Monday, February 14, 2011


      Curiously, the modern Greek name for Istanbul is "Constantinople."  Similarly, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church here is called the Patriarch of Constantinople.  The funny thing is that Constantine originally wanted to call it NeoRom...the new Rome.   He nestled it in the crook of the arm made by the Golden Horn and the Mamerine Sea, built a palace, a forum, perhaps an 'acropolis' and ran a wall from one body of water to the other.  I went looking for remnants of this wall today, but found nothing.  This town needs a good "guida archaeologica" to be sure.  Constantine's town may have been opulent (he decorated it spoils he took from all over the empire, including a curious column made in the shape of coiled snakes he got from is still here but later despoilers got 2 of the 3 heads--the 3rd is in the archaeological museum) but it was pretty small.  But that wouldn't last long.  Like Rome it very quickly out sprawled its walls.

            It is a vast and sprawling city, notable for being both amazingly clean (I was 20 minutes on the metro from the airport before I saw my first graffiti) and absolutely crazy traffic: after leaving the Metro and getting hopelessly turned around--having been led to expect that I'd gotten off at a transfer station that doesn't exist--I bailed out and got a taxi...we spent the next 10 minutes stalled in a roundabout.  Then, once we got to the old quarter where my hotel was suspected of being, the driver got himself very, very lost and got what even I could tell were contradictory directions from each Turk he met.  After going the wrong way down some streets, backwards down one, and a brief "blinking game" with another taxi on a road that required one of them to back up a block to make room for the other, he managed to communicate that he wasn't going to charge me full price for the fare, but by the time he finally found it for me I realized that I could have wandered for days without finding it… he got his fair share and then some! 

            Once in the hotel I was immediately offered a cup of Turkish coffee (exactly what I needed) and a chat before the clerk even considered checking me in.  He noted that I am a priest and immediately started asking me about--I could not make this up--confession.  The very reason I had been in Thessaloniki.  The concept intrigues him and he is, I think, pleased with the idea.  Being a good Muslim, he asks God's forgiveness directly, and he gets the notion of Reconciliation, he asked me to write the two terms down so he could look them up later.  People, he said, are good and want to be better.  I imagine that was Ambrose's theology of forgiveness in a nutshell.

            After a few minutes to get into my room and say a quick "Thanks," I took a walk in the neighborhood that looked more like a rabbit warren than a street-scape--I enjoy getting lost in new cities, but I'd been shaken by the taxi experience and dang near tied a thread to my thumb like Thesius in the minotaur’s maze (that was Thesius, wasn't it?)  I was cautious, but even so I managed to get to the hippodrome--Latins would call it the Circus, we call it a race track--and look Theodosius in the face...or at least his image (in fact, the face is mostly gone, to be honest).  I am reminded that these days I am following Theodosius rather than Ambrose.  That is o.k., as their lives were so inextricably linked.  Tomorrow should be fun...if I don't get too lost.
            Another day...another Turkish coffee (stuff's addicting) another blather with the clerk--this time about celibacy (he doesn't get it, and the conversation, on his part, got a bit too confessional for my comfort) and before any of that a whole day of one stunning sight after the other.  The Blue Mosque and indeed this whole neighborhood is built right on top of the "Great Palace" begun by Constantine and added to by everyone--including Theodosius until it was a.) moved out of in favor of more secluded palaces--urban sprawl, you know b.) harvested for building materials for those other palaces c.) wrecked by earthquakes and d.) ripped to shreds by the Crusaders (IV Crusade, I think) who looted, ravaged, and burned this jewel of a city and all of its treasures out of frustration and barbarism and finally, e.) was replaced with what we see now by the Ottoman sultans.

            But parts of Roman Constantinople survive: the Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom") was, of course, an Imperial church.  Theodosius (or his epinominous grandson, it is unclear to me which one) had built a church on the site that was a more traditional basilica shape, but Justinian replaced it with this masterpiece.  It rivals St. Peter's and the Pantheon and beats about every other building I've seen save for the Taj Mahal (without peer, really, except for the taint that it's soul function was as a very indulgent tomb for one of the builder's wives). 

            At the first look I was shocked: how was that dome staying in the air?  It took me about an hour to work out that it rests (indeed, is a bit squished to fit, truth be told) on top of the key-centers of 4 spread-eagle arches which, in turn, land on the supporting piers.  Justinian is said to have gasped when he saw it, saying something like "Oh, Solomon, I have really outdone you!"  It is interesting to me that the Roman basilica shape had been the preferred style even here prior to that.  The famous Greek Cross churches (almost all of which have become mosques) seem to fall somewhere between Theodosius and Justinian.  The oldest church--and one that became a weapons magazine rather than a mosque--is, in fact, a basilica...the Church of Hagia Eriene (St. Irene, but more poetically, "Holy Peace.")  Istanbul is as full of ancient religious houses as Rome, and that makes sense: both became "Christian" cities at about the same time and both swiftly occupied their town centers with physical indicators of their conversion.

            One could wish--for aesthetic reasons rather than any sort of partisanship--that more of the mosaics had been spared in that next wave of transformation from church to mosque.  There are some stunning remnants high up in the balconies of Hagia Sophia that give some sense...there are more still buried under the iconophobic plaster work.  Of course iconoclasm long pre-dates Islam, especially here, but that is another story.

            Theodosius and his brood (son and heir Arcadius, grandson Theodosius II, and granddaughters galore) all built, and not just churches.  They added their own contributions to the Great Palace, including a water side palace, of which only a chuck remains...running into and under later construction; walls running the length of the shore line, large stretches of which still stand; fantastic mosaics of which about 15% are still intact and in situ in an underground museum.  Theodosius built a mile marker as is found in Rome, as in 'all roads lead to the New Rome.'  He built a forum beyond that of Constantine’s (of Constantine's only one column remains) with a curious triumphal arch with columns meant to look like pruned tree trunks.  Even though only a scattered few bits of it remain, it still looks odd.  Arcadius built his own forum as did his 3 sisters.  A new wall was built much further out...still impressive in the night, lit up, as one is coming into town.
            All in all, it was designed from its inception as the Neo-Rome and even constructed to mimic it...the hippodrome here has the same relation to the palace as in Rome (and Thessaloniki, for that matter)...obelisks were brought from Egypt or built on site...artwork plundered from all over the world (Constantine brought a curious column shaped of 3 intertwined bronze snakes from Delphi)...Theodosius built a forum to rival that of Trajan's, including a spiral frieze arch with his statue on top (Justinian swapped it out for his own image: Emperor envy?).  Constantinople was a lot smaller than Rome, but I have to admit...the view is better...I mean, really.

            The great hippodrome ran along the front of the Great Palace complex (a campus really, with its own circus, library, bath, and countless other buildings).  The imperial fora run along a line perpendicular to the hippodrome.   Directly underneath the corner where they join is a vast underground cistern that is still intact...12 rows of 24 columns each, holding up a brick vault roof right under the #2 trolly tracks.  There is still water in it--and fish even.  I have never dreamed of seeing anything like this.  The columns, I should say, were reused and even cut or modified to fit.  Astonishingly, two colossal Medusa heads were stuck on the bottom of 2 columns to make them fit.  Pagan altars were also used to bridge the gaps.  It is amazing.  It was discovered about a hundred years ago when a European scholar heard stories of people dropping buckets into holes in their basements to get water and even the occasional fish. 

            Up above the Blue Mosque sits on top of the Imperial Palace and the Hagia Sophia is immediately in front of that.  Together these form a new line that continues with the Hagia Eirene, then the great Topkapi Palace of the Turkish Sultans.  This last structure gives one some idea of what Theodosius' palace would have looked like, including the bath (the famous institution of the Turkish Bath--Hamam--is the direct decedent of Roman Baths).  It is divided into 4 courts, each one withdrawn from the other with tighter security about who could get in.  It reminds me of Akra's Red Fort in India, except it is not nearly so opulent (though Istanbul's Sultans did use the water-side part of the Roman Imperial palace complex as an elephant stable).  The innermost court was the Harem which, by the way, just means the family quarters...not to say that there were not multiple wives (4 being the legal limit) and concubines (no limit but what one could afford). 

            I am learning to read architecture, including the arrangement of buildings vis-a-vis one another, and the point of this layout is to make the Sultan as remote and inaccessible as possible.  Theodosius might not have recognized this idea, but maybe so.  Ever since Nero went East there was an imperial fascination with being mystically and mysteriously aloof.  This wouldn't get totally crazy, though, until Justinian or even later--we know that Theodosius was pretty accessible: Ambrose and others had fairly good access (though, famously, in Milan Theodosius once black listed Ambrose for a brief time over some ambiguous spat).  By the late Ottoman period the Sultan had to eat alone, like a single tourist does today, but because no one was found worthy of his company.  He even had to eve's drop through a specially designed niche into the court chamber from where the Grand Visor and other administrators ran the kingdom.

            Diocletian had vastly enlarged the size of imperial bureaucracy but even then it was nothing that a good sized city in the US wouldn't have recognized as essential.  The Emperor (or emperors) was still very much a hand's on administrator...which is why Trier, Milan, Thessaloniki, Sirmium, Antioch, Aquileia, and even Constantinople were so important: they were near the hot points that required personal imperial attention.  So, no harem for Theodosius (he married twice, but not at the same time and, as far as we know, no concubines). 

            Just beyond the Sultan's Harem is a set of archaeological museums that would be very easy to miss.  Indeed, it was only my dependency on Turkish coffee that got me was expensive in the gift shop, so I decided to sit and relax with it and the guide book...which informed me of this jewel within a jewel (by the way, part of the palace is a series of rooms with cut gems, gold clothing, diamond encrusted knives, turbans, and baubles that defy description....presuming that all courts from China to England are equally into such much of that sort of thing must there be, and how was it ever paid for on the backs of the poor: one diamond in this collection--as big as a cow's eye--was (inexplicably--or at least not explained) found by a peasant rooting through the garbage.

            But to the archaeological museum.  Stacks of 1000 years worth of Imperial tombs, all looted (not by Muslims, but my revenue famished Byzantine emperors) including, possibly, Constantine's (it is that red porphyry of his mother's and daughter's tombs in the Vatican), fragments of the arches, statues, busts, inscriptions, triumphal column, and even the palm tree shaped column...tantalizing traces of Theodosius' world.  IV century Roman imperial sarcophagi are, I realized, really rather modest in their scheme...though made of porphyry, most lack any more embellishment than a wreathed chi ro (the anagram for the first two Greek letters of the word Christ: 'chi' looks like an X and "rho" looks like a P, superimpose them and you will instantly recognize the symbol...used by ancient Christian Roman Legions in the banner-labarum-that they carried into battle.  Even the stunningly sculptured tombs in the Vatican are nothing compared to other Roman, Greek, Ionian, etc. sarcophagi.  One was so huge that the figures carved on all 4 surfaces were, and I have photos to prove it, life size.

            Inside the museum is a series of displays by neighborhood of Istanbul (originally discrete villages) that shows how sprawling were the imperial references.  Not everything spoken about is actually in the museum....some if it is in situ.  Thus, later, I found a monumental column from the Forum of Theodosius alongside the tram tracks while looking for an ATM.  But the exhibit is almost intimate...if I were searching for my own family genealogy I do not think I could have been more taken by the fragments, clues, and occasional real find that links us with them.  While it is certainly stretching things, I was very taken by two sculptures of "Lawyers" from the IV century.  They are portraits (one is rather older and a bit haggard, the other young and enthusiastic....think rookie teacher and 20 year veteran).  I couldn't help but think of Ambrose, who was exactly that position for at least 4 years prior to his accession as Governor, so I took their photos.  Whoever they were, they were contemporaries and colleagues.

            Tomorrow I am off for a 2 day adventure to Ephesus.  This has nothing to do with Ambrose, to be honest, and I should be trekking to Nicaea, if anywhere, but it is a lure that is hard to beat...the best preserved Roman city in the Eastern Mediterranean, their Pompeii, it is said.  Also, of course, Paul was there.  So too were, it is said, Mary and St. John.  Yes, I should go.

            Istanbul is still much like Rome in so many ways, not all of them good, but each is a testament to the ability of people to adapt to the eddies and swirls of history.  Of course they are also testaments to our human instinct for conquest, for building a memorial to power from the sweat of the nameless and countless who molded and made the bricks, hewed and hauled the marble, who crafted and carved the art.  The results, even in ruin, are spectacular, and also a bit sad.  Theodosius died 1600 years ago, leaving the West to a child-king, Honorarius and the East to a child-king Arcadius.  Both were failures and while the East, at Constantinople, would hold together until finally picked apart by the Ottomans in the 15th century, the West would change dramatically.  Ambrose, by the way, seemed to worry about the wisdom of Theodosius.  While delivering the funeral homily for his friend he announced that Theodosius himself had told him that his desire was that General Stilico should be regent of both the East and West until the boys were grown.  This was ignored by the court of Byzantium here in favor of splitting the two.  I don't suppose it would have made much difference if he had been listened to.

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