Friday, 14 June 2013

Turkey's troubles

The problems in Turkey - which has seen tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Istanbul in recent days - have put me in mind of a story Charles Péguy tells in one of his early pieces for La Revue socialiste in 1897. Turkey after all has often been the witness to serious upheaval, not least in the early twentieth century when the Ottoman government set about exterminating its Armenian minority.

The Armenians in fact had been under pressure for several decades, and certainly as far back as the events which Péguy relates in his article. Armenians had been murdered in Diyarbekir in the winter of 1895-6 as part of the notorious Hamidian massacres.
When the spring of 1896 arrived, and fleeing the country became really feasible, a group of 300 Armenian Christians came to Monsieur Meyrier, French consul in the city, and begged his help to escape the country. Meyrier was understandably wary of leaving Diyarbekir during such a difficult period. His wife, however, had other ideas.

Madame Meyrier knew the dangers. Kurdish mercenaries stood between Diyarbekir and the Turkish coast which was a fifteen day journey by horse. She also had four small children to look after, one of whom she was breast feeding. Undaunted, she set off with some 300 refugees, several hundred horses and all her children. The regional governor offered a military escort but only for her and her family. She decided, therefore, to send her three eldest children to the head of the column while she stayed in the rearguard. From time to time, she would climb aboard the bier on which the children were being carried and feed her baby. Nights in the camp were tense, and sometimes Madame Meyrier had to do the rounds late into the evening to calm down the various groups.

At Birecik at the crossing of the Euphrates, things got even uglier than they had been until then.
The local authorities had word from Constantinople (it wasn't Istanbul until 1930) to let the consul's wife pass, an order they interpreted as meaning that the rest of the party should be arrested. Madame Meyrier, however, was having none of it. She sent her children over the river first of all, and insisted on bringing up the rear, threatening the local prefect that if she and the rest of the party were delayed and her baby died of hunger, there would be hell to pay.

Through a region in chaos, through gangs of Kurds and Cherkess, and following a fortnight's journey, they finally arrived safely on the coast. And without further ado, the consul's wife ushered the whole company onto a ship and embarked last of all.

The Meyriers eventually returned to France.
Meanwhile, things turned even worse for the Armenians, such that in 1915 the Ottoman government began a process of systematic murder, forced labour and deportation - the first genocide of the twentieth century.

Today's troubles in Turkey are considerably less serious of course. Yet, on the far side of Turkey from Diyabekir, beyond the blue waters of the Bosphorus, more trouble is brewing by the day.

3 comments:

JARay said...

Last year, for the first time, I went to Turkey. I went with a group tour on pilgrimage, first to the Holy Land (my second visit there) and thence to Turkey in the steps of St. Paul. Of course we visited Ephesus and had Mass at what is claimed to be Our Lady's house there. Our Guide was a Muslim but, beyond claiming allegiance to that religion, there was little of any sense of religion in him. He certainly was most respectful of us and knew all the right contacts to get us into those places of significance for us. We began in Istambul at the Catholic Cathedral there. Had we not been under his guidance we would never have known of its existence. It is certainly hidden away but is a real gem. With the exception of Pope Francis, all of our recent Popes have visited it (except JP 1). Benedict met the Russian Orthodox Patriarch there. There we were told of the magnificent efforts which the Catholic Church in Turkey is making in looking after the Christian refugees from Syria. Catholics are less than 0.02% of the population of Turkey and the Church is trying to support the feeding, education and housing of these refugees and the main financial aid which the Church receives comes from Aid to the Church in Need. It is a real struggle for the Church.

Enoch said...

A fascinating story. Madame Meyier was certainly brave in leading those 300 refugees away from Diyarbekir to safety. And with four children and a baby! Amazing.

On another note, I recall a few years ago having a conversation about Turkey with a Muslim coworker who was originally from that country, and who had come to the U.S. about 15 years previously. I unwittingly referred to Istanbul as
Constantinople, and she quickly corrected me, and then proceeded to explain what the name of Istanbul meant. "Istan" apparently means Islam, and I can't remember what "bul" means, but I never repeated that mistake again. She was apparently annoyed that I referred to it by its former name.

Yes, the genocides of the 20th century were horrible occurences. Given the possibility of media coverage of these atrocities, perhaps they are now less likely to happen, but I don't really know if that's a great factor. Genocides, though perhaps on a smaller scale, still do occur, such as those in Africa in the past few decades.

JARay said...

In my posting above I mention that our Guide in Turkey was not a strict follower of Islam.I have just been reading a little more about this conflict and I came across this account:-
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/06/hurrah-cnn-names-some-of-the-ghosts-in-gezi-park/
I have wondered about the background to the conflict and it seems that Erdogan is trying to impose a stricter version of Islam and the undercurrent in Turkey does not want it. He aims to re-build a barracks from the Ottoman Empire which will include a new Mosque. He is trying to impose the Burqua and to restrict alcohol sale (there is a good lager beer sold there called "Efes" which is the name of Ephesus now). Kemal Attaturk set up a secularist Turkey and Erdogan is trying to undo it. That is why this conflict has Religious undertones. The barracks which he plans to re-build was the scene of a Christian massacre.