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Istanbul and Empire

I like the Turks and their country. A lot. One especially good trait is that, unlike the French, English and Austrians who also once had huge empires, the Turks don’t have the cultural self-loathing that pervades Western Europe. In the past, Turks were fine with being imperialists, and now they are fine as well. No effete, hand-wringing, therapy-worthy Post Imperial Stress Syndrome for them.

Blue Mosque with Obelisk

Several years ago, my Turkish archaeologist friend, Erkan, and I were having an Efes beer (yes, the Turks make beer, and Efes is a decent Pilsner). That week, stories about the most recent Parthenon Marble squabble between the British Museum and the Greeks were in the news. Erkan remarked about how the Europeans had swiped most of the world’s goodies and put them in their museums. I said, “That’s what empires do.”

As a case in point, we were having our friendly talk in a pleasant café near the site of Istanbul’s old Roman Hippodrome. You know, the one with part of a 2,500 year old bronze snake sculpture that Constantine swiped from the Greeks at Delphi. Oh, and the Egyptian obelisk. Did I mention that?

Looking West toward the Golden Horn

Continuing my reply, I pointed across the street to the amazing Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and said with a smile, “Erkan, your museum there has the best moveable Islamic artifacts in the world, courtesy of your Seljuk and Ottoman ancestors. Is Turkey planning to spread those back across the half million square miles of your former empire? And what’s more, I’d bet that the reason you don’t have the Elgin Marbles here too is: those same ancestors didn’t have any interest in pagan stuff. Am I right?”

Erkan is a great guy, and his Ph.D. is in ‘pagan stuff’. So, he gave me a mock sheepish look and allowed as how it was probably time for another beer.

After that, we headed off to meet the ghosts of Hektor and Achilles in Troy.

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