Thursday, November 14, 2002

Okay, some thoughts on Turkey. I went there for ten days in June, and had one of the best holidays I have ever had in my life. I arrived in Istanbul late in the evening, and had a domestic flight out of Istanbul at about six the next morning. I thus had a layover of a few hours. If I had been more sensible, I would perhaps have gone into the city and spent those few hours in a hotel, but as it was I just decided to rough it in the terminal. This turned out to be an interesting experience. This was in the middle of the football World Cup, and I spent the first couple of hours in a cafe/bar, watching the day's matches on a television in drinking a beer or two as I talked about the matches with the locals. At this point, I could have been at any airport in Europe. Thanks to Ataturk, Turkey uses a Latin script, so there is little difficulty reading the signs or anything like that. It was very comfortable and familiar.

Further on, at about two in the morning, I left the bar and went to a cafe for a cup of coffee. The cafe was a branch of "Gloria Jeans", the downmarket semi-Starbucks clone that sells coffee in malls worldwide. Gloria Jeans strategy seems to be to avoid Starbucks worldwide. Rather than having outlets in stand-alone stores in the US, it puts its outlets in mall food courts. Rather than building stores in first tier international markets like Japan and England, its international expansion takes place in secondary markets such as Turkey (and Australia, which is why I was familiar with the brand in the first place). I sat down, and a young woman at one of the tables smiled at me. I sat down at her table, and we started a chat. She was about twenty, and was studying Environmental science at an Istanbul university, and was waiting for a friend of hers to arrive in Paris. She told me that Istanbul was a beautiful city, and that the Turks were a friendly people and I would have a good time, but that sadly the government in the country was hopeless and that while Turkey was a middle income country, everything was going down the drain.

I got this a lot when in the country. Our government is hopeless. We have no power, and no influence in the world. It's all our own fault. I spent a few days travelling around Cappadocia and Pamukkale with American friends who I met up with. The extent and magnificence of the ruins was dazzling to behold. A lot of them were, of course, Christian. A lot of them were pre-Constantine Christian, so there were churches built in caves in hills to hide from the Romans. And such.

I went for a drive through some of the towns around Cappadocia, and it was a lot like driving through the poorer parts of Europe. Every now and then you find drive into a village, containing men sitting around in the village square as is typical in southern Europe, shops selling food, It perhaps did not quite pass the test of being able to find the railway station, a food shop and a bar, but it wasn't too far off. However, the dramatic difference was the skyline, drive over a hill into any town in Chistendom, and the thing that dominates is usually the steeples of the local churches. In Turkey, of course, what you see instead is minarets.

Of course, I flew from London to Istanbul, so it was a sudden jump from one culture to another, rather than a gradual shift. About a decade ago, I went to Budapest, and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire was certainly visable there. No minarets, but Turkish baths and Turkish architecture. It would be fascinating to drive from Rome all the way to Istanbul some time. In fact, it would be fascinating to drive all the way to Cairo some time, to see the Christian and Islamic influences wane and wax through Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia and Albania and Kosovo and Macedonia and Greece and through Turkey and through Syria and Lebanon and Israel, through Jerusalem, Bethlehem, through the Gaza and the Sinai and eventually to the Nile. Sadly, such a trip is unimaginable. I hope that some time in my lifetime it will not be.

Istanbul was one of the most magnificent places I have been to in my life, plus I should give some thoughts on Turkey as a secular Islamic society, but that is for another posting, I think.

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