Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Return to Istanbul part 4

I've just seen the news that 10 people have been killed at Istanbul Atatürk airport. I think there may be extra anger there because this has happened in the holy month. I saw a thing on Al Jazeera news about how Ramadan, particularly the iftar feast at the end of the day, is the best way to counter the image of angry Islam that terrorists are putting about, and that seemed like a good point to me. The hate-filled people who are doing hate-filled things make me so angry I become full of hate too (though, obviously, not to the extent that I'm going to act like them). But I had a really lovely time in Istanbul and remembering the iftar feasts by the Blue Mosque, which were like huge happy picnics, and ought to be the international image of Istanbul, just makes me feel angrier about the people who did this. I still want to go back there again some day; it's one of my favourite cities. I hope things get better for it, and for the Turkish people.

Head of Sappho
This is the last of my posts about this trip. I ran out of both time and oomph to look at sights, so I didn't get to some of the places I'd wanted to go -- I didn't revisit Topkapı Palace, or go to any of the great mosque complexes, or see the museum of Islam and the Sciences. But one of the highlights of my first trip was the Istanbul Archaeological Museum so I was determined to go back there. Unfortunately it turned out to be undergoing renovations. One of the most amazing things, the Alexander Sarcophagus (when I went with Fiona she said it rendered Michelangelo unnecessary) wasn't visible. Some of the smaller highlights had been gathered into a small room, including an amazing head of Sappho, about four feet high.  Last time I went I was very impressed with their display, which was roomy and informative without being oppressive.  They had huge pictures of the artifacts on the walls, which made you notice things you wouldn't otherwise have seen, like a little owl at the feet of a statue of Athena, or the detail of someone's clothing.  When they reopen I hope they do that again, because at the moment their information boards like they were made in the 80s and have been pulled out of storage.

The cats were still playing among the broken columns and statuary in the courtyards, though there were fewer than last time.  I was pleased to find this tombstone for a dog which I remembered from before

The translation of the text (I expect via a Turkish intermediary) said:
His owner has buried the dog Parthenope, that he played with, in gratitude for this happiness.  (Mutual) love is rewarding, like the one for the dog: Having been a friend to my owner, I have deserved this grave:
Looking at this, find yourself a worthy friend who is both ready to love you while you are still alive and also will care for your body (when you die).

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Return to Istanbul part 3

Anastasis, or Harrowing of Hell
The thing I most wanted to see in Istanbul this time was the Chora church, or Kariye Müsezi.  Like Hagia Sophia, it was converted into a mosque after the conquest, and then in the twentieth century into a museum. It's a lot smaller than Hagia Sophia, but has many more surviving mosaics and frescos. Unfortunately it's not easy to get to, being right out by the land walls and not near any tram stops. I ended up getting a taxi, which was easy and surprisingly cheap.

The wedding at Cana (water into wine)
The main part of the church was closed so I couldn't see a few of the mosaics, but actually most of the surviving ones are in the narthex and exonarthex. For many years now I have preferred to travel with a Blue Guide if there's one available for the city where I'm going -- there tends to be for the sorts of cities I prefer -- and these have helpful glossaries for terms like exonarthex as well as really detailed floor plans. (The Istanbul one also has lists not only of Emperors and Sultans but of Ecumenical Patriarchs.) The Chora mosaics contrain three complex cycles of illustrations, including many scenes from the life of the Virgin, which you have to follow round in a particular order -- I don't know if it's intentionally meant to make you feel dizzy, but it's not the sort of art you can quietly contemplate, it's more something you have to battle. The parecclesion, a sort of side-chapel, is full of very well-preserved frescos, including a massive anastasis or resurrection, with Christ pulling Adam and Eve from their sepulchres.  There weren't many other people there, maybe because it was partially closed, or maybe because it's not easy to get to by yourself, though I think it's the sort of place that cruise-ship travellers get bussed out to. I'm very glad I saw it, and taking a taxi was a pragmatic solution. It cost about £7.50 including tip; the driver was pretty obviously taking me a long way round but I decided not to worry about it because it was interesting to see the land walls, which are still in good shape. If I were the sort of person who enjoyed long walks in hot weather I would have walked the land walls.

After that I went to somewhere where it was literally just me and some lizards, the church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, the Joyful God-bearer, also known as Fethiye Museum. Again this Byzantine Church was converted into a mosque after the conquest, but the main building is still a mosque. The surviving mosaics are in a side-chapel, so they turned that into a museum with its own separate entrance. Apparently the mosque is worth seeing, architecturally, but it's not usually open so you have to go at prayer time, wait til prayers are over, and then ask someone nicely if you can have a look around, and I was too shy. It was in a very traditional and non-touristy part of town where women were wearing full black hijabs with only their eyes showing. Apparently you might hear Kurdish spoken around there (not that I would recognise it).

A lot of the mosaics are lost but there are still many left, a few entire scenes and quite a lot of bishops and saints. The simpler plan made them easier to look at than the ones in the Chora, and it was nice to be entirely alone there.  The parts where the mosaics have gone are just bare brick now, so you can see the contrast between the bare bones of the building and the sumptuous decoration it once had.
Pantocrator at the top of a dome full of prophets

After this I decided to catch a boat back to the main part of the old city and ended up going to Asia by accident, which sounds a lot more dramatic than it was. It was only the second time I'd been to Asia, the first being when I went to Israel and Palestine (there's a Blue Guide for there too).

Sunday, 19 June 2016

All the letters in a name

Monogram of Justinian

Monogram of Theodora

How my 4-yr-old niece wrote Rebecca in my birthday card

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Return to Istanbul part 2

Looking east from Galata tower over the Bosphorus to Asia, and south over the Golden Horn to Old Istanbul

Zoe looks good for a 70-yr old; Christ keeps an eye on her
Last time I went to Istanbul I travelled with a friend whose attitude to new places is a bit more interesting than mine: where I just seek out and try to contextualize old things, she looks for varied experiences. So we did a lot more cool things then. But I did miss some of the subtler things in Hagia Sophia. Most of its mosaics have gone, but those that are left have some interesting people in them. I couldn't get a good picture of the Emperor Leo VI, whose total of four marriages scandalised the ecclesiastical establishment, prostrating himself before the pantocrator. There's also a mosaic of the fascinating Zoe, who lived in obscurity for fifty years until from various deaths she became the nearest in line to the throne, and had to make a political marriage. She seems to have rather got into the swing of things, and had a fine time intriguing and promoting people -- she probably murdered her first husband to put her lover and second husband on the throne, only to have him turn on her and try to exile her. She even ruled in her own right for a bit, jointly with her detested sister, before picking out a third spouse in her 60s, and apparently sharing a bed with him and his mistress. In the mosaic she is on the other side of the pantocrator from her third husband, but there's evidence that the husband in question has been updated, probably from her first. I saw a similar thing once in a missal given to Westminster Abbey by Henry VIII.

In the galleries there are a few things that are less beautiful but just as interesting with some background knowledge. Henrico Dandolo's tomb slab is still there -- he directly played a big role in the end of the Byzantine empire. As doge of Venice in the early thirteenth century, being a) blind and b) in his eighties didn't stop his managing to subvert the Fourth Crusade by cunning degrees from an attack on Muslim-held lands, which although objectionable was sort of the point of a crusade, to an attack on the Christian Byzantine emperor. He apparently leapt from his galley to lead the attack which conquered Constantinople, leading to the Latin kingdom. In the later carve up, Venice officially owned one quarter and one eighth of the empire, and looted tons of sparkly stuff which you can see (often ambiguously labelled) in Venice, like the bronze horses at St Mark's and the porphyry statue of the tetrarchs. Although the Greeks eventually got the empire back, it was tremendously weakened by this act of barbarism, and relations with the west were even more damaged. Many Byzantines said that they would rather see the turban in the streets of Constantinople than the cardinal's hat, and in 1453 they got their wish.

Famous in the world of runes, but something I missed seeing last time, is this piece of graffiti naming a certain Halfdan. Apparently it's from the ninth century. Vikings got absolutely everywhere in the early middle ages, and the Varangian guard of vikings in Byzantium was sort of equivalent to the Pretorians in ancient Rome, personally loyal to the emperor and outside the political complexities of the court. But I like to imagine the circumstances in which this was scratched onto a marble balcony looking out over the main space of Hagia Sophia. Did the viking standing next to him think he was a dick? Hagia Sophia is pretty amazing even now, stripped of lots of its decoration and with huge sections of iron scaffolding holding up one side of the immense dome -- when I went in this time I had to find a quiet corner to start in. It was the biggest dome in the world for hundreds of years, certainly until the early modern period. It would have flickered like being inside a jewel, and the liturgy must have been intense and overpowering. In the tenth century Winchester Cathedral -- the new Anglo-Saxon structure, not the larger Norman stone building -- was said to have so many side chapels that people literally got lost in there. I expect Hagia Sophia was pretty stupefying to all the senses. Was carving his name onto the balcony Halfdan's way of interposing something between himself and reality, like the people now who view it entirely via selfies, as if like Perseus fighting Medusa they were dealing with something too dangerous to look at directly? Or did the liturgy just go on for a really, really long time, and he got bored of being on duty?

Return to Istanbul

Over the course of the last year I have finally paid off the loans I took out to do my M.Sc., so for my birthday last week I took my first holiday in ages. When I was choosing where to go it was between three places I wanted to go back to: in order of difficulty, North Italy; Istanbul; and Jerusalem. I chose Istanbul as a bit more of stretch than Bologna and Venice, but more feasible than Jerusalem, especially given that I wanted to travel alone.

Istanbul has changed since I went last time, in 2008. I think Turkey has been hard hit by the political events in its south-west. Istiklal Caddesi, which Daesh bombed earlier this year, wasn't quite the street of high-end fashion designers and upmarket consumerism that I remembered; and I read today that Islamist extremists have forced the cancellation of the Gay Pride march which was due to take place there next week. Also everything was cheaper than I remembered. I spent a total of £250 over four full days and two half days in the city, eating out at least once a day and often twice, buying books and other souvenirs in museum gift shops, and taking taxis to the more out-of-the-way sights. And my hotel was way nicer than I was expecting for what I'd paid -- it's the first hotel I've ever stayed at which had a boutique feel, like someone had deliberately designed it to be in magazines, and it's the first where I've ever ordered room service (£2.50 for a freshly-made cheese and tomato sandwich).

I wasn't totally sure about going during Ramadan, but guide books suggested it would be fine, and they were more than right. I was staying in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city, near the Blue Mosque, and when I first arrived I stumbled upon the huge iftar celebrations for the end of the day. There's a massive plaza in front of the Blue Mosque, where the people assemble in large numbers every evening, covering all the lawns and benches and laying out neat little picnics. They open their bottles of water, and shake their pots of ayran, and carefully unwrap their food and lay it out: then when the muezzin sings there's a great sigh and they all tuck in immediately. There's a big party atmosphere with tons of over-excited kids running around. I went to the Ashill beer festival the night before I left, and there was a similar vibe going on, except that iftar in Istanbul had a) no alcohol and b) racial diversity. The Blue Mosque had a big sign between two of its minarets saying "Dost istersen Allah yeter", which google translate says means 'If you want friendly God enough'.

The Empress Theodora's throne sat here
Being in an Islamic country reminds me of that humane gentleman Thomas Browne, who said "I could never hear the Ave Marie Bell without an elevation". On my birthday I sat ouside Hagia Sophia, where the minarets are still in use although it is now officially a secular museum, and the muezzins of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque seemed to be singing a coordinated duet for the noon prayers. Hagia Sophia is pretty stunning even in its knocked-about state. The selfie stick wasn't a thing when I went before. There are two ways to look at the constant taking of photographs in which most tourists engage (and I'm not much different). On the one hand you could say that it's a shame not to look at things directly in the present, but only to experience them as a future anticipated moment in which you'll look back into this past. Sometimes it might be better to let things happen, and then let them stop happening. On the other hand, when you're composing a photograph you look very carefully and pay direct attention. Also we officially cannot bear very much reality, and maybe interposing some glass between ourselves and the things in front of us is a sort of defence mechanism. But I saw a thing in Hagia Sophia which was new to me: some people were walking around with selfie sticks out in front of them, videoing themselves as they went, and watching everything through their camera as a backdrop to themselves. This seemed pretty extreme. Do people ever actually watch these videos later? How do they feel if they do?