That’s NOT Baklava!

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Traditional Greek Baklava – walnut and cinnamon, The Sweet Spot. Patisserie, Randwick

“That’s NOT Baklava!”

I don’t know who was more mortified – the bakery serving Sydney traditional Greek baklava since at least 1962, my mother-in-law who was the recipient of the, to-her-mind, transparently absurd suggestion, or me.

Non-plussed but armed with the fortitude that the costumer was always right even when they were wrong, the baker was very politely going to right her customer’s wrong.

“This is how baklava is made all over Greece.”

“But is not real Baklava. Real baklava is from Mytilene.”

“Of course Mytilene makes delicious baklava but isn’t it just local variation?”

“Hmpft…” My mother-in-law pointed to a box. “Has butter?”

The baker subtly tilted her head.

“Pft… Walnuts?”

Another tilt of the head.

“Pfffffft…That’s not Baklava!”

Authentic Turkish Baklava with Pistachio, Mastika Ice Creamery, Belmore

At a family gathering a close friend with a fine nose for flavour and a passion for postmodern cuisine brought over her latest culinary accomplishment – hazelnut and rose water baklava. Oops! I forgot to warn her not to offer said mother-in-law any.

“That’s NOT Baklava!” rang through my kitchen. Profuse apologies, red faces and awkward silence followed. Unfortunately the discomfort wasn’t memorable enough for the offense not to be repeated or me to issue warnings at the front door. The next time almost caused an international incident.

Armed with the only true baklava, my mother-in-law offered her signature dessert to another baklava aficionado.

“Baklava!!!! That’s NOT Baklava. Real baklava comes from Turkey, from the town of Baklava!”

“Not Turkey, Mytilene!!!@!@!!”

That was it, I had to hit Google. I had already enjoyed the light delight of Lebanese Baklava, or more correctly, Baklawa as it’s pronounced in Arabic, but I wasn’t aware of its spread across the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. I found surprising mention and recipes for Egyptian Baklava, Bulgarian Baklava, Jewish Baklava, Morrocan Baklava, Iranian/Persian Baghlava and Armenian Baklava.

Traditional Lebanese Baklawa with Cashews, Ibrahim Pastries, Rockdale

Historical hearsay is rife regarding where it originated. Was it Armenia? Persia? Greece? or in the Ottoman Empire? Local stories and cultural beliefs are full of bias fueled by modern day nationalism, but is there any truth to any of them?

Armenia, the first kingdom to install Christianity as its state religion claims baklava as a sweet tied to its Christian Easter lent – 40 layers of filo for the 40 day fast. 49 CE is the date of Armenia’s conversion and also its inception of Baklava. Did it enter Armenian cuisine the same way the Gospel’s did – via Jerusalem? If so, then logically baklava originated in Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that it’s a dessert found throughout the Arab world without determining an origin. This makes sense when Morocco and Egypt are brought into the equation. Does this then make it a Persian sweet? The Persian Empire extended throughout the Middle East but didn’t quite get to Morocco, but the Caliphate did. Perhaps baklava isn’t as old as Christianity.

Clearly the bulk of websites discussing the matter favour the Ottoman Empire with its origin. One website credits the kitchens of the Turkish Sultanate in Istanbul with the development of a similar Ancient 8thC BCE Assyrian sweet into Baklava. However, with apologies to my guest, the internet wasn’t able to produce a town called Baklava in Turkey but the sound of the word, Baklava brings Turkish to mind.

Could the Ottoman Empire be a short odds guess? The repetition throughout all of the recipes and websites of the Greek word for leaf-thin layered dough, filo, led me to ask whether it may have a Byzantine origin? That Empire did reach Morocco but not since the 6thC C.E.

Wikipedia tells us that the oldest recorded origin sweet for baklava was made by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. Placenta is mentioned by Cato and is believed to have developed in Roman/Byzantine kitchens before being refined by the Ottomans. It goes further in saying that on the Island of Lesbos there exists a baklava type sweet that is still called Placenta…Lesbos. Of all of the Greek Isles, why Lesbos???@!!@! Lesbos, aka, Mytilene, my mother-in-law’s home island! I ran it past my mother-in-law. Yes, there are some villages on the island that call baklava, placenta.

Just because the Romans documented a ” juvenilia” version in the 2ndC B.C.E. does the present day sweet without its key ancient ingredient, cheese, make it true Baklava? The Mytileneans have kept the Roman name for it alive but removing the cheese shows that it’s undergone some development,

If I had to pick a culture that has embraced this sweet and really celebrated its variety it would have to be Turkey. They will offer you pistachio, cashew, walnut, tahini and molassas, chocolate, sour cherry, apple and cinnamon, rhubarb…etc. varieties. Can they all be considered baklava?

Sour Cherry baklava with baklava ice-cream on the side - Hakiki, Enmore Rd Enmore

Sour Cherry Baklava with Baklava Ice-cream on the side – Hakiki, Enmore Rd, Enmore

Ok, so my mother-in-law’s baklava may have the earliest recorded roots. I’ll admit that. It doesn’t mean that everyone else’s baklava isn’t real baklava – just different. I’ll have them all with my Greek, er, Turkish, er, Lebanese, er….. extra short, black, muddy coffee.

Which is the real baklava…baklawa…baghlava? Aren’t they all unique as the variations in their name? But where did it originate?

Well…

And the moral of the story is, don’t ever argue with your mother-in-law. Er, maybe, just don’t argue with mine.

A big thank you to my fb friends and friends general with their suggestions of what baklava should be and where to find the best baklava in Sydney – Eleni, Costa, Cindy, Heidi, Sophia, Theo, Esen, Stella T, Georgia, Daniela, and Nic.

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Ancient, Byzantine or 70s domestic fallout

Artefacts can pop up anywhere in Greece – sometimes even digging up the back garden or snagged on a fishing line. I imagine the same can be said of many countries bordering the Mediterranean. Their earth has experienced the ebb and flow of successive civilisations. Discarded or lost, daily indispensables of yesteryear when resurfaced become mementos of a disconnected past.

Catching up with my widowed grand-aunt many, many years ago she gifted me with the fragment remains of a broken bowl. To remember my grand-uncle by, she had said. It came to him on the bank of the ancient canal in Potidea. He had this great spot there where the fish could be relied on for a meal or two. Occasionally his line brought up curiosities that weren’t edible. Take this one, she said. I thanked her for her wonderful gift and took her word that the fragment was old – αρχαίο and precious.

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Top view of my artefact

But how far a throwback is it really? Snagged in a canal built by the Ancient Macedonian King, Cassander; fortified by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (c.482-565CE); reinforced by the then Byzantine overlord of Thessaloniki, John VII Palaioligos in the early 15th Century CE; and finally redug in the 20th Century, my memento’s hiding place has experienced the traverse of many epochs and today graces a lovely beachside town but when is it from? Questions.

What can be gleaned from just looking at it?

So, I’m of the mind that any pre-existing style can be copied by later generations. I needed to find the earliest possible example of its style to limit how old it could be but not forgetting that its style could have been copied as lately as yesterday.

Fragment showing foot of the fragment.


Fragment showing foot of the fragment.

It’s made from a red clay. It has an incised design etched into its surface that is brown among larger planes of highly glazed ochre/mustard. The design is floral displaying rosettes/spirals and leaves arranged in a cross pattern with arcs opening away from the central motif. I suspect that it’s a repeating pattern but the entire motif is lost. Its most striking curiosity is that it’s glazed only on the inside. The outside of the bowl is both undecorated and unglazed.

Its earthy tones remind me of dinnerware from the 1970s – but they were glazed inside and out. The lack of an outside glaze would be frowned upon by a modern day housekeeper. Fine as an ornament for dusting, how many cycles in the dishwasher could it go without cracking or discolouring? And if not the dishwasher – how well would the outside of it clean after being stacked on top of other such bowls with the curried remains of dinner potently leaving their mark? With modern-day obsessions with hygiene and high standards of cleanliness, unless it was made for decoration I think it must be genuinely old.

Under side of my ceramic fragment. Red earthen ware with no glaze on the exterior of the bowl and no makers mark.
Under side of my ceramic fragment. Red earthen ware with no glaze on the exterior of the bowl and no makers mark.

Beneath the foot there is no,”Made in China” sticker attached with super adherent. Nor is there a country of origin, Greece, Hellas or anywhere else stamped and baked into the ceramic foot. Nor is there any monogram or maker’s mark as are on other byzantine ceramic fragments on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

It doesn’t look Ancient Greek and its patterning isn’t intricate nor colourful enough to bring Ottoman Iznik ceramics to mind.  So I targeted Byzantine ceramics for my search. The design looks like sgraffito, a technique used by Byzantine potters but its colour is baffling. The majority of sgraffito Byzantine bowls and plates I found on pinterest had a cream background with splashes of green and yellow pigment.

Finally something caught my eye. The reminiscent but unbroken bowl is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is described thus on Pinterest:

Red earthenware covered with a white slip with incised decoration of five gyrating bands within a medallion under a yellow glaze.  Found in a tomb at Kertch in the Crimea. Byzantine (Probably Crimea) 12th – 13th Century. Museum Number 141-1908

How does a bowl from the Crimea turn up in Northern Greece? Could a trade vessel have gone down the Bosporus through the Dardanelles, the Thracian Sea and thence to Thessaloniki dropping its load or some of it in the canal? But why would a foreign vessel pass so close to the mainland? According to Wikipedia, Russian and Serbian Orthodox Monks/Scribes moved to the nearby holy mountain, Mt Athos, in the 1070s AD – a reason to be carrying Crimean crockery so close to Potidea?

The Victoria and Albert Museum have other examples of Byzanitine sgraffito worked bowls with this colouring that hail from Constantinople in the 12th – 14th centuries. They can be seen here (13th-14th C) and here (12th-13th C). Perhaps it isn’t so old and exotic as the Crimea, 1000 years ago. Perhaps it is only 800 years old and from Constantinople? Looking further across Pinterest I came across this look of ceramic made in Thessaloniki in the 14th century, pinned from the British Museum’s Byzantine Legacy collection.

Where and when and by whom was it made?

I’m satisfied that it’s style is probably Byzantine from sometime between and including the 12th-14th Centuries. Of course it may have been made anytime after that, copying the older style. It looks closest to the Crimean bowl in colour, texture and etching style so although Constantinople and Thessaloniki are closer in proximity to Potidea where it was found, I can’t help thinking of it as Crimean. The fact that it doesn’t bare a monogram hints that it may not have been thrown in a renowned ceramics workshop. It was made for daily use by the Byzantine everyman.

Whether it is just a 70s recreation or truly is a piece of medieval crockery I’m really pleased to have it. When next I’m in Greece, I might have to make the time to go fishing in Potidea. I may just snag myself another mystery – no crock.

My Pinterest enquiry:

https://www.pinterest.com.au/craftytheatre/ancientmedievalbyzantine-pottery/

How ancient is αρχαιο ?

Aρχαιο is a word bandied about in Greece a lot. I don’t mean by historians or archaeologists but by the lay person  It’s a glamorous word. It’s impressive and esoteric and marks a place, statue or artefact as important. Technically it means ancient but does it always mean Ancient Greece?

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Tower ruin outside Olinthos – it’s ancient, or is it?

Greece has a very long history of habitation by people expressing different cultures: pagan, Christian, Muslim.  Wherever you visit, if you indulge the locals they will regale you with stories about their place’s monuments, topography, churches, ruins etc. Not all of the ruins are well documented. Their history may be filed away in an archive somewhere with nary a signpost to explain why a tumbled down tower has been allowed to stand. A local yarn may be as good as you’ll get.

Chalkidiki in northern Greece has many towers I’m told. On the road to the αρχαιο, yes-if-really-is ancient, archaeological site at Olinthos stands the recalcitrant ruins of a tower. I’m told that it’s αρχαιο.

I’m also told that once upon a time it was the lookout tower for Olinthos. Sentries would be posted atop to watch the sea for pirates or foreign invaders. Sounds convincing? Hmm… I found no mention of it in all of the information on display at the archaeological site. Maybe it’s not that much, αρχαιο?

I’m told that, once upon another time when a polis was being attacked, the queen was spirited away through a subterranean tunnel system that ran from the city to the coast via this tower. But which queen, in which era? And how long was the tunnel system? Was Olinthos the starting point or was a settlement further inland? And did the tunnel reach the tower all the way at Nea Fokeas?

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Tower overlooking Nea Fokeas, Chalkidiki – is it ancient? byzantine?

Did you know that it’s said that one αρχαιο king actually buried his treasure beneath one of the towers? Truly, what I’m telling you sounds a little far fetched even to me, especially when you consider that night, that summer, when Johnny was coming back from the club and came off his motorbike right through that lower window. Johnny said that the tower was full of hard dirt – his head can testify to that. No treasure, no tunnel. Local lore needs to satisfy the ever expectant tourist.

If the locals can speculate, why not I? So…if you were to light a beacon on the battlements of the tower at Nea Fokeas could a sentry atop the Olinthos Tower see it? And if not Olinthos what about that Byzantine ruin in the beach at Potidea? And from Olinthos could it be seen further inland by Galatista? Could these towers have been part of a beacon relay from Thessaloniki to Constantinople?

Leo the Mathematician (c.790-869CE) was said to have developed the beacon system that spanned Asia Minor from Constantinople to the Cilician Gates and warned the capital of an invasion within an hour of its sighting. Leo was the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki between 840-843 CE – why wouldn’t he instigate a warning system for his city, the second city of the Empire? Theassaloniki does have that old, dare I say αρχαιο, iconic White Tower – what more could it be appropriate for? Could all of these towers be that old? Where are the other towers in Chalkidiki?

When in doubt consult the internet.  The White Tower of Thessaloniki is an Ottoman construction over the site of a Byzantine tower mentioned in medieval literature. The tower at Olinthos is the Tower of Mariana and displays a cross in the configuration of its brickwork, on its far side. And it’s Byzantine. No mention of who Mariana was, if she was a queen, when she lived nor whether she had to escape a siege through a tunnel. As it stands it was built in 1374 – too late for Leo.

The tower at Nea Fokeas is also Byzantine, St Paul’s, after the monastery complex on which it stands . It also overlooks the sea. Did St Paul visit it? When was it built? Is it connected by subterranean passage or merely styling to Mariana’s Tower? Built originally in 1407, it too, is too late to be from Leo.

The ruins in the beach at Potidea may or may not be part of Byzantine fortifications built in 1407 by Ioannis VII Palaiologos – the same year as St Paul’s! The other tower further inland at Galatista is also Byzantine. Together, could they all have been part of a later warning system?

Speculation, hearsay and local lore – heart warming hearth stories feeding the need of history devouring holiday-makers! They should probably be taken with a draught of ale, mug of hot chocolate or dragged out slowly overlooking an Aegean beach with a bottomless frappe on the table.

Occasionally local traditions can inform history. Have you heard the one about baklava?

Cranky Ladies of History

Cranky Ladies of History! read, Cathartic Ladies of History. Fablecroft Publishing, you’ve got my attention. Short stories, little windows into the living rooms of history; whose sill should I perch on first? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Elizabeth I? Hildegard of Bingen? Mary Wollstonecraft? Empress Theodora… Hatshepsut!

Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled Egypt as a man. The glorious queen until her newphew/step-son obliterated her memory. Damnatio memoriae! That’s something to be cranky about… after she was dead. Will the story focus on her relationship with her newphew – or her brother whose rule she gave legitimacy to? Or something else entirely? I’m too familiar with her life, what if the story disappoints?

I fan across the edges of the near-shut book. There’s Lady Godiva, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Tudor and exotic names I haven’t heard of before; women from the Middle East, Asia and Scandinavia that are equally intriguing for being made peers in this anthology.

There are so many names, so many women to choose from. Which to read first? The contents page further confuses matters. The authors – some names are familiar, most are not. Not that, that’s a deterrent.

Where’s Hatshepsut again? In the middle, Neter Nefer. Will the story talk of her possible romantic relationship with Senenmut and his fall from grace? Their alleged child together? What if nothing I can relate to is dealt with? I fan the pages again.

What of Theodora, the beloved wife of Emperor Justinian? He changed the law so that he could marry this burlesque dancer, come actress, come prostitute and make her Empress. Resplendent in pearls and jewels she remains an enigma. Was her influence really the cause of all that was bad in the Byzantine Empire? Her charitable work and religious devotion don’t add up to our modern, cliched way of seeing women. Who was she really? With the scurrilous recounts of her life by “Saint” Procopius doing her no justice, there is satisfaction in Barbara Robson’s portrayal of Theodora getting some of her own back at him.

Fitting a life into a short story is a tall order. How do you make sense of a lifetime, the journey of a soul and its many transformations in a few thousand words? Do you choose a defining moment? Or do a general sweep? And if you did the sweep how effectively could the reader be entangled? In Theodora I’ve been inspired to look for her long form biography.

I wonder if I’ll be doing the same after Hatshepsut…

In this anthology, different approaches are taken by the various contributors with varying success. When it comes to dealing with famous people whom we have a pre-existing bond to, any changes that may threaten the veracity of our investment isn’t going to be received well. Ditto for well known and loved stories. If you’re going to muck around with a legend or myth you had better improve the experience or risk disappointment. The legend of Lady Godiva, her naked ride through Coventry and the peril of Peeping Tom would seem to be in the category – you can’t touch this. But then there’s Garth Nix. Not only does he play with the story, his uplifting adaptation will stay with you long after you have finished it. It celebrates women’s strength in their solidarity, their sisterhood.

Writing speculative fiction really lends itself to the short story format. History doesn’t shackle the narrative. It’s easier to make a pithy point or shape a savvy parable when your imagination is unbounded. There are quite a few stories with speculative elements and they are enchanting but the quirkiest tale of the lot is set in the early 20th Century, in Brisbane. The charm of Sylvia Kelso’s cantankerous lady doctor Lillian and her madcap flights to the rescue will leave you smiling long after you have finished reading Due Care and Attention. I’m smiling now.

In writing a biography or historic fiction the author takes on a burden of conscience. Will their story resonate the truth? Would their interpretation be approved by their protagonist? I’d like to think that Hildegard of Bingen would have of Juliet Marillier’s Hallowed Ground. The story shows the saint’s devotion to her work, her god and living a life of humility. It shows her honesty and her strength in terms of her vocation and the society and times in which she lived.

There is a lot of variety in this anthology. It has an international feel. There are many different women to meet and diverse cultures to experience as a strong female. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable read. If there were to be a Crankier Ladies of History, I’d be looking forward to reading that one too.

And Hatshepsut…well, you’ll have to buy the book!

Eis tin Poli with Machiavelli whispering in my ear

 

Eis tin Poli. I’ll be seeing you in the city. The polis. Which polis? Constantinopolis! Yes, Istanbul. Istanbul is the greeting, Eis tin Poli, in the Turkish mind’s ear of 1929. Istanbul is charming and exotic, rich with history and the diversity of the people’s that have made it their home. And rich, of course, with the warmth and hospitality of the Turkish people. However visiting the polis in 2014 stirred up rational, irrational feelings I hadn’t expected – grief for a city, a homeland and times that were never mine. But they were my family’s. I couldn’t enjoy the city freely, everywhere I turned conquest met my gaze and its base sound reverberated through the ether and into my soul. Conquest in Machiavelli’s terms.

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We stayed just off Taksim Square. Not the touristy side with all the grand hotels, nor the cosmopolitan side off Istaklal St but the far, forgotten edge. Here cobbled streets pushed the present past derelict mansions and stray cats, and strayer people lived temporary stays with permanent hopeless resolve. Refugees from personal and political cataclysms were taking refuge in homes abandoned to decay. Quiet façades and boarded doorways promised sound shelter for the homeless. How long had these buildings been neglected? Machiavelli whispered, since 1999? 1955? 1922? Machiavelli go away. Did they quake over the pressure of civil turmoil or seismic crisis?  Who owned these buildings? Where were they now? Machiavelli kept whispering.(1)

The other superior expedient is to establish settlements in one or two places; these will, as it were, fetter the state to you… (The Prince) injuries only those from whom he takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and these victims form a tiny minority, and can never do any harm since they remain poor and scattered. All the others are left undisturbed, and so should stay quiet, and as well as this they are frightened to do wrong lest what happened to the dispossessed should happen to them.”
The Prince, Machiavelli, Penguin Classics, Bull, George (Trans.), 1981, pp. 36-37.

 

When states newly acquired as I said have been accustomed to living freely under their own laws, there are three ways to hold them securely: first, by devastating them; next, by going and living there in person; thirdly, by letting them keep their own laws, exacting tribute, and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly to you.
The Prince, Machiavelli, Penguin Classics, Bull, George (Trans.), 1981, p.47

Machiavelli’s style of devastation was physical and spiritual in 1453. Did the residents of Constantinople really believe their unbreachable walls would fall? What was this explosive new weapon in comparison to the might of God? A story survives that a cleric – was it the Patriarch? a bishop? was fishing when news came to him that the Turks had broken through. He laughed it off. He just pulled up a good catch and stayed by the water to fry his meal. He replied to the messenger that if the walls had been breached then his half fried fish would jump out of his frying pan and back into the Golden Horn. Splash! and so they did.

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Orthodox Patriarchate College

In Istanbul in 2014 the pride of the Turkish people was everywhere on display, conquest declared on a sea of Turkish flags fluttering over the city. Each cloth depicted Sultan Mehmet’s victory moon on a background of blood red. The shape of the moon’s crescent declared the night of May 29th, 1453 ever present in the city – present on a full moon as well as the new, on government buildings and on private ones and even on Orthodox ones. The Orthodox, the descendants of the Rhomaioi/Byzantine keepers of Constantinople, can practice their religion in Turkey but there is tribute to pay to the mighty Turkish state, its flag declares their obeisance on the Orthodox Patriarchate College.

Conquest is constant. It seemed that wherever I saw an Orthodox Church a Mosque was built beside it, the call to prayers of the conquerors enveloping it intermittently throughout the day. Some Mosques began life as churches and like the Hagia Sophia, spear-like minarets now square them off. The Hagia Sophia itself has been and remains a psychological prize. Sultan Mehmet had to convert it into a mosque, whitewashing the historic and religious iconography of the Cathedral and the city. He tried to eradicate the grandeur and significance of an organic culture, millennia old. For the Byzantines, the Rhomaioi – the Greeks, it was the emotional rallying point for insurrection right up until 1922.

Conquest pervaded my senses the day we spent in Sultanahmet. We took a taxi (2) from Taksim Square where we were staying to where Byzantine monuments are concentrated and of course the Blue Mosque dominates the sea and landscape. Instead of dropping us off at the open square bounded by the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Justinian’s Basilica Cistern, the driver left us in front of a rug store on the other side. It was early in the day so we thought a detour was okay. It was a wonderful detour. No one does customer service like the Turkish people. The shop was multi-storeyed: just beneath street level they sold ceramics – beautiful, ethnic, colourful, and reminiscent of art nouveau. The design motifs were taken from nature with arabesque linework, watery glazing and a traditional feel that surely influenced the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1800s. Hefty in appeal, weight and price, I had to resist, but my appetite was whetted. Rugs, waited upstairs.

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The salesman was warm and talkative as he sat us on a divan, serving us Turkish tea and the most amazing Turkish Delight I have ever tasted. Each style of rug was representative of a region of Turkey or weaving technique. The salesman imparted his knowledge and was patient with our indecisiveness. He was chatty as he tried to build a connection with us. Yet, with all of his gregarious warmth he couldn’t crack my shell. Yes, we have a Greek background. Yes, my family originated in Turkey – Pisidia, Propontos and the Dardenelles. Yes, I remembered the earthquake that devastated Istanbul in 1999…Tears began to fall…Yes, the Greeks were the first foreigners to run to their aid. The Greeks were passionate to return to the Polis, yes? I couldn’t reply to why the Greeks ran to save the city, but they did. I looked at more rugs. Finally, we chose one from Mt Ararat depicting animals from Noah’s Ark and descended to street level. Led out by an adjacent door, we walked through a narrow room with glass-topped counters filled with Turkish Delight. Not simple rose water infused loukum but exotic flavoured Delights mixed with dried flower petals, pistachios, a variety of other nuts, pomegranate and dried fruits and spices I didn’t recognise. And so soft – so fresh- so delicious.

 

 

 

We walked to the Hagia Sophia from the far side, buying the kids Fez’ to wear from a hawker on the way. The queue that awaited us was trying on the kids’ already stretched patience, it tracked far into the square. Thankfully, young boys with wooden spinning tops on long cords zeroed in on their next customers just ahead of us. Our kids were taken with the zeal that comes from wanting to get a closer look at something that is being offered to other children. Eventually the enterprising locals offered our kids the same attention. The simplicity of the mechanism and the beauty in its motion was mesmerising… But, for how long?

Was there another way in to the museum? I decided to walk around the complex to see. On the far side, sure enough, there was another entrance. No queue. A guard and a turnstile and no crowds either! I phoned my husband to get smart, leave his spot in the queue and bring the kids around. Removing the kids took longer than I anticipated. I walked into a couple of stalls that were set up on the road side. They sold ceramics!!!! They sold sets of Turkish coffee cups with imitation Iznik tile designs. I started to haggle – when in Rome, er, New Rome, er, Constantinople, er, Istanbul…

This is beautiful. I’ll give you this much for it.

No, that is the price.

I’ve seen it cheaper elsewhere.

Not this design.

Yes, this design. Much cheaper.

My price is what it is.

But I’ve seen it much, much cheaper in shops off Istaklal Street. Honestly.

When the half cooked fish jumped back into the water, honestly.

And there it was – a reference to the defeat of the Greeks/Byzantines where I wasn’t expecting it. Don’t forget you were conquered, and won’t win now. I walked away empty-handed, miffed and conquered.

Few of the hundreds of visitors to the Hagia Sophia took the time to go around the back. It wasn’t an entrance to the cathedral proper. It was an eye-opener. The courtyard is bounded by the baptistery off the once Christian cathedral on one side and by Islamic family crypts on the others. Beautiful Iznik tiles and calligraphy adorn the final resting place of sultans and their family members. Their coffins covered in green cloth still rest in state elevated off the floor. It is a quiet, reverent place. A place of contemplation.

“But when states are acquired in a province differing in language, in customs, and in institutions, then difficulties arise; and to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go live there in person. This course of action would make a new possession more secure and more permanent; and this was what the Turk achieved in Greece…”

The Prince, Machiavelli, Penguin Classics, Bull, George (Trans.), 1981, pp. 36-37.

The Ottoman Turks didn’t settle with just moving in. They were and remain assiduous in proclaiming their dominance. They appropriated centuries old spiritual and historical sites and made them their own. First and foremost is the Hagia Sophia. Permanent fixtures, minarets and the royal tombs, were added outside and Islamic calligraphy adorns the central dome. When you walk inside you can almost imagine it being an Orthodox Christian Church again until you raise your head and look above and beyond the colourful masonry up to the pendentives. As minarets square off the outside of the building, inside, four large, painted, wooden discs lean on the base of each cherubim. Today the mosaics have been restored as the Hagia Sophia complex is a museum – a compromise solution between two heritages and two religions. Byzantine mosaics of Emperors pay homage to their Christian god in the upper gallery while below the library of Sultan Mahmut stands empty. A holy place regardless of the noise, the tour groups, the hide-and-seek antics of my youngest child. Historically a holy place for two opposing religions. Could Christians and Muslims ever share this space in common purpose – worship? Spiritually, could we ever reach that height of acceptance, forgiveness, love?

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The Library of the Sultan Mahmut – built inside of Hagia Sophia

We arrived in Istanbul during Ramadan, a wonderful time to be in that city. Istaklal Street was abuzz with foreign visitors – tourists with a middle eastern flavour. In the morning floral garlands were offered in the Square away from the poised and watchful keep of four war heroes on their stone pedestal. Plastic helicopter blades shot off into the night sky and and flame fuelled miniature balloons delighted children and adults alike. We saw a harem for the first time. Eight people walking together through Taksim Square led by a man, an eight-or-so-year old boy by his side, then a black-clad woman wearing sunglasses, slightly to the side and behind, and followed by another six women. My western sensibilities were offended. But this turned to laughter that night when we encountered a different harem altogether.  One man, seven women and multiple designer tote bags were an armada tearing through the Square. This time, the beleaguered gent was struggling to catch up to his wives. At least they were all running in the same direction. Many a western man would flinch at the idea of a shopping trip with one wife, let alone 7!

Ramadan in Turkey means a celebration of the shadow puppet theatre Karagöz. Visiting the city on our own, not knowing the language and staying in an apartment, not a hotel, I couldn’t find a venue to go and see a performance live. But it was being screened on TV.

Just before I first started blogging Karagöz and Karagiozis were mixed up on Wikipedia. The Karagiozis site had images of the Greek puppet and then the rest of the characters were taken from the Karagöz repertoire. Wikipedia prefixed their articles with their wish to amalgamate the two puppets into one entry. The thinking was that the puppets had the same name and therefore were the same. It was the first theatrical issue I blogged about. I argued that they may have the same name but they look very different. And while they both serve to entertain, where the laughs are derived from are very different. Karagiozis began as a barefoot pauper from a ramshackle shanty on the outskirts of town. Always trying to get one over his Ottoman overlords he provided a release to a repressed culture of people. Karagöz on the other hand, was the well-heeled bumpkin who was in need of sophistication and whose theatre, a comedy of manners and situation, satirised the many different ethnicities of the Ottoman Empire.

imageKaragiozis meets Karagoz

Karagiozis meets Karagoz

The obfuscation of the two puppets arises from an apparent general blending of Greek/Byzantine and Turkish culture since the fall of Byzantium. There is much layman debate over who was first to do what between Greeks and Turks. This extends to food – who was first to serve baklava, Loukum/Turkish Delight, pulverised coffee, kebabs/yeeros, revani, manti, imambaldi … Language is looked to, to provide the answer. Is a name Turkish or Greek? But in the Ottoman Empire language wasn’t always the greatest safeguard of culture. You just have to look at the tropes of the Karagiozis puppet theatre, so much of it is Roman. The world of Karagiozis exists in the streetscapes of Plautus’ comedy. Menander is said to have been the first playwright to incorporate stereotyping – stock characters – into his work which is what the shadow puppets are about. Comedy of the Late Romans in antiquity as well as the Romans under the Turkish yoke as in Karagiozis – is of satire and situations. It has been my contention that Karagiozis-style theatrical satire not as shadow puppetry, nor called Karagiozis, existed before Islam came into Asia Minor but had to metamorphise into a form that the authorities would condone. Islam at the time didn’t allow human representation, so shadows were a way of getting around religion.  Karagiozis, possibly evolved from a Selenus-type character, took the name and form of the popular Turkish shadow puppet theatre to survive. In Italy, Roman comedy developed into the very physical, masked street theatre, the commedia dell’arte, in Turkey Roman Comedy developed into shadow puppetry.

Neither Greek nor Roman nor Byzantine. Why not Rhomaioi, that’s what they called themselves?

Language may not be a perfect safeguard for culture but it can help. The Turkish language has preserved the identity of its Greek speaking population as Romans. What, you ask? Well who are they, this ethnic minority? Are they Greeks? They don’t live in Greece. The Greek they speak is a little more formal, the food they eat differs… Are they Turks? They don’t have equal rights with their Muslim counterparts due to their Orthodoxy. Are they Byzantines? The Byzantines were Orthodox but lived in ancient and medieval times and identified as neither ‘Byzantines’ nor ‘Greeks’. Are they Rum, as the Turks know them? Rum, Rumla, the Turkish way of saying Roman. How could they be Roman when they live in Turkey, not Rome, and generally speak neither Latin nor Italian? It’s a problem Western scholars face when trying to come to terms with a Roman Empire that had lost Rome, spoke Greek and was not recognised by the West as Roman in medieval times. I like Rhomaioi. It’s simple if it doesn’t look simple on paper. Rom-Aye-E! It’s what Greek-speaking Byzantines called themselves. Rome – the seed of their empire gets a nod without the pure implication of being citizens of an ancient city no longer part of the Empire.  Rhomaioi – Roman citizens transformed in name, language and religion all wrapped up in one word, Rhomaioi! Rum for the Turks, even today.

 

Agia Sophia Photo by Nikos Niotis on Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Often when Turkish people talk of their pre-1453, historic monuments and architecture they refer to the people who built them in a past tense. As if their race has extinguished. As if there are no people left who have a heritage, a bloodline that connects them to this architecture. Could they claim it as their own regardless of it being a Graeco-Roman ruin in Ephesus or a Christian Church in Istanbul? Regardless that Rhomaioi are still around? On the other hand Turkey can’t claim this history or culture completely as it doesn’t feed the narrative of the victorious, glorious conquerors. In any case Constantinople is just a small part of modern-day Istanbul – the western side. The eastern side is a modern economic hub, so , so different, so now. A lot of Constantinople’s history and significant sites are obscure or forgotten. This is best illustrated by a trip to Phanar, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate.

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Neglect in Phanar – just across from the College

An eerie silence pervades Phanar. It’s an old neighbourhood with cobbled streets and fewer inhabitants than buildings it would seem. Off the main road, few stores exist and those that do, do so obstinately for the sake of maintaining their existence, they have given up any pretense of inviting customers. It’s a suburb trapped in a time warp, an alternate reality that you can walk in and out of. The streets are too steep for motor vehicles to access in low gear. Our taxi driver didn’t know how to find the Cathedral of St George and tried valiantly to push his car up the hill in low gear to the College. The College must be the Patriarchate, right? – it’s the only building with any semblence of prestige – former or current. The whining revolution of the engine was an invasion of sound that called the silence to attention. It felt right to dismiss the driver and just walk.

Once the equilibrium of silence and inactivity returned, gleeful wheeing swooshed down at us from even higher up those streets. A child astride a cardboard sled was tobogganing down a steeper block. Life in Phanar isn’t for the uninvited. Our coming had disturbed his play, but we weren’t the only ones – just the noisiest. There was a slow trickle of  foreign visitors – history students and Orthodox faithful, puffing their way up the hill looking for the Patriarchate, the College, Byzantine museums or sites. From them we learnt that the Patriarchate survives at the bottom of those steep streets, unobtrusively tucked away and humbled.

Don’t look for the Vatican in Phanar. Don’t expect taxi drivers to know where to find the Patriarchate. We were guided by other pilgrims who found it on their own. When you reach the Cathedral of St George, don’t be disappointed with its size. The liturgy, the relics and the history will move you. And if one particular relic of the Virgin Mary is the one you most hope to see – the icon that St Luke painted, the one that paraded the Walls so often throughout history, know that it isn’t there. It no longer protects the Walls but is protected elsewhere.

Istanbul is no Rome and Phanar is no Vatican City.

Why is Phanar so neglected? Is it to cloak the Patriachate with invisibility? Is it because so much Byzantine power emanated from the Patriarchate? Would it have to be so if  Byzantine history was universally appreciated? What does Byzantine mean for most people? For the polyethnic descendants of the Empire? Is it because no country can fully claim Byzantine heritage as solely their own that its study has been neglected?  Is it because the history of the Byzantines is one of a waning empire? Because its sites and relics are not celebrated does this perpetrate a vicious circle of neglect? My generation of Greek learners outside of Greece weren’t taught any Byzantine history besides the fall of the Polis. Our texts were standard Greek government issue of the 1970s. I’m learning about it now through the History of Byzantium podcast. I knew so little then that when we returned from Istanbul we had a Verfremdungseffekt moment when an Armenian jeweller was taken aback that we, Greeks, would know what Byzantine meant. His implication was that it had more to do with Armenian history. We were perplexed that he would consider it anything but Greek. We both have much to learn. Byzantine history has been a casualty of conquest, obeisance, neglect and…Karma?

Lets be fair, the Byzantine/Romans/Rhomaioi didn’t respect the monuments of the lands they conquered.

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Emperor Justinian’s Basilica Cistern

Arghhhh! Splash! My Fez! Pluts, pluts, pluts!

No. Stop! You’re gonna fall in. Let your father get it.

Shhh! Wait for the group to pass.

Can you reach it? You might have to get in. Want me to hold the camera?

Looook at the fish!

Stay put!!!!

Oooooo …my….hat….

Baba’s got really long arms.

My hat! Thanks Baba.

Trying to get a better look at the Medusa head column my excitable son had lost his new fez! Medusa’s head sits in a far corner of the Cistern, upside down, the base of a supporting column. It’s not the only architectural curiosity. Justinian’s Bascilica Cistern is made up many purposely built columns but also proud masonry from the far reaches of the Empire. They respected these foreign artworks so much, they ended up in a subterranean water works for no one to admire. Had conquest come hard for the Romaioi in the home of Medusa? The obelisk of Tuthmose III from the temple of Karnak was erected and still stands on the site of the Hippodrome, renamed the Obelisk of Theodosius and mounted on a pedestal celebrating that Byzantine Emperor and the races . Did it really need to be thus justified? It had its own majesty and purpose. Did it really need to be removed from Karnak? What purpose other than celebrating conquest could it have served? The Byzantines could never understand it. Did they have to celebrate their conquest of a much older and intriguing civilization thus?

 

 

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In a thousand year old church in the mountain town of Iassou, on Mytilene, is the icon of the Virgin and Child said to have been painted by St Luke. If so, it is the icon that was paraded around the walls of Constantinople when the young son of Heraclius held regency for his father.

Recently Robin Pierson of the History of Byzantium podcast brokered the idea of doing a Byzantine audio tour of Old Istanbul, Constantinople. It’s something that would benefit any Byzantine history buff. It placed me in a quandary as I’ve wanted to write about Istanbul for awhile but have run away from it. Should I write the post? How do I convey the grief, excitement, nostalgia, anger and curiosity that my brief stay there invoked? And if what I have to say is negative, should it be said at all? It’s not my home but it was a very important part of my family’s livelihood back when it was still Constantinople. Does this colour my perception? Does it render my conclusions unjust and my post irrelevant? Then I read history blogger, Sean Munger’s response to the city and why he hasn’t visited it. Then there was Palaiologinos Ultimate Byzanitine Roadtrip post (set in Greece) and the history Fangirl’s podcast re the Grand Bazaar and Walls of Constantinople – all very different in feel but all taking me back to my quandry. Do I, don’t I? Catharsis won in the end. So here I am in 2017, writing about my responses to the city in 2014.

We enjoyed so much of the city. The kids loved chasing stray cats, riding a Phaeton on the Princes Island, swimming in the Maramara Sea and marvelling at the steam-punk mechanism of the funicular – the subterranean trolley car connecting Taksim Square to the ferry quay. There was so much to discover in the Grand Bazaar. Playing backgammon amongst locals in a street lined on either side with coffeehouses offering baklava, arghele and Turkish coffee. We had a lot of fun dressing up as Ottoman Sultan’s in a store set up in a corner of the Basilica Cistern. It didn’t go unnoticed that there wasn’t a toga or a red boot to be offered but it was a lot of fun.

It’s the pain of the past that Old Constantinople conjures up that makes Istanbul bittersweet. If Istanbul were Rome, the site of the Hippodrome would be alive with al fresco cafes selling overpriced coffee and souvenir stalls selling bobbing chariot car toys. Kitsch but embracing the greatness of a civilization that once belonged. In Rome, Romans can walk in the steps of their ancestors with pride. Why can’t Byzantine history be paid tribute to in the old part of the city without acknowledging Ottoman conquest. What has Mehmet to do with Justinian?

 

(1) Travel Tip – when booking your stay online, don’t just look at the apartment on the website, go to google maps and check out the streets that surround it. Wherever we stayed was clean and comfortable but we could have stayed on streets that were better suited to children.

(2) Travel tip – when going by taxi get your hotel concierge to order it for you, that way you can avoid what I came to see as the 16-60 ruse. This is where you ask the driver before the journey the approximate cost, he clearly states a figure in the teens e.g., 16 lira and then demands 60 lira when you arrive. So 13 became 30, 19 became 90, etc. It happened whenever we didn’t get a local to order a cab for us.

(3) Travel tip – when planning your visit check the days that the site you wish to see will be open. They all seem to shut one day a week but it differs for each site.

 

Pascal Pageantry & the Green Man

Paschal services (Christian Passover, Easter in the West) have a very long tradition. Some date back to the catacombs. In the early days of the Byzantine Empire church services were celebrated out and around the city. For the service of the Twelve Gospel Readings I imagine that there was twelve stops, “stations” if you like, within the city walls of Constantinople. I imagine the faithful walking reverently through the polis marking God’s earthly domain, the bishops blessing the city. I am reminded of the English practice of walking the boundaries of one’s property, thereby affirming its ownership.  In Jerusalem, we are told by an early witness that during Pentecost worship was made on the Mount of Olives where the Ascension had taken place, as well as the gates and on Mount Zion. (1) The early church in a similar way marked the boundaries of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Constantinople was considered the New Jerusalem, an earthly reflection through the watery sky above of that other Jerusalem, the one that always was.

The Epitaph, Christ's Tomb, in procession through the streets of Adeliade on Good Friday

The Epitaph, Christ’s Tomb, in procession through the streets of Adeliade on Good Friday

Christianity was not the first religion to use religious processions as part of their celebrations. The worship of the Olympian gods had processions too e.g., the Dionysia. Can we equate liturgical procession with the pageantry of the Festival of Dionysius? Did one replace the other? Early Christian witness attests to the taking down of a statue of Aphrodite from over the site of the exhumation of Christ’s cross.(2) A kind of juxtaposition of religious iconography was at play, if you allow, a kind of iconclasm. In Western Europe, the curious face of the Green Man stares out from the architecture of many Medieval Churches. Theirs was a more symbiotic relationship.

But who was he, this Green man, this man made of leaves who shared a coiffure with Dionysius, the ancient god of theatre? He makes me question what came first, the processions and supplication ceremonies or the characters that filled them? Did liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages evolve into the Mystery Cycle / Pageant Plays and onto cleared fields and marketplaces for the first time? Could the opposite be true? Could Medieval / Byzantine drama have grown from pagan practices and festivals and infiltrated the acceptable Christian Drama?

The Green Man,from Ludlow

The Green Man, from Ludlow

When Christianity became the recognized religion of the Late Roman Empire, theatre practice changed drastically. Pagan theatrical practices were not tolerated and so drama disappeared. Gone were the pageants, the festivals, the Baccanalia and many, many plays. Others were just read and no longer enacted. Drama was to reemerge in churches at Easter. Through liturgical singing the three Marys visited the empty tomb while the priest represented the Archangel.(3) The purpose of liturgical dramas to follow was to teach the illiterate bible stories and their faith through parables. As time progressed the stories became more detailed. Stations for different scenes were performed around the inside of churches/cathedrals. Craft guilds were involved. They were each given a different station to build as a scene. They built literally, with hammer and nails. Guilds vied with each other for the best scene. Tumbling and horseplay infiltrated through the guise of larger than life characters e.g., Noah’s nagging wife and devils sent to taunt the protagonists. Finally these plays moved outside of the Church, onto wagons. They were stationary and their audiences moved to them. And they were mobile, moving to their audiences depending on the town that presented them. Once out of the Church, with the aid of the Commedia Dell’arte and the Renaissance, a new secular theatre arose. End of story. But is this the whole story?
Passion Play 1

Passion Play

What about the tradition of Mumming? The Green Man? Puppetry? Tumblers? Bards and Bears and dancers?
Disguise and re-birth/re-generation are apart of the traditions of the Mummers and the Green Man. They are also associated with carnival and pageantry of Medieval Europe. The mummers moved from house to house at Christmas in their festive disguises. The devils moved between stations and carts. In the same way that a very old figure like the Green Man could survive the Christian juggernaut, could these pagan characters have survived in the form of these devils? I believe that the Greek Karagiozis shadow puppet survived Islam through a name change and a change of form from Silenus in the flesh to Karagiozis in the shadow. Could this survival technique have also been employed in the West, preserving pagan entertainments in the form of puppets and the buffoonery of tumbling devils?
In France, glove puppets are seen in the illustrations in the Roman du bon roi Alexandre Manuscript by Jehan de Grise? These illustrations were made in 1344. Is the much loved French cudgel-bearing puppet Guignol present? Guignol is said to have evolved from from the Commedia Dell’arte’s Pulcinella, but could he have existed before? Their names are very different. The English character, Punch from Punch and Judy is also said to have evolved from Pulcinella, aka Punchinella. At least their names are similar and they carry a cudgel. Austria / Germany’s cudgel-bearer, Kaspar/Kasperle is also said to have evolved from Pulcinella. However there is a catch. Kaspar is believed to have been a character in the Medieval Mystery Cycles. He is believed to have represented one of the Three Wise Men.(4)
Could pagan characters like the Mummers and even the Green Man have survived the Christian white-wash over bawdy buffoonery in the guise of puppets like Guignol and Kasper?
Pulchinella

Pulchinella

Have you seen the Crafty Theatre Medieval Theatre and Spectacle Board?
Or Marionettes and Glove Puppets?
References
(1) Egeria’s (fl c.381 CE) description of the Pentecost rituals in Jerusalem, from:
Clark, Elizabeth A.,  Women in the Early Church, Michael Glazier, Inc, Chapter 4:Women in the Wider World, pp192-195.
(2) From Socrates Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastica Historia, quoted in:
Clark, Elizabeth A.,  Women in the Early Church, Michael Glazier, Inc, Chapter 4:Women in the Wider World, p184.
(3)Hartnoll, Phyllis, The Theatre: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1985, p.36.
Puppetry in the Middle Ages
The Epitaph
Photo credit: Foter / CC BY
Passion Play
The Green Man
Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA
Punchinella / Pulcinella
Photo credit: deadmanjones / Foter / CC BY-NC

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Instances in Istanbul

“Mum, look!”
“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.
“Look, Mum!”
“I am. I am.”
Could these old walls really be those built for Emperor Justinian back in the 4th Century?
“Mum!”
Surely too much of them have survived.
“Mu-um!”
“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. . .

Walls of Constantinople

Walls of Constantinople

“Here! Look HERE!”
“What?”
“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..

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Empress Theodora

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.

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The Base of Theodosius Column

Walls of Constatinople

Photo credit: brewbooks / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Holy Passion, Divine Tragedy

The first time that I attended the service of the Twelve Gospels I had just finished studying Ancient Greek drama at uni. When my head stopped taking notes on the similarities between this form of storytelling and that of Ancient Greek tragedies, my heart was being moved. I shed involuntary tears.

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Passion Play

In the Orthodox Church, the Passion of Christ is chanted in anticipation. The sun sets on what we would consider the eve of Good Friday before the service begins. The service, typical of the services of Holy Week is a mix of Old Testament prophecies heralding in the life of Christ and Gospel readings beginning with Jesus presaging his own death and ending with the guard at his tomb. Inbetween there are supplicating litanies, chanted hymns, blessings given and returned and the familiar prayers of the Sunday liturgy. In all that it is, it is a very full service.

But there is something else as well. I see Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

These three great tragedians provided drama through both monologues and dialogues. Their action was commented on by their choruses and there is implicit in their texts a variety in delivery for their actors. Their tragedies were also a part of a religious festival that began with a street procession and culminated in dramatic performance at the amphitheatre. Like the paschal services, their action occurred offstage and was retold after the events.

In the Holy Thursday evening service I shut my eyes and see with my mind’s eye an ancient messenger delivering his monologue. I imagine him addressing the audience at the amphitheatre as easily as the naos of the church.The chorus of chanters responds to him in a similar way that an ancient chorus tries to make sense of the often senseless actions of its pagan protagonists.

Exhibition "Ancient Drama"

Ancient Chorus

In the celebration/performance the interaction between chorus and priest/ actor and congregation/ audience picks up the emotional story between the lines of the historic prose of the Gospels and the narrative of the ancient myth. The irony in the drama is extolled with adjectives, imagery and personification through the choral odes.

“When the lawless people nailed the Lord of glory to the Cross, then the veil of the temple was rent, and the sun went dark, unable to endure the spectacle of God blasphemed . . .”( from the 10th Antiphon, chanted in the 6th Tone)

The sun was unable to see Jesus suffering or come to terms with it! The Gods and nature personified are mortified by mortal actions and respond in “signs”. In this way the paschal service has an ancient resonance and power.

These paschal odes chanted in between the Gospel readings are delivered in a Byzantine tradition that dates back to the 9th Century. Described as colourless, the aim of the somber delivery is to heighten the emotional impact and bring clarity to the meaning of the words. Musically, it comes from a lower register. In practice, if not in intent, it often sounds like a drone.Sobering, it inspires reflection.

Byzantine chanting in its original form is far removed from the ethereal choirs of angels of the West.The musical notation describing it, is not Western either. It doesn’t use scales and its tones are more correctly, “echoes”. It is said by Stanley Takis in his, Understanding the Byzantine Musical System Using Western Notation and Theory or Name That Tone! to have grown out of the music of the Synagogues and that of secular Greek and Syrian music. It would follow then that a better understanding of Byzantine chanting can garner an insight into the elusive qualities required to deliver an ancient chorus in performance. Conversely, could the story of the Passion of Christ be delivered in the form of an Ancient Greek tragedy complete with a chanting chorus?

Passion Play

Photo credit: istolethetv / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Greek Chorus

Photo credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis / Foter /Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Palimpsests, Papyrus, Performers … the Point?

Looking over my previous blog posts regarding the Greek shadow puppet theatre and its connection to Ancient New Comedy and a possible Byzantine Shadow stage I realise that I have waffled on, alluding to my point but its meaning eluding my page. So here it is. My point, “.”.

I believe that the existence of the popular shadow puppet characters, Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis are not entirely dependent on the Ottoman shadow puppet tradition.Yes, their names are derived from their Turkish counterparts (see my previous post on Building the Sultan’s Palacebut their appearances are very different (See When Hadjiavatis Pulls His Beard Will Menander Reappear – Part One). I believe that there is a strong possibility that these comic characters existed before the Ottomen arrived in the Balkan peninsula.

I don’t believe that the only Byzantine theatrical performances were the comic and dance mimes at the Circuses. I suspect that dramatic and satyric, narrative performances existed regardless of the cultural suppression exercised on the people by the Byzantine Regime and the Ottoman after them (See my previous post Shadows in the Library of Alexandria).I suspect that these characters were part of a tradition that was perhaps hidden, perhaps not pious enough to inspire conservation and probably improvised so difficult to document. 

I believe the evidence can be found beneath the surface of Byzantine and medieval palimpsest – papyri washed clean and overwritten. These papyri are found in monasteries, museums and in private collections. If technology allows the hidden layer to be revealed without damaging the current face of these palimpsests then we will be able to understand Byzantine theatrical practices better. We may even have a glimpse into cultural resistance under two totalitarian regimes. The characters of Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis may be remnants of such a theatre. Perhaps even throwbacks to the ancient theatre of Menander.

Time and Technology will tell.

History is an Onion

Imagine you are an archaeologist. You are a classical scholar and a devout Coptic Christian. You are on a dig in Egypt. The team that you are a part of is working to uncover the tomb of a wealthy Egyptian trader from the 5th Century C.E.. It’s hot. It’s sandy. An abrasive wind renders yesterday’s piecemeal advances almost negligible. The wind is insatiable. It’s your daily foe. You suffer the loss of many, many such yesterdays. Finally, a cavernous tomb is found beneath a wine cellar in the medieval town. It is a family crypt holding several bodies. They are all mummified.

Brno CZ Crypt at the Capuchin Monastery 02

A Crypt full of Mummies

On close inspection of the mummies you notice that they have been wrapped in papyrus. Writing can be discerned in some areas. You strain to look at it. Could it be? Yes! Is it? It can’t be? Can it? It can’t be happening to you! But it is! You recognize the Coptic script of the early Church in Egypt. Could this be the holy teachings of an early desert ascetic, a trickle from the spiritual spring that has nourished the Coptic and Early Christian churches for centuries. The mummies must be unwrapped!

But wait. Not here.What of the bodies? Should the bodies, so well preserved over the centuries, be sacrificed in a hunt for earlier human history? Regardless that their hereditary descendants at best are anonymous today, shouldn’t they be allowed their dignity? Aren’t they a valuable part of history as they are? Will their souls be offended? Should the Titanic be raised? Perhaps uncovering the teachings of the anonymous desert ascetic will help alleviate the shame of tampering with the dead, you tell yourself. The soul is eternal and so is repercussions of the truth written on the papyrus. In any case you have already destroyed a medieval cellar to expose the crypt beneath.

Palinpsest

Palimpsest

Back at the University the mummies are put to a barrage of tests. A fragment of the papyrus reveals that it is a palimpsest. The writing beneath the Coptic text is Ancient Greek but it’s very difficult to read. A larger sample needs to be taken. Another complication: the Coptic language used characters from the Ancient Greek alphabet, so the only way to read the text beneath is to clean off the Coptic text above it. The Holy Writ will be lost. No reason for panic yet. The ancient scribes of the Serapaeum and the Temple of the Muses Libraries of Alexandria copied many, many ancient texts. What are the odds that this is an original?

But it is. The papyrus covering the mummy contains the only complete surviving play of that megalith-playwright of the ancient world, Menander.The entire canon of Menander’s work has been missing for 900 years. Now whose history should be preserved?

This is how I imagine that Menander’s play, O Dyskolos was uncovered. I don’t know whose mummy kept his work so close. Nor do I know which Byzantine script had to be sacrificed in order to reveal this play. This is just my dramatization of how it may have happened. This blog is about making drama and the telling of theatrical history and the contemplation of such enigmas, so please excuse my little indulgence.

Departure Mosaic from the House of Menander in Antioch 250 CE 3

Mosaic from the House of Menander in Antioch c. 250 C.E.

What astounds me about the loss of the works of Menander is how popular he was. How far his popularity spanned in the Late Roman Empire. How mosaics depicting Menander and his work have been found in Naples (Italy), Mytilene (Greece) and Antioch (Eastern Turkey). Fragments of his plays have been found in Egypt. He was lauded by Plautus and Terence. How could his work just disappear?

Imagine that 2000 years from now, all trace of Shakespeare’s works have disappeared. Only commentaries survive tellng how well he wrote. It’s unfathomable. Almost. Thinking hypothetically, if all books become digitized as we do away with paper and a massive solar flare were to penetrate all of our electronic storage, then perhaps Shakespeare’s works could disappear. In the late 4th Century in Egypt, that solar flare had a name, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria.

Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria

Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria is said to have been a scholar in Alexandria before being made Patriarch of the Orthodox Church there in 385 CE.. As Patriarch he was the shepherd of the North African flock and one of 5 Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church, (the others being situated in Rome aka the Pope, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem). With fury and passion he dealt with the vitalizing core of pagan and schismatic Christian beliefs, their temples and monasteries. He was following the will of Emperor Theodosius I who in 380 CE decreed that all people should worship the Christian God and that He would be worshiped as the Trinitarian God, three manifestations sharing one essence. No deviations would be tolerated. Wikipedia tells us that in Greece the Olympic Games were lost as was the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the home of the Ancient Oracle and in Rome the Order of the Vestal Virgin was dissolved. In Egypt, the Temple of Muses is thought to have already been destroyed by fire, however, its daughter library, the Serapeum was now, in 391 CE, destroyed by deliberate fire. This is not to say that all of its 40 or 400 thousand scrolls were burnt. Historian, James Hannam of the website, Bede’s Library, shows that the fate of the scrolls is uncertain. The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Scholars fled Egypt for Constantinople. How they could have fared better there is hard to imagine. The fact that today, ancient writings are being revealed through palimpsests is a testimony to the belief that ancient scrolls survived. That the scrolls are turning up as mummy coverings tells us that in the early medieval period there was a lot of papyrus around. The fact that in the early Byzantine era even the Egyptian middle classes were being mummified may be an indication as to how plentiful recycled papyrus may have become.

It is my hope that beneath some yet to be discovered palimpsest, forgotten in an early Christian monastery in a biblical desert or in the bandages of a late Egyptian mummy, more of Menander’s work will be uncovered, unwrapped and recovered. Who knows, his work may reveal an early Karagiozis or Hadjiavatis character and indicate a Byzantine drama, subverted through Christian and Ottoman religous mandates but none-the-less alive in shadow puppetry?

To Read more on the fate of the ancient libraries of Alexandria, why not visit Bede’s Library? James Hannam questions the existence of the Serapeum altogether and goes through an array of Ancient and Byzantine sources.

A Crypt Full of Mummies, more correctly, Brno CZ Crypt at the Capuchin Monastery 02

Photo credit: Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Palimpsest, more correctly,Georgian paliphsest V-VI cc

Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Departure Mosaic from the House of Menander, Antioch

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Theophilus of Alexandria

Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0