Sunday, July 11, 2010
2010 Travel Notes #3: My Cousin, the Istanbulli
I have been to Istanbul so many times, I am a bit ashamed to mention that I tagged it once more. I have been there for extended stays every year since 2003, save 2005 and 2009. My excuse this year is as follows: A young parishioner in our mission teaches history at a local private college. He initiated the study-abroad program there, and this was the year he carried his students to Greece. After shipping his students back home, his intention was to remain there a bit longer and visit Thessaloniki and Mount Athos. His younger brother, also a parishioner, was along for the ride. These two siblings also form a web of connectiveness with my family. One is my godson, and my son is the godson of the other. I told them that they couldn't get that close to Istanbul without seeing the city. So, they tacked-on another 4 days to their trip, providing me with an opportunity to play tour guide.
We Orthodox Christians tend to romanticize "Constantinople." I like to consider myself an amateur Byzantinist and am guilty of half-believing that history more or less stopped in 1453. But I've seen enough of the city to temper this tendency with a strong dose of reality. For Constantinople is long gone. I never refer to it as such, unless making an historical reference or speaking specifically of the Patriarchate. And much of our posturing about the EP itself is often nothing more than a polite fiction. What one finds, on the ground, is a vibrant Turkish metropolis approaching 15 million. A good friend sent me a link reviewing what appears to be an excellent book on the city, Streets of Memory, found here. I agree wholeheartedly with the book's premise--the city is no longer the cosmopolitan melting pot it always was before. Istanbul has not been such since the anti-Greek riots of 1955, and any pretense otherwise is just so much nostalgic posturing. The presence of the old minorities--Greeks, Armenians, Jews, etc.--is now so infinitesimally small as to have no discernible influence (and of course, until the formation of the Turkish Republic, they were not minorities in the city.) Istanbul is thoroughly Turkish, not necessarily a bad thing. But Orthodox travelers need to come to terms with this, for if they arrive here seeking a scent of old Constantinople they are apt to be disappointed. As much as I love the city, my stays are always bittersweet, and even a bit melancholy at times.
Originally, I was to arrive a day before Zach and Taylor, and they were to meet me at my friend Hakan's hotel in Sultanhamet. As things turned out, we all arrived the same day, and I immediately saw I would have to revise my itinerary. Greece had not been an altogether good experience for them, and they were exhausted, coming off Mount Athos and a 10-hour bus ride from Thessaloniki. I had anticipated as much, as their study-abroad itinerary (of which they had no control) spent too much time in and around Athens, and the following week on Mount Athos might have been a little too much, too soon. I mentally discarded about a third of what I intended to show them, focusing on a more relaxed experience of what the city had to offer. As it turned out, this was by far the best plan. Both brothers enjoyed Istanbul, and much preferred it to Athens (with which there is no real comparison.) They remarked in particular about how courteous everyone is here, which I also find to be a hallmark of the city.
I will not go into any great detail about Istanbul. I have written at length in years past of my experiences, found here, here, here, here, here, and here for starters. Suffice to say, we tagged the must-sees in Sultanhamet. Haghia Sophia never fails to impress, and every time I visit, it seems yet another fresco has been uncovered. We tried (unsuccessfully) to sneak into Haghia Eirene. No one was terribly interested in being jostled by Turkish tourists from the hinterland straining to see a strand of Muhammed's beard, or his footprint, and so we skipped Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque should be seen so one can say they've been to a mosque. The site of the Hippodrome was close by, and I explained its lay-out, monuments and connection with the Great Palace. The cool and quiet of the Basilica Cistern, followed by a relaxing glass of apple cay in the underground cafe there was a big hit. We walked from the Milion down the Divanyolu Caddesi, past the Monument of Constantine to the Grand Bazaar. As long as one realizes that this has long been a totally touristic enterprise, and in no way resembling a traditional Middle Eastern souq, then it can be great fun, particularly if you like to play the game with the touts. We did not linger long here, as Zach purchased some trinkets for his young sons, and we were on our way out.
Walking back, I introduced them to one of the great joys of the city, a nargile cafe. The place was packed with men and women, as it had been every time I had been there before. The waiter ushered us to a couch in the back, and in short order, we each were fitted with nargile and a cup of cay. The late afternoon drifted by slowly, and we must have spent 2 hours thus occupied. And along the way, I think each realized the wonderful thing about being in any great city--and is, in effect what defines a "great" city--and that involves not rushing to this museum or that site, but the mere being there itself (think Central Park in NYC, any cafe in Buenos Aires, standing on a bridge over the Seine in Paris, etc.) In my reckoning, if a city cannot evoke this sentiment (think Dallas for example,) then it cannot make no claim on greatness.
The younger of the brothers is preparing to embark upon matrimony, so this relaxed setting provided me ample opportunity to pass along my best "relationship" advice. This wisdom centers around two items: First, I recounted the scene from Shenandoah when Lt. Sam (Doug McClure) was asking for the hand of Charlie Anderson's (Jimmy Stewart) daughter. The nervous suitor was proclaiming his ardent love for the young lady, but her father was having none of it. He asked the young man if he liked his daughter. McClure adamantly reasserted his love for the young lady. Then Stewart told him that that was not what he asked him. He went on the explain what he meant by talking of his late wife Martha, and how they came to love one another, over time, but what got them through was the fact that they liked one another. I think that advice is valid. And as "Shenandoah" is the only movie that can still make me tear-up, I place great store by it. The other bit of advice was for Taylor to take a clear-eyed appraisal of his future mother-in-law. For chances are, that is very much who he will find himself married to in 25 to 30 years. The advice seemed well-received--of course, having a captive audience who depend on you to lead then home always helps.
The next day I carried them to the far side of the old city. The Chora church, out by the old Theodosian walls, contains the most exquisite frescoes surviving from the Byzantine world. Too far out to walk, and far away from the tram line, the only option is to put yourself at the mercy of Istanbul taxi system. The trek out there was well worth the effort. From Chora, we walked southeast, paralleling the Golden Horn. This takes us through a portion of the city seldom visited by tourists. This area is home to immigrants from some very conservative areas of Anatolia. It is in this part of the city that one will see bearded men in skull caps, women completely covered in black burquas, and medrassas. Our destination was the Church of the Pammakaristos. Actually it has been a mosque for the last 500 years or so, but in recent years they have opened the old south chapel as a tourist attraction. The frescoes here are as exquisite as those in Chora, just not as extensive. One wonders what treasures lie underneath the whitewash in the main part of the old church. From there, we walked down the hill into the old Greek Phanar.
The Phanar is not one of my favorite parts of the city. The derelict old Greek houses have some interest, and there is a bit of gentrification underway, but by and large, this is a depressing area--again, perhaps for knowing what it once was. We made our way down to the lower regions of the district, and located the Armenian cathedral,
Surp Hirestagabet (Holy Archangels.) The large church is completely hidden behind compound walls, as is the norm in Turkey. A Divine Liturgy was underway, so we stayed for part of it. My companions were a bit surprised at how Roman Catholic it all seemed--the altar, pews, statues, no real iconography, etc. I had been to Armenian churches before, so was more accustomed to it. I will say, however, that the full-throated chanting was pretty impressive. We left there and wandered back up to the hill and around the gargantuan old 1885 Greek School, where now about 45 students remain. We were searching for the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, the only pre-1453 church in Constantinople that was never closed or turned into a mosque. I remembered it being behind a red-walled compound somewhere in the neighborhood, but we still had trouble locating it. In Istanbul, churches do not call attention to themselves. We rang the doorbell, and in time, a Greek woman allowed us entrance into the compound. We motioned to the church and she unlocked it and turned on the lights for us. The church itself was rather small, historical to be sure, but not particularly impressive in the way of some. Two gi-normous and gaudy electric candle stands dominated the front of the iconostasis (for some reason, Greeks seem to love these things.) I noticed a copy of the charter on the back wall where Sultan Mehmet II guaranteed protection to this church whose patroness, the Byzantine princess Mary, had once been married-off to a Khan to placate the advancing Mongol army. The narthex boasted a framed portrait of the Ecumenical Patriarch and Kemal Ataturk. The lady barked at us in Greek the entire time we were inside, clearly anxious for us to move on. My traveling companions said this reminded them of their time in Greece (which was not at all my experience, to be recounted in following posts.) I saved the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself as our last stop in the Phanar. There is less here than one would expect--perhaps a 1/4 block, a narrow compound hemming in the 18th-century Church of St. George. My friends, no great admirers of the EP, found the church overly "westernized." I suppose it is, but I always like to pray here. And the bishop's throne which predates the Fall (1453) always takes my attention. After eating a bite and hailing a taxi thief, we make our way back to our headquarters in Sultanhamet.
On their last day, I took the boys out to Buyukada (formerly Pricipe), the last island in the Prince's island chain. Getting there is half the fun--a ferry ride out into the Sea of Marmara with spectacular views of the city on both shores, as well as dolphins leaping alongside ship. Back in the Byzantine era these islands served as places of banishment for out-of-favor nobility where they could cause no mischief, but still be kept close at hand (hence the moniker "Princes" Islands.) Later, the island filled with the summer homes of wealthy Constantinopolitan Greeks. They are largely gone now, and the residents are, oddly enough, mainly Jewish, with some wealthy Turks thrown in as well. While the harbor side town and the lush villas are of some interest, our main attraction was the Monastery of St. George, atop the island's highest peak. Several monasteries continue on the island, but this one is the most visited--by Christian, Muslim and tourist alike. We rented bicycles and began our journey out to the far end of the island. Upon reaching the base of the hill, the bicycles become useless.. Climbing this peak took everything I had, and I repeatedly vowed that this was my last trudge up. My traveling companions were all rested by the time I finally joined them at the top. As the picture clearly shows, I was, as they say, dog-tired.
In time, I regained my strength and entered the church, lit a few candles and venerated the icons. A small outdoor cafe adjoins the monastery grounds. I savored a meal of french fries, watermelon and an Efes and enjoyed the view out over Asiatic Istanbul. This was enough of an outing for us, so by the time we made it back to shore, we took the tram straight back to our hotel.
That night, we had opportunity to visit with Hakan, the owner of the hotel. I look forward to visiting with him every time. He is, as I see it, as good a face of modern Turkey as any I know. Not at all religious, funny as all get-out, a bit profane and secular to a fault, he nevertheless votes AKP and takes pride in the recent circumcism of his 6-year old son. I find no contradiction in all this. He is also a classic entrepreneur, always looking for an opportunity to get-ahead, so to speak. And I will say, that he has done quite well for himself. His latest venture involves becoming the American distributor for a stone quarry outside of Istanbul. This quarry supplied the material for the construction of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and other Ottoman monuments. He is seeking to introduce this product in very select American venues. This led to a very speculative conversation about our church building program back home. Hakan said that the stone could be shipped in containers and cut to size over here and that any building could be built with these stone blocks themselves, not a stick-building with stone veneer. While fascinating to contemplate, there are obviously hurdles to overcome, of which cost would probably be the most substantial. Nevertheless, it made for an invigorating late-nigh bull session.
Of the four nights, we ate twice nearby in Sultanhamet, and twice off Istikllal Caddesi over in Beyoglu. The first night there, we dined on turbot and aubergines and watermelon in a little cafe on Nevizade Street. Two young Turks, accompanied by two older German women, sat down at an adjoining table (one can make some conjectures, here.) Later, a group of musicians came by and started playing traditional Turkish melodies. One of the Turks pulled one of the German women to her feet and they started dancing in the aisle. His was something similar to what we might term a belly dance, and she just tried to keep up. It was great fun to watch and a good example of the sort of thing that seems to just happen sometimes in this place.
But it was the second night we ate in Beyoglu that finally brings me around to the title of this post, and my most meaningful experience in Istanbul. A younger cousin of mine (the son of my first cousin) now lives in Istanbul where he is studying Turkish and teaching English. Earlier this year, I wrote a little of my immediate maternal family, entitled Ruth's House. This cousin springs from that side of my family, and the things I alluded to there apply to his family as much as any--abuse, suicide, alcoholism, death by alcoholism, serial divorce, and since this is that side of my family, the hint of mental instability always lurking just in the background. I saw him last over 20 years ago, when he was living for a while with his dad and granddad, who had set up house-keeping in a vacant house on my mother's property. It was not a good situation. In fairly quick succession, the boy had left and his father simply disappeared. We handled the arrangements when his grandfather soon after succumbed to the cancer he had been denying for years. From the boy's aunts--my first cousins that I had not previously seen in over 30 years--I learned that their nephew was now in Arizona. Then not long afterwards, I received a call from the coroner's office in Fort Worth. His dad had been found dead, and they discovered my phone number in his wallet. I had no way to contact the son. From very occasional contacts with two of the sisters in the last fifteen years, I would inquire about him, and would hear nothing more than that he was fine, living in Arizona. Then last year, with the magic of Facebook, I reconnected with the young man who was now in his mid 30s. I visit Facebook perhaps once a week, and just happened to notice in mid April that he was making plans to leave for Istanbul. Needless to say, this was something of a shocker, and we immediately made plans to meet when I arrived.
My cousin met us at Taksim Square, and we walked and reminisced as we strolled down Istikllal. He led us down a side street just past Galatasaray, and we made our way down twisting passageways to a secluded restaurant that only a local would know. My friends were great sports, as my cousin and I caught up on 20 years of family stories. It seems he has lived in Tucson for many years, worked and attended college when he could. He graduated with a major in History and a minor in Near Eastern Studies. While contemplating which graduate school route to take, he decided to relocate to Istanbul and learn Turkish. He has taken to the city like a duck to water, and has quickly qualified to teach English to Turkish professionals (in which he makes very good money, by the way.) In a year's time, he may be back in the States, or he may remain in Istanbul. The presence of a Turkish girlfriend may factor into the equation as well. The lesson here for me is an important one. Yes, blood will tell, as the old saying goes. But one should not be too quick to judge another's prospects. Life has a way of surprising one and confounding our smug assumptions. Knowing this family story all too well, I was simply amazed at this young man. In a roundabout way, he seems to be redeeming something from the wreckage of our family. Needless to say, I am inordinately proud of my newly-reconnected cousin.