetus it enjoyed in the west. Furthermore, the towns lacked the kind of autonomy that was the only guarantee of dynamic commercial growth. Hampered by Sultanate regulation of commodity prices, large-scale commercial capital would be inhibited at the outset. Anderson writes:


"The characteristic Turkish town eventually came to be dominated by a stagnant and backward 'menu peuple' that prevented any entrepreneurial innovation or accumulation. Given the nature of the Ottoman State, there was no protective space in which a Turkish mercantile bourgeoisie could develop, and from the 17th century onwards commercial functions devolved increasingly onto infidel minority communities, Greek, Jewish or Armenian, which had always anyway dominated the export trade with the West. Muslim traders or producers were thereafter generally confined to small shopkeeping and artisanal occupations."


Even at its height, there was a radical disjunction between Ottoman military prowess and the underlying economy. Although Anderson does not mention it specifically, one would be reminded of his explanation of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Based as it was on a slave economy, it could only expand through the acquisition of new chattel. Once expansion had met natural geographical and political-military limits, decay was inevitable in both cases. Reading this description in Anderson, one is reminded not only of the Roman Empire, but the future possible collapse of the American empire, if one considers the kind of servitude to which it is reducing most of the world:


"The privileges of an extraneous slave corps, deprived of its military functions, gradually became intolerable to the bulk of the dominant class of the Empire, which eventually exerted its inert weight to normalize and recover command of the political apparatus of the Ruling Institution. The surplus rural population that had been enlisted as auxiliaries or freebooters in the armies of the Porte, turned to social revolt or brigandage once the military machine could no longer absorb it. Moreover, the stoppage of extensive acquisition of lands and treasure was inevitably to lead to much more intensive forms of exploitation within the bounds of Turkish power, at the expense of the subject rayah class. The history of the Ottoman Empire from the late 16th to the early 19th century is thus essentially that of the disintegration of the central imperial State, the consolidation of a provincial landowning class, and the degradation of the peasantry. This long drawn-out process, which was not without transient political and military recoveries, did not occur in Balkan isolation from the rest of the European continent. It was, on the contrary, deepened and aggravated by the international impact of West European economic supremacy, under whose sway the Ottoman Empire - stagnating in technological parasitism and theological obscurantism - increasingly fell."


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Although the economic situation in Turkey has probably improved since the stock market collapse of 2001, it is still very bad.


Not far from my quarters in upper Bostanci (pronounced Bostanji), a middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side reminiscent of Flushing, Queens, there is a major shopping drag called Bagdat Avenue. (There is an accent under the g in Bagdat that Microsoft cannot accommodate. It is silent and is used to extend the vowel immediately before it. In this case, you would pronounce it "Baahdat".) Despite the fact that this avenue is named after the capital of Iraq, there is nothing Mideastern about it except for the occasional mosque--ubiquitous to all of Istanbul, including the most occidental sections.) It is a bustling thoroughfare with expensive European clothing outlets, banks and doctors' offices. On Saturday night the sidewalks are crowed with elegantly dressed Turks who often have a full shopping bag in one hand and a cell phone in the other.


(The recent Islamic electoral victory might be interpreted as a reaction to Bagdat Avenue ostentation. However, things are never quite that clear. One of my Turkish hosts pointed out to me a couple of women in scarves who were carrying Hermes handbags. The next day she also brought my attention to a newspaper article that highlighted the success of "Islamic stylishness", an approach that its promoters hoped to win secular Turks to its cause.)


This is not typical of the city and even beyond the means of many people who formerly could enjoy its wares. Among them were Hassan and Miral, my hosts. They are retired employees of Turkish Airlines and Phillips Petroleum respectively. Their combined income of one billion Turkish liras would have been equivalent to something like $4000 per month in pre-inflation days. Now they are forced to watch every penny.


After shelling out 250 million TL (Turkish Lira) at the start of each month for apartment maintenance, phone, cable and other fixed expenses, they have to buy food and other necessities. Right now items like tomatoes, chopped meat, olives and feta cheese--all the basics of a Turkish kitchen--cost about 5M TL per pound. In the USA, a typical retired couple with a good pension in New York City might receive something like $4000 per month. A pound of tomatoes might cost about $4. So, this purchase represents 1/1000th of your income. In Turkey, the ratio is something like 1/200 for Hassan and Miral.


For somebody on minimum wage (taking home 100 million TL per month), you can barely scrape by. For a middle-level government or private employee, the take home wage is about 300 million TL per month. So people are suffering. Just to drive the point home, imagine if you were taking home $2000 per month and had to spend $10 for a pound of tomatoes, etc.


On December 4th, the IMF's European director told the Financial Times that "My conviction is that Turkey is emerging out of a crisis period. "The new government is well-placed to bring Turkey out of an era that was rather unhappy in the 1990s." This would come as a surprise to the Turks I spoke to, who are by no means in the lower rungs of society. One woman I met was forced to divorce her husband so she would be eligible to receive her late father's pension. Although this seems like small potatoes to somebody in the USA, it is a painful step for somebody living in a society where traditional values are much stronger. Apparently this practice is widespread today.


As deep as the suffering faced by the average Turk, the country was still a haven for many citizens of the former Soviet Union who came to Turkey in the same way that Mexicans cross the Rio Grande into Texas. I met Olga from Molodova, a middle-aged woman with a university degree who had to subsist on $20 per month as a schoolteacher in this poorest of ex-Communist republics. Now she was a nanny to one of the Turks I passed time with. She was clear about what wrong in her former homeland. "Things were better under Communism," she would tell me and anybody else who would listen, adding, "Everything went wrong under Gorbachev".



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It would be nearly impossible for me to describe Turkish culture in the richness it deserves in this posting.


I would only recommend that you track down Jules Dassin's 1964 masterpiece "Topkapi", which should be available in most well-stocked video stores. Filmed on location in Istanbul, it is a loving tribute to the city and the Mediterranean culture he learned to identify with so strongly after being witch-hunted out of Hollywood and after marrying the film's star Merlina Mercouri, another leftist.


Based on leftist Eric Ambler's novel "The Light of Day", the film is basically a comic version of Dassin's earlier jewel heist film "Rififi" ( Like "Rififi", it is the story of an elaborately prepared, but ultimately unsuccessful robbery. The climax of "Topkapi" involves a thief being lowered by his feet into the Treasury Room of Istanbul's most famous museum, formerly the castle of the Ottoman Emperor, in order to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger. "Mission Impossible" shamelessly ripped off this scene when Tom Cruise entered a high-security computer room suspended by his feet.


(In a twist on the plot of '"Topkapi", Jules Dassin has carried on with the crusade begun by the late Merlina Mercouri to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, booty that was stolen by the British imperialists.)


You can see many examples of Istanbul's classic architecture in this film, which has sadly disappeared in recent years during the Los Angeles-ization of the city. You can also see everyday Turks on the street carrying bundles on their shoulders or selling goods, just as the case today. For gay comrades, one of the highlights of the film is a wrestling match that can only be described as tantalizingly homoerotic.


I was fortunate to be escorted through the old streets of Istanbul by Hassan and his long-time friend Erdogan. (Accent under the 'g'. Pronounced Erduan.) Here is an example of the sort of house that is falling prey to the wrecking ball of 'modernization':


At midday, we enjoyed lunch at a restaurant in one of Istanbul's fabulous covered bazaars, in this case one specializing in seafood. From left to right, you can see Erdogan, Hassan and I with a slightly bleary look on our faces, the result of beers laced with vodka. I am not sure if this drink is particularly Turkish, but it is a tradition of theirs.


As you might have expected, Turkish television is heavily dominated by American television shows and movies. When you skip through the dial, you'll see something like the atrocious "Seinfeld" dubbed in English adjacent to a channel featuring a rapturous performance of some Turkish folk music, which comes in all varieties. I prefer what is called "Arabesque", a style that is virtually the same as that found in the Mideast although my hosts find it somewhat vulgar. This did not come as much of a surprise to me, since they tend to think of themselves as European and secular. In fact they moved to upper Bosanci from Uskudar, a part of old Istanbul that had immense charm but is now apparently too dominated by religious people for their tastes. When I mentioned this to my mother, she said that secular Jews have exactly the same reaction when Hasidim move in: "There goes the neighborhood".


Turkish television is heavily tilted toward musical performance, either from their own version of MTV, with local rock-and-roll favorites like Tarkan, or much more traditional sounds from the Black Sea region (laz) or--my favorite--Arabesk, which, as the name implies, is Turkish lyrics superimposed on an essentially Mideast sound.


For my European-looking hosts, Arabesk is something of an embarrassment, like a country cousin. From what I have been able to glean from various websites and a superb article from the Jstor database, Arabesk is a typically plebian music that is consciously adopts the values and aspirations of those at the fringes of society. In this aspect, it has a lot in common with tango in its infancy, a music that was bred in the whorehouses of Buenos Aires. Or rap music, for that matter.


It is clear that at one time the Mideast had much more of a direct cultural impact on Turkey than it has today. My host Hassan informed me that Egyptian films were very common in Turkey when he was a youth. One can only surmise that Arabesk performers would have been strongly influenced by films that included the Egyptian megastar Umm Kulthum, who by some reckonings sold more records than any performer in history, including Elvis. Go to for information on her life and to hear her songs.


Appearing in the Middle East Report of Sept-Oct 1989, Martin Stokes's "Music, Fate and State: Turkey's Arabesk Debate" is a fascinating account of how this music has posed problems to the Turkish government and the urban intelligentsia, as well. Stokes writes:


"It is, firstly, a music inextricably linked with the culture of the gecekondu, literally the 'night settlements' which mushroomed around Turkey's large industrial cities after the Menderes government program of rural regeneration in the 1950s produced a large rural labor surplus. By the 1970s these squatter towns accounted for up to 60 percent of the population of cities such as Istanbul.


"Sociological research projects celebrated the beneficial effects of life in the squatter towns. The gecekondular not only provided an environment in which the migrant was able to retain his links with his home village, but was able to participate increasingly in national cultural life, spending more time reading the newspapers, attending the cinemas, participating in elections, getting an education and so on. Politicians promised title deeds to gecekondu dwellers [this would explain the removal-resistant slum I saw near the soccer stadium] in return for their votes at national and, more recently, municipal elections, thus accelerating the process of assimilation and extending public transport, water and refuse collecting services. 'Aside from low income, drab looking houses, and the lack of normal city facilities,' Kemal Karpat wrote in 1976, 'few squatter towns show any symptoms of social or psychological disintegration, moral depravity and crime.'"


As Turkey's political and economic collapse took shape in the 1980s, the sense of optimism disappeared from the gecekondu--hence the rise of the Arabesk, a kind of Turkish blues that would evoke the feeling of dislocation and loss of a recent black internal immigrant to Chicago in the 1940s expressed in a tune like Muddy Waters's "Train Fare Home Blues".


The Arabesk is closely linked with "dolmus" culture, the word for stuffed as in stuffed grape leaves--in this instance it refers to the privately-owned and overcrowded cabs that connect the city proper to the outlying gecekondu. (There's an accent under the s, so it is pronounced dolmush.) Stokes writes:


"Istanbul's central dolmus station, Topkapi garage, is at a point midway between the gecekondu and the old city. Close to the famous brothels of Sulukule and surrounded by graveyards conspicuous with their tall cypress trees, this area occupies a prominent place in the urban Turkish imagination. It is a twilight zone spatially, socially and morally. Within the walls lie monuments to Ottoman Turkish civilization; without lies the ephemeral junk of modern Turkey's trash culture. Within, the palaces and mosques; without, the beer houses and brothels. Within, order and the living; without, chaos and the dead."


For the intelligentsia, the Arabesk is a symptom of the country's socio-economic illness and have referred to it as a "cancer" or "epidemic". According to Stokes, Emre Kongar, one of Turkey's leading sociologists, locates Arabesk in the interstices between a 'feudal-urban' and 'industrial' culture. "By implication, the industrial transformation of Turkish society will eventually solve the Arabesk problem." Given Turkey's precarious situation today, one would not be surprised to see every last citizen going to sleep with the words of an Arabesk on their lips.


For the sounds of Arabesk and other modern Turkish music, go to:


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At night watching CNN and local Turkish news, we tried to evaluate whether war was coming and how soon. Turkish television is dominated by criticism of Bush and the pressure he is applying on the country. Interestingly, one of the most hard-hitting critiques of US policy was seen on a talk show on a station owned by an Islamic group connected to the new government.


This show was in stark contrast to a movie channel that offered a dreadful American movie the same night of the kind that people like Chuck Norris starred in during the Reagan years. It opened up with a small group of US commandoes parachuting into some unnamed Arab country, whereupon they proceed to slaughter hundreds of their swarthy enemies. It was particularly jarring to hear the dubbed Turkish coming out of their mouths. I could only wonder if this film was aired as part of a deliberate propaganda offensive.


Alas, poor Turkey has little leverage when it comes to the kind of muscle the USA can apply.


This wasn't always the case. During the height of the Ottoman Empire, Europe stood in fear of their neighbor to the East, which had driven the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire out of Constantinople in 1453. Deploying a combination of artillery and explosives that had never been seen before, the Sultan's troops overran the Christian garrison and converted the biggest church St. Sophia into a mosque, now called Haghia Sophia.


After Istanbul became a Moslem stronghold, the Ottomans swept westward and established their rule over much of the southern Balkans as well as North Africa and the Arab east. While the question of the nature of Ottoman society is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that it is a hotly debated topic in Turkish scholarship, involving many of the same sorts of issues found in the Brenner thesis controversy. Chiefly, they revolve around the question of whether the Ottomans were feudal or not since they had much of the character of the absolutist state described by Perry Anderson, a transitional step toward the consolidation of bourgeois rule.


Key to the military success of the Ottoman Empire were the crack Janissary troops, who were drawn from Christian children in conquered territories in the Balkans. Apparently the Ottomans could not rely on soldiers drawn from their own territory since young men had loyalties to their local chieftains. By contrast, a Christian child could be converted to Islam and taught fierce loyalty to the Sultan.


In battle, the Janissaries were a formidable foe. As Scottish troops used the bagpipes to rouse themselves to the occasion, so did the Janissaries use a distinctly martial kind of music that eventually became something of a fad in Europe. Mozart employed elements of this music in his Rondo a la Turk and, more significantly, "The Abduction of the Seraglio". However, what you hear in Mozart sounds nothing like the real thing. For that, you have to go to the marvelous website, which has samples of all sorts of Turkish music, including modern renditions of Janissary music. These wild sounds have nothing much in common with Mozart's music, which of course has to stand on its own merits and obviously succeeds on those terms.


"The Abduction from the Seraglio" is just one of many 'Turkish' musical or theatrical expressions that flowered in the 18th century, when fascination with the Ottoman Empire was at an all-time high. This charming 'singspiel' includes two significant Turkish characters, a 'good' Turk named Selim, a Sultan who has been trying successfully to woo a Spanish captive named Constanze. His aide Osman is a 'bad' Turk, whose nearly every word consists of threats to hang or burn the Spanish interlopers who have come to Turkey to rescue Constanze and her maid Blonde.


Eventually Selim shows mercy and allows the Westerners to depart. Why? Only because he himself is of western origin and even though having renounced the west and Christianity still can identify sufficiently with those under his power.


By the time Mozart wrote his opera, the Ottoman Empire had begun to decline and so it was possible to treat the Turkish enemy with a kind of generosity that was not possible centuries earlier. The question of why it failed to conquer territory much further east than the Balkans is one that scholars can chew over. The thought of an Islamic Europe is certainly intriguing in the sense of those novels that try to imagine the world in "what if" terms.


I will not try to answer this question in any kind of depth, only to suggest that the sort of line of investigation opened up by my old friend and comrade the late Jim Blaut seems relevant here. The Knopf guidebook tells us:


"In the 16th century the Ottomans negotiated the first 'capitulations' between Suleyman and Francois I, then with the English (1580) and the Dutch (1612). At its height the empire included Mesopotamia, Syria, most of the coast of the Arab peninsula, Egypt, and the coast of North Africa. It engaged in a merciless fight against the Hapsburgs, who controlled not only the German empire, but also that of Spain and soon Portugal (1580-1640). The struggle took place on two fronts: Central Europe, with the conquest of Hungary (1526) and the siege of Vienna, and the Mediterranean, where the Ottomans maintained their supremacy from the victory of Preveza (1538) through to their defeat at Lepanto (1571).


"At the end of the 16th century the Ottomans had an inadequate army and were at a disadvantage when engaging the Hapsburg army, which used numerous technical innovations paid for by the gold from the recently discovered Americas."


Thus the rise of imperialism, which now threatens to engulf the entire region in a cataclysm, was made possible by the expropriation of Native America. Hence it makes sense to conceive of the redemption of peoples in the New World and the East in terms of reversing the effects of the original European conquests, but on class terms geared to our epoch.