SERGIUS AND BACCHUS 1: Drawing with the Dervishes

ENDURING FRIENDSHIP

7th Century icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.

Sergius and Bacchus were Roman soldiers, closet Christians martyred in Syria in 303. One was beheaded and the other died from torture. Their close friendship is the stuff of legend, so that not only are they patron saints of soldiers, but are icons of gay marriage as well. There are many churches to them, and one was built here, by the Emperor Justinian.

Medieval map of Constantinople. Note Hippodrome left and above our little church.

He felt he owed them. Prior to becoming Emperor himself, Justinian was accused of plotting against the reigning emperor Anastasius. Sentenced to die, he was freed after Anastasius dreamed that Sergius and Bacchus intervened. Justinian started their church in 527, the first year of his reign.

With the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Justinian’s Byzantine basilica  became a mosque called Kucuk Ayasofya, in Turkish: Small Hagia Sophia. Its Turkish name refers to the stunning innovation of its being constructed around a central dome on an octagonal base, like its larger, later namesake.

Designed by Anthemios of Tralles, one of Hagia Sophia’s architects, it was started five years before the Nika Rebellion cleared the way for the huge project of Hagia Sophia, and proved that such a structure could work.

Kucuk Ayasofya today

Sergius and Bacchus was built just inside the city walls on the Marmara Sea, in the neighborhood now known as Kadirga. Various sources cite an earlier monastery. In 519, Justinian had built a church to Saints Peter and Paul. Sergius and Bacchus was supposedly built on that. No trace remains, or so they say. Hmph. If any of those people had lived in the neighborhood, they might have found this in the city walls:

Sergius & Bacchus WC ©2008 Trici Venola.

Sticking up at the edge of a picnic area of grass and trees, it looks like a giant fireplace and is stuffed with trash and homeless, who have spray-painted “WC” on the lintel. But neglect also means integrity: the carving is untouched. This was a magnificent portal rearing out of the very sea. Above the lintel is cement, but the posts are of white marble. We are across the railroad from basilica at the edge of the original enclosure, fifteen feet above where the water was. There are three cavernous entrances, but this one still has its Greek inscriptions on both sides, fire-blackened but still legible. The fires are from homeless guys cooking mussels in winter. I find it ironic that this church is still sheltering the needy.

This remnant of grandeur ends at the cement wall of the train tracks. In 1871, Sultan Abdulaziz decreed that the Orient Express could run its railroad smack through the spectacular Byzantine monuments all along the City Walls on the Marmara Sea side of Sultanahmet. An ariel view shows the railroad slicing through palaces and temples alike. The constant vibration of 142 years of trains has shaken the foundations of Byzantium. The railroad is going to be a park now, but we don’t know when. When I lived there I loved the trains roaring by, but had I been blogging in the time of Abdulaziz I would have had to zip my lip to keep it from being lopped.

It’s Going To Be All Right ©2004 by Trici Venola

SAFE IN THE MEDRESE

In 2004 I moved into the street next to Kucuk Ayasofya. The writing on the drawing above says This view is much better than the old one of glittering windows and misery, and Train racketing by after the Call to Prayer, full moon soon; I think it’s gonna be all right. It had been a rocky road to Istanbul. After a ghastly series of events, I’d lost all my capital to a feral thief of a landlord over across the Golden Horn. Police and consulate could do nothing but advised me to leave the building. Then he got violent. Legendary Sultanamet artist Kubilay showed up with friends and we carried everything we could down seven flights of stairs and loaded it into taxis. Kubilay piled it in his kitchen and on his roof, and took my kitten Ygor. My friend Rayan flew in from Kuala Lumpur and we found this little duplex next to the mosque. She rented it and flew away. I was so happy to be safe in Sultanahmet with a door that closed, and me on the inside, that even the guys fixing the street had a magical glow. I wish I could feel like that always.

Guys Fixing the Street ©2004 by Trici Venola.

I was crazy to learn Turkish. My friend Zeynal offered lessons. Meeting in my home would make talk, so we met in the medrese at Kucuk Ayasofya.

They were restoring the mosque, and it was all boarded off. The restoration was controversial, as it involved the cementing-over of Byzantine mosaics discovered under centuries of plaster. Unesco had pulled out. I remember sacks of cement stacked hundreds high and a workman telling Zeynal in Kurdish that “everyone’s angry, people hate us.” Fortunately some of the exquisite 6th-century detail work is still with us, like this capital and calligraphic border at left.

The workmen were imported from Eastern Turkey, unpopular with the neighborhood which believed them terrorists. There was a big fight there once; someone hung a Turkish flag on one of the minarets and after a terrific brouhaha and a couple of shots, an ambulance came and they carried out something covered on a stretcher. Nobody was allowed in ever, no architects or journalists, and the buildings across the street blocked the view of the mosque. So like everyone else in the area, I put my money on the Medrese. I still do.

A medrese is a religious school attached to a mosque. The ones around here were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, and when the mosque was a Byzantine basilica, the medrese was often built on the foundations of the seminary or monastery. I think this one was. Here it is on Google Maps. See the railroad?

This particular one, Huseyin Aga Medrese that we call The Garden, is a grassy, flower-studded courtyard with a central fountain, full of broken bits of Byzantine and Ottoman marble bordered on three sides by workshops fronted by a tea garden. Low square doorways alternate with grilled windows in stone walls under  leaded domes.

Cold Day Medrese.detail ©2005 Trici Venola.

DANCES WITH DERVISHES

In 2004 there was a group of bearded men, a very conservative Sufi Dervish sect, who met in the Garden to drink tea and argue philosophy. I recognized one of them. He’d consoled me years before when I was devastated over the loss of a sketchbook.

Edip in 1999 ©1999 Trici Venola.

He taught me to say La Iliha Illalla which means Allah is All. In 2004, he took me to Sunday lunch at the home of Dervish Master Yakup Baba. We had a lively discussion about belief systems and fell out over having gay friends. This sect felt it wrong. I don’t, but we have stayed friends anyway, and I was honored to pray with them. Lost in grief over my sketchbook back in ’99, I didn’t notice Edip’s blessing, but the book I drew him in became a breakthrough work, one of my best.

Sufi Dervishes at Home ©2004 Trici Venola. Edip in center.

Then there was a group of young Turkish people who seemed to have a very good time. At the center was CC, an out-of-the-closet gay guy and his girl pal, one of those close friendships that can form between straight women and gay men.

Emine at the Black Sea ©3006 Trici Venola.

Emine is  a powerhouse of a woman, a fantastic chef with boundless enthusiasm. She introduced me to the poet Taroub and her husband Ammar, the first Iraqis I’d ever met. It was 2005, and their friends Aida and Nazar were raising four kids in the middle of Bagdad. They succeeded.

Cool Iraqis ©2005 Trici Venola.

An American film crew came to Istanbul to make a documentary about being gay in Turkey.

Two Brave Girls in Konya ©2006 Trici Venola.

CC claimed to be a direct descendent of the great mystic and poet Rumi Mevlana, 13th-century founder of the Mevlevi (Whirling) Dervishes in Konya. CC had left Konya 15 years before, after a family fight which erupted when he announced he was gay. He moved to Istanbul and bought a puppy to console him for the loss of his family. In all that time he had not been home. He’d talked to his mother, but not seen her. The film crew wanted to film a reunion and use it as a centerpiece for their documentary.

Dervishes Near Konya ©2005 Trici Venola.

So we all went to Konya: CC, Emine, the film crew, and me, who had facilitated the introduction through a gay-friendly guy at the US Consulate. The film was to include some of my drawings. Very exciting!

With His Mother ©2005 Trici Venola.

Konya today is ultra-conservative. Despite the low probability of anyone there seeing the movie, CC – in the full flush of reunion –  withdrew filming permission. The crew, out all their expenses, were remarkably philosophical about it. Emine had spent so much on the trip it took her months to recover. I had canker sores and was miserable, since the very friendly Turkish family insisted on feeding me cake, which exacerbated the problem, and I was afraid refusal would be rude. But it was worth it to get this drawing of CC, his mom, and the fifteen-year-old dog. It’s one of my favorites, with the moon outside the lace curtains. I still have the little knitted booties she gave me, and I have Emine to thank for all this Konya art.

Konya Dervishes ©2005 Trici Venola.

Konya is the spiritual center of the Mevlevi Dervishes. Founder Rumi would whirl in ecstatic joy in the streets. This has evolved into the Sema, the dance of prayer. Rumi’s poetry endures today. In the 13th century, it was powerful enough to inspire marauder Genghis Khan to spare this mosque.

Spared by Genghiz Khan ©2005 Trici Venola.

During Christianity’s dark age, when knowledge was suppressed and scientists burned along with books, the Dervishes kept reason alight. They preserved and continued science and mathematics. Clear up into the 20th Century, if you wanted to devote yourself to creativity with monastic fervor, the Dervishes would feed and house you in tekkes, spiritual centers that were closed in the dawn of the Republic. One survives in Eyup: Ummu Sinan, and last month I got to go there to draw. Here’s what I got in the first 2 hours:

and here it is after awhile, including some rendering time at home.

Dancing With the Dervishes ©2012 Trici Venola.

What I did was darken places for clarity and strengthen every line that indicated whirling, especially here, where performance-Dervish Alper Alkçay was dancing.

The Master in this group is Serif Baba, the fellow in the center with the pointy hat. These are Bektashi Dervishes, and I was lucky enough to spend last Thursday night dancing with thirteen of them, led by Huseyin here. We were with that gay-friendly diplomat, now retired, celebrating the full moon in Unkapani, spitting distance from Molla Zeyrek Mosque that was Christ Pantocrator. That brooding Byzantine presence, and a tall room at the top of a wooden house, lined with bright woven calligraphic hangings glinting with gold.

Three musicians wailed on strings and a huge tambourine-drum. There was free-form whirling, then a formal Bektashi ceremony. It involved ritualistic, stylized, and quite genuine grief for baby Huseyin, the son of Ali and Fatma, the Prophet Mohammed’s married nephew and daughter, all murdered centuries ago at the genesis of the schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the two horns of the Crescent of Islam. The grieving ceremony seemed an emotional purge. I couldn’t but wonder if this is a cathartic way to deal with the pain of living, for afterwards everybody was happy. At some point all the emotions converged into the Sema, the whirling dance of oneness with God. I don’t know how this group feels about being gay. or having gay friends. All these years later, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Sergio and Bacchus c1541

All drawings Plein Air.

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6 thoughts on “SERGIUS AND BACCHUS 1: Drawing with the Dervishes

  1. Thanks Trici, so much beauty , knowledge & insight in one cohesive package. I love recei
    ving your blogs & value the effort you put into composition & content…especially when you have one finger not performing to full capacity!! 🙂

  2. Absolutely love your blog. So sad that I just discovered it. You have a fascinating way of combining art, history, and your own investigative and thoughtful writing. As someone who also lives in this mysterious city, please keep up good work.

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