DREAM JOURNEY: PART III

Bangkok, 6 May 2015

May has arrived, the most beautiful month in the Mediterranean. It’s time for my wife and I to come out of our long, long hibernation in Istanbul and continue on our dream journey, the next leg of which will be Greece.

It’s warm enough now for us to travel by open-topped car again, so with a click of my mouse I materialize the little MG which carried us so long ago from Venice to Aquileia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have it pop up in front of the Hagia Sophia (probably not possible in real life but hey, this is a dream). We hop in and drive off. We will be following the trace of the Via Egnatia, the Roman road which once linked Constantinople to Dyrrachium (now Durrës in Albania) on the Adriatic coast, from whence a short ship ride could bring Roman legions and you to Bari in Italy. As always where map reading is required, my wife is driving. I have her take Divanyolu Avenue, which overlies the trace of the Mese, the main Roman street of Constantinople. Like the Mese, the Divanyolu Avenue starts just in front of Hagia Sophia. When we reach Murat Pasha Mosque, at what was once Constantinople’s Forum of the Ox, and where the Mese angled south-west, I have my wife turn left down Cerrapasha Avenue (never mind that the web informs me that the street is one way against us: this is a dream). The traffic is heavy I would imagine, we are inching along. At Koca Mustafa Pasha Mosque, things get complicated. The modern street plan no longer follows the old streets. Looking at the city map on the web, I muse on what to do next. The cars are beeping behind us, my wife is asking urgently, “which way?” I decide: go left, keep going until you somehow manage to reach Imrahor Ilyas Bey Avenue, turn right and keep going until you come to the old Theodosian city walls, which protected the city until its fall to the Ottomans. There, pass through a break in the walls, leaving to our left the remains of the Golden Gate, through which the Via Egnatia once entered the city.

golden gate theodosian walls istanbul

We are now at the official starting point of the Via Egnatia. But I must say everything is very confused. The recent huge, jumbled expansion of the city has completely effaced any traces of the ancient road. What the hell, I know where I want to go, so I tell my wife to hang a left and head down to John Kennedy Avenue, which runs along the Sea of Marmara. After a while we pick up the trace of the Via Egnatia, and so we bowl along to Tegirdağ, where we regretfully leave the sea’s edge and cut across to Ipsala at the border with Greece (a border which has only existed a hundred years or so and whose creation left much bitterness behind). Now in Greece, we go on through Komotini and Kavala (close to which, at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian beat the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Longinus, thus starting the process which destroyed the Roman Republic and put in its place the Roman Empire). Finally, we arrive at our destination, Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki … Thessalonica to the Roman and Byzantine elites, just plain old Salonika to the locals, Selânik to the Ottomans. Its nascent Christian community the recipient in the first decades of the Christian era of two of St. Paul’s most famous Epistles, the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Birthplace in the 9th Century of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity, but also in the 19th Century of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey.

Like Ravenna and Aquileia where I started this dream journey, Thessaloniki has suffered from the ravages of man and nature ever since it was founded by King Cassander of Macedon in 315 BC. Its history under the Romans and early Byzantines was relatively peaceful, apart from some raiding by Thracian tribes in the 50s BC, and a terrible incident in 390 AD, when some 10,000 of its citizens were massacred in the hippodrome as a punishment for starting a revolt. Its troubles really started when the Roman Empire weakened and the Barbarian tribes from the north began their incursions. Like Aquileia, it suffered from repeated attacks in the 7th Century by Barbarian tribes, Slavs in this case, but unlike Aquileia it managed to hold them off. As if the Slavs were not enough, the city suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 620, which did much damage. There followed a few centuries of respite, but after the Byzantines lost control of the Aegean Sea, Saracens seized the city in 904. After a ten day sack they left, but not before freeing thousands of Muslim prisoners while enslaving thousands of Christians and carrying off huge amounts of booty. In 1185, at another moment of Byzantine weakness, it was the turn of the Normans of Sicily to attack and take the city. Their rule, though short, led to considerable destruction. After Constantinople was captured by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city became the centre of one of the feudal fiefs which the Crusaders created. It was short-lived. The city and its territory were seized in 1224 by the Greek Despot of Epirus (who in turn was subjugated by the Tsar of Bulgaria). In 1246, a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire recovered the city. After a century and a half, the Byzantines lost it again, this time to the new regional power, the Ottomans. The Ottomans’ tenure was initially short-lived. They were forced to hand the city back to the Byzantines after their disastrous defeat by Tamerlane the Lame in 1402 at the gates of Ankara. But too weak by now to hold it, the Byzantines sold the city to Venice in 1423. Seven years later, in 1430, the Ottomans definitively recaptured the city.

There followed nearly five centuries of relative tranquility, during which the city became one of the great emporia of the Mediterranean and a melting pot of different ethnicities: Greeks of course, but also Turks, as well as Jews – the Ottomans welcomed the Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal – and later Bulgarians. Then, as Ottoman power went into terminal decline, irredentist feelings in Greece and Bulgaria grew. Both felt the city and its surrounding territory was theirs. After various acts of provocation and terrorism, matters came to a head in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. For a while, things hung in the balance but the city finally went to Greece. In 1917, during the First World War, a huge fire, accidentally started in a kitchen, destroyed almost the entire city. This led to an exodus of the city’s Jewish population, many of whom lost everything in the conflagration. They were soon followed by the Moslem, Turkish population as a result of the massive exchange of populations which followed the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. In their place came Greeks expelled from Asia Minor, making the city once again a predominantly Greek city. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied it. As a result, its port facilities were heavily if haphazardly bombed by the Allies. For their part, the SS rounded up what was left of the city’s ancient Jewish population and shipped them all off to the gas chambers. After two millennia of presence (Jews had chased St. Paul out of the city after he had preached there), the Jews effectively vanished from Thessaloniki. The city had not finished to suffer. In 1978, it was hit by a powerful earthquake, which did considerable damage to its structures, both old and new.

With this history, it’s little short of a miracle if any of the city’s early Christian mosaics are left at all. I direct my wife to enter the city along the trace of the Via Egnatia, which leads us straight to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda of St. George. Google Maps doesn’t show any parking lots around there, but this is a dream, so we easily find a little parking spot in one of the side streets for our MG. We enter the Rotunda, and walk through to the main cupola. This is what greets us: a badly damaged band of mosaics in its upper registry.

St. George-0St. George-1a

St. George-2

Sad. But what can you expect, these mosaics were installed 1700 years old, in the late 300s AD. Funnily enough, the little that there is left of them may have been saved by the church becoming a mosque. The Turks just whitewashed over mosaics and frescoes, after pilfering whatever gold tesserae there still were.

But let’s get up close – which we can, since this is a dream, we can just float up there. Look at the faces!

St. George-5

St. George-3

St. George-4

Here, we still have Roman art, but with Christian characteristics.

The internet warns me that traffic is terrible in Thessaloniki, so I decide that we will walk to the other churches. On strictly chronological grounds, I further decide that the next church we will visit is St. David’s, built in the late 4th Century. I open Google Maps’ Street View and find that we are walking through a modern, really quite pleasant city, the product of the Great Fire of 1917 and modern planning for the city’s reconstruction. Anyway, we plunge into St. David’s. It has one remarkable mosaic left, tucked away in a lunette in a corner, depicting the vision of Ezekiel

St David-1

After admiring it for a while, we head on to St. Demetrius, which celebrates the city’s patron saint. The church has just a few, rather wonderful mosaic panels left, probably installed in the late 600s, early 700s, just after the Slavs had given up trying to sack the city.

St. Demetrios-2

St. Demetrios-4

St. Demetrios-3

The first is still Roman art, while the other two are beginning to look Byzantine.

Next stop: Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki’s not Istanbul’s (although it seems that the design of the Thessalonian version was based on its Constantinopolitan namesake). On the way, we pop into the early 5th Century Church of Acheiropoietos, but there are really only shreds of mosaics left. Discouraged, we go on. And so we come to Hagia Sophia, built in the 8th Century, and whose glory is the late 8th Century mosaic in the cupola.

Hagia Sofia-1

As we can in dreams, my wife and I drift up to see the Christ up close.

Hagia Sofia-2

And we see a Christ who is becoming ever more Byzantine in his look and posture. The glories of Rome seem to be becoming a distant memory. This is even more apparent in this Virgin Mary, which reminds me of that other Virgin Mary we visited on the island of Torcello in the lagoons of Venice on the first leg of this dream trip.

Hagia Sofia-3

At this point, I have to make a decision. My original idea for this dream trip was for my wife and I to go south and visit the walled monastery of St. Luke in Boeotia and further south still to the convent of Daphni, close to Athens. They have lovely, if late-style, mosaics, this one an example from St. Luke’s, a rendering of the Pentecost

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and this one from Daphni, of Christos Pantocrator, Christ the All-Powerful

Daphni-Christ Pantrocrator

I also wanted to take this road to follow a little in the footsteps, or rather the tyre marks, of my father. In 1937, when still a university student, he spent the Easter holidays driving his Ford, in company of a cousin, all the way from Cambridge to Athens and on to Sparta, and then back. To get there, he drove through the old lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, across Bulgaria, and down to Thessaloniki. I feel his young shadow passing by us and want to follow it a little while. But it’s too much of a detour, and I want to get to Italy before it gets too hot. So I choose. We will continue along the trace of the Via Egnatia, to the Adriatic, and pick up the ferry to Bari.

No sooner said than done. We are whisked over to the car and are now heading out of the Thessaloniki. Studying Google maps in conjunction with Omnes Viae (“The Roman Route Planner”, which I had occasion to use in the first leg of this dream journey), I get my wife to make for Edessa, which in ancient times guarded the entrance of the Via Egnatia to the Pindus mountains but is now known more picturesquely as the “city of waters”. On the web, I watch people cavort in the city’s waters (highly mineralized by the look of it)

Edessa

before continuing on. We skirt the pretty lakes of Vegoritida and Petron

lake Vegoritida

and veer northwards. We cross the border into Macedonia (sorry, “the Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia”; political tempers run high in this region), a border which only came into existence in 1918, and we arrive at the city once called Heraclea Lyncestis but now known more prosaically as Bitola. It was an important way station on the Via Egnatia, so I take a pause and look at a panoramic view

Bitola Panorama

before moving on. We’re heading west now, towards the Adriatic Sea. We skirt the beautiful Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid

passing through the city of Ohrid, once Lychnidos, another important stop on the Via Egnatia. I’m tempted to visit the 5th Century Polyconch Basilica to see the remains of its mosaic floor, but everything I read suggests that the remains are too fragmentary. We take to the road again and soon find ourselves crossing yet another border that only came into existence in 1918, this one into Albania.

We pass over gloriously wild mountains

Librazhad

before dropping into the narrow valley of the Shkumbin River, known to the Romans as the Flumen Genusus.

Shkumbin river

We follow the river as it hurries down to the sea, but shortly before getting there we turn sharp right and head for the port of Durrës. In the summer, the place is submerged in beach-goers

Durres

but luckily there aren’t so many people yet. We drive to the ferry port. The web helpfully informs me that there is a ferry leaving tonight at 10 pm, which gets into Bari at 8 am tomorrow morning. Ferrying my wife, me, and our little MG over to Italy will cost us the princely sum of £131.72 (for some reason, the site I visited quotes the prices in pounds sterling). We have time for a bite to eat before we leave. But what do you eat in Albania?

_____________________

MG: http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/sites/default/files/member-images/1105377623_27223.jpg (in http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/member-images/mg-t-series/1954-tf-0)
Golden gate Istanbul: http://www.livius.org/a/turkey/istanbul/walls/istanbul_wall_theodosius_s_of_golden_gate.JPG (in http://www.livius.org/cn-cs/constantinople/constantinople_land_walls.html)
St. George Rotunda-1: http://cdn1.vtourist.com/4/5034576-St_Georges_Rotunda_Thessaloniki.jpg
St. George Rotunda-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/thessaloniki-rotunda/photos/mosaic-sts-onesiphoros-and-porphyrios-c5-wc-pd)
St. George Rotunda-3: http://dic.academic.ru/pictures/wiki/files/84/ThessHagGeorgMosCosDamien.jpg
St. George Rotunda-4-Saint Cosmas: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_59.jpg
St. George Rotunda-5-Saint Therinos: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_60.jpg
St. George Rotunda-6-Saint Philip Bishop: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_57.jpg
St David: https://yameee.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/hd1.jpg (in https://yameee.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/сравнительный-анализ-мозаик-церквей/
St Demetrios-1-dedicating children to Demetrios: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-EYa9zdAwg9w/Ty_EdArv9MI/AAAAAAAAAJM/Bgpaw1ttHAU/s1600/03.jpg
St. Demetrios-2-Demetrios and children: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-i536vAoKGRc/Ty_FkFneuOI/AAAAAAAAAJs/I68I0jWcfxU/s1600/07.jpg
St. Demetrios-3-Demetrios and donor: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-0C51ycpEZKQ/Ty_FNdSgPEI/AAAAAAAAAJk/rl66Pq0HZlA/s1600/06.jpg
Hagia Sophia-1: http://www.inthessaloniki.com/images/Churches/AgiasSofias/Inthessaloniki_Hagia_Sofia_C.jpg (in http://www.inthessaloniki.com/en/agia-sofia)
Hagia Sophia-2-cupola-christ detail: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-TgUH5cPxxv0/T3i6LzYE-TI/AAAAAAAABj8/5B_CxlT_GcM/s1600/%CE%91%CE%93%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A3%CE%9F%CE%A6%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A8%CE%99%CE%A6%CE%97%CE%94.8.JPG
Hagia Sophia-3-catino-Virgin: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5104/5737609091_a1ff106e1b_z.jpg
Convent of Daphni: Cupola-2-detail: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3131/2618506302_de85e9decf.jpg
St. Luke-cupola-pentecost: http://users.sch.gr/geioanni/sel-ekpaideusi/sxolikes_ergasies/TRITH-GYMNASIOY-THRHSKEYTIKA/EIKONES_ENOTHTA_1/PENTHKOSTH_8.jpg
Edessa: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-R7o-WczsSEk/UT85DRLhV2I/AAAAAAAAUPs/X5W2oHAFcLs/s1600/lydialith.jpg (in http://paspartounews.blogspot.com/2013/03/blog-post_8742.html)
Lake Vegoritida: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida#/media/File:Ostrovskoto_ezero.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida)
Bitola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4e/BitolaPanorama.jpg/950px-BitolaPanorama.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitola)
Lake Ohrid: http://www.rego-bis.pl/bin/images/c77bd7ecc_d95f83717734355.jpeg (in http://www.rego-bis.pl/hotel,hotelcaliforniaresortpobytobjazd2w1,ALBCALR.html?ofrid=0e04c3c867866ee4b5a8f79f6b760f260257028d331141b288f4e709ba8a3720)
Librazhd: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/40520594.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/user/4935966/tags/Shebenik%20National%20Park)
Shkumbin river: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin#/media/File:Shkumbin.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin)
Durrës beach: http://www.shkendijatravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/durres_albania_plaze.jpeg (in http://www.shkendijatravel.com/durres-port/)

DREAM JOURNEY: PART II

Beijing, 24 November 2013

Back in May, I closed my post Dream Journey: Part I in Aquileia, in North-Eastern Italy. I said then that my wife and I would be continuing the journey.  But somehow, I got distracted by other things.  Now the days are shortening and the cold is beginning to bite …

No matter, let’s continue! Even in late Autumn the Mediterranean is beautiful. But we won’t be following my original plan for the second leg of the trip, which was to drive in our open-topped MG from Aquileia to Istanbul through the Balkans following the trace of the old Roman roads Via Gemina and Via Militaris. It’s too cold for that now.  Instead, we’ll backtrack to Venice airport, drop off the MG in the airport’s parking lot for the next dream travelers to pick up, and take a plane to Istanbul.

No sooner said than done. With a click of the mouse we have arrived in Istanbul!

Wonderful city, Istanbul. Since time immemorial, a place of passage and trade between Asia to the east and Europe to the west, between the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea the south. Where Jason and the Argonauts passed on their way north to find the golden fleece. Where the Persian King Darius I crossed his troops to chase after and subdue the pesky Scythian horsemen to the north. Where, more prosaically, grain ships from the northern shores of the Black Sea passed on their way south to bring their cargoes to the Greek city states and later to Rome.  Chosen by Constantine the Great as the seat of his new capital of the Roman Empire. Later, capital only of the Eastern Roman Empire when the Empire’s western portion disintegrated and disappeared, and later still of the renamed Byzantine Empire. Conquered one thousand two hundred years later by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, to become the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a role it played for another five hundred years. Set aside by Kemal Atatürk as capital of the new Turkey in favour of Ankara. In the last several decades, swollen to bursting by millions of impoverished migrants from Turkey’s eastern provinces. But still a lovely, vibrant city.

In this dream trip of mine my wife and I are only here to visit the city’s early christian mosaics, so we’ll ignore the Islamic splendours of the city …

blue mosque Istanbul

the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus …

bosphorus views

the fun of the covered spice bazaar …

spice bazaar istanbul

the culinary delights of its restaurants …

restaurants Istanbul

No, we tell the taxi driver instead to take us straight to Hagia Sophia.

Hagia_Sophia external

The edifice started life as the Basilica of Holy Wisdom in 537, was turned into a mosque when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, and finally became a museum in 1935. Other than the four slim minarets, it has remained pretty much the same on the outside over the last millennium and a half. The inside has changed more as the obvious signs of its Christian function were whitewashed over or removed and replaced with Muslim symbols. This process of islamicization, together with those natural processes linked to the passage of time – rot, mould, water ingress, along with an earthquake or two – has meant that most of the glittering mosaics which covered every inch of the vast interior have disappeared.

hagia-sophia-interior

We are left with a few modest shards tucked away in various corners of the interior:

A gentle Madonna in the apse, but so high, so remote:

hagia sophia-1-apse

A stern Christ between Mary and John the Baptist:

hagia sophia-7-deesis

The Emperors Justinian and Constantine humbly offering the Madonna the basilica and the city:

hagia sophia-6-justinian and constantine

The Emperor Comnenus and Empress Irene with the Madonna:

hagia sophia-5-comnenus and irene

The Emperor Constantine Monomacchus and the Empress Zoe with the Christ:

Mosaïque de l'impératrice Zoé, Sainte-Sophie (Istanbul, Turquie)

The Emperor Leo VI prostrate at the feet of the Christ:

hagia sophia-4-Leo VI

And lastly, uncovered just a few years ago, a seraph:

hagia sophia-8-seraphim

(As I look more closely at his face

hagia sophia-9-seraphim-detail

I cannot escape the notion that he is saying, “get me out of this stuff!”)

I cannot avoid a certain melancholy as I survey what is left and think of what it must have been. I am reminded of a story from the time of the Ottomans’ conquest of the city. It is said that when Mehmed II wandered around the Imperial palace originally built by Constantine, now lying ruined and abandoned, he murmured some lines from a famous Persian poet:
“The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars,
An owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiyab”.

Still in a state of melancholy, I click the mouse, and my wife and I are now visiting another, much smaller, church in Istanbul, Kariye Camii (the Church of the Holy Saviour). It still has extensive mosaics, executed in early 1300s. We are entering the twilight age of mosaics; in fact, the church also has extensive frescoes, the medium which eventually triumphed over mosaics. Here are photos of some of the mosaics.
Up in its two small domes:

kariye camii-6-christ cupola

kariye camii-5-virgin genealogy

which give us an idea of what the dome of Hagia Sophia must have looked like.

Scenes of Christ’s Ministry:

kariye camii-7-christs ministry

Scenes from the life of the Virgin:

kariye camii-3-paying tax

And finally the donor, the powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites, humbly offering his church to Christ:

????????????????

(I like the hat!)

The church also has some wonderful frescoes. This one is my favourite, a fresco of the Resurrection

kariye camii-2-fresco

Such a dynamic Christ! So different from the stiff, awkward, reserved Christs of this period’s mosaics.

We come out into sunlight of the noisy street outside. It’s time to move on.  The next leg of the journey will be in Greece.

____________________

Blue Mosque: http://www.beautifulmosque.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Sultan-Ahmed-Mosque-in-Istanbul-Turkey-1.jpg
Bosphorus views: http://www.wallpapersgalaxy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/suleiman-mosque-in-istanbul-turkey-view-to-bosphorus.jpg
Spice bazaar Istanbul: http://images.fxcuisine.com/blogimages/turkey/istanbul/egyptian-spice-bazar/istanbul-egyptian-bazar-02-1000.jpg
Restaurant Istanbul: http://thumbs.ifood.tv/files/images/editor/images/top%20restaurants%20in%20Istanbul.jpg
Hagia Sophia-exterior: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Hagia_Sophia_Mars_2013.jpg
Hagia Sophia-interior: http://powertripberkeley.com/wp-content/uploads/hagia-sophia-wallpaperhagia-sophia-interior-by–thesolitary-on-deviantart-cjcwsxkd.jpg
Hagia Sophia-apse: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Deesis: http://www.gradale.com/Media/Deesis.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Justinian and Constantine: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Comnenus and Irene: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Zoe and Constantine Monomacchus: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7f/Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg
Hagia Sophia-Leo VI: http://www.cambridge2000.com/gallery/images/P33112366e.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4089/4973697085_028b4ed969.jpg
Hagia Sophia-seraph-detail: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01725/mysteries-2509_1725247c.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2a/Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg/800px-Chora_Christ_south_coupole.jpg
Kariye Camii-Virgin Mary in the cupola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/00/HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg/800px-HSX_Mary_genealogy.jpg
Kariye Camii-Christ’s Ministry: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8069/8213661931_5653c8fd48_o.jpg
Kariye Camii-paying tax: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Meister_der_Kahriye-Cami-Kirche_in_Istanbul_005.jpg
Kariye Camii-theodore metochites: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-kariye-chora-pictures/dedication-theodore-metochites-ccc-access-denied.jpg
Kairye Camii-fresco resurrection: http://www.vikiturkey.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/chora-museum.jpg

MY CRUISE OF FIRSTS

Beijing, 5 April 2013

My previous post about chocolate Easter eggs led me to take a page from Charles Dickens and I allowed myself to be visited by the ghost of Easters past. He took me back through memories of previous Easters, some very pleasant and others not so much. One in particular has stayed with me, the Easter I passed on a cruise in the Mediterranean when I was 14.

My English grandmother had decided that she would like to go on a cruise but wanted company. So she took me and my older brother along with her. It was a wonderful trip, one of those golden-hued memories that each one of us has. Easter itself was celebrated without much fuss and bother in Brindisi, in southern Italy – we were just a few Catholics among a sea of Anglicans and so were packed off to a small room on the ship and a local priest was brought in for the occasion.  A surf through the web tells me that Easter occurred on April 14, two weeks later than this year. We were already towards the end of the cruise. There were a couple more stops in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia, at Split and Dubrovnik, and then it was back to Venice where we had boarded ship. Before Brindisi, we had visited Olympia, Crete, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus, and then finally Rhodes before starting back (there was also a visit to one of the smaller Ionian islands but I no longer remember which one).

For me, this was a trip of many firsts (well, the whole trip was a first but there were certain things which were more first than others, if you get my drift).

It was my first trip to Venice, one which my wife and I have repeated many, many times, sometimes with the children, first from Milan when we lived there and then later from Vienna. What I fell in love with that first time and keep going back to is not the grand theatricality of St. Mark’s Square

venice-st marks square

or of the laguna, which the cruise ship sailed down as we left Venicevenice-the lagoon

No, what always bring us back is the humbler Venice, the alleys and lanes (it’s hard to talk of streets when there are no cars) far away from the tourist haunts, which widen and narrow with no apparent rhyme or reason, which loop and re-loop over narrow canals, which suddenly bring you, blinking in the light, into small piazzas teeming with life.

venice-calle-1

venice-calle-2

venice-calle-3

venice-calle-4

We spent the afternoon before setting sail wandering around, map in hand – a map is always necessary in Venice, although my wife is not really of that opinion: ask people the way, that’s her motto.

The cruise also took me on my first visit to classical ruins. England and the parts of France I was then familiar with don’t have any Roman ruins to speak of; an odd crumbling wall here and there is about the sum of it. Here, we had a feast!

Olympia

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Knossos

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Mycenae

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The Acropolis in Athens

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Cape Sounion

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Ephesus

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Actually, it was more a surfeit than a feast. To be very honest, after I’ve seen three broken columns and five fallen walls the experience begins to pall. Many decades later, when I got to know Shelley’s poem Ozymandias I could relate to all these ruins and many others I have seen since all over the world in a different way:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

But, in all this blur of broken stone one memory stands out, etched for ever more in my mind: wildflowers growing in profusion among the ruins of Olympia. A search of the web shows that I am not the only traveler to Olympia who has been struck by the flowers there:

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SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

The trip was also my first real exposure to Greek sculpture. My grandmother had taken me a few times to the British Museum but somehow we always seemed to end up in the section of the Egyptian mummies – at least, that’s all I remember of those early visits. But the visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was a real eye-opener for me. Two pieces I remember particularly well. One was the statue of Zeus (or is it Poseidon?):

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Look at that face!

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Speaking of faces, the other piece that impressed itself on me was the gold mask which Schliemann dug up in Mycenae (our Greek and Latin teacher had often quoted the phrase “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”, said to have been uttered by Schliemann when he first set eyes on the mask)

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Another notable first on this trip was my exposure to Byzantine mosaics, in the cavernous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

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This started an interest – an obsessive interest, my wife might observe – in early Christian mosaics, which I have tracked down in various parts of the Mediterranean basin since then.

Istanbul was the site of yet another first, my first exposure to Muslim architecture, in the form of the incomparably beautiful Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

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Since then, I have been lucky enough to admire Muslim architecture in all its wonderfully different variations in many parts of the world – even here in Beijing, where it has taken on decidedly Chinese characteristics.

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Iran and Central Asia await me still …

On a lighter note, the cruise was the first – and probably last – time I saw the foxtrot being danced. Every evening a three-man band played in the dance room. It started with oldies, and a retired English Major and his wife were assiduous dancers. As the band started up, they would step out, glide through a number of foxtrot numbers, and then retire to the bar.

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They looked surprisingly like this picture, just somewhat longer in the tooth.

After they had left, the tempo changed and us young things would take over the dance floor and dance the night away. Well, I didn’t. I was far too shy. I would look on enviously at the elder young things. At last, one took pity on me and led me to the floor to dance my first modern dance. Another first …

Last, but definitely not least, it was on that cruise that I first set eyes on the Mediterranean. It was love at first sight.

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Venice-St Mark’s square: http://www.instablogsimages.com/1/2012/04/25/sunset_on_st_marks_square_image_title_upyro.jpg
Venice-Lagoon: http://cdn2.vtourist.com/4/3990973-looking_back_from_the_water_bus_Venice.jpg
Venice-calle-1: http://renaissancerules.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/venice-2009-294.jpg
Venice-calle-2: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Vx_htYT8ClwJ1DwCpMcy1A
Venice-calle-3: http://www.cepolina.com/photo/Europe/Italy/Venice/Venice-mix/3/Venice-street-narrow-calle-rill.jpg
Venice-calle-4: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1265/5186001188_065ec8a290_z.jpg
Olympia: http://images.fanpop.com/images/image_uploads/Olympia-greece-585497_1024_768.jpg
Knossos-palace: http://ant3145crete.wikispaces.com/file/view/Knossos_1.jpg/68392549/Knossos_1.jpg
Mycenae-lion-gate: http://www.civilization.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Mycenae-Lion-gate-028.jpg
Athens-acropolis: http://www.limotaxi.gr/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/athens1.jpg
Cape Sounion: http://www.grisel.net/images/greece/sounion11.JPG
Ephesus: http://historyoftheancientworld.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/theatre2.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2245/2331955314_1629efb4ab_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2380/2331125289_93eb068ca2_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-3: http://www.touringtykes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/olymipia-flowers.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-2: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/zeus_or_poseidon_national_archaeological_museum_athens-4ecd0b1-intro.jpg
Athens- Gold Mask “Agamemnon”: http://hernandopages.com/agamemnon.jpg
Istanbul Hagia Sophia-interior: http://hansmast.com/images/istanbul/hagia_sophia/IMG_1846_Enhancer-IMG_1857_Enhancer-2.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-1: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia-photos/slides/imperial-entrance-mosaic-c-hbetts.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-3: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque: http://www.viitoaremireasa.ro/images/articole/large/2084/Istanbul-Orasul-care-se-intinde-pe-doua-continente-5.jpg
Beijing mosque: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/attachement/jpg/site1/20080815/000802ab80450a0f185656.jpg
Foxtrot: http://ssqq.com/archive/images/foxtrot.jpg
Mediterranean Sea-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4O6DVn4JTeQ/UG6WCS6K7yI/AAAAAAAAFaQ/NHquXzafTsA/s1600/43923144.jpg