Neo-Ottoman cruise

From Mersin to Tripoli and back

This article is part of the series Mediterranean routes

In 2010, with great fanfare, Turkey inaugurated a ferry route between Mersin and Lebanon’s Tripoli, a first between the two countries. It was hailed as an important milestone in Turkey’s strategy of renewed engagement with former Ottoman territories. The latter failed but the ferry line managed to survive. 

On a sweaty August day in 2014, Turkish visual artist Serkan Taycan decided to travel to Lebanon. Taycan, who documents urban transformation and land and sea routes in his work, was disillusioned with the outcome of the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests in Istanbul, where he took part in the cultural worker-led critical political forum Turuncu Çadır (Orange Tent), only to witness more government repression and censorship in Gezi’s aftermath. Demoralised and anxious, he lacked motivation and “had to escape for a bit”. A friend suggested Beirut. “Even for a short time, I wanted to leave Turkey. And at the time, artistic ties between Turkey and Lebanon were strong,” Taycan said over the phone. 

Poring over flight schedules (there were a handful of flights each day), Taycan decided on a lengthier, more adventurous, Mediterranean route. “My friend urged me to check out this ferry that goes between Tripoli and Turkey’s Taşucu port in Mersin.” Google quickly confirmed its existence. What could beat sailing to Lebanon in the shimmering heat?

“Even for a short time, I wanted to leave Turkey. And at the time, artistic ties between Turkey and Lebanon were strong.”

Taycan was born in 1978 in the southeastern Turkish city of Antep. Like numerous Antep locals, his family owned a summer house in Iskenderun, in the Hatay Province, bordering Syria on two sides and the Mediterranean on a third, and Taycan planned to vacation there before taking the ferry. On board his flight to Hatay from Istanbul, he noticed that something like eighty percent of the passengers seemed to be Syrian. Outside the airport upon arrival, cabbies hawked: “Damascus, Aleppo! Damascus, Aleppo!” 

From Hatay, one needs a six-hour bus ride to reach the ferry in Taşucu. The town’s discreet and small harbour opened in the late 1990s and lies surrounded by beaches, medium-size hotels and outdoor restaurants catering for middle-class Turkish vacationers. The port itself is geared mainly to cargo, and serves more than 150 ships each year. When built, it was planned to increase trade and travel between Northern Cyprus and Turkey. When Taycan arrived at the harbour, without having purchased a ticket beforehand, he suspected a scam, because he hadn’t heard about the boat company before. Maybe, he thought, there was actually no ferry. Yet there it was, the big vessel, waiting under the sun, at first glance almost identical to the IDO seabus ferries he rode several times a week to cross Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. 

There it was, the big vessel, waiting under the sun.

The inauguration 

The Taşucu-Tripoli ferry route was announced to much fanfare during a reception in 2010. On a boat named Azzurra, anchored in the port of Tripoli, İnan Özyıldız, Turkey’s ambassador in Beirut, addressed an audience that included officials from the Lebanese Ministry of Public Works and Transport. “Our prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri have supported us strongly in launching this route,” he beamed at the time. “We’re thrilled to witness this first voyage from Turkey to Lebanon.” The shipping magnate who operated the line, Fergün Shipping’s Fehim Küçük, detailed plans to have daily journeys in a few months, describing the route as a first between the two countries in modern times. 

Before traversing the far eastern parts of the Mediterranean, Azzurra had a curious history. Able to accommodate 700 passengers, seventy cars or twenty-five semi-trailers, and up to forty 20-foot containers, the ship was built in Germany. Her birth name Grenaa changed twice, first to Kalle in 1971, then to Azzurra (“Sky blue”) when the ferry began operating in the Adriatic Sea, with cabins, pullmans, gaming stations and restaurants onboard.

In 2010, Azzurra began serving the Taşucu-Tripoli route, sailing across the Mediterranean in ten hours. Once in Tripoli, whoever wanted to continue to Beirut could board special buses. For passengers travelling the opposite way, special coupons would offer discounted prices at the shopping malls in the nearby city of Mersin. This endeavor, the shipping entrepreneur Küçük proclaimed during the inauguration, “would turn a new page in Turkey-Lebanon ties.”

“Strategic Depth” was a vision that expected tourism and trade between Turkey and former Ottoman territories to flourish in an imaginary “win-win” situation.

That same year, an ambitious international relations professor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, sat in the seat of Turkey’s Foreign Minister. Having pledged to raise his country’s clout by revitalising its Ottoman routes in the Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Caucasus, Davutoğlu demanded paying attention to cultures and territories Turks once governed, including Lebanon. He called this Stratejik Derinlik, “Strategic Depth,” a vision that expected tourism and trade between Turkey and former Ottoman territories to flourish in an imaginary “win-win” situation. The 2010 launch of the Taşucu-Tripoli route appeared to serve this vision. 

But the plans for a daily maritime connection between Turkey and Lebanon never materialised. Azzurra, not long after its Taşucu-Tripoli launching, quickly ceased to operate the route. During the Libyan civil war, Azzurra rescued more than 64,000 people fleeing the conflict. Robin des Bois’ Ship-Breaking 2013 bulletin reports that Azzurra was “detained in 2011 in Valletta (Malta)” and later “sold for demolition in Turkey.” Since then, another company, Med Star, with offices in both Turkey and Tripoli, operates the route with a fleet of five boats and a catamaran. 

Tripoli, a historical port 

Tripoli’s Greek name, Tripolis (adopted during the Hellenistic period), means the triple city. There are two Tripoli ports on the Mediterranean: the Libyan capital and Tripoli Al-Sham or Trablusşam (Tripoli of the Levant), where the Phoenicians, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and French all took administrative turns. Phoenician rulers set up Tripoli in 700 B.C. as their capital. Between 1102 and 1109, under the rule of Raymond of Saint Gilles, the Crusaders laid siege to Tripoli in the aftermath of their first crusade and named it “The County of Tripoli,” the fourth crusader state. They went on to control Tripoli for almost two centuries. “Under the Crusaders, Tripoli was, as before, a busy port with a heterogeneous population including western Europeans, Greeks, Armenians, Maronites, Nestorians, Jews and even Muslims,” wrote John Gulick in his 1967 book Tripoli: A Modern Arab City. At the time of the Crusaders’ rule, Tripoli produced sugar canes, oranges and lemons. The city was already a centre for silk weaving, an industry that would come to flourish for centuries in the region. 

The Egyptian encyclopedist and mathematician Al-Qalqashandi, praised Tripoli’s port and beautiful orchards.

In 1289, the Mamluks from Egypt managed to conquer Tripoli, and set out to raze Tripoli’s portal quarters, Mina, destroying the city’s Crusader and Fatimid fortifications. Although they did not “block up Tripoli’s harbor, as they did with many other Levantine ports for fear of a return of the Europeans,” writes Gulick, “their initial interest in the port seems to have been mainly defensive.” 

By the late fourteenth century, that picture changed. One travel writer, the Egyptian encyclopedist and mathematician Al-Qalqashandi, praised Tripoli’s port and beautiful orchards. By the 1390s, Tripoli was a leading exporter of powdered sugar and candy to Europe. 

Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta and Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi are the city’s perhaps most celebrated visitors. Ibn Battuta, arriving in 1355, commented on “Tripoli’s rich land and sea resources.” Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682), meticulous yet prone to exaggeration, described his joy at entering the city from its Balıklı Ayazma Gate, passing an ancient bridge, and reaching the Kum Gate. The city could be traversed, he calculated, in 3,000 steps. The beach between the town and the port was “thriving with merry vineyards and orchards.” Tripoli, he wrote, was a “prosperous city decorated from one end to the other with lemon, bitter orange, pomegranate, and date trees” (and had loaves of bread tasting like “white roses”). Its large port which, again calculated in strides, lay “a thousand steps away” was apparently “quite prosperous during the time of the infidels” and hosted three thousand ships. It was “open to western, northern, and northeasterly winds,” so ships could only anchor there if they “stabilized themselves by the power of steel.” 

Silk weaving had become a key industry in Tripoli, and the city’s merchants sold their silk in exchange for sugar, cloth and coffee.

Ottomans ruled the Tripoli that Çelebi saw. They had taken the city in 1516, during Sultan Selim’s Egypt campaign, and would remain its rulers for 402 years. Over the sixteenth century, Tripoli’s population was between 6,000 and 10,000 people, and the port brought Ottomans a large tax revenue. In Tripoli, Ottomans built 360 mosques and schools. Sabun Han, Khan Al Saboun in Arabic, which houses soap-making workshops, was built by Hürrem Sultan, the chief consort and wife of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. (In recent years, Ankara funded restorations of the city’s Hamidiye Clock Tower, Hamidi Mosque and Mewlawi Hospice.)

Under the Ottomans, trade routes developed in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1580, Murad III granted the British commercial rights of a number of sea routes which let British ships trade in Ottoman ports under their flags, and soon the British began to have consuls and open trade missions in Ottoman port cities. In 1583, they opened their first consulate in Tripoli. The Venetian embassy followed suit, moving from Damascus to Tripoli in the sixteenth century. The Levant Company, set up in 1581 to organise British trade in Ottoman territories, became a leading player in the eastern Mediterranean. Maritime exchanges between the Ottomans and their Lebanese territories included exports of sponges, soap and tobacco. By now, silk weaving had become a key industry in Tripoli, and the city’s merchants sold their silk in exchange for sugar, cloth and coffee.

When steamship routes launched in the 1830s, making it significantly cheaper to transport goods, Beirut became the leading stop between Smyrna in the Aegean sea and Alexandria, leaving other ports out of this lucrative network. Despite this challenge, Tripoli remained active. In 1910, writes Gulick, “661 steamers and 1944 sailing ships had entered and cleared the port.” After the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed in 1916, the Ottomans withdrew from Tripoli. For its former colonial overlords, the city would now become a source of imperial nostalgia. 

For its former colonial overlords, Tripoli would now become a source of imperial nostalgia. 

The artistic route

Fast forward to today. Taycan is not the only Turkish artist to have taken the Levantine route. Like him, numerous culture workers crossed the Mediterranean during the past decade or two; some to wander around, others to attend residencies and other professional events. Vasıf Kortun, the founder of Istanbul’s artistic research institute SALT, used to visit Lebanon each year. His interest began in the early 1990s. “The Bosnia War brought to my mind the importance of ties between the Middle East, Turkey and the southeastern Mediterranean – and of course, their ties to Ottoman geography,” he told me. Kortun would then go on to establish an artistic pipeline between Turkey and Lebanon that artists, curators and critics use to this day.

One early sign of Turkish artistic interest in Lebanon was an exhibition in Istanbul by Walid Raad in the mid-1990s. “Back then, nobody in Turkey talked about the Middle East,” Kortun said. The interest grew slowly: in 2002, a two-day conference on the southeastern Mediterranean was held in Istanbul with speakers from Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. Lebanese curator and founder of Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan, Christine Tohmé, was one of the invitees; later, she joined forces with Kortun and William Wells, founder of Cairo’s now closed Townhouse Gallery, to form an informal trio focusing their work on, as Kortun put it, “how to think of the Middle East and the Balkans together.”

“Back then, nobody in Turkey talked about the Middle East.”

In 2001, Kortun’s Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Centre opened on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue. “This is where we laid the train tracks and set up stations for the Turkey-Lebanon artistic route,” he said. “The rest is wagons moving on these rails. If we hadn’t paved this path, Lebanon wouldn’t be on Turkey’s horizon.” But Kortun rejects the idea that this connection – artistic residencies and exchange programs between the two countries – grew via political agendas, especially those like Davutoğlu’s vision of a touristic and commercial renaissance between Turks and Lebanese, through his “Strategic Depth”. “While politicians’ and our own visions might have overlapped in some places, there were other factors behind the opening of a Turkey-Lebanon artistic route.”

“It not only failed to integrate Turkey with the region, but also raised new barriers between trade, travel and diplomatic ties between Turkey and all of its Levantine and Middle Eastern neighbours.”

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, questions Davutoğlu’s foreign policy strategy of the early 2010s. “The greatest irony is that it had the opposite effect. It not only failed to integrate Turkey with the region, but also raised new barriers between trade, travel and diplomatic ties between Turkey and all of its Levantine and Middle Eastern neighbours, from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.” Çağaptay thinks that Turkish hubris caused this. “In 2010, Turkey was doing well economically, experiencing an unprecedented, almost decade-long, era of growth which installed in the minds of Davutoğlu and other policy members a can-do attitude.” The other part, he said, was paternalistic. “The idea of Ottomans returning to the Middle East to tell everyone what to do, and that everyone should just listen to them, directed their thinking.” But this idea, Çağaptay said, was “naive and ill-executed.”

Crossing from Taşucu to Tripoli

Back in August 2014, Taycan had boarded one of the Med Star ferries in Taşucu. But even after hours had passed, the vessel had still not left the port. Taycan readied to complain. His protests would come to nothing. The ferry, scheduled to leave Turkey in the late morning, finally departed around 4 p.m.. Taycan stretched his legs once on deck. While watching the view, he briefly chatted with a young Syrian couple and then dozed off. 

In 2017, a Lebanese deckhand who wanted to become a captain on a ferry operating on this route told the American journal Globalpost that among the passengers going from Turkey to Tripoli, “most of them are Syrian, because of the war in their country.” The ferry, he said, was meant to “handle only trucks and cars but had been modified to allow 200-250 passengers.”

If someone searches for the Tripoli-Turkey journey on Google, the main hit will be someone asking if there’s still a ferry operating the line – and, if yes, what is the timetable.

It took all night for the ferry to cross the Mediterranean and finally reach Tripoli around 2 a.m.. Once in the port, an officer at the passport control diligently checked each passenger’s documents. Taycan was at the end of the queue. When he was let into Tripoli, the city was still asleep. No cabs, no busses, no lights. For a brief moment, he wondered about what to do. Then, fortune came to his rescue. The couple he had met on board were waiting for him at the port exit. The woman told Taycan that they would help him out. “We’ve got friends who will bring us to central Tripoli.” Taycan followed them inside an aged Mercedes where the couple offered him lahmajeen a meat pie popular in Armenia, Turkey and the Levant asking whether he knew what it was and then helped him to find a cab to Beirut.

Then, fortune came to his rescue.

If someone searches for the Tripoli-Turkey journey on Google, the main hit will be someone asking if there’s still a ferry operating the line – and, if yes, what is the timetable. “Weather allowing,” Med Star vessels sail between Taşucu and Tripoli on Tuesday and Fridays and from Tripoli to Taşucu each Monday and Thursday. Most passengers on these ferries are currently truck drivers on their way to Syria, Iraq or parts of Turkey. Many know each other, after regularly meeting on deck when crossing with their trucks. Most drivers sleep in their trucks and have dinner in the onboard eatery serving stews and rice. Wooden tables are set up over which games of backgammon are played and cigarettes smoked.

Eleven years after Azzurra’s launch, Turkey’s political focus has once again shifted to its traditional areas of influence: Northern Cyprus, Azerbaijan and other Turkic autocracies in the former Soviet Union. As Davutoğlu morphed into a rivalry over leadership with Turkey’s current strongman Erdoğan, his “Strategic Depth” vision evaporated. Replacing it is something far more aggressive: Mavi Vatan or “The Blue Homeland”, an irredentist and expansionist vision first coined in 2006 by Cem Gürdeniz who served as head of the Plans and Policy Division in the Turkish Naval Forces. Later, Cihat Yaycı, a former chief of staff of the Turkish Navy Commander, developed the same concept in his 2010 book on marine law. The Mavi Vatan doctrine aims to annex the maximum amount of sea territory for Turkey in the Mediterranean, and is a metonym of Erdoğan’s nationalist turn.

“It is a reaction to the failures of Strategic Depth,” says Çağaptay. “Strategic Depth was supposed to make Turkey the leading nation in the eastern Mediterranean. But the opposite occurred. Turkey became more isolated than ever before. There was never a moment in history since the fall of the Ottoman Empire when Turkey had fewer friends or allies in the Middle East than today.” Since 2020, Turkey’s pursuit of contested oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean has earned the ire of Greece who deployed warships in the area, with the backing of another foe of Turkey, France.  

On deck, Taycan observed Tripoli from a meditative remove, watching its old castle and half-finished fairground complex built by Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer.

Return to Istanbul

After spending a week with his friend in Beirut, Taycan travelled to Tripoli to embark on his return trip. As he boarded the ferry, the joys of travelling – of wandering from place to place – came upon him. 

Back in Istanbul he had been working on a project called İki Deniz Arası, “Between Two Seas”, an attempt to visualise the city’s urban development through a 60 kilometres walking trail on Istanbul’s outskirts. The four day hike, which people were invited to take, began on the Black Sea coast north of the city and concluded at the southern shores of the Marmara Sea. This time, Taycan was not crossing a piece of land connecting two seas, but a sea connecting two pieces of land.  

On deck, Taycan observed Tripoli from a meditative remove, watching its old castle and half-finished fairground complex built by Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer in 1963 disappear on the horizon. His country’s lofty geopolitical aims, articulated during the launch of the ferry route in 2010, might have vanished. But the link between Turkey and Lebanon, manifested by travellers, artists and the Taşucu-Tripoli boat, still remains. 

***

All illustrations for the Mediterranean Routes series were produced by Atelier Glibett in Tunis. 

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union within the framework of the regional program Med Dialogue for Rights and Equality. All content is the sole responsibility of Mashallah News and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. The Our Mediterranean project (#ourmediterranean on social media) has four partners: Maydan, Civitas Institute, Réseau Euromed France and Mashallah News.

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