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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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?




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?


Have you seen the Crafty Theatre Medieval Theatre and Spectacle Board?
Or Marionettes and Glove Puppets?
(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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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.

Shadows in the Library of Alexandria

In previous posts Crafty Theatre has explored the possibility that the folkloric heroes of the Greek Shadow puppet theatre, Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis, had a place in the Byzantine world. It began with a simple question, “Why does Hadjiavatis pull his own beard?” Further questions ensued. Why do the Greek shadow puppets with their very definite, prescribed appearances differ so greatly from their Turkish namesakes? Similarities between the surviving works of Plautus, the Ancient Roman playwright, were considered. Character driven situation comedy; the use of a nebulous stage setting that is on the road and in front of closed doors; indoor action related after the event outside; the anti-hero as protagonist; slapstick; and clever word play all feature in Plautus’ adaptions of Menander’s plays and in the Karagiozis puppet theatre. Hadjiavatis with his often limited role in the Greek Karagiozis scenarios seems more of a plot device. Similar to Ancient Greek tragedy’s messengers, he enters the stage providing the impetus for the action and then leaves. So like the Messenger in Sophocles’ Antigone, who begs for mercy from those he brings news to, is Hadjiavatis pulling his own beard to poke fun at the messenger role that he plays?

To answer these questions we need to see more of the lost works of antiquity resurface. Where might you ask? Egypt! Why Egypt?


Ruins at the Oasis of Siwa, ancient seat of the Oracle of Ammon

In 332 B.C.E. Alexander the Great marched his Greek speaking, Greek practicing, Macedonian army into Egypt. He was conveniently declared the son of the king of the Egyptian gods, Ammon, by the Oracle at the Oasis at Siwa. Thus he became Pharaoh. He founded a new port west of the Nile Delta near a village called Rakotis, and called it Alexandria.The Greek written language, Alexander’s language, with its ability for subtle and precise description was used to administer Egypt. Alexandria became the seat of government and in time a major cultural centre.

Head of Ptolemy III

Head of Ptolemy III found in the archaeological site of the now sunken Library of Alexandria

When Alexander died he was succeeded by one of his generals, Ptolemy. Ptolemy became Pharaoh and founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Under the Ptolemaic regime, both Egyptian and Greek cultures thrived independently of each other, salting each other’s experience. The Pharaoh, Ptolemy I, is thought to have built the Temple of the Muses (Museum) with its famous Library of Alexandria. Here science, philosophy, literature, music, drama and scholarly learning was fostered. Here the Ancient Greek Goddesses inspiring science, philosophy, literature, drama, music and scholarly endeavours were worshipped. Ptolemy II brought to Alexandria prominent writers and thinkers of the ancient world including Theocritus, Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes. His son, Ptolemy III (reign 246-222 B.C.E), built a second temple / library in Alexandria in honour of the Greek-Egyptian god, Serapis, the  Serapeum

The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that the scholars who were active in the “Museum” (Temple of the Muses) in the mid 3rd Century B.C.E. onwards were probably responsible for the preservation of earlier Greek texts. It was probably here in the Museum that Zenodotus, the Library’s first librarian, edited Homer. The Museum had lecture halls, meeting rooms, gardens and the incredible repository of papyrus scrolls known as the library.

Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer\'s Odyssey

Papyrus fragment from the Ancient Library of Alexandria with variant lines from Homer’s Odyssey

The library seems to have had a religious mandate: to acquire all of the learning of the Classical world. It procured all of the manuscripts that it could and copied them. Scholars were sent to other ports to collect works to copy and books that arrived in the Port of Alexandria were requisitioned for copying for the library. So industrious were the scribes in their transcriptions that a shortage of papyrus was felt across Europe. As a result, parchment was developed to fill the need.

In 30 C.E., after the death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic Pharaoh, Octavian ushered in Roman rule. Egypt saw many changes. The Greek and Egyptian cultures had co-existed under the Ptolemaic Pharaohs by having two law systems, one for Greek speakers and one for Egyptians. Under the Roman rule, the Romans attempted to bring Egypt under a single, decentralized, Roman system. Revolutionizing administration, not scholarship, was the primary concern of the Romans. The Libraries suffered a shift of focus. The Temple of the Muses is said to have suffered two destructive fires in this period.

Change was slow going. It was not until 305 C.E. that Latin replaced Greek as the language used by the Egyptian bureaucracy. When the Roman-Byzantine Empire converted to Christianity in the mid 4th century C.E. more changes were ushered in. Egypt was no longer administered from Rome but Constantinople.

The Serapeum of Alexandria (III)

The Serapeum of Alexandria (III), the Daughter library of the Great Library of Alexandria. It was destroyed by the Byzantine (Coptic) Pope Theophilus in 391 C.E.

By this time the verbal, Coptic language of the people of Egypt was rendered into a written script based on the characters of the Greek alphabet.The Bible and writings of the Holy Fathers now became accessible to all strata of Egyptian society. The Coptic speaking Egyptians embraced Christianity. The Orthodox Church in Alexandria rivalled and perhaps surpassd Constantinople in its fervour and teachings. The monastic ideal of renouncing the material world, imitating Christ in His self-sacrifice and devotion to God, and struggling alone with the temptations of the nous, saw many intellectuals and pious faithful unable to resist the call of the Egyptian desert. The sayings of the Holy Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt still inform the Orthodox faithful today.

Along with these pious ascetics there were also zealots. Zealots with power. The transition from pagan Egypt to Christian Egypt was anything but smooth. By 391 C.E. the Byzantine Church adopted a vigorous agenda to eradicate the Empire of pagan gods, temples and practices. The assiduously created collections of scrolls of now lost and rare knowledge disappeared. This was no ordinary puff of smoke, nor was it a pyre. Luckily, not all of the scrolls burnt. Luckily, papyrus was still a valuable commodity and could always be reused.

Next: Menander Recovered, Uncovered and Unwrapped

The text source for this history of Egypt comes chiefly from the 15th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:Macropaedia, Volume 6:Earth – Everglades. I have also relied on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.

The Oasis of Siwa

Photo credit:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Heksamarre&action=edit&redlink=1

Head of Ptolemy III from the site of the Libraty of Alexandria

Photo credit: diffendale / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Papyrus Fragment from the Ancient Library of Alexandria

Photo credit: peterjr1961 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Ruins of the Serapeum of Alexandria

Photo credit: isawnyu / Foter / CC BY

When Hadjiavatis pulls his Beard will Menander reappear? – Part 3

Hadjivatis and Hacivat; Karagiozis and Karagöz; two pairs of similarly sounding names for two pairs of visually different shadow puppets. Could Hadjavatis and Karagiozis have preceded the Ottoman era? Could they have been part of a satiric, comic tradition enjoyed by the Byzantines? Are their origins older still, Ancient Roman or Greek?

Byzantine Dancer

Relief Carving of a Byzantine Dancer

By the time Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 326 C.E., the fashion for Classical drama had passed. The new Christian empire did not care to preserve pagan writings that didn’t support the teachings of the Church. The popular, satiric, dance mimes enjoyed in the early circuses, like the Hippodrome, were discouraged or forbidden. Popular entertainment like mimes by their nature didn’t and don’t require scripting. Subsequently very little has survived in writing about Byzantine, satiric theatre. What has survived is in the decorative features of household items and personal adornments.  The Middle Eastern Dance Guild blog provides some lovely examples of artifacts illustrating Byzantine dance history, including a crown, a jewel box, a hair comb and textiles. 

Byzantine dancers were considered mimes and comic actors. This may seem a little too modern in terms of subtlety however it isn’t unique in theatre history. In the late 16th Century C.E. Japan, the female, Shinto shrine dancer, Izuomo no Okuni, dressed as a man and danced provocatively in dry riverbeds and within shrine compounds. While using the gestures of young children, she danced depicting males flirting with prostitutes. Morals were perceived as being corrupted and the authorities banned all performances by females in 1629. A little too late. A new theatre style had been born.

Okuni was the founder of the now, all male, Kabuki Theatre. I imagine Byzantine dancers to have had a similar approach to satire, as they too were censured by the Trullan Synod in 692 C.E.

20130518 99 Izumo no Okuni

Statue of Okuni the shrine dancer from Ikuomo, carrying both a fan and a samurai sword. She danced dressed in male attire and sent up men soliciting prostitutes.

Could Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis have existed within the Byzantine circuses as “dancer-clowns”, bereft of their names? As we have seen in earlier posts, their names are Turkish. Could their characters have existed as Byzantine, satiric mimes/dancers? Could they have been part of a performance tradition that harked back to Ancient Rome or even earlier to Menander?

Karagiozis, as we have seen, is tied to his Turkish counterpart Karagöz by the sound of their names and the earthy quality of their humour. Both characters have undergone a watering down of their bawdiness over at least, the last century. We know from early scenarios of the Karagöz and Hacivat shows that they display the kind of situation comedy that the Ancient Roman playwright, Plautus employed. He followed Menander in style. The use of stock characters, satirising ‘types’ in the community was a comic writing technique first employed in the theatre by Menander in the 2nd Century B.C.E.. He had studied the work of the philosopher Theophrastus. Theophrastus’ Characters was a discussion of personality types that included the Gossip, the Buffoon, the Parsimonious one and the Friend of Rascals among a list of others. Menander’s inspiration was subsequently taken up by Plautus. Although the Karagöz and Hacivat scenarios have their own unique character and structure, there is enough of a similarity to Plautus’ comedies to warrant thought.

By the time of the earliest references to Karagöz and Hacivat, in the early 16th Century or even perhaps during the time of the Seljuk Turks in the 1300s, the Byzantine world had replaced its official language, Latin, with Greek. Did the desire to read older Greek sources increase with this language shift? Could any of Menander’s scripts have survived to influence the emergence of Karagöz? Or did the circus performers, clowns, carry a tradition of Menander’s characters that influenced emerging theatrical forms and has survived into the present day as the shadow puppets, Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis?

Just considering the look of Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis certain observances can be made. Hadjiavatis, who is always garbed in Turkish attire, always tugs his beard. Why? He is a comic character. Is he appealing to himself for mercy? Is he so full of himself that he is showing himself a form of deference used in Ancient Greece? In Ancient Greece, a man’s beard was an outward sign of his maturity and his wisdom. By holding Zeus’ beard, Thetis implored him to aid her son Achilles in the Trojan War; Medea implored Creon’s mercy when he ordered her to leave Corinth; and the Centaur implored Herakles (Hercules) for his life. Is Hadjiavatis sending up this form of respect/obeisance?

NAMA Héraclès & Nessos

The Centaur implores Herakles (Hercules) for mercy by tugging his beard

Create a picture of Karagiozis in your mind. Not only is he short, in many instances he is disproportionately small. He has a hunchback with a bulbous, segmented arm. He is barefoot and wears green. This description can almost fit the satyr, Seilenos, pictured below. Seilenos, the foster-father of the god of wine and theatre, Dionysos, has a tendency to be lazy, drink too much wine, have too much fun and generally overindulge. If we lift the modern era meaning behind Karagiozis’ catch phrase, “We shall eat, we shall drink and go to bed hungry,” it could also be applied to Seilenos with a very different meaning. In the present day the phrase refers to Karagiozis’ perpetual poverty; for Seilenus it would refer to his insatiability.

A foot from a Roman couch depicting the satyr-like Seilenos, henchman of Dionysos the god of wine and revelry 1st-2nd century CE Bronze

Wine, laziness, revelry, a hunch back, short stature, long arms – all attributes of Seilenos and Karagiozi.

In the most complete surviving play by Menander, O Dyskolos, the prologue is delivered by Pan. Pan, like Seilenus, is a satyr. Given the use of situation comedy, stock character types and the similarity of Karagiozis to Seilenos, and Hadjiavatis beard tugging, can we hope to see evidence of the existence of a Karagiozis/Silenus figure in the as yet to be discovered history of Byzantine theatre? What of Hadjiavatis?

Comic actor

Ancient Comic Actor – Is that his beard that he is tugging?

Where might this evidence materialise? Foter.com? See the ancient comic actor above. He, like Hadjiavatis, pulls his own beard. Was he an earlier predecessor of Hadjiavatis, a prototype even? If only we could see the front of his face! Is he Roman or Byzantine and beardless or Greek and bearded?  From which time period does he brown-eye us? Where was he found and IS he tugging his beard? Intriguing.

Where else might evidence be found? Egypt, perhaps? In the final part of this exploration the importance of Egypt, it’s wonderful library in Alexandria and the discovery of Menander’s works will be explored.

Crafty Theatre’s Kabuki Theatre board on Pinterest

Byzantine dancer

Photo credit: jimforest / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Ikuomo no Okuni

Photo credit: Awfulknitter / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Detail of the Nessos Painter’s Amphora depicting Herakles and the Centaur

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Seilanos / Pan

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Comic Actor

Photo credit: Taifighta / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear? – Part Two

The Byzantine Empire: God’s Kingdom on Earth. A world of mysticism, asceticism and philanthropy. A colourful world of pantomimes in the hippodrome, bride shows in the palace and liturgical processions through the polis. A byzantine court of intrigue and propaganda where the head of state and the heads of the Church toggled power and policy. A history peopled with philosopher-monks, pirate-archons, poet-nuns, emperor-saints, mercenary soldiers, eunuchs and slaves, marauding crusaders, cross-dressing clerics and fools for Christ. A people who lived their daily lives in, out and around awe-inspiring basilicas, thundering arenas, urban and remote monasteries, civic baths, hospitals and hostels for the poor. The Byzantines: a society that regarded itself as Roman but spoke Greek.

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

When Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient town of Byzantium in 313 C.E.he named his New Rome, Constantinople. The language and culture of his new seat of power was Latin. Theatrical pastimes were those of the late Roman empire. Gone was the popularity of classical dramas and comedies. Carnival and spectacle entertained the masses. Animal fights, chariot races and gladiatorial bouts were enjoyed along with jugglers, dancers, mimes, pantomimes and dramatic recitals.

2009-04-13 ConstantineTheGreat York

Constantine I aka Constantine the Great aka St Constantine

By moving his capital to the East, Constantine may have given himself a fresh start however the Empire would suffer the tensions of a division of east and west for centuries.When eventually the rift saw the independence of the West in 6th century C.E., Greek was adopted as the administrative language of the remaining Empire. The people of the Empire however, still regarded themselves as Romans.

They also believed they were God’s legacy on Earth.  They ordered their world to mirror the organisation of Heaven. As God had His hierarchy of angels, the Byzantines had a hierarchy of priests and civil servants. As the Church gave them laws and admonished their behaviour, the state collected taxes and provided infrastructure.

It was the Church that made a rudimentary education available to all. Ecclesiastical learning was the norm. For the wealthy classes, pagan texts written by the Ancient Greeks  and Romans were available. Texts that complimented the teachings of the Christian Church were encouraged e.g., Plato. However, texts that couldn’t throw light on the understanding of Christian tenants and dogmas were discouraged e.g., Aristotle. Pagan theatre did not fare well.

From the earliest dates, Ancient Greek drama was inseparable from pagan ritual. Early dramatic texts commemorate the pagan gods. The ancient plays were presented at festivals in honour of the Olympian gods e.g., Dionysus and Apollo. The cult of Dionysus with its Bacchanalian  festivities; bawdy humour and the practice of wearing short tunics to show off long, detachable  phalluses  would not be accepted by the new Christian religion.

The Christian God was a jealous god. Worship of all or some of the pantheon of pagan gods was not acceptable. The Trullan Synod, a gathering of over two hundred clerics in c.692 C.E., tried to snuff out pagan practices including theatrical ones. Performers would be denied Christian rights if they did not repent of their sin – performing.

Greek terracotta statuette of a Mime made in Myrina about 100 BCE (1)

Terracotta Statuette of a Greek Mime c. 100 B.C.E.

A consequence of this was the loss of many ancient texts. Monks and nuns didn’t break taboo and transcribe these works freely. By this time the ancient classics were no longer in vogue neither with audiences nor performers. Now even God frowned upon them. The carnival style amusements replacing them were visual, satiric, had an immediate response and were not dependent on scripts. The desire to investigate ancient plays would interest few. And then there was the curse of good house keeping.

In the way of the pre-modern world, nothing was disposable. The papyri of the ancient sources were more precious than the plays written upon them, plays that espoused pagan virtues and excesses. It was a matter of good economy and good virtue to wash out the original text and reuse the papyrus in a higher Christian cause. In this practice many palimpsests were created. It was because of this practice that the work of Menander was lost in the middle ages and then rediscovered in Egypt in 1907.

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

Menander (341/2 B.C.E. – 270 B.C.E.), the greatest writer of New Comedy in Ancient Greece had a heavy-handed influence over the later Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence. Through the adaption of his scripts by Plautus and Terence his inspiration and style would influence the Commedia Dell’arte and later playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere. His work took the subject matter of the Ancients away from the realm of the gods and into the domestic situation of citizens. In his most complete surviving play, O Dyskolos, he acknowledges Pan in the prologue by having him deliver it.

Menander’s comedy was one of character, situations and ribald innuendo. He took the satiric writings of the philosopher, Theophrastus (c.371-c.287 BCE) off the page and created live character types in masks for the stage. Thus he gave prototypes for the stock characters of the Commedia Dell’arte. Despite his dramas winning the Lenaia Festival 8 times and Plautus and Terence acknowledging his influence over their work, knowledge that his comedies existed was all we had for 900 years. The scripts were somehow lost in the Middle Ages.

Can more be recovered?  How many lie dormant, hidden within palimpsests?

In the next part of this article, I will look at Egypt’s unique place in the hopes of recovering ancient texts and the connection the Karagiozi and Karagöz puppet theatre have with late Roman comedies and Byzantine theatrical performances.

See images of Byzantine artefacts  on the Crafty Theatre, Byzantine, Pinterest board.

Map of the Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Emperor Constantine I

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY

Greek Mime Artist c. 100 B.C.E.

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

A Menander Palimpsest on Papyrus

Photo credit: The Egypt Exploration Fund / Foter / Public domain

When Hadjivatis pulls his beard, does Menander reappear? – Part One



Hadjiavatis by Crafty Theatre, inspired by the illustrations of Michalis Benetoulias

Hadjiavatis, the town crier. Every time I look at him I can’t help wondering why he holds his beard. Why? Puppeteers’ depiction of him may differ: He may wear shoes or he may wear boots and within the confines of his Turkish garb of culottes, a turban, a jacket and  bearded face, the colour and style of his clothing may vary but he always holds his beard. Or pulls on it. Hacivat, his direct Turkish antecedent does not. It’s peculiar. Hadjiavatis is a Greek derivative of the Turkish name, Hacivat, but he looks nothing like him. What can it mean?

The Crafty Theatre Hadjiavatis puppet  pictured here is typical of the Greek puppet. The image of Karagöz and Hacivat below is also representative of these Turkish theatrical characters. Hacivat is on the left and Karagöz is on the right. Hacivat holds his fists directly below his beard. He definitely doesn’t pull on it or hold it.

Hacivat and Karagoz, two authentic puppets that I found in a Second Hand - Antique shop in Istanbul.

Hacivat and Karagoz, two authentic puppets that I found in a Second Hand – Antique shop in Istanbul.

Both Hacivat and Hadjiavatis are town criers. Hacivat is educated and represents the middle classes. Hadjiavatis, while not near homeless as Karagiozis seems with his derelict hovel, isn’t as privileged as Hacivat. Hacivat is better known for his comic dialogues with Karagöz. Hadjiavatis dialogue with Karagiozis is not singled out as particular. Karagiozis interacts similarly with all of the characters, they are his foils. Hadjiavatis generally enters the screen early in the story with news from the seray that will prompt the action and problem solving of the drama. Often he seems to be just a plot device driving the story. He doesn’t necessarily grace the screen again. His role is similar to that of the messenger in Classical drama. Which prompts the question, did Hadjiavatis as a character exist before the Ottoman period?

Karagöz and Hacivat puppet shows were a permitted entertainment in the Ottoman Empire. Linda and Kostas Myrsiades in their book Karagiozis: Culture and Comedy in Greek Puppet Theater, tell us that the Ottoman puppeteers overcame the Islamic directive against the realistic depiction of people by piercing holes through the hides of the shadow puppets to allow the characters spirits to escape. Could it be that in order for a native theatrical character to continue under Ottoman rule, it had to take on the characteristics of the Turkish shadow puppets? This then poses another question, was Hadjiavatis in his Turkish garb, pulling his own beard sending up his Turkish overlords?

If indeed Hadjiavatis survived from an earlier time we have to remember that beard pulling was a way of entreating mercy in Classical drama. Is Hadjiavatis begging himself for mercy?

Bust of the Greek playwright Menander modeled after a Greek bronze sculpted by Kephisodotos the Younger and his brother Timarchos Roman 100-150 CE Marble

Menander, the greatest playwright of the Classical New Comedy. His works vanished for 900 years

And what of Karagiozis himself? The bare-footed, undersized man dressed in green with a hunched back and an extra, extra, extra long arm? Visually Karagöz and Karagiozis are very different. Was there a pre-Ottoman antecedent for Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis? Perhaps Byzantine, perhaps Classical?

To determine this we must look at the Byzantine Empire, its span, society and attitude to theatre. We must also look at the survival of pagan Classics in the hands of the Byzantines. Menander, in particular. What sort of Greek speaking society would neglect or even censor the comic works of the greatest writer of Classical Greek New Comedy?

Then we will see whether Menander or one of his satyrs is lurking within Hadjiavatis beard.


The Crafty Theatre, Hadjiavatis puppet and Karagiozis’ Hovel stencils are now on the Crafty Theatre facebook page as well as the Crafty Karagiozis board on the Crafty Theatre Pinterest page.

Photo Credit

Bust of the Greek playwright Menander modeled after a Greek bronze sculpted by Kephisodotos the Younger and his brother Timarchos Roman 100-150 CE Marble

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Building the Sultan’s Palace

In the long-standing dispute of who came first, the Turkish Karagöz or the Greek Karagiozi, even the story of their origin is in contention. The crazy thing is that beside the pronunciation of the character names their story is the same. It centres on the building of the Sultan’s palace in Bursa, or in some versions of the Greek tale, in Constantinople.

The Sultan wanted a palace, so he had need of craftsmen. Hacivat (Turkish) or Hadjiavatis (Greek) was employed as the overseer. He was responsible for the project running on time. He also employed the craftsmen who worked on the building.

One particular carpenter was a joy to have on the site. He was always clowning around and telling jokes. Karagöz or Karagiozi. He was an incorrigible comedian. He had his co-workers laughing so much that construction of the palace slowed. Only the Sultan was not happy. Hacivat / Hadjiavatis was made to give an account. In consequence his comic carpenter was ordered to stop his incessant joking or suffer a severing of his head. Faced with this ultimatum requiring him to be something he was not, Karagöz / Karagiozi laughed his head off (with the help of the Sultan’s soldiers.)

The Green Mosque in Bursa

Inside Yesil Cami, the Green Mosque, Bursa

The outpouring of grief that followed his death confounded the Sultan. He regretted having Karagöz / Karagiozi put to death. He erected a statue to the memory of carpenter to appease the people and ordered Hacivat/ Hadjiavatis to come talk to him about Karagöz / Karagiozi, and especially relate his jokes.

The shrewd Hacivat / Hadjiavatis, not wishing to suffer the same fate as his carpenter friend, made shadow puppets and presented the comic tales to the Sultan from behind a screen. Hoping to separate himself from the bawdy humour and social satire of his carpenter-friend,  his puppets’ substanceless shadows delivered the indelicate punchlines before the Sultan.. The ploy worked. Hacivat / Hadjiavatis was safe from the Sultan’s wrath. For it was not he who laughed at authority. No – that was air, breath and an immaterial substance,  and an absence of light, an absence of being, a spirit being, a being only with light – a shadow, Karagöz / Karagiozi’s shadow.

Karagöz / Karagiozi’s spirit, his shadow, had succeeded in making the Sultan laugh. Now the Sultan wanted to laugh and laugh again. And he did. So began a theatrical tradition that was openly enjoyed and endorsed in the Ottoman world and is still enjoyed today.

But in whose culture does this story belong? The Greek or the Turkish? The answer lies in Bursa.

Bursa was the capital of the Ottoman Empire before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Written account of the performance of Karagöz dates back to the early 1500’s. Looking at the grand architecture of Bursa from the 15th and 16th centuries the Green Mosque presents an interesting possible answer to the origin-story dilemma.

The Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) or the Mosque of Mehmed I was built in Bursa between 1419 and 1421 A.D.. An inscription above niches over the entrance door dedicates the building to its architect, Haci Ivaz. Haci Ivaz, as it is written, looks a lot like Hacivat. Wikipedia gives Haci Ivaz as an alternate form of Hacivat together with Hacivad. We are told that Haci Ivaz was the son of a civic man of authority, Ahi Beazit, who held the position of prefect of Bursa. He would later become Bursa’s governor. Wikipedia tells us that as such a high ranking official in Bursa, Ahi Beazit was conceivably involved in overseeing the project. Teamwork and craftsmanship of the Mason’s Guild would get the job done. It is not a leap to think that the architect and his father’s role’s in the project were conflated and given to the character of Hacivat. This would make the origin story Turkish. But does it mean that Karagöz as a theatrical character preceeded Karagiozi?

The Green Mosque in Bursa

The Entrance to the Green Mosque, Bursa

If the origin story belongs to Karagöz, does it prove that Karagiozi grew out of it? In a previous post I brought up the concern that written records could not exist before the Greek War of Independence for performances of Karagiozi. This is due to the cultural genocide practices inflicted on Greeks during the Ottoman occupation. Written records for performances of Karagiozi begin in the mid 1800’s. The Karagöz puppet theatre was permitted by the Ottoman Turks and then transformed into the Karagiozi puppet theatre enjoyed by the Greeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has been well documented. At a quick glance it would seem that the development of the character of Karagiozi was one directional, from Karagöz into Karagiozi. However, more questions arise when you look at the drawing of the puppets themselves.



In visual presentation Karagöz and Karagiozi have very little in common. Karagiozi is easily recognizable in his threadbare and patched green coat and culottes, bare feet, bare head, hunched back and exceedingly long arm. Karagöz, also an illiterate and impulsive clown who chases get rich quick schemes, looks totally different. His arms are in proportion to his body, he does not wear patched clothing nor is his clothing green. He does wear shoes and also a hat. He looks to be of the middle class, not living the life of poverty that Karagiozi emerges from.

Karagöz Muzesi in Bursa - Karagöz


Hacivat and Hadjiavatis also differ. Both are town criers however Hadjiavatis is always presented pulling on his own beard. Hadjiavatis is not as poor as Karagiozi but he is not the comfortable and highly educated Hacivat, blowing through his flute in the Turkish tradition. There is no beard holding or pulling in the presentation of Hacivat.

Hadjiavatis and Karagiozi have very specific deviations from the visual presentation of Karagöz and Hacivat. The symbolism of which is a reference back to the pagan times, before the Ottoman Turks and before even the Byzantines. Their appearance prompts questions about the performance of Greek drama not only in the Ottoman Empire when Greek culture was suppressed but also in the Byzantine Empire when pagan cultures, even Greek ones, were suppressed.

Contemplating the peculiarities of Karagiozi and Hadjiavatis appearances, I find myself asking, “When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear?”

The fodder of next times post.
On Facebook and coming soon to my Crafty Karagiozi board on Pinterest, Karagiozi’s Hovel and the Vizier’s Seray. Also scroll through my Karagöz and Hacivat board and Karagiozi board on Pinterest for still images of these lovely shadow puppets.

Inside Yesil Cami, The Green Mosque

Photo credit: CharlesFred / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The Entrance Door to the Green Mosque

Photo credit: C, BursaharlesFred / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA


Photo credit: Foter.com / CC BY-SA


Photo credit: CharlesFred / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Wikipedia, Shakespeare & Shadow Puppets

I love Wikipedia. I love the knowledge it contains. I love the breadth of its coverage. I love its images. I love the commons and the accessibility of its information. I enjoy its brand of articles – they are felt before they are fact. And I love the democracy in its inclusion. By that, I mean I love the way anyone can write a Wiki page without a council of editors judging whether the topic is worthy.

Wikipedia wordmark

Wikipedia began with a passion for knowledge and the sharing of it. As to the accuracy of its content, each page is its own entity. Wikipedia is a good gauge of how people have reacted to a subject, how much exposure they have had to it and their impressions of it.

Every so often I come across a wiki-page that is bemusing. There is something disconcerting about the way it is written. Grammar, tenses and content need editing. Or perhaps they have been over-edited. In very low instances a sentence seems to have been begun by one writer and finished by another. Meaning is lost. When the subject matter is controversial this is more likely to occur. The Karagiozi page is an example. The Earl of Oxford’s, “Edward de Vere” page, is more so.


Edward Oxenford aka Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Now I can understand why the leading claimant to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays would be controversial, but Karagiozi? Shakespeare is not just a man’s name. He was not just any old figure in the world of the English renaissance stage. He seems to have a greater meaning for all of us. The suggestion that Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him rankles even people who have only a cursory acquaintance with his work.

“Shakespeare” is an anchor in world history. He is a name, a time, a place, a point of reference in history. He is part of a diagram of anchors that include figures like Adam and Eve, Buddha, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Muhammad, Martin Luther etc. They evoke a time and place away from us. We place ourselves in history in relation to them. When history is a dot-to-dot picture or a pixel anchored image, moving just one anchor or removing it altogether means that the entire sketch has to be re-proportioned. Each anchor is affected. We have to redefine ourselves in that picture.

Questioning Shakespeare’s name or his existence as a unique soul is understandably upsetting, but Karagiozi? Karagiozi, although a fictitious character is almost a national identity in modern day Greece. He is the irreverent clown who laughs at authority, outwits the educated and survives through poverty and strife. For many Greeks there wasn’t a time when he didn’t exist. For generations he has just been there. His early scenarios see him besting his Ottoman overlords. Didn’t he always get the better of the Turks?

Here is the problem. Written records of performances of Karagiozi do not exist for the period of the Ottoman occupation of Greece. His first recorded performances in Greece were in a Pireus coffeehouse in the mid 19th century, decades after the end of the Greek War of Independence. The puppets had a decided Ottoman character. The puppeteer, Mimaros began adding Greek characters in the late 19th century. Did the nature of the stories also change at this time?

Karagöz Muzesi in Bursa - Karagöz

Wikipedia, over recent months, has considered merging the Karagöz page with Karagiozi’s. Karagöz is the Turkish shadow puppet, much beloved by the Turksh people. He shares similar traits to Karagiozi. He too, is an irreverent clown. Record of Karagöz performances date back to the early 1500s. In the Turkish performances the comic dialogue between Karagöz and the town crier, Hacivat, is a highlight. In the Greek the same can be said of the dialogue between Karagiozi and the town crier, Hadjiavatis. The similarities stop here. But who pre-dates who?

According to verbal tradition passed from puppeteer to puppeteer, Karagiozi was performed by Greeks during the Ottoman occupation. A Greek may ask, “If Karagiozi is a replica of Karagöz, why do the Ottomen make fools of themselves in these scenarios?” Aggravating the problem is the lack of written accounts because of a campaign of cultural genocide practiced by the Ottomans. The Greek language was suppressed. How could written records survive or even exist? The question of who pre-dated who, can therefore only be partially closed. This is not the only controversy played out on Wikipedia.

The Wayang Kulit

The first time that I visited the Karagiozi page it seemed to have suffered the carnage of a previous battle. I wished I had visited it earlier. It seems as though a Karagiozi enthusiast had upset a Wayang Kulit (Ancient Indonesian Shadow Puppet theatre) fan by suggesting that Karagiozi pre-dated the Wayang Kulit. Didn’t the Ancient Greeks do everything first? Apparently not. Karagiozi and Karagöz, whichever came first, are theatrical phenomena of the Ottoman Empire. Does the tradition of shadow puppetry in the area predate the Ottoman Empire? Can evidence of it be found with the Seljuk Turks or the Byzantine Empire (aka Eastern Roman Empire)? What do the puppets themselves tell us? This is the fodder of a future post.

As for Wikipedia, currently it is running a fund raising campaign. It would be a shame to see it go. We should all help in our own way.

Good health and happiness to you all.

P.S. For more images of the Karagiozi, the Karagöz and the Wayang Kulit, visit the Crafty Theatre Pinterest page.

Photo credit: Foter.com / Public domain – Wikipedia

Photo credit: Unknown artist / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0 – Earl of Oxford

Photo credit: CharlesFred / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA – Karagöz

Photo credit: Broken Simulacra / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND – Wayang Kulit

“Opa! Good health and happiness to you all!”



So Karagiozi greets you, or something like that. Welcome to Crafty Theatre, for the love of theatre of disguise and visual realization of crafty imagination.

Sthanding on the wall


Making theatre can involve many different skills. It begins with the storyteller: the playwright or the performer. The storyteller is only sometimes the narrator. More often a playwright writes the fable or the performer craftily creates events in real time improvisation. Scenery, costume, props, sound, lights and stage management take their roles. Let’s not forget marketing (for without an audience, all we have is a rehearsal). And then there are other types of storytellers, those that can’t be approached, those in disguise.

Puppets, masks and pseudonyms give the storyteller the freedom to satirise, teach or otherwise comment and poke fun at the world at large or the communal fishbowl.

Puppets and masks fascinate with their heightened reality – the way they move or talk. Be they bigger, different, awkward, grotesque or smoother, they are almost us. But not quite. We give them license to mock our humanity but the minute they become us, they hit the road.

Il Carnevale di Ascoli: Laboratorio permanente di Commedia dell\'Arte

Commedia dell’Arte

The lessons they teach us are learnt subtly, delivered from behind exaggeration’s veil. Their world is simplified. In traditional puppet and mask theatres like Karagiozi and the Commedia dell’arte performers portray a narrow definition of character e.g., the trickster, the quack, the braggart, the scholar etc. In this way they can exaggerate a stance on the issue driving the story forward. That stance is visually conveyed in the puppet or performer’s posture, costume and voice. In their world problems are simply described and solutions are apparent. Exaggeration grabs the audience’s attention and the simple solution to a universal foible e.g., jealousy or greed or vanity, is arrived at by the audience even before it is acted out. The puppet/mask’s issue becomes the audience’s issue and its advice is subtly accepted. The puppet succeeds where the human may fail.

Essentially this blog is about theatrical proxies – masks, puppets and pseudonyms. Crafty Theatre is about the making of theatre and posts DIY projects on its Facebook page and Pinterest site. The theoretical ideas that these projects inspire will be posted here.
Your responses will, I hope, contribute to creaing a “cyberspace” bee – another manifestation of ourselves sitting like Plato’s perfect forms around a communal table sharing PVA glue, pencil sharpeners and passing scissors as we discuss the theatre arts, history and the way of the world.

Karagiozi Wall Art credit:

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/ellie-yannis/8400605891/”>Pensive glance</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com/”>Foter.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-SA</a>


Commedia Dell’Arte image credit:

Photo credit: Flaviakappa / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA