Reprinted from Sputnik
Morning was a question of being immersed, between myth and history, in the thundering silence of centuries of stony sleep. Istanbul should be read as a scroll -- beyond methodological cunning and stylistic ornaments. Jean Cocteau wrote that Constantinople was a city born in purple, a city of blood, sunsets and fires. Casanova wrote that as Constantine arrived by the sea, seduced by the sight of Byzantium, he instantly proclaimed, "This is the seat of the empire of the world." So, in style, he left the seat of the old empire, Rome, for good.
Take it to the bridgeTurkey under the AKP party has been busy positioning itself as the ultimate crossroads between East and West. So as I set on my pilgrimage I could not forget how, at the height of the Belle Epoque, Germans and Russians were planning a railway from Berlin to Moscow, and that would end on both the Siberian coast of the Pacific and in Beijing. Now Beijing is bound to realize the dream as part of the vast New Silk Road project -- an extended Trans-Siberian on high-speed rails running in parallel to a cross-Central Asian high-speed railway whose key hub will be Istanbul.
As I eventually crossed the bridge over the Bosphorus I had seen plenty of Kemalists in crisis, and perhaps a few dissimulated jihadis. The Ottoman empire for over six centuries crystallized the unity of the Sunni Mediterranean and Middle Eastern umma, confronting the Persian Shi'ite empire, inheriting and metabolizing the Byzantine institutional tradition, and keeping a wise balance between faith and ethnicity using the institutions of the community -- millet -- and respecting the prerogatives of its non-Muslim subjects -- dhimmi.
The fragmentation of this plurinational, multicultural empire led to a process of modernization and laicization that fatally engendered a fundamentalist reaction; that's the basis of the somehow irreversible instability and violence that today characterizes the whole region; something that the Pentagon, with a measure of wishful thinking, characterized as the "arc of instability."
Everything from the Palestinian tragedy to Iraq, from Persian Gulf Wahhabi plutocrats to the fake Caliphate known as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, manifests itself as debris of World War I, of the obsession by Western powers to extinguish at any cost the Ottoman experience of imperial, supra-national governance. It's the "West" that created the "arc of instability" -- no less than a century ago.
The glory of Neo-OttomanismThis time I did not cross to Asia. Instead, Asia came to me on the European shore, as I met my friend Can Emritan, who lives on the Asian side, at midday in Eminonu. And then he turned into my Virgil, leading me from the best, centenary joint to savor Black Sea fish to the best baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu; from the best European Istanbul view to passages that evoke Paris; from the Great London Hotel, which Turks call Buyuk Londra, and who sheltered foreign correspondent Ernest Hemingway covering the Greek-Turk war in 1922 to an absolute jewel -- a lavish Armenian church hidden in a fish market.
We evoked shades of White Russians in the early 1920s and we retraced the steps of Gurdjieff, the esoteric mystic extraordinaire who was an adept of the dervish fraternity Naqshbandi in Bukhara. No encounters with whirling dervishes though; in 1924 Kemal Ataturk, as part of his secular reforms, hit them hard and they survived only as a "Museum of divan literature," as in classic Ottoman poetry.
Naturally our key conversation point had to be President Erdogan, whom Emritan calls The Sultan of Kitsch. So many overtones, from Islamo-traditional to Islamo-Ottoman, all drenched in nostalgia for the imperial Golden Age. And ruling above all the AKP party as a monster real estate speculation racket; after all "urbanization drive," as in China, but Turkish style, means urbanization of the lower middle classes issued from the Anatolian countryside -- the political basis of conservative Islam.