Thursday, August 31, 2006

Holy Wisdom

4 April 2006

Holy Wisdom

Gack. Up early, down to the uninspired breakfast buffet, then onto the bus for the hour-long ride to the airport in Izmir. Once there, security checkpoints separated scenes of vast confusion. No one seemed in charge. Somehow we got out bags checked. Somehow we got through security and onto the aircraft, despite Kathy’s ticket once again proclaiming her to be Paul Hedges.

And somehow we got seats in first class. We had champagne and a second, tasty breakfast, and when we saw our friends slumping down the aisle with their stuff, we could look at them in perfect innocence and say, “Oh. Didn’t you get seats in first class?”

The champagne didn’t make me feel better. I had a sore throat, and the sense that there was worse to come. We had spent a week in the viral incubator of the bus, and a lot of people were coming down with the same crud.

The plane came low over the Sea of Marmara, and then we were back in Istanbul. There was more confusion, and we piled all our baggage onto one of the carts mercifully available. Naturally the telescope was on top. Naturally the cart was hit by another cart, and the telescope fell off.

Naturally it broke, though we didn’t find that out till later.

For the day, we had new, temporary buses, and bus drivers. (Our veteran drivers were rolling up the coast and would meet us the next day.) Once on the bus with our bags, our broken gear, and our viruses, we went straight off to Hagia Sophia.

What can I say about Hagia Sophia that hasn’t been said? Possibly I could add that security is very strict, and that everything got patted or x-rayed before we were allowed anywhere near this monument to civilization. I could also add that Turks tend to be a bit puzzled by this enormous church. According to Mehmet, who guides Turks as well as foreigners, he is often asked, “Why is this church built to look like a mosque?” After which he has to explain that Ottoman mosques are built to look like Hagia Sophia, not the other way around.

Our own, Western idea of mosques tend to be based on the Ottoman model— you’ve got very different sorts of mosques in places like India and Indonesia. So it’s not just the Turks whose idea of mosques come from Justinian’s great church.

Hagia Sophia is also called Sancta Sophia (in Latin) and Ayasofia (in Turkish). The name translates as “Holy Wisdom,” not “Saint Sophy,” in much the same way that Santa Fe translates as “Holy Faith” and not “Saint Fay.”
The church was built to replace an earlier Hagia Sophia burned down during the Nika Riots of 532, in which the Emperor Justinian killed 30,000 of his subjects in order to maintain public order and his throne (not necessarily in that order). The Nika Riots have inspired a surprising amount of science fiction, by Pournelle, David Drake, and Guy Kay, among others.

Justinian has a pretty good reputation these days. In addition to building Hagia Sofia, he created the last great Roman legal code, reconquered Rome, Ravenna, and Africa from the Goths, and came within an ace of re-establishing Imperial rule over the West. (The reconquest may have failed due not to any military incapacity, but to a prolonged famine due to a nuclear winter produced by an eruption of Krakatoa.)

Justinian was a lot less popular during his lifetime. His subjects considered him a greedy, penny-pinching tyrant, married to a prostitute, whose claim to the throne was dubious. All those military and building projects cost money, and the Byzantines hated his tax collectors. Justinian, a sincere and orthodox Christian, also persecuted Jews and pagans, and put Plato’s Academy under state control.

The church is topped by an enormous dome over 50 meters tall, supported by a pair of arches and two half-domes. The dome is slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome, but it’s a lot farther off the ground. Beneath the dome was the largest enclosed space in the world until the Houston Astrodome was built in the 1960s. Back in the Dark Ages, a Russian princess walked beneath the dome and instantly converted, believing that only God could hold up such a building. Justinian wasn’t kidding when he says, on first entering the completed church, “Solomon, I have outdone you!”

Of course such a radical design had its flaws. The first dome collapsed in an earthquake during Justinian’s own lifetime, and was replaced by a taller and more stable dome which nevertheless fell down anyway. Since then, the church has been damaged multiple times, and each time rebuilt. Buttresses added to the outside of the building have somewhat obscured its original form.

Toward the end of the Byzantine Empire, the state was unable to raise the funds to keep the church in repair, and when the Turks marched in, Hagia Sofia was a wreck. The Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror restored Hagia Sofia, and in general have done a fine job of maintaining the building in the centuries since.

Incidentally, Hagia Sofia was Mehmet’s first destination on taking the city. He had promised his troops a three-day sack, but when he heard Hagia Sofia was being looted he galloped through the city gates straight to the church, where he commenced whacking the soldiers with his mace and shouting, “Keep your hands off my property!”

It has to be said that Hagia Sofia shows its age. The outside could use a new coat of paint. It’s a faded red, and Mehmet said when he was young, it was yellow. Inside, the whole building could use cleaning and restoration. This 1500-year-old grand dame is a little shabby around the edges.

Outside the main entrance of the building are remains of the earlier Hagia Sofias and various Ottoman additions, such as a fountain for the faithful to perform their ablutions, a school for boys, and the tombs of assorted sultans (two of which are in the old baptistry). In addition there are the four huge minarets constructed after the church was converted to a mosque. The minarets were not all built at the same time, which shows the rather deliberate progress of any Ottoman renovations. They could have radically altered the building at any time, but instead they treated it with great respect.

The building is entered through the narthex, a long gallery, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, along Hagia Sofia’s western side. The ceiling is ornamented by a gold, blue, and vermilion mosaic in geometric patterns. The colors are on the dull side and I expect it could use a cleaning. The walls are ornamented with great slabs of marble set off in a kind of carved stone frame, as if they were paintings.

There are nine bronze doors leading into the church. Three were for the public, three for those seeking sanctuary, and the middle three for the Emperor and his family. The middle door, which I supposed the Emperor used in person, is much taller than the others, with a heavily ornamented bronze frame. Above the door is a mosaic of Jesus enthroned, flanked by medallions of Mary and Michael, with the Emperor Leon VI bowing before him.

Despite the mosaics, the gold, the massive doors, and the marble, the narthex only gives a hint of the magnificence within.

We entered through the Emperor’s doors (I mean, why not?).

There is a vast open space in the center of the building, softly lit by the windows under the dome. Our view of the dome was marred somewhat by an enormous keel-shaped scaffold used by workers restoring the dome. We noticed the workers don’t actually have to climb this thing to get to work, there are elevators installed.

On the other hand, we saw no workers at all. The scaffold has been in place for over ten years, and apparently little work has been done.

The huge mosaic ornamenting the dome’s underside is of Ottoman construction, replacing (or perhaps placed on top of) an earlier mosaic of Christ Pantokrator.

In general, the Ottomans were very respectful of the original Christian mosaics. Those featuring human figures (traditionally forbidden under Islam) were not destroyed, but covered with a light layer of plaster, easily removed. The Turks went so far as to restore damaged mosaics before covering them.

Though the mosaics of Hagia Sofia are damaged, some quite heavily, the damage was incurred in earthquakes, not as a result of religious bigotry.

Any religious problems seem to have been postponed to the 20th century and its aftermath, as various Orthodox and European figured are presently accusing the Turks of persecuting Christians within their state, and of dragging their feet when it comes to the restoration of Christian monuments such as Hagia Sofia. (That huge empty scaffold did seem like a giant finger pointing to, well, something or other.)

Entering the structure, you can’t help but notice two giant porphyry jars, carved in the form of perfume bottles. These were discovered in Ottoman times in the ruins of the ancient city of Pergamum, and moved by one of the sultans to Hagia Sofia.

The building is constructed in two tiers, with upper and lower galleries running around the vast empty space in the middle. Tens of thousands of man-hours must have gone into carving the arches over the pillars bearing the weight of the galleries. Many of the pillars are taken from pagan temples throughout the empire. The walls are covered with gorgeous slabs of porphyry and marble, also taken from all over Justinian’s empire. In many cases, a marble block was sawed in half, and then opened like a book before being mounted on the wall, creating a Rorschach-like image.

On one pillar is a little hole. Apparently one day Justinian had a migraine, and rested his head against this pillar for a while. The headache was cured, and since then people have been putting their afflicted parts on that section of the pillar, often enough to erode a hole.

Supporting the dome, between the half-domes and the arches, are the triangular load-bearing “squinches.” (That’s the real name, apparently.) On the squinches are dark, intimidating mosaics of vast six-winged beings— cherubim, in other words. These aren’t the cute little putti of Italian religious art, these are clearly dangerous, inhuman beings. (Sometimes they are portrayed as wings with eyes.) These figures originally had a human head in the middle of the image, but the Muslims replaced this with a kind of blaze of radiant light, as if the cherubim were firing a laser show at the people below.

The Ottomans made several addition to the building in the process of converting it to a mosque. The most obvious are the huge medallions bearing the signatures of the first eight (six? ten?) caliphs. These are common to large mosques.

The Turks also added a mihrap (I’m using Turkish spelling), the boat-shaped alcove used to indicate the direction of Mecca. During services, the imam normally stands (or bows, or kneels) before the mihrap, which I suspect helps to reflect and amplify his voice. This mihrap is made of pale marble and heavily ornamented with gold and with Arabic calligraphy.

Another addition was the minber, which is a kind of pulpit, with a conical roof and a long, straight stair leading to it. Imams could use this when they needed to address a larger audience. It’s beautifully made of marble, and is placed next to the “gallery of the sovereign,” an elevated box used by the sultan and his family during services. A gold, lacy screen separates the sultan from his subjects, and also makes it difficult for any assassin to aim at his target. Architecturally, it’s an interesting combination of Byzantine motifs mixed with Turkish ornament.

Another feature of Turkish mosques is the “muezzin loggia,” a kind of house, with open sides, built inside the mosque. The muezzin could hold semi-private meetings inside, or address multitudes from the roof. There are five of these in Hagia Sofia, one of them in the huge open space beneath the dome.

In addition, the Turks added gorgeous tile work in various places, plus examples of gold-embossed calligraphy of the various sultans who donated one thing or another to the building.

Our tour was lengthy but there was a lot we didn’t get to see, including all the mosaics in the upper galleries, so we decided to come back later on our own time.

We exited beneath the famous mosaic showing the Virgin and the infant Jesus being presented with a plan of Constantinople by Constantine I, while Justinian presents a plan of Hagia Sofia.

From Hagia Sofia we walked across the street to the Basilica Cistern, another vast, eerie underground space, where 336 columns, taken from pagan temples, were used to support this addition to the water works of Constantinople. Unlike the Cistern of 1001 Columns, viewed earlier, this still has water in it. A constant rain drips down from the roof, and the reflective water, the underwater floodlights, and the golden rain of water combine to produce an unearthly effect.

The water is only a few inches deep, though there are fish in it that cluster in the better-lit areas. Visitors pass over the water on wooden walkways.

In one corner are a pair of heads of Medusa placed at the bottom of a column. It was widely thought at one time that this was an ideological statement demonstrating the triumph of Christianity over paganism, but it was subsequently realized that during its use the cistern would have been filled to the ceiling, and there was no point in making an ideological statement that only the fish could see. It’s now thought that the Medusas are at the bottom of the column because that’s how that particular block of marble best fit into the structure.

This cistern has been used in movies. James Bond used a motorboat to zoom through it in From Russia With Love, and Jackie Chan had a memorable fight scene here in Who am I? I believe it may also have been used as a Turkish prison in the movie Midnight Express, in which the Turkish authorities inexplicably cooperated in a film demonstrating Turkish brutality (and which, at least in the case of this book and movie, seems to have been entirely invented).

From the cistern, we walked across a wide boulevard and a park to Mosque Sultanahmet, better known in the West as the Blue Mosque.

The mosque was built in the early 17th century by, hey, Sultan Ahmet. As the districts of old Istanbul were known by the nearest mosques, the entire historic district of old Byzantium is now known by the name Sultanahmet.

The mosque is younger than Hagia Sofia by over a thousand years, and looks generally like Hagia Sofia’s smaller, prettier, cleaner younger brother. The exterior isn’t blue, but various shades of gray— the name comes from the blue tiles inside. Even though it’s the most famous mosque in Istanbul, its architecture is not considered particularly distinguished— Suleiman’s mosque, by contrast, is considered the ne plus ultra of Turkish architecture.

You enter a mosque through a courtyard surrounded by a kind of cloister, and which features a fountain for ablutions. As we were entered the mosque proper, we were given a plastic drawstring bag for our shoes. Once again, women were obliged to cover their heads.

As we walked toward the center of the mosque, we passed by a series of lacy cages reserved for women. Women are also allowed in the upper gallery. Though this segregation is not to modern tastes, I have to say that— given the amount of bowing and kneeling going on in a Muslim service— it does prevent the guys from spending their time ogling the women’s butts.

The interior of the mosque is a vast empty space supported by four massive, fluted pillars— unlike Hagia Sofia, where no pillars interrupt the view. Illumination is provided by many banks of stained glass windows, and by huge iron wheel-shaped chandeliers with dim, lantern-like electric lights. The interior is heavily ornamented with mosaics and with the blue tiles that give the mosque its name, though the interior is so dim that it was difficult to appreciate these properly.

The interior is heavily carpeted with big machine-made carpets. Ankle-high shelves divide the open space, places for worshipers to put their shoes. A muezzin loggia is built against one of the big pillars. A few men knelt in prayer here and there across the big carpet.

We left the building, put on our shoes, and handed in our plastic shoe-carriers. There was a booth cleverly positioned at the exit, giving us a chance to tip the imam. I believe I gave him a lira.

From thence we thrashed our way through the souvenir-sellers to the buses, and were taken across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu. This area north of Istanbul proper has long been a residence for foreigners, and climbing Beyoglu’s tall hill, we passed many toney hotels and shops as we approached our own hotel, the Divan, yet another five-star hotel we would have otherwise been reluctant to afford.

We were on our own for dinner— no more wretched hotel buffets!— so we gathered a group of friends and went to Haçibaba, a Turkish restaurant that’s been in operation since the 1920s. After climbing a narrow stair, we were welcomed with the usual effusive hospitality.

As in many Greek restaurants, the raw food was all on display, and all we had to do was ogle and point. I had something on skewers, I don’t remember what, and a salad. I ordered a bottle of red Turkish wine for the table, and was given a sample to taste. It was horrid. I confess that I didn’t have the nerve to send the bottle back, however, and we all shared in the wretchedness of the stuff. Nevertheless the food was excellent, and we managed to have a merry time.

Returning to the hotel through the large, bus- and tram-filled Taksim Square, with its inevitable statue of Atatürk, we noticed an enormous police presence. There hadn’t been any crime, apparently, but there was a huge exhibit devoted to the Turkish police. Presumably recruiters were active in the crowd.

Once back in the hotel, I relaxed in the spacious lobby, and ordered an overpriced drink to wipe the memory of the awful wine from my palate.

Next day, we would visit the Sultan’s harem.

(Thanks to for posting so many of the photographs linked to in this memoir.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Possessed by the Devil!!!

Father Gabriele Amorth, who is official "caster-out of demons" to Pope Benedict XVI, has declared that Hitler and Stalin were possessed by the devil.

In fact, according to Father Gabriele, the entire Nazi party was possessed!

Glad we've finally got to the bottom of that mystery. All those books and papers offering one tortured psychological explanation after another concerning why Joe and Adolf behaved the way they did, and all along the reason was simple--- the Devil made them do it!

Pope Pius XII, sez Father Gabriele, attempted a long-distance exorcism of Hitler, but failed. (Gosh. I'm so surprised.)

Father Gabriele is the founder of the International Association of Exorcists (which, alas, seems not to have a web presence). In another article, he mentions that the Holy Father has performed no less than three exorcisms personally, and complains mightily that no professional exorcists were consulted when the new ritual on exorcism was written. Maybe he'd better try a long-distance exorcism of the College of Cardinals.

Father Gabriele is also against the Harry Potter books, claiming that behind them "hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil."

Hatred of Rowling goes with the territory, I guess. But I wish these people could point to at least a single case of someone led to Satanism by the works of JK Rowling. Just one! That's all I ask.

In the meantime, I'm tempted to conduct a long-distance exorcism my ownself.

"In the name of Reason, in the name of Science, in the name of the Light--- I cast you out! In the name of Franklin, I cast out ignorance! In the name of Darwin, I cast our superstition! In the name of Voltaire, I cast out bigotry!"

So . . . did it work? Or do I need to tinker with the ritual?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Planet Clyde

The Battle of Pluto is over. But not the war, one hopes. The new decision is lame, the sort that can only be reached by a committee.

The IAU has declared that Pluto is now something called a "dwarf planet," along with Ceres and Xena. Charon remains a satellite. I can't seem to find out where Sedna and Quaoar fit into the new definition, but it may be that we need only find only two more Kuiper Belt Objects to give the solar system a full compliment of Seven Dwarfs.

The term "Plutonian" was rejected in favor of "dwarf planet," a major mistake in my view. "Plutonian" is a way cooler term.

Cooler still would be Kathy's idea of calling them "Tombaugh Objects." Clyde deserves it. Let's start singing this meme at once.

It should be pointed out that I'm completely in favor of a more colorful solar system. If I could, I'd restore Uranus' original name, which was George. (You can look it up.)

Another issue is what new mnemonic to teach children in order to learn the names of the planets.

Charlie Pierce, on NPR's news quiz "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," suggested "Many Virgins Enter My Jacuzzi Swooning Uncontrollably Nightly."

Amy Dickenson's suggestion was "Most Very Eligible Men Just Sleep, Until Now."

Whereas Adam Felber offered, "My Volkswagon Emits Mick Jagger Songs Until Noon."

If you have any suggestions of your own, please feel free to post them here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Readers of my Turkish trip report may recall my mention of Çatalhöyük, the Neolithic site in central Turkey that is believed to be the oldest human settlement.

Here’s an excellent article by Çatalhöyük’s current excavator, Ian Hodder, detailing recent discoveries and reinterpretations of older finds.

Too Cheap to Meter

So now we have a company in Dublin that claims to have " hit upon a way of generating clean, free and constant energy from the interaction of magnetic fields."


420 scientists from around the world have signed up to test the system.

Read the story here.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Thoughts on the work-in-progress:

Having tantalized my future readers for three whole chapters with a main character who, while participating in a considerable amount of action, has so far failed to inform anyone (least of all the reader) what he's thinking or hoping to accomplish, the time has come for him to put his cards on the table.

Yes, the time has come for exposition. A lot of it, in what I hope will be a shortish amount of space.

I find myself looking with envy on Elizabethan drama. How pleasant it would be to have the character simply face front and say,

"Alas, that wormholes in their thousands be
The gates to worlds unnumber'd, and to villainy,"

and then go on for fifteen or sixteen lines, in which the character concisely (though with an elegant simile or two) explains his problem and what he intends to do about it, with or without a bare bodkin.

Unfortunately our current literary conventions to not allow for such direct methods of exposition. Ideally the exposition ("infodump") is inserted elegantly into the narrative, such that it does not impede the flow of the action with the dreaded "expository lumps."

One wants the mashed potatoes creamy, unmarred by gross chunks of starchy matter.

Avoiding starchy matter seems to be a thing that writers care about more than readers. Dan Brown's work is full of pages and pages of information dumped into the reader's lap through clumsy expository dialogue. Tom Clancy's characters regularly lecture each other about sabot rounds and missile throw-weights. These authors sell many more books than I do. Readers love this stuff, I think because it allows them to feel that they're learning something.

"But," as I have told my students, "just because the million-selling authors are doing it, doesn't mean that you should do it, too."

One of my favorite methods of exposition is to give a piece of dialogue in impenetrable jargon, followed by a paragraph or two of an omniscient narrator explaining what was just said and why it matters. I did this a lot in my old sea stories. Here's a direct quote:

"Tend the vangs and flag halliards. Ease the peak and foot inhauls and the brails. Haul away on the peak and foot outhauls. Belay."

At Martin's orders the spanker rumbled into life, the boom swinging to larboard as the canvas caught the wind; and the sleek schooner gained way, increasing the distance between herself and the enemy.

Not bad for a journeyman work. You get the jargon, then the bit of explanation that tells you what the jargon meant and what its effect was on the action. Plus the author gets to establish authority over his fictional world, in that he knows what such things as "peak and foot outhauls" might be, and what they're for. ("Watch out! I've got a spanker in my pocket and I know how to use it!")

Unfortunately the opportunities for jargon-dense dialogue was limited in my expository scene, so I didn't get to use this technique much.

Insofar as I have an omniscient narrator, it was theoretically possible for the narrator to simply insert a lecture explaining everything. This was a favorite technique during the Victorian period, where Victor Hugo had no problem with opening Notre Dame de Paris with a hundred-page infodump on medieval Paris, and fill 150 pages of Les Miserables with successive lectures on (1) the nunneries of Paris, (2) the gamins of Paris, and (3) French revolutionaries of the 1920s.

(And with no action in between! And I have to confess that the infodump on the revolutionaries did me in--- I never picked up the book again. I knew that the lecture on the sewers was bound to come soon.)

Still, direct exposition of this sort, though not as dead as the soliloquy, is no longer state-of-the-art in fiction. I was forced to rely on expository dialogue.

Theoretically, this isn't a bad thing. You can fill the dialogue with tasty little character bits, and you give the reader some idea how the characters view each other, and you can demonstrate your talent for witty dialogue, assuming of course you've got one. (Nothing more painful than witty dialogue that isn't, unless of course it's fifty pages on Parisian nunneries.)

But there are hazards. There is always the danger of "As you know, Bob" dialogue, where people tell each other things they already know. There's also the menace of the "bobblehead syndrome," where to break up the relentless march of dialogue, the writer keeps his characters nodding, blinking, tilting their heads quizzically, and then nodding some more. (Cigarettes are very handy in these scenes. The temptation to turn all my characters into smokers is always present.)

There is also a postmodern alternative, in which the characters know they're doing expository dialogue for the benefit of an audience, and they can just rip through it with a wink at the reader and everyone can have a good time. I didn't do this, not quite, but I came close.

Well, I have done what I could do. I had the protagonist encounter an old friend, so the dialogue was friendly and open, and gave glimpses of their past history, and a chance for the old friend to analyze the hero's actions by her own lights. I made it clear that they enjoyed one another's company, which meant that each might sit still for a lecture by the other, at least provided the lecture was brief and entertaining. I'm not sure I entirely avoided the characters telling each other things that they would likely have known, but I've done my best to minimize the obviousness of it.

In any case, I've got the infodump behind me, so that I can get on with the story.

And I've still got the spanker in my pocket, just in case I need one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Fit For A King

The other night we had a meal that was pure accident and pure wonderful.

I happened to be at the Ta Lin Asian market, where you can buy large numbers of whole fish, many of which are too vast for our two-person household, let alone our oven. On impulse, I came home with a striped bass.

Meanwhile, Kathy was at the local farmers' market, where she purchased a strangely contorted cucumber and a number of heirloom tomatoes (red, yellow, green-zebra-striped).

And earlier in the week, I had been invited to help a neighbor clear the excess fruit off his peach trees, so there was a large bucket of peaches just sitting there on the sideboard.

So I stuffed the fish with tarragon, celery leaves, and lemon slices, and threw it on the grill. I sliced the tomatoes, and Kathy layered them with slices of fresh mozzarella. We didn't have the fresh basil leaves that a proper caprici salad requires, but we had pesto, and that worked great, along with a splash of EVOO.

Kathy also cut up the cucumber and dressed it with her soy sauce/wine vinegar/sesame oil dressing.

In the meantime I was reducing some white wine into which I had added lemon juice, garlic, scallions, and chopped onion. After gradually whisking in a whole stick of butter and straining out the solids, I had a lovely beurre blanc.

The fish came in from the grill, sizzling and tender. It turned to ambrosia under the beurre blanc. We had the two salads, both made with fresh vegetables, and a lovely contrast to one another.

And for dessert, Kathy had made a peach cobbler with the bucket of peaches I'd harvested.

The only drawback was the cleanup. I was too stuffed to clean the table immediately, which meant one of the cats got to the remains of the fish and dragged the fish skeleton about the table.

The master bedroom smelled strongly of fish that night. I looked under the furniture to see if the cats had dragged in a piece of fish to play with, but I eventually decided that it was the cats themselves that smelled of fish.

Somehow we could not eat half a stick of butter apiece, so I've got a lot of the beurre blanc left. Now what I have to do is think of lovely things to drizzle it on.

Amazon Got Tanks

Amazon sells armored vehicles. With 400-watt sound systems and underbody lighting, no less.

These are viewed by the same people who view Russian beluga caviar and "inflatable party sheep."

The reviews are pretty positive.

I want one, just so I can see the looks on the faces of the people who bought Hummers.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Insulting Turkishness

You've been reading here about the up side of Turkey. The wonderful sights, the culture, the hospitality.

So here's an article on the flip side. Not content with last year's aborted prosecution of the author Orhan Pamuk, Turkish fascists have chosen another target, Elif Shafak, whose The Bastard of Istanbul won the Best Novel award from the Turkish Writers' Association. Her novel, a huge bestseller, has been charged with "insulting Turkishness."

"Insulting Turkishness" is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years, with a third added if the insult was committed in a foreign country. This in a country that has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Both writers mentioned in their fiction what the entire world knows: that the Turkish government deliberately killed millions of Armenians, and tens of thousands of Kurds, during the First World War. (The Turkish government, by the way, admits all this, though they dispute the word "genocide." You say "potayto," I say "gunned down many and starved the rest.")

So are the prosecutions of Turkey's most popular writers, whose works have already been read by legions of Turks, aimed at preventing Turks from knowing the dark deeds committed by their ancestors?

No, because the Turks know all that. It's not a secret.

I reckon the prosecutions are aimed at keeping Turkey out of the European Union. The attempt to enter the Union compelled the Turks to recognize international standards of human rights, to turn down the heat on their domestic war on insurrectionary Kurds, and to sing sweet reason on issues such as Cyprus, where their current policy is far more reasonable than that of, say, the Greek Cypriots.

Stalwart right-wing Turks want a free hand in Cyprus and against the region's uppity Kurds, and the prosecutions of prominent international literary personalities (not to mention a score of local journalists) are a way of causing so much anguish and embarrassment that the EU will reject Turkey and leave it to its bad old habits.

I would say something like, "In solidarity with our literary siblings, let us all insult Turkishness together," except that I happen to like Turkishness. It's just shithead Turkish politicians I despise.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Chad Vader

Yo. It's Chad Vader!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Log of the Eclipse (11)

3 April, 2006

Wonders of the World

The early morning view from the hotel balcony was inspiring. The divinely blue Aegean that heaved in great foaming surges against the intriguing cavern just below in the rocks. The craggy coastline, the picturesque village, and the island of Delos across the channel, its outline tinted a delicate mauve by the sunrise . . . Unfortunately we barely had time to absorb the sight before our schedule took us to the completely uninspiring breakfast buffet, and then to the bus.

We were going to Ephesus. Once the fourth largest city in the Roman empire and the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but sadly declined for the last thousand-odd years . . . it’s now the site of the World Camel Wrestling Championship and a concert, in the old Roman theater, by Sir Elton John.

Along the way we passed the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, where seven Christian military officers were supposedly walled up by the evil Emperor Decius at some point in the mid-3rd Century. The Sleepers fell into a divine slumber and woke up two hundred years later, under the reign of the Christian Emperor Theodosius the Younger. They revealed themselves to the Emperor before falling asleep again, this time to await the Last Judgment.

We drove to Ephesus on a modern two-land highway placed alongside the ancient road to the town, which still exists. The old road looks very pleasant between two rows of shade trees.

The most ancient parts of Ephesus are far inland, and for the most part unexcavated. They are now covered by farmers’ fields. The city was apparently founded by the Carians about 2000 BCE, but was later captured (or perhaps merely infiltrated) by the Ionians, stormed by the Cimmerians, absorbed by the Persians, and liberated by Alexander.

Because the city’s bay kept silting up, and the shoreline moving farther away from the city, Alexander’s general Lysimachus moved the entire city downslope to what was then the current shoreline. It is this city— which later became the Roman capital of the province of Asia— that is visited by visitors today.

Left behind in this move was the Artemesium, the Temple of Artemis of Ephesos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This temple was originally a project of King Croesus of Lydia, the inventor of coinage (which was being simultaneously invented in China and elsewhere). (And coincidentally enough, we saw Croesus’ capital later that day.)

Though the Artemesium itself was Hellenic, the worship of the goddess on the site predated the Hellenes, and her image does not suggest whatever you might think of when you think of an image of Diana. But more about this in its proper place.

The Artemesium was destroyed several times in its history, finally by the Goths in the 3rd Century AD. By this point Christianity had taken hold, and the temple was never rebuilt. All but one of its 127 pillars were taken by Justinian to hold up the Basilica Cistern or the Cistern of 1001 Columns or Hagia Sophia or one of his other building projects. The only thing that remains of the Artemesium is the foundation and a single pillar, reconstructed from its fallen parts. And the cult statue itself, of which more anon.

The city itself was abandoned in the 8th Century, when its harbor silted up permanently. The shoreline is quite far from the ruins now, across a lot of marshy ground, and in fact the sea is now very difficult to see from the city.

The city visible now is entirely Roman. 90% of Ephesus remains unexcavated, though most of what remains are private dwellings and all of the important public buildings have been unearthed.

Ephesus, by the way, is visited by a lot of people who don’t know it’s in Turkey. If you take the standard Greek Isles tour on a cruise ship, you disembark at Izmir and take the bus to Ephesus and back. As a result many tourists who have seen Ephesus think it is in Greece.

We approached the city from the landward side, whereas most ancient visitors would have approached from the harbor. This involved walking past dozens of small shops filled with dozens of hucksters, all eager to sell us tour guides, textiles, cameras, and cheap felt fezes. The main road, which led from the remains of the Gate of Herakles, though the old Agora, and down the Street of the Curetes, is paved entirely with big chunks of marble, which made it a trifle slippery as we walked downslope.

Memory is a little hazy concerning which monuments appear in what order, so I’ll just name them as they come to mind.

We saw a Temple of Artemis— not the Artemesium, but a smaller temple built in the Roman city for those who didn’t want to hike all the way out to the country to pay their respects to the goddess. In a corner, sheltered by a overhang, was one of Athene’s owls— a round grey fluffy bird who watched us without any sign of real interest.

We saw the Odeon— an auditorium which in its day would have had a wooden roof. It was used for meetings of the city council, for concerts and readings, and for lectures. St. Paul presumably preached here during the three years he resided in the town.

All the public buildings were on the right side of the road walking down toward the harbor, but on the left side was the tomb of Arsinoe IV, the sister of Cleopatra. Cleo didn’t much get along with her numerous siblings— in fact she had them all killed. Arsinoe hid for many years in the Artemesium, claiming sanctuary, but eventually Cleo’s boyfriend Antony dragged her out and had her beheaded, along with all the priests. Since the priests were for the most part members of the most powerful and influential families in Ephesus, this slaughter engendered widespread protest, and to make up for his bad behavior, Antony gave Arsinoe a nice tomb.

I’m sure her shade is comforted less by the tomb, than by what subsequently happened to Antony and Big Sister.

On the right is the Monument of Memmius. Memmius was a grandson of the Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, one of history’s more fascinating evil geniuses, and the monument came about in this wise:

When Rome was distracted by the Social War between Latins and Italians, Roman Asia was invaded by Mithridates VI of Pontus, called The Great. Mithridates couldn’t personally tell the difference between Latins and Italians, or understand why they were fighting each other over which was which, so to simplify things he ordered them all killed. 70,000 Roman and Italian civilians were killed more or less on the same day, throughout Asia and Bithynia.

The massacres were not carried out by Mithridates’ troops, they were carried out by local militias. Which meant that the Greek citizens of Ephesus cheerfully dragged their neighbors screaming out of their homes and dispatched them, men, women, and children. (Which shows you how popular the Romans had made themselves, but never mind.)

On the conclusion of the Social War, Sulla was awarded the command against Mithridates (after storming Rome at the head of his troops. Long story shortened here.). Sulla drove the Pontine forces out of Roman and allied territory, made peace with Mithridates, and then “settled” with the cities that had butchered Roman citizens.

One of Sulla’s more intriguing qualities was that he was much more merciful to his foreign enemies than to his Roman opponents. He merely fined Ephesus and the other cities heavily, then marched his army back to Rome, which he had to storm again. He then butchered tens of thousands of his Roman enemies in a ghastly series of massacres.

Another interesting thing about Sulla is that, having ruled Rome as a bloodthirsty maniac for two years, he retired from his position as dictator, moved to the country with the transvestite entertainer who had been his longtime lover, and wrote his memoirs. (They have been lost to history, alas.)

Which brings us back to grandson Memmius. He built the Memmius Monument as a memorial to the slaughtered Romans, and also in order to tell the Ephesians, basically, not to do it again.

Many public buildings show the patronage of important Romans for this important, rich Asian city— far richer than Rome itself. There is the Nymphaeum of Trajan, a large public fountain that would have been a charming sight, covered with statues on an aquatic theme and shining sprays of water. (The statues survive, and are in the local provincial museum.) There is the Temple of Hadrian— the “genius of the emperor” was deified after his death, and here it was worshiped. (A “genius” had nothing to do with intelligence, but was a kind of godlet, often depicted with wings.) The temple is covered with all sorts of delightful detail, a Medusa to frighten off evil spirits, scenes from mythology, and pure exuberant carving.

Most massive of all was the Temple of Domitian with its huge columns. Two statues survive on the columns— one seems to be an aquilifer, a standard-bearer in scale armor and a wolf-skin cape. And the other one isn’t.

Domitian, an unpopular, murderous, paranoid thug of an emperor who was widely believed to have poisoned his brother to gain the throne, knew that no one was going to deify him after his death, so he made sure to make himself a god while he was still living. The enormous head of the statue, five feet tall or so, is in the provincial museum in all its pouty glory.

On the right, down an alley, are the public toilets. There are forty-odd holes to accommodate the people of Ephesus, with running water to carry away any effluent, and a central fountain to provide a pleasant sight, to cover any unpleasant noises, and possibly to waft away any scents.

The ancients must have had very narrow butts. There are only about fourteen inches between each hole.

At the foot of the Street of the Curetes is a large plaza. The main road turns right toward the harbor, and on the corner is the porneion, or brothel. Found at the intersection of the two main streets, the site fairly screams Location! Location! Location! Business must have been brisk.

Across the plaza is the Library of Celsus, built in honor of the proconsul Gaius Celsus by his son Tiberius Julius Aquila. This is a very large building, though architectural tricks make it seem larger than it is— the pillars taper slightly from bottom to top, and the lines of the upper storey are tilted someone to make it seem to be rearing back.

In niches on the exterior are four goddesses, Arete (Virtue), Sophia (Wisdom), Ennoia (Thought), and Episteme (Knowledge). The exterior is highly ornamented with carvings and beautiful marble. The exterior is a shell— the interior walls are separated from the exterior, in order to keep moisture from leaking through onto the books. The less glamorous brick interior is full of giant shelves to store the scrolls.

The first known book-burning in Ephesus took place before the library was even built, and was performed by early Christians converted by St. Paul. (Acts, Chapter 19, does not go so far as to say that Paul organized this personally.) The books had to do with sorcery and were worth 50,000 pieces of silver, so that must have been a considerable percentage of the books in Ephesus at the time.

Contemporary Christian anti-porn crusaders insist that these were naughty books purchased at the porneion, an interpretation not supported by the text either. In any case Acts, Chapter 19 has been used in the centuries since to justify the burning of whatever books the current authority doesn’t like.

I had heard a story about the nearby city of Pergamum, which was famous for its library, the equal of that in Alexandria. According to this story, archaeologists recently uncovered a secret tunnel leading from the library to a nearby porneion. I had pictured the solid burghers of the city leaving home and calling out, “I’m going off to study the Epicureans, dear! Don’t wait up!”

Our friend Pat Price, who had visited Ephesus before on the Greek Islands tour, had heard this story from their guide, but about Ephesus, not Pergamon. Once I eyeballed the large courtyard between the library and the porneion, I discounted the story as far as Ephesus was concerned. I couldn’t see people digging a tunnel under all that marble.

This full and frank discussion, I’m afraid, deeply embarrassed our guide Mehmet, who turned rather pink. For the rest of the trip, the word “library” began to take on a salacious context. When we returned to Istanbul, and Mehmet mentioned that he had got to spend a night with his wife, someone asked, “Did you go to the library?” I think this was just to watch the poor man turn red.

On our stroll down the Street of the Curetes we enjoyed puzzling out the many inscriptions, the vast majority of which were in Greek rather than Latin. Some of them had us stumped, particularly those above a huge gate to one side of the library, which mentioned someone named Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus Mithridates. Who the hell was that?

Turns out he was one of a pair of slaves, the other being Mazaeus. On being liberated, slaves normally took the names of their masters, with their own original name appended on the end. Their former masters, and their descendants, became their (and their descendants’) official patrons in a formal and legalized patron/client relationship. These two were the personal slaves of Augustus Caesar himself, and who on being manumitted built this enormous gate in Ephesus, and dedicated it to their former master. The gate leads to the commercial Forum, where food and crafts were sold.

There is also an inscription on the structure formally condemning those who pissed against the gate. (The loo’s just up the street, guys.)

Marble Road, the main street, goes off at a right angle from the Street of the Curetes, and runs between pillars that would have supported a stoa providing shade for strollers. Pricey shops would have been found to either side. Engraved on one of the paving stones is this graffito, which shows (1) a left foot, (2) the head of a woman, and (3) a money box with a money bag sitting on top.

To the illiterate sailors wandering up from the port, this would have said: “Women straight ahead on the left. Bring money.” Advertising for the porneion.

Behind the commercial forum is the Temple of Serapis, an imported Egyptian god. Farther down the Marble Road is the enormous theater. The original Greek theater was been enlarged by the Romans, who expanded the seating and built a large and impressive backstage area. Every theater we saw claimed to be the largest, and this one was said to hold 25,000 people. Or 15,000. Or any other number you care to name. The theater wasn’t used just for theatrical events, but for gladiatorial fights.

In front of the orchestra can be seen a hemispherical drainage channel. Apparently the theater could be flooded for aquatic events. It’s too small for the sorts of miniature sea battles that were once staged in the Colosseum, so maybe they just had a water ballet, or staged scenes from Deukalion’s Flood.

St. Paul was walking toward this theater to preach when he was nearly lynched by a mob of Artemis-worshipers. He was rescued by the local governor and found innocent of any crime, but still had to leave town.

Until very recently the theater was still used for cultural events, like an Elton John concert that was very famous (at least in Turkey), but archaeologists finally convinced the government that the theater was being damaged, and now it’s closed to all but tourism.

Past the theater, the main drag takes another right-angle turn and heads down to what once was the port. Then, after another right-angle turn, you pass down a tree-shaded to the parking lot, where a gauntlet of hucksters stood between us and our bus. Bravely we won our way to freedom.

From Ephesus proper we went to the local provincial museum, full of quite exquisite stuff. There we saw the statues taken from the public fountains, with a naked Dionysus cavorting with nymphs, a headless Aphrodite, and Polyphemus about to be run through by a large mast carried by Odysseus. The mast was a very large chunk of genuine wood.

In the courtyard were sarcophagi from the Roman period, and a notable statue of a gryphon. One hall was devoted to the Emperor cult, and featured pieces of the enormous Domitian statue, busts of Hadrian and Trajan, and companion busts of Augustus and Livia. Augustus looks more or less like Augustus, and Livia looks like a shrewish battleaxe about to order up a fricassee of nephew. If that was her habitual expression, it’s not surprising she went down in history as a bad guy.

Found in a private home was a beautiful head of Eros.

One corner of the museum featured a re-creation of an upperclass Roman home, with a mosaic floor, niches in the walls for statues, and authentic furniture. A pair of cardboard Romans looked a bit absurd amid the genuine artifacts.

Another room was devoted to Artemis Ephesia. Amazingly, the cult statues from the Artemesium and the smaller local temple have survived.

When you think of a statue of Artemis/Diana, you probably think of something like this, an image of the virgin huntress. Imagine my surprise when I encountered the cult statue from the Artemesium and found myself looking at this image. This is definitely an Asiatic goddess, not someone from Olympus. She wears a three-tiered headdress, the two bottom tiers of which represent wild animals, whereas the top story is a representation of the Artemesium. She wears a necklace of precious stones, and another of grape clusters and pearls.

Her garments feature representations of wild animals and bees. There would originally have been a plate-shaped corona on either side of the head, also engraved with animals.

And she’s got those globular objects on her thorax, popularly assumed to be breasts. Another theory holds that they are the testes of sacrificed bulls. I’m surprised that no one has come up with the theory that these are the testes of Cybele’s castrated priests, the Gallai.

For this is pretty clearly Kubele/Cybele, not Artemis as she was understood on the Greek mainland. The goddess had been here before the Greeks turned up, and they only decided she was Artemis later. Here’s the other statue taken from the smaller temple in town, where the iconography is a little more clear. She even has the wild animal supporters on either side, just as the stone age goddess did in that incredible 9000-year-old statue from Çatalhöyük.

This second statue of Artemis, by the way, was found deliberately buried in her old temple. It’s as if, when the Empire had become Christian, the last Artemis-worshippers laid the goddess to rest in something like a proper funeral.

The temple presumably became a Christian church afterward. One wonders if the Bishop knew that the figure of St. Paul’s “many-breasted Artemis” was right under his feet.

As for the breasts/testes/pomegranates/whatever, it’s possible that by the time people got around to writing any of this down, they’d completely forgotten what these objects were supposed to represent.

Which brings us to Ephesus’ other divine mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus while on the cross committed the care of his mother to an unnamed disciple, traditionally believed to be John the Evangelist. So John smuggled Mary out of the turbulent city of Jerusalem to Ephesus, where he built her a house on a mountain above the city, where she lived either three or fifteen years before dying either in Ephesus or in Jerusalem, after which she ascended bodily into heaven. (Thus saith the Gospel of James, anyway. And if you don’t remember the Gospel of James in your Bible, you’re right— it’s not there. But the apocryphal James is the source of a lot of Christian tradition, including about everything popularly known about Mary, including her perpetual virginity. It’s also the source of the tradition that Satan was previously an angel named Lucifer, who revolted with a third of the angelic host before being cast into the Pit. It’s a lot more influential than texts that are actually in the Bible.)

Mary’s house still exists on Bulbul Dag (Nightingale Mountain)— well actually it’s an old church, but it’s accepted by Catholics and many Muslims as a church built atop the genuine house of Mary, originally built by John. (For other denominations, including the Orthodox, the jury is still out.) It was lost for centuries and rediscovered in 1891 following a prophetic dream by a German nun.

All prophecy aside, Mary’s house is a wretched location for an old lady to live. John really put her in the sticks. She would have had to hike five miles all the way down the mountain to the city to buy food, and even to draw water— since the only spring nearby is salt (and said to be curative).

And why, you might ask, do Muslims visit Mary’s house? Because Muslims revere Mary— she gets a couple chapters in the Koran (much of it repeating information in Luke and James). She’s the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran. By contrast, Jesus only rates a couple of paragraphs, including one that says that he will rise on the Day of Judgment and repudiate all Christians.

Anyway, I can imagine the conversation where it was decided that Mary was going to replace Artemis as the Ephesians’ Mother in Chief.

“So you want us to give up the worship of Artemis?”

“Of course. She’s a devil.”

“But much of the city’s economy is based on the pilgrimage trade. You’re asking us to cut our own throats!”

“Well— what if we provide a substitute, so that pilgrims will still come?”

“What could possibly substitute for a Wonder of the World?”

“Funny you should ask . . . And don’t worry, we’ll cobble together a gospel to make it all plausible.”

After all this, I should admit that we never visited Mary’s house. It’s way the hell in the middle of nowhere.

So after gazing for some time at one of the last surviving Wonders of the World, I went off to check out the special forensic exhibit on gladiators.

It turns out that the Ephesian cemetery had a special section for gladiators— no one else wanted to be buried next to a bunch of murderous thugs, apparently. Forensics work has recently been done on the skeletons to find out how they died.

Not surprisingly, most died with a heavy blow to the chest. (Gladiators tended to have heavily armored heads, but wore no armor on the breast.) Ribs were shattered, breastbones punched in.

A number were given the coup de grace via a thrust to the back of the head, shattering the neckbones from behind. Apparently they were trying to surrender and were kneeling with heads bowed, and the magister ludi declined to show mercy. Their opponents ran them through with a dagger or sword thrust under the nape of the helmet, much as Mafiosi dispatch their enemies with a gunshot to the nape of the neck.

One gladiator died slowly and painfully of infection following a sword cut to the knee.

And one died spectacularly, with a trident blow to the top of the head. Apparently the net-and-trident guy, the retiarus, had tripped him with the net, because he was on the ground with his head toward the enemy. The three prongs of the trident punched a row of neat holes in the crown of the skull. The crowd must have been on its feet.

(Incidentally, the believe that the crowd urged death or mercy with thumbs up/thumbs down is incorrect, and dates from the 19th Century. In actuality, the crowd would thrust their thumb straight out, as if it were a sword, when they wanted a man to die. To plea for mercy, they would wave their handkerchiefs. Now if only Ebert and Roper would get with the program . . . )

Analysis of the bodies also gives clues to the diet. The gladiators were, in essence, fat vegetarians. They ate barley, beans, and dried fruit, a diet that would have packed on the weight. They ate little or no meat. Instead of looking like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or Russel Crowe in Gladiator or this famous statue of real-life gladiator Agasias of Ephesus, most gladiators may have looked more like sumo wrestlers.

After Ephesus we had a pleasant lunch in an outdoor setting, an open-walled building. By this point it was midafternoon and we were starving. Someone else’s bus got jammed in the narrow entrance, and we had to wait with stomachs growling for the driver to extricate himself. It seemed only proper to drink an Efes beer here in Efes (Ephesus), so I did.

From here we were given a choice. We were scheduled to visit Sardis, but that was three hours away— one hour to Izmir, then another two hours to the site, and then three hours back. People might not want to spend so much time on the bus. We could either go to Sardis as scheduled, go back to the hotel, or go up into the hills to visit a traditional Turkish village. At least one bus would take us to each site.

(The village was actually a traditional Greek village, taken over by Turks after the Greeks were expelled in 1923. Reports from those who went on this trip varied— either it was a tourist trap or a charming village, depending on where in the village you went.)

We decided to go to Sardis. Of course. Our bus was packed— I was pleased that so many of us were interested in history instead of shopping.

We avoided boredom by sleeping the entire trip. When we disembarked, we were amazed to discover that we were not besieged by hucksters. The site was empty. Since it was after five o’clock, there wasn’t even anyone to take our ticket money. We could walk right into the site.

Sardis was a Lydian city, the capital of the storied and wealthy King Croesus, who among his other accomplishments invented coinage. (Before Croesus, people carried around copper or silver bars, and when they needed to buy something used a knife to hack off the appropriate amount.) Lydia had by that time absorbed the equally wealthy Phrygian kingdom of King Midas, so the king’s treasury was well set-up indeed. No doubt it helped that the Pactolus stream, which ran through the marketplace, contained gold-bearing ores. When Croesus was running short, all he needed to do was poke about in the river until he found some nuggets.

In 547 BCE, Croesus made the mistake of starting a war with Cyrus the Great of Persia, who had recently unified the Persians and Medes under his rule. Croesus— who shared culture if not ethnicity with the Greeks— had sent a fabulous treasure to the Oracle at Delphi to ask whether or not to declare war, and the Pythia declared, “If Croesus crosses the River Halys, a great empire shall fall.”

No doubt royally cheesed off that the Oracle hadn’t mentioned which empire, Croesus attacked anyway, and fought a long, sanguine, and indecisive battle against Persia. Then, the campaigning season over, Croesus returned to his capital and disbanded his army, intending to resume the war in the spring with some Spartan mercenaries he’d hired. But Cyrus, clever fellow, had not disbanded his army, and marched to Sardis in a winter campaign and sacked the city after a siege of fourteen days. Supposedly he treated Croesus well, took him back to Persia, and made him one of his advisors. With the powerful kingdom of Lydia out of the way, Persia was able to acquire the Greek cities of Ionia, which set off a couple centuries of conflict with the Greeks.

This was not the first or last time that Sardis was sacked. It was sacked by Cimmerians in the 7th Century, and after the Persians captured the place, the Athenians sacked and burned it during the Ionian Revolt. Darius of Persia was so annoyed that he swore undying vengeance on the Athenians, which led to the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, the creation of the Delian League, the Peloponnesian War, the conquests of Sparta, the rise of Thebes, the decline of Sparta, the rise of Macedon, the conquests of Philip and Alexander, the triumph of Hellenic culture, and so on down to our 21st Century.

Quite a lot for one measly sack, neh?

Afterward Sardis was sacked by Antiochus the Great, handed over to the Seljuks by treaty, and then sacked finally and completely by the Mongols. After which there was precious little to sack.

What remains of Sardis is almost entirely Roman and Byzantine, and excavated over the last few decades by various American universities. There are some fortifications and barracks on the citadel (which we didn’t see), and a temple to Artemis (which we didn’t see either).

Instead we viewed the monstrous bath complex, which includes Byzantine shops and a perfectly enormous synagogue.

We began by walking along the ancient Marble Road that lies along the side of the bath complex. The day had turned cloudy, and rain spattered down. Mount Tmolus, with the ruined fortifications of the old citadel, loomed on our right, across a modern highway. On our left were a series of small Byzantine shops built against the wall of the synagogue— presumably the synagogue charged the owners rent. Archaeologists have identified the function of many of the shops, and in some cases even the owners. There is, for instance, Jacob’s Paint Shop (well, actually Yacub’s). Another shop belonged to Jacob the Elder.

The bath complex was built in the early 3nd Century with an inscription to the Emperor Geta (211-212). It was two stories and built in a U shape, enclosing a palaestra or exercise yard, where athletes and other citizens would have exercised naked before hitting the showers— well, the caldarium— in the building itself.

Sardis must have had a large, prosperous, and politically active Jewish community, because at some point during the 4th Century, one entire wing of the state-owned bath complex was rebuilt as a synagogue. The synagogue was paved with marble and mosaic, and elaborately decorated with marble geometrical patterns, including some that featured MC Escher-like optical illusions. There are very many inscriptions in Greek (mostly the names of donors), and supposedly a very few in Hebrew (though none of us could find any, and our guide Mehmet hasn’t found them in many, many visits).

The synagogue was entered through a large, open pillared court. Through the court was a long, magnificent building that must have held thousands of people at one time. At the far end was a kind of semicircular nave with built-in benches, which reminded me of a sauna.

I followed a group of Jewish travelers over the complex, eavesdropping on their conversation. They were disturbed by non-standard features of the building— I didn’t understand what most of these were unfortunately— and rather freaked by the area around the altar, which featured compromises with the Roman state and state paganism that modern monotheists find disturbing. The altar features Roman eagles— the eagles are even carrying fasces!— and are flanked by statues of lions. The lions were disturbing— apparently they were not Lions of Judah— and the Roman eagles were traumatic.

Recall if you will the bloody riots that ensued when Pilate attempted to set up Roman eagles on the Temple Mount— and here the Roman eagles are, inside the synagogue, and with no evidence of a riot in sight.

I think the group I was following around decided that what they were seeing couldn’t possibly exist. I mentioned this to our friend Karin later, and she said, “This sort of thing is why I don’t practice my religion.”

What all this demonstrates is how well integrated the post-diaspora Jews were with the larger Roman society. Romans symbols and Greek inscriptions were more familiar to them than the old struggles and taboos.

All religions tend toward the pretense that their practices are unchanging and eternal. It’s not true, and sites like the synagogue of Sardis demonstrate that.

We left the synagogue by its side door, where worshipers leaving in ancient times would have had a fine view of naked athletes exercising in the palaestra.

We entered the paleastra itself to view the bath complex proper, which is very large and heavily ornamented. It’s very impressive from close up. There are many inscriptions in Greek. The archaeologists who reconstructed it, I believe from Harvard, made their reconstructions in a paler color than the original stone, so that the distinction between what was original and what was added is clear.

In the bath complex can be found an Olympic-sized caldarium. Entire forests must have been cut down to heat this massive pool.

We exited past the latrines, and after a visit to a more modern pit stop returned to our bus for the long, long ride back to our hotel. Kathy and I chatted with our neighbors, and the time went quickly. Along the way we passed by two mountains that were being disassembled by huge earth-movers, followed by several towns and villages that were grey from the dust. I wondered at the percentage of people in those towns with silicosis.

We returned to our hotel long after dark, and ate the tail-end of the dinner buffet. I have to say that the Blue Sky had the worst buffet we encountered on all our travels, consistently uninspiring on all levels, particularly for such a luxurious hotel. I would have loved to have visited a restaurant in the village across the bay, but lacked the energy.

If we ever return to Turkey, we are definitely coming back to this area. There was a profusion of ancient history here that we didn’t have the chance to explore.

Within easy driving distance of Izmir, there is not only Sardis and Ephesus, but Troy, Pergamum, the Meander Valley, Hierapolis, Aphrodisias (called “Statue City” by archaeologists, more ancient statues were found here than in all other ancient sites put together), Priene, Miletus (the most powerful Ionian city-state for many centuries), Didyma, Mylasa, and Halicarnassus, not to mention Izmir itself. This, plus a few places in the East like Mount Nemrut and Trebizond, would make a satisfactory trip in and of themselves.

Next: Holy Wisdom

Two Weeks, Seven Minutes

My friend, the brilliant designer Erick Wujcik, has sent me this link for the winner of the Shanghai Short Film Festival.

Participants were given only two weeks to make a movie seven minutes long.

Okay, there are problems with the ending, and some of the sound needs fixing. But given the constraints imposed on the filmmaker, it's still mighty impressive.