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The transient and the permanent: the legacy of successionism

October 30, 2012

. . .such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

William Butler Yeats supplied an explanatory footnote to these final lines from “Sailing to Byzantium”: “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sing.” Only art–“the daughter of hope and memory”—can achieve permanence, an imagined perfection. All else is transient.

Now I have sailed, I mean flown, to Byzantium, the ancient Greek city that Emperor Constantine renamed Constantinople in the Fourth Century to glorify himself, and the conquering Turks renamed Istanbul in the Fifteenth. The Old City, called Sultanhamet, is commercially vibrant, with its mother of all shopping centers, the Grand Bazaar, and crammed with monuments of political power and cultural grandeur. The Emperor’s palace is gone, the Sultan’s palace remains, beautifully preserved in stone and enameled tile.


A short walk from the palace we find the huge Blue Mosque; our volunteer guide was a carpet salesman we met when we paused in front of his store. He explained the features of the structure (called “blue” from it’s magnificent interior blue tiles) and its functioning in Islamic practice. The wall-to-wall carpeting marks out spaces for the men standing or kneeling for prayers, close-packed shoulder to shoulder “lest the Devil slip between you.” (Women are kept from view, lest the Devil. . . .) Faith lends solidarity, and solidarity, faith. How articulate this layman was about his religion, and how glad to share it with us!
Yes, we did go to see his carpets, and no, we didn’t buy. My attitude soured when he suggested that the 9/11 attacks were known in advance and perhaps instigated by our government. I argued briefly with his conspiracy theory and left it at that; such a discordant note was a reminder of the persistence of suspicions and enmities. Even in this seemingly tolerant society—few young women cover their heads and arms—is rooted in a cultural identity sharply distinct from our own.
Only one other time did I feel the urge to question an interpretation of history. An attractive, outgoing young guide, leading us on a hike through the fantastic landscape of Cappadocia (“mushroom” pinnacles, cave dwellings, an underground city) explained that after World War I a million Christians from the region had moved to Bulgaria, and a million Muslims had moved from Bulgaria to Turkey. This most ancient Christian land was now almost devoid of the people who made it so, and the final cleansing came less than a century ago! Our guide made the forced uprooting of populations sound like a mutually agreed exchange. I didn’t question her version, but let it pass for amity’s sake. After all, many peoples and many faiths had succeeded one another in this land.
This too set me to thinking about the succession of civilizations and their defining religious faiths: the greatest structure of them all, Santa Sophia—or in Greek, Hagia Sophia. It was built between 532 and 537 under the emperor Justinian—but let us give the architects due credit!—by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. The following year it was consecrated to Holy Sophia, a feminine designation of the divine rooted in the Wisdom books of Hebrew scriptures. It is called “one of the most perfect examples of Byzantine architecture, its chief feature being its enormous dome, supported by piers, arches, and pendentives [the arched supports for a dome], and pierced by 40 windows, which crowns the basilica.”
In 1453 the Turks added minarets, effaced its Christian iconography, and declared it a mosque. High on the interior walls are huge, circular placards—canvass on wooden frames—bearing inscriptions from the Koran. It is a museum, now, devoid of worshipers. Yet in its art, proud daughter of memory and hope, the sacred remains.
As you may have read, the Turkish government has been seeking the return of ancient works of art taken by Western collectors, now in museums. That seems fair, even if Islam had nothing to do with most of these works. It would also be fair—but far less likely—for Turkey to return Hagia Sophia to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Vast human sufferings and cultural depredations have come with the succession of religions and civilizations. Nothing reminds us of this more vividly than the marvelous Archeology Museum in Istanbul: a few beautiful artifacts remain.
A succeeding religion lords it over its conquered and dispossessed predecessor; it also hates those who claim, in turn, to succeed it. In truth all are transient and stand in need of the holy wisdom that finds permanence in this common human condition. May we feel compassion for all, affirm respect for all, deeply appreciate all. Standing awestruck in Hagia Sophia, that was my prayer.
G. K. B.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. howard stoodley permalink
    October 31, 2012 1:21 pm

    Have a safe tr8

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