SERGIUS AND BACCHUS 1: Drawing with the Dervishes


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


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.


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.


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.