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Asia Minor Then -- and Turkey Now...

David N. Rahni  (New York -January 2010)

 Then -- and Turkey Now...

The history of Asia Minor dates back to human settlements of the Neolithic times of over 10,000 years ago, followed by 1,650 BCE when the Hittites , settled in an area in present day southwestern Turkey-the former Anatolia. The Hittites emigrated from the area east of the Black Sea and southwest of the Caspian Sea in today's Iran. According to genetic  bio-markers, almost all European and Asiatic peoples trace their origins to Central Asia (today's Kazakhstan) via a common ancestor of about 45,000 years ago. In the 12th century BCE, the Assyrians of Mesopotamia overran the Hittites. The small seaboard states in southwestern Asia Minor then fell to the Greeks who colonized the entire coast  about the 8th century BCE. Legend has it that Greeks first laid siege to the city-state of Troy after the Trojan War. In 563 BCE Croesus mounted the throne of Lydia in Asia Minor and soon brought all the Greek colonies under his rule.

Ethnographic map of Anatolia from 1911

Croesus was overthrown by Cyrus the Great of Persia, also known today as IRAN (the indigenous name of the nation since antiquity), of the Achaemenid Empire in 560 BCE, followed by the capture of most Asia Minor and Greece by the Achaemenian's  Darius I in 512 BCE when ruled for a brief period. The Achaemenian Empire, at its zenith, governed over a vast federated system of nearly 30 quasi-autonomous city-states, allowing each to preserve their own indigenous cultures, and spanning from China and India in the east, across central Asia, the Caucuses and Asia Minor, all southern Persian Gulf southern states of the Arabian Peninsula to the south, and to Greece and Egypt in the West. Cyrus and Darius are credited by Herodotus and Xenophon the Greek historians of the era with having written the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cyrus is also cited with much reverence in the Old Testament as he re-conquered the Jerusalem from the Assyrian occupiers and invited the people of Jewry to return and rebuilt the temple.

The major trade routes passed through the Asia minor region, and a pony express carrier service, which had been earlier set up by Darius I between Persepolis and Susa and Lydia, was operating. Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great spread the Macedonian-Greek hegemony militarily over the peninsula which Hellenized it for the most part. The young Macedonian Alexander, who was denigrated as a barbarian by the state Athenian elites but later retro-embraced as one of their own, failed to Hellenize the Persian Empire, as far east as Bactria or Arianna (today's Afghanistan). This inextricably led to the integration of indigenous cultures nearly 15,000 years in the making and the newly arrived cultures of the Aryan Medes, Partians and the Persians.     

Following the conquest of Asia Minor by the Romans in the 2nd century BCE, the area had sustained relative tranquility, notwithstanding an "on and off" local in-fighting and skirmishes among the feudal powerhouses throughout the following one and a half millennium. The Romans engaged in a myriad of battles, with losses and gains, against their Eastern neighbor the Persian Sassanid Dynasty. Under the Byzantines which followed the East Roman Empire, Asia Minor became a Bastian cradle of Christianity and the guardian of Greco-Roman cultures. In fact, the "Vatican" of today's three hundred million eastern Christian orthodox, headed by their archbishop Bartolomeu, and despite paramount restriction by the current Turkish government, is still in a compound of seven buildings in Istanbul. As the power of the Byzantium declined, Baghdad Omayyad and then the Damascus Abbasid caliphs penetrated Asia Minor with the first partial Islamification and cultural Arabization. However, numerous subdued and at times covert clusters of Christians, the Roman Catholics, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Greek Orthodox denominations were present in almost every corner of the vast territory that stretched from less than a mile into the European continent and stretching eastbound in Asia a 600 miles to the neighboring Persian Empire. The Persian Mithraism and Zoroastrianism as well as Judaism, Gnosticism, Agnosticism and mystical spiritualism had retained followers in the regions too. In fact, Islam had gradually lost most of its initial lustrous presence to the various Christian church-states until the 11th century when the trend was once again reversed, presumably driven by mysticism.  The sectarian in-fighting of the Christians for self righteousness motives played a dogmatic role in such undercurrent Islamic revitalization. A Catholic priest once rushed to a Muslim scholar of juris prudence hoping to intimidate him by breaking the news to him of the sudden death of the Caliph of Baghdad, as if Islam had ended. The Islamic scholar simply responded, "The loss of an earthly leader would not change a thing for me or my community as even Mohmammad died when his time came; besides, I would not be talking had my God been hopelessly crucified to death!"

This same era, 7th through 11th century, many of the early Christians in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal) and Sicily had by and large converted to Islam that lasted through the last Islamic Moors dynasties of the late 15th century. Parallel with the Iberian Peninsula reverting back to Catholicism and mass exodus of Moslems and Jews to Asia Minor that was concluded at the end of the Spanish inquisition of the late 15th century, there followed a simultaneous reverting to some Catholicism by the missionaries but mostly Christian orthodoxy as this time evangelized by the Greek and Russian church in Asia minor. In fact, the Moslem communities between the late 9th and early 12thcenturies were sparsely found.

Attila the Hun is said to have come westward from Central Asia, thus the country Hungary in the 5th century. Then in the period beginning in the early 11th century and continuing through the late 14th century, the continuous westbound migratory forays of the Turkic tribes (Mogul, Tatar, Oghouz, Seljuk et al) of Central Asia, pioneered by Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and their descendent dynastic successors such as the Seljuks in Persia, continued. In fact, the Mongols, who despite their initial wrath savagery had soon become devout Moslems under Persian influence of not only religion but far more profoundly under Persian literature, culture and protocols of public administrations, set up dynasties from China to Eastern Europe. Their Persian spiritualist confidantes such as Rumi, and the Molavi mystics, whirling dervishes, the Mongols then established their capital in Konia's Asia Minor and later in Constantinople (Istanbul).  Asia Minor had also been enriched with the presence of Jewish (Sephardic) communities, who had along with Moslems been pushed out of the Iberian Peninsula as it peaked at the Spanish Catholic Inquisitions in 1492 (the same exact time as the Columbus's expeditionary mission to the new world.) Some Jewish scholars even converted to Islam and took the theological lead in discourse against the Christian clergy in favor of propagating Islam (Maimonides was the royal court physician of Saladin.)

The ethnic and governing presence of Persians and their then mild form of Shiite Islam enriched with the Persian literature, poetry, logic, ethics, etc. was of paramount influence in Asia Minor. Most literature of the region through the 16th century, as well as the official governing language through the 17th century, was Persian. A similar dual use of Persian language persisted in India through the mid-20th century as well. In the early 15th century and after the re-Islamization of Asia Minor, this time combined with linguistic Turkification, the precursor to Turkic nationalism of the 20th, the Ottoman Turks conquered the peninsula and made Istanbul (the ancient Constantinople) the capital.

Late in the 15th cnetury, the Safavid Dynasty was established in Iran by its founder, the zealot AZARI mystic Shiite from Ardabil, Shah Safi-eddin and his staunch successors, son Shah Esmail and great grandson Shah Abbas.  There is historical evidence that the Ottomans were again overrunning Europe to re-Islamcize it for the second time in less than 1,000 years after first time. The first Islamization by the Arabs and Arabized North Africans of the Iberian Peninsula had occurred in the 8th century.  The Italians and the Vatican instigated a self serving diplomatic dialogue with the Persian Safavids equipping them with "hot weaponries," guns and cannons, so that the Parisians would, at their behest, open up an effective eastern front against the Ottomans. This impelled the Ottomans to spread militarily and logistically too thin on both fronts, thereby preventing them from going beyond the eastern gates of Vienna. The Ottomans retreated to their western controlled territories of Albania and Bulgaria. During this relatively short historical period, the nature and rituals of Shiism were fundamentally transformed to look and sound fundamentally distinct from Sunni Islam, by adopting certain rituals from medieval Catholicism. It was the first time in Iran that the religion was officially used as an effective political tool to make the Persians distinct from their Turkish and Arab step brethrens.  

Etymologically speaking, some scholars believe the origin of Azari dialect spoken in east Anatolia, northwest Iran and Aran then the Iranian province located north of the Araxes River in the caucuses , is traced back to Avesta, the holly book of the Persian Zoroastrians. There are nearly five hundred Old Pahlavi root words still used in this Azari dialect, much more in any other dialects of modern Persian language spoken in a vast region by 150 millions. The Azari language has been enriched with tens of thousands of middle and modern Persian words, in much the same manner that Persian has been enriched with considerable Azari, Turkish and Arabic words.  Amongst all the civilizations stretching from China to Eastern Europe, Iran has generated some of the richest Persian poetry and literature unrivalled by most nations. The masterpieces and treatises by Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Rumi, Hafiz, and Sa'adi to name a few, have not only preserved the Iranian cultures, but they have also influenced other adjacent languages and cultures  in the Indus valley, central Asia and the Caucuses, Asia Minor, the Persian Gulf region and the Arabian Peninsula.

In retrospect, the Safavid dynasty and its struggle against the Ottomans was also the awakening of the Iranian nationalism. It transpired in much the same manner as when the Aryan and Mede sub-stocks, moved from the Aral lake region around 3,500 years ago. Settlers from as far west as Ireland and as far east as northern India including Iran (Persia), were quite diverse, so also were the sub-ethnic Altaic and Turkic tribes, with their numerous dialects, moving into western Iran and Asia Minor around 1000-1500 CE. Korea, Mongolia and the 50 million current Muslims in Northwestern Xingjian Province of China, as well as tens of millions of people of the newly independent countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizstan do have their own sub-Altaic Turkic dialects, albeit some with Mongolian Turkic phenotypes and the rest of while complexions.   The Turkish (Altaic) language and culture in east Asia Minor was then substantially infused with Kurdish, Armenian and particularly Persian influences, while the western versions of the language were more under Roman, Syriac, Arabic and Greek influences.  Asia Minor, like a number of similar historical nations in the region, such as Mesopotamia and Iran (Persia), has been the crossroad of transmigrations, trade, cultural and ethnic intermingling and ample war skirmishes.  This region has again, like Iran, become multi-ethnic where the notion of "pure" race and thus egocentric superiority for any nation is absurd.

Clearly, Asia Minor, over nearly three millennia, has undergone  an ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious immersion and integration of the Hittites, with Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Armenians, Slavs, and finally with the various sub stocks of the Turkic tribes of the far east as recent as the past millennium.  Today, the peoples in Turkey are integrally polymorphic, and the culture is truly multi-ethnical, having genes from all the above. The Latinized so called Turkish language by Ataturk the founder of modern Turkey, having its roots in the Altaic Turkic dialects of the Far East, has adopted words, phrases and bits of syntax from Persian, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Romance, Russian and Slavic language families. In fact, the Azari language, spoken in northwestern Iran, eastern Turkey and in the newly established country of Azarbaijan (historically known, as Aran, then the provincial region of Iran), situated in a region in the Caucuses which was an integral part of the broader Iranian territory until the late 18th century, when it was turned over to and annexed by the Russian Tsars according to two hegemonic treaties imposed on IRAN, bears Iranian linguistic influence and almost an identical culture.  Again, etymologically speaking,  languages in this region, namely, the Persian,  Azari Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian, Arabic , Kurdish, etc. have each exchanged influences to varying degrees from Altaic, Persian, Armenian, Arabic, Greek, Roman, Indic, Latin, and Slavic origins and vice versa.  Let us listen to this music and appreciate how its melody has been enriched by all the above ethnicities.

The Ottoman Empire lasted until 1922 when the modern Turkish Republic under Kemal Mostafa Pasha (Atatürk) was founded. During the World War I, the Ottomans took sides with the losing Axis, and the Armenian genocide, which is said to have led to the mass annihilation of up to 1.6 million Armenians along with some Assyrians, occurred.  Atatürk set up a government anchored on Turkish nationalism, on the separation of mosque and state and safeguarded it with a constitutional provision for a strong military intervention when necessary. The new capital of Turkey has been Ankara since 1922. Atatürk's advocacy for Latinizing the Turkish language, although well intent as it has endeavored to bring the Turks closer to Europeans with mixed results, has nonetheless, deprived the future Turkish citizens from connecting to their past literature written in Arabic scripts. A substantial amount of such literature is historically rooted in the Persian language. Very few Turks if any could read the Rumi Poetry as inscribed in Persian in his mausoleum in Konia. Paradoxically, after one hundred years of struggle to give a so-called non sectarian European identification to the Turks, the rate of Islamic fundamental resurgence and re-discovery of past cultural identity, and as evidenced by increasing number of women wearing Hijab and despite restriction and discriminatory practices by the authorizes,  is among the fastest growing in the Islamic world.  Moreover, despite their continued bloody struggle, it is only in recent juncture when the Kurdish population of well over ten millions has been allowed to officially call themselves as Kurds and speak their own Iranic derived dialect language in the public. Croatians , Ossetians  and Albanians are three distinct examples people of plausible Iranian heritage. There is even a distant Irish-Iranian connection.

Avid readers of the historical chronology of this Asia Minor may refer to authenticated internet based and library resources for further information. There is a worthwhile book, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of (re-)Islamization from the 11th through the 15th Century, by Speros Vryonis, Jr. that can be helpful.  Currently the Eastern Orthodox Vatican equivalent overseeing 300 million parishners, and limited to only seven building and its Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople  Archbishop Bartolomeu, is still based in Istanbul.

My purpose is to present perspectives in their historical context as they have transpired in Asia Minor and its surroundings. In order for any nation such as Turkey to be fully integrated into the whole family of nations, it has to come to grips with its past, irrespective of how cruel it has acted and acknowledge the mutually beneficial cultural exchanges with the Greeks and the Persians (Iranians).  As much as people in the [Islamic] world may boast about their national identity or ethnic superiority, let's bear in mind that the Christian right in the west as led by American fundamentalists and neocons  and envisioned by the New American Century Project consider the rapid growth of Moslems worldwide a ONE serious threat to their supremacy.  Nationalism, so long as it does not deny other complimentarily nationalisms and honors cultural commonalities through internationalism, is valid; otherwise, it plays right into the hand of exploiters of divide and conquer in history.  Today's Turkey, Iran, India, China, Iraq, with common cultural threads that bind them all inextricably together, have over time contributed immensely toward world civilization and humanity and as such have each earned their deserving statures in the family of nations. This in and of itself when diligently considered should help these nations envisage and plan their path to the future.

Epitomizing, ethnic identity and cultural diversity and the cultural exchanges in between should be embraced, celebrated and empowered in its historical context and on an international realm; otherwise, ultra nationalism, albeit the Turkish, Arabic or other inclinations-leads to extremism, terrorism, and self annihilations, where those with the divide to conquer ulterior motives from within and without remain the ultimate winners to devour the spoils.  As Turkey continues to mature, its acceptance of the Armenian Genocide, and embracing its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural identity could only lead to the deserving stature this nation deserves in the family of nations.

... Payvand News - 03/15/10 ... --

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