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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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    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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