History is a great teacher and a sign from the heavens to draw humankind towards divine presence. Unfortunately, nations have turned it into a compendium of self-serving myths, dividing themselves, and erecting borders of hate. The passions that erupt in the flames of war arise in the hearts of men and women. It is here, in the deep recesses of the human breast, that love and hate wage their battle and manifest themselves on the stage of history. The fuel that propels them is the perception of history, often self-serving, subjective and tailored to keep those passions alive.
There are many such borders of hate in the modern world: Bosnia-Serbia, Greece-Turkey, Chechnya-Russia, India-Pakistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Israel-Palestine, Israel-Lebanon. And the list keeps growing by the day. Often, these borders are trans-national. At other times, they exist within the same geographical entity.
That hatred is now institutionalized with governments feeding their nationals as well as the visitors to their borders with doses of prejudice about their perceived enemies. Hatred has now become embedded into tourism. Travel brochures deliver carefully crafted misinformation. Travel guides transmit it, sometimes in subtle tones and at other times brazenly.
I had the occasion to travel across one such border recently, that between the Greek and the Turkish worlds, where neighbors who live within a stone’s throw are separated by emotional chasms a thousand miles wide.
I have visited Turkey many times, enjoyed the hospitality of its beautiful people, savored its sumptuous foods and have marveled at the magnificence of its monuments. I have stood in reverence at the tombs of Mevlana Rumi and Ayub Sultan, Companion of the Prophet. The Bosporus is where Asia and Europe meet. It is where the axes of three great world religions, Islam, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity intersect. If you disregard the hassles at the Istanbul airport, Turkey is a land one must visit at least once in a lifetime.
While in Istanbul I have spent days absorbing the Greek architecture of the Aya Sophia and the engineering marvels of the ancient underground Byzantine water reservoirs of Istanbul. What you see in Istanbul whets your appetite for Greece. So, on this visit I traveled to Athens. I was full of enthusiasm and curiosity. This was the land of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander, Euclid, Herodotus and Demosthenes. The legacy of its civilization is claimed by the West and imbibed in the East. It sparked the Renaissance in Europe and was instrumental in the Mu’tazalite eruption in the Islamic world.
The Greeks are also a handsome people, friendly, good natured with a love of Mediterranean food and wholesome music. But here the analogy with the Turks stops.
The Greeks and the Turks hate each other.
My first stop was at the Acropolis on which stands the Parthenon, a magnificent structure of engineering perfection. The Acropolis is a rocky hill with a commanding view of the area surrounding it. From ancient times it has been a location of a temple dedicated to whichever deity the local population believed in at the time. For this reason it is also called the sacred rock of Athens. The imposing Parthenon which dominates the hill was built by Pericles around 447 BC.
“The Turks were responsible for much of the destruction at the Acropolis”, started the tourist guide on the hill. “They built a store house here for gun powder which was hit by a shell during a siege by Venice in 1687. Many buildings caught fire and were destroyed”. This was a jarring prelude to a long litany of complaints about the Turks. As I followed the guide around, he pointed to every stone that was supposedly moved by the Turks from the temple to build a wall around the Acropolis. The historical fact is that the Venetians laid siege to Athens (1687 CE), bombarded the Acropolis, occupied it, and used material from the ancient structures to build a wall around the hill. When the Turks recaptured the town (1689) they reinforced the wall. The Greeks themselves tore down the temples of earlier civilizations to build their structures. Evidence of this may be found in the extensive underground water Cistern in Istanbul built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 532 CE. .
The following day we took a taxi from Athens to Mykenia, a distance of about sixty miles. The Mykenian civilization (circa 1200 BC) was a forerunner of the Hellenistic civilization (circa 750 BC to 100 BC). The Mykenians were master builders, skilled craftsmen in the bronze age, advanced in the art of administration and used a numerical system based on alphabets. An understanding of the Mykenians is a must for anyone studying the classical Greek civilization.
“We were slaves of the Turks for four hundred years”, began the taxi driver’s version of history. “When they occupied Greece”, he continued, “many churches were destroyed and our culture was ruined”. The historical fact is that under the Milli system, the Ottomans gave complete autonomy to the Greeks (and other Christian Orthodox people in Eastern Europe). The Greek Churches were protected by Christian waqfs and administered by the Patriarch of Istanbul. This patronage enabled the Greeks living in the hills and those in the plains develop a kindred sense of belonging to a common heritage. Indeed, a sociologist may develop a plausible thesis that it was the Ottoman patronage under the milli system that ignited the consciousness of a unitary Greek nation among peoples of Greek heritage living in isolated islands and different parts of the mainland.
We proceeded on to Nafplion, the first capital of modern Greece. It was here in 1829 that the Greek rebels, incited and abetted by the British, declared their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The old city plaza is still there and the Turkish flavor endures. The jami masjid of Nafplion is now a museum, a fate better than those of other masjids in Greece that were converted outright to churches. But the Greeks have their eyes closed to the excesses that they committed. They have no recollection of their invasion of Turkey (1921-24) in which they killed, burned and destroyed much of Western Anatolia. It is an asymmetrical memory, which stores only what the Turks did to them.
We took the flight from Athens to Larnaca in Cyprus. This was a week before the Israeli onslaught on Lebanon flooded Larnaca with thousands of refugees. We visited the Sultaniye Tekke which dates back to the first Arab attempt to conquer Cyprus during the reign of Amir Muawiya, circa 670 CE. Larnaca had a sizable Turkish population until 1964. On Christmas night of that year, the Greeks invaded the Turkish quarters and slaughtered thousands forcing the Turkish population to flee north to what is today the Turkish Republic of Cyprus.
I wanted to make a telephone call from Larnaca (in Greek Cyprus) to Lefka (in Turkish Cyprus). I was firmly reminded by the receptionist at the hotel that there was no such place as Turkish Cyprus, and that it was “occupied Cyprus”. “You cannot make a call to occupied Cyprus from here”, she continued, “you must first call Turkey and from there the call is directed to Lefka”. A sadness consumed my heart as I realized that a bird could fly across a border in a minute but it would take a human voice a thousand miles to reach a neighbor. Cyprus is a small island but it is separated into two parts by borders of hate.
Greece and Turkey are not the only neighbors wherein the borders are sealed with suspicion, distrust and outright hatred. On a recent trip from Delhi to Sirhind on the India-Pakistan border, I noticed how complete was the obliteration of Islamic monuments (except Sufi tombs) in Eastern Punjab. Prior to partition (1947) East Punjab was more than one-third Muslim (as opposed to Western Punjab which was more than seventy percent Muslim). Today it is less than one-twentieth Muslim. One cranes ones neck in vain to see if there is a minaret here and there. The destruction was mutual across the border. Partition erected barriers of hate right across the heart of Punjab.
Sometimes the barriers of hate exist within a geographical or national boundary. Several years ago I visited the ruins of Hampi, near Hospet in Bellary District, Karnataka State, India, the ancient capital of the Vijayanagar kingdom in the Deccan on the Tungabhadra river. It was here that the combined armies of the Bahmani sultans defeated the raja of Vijayanagar in 1565 CE at the battle of Tylekote. It was one of the decisive battles of history that destroyed a great medieval empire and replaced it with the (Shia Muslim) Bahmani sultanates. The (Shia) Safavids of Persia, who were at that time engaged in a fierce struggle with the Great Mughals for control of Afghanistan, saw a golden opportunity to circumvent the Mogul empire and made overtures to the Bahmani sultans for a common stand against the (nominally sunni) Moguls. It was this Persian interference into the affairs of Hindustan which provoked the Great Mughals and brought the Mogul armies hurling south into the Deccan, first under Akbar, and then under Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb. In any case, Hampi was destroyed in the battle of Tylekote.
“The Muslims destroyed Hampi”, began the guide, repeating this litany as he showed me each monument or every piece of sculpture lying on the ground. What was a power struggle between a raja and his neighbor sultans was now presented as a war based on religion. When I asked some pointed questions, the guide realized that I was a Muslim and his tone changed. I wondered how many thousands of ordinary folks who had no knowledge of history and whose only interest was to visit the ruins of an ancient city had received a poisonous dose of anti-Muslim tirades from this and other guides at the site.
History is an interpretation of events. It happens only once but is narrated in a hundred ways. In modern life, as tourism has increased and people travel in increasing numbers from one country to another, a subjective view of history has penetrated the tourist industry. Millions of tourists each year are bombarded with distorted versions of historical events and return home with the prejudices which are thrust upon them during the tours. Men and women of goodwill who strive to build bridges of understanding across religious and cultural divides would render a service if they worked together to reform the tourist industry so that history becomes a mechanism for healing not of hate.
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