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?

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