Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 13, 2010

As I stood outside the gates of Ephesus waiting for my colleagues to debark from the bus, my new friend Woody beckoned me.
“That vendor has coins,” he said, gesturing to a nearby booth.
I rushed to the spot, bent down to examine what were fakes – good fakes, but fakes nonetheless. Of course, as a dilettante archaeologist, I wouldn’t dream of buying the real thing. One must embrace one’s professional ethics, after all. But I’m more than happy to look at the real thing, followed by a mini-lecture on why digging up coins destroys priceless archaeological evidence. The vendor spoted me and announced, “Of course, those coins are reproductions, Madame,” then leaning in to whisper conspiratorially, said “but I have real ones if you are interested.”
He led me to the back of the booth, pulled out boxes from behind shelves and lifted a small silver box from a battered wooden one.
“I found these myself,” he confided, and dropped a 6th C. BC coin from Ephesus into my open palm. I tried to look unimpressed. Apparently I succeeded because he quickly added, “I have others, Madame. Tell me what you like.”
“I’m only interested in Roman Era coinage,” I said. Out came the Augustus, Domitian and Caracalla coins, complete with Artemis and stags. As I examined these, he slipped a ring on my finger. I placed the coins back in his hand and looked closer. It was a carved gemstone with an image of a 2nd century man. The silver setting needed to be cleaned, but the gemstone was beautiful. May I confess? The contraband ring felt good on my finger.
“I have to go,” I said firmly, removing the ring from my finger and dropping it in his hand.
“I can give you a good price, Madame,” he said, gesturing for me to come back as I marched resolutely towards the gates where my companions were waiting for me. I felt simultaneously righteous and sordid.
Our guide led us to a tall fig tree and began by retelling the foundation myths of Ephesus. My attention wandered as I saw the scores of bees buzzing from one clump of purple flowers to another. “Ahh… that explains the bee imagery on coinage,” I thought. I tried to keep my enthusiasm under control and not interrupt the guide, even when he said that Homer’s hometown was Smyrna and that he lived in the 7th C. BC. When we passed the Fountain of Trajan, which featured an enormous globe at the feet (that was all that was left of him) of Trajan, I just couldn’t be quiet any longer.
My companions turned to look at me indulgently as I clapped my hands and jumped up and down, explaining the ideology behind the iconography. The neokorate temple of Domitian got similarly enthusiastic explanations as did the Library of Celsus and the Odeon. I even educated a chemist turned international affairs professor about the finer details of Greek epigraphy.
“That was fascinating,” she told me, and I turned my head sharply to determine whether she was mocking me or she really thought it was as cool as I did. She apparently has a little geekiness to her as well. She was clearly intrigued and began to point out (from the many, many inscriptions that lined the Sacred Path from the Hercules Gate to the Library of Celsus) things she’d learned and tried to date the inscription from letter forms.
My colleague Woody joked that he knew we’d just reached an important point when he heard my sharp intake of breath combined with the little clap. He was right. This time it was the theater, three times expanded and remodeled under the Romans to suit their national taste in drama. It was a great opportunity to consider the different approaches to the theater that Greeks and Romans took.
There was more, of course, but I won’t bore you with the details. The House of the Virgin Mary, the Cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the Archaeological Museum (OMG – an image of Glycon there!??!!!), dinner with a charming couple in the working class neighborhood of Izmir before a dash to Ankara.

May 11, 2010

Interfaith dialogue was the rule of the day. In fact, the Turkish Cultural Center of Tampa Bay brought me here to teach me more about the country and its people. As part of the agenda, I was to consider the benefits of a sort of “Can’t we all just get along” philosophy of F. Gülen. My agenda was totally selfish: Constantinople (notably, not Istanbul), Ephesus and Troy. But they were paying my way, after all. The least I could do was learn a little something about Turkey and Gülen. So in preparation for the journey, which began shortly before I got on board the plane, I began reading about the Gülen movement, modern Turkish politics and wondering why there’s no one in this country who does what I do. Turkey is a wonderland to me. Why wouldn’t it be the same for the Turks who live in the shadow of such amazing ruins?

That question wouldn’t be answered today. Instead, after a little shopping in the Grand Bazaar, the group was whisked off for lunch in Çamlica complete with breathtaking views of Istanbul. Thereafter began a whirlwind tour of agencies that were committed to interfaith dialogue and disaster relief. Our first stop was at BAKIAD, where we watched a terribly sappy movie, drank tea and heard about the Bosphorus-Atlantic something something something which amounted to an attempt to educated Americans about how great Turkey is and how, if only we could meet, we’d all get along splendidly and our political tensions would dissolve. Another stop at the Journalist and Writers Foundation found us in ultra plush surroundings, hearing about the dreams for peace advocated by F. Gülen. I wondered how a group of journalists, who claim to report objectively (in the same way that positivist historians claimed objectivity) were supposed to add to the movement without becoming partisan. Of course, I knew before I asked the question that everyone – journalists and historians, especially – has agenda. The question about how honest we are about our agenda is the real sticking point. I’m still trying to decide just how honest the Gülen movement is about theirs. Once again, I heard about how if the “Abrahamic faiths” focus upon our similarities rather than our differences, everything would be fine. Leave it to one of my colleagues to bring up the 1914 Armenian genocide and the issue of the Kurds to the very proper young man with the clipped Birmingham accent. (Leave it to another to describe the man as “prissy”.) There was a great deal of global scale discussion of things that none of us could really control, no matter how much we pretended. I asked what precisely journalists and writer were doing to further this interfaith dialogue and heard nothing really worth while except that journalists were encouraged to change the names of things (no “a spade’s a spade” here!), to avoid headlines that could promote tensions and think good thoughts. Hm. As an historian (sister discipline to journalism), I’m skeptical. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely it’s not that simple and these people want something more from me than good will. In fact, all this talk of interfaith dialogue seems lost on me. My own experience with religion has left me suspicious of anyone who raises a banner or claims to be able to tell me what God thinks. Then there’s the other component of religion that as an historian I find terribly difficult to ignore. Throughout time, religion has been used to promote political agenda. Though those who have religious power claim some connection to the divine have used it as a tool to accomplish political goals. Can we then sidestep historical fact and pretend now that the tool is really the issue and can bring us together to overcome political “disagreements” like genocide?

Our final visit was to a Turkish NGO for Disaster Relief, Kimse Yok Mu. My skepticism was still high as the sappy video began. Now this organization was someplace special. I’d already learned from my book club friends that NGO’s are not in any way limited to the United States. Kimse Yok Mu means “Is anybody there?” in Turkish and refers to a woman’s cry who was trapped beneath the rubble in a 1998 earthquake that struck some 60 miles outside Istanbul. The organization has since sent aid to nations in trouble across the world and is currently helping Haiti to rebuild after the devastating quake of 2010. What’s beautiful about this organization is that it’s run entirely on donations and is as interested in helping Turkey’s own poor as it is in gaining international notoriety. Still more beautiful is a recent program sponsored by Kimse Yok Mu that trains divorced or abandoned women to use woodworking tools and sell their crafts. The first graduating class received as a gift their own tools and a supply of lumber to get them started. Three stayed on to train the next class, and the government has decided to open 30 more such centers.

As I listened to how these Turks were finding ways to help around the world, again my mind turned to what I could do locally. My next project will be to incorporate a component of service based learning in my classes.

It was a long, thought provoking day, followed by an amazing meal by the most lovely people who welcomed us, fed us and sent us home loaded with gifts. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of these politics, but there’s something really wonderful about hoping and dreaming of making the world a better place by embracing our neighbors and serving their needs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hagia Sofia: Monument to Memory

I’ve dreamt of visiting Hagia Sophia ever since my Introduction to Art History course as an undergraduate. And as a stood under that dome that measures 184 feet from floor to ceiling, my heart leapt within my chest. Craning my neck to see the 12th century mosaics, the 16th century Muslim medallions and the 19th century loggia in this state owned and operated secular museum, I was struck again by the curious nature of this place, of Hagia Sophia, of Istanbul, of Turkey. The museum is like the country: it is a stratigraphy of cultures, languages and religions that simply lie atop one another without any sort of absorption or amalgamation. A monument is a thing that is meant to be remembered; that’s the Latin root of the word, after all. Hagia Sofia was built atop Constantine’s 4th Century church, which was destroyed by fire and replaced by a 5th century church. This is apparent before you enter the monument by the excavation at the entrance, but also by the statuary garden filled with columns and capitals that graced earlier churches. Justinian I (whose image I wear on my neck each day I walk through the streets of Istanbul, a coin minted in this very city some 1500 years ago) built Hagia Sofia in a little less than six years with thousands of slaves. The building was begun only a couple months after he slaughtered some 3500 of his own subjects for treason. After they’d rioted in the Hippodrome, he lured them back into the race track with promises of negotiating terms and then locked the doors and slaughtered them all in a couple of bloody, desperate hours. The exotic marbles that cover the walls boldly proclaim Justinian’s reconquest of the Roman Empire: porphyry from Egypt, giallo antico from Numidia, luna marble from Ionia, carerra from Italy. Justinian’s megalomania was apparent from his quip upon entering the completed structure: “Solomon, I have surpassed you!” Besides a few earthquakes to weaken its walls, Hagia Sofia remained intact until the Crusaders defiled it by burying the Ventian Doge Henricus Dandolo in it in the 13th Century.

Mahmet II took the city in 1453 after the walls of Constantinople had withstood some 29 sieges, only to fall to the newfangled technological innovation, gunpowder. Though Mahmet had all the mosaics with human images covered with plaster, he allowed the Virgin and Child above the apse to remain, adding only the mihrab that pointed toward Mecca. The sultans brought relics from around their Empire, especially the marble vase that was made in the 3rd C. BC in Smryna and installed in the nave. Ancient Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman piled one a top another, no conversation between the great civilizations, just triumphant proclamations of the superiority of the present over the past, a desire to reclaim what had gone before in order to make the glorious past inevitably point to a still more glorious present.

Hagia Sofia was so glorious that it must be preserved (then rehabilitated with the addition of minarets) and then bested by the Blue Mosque, another tribute to the ego of a sultan. Ahmed was fourteen in 1609 when he ordered its construction and twenty-seven when it was completed. He died a year later. This mosque trumped Hagia Sophia even in its six minarets.

Fast forward to Ataturk in the 1920’s, who ordered Hagia Sofia to become a secular museum and strictly forbade any worship to occur under that massive, beautiful, dizzying dome. Another refashioning, another triumphant proclamation, another megalomaniac. Ataturk (hallowed be his name) might have forbidden worship in this place, this secular museum, but when I stepped into this monument to memory, I remembered. And in my own non-denominational way, I worshipped there. I raised a paean in my heart to the muse of memory.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Istanbul, at last.

There’s something hauntingly familiar about this city. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about it for quite sometime now, but the broad avenues of the old city, the impressively decrepit walls, and the al fresco dining remind me of Paris and Rome. But then the headscarves, the incomprehensible language and the minarets create a capture me in a whirling vortex whispering that this is not my city. And it isn’t. At least, not yet.

I spent those endless hours on the planes and in layovers in Washington D.C. and Zurich to learn as much as I can about this place that feels so foreign and familiar at the same time. Long ago, when I studied as an undergrad, I learned about Ataturk and his grand revolutionary schemes in the 20’s and 30’s that jerked this country from the sleepy Ottoman regime to radically Western ways. Women were given the vote here before French women could cast their ballots. The chaos that his shift from Arabic script to a Latin alphabet must have caused quite literally boggles the mind. As my host Omer was explaining, the change caused a complete overhaul in the academy: learned professors were rendered illiterate overnight and replaced by fresh new politically minded youth. It’s a powerful lesson to remain intellectually nimble, ready for whatever change some nutty legislator might throw at us. The way that Ataturk is revered here, however, is nothing less than imperial cult: politics are inseparable from religion, even when the politician swears off his country’s overwhelming religious preference for Islam.

Still, this land defies all that I have learned about politics, religion and power. It makes sense that the sweeping reforms that the country experienced under Ataturk could only happen in such a short time under a dictator. What is so surprising, however, is that the reforms seem not to have been immediately reversed the moment he died in 1938. The Turks seem to have wanted these changes. And yet, his ban on headscarves and the fez for men is still problematic. The Prime Minister Erdogan came to power first by spouting what sounded like Panislamic ideals but after a spate in prison ended up promoting democracy, closer ties with the European Union, civil rights for minorities and most surprisingly in the mix, promoting traditional Muslim values. An odd mixture, indeed. My idea of this place was that a only few women, some here and there, would wear headscarves: they’d been banned in the 20’s after all, but eight out of ten women I see are wearing them. There are Armani billboards advertising a woman with a headscarf: it’s a fashion, yes, but there’s more to it. It’s a statement, I’m sure. Only a few years ago a group of college students admitted to the University of Istanbul to study medicine were escorted off campus because they showed up wearing headscarves and refused to remove them. They’d rather wear the headscarf than fulfill their dreams of becoming doctors. They could have this ambition because of the radical, sweeping social legislation of Ataturk. Those women are making a statement, all right. I’m just not sure what they’re saying. Maybe I should have learned the language before I’d arrived….