The Last Time Ankara and Damascus had a Stare-down

Posted by dianamuir on July 04, 2012
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In 1936 Ataturk and the Kemalists had reasons to want to wag the dog.   To be fair, they also had genuine reason to worry about Mussolini’s Eastern ambitions; Italy had conquered the Ottoman-held Dodecanese islands in 1912, and Italian fascists felt that they had been cheated out of their rightful opportunity to acquire a large chunk of Anatolia  at the close of WWI.   Il Duce was hungry for Empire.   So when Italy began to fortify the Dodecanese islands in 1934, Turkish fears that this presaged an invasion were not unreasonable.   Whether  Turkish fears that Italy was about to grab part of Anatolia justified Turkey’s grabbing of the Sanjak of Alexandretta is a different question.

The piece of land that Turkey decided to grab is the bit that juts into Syria.   Iskenderun is the Turkified version of Alexandretta.   All of the Greek and Armenian place names were Turkified by the Kemalists.


File:Turkey map.svg
Here you can see where the Sanjak of Alexandretta  fit into the northwest corner of the French Mandate of Syria.

Which brings us back to Turkey’s fear of being invaded by Italy.   It provided a pretext for Turkish annexation of Alexandretta.   Especially after Mussolini invaded and annexed Ethiopia.

The population of the prosperous Sanjak included Greeks, Armenians, Assyrian Christians, Jews, Maronites, Kurds, Alawis, Arabs, Circassians and Turks.   Turks were  as much as 40% of the population.   More if you counted the Alawis and Circassians as Turks, a tactic that  Turkey found useful in presenting its case to the world.

The Turkish argument was that the Sanjak was a Turkish province that had mistakenly been placed outside the fatherland and that Turkey had a right, even a duty to reunite Alexandretta’s Turks with Turkey.

In May 1937 a  League of Nations  “Committee of Experts” disingenuously accepted a Statue and Fundamental Law of the Sanjak of Alexandretta recognizing the Sanjak as a majority Turkish region and declaring it autonomous.

With Italy creating alliances in the Balkans and a Civil War being fought in Spain, France pushed the deal though because it wanted to secure its dominion over Mandatory Syrian by appeasing Turkey.

The Germans stood up and cheered.  First the League of Nations had violated it’s own principles by failing to defend Ethiopia from invasion by fascist Italy.   Now it was willing to allow Turkey to grab an unwilling province.  This augured well for the Nazi intention to claim the “right” to reunite the ethnic Germans of the Sudetenland, Austria, Poland and other lands with the German fatherland.

Pierre Arnal, French Deputy Chief of Mission in Berlin, was appalled, “If Turkey obtains satisfaction in some way, what encouragement for the Reich!”   Arnal was a prophet without an audience.   A massive European peace movement demanded peace at any price, and got it.

The people of Alexandretta protested in every way they could, but they were facing daunting odds, not to mention Kemalist thugs.

France and Turkey came to a “private arrangement” to rig an election that would decide the future of the Sanjak.   Upon being informed of the details, the responsible official at Whitehall summarized the agreement, “Its substance was that the elections, somehow or other (presumably by fair means or foul), should result in a Turkish majority.”

The means used by Turkey were foul, thugs and troops were sent into the Sanjak, the fraudulent vote was held and counted,   and Alexdretta was handed over to Turkey and  renamed Hatay Province.  Many pious Muslims left, fearing the Kemalist program of secularization and Turkification; eighty percent of the Sanjak’s Christians fled.

And the regimes in Turkey and Germany were reinforced in their belief that might makes right.



The best source on the incident period is Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II, Sarah D. Shields, Oxford University Press.



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Turn the Temple Mount into a Museum

Posted by dianamuir on June 08, 2012
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Temple Mount in the Umayyad period reconstructed by Leen Ritmeyer and copied from the best source on the physical history of the Temple Mount.


This week huge Muslim crowds surged around one of the holiest sites in Christendom, held back by guards refusing to allow them to enter for prayer. (Photos here)     Hagia Sophia  was built by the Emperor Justinian in 532, replacing a cathedral destroyed by soccer hooligans.  It was the greatest church in Christendom; work did not begin on St. Peter’s basilica in Rome until 1506, some decades after Hagia Sophia was taken over by Islam.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453.     The Parthenon in Athens was converted into a mosque in the same conquest.   Far to the west,  the  expulsion of Muslims from Cordoba in 1236 meant that a Cathedral nave was built into the center of the eighth century mosque considered too beautiful to tear down.   But the eight-century mosque had itself been built upon an even older Visigothic church.   Claims to the “right” to worship here are complicated, not least because of the claim by some Muslims that all of Iberia is lost Muslim territory that Muslims have a duty to repossess.   Meanwhile, Cordoba is a cathedral that welcomes tourists and visitors of every faith, although only Catholic worship services may be held.   Recent years have seen a series of violent incidents in which Muslims attempt to hold group prayer in the cathedral.

Ataturk had a moment of great wisdom in 1945 when he turned Hagia Sophia into a museum.   Neither Christian nor Muslim can kneel in prayer, and neither group can assemble for prayer.    But everyone, Atheists, Greek priests, even pagans, can walk freely into the great, domed building and marvel at the glory that was Rome.

The Parthenon, built as a Temple to Athena, used as a Christian Church, then as a mosque, is now used as a museum.

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is different from the Cathedral of Cordoba because the Muslim religious authorities in control of the site do not permit free access to people of other faiths.   Non Muslims are admitted to the Temple platform only at certain hours on arbitrarily announced days, are often turned away even on days when opening hours have been announced, and are refused entrance into the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, although non-Muslim tourists were welcome to enter these holy places only a few years ago.  At Cordoba, the Catholic Church allows non-Catholics to enter during regular hours and explore the building. As do the authorities at the Parthenon and Hagia Sophia.

The Temple Mount is regularly used as a base from which to launch violent attacks on worshipers praying at the Western Wall plaza.

But beyond the political and religious aspects of mismanagement by the Waqf, there is the issue of physical destruction.   The Waqf has carried out a series of highly destructive  projects, removing deep strata of ancient material in an effort to create more underground Muslim worship space for use on the major holidays.

Ataturk had a better idea.  He turned Hagia Sophia into a museum.   This has enabled people of all faiths and of none freely to visit and experience the glories of the great church.   But it has also enabled teams of expert conservators and scholars to study the ancient building, with its layers of Christian and Islamic decoration, recording and preserving it for future generations.

It is time for Israel to do what Ataturk did.   Remove the Temple Mount as a perpetual flashpoint between contending groups by making it into a museum, open to everyone to study and to visit, but open to no one as a space to hold public services of worship.

When the messiah arrives, we can let him (or maybe her) take charge.

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