Ana SayfaYazarlarStone, blood, and time in Istanbul

Stone, blood, and time in Istanbul

Stone, where would we be without you? Particles adrift in outer space. No place to rest. No form, no consciousness.“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). But in truth, all rock is what our lives have always been built on. What protects us from the core fires deep below.Stone: the roof of the Earth; a partial lid on its inner violence, keeping it from re-liquefying apart. The terrace we inhabit, the home without which there would be no other home. The mother of all materials.As we wake up to our first dawn of prehistoric consciousness, above us, below us, all around us are veins of rock running through the Earth. We take that rock and appropriate it as stone; we touch it, pick it up, throw it, strike with it; eventually we learn to work it — to shape it and to breathe life into it as useful artifacts and useless art.Stone becomes hand-axes, blades, awls, burins. Arrowheads, spearheads. Microliths as teeth for harpoons launched from atlatls. Mortars for grinding grain.It also becomes megalithic monuments — orthostats, dolmens, menhirs, trilithons. As it is used to increase life, so is it used to contain death. It marks burial: ceremonial stone cairns, the Hunnic grave circles on the Yenisei, tombstones for individuals. It marks faith and worship: the first separate spaces allocated to deities; the huge limestone pillars of hilltop sanctuaries like Göbekli Tepe. Later, synagogues, churches, mosques. With or without writing, it marks both rulership and its limits: the border stones of ancient empires; the Orkhon Inscriptions; the Varashev Stone.We start building and sculpting in stone. Not everything, but enough to create a durable frame for the wattle, timber and mudbrick of ordinary human existence. Stone comes to represent class, wealth, power, quality, permanence. Castles, town houses, urban palaces. City walls to defy enemies; arched bridges to defy rivers and floods; paved roads to defy mud. We go to quarries to get the best Pentelic, Parian, Carrara marble for images of our gods and goddesses, our mothers holding their dying children, our lords and heroes.There come artists who cut stone and poets who sing of stone.Stone becomes Stonehenge, the Pyramids, the Parthenon and the Caryatids of the Erectheum, the rubble of Persian-destroyed monuments on the north side of the Acropolis. The Roman aqueducts whose durability Mayakovsky wished his verse to emulate, so that it, too, could with labor thrust […] through the years / emerging ponderous, rock-rough, age-grim like when those man-made ridges first appear, firm-grounded once by the branded slaves of Rome.The winged Nike of Samothrace, David, the Vatican and Rondanini Pietàs, the opulence of the Medici Chapel. The Elgin Marbles that for Keats (1817) mingle[d] Grecian grandeur with the rude / Wasting of old time, giving him a sense of vague immensity that he could only express in broken phrases: a billowy main – a sun – a shadow of a magnitude.Some stones I haven’t just looked at, but also touched. My hand remembers the feel of the alabaster throne at Knossos, the Cyclopean walls of Mycenae, the rocks at the entrance to the northern war harbor at Knidos, the great columns of the Salisbury Cathedral nave, the recumbent effigies of medieval kings and queens, knights and ladies. The gaze and fingers of the living keep wandering over their closed faces, their folded hands, their forgotten feet. Rilke’s “Leichen-Wasche” (1908); Lorca (1935) lamenting Ignacio Sanchez Mejias’s gored, trampled body laid out on an ablution slab: Stone is a forehead where dreams grieve / without curving waters and frozen cypresses. / Stone is a shoulder on which to bear Time / with trees formed of tears and ribbons and planets.I stand with Seferis (1935) at Santorini, listening to the sound of a flute to naked feet that once ran and danced on the pumice stone. I look with Neruda (1943-5) at the heights of Macchu Picchu: Tall city of stepped stone / home at long last of whatever earth / had never hidden in her sleeping clothes. Together we ascend the tallest crucible that ever held our silence / a life of stone after so many lives, step by step, as at the end of each short line epithet follows epithet like the prayer beads on a rosary: pollen of stone / bread of stone / rose of stone / source of stone / stone light / vapor of stone / book of stone.It is an incantation that follows me to the stones of Byzantion, Constantinople, Istanbul. To its outer boundaries — the Theodosian land walls no longer expecting Balkan enemies; the Marble Tower at the southern (Yedikule) corner, its once-mossy underwater foundations now lost in a land-fill, not even watching for ghost navies.Passing through the great gates into what Maurice Aymard once called “a city capable of absorbing everything.” Or two, even three cities, mixing and mingling on the same level (instead of resting on top of one another). Hence, not just one but multiples of everything that could conceivably be made of stone — cathedrals, monasteries, mosques, baths, cisterns, reservoirs, cemeteries, tombs, columns, fountains, waterfront kiosks, palaces. Some lost, some ruined, some partly buried; many more intact, even intensely alive.And always, the sheer impossibility of looking for — even trying to define — the “original.” Too many spolia to list or count; not just individual building elements brought from all over the Mediterranean world, and then recycled not once but several times, but entire buildings coopted into new functions. Hippodrome to At Meydanı; Chora to Kariye; Pantokrator to Zeyrek; Pammakaristos to Fethiye; Blachernae to Tekfur Sarayı; Mesa to Divanyolu. Double, triple names and identities.Gone are the Columns of Theodosius, Arcadius, Justinian — which once echoed an imperial tradition started by Trajan and Marcus Aurelius in Rome. But the Obelisk of Thutmose III, c.1490 BC, which Theodosius the Great ordered removed from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor in AD 390, miraculously stands, 3500 years old, where it was first placed on the Hippodrome. Close to it, the Walled Obelisk, too, that Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos put up in the tenth century, has somehow survived the Fourth Crusade as well as young janissaries’ climbing exercises. A pillar that Constantine the Great brought for his own forum from the Temple of Apollo in Rome once bore a statue of Apollo, then of Constantine himself, then of Julian, then of Theodosius. It has seen fires, earthquakes, even a lightning strike (in 1081). Its eight marble drums reinforced with steel rings under Mustafa II (1695-1704), it has come to be known as Çemberlitaş. Similarly deprived of its statue, the red-gray Egyptian granite of Column of Marcian continues, as Kıztaşı, to occupy a small Fatih square.Stone bears witness to earthiness and holiness alike; to both the pleasures and the terrors of being autokrator. Of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors, which like its Ottoman successor was probably a complex of pavilions, just one piece remains (though parts of its underground substructures keep turning up all over the Sultanahmet area). Back in 1930, Yeats obscurely alluded, perhaps on the basis of his classical readings, or maybe just his poetic intuition, to its marbles of the dancing floor. Then excavations in 1935-38 and 1951-54 revealed a large peristyle courtyard entirely decorated with nearly 2000 square metres of mosaics. The color and variety of an expansive landscape comprising hunting scenes, animals fighting or wandering around, rural life, mythological events or fantastic creatures take us into yesteryear’s tactile warmth of daily life.Ultimately this, too, is an artifice of eternity, though not the one Yeats sought in “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928). His sages burning in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall are not in the palace but the cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. Today as back in the early sixth century, the vastness and magnificence of Justinian’s great church resist facile comparison and comprehension. It is one thing to try to surpass the height or width of its dome, but another thing to emulate the soaring splendor of the interior that it crowns. Outside, the buttresses that Sinan added in the 16th century overtly display their brute strength, striving and straining like headless titans to push back not just the dome’s lateral thrust, but also the passing of Time itself. Stone against stone; stone leaning in versus stone weighing down and out.Yet inside, everything is wholly different. Coming in from the narthex, the front hall, there is no sense whatsoever of stress and effort; the power of the main carrying pillars masked by their marble covering, the four sides further perforated and de-solidified by successive balconies and colonnades, the cathedral’s central space appears to be not bounded and earth-bound, but endlessly floating and receding. It also harbors a peerlessly colorful garden of stone. Coleridge (1797) dreamt of a stately pleasure dome that Kublai Khan had decreed, where Alph the sacred river ran / through caverns measureless to man / down to a sunless sea. Yet his imagined East Asian Xanadu pales in comparison with what Justinian and his architects achieved by bringing in Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus or Corinthian columns from Baalbek, as well as placing orders with special quarries in Egypt, Syria or Thessaly, to create a panoply of pink, red, black, purple, yellow and green in all their shades under the canopy of Hagia Sophia’s dome. It is a superior paradise, stirring the same sense of wonder that we feel before the infinite variety of the Universe.But there is no consistency to humankind, which together with the sublime also proffers the horrifying. After conquering Constantinople and converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Mehmed II ordered his new TopkapıPalace built just beyond it. Today the flat white marble panels on either side of its Imperial Gate already announce a more austere, unwelcoming severity. From the Imperial Council and the Audience Hall, through all the contrived adornments of the Baghdad and Yerevan Kiosks, as well as the unimaginative ostentation of the white marble terrace and balustrade of the same Fourth Court, to the occasionally pock-marked pavement of the royal consorts’ terrace in the Harem overlooking the big pool below, the Topkapı Palace is not a light-hearted place. Instead, a sense of grimness gradually accumulates, culminating in the deathly coldness of the sultan’s private hammam, his white marble bath with the gilded grill behind which he had to lock himself up in order to be able to wash his hair (so that, temporarily blinded, he could not be assassinated even by the youngest or weakest concubine) — a prisoner together with all other prisoners of his own power; the proverbial bird in a golden cage. With all his Ottomanizing nostalgia, Yahya Kemal did have a sense of this state harshness at the heart of empire when “From a Hilltop” (1934-8) he declaimed to Istanbul that Marbles [had been] pounded with countless conquerors’ golden blood / So that your face might mirror your history.The part-church, part-mosque life of the Hagia Sophia has created its own paradoxes. Nestling close to it like its foothills are a series of sultans’ tombs that pass varying comment on the human condition. Once more they are covered almost entirely in white marble, with the occasional pastel pinks resembling muted afterthoughts, or else external additions borrowed from a different aesthetic. In the twilight of the interiors, sultans sleep forgotten together with their women, their infant sons and daughters. But behind the rows of coffins, to the back of Murad III’s mausoleum a window pane that has been left open creaks, and outside a garden of carnations, bright red against fresh green, bob and weave in the gentle breeze, while beyond them, visible through the grilled apertures of St Sophia’s perimeter wall, people relax with tea and small talk in sidewalk cafés. Mustafa I and Ibrahim I share a tomb that occupies part of the basilica’s Baptistery. Its side window gazes at the huge stone baptismal font left in a corner of the newly created courtyard. From there back inside the Hagia Sophia, the Omphalion’s incredible array of colored marble column sections, twelve smaller circles around a giant circle in the middle, marking the Navel of the World and also the ceremonial crowning spot for Byzantine emperors, is separated by only a few feet from, again, the white marble Ottoman loggia reserved for the mosque’s criers, the callers to Islamic prayers.All around, if you can bear to look down, are not-so-sumptuous pavement stones, worn and cracked by millions, myriads of feet treading on them through the ages. Here as in the pathways of the Topkapı’s first and second courtyards, or the Fourth Terrace, or the pebbled corridors of the Harem, with all their lines of great age that keep connecting like cobwebs, they bear silent witness, like the shoe of Empedocles, to literally the lowest level of human existence. At the hypothetical centre of the Byzantine city, in close proximity to the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome and the Basilica Cistern, there used to stand the Milion, the zero ground of the empire, the Golden Milestone from which were supposed to be measured, and on which were inscribed, distances to all its now re-named cities and vanished frontiers. But roads remain, as do people walking on them and eroding them.In his elegiac verses on Koca Mustafapaşa (1953), reminiscent of Gray’s or Tennyson’s romantic historicism, Yahya Kemal, climbing the cobblestone slopes and passing the secluded soulful graveyards of that old Ottoman neighborhood, feels overwhelmed by a blend of the Turk’s tranquil disposition and Byzantine melancholy. Koca Mustafapaşa is just inside from the Golden Gate and the Fortress of the Seven Towers. Here also stand the remains of what was built as Studion Monastery in the fifth and what became Imrahor Camii (the mosque of the chief of the sultan’s stables) in the fifteenth century.As in Yahya Kemal’s description of the district, Here and there Koranic death verses strike the eye / Climbing vines, epitaphs, stones and trees intertwine. A solitary security guard turns a key, and an old wooden door in the wall enclosing a non-public heritage site creaks open to reveal what used to be the mosque’s burial ground: turbaned Islamic tombstones clustered in two groups right and left; a white marble baptismal font in the middle; beyond it the marble columns of the main entrance to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, and immediately to their right Imrahor’s now coneless minaret. Passing through the portals, a vast unsuspected space opens before the eye: there is no roof, and only the outer shell of the church remains, for the nave’s brick side-walls, too, have collapsed entirely on the right while on the left only a row of green marble supporting columns stand, rusty iron-scaffolded for safety, but still whispering of a secret relationship with Hagia Sophia’s balconies. Windows and archways have been stacked with rubble. High above to the left of the apsis, two doves sitting on marble shards are momentarily silhouetted against the bluest summer sky. Near the base of the minaret a steel nail with difficulty has inscribed mundane graffiti on another white marble window frame.In that immense silence, under the sun, the moon and the stars, exposed to the elements, there stretches a grand, a magnificent floor of large squares of green marble bordered in white, occasionally with exquisitely worked bands of small-scale mosaics running between them. There it is, a secret garden of gardens that one looks and looks and cannot have enough of and also cannot bear looking at — a myth, a mystery, an enigma in a derelict, deserted, neglected, forgotten, forsaken place.This is where Yahya Kemal (1953) meets Yeats (1930); this is where the Istanbuliote poet’s old Ottoman neighborhood brings in, surrounds and embraces the Irish poet’s imagined Byzantine courtyard: At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, / Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame.

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