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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Milion to one

No, I spelled it correctly. I'm not referring to the number, but to a historic monument and what remains of it. The Milion was a building in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), at the northern corner of the Great Church of Haghia Sophia, a few meters from the entry to the Basilica Cistern and few more from the site of the ancient Hippodrome, at the very beginning of the Mese Odos (Constantinople's Central Avenue/Broadway). Built by Constantine the Great in imitation of a similar structure in Rome when he recreated Byzantium as New Rome, it was the point from which the distance to all other cities of the Empire was measured. Over the centuries, it developed into quite a complicated monument, described in detail at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milion. It was destroyed in the early 16th century by the conquering Ottomans, to accommodate other building projects in the immediate vicinity. All that remains of it today is a single pillar; hence the title of today's entry. Why am I writing about it at all? Because the hotel where I'm staying for the week is about 200 yards away from it. Sure, I could've said 200 yards from Haghia Sophia, but I wanted to respect the ancient practice of measuring distances from that particular, even though no longer extant, monument.

Yes, I'm in Constantinople, a day earlier than I'd planned to be. Alitalia Airlines announced late last week that there'd be a work stoppage on Tuesday, and as I had to be at the Patriarchate on Wednesday morning, I had to reschedule for a Monday departure. I'd planned to be here through Thursday, then go back to Florence on Friday. That won't be happening, for a couple of good reasons. The first: His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew has designated Saturday, November 29 to be the day of the ordination to the Holy Diaconate of Nikolaos Tsimalis, a Greek-American who has been working as an intern at the Ecumenical Patriarchate since graduating from Holy Cross School of Theology last May. Niko is a very gifted young man who communicates with equal ease in Greek and English, chants beautifully, and most importantly loves the Church of Christ with his whole heart. He has been looking forward to this coming Saturday, he says with complete sincerity, for his whole life.

Niko is a native of Merrillville, Indiana and a life-long member of Sts Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral there. When I was growing up, it was not yet a cathedral, nor had the parish yet relocated from Gary, my hometown, to Merrillville, but in all other respects Niko and I are from the same community. My youngest sister Maria was one of his first Sunday School teachers (and remembers him as quite a handful back then), and he and my nephews Matthew and Aaron served as altar boys together. He will be ordained by His Eminence Metropolitan Nikitas of the Dardanelles, formerly of Hong Kong, and long before that, a priest of Sts Constantine and Helen Cathedral in Merrillville. The Metropolitan is here as a member of the Patriarchal Synod, which is in session this week. How could I not stay for such a blessed occasion? (I didn't know about it before coming here, as Niko was only informed about it himself by the Patriarch only a few days ago.) Because he will be ordained as a celibate, the Patriarch has indicated that he will be given a new name, of His All Holiness's choosing, which he is keeping to himself. My money's on "Paphnutios." Call it a hunch.

I mentioned two good reasons for extending my stay. The second is that Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, the Founder of the Church at Byzantium and Patron of the Ecumenical Throne. It was my great honor to serve on the occasion of that feast at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St George at the Phanar eight years ago, when I was still an archimandrite. I was one of two priests, two deacons, and thirteen Patriarchs and Metropolitans serving that day. I remember having only recently come over from the States and being severely jet-lagged that morning. Had it not been for the crush of people in the sanctuary (every hierarch had an assistant nearby at all times) I would probably have keeled over from exhaustion a couple of times. As it was, there was simply no room to fall. I'm pretty sure, though, that I slept through parts of the morning, on my feet. I look forward to experience the whole morning this time with my wits, such as they are, about me.

So that means I'll be here, unless the Lord has other plans for me, until Monday morning, and back in Florence later that day. And back in the States a week after that.

Before calling it a day, let me tell you about a conversation I had just before sitting down to update this blog. I'd stepped out of the hotel to walk around the neighborhood, maybe catch a bite - okay, to catch a bite - when I noticed I was being waved over to a little restaurant across the street by what I assumed was its proprietor. I turned out to be right about that. He was a charming and dignified gentleman named Osman, the name of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. "My American friend!" he called to me. "Come! You look hungry!" I'm not sure what about me said "American" or "hungry," but he such an amiable character I played along. There were only a couple of other people in the place, younger Turkish men, one in his early thirties in the other ten years younger. No sooner had I accepted a seat than Osman began presenting me with the typical range of Turkish mezedhes, and the older of the other two started questioning me politely about my background. Within minutes, Ramazan (that's his name) and I were talking more easily than I would have thought possible about topics which I thought were not discussed in Turkey. Ramazan is, by the way, a Kurd, and despite his end-of-a-long-day-at-the-garage look, is well educated and very articulate in English, which he claims to have taught himself. He wanted to discuss my faith, what I thought about his, whether I thought Turkey would ever be ready for EU membership (he expressed himself pessimistic - "there is no respect here for human rights!"), and the legacy of Attaturk. This last topic in particular surprised me, as I thought the Father of Modern Turkey was beyond criticism. Ramazan brushed that aside: "No man is God. Only God is God! He was a man who made many mistakes." I asked him if he spoke like this all the time, or was just putting on a show for an American. He assured me that the times, they are a-changing. He described himself as a conservative Muslim but not a radical when it came to violence. I waited for him to look the other way before I mopped my brow and sighed with relief. No, I'm just kidding. It wasn't an uncomfortable conversation. He struck me as a sincere person, trying to understand what other people think about him and his people and his country and his faith. Oh, and he offered me rock bottom prices on his cousin's carpets, which are in the shop next door. I told him I wasn't here to shop. He assured me I'd change my mind before leaving. I hope he's wrong. Who can afford a Turkish carpet these days?

1 comment:

Agape said...

You need to write a book.