Our magic carpet ride across the East-West divide

Guardian Unlimited


Our magic carpet ride across the East-West divide

From the mosques of Istanbul to the subterranean churches of Cappadocia,
John Suchet finds the empire’s legacy of religious tolerance survives – but
few tourists are there to appreciate it

Sunday July 11, 2004
The Observer

Fate has not been kind to the Turkish tourist industry. An earthquake 60
miles from Istanbul, the bomb attacks in the heart of the city that
destroyed the British consulate and two synagogues, and overshadowing it all
the conflict in Iraq.
The result – though you might not believe it as hordes of tourists are
guided round the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and other sites – is that the
number of visitors to Istanbul this year is the lowest for a decade. The
government argues otherwise, citing figures that show an increase. Ask the
tour operators, though, and they’ll tell you the government’s figures are
massaged and the tourists are staying away.

I was last in Istanbul as an ITN reporter covering a hostage release
sometime in the 1980s. I remember it as a sprawling, chaotic city, with
crazy drivers and lethal traffic. None of that has changed. But think of old
men outside cafes, drawing leisurely on their water pipes and playing
backgammon, and you are thinking of an Istanbul that is long gone.

Istanbul, as every guidebook will tell you, is the only city in the world
that straddles two continents. You will also read that Turkey is the only
secular country in the Muslim world. Istanbul may have 2,000 mosques, the
call to prayer may reverberate across the city five times a day, but there
is no official state religion, and the younger generation is not beating a
path to the mosque’s door.

And Istanbul is a surprisingly young city: 60 per cent of the population is
under 24. Ask them if they consider themselves European or Asian, and the
answer is so obvious they’ll laugh.

In the main pedestrianised shopping street, just 50 metres from the
boarded-up British consulate, young women gaze longingly at designer-shop
windows. For every headscarf there are a dozen miniskirts or pairs of jeans.
Western pop music blares out on to the street, and it’s said there are more
McDonald’s outlets in Istanbul than Manhattan. Istanbul may have just played
host to Nato, but the city is far prouder that it successfully staged the
Eurovision Song Contest in May.

I was told that wealthy young Istanbulis like to go yachting off the
south-west coast and frequently find themselves straying accidentally into
Greek waters. If a Greek coastguard vessel approaches, the girls whip off
their tops. Can’t possibly be Turkish, say the Greeks; no Muslim would
behave like that. And the Greeks steam off, no doubt grinning from ear to

Daytime television offers a diet of pop music and fashion, lithe models
showing off bikinis and revealing dresses for the summer. If a young
Istanbuli asks you where you are from and you say ‘England’, it is not
enough. ‘But where?’ Name a large city, and you invite a recitation of
English footballing names. In the Grand Bazaar young carpet salesmen – who
have taken over from their fathers – will want to talk football as well as
the double knot that gives Turkish carpets their unique durability. The
Premiership is carried on Turkish television, there are no more ardent
Chelsea, Arsenal or Man U fans than in Istanbul, and my taxi driver knew
just two words in English: ‘David Beckham’.

All of which should mean that Istanbul is a multiracial, cosmopolitan city
like Paris, London or New York. All the more so when you consider that
Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, one of the longest and most
successful empires in history because of its tolerance of the customs and
religions of its subjects in the vast areas it ruled.

Istanbul should be a real melting pot, but it is not. The streets should be
a Tower of Babel of exotic tongues, but they are not. Colourful sounds,
dress and traditions from the lands of empire should enliven the atmosphere
of the city, but they do not.

All but 5 per cent of the people who live in Istanbul are Turkish Muslims.
Turks rate among the most hospitable people on earth. Nothing is too much
trouble. Restaurants will send a car to your hotel to pick you up and
deposit you back again (free). Refuse an offer of a cup of tea in any shop
and you will cause sadness. Yet throughout the 20th century, Turkey as a
nation has been unwelcoming to outsiders, particularly to those from the old
enemy Greece.

Ask a Turk what he thinks of Greeks and he will say, ‘Greeks, Turks, same
thing’ – in fact, he’s likely to speak more kindly of Greeks than Greeks do
of Turks. Nationally, though, Greeks have consistently been made to feel
unwelcome. Tens of thousands of Greeks left Istanbul after orchestrated
anti-Greek riots in the 1950s. Today there are 100 Greek churches in
Istanbul but only around 2,000 Greeks. The huge fortress-like Greek school
on a hill above the Golden Horn that could easily accommodate 500 pupils has
only 30.

Other minorities fare little better. Unusually for a great city, there is no
real Jewish quarter. There are few Jews in the city – even fewer since the
bomb attacks on the synagogues and the announcement by the government that
all synagogues would stay closed for two years.

Turkey denies genocide against the Armenians in the early 20th century, and
points to freedom of worship for Armenians in Istanbul. We went to an
Armenian church in the centre of the city. The priest was concluding a
service, then turned to bless the congregation: just us.

Istanbul does have a sizeable minority, which in the past it has done its
best to rid itself of: Kurds, who make up as much as 20 per cent of the
Turkish Muslim population. They are the underclass, but Turkey has reformed
laws which openly discriminated against Kurds – it was forbidden by law to
make a public speech in Kurdish, for instance – and has now started a
Kurdish-language television station.

All this in response to European demands for reform if Turkey wants to
achieve its long-held ambition to join the EU.

Yet Turkey is now, and historically, the most tolerant of nations. My wife
Bonnie obeyed the notice asking women to cover their heads as we entered
Istanbul’s crowning glory, the Blue Mosque. She was practically the only
woman tourist in around 100 to do so, yet none of the many Muslim officials
complained at this lack of respect.

The most impressive example of such tolerance is Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia,
with its vast dome and four minarets. A mosque, then? No. A church for 916
years until the Ottomans introduced Islam, then a mosque for nearly 500
years. But the imams found the altar faced south, not south-east towards
Mecca. Simple answer: pull it down and start again. Even simpler answer:
move the altar just a little to the right, where it stands – off-centre –
today, below a mosaic of the Virgin and Child.

Then in 1935, so as to offend neither Christians nor Muslims, the new
secular Republic of Turkey declared Hagia Sophia a museum, which it remains
today. So you can enter it without removing your shoes and women do not need
to cover their head.

Another example of religious tolerance can be found in Cappadocia, the
extraordinary region in central Turkey where there are 300 churches within a
few square kilometres, a higher density than anywhere else in the world.
Three million years ago volcanoes spewed lava across this high flat section
of the Anatolian plateau. Erosion – wind, rain and snow – wore the lava
down, leaving weirdly shaped hills and mounds made of soft volcanic rock
called tuff, or tufa.

They were so soft that people made homes in them. Cave houses, tens of
thousands of them, in which, over the centuries, they successfully hid from
invaders. Christians evaded the Romans, then the Persian army, then Arab
forces. They built entire underground cities that descended 60 metres –
which you can enter today and marvel at – and that were impregnable,
unbreachable. Tunnels allowed them to move around between these underground
cities and caves, just as the Vietcong did during the Vietnam war, and Osama
bin Laden did in Afghanistan to evade American forces.

Before the arrival of Islam the area was Christian, hence the churches, all
cut into the soft, volcanic rock, many with magnificent thousand-year-old
frescoes whose rich colours are preserved by the cool dark air inside. Whose
image is painted on wall after wall? None other than local lad St George, in
the act of slaying the dragon. He was appointed patron saint of England by
Richard the Lionheart after appearing in a vision and promising him victory
in the Battle of Antioch during the now politically incorrect Crusades. How
many football fans waving the red cross of St George during Euro 2004 knew
they were honouring a Turk born in Cappadocia, or realised just what a busy
saint he is (England shares St George with Moscow, Georgia – naturally – and

When the volcanic lava eroded it left thousands of curiously shaped conical
rocks which more than anything give Cappadocia its uniqueness. These
extraordinary creations look as if they have burst through the ground and
grown up. In fact the opposite is true. As wind, rain and snow whittled away
at the lava, the harder portions remained.

Like so many battalions of phalluses, they dominate the landscape. Local
people – with a glint in their eye – will tell you it has nothing to do with
erosion. The priapic rocks grew up in honour of Priapus, god of procreation,
born in Turkey and famed for the only weapon he carried, his gigantic penis
– and they’ll sell you erect marble penises in his honour.

The best way to see them is from above, gliding softly and silently over
them in the basket of a hot-air balloon. ‘Love Valley. Feast your eyes,
girls,’ said our pilot as she expertly guided the balloon across the tops of
the giant rock erections. She hails from Devon and, with her Swedish
husband, has been ferrying open-mouthed tourists up to 4,000 feet and down
to a few inches off the ground for 14 years. ‘Best ballooning country in the
world,’ they say. ‘Perfect weather, unique topography, and no animals or
crops to disturb.’

Bonnie does not like heights, and as our small basket rose and rose her face
turned white – but only slightly whiter than mine. Amazingly, our nerves
settled and we marvelled at the extraordinary work of nature as we floated
serenely across its eccentric sculptures. The first European to discover the
rock formations of Cappadocia was a Frenchman 300 years ago. When he showed
drawings of the giant phalluses back in Paris, he was taken for a fool. Two
hundred years later, in the early 19th century, another Frenchman came to
Cappadocia, christened the rocks ‘fairy chimneys’, and reported back. This
time they believed him, and the French have been coming here ever since; 60
per cent of the tourists in Cappadocia are French, just 1 per cent are

No one knows why, but for some reason this tiny corner of the world has
never caught the imagination of the British tourist. It cannot be just the
first call to prayer of the day, which in the summer echoes across the thin
air, amplified by crackly loudspeakers, at 4.10am, stretching religious
tolerance to the limit.

As in Istanbul, this is the worst year in Cappadocia for tourists – French
or otherwise – for a decade. In the four days we were there, a new road was
laid out to the town of Ürgüp, where we stayed in a luxury, all-mod-cons
cave house, occupied in more primitive form for centuries before. It’s a new
road to make it easier for tourists to get here. They’re now praying there
will be some tourists to use it.


John Suchet travelled with Tapestry Holidays (020 8235 7777;
) and stayed for three nights at the Eresin Crown
hotel in Istanbul and four nights at the Cave House in Cappadocia. Prices
for this trip start from £1,095 pp B&B including flights from Heathrow to
Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, internal flights to Cappadocia, transfers, a
half-day city tour in Istanbul, guide in Cappadocia, and a balloon flight.