Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #1

After my Visit To the Tomb of Enrico Dandolo in Istanbul I wandered further west to Venice. I wanted to see his birthplace and the four copper statues of horses that he had expropriated from Constantinople after the sack of the city in 1204. The flight from Istanbul to Venice takes two hours and twenty-five minutes, landing at Marco Polo (what else?) Airport at 12:50 p.m. local time. A paved pathway leads several hundred yards from the airport exits to the water buses that transport arrivals two miles across the lagoon to Venice. Although I have read John Julius Norwich’s magisterial  A History Of Venice (who hasn’t?) and several other books about Venice and its role at the ultimate western terminus of the Silk Road I was woefully ignorant about the details of actually visiting the city. All I knew I had gleaned from the internet the night before in my hotel room in Istanbul and in the Turkish Air business lounge at Ataturk Airport.

The water bus made seven stops before arriving at the San Marco Piazza stop more than a hour after leaving the airport. I had booked a hotel based solely on its proximity to the Church of San Luca (Luke), which my preliminary researches had indicated was near the birthplace of Enrico Dandolo. The hotel was located on the far side of San Marco Piazza— Plaza of St. Mark—and although all tourist information warned about the notorious difficulty of finding one’s way around Venice I had the GPS coordinates of the hotel and my GPS and did not expect any difficulties. Although anxious to get settled in I could not help but stop for a few moments in the vast plaza and gaze at St. Mark’s Church at it eastern end. Sure enough, there on the facade were four statues of the horses. I knew, however, that these were replicas of the four statues expropriated by Enrico Dandolo after the sack of Constantinople. The originals were in a museum inside the church itself. They must wait.
St. Mark’s Plaza and the Church of St. Mark (click on photos for enlargements)
 Church of St. Mark
Replicas of the statues of four horses brought to Venice by Enrico Dandolo on the facade of St. Mark’s Church
 Another view of the statues
Leaving one of the northern exits from the plaza I quickly homed in on my hotel using my GPS. Arriving there I was somewhat flummoxed to find the door of the hotel locked and the lobby plunged into darkness. I pounded on the door but got no response. I was about to leave and ask someone in the next-door store about the hotel when I noticed an envelope taped to the door. It was below my waist level and I had not noticed it before. Glancing at the envelope, I saw that it was addressed to “Mr Corner”, a common misspelling of my name. A note inside stated that the hotel had been closed because of unforeseen maintenance problems but that I should proceed to the Hotel Casanova, where a room had been reserved for me. A map was attached showing the way to the eponymous Hotel Casanova. It turned out it was just a hundred feet or so from the western exit from St. Mark’s Plaza. After checking into my tiny, rather shabbily furnished room, I retired across the street to a restaurant where I had a plate of pasta and a half liter of refreshingly perky red house wine. There were six waitresses in this restaurant and all of them appeared to be Chinese. For a moment I thought I was back in Beijing. My waitress was preternaturally attentive. I had only to raise one eyebrow to bring her scurrying to my table. Later I went back to my hotel room to see what more I could dig up on the internet about the family of Enrico Dandolo.

Turkey | Istanbul | Hagia Sophia | Enrico Dandolo

From the Obelisk of Theodosius I wandered east through Sultanahmet Square, soon passing by the the Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain, an octagonal domed structure built by the German government in 1900 to mark the German Emperor Wilhelm II's visit to Istanbul in 1898. Near here would have stood the starting gates used for horse and chariot races in the old Byzantine Hippodrome which occupied the area now taken up by Sultanahmet Square. 

Mounted above the starting gates were larger-than-life size copper statues of four horses. Their provenance is unclear (an Entire Book has been written on this issue and the horses in general) but they were probably made in what is now Greece and used to ornament some monumental structure there. Greece having been subsumed by the Byzantines, Theodosius II, the same Theodosius who built the Land Walls, expropriated the horses and had them moved to Constantinople, where they were used to ornament the Hippodrome. When the Crusaders and Venetians sacked Constantinople in 1204 the horses were claimed as war booty by the Venetians and taken to Venice, where they can still be found today.
 An artist’s rendering of the Hippodrome starting gates. The horses can be seen on top of the gate in the middle. The dome of Hagia Sophia is behind, to the right  (click on photos for enlargements).
Leaving Sultanahmet Square I arrive at the entrance to Hagia Sophia, the immense church built in the  a.d. 530s by Justinian I. It is now a museum. One of the architectural wonders of the world, it is visited by millions of people a year—3,574,043 visitors in 2014. Usually around opening time there is a line of several hundred people waiting to get in. Today, three days after the suicide bombing at the nearby Column of Theodosius, there is no one in line. I have been inside Hagia Sophia several times, but each time it was crowded with hundreds, of not thousands of people. I thought today, when it would not be so crowded,  might be a good day to visit again. Inside I was surprised to find several hundred people, almost all of them members of tour groups. They had apparently arrived right at opening time and used a special entrance reserved for guided groups. I spent an hour or so wandering around the ground floor, studying the many stone pillars ransacked from various lands conquered by the Byzantines, and then climb the broad stone staircase to the South Gallery. 
Hagia Sophia
On the east wall of the western buttress in the South Gallery can be seen the mosaic known as the Deesis. It probably dates to the fourteenth century. John Freely, author of Strolling through Istanbul, considers it “one of the very greatest works of art produced in Byzantium.” Only part of the mosaic has survived, but we can see Christ in the middle flanked by Mary and St. John the Baptist.
The Deesis: Christ in the middle, Mary on the left; St. John the Baptist on the right
Detail of the Deesis
Everyone who visits the South Gallery stops and gazes at the Deesis, most taking photos with their smart phones or iPads. Almost no one notices a small tombstone set level with the floor at the base of the buttress facing the Deesis. Most walk by it without a glance. Few realize that it is a memorial to the man who instigated what may well be the greatest crime ever perpetrated in the name of Christianity. I am speaking of Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo and Sack of Constantinople in 1204. John Freely:
Set into the pavement just opposite to the Deesis is the tomb of the man who ruined Byzantium. Carved in Latin letters on the broken lid of a sarcophagus there, we see the illustrious name, HENRICUS DANDALO. Dandalo, Doge of Venice, was one of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade and was the one chiefly responsible for persuading the Latins to attack Constantinople in the years 1203–4. After the final capture of Constantinople on 13 April 1204, Baldwin of Flanders was crowned in Haghia Sophia as Emperor of Rumania, as the Latins called the portion of the Byzantine Empire which they had conquered. But the Latin Emperor did not reign supreme even in his capital city, for three-eighths of Constantinople, including the church of Haghia Sophia, was awarded to the Venetians and ruled by Dandalo. The old Doge now added the title of Despot to his name and thereafter styled himself “Lord of the fourth and a half of all the Roman Empire.” But proud Dandalo had little time to lord it over his fractional kingdom, for he died the following year, 16 June 1205, and was buried in the gallery of Haghia Sophia. After the Conquest, according to tradition, Dandalo’s tomb was broken open and his bones thrown to the dogs.
 Memorial to Enrico Dandolo
Detail of Enrico Dandolo
 We might assume that whatever marker covered his tomb was also destroyed. The current tombstone was installed later, when and by whom is it not clear (if anyone has any information about this please let me know). Thus the marker here in the South Gallery is not actually the grave of Enrico Dandolo (or Dandalo; both spelling occur in the literature) but rather a memorial to him. From the memorial I walk over to the balcony and gaze down on the hundreds of people milling around the floor of Hagia Sophia. The scene on April 13, 1204, would have been quite different. We have the account of the Byzantine historian Niketas or Nicetas Choniates (1155–1217), who was an eye-witness to the Sack of Constantinople:
What then should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men? O, the shameful dashing to earth of the venerable icons and the flinging of the relics of the saints, who had suffered for Christ's sake, into defiled places! How horrible it was to see the Divine Body and Blood of Christ poured out and thrown to the ground! These forerunners of Antichrist, chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens; some they smashed, taking possession of the ornaments embellishing them, and they set the remaining vessels on their tables to serve as bread dishes and wine goblets. Just as happened long ago, Christ was now disrobed and mocked, his garments were parted, and lots were cast for them by this race; and although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.
The report of the impious acts perpetrated in the Great Church are unwelcome to the ears. The table of sacrifice, fashioned from every kind of precious material and fused by fire into one whole-blended together into a perfection of one multicolored thing of beauty, truly extraordinary and admired by all nations-was broken into pieces and divided among the despoilers, as was the lot of all the sacred church treasures, countless in number and unsurpassed in beauty. They found it fitting to bring out as so much booty the all-hallowed vessels and furnishings which had been wrought with incomparable elegance and craftsmanship from rare materials. In addition, in order to remove the pure silver which overlay the railing of the bema, the wondrous pulpit and the gates, as well as that which covered a great many other adornments, all of which were plated with gold, they led to the very sanctuary of the temple itself mules and asses with packsaddles; some of these, unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor. Moreover, a certain silly woman laden with sins, an attendant of the Erinyes, the handmaid of demons, the workshop of unspeakable spells and reprehensible charms, waxing wanton against Christ, sat upon the synthronon and intoned a song, and then whirled about and kicked up her heels in dance.
It was not that these crimes were committed in this fashion while others were not, or that some acts were more heinous than others, but that the most wicked and impious deeds were perpetrated by all with one accord. Did these madmen, raging thus against the sacred, spare pious matrons and girls of marriageable age or those maidens who, having chosen a life of chastity, were consecrated to God? Above all, it was a difficult and arduous task to mollify the barbarians with entreaties and to dispose them kindly towards us, as they were highly irascible and bilious and unwilling to listen to anything. Everything incited their anger, and they were thought fools and became a laughingstock. He who spoke freely and openly was rebuked, and often the dagger would be drawn against him who expressed a small difference of opinion or who hesitated to carry out their wishes.
The whole head was in pain. There were lamentations and cries of woe and weeping in the narrow ways, wailing at the crossroads, moaning in the temples, outcries of men, screams of women, the taking of captives, and the dragging about, tearing in pieces, and raping of bodies heretofore sound and whole. They who were bashful of their sex were led about naked, they who were venerable in their old age uttered plaintive cries, and the wealthy were despoiled of their riches. Thus it was in the squares, thus it was on the corners, thus it was in the temples, thus it was in the hiding places; for there was no place that could escape detection or that could offer asylum to those who came streaming in.
O Christ our Emperor, what tribulation and distress of men at that time! The roaring of the sea, the darkening and dimming of the sun, the turning of the moon into blood, the displacement of the stars—did they not foretell in this way the last evils? Indeed, we have seen the abomination of desolation stand in the holy place, rounding off meretricious and petty speeches and other things which were moving definitely, if not altogether, contrariwise to those things deemed by Christians as holy and ennobling the word of faith.
Such then, to make a long story short, were the outrageous crimes committed by the Western armies against the inheritance of Christ.
The Crusader State established in 1204 by Enrico Dandolo and his co-conspirators lasted until 1261, when Constantinople was retaken by the Byzantines. But a candle always flickers most brightly one last time just before it goes out, and Byzantium soon proved itself to be a spent force. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror entered Constantinople and claimed it for Islam. He himself rode into Hagia Sophia and ordered that it be turned into a mosque. After 1123 years Byzantium was gone forever, and what is now Turkey became part of the Muslim geosphere.

As John Julius Norwich put it in Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, volume three of his magisterial history of the Byzantine Empire:
There are few greater ironies in History than the fact that the fate of Eastern Christendom should have been sealed—and half of Europe condemned to some five hundred years of Muslim rule—by men who fought under the banner of the Cross. Those men were transported, inspired, encouraged, and ultimately led by Enrico Dandolo in the name of the Venetian Republic; and, just as Venice derived the major advantage from the tragedy, so she and her magnificent old doge must accept the responsibility for the havoc that they have wrought on the world.
Among the vast amount of loot claimed by Enrico Dandolo were the four copper statues of horses that graced the Hippodrome. As mentioned above, they are now in Venice. While standing there overlooking the floor of Hagia Sophia I decide I must go to Venice to see the horses and the birthplace of Enrico Dandolo, the man who has had such an incalculable effect on world history.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Turkey | Istanbul | Hippodrome | Obelisk of Theodosius

The morning after my Arrival In Istanbul I emerged from my hotel slightly before daybreak.  A slight drizzle was falling as I walked up past the remnants of the Miliarum Aureum, or Golden Milestone, which during Byzantine times was used a zero reference point for the milestones on the many roads which extended throughout the empire. A modern signpost next to the ruins shows the air miles to Moscow, Berlin, Paris, and other points of interest. I crossed what the Byzantines called the Mese, the main thoroughfare running through old Constantinople, now called Divan Yolu, into Sultanahmet Meydani, or square. Istanbul is not an early rising town, at least not here in the main historical and tourist district. Not a soul can be seen on Divan Yolu except for one taxi driver asleep in his car and the square is also empty except for two police cars parked near the Column of Theodosius, where the suicide bombing took place three days earlier. The historical center of a city said to have over fifteen million residents is eerily deserted. 

The square is about 950 feet long and 190 feet wide. It is flanked on the southwest by the Sultanahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmet I. With its vast central dome and cluster of half-domes and its six minarets it is surely one of the most iconic mosques in the world. On the northwest is the old mansion of Ibrahim Pasha (1493–1536), grand vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1523–1536). Reputed to be the biggest personal residence ever built in the Ottoman Empire, is it now an art museum. (Ibrahim paid for his extravagance with his live; Suleiman had him executed in 1536 for, in effect, getting too big for his breeches.) On the southern end of the square are the buildings of Marmara University. 
Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque (click on photos for enlargements)
Running in a line down the center of the square are three monuments that predate the Ottoman era. At the southwest end of the square is a 104-foot column of rough stone said to be been erected by Theodosius the Great (a.d. 347–395) or Constantine the Great (a.d. 272–337). It was later sheathed with gilded bronze plaques by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 912–59). The bronze plaques were reportedly stripped off and claimed as booty by the Crusaders and Venetians who sacked Constantinople in 1204. The middle monument is the famous Serpent Column which once graced the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in what is now Greece. The brass column, which consisted of thee intertwined serpents, was cast to celebrate the Greek defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plateae (479 b.c.). The bronze shields of Persian soldiers killed in the battle were reportedly melted down and the metal reused to cast the snake memorial. The names of the thirty-one Greek cities who participated in the Battle of Plateae were inscribed on the bottom of the column. Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, appropriated the column from the Greeks, by then subsumed by the Byzantine Empire, and used it to adorn his new capital. It may have first been placed in the courtyard of nearby Haghia Sophia and only later moved to the Hippdrome. Originally the three snake heads at the top of the column supported a golden bowl. The golden bowl disappeared during the sack of the city in 1204. Later the heads were broken off under unclear circumstances. It has long been rumored that In 1700 an employee of the Polish Embassy to the Sublime Port chopped off one of the heads for a souvenir. Another eventually ended up on the Istanbul Archeological Museum, where it can still be seen today. Thus only the snake column without the heads can now be seen in Sultanahmet Meydani. The third monument in the square is the Obelisk of Theodosius, where the suicide bombing took place.

The Blue Mosque and the residence of Ibrahim Pasha were built during Ottoman times. The three monuments that now stand in Sultanahmet Meydani were placed there during Byzantine era, when the square and the surrounding area were occupied by the Hippodrome, a huge stadium where horse and chariot races and other sporting events were held. It also served as the city’s social center and as a forum for the airing of political disputes. The three monuments marked the spina, or central line, which ran lengthwise through the middle of the Hippodrome. The original Hippodrome (from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, pathway or track) was built by the Emperor Septimus around a.d. 203. In 324 Constantine the Great established Constantinople as his new capital and embarked on a building spree during which the Hippodrome was renovated and enlarged. The new version was considerably larger than current-day Sultanahmet Square, measuring about 1575 feet in length and 385 feet in width. It could reportedly seat 100,000 or more people, making it as big as the largest football stadiums today in the USA (Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, seats 107,60; AT&T Stadium [Jerry World], home of the Dallas Cowboys, seats a mere 80,000). On the southeastern end of the stadium was the Kathisma (Emperor's Loge), where the reigning Byzantine emperor and his family and court sat. The Kathisma could be entered directly from the Great Palace of the Byzantines—long since gone; Sultanahmet Mosque now stands on part of the area once covered by the Grand Palace—and thus protected from the hoi polloi, who were not slow to express their disfavor toward unpopular emperors. The square northeast end of the stadium hosted the Hippodrome Boxes, which served as the starting gates for the chariot races. Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates (1155–1217), who must have visited the Hippodrome many times, reports:
 . . . in the Hippodrome there was a tower which stood opposite the spectators; beneath it were the starting posts, which opened into the racecourse through parallel arches and above were fixed four gilt-bronze horses, their necks somewhat curved as if they eyed each other as they raced round the last lap.
These larger-than-life statues of four horses have survived; as we shall see, they have had a long and intriguing history.
Byzantine Constantinople, showing the area around the Hippodrome
The drizzle has turned into a pelting rain, and a keening wind sweeps through the square as I approach the Column of Theodosius. One of the cops in the two cop cars nearby briefly glances my way, then quickly goes back to his newspaper. Turkish flags have been attached to the railing around the obelisk and mourners have left a heap of red carnations. Signs, mostly in German—it had been confirmed that eleven of the twelve people killed in the attack were German tourists—have been placed atop the carnations and tied to the railing.  The suicide bomber, it turned out, was twenty-eight year-old Nabil Fadli. Born in Saudi Arabia, he grew up in the town of Manbil in northern Syria, an area currently under control of ISIS.  He had entered Turkey on January 5, 2016, claiming to be a refugee from the conflict in Syria. It was eventually determined that he was an ISIS soldier and probably had entered Turkey specifically to carry out the suicide bombing. Tourists may have been targeted as a means of striking a blow to the tourist industry and thus the Turkish economy in general. It appears unlikely that Germans had been specifically singled out. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Memorials left at the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius
The stated goal of ISIS is to create a new world-wide Caliphate. The last Caliphate to claim universal leadership of the Islamic world had been overseen by the Ottomans, with the sitting sultan holding the title of Caliph. The secular government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924, leaving the Islamic geosphere as a whole without a recognized leader. ISIS now intends to right what is perceives to be this historical wrong. The bombing here in Sultanahmet Meydani, less than a hundred feet from the entrance to the Blue Mosque, one of Islam’s greatest monuments, is an attack not only on the Turkish state, which had outlawed the last Caliphate, but also on the mainstream Islamic world that has so far failed to recognize the Caliphate headed by ISIS. 
Entrance to the Blue Mosque
A few people have begun to wander through the square, probably locals on their way to work. They scurry by the obelisk without a glance, their heads down against the glancing rain. Terrible as this bombing has been, it was not the worst Turkey has seen recently. In July of 2015 more than thirty people died in a suicide attack near Turkey’s border with Syria. In October of 2015 suicide bombs at a peace rally in Turkey's capital of Ankara killed more than 100 people. Suicide bombings have been woven into the fabric of everyday life. I stand and stare at the obelisk, on whose four sides are carved Egyptian hieroglyphs oddly enough celebrating the victory of Egyptians over the inhabitants of Mesopotamia—now partly controlled by ISIS—over 3500 years ago.

The obelisk had originally been erected by Egyptian pharoah Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 b.c.) at the Temple of Karnak, the immense religious site at Luxor, on the right bank of the Nile 315 miles south of Cairo. Thutmose III, sixth pharaoh of the Eighteen Dynasty, was one of Egypt’s greatest military leaders. He led at least seventeen military campaigns, capturing some 350 cites. He advanced south in Nubia, in Black Africa, reaching the Fourth Cataract on the Nile, 750 miles south of Cairo as the crow flies, and invaded what are now the countries of Israel, Jordan, Syria, northern Iraq, and southwest Turkey. Over fourteen hundred years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth he created what could be called the world’s first superpower. One campaign took him  through what is now Syria and then beyond the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia (now Iraq), then ruled by the Indo-Aryans known as the Mitanni. 
Thutmose III
To celebrate the crossing of the Euphrates and his victory after the Mitanni Thutmose erected one of the several obelisks that would mark his reign. Carved from granite, this obelisk was originally ninety-eight feet long and weighed some 800 tons. Around a.d. 357 Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, had this and another obelisk from Karnak transported, presumably by barge, down the Nile to the port city of Alexandria. One of the obelisks was then taken to Rome, where it was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus. Known as the Lateran Obelisk, it still stands there today. For reasons unknown the other obelisk remained in Alexandria until 390. During the reign of Theodosius I it was shipped to Constantinople and eventually erected on the spina of the Hippodrome. At some point in its journey from Luxor to Constantinople the obelisk had broken into two or more pieces. Only the top sixty feet of the column was erected in the Hippodrome. The granite used to make the obelisk must have been very hard. The column shows no signs of age, and the four rows of inscriptions on its sides are so clear and sharp they could have been carved yesterday. 
The Obelisk of Theodosius 
For 3500 years the obelisk has existed, bearing witness to the greatness of Thutmose III and the eventual fall of Pharaonic Egypt; the subsumption of  Egypt by the Roman Empire; and the rise of Byzantine Empire around Constantine the Great’s capital city, which he wanted to call the New Rome, but then had to settle for having it named after himself. It witnessed all the momentous events which took place in the Hippodrome, including the Nika revolt of 532, when rebels tried to seize the crown of Justinian I. The insurgences unwisely gathered in the Hippodrome, where on Justinian’s orders his loyal troops led by the generals Belisarius and Mundus blocked the exits and then waded into the crowd, killing some 35,000 of them. According to legend many of the dead were buried where they fell on the floor of the Hippodrome, which means I might at this moment be standing on their remains. The obelisk stood as a silent witness when on May 29, 1453 Mehmed the Conqueror led his troops into  Constantinople. He rode into Haghia Sofia, just a few hundred yards away and  claimed it for Islam, thus bringing to an end the 1123 year-old Byzantine, or East Roman Empire, and initiating the Ottoman Empire. The obelisk also kept its silent vigil when the Ottomans fell and the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished. And now it has witnessed the deaths of twelve visitors to Istanbul by a suicide bomber hoping to further the cause of a new Caliph arising in Syria and Mesopotamia, the same lands conquered by Thutmose III 3500 years ago, and whose defeat by Thutmose caused the obelisk to be erected in the first place. The Wheel of Time grinds slow, but fine. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mongolia | Turkey | Istanbul |Sultanahmet

The Third of The Nine-Nines began on January 9. According to Mongolian folklore the Nine-Nines are nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather. The Nine-Nines begin on the Winter Solstice, which in Mongolia this year occurred on December 22. The third Nine-Nine is known as Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö, “When the Horns of Three Year-Old Cows Freeze”. This period is supposed to be colder than the First and the Second of the Nine Nines The coldest period is traditionally the Fourth Nine-Nine, which this year begins on January 18. This is Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne— “The Time When Four Year-Old Cows’ Horns Freeze”. On the morning of January 12 the temperature at sunrise was –38º F., presumably cold enough to freeze the horns of three year-old cows. Now I am as big a fan of cold weather as the next guy—probably more so than most—but this was getting cold. It suddenly struck me that at the moment I had no real pressing business in Ulaanbaatar and that all things considered it might not be a bad idea to retreat to warmer climes. It was already too late to catch the January 12 flight to Istanbul, but a quick peek on the internet revealed that seats were available on the January 14 flight. 

Usually when I visit Istanbul I stay in a hotel out in the Topkapi district by the Theodosian Land Walls, about two miles from Sultanahmet, the historical center of the city. Although tourists do wander out to see the Land Walls few stay in the area, and the hotels are generally a lot cheaper than in the Sultanahmet tourist area. January is not the most popular month for tourists in Istanbul under the best of conditions, however, and recently a number of events have dealt body blows to Turkey’s tourism industry in general. The current feud between Turkey and Russia over the downing of a Russian fighter plane has drastically cut the number of Russian tourists and small time traders visiting Turkey, and a number of deadly terrorist attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey has scared off even more potential visitors. As a result, I soon learned as I scanned the internet, the price of rooms in many Istanbul hotels had fallen by half or some cases even by two-thirds. Oddly enough the admittedly humble hotel where I usually stay in Topkapi had not lowered it prices at all. It doesn’t really cater to tourists—most guests are down-at-the-heels people in from the Turkish countryside, penny-ante Russian traders, and furtive gay couples shacking up for the night—and was therefore not affected by the downdraft in tourism. I checked one fairly up-scale tourist hotel just a stone’s throw from Sultanahmet Square, the heart of the Sultanahmet area, and discovered that rooms that usually went for $70 or $80 a night were now available for $28, actually a little less than the cost of the fleabag out in Topkapi. I booked a room for four nights. 

That evening I was editing photos on the desktop computer in my Scriptorium when a small New York Times news notification tab appeared on the right side of the screen: “Istanbul Hit By Suspected Suicide Bomber”. Clicking on the link, I discovered a one-paragraph breaking news blurb about a bombing in Sultanahmet Square. Details were sparse, but it appeared that there were numerous fatalities and most of them appeared to be foreign tourists. I switched to Daily Sabbah, an on-line English language Turkish newspaper. At first it too had only a one paragraph blurb. I followed the story as it broke during the rest of the evening, eventually learning that ten people had been killed and at least two dozen injured. Most the dead were apparently German tourists. The suicide bomber was reportedly connected to ISIS. The bombing at taken place right by the so-called Theodosian Column in the middle of Sultanahmet Square. I figured it was about 1000 feet from the hotel for which I had made reservations just that morning. I could not help but wondering, somewhat cynically, what this latest event would do to the prices of hotel rooms in the Sultanahmet area. Had I booked too soon?

At daybreak on the morning of January 14 it was a fairly balmy—for Ulaanbaatar—minus 18ºF. The Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul pulled away from the terminal at 10:18 and then sat at the end of the runway for a few minutes before taking off exactly on time at 10:30. Four hours later we landed for a scheduled stop in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.  After an hour and twenty minutes in Bishkek’s notoriously dreary transit lounge we departed for the five and half hour leg of the flight to Istanbul. The entire flight from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul covers 5742 miles. 
 View just after taking off from Ulaanbaatar, with the Tuul River valley in the upper left (click on photos for enlargements).
 View over western Mongolia
 View of the Tian Shan east of Bishkek
 Approaching Istanbul, with the southern end of the Bosphorus Strait, left center. The Sea of the Marmara is at the stop with the tip of the Asian continent top left. The Golden Horn extends from bottom right to the Bosphorus Strait.
 Another view of the legendary Golden Horn 
The Theodosian Land Wall, built during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450), running from bottom left to upper right, with the Sea of Marmara at top.
The plane landed twelve minutes early at 3:38 p.m. local time. I had only one carry-on bag and breezed through the Turkish Airlines Priority immigration line. It took me about ten minutes to get to the airport train and it left two minutes after I boarded. Although it was a peak time the train was only half-full. Usually it is standing room only. At the Zeytinburnu station I switched to the M1 metro line going to the Sultanahmet area. It was maybe one-third full. Again, it should have been packed to the gills at this hour of the day. I actually got a seat, I think for the first time ever on the two dozen or more times I have take the metro to downtown from the airport. Whether the paucity of passengers had anything to do with the terrorist attack is unclear. Dusk is falling when I got off at the Sultanahmet station, a couple hundred yards from the Theodosian Column where the bombing had taken place. The touts are out as usual in front of the restaurants along Divan Yolu, the main tourist street running through the area, but there are few customers. What people are on the street seem to be scurrying elsewhere. I hurried off to my hotel in the shadow of Hagia Sophia, the immense church—later a mosque and now a museum—built in the sixth century.

“So what’s new?” asks the proprietor, a Kurdish man in his early thirties who remembers me from my previous visits. “Sound like all the news is happening here,” I reply. “Yea, you mean the bomber,” he replies. “We’re screwed,” he adds, “totally fucking screwed.” Although his English has several noticeable lacunae, he does seem to have a grasp of terse idioms. “A lot of people were scared away before, now this . . . We’ve had a shitload of cancellations . . . you are the only person here now . . . We fighting  the Syrians, we’re fighting the fucking Russians, we’re fighting with everyone. But hey, you got problems too, what about this fucking Trump guy? He want to keep Muslims out of the USA?” I tell him that although I am an American citizen I have not been in the States for over ten years and don’t bother much with American politics. “You’re smart,” he says, “stay the fuck out of politics.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mongolia | Birthday of Chingis Khan

Here in Mongolia the New Moon occurred this morning at 1:47 a.m. That makes today the first day of the first month of winter according to the Lunar Calendar. Thus today is the day officially recognized as the Birthday of Chingis Khan (Genghis Khan, etc.) This is the 853rd anniversary of his birth. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Turkey | Cappadocia | Güzelyurt

After viewing the Super Bloodmoon in Göreme I wandered off to the town of Güzelyurt, thirty-five miles to the southwest. Güzelyurt, as you probably know, was once the home of Gregory of Nazianzus, a.k.a. Gregory the Theologian (c. 329–390), who is credited, along with St. Basil of Kayseri, with laying the theological foundations of the Greek Orthodox Church. Gregory himself was largely responsible for formulating the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—that continues to befuddle the less enlightened right down to the present Day. 

Güzelyurt (roughly translated as “beautiful home”), population about 3,750, could hardly be more different than Göreme. While Göreme supposedly has a permanent population of only 2000, it has some 370 hotels, guesthouses, and hostels (many of the employees of the hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. live in nearby towns). It is an international tourism hub teeming with visitors of every stripe. Güzelyurt, on the other hand, is a laid back old-fashioned Turkish town that appears to have not a single restaurant or shop that caters specifically to tourists. There are a dozen or so hotels, most of them occupying old Greek mansions or cave dwellings, but they have their own restaurants where their clientele eat. I saw a couple of Russians, a couple of Germans, and a group of Chinese, but I would say ninety per cent of the tourists are from other parts of Turkey.
The main street of laid back Güzelyurt (click on photos for enlargements)
The town square. This photo was taken early in the morning. Later the tables are filled with local tea-coolers. 
My hotel
Another view of my hotel
Patio of my hotel
My hotel from the bottom of the canyon
The town is centered around Monastery Valley, a high-walled valley—or a low walled canyon—about 3.4 miles long. The extinct volcanic cone of 10,722-foot Mount Hasan, the second highest mountain of central Anatolia, looms fifteen miles off to the southwest. During the time of the Roman Empire the settlement was known as Karballa and in Seljuq times as Gelveri. The town was inhabited mostly by Greeks until 1924 when the Greek population was deported to Greece where they founded a town known as Nea Karvali. Turks deported from Greece moved into the town but not enough to fill all the homes. The abandoned ruins of many Greek-era buildings can still be seen. The town was not given the Turkish name of Güzelyurt until the 1960s. The current town is determined to retain its traditional character. By law local stone must be used in the construction of all new buildings, and new buildings must conform to traditional styles of architecture. 
Lower part of the Monastery Valley
Quiet streets of Güzelyurt
 Quiet streets of Güzelyurt
Quiet streets of Güzelyurt
Old Greek building
The canyon walls are riddled with cave dwellings 
Another view of the canyon wall
The original church associated with Gregory of Nazianzus was built around 385 a.d. In 1835 the church was remodeled and enlarged. After Turkish people moved into the town it was converted into a mosque. 
The Church of St. Gregory, now a mosque
The Church of St. Gregory
The Church of St. Gregory

St. Gregory
Inside of the Church of St. Gregory, which now functions as a mosque
There are said to be ruins of twenty-eight cave churches in Monastery Valley, plus two underground cities and hundreds of cave dwellings. 
The Sivisli Church, one of the twenty-eight cave churches in the Monastery Valley. It is not known when it was built. 
Interior of the Sivisli Cave Church. It was carved out of the living rock. 
Now-faded wall paintings in the Sivisli Church
Opening to cave dwellings and underground city
One of the entrances to an underground city
Another entrance to an underground city
First floor room in the underground city
Room in the underground city
Tunnel leading to lower rooms in the underground city. The passageway is at most four feet high. Given my height and the precarious state of my back I was unable to negotiate it. There were dozens if not hundreds of these underground cities in Cappadocia, some of which housed several thousand people. This is one of the smaller ones.