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    It’s been a long time since I properly updated this blog. Honestly, I have been busy (in a good way). But it’s high time I resumed things… So, here it is goes:

    Okay, I hate looking like a “tourist.” I don’t want to carry five cameras and wear white bermuda pants. I don’t want to follow the “beaten path,” eat at every Lonely Planet recommendation and then happily tread home. I love the serendipity and adventure of attempting to live like a local… But, alas, this entry is about being the ultimate tourist — or, in other words, that whenever I enter the Hagia Sophia, I feel like I am back in Istanbul in 2009 (the first time I visited) — totally struck with awe and wonder — bewildered by the history and beauty and blood — that, perhaps, the Hagia Sophia makes everyone (even Istanbul natives) a bit of a tourist — it represents a history that is long gone, a shadow but not forgotten — and this leaves us all in a state of quiet observation…

    The history is mesmerizing, yet tragic. First constructed in the 4th century, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a wooden-roofed basilica. First under the rule of Constantine II and then Theodosius II (who caused a lot of theological problems by meeting with Nestorius in Syria!), the basilica stood until the Nika Revolt in 532. Nearly half the city was destroyed in the revolt, and the basilica was burned. And what were the riots about? Well, chariot racing factions (in the Byzantine days) more closely resembled 1920s mafia famiglias than one would imagine. Basically, the Greens and Blues (two racing teams) were embroiled in an internal dispute over murders, which spilled out into the city — like football hooliganism and mafia rivalry, all taking place in the Byzantine Hippodrome — then, the Senate took advantage of the opportunity to demand changes in taxation and other political elements — Ultimately, the basilica was burned, with only some marble blocks surviving until the present (which can still be viewed today).

    I was fascinated to learn that the riot was, in large part, quelled by a EUNUCH named Narses. He stepped right into the anarchic Hippodrome, diplomatically tried to reason with the masses …and then Justinian’s troops came in and, basically, made a bigger blood bath of the situation… By the end, it is estimated that 30,000 people were killed…

    For many reasons, Justinian was an unprecedented leader …within days of the revolt, he commissioned the reconstruction of the basilica. But, this time, it would be grander than anything ever seen before…

    In truly imperial style, Justinian demanded the finest of materials. These included columns from Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, stones from the quarries of Egypt, green marble from Thessaly, yellow stone from Syria and black stone for the Bosporus region. The building itself was an architectural wonder — the brainchild of a physicist Isidoros of Miletus and mathematician Anthemios of Thrales.

    Before the Hagia Sophia, domes were supported by heavy columns. But the architects envisioned an ingenious way to create a “floating” dome — one supported by the structure itself, without the need for columns underneath, thereby giving the building a sense of heavenly weightlessness…

    I will include more photos and stories about the Hagia Sophia tomorrow. Today, I need to work and pack because, in two days, I’m visiting the United States! So, more to come…

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    The village of Kastraki in Thessaly, Greece

    Beauty may be a subjective thing. Or it may be a silly thing. John Ruskin wrote that beauty exists in the most “useless things, peacocks and lilies, for instance.” I have read that beauty aligns with organic symmetry; there is geometry to flowers in bloom. I have also been told the opposite …that beauty is human vanity — our fear of natural disorder — a cowardly attempt to organize and, thereby, dominate nature. And some people measure beauty: symmetrical features, well-proportioned women, or a mathematical balance of shape and color. But I could never define it, and I doubt I ever will.

    The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

    Beauty, when I truly encounter it, is overwhelming. Like Meteora.

    But what is “true” beauty? I doubt there is such a thing. When I walk in certain American neighborhood, I know that they are not “beautiful” — they are ugly, charmless and common. But they strike me as beautiful, perhaps due to my memories. Or, sometimes, a man tells me that he finds a woman beautiful — and she leaves me cold (I don’t understand the appeal) — and, other times, I’m drawn to a painting or a song deemed uninspiring by another. So, maybe I should clarify the beauty of Meteora.

    Climbers almost at the top...

    The place felt unreal — like out of a landscape painting by Cézanne. We looked down upon lush meadows, absolute verdure. The land was mostly quiet, except for a quiet Greek village, Kastraki, where women cooked moussaka and pinned old skirts on clotheslines and sheeps and dogs frolicked in the open air. And, within that world, massive rock formations jutted out of the ground — these surreal, science-fiction like mountains, which once rested underwater until tectonic shifts brought them above ground. Now, they stand in the central Greek region of Thessaly, like some haunted grey palace on Mars.

    And, in this world — isolated & sublime — there was a spiritual human story. Beginning in the 9th century, ascetic monks began moving to this area. They lived in the hollows of the rock towers.

    Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron -- built in the 14th century, restored & embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries

    By the 11th century, an ascetic community had developed in Meteora. The first monastery was established, which still stands today. In the mid-14th century, a monk from Mount Athos (known as the “center of Eastern Monasticism”), Athanasios Koinovitis, brought a community of followers to Meteora. As a result, a new monastery was established.

    Close-up of section of Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (the largest Meteora monastery today).

    The Meteora mountains are located in the Thessaly region of Greece. This area was constantly invaded by great powers, including the Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians ( …during the medieval period, the Bulgarians did all right for themselves, okay?).

    And, centuries later, it was the Ottomans. By the 13th century, the Ottomans had advanced into the Balkans, conquering Serbia and Kosovo. They pillaged Thessaly in 1309. Then, following the victory over Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans captured Athens (1458) and, by 1500, successfully seized most of the Greek mainland. Though the battle over some islands (particularly, Crete) was a longer struggle, Greece was essentially taken by the Ottomans, and a new period in Greek history thus began.

    It was at this time — during and after Ottoman invasions — that monks ran up to their rock fortifications of Meteora.

    So, how did these monks get up to those monasteries? The answer is less obvious than expected. After climbing into the mountain region of Meteora, the monks would be hoisted up to the monasteries by roped nets, as seen in the image above.

    The crank

    Once a visitor asked the monks how often they replaced the nets. They simply replied that God tells them — in other words, when the net breaks (!). The nets were supported by a large crank, which slowly pulled up the precariously supported monks.

    Stairs were not constructed until the 1920s.

    An old style (i.e. medieval) kitchen in the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron.

    To return back to my meandering thoughts on beauty ….Meteora was so radiant — such a bewitching, distinct moment in my trip, which I still remember so clearly — that I’ll post photos in the next few days, including those showing the interiors of the monasteries, scenes of holy virtue and utter damnation, and a Greek monk picking persimmons from a tree… But, for now, I need to go to bed.

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    What is the story behind these Hebrew scripture tablets? Unsurprisingly, there was no information to be found, though they were placed right next to the Roman rotunda.

    In Thessaloniki, I stayed by the old Roman Rotunda — an imposing, cylindrical structure, commissioned by the Roman Emperor, Galerius. Like so many buildings in this region, the rotunda changed as did the times. With the rise of Christian Byzantium, the rotunda was converted into a Christian Church by Emperor Constantine. Lavish mosaics, all overlooking a circular sky, graced the church, which stood until the Ottoman siege. In the 16th century, the Ottomans added a minaret and refashioned the old rotunda into a mosque — the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi.

    Pathway outside the rotunda

    And this is how the building stood until the Greeks recaptured the rotunda in the Balkan Wars. Interestingly, while it was re-christened into a church, the minaret was not destroyed. Today, it is a museum and historical monument. Some in the Greek Orthodox community want to reclaim it back as a church world, but it remains a museum for all visitors today.

    The destructed stones seem to represent more than just geological elements in waste...

    Oddly enough, when I was walking around the rotunda, I found destructed stones with Hebrew script. I wondered: Was there once a Jewish synagogue here? Unfortunately, there was no way to tell. The “helpful” tourist brochures, which detailed the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman elements of the rotunda, failed to mention the massive Hebraic slabs in the rotunda garden.

    The exterior of the rotunda, including the ubiquitous Greek graffiti.

    So, I took photos, confusedly tried to make out an idea in my mind (as to what they were for, as to who used them and looked at them), and moved on. It is moments like these that make European Jewish history particularly difficult to swallow — when one last vestige in a city like Thessaloniki, once *so* very Jewish, is not even mentioned. It’s like it was never there at all…

    I tried to think of a caption for this image. But, as I thought, I realized that the image says enough.

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    November 28th, 2010adminByzantines, Greece, History, Roman Empire

    Thessaloniki's White Tower

    For many years, Thessaloniki’s White Tower was a place of horrors — a building known for torture and executions, where soldiers and civilians alike were massacred, all while overlooking the seaside city. Yet, this Ottoman tower now represents a different Thessaloniki — the espresso-sipping, well-heeled Thessaloniki. Of course, the tower was the first image I saw online when researching Thessaloniki. And it was the iconic building plastered over guidebooks and flyers for city tours. But its history remains more dark than glossy promotions would lead one to  believe…

    Day One: Obligatory gyros stop

    So, I spent a total of about 3 days in Thessaloniki (2.5 days first round, then 1/2 a day on the second round). While the city was not as bustling as Athens, and perhaps the nightlife was a bit more quiet than expected, it was a lovely place. I felt calm there — maybe because we were always close to water, and beautiful Byzantine buildings, and the people were hospitable in a gracious, but more cool way.

    The illegal workers of Greece, many from the Middle East and Nigeria, selling everything from Nike shoes to umbrellas on the street.

    Anyway, Thessaloniki is located in historical Macedonia, a name with obvious associations. Yes, the land of Alexander the Great! In fact, the city was named after the half-sister of Alexander, the Princess Thessalonike (who married King Cassander of Macedon, the founder of the city). Very interesting, no?

    Arch commissioned by Roman Emperor Galerius in the 4th century

    Well, the city remained an autonomous part of Macedon for some time. But then it fell to the Romans — and, eventually, was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. It was such an important city to the Byzantines that it was sometimes called “co-capital.” And, as a visiting tourist, I most certainly saw vestiges of its Byzantine past. Nearly everywhere I went, I felt I saw some old, dark monastic-looking building that was probably Byzantine. As a resident of Istanbul, it’s always fascinating to see Byzantine and Ottoman elements in a different city. So, Thessaloniki was a nice get-away — both familiar and, of course, very different.

    Archaeological dig in the city center -- something I imagine to be a common event

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos, historical tidbits and observations from my time in Greece. But, for now, I’m off to a Thanksgiving meal with American expatriate friends who badly desire some turkey and stuffing in Constantinople.

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    November 14th, 2010adminArt, Byzantines, Gypsies, History, Ottomans

    Last month, I visited the gorgeous Chora Monastery, nestled in the Edirnekapi district of Fatih. The walk to the monastery was very interesting: We got off MetroBus, followed the old Byzantine wall — and, sadly enough, passed a former gypsy neighborhood (it was recently evacuated by the city government to further sanitize the district).

    An expression somewhere between stern and empathetic.

    Shortly after, we reached the monastery — and, upon entrance, I was immediately struck by its beauty: Byzantine Jesus and Mary, gold-encrusted and imperial, the saints, maybe the apostles — things big and important, in some fashion or another. And everything with an air of untouchable time.

    I don’t quite how to articulate this feeling …but there was a sense of hallowed distance …things were farther away than they seemed.

    A struggle of the highest order.

    For two years now, I’ve wanted to visit the monastery. From a historical perspective, it’s undeniably appealing. In fact, the monastery was located outside the walls of Constantinople — yes, outside. For that reason, it was called “Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country.”

    The worst part of experiencing history, nowadays, is that you rarely do it alone. Tourists are unavoidable -- and, sometimes, I'm one of them too.

    Originally built in the 5th century, the old monastery stood outside the walls of Constantine the Great. However, when Theodosius built land walls, the monastery then became incorporated within city walls. But the name remained.

    For centuries, the monastery wasn’t really a big deal. But, in the 12th century, an earthquake destroyed much of the monastery — it partially collapsed. As a result, it needed to be rebuilt. There were two phases of this restoration — in the 12th and 14th century. And it was the second phase, in the early 14th century, that brought the beautiful frescoes and mosaics to full bloom.

    The monastery displays, arguably, some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. In particular, the style is known as “Palaeologian Renaissance,” named after the emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus. Interestingly, the emperor exiled Theodore — that is, until he returned to Constantinople two years later and lived his remaining years as a monk in Chora Monastery.

    In 1453, the Ottomans sacked Constantinople. During their last siege, the icon and protector of Constantinople (usually housed in the Haghia Sophia), was brought to Chora Monastery. Alas, however, the monastery was converted to a mosque fifty years later. Because Islam prohibited iconic imagery, the monastery’s icons were covered by a layer of plaster.

    Today, the monastery is a museum.

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    Socialist architecture in Plovdiv. Even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, many are still struck by such buildings' uniformity, ugliness ...and how political architecture can be.

    Unfortunately, I’ve been quite busy since returning to Istanbul. So, regular blogging has proven difficult. But Plovdiv genuinely struck me as a beautiful and interesting place. So, I’ll conclude my Bulgarian blogging saga with some impressions on the city.

    Bulgarian gypsies waiting for Muslim worshipers to leave the mosque after prayer time (side note: This was the first mosque to be established by the Ottomans in Bulgaria). Indeed, after people began walking down the stairs, they were hounded like Hollywood celebrities, bombarded with calls for money, pity and charity. The older lady also violently pushed around her daughter (or, who I assume to be her daughter) for inexplicable reasons. All in all, a very sad and pathetic situation.

    When I began researching Bulgaria, I came across pictures from a town called Plovdiv. To be honest, I only really know of Sofia. But Plovdiv looked serene & special — particularly due to its Roman ruins. And, after realizing that Plovdiv was on the way back to Istanbul from Sofia, it was a “must.”

    My Plovdiv adventure began with a situation commonly known by veteran travelers: The bus let me off on the side of the road — a nondescript, empty highway, that could have been in Hungary or Germany or anywhere. I wasn’t even quite sure that I was in Plovdiv! But, yet again, my shaky Spanish saved the day and a Spanish-Bulgarian tourist pointed in the direction of “Old Town,” where my hostel was located.

    So, that’s how it began.

    The magnificent Roman theater with PRESERVED STATUES -- a more rare sight! I love how classical civilization -- both Roman and Greek -- emphasized height, so as to be closer to the gods. There's such lasting beauty in mountaintop spaces...

    Now, onto some history:

    THE GREEKS

    Like Istanbul, Plovdiv is located in historical Thrace. So, as I took the bus across the Bulgarian-Turkish border, I thought about the massive cultural differences encountered today between the two nations. Perhaps, in ancient times, there were greater cultural meetings points in the region inhabited by Spartacus and mythical Orpheus.

    Interestingly, the city was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. He renamed the city Philippopolis or “the city of Philip.”

    A contemporary (not ancient) statue commemorating Philip of Macedon in the central plaza of Plovdiv. However, below the statue, there rests the ancient seats of an old theater.

    The city was later reconquered by the Thracians.

    THE ROMANS

    But their independence was not eternal. Rather, Plovdiv was incorporated into the Roman Empire, becoming an official Roman city in the first century. From then on, it was known as Trimontium (“three hills”) — yes, it has three hills.

    The Balkan Roman road, the Via Militaris, passed through Plovdiv.

    The Assyrian satirist and mathematical, Lucian, called Plovdiv “the largest and most beautiful of all cities.”

    By all accounts, it was a vibrant, dynamic city, boasting the cultural bounty of Roman life. Unfortunately, only a small portion of classical Plovdiv has been excavated. It will be interesting to see what archaeologists uncover in the Balkan region in years to come…

    Yup, that's me.

    After the Western Roman Empire fell, Plovdiv became a part of the Byzantine (or “Eastern Roman Empire”). At one point, the city was even ruled by a eunuch emperor Peter I of Bulgaria.

    THE OTTOMANS

    Medieval Plovdiv, now known as "Old Town," housed many of Bulgaria's intellectuals, poets and bohemians in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Okay, fast forward: After a lot of power struggles between the Byzantine Empire and the Latin Empire, Bulgaria was lost to a different power — a new threat from the east: the Ottoman Empire.

    Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule for 500 years. Plovdiv was pronounced capital of Eastern Rumelia (until the Ottomans captured Sofia) — and, in this time, the Ottomans constructed a beautiful, spacious mosque in the city center.

    However, Plovdiv also became a focal point for resistance against the Ottoman Empire, including a revival of Christian and Bulgarian traditions.

    In 1878, the city was liberated from the Ottomans during the Battle of Philippopolis.

    Today, the city is named Plovdiv, which comes fro Pulpudeva — as Wikipedia explains, “assumed to be a translation of Philippopolis, from Pulpu = Philippou and deva = city), which was rendered by the Slavs first as Pəldin (Пълдин) or Pləvdin.”

    Today, many ethnic Turks live in Bulgaria, especially in Plovdiv. There are also many refugees from the 1990s Balkans wars who live in smaller towns.

    THE SOVIETS

    I asked my Bulgarian friend, “Are there remaining communists or socialists in Bulgaria?” She said, “Oh, yes — the little old grannies who talk about how everything used to be better. They say that people have nothing now, that in socialist times, at least they had something. They go to meetings sometimes and talk about these things. But it is just the grannies.”

    While I was staying in the hostel, one of my roommates told me, “You need to check out this restaurant — Diana. The place is crazy! The food is good. And the best part is that, when I asked to go the bathroom, I began walking down this long hallway. It just kept on going and was very strange. It led me to the back area, and there was the bathroom. But something seemed off, like it used to be a bunker or something. So I checked around and talked to a woman. She said, ‘Oh yes, I worked in that bunker during the war. But we don’t talk about it now.’ Isn’t that incredible?”

    So, of course, I went! As expected, the food was good. And here are pictures of the food and the bunker bathroom!

    Appetizer: Potatoes with bacon bits

    Chicken and pork and lots of vegetables! So good! By the way, this was the SMALL PORTION.

    The entrance from the bunker back into the restaurant...

    More bunker action

    Those doors look pretty impenetrable, huh?

    We've reached the end: The Ladies Room!

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    September 6th, 2010adminBulgaria, Byzantines, Ottomans

    Bulgarian Karakachani's wearing the traditional dress are seen during the annual Karakachani's festival near the town of Sliven, east of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. (AP Photo/Petar Petrov)

    This evening, I’ll be taking a bus from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria (or, as the Turks call it, “Bulgaristan”). I’m not bringing my computer, so I won’t be able to update as frequently for the next few days. But I may be able to upload photos while in Bulgaria. And I’ll definitely share photos upon my return.

    Here’s how Lonely Planet introduces Bulgarian history:

    The land that gave birth to the legendary Orpheus and Spartacus, Bulgaria is a country with a long, tumultuous and fascinating history. It  has been invaded, conquered and settled by the Greeks, Scythians, Romans, Byzantines and Turks, all of whom left their indelible marks on the landscape. Bulgaria’s medieval “Golden Age,” when the Bulgar Khans rules over one of the largest empires in Europe, was bright but brief…

    And so begins a story of so many rulers and so many empires, concluding with years as a Soviet satellite, the fall of the Eastern bloc, and, now, contemporary Bulgaria…

    …Should be interesting…

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    August 19th, 2010adminByzantines, History, Istanbul, Ottomans, Touristy Stuff
    Yedikule Towers in Istanbul

    Yedikule Towers in Istanbul

    I’m fascinated by dungeons and prisons. When I visited the Torture Museum in Prague, I was appalled by the torture kitsch — real instruments of medieval torture refashioned into a tourist experience! But I was also captivated. I remember it all: the spears for impalement, the horrific bull, first developed in Greece, and the contraptions to humiliate loose and disloyal women.

    Recently, my friend, Baris, took me to Yedikule Fortress. Like me, he’s a history buff and, when we first met, we talked about the Ottoman sacking of Constantinople in 1453. So, he was a perfect companion to visit Yedikule Fortress, also called “The Fortress of Seven Towers” in Ottoman times.

    Tower Detail

    Tower Detail, probably Ottoman rather than Byzantine due to the curved structure.

    But, before it was Ottoman, it was Byzantine. Like many buildings in Istanbul (most famously, the Haghia Sophia), this fortress had two lives — first under the Byzantines, then under the Ottomans.

    Originally, it was known as the “Golden Gate,” constructed in the 5th century by the Byzantine emperors, Theodosius I and Theodosius II. This gate connected the famed Roman road of Europe to Constantinople. Flanked by four towers, the gate served as the official ceremonial entrance into the city for the emperor. On rare occasions, papal delegates were allowed entrance. But it was meant for the emperor.  To be honest, I didn’t take any pictures of the “Golden Gate” because I wasn’t even sure if I knew which gate was the “Golden” one. It was so unceremonial, so deteriorated and past its prime, that I just looked and wondered. I thought, Who went through those gates? Who cheered for the emperors? There’s always a strange sense of nostalgia (for a place I have never been to and a time I will never truly know) when I encounter ruins.

    Maybe I’ll take pictures of the gate next time.

    When the Ottomans sacked Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror added three more towers. The fortress was thus expanded to include a treasury and prison. This dungeon housed many important people. Most famously, it housed the Ottoman sultan, Osman II. After trying to reorganize the janissaries, Osman II was imprisoned and strangled by his elite soldiers in 1622.

    I found this very interesting — yet very gruesome — description of events on Wikipedia:

    Probably the first Sultan to identify and attempt to tackle the Janissaries as a praetorian institution doing more harm than good to the modern empire, Osman II closed their coffee shops (the gathering points for conspiracies against the throne) and started planning to create a new, loyal and ethnic Turkic army consisting of Anatolian, Mesopotamian and Egyptian Turks and Turkmens. The result was a palace uprising by the janissaries, who promptly imprisoned the young sultan. When an executioner was sent to strangle him at Yedikule, Istanbul, Osman II refused to give in and started fighting the man and was only subdued when he was hit on his back with the rear end of an axe by one of his imprisoners. After that he was strangled with a bowstring.

    UGH!

    Looking down at Istanbul from the fortress. I wondered what the city looked like 1500 years ago, when it was first constructed ...or 500 years ago, when Mehmet expanded the fortress.

    Anyway, the fortress and dungeon is a big, scary thing. Made up on hulking gray stone, it is a massive building, overlooking the Black Sea.

    Here are some photos taken from inside the dungeon!

    The damp dungeon where Osman II was (probably?) imprisoned. There were no placards or tourist-friendly explanations inside. So, we were left to our devices -- and our own imaginations.

    At least the dungeon had an open top, bringing in some sunlight. Baris and I talked about the fact that this set-up could impact someone's final moments. Maybe the bright sunlight made the surroundings less grim? Maybe it gave someone a sense of the approaching afterlife? I don't know...

    One last thing I wanted to add: We were ALONE! There were two other people, a couple from Florence. But they soon left. And we had the entire fortress to ourselves! My god. Imagine having ANY tourist attraction to yourself. This may have been the first time I have had such an experience. I stopped feeling like a stupid tourist sheep, following the herd. And I began to just enjoy history, having it all to myself.

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