Friday, November 28, 2008

In The City (there's a thousand things I want to say to you)

It's gone by many names over the course of its 2600-year existence: Byzantion, for its mythical founder, Byzas; New Rome, for the role it was to play in the restructured Empire; then Constantinople, after the Emperor who willed that new role and restructuring; and most recently Stamboul, then Istanbul, from the Greek "eis tin Poli," "(in) The City," as that was how the conquering Turks heard its inhabitants refer to it. Even today, for Greeks the world over, it is simply The City.

Wherever I look here, I can't help wondering what I would be seeing if I were standing on the same spot at another moment in The City's history: a hundred years ago, before the fall of the Sultanate and the birth on the secular Turkish state, when more than a third of its one million inhabitants were Greeks and Armenians (today, there are 1500 Greeks, and far fewer Armenians, in a population of 15 million); 560 years ago, before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks; 810 years ago, before its sacking by the armies of the 4th Crusade; 1480 years ago, before the fires of the Nika Riots burned to the ground an earlier version of the Church of Haghia Sophia; 1680 years ago, as Constantine the Great was creating from the raw material of an ancient Greek city a New Rome, even grander than the Old; 2500 years ago, when the hill on which Haghia Sophia now stands was the site of a temple dedicated to a pagan goddess. I wish there was a way of pealing back the layers, like transparencies in an anatomy textbook, lifting away first the skin of the present, then the various systems of the past, and so on until the bones.

In fact, there is a website that makes it possible to envision The City as it may have looked at its most glorious, from an Orthodox Christian or Byzantinist perspective: The purpose of the site is to provide as best as possible, based on physical remains, historic descriptions, and artists' renderings, reconstructions of buildings as they might have appeared in Constantinople on the eve of its sacking by the Crusaders in 1204. Those of you who checked out the wikipedia article on the Milion mentioned in one of my previous entries will have seen that nothing remains of that great monument but a broken and scarred marble pillar. Go to, read the "Important Notice," click on "contents" from the column on the left, and then click on item no. 40, "Milion." See what I mean? The site is especially helpful for the Hippodrome, of which only three monuments remain; the Great Palace, on the site of which the Blue Mosque now stands; and the Blachernae Palace complex, of which there is only a single wall today.

Certainly the greatest monument The City has ever produced is the Great Church of Haghia Sophia. It is referred to as the Great Church rather than as the Cathedral, because that title belongs to the nearby church of Haghia Eirene. (Neither of these churches, by the way, is dedicated to a woman saint. Haghia Sophia is the Holy Wisdom of Christ, and Haghia Eirene is His Holy Peace. Both of these attributes, Wisdom and Peace, are in the Greek language feminine, and are also used as names for women; hence the confusion.) It was, famously, the overwhelming beauty of the building and of the worship that took place within it that won the Russian people for Orthodoxy. The Tsar's emissaries, upon experiencing the Divine Liturgy as celebrated within the Great Church, reported back to him that they didn't know whether they were in heaven or on earth, so powerfully were they moved by the symphony of sights and sounds being conducted in its massive yet miraculously open space. The building itself is the third church of the same name on the same site; the previous two were largely wooden structures which were brought down by fires set by rioters. The present structure was built in the unbelievably short period of 5 years, between 532 and 537, during the reign of Justinian the Great. For over 900 years, it was the most magnificent Christian temple in the world. For nearly 500 years after the capture of The City by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was one of the world's most important mosques. For the past 70 years, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Turkish state, it has been a museum, though still decorated as if it were a mosque. Once again, wikipedia offers an excellent survey of the Church and its long history (, and there is an impressive virtual tour available on line as well, at (If you've never done a virtual tour, the trick is to point your cursor in the direction you want to go, then click.)

If I had arrived in The City on November 24, 1437, exactly 571 years to the day before I actually arrived this past Monday, I would have been just in time to witness a singularly spectacular sight: The Holy Roman Emperor John VIII Paleologus and His All-Holiness Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople boarding separate ships, with an entourage of hundreds of hierarchs, clergymen, lay theologians, noblemen and courtiers from throughout the Orthodox Christian East. They would have been preparing to set sail for Italy, to attend a Council summoned by Pope Eugenius IV for the purpose of healing a schism between the Churches of East and West that had been in effect, technically speaking, since Sunday, July 16, 1054, when three papal legates disrupted the Divine Liturgy in Haghia Sophia by depositing a Bull of Excommunication on the Holy Altar before storming out of the building. And I will be returning to the sad story of what happened in that Council when I myself return to Italy early next week!

No comments: