Changes can sometimes be perceived in small signs that function as a symbol for deeper lying norms and values. One of those signs in Istanbul is the way souvenir shops deal with presents that have a religious component. When I was here twenty years ago, the presents with different religious background were thoroughly separated from each other. For example in the jewelry market, jewelry with the ‘bismallah’ sign were sold in shops with a muslem owner, golden crosses were sold in shops with a christian owner. In that time there was no mixed collection of presents with religious component to be found at the same shop; absolutely nowhere!
This is something that has really changed now. In many shops it is possible to find articles with islamic, christian and jewish meaning all together not just in the same shop, but also on the same shelve. For someone like me who missed 20 years of Istanbul development, it feels like a radical change. I asked some questions about it in one souvenir shop and the workers there kindly explained to me that they believe in and respect all the prophets. I tried to explain them how this was in the years ’70, ’80, even begin ’90 but they kept telling me how they feel about it now. They couldn’t explain history to me, why it was different before and why it changed. They had Maria and Jesus hanging in their shop next to islamic holy artefacts, see the picture above, and considered that as normal.
I cannot analyze this yet, it would need a more indept insight but as said I have seen this mixture in many shops in Istanbul city already. These are small signs for what could be a more fundamental change. My first and overall impression is that the selfconfidence of the Turks has increased a lot in daily life, and tolerance often comes with selfconfidence. Another way of looking at it could be that the Christian minorities form no more threat whatsoever to the Turks which allows a different attitude. Finally, it is also possible to look at this businesswise. The Turks were always good in customer service, eager to help customers out, create strong relationships and earn some money; maybe they have just added these new products to their buckets…
Culture exists and it doesn’t exist. It is almost impossible to describe a culture in general terms as it is always possible to show members belonging to that culture that differ from the description. There is so much diversity within cultures – diversity that will even increase the coming years – that people who read about the culture they adhere to can strongly disagree about the description given. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try, knowing already that some people might feel irritation while reading it.
Concerning Northern Cyprus heritage, it seems that Turks are more oriented towards the future while Greeks are more oriented towards the past. In the words Turks and Greeks I include Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, without denying that in many aspects they have an identity of their own, as Cypriots.
The consequence is that Turks are inclined to value and use Northern Cyprus heritage that they see as relevant for the present. This is why the former cathedral of the Lusignans in Lefkosa/Nicosia, the Venetian castle in Girne/Kyrenia and a typical Greek building like the Mavi Kösk / Blue House are well kept and get a good profile in any touristic and cultural presentation. They can show the greatness of the Turks in actual times and the (conquered) enemies they had to deal with. This is also why churches like Ermelaos or monasteries like Sourp Magar and Pandeleimon get no attention at all: what message for the future could be given with that heritage?
I remember a visit I made once to Hattusa in Turkey. The guide told us that Hettites were the high and mighty ancestors of the Turks. He got very very angry when I said there was at least 2000, maybe even 3000 years of difference in time between the Hettites and the Turks arriving in actual Turkey. Clearly this was not just about the facts: this was about the value that Hettite history presented for the greatness and the future of the Turkish people. What I saw as objective truth, was useless for my guide and even upset him.
Greeks have a magnificent ancient past. They had Socrates, Homer, Euripides and so many others, really high science and culture. Then they developed an independent and mighty church that created such beautiful monuments. Memories of that past are kept with the highest care as to remember what Greeks brought to civilization, development, faith and culture in this world: it is their identity. So when a new country exists that calls itself Macedonia, Greeks protest firmly as Macedonia including Alexander the Great is considered as a Greek identity and cannot exist independently of them. The fact that this happens anyway in the 21st century is very difficult for the Greek. In Northern Cyprus heritage, two cultures meet. Greek see the way the Turks deal with their monuments as a proof that Turks are barbarians (barbaros = the ancient Greek word for a stranger, a non-Greek). Just read some Greek websites where these issues are discussed and you will notice a consequent approach: tell the world how terrible the Turks are. In several blogs I have shown pictures that prove them right.
Turks really do not understand what is expected from them: why would they contribute to prove the greatness of the Greek past? They prefer to invest in what they see as relevant for actual life and development of Northern Cypriot inhabitants. There are few Turkish websites that blame the Greeks. The Turks have given up the territories that they lost in 1974 as well as their monuments, lives and dreams. They are looking forward, not backward. They just ignore the Greek complaints and move on. In several blogs I have shown examples that prove them right.
In Northern Cyprus heritage, two cultures meet. To find each other, they need to listen more. At this moment, they are mainly blaming or judging each other – this is strongly influenced by the problematic political situation of course. However, for heritage it is a lot better if parties listen to each other and recognize and value differences. This could be a starting point to create synergy in diversity. Then both the past and the present will profit!
Who is responsible for the heritage of buildings like churches and monasteries in Northern Cyprus? It is not that there is no money to preserve these monuments. Recent times have shown the construction of a number of new monuments showing the greatness of the Turkish state, celebrating the so-called freedom and peace operation of 1974 or setting Atatürk as a symbol for the Turkish Cypriots.
However, churches and monasteries are left in a very poor state, falling in decline and subject to vandalism and the expression of frustrations. The coming days I will show some examples.
This blogs shows you the Sourp Magar monastery, started as a Coptic monastery in the 11th century and in the 15th century taken over by the Armenians, see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sourp_Magar . It was an important pilgrimage destination until 1974 (when the Turks took hold of Northern Cyprus). Now the monastery is in serious decline and needs immediate restauration if any of the beautiful parts are to be preserved for future generations.
It is such a pity that no responsability is felt for heritage within Turkish Cypriot borders. There is money here, and even a lot more than 10 years ago, that is visible everywhere.
However, monuments from Christian traditions are left to fall apart; the picture of the destroyed cross above this blog, taken in the Armenian Chapel is meaningful for the underlying feeling: that the fight is not just about human rights but also religious.