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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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    October 18th, 2010adminCrafts, Folk Culture, Gypsies, History, Imagination, Istanbul

    A photo taken, near my friend's flat, in the slum district of Tarlabaşı -- a mixed neighborhood, including families, petty thieves, prostitutes, small businessmen, Kurds, expatriates and an assortment of Turks.

    As I’ve written in the past, history is plainly different here. In America, I fantasized about the rollicking saloon past of San Francisco and Portland. I wondered what New York City and Washington D.C. looked like 200 years ago. I imagined the old factories of Chicago, the blues joints and robust German immigrants and newly arrived Greeks and Irishmen. But did I feel the history? Could I really conjure it? No.

    In the United States, economic progress was so fast — and so great — that cities barely resemble their past, barely have remnants of even 150 years beforehand.

    Drying clothes in Tarlabaşı in the last days of summer.

    In Istanbul, I sense history. I don’t “feel” it completely — so much has been expanded or redeveloped. But history is also very much alive. Because it never completely went away.

    A man, hand-sewing blankets, in his shop, which overlooks hip art galleries, featuring political art work. The juxtaposition can be fascinating or, if you see it every day, totally average.

    For example, I live in Mecidiyekoy, a very modern district. My bedroom window overlooks the new Trump Towers, glossy and boastful elements of the modern age. But what’s directly below the towers?  Burnt, charred homes, with cardboard roofs, occupied by gypsy families, living (more or less) like they did a century ago. I pass some of the gypsy families every day. They smoke cigarettes, play cards, and keep an assortment of animals — chickens, roosters, dogs, cats. They are a part of the neighborhood — just as much as the corner store, mosque or police station.

    Of course, there is a huge textile industry in Istanbul and most people here just use factory-made, mass-produced items. But these shops exist, too -- and that's important.

    And this is not tokenized history.

    When I visited friends in New York City, I saw advertisements for a museum (and tour) of former 19th century tenement life — interesting but also long gone. Also, if you’re visiting the Western states, the Lonely Planet guides like to recommend former brothels and other former venues of licentious activity. But how silly, right? How strange. The unruly, anarchic and passion-filled past is made into common tour. You’re left to wonder.

    Perhaps if I lived in Appalachia, I would feel differently — maybe history would be more ever-present. But, in urbanized America, history seems so hyper-branded.

    Of course, there is historical tourism here. And waiters wear gimmicky Ottoman clothing, at times, mimicking a time that is long gone.

    But there is also a tremendous sense of cultural and historical preservation. In Istanbul, history is a continual thing — something that extends so far back, and still seems so ever present, that the crumbling buildings and old folk songs seem relevant — somewhere between historical and contemporary.  And, as a history nerd, I can’t help but feel enchanted by the intermingling of past and present here.

    A watermelon cart in Cihangir, a yuppie/bohemian district bordering the Taksim area. I also took this picture walking home from a friend's flat. In Istanbul, you don't need to look for photo moments -- they're constant.

    Here's Cihangir -- modern, pastel and safe. Contrast Cihangir with Tarlabaşı...

    I know I have written multiple times on the old/new element of life here. But I’m honestly not tired of it yet! Perhaps it’s my favorite part of Istanbul. So in this blog, I’ll come back to it, again and again …just like my daily life …walking up and down streets and passing faces and doorways that could be 20 years old, or 200 years old — as if it even matters at all.

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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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    Taksim Performers

    Performers from Ecuador in Taksim Square.

    I met Ecuadorian performers in Taksim Square. They knew very little English and practically no Turkish, except “on beş” (meaning “fifteen,” the cost of their audio disc). So, we spoke in Spanish. The girl (pictured above) explained that they come from a town outside Quito. She arrived in Istanbul, along with her family (uncle and brother) and close friend (pictured above), a few weeks ago. They plan to spend time here — about 2 months — playing music, dancing and, hopefully, making some money. Then, they will return home.

    Singing for their curious Istanbul audience

    The Turkish audience members were interested, no doubt. But they also seemed confused, as if they didn’t know how to act/what to do. A large circle enveloped the performers while two gypsy children ran through the crowd, playing games.

    “The South American performers began coming here about two years ago,” my friend, Fatih, explained. “That’s when I first saw them in Istanbul.”

    Tourism is a strange thing. When I watched the performers, I thought about being an “outsider.” For example, I’m an outsider here in Istanbul. I’m the recorder. I’m the observer. ..taking photos, writing blog posts.

    But, at that moment, the Ecuadorian performers were outsiders. Loud, excited Turks took flash photos — displaying the Ecuadorians like tourists sights — like the Louvre or Acropolis.

    And, in a way, the Turks were outsiders, too — peering into a very foreign culture, probably tailored to seem even more exotic and strange, even more indigenous and removed than the real lives of the performers in Ecuador.

    And I wondered ..was this even their “indigenous” culture? The clothing and dancing seemed American Indian, like Cherokee or something — not Andean/Ecuadorian!

    The whole thing was a bit surreal — the Ecuadorian performers, the awe-struck Turks, the rambunctious gypsy youth. And me.

    Most people didn’t buy the music or donate money. They were  just interested from afar.

    And the experience was both obnoxious and a strange relief — to not be the recorder for once.

    Dancing for the audience

    I tried to ask the girl what she thought of Istanbul — the people, the food, the life. She didn’t have much to say. She was more quiet, perhaps. But very kind. And her friend — the young guy — was so charmingly youthful. I figured he must be a  playful jokester back home.

    There were so many questions left unanswered. No doubt, it’s expensive to fly out four people to Istanbul, especially during the tourist season. What do they do in Ecuador?

    But, most of all, I wondered about their daily lives in Istanbul, before they hit the streets in the evening. What do they eat? What do they do? Who do they talk to? And when they go home in the morning, after a hard night’s work …what do they think of the whole thing?

    Gypsy kids running through the half circle surrounding the Ecuadorian performers. A surreal blend of old world Europe and the globalized tourist industry.

    Gypsy/Roma kids taking a seat by the subway entrance to watch the Ecuadorian performers.

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    August 2nd, 2010adminCulture Clash!, Gypsies, Istanbul
    Carmen, Manet

    Manet painting -- "Gypsy with Cigarette"

    Here in Eurasia, my romantic vision of gypsies has been crushed. And rather quickly, at that. Of course, I’ve seen gypsies in Greece, Hungary and other countries. Five years ago, I spent a wonderful day with Spanish gypsies in Berlin. They played beautiful music, joked and generally made merry. But there’s also the harsh reality of their lives (or many of their lives), which includes tragically bad parenting — beyond the scale of what we expect from a European country. Children, covered in dirt, are left alone in shopping carts, as their gypsy mothers haggle with partial-bums down the block. Crying babies are left unattended. Sad, doe-eyed boys are left late into the night, working hustler street-jobs, and they run the gamut from terrified to ruthless in demeanor. So many of these children are so dirty, desperate and neglected. Of course, in the United States, they would be grabbed by Child Protective Services in no time. But this is Turkey. And it’s just accepted as the gypsy way. No matter how disgusting. No matter how public. And I’ve seen it all around Europe.

    Last summer, in Athens, I came upon an open street bazaar, right by the ancient aristocratic cemetery. Gypsies sold all sorts of useless, dirty and potentially stolen trinkets. Everybody said they were ambiguously “Greek.” Nobody admitted they were Roma or gypsy. But they were. Obviously. And there I saw, rolling around in the dirty-sandy earth, their young children. Barely clothed. Looking like Mogli from the Jungle Book. Despite my liberal background, and no matter my acceptance of (at least partial) cultural relativism, I do have my limits. And I was horrified.

    From a distance, I have always had a deep interest in gypsies. Maybe I relate to a people “with no home,” a wandering people divided by centuries of diaspora. Maybe I like their old tziganes, their music and their stories and songs and the mystique of the gypsy fortune-teller. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by the idea of Carmen and memorized the “Toreador” song, which I sang when I was bored in idle moments.

    But this stuff is just sick. And sad. I don’t consider myself prejudiced against gypsies. But it’s hard seeing a young kid looking so damn desperate.