After leaving Çanakkale and Troy, we caught the ferry back across the Dardanelles and drove back to Istanbul. Our drivers had been going all day and as it’s Ramadan at the moment, they had been fasting since dawn, so at sunset they pulled into the equivalent of a roadhouse to have a meal. Not surprisingly, it was full of many people also ending their day’s fast. Although Turkey has a large percentage of people who are Muslim and mosques dot the landscape, religiousness is still fairly unobtrusive.
The secular nature of the Turkish state is something that has been driven very deeply into the body politic. It was a key factor insisted on by Atatürk when the modern Turkish nation was founded. It is hard to know how representative the English language newspapers here are, as they obviously are not read by the majority of the locals, but the two papers I have been reading since I got here have stories every day that touch in some way or other on this tension between the insistence on secularism and the practice of religion. The fact that the Prime Minister’s wife wears a headscarf is a matter of regular comment, as headscarfs cannot be worn inside Government buildings.
I can understand the rationale behind this approach. I understand the aim was to ensure that Turkey did not become hostage to religious views dominating the machinery of government and the law – something I am hugely supportive of. Every time I get correspondence from a constituent insisting on some policy on the basis that ‘Australia is a Christian nation’ I feel like responding by saying that Australia is actually a secular nation, regardless of whether or not the majority of people who live in it are Christian. However, I find the focus on preventing the wearing of headscarves in government buildings a contradiction with the right to express personal religious beliefs. Given the history and politics of the region, it is a difficult dilemma.
Apart from various tension points over the issue of state secularism, the other thing the papers are full of without fail (the English language ones anyway) are (a) the dispute over ‘Turkish’ Cyprus, (b) concern over violence by the Kurdish PKK (although I haven’t seen anything about the concerns the Kurdish minority have), and (c) the moves to become part of the EU. Things such as bird flu and the current situation in Iraq and Syria have also made regular appearances, but my impression is that the other issues are much more continuous and entrenched in the local political debate. ‘Turkish’ Cyprus and issues to do with human rights are a couple of the shortcomings of modern Turkey which are very likely to improve as part of moving towards obtaining EU membership.
We arrived back in Istanbul about 8pm. The others went out to have dinner at a local restaurant. One downside about Turkey for me is that it is not a terribly vegetarian-friendly place, so I decided to stay in the hotel to catch up on my emails
In the morning we got a whirlwind tour around a few of Istanbul’s historic locations. There was the impressive Blue Mosque, the old central marketplace, an underground cistern dating back to the sixth century AD and the main old palace of the Sultans from the Ottoman Empire (which had lots of jewels, thrones and acres of garish tiling on the internal walls). It was reasonably interesting, but I often think I should be feeling a greater sense of awe at these sorts of places than I find myself experiencing.
However, I must say I did feel a fair degree of wonderment at the Hagia Sophia. This is the domed basilica cathedral built in the sixth century AD and converted into a Mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the 1600s. In another wise decision, after the Republic of Turkey was established, Atatürk decided to declare it a historical museum for people of all faiths and cultures to visit. I loved the marbled floors, worn by millions of footsteps over many centuries, including the steps of countless emperors, sultans and various historical figures who have visited. The combination of Christian and Islamic features throughout the building is particularly symbolic in today’s world, as indeed is the fact that none of the Islamic Sultans who ruled the city chose to obliterate all sign of Christianity. We were also lucky to have a good guide who gave a good rundown on some of the detailed history of the place. It was a truly marvellous place and a good way to finish a visit to Turkey. The Ambassador met us again for a final chat at the airport and then we boarded the plane for the second part of our delegation’s visit – off to Ireland, land of the majority of my ancestors.