The Santa Sophia church, Istanbul
My Greek friend, Iannis, won’t do anything new on a Tuesday. It’s like Thursday for some Bengalis. But while Thursday’s inauspiciousness is rooted in religion, Iannis’s inhibition is grounded in history. It was on a Tuesday 561 years ago that the Greek world of faith and glory crashed to a humiliating end. Like Palestinians who call Israel’s creation in 1948 nakbah, Greeks also call the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, the catastrophe.
Constantinople’s fall seems the greater injury to Iannis than 360 years of Ottoman rule over Greece. Not Greece alone but all Europe has been a prisoner of that defeat ever since. The drums of that war echo faintly in Britain’s latest controversy over the alleged Islamization of 21 Birmingham schools. The resonance is louder in Toulouse cradled by the Garonne river and the Pyrenees mountains, an hour’s drive from the 16th-century Chateau Luxeube where we are staying. Toulouse’s 800,000 inhabitants include 75,000 Muslims. The town’s memories are both more hoary and more modern than Iannis’s but hark back to the same conflict.
The modern memory was recalled as we sat in Toulouse’s Place du Capitole among office-girls munching their lunchtime sandwiches. Two years ago, one evening, the square was packed with thousands of people keeping candlelit vigil to mourn the death of three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and their teacher. The gunman, 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, whom the police killed in a 30-hour siege, claimed links with al Qaida and had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The older memory is of Duke Odo of Aquitaine defeating an Umayyid army under Al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, governor of al-Andalus (Spain), at the Battle of Toulouse on June 9, 721. That halted the Muslim advance into Europe but not for long. Already entrenched in Spain and, across the Mediterranean, in northern Africa, they soon swept over southern France. The extensive sway of the Ottoman emperors (1299-1922) amply justified Jason Goodwin, the historian, calling them “Lords of the Horizons”.
Iannis was still brooding over the 53-day siege of Constantinople and the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos by the 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II when we left Greece more than two months ago. I asked him the meaning of fatih (Rue de Fatih, Fatih University) and that rubbed salt into the wound, for fatih means ‘conqueror’ and is Mehmed II’s title. The fatih transferred his capital from Adrianople to Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.
The end of nearly 1,500 years of the Byzantine imperium dealt a massive blow to Christendom. But hostility doesn’t seem to have been implacable or absolute. Today, thousands of Muslims swarm across the Mediterranean to Italy, France and Spain, slip through the land border between Turkey and Greece, or cross the English Channel into Britain without any awareness of seeking benefits from the firang (European) in lands that were once theirs. Turkey itself is anxious to follow in their footsteps and make up for being repulsed at the gates of Vienna in 1683.
Europe’s response was often equally pragmatic. When Christendom was rallying to Crete’s defence against the Turks, the Levant Company persuaded Oliver Cromwell it would be bad for business to send English troops. Even the Venetians kept commercial windows open through agents in outlying Ottoman territories and by allowing the Turks to set up a trade office right in Venice’s Piazza of St Mark.
Iannis might deplore a shameless lack of principle, but others are more accommodating. “Ours is a love-hate relationship,” says a Turkish delegate at an academic conference in Toulouse. But in one form or another, echoes of Iannis’s narrative reverberated wherever I travelled, presaging not any grand clash of civilizations but the overlapping and intermingling economic interests that alone can blunt historical hostility. Although now neither church nor mosque, Istanbul’s magnificent Santa Sophia, its huge Arabic-inscribed discs belying its history as the patriarchate of Greek Orthodoxy, draws more Christian than Muslim visitors. Few care that the slab of stone that bears the roughly hewn name of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who led the sack of Constantinople in 1202, doesn’t contain his bones, which Mehmed’s soldiers probably threw to the dogs. Tourists who fly to Izmir, the old Smyrna, to motor to the 10th century BC ruins of Ephesus, sense the ghosts of thousands of Greeks and Armenians (as many as 100,000 according to some chroniclers) who perished in the great fire of 1922 after Turks recaptured the city.
Before becoming Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI ruled Mystras, the last centre of Byzantine scholarship. We clambered down the rocks and boulders of Mount Taygetos, where Spartans left weakling children to die, through the ruins of a once-flourishing Greek civilization the Turks destroyed in 1460. Only a nunnery survives. Grateful for that sign of life and for somewhere to rest aching bones after the tough descent, with a plate of Turkish delight thrown in, visitors gladly pay exorbitant prices for the delicate lace the nuns make. The only other Byzantine artifact I saw were cufflinks with the Palaiologos double-headed eagle, resembling the Habsburg and Romanov crests, in a nearby Sparta jewellers. They were gold and converted to more lakhs of rupees than I could afford.
Historical memory obscures the reality of Turkey as a stable secular democracy with a powerful army and a strong economy, pillar of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and serious candidate for European Union membership. Instead, we are left with an image of marauders bent on pillage and destruction, driven out of Spain and the Balkans but still in occupation of Greek Anatolia. Muslim control of North Africa doesn’t matter for the indigenes were neither white not Christian. This is Western history of course, and history is always the victor’s version.
No one knows how many Muslims live in France. The French Revolution’s secular heritage doesn’t permit recording religion. But that doesn’t daunt speculation. The American Pew Forum claimed that 44 million Muslims (19 million in the EU) constituting 6 per cent of Europe’s population in 2010 would rise to 8 per cent by 2030. A Pennsylvania State University estimate predicted that Muslims would compose about 25 per cent of Europe’s population by 2100. Some Turks might regard that as sweet revenge for losing their European empire. But that obscures current reality. Muslims are economic or political refugees who flocked to Europe after the Second World War when France declared itself a country of immigration. Emigration surged during the Algerian War of Independence. Britain’s decolonization brought another influx, as did Germany’s need for cheap manpower. Today, nine million Turks constitute Europe’s largest Muslim group. The wars in Afghanistan and Syria have augmented numbers.
Even Iannis knows La Reconquista — the process culminating in 1492 when Catholic Spain recaptured the emirate of Granada — will not be enacted in reverse. True, 28 per cent of British Muslims want an Islamic state, but 83 per cent are proud to be British. Muslims migrate to benefit from — not take over — European institutions. Cultural osmosis is even more relevant. A daughter of the noble and ancient house of de Taillac, which owns Chateau Luxeube, has married a highly-successful French-born ethnic Moroccan businessman. “Shah Rukh Khan!” chants the Arab kebab-seller at the scale’s other end when he sees us and wiggles his hips in what must be a Bollywood number.
I read once of a young Israeli yelling “Don’t be a Jew!” to a friend. I was reminded of that in Calcutta one Saturday when I found a Jewish antique dealer sitting in the dark. No, there wasn’t a power cut, it was the Sabbath, he explained. I had come to pay for and collect a Lazarus chair I had seen earlier. No problem, he said, and the deal was concluded in the dark. The Sabbath must be respected, but business is business.