Years ago the İstanbul Governor’s Officer banned a group from publishing a magazine named Konstantiniye, which planned to cover city news, on the grounds that this name is foreign and the city’s name is İstanbul, a Turkish name.
Here there are two problems: (1) The original name of this city comes from the name of the emperor who rebuilt it and made it the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. (2) Some Ottoman sources refer to it as “Konstantiniye” -- a term derived from Arabic. Why do we treat the past cultures and their legacies we inherit as if they are totally foreign to us?
The justifications for this alienation are not convincing at all: If we reference the city’s past, Greeks may stake claim to the city. This is strange logic. Just as we cannot raise claims about Thessaloniki, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was born, so too they cannot raise claims about İstanbul. But they may come to this city to pursue their historical and cultural traces, learn about them and enjoy it, just as we visit Atatürk’s house or the Ottoman remains left in other countries.
It is high time that we learn about our own history or the history we have inherited, including its territories, cities and peoples. We are the heirs and the continuation of that history. But I think this is where the problem lies: We don’t want to accept this reality. We just insist that the legacy should be ours in its entirety. However, only part of Anatolia’s rich past belongs to us alone. The remaining part belongs to those who came before us or those who were living in this land before they were sent away. For instance, the name İstanbul is not a conflation of the words “İslam” (Islam) and “bol” (abundant), just as the name Anadolu (Anatolia) is not a merger of the words “ana” (mother)” and “dolu” (full of). İstanbul derives from the word “stinpolis,” an abbreviation of the word “Constantinopolis” once commonly used by the peasants living around the city (polis). The city used to be referred to as “ist’mbol” by the Ottomans. Later, it came to be known as İstanbul. In short, İstanbul is a multi-cultural name that dates back to 2,000 years ago. But we tend to take it as a Turkish name and attempt to protect it.
Anatolia is the name Greeks gave to Asia Minor. In Greek, “anatole,” or “anatoli,” means “east.” In Greek, “ana” means “up” or “upper.” For Greeks, this land was “anatelein,” i.e., the place where sun rises or comes up, i.e., the east.
What is wrong with knowing and adopting this past? This country has been home to numerous nations throughout history; many languages were spoken and countless settlements were built and a number of religions were observed here. If we accept this fact, will we lose our nationality or religion? Or will its true owners come and take it back from us? Thankfully, those true owners no longer exist, but the fear of their specter is still here inside us. Every year, we tell ourselves, “This place belongs to us, as we conquered it at the expense of our people’s lives.” By doing so, we give the impression to the world that “we are not true owners of this place as we came here at a later time.” Why? Is it because we did not establish this city or we did not give it a name? We did not invent the automobile and did not give it a name. We did not invent jackets and pants, but after we buy and use them, they become ours. Those who produce them do not claim that the jackets or pants we are wearing actually belong to them.
We should be relieved and find some peace. We don’t have to re-conquer İstanbul every year; we just need to protect it, improve it and make it an exemplary city.
There is the Byzantine masterpiece Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia), also known as church of the “holy wisdom” due to its Greek name. It is considered the eighth wonder of the world. It was built 1,000 -- yes, one thousand -- years before the mosques we like to boast about. It was built by Emperor Justinianus between A.D. 532 and 537. It was used as a church for 916 years, and in 1453 it was converted to a mosque. It was used as a mosque for 482 years until 1935, when it was turned into a museum to preserve the cultural heritage of humanity by a cabinet decision following Atatürk’s orders.
There is now a movement in Turkey: Aya Sofia should be converted back to a mosque. All right, let us convert it, but we should first answer these two questions in order to be persuasive: Does the Greek word for wisdom suit a mosque? Or do we insist on making it ours by saying “We don’t care whoever built it and whomever it was dedicated to; our faith and our wishes are important.” What really matters is to have such a magnificent monument dedicated to God, doesn’t it? If we insist on praying inside it instead of glorifying its architectural and historical magnificence, will this make us better Muslims? In Islam, everywhere under the skies is a place of worship, not only a specific location.