Napoleon Bonapart once said that if only one state existed on earth, Istanbul would be its capital. It’s not an unreasonable claim – this place has served as the capital of four different empires. That history has given the place more than its fair share of fascinating architecture.
One building in Istanbul is particularly interesting from a musical point of view. The Yedikule Hisan (the Fort of Seven Towers) is a massive fortress at the southern end of what remains of Constantinople’s walls.
Founded by Greek colonists led by Byzas, Byzantium replaced Rome as the most important city in the ancient world. The first Christian emporer of Rome, Constantine, moved here, founded the basis for the Byzantine Empire and renamed the city after himself. Several Crusades and many sieges later, it served the Ottomans as the capital of their empire from 1453 right up until 1922 when the famous Ataturk (more about him later, I should think…) moved the capital of the Turkish state to Ankara. It has been fought over innumerable times – like Acre or Alexandria, everyone from Greeks and Romans to Crusaders to the British has tried to conquer it.
I’ve been interested in the Yedikule ever since I discovered Ithikon Akmeoataton on Youtube. They are a Greek band who play new versions of old Greek folk songs, mixing in Armenian and Turkish folk as well as more modern influences.
“Yedikule” is one of their best songs. It’s a prisoners’ folk song named after the Yedikule Hisan. After Sultan Mehmet II captured Constantinople, the fortress became a treasury, archive and a notorious prison. The song is about prison and arghile. It runs:
The news flew to the goverment, I was in prison for five years
Yedikule is worse than all the other prisons
My argileh has smoke on it, ah I love it, ah! ah!
Istanbul is beautiful but its owners are very quick-tempered.
The Greek version, to the same tune, talks instead about a famous prison in Thessaloniki, but the rest is much the same:
5 years sentenced to prison in the in Genti Koyle
Because of the hard times I started smoking argileh
Puff it, sniff it, pick it up and light it up
Keep an eye for those stupid guards…
It is one of those songs that is claimed by two rival clans of nationalists – in this case, Turks and Greeks. The comments section on Youtube is full of pointless arguments about this kind of thing. (Have a look at some Armenian / Azeri songs). Who wrote it first? Nobody knows. Who cares?
So all respect to Ithikon Akmaeotaton for inviting a Turkish singer into the studio to record this wonderful duet in Turkish and Greek, a verse each. Now, I’m off to pack – meet me at the Yedikule tomorrow night. Enjoy!