It struck me once, thinking about C.S. Lewis’ fantasy children’s books, that the Chronicles of Narnia is infused with Turkishness. As a fan of these terribly English stories, I was intrigued to see how far down it went. And what drew Lewis to Turkey? I’m going to set out a few thoughts.

First off, a survey. As you know, Aslan is the Turkish word for lion. The very name of the kings Caspian inflects the region of Central Asia, from which the Turkic peoples migrated. The land of Calormen, rowdy neighbour of Narnia, smells strongly of kebabs and coffee. And of course, there is the Turkish Delight that Edmund catastrophically accepts from the White Witch.

Shasta, Bree and the noble girl Aravis, the trio at the centre of A Horse and His Boy, are Calormene, as is Emeth in The Last Battle. The Calormenes, with their turbans, scimitars, pointy shoes and and Crescent currency owe much not only to Ottoman, but also Arab, Mughal and Persian history. So too do the polytheistic religion centred around Tash (another Turkish word: stone); the lavish decadence of the capital Tashbaan; the Calormene concern for honour and power; their love of poetry and story-telling; and the arranged marriages of the Tarkaans, itself a Turkish term for nobleman.

Father Christmas

It would be superficially fitting to add to this list Santa Claus, since Santa’s derivant St Nicholas originated in Myra in, you guessed it, modern-day Turkey -the area known to history as Asia Minor. But in Narnia it’s not Santa; it’s Father Christmas. They were originally two different gift-giving characters with different origins. St Nick (Sinterklass in Dutch) was only merged with the figure of Father Christmas in Victorian times.

The Britishman Lewis unambiguously preferred Father Christmas, a jolly personification of Christmas who appeared in Ben Jonson in the 1600s and early on was called Sire Christemas or Lord Christmas. Father Christmas typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, and was reflected as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol, a great genial man in a green fur-lined coat, who takes Ebenezer Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace. How many Christmasses was that?

Lewis’ choice for his Chronicles was apt, as Father Christmas was a personification devised to support the ancient Christian festival against Puritan criticism. Father C. was in effect a protector of jollity and merriness against dour solemnity, a key theme of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He may be English, but his twin Santa is of Turkish extraction. I’m not going to say anything about celebrating Christmas and eating roast turkey, for fear of being lynched.

Where West and East meet

So why Turkey? It is one of the few countries with a strong claim to being truly Eurasian. (The others are Russia, Cyprus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.) Turkey contributes an Old World universalism, bridging as it does Europe and Asia, a cultural junction point between the influence of Greece, Rome, Russia, Arabia, Syria, Israel, Iran and Iraq. Turkey is bounded by the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Iranian plateau, the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea and Bulgaria. In this respect, Lewis was trying to embrace as much of the world as possible.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Istanbul is a historical joinder between East and West in its past as Constantinople, capital of the late Eastern Roman empire and Byzantium, centre of a millennium-long Asian Christian empire, the people whose famed domed architecture was used first for churches and adopted for mosques. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, commissioned in 532 on a site occupied by a church since 15 February 360 and built with stone from Egypt, Lebanon, the Bosporus and Syria, was the tallest cathedral in the world for a thousand years and an ambitious pioneer of pendentive dome technology.

Turkey was the heart of the Ottoman Empire that spanned three continents for 500 years. Anatolia was the site of one of the earliest Neolithic civilisations in the world. The Hittites, Assyrians, Alexander the Great and the Romans, all players in the Bible story at some stage, had a presence in Turkey in ages past. So too did the Mongols in the 1200s. Why was this history appealing to Lewis? It gave Narnia roots in Asia and broadened readers’ horizons from a blinkered “Christianity = western” mindset.

The land was also a medieval battleground for Christendom, with the Seljuq Turks invading in the 11th century and the First Crusade bringing French and Italians to avenge the beleaguered Byzantines. Was this Lewis laying down arms and seeking reconciliation?

Where myth meets history

The land of Turkey is replete with literary, mythological and historical links. This is where Troy was. Homer’s Iliad, the epic tale of Agamemnon and Achilles, Menelaus, Hector, Paris and Helen, is set here. Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, inspired by the poem, had Ilium built near the ruined site of Troy. (This was the Augustus who issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, bringing Joseph and a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem.) Homer’s other poem, the Odyssey, tells the tale of Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars, with the Trojan horse, the cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens and the whirlpool Charybdis. Lewis was drawing on a love for myth and the epic, realms in which he felt glimpses of divine truth could be found.

Bible lands

Turkey is also a key setting for much of the New Testament and early Church history.  Paul, who wrote a third of the New Testament, was born in Tarsus, nowadays a small town in southern Turkey. The Turkish cities of Ephesus and Colossae –both early Christian centres- were recipients of letters from Paul, as was the region of Galatia. Galatia, where Ankara is, was named after a Celtic people (Galata: Gauls) who were perhaps also the root of the name of Istanbul-based Galatasaray FC, Turkey’s best football club.

Antakya (Antioch), for a long time the second biggest city in both the Roman Empire and the world, was where followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Today the cave church of St Peter can still be seen in Antakya, in use by perhaps 40 or 50AD.

Travels

Luke, the Gentile doctor, probably wrote Acts somewhere in Turkey, and part of Paul’s travels recorded in Acts were through this area. Paul’s protege Timothy was born in Turkey. John took Mary, Jesus’ mum, to Ephesus at some stage. Philemon was a leader in the church at Colossae. When you put it all together, practically all the significant people in the New Testament stepped through Turkey at one time or another.

Lots of early church fathers were locals too. Three chaps with cool names- Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa- were from Cappadocia; Ignatius and John Crystostom were from Antioch; Maximus the Confessor- Byzantium; Polycarp and Irenaeus- Smyrna, now Izmir. The Councils of Ancyra (314AD) and Ephesus (431AD) met to clarify Christian belief and practice. In 325 the Nicene Creed was agreed here, affirming that there is one God and that in Jesus God became a man, died and came alive again. Turkey was at the centre of the map for the development of early Christianity.

All of the seven churches in Revelation –Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea -are in Turkey. Turkey is significant in the Old Testament too. Situated there is Mount Ararat, the 5,137m peak on which Noah’s ship came to rest after the flood in Genesis. These are not minor points of interest, but religion-defining influences. What was Lewis doing here?

Connecting

He was reconnecting with a region that was an early flowerbed of Christianity. He was acknowledging the historical Middle Eastern roots of his faith. This began as an unconsciously natural thing to do. He was reaching back to a people who had once known Jesus as Lord, with all that word entails, but had subsequently demoted him to something lesser. Lewis was on a peaceful march, not a Crusade, to recommend Jesus’ leadership to a country that had tried to put him in a box.

At the time Lewis was dreaming up Narnia, predominately Islamic Turkey was establishing itself as a secularising Republic, entering NATO in 1952. Twenty years before, Lewis had personally fought in the Great War in which the Ottoman Empire was on the other side. Turkey has the dignity of never having been governed by European colonial powers, except for a couple of years after 1918. It had been neutral throughout the Second World War and it would spend the Cold War as an ally of the West. Using Turkish influences meant Lewis could speak into the Middle East whilst side-stepping political controversy.

In letting his literary sub-creation be influenced by Turkish culture, Lewis was drawing into Narnia resonances from the realms of history, geopolitics, religion, Christianity, mythology and literature. He was anchoring Narnia into a soil more ancient, noble and literary than his particular European heritage. He sprinkled Turkishness into the names, food, people and culture of the Chronicles, and in doing so gave us the dishes we enjoy today.

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