The Wakhan Valley and Eastern Pamir
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Despite its remoteness, the impressive remains of ancient fortresses strung out along the Wakhan Valley suggest that it had once been important, worth holding, worth defending. By the late 19th century, this strip of land jutting out between the Pamir mountains and the Hindu Kush had assumed strategic importance in the last phase of the Great Game between the Russian and British Empires. The agreement they reached divided the valley, so that nowadays its northern slopes are in Tajikistan, while the southern side is in Afghanistan. The river that forms the border between the two countries broadens out in this wide valley, its shifting streams meandering around islands in the middle. It is a sparsely populated region, most of its people on both sides of the border speaking Wakhi, one of the Pamiri languages.

I started my journey along the Wakhan Valley in Iskashim, a small town on the Panj river. There was a particularly good guesthouse there, by the standards of the region. It was simple, the rooms very basic (one of the other guests complained of bed bugs, which thankfully I was spared). The best thing was that there were nice, modern bathrooms, with clean showers and running water all day, with good water pressure. Also the food was good. There were a dozen or so guests the night I spent there. We sat and chatted after dinner, over green tea. Many were adventurous souls. A couple of teenage Americans had cycled from Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, travelling the Pamir Highway from Osh, and then down the Wakhan. Their hair was long and unkempt, their faces burned and ruddy from the sun. But they were very cheerful. They were planning to cross over into Afghanistan. Others too were planning to cross the border. That part of northern Afghanistan, the Wakhan Valley and Badakhshan, was reckoned to be pretty safe, free from Taliban.

Just up the road from Iskashim there is a bridge across the river, an official border crossing. I had hoped to make a quick foray across myself. There is a weekly market across the bridge, in the middle of the river, but on the Afghan side. Visitors can go to the market without the need of an Afghan visa, just leaving their passports with the police on the Tajikistan side. Unfortunately the market was closed while I was there. There were lots of rumours as to why. One was that Taliban had been there, unlikely in Tajik-dominated north-east Afghanistan. The more probable explanation was a typhus outbreak. Disappointed, I headed off up the Wakhan.

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Khaakha fortress, Wakhan Valley

For this journey I had decided to hire a car and driver for a few days, a nifty little Niva. There were lots of places to stop along the way, and using the Chinese minivans would have been impractical. First stop were the sprawling ruins of Khaakha fortress, thought to date from the third century BC. The much eroded walls and turrets blend in with the brown dust and rock of the hills, but still manage to look impressive, standing on the slopes above the river, looking over to Afghanistan. I had read that soldiers were based there, supposedly to counter drug smugglers, and that visitors should be wary of taking pictures. Travellers in recent years had written of bad experiences, of being shaken down at gunpoint and robbed. But I was all alone as I explored the ancient fortifications. There were signs of recent inhabitation, paths marked out with stones and what looked like it might have been a parade ground. I walked gingerly up to the highest point of the fortress, where there was a small cluster of recent buildings. But they were all empty.

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Yamchun fortress, Wakhan Valley

That night we stayed at the home of the guide who had earlier taken me up the Bartang Valley (he was travelling with a group up to Kyrgyzstan). First we went to bathe in the Bibi Fatima hot spring, named after the daughter of Mohammed. Men and women used the spring alternately, in half-hour shifts. A little cave has been built into the rock face, holding the hot spring water which streams down from above. It is said to be popular with women hoping to become pregnant. Nearby is the Yamchun fortress, the best preserved in the region, sitting high above the valley, with splendid views across the Wakhan to the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains beyond. It is only a short distance across the narrow strip of Afghan territory in the Wakhan to the border with Pakistan.

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Across the Wakhan Valley

Back at the homestay, my host, the father of my former guide, pointed to the village across the broad river on the Afghan side, telling me its name, as well as those of other villages up and down the river. The people there speak our language, he told me. I asked if he knew them? Yes, we know them, he replied. Do you go over there and visit them, I asked? No, it is an international frontier. We’d be shot. He explained that when the river was low, they would go down to the banks and shout across to each other. A century ago this had been one community. These people would have traded with each other, married each other and shared each other’s celebrations. But by an agreement between Russia and Britain, about which they were not consulted in the least, an international frontier sliced through their land, cutting them off from each other.

Travelling east along the Wakhan Valley, we stopped at a museum dedicated to the 19th century Ismaili mystic, Mubarak i Wakhani, housed in the sage’s reconstructed home. His tomb is on the hill above. A little further on, above the village of Vrang, is a Buddhist stupa. The 12 year-old who showed me the way up spoke excellent English. Where had he learned to speak so well? In his school, he told me. He could also speak Tajik and Russian, as well as his native Wakhi. As we approached the monument, he showed me how to pick up a handful of pebbles to place there, an example of the easy-going approach to religion among the Muslims of the region. In the rock faces around the site there were numerous hermit caves, now unoccupied.

Continuing along the valley, we passed the remains of another ruined fortress by the bank of the river on the Afghan side. Perhaps Marco Polo looked upon this fortress as he passed that way in the 13th century. Then there was another of the roadside shrines, as usual adorned with the great curling ibex horns, and with rocks placed in the niches, the offerings of passers-by. A little further on I made the steep, strenuous climb up to the fortress of Abrashim Qala, the Silk Fortress. According to legend it had been covered in silk. The views from the fortress across the valley and the mountains beyond are stupendous. As I arrived, a group of children minding some sheep ran to greet me. A couple of boys were very eager to show me the fort. One of them tried to sell me some stones he claimed were rubies. I was often offered rubies by children in the Wakhan Valley. I was once offered one for 20 Somoni, around three Euros. On this occasion, the supposed rubies were not even red, just common rock crystal. The boy seemed slightly crestfallen when I pointed this out. But the Pamir region has been renowned for its rubies since ancient times. We had driven by the Koh-i-Lal ruby mine, near Iskashim.

Our journey up the Wakhan ended with a night in Langar, before we headed up over the 4,344 metre Khargush Pass. Opposite the meeting house in Langar (see posting of 25 January) is the mazar (mausoleum) of Shoh Kambari Oftab, who is said to have introduced Ismailism to Langar. It is a simple building, with inscriptions in Persian and a profusion of ibex horns. Afterwards, I drank beer with the Khalifa, the spiritual leader of the village, who spoke a little English, and a few other local men. Especially welcome, because it was unexpected, was the hot shower at the Khalifa’s house. It was a terrible shower. The water pressure was minimal; it was necessary to crouch down as low as possible in the grotty, rusty old bath tub. But it felt wonderful.

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Salt lake, Eastern Pamir

After Langar we left the Wakhan Valley and continued up the Pamir river. It was a very different landscape, dry and sparse, with little vegetation. At one point, we passed camels across the river on the Afghan side, watched over by a couple of men. Below the Khargush Pass was a military checkpoint, which we passed without difficulty. And then we were in the uplands of the eastern Pamirs. For me this was one of the most striking landscapes I have seen, very different from the damp fertile valleys of western Pamir, and beautiful in a very different way. Dry, bleached plains, crusted with salt; bare lakes set off against snow-covered peaks, devoid of vegetation except for little clumps of colourful plants that cling on, squeezing whatever little bit of moisture they can out of the parched ground. And a profusion of birdlife.

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Bulunkul

We crossed over the Pamir Highway, the Soviet-era military road, built in the 1930s, linking Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, with Khorog, via the plateau of Eastern Pamir. Then we reached the village of Bulunkul, a dry, dusty wind-swept little place, a different world from the villages where I had stayed in the Wakhan Valley. Here, many people, men as well as women, covered their faces with scarves, not because of their Islamic faith, but to protect them from the swirling, throat-clogging dust. This is a Tajik-speaking village, and our hosts here were as hospitable as any I visited in Pamir, to the extent of their meagre resources. The supper was simple, but what was most exciting for me was that I was offered yak yoghurt, thick, rich and delicious. There were a couple of buckets of it in the corner of the room where I slept. Unfortunately I did not see any yaks, although my driver assured me they were around.

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Marshes, Bulunkul

The climate up here was much different from what I had experienced in western Pamir, the temperature dropping close to zero at night. It was a small house. The family, three generations of them, all stayed in one room, snug and toasty with a wood fire and a television. My driver opted to spend the night with them. I had the other room to myself, and it was cold. This was the one night during my stay in Pamir when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, in addition to the provided eiderdowns piled up on top. It didn’t matter. I went to bed early, and was up at dawn to go for a wander in the beautiful early morning light. Before I went to bed, I sat outside the house and watched a group of village boys play volley ball, cheered on enthusiastically by the girls (cheered is hardly the word; it was more like a joyful screaming, finishing in fits of laughter).

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Bulunkul lake

The village of Bulunkul is set at one end of a wide plain, surrounded by bare brown hills. Walking away across this plain, the dry ground of the village soon gave way to green, marshy land, scattered with reed-surrounded ponds. Little birds with long bills nest in the reeds, diving and swooping around after insects, or, as I approached, holding themselves stationary in mid-air as they shrieked out a loud, harsh warning. I had to choose my path carefully. A wrong turn, and I was quickly surrounded by impassable bog, and had to retrace my steps. The next morning I skirted around the edge of the boggy plain in order to approach the lake at the opposite end from the village. As I came closer, I discovered what was perhaps the reason why the village was at the dry, dusty end of the plain, and not nearer to the water. Close to the lake I endured an attack from some of the most aggressive, determined mosquitos I have encountered. The lake was picturesque, the surrounding hills shimmering in its reflection, and birdlife all around. But it was hard even to raise my hands to take a photo, as swarms of insects immediately attacked the exposed skin.

Leaving Bulunkul, we re-joined the Pamir Highway, following the Gunt Valley back to Khorog. The fast-moving river, surrounded by snow-covered mountains, is more inhabited in its lower reaches. Just before Khorog is a monument to the building of the highway, the first ever vehicle to make the trip.

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Gunt Valley

Strung out along the Gunt River, hemmed in by mountains, Khorog was my base during my stay in the Pamirs, from where I set out on my tours of the region, and where I rested in the relative comforts of the modern world, hot showers and flush toilets, internet cafes and ATM machines. I found Khorog a pleasant enough little place. The shady central park, renovated with the help of the Aga Khan Foundation, and overlooking the river, had a pleasant café and was a relaxing place to while away an afternoon. Khorog is the administrative centre of Gorno-Badakhshan. It has government buildings, banks, universities, and hospitals. It also has a rather good little museum. I was given a personal tour by the lady who sold me my entry ticket. Exhibits included the first piano to be brought into the Pamirs, lugged over the mountains by Russian soldiers a century ago for the daughter of the garrison commander. It was the Russians who made Khorog the regional centre it is today. The museum has many old photos of Russian soldiers fraternising with local people.

Unfortunately, I spent some of my time in Khorog visiting a Pamiri friend who had come down with tuberculosis since returning to her home country. The hospital was depressing testimony to the hardships of living in a poor country, squalid, shabby and rather smelly. There was only one lavatory on a floor with several dozen patients, and no shower. Thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation, it had the medicines my friend needed to get better, although she had very little faith in the ability or qualifications of the doctors. The Pamirs are a beautiful region, and no doubt burgeoning tourism will being greater prosperity, even despite the corruption and dismal governance that undermine even the meagre advantages Tajikistan possesses. For the visitor, experiencing the quirks of the local transport, the basic conditions of so many homes, the poor roads, it can all seem rather picturesque. But a visit to the hospital in Khorog was a reminder of how hard, how humiliating it can be for those who cannot leave, for whom poverty and poor facilities are their day-to-day life.

Travelling in the Pamir Mountains
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Public transport hardly exists in Tajikistan, and travelling mostly meant taking shared taxis, waiting for a vehicle to be full of passengers before the driver would set off. In the Pamir region, these were often tiny Chinese-made minivans, into which seven passengers would be squashed, three in each of the backseat rows, and one upfront. They sometimes crammed in even more. They are not comfortable as they bump along the shoddy roads that lead up the mountain valleys. But sometimes a certain camaraderie develops among the passengers.

My first trip out from Khorog was to the Bartang Valley. I had hired a guide, but before we could leave we had to find a minivan that would take us the first part of the way. This involved hanging around the minibus station at the market, talking to drivers and trying to work out who would be going first in the direction we wanted to go. This was the main difficulty with travelling in Tajikistan. Drivers tried to persuade us to go with them, but if they did not have enough passengers it might be hours before they actually left. Travelling up the valleys in the Pamir region was a hit-and-miss affair, and I was often not sure whether I would reach my destination at all. Thank goodness for my guides on the trips I made. I am not at all sure how I would have negotiated with the minivan drivers without them. We found some other foreigners who wanted to go in the same direction as us, an Italian, two French and a German. That made six including us, so, rather than wait around, we decided to split the cost of the seventh, empty place among us. But by the time we set off, it was nearly lunchtime, so the driver decided to stop at a small eatery close to the bank of the Panj, just short of the turnoff for the Bartang Valley. It was an attractive spot, although we were plagued by midges. I ate some greasy samsas (samosas), washed down with green tea. When the bill came it was embarrassingly little.

But my fellow travellers began to have second thoughts about their destination. I wanted to go only a short distance up the Bartang, and then to set off hiking up the tributary Geisev Valley. They decided they wanted to go further up the Bartang, but our driver said that, for his little van, the road further up was too rough. They decided to try to find a four-wheel drive in Rushan, a small town just beyond the Bartang turnoff. Thankfully, our driver agreed to drop them there, and then continue up to Geisev with my guide and me. We left them haggling with the owner of a four-wheel drive. So we set off up the road to Geisev, along a fast moving river flanked by hills. We passed through the pretty little village of Yemts, and stopped by a beautiful lake to shelter from the afternoon heat.

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Cable car, Bartang Valley

When we reached the beginning of the Geisev Valley, I got a little bit of a surprise. I had been expecting a suspension bridge across the Bartang; the guidebook said there was a suspension bridge. Indeed, there had been a suspension bridge, but it had been washed away. Now there was just a little cable car. More precisely, there was a little metal box, painted in the colours of the Tajikistan flag, and open on one side, there being no door, which had to be manually winched across by furiously turning a handle on the inside of the box. My guide volunteered to turn the handle. We were joined by a solo Israeli traveller. So while she and I crouched opposite the open space above the raging torrent beneath us, the guide turned the handle for all he was worth, and steadily we made it across. How refreshing it can be to be in a country where there are no health and safety inspectors.

After a couple of hours hiking up the valley the grey slate slopes gave way to a lusher, greener landscape. And suddenly there was a man, tanned by the sun, his hands rough and gnarled from hard work. Good evening, welcome, he said, beaming and speaking passable English. He was from the first of the three little hamlets that stretch out along the Geisev, just clusters of four or five houses, as well as out buildings for animals and storage. He would be our host for the next two nights. As we relaxed with copious cups of green tea, women worked at the outdoor hearth preparing our simple supper. They produced almost all their own food here. Not only did they bake their own bread in a stone oven, but they milled the flour themselves, from wheat they grew in their own small plots. In the morning, we ate eggs from their own chickens. This was something close to subsistence living, although their incomes were now supplemented by foreigners like me staying with them.

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At home in the Geisev Valley

In this little hamlet, they were a family group, all relatives living in a cluster of houses, sharing the one hearth, living as a small, contained community. One traditional Pamiri house was for guests. My guide and I slept there that night, but our host told us that only a couple of days before there had been a wedding, and the place had been filled beyond capacity with more than 100 guests. It got chilly at night up there in the mountains, and I was grateful for the heavy eiderdown. But a couple of the children slept outside, on a kind of terrace at the entrance to their home. The house had a small solar panel on the roof, which powered an electric light. Drinking water came from a spring a few minutes walk away. As in all the mountain villages, the toilets were sheds with deep holes in the ground some distance from the houses.

Our host told us that the people who lived in the Geisev valley now were relative newcomers, their forebears having arrived only a century or so before. The people who had lived their previously had fled invaders from Afghanistan in the 19th century. The valley is fertile, but life must always have been hard. In the modern world, it is difficult to see how it could be sustainable. Children have to make the trek down to Yemts to go to school. The older ones have to board in Rushan. I met a teenage girl from one of the villages further up the valley. She spoke excellent English. She lives in Yemts, and was just visiting relatives. Our host told me that, like so many from Tajikistan, he had two brothers away working in Russia.

Tourism offers many opportunities. Our host was clearly counting on this. He had picked up English from talking with visitors to his valley, he told me. His main concern was to get a new bridge across the Bartang. The cable car was of limited use. If it were on the wrong side when someone wanted to use it, the alternative option was a little chair that could be used to pull yourself across the river. He often did that, he told us. Others would surely demur. It looked terrifying to me. And what if both were on the wrong side? There was no mobile phone signal in Geisev, so there was no chance of phoning someone to tell them. Only a few dozen people live in the Geisev Valley, so I could imagine building a new bridge would not be a priority for the local government.

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The Geisev Valley

The valley is gorgeous. A meandering turquoise stream, interspersed with placid lakes surrounded by damp greenery and wild flowers, amid the rising shingle slopes, topped by snow-clad peaks. The next day we walked slowly up the valley, pausing to eat the soup, bread, yogurt and jam offered in one of the other hamlets, and to watch as an elderly man broke up dried wood to fire the bread oven.

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Testing the water, Geisev Valley

Another journey, this time up the Shokh Dara valley, began in the same way, trying to find a shared taxi that would take us the first part of the way. This time my guide was a 19-year old girl doing an internship with the information centre in Khorog. I was her first client, and this was her first tour. Again, I would have been lost without her as she negotiated with the various minivan drivers. One said he was going our way, but then disappeared. We waited uncertainly, not knowing whether he would come back. Eventually we gave up and joined a van that was going part of our way, as far as the village of Roshtkala. The driver promised us he would find us a vehicle to take us the remainder of the way. But when we reached Roshtkala, there seemed to be no one headed further up the valley. We waited. An elderly man told us his son was coming, and we could go with them. Still we waited.

And then a rickety old car, packed with people and luggage pulled up. The driver was full of spirit and dressed in what looked to me like pyjamas. He assured us there was room for us too. Somehow we squashed in, my guide squeezed on to the front passenger seat together with a young man. I felt sorry for her. She suffered horribly from car sicknesses as we lurched around the bendy river valley. She and one other passenger walked the first couple of hundred metres out of the village, in case the police stopped our massively overloaded vehicle. The driver, we soon realised, was very drunk. She could smell it on his breath. He was also exhausted. This was the last leg of a journey all the way from Dushanbe. How his car had made it so far, over rough mountain roads, was a mystery, it was such a rickety old wreck. It seemed to wheeze along, always on the brink of giving up. But the passengers were in high spirits, laughing and joking all the way. At one point, as the driver seemed about to fall asleep, one of the ladies insisted that we stop so that he could splash some water in his face. And then we had arrived. The car stopped in front of an old bus, now without wheels, that had been turned into a local shop. Perhaps this bus had once carried passengers up and down the valley, at a time when the country had functioned a lot better than it does now.

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The village shop, Shokh Dara Valley

We set off hiking up the valley, stopping at houses along the way to ask for directions. Invariably we were invited in for tea, but we declined. We wanted to make it to our homestay before dark. One lady told her son, a boy of no more than seven or eight, to show us the way. Silently he led us, frequently stopping to enable us to catch up. Close to the top, we reached the simple Pamiri house where we would spend the night. My guide had been fasting for Ramadan, and, although she had drunk water that day, breaking her fast, she was drained of energy. The daughter of our host had been on a tourism course in Khorog, and she wanted to work as a guide. But her lack of English let her down.

The next morning we set off early back down to the village, in the hope of finding transport back to Khorog, or at least to Roshtkala. Our host, who also had a shop in the village, asked around to see if anyone would be making the journey. And then suddenly, bumping round the bend, came a minivan driven by the man we had given up on in Khorog the previous day. Gratefully, we climbed in. Not long before Khorog, he told us he was going to take a detour to visit the house of his sister. What to do? This was quite normal in the Pamir region, my guide told me. So we left the road and bumped along a dirt track to his sister's house. We were invited to drink tea and eat bread and thick cream while the driver visited his relatives. Then, after half an hour or so, he was back, and off we went again. I found myself wondering how it would be if in Europe a bus driver were to take a detour and invite his passengers in for tea?

A Beautiful Bouquet: the Pamirs
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I arrived in the Pamir region by road along the Panj River, the headstream of the Amu Darya, otherwise known as the Oxus, the greatest of Central Asia’s rivers. For earlier travellers, the Oxus was a river almost of legend. Peter Hopkirk describes in his excellent book, The Great Game, about the British-Russian rivalry in Central Asia in the 19th century, the journey of a party led by William Moorcroft, a veterinary surgeon with the British East India Company, to Bukhara, in 1824-1825. When they reached the banks of the Oxus, after a journey of many months, they were the first Englishmen ever to set foot there. For me it was a journey of a few hours by jeep along a rough road from Dushanbe.

It is a splendid journey, along the fast-moving river, hemmed in by the narrow gorge, the rocks rising sheer above us, and then opening out into fertile valleys, looking across at the mud-brick houses on the Afghan side, the lush fields, children playing in the river shallows. I reached Khorog, the principal town of the Pamir region of Gorno-Badakhshan, in the evening. It was very dark, with only a few dim lights. I felt quite lost. Thankfully, I had the phone number of a brother of someone back in London.

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Shrines, Bartang Valley and Wakhan Valley

Gorno-Badakhsan accounts for nearly half of Tajikistan’s territory, but only 3 per cent of its population. It is a remote, mountainous region, which had few visitors until quite recently. Since Soviet times, its closeness to Afghanistan meant it was a closed area, and foreigners still need a special pass in order to go there. Its remoteness had for thousands of years protected it and its people from outside influence. Its people speak a medley of languages, they have a unique culture and religious traditions. But in the late 19th century, the region caught the covetous eyes of the great powers vying for control in the region, Russia and Britain. These two empires had been eying each other nervously across the expanses of Central Asia for decades. The fear of Russian encroachment towards India had impelled the British into disastrous invasions of Afghanistan.

By the end of the 19th century, it was the mountain passes leading into India through the northwest frontier that most worried the British authorities in Delhi. British and Russian expeditions spent months at a time mapping the region. In 1889, a young British officer, Francis Younghusband, met and dined with the Russian Captain Gromchevsky and a party of Cossacks. Gromchevsky was a generous host, and as the vodka flowed, he expounded on his confidence that before long Russia would invade India. But the two parted as friends. On a later expedition, in 1891, Younghusband met a large party of Cossacks led by a Colonel Yanov. Again, they got on famously, and Younghusband was impressed by the lavishness of the Russian hospitality. However, the Englishman was disturbed to be told that the Russians claimed the whole Pamir region as their own, including territory that the British considered to be Afghan or Chinese, as well as territory they considered to be within their own sphere. Again they parted as friends, even when three days later the Russian returned and told Younghusband he had been ordered to leave Russian territory. Yanov expressed his embarrassment at having to carry out such a disagreeable order, and Younghusband assured him he bore him no personal grudge. As with many episodes in the Great Game, British and Russian adversaries did not let their rivalry get in the way of fellowship and mutual respect.

The incident with Colonel Yanov prompted the British to adopt a more assertive stance, issuing a strong protest to St. Petersburg and moving up forces to bring local rulers to heal. The British were particularly concerned about a narrow tongue of territory between Afghanistan and China, the so-called Pamir Gap, in the Wakhan valley, which was not claimed by any state. If the Russians took this, it would bring them to the very gateway of British India. The British tried to persuade both China and Afghanistan to stake their claim to the territory. Finally, in 1895, an agreement was reached with Moscow which gave the bulk of the Pamir region to Russia, while the Pamir Gap went to Afghanistan. To this day it juts out from Afghanistan to the Chinese border, forming a wedge between Tajikistan and Pakistan. The agreement meant that at no point did Russia and British India share a common frontier. For the British it meant that a definitive limit had been placed on Russia’s advance towards India.

But when the British and the Russians carved up the Pamir region, no one thought to consider the people who actually lived there. The Pamiris are a distinct people. They speak a variety of related languages, a branch of the wider Iranian language group. These languages are quite distinct from Tajik, which is a variant of Persian, a separate branch of the Iranian language tree. In Gorno-Badakhshan, the valleys leading up to the high Pamir plateau have their own languages and dialects. They are not all mutually intelligible. Shugni, spoken in Khorog, is quite different from Wakhi, spoken in the Wakhan Valley. Apart from Gorno-Badakhshan, in Tajikistan, Pamiris also live across the Panj, in Afghan Badakhshan, as well as smaller numbers in adjacent regions of Pakistan and China. None of the Pamiri languages are spoken by more than a few tens of thousands of people, and some by only a few thousand. All are endangered. Pamiris in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan mostly also speak Tajik. Travelling in the Wakhan Valley, my Shugni-speaking driver communicated with the locals in Tajik.

I asked a Pamiri in Khorog whether he was not worried about the future of the Pamir languages, with their small numbers of speakers, that some of them might before long disappear? In a world of satellite television (even houses in the most remote mountain villages I visited have satellite dishes), internet and international travel, what chance would such small languages have? Might it not perhaps be better to standardise them, to sacrifice some of the diversity in an attempt to preserve at least something, as had been done in several other places? Not at all, he said. In their diversity, the Pamiri languages are like a beautiful bouquet. He described efforts to agree on an alphabet for Shugni, to give it a more secure future as a written language. In Afghanistan, he said, some were already writing Shugni in the Persian alphabet. But in Tajikistan, few Shugni speakers were familiar with that, being used to reading and writing Russian and Tajik in Cyrillic. He proposed that all should agree to write Shugni in the Latin alphabet, with which many in both Tajikistan and Afghanistan were already familiar.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, the position of Pamiris within Tajikistan has been thorny. During Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s, most Pamiris supported the United Tajik Opposition. In 1992, Gorno-Badakhshan declared independence, later rescinded. The Pamiri region was placed under blockade by government forces, and Pamiris in Dushanbe and other parts of Tajikistan were among groups targeted in massacres and ethnic cleansing by pro-government supporters. Resentment, to a greater or lesser degree, remains widespread. More than once during my stay I heard Pamiris objecting to the fact that, in the government offices in Khorog, people were required to speak Tajik, even though they were almost all Pamiris. A common refrain among Pamiris is that they would like the notional autonomy of Gorno-Badakhshan to be real, in practice.

The tensions between Pamiris and the Tajikistan authorities exploded again one year before my visit, in July 2012. A friend in Khorog sent me anguished emails about the situation, about how the town had been cut off by government forces, whose snipers had been shooting into the town from the surrounding hills. The fighting was sparked by the stabbing in Iskhashim, a small town south of Khorog, of Abdullo Nazarov, the head in Gorno-Badakhshan of the GKNB, the successor of the KGB in Tajikistan. Nazarov was brought to Khorog, where he died a few hours later. Tajikistan’s military were brought in to try to arrest those accused of the killing, above all Tolib Ayombekov, who had been a leader of the opposition forces in Gorno-Badakhshan during the civil war.

The civil war was brought to an end by a UN-sponsored agreement in 1997, with Russia standing behind it. Opposition figures were brought into government. Ayombekov became a local head of the border agency. Over subsequent years, such opposition figures were side-lined and removed, but not in Gorno-Badakhshan. Some saw the crackdown in 2012 as an overdue settling of accounts, seeing the murder of Nazarov as just an excuse for an operation that had been planned in advance. Conspiracy theories abounded in Khorog. Why, people asked, was there a delay in taking Nazorov to hospital? Some told me that Nazarov’s death was due to a dispute over drug smuggling. Tajikistan is one of the principal conduits for drugs being trafficked out of Afghanistan. The authorities in Dushanbe had also accused Ayombekov of involvement.

The clashes reportedly left dozens dead, including many soldiers. I was told by people who were there that local people, women prominently among them, had demonstrated in the streets, hampering the military operation. The government called off the operation. The following month, Ayombekov surrendered, and was placed under house arrest, although he continued to move freely around Khorog. Announcing his surrender, which came shortly before a visit to Khorog by President Emomalii Rahmon, Ayombekov made complimentary statements about the benefits the president had brought to Gorno-Badakhshan, fuelling speculation about a deal.

During my visit, Khorog appeared calm and normal, although I was told that tension continued to simmer beneath the surface. But Pamiris themselves are divided about their feelings towards Tajikistan. Some, notably those I had met abroad, in the diaspora, appeared wholly negative towards a country with which they did not identify at all. But for many more, for good or ill, Tajikistan is their country, and they have to make the most of it. A teacher in Khorog, notwithstanding his gripes about the position of Pamiris, told me he could not imagine Gorno-Badakhshan outside of Tajikistan. A young man now living in Dushanbe, back in Khorog on a visit to his home town, expressed annoyance at people, especially those who lived comfortably abroad, who created difficulties for their fellow Pamiris, including those living in Dushanbe, with their opposition to life in Tajikistan. For him it was natural that people working in the government offices in Khorog should have to speak Tajik, the official language of the state.

Feeling neglected by the distant, resented government in Dushanbe, Pamiris have relied on the Aga Khan, the leader of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam to which most Pamiris adhere (most Tajiks, by contrast, are Sunni). Like many people from Britain, I had known of the Aga Khan principally as a fabulously wealthy racehorse owner. Among Pamiris he is revered, frequently referred to as His Highness Aga Khan IV. His Aga Khan Foundation has projects in different parts of Tajikistan, but it is his own people, the Ismaili Shias, that have been the greatest beneficiaries. Thanks to his assistance, they staved off hunger under the government blockade during the civil war. He established a branch of the Central Asian University in Khorog, which among other things offers courses in tourism. Pamiri students have received grants enabling them to study abroad. In almost every Pamiri house I visited a portrait of the Aga Khan was prominently displayed. In the village of Langar, on the Tajikistan side of the Wakhan Valley, the local Khalifa, the religious leader of the village, pointed out to me a smart little building which he told me had been specially built for the visit of the Aga Khan.


A Pamiri house, Bartang Valley

The Pamiris have esoteric religious practices. There are no mosques as such, but rather meeting houses, where people meet to pray. Sometimes these are in peoples’ private homes. In Langar, I was taken to the meeting house by the Khalifa, who was also the owner of the guesthouse where I spent the night. Colourfully painted on the outside, its interior was laid out like a traditional Pamiri house of the sort I stayed in in several homestays in the mountain villages. These apparently simple houses have raised, carpet-covered platforms around a central square. There is usually no furniture, people sitting and eating on the platforms. At night thin mattresses and eiderdowns are laid out for sleeping.

Apart from a doorway, light comes only through a skylight in the centre of the ceiling. But the layout of these houses is full of religious symbolism. My guide when I went trekking in the Bartang Valley explained it to me before bedtime in the Pamiri House where we stayed. Five pillars represent the family of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and, for Shias, the first Imam. One represents Mohammed himself, a second is for his daughter and Ali’s wife, Fatima, a third is for Ali, and the other two are for their sons, Hassan and Hussein. The pillars are also said to represent the five pillars, or principles, of Islam. Some suggest they may even pre-date the Pamiris’ conversion to Islam and go back to the five key deities of the Zoroastrian faith. In the meeting house in Langar, the pillars were also decorated with the pagan symbol of the sun, a symbol I also saw in the Pamiri house in the Bartang Valley, on the cross beam between the Hassan and Hussein pillars. The beams across the ceiling represent the first seven Imams of Ismailism (Ismailis differ from other Shias in that they recognise Ismail Ibn Jafal as the seventh Imam, and are also known as Seveners) and the six prophets revered in Islam, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as well as Mohammed.

Pamiri religious practices are unorthodox in other ways, in addition to the pagan symbols in their houses. Contrary to the usual Moslem prohibition on human likenesses being displayed in mosques, the meeting house in Langar contained representation of Imam Ali and the Aga Khan. Then there are the roadside shrines decked out with huge ibex horns. The first I saw of these was in the Bartang Valley. The driver of the minivan I and my guide had hired to drive us asked if we could stop a little while so he could pray. I hung back while the two of them carried out their devotions, and then had a look. Like others I saw later in the Wakhan Valley, it was a walled enclosure, with ibex horns sitting atop the walls. Within was a small, simple building at the base of a rock face, with pictures of Ali and the Aga Khan above the entrance. Inside the building was a kind of grotto, with holes in the rock where offerings had been left. As with other shrines in the Pamir region, the holes in the rock must have had some spiritual significance to the people, which had somehow come to be overlaid with Islam, a very thin veneer for the folk religion of the people who went there.

In Langar, the Khalifa demonstrated the kind of music he played during the prayer meetings, accompanying his singing with a stringed instrument. He told me that in Pamiri meeting houses, men and women prayed together, not separately as is usual in most Moslem countries. When I pointed out how unusual it was that there were pictures of people in a Moslem place of prayer, he did not appear to know what I was getting at. He was flexible about his religion. Of all the places I stayed in throughout my travels in Gorno-Badakhshan, his was the only house where I was offered alcohol. The Khalifa drank it himself. Travelling back to Dushanbe, a couple of Pamiris returning to the capital after a summer holiday in their home region told me that the religious practices of the Pamiris were frowned upon by other Ismaili Shias. They urged me to go to the Ismaili centre in Dushanbe to get a better impression.

Tourism is just beginning to take off in Gorno-Badakhshan, visitors drawn to the unspoiled beauty of the mountain landscapes. For now it is small-scale and still rather rough and ready. But guest houses and homestays are starting to proliferate, as well as travel agencies. Barring further instability like that seen in 2012, further development of the tourism industry seems assured. Young Pamiris learn English, as well as other European languages, looking for careers as guides. The money is very good by local standards. The question is whether the distinctiveness of Pamiri culture can survive the onslaught of modernisation and rising prosperity? Will not people from other parts of Tajikistan be drawn in by the opportunities presented by the newly buoyant tourism? The isolation that has protected the Pamiris for so long is almost certainly coming to an end.

Dushanbe and the Tajik heritage
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Arriving at Dushanbe airport, I was prepared for an ordeal. I had read the blogs of other travellers. The travel agency that had wanted to charge 70 Dollars to help me get through the airport formalities had warned me that it would be difficult and time-consuming without them. My friend from Tajikistan had told me to expect chaos and confusion, and officials seeking bribes to allow me through. I was ready for it to take hours. But the reality turned out to be not too bad. The main problem was that the terminal building was too small, so that it was difficult to form orderly queues. I filled in the immigration form, and waited patiently. When I got to the passport control desk, the police were polite, spoke English, and I was through fairly quickly. Picking up my luggage, I nervously went through customs, but the officials were too busy looking through the things of some homebound Tajiks. I was through. And there was the man with the sign with my name on it, ready to take me to my comfortable, if rather over-priced guesthouse. It had all gone well.

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Ismail Samani monument, Dushanbe

Like other Central Asian capitals, Dushanbe has been planted with monuments to heroes of the past, designed to buttress the sense of nationhood for a new country. Most prominent is Ismail Samani, on the spot where a statue of Lenin once stood. Modern Tajikistan traces its origins to the Persian Samanid Empire of the 9th and 10th centuries, whose capital was in Bukhara, nowadays in neighbouring Uzbekistan. The country’s currency, the Somoni, is named after the great medieval ruler. Standing out among the mainly Turkic peoples of former Soviet Central Asia, the Tajiks speak a variant of Persian, their origins stretching back to the heyday of medieval Persian dominion in the region, before the Turkic migrations that altered the ethnic make-up of Central Asia. In a nearby park is a similarly extravagant and kitsch monument to Rudaki, the great medieval Persian poet who was patronised by the Samanid rulers.

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Rudaki monument, Dushanbe

The importance of Ismail Samani and Rudaki for Tajikistan indicates an incongruity between Tajik history and the modern state. Its greatest historical and cultural figures were Persian, and their capital was a city that is not part of modern Tajikistan. The great centres of Tajik culture and history, Bukhara and Samarkand, are next door in Uzbekistan. This injustice, in Tajik eyes, was also on display at the brand new National Museum of Tajikistan, which had opened only the month before my visit. An inscription next to a historical map lamented the loss. Dushanbe had been hardly more than a village a century earlier, notable only for its weekly market. It could not substitute for the loss of the finest cities in central Asia, among the greatest historical centres of culture and learning in the Islamic world. Even today, Bukhara and Samarkand are still largely Tajik speaking.

A few weeks later, I spent an evening with a father and son at my local chaikhana (eatery) in Samarkand, drinking green tea and eating soup and shashlyk. They were Tajik, the son told me. Were they content that their city was in Uzbekistan, I asked? We are not interested in politics, replied the father. The son looked awkward. In Tajikistan, people consider Samarkand should be part of their country, I persisted. The father dismissed the notion with an extravagant gesture. Yet it is not only Tajikistan that claims the heritage of Samarkand and Bukhara. Visiting Bukhara, I strolled through the old town in the company of a couple of Iranian visitors. They saw Persian influence and architecture all around. They were keen to visit the Ismail Samani mausoleum. For them, the Samanids were a Persian dynasty, which had revived Persian culture after the rolling back of the Arab conquerors. The Ismail Samani mausoleum was an important testament to the former greatness of Persia. The mausoleum itself, built at the beginning of the tenth century, is modest in size, but exquisite in the simplicity of its design.

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Ismail Samani mausoleum, Bukhara

In the Soviet Union, new national republics were carved out of a region where identity had never been based on ethnicity. Tajikistan was initially a mere autonomous republic of Uzbekistan. In 1929 it was granted the status of a full republic, but without Samarkand and Bukhara. In the last years of the Soviet Union, appeals were made to Moscow to put right this historical grievance, but to no avail. The way the Soviets divided up the region was full of anomalies. For sure, carving out national states in a part of the world where different peoples lived cheek by jowl, and where clean ethnic boundaries did not exist, was bound to be messy. But the results appeared more than haphazard, as if the Soviet cartographers had deliberately left chunks of population stranded in the republics of other nations. Thus while Tajik-speaking Bukhara and Samarkand went to Uzbekistan, Uzbek-majority Khojand, in the Fergana Valley, went to Tajikistan. Perhaps it was thought that it would not matter, as they would all be part of the great, brotherly Soviet Union. But for the independent states of post-Soviet Central Asia the Soviet carve up stored up mountains of bitterness. For many Tajiks, the territorial loss is a lasting wound.

Jovanka Broz, the last Yugoslav Icon
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The death this week in Belgrade of Jovanka Broz, the widow of Yugoslavia’s former communist ruler, Josip Broz Tito, stirred surprising emotions in me, as in many others. Jovanka, a teenaged partisan during the Second World War before becoming Yugoslavia’s First Lady, had been abominably treated after the death of her husband, expelled from her home without most of her belongings, and placed under house arrest in a shabby dwelling. She had been left in poverty on a miserable pension. She had often been the butt of jokes, denigrated by many as a simple peasant girl. Elizabeth Taylor had reportedly felt peeved when, visiting Tito on the island of Brioni with Richard Burton, who had played the dictator in a World War II partisan movie, she was left in the company of Jovanka, while Burton enjoyed the company of the famously charming Tito. But for others, Jovanka was glamorous. A Kosovo Albanian lady told me how women going to the hairdressers had asked for the Jovanka style.

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Jovanka Broz in her prime, with Tito

For years, Jovanka had been largely forgotten. Journalists occasionally wrote of how poorly she had been treated. Some in Croatia argued that she should be brought home to her Croatian motherland (she was in origin a Croatian Serb), given a decent pension and treated with the respect she was due.

But in death she was granted a state funeral, and her passing was reported in international media. Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić spoke movingly of her: ‘She was an important part of history, a history we gave up on, a history we forgot… This is the departure of Yugoslavia’s last icon.’ Thousands attended her funeral, many travelling to Belgrade from other parts of former Yugoslavia.

For many who can remember what Yugoslavia was, a serious, if ultimately failed attempt to build a multi-national community with a common identity transcending its peoples’ diversity, Jovanka was perhaps the last link with a past for which some still feel nostalgia. For all its obvious faults and contradictions, Yugoslavia had something. In its cultural diversity there was a richness, a vibrancy that at times produced brilliance. While the successor states may feel unburdened in their independence, and while they are certainly freer, it is hard to argue that the sum of the parts adds up to what Yugoslavia once was. Above all, Yugoslavia represented a dream of a common life for peoples who had once been at each other’s throats. It was surely better than the squalid nationalism and reversion to mutual destruction that followed the state’s demise. For those that mourned her, the death of Jovanka perhaps rekindled a memory of that dream, of hopes for something better.

Magical Cappadocia
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Turkey boasts an extraordinary array of different landscapes, from the Mediterranean coast to mountainous interior, from parched brown planes, to the damp mountains of the northeast, enveloped in mist and carpeted with wild flowers. Among the most spectacular is the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, with its fairy chimneys, caused by the continual erosion of the soft, volcanic tuff rock, soaring up into the sky. With its lush, verdant valleys carving through the brown moonscape surface, Cappadocia is one of the most magical places.

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Fairy chimneys, Cappadocia

Humans have also played their part in shaping the landscape. For Cappadocia is another of those regions of Turkey where the ghostly remnants of past civilisations, of people who are no longer there, are all around, images of a world that is no more. Wandering around the valleys that crisscross the hilly terrain, one repeatedly comes across little chapels carved into the rock, and occasionally substantial churches with vaulted ceilings and arches. There are hundreds of them, dating back a thousand years and more. Some are in poor condition now, the continual erosion gouging out gaping holes in their ceilings. Or else they have been damaged by later occupiers of this land who have adapted them for other uses, often as pigeon coops. Altars and little niches have been shaped out of the soft stone. In many, painted designs are still visible, often simple, primitive, drawn on to the bare rock. But others are much more sophisticated, with intricate, vivid frescoes painted by the masters of their day.

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Dark Church, Göreme

The most splendid of these rock churches are now properly looked after, and visitors must pay to enter. The Göreme Open Air Museum is a monastery complex including numerous little chapels, the finest of which are very fine indeed. Their original names are frequently unknown, and the names by which they are identified today are often taken from prominent frescoes inside. Most impressive of all is the 11th century Dark Church, so-called because there is only one very small window, letting little natural light inside, which helped to preserve the frescoes. After centuries as a pigeon coop, the bird droppings were scraped away to reveal the best preserved frescoes in all Cappadocia.

In a forerunner of the high-rise dwellings of the 20th centuries, Cappadocia’s residents hollowed out the towering rocks for their dwellings. Holes in the rocks reveal the windows and doors that once led into peoples’ homes. In Göreme some of these rock houses are still in use, wooden doors and glass windows fitted into the entrances. Some hotels have cave rooms. Most spectacular are the huge rocks that once contained whole communities, living in warrens of tunnels and cave dwellings. The immense rock of Üçhisar, not far from Göreme, dominates the landscape for miles around, giving me a bearing on my hikes. The tunnels and caves of the rock itself have now been abandoned, the population living in houses clustered around its base. Similar great rock villages are found at Çavuşin and Ortahisar, also abandoned.

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Üçhisar

Troglodyte inhabitants of the past also built vast underground towns, elaborate mazes of narrow tunnels and chambers, sometimes opening out into broad, high caverns, here a church, there a schoolroom, a winery, stables. I visited the underground city of Derinkuyu, creeping along the passageways, hunching over at times in order to fit through the narrow passages. In some places great circular doors stand to the side of the tunnel, that in times gone by could have been rolled across to seal off different levels from each other, for defence.

At ground level in Derinkuyu there stands a great Christian basilica, a remnant of more recent Christian inhabitants who only left Cappadocia less than a century ago. By the 12th century, Cappadocia had come under the rule of the Seljuk Turks, and after them the Ottomans. Over subsequent centuries, many of the Christians of Cappadocia adopted the Turkish language, written in the Greek alphabet. Others who continued to speak Greek spoke a dialect heavily influenced by Turkish, known as Cappadocian Greek. As part of the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, Cappadocia’s Christians had to leave their ancestral home and settle in Greece. The newly arrived settlers quickly adopted the modern Greek language, but some third-generation descendants of those original settlers continue to speak Cappadocian Greek in a number of places in Greece.

Bruce Clark writes in his fascinating book Twice a Stranger, about the population exchange, how things very nearly turned out differently for the Cappadocian Christians. In September 1922, a congress was held in Kayseri, in Cappadocia, of a new, self-proclaimed Turkish Orthodox Church. Its main advocate was a pro-Turkish Orthodox priest known as Papa Eftim. His ambition seems to have been to supplant the Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople. For some in the Turkish government, the idea of a distinct Turkish Christian community, speaking Turkish and loyal to Turkey, and with its own Turkish Church hierarchy, had some appeal. Had it come about, it might have given greater substance to the idea of Turkey as a modern secular state, in which different religions could coexist. Turkey might have been a different kind of state. And the Cappadocians might have been able to stay in their homes, as most would almost certainly have preferred, having been largely spared the horrors of war that many other Greek communities in Anatolia had suffered. But it was not to be. In the end, there was not enough support at the Lausanne Peace Conference for leaving the Cappadocian Christians be, and so they were packed off to Greece along with the rest.

Bruce Clark writes how attachment to the old homeland remains especially strong among the Greeks of Cappadocian origin, and that nowhere else in Turkey are Greek visitors as welcomed by Turks, especially if they are of Cappadocian stock. It is a uniquely beautiful land, and the Christians who lived there for nearly two millennia left a powerful imprint. Today, Muslim Turkish guides show around nominally Christian European visitors, explaining to them the significance of the icons, the theology, the Orthodox Christian belief system. Today, after long neglect, the ancient churches are cared for, the cultural heritage of the people who are no longer there valued and preserved. That is cause for hope.

Haji Bektash Veli
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Cappadocia is a popular tourist destination. Visitors are drawn by its striking rock formations, its houses, medieval churches and towns carved out of the rocks, its troglodyte underground settlements. It is all very compelling. A different sort of visitor is attracted to the little town of Hacibektaş, a site of pilgrimage for Muslims from around Turkey and beyond. This was once the centre of the Bektashi dervish order, inspired by the medieval sage Haji Bektash Veli, after whom the town is named.

Haji Bektash Veli is believed to have come from Turkmenistan. After his travels, he settled at this town in central Anatolia. The mystical Sufi order he inspired became very influential over centuries throughout Anatolia and the Balkans. It was the official sect of the Janissaries, the elite Ottoman troops recruited among the Sultan’s Christian subjects through the ‘Devşirme’ system of blood tribute. Some have suggested that the eclectic belief system of the Bektashi, with its wide-ranging influences, may have appealed to men who had in their early childhood been Christian. When the Janissary corps was abolished at the order of Sultan Mahmud II in the so-called ‘Auspicious Incident’ in 1826, and thousands of its members massacred, the Bektashi too were driven underground. Although the sect experienced a revival during the ‘Tanzimat’ reform period during the 19th century, it was finally driven out of Turkey in 1925 by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, along with other Sufi orders.

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Haji Bektash Veli, with gazelle and lion

The Bektashi sect’s headquarters was moved to Tirana. The Bektashi had long been influential among Albanian Muslims. Ali Pasha Tepelena, the early 19th century ruler of southern Albania and most of Greece, is believed to have been an adherent. Bektashism thrived in Albania until the communist takeover in 1945, following which many dervishes and babas, the heads of the Bektashi Tekkes (communities somewhat akin to Christian monasteries), were executed. With the banning of all religious practice in 1967, the Bektashi, like all religious communities in communist Albania, were shut down. But since the end of communist rule in 1990, the Bektashi have experienced a revival. While I was working in Albania in 2011, Hajji Reshat Bardhi, the Dedebaba, the overall head of the order, died. Leading politicians and foreign diplomats were among those who paid their respects, indicating the influence of the sect in the country.

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A dervish in the early 20th century, Hacibektaş

The pilgrims visiting Haji Bektash Veli’s mausoleum in Hacibektaş when I visited bore witness to his continuing influence outside Albania. The former centre of the Bektashi order is now a museum. Although Ataturk had closed down the sect in Turkey, a sign at the entrance asserts that the ideas of Haji Bektash Veli were applied by Ataturk in establishing the Turkish Republic. Indeed, Haji Bektash Veli’s enlightened teachings were in many ways ahead of his time. He was a noted advocate of the rights of women, arguing that a society that did not educate its women could not progress. Among sayings attributed to the sage in the museum is one that states that ‘In the language of conversation, you cannot discriminate between man and woman. Everything God has created is in order. To us, there is no difference between man and woman. If you think there is, you are mistaken.’ He was also a pacifist, and in the most famous painting of him, he is depicted holding a gazelle and a lion, illustrating his words quoted in the museum that ‘Greed and malice disappear by love in our midst, Lion and gazelle are friends in our embrace.’

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The Hacibektaş complex

The 14th century ceremony and meeting house holds an exhibition of artefacts and photographs, including a group picture of some of the last dervishes and babas when the order was closed down in 1925. In the kitchens, the famous black cauldron of the Bektashi is exhibited. The cauldron symbolised fellowship, and also held a symbolic importance for the Janissaries. In his novel The Janissary Tree (see my blog entry of 19 October 2009), Jason Goodwin describes a murderous plot in the 1830s involving surviving former Janissaries against the modernising reforms of the Sultan. As an ominous warning of their intent, the Janissaries bang their cauldrons, their traditional protest and precursor of violent demonstrations.

The Master House, which contains the mausoleum of Haji Bektash Veli, includes the oldest part of the complex. The ‘Cilehane’, or ‘Suffering Place’, is a small room where dervishes would withdraw for prayer and fasting, and is believed to originate from the time of Haji Bektash Veli himself. Pilgrims, the majority of them women when I visited, shuffled around the mausoleum, praying before the tombs of the holy men, reaching out and touching them. One group of men whispered in Arabic among themselves, reading the explanatory plaques in English rather than Turkish. The scene was very much reminiscent of Christian pilgrimage sites, with the veneration of saints. One could see why more orthodox Sunni Muslims might look askance upon Bektashism. The legacy of Haji Bektash Veli is complicated and controversial. Many Muslims claim he did not found any distinct Bektashi order, which only emerged after his death. Alevis claim him as a teacher of Alevism. Whatever the truth, which is by now lost in the mist of the past, I found his humanism, his tolerance, his espousal of women’s rights, attractive, and a valuable counterpoint to so many of the trends in modern Islam.

A visit to Çeşme
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My principal motive in visiting Çeşme, a small coastal town west of Izmir, was the hope of seeing a little bit of the lost world of the cosmopolitan Levant that had been partly preserved. Izmir itself, or Smyrna as it had been known, had been largely destroyed by the great fire of 1922 and the depredations of 20th century town planners. Çeşme is, of course, now a Turkish town, its Greek population having departed for good in 1922. The last remnants of the retreating Greek army that had been routed by the Turks in the summer of 1922 had been evacuated from Çeşme. As the Turkish army of Mustafa Kemal entered Smyrna, the last Greek troops were still hastening away.

Çeşme is a charming little town. Many old houses, once the homes of rich Greek merchants, still survive. The main street leading down to the seafront is dominated by the large Greek basilica of Ayios Haralambos. It is no longer used for the purpose it was built, its congregation having departed. When I visited, it was firmly bolted, although it is sometimes used for exhibitions.

Just across the water from Çeşme is the Greek island of Chios. The town and the island have long been closely linked, and many of Çeşme’s onetime Greek inhabitants moved to Chios during the population exchange in 1922-23. Now they are linked again, by tourism. Regular ferries carry visitors, Greeks and Turks among them, back and forth. One waterfront restaurant in Çeşme had a menu in Greek, including Greek coffee, identical to Turkish coffee, but the name is important to Greeks. Before travelling to Çeşme, I read online the account of a Turkish visitor to Chios who, asked at a supermarket checkout whether he was Turkish, was told that in that case he could have a discount.

The owner of the guesthouse where I stayed told me that hotel owners from Çeşme and Chios cooperated in order jointly to promote tourism. He told me of an initial meeting at which one of the Çeşme Turks had produced old photos from before the population exchange. A Greek from Chios had recognised his grandfather in one of them. It was evidently an emotional moment. In his book, Twice a Stranger, Economist journalist Bruce Clark described cases of emotional visits to towns or villages by descendants of people who had been forced to leave during the population exchange, often welcomed with open arms by the current residents.

The population exchange had been a traumatic experience, people uprooted from their homes and forced to move to an alien country, whose language, in some cases, they did not even speak. Many retained a lifelong attachment and nostalgia for the places they had left. Visiting Thessaloniki a few weeks earlier, I was told by a Greek man that he could remember as late as the 1950s that one cinema in the town continued to show Turkish films to audiences of Greeks who had been born in Turkey.

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Cezayirli Gazi Hasan Pasha, with lion, Çeşme

The Çeşme seafront is dominated by the castle. A plaque states that it was built in 1508, during the reign of Sultan Beyazit II, although some believe there was already a fortress there, built by the earlier Genoese rulers. Outside the castle walls stands a statue of Cezayirli Gazi Hasan Pasha, the Ottoman admiral at the Battle of Çeşme, in 1770. Hasan Pasha is hailed as one of the greatest Ottoman admirals, and he went on to hold the position of Grand Vizier, second only to the Sultan in the Empire. All this seemed rather peculiar given that the battle ended in defeat for the Ottoman fleet, at the hands of the Russians. Inside the castle is a museum devoted to the battle and the background of European politics at the time. Again Hasan Pasha is lauded for his outstanding performance during the battle. He had succeeded in sinking the Russian flagship, losing his own flagship in the process. The museum’s exhibits delight in taunting the then Russian Empress Catherine the Great for her expansionist policies as well as her notorious carnal appetites. Two cartoons from the contemporary British press are displayed. One shows the devil offering Catherine Constantinople and Warsaw in a dream. Another shows the Empress striding across Europe’s monarchs from Russia to Constantinople, while the monarchs gawp up her skirts and make lascivious remarks.

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The temptation of Catherine the Great

At one time, Çeşme had been a popular retreat for the wealthy of Smyrna. Nowadays it is a favoured resort for Istanbul’s smart set. Next to the castle is a caravanserai built in the 16th century on the order of Suleiman the Magnificent. Now it has been renovated as a smart hotel. Non-guests are allowed to peak in. There are good fish restaurants in Çeşme. The lowness of the prices led me to believe that the fish on offer must be farmed. But they were so tasty that I think they were wild. Delicious. Though I did not particularly like the local habit of washing it down with raki.

Izmir: Once there was a city
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Visiting Izmir, I knew I was coming to a large modern town. I was fascinated by the city’s past, and wanted to search out some of the remnants of what Izmir had once been. But I had no illusions, and was not expecting much. There are older pockets, notably the bazaar area, a warren of busy narrow streets clustered around the town’s oldest mosques, close to the Konak, the centre of the city’s government. Older buildings are also dotted around the streets just behind the long seafront quay, the Cordon. But most of Izmir is modern, ugly and uninspiring. It was not always so. For Izmir was once Smyrna, one of the great cosmopolitan metropolises of the Levant, a splendid jumble of different nations, religions, cultures and architectural styles.

Visitors to Smyrna in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th described it as a kind of paradise. Giles Milton titled his book about the destruction of the city in the fire of 1922 ‘Paradise Lost’. Phillip Mansel, in his book about the cities of the Levant, cites several visitors who were overwhelmed by Smyrna’s charms. The Turkish writer Naci Gundem described it as like a ‘fairy-tale country’, with ‘a magic atmosphere which made the most depressed souls end by laughing.’ The British writer Norman Douglas, who visited in 1895, wrote that it ‘seemed to be the most enjoyable place on earth.’ Like many visitors, he was struck by the city’s cosmopolitan character, ‘the variegated crowds about the harbour, eastern bustle and noise.’

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Smyrna as it was

Like other great Levantine cities, several nations rubbed shoulders in Smyrna, and many languages were spoken. As well as Turks, there were large Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities, as well as western European ‘Franks’: French, British, Italians and Dutch, and, by the beginning of the 20th century, Americans. Trade built Smyrna, and fabulous fortunes were made. Many of the western European families had lived in Smyrna for generations. Some of them had never visited their professed home countries. They were Levantines, and Smyrna was their home. Christian churches of various denominations, mosques and synagogues all contributed to the colour of the city.

But tension in Smyrna was never far below the surface. For Turks, the privileges enjoyed by the western Franks under the notorious ‘Capitulations’, and the powers granted to their consuls, were a source of humiliation. The wealth of Greek and Armenian merchants was resented. Conflicts among the great powers all too often brought bloodshed to the streets of Smyrna. The Battle of Çeşme, 50 miles west of Smyrna, in 1770, when a Russian fleet destroyed its Ottoman counterpart, was followed by a massacre of Smyrna Greeks, whose enthusiasm for their fellow Orthodox Russians was well known. Then, as on later occasions, Christians took refuge on foreign ships moored in the harbour. In 1797, the murder of a janissary by two Cephalonian Greeks led to a rampage along Frank Street, the centre of the western European community, and the burning of churches and consulates. Hundreds of Christians, mainly Greeks, were murdered, and the fires spread to the Greek and Armenian quarters. The Greek revolt in 1821 brought massacres of Greeks in Smyrna, as in Istanbul.

Greeks were not always the victims. On several occasions in the 19th century, Greeks in Smyrna accused Jews of ritually sacrificing Christian children, leading to attacks on Jews. In 1901, the bells of St. Photeini monastery rang out to call people to anti-Jewish riots. Yet despite all this, Smyrna’s cosmopolitan character endured. The Greek community thrived. Its schools were considered among the best in the town; its cultural life was rich; its merchants built opulent mansions. Smyrna’s Jews continued to build synagogues. And when the authorities had the will, they could limit the fallout of interethnic strife. In 1895 and 1896, Armenian terrorist attacks in Istanbul were followed by massacres of thousands of Armenians, but in Smyrna the governor organised patrols to prevent such revenge attacks. When in 1915 the order came from the Ottoman government to deport Smyrna’s Armenians, the city’s enlightened governor, Rahmi Bey, a cosmopolitan Levantine to his core, refused to comply. As in Salonika, following the Young Turk revolution in 1908 there was an outpouring of joy and optimism in Smyrna that cut across ethnic and confessional lines.

Yet any appearance of positive inter-communal relations, or of an over-arching Smyrna identity that could encompass differences, proved illusory, or at best a very thin veneer. It began to fall apart with the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. Some Turks now considered that only the loyalty of Muslims could be counted on. Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) recorded seeing the Cordon in Smyrna ‘full of members of a race which was our sworn enemy.’ Greeks, for their part, no longer disguised their longing to be incorporated in the mother country, which increasingly funded Greek national organisations in Smyrna.

The peculiar Levantine world survived in Smyrna in the First World War. While many British and French Smyrniots left to fight in their respective armies, others remained behind, and, despite some initial difficulties, continued to live much as before, protected by Rahmi Bey. Western-owned businesses continued to operate, even supplying uniforms to the Ottoman army. This was a feature of Smyrna. During an earlier war with Greece, the Smyrna authorities had allowed Greeks, Ottoman subjects among them, to go off to join the Greek army, with flags flying and the Greek anthem playing, and with tickets and food provided by the Greek consul.

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The old Muslim quarter, Izmir

Smyrna’s tragedy began with the arrival of Greek troops in May 1919. The First World War was over. At its close, Greece was on the winning, Allied side, and its government looked forward to picking apart the corpse of the prostrate Ottoman Empire. Following the Greek landing, a fight broke out at the Ottoman barracks, near the Konak, leading to hundreds of deaths, mainly Turkish. Some Turkish prisoners were summarily killed on the Cordon, and Greek soldiers ran amok in the Muslim quarter. A few Greeks still wearing the fez were mistaken for Turks and also killed. But the Greeks, in their hour of triumph, had not reckoned with Mustafa Kemal, who was soon beginning to organise Turkish resistance in Anatolia.

Yet under Greek occupation, Smyrna’s cosmopolitan spirit still hung on, in large part thanks to another enlightened ruler, the Greek High Commissioner, Aristides Sterghiades. He had governed the partly Muslim city of Ioannina, near Greece’s border with Albania, in 1913, and he was determined to maintain good relations with Muslims in Smyrna. He punished some who had murdered Turks following the Greek army’s arrival, executing ringleaders. During his period in control, Turkish remained an official language, alongside Greek, and the number of Turkish-language newspapers actually increased. Some Turkish officials cooperated with the new regime. Smyrna’s Greeks loathed him.

But Smyrna could not survive the brutalities of the war in Anatolia. The Greek army came close to capturing Ankara, but, as its lines of communication were over-extended, and as Kemal’s army grew in strength, its fortunes were reversed. Following its rout in August 1922, its soldiers fled pell-mell for the coast, slaughtering, burning and raping as they went. Many of the Turkish soldiers advancing behind them were bent on revenge. On 9 September, the first Turkish troops entered Smyrna, Kemal arriving the following day. Kemal issued a proclamation threatening death to any Turkish soldier who harmed civilians. It had no effect. The Orthodox Archbishop, Chrysostomos, a firebrand Greek nationalist and a figure of hate for Turks, was torn apart by a mob as he left a meeting with the newly appointed city governor at the Konak. Some Turks who had collaborated with the Greek occupation were murdered.

As pillage, rape and murder escalated, fires began to be set in the Armenian quarter. Having been spared under Rahmi Bey, Smyrna’s Armenians were finally subjected to the wrath, the extraordinary vindictiveness harboured by many Turks towards their nation. When, on 13 September, the wind changed direction, blowing away from the Muslim and Jewish quarters, the various fires in the Christian quarters merged into an inferno. Most of the Greek and Armenian quarters, and much of the Frank quarter, were engulfed. The human catastrophe which followed was witnessed from the foreign ships standing out in the harbour, and by many Europeans and Americans who remained in the city. People with foreign passports had been taken aboard British, French, Italian and American warships. The remaining Christians crowded on to the Cordon, hundreds of thousands of them, hemmed in by the fire behind, the sea in front, and Turkish soldiers to either side. The Cordon, the glory of Smyrna, which Naci Gundem had written made Smyrna Smyrna, became a scene of Hell.

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Smyrna burns, 1922

Watching through binoculars from the ships, sailors saw Smyrniots on the quay robbed, pushed into the fire or into the sea, and beaten or stabbed to death by Turkish soldiers and irregulars. Young girls were picked out, raped, and often horribly mutilated. The sea was choked with corpses. The stench reached the ships, where some played music in order to drown out the noise of the unfolding horror. Some swam out from the Cordon to the ships, where they were not always welcomed. At last, the British admiral ordered that boats be sent to take some of the people off; some capsized under the weight of desperate humanity.

After the fire had burned itself out, Kemal ordered that the remaining Greeks and Armenians be expelled. Women and children, as well as older men, were evacuated, many of them by flotillas of private boats organised by American charity workers and under American flags. Men of military age, often defined very liberally, were marched off into the interior, to be abused, starved, murdered and worked to death. Few survived.

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Ataturk surveys his work, Izmir

What of the responsibility for the tragedy at Smyrna? The official Turkish position has long been that the fires were started by Armenians and Greeks. That was what Kemal told the French consul while the fire was still raging. This assertion is repeated in the displays at the Ahmet Priştina City Archive and Museum, which I visited during my stay in Izmir. Yet numerous witnesses, including Americans and French, who were present in the city when the fires started, reported seeing Turkish soldiers and irregulars starting the fires. And contrary to official claims, it seems they were working under orders. Some Turkish witnesses later cast doubt on the official position. Kemal’s Chief of Staff, Ismet Inonu, later wrote that the young said they were following orders, while the old blamed lack of discipline. A Turkish journalist, Falih Rifki Atay, wrote in his memoirs that he was determined tell the truth. The story he told was different to the reports he had written at the time. ‘Were those responsible for the fire really the Armenian arsonists, as we were told in those days,’ he asked? Quoting from his contemporaneous notes, he asked ‘why were we burning down Izmir’, just as they burned all the Armenian districts in Anatolia during the deportations of 1915? He was not alone in blaming Nurettin Pasha, the nationalist city governor appointed by Kemal, who he described as ‘a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic and rabble-rouser’.

There is something especially repugnant and unworthy about blaming the enormous tragedy visited upon the Christians of Smyrna, the arson, the theft, the mass rape, the wholesale slaughter, on the victims themselves. Kemal was present in the city. His callousness was revealed by his statement at a celebratory dinner while the city burned, ‘Yes, let it burn! Let it crash down! We can replace everything.’ To what extent Turkish soldiers and irregulars acted under orders and to what extent they ran amok, they were under his command; they and their actions were his responsibility. Not a national hero; a war criminal, plain and simple.

A new city has been built on the ruins of burned Smyrna. The bustling Turkish quarter, with its bazaar, its mosques, its cafes and kebab houses, is still there. It escaped the blaze, surely not coincidentally. Beyond the old Muslim quarter, a synagogue stands behind a high wall topped by a still higher wire mesh fence, testament to the once flourishing Jewish community. Nearby, the Asansor, a high lift, still takes people up the steep cliff face to the town above. It was built by a Jewish philanthropist at the beginning of the 20th century.

Where the Armenian quarter once stood, there is now a large city park. It does not blot out the memory of the horrors perpetrated there. Walking in Izmir, I found myself thinking of Lady Macbeth: ‘out, damned spot’. Ataturk had built a new city, but he had not managed to wash away the blood on his hands.

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An old street, Izmir

Some other remnants survived. Although the long boulevards running parallel with the Cordon are now largely modern, soulless, a few buildings from before the fire remain, and some of the shady narrow streets running inland from the coast are intact, retaining an echo of the charm of old Smyrna. Here and there, grand buildings survive. Little clusters of old buildings stand out on the Cordon, one of which was occupied by Ataturk during his stays in Izmir, which now houses a museum. Another, now the Greek consulate, defiantly flies the Greek flag. The Roman Catholic church of St. John Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna martyred in AD 167, survives. Like many Christian churches in Turkey, it sits behind high walls. Unfortunately, the church only grants visits to groups. I was turned away by an unfriendly voice on the entry phone. The 19th century Anglican Church in Alsancak, the former Frankish quarter, also survived. It contains a plaque honouring the members of Smyrna’s British community who gave their lives in the First World War, fighting on the opposing side to Turkey.

Old photographs of pre-1922 Smyrna show a bustling city, the Cordon packed with people, horses and carts, produce being loaded on to the ships that crowded along the length of the quay. Modern Izmir is a sad place by comparison. The Cordon is a wide open space, a featureless park dotted with young hand-holding lovers. When I visited, there was no shipping along the quay, just a few grey warships further out in the bay. The one similarity is the fishermen casting their rods along the quay, both then and now. With few exceptions, the buildings along the Cordon are modern blocks. There are cafes, but none of them match up to the elegance, the style of old Smyrna. When Kemal arrived in Smyrna, before the fire destroyed it, he drank a raki at the Hotel Kraemer. Now an equestrian statue of Kemal stands where the famous hotel once stood. On its plinth is a plaque quoting Kemal’s famous words to his troops as they set out on their advance towards Smyrna: ‘Soldiers! Your first goal is the Mediterranean.’ The statue looks forlorn and alone, with major roads passing around it on all sides. Is this ugly, modern Izmir what they fought for?

I had a similar feeling when I visited the Konak, the seat of government. In front of it stands the clock tower, built in 1901, that has become a symbol of Izmir. Old photos show the clock at the centre of a busy, attractive square. No more. The area in front of the Konak has been cleared. The clock looks lost in a large empty space. So does the attractive little old mosque nearby, with its beautiful, colourful tiles, lost among concrete and hideousness. Much like Thessaloniki, having been destroyed by fire, Izmir fell victim to the worst of 20th century town planning and architecture. Following the fire, The Times wrote that ‘one of the richest cities in the Levant is like a skeleton’. Izmir was rebuilt. But the spirit of the marvellous, rich, diverse city that was Smyrna was destroyed forever.

Xanthi, a beautiful town in western Thrace
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Continuing eastwards from Kavala, I reached Xanthi, in western Thrace. Xanthi has a well preserved, beautiful old town. Many of its old buildings have been sensitively renovated. Ottoman-style houses, with their first floors built out over the narrow streets, as if reaching out to touch each other, are interspersed with grand mansions more in a European style, built by rich 19th century merchants. Streets lead into little tree-shaded squares with stylish cafés. Xanthi has a bohemian atmosphere. Sculptures, fashioned out of metal, are dotted around the old town.

The region of Xanthi was known for the quality of its tobacco, and the city’s mansions were built by the mainly Greek merchants who prospered from it. Especially impressive is the house of Vasilios Kougioumtzoglou, built in 1877, with its colourful, decorated exterior. The Kougioumtzoglou family also owned another large house on the same street, which today houses Xanthi’s folklore museum. Inside, the visitor can walk through rooms depicting the life of a period Greek home of the 19th century. The family also owned a house in Plovdiv (Philippoupolis in Greek), in present-day Bulgaria, indicating the one-time interconnectedness of the region.

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Views of the Kougioumtzoglou mansion, Xanthi

Xanthi was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, when it was taken by Bulgaria during the first Balkan War. Together with the rest of western Thrace, it became part of Greece after the First World War, and, apart from a period back under Bulgarian rule during World War II, it has remained with Greece since then. More than anywhere else I have been, in Xanthi I could see vestiges of the prosperity and accomplishment of the Ottoman Greeks. The once great cosmopolitan cities of the eastern Mediterranean, Smyrna, Salonika, Alexandria, have been devastated by the tragic events of the 20th century, destructive fires and war, which have left only traces of their past glory. But, on a smaller scale, Xanthi has been preserved, and some flavour of that past era can be sensed today, walking among the mansions of this once flourishing town.

The Ottoman Greeks enjoyed levels of prosperity and development far beyond those of the independent Greek state in the 19th century. Greek Levantine merchants and financiers spread their wealth and power around Europe. Their educational establishments and cultural achievements were widely admired. In the fine little town of Xanthi this has left an echo which has largely been lost in most of the rest of the region.


The Muslim quarter, Xanthi

Xanthi also offers a reminder of the cosmopolitanism of so many eastern-Mediterranean towns before the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of the narrow nation state. When Greece and the newly established Turkish republic agreed, by the Treaty of Lausanne, on the population exchange which in 1923 ended centuries of co-existence between Greeks and Turks, two exceptions were made. Muslims (Bulgarian speaking Pomak and Romany Muslims as well as Turks) would be allowed to remain in Greek western Thrace, and Greeks could remain in Istanbul. Most of the Istanbul Greeks were driven out in the 1950s, leaving only a tiny remnant today. But the Turks of western Thrace are still there.

Life has not always been easy for them. At the beginning of the 20th century, Muslims formed a significant majority in Xanthi, but, following the settlement of Greek migrants from Turkish eastern Thrace and Anatolia, and outward migration by local Turks, they are now very much a minority. Events outside Greece have sometimes had negative repercussions for them. Following the 1955 pogroms against Istanbul Greeks, Greece retaliated by introducing a law depriving Muslims who left Greece of their citizenship. And in response to the declaration of independence by Turkish north Cyprus in 1983, the Greek government adopted a policy of referring to ‘Greek Muslims’, no longer recognising a Turkish minority. Greek courts outlawed the term ‘Turkish’ in reference to the community in western Thrace.

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The Achrian Mosque, Xanthi

Such treatment no doubt made Turks in western Thrace feel less than welcome, and there were protests. But they clung on. And now, as far as can be seen, they rub along with their Greek neighbours, mush as they have for centuries. Walking around Xanthi, women in headscarves go about their business. At one end of the old town, climbing up the hill, the old Muslim quarter remains just that. At the top of the hill, the Achrian Mosque, built after 1850, has notices outside in Greek, English and Turkish. People greet each with ‘as-salaam alaikum’, and chat away in Turkish. Children kicking a ball around shout to one another in Turkish.

I liked Xanthi, a town that has preserved its heritage, architectural and communal. Here, unlike almost anywhere else in either Greece or Turkey, the history of co-existence between Greeks and Turks has been preserved, and it seems to work.

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