Tag Archives: Constantinople

We’ll always have Sicily II, the Cathedral of Monreale

22 Sep

The Cathedral of Monreale (See also: We’ll always have Sicily: the church of the Martorana in Palermo)

And, of course, as per millenial-cum-major-victim, Ayesha Siddiqui

“…unless you’ve had 90% of your cultural and artistic heritage — the product of what was one of the main poles of human civilization for two millenia — destroyed and lost, with the remnants still being vigorously vandalized today, in 2020 AD, “I don’t think I can really be that close to you.”

We’ll always have Sicily: the church of the Martorana in Palermo — the art of our ancestors safe from the plaster, whitewash, eye-gouging — and drapes — of the hysterics and puritans of monotheism…

21 Sep
Church of the Martorana12th century

The Normans weren’t exactly our best friends once they embarked on their conquests and rise to power in the Mediterranean. But when they had settled in, they started developing certain Mediterranean civilized habits that almost no one who comes to this part of the world is immune to.

For example, when they wanted something beautiful built and decorated they knew where to place the want ad: either C-Town or among the Greeks who already inhabited Sicily and parts of the Italian south. And, after the Normans, the Angevins, Aragonese, Bourbons, Piemontesi, and, finally, the republic of Italy, kept it all safe.

Mostly people think Ravenna when they think of things Byzantine in Italy. But no part of Italy is as laden with high Byzantine beauty as Sicily is. And the church of the Martorana may be the single most important site for in situ Byzantine art in the world. Read about it. It’s really fascinating. Not least for “belonging” to the Albanian-Italian community of Sicily:

The church is a Co-cathedral to the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi[1] of the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church, a diocese which includes the Italo-Albanian (Arbëreshë) communities in Sicily who officiate the liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite in the ancient Greek language and Albanian language[2] The Church bears witness to the Eastern religious and artistic culture still present in Italy today, further contributed to by the Albanian exiles who took refuge in southern Italy and Sicily from the 15th century under the pressure of TurkishOttoman persecutions in Albania and the Balkans.

[Otherwise, of course, “there is no compulsion in religion.” me, NB, my emphasis above as well]

Here are some photos I put together:

And, of course, as per my chum Ayesha Siddiqui, unless you’ve had 90% of your cultural and artistic heritage — the product of what was one of the main poles of human civilization for two millenia — destroyed and lost, with the remnants still being vigorously vandalized today, in 2020 AD, “I don’t think I can really be that close to you.”

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Et tu, Professor Dalrymple? Every time I hear the completely flat, biased, overcompensating, simplistic cliché: “Baghdad, Palermo and Córdoba…”

15 Sep

…I respond with what’s now my cliché: “Yes…there…AND IN A DINKY PROVINCIAL TOWN CALLED CONSTANTINOPLE.”

Check out his Sicily pictures though.

Image

Photo: C-Town, the Grande Rue, Μεγάλη Οδό — Some of the cleaning up that the AKP has done during the process of turning Pera into a garish, overlit, Gulfie, kerchiefed Disneyland, is not all that bad.

13 Sep

Tonight 65 years ago, the beginning of the end of Greek Istanbul

6 Sep

There’s toooooons of other social media references out there today, but I couldn’t let it pass without my own contribution — especially this year and these days.

Below are what were originally footnotes to a post from 2014 which you might want to check out in its entirety: “Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013“:

*** “Speros Vryonis The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom Of September 6 – 7, 1955, And The Destruction Of The Greek Community Of Istanbul is a magisterial life’s work and piece of historical journalism that covers the one night of September 6-7, 1955 in which a pogrom organized by Adnan Menderes’ Demokrat Parti destroyed practically the entire commercial, financial, ecclesiastic, educational and domestic infrastructure of the City’s Greek community.  I had put off reading it for quite a while — because the subject matter is upsetting and it’s long and detailled — but I was really impressed when I finally did.  I hadn’t realized the exact extent of the damage: 4,500 Greek homes, 3,500 shops and businesses (nearly all), 90 churches and monasteries (nearly all), and 36 schools destroyed and 3 cemeteries desecrated.  I hadn’t known that so many homes had been destroyed, leaving a large part of the community of then 80 or 90,000 or so homeless and destitute and that, as opposed to the traditional account of one old monk being burned alive, some 30 people were actually killed and many raped — others even circumcised.

A1iZR7nssVL._SL1500_

The Menderes government initially, and stupidly, tried to portray this as a spontaneous outbreak of nationalist fervor against Greeks over growing Cyprus tensions, but it was actually an extremely well-planned and executed military manoeuvre (every Turk, after all, is a soldier born) carried out and directed by local cadres of the Demokrat Parti who knew their neighborhoods and its Greek properties and institutions well and through the use of Anatolians brought in from the provinces; I guess they were afraid that local İstanbullus, who knew and lived with these Greeks, would not be as easily destructive, though the record of how the city’s Turks did act during the riots is hardly edifying.  As all products of the nationalist-militarist mind, the plan was an extremely stupid move as well.  It brought the economy of Turkey’s largest city to a virtual standstill, at a time when the country was in deep economic doldrums to begin with, by ripping out its retail heart, so much of it being in the hands of Greeks and other minority groups, and in the immediate aftermath there were chronic shortages of basic supplies in the city because distribution networks had been completely severed and even bread — so many bakeries being Greek and Epirote, especially, owned — was hard to find.  It temporarily made Turkey an international pariah (though in that Cold War climate that didn’t last too long) and eventually played a role in bringing the Menderes government down and costing him his life — thought that all is well beyond the scope of this post, this blog and my knowledge.  Vryonis’ analysis is brilliant if you’re interested.

After the financial decimation of the community by the Varlık Vergisi, the “estate tax” of the 1940’s, when discriminatory taxation against minority groups had wiped out many, and sent many of those who couldn’t pay to forced labor camps, Greeks had bounced back to dominating the retail business of these central neighborhoods in less than a decade – only, of course, to have it all definitively trashed a few years later.

It’s become axiomatic that the riots were the beginning of the end of Greek Constantinople; the community struggled and tried, but this time things were shattered — physically and psychologically — beyond repair.

**** The Greek Daemon, “daemon” in the Roman sense of the word of animating genius — “To daimonio tes fyles” — is the idea that Greeks are resourceful enough to prosper anywhere and under any conditions — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s belief in their ability to “spin gold out of air” — and the repeated tragic setbacks and almost immediate comeback of the Greek community of İstanbul after nearly every catastrophe to befall it in the twentieth century tempts one to believe in its truth.  Thus, one of the most poignant elements in the Constantinopolitan story is their almost masochistic refusal to leave — what it took to finally make the vast majority abandon the city they loved so much was just too overwhelming in the end however.”

Some photos:

Plebe resentment, with the sick glee of hatred, in action.

And Greeks come out of hiding the next day — stoic and classy and in heels — to pick up the pieces of a life’s work, or at least try.

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The duck and okra and Armenian massacre chapter from Loxandra — “shit happens” — my translation

4 Sep

It’s actually hard to say which came first: whether Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra was the first literary manifestation of the archetype of a Greek woman of Istanbul, or whether life imitated art and Politisses started unconsciously behaving like Loxandra.  Joyful, funny, hovering and caring around all her loved ones but even strangers – even Turks – worldly for her degree of education and fundamentally cosmopolitan if even unawares, obsessed with good food, and always finding happiness and beauty and pleasure in the world, despite her people’s precarious position in their wider environment.

Iordanidou’s novel captures more perfectly than any other literary representation what Patricia Storace has called the “voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with life in Anatolia and Constantinople.  But what’s always moved me and struck me as so intelligent about the novel — each of the some ten or more times I’ve read it — is that it’s not all fun-and-games and yalancı dolma and Apokries in Tatavla and Politika nazia.  Right along side the pleasure and humor rides a brutally honest portrayal of the “tolerant” and “diverse” Ottoman society that is a favorite fantasy of certain progressives, on both Greek and Turkish sides of the coin.  Iordanidou doesn’t fall into that trap, just as she doesn’t fall into the alternate trap of portraying all Turks as murderous animals, along the lines of Dido Soteriou’s Matomena Homata (Bloodied Lands) or Veneze’s Aeolike Ge (Aeolian Earth).  She simply goes for the starkest realism: Ottoman Turks/Muslims and their subject peoples didn’t live together in harmony but rather lived in parallel universes that rarely intersected; the novel takes place at a time when – as Petros Markares points out in his essay in the book’s latest edition – “life was heaven for the minorities and hell for Muslims.”  But even in that paradise, when the two parallel universes collided, the result was hellish for everyone.

I’ve translated the chapter that takes place during the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in 1896, particularly the shockingly urban episode that occurred in Istanbul.  In August of that year, the Dashnaks, Armenian freedom-fighters-cum-terrorists took hostages at the Ottoman Bank in Karaköy and the operation turned into a mini-civil-battle with groups of Armenians and Turks taking up position on either side of the Galata Bridge. 

From Wiki:

Massacres:

Retribution against the ordinary Armenian populace in Constantinople was swift and brutal. Ottomans loyal to the government began to massacre the Armenians in Constantinople itself. Two days into the takeover, the Ottoman softas and bashibazouks, armed by the Sultan, went on a rampage and slaughtered thousands of Armenians living in the city.[11] According to the foreign diplomats in Constantinople, Ottoman central authorities instructed the mob “to start killing Armenians, irrespective of age and gender, for the duration of 48 hours.”[12] The killings only stopped when the mob was ordered to desist from such activity by Sultan Hamid.[12] They murdered around 6,000[1] – 7,000 Armenians. Within 48 hours of the bank seizure, estimates had the dead numbering between 3,000 and 4,000, as authorities made no effort to contain the killings of Armenians and the looting of their homes and businesses.

Loxandra and her family live through the massacring of their Armenian neighbors in Pera in terror, hiding inside their shuttered house for a week, till they finally run out of water and have to start interacting with the neighborhood vendors.  Iordanidou does take a swipe at Turkish passivity and fatalism though in the closing part of the chapter as Loxandra hears repeatedly from the Turkish merchants she has to deal with, in reference to the killing: “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”  This “Yağnış oldu” chimes like a bell or rather a kick in the gut on the chapter’s last page.  Thousands dead, “their homes looted, their churches destroyed… Yağnış oldu”

Shit happens, in other words.

Loxandra soon starts to forget, or at least pretends to.  In the end, the chapter is a disturbing look at the compromises we make in order to go on living with the Other, despite the evil he may have done you, or you him.  Otherwise life would be intolerable.  For “…too much sorrow doth to madness turn…” Loxandra concludes in the final sentence.

Loxandra: Chapter 5

Glory be to God, because To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Loxandra just figured that for her to suddenly find herself living in the Crossroad*(1) that meant that her time had come and that this had to be her world from now on.  She accepted her new life the way that she accepted Demetro’s death.  What can you do?  That’s how that is.

The Crossroad was nothing like Makrochori, and the beautiful old life she had there – it was like a scissor had come and snipped it off — slowly became a sweet receding dream.  Cleio started to yearn for twilight in Makrochori, the sky, the sea, their garden and the shade of their plane tree.  She had even lost her father’s library, because during the move to Pera, Theodore had pilfered most of it and now all she was left with were Kassiane, Pikouilo Ali Ağa and Witnesses at a Wedding.  She started to avoid the cosmopolitan life of Pera, which she at first had thought heavenly, and she lamented her lost paradise.  Exactly opposite to her mother.

Because Loxandra never wept for lost heavens.  Nor did she ever go in search of joy.  It was joy that went in search of Loxandra.  And it would usually pop up in the most unexpected moments.  The angel would suddenly descend and stir the waters in the fount of the Virgin of Baloukli and for Loxandra it was like she had been baptized anew.

Glory be to God.  And great be the grace of the Virgin.

The fat little ducklings of August and the okra make good eating.  It’s a sin to let August pass without eating ducklings with the okra.

So on the eve of the Virgin’s Loxandra bought ducklings to cook them with the okra, and despite her exhaustion, she went down into the kitchen to start preparing the birds.  She was especially tired because the day before she had stocked up fuel for the winter.  She filled the cellar with charcoal, and then she’d call the Kurds to come hack up the lumber she would use for the stoves.

In the City at that time, just as your milkman was Bulgarian, your fishmonger Armenian, your baker from Epiros, so your lumber supplier was a Kurd.  So Loxandra called the “Kiurtides” to come chop up her winter stock of lumber.  Early in early morn’ — όρθρου βαθέος — they would dump a good thirty “chekia” of tree trunks and thick boughs and then the Kurds would come, brawny giants from deep in Anatolia in salwar and black kerchiefs wound around their fezzes and with their shiny, well-sharpened cleavers to chop up the wood.  The Kurds were meraklides when it came to their blades.  Even all the way in his village in the depths of Kurdistan, the Kurd could never be separated from his cleaver, and when the time came for him to emigrate his mother would present his cleaver to her son, the way a Spartan woman gave her son his shield.  And when a young Kurd got to an age of fourteen or fifteen and started feeling the first longings of his youth, he never took flowers in hand.  Instead he’d take his knife and go about the mahalades crying out: “Dertim var, dertim”… “I’m in pain, in longing” and would look around to see if any of the shutters or windows all about would open.  The young girl that would first answer his call would open her window and cry: “Dertine kurban olurum”, meaning “I’ll sacrifice myself to your longings”.  And the young man would exclaim: “Bende baltaim burada vururum”, meaning “And so I nail my knife here.” Then he went home and sent his mother to retrieve his knife and at the same time, get to know her future daughter-in-law.

That’s how important the cleaver was for a Kurd.  And you’d be better off cursing out his Prophet rather than saying anything offensive about his cleaver.

Loxandra was afraid of Kurds, just the way she was afraid of Turks.  But when it came to important things like her yearly supply of firewood, well…there was no holding her back nor kid gloves to wear in treating them:

“Does this fit, you son-of-a-dog?” she’d yell, suddenly fearless and waving a big, bulky knot of wood above the Kurd’s head.  “Does this fit, bre, in my stove?”

She would get so angry that she almost might have said something about his cleaver.

But oddly enough the Kurds never got angry and never felt insulted by her, and would do any favor she wanted.  They would stack the chopped up lumber in her cellar and their departure was always warm and accompanied by the usual güle güle and reciprocal good wishes and a light winter, may-it-be, and here…take this for your little boy and here take this for your wife, and all the rest.

That night, Loxandra was exhausted and all night long she saw bizarre dreams of sharp meat cleavers and a big butcher’s block piled with chopped meat.  She just attributed the dreams to her experiences that day with the Kurds.  “Oh”, she thought upon waking: “Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά” “Jesus Christ Victor”…and she went down into the kitchen to brown the ducklings.

How could she know what the future had in store for them?  How could she know that the treaty that was signed eighteen years before in San Stefano had been revised and revised again so that Bulgaria could be an autonomous state, Romania and Montenegro were now independent, Russia took Kars and Ardahan and Batumi, Britain took Cyprus, Greece got Thessaly and a part of Epiros, but the Armenians got nothing out of all that had been promised to them, and they started an uprising, so that Sultan Hamid roused up his people, and he brought Kurds with their cleavers and they had organized a massacre of Armenians…right there…in the middle of the streets of the City…on the eve of a feast day like this…the Assumption of the Virgin…  How could she possibly know all of that?

So, blissful and clueless, she went down to prepare the ducklings, and she was in a happy mood, but in just such a good mood that morning.  The day before they had received a letter from Giorgaki asking for Cleio’s hand in marriage.  The letter was a bit nutty, but what was important is that he wanted to marry Cleio.  It started like this:

“In these difficult moments my mind races to you and only you, my refuge and haven, my peaceful port…”

And riding on that inspiration – and drunk – Giorgaki wrote that he missed his boat and that he had gotten stuck in Genoa with Epaminonda, alone and abandoned and penniless, because, being human, they had had a bit to drink to forget their dertia and night had fallen on them in the alleyways of Genoa, and in the dark Epaminonda had started bugging a Catholic priest: …psss…psss…thinking he was a woman, and the neighbors had gotten all riled up and Epaminonda had gotten arrested, but the Greek consul in the city was a countryman of Giorgaki’s and he got the authorities to release Epaminonda from the holding pen, and in a few days the consul would put them on a ship to Constantinople to celebrate the engagement — that is, if Loxandra accepted him as a son-in-law.  And before closing, he added: “My lips will never again touch even a single drop of alcohol.”

How could she not be happy?!  She set the pan on the fire and as soon as the birds started to soften up, she tasted the sauce to check the salt.  Suddenly she heard the stomp of running feet in the street.

Bre, Tarnana, get up and go out and see what’s going on”, she said to him.

But Tarnana was too tired to go see because to see he had to climb up onto the sink because the kitchen was in the basement. So all he could see the was the sight of running feet.  But Loxandra grabbed a chair for herself and climbed on top of it to get a better view.  And what does she see?  A Kurd with his cleaver in hand was trying to break down the door of Monsieur Artin.(**2)

HA!  The bloody dog, may-a-wretched-year-befall-him!

She got down off the chair and grabbed the large soup ladle.

“Just wait and see what I’ll do to him!”

She gathered up her skirts and ran up the stairs.  But she came crashing into Cleio.

“It’s a massacre, mother, a massacre!” cried Cleio in a semi-faint.

Loxandra paid her no mind.

“What massacre shmassacre you talking about, bre?  Some Kurd is looking to break down Monsieur Artin’s door. Get outta my way!”

Sultana came down too and along with Cleio and Tarnana they stuffed up her mouth so that her cries couldn’t be heard on the street.  They closed the shutters and they all hid in the charcoal cellar.

But even in the cellar you could hear the blows from the street, the running feet, and the dying cries of the wounded.  There would be a short few moments of quiet and then it would start again.  Any time there was a bit of silence, Loxandra would grab her ladle.

“It’s just the Kurds for heaven’s sake, may-the-Devil-take-them-and-carry-them-off! Let me go see what’s happening!”

When the frenzy finally stopped an employee from Thodoros’ office came to bring them some groceries and to see how they were.  He said there had been a mass slaughter of Armenians but that no Greeks had been hurt unless they were harboring Armenians in their house, and Thodoro sent the message that God forbid anyone find out you’ve got Tarnana in the house.  In the Crossroad things had calmed down, but the killing was continuing in the suburbs.

That was enough to finally scare Loxandra and she hid Tarnana under her bed.  She was afraid to get near the window or even open the shutters.  The street vendors started to come by as usual.  The salepçi (***3) came by.  The offal-vendor came by, and as soon as they smelled him the cats started growling.  She locked them up in the charcoal cellar.  “Shut up, bre, they’ll come and cut your throats too.”  The milkman came and knocked.  No one inside made a sound.  We’ll do without milk.  Drink tea.  But on the seventh day the water supplier came by and she had to open up because they were running out.  Hüseyn came in limping and emptied two goatskins into the clay amphora they stored water in. 

Hüseyn says good bye sweetly and soon the egg-seller comes knocking on her window.

“Kokona (****4), Aren’t you going to buy any eggs?”

Loxandra cracked open the window, took a look at him, and thought: “Could my egg-vendor Mustafa be a Hagarene Dog (*****5) too?”

The next morning the street watchman came by to say hello, expecting his usual cup of coffee.

Haydi, Tarnana, make him some coffee.”

She opened up the front door and sat on the steps, thinking again: “Is he or isn’t he?”  Finally she couldn’t contain herself:

Bre, Mehmet, I want you to tell me the truth, but, I mean, I want the truth, ok?  Were you out on the street the other day with the killings?  But tell me the truth.”

“Valah! Billah!  Mehmet wasn’t involved.”

“Oooff… And I was going to say…” And she began to sob.  “Why such madness?  What did poor Monsieur Artin do to them and they slaughtered him like that?  No, Tell me!  What did he do?”

“Vah, vah, vah”, Mehmet said.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the liver vendor a bit later.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the chickpea vendor too. “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”

Some ten, some twenty thousand people were murdered.  Their homes were looted.  Their churches destroyed.  Whole families were wiped out…“yağnış oldu.”

The dogs licked the blood off the sidewalks and life started again as if nothing had happened.

Tarnana came out from under the bed too, Elegaki came over too and they all got together in the kitchen to prepare the sweets for Cleio’s engagement.  Loxandra wiped her tears and made sweet out of sorrow, because that’s how that is.  And let me tell you something, too much sorrow doth to madness turn.  I mean, there are limits!

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*(1) The Crossroad, Το Σταυροδρόμι, (above) is what Greeks called the spot in central Pera where the now Istiklâl Caddesi (the Isio Dromo or the Grande Rue) intersects with the steep uphill Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (never understood what the New Market, which is what Yeni Çarşı means, refers to) coming from Karaköy, and the Meşrutiyet Caddesi which then takes a curve at the British consulate and ends up — now — in one of the most dismal urban plazas in Istanbul and a run-down convention center, that were built over a pleasant little park that was built in turn over an old Catholic cemetery. Mercifully, one side of the street is still architecturally intact and you still get one of the most splendid views of the Horn and the western part of the Old City from there. By the Gates of Galatasaray Lycée, that’s still the starting place for demonstrations and protests — whatever are allowed, anyway… By the Cité de Pera arcade and the central fish market (never understood why the fish market is up at the top of one of Istanbul’s hills and not on the seafront somewhere) that is full of both trashy, touristy restaurants and really good meyhane finds as well, once almost all owned by Greeks and Armenians.

If Pera is the center of Istanbul, the Crossroad is the center of Pera. And in Greek usage it meant the whole surrounding neighborhood as well.

The old Meşrutiyet Caddesi
The Gates of Galatasaray

(**2) Artin immediately registers to a Greek-speaker as an Armenian name.

(***3) Salep (Salepçi is a salep vendor) is a hot drink made from ground dried orchid tubers, milk I think, and cinnamon on top. It’s supposedly fortifying — in what way common decency prevents me from saying — but aside from the fact that “orchid” comes from the Indo-European root for “testicle” (as in “αρχίδια,” or as in “στα αρχίδια μου”) the finished drink has a slightly creepy, slippery texture and translucent color that definitely reminds one of semen. I happen to really like it, but I don’t know if that’s just because of its status as a historical remnant or oddity. You can find it in Athens too, like on Ermou, still. But it’s a hot drink, meant for wintery consumption, so it’s weird for Iordanidou to have a salepçi coming around on the street in the middle of August.

(4****) “Kokona” is a term used in historical literature to address not just Christian women, but Greek women, Ρωμιές “Roman” women, specifically. It’s never used to address Armenian or Jewish women, for example. It appears in literature and various accounts dating from even early Ottoman times. In the Byzantine Museum here in Athens (the name of which, at some point recently, was changed to the Byzantine and Christian Museumin case we forget that Byzantium was a Christian culture 🙄) there are several pieces of ecclesiastic embroidery: priests’ stoles, Epitaphio shrouds — that date from the 16th and 17th century, and are attributed to specific women: Kokona Angela, Kokona Marigo, so it was more than just a slang term of address. No one I know can tell me the root of the word, nor can anyone say why it was used just for Greek women and not other gâvur/kaffr women.

(5*****) “Hagarene Dogs”Αγαρηνά Σκυλιά – is an obviously unpleasant term used as far back as mid-Byzantine times to refer to Arabs/Muslims. The rub — as Hamlet would say — is that it was the first peninsular Arabs and Muslims who themselves identified with the term. Hagar, as we know, was the slave wife of Abraham, who bore him a child, Ishmael, because his own wife, Sarah, was already 80 years old plus and unable to have a child. Then the angels came to visit and told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a child; Sarah heard from the kitchen and laughed. But indeed, she did bear him a son, Isaac. And Abraham promptly tossed Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert, but they were saved by an angel that descended and struck the ground out of which a fresh spring of water gushed:

Hājar or Haajar (Arabic: هاجر), is the Arabic name used to identify the wife of Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and the mother of Ismā’īl (Ishmael). Although not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is referenced and alluded to via the story of her husband. She is a revered woman in the Islamic faith.

According to Muslim belief, she was the Egyptian handmaiden of Ibrāhīm’s first wife Sara (Sarah). She eventually settled in the Desert of Paran with her son Ismā’īl. Hājar is honoured as an especially important matriarch of monotheism, as it was through Ismā’īl that Muhammad would come. [my emphasis]

Neither Sara nor Hājar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrāhīm’s prayer in Sura Ibrahim (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.”[20] While Hājar is not named, the reader lives Hājar’s predicament indirectly through the eyes of Ibrāhīm.[21] She is also frequently mentioned in the books of hadiths.

I have no idea why early Arabs chose — not that it was a conscious process, but being unconscious makes its function even more powerful — out of all of Jewish scripture, to consider themselves and Muhammad (all together now: Peace be upon him) descended from a scorned slave woman and her unwanted son, especially given how Ishmael is described in Genesis:

Genesis 16:12 “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.”

Unless “a wild man” suited their needs. Almost to an archetypal degree, conquest narratives justify themselves as retribution for a historical wrong, or as a necessary process by which the morally and ethically superior impose themselves on the inferior: from the Israelites and Canaan, to the Romans taking revenge for their defeated Trojan ancestors, to the Turkic Conquest of Rum and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, to American Manifest Destiny, to Nazi lebensraum to the current Islamist and Turanian rantings of Mister Erdoğan and the bitchy historical insults he’s constantly hurling our way.

So the Hagar and Ishmael story might be perfect soil for the sprouting of Sunni Muslim triumphalism. And if that triumphalism hits the wall of modernity and suddenly finds itself not in charge anymore, if the triumph narrative doesn’t go the way it should, well then we get the Nietzschean man of resentment and we can talk about that forever. But the prophecy that “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.” certainly seems to have been fulfilled, as we find so much of the contemporary Ummah stewing in rage and rancid testosterone and convinced that the purpose of the rest of humanity is to deny them their Allah-given superior place in the sun.

And the rest of us just don’t get it. But their mission is that we do.

And wouldn’t you know, just today, Mr. Erdoğan gives us a Friday sermon that pretty much says it all and in language far less wordy than mine:

“Turkish Conquest Is Not Occupation or Looting – It Is Spreading the Justice of Allah”

Loxandra, of course, doesn’t know any of this. She’s just heard the legends of the “Hagarene Dogs” growling at the walls of the City before the conquest, and imagines them to be real barking dogs who can take human shape and turn into her milkman or egg vendor.

Betty Valasi as Loxandra in the 1980 Greek TV serialization of the novel

And now I need some good salsa, ’cause the legacy of “our parts” — τα μέρη μας — can weigh on you like a glob of hardened lead.

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Photo: Sophia Loren by Ara Güler, Armenian İstanbullu photographer, date unknown

1 Sep

Christ, she was breathtaking…

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The Apse and Gabriel Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

31 Aug

Check out: The Hidden Face of Istanbul@thehiddenfaceof — great Twitter thread.

And now covered over:

For years I had hoped that someone, even Turkish Islamists, might have the good taste to remove those hideous green billboards. Instead it just got worse and the puritanism and neurotic iconophobia of monotheism wins out. Oh well. У другом животу…in another life.

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“Ottoman”: final assessment; plus: the Notarades, and a “what-if” on our Turkish centuries

3 Feb

I’ve had more than one old Constantinopolitan Greek say to me: You [metropolitan Greeks] call us Byzantines but we’re not any more “Byzantine” than you. “Because when the Conqueror entered the city,” Kyra Smaro says, “he slaughtered any Greeks that had remained.” And this is born out by legit historical sources. Greeks — and other ethnicities of the empire — started repopulating Constantinople, now the Ottoman capital, after Mehmet consolidated his rule; ironically often brought in large numbers by force by the Ottomans to repopulate the almost empty city.

In my comments on the first two episodes of Netflix‘: “Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology — I expressed my apprehensions about how the violence of the final fall would be portrayed:

Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City will make later episodes more disturbing, since The Religion of Peace gives an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resists and doesn’t capitulate on its own.

Instead of glorifying the violence, though, the production totally whitewashes it, and I don’t know what’s worse or what I find more annoying. None of the massacring or enslavement of the remaining inhabitants of the City is shown, and though we know for a fact that large mobs of Greeks had packed themselves into a barricaded Hagia Sophia, hoping to be saved there, and that when the Turks finally broke in, everyone in the church was put to the sword (try and remember the butchery in the cathedral in Andrey Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublev, when the Tatars finally break in), Netflix gives us an infuriating segment of Mehmet tranquilly walking into an empty, sanitized, already de-imaged Hagia Sophia and beatifically walking about in wonder, amazed at the building and the fulfillment of his own miraculous destiny.

And then there’s the sidebar story of Loukas Notaras, megas doux, the Grand Duke, something like a Prime Minister or Grand Vizier, to Constantine XI:

I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

I think we do know that Notaras tried to cooperate with the new rulers and perhaps tried to buy Mehmet off in exchange for his and his family’s safety. But apparently, soon after the fall, Mehmet ordered that he be sent one of Notaras’ handsome sons, Jacob, a notably beautiful teenager, who had inevitably caught Mehmet’s eye, to do…well…whatever with. Notaras refused and Mehmet then had the boy and perhaps his other brothers decapitated in front of his father and then decapitated Notaras himself.

A daughter of the family, Anna, somehow ended up in Venice — whether she had escaped before the fall of the City or not is not clear — but became a sort of Queen Mother in exile and benefactress to the large Greek community there, (Notaras, being a “spins-gold-out-of-thin-air” Greek, had invested most of his wealth in real estate in the Venetian Republic) creating a Greek school and setting in motion the construction of the first Greek church in Venice, San Giorgio dei Greci (below) or St. George of the Greeks, a truly gorgeous church, with an adjacent icon museum that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Venice next; seriously, it’s one of the sites in the city critical for understanding its role and position in the larger Mediterranean.

And it might seem odd, given that so much of this blog is dedicated to making Greeks’ understand (or accept) their relationship to the East, that I’m now musing on our relationship to the West. But San Giorgio itself is — along with the glorious icons from Venetian Cretan School, along with other things that then come to mind…the unique urban beauty of the city of Corfu, or the couple dances, balos, of the Aegean islands, and the liltingly beautiful music that accompanies them, or reading Erotokritos, or El Greco — among the things that beg the question: “What if?” What if the Ottomans hadn’t prevailed? At least not for so long and over such a huge piece of territory? What would we “look” like now?

Anyway, the story of Mehmet and Notaras’ son, Jacob, is so lurid and full of orientalist tropes about sexually depraved Muslims that it’s hard to know if it’s apocryphal or not (that Mehmet was bisexual, or at least what we would call bisexual today, is not in doubt, however. But, again however, bisexuality was par for the course in the mediaeval Muslim world, as it was in the classical Greco-Roman world which had preceded it, so it was not a particularity or idiosyncrasy of Mehmet’s nor would it have been considered immoral at the time). And some historical sources claim that Jacob wasn’t beheaded but ended up in Mehmet’s harem or serving him at his new court, and later escaped to Venice to join his sister Anna and two other siblings of his. I can tell you one thing: the whole story of the Notarades is so fascinating and complicated that someone should give it a historical fiction chance, print or screen, at some point.

There is this fascinating and kinda wacky book out there, The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society, by Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı, that describes a homoerotic and bisexual court culture that the authors argue existed in both East and West in the early modern Mediterranean, that starts off with the story of Mehmet and the Notaras boy, and that claims the whole incident was a cultural misunderstanding, and that Mehmet was honoring the Notaras family by seeking the intimacy of the handsome young Greek boy. I’m not doing the book justice; it’s complicated and parts are actually very beautiful. Check it out; it’s very interesting.

As for “Ottoman”, it ends up being an atypically Netflixian anodyne treatment of a fascinating historical moment.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology

28 Jan

“Understand an opponent’s mythology…”

Last night I figured I’d just buck up, get over with it, and start watching the Netflix docudrama — got through first two episodes — and it’s actually pretty good. Some key notes: The Turkish perspective is not insufferably jingoistic or Islamically triumphalist, like it was in that trashy 1453 film that came out a few years ago, which I also put off watching for a while because I thought it would be disturbing, but I ended up turning off after 20 minutes, not because I was disturbed or offended but because the script and acting were so horrendous and the production values so cheap — it looked like the set was composed of stuff bought wholesale from a Moroccan antique shop in the East Village or Çukurcuma– that it was simply unwatchable.

* We’re not portrayed as craven cowards or decadent dinosaurs à la Gibbon, whose destiny it was to float off into extinction. Both Constantine and Mehmet are portrayed as equal opponents, Hector-Achilles style: it’s probably no accident; both were, I’m sure, as acquainted with the Iliad as the other. Constantine’s heroic and complex combination of resistance and resignation are portrayed as thoroughly as possible: he did everything he could until there was nothing to be done anymore; Mehmet’s impressive intellect, cosmopolitanism and warrior skills are highlighted without going overboard. And both are pretty sexy, as is Giustiniani, as is even Notaras père (costumes and sets are beautiful too). I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

* Unexpectedly, I thought, we’re called “Romans” from the beginning of the series, in the fictional segments (and I think some of the Italians, Giustiniani even, calls us “Greeks” at one point); there’s more “Byzantine” used in the doc segments obviously. Either way, it’s hard to say whether they wanted to take a calculated risk in doing that, because using “Romans” probably leaves all non-Greek viewers baffled, or because “baffling” and confusing were the desired result for what’s always been the Turkish state’s policy: that is, separating us from the Byzantines/Romans and not giving us our due rights to claim descent for ourselves there, by calling us something different, the same reason Turkey calls Istanbul’s 3,000* remaining Greeks “Rum” to this day, while the rest of us are “Yunan”. It’s satisfying to hear, in any event.

* Whether advertently or not, it punctures some pretty giant holes in the Turkish mythology of heroic feat. One, by admitting the fact that we were outnumbered by the tens of thousands, so that the speed with which, for example, Rumelihisarı was built doesn’t seem quite so miraculous, plus there were already foundations on the site from an older Roman fortress. Two, by showing the glaring technological disparities between the two sides, meaning, that the Siege and Fall of Constantinople was the last great military event between mediaeval fortifications and early modern cannons and artillery, so that instead of being an incredible military achievement, it was more like the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, with as dogged and determined a defense. And enough already with the “genius” of dragging the ships over from what, I would guess, would be somewhere near Kabataş, over the ridge, down Dolapdere into the Horn. It must have taken an enormous amount of manpower — too bad Erdoğan’s tunnel wasn’t there yet — yet not everything that’s just super-hard is necessarily “genius”.

* And stop comparing it to fucking Game of Thrones. GOT was Tolkien with sex and was the most maddening piece of trash to enthrall the masses in a long time. Ottoman is about a series of deeply traumatic events in the history of a real people that still exists, and who have been persecuted and are still threatened and harassed by Mehmet’s descendants to this day: US.

All in all it’s good; watch it. I mean, wtf, whatever. Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City (The Religion of Peace gave an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resisted and didn’t capitulate on it own) will make later episodes more disturbing. And the long arm of Erdoğanism is always felt throughout the whole thing. If Netflix were to produce a series portraying the destruction of the Second Temple and the horrendous brutality with which the Romans massacred and expelled most Jews from Judaea that made the Romans look even slightly heroic for even a second — “due to be released next Tisha B’av” — there’s not even a question of whether it would face a howling riot of protest or not; it would simply never have been produced. That’s not a “Jews control Hollywood” argument. It’s the truth. Just too many people would be offended. But even as Turkey sinks deeper into self-isolating dictatorship, it does wonders projecting a certain image to the rest of us and the rest of the Ummah.

But, at best it’s an exercise in what Helequin above calls “understand-[ing] an oppenents [sic] mythology”. You don’t have to be a trained Jungian to understand (or at least try) that “myth” is the only “reality”. That means understanding the other’s myth/s is crucial to the development of empathy, the one form of intelligence that homo sapiens [?] are still tragically deficient in.

It’s certainly the only thing in Palestine, or between Hindu and Muslim in India, and in the continuing bad divorce that is Greek-Turkish relations that will inevitably make a difference. Put yourself in a Turk’s position. Think about the massive baggage of tradition around the idea of taking Constantinople that animated them. And then [smerk]… put yourself in our position: if everybody wanted it so badly for 1,200 years, it must have been one puta madre of a city we had built there.

And in the 19th and 20th centuries, we built them another real city — “over there” — the likes of which they also had never known, and they threw us out of there too.

What are you gonna do? After a certain point, anger is too tiring. And they pay and are paying the price for their political culture anyway.

************************************************************************* The number of Greeks today in Istanbul is somewhere in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, there’s an issue of whether deaths and marriages and births will keep things in the range of critical mass… Near 300,000 in a city of around a million in the 1920s, three-thousand — in a city of 15 million today.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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