Western Turkey - Personal Journal
- Sunday, 5 April 1998
Our second day with Meli began as we left the hotel where she
directed our attention to a fountain in the wall. It is significant to Meli.
She wanted us to understand that an old and valuable object could be taken for
granted in the "busy-ness" of everyday life.
We were led beneath the city streets into the subterranean world
of the Basilica Cistern, made famous in the James Bond movie From Russia
With Love. It is one of many cisterns that lie hidden below the city. Meli
drew us near the edge of a walkway so that we could hear her. Her first lesson
is "Listen." Dutifully we fell silent and listened. We heard the echoes of
water dripping in the cavernous silence and a spell seemed about to be cast in
the pause. But Meli's voice broke the quiet, as she began to tell us the
importance of the capital to three regimes: Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. If
you fly over the city, you will see that it lies on 2 continents. When you walk
on the streets, you can see living history. Follow a trail of that history as
you descend the narrow, damp, steep steps into the cistern. They are made from
antique stones used by Romans and Byzantines, and recycled to make the steps,
the pillars, and the walls of the cistern.
Here, underground, you find the lifeblood of the city. Above
ground, the city is surrounded by water - the Black Sea, the Bosphorus, the Sea
of Marmara - "garlands of water" which is all salty. There has never been fresh
spring water anywhere in the city, so its aqueducts and reservoirs predate the
Roman era. The water is brought from lakes as near as 4 or as far away as 80
Some of the old cisterns have been converted into business
enterprises, such as restaurants or car repair places. This one is a tourist
enterprise. The seriously crowded city would surely benefit from a subway
system, but one cannot be built because it would destroy these underground
Meli told us there are 1001 pillars in this cistern. Then with her
little smile, she told us what that means. Reminding us of the 1001 stories of
Aladdin and his magic lamp, she told the meaning of certain numbers to the
people of Anatolia. The number 40 means "many." The number 72 means "more than
many." And the number 1001 means "so many it is hard to count them."
Someone spied fish swimming in the waters and interest turned in
that direction. Meli told us that they have become a specialty in French
restaurants. They may be the same kind of fish caught elsewhere and sold for a
regular price, but they are on the menu as the fish from the cisterns of
Istanbul and sold for high prices.
Deeper in the cistern, we paused again to experience the sound
effects. Meli asked us to sing, but we had no real singers among us. Julie
volunteered to sing and did quite well, but the effect Meli wanted calls for a
soprano whose voice could crack glass to get the vibrations flowing here. But
we got the idea, and together we sang "Amazing Grace."
"Istanbul," Meli said, "is like an old woman trying to look good."
Surely the city is old. Looking good will take a great deal of cosmetic
improvement. But here and there we can see the beauty. The Christian Byzantines
who built this cistern used old Roman pillars, capitals, stone blocks, whatever
they could recycle, and put it together with masonry. Bricks are used to make
it come together perfectly. Iron bars make it earthquake proof. Terra cotta is
used to line the walls and prevent leaking. There is seepage from above (the
dripping we hear) as ground water seeks a lower level. When this was a working
cistern, one of the concerns was the water pressure becoming too great (i.e.
too deep) because of the seepage. If the water rose too high, the people used
buckets to haul the water out so that the right level was maintained.
Down one walkway, we came to Medusa heads, recycled as part of the
pillars that support the roof. One is sideways, another is upside down. The
people didn't care about the Medusas; they just wanted the marble block. No
effort was made to position them as adornments nor, as the pagans had used
them, as protectors. (Remember the Medusa. We'll see her again.) Meli described
her as a polytheistic deity that had been humanized. She is the Medusa of Greek
legend, whose hair is snakes, and whose unique blue eyes you must not look
into. "The eye," says the legend, "can turn you to stone." We will see the blue
eye in tourist shops everywhere we go in Anatolia, and in homes and businesses.
The legend continues, "If one looks upon it with evil in one's heart, the evil
will be returned upon oneself." Meli gave each of us a small souvenir of this
lecture - a small blue "evil eye" to be worn on our lapels. The little pins
were noticed later on many lapels. But not everyone wore them.
The cistern has an image of mystery in the minds of the people.
There is an old legend told above ground that the cistern is so large that if a
fleet of ships were deployed here they wouldn't see each other. The stairs that
descend into the depths used to be wooden, not the slippery marble we so
carefully negotiated. There were also small wooden boats used by the workers to
check and maintain the construction. Romantic young men who brought their
sweethearts below also used the boats and lanterns. It was an ancient version
of the drive-in movies, Meli says.
We exited the cistern through the gift shop, where we spotted
Meli's book on Ephesus. But it is a coffee-table hardcover book, too heavy to
buy this early in our journey. "Whatever we buy," we reminded ourselves, "we
have to carry."
Turkish and Islamic Arts
Above ground again we headed for the Turkish and Islamic Arts
Museum by the Hippodrome. Here Meli pointed to an office, above the doorway was
the "evil eye" of Medusa. We were taken into a room of the museum where apple
tea and pastries were served. We relished the break, but there was no break in
the lectures. Meli had a great deal to tell us, and this was a good time. We
sat with our tea and listened.
Turkey, Asia Minor, Anatolia - many names have identified this
geographically strategic territory down through the ages. The oldest name,
Anatolia, means the "place where the sun rises" or the "place that is full of
mothers." The word Anne means biological mother. The word Ana means a loving
nurturing woman. It has also been the home of the mother goddesses. This will
be made very clear by the time we get to Ephesus. Catholics and Eastern
Orthodox people as well as readers of the apocryphal literature, may be aware
that the mother of Virgin Mary is reputed to have been named Anne.
"We must look at the roots to understand behavior," Meli told us.
We heard stories of two types of movements of people - invasion or immigration.
We hear about the Trojan War, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Czar Nicholas
coming through the Bosphorus.
She talked about how Xerxes, in the 5th century BC when the
Persians expanded their borders, built abridge of boats across the Bosphorus to
the European side. Alexander the Great built a pontoon bridge to cross in the
opposite direction, from the European side to the Asian side, on his way to
Julius Caesar crossed the water with pontoon bridges that had been
made in Rome before he left there. When he reached the center of Anatolia, he
left his famous quote, "I came, I saw, I conquered."
By 300 AD corruption was infecting the Roman Empire. There is a
story of four competing leaders who were fighting against the Goths. The four
argued with each other, three fought and the fourth one watched. Afterward, one
was limping, one had lost an eye, and one had lost a hand. Only the watcher,
Constantine, remained whole. He built Neo Roma, New Rome. It was the end of the
Byzas era, and the city was soon renamed Constantinople.
In the 11th century, the politically motivated Pope-ordered fourth
crusade went quite astray from attempting to recapture Jerusalem from the
invaders from the east, and conquered Orthodox Christian Constantinople
instead. The army was populated by thieves and rogues who expected to receive
eternal salvation for their services. The great treasures and religious relics
were carted off to Rome, and the city was a shambles.
In 1453, the Muslim Turks (who adopted Islam when they passed
through and conquered Persia) took the city in one day. They had built
fortresses to cut off the food supply, and moved their boats overland to enter
the Golden Horn. On their way along the road, they saw a sign that said,
"Stamboule" and that is what they called the city. What the sign was actually
saying was "to the city."
In World War I, this strategic location became "the desire of all
nations," and every country on the winning side wanted to own or control
Istanbul and Anatolia. A man known today as Ataturk arose, led the inhabitants
to victory against all these armies, and established the country we now call
Turkey. He moved the capital to Ankara. (We will learn more about Ataturk when
we reach that city.)
"The worst thing in the world," Meli believes, "is ignorance." She
warned us to follow up with questioning so that we do not have misconceived
ideas. "There are two reasons for ignorance. One is not knowing that you need
to know. The other is having been intentionally taught wrong things."
The story of the Oklahoma bombing and the immediate reactive
speculation of the American media ("It must be Muslims.") is an example used by
Meli. In fact the bomber turned out to be American born, and embarrassingly to
us, Meli's point is well taken.
"You can understand religion by seeing its culture. One creates
the other," Meli said. "Let old notions be laid aside. Be willing to understand
different cultures, to understand the behavior of people."
Yurt (tent) was a word that meant "homeland" to the nomads.
Wherever the yurt was, that was home. This is basic to the culture of the
people of this land. Perhaps Meli said, "Remember the yurt." We did see a black
tent later, as well as a flock of the black goats whose hair provides the basic
building material for yurts.
Mohammed, the father of Islam, banned anthropomorphic
representations. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image," one of the
Ten Commandments, was very important to Mohammed and has influenced the art
that is seen in tiles, pottery, carpets and kilims everywhere.
One commonly seen symbol is the crescent, which was important to
the Selcukian Turks who came from central Asia. It is seen today on the Turkish
flag. (Later in our trip, when we landed in Athens in the pre-dawn, a crescent
moon hung over the city, close beside it the morning star. The emblems of the
Turkish flag might well have been cut out of just such a night sky view and
laid upon the red background, which signifies the blood shed in this war-torn
Turkish or apple tea is usually served in little tulip-shaped
glasses. Meli told us that the Turkish word for tulip, backward (right to left)
reads God. Tulips originated in Turkey, not in Holland, and Turkish art
frequently includes the tulip.
Another important representation in Turkish art is the tree of
life. Although it is not restricted to Turkey, and is known to be a favorite in
many parts of Asia, here it seems like a part of the lifeblood.
We were led into the museum, and for two hours we heard and saw
more history than we could possibly absorb. I'm sure that each of us came away
with different impressions, there was so much to see. The pages of history
fluttered, the winds of time blew past us too quickly. Brief notes do not begin
to record the stories told by carpets, kilims and ancient artifacts, as we
spent a little time wandering on our own. Some told of seeing a 13th century
astrolabe, and an 18th century device that allowed the traveling Muslim to
accurately locate Mecca.
Meli pulled us together again, and we descended to the next level.
She walked us past several dioramas that dramatically and visually told the
story of the change that happened to women, as the culture changed. We began
with the nomadic tents, where we saw the simple life. It was a matriarchal
society, Meli told us. The women were the ones who decided what to plant and
when to move. They dominated the culture, and carpets were a big part of
A nomad baby was born on a carpet. All his life, he would sit on
carpets, sleep on carpets, and live on carpets. When he died, he would be
wrapped in a carpet for burial. The women used the wool from the sheep or goats
to make the carpets. They spun the yarn, died it with natural dyes from flowers
or plants or roots, wove the kilims, knotted the carpets, and created the
designs. Experts can tell many things about a carpet or a kilim, by looking at
the colors and the design. A design was passed from mother to child, and
certain designs identify certain groups of people. The geographical location
can be known by the colors because the women used what grew in their area. The
type and quality of material (wool from sheep or goats, cotton, silk) are more
keys to the carpet's geographic origins. But the carpets, Meli told us, are
like the ancient fountain near our hotel - taken for granted and neglected.
As the people settled into villages and cities, the role of the
woman changed. By the time of the sultans, women were no longer the ones in
power, but had become decorative symbols in luxurious palaces, and the pawns of
"Religions," says Meli, "are built on previous ones, or replaced
by others." Religions are built to "suit the needs of the people. The purpose
of religion is to help the people be happy."
All of this was before lunch! With our heads spinning, we dashed
over to The Pudding Shoppe, which has a history of hippies and other quirks
that I don't quite remember. I wasn't taking notes, I was eating!
After lunch we were off to the nearby Hagia Sophia museum. The
Hagia Sophia is considered by many to be the greatest edifice for Christian
worship ever built. Perhaps I was overburdened with the morning's learning, but
somewhere here I stopped taking notes. I was, I think, in a state of shock as I
went into the cool interior of the building and saw the faded grandeur, the
mosaics that glorified Mary above or equal to Jesus and honored the dead
emperors and conquerors.
Here was a place where early Christianity had taken root, where
many faithful followers had died for their faith. This was the church that was
built first by Constantine, and rebuilt by Justinian when the first one burned.
It had "lost its first love," as evidenced by the story told in the mosaics,
with worship shifting from Jesus to Mary. Small wonder then, that it had fallen
into the hands of the Muslim Turks, who had turned it into a mosque.
Secular minded Ataturk, who wrenched the nation into existence and
banished religious rule along with the fez and the veil, had taken this
building from the hands of the Muslim Imams and made it a museum. It stands in
tragic disrepair as a testimony to its history. Who can read the meaning behind
it all? It stands in dramatic contrast to the Blue Mosque standing a few
hundred yards away, which we saw just yesterday, clean of icons and goddesses
and emperors. I am overwhelmed, I don't know how to feel or react. It doesn't
help that we are swept along so quickly to our next experience, the Topkapi
Palace. Fortunately we have seen the Topkapi palace already, and I can just
On our second day in Istanbul, we had joined with Jim and Becky
for a day's meandering around Topkapi palace. On the tip of the peninsula, it
looks out on the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Mehmet II
erected the original structures as his own palace after he conquered the city
in 1453. Additional structures have been built through the centuries as
succeeding sultans expanded and added to the wealth of the Ottoman Empire. It
was converted to a museum in 1924.
The wealth of a nation on display is always breathtaking. Lavish
use of gold on the walls and ceilings, elaborate art and artifacts, beautiful
stained-glass windows greeted us in the living quarters of the sultans. The
harem consisted of 400 rooms, housing thousands of women and children. The
decay of the empire began in the harem, where the women competed to be the
mother of the next sultan.
On display here are many interesting things, jewels as big as
rocks, elaborate furniture, dishes, clothing and weapons. Among the luxurious
items rests a few strange things, such as bits of Mohammed's beard, and one arm
encased in gold, said to have belonged to John the Baptist. It is perhaps the
only surving relic of the early days of Christianity in a city that once
claimed ownership of more relics than any other area. The raiders of the fourth
crusade carried most of the relics off along with other treasures of Hagia
Sophia. Rome is the place to see Istanbul's Christian history. Topkapi holds a
small portion of the Ottoman Empire treasury.
When we left Topkapi, we stopped at a lovely hotel (too bad we're
not staying here!) to enjoy their garden patio with some refreshments and
conversation. After a little while, I slipped away and went alone back to the
Hagia Sophia. It was closed by this time, and I could not go in to be alone
with my turmoil, so I walked outside, fending off the carpet salesmen. They
could certainly see that I was interested in the museum, and helpfully told me
it was closed, but that I was welcome to pray in the Blue Mosque. When I asked
them if there were no Christians in Istanbul, they quickly told me "There's the
street." They no longer wanted to talk to me. I was grateful and walked on
alone with my thoughts.
At 7 p.m. we had a group meeting in the lobby that dragged on.
Most of us would have preferred to have dinner first, then the meeting and a
chance to talk about our "culture shock" of the day. At 8:45 we gathered again
to walk to the fish market for dinner in Kumkapi at Dogen restaurant. The food
was good, but we were "entertained" by gypsies who played (too loudly)
something they called music. It was unfortunate. I think there is probably some
very good music in Istanbul. What we heard on the radio at night was mellow and
gentle, lovely stuff. Some CDs that Jim bought later and brought home are
definitely preferable to the sounds we heard that night.