Saturday, July 13, 2013

Subjective History

Yesterday we went to Iznik.  It's famous for a variety of reasons.  First, it is a center for the production of the fabulous and famous tiles named after the city itself.

Even more than this, Iznik was once Nicea.  Nicea was the site of several councils that defined modern Christianity.  The first was held in a church in the city about 325 AD.  Three hundred and eighteen bishops from all across the Roman world were called to Nicea by Constantine because he happened to have a summer house there.  Together, they decided what was and was not going to be acceptable practice and belief.

The most famous result of these conferences in Nicea was the Nicene Creed.  If you are not familiar with it, here it is:

We believe in one God, 
the Father, the Almighty, 
maker of heaven and earth, 
of all that is, seen and unseen. 
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
the only Son of God, 
eternally begotten of the Father, 
God from God, Light from Light, 
true God from true God, 
begotten, not made, 
of one Being with the Father. 
Through him all things were made. 
For us and for our salvation 
he came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man. 
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried. 
On the third day he rose again 
in accordance with the Scriptures; 
he ascended into heaven 
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. 
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. 
He has spoken through the Prophets. 
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. 
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 
We look for the resurrection of the dead, 
and the life of the world to come. Amen. 

As you can see, it more or less lines out the basic tenets of Christianity.  I stood in the place where this happened.

The building might not have been the same structure as the one from 325 AD, but it was ancient, even compared to other countries and structures I've been in.  For a long time, it stood mostly derelict.  It was a site of pilgrimage and tourist curiosity for its major and important role in shaping a major world religion.  Signs in Turkish and English pointed out features of interest to those who came to see it.

 Recently, though, the government put a new tile roof on it and consecrated it as a mosque.  One of our group leaders had been there about the time it was closed for that renovation.  She'd been able to go inside, though, and see the scarred and neglected interior and read information placards that let Turkish and English speaking visitors get a sense of what they were looking at.

None of that was there when we went through.  There was no indication that an ancient fresco was tucked under a floor-level arch or that remnants of paintings of the saints clung tenaciously to the high arching ceilings of the apse.  They have survived time, nature, and deliberate defacement during the period when icons were banned, but now, they might lose their fight because of the changing nature of the building and a total lack of preservation.

This one small place leads to a much larger issue.  I was reading Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk today, and he talked at length about the idea that the Turkish nationalist have gone out of their way to co-opt the things they think reinforce their narrative of Turkey and her origins.  He says:

"When they wished to emphasize the Turkish of Muslim side...conservative writers created an Ottoman heaven where no one questioned the power or legitimacy of the pasha, where families and friends confirmed their ties to one another through rituals and traditional values....  Aspects of Ottoman culture that might offend westernized middle-class sensibilities - concubines, the harem, polygamy, the pasha's right to beat people - were tamed and softened...."

I would like to add to this list that in their efforts to refashion the past to suit them that they've also chosen to ignore, rewrite, or knock down vast portions of their history, which also happens to be critical history of the rest of the world.  In excluding things from their own narrative, they are removing the ability to keep these things for others whose narrative run along with and alongside that of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.

We've talked a lot in this institute about how those who conquer get to take the stuff they want, slap their namebrand on it to legitimize their authority, and then use it as a base to surpass the accomplishments of that previous culture.  The great example of this is the Aya Sofia, of course, and the Suleymaniye sitting right down the street, glittering, lovely, and just that tiny bit more grandiose than the church-turned-mosque had been....

While every people should get to say what happens to the stuff in their own country, I think that if the present revision and re-envisioning of Turkey's past continues, a great loss will occur.  I don't just mean that those for whom these places and items have present significance will lose.  I mean that someday, the people of Turkey will look up and realize that they should have protected these things, should have found a way to hold them even if they weren't "en vogue" for a long time.  They will want them.  They will miss them.  In the way of such things, they will mourn for their loss.  Perhaps they will even build simacrula of them, put museums on the ruins of what is left.  It's happened elsewhere.

Wouldn't it be lovely if instead they simply found a way to keep the real instead of having to remake history?

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