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Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul

[ by Charles Cameron — different styles of online communication, main topic: Istanbul in three Islamic videos ]

There’s passionate and visceral communication, and there’s communication that’s more scholarly, dispassionate and calm. Let’s begin and end with calm.


Visceral communication is essential for getting people out of a theater on fire, but a 30% application of scholarly distance and calm may be prerequisite for avoiding panic — and scholarly communication may be important for conveying in detail the high-dimensionality of a complex topic, but a drop of visceral may ease the salient points into more general circulation.

In an earlier, text heavy post — Damascus, Dearborn, Rome, Vienna? — I belabored you with details as to just how much ambiguity and fog surrounds the use of place names in scriptural and prophetic contexts. Here I’d like to give you a visceral sense of what some prophetic voices are doing with those place names.

One of the easiest ways to move from scholarly to visceral is to switch from text quotation to video clip, so that’s what I’ll do here — but my first video clip will be relatively calm and scholarly as video clips go, the next one more visceral and exhortatory, while the third and final clip will use all the tricks of the feature movie trade to provide a Tolkien-heroic account of the Muslim siege and taking of then-Christian Constantinople in 1453.


First, a very short clip from Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya, widely known in the Islamic world for his lavishly illustrated books, CDs and DVDs presenting an Islamic version of creationism, the Mahdist end times — which he sees as entirely peaceable — and more besides.

In this clip, he’s talking about Istanbul, and he means that very city, even if it has sometimes been called Byzantium or Constantinople — or even on occasion, Rome.


My second clip is far longer, and presents an interview with Sheikh Imran Nazar Hosein, Islamic scholar, sometime Trinidadian diplomat and sometimes fiery YouTube preacher, whom I have quoted previously in Al-Awlaki and the former and latter rains and elsewhere.

Hosein discusses the prophecies of the conquest of Constantinople by Muslim forces as part of the background for a grand sweep overview of what he terms the first and second Arab Springs — which he locates a century apart and views as both engineered by an Anglo-American alliance to advance a Zionist agenda — and contemporary events in Bahrain, Saudi, Syria, Iran, Israel, and Russia:


It’s an hour-long interview, perhaps you didn’t watch the whole way through. Hosein concludes this interview, centered in Islamic prophecy about Constantinople, with a Saudi-American alliance facing off against an Iranian-Russian alliance in service to very long term Zionist interests, making the video a window not only on the Sheikh’s own worldview but also on how widely perceptions of the world situation can diverge:

I want the viewing audience to know that a situation is evolving in the world before our eyes, and we must understand it, that the two major powers in the world are now moving in a collision course, that collision course between these two major powers, the American-led alliance and the Russian-led alliance, is going to lead to nuclear warfare of such a magnitude that there is only one word that we can look for in the vocabulary to fit it, and that’s called Armageddon, that is, millions and millions and millions are going to die, most of them probably in North America and Europe, Europe of the East and Europe of the West — and what is left of the world after that, the Zionists hope that they can cope with it, and they can somehow survive and come out on top and Israel will rule the world, the rump that is left after the two giants engage in a war of mutual destruction, That is what we are facing now…

Is that what you thought scholarly Islamists were thinking? By what paths did a highly educated and world traveled man come to that conclusion?


My third clip speaks for itself. It is a trailer for an upcoming motion picture about the siege of Constantinople, presented as heroic spectacle with improbable but striking feats of arms, beautiful but not excessively modestly dressed women, obligatory mass choruses of Allahu Akbar, and at least one reference to the Antichrist.


I can’t wait to see it — but I expect to do so with mixed emotions. Perhaps they will stir up a decent blog post or two.

What emotions will they stir in those who identify with the heroic Mehmet II, and how much of an echo will those emotions find in the world around us? Long shot — any Turkey-NATO impact?


To return to a calmer clime:


Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul. I have prayed in the Sultan Ahmed — click image above to glimpse its beauty — I have relaxed deliciously at a nearby hammam.

The history of Istanbul could be the rich study of many lifetimes, its promise — for better or worse or a little of both — may have been variously prophesied or predicted, but remains to be seen.

10 Responses to “Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul”

  1. Visitor Says:

    Fetih 1493 is already out in the US.  It even ran at a movie theater in Gaithersburg, Maryland a few months ago

    To my pleasant surprise, it is not the terribly triumphalist propaganda I had assumed it would be and generally follows the history books in terms of events and major characters.  It is clearly not intended to offend the Greeks, though Greek critics were offended anyway.  In fact, much is made of the Western Christian Crusaders sacking of Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land and the Byzantines being duped by the Catholic states into thinking they would come to their aid if they practiced the Catholic Rite.  While the Orthodox monk leading the protest appears in the film, no mention is made of the fact that Mehmet II appointed him Patriarch of the restored Orthodox Church.
    The greatest defect in the film is not the fact that it follows all the conventions of a Western film epic, but that Mehmet II is reduced to being a “Turkish” hero, not a cosmopolitan man of his time.  The Ottomans, already a heterogeneous community, looked west, not east, seeing themselves as the successors to the Byzantines; Mehmet spoke Greek, as well as the Serbian of his mother-in-law.  [Little Turkish blood flowed through his veins either.]Capturing Constantinople allowed him to add “Emperor of Rum” [Eastern Rome Empire, aka Byzantium*] to his list of titles and added the local literati to his court.  He visited Troy, admired Alexander the Great, read the Iliad, and was being tutored in Roman history and mythology by a couple of errant Italian merchants during the lulls in the 40-day siege.   It is a shame that the film’s message, presumably pride in Turkey’s national past, is a lost opportunity to demonstrate what made the early Ottomans great.
    *The name Istanbul is also of Greek origin.  Anatolian Greeks are still called “Rum.”

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks for that!
    Your comments come as a pleasant surprise, too, and I look forward to seeing the movie myself. 

  3. zen Says:

    I second, excellent comments by Visitor.
    Watched the clip. Several thoughts…..
    First, some of the siege imagery of the battle of Constantinople reminded me a great deal of the scenes of Minas Tirith in Peter Jackson’s LotR-RotK. There may be an iterative loop there, starting obviously that the film-makers would have difficulty not being influenced by recent works in their industry. At a deeper level, Tolkien, a seriously pious Catholic and professional scholar of mythic literature and dead languages had the idea of a “fall” woven into his mythology in many places – the fall of Morgoth and Sauron into evil, the revolt and doom of the Noldor, the fall of Gondolin (an incomparably greater city than Minas Tirith), the ruin of Beleriand, the downfall of Numenor. Tolkien studied the Norse myths, Arthurian legends and the Finnish Kalevala but he revived the epic style in literature that traces back to The Illiad.

    On the historical side, the story of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was one of the more dramatic in Norwich’s History of Byzantium – the chivalric last Emperor Constantine XI, the sense of abandonment by God of the Byzantine elite seeking sanctuary in the Hagia Sophia, the nobility and relative (by the standards of the day) magnanimity of Mehmed II. For European Christendom, the Fall of Constantinople was a warning and the final end of the last vestiges of the ancient world, for Muscovite Russia it was the start of an identity as “the Third Rome” and the guardianship of Orthodox civilization between East and West, of both and neither, a contradiction with which Russia still struggles with to this day.

  4. L. C. Rees Says:

    If Mehmet II became Caesar (Kaysar-i-Rûm) on May 29, 1453, then the Eastern Roman Empire didn’t fall until November 1, 1922 and the man that toppled it was Mustafa Kemal. Mehmet II didn’t have the awkward 324 year gap Charlemagne faced or the 51 year gap Otto I faced. From the same perspective, the Turk’s repeated advances into central Europe can be seen as a more successful variation on Justinian’s attempts to reunify the Roman Empire. 

  5. Visitor Says:

    Ataturk toppled the Eastern Roman Empire….I love it! 

    Unfortunately, the modern-day Turks, including the ones who produced this epic, don’t think big.  If they did, they would see the benefits of recognizing the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in his full scope [first among equals in the Orthodox Union,] not reduce him to a local church leader in Fener.  They would jump at the chance to reopen the Halki Theological Seminary, drawing students from around the world.  They would see the advantage in their country, predominantly Muslim, being the seat of Orthodox Christianity.  Of course, Mehmet did understand just this, as did his successors.  His diplomacy, with the Slavs and others, was often a joint venture between the Ottoman State and the Patriarchate.  Sadly, Turkish ethno-nationalism has gotten in the way of such grand imaginings.

  6. L. C. Rees Says:

    The coherent nation-state is a more focused and scalable political community than the trans-national empire. The CUP’s original agenda, Ataturk’s more refined version of that agenda, and even the AKP variation are a practical and mostly successful recognition of this fact. The trans-ethnic visions of the Osmanlis, whether in its pan-Islamic version or the less plausible trans-Orthodox version, were more plausible in a world where the power of the nation-state had not been demonstrated. That world was shriveling when the CUP first took over in 1908 and was definitely gone by 1922 when CUP veteran Ataturk consolidated his rule. Quicker than most proto-nation-states, in short order the Turks acquired an enemy to define themselves against (Greece), a foundation epic (the expulsion of the Greek Army), and a greater degree of ethnic cohesion (the forcible exchange of their “Greek” populations for Greek “Turkish” populations). Since the Turkish republic at its core is a repudiation of the Greek in favor of the Turk, embracing an identity as the center of Greek culture would be contradictory, lack a ready constituency inside Turkey, and be implausible to its most plausible audience: the global membership of the Orthodox Church. Since many of those members belong to political communities whose identity is a repudiation of the Turk and the Turkish republic is a plausible stand in for the departed Turkish Muslim Osmanlis, a Turkish Orthodoxy would be a stretch. Davutoglu-Erdogan trans-national pan-Islamism is more plausible as a political initiative than Turkish pan-Orthodoxy but will still come to naught. Many of its intended targets have partially built their local identity on the same foundation as many Orthodox communities: repudiation of the Turk, which, though sharing the common religion of Islam, was often the former master or communal enemy of them as well. In 2003-2004, there was serious discussion of deploying Turkish troops into the Sunni triangle and central Iraq as peacekeepers. The proposal was shot down by Iraqi protests that were as vehement from Sunni and Shia Arabs as from the Sunni Kurds. They remember the Turk as vividly as Greeks, Bulgars, Romanians, Serbs, or Croats.

  7. Visitor Says:

    Indeed, ethno-nationalism had already whittled away most of the Western part of the Empire by the time that the CUP took power and much of Turkish nationalism was shaped in contrast to an “other.”  Yet, the AKP IS trying to  solve the problem of the rights of the Christian minorities and their religious institutions, including the Rum.  [Cynics would say, of course, that this is really a guise under which they are seeking more freedom from the state for Islam as well.]  Knowing the strength of the nationalists within their own party, however, the AKP leadership does not want to pay the political price for leading on this issue.

    The suggestion is not a “Turkish Orthodoxy” but rather, the recognition of the transnational nature of the Patriarchate.  There is considerable international pressure, including from the US, to reopen the Seminary, and there are promises from the AKP to do so.  And Patriarch Benedict DOES have as his goal an international school of theology that would prepare Byzantine Rite clerics in English and in Greek.  Given the spread of a non-ethnic English-language Orthodox Church in the US and elsewwhere along with the traditional ones, there is a good impetus to do so.  The continuing refusal of the Turkish government to recognize the term “Ecumenical Patriarchate” is another matter with which diaspora Orthodox flog the Turks.  All parties look to the process of drafting a new constitution to sort much of this out.

    There is considerable irony here.  The AKP rhetoric refers to “our diversity is our strength” and its commitment to the rights of all; the popular culture more and more is “nostalgic” for its ethnic communities of old, without a discussion of how they came to be absent and TV serials about the War of Independence go out of their way to distinguish between native Rum and the invading Greeks.  While this is revisionist history, it nevertheless represents a slowly changing worldview. 

    One of the most popular Turkish serials to run for two years on Greek TV was “Foreign Son-in-Law” a love story between a Greek boy and a Turkish girl who meet in Bodrum.  As the two families continually meet, the jokes center around cultural differences real and imagined.  In contrast, the Turkish cinema has been far more forthcoming about what happened to the minorities, including the special tax on non-Muslims in 1943 that bankrupted most businesses and sent those who could not pay into labor camps and the Greek pogrom in 1955.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Visitor writes: 

    They would jump at the chance to reopen the Halki Theological Seminary, drawing students from around the world.  They would see the advantage in their country, predominantly Muslim, being the seat of Orthodox Christianity.  Of course, Mehmet did understand just this, as did his successors.

    This has developed into a remarkable conversation, my thanks to all concerned.  
    The three sentences I quoted above point to three aspects that I know all too little about, but which read as though they would be of particular interest to me: the present situation of the Patriarchate vis-a-vis the Turkish government; the diplomatic insight embedded in the middle sentence, which strikes a deep chord; and the history of that insight as applied to Mehmet II and his successors.  
    What can I say? I am very grateful for such conversation, and hope to learn more…

  9. Visitor Says:

    The Turkish government recognizes the Patriarchate as serving its Greek Orthodox citizens. What it does not recognize is its symbolic role in global Orthodox Christianity. The issue is not freedom of worship or establishing churches.  In addition to the traditional Christian sects in Turkey, several others, mostly Protestant, have been established. The current status of the Patriarchate comes from the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which, in addition to the population exchange, determined which churches Turkey officially recognized [Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic] and their rights, as did Greece vis-à-vis its Muslims. Hence, the default has been “This is all we are required to do.”  The Halki Seminary was closed in 1971, when the law covering private universities was declared unconstitutional. In a recent visit to the Patriarch, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate protested this injustice, saying that “forcing religious communities to educate their clerics in other countries is not in line with the greatness of the country.” The AK Party came to power vowing change, using EU requirements to pressure reluctant Turks. Significant improvements were made but the pace has slowed to a crawl, with the leadership now reluctant to stand up to the Kemalist CHP and its own nationalist wing.  [It is sometimes hard to grasp the crippling paranoia among Turks about the danger of “non-Turks.” It is called the Sevres Syndrome and it runs very deep.]  However, the visits by high-ranking officials, especially from the Religious Affairs head, are seen as efforts to prepare Turkish opinion for the reopening.   
    I, for one, don’t see the AKP as very “pan-Islamist.” Their political ambitions are tied to their diverse economic interests. While they expend a lot of energy on their own neighborhood and love to hype historical ties where it is useful, they are also engaged around the world. It is on the issue of religious minority rights that they evoke a highly idealized Ottomanism. [However, the true test of this “tolerance” in the 21st century will be how they deal with the Alevis, who don’t fall into the easy category of “people of the book.”]  Those in Turkey hoping for real change are looking to the drafting of a new constitution as the way to improve the nation’s democracy and guarantee the rights of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion. In sum, the AKP has fancied Turkey as a role model for the Arabs, but realizes that without cleaning up its own rights act, the claim can’t be taken seriously.  

  10. Michael Robinson Says:

    On a less learned and more frivolous note, a recent blending of the two cultures: 
    “It all started 2 years ago with an experiment to blend traditional ‘oriental’ (Ottoman) motifs and contemporary ‘western’ cinema. After a positive response to “Ottoman Star Wars”, I decided to take the theme further, and developed more film posters using the same technique. …”‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Kill Bill’: 
    The complete set is here

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