Tag Archives: Hagia Sophia

We’ll always have Sicily II, the Cathedral of Monreale — “the art of our ancestors safe from the plaster, whitewash, eye-gouging — and drapes — of the hysterics and puritans of monotheism…”

22 Sep

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

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 I: 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

(See also We’ll always have Sicily II, the Cathedral of Monreale and We’ll always have Sicily III: the Cathedral of Cefalù)

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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Why Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Love Affair with the Ottoman Empire Should Worry The World — Alan Mikhail

5 Sep
Selim I

By Alan Mikhail September 3, 2020 7:00 AM EDT Mikhail is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Yale University. His new book is GOD’S SHADOW: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co.)

At the end of August, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated the Islamic New Year with aplomb. Fresh off his conversion of the monumental Haghia Sophia to a mosque, he converted another former Byzantine church, the fourth-century Chora church, one of Istanbul’s oldest Byzantine structures. The day after that he announced the largest ever natural gas depository in the Black Sea. This followed another recent discovery of natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Both of these areas are hotly contested zones of international competition between the powers around these seas. Later that week he welcomed a delegation of Hamas to Ankara, where he expressed support for Palestinians in the wake of the recent announcement of an agreement between Israel and the UAE.

All of these moves project Erdogan’s vision of Islamist strength into the world. Standing up for Islam at home goes hand in hand with securing natural resources and imposing Turkey’s power abroad. It also goes hand in hand with domestic repression. The Islamic New Year saw Erdogan further tighten his grip on social media freedom and consider pulling Turkey out of what is known, now farcically, as the 2011 Istanbul Convention, a treaty of the Council of Europe that commits countries to protecting women from domestic violence. Democratic peoples in Turkey, the Middle East, and around the world should worry.

Much has been written about Erdogan’s attempts to “resurrect” the Ottoman Empire or to style himself a sultan. There is truth here. But to understand Erdogan’s political agenda and horizon we must be specific about which Ottoman sultan Erdogan strives to be. It is the empire’s ninth sultan, Selim I.

Selim died 500 years ago in 1520. It was during his lifetime that the Ottoman Empire grew from a strong regional power to a gargantuan global empire. For Erdogan, this sultan from half a millennium ago serves his contemporary needs. Selim in many ways functions as Erdogan’s Andrew Jackson, a figure from the past of symbolic use in the present. Selim offers a template for Turkey to become a global political and economic power, with influence from Washington to Beijing, crushing foreign and domestic challengers alike. He helps Erdogan too to make his case for Islam as a cultural and political reservoir of strength, a vital component of the glories of the Ottoman past, which he seeks to emulate in contemporary Turkey against the dominant elite secularism that has reigned since its founding.

We should be wary of Erdogan’s embrace of Selim’s exclusionary vision of Turkish political power. It represents a historical example of strongman politics that led to regional wars, the attempted annihilation of religious minorities, and the monopolization of global economic resources. In addition to his attempts to monopolize natural gas reserves around Turkey, today this takes the form of Erdogan’s foreign military ventures in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. At home, he has gone after Turkey’s Shiite community, Kurds, intellectuals, Christians, journalists, women, and leftists. Erdogan cultivates his own Sunni religiosity to position Islam at the center of Turkey’s domestic agenda, with the church conversions the most potent recent symbols of this. Erdogan’s represents a political logic of zero-sum competition that pits Turkey against Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the region and over claims of global Islamic leadership.

Erdogan likes Selim because he made Turkish global political power possible. From 1517 through the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire maintained the geographic shape Selim won for it, dominating the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. In 1517, the Ottomans defeated their major rival in the region, the Mamluk Empire based in Cairo, capturing all of its territory in the Middle East and North Africa. This more than doubled the empire’s size. This explosion of the Ottoman Empire into the Middle East turned it into the region’s foremost military and political power and one of the world’s largest states. The Ottomans now controlled the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean and thus dominated the globe’s most important trade routes overland between Europe and Asia and by sea through the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The Turkish Republic inherited much of that power after the empire’s demise and the republic’s rise in 1923.

While every modern Turkish ruler has distanced himself from the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and Islam, to attempt to project a more “western,” “secular,” and “modern” face for the republic, Erdogan is the first who has actively embraced the Ottoman past and the empire’s Islamic heritage. Here too Selim proves key to Erdogan’s image of his rule. Selim’s defeat of the Mamluks made the Ottoman Empire a majority Muslim state for the first time in its history, after over two hundred years of being a state whose population was mostly Greek Orthodox. [my emphasis] With this victory, Selim became the first Ottoman sultan to rule Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, thus earning the title of caliph and cementing the empire’s global Islamic credentials. If Selim was the first Ottoman to be both sultan and caliph, Erdogan is the first republican leader to profess to possessing both titles.

Like President Donald Trump’s purposeful deployment of the symbols of Andrew Jackson—prominently displaying his portrait in the Oval Office and defending his statues—Erdogan has trafficked publicly and specifically in the symbolic politics of Selim in Turkey. His most striking act was to name the recently constructed third bridge over the famous Bosphorus Strait after Selim. Erdogan has also lavished enormous resources on Selim’s tomb and other memorials to his rule. After winning a 2017 constitutional referendum that greatly expanded his powers—a process marred by irregularities—Erdogan made his first public appearance at Selim’s tomb. Staged as a kind of pilgrimage, there Erdogan returned to the long-dead sovereign his kaftan and turban that had been stolen years before. This far-from-subtle first act after winning a referendum that gave him near-limitless power made clear who Erdogan’s role model is.

Erdogan and his Islamist party colleagues regularly describe themselves as the “grandchildren” of the Ottomans. In this very pointed genealogy, Erdogan purposefully skips a generation—that of Turkey’s republican fathers since 1923—to leapfrog back in time to when the Ottomans ruled the globe with their particular brand of Turkish Sunni politics, to Selim’s day when wars and domestic repression led to wealth and territorial power. Recreating a political program akin to Selim’s is a dangerous prospect for Turkey and the Middle East and indeed the world. To make Turkey Ottoman again requires the kind of violence, censorship, and vitriol that Erdogan has indeed shown himself ready to use. The universal lesson here is that calls for returns to perceived greatness, whether in Turkey or in United States, selectively embrace controversial historical figures, mangle their history, and elevate hatred and division.

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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

I don’t necessarily think I’m against the changing of former churches that had become mosques then museums and then back into mosques again if they weren’t going to be churches again: but I didn’t know, like in the case of the Savior in the Chora in C-Town, that reusing a mosque would necessitate covering up the artwork… See more soon.

16 Nov

How are they going to cover all that beauty without destroying it?  A ruling is expected from a Turkish court this week to allow the church to be used as a mosque again, this, of course, creating a precedent for Hagia Sophia itself.  I don’t mind that but we have to be clear about what happens to the artwork.

Do any readers know what happened to the Hagies Sophies of Nicaea (Iznik) and Trapezounda (Trabzon), both of which have been re-opened as mosques again.?

Somebody, something, UNESCO…has to do something!

(Note : something was up with my WP account for a while no and readers couldn’t “click” on photos I posted to get full size and appreciation.  Some WP tekkies helped me out with this post, but I have to rearrange all the rest too for past posts.  Thanks for your patience.]

Saint-Sauveur_in_Chora_-_Christ_Pantocrator.jph.jpgAnastasis_fresco,_Chora_Church,_IstanbulGenealogy_of_Jesus_mosaic_at_Chora_(1)KariyeCamii-Aussenansichtup_418_churchofst.saviorinchora2Chora_Church_Constantinople_(6)Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 12.18.07 AMSaint_Andronikos_of_Cilicia_at_Chora.jpg

Very old but interesting article about the issue from New York Times 2013:  “From Church to Mosque to Museum Back to Mosque” by Andrew Finkel, an old journalist hand for the NYT, covers mostly cultural, social, artistic life than political, but he does some great work.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The New St. Nicholas at WTC

8 Jan

Santiago Calatrava Rebuilds St. Nicholas at Ground Zero

Watch fascinating BBC video on how Calatrava drew inspiration for his design from the mosaic Panayia over the southern entrance of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Virgin herself transformed by his design into the dome of the new church.  (Click on all photos.)

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Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 1.54.35 PMMosaïques de l'entrée sud-ouest de Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

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The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

IMG_0779

(click)

This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

Rustem pasa tiles

Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

Eugénie;_keizerin_der_Fransen_(2)

The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

Fish20140522_214540(click)

But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

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So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

Uranium piles

Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

Poutouria220px-Teslacirca1880(2)

While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Vocabulary: “Frangoi”

2 Sep

I’ve used this term several times without giving a more specific definition of it and that was a mistake because some of those posts would have made more sense if I had.

Like: “Little Rock, Greece”  (May 26th, 2012):

“But an equal object of my bashing here is the European Union, which aside from proving itself to be a neo-colonialist endeavour masquerading as the Highest Achievement of Western Humanism Project, has also revealed itself to be a half-assed, thrown together mess on so many institutional and bureaucratic levels.  (Yes, neo-colonialist: the Frangoi** gave up their colonies after the war and then discovered the exploitable potential of Europe’s own periphery again.)”

And: “Russia and Syrian Christians, ctd”  (June 5th, 2012):

“Tying your survival to extra-regional players or regimes like Assad’s that are destined to soon make their exit is a losing strategy for the region’s Christians.  The threat of Islamist violence is probably real.  Iraq and even Egypt certainly seem to indicate that.  But their only choice is probably the tricky dance of fostering, or just going with, the flow of democratic change while keeping themselves as least vulnerable as possible.  Forget Russia.  And, as Constantine XI had to heroically face in the end, there’s certainly no help coming from the Frangoi.*  If you want to live in peace and security, look to your neighbor because, ultimately, he’s the only one who can provide it for you.”

And: “Un Verano en Nueva York” (July 13th, 2012):

“In Astoria I catch the end of vespers at Hagia Eirene.  This is a church that used to be the territory of fundamentalist, Old Calendar, separatist crazies but has rejoined the flock on the condition that it was granted monastic status (and I have no idea what that means).  But it has somehow got its hands on a great bunch of cantors and priests who really know what they’re doing.  I’m impressed.  I brought friends here for the Resurrection this year and for the first time I wasn’t embarrassed.  If I hadn’t invited them back home afterwards I would have stayed for the Canon.  Only one cantor now at vespers but he’s marvelous and the lighting is right and the priest’s bearing appropriately imperial.  It’s incredibly heartening to see our civilization’s greatest achievement — which is not what the Frangoi taught us about Sophocles or Pericles or some half-baked knowledge of Plato or a dumb hard-on about the Elgin marbles or the word “Macedonia,” but this, the rite and music and poetry and theatre of the Church – performed with the elegance and dignity that it deserves.”                  

So…when the Byzantines first encountered the West and the conglomeration of Germanic kingdoms that had sprung up on the territories of the western Roman Empire, or rather, when they first felt challenged by it and not just irritated, was when Charlemagne, previously just King of the Franks, was crowned Emperor of the Romans in the year 800 by Pope Leo III, whose skin he had saved after Leo had been deposed and almost lynched by the mobs of Rome.  This, of course, was intolerable to us, because we were the Romans and we had an Emperor, with an unbroken line back to Constantine, if not Augustus.  This is close to impossible an idea for anyone today to understand; it’s even hard for modern Greeks to articulate and it’s at the core of our completely mangled identity.  It’s nearly impossible to speak definitively about consciousness or identity in the present tense, much less more than a millennium past.  But this is the simplest way I can put it: by the late first millennium, the Greek-speaking Christians of the eastern Mediterranean had a stronger sense of Imperial Roman continuity than the inhabitants of even the Italian peninsula.  Till well into the twentieth century our most common term of self-designation was “Romios” – “Roman.”  If you had asked any of my grandparents, all born Ottoman subjects, what they “were” — if they even understood the question — or even my father very often, they would’ve all answered “Roman.”  For the inhabitants of my father’s village in Albania, especially the older ones, who never had “Hellenes” imposed on them by the Neo-Greek statelet, the world is still divided into Muslim “Turks” and Orthodox “Romans,” and whether they speak Greek or Albanian is irrelevant.  The Greeks of Istanbul still call themselves “Romioi” for the most part; Turks still call them “Rum” too, out of simple historical continuity, while the Turkish state is still faithful to the appellation for partly more cynical and manipulative reasons.  I’m writing a piece with the appropriately pompous working title of “A Roman Manifesto” or “A Manifesto of Romanness” that will deal with this whole theme further.

The Frankish West (click)

So Charlemagne was a Frank, a Latinized Germanic ethnic group, and though the Pope’s primacy “inter pares” was recognized, he had no right to unilaterally crown this Frank emperor in an Italy that had become a ravaged provincial backwater from the Constantinopolitan point of view.  This didn’t end relations between the Empire and the various western European kingdoms.  They continued to trade and even contract dynastic marriages and all the rest.  But the tension, which had already been planted for quite a while before that, only went from bad to worse: power tensions; trade concessions to the Italian city-states that fatally mirror the ones the Ottomans had to make to the Western powers a millennium later; massacres of Italians in C-town that are equally mirror-like.

The West grew in confidence.  The Empire shrank.  They started bickering about theological issues, and eventually, in 1054, Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other over some nonsense about the division of labor among the Trinity that I’ve never bothered to try and understand.  Then came the Crusades — more growing Western confidence — which the Byzantines weren’t ever really enthusiastic about because I reckon on many levels they felt less animosity for and greater cultural affinity to their the Muslim/Arab neighbors than they did to the “Franks.”  Runciman, I think writes somewhere that a ninth-century Greek felt more at home in Arab Palermo or Baghdad and Cairo that he would’ve in Paris or even Rome.

Sometimes Wiki’s gets it perfect:

“The experiences of the first two Crusades had thrown into stark relief the vast cultural differences between the two Christian civilizations. The Latins (as the Byzantines called them because of their adherence to the Latin Rite) viewed the Byzantine preference for diplomacy and trade over war, as duplicitous and degenerate, and their policy of tolerance and assimilation towards Muslims as a corrupt betrayal of the faith. For their part, the educated and wealthy Byzantines saw the Latins as lawless, impious, covetous, blood-thirsty, undisciplined, and (quite literally) unwashed.”

Then came the Fourth Crusade, led by the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo.  The Crusaders fell into the internecine machinations of the some Angeloi  Emperors and I think ended up feeling betrayed on some promise made to them by one party in the Byzantine political scene, and they probably were, because our latter Emperors compensated for the diminishment of their real geopolitical power and the sapped strength of their once massive military machine by becoming major manipulative sleazebags and liars, initiating a long Greek tradition that persists to our day.  In retaliation, and, or, because that had been their real object all along, the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, captured the City – the first time Constantinople had ever fallen to anybody and destroyed it.

They destroyed her.  They massacred thousands, desecrated churches, including Hagia Sophia herself, and carried away what, in today’s terms, I’m sure amounted to billions in loot.  The Venetians got off with enough of a lump sum of capital to fund and run their mercantile empire for another five centuries.  But aside from the loot, which on some level is comprehensible, it’s the sheer mindless destruction of 1204 that betrays the sack as the action of thuggish, resentful provincials and their envy towards what had been the civilizational center of the Mediterranean and western Asian world for almost a millennium; it’s what an army of Tea-Partiers, NRA members or armed Texan Evangelicals would do to New York if they could.  Though pregnant already with the great traditions of this supposed thing called Western Humanism, this bunch destroyed more Classical texts and melted down or smashed more Classical sculpture into gravel than had been done at any other one time in history – far more than any fanatical Christians in any pagan city or any Arabs or Muslims in any conquered Christian city before them had.  More of the ancient world was lost to us in those few days than in any other comparable time span before that.  Just sheer idiotic vandalism.  There’s probably no more epic manifestation of Killing-the-Father in human history.

Speros Vryonis, a great historian but a seriously unpleasant man, Theos’choreston, made a career out of catalogueing the injustices done to Byzantine and post-Byzantine Greeks.  He was the great modern preacher of whining Greek victimology and one often felt that all his personal bile and biterness was poured into his work in that way; his book on the anti-Greek riots of Istanbul in 1955 is one thousand pages long; you’d think it was the most important event in twentieth-century history.  In any event, in Byzantium and Europe, he wrote:

“The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church’s holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.”

The Fall of Constantinople, Palma Le Jeune — 16th-17th century (click)

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople –Eugene Delacroix, 1840 (click)

And, in fact, the Turks — fast-forward two-and-a-half centuries – weren’t as bad.  Maybe ’cause there wasn’t much left.  Aside from a sizeable amount of slaves, most of the loot Mehmet had promised his suicidally brave Janissaries when they finally made it into the City in 1453 consisted of cheap silver frames pried off of personal or parish-sized icons — Cavafy’s “bits of coloured glass.”  The Emperor’s tombs in the dilapidated Hagioi Apostoloi — the Byzantines’ Westminster — had already been desecrated and robbed by the Franks.  They may as well have sacked Astoria.  The rest was in Venice.  (Even the crown jewels had been pawned off to Venice a century before by Anne of Savoy, one of the most meddling Frangissa bitches in Byzantine history, to fund her episode of the Palaiologan civil wars; that’s the actual historical reference for Cavafy’s “coloured glass.”  Christouli mou, can you imagine what the Byzantine crown jewels were like?)  But one good thing happened for Greeks on Tuesday, May Twenty-Ninth, Fourteen-Fifty-Three: when the Turks finally broke into Hagia Sophia, they smashed Dandolo’s sepulcher — because, after all of the above, he had had the shamelessness to have himself interred there – and finding nothing of worth, they threw his bones out into the street and let the dogs gnaw on them.  I don’t care what else the conquering Turks did at that  point or that Menderes’ thugs did the same to the Patriarchs’ graves at Balikli in 1955; I sleep better at night because they did it to Dandolo.  I’m as close to a chaneller of the Byzantine mind and soul as you’ll find (aside from Vryonis) and I can tell you that the sweet Balkan hard-on of vengeance that image gives me even now is indescribable.

The Greeks got Constantinople back in 1261, but the City never really recovered, as the Empire itself didn’t.  Like the South Bronx in the eighties, whole parts of the City were eventually given over to orchards and bostania or just wilderness.  Yet even after that, the Byzantines managed to plant further seeds in the womb of friggin’ Western Humanism in the form of an artistic wave of unprecedented dimensions and creativity. 

The “Franks,” thereafter, were the unforgivable villains.  But even before, when Byzantine writers felt like being professional, they referred to Westerners as “Latins.”  When not, and eventually in most cases, they were “Frangoi.”  Frangoi stuck as the word for Westerners, or for Catholics at least, because Protestantism was only a minor blip on the East’s screen.   But generally it came to mean the Western Others and the Eastern Muslim world between which Byzantine and post-Byzantine Christians came to feel themselves stuck between.

“Fereng,” “Ferengi,” “Ferenj” and other variations is also a word that eventually came to be used as far east as India, but I can’t be sure whether in Iran or India it means/meant Westerner or just foreigner.  For Arabs and Turks, “Frank” came to mean those Christians over there, as opposed to “Romans,” our Christians over here.  So if you were Roman Catholic, either back home in Europe or in the Near East, you were a “Frank;” if you were an Orthodox Christian, you were a “Roman.”*  It’s confusing.  And I hope I haven’t made it worse.

For Greeks, Frangoi continued to mean Westerner both in a negative sense and not, until the nation-sate convinced us into thinking we ourselves were Westerners.  When Greek peasant men, for example, started wearing Western clothes, whereas their women wore traditional dress well into the twentieth century in many regions, those clothes were “Frangika.”  Frangoi also meant, with no negative connotation, the small communities of Catholics in the Aegean islands that were leftovers of the Crusader principalities that had been founded there after the Fourth Crusade.

It’s not used any more in common Greek parlance, but most Greeks know what you mean when you say it – though this generation is so profoundly ignorant historically that I’m not so sure.  I, of course, use it in a spirit of historical irony, though that spirit is entirely hostile.  The worst enemy of our part of the world is the European West, and not because of imperialist interventions or the usual gripes, but because of the ideological and cultural chaos we allowed it to throw us into.

Yes, Frangoi are the enemy.  I like to say that.  But it’s not true.  We think we’re Frangoi.  Unlike the Byzantines described above, who understood that their natural civilizational context was and always had been the eastern Mediterranean, we are either ignorant of the peoples to our East or despise them.  We disfigured our own identity in an attempt to remake it in the Westerners’ image.  We threw acid into our own face and now still look longingly into Europe’s eyes, and pathetically expect to see our Classical glory reflected back at us.

*One of the most graphic examples is Lebanon/Syria, where Orthodox Christians, who have long and poignantly tried to bridge the above gap, were still “Romans” into the nineteenth century and were among the founders and then long among the most loyal adherents of Arab nationalism, whereas Maronite Christians were the locals with the most exemplary Frangika delusions, always looking to the Western outsider to bolster their interests, first their “sweet mother France” and then Israel, and bringing disaster down upon their heads and that of all around them in the process.  That’s why in many previous posts my humble outsider’s advice to and hope for Syrian Christians in the current crisis has been that they think and act like Romans and not Franks.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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