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Being Mithridates

Head of Mithridates in the guise of Hercules, in the Louvre. Photo © Eric Gaba.

The death of Mithridates VI Eupator, the last king of Pontus, in 63 BC marks both the culmination and the implosion of the dream of an independent Pontic state uniting the shores of the Black Sea under one ruler. Born c. 134 BC in Sinop, Mithridates spent his life pursuing his ambition. He probably saw himself as another Alexander but his roots were hardly Greek. He certainly had deep ties with Persia, beginning with his name meaning ‘gift of Mithras’; the kingdom he inherited may have included a stretch of Black Sea coast but was originally very much an inland state. As for Sinop, that foothold on the coast, it was lost to the Romans in 70 BC and later turned into a colony under the name of Colonia Julia Felix. Mithridates’s relentless pursuit of his destiny—which earned him the respect of modern-day Turks who see him as a national hero who put up a stubborn resistance to foreign (i.e. Roman) interference, as much has Atatürk did after WWI with the Greeks—is well known through the works of Appian on the Mithridatic wars and indirectly from Plutarch’s lives of Pompey and Lucullus. His name also crops up in other contemporary sources, such as Pliny the Elder and Celsus. He was clearly a figure larger than life and though he eventually failed, he held for a while in his rule large chunks of Asia Minor, the eastern and the northern coasts of the Black Sea, until he was defeated and committed suicide. He had already become a legend in is own lifetime, which goes some way to explain why he was honoured with a monument in Delos. It is thought that the Greek priest Helianax saw him as the right character to exhibit in order to improve the cosmopolitan feel of the sanctuary.

Mithridates was known not only for his military achievements: he pursued many sidelines. One does wonder how he found the time to take an interest in his six wives (the first one being his sister Laodicea, a choice expressing a very Persian concern with the purity of the line) and numerous concubines. Mithridates was a linguist and prided himself on being able to address each of his subjects in his or her own language. According to Pliny, that required a total of 22 different languages. He also had a fixation on poisons—and quite rightly so. He had witnessed his own father, Mithridates V, succumb to poison at a banquet. Poison or the fear of poison was common in antiquity. So he set about looking for a remedy, and as prevention is better than cure, he hit on the idea of taking regular sub-lethal doses to make himself immune. Celsus thought this method worth including in his publication on medicine. Moreover, in his quest for an antidote Mithridates made his name in the field of botany (a couple of plants are named after him). Pliny himself, however, did not think much of his universal antidote made of dried walnuts, figs and rue pounded together with a pinch of salt, nor of the enhanced version with 54 different ingredients.

After a spell in the wilderness at the end of the Classical era, Mithridates re-emerged as one of the illustrious men whose fates Boccaccio wrote about in the early 14th century. At the beginning of the 17th century an unknown Italian cleric composed a tragedy about him; this found its way to the French court and eventually inspired Racine. His Mithridate, a tragedy of love, jealousy and treachery, was a hot favourite with Louis XIV; the Mithridates Riding to Battle with his Concubine Hypsicratea, which Antoine Paillet painted at Versailles in 1642, is probably no coincidence. Racine’s work was translated into Italian by Parini and Alessandro Scarlatti put it to music. The première was held in Venice in 1707. After that, libretti and operas on the tragic king multiplied. There were some 25 of them floating around when Mozart set about writing his own Mithridates King of Pontus in 1770. It was his first opera seria and was an instant success. He was barely 14.

Paola Pugsley’s Pontic Provinces of Turkey will be published by Blue Guides as an ebook later this year. Her Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey and Blue Guide Eastern Turkey were published last year. See here for details.


So what is the Turkish Van?

Van Cat, embroidered in Chinese silk

The Turkish Van is not a mode of transport. It is a domestic feline animal, otherwise known as the Van Cat from its home in the Van region of eastern Turkey. It is said that the cats first came to Europe from the Middle East, in the wake of returning crusaders, and thence, in the 20th century, made their way to the United States.

The cats are recognised by their long bushy tails and fluffy white coats, often with brown markings on the head and tail (the all-white ones are very beautiful but breeders complain that they are prone to deafness). Uniquely, their fur is resistant to water: the Van cat is an enthusiastic swimmer. Their other peculiarity, which makes them startling to look at, is their tendency to have eyes of odd colours: one blue, the other tawny.

Paola Pugsley’s guide to the Van region of Turkey is published in digital format as Blue Guide Eastern Turkey. For more Turkey posts, see here.

Statue of the municipal mascots of the town of Van, cat and kitten (photo by Paola Pugsley)

Tying the Knot in Urfa

In the workshop with Songül and Mehmet

Yes, but which one? The Spanish, the Persian or the Turkish? When it comes to carpets there is plenty of choice and although I spent a week at it, I am not too sure which one it was.

Carpet making has a long tradition in Turkey. It harks back to distant times when the ancestors of today’s settled and urbanised Turks were roaming the steppes with huge flocks of sheep. In a way, carpet-making is to sheep rearing what cheese and yoghurt are to milk production: a way to deal with huge surpluses—and a very successful one indeed. Even if mechanised production is the norm in the West, the old ways have not disappeared here and local municipalities are keen to preserve and encourage the tradition. That’s how I found myself knocking at the door of Urfa’s Belediye carpet workshop in the northern part of town, in an area set aside for crafts including mosaic, leather, woodwork and ceramics.

Carpet-making is a female occupation. In the long winter days when agricultural tasks are less demanding, women and girls spend months at it. They prepare the wool in the late summer/autumn, when they can be seen fully clothed, waist high in the water, beating the lanolin out of it with big sticks. Then they dry it and dye it and, come the winter, it is time to weave it. When they are done, the men step in. A van collects the production of an area and takes them off to be sold. Distant Istanbul is a favourite destination because of the size of the market. The best buyers will snap up a whole vanload at once, no questions asked. That way they can ensure a steady supply.

This does not mean that men are unable to make carpets. They run the shops and do the repairs between clients.

There are two main categories of carpet: kilims, which are woven, and the knotted variety, made of either wool or silk. In the workshop I attended I saw all of them but for practical reasons I ended up with a wool carpet. Normally, carpet-making is a one-woman job. You really need a very wide carpet to accommodate two people working side by side. Fortunately I found Songül, halfway through a huge carpet (well over 2.5m wide) destined for the foreign market, apparently Spain. She kindly agreed to be my mentor and put up with my Turkish.

It was clear from the outset that I had the wrong kind of hand: too many fingers or not enough of them to twist a strand of wool quickly and efficiently through the warp. To start with I was using both hands, which caused some hilarity: the women in the workshop could do it with just one finger, two at most. Anyway, I got better with practice and graduated to using the scissors to trim the pile after each complete run. The scissors look like an instrument of torture, which indeed they are. They are huge and heavy and have to be used with two hands, one at each end, and even then I got cramps. I was better at operating the machinery of the loom between runs. I quickly learned to pay attention to the pattern because each mistake means unpicking all the way back (I got some experience of that as well).

There must have been something like two dozen looms in the workshop, of various sizes. Some women came in for the whole day with their preschool children and we all took it in turns to mind them. Teenage girls dropped in after school to work on their projects. Whether they will want to continue making carpets later on, when they calculate their hourly rate, is an interesting point to debate. Carpet-making is a very slow process, even when you are good at it. Together with Songül we completed about four centimetres of our big carpet in five days. She was quick, very quick (my ‘contribution’ probably slowed her down); even so, she will take over a year to finish that one carpet.

So what did I learn from five days of carpet-making? Female companionship for sure. I was welcomed with unquestioning friendliness and made to feel part of the group. We shared food, laughter and silence with the occasional clanking of the looms and the ever-present Turkish (or Kurdish?) music wafting from someone’s transistor radio. Dancing around the looms even broke out at some point.

It also gave me an appreciation of the work itself. I have always been a keen carpet buyer, ready to strike a bargain, haggling and softening vendors’ hearts with my knowledge of the language. Turkish-speaking tourists are a rarity in Turkey and a source of wonder and awe.

But if I ever buy another carpet (though my small house has no clear floor space left) I will probably haggle less—or possibly not at all.

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Eastern Turkey and Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey, available now for download.


Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia

A Cambridge archaeologist has unearthed evidence for a previously unknown ancient language. The find was made during excavations at the palace of the Assyrian imperial governor at ancient Tushhan (modern Ziyaret Tepe, close to the Syrian border). See the report in Britain’s Independent newspaper and for a picture of part of the cuneiform tablet that provides the vital clues here»


The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne

The hospital complex with its mosque (image © Nevit Dilmen)

Edirne, which stands on the Turkish border with Greece and Bulgaria, has seen extraordinary highs and lows during its history. As the Roman Adrianople, it stood close to the site of one of the most disastrous battles in history, when the Roman emperor Valens and most of his army was annihilated in AD 378. In 1205, just after they had taken Constantinople, the Crusaders were defeated here by the Bulgarians. In 1365 the Ottoman Sultan Murat I captured the city and made it the capital of his empire—until his successors finally took Constantinople itself in 1453. Edirne suffered appallingly in the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century. At one point, 20,000 Ottoman troops were marooned on an island and starved to death while thousands of civilians died in the city itself.

Times are quieter now. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1922 ensured that the city remained firmly inside Turkey. Today Edirne is worth visiting for its two 15th-century mosques and the wonderful Selimiye Mosque, built in the 1570s by Sinan (1489–1588), the greatest Ottoman architect of them all. It was completed when Sinan was in his eighties and is now a World Heritage Centre, even though, at three hours driving from Istanbul, it is still little visited. The city is also famous for its special fried liver—the main dish at any restaurant and apparently impossible to recreate anywhere else!

Almost as impressive as the Selimiye Mosque is the Medical Complex built by Sultan Beyazit II, the son of Murat I, just outside the city. It was completed in 1484 and was still functioning as a hospital until as late as 1916. Now beautifully restored to its original state and resplendent with its multiple domes and its mosque, the complex was opened to the public in 2008. Even before this it had won awards from the Council of Europe.

The hospital could take 32 patients at a time, housed in ten rooms, but in the first courtyard were treatment rooms for outpatients. The central room of the hospital has a fine dome: the treatment of mental cases in particular placed great emphasis on soothing surroundings. The hospital had a ten-piece orchestra with a repertoire designed to calm or stimulate according to the patients’ state of mind of the patients. Water, too, was considered to be calming, so the fountains were an important part of the ambience.

Alongside the hospital was the Medical School, with room for eighteen students. The hospital was well endowed with income from the local market dues, which meant that treatment was free and that the students were even paid for their attendance. The exhibit includes re-created displays of teaching and treatment sessions with illustrations of some of the procedures. Resolving back pain seems to have been a priority, as patients are shown tied up and being yanked about by 15th-century physios. Other treatments, one of them involving a cockerel, were perhaps less likely to succeed.

Until I had seen this wonderful museum I had been hesitant about bringing a group three hours out of Istanbul across a dull stretch of countryside. The Selimiye Mosque was perhaps enough of a draw in itself, but it is the Health Museum that made it a must. Adding the resplendent 19th-century Railway Station, now home of the History of Art Faculty of Edirne University—you approach the porter’s lodge through the original glass front of the booking office—and the recent, impressive, monument to the Treaty of Lausanne, plus a concluding cup of tea by the 16th-century bridge makes an excellent day out. Who knows, I may even get my group to tuck into the fried liver!

by Charles Freeman. Charles will be leading a tour of Istanbul and Edirne for Ciceroni Tours from 2nd–8th October.

Books about Istanbul

Some suggestions from Blue Guides’ historical consultant Charles Freeman

I haven’t been to Istanbul for some years, so it is good to be going back at last, to set up a tour I shall be leading in October. Of course, I shall be keen to put the new Blue Guide to Istanbul to the test and I have already been browsing. John Freely has alerted me to several smaller mosques that I have never visited so my appetite is already whetted. All my group will have their copies of the Guide but I need to offer them other recommendations.

I was depressed by Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, which I read last summer, but have preserved much warmer memories of his Istanbul, Memories of a City, a bittersweet account of his growing up in the city in the 1960s and 1970s (Faber, 2005). Pamuk brilliantly describes the complex and brooding relationships of a family that is trapped between traditional life and the pseudo-western alternative that is replacing it. He mourns the wooden buildings of the old town but in his adolescence he gradually found his own way into the complex and transient cultures that were being erased. So here too is an introduction to the literature of the city, the writers who visited it with their preconceptions and desires. Over the city, for Pamuk, rests huzun, a blanket of melancholia, heavy with the memories of those who have passed through. Has anyone really found a permanent home in a city of such transience? Pamuk suggests not. This haunting and beautifully-written book will certainly be on the list.

Recently out is Peter Clark’s Istanbul, A Cultural History in The Cities of the Imagination series (Signal Books, Oxford, 2010). Clark has never lived in Istanbul but he has family there and a long experience of viewing, as a British Council employee, its impact as the capital of the empire on its former provinces. He has amassed a large repertoire of stories and impressions, of his and others, and writes with a pleasing style. The bulk of the book comes after the Ottoman conquest of 1453; only 45 pages are on the Byzantine Empire and much of this on the empire rather than the city (although this could be justified by his title). As the book continues, it gradually becomes more of an anthology, a pastiche of the stories Clark has picked up in his wide reading or gleaned from his wanderings in the city. While never dull, it really needed to be brought into better order. Chapter Four, on the nineteenth century, jumped from subject to subject, often without any relationship between them. Another chapter is a wander through Belle Epoque Istanbul. I would happily sign Peter Clark as a real guide here but in print, and with few illustrations, the details of each building overwhelm. The chapter ‘Sailing to Istanbul’ is simply a series of vignettes of nineteenth-century travellers who left some memories of their visits. With good editing, however, there is a valuable second edition waiting to emerge from the present text.

So I have gone back to rereading Philip Mansel’s superb Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453–1924 (John Murray, 1995). I finished it the first time as I was on a boat going up the Bosphorus in the late 1990s and found it magnificently detailed and absorbing. It brilliantly captures the atmosphere and tensions of the city. Much of my work on Istanbul is on its Christian Byzantine past and I have forgotten most of what I learned about the sultans the first time around, so it will be a treat to meet them again in Mansel’s vivid account. He reminds us too just how much Istanbul was part of a wider Mediterranean commercial and political world in the nineteenth century as the European powers tried to fit it into their strategic plans. It remains a great and relevant read nearly twenty years on and so will certainly be on my recommendations list.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul

Fully updated new edition to this ever-more-popular destination.

View details, look inside and order securely on line direct from the publisher.


Comments on Blue Guide Turkey

This highly acclaimed Blue Guide provides unrivalled coverage of Turkey's wonderful artistic heritage. The treasures include superb remains of Greek and Roman cities along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, the Crusader castles of the southeast, and beautiful mosques and medreses from the Selcuk and Ottoman periods.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from here»



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