Observations from a Trip to Turkey

Theo Pavlidis
© 2008, 2009

The Trip (Sept. 11-24, 2008)

The main purpose of the trip was to visit places associated with my father's family, mainly in Cappadocia but also in Istanbul. Of course we included tourism and, in response to invitations, academic visits to Turkish University professors who were also from the same area as my father's family. We opted for a private guided tour that combined the freedom of being on your own with the amenities of a group tour, not having to worry about hotels, transportation, where to find the sites, etc. We chose the company Heritage Tours at the recommendation of a friend and we were very happy with the experience, well worth the extra cost. They took great care of us in Istanbul and Cappadocia. In Ankara we were guests of Bilkent University and we enjoyed the hospitality of its faculty and students. If you want to hear specifics about the trip, I will be happy to oblige. In the rest of this note I focus on general observations.

General Impressions

In most ways Turkey is like Greece and Southern Italy, which is not surprising in view of the common history of these lands1. People are friendly, warm, and emotional. Family ties are strong. On the other hand things do not run as smoothly as in North-Western Europe or the United States. Also people (in all three lands) tend to take authorities with a grain of salt. Cars do not stop at the stop signs (the familiar red hexagon with the word DUR that means STOP in Turkish). They only slow down, exactly as in Greece. Of course each country has its own character but the similarities are more striking than their differences, especially for a visitor from North America. In short, if you have visited and loved southern Italy or Greece, you will love Turkey.

There are good roads and good transportation facilities. Turkish airlines is excellent and we enjoyed the two flights we took with them. They certainly treat passengers better than U.S. airlines do. In central Anatolia we noticed that the highway pavement was rough but my brother (a civil engineer) pointed out that this helps driving when the roads ice. There is a lot of new construction, both of blocks of apartment houses and of transportation infrastructure.

There is a tight security and careful screening at airports and other places, so we felt secure. We had been warned about pickpockets in Istanbul but we had no problems. Whatever the problem might be, it is nowhere as bad as, say, in Barcelona.

Some Pictures (Click on the Thumb sketches for larger versions)
Dolmabachse Palace in Europe, the Bosporus, and Asia in the background Interior of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul Touring Cappadocia by balloon View of Uchisar in Cappadocia

Credits: First two pictures by the author; Last two by Achileas Laios

On Islam and Modernity

Our first afternoon was dedicated to recovering from the transatlantic trip and some of it was spent by the hotel pool. During that time we heard the muezzin's call to prayer (azam) and our first reactions was "what a contrast" with the women in bikinis by the pool. In retrospect that contrast seems no greater than the contrast of hearing church bells in a topless beach in Myconos. Islam is no more at odds with modernity than other major religions - we just have not got used to it. When fundamentalists in the United States raise objections to the teaching of evolution in schools we do not say that there is a conflict between Christianity and modernity.

Turkey is a Muslim country, but people are very diverse in their observance of Islam, no different from Christians or Jews in the rest of the world. I talked to people who are quite concerned about fundamentalism while they are quite definite about their Muslim identity. Of course these attitudes were not surprising to me, given what I had heard from my parents and what I had read2. But seeing them first hand had a special impact.

An interesting phenomenon in Greece is that people who claim to be religious find excuses to ignore certain strictures of the church. I was amused to find exactly the same attitude in Turkey. Thus most Turks drink alcohol (even though Muslims are not supposed to) and justify that by saying "we drink raki (ouzo), the Prophet only forbids wine". In this parts of the world religion takes a human face, in sharp contrast with the dourness of Protestantism of the West and the strict Islam of some of the Arab countries.

Unfortunately, the internal diversity of Islam does not seem to be taken into account in a lot of current US policies and political discussions. As a matter of fact the US supports Turkish fundamentalists such as Fethullah Gulen (who actually lives in the US) because their version of Islam is more liberal than what is prevalent in, say, Pakistan. But for the Turks that I spoke with, Gulen's version of Islam is far too strict for Turkey.

The Headscarf

Most women we saw in Istanbul and Ankara and the University campuses were fashionably dressed, no different than women in American cities and campuses. (I see more headscarves on the Stony Brook campus than of the campuses I visited in Turkey.) Headscarves were more common in Kayseri and the villages as well as around certain tourists sites in Istanbul (because of Arab tourists). But there is a range of attire even for those who wear headscarves. At one end were women who had their hair completely wrapped in a white headscarf and wore a gray coat. These were clearly religious but they stood out no more than Hasidic Jews or Greek Orthodox priests (with their black robes and long beards). At the other end were women who wore a small headscarf with jeans or other colorful attire, clearly paying a lot of attention to their appearance. Village women wore headscarves but also colorful dresses, attire similar to that of Greek village women. I also saw in more than one occasion couples holding hands with the woman wearing a headscarf.

The Universities

Those that I visited (Bilkent and Middle East Technical University in Ankara and Boğazici in Istanbul) seem quite modern with excellent facilities, certainly comparable to those of American Universities. (Later I was told that those three were amongst the best five Turkish Universities.) In some places all the instruction is in English and elsewhere most faculty and graduate students seem fluent in English. There were lively discussions after each of my three talks, especially at Bilkent.

One remarkable phenomenon is that I saw more women professors in engineering that in most American schools. We discussed that and I was given the answer that girls in Turkey are encouraged to study rather than to date. It seems that a certain amount of social conservatism is good for the professional advancement of women.

On Dealing with Old Wounds

The people I spoke to agree that the wars between Greece and Turkey were a great tragedy for both countries. While there are nationalist elements on both sides, there are also a lot of joint business ventures as well as joint University research projects. For example there is joint project on using computer vision to detect forest fires between Bilkent University and the University of Thessaloniki. The hope is that in the future there will be close Turkish/Greek co-operation because both countries have far more to gain from it than from any disputes.

I had also the chance to discuss why Turkey does not want to admit the so-called the Armenian genocide. It is not that they do not want to admit that bad things happened, but the do not want to be placed in the same category as the Nazis because the word genocide has been used to described what they did to the Jews. This is quite a valid point given the big difference between the two events. I should point out that when WW-I broke out both Armenians and Pontiac Greeks formed armed groups to fight against the Turks near the eastern front with Russia. The Ottoman government reacted by massive deportations of both Armenians and Pontiac Greeks that resulted in countless deaths. The fact that there was provocation does not excuse the virtual extermination of civilians, many of them far from the war zone and many of them not sympathetic to the rebels. On the other hand the Nazi persecution of the Jews was entirely unprovoked (there were no Jewish armed rebels fighting the German government) and the extermination was carried with ruthless efficiency and the use of deception.

I have written a lot about these issues in my web pages on Asia Minor.

A Bit of (Unknown) History

Ankara has several buildings in the German style of the 1930s and at first that may suggest Nazi influence. Actually the opposite is true. When the Nazis came to power several German Jewish professors (as well as some socialists) found refuge in Turkey and the architects amongst them are responsible for the buildings. A letter from Albert Einstein recommending several professors to Ismet Inonu (then head of the Turkish government) has survived and is now on exhibit.

  1. All three were part of the Roman Empire for over 1200 years with Greece and Turkey part of the Ottoman empire for an additional 500 years. Years ago I read a book by Barzini, The Italians, and I found that most of what he said about Italians applied also to the Greeks. In this trip I concluded that it also applied to the Turks. Last year Professor Bob Sokal gave me a reprint of one of his papers describing how they gathered genetic markers from over 3000 European sites and plotted a surface of their distributions. Then they looked for places where there were discontinuities. There is a boundary in the north of Greece separating Greeks from the Slavs. But there are no boundaries along the Ionian or the Aegean seas (even though there is a boundary between Sicily and Malta). So any genetic variations from Italy to Greece to Turkey are gradual.
  2. Specifically, such books as Pamuk's Snow, Burema and Margalit's Occidentalism, and Zakaria's Post-American World.

Note added 3/9/09: Here is the full citation of Prof. Sokal's paper:
G. Barbujani and R. P. Sokal "Zones of sharp genetic change in Europe are also linguistic boundaries", Proc. Nat. Acd. Sci. USA, vol. 87, pp. 1816-1819, March 1990.

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