HOT CROSSES: Crusader Graffiti in Hagia Sophia

TWO LEAD CROSSES

Two Lead Crosses ©2012 Trici Venola

They’re only visible from a few inches away. Carved  at eye level into the side of a malachite pillar in Hagia Sophia’s lower North Gallery are two thick little crosses side by side. The lead pressed into them is the same tone as the pillar itself. Leaning there in the dark one day last winter, I saw them between my fingers and thought I was hallucinating.

There are dozens, some say hundreds, of graffiti crosses scattered throughout Ayasofya. Along with the ghost images of bronze or gold crosses wrenched away are these thick little artifacts. I think they’re from the Fourth Crusade.

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 1204: Illiterate Christian Soldiers far from home with nothing to do but raise Cain, melt lead, fix chainmail and make arrowheads. Here’s some melted lead among the graffiti up on the balustrade in the Imperial Gallery.

The more I looked, the more crosses I found. Here’s one on a massive malachite column, one of the eight major ones in the nave. Notice how this cross fades out at the top, but still has all that lead pressed into it.

Here it is in situ. Can you see it?

PAGAN COLUMNS  Sources differ as to the origin of these eight giant green columns, each 70 tons of priceless malachite, probably 2400 years old. Tradition claims Justinian brought them from Ephesus, from the Temple of Artemis or the Gymnasium there. Other sources claim that they’re from the Temple of Baalbek in Lebanon. I haven’t been there, but photos show zero malachite. The big purple ones, porphyry, are probably from Rome.  Porphyry must be harder to carve, because I’ve yet to find a cross cut in it. Almost all of the columns here– veined purple-and-white, speckled green, swirled purplish-grey, golden, and the green and purple monoliths– were scavenged from Pagan temples; brought by barge, rolled on logs, hauled by lines of straining oxen, sweating slaves, cushioned in bushels of straw, great wooden wheels groaning over the Roman roadstones.

Clearly, Hagia Sophia’s architects, Isadore of Miletus and Anthemis of Tralles, got the most magnificent columns to be had in matched sets, and the leftovers from this perfect symmetry likely made up the nearby Cistern, also built by Justinian at the same time as Hagia Sophia. The Cistern, never meant to be seen, creates an effect so breathtaking that it takes a few visits to realize that all of its columns are flawed.

Here in the great temple, the columns are all different sizes, and it’s wonderful how the architects worked with these limitations. I’ve always loved Hagia Sophia’s feline, feminine curves. Now I see a practical application: the arches swoop down to meet the shorter columns, up to reach the tall ones. Some columns are mounted on pedestals. Here’s a cross carved in the corner of one.

 See how he had just a little leftover lead to put in it?

Pedestal Cross ©2012 Trici Venola

DRAWING IN THE DARK Next thing I knew, I was sitting for days in the dark behind a pillar with a flashlight stuck in my hair, telling a diverse parade of perfectly fascinating people from all over the world about the Crusader Crosses and the Fourth Crusade. A guide came along and excitedly told us that in 28 years he’s never seen these particular ones, and that I must be lucky. And how! I get to be here and draw this:

Crosses in the Dark ©2012 Trici Venola

I slaved over this drawing and despaired of ever getting it right. There’s so much detail, and it’s all so dim. It took about fifteen hours. The crosses here have no lead and are far down on the wall side of the pillar. I found them by feeling around and using my little flashlight. Notice that there are bits of the dark shiny original surface left on the crosses as decoration, and that the two crosses are linked by a bit of it. Like two names. Are we looking at a Crusader Bromance here? Even a Romance is possible: ancient Romans had the canonized gay soldier couple Ss Sergius and Bacchus as patrons. Why not Crusaders?

We’ll never know.  All that is certain is that someone carved these, and took the time to do it neatly and carefully. Here’s a shot of the entire composition, which I didn’t notice until well into the drawing. There are four: our two linked ones at the bottom, a deeply incised stick cross in the middle, sort of pouring out of a very deep hole, and the top one which is forever just coming into being out of the marble. I find this one magical.

Hot Crosses Four ©2012 Trici Venola

“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores, all become respectable if they last long enough,” said John Huston’s raddled old crook in Chinatown, and so it is with graffiti.

Can worship create an energy? Hagia Sophia, St John’s, the Temple of Artemis, St Savior in Chora, Rumi’s Tomb in Konya, Baalbek in Lebanon– all are palpably holy places, whether ruins, museums or adaptations to another religion. The columns from Pagan temples still reverberate with worship to the ancient gods, although they’ve been holding up Ayasofya for 1500 years. Worship is a powerful force, and although the name of the Deity changes I believe the force remains, singing down through the pillars through the massed energy of millenniums of temples here on this rock sacred from the beginning of time. So what’s the story with Christian crosses carved as graffiti in a Christian church? Why do I think these are from the Fourth Crusade?

Gustave Dore’s engraving: The Crusaders Entering Constantinople

Hagia Sophia was consecrated in 537. Until the rape and sack by Crusaders in 1204, no hostile armies succeeded in getting into the city. It’s unlikely that anyone would have cut crosses during that time. In the late 8th century the Iconoclasts, starting with  Emperor Leo, destroyed much of the pictorial art: mosaics, bas-reliefs, everything. But crosses were allowed to remain. Graffiti ones, though? This one is right out in front of the altar!

Hot Cross Floor ©2012 Trici Venola

You can see in the photo below that another cross was started. Somebody swinging an axe, chopping away…

Carving with a knife into marble is not so easy. One must devise a chisel effect and bash at it with…what? A mallet, a mace? Lean into the edge with all your might, again and again. Noise, fuss, swearing, leaning there on your cutting device and scraping. Not a light undertaking, and nothing furtive about it. Here are three columns in a row, each with a cross in the same place.

From 1453 until 1931, Hagia Sophia was a mosque. Mehmet the Conqueror, in 1453, refused to burn it. Instead, his men built a minaret and amputated the arms of every cross they could find. A Western tourist visiting the Ottoman empire might have succeeded in furtively scratching one cross over in the shadows, but banging away, cutting deep into marble floors and pillars right out in the nave, making all these and more?

Hot Crosses Group Shot ©2012 Trici Venola

Cemented-Over Cross

Could the crosses, similar in size and shape, have been made after the Republic? Hagia Sophia has been a museum since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared it one in 1935. It was closed for four years prior to that. It’s barely possible that some Christian fanatic was working there alone at night…but I doubt it. It’s much more likely to have been then that some insect cemented over several crosses, at the front of the nave and on a few of the pillars. These boneheaded attempts have the look of some excised crosses upstairs, in which the axe cuts faithfully echo the cross shape. Someday a method may be found for dissolving cement without dissolving the stone underneath, but until then I can only long for a chisel.

Nope, not likely during the Ottomans, nor after the Republic. Had to be Fourth Crusaders. Here’s why.

THE FOURTH CRUSADE

 

There were two sides to the Christian church: the Catholics in a collection of city-states in Italy, and the Eastern Roman Christians– we call them Byzantines– an empire ruled from Constantinople. Venice, in Italy, looked longingly over at the glorious city of Constantinople, bastion of the Eastern Roman Church and very, very rich.  The two factions did not get along. Eastern Roman Christians favored trade over war, and they bathed, looking down their long narrow Byzantine noses at the unwashed, body-eschewing “Latins,” the Catholics who they considered filthy warmongers, observers of pagan Latin rites.

 

Mural, in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, of Constantinople before the Fourth Crusade. Huge grey building is Hagia Sophia.

Pope Innocent III tried to muster up a Crusade against the Byzantines but only succeeded in drumming one up to take Egypt from the Muslims.  To get there, the Fourth Crusaders hired Venetians to build ships for them. They couldn’t pay for the ships. Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, old and blind, suggested that they recapture Zara, in Hungary, for the Venetians, and then go sack Constantinople. So the Crusaders, mostly Italian and French out for treasure and glory, became mercenaries for Venice.

Do you know who painted this? Let me know so I can credit them!

Crusade videos abound on YouTube,  In one, the unctuous narrator actually says that the Crusaders didn’t mean to destroy the Christian city of Constantinople. He says they had no choice but to sack it to pay the Venetians. “Um…I maxed out my credit card, so I’m going to kill you and your family and take everything you own to pay it…”

Eugene Delacroix, The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople.

 

It’s true that the Crusaders scrupulously honored their debts to Venice. Picture a household gutted of its glory and beauty, the husband and wife disemboweled among the bodies of their raped children, screams from the convent nearby, flames belching out of church windows, coffers smashed open, blood and stench everywhere, sky black with oily smoke, silks and satins billowing through splintered shutters– and a bunch of bean counters making piles for the Venetians. “One for you, and one for me…”

This accounts for the glories of San Marco Square in Venice, plundered from Constantinople, among them the four bronze horses taken from the Constantinople Hippodrome.

 

Istanbul Through the Ages, the top floor exhibit of Istanbul’s Archeological Museum, houses broken marble from site after site destroyed by “the Latins,” punctuated by photographs of art treasures now in Venice.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Second Conquest. A Venetian, the artist painted heroism.

Upstairs in Hagia Sophia, just behind the Deesus Mosaic, is a grave in the floor. It’s Dandolo’s. He died in 1205 and was buried by his request in Hagia Sophia. But he’s not there. 57 years later, when the Byzantine Christians of Constantinople succeeded in vomiting out the Catholics, they dug up Dandolo and threw him out the window.

Alexius Angelos

There were other factors in this mess. Alexius Angelos, deposed Byzantine Emperor, promised the moon to the Crusaders if they helped him get back his throne. He got it, and died soon after, proving a miserable ruler who bankrupted the Imperial treasury.

Pope Innocent III

 

During the convoluted and bloody track of this Crusade, Pope Innocent III, horrified at the mayhem, excommunicated all the Crusaders. After being presented with the spoils from Constantinople, he accepted them back into the Church.

The Imperial Tombs were all over at Holy Apostles, on the site of what is now Fatih Mosque. Everyone of consequence was entombed there, and there were celebrated relics of the saints. Over the protests of one Latin priest, the Crusaders ripped open the sarcophagi, took all the gold, and threw the bones to the dogs in the street. And that’s what happened to St Luke, to Constantine, St Helen, Justinian and Theodora, the relics of Ss Timothy, Andrew, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian… What remains of their glittering reliquaries can now be seen in the Treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. If St Mark had been buried at Holy Apostles, he would have been chewed by the dogs as well.

Opened Sarcophagus in front of Hagia Sophia

 

There are many sources for all of his, but let’s hear a contemporary account:

How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about.

Domenico Tintoretto, Conquest of Constantinople

They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups… just as… Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments… divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground. Nor can the violation of the Great Church [Hagia Sophia] be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor.  —The Historian Nicetas Choniates, 1155-1215/16

 

There is no excuse for the Fourth Crusade, but there are these crosses.

Hole-In-One Cross ©2012 Trici Venola

 

After a couple of weeks hunting and drawing crosses, I can see these guys, these Crusaders. They’d been camped out in Venice, fighting and looting Zara in Hungary, excommunicated, nothing more to lose.

 

Then to  Constantinople, telling each other it was meet and just to behave like beasts in the fabled streets. Now in the dusky church the massive  pillars rising up into glory, mayhem below, fires here and there reflected on the marble floor, glittering off the gold ceiling mosaics high above. Whores singing, one lolling in the Patriarch’s Seat, drunken carousing, the altar hacked to pieces, puddles of sacrificial wine. Bedding and loot spilling out of sacks, chainmail in stinking heaps, exhaustion, hilarity. Illiterate treasure-hunters, murderers and thieves by our standards, but with the same desire to make a mark that Justinian had, and only a knife, an axe, a sword to make it with. All of them played by Ray Stevenson of Rome. Hack, crunch. “You call that a cross? Hang on, let me at it.” They might wrench away every gold crucifix, but still carve one as well. “I was here,” it says, “I lived.”  Just guys. We can almost forgive them for St Luke.

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All drawings Plein Air, done with drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper 18X52cm / 7X20 “. All drawings and most photos ©2012 by Trici Venola. All drawings from the series Drawing On Istanbul by Trici Venola. I know you’re out there, so feel free to comment. We love comments, and Followers get a special place in Art Heaven.

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HAGIA SOPHIA AGAPE: Drawing the Basilica Entire

In response to requests, we are republishing this fine post from the archives. You just can’t get too much of Hagia Sophia. And if you’re in Istanbul now, go to the back corner of the basilica, on SogukCesme Street, and look in on the new antique carpet museum.

HAGIA SOPHIA

Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, 

Church of the Holy Wisdom of God

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail © 2011 by Trici Venola

STEEPLES AND MINARETS

Sultan Mehmet. Ottoman miniature, 15th century.

When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, he was twenty-one years old. He said: Give me your city and I’ll not let my soldiers loot. Gutted by the Fourth Crusade, shrunken to villages inside the walls, Constantinople had nevertheless held him off for a year, and still they fought him. They believed Rome would come to their rescue. A big mistake, and the city fell. The sky black with smoke, ships burning in the harbor, streets running with blood; screams and explosions; devastation and horror everywhere, and Constantine XI the Last Byzantine Emperor died on the walls, sword in hand. Afterwards, many witnesses claimed that a beam of light shot out of the top of Hagia Sophia, and the Archangel Michael soared out of the church and away, abandoning the city to the new Conqueror.

Enraged by unexpected losses, true to his word and the custom of the time, Mehmet let his soldiers run amok for three days. Afterwards, he says in his diary, he rode through the streets weeping at the devastation. Young Mehmet admired Alexander the Great, who burned Persepolis, but he refused to mind his own ministers, who advised him to burn Hagia Sophia. “It’s the most sublime building in the world,” he said, and converted it to a mosque. The Pope visited it in 2006. It was a huge event. The entire area was blocked off to all traffic, and the few trams running were jammed to the ceilings, steam on the windows. As I plodded up the hill from the ferry along with thousands of other displaced commuters, I thought of the Pope. Six hundred years too late, Your Eminence.

The Fall of Constantinople, from an old manuscript. Notice clerics at right in front of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail © 2011 by Trici Venola

All the surviving Byzantine basilicas in Istanbul are now mosques. It’s why, traditionally, mosques are round. And common sense tells me that the Crusaders, despite wreaking havoc all over the Middle East, had by 1453 noticed the lovely minarets, gone home and invented Gothic Architecture. I’ve not found any scholarly backup on this, but I’d say minarets are why we have steeples on churches.

VANTAGE POINT  June 2011, when Michael Constantinou asked me for the umpteenth time to draw him a picture of Hagia Sophia entire, I saw a two-week project. “Aç Ayi Ornamaz,” means in Turkish “The hungry bear doesn’t dance.” A commission was agreed upon. “The whole structure,” said Michael, “no tricky perspective, no slants, no seagulls!”

Aw shoot, no seagulls?

 

Ayasofya & A Gull ©2007 by Trici Venola

So I had to move closer.  I roamed around Hagia Sophia, checking out various views, and settled on the terrace at Seven Hills Restaurant, site of many fine dinners, drunk on the view. Here’s what they think Hagia Sophia looked like back in the day, when Emperor Justinian was still alive.

Justinian’s Constantinople. A print of this painting is in the outer transept at Hagia Sophia. If you know who painted it and where I can find a copy, please let me know in the comments section.

This vantage point is similar to the one I used. Here’s what it looks like today:

The scene is so spectacular, the 21st-century June light so white and intense, the sea right there, no way to even begin to get it all down, but trying is what makes art. The waiters were so nice to me that I drew them in gratitude. I sat at the same table every day for ten days, drawing for five hours, in that intense sun. They brought me coffee and water and made a big fuss, but never more than when I came back the last day and did this drawing.

Swell Fellows All: The Waiters at Seven Hills ©2011 by Trici Venola

These guys are from all over Turkey: Istanbul, Ardahan, Siirt, Diyarbakir and Nemrut Dag. All posed in the same spot for five minutes each, and everybody got a copy.

Me up top. Hagia Sophia is to the immediate left of this photo. Think what the mosaic artists saw, working up in the dome!

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS  I blew the first two tries. The second one, I had gotten all the way across the east face at the right before I noticed that the proportions were off.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

Started again right here, with the frontal projection to the right. I do not know the proper architectural term for these. Have you ever seen them anywhere else? I sure haven’t.  That plaster floral medallion on each one covers a Greek cross.

This is drawn with drafting pens on 35 X 70 cm rag paper with no preliminary pencil, so it had to start right. Then I measured everything off of this one, as explained back in the summer of 2011 with the Drawing the Boukoleon posts.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

June 9: Trying to get my mind around the implacable testament of this building’s age, and not as a ruin, either, but a continously-occupied temple of worship coming up on 1480 years. Thinking about the 10,000 workmen in two teams: 50 foremen with100 men to each, and they raced, and they met at the dome. Five years.

Ayasofya Beautiful ©1999 by Trici Venola.

June 12: Today got badly sunburned on left side but didn’t stop. I’m noticing on the east face, which is toward the Marmara, what 15 centuries of storms have done to the shape– the wear, rain tracks and moss and such are very interesting. The sea is deep turquoise.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

RIght in the middle of this section, see how the rain has sluiced diagonally across the brickwork, carving a trough? And you can see how it has hit that point of connection of the roof below, bounded over and fountained up, leaving a rounded mark on the wall above before flowing down into the shadow to the left. That shadow is very dark green: moss.

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola

Here’s an angular spot I like, although the original brickwork has been obscured by new plaster. Hagia Sophia has been standing, despite earthquake and catastrophe and supported only by columns, for almost 1500 years. Much credit for this goes to Mimar Sinan, the great architect of the Renaissance. In the natural course of things, the walls under the huge central dome move apart, causing collapse. In a masterful and politic stroke, Sinan buttressed them and anchored the buttresses with minarets, pleasing the gods of structure and his Sultan, Selim II, as well. You can see the buttresses right here: those massive piers to the right, one of them under a minaret base. How massive are they? Look at those tiny people on the ground!

Hagia Sophia Agape.detail ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Emperor Justinian gold coin. Big wide-set eyes, full face, wide mouth. Justinian!

To design Hagia Sophia, the Emperor Justininan hired a mathemetician and a physicist: Anthemius of Thrales, and Isidoros of Miletus. Religion, Mathematics, Science and Art: they say that at the peak of understanding, all of these converge. Justinian’s rule, and his life, reached a crescendo with his partnership with his Empress, Theodora.

Justinian and Theodora, from their respective mosaics in Ravenna.

Ah, Theodora. There’s a lot on her in a previous blog, Standing the Obelisk: the notorious nude Hippodrome performer who got religion, became Empress, quashed child prostitution, invented tiaras and pointed shoes, and quelled riots with equal aplomb. Justinian had the laws changed so he could marry her. By every report they were passionately devoted to each other, to their faith, and to their Empire. Here’s Theodora painted into life from an ancient bronze statue now in Milan, using information from the Ravenna mosaic and contemporary descriptions.

Theodora Comes Alive ©2012 by Trici Venola.

Look at that eyebrow: now she could quell a rebellion. Justinian and Theodora: where art, religion, science and mathematics converge, add great love and get High Byzantine. Eros: the love of another, and Agape: the love of God. Here is the final drawing of Hagia Sophia Agape: the convergence of all the great mysteries: an answer so great that the questions don’t matter anymore.

Hagia Sophia Agape ©2011 by Trici Venola.

Hagia Sophia Agape ©2011 by Trici Venola.

“Even had its Empire never existed, Byzantium would surely have impressed itself upon our minds and memories by the music of its name alone, conjuring up those same visions that it evokes today: visions of gold and malachite and porphyry, of stately and solemn ceremonial, or brocades heavy with rubies and emeralds, or sumptuous mosaics dimly glowing through halls cloudy with incense. — John Julius Norwich

Mosaic Detail Imperial Gallery

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Alll drawings Plein Air, ©1999-2011 by Trici Venola. All drawings created with drafting pens on paper. Hagia Sophia Agape and Waiters at Seven Hills measure 50 X 70 CM. Other drawings measure 18 X 52 CM. Theodora Comes Alive was created onscreen with digital tools. Thank you for reading. We love your comments.


Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 2

Friday 16 September 2011• 2:00-5:00 

STARTING OVER

Today we had no dogs at the Boukoleon and the bums’ tent was empty. It’s made of a blanket hung over a cord tied to the ancient wall and a little tree, with a teapot set up next to it, trash everywhere and wadded up against the fence. Away over in the corner near the big arch a guy sat scowling and reading. A pair of teenagers showed up, spread a newspaper on the brick pavement amid the blowing trash, and started necking. They were there for three hours. I felt like a duenna. Re-drew the left portal, and am I glad I did. Now it works, it’ll carry the whole thing.

Had a time as I couldn’t find my pencil. Knew I’d put it in with the pens. The page I prepared at home, up against the window, tracing the layout with pencil from what I”d done before, turned out to be cut too short. I had to prepare another. And. No. Pencil. Trying to hold two huge flapping papers up to the light and keep them from sliding out of place while I made pen dots on the perspective lines.  Then I packed up, went down to the bus stop and asked one of the drivers. He gave me a fine art pencil and I almost kissed him. Oh bliss, to safely delineate the basic block-in of that blasted portal. Here’s the hash I made of it yesterday. Notice the point on the dark negative space at the top of the inner arch. It doesn’t look like that, it’s rounder. The whole proportion is off:

Far Left Portal Misfire ©2011 by Trici Venola

The problem yesterday came when I drew the entire rectangle of the portal in ink and then tried to put all the arches inside, and they came out squeezed. This time I penciled only the left post and the top, the main horizontal perspective lines and some of the inside. Then I started drawing in ink, the inside of the portal, all the arches and twisted burned brick. This worked.

Far Left Portal For Real ©2011 by Trici Venola

It may not matter to you, but it sure matters to me. Sometimes you just don’t have time to start over, but this time I do. Also, a proportional problem this early on will only lead to grief, since as I draw I measure against everything that has already been drawn. Here they are side by side. See?

Far Left Misfire

Far Left for Real

Started sneezing but didn’t care, it was going so well at last. High above my small shady cypress tree is an enormous Sycamore, and something up there is crapping on the page from time to time. I have to be quick  with a tissue or it soaks into the page. Those neckers hung in there and I got a surreptitious drawing of them melted into each other.

They felt it, her suspicious little face glancing over at me past the sheaf of black hair. A kid with braces from Iran asked me the history of the palace, said he was stuck with his mother and grandmother who only wanted to shop. I gave him a card for the website.  A guy crawled out of the tent, scratched himself, waved.  An affable face. Said he knows me, I’m the artist, I could draw there as long as I liked and he would keep off the riffraff. He works long hours at the gas station across the highway, was catching some sleep.

End of the day an ebullient Turkish guy came up and said he could feel the presence of the ancient Byzantines. I said I could too, they blow in with the leaves and watch me draw. He said he could also feel the spirit of Jesus Christ. I let that one go. The Boukoleon was built in 817, lived in for four centuries,  sacked and burned in 1204. Byzantines built it and lived and prayed in it and Crusaders destroyed it, and all of them in the name of Jesus Christ. While I was drawing the portal I saw dark and blood and flames,  Crusaders in armor stalking through the arcade of arches, one standing there with drawn and dripping sword, the red cross on his chest visible through the smoke, over him the same cross carved in the blackening marble lintel, the flames fluttering like Crusaders’ flags.

Dog In the Ruins ©2008 by Trici Venola.


Rolling the Boukoleon Bones

How strange to know exactly where you will be and what will be happening with the weather. This seems an incalculable luxury to me, but that was part of what I signed up for when I moved here. Something in me has always wanted to crouch on the edge of an alien civilization, making art. Just now I’m looking out over dull silver drifts of sea fading into the mist, peppered with minute black birds in an erratic line. The entire bottom of my view is crusty Byzantine brick ruins. It’s all that’s left of the Boukoleon Palace, built in the ninth century as the First Palace in Christiandom, burned by Crusaders in 1204 but spared by Mehmet the Conqueror 250 years later, when he wept to see, as he wrote, the owl flying, the spider spinning a tapestry in the House of the Caesars.

In 1873 the Sultan ran the Orient Express through the remains of the Palace, bisecting it and leaving a considerable chunk of the Palace facade facing the sea. What remains of that is one huge arch, some piles of rubble atop a honeycomb of arcs and mysterious wells going down to Byzantium, and one magnificent double stand of arches surmounted by marble portals on the sea side. The top row was torn off, presumably when the government filled in the area between the harbor and the seawall, and built the highway. I live on the other side, across the tracks, looking out over the arches to the sea.

Below my balcony in the weeds of the railroad bed is a huge ziggurat-cut chunk of marble, carved around the sides and scored across the surface with holes for fixing a bas-relief, or perhaps a sheet of marble in contrasting colors. There’s also one pillar and its capital, and some smaller chunks of the ziggurat-cut piece, all decorated with spray-paint graffiti. Computer-generated concepts of the Palace show it as a vast bald grey expanse rising out of the sea, but I have seen dozens of chunks of multicolored marble from all over the Palace site. They’re grey until it rains, and then they are a rainbow: wine-purple porphyry, speckled green malachite, white flecked with carnelian, saffron, deep emerald green veined with black, glittering white, translucent pale amber. I think the Palace looked like a painting of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s, now in the Getty, entitled Spring. Brilliant colors juxtaposed with statues and frescoes, a painting in polished marble, and a porphyry birth chamber, giving rise to the expression born to the purple. Sir Lawrence painted this in 1901, and I will bet a Byzantine brick that he visited Istanbul first and saw what was left of the Palace. The layout is the same, and so are the colors of the marble.

Whatever we have most of, humans seem to take for granted. When I first moved here I was horrified to see three guys hauling a wheelbarrow of marble fragments out of the Palace to decorate their cafe. I called the Tourist Police and got an embarrassed reaction, but despite all those stories about dire consequences for removal of souvenirs from ancient ruins, there simply was no provision made to keep such things from happening here at the Boukoleon. The Palace has been left to rack and ruin for decades.The good part was that, for years, we could walk up into it, but the bad part was that homeless people, some of them drug addicts, lived in the ruins and made it risky to go in there. I used to get along with most of them, but never sat and drew in the ruins as I longed to do because one never knew when some glue-sniffing idiot would show up dangerous.

But many a time I went in there, alone or with friends, to marvel at the rising walls of brickwork, the piles of marble rubble all around. One massive malachite pillar lies in there, its thickness up to my hips. Weed-fringed holes go down into the area below, peopled by denizens of the dark amongst the trash. The one remaining sea gate, the sides of a marble keyhole shape rising from vast marble pediments carved with egg-and-dart borders, was choked with trash, dumped furniture, garbage and dead things. There had been a fig tree, but the Belidiye- the local government- lopped it down, the dead branches rotting on the edge of the track leading up over the marble pediments up into the ruin.

We would clamber from the gate over the pediment and up through the weeds along the ridge of masonry, and suddenly be looking down into exposed rooms and arched portals and mystery.Up top was a toothed ridge over the big arch, one lone standing pillar marking the airspace of an entire colonnade. We’d jump down past more shoots of fig saplings and over a massive pile of potsherds and into what had been a sort of hall, open to the sky, with the remnants of walls and arched doors and windows all around. The ground surface was rubble and weeds, punctuated with the remains of campfires. Once I saw a carved piece of alabaster, burned on top and littered with mussel shells. Once we found an empty purse, still where it was tossed long after the thief had run into the ruins. Once we walked in to see somebody huffing fumes out of a sack, and left in a hurry. More often, friendly bums would show up to watch out for us. Then

last spring, one guy, Mehmet, set up his mattress on the marble fragments right under the huge arch, keeping dogs in the ruins and stringing his laundry up on the top, a fine sight for tourists. “I may be poor,” he said, “but I live in a palace.”Mehmet was friendly but his dogs were not. They prevented my forays into the Palace, and interfered with my walking through it to climb through a hole in the wall to the railroad bed. I would go down there with my friend CJ and huge plastic bags and pick up the trash, something the railroad only did about every three months, despite the fact that every housewife in the houses overlooking the railroad would throw plastic bags of trash down into the train bed every single day. We had a fine time cleaning it up. People thought we were crazy. Having braved Mehmet’s dogs to climb into the railroad, we would not be able to alert Mehmet before getting bitten on the way back through the wall, so we had to leave our huge bags of collected trash under the bridge– where the railroad could find it– and walk the rails until we came to an exit and boost and pull each other out. After CJ went home, I did it alone but couldn’t get myself out. I walked forever past bewildered scarved housewives and screaming children, under the arc of a hurled garbage bag flying out of a window, at last coming to a low railroad bridge over one of the innumerable streets through the city wall. There I was able to hail some local guys who produced a ladder and a cup of tea. I pantomimed trash pick-up and we went through my sketchbook and several more cups of tea and that was a good Saturday. One reason I live here is that you never know what’s waiting outside the door. It’s also the reason I think about leaving here every so often, when the thing outside is a butchered tree or some other atrocity rather than a pleasant adventure with friendly working stiffs remind me of my dad, only in Turkish.

I dreaded renovation since the prevalent attitude is to sandblast everything into looking like bad CGI, destroying the integrity of the antiquity in the process. Well-intentioned idiots, mostly liberal Americans married to Turks and living far from the Old City, contribute to this by calling for trash cleanup, little dreaming what the powers that be consider “cleaning:” sandblasting the entire surface, replacing the third-to-twelfth-century surface bricks, sharpening every corner and re-grouting with a hideous pink compound probably made by grinding the original bricks into dust and mixing it with cement. Experts are available from all over the world and financed by UNESCO, yet things continue to be badly restored. Kucuk Ayasofya Camii (Mosque), built onto the remnants of the Church of Sergio & Bacchus 1500 years ago, was stripped and re-surfaced. The carved capitals on the interior columns, which were so old as to appear melted, were actually re-cut and sharpened by workmen far less talented than the original craftsmen. The Byzantine Christian mosaics were covered with cement, impossible to remove, which infuriated educated Turks powerless to stop it. The magnificent Triple Gate of Constantinople, out at the city walls leading to the rest of Europe, was one of the most important sites here, and the restoration destroyed it to the point where, I am told, UNESCO threatened to revoke Istanbul’s World Heritage Site status if it wasn’t stopped. Too late to save the Gate or the mosque, but perhaps they listened with the Palace.

Surface age can be removed in a day, but only God, in the form of time and all its effects, can make something old. New-looking antiquities are all over Europe. Fake antiquities are the province of Disneyland and the movies, but no amount of money can create something old that looks old. That’s why people like me cross oceans and continents to see it. When they fence off your favorite ruin, it’s an emotional challenge, a real crapshoot, because while it might get wrecked, there is hope. There is intelligent restoration going on in Turkey. There’s the massive ongoing dig at Aphrodisias, arguably the best in the world. There’s the work being done at Çatal Hoyuk and cities even older. There are individuals and financial institutions funding digs and beautiful restorations all over the country, there are magazines and preservation societies and museums fighting to preserve without destroying. So I watch, and I pray.

Last week men in yellow hardhats swarmed all over the Palace and hauled out the burned mattresses, the mounds of trash and garbage choking the ruins. They fenced it off, presumably after re-locating Mehmet and the denizens of all those dark doorways leading under the railroad. Last year I tried to get the History Channel interested in exploring the Palace, but one of their people is Turkish, and he flatly refused to go anywhere near it. Addicts and murderers, ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties, he said, or so I gathered. I admit that looking into the blackened, trash-strewn foundations of Western Civilization can be pretty damned daunting, but I was dying to explore. Now I think that the mysteries in the dark should stay there. They give a resonance to what’s happening on the surface.

Back to my view: the top of the stand of arches was covered in bushes, grasses and vines raining down over the portals, the colors marking the seasons. Very romantic, but the growth does tend to turn the bricks into dirt. Now the top is exposed, a bony, crusted ridge of brickwork like a dragon spine lying below the expanse of the Marmara. It’s absolutely magnificent, and just for the moment it is too wet for the restoration to proceed. Meanwhile, my rent is going up, so I may leave this place. I don’t care to watch what they may do to this precious irreplaceable thing in the name of improvement. I ask for guidance and tend to my drawing. I look out at the sea and the lovely lorn bones of the Boukoleon and love it as much as I can, while I can. I look out at the sea and try to see my ship coming in.

Last night I was so scared with all this change, I said to an old friend, a writer, Please tell me it will all be all right. “You’re living on the heroic plane,” he said, “God looks after heroes.” I’ll say: God sent me a hero like that.

Trici Venola, Istanbul, Christmastime 2009

Art from top: Sea Haven Morning, The Inheritors, Boukoleon Arcade, Brokedown Palace, The Sea Gate, Ahmet Dal: Eager Student, Boukoleon Window, The Little Door, Boukoleon Manzara OneShot, Dog In the Ruins ©2008, 2005, 2009 by Trici Venola.