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.
In the rear of Hagia Sophia
The Sultan’s Family Crypt with the coffins of his family members – in an annex to Hagia Sophia
The Sultan’s family crypt, Hagia Sophia
Restoring Hagia Sophia, 2014
Cherubim in Pendentive of Hagia Sophia
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.
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!
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?
Where is the Hippodrome?
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.