Monday, June 20, 2011

Istanbul not Byzantium

I didn't want to get into copyright trouble for lifting the title of an old popular song for my own purposes, so I changed the words around just a bit. Admittedly the new title is not quite as catchy as the original, but it will have to do. Anyway, an interesting article by Claire Berlinski on the dilemma over what to preserve in the face of urban development can be found here in City Journal, about the magnificent city of the Golden Horn.

As is the case with Jerusalem and every other city built above thousands of years of civilization, you cannot put a shovel into the ground in Istanbul without digging up a significant piece of the past. Consequently, any building project must first pass muster with local archeologists who often have first dibs on the underground city.

It should not come as a surprise that in Istanbul there is a conflict between those who look toward the future and those who look to the past. Depending upon one's point of view, it's easy to find villains in this scenario. On one side you have the greedy developers set on making a fortune, bulldozing all traces of history that stand in their way. On the other, there are the obstinate historians and archeologists who would stop at nothing to prevent any effort to bring the city into the present, let alone the future.

There are no easy answers as there is credibility to both sides of the argument. I have been to this part of the world and must say that in my limited travels, I never had a more breathtaking experience than walking through the streets of the ancient city of Ephesus, in Western Turkey. The spectacular architecture there speaks to the genius of the Greeks and the Romans. This immensely significant city was the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemus, as well as the Library of Celsus, whose facade today is the centerpiece of the city. A magnificent 40,000 seat amphitheater, the largest of the ancient world, overlooks the harbor. Ephesus is also an important city to Christians, a visitor there walks in the footsteps of St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Today Ephesus is a working laboratory for historians and archeologists who continue to make important discoveries on the histories of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish civilization. Yet for all its splendor and significance, Ephesus is a dead city. It was abandoned during the Middle Ages and lay buried beneath the Anatolian soil for five hundred years until the mid-nineteenth century when archeological fever was rampant throughout Asia Minor. What exists there today is merely a reconstruction of the past, it is spectacular but essentially, not real.

The same cannot be said of Istanbul, which is as real and alive as any place could be. The frenetic activity of life in this great metropolis, makes New York City look like a small town by comparison.

Throughout much of the current city's 2,600 year history, Istanbul, (nee Constantinople, nee Byzantium) has been a city of tremendous importance. During this history, it was the capital of the Roman Empire, the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church (at one point all of Christendom), and the imperial city of the Ottoman Empire. All those cultures left their mark along with the cultures of countless other ethnic groups that at one time or other called the city home. As a result, Istanbul is indeed one of the most cosmopolitan cities to be found anywhere.

Many of these cultural marks remain buried underground and much needed development projects seriously threaten their survival.

With perhaps the most strategically advantageous location of any city in the world, the area that Istanbul occupies has been the center of human activity for at least 8,000 years. We know this because of discoveries made possible by recent excavations for a new subway. Because of these discoveries, historical knowledge of the region has been dramatically altered. Also because of the findings, the much needed subway project has been put on hold. Such is the way of life on both sides of the Bosphorus as Istanbul struggles to bring itself into the 21st Century.

No one knows for sure but Istanbul's population is staggering, and counting, although the estimate of 20 million as mentioned in the City Journal article seems high, it's more likely between 13 and 15 million. It is a city of extreme contrasts. The domes, minarets and towers built atop the seven hills, dominate the skyline.

Istanbul is a staggeringly beautiful city.

Yet the provisions made to house the influx of new residents from the countryside of Western Turkey looking to improve their lives in the big city, are shoddy at best, tragically neglectful at worst. On our ride to the airport, we observed a much different city, one of ramshackle dwellings that appeared to be a disaster waiting to happen. That disaster happened in 1999 when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake centered near the city ─░zmit on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, claimed tens of thousands of lives. Most of the deaths were attributed to substandard structures.

Ten years later, woefully inadequate infrastructure in Istanbul was credited for many of the deaths caused by flash floods in 2009.

Contrary to the old jokes about Turkish millionaires, (when we were there in 1995, a one million Turkish Lire note was worth about 17 U.S. dollars), Turkey is a developed country with a stable economy. The government of Turkey would very much like to one day become a part of the European Union. There are obstacles that lie in the way, human rights issues being one of them. There is also great concern about the preservation of antiquities and Turkey's cultural heritage. This is a particularly sore subject, just as the Greek government did with the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon that now reside inside the British Museum in London, many of Turkey's historical artifacts lie abroad, sold long ago to the highest bidder. There is justifiable concern that the work needed to improve Istanbul's infrastructure will inevitably destroy many more artifacts. As Berlinski's article points out, "No one wants to be known to future generations as the destroyer of 8,000 years’ worth of civilization."

On the other hand, making Turkey's largest and most important city economically viable as well as a habitable place for all its residents, is a critical piece in the puzzle. The battle that we face here in the United States over the historic preservation of significant architecture, seems like child's play compared to the problems facing Istanbul's future. Berlinski's ominous closing words in her piece suggest that we visit Istanbul now, "while it's all still here." They paint a bleak picture of the balance being forged between the two sides in the battle. I am not quite so pessimistic, preferring to heed the advice of David Sucher, the author of the book and the blog City Comforts. Sucher who clearly is biased toward the preservation side, nonetheless sees progress as inevitable. He advises the powers that be in Turkey to: "...make sure the job is well-done and worthy of visit by generations hence. The loss is multiplied when a valuable historic structure is lost and what's built in its place is junk, which is often."

No one can guarantee that junk won't end up replacing thousands of years of history, one can only hope. The bottom line is that history did not stop being written in Istanbul as it did so long ago in Ephesus. History is being written this very day in Istanbul as it hopefully will continue to be for the next thousand years or more.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

well byzantium is still unknown for the greeks of today: the main reason is that byzantine civilization has its own peak on asia minor that we all know was being occupied by ottomans so the greeks can not have any contact with this civilization.even and istanbul the capital city of byzantine emperors is turkish
all the graves of the byzantine emperors are property of the turkish state

on the other hand we must admit that theodosius especially destroyed the ancient greek civilization and religion in the greek region to establish christianity

this is extremelly sad

the meaning of byzantium on all its dimensions is being a secret that only the byzantine emperors knew

byzantinism is a terology that means hidden and deceivious acts
and this is true because byzantine emperors commited their crimes not in public but with a hidden way

so the western crusades accused them many times as cowards and not brave

for the crusade of 1204 there is the argument that byzantines were ready to conquer west and french, italians and british to recognize the greek patriarch as their master and to kiss his legs

maybe this is a joke but the occupation of istanbul and byzantium in april of 1204 prooves that byzantines were weaker as western thoughted and that they didnt have any appetite to fight theirb enemies

the theocratism on byzantium is another issue of course
even pope was being terrified by the blind obsession of byzantines
with jesus christ and christioan religion

the byzantine emperors asked firstly the opinion of the patriarch for what they are going to do on bed with their wifes and their mistressses and patriarch played a mopre significant role in the cosmic issues than the emperor itself

with the term byzantine emperors we dont mean that they were emperors with the western meaning
of the people who have an absolute power on its citizens

the byzantine emperors were something like you or me with out a noble origin the most of them were irrelevants with aristocracy
their origin came on from the populus

nothing to do with the western kings and emperors who should be highly educated for these positions with huge knowledge of the ancient greek language and latins of course

the byzantine emperors could be fishermen, soldiers or even and beggars that managed through their military achievements to take these positions aqnd to establisgh their dynasty

so the byzantine dynasty has nothing to do with the western dynasty and the nobilitas

to modernize it

Anonymous said...

byzantine emperors were like the employees of a ministry that hire
other members of their family on the same ministry

byzantines commited terrible crimes against pagans in the first
centuries and against the ancient greek world

according to my opinion they caused a mess with out any meaning
and for the good of jesus christ in greece there no ancient monuments
and temples

that has as a result greeks to be isolated also from the ancient greek world

romans keep their monuments on very good conditions because the popes
were not so fanatic as the byzantine emperors at least on the issue of
pagan culture

so in byzantium anyone could have been emperor if he was brave on the
battlefields

god punished byzantines for the destruction of the ancient greek world
and nothing left from their civilization

i wish best luck next time to the byzantine emperors and not to
destroy again ancient greek temples and antiquities for the good of
jesus christ and to respect more different ideologies, cultures and
ideas.

but there is a common point between byzantines and ancient greeks

they believed in the simplicity
and ancient greeks in spiritualism through nature[byzantines in
spiritualism through jesus christ]

these 2 groups differ than ancient romans who liked luxury and good
life and westerns that liked the same things with some doses humanism
and enlightenment of course

all these groups it was unavoidable to get in contradiction between
them due to their different way of thinking

best regards from greece arelis

http://www.arelis.gr
it contains erotonomicon and new york olympia

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