Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Travel Journal (5)--Istanbul? Again?

This is the typical response I get when I explain my recent absence from home and work; a fair question considering this is my 4th or 5th time in the city. If not at exactly at home in Istanbul, I have at

least become casually familiar with the city. It is now to the point where I actually bump into friends there. On three separate occasions recently, in different parts of the city, I happened upon friends and acquaintances. I am able to leave the airport by Metro, switch to the tram, then take the funicular and arrive at Taksim Square, all for about $2. I can launch off into untouristed neighborhoods sans map and find my way back. I have no qualms about slipping into a working-class taverna for a Efes, or a nargile. I have rescued first-time tourists on the brink of making travel blunders. If I am hanging around the hotel lobby, the staff may ask me for assistance in advising guests. So, in a very small way, I feel that I am a part of things there, as opposed to just being an outside observer.

That's well and good, but it still doesn't answer the question "Why?" I suppose I wanted to return to Istanbul to scratch my Byzantine itch, so to speak. My guide in this was Freeley's wonderful Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul--a great read, but only if you are seriously into this sort of thing. Any remaining scrap of old Constantinople is covered, in great detail, in this work. My check-off list included several old churches (now mosques) somewhat off the tourist trail: the Church of Theotokos ton Loubes, the Church of St. Polyeuktus, the Church of the Pammakaristos, the Myraleion, etc. I wanted to stroll what had been the Meses, the once grand collanaded thoroughfare in which Emperor and commoner alike entered the metropolis. I wanted to approach the Apostoleion, the hill of the Church of the Holy Apostles, from this vantage point and imagine what once was. In short, I intended to wander about and perhaps catch a faint whiff of old Constantinople. But at night--I wanted to be counted among the thoroughly modern Istanbulis!

After stashing my bag at the hotel, I headed for the Sultanhamet tram stop. I planned to ride as far as Aksaray, get off and approach the Fatih Camii (site of the Church of the Holy Apostles) from the south, then circle back along the route of the old Meses (now Divan Yolu Caddesi and others). Along the way, I would visit the sites of 4 old churches and the Monument to Marcian.

The Church of the Holy Apostles is one of the lost wonders of Constantinople. Built atop the 4th hill by Constantine the Great, and rebuilt by Justinian, it was second only to the Haghia Sophia. St. Marks in Venice is modeled upon the Church of the Holy Apostles. Beginning with Constantine, and continuing for 700 years, it was the burial place of the Roman Emperors of the East. By the middle of the 11th century, other churches, mainly the Church of Christ Pantocrator, began to fill that role.

The Church suffered terribly during the capture of the city by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Franks ransacked the sanctuary and pried open the giant porphyry tombs of the Emperors--from Constantine the Great down to Constantine VIII--looted them of all jewels and other valuables, then threw the corpses into the street. Holy Apostles never recovered. The period after the expulsion of the Latins and return of the Byzantines in 1261 saw the construction of smaller, though exquisite, churches (Chora, Pammakaristos, etc.) By the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Holy Apostles was almost in ruins. Mehmet the Conquerer tore it down and built the present Fatih Camii from the stones. Fatih Camii, while large, is for the most part indistinguishable from any number of other Ottoman mosques.

The Church of the Theotokos ton Loubes, or the Church of Constantine Lips, lies at the base of the 4th hill. The 1100 year old building is holding up just fine. Though open, I did not investigate much inside. 500 years as a mosque has obliterated anything of much interest to me. The site of Holy Apostles lies up the hill, 12 blocks north. Even in the midst of the jumble of modern buildings, it was still possible to envision the magnificence of the site. About 4 blocks away, in a busy working class neighborhood, I stopped and tried to take a picture that would convey some sense of the site (unsuccessfully). I was leaning up against a shop window, and only noticed afterwards that it was a wedding dress store. The displays were full of mannequins in full white wedding dress splendor. The two clerks behind the counter were dressed in headscarves and conservative long coats. Somehow, I was amused by this. While that sort of dress might do for everyday, for weddings they wanted the full American treatment, with all the meringue.

From there, my walk took me downhill, past the Aqueduct of Valens, past the excavations of Anicia Juliana's Church of St. Polyeuktos. Juliana was immensely wealthy, the royal heir of both the Eastern and Western Empire, and even considered as a contender for Empress of the East. She lost out to Justinian, who viewed her church-building with envy. The church is said to be modeled on the Temple of Solomon, though only the foundation remains. The Monument to the Emperor Marcian occupies the center of a small roundabout in a residential neighborhood. I am still amazed to see a column still there, 1600 years later.

It took a bit of detective work to find the Myralaion, the church built by Emperor Romanus Lecapenus. In my search, I wandered into the strange Laleli District. Though just off the main road, the area was chock-a-block with flashy hotels, with glitzy lobbies open to the street. Often, there would be women sitting downstairs near the front desk. The stores displayed decidedly western clothes of a certain sort--a sort, I might add, that no Turkish woman, however westernized, would wear. In the midst of all this glitz, I stumbled across a 19th-century Greek church compound. Though clearly being used for other purposes now, the bell tower with a cross on top belied its original use. I did not like this part of town, so made my way back up to Ordu Caddesi. Later, in talking with my friend Turan, he told me what I had already surmised. Turks like to locate similar type businesses together. For example, there are districts where shop after shop sells fabrics. There is another street, across the Golden Horn, that I just call "Hardware Street." This district, it seems, was the Russian hooker district.

Visiting the Chora Church again and Pammakaristos for the first time forced me to utilize a taxi. The churches are inconvenient, but worth the trouble. The ride out there takes you along the southern shore of the Golden Horn, past the area where the Franks breached the sea wall in 1204, then along the still impressive Theodosian walls for a quite a stretch. Chora has the most sublime frescoes in Turkey--or anywhere else for that matter. Since last there, they have opened up the grounds and made it more tourist-friendly. I was surprised to see that the Church of the Pammakaristos was now open and charging admission (which I gladly paid). It's mosaics, while less extensive than Chora's, are every bit as glorious. While Turkey may continue to tighten the screws on its remaining Greek Orthodox citizens, they have awakened to the tourist potential of these historic Christian sites, not only here, but throughout the country. Enough for now.


Hilarius said...

Marvelous post, John! If ever I go to Istanbul, I'm going to have to hire you as a guide (hey - a second career for you!).

Love the photos as well - any chance of some tags to know the location of the icons (which church, which transept, etc.)?

And thank you for the kind comment over at Forty Days.

Eric John

Anonymous said...

Beautiful work John! Thank you so much.


John said...

Thanks for the kind words.

And as to the tour guide business--I'm ready when you are.

The photos are, in order:

Church of the Theotokos ton Loubos (aka Church of Constantine Lips)

Church of the Pammakaristos

Christ Pantocrator from the Church of the Pammakaristos

St. Anthony from Church of the Pammakaristos

Theotokos and Christ from Chora Church

Haghia Eirene