Byzantine Walls, Ottoman Dungeons, Genoese Towers, and a Little-Known Firewall: Turkey’s Ban on WordPress and HakPakSak
Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 5, 2007
Above: An unrestored section of the great Byzantine defensive walls of Istanbul.
One of the pleasures of traveling by night train from the Balkans to Istanbul is the wonder of approaching this 1,700 year-old metropolis at dawn. The Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Romanian sleeping carriages that make up the Istanbul-bound Balkan Express rattle alongside the Sea of Marmara and then suddenly enter the historic core of the city through a gap in the Istanbul’s famed Byzantine-era walls not far from Yedikule, the Byzantine and Turkish tower enclosure that during Ottoman times had served as a quarantine for diplomatic missions arriving in the Ottoman capital from the West. The train continues around the edge of Istanbul’s historic peninsula past fragments of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls, rickety 19-th century wooden dwellings, and the faceless concrete buildings that make up much of the city’s urban landscape. Finally, after the rounding the promontory below the Topkapi Palace, the train suddenly pulls in to its final terminus, the late-19th-century Moorish-Revival style railway station at Sirkeci.
The Great Walls of Istanbul
I spent this most of this past October in Istanbul. Before getting down to work, I devoted the first days of my stay to revisiting the city’s historic walls. The day of my arrival I took advantage of Sunday stillness to duck in and out of empty parking lots and clamber through deserted demolition sites in the usually crowded and hectic quarter of Galata in search of remaining lengths of the defensive walls of this one-time Genoese commercial settlement. Later that day, from the deck of a boat cruising the Golden Horn, I watched the sun set behind restored sections of Istanbul’s great Byzantine lands walls, from their water-side anchor at Ayvansaray upward towards the heights of the city near the Edirne Gate, Istanbul’s long-ago portal for armies and caravans leaving for the Balkans and Central Europe. The next day, with friends Grigor Boykov and Mariya Kiprovska (Ottomanist scholars presently resident at the Koς Institute in Istanbul) I traversed the full length of the Byzantine walls from the Marmara all the way back to the Golden Horn. Our walk took us from Yedikule past walled-in Greek and Armenian churches and former dervish Tekkes that dot what until very recently had been the near-rural backwaters of the city (indeed neither Byzantine Constantinople nor Ottoman Istanbul , even at their apogees, had ever grown to totally fill the city limits charted by the great land walls). On our way, we passed the centuries-old Roma (Gypsy) quarter at Sulukule, now threatened by planned urban redevelopment, the delicate filigree-like walls of the great Ottoman architect Sinan’s Mihrimah mosque, severely damaged in the earthquake of 1999, and the restored remains of the Tekfursaray, the Byzantine palace of Porphyrogenitus. In all, it took us only a little over three hours to stroll the full 6 kilometer length of the walls. A decade ago, the very same walk had taken me much longer. These last years, roadways have been cleared adjacent to restored sections the walls, channeling into near-straight lines what was once a zig-zagging route that in places challenged even the best map readers. The clearing of streets, neighborhoods, and shanty-towns abutting the walls marks a new axis of touristic development and gentrification in what throughout Byzantine and Ottoman times had been the barely-settled edge of the city’s historic peninsula. The restoration of the walls themselves has transformed a chain of crumbling but real ruins into a bright but artificial-looking anchor for future redevelopment.
Turkey’s Ham-Fisted Firewall
Alas, historic town walls were not the only walls I encountered on the first days of my latest stay in Istanbul. I also came up against a new, intangible, and far-less-well-known wall that has the potential of isolating the people of Turkey from contact, information exchange, and commercial transactions with the rest of the world. The government of Turkey, it appears, has chosen to join the ranks of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan in deploying and setting to work a firewall capable of filtering-out and blocking any and all internet content deemed objectionable by civil authorities. Earlier this year, Turkey had blocked access to YouTube and, since this summer has also blocked all content hosted by WordPress.Com, including as many as 1.5 million weblog sites, this very site amongst them. Despite its scope and potential impact, the face of Turkey’s great firewall manifests itself quite modestly. When I attempted to log-on to this site from Istanbul, I was greeted with a white screen containing a simple red-headlined paragraph stating in Turkish and English that the site is banned by order of an injunction issued by the district court of Fatih, Istanbul’s most markedly religious and conservative quarter. The exact wording: “Site Closed: Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance.” The full story of how this came about can be read in this article — Shooting the Messenger — on the weblog of the Guardian (my thanks to Max Hartmuth for the reference). The summary version: Harun Yahya, a Turkish full-time “creationist” and anti-Zionist, brought suit against one of his competitors and detractors who allegedly was using a number of WordPress-hosted weblogs to libel him. In ham-fisted fashion, the Fatih court granted Harun Yahya’s attorney’s an injunction for the blocking of not only the offending blogs but of every other site whose URL identifies it as being hosted by WordPress. The injunction was implemented in equally ham-fisted fashion by the appropriate communications authorities. Anyone in Turkey who wants to read WordPress press can do so via a proxy server (kproxy.com, for example, or, for those who are gadgetry-minded and capable of reading fine print, Opera’s website-based simulator of its OperaMini mobile phone-browser). My attempts to post to this site, however, even via proxies, were unsuccessful.
Turkey’s Open-Armed Friends
Those of us who, like this writer, are friends of Turkey and who support the country on a number of crucial historical and political issues, including Turkey’s bid for EU membership, are put in an odd position by the WordPress ban. Although life will go on just fine without access to a million or so weblogs, the precedent of internet censorship and blockage of internet communication on this scale should be extremely disturbing for foreigners and Turks alike. It is also symptomatic of Turkey’s unfortunate propensity to quash debates and controversies when it would be better simply to let them aired. As a number of the military and diplomatic events that confronted Turkey in October seem to demonstrate, pushing debates and arguments into the future only causes them to fester. More on this in a subsequent entry.
Footnote: Strange Bedfellows
An interesting side-issue raised by the writer of the Shoot the Messenger posting on the Guardian website is the possible link between fundementalist Protestant “creationists” is the US and their Muslim fellow-“creationists” in Turkey. The US fundamentalist Christian right is quick to rant about imagined “culture wars” and so-called “Islamofascism” when it suits them but are all-too-willing to lay down with the “enemy” when doing so advances their own narrow interpretation of revealed religion and the subjugation of liberal education and free inquiry to enforced adherence to arbitrarily defined dogma.
Below left: An Ottoman tower at Yedikule at the Sea of Marmara end of Istanbul’s great defensive walls. Center: The interior of the tower, a one time detention-place for foreign envoys. Right: The 14th-century Galata tower, emblematic of the eponymous medieval Genoese trading colony, 19th-century Jewish neighborhood, and present-day center of gentrification.
Digital snapshots copyright Stephen Lewis, 2007.