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.