Saturday, November 17, 2007

Istanbul (Still Not Constantinople)

If you haven't seen part one of my trip to Istanbul, it is here.

The Imperial Palace - known as Topkapi - was an interesting mix of centuries. Some of it was quite old; much of it was constructed during the 19th century. I don't consider anything built after the creation of the United States as old, so at times I did not really feel I was staring at anything other than the remains of a dictatorship. In many ways the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century was backwards. Suits of chainmail and ruby encrusted swords were on display, created during a time when war was fought with guns and trenches. The Ottomans of the 19th century concerned themselves with gems and fancy dishes while the rest of the modern world had moved into the Industrial Age. It's no wonder the empire fell.

I found it curious that the Sultans were glorified, not just by the Turks, but also by the tourists who visited the palace. People marveled at the precious treasures of the Sultans instead of thinking about how these things were stolen or plundered during warfare. Indeed, one woman exclaimed, "Oh. My. God. Nuh-uh. That is not real." as she looked upon an 84 karat diamond with a sort of drooling, gaping mouth. It's a freaking rock! It's a shiny piece of the Earth that people died for. The whole lot of those gems were nothing more than rocks found in the ground. Think about it - isn't it amazing that people have fought wars to obtain shiny rocks that serve no practical purpose? And Sultans are glorified for their collections of shiny rocks? Sultans are nothing more than dictators with a fancy name. They taxed their citizens heavily - especially those who weren't Muslim - and enslaved whomever they wanted. They forced women to become their concubines if they fancied them. While much of their empire was poor, they ate great feasts every night. No cost was too great for their hedonism, not even the cost of human life. Yet they are still glorified. Us common folk look at their palaces and riches in awe despite the fact that had we lived back then, we would have been their slaves, our precious items to be taken on a whim if a Sultan or a high official desired them.

Look at this massive kitchen. Another row of smokestacks sits beside the visible one. I cannot fathom the heat generated in this place, especially in the sweltering summers when humidity from the sea wreaked its havoc upon the city. Imagine the hundreds of people who had to work in these conditions, probably for 16 hours a day. I sweat at the thought of it! I'd rather sit in a cubicle staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day, five days a week, looking for the weekend. The Sultans were a bunch of lardasses whose gluttony rivaled that of a Texan rancher or Rosy O'Donnell. All they did was sit around on a lot of ornate pillows in their gaudy jewelry and their hideous robes eating, drinking, and fornicating with the concubines in their harems. At taxpayers expense, of course.

They did this while pretending to be good Muslims. It's kind of like all of those American evangelicals who are getting caught for child pornography or soliciting sex in airport bathrooms. Is it that they who scream "God!" the loudest are actually the most immoral of all? I've often wondered that. Seems to me that "God" should be a very private thing. You kind of think about these things when you are surrounded by a religion other than the one predominant where you grew up. It's easier to look at things from the outside, and well, now that I've had several experiences in the Muslim world, I can see that religions have more than just God in common. They also have hypocrisy.

There was some interesting architecture around the palace. Lots of domes and arches. There wasn't much that struck me as amazing, however, as I think European architecture created during the Ottoman times is much more interesting. Not even the tiled rooms really impressed me. They seemed kind of tacky to me - it was like having a room full of plates on your walls. Indeed, the Ottoman tiles were inspired by those blue and white Chinese porcelain plates that the Turks were so fond of. There is a whole collection of them in part of the kitchen. The funny thing is that these plates, once thought to be so precious, are now mass produced in China.

Just to clarify - I didn't hate everything about the palace. I just thought about things in a different way than the myriads of tourists around me. The thing is that we haven't really done away with empires - we just go about them in a different way. The United States is definitely a sort of empire. Our citizens are dominated by corporations with ties to government, and our taxes (aside from the real taxes we pay) are the things we keep buying to keep the corporations in power. We still send our soldiers to war for riches from the ground - now in the form of oil instead of gems. History is not a linear thing - it is a circle, and we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. When you think of it this way, you have to wonder if we'll ever get it right, and if we can't, maybe the fact that we're destroying the planet is a good thing?

No, no, of course it isn't. We have to keep trying. We have made progress. I look at the European Union as perhaps the greatest human advancement in history. I mean, here is a continent that has known nothing but war throughout its existence, but a few incredible men who were sick of war came up with a plan that would ensure that if one country went to war with another, that warring country would also be destroyed. This is done by linking economies together, no small feat. I give credit to the European people for accepting such an arrangement. If they would only accept Turkey, then perhaps it would be a start to ending religious war, too? One can dream, right? Right?


  1. Yes. Topkapi was my least favorite of the museum sites in Istanbul (and certainly proved a red flag in your eyes.) Most tourists, titilated, head for the harem anyway. But it should have been less crowded when you guys went?
    I found Topkapi disappointing, perhaps, because the arabs/ turks were not very advanced architects in that early period: ie -- they could not conceive the dome--and were long forced to build low, with roofs supported by multitudes of pillars (like Greek temples) In 1453, Santa Sofia (Byzantine) blew the minds of its conquerers--not ony did the Ottomans not destroy it, they set about replicatiing it, later, in new mosques. So Topkapi, begun with the conquest, is low, cramped and rambling. They seemed to make up for its lack of size with intensive decoration.

  2. most of the info about Bulgaria is wrong :) we never had a city called Stalin - hahah. and what sort of a stupid story is that of Santa Claus being Turkish the whole world knows that the story says he is prom Laplandia a nonexisting Scandinavian country or maybe somewhere around the North pole :)