Tag Archives: Ottoman

“Ottoman”: final assessment; plus: the Notarades, and a “what-if” on our Turkish centuries

3 Feb

I’ve had more than one old Constantinopolitan Greek say to me: You [metropolitan Greeks] call us Byzantines but we’re not any more “Byzantine” than you. “Because when the Conqueror entered the city,” Kyra Smaro says, “he slaughtered any Greeks that had remained.” And this is born out by legit historical sources. Greeks — and other ethnicities of the empire — started repopulating Constantinople, now the Ottoman capital, after Mehmet consolidated his rule; ironically often brought in large numbers by force by the Ottomans to repopulate the almost empty city.

In my comments on the first two episodes of Netflix‘: “Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology — I expressed my apprehensions about how the violence of the final fall would be portrayed:

Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City will make later episodes more disturbing, since The Religion of Peace gives an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resists and doesn’t capitulate on its own.

Instead of glorifying the violence, though, the production totally whitewashes it, and I don’t know what’s worse or what I find more annoying. None of the massacring or enslavement of the remaining inhabitants of the City is shown, and though we know for a fact that large mobs of Greeks had packed themselves into a barricaded Hagia Sophia, hoping to be saved there, and that when the Turks finally broke in, everyone in the church was put to the sword (try and remember the butchery in the cathedral in Andrey Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublev, when the Tatars finally break in), Netflix gives us an infuriating segment of Mehmet tranquilly walking into an empty, sanitized, already de-imaged Hagia Sophia and beatifically walking about in wonder, amazed at the building and the fulfillment of his own miraculous destiny.

And then there’s the sidebar story of Loukas Notaras, megas doux, the Grand Duke, something like a Prime Minister or Grand Vizier, to Constantine XI:

I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

I think we do know that Notaras tried to cooperate with the new rulers and perhaps tried to buy Mehmet off in exchange for his and his family’s safety. But apparently, soon after the fall, Mehmet ordered that he be sent one of Notaras’ handsome sons, Jacob, a notably beautiful teenager, who had inevitably caught Mehmet’s eye, to do…well…whatever with. Notaras refused and Mehmet then had the boy and perhaps his other brothers decapitated in front of his father and then decapitated Notaras himself.

A daughter of the family, Anna, somehow ended up in Venice — whether she had escaped before the fall of the City or not is not clear — but became a sort of Queen Mother in exile and benefactress to the large Greek community there, (Notaras, being a “spins-gold-out-of-thin-air” Greek, had invested most of his wealth in real estate in the Venetian Republic) creating a Greek school and setting in motion the construction of the first Greek church in Venice, San Giorgio dei Greci (below) or St. George of the Greeks, a truly gorgeous church, with an adjacent icon museum that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Venice next; seriously, it’s one of the sites in the city critical for understanding its role and position in the larger Mediterranean.

And it might seem odd, given that so much of this blog is dedicated to making Greeks’ understand (or accept) their relationship to the East, that I’m now musing on our relationship to the West. But San Giorgio itself is — along with the glorious icons from Venetian Cretan School, along with other things that then come to mind…the unique urban beauty of the city of Corfu, or the couple dances, balos, of the Aegean islands, and the liltingly beautiful music that accompanies them, or reading Erotokritos, or El Greco — among the things that beg the question: “What if?” What if the Ottomans hadn’t prevailed? At least not for so long and over such a huge piece of territory? What would we “look” like now?

Anyway, the story of Mehmet and Notaras’ son, Jacob, is so lurid and full of orientalist tropes about sexually depraved Muslims that it’s hard to know if it’s apocryphal or not (that Mehmet was bisexual, or at least what we would call bisexual today, is not in doubt, however. But, again however, bisexuality was par for the course in the mediaeval Muslim world, as it was in the classical Greco-Roman world which had preceded it, so it was not a particularity or idiosyncrasy of Mehmet’s nor would it have been considered immoral at the time). And some historical sources claim that Jacob wasn’t beheaded but ended up in Mehmet’s harem or serving him at his new court, and later escaped to Venice to join his sister Anna and two other siblings of his. I can tell you one thing: the whole story of the Notarades is so fascinating and complicated that someone should give it a historical fiction chance, print or screen, at some point.

There is this fascinating and kinda wacky book out there, The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society, by Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı, that describes a homoerotic and bisexual court culture that the authors argue existed in both East and West in the early modern Mediterranean, that starts off with the story of Mehmet and the Notaras boy, and that claims the whole incident was a cultural misunderstanding, and that Mehmet was honoring the Notaras family by seeking the intimacy of the handsome young Greek boy. I’m not doing the book justice; it’s complicated and parts are actually very beautiful. Check it out; it’s very interesting.

As for “Ottoman”, it ends up being an atypically Netflixian anodyne treatment of a fascinating historical moment.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology

28 Jan

“Understand an opponent’s mythology…”

Last night I figured I’d just buck up, get over with it, and start watching the Netflix docudrama — got through first two episodes — and it’s actually pretty good. Some key notes: The Turkish perspective is not insufferably jingoistic or Islamically triumphalist, like it was in that trashy 1453 film that came out a few years ago, which I also put off watching for a while because I thought it would be disturbing, but I ended up turning off after 20 minutes, not because I was disturbed or offended but because the script and acting were so horrendous and the production values so cheap — it looked like the set was composed of stuff bought wholesale from a Moroccan antique shop in the East Village or Çukurcuma– that it was simply unwatchable.

* We’re not portrayed as craven cowards or decadent dinosaurs à la Gibbon, whose destiny it was to float off into extinction. Both Constantine and Mehmet are portrayed as equal opponents, Hector-Achilles style: it’s probably no accident; both were, I’m sure, as acquainted with the Iliad as the other. Constantine’s heroic and complex combination of resistance and resignation are portrayed as thoroughly as possible: he did everything he could until there was nothing to be done anymore; Mehmet’s impressive intellect, cosmopolitanism and warrior skills are highlighted without going overboard. And both are pretty sexy, as is Giustiniani, as is even Notaras père (costumes and sets are beautiful too). I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

* Unexpectedly, I thought, we’re called “Romans” from the beginning of the series, in the fictional segments (and I think some of the Italians, Giustiniani even, calls us “Greeks” at one point); there’s more “Byzantine” used in the doc segments obviously. Either way, it’s hard to say whether they wanted to take a calculated risk in doing that, because using “Romans” probably leaves all non-Greek viewers baffled, or because “baffling” and confusing were the desired result for what’s always been the Turkish state’s policy: that is, separating us from the Byzantines/Romans and not giving us our due rights to claim descent for ourselves there, by calling us something different, the same reason Turkey calls Istanbul’s 3,000* remaining Greeks “Rum” to this day, while the rest of us are “Yunan”. It’s satisfying to hear, in any event.

* Whether advertently or not, it punctures some pretty giant holes in the Turkish mythology of heroic feat. One, by admitting the fact that we were outnumbered by the tens of thousands, so that the speed with which, for example, Rumelihisarı was built doesn’t seem quite so miraculous, plus there were already foundations on the site from an older Roman fortress. Two, by showing the glaring technological disparities between the two sides, meaning, that the Siege and Fall of Constantinople was the last great military event between mediaeval fortifications and early modern cannons and artillery, so that instead of being an incredible military achievement, it was more like the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, with as dogged and determined a defense. And enough already with the “genius” of dragging the ships over from what, I would guess, would be somewhere near Kabataş, over the ridge, down Dolapdere into the Horn. It must have taken an enormous amount of manpower — too bad Erdoğan’s tunnel wasn’t there yet — yet not everything that’s just super-hard is necessarily “genius”.

* And stop comparing it to fucking Game of Thrones. GOT was Tolkien with sex and was the most maddening piece of trash to enthrall the masses in a long time. Ottoman is about a series of deeply traumatic events in the history of a real people that still exists, and who have been persecuted and are still threatened and harassed by Mehmet’s descendants to this day: US.

All in all it’s good; watch it. I mean, wtf, whatever. Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City (The Religion of Peace gave an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resisted and didn’t capitulate on it own) will make later episodes more disturbing. And the long arm of Erdoğanism is always felt throughout the whole thing. If Netflix were to produce a series portraying the destruction of the Second Temple and the horrendous brutality with which the Romans massacred and expelled most Jews from Judaea that made the Romans look even slightly heroic for even a second — “due to be released next Tisha B’av” — there’s not even a question of whether it would face a howling riot of protest or not; it would simply never have been produced. That’s not a “Jews control Hollywood” argument. It’s the truth. Just too many people would be offended. But even as Turkey sinks deeper into self-isolating dictatorship, it does wonders projecting a certain image to the rest of us and the rest of the Ummah.

But, at best it’s an exercise in what Helequin above calls “understand-[ing] an oppenents [sic] mythology”. You don’t have to be a trained Jungian to understand (or at least try) that “myth” is the only “reality”. That means understanding the other’s myth/s is crucial to the development of empathy, the one form of intelligence that homo sapiens [?] are still tragically deficient in.

It’s certainly the only thing in Palestine, or between Hindu and Muslim in India, and in the continuing bad divorce that is Greek-Turkish relations that will inevitably make a difference. Put yourself in a Turk’s position. Think about the massive baggage of tradition around the idea of taking Constantinople that animated them. And then [smerk]… put yourself in our position: if everybody wanted it so badly for 1,200 years, it must have been one puta madre of a city we had built there.

And in the 19th and 20th centuries, we built them another real city — “over there” — the likes of which they also had never known, and they threw us out of there too.

What are you gonna do? After a certain point, anger is too tiring. And they pay and are paying the price for their political culture anyway.

************************************************************************* The number of Greeks today in Istanbul is somewhere in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, there’s an issue of whether deaths and marriages and births will keep things in the range of critical mass… Near 300,000 in a city of around a million in the 1920s, three-thousand — in a city of 15 million today.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Photo: Sarajevo gastra and börek…or Börek I

24 Aug

Börek gastra Sarajevo

(click)

These are börek in Sarajevo being baked in a gastra, a strange piece of High Ottoman technology that is still used in much of northern Greece, especially Epiros and the rest of the Balkans, particularly the western parts: Albania, Montenegro (where uniquely in the Serb-speaking world, they call börek pitta like in Greek), Kosovo and southern Serbia — regions, interestingly enough, where börek is a particularly strong regional identity marker and the object of a powerful cult of affection and snobbery.  Every and each börek in these parts is subjected to intense scrutiny; is there too much filling (major demerit points because you’re obviously trying to make up for the poor quality of your phyllo/yufka); is each layer fine enough, but able to both absorb serious quantities of butter and not get soggy, like a good croissant or a good paratha.  Finally, that you use real — and good — butter, which makes almost all commercially sold varieties not worth trying, since using good butter on a commercial scale would make a börek that is prohibitively expensive, and especially in a country of culinary philistines like Greece, store-bought versions are almost inedible, as is most product in Turkey these days too, Turkish street food having suffered a marked decline in quality even as the tourist literature on the country continues to rave about it.  But I have had good börek in Macedonia, in Mavrovo, and in Montenegro, in Žabljak, where the hotel made us a great cheese and a great cabbage one for a hike we went on.  And in a high-end restaurant in Jiannena too; but next to me was an Albanian woman, who first smelled it, pricked at it with her fork, counting the layers of pastry, and then after a few minutes of just staring at it, pushed it away in disgust.  Like I said, it’s an object of great snobbery.  And forget Old Greece.  It’s a standard rule of thumb that the further away in place and time a region of Greece is from the Ottoman experience, the exponentially worse the food gets.  No one south of Larissa can bake a pitta to save their lives, or make a decent plate of pilav for that matter.  Epiros is probably the only place you can still get a nice buttery mound of pilav — like the kind Turks make — with good yogurt.  Southern Greeks seem allergic to rice, and have friggin’ potatoes with almost every meal.  Maybe It’s a Bavarian thing — I dunno.

some really good borek

Reaaally good stuff, in Mavrovo, Macedonia (click)  (See post: Macedonia: Mavrovo, Dimitri and the Two Falcons)

But everything baked tastes better in a gastra, the same root as the word for “womb” in Greek (or “gastritis”): rice and lamb, even zeytinyağlı vegetable dishes.  It’s just incredibly tedious — and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing — to use.  It’s a cast-iron dome, suspended with a very complicated chain mechanism over a stone platform.  You first lift the dome and light your charcoal fire underneath it on the stone platform.  When the fire has been reduced to hot embers, and the cast-iron dome has also gotten nice and hot, you brush the embers aside, position your tepsi of food, lower the hot cast-iron dome, and then pile the still glowing embers on top of the dome.  Usually when they’ve cooled down completely the dish is done.  The picture above shows gastras at all steps in the process.

I dunno really.  Does it make that much of a difference?  Everything is better when it tastes slightly smokey or when a little bit of ash has fallen into it — like Turkish coffee made in hot ashes.  But it’s a ton of work and really impractical.  If, for example, the embers go out completely and you raise the dome and the food isn’t done yet, you have to start the whole process from the beginning.  Arthur Schwatrz, in his ever-best cookbook on Neapolitan food, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania — which, like most good cookbooks these days, is as fantastic a source of history, anthropology and ethnography as it is of good recipes — says that a lot of foods legendary for how long you had to cook them for them to be the “real” article, like a Neapolitan ragù (pronounce with a double “r” and a “g” that sounds like a light Greek “gamma” – “γ”) that should take at least half a day to simmer or no self-respecting Neapolitan would eat it, were never really cooked that long.  Rather, they were cooked on wood fires and braziers, which were constantly going out, had to be relit, while the sauce cooled off and took time to reheat, etc.  Of course, for certain sauces and stews, and the fatty, sinewy cuts of meat we like in “our parts,” this kind of cooking is ideal.  And not just the slow, long heat, but the cooling off and reheating especially.

Naples at Table

Ottoman mangal

(click)

It’s like that other piece of Ottoman high-tech (I don’t mean to make fun, but it wasn’t exactly their strong suit), the mangal home-heater or charcoal brazier. (above)  You’d pile charcoal into it; leave it out in the street until the carbon monoxide burned off, then cover the embers with the lid and bring the whole incredibly dangerous, glowing — and often very large — brass behemoth inside to warm the house, or one hermetically sealed room really.  Then, as my mother used to describe it, you’d get under the blankets or flokates, facing the mangal, so your face would turn all red and sweaty while your back was freezing, and hope you had fallen asleep before it started cooling off or that you had generated enough body heat under the blankets to last till morning.  There were countless stories about families being found dead in the morning, because in the rush to bring this silly contraption into the freezing house, the carbon monoxide often hadn’t burnt off entirely and people would die from poisoning in their sleep.  I can only imagine that their use was required because it was probably tricky to build chimneys in mostly wooden Ottoman urban housing — my mother only remembered them from Jiannena; in her village where the house was stone, there were regular stone fireplaces where you could keep adding wood because the chimney would let the smoke and gas escape — and I’m sure that many of the massive fires that consumed whole mahallades of Ottoman cities over the centuries and killed thousands on certain occasions, were probably caused by one accidentally knocked over mangal somewhere.

And whole neighborhoods would burn down and then be rebuilt in wood again, something I comment on in another post — Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski“:

This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).

More on the symbolics of börek and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the next post.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski

4 May

 

Бигорский_монастырь

(click)

The Monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski, high up in a pass in the Šar Mountains that separate western Macedonia from Albania, was on our road from Ochrid to Tetovo in the northern plains of Macedonia.  This is really the way to drive through the country if you want mountain scenery as gorgeous as any in the Balkans, as opposed to down the central Vardar valley.  The monastery is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and though the Macedonian Orthodox Church is led by the Archbishop of the church-glutted lakeside town of Ochrid and has its seat in Skopje, this monastery is so important that it’s sort of the heart of Orthodox Macedonia.  Unfortunately, we arrived just as vespers were starting, so we couldn’t talk to anybody about the monastery, and our schedule didn’t allow us to stay through vespers, which is also unfortunate because the interior of the main church is stunning as well.  No pictures allowed though.

If looking at the pictures below, it appears that the monastery complex is in super good condition, that’s because it is.  Most of the complex, except for the church itself, burnt down in 2009 and has since been rebuilt (like the administrative buildings of the Patriarchate in Istanbul, which burnt down in the 40s and for which permission to rebuild was only granted by the Turkish Republic in the 1990s).  This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).  The fires also did create the famous Istanbul tradition of the tulumbacı (the “tube” or “hose” men? like the name of the dessert?) volunteer firefighters who were supposedly the great pallikaria of their mahallades, but just as often engaged in looting and robbing while doing their heroic duty.  NONE of this is a swipe at the Ottomans, Turks or Muslims.  Apparently the late Byzantines built domestic structures in wood as well — as did and do the Japanese, a culture I’d have no reason to mock.

And speaking of the Japanese…  The thought occurred to me at Sveti Jovan that just rebuilding things when they get too shabby or structurally rotted and dangerous is not such a bad thing.  The Japanese, for example, have a completely different concept of authenticity than we do.  If the Katsura, the Imperial Villa complex in Kyoto (below) seems to be in great shape even though it dates from the seventeenth century, it’s because, as with other ancient structures in Japan, the Japanese have no problem with just replacing old or rotting wooden structures with new ones piece by piece as necessary.  So the Katsura is — materially speaking or in our terms — really not that old at all; parts of it might be what we would consider brand new, in fact.

katsura_imperial_palace5katsura_imperial_palaceKatsuraShokin-teiKatsuradsc03371s(click on bottom two)

So what’s wrong with rebuilding the monastery structures of a complex like Sveti Jovan?  The stone is usually immune.  And if the rest is just wood and çatma and plaster anyway, why not replace it when it starts to go?

Back to Macedonia…  Sveti Jovan is the most impressive Orthodox monastery I’ve been in outside of Athos.  Nothing in Greece, Kosovo, or even Russia compares.  In fact, I would say that if any Orthodox — or any — woman wants to get an impression of what the great, sprawling monastic palace-fortresses of the Holy Mountain are like, then a visit to Sveti Jovan is mandatory.  Here are some pics; the last two of the church’s famous iconostasis were lifted from on-line.  (Click on all.)

IMG_0230IMG_0229IMG_0232IMG_0234IMG_0228Monastery_Sveti_Jovan_Bigorski,_Macedonia_(10)Monastery_Sveti_Jovan_Bigorski,_Macedonia_(9)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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