Letters from the Fringe of Europe

Touring the South Caucasus, you’re likely to see what appear to be European Union flags on official buildings, particularly in town centers. This is the flag of the Council of Europe: a less exclusive group than the EU, but one for which membership does designate “European-ness”. There is a certain pride in this: In 1999, the year Georgia joined, the prominent politician Zurab Zhvania famously declared “I am Georgian, therefore I am European.”

Joining the “European family” entails mutual cooperation with regard to culture, economics, and security, but does it really settle the debate? Not really. The people of modern-day Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan feel caught between Asia and Europe, not quite at home in the cultural centers of the East or the West, and demonstrating in themselves a marvelous dialectic between the two. This is the historic role of the regions called Anatolia and the Transcaucasus.

The Turkish Republic was one of the first countries to join the Council of Europe in 1949 (and NATO in 1951), although efforts to form closer ties to Europe have slowed in the last few years. Despite the toe-hold on the European subcontinent and the modernization projects of the early twentieth century, later national leaders have struggled to relate Turkish identity to a larger category—Europe or Middle East, religious or secular, progressive or traditional.

Each choice carries unacceptable implications, and a survey of the region shows why. In its art and architecture, its literature and mythology, its geography and traditions, the eastern fringe of Europe is both and neither.

To Allah belong the east and the west:
So wherever you turn, there is the Face of Allah.
Surely Allah is All-Encompassing, All-Knowing.
—The Noble Qur’an (2:115)

What do you think of when you think of a mosque?* A minaret, an orientation towards Mecca, a courtyard with a fountain for ritual washing, a dome—but wait, dear reader, the large central dome you imagine is not a traditional element of the Arab mosque, but of eastern churches. It is one aspect of the surprising continuity that exists in Anatolian civilization, despite the many cultural and religious rewrites that have occurred there.

Byzantine architecture had long inspired that of the Muslims. The Dome of the Rock (691) in Jerusalem was clearly patterned after local churches, especially the octagonal Church of the Seat of Mary on the road to Bethlehem. The Umayyad Mosque (715) in Damascus, with its central dome, was built by Christian craftsmen on the site of a typical Byzantine cross-in-square cathedral. Rather than the oblong prayer-halls of the classic Arab plan, the Ottomans began experimenting with larger spaces, often square in shape and capped with massive domes.

Byzantine visual arts were adapted to Ottoman needs by Christian subjects, at first employed by Muslim Turks and later converting to Islam themselves. The Turkish Sultans applied classical techniques to their monuments. The similarity of construction, fortifications, architectural elements, and internal spaces, is especially clear when comparing medieval churches with the caravansarays of the early Anatolian Turks.

In this process a key figure was Sinan: an Armenian conscripted into the Ottoman janissary corps whose genius won him the title of master builder (mimar in Turkish) to Suleiman the Magnificent. Sinan was obsessed with the dome, and he had before him one of the largest in the world—the 17-story Hagia Sophia, then a mosque, held that record for almost a millennium. Sinan’s inspired masterpieces are the Şehzade (1548) and Süleymaniye (1558) mosques in Istanbul. His student, Sedefkar Mehmed, built the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (1616), better known as the Blue Mosque for its interior tiles, while Sinan’s concepts were later adapted to the Taj Mahal (1653).†

* The word mosque is a French corruption of the Arabic word masjid, meaning literally a place of prostration.

† Islamic architecture in Persia followed a similar trajectory to that in Anatolia by incorporating Parthian and Sassanian elements, including the dome and the monumental entryway with a depressed arch.

But can God indeed dwell with us on the earth?
Behold, the heavens and the heavens’ heavens
cannot contain Thee;
how much less this house that I have built!
—Solomon the Wise (1 Kings 8:27)

A church turned mosque—what horror!

In 2013, after nearly five decades as a museum, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet) inexplicably reopened the medieval church in Trabzon to Muslim worshipers. The dome, carefully restored by a team from Edinburgh University (1957-1962), and thankfully not defaced or painted over, is now hidden by a false ceiling, while prayer rugs are rolled over the floor mosaics. A curtain hangs in place of the iconostasis, blocking the view of the Risen Christ. A nearby tower, built as a belfry and later serving as an observatory and lighthouse, was likewise made a minaret with deafeningly loud and tinny speakers.

The Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) at Trabzon (medieval Trebizond, ancient Trapezous) is a masterful assembly of thirteenth-century religious arts, including a traditional Anatolian layout and architecture, Armenian capitols on Greek columns, and frescoes of a quality and style that would meet the standards of Constantinople. Its placement atop a hill of the city, thus orienting the life of its residents, fulfills the Orthodox tradition; serendipitously, it also faces towards Mecca on its longer side. No wonder it was made a mosque after the Turkish conquests of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And no wonder, given its archaeological merits, the Turkish courts are currently fighting to return it to a museum.

The church-mosque at Trabzon is a sign of Anatolian continuity, and neither the first nor the last of many religious and cultural rewrites on the peninsula. Not only does it embody an architecture as diverse as the Black Sea's southern coast, but the modern mosque is within a church which was itself built atop an old temple of Apollo, and that perhaps atop some prehistoric animist site.

Because of its unique climate and geography, “hemmed in like the Lebanon and south Caspian by its Alps,” as Anthony Bryer writes, the Greek colony of Trebizond extended into the interior with a population greater than the Peloponnese, and its people developed a unique identity and language which, when a “repatriation” to Greece was enforced, the residents of Athens found unintelligible.

What does the restoration of this place really mean? Its return to the Pontic Greeks, whose descendants have converted to Islam or Hellenism? Or shall we demolish it, to reveal the Apollonian stones beneath? Or shall we destroy those, to try and locate the traces of something antidiluvian? Or, as the present caretaker demands, shall we simply sit and pray?

All fables are everybody’s fables.
All illumination is God’s illumination too.
—Abdullah Hatefi of Herat (1454-1521)

I cannot forget, dear Reader, the words of Orhan Pamuk who wrote: “It was mercilessly forgotten that we’d once looked upon our world quite differently.” Observe!

The Persian miniature, a style of illustrating classic works of poetry, combines an Arabic artistic sensibility with Chinese techniques brought west by the Mongol conquests. The clouds are coiling wisps, the dragons too, and the beautiful women—“each an imitation of one another”—possess unmistakably Chinese features. Yet we observe the scene from atop a minaret, with a horizon near the top of the page, and the composition avoids a central focus in accordance with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Islamic proscription against figurative art.

The tradition of dividing elements of each illustration between experts within a workshop makes authorship uncertain, but the names of the great masters come down: Kamaleddin Bihzad first of all, then Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, Mir Musavvir, Reza Abbasi, and Sultan Muhammed.

Miniatures told and told again popular stories from Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings and Nizami’s Five Treasures: the brave hero Rostam who slew his son Sohrab by mournful error, the beautiful Shirin who fell in love with the Sasanian king Khosrow (known as Hüsrev in Turkish) when she three times saw his image hung from a tree, the fantastic adventures of Iskander (Alexander III of Macedon, often venerated as a Muslim), and the tale of Layla and Majnun, whose name is a synonym in Arabic for lovelorn madness.

But Persian miniature art, and its Ottoman and Mughal derivatives, did not endure. Faced from the East with juridical opposition to representative art, and from the West with the realistic portraiture of the High Renaissance and Baroque periods, traditional Islamic art began to fade away.

I hear the question upon your lips:
What is it to be a color?

Color is the touch of the eye,
music to the deaf,
a word out of the darkness. . . .

I’m so fortunate to be red!
I’m fiery. I’m strong.
I know men take notice of me
and that I cannot be resisted.

I do not conceal myself:
For me, delicacy manifests itself
neither in weakness nor in subtlety,
but through determination and will. . . .

Wherever I’m spread, I see eyes shine,
passions increase, eyebrows rise and heartbeats
quicken. Behold how wonderful it is to live!
—Orhan Pamuk (b. 1952)

Until 1856, when a French student first distilled a dye called mauveine or mauve, all the colors used in all the human arts, from buildings to pictures to clothes, were derived from natural sources.

The Mongols brought the secret of red ink from China to Khorasan, to the courts of Bukhara and Herat, from whence it spread to Qazvin, Tabriz, Istanbul, and Delhi. This red ink was not called red but crimson or carmine. In the etymology we can see the history: the French carmin from the Latin carminium, from the Arabic qirmiz, from the Persian carmir, which is possibly derived from the Sanskrit krimiga, meaning “insect-product.”

Red was the product of scale insects, pounded out with mortar and pestle from a dried red beetle. The miniaturist sprinkled the powder into a kettle of boiled herbs (two parts saponaria and one part lodha or sodium carbonate), and “drew the tip of his stirring stick across the nail of his thumb,” to test its consistency, before straining it through a cheesecloth, boiling it twice more, adding a pinch of alum, and allowing it to rest for few days before use.

And while they waited to embellish the carpets and borders, “the combs of fighting cocks, the pomegranates, the fruits of fabled lands, the mouth of Satan, . . . the blouses worn by stunning women with outstretched necks watching the street through open shutters,” they discussed its nature and considered how it might be defined to somebody who had never seen it.

“If we touched it with the tip of a finger, it would feel like something between iron and copper. If we took it into our palm, it would burn. If we tasted it, it would be full-bodied, like salted meat. If we took it between our lips, it would fill our mouths. If we smelled it, it would have the scent of a horse. If it were a flower, it would smell like a daisy, not a rose.”

They who are numberless
  like ants in the earth,
    fish in the sea,
      birds in the air,

who are cowardly,
        and childlike,

and who destroy
  and create, they—
our epic tells only of their adventures. [. . .]

They are the ones
    who inspire the brightest shapes in the most knowing
In this century they were victorious, they were defeated.
Many things have been said about them,
and about them
        it was said
they have nothing to lose but their chains.
—Nâzım Hikmet (1902-1963)

Hikmet was remarkably tall man, nicknamed “the tree with blue eyes.” Revolution drew him from Turkey to Moscow in 1922 and again in 1926, and there he met poets and artists from world communism, including Mayakovsky and Meyerhold.

After returning from Moscow to the newly formed Turkish Republic, Hikmet spent 17 of the next 22 years in prison. His crimes ranged from being a Marxist to being read by workers and soldiers. “But this is nothing,” he said, writing to his second wife from his cell in 1945. “The worst thing / is for a person—knowingly or not— / to carry prison inside himself . . .”

“His poetry, like a geometry compass, traced circles, sometimes intimate, sometimes wide and global, with only its sharp point inserted in the prison cell.” Hikmet’s poems are at once expansively political and warmly personal, “committed to change without ever becoming programmatic.” He understood his poetic genius as indistinguishable from social responsibility. Poetry was, in his words, “the bloodiest of arts,” for the poet must sacrifice himself to his art and to his audience. Sartre, who along with Neruda and Picasso came to Hikmet’s rescue in 1950, said that he conceived of a human being as something to be created through the impressions of art.

From 1951 until his death in Moscow he was an exile—“some people know all about plants some about fish / I know separation,” he wrote. “I traveled through Europe, Asia, and Africa with my dream / only the Americans didn’t give me a visa.”

Shadows of night lie on the Georgian hills;
In front of me roars the Aragua.
I feel at ease and sad; there’s radiance in my sighs.
My sighs are all of you,
Of you, and you alone . . . My melancholy
Is untouched by torment or distraction,
And my heart is burning and loving once more
Because it cannot do other than love.
—Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837)

The Caucasus Mountains set the stage for some of Russian literature’s greatest works—poems by Pushkin, for whom “no translation can do justice” in the translator’s words, and Gavrila Derzhavin before him; Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1839); and Lev Tolstoy’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus (1872) and Hadji Murat (1904)—all set a thousand miles from Moscow. The grandeur and the untamed challenge of this range of jagged peaks, the highest of which (Mount Elbrus) is the highest in Europe, was as inspiring to the Russian imagination as the Alps to the English and German.

“Now it has begun,” a solemn voice seems to say to Tolstoy’s protagonist—“Beyond the Terek rises the smoke from a Tartar village . . . and the mountains! The sun has risen and glitters on the Terek, now visible beyond the reeds . . . and the mountains! From the village comes a Tartar wagon, and women, beautiful young women, pass by . . . and the mountains! Abreks canter about the plain, and here am I driving along and do not fear them! I have a gun, and strength and youth . . . and the mountains!”

The frontier was free from the stifling conventions of society, comme il faut. The Circassians, Mingrelians, Chechens, and Avars, horsemen and mountaineers with long knives and long-barreled jezails, men “born for war” as Pushkin put it, appear in Russian fiction as tropic examples of the “noble savage,” fighting with honor, fated to lose. “The proud sons of the Caucasus fought, suffered terrible losses,” ends Pushkin’s tale of Russia’s conquest; “But spilling our blood did not save you, nor did your charmed armor, nor the mountains, nor your intrepid horses, nor your love of wild freedom!”

Sergei Bodrov’s 1996 film Prisoner of the Mountains ends on a similar note, with Russian gunships speeding towards a Chechen village, the wash of their rotors drowning the voice of the lone Russian soldier who had come to sympathize with them.

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man
Passionless—no, yet free from guilt or pain. . . .

And woman, too, frank, beautiful and kind . . .
From custom’s evil taint exempt and pure;
Speaking the wisdom once they could not think,
Looking emotions once they feared to feel
And changed to all which once they dared to be,
Yet being now, made earth like heaven.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

When the supreme god Dela created the world and humanity within it, all was cold and dark. Men froze in their furs and homes of clay, and they could neither cook food nor forge metal. In the sky there was plenty of fire, which Sela the proud thunder god hurled from Mount Bashlam to demonstrate his strength to the people below. The brave youth Parmkhat scaled the mountain, stole the fire while Sela slept, and slipped away. Sela hurled thunderbolts, but Parmkhat’s horse Turpal was faster.

“Here is Fire for you!” he told his people when he had returned to the caves they haunted. “Multiply and become a great tribe. Warm yourselves; illuminate your homes, the caves, the towers; cook, prepare food from now on. Rejoice!” Parmkhat’s bravery had made humanity almost peers of the gods, and proud Sela seethed. He chained the youth to Mount Bashlam with chains of bronze, and sent the falcon Ida to peck all day at Parmkhat’s liver.

There is no more moving human story than that tragedy of the hero who for the good of mankind exposes himself to the agonies of the damned. Poets and humanists from Aeschylus to Goethe to Shelley—Percy and Mary both—have written of Prometheus, chained to a rock of the Caucasus. Here he is Parmkhat. This myth of the Vainakh (literally “our people,” an ethnic group which includes the Chechen, Ingush, and Kist of the northern Caucasus) differs from the Greek tale of Prometheus in several respects, but has also been seen as evidence of a common Indo-European cultural tradition.

Except for thy threshold, there is no refuge for me in all the world.
Except for this door there is no resting place for my head.
—Hafez (1315-1390)

Carpets once pervaded the civilization of Azerbaijan: used in households to cover floors, walls, or tables, hung like curtains to allocate space in an alachigh (a local style of yurt or ger), sown into bags for storage or travel, and thrown over pack animals as insulation or decoration. They could be prayer rugs or entrance mats. When arranging a marriage, the quality of the carpet laid out for the prospective groom indicated the receptivity of the bride. Clean and gold-embroidered meant a sweet amor, dull and threadbare meant revulsion.

Before the process was mechanized, carpet-making was a cottage industry, with the women of each household producing their own. Girls traditionally received a first loom at eight or ten years old, when they learned knotting and other basic arts, and a second at marriage, to prepare a new home.

Carpet-makers sometimes wove with Indian cotton or Chinese silk, but most often took wool from the Caucasus pastures. Shearing season came in spring and fall. Bunches of wool fibers were washed, laid out on stones, and beaten, many times over, until clean and thick, then combed out and spun into yarn in a process made easier by wooden spinning wheels. This yarn was boiled with dye and a fixing agent. The wool took its most common colors from vegetable dyes—black from pomegranate peel, walnuts and the bark of walnut trees; yellow from mulberry leaves, onion peels, and wild apple bark; and red from the common madder—though mineral and more stable animal dyes were also used.

The dimensions and design, knot density and pile length, and the use of embroidery varied by region. Carpets featured geometric, calligraphic, and figurative motifs, reflecting the symbolic worlds of Islamic and pre-Islamic Iranian culture. Turkic signs like the pavonine buta or the hooked gyol were as common as the Persian dragon, the aždahâ. Some patterns offered talismanic protection from the evil eye.

Bleak showers lashed the dark prows
Hard along the coastline;
Iron-shielded vessels
Flaunted colourful rigging.
The great prince saw ahead
The copper roofs of Byzantium;
His swan-breasted ships swept
Towards the tall-towered city.
—Bolverk Arnorsson (c. eleventh century)

The Varangian Guard had its roots in 989, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev dispatched 6,000 Scandinavian mercenaries to help Emperor Basil II crush a rebellion in Asia Minor. Armed with longswords and axes, armored in steel mail, taller than the Greeks and used to hardship, the Varangians made short work of their paymaster’s enemies at Abydos. The Guard remained in the Byzantine service for two centuries and remained predominantly Scandinavian until 1066, when Anglo-Saxons, displaced by the Norman invasion of England and proficient in the same shield-wall tactics, began to join in large numbers.

Young men from the north went often to Constantinople, which they named Miklagarðr or “The City,” to make their fortune in the service of its Emperor. Their graffiti mars the balustrade of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Athenian lions of Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Some returned to their northern homeland in glory, some died fighting in foreign wars, and others took foreign wives, converted to Christianity, and remained in the south. Many of the most exciting tales surround Harald Hardrada (called Araltes in Byzantine sources), who used the immense wealth he brought back from “Grikkland” to become King of Norway and stage a failed invasion of North England.


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