Central Asia

Turkey's gift to the world
By K Gajendra Singh

If one drives from the Turkish city of Fethiye to Antalya, littered with hotels and resorts for millions of tourists who throng its Mediterranean coast, which was known as Lycia in ancient times, after passing innumerable ancient ruins, one reaches the town of Demre, known as Myra in olden days.

In the center of the town one will come across the Church of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors and the poor and one of the most popular saints in Christianity now associated with the celebration of Christmas. Many legends have been woven around Nicholas, who was the bishop of this church in the 4th century AD and where he died in 342. He was born in about 280 AD in the town of Patara, which the traveler would have passed about 100 kilometers earlier.

As a young man Nicholas traveled to Palestine and Egypt and became the bishop at Myra on his return. He was imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Diocletian. The persecution ended when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion and built his capital at Constantinople in 324 AD on the Straits of Bosporus, separating Asia and Europe. When conquered in 1453 by Sultan Fethi Mehmet, Constantinople became the new Ottoman capital, now known as Istanbul.

After his release from prison, St Nicholas attended the first Christian Council in 325 at Nicea. There is definite historical evidence of this in the records of the council. Nicea, now known as Iznik, famous for its Ottoman tiles, is not far from Istanbul on the Asian side of the city that straddles two continents.

The stories of miracles and benevolence associated with St Nicholas and the legends woven around him have identified him as Santa Claus and Father Christmas. The earliest reference to him occurs in a Greek text of the 6th century, according to which three officers condemned to death by Constantine were saved when St Nicholas appeared to the emperor in a dream. In another legend, a merchant fallen on bad times was very much worried about dowry for his three daughters who could not be otherwise married and might have ended up as prostitutes. One evening, while passing by, St Nicholas overheard the unhappy merchant's conversation of with his wife. So the next day, secretly entering by the window, he lobbed three bags of gold coins in the house of the merchant, thus enabling his daughters to marry and live happily ever afterwards.

That story lies behind the three gold balls used as a sign by pawnbrokers. Another legend consists of three boys who had been cut up by mistake by a butcher. St Nicholas restored them to life. There are many other such stories.

A biography of St Nicholas written by a 6th century abbot of a nearby church, also named Nicholas, spread his fame throughout the Christian world, starting with Germany and other countries of reformed Christianity and later to France. St Nicholas was chosen the patron saint of Russia, Greece and various charities and was a popular name for kings and common men alike. Thousands of churches are dedicated to him, the first built in the 6th century AD at Constantinople by Emperor Justinian. His miracles became the subject for medieval artists and liturgical plays.

But Santa Claus' tomb in Myra is of a later date. By the 6th century his shrine was quite well known. Being specially benevolent to sailors and merchants, who had adopted him, his remains were spirited away to Bari in Italy in 1087 by a group of merchants or sailors to save it from desecration by Muslims. His relics are enshrined in the 11th century Basilica of St Nicholas. Its removal on May 9 to Bari is celebrated with fanfare, making it a holy and crowded place of pilgrimage for Christians.

The word Christmas comes from old English cristes maesse, or "Christ's Mass". For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of Jesus' birth, although the exact date of birth is not known. However, in 336 AD, Christian leaders set the date to December 25 in an attempt to counter a popular pagan holiday in Rome that celebrated the winter solstice. Originally, Christmas involved a simple mass, but slowly it has subsumed or replaced a number of other holidays in many countries, and a large number of other religious and cultural traditions have been absorbed into the celebrations.

Christmas comes three times each year to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. While the Western Church and the Russian Orthodox Church both celebrate Christmas on December 25, the Russian Church still uses the old Julian calendar which places their (December 25) celebration on January 7, according to our calendar. The Armenian Church celebrates on January 6 by the Julian calendar, which becomes January 19 to us. To add to the confusion, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany overlaps into the Russian Christmas. In addition, the diversity in climate has shaped Christmas festivities all over the world.

Ethnic groups have brought their own traditions, specially in an immigrant society like the United States. Even food varies from country to country. Americans concentrate on Turkey (in Turkey, the bird is called Hindi - anything exotic has to be from India), while dinner on Christmas eve in Germany consists of dishes such as suckling pig, white sausage, macaroni salad and many regional dishes.

The English celebrate Christmas season with hearty feasting and merrymaking with wild abandon. They have been doing so perhaps since King Arthur, as the legend goes, made "merrie" in 521 AD at York surrounded by "minstrels, gleemen, harpers, pipe-players, jugglers and dancers". It appears that celebrations went underground during puritan Cromwellian rule as did sex during another puritan Victorian era.

Apart from Le Pere Joel (Father Christmas), the French have Le Pere Fouettard (Father Spanker) to "reward" bad children with spanking. In the Netherlands, children are told that Santa Claus, known as Sinterklaas, arrives from Spain on a steamer on his feast day, December 6. The night before, children fill their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse. In the morning they find them filled with gifts such as nuts and candy. Sometimes Sinterklaas appears in person in the children's homes, along with his assistant, Black Pete.

The people of Twente, Denenkamp and Ootmarsum in eastern Holland announce the coming of the Christ child by blowing special horns, handcrafted from birch saplings three or four feet in length, which when blown over wells produce a deep-toned sound similar to a foghorn. This tradition goes back to around 2,500 BC when horn blowing was believed to chase evil spirits away. Now horn blowing is relayed from farm to farm to announce the arrival of the Christmas season.

In what is now the US, Christmas was perhaps first celebrated at Tallahassee, Florida, in 1539 in Spanish style by Hernando de Soto and his army. Legends of Santa Claus and the celebration of Christmas as the feast day were taken to New York by Dutch immigrants. In the beginning the Puritans in New England had even suppressed it by law (identifying it with pagan rites and Papist practices), arguing that the New Testament gave no date for Christ's birth.

But it then blossomed into a carnival and became even rowdy and disruptive, almost like "Holi" - the north Indian festival of colors. It was neither a family nor a commercial holiday at the beginning of the 19th century, but become so by its end. The transformation of Santa Claus around the 1820s, into a night visitor bringing gifts for children and the poor, made it pro-plebian and Christmas became an enjoyable festival. But Santa Claus' magical tricks, benevolence and love for children have made Christmas a family festival with gifts for children, perhaps based on Nordic tales of rewarding good children and the exchange of gifts among family members and friends. That is why people from all over the world from other religions also join in.

While New York has its tree, in California thousands flock to Hollywood for the annual Parade of Stars, while others converge on Balboa Park in San Diego for Christmas concerts on the world's largest outdoor pipe organ. Festivities range from a picnic on the beach at Waikiki or Key West to candles in a window during the twilight of a cold day in Alaska. Nowadays consumerism has overtaken simple celebrations, in the US the most, where traders, economists and government look at counter sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas for its likely impact on the US economy. As George Bernard Shaw commented, "Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press; on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred."

To most Americans, St Nicholas is just another name for Santa Claus - plump and rosy-cheeked - whereas for most of Europeans and Asians he is a thin figure dressed in bishop's robes, also so it is shown in Demre town's square in Turkey. As Christmas in Europe and North America falls in mid-winter, the tradition of a white snow Christmas, white bearded Santa Claus and other myths, have emerged. The popular song "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" for the movie "Holiday Inn" (1942) sung by Bing Crosby, perhaps further confirmed this perception.

Myra, though, is not cold. Nor is Patara, his birth place five kilometers from one of the longest sandy beaches in Turkey. When I went there in August 1994, it was impossible to walk on the hot sand, although many north European tourists looking like grilled lobsters were enjoying themselves, some bicycling around in steaming temperatures. But it was quite pleasant in March. Patara is also full of Roman and Byzantine ruins, including a theater, the magnificent Hadrian's Gate and a Christian Basilica.

Myra was an important town in the region. St Paul and St Luke had visited it a few times while going to Ephesus. It was the capital of the Byzantine Lycia until it fell to Caliph Harun al Rashid in 808. Apart from St Nicholas' Church, Myra attracts tourists for its shrines and rock-cut sepulchers on a hill, looking like carved wooden houses. At the foot of the hill is a large Roman theater.

Demre town is located in a swampy flat area full of mosquitoes and its hothouse cultivation of vegetables and fruit with acres of plastic sheets make for an ugly sight. The harbor of Demre, now known as Chayazi, the ancient Andriace on the river Xanthos, has boats to take one to the beaches of Kekova island or Kas, both popular spots with rich yacht owners from Europe and the US. Turkey is now seriously in the business of exploiting its ancient historical and religious sites to attract tourists. It holds a festival every year on December 6 to celebrate St Nicholas Day at Demre, with great fanfare, inviting tourists, clergymen, journalists and others.

Turkey, known as Asia Minor in ancient times, was the cradle of early Christianity. In a grotto near Antakya (Antioch), bordering Syria, St Peter held the first mass. Followers of Jesus Christ were called Christians here for the first time. Christianity spread from here and first blossomed in the east at Edessa, now known as Urfa, from where 500 people went to Malabar Coast in the 4th century AD (and other groups later) to form early distinct Syrian Christian communities.

Nearby in Tur Abdin and Midyat, with old Syrian Christian monasteries and churches, Suryani Christians still speak Syriac, a language akin to what Jesus Christ spoke. St Paul was a native of Tarsus in Cilicia. Seven churches located in Turkey are mentioned in the Revelation of John: Ephesus (nearby the Virgin Mary is reputedly buried), Smyrna, Pergamum, Thiatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Chalcedon is an Asian suburb of Istanbul, known as Kadikoy and not far from it is Nicomedea, now called Izmit, a major industrial center.

With more Greek ruins than Greece and more Roman monuments than Italy, Turkey, with its Mediterranean and Aegean coast resorts, attracts nearly 10 million to 12 million tourists a year and earns over US$8 billion in tourist dollars every year. Even Europeans are amazed to find that places where Greek and hence the earliest European political and religious thought evolved are in Turkey. The spiritual forefathers of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the very first Greek philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenus, were born and lived in Miletus around the 6th century BC, east of present day Ephesus and Izmir, then known as Smyrna, the birth place of Homer, of Odyssey and Iliad fame.

From Ionia along Turkey's western coast entered the word Yunani for the Greeks in the Eastern lexicon. The historian Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, now known as Bodrum, a port. The geographer Strabo was born at Amasia, east of Turkey's capital Ankara. Troy, of Helen, Trojan horse and Achilles' heel fame, is located on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. Across at Gallipoli on the European side lie buried thousands of Indian soldiers, with their Australian, New Zealand and British comrades. They were killed (some say foolishly sacrificed) in fierce battles during World War I when the mighty British navy tried to take over the peninsula. Its defense made Kemal Ataturk, a colonel then, a hero among Turks.

It was at Zile, northeast of Ankara, that Julius Caesar proclaimed veni, vidi ,vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) after his unexpected quick victory over Pharnaces II, whose father Mithradates VI had given a tough fight to the Romans.The name Mithridates (gift of Mithra), a popular name in the region, comes from the Vedic and Avestan god Mithra.

The Greek Hellenic world came in contact with the sophisticated religions and philosophy of the East, including Mithraism, after the small town boy Alexander and his hordes cut a swathe of victories across the Achaemenian Empire. They also learnt about state protocol and the divinity of the emperor. Coming into contact with neo-Platonian and other ideas, Mithraism flowered between the 2nd and 4th centuries in the Roman world and became a very popular religion among the Roman aristocracy, military leaders and soldiers, traders and slaves with powerful patrons among Roman emperors, like Commodus, Septimium Severus, Caraculla and others. Diocletian built a temple for Mithra near Vienna on Danube as "the Protector of the Empire".

Along the Rhine, Danube, Euphrates and in Roman north Africa, where Roman legions used to camp, there are ruins of hundreds of underground Mithra temples, with the slaying of the Cosmic Bull symbolizing the creation of the universe and fertility. (Perhaps the Spanish sport of bullfighting originates from it). As the god of Light and Sun, contract, loyalty and justice, Mithraism was organized (but open only to men, being an Aryan patriarchal religion) in a graded hierarchy, with novices ascending up the highest seventh level - something like Buddhist /Hindu sanghas (orders).

Various astronomical symbols, still indecipherable, with their meanings transmitted orally from teacher to pupil in Aryan/Avestan tradition, still remain unknown. One can speculate that they were similar to levels in meditation for final unity with God. Celebrations for Mithra's birthday on December 25, the sun's solstice, was so popular in the East that Christmas had to be shifted to this day from January 6 to make it acceptable among the masses. Christianity also took over many of the rituals and symbols of Mithraism, like baptism, resurrection and prayers in honor of the sun.

The earliest written mention of Mithra, the guarantor of contract, was found on tablets not far from Ankara amid the ruins of Bogazkoy, the capital of the Indo-European Hittites. The Mithra gods (also Indra, Varuna and Natasya) were invoked as the god of oath in the peace treaty between the Hittites and the Indo-Aryan Mitannis, who ruled for three centuries in southeast Turkey and Syria (1,500 BC to 1,200 BC). The Bogazkoy archives also produced a horse-training manual. The technical terms used in horse training and chariotry, like aika wartanna, navartanna (one turn, nine turns) are like ek vartanam, nava vartanam, as in Vedic Sanskrit. Both the treaty and the training manual tablets are displayed from time to time at the Archeological Museum in Istanbul.

Mitannis also signed a peace treaty with the Pharaohs to counteract the Hittite threat from the northwest. This was cemented with Mitanni princesses being married to the Pharaohs. Princess Gilukhepa was married to Amun Hotep III. She went to her husband in style with 317 Mitannian maidens.

Later, the Mitanni king Tushratta (whose chariot wheels rolled the fastest - a la Ferrari nowadays) gave his daughter Tadukhepa to Amun Hotep IV, who also married Gilukhepa, youngest in his father's harem. It is generally believed that Gilukhepa was no other than the beautiful and famous Nefertiti. It is known that Nefertiti fully supported her husband's efforts to bring in monotheism. This upset the vested interests of priests and after their sudden disappearance, old gods and cults came back. It was from Egypt, where Moses was born and brought up, that he led out the Jews with the idea of one god Jehovah.

But for the 312 AD victory at the Milvian Bridge under the banner of the Cross, after which Constantine opted for Christianity, leading to the decline of Mithraism, it is conceivable that Mithraism might have spread and become a world religion. But like most religions, Christianity, which was itself persecuted, did the same to other religions and its own newer sects, with religion, alas, becoming another tool for control and exploitation by the powerful.

Then came Islam with jihads and to counter the Crusades. The concept of crusades and jihad is once again at the forefront, and if pursued could play havoc with earthlings. It's crucial that leaders of all countries forget their short-term interests and ponder what has gone wrong with the human race. They should strive for reconciliation and peaceful solutions to differences.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal.

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Dec 25, 2002


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