I sat on a hillside covered with wild mustard, drawing Byzantine bricks through chestnut trees just coming into bloom, and the whole world was yellow and green. A sunny day in April, and I was drawing in dead quiet: a 6th-century Byzantine site between a church of the same vintage and a wall, shown above, from somewhat later. The mustard rioted all over the hill and flooded down into the ruin, celebratory bursts of yellow against the dark pitted bricks. Nothing indicated that just over the wall hordes of camera-swinging tourists clogged the street. We love tourists here in Istanbul, their money and presence preserves antiquities. But I was grateful for the silence and solitude. The last public hordes to be in the ruin were a thousand years ago, and I could feel those years.
A breeze came up, fresh with approaching storm. As I drew, an image came clear in my mind’s eye, an image of a foot. A woman’s foot in a pointed slipper: beaded pink fabric on top, leather on the bottom, a ribbon around the ankle.
It stood on pale marble, near a marble fountain with a lion’s head, down in the very courtyard I was drawing, but clear of weeds. I froze. I let the image come. I thought of Theodora, the 6th-century harlot who became the pious and powerful Empress of Justinian.
A small woman with dark hair, in a light dress of powder blue and robes the color of red wine. She walked in the courtyard alone on a sunny day. Did Theodora visit this place? Was she ever alone, or did her attendants stand back in the shadows and let her wander in sunny solitude? Just a pipedream, but it would not let me rest. A mere pipedream of Theodora is as powerful as a banshee, the furious life force projecting down through the centuries. All day and night that pointed toe stood on the marble next to the fountain. For some reason it made me happy.
These mosaics were set by sixth-century fingers right into the dirt. They’re dark green and pale gray-green. Think how many earthquakes, fires and wars they’ve survived! Think of the feet that have walked on these chips of marble, the shoes they wore. Below the dirt is a cistern: here’s a well from outside the cafe up top. A dropped stone produces a deep satisfying sploosh.
So our ruin is the bottom of the structure: the Hospital of Sampson, built by a sainted doctor so adept, it is said, that he healed the Emperor Justinian of a hideous illness with the laying-on of his hand. His reward was the construction of this multistoried structure, a haven for the infirm poor, linking Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene. Being built by master architects in the pre-electric 6th century, it was full of sunny courtyards.
I was allowed to draw the site on the condition that I take no photos down in the ruin. Hagia Eirene’s fabulously aged façade runs straight down into it.
Hagia Eirene, the second Hagia Sophia (built by Theodosius I,) and the Hospital were all burned in the Nika Riots in 532. The Emperor Justinian re-built all of them, and both basilicas stand today. Here’s a section of the ruin at the base of Hagia Eirene. See the slanted bricks running behind the ruined section in front? There must have been a roof of some kind, later incorporated into the new Church and Hospital.
The Hospital ruin was excavated after WWII. Until four years ago, the structure in front of it was a private home. Its transformation to upscale cafe brought a fresh group of archeologists and students. A catwalk was built down into the site. Weeds were cleared, bits photographed and catalogued and stacked at the edges, large trees cut. Photographs can be seen at the cafe. Then the walkways were removed, and the site allowed to go back to the wild mustard. It’s lovely.
What did hospitals look like in the 6th century? We have an idea of the floor plan of this one, created in CGI by Byzantium 1200. Hagia Sophia is at the bottom and Hagia Eirene at the top. The Hospital is in the center, linking the two. Our area is to the far left.
See the pillars?
The Hospital was built right onto Hagia Eirene. That explains those melted-looking brick lumps in Hagia Eirene’s façade.
Here’s a satellite shot of the area from above. The Topkapi wall slants across from top left to bottom right, where the gate is. Hagia Sophia is bottom left, Hagia Eirene is the dome at top right. Karakol Restaurant is next to it at right center. See the Hospital?
The Hospital may have fallen into disuse, but I can’t discover when it collapsed or was demolished. It was probably when the Topkapi Wall was built, after 1453.
During the Ottoman years, Hagia Eirene was used as an armory, hence the crescent and star emblem over the doorway. Here’s an Ottoman now!
Did Hospital come from Hospitable?
St Sampson the Hospitable, aka St Sampson the Innkeeper and Unmercenary, was the son of rich important Romans. Already well-educated, he continued to study medicine, and doctored the sick without charge. When his parents died he set his slaves free, passed out alms and prepared himself to go into the wilderness– which was likely anywhere outside of Rome.
Eventually he went East to Constantinople: Eastern Rome. He moved into a small house, took in strays– poor and sick people– and cared for them. Undoubtedly a good doctor, he was credited with healing hands, if not outright miracles. His fame grew and with it his ability to treat more people.
The Patriarch of Constantinople, in recognition of Sampson’s great virtue, ordained him to the holy priesthood. St Sampson the Hospitable kept many alive, but died young, in about CE 530, and was buried at the Church of Holy Martyr Mokios in Constantinople.
Scratch one saint in this town and you find another. St Mokios was another great physician, one of the Holy Unmercenary Physicians, twenty doctors in antiquity who refused to accept money for their services. They were all canonized.
Judging by his beard, St Sampson appears second from right in the front row. The earliest precepts of Christianity include acceptance and treatment of the sick, as evidenced by this painting of Christ visiting the lepers.
St Mokios was beheaded around 295 for exhorting pagans to convert. His church was built on the site of a Temple of Zeus by Constantine a century later, collapsed and was re-built by Justinian. Poetically, Sampson was interred there. People came to his tomb to be healed. His ghost continued, it is said, to kindly haunt his Hospital. Twice it upbraided a worker for laziness. Imagine the ashen-faced nurse trying to report that to a superior.
A huge fire in Constantinople burned so fiercely that the lead sheets on the top of Hagia Sophia melted, it was said, and poured like rain. Fervent prayers to St Sampson preceded a deluge of real rain that put out the fire and saved the hospital. Think of the staff and patients alike shouting in prayer, nurses helping cripples to kneel, others lying muttering, flat on their backs clutching crucifixes, flickering light on the medical treatises rolled in the pigeonholes, doctors frozen with their instruments, eyes squeezed shut or white all the way around in terror, the air charged, the tension pulled to the snapping point, and the final, overwhelming crash of thunder, the release of rain, the screams of relief and joy, of renewed faith.
Here’s a splendid cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia, in honor of the Saint.
Azure and white, with its own reflection pool, it houses this spectacular iconostasis.
I think of the actual Saint and his austerity, his love for the poor.
If you were going to get sick in the Dark Ages, best to do it in Constantinople. It remained a beacon of light and learning in a world increasingly darkened by ignorance and superstition. Byzantine medicine was full of discovery, as well as preserving medical practices from the golden age of ancient culture, all of which influenced Islamic medicine. When the Western world began to wake up in the Renaissance, the information was there, waiting to make the world well.
By Medieval times, medical treatment in Europe was largely a matter of prayer, with angels or demons responding to carry off the patient. But 6th-century Constantinople was still lit by the glow of ancient Greek and Roman enlightenment. Byzantine society was educated. Primary school was easily available for both boys and girls, even in the villages. Women played a large part in Byzantine culture. The Augusta Pulcheria, sister to Emperor Theodosius II, had established women on a par with the Holy Virgin Mary and set them on a course of, if not equality, respect.
The legend of Justinian’s healing by St Sampson, resulting in our Hospital, is likely true. Justinian subsidized private physicians to work publicly six months of the year, a breakthrough in medicine. Our Hospital would have had a Chief Physician: Archiatroi, professional nurses: Hypourgoi, and orderlies: Hyperetai.
MEDICAL STUDIES THROUGH THE AGES
A hundred years before Justinian, in 425, Theodosius the Second’s beautiful Empress Eudocia, a highly educated Greek, established the first University at Constantinople: The Pandidakterion. It was in the Magnaura Palace, now being excavated behind the Four Seasons, next to Hagia Sophia, in Sultanahmet. Along with law, philosophy, geometry, astronomy and music, it taught medicine. A hundred years later, the new Hospital of Sampson opened almost next door. It’s likely that its fledgling doctors, then as now, interned at the hospital for the poor.
Here’s a gallery of birds from the Vienna Dioscorides, an illuminated manuscript in Greek, created in 515 in Western Rome. Over the following centuries it became a hospital textbook, containing treatments for snakebite and other calamities. It certainly was used in Constantinople, for it was discovered here in the 1560s and identified as the famous textbook.
By the late seventh century, doctors at the Hospital would have had access to The Medical Compendium in Seven Books, a distillation of information by one Paul of Aegina, a respected physician. He appears to have deserved respect, as the Compendium was in use as a standard medical textbook for the next 800 years.
By the 12th century, Constantinople had well-organized hospitals, medical specialists, wards segregated to treat specific diseases, and systematic treatments. They even had women doctors, those Byzantines. Faith was important. After the groundbreaking Hospital of Sampson, hospitals were built next to churches, and later, under the Ottomans, next to mosques. When medicine failed, Byzantine patients prayed with icons of Cosmas and Damien, patron saints of medicine and doctors. Continued emphasis on charity resulted in medicine being available to all.
Many other great physicians practiced in Constantinople, but the atrocity of the Fourth Crusade slowed medical development in the 13th century. Still the Hospital of Sampson survived. When the infamous Italian Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, they converted the Hospital into a Western Roman hospital– a hostel for poor and sick pilgrims.
This soon organized into a military order and became quite rich, spawning a daughter institution in Flanders. When the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261, the Brothers of St Sampson fled to Corinth and built a hospital there, a multipurpose unit that, among many commercial ventures, actually served the poor.
ROLLING SAINT LUKE’S BONES
Like those nesting Russian dolls, one fitting inside the other, we come at last to the core Saint Physician. Were St Sampson and St Mokios influenced by St Luke? He was buried just up the hill at Holy Apostles. Both saints had similar stories. Both came from wealthy families, were highly educated, practiced medicine, and gave everything to the poor. A contemporary of Jesus, St Luke healed the sick, painted his pictures, wrote his gospels, grew old and died in Bithynia, now in Western Turkey.
Relics of St Luke were interred, with Byzantine splendor, by Constantine in 357 at the Church of Holy Apostles in Constantinople, now the site of Fatih Camii (Mosque) in Istanbul’s Old City. Many saints and emperors were eventually buried there, including Justinian and Constantine.
A fire that destroyed the church left the coffins of the saints untouched. Justinian rebuilt Holy Apostles in 527, just up the hill from the Hospital. The holy and imperial tombs were eviscerated in 1204 by Italian Crusaders, who grabbed the gold and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. According to an aghast contemporary account, this is what happened to St Luke.
Another account has a grim 8th-century priest stealing St Luke’s bones, as well as a painting of the Virgin by the saint, to save them from the Iconoclasts. Still another says St Thomas the Apostle spirited St Luke’s painting to India around 50 CE. The legend of St Luke’s artistic endeavors includes as many True Paintings as there are True Relics, but it did result in his being Patron Saint of Artists, and for that I salute him with this post.
An excited recent post from Padua, Italy, reports the saint’s entire skeleton found in a lead coffin there, including the skull which spent a time with Charlemagne. Did some abject Crusader, fired with remorse or venality, pick up the relics and pack them off? Charlemagne pre-dated the Fourth Crusade by four centuries, so what about those stories of the Skull being at Holy Apostles? While the bones continue to cause fuss, the spirit of the great physician and evangelist of the New Testament has never left us. It undoubtedly inspired Sampson.
So much for corporeal splendor! St Sampson the Hospitable, Justinian, Theodora, Pulcheria, Eudocia, St Mokios, Constantine, St Luke. Glorious physicians, empresses and emperors lying together in the street, ignominious piles of greened bones stomped by blood-crazed Italians raging under a smoke-blackened sky, devolving into the rumor of divinity.
Their works fared better. All over the Middle East is the visual history of Constantinople, of Justinian and Theodora, in churches standing and savaged, in the foundations of the mosques, hospitals ruined and rumored as well. The study of medicine continues in universities worldwide, continuing the work of one gorgeous dedicated Greek girl. And worldwide is the legacy of the Unmercenaries: medical care for the poor. Despite the railroading of medicine by the rich in so many countries, free clinics keep springing up. The marriage of medicine and faith continues in Islam and Christianity and Quantum Physics, in the study of psychosomatic medicine, in the emphasis on mood as it affects the immune system. As always, the light that burned in Constantinople still flares and flickers like a torch in the winds of ignorance, but has yet to be put out. Down in the courtyard the cats play in the ruined fountain, but under the weeds the lion still roars.
All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. All drawings © Trici Venola, 1999, 2014. Peace in the Ruins was created with drafting pens on rag paper and measures 50 X 70 cm. Other drawings were done with drafting pens in sketchbooks measuring 18 X 26 or 18 X 52 cm. Special thanks to the excellent and cordial staff (and cats Hatem and Duman) of Karakol Restaurant next to Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Complex, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, and to Theo, for showing me, on a dank cold January day, this site. We are none of us much without the others.