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CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS

Little did the Nepalese conscripts in the Gurkha regiments of British India know that they would fight and die in foreign shores as far away as the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli during World War I. The Treaty of Sugauly had ended the short Anglo-Nepal Wars in 1816 A.D. and the British had wrested the right to conscript the hardy mountain soldiers of Nepal into the newly formed Gurkha Regiments of British India. World War I saw the British, French and Russian Empires pitted against the German, Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. With Russia cut off from the west and Imperial Russia on the brink of collapse having suffered defeat in its western front, the western allies wanted to secure the link from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea to supply Russia but the Turks at Istanbul were blocking the Bosphorus. British and French troops attacked Gallipoli to occupy Istanbul. The 1st Battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles were the main attacking force. Turkey eventually prevailed with great loss of lives on both sides.

Gurkhas in Gallipoli
 A quick check in Wikipedia lists this entry: The 1st Battalion had the distinction of being the first Gurkha unit to arrive at Gallipoli landing at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915.[5] Their first major operation saw them attack an Ottoman position that was doing significant damage to Allied forces with machine guns—this involved them going up a 300 foot (91 metre) vertical slope which had defeated both the Royal Marine Light Infantry and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers—however, the Gurkhas gained the position with ease.[6] Eighteen Gurkhas were killed in this action and another forty-two were wounded. For their sacrifice, this area is now known as Gurkha Bluff.[7]

During my recent visit to Turkey I could not help but marvel at the long history of Christianity and Islam this land envelops. If ever there occurred a "Clash of Civilizations" as fashionably coined after 9/11, this land where the east and the west meet was its epicenter. My Turkish guide Ismail Kucukbasol was a font of knowledge not only of the staggering richness of monuments and historical sites of this ancient land but also of its philosophical underpinnings. The Hitites who battled Pharaonic Egypt lived here. The Greeks conquered its Aegean coastline and settled there and called the land "Anatolia", land to the east. The Trojan War took place along its shores. The Persian emperor Darius conquered the land and drove the Greeks out. Later Alexander the Great would re-conquer this land on his way to Persia and India. History played see-saw on this land.

I was spellbound by the account of Ismail explaining to me the formation of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium. Emperor Constantine had started giving space to Christians in his empire as he knew that by 324 A.D. this new religion could not be contained by force. His own mother had converted to Christianity and this played a huge role in influencing him. As Rome started to be pounded by the hordes of Barbarians, Constantine left Rome and built the new capital of his empire in Constantinople, the strategically located peninsula on the Strait of Bosphorus guarding both the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea. He would be able to fight off challenges from the Barbarians here. He built the Eastern Roman Empire from here that would last more than 600 years after Rome was crushed in 476 A.D. Constantine converted to Christianity a few hours before his death. Even before this the first Christian community started at Antioch, now Antakya near the Syrian border, where St. Peter lived and preached.

Inside the Blue Mosque
Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, another result of the "Clash of Civilizations". The Turks and the Mongols having migrated from the Altai Mountains in Central Asia share a common ancestry, just like their modern day brethren in Kazaksthan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. These nomadic hordes were fated to form two of the biggest empires the world has seen. One branch travelled westward to found the Ottoman Empire of Turkey and another was to form the Mughal Empire in India some two hundred years later! Just how hardy these Central Asians were! My guide Ismail told me that there is nobody without mixed blood living in Turkey any more. Sultan Mehmet II had defeated the Byzantines in 1453 A.D. and established the Ottoman dynasty of rulers that would last unbroken for nearly 500 years until 1918 A.D. following the defeat of the empire in WWI. Ismail looked Caucasian but he would point out his slanted eyes to me - a genetic code-share between us thus established we seemed to hit it off better for more lessons in history.

Emperor Justinian completed the most revered Christian building in the empire - Hagia Sophia - during his reign, 527 - 565 A.D. Today the building is a museum after having served as a mosque since the Ottoman conquest of 1453 A.D. The father of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wisely decided to make the building a museum after he abolished the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. I saw many of the beautiful murals and frescoes from the Byzantine age being exposed to public adulation after having been covered in the iconoclastic time warp of the Islamic zealots for 500 years!

Hagia Sofia

The Islamic heritage is best represented by the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace among others. Also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque after its founder Sultan Ahmet I completed it in 1616 A.D. the Blue Mosque is the most splendid of the Ottoman religious structures. The mosque sits on the Byzantine Hippodrome famous for the chariot races and the gladiator fights that was second in size and importance only to Circus Maximus in Rome. The Topkapi Palace is translated as the Cannon Gate Palace and now we know why we Nepalese call cannon "tope" in Nepali! The palace was built after the conquest of Istanbul during the period 1475-1478 A.D. and it is a museum today. The Hollywood movie from the sixties, "Topkapi" starring Peter Ustinov told the story of the attempted heist of the priceless Topkapi Dagger that has egg-sized emeralds embedded in its hilt. The dagger is on display at the museum.

On the last morning I sailed on the Bosphorus with picturesque views of Asia to the east and Europe to the west. The Bosphorus is truly where the two Civilizations met and clashed during history's long transition to the peaceful and prosperous present day Turkey. I did not have enough time to see it all and I have promised Ismail to come back again with my family. I gave him a lesson in history too - he did not know that Nepalese soldiers had fought and died at Turkey's Aegean coast.

Sailing the Bosphorus




Comments

  1. Great article Mama. Feel like going to the Bosphorus myself. Someday surely! Mansa

    ReplyDelete
  2. I didn't know that the Turks were also Monguls!

    Live and learn.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was very glad to get the following comments and clarifications on the various historical facts that I site in my blog from my guide in Istanbul. What resonates most is the quotation from Kemal Ataturk...read on!

    Date: Monday, 13 December, 2010, 12:33 AM

    Sir,

    I want to keep in touch with you too.Thank you for your account of your visit.
    I didn't know that you were going to write a commentary abour your visit.You were taking some notes.But I'd like to make clear some dates.

    Neither I'm a professor nor my guests are students. That's why I try to explain history with its outlines. Try to tell them the things by a manner that they can remember. Sometimes I purposely exaggerate. I add my personal opinions too.

    "Constantine converted to Christianity 4 hours before his death." in my opinion it's better to change "4 hours" with " a few hours".

    "in his empire as he knew that by 330 A.D. this new religion could not be contained by force."
    330 is the inauguration, declaration of constantinople as the new capital. The contact of Constantine with Chritians was before that date.In 324-25..s
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea

    "He built an Orthodox Christian Empire " during his time there wasn't a division like orthodoxy or Catholicism. They all agreed on decisions of first councils.So it's better to delete the word "Orthodox".

    "The Turks are tribes of Mongol origin" in my opinion it's appropriate to say "the Turks and Mongols are descendants of a certain race"

    "Sultan Ahmet I completed it in 1609 A.D" the construction started in 1609 but Ahmet I completed the mosque in 1616.

    And finally,
    about the origin of the soldiers who fought against Turks.
    Dear Sir,for us,their origin is not important at all .We dont want to know.Gallipoli campaign was a tragedy for everyone.No matter what their origin was :

    Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well. (Mustafa Kemal Ataturk)

    yours faithfully

    İsmail Kucukbasol

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fascinating commentary. The quote from Ataturk above is poignant. I think I saw the Altai mountains while in western Mongolia.

    ReplyDelete

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