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History Department

Halil Berktay’s Diary

Halil Berktay’s Diary 

Personal Thoughts

0028.(17th May 2021)


Defying all international norms and world public opinion, the Israeli army has for weeks been engaged in a latest round of arrogant, contemptuous savagery against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, while in several cities Jewish right-wing mobs have been mindlessly attacking Israel’s own Arab citizens in a scary outbreak of what could escalate into local-level ethno-religious warfare. Surely not coincidentally, it all started on Temple Mount with a crass intervention against Muslim worshippers in the Mescid-i Aksa — on the eve of Jerusalem Day. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel seized not only the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the entire West Bank, but also the Old City section of Jerusalem that since 1948 had been in Jordanian hands. Ever since, 7th May has been an official Israeli holiday. One of the various celebrations marking Yom Yerushalayim or Jerusalem Day is a flag-waving parade of conservative Jewish youth that is known as Rikud Hadegalim or “the Dance of the Flags.” Starting in Jerusalem’s new and modern districts, it enters the Old City through the Damascus Gate, winds its ostentatious, indeed provocative way through the Muslim Quarter, and concludes with mass prayers in front of the West Wall or the Wailing Wall.

They are, in other words, ritually reconquering the city again and again. The picture above was taken during the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2017. The crowd is massing on Jaffa Road prior to storming through the gates. It is a bit reminiscent of the 29th May 1453 commemorations in Turkey. But the big difference is that the Israeli right is scratching open a rather recent wound, barely half a century old, and doing it rather deliberately to spite the current, living, and quite sizable Arab population of Jerusalem. Hence the parade is controversial even within Israeli civil society and in the eyes of the country’s oppositional democrats. Thus in May 2015, the Israeli High Court of Justice was petitioned to prevent the parade from marching through the Muslim Quarter. It was rejected, but the justices banned the use of slogans like “Death to the Arabs!” and charged the police with promptly arresting those that did so. Just this verdict by itself hints at what the atmosphere might be like.

Still, it is different to witness it at first hand, up close and personal. It happened to me fifteen years ago. I fell right smack in the middle of a Jerusalem Day parade. Once is more than enough. I don’t quite know how to describe the experience.

It was Spring 2006, the second semester of the 2005-2006 academic year, when I was full-time at Sabancı University, but thanks to the enthusiastic approval and support of the late Tosun Terzioğlu, was also teaching part-time, three days a week (though on a voluntary basis) at Greece’s Panteion University. They did cover my accomodation and air fare, so I would fly to Athens Wednesday morning, lecture for three hours that evening, keep office hours through Thursday, lecture for another three hours Friday evening, and fly back to Istanbul early on Saturday. Then on top of this there came another invitation from my historian friends in Israel, inviting me to share with them, too, my thoughts on Turkish nationalist historians of the Ottoman Empire in the form of two lectures, one at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the other in the Negev desert, at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University.

So I went, of course, and first spoke at TAU, where, on the way to addressing questions of historiography, I dwelt on how modernist Turkish nationalism’s Unionist and Kemalist generations’ mission to impose civilization from the top down on (what they saw as) a backward and primitive society had, along with some real gains for the new nation-state, also generated (or deepened) a serious socio-cultural split by creating (or expanding) an alla franca sector within the overall matrix of an alla turca society. I tried to explain how the residents of this alla franca enclave felt themselves besieged and threatened by the rest. I did say a lot between the lines, I must admit. I touched upon what is known as “the Masada complex” in Israeli history (and politics). After the Great Revolt of AD 66, as the First Jewish-Roman War was drawing to a close, rather than surrender to the Roman legions 960 rebels who had taken refuge on the rocky Masada plateau are said to have committed suicide by jumping into the abyss. Recorded by the historian Josephus, it has turned into a metaphor for Israelis’ self-perception as being under constant siege by the Arabs but determined to resist to the end. So when I let drop something about “the Kemalists’ Masada complex,” most everybody understood what I was implying about “the West’s two advanced outposts in gthe Middle East.” But I also went further by directly suggesting comparions between official-lining Turkish historians’ neglect of Turkish nationalism’s victimized ethno-religious “others” (such as the Armenians), and how the Nakba is neglected by official-lining historians in Israel.   

Some of my audience probably appreciated my double critique while others were clearly quite hostile to it. Soon Martin Kramer came up to me. At the time he was the director of the Moshe Dayan Center. What was (and is) this MDC? A think-tank initially proposed by Mossad head Reuven Shiloah, and on that basis founded in 1959, to serve openly, officially, explicitly as a bridge between Israeli intelligence and the academic world. That’s what they say on their own web site. This was what Kramer was running, and that is more than enough for me to leave the rest to your imagination. We had met earlier in Toledo, at an elite forum (held under Chatham House rules) on “Europe and Islam in the 21st Century.” It hadn’t been a pleasant encounter. During a coffee break the late Elizabeth Zachariadou had made a few light-hearted quips about Bernard Lewis, which had infuriated Martin Kramer. I’ll never forget how, this time in Tel Aviv, he very coldly said something like “Now I understand what you are doing.” It sounded like: now I have identified you, decoded you, exposed you, seen you for what you are. Years later, in the midst of all the post-9/11 Islamophobia that was washing over the US, I read how Kramer had become one of the two founders of the Middle East Forum, one of the most militant and rigidly rightist loci of intellectuel terror targeting academic freedom at American universities.  

After some further small talk, it was over and we left. That evening, I had dinner in Jaffa’s harbor district with my host Amy Singer and Prof. Michael Winter, who sadly passed away last year. My next day was free. I took a minibus to Jerusalem. I had been warned that I shouldn’t stay too late since it was going to be 7th May, hence Jerusalem Day, and that there would be this march in the afternoon, which I would do well not to get involved in. Readers who are not familiar with Jerusalem can refer to the map of the Old City at the very top. So I did what most tourists do by first going into the Christian Quarter and visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I then walked along a section of the Via Dolorosa to get at the suk, the covered bazaar. As in the above file photo, in mid-morning it was still a lively dash of color. I went into a few shops to buy lots of posters, which I rolled up and put into a long cylindrical container. From the New Gate, I took the stairs up to the top of the circumvallation ordered by Suleiman I (1520-1566). I walked all along the walls, looking down at the crowded worlds of the Christian, Armenian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters below me. Just as I was coming back full circle, I felt tired and sat down to rest. After a while I got up and made it back down by the New Gate. It was already noon. I thought that I should be heading back as soon as possible. 

And then I noticed that I didn’t have my carton container with me. I realized that I must have left it where I stopped to rest. I checked my watch; I realized that I was running out of time. But I couldn’t possibly contemplate leaving behind all those lovely posters of the Dome of the Rock, the Mescid-i Aksa, the Doors of Jerusalem, or Mount Olive (for which I had also paid a lot). Even though I knew that I was taking a big risk, I ran back up the Damascus Gate, and ran as fast as I could along that uneven wall-walk to where I had taken a break. Then I came to a sudden stop and did not quite know what to do. Three or four IDF (Israeli Defence Force) men were sitting in the same spot. They had set up a machine gun nest, with the barrel pointing down at the Muslim Quarter. They were very young, maybe only twenty. They caught on and started laughing as soon as they saw me. Were you looking for this, one of them said, handing me my container. It is not full of explosives, is it, they joked. Obviously they had given it a security check. Elderly, breathless and everything, I obviously belonged to the harmless sight-seer category. But how absolutely stupid of me to leave something looking even remotely like a bazooka on top of the Jerusalem walls on Jerusalem Day! 

I took it, thanked them, and came down by Damascus Gate — only to find the right-wing youth parade heading straight at me. There were security cordons on all sides, hence nowhere to go except back into the now rather empty suk, the Muslim bazaar, before them. They kept coming at something between a walk and a jog, in blue-and-white ranks three or four abreast, wearing their skull-caps, their kippahs (Hebrew) or yarmulkes (Yiddish), all waving Israeli flags. And neither were they alone, for to their right and left were two covering single files of IDF soldiers, facing outward, their Uzi submachine guns held at the ready. What they were staring at were the Muslim Arab shopkeepers of the entire market, who had all come out — were they required to show themselves, I wondered, so that there should be no suspicious movement inside — and were standing (myself included) side by side, their (our) backs to the wall, arms crossed — was this, too, because the soldiers wanted to see where their hands were, I again wondered — their (our) faces shut tight, unflickering, emotionless. Nobody stirred, nobody spoke. We were just watching the passing marchers. The air was full of unbelievable tension, so thick and dense you could almost cut it with a knife. Strange things can happen to you in such bizarre circumstances. I wasn’t really thinking of the danger, of how I might get out of this in one piece. I started confusing art and reality, past and present. My mind flew to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). I was in the casbah, and there were the French paratroopers, leaving Indochina after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu to be redeployed to Algeria, marching up from the harbor area into the city center under Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu, who would train and organize them into torturers.   

That afternoon on 7th May 2006, the only sound in the Jerusalem bazaar was the marchers’ spoiled yet nervous chatter. But it was as if nobody heard them. I didn’t. Neither do I have any sense of how it ended. Or how I found the bus station. I only remember the silence. The grim, sorrowing, stony silence.

0027.(15th May 2021)


The Israeli army keeps mercilessly shelling and bombing the Gaza Strip. What does it mean to live under it all the time? By sheer coincidence, over the last few days I was preparing my post-vacation World War I lectures in both SPS 102 and HUM 102 (thanks to Dr Nagihan Haliloğlu’s kind invitation). As I re-read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, I kept thinking to myself: This is how even highly trained, combat-hardened soldiers, inured as they were to killing and being killed, felt about constant artillery bombardment back in 1914-1918. What terrified them. Numbed them. Made them go hysterical. What after a point they couldn’t take.

Around 30-40 million copies of this short yet stunning novel exposing the horrors of war are estimated to have been sold since it was first published on 31st January 1929 (after having been serialised in 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung). Its first German film showing in Berlin, on 5th December 1930, was attacked by 150 Nazi paramilitaries (SAs, Brown Shirts) directly under Joseph Goebbels. Virtually as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, it became the subject of the Nazis’ medieval witch-hunt rituals of book-burnings.

To this day, it remains part and parcel of world culture. Among other things, it is part of the curriculum in most American high schools. Yesterday and today it once more left me enormously, unbearably sad. Do the past and present readers of, for example, the following passages give any thought to what it might mean for the 2 million mostly civilian Palestinians living in Gaza, including 600,000 just in Gaza City, all trapped in a very small space, to be going through the kind of hell that was too much for Paul Baumer?

*          *          *

[1. Flares and night bombardment] An uncertain red glow spreads along the skyline from one end to the other. It is in perpetual movement, punctuated with the bursts of flame from the nozzles of the batteries. Balls of light rise up high above it, silver and red spheres which explode and rain down in showers of red, white, and green stars. French rockets go up, which unfold a silk parachute to the air and drift slowly down. They light up everything as bright as day, their light shines on us and we see our shadows sharply outlined on the ground. They hover for the space of a minute before they burn out. Immediately fresh ones shoot up in the sky, and again green, red, and blue stars.

“Bombardment,” says Kat.

The thunder of the guns swells to a single heavy roar and then breaks up again into separate explosions. The dry bursts of the machine-guns rattle. Above us the air teems with invisible swift movement, with howls, pipings, and hisses. They are smaller shells — and amongst them, booming through the night like an organ, go the great coal-boxes and the heavies. They have a hoarse, distant bellow like a rutting stag and make their way high above the howl and whistle of the smaller shells. It reminds me of flocks of wild geese when I hear them. Last autumn the wild geese flew day after day across the path of the shells.  

[2. The bombardment continues] One lands behind us. Some recruits jump up terrified. A couple of minutes later another comes over, nearer this time. Kat knocks out his pipe. “We’re in for it.” 

Then it begins in earnest. We crawl away as well as we can in our haste. The next lands fair amongst us. Two fellows cry out. Green rockets shoot up on the sky-line. Barrage. The mud flies high, fragments whizz past. The crack of the guns is heard long after the roar of the explosions.

Beside us lies a fair-headed recruit in utter terror. He has buried his face in his hands, his helmet has fallen off. I fish hold of it and try to put it back on his head. He looks up, pushes the helmet off and like a child creeps under my arm, his head close to my breast. The little shoulders heave. Shoulders just like Kemmerich’s. I let him be. So that the helmet should be of some use I stick it on his behind — not for a jest, but out of consideration, since that is his highest part. And though there is plenty of meat there, a shot in it can be damned painful. Besides, a man has to lie for months on his belly in the hospital, and afterwards he would be almost sure to have a limp.

It’s got someone pretty badly. Cries are heard between the explosions.

At last it grows quiet. The fire has lifted over us and is now dropping on the reserves. We risk a look. Red rockets shoot up to the sky. Apparently there’s an attack coming.

[3. Caught in the open, trying to take cover in a graveyard] We come to the communication-trench and then to the open fields. The little wood reappears; we know every foot of ground here. There’s the cemetery with the mounds and the black crosses.

That moment it breaks out behind us, swells, roars, and thunders. We duck down — a cloud of flame shoots up a hundred yards ahead of us.

The next minute under a second explosion part of the wood rises slowly in the air, three or four trees sail up and then crash to pieces. The shells begin to hiss like safety-valves — heavy fire — “Take cover!” yells somebody — “Cover!”

The fields are flat, the wood is too distant and dangerous — the only cover is the graveyard and the mounds. We stumble across in the dark and as though he had been spat there every man lies glued behind a mound.

Not a moment too soon. The dark goes mad. It heaves and raves. Darknesses blacker than the night rush on us with giant strides, over us and away. The flames of the explosions light up the graveyard.

There is no escape anywhere. By the light of the shells I try to get a view of the fields. They are a surging sea, daggers of flame from the explosions leap up like fountains. It is impossible for anyone to break through it.

The wood vanishes, it is pounded, crushed, torn to pieces. We must stay here in the graveyard.

The earth bursts before us. It rains clods. I feel a smack. My sleeve is torn away by a splinter. I shut my fist. No pain. Still that does not reassure me: wounds don’t hurt till afterwards. I feel the arm all over. It is grazed but sound. Now a crack on the skull, I begin to lose consciousness. Like lightning the thought comes to me: Don’t faint! I sink down in the black broth and immediately come up to the top again. A splinter slashes into my helmet, but has already travelled so far that it does not go through. I wipe the mud out of my eyes. A hole is torn up in front of me. Shells hardly ever land in the same hole twice, I’ll get into it. With one lunge, I shoot as flat as a fish over the ground; there it whistles again, quickly I crouch together, claw for cover, feel something on the left, shove in beside it, it gives way, I groan, the earth leaps, the blast thunders in my ears, I creep under the yielding thing, cover myself with it, draw it over me, it is wood, cloth, cover, cover, miserable cover against the whizzing splinters.

I open my eyes — my fingers grasp a sleeve, an arm. A wounded man? I yell to him — no answer — a dead man. My hand gropes farther, splinters of wood — now I remember again that we are lying in the graveyard.

But the shelling is stronger than everything. It wipes out the sensibilities, I merely crawl still farther under the coffin, it shall protect me, though Death himself lies in it.

[4. Taking refuge in the earth] From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us — mostly from the earth. To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever. 


Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!

[5. Bombardment begins again at night] All day the sky is hung with observation balloons. There is a rumour that the enemy are going to put tanks over and use low-flying planes for the attack. But that interests us less than what we hear of the new flame-throwers.

We wake up in the middle of the night. The earth booms. Heavy fire is falling on us. We crouch into corners. We distinguish shells of every calibre.

Each man lays hold of his things and looks again every minute to reassure himself that they are still there. The dug-out heaves, the night roars and flashes. We look at each other in the momentary flashes of light, and with pale faces and pressed lips shake our heads.

Every man is aware of the heavy shells tearing down the parapet, rooting up the embankment and demolishing the upper layers of concrete. When a shell lands in the trench we note how the hollow, furious blast is like a blow from the paw of a raging beast of prey. Already by morning a few of the recruits are green and vomiting. They are too inexperienced.

Slowly the grey light trickles into the post and pales the flashes of the shells. Morning is come. The explosion of mines mingles with the gunfire. That is the most dementing convulsion of all. The whole region where they go up becomes one grave.

[6. It continues and gets worse] The bombardment does not diminish. It is falling in the rear too. As far as one can see spout fountains of mud and iron. A wide belt is being raked. The attack does not come, but the bombardment continues. We are gradually benumbed. Hardly a man speaks. We cannot make ourselves understood.

Our trench is almost gone. At many places it is only eighteen inches high, it is broken by holes, and craters, and mountains of earth. A shell lands square in front of our post. At once it is dark. We are buried and must dig ourselves out. After an hour the entrance is clear again, and we are calmer because we have had something to do.

[7. A young recruit has a nervous breakdown] We wait and wait. By midday what I expected happens. One of the recruits has a fit. I have been watching him for a long time, grinding his teeth and opening and shutting his fists. These hunted, protruding eyes, we know them too well. During the last few hours he has had merely the appearance of calm. He had collapsed like a rotten tree.

Now he stands up, stealthily creeps across the floor hesitates a moment and then glides towards the door. I intercept him and say: “Where are you going?”

“I’ll be back in a minute,” says he, and tries to push past me.

“Wait a bit, the shelling will stop soon.”

He listens for a moment and his eyes become clear. Then again he has the glowering eyes of a mad dog, he is silent, he shoves me aside.

 “One minute, lad,” I say. Kat notices. Just as the recruit shakes me off Kat jumps in and we hold him. Then he begins to rave: “Leave me alone, let me go out, I will go out!”

He won’t listen to anything and hits out, his mouth is wet and pours out words, half choked, meaningless words. It is a case of claustrophobia, he feels as though he is suffocating here and wants to get out at any price. If we let him go he would run about everywhere regardless of cover. He is not the first.

Though he raves and his eyes roll, it can’t be helped, we have to give him a hiding to bring him to his senses. We do it quickly and mercilessly, and at last he sits down quietly. The others have turned pale; let’s hope it deters them. This bombardment is too much for the poor devils, they have been sent straight from a recruiting-depot into a barrage that is enough to turn an old soldier’s hair grey.

[8. What trench mortars do] Instead of going to Russia, we go up the line again. On the way we pass through a devastated wood with the tree trunks shattered and the ground ploughed up.

At several places there are tremendous craters. “Great guns, something’s hit that,” I say to Kat.

“Trench mortars,” he replies, and then points up at one of the trees.

In the branches dead men are hanging. A naked soldier is squatting in the fork of a tree, he still has his helmet on, otherwise he is entirely unclad. There is only half of him sitting up there, the top half, the legs are missing.

“What can that mean?” I ask.

“He’s been blown out of his clothes,” mutters Tjaden.

“It’s funny,” says Kat, “we have seen that several times now. If a mortar gets you it blows you clean out of your clothes. It’s the concussion that does it.”

I search around. And so it is. Here hang bits of uniform, and somewhere else is plastered a bloody mess that was once a human limb. Over there lies a body with nothing but a piece of the underpants on one leg and the collar of the tunic around its neck. Otherwise it is naked and the clothes are hanging up in the tree. Both arms are missing as though they had been pulled out. I discover one of them twenty yards off in a shrub.

The dead man lies on his face. There, where the arm wounds are, the earth is black with blood. Underfoot the leaves are scratched up as though the man had been kicking.

[9. Their deep bunker receives a direct hit] Suddenly it howls and flashes terrifically, the dug-out cracks in all its joints under a direct hit, fortunately only a light one that the concrete blocks are able to withstand. It rings metallically, the walls reel, rifles, helmets, earth, mud, and dust fly everywhere. Sulphur fumes pour in.

If we were in one of those light dug-outs that they have been building lately instead of this deeper one, none of us would be alive.

*          *          *

Now after all that, can we perhaps better imagine ourselves in Gaza City? How many days has it been? How much longer is it going to go on?

0026.(12th May 2021)


Back to this matter of how the Turkish tribes, pouring in over Azerbaycan in the 11th century, might have come to talk admiringly among themselves of ana+dolu, a land full of mothers, giving rise to Anadolu. There are two problems with this scheme. As I suggested yesterday, it assumes (a) that mothers were more plentiful here than anywhere else, and strikingly so. It also assumes (b) that some version of the word (i) did not exist in non-Turkish languages (ii) especially before the Turks came and settled in this country.

What I can’t understand is how people who take the trouble to invent such tall tales (or those who believe and keep repeating them) cannot be bothered to stop and do some simple fact-checking. It is so easy today, given universal access to the internet. I, for one, am neither ashamed nor too lazy to do so. Learning is for a life-time.

So then, in linguistic terms where was Anadolu before the 1071 battle of Manzikert (in Armenian) or Malazgirt (in Turkish)? What would you suspect, given that for some thousands of years there were all these other peoples and languages in Anatolia?

It was always there (or here); it was a Greek word waiting for the Turks to arrive. Long before Byzantium, it already existed in Ancient Greece and under the Roman Empire. It didn’t have anything to do with mothers; instead, it had everything to do with the east and the sun. In some of the oldest languages of the Middle East, there is a close association between these two notions. The following is all taken from Wikipedia. In Aramaic, for example, דְּנַח denaḥ means “to rise, to shine,” from which we get to a related word for “the east”: מִדְנָח midnaḥ. Similarly, the Hebrew מִזְרָח mizraḥ, denoting “the east,” is derived from זָרַח zaraḥ which once more means “to rise, to shine.” As a geographical term, the Levant refers to the Eastern Mediterranean; as a socio-cultural term, Europeans who settled in Istanbul, Izmir, Aleppo, Salonica or other port cities of the Ottoman Empire, some of whom accumulated enormous wealth through trade, shipping or banking, are called Levantines. Why and how? Because levo in Latin (or lever in French) means “to rise,” so that Levant points to “where the sun rises.” In 1978 Edward Said opened up an ongoing critique of Orientalism as the ideological dimension of Oriental Studies. The key terms are again from Latin: orior for “to arise, to originate,” from which we get the Orient for “the east. (Modern English words like origin or original also have the same root.)

And so it is with Greek, where ἀνατέλλω (anatello) means “to rise up,” so that ἀνατολή (anatolḗ) means the direction where the sun rises, hence the east, and is used to designate (looking out from Greece) eastern regions in general. The question is how it was narrowed down to its present use. From here on, we have to distinguish carefully between geographical and administrative meanings. The first recorded name the Ancient Greeks used for the Anatolian peninsula was Ἀσία (Asía). Scholars think that it might have been emended from an Akkadian expression for sunrise. In time, Rome overran Greece, the Balkans, and the Eastern Mediterranean. They borrowed the existing Greek usage, establishing a province of Asia to cover the Aegean islands plus the western part of the peninsula. Subsequently, the geographical scope of Asia expanded to refer to the entire immensity that extended further east from the Mediterranean. Hence, some Greek thinkers (living under Roman rule) created the term Asia Minor (Μικρὰ Ἀσία, Mikrà Asía, Küçük Asya in Turkish) for the peninsula itself, i.e. present-day Anatolia.

In contrast, Imperial administration kept using Ἀνατολή (Anatolḗ) as well as Asia to refer to its eastern provinces. Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), for example, created the Diocese of the East, which was known in Greek as the Anatolian (Ανατολής) Diocese, but was completely unrelated to (much broader than) Asia Minor. Similarly, Constantine I’s (r. 306-337) Prefecture of the East was known in Greek as the Anatolian (Ανατολής) Prefecture, though it covered all the eastern provinces, from Thrace to Egypt, of the Roman Empire. The crucial change came with Byzantium. The Western Empire fell in 476, while the Eastern Empire survived. From the 7th century, it lost all its further eastern domains (in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt) first to the Sassanians and then to the Muslim Arabs. That left only present-day Anatolia, which from that point came to be what was meant by the eastern (Ανατολής, Anatolian) part of the empire.

Around the same time, Byzantine provincial administration was comprehensively reorganized. For defensive purposes, a new type of unit called a θέμα (thema) was created, topped by a powerful governor-commander combining civilian and military powers. Previously far-flung armies to the east were pulled pack to the peninsula and garrisoned in these great themes. As part of these measures, an Anatolic Theme (Ἀνατολικὸν θέμα) was also created to cover, as you can see from the map above, the western and central parts of Turkey’s present-day Central Anatolia, centered around Iconium, but ruled from the ancient city of Amorium (with its archeological remains to be found close to Emirdağ inside Afyon province). In later centuries, the first four themes were sub-divided into many smaller units, but as the following three maps reflect, what was called the Anatolikon command (Άνατολικόν θέμα) or (in reference to its troops) the Anatolics command (θέμα Άνατολικῶν) survived all these changes, occupying more or less the same place from 950 through 1025 to 1045. These military-administrative units and their governor-commanders may be seen as harbingers of the Ottoman sancaks and sancakbegs of the future.

It is interesting and important to note that this Anatolic or Anatolics or Anatolikon theme is also recorded in the works of 10th century Muslim geographers like Qudama ibn Jafar or Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadani, who refer to it as the mightiest of the Romans’ provinces, comprising 34 fortresses and mustering 15,000 soldiers. Byzantine sources put the strategos, the governor-commander of the Anatolics theme (στρατηγός τῶν Άνατολικῶν), in first place among all his peers and also in the highest ranks of the Imperial court. He is said to have received an annual salary measured at forty pounds of gold.

A further twist has to do with Christian saints named after Anatolia, such as Anatolius of Laodicea (d. 283) or Anatolius of Constantinople (d. 458; the first Patriarch of the now Christianized Byzantine capital). Here we have a place name passing into people’s names.

Men’s names such as the Russian Anatoly or the French Anatole (as in the famous novelist and intellectual Anatole France) embody the same linguistic and religious background.

This, then, is the true history of the word Anadolu. The original Greek was latinized into Anatolia in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t pass into Turkish from Latin (in which case, we too would probably have said Anatolya – as in Alanya, Antalya, Kilikya, Kapadokya). No. The modern Turkish form Anadolu derives directly from the Greek name Aνατολή (Anatolḗ).

Such is good, solid, genuine scholarly knowledge. But is it enough? Enough for what? To get rid of folkloric myths and legends about ana+dolu? I wish. But I don’t really think so.

0025.(11th May 2021)


This is a good opportunity for an exercise in historical thinking. Or, shall we say, critical thinking applied to history. In everyday conversation, lots of people say this or that about history. What matters is not who said it but what was said. You may not know much about this particular subject. Nevertheless, you don’t feel very comfortable with the statement. Even if you cannot immediately say wheher it is true or false, is it at least plausible — more or less in line with “the limits of the possible” at the time? Could it really have happened that way? Or, sensational as it may sound, is it fundamentally flawed? Repeated for generations, has it become so folkloric as to prevent us from questioning it?

I once had a history teacher who would tell us tall tales in class about the Ottoman wars in Hungary. These Hungarian or Austrian knights, he said, had swords that were 5 metres long which they would keep whirling in huge circles around their heads, mowing down everything in their way. But how much would it have weighed? Of course when I was in my mid-teens I was not aware of all the details below. But I am still a bit abashed because this key question did not even occur to me. — Medieval single-handed swords, in use over 1000-1500, were around 90 cm overall (including the hilt or pommel). What came to be called long-swords, with long-hilts allowing for a two-handed grips, with just the blade averaging 90-110 cm, reached a maximum of 130 cm and weighed around 2 kilograms. Although no such thing as a 5-metre sword ever existed, if it had it would have been at least 8 kg. Leave aside the question of whether, extended to 5 metres, the blade would still be rigid or tend to sag. Also leave aside the question of how anybody might have carried a 5-metre sword (in what sort of scabbard) attached to his belt. Just think of this: How do you keep swinging something that long and heavy (where the centre of gravity is way out beyond your hand) in actual combat?

Now for a second and much more current example: What does “Anadolu” mean? Where does it come from? Of course it is the Turkish equivalent of the English “Anatolia.” But which led to which? Or could both be translations of a third word in some other language? Alternatively, is it possible or plausible that the Turkish word came first? That, moreover, it was originally a combination of two other Turkish words, ana for mother and dolu for full, so that ana+dolu = Anadolu must mean “land of mothers” or “a land full of mothers”? Could it have arisen in this way, and then passed into all other languages? That it therefore reflects the importance and respect accorded to motherhood in Turkish culture?

This interpretation is not very new. It goes back at least ninety years and to a not very nice kind of precedent: the Kemalist Cultural Revolution of the 1930s, and the unhealthy environment it created for a kind of state-ordained hyper-nationalism.

Not every revolution begets a cultural revolution. Upheaval in politics, society, and the economy does not necessarily extend to culture, and entail a total break with the past in that sphere. This is much more difficult, and hence more ultra, than all other aspects of revolutions. The French Jacobins tried, adopting a new calendar beginning with the 1792 proclamation of the Republic as its zero point. They went even further, presuming to replace Christianity with a new Supreme Being and a new religion. In China, Mao also tried, launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, so-called, over 1966-1976. It proposed, in somewhat mystical tones, to “eradicate all sources of individualism and egotism in the human soul” so as to “forever prevent revisionism from coming to power and restoring capitalism.” The bottom line was much more realistic. It amounted to a vindictive purge of Mao’s top Communist Party rivals by unleashing street populism and mob violence. The conomy went into a tailspin. Major massacres by the Red Guards, production stoppages, supply chain breakdowns, famine, and the draconian conditions of forced labor imposed on students and intellectuals who were sent to rural areas in order to “get proletarianized,” may have claimed as many as 20 million lives.   

Neither was Kemalism able to evade a comparable revolutionist extreme, though of a more armchair sort. In going from Empire to Republic, it tried to forge a new modernist nation-state identity and affinity. Islam was not wanted. The Ottoman past was not wanted. Ankara was to be counterposed to Istanbul. The Society for Research on Turkish History (later the TTK, the Turkish Historical Society) counterposed to the Committee on Ottoman History (my italics). The Turks had to be associated with Europe and the West through both racial and civilizational arguments. Last but not least, Anatolia had to be shown to have belonged to “us” from time immemorial. All of which implied creating a new past conforming to the new present — hence a whole new theory of history. 

It looked doable, because, after all, it was the One Party era. (Now this is a euphemism if ever there was one. We say “One Party” and then add “era” to complete the noun clause, because for some reason we cannot say “dictatorship.” As if there could also be a One Party democracy.) Secularism had already turned authoritarian in the 1920s, and became even more so over the next decade. In 1932 mosques were forbidden to chant the call to prayers (the ezan or adhan) in Arabic. All religious belief and worship was heavily repressed. The state radio no longer broadcast alla turca music. After 1915 and the Turkish-Greek population exchange decided at Lausanne, ethnic cleansing spread from demography to language and place names. The Pure Turkish movement, so-called, targeted especially words of Arabic or Persian origin.

It was all topped by the Sun Theory of Language and the Turkish Thesis of History. According to the latter, once upon a time there had been a very very ancient Turkish civilization in Central Asia — prior to 7000 BC. It was (baselessly) said to have been Turkish. It was also (and equally baselessly) said to have been civilized — even more, the very first civilization on Earth. Then, however, the climate changed, a new desert-and-steppe environment made agriculture impossible, and emigration began. Those who stayed behind reverted to nomadism. Those who left spread all over the world, taking a superior race (?!), a pure blood (?!), and a high civilization wherever they went. (When I was small, there was a map of “The Turks’ Motherland and Routes of Migration” that was never taken back to my primary school’s map room but used to hang all the time to the front-right of the blackboard. From a dark pink blob in Central Asia, thick red arrows radiated in all directions. Faithfully reproduced in all period textbooks, too, it was considerably simpler and cruder than the more recent yet still mythical version you see at the very top.) These Turkish movements starting c.7000 BC meant, among other things, that “we” had entered Anatolia not after AD 1071 but much earlier, like the 2nd millennium BC. Atatürk, indeed, had explicitly stated that Turks could not be regarded as the real masters of this country if it were to be admitted that they had arrived only in the 11th century. He had directed Afet İnan to work on this problem  (you can check my Cumhuriyet İdeolojisi ve Fuat Köprülü [Republican Ideology and Fuat Köprülü] for a more extended summary). A solution (of sorts) was provided by the Hittites, who were now said to have been Turkish, and who came to be re-named as the Eti Turks. And of course the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, too, were Turkish, since, together with the Hittite language, Sumerian was also (totally baselessly) identified as a Turkic language. Two state economic enterprises were set up to enshrine this fabricated connection: Etibank and Sümerbank, as well as, in the private sector, the Eti Biscuits company.  

Up to a point, we can understand (but not sympathize with) their concerns. This legendary Central Asian civilization enabled them to bypass both Islam and the Ottomans, while with the Hittites they appeared to have made Anatolia “our own” at a time when there were no Greeks around. But it was all junk, a pile of rubbish, devoid of any scientific foundation whatsoever. Even worse was the rude intervention of politics in history. The Great Leader’s personal orders resulted in utter disregard for scientific methodology. The academic world’s need and ability to evolve by its own internal rules and procedures was crushed underfoot. What was encouraged and promoted was not genuine scholarship but loyalty to the state. It had a corrosive, debilitating, immoral, unethical impact. It was no coincidence that the rise of the Turkish Thesis of History and the Turkish Historical Society went hand in hand with the University Reform of 1933. This was another innocent-sounding euphemism for a comprehensive purge of Istanbul University — of elements that were considered to be out of tune with the ideological requirements of the Kemalist régime.   

And it was within this overall framework, and with a kind of crass arrogance that can only result from a combination of ignorance with untouchable power, that various amateur linguists who had made their way into Atatürk’s close circle began to vie with one another in proposing word-meanings intended to bolster the Turkish Thesis of History. From that evening table, the famous sofra of Kemalist lore and legend, a virtual hysteria rose and spread to the rest of the elite. Such spasms have marked many hyper-nationalist dictatorial cultures. The time, too, was auspicious: Fascism and Nazism were on the rise; Mussolini had already come to power in 1922, and Hitler was about to do so in 1933. Trolls flourished, and some unbelievable etymologies were concocted, all the way to Ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Turks and Turkish seemed to have been everywhere, naming everything, including South and North America. Hence the Amazon came to be derived from amma+uzun (how long it is), the Niagara Falls from ne+yaygara (how noisy it is), and Apollon from alp+oğlan (noble youth). It was as part of that madness that the ana+dolu = Anadolu construction also emerged and rose above everything, making its way into fairy tales, ditties, children’s prose and poetry.

Now from all this, back to what I said in the beginning about historical thinking, or critical thinking applied to history. Swept along by a tide of irrationalism, the Kemalist apparatchiki (Soviet slang for obedient party men) who can be credited with having gifted this poisonous legacy to later generations did not stop to think of some very simple, very basic questions like the following (which, to repeat, did not and do not require any previous information background): So the Turks came into a new land, perceived it to be full of mothers, and hence named it ana+dolu = Anadolu, eh? But what was it called before them? (Let’s put the Hittites or Eti Turks to one side, for, paradoxically, this ana+dolu derivation is compatible only with 1071 and its aftermath.) Did this geography have no older name? Was there nobody living in this rectangular peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean? Was there no state? Who or what was it that had been defeated at Malazgirt? Byzantium, did you say? So how were these territories referred to in Byzantine provincial administration, land tenure, or frontier defences?

Alas. But let’s move forward by assuming that even if it might have had a name, it remains unknown to us. For the moment, let us also leave aside just how place names are really and truly created in history. In order for this sort of new term to have been invented from scratch, as a minimum logical condition the host country must have had this or that feature that appeared strange and striking to the invaders or immigrants. So did the Turks perceive their new country to be uniquely full of mothers? In general, human populations are fairly evenly divided between men and women. Here, was it any different? Compared with other countries, such as where they were coming from, whether it was Transoxiana, or the region around Merv and Dandanakan, or Horasan or Azerbaycan, did they encounter such a significantly higher proportion of mothers here, that they were so impressed as to start talking (not there but here) about ana+dolu? And also, just when, how, and by who was this decision ultimately made? As Byzantium’s eastern defences collapsed, more and more Turcoman tribes made their way through Azerbaycan to establish new homelands (il or yurt) for themselves in former Roman territory. It was not a unified, centralized invasion but a much more diverse and fragmented kind of wave under various tribal or semi-tribal war-leaders. Just who among them might have had this ana+dolu brainwave? How, then, would he have made it stick? By convening an assembly and getting everyone else to agree? Would they have cared the slightest bit about such nomenclature, such modern cognitive and classificatory problems? But even if we hypothesize that they did, just where and when did it happen? And where might we find it in our sources or primary documents?  

This should be more than enough of beating a dead dog. Of course, nothing of the sort ever happened. From the moment of their 11th century irruption, the Turks imparted only a single name to this country: Türkiye. And that was not a conscious decision, a deliberate act of naming, but the product of spontaneous developments — a massive demographic and linguistic change which happened to be observed and reported by outsiders. In proper scholarly methodology, historians proceed from identifying languages to peoples’ names (ethnonyms) to place names (toponyms). I teach this in SPS 101-102, in HIST 213, HIST 323 and HIST 325, also in HIST 503-504 and 505-506 (graduate-level world history and historiography). As well as in HIST 572 (From Republic to Empire). Where the ancient Britons settled comes to be called Britannia; where the ancient Germans settled comes to be called Germania; where the Slavs’ Rus’ branch settled comes to be called Russia. So with the Turks. Their arrival changed the human composition of, shall we say, Asia Minor to such an extent that it came to be noted by Italian (primarily Venetian and Genoese) merchants who were well-established not only in Constantinople but also in the Aegean islands as well as all along the Ageean and Black Sea coastline. They were constantly trading with the interior, and it was they who first coined Turchia in the 12th century to denote what had become “the land where the Turks live.” From Italian it quickly passed into other European languages as Turkey, Turquie, Turkei. But the Turks themselves, or rather their ruling elites, whether as the Konya Sultanate or the Ottomans, did not use this word until the 19th century. For them it long remained Diyar-ı Rûm, the lands of Rome, the Roman empire.

Meanwhile, where is Anatolia in all this? It was always there; together with Asia Minor, referred to above, it had been one of two place names traditionally applied to this geography over the previous two thousand years. And it has continued intact over the next millennium, down to this day. What the Turkish Thesis of History people did not like about it was that it was a Greek word meaning the east, or where the sun rises. But let’s leave that for tomorrow.

0024.(9th May 2021)


While we are on this topic of World War II and the end of the Third Reich (which, it was said, would live for a thousand years but lasted only twelve)  — how far can fanaticism go? To what extent can unquestioning devotion to a cause take over and command a degree of ruthless, pitiless, remorseless, unfeeling, unreasoning cruelty that lies beyond the pale of what we normally consider as human behavior, and which therefore we still cannot find the proper words to describe?

Can you kill your own children? Who can kill their own children? Small and innocent children at that — the youngest just 4, the oldest only 12?

Magda and Joseph Goebbels did it, back on 1st May 1945. Look at this picture. It is dated to somewhere between 1940-1942. The young officer at the top is Harald Quandt, Magda’s son from a previous marriage. He wasn’t there when this picture was taken, but later inserted and retouched. A Luftwaffe pilot who was later captured by the Allies, he was in a POW (prisoner of war) camp when the war ended. No war criminal, after being released he went on to become a successful West German businessman.

On either side of Harald in the back row are the two oldest girls, Helga (right) and Hildegard (left). In front, from left to right are Helmut, Hedwig, Heidrun (the youngest) on her mother’s lap, and Holdine hugging her father. Charming kids, aren’t they? And what a lovely, loving family photograph! 

If you were shown this at random, without any previous knowledge of who or what they were, you couldn’t possibly imagine what then happened. The man on the right was a rabid Nazi, a vitriolic racist and anti-Semite, publicly committed to what we today call the Final Solution, a dyed-in-the-wool kind of Machiavellian liar, and utterly devoted to Hitler, while all his beliefs were shared by his wife in the middle. He had become his beloved Führer’s Minister for Propaganda. They had lived through a triumphant decade, but now the end was near. Experts on Nazism say that the couple may have discussed suicide and the fate of their children during a long night-time conversation on 27th January 1945. Joseph knew what the rest of the world thought of everything they had done and were still doing. As for Magda, there is some evidence that she was talking about killing her children at least a month in advance — because she did not want them to grow up hearing that their father had been one of the century’s foremost criminals. In itself, this insight into their inner world is both interesting and maddening. It is infuriating because it shows that they knew. It points to a dual or double consciousness: on the one hand, reality and self-perception in ordinary human terms, and on the other, a second, alternative reality created by the faith they professed and seemed to believe.

As everything was collapsing around them, ultimately it was recognition and acceptance of the first but the impossibility of living with it that led them to a last and most terrible murder. Goebbels burned his private papers on 18th April, and as I wrote yesterday, they all moved into the Führerbunker on the 22nd. He refused Hitler’s orders to leave, and she refused all offers (including Albert Speer’s) to take the children out of Berlin. Why? How can any parents not want their children to live? Was a world without National Socialism so hateful to them? Rochus Misch, the Führerbunker’s radio and telephone operator, subsequently testified to the Allies that late on 1st May, he had watched as their mother combed their hair and kissed them, all wearing nightgowns as it was close to their bedtime. Available on Wikipedia, it is a harrowing story. Heide, the youngest, had scrambled up onto the table. Helga, who was the oldest and whom Misch called the brightest of the children, was “crying softly” just before bedtime and wore a glum expression. The others seemed unaware of the impending danger. But Helga was 12 going on 13, and seemed to sense that the adults were lying to her about the outcome of the war; in fact she had been asking what would happen to them. Misch felt Helga had little fondness for her mother. Magda had to push Helga towards the stairs that led up to the higher level of the bunker. Four-year-old Heide, who had tonsilitis and wore a scarf around her neck, turned back to look at Misch, giggling, and teasingly said, “Misch, Misch, du bist ein Fisch” (Misch, Misch, you are a fish) just before her mother led her and her siblings upstairs.

After that, nobody saw them alive — except for their parents and the two doctors they called in. An SS dentist, Sturmbannführer (major) Helmut Kunz, quickly came in and on the pretext of inoculations for an intended trip, injected all six with morphine. When they were unconscious, another SS physician, Hitler’s personal doctor Oberstırumbannführer (lieutenant colonel) Ludwig Stumpfegger provided the cyanide ampules which Magda Goebbels crushed in their mouths to kill them.

Afterwards, Joseph and Magda Goebbels left the bunker around 20:30 and walked up to the garden of the Chancellery, where they committed suicide. Their only half-burned bodies were left out in the open, where they were discovered by Soviet troops the very next day. On 3rd May 1945, the Soviets descended into the bunker, finding the children in their two-tiered bunk-beds, dressed in their night clothes, and with ribbons tied in the girls’ hair. During the autopsy, bruises were found on Helga’s face, feeding speculation that she may have tried to resist taking the cyanide.

What was Nazism all about? What levels of inhumanity could it trigger in its adherents? Even with the concentration and death camps, this probably says it better than anything else.

0023.(8th May 2021)


Lest we forget, lest we forget (Kipling). Yesterday was the 76th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

Ever since the 1942 triple turning point of Midway, El Alamein and Stalingrad, the Axis had been on the retreat. After the battle of Kursk in Summer 1943, the Wehrmacht was unable to undertake any further offensive on the Eastern Front. Later that year, the Red Army broke through the Maginot-like fortifications of the Eastern Wall or the Panther-Wotan Line.

On 6 June 1944, American and British armies landed in Normandy and opened the Western Front. Back in the East, over 23 June – 19 August 1944 Operation Bagration destroyed 28 out of the 34 divisions of Army Group Centre, and completely shattered the German front-line. In January 1945, the Vistula-Oder offensive saw the Red Army advance nearly 500 kilometres from the first to the second river, capturing Krakow, Warsaw and Poznan, liberating many concentration or death camps, and ending up only 70 km from Berlin, when Zhukov had to call a halt. On 16-19 April, the Seelow Heights fell to the Soviets. It was Götterdammerung. The Twilight of the Gods. The ring was closing around their last refuge in Valhalla. 

On 16 January Hitler and his senior staff had moved into the Führerbunker, the deep shelter and command centre nearly 9 metres below the Chancellery’s (prime ministry’s) garden, with a main concrete roof 3 metres thick and reaching 4 metres over the smaller rooms. Hitler made his last trip to the surface on his 56th birthday, 20th April. That afternoon, Soviet artillery shells started falling on Berlin. Eva Braun and the entire Goebbels family came down into the bunker on 22nd April. Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide on 30th April 1945, when Soviet troops were only 500 metres from the Führerbunker. Joseph and Magda Goebbels followed suit the next day (after killing their six children with cyanide). Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was arrested on 21st May, identified on 23rd May, and as he was being questioned immediately committed suicide, again by cyanide. Hermann Goering surrendered to advancing US army units on 6th May, tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, and on 15th October 1946, hours before he was due to be hanged also committed suicide by cyanide.

Meanwhile, a day after the Goebbels cruelty, i.e. on 2nd May 1945, Red Army soldiers put up the Soviet flag over the Reich Chancellery (see the picture above). On 7th May 1945, General Alfred Jodl, representing the German High Command, signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces, East and West at the French city of Reims. The war in the Pacific lasted for another three months. After Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August) were destroyed by two atomic bombs, Japan finally signed the instrument of surrender on 2nd September 1945.

The World War I death toll had been over 17 million (more than 9 million combatants and more than 7 million civilians). World War II, in contrast, over six long years claimed more than 70 million, perhaps as many as 75 million lives. Moreover, it was a completely different military/civilian ratio. Now it was more than 45m civilians as against more than 25m combatants.

The reversal was due to both technology and ideology. Due to advances in air power, the distinction between the front and the rear was largely erased. Long-range bombardment of Polish, British and Soviet cities by the Nazis, and then of German cities by the Allies, led to widespread devastation even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then there were new ideologies of mass murder, of superior and inferior races (or subhumans), which had been missing from WWI. They led to savage treatment of civilians under both Axis and Soviet occupation — reprisals, massacres, starvation, disease. They also led to camp systems. Together with the Soviet forced labor camps, the Gulag, they led to the even greater horror of Nazi concentration camps, death camps, and the Holocaust.

0022.(5th May 2021)


What I have put into Recommended Readings for today is about a historical controversy [0022.(BBC 4.5.2021) Napoléon’s incendiary legacy divides France 200 years on], about how to regard a certain slice of a country’s past. So it carries implicit lessons, perhaps, about how we, for example, might approach thorny questions in Turkey’s history.

Except that in this case, the supposed controversy is not so real as imaginary. I am afraid I cannot help poking some fun at this “Napoléon’s incendiary legacy” bit. What “incendiary legacy,” for heaven’s sake? Frankly, it seems as if the BBC’s Paris correspondent has been trying to stir up some spurious journalistic excitement about a non-event. (a) Today (Wednesday) happens to be the 200th anniversary of Napoléon’s death (in 1821 on St Helena in the South Atlantic). (b) There has been no tense, dramatic buildup to it over previous weeks and days. All the author can find that she thinks is worth mentioning is (c) a small southern town preparing to erect a new statue; (d) the announcement that President Emmanuel Macron will be visiting Les Invalides to lay a wreath and make a speech before Bonaparte’s tomb; and (e) a group of childish adults engaged in play-acting the general’s great battles in period costume, talking about how they are received differently in France or Italy.

So what? Why should this be such a big deal as advertised by Lucy Williamson? Of course on virtually any past event or person, it is not difficult to find a couple of historians or politicians who will say something for or against. But whether this is a real issue on a national scale is something else. On the one hand, Napoléon’s legacy is not incendiary in France. There are no big divisions around it because nobody is building anything on this or that interpretation. There is no Napoléonic empire to defend or reject, nor any current party lines drawn across it.

And on the other hand, there are many problems of French history that are far more incendiary or divisive than Napoléon. Consider, for example, the Jacobin “Terror” phase (1792-1794) of the Revolution, including the execution of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Or what Marc Bloch called the “strange defeat” (L’Etrange Défaite) in Summer 1940. Or the Nazi-French compromise over the creation of Vichy France. Or collaboration in general, as well as the postwar witch hunt for collaborators. Or whether the Résistance was as strong and glorious as it has subsequently been made out to be. It did produce great poetry (by Eluard, Aragon and others), but how big, really, was it? And did so many maquisards really fight and win all those battles that appear nowhere in German army records? Last but not least, what about the Algerian war of independence — all the atrocities, mass murders and large-scale use of torture committed by the French paratroopers under top officers like Massu, Salan, Biegard, or Paul Aussaresses — who eventually admitted and defended it, thereby confirming everything in Henri Alleg’s La Question (1958) or Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), thereby exposing an entire history of official denial and censorship that endured for decades?

One would have expected the BBC’s Paris correspondent to have known and to have mentioned something about these other and far more serious issues before resorting to clichés about an “incendiary legacy.” Worse yet, she should have also checked her facts before calling Napoléon “France’s last dictator.” Oh really? What about his nephew Louis Bonaparte, who was elected president in 1848, and then at the end of his term refused to leave office, instead staging a so-called “self-coup” in 1851 to impose himself as “president for life” before imitating his great uncle to proclaim himself Napoléon III Emperor of the French in 1852? Or what about Marshal Pétain, who went from World War I hero (as the Lion of Verdun) to Nazi collaborator and Chief of State for the Vichy régime over 1940-1944?         

This is bad, and quite below the BBC’s usual standards. And yet… my initial question about a calm and tolerant atmosphere surrounding such historical controversies remains. What is the dividing line between politics and scholarship? How can academia and academics be protected against the heavy hand and dark shadow of outside interference and ideological dictates? Here it is primarily the responsibility of politicians to refrain from fanning the flames of polarization. And my discounting of the current situation aside, France is setting a good example in this regard. About Macron’s second centenary talk, it won’t be a “blissful hagiography, or a denial, or a repentance,” the Elysée Palace has said, but will suggest that France took the best from the emperor’s legacy and separated it from the worst.

To take the best and separate it from the worst. I like that. If France can at least adopt this as a guiding principle, why can’t Turkey?


Early in this blog or diary, I uploaded a first such item [0007.(9th April 2021) TIPS FOR STUDENT COMMENTS, PAPERS OR PRESENTATIONS]. It was about (a) why you should never say things like “in my opinion” or “according to me”; and (b) why, when presenting, you should never make excuses about your work possibly not being good enough. Just do what you must do, and let others judge.


It is time for a second warning. Into the 11th week of the semester, I have been reading papers and midterm exams. The quality of writing is not very high. This is a basic problem with having English as your language of instruction. On the one hand, you have to do it. English is a world language, the world language, and Turkish is not. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, most of your reading assignments have to be books or articles published in English. And if they are going to be able to read all that academic literature, of course they should also be capable of listening, speaking and writing in English. But it is also the case that Turkish secondary education does a poor, a very poor job of teaching English as a second language. Two or three hours per week (at the hands of teachers who are not fluent themselves) is no way to acquire a foreign language. You cannot really build anything on this foundation. They have to go through a prep year. But even that is not enough. Costs aside, a key breakthrough for some Turkish universities, or at least IHU, a major educational step forward, would be to set much higher standards and require two years of language prep in English.

So I was muttering to myself as I read along, when I suddenly came across the phrase “nose of hope.” The student was writing about what has been conventionally called the Age of Discovery or the Age of Exploration, and which I prefer to call, in line with contemporary sensitivities. the European Reconnaissance. He or she (I don’t remember) was clearly trying to find the proper name for the southern tip of Africa. It is Ümit Burnu in Turkish, which is what the student has rendered as “nose of hope.” Whether this is a Google translate crime or the student’s own, obviously s/he was thinking in Turkish and then translating into English — which, I would agree, is a fundamental problem, in some sense our problem as a university, because we should be getting them to a point where they are actually thinking in English.

But of course there is a further and more basic point, which is that even with a less-than-ideal command of the English language this outcome was easily avoidable and should absolutely have been avoided — especially in the early-21st century, when, thanks to the digital revolution, so much is available on the internet. You don’t have to have heard my SPS 102 lectures 02a and 02b on the European Reconnaissance, or looked at my corresponding powerpoints, which of course you can easily find on CANVAS. If in doubt — and how can you not be in doubt when you are thinking Ümit Burnu in Turkish and converting it into “nose of hope”; how can you not suspect that the anatomical and geographical terms for burun (nose vs cape) might not be the same — you don’t even have to look for an atlas or dictionary. Simply ask “what is Ümit Burnu in English” or for “a map of Africa in English,” and you’ll immediately get Cape of Good Hope. It’ll take no more than a few seconds. If you don’t do it, it is worse than laziness. It reflects a lack of curiosity, which is a strange trait for a university student to have.

All this takes me back to another incident maybe forty years ago, when I was living in Ankara and how, browsing in Dost Kitabevi near Kızılay, I happened to come across a new edition of Ernest Hemingway’s complete works launched by Bilgi Yayınevi. They had just brought out Afrika’nın Yeşil Tepeleri (Green Hills of Africa), Hemingway’s 1935 account of a safari when safaris were really hunting and not photography safaris. I was casually leafing through it when the word rengeyiği (reindeer) suddenly leapt out of the page. I blinked, and started reading more carefully — and yes, lo and behold, Hemingway and his wife were hunting reindeer over the next five pages, hunting reindeer somewhere in Africa. I checked the translator’s name; she was identified as a graduate of the Department of American Literature in the Faculty of Letters (Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi) in Ankara.

Then and now, I have not been and I cannot possibly be polite about this. I remember writing something sarcastic about Afrikalı Rengeyikleri. The episode was actually about hunting rhino, which is short not for reindeer but rhinoceros. The translator had repeatedly seen “rhino” on the page, and had not bothered to check a dictionary for what it might be. She had simply assumed reindeer. How reindeer can possibly be abridged as rhino, I cannot possibly say. Worse, as a university graduate she was culturally clueless about where reindeer live (way up north, close to or in the Arctic Circle). Still worse, even Hemingway’s long description of a “prehistoric looking” animal, weighing more than a ton, and with a single long horn in front (instead of antlers extending to both sides of the head), had not woken her up to the fact that this could not possibly be some sort of deer. I can’t help wondering: Had she ever seen a picture of a rhinoceros?

0020.(2nd May 2021)


This is further to my comments on abstraction and symbolism. On 24th April, I wrote that this human capacity is what underpins all art and also the use of language (see “Prehistoric puzzles (2) When did art begin?”). “As we speak, we are using sound clusters to represent objects or concepts. As we write, we are using clusters of shapes that we call letters to represent sounds on paper [or some other surface].”

Of these two jumps, the second has to be much the more deliberate one. Speech seems more like a spontaneous development. Writing appears to have required a very hard conscious effort spread over time. Over some hundred thousand years, humans had developed self-awareness, and were now looking for ways to transform oral into visual communication. In his Just So Stories, published in 1902, Rudyard Kipling has two beautiful stories about “How the Alphabet was Made” and “How the First Letter was Written” (they are available in my SPS 101 web site). A Neolithic man called Tegumai Bopsulai and his daughter Taffy go fishing by the Wagai River, and then decide they want to send a message, written on a sooth piece of tree bark, to (Tegumai’s wife and Taffy’s mother) Techumai Tewindrow.

Wonderful though the children’s playgarden of Kipling’s imagination is, of course that is not how it happened. In history “one does not safely bet against continuity” (Thomas Bisson, retired Harvard medievalist, addressing the very French idea of the Feudal Revolution). There was, first, a long Proto-literate Period, characterised by the emergence of pictograms. In Egypt, pictograms develop into hieroglyphs. At this stage entire words are being  assigned to symbols. Then we get syllabic scripts (one-shape-per-syllable), as in Mesopotamian or Hittite cuneiform writing. Eventually we get to the most brilliant because simplest scheme of all: the alphabet and alphabetical scripts, using combinations of just 25-30 “letters” for everything, which because it doesn’t require memorizing some hundreds or even thousands of signs, really comprehensively “democratises” both reading and writing.   

But just when was this last step taken? At this point I am once more grateful to my colleague Enis Doko from the IHU Philosophy department for today’s Recommended Reading [0020.(The New Scientist, 16.4.2021) The alphabet may have been invented 500 years earlier than we thought]. What Glenn Schwartz and his colleagues found at the Umm el-Marra site in Syria has been interpreted as a brief excerpt of some alphabetical text by Schwartz himself, which if correct (but of course it is disputed) would take our “earliest alphabet” back from c.3800 BC to c.4300 BC. And here is an interesting sideline: Whether it was invented in 4300 or 3800 BC, “the current consensus is that the alphabet didn’t become the official writing system of any political state much before about 3200 years ago [i.e. 2200 BC]. This suggests it was passed down through many generations as an informal script that wasn’t used by royals or the powerful elite.”

This means that we have to distinguish between an invention or innovation (or a new idea), and its being actually adopted and put to social use. I hope to be returning to this notion in the near future.

0019.(1st May 2021)


Continuing to explore various prehistoric puzzles, my Recommended Reading for today is 0019.(BBC 25.11.2020) California cave depicts hallucinogenic plant, something that I came across more than five months ago, and copy-pasted for future reference. What makes it so interesting? Because it reminds us of the use of psychedelic substances in very ancient rites and ceremonies.

Consider shamanism, which used to be widespread (and perhaps still survives) among the hunting-and-gathering tribal peoples of north-central Asia, Siberia, and Alaska. In this variant of totemism, the key figure is the shaman (from šamán, perhaps of Tungusic origin), who as the embodiment and the human form of the clan totem (from whom the entire kinship group believes itself to be descended) is capable of traveling back and forth between the present and the other world. While here among us, in the course of a religious rite or ceremonial he sings and dances to reach a state of ecstasy (vecd ve istiğrak hali), which further evolves into a trance whereas far as the congregation can tell the shaman is unconscious, nor responding to any attempt to communicate with him. Eventually he wakes up, and tells of having assumed the shape of the clan totem, i.e. as a wolf or owl or eagle having run or flown off to join the world of the dead, communicated with our ancestral spirits, and then returned to life.

So much is anthropological observation; how it happens — what enables the shaman to achieve such a trance-like state — is another. Is it possible that the shaman is swept away by nothing other than his own passion? Or could it be that he is practising some kind of self-hypnosis? Or else, did they (also) use certain hallucinogenic plants to trigger, facilitate or accelerate the process? To learn about them (for example, the peyote cactus that appears to have been used by Native Americans since approximately 6000 years ago) would have come easily, given how many hundred thousand years the genus Homo spent hunting and gathering — or a few million years if we include our hominin predecessors — all of which adds up to, in Clive Ponting’s words, ninety-nine percent of human history.

All such possibilities are either stated or implied by Mircea Eliade in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951), and as for drugs, we do know that Eliade himself used them, starting with opium during his time in India, then moving to passion flower extracts, methamphetamine and mescaline in the course of his existential crisis and clinical depression in the late 1940s. In recent decades more and more attention has been devoted to this “chemical” dimension of the human experience, giving rise to both scholarly explorations (see, for example, Mary Kilbourne Matossian, Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History, revised edition 1991, or Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann and Christian Ratsch, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers, 2001) and more of a pop-shamanistic literature (e.g. Michael J. Harner (ed), Hallucinogens and Shamanism; Michael Harner, Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality). Let’s turn to fiction. In Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series the last volume is titled The Land of the Painted Caves, which is how the anonymous peoples who created Altamira and Lascaux might have called the whole region. Ayla, Jean Auel’s female super-heroine, is an acolyte of a woman who is referred to only as the First, who is training her, Ayla, to become a Zelandoni, a spiritual leader of the People of the Ninth Cave. In the process Ayla has two psychedelic experiences with a moderate and then a very powerful psychedelic substance, which induces a long coma and nearly kills her. She eventually wakes and continues with her apprenticeship.

It is against this broad background that 0019.(BBC 25.11.2020) California cave depicts hallucinogenic plant should be situated. There is a site in southern California called the Pinwheel Cave where the wall paintings made by Native Americans are only around 400 years old (i.e. done in the late-16th or early-17th centuries, when European colonisation of North America had not even begun to take its first steps). Now it has emerged through further study that the botanical remains found in the cave are the Datura plant, while some of the paintings on the walls also show the same plant’s flowering and unfurling process. The Datura is known to have been “used historically for its psychoactive effects,” so that these findings do present “the first clear evidence for the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site.” The cave is likely to have been a communal area, so that the rock art could have been “setting the scene” and “acting as visual catalysts” for such communal experiences.

Ayla’s story seems to have come full circle.

0018.(30th April 2021)


This instalment is two days late. On Wednesday, 28th April, I uploaded four more articles on prehistoric art into my “Recommended Readings” box: 0018.1.(BBC 7.11.2018) ‘Oldest animal painting’ discovered in Borneo plus 0018.2.(BBC 12.12.2019) Sulawesi cave art 44,000 years old plus 0018.3.(BBC 23.5.2013) Cave paintings found in Burgos, Mexico plus 0018.4.(BBC 4.12.2020) Ancient Amazon rock art with prehistoric creatures. But I failed to provide any sort of introduction for them. I didn’t have the time. I am doing too much, especially teaching too much. Preparing lectures or preliminary notes for discussion, writing exams and answer keys, as well actual time in class, could be taking more than 40 hours per week. This is what life has become like under COVID. And as yet there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Anyway. In these four articles, note, first, the universality of the phenomenon. What we call Eurocentrism was, in a way, inevitable. As in most other disciplines, modern archeology, anthropology and art history, too, emerged and developed in Europe. And of course European elites initially focused on what was closest to them, what they were most familiar with, i.e. their own history and geography; only in time did their horizons expand to include other peoples and continents. It was at that second intellectual “moment” that the negative aspect came into play: the European gaze, turned outward, came to see and judge everything else by its own standards, what it accepted as “normal” in comparison with which everything else became “abnormal” or “subnormal.” So this Eurocentric mentality turned on the Orient produced Orientalism (Edward Said); turned on Eastern Europe it gave rise to East Europeanism (Larry Wolff); turned on the Balkans it resulted in Balkanism (Maria Todorova).

But please let us beware of assuming that nothing has changed or is likely to change in Western academia. This, emphatically, is not the case. On the contrary: with post-1945 decolonization as their “constitutive outside,” the leading edge of the humanities and social sciences has evolved enormously over especially the last five decades (indeed, it is this overall process that frames Said’s, Wolff’s, Todorova’s or others’ critical approaches and seminal contributions). To reject this positive development is to persist in a smugly Occidentalizing sort of ignorance.

So with regard to prehistoric art, for example, while the earliest discoveries came in southern France and northern Spain, as part of an immense globalization of scholarship new findings are cropping up wherever humans have lived, including remote corners of Southeast Asia (Borneo 0018.1 and Sulawesi 0018.2), Mexico (Burgos 0018.3), or the Amazon rain forest (0018.4). So the connection between tribal, hunting and gathering societies and cave art is firmer than ever. But in the process, please also note, secondly, that this is an expansion in time as well as space. Our notion of the “oldest” keeps sliding further and further back. Altamira has been dated to 36,000 and Lascaux to 17,000 years ago. In 2018, a painting of (possibly) a banteng in the East Kalimantan jungle on Borneo was dated to at least 40,000 years ago, which made it “the earliest known figurative artwork.” Simultaneously, two nearby hand stencils (examples of abstract art) were dated to at least 37,000 years ago, while a third was ascertained to have a maximum age of 51,800 years — all in all, enabling researchers to conclude that “rock art locally developed in Borneo between around 52,000 and 40,000 years ago” (for all, see 0018.1). The next year, other caves in Sulawesi took the “earliest art” back to 47-44,000 years ago (0018.2). But meanwhile, other findings in Europe, published in Science in 2018, took that threshold back to 65,000 years ago, and other scientists said that they had found “humanity’s oldest drawing” on a rock fragment in South Africa dated to 73,000 years ago.

Thirdly, note the Neanderthals dimension of such constant backdating: Since 65,000 years ago is far earlier than the known arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe, it reinforces suggestions that the most ancient beginnings of art might have been the work of Neanderthals, further blurring the 1/0 binary opposition view between H. sapiens versus H. neandertalensis that was held for a long time. But this aside, fourth, note the appearance of the first “stories” in art. This is  actual hunting scenes in the Southeast Asian caves: the Borneo banteng appears to have a spear sticking in its side, while the Sulawesi anoa seems to be surrounded by men (hunters) carrying spears and ropes for killing or capturing purposes. If these observations are correct (as they might not be; see below), then these become the oldest action narratives that we know (as against single figures not integrated into a story unfolding over time). Fifth, note other bits and pieces of new knowledge, and how they help scholars to fill certain gaps in our knowledge so as to arrive at a bigger and more complete picture: the Burgos (Mexico) paintings reveal a particular region to have been not uninhabited but populated by humans (possibly fleeing to take refuge in this remote area), while the Amazon rainforest images from 12,600 to 11,800 years ago provide us with distinctive images of gigantic Ice Age species that later became extinct. (such as mastodons, giant sloths or Ice Age horses)

Sixth, crucially, note yet again the scientific rigor embodied in all these discoveries. Scientists are not given to jumping to conclusions before they have tested and tried everything. Instead, they cautiously, politely, prudently question their own and their colleagues’ conclusions. Have they really made the best use of their evidence? For example, with regard to the Borneo banteng, Alistair Pike, a British professor of archeology, asks whether the calcium carbonate deposit that was uranium-thorium dated to 44,000 years ago was actually part of the same picture as the animal itself: although they are just 15 cm apart, could they have been painted separately and at different times? A similar question arises about the Sulawesi anoa and the hunters surrounding it: were they painted together and simultaneously, or could the hunters have been added at a later point in time? And there is so much that we still don’t know. These discoveries, says one researcher, don’t tell us much about where art originated. Was there a single centre, or several centres where it emerged? “I think things develop independently,” says professor d’Errico: “There may be other areas where people were producing something similar but we haven’t found it yet, or that it wasn’t preserved,” he tells BBC News.

And this is further related to seventh, the protracted drama of humanity’s mental development. It may not be a single one-time jump, but a long-drawn-out process: “I think that symbolic thinking and abstract representation have a long history. They develop gradually over 100,000 years if not more. It’s probably something that is created, abandoned and then re-created in new form.”

I keep emphasizing the same thing again and again: scientism and science (or scientific knowledge) are different things — as with Orientalism and Oriental Studies. There is the discipline, and then there are its ideological offshoots or exacerbations. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let us not fall into the trap of belittling, trivializing or relativizing science.

0017.(25th April 2021)


My series on “Prehistoric Puzzles” will have to wait a bit. There is something more current, more pressing. Racism did not arise with modern imperialism and colonialism. It is far more ancient. Forms of otherization are likely to have been there from the very beginning, and in her Earth’s Children series of prehistoric novels set c.30,000 years ago, Jean Auel makes some members of Homo sapiens tribes refer to Neanderthals as “flatheads” – which, because of its embodied bigotry (comparable to saying “nigger” today), Ayla, the female heroine of these novels, firmly opposes.

Still, it’s also true that racism as an extreme form of otherization really takes off with the European Reconnaissance and the emergence of Europe’s first Early Modern empires-by-sea, and is further strengthened over 1870-1914 by Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire. All colonial or semi-colonial peoples are regarded as inferior to Westerners, but as skin color (although wholly irrelevant) is regarded as a special marker, against “civilized” whites there is constructed a descending ladder of yellows (China and Japan), browns (Arabs) and blacks (Africans), with Australian aborigines at the very bottom — a classification that goes hand in hand with “the Myth of Continents,” which argues that all such hierarchies are based on climate and the environment. This is yet another exaggerated, unwarranted claim for pseudo-scientific determinism.

Anyway. So racism has been with us for a long time, including its most visible and noticeable variant of anti-black racism, against which an almost equally long struggle has also been going on before and after the American Civil War (1861-1865) and to this day. George Floyd’s murder, last year’s massive Black Lives Matter protests, and the recent, unanimous guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin are only the latest episodes in this saga. Racism is omnipresent in American professional sports as well as football games throughout Europe (against which more and more players, clubs and federations are taking an active stand). But racism (and anti-racism) are also present in what we might call high culture. Just consider my Recommended Reading for today [0017.(BBC 23.4.2021) Black ballet dancer Lopes Gomes wins Berlin racism case].  

0016.(24th April 2021)


In SPS 102 (Humanity and Society II), I devote parts of some early lectures to the origins of art. I come to this by way of examining the evidence for prehistoric hunting and gathering. Crucial in this regard is archeology, which gives us sites with animal bones that are seen, under the microscope, to have been cut or smashed by stone tools which in turn were carved and shaped by humans. So we do know, just from this much, that early humans did hunt various animals. Then there are also cave paintings depicting deer, bisons, antelopes or other species that existed at the time. Sometimes they are accompanied by (tiny, matchstick-type) human figures, as well as spears or arrows flying in the air. In that case, the hunting scene is complete. But even if only animals are shown, we may still infer that their nameless painters were reproducing what they were most familiar with, what their sustenance depended on.

At this point I stop and draw attention to this question of figurative reproduction or representation. I pose the question of what is art — and how does it begin, what is required for art to begin. It is, in effect, a second or alternative reality. There is the physical reality outside the cave, the natural world inhabited by animals and plants, which humans also enter. Then on the walls of the cave, there are these animal figures which we immediately understand to be representing, and to have been intended to represent, the outside world. For the first time, abstraction comes into play. The picture is an abstraction from, or a symbol of, reality. It starts (so we thought) with hand stencils. Before they begin to draw and paint animals, our prehistoric ancestors simply reproduce their hands on the walls of their (living or ritual) caves. They put their hand against the wall, and blow paint over it, so that when remove their hand, its shape is left on the rock: a new hand, an alternative hand. We were here, we were human, it seems to be whispering to us across the ages. Even earlier, there may have been just red dots or other simple shapes, it appears. In any case, this ability to let one thing represent another “is one of those traits that set our animal species apart from all others,” notes my Recommended Reading for today [0016.(BBC 15.6.2012) Red dot becomes ‘oldest cave art’]. “It is what underpins artistic endeavour and also the use of language.” As we speak, we are using sound clusters to represent objects or concepts. As we write, we are using clusters of shapes that we call letters to represent sounds on paper. This is why “[t]racing the origins of abstract thought and behaviours, and the rate at which they developed, are critical to understanding the human story.”

But when did humans acquire this ability, and which humans, and where? Until fairly recently, attention focused on Stone Age art in Europe. The earliest discoveries came in southern France and northern Spain: Altamira in 1868, Lascaux in 1940. The paintings in the first were dated to around 36,000 and in the second to 17,000 years ago. In parallel, Homo sapiens was ascertained to have first moved out of Africa into Europe around 41 – 40,000 years ago. To it was added the asumption of Neanderthal “primitiveness,” and it was concluded that early art must have been “our” invention, (like articulate speech) a monopoly of H. sapiens.

Recent developments in different corners of the world are changing a lot of such verdicts. In Southeast Asia, for example, in Borneo and Sulawesi there have been findings in 2018 and 2019 that take the “oldest” cave paintings back to 47,000 years ago. But meanwhile, in Europe itself that “oldest” threshold may have been to 73,000 years ago. So my Red dot becomes ‘oldest cave art’ offering for today, published in 2012 (which I copy-pasted into my library at that time), is a bit obsolete in that regard. Still, it is important in other ways, not least because of what it says about the incredible precision of the dating methods used: scraping very thin films of calcite crusts and subjecting them to uranium-thorium measurements. Scholarly rigor is also very much in evidence vis-à-vis authorship. Once more we come up against Homo sapiens versus Homo neandertalensis. “The oldest dates coincide with the first known immigration into Europe of modern humans. Before about 41,000 years ago, it is their evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals who dominate the continent.” This has led one of the researchers to suspect that it might be Neanderthals behind the red dots. “There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship,” Prof Zilhao explains. But then he hedges: “I will not say we have proven it because we haven’t, and it cannot be proven at this time.”

I will be continuing with Borneo, Sulawesi, Mexico, and the Amazon. But the fundamental point is: This is science. This is what science is all about.

0015.(22nd April 2021)


In the early weeks of SPS 101 (Humanity and Society I) we talk about the transition from animals to humans, the anatomical changes that make this transition possible, and then the capacities and activities that make us fully human. From there we move on to scavenging, hunting and gathering as a first major livelihood, with references to the evidence for it, including cave paintings, or art in the Stone Ages.

This question of “how do we know” is crucial, for in the background, and also lurking between the lines, are intriguing problems of science as a reliable route to knowledge, carrying within itself a methodology of testing and re-testing its conclusions, a methodology based on verification through the possibility of self-falsification. Thus on the one hand, we do have a broad view of human evolution that is accepted as generally correct by this field’s scientific community (comprising paleobotanists, paleozoologists, anthropologists and paleoanthropologists, molecular biologists, geneticists etc). There is comprehensive agreement about when and how “we” separated from the gibbons, the orangutans, the gorillas, and the chimpanzees (to the extent that we can now say just what percent of our genes we share with each of these other primate species). Then there is a further agreement on a sequence of the Ramapithecines, the Australopithecines, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neandertalensis, and Homo sapiens.

But on the other side of the coin, not every single problem or sub-problem or sub-sub-problem may be said to have been definitively solved, for the evidence is not complete and seamless. How can it be, when we are talking in terms of 3-4 million years ago, or 1-2 million years ago, or 500,000 years ago, or 130,000 years ago? Inevitably there are gaps and loose ends, and hence disputes over the details. Was Homo habilis a distinct species, or an early name for what is now appearing as an aggregate of many different characteristics? Were the Denisovans limited to northern Siberia, or had they spread across Inner Asia all the way to Tibet? Here and there an earlier skull or molar is found, or a later skeleton is re-discovered in a forgotten drawer, a few more pieces are added to the jigsaw puzzle, and that section of the big picture has to be changed. Over the 80,000 years or so that they coexisted in Europe, was there sexual reproduction or inter-breeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens? While the previous answer, mostly based assumptions, was no, it has become an emphatic yes only over the last few decades – on the basis of hard, incontrovertible genome studies. When did speech begin? What was Neanderthal communication like? Did Homo sapiens create the first art, supposedly because Neanderthals were incapable of such abstraction or symbolism? This is another kind of 1/0 binary opposition that has recently gone the drain. But why did “our” Neanderthal cousins become extinct anyway? Were they outcompeted for food sources because of a greater H. sapiens capacity for planning and foresight? How does extinction happen? Could it be that Neanderthal groups became so isolated in space that eventually a low birth rate meant that there was nobody left to reproduce with?  

Please check today’s two Recommended Readings: 0015.1.(BBC 10.11.2020) Two million year-old skull unearthed in Australia and 0015.2.(Nature, 7.4.2021) Oldest Homo sapiens DNA reveals recent Neanderthal ancestry (I am grateful to Enis Doko of the IHU Philosophy Department for bring the latter to my attention). Read them not only to learn about where science has arrived, but also how it has arrived at that point. Note scholars’ incredible patience and research skills: sucking dirt through plastic straws to clean extremely fragile skull remains without touching them, or inferring from “small brains and large teeth” what Paranthropus robustus must have been chewing. Pay some attention to the intricacies of combining the evidence on Homo sapiens groups that inhabited the Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria and the Zlaty kun Cave in the Czech Republic more than 45,000 years ago. It is through such sophistication that there emerges “a population that once lived across Eurasia, but vanished from Europe and lived on in Asia.”

0014.(20th April 2021) 


I should have started with E. H. Carr. Or at least, I should have mentioned him at some point. Without him, all those constructions, inventions or imaginings would not have happened. In 1961 he published a small book titled What is History? that marked a historiographical watershed. It had some very pointed (and for some, disturbing) things to say about history and historians, about facts, about bias, about honesty, about how historians work, what they admit and don’t admit to themselves and their audience, and how, ultimately, historical knowledge is produced. It counterposed its trenchant critique on all these and related points to an entire 19th century tradition of history as a supposedly 100 percent neutral, objective, purely scientific occupation.

Carr did not say, and I am not saying, that the very opposite was the case – that history was or is nothing but fiction, a pack of unreliable fantasies by people with no concern for the truth. On the contrary, just to start with the last bit, historians do (or should) dedicate themselves, then and now, to pursuing historical truth — in Leopold von Ranke’s famous wie es eigentlich gewesen principle, to get at “things as they actually were.” To that end, starting with the University of Berlin founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt, in newly introduced Quellenkritik (source criticism) seminars generations of Humboldt’s and Ranke’s followers learned about how to handle their primary sources with extreme precision and exactitude, moving from an external to an internal critique to establish the authenticity and veracity of any document. These were tremendous advances that continue to define the practice of historians to this day. At the end of the day, it remains an empirically grounded discipline. It is deductive rather than inductive. It does not start with any axioms (as in economics), but by trying to get at the “facts” — whatever they might be and however they might be constituted — and then moving up from them to broader conclusions. The aesthetics of history have changed considerably over the last two centuries. The kinds of questions that we ask of our documents (or other sources) have evolved from “history from above” to “history from below” to what we might call “history from both ends” – from legal, constitutional and political history, to economic history, to social history, to cultural history, to the history of mentalities. But the basic methodology has remained the same. Marxists, Weberians, the Annales School, or the Italian microhistorians have all contributed their diverse insights. They have enormously enriched our minds and expanded our horizons. Yet none of them have proposed an alternative to working through what we call “primary sources” (written or material) to solve specific research questions so as to arrive at successively better understandings of “what actually happened” in history.    

But of course, documents and the “facts” that they provide (or seem to provide) do not speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted, and it is here that problems arise. History had existed for a long time (since the 5th century BC days of Herodotus and Thucydides), but together with all other disciplines, whether old or new, it, too, was redefined, systematised, and institutionalised (departmentalised) in the early-19th century. That redefinition went hand in hand with a series of separations: first from literature and philosophy (meaning especially the philosophy of history). But also from the new social sciences of economics or sociology. For Rankean empiricists these were all tainted with unfounded myths, or with excessive generalization about “laws” and hence futurology, or with theories. Instead, historians told themselves and all others that henceforth their business was to look only and only for the particular, even the unique (but how can one investigate the specific without a sense of the general, and hence comparisons within that general, they did not say). Having in this way established an ultra-positivistic, ultra-empiricistic canon 19th century historians pretended to be saying nothing but what their documents told them. Any theory, any starting hypothesis meant bringing in ideology and prejudice.

It was a double illusion. First, because of the way our minds work, it is simply impossible, in sheer practical terms, to begin with a “clean slate” (tabula rasa) without any overt or covert comparisons, theories (or fragments of theories), or any other form of “preconceived ideas.” So the question is not to deny or reject theory, but to be explicit about our assumptions, not to take them too far, and not to substitute them for direct penetration of the empirical material — in other words, to learn to use theory properly. ,

Second, this is precisely what they themselves did not do. Against all their professions of innocence, we mnight say with Shakespeare: The lady doth protest too much, methinks (Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, Act III, Scene II). It was an age of scientism, an age of nationalism and nation-statism, an age of Eurocentrism and Orientalism. These were the external requirements surrounding the history profession in the 19th century. How many historians (or other social scientists) recognized and did not bend to such atmospheric pressures? At the very least, they normalised and naturalised their own world nationalism, their own divine interventionism, their own Eurocentrism, their own religious or racial) sense of manifest destiny. Some (like the Prussian ultra-nationalist and ultra-statist Heinrich von Treitschke) went so far as to defend them outright. Still, all the accompanying claims of non-ideological, non-political objectivity were taken at face value were long taken at face value, while criticism came mostly from outside the profession and academia, and were also themselves frequently guilty of other forms of one-sidedness, dogmatism, false scientism and simultaneous over-politicization (as in the case Marxist attacks on “bourgeois” history and historians, with which it was difficult to find a professional common ground). Sadly, they did a lot to help relativize their own militancies.

Nevertheless, discontent kept mounting over time, breakaways and heresies multiplied, in Medieval history the Annales School moderated Marxism and put it to better use, and eventually a decisive blow came from within (British) academia in the form of a methodological statement that was not limited to this or that particular field but of general significance – in Kantian terms not a hypothetical but a categorical imperative. It fell to E. H. Carr to give classic expression to an idea whose time had come, putting everything together in mature, strong, convincing fashion in order to show that there is no such thing as a historian who does not have his/her ideo-political preferences. Of course there are the internal requirements of the discipline, but there is also its constitutive outside, including revolutionism or anti-revolutionism, or liberalism or conservatism, or exigencies of nation-building or empire-building. Hence the entire process of knowledge-creation is not only and purely empirical research, a relationship between only the historian and his/her sources. Instead it is (at least) a triangular relationship between the historian in one corner, the evidence in another corner, and the overall ideo-political context in the third, Your interpretations are fed not only by what you have found (or think you have found) in your documents, but also how you think (or have ben conditioned to think). So to take an example from my own research, it is not anything that Ömer Lütfi Barkan (1902-1979) found in the Ottoman archives that led him to launch a feverish argument about why the timar system was “not feudal.” In fact, contrary to most of his evidence, it was the Kemalist ideological matrix of Turkish nation-state formation in the 1930s that forced him to that verdict.

So first there was Carr (1961) to demonstrate, in general, that history books were combinations of scholarship (or scholary findings) and ideological conditioning, and then along came Edward Said (1978) to demonstrate, in a more specific area-application, that the overlap between Oriental Studies and Orientalism conformed to the same pattern: the former was the scholarship and the latter the ideology, with the further proviso that they came together. But to go back to the beginning; does all this mean that there is no difference between writing fiction and writing history? That we are free to go wherever our fancies might take us? Not really. Our new sensibilities are there not to release us from all responsibility, but to make us more self-aware, and to put us on our guard against our own possible prejudices. It is a question of mastering our own demons instead of being seduced by them.

I remember Anthony Bryer (1937-2016) quipping in one of his Byzantine seminars in Birmingham that “without documents we would all be out of a job.” Thirty years ago, when I myself criticised document-fetishism, I too did not mean that historians could do without primary sources (as some pretentious hypocrites have chosen to represent what I said), but simply that documents by themselves do not confess to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Not only do we have to drag it out of our sources, but also to construct it. It is a two-sided dialectic. On the one hand, the truth (of history) is elusive, the road to it tortuous, and our individual or generational conclusions always approximate, hence subject to further improvement. It is like a hyperbola’s asymptotic approach to its axes, which it never intersects, though the distance between them grows smaller and smaller. Yet if the quest is not there; if we are not committed to pursuing the reality of the past to the best of our ability, then we historians do not have a professional ethic binding us. We don’t exist as a craft guild on a universal scale. Post-truth is not for scholars. Worshipping and exonerating post-truth approaches, régimes or ideas is not for historians.

0013.(18th April 2021) 


I can see some eyebrows being raised. If not in academic circles, then in popular culture. What? Invented traditions? How can traditions be invented? Traditions are not invented; they are… well, traditions. Nobody has deliberately created them. They have existed from time immemorial.  

Yesterday, for example, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was put to rest. He died at Windsor Castle on 9th April, and his funeral took place, again at Windsor Castle, on 17th April 2021. Due to covid restrictions, the direct participation was quite small: only thirty mourners, plus nearly 800 military and civilian staff. Other countries might make exceptions for major political or state events. Even facing a pandemic of such massive and legal proportions, crowds might be allowed to gather for governments or parties in power. Not in England. Of course the very existence of a royal house is inequality and privilege. But it had to abide — it recognised and accepted that it had to abide — by the same rules as everybody else. Still, there was audio-visual compensation. From start to finish, the whole event was televised by the BBC and watched by millions.

Even if, like me, you are neither British nor Christian nor with any degree of affection for dynastic states or the colonial Great Powers of yesteryear, I suspect that you might still have appreciated this careful, measured, calculated combination of religious, imperial, and military cultures. The quiet that descended on everything. The silent wait. The band. The honor guard. The pall-bearers. Their colorful uniforms, representing the various branches of the armed forces. The coffin, draped in Philip’s own coat of arms, and his Admiral of the Fleet sword and cap on top. Slowly carried to and placed in the hearse. The queen’s arrival in her claret-and-black state Bentley. The formation of the cortège. The slow, solemn procession from the castle to St George’s Chapel. The accompanying marcia funebre, punctuated by single gun salutes followed by a single bell. Ascending, step by step, the church’s staircase. A final minute of silence at the entrance, simultaneously observed all over the country. Then inside, the beginning of the religious last rites. The Dean of Windsor and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The dispersed seating. The queen alone by herself. Readings from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Prayers. Singing. Psalms. And a martial ending. Philip’s styles and titles are read. The catafalque begins to descend into the Royal Vaults under the chapel. A Scottish regiment’s pipe major plays A Lament on the bagpipes, walking away from us as he and the melody recede in the distance. The buglers of the Royal Marines sound The Last Post (which would be comparable to the Turkish tadat, the day’s final head count). The state trumpeters of the Household Cavalry play Reveille (kalk borusu). The buglers close with Action Stations (silâh başına), the call to prepare for battle at sea.  

No display of excessive emotions. No melodramatics. Instead, restrained mourning. Simple, dignified, understated — and monumental. Nobody put a foot wrong. No hitch, no hesitation at any point. A consummate choreography. Well, of course, an entire monarchical and aristocratic sense of occasion; a long-established etiquette and protocol; royal rituals that have been around for centuries — would you say?  

Not really. To see why, please read (or go back to) David Cannadine’s essay on “The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, c.1820-1977”, which argues that the pageantry which surrounds the British monarchy does not date from a very distant past (marked by rather shabby practices) but is actually the product of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It is in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp 101-164. That same year,  mind you, also saw the appearance of  Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism and Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. All came in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). And as a threesome (or foursome) they marked a sea-change in the social sciences. As Hobsbawm put it in his Introduction, many “traditions” which “appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.” Modern processes of nationalism and nation-building have proved particularly fertile ground for such invented traditions that are intended and designed to create a national identity promoting national unity, and legitimising certain institutions or cultural practices. This turns out to be very relevant for studying the entire 20th century course of Turkish nationalism.

Meanwhile, if you have started with Cannadine, why don’t you also read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s, Prys Morgan’s, Bernard Cohn’s and Terence Ranger’s contributions to the same volume, dealing with invented traditions in Scotland (clan tartans), Wales (bards and eistedfodds), India (durbars), and Africa (colonial schools and elites)? And then continue to Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe (1994) and Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans (1997)? Constructions, inventions, imaginings. All have become part and parcel of the conceptual toolbox of modern historians.0012.(17th April 2021).

0012.(17th April 2021)


A famous “artist’s imagination” illustration of the sinking of the Titanic

In your Recommended Readings for today, [0012.(BBC 16.4.2021) Titanic – searching for the ‘missing’ Chinese survivors] tells the story of another flotsam.

The Titanic sank 109 years and two days ago. She struck an iceberg at 11:40 pm (ship’s time) on 14th April, remaining afloat for 2 hours and 40 minutes before disappearing below the waves early on 15th April 1912. Her legend endures — she remains the most tragically charismatic symbol of a Gilded Age of ocean liners that began in the late-19th century, extended  beyond World War I, and came to an end (after 1945) with air travel. While it lasted, its cost-profit calculations were based on massive transatlantic migration from the most backward, poverty-stricken, class-oppressed parts of Europe to the United States. Roughly speaking, low-paying Steerage of Third Class passengers (mostly from Ireland, Italy, Greece and the Balkans, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia or Ukraine) were expected to cover the cost, while the luxurious First and Second Classes provided the profit margin. It was a growing and increasingly competitive market, and it was in order to meet the challenge of its main rivals such as the Cunard Line, as well as, in Germany, Hamburg America or Norddeutscher Lloyd, that in 1908 the White Star Line placed an order with the shipbuilders Harland and Wolff in Belfast for three giants that would be “larger than anything that had gone before while also providing the last word in comfort and luxury” (Wikipedia). Out came the Olympic, the Britannic, and the Titanic – length 270 metres, beam 28 metres, draft 10.5 metres, and displacing 52,000 tons. They each cost 3 million dollars at the time, which is like 300 million dollars today. (I may be touching on the technology involved in next week’s 19-21 April SPS 102 lectures on the Industrial Revolution.)

And then the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York — and of her estimated 2,224 passengers and crew, she took more than 1,500 with her. By far the vast majority, as you might imagine, were the Steerage passengers down below, while it was the First and Second Class passengers of the two top decks that had relatively easy access to the lifeboats (many of which were lowered half-empty). But among those who survived were six of the eight Chinese on board, who appear to have been sailors crossing the Atlantic to look for work in the Caribbean. Yet, despite their ordeal in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, the New World was not kind to them. They were made the target of racist slanders in the hysteric aftermath of the disaster. They were refused entry to the US on the basis of the so-called Chinese Exclusion Act. They went to Cuba and from there to the UK, and found employment in the labor-scarcity years of World War I. But then came the post-war recession of the 1920s, coupled with an anti-immigrant escalation, and even though some of them had married British women and had had children, they were summarily deported without any regard for their families. One went to Hong Kong, another to Kolkata (Calcutta), a third to India. A fourth, who had escaped on that fateful night of 15th April 1912 by first tying himself to a wooden cabin door and then being picked up by a lifeboat, eventually gained US citizenship, where after having to cope with racist slurs throughout his later years, he died in old age.

This is just a quick summary. You would do well to read [0012.(BBC 16.4.2021) Titanic – searching for the ‘missing’ Chinese survivors] for the details.

0011.(16th April 2021)_


Where is he today? The world has descended into yet another dark age. And by that I don’t mean the pandemic, or only or mostly the pandemic. Although that, too, resonates with the Spanish flu (İspanyol nezlesi) of 1918-1920 that infected around 500 million and killed maybe 20-50 million of them. But no, I am thinking especially of our exiles, outcasts, refugees. Remarque wrote about those in the 1920s and 30s. The 21st century promises to be a century of immigration — and of resistance to it. Everywhere masses of people are fleeing disaster societies. And everywhere doors are closing in their face. Walls are built to keep them out (or keep them in and keep them separate). Nationalism, racism, xenophobia are marshalled to demonize and ostracize them. Why can’t we have another, a modern Erich Maria Remarque to bring, for example, the recreate the lives of Turkey’s five million Syrian refugees and bring them home to all of us? 

I read him in my teens. When I was reading anything and everything that I could get my hands on. The rented flat in İzmir where (I was told) I had been born, and which holds all my memories until I was 17 and about to leave for the US, had a peculiar ground plan which embodied a massive, a glorious waste of space. Through the outside door you entered a large square hall, which led into my parents’ bedroom straight ahead, as well as a seemingly endless corridor stretching left (13 metres long, as I found when I learned to count the floor tiles), which in turn opened into a living room, a dining room, my grandparents’ room, and my own corner room, all arranged in single file, one after the other, and with enormously high ceilings, so high that if your balloon escaped there was really no way to get it down. As for the entrance hall, it held our noisy ancient fridge that rumbled and gurgled perpetually like a car trying to get started but not quite succeeding, as well as a tall red cupboard or cabinet that was the one big treasure chest in our household. In addition to my mother’s architectural drawing kits, T-rulers, stencils, compasses etc, it held all the books in the universe, so it seemed to my childhood imagination. It was in that mysterious treasure chest that I went hunting and exploring, and where I first encountered the French and the Russians: Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, plus Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenyev, Lermontov. As well as Erich Maria Remarque. In Turkish, of course, starting with Garp Cephesinde Yeni Bir Şey Yok (Im Westen nichts Neues; All Quiet on the Western Front), and continuing into the softly romantic Interwar narratives, mostly translated by Burhan Arpad: Üç Arkadaş (Drei Kamaraden; Three Comrades); İnsanları Seveceksin (Liebe deinen Nachsten; Flotsam); Zafer Tâkı (Arc de Triomphe; Arch of Triumph).  

Thinking back on it, even at that young age I was wholly absorbed by that pathos, the pathos of all those marginal, excluded, persecuted characters, sometimes stateless, always destitute, yet not giving up: still hoping, still struggling, still capable of caring for others, extending affection and protection, and even of falling in love desperate though it might be . When I was 14 or 15 I wouldn’t have been able to put it into so many words, but above all it was the sad and gently human halo Remarque enveloped them in that swept me off my feet. Fast forward by sixty years: when I was designing HUM 406 (The Twentieth Century in European Art and Literature), for how Fascism and Nazism impacted on ordinary people’s lives: the likes of Auden’s Unknown Citizen or Orhan Veli’s Süleyman Efendi, it was The Black Obelisk’s Ludwig, or Otto Köster, Gottfried Lenz, and Robert Lohkamp plus Patricia Hollmann in Three Comrades, or Joseph Steiner and Marie, and Kern and Ruth in Flotsam, or Ravic and Joan in Arch of Triumph, that I immediately thought of. It has stimulated some interesting discussions. I asked my class about who they most identified with, and the votes came out rather evenly divided between two figures who, in the face of their own hardships and tragedies, persist in helping and caring for others: Otto Köster and Joseph Steiner. I liked that; for similar reasons Joseph Steiner, the tough yet tolerant  Jewish exile in Flotsam, reminiscent of the experienced old soldier Katczynski in All Quiet who is the “fixer” for Paul Baumer’s much younger crowd of former high school students, has always been my favorite. More specifically, here is what one of them, Ms Elif Gülyeşil, had to say as she systematically explored (in notes that I have partially edited and corrected) “Common themes between Flotsam and Arch of Triumph” :

First there is a dominant theme of drifting along without any legal documents, any permanent residence or passport. In both novels, leading figures or chief couples have to flee and hide from the police or other authorities. They are ordinary, average, innocent human beings who are being treated like criminals. They can neither get a passport nor stay in any country. Instead, they have to be on the run all the time.

Another joint topic is about the difficulty of finding safe and steady jobs. In Arch of Triumph, Ravic works at a Paris clinic as a ghost surgeon, and he also provides medical examinations for prostitutes in brothels. In Flotsam, Kern is looking for jobs nonstop. At one point he finds a job in an amusement park in Vienna, which seems relatively promising compared with the others.

Curiously, in both novels there is an element of the theatre. Even in more affluent places in peaceful times, being an actress or engaging in theatrical work seems unstable and not necessarily promising. Generally speaking, all the jobs available to the refugees in these books could be anything from housekeeping to street-peddling selling cheap third-class things. At the same time, Remarque’s repeated theatre-and-actress motifs made me think that either he must himself had had a theatre experience, [from here on, this is what I have added – HB] or that he regards it as a most fragile occupation, or perhaps that he is using this stage or drama motif to echo and to sharpen our sense of the drama that is taking place in real life.

Some primary female figures — Ruth and Joan — stand out from among other women (and men) with their skilled and educationally qualified attributes. Joan is an actress with a good attention span and a little mystery surrounding her. Ruth is a student who carries thick books and has a hard time letting them go even for the sake of survival. They are strong, autonomous, independent.

This upheaval also includes romance. They need something, somebody, to hold on to. They have such small lives and harmless desires that it seems absurd for them to be treated like villains. All they want is to have a home to live in, to not worry about tomorrow, to be able to make plans for just one week — and to be able to love someone without the fear of being inconstant due to camps or imprisonment, to be able to come home and find their loved ones safe and sound, to be able to think of having a baby, of having ordinary family nights filled with small talk, laughter and champagne.

Instead, in Flotsam Ruth and Kern come to a point where they have to rent a room at a brothel just to sleep safely. They are in their bed next to each other, homesick and downcast, but the couple in the next room are loudly making love. It is a striking contrast.

Or consider this conversation, in Arch of Triumph, between Ravic and Joan, where Joan is attempting to leave and Ravic begs for togetherness out of a very sweet and innocent urge: one more night to shoulder her sleeping head:

Ravic put his glass down. “You know you would leave me again — tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, sometime –” he said. Joan lowered her head. “Yes.” “And if you returned — you know you would always go again –” “Yes.” She raised her face. It was flooded with tears. “What is it, Ravic? What is it?” “I don’t know either.” He smiled. “Sometimes love is not very gay, is it?” “No.” She looked at him. “Why is it this way with us, Ravic?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know that either, Joan. Maybe because we have nothing left to hold onto. Before, one had many things — security, background, faith, aims — all of them friendly railings to which we could hold when love shook us. Nowadays we don’t have anything — at best a little despair, a little courage, and otherwise strangeness within and without. Then if love is in, it is like a torch on dry straw. One doesn’t have anything but love — that makes it different — wilder, more important, and more destructive.”

Also significant in this regard is how men behave with regard to their beloveds. This is yet another common point, which may come from Eric Maria Remarque’s own personality. They are gentle and protective but not superior. Both Ravic and Kern are loyal to their loved ones even when they are in brothels or similar places from time to time. In fact we never witness promiscuous masculinity or physical pleasure, even though it might serve as a great defence mechanism for men in times of trouble. It is important for men to feel potent and in control, and to seek a relationship in which they can dominate women who they perceive to be weaker; hence they tend to fall into the trap of becoming less humane, less empathetic and more narcissistic. I will turn again to the brothel scene, which was really remarkable to me because while we get a sense of “only and only flesh” kind of uncleanness from the sounds of love-making next door, we don’t see it affecting Kern in any way. Instead of being led into his own sexual fantasies, he simply hugs Ruth and dreams of a better tomorrow. Also when Ravic understands that Joan is leaving, all he wants is “one more night” to see her sleeping on his shoulder. No feeling of oppressive anger at a woman because she is leaving; no dominating sexual desires, no rigid feelings, no unhealthy defense mechanisms. It is almost feminine.

And yet, there is a difference. Arch of Triumph becomes different through Ravic. He takes his revenge against a Gestapo agent, and even though Haake has tortured Ravic himself and caused his beloved Sibylla to commit suicide, Ravic is filled with dark and heavy feelings for having killed this murderer. This kind of violence and vengeance leads me into perssimism about human life, and also colors my entire feelings for Ravic. On the other hand, with Kern I feel rather hopeful and at ease. Compared with Ravic, Kern does not even interfere violently in the fist fight that erupts around Ruth and the Jewish identity problem. He just wants to save her and leave the scene of the accident.  He and Ruth are obviously facing great problems which they may never overcome, but are nevertheless likely to find a way to live for tomorrow.

Good work. This is what close reading and participation should be like.

0010.(14th April 2021)


I keep preparing and teaching, preparing and teaching. Somehow I have ended up with six courses this semester. I don’t quite know why. Currently I am spending at least 18 hours per week in class, and at least another 18, maybe 20 hours writing lecture notes or creating powerpoints. It’s a race against time. I am only able to breathe easily when I have made it to late Thursday evening. 

I shouldn’t complain, because it is all my own doing. Even worse — I actually like it. It is how I develop and test a lot of my ideas. Ernest Hemingway watched bullfighting in Spain, by way of training himself to look and see and put down on paper exactly what he had seen. Out of it came Death in the Afternoon, which I read when I was fifteen or so. That is like sixty years ago. I particularly remember how, at one point, he describes the matador’s and the bull’s twirling bodies, now merging and now moving apart, as two volumes interacting to create an impermanent sculpture. I forget the exact words, but that is the gist of it. And that is how I think of teaching. From fleeting glimpses to words; from fleeting thoughts to words. You do have a basic script but at the same time you improvise all around it, which results in an impermanent art.

Anyway. In both HIST 213 and HUM 406, for the past two weeks we have been focusing on the rise of Fascism and Nazism. A key element has been the question of real or imagined continuities between (a) on one side the previous state, and the 19th-century style Old Conservatives who think of themselves as the patrician masters of that state, and (b) on the other side, these upstarts, the plebeian newcomers from below that were the Fascists and Nazis. What is interesting is how, with all the difference between them, the latter propagated an image of loyalty to and continuity with the former. In both cases, there was an emphasis on taking over the cause of the (Italian or German) nation that was portrayed as having fallen (or being on the verge of falling) into an abyss. Why? Not because of the failure of the ancien régime, but because of the traitors in our midst (which shall be duly taken care of). Hence Mussolini adopted the uniforms of the Italian WWI army’s elite arditi regiments for his Black Shirts. Hence, too, Hitler adopted the name of the German WWI army’s elite shock troops, the Storm Troopers (Hücum Taburları), so-called, for his Brown Shirts, NSDAP’s paramilitary Sturmabteilung units. He also designed his party banner and emblem in the colors of the German Imperial flag: a red ground, a white circle in the battle, containing a black swastika. Red, white, black: from the Second Reich, through National Socialism, to the Third Reich. The message was clear. We are not thugs or criminals. We are legitimate. We are one with the army and the state. The sacred task of saving the nation has fallen on us.

As an identity projection and a propaganda line it was successful in many ways. It provided the squadristi and the SAs with enormous self-confidence as they kept on beating, killing or terrorizing the entire opposition. It led the judiciary of the Weimar Republic, formed under the Bismarckian Empire, to regard such “patriotic” intimidation of leftists or liberals in a positive light. And ultimately it persuaded the very top echelon of the Old Conservatives, that crude and vulgar as these Fascists or Nazis were, they could nevertheless be used to crush the Left and reimpose order, after which they too could be got rid of. This was how and why King Vittorio Emmanuele handed the prime ministry over to Mussolini in 1922, and President Paul von Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor in 1933. But it didn’t turn out in the way they had hoped. Given half a chance, it was the unprecedented daring, gambling, aggressive politics of the Fascists and Nazis that turned the tables on the Old Conservatives and quickly established these horrific dictatorships.

Consider the photograph below. It is from Prussia, which was a federal state under the overall umbrella of the Weimar Republic. In 1933, when Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of a coalition government, his close comrade-in-arms Hermann Goering was made Interior Minister in the state of Prussia. That put Goering in command of the largest police force in Germany at that time. And what kind of force was it? On the left, you see a regular policeman, virtually arm-in-arm with, on the right, an SA Brown Shirt, one of 50,000 Nazis in Prussia, appointed by Goering to serve as a Hilfspolizei (auxiliary police officer). It speaks volumes for the Nazi infiltration of the state as facilitated by the “national cause” continuity that I have tried to describe.

Now from history to current time: is it possible to say that this is a danger of the past, that it is forever behind us? We are living through such a resurgence of the Far Right, that even in Europe, let alone the rest of the world, it has once more become very difficult, very fragile ground. Consider today’s two Recommended Readings: [0010.(BBC 13.4.2021) Gruppe S – German far-right group on trial for terror plot] and [0010.2.(BBC 16.9.2020) Germany far-right – police suspended for sharing neo-Nazi images]. On the one hand there is a continuing, indeed increasing menace. Look at how the Far Right has been able to win over so many policemen! Clearly, today’s extreme rightists like the German Brotherhood are able to appeal to nationalism to such an extent as to be able to mobilize modern monstrosities like the Gruppe S. But on the other hand, born out of the experience of the past there is a sharp degree of democratic watchfulness on the part of the government and the security forces. It is an ongoing struggle. The future hangs in the balance.

0009.(11th April 2021)


In fact, they can win the greatest race of all. Today, under “Recommended Readings,” see: [0009.(BBC 10.4.2021) Rachael Blackmore wins Grand National on Minella Times]. Terminology: Grand National is a horse race. Minella Times is the name of a horse. Rachael Blackmore is the name of a jockey. The jockey. Not a he but a she. The first woman rider since 1839, i.e. in more than 180 years, to have won the single most difficult, the most famous, and the most lucrative steeplechase in the world.

Now though I like sports in general, and maybe end up watching too many for my own good, I can’t say that I’m a great fan of horse racing. It is distant, aristocratic, a glamorous pastime and a snobbish social setting for the super-rich. A striking symbol, whichever way you look at it, of the immense inequalities of this world. Just think of what it costs to acquire and maintain an entire stable. Or of champagne and caviar at Ascot. And put that side by side with the slums of Manila or Mumbai. Or Africa or Brazil. Or of what is today happening in Myanmar. It’s a bit too much for me. And neither do I enjoy any form of betting or gambling. I’m very straight and square in that way. Everything I do or earn has to be the fruit of my own work.

Of course I do appreciate the incredibly beautiful combination of strength and elegance that is a horse at full gallop. And I can understand why Edgar Degas went to Longchamp near Paris to paint horses. But there is also a darker side. Cruelties that are reminiscent of gladiator fights. Race horses are trained and driven by humans for the satisfaction of humans. Hence they are bred for speed and lightness. So while they are incredibly fast, their bones are also extremely fragile. They break all too easily. And when a horse breaks a leg or ankle when going at 40 mph (or 65 kph), because it will not heal there is no option other than euthanizing it — “putting it down” or “putting it to sleep” right then and there, in front of everyone, wherever it may have fallen in the middle of the track. Meanwhile thousands will be cheering the winner and his mount.

Did I say “his”? Yes, but this, at least, has been changing, and changing rather quickly, too, over the last few decades. Indeed, horse riding (binicilik) in all its forms, whether it is flat racing, steeplechasing, show jumping, dressage, or eventing (which is a combination of the last three), is one major sport where women can and do compete together with men because their physical differences do not matter — since it is the horse that is doing most of the work, Hence it becomes a matter of experience and sensitivity to the horse under you, and when it comes to sensitivity you might even say that women have the advantage. Still, it is a probabilistic game, a matter of percentages. There have been far more men than women in the saddle, and hence the winner’s circle has also been occupied by men most of the time.

Steeplechasing, that is to say riding horses around a flat race course but also over a number of hurdles or jumps, is characteristically English and Irish because it has grown out of the Medieval nobility’s habit of fox-hunting in hills and forests, where you had to clear natural obstacles all the time. The Grand National is held annually at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool. It is brutally long and brutally hard: horses have to run 6.907 km and jump 30 fences, which are higher than any other steeplechase races. Hence it is regarded as “the ultimate test of horse and rider.” Woman jockeys have been allowed to compete since 1977, though even that step was opposed by male conservatives. Yet they have been getting closer and closer. Kate Walsh finished third in 2012. And now, in the person of Rachael Blackmore. they have won for the first time.

0008.(10th April 2021) 



Usually a lot of our knowledge is dispersed, fragmented. So a key dimension of learning (or re-learning, or learning more) involves bringing it all together, unifying and integrating it. Easier said than done. Time and again, when I pose certain questions in class, or in admissions committees and interviews, I realize that the student or students involved actually have all or most elements of the answer in their possession. Somewhere in the back of their minds. But they are unable to retrieve them — basically because they are unable to synthesize. To link, to connect. 

Here is a case in point. On the one hand, the death of a celebrity. And on the other hand, undergraduate coursework. Can you build bridges between the two? Can you apply your academic intake to closer “readings” of public events? 

Yesterday Prince Philip passed away. May he rest in peace. RIP. Latin original In pace requiescat. Corresponding to Allah rahmet eylesin.

He was 99 (1921-2021). Officially he was Duke of Edinburgh, Royal Consort to his wife Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth, please. She survives him. She is 95 (1926 – ). Officially she is Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom — and fifteen other Commonwealth realms.

I am not interested so much in him, his character, or his personal achievements, as the socio-historical background that he represented. That he (and Elizabeth) came out of. Dead or alive, they are the last relics of a bygone era. An age of European monarchies and nobilities. And their intermarriages.

Consider the following bits and pieces of information from the various obituaries now flooding the internet. His mother and father had met at the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901. At a time when all but four of Europe’s nations were monarchies, his relatives were scattered through European royalty. Some royal houses were swept away by World War One; but the world into which Philip was born was still one where monarchies were the norm.

His grandfather was the King of Greece. His father was Prince Andrew, a younger son of King George I of the Hellenes. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg [a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria], was the eldest child of Prince Louis of Battenberg and the sister of Earl Mountbatten of Burma. (Please note that ENG mount(ain) and GER berg are the same, so Mountbatten becomes the English translation and equivalent of Battenberg. In effect they are two branches, in two different countries, of the same royal-aristocratic family.)

Prince Philip of Greece was born on 10 June 1921 on the island of Corfu. His birth certificate shows the date as 28 May 1921, as Greece had not then adopted the Gregorian calendar. After a coup d’etat in 1922, his father was banished from Greece by a revolutionary court. A British warship sent by his second cousin, King George V, took the family to Italy. Baby Philip spent much of the voyage in a crib made from an orange box. They were deposited in Italy. One of Philip’s first international journeys was spent crawling around on the floor of the train from an Italian port city, “the grubby child on the desolate train pulling out of the Brindisi night,” as his sister Sophia later described it.

The prince spent his early years wandering, as his place of birth ejected him, his family disintegrated, and he moved from country to country, none of them ever his own. He began his education in France. In Paris, he lived in a house borrowed from a relative; but it was not destined to become a home. At the age of seven, he came to live with his Mountbatten relatives in England, where he attended a prep school in Surrey. In just one year, while he was at boarding school in Britain, the mental health of his mother, Princess Alice, deteriorated and she went into an asylum; his father, Prince Andrew, went off to Monte Carlo to live with his mistress; and his four sisters married and went to live in Germany. In the space of ten years he had gone from a prince of Greece to a wandering, homeless, and virtually penniless boy with no-one to care for him.

In 1933, he was sent to Schule Schloss Salem in southern Germany, which was run by educational pioneer Kurt Hahn. But within months, Hahn, who was Jewish, was forced to flee Nazi persecution. Hahn moved to Scotland where he founded Gordonstoun school, to which the prince transferred after only two terms in Germany.

With war looming, Prince Philip decided on a military career. He wanted to join the Royal Air Force but his mother’s family had a seafaring tradition and he became a cadet at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. While there he was delegated to escort the two young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the college. According to witnesses, Prince Philip, then 18, showed off a great deal. And the meeting made a deep impression on the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth.

Philip served as a Royal Navy officer in World War II. Throughout this period, he and the young Princess Elizabeth had been exchanging letters, and he was invited to stay with the Royal Family on a number of occasions. It was after one of these visits, over Christmas 1943, that Elizabeth placed a photograph of Philip, in naval uniform, on her dressing table. Their relationship developed in peacetime, although there was opposition to it from some courtiers – one of whom described Prince Philip as “rough and ill-mannered”.

But the young princess was very much in love and, in the summer of 1946, her suitor asked the King for his daughter’s hand in marriage. However, before an engagement could be announced, the prince needed a new nationality and a family name. He renounced his Greek title, became a British citizen and took his mother’s anglicised name, Mountbatten. The day before the marriage ceremony, King George VI bestowed the title of His Royal Highness on Philip and on the morning of the wedding day he was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich.

The wedding took place in Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947. It was, as Winston Churchill put it, a “flash of colour” in a grey post-war Britain. His four older sisters had all married Germans, as already indicated. While Philip fought for Britain in the Royal Navy, three of his sisters actively supported the Nazi cause; none would be invited to his wedding.

In some ways, a story of determination, overcoming hardship, and then romance. But also of criscrossing origins and relationships. Now it so happens that I did touch upon at least some of this in two different courses over the past year. Last Spring, when I was still teaching HIST 102, I devoted my Lecture 8a, on Tuesday, 17th March 2021, to the question of naming 1919-1922. I tried to explain why, on the Turkish side, I saw Millî Mücadele or İstiklâl Harbi as relatively correct, while Kurtuluş Savaşı or Millî/Ulusal Kurtuluş Savaşı involves a major historical mistake. But in a multi-perspectivity exercise, I also passed from that to the Greek side, and spoke of the consequences of the Mikrasiatiki Katastrofi (the Asia Minor Disaster) for Greek politics: the military coup (led by Plastiras and Gonatas), the colonels looking for scapegoats, show trials over a “treason” that had never happened, the six top politicians and officers that were executed, the king abdicating and leaving the country. Things that generations of Turkish students learn next to nothing about, because our educational system is to this day much too steeped in 19th century style “national history.” And in the process I mentioned an infant of 2 who managed to escape with his life:

Τhe ex-king’s brother, Prince Andrew, also a senior commanding officer in the failed campaign, had been indicted as well but was in Corfu at the time. He was arrested, transported to Athens, tried by the same tribunal a few days later, and found guilty of the same crimes, but was recognised as being “completely lacking in military command experience,” an ironic mitigation. He was sentenced to death first and then banishment from Greece for life. The prince and his family (which included his infant son, Prince Philip, later the Duke of Edinburgh) were evacuated on a British warship on December 4, leaving Corfu island for Brindisi.

See, under “Recommended Readings,” my entry 0008.1.[Originally 1001.08a.] What’s in a name- the National Struggle, 1919-1922 — an abridged version of my 17.4.2020 lecture PowerPoint. It fits what is now being written about that little boy who lived on for another 97 years, doesn’t it?

This is my direct connection to what happened yesterday. But there is also an indirect connection, for in a later course, I went into a further generalization. In Fall 2020, I was teaching HIST 325 Formations and Constructions of Europe. I started with geography, the peopling of Europe, the languages of Europe, the religions of Europe. Eventually, I made my way into the politics of Europe. By which I meant not a detailed chronological account, but an attempt to present the overall “shape” of European politics in different periods. Again under “Recommended Readings,” in 0008.2.[Originally H325.class ppt 13 (30.12.2020)] you can find another abridged PowerPoint — reduced to the few slides where, as you can see, I was trying to emphasize a historical peculiarity starting from the Early Middle Ages:    

fief-based states à privatization and hereditization à the rise of hereditary landowning nobilities à  inheritance, marriage, alliances (within the nobility) à in an overall context of “small and many” à great families (Houses), heirs and heiresses, main branches and cadet branches à dynastic marriages and relations between nobilities and royal houses à a conflictual kinship web covering virtually all Europe

So this is why Prince Philip is (or was) the tip of an entire iceberg which, now, is only a shade of the past — an ever-receding nebulousness which, yes, is deliberately and artificially given a further life in British pageantry, but no longer exercises the kind of influence over European politics that it did only a hundred years ago.

0007.(9th April 2021)


Halfway through the semester, there are certain things that I need to get off my chest. A few rather direct words of advice, which you may imagine not only to have been accumulating over time, but also to have been triggered by recent experience. Harsh words? Better now than later.


Never ever say things like: “I am not sure, but…”

Or “of course I may be wrong, but…”

Or “please correct me if I’m wrong, but…”

Or “I don’t really feel prepared, but…”

Or “I don’t know if I can say all this in my limited time, but…”

Or “I don’t know if I can meet the same high standards set by previous speakers, but…”

Ultimately, all this comes under self-pity.

And also on soliciting pity and mercy from your audience.

If you are really time-conscious, don’t waste a single minute confessing your sins.

It is entirely your problem if you are not organized.

Don’t try to pass it off to your listeners.

Don’t hedge. Don’t cringe. Don’t be defensive.

The alternative is not to be pretentious, to show off, to be cocksure.

Don’t ornament. Don’t embellish. Be simple and modest.

Just say what you have to say.

As clearly, as succinctly, and as precisely as possible.


Making small talk with your friends is one thing.

Speaking up in class is another.

In any academic context —

Never ever say (or write) things like: “In my view…”

Or “in my opinion…”

Or (worse) “in my personal opinion…”

Or (the ultimate) “according to me…”

Of course it is your opinion.

Who else might it belong to?

Are you several people?

Is somebody invisible hiding behind you?

Apart from the logical absurdity, this is actually another way of hedging.

Of distancing yourself from what you are about to say.

Because you don’t have enough confidence in your conclusions.

Hence you are subconsciously taking precautions.

You are subjectivizing and relativizing yourself beforehand.

If contradicted or criticized, this is your implied fallback.

Your last line of defence: “Well, it was just my view.”

You can be braver than that.

As for “according to…”, this is a formula that you absolutely cannot use for yourself.

You can use it only for others.

You can say “according to Keynes,” for example.

Or “according to Ernest Gellner.” Or “according to Michel Foucault.”

Or “according to Einstein.” Or “according to Adam Smith.”

But you cannot translate the Turkish bana göre into “according to me.”

The English phrase is not made for that.

It can also backfire in unexpected ways.

You may have used it in modesty (or false modesty).

But it can turn into the very opposite.

It may actually sound like you are pontificating.

That you are taking yourself too seriously.

That you are quoting yourself as an authority.

One way or the other, it can immediately ruin, before you have even started, everything else that you have to say.

0006.(7th April 2021)


Is what we loosely call the West always and everywhere the same? Homogenous, monolithic, with a single selfish, bigoted world-view adhered to by all? Without any room for diversity, for independent and self-critical voices? Are its social sciences, its history and art history, its archeology and anthropology always and equally Eurocentrist today as before, for example in the heyday of overseas colonial empires?

As today’s Recommended Readings, I am offering two articles that, while reporting on African art and the modern art market [0006.1.(BBC 14.3.2021) The art dealer, the 10m Benin bronze, and the Holocaust], or on ancient cities and civilizations [0006.2.(BBC 6.4.2021) The enduring allure of lost cities], also shed light on this question. Of course this is not their sole virtue. Much more basically, they offer windows into lots of areas that I am unable to cover in SPS 101, where I try to fit a lot of theory and historical sociology into a single semester but don’t have the time to go into more detailed accounts of, for example, African or Asian history. Nor do we have, at least at the moment, separate courses in these sub-fields. It’s a pity, especially since we have so many international students who are not familiar with their countries’ pre-colonial past. This is something to be remedied in the future.

As for Eurocentrism, as I keep saying at every opportunity, it constitutes a complex, many-layered bundle which is easier to condemn in general terms than to take apart in serious, painstaking, analytical fashion. Only its outermost layer involves blatant racism, attributing an innate inferiority and negative values to non-European peoples and cultures. A step further, judging the Rest by the West can take intricate forms and convolutions, which require patience and expertise to deconstruct and demystify in critical fashion. Furthermore, what is Western and what is universal, i.e. the common property of all humankind? It is so facile to slip into Occidentalism as an antidote to Orientalism — instead of maintaining a sense of balance and critical distance in all directions.    

In these two articles, there is plenty to think about, and not only in terms of noting the historical truth of imperialism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism, but also, in the same breath, the extent to which media and academia in the West have developed a high degree of self-critical awareness. Consider the following phrases about African art, which I have highlighted in yellow in the original: “Countless historic artefacts were looted from around the world during the colonial era and taken to Europe… ‘Tribal art’ is a term that Western museums now avoid… The Benin Bronzes were brought to Europe in the spring of 1897, the loot of British soldiers and sailors… When some were displayed in the British Museum that autumn, they caused a sensation. Africans, the British believed at the time, did not possess skills to produce pieces of such sophistication or beauty. Nor were they supposed to have much history… Benin had been denigrated in British newspapers as a place of savagery, a ‘City of Blood.’ Now those newspapers described the Bronzes as ‘surprising,’ ‘remarkable,’ and admitted they were ‘baffled’… [One owner said] ‘Part of me will always feel guilty for not giving it to the Nigerians… It’s a murky past, tied up with colonialism and exploitation.’”

As for some “lost” cities in Southeast Asia or Pre-Colombian America, this is what Jen Rose Smith, the author, has to say: “… at Angkor… the city was actually inhabited when French explorer Henri Mouhot arrived there in 1860 – indeed, had never been fully abandoned – but the visitor couldn’t imagine Cambodian forbears were capable of such grandeur. ‘At first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?’ Mouhot wrote of the sprawling jungle site. He speculated that Angkor was built by ancient Greeks or Egyptians… ‘Lost city stories became so popular in the modern era – starting in the 19th Century or the 18th Century – because they were really good ways of disguising colonialism,’ Newitz said. ‘It allows you to justify all kinds of colonial incursions. To say “this is not a civilisation that’s doing well on its own. And the evidence we see from this is that they’ve fallen away from some great, mysterious lost past.”’When those European settlers encountered Native civilisations, Newitz writes, they grappled for connections to a mysterious past, often conveniently ignoring very real contemporary peoples. That’s what happened in Cahokia, an ancient metropolis located near the modern-day US city of St Louis. Towering earthen mounds there rival the Egyptian pyramids in height, and at Cahokia’s peak in 1050 AD, the city was bigger than Paris. European newcomers would find it hard to take in. ‘Travellers and adventurers would tell themselves all kinds of crazy stories, like it must have been ancient Egyptians who came here to build these,’ Newitz said. It was a myth that served to justify stealing Native lands widely described as ‘empty,’ she explained. Meanwhile, as in Angkor, the descendants of Cahokia’s builders were dismissed as incapable of such projects.”

All this is not confined to scholarly books and articles. In the BBC, and read by millions of people. Still an elite readership, of course, which perhaps makes it all the more significant. Of course the Trumps and Trump-followers of our time are still out there. But it does seem as if we have come a long way from the 1875-1914 Age of Empire.

0005.(6th April 2021)


I am posting the second half of Mr Mehmet Kara’s comments on my Procopius & Alberti entry of 4th April. Once more, I have edited his text only slightly while also adding two of her various portraits done by George Romney. The first, on the left, is Emma Hamilton posing as Circe, the sorceress in Homer’s Odyssey (Odiseia) who is said to have kept Odiseus captive for many years on her enchanted island.

It is very intriguing for me to investigate the life of a special woman because of the adverse conditions she faced under patriarchy. This was Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), who worked as a model and actress, and who also came to be known as Lady Hamilton. She had several aristocratic lovers, including  Fetherstonhaugh, Francis Greville, Sir William Hamilton, and Admiral Nelson. As an attractive beauty with “attitudes,” she was also a muse, a source of inspiration for the portrait artist George Romney. She is said to have inspired Goethe, too, with her stage performances.

My point is that she was always being identified and acquiring fame by being alongside a man, which is characteristic of patriarchy. It was through the domination of a series of men that she won entry into European society. It would have been impossible to become a celebrity without men for Lady Hamilton and women like her. She needed to become an “object” for men to be able to prove herself in that era. In the film Lady Hamilton, there is a memorable scene reflecting how Sir William Hamilton saw her as part of his antique objects collection. She was depicted as an uneducated woman who did not know how to read a map. And in real life, once she was deprived of men’s patronage, she quickly fell into destitution. So on the one hand, she wasbeautiful, she was purposeful, and there was a meaning to her life. At the same time, women’s individuality tended to be demolished by their excessive dependence on men.

0004.(5th April 2021)


And a very good one, too. And much quicker than I would have imagined.

Yesterday, when I was writing about how male authors have persisted in belittling women through the ages, I hesitated as I was trying to go from Procopius to Alberti. I had just written a few sentences about the former’s hatred for Empress Theodora and her companion Antonina (married to the general Belisarius). At this point an immediate comparison with the “Sultanate of Women” or “Reign of Women” in Ottoman history suggested itself. This is a cliché invented by Ahmet Refik (Altınay). He published his Kadınlar Saltanatı in 1916, and the title immediately caught on, made its way into popular culture, and became the starting point for an entire genre of blaming especially Kösem Sultan (1589-1651) and Turhan Sultan (1627-1683) — stereotyped, as in my favorite Alberti quote, as “bold and forward females” who went where they should not have gone — for the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Initially I wrote a sentence or two about these parallels, too, but then deleted them, preferring to leave such comparative inferences to my readers’ knowledge and intuition.

I am so glad that I left this gap, for it has elicited a pertinent comment from Mehmet Kara, one of our History undergraduates. Below you may find the first half of his letter, devoted to various Islamic and Ottoman cases, to which I have made only some linguistic and stylistic corrections. I am saving the second half of Mr Kara’s letter, which revolves around Emma Hamilton or Lady Hamilton, for the near future.

I like your historical examples of misogyny, and I would like to provide a few others for future exploration.

Raziye Begüm Sultan (*), Şecerüddür (**), and Kösem Sultan are some other women intensely disliked by men. They all rose to political power in different sultanates, then came to various tragic ends due to patriarchal systems deeply rooted in religion and tradition.

On the other side of the coin, we do have some little-known examples of women’s success from the Muslim world, such as El-İcliyye binti el-İcliyy (also known as Mariam al-Asṭurlābiyya) and Fatima al-Fihri. Meryem el-Asturlabiyya was known for her astronomical studies, while in 850 Fatima al-Fihri founded the al-Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, Morocco, which became the core of a university. Lubna of Cordoba is an another great Muslim woman, famous not only for having led the way in creating a massive library, but also as a poet, grammarian, translator, and mathematician.

Comparing them with Kösem, Raziye Begüm or Şecerüddür, it is clear that while women enjoy a degree of freedom in non-political activies, they stand out as more of a threat more when they intervene politically in patriarchal systems.

My footnotes. (*) Raziye Begüm Sultan (r.1236-1240) was the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526), a typical praetorian state founded by Islamicized military slaves, ghulams, of Turkish ethnic origin. After various internal divisions and dynastic mixtures, it was eventually overrun by the Mughals (or Baburids) in 1526. (**) Şecerrüddür was for two months the de facto, and perhaps also the de jure ruler (and the only female ruler) of another praetorian state: the newly emerging Mamluks in Egypt. Originally a slave woman (possibly of Turkish, Circassian, Greek or Armenian ethnic origin) exported from Caucasia to Egypt, she was first bought as a concubine and later taken in lawful marriage by Salih Ayyub, the last Ayyubid sultan. In the confused circumstances of the Seventh Crusade, when first Salih Ayyub died and then his son and designated successor Muazzam Turanşah was assassinated, Şecerüddür as Salih Ayyub’s widow appears to have been proclaimed sultan by a convention of Mamluk emirs on 2nd May 1250. This triggered hostile reactions from elsewhere in Islamdom, including a harsh letter by the Abbasid caliph, who offered to “send men from Baghdad if you don’t have any men among you capable of becoming sultan.” Şecerüddür then married Aybeg, one of those Mamluk emirs, who thereby achieved the necessary legitimacy (deriving from the Ayyubids)  to become the first official Mamluk sultan.

0003.(4th April 2021)


What to suggest or introduce? What to comment on? Difficult to decide. So many things happening all over the world.

This morning, my original intention was to follow up on Egyptian mummies with another archeology and art history foray, this time into Eurocentric prejudices about Africa and African art, and how, at least when faced with “Benin bronzes,” so-called, they have come to be contradicted and at least partially abandoned over time. This would have been from my archives, though only three weeks old.

But then, I came up against something fresh from the oven, which furthermore seemed (seems) of much greater current, indeed burning significance [under “Recommended Readings,” see: 0003.(BBC 4.4.2021) Marwa Elselehdar – ‘I was blamed for blocking the Suez Canal’]. A young Egyptian woman (might it be Merve el-Silahdar in Turkish transcription?) turns out to have become her country’s first-ever female ship captain. It is an extraordinary story in itself, made even more extraordinary by all the fake rumors and slanderous attacks that have targeted Ms Elselehdar in the wake of the Ever Given accident. Believe it or not, she appears to have been held responsible for the blockage of the Suez Canal, though she was, as she says, “hundreds of miles away in Alexandria [İskenderiye]” at the time.

Why? Basically because she is a woman, I would say — a young woman who has dared to challenge existing taboos, and succeeded, against all odds, in what is a male-dominated profession and professional culture all over the world, thereby drawing masculine ire. It would be so much better if she had failed, or could be made out to have failed, purely in order to penalize her, and put her back where she belongs, so that she doesn’t become a bad example for others. What a coincidence! Just the other day, in one of my courses we were talking about Procopius, and in response to a question about Procopius’s misogyny, I pointed to Alberti by way of underlining the extent to which such hatred and deprecation of women is universal.

Notes for History students in particular. Procopius of Caesarea (in Palestine; c.500 – 565) was a Byzantine historian and a contemporary of Emperor Justinian. He wrote (a) History of the Wars, meaning Justinian’s Persian, Vandal, and Gothic wars (GR Hypèr tōn Polémon Lógoi, LAT De Bellis; (b) The Buildings (GR Perì Ktismáton, LAT De Aedificiis) to eulogize Justinian’s public construction projects; and (c) his most famous Secret History (GR Apókryphe Historía, LAT Historia Arcana) — into which he poured a lot of disreputable gossip that he couldn’t possibly put into his more official works. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was one of the many geniuses of the Renaissance, a polymath who, in addition to his primary fame as an architect, was also a humanist, poet, priest, philosopher, linguist, mathematician, and cryptographer. He authored many books, too, including Della famiglia (On the Family) in 1432. As such, both Procopius’s and Alberti’s writings fit into the category of primary sources → narrative sources for their respective eras. (Indeed Procopius happens to be our major authority for the 527-565 reign of Justinian.) 

Great and historically important as they are, 900 years apart one thing that they have in common is their contempt and distrust for women. In the Secret History Procopius portrays Justinian as inwardly a weak man dominated by his wife Theodora, and the famous general Belisarius (under whom Procopius served during the Ostrogothic Wars in Italy) as even more of a weak man similarly dominated by his wife Antonina. With all the venom of his embittered later years, he pours further abuse on these two women, portraying especially Theodora as vulgar, cold-blooded, self-interested, envious, mean, and insatiably lustful, He accuses Antonina of spying for Theodora against her husband, and also of having an affair with Belisarius’s godson Theodosius. As for Alberti, in a key passage that I have been asking SPS 102 students to read over the years, this is what he says about his relationship with his own “beloved” wife (reflecting his staunch belief in how supposedly superior men should treat supposedly inferior women):

Only my books and records and those of my ancestors did I determine to keep well sealed… These my wife not only could not read, she could not even lay hands on them. I kept my records at all times… locked up and arranged in order in my study, almost like sacred and religious objects. I never gave my wife permission to enter that place, with me or alone. I also ordered her, if she ever came across any writing of mine, to give it over to my keeping at once. To take away any taste she might have for looking at my notes or prying into my private affairs, I often used to express my disapproval of bold and forward females who try too hard to know about things outside the house and about the concerns of their husband and of men in general…

[Husbands] who take counsel with their wives… are madmen if they think true prudence or good counsel lies in the female brain… For this very reason I have always tried carefully not to let any secret of mine be known to a woman. I did not doubt that my wife was most loving, and more discreet and modest in her ways than any, but I still considered it safer to have her unable, and not merely Unwilling, to harm me… Furthermore, I made it a rule never to speak with her of anything but household matters or questions of conduct, or of the children.

Please note Alberti’s general warning against “bold and forward females who try too hard to know about things outside the house.” Roughly fifteen centuries after Procopius and six centuries after Alberti, this is why Marwa Elselehdar’s story stirred me so much early today. As for Benin bronzes, African art, colonialism, Eurocentrism, and even connections with the Holocaust — well, maybe tomorrow.

0002.(3rd April 2021)


You can look under “Recommended Readings” for something that I found while scanning the international media this morning [0002a.(BBC 3.4.2021) Egypt mummies to pass through Cairo in ancient rulers’ parade]. To it I have added a framing, supporting background [0002b.Additional information on mummies and mummification], mostly copy-pasted from Wikipedia, though I have slightly edited and corrected it here and there.

Why should all this be interesting? First, at its simplest, because it is history, and all history is fascinating, and I too happen to be a historian, and I have gone through the British Museum’s incredible collection of Egyptian mummies more than once, pondering both the past and what Jack Goody has called “the theft of history.”

Second, because it highlights the incredible variety of human culture over the ages. This is a theme that we address in SPS 101: how, because humans are “underprogrammed animals,” as Ernest Gellner puts it, within certain material-technical constraints that establish “the limits of the possible” in a major epoch, you can still get many different “solutions” to a common “problem.” (Michael Cook, in his A Brief History of the Human Race, has a useful section on the Ancient Egyptian culture of death and the afterlife.)

Third, because in both these readings you can find insights into research methods — how careful, comprehensive and rigorous modern scientists and scholars are; the precision, the exactitude they try to bring into their work, involving constant questioning, falsification, and re-verification — which is something that we should bear in mind as we keep posing and re-posing questions of “how do we know?”

Fourth, because especially the BBC news item has to do with how the present uses the past — the tasks that the dead are put to by the living.

0001.(2nd April 2021)


Why not yesterday? Because it was April 1, and it might have been taken for an April Fool’s Day joke — as in fact at least one of my SPS 102 TFs quipped when I mentioned the idea in last Wednesday’s (31st March) Teaching Colloquium.

In a more serious vein, it has been a matter of various things clicking together. Especially over the last year, in the relative isolation and introspection forced on me by COVID-19, I’ve been thinking of how to encourage our Prep Year students to read more, hear more, watch more so as to help them make better progress by immersing themselves as much as possible (or at least, more than they are doing now) in an English-language environment. (Furkan Alpat and I have had occasional conversations about this without pushing the idea enough to arrive at a conclusion.) I myself do a lot of online reading, and as, early in the morning or late at that night, when I am surfing the BBC, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Yale Alumni Magazine or the Harvard Gazette etc, I’ve frequently found myself muttering under my breath that I should be sharing a lot of this stuff with a broader readership, though I was lacking the means to do so.

Now this blog or diary, whatever you choose to call it, may be of some use in this regard, enabling me to make an introductory mention of some fascinating articles under this “Personal Thoughts” column, and simultaneously to upload them under my related “Recommended Readings” sub-title (including videos and other visuals). A second point is that I know I do a lot of name-dropping in all my courses and classes, not very consciously or deliberately, but simply because my mind works that way; I associate one thing with another, and frequently go into extended side-trips (TR yan pistler) — which must be exhausting for the audience, though hopefully I do recover in time, and remember enough about where I had left off so as to return and pursue my main track. Still, I am left wondering whether at least some of those authors, thinkers, books, films, or other works of art and literature that I have mentioned are actually being picked up by the young men and women that I am talking with, stirring their curiosity, and provoking further exploration. So this is an attempt to expand and prolong that conversation.

A third and related point has to do with manifold questions that inevitably arise during or after class, and which I end up regretting not having had enough time to respond to. Of course I cannot cope with everything, but I will be trying to carry maybe a few of them into these “Personal Thoughts.” In the process I would also like to present interesting passages from some of my students’ work — both because I have found them insightful, and in the hope that they will serve as “good practice” examples to others.

Definitely to be continued.“See” you, so to speak, probably tomorrow.