by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Portrait of Modern Turkey

By Roderick Conway Morris
14 July 1991



The Turks are beating once again at the southern gates of Europe. But their intention this time is not to annex central Europe and capture Vienna, but to beseige Brussels and gain admission to the European Community. Reactions in some quarters could scarcely be more horrified than if some latter-day Sultan, his janissaries and horsemen had been sighted advancing across the Great Hungarian Plain. And yet membership of the EC would be just one more step in the Turks' centuries-long march westwards.

From the 14th century onwards the Ottoman forebears of the modern Turks made their capital not in Asia but in Europe: first at Edirne, and then, in 1453, at Istanbul. Even after the Ottomans had won an extensive Middle Eastern empire, their centre of gravity remained firmly in the western provinces.

When this Empire collapsed during the First World War and Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern state, came to power, he sought to take his countrymen's relationship with the West several stages further by comprehensively westernizing their habits, dress, outlook and politics. Ataturk made Turkey the first constitutionally secular state in the Muslim world. Since his death Turkey has fought alongside the West in Korea, joined NATO, unambiguously aligned herself with the West against the Soviet Union and, more recently, against Iraq.

But the West's old acquaintance with the Turks seems to have produced woefully little understanding of them. As the author of this timely book writes: 'Turkey has the worst and most ill-drawn public image of almost any country I know.'

Mary Lee Settle lived for three years in the early seventies in the Aegean town of Bodrum. She returned in 1989 to write about the country. The upshot is a mixture of travel-log, history, polemic and contemporary portrait. Lee Settle is a self-confessed enthusiast, but an inquiring one. She is a romantic, but also an acute and discreet observer. She is lively, articulate, and good at taking pleasure in places and in the people she meets, and at sharing that pleasure with her readers.

The land that is now Turkey is one of the most ancient inhabited regions on earth, with the 9,000-year-old remains of the first known urban culture, at Catal Huyuk. Numerous civilizations - Hittite, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, Ottoman - have risen and fallen on this soil over the millenia, often leaving stupendous monuments behind them. That the Turks, whose ancestors began to arrive there a thousand years ago, have not so much mastered as adapted themselves to this landscape is consistently well conveyed by Lee Settle: 'A street meanders where a path was. A wall is rebuilt where a house has fallen. A space is left that once was an agora , because it has always been an open space, not for logical reasons, but for the habit of conserving, of not crossing the unimaginable barriers of change'.

The Turks have an outstanding capacity for friendship, generosity and hospitality - major themes of this book - but also a tendency to gravity, reserve and sang-froid, which the author is adept at describing. Returning from an island on Lake Van, the boat runs into a rock: 'The stolid Turks sat through yet another near disaster without moving. Nobody panicked. Nobody vomited. Nobody jumped overboard. All together we went slowly deeper into the water…'.

Turkish Reflections does not pretend to tackle the country's labyrinthine political affairs, but the author's instincts are generally sound, and she is not easily taken in. However, she is oversimplifying when she says: 'The Turks don't like government, whatever it is.' Perhaps there is no race on earth that actively 'likes' government, but as nations go the Turks have shown in the past something of a preference for strong government. This may stem partly from the traditional inculcation in the young of respect for older authority-figures within the family. But more than anything it derives from experience of weak and divided rule. The last such period was during the seventies, when incompetent and squabbling politicians gave free rein to armed extremist groups, of the left and right, that battled it out on Turkey's streets, leaving several thousand (many wholly innocent) dead and tens of thousands wounded. When the military took over to put a stop to the violence, they did so with the support of almost the entire population (though this would not have been the case had the Turks not been confident the army would restore democracy, which they soon did, as before in the past).

Since this is also a history book, it is worth correcting an error so oft-repeated that Lee Settle can hardly be blamed for making it. Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, was not responsible for changing the name of the city to Istanbul. At least a hundred years before the conquest, Constantinopolitan Greeks were calling the city Istanbul (a contracted form of the Greek eis tin polin - 'in the city'), perhaps, as is suggested by the 14th-century Arab traveller Ibn Battuta's account, to distinguish the old 'downtown' area from the newer suburbs of Galata, across the Golden Horn.

Mehmed the Conqueror is credited with the punning alternative, Islambol ('abounding in Islam'), but it never caught on, and the Arabized version of Constantinople, Kostantiniye, continued to be used on coins until the 18th century, and in official documents even after then. Thus it was neither Roman emperor nor Ottoman sultan, but the anonymous, now forgotten man and woman in the street who gave this endlessly fascinating city the name it still bears today.

TURKISH REFLECTIONS: A Biography of a Place

By Mary Lee Settle, with an Introduction by Jan Morris

219 pp. Prentice Hall Press, New York.. 1991

First published: New York Times Book Review

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023