Through a glass darkly

Cold Turkey

Turkey doesn’t mean much in our life other than Christmas lunch. So Susie and I were pleasantly surprised to spend six wintery weeks in Turkey at the end of last year. I was locum chaplain at St Nicholas of Myra, the Anglican congregation in Ankara. But I soon learnt not to introduce myself with those words as lokum means Turkish Delight in the local language. For us, it really was Turkey for Christmas.

St Nicolas is a small, cosmopolitan congregation, which meets in an attractive chapel in the grounds of the British Embassy. It is a very security conscious country, and entrance to the embassy grounds is through an airport-style security gate. Those attending Sunday services need to register by the previous Wednesday, and all passports have to be checked at the gate. Last year there were some unfortunate tensions within the sizeable Iranian diaspora which had formed a substantial part of the Sunday congregation. As a consequence all Iranians were banned from the compound and the congregation shrunk dramatically. Numbers at Sunday services were quite small, a nucleus of British, South Africans, Dutch and Poles, all grown-ups, all staying afterwards for coffee and cake. There were more people at a family-friendly service on Christmas Day. And during our time there three different Ambassadors worshipped with us, which doesn’t happen here in Edinburgh. There was also a very moving afternoon service with the Iranian refugees held in the chapel in the former French Embassy. We sang in both English and Farsi, which may well have been the language of the Magi, the visitors from the east in Matthew 2.

Ankara is very much not a tourist city. It was just a tiny village, basically a railway junction, called Angora, until it became the capital of the infant Turkish Republic in 1923. Now is an enormous city, all built since 1926, currently somewhere between 5 and 6 million people, and is is extremely hilly. Our apartment was in Çankaya on the south side, quite high up, and with views north across the centre of the city. There are rolling waves [hills] of pale coloured, modern, apartment blocks; bisected by four-lane urban highways.There is much building going on. Where the ground is too steep to build there are vacant plots of grass and stones, often inhabited by big, wild dogs.

We took the high-speed train down to Istanbul for a few days. Just long enough for a trip up the Bosphorus and visits to Hagia Sophia and the enormous, sprawling Topkapi Palace. I was last there in 1964 as a hitch-hiker before university. In those days it was a faded, black-and-white, run-down city with a population of roughly 1 million.  It is now a huge, vibrant metropolis of between 15 and 16 million. My accompaniment in Istanbul was reading Orhan Pamuk’s melancholic, but seductive, memoirs of growing up in the city, Istanbul: memories and the city. He was born in 1952, so the dilapidated Ottoman city which he describes is more-or-less the city that I dimly remember.

Susie and I also managed a day trip to Konya, on Turkey’s other high-speed train; a couple of hours across the feature-less Anatolian plateau. It was a bitterly cold day as we travelled there at speeds of up to 250 kph. Konya is the Iconium visited by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14, but there is little trace of its Christian history. It is better known as a place of pilgrimage for the Muslim world, a city that is dear to the hearts of pious Turks. It was the adopted home of Celaleddin Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic known as the Mevlana [the Master], and founder of the Mevlevi sect, better known as the Whirling Dervishes. Possibly because of the closeness of the word dervish to the word devilish, Susie and I were predisposed to be unsympathetic to the whole place. But the stone buildings were very dignified; a circular hall used for worship, surrounded by a latticed gallery, and a collection of pleasing, smaller mausoleums. And the extracts from Rumi’s writings spoke of an ascetic, prayerful rule of life, not unlike, say, the early Cistercians.

Back in Edinburgh our trip encourages me to read a few things. I started with Norman Stone’s Turkey: a short history. Stone was a Cambridge historian, an alcoholic, and a Thatcher apologist. [Question: Which was  his redeeming feature ?] It is short, an old-fashioned narrative history, enlivened by some striking phrases [Selim was a “cross between Moloch and Puck”]  and some entertaining diversions. I then ploughed through Atatürk: the rebirth of a nation, a lengthy biography of of the soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal, who dragged his country from the Middle Ages into the 20th century. It is a favourable, but not uncritical account. Patrick Kinross notes his ambivalent attitude to women; his drinking habits; his intolerance of opposition.

And now I’ve just finished reading Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922. [Giles Milton is the brother of Guy Milton, of Holy Trinity, Brussels.]This is a readable, well-paced, detailed account of the events that unfolded at Smyrna in September 1922. Smyrna was a prosperous, civilised, very cosmopolitan city. The city included European, Greek, Armenian, and Turkish quarters, and survived the 1914-18 war intact. But the Greek army, with the support of Lloyd-George occupied Smyrna in 1919, and then invaded Anatolia with the view of creating a Greater Greece. When the defeated Greek army fell back on the coast in 1922, Turkish troops and irregulars fell on Smyrna, slaughtered tens of thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees, and set fire to the city. It is an appalling story. From which  few people emerge with credit.

Now I’m going to look at Meander: East to West along a Turkish River by Jeremy Seal. According to the blurb, [the great] Robert Macfarlane says “This is a wonderful book by a wonderful writer”. So I think I’ll take that as a recommendation.

April 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

2 thoughts on “Through a glass darkly

  1. Thanks, Armand. You may be the only person reading this stuff ! If Ankara remains vacant, and if we survive this pandemic, we hope to go back there for a second spell one of these days. Take care.


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