Two Types of Travel Books

The Blue City of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa—these are cities I would dearly love to know more about. So when I read Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, I looked forward to learning more about these magical places. Alas, I was disappointed: The book was more about a bicycle trip with little attention paid to destinations, and most of the attention paid to the roads connecting the destinations.

I had to remind myself that there are two types of travel books. First, there was my preferred kind, which combines personal experiences with history, literature, art, cuisine, and culture—the whole ball of wax! But there is another kind of travel book as well. Call it adventure travel or experiential travel. All mountain-climbing books fall into this category. They can be excellent reads, such as Jon Kracauer’s Into Thin Air, Alfred Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat, or any of Eric Shipton’s great books on mountains he has climbed.

Tibetan Monastery

Kate Harris and her companion Melissa Yule concentrated all their efforts in surviving a multiple-thousand-mile journey involving multiple mountain ranges and passes. It was quite an accomplishment, but it just left me hungry to learn more about Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa, and points between.

Oh, well, as long as the quarantine and my health last, I’ll have the time to make up that deficit.

Reinventing Thanksgiving

This Is Not What My Thanksgiving Will Look Like

In a way, the coronavirus seems to wreak the most damage on people who are intent on going on with their lives the way they were before. The big danger points come around the major holidays, when people risk everything for the appearance of normalcy.

But what if, like me, you don’t really give a hang about the holidays? No, I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness: I just don’t like the idea of holiday-induced stress. Whenever I think of Christmas and Thanksgiving, in particular, I think of a custom among certain Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest of “an opulent ceremonial feast at which possessions are given away or destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige.”

Plus I don’t really like turkey. For the most part it is a dry bird that has to be well-greased before imbibing. For my Thanksgiving, Martine and I will have a more simple feast (though, in her heart of hearts, I know Martine would prefer the turkey): A good beef stew accompanied by a bottle of Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger, a pleasant Hungarian red wine.

Knowing how much I prefer to avoid poultry, Martine can understand that it wouldn’t help to have me cook something I don’t like—and I do all the cooking in the household.

We will probably do something similar for Christmas. Why not? We are not afraid of offending the Yuletide Police.

Turks & Armenians

Poster for Armenian Protest Against the Genocide of 1915

I decided to go today to the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax to read a book of Umberto Eco essays and have a nice lunch. Although I finally made it, a number of obstacles arose. Today was the March for Justice to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by the Turks. As there are a whole lot of Armenians in Los Angeles, there were numerous street closures and bus re-routings, including the MTA #217 that turned on Beverly Blvd rather than continuing south on Fairfax to 3rd Street, where the market is.

The walk didn’t discombobulate me much, as I merely had to walk a half mile. But to most of the bus patrons, it was confusing borderlining on tragic. (The area is full of Russian immigrants who didn’t understand the bus driver’s announcement of the detour.)

Armenian Marchers and LAPD

In general, I find myself very pro-Armenian. Partly it is because Martine truly loves the way that Armenians prepare chicken. I am also pro-Turkish. I am against the genocide, but the guilty parties to that event are long gone. The Young Turk government of Enver Pasha was guilty of the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. If you are interested in the subject, see Elia Kazan’s film America America (1963). So I am very anti Young Turk, but that’s ancient history, so it doesn’t much matter any more. What confuses me is that the current leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, refuses to own up to his country’s past infamies, of which there are many. Why? His government was not to blame for them.

Southern California is full of ethnic minorities of all kinds, including a few racial ones as well. It makes living here interesting. And it makes for some fascinating cuisines.


The Man Who Created a Nation

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)

Although the leaders of Turkey seem embattled now because of the protests taking place in Istanbul, one has to consider that, for the most part, the nation has been admirably stable. Especially when one considers the immediate neighborhood: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Cyprus, Greece, and Bulgaria. That was mostly due to the efforts of one man, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who almost single-handedly changed the course of Turkish history.

Born in Salonika (now Thessaloniki in Greece), Atatürk was not even Turkish. Although a Muslim, he always considered himself a Macedonian. Commissioned as an officer in 1907, he began his career at a time when the Ottoman Empire was in transition between the absolutism of the Sultan (and Caliph) and the rising Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which has come to be known as the Young Turks.

Mustafa always preferred to stay at arm’s length from the CUP officers and their leader Enver Pasha, whom he felt to be a poseur. Knowing this, the CUP leadership essentially sent him to various places to keep him out of the way.

Until World War One. The Empire allied itself with the Kaiser and put German officers in charge of army units. At the Battle of Gallipoli, however, it was Mustafa Kemal who ignored the advice of Liman von Sanders of the German General Staff and destroyed an Allied army consisting mostly of Australian and New Zealand troops.

Then, after the war, Greece under Eleftherios Venizelos attacked Turkey. Many of the coastal areas of Turkey were at this time under control of Britain, Italy, and France; so Mustafa Kemal based himself in Angora (now called Ankara) where he would be free of the Greek-loving Allies. Once again, he proved his mettle by destroying the Greek army and driving them into the sea. In connection with this, he is usually blamed for atrocities at Smyrna (now Izmir). Although casualties were in the low thousands, most of the damage was done by fires set by the fleeing Greeks.

This military victory, combined with equally important diplomatic victories at European peace conferences, led to the Allied occupations coming to an end and Atatürk’s government in Angora becoming the de facto power.  In short order, Atatürk abolished the Sultanate, allowing the last Sultan to go into exile in Europe, and choosing one of the ex-Sultan’s family to be the Caliph. Within a year, he also abolished the Caliphate and put Turkey on the road to becoming a secular Muslim republic. (Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?)

Within the first few years of his rule, Mustafa Kemal abolished Arabic script in favor of the European alphabet, abolished the fez and turban as required headgear for Turks, and secularized the Turkish Army. He stayed in Angora, partly because Istanbul was crawling with elements of the discredited CUP faction.

Curiously, the old Ottoman Empire was only partly Turkish. Toward the end, the Sultans had drawn their heirs from a harem of Albanian, Greek, Circassian, and other women, mostly from far-flung parts of the Empire. Nominally, they were still descendants of Osman, after whom the Empire was named, but did not give any special privileges to the Turks of Asia Minor. It was Atatürk who made Turkey a Turkish nation, with relatively small minorities of Armenians and Kurds. (In case you’re wondering, the Armenian genocide took place before he came into power.)

Mustafa Kemal could have become another Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, but instead he wanted to empower his people. Admittedly, he kept his fingers on the scales and would intervene personally when he felt that his successors were going in the wrong direction. He was something of a dictator, and something of a founding father. But he created a nation.

There is an interesting biography by Lord Kinross entitled Atatürk: A Biography of Mustafa Kemal, Father of Modern Turkey.

Serendipity: The Janissaries

At One Time, They Were Feared by the Enemies of the Ottoman Empire

At One Time, They Were the Most Feared Infantry in Europe

They look rather silly, don’t they? But in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were the elite infantry of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissaries conquered the Balkans, much of the Black Sea coast, and Hungary. Little known to most people is that they were almost exclusively Christians, who were either kidnapped or bought from their parents by recruiters under the empire’s devshirme system. But, like many things that were once a good idea, it didn’t look so good any more by the time the 1800s rolled around.

The following discussion comes from David Brewer’s excellent book The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression and the Birth of the Modern Greek Nation:

The Sultan’s problem within his borders lay, as it had done before, with the corps of janissaries. They were now practically useless as a military force, and [the Sultan] Mahmoud had to fight his wars with mercenaries and with troops raised by local pashas. The janissary regiments in the provinces drew pay and rations in idleness, while those in the capital were an unruly menace, as a contemporary visitor described. “Lords of the day,” he wrote,

they ruled with uncontrolled insolence in Constantinople, their appearance portraying the excess of libertinism; their foul language; their gross behaviour; their enormous turbans; their open vests; their bulky sashes filled with arms; their weighty sticks; rendering them objects of fear and disgust. Like moving columns, they thrust everybody from their path without any regard of age or sex, frequently bestowing durable marks of anger or contempt.

In 1807 Mahmoud’s predecessor Selim III had tried to bring the janissaries under control by incorporating them into his so-called Army of the New Order. The janissaries reacted violently, the New Army was formally abolished and Selim lost his throne. In the following year, the first of Mahmoud’s reign, his grand vizier publicly advocated reforming the janissaries and curbing their abuses, but lost his life in the ensuing janissary revolt.

In the space of some four hundred years, the janissaries went from an elite military force to a kind of mafia, with members of the corps selling “protection” to merchants. They acted as the firemen of Constantinople, but it was also widely believed that they set the fires in the first place.

For a delightful novel about the decay of the janissary corps, I recommend Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree, a 19th century mystery whose “detective” is a eunuch connected with the Sublime Porte. In 1826, the Sultan could take no more and began arresting and executing the remnants of the corps. In Ottoman history, the persecution is referred to as the “Auspicious Event.”

By the way, Jason Goodwin not only writes entertaining detective stories set in the Ottoman Empire, but he is also a historian whose Lords of the Horizons is perhaps the best introduction to the Empire.