Morning was a question of being immersed, between myth and history, in the thundering silence of centuries of stony sleep. Istanbul should be read as a scroll – beyond methodological cunning and stylistic ornaments. Jean Cocteau wrote that Constantinople was a city born in purple, a city of blood, sunsets and fires. Casanova wrote that as Constantine arrived by the sea, seduced by the sight of Byzantium, he instantly proclaimed, “This is the seat of the empire of the world.” So, in style, he left the seat of the old empire, Rome, for good.
Take it to the bridge
As I eventually crossed the bridge over the Bosphorus I had seen plenty of Kemalists in crisis, and perhaps a few dissimulated jihadis. The Ottoman empire for over six centuries crystallized the unity of the Sunni Mediterranean and Middle Eastern umma, confronting the Persian Shi’ite empire, inheriting and metabolizing the Byzantine institutional tradition, and keeping a wise balance between faith and ethnicity using the institutions of the community – millet – and respecting the prerogatives of its non-Muslim subjects – dhimmi.
The fragmentation of this plurinational, multicultural empire led to a process of modernization and laicization that fatally engendered a fundamentalist reaction; that’s the basis of the somehow irreversible instability and violence that today characterizes the whole region; something that the Pentagon, with a measure of wishful thinking, characterized as the “arc of instability”.
Everything from the Palestinian tragedy to Iraq, from Persian Gulf Wahhabi plutocrats to the fake Caliphate known as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, manifests itself as debris of World War I, of the obsession by Western powers to extinguish at any cost the Ottoman experience of imperial, supra-national governance. It’s the “West” that created the “arc of instability” – no less than a century ago.
The glory of Neo-Ottomanism
We evoked shades of White Russians in the early 1920s and we retraced the steps of Gurdjieff, the esoteric mystic extraordinaire who was an adept of the dervish fraternity Naqshbandi in Bukhara. No encounters with whirling dervishes though; in 1924 Kemal Ataturk, as part of his secular reforms, hit them hard and they survived only as a “Museum of divan literature,” as in classic Ottoman poetry.
Naturally our key conversation point had to be President Erdogan, whom Emritan calls The Sultan of Kitsch. So many overtones, from Islamo-traditional to Islamo-Ottoman, all drenched in nostalgia for the imperial Golden Age. And ruling above all the AKP party as a monster real estate speculation racket; after all “urbanization drive”, as in China, but Turkish style, means urbanization of the lower middle classes issued from the Anatolian countryside – the political basis of conservative Islam.
My pilgrimage started in Hagia Sophia before sunrise, and ended at night in Taksim square – now an unfriendly cement square, adverse to any possible replay of an Occupy Istanbul. In 1934, Kemal wanted Hagia Sophia turned into a museum to honor the glorious Byzantine and Ottoman traditions. Hagia Sophia will revert to being a mosque, as soon as the Studion monastery, which was itself a mosque from 1453 to 1920, is restored.
This could be yet another manifestation of the neo-Islamic wave; or a graphic case of what Zygmunt Bauman called “religionization of politics” – secular politics reshaped by religious certitude.
Whatever the case, the Sultan should prevail, and get his wish. He already turned NATO upside down – spurning an alliance created to fight the USSR, and kept running against Russia, by clinching the vast Turk Stream pipeline deal with Moscow. And now Sberbank is willing to finance it – alongside Istanbul’s third airport and a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu.
Turk Stream has graphically demonstrated how Turkey is well on its way to become the ultimate crossroads between Eurasia and NATOstan — on its own terms. And the City of Cities is bound to remain — what else — the jewel in the neo-Ottoman crown.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Sputnik.
You can buy Pepe Escobar’s latest book "Empire of Chaos" here
Follow him on Facebook
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.