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The Istanbul skyline, with the 15th c. Galata Tower in the center.

I decided to do just a little traveling before returning to the US from Japan. This was my first time in Turkey, and wrote a first draft of the following:

For these whole five or six days in Istanbul, I’ve been mulling over what my impressions of the city are. Is Istanbul a European city? Or an Asian/Middle Eastern city? A secular city, or a fairly orthodox/religious theocratic city where I need to be concerned about accidentally offending? A relatively free and safe city, or should I be worried about the recent coup, protests, and creeping authoritarianism? Further, thinking historically, should I be looking around and thinking about the medieval/early modern Ottoman city? the Byzantine Eastern Roman one? late 19th or early 20th century Ottoman modernity? There are certainly plenty of buildings and monuments from across history to remind us of each of these periods, each of these aesthetics.

Sadly, there was some sort of conservation work going on in the Hagia Sophia when we visited, and half of it was off-limits.

The Roman and Eastern Roman is seen everywhere, well, at least in the historical/tourist center of the city, the Sultanahmet area. The Hagia Sophia was of course originally built by the Romans, and is full of Eastern Roman mosaics and so forth. The area immediately outside the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, a Roman hippodrome, an area for racing horses, and it contains several Egyptian obelisks erected there by the Romans.

Then there is the Ottoman side of things, with tons of mosques, and all sorts of other elements and aspects. All over the city, we saw shops that date back to Ottoman times, and bits and pieces here and there of historical sites or markers or other things suggesting the history of the Ottomans as one of the world’s great empires, engaged in diplomatic interactions with the Great Powers of the rest of the world. A fountain associated with Kaiser Wilhelm, located in that former hippodrome, is just one of many such sites. I’m told there’s some Japanese building somewhere in the city as well, though I haven’t come across it.

The Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque, designed/built in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleiman Mosque and hundreds of other famous structures across Turkey and beyond.

The Ottoman aspect of the city also connects in to the maritime, Mediterranean, aspect. A major mosque we keep passing (as it’s right by one of the main tram stations) is named after Kilic Ali Pasha, a 16th century admiral of the Ottoman navy who was originally from Italy and converted to Islam. The Galata Tower, one of the most iconic sights in the city, was built by the Genoese and while I’m not truly expert at architectural history, it did indeed strike me as Italian from the very beginning. I don’t know all that much, actually, about the history of the Ottoman navy, and its involvement in Renaissance/Early Modern history, but I do know that it’s a very defining feature of the Ottoman faction in the board game Here I Stand, which takes place in the Reformation era.

We see, too, numerous restaurants and other elements and aspects here and there throughout the city relating to the immediate post-revolution period, in the 1920s. Again, I’m no expert at Turkish history, and I wish I knew better, but just on the surface, this very “modern,” European (yet distinctly Turkish) aesthetic, with the fezes, mustaches, fancy formal dress, and salon-like decor, has a real appeal. One night, we went to a “tavern,” or meyhane, where live music was playing, and while this place wasn’t explicitly marked or marketed as being 1920s style, there were some old photographs on the walls, and there was a certain something to the decor. Other restaurants we went to, or simply passed by, were explicitly labeled as Istanbul 1923, or Istanbul 1924, and one restaurant in Istiklal Street (one of the main shopping/tourist areas of the city) is explicitly marketed as being designed to recreate that 1924 atmosphere.

Baylan, a nearly 100-year-old café/bakery on the Asian side (near Kadıköy), long owned by Greeks, and located in a neighborhood where there had once been a strong Armenian community.

Finally, there is the contemporary situation. We didn’t see or sense any major political problems or tensions while we were here, thankfully. No protests, no riots, no crackdowns. Despite what you might hear about Turkey in the news – and believe me, I am sorely sad and worried about that country, and Ergodan’s ever-increasingly dictatorial and theocratic regime – we did have a fantastic time, and I never felt especially unsafe, nor even all that worried about the authorities. That said, we stayed fairly close to Taksim Square – where major protests took place just a few years ago – and both there and elsewhere we saw some fairly intimidating police or military presences.

I also enjoyed learning a little about – and meeting some members of – the lively Jewish community there. Jews have lived happily and peacefully in Turkey (for the most part, or, to some extent) since the 1490s or so, when Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan reportedly was happy to take them in. While many Turkish Jews have moved to Israel, the US, or elsewhere in recent years, those we spoke to say they are quite happy, and feel safe; they tried to disavow us of the notion that Turkey was a particularly dangerous or anti-Semitic place to be at all.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

I was glad to hear this. Still, there were notable protests outside of one of the city’s main synagogues just a couple months ago, which included the throwing of rocks, and violent threats against Jews trying to get into the building. This synagogue, Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), was attacked in 1986 by the founder of Fatah, who murdered 22 people who had gone there to pray. The synagogue was attacked again in 1992, by Hezbollah, and again in 2003, when simultaneous car bombs went off outside Neve Shalom and another synagogue in the city, killing some 23 people. I’ve seen pretty serious security precautions taken at synagogues in London and Tokyo as well. But, still, there is enough of a Jewish community that there remain quite a few active synagogues in the city, which in photos online look gorgeous (we didn’t get a chance to visit any, since they require prior reservation, and some sort of screening process – I’ve been told that even Ashkenazi Jews like myself are not so trusted, not let in as easily as Sephardim). The city is also home to several Jewish music groups, two Jewish newspapers, and so on and so forth. And, they’re not entirely unknown – regular people here seem to have some sense about Turkish Jewry: one, in terms of people saying we look Jewish, and either based solely on our looks or on that we said we speak a little Spanish, they then assume we’re Jewish. One small music group at a small “live house” café even burst into a Turkish fasil-style rendition of Hava Nagila for us! Plus, when we went to the Grand Bazaar, we found lots of tchotchkes, necklaces, etc. being sold with Stars of David, Hebrew writing, or other Jewish elements.


One of the fasil live music bars we went to: Abbas, on Nevizade Sk.

The Armenian history is of course another thing, too. Everywhere around there are Armenian churches, or other churches formerly used by the Armenians – and some of these have some serious security precautions like the synagogues. There are of course no historical plaques or anything put up by the city or the state talking about the Armenian Genocide (though we did see a plaque talking about it at an Armenian church in Jaffa), but if you know even the tiniest bit about it, you can imagine, fill in the gaps. My girlfriend also told me about certain events, massacres, in certain neighborhoods in the 1890s, as we walked through those neighborhoods. I don’t know anything about the current contemporary situation in terms of attitudes towards Armenians, or how well they get by in society, but, it’s definitely a history that’s hidden, yet very much present, if you have it in mind.

Some lovely fresh produce for sale in Nevizade Sk.

For all it’s problems – and we all know the US and Japan have their problems too – Istanbul is a very modern, cosmopolitan, urban, in some ways very European city – really feels cosmopolitan, feels like a “world city” (like New York, London, or Tokyo) with just so much going on – but then of course it’s also non-Western in many ways, first and foremost I suppose because of its Muslim and not Catholic or Protestant religious character – to a certain extent, Istanbul was the very city (or, the Ottoman Empire the very country) against which “the West” or “Westernness” was constructed and defined, even going all the way back to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which were considered “byzantine” and “Oriental”, and were not considered part of the “true” or “main” or “catholic” Roman or Christian heritage.

The music was wonderful, and the food as well. I never understood my girlfriend’s obsession with borek until I came here. I could eat borek every day. And I so wish that we had this more regularly in the States.

In the food and music, as well as in the architecture and history, we see too the many cultural influences that come together in Istanbul. Turkish, Arab, Jewish, Balkan, Circassian (Black Sea/Russian) cultures… all these different cultures, different cultural influences, that for all our talk about “diversity,” we just don’t see/hear/learn that much about in the US.

Omg, borek. So yum. Above: Su böregi (water börek) with cheese and spinach. Below: Chopping up börek in a shop. (Photos from Instanbul Free Walking Tour.com and Panning the Globe blogs.)

All photos (except the börek) my own.

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11/4/16

Thanks to the Uchinanchu Taikai, I had a bus pass for unlimited free bus rides all over the island, for nearly a full week after the Taikai ended. So I decided to try to make the most use out of it (well, for one day anyway) while I still could, and went up to Katsuren gusuku – about a one hour bus ride from here, a ride which would normally have cost around 1000 yen (US$10) each way. Saved quite a bit of money.

But before actually going to the castle, I first went to the Yonashiro History Museum. Why it’s Yonashiro and not Yonagusuku is a mystery to me, but in any case, this was a tiny local history museum based in one wing of the town hall. A few years ago, archaeologists working on the grounds of Katsuren castle found a number of coins, which in recent months they determined to be, most probably, from the circa 4th century Roman Empire. That would make these the only Roman coins ever found in Japan – speaking to the incredible maritime activity and connections of pre-modern Okinawa, long before the island ever became part of any Japanese state.

From Kôhô Uruma Magazine’s November 2016 issue:

(rough translation my own; apologies for any errors)

Coins from the Roman and Ottoman Empires discovered at Katsuren Castle

About the excavated coins: In the 2013 archaeological survey conducted at Katsuren castle, ten small, round, metal coins were discovered (nine within the grounds of the castle, and one outside). The metal objects discovered in the survey were brought back [to the research center], and when they were further examined, four were determined by experts’ analysis to be circa 4th century Roman coins, and one a coin made in the 17th century Ottoman Empire. However, as analysis continues, the possibility remains for a different result [to emerge].

The dates we are currently conjecturing for the production of these coins places all five outside of the 12th to 15th centuries, the period of Katsuren’s peak prominence. Continued examination of the Katsuren site, and of ceramics and other objects excavated there, [will hopefully provide some answers as to] why these coins were found there, and how they came to Katsuren.

Other examples of similar coins being discovered in Okinawa are unknown, and it is thought likely that this is the first discovery of similar coins [i.e. from the Roman Empire] anywhere in Japan.

It is thought there is a possibility that someone related to Katsuren castle and serving as some kind of point of contact between East and West obtained the coins somewhere, and as such this is a very important find for continuing research on [the extent and form of] Katsuren’s still largely unconfirmed networks of interaction & exchange. This can be seen as a significant development not only for the fields of Okinawan history or Japanese history, but also for those of the histories of Western Asia, or of the West, and as such for World History as a whole.

Plans from here on: The remaining five coins which have not yet been thoroughly identified will be cleaned, and the designs and inscriptions on them will be examined. Further, the sites that have been excavated, and the artifacts excavated from those sites, will be carefully examined, a more thorough analysis of the composition of the objects will be undertaken, and from this we plan to better determine the time and place when/where they were made.

The History and Archaeological Surveys of Katsuren Castle

Katsuren castle was built around the 12th or 13th centuries, and flourished in the 14th and [early] 15th centuries through overseas trade. The castle fell in 1458, as the tenth lord of the castle, Amawari, was attacked by the armies of the Shuri royal government [i.e. of the unified Kingdom of Ryukyu which ruled over the whole island] and was defeated. From then through roughly the 17th century, the castle was used by the local people in some fashion, but little is known about this period in any detail.

Excavations on the grounds were begun in 1965 by the Ryukyu Government Cultural Properties Protection Agency [part of the Okinawan civil self-government under US martial Occupation], and in 1972 [following the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty] the site was named a National Historic Site. The site was named in 2000 as one of the sites included within the umbrella UNESCO World Heritage Site designation “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.” Today, the Katsuren Castle Site Maintenance Project receives funding from the Agency for Cultural Affairs [an agency within the Japanese national government], and the cultural office of the Uruma City Board of Education is overseeing archaeological excavations and restoration efforts. Excavation efforts began in earnest in 2012, with a focus on the fourth enclosure (the outermost of the castle’s four main enclosures, baileys, or enceintes, depending on one’s preferred term), and excavations of the eastern and northern portions of this area, and of the area immediately around the Nishihara Gate, were completed in 2015.

From my own notes, taken at the exhibition (if only they would have allowed us to take photos!! then I’d have the full gallery labels to look at again, and to take the time to translate them – I just didn’t have the time or patience to copy down everything by hand, on the spot):

Coin #2: seems to be from the Roman Empire, c. late 3rd century.

Coin #4: possibly from the reign of Suleiman II (r. 1687-1691) of the Ottoman Empire. The coin is labeled “Constantinople” in Arabic script, along with the date 1099 A.H. (=1687 CE).

Coin #5: seems to be a mid-4th century Roman bronze coin. Possibly inscribed “CONSTANTIVS”.

Coin #7: seems to be a coin issued on the occasion of the death of Constantine I in 337, thus making the coin’s date circa 337 to 340 CE.

Coin #8: seems to be from the period of shared/collaborative rule between Constantius Gallus and others, c. 337 to 340s or 350s CE. Researchers have noted similarities to a coin dated 347-348 CE and inscribed “CYZICVS.”

Other objects excavated from the castle site and displayed at the museum included Chinese coins from the Sui (581-618), Northern Song (907-1127), and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, as well as dice, hairpins, smoking pipes, elements of Japanese weapons & armor, and plenty of shards of pottery, including Chinese celadons and other luxury items from overseas.

I’m sorry that I don’t have more information… I shall certainly keep my eyes open for further news articles or the like.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, as I finish talking about my adventures of that day, at Katsuren castle, the surrounding neighborhood, and in Futenma/Ginowan on the way home.

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