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Wednesday, Dec 02, 2015 - 23:56 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

- -
Global Gobble

Mr. Ham: "Find me a suitable intro song for Turkey", he says. Does he think I'm his personal DJ or something?

Mr. Robo: Ah, come on, it can't be that hard - I don't know... how about a belly dance? It's traditional...

Mr. Ham: That's so canned. Ah, I got this. Makes a good pair with the previous music video - the chase goes the other way - and moreover it dislodged the other artist too.

[Lyrics with translation]
[Another version]
[The Disney Channel Kids Award-winning cover by Holly Valance]
[There's something to be learnt here (plus, completely Halal)]

With all those hammy Thanksgiving quips done with, a little informal primer on Turkey and Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. So now, yeah, those Romans, who were the biggest shots of the time, had a sudden change of heart a few hundred years after executing an obscure Jewish rabble-rouser, after their reigning Emperor decided to give this new far-out liberalism a go, and moreover by then it was the temples of the older gods that had more booty to raid. This got him a dinky sobriquet by his grateful newly-favoured subjects, but whether by coincidence or not, the proud Roman dominion in modern-day Italy that had lasted for over 800 years would implode totally within a century, give or take.

In any case, one of said Emperor's sons moved house to the then city of Byzantium, which daddy had just humbly named after himself. He turned out to be one of the luckier ones, as the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire put-puttered along, haemorrhaging territory for about another thousand years, until it was mercifully put out of its misery by the Ottomans in 1453.

Then, the Ottomans' new Sultan guy was this ambitious Mehmed II fellow, and you know what frisky 21 year-olds get up to when they have a buncha bored soldiers, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Collector's Edition not due to come out for another 500 years. I mean, he'd probably have settled for Pac-Man, but his advisors probably told him to use it or lose it, and bagging cool phat loot probably had much the same allure then, as securing dat oil to Americans today.

Being classier then, Mehmed dude gave his opponents the basic respect of not trying to insult their intelligence with excuses like "weapons of mass destruction", instead coming straight: look, I got 100000 men, you got, like, 10000 men at best. So, like, we can do this the easy way, you gib us some of yer stuff all smooth like, and we go easy on ya, I get some of my guys to wololo your churches, won't take long, we can have tea or something kingy to kingy in the meantime.

Of course, the Eastern Emperor dude refused, which was brave and all, but if there's one thing you learn from military history, it is that if there is a God, then He really, really likes the stronger army. Actually, Eastern Empy could just have bailed like his dad had in 1399, and lived to fight another day, but evidently he was a fan of famous last stands. Worse, he had turned down the services of a German cannon team, who promptly found Mehmed's want ad on whatever version of Kriegslist they had then, and that was it. Cue some frankly quite unnecessary and unpleasant bloodletting, Mehmed got his wolololo after all, for +3 Faith and a free temple.

It wasn't the first time this had happened, though - about 250 years back, Constantinople had gotten into a bit of a bind too. As usual, there was a nice free-for-all going on in the Middle East, and this Saladin chap had recently captured Jerusalem, but it was more or less their turn anyway, the Catholics had had a good run already. The reigning Pope-man wasn't the sharing type, however, and drafted a three-on-one handicap match - Richard+Philip+Holy Empy Barbarossa vs. Saladin.

Truth to tell, it wasn't a bad romp by the standards of the time, both teams got enough wins to keep the match interesting, though with Saladin successfully defending Jerusalem. There was some nifty cloak-and-dagger going on too, with the then Eastern Empy secretly colluding with Salady to impede Freddy Barbarossa, who promptly got tired of waiting, and then for some reason best known to himself, decided to cross a river on horseback and in full armour. Unsurprisingly, he drowned. Which was sad, 'cause he had the coolest name of the lot by far, but shit happens.

Maybe the others were upset and all too, since they called for a time-out, and the good ol' boys from both sides began mingling - but not looking each other in the eye too much - and pretending that nothing had happened. Another decade passed, old Popey went to meet his Maker to submit a progress report, and his successor decided to name himself Innocent. Which, given that his major policy doctrine was "Yo, now let's get a big huge army together, yeah, and all sail to this here nice city, I'm sure they will be only too happy to pay you 'cause they're faithful Christians too", might indicate an uncommon degree of self-awareness on his part.

If you haven't guessed, said nice city was Constantinople, then under the Orthodox Catholic Church, which also claimed itself to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, as that was the respectable thing to say in those days. Anyhow, maybe 10000 guys had innocently gathered in Venice having signed up for some Shock and Awe (and Booty), and wound up basically bankrupting themselves before setting off, just to pay for the troop transports. The whole concept of "leader foots bill for his grunts" hadn't taken off yet, if you haven't noticed.

Still, this Coalition of the Willing did get going, and they made a call at the very Catholic port of Zara (present-day Zadar in Croatia). Being slightly less innocent at what the arrival of a horde of poor, pissed-off men with big swords generally meant, the inhabitants of Zara hung out banners with crosses, and you can't really fault them for trying, but they got pillaged anyway, and Popey guy was so surprised and shocked.

Anticipating the formation of the United Nations, Popey wrote a very strongly worded letter to the Crusade leaders, who promptly accidentally lost it during the post-looting celebrations. At the same time, they discovered that the good people of Constantinople were not totally fine with getting stuck with the bill for their little expedition, after all.

But, they then got wind of some deposed prince of the city, who was only too quick to promise them a bailout and 200000 silver marks on top of it, which as buyout deals go, was way sweet. Of course, it was an open question as to whether said prince could actually raise even a fraction of that amount, but evidently those involved had taken a course in finance, and so they rolled with it. They quickly took command of the inbound river, but were puzzled when it transpired that the returning prince wasn't all that popular with the citizens at all. But eh, who cares what a puppet leader's ratings are?

In any event, the Eastern Empy of the day fled despite having the bigger force by far (there's a reason why the Empire kept shrinking), and the people of Constantinople promptly restored said prince's father to the throne. Mission accomplished! Only, this meant that technically no reward was forthcoming, since the prince himself had no authority to procure it. If you want to visualize what this was like for the Crusade leaders, imagine George W. Bush's face on being told that there was actually no oil left in Kuwait and Iraq, after deposing Saddam.

So, they twisted a few arms, the prince was raised to co-emperor, and immediately ordered the melting down of holy icons to pay the Crusade-men, because pressing need. Within a year, it had gotten so bad that the local Orthodox Catholics had teamed up with Muslims to fight off the Crusaders, as Popey's letters became yet more disapproving.

Well, princey's popularity had hit rock-bottom, and it was clear that he wasn't gonna be able to spring another funding round, so the Crusaders went for the hostile takeover and asset stripping strategy after consulting with their analysts. And, it turned out that Constantinople had extractable capital equivalent to the sum of 900000 silver marks after all, after burning away most of the chaff, which placed the enterprise among the sleeper investment opportunities of the year.

This story ends with nine-tenths of the Crusaders heading home after that, because why get your hands dirty trying to retake a patch of frankly inhospitable desert, when you're rich, rich, rich? Popey was, by all accounts, extremely ashamed at the sack, but when some representatives of the wildly successful venture turned up at the Vatican with his share of the spoils, Popey kept it, because, like, a man has to eat too. And ah, they probably weren't real Christians anyway, and, and, it was God's will after all (srsly). Zing!

Mr. Ham: See, history is fun!

Me: Uh, moving on.

In Istanbul

Departed the fine Naples accommodations - which were as good as could be expected, save for a... tricky front door lock, that a pair of Japanese girl guests had mucho trouble with - early on the 16th. Not wanting to risk missing the flight, it was straight to the airport, where I ripped myself off with a 5 Euro copy of the Sunday Times.

Free wifi has to rank up there among my most-appreciated extras, and thus I was pleasantly surprised that the departure lounge at Naples offered it... only to discover that they had apparently implemented a strict filter on https websites. Well, I sure do hope somebody stored and looked through my browsing history, after going through that trouble.

Couldn't help but notice that the guy ahead of me in the queue to board had exactly the same briefcase design, as the complimentary one from the conference. Practical, that.

Further given the experience in Italy, I soon had to conclude that assigned seats were more suggestions than anything in Europe, with an elderly blue-robed gentleman having blissedly appropriated my window seat. Eh, when in Rome. Attempts at friendly communication stalled at comprehension, and queries were soon directed to what I assumed was a countryman across on the aisle - who wound up to have some trouble conversing too. Dialect issue maybe. Not a shade on the top dogs at the ongoing G20 summit in Antalya, definitely.

Turkey, they got their priorities right

Exchanged a hundred Euros for Turkish lira at the airport just in case, only for the hotel management to take Euros upfront. They did relieve me of a very slightly torn note, which got them brownie points in my book.

As for the hotel itself, I had again chosen mainly based on location - it was literally within easy walking distance of the main attractions of old Istanbul, and right off the Sirkeci train station, once the terminal station for the acclaimed Orient Express (sadly defunct as of 2009, though with a namesake operating from Singapore). It was also where the last Ottoman dynasty dispersed into exile, but I'll save the history for later.

Back to wifi, given that dusk had fallen by the time I checked in, I was delighted to discover excellent signal strength for once... only for my trusty MSI Wind netbook (a veteran of the Europe trip six years back, if you recall) to refuse to connect. The solution was to tether it to my Mi3, whose Snapdragon 800 outclasses the MSI Wind's dated Atom n280, by the way. That said, other than lagging slightly, the MSI Wind hasn't given me any reason at all to replace it. Oh yeah, other than that bit about 5GHz wifi compatibility.

It so happens that the hotel runs right alongside the city tram system, which has its benefits. For one, it makes returning a cinch - if disoriented, simply locate a tram, and follow it back. Of course, one could actually board the tram instead, using the all-purpose Istanbulkart, but really, this part of Istanbul is extremely walkable.

Room with a view

Was awoken the next morning by the muezzin's adhan, which is wholly serviceable as an alarm clock for the less-faithful. Started the day at the pier, before swinging by the Spice Market and Yeni Cami, the outside of which was a prime spot to do some reading. I had purposely refrained from looking up the Bazaar beforehand, and was hoping for a quaint cluster of tents or similar, but it turned out to be more or less an enclosed shopping mall. Got accosted only once, which was better than I had bargained for.

Trotted up the riverfront to the Unkapanı Bridge next, and then began to wander. A bit later, I found myself at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which was for want of a better word - tranquil. In a startling contrast to the other major sites as I would find later, there were next to no other visitors, which made the experience more than a bit surreal.

As it happens, the surrounding neighbourhood can be described as a bit run-down, even if I never felt explicitly unsafe. The only approach throughout the visit was by a young boy - maybe six years old? - who cupped his hands and mumbled beseechingly in the courtyard. Well, I can appreciate and reward persistence - in moderation.

Now, it is not a stretch to suppose that he might have been a refugee from Syria, given that they have been absorbing the lion's share of the exodus, over two million at last count. Expectedly, this has caused some friction and some eyebrow-raising measures. As a visitor, though, sightings of such panhandlers and street kids were few and far between, which one hopes means that they have been sufficiently catered for.

Somehow, despite aiming to go south towards the Grand Bazaar, I found myself back where I started, at the Spice Market. Time to take that tram, then.

What the Grand Bazaar looks like
(with less music and slightly more clothing than featured)

Myself, I couldn't tell the difference between the two, but I grabbed a few T-shirts and a United scarf, at ten lira (nearly exactly S$5) each, and then a couple of pants off a canvas laid on the street. Note for prospective tourists, it's definitely recommended to exchange your Euros here if possible; here, each 100 Euros got me 305 lira, as compared to 292.60 at the airport. I converted 150, which turned out to be more than I could spend throughout the next three days.

Stopped for lunch about two, and partook of some grilled meatballs and Turkish coffee. Watch out for the dregs.

Having more walking in me, my next trek was up the Galata Bridge, of which sides were packed with anglers trying their fortune. Had I more time (and a fishing rod rental), it would have been nice to while away an evening doing such. As it was, I found a 5 lira selfie stick up in Karaköy, after skipping out on entering the Galata Tower, all considered.

Fish sandwich, or Balık Ekmek, had been on my to-sample list from the pre-trip planning, and I got one to munch on for the return journey back over the bridge. Tasty, filling and economical, which could well describe most of the local cuisine. Too bad about the replica passports, but there's always next time...

View from Galata Bridge at sunset

Woke up the next morning and felt like returning to Asia, and so I did.

Of course, Istanbul is one of the few places in the world where one can act on such urges on a whim. In fact, it was as easy as trotting down to the Sirkeci metro station in a couple of minutes, and hopping on the next train to Uskudar. In between lies a two year-old underwater tunnel spanning the Bosphorus, and thereby the continents of Europe and Asia. As so often is the case, we have a randy old man trying to get some, to thank for the development.

Got passed a brochure for a Whirling Dervishes performance while poking about the old Sirkeci station (the card's won me a few games in my time). Unfortunately, I had looked it up beforehand, and it seems that they basically turn around in circles... for an hour. I mean, I suppose that takes some dedication and well-seasoned ear canals and all, but still. Figured that there's YouTube for this.

Continued on to Kadıköy on the Asian side, which was as advertised, a slightly more laid-back version of the European portion, if not by much. I somehow managed to pick perhaps the only restaurant in Istanbul that didn't have kebab, but on the positive side, Turkish chap chye png wasn't bad at all:

Curry chicken makes the world go round

Returned to Europe across the Bosphorus by ferry, which was certainly more scenic if slower, and dropped by the Dolmabahçe Palace more or less by accident, before sitting by Taksim Square by twilight, retiring with authentic döner kebab from a choice hole-in-the-wall down home street.

History Half-time

It would be unbefitting to carry on here without at least skimming over the significance of these sites, and for this it suffices to go back a single century.

Empires rise and fall, and the Ottomans were no exception. Emerging with the decline of the Seljuks and Byzantines from the 14th century, they reached their full glory under Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century, and more or less held on to their territories until the mid-19th. The collapse was precipitous when it came, though, and by 1915, as World War I revved up, they were a sad shadow of their former selves.

Dolmabahçe Palace earns itself a mention here. Completed in 1856 as the Empire began falling to pieces, it wanted little for ostentation, famously having some 14 tons of gold coating its ceilings (almost half a billion dollars, at today's prices). This was probably unnecessary, given that the Topkapı remained perfectly functional, but this is about standard for dynasties in decline. By 1908, the Young Turks had taken over, and the Ottoman dynasty was all but over except in name.

About this time, the Brits and French moved against the Ottomans at Gallipoli, again with Constantinople as the prize. Then as now, however, the narrow Dardanelles strait and Bosphorus together restricted naval movement between the Black Sea (and most notably Russia) and the Mediterranean (and thus the wider world), which meant that the Brits had to bust their way through to resupply the allied Ruskies.

Making the first landings in April 1914, they were repelled by the end of the year with some help from the Germans (who never quite got over the loss of Freddy). This proved but a momentary reprieve, with the Central Powers beaten in 1918, as we all know. Constantinople was placed under allied occupation, which was one of the triggers for a Turkish nationalist movement, the final end of the tottering Sultanate, and the formation of a new republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk by 1923 - but, that story will have to wait abit...

Day trips to the battlefields of Gallipoli remain a draw for military buffs and descendants of combatants, not least the Anzac contingent. Perhaps slightly less emphasized is the effect the campaign had on the Irish, who understandably were less than thrilled at sending their sons to perish on behalf of an administration that had been so stingy with potatoes not all that long ago. They would fight a war of independence about concurrent with the Turks, and then a civil war, out of from which eventually arose the present-day Republic of Ireland. This calls for some Sinéad (who, regrettably, seems to be going through another bad spot):

"'Twas better to die 'neath an Irish sky/than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar"

The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad/
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

- The Ballad of the White Horse, G.K. Chesterton

Sights & Cruisin'

Diligent readers will probably have picked up that I hadn't actually covered a bunch of the main attractions, particularly those along the eastern bank, and it was due to them being scheduled for this (the third) day. First stop was at a convenience store to grab some water (which can double in price at more touristy areas) - where I came across a fellow NUS guy, who had caught on my orange NUS sweater. We're really getting around, so it seems.

First stop was the Topkapı Palace, which had been good enough for generations of Ottoman sultans, including Suleiman. Frankly speaking, it struck me as more livable than Dolmabahçe, but I suppose they had to keep up with the Bourbons. Note that for some reason, entrance to the harems at both palaces costs extra, and I forked out for it this time. Let's just say that if you had been conjuring up visions of dancing ladies and elegant debauchery, you'd be disappointed.

Grabbed a Nutella-filled simit for some energy on the go, and decided to forego the Hagia Sophia (wololo-ed, remember) after witnessing the absolute throng of schoolkids massed for entrance (I'd suspect that they would be more than a match for many historical invading armies). Spent more time in the next-door Blue Mosque instead, which had informative posters lining its inner walls:

Hmm, where have I heard this phrasing before...
[N.B. As suspected a few years back,
the rosary might have a common origin...]

A basic overview of the tenets of Islam here, as explained by one poster - one God, one Humanity, one Religion, many Prophets. Recall that Islam comes under the umbrella term of "Abrahamic religion", together with Judaism and Christianity among others, due to tracing its roots back to the patriarch Abraham (whom Mr. Ham roundly approves of, for some odd reason). Starting from him, and after a few rounds of begetting, we get to Moses, Number One Prophet of Judaism.

One millenium-plus later, we get to Jesus, who however was not of the line of Moses (though he was of Abraham). It turned out that he was Number One Prophet of Christianity, relegating Moses before him.

Fast-forwarding another 600-odd years, Muhammad marched on Mecca, and would come to be hailed as the Number One Prophet of Islam, relegating Moses and Jesus. Seeming to realise that a pattern was forming, his followers were careful to state that he was also The Last Prophet - which to some might look like pulling up the ladder after them, but those people are stinky infidels anyway.

Objectively, I'm sure you can understand why this sort of pronouncement might not exactly be considered as fair, and as such I can hardly fault later persons for getting in on the Prophet gig. The last couple of centuries have seen, for example, the Bahá'í and the Mormons, who respectively claim Bahá'u'lláh and Joseph Smith as their Number One Prophets. Singapore might even have gotten in on the industry in due course, were it not for our meddling government...

Personally, I think some occasional refreshing of the Abrahamic tree is healthy for all concerned, all the more as it started out under an open-source GNU General Public Licence in spirit, from what I can tell. It is perhaps of interest to note that major versions tend to attempt to maintain a level of backwards compatibility, where upgrades are not complicated by dodgy design decisions from previous developers.

Decided to sit on a bench near the Basilica Cistern for a relaxing read after that, as the midday call to prayer reverberated between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Again got asked whether I was Japanese (no, Singaporean) and whether I liked Istanbul (yep) by a local. Really, those mainland Chinese tourists need to step up their game. The Milion, or mile zero marker, was just a few steps down, yet another testament to the importance of Istanbul in history.

Lunch was a takeaway kebab wrap, after which I got some lokum (Turkish Delight) from Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, hailed as the original lokum. And then...

Mr. Ham: The highlights of the whole trip!

Me: Do I really have to say this...? Oh, all right.

Left: Hamam. Right: Hamsi.
(Source for hamam photo: gedikpasahamami.com)

I had reserved the night for a Turkish bath - yes, hamam - experience, and opted for the one that was kind enough to have sponsored the map I used for the visit. They had also been founded in 1475, so one can't complain of a lack of history here. Made a point to examine the Çemberlitaş, or Column of Constantine, on the way down (it's situated right next to its namesake tram station). It was... burnt.

Having tried a sento in Japan, this wasn't altogether alien, and I signed up for the massage package (they appear to have eschewed tips in favour of a fixed price). It starts off by changing into a provided towel in a cubicle (key held by customer), and then a preliminary shower.

After that, it was pretty much free-and-easy - sit around inside your choice of the sauna or steam room for as long as you can bear, or until your masseur decides that you've had enough. When that happens, you get to lie down on this huge marble slab, and he gets to work. It was less brutal than I had prepared for, but he nevertheless managed to get a few of my upper vertebrae to crack satisfyingly, which was probably worth the price in of itself.

The masseur wasn't too big on talking either, limiting himself to the origin question and whether it was good, which was totally appreciated. Deed done, he led me to one of the side stalls (the organization's similar to the sento in this respect), and helpfully splashed the suds off, before leaving me to take a final shower at my leisure. It ended with a turban being expertly wrapped about my head as I headed back to the cubicle, which sadly didn't stay on for long.

Sampled veal kebab for dinner, and finally got about to sampling one of those wrapped lokums at breakfast the next morning. Wait, they're sugar cubes, why did I ever get the impression that they were lokum? Well, nothing that can't be retroactively solved with a nice cuppa of coffee.

If you're wondering where the hamsi - i.e. anchovies - come in, we're getting to that. With my flight out set for early the next morning, and having to check out by noon, another long cruise presented itself as just the thing. This is all the more as a ride down to the Black Sea and back costs but 25 lira (S$12), which made it a no-brainer.

Passengers have their pick of fairly comfy seats - the ferry was far from packed - and enjoying the bracing sea breeze on the lower deck, and I went for the latter. There's the video if you want to get an idea of how it was like - a particular delight was the seagulls descending in force at one stop (see 7:35), attracted by generous breadcrumb handouts.

The cruise terminates at Anadolu Kavagi (10:50), more or less in time for lunch, which is where the hamsi was ordered. The plate of a few dozen anchovies went down more easily than expected, and there was even room for mussels after that. A pair of cats approached (10:30), and I supposed that I could spare a tail or two; they didn't seem to acknowledge bopping on the nose with food as a feeding signal, disappointingly, instead requiring the offerings to be dropped to the ground. Oh, and yes, I'm Japanese, happy?

Mr. Ham: You... you... traitor!

Me: Yeah, yeah. Well, that was about it for Istanbul, and I hung out in the hotel's attached cafe upon returning. I don't even like alcohol, but having heard that the Turkish authorities are clamping down on raki, their national drink whatever their incumbent President might say, I couldn't leave without a try.

I'm not sure if my pronunciation was quite that bad, with the staff initially claiming not to have it, and it was only after poking at the relevant item in the menu that they got the message. Out came a half-full bottle from behind the counter, from which they dispensed a glass of the lion's milk. Actually, it's supposedly not meant to be drunk alone, but under the circumstances, I thought it okay to nurse one by myself.

A toast to failed prohibitions!

In conclusion, I'd consider it as more palatable than beer. And, by the fact that I felt oh-so-subtly lightheaded as I continued quaffing it, stronger too.

Then encountered perhaps the most surreal moment of the whole holiday, when a young street urchin suddenly appeared by my side, as I was using my netbook. I was completely befuddled, and had barely registered the sight, when he got manhandled out by staff. I get that they can't have their establishment flooded by alms-seekers, but I kind of regret not letting him have some spare coin for his spunk.

Was delighted to have snagged an empty row on the return leg, even if it got appropriated by a lady who needed a lie-down. Kicked off with Minions, which I felt was fair family-friendly entertainment, but not nearly to the point of being the tenth-highest grossing film of all time. The li'l yellow banana-lovers are getting slightly overexposed...

Furious 7 was next up (note: number five all-time), and I'll be honest, if you want an unashamed action flick without too much thinking required, it doesn't get much better than this. While stylized from top to bottom - parachuting cars (totally real, somehow), driving through the Etihad Towers and having Vin Diesel shrug off blows from a giant steel wrench all included, the biggest suspension of disbelief arguably came from having the hacker being... a Caribbean female. And, just so you know that's not just me speaking - they had to lampshade it in the dialogue.

Look, I'm not saying that girls can't be hackers or anything, it's just that probably 99% of those who bother to stare at symbols on screens for long enough to get really damn good at gaining unauthorised access to systems, happen to be guys. Further, acne-ridden nerdy guys with poor dress sense.

And... uh... I won't be complaining too hard.

In a... strange gesture, the Turkish Airlines edition had selected butts inconsistently blurred out, which really was kinda pointless, IMHO. Finally, caught maybe a third of Fantastic Four, and I'll just say that I wasn't unhappy when it cut off in preparation for landing.

Turkey Today

Returning to Atatürk, which literally means "Father of the Turks" - think of him as being Turkey's LKY. While only in office for fifteen years, he enacted a series of major reforms, characterised by an embrace of modern values: democracy, secularism, women's rights, education, etc. One doesn't get to override the adhan by being anything less than a total badass, if you haven't realised.

However, the "democracy" and "secularism" bits have been sliding downhill in recent years, under current president and longtime prime minister Erdoğan - enhanced media control and arrests aside, creeping authoritarian Islamization and draconian measures have not gone over too well, leading to mass protests at Taksim and elsewhere in 2013.

On the international stage, Turkey had been a relatively fine citizen for some decades (save the Cyprus issue), and they can legitimately be sore at continually being overlooked for membership in the European Union. On the other hand, they've historically not been considered part of Europe, but then they were friendly enough to get into NATO, so.

As it happened, much as I enjoyed Istanbul, it was perhaps a good time to go home, after they shot down a Russian bomber on the 24th, which got Putin to throw around the T-word... as some of his countrymen accuse him of being "too soft" (!)

Considering first the micro angle - did Turkey have the right to shoot down the Russian plane? Technically, if the plane had entered - which the US is backing them up on, if not Belgian physicists - they were entitled to do so, all the more as they had made explicit warnings beforehand. That said, Turkey themselves are claiming that the plane was only over their airspace for all of seventeen seconds, and was never more than a mile inside their borders, frankly kind of marginal. Plus, it's not something they haven't done either...

Mr. Ham: Somehow, I get the picture of two kids in the backseat of a car, trying to get their hands as close to the other's face without touching, so they can tell their mum that "I'm not touching him!"... and the car takes a sharp bend, one of them gets poked in the eye, and all hell breaks loose.

Me: Yeah, I suspect that military planes generally don't need to cut it so close, even on missions - would maintaining, like, two minutes' worth of flight time as a margin of error be that much of a pain? But then again, the Russians do have some history with Constantinople too. That's some mystique.

Going on to a more macro view, the Russian plane's excuse to be in the region was that it was bombing terrorists - in particular, ISIS, who have reinforced their Public Enemy Number One status with the Paris attacks. The reality is, however, slightly more messy:

"Wait, wait, where does the oil come into this?"
(Source: independent.co.uk)

The best explanation of the ground situation that I've come across is this Asshole Theory masterpiece, together with a more annotated version. Long story short:

  • Turkey really doesn't like the Kurds in the region due to their separatist proclivities, and some Kurdish groups have in fact performed terrorist acts on Turkish soil. In comparison, they don't care that much about ISIS, who have yet to have any direct beef with them, all the more as they're fighting the Kurds. Russia has accused Turkey of downing their plane to protect their oil trades with ISIS, to which Erdoğan has pledged to resign if there is proof (he won't)

  • Russia is supporting Assad in Syria, for a variety of reasons, but which has likely come down to giving the finger to the West, particularly the USA. While they probably don't mind taking ISIS down a peg, their major concern is striking at anti-Assad Syrian rebels.

  • The USA and close friends have been funding the anti-Assad Syrian rebels, ostensibly at least partly due to Assad's atrocities, but if Assange is to be believed, they had hatched a plan together with Israel back in 2006 to destablize Syria for Israeli territorial benefit... oh, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt might have been in on it, for their own interests. Actually, they'd rather help the Kurds, but since they're officially pals with Turkey, they can't - openly, at least.

    Or maybe the USA has simply fallen into the bad habit of overthrowing other regimes, just because they can...

  • Saudi Arabia are supporting anti-Shia forces in Syria, because they're Sunni, and that's how they roll.

  • Iran and Hezbollah are supporting anti-Sunni forces in Syria, because they're Shia, and that's how they roll.

  • Qatar seems to like the Syrian rebels, while Egypt doesn't. For now, at least.

  • The EU in general, and an out-for-blood France in particular, are dying to get their hands on ISIS... and are finding that they can't strike anywhere in the clusterf**k that is Syria without possibly accidentally hitting a "friend" of a friend.

  • ISIS seem the only ones actually enjoying themselves, as they continue setting up Apocalypse Now with a view towards taking Constantinople (everyone sure likes it), and triggering the End of the World. In fact, they're enjoying themselves so much that they have recognized Taiwan in a bid to provoke China, just in case Xi was feeling left out.

  • China is only too happy to rise to the challenge... which in practice means they're happy with the increased legitimacy for their operations against Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. They couldn't resist ribbing France over their past comments on the topic, either. As for Taiwan... their historic first meeting in Singapore went... okay, I guess.

  • Al Qaeda just suicide bombed ISIS. Didn't see that one coming. Well, as an Israeli Prime Minister once quipped in response to being asked about the Iran-Iraq War, "we wish both sides great success!"

And finally, note that ISIS (and pals) probably got start-up funding from the USA, which no-one likes to mention too much while Uncle Sam is fondling his aircraft carrier groups. If there's a good guy in this, I'm not seeing it...

Gentlemen, my holiday.

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