Category Archives: Istanbul

Mary, John, and the Ancient City of Ephesus

Some three and a half hours from Jerusalem in a leafy glade on Mount Koressos (the Turkish name translates as Mount Nightengale) lies the House of Mother Mary (Meryemana), a unique shrine venerated by Catholics and Muslims alike. Located near the ancient city of Ephesus, legend has it that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the apostle John lived here after they fled the persecutions of the Romans in Jerusalem.

The Mother Mary House was located only relatively recently, following visions by a generally bedridden Augustinian nun in Dülmen Germany. Apparently Anne Catherine Emmerich’s descriptions were accurate enough for French priest Abbé Gouyet to uncover, in 1881, a crumbling dwelling house where Sr Catherine said it would be. In 1891 priests from Izmir “re-discovered” the site. But the locals had been going there for centuries, venerating it as a holy place for both Christianity and Islam.

While the Ephesus story (dating from the fourth century in Christian literature) is at odds with the long-held belief that the mother of Jesus died at the site of what is now the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, it appears that Pope Leo XIII was a supporter of the Ephesus story; he visited the place in 1896, and apparently bestowed special privileges to those making a pilgrimage there.

The legend cannot, of course, be proved or disproved. However, there is strong support for John’s presence at Ephesus, and the sad ruins of what was a magnificent church (built on the hill of Ayasoluk by none other than Justinian) in nearby Selçuk reputedly house his tomb (according to second-century sources Polycrates and Irenaeus).

Basilica

The sad remains of St John’s Basilica

On the day we visited Mother Mary House, there were busloads of tourists queueing to enter the small chapel, drink or collect water from the holy well, or simply light a candle and say a prayer. Nonetheless, it was a tranquil place, and the prayers of centuries doubtless cast a spirit of peace over us. As we left this holy place and drove to Ephesus itself, I was struck by how close Turkey was to the beginnings of Christianity. If indeed John and Mary made the journey to Ephesus and set up home there, I wondered briefly how they made a living while he was writing his Gospel. And finally, I thought about the bed-ridden German nun who knew exactly where this place was. “There are more things in heaven and on earth …” as Hamlet wisely put it.

Ephesus must have been some city in its heyday. From its earliest beginnings in the tenth century BC, right up to its abandonment around the fifteenth century AD, it was coveted, fought over, conquered, sacked, vandalised, and rebuilt by many, including Ionians, Commerians, Lydians, Persians, Spartans, Syrians, Romans, Goths, and none other than Alexander the Great who liberated the city from a tyrant in 334 BC. The Lydian King Croesus — he of much gold – also had a part of play in the building of the city, notably the Temple of Artemis (of which only one column remains today).

One of my favourite images of this ancient city of marble streets is the communal men’s loos on Curetes Street. Running water made this a not-so-stinky place, and with seats placed close to each other, no doubt a lot of gossip and information was passed from one to the other as these cosmopolitan citizens went about their daily business.

Loos

Intimate toilet seating

Another building that gave me a sore neck was the magnificent library of Celsus. Built by a son in memory of his father (Roman Senator Celsus Polemeanus), it held up to 15,000 scrolls – a modest rival to the great library at Alexandria. A tour guide told us that there was an underground passage between the library and the nearby brothel. I can find no confirmation of this, but can imagine a John Cleese-type gent telling his wife he was off to the library to catch up on some light reading dear! Given that Ephesus was a bustling port city and the brothel was likely to be a place of much activity, I wondered how the brothel workers had protected themselves against pregnancy and venereal diseases, the age-old hazards of the job.

LibraryLib2

The library of Celsus

In contrast to the sex workers, four elegant female figures guard the entrance to the library: Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue). Unfortunately these are copies because the originals were hauled off to Vienna by Austrian archeologists in the nineteenth century. Ravaged by the Goths in 262/3 AD (later to be substantially re-built by Constantine), and demolished by many earthquakes, the library, like most buildings of ancient Ephesus, eventually stopped trying and simply crumbled away. What did happen to all those scrolls?

Sophia

Christianity took an early hold in Ephesus after the visit of Saint Paul, although it was a tough task battling the centuries-old worship of Artemis. He almost started a riot after a silversmith named Demetrius complained that Paul would be the cause of their loss of income and damage to the reputation of the goddess Artemis (New Testament, Acts of the Apostles 19). But given its rocky start, Christianity flourished in the region, and the Patriarch of Constantinople was a significant figure in Christian circles in the centuries to come. The place also appears to have been a hotbed of theological activity: the Christian bishops held the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, a meeting full of doctrinal shenanigans and theological intrigue.

In geographical terms, however, it would appear that Ephesus was doomed. Constant earthquakes – which kept the stonemasons busy for centuries – coupled with the silting up of the harbour, had serious economic consequences for the city. By the time of the crusades it was barely a village, and by the fifteenth century, its inhabitants had grown weary, even the stonemasons, and simply upped sticks and moved on. European archeologists in the nineteenth century – keen to unearth the romantic roots of Greek and Roman civilization – did much to excavate parts of the city, but they removed many artefacts that should have been left where they were found. The British Museum has more of the Temple of Artemis than currently remains in Turkey!

We really enjoyed our tour around this most ancient of cities and were stunned by the obvious wealth of what it must have been in the Byzantine period. It makes you think: in the days when the inhabitants of Dublin and Belfast were just out of the cave, living in mud and wooden huts while eking out a living in unsavoury hygiene conditions, the citizens of Ephesus had running water – some even had indoor loos – spacious bathing facilities, wide, oil-lit streets paved with shinning marble, a library and a medical school, alongside a theatre that seated 25,000. And yet … the city just crumpled away. As a fascinating place to visit, I give it full marks, pipping Hierapolis and Pamukkale to the post by a good few lengths. I really do recommend a trip away from the coast for those willing to embark on the longish road trip.

Main street

Turkey Once More

Last week I met a woman in the Aegean Sea – we were staying near Alaçatı (about one hour’s drive from Izmir), a town on Turkey’s Çeşme Peninsula. She was wearing a little bikini like a flat-chested twelve-year old, big dark sunglasses, and a wonderful hat. Hanging around, she was, enjoying the water while her boyfriend was at meetings. She told me her name and we chatted a few minutes. I just loved the way she said “my boyfriend” – she must have been 75 if she was a day. Later I saw her doing some incredibly flexible yoga on the beach. Message to self: the age of your body is not always relevant to how you live your life. May the rest of your days be lived out in eternal youth, Lady With The Hat in the Aegean Sea!

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I have a new theory: Turkish carpet salesmen are like expert fishermen. The skill is in getting you interested in the lure, interested enough to take a further look. Once you’ve done that and you are actually inside the shop, you’re easy prey. I know. I took a tentative bite and was reeled in expertly by three of the most charming guys you could hope to sell you a carpet (Magic Carpet is the name of the store in Sultanahmet). Coffee, tea, water, baklava? Nothing was too much trouble. We bought a wonderful creation that I am now afraid to walk on (it gets rolled up when the senior dog painfully makes her way to our bedroom and her bed), while Sheridan and Annabelle completed the underfoot requirements for their new build.

But making carpets is no easy job and we saw a few women who spent their days working a loom in the window area of a carpet shop. Their weavings of hand-dyed silk and cotton are works of art but the women had arthritic fingers, painful backs, and failing eyesight from long hours of following a pattern so intricate as to defy description. Not surprisingly, this most ancient of art forms is dying out. Young people are not willing to endure the pain of a two-to-three-year stint producing one carpet. Granted that carpet will sell for upwards of fifteen thousand euros, but I suspect the carpet shop owner will snaffle the lion’s share of the proceeds. Computerised machines will do the job in the future and we, all of us, shall be the poorer for that loss of our common heritage.

I have another new theory: everyone who works anywhere in Turkey (shoeshine guys, street sellers, hotel porters, waiters, you name ’em) either sells carpets or has a brother/uncle/cousin who sells carpets, or knows someone who sells carpets “just around the corner, Lady”. We did indeed follow some fishermen to their employers’ places, and we enjoyed the whirling-carpet show they put on inside. I have quite a heap of business cards if anyone out there wants to buy a carpet!

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Back in Istanbul we carved out a path through the restaurants area near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, and dutifully trod that path every evening in search of sustenance. Well, every restaurant has a fisherman outside, and his job (we only saw one woman on the pavement) is to get you to read the menu and then lure you inside. The menus themselves are simply genius, designed to have you salivating in five seconds or less. Each item is pictured in full colour just in case you cannot read the Turkish/English/German/French descriptions. I did indeed find myself drawn to the cholesterol-ridden dishes that depicted soft melting cheese oozing through crispy-on-the-top phyllo pastry on a bed of spinach or smoked asparagus or some other wonderful purée. And in every single case, the fisherman would ask “where do you come from?” Sometimes we pretended not to speak English, but then they switched to French/ Italian/German/Spanish (one guy, to my absolute astonishment said “Cad é mar atá tú?” – ‘how are you?’ in Irish!!). It was better to be honest. So when one evening a young guy asked the question, I simply said “near Malin Head” while continuing my brisk walk. Well, didn’t he run after me with: “my son lives in Limavady”. You could have knocked me over with a feather. While Limavady isn’t exactly on the way from Belfast to Inishowen it could be if you took the scenic route. I was intrigued. And of course now that a connection had been made, it was de rigueur for us to stop by his place on the next hunt for delicious food. We did. It was fine. But his story was a sad one of divorce with no visiting rights (even if he could afford the travel and get a visa). We left him a larger-than-usual tip after telling him a little bit about the Limavady he would never get to visit.

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Of course the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet Square, the Mosaic Museum and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, the Arasta Bazar, the Galata Tower (to be truthful the queue was too long to join), Taskim Square, the Grand Bazar, and all the other wonderful places of Istanbul were intriguing as usual. I will visit again – I think part of my soul has remained in Byzantium, this now sprawling city with so many layers of history, culture, and tradition.

Carpets, Churches, and Cupcakes

A few weeks ago The Man and I, together with Sheridan and Annabelle, (re-)visited Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul for what they call a long weekend city break, and we enjoyed every second of it. Three things stand out for me – as the title of this blog might give away – except that you should really substitute baklava and Turkish Delight for cupcakes: the alliteration opportunity was just too tempting to ignore.

First carpets. Forget “Do you want to build a snowman?”, “Do you want to buy a carpet?” became a constant question on every street corner. After a while they sort of had us brainwashed, and bedad didn’t we take ourselves off to a carpet shop to see what they had to offer. Well, the floor show was magnificent. The OTTness of it all! Once it became clear that we might be serious punters, out came the wine and the baklava – and very tasty it all was too. The head honcho was a born actor who never missed a clue in private conversation between us two couples, all the time whirling his carpets around like Ali Baba and giving instructions to his guys in rapid Turkish.

IMAG0988

After some few hours had passed, we settled on one traditional carpet for ourselves, and Sheridan and Annabelle selected three more modern pieces for a new build. Well, the guy thought he had died and gone to heaven. More wine was called for. The prices were haggled a bit, and I know we did pay more than they were worth, but it was an experience never to be forgotten. He even threw in the cost of the DHL and handling – although at the price we paid, he had a nice hefty profit from which to extract his costs. Ours has just arrived at home having spent the Easter vacation in a Kampala warehouse awaiting the revenue authority decision on taxation. All in all, it was one of the nicest shopping experiences of my life, and when visitors say: “what a lovely carpet! Where did you get it?”, they will hear the whole unedited story.

And now to Churches. On the shores of the Sea of Marmara stands a small building called the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya), formerly Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (fourth-century Syrian martyrs). This church, a mosque since the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1453, was built by Justinian and his wife Theodora between 527 and 536, and despite damage from earthquakes over the centuries and the advancement of the city, still retains its dignity as a house of God.

HS Little.jpg

Its plan consists of a small basilica with the dome resting on an octagon. Sadly, its original beauty and decoration can only be guessed at because the interior was plastered when it became a mosque.

interior LHS

This little picture shows the dome of the San Vitale church at Ravenna; the Little Hagia Sophia would have had similar interior design.

SV Dome

But the octagonal shape is what captured my attention as I immediately thought of two other octagonal churches: Ravenna and Aachen. It could well be that the Ravenna Church of San Vitale (capital of the western Roman Empire at the time) was inspired by the Little Hagia Sophia given that it was commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius (what a wonderful name for a bishop!) after a visit to Byzantium. San Vitale was consecrated in 548 and its mosaics are considered masterpieces of Byzantine art, no doubt inspired by those of the Little Ayasofya.

mosaic SV

The final member of this trinity of churches is the Cathedral at Aachen, begun around 793, commissioned by Emperor Charlemagne and built by Odo of Metz, and it is, as with the other two octagonal churches, a world heritage site. Charlemagne had moved the capital of the Frankish Kingdom from Ravenna to Aachen so there is a likely link between the Little Hagia Sophia of Justinian via Ravenna and the Church of Charlemagne at Aachen. Although Charlemagne’s cathedral is mostly Romanesque, the octagonal design forms its centre. The Palace Chapel at its core was built from columns and marble from the ancient buildings of Rome and Ravenna (given by Pope Hadrain not looted as was to happen in centuries to come), creating a link between Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and Charlemagne, the new Constantine who kick-started the Carolingian Renaissance where one of my academic interests lies.

aachen outside      aachen dome

But trends change quickly: just seventy or so years later Charlemagne’s grandson built his own church: Notre Dame de Compiègne. This time not an octagonal design but a full-on Gothic Church. It has been suggested that a poem penned by my friend Eriugena (the ninth-century Irish scholar who worked at the palace school of Charles) Aulae sidereae (starry halls) was written to commemorate the consecration of this church in 877. But how I wish the builder had used the octagonal design: that would have made a neat quad of churches built on eights with roots at the very heart of Christendom!

As for the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazzar, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, and all the other magnificent places we visited, that will be for another day and another blog as I have to serve desert now. The people of Turkey are serious about their sweet stuff, baklava and Turkish delight being the tip of the iceberg. We found a cafe that serves only tea, coffee, and deserts / sweets. The Man thought he had died and gone to heaven. His only problem was choice! It was indeed very good but you wouldn’t want to be going there every day for a cholesterol special.

A short time later, just like with the carpet shop, we stopped a fraction of a second too long outside a sweet shop. In a blink of an eye we were whisked inside and given explanations of all the goodies on display. Really interesting and complex, but it was the samples that did me in. The Man smiled through it all and ate all his without complaint. They even found him a seat so that he could be more comfortable. I had the job of choosing which items to put in a box to carry carefully and lovingly back to Kampala. And while I was doing this, the two men were diverted to a section of the shop that sold sweets laced with what I suspect was viagra. “It will make her very happy tonight”, they were told with a Frankie Howard wink; “it will make her smile tomorrow”, they added. And with another saucy wink, your man slipped a sachet of the stuff into each husband’s coat pocket. “You will get two free if you buy ten”, they persisted. But that was just too much for their manliness to deal with and all cajoling to buy the stuff fell on deaf ears.  And in any case, the credit cards were maxed out after the visit to the carpet shop.