“I am,” I replied, gratified to hear the enthusiasm in the kids’ voices. We were in a taxi speeding away from Ataturk International Airport and in towards Taksim Square.
“I am. I am.”
Could these old walls really be those built for Emperor Justinian back in the 4th Century?
Surely too much of them have survived.
“I’m looking, I’m looking!”
Shouldn’t they be all marble? Interpolated arrays of overlapping terracotta bricks and larger off-white ones made up the wall we were coasting by. Pretty. Picturesque. Quaint, almost. For how many kms could they maintain the pattern?
“Mum, you’re NOT looking!”
“Of course I am! It’s incredible.”
On which section did the Virgin Mary appear? Did she really help the Constantinopolitans defend their city here? The image of her throwing stones. . .
“Here! Look HERE!”
“See! I bet you’ve never seen that before!” They weren’t looking at the Walls. They weren’t even looking out of the taxi window, but at it. Then at the door. “Look!” There was a handle with a knob on the end of it. It was protruding from behind the panel. Behind the panel there must have been some sort of winch because when they turned the handle one way, the window wound up. In the opposite direction, it came down again. Wasn’t it amazing? No buttons. No batteries. No electronic impulse! Manually operated car door windows!
Verfremdungseffekt! (Kind of.This is a blog about theatre afterall!) Istanbul was going to be full of such, “defamiliarising” or more precisely, refamiliarizing, curious instances!
The next one came when the kids spotted their first ever telephone box. They were so excited to see a real, live tardis! When my husband pointed out an operational police, phone-help box the subtlety was lost on them. Then a warp in the space-time continuum occurred on the Bosphorus. We boarded the Manly ferry! If you are of a certain age and had made a Sydney Harbour crossing way back when those old green ferries unzipped their way through Port Jackson then you may remember them. I don’t remember them being replaced but when my husband pointed it out, I felt the loss of them from our harbour to the Maramara Sea. But adventure was ahead as we cruised to the largest of the Prince’s Islands. We were off to Buyukada. Once the home to three exiled Byzantine Empresses, Irene, Zoe and Anna Dalassena, it is now a car-free, tourist destination offering beaches, history, bicycles and phaeton rides. The kids enjoyed the phaeton ride and the swim but if there were any traces of its Byzantine history they were well hidden and off the island’s horse-clapped circuit..
Irene, Zoe and Anna weren’t the principal Byzantine princesses I wanted to find in Istanbul. No, I wanted Theodora. Not Theodora the Empress, but Theodora the actress, the dancer, the mime, who captivated the heart of the Emperor. I wanted to see the Hippodrome. I wanted to imagine her in its midst. I wanted to place myself on the platform where she moved. Did she have her own stage? Was she raised on a podium for all to see and envy? Or did she run in and out of the hippodrome floor like a circus performer? What was it about the way she moved that set her apart from the other performers?
I had to find the Hippodrome. It wasn’t as easy as it would seem. It is featured in a number of tourist brochures but with no accompanying photographs. It is marked in three different tourist maps that I picked up – but in three slightly different places. It was an ancient circus, serving the equivalent purpose of the Colusseum in Rome. It was big, It’s archaeological remnants could be scattered all around Sultanahmet, I reasoned. With all three tourist maps on hand we set off from Hagia Sophia and walked south-west towards the Blue Mosque asking questions of the cruise hawkers who kept approaching us – Would we like to cruise on the Bosphorus? No. We would like to find the Hippodrome. Could they show us? Over there, they would point in a offhand, non-descript manner. So we walked in that general direction. The children’s playgroud? The street markets? We asked a security guard on duty at the street markets. Here, he indicated. No, we don’t want to go shopping. We want to see the Hippodrome we tried to relate. Here, he indicated again, but this time gesturing the area around us and through and behind the street market. We were standing in the Hippodrome, or more correctly where the Hippodrome once stood. All that remains are three of the columns that the chariots raced around.They wouldn’t reveal the secrets of Theodora’s dance. Nor could the vendors in the markets, nor the children in the playground nor was it revealed in the prayers over the loudspeaker reverberating through Sultanahmet. If only those figures around the base of the Theoosius Column could talk!
The base of Theodosius Column or Obelisk of Thutmose III, dating to c 1490 BCE, According to one tourist brochure it was taken from its original site in Egypt and left outside the Walls of Conctantinople until Emperor Theodosius had it erected in the Hippodrome in the 4th Century CE.
Walls of Constatinople
Photo credit: brewbooks / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)