Joe Sax is a junior majoring in International Relations and minoring in Arabic. He has been a member of Tufts’ ALLIES chapter since 2011. In 2013, Joe co-directed the ALLIES Field Exercise in Peace and Stability operations, and was one of the Tufts students on the Joint Research Project to Turkey.
Everything in Turkey exists in layers, especially in Istanbul. Turkey is built on so much history, so many cultures, so many ideas, that being there has a quality of near schizophrenia. The magnificent Hagia Sophia, which stares down the equally enormous Sultanahmet Mosque from across a small public park, captures in microcosm the cultural roots that come together in the modern
Turkish Republic. Beneath the huge marble slabs that make up the floor of the building are two previous Orthodox churches, which the Hagia Sophia replaced in its current form in 532 AD. The Hagia Sophie has had four functions: as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, as a Catholic church (very briefly, from 1204 to 1261), a Mosque, and a secular museum, in accordance with a 1931 directive from Mustafa Kemal himself. This one building, which has been essentially four different buildings, in a city which has known two different names under a handful of different political entities, captures what I think is bizarre and wonderful about Turkey.
Turkish politics, on the other hand, flummoxes traditional Western notions of conservative versus liberal, despite it being one of the more institutionally functional, democratic, western-looking countries in the Middle East. What is “liberal” in Turkey? Is it an intense secularism, a drive to emulate Europe…and an obsession with an idea of “Turkishness” paired with the near-deification of a political figure who came to power 91 years ago? This is the platform of the Republican People’s Party, claiming to represent as purely as possible the politics of Ataturk. Or is it economic freedom, a willingness to allow expression of non-Turkish cultural identity…and the adoption of explicitly Islamic rhetoric and social outlook? That’s the pitch from the currently dominant Justice and Development Party. Not convinced by either? Then you’ll find yourself frustrated, politically, in today’s Turkey. The Turkish Republic turned 90 last year, which, by the standards of other governments in the region, quite old. At the same time, Turkey feels like an “new” thing down to the core values of its founding, rising from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as an experiment in nationalism and secularism modeled on Europe. 91 years later, Turkey is still undoubtedly changing, though in the context of an institutional robustness which has survived almost a century. It is so many things at once, East and West, old and new, Islamic and secular, that it is only describable in terms of beautiful contradictions, and the gigantic Hagia Sophia which has lived through them all.