Monday, October 8, 2012

History is on the phone

I am in Istanbul, for the first time, with no fixed agenda. As so, I am using this as an opportunity to get back to business, and write everyday, something which the success and excesses of the previous year have prevented me from doing almost entirely. Behold! My Istanbul diary, presented as a series of immediate sketches, written up each day, an important exercise for me, hopefully vaguely diverting for you.

When I spent time in Athens I felt as though I were witnessing time in riot, degraded splendid townhouses on top of ancient ruins, jammed up against McDonalds and Adidas, tangled up in endless 70s apartment complexes stacked with satellite dishes. When I went to Rome I experienced such masses of people, an Imperial volume of bodies in motion, at work on the city’s bidding, never ceasing to surge from one side of the city to the other, migrants, tourists, pilgrims, refugees. Those cities are the two closest experiences to what I am currently discovering in the magnitude of Istanbul’s teeming streets and relentless scale. Straddling two continents, this is the seat of four Empires, the site of constant conquest and vacillating vanquishments, it is a treasure trove of history (human, cultural, religious) which has yet to be buried. Though of course many have tried.

Wave after wave of invaders sought to capture the city, convert its people and absorb its wealth. The Catholics destroyed the city of their fellow Christians, the Byzantines, to instate a new Latin Empire, the victorious Sultan Mehmed II took the city as stronghold of Islam, twentieth century revolutionaries declared a secular republic, and on it goes.

The ruins of the Byzantine city wall run parallel to a motorway which runs alongside them along the unreasonably beautiful coastline. Under these ancient fortifications you can find children’s playgrounds, opposite enormous petrol stations, and endless miniature plantations where Istanbul’s canny populace grow produce. It is a miraculous sight to see allotments full of green vegetables springing up in the shadow of what were considered the medieval world’s most impenetrable walls, and a total trip to watch all of this from gridlocked traffic, with the Maramaras sea to the right, brilliant and azure, crammed full of boats. Everyday citizens hang their linens to dry from the walls, their leopard print towels and their polo t-shirts, and in the arches of the stone gates where once Roman Emperors exclusively entered the city, homeless people now set up camp, their filthy meager belongings stacked around them.

The building which arguably holds the most powerful record of the city’s ever changing official status is the Hagia Sophia. From 360 their stood a church there, built in Roman times. Rebuilt by Emperor Julian in 537, in just five years after a fire, the basilica became the largest building in the world, and served its Christian congregation until 1453 when Istanbul was conquered by Mehumet II and the by-then dilapidated church became a mosque. After the conquest Hagia Sophia was given one of antiquities most famous interior redesigns. The Crusaders had vandalized the Cathedral, removing many mosaics to Western churches and palaces, doors were missing and the dome was on the verge of collapse. The victorious Sultan chose to renovate the basilica in a more fitting Islamic style, the building was restored to glory but the reamining golden Byzantine Biblical mosaics, were whitewashed and plastered over, in keeping with Muslim teachings prohibiting representational art.

As incredible as it is that given the previous conduct of conquerors (namely destroying everything and stealing the rest) the Hagia Sophia was left to stand, the truly amazing turn of the page came in 1935, when President Ataturk declared the building a museum as part of his new secular republic. As restoration work was carried out the discovery was made that the Byzantine mosaics were in fact still there. For 500 years, the Virgin had been seated above the altar and the mihrab in silence, for five centuries The Last Judgement had waited. The holy place is now an unconsecrated heritage site, dedicated to both faiths, which is a fitting, gracious, worthy tribute to its history as well as a timely pledge to better relations between the two religions.

What most fascinated me today on my first visit, amongst this cat and mouse game of history, were the unexpected additions to the basilica. On the exterior, the minarets stand out obviously as later Islamic additions, and inside the huge golden Arabic characters hanging over the visitors attest to evolution, but elsewhere there are more subtle updates. In a huge mosaic Empress Zoe added different heads to the unchanging body of her consort, as one was replaced by another in her long life. Zoe and her third husband Constantine (her third husband) appear either side of Christ, venerated before Him. Though Imperial egos were not historically averse to adding themselves into depictions of the Divine, the idea of the royal couple photo bombing Christ enthroned does seem, to my eyes at least, ever so slightly hilarious.

Of course we understand that this was a political move, as well as a religious tribute, but ultimately it is a vainglorious attempt at immortality. Upstairs in the gallery, carved into the balcony are a few lines of Viking graffiti from the ninth century. Less of a religious tribute, and seemingly more of an “I was here”, these historic desecrations have the same function as the Imperial photoshopping, they are attempts to carve a place in time out for their executors. In fact, the Viking graffiti is now actually signposted for visitors, and housed under protective plastic, it has itself become a significant relic, a souvenir of the cultural interactions of world wanderers. Success is at its basest, tenacity, all one has to do is stick around long enough. Survive enough sacking, looting, pillaging, deconsecration and museum foot traffic, and you too can become a bona fide artifact of genuine interest.

Of course, the survival of these haphazard scribblings point out, just as the massive holes in the mosaics do, the absence of so much more. If this is what has survived, what has disappeared? What mind-blowing successes, what heart-breaking failures, have been lost, that we might be left with the face of Christ hovering above where we presume his shoulders once sat, the tunnels half tiled in Moorish blue, and the antagonistic knife work of a Scandinavian sailor? It’s all speculation now, whatever was said, whatever grand statements were declared in construction and reconstruction can never really come to us, because we are not living on an Emperor’s whim, on the good graces of the Sultan, cowering daily in fear of the inevitable retribution of an all decimating God. We have rational technology, our own frustrated stabs at comprehension, and even to the expert eyes of archaeologists the graffiti is now illegible.

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